Eternal Love (extract)
Harry felt his daughters’ hands in his and managed a little squeeze. Then he closed his eyes and let the darkness take him. There was peace.
He awoke in another room, a bedroom of a house. At first he became aware of sunlight seeping through gaps in the window blinds, then the cream coloured walls, polished wood floor and multi-coloured blanket over the bed. He stretched his legs, sat up, and realised that he felt remarkably healthy. It wasn’t just better than before the illness, but better than he had felt for years, since before June had passed away. It took no effort to sit up and get out of the bed. He realised that he was still in the same pyjamas he had worn in the hospital, but now they seemed too small, as if he had grown a couple of inches in his sleep. Then he noticed a wooden cabinet, and a patterned fabric hanging on the wall. He stepped out of the bedroom into a lounge, with more wooden furniture, a colourful woven rug on the floor, a striped sofa and armchair, and a drinks cabinet stocked with several bottles. There were venetian blinds on the window, and although they were partially closed he could see it was sunny outside. He had never been to California, but this matched the impression of its homes he had got from a hundred TV programmes.
Harry looked through the blinds and saw a quiet street with large lawns in front of one storey houses, each with large windows and a porch. People were busying themselves in the gardens or in doorways, or sitting on their porches watching whatever passed by. It prompted him to smile; spending most of his life in Lewisham he had often thought it would be nice to live in a place like this. It would be good to step outside, but he wanted to change from his pyjamas into daytime clothes and wondered if there was anything for him in the house. Stepping back into the bedroom he caught sight of himself in a full length mirror and stopped in disbelief. In front of him was a man in early middle age, a couple of inches taller, mildly muscular with clear skin and thick brown hair. For a full minute he stared at himself, recognising the man he had been nearly fifty years before, delighted by what death had done. Then a figure appeared behind him, a man of about the same age dressed in a white polo shirt and beige chinos.
“Like what you see?”
Harry turned to face him but struggled to find the words.
“Don’t mind,” the man said. “A lot of people find it difficult to take in that first sight of themselves.”
“Who are you?”
“Gabriel? The archangel?”
“No. Just Gabe. The other guy works on all the big stuff. I’m one of the welcome agents.”
“Welcome to Heaven.”
He held out his hand. Harry took it and was impressed by Gabe’s grip, strong but not intimidating. Yes, he did feel welcome. He couldn’t stop himself glancing back at the mirror.
“You must have been thirty-six, thirty-seven, when you felt you were in your prime,” Gabe said.
“Maybe. I think so. But how?”
“It’s what happens when you come here. Your appearance takes on the form of when you felt at your best. For some people it’s late teens, early twenties, but they’re the ones who never really grow up. Most people are like you, late thirties, early forties, when everything’s still working and you haven’t started to wrinkle, and you’ve matured, discovered what type of person you are.”
“So this is how I stay?”
“If you want. You can grow your hair, a beard, get a tattoo. Most people experiment after a while, but you’ll be recognisable.”
Harry looked at himself in the mirror and felt the delight all over again. He liked the idea.
“You look good,” Gabe said.
“You can change. There’s a closet in the bedroom. Plenty of clothes there, all your size. If you’d like to shower and change, I’ll make you breakfast.”
“Is that your job?”
“Only for today. It’s part of the welcome service.”
Gabe left him to look through the bedroom closet. There weren’t many clothes but they were all good quality and suited the way he saw himself; a couple of pairs of slacks and a couple of chinos, two sports jackets, half a dozen polo shirts, a couple of formal, long sleeved shirts and three pullovers, plus plenty of underwear and three pairs of shoes. He held a couple of the shirts against his chest and was tempted to try everything on, reckoning it would make him look like one of those men from the glossy magazine ads he had admired in the 1960s. He took a shower, wondering what they used to heat the water up here, and chose a red polo shirt with dark blue chinos and black shoes. He felt ready to explore outside, that he could do without breakfast. Gabe must have guessed what he was thinking.
“Come and eat first. I need to explain a few things before you go exploring.”
They sat at the kitchen table, drinking fresh coffee and eating very nice Danish pastries. Harry asked where they came from, half expecting that he just had to open a cupboard to find what he wanted. Gabe told him there was a supermarket down the road, that everybody had to look after themselves and keep to some kind of routine. Harry remembered that June had liked coffee and Danish, even though it only caught on in England a few years before she died. Then he felt a twinge of guilt at not having thought of her since he woke up.
“Is my wife here? Shouldn’t she be here for breakfast?”
“She’s here, but in a different part of Heaven.”
“A different part? Why? What’s she done?”
“Nothing wrong, but she’s been here for longer than you. She arrived twenty years ago.”
“But surely this place was for both of us.”
“I told you there were things I needed to explain, but let me finish my Danish first.” .............................
(The full story appears in Perversities of Faith)