I pause in the cool living room. I’m looking forward to making it all the way to the veranda and sunshine, but I pause anyway. Every wall in this room is covered in photos – almost all about me and fighter aircraft. I was such an egotist and still am in a way. I’m proud of how good I was and don’t mind people seeing it. Pride of place on the mantelpiece goes to photos of my long-gone husbands and lovers but also of my less numerous children and grandchildren.
The rest of the room displays pictures of me and my planes. There’s one, taken from so far away that even enhanced it’s still grainy, of me ejecting from a fighter. At first all you can see is a fireball. If you wave your hand near the photo it comes to life and you see me pop out upside-down in my ejector seat. Gyros cut in and the seat turns vertical, zooms up, and drops away as my chute opens and I start the tranquil descent to safety. At least it could have been tranquil. I was swearing through the bubbles of vomit trapped in my helmet. My neck hurt, my back hurt and the miracle defence system which should have convinced the enemy missile that my plane was somewhere else, clearly wasn’t very good at lying. I should have talked to the bloody missile myself.
Notwithstanding being let down, at least it was gently. I was picked up, taken back to base and given six days off to allow my spinal column to untie itself.
This room is a shrine to my ego. It wants a bigger room but I haven’t got one.
Ha! I’ve made it to the balcony. My walking stick thumps on the solid new eucalyptus planks my great grandson, Aron (what sort of a name is that?) has so expertly inserted in place of those that were getting a little thin. Aron … remarkable chap. Never lies or answers back, never doubts himself, never had a sleepless night due to a guilty conscience and never had an original though in his head. Should have been in air traffic control.
He talks to me as an equal, which is almost all good. The only problems being that he doesn’t realise how much wisdom I have due to my years and experience, and that I generally assume he has none.
Whereas my great granddaughter … talk of the devil. She’s pulled up a stool next to my easy-chair. She’s dressed in school uniform? Unusual that she would want to talk to me before school. I look harder. A little tension in her, lips slightly compressed, eyes slightly wide and dilated – and fixed totally on me. She’s even clutching a schoolbook, not that she’ll let me see in it. It’s a prop. Knuckles slightly blanched…
Everything is slightly about her. At my age you not only see slightly but you know not to ignore it. Your ship is slightly sinking, your plane slightly crashing, someone is slightly pregnant…
“Hello, my dear Miss Slightly. How are you this fine bright morning?” I let my eyes adjust to the harsh light, and scan our surroundings. The gum trees are all still there. Rusty the wallaby is standing hunched and looking at nothing much but, as ever, seems to be overwhelmed by it. So, all this slightly has nothing to do with the total destruction of the world. That’s good. All I went into the house for was a piss and I’d hate to have missed all the fun for something so urinary.
My great granddaughter Valerie (ghastly name), unlike Rusty, always looks at the world with a lack of trust and a fairly healthy disapproval. Right now she’s turned both up a couple of notches, but then it is me she’s looking at. How she manages to add mildly startled into the mix of expressions has always disturbed me.
“Miss Slightly?” she asks.
“Did you say you were making tea?”
“Don’t worry, I was only joking, but remember for next time.” I ease myself into the chair and hook my walking sick over the arm, making sure the ferrule sits in the hole a knot left on the floor – just there… “Next time happens in about three minutes, in case you were wondering. Now, young lady, clever, poised, intelligent and generally too good looking, in a bony sort of way, for your own good: what can I do for you…?”
“…in return for this cup of tea you were making.”
“Gran, stop interrupting and shut up.”
“You inherited your social skills gene from me. I like that.”
She rolls the exercise book and twists it. This is the unconscious and externalised body language for strangling something – or someone. I bat my eyelids, tilt my head and attempt to look cute.
She glances away, trying to find something to look at other than me. She tries Rusty, but that’s always a fail, so are the trees, the dust and the haze. She gives in and stares at me. “School essay. I sort of forgot it and it’s not an easy one to begin. It’s due this morning: pay attention. Were you ever religious?”
“You mean like praying?”
“Other than when I had a hangover or missed a period?”
Any other girl her age on the planet would have blushed – even if only slightly. She has no shame. “OK, I’ll be serious.” I point by jutting my chin at the nice cabinet my grandson made. “Fridge. There’s Pimm’s and ice in there. The glasses should be frosted too. Get one for yourself.”
Valerie puts the book in her bag, twists round and leans back in an exhibition of youthful flexibility that makes me want to spit. She says, “Just for you. I’m too young and going to school in twenty minutes.” She tugs the door open.
“No, you’re not. You want to talk serious? We have all day. How many of your teachers have fought a world war at Mach 2, subsequently made peace with the enemy, fought aliens in space, was rebuilt into the vigorous form you see before you after being vaporised, and made friends with the aliens as well? …the nice ones, anyway.”
Valerie’s body is almost horizontal, right hand gripping the balustrade, left hand on the jug. First her eyebrows go up, then down and then up again. They look like ailerons flapping in a breeze. She’s about to say something like ‘you’ll need to square that with Mother’ but I can do eyebrow too: an end of argument eyebrow.
Without even a grunt she sits up, rights the stool and holds the jug and two glasses in one hand. The fridge door closes with the faintest click only the work of a real craftsman can produce.
She grins. “We’re in business! But I ought to tell you Mother has banned me from taking anything you say seriously.”
“A small one for me.” I nod at the glasses.
“Sweet: I’m not to take that seriously…” This girl is too sharp for my own good.
Glasses clink, Pimm’s and lemonade mixture gurgles, ice clunks, fruit sploshes. Quite a lot of fruit – and quite a variety. Valerie glares at the fructuous medley and asks, “Is this a Pimm’s or some sort of teleportation accident?”
Rusty emerges from the dust cloud he caused in his enthusiastic hurtle onto the veranda. He’s here for fruit – the fruit from Pimm’s. However, it’s too early for him to start his staggering and lurching thing. I say to Valerie, “I was merely wanting to use up fruit that was going to waste otherwise.”
She sniffs her glass. “Fruit so old it was already lethally alcoholic. I see. Now tell me about religion.”
“In the beginning there was something which no one understands that exploded, for no obvious reason, into a universe and since then nothing has gone right. I blame it on God.”
She reaches into her bag. “Wait! I need that for the title.” Drawing out a notepad and balancing it on a knee, she clicks her pen. “Yes, this is all about religion. Everyone in school is religious. Well, 902 pupils representing 901 different religions. The remainder is me.”
“Let’s focus.” I sip my Pimm’s. “Ah … I think the Kiwi fruit may have been on the point of exploding. Where was I? Oh yes. So you’re the only atheist in the whole place?”
“That’s not a problem except that I don’t have anything to write about without getting on a soapbox and them kicking it away once they have the noose adjusted.” She passes a slice of orange to Rusty who drops it and licks it from the floorboards. “Except…” Valerie glances back to me. “You were dead and you’ve never talked about it.”
“It’s not a conversational subject in the main. ‘Had any interesting fatal accidents recently?’ was never going to be a great chap-up line. I generally approach men who can still breathe.”
Valerie taps the pen against a tooth. She’s wearing her ‘get on with it, you moron’ expression. I take a bigger sip this time – I think it’s going to be that sort of conversation. Here goes… “Did I meet God? No. Did I go to Heaven or Hell? No. Even the ferryman was on strike for a better company dental scheme.” Her eyes go from hot needles to super-heated diamond bullets. I really should try harder with these young people or they’ll end up … like me. “Alright, alright, I don’t remember anything on any of the occasions I was dead or should have been. Listen, and you can quote me on this, death doesn’t exist. It’s just as much an illusion as life.” My goodness, she’s writing that down. I’ve said something she’s taken seriously. I must take more care in future.
Her eyes flick up. I’m nailed again. I love this girl. She asks, “Life is an illusion?”
I wave my glass; ice tinkles. “I think so but after over a hundred years, roughly, give or take…”
“One hundred and eleven.”
“I’m baring my soul here. You asked for it. Look, when I realised that death doesn’t exist, life became a lot simpler. Oh, this is so hard and too early in the morning. Fine then, as a teenager I was far too serious and hated the world and myself. I tried to kill myself twice – and knew what I was doing: I never died. I’ve been shot down, shot up, poisoned, trapped under a collapsed building for two weeks and finally reduced to component atoms in a freak nuclear fusion phenomenon. Nothing worked. Either Death doesn’t exist or he’s been on the same dental plan walkout for over a century.” There, I ended with humour. I’m still afloat. That reminds me … Pimm’s.
“You said ‘Life became a lot simpler?’.”
This young lady is exhaustingly indestructible. “Of course. If you know you can’t die and no one around you can die either, you have to redefine everything. Think: say Rusty died but you know he cannot. Where has he gone? He hasn’t gone anywhere. Your whole concept of Rusty was flawed from the outset – but you still know Rusty was, and is, an entity: real.”
Valerie has frozen, pen still on the paper and leaving a line of which she’s quite unconscious. I want that page. I want to frame it. It’s pure art.
Almost lost in the haze shrouding the nearest spacecraft I see movement; that’s Jeanette, Valerie’s mother, approaching. I speak quickly before we’re interrupted, “The other side of the coin is that I died … should have died … before I had children. In which case you don’t exist – but you do.” I jut my chin at Valerie. “Write that down quickly before I forget it: I’m not usually so eloquent.” As she finishes, I add, “Jeanette is on her way and probably on the warpath.”
Valerie’s eyes widen and she looks in terror at her glass. I say, “Don’t go hiding your drink. When your mother sees that, she’ll know something serious is going on. I think I’ll get her to fly us just to the edge of space. It’s a great place for discussions like this. The problem with your essay is not that it’s hard to, as you said, begin: there’s just no way to end it.” I throw Rusty some fruit. It lands on his nose and a happy tongue whips it straight into his mouth.
©Gary Bonn, 2017