A tale of an old man who, after reaching the end of his life, finds someone waiting.
– No age verification, but intermittent swearing, cranky old bastards, a Neil Gaiman reference and sporadic philosophy.
And in the end he lay his head down for the last time.
He lay it down on a pillow that had never been comfortable, one that crackled from the plastic beneath the pillowcase, one that was too overstuffed and always felt too cold. He was drowsy already and he knew that was only going to get stronger as he fell into a sleep that would be far too deep to struggle out of. He’d made sure of that.
The sounds he listened to as he fell to sleep didn’t interest him much but nonetheless he heard them keenly: a nurse pushing a trolley down the corridor, one of its wheels jerking and tugging too hard to one side making the whole thing rattle; the dull scratching of a tree branch against the room’s little window; the muffled but hysterical sobbing coming from room 1326 where Mavis Jenkins, one of the hostel’s more senile inhabitants, had her nightly breakdown just as she had for the past nine years.
Every night for the last two weeks he’d been complaining of being unable to sleep. Each time he’d palmed the tablets that the bored but well-meaning night nurse had given him. Tonight he’d taken – with some difficulty, as he’d run out of water halfway through – all fourteen of those pills. He had no intention of waking up in the morning.
Suicide didn’t bother him. He was well past the luxuries of morality – where he himself was concerned, anyway. None of his children or grandchildren had visited him for the last two years but he didn’t mind. His body was breaking down but his mind was sharp as a tack and he understood what their expressions meant as they watched him slowly rot away in bed. They’d be sad, of course – well, probably – when they found out he was dead but really isn’t that what they were all waiting for anyway?
He was tired of it all. Tired of the sympathetic looks from the aged care staff, tired of his doctor trying to jolly him along, tired of the cups of tea and nice walks and the awful fucking food. Tired of his hips not working and his bladder loosing itself independently of his will. Tired of watching his friends lose themselves to senility and seeing drooling infants stare back at him through their cloudy old eyes. Tired of smelling shit and vomit every time one of them walked past and knowing beyond a doubt that the person they used to be was gone. Tired of waiting for that to happen to him.
The nausea was leaving, dampened down by a fuzzy cloud of nothing. He found himself wondering what dying in his sleep would be like – would he dream, and would those dreams fade into nothing? He didn’t usually dream when he took sleeping pills. Would he close his eyes and simply stop, or –
He woke up in a field.
Of course he didn’t really wake up and part of him understood that. He was in his hostel bed succumbing to the haze of drugs that was slowly shutting his bodily functions down one by one. He knew that but knowing it didn’t change the scene he found himself in and so, to all intents and purposes and in all ways that actually mattered, he was in a field.
He lay on his back for a long while staring up at the sky. It was a beautiful azure blue broken only by a few wisps of cloud high in the atmosphere, the kind that he could see moving fast on a wind that he couldn’t feel. The sun was shining on his face and for a moment he felt warm, safe, tranquil. Perhaps he’d already died and this was Heaven.
Slowly he sat up, scowling in the way he usually did, pulling his lips tight under his knobbly, red nose, bringing his forehead into a crinkled frown that transformed his whole face into a mass of forbidding wrinkles. In an obscure way he was proud of his scowl. He’d scared dozens of punky teenagers into submission with the sheer weight of that glare when he’d…
When he’d been alive.
Was he still alive? Was he in that place between dreams and death, floating on seconds that seemed like lifetimes? He didn’t know. It’s not like he’d ever done this before.
He rolled onto his hands and knees, pushing himself off the ground. He expected his hips to complain but his body seemed hale and responsive. Gone was the creakiness in his back, the ache in his knees, the shakiness in his arms. Even his wrist, damaged beyond repair from long hours of constant writing – he’d been an accountant when he was younger, a lifetime ago now, back when the world didn’t run on computers – lacked its familiar stiffness and dull pain.
Looking down at himself he could see the same body. Weathered hands with swollen arthritic joints, slack muscles hanging in leathery skin from his old bones, silver-grey hair along his arms, bowed legs, a rounded gut – but none of it acted as it had this past decade. He could move as easily as he had when he was a lad of sixteen. Even his eyes, chronically myopic, focused sharply and flawlessly on his surroundings.
He was in a field…
It was a nice field, he supposed. The grass was vibrant and green, growing about halfway up to his (inexplicably painless) knees, spotted here and there with tall wildflowers growing in clumps or patches of some kind of fragrant herb – chamomile, he guessed. Poppies grew here and there, scarlet and black against the sea of green, and he could see clumps of plants that grew tall white flower spikes almost four feet high. Their blooms were the colour of unsullied snow and shaped a bit like passionflowers, growing in tight conical formation up along the stems. But that, as far as he could see on all sides, was all there was. Right to the horizon the field continued – no mountains in the distance, no bodies of water near or far, not even a tree.
He was nothing if not a practical man. While he suspected he could literally stay there forever he knew that he didn’t particularly want to; if this was Heaven then God didn’t have much of an imagination – and if it was Hell then the Devil was one seriously cunning bastard who intended to torture him with mild-weathered boredom. And who had a fondness for poppies.
And so, in the end, he picked a direction completely at random and started walking.
He’d been walking for a long time when he came, finally, across a tree. He didn’t see it in the distance, either, didn’t notice it and steer toward it. One moment he was walking through the field with nothing – apart from himself – taller than the white flowering plants. The next he was stepping on fallen leaves underneath a tree. Its tall trunk tapered to a fine point and elegant branches extended outward to hold up lush bunches of light and springy foliage. Underneath the ground was covered in dense, dark moss.
Something about it seemed deliberate. He didn’t recognise the breed but thought it seemed vaguely Oriental – like a tiny bonsai tree but, obviously, much larger. He could imagine it in a rectangular pot or on a decorative scroll. It looked safe enough, though, so he raised a hand to it and touched the trunk, felt the texture of the bark, thumbed the surface curiously.
It appeared a good enough place to sit down, so he did. He wasn’t tired from the walk but it seemed too good a tree to sit under not to do so. Settling on the bed-like moss he propped his back against the base of the trunk and briefly wished he had a book to read. No book appeared, though, in silent answer to his thoughts. Probably for the best, he decided. Wandering into the afterlife and spending it reading did sound like a bit of a waste to him.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, nor how long the little girl had been sitting beside him when finally he noticed her. She sat as he did, with her legs out straight and her back against the tree. She was maybe ten years old with a lovely face and a frame that was clearly in the early stages of puberty, still flat-chested but with limbs starting to grow long and coltish.
The dress she wore was plain, modestly covering from collar to knees. It had sleeves that puffed out decoratively at the shoulders before tightening again around the elbows, the cuffs and hems accented with simple lace. He couldn’t precisely tell what colour it was – black? Very dark blue? – but he fancied it was speckled here and there with white. Part of his mind wondered if he was somehow seeing stars in the night sky.
Her hair was dark and her eyes pale; beyond that he could tell nothing of her coloration. She could have been Asian or white, the vivid brown-black of an African tribeswoman or the rich red of a native American. He was certain he could see the girl quite clearly but the details of race simply slid past his mind as if beneath his notice. It was an odd feeling but as he looked the little girl over he quickly discovered that trying to focus on those features just made him forget them faster so in the end he gave up trying.
Had they been sitting there for seconds or for decades? He had no idea. Silence stretched out, broken only by a low creaking now and then from the elegantly twisted tree limbs above their heads.
“I’d make some quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the little girl said suddenly, “but you haven’t said anything.” She had a light voice, youthful and pretty like herself, but not precisely young. There was an inescapable wisdom to it.
“You… You like that book, do you?” he asked cautiously, his own voice gravelly and cracking with age.
“Oh, yes,” the girl replied. She said it mildly, almost neutrally, not as a little girl might when talking about a favourite story. “Reverend Dodgson had a brilliant literary mind. He was a natural storyteller and a very good friend to Alice Liddell and her sisters. Do you know that modern critics suspect he might have been a pedophile?”
She really didn’t talk like a ten year old.
“I’ve heard that,” he admitted.
“It isn’t true.” Her tone implied that she wasn’t speaking speculatively. “Once upon a time two people could have a relationship without sex or even romance being part of it. I think that died around the same time disco was invented.”
Disco killed it? he thought to himself.
“No,” the girl clarified, “they’re unrelated. I think they just happened at the same time.”
There was a pause as the two watched the grass move in wave-like ripples, wind pushing it this way and that, out in the field beyond the moss they sat upon. The air was clean and fresh.
“Did you just read my -“
“Yes, silly,” the girl laughed gaily. “Of course I did. You don’t need to speak for me to hear you. Not here,” she added, gesturing briefly around with a hand that, when it matured, would be elegant and dextrous. “But you can if you like. I like your voice. All thick and scratchy and warm, like a familiar old coat that you wrap around yourself on cold days.”
He was struck by that. Was it a compliment or an insult, or perhaps just an observation? He didn’t really know what to say. He considered telling her so but the girl just giggled and he realised there was no point. So he asked a different question instead.
“Where is ‘here’?” he asked.
“Where you’ve always been.”
“That isn’t a very helpful reply,” he stated firmly. He could feel his scowl starting to slide across his face but his heart wasn’t really in it and the little girl just grinned for a moment.
“Well,” she said after a pause, “it’s very easy to explain but it might be very hard to understand. Do you see those flowers?” the girl asked, pointing to one of the verdant clumps from which grew the pale flower stems. “Do you remember what they’re called?”
He frowned at the nearby plants. It was a curious choice of words. ‘Remember…’ Now that the girl mentioned it they did seem familiar. He was sure he’d seen them years ago in a vase. Several of them, standing up amongst a few scraps of fern, on side tables in a church. No, not a church… A funeral home.
“Asphodel,” he answered suddenly. Realisation dawned. “They’re asphodel flowers, white asphodel.” He sat up more and looked around. He got a sinking feeling in the pit of his – well, not his stomach. In the pit of his… him. “I’m in the Asphodel Meadows.”
The little girl nodded and then shook her head. Then she shrugged, cocking her head to one side as if to indicate that she didn’t know, or didn’t know how to explain.
The Asphodel Meadows, part of the realm of the dead in Greek mythology. He remembered now. He used to be a mythology enthusiast when he was younger, before life and living and cynicism crushed the joy of it out of him. He’d even grown asphodel once in his mother’s garden. The cat had taken to sleeping on the baby plants and killed them one by one. He never liked cats after that.
“Not… Not really. You’re in the same place you’ve always been.” She leaned up and, despite their height difference, tapped his forehead with a light finger. It felt like being tapped with a sledgehammer and a feather all at once. It didn’t hurt, it was a very light touch, but there was a gravity to it that he couldn’t explain to himself.
The recognition came to him as if swimming out of a fog. He felt like it was suddenly obvious, like he’d known all along and he was just remembering that he knew. As if he’d had it explained to him before. “We’re in… my head,” he said gently, “in my mind.” It wasn’t a question.
The little girl took one of his hands and squeezed it gently, comfortingly. She nodded and didn’t say anything more.
“This is all familiar,” he mused to himself. The girl nodded but, again, stayed silent. “I feel like I’ve seen all of this before but I can’t place where, exactly.”
“You’ll remember. Everyone always does,” she reassured him.
“If I’m in my head,” he continued, “then I’m… making up or remembering this. Or both.”
“Something like that,” she agreed.
“Then am I making up you? No,” he added even as she opened her mouth, “I’m not. You seem too much… you.”
The girl laughed again, sliding her slim arms around one of his and hugging it tightly. “Thank you. That’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever been given. ‘Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no-one alive who is youer than you.’” He recognised it – a quote by Dr Seuss.
“So we are, in fact, alive?” he asked. He asked it casually but he knew she wasn’t fooled. The air seemed to grow thick with urgency as he waited for her answer.
“Nnnnyesno.” The girl rubbed her lower lip briefly, a gesture of thought. “You’re technically alive, in the space between living and dead. Your body has mostly stopped but your brain is firing its last bio-electrical impulses. You’ll be dead in a few moments,” she continued in a conversational tone, “but those moments will seem a lot longer here.”
“How long?” he asked.
“As long as you like.” She smiled at him warmly, like an old friend. “I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
They walked for a long time, the two of them, stepping past asphodel bushes and dodging poppies. Chamomile wafted up to their noses, rich and fragrant, where their bare feet bruised the cool plant. Now and then he stopped and looked about, spotting the giant bonsai tree from time to time, but still nothing appeared on the horizon.
He didn’t mind. Being with his mysterious friend made the journey seem a pleasure.
“When I was younger,” he began suddenly, “I used to visit my grandmother. She had chamomile in her garden. I used to step on it like we’re doing now and smell it as it bruised.” He chuckled. “She hated it but she never told me to stop. I suppose she could see how happy it made me.”
“Look,” the girl said, pointing into the distance. “There’s her garden.”
Sure enough he could see, flickering in and out of existence, the little semicircular herb garden that once grew at his grandmother’s home before she’d died and his parents had sold it off. A property developer had knocked the homely little cottage down and concreted over the whole lot. Even now, on the cusp of death, the memory cut him like knives.
But nonetheless there it was, a vision of gardening triumph, flapping in and out of his vision not ten feet away like a giant Polaroid picture in a fierce wind. He felt a grin split his old face and he stepped toward it.
The girl watched, wearing a blank expression.
He reached a hand out and into the apparition, feeling warm sunlight on his skin and smelling the roses that his grandmother had grown. He could see the ivy-covered wood shed, the weathered masonry steps leading up to her back door, the crumbling brick barbecue that she never used and his father never took the time to fix. He glanced at his friend in wonder.
The girl just watched him, face carefully devoid of emotion, a waxwork doll standing nearby and observing.
Something about her expression – or lack of it – rang warning bells but he was too enraptured with the scene. Looking back at the tempting oasis of memory he stepped in and felt the scene engulf him as if he were lowering himself into a warm pond.
He sat up in bed. The hostel bed. He felt like someone had kicked him in the spine and felt his lower back with a grunt of pain. Fingers creaked and ached terribly. His eyes wouldn’t focus and he found himself reaching for his glasses on the bedside table and hoping beyond hope that he wouldn’t find them.
To his horror they were there. He put them on and the world came into view… more or less.
He was back. Wherever he’d been, if he had indeed been anywhere, he’d clearly returned. Disappointment wound in his chest like an angry snake and he felt his eyes fill with tears before biting the sensation back, stamping it down. Glancing at his alarm clock he sighed; it was almost noon. Almost lunch time. He didn’t feel hungry. He didn’t want food or water. He just wanted to close his eyes one last time and stop.
The little girl said he was close to death. The way she’d said it made it seem as if he couldn’t be resuscitated but now here he was and she was gone. She must have been wrong, he reasoned bitterly. He was alive and the staff would be watching him now. Suicide attempts weren’t taken lightly. There’d be counselling and soft pats on the hand while young and strong people would tell him that being withered and old wasn’t a bad thing as if they had the faintest clue what they were talking about. Fresh-faced babies in suits who thought a piece of paper from a university made them God.
The door to his room – his cell – opened and a nurse walked in backward, pulling the lunchtime meal trolley. If he were younger he’d have made a note of her backside almost reflexively but he wasn’t young. He was old and tired and angry. He wasn’t interested in having lunch and he told her so in less than graceful terms.
“Oh, you need your lunch,” she said brightly, turning around and producing a plate of sausages, peas and mashed potato. The potato was lumpy, the peas half-cooked and the sausages only luke-warm. “A strong growing boy needs his lunch. And look!” She happily pointed out a small saucer with a lump of brightly-coloured red stuff on it, wobbling somewhat obscenely.
He frowned. Raspberry jelly. This seemed too familiar.
He accepted the plate in silence which surprised the pretty nurse; to be fair he was known in the old folks’ home as something of a curmudgeon and rarely accepted a meal without some complaint. He knew he should probably feel guilty about that but he didn’t. He was too tired of guilt to care.
You’re going to trip over when you leave, he thought suddenly. He wasn’t certain why he thought that but the knowledge was crystal clear in his mind.
The nurse left, the door closed and a brief squeak of alarm before tremendous crash signalled the tempestuous food trolley tipping over on the girl as she fell to the floor. She’d probably slipped on something – he didn’t know and didn’t really care, neither concern nor amusement bothered to rise at the nurse’s plight – but he sat up sharply nonetheless.
It was yesterday.
He remembered this happening very clearly. He’d woken up from a nap, had lunch, the silly girl had slipped and come crashing down – she wasn’t hurt, just embarrassed and covered with cheap reconstituted potato mash – before he headed out to the gardens for a sit and a glare, more out of habit than anything. It was a stronger sense than deja vu, inescapably true and alarmingly clear. The only word he could think of that fit was prescience.
He ate mechanically, not tasting anything and leaving the jelly untouched. He remembered he’d left that uneaten as an obscure gesture of defiance. A rather childish one, he had to admit now, considering these people worked long hours for little pay putting up with irascible disillusioned pricks like him. He wasn’t easy to live with before he moved into the hostel, much less afterwards.
Shaking his head he got out of bed and changed painfully into his grey day slacks, his pale blue shirt and brown woollen vest, his overcoat and hat. Propping himself on his cane he hobbled out of the little room he hated so much – the nurse had recovered the trolley and an orderly had cleaned up the mess as he’d eaten his bland meal – and headed down the corridor which, no matter how much the gangly young janitor cleaned and polished the floor, still smelled of rancid tea and old people.
He’d heard one of the orderlies comment to a nurse that he supposed the residents didn’t notice the smell. Fucking stupid thing to think, he’d grumbled to himself. Of course they noticed it – the ones in any state to notice anything, at least – but it was simply too humiliating to admit they smelled like dead folk walking.
Oh, how he hated it here…
The courtyard was a pleasant area. A circular affair set at the junction of four different resident wings it boasted seating, two chess tables, relaxing gardens and enough exposure to the sun to warm even old bones like his. It was a tranquil little oasis amid the indignity and mess of growing too old to function any more.
Mavis Jenkins was there, rocking back and forth on the very edge of a park bench donated to the home by someone he didn’t know or care about. She stared straight forward, toothless mouth slack and drool dripping from her wrinkled chin and onto her lap.
She had been the first person to welcome him to the home when he’d arrive – the first real person, the first old person. The orderlies and nurses had welcomed him, of course, but it was their job and they didn’t live here. Mavis did. She was ten years older than him and back then she’d had a wit as sharp as a razor.
But time and decay had worn away her mind like wind eats away at sandstone. One day she hadn’t recognised him for two hours and he knew then, he understood, that she was leaving. It broke his heart and that was the day that he went from tolerating his new home to despising it. They were corralled, penned in away from the young and energetic, kept hidden so as to not upset the rest of humanity until eventually they died.
They were the reminder. We are your future, their presence said, and one day you’ll be shitting your pants and smelling like tea, one day you’ll forget half a century of your life and one day you’ll die. Young people didn’t like that so they condemned their elders to a half-existence in a glorified prison for the crime of being old.
He sat down and stared at a box hedge cut vaguely into a globe. It was ragged and losing its shape, much like the residents, he thought.
“Am I going mad?”
Mavis’s voice was wavering and grey but her Irish accent still beautiful and lilting as she spoke. She was staring at him, eyes that had once been beautiful now watery and weak, her fingers knotting together in her lap.
“Please tell me,” she said and he knew she was back, just for a moment. “You’re always honest wi’ me. Am I going mad?”
He felt himself shake his head. “No. Your brain’s breaking down. You’re just… senile, Mavis.”
“Oh, thank God for tha’,” she said brightly, and then she was gone again. Her face went slack and her eyes stared at nothing once more. He wondered where she’d gone – dancing with her friends in Ireland as a Catholic schoolgirl, perhaps, or kissing some boy behind her parents’ brownstone house. It was a better thought than imagining her mind as a grey, blank nothing.
“She’s nice,” the little girl said from her vantage on the bench next to him. She was kicking her legs back and forth as she sat, sitting forward with her weight on her hands. “She’s not in pain when she’s like this, so don’t worry. She gets scared at night, though. She’s afraid of the dark, you know.”
“I know,” he answered, nodding. They’d spoken of it once. Mavis had been in her teens during the London Blitz. He couldn’t imagine what she’d been through, how many friends and family members she’d found dead under the rubble, or listening for sirens and explosions as she huddled with her mother and two sisters in the Anderson shelter in their back yard. Her father had joined the army, been stationed in the conflict in Egypt and finally been shot to death by a local man for screwing his twelve year old daughter.
For some reason he wasn’t surprised when the little girl had turned up and, now that she was beside him, didn’t feel angry or upset any more.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Don’t you remember?”
He looked down at her crooked smile, her wide eyes, her pretty hair. Her question made no sense to him so he didn’t respond to it. He put it aside and asked a different question instead.
“Why am I here?” he asked, waving a hand. “I mean,” he clarified as she got a cheeky look on her face, “why yesterday?”
She shrugged. “Oh, that. You stepped into a memory. Only it doesn’t work quite the way people think. You’re dying, remember,” she said mildly, “and you know what happens when you’re dying. They talk about it in books a lot.”
He frowned. “Your life flashes before your eyes. But this isn’t my life, not my whole life. It’s just yesterday.”
“Yes,” the little girl nodded. “It flashes backwards.”
“Oh. But it’s not going backwards exactly, is it?” he said, knowing he was belabouring the point but continuing anyway. “I went out to the garden after lunch, just like I did before.”
She giggled. “You’re over-thinking this, you know. You’re dying. Does it matter if things aren’t perfectly inversely sequential?”
He had to admit she had a point. “So where are we off to next?” he asked her, standing stiffly. “Or when, rather.”
“I don’t know,” she answered as she slipped off the seat, taking his hand and looking up at him. “It’s your life. I’m just along for the ride.”
They didn’t go far – or, at least, it didn’t seem as if they did. Not to him. One moment they were in the courtyard and the next, without so much as taking a step, in front of the old folks’ home.
Well, he was, at least. Looking about he couldn’t find any trace of the little girl.
His hand tightened around something and he realised he was carrying a suitcase. He stared at it blankly for a few long moments and then a gentle but firm hand took him by the elbow.
A nurse stood there. She smiled encouragingly to him in precisely that way he’d grown to despise so much and started leading him toward the main gates.
“We’ll visit soon!” he heard and, looking back, he spotted a taxi. His son was waving from the rear window. He squinted; the lad’s hair wasn’t as thin as he remembered. The nurse beside him paused, clearly giving him time to respond.
He thought carefully and then flexed his hand around the handle of his suitcase. He remembered taking that same suitcase to Paris for a sight-seeing tour with his wife before they settled down to raise a family. Now part of his family was leaving him at something halfway between a hospital and a knackery. This response would require some finesse.
The old man turned slowly and yelled back, “No you fucking well won’t!” Raising his other hand in a one-fingered salute he watched his son’s face go red and heard, with no small amount of satisfaction, the nurse next to him gasp in surprise. Then he turned his back on the taxi and shook the nurse’s arm off the same way she’d taken it – gently but firmly.
Climbing the steps wasn’t easy but he refused to accept help from the nurse. Keeping his gaze fixed ahead of him on the broad textured concrete he focused on taking them one at a time, ignoring the pain in his lower back and refusing to give in to the weakness threatening to topple his wobbly knees. The nurse hovered around like a pretty, nervous hummingbird.
He heard the laughter before he got to the top of the stairs. It was old laughter but it was rich, and obviously a woman’s.
“Well if you aren’t the crankiest ol’ bastard this side o’ the pond,” he heard, and looked up into eyes that were still, for the most part, clear and green.
Mavis was silver-haired but from the abundance of freckles decorating her lined skin it was clear she’d been a redhead once. They weren’t the carefully-placed freckles of a retouched model’s photo; they dominated her skin like someone had sprinkled tanning lotion onto her through a sieve. The backs of her hands were spotted with them. He had no doubt they covered the bulk of her body and was a little disappointed that he was too old – or, at least, felt too old – to find out.
She didn’t move to help him and waved the nurse away as well. “Don’t bother wi’ this one, Annie,” she advised. “You’ll get no thanks from his sort.” Her accent was rich, Irish, rolling. She spoke with clear scorn but her eyes were twinkling, amused, free of malice. “Some antiques jus’ love t’wallow in their misery.”
He didn’t know what to make of her. She’ on the other hand, had no doubt what to make of him.
“Welcome t’the place you’ll probably die,” she grinned, false teeth even and white. “It smells o’piss an’ rancid tea but it’s home. Annie’ll get you t’your room. I’m Mavis; you’ll prob’ly find me in the courtyard if you decide to stop bein’ such a cranky ol’ twat an’ actually manage t’leave ye room.”
And with that she winked at him and toddled off, unhurried, leaving him to gape after her in confusion.
He didn’t resist when Annie, the nurse, helped him to his room.
She – the mysterious she, the little girl – was waiting for him when he reached his room. She was sitting on his bed and as Annie got him settled in (or as settled as he was likely to get) the nurse seemed to completely miss the girl’s presence. Several times, he saw, she looked straight through the silent visitor. It took ages for Annie to leave.
“I remember,” he said when the two of them were finally alone, “that Mavis always used to tell me I only hated it here because I was too much of a dick to accept that getting old is something that can be done gracefully.”
The girl didn’t offer an opinion.
“You’re being ridiculous, Dad!”
He was at his little flat, the one that he’d lived in before coming to the home after almost burning it down with a kitchen fire. The little girl was nowhere to be seen but his son was certainly there, wheezing asthmatically and glaring at the old man. His wife put a hand on his elbow but he ignored her.
“You are! We’re not going to just forget you! God,” the younger man exploded, “it’s not like you’re easy to just cast off!”
He nodded evenly in the sudden, embarrassed silence. “I can see I was entirely wrong to concern myself,” he stated flatly, voice dripping with sarcasm. “How silly of me.”
“Come on, I didn’t mean it like that, Dad!” His son threw his hands up in the air in frustration and a dull, resentful tension fell across the room. “We’re trying to do what’s right for you,” he added eventually. “You could’ve killed yourself. You’re not young any more.”
“Oh, really?” he retorted. “You don’t think I’ve noticed that?”
His son stopped as his wife squeezed his arm again, harder this time. He stopped and glanced at her, sighed and shook his head. Old people, his glance seemed to say to her, there’s no reasoning with them.
“Let’s just let him get used to the idea,” the younger man’s wife said reasonably. He liked her and couldn’t quite work out why she’d married his son. He loved his son, certainly, but she was a classy girl and his son was a bit… droopy. He couldn’t help but feel she could do better.
“Okay. Just think about it, Dad. It’s a nice hostel and the staff are top notch.” His son tapped the brochure they’d put on his kitchen table. “We’ll visit every weekend, promise.”
No you won’t, he thought spitefully. As he watched them leave he remembered what was happening and amended the thought to, No you didn’t.
He was a hard man to love and he knew it. He was no idiot, though; he didn’t get along with his son and knew that if he was moved into a home he’d soon be forgotten.
He’d been right, too, he realised. Right all along.
“How much of that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, though?” he mused aloud. There was no answer. The little girl, if she’d ever been there, was gone for the moment. He struggled out of the chair and grabbed for his walking stick, swore as he dropped it and spent the next two minutes struggling to bend down and pick it up.
Sighing heavily he had to admit, then, that his son was right. It was a miracle he hadn’t died in that fire. He couldn’t look after himself any more and there was no way in Hell that he was going to live with his son even if the offer had been made (which it hadn’t). They’d drive each other insane within a week. They were simply too alike.
Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t understand why his daughter in law had married his son. He could never work out why his own wife had said ‘Yes’ either. He wouldn’t have.
He put the kettle on. It was an electric kettle, a cheap white plastic thing that made the water taste all wrong but he didn’t want to use the gas stove any more if he could help it.
The girl was sitting at the table when he turned back. She looked older, in her mid-teens, taller and more curved, with her hair falling about her shoulders in waves. He put two cups out and hung tea bags in them, popped in some sugar and filled them up with water. Something about the routine of it made him feel calm – or maybe it was the girl doing it. The bags came out, the milk went in and he carried the cups over to the cheap laminate table.
“Thank you,” the girl said politely. “I like tea.”
He nodded. He knew it somehow, as if he’d always known it, just as he’d known she liked it a little stronger than his and with a bit more sugar, a splash less milk. He sat, hips creaking, and let out a grunt as the chair took his weight.
“He did visit every weekend,” he admitted, “for a while. Almost a whole year. Then it was every fortnight, then once a month, then less.”
“You don’t seem upset by it,” she noted.
He shook his head. “I’m dying. What’s it matter if he stopped visiting? Bit late to be angry about it now. Besides, I didn’t make it easy on him. Resented being shuffled off into the home and I let him know every moment he was there. And…” He shrugged but fell silent.
“You didn’t want him seeing you decay,” she noted. “You didn’t want her seeing it.”
He nodded. It was true. Every day he woke up to see Mavis just a bit further away and his heart broke a little more. He didn’t want his son seeing that, no matter what issues they might have with one another, nor his sweet-natured wife.
I’m a bastard, he thought, but not a heartless one.
“No,” the girl laughed, grinning widely. “You’re not heartless. I think you’re just the opposite – too much heart, sometimes.”
He watched her as she watched him, her pale eyes peering over the rim of her tea cup. He felt, strangely, perfectly content.
“I know you,” he said in a distracted tone. “I can’t put my finger on it yet but I know you. We’ve met before. Are we friends?”
“Are we?” she shrugged, tilting her head at him.
He nodded. “I think we are. I’m… There’s a space in my head I can’t get at. I think you’re in there, or the memory of you is.”
“Maybe,” she smiled, and he knew he’d said something right. She looked pleased and, in a way he couldn’t quite explain, that meant a great deal to him. “You’ll remember eventually. In the end.”
“Mmm. ‘They all do,’ you said. Will it be too late?”
“Nothing’s ever too late.”
It was too late.
He wiped his eyes and touched his wife’s face one last time. She was cold, too pale, and he wanted to wrap her in a blanket to keep her warm. It was a futile thought. His wife was dead. She’d never be bothered by the cold again.
The casket was closed and borne away by his son, his son’s best friend and two family friends. Soon she’d be in the ground; she’d hated the idea of cremation. She’d died after a series of strokes, four in the space of a day, each one tearing away a bit of her life until she had nothing left and simply… stopped. Like a watch that had wound down for the last time. Her doctor assured him that, in the end, she’d died without pain.
It was too late to tell her he loved her – just one last time. Too late to tell her he forgave her. Too late to tell her he owed her everything.
He saw the girl outside the funeral home, watching from across the street, but he didn’t speak to her. She stayed away and he understood why. It wasn’t her place to intrude, not on this, not now.
Sometimes you need to feel, even if it hurts, even if you don’t think you can bear it.
It was too late…
He woke with a crippling pain in his gut. For a moment it felt like he’d burst, his intestines spilling out like rotting sausages, but as he rolled about in bed clutching at his belly his hands encountered the dressing and he remembered.
The hospital sheets were too crisp and starchy for his liking. Something about them felt unfriendly. The intensive care unit was a disheartening enough place to be but the wound in his abdominal wall and the deep pain in his gut made it all the worse.
Two nights ago he’d been rushed into emergency. He’d needed surgery. A twisted bowel, they’d said, but when they cut him open they found three tumours he’d had no idea were there. He hadn’t listened when the doctor told him how much of his bowel had to be removed. He didn’t want to know.
He rang the alert bell for the nurse and, after a few minutes of soothing voices and checking machinery, he felt pain killers making his body float gently. He wasn’t likely to sleep – God was he bored – but at least he didn’t feel like he had a rabid cat sewn into his belly.
The day went in a blur. His son had come in, pinch-faced and pale, his wife hovering at his elbow like some serene angel. His own wife had fallen asleep in a chair next to his bed and, not for the first time, the similarities between the two women struck him. They seemed as alike as he and his son were. He deeply doubted that either of them deserved their beautiful – and apparently endlessly patient – wives.
His granddaughter visited with her girlfriend. Both of them were wearing their hair ragged, short and dyed. He’d noticed a fashion of it and while he thought it looked foolish and messy on others he couldn’t help but find it endearing on these two. He adored them both, his sparkle-eyed, freckle-cheeked granddaughter and the smooth-skinned Indian girl on her arm.
His son had been petrified he was going to decry them as abominations and perverts when the young women had come out but the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. He suppose it probably should have, given his upbringing – his own parents had been staunch Anglicans and had made it clear that if he or his siblings ever turned out to be gay that they’d be beaten within an inch of their lives and tossed out of the house on their ear.
None of them ever had but nonetheless those habits and values tend to stick. They hadn’t in his case, though. He wondered if things would have been different if she’d been a grandson instead of a granddaughter but he doubted it. Perhaps it was just the prerogative of a grandparent to ignore the traits in a grandchild, if they cared to, that they’d see as being flaws in anyone else.
They smelled of soap and spices as they hugged him and kissed his cheek. He really did dote on them and, with a deep pang, he suddenly missed them both terribly. It was a strange thing, he found, to be hugging them and missing them at the same time. But this had all happened years before he’d gone into the hostel, years before the kitchen fire and before the strokes, when his wife was still alive.
The rest of his own kids – two girls, both with kids of their own – didn’t visit. One lived in America with her husband and the other was too busy getting high in some dealer’s house, he guessed, to even notice that something had happened.
His wife went home with the two girls. As they walked out another came in – his mysterious friend – and took hold of his hand.
“Time to move on,” she said gently. She seemed older now, perhaps close to twenty. “We have less time than I’d hoped.”
“Something’s gone wrong?” he asked, swinging his legs out of bed and finding himself suddenly pain-free.
She shook her head, dark locks tumbling about her face like waves crashing on a sandy beach (though will less noise and crabs). “No, everything’s happening as it should. It’s just happening faster than I’d thought.”
He knew what she was talking about. His moments were running out; he was about to die.
They passed from memory to memory, always heading backward, like a couple of leaves tossed in a storm. It seemed to take forever but he knew it must have been seconds – microseconds, perhaps. Sometimes he was inside the memory, experiencing it afresh, but at others he was outside. He felt a little like a voyeur at those later times but he knew that this was all his. His memories and his relation to them. The only part of them not of him was… her.
She seemed to turn up just when he couldn’t take it any more. Every time he got too angry or too miserable, when he was too ashamed of his own behaviour to look any more, she was there to take his hand and lead him on. And after a while he could feel her watching even when he couldn’t see her.
He felt her watching as he fought viciously with his wife after the second time she cheated on him. As a plate broke near his head and tears streamed down his cheeks he sensed her nearby. When his wife’s words cut him like knives – he was mean-spirited, he was inattentive in bed, he was making eyes at her sister – he knew for a fact that the girl wasn’t far away.
When he couldn’t see her, though, her presence didn’t comfort him. It was only when she returned to his side that his emotions settled into peace. He was certain it was something she was doing – or perhaps some reaction in him to her being nearby.
For a while she talked to him about what they’d just seen. He told her of how he’d found his wife in bed with her boss, of the deep sense of pride when his son was born, of the flat depression that settled on him when he turned thirty as he was certain he was ancient (a concept that now seemed bizarre to him) and the most interesting thing he’d been given as a present was a small bonsai tree which had lasted about two weeks before dying. Eventually, though, there was no time. She kept him going, made sure he saw as much of his life as he could, as cracks started appearing in the strange malleable world they moved through.
He first noticed it when his dog – a stately border collie – appeared as nothing but a black and white mobile smudge. It was as if someone had done a hasty oil-painting of a dog and then smeared it with a rag soaked in turpentine. The dog didn’t seem bothered but, he reasoned, it was just the memory of a dog. Somehow he knew what that smudge meant even as he watched it chase a stick he threw across a small, chilly park in the middle of winter. His brain was dying and his memories were breaking down faster than ever.
He was in class at his primary school, standing up in front of the blackboard and proudly displaying the empty tortoise shell he’d found the previous weekend, when everything suddenly stopped. Tables, windows, squealing girls and hollering boys, even the amused teacher melted away in one slow motion. He felt like he was watching shapes in the sand being washed away by the tide. Even sounds became an incomprehensible miasma of noise, a meaningless cacophony that faded to nothing, not even white noise.
Everything was gone. He felt a sudden wrenching tear behind his navel – or the place his navel would be if he still had one – and then that, too, was gone.
There was no field. Not now. No asphodel flowers, no poppies, not even grass.
But there was still him.
He wasn’t in a field but he did still exist. Strangely he hadn’t been expecting that. He’d thought it would be like coming to the end of a book – a cover closed and then nothing – but instead he felt safe and something like warmth, if temperature still existed for him. There was no light and no lack of light. The concept should have confused him, should have boggled him beyond all comprehension, but it didn’t. He knew this.
It was the end.
“I’ve died, haven’t I?” he asked the nothingness around him and then she was there as if she’d never been away, holding him, cradling him in her arms.
“Yes,” she said simply. There was no sympathy in her voice, just affection. He didn’t feel a need for comfort anyway.
He supposed they were both naked. Clothes certainly had no meaning for him any more. He didn’t need a coat where he was. They were in each others’ arms and he felt the sensation that they were the same height, which would make her adult-sized now. Something like a pair of lips touched his neck and he was suddenly absolutely certain that he and the girl were far more than just friends.
There was no sense of sexual excitement in the realisation. He didn’t have the prerequisite parts to become horny, not any more. It was simpler than that and deeper, too. He loved her and she loved him. Completely and perfectly.
“Do you remember who I am yet?” she asked.
“I… no,” he admitted. “I wonder if you aren’t Death.”
He felt her shake her head. “No. Death isn’t a person – no skeletons in robes or pretty Goth girls. Death just happens. It’s just a thing.” Fingers trailed down his shoulder – or did they? Neither of them really had bodies. Perhaps his mind was simply reinterpreting the sensation in a way that made sense.
“Then..?” He left the question hanging.
“I’m something… else. You might call me a spirit or a God or an angel. Or a demon,” she added, a note of playfulness entering her perfect voice. He felt amusement rise in his… Did he have a chest anymore? It didn’t matter.
“You don’t seem like a demon to me.”
“You’ve forgotten what I get like when I’m angry.” She sounded like she was teasing him but her words still had a tone of truth to them. “You’ve only seen it once, in a lifetime a long time ago.”
That surprised him. “A previous lifetime? I’ve lived before?”
“Many times. Thousands, at least. Sometimes a man, at other times a woman, or both. Or neither.” There was a tone of carelessness in her voice. “The world isn’t as fluid as humans think. But we met once. I stole into a body and fell in love with you.”
He remained silent for a while. He didn’t even bother to guess how long. It could have been centuries or seconds.
“I’m the… spirit, I suppose, of something that happens when death occurs. And birth,” she added. “And puberty and all sorts of times between. I’m the spirit of Transition.” He felt her shift as if uncomfortable with the topic but she didn’t stop. “I’m present when people go through changes – so, basically, all the time. But I’m most present at big changes.”
“Like death,” she agreed. “That’s why people sometimes think I govern that sort of thing. In truth, though, I don’t govern anything. I just am.”
He thought for a long while. She commented on his thoughts from time to time.
“So what happens now?” he asked her eventually.
“Now you go to sleep again,” she said, kissing his brow. He was certain he had a brow, suddenly, and could feel her lips on it. “Then you wake up and,” she added, her voice falling a little, “you’ll forget me again.”
It was too much. He couldn’t stand to hear the sadness in her voice. Sleep tugged at his mind but he pushed it back for as long as he could. This was too important, he felt, far too important not to do something about.
“Now wait a moment,” he objected, “that’s not fair. Having you watch and watch but never join in? What’s God playing at?”
“Well, there’s no God as you’d understand it -”
“That’s not the point!” He couldn’t work out if his voice sounded petulant or determined. Perhaps a little of both. “You said we met when you’d jumped into a body. Can’t you do that again?”
A long, long silence.
“I’ll try.” Another kiss, quicker this time, and a long hug.
“Will you remember me?” he asked. “I might not know when I see you. If I see you,” he added.
“I won’t. While I’m in a body I’m completely human. But we’ll know each other somehow.” The conviction in her voice comforted him and he nodded vaguely “Go to sleep,” her sweet voice whispered, and he could no longer resist.
Then he was being pressed from all sides, crushed, squeezed and pushed by something he couldn’t identify. It felt like – he didn’t know what it felt like. He had no words for it at all.
He had no words for anything.
Bright lights stabbed at his eyes and cold air swirled about his skin for the first time. Squeezing those bright blue orbs closed tightly he opened his mouth but so sound came forth. Finally he sucked air into his new lungs and let out such a squawk that it set everyone about to laughing. Somehow he knew it was laughter but he didn’t understand what it meant.
He was put on something very cold and then wrapped in something very warm. He still had his eyes shut but he smelled something nearby, something good, a big warm thing that meant safety and comfort and food.
Then he was taken away from it. More air and then he started screaming again, a high wail of demand.
He wasn’t enjoying this at all.
In fact he was hating it. Hating it with every fibre of his being. Fucking algebra. Who uses algebra? he thought. He’d spoken to dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on Tumblr. Only two of them used algebra – one used it as a kind of ironic joke, which he supposed was kind of cool in a nerdy hipster kind of way considering if she didn’t use it for fun then she wouldn’t need to at all, and the other was a high school mathematics teacher so he had no choice but to inflict it upon new generations.
People like him.
Bastards, he thought. Idly he picked at the peeling cover of his calculator and turned it over to scratch at the back where his best mate had painted crude breasts onto the black plastic with correction fluid. His uniform itched and his head ached and he needed to pee but he knew his teacher wouldn’t let him go. Wasn’t long till he was free for a bit anyway so he just held it.
It was nearing the end of third period. Less than five minutes to go. His eyes – they’d darkened to an emerald green, no longer the baby blue they were when he was an infant – strayed from the clock high on the front wall to the girl who’d come in halfway through the class. Everyone had seen her. She was very pretty in an odd kind of way. He figured she was from some kind of biracial family because he couldn’t work out whether she has Indian blood in her or if she was just an exotic-looking Caucasian. She didn’t offer the information when the teacher introduced her to the class – she was a new transfer from across the state – and he was too bored of class to stare at her until he worked it out.
Plus that’d be way too creepy. Not cool.
His mate leaned over and poked him in the shoulder.
“Careful of that one,” he hissed in a low voice. “People’re saying she’s really a he. Tranny or something.”
“Seriously?” He frowned, looking the girl over and then glancing back at his friend. “People’re saying that, huh?”
“We-ell,” the other boy admitted, “nobody really knows. Could be a girl, could be a boy in a skirt. You wanna take that chance?”
He didn’t say anything in response. He didn’t really know. Sex wasn’t something he’d really been concerned about – well, all right, that wasn’t true. Fucking was something he was very preoccupied with. A heady mix of hormones and media made sure his mind was firmly fixed on getting in bed with someone, anyone, as soon and as often as possible. He’d even managed to a couple of times. He’d proclaim those times to be both immensely successful and tremendously satisfying – with complete inaccuracy – if he had been asked but nobody had thought to. His best friend assumed he’d tell him if he’d managed to ‘get his end off’ as the saying went but his shame at being first unable to keep it up and then far too quick to finish had made him reluctant to tell anyone.
But sex, as in male and female, wasn’t something he really thought much about. He hadn’t even realised, prior to inspecting the curve of the new girl’s shoulder and neck as she sat three rows in front of him, that he’d never stopped to wonder if he liked girls, or boys, or both.
And then she looked around.
She caught his gaze with eyes that weren’t any colour he could name and, hesitantly, she smiled at him. It might have been a nervous smile, automatic, or she might have opted for a friendly gesture rather than a threatening or scornful one. Being the new student in school is never easy and kids take any opportunity to be monumentally cruel.
But as the corners of her mouth turned upward he felt his cheeks start to go ruddy.
He found her at lunch time five minutes later.
She was sitting by herself near the library steps, her legs firmly together, glancing about from time to time like a gazelle might while at a waterhole, keeping an eye out for lions. She looked vulnerable and scared, too determined not to show it for it to not be painfully obvious.
He shifted his weight from side to side. His pocket jingled with change; he hadn’t bought lunch today.
What if she tells me to go away? he thought. Fuck, what if she doesn’t? He wasn’t sure which would be worse. He wasn’t good with girls. He had no idea how he’d be with a girl who might be a girl but also might not be a girl. He thought about her smile. He thought about his best mate’s warning.
And, in the end, he went and sat beside her.
She smiled at him again and didn’t tell him to go away. She said her name was Lace, and that she knew what people were saying about her. She liked computers and didn’t mind if he called her a girl or a boy. He didn’t dare ask which she was in case she got angry.
And then he realised that it didn’t matter.
He simply didn’t care.
*** ENDE ***