‘Resolve the problems of our deaths? Sounds like something from a bad movie. What problems?’ I queried, echoing the words of the Presence.
It was sometime later—the sun was high in the sky, beating down mercilessly on the northern hemisphere where it was June and therefore summer, except in Britain where it was June and summer, and therefore there was a heavy frost. We were still hanging around on our mountaintop, gently warmed, not scorched.
‘Think of all those poor people down there covering up because of the danger of too much sun. And here we all are without our sunblock. We’re lying here in the sun and completely invulnerable to UVAs or UVBs or whatever they are.’
‘Great, Sasha. Now getting back to the resolving the problems of our deaths thing,’ I said, but she wasn’t listening, I could tell. She was humming some old melody and off in a daydream. She was soaking up the sun. I could imagine her as one of those 50s starlets, lying on a beach in a tiny but expensive swimsuit—something absolutely outrageous for the day. Or she would have been sashaying along the prom somewhere in the South of France, with a garish silk wrap fluttering in the breeze, and one of those enormous picture hats to keep the sun off her carefully made-up face, and probably dragging along a tiny little dog on a very long, very thin lead, yapping and jumping up for treats, as paparazzi called out to her and asked for a quick shot for Tatler or Vogue. I could picture her striking a pose, batting enormously long lashes…
‘Oh Janey, Dah-ling! How clever of you! I was there in St Tropez and Cannes for those festivals and parties! What a fabulous time we all had, do you remember Freddie Darling? And the Names! It was right after my big break in cinema. That’s when I met Freddie and he swept me off my feet in true dramatic fashion. Oh the stories I could tell you! We had such fun! And it’s so wonderful of you to be able to pick up the dramatic…’
‘More like melodramatic!’ John interrupted.
‘…vibrations I must be giving off! How sensitive of you, dear! I was actually quite famous, you know.’
‘Not that it lasted long,’ Freddie commented sadly.
‘Not as long as this story,’ John said.
‘It was all over far too soon,’ Sasha continued. ‘Sunset overtook us, our twilight descended, our stars fell from the heavens.’
‘How?’ I asked.
John groaned. ‘Don’t ask,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ I asked, ignoring him, interested in spite of myself.
‘Oh God! No! I told you not to ask!’ came John’s thoughts to me. I shushed him.
She tsked, as if I was not very bright. ‘Well, we died, dear. Remember? That’s why we’re here. Do try to keep up, Janey. The plane crash? Remember? We told you. Only we did wonder, didn’t we, Freddie Darling? You know, afterwards. Whether someone made us crash deliberately.’
‘We did, Poppet.’
‘And even at the time, you know, while we were waiting for the plane to hit the ground. I mean, it seemed like an unbelievably long time between realising what was going to happen and it actually happening. There was rather too much time to think. Sobered me up really quickly.’
I could feel the terror of relived memories peeling off her in waves. I didn’t want to think about it too much—it seemed all too real, too close. How horrible!
‘I realised there was nothing I could do,’ Freddie said, sounding overly casual. ‘We had time to comfort each other, and apologise to Jemima and Paddy…’
‘They weren’t very nice about it at all,’ Sasha said, channelling her fear into the more useful emotion of anger. ‘Just kept screaming at us to do something, and calling Freddie the most obscene names! It was a relief when they both passed out.’ She paused for a moment then added, ‘we even had time for a quick prayer, didn’t we, when we were getting really close to the ground. Which obviously helped, because, well, we’re up here and not—you know—Down There. But I remember at the end I felt quite calm really…’
‘Me too, Sweet Pea. Expected to be screaming, terrified. But thankfully, I was quite, quite calm inside,’ Freddie’s voice quavered a bit and I was unbearably moved by his determination to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of imminent and horrifying death.
‘I actually felt like I was coming out of the plane as it hit the ground. Like I wasn’t really there. I mean, I saw my body bent and broken and tossed like a rag, but it was as if I was watching it happen to someone else. And it all seemed to happen so, so slowly—I had time to see what was happening, everything,’ she said softly. Setting aside the horror of the event, I began to feel excited by what she’d said, but before I could speak, Freddie said:
‘Me too!’ He sounded surprised. To me he said, ‘I don’t know why, but we have never talked about this bit before.’
‘I left me body too, when I died. At first I didn’t realise I was above the bed looking down, and not inside it,’ I said, then I went on to explain how I’d felt and what I’d been thinking at the moment of my death. When was that, by the way?
‘Two days ago,’ John told me, ‘not that it matters. And I left my body too, just before I died. Perhaps everyone does? I was looking down at myself and I knew I was dying, and I remember saying to myself, ‘wake up you stupid sod’, but I couldn’t do anything. In any case it was already too late.’
‘I’ve just realised I don’t know anything about you. How did you die and when?’
He was about to answer when Freddie spoke, in the voice I was beginning to think of as his pompous, lecturing voice.
‘It’s funny,’ he began, ‘but have you noticed that now we’re dead, all the things that were important when we were alive, like what we did for a living or where we were educated, who our parents were, and so on, all those things just don’t matter anymore. Now we just want to know how long people have been spirits and how it happened.’
‘Hilarious,’ John said. His irony was not appreciated by Freddie and Sasha, but I was touched by what Freddie said. I couldn’t deny the truth of it. I felt I had underestimated both Freddie and Sasha. Beneath those superficial exteriors were cores of depth, intelligence and sympathy.
‘No exteriors though,’ Freddie murmured, and he gave a self-deprecating laugh, much to my chagrin. I must remember to keep my thoughts to myself.
‘And no real interiors either!’ Sasha added.
‘Death—the great leveller!’ John said. We all laughed. Well, I guess you had to be there. We had a moment. But I had a sudden, sobering thought.
‘You know, at first I thought we had been put together as a kind of punishment detail—to force us to get along, make us better people, better spirits, I should say. But now…’
‘Now you’re not so sure? Perhaps we really do need each other’s help?’ Sasha interrupted.
‘But how?’ I asked. ‘And more importantly, why?’
‘Well, we’ve all chosen not to enter into our Rest,’ Freddie said, a bit hesitantly, as if afraid of being accused of stating the obvious. ‘If I’m honest, Sasha and I might possibly have used our roles as Receivers just the teensiest weensiest bit to justify our decision. We pretended it was because we wanted to help people, but really we just didn’t feel ready.’
‘Me too,’ John said. It must have been the first time in the history of the universe these two had been in agreement. A miracle!
‘I’m not exactly afraid,’ I began, ‘but it seems so—so final somehow, and the Presence seems to be such an unknown quantity.’ I said nothing more for a moment. Then felt bound to admit, ‘Okay so I suppose I am afraid, after all.’
‘Oh, I know Janey, Darling! I know just how you feel. I’ve just never got used to the idea of being dead.’
‘I just don’t like to call myself dead,’ I said, and I was struggling to try to find the words to explain how I felt. ‘I kind of feel that if I say it out loud, I might disappear in a puff of smoke, or like a popped bubble. I’m afraid of ceasing to exist.’
‘It’s like the word ‘dead’ is an incantation which will change everything simply by speaking it out loud. But I’m sure it isn’t really like that. I don’t believe that it can really hurt us.’
‘Well, I don’t agree with you, John. And I’m not going to run the risk,’ Sasha said firmly, and I had to agree with her. Another first.
‘Perhaps this is the resolving we’ve got to do?’ Freddie suggested. ‘So, John, how did you die, and when?’
‘You think that by talking about our experiences we might find a common link?’ John asked. ‘Okay, well, maybe. I died at home. In bed, in my sleep. In 1919.’
‘1919!’ I couldn’t help it, I was astounded. ‘You’ve been dead for a hundred years!’
‘Does it show?’ he asked, amused. I was too shocked to feel sheepish.
‘Sorry, but a hundred years! It’s just that—well, it does seem a hell of a long time to just—hang about. Imagine being a spirit hanging around in space for all that time!’
‘I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve bloody done it!’ John snapped.
‘Well we’ve been dead for nearly 60 years!’ Freddie said, keen not to be outdone.
‘And not a single grey hair!’ Sasha preened.
‘You told me ten!’ I accused. ‘The very first time I met the two of you, Freddie said ten years and you corrected him and said, ‘Oh no sweetie, only nine years and seven months’, or some such crap. Now suddenly you say it’s been 60 years!’
They were careless about it though, and I could visualise the bathing-suited starlet in the big hat shrugging slim shoulders and taking another sip of her daiquiri.
‘That’s the 20s not the 50s!’ Sasha corrected me scornfully. ‘John’s era, not ours. Did you sip daiquiris, John?’
‘Couldn’t stand the bloody things. Give me a brown ale any day of the week. And as I pointed out, it was 1919 not the 20s, get your sums right.’
But Freddie hadn’t finished bleating. ‘It’s very easy to lose track of time up here, after all it’s not as if one can wear a watch. And one doesn’t like to admit to being quite so long in the tooth as one actually is!’
‘I know, Freddie, but to lose 50 years is a bit much!’
‘You’ve only been dead two days but you keep losing track. You have to keep asking John!’ Sasha reproved, a hint of dramatic pout in her voice.
‘Well I can’t believe it’s taken all three of you so long to try to sort yourselves out. I mean 60-odd years and a hundred bloody years! Come on! It’s lucky for you I did die yesterday, or you’d never damn well sort yourselves out!’
‘You’re in no position to talk. It’s not the same for everyone. How dare you judge us! I mean you just waltz in here, stirring things up, not entering into Rest, getting us into trouble with the Presence! And using the foulest language. Honestly, call yourself a lady?’
‘Yes, Sasha’s right. And you died the day before yesterday—blasted well keep track, woman!’ Freddie’s fury broke out at last through that otherwise gentlemanly non-exterior and shocked us all. I felt terrible.
‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry. It’s just a bit of a surprise, that’s all. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it.’
‘Well really,’ Sasha just had to have the last word as usual. It seemed like a couple of hours before anyone spoke again.
‘Actually it’s only been ten minutes,’ Sasha snapped.
‘Exactly the point I was trying to make,’ Freddie said.
But I was not going to get into all that again so I interrupted him impatiently. ‘Whatever. The point is, as far as I can see, we’ve nothing in common apart from the fact that we’re all dead.’
‘If it hadn’t been for John dying in bed, I’d say that the thing we had in common was that we all died in accidents.’ Freddie sounded rather put out that John had been so thoughtless as to refuse to conform. John explained himself.
‘I didn’t die as the result of an accident, nor did I die from natural causes. I was thirty-five years old, and fit and healthy.’ He paused then added very softly, ‘I was murdered.’
That shut us up for several seconds.
‘John! I’m so sorry!’ I wished I could reach out and touch him. It must be terrible to know that someone hated you so much they’d deliberately kill you. To just snuff you out like that.
‘Thanks,’ he replied. I felt warmth flowing from him towards me again. It felt like Freddie and Sasha had looked at each other with a meaningful eyebrow-raise. Or would have if they’d had eyebrows.
‘But how? Who by?’ Freddie wanted to know. Sasha tutted.
‘Darling! You mean, by whom.’
‘By my wife, Helena. She poisoned me.’
‘While you were asleep?’ I asked.
‘You were married?’ Sasha asked.
‘Yes, Sasha, I was married. No, Jane, she put something in my whiskey, which I drank during the evening. I died later.’
‘Did she get caught?’ Sasha asked.
‘You could say that,’ he said. ‘They hanged her.’
We all gasped. A wash of cold air swept across me from John. He was struggling to speak calmly.
‘I would never have thought it of her. I mean, I can’t deny we were going through a rough patch, but—well—it’s a big step from not exactly being love’s young dream to murdering your spouse.
‘I have never believed that she killed me. She could easily have left me for another man—which I could have believed, and probably deserved. In fact, I was fairly sure there was another man. She was seeing someone, I know she was. But she would never have killed me. Even if she did—which she didn’t—what use did it serve to execute her for my death? Would it bring me back? No! Would it deter others from killing? No, of course it wouldn’t. So what was the purpose of that particularly ridiculous exercise? Why h—hang her?’
His voice broke and failed as his emotions overcame him, and the rest of us could wait in shocked silence to see if he would say more.
‘I met her—you know, when she—er—died. I went to receive her. She chose to go straight into her Rest—didn’t want to speak to me at all. She was angry—as if it was all my fault. I couldn’t believe it. She just wouldn’t say anything to me. Not one word.’
For another long period, no one spoke, we just thought over what he’d told us. Then after a decent interval Sasha began to narrate their story.
‘As I expect you’ve guessed, Freddie and I used to say someone must have sabotaged our plane, didn’t we, Darling?’
‘What? Oh yes. So we did. At first, you know, when we were still trying to get used to the idea of being dead. But, well, you know, I’m not so sure any more. More likely not, I should think. I mean, I’m afraid I probably just wasn’t as good a pilot as I thought I was.’
I was touched by his simple modesty.
‘But suppose it was sabotage?’ suggested John.
‘How would we know? After all this time? Why would it have been?’
‘If you both originally thought it was sabotage, you must have had your reasons. What were they? Did you have any enemies?’
‘Oh God, yes. Heaps,’ Sasha said with a laugh.
But Freddie had made up his mind to take the blame and he wasn’t going to be absolved at this late stage.
‘But if the plane was sabotaged, that means Freddie and I were murdered,’ Sasha said thoughtfully, ‘and if you were murdered too, John…’ I felt as though she turned to me.
‘But what about dear little Janey? She wasn’t murdered,’ Freddie pointed out, ‘she was just hit by a car, which I know it’s a bit sad but it’s hardly…’
I could almost see him shrug his shoulders in that ‘Meh, what can you do’ way, which annoyed me a great deal. I personally would have described my death as more than a bit…
‘‘A bit sad’ ‘A bit sad’! It’s a fucking tragedy!’ John snarled. They both gasped at his language, and I half-expected something cosmic to happen but all remained hushed and serene, except for John who was furious. ‘It’s not just ‘a bit sad’! And she wasn’t just ‘hit by a car’, she was mowed down on a dark street and left to die in the gutter!’
‘A hit-and-run? That’s terrible!’ Sasha was contrite. ‘Poor Janey! I’m so sorry! A hit-and-run! Goodness me! How horrid!’
But her contrition only irritated me all the more.
‘For God’s sake, Sasha! Will you please stop calling me Janey!’ Would she never get the message?
‘Sorry! I’m sorry! Okay? I’m trying…’ Sasha snapped back, but I snatched up her last word.
‘You can say that again. Very bloody trying!’
‘Ladies! My dear, dear Ladies!’ Freddie attempted to intervene, but John interrupted him angrily.
‘Freddie, women today don’t like to be called ‘dear lady’ in that way, if in fact they ever did. To begin with, it sounds patronising.’
‘How could it possibly be patronising to put such delightful ladies on a pedestal and to seek only to worship…’ Freddie was mystified.
‘For Christ’s sake, Freddie, shut the fuck up!’ I snapped. I hated all these people. A few minutes ago I’d been almost in love with my three fellow-sufferers of Death. Now I couldn’t stand any of them. And to think I was stuck with them for eternity.
‘Don’t you talk to my husband like that, you—you bitch!’ Sasha raged at me.
There was a stunned silence. I felt her discomfort coming in waves.
‘Look, can we please all just calm down,’ Freddie said, ‘and can we please, please behave like the ladies and gentlemen we are, and have no more of this disgusting coarse language. It really is a disgrace, given our circumstances and so on. I mean, there’s absolutely no reason why we should abandon our morals at the drop of a hat.’
There was a moment’s pause as we all took a metaphorical deep breath and calmed ourselves. Then:
‘We need to think about all this,’ John said.
‘There’s nothing to think about!’ Sasha snapped, ‘it’s so damned obvious a child could work it out. We were all murdered. And to get into Rest and the Presence and enjoy our damned eternal reward, we’ve got to sort out all the bloody whys and wherefores involved.’
‘That’s all very well for us, but what about John? He knows who killed him,’ I pointed out, calmer now. ‘And it’s done him no good at all.’
‘She didn’t do it,’ John insisted through what would have been gritted teeth and a clenched jaw in another life, another place.
‘Perhaps he needs to resolve the personal side of it. Come to terms with his sense of betrayal by a loved one. He needs a sense of closure.’
‘That’s frigging codswallop, Freddie!’ Sasha told him, somewhat inelegantly. ‘Yes, it appears I have sunk down to the gutter-level with you,’ she said, ‘hearing’ my thoughts again. When would I get the hang of this? She went on, ‘We’ve got to work through everything we all know about our deaths. Who would want to kill Freddie and me?’
Back to them again. Did they never think about anyone other than themselves?
‘I,’ corrected Freddie, still apparently smarting under her uncharacteristic attack, ‘it’s Freddie and I. I mean, Freddie and you. Well,’ he said, getting into a grammatical tangle, ‘what I mean is, me and you.’
‘Yes, Darling,’ Sasha tenderly murmured, restoring his good humour whilst John and I gnashed our imaginary teeth in frustration.
‘Well, who?’ she repeated.
‘Don’t know. What about Jane?’ Freddie asked. ‘Most recent crime might be easiest to solve?’
‘It’s usually the husband,’ Sasha said, but I couldn’t let that go, not even as a joke.
‘Don’t you dare say that! Simon loved me! It couldn’t have been him. He would never do anything to hurt me—he abhors violence. Anyway, you’d know it couldn’t have been him if you’d only seen how devastated he was when he had me turned off. As you would have done if you’d been where you were supposed to be instead of gossiping with Boudicca or whoever it was.’
‘There you are then!’ Sasha crowed in triumph. ‘How could a loving husband agree to let his wife just die like that? What happened to hope and steadfastness and praying for a miracle?’
‘There’s a bit more to it than that, Honeybunch!’ Freddie protested. ‘Imagine how he must have suffered seeing her lying there like that, not even able to breathe for herself, knowing her brain had withered, that she would never recover, never live any sort of normal life again. How long was it, Jane?’
‘Four months,’ I said, ‘possibly five.’
‘Actually it was seven,’ John corrected me gently. He registered my surprise with a short laugh. ‘Your trouble with keeping track of time began long before you died! The accident was in November. Now it’s the end of June. See?’
‘It’s all very disorienting,’ I protested lamely.
‘Never mind, dear, you’ll soon get used to it,’ Sasha soothed, our recent irritations forgotten.
‘The only way we’re going to get to the bottom of our murders is by each of us telling every scrap of what we know about the events leading up to the crimes, and what we know about the deaths themselves. We can pretend we’re Monsieur Poirot, exercising his little grey cells and tying up all the loose ends,’ Freddie suggested, sounding exactly like a TV sleuth of the more pompous variety. For lack of a better idea we all agreed.
John had a few points he wanted to make about his own murder. ‘As I’ve said before, I’ve never believed that Helena killed me. Yes, I admit our marriage was a disaster. Yes, we had talked about separating—in fact, she had threatened to leave me on a number of occasions. I—I’m afraid I drank rather heavily. I was suspicious and very jealous of her relationship with this other man she was seeing. But she had nothing to gain from killing me. She had money of her own, a boyfriend much younger than me who had pots of money. She could have simply divorced me and married him, or any number of young men just like him—she was younger than me, and very attractive in addition to being wealthy.’ He paused for a moment then added in a softer voice, ‘She was only 21 when she died, and she was a wonderful, beautiful woman. Her death was completely pointless.’
‘You’d better tell us everything from the beginning,’ said Sasha.
And so the four of us began.
‘We were married in February 1919, in a little village in Surrey, the little village I grew up in, in the church overlooking the green where we used to play cricket in the summer and have our Maypoles and all the stuff that one associates with a perfectly typical English village. The war was finally over, and I’d come back from the trenches unable to believe, not just that I’d survived, which was a shock in itself, but that I was the sole survivor of my parents’ five sons.
‘I wasn’t conscripted as they had been—I had made the army my career from university. I was the eldest child of the five of us. The two next after me went into the family law firm, and of my youngest brothers, one was an engineer and the other was a medical student.
‘I enjoyed the war to begin with. It seemed a noble and righteous cause, and you have to realise it was the culmination of my training and experience—my true work—and I had just been promoted to the rank of Captain. But time went by, and the war didn’t end in a month or two as we’d all predicted. Millions of men died on both sides. Friends died. Brothers died. As the death toll rose, all we had to show for it was a narrow strip of mud. I began to see a distinct gap between the gross reality I was familiar with and the picturesque translation of events in the newspapers and the recruitment campaigns. More importantly, I was beginning to run out of brothers.
‘My parents were getting on in years, and the loss of my four brothers took its toll. By the time I came home from the war, neither Mother nor Father was in good health and so my father sold the family firm. He planned to retire to a country cottage somewhere down on the coast, away from our home village, somewhere they hoped to come to terms with what they had lost. But before he could carry out this plan, my father died and just a few weeks later, my mother also passed away. The house in Surrey and a reasonably large sum of money came to me, as did the death duties.
‘I had no real idea what to do with myself after the war. Just before the end, I had been invalided out with a shoulder wound—shrapnel. But in any case, I’d lost the taste for death and mayhem.
‘I decided to rent out my parents’ house and move away, maybe go overseas. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. A wealthy businessman from London came down to see the house. He did me the honour of introducing me to his daughter. But he didn’t lease the house, instead she moved into it with me after we were married.
‘She was a bright young thing of 20, her name was Helena, and in 1919, she was the only meaningful thing in my life. I married her, and we lived there together in my family home with all the ghosts, and in my case, demons, and her father had to find himself a house elsewhere.’
John sighed, and after a pause, he continued. We three were already feeling a horrid sense of foreboding. It didn’t feel like ancient history of a hundred years ago anymore.
‘The marriage was a disaster, of course. I was in no fit state to take on anything as serious as marriage—I was in the process of having a total breakdown, though of course we didn’t understand about things like that in those days, not really. We hadn’t heard of post-traumatic stress disorder. Chaps were cowards or Communists. And real men did not acknowledge fear, let alone grief.
‘I couldn’t cope with the guilt of being alive, and I certainly couldn’t take the chance of being happy as well. Helena was too young and her life had been too sheltered for her to have any idea how to cope with a marriage that wasn’t all dancing, flowers and candle-lit dinners. And I was fifteen years older than her. I’m afraid that within a couple of months of the wedding, the image we presented of a happy marriage was as far removed from reality as those ‘official’ images were from life in the trenches.
‘She met other young men, young men who liked to dance, to dine out, go to the theatre. Young men who liked to kiss in the moonlight. All I was interested in doing was skulking in my study drinking whiskey. Our marriage was over then in everything but name. When I was not passed out from drink and she was actually home, all we did was to fight constantly. We were both to blame for hurting each other, I can see that now. But anyway…’
He paused again briefly before continuing.
‘One night, when I had been drinking, as I always did, Helena tried to sober me up with some black coffee. But either it was too little too late, or it just didn’t work for some other reason, but I went off into a deep sleep. I died sometime during the night. Helena was arrested, and hanged for my murder on 10th May 1920. It was a week after her 21st birthday.’
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then he added a postscript, as ever the master of the understatement, ‘Not a very nice story, I’m afraid.’
I felt numb. And from John came only a sense of cold desolation. I felt I wanted to weep, but the relief tears used to bring was no longer possible. I was overwhelmed by the terrible pointlessness of it all.
‘But it clearly wasn’t pointless,’ Freddie said quietly, tentatively. ‘Someone, and John is sure it wasn’t Helena, but someone obviously made a decision to get rid of John. They wouldn’t have done that unless it somehow benefited them. Not necessarily a financial benefit, but possibly something else. So, far from being pointless, for that particular person, John’s death had a very good point.’
‘So who got the house? Was it Helena, or someone else?’ Sasha asked. ‘I know Freddie said it might not be about money, but let’s not beat about the bush, that is usually a very strong motive. So, John, who stood to gain?’
We were all on tenterhooks, waiting for John’s reply. Mentally we all urged him to speak, to name the one who had inherited his assets and therefore, by our reckoning, had the strongest motive, and as like as not, was the true murderer.
‘I can’t remember,’ John groaned.