Monday, 9 November 2009

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.

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