I woke up in the coffin, felt a moment of panic, pushed up against the lid and gasped as it snapped and slid loose. A golden light bathed my face and air rushed into my lungs, thumping my heart to pump blood through my veins, a pulse of life to my ears, eyes, fingers, toes. I took a few long, deep breaths, realising they were the first in years, then placed my hands on the sides of the box. It was on the surface, not six feet down, and I rose to see sky, trees, tilting tombstones, coffins besides small mounds of earth, and the dead climbing out of their graves. Some were dressed in white shrouds, some in dark suits or dresses, others in clothing unlike any I had seen. Some were children, some in their prime, others ageing; but none were very old, none had the withered look of impending death. All looked around, staring into the world from which they had been removed for years, decades, even centuries. Their eyes conveyed a sense of amazement. They had come back from oblivion. The promise had been true. This was the resurrection.
I pulled myself out the box, felt grass on my fingers, a smell of freshly dug earth in my nose, a gentle breeze on my cheeks. For a moment I wobbled at the knees, but then stood upright and looked towards the source of light. It was sunlight without the sun, an accumulation of power exuding a benevolent energy that I had never felt in life. I stared, waiting for something to take shape, that human form in which we had always thought of the Almighty. Nothing emerged, but there was glorious feeling of goodness in the light.
Feet shuffled, bodies inched towards the source, the newly risen souls shared nervous glances and none dared to speak. From the corner of my eye I noticed a familiar face, my old friend Arthur. He had outlived me, but looked younger than when he had sat by my deathbed. It prompted me to look down at my hands then touch my cheeks. My skin was smoother, the liver spots and wrinkles had gone, and I moved more easily. I was no longer an old man. I glanced to the other side, caught a glimpse of a woman and felt a sting of recognition. Then I heard the whisper, wafting gently from God’s light.
“Heaven awaits. The ferry is at the riverside.”
All of us turned and looked to the path that ran beyond the churchyard and down the hill to the river. We could see the boat at the quayside, a tall man dressed in white laying a gangplank between the two. We stood still, looking from the river to each other and back. The whisper came again.
“You showed faith. You have eternal life.”
Still we waited. A couple of people took uncertain steps then halted. Others looked back to the light. I heard muted cries, looked around and saw the light had gone; there was just the hedge at the end of the churchyard with the trees beyond. Then a couple took steps towards the river. I turned and saw that more were moving. Everybody was on their way to Heaven.
As they walked they picked others from the crowd. People embraced and kissed. I heard cries of “Mother!” “My child!” “My love!” Again I noticed Arthur. We approached each other, shook hands, then slipped into a hug. I felt the stirring of a tear at seeing my friend again.
“How long did you live?” I asked.
“Seven years after you passed, but I was sick, often in pain. Death was a release.”
“And now this.”
“Now this … and whatever’s across the river.”
He stopped, I realised he was staring at a young woman who waited yards ahead. She smiled brightly, and I recognised her as Molly, his wife who had died far too young. Arthur ran towards her. I watched with delight as they embraced, then heard a woman’s voice.
I knew before I looked around that it was Vera. She looked at me with something like a smile, took my arms and pulled me into an embrace that was satisfied, but not quite loving.
“I knew we would be together again,” she said. “It was our faith in the Lord.”
“Faith in the Lord,” I said.
She turned me around, hooked her arm around mine and steered me towards the path and the river. It prompted a familiar feeling, that she was in control. I allowed her to lead, and thought of the day she had died, suddenly from a heart attack in this graveyard. It had been four years before my own death. They were the happiest of my life.
As we followed the path I noticed that some of the people remained alone while others had paired up with husbands and wives, parents, children, friends. Their expressions varied. Some were joyful, all smiles and tears as they broke their steps with hugs and kisses. Some were bemused, but appeared to be taking comfort from the crowd. Some were alone but looked happy, in a state of quiet delight at their resurrection. A few looked uncertain, alongside their partners in life but maybe reticent about what it would mean for eternity.
I looked at Vera. She was satisfied. It was what had always mattered to her. Satisfied. I distracted myself by looking for Arthur and Molly. They must have been somewhere in the procession, I couldn’t see, but I noticed that close to me was a relatively young woman who was also searching the crowd. For a moment we made eye contact and I noticed an expression of reluctance. Then the man beside her jerked her arm.
“Come on Bell!” he said loudly. “You’re as dozy now as before you died.”
She walked a little faster and I felt a moment of anger at her partner, then surprise at realising I could be angry in the afterlife. The procession squeezed in on itself, people brushing shoulders and slowing their pace. There seemed to be many more than could have been buried in the churchyard, and too many for the boat at the quayside. But it was the boat to Heaven, I thought, it must be able to keep taking people until everyone had boarded. We reached the river, I spotted Arthur and Molly and pointed them out to Vera.
“We should say hullo.”
“No we shouldn’t,” she said. “Never liked her in life. I’ve got no intention of being her friend in paradise.”
That disappointed me; Molly had been a friendly, sweet natured woman, the type of wife that Arthur had deserved. I hoped Vera’s attitude didn’t mean I couldn’t be their friend in paradise.
People began to step onto the deck of the boat. The ferryman guided them forward, assuring everyone there was no rush and they would be a long time in Heaven. We were towards the back of the queue and Vera began to jostle forward, holding me tightly by the hand, obviously impatient to be sure of her place. There was some grumbling in the crowd, a few bumped shoulders and trodden toes, and she was on the edge of the quay, one step from the boat deck. As she moved forward her grip loosened and I jerked my hand free, and it was a couple more steps before she looked back.
“Cecil! Come on!”
I hesitated, making a show of politely allowing two women, then a married couple, to step in front of me. The ferryman blocked the entrance and held up a hand.
“Sorry people,” he said. “I’ll have to come back for you.”
“Not long. A couple of hours, maybe a little more.”
He stepped onto the boat, and someone jumped back onto the quay. I saw it was the young woman I had noticed a minute before, and that her husband glaring from the deck.
“Bell! You daft cow! Get back ‘ere!”
“It’s too crowded for me!” she said. “I’ll be along later.”
Then the boat moved away, the man moved to the rail but the ferryman shooed him back.
“I’ll be waiting!” he shouted. It sounded like a warning.
Then I noticed Vera, her face set in a hard scowl. I would have a price to pay for …. I didn’t know …. whatever I had intended by holding back.
The people left on the quay moved back to the land. The young woman and I found ourselves beside each other, and two men, waving nervously at people on the boat. We all went back a little way up the path, then onto the grass where we could sit and watch for the boat’s return. The young woman and I glanced at each other a handful of times, and I noticed that her hairstyle was very different to any I had seen before, and she had been buried in a dress with a hem above her knees. After the fourth or fifth glance I shuffled over to sit beside her.
“I heard your name is Bell,” I said.
“That’s right. Short for Isabella.”
“That’s an old fashioned name. When were you …. alive?”
I told her, and we realised I had died almost thirty years before she was born. And by the look of her she had not been very old when she passed.
“Thirty-three,” she told me. “In a car accident.”
“I’m sorry, that’s sad.”
“That’s alright. It was over quickly.”
“Was your husband with you?”
“He was with me, driving the car, but he didn’t die. And he was drunk. And he had another twenty-three years.”
She said it in a matter-of-fact way, as if she wasn’t bitter but it still mattered.
“What about you?” she asked. “What took you in the end?”
“Old age, I would think.”
“You look good for it.”
“I know. I think it’s something to do with this resurrection business. Maybe I’ll look even younger when I get to the other side.”
“You’re handsome now.”
She smiled at me, and I realised it was something I hadn’t experienced since I was a young man – flirting. We went on talking, sharing little bits about our lives, what we had seen and done in the world, what we had liked, what had made us happy. She seemed to enjoy listening to me, and said it made life sound more interesting than all she had heard before about the “old days”. I did enjoy listening to her, hearing of some of the little wonders that had become everyday things by her lifetime; and when she talked about the clothes, the hairstyles, the music, I had the impression that life had become more fun after I had gone. Quite a while passed, at least a couple of hours, and I realised that she hadn’t mentioned her husband and I hadn’t mentioned Vera. It was odd when we were close to entering paradise. Then someone shouted “It’s back!” and we looked down to the river to see the ferry approaching. I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.
We stood up and walked down to the quayside. Others were on their way, a much smaller procession than before but most of them walking quickly, eager to get to the other side. But I noticed the two men who had been close to us, treading more slowly, almost reluctantly towards the boat, close together. Then I noticed they were squeezing hands, almost wishing for an embrace. I was shocked, but then sorry for them and wondered if that would be allowed when they had crossed.
A few people reached the quayside before us and stepped onto the boat. Then without any words, even a look between us, we stood aside to allow others to board. In a couple of minutes there was no-one else on shore, just me, Bell and the two men. The ferryman looked at us. I got the impression he wasn’t completely surprised at us dragging our feet.
“Are you getting on board?” he asked.
None of us answered or moved.
“I can’t wait for ever.”
One of the men spoke.
“Is it …. compulsory?”
“Do you mean crossing over?”
The man nodded his head.
“No,” the ferryman replied. “Not everybody goes.”
“Some people decide to stay.”
The four of us looked at each other, all bemused. I could tell that, like me, they had always believed that this was God’s great gift to us – eternal salvation. I asked the next question.
“If we don’t go, what will it mean?”
“Well you won’t be with God.”
I thought to myself that would that be a disappointment. Then I realised that neither would I be with Vera. I looked at Bell, then the two men, and guessed they were all having similar thoughts. I asked another question.
“And if we stay here?”
“Well the world’s still here. Less crowded, less going on, but no worries about food or drink. You make the best of it.”
So we could just stay. It was a frightening thought, not taking up God’s invitation to join Him on the other side, but part of me wanted to do it. I kept my eyes on the boat, noticing that the others were confused by our hesitation, and I thought of Bell beside me. Then I thought of God again. Then I thought of Vera. Then I thought of Bell. I wanted to ask her a very big question, but feared it was too much, that nobody had a right to ask it of anyone. Then I felt her hand slide into mine and squeeze.
“I think I’d like to stay,” she said. “If you’re staying.”
I looked into her eyes and saw something much brighter than I would find on the other side.
“I’ll stay,” I said.
“We’re staying,” the two men said. And as I looked aside they hugged each other, and kissed.
“Please yourselves,” said the ferryman. “I will come back occasionally, just in case there’s anyone around who wants to …. well you know.”
He stepped back onto the boat, closed the guardrail and pushed away from the quay. All of the passengers kept their eyes on us, clearly unable to understand why we hadn’t joined them. As the boat drew away the four of us turned and walked back up the path, through the churchyard and onto the road. The two men, still holding hands, turned to their right, towards the village. I felt an urge to turn left. Bell turned with me. We walked down the road, hedgerows to our sides, hills in the distance, the sun in the sky and I felt happy. Maybe this would be my paradise.