Part 2 (Part 1 came out on Monday)
I’m republishing this short story in two parts to commemorate the death of a good friend two years ago – the event that inspired it. She was a sceptic about the afterlife!
She woke in tears, her heart beating fast. The light was off nowadays but her practised hand went straight to the switch, then the pen and she was soon scribbling fast to catch every detail of the dream.
Only three months in and she had had her first dream. She couldn’t believe how excited she was. How long would it be before the next one?
Why had he had to phone? Why didn’t she see him face-to-face? Why was he cut off? Why did he say he wasn’t supposed to be ringing yet?
Never mind. At least she’d heard from him. It was definitely his voice. She’d know it anywhere. Maybe it was really him and not just a construct from her memories. She would know soon enough when the second dream came and she could check out what was said against the contents of the packet.
At first she began to enjoy the routines of her life more because of the lift the dream had given her. Her yoga began to raise her spirits again. The children at her school, where she worked in the reception class, almost made her feel hopeful, though she never lost a background sense of sadness that she and Alistair had never been able to create a child of their own. She still steered clear of his family and friends most of the time: the elephant of his absence always stood between her and them, though he was never mentioned.
Only in her evenings alone and most of all just before she went to bed, did the grief hit her hard once more. She couldn’t listen to her favourite songs. They were mostly his as well. The first chords turned the sadness of six foot breakers into tsunamis of distress.
Still, she slept in hope each day, and every morning woke in disappointment.
As the weeks crept by at snail’s pace hope faded and her spirits began to sink. She went out less, except to work. Her thoughts darkened. She wondered how long she could endure this uncertainty. Surely, anything would be better than this – even the sure knowledge that her first dream had been wrong.
. . . . . . . . .
It was six months later. There’d been no other dream containing Alistair bearing a message of any kind – just fleeting moments of wish fulfilment when she saw him apparently alive again and with her in their home, cooking at the stove surrounded by more pans than they had ever owned, rinsing pots over the sink under the sunlight running from the taps, and sitting contentedly in the garden with his coffee and his book with yellow swallows darting overhead.
Then the pain of loss when each dream was over.
As she emptied the dishwasher after breakfast, she came to a decision. She wouldn’t wait any longer. She didn’t want all this focus on her dreams anymore.
She’d had a dream and got a message about the contents of the package. If it was right it would confirm that his mind lived on. If not, she was no worse off, and the uncertainty of waiting for the second dream wasn’t helping. Perhaps he wasn’t going to be allowed to come again. That’s what his message implied, or at least it might be so long in the future she couldn’t bear it. No, she’d go to see John, today if possible, and find out what was in the packet.
She picked up the phone. The dialling tone buzzed on for quite some time and she was just about resigned to hearing the answer phone when John’s voice cut across: ‘Hi, Dorothy.’
“Hi, can I come over. I want to open the packet.’
‘Have you had the second dream?’
‘No, but I can’t wait any longer.’
There was a silence. What was he thinking?
‘Are you sure about this? You know me. I don’t believe in this whole mad idea anyway, but you probably do and Alistair certainly did. If you come now you’re going against what he asked you to do. You could feel bad about this later.’
‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ve had the one dream with a clear message. That should be enough. It’ll either be right or wrong. Either way, that will be the same whether we open the package now or next year.’
‘Well, if you’re really sure . . . ,’ John tailed off.
. . . . . . . . .
She drove round to John’s after lunch.
He made a cup of coffee for them both before sitting down at the dining room table with the packet in front of them. It was quite small, about book size. This was encouraging. Any larger or smaller and she would have begun to regret her decision and might have changed her mind. But no, this looked good. She should carry on.
‘Right,’ she said as she sipped her coffee. ‘As I remember, Alistair said I must tell you what is in the packet before we open it. So, I’ve brought my transcript of the dream for you to read, so you can get the full context.’
She passed him a typewritten sheet of A4.
He quickly glanced through it.
‘The Everyman George Herbert then.’
‘Is there any way you could’ve have thought of this yourself and built it into a dream?’
‘Well, I bought the Everyman edition as a birthday present some years back, but it’s one present among many. I could have picked loads of others. I was always buying him books. This was one of his favourites but not the only one and I hadn’t thought about it for years till the dream itself. And there’s no way I could’ve noticed it was missing from his shelves. He had thousands of books and I haven’t begun to sort them yet. Too difficult.’
‘Is that the only copy of Herbert’s poetry he owned?’
‘No, he had two or three others, but none with all the poems in, which is why he specially wanted this one.’
‘ That could prove interesting. So, d’you want to go ahead?’
John popped into the kitchen for a sharp knife to cut open the sellotape. He peeled back the brown paper. There was definitely a book inside. And a handwritten note. And something else – a CD.
This wasn’t quite what she expected. Should she have waited? Why was there a CD in there?
They picked up the note to read.
‘Dear both, if you are reading this you will have opened the packet. I hope you waited, Dorothy, till you’d had both dreams because I misled you. There are two things in here not one. And I planned to tell you about them one at a time. You know there is no sense of time in the next world. The second dream could be a long time after the first in your world but immediately after in mine. I wanted you to be able to tell John about both items, not just one. He’ll be a hard man to convince and I really want to convince him. Anyway, if you didn’t wait for the second dream it’s too late to go back now, because if you’ve seen this you’ll have caught sight of the second item. . . . . .’
Dorthy’s head was swimming. She was so angry with herself for going against what he’d said, but even more angry with him. He was a trickster. She had thought this was all for her but he had set her up to convince John. And now it was all a mess. Still, she had to know whether she was right about the book.
‘What’s the book, John? Am I right about that at least?’
‘Yes. It’s the Everyman George Herbert all right.’
He passed it to her. She opened the fly leaf. Sure enough – her writing. ‘Just your kind of stuff – the poems of a priest. Enjoy! Just don’t expect me to read it.’
Her words sounded a bit sour now, though she had meant them as an affectionate joke at the time. She wondered whether she had hurt his feelings with her more sceptical attitude. Had he picked this book to make that kind of point even after death?
John read her words over her shoulder.
‘Do you think you might have felt guilty about that? The mind holds onto things out of awareness you know. That would be enough to slide it into a dream.’
‘But I wrote that kind of thing all the time in the books I gave him. Why would I feel badly about this one in particular?’
‘And it’s good that it’s the correct edition of the two or three he had.’
He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Shall we look at the other item?’ he asked.
Handel’s Messiah. She couldn’t remember how many times, through his study door, she’d heard the rousing Hallelujah Chorus or the plangent strains of ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’
‘I could just as easily have dreamt that one by guesswork – more easily in fact. He played it all the time, for heaven’s sake. Why did I dream of the George Herbert instead?’
‘Well, that would depend upon which affected you most strongly at the deeper levels of your mind,’ John explained patiently, ‘outside your conscious . . .’
‘You know, John,’ she cut in, ‘in your different ways you both drove me nuts. He banged on about the soul and you hit me over the head with the mind all the time. And you know what? None of it makes any sense to me. It never did and it never will. You just can’t prove any of it. God, Freud, the after life, the unconscious. They’re all crap. Just fantasies to try and make sense of the mad mystery of life. I don’t know what I really thought when I dreamt of him, anymore than I know whether I’m going to live on or black out when I die. None of it helps. I just want Alistair back. I just want my old life again.’
She burst into tears once more, wracked by deeper sobs than John had ever heard from anyone in his entire life so far.
. . . . . . . . .
She drove home through winter twilight uncomforted and in a dark and desperate mood. She had no interest in food. She somehow managed to make herself a drink of hot chocolate and crept very early into bed.
It took a long time for sleep to come and with it came disturbing dreams of witches and beheadings. As the sky began to lighten just after dawn her sleep deepened.
She finds herself walking across a stretch of water she half-recognises. It reminds her of the bay in Cyprus where she and Alistair once stayed in the early days of their marriage. The air is warm and though there are waves on the surface of the water she does not trip. In fact, she feels lighter and lighter with every step almost as though she could fly.
Then she is on a hill high above the sea looking down at a sunset, with its darkening reds and golds. There is a boat on the water with purple sails moving fast towards her. The closer it gets the more peaceful she feels. When the boat is half-way across the water, it begins to glide into the air, rising higher and higher as it gets closer to where she stands.
She could swear, as it approaches overhead, that she can see Alistair at the prow gazing down at her and waving. He is too far away to speak but she knows he is not angry with her. She can almost believe that they will meet again.
When she wakes just after a cloudless sunrise, the brightness of the light through the crack in the curtains touches her heart and she knows that she will manage to rebuild her life without forgetting him but healed enough for happiness of some kind to return.
Tomorrow she will apologise to John.