First published in BACK BRAIN RECLUSE in February 1989
“When anybody dies, there is always someone else who was the last person in the world that they saw before departing to whatever fate awaits their consciousness. The chances that this someone else is a complete stranger to the deceasee must, I guess, be pretty high. I often wonder where I’ll be, who’ll or what’ll be within sight, what I’ll be doing, what’ll I be listening to… In fact, turning it on its head for a moment, I may one day be that complete stranger as the last visual intake by one who is on the point of dying…”
The speaker was a florid gentleman in his fifties who lolled back on a deckchair, his voice flattened out by the strength of the warm wind. The deck of the cruise ship sloped both ways at the same time, it seemed to me, as I swallowed hard to keep the bile down.
I was on honeymoon: a holiday of a lifetime, I had imagined. Of course, the venue had been kept secret from Em until the last moment. We had left the quay in a small launch, laughing together, as we waved goodbye to all the good-hearted souls milling amid the party balloons. They had tied tin cans to the end of the launch, which we did not at first notice, because the roar of the sea prevented any rattling. However, we had a very angry launch captain cursing the “crazee Ingleesh” when the cans got tangled up with the propeller.
I loved Em. She was a childhood sweetheart, one whom I had first seen across the English infants’ playground, doodling with her toes in the dust. Em and I had been brought up in a very hot climate and us nippers often walked about nude—like the natives—and, from that day forth, we walked hand in hand. She became an essential part of me and I of her. So, our dream trip was to be as special as I could make it. The cruise ship was to make a tour of the most exotic spots imaginable, leaving the southern hemisphere for glorious Liverpool and Belfast as the first ports of call. We had heard legends of the northern home country but now, on honeymoon, we would have the opportunity to see these places for ourselves. My paternal grandmother was originally from Northern Ireland, my maternal grandfather an East India Docks man from Leyton Orient: I remember them squatting in the hot sun, letting their toes dangle in the bright blue rockpool, telling tales of those strange haunting lands.
The launch eventually delivered us up to the cruise liner—a day late, admittedly—but, luckily the crew had not finished the victualling until late on the previous evening, so we had not delayed them unduly. There were only three other passengers: the florid gentleman by the name of Mr Drewhart; a spinster lady called Ms Urquhart of an indeterminate age, who had taken to wearing the most revealing swimwear as soon as we were out in the open sea; a younger man who kept himself to himself.
And there were also Em and myself, the only two who shared a cabin. She was excited about the prospect of the trip, having only known about it for the last few hours: she had automatically assumed that we were to go island-hopping in the temperate gulf waters which would have been further than either of us had gone previously. In hindsight, I curse that I exceeded such ambitions and took poor Em into regions to which she was in no way suited.
Mr Drewhart told us how dismal Old England would be. We did not believe him (and told him so) for “my respectful grandparents of both bloodstreams told me, sir, that the place is full of interesting nooks and crannies, tall proud buildings where the happy workers live and fruit their stock, wide esplanades where gilded carriages wend from Coronation to Coronation, burnished architectural feats of Religion spiring into the varied skies…”
He would interrupt me with his philosophical ramblings concerning death, as if that were answer to every argument. So, from that time on, we took him with a pinch of sea-salt, putting him down as a natural melancholic.
The captain and his crew, as well as the other male passenger, kept their distance. They were blurred outlines at the fringes of our otherwise fevered excitements. Em and I had previously played sex games together, so had the highest expectations of the fore-, mid- and post-play that wedlock would entail. And, at first, we did live upon a wild shimmering plane of existence, a near continuous state of orgasm. If our cabin had had flies upon its walls, they would have spun violently round on their rumps in over-excitement at the sights they had seen. However, it all tailed off gradually, the nearer the cruiser carved its path into the grey sealands further north. … We imagined the dark faces of the cruiser’s crew spying on us; we saw them in every corner in whispering huddles. (Little did we know, but they were talking in undertones so that we would not worry about the unseasonal storms that had been forecast for the area.)
If it had not been for Ms Urquhart, I think Em and I would have jumped overboard, hand in hand. Despite the encroaching edge of the new winds, that lady still maintained the flimsy holiday garb, visibly shuddering as her hair flew about her face “like the black panicky flames of hell,” as Mr Drewhart put it. She would wave away that gentleman’s “silly remarks” and lean closer towards us, as all three of us sat in deckchairs, saying:
“Just because I myself haven’t hitched the knot doesn’t mean that I don’t know what you’re going through. I know that things don’t always go smoothly between married couples. But rest assured, dear people, love will certainly prevail.”
My eyes filled with tears. Em stared out to sea. Our hands were still entwined.
Ms Urquhart lay back on her deckchair. Another one flew across the planks in the snatching wind, like a striped awning stick-insect. Mr Drewhart sauntered towards us, smiling broadly:
“Don’t listen to that old bat.”
He nodded towards the now dozing spinster an walked on, rubbing his striped belly waistcoat.
Exactly when it was that Em had died, I was then and am still unsure. Her little hand had been colder anyway for some time, but now it stuck like ice. Her eyes flickered for the last time, I suspected, as the passenger with no name passed along the deck-rail between her and the sea, en route for the dining hall.
Along the horizon, I had been watching the distant misty shapes of dockside cranes rearing into the turbulent sky like stilted dragonflies. Unaccountably, I recalled those jokester wedding guests back home and wondered if they would send us a postcard.
Like life, the end was rather sudden.
Below is a representative passage from MARTIN PIPPIN IN THE APPLE-ORCHARD by Eleanor Farjeon (1921).
This is a magical book that I read many years ago and, having now rediscovered it, establishing that it is still magical!
Can you smell this passage below? I can.
He kicked at the dying log on the hearth, and sent a fountain of sparks up the chimney. The child threw a dry leaf and saw it shrivel, and Young Gerard stirred the white ash and blew up the embers, and held a fan of bracken to them, till the fire ran up its veins like life in the veins of a man, and the frond that had already lived and died became a gleaming spirit, and then it too fell in ashes among the ash. Then Young Gerard took a handful of twigs and branches, and began to build upon the ash a castle of many sorts of wood, and the child helped him, laying hazel on his beech and fir upon his oak; and often before their turret was quite reared a spark would catch at the dry fringes on the fir, or the brown oak-leaves, and one twig or another would vanish from the castle.
‘How quickly wood burns,’ said the child.
‘That’s the lovely part of it,’ said Young Gerard, ‘the fire is always changing and doing different things with it.’
And they watched the fire together, and smelled its smoke, that had as many smells as there were sorts of wood. Sometimes it was like roast coffee, and sometimes like roast chestnuts, and sometimes like incense. And they saw the lichen on old stumps crinkle into golden ferns, or fire run up a dead tail of creeper in a red S, and vanish in mid-air like an Indian boy climbing a rope, or crawl right through the middle of a birch-twig, making hieroglyphics that glowed and faded between the gray scales of the bark. And then suddenly it caught the whole scaffolding of their castle, and blazed up through the fir and oak and spiny thorns and dead leaves, and the bits of old bark all over blue-gray-green rot, and the young sprigs almost budding, and hissing with sap. And for one moment they saw all the skeleton and soul of the castle without its body, before it fell in.