For Eric, Olga and Leila
…and then, well, I remember a particularly fat man pushing past and we were both shoved through an office door, the kind with a pane of frosted glass. It had some sort of lettering on it but before I could read it, the door slammed suddenly behind us. We found ourselves in a small office with an elderly lady sitting at an enormous desk. She was bent over mounds of documents and smoking a cigarette through a short, ivory holder. She wore half moon glasses and a mauve, fifties style office outfit. She did not look up.
I looked at Esther who still had that expression of horror and panic stretched across her face. She looked like a lost little girl at Disney. I wanted to hug her once more. The telephone rang.
“Haa? Well, what d’you want me to do about it? D’you think there’s room here? I don’t speak German any way, do you? It’s got nothin’ to do with that – what do I care what they did …you don’t even have a RDIC ? Well, call RDIC and get one. Get one for the whole family … then send them to Consolement and wash your hands of it my friend. Yep … yes, I know … call Martha next time, huh? Because she has more patience with creeps like you.”
The elderly lady hung up. She noticed us for the first time and a look of complete disgust shadowed her face. She jumped up from her desk and came towards us.
“What the hell are you doing there? I know, I know, I’m half deaf so you think you can take advantage of that, huh? You don’t come in here, no go, no go – must beat it – comprendez? Out! …”
“Please, please help us!”
“You speak English - good. So get out. You’re not allowed in ...” The telephone rang again. She darted behind us and locked the door and then rushed around to the other side of the desk. Esther grasped my arm tightly and began to cry into my shoulder. I put my other arm around her and kissed her soft, fawn hair. It felt like home.
“So stick ’em in another room or shove ’em in the Corridor – so you lose ’em. Why d’ya let ’em in in the first place. Lock your door. To hell with the regs. Joshua doesn’t care, you don’t care, I don’t care, so why beat yaself up about it?” She stubbed out her cigarette and immediately lit up another. “How d’ya think I get through the day? I got two gooks blubbering in front of me right now … because moonface Macginnagin didn’t lock the door. Two seconds the damn thing was open. Ya gotta lock up, Michael …” She opened a dossier and began to write mechanically along dotted lines. “Ya just send ‘em to Console’, it’s not your problem and you don’t know how to deal with it – send ‘em any…so they get lost, what d’ya want? Ya always tryin’ to help people, and it’s very nice, and it’s very touchin’ but ya office is stuffass full o’ files an’ ya can’t even make the simplest of dec …” She turned to a trolley loaded with dossiers and put one in place and took off an enormous, bursting file. She opened it and began to scribble. “They never have Michael – they never have my friend. …Kick ’em out!” She hung up the receiver and then left it off the hook. She looked wearily at us both.
“Sit down. I’m kickin’ ya out in no time so get to the point.”
We sat down on two chairs in front of her desk and she sighed heavily before beginning.
“Look, I know that you’re lost, confused and don’t know what to do. It’s the same for most people. Look at ’em all out there – you’ve seen it – it’s mayhem. Don’t think that you’re an exception because you’re not. You’re dead. Get used to it. Yes, I know, it’s a terrible shock and you were not expecting it. You were just driving along and wham! Game over. Well, that’s just how it is sometimes.”
Esther was staring with a cold, blank fixation at the old woman. She seemed to be mouthing something but, because of the shock, I guess, she couldn’t actually form words. A tiny dribble of saliva hung from her trembling lower lip.
“You see the problem? I’m not trained to do this but it always lands on my plate. I don’t know why, but it does. You need to go to Console’. I’ll give you a chit.” She scribbled furiously on a form that she pulled from under the mound of papers on her desk. “I don’t suppose you got a RDIC? Stupid question. You see, this is the root of the problem. Poor organisation. Did ya check in? No, Sudden Deaths never do. And here we are. Look, ya better just go. I can’t do nothin’ for ya.”
“For Godsake!” shouted Esther suddenly. “Help us! Tell us what to do. We’re completely lost! Please help us, please!”
Another door behind us opened and a fat, teenage boy with an old fashioned visor across his forehead entered pushing a trolley overflowing with files.
“D’ya see the problem?” The old woman said. “If I don’t keep up steam …” The boy held out a file. She took it, and with consummate tenderness said, “Thank you, Austin,” and the boy turned and left. She opened the file and sighed heavily. She glanced through the dossier, muttered to herself and scribbled on the form she had previously set aside.
“Well, at least ya got a RDIC now, the both o’ ya. OK, so. Ya’ car was hit by another vehicle travelling in the wrong direction. Some drunken fool who got mixed up at the intersection. It happened at night, right? You were asleep.” She nodded towards Esther. “Not that it makes that much difference. So, you take this form down the Corridor, don’t ask me where, just keep goin’ and you’ll find it. Console’ will help you - it’s their job.”
She looked at us doubtfully and I looked at Esther. We just didn’t understand. “Look, you’re dead. Get that straight. You had a smash on the freeway or whatever you call it in little ol’ England and you’re dead. Now, you missed check in as sometimes happens - correction - as always happens in cases of Sudden Death ...” Her eye caught something in the file. “You got a son, right?”
Esther suddenly lurched towards the desk. “Where is he, where is he? Please, please tell us.”
The old woman, scanning the file before her once more, shrugged her shoulders and spread out her sharp hands before us. “It don’t say …hmm, could be dead, could be alive. He was in the car right?” We confirmed this eagerly. “Well, it don’t say. May be he’s dead, maybe he’s alive, maybe he’s a vegetable.”
Esther screamed violently. A grabbed her and tried to control her panic. It was bizarrely comical, I suppose. The old woman put her hands up as if she were in a bank hold up.
“Look! I told you it ain’t my job! I don’t do Consolement. If you talk to me, you get it from the hip and it’s gonna hurt. I see this sort of thing all the time. The situation is rarely clear. Things get mixed up. Do you have any idea how many people bite the bullet each day? Look at this stuff.” She gestured to the trolleys of files. “And I am one of thousands.” I noticed a huge gash on her wrist. She saw it and looked rather bitterly at me. “That’s the way it is here. Suicides do admin. No lunch, no knocking off. We work non-stop. Not that it really matters. There is of course a very vague approach to time here anyway. Oh, and a very vague approach to ... well, to everything.” She sighed. “I’m sorry about ya son. Go to Console, these things sort themselves out in time. Everything does.”
The door behind us burst open again and a huge man in a suit strode in and smashed the telephone receiver back on to its base.
“You don’t do that nomore, stupid bitch! You work! Now!” He turned to us. “You, get out, get out now!!” And he shoved us towards the door. The telephone rang and the old woman picked it up.
“Michael, Michael, will ya calm down? …” The fat boy came in with another trolley and the huge man unlocked the door and pushed us into the Corridor that was heaving with people. The door slammed as we heard the huge man cursing in broken English at the old lady as she, oblivious, continued her sardonic reflections to poor Michael.
Standing outside in the surging crowd, I realised that we had forgotten our chit. And so the Corridor consumed us once more.
Of course, later I found the Corridor easier to take. You learn to blank out the worst of it, or at least pretend you do. You can even come to like it, in a scary sort of way – just for the sheer possibility of meeting anyone at all, anyone you knew, anyone famous, anyone who’s dead.
There are thousands, no, millions and millions of people hurrying or wandering aimlessly and trudging doggedly – but if you persist, and, after all, you’ve got time, you can often find who you’re looking for. Soon you learn to distinguish between the Consoled, the Unconsoled and the Inconsolable. Often, I had a strange sense that some encounters were not entirely by chance. But then up here, Chance, Luck, Destiny – they don’t really mean anything any more.
One word of warning though – you need a strong stomach. With only the vaguest notion of time, you just never know who you might bump into … people you were sure were alive, for example, and, all too frequently, were now in a condition somewhat altered for the worst. And, of course, the children …that’s the hardest thing. There are some babies but they’re usually with someone. A sort of nurse or sometimes their mother – but the toddlers, the primary school kids, they wander around with tear stained faces calling for their mothers. Often we would stop and try to help some of them, but there are thousands, many of them African or Asian, and many of them couldn’t speak English, and some didn’t trust us. But we helped some – we did what we could, though not entirely out of charity, no, not purely out of pity. We were looking for Tom, our boy, our blessed, darling, lost little 8yr old boy.
But at first, the Corridor was a mystery. We followed it hoping to find an end, a destination, “Consolement”, another corridor, anything. We saw people of all nationalities, some utterly grief stricken and delirious, people crying and wailing, others almost catatonic, others singing gaily as if out for a pleasant stroll, people with brief cases in suits hurrying, squeezing past with a look of disgust and disregard, like office workers on the underground pushing through the throng of tourists.
We noticed doors, usually with strange acronyms in copperplate inscribed across the frosted glass. I half expected to find Dick Tracy inside, smoking a cigarette and talking 40s detectivespeak, drawling sardonically. You see, in the Corridor everything is in black and white; one has the impression of stepping into an old movie set but there was no Bette Davis, no Jessie Williams, only the stream of human souls, unregulated, unfiltered, flow and contra flow surging around one another.
Of course, we tried doors, we knocked, we banged and shoved. We could hear voices inside and telephones ringing, but no one opened up. We asked the way but people wouldn’t listen or they shrugged or pointed down the Corridor, sometimes one way and sometimes another.
And we didn’t seem to tire; indeed, we didn’t even seem to be walking. All the time we were born along by a current of nothing. My feet moved and touched the marble floor, but the walls never seemed to hold any perspective in either direction. We begged people to help us but they were too busy or lost also and couldn’t seem to stop – that was the most frustrating thing. If people weren’t going your way, they couldn’t seem to stop; they couldn’t seem to change direction.
And all the time, my mind filled with the past – the snow caps at Grenoble with the smell of the open fire as it crackled behind me, the canal where I fished as a boy, the smell of gravy in the vast hallway of my aunt’s house after Mass on Sunday. Elvis Priesley singing, “Little things I should have said ‘n’ done …” and the look of a whore I had sex with 12 years ago as I got inside her … I seemed to see them, hear them, smell them in the very Corridor where I walked, on the frantic brow of Esther as she was buffeted about in the moving crowd, sometimes dangerously shoved away from me by impatient souls … the past seems to swirl in like the tide encircling some ancient tribe wandering across estuary mudflats. Fog. Dawn. All these things.
And sometimes the sun would break through the otherwise opaque high windows that lined the upper reaches of the Corridor walls. And many of us would let out a spontaneous cry of wonder, or a sigh of reminiscence, like children, openly warmed by this lost Aurora, the delicious beaker of life spilling upon us. Some would reach wildly for the windows with straining fingers and bulging veins upon their necks.
We had been bumbling along the Corridor for …well, for a long time, and then a great fat man, who seemed to take up nearly the entire Corridor, wearing a tricorn hat and holding an enormous staff in his hand, shouldered us to one side and we burst through a door.
We found ourselves in the reception hall of an enormous house, full of sweeping staircases, potted ferns and busts of Lord Byron, Aristotle, Rochester, Piers Dunn, Shakespeare and so on. There were what seemed to be family portraits on the walls and a great, felt curtain draped across an opening to the left. Someone was playing, I think, what sounded like, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” in another room. Esther looked up at me and for a moment that impossible look of excruciating, confused terror lost its grip upon her face.
“Oh, my dear, dear, dear darlings! Just look at you. Oh, I am so sorry. I just can’t …I just can’t … there are no words are there, no words …” This last phrase was spoken with a mournful emphasis that just missed being absurd. In front of us, an old man, scrawny and wearing gold rimmed glasses, stared at us, his arms stretched out and his cheeks stained with genuine tears of grief. He wore an ornate, red velvet smoking jacket – it reminded me of an old fashioned guard’s dress uniform. A well chewed pipe poked out of his left hip pocket.
He came forward and hugged Esther without reservation. I felt vaguely shocked, or left out, I suppose. Then Ester broke down and cried like a child in his arms. I remember looking at the floor and scuffing my feet. It was natural to feel jealous. After all, I had been unable to console, to give her … well, to give her anything aprt from my own looks of fear and utterly confused pain.
“That’s it, that’s it. Let it all out, let it all out. No point pretending. Oh, my poor, poor darlings. It’s so brutal, so horrid, horrid, horrid, horrid!” and the grief seemed to shake him anew and he buried his face in Esther’s hair, coiled cobra-like on her shoulders.
I was shocked by this old man’s unexplained empathy. Shocked and jealous. But then my arms, involuntarily, went forward to his shoulders, in a kind of awkward embrace. I smelt his grey hair and stale tobacco. I can’t explain it, but I felt there was a mix of warmth and insincerity in the embrace. As I said, I felt awkward. I don’t like sharing emotions with strangers, however well meaning. It doesn’t seem right.
Anyway, I didn’t want to spoil things so we stood like that for a while until their chests stopped heaving and a simple calm distilled itself upon us. It was a curious thing, but I had the sensation that this had happened before or at least that I had known it was going to happen, that what had taken place in the old woman’s office was a sort of mistake, perhaps. Anyway, he seemed familiar and part of the natural order of things.
Finally, I moved away rather sheepishly. I’m ashamed to admit it but I felt as if they were ignoring me to some extent.
Esther looked up at the old man. “Thank you. I’m sorry to do this to you …”
“No, no, don’t apologise. Good grief, after all, if you can’t have a bloody good cry now, when can you? Oh, do excuse me my dear, I have a foul mouth. Poor upbringing, that’s my excuse. Low, very low.”
A man in tails and a black tie entered carrying an elaborately laid out tea tray.
“Ah, tea. There you are, that’s the English. Always tea in a crisis! That’s all we can do – drink tea and cry! Fat lot of bloody good that does! You know, I didn’t want to do this at all. I haven’t been in the business long and they shoved this in my face as the buggers always do – oh, I beg your pardon my dear – probably because you’re English (well, fair enough really when you think about it) – but, you see, well, one never knows quite how to go about it – one never knows – well, listen to me blabbing on, eh! Fine Consoler I am. Come on! Tea! Tea! Tea!” He was an extraordinary man. He had made Esther smile with his anachronistic manners and his cranky expressions. Yes, she smiled. It was the first time I had seen her smile since death. We passed through the opening beneath the great, felt curtain and found ourselves in the library.
The sun was dawning through immense windows and a fire was dwindling away in the great hearth. Two ancient Dalmatians drew themselves up and wagged their tails slowly and sleepily. One licked the palm of my hand and left his head on my knee after we had settled into a vast settee. The other flopped down upon Esther’s feet and she put out her hand into mine.
Paul lit his pipe and stretched back in a hooded arm chair. I don’t remember how we got to know his name. He certainly never told us and we didn’t ask anyone but it may have just come up in conversation. The man in tails served the tea silently and withdrew.
“Ah, that is better!” Paul set down his cup with great satisfaction. “You know, of course, that in theory we do not have any corporeal manifestation and that the processes of both growth and decay, of fatigue or revitalisation are supposed to be unknown to us but I still say a good cup of tea goes a long way – especially these days.” He paused and looked down at the dogs beside us. He seemed to be remembering lines or at least choosing his words very carefully despite his hearty, hale-fellow-well-met approach.
He sat forward and eyed us with great interest. “Now, I’m not a roundabout sort of chap, as you may well have already guessed, and I don’t believe in all that soft nonsense about letting people down gently, and so on – but, well, I do feel one can be decent about things. You’ve been treated awfully, of course, that goes without saying, but one ought to say it nonetheless. And I’m sorry, genuinely sorry.”
He paused to suck thoughtfully upon his pipe. The Labrador that had been resting its head upon my knee, shook its head suddenly and I noticed that it had left a warm damp patch where saliva had seeped out of its floppy chops. It yawned and settled down heavily upon my feet. I had the bizarre impression that this animal knew more about the whole proceeding than I ever would. After a few more moments, Paul went briskly on.
“However, yours is a familiar story, very familiar. You see, you should have come here straight away. It’s quite disgusting to let a nice couple like you out into the Corridor without the least preparation, and, of course, the admin. was totally fouled up. Bloody fools –oh, I beg your pardon my dear – and I must, of course, apologise for that unfortunate incident at the sorting office. Not their fault, not at all. They’re just paper pushers, suicides you know, not at all trained for this sort of thing. And, of course, always bitter, bitter as hell, but that’s what makes them so good at admin. And they really are you know – heartless, totally heartless, but they get the job done.” He leant forward and refilled our cups. I noticed his hands trembled though he managed not to spill any tea. He took a gulp from his cup and sat back into his seat.
“No, the problem is, well, it isn’t just one problem, of course, but the principle problem is the sheer numbers, and, obvious as it is to say it, there is no proper organisation over Death. That’s what’s so confoundedly irritating about the whole business!” He slapped his knee in frustration. He seemed suddenly genuinely annoyed.
“I’m sorry – a fine lot of rot I’m talking and not being of much consolation to you. And I’m breaking all the rules. Look,” he took out a small, beige pamphlet from his jacket hip pocket, “it says quite clearly here – ‘DO NOT TALK TOO MUCH’! Ha! Oh, I’m just a lonely old man you see, though I never have any time to myself. Oh, dear, not that I want it at all. No, no – it’s lovely to have you here.” He smiled rather uncertainly at us. He was, indeed, talking too much, but then, we were still dumb from shock. Sometimes words would come to me, but the idea of uttering them seemed somehow obscene.
“Now, I’m going to shut up and let you ask me questions. I can’t promise to give full satisfaction but I shall do my best. Now, as the Americans say, ‘Shoot!’ ” and he crossed his arms, looking suddenly very pleased with himself.
Esther sat forward on the sofa, holding her cup intensely in her hands as if some precious ointment that might solve all our suffering were gently lapping its sides. Then she looked up at him. “It’s just about Tom. We’d just like ..well, just to know if he’s alive or …” Her voice broke away and she shuddered into tears once more. I put my arms around her.
“I’m awfully sorry but I don’t quite follow ..err, who is Tom?”
“Our son,” I said. “He’s our son.” Paul raised his eyes to Heaven and sighed.
“Oh, my dears, I’m terribly sorry. They haven’t told me. Will you please excuse me a second. Mark, in here a moment.” He got up and whispered discreetly to the man in tails and disappeared through a door. Shortly afterwards, we could hear him shouting and swearing into a telephone in no uncertain terms.
Mark, the man in tails, offered us some more tea. “He’s a fine man, isn’t he? One of the best, you know. He’s helped me a great deal. I shouldn’t really be here. I should be behind some awful desk or something. But he went out of his way to help me. He really stuck his neck out.” He spoke with an almost indistinguishable foreign accent – perhaps Italian. He had smooth, jet black hair, slicked back and one of those worn, rocky faces of the aging Mediterranean, Lothario type. “You’re very lucky to have him, you know, but he insisted on taking your case. He was quite adamant about it. Oh, I don’t mean to say that you don’t deserve it, of course you do, very much so, and, well ... I know he sometimes uses the strong language …but I think it is his only fault.”
“Oh, he’s been a great help already,” I said. “Hasn’t he darling?”
“Yes, yes, we’re very grateful. He’s been wonderful. That lady in the office –she was so …”
“Yes, yes, I know but …well, as Paul has said, it is not their fault. They are not trained for this sort of thing. And you must remember that they are under tremendous pressure. They deserve our pity also. We try to see things that way.” Michael ran on. He had a boundless admiration for his master that was just a little sickening.
Paul strode back in, his whiskers bristling. “Thank you, Mark.” The man in tails withdrew to a discreet corner. Paul sat down. “There you are you see, there you are and there you have it.” He spread his hands out before him. “That I’m afraid is typical. Absolutely typical. Still, one can’t blame them for it; everyone does their best but this sort of thing is quite, quite unforgivable.” He sighed and sat back in his chair. Suddenly he looked terribly old and tired. He passed a hand over his face and felt slowly for his pipe. He sat forward again and filled his pipe methodically.
“You know, when I arrived here, everything went like clockwork. And, it must be said, my circumstances were by no means straightforward. But everything went without a hitch. I was disorientated, of course, but there was a natural sense to things, I just fitted in if you see what I mean. It can be done properly.” He lit up and puffed away in silence for a minute. Then he turned to us. “The straightforward answer to your question my dear is that we don’t know. Your son’s situation is not clear. He was in the car with you at the time of the accident and it was a terrible smash as you know. I’m sorry to bring back bad memories.
However, we simply don’t know if your son was killed, if he died a little while later which would explain the separation or if he survived the crash or what. Of course, I have to tell you now that he could quite simply be lost in the Corridor.”
“What! Not wandering around out there without –“
“Now steady my dear – it doesn’t help to panic –oh, my dear.” He got up and embraced Ester. Over her shoulder he looked up at me but avoided my gaze. His whole manner had changed. The confusion over our situation had obviously annoyed him and I rather got the impression that he wasn’t happy with Mark, as if he had committed some indiscretion, though I couldn’t be sure what.
He held Esther at arms length once more.
“Look, it’s early days yet. He may well be alive, but until we know, there is really nothing that can be done. Children are always difficult and this sort of thing is the very devil. But you see, you’re used to having things a bit black and white. Dead or alive, one or the other, and he may not be easy to classify. Sorry to put it like that but I don’t really fully understand it myself.” He stood up and walked over to the vast French windows. The dawn poured in around him and he blew smoke out through the cast iron rays of sunlight. “Of course, there are various stages in the Consolement Process that may prove revealing. There’s “Death be not Proud”, the Future Imperfect …err and so on and so forth, all of which could shed light on the matter. You’ve got to go through it all any way.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t really understand. What are all those things?” I asked.
“Sorry, I’m babbling on in an incomprehensible jargon. Sorry.” He came back over towards us and knelt down. “You’ve got to be very brave. The Consolement Process is made up of a number of different departments that are responsible for a number of different stages. One allows you to actually see how you died, should you wish to. Another allows you to see the lives that you might have lived had you not died. Another allows you … well, you’ll catch on. And, it is hoped that in this way you will come to a deeper understanding of the changes that have happened and, in time, come to accept this …this new way of being.” He looked down at his feet for a moment and then got up and knocked his pipe out into the fire. Esther looked at me – she was frightened and confused. So was I.
“Now, during this process, the plight of your son may well become clear or at least clearer. Suffice to say that we are doing all we can to get to the heart of the matter so as to avoid all this unpleasantness. One shouldn’t have to go through this sort of thing during Consolement. Sadly, however, we may not be able to help. Indeed, often we can’t, often it’s just out of hands.” He sighed making an expansive gesture with his creased, tired hands and sat down.
We didn’t understand. He seemed to assume that we knew so much that we couldn’t possibly know. We asked him to explain who was “They” and why it was out of his hands and so on, but he became rueful and philosophical and told us that some things just couldn’t be explained.
He lit his pipe again and puffed for a minute or two. The sound of the piano in the other room drifted through, only the tune had changed. It was a tune I recognised, a very famous tune but I don’t know much about music. It was a languorous, peaceful thing.
“Try to grasp this,” he said as if suddenly coming to from a daydream. “Before, when you were alive, you had objectives, ambitions, you worried about being late, morality, your family. You had diversions, sleep, leisure, work and so on –you fell in love, you liked, you hated . . . but you see, here there is – nothing. Just eternity and no other option, neither life nor death.” He sat back in his seat and puffed at his pipe again. Then he sat forward and smiled, turning to us.
“Now, naturally, all that sounds rather depressing. And for some people it’s just too much. That’s one of the purposes of the Corridor. The Unconsolable. You see, some people just won’t accept that they’re dead. Can’t do it. No. No matter what you say or do, they refuse to accept things as they are. And so they just keep walking and walking and hope that one day they will find a door back to where they came from. That’s why the suicides are so good, you see. They have work, they have occupation and of course they chose to come here. Some of them didn’t really intend to kill themselves and find it all a bit of a shock to begin with – but then they usually find their work a great help.
The Corridor has other purposes, naturally. It is a means of getting about, the main drag as it were, though personally I avoid it at all costs. It’s a painful business seeing all those wondering souls and you stand a very good chance of getting lost. I don’t know my way around at all. The admin. folk are pretty good at it but even they disappear for ages sometimes. Many people in the Corridor are simply lost. Nobody’s fault –it’s just the way things are. And then, of course, there are other cases. People who die in their sleep often fail to realise that they are not in a dream and perpetually expect to wakeup. Others are simply looking for some one and, indeed, it is a good place to find people but you need patience.
Now, this is very important. Children make up a disproportionate amount of the population in the Corridor. When children die, they often have absolutely no understanding of death and so can’t be Consoled. There is nothing to Console. They’re difficult, very difficult and even dangerous at times. Largely they want their mothers and that is the very devil. Often their mother is still alive and can’t be with them so they are hoping for the impossible and cannot progress. You have to accept things here to have any hope at all. And, if they yearn for their mother they can precipitate her death. It’s rare but sometimes it happens. And then you have a right mess, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Now that is precisely what is complicated about your case. You need to resolve this issue of your son.” He got up and walked over to the fire place. “You see, until you find out what’s happened, you’ll never be Consoled, you’ll never accept this place or its ways. That’s essential.” He looked out across the lawns that were dewy and glistening in the sunlight. They seemed to roll away to the horizon without end.
“The other problem, of course, will be your son’s reaction to you should you find him. You must make every effort to make him realise that he is dead. Now, has he had much experience of Death and things dying and so on? A relative, friend, pet dog, anything?”
“Yes, his pet rabbit died last year,” Esther began. “He found him in the morning. He was terribly upset. We tried to tell him that the rabbit had gone to Heaven and that he had gone to a better life.” She looked at me rather hopelessly. It wasn’t much. “Oh, and strangely enough, just a few days before the accident, he couldn’t sleep one night. He came downstairs - d’you remember Chris? – he had learnt about death and Heaven and stuff at school and he was very worried by the idea …well, he was a bit confused, of course, but … he just couldn’t really understand what it was all meant to be.”
“So what did you say? Try to remember exactly –it could be terribly important,” said Paul.
“Oh, well, I said that Heaven was so wonderful that we just couldn’t imagine what it would be like. It was happiness far beyond what we could possibly know on Earth.”
“I see.” Paul sighed and knocked his pipe out into the fireplace once more. He thought for a moment and then Michael came forward and whispered something into his ear. Paul nodded and waved him away.
“Well, we’ll all just have to do our best. Try not to worry too much about it. Ridiculous thing to say, I know, but I have seen similar cases and things often work themselves out in time. Now, I have to receive some other people in a moment. Would you mind stepping out into the garden? Now, remember the various stages of Consolement may well shed light on this and in the Corridor look out for the Beadles – the fat men with the funny hats and big staffs – they can often shove you in the right direction.”
We shook hands and we parted. We both looked at one another and then Esther just broke into tears. Our heads were spinning. I had got some vague idea of what we were meant to do but – the biggest problem was the total uncertainty of everything, the crude truth of death and the curt bleaching of our hearts as this lonely place soaked through us.
We went out into the garden.