Painting stories is a series where I share my current works. Sometimes it is how they came about. Sometimes it’s more of a story I associate with them.
Death came, as it often does, unexpectedly.
There had been no terror threat. No man acting suspiciously around the train. No driver dancing drunkenly towards the front carriage. Not even a bad weather forecast. When David swiped his ticket through the barrier and boarded carriage G, standard class, he was thinking about the outrageous price of coffee at Waterloo station – not his possible demise.
He wouldn’t leave the house if he did.
In the end, it was all down to a mistake – a mistake and dumb luck. The train driver misjudged the speed at which they were going around a bend, and lost control over the train, three of the carriages falling off the tracks and onto their sides. Most of the passengers got away with minor injuries.
David woke up with a killer headache. All around him, police and firemen were milling around, chatting in quiet voices. At first he wondered if he’d lost his hearing again – how was it possible for everyone to be solemn? And – as he rose – why wasn’t anybody shouting at him, forcing him to sit down? Did they not see he was injured? Was this how they treated victims of accidents?
A woman he recognised from his carriage lay on his right, her feet still tangled in the straps of her wheelchair. David bent down to help her, then paused. Should he wait for the professionals? He didn’t want to hurt her anymore than she already was. She could sue.
“Please,” she said. “Please, what is going on?”
Good question, thought David. Very good question.
“One you can ponder at another time,” someone said, and he turned to find a little man hurrying past him. He, too, seemed familiar. As he bent over to untangle the woman from her wheelchair, David realized he was the train manager. “Good grief, you young people really are useless aren’t you?”
“Excuse me!” David cried, but the man turned on him again.
“Excuse you indeed! You see a woman struggling and all you do is stare. It isn’t bad enough that we are stuck like this, but you also have to make it all more difficult. Shame on you.”
He opened his mouth to object, to shout loud enough for the police to take notice, and then he noticed the stretchers.
Three of them, laid parallel on the grass, as if they were about to receive patients any moment. Two of them had black bags laid on them. David looked past them and saw the paramedics maneuver a body into a bag.
“No way,” he said. There was no way.
“I’m afraid there is. And… hey, you’re not going to panic, are you?” Bud David was already going… going…
His headache was still going on when he woke up the second time. The disabled woman was sitting right next to him, and held out a hand to stop him from rising too fast.
“Stay calm,” she said. “We can still feel pain it seems – I doubt we’re immune to dizziness.”
Her voice sounded posh, and much too relaxed for someone who found themselves newly dead. David looked around – the train was still in the field, but the police and firemen had disappeared. It was quiet, and the sun was high in the sky.
“How long was I out?” he asked.
“A while. Greg went off to see if there are… others.”
David swallowed. “This is not how I imagined the afterlife,” he said. “Not at all.”
“May I ask, how did you imagine it?”
He looked at her again, a sense of confusion creeping over him as he took in the details of his fellow dead person. She had a voice like one of his clients – distinguished and rotten rich – but she would have never been let through the doors of the office, looking like she was. Badly dyed hair and huge, messy tattoos, shabby clothes… she was as far cry from the posh as he had been, once.
“Not… like this,” he said, at length. “Not at all, if I have to be honest. I thought I’d just… power down. Like a computer.”
“Well, I guess there is still time for that.”
Another pause. David attempted to sit and the feeling of nausea doubled him over. “Bollocks,” he said. “What happened? How did I die?”
The woman shrugged. Of course, how would she know? He was still focused on the bile rising in his throat, but he suddenly became aware of the fact that he was coming across as an arsehole. A useless arsehole, as the man – Greg – had said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, finally. “I haven’t even asked your name.”
“I never offered it.”
“Are you okay? You’re… taking this in very calmly.”
“Am I?” A smile now. “Give it a few moments. We cannot have all our breakdowns at once, can we?”
“I think I’m coming off mine,” David said. “So… whenever you’re ready.”
But she just kept smiling at him. Then she reached out her hand and pulled him sitting up, gently. Her grip was strong and firm. David found it really hard to look at her in the eye, so he trained his eyes on the tattoos on her collarbone and throat. The flowers were huge and garish, and yet so beautiful. He almost expected them to move in the breeze.
The thought stirred something in his head. A memory. He’d leaned closer to the open window to breathe in the air, trying to clear the last of the cobwebs from his brain. When the train had hit the bend, and the driver slammed on the breaks, his head slammed against the sharp edge, hard.
A knock on the head… had this been all? He looked down at himself and could not find any other traces of injury. Just the nausea and the migrane. It seemed surreal, and yet… he thought of the pills he took every morning, the warning he’d noted the first and only time he perused the information leaflet. DO NOT TAKE IN CONJUNCTION WITH OTHER BLOOD THINNERS.
He hadn’t stood a chance. “Bloody wonderful,” he said. “And now what?”
The woman shrugged. “Depends on whether you have family to haunt or not. Some people go bother their doctors. I don’t recommend it myself. Waste of energy.”
David gave her a confused look. She was still calm. Unnaturally calm.
“Greg…” he said at length “…he’s not out walking, is he?”
The woman gave a shrug. “Maybe he is. He came to his realization fast enough, and he was happy to move on. I’m just supposed to make sure he’s on the right track, doesn’t head somewhere he isn’t supposed to.”
She turned her chair, and David scurried away from her as fast as possible. “Oh dear,” she said. “You’re going to be one of the difficult ones, aren’t you?”
“Stay away from me,” he said, his panic rising. “Don’t touch me.”
“I won’t hurt you, David.”
“Stay away! I… I want back. Send me back.”
“Your body is dead,” she said, dispassionate. “Your brain shut down before the paramedics could get to you. You’d be a vegetable if you returned now. You would not even be able to move your own head without help.”
“Is this punishment? For not helping you?” he asked. “Did I fail a test?”
“Death does not judge, David.”
“Don’t touch me!” His panic rose, rose, rose. It seemed to seep out of him, turning into something completely different, something monstrous. “Don’t touch me.”
“Oh, dear.” A resigned sigh. Like she knew what was coming and she didn’t like it.
The panic engulfed him, swallowed him whole. He saw nothing. He heard nothing. He would rush back to his body – screw what the woman had said. He would live again. No one would stand in his way.
Then something changed. He felt himself becoming smaller, more flat. He struggled against it, but to no avail. The more he fought, the stronger the pull became.
Then the cloud cleared and he saw himself looking up at the woman’s face, as if… as if he was on her arm.
“Well,” she said. “I can’t say I’m surprised. You looked like a cactus type.”