Monday, 9 November 2009

10. Time to Go

It is time to go, too late for second thoughts or hesitation. We have made our plans, rehearsed the details, laid trails, discussed our tactics and choices. No turning back now. And here I am, hurtling rapidly through space, getting faster, denser, smaller. I am attracting particles of increasingly heavy matter like iron filings to a magnet, astral matter that had once seemed as light and airy as a magic carpet now entangles me. Doubts are already creeping in – how will we recognise one another and what if one of us fails? The jaunty black hat, the cheap pizza restaurant. You are wearing green shoes. You will be twenty three, I am twenty five. It’s your birthday party – I am carrying a bouquet of flowers for a girlfriend who doesn’t show up. So many ‘ifs’. What if...? What if my girlfriend forgets her part and comes along? Would it make a difference? If I’m not alone but walk in with someone else will our eyes still meet across the crowded room? My impatience might get the better of me again. I could be married with two kids, a cat and a budgerigar, and a mortgage by the time I’m twenty five. My wife might insist on cooking dinner at home that day to eat in front of the TV with the kids. And if we did meet and I was married, would that be better or worse? We have planned it to be a first love, a partnership for life. We will raise our children, sail round the world, have adventures and then grow old together. The darkness thickens and with a jolt I feel as if I have been squeezed through a narrow tube of toothpaste to land with a bump. A tiny heart beat, warmth. The gentle swaying motion of a country walk. Muffled voices. My consciousness shifts outside the tiny body to take a look at my new parents – it seems but a moment since we all rehearsed our roles, but in this heavy world of time they are already middle aged, and looking forward to having this long-awited first child. They look fit, happy, well-prepared, and the baby seems healthy. They have played their parts well. So far so good. Now I just need to remember the script, to play my part. No stage fright this time. I must give it my all.

9. Earthbound

My first thought was that I had failed again. I had tried so hard to make sure this time, even said my goodbyes. I parked the car down the bottom of the farm track where I knew that I would not be found, at least until daylight. I didn’t want anyone to stop me, no good Samaritans or misguided philanthropists. I didn’t hesitate or look back. I had had enough and craved the relief that would finally come with the enveloping cloud of total oblivion. The sweet finality of death. As the car filled with fumes I gagged and felt light-headed and nauseous. I forced myself to take deep, even breaths – I couldn’t afford to screw it up this time. In the gap between the clouds the moon suddenly picked out a badger following its customary trail from the woods to the stream, but the startled animal suddenly stopped and sniffed the air. The sound and smell of the engine or sight of the car across its path brought it up short, and it turned suddenly and headed back up the hill. My head swam and I began to drift into semi-consciousness. I was roused for a moment by a screech just outside the car, and dimly registered an owl in front of the windscreen. ‘This is it’, I thought, and was overwhelmed by a sense of relief and gratitude that it was finally all over. The gnawing despair and lethargy, the sense of never belonging anywhere, the disappointments I had suffered – all this was behind me now.
It was not just me who had suffered, but those I had let down time and time again. They would now be free of me and at last I would find release. But instead of the finality of extinction, I was floating around in a gray mist, still very much alive, but disconnected. I was vaguely aware of other people but couldn’t see them. I assumed that somehow the car had run out of petrol and the engine cut out before its work was done. I was so angry at having messed up again – how many more times could I find the resources in myself to plan and stage my own death? Yet the alternative, to carry on in a living hell, was too awful to contemplate.
As dawn broke I became aware of the car just below me. I seemed to be viewing it from the outside, as if I was somewhere just above the bonnet. The engine was still ticking over and fumes were leaking out from the gap at the top of the window where I had tried to wedge a piece of flexi-drainpipe. The other end was pushed over the car’s exhaust, held in place with black plumber’s tape. I could even smell the stinking cloud of petrol that now enveloped the inside of the car, and formed a heavy white cloud around it – although for some reason the fumes no longer seemed to make me feel nauseous or affect my head. And then I saw it, which gave me a shock, as if a charge of electricity had suddenly been shot through me. I saw a body slumped over the steering wheel of my car. In a moment of panic I thought someone else must have been in the car with me, and have died in my place. I had never intended to hurt anyone else, and now what had I done? Then with an even greater sense of shock and confusion I noticed the turquoise blue silk scarf around the neck of the body inside the car. It had been a birthday present from a friend, someone I loved, and who I knew loved me, even thought that love was never enough to heal the pain inside or to still the cries of despair in my head. I scanned the rest of the body, moving closer, and item by item identified my jacket, my jeans, my ring. We don’t usually see ourselves from outside our bodies, as others see us, and I felt disgusted at the sight of the pallid skin and lank, mousy brown hair, the worn hands still gripping the steering wheel with whitened knuckles and chewed finger nails. How could anyone ever love someone who looked like that? I deserved to die. But if that was ‘me’, who was ‘I’? I certainly wasn’t dead. I could see and feel my body. I could move, think, see, hear, smell. If I had somehow left the body in the car I certainly didn’t want to go back to it; but how was I to die? Where was the dark nothingness I so craved?
The sound of a dog barking attracted my attention. A black Labrador belonging to our neighbour approached the car, hackles raised, giving a series of short staccato barks. His owner whistled from the next field but the dog edged closer to the car, barking more urgently. I tried to touch the dog, to hush it. We had always been friends, but this time the dog just barked even more loudly and insistently, the hair on the back of its neck and along its spine raised to give it a comical Mohican appearance. The owner approached, calling to the dog, who wasn’t budging. I didn’t want to be seen like that, or like this. I felt confused, shaken, and sort of drifted higher until I was looking down on the scene from directly above the car – a genuinely birds’-eye view. The man leant into the car, which I had evidently forgotten to lock, and turned the key in the ignition while holding a white handkerchief over his mouth and nose with his right hand. Once the engine had stopped running he backed off, pulling the dog, now on its lead, after him. I could see him get out his mobile phone and make a call, then stamp about a bit, looking impatiently at his watch.
Things started to happen quickly. It was like a detective programme on TV. A police car arrived, then an ambulance and then a second police car. It came down the misty lane with its siren wining, oddly muffled by the heavy morning air. It struck me as so incongruous in this quiet corner of the village, with pheasants strutting out of the hedges and across the wheat-ripening fields. They put yellow and black tape across the lane to block it off – not that many people come this way, and then a paramedic from the ambulance and a policeman tried to lift my body out of the car and onto a stretcher. It wasn’t easy to prise the clawed hands from the wheel or extract the feet stuck under the pedals. I could see the effort it took; one had to go round the passenger side to lift the stiff, heavy legs while the other heaved the shoulders. I was suddenly glad that they didn’t know me, embarrassed at all this fuss. I never liked drawing attention to myself. Then I followed the ambulance, not knowing what else to do, or where to go, assuming that when they resuscitated me I would find myself back in that body and my rotten, miserable, failed life. I wondered whether to run away so that I couldn’t go back, but I wasn’t dead yet and in this strange state didn’t know how to finish the job I had started.
The next few days I hung around the morgue and even watched them bury me, although I didn’t go into the church. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, or make contact, either with the handful of mourners who seemed, somewhat to my surprise, to be genuinely grieving, or with the shady presences that never seemed to leave me quite alone, but who didn’t show themselves fully either. Mostly I revisited places I had been, never straying too far from the physical body in the church yard. I was aware of wispy white wraiths around some of the graves, like the smoke circles my uncle used to blow from his pipe, which held their form for a few seconds, before dissolving into the air. I found some peace and solace sitting in my old haunt by the river – a large, flat boulder near a tangled sycamore that grew perilously near the bank. Its lower branches trapped the debris washed down by storms, providing a floating platform for coots and moorhens. A heron had its territory on the opposite bank, and would perch in a nearby tree when disturbed by canoeists or fishermen. It was as if I was waiting, but for what I couldn’t say. I wasn’t exactly miserable but it was as if my mind was stretching to remember something that kept slipping from my grasp, always just out of reach. I realised time had passed when the trees by the river and in the high wood where the badgers live began to turn, first some dusty yellows, followed by more vibrant russet reds, and eventually the copper brown of the great beeches. Then a fierce storm, the first of autumn, blew most of the leaves into the river and across the fields, leaving the trees bare and exposed to night frosts. The strange thing was that I no longer felt the cold, and needed no food or sleep. So days and nights passed in a kind of half-existence in which I was neither fully alive nor definitively dead.
Then Christmas arrived. I hated Christmas with a passion. I always felt so alone, so shamefully different. The jollity of other people, which often seemed forced and hollow, and the tackiness of the shops with their twinkling decorations and plastic Santas, drew up mingled despair and contempt in me. I wanted to run, to hide, to die. Usually I took a bottle of vodka to bed and tried to blunt out the dreary, interminable days, hidden under my duvet in my miserable cold room that passed for home. Yet this time, despite myself, I found that I was being drawn towards the church. The bells were summoning people from the pubs and lighted homes to midnight mass. I drifted through the thick stone walls and into the warmth and light of the nave. As I hung there I became aware of a bright light, like a funnel, twisting down from the roof towards the altar. I hadn’t been a regular church-goer since I was a child, but something about the smell of incense and the atmosphere within those walls lit a small flame of hope within me.
Some of the shadowy presences began to solidify, and among the congregation in their pews beneath, I saw my grandparents with my beloved old collie, a distant great aunt and other figures I didn’t recognise, but all of whom were smiling kindly at me. As I took in the scene, the loving faces and outstretched arms, I suddenly knew that everything would be all right. ‘It’s time to go now’ my grandmother said, as she stepped forward and took my hand. I put my other hand on the dog’s warm, silky head, and he reached up to nuzzle it with his soft, wet nose. Instead of the old stiff, blind dog who had been put to sleep more than a decade ago he was in his prime, as fit and lively as a three year-old. Together we walked towards the funnel of light, and as we were pulled effortlessly upwards, and out through the roof of the church, my surroundings faded. I knew that at last I was going home.

8. Play Time

I wasn’t afraid to die. I knew that I would. When my sister died first I was jealous, but we are twins, identical twins. We shared everything, including the illness, and so I knew it would be my turn soon. We used to play together in our angel world, in our dreams. But sometimes when we were awake we would go to our secret place and sort of day-dream, and have such adventures and play with our friends. It could be raining outside but in our summerland it never rains. There are trees to climb and flowers, a lake and a river for swimming, and forests and meadows. We can eat as much as we like, whenever we want to. It doesn’t matter if it is meal-times or anything, we just think about ice-cream or chocolate cake, or orange juice, and there it is. There are some grown-ups who sort of look after us and try to give us lessons, but not in a bossy way and mostly we just run away and play. No one follows us and we never get into trouble for it. So when my sister left her body behind I knew that was where she had gone.
People looked at me strangely at the funeral as I never cried at all. Apparently I had a big smile on my face, but that’s because she was jumping around, pulling faces and making me laugh, only no one else could see her. They didn’t understand and thought I had gone soft in the head or was being naughty. Then I got very sad because I was on my own and could only see her in my dreams. Day-dreaming my way to summerland was much harder on my own and I got so afraid that I might forget about summerland, and about our other friends. I could never forget what she looked like or the sound of her voice because I only had to look in the mirror or to say something. We are that alike – best friends too. We have been together for ever so many lives, but not as twins before. We thought it would make a change, be fun, but it was a bad life and we decided very quickly that we would leave it and try again with different parents.
Our earth life was never as good as summerland. We were often afraid of the shouting and the cold and hunger. They weren’t exactly cruel but they didn’t know how to look after children, or maybe they just didn’t really try very hard. So sometimes they would forget to feed us, or go out and leave us on our own and we didn’t know when they were coming back, or who would come back. And that could be worse than being left on our own. That’s why we used to spend so much time hiding in our secret place, where we could escape back to our other, real home. After a bit, on my own, I just wanted to join her. There was nothing left for me on earth. Everything seemed dark and cold and empty and I didn’t understand why I had to wait, why we couldn’t have gone together. When my turn came I was excited and only a little bit scared. It felt like ages, but it was less than one birthday, and now we are together again. Towards the end, when I was ill in bed, I found that I could leave my body more easily and she was always there, waiting for me. She looked a bit older, but so healthy and full of life and fun. There is no sickness or hunger in summerland and grown-ups are always kind to us, and show us how to do things. We are leaning how trees grow and how insects are made, and how to help them with our energy. But mostly we just play.

7. Falling Back

Oh I had had my opportunities all right, but I had not taken advantage of them. The funny thing is, I was so confident. I really believed that I had done well, passed all the exams, ticked all the boxes. I had been faithful, some even said fanatical. I had prayed, although to what I am not sure now. The God that I had created resembled a crazed dictator at times, a product of my fear of failure and my inadequacy. I did as the Scriptures dictated, insofar as I or anyone else could decipher them. I gave alms to the poor, whether it was to the sad-looking woman selling magazines on the High Street, responding to disaster relief appeals on the TV, or packing boxes of toys and sweets for refugee children. How superior and generous I felt, so different, so far above the recipients of my charity in circumstance and wealth. If I had at least learnt to see them as brothers and sisters, or could have put myself in their shoes, I might have been a little more generous, or even have stopped to talk to the men and women sitting on the pavement with their grubby sleeping bags and skinny dogs. If instead of secretly blaming them for their predicament, or feeling sorry for them, I could have got to know them, and shown some fellow human warmth I might have taken an interest in their lives, in their hopes for the future and their dreams. It might have been different. I might have been different. Instead of liberating me, reading the Scriptures and communal worship seem to have simply helped build a wall around my fragile sense of self. On one side were like-minded ‘good’ people, comfortable, complaisant, innately conservative. On the other, well on the other side were the rest - everyone. Those I feared, those I was indifferent to, and even the few I loathed (or thought I did, it is strange how differently we see things on this side).
I didn’t do anything so terribly wrong. It was an acceptable, even a good life in the eyes of the world. I was faithful to my marriage vows, respectful to my parents, caring for them in their old age, at some personal and financial cost to myself and to the grandchildren. I made a real effort to get on with my neighbours, I didn’t drink or smoke, and avoided most common vices, even when tempted. I looked after my body. I ate healthily, walked to work, and after retirement still worked out once a week in the gym, or made an effort to go to the swimming pool. I never ‘let myself go’. But now, played out before me are the opportunities missed. My original intention was to have a life of relative ease and security in order to focus on the little things, but I fell prey to selfishness and my goal was distorted by my pride and so-called faith. It was a life of surface and appearance, but with little depth, and I now see how little real joy.
From earliest childhood to my final breath there were so many chances to love, so many opportunities to light the divine flame in my soul, and my guides certainly worked hard to remind me, to provide the opportunities, but they found it hard to attract my attention. I was so busy ‘being good’ and justifying my existence that I felt little need for advice or help from others. Only a very few incidents among the years stand out, and shine a little more brightly amid the dull browns and reds of my earth-bound selfishness. There was the incident on my twenty-first birthday when I saw an injured dog on the road. I had my new car, and was so proud of its shiny mock-leather cream upholstery. I drove past, but found myself unable to continue and went back to help the dog. It was too badly injured to object when I picked up and put in on the back seat – my lovely new car was full of hair, blood and mud. I never quite got rid of the smell of urine and frightened animal. I took the dog to the vet, paid the bills, then fetched him home and nursed him. I put up with the mess, the dog hair in the carpet and on the sofa, and treated him kindly over the years. I never even liked dogs, although with time a certain affection grew between us. Then he died, many years ago now, although ‘died’ of course is just another way of saying that he moved on, moved right in, and now here he is, jumping, licking my hand, barking, wagging his tail as if that first act of kindness towards him were enough in itself to win me a place in heaven.
And then in the middle of the over-harsh and cold growing years of my children (for that is how they seem to me now) there was a time when I stopped to listen, to really listen. Relationships had been strained and her behaviour on that occasion was way out of order, far beyond what we could accept. Instead of demanding an account I silenced the inner judge for a moment and tried to enter her world. What had upset her so much? I took her pain on myself, not belittling the lovers’ tiffs and imagined slights, but soothing her teenage tantrums and traumas with my love, infusing a sense of security and wholeness into her fragile spirit. OK, I had help, although I didn’t know it at the time. That urgent call wrung from my soul, calling upon some higher power to give me the wisdom and patience I sorely needed in that moment had been heeded. The comfort that I gave, and the warmth and trust that, for a while at least, returned to our battered relationship, was the fruit of that cry for help. A channel opened up between ‘heaven and earth’. My guides and my higher self were able to pour down concentrated love and peace, surrounding us an a golden glow of protection and healing.
Another light shone, as if on a stage or diorama and I looked with amazement at an incident so slight and insignificant that I had almost no memory of it at all. I certainly hadn’t weighed it in my bank of credit. I was in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight. A cleaner, foreign and evidently tired and heavily pregnant, was moving among the cafe tables, sweeping up the discarded cups and paper napkins, the plastic spoons and crumpled newspapers. A half-eaten croissant lay under the table, and the chairs and cases blocked her access to it. I glanced at the hopeless, defeated expression, and without thinking bent down and picked up the offending pastry, and tossed it into the open black bin liner fixed to the end of her mopping trolley. As I straightened up our eyes met for a moment and a smile of gratitude flashed across her face. I nodded, and in that brief encounter there was an acknowledgment of our common humanity. I wiped my hands, picked up my suitcase and left to catch my flight, thinking no more about the incident until I relived it in this place of inescapable clarity. These are small crumbs indeed to take with me from an earth-life, I can see that now, but each one is nevertheless weighed and given its true value. I will have another chance to learn those lessons, perhaps in a situation that gives my selfish ego less opportunity to pull me down. After all, the only goal of our life on earth, as my guides gently remind me, is to become perfect in love.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

6. One Last Drink

We pass the time congenially enough – a game of cards, then tiddlywinks. A slow pint that lasts all evening; we argue and discuss the merits of horses versus tractors, the price of pigs and whether it will rain at Michaelmas. Old George doesn’t really say much, just grunts and sucks on his pipe. He doesn’t like the noise or the comings and goings, especially when a group are sitting in our alcove, sometimes almost on top of us. People are so loud and so rude these days, hardly even make the effort to say ‘Hello’, not that it bothers us. We have our own company and like it that way. When he gets really annoyed, like when those lads and lasses were larking around and showing no respect, George sometimes bangs his tankard on the table – just to get some peace and quiet. There was even a time when he threw a beer mat at a young lad who wouldn’t stop shouting. He had evidently had a few too many and didn’t know when to stop, or couldn’t hold his bitter. That shut him up pretty quick. Everyone in the room stopped talking and the group in our alcove were out of there before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’. We had a good laugh at that one. Even George was chuckling, not exactly smiling, but you could see that he was pleased with himself. After that people sort of avoided our corner, and we could mind our own business without anyone bothering us. Things have changed around here thought. Many of the old farmers have stopped coming. They used to come in on market day when they had a bit of money from selling off their lambs, or when they had a cow or horse surplus to requirements. Perhaps it is the price of beer these days – we can hear people grumbling about it although ours is always on the house – they never ask us old regulars for money.
One young lady – and you get far more of those coming in these days, sometimes whole groups of them, not a lad among them, and the wives who should be at home making the tea – anyway, this one complained to the lad behind the bar that someone was smoking in our corner. Well of course we were! Jack has his pipe, and George and I like to roll a cigarette. The bar man didn’t believe her at first, but she insisted he come over and sniff around. And as Jack puffed away, Alf came along to join us, and he lit up one of those small cigars, so there was quite a cloud of smoke. I used to have a bad chest but it has cleared up now, and the smoke doesn’t bother me at all. Anyway, this bar man agrees that he can smell it, and we can see other people coming over to have a sniff. Quite comical really, but why a bit of smoke in a pub should cause such a fuss I can’t imagine – we have always smoked as we drink our beer, and enjoy one another’s company. Well, the next thing you know a plaque goes up on the beam over the alcove, the one with all the horse brass and the stuffed carp that old Will pulled from the meer the summer of the drought, the year the water almost dried up leaving the fish stranded in a few inches of muddy water. This plaque, well, it said the pub was haunted. Haunted, I ask you! We have been here for years and haven’t seen any ghosts. If anyone knew about the pub being haunted it would be us. They could have asked us but people these days, they have no time for the old folk.
The problem with that plaque is that instead of leaving the place alone, more people started coming, and even making a point of sitting in our alcove. There was some story about the Hanging Judge, you know the one, Judge Jeffries they called him. Held assizes up and down these parts and, like many of the old inns, the room upstairs was used as a court house and the courtyard as a place of execution. They are saying that both the Judge and some of his victims are still around here; don’t know they are dead, and can be seen re-enacting their last hours. I think they must be soft in the head myself. Old buildings have an atmosphere and creak a bit, it makes people uneasy and they start imagining things. Then some young men arrived with all sorts of contraptions, calling themselves ghost-hunters, and set out to measure the temperature, and goodness knows what else. I have to confess we decided to have a bit of fun with them. Well, not much happens these days, one day is much like another, so it was a change, something to do. They kept asking whether there was anyone here, and if there was a spirit present would he show himself? We felt a bit sorry for them, not having seen any ghostly judges or cattle thieves or such like, so eventually Jack starts tapping his pipe on the table, and these ghost-hunters are so excited that George leaps up and heaves the carp off the wall. He didn’t mean to damage it but it must have been heavier than he expected because the case slipped out of his hands, narrowly missing Alf’s head, and smashes on the floor. I don’t know what they used to preserve it but there was quite a stink. The ghost-hunters were trying to stay calm but you could see they were rattled, and the smell was evidently too much for them as they packed up pretty quick, leaving the mess for the landlady to sort out in the morning. We were sorry about the old fish, but it didn’t do the pub’s business any harm. There have been more people than ever since then, whole coach loads of them. Perhaps that is why they started this ghost rumour in the first place, although why they should think the Judge or some wretched labourer should be interested in throwing a fish around I can’t imagine! All in all the effect has not been good – it just isn’t the old Black Lion that we used to know and we are pretty fed up what with all the comings and goings and everything. Even the beer is losing its taste – they must have switched breweries. Anyway, we are all agreed that we are going to move on soon, just as soon as we can work out where to go next. That’s the thing, where to go next.