We went at a fairly sedate pace—as befitted the dead, I suppose—and as we rose gently up through the atmosphere towards the deeper space where only rockets go, surrounded by gleaming stars that could not be seen with the naked eye from the still daylight-bathed earth beneath us, I wondered about death—or at least, my own version of it.
Everything I’d experienced since I’d left my body had defied my expectations. And now here I was floating through space with no oxygen. Look, Mum, no lungs, I thought with a sense of wonder. If I hadn’t died I would never have experienced this incredible silence and sense of freedom. If death could be said to have an upside, this had to be it. It’s death, Jim, but not as we know it.
‘You’ve been watching too much television.’ Freddie admonished. I hastened to apologise but pointed out there had been precious little else to do in my hospital bed, and that I’d only been able to listen as I couldn’t open my eyes. There had been a small TV on the wall in a corner of the room, and the nurses used to tune it into their own particular favourite shows when they were with me. They’d seen it as a perk for themselves, rather than a benefit for me, as they never for a moment imagined that beauty tips and organic gardening and episodes of Help! My brother is my boyfriend! could possibly penetrate my dead brain-stem.
Freddie clucked sympathetically and told me that all that was behind me now, done and dusted. As if my whole life had simply been a bad dream from which I was now blessedly awake. Sasha agreed with him, adding that now I could look forward to my afterlife.
‘The ultimate in retirement plans! Nothing to do but float! Ever wonder why they call it the after-life?’
I heard these thoughts from John but his irony was not appreciated by Freddie and Sasha who huffed with disapproval and hurried onward, clearly ‘in charge’ and above this kind of flippancy. I had to stifle a laugh, afraid they would get cross with me too. But they seemed further away and quite cool whilst John felt warm and near.
‘Now you can read my thoughts too! See how easy it is?’
‘I’m confused,’ I told him, ‘if I’ve no mouth, no vocal chords, how can I speak? How can you hear me and I hear you? What distinguishes my talking from my private thoughts?’
‘It’s a question of degrees of intensity. We all have a kind of inner voice and an outer voice. It isn’t that much different to when we were alive. We’re talking now with our inner voices. You listened—and will unfortunately have to keep on and on and on—listening to Freddie’s outer voice. In no time at all you’ll have it all under control.’
‘Can Sasha and Freddie hear us now?’
‘Try it,’ he suggested. I tried in some way to project my thoughts to them but I got no reply. John gallantly tried too:
Nothing. Just as well. I laughed a little guiltily, it was like listening to jokes in church.
‘It could be that they’re just too far away,’ he said.
‘I still don’t understand,’ I complained, ‘did you hear me?’ He said he had. If I’d had a head I’d have pressed a hand to it to stop it aching from the effort of trying to figure all this out. If I’d had a head. Or a hand.
‘But it’s partly a matter of will. You can consciously decide whether you want your thoughts to be heard or you can choose to shield them. It takes practise, that’s all. Also, Freddie and Sasha aren’t sensitive like me, so they won’t pick you up as easily,’ he added teasingly. I laughed. He went on,
‘They mean well, but they’re a bit gushing, if you know what I mean. I find them somewhat exhausting after a little while. Not to mention just plain bloody annoying.’
Going back to what he’d said earlier, I asked ‘I’m still alive? There is a life after our bodies die? This is amazing! We are spirits now, not just…bodies?’
‘What is it that determines our humanity? Our living bodies or the life-spirit within?’ he countered. I groaned. I couldn’t handle yet another philosophical discussion.
‘I just died, for crying out loud, I can’t cope with all this heavy stuff!’
He laughed, a deep, sexy laugh. I registered my recognition of it in surprise. I’d always assumed that life after death would be distinctly lacking in sexuality.
‘Why?’ he asked me simply. If I’d had cheeks I would have blushed. After all, I shouldn’t be having these thoughts, I was a married woman.
‘No, you’re not a married woman. Simon is a widower, remember? If he’s no longer married, then neither are you.’
Weird. That was very, very weird. I’d felt momentarily disloyal to Simon, but if Simon was a widower, then what did that make me?
‘The Deceased,’ John suggested, ‘the Widowee.’
I told him I quite liked that. Widowee. With all its implication of having been the subject of something I had no control over. Did that make it murder? I waited for John to tell me what he thought. But apparently he thought nothing. I was surrounded by silence.
‘John?’ I called, panicking as before.
‘It’s okay,’ he reassured me softly, but from further ahead. ‘We’re nearly there. Just… Be careful what you think.’
‘What?’ Immediately I felt alarmed. ‘Why? John, where are we? What’s going to happen? I don’t want to be dead!’
For the first time I began to be really afraid. Was this heaven? Was I going to meet God? Or was I in hell? All the things I’d done came back to haunt me. The time I’d stolen a KitKat when I was nine, the time I’d copied my friend Janine’s homework when I was fourteen. The times I’d lied to my mum, or skipped school, or—to my great shame—the time when I was nineteen and I met a guy at a club and had sex with him in the car park before going back to my boyfriend inside. I saw now all the terrible things I’d done in my life. Surely there would be a price to pay for those? And I was afraid to stop being me, to cease to exist. What if there was nothing else? What if I was about to die for real, for all eternity?
‘Don’t worry. Just take things a step at a time, and think very carefully, even cautiously, before you answer. Don’t rush into anything.’
Then there was Freddie’s voice coming to me, smooth and calm.
‘Don’t listen to him, Dear Lady. Everything’s going to be perfectly all right. Just a formality, nothing to worry your pretty little head about.’
And on my other side, Sasha chipped in jauntily.
‘Yes, Janey, Dear, everything will be fine. Just you wait and see. John is just a grumpy old cynic. Just because he won’t let go, he thinks no one else should. You don’t want to be like that, now do you?’
How could I tell? It all sounded strange and terrifying to me. What was this formality? What did Sasha mean about John not letting go? Not letting go of what? Where did I come into all this? Suddenly being brain-dead in a hospital bed seemed a much better deal. I felt as if I was being borne away from John by the others, heading towards some huge Unknown Thing that I could sense up ahead. And I seemed to be sensing other presences, lots of them. Lots and lots of them. Were these the ‘Billions’ Sasha had talked about? What should I do?
Freddie and Sasha certainly seemed confident and happy enough, from the feelings that emanated from them. Maybe I should just let them guide me. Sasha tried to reassure me, obviously able to hear my anxiety.
‘It’s all right, Janey Dear, just relax. You’ll be fine. There’s no need to be afraid.’
But somehow, either in spite of, or because of, her repeated assurances, I was afraid, and that ‘Janey’ was really beginning to irk me.
We were drawing ever closer to the Thing that I had sensed. It turned out to be further away than I had thought, and was inconceivably huge. As we approached, I could sense chatting, murmuring voices all around me, on every side and above and below me. It was as if I was being led through a huge sea of spirits, reaching beyond the limits of my perception in every direction of the compass. I was surrounded.
Suddenly silence fell. There was no gradual falling away of sound, just an abrupt cessation of noise, leaving behind the naked, empty silence of space. Anxiety flooded me as I realised I was now the focus of attention for all these passed-over spirits. Like Dante—or was it Eliot quoting Dante, my mind stupidly, pointlessly debated—I could not believe how many there were here, undone by death.
We do not think of ourselves as Undone.
The words washed over me from every side, as clearly as if they had been spoken.
But there was something else, something more. I seemed to be feeling very strongly that these were not a billion separate spirits, or even a billion billion. There was no separateness to them. Rather, I realised, here was one spirit, but expressed in a billion different ways.
You’re very perceptive, Jane. We are The Presence.
The suddenness of the voice shocked me. I sensed a large and powerful energy in front of me, issuing from the core of the Billions, and the Billions I could no longer sense at all. They had vanished. Or had they?
Freddie and Sasha tried to usher me forward, encouraging me not to be afraid. But I was now so frightened I couldn’t hide it.
Hello Jane. Don’t be afraid. You will not come to any harm. You have taken a great step today, the greatest step anyone is ever called on to take, greater even than the first step of birth. But you have almost reached your journey’s end and soon you will join us, you will become part of the Presence.
There was a pause, and I wondered uncertainly whether I ought to say something. Thank you, perhaps? But the voice swept on.
Before you is your final decision. Before you make this decision be warned. You should consider carefully what you are about to do.
That sounded ominous to me. The fear which had subsided when the voice began to speak returned to unsettle me again. I could feel that Freddie and Sasha were still there behind me, chivvying and urging, but I wanted to know where John was. More than anything I felt I needed him with me now.
You need John by your side? The Presence asked me. The rush of relief that surged through me provided my answer. There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence before Freddie and Sasha began to speak at once.
‘No, no, of course she doesn’t…’
‘She’s just a bit nervous…’
‘…when you consider what she’s been though…’
‘…oh quite, definitely very nat…’
The Presence cut through all their foolish chatter.
And suddenly there he was. I felt warmth flowing from his spirit to mine and my fear began to recede once more.
The Presence said, John, what have you told her?
‘Nothing.’ John replied firmly, not at all overwhelmed by the enormity of the Presence.
You swear that you have not tried to influence this spirit, or to persuade her in any way?
‘I swear,’ John avowed solemnly.
I distinctly sensed Freddie’s thoughts at this point: ‘Oh please! Are we supposed to believe that?’
The Presence obviously did, for it—they?—thundered out, Silence! and from Freddie I felt a distinct rush of coldness before he recollected himself and retreated a little, apologising.
Now, Jane, the Presence said, you must understand that the world that you came from and the life that you had there have now fallen away from you. You are now Dead.
‘Yes, I do realise that.’ I replied, trying to sound as calm and unruffled as John. But my mind-voice came out as a strangled, terrified whisper.
There is no continuing with your earthly life. You must therefore decide how you wish to live out your Afterlife. You may remain as you are now, or you may be released into your Eternal Rest and you will then become part of the Presence—the Billions, as you so perceptively called us. This is the ultimate destiny and aspiration of all spirits, to be at One. But the time must be of your choosing. We will allow you some moments to consider this.
But that wasn’t enough for me.
‘But I don’t understand!’ I protested, and it seemed as if I had said nothing else since I had died. ‘What is my Eternal Rest? What does that mean? What happens there? Who are you? What happens if I stay like this? What…?’
There was another distinctly chilly pause and I felt I had committed an impropriety. Was one allowed to shout anguished existential questions at the Presence? Was the Presence God? Where was God by the way? Was it his day off? Couldn’t be, today was Tuesday and God’s day off was Sunday? Or was it? Perhaps Sunday was his busiest day? Or Saturday, depending on your beliefs, and…oops!
This kind of flippant irreverence was surely not permissible in Death. I began to fear that I was about to receive some kind of Cosmic Reprimand. But when it came, it was directed not at me but at Freddie and Sasha. The Presence addressed them in a sound of such quiet dignity that I quaked in my metaphorical shoes.
Are We to understand that you have not explained to Jane the choices she must make?
No one said anything.
You have not prepared her for her Eternal Rest? Nor explained to her the nature of the Presence?
Eventually Sasha spoke, all her former bumptiousness gone.
‘We were afraid…’
Afraid! thundered the voice of the Presence.
‘Well…’ Sasha began again, but Freddie interrupted.
‘We think she has been corrupted by John.’
But the Presence was not going to accept this.
‘John has solemnly sworn he has not in any way tried to influence Jane’s decision.’
‘Well, yes, but she has already come to rely on his judgement…’
‘She was alone!’ It was as if John shouted it out, he was suddenly furiously angry. His mind-voice rang out, louder than anything I’d heard before. ‘She died alone! They weren’t even there to meet her when she left her body, so I just stepped into the breach. No one is supposed to die alone. And I wasn’t going to leave her to be a New Spirit all on her own without any support or guidance.’
Freddie and Sasha would have butted in at that moment, I’m sure, because I could feel the self-justification welling up in them, but the Presence did not allow them to speak.
You did the right thing, John. It is unjust and unloving to allow anyone to die alone or to be left without guidance afterwards. The three of you together must take Jane and prepare her to make her decision. That is all.
As soon as the Presence had spoken these words, They were gone. We were alone, the four of us. No billions, no chattering, no murmuring, no majestic towering Presence. Just us. Out in space, at large in the solar system, just the four of us. Drifting. And arguing.
Freddie and Sasha were telling John angrily that it was all his fault, that he’d had no right to interfere, and that he’d made them look bad, and complaining that they hadn’t had the chance to explain why they had been late. John shouting that they’d fallen down on the job, as always, and that the trust in them had been misplaced, that they were selfish and self-absorbed and a colossal waste of cosmic energy. They continued in this way for some time.
Soon I stopped hearing them as I gazed at the stars, drifting away from them as I tried to take in all that I could see around me and at the same time wondering how long I had been dead, and what Simon was doing, and if it was always going to be like this from now on. I felt as if I consisted of nothing but a deep, numbing sadness.
Eventually I became aware of silence behind me. They had stopped bickering.
‘Just tell her.’ John sounded weary. Did spirits get weary, I wondered. ‘Yes, they bloody do,’ He retorted. ‘Especially around these two. I’m exhausted.’
‘Self, self, self,’ snapped Sasha, ‘that’s all you care about.’
‘Whilst you and Freddie have only Jane’s eternal happiness at heart, I suppose? Is that why you forgot to be with her at her death?’ John retaliated nastily. I interposed before it all started up again
‘Okay! Okay! Don’t start. Someone just tell me what all this is about, please, if it’s not too much trouble.’
‘Well it’s like this…’ Freddie began. Almost immediately Sasha took up the story.
‘When you’re dead…’
‘As you now are…’ Freddie pointed out rather superfluously. I could feel myself getting more and more irritable.
‘You have to decide whether to stay as you are now, and just sort of float about.’
‘As you have been doing…’ Freddie again.
‘Through no fault of your own…’
‘For God’s sake!’ I couldn’t stand it anymore. But they took no notice, merely continuing with their long-winded explanation, cunningly disguised as an exasperating double-act.
‘Or you can cross over into the Presence and be At Rest for all eternity, with all those other billions of spirits that we were trying to tell you about earlier.’ Freddie’s tone was faintly reproachful.
‘You get to meet so many wonderful people…’ Sasha went into raptures over all the wonderful people. John groaned and I was sure I heard him muttering something obscene.
‘…like Francis of Assisi, Florence Nightingale, Beethoven, Marie Curie…’
‘She’s very nice,’ Freddie put in. ‘So charming, so unworldly…’
‘So dead.’ John snapped. ‘You make it sound like some sort of exclusive club Jane’s hoping to join.’
‘Well, and so it is, really.’
‘Death is not exclusive or elitist!’ John raged. ‘It happens to everyone!’
‘But I still don’t understand,’ I said, feeling frustrated but anxious to avoid another row. ‘None of this tells me what it’s actually like.’
‘Quiet,’ said Freddie.
‘Restful,’ said Sasha.
‘Bloody boring,’ added John.
‘Ladies present!’ said Freddie, adding, ‘kind of.’ I wasn’t sure if he meant kind of ladies or kind of present. This didn’t seem the time to ask.
‘Language!’ Sasha reproved John at the same time.
‘But explain it to me properly. I really need to know. And none of your dead-peoples’ jargon this time. What do you do there?’ This decision I had to make clearly affected my whole life, or rather, my whole death, and I wanted to make sure I had all the facts.
John elected to elaborate.
‘Once you enter your Eternal Rest, you can never come back here. You can never be free or alone.’
‘Or at least, so we’ve heard,’ Freddie added cautiously.
‘Well, yes, so we’ve heard. You will never be able to move around as you choose. You will be At Rest for eternity. You will become part of the Presence.’
‘And if I don’t enter my Eternal Rest?’ I persisted.
‘But of course you will, Dear, everyone does.’ Sasha hastily added.
‘But if I don’t?’
‘Then you will stay here, until such time as you do decide to enter Rest,’ Freddie said.
‘Hm…’ said Freddie.
‘Yes. In this form,’ John cut in, ‘with all the freedom you could want and the ability to get away from all the others and just be on your own if you want to, and of course the crucial point is, you will still be you. You have to make a vow to enter into Rest. You state that you are ready to give up individual identity and lay aside ego, turning away from all your human achievements and concerns and everything that you had become at the moment of your death, and you promise to serve the Presence for all eternity as a communal entity.’
It was clear which way John wanted me to vote. But how did I know what was the best thing to do? I was really confused now. And worried. It seemed such a big responsibility.
‘My Dear Janey, don’t worry,’ Freddie began, and I wanted to roll my eyes. He irritated me.
‘Think how jolly splendid it will be to enter into Rest and to be able to shed your pain, sadness, bitterness and rage, all your experiences and your fears and all those things that have held you down. You can become part of the Presence—pure, dignified, free and whole.’
I hesitated a moment before saying what had been in the tip of my non-existent tongue.
‘But Sasha, if it’s so wonderful, why are you and Freddie still here? And John?’
John’s reply was a laugh. ‘There’s no pulling the wool over her eyes!’
There was an awkward silence. Then Freddie told me,
‘We’re not supposed to tell you about ourselves. We’re not supposed to influence you.’ He sounded worried. I tried to point out that they couldn’t avoid influencing me. But I just couldn’t persuade Freddie or Sasha to explain any further.
‘How can I make a decision of this importance if I don’t understand how you three came to make yours?’
‘Freddie and Sasha stayed because in their capacity as Receivers, they can keep a foot in both camps so to speak, loosely a part of the Presence but still free, and they are able to keep their identities. They don’t want to give up their egos and commune with Marie Curie, however bloody marvellous she is.’
Freddie and Sasha protested at John’s explanation, but it seemed to be an essentially accurate assessment.
‘What about you?’ I asked John.
‘Me?’ John was silent for a while. I tried to reach out to discover what he was thinking but he spoke ‘out loud’, heading me off from his inner voice.
‘There are two reasons really. First of all, I was too scared. I was afraid the rewards of Eternal Rest and being part of the Presence wouldn’t be enough to make up for losing myself, not that I’m anything special but I’m all I have. Better the devil you know…’
His candour made me want to reach out to him. It made me feel warm.
‘Secondly, I wanted to keep in touch with earth, with the world I was once part of. I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t turn my back and just—walk away.’
Interesting. I prompted him when he didn’t continue. I asked him why he needed to keep in touch. Nothing came back. I asked again.
‘I just do,’ he said. He blocked my attempts again and now, for the first time since meeting him, I felt the chill which came from a detached and closed-off spirit.
‘Well! So now you know!’ Freddie tried to lighten the mood. ‘So when you’ve had a moment to think, we’ll get back to the Presence and you can tell Them your decision.’
‘Hmm maybe.’ I said. ‘I need to really think about this. I’m not convinced.’
‘The Force is strong with this one,’ John murmured, making me laugh and I was glad he was ‘there’ again, but Freddie and Sasha didn’t understand the reference.
‘What if I change my mind?’ I asked. ‘Suppose I don’t like Eternal Rest? Can I come back?’
‘No one ever comes back from Eternal Rest,’ John said. That was a bit of a worry.
‘But—they—the Presence, I mean, said something about…’ I began and Freddie took over my thoughts.
‘If you remain here, you will have as many opportunities as you desire to reconsider. But that does not happen once you have decided to Enter Rest. People don’t give up the Presence. We’ve been told that is because it is so fulfilling—that no one has ever wanted to come back. So I really do urge you in the strongest possible terms not to choose to remain here. Don’t be like us. We’re failures. You can do better. Do the best you can for yourself. Remember it’s forever!’
But I had switched off. He was beginning to sound like an insurance salesman, I thought.
‘That’s exactly what he was when he got his first job as a stage-hand, before he made it big as a top-notch movie director. Knocking on doors. The man from the Pru!’ John told me. Freddie and Sasha were outraged by this revelation and vowed they would never speak to either of us again.
‘That worked out well then,’ John added with a chuckle.
With no warning at all, I suddenly realised we were again amongst the Presence. Surrounded by a mass of Spirits all communing together in unity. But I had made my decision. Being so unprepared and feeling that I lacked sufficient information it seemed there was only one direction I could take.
‘I’m sure that Freddie and Sasha are truly wonderful people,’ I began cautiously, ‘and they’ve tried to explain everything to me and to encourage me to enter my Eternal Rest. But I know I’m not ready for that. I’ve only just died. I feel terribly confused and disoriented. I can’t stop thinking the way I’ve always thought and thinking about my life and my–er—my—Simon. Could I possibly stay as I am for a little longer?’
The Presence assured me that my decision was sad but by no means unexpected. It would be respected but was subject to review whenever deemed necessary or if I desired it. I had so much to offer, I was told, I was a precious spirit. I felt as if my heart—had I had one—might break. I had never before been told that I was precious. I felt a wave of tenderness and warmth surrounding me and for a moment I almost changed my mind. But then my old human stubbornness kicked in and I took a metaphorical step back.
We will allow you time to reconsider your decision under the guidance of John Welland. But we must impose two conditions. The first is that both you and John must cooperate with Freddie and Sasha and accept their help. The second is that all four of you must do all you can to resolve the problems of your deaths. This will help all of you to lay aside your fears and your dependence on what you have always been, and it will enable you all to enter Rest. The Presence will be able to assist you in achieving this. That is all.
As abruptly as They had come, the Presence left us again. Freddie and Sasha were stiffly apart from John and I, still sulking, whilst I felt the warmth flowing from John’s spirit to mine.
‘Now what?’ I asked him.
‘Come with me.’
We sank, gently slowly down towards the earth. Freddie and Sasha followed at a distance. We drifted down to a mountaintop, I don’t know where. The sun was slowly rising above the horizon, painting the landscape around us with pink and orange fingers.
‘Now rest,’ John said.
‘I’ve never slept with a ghost before,’ I said.
‘You might get to like it.’
To my great surprise I found I could relax. I could feel the hardness of the rock beneath me, but it didn’t hurt or dig in. The sun crept upwards in vivid glory, its rays touching everything that lay in its path with warmth until finally it touched me too. My thoughts began to drift. And it was another day.