Alison has persuaded me to join her in one of the small lounges on the cabin deck. It’s a neat little space with a couple of armchairs and a table. On the table are a jug of water and two glasses, and a box of tissues. I know this scene. I went to a therapist a couple of times. She insists this is not therapy. She says maybe it’ll be good for me though to talk about my life (I’ve told her I’m not going back again) but just as a kind of dénouement. She used that word, like my life, or lives, have been a novel (or novels) which I suppose they have.
Anyway what else am I going to do while I’m here? Alison feels the same. This is her fifth run and she’s heard a lot of harrowing accounts and she likes a story with a good positive ending once in a while. I’m not sure about that but I’ll try. She suggests that I just tell her how things were different this time – how my previous incarnations helped me to change things. I tell her it was mostly my time as a teenager that was different – that was where the really radical changes happened. After that I was off on a completely different track and nothing was the same (well, almost nothing). I think about the little house near Bramber, and the garden and the hill behind it, and us, my girl and I, sitting out on the lawn, watching the shadows of the clouds sweep across the fields. It’s about to rain but we sit there in our deck chairs, holding hands and laughing at something – I don’t remember what. And then the view merges with an almost identical one from the other end of my life, of the hillside near Steyning when I was very small and it’s all one. I can see my whole life before me just like that, in one perfect spherical object, like a bubble. And look - pop! Gone.
Alison asks me what the first things I remember were. She takes out her pen and a pad of paper and waits patiently for me to begin.
I look into the middle distance, reluctant to start for some reason. The sea is still pretty rough out and I hold onto my coffee cup to stop it slopping. She looks at me, waiting patiently.
I begin by telling her about the town on the river and Nicky and Nyssa and even a bit about Shamim and her family.
I don’t have much to report on what happened after our dissolution in the river mouth, Nicky’s and mine. I had some sense of existing, but without a body or a place or a time to exist in, and no sense of time passing (but the change was not instantaneous, that much I do know). I had time to wonder, and to remember and to hope, in what I can only describe as a dream-like state. Like a dream, the whole experience could have taken minutes or years. There’s no way to tell.
The first things I remember of the first few years of my new life are dim and disembodied, as if I was only present in spirit - literally.
‘I have to say I think that was probably just as well’ I say.
She frowns and leans forward. ‘And why would you say that?’ she says.
‘Ok, well, being in-utero, maybe, from a biological point of view would be interesting I suppose, but then emerging through your mother’s... and breastfeeding for God’s sake?’ I shudder. ‘I was never into all that Oedipal malarkey. Can we move on?’
She smiles knowingly and leans back.
‘You weren’t close were you, you and your mother?’
‘You could say that... And then there’s the sitting in your own excrement for hours and puking and dribbling and just the sheer tedium of being a child for years on end...’
‘I can think of worse things’ she says, a little wistfully. ‘Years of just messing about, playing, not having to worry about anything much, warm and well fed and loved...’
‘Well, I guess it depends what kind of family you’re born into. Did you have any children?’
‘I did. Two boys – Will and Josh.’
‘I didn’t mean to cause any offence.’
‘None taken, and you’re right, the puke and the “excrement” are things only a mother could love, if that’s the right word.’
‘Oh look, I’m sure if you’re just a little kid and you’ve never seen it all before it’s delightful, but... look, infant’s school lasts three years on its own. Three years pretending to struggle over a few sums that are taking the others the whole lesson, but which you could do, in proper joined up writing mind, in two minutes flat? How many times can you watch sand fall out of a bucket, or make painty finger marks on sugar paper? And how interesting can mud be? Actually I asked Nyssa about it. She said that there weren’t many accounts of those early years that she knew of. I don’t know if that’s true.’ Alison nods. ‘All she said was that it seems to be quite an ordeal for most people.’
‘That’s quite true’ says Alison. ‘All the information we have suggests that the birth alone can be a terrible trauma, and on it’s own may be enough to expunge all knowledge of what went before. And if it survives that (the consciousness I mean) there are, as you say, the long years of childhood to get through. All in all, awareness of previous lives tends to slip away early and many gladly let it go. Very few see it through to maturity. Part of why I wanted you to talk to me is because your experience is quite rare.’
‘Are you going to write me up?’ I ask.
‘If you’ll let me.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘We can discuss it later.’
‘So tell me what it was actually like – first contact, to coin a phrase.’
I tell her the first thing was a sound. I heard people talking, murmuring. One of them was my mother. I heard her trying to fit her words in between gasps. Other voices made low, matter-of-fact sounding comments about her. Apparently no one was talking to her. She grunted and swore alone.
Then there was light, below and to the side, a tiny island of white light with a pink heart, and I wondered what it was and tried to go towards it until I saw there were arms reaching into the light, doing things to the pink, and the voices came from the owners of the arms.
As my vision widened I saw the metal fittings of a hospital bed, and the linoleum floor and pieces of stained cloth discarded about. And I saw the spark of light on surgical steel and had to look away.
Finally there was the smell – of shit and blood and antiseptic, and all the noise and glare crowded in on me and I moved away, I don’t know where to, just away. I know it wasn’t an easy birth. My mother wasn’t young and I had a big head. I felt the pull and the squeeze of being born, and the pain of the forceps and other little jabs and knocks, but only as if it was happening to some distant attenuated part of me. I stayed away from it all as best I could and waited for it to be all over.
‘It just all seemed so clumsy and impatient, like they were unblocking a troublesome toilet or something. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d had to experience the whole thing actually there, in my body, fully conscious. As it was I stayed as far away as possible.’
‘It sounds like a fairly standard forceps delivery for back in those days I’m sorry to tell you’ she says. ‘I’d like to say things have improved but I’m not so sure.’
‘Did you know much about all this, you know, in life?’ I ask.
‘I worked in the NHS.’ She doesn’t seem keen to elaborate – maybe another time. ‘What happened next?’ she says.
I tell her I remember being warm and dry, but with a terrible headache and flashing lights, like a migraine. I couldn’t really see, just pink, like looking through my eyelids at a bright light, which I suppose is what I was doing. I couldn’t really move, or only very weakly. Everything felt loose and insubstantial, except my head, which felt enormous and as if something was trying to squash it with its bare hands. I wobbled it from side to side but it didn’t help. I believe I had a good old cry about it.
I remember my parents turning up about then. I couldn’t really see them, or understand what they said, but I recognised their voices and that smell my dad had – aftershave and sweat and pipe tobacco. I remember them looking down at me, and my body desperately yearning to be picked up but they didn’t, or maybe they weren’t allowed to. They left me where I was. They didn’t do anything much, just talked among themselves. Then they went away again. I did a lot more crying then I think.
She nods and writes something down. There’s an expression on her face that tells me she’s not surprised by any of this, and not a little angry about it.
‘There’s evidence that a forceps delivery can disturb the sutures in the skull somewhat and that could cause severe headaches’ she says, without looking up. ‘So they didn’t give you to your mother to hold’ she goes on.
‘Maybe, I don’t know. I wasn’t breast fed, I know that.’
She tuts to herself and writes some more.
I talk about “my body” like that because, thankfully, it became quickly apparent that I did not fully belong in it yet. It had a life of its own, and frankly, I was glad not to have to deal with it, poor little bugger. I was aware of it – available, as it were, in case of an emergency, but kept myself back. I remember wondering vaguely what would happen if I refused to ever go back.
Some traditions I understand hold that the soul does not fully inhabit the body until the child reaches adolescence. That seems about right. Perhaps that’s why there are no children here in the afterlife. I don’t know where I was all those years as a child. Sometimes I could see what was going on around us. When my body was in distress it felt like it tugged on me, but mostly I think I just went into a quiescent state. I don’t think I really fully inhabited my body until I was at least ten and didn’t really take control until I was about thirteen. That’s when things really got interesting.
Up until then I just dipped in and out. My memories, aside from the usual childhood memories we all have, are like short films, or brief tableau of life as a toddler, or a schoolboy or whatever – moments when my old self awoke and paid attention to what was happening. The weirdest thing was getting to know myself as a child, who had, of course, been running around, eating, talking and generally being a child in my absence. Those moments when I gained consciousness (which seems a fair way to describe it) were seemingly random for the most part but they taught me a lot that I hadn’t known before. I was rarely, back then, able to influence events to any degree, which was probably just as well, but it gave me insights.
I think I’ve counted about thirty clear memories of those early years, but some of them run into each other and it’s hard to tell. What I didn’t realise was that when you are reborn, you don’t simply carry the old life around with you as you go, like an alternative reality. Mostly I suppose I wasn’t really aware of its existence at all. Children run, I guess, mostly on appetite, instinct and simple conditioning. They don’t think about the long-term consequences or the wider implications of what they do. They just act, and that’s how it was for me too, most of the time. The difference was that sometimes it was as if I’d suddenly woken up from a long and elaborate dream. I’d see something as if from another dimension – something someone did or a place where something happened would trigger a memory, or rather, something like a flash-back and I’d suddenly see it from the perspective of someone who’d been around for a very long time indeed and had had many experiences in the mean time. Moments like those were like staring into the most painfully exquisite antique snapshots, flooded in golden light, fragments of a life long lost, perfect in every detail, but then realising that it is you who is a relic of a lost life, and the things in the snapshot that are real and present. I would look around and say ‘Oh my God, I remember this’ or ‘Of course that’s how it was. I’d forgotten.’ Some days I couldn’t think of anything to do but wander about and look at all the things I hadn’t seen for decades and which I’d thought were gone forever. I wanted to see my old room, and my toys and the garden, and the road I took every day into town – the houses as they were then, and the cars and the clothes. And most of all I wanted to see Justine and Amelia, young and silly again. I wanted to be with them all the time and never lose them ever again.
The fresh, bright sensation inevitably faded after a while and things became mundane but I never entirely lost that deep sense of having come home after a lifetime away. I’d thought it was all long lost. And yet here it all was...
I spent my first five years on a farm. We didn’t own it. They just rented a cottage out to us. It was part of an estate and dad did some gardening for them. I think we’d been there for about five years before I was born and we left when I was five. I understand it was mostly dad’s idea – it gave him a huge garden to play with and the town was near enough for the girls to cycle in to school. I knew it was out somewhere near Steyning but never knew exactly where and I had absolutely no memories of it from before, so, when I woke up one morning and found myself in that tiny room with the Beatrix Potter wallpaper and my fluffy toy dog we called Woofer still clean and new (well, relatively clean and new) beside me in the yellow cot with the barred sides, I just sat and looked for what seemed like hours, watching it get light. It was blowing wet outside – miserable weather and there were no curtains. The wind was whistling in through the frame, and I remembered there had been no heating upstairs. I pulled the quilt up around me (my Noddy and Big Ears quilt) and began to cry quietly, to myself – not because I was unhappy – it was just all too much. I had this knowledge that I’d been grown-up, been married, died and gone on some weird journey, and then somehow come back here. I tried to block it out. I crawled down under the covers in my fluffy blue romper suit – the one with the bunny on it and looked at the day, grey and drizzling, and the dark trees across the fields. I remembered it all – how freezing and damp the house had been in winter and the pokey little kitchen with its parquet floor, with the wooden tiles coming up and floating around once when the twin-tub sprang a leak. I remembered the garden and dad’s veg patch and the other parts all overgrown with elder and raspberry.
Then I twisted around and looked out onto the landing. I could see the stairs but there were no lights on. I knew my infant self was waiting for Justine to come up and take him down for breakfast. Then I heard the jackdaws in the chimney and I could feel myself freeze and stop breathing, my eyes wide and my mouth open, waiting. I could feel my nappy heavy around my legs and I could smell what I’d filled it with. I didn’t know what jackdaws were back then and I’d forgotten how much they scared me when they were restless and scrabbled around in the boarded-up fireplace. I remember trying to calm my little self and explain to him that they’re just birds and they wouldn’t harm him, and I could feel his body relaxing and his breathing return to normal. I remember really wishing Justine would come up and sort me out a fresh nappy and I really wanted to see her too. It had been such a long time.
I tried to concentrate, to see how long I could stay. It was like the best nostalgia ever and also the worst, everything from such a long time ago real around me – bright and new – toys I’d long forgotten, bits of paper with my scribblings on, those tiny trousers with the patches on. By the window, in the alcove there’s a whole stack of cardboard boxes full of books and bedding, and on the shelf above, that sewing machine and needlework box of mum’s that I don’t think she ever used. I think it was a wedding present. It all looks so real and solid and I thought I’d lost it all forever.
The last thing I remember that time was Justine coming in in her school uniform (she would have been about fourteen) and saying ‘Good morning big boy’ and reaching over to lift me up out of the cot. Then she saw my tears and asked me what was wrong. It must have been strange for her now I come to think about it – children so rarely cry quietly to themselves do they, not unless they’re really unhappy. I remember her picking me up and holding me so tightly and saying ‘Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Look you’re making your big sister cry too...’
I don’t remember anything more from that day but there’s another fragment from about the same time. It was morning again and I was down having breakfast in my highchair when I looked around and had that exquisite feeling of familiarity again. The radio was on quietly in the background, playing Flowers in the Rain I think it was, and the gas fire was hissing in the fireplace. The kitchen curtains were drawn but I could tell it was still quite dark outside and there was a bulb hanging from the ceiling with a stained plastic shade and everything was yellow. The walls were painted yellow and there was a yellowing map on the wall with animals on it, showing where they came from. The whole room as I remember it had a stain to it, and a coating of soot dust from the boiler. I looked at the yellow plastic dish of porridge on my tray and without thinking about it, picked up the spoon and began to eat. Needless to say Justine shrieked when she came in and saw what I was doing and tried to get me to do it again for dad when he came in from the garden. He just said it was time she got ready for school and took the coal scuttle through to the sitting room. She helped me with the rest of my porridge whilst bopping about to the music and singing to me. I think Amelia came in then but that was the end of that snippet.
There were other fragments, like the sitting room with that horrible green checked wall paper, and the enamel fire-place, and all of us sitting around in there with the radio on, or listening to some music. Dad didn’t approve of telly but he loved trad jazz and the old Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. My memories are of all of us in this shadowy, cosy space, with the fire going, and I’d be maybe playing behind the sofa or crawling around like a cat or a mouse – I used to pretend to be an animal a lot, I suppose because I saw a lot more animals around on the farm, so I’d rummage in corners or make a nest and curl up under the sideboard, or behind the curtains, or I’d prowl about upstairs.
It was quite a spooky, draughty little place our house, and probably quite old, and it was very obvious to me this time around how tiny it was for two adults, two teenagers and a toddler. Justine and Amelia had to share a room. Passages and corners were stacked with boxes of dad’s old railway magazines and 78s, his Giles annuals and the girl’s Rupert annuals. I think he just didn’t like throwing things away.
I’ve always found clutter and grime and dust rather comforting – the smell of damp plaster and mothballs and disintegrating paper, and sharing my home with spiders and woodlice and silverfish. It was a safe warm sort of habitat for me.
Alison asked me if there was a lot of friction between us. I said I didn’t remember any especially.
‘There was a bit of bickering I suppose. Mum was at work a lot and dad was down the shed mostly.’
‘Your sisters must have been very forgiving’ she says with some scepticism.
‘If you’d known my parents you’d know there’d be no point making a fuss.’
‘They were quite strict with you.’
‘Not exactly. You just knew it just wouldn’t have been worth complaining.’
‘Ok...’ she says, the expression on her face showing that she’s either surprised or not really convinced. It’s true though. We accepted things as they were more or less.
‘The more I think about it I think I really was a bit like the family pet. I didn’t even bother to get dressed a lot of the time and I was always eating off the floor or out of the bin.’
‘Didn’t they feed you properly?’
‘Oh yes, but it was just part of the game, foraging. Actually dad was quite a good cook – in a plain-English-fare kind of way.’
‘Well I suppose it built up your immune system.’
‘I very rarely got sick.’
‘Didn’t they play with you, any of them?’
‘My sisters did. I remember that. And I went out in the garden with dad – helped him bring in the potatoes I remember, and collecting the runner beans. Did you know they’re poisonous raw?’
‘So I understand.’
‘I ate loads of them…’
I watch her read over what she’s written. I’m enjoying the attention but can’t help worrying about what she’ll make of it. She looks troubled, quizzical – already concerned that it doesn’t quite add up. I feel like she’s building a case, but if so, then against whom?
She looks up abruptly. ‘What about other places – did you make trips away or anything?’
‘Not really. We couldn’t afford holidays. We visited relatives sometimes.’
‘Trips into town? Shopping for example, or to church or to the park?’
I tell her about a memory I have of dad cycling into Steyning with me in the child seat on the back. I remember him using his leather belts to strap me in really tight. Before that he’d have taken me in in this huge old pram we’d been given. I remember being wrapped up cosy in there with the hood up and the plastic cover over me and looking up at the leafless trees along the roadside and the ivy all over everything and spots of rain falling on my face and him in his cloth cap and plastic mac, smoking his pipe. He used to sing to me too – My Old Man’s a Dustman and Paddy McGintey’s Goat. Mum said the locals used to take the mick out of him something terrible. Men weren’t seen with prams in those days but, to his credit, he didn’t care. He used to go to the football, and he went to the pub to play darts. I think he had friends he went fishing with. It’s strange though, I hardly remember anyone else coming to that house. I suppose that doesn’t mean they never came. Maybe I just don’t remember.
It’s also funny how all my memories of that place are dark and wintry, and being out in the rain. And yet it always seems cosy and warm, just the four of us – me, Justine, Amelia and dad, in that pokey little house with the radio on, and the smell of bacon and the sound of the lambs in the next field. Funny, I don’t remember mum being there at all.