I was still lying there, enjoying the coolness of the crisp hospital sheets. So smooth. Ours at home were rather bobbly and old. ‘Pilling’, they call it in the textiles trade apparently. These hospital sheets were luxury itself.
Next to me the machines hummed softly, familiarly, and beeped out my heartbeat, gasped for me as they forced the air in and out of my lungs for me. I knew the one monitoring my brain activity was now showing a flat line. That had happened yesterday afternoon and the doctors had called a meeting with everyone about it. Brain dead. That’s what they said and I thought it sounded more like an insult than a medical diagnosis. Away by the door to my private room I could hear several hushed voices. I recognised one immediately. Simon! Simon was here.
In the background my favourite Billie Holiday CD was playing. My parents brought it in for me on the second day of my ‘incarceration’. At their insistence, nurses put the music on—I never tired of Billie, Nina, or Ella. In my mind, my ‘brain-dead’ mind, I sang along to those long-ago songs. Billie was just finishing That Ole Devil Called Love, and knowing the order of the CD by heart, I knew that at any moment she’d start singing Easy Living which was my all-time favourite song, by her or anyone else. As soon as the first bar of the piano’s part trickled through the air, I felt that same wave of pleasure wash over me. The prickle of anticipation, the plaintive, lovelorn lyrics hanging on the air, recalling decades-old romance.
Another day, I thought, just like any other. How long has it been now? A month? Five weeks? That’s a long time to just lie in bed and do nothing. Although there were plenty of rainy winter Mondays in the past when I longed to do exactly that. Sometimes I hear the patter of rain on the window if the wind is blowing in the right direction. Such a comforting sound. So ordinary, so normal. I love the sound of the rain.
Simon takes my hand in his. His hand seems so warm, so big, it seems to swallow mine up inside it and I feel safe, protected. I can feel the roughness of the dried-on blobs of paint on his fingers and there is a definite aroma of turps. He’s been decorating again. Other husbands have to be nagged into DIY but Simon has been using it as therapy to help him cope since my accident. He’s such a sweetie. He must have redecorated pretty much the whole of our little house by now. Though I don’t want to think about our little house—it makes me feel so homesick. You have to curb your emotions in here; after all it still might be weeks before I can go home. But I’m excited to see what he’s been doing.
It’s amazing really—Simon painting and decorating our home—and him from a very wealthy family. But he’s always said he wants to do things for himself. He’s never wanted to use his family’s wealth to make his way in the world, he wants to be his own man. That’s why he started at the bottom of his father’s firm as a trainee in the accounts department. It’s taken him years of hard work to make his way up the ladder, but it’s been purely on his own merit. Our house is small and cosy. Everything we have, we’ve worked hard for, and we’re justifiably proud of what we’ve achieved together. We’ve never had much money, but we have each other, and that’s the way we like it.
His visits never seem to be as frequent as I would like, so I really look forward to them. I know he’s working very hard and can’t always get in to see me. When he does come in, he sits and holds my hand and talks to me about his day at work: about the petty squabbles between staff members or he tells me about meetings. Sometimes he reads minutes to me, or reports. Poor Simon. It isn’t very interesting stuff but it is so good to hear his voice. And at least I feel that even just by being here, by listening, I am still able to make a contribution to our relationship. Sometimes he just tells me he loves me and that he misses me. Soppy stuff that warms my heart. Or doesn’t, if you believe the doctors who say my heart is beyond anyone’s help now.
But now it dawns on me he is trying to tell me something, there seems to be something important he needs me to know. I was still half-listening to Billie singing her plaintive song of self-denial and sacrifice, just dreaming along with the music, my head full of images of dancers in speakeasies, swaying to the music amidst a fug of cigarette smoke and bootleg liquor. Suddenly I feel a strong pressure on my hand as Simon squashes it as he turns to shout over his shoulder at someone, anyone.
‘For God’s sake, turn that bloody racket off!’ His voice breaks on the last words and there is a click and an abrupt silence. I feel Simon turn back to me, and now it dawns on me with a shock that he is crying. That nurse, Margaret, comes over to try and comfort him, but I feel him lean away from her. A Jamaican woman, she always sounds so big and black and vibrant. She always brings a rush of energy and life into the room with her. She is my favourite. She always has time to gossip and laugh, always makes me feel like she knows me and cares about me. You’d never believe some of the things she’s told me. Things about the other patients, or which nurse was sleeping with which doctor, and of course she knows I won’t tell anyone, will I?
Someone whose voice I don’t recognise speaks from Simon’s other side, and there is another new man in the room too. My favourite doctor, Dr Nadim isn’t here, which seems strange. Dr Nadim is another really nice person—so considerate—never treats me like a nameless lump of meat. Even if there’s no one else in the room, it’s always, ‘Mrs Cooper, I’m just going to…’ whatever it is he is there to do, or, ‘Good morning Mrs Cooper, how are you today?’ So kind. So reassuring. He must know how frightened I was at first. I’ve never been in hospital before.
One of these new men tell Simon he is doing the right thing, no matter how hard it may seem. What does that mean, I wonder.
Everything had seemed so nice and normal, so everydayish, that I feel really startled when I hear a couple of clicks and realise that the humming, beeping and gasping next to me has stopped. The machines that have been my constant companions for months have been switched off. The room seems loud with the silence that follows.
At first, I think they are going to wake me up. I feel such a surge of excitement. After all this time, it has finally happened! I’m better! They’ve discovered I can breathe on my own now, or something like that. But no. No, now Simon’s hand clutches mine even more tightly, his other hand snags in the bedclothes and his sad, silent weeping turns to anguished sobbing. Whatever this is, it isn’t good.
Everyone else was here, gathered around him. What had any of these told Simon to upset him so much? Margaret the nurse, shaking her head sadly. The two men I didn’t know, whom I assumed were doctors, in their smart suits and white coats. Or Simon’s parents, respectable, wealthy and middle-aged. They patted his shoulder and exchanged looks of polite concern. I never did like them. As I listened to him crying, I felt as if the lump in my throat would choke me. I tried to will the tears to roll down my cheeks so everyone would see that I was still in here somewhere, still me. But nothing happened. I wanted so much to hug him, to tell him he would be fine, that I was okay and he was not to worry about me. Tell him I wasn’t in pain, that I felt in fact rather detached from it all…
It was at this point I finally realised that I was looking down on the room from above the bed. I could see the slightly thinning patch on the crown of Simon’s head, and the much larger, bald shiny patch on his father’s.
‘God, I look awful!’ I exclaimed, shocked to see my thin little white face above the white sheet. Which was the paler?
‘Hardly surprising, is it?’ A voice next to me startled me. ‘After all, you are dead. People don’t tend to look their best under those circumstances. All that stuff about dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse behind—well, it’s all just crap really.’
I turned, but was unable to see anyone nearby, apart from those below me, beside my bed.
‘Is someone there?’ I asked, staring into the air, not exactly scared, but kind of bewildered. My body, beneath me on the bed, was still and silent. I was no longer a part of it. A coolness washed over me. I felt so strange. I had to get back down there somehow. This was all so…
‘Me,’ said The Voice.
‘I can’t see you.’ I looked around, scanning the entire space between floor and ceiling. I couldn’t have missed anything. ‘I can’t even see me!’ I added, realising when I looked down I had no body: my body was down there, still in the bed, lifeless. But I knew I was ‘up here’, away from it, apart, separate. But where was I? I couldn’t see anything actually attached to me: no body, no cloud, no smoke, bubble, anything. I was suddenly scared.
‘Don’t worry,’ the other person began. Person? How did I know? But by now I was thoroughly terrified. This was all too much.
‘Don’t worry? DON’T WORRY? I’m dead for GOD’s sake!’ The sudden realisation hit me and I gasped. Horror! Confusion! I felt as if I was spinning wildly, recklessly. As if the brakes had failed. Out of control! Out of control! Where was the bright light? The tunnel? The smiling faces of previously passed over loved ones waiting to greet me? What the hell was going on? My body was still there beneath me, almost within reach, surely I could just slip back..?
Below me, Simon was led weeping away by his parents, the others following at a respectful distance.
‘Your parents?’ asked The Voice, as my in-laws went out of the room, as dignified as ever. Not a hair out of place, hankies still neatly tucked away.
‘Where are your parents, then?’
‘I have no idea.’ Uncomprehending, I could feel the panic rising in me again. How could this have happened without the most important people in my life being there? Did they even know? And why had no one consulted me about this? Surely I had a say in what happened? Why didn’t my views matter? Now I wasn’t just scared, I was furious too.
The door was closed, the blinds pulled. Tubes were carefully removed from my body and the sheet drawn up over my head. Then Nurse Margaret Justice wheeled away my formerly beeping, gasping, breathing machines, now redundant, and shut the door behind her with a decisive click. Silence. The irrefutable, no-nonsense finality of it shocked me out of my hysteria and I felt quite, quite cold.
For a long time I just stared. I could not seem to comprehend what had happened. I could think of nothing to say, or to ask. I just kept watch over my draped body, trying to accept that the little mound under the clean, perfectly-laundered sheet I had so enjoyed was in fact my own body. It just—none of it seemed real.
‘We should go,’ The Voice told me, but gently, as if not wishing to intrude. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I felt heavy with sorrow.
‘I can’t leave,’ I said. ‘I can’t just…’ And I looked back at the lonely bed. There was a pause, then The Voice said,
‘That’s just a shell, it’s not you any more. You’re the real you, just as you are now. That body in the bed was just a vehicle, a means of locomotion, just a way of getting from A to B.’
When I did not respond, The Voice went on,
‘And now it’s time for you to move on, go from B to C, if you like, and the only way to do that is like this, as you are now.’
‘But…’ I didn’t finish the sentence. The words just didn’t come. I continued to hang there, trying to adjust, to come to terms. But in life, you never do have a moment to pause and get to grips with things, do you? You always have to move on. There’s no period of adjustment, no training course on how to cope. I could sense urgency coming from the thing—spirit?—next to me. Eventually I said, ‘You said I’m the real me, as I am now?’
‘But how am I now?’
‘You’re a spirit. The spirit. The one that has always been you, that has always lived inside your body.’
‘But I can’t see me!’ I wailed. And I couldn’t believe I was floating around talking to thin air. It made no sense, it was just a nightmare.
Ooh, of course. Wow, I’m such an idiot, why didn’t I realise sooner that it was all just a stupid… Phew! That must be it…
‘No,’ said The Voice firmly, ‘you’re not dreaming. You really did die just a few minutes ago.’
‘God! I can’t even think in private anymore!’
‘No, I can hear your thoughts.’
‘Are you God?’ I asked, tentatively. It was an awkward question to ask someone. But it seemed a natural one given the circumstances. I’d always wondered. I had been raised as a Catholic, so for me God had a big part to play in my death. And where was the Blessed Virgin now that I needed her? I’d been given one of Mary’s names by my mother. Her choice had been Dolores—Mary of the Sorrows—for my middle name. Apparently my father had responded with his usual sarcasm.
‘That’s a nice name to give to a little baby girl, I must say! Jane Sorrows Thompson! Very nice start to life. Not.’
He’d chosen the Jane part of my name.
‘Simple and to the point,’ he’d said, ‘but never plain. My little angel is going to be a real looker, she is, not a Plain Jane.’
My mother had simply snorted in disapproval and said he’d make me vain and idle. They’d had one of their famous rows about that.
But where was the God I’d been forced to pray to all those years? The God who had overseen as Father Garcia absolved me in countless weekly (or more like monthly) confessions? I’d kind of assumed God would be in charge of death and heaven and all that stuff. Was this Purgatory then?
‘No, I’m just like you. A spirit,’ The Voice told me. I’d almost forgotten the question I’d asked a couple of minutes earlier, I had been so taken up with my puzzling. Had this other spirit been able to hear those thoughts too? That could be embarrassing. But there came no indication either way.
It seemed to hit me afresh over and over. ‘A spirit! Oh my God! I’m dead!’ I moaned, still struggling to come to terms with it. Where on earth did I go from here? And what about poor Simon?
‘He’ll be fine,’ I was told.
‘How can you say that? His wife’s just died. I mean, I’ve just died!’
‘Sounds like you think it happened to someone else. Anyway, for what it’s worth, it’s been coming for months. It must be a bit of a relief for you in some ways. And he’ll get over it in time. I’m sure you wouldn’t want him to grieve forever.’
I could think of nothing to say to that, that didn’t make me sound like a really horrible person. We were silent for a while. Then,
‘Come on, you don’t want to be here when they start to wash you down and pack your orifices. It’s not really a spectator sport.’
I groaned again. And then, sensing a cold withdrawal, I yelled out in a panic, ‘Where are you? Don’t just leave me here. Oh please! Please don’t go!’
The Voice came to me, warm, reassuring. ‘It’s okay. I’m right here. You know I am. Just think about it, you’ll find you know exactly where I am.’
I tried it, and to my surprise found it was true. I knew exactly where The Voice was, just as I knew where I was, even without my body. My senses seemed to be remarkably heightened by death.
‘Out of the hospital. Anywhere as long as it’s away from here. You’ll find that you can. You don’t even have to try very hard, just think about walking out of here but do it without a body.’ Below me the door to my room had opened and a nurse appeared, wheeling a trolley. She pulled back the white sheet from my sheet-white face. I didn’t want to see any more. Neither did I want to leave… It all seemed so—final… I felt I didn’t really have much of a choice.
‘Do I have to go down to the ground?’
‘No. Without a body you don’t need floors, doors, whatever. Just think about moving up through the building and out into the sky above.’ The Voice added, as if trying to tempt me, ‘It’s a lovely day out there.’
It turned out to be so much easier than it sounded. I thought about the blue sky, treetops, birds singing, and the floors of the hospital raced past me as if I were in a lift that somehow cut through the building in a kind of cross-section until suddenly I was being dazzled by the brightness of a sun I had not seen for a long, long time.
‘I feel warmer,’ I said. Feeling no answering warmth, I looked about again in panic, feeling that terrible sensation of being alone. ‘Where are you?’
‘Here. I’m here. Don’t worry.’ The Voice seemed to grow louder as it approached. His warmth touched me. ‘That’s a powerful imagination you’ve got there.’ Admiration and teasing. ‘You left me behind!’
‘Sorry. I’ve dreamed of getting out of that place for so long.’
‘Well, you’re out of it now!’
‘This isn’t exactly what I had in mind. It’s too bizarre. Still—it is beautiful out here.’ I looked around, enjoying the view of the city beneath me: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament drowsing in the afternoon sunshine across in the distance, their reflections rippling gently in the water of the River Thames.
‘I used to be afraid of heights,’ I said, and chuckled at the irony of that now. A rush of euphoria hit me and I laughed again, feeling lighter than air, feeling as if I consisted of nothing but pure energy, feeling as if I could rush around the whole universe like a super-hero, brimming over with the exhilaration of being suddenly overwhelmingly and totally free. ‘Look! No hands!’ I shrieked with laughter, unable to stop the hysteria washing over me.
Gradually I became calm again and settling somewhere near the other spirit, gazed at the view for a seemingly endless stretch of time. The truth was beginning to sink in. ‘I really am dead, aren’t I?’
‘Yes. I’m afraid you really are.’
‘I’d lost so much weight, too, from being in hospital all that time. I was so looking forward to going shopping for some new clothes.’
‘Sorry about that. But well, there’s really only one way of looking at it.’
‘You’ll try and view it as a new way of living.’
Cheesy beyond belief. I said nothing to that. I rested for a while longer. Incredibly I found myself humming a tune.
‘My favourite song. It’s by Billie Holiday. It just seemed appropriate.’
The words of Easy Living ran through my thoughts as I drank in the scene beneath me. ‘Living for you, is Easy Living, it’s easy to live, when you’re in love, and I’m so in love, there’s nothing in life, but you.’
‘I like it. Who is he? A band-leader? Or one of those crooners?’
‘He is—was, I should say—a woman, not a man.’ I chuckled. ‘A CD of her music was playing in my hospital room, but Simon made them turn it off. Not very surprising under the circumstances, I suppose, but if you’ve got to die, it would be nice if you could have your favourite song playing to ease things along a bit.’
Eventually I became restless.
‘What do we do now? I mean, is this what we do all day? Because if it is…’
‘I can’t believe you’re bored already. You’ve only been dead an hour. But no, we’re waiting.’
‘We’re meeting someone.’
‘You’ll soon see.’
‘Don’t play games with me, I just died for God’s sake. Anyway, I can’t even see myself, how can I see anyone else?’
‘Just shut up and wait,’ the other spirit said. Then, ‘You see with your mind, remember? And believe me, there’s no way you can miss this.’
‘My mind is all that’s left of me now? But I don’t feel any different. It’s a real surprise to look down and see nothing at all,’ I explained. ‘It’s so scary.’
‘It’s bound to be strange at first, but you’re going to be all right, trust me.’
We were silent, just kind of floating there, watching the evening traffic starting to build. We were there above the city, the buildings, the river, but beneath the airplanes and the invisible stars moving steadily through space in their orbits. We were just sort of hanging there. A thought occurred to me.
‘Do I have to go to my funeral?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘No-oo. I don’t think I’d cope very well with that.’
‘Don’t go, then.’
‘I can just choose?’
‘Of course. What’s to stop you doing one thing or make you do another?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know the rules, do I? Who are you, anyway?’
‘You’re a man, then?’
‘Well, I was when I was alive. But is it the physical body or the spirit within it that determines our gender? Can you still have a gender if you don’t have a body?’
I laughed. ‘That’s the kind of argument I used to enjoy when I was at college.’
John also laughed. ‘When I died it was still a fairly new idea. I think I’m probably still male.’
‘It’s nice to know what to call you. Are you an angel?’
But before John could answer, I felt a certain vague disturbance in the air around me. It seemed to be growing rapidly more distinct and defined.
‘They’re coming,’ John said, ‘it’s about bloody time.’
‘Who?’ I asked, becoming apprehensive. ‘Who are coming?’ But suddenly I knew they were there, one on either side of me.
‘We’re so glad you’re here, Dear! So nice to see you!’
‘Hi,’ I said, somewhat inadequately, feeling like the new kid on the first day of school. I felt awkward, like I wasn’t wearing quite the right uniform. ‘I wish I could say the same.’
They laughed with greater gusto than my feeble joke warranted. They must be the PR committee for Death. Death can be Fun! Death can be your friend! Positive Mental Attitudes for the Recently Deceased! Sign up now for an eternity in Paradise! No overcrowding!
‘That’s very cynical of you, Dear,’ one reproved me.
‘Very negative!’ said the other. ‘We’ve obviously got here just in time. You’ve already been with Him long enough.’
I felt guilty. I’d forgotten my thoughts had no skull around them to keep out other people.
‘Sorry. I’m still trying to get acclimatised. It’s all been a bit of a shock.’ They were soothing. Understanding. The ultimate in reasonableness.
‘Of course, Dear. Just give yourself time.’
‘A few millennia ought to be enough,’ John chipped in. There was a cold silence. I received the distinct impression they had turned their backs on him, and they started in again.
‘Now just you come along with us, Janey dear. You’ve obviously been under Mister Welland’s influence quite long enough.’
‘We’ll introduce you to everyone.’
Everyone? Wow. How many were there, I wondered.
‘Billions Sweetie,’ they told me. Dammit! Bugger my thoughts! They tsked. Such language, and from a dead person too.
‘I’ll never remember all those names,’ I told them, but we went anyway.
‘Well here’s two for starters. I’m Freddie and this is Sasha.’
‘Hi. Pleased to meet you both.’ Not the precise truth but it served.
‘We’re husband and wife, you know. We died together,’ Sasha told me proudly.
‘How lovely for you,’ I murmured, struggling to juggle the need to find an appropriate response and the need to scream that this couldn’t-possibly-ever-remotely-even be happening.
‘It was ten years ago, now,’ Freddie added.
‘Nine years and seven months actually, Darling,’ Sasha corrected him lovingly.
‘It was our little private plane. Went down over some trees just outside Croydon airfield. We were all killed.’
Fascinated in spite of myself, I just had to ask. ‘How many of you were there?’
‘Four,’ Freddie told me, ‘Us two, and Jemima and Paddy, our friends.’
‘Some friends. They’ve never spoken to us since!’ Sasha added in disgust.
‘Some people are so mean-spirited.’ I responded with synthetic sympathy, frantically wondering where John was.
‘Right behind you, Jane,’ he told me grimly, as if through teeth gritted in irritation.
And the four of us began to rise up in the air, higher and higher above the earth. And I had no idea where we were going.