Something is pressing against, gently rubbing, my arm, bringing me back from sleep. I open my eyes and there, leaning over me, wan and tear-stained, but wearing a fragile, hopeful smile, is Ellen.
I gasp in astonishment and sit up as she retreats to the end of my bed, where she seats herself. Her hair and clothes are dishevelled, and she wears an odd expression that suggests both elation and despair.
“Ellen!” I exclaim, staring at her wide-eyed. “O, Ellen! I… I don’t know what to say – is it really you?”
She nods. “Yes,” she says softly. “It is.”
A part of me knows she is dead, but her presence is too real to doubt. She is gone; she is here. Whatever the case is, my joy at the sight of her is overwhelming. “Ellen,” I breathe reverently, “I love you.”
She looks searchingly at me. “Really?” she asks, “truly?”
“Yes – truly,” I tell her, while adding to myself; madly, deeply.
She hugs her legs to her chest and, resting her head, sideways, on her knees, regards me silently. Then she asks; “Will you do something for me?”
“Of course!” I reply. “Anything! Whatever you want, Ellen. Just name it.”
She fixes me with a stern gaze. “What you are planning – don’t do it. Promise me you won’t.”
“What, you what me to promise not to kill Tony?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes!” she exclaims. “Don’t kill Tony. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill anyone. Promise?”
“But Ellen, he deserves to die! He betrayed you, destroyed you! He’s an evil, adulterous bastard! Who knows how many other women he’ll misuse, has misused throughout his pitiful life? I want to avenge you, Ellen; I want to be your knight in shining armour. I want to ensure that justice is done. And, as for myself, I’ve had enough. Why shouldn’t I end my life, like you did? Why can’t I join you in death?”
“Because it’s wrong, Tim, it’s all so wrong!” Ellen’s voice is strained, wavering, and tears stream down her face. “Tony’s not evil, he doesn’t deserve to die, and he didn’t cause me to kill myself – that was my own stupid idea. It was wrong of me, Tim; so, so wrong! I just wanted the pain to end, but it didn’t; it didn’t solve anything! It was a huge, horrendous mistake that I wish I could undo – but I can’t. There’s nothing I, nor you, nor anyone, can do to put right what I did. But what you want to do will make everything far, far worse. You have no idea the harm it will cause, not just to Tony and his family, and yourself and yours, but also to me. Damned by my own hand, I would be double-damned by yours, and we would both be locked in pain and suffering for longer than you could possibly imagine.”
Her tears are distressing enough to behold, but her words are devastating. “What can I do, then, Ellen?” I ask quietly. The thought of going back to living how I had been, working in the same office, continuing the same pointless routine day after day, year after year, leaves me feeling utterly sick. “All my hope is gone. I don’t want to live any more. I don’t know if I can.”
“I’m sorry, Tim,” she says gently. “I know it’s difficult, and I know that what I have done has hurt you a great dealt – and I’m so sorry for that – but you have to be strong. Have faith, and things will get better.”
“Faith? Faith in what?” I ask, a little testily. “I’m an atheist, Ellen, not a believer. What am I supposed to have faith in?”
She sighs. “Things may appear hopeless now, but, if you take the right steps, that will change. In the meantime, if you do love me, then have faith in me, and know that I’ll be with you, every moment of every day.”
My heart nearly leaps from my chest. “You’ll be with me?”
“Yes, I will. Though you may not be able to see me, I’ll be there. And, come tomorrow night, we will talk again.”
“If you’ll be with me, Ellen, I’ll be able to face anything. I will fear nothing.”
She smiles at me then, smiles her most beautiful smile – a smile of love and empathy, joy and triumph. “I hope so,” she says.
* * * * * * * *
I woke up, again – really woke up this time, not dreamt I had.
I was alone, and there was no trace of Ellen, no sign of her at all; no rumple on my duvet, no lingering scent in the air.
I was emotionally torn; ecstatic at the sight of Ellen, at hearing her tell me that she was with me, but also dismayed by the extent of her suffering, which her suicide had apparently only exacerbated.
I had been able to disregard the nightmare I’d had on the day following Ellen’s funeral, but this dream I couldn’t dismiss; Ellen’s distress had been tangible, and I had to respond to it.
My turmoil made me restless, and my room seemed suddenly stifling and oppressive. So I got out of bed, stepped over to the window, pulled wide the curtains, and opened the window a crack to let in some cold winter air. The full moon was low in the sky, shinning directly into my face. Conflicting emotions surged within me, but, as I stood before that celestial orb, a sense of peace fell upon me. I remained there for a minute, allowing my mind to calm, until a monstrous cloud, crawling slowly across the sky, engulfed the moon – yet, somehow, my bedroom was still washed with radiance.
And then I realised that the light was not coming from outside, but from within my room; from behind me. I turned around and there, standing near the door, watching me with the same brilliant smile she had been wearing at my dream’s end, was Ellen. She glowed with a silver luminescence, and I dropped to my knees in awe and wonder. Happiness filled my heart to over-flowing; it poured through my body and brain.
“I promise, Ellen,” I vowed to her then, “I promise not to kill Tony. Or myself.”
Something dark and hard within me, within the core of my being, something clenched, like a granite fist, suddenly loosened; became less dark, less hard. At the same time, the light beaming from Ellen intensified, became almost dazzling, and, for a second, it seemed that a pair of great, white wings had sprouted from her back, and a shimmering halo had appeared above her head.
Then the cloud passed, and the moonlight streamed again through my window, and I was once more by myself in my bedroom.
But I knew I was not alone.
Monday morning I awoke, clear-headed, deliriously happy, and full of love, but not knowing quite why.
Then I remembered.
“Thank you, Ellen!” I called out and gazed around my room, trying to catch sight of some ethereal indication of her being. There was, naturally enough, none, and I laughed at myself for imagining that there might be, as if an intangible spirit could be perceived, like a special effect in a movie. A scene from the film Predator popped into my mind, and I laughed harder.
Once my mirth had subsided, I jumped out of bed, threw some clothes on and hurried downstairs to my living room. I sat down in front of Ellen’s picture and grinned like a maniac. I whispered to the picture, “I love you.” She just smiled knowingly back at me. I could sense her close presence; it was as if she were sitting right next to me, the two of us side by side on my sofa.
I skipped breakfast – my stomach was too full of joy to fit food in as well. I walked around the house, unsure what to do with myself but unable to sit down. Then I saw the envelope containing the letter I’d written to my mum, and started laughing again. Giggling like crazy, I ripped open the envelope, extracted the letter, and tore it to shreds.
That was satisfying. I wondered what I should do next, then remembered I was supposed to be going to work. The idea was preposterously funny, and I started laughing again as I got myself together, put on my shoes, coat, scarf and hat, and headed out the door.
Outside, everything seemed so much brighter and more beautiful than normal. The air itself seemed alive; everything pulsed with vitality, as if lit from within. I walked down the street in a daze, staring at the trees, the houses, the people. It was all wonderful.
Arriving at the office, I was all smiles and cheery greetings. This was not my usual behaviour, and my open, upbeat mood attracted some comments.
“Why,” said Joan to me in the early afternoon. “Aren’t we t’ cat who got t’ cream?”
“Joan,” I replied, “If I was a cat, I’d be purring so loudly the building would shake.”
“Nice for some, I’m sure,”
“Nice doesn’t do it justice, Joan.” I told her. I knew she was just fishing, trying to find out what had happened to me for such a drastic change of behaviour to occur, but I wasn’t about to let any cats out of any bags, or, indeed, set them amongst any pigeons – whether they were purring or not. So I changed the subject, and asked; “Where’s Tony?”
“Oh, ‘e called in sick; not surprisin’ really, ‘e – now, what’s so funny?”
I was laughing so hard I could barely remain standing. In all my murderous planning, I hadn’t once considered the possibility that Tony might not be in the office on the day I turned up to end his life. It seemed rude of him, somehow. I could just imagine the panic that would have filled my mind if I’d posted that letter, only to get into work to discover that Tony was absent. What would I have done then? It didn’t bear thinking about.
It was all too amusing. Joan gave me an odd look and wandered away, muttering under her breath.
* * * * * * * *
“Hi honey, I’m home!” I shouted, stepping through my front door.
It had been quite a day; my ribs were hurting from laughing so much, and I was famished, as I’d not bothered with lunch and so hadn’t eaten anything since the previous night.
However, before doing anything else, I went and sat in front of Ellen’s picture. “Thank you, Ellen,” I said to her. “Thank you so much. I love you.”
After a few minutes I was calm and relaxed. “Hmm, what to have for dinner?” I wondered aloud. As there wasn’t much to eat in the house I decided to treat myself. I went to the off-licence and bought myself a very nice bottle of Merlot, then popped in to the local take-away to pick up some fish and chips.
Sitting down again before Ellen’s image, my feast laid out before me, I raised a glass to her. “Cheers!” I said, and then got stuck in.
It was delicious.
After I’d finished eating and washed up, I felt quite exhausted, and an early night seemed the order of the day. Before I retired I stood at the window and regarded the moon, and a thrill of hope and elation shivered through me. “Thank you,” I said, and, leaving the curtains open to allow the moonlight to bathe me whilst I slept, climbed into bed.
* * * * * * * *
A soft, moist pressure on my forehead rouses me.
I smile, and open my eyes.
“Hi, sleepy-head,” Ellen says as she moves away and sits on the floor, her back against the wall facing my bed.
“Hi, Ellen,” I reply. “Thanks for coming to see me.”
She chuckles. “You’re welcome. But please, call me Ellie. All my friends do.”
My heart feels like it is going to burst with happiness. “Okay, Ellie,” I say meekly.
I notice that she looks completely normal now. She is simply herself; radiant and beautiful, with a warm and ever-so-slightly mischievous smile on her lips. Her eyes twinkle with mirth and joy. She is the most lovely sight I have seen in all my life.
I sit up in bed, gathering my duvet around me, and for a minute or two we just look at each other.
I decide to break the silence. “Oh, Ellie, it was so funny today – I went to the office and Tony wasn’t in! I wouldn’t have been able to… to do as I planned, anyway.”
“I know,” she says lightly. “I was there.”
“Oh, of course,” I say, a little ashamed. “I know you were, but…” I let the sentence trail off.
We lapse into silence again for a few seconds, before I realise I have some questions I want to ask her. “How did you know that I wanted to kill Tony?”
“I was there, at the funeral, and I saw you… I saw your pain and hopelessness, saw that your life had become unbearable to you, and then, as you walked home, I saw the anger and hatred toward Tony grow within you, knew the course of action you were choosing.”
“Does everyone attend their own funeral?”
She doesn’t reply for a moment, then shakes her head. “I can’t say. I don’t know. What makes you think that I would?”
I’m unsure how to respond, and, despite my delight at her visible presence, feel somewhat frustrated by the conversation. “Ellie – how is any of this possible? I don’t believe in any such thing as ghosts, or spirits, or an afterlife. I don’t feel like I’m losing my mind, but I’m sure if I told anybody about this, they’d think I had.”
“I can’t explain it to you, and it probably wouldn’t help if I could. Just accept the situation for now; don’t worry.”
“But weren’t – I mean, aren’t – you a Christian? Shouldn’t you be… somewhere else right now?” I don’t want to name the options.
She laughs once more. “Very discretely put! But, again, I’m afraid I can’t give you any answers; they would just cause you more confusion. In order to comprehend these things, you must walk a path.”
“Any old path, or a particular path?” I respond jokingly. “Is it nearby?”
She assumes a mock expression of anger. “Don’t be irreverent! I’ll tell you more tomorrow. No more questions tonight.”
“So, you’re going to keep on visiting me every night?”
Her mock anger turns to sham fury; “Isn’t that another question?”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” I say, raising my hands defensively. “It’s just that you make me so happy. I don’t know what I’d do if you went away again.”
All pretence drops from her face and she regards me in a maternal manner. “You don’t need to upset yourself on that score. As I promised yesterday, I’ll be with you, every single second of every single day. You are in my care now, for as long as you need me. I will not abandon you.”
It’s nearly more than I can bear, and it’s a struggle to speak, but I manage to blurt out, “Thank you, Ellie, thank you so much. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve your attention.”
“Well, then,” she says gently, “why don’t we see if we can find out? Tell me about yourself – about you and your family.”
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. “But it’s not an interesting story, nor a happy one. Are you really sure you want to hear it? I can’t think of anything worse than a story that’s dull and depressing!”
Laughing, she commands, “Just get on with it!”
I spend a minute or so composing myself, thinking about where to being. I decide to start with my father; a very practical working-class man, who always kept himself busy with one thing or another. He had worked as a mechanic and bus driver, and had served in World War II. He reached retirement, then his health deteriorated and he died of cancer not many years later; I was fifteen at the time. He had married twice; his first wife had died when he was in his forties, and then he had met my mum, who was then in her early twenties. He already had four kids by his first wife (two boys, two girls – my half brothers and sisters), and my mum produced another six (five boys, one girl). I was the last boy, his seventh son, and my sister followed me to complete the family.
My father hadn’t liked me, mostly for the simple fact that we were very different from one another, as I took more after my mother than after him. I was sensitive, and a thinker rather than a doer, preferring to read books than play outside, and quite happy to sit on my own and day-dream rather than find some activity to engage in – all of which convinced my father that I was a lazy lay-about. What seemed to put the icing on the cake was my being left-handed, or, as he called it, cack-handed. He made no attempts to conceal his disdain for me, and I was left in no doubt that, so far as he was concerned, I was thoroughly useless, worthless, and wrong; a misfit – unwanted and unneeded; the black sheep of the family. Unsurprisingly, his attitude resulted in me becoming more and more withdrawn and thoughtful, which exaggerated the very qualities that he found displeasing.
My mother was a loving and caring woman. She adored children, particularly babies, which is why she had so many. Because of this, although she did love me, she didn’t have much time to spare for me. She had two children with severe health problems; the first, my brother Ed, born mentally and physically disabled due to an illness my mum suffered during the pregnancy, and the other, my brother Ken, born with a hole in his heart. Therefore, her hands were quite full, and, as she told me years after my childhood had finished, I appeared to be bright and able to amuse myself without causing, or getting into, any trouble, so she didn’t see any need to get involved. I appeared to be doing okay by myself.
How deceptive appearances can be.
You might think, with such a large family, I’d be very sociable and used to being in a crowd, but nothing could be further from the truth. I did my best to avoid my father wherever possible, so I’d sneak off and find somewhere to hide by myself. I was also five years younger than my next older brother, Terry, so not really of age to take part in the games he played. My sister, Mary, was only two years younger than me, and we got on together for the most part, but still, she was a girl and wanted to play with other girls. Consequently I spent a lot of time on my own, and socialised very little. The impact of this was that when I came of an age to go to school I had little idea how to interact with the other kids.
Alone and marginalised at home; alone and bewildered in the classroom.
My sensitive nature, coupled with the caring disposition I’d inherited from my mother and the lack of self-worth my father had instilled in me, had brought me to despair by the time I’d reached twelve years of age. By then, I was aware enough to know about the immense suffering in the world, intelligent enough to realise that for the most part it wasn’t necessary, and convinced that I was too pathetic to do anything about it. I hated myself, and hated the society in which I lived; I wanted to die, or, better still, to have never been born.
I tried to be patient, to convince myself that I didn’t know everything, that things could change, even if I didn’t see how; that one day I might have a more optimistic understanding of the world, and that it might become a better place without my intervention.
But then, after a couple of years of this grim existence, came the straw that broke the camel’s back; love. There was a girl in my class, Katherine, who was beautiful and intelligent, had a lively sense of humour, and who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. How could I not love her? I’m sure some of the teachers thought she was a mischief-maker, and she certainly had a rebellious side but, nonetheless, to me she was a wonder and a delight.
Such a girl would, I was sure, never be interested in someone like me.
I had been able to withstand the daily nonsense of life until then. I could cope with the stupidity and meaninglessness of it all, but being in love with someone who would never return that love – this was just too much to deal with at that tender age. The bitter, heart-destroying joy of seeing her every day at school, wanting to be with her but knowing that she would reject me if I asked her to go out with me, started to rip me apart.
I was crying myself to sleep every night at this point – crying very softly so that I wouldn’t disturb any of my family – and I grew very tired of this. I became ever more disgusted with myself, and eventually I’d had enough. All the arguments I’d come up with to stop me committing suicide seemed flawed and hollow; cowardly even. So, one night, after I’d run out of tears but hadn’t fallen asleep, I got out of bed and went to my desk, where I kept a Bowie knife, purchased for a school camping trip the previous year.
I took the knife, sat on my bed, and put the blade against my wrist. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ I asked myself. ‘Why shouldn’t I kill myself? My life is hopeless, I am unloved, and will always be unloved, so what is the point of living? Wouldn’t the world be a happier place without me?’ I searched for a single reason not to sink that blade into my flesh, to let my blood pour forth and my life flow out.
And a reason, indeed, came. I realised that I had a choice; I could simply kill myself, as I wanted, and so succeed in confirming the complete failure of my life, or I could just give up and forget about myself, forget any idea of being happy, of wanting to be loved, and instead devote myself to the happiness of others. Perhaps, if I dedicated myself selflessly, I might become something positive; perhaps I could make a difference to someone, somewhere, somehow.
It might work. I had to try at least, and if I failed, I could take my life at a later date.
So, sitting on my bed, knife in hand, I vowed to regard myself as being already dead; my life would no longer mean anything to me. The reason for my existence was now to help others. I would find a way to do something to make the world a better place, and so make amends for the insult I’d paid it by being born.
I returned the knife to my desk and got back into bed, filled with a strange and dispassionate sense of purpose.
After that night I never cried again – even if I wanted to, the most that would happen is my eyes would fill with water and a couple of weak, lonely tears would dribble down my face. I had vowed my life away, and with it went my capacity to weep; to express fully the depths of loss and sorrow.
I break off my story at this point. All the time I’d been talking, I had had my head bowed, had focused on my hands resting in my lap. Now I look up, look at Ellie to see how my story is affecting her.
Lines of grief are etched onto her face, and her eyes display a tortured empathy and a limitless compassion. I can sense that she shares my pain, knows it completely.
“Oh, Ellie, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to upset you.” I tell her. “I’ll stop there if you like.”
She shakes her head. “No, please go on. I want to hear the rest.”
“Okay,” I say, and resume.
The vow I had made, although it allowed me to step back from my own suffering for a while, did not address my negative feelings much. I still hated myself, and I realised that to do any good for anyone, I’d need to become someone who was confident and capable, rather than being crippled by self-doubt and despair.
I drew inspiration from the tales of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. I yearned to be like one of the knights in those stories; a brave, honourable, self-sacrificing hero who protects the weak and the poor, especially women and children. Adopting the archetype of the noble warrior, I began to study martial arts.
I worked hard to transform myself. I read countless self-help books, philosophical texts, spiritual manuals. I’d abandoned Christianity years before, as I simply couldn’t square the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God with the miserable, wretched world in which we live, but I still searched for some meaning and purpose to the universe. I was a thinker; perhaps I could contribute to the human intellectual endeavour – help to create a new, rational, life-affirming philosophy.
Another option was to be a writer. I loved reading, and wanted to give back some of the wonder and magic I’d found in books. But I didn’t know what to write; I had too many ideas. As soon as I’d written a few pages of one thing, I’d think of something better, so I just kept starting novels but never completing them.
By this time I’d finished school, and had gone to college and done my ‘A’ levels. I wanted to go straight from there to university, but my grades weren’t particularly good (I didn’t really care about exam results; I was more interested in finding out about the subjects themselves, and my studies would usually take me far away from the prescribed syllabi), and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to study for my degree. My first thought had been philosophy, but I had visited some universities and had interviews with their philosophy professors, and I hadn’t been impressed by any of them. So I stayed on at college for another year, learning secretarial skills. With these I was able to get a job in an office, working for a solicitor.
Another year passed before I re-applied for a place on a university course. By this time my interest in King Arthur had led me to explore the history of the Dark Ages and the preceding Roman and Iron Age periods in Britain, and also the culture and mythology of the Celtic people who inhabited the country throughout these times. This gave birth to a desire to study archaeology, both to investigate these particular areas more but also to understand human evolution and the cultural processes that had brought us to the present world we live in, with all its many faults. And this is what I did.
The gap between college and university proved very useful. I had gained some maturity, and discovered that I was competent enough to get work and keep it. This helped me feel secure, but I wanted to find out how I would cope living away from home, and studying at degree-level. It was something nobody in my working class family had done, so far as I was aware, so it seemed like a large step.
I also hoped that my time at university would resolve for me the question of what I was supposed to be doing with my life; to find out what direction I should be going in, in order to make whatever contribution I could for the good of the world. And, if there was nothing, if in the face of all the world’s suffering there were no solutions, just the grind and toil of daily life, then could I release myself from my vow? Could I just walk away from it, seek out happiness and love for myself?
The answer to that question I got soon enough. Surrounded by intelligent young women, I feel in love with one after another, but none of them wanted a romantic relationship with me. I was asked: “Can we just be friends?” time and time again; each iteration was like another nail going into my coffin, dooming me to loneliness. I began to despair again; I didn’t know what I should be doing, and what I wanted to happen didn’t look like it ever would.
Then I had an experience that altered my perspective – at least, for a while. It was outside of term-time, and I was with my family. Things were stressful, and I was particularly worried about one of my friends. I can’t recall the exact circumstances; all I remember is that one night endless joy, wonder and illumination were revealed to me. I understood, there and then, that what we take for reality is a delusion, that all things are one, that everything is made of light, and the name of that light is love.
For several months I was full of spontaneous happiness. Everything seemed so simple; life no longer seemed like a chore, it was more like a dance. I read with new enthusiasm religious and spiritual texts, seeking to understand the experience I’d had, and discovered that, although uncommon, it was by no means rare – the mystical experience; the direct perception of the non-duality of existence.
However, my good mood did not endure. The harsh elements of life, even if they were delusional, continued to impact my friends and family. I had, ironically, found happiness for myself – but I wasn’t interested in it. I wanted either to inspire others to joy and self-fulfilment, or to bring the utmost love to one person. It seemed somehow selfish and contradictory to be perfectly happy in oneself, and not endeavour to promote happiness to everyone.
Then university was over and I was back with my family. I got a job in the Civil Service and joined the rat race; I couldn’t think of anything else to do. But after a few years I decided to move on. I wanted to get away from my situation, live life on my own and try once more to contribute something to the world, to make it a better, happier place. Another motive, darker and more selfish, was the belief that if I didn’t leave my family and find a home elsewhere I would inevitably end up looking after Ed, my physically and mentally disabled brother – and such a prospect filled me with dread. I was sure that it would be a fate worse than death, that it would prevent me both from doing anything constructive for society, and from finding love. It would be a living purgatory, preceding a heaven-less death.
So, once I had saved up some money, I upped sticks and moved to another city. To start with I was happy, and filled with fresh hope, sure that I could turn my life in the direction I wanted it to go. But after a while I realised that I hadn’t changed anything, and I was soon working in the Civil Service again, spending my time wandering through the empty maze of modern-day life.
The years rolled by and my hope drained slowly away. I drifted into myself; gave up practising martial arts, lost contact with friends. I couldn’t seem to do anything, or think of anything that I could do, that would help anyone. It had all been a waste of time. I contemplated suicide once more, but decided to put off the question of whether to end my life or not until after my mother passed away. If I could not do anything to bring happiness to another human being, then at least I could refrain from doing anything that would cause another human being to suffer; and I knew my mum loved me, that she would be heart-broken if I took my own life.
There was only one bright thing in my life at this point… a woman I worked with, by the name of Ellen,whom I loved without being fully aware of the fact.
“And you know the rest,” I finish, and look up again.
Tears are rolling silently down her face, a vivid reminder of the hushed weeping of my early adolescent years. I can’t stand to see her cry, and my first thought is to leap out of bed and hug her, tell her that everything’s okay now, because she’s here. But then I remember that I’m naked under the duvet, so I stay sitting where I am.
“Oh, Tim,” she says. “I’m so sorry for all the suffering you’ve been through. You’ve been very brave, very patient and resilient. You didn’t deserve any of it.”
“Please don’t cry, Ellie,” I respond. “That’s all in the past. Now you’re with me, none of it matters. The story’s got a happy ending, you see?”
Her tears abate and she manages a smile. “I hope so,” she says.
I realise that the moonlight has gone and a soft glow, heralding the approaching dawn, suffuses the room. “You’re going to have to go now, aren’t you?” I say.
“Yes,” she replies. “Until the night.”
“Thanks for listening, Ellie. It was good to talk about it all.”
“You’re welcome, Tim. Now sleep well, and have a good day.”
“With you watching over me? It’ll be a wonderful.” I yawn, and shift about in my bed, resuming a horizontal posture, lying on my side, looking at her. “I really can’t explain what you mean to me,” I say. “It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life for you. I’ve fallen for so many women, hoping that I could be that someone who could make them happy, but my love has always been unrequited. And maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s the way it had to be, because I don’t know what would have happened if a woman had received my heart, and had given hers to me, and then things had gone wrong. What if she had tired of me and left? What if she had an accident, or caught a disease, and died? How would I have been able to carry on, having been loved, and then lost that love? I don’t think I could have. But you’re not going to leave me, are you? You’re not going to grow old. You’ve already died; what can harm you now?”
At some point during this monologue I had shut my eyes, and then, a few moments later, my mouth – continuing the words in my head, knowing that she’ll still be able to hear them.
The following morning I went to work with a spring in my step. And spring seemed to be in the very air; an early touch of warmth, signalling winter’s waning.
I felt like whistling, but this is an ability I simply do not have, so had to content myself with humming as I walked to the office.
The day passed in a blur. My colleagues remained nonplussed by my jolly mood and merry-making, and I offered them no explanation – what, exactly, could I tell them? They wouldn’t accept the truth, and I wasn’t prepared to lie.
I realised that my behaviour was ruffling a few feathers, but I didn’t care. I’d spent so long keeping my head down and trying to be invisible that I’d surely earned the right to make a spectacle of myself.
I dropped in on the shops on my way home, to pick up dinner and also buy some flowers. When I got in, I flourished the flowers and put them, together with the rest of the shopping, on the kitchen table while I searched for a vase. I knew I had one somewhere, but I couldn’t quite remember where I’d put it. I was about to give up and rescue from the recycling bin a few empty wine bottles to distribute the flowers amongst, when I thought of somewhere I’d not looked. I dashed up to my spare room, crossed the no-longer-cluttered floor and pulled wide the curtains. There, on the window sill, sat the vase I knew I owned, but couldn’t recall ever using. It had an oriental look; elegant, slender, plated in brass or bronze, with an etched abstract pattern. I’d purchased it in a charity shop, with the idea of giving it to a friend as a Christmas present, but had later found something else that suited her better. So I’d put it to one-side, and forgot – almost – all about it.
The flowers went into the vase, and the vase went behind the picture of Ellie on my sitting room table. “I hope you like them,” I whispered to her. Then, moved by whimsy and devotion, I carried a chair from my kitchen up to my bedroom. “Somewhere for you to sit tonight,” I said to the not-so-empty air.
I decided to treat myself to another curry, this time opting for a chicken tikka masala, then went to the off-licence and bought myself a selection of fine real ales.
Half an hour later my dinner arrived, and I had another fine repast, commencing with a toast to Ellie.
That day had been one of the happiest of my life. I went to bed smiling, looking forward to a visit from my angel.
* * * * * * * *
Someone is singing softly; I can’t hear the words clearly, but the melody is sweet and haunting.
I open my eyes. “Hi, Ellie,” I say, rolling onto my side; she is sat in the seat I provided for her, her hands folded on her lap.
She stops singing, and smiles at me. “Hi, Tim – and thank you for the flowers. And the chair; I appreciate the thought.”
“You’re more than welcome,” I reply, blushing with joy.
“I’ll do my best to answer your questions tonight… as this is the last time you’ll see me for a while.”
My heart sinks, and all I can say in response is, “Oh.”
“You have a difficult time ahead, but try not to be down-heartened. This is the beginning of your adventure; you still have time to achieve what you have sought for, for so long.”
“Achieve what? Other than you, I don’t care about anything any more. You make my life complete; what else could I want? What else matters?”
“Ah, if things were only as easy as that! But, I’m afraid, they’re not. You may be happy with things now, but, if you do not change yourself, the old issues will return. You’ll never be happy without knowing the truth, and the only way to know the truth is by experiencing it. It can’t be explained.”
I ponder her words, but can’t think of much to say in response to them. “I was full of questions yesterday, but now I don’t know what to ask. Last night you mentioned a path – tell me about it.”
“You will discover that yourself. ‘Seek, and ye shall find.’”
“That’s from the Bible, isn’t it? Do you want me to return to Christianity, Ellie? I’m not sure that I could.”
“No, Tim, I’m not saying that. You must find a path that suits you. I’ll say no more about the subject, other than some meditation might help.”
I had practised meditation many years earlier, after I finished university. I had enjoyed it, but had dropped out of the habit at some point and never picked it back up again.
I nod my head. “Okay. I know what I want to ask now; I told you about my life – will you tell me about yours?”
She does. Her story is not given as a straightforward narrative, as I’d tried to present mine, but rather as a series of anecdotes, full of touching details about her life: her childhood desire to be a ballerina, her employment at a veterinary surgeons’, her travels. Given her general good humour and wit, I’m not surprised that there is a lot of laughter in the telling, but what does catch me out is the sadness and sorrow she reveals. I had, prior to this point, thought we had little in common – now I discover that she, too, suffered with depression; a deeper, darker, and more disabling depression than my own. By her last, heart-broken days, she had come to feel completely lost, and was filled with a sense of hopelessness. No matter what she did, it seemed to her, she would continue to cause pain and misery, both to herself and to those around her.
“I just couldn’t face making any more mistakes,” she explains to me. “So I committed the biggest one of my life, and killed myself.”
Her story done, we sit in solemn silence for a space. Eventually, I ask, “Didn’t you realise how much it would hurt everyone who knew you?”
She shrugs her shoulders, then shakes her head. “Yes. No. I’m not sure – I wasn’t thinking straight. My mind had become… fragmented. I didn’t know what I was doing any more; nothing seemed quite real. But I’d convinced myself that, whatever it was that I was doing, it was for the best, for everyone. That it was better for me to take myself away, to a place where I could neither cause further suffering, nor experience any. And, of course, I was completely wrong – on both accounts.”
I grapple with a thought that has been lurking at the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to come forward into consciousness. “Could we have become friends, Ellie? While you were still alive? Would it have made any difference?”
“Oh, we could have been friends, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. I had many friends, and my family too; if all of them together didn’t dissuade me from my course, what makes you think that you could have? No, think it through, Tim – what do you think would have happened if we’d been friends?”
“I would have probably known more about your situation, and been even more distraught by your death. I might not have waited for the funeral; had I been aware of what went on between you and Tony, I might have decided to kill him sooner. And you might not have been able to stop me.”
“Yes, that’s probably right. We three would now be dead. We’d be three lost souls: lost to the world; lost to love; lost to hope. The chance of our being redeemed would be remote indeed.”
I stare at her as she gazes out the window; her face is composed, but sombre.
“What do you mean by ‘our being redeemed’?” I query.
“Simply, our liberation from suffering. Our escape from the woes of the world, into a state of serenity.”
I think about this for a minute. “I’ve been there before, Ellie – as I told you last night. It didn’t last; it didn’t solve anything. And doesn’t life inevitably contain suffering? Surely, if you’re beyond suffering, aren’t you sort of dead already? I had believed that death was the only way to escape from this horrible world… and now, it seems, I was wrong about that as well.”
“So, what do you believe now?”
I consider my beliefs, and how they have been challenged by the events of the last three days. “Now, I don’t know what to think. I was hoping you’d be able to give me some clues.”
She laughs. “You’ll understand, in time. And know that the experience that you had during your university days was not the full experience; it did not include the whole insight. That is why it didn’t last, why it didn’t satisfy you completely. But, for now, just know that it is only because of your love for me, and your wish to help others and not to cause suffering to them, that I have been able to reach you. You are a good person. Though you might have conceit and hatred in your heart, you are nonetheless not a person of ill-will. It is, in fact, your sense of justice and empathy that have caused you to become bitter. But there is hope for you, and in that hope, there is hope for me. You said last night that you didn’t know what you had done to deserve me; well, I could say the same about you. But together, we can help each other, and become the best that we can be.”
I marvel at her words; I’m filled with a delightful sense of pride and purpose, but at the same time realise that there is very large weight resting upon my shoulders. “What do I have to do?”
“I cannot – will not – tell you what to do. That is not my role. I’m here for you, will give you what guidance I can, but you must find and walk the path yourself. That’s part of the adventure.”
“Adventure – that’s the second time you’ve used that word! And it’s been a long time since I felt my life would hold any of it!”
“It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it. You’re both sensitive and resilient. You’ve got a good brain and a good heart. As well as all that, I know you don’t want to let me down, that you’ll strive harder for my salvation than you would your own. In that, there is both merit and danger.”
“You’ll discover that if it arises. Being pre-warned against it will not help; it will only make it worse.” She looks at me searchingly, as if she wants to say something more but isn’t sure she should. Evidently she decides against it; gives her head a little shake. “Ask me about something else.”
I realise that this is one thing that had been nagging at the back of my mind. “Just over a week ago I had a dream and you, or what seemed to be you, were in it. You threw a blood-stained shirt at me. Was that actually you?”
She looks away from me. “Yes and no. I was trying to contact you, but neither of us was in the right frame of mind. I had to wait a while, become clearer and more focused, before I could get through to you properly. What you experienced was only a touch of my consciousness, not real communication.”
“And, after tonight, I’m not going to see you for some time. Can you explain why, or at least tell my how long it will be?”
She pauses before answering. “Four weeks,” she says gently. “You’ll see me again in twenty-eight days. I won’t tell you the reason… It will be better if you work it out for yourself.”
“Okay, I’ll try. And thank you for telling me that much. It will be tough, but at least I know how long I’ll have to wait before I see you once more. It’s so nice, just to sit here and talk.”
“I like it too.” She says. “Whether we’re talking or not. You’re pleasant company.”
I blush joyfully once more, and happily abstain from further conversation. We stare at each other in the cool, silver light, enjoying the moment.
The moment stretches out into a minute, and I start to become lost in her; lost in her beautiful face, with her shining eyes and her half-moon smile – lips slightly parted, revealing perfect, pearl-like teeth. Then her individual elements seem to blur and merge, and I feel like I’m falling down a well toward a bright circle of water. I can hear waves lightly breaking on a beach, as if the sea is lovingly caressing the land, whispering: Hush… hush. This is followed by a playful tinkling sound, like the laughter of faeries. A sense of wonder and elation fill me, though I’ve no idea what’s happening.
Then I’m back in my bedroom, and Ellie is getting up off her chair. “Well, I must go now. Take good care of yourself over the next month, and remember all I’ve said.”
“I will, Ellie.” I say. “And, one last thing… I love you.”
She shimmers, radiantly, before me. “I love you too,” she replies, before fading from my sight, leaving behind an after-image that remains trapped on the inside of my eye-lids. It disappears only when I’ve returned to the depths of sleep.