Lisa has met someone. It shouldn’t bother me but he seems so insipid, so weak. I think she could do better. He’s been hanging out with us up on deck, very self-consciously, being very friendly, evidently expecting me to ‘bond’ with him in some way. I haven’t been very welcoming so far I must admit. I note with relief that she stays up with us as usual when he turns in for the night. I smile and try to be jolly about the whole thing. Raz eyes me with amusement. I don’t know what she expects me to do.
‘Not seen anything of Ruth lately’ says Lisa, blatantly avoiding the subject.
‘Good riddance’ says Wen quietly from deep in her sofa. Lisa, commendably still seems to think we shouldn’t be so mean but none of us are missing her.
‘Tell us about Trevor then’ says Raz. ‘What’s he like, what does he do, have you shagged him yet?’
Lisa blushes fiercely. ‘Oh, I don’t know’ she says eventually. ‘He seems like a nice enough chap but I don’t know. What do you think, honestly?’
‘He seems nice’ says Raz. We all nod and agree he seems nice, as far as any of us can tell from what little he’s said.
‘What do you think Gabe?’ says Raz, leadingly.
‘Oh God, I’m no judge...’
‘Do you think he’s good enough for our Lisa?’
Wen smirks at me. Lisa seems preoccupied with her hair, looking for split ends or something. I shrug. She knows I can’t lie. I don’t want to.
‘He’s not really my type’ I say flippantly. Lisa turns and looks at me sideways. I pretend not to notice. ‘He’s a bit, I don’t know... I feel that she, or you, rather... He’s not the sort of person I imagined you with I suppose.’
She mumbles something and slumps back in her chair, holding the strands of hair in front of her face, sorting out some tangles. It’s what she does when she’s unhappy about something I’ve noticed.
‘Sorry darling. Didn’t catch that’ says Raz.
‘I said maybe I just want him for sex. Maybe that’s all I want.’ She continues to run her fingers through her hair, untangling non-existent knots. Then she gets up, neatly picks up her books and says goodnight, avoiding eye-contact with any of us. After she’s been gone about ten seconds Raz hisses at me to go after her. I attempt to prevaricate but go anyway. I find her on the stairs, apparently making up her mind what to do, or possibly waiting for one of us to come and look for her. She looks very unhappy. I stand there at the foot of the steps, unable to think of anything useful to say and she sits down on a step half way up, her shawl drawn tight around her. She still won’t look at me. Almost immediately someone wants to get past.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...’ I begin.
‘It’s ok. I know anyway. I just wish sometimes...’ and we lapse into silence again.
‘Come back to the bar. Talk to me, to us, I mean’
‘I can’t’ she says. ‘Maybe later’ and she looks so sad I can’t bring myself to leave her so I sit down on the step two down from her and inevitably another three people need to come past.
‘Come up on deck and talk to me’ I say and hold out my hand. She takes it and we go up and find a seat. It’s very peaceful up there tonight, just the birds and the Spanish guitar to keep us company. The waves are slightly phosphorescent. As we sit down she keeps hold of my hand and puts her head on my shoulder. I feel a sudden panic rise in me. It’s as much as I can do not to jump up and run. I feel so incredibly guilty, like my wife might appear and catch us at any moment, or she’s maybe watching us. Except she wouldn’t have minded. She trusted me and I never let her down. I need to remember that. I look down at Lisa’s head on my shoulder and smooth her hair a little. It’s very soft and silky. Baby hair. I need to tell her that I’ll be her friend but nothing else without her feeling rejected. I suspect she’d deny she wanted anything else anyway, and maybe that’s true but she’s so proud and touchy I can’t be sure. Anyway I don’t want her to have to expose herself like that. ‘Lisa’ I say, softly, without knowing what comes next and she looks up at me and I think I might kiss her. She has the loveliest lips.
‘It’s ok’ she says ‘I do understand.’
Now I definitely don’t know what to say.
‘You love your wife. I admire that. I never really thought... Anyway...’
‘What about Trevor?’ I say.
‘Oh God, what about Trevor?’ she says and slumps back against the chair (but still holds my hand.) ‘I don’t know what to do about him. Isn’t he hopeless? Actually I think he’s a little like me.’ She lets go of my hand.
‘What? How do you work that out?’
‘Oh I don’t know. He’s sort of lost. I don’t think he ever got any either. Oh look, can we go down again? It’s not that warm up here is it.’
I say ‘fine’ and we head down again to sit with Raz and Wen. Wen goes to get more food and drink. There’s a good seafood platter on offer and Lisa, uncharacteristically wants to try some.
‘I died of ME’ says Lisa, wiping her hands on a napkin having polished off an obscene number of oysters and crevettes.
‘Really? What, the yuppie flu? Can a person die of that?’ says Raz and immediately regrets it.
‘You know, I really hate all that “yuppie flu” nonsense. Sorry Raz but I do.’
‘Sorry sweetheart, my mistake. Carry on.’
‘I died of kidney failure. They just packed up. My body was just shutting down completely but my kidneys went first.’
‘Bloody hell’ says Wen, reaching forward and taking another prawn.
‘Anyway. That’s all really.’
‘How long did this go on for?’ I say.
‘Since I was about twenty-three’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘It came and went for years but then when I was fifty-three it just took over. I couldn’t move.’
‘Did you have anyone to help you? Family? Friends?’
‘Not really. Mum tried but she was too old to cope.’
‘And what is it, a virus or something?’
‘They still don’t really know. They can test for it now though, so it’s not actually all in the mind.’ She glances pointedly at Raz.
‘I never said...’
‘But you thought it. It’s ok. I do it myself. I hate it. If you have a condition with no visible symptoms everybody just thinks you need to pull yourself together. I used to think so too. The number of times I thought if I could just force myself, push through it and keep working but it just made it worse. I still felt guilty though, like I just wasn’t trying hard enough.’
‘I’m sorry sweetie. I didn’t mean to...’
‘It’s really ok’ she says and gives Raz a hug. Suddenly Raz looks very small, like the little old lady she was when she died.
‘What did you do about treatment?’ asks Wen.
‘Oh the usual. I tried all the “complementary” therapies’ (she does the air quotes thing with her fingers) ‘but to be honest I didn’t really believe in them very much. I think they mostly work by placebo effect and you need to have a bit of faith in whatever they’re giving you for that, don’t you. I don’t know. I had this homeopath giving me remedies and then I’d get worse and she’d say “it often gets worse before it gets better”, and then I’d maybe get better for a while but then I realised it did the same thing whether I took any remedies or not, so it all seemed a bit pointless, and expensive too.’
‘What about diet?’ asks Wen.
‘Yep, I did all the detox thing, vegan, probiotics, antioxidants, everything’
‘Hard to tell. The thing is, I believe it’s actually a symptom of the whole way we live – all the food additives and solvents and other pollutants in the air and so on.’
Wen sits forward and takes a deep breath. I glance at Raz who gives me a little smile.
‘I mean do you know how many completely new chemicals are invented and released into the world each year?’ continues Lisa. ‘It’s thousands, hundreds of thousands, and they don’t really know what any of them do to the body long term.’
‘No I’m sorry love’ says Wen ‘this is plain anti-scientific new age hokum Lisa.’
‘I’m not anti science’ says Lisa, clearly quite offended. ‘Excuse me’ she insists, ‘I am not anti science.’
Wen shakes her head. ‘It’s based on the same howler as the whole organic food movement Lisa – natural chemicals good, artificial chemicals bad. All life on earth has been exposed to environmental poisons since the year dot. There’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any of these “detox diets” have any therapeutic value whatsoever. Your body is perfectly capable of dealing with toxins and has done so since time immemorial. I mean if you look at all the phytotoxins, sorry, plant toxins we ingest...’
‘We know what phytotoxins are Wen’ says Lisa irritably ‘but no...’
‘I didn’t know’ I say, raising my hand timidly.
Lisa shakes her head. ‘The point I’m making is that yes, we evolved over millions of years to deal with all these naturally occurring poisons in our environment, but here now there are all these totally new molecules about that could be doing all sorts of weird things to us...’
‘Well there’s very little evidence...’ says Wen, more impatiently.
‘They haven’t done the proper long-term studies. This is what I’m saying. The problems are likely to come out slowly and they’ll be almost impossible to pin down to a definite cause. And then there’s interactions and they probably affect different people different ways. Look at the kinds of things people are suffering from these days – tumours, autoimmune problems, food intolerances, migraines, premature births, depression, lack of energy, infertility – all disorders at the molecular level.’
‘It’s like, if you do any biology at all – really study how the body works – it’s amazing it functions at all, it’s all so finely tuned with all these specialised cells with their receptor sites and these incredibly intricate protein molecules – hormones and enzymes and antibodies and then there’s the DNA itself, and nerve function and friendly bacteria and it’s all so delicate and then we have these weird new molecules coming along maybe reacting with them and distorting them. Radiation too. I don’t mean actual radioactive waste, although that is a problem, I mean radio waves and microwaves. Up until about a century ago there wasn’t any of it but now we all have wi-fi and satellite TV and tracking devices and the air’s full of it and...’
She quite suddenly comes to a self-conscious halt, somewhat out of breath. ‘Sorry. I go on a bit...’ she says fanning her face. She’s actually gone quite pink.
We all sit there a quietly for a while. I don’t know about the others but I’m impressed. But then, I’m no scientist. Wen leans in.
‘But seriously Lisa, that’s all just idle speculation. We can all...’
‘There’s nothing idle about it Wen’ says Lisa loudly and she’s off again. ‘You say there’s “no evidence” and you think that means there’s no problem but I say there’s no evidence because the research hasn’t been done.’
‘Lisa’ says Wen, more stridently this time. ‘This doesn’t work. I could claim there’s a teapot in orbit around Mars. There’s no evidence to the contrary and no way of obtaining it.’
‘But my claim makes sense Wen. It makes logical practical sense – unlike your teapot hypothesis. And by the way, I was older than you, although I may not look it.’
‘Well you do talk down to me Wen – like I’m just some silly girl. I’m not a child you know.’
There’s an awkward silence. Wen actually looks embarrassed, which is a first. ‘So what do you propose Lisa? More research?’ she says after a pause, as respectfully as she can, visibly suppressing her irritation.
‘Maybe, but I just don’t think they’ll find it. It’s too big and the connections will be too hard to make. It’s like that thing with microwave ovens they discovered a couple of years back.’
‘But that wasn’t anything to do with the microwave radiation itself.’
‘No but the radiation was altering the plastic which then reacted with the fruit acids and caused the autoimmune disease. You can look up the studies. It’s all there in the literature Wen.’
‘And it took them thirty years of everyone eating ready meals before they even noticed the connection.’
‘Ok, so what are you proposing?’ says Wen.
‘I just think, if you look at the whole picture, how much things have changed over the last century and you think how short a time that is for anything to evolve at all, you’d simply have to conclude there’s bound to be a problem. I’m actually not saying we should do more studies to see if there is a problem. I’m saying we should assume there probably is a problem.’ Wen goes to say something but Lisa goes on ‘And then there’s nano-particles, and GMOs too. We have no idea what new substances they might be releasing into the environment. Sorry Wen, you were going to say something? Sorry.’
‘Never mind’ she says, laughing a little.
‘I know. I’m doing it again. Sorry.’
Raz looks appraisingly at her, with a little smile on her lips.
Lisa goes on ‘I mean, people these days are allergic to milk, and peanuts, and fruit for God’s sake. I mean, what’s that all about? They’ve been part of a healthy diet for centuries and then wham! No good. I just think we’ve rushed ahead and we haven’t really thought about what we’re doing at all. The chemical firms just want to make money and they just don’t care. I’m sorry but it’s true.’
‘No need to apologise sweetie’ says Raz ‘I actually worked in pharmaceuticals.’
‘Really? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...’
‘No no. I have to confess I’ve been thinking a lot about what we were up to since... well you know, since I wound up here. The thing is sweetheart, there’s too much money at stake. They’d never agree to what you’re saying.’
‘I know that.’
‘I know it must piss you off something rotten.’
‘It’s just, all my life everybody’d look at me like I should just bloody well snap out of it, like I enjoyed being in bed all the time and not going to work but I’d have loved to have the energy... I so envied them, well, people like you two for example, because you could just get up and do things, and just take that for granted. There were so many things I wanted to do...’ And she looks away and refuses to cry. ‘I think I need some sleep’ she says eventually, and we all decide it’s time for bed and accompany her along to the cabins.
Next day Lisa joins me for breakfast. We’re sitting there and she’s stirring her coffee, round and round, very preoccupied. I look around the room. Not many of us about yet. It’s early. Outside the weather looks less overcast but it’s still raining nevertheless. It rains a lot in the afterlife it seems. Finally she taps the spoon on the rim and puts it down.
‘I never drank coffee in life, well, not after I got sick. Everybody told me I shouldn’t and yet it has all sorts of health benefits, did you know that? Apart from keeping you awake at night it has almost no down side. Isn’t that interesting? It’s pure prejudice, and I went along with it. How silly is that?’
‘You did a lot of research into foods and things I take it.’
‘Oh, absolutely everything.’
‘What did you want to do, I mean before?’
‘Oh, I don’t know’ she shrugs, cutting her pain au chocolat into slices. The melted chocolate gets onto her fingers and lips. She licks it off but then gets more of the chocolate on her face in the process. I hand her a napkin. ‘I never ate these either’ she says, taking it from me and dabbing her cheek. ‘Chocolate and butter, sugar, wheat. Maybe I should have. I might have been happier anyway, even if I was still sick. There’s evidence that chocolate is good for ME. No I wanted to work with children actually. I trained as a child-minder but then, obviously you can’t go into a collapse when you’ve got a load of kids to look after, so...’ and she shrugs again. She tries to act like it’s all in the past but I can see it’s not.
‘I still think sometimes if I could just have tried harder maybe...’ she muses, distractedly. ‘I think it was when I hit forty... It’s a weird feeling, when you reach a certain point in your life, and you’ve been living with this thing and always thinking one day it’ll go away and your life will begin properly... And then one day, it just hits you that this is it. This is your life. You’ve only got one, and this is it. This is how it’s going to be. I can’t explain it. It just feels like the ultimate... well, disappointment I suppose. I’m not explaining myself well. It’s like, normally a “disappointment” is something fairly trivial that makes you sad or fed up or whatever but you get over it. It’s something you deal with, like not getting to go to the pictures or not being allowed more gateau, or getting dumped. You move on. But this, it was exactly the same kind of feeling – of disappointment, but magnified so it just filled everything. It was just impossible to get over. It’s the rest of your life that you’re not going to get. All those ideas and plans and hopes you had are not going to happen. There isn’t something else you can do instead. There aren’t any more fish in the sea, just this one big one, and it’s dead. Do you see what I mean?’
‘Actually you’ve explained it very well’ I say. ‘I’d never thought about it like that before.’
‘I suppose everybody who dies young feels that way’ she adds.
‘Oh sod all that’ she says, vigorously shaking her head. ‘Tell me about you.’
I act surprised and too modest and bluster for a bit, still recovering from what she’s just told me. When she insists, I begin ‘Well I went to Art College’ and her eyes light up.
‘Oh I wanted to do that. I used to love painting. I loved life drawing and doing portraits. I did everyone I knew. Sorry, you were saying...’
‘No, go on.’
‘Oh no, don’t encourage me. Once I get started, you’ve heard me.’
‘I don’t really want to talk about me to be honest. Maybe another time...’
She reaches across to hold my hand again.
‘Tell me more about your life’ I say. ‘I insist.’
She sits back, letting go of my hand slowly. ‘There’s not a lot more to tell to be honest.’
‘You wanted to know about my relationships with women’ I say. ‘Why was that?’ She blushes and smiles nervously.
‘Oh well, you know... I thought, maybe. Oh I don’t know. I always approach things the wrong way...’ and her smile turns to a tearful grimace and I go around the table, sit beside her on the sofa and put my arm around her. It’s awkward because she’s so tall but she puts her arms around me and sits there sobbing for a while with her head on my chest. I hate this place. The sadness is so close to the surface, I can see it in everyone. Then it occurs to me that maybe it was like that in life too but we hid it better. Maybe this is better. It is at least more honest but it’s very hard sometimes. Times like this it would just be so easy to lift her head and kiss her and take her to bed and maybe we’d both be happier. I have no idea. I’m afraid of doing more damage but who knows? Would it be worse than this? I compromise by holding her tightly and kissing the crown of her head. She seems to quieten a little and then looks up at me through her hair. It would be so easy just to lean forward a little and... She sits back and the moment passes. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or not. She drags the soggy strands out of her mouth and I move the hair from the other side of her face. She looks very pink and mucusy and I give her the napkin. She blows her nose then laughs at the noise she’s made ‘Not very lady like...’ she says, apologetically, and sits with the cloth in her hands. ‘I know you were married’ she says. I realise she is determined to probe and I think why not? Maybe it’ll do me some good. ‘Did you have kids?’ she says.
I shake my head ‘She had one, from before.’
‘Didn’t you want any of your own?’
I hesitate to answer. Not wanting to have children must be unthinkable in her world but I had my reasons.
‘Not really. I mean, I would have, if it had been that important to her.’
She frowns ‘Do you think that’s a good idea, I mean, if you don’t really want them?’
‘I think it might have been ok actually. Everybody said it’s different when they’re your own but I wasn’t so sure. I mean, I think that’s a myth. Not everyone loves their children. I think I’d have probably been an ok dad actually. Everybody said so.’
‘But you didn’t want to.’
She looks at me as if I’m someone who never saw the sun. Poor me. But I don’t feel sorry for myself. I had so many other things to do.
‘The truth is I just never really understood children, even when I was one. They never made any sense to me. They just seemed so, I don’t know, alien... It’s not that I don’t like them. I just can’t really relate to them.’
She looks at me, nodding slightly. I think maybe this puts some profound distance between us and I’m sorry about that. I imagine it’s an article of faith for her that everybody must want children and that children are somehow perfect beings, until we adults get our grubby mits on them. I, on the other hand, think children are just small people and some are easier to like than others.
‘I think that’s very brave actually’ she says at last.
‘Most people just have kids without thinking about it. It’s rare for anyone to say “no, I have different priorities.” I can respect that.’
‘Oh’ I say. ‘Well. A lot of people think it’s selfish.’
‘Selfish to whom? The unconceived child? I don’t expect they know much about it...’
‘No, just selfish about ones own life, like I’m too preoccupied with my own petty existence.’
‘You think that might be true?’
‘Not really, although I didn’t really achieve what I wanted to in the end.’
‘But just having a child because you’ve failed at everything else is the most selfish thing of all.’
We order more coffee and sit there together on the squashy sofa, close together. I love the intimacy and hate it at the same time. Raz tells me later that she and Wen came in and saw us together and left discretely so as not to embarrass us but at the time I was wondering where they had got to. When the coffee arrives we sit up and compose ourselves, smiling meekly over our cups. ‘There was someone’ I say, ‘wanted to have children with me but I broke up with her. I know I really hurt her. It was horrible.’ This is what I’ve been avoiding, that and the other thing, the end. ‘You knew about this didn’t you.’
‘How did you know?’ She looks at me quizzically. ‘That I’d broken somebody’s heart?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. You reminded me of someone. But I guess everybody does, sooner or later, don’t they?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘How long had you been together?’
‘Six years, give or take.’
‘Did you tell her you didn’t want children at the start?’
‘I wasn’t sure myself to be honest. I don’t know. I kept on thinking maybe my feelings on the subject would change and then she was getting into her late thirties and it just wasn’t fair on her. I feel like I wasted so much of her time when she could have been with someone who would do that for her.’
‘But you loved her?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then it wasn’t a waste.’
I smile thanks to her but I’m not reassured. ‘I don’t think she’d have agreed. Tell me about your broken heart.’
‘What makes you think...?’
‘Oh come off it...’
‘Ok. Oh, did your girlfriend find another man to give her children in the end?’
‘I don’t know. We lost touch. Anyway...’
‘My broken heart. Hmm... It was this guy I met at university. We were going to get married and have kids and everything but then...’
‘You guessed it. Oh he tried. I know he did. He kept saying we’ll work through it, it’ll be ok...’
‘But it wasn’t.’
‘I don’t really blame him. I was off sex and I didn’t want to go out anywhere or do anything really. I got quite depressed.’
‘Well, quite. I still can’t work out if it was too much to ask. Anyway I discovered he’d been having sex with other women behind my back. I mean, I don’t think I’d have minded so much if he’d had the balls to tell me. I wasn’t much fun in bed unless you happen to be into necrophilia. Oh I’m not being fair to myself, again.’
‘Presumably you were at least still warm.’
She laughs a little at that ‘Death warmed up, yes, but actually I was only like that some of the time, at least at the beginning.’
‘How much of the time, roughly?’
‘Oh I don’t know, two or three months a year.’
‘Well that’s not too bad. God, I’d have... Well anyway, maybe you just weren’t right for each other. Maybe the ME was just a convenient excuse, for him I mean.’
‘I know, I’ve thought of that. It wasn’t his fault. We were young, he wanted to travel and do all sorts of exciting things and I just wasn’t up to it a lot of the time. We were together until I was twenty-seven anyway, then I discovered about all these other women he’d slept with and that was it.’
‘Did you have other relationships, afterwards I mean?’
‘Some, briefly. That’s what Ruth and I talked about – internet dating. It was hopeless, and I didn’t even care about how tall or rich he was.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
She smiles and sinks back down beside me, leaning against me, looking out of the window. I put my arm over her shoulder and she holds my hand.
I think about what she said about this ultimate disappointment of hers, that her life wasn’t going to happen after all, and I think, not for the first time, how bloody lucky I was. I had the chance to take my life in hand and change it – make it be different. She never had that. I suppose I could have got myself involved in some stupid accident, like last time, but at least I’d have known what to avoid next time. She can’t do that. And yet she is so very sweet and clever and funny, and I feel very humble all of a sudden, and grateful for some reason.
‘It looks like the rain has settled in for the day’ she says.
‘I think we’re better off here, don’t you?’ I say and we snuggle down further. I kiss the top of her head again and whisper ‘I’d have loved you. You know that don’t you’ and I feel her relax into me, sighing with her entire body.