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"AFTER LIFE"


"Where am I? I can't see. The light is so bleedin' bright."

"Give it a few moments and you'll adjust soon enough."

"But what's goin' on?"

You don't remember? You died yesterday."

"I did? So where am I? Is this heaven or hell?"

"Neither of those."

"So where are we? Some kind of purgatory or limbo?"

"No. You won't be here long. But, where you'll be going will be for forever."

"So, where am I then?"

"It's complicated. But we simply call it The Last Station."

"What do you mean: The Last Station?"

"Well, think of it this way, my friend. The Last Station is the connection between your life, which has now ended, and eternity."

"So what am I doin' here?"

"You're here to make a choice and then you leave."

"Choice? What kind of choice?"

"It's simple really. You have to choose your happiest memory, the most beautiful recollection of your life."

"But why?"

"Because, when you have done so, this memory will be your only memory for eternity and, believe me, eternity is a long time."

"That don't make any sense. Who made these stupid rules?"

"I have no idea. Who made the rules of quantum physics? Who made the rules of evolutionary biology? Sometimes things are just what they are. So, whether you like it or not, you have to choose a memory, my friend."

"Oh, bloody hell. I can't choose one moment."

"First, there is no hell. Second, of course you can make that choice of memory. I'm here to help you. Let's start by looking at your log. Name: Albert Wright. Age: 88. Cause of death: lung cancer."

"That's right. I never could give up smokin'. We all did it in those days. Started when I did me National Service. Never managed to give it up. People kept sayin' it would be the death of me. I guess they were right."

"So let's look at this life of yours, Albert. Let's see if we can find your happiest memory. It says here: Married. One son. Wife died. Never remarried - but you were not exactly a monk, were you? Do you want to choose a memory associated with your wife or your son?"

"It weren't the happiest of marriages, mate. And never saw much of the lad."

"So what about work? I see you were a plumber. Any special memory there? Or your love of football? A Millwall fan, I see. Oh dear."

"No, nuthin' comes to mind."

"Come on, Albert. You spent your life living in London, one of the greatest cities on earth. You must have had some fun there. There must be some memory that makes you smile with happiness. Perhaps it would help if you closed your eyes. Now ... what do you see?"

"Nuthin'."

"I know. Your eyes are closed!"

"No, it's not that. I can't see nuthin' in me memory."

"What memory? Have you found your happiest memory?"

"I think so."

"So, tell me about it."

"It were in the war. I were six when war broke out. I were evacuated. I were sent to a place in Wales. Hated it. Missed me mum like crazy. As soon as the blitz were over, I came back. Then, in the summer of '44, when our boys had landed in France, those bloody doodlebugs started comin' over."

"You mean the Vergeltungswaffe 1?"

"If you say so, mate, we just called it the doodlebug or the buzz-bomb. You were alright as long as you could hear the engine buzzing. You knew that some other poor bugger were going to get it. But, once the engine cut out, it came straight down and exploded. It were just luck or bad luck - the Germans couldn't aim those things. One afternoon, one of 'em flattened a whole row of houses at the end of our street includin' ours. Me dad was in Normandy somewhere - he came back eventually, a changed man. But me and me mum were in the kitchen."

"So what happened?"

"After the explosion, I couldn't see a damn thing. I were covered in masonry. Me hair, me eyes, me mouth - everythin' were full of bits of brick and wood and I dunno what. I couldn't move - somethin' was pinning me down. I couldn't call out - me mouth was too dry. And I couldn't see bloody nuthin'. But I could smell things - the explosive, I suppose. And I could hear things - me gaspin' for me breath, the house settlin' down on me, and rescue workers tryin' to shift the rumble. I'm tellin' yuh, mate. I thought I were going to die. I thought me mum were already dead."

"Oh dear, Albert ..."

"I dunno know how long it took. Time seemed to stand still. But a couple of firemen started to pull stuff off me back and then dragged me clear of what was left of the house. They poured water all over me face and at last I could see again. I looked at what were left of me home but couldn't see me mum. I looked up the street, I looked down the street, I looked behind me. I couldn't see her. But I could see shapes totally covered in blankets. Bodies. I thought one of them must be me mum but I didn't dare go and have a look."

"Sounds terrifying for a young child."

Yeh, it bloody were. But then, from round the back of the house, I heard screamin': 'Albert! Albert!! Al-bert!!!' Next, stumblin' over all those bloody bricks, I saw a ghost. She were covered in dust: her hair, her face, all her clothes. But I knew it were me mum. She ran at me. She knelt in front of me. She hugged me. She squeezed me. She cradled me in her arms. I were sobbin' and sobbin'. Then she pulled back a little and we just looked at each other. We looked a right pair, I can tell yuh. And we started laughin' and soon we were cacklin' like two crazy people. And then we both stopped. I laid me head on her chest and she put one hand on me head and the other around me shoulders. And we just stayed like that for what seemed for ever. We were so calm. We were so, so happy."

"It sounds just wonderful. So, is that your memory?"

"Yeh..."

"OK. We can do that. It's yours - forever."

**********

"What happened?"

"You died. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"

"I suppose so, but I look fine."

"Yes, you were very thorough. Standing on the tracks just down from a station where an express train doesn't stop gave the driver no chance to see you and stop in time. Your body was smashed up terribly - but our R & R Department did a good job."

"R & R. What's that?"

"The Recovery and Repair Department. We want you to look your best for what lies ahead."

"What do you mean: what lies ahead. I thought I was ending everything. I wanted to end everything."

"I know. But you have one last thing to do before we can let you go. You have to choose your happiest memory and this is the memory, the only memory, that you will have for the rest of time, for all eternity. So choose well."

"That's a tough one. I don't think that I can do that."

"I know it's hard. That's why I'm here to help you. So let's look at your log. Name: Jill Harvie. Age: 37. Cause of death: well, I think we've covered that. Let's see, it says here that you were an English teacher. Maybe we could start there. Were you happy as a teacher?"

"Most of the time, yes. I loved the actual teaching, but all the bureaucracy weighed me down. It was the children I loved. I know it sounds a bit sentimental, but I really thought that sometimes at least I made a real difference."

"I'm sure you did, Jill. So what happened? What led to you taking your own life?"

"I'd been feeling more and more pressured and stressed for some years. And then lockdown came. All the teaching went online. I didn't enjoy that. And I really, really missed the kids."

"But you weren't alone. It says here that you were living with your boyfriend, Mike, an IT consultant."

"That's right. But we were fairly early into the relationship when Covid came. When the whole country moved into lockdown, we had to make an immediate decision: live together or not see each other and we had no idea how long the pandemic would last. As the lockdown went on from one month after another, it was clear it wasn't going to work with Mike and, as soon as restrictions eased, he was off. I can't blame him. I wasn't in a good place. I'm not sure I am now."

"Don't worry. You won't be at The Last Station very long. Just long enough to choose that happiest memory. So Mike left you after a few months. You must have been distraught but, as a young, attractive woman, you could have moved on ..."

"You don't understand. Mike was the latest - and now I know the last - in a whole series of failed relationships. Many short, some longer. I tried all the major online sites: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge ... I met some really nice guys but somehow things never lasted. Meanwhile my biological clock was ticking: I'm 37 - that's getting late and who knows whether my partner and I would have been able to conceive? In itself, Mike leaving was not a big deal. But it was one more failed relationship and at a time when I already felt so incredibly low. The whole Covid thing was crushing me. I just wanted it all to end."

"I do feel for you - but you do still have to do one more thing: choose that memory. So your teaching and your relationships are probably no-go areas. What about your travel? I see that you've been to lots of countries. You must have had some good times."

"I've had some great times - but I don't know if there's one, and only one, that I want to have with me forever. I mean climbing to the crown of the Statue of Liberty in New York was such fun, walking across the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge was thrilling, sitting on the Diana seat at the Taj Mahal was romantic, but one memory ... Let me think ... Actually, perhaps there is one ..."

"Tell me about it."

"I once had a fabulous trip to South America travelling from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. I had some wonderful times but there's one that really lives with me."

"I'm listening."

"It was Iguassu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. I'd previously been to Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls, but Iguassu was something else. It was breathtaking."

"So that's your memory?"

"No - but it's where I had my memory. Iguassu Falls is in a national park and I stayed for a night in a hotel in the park. I remember going for a walk after dinner. I could hear the roaring and rumbling of the Falls. But what really struck me was that I'd never seen the sky so black. Even more impressively, I had never seen so many stars. And then, for the only time in my life, I saw the Milky Way. I just stood there mesmerised. I was transfixed - and so utterly serene."

"You certainly have a way with words."

"Well, as you said, I was an English teacher. That's how it seemed to me. That's my memory."

**********

"Well, this is an unusual case. Name: Ehab Khateem. Age: 19. Cause of death: drowning. I haven't had a case like you here before. But you drowned in British waters and you'll be buried in British soil, so you've been allocated to this division of The Last Station."

"I don't understand. Why am I here? Am I in England?"

"I'm sorry, Ehab. You drowned in the English Channel earlier today. This is not England. This is a place we call The Last Station."

"I still don't understand. I have papers. I can stay in England, yes?"

"Ehab, you have to understand. Your papers were probably forged, but that's not the issue. You're dead. This is the place you come to choose your most precious memory and then this is the memory that you'll have for the rest of time."

"Help me please. I am lost. I don't know what to do."

"It must be very confusing for you. Let me look at your log. Let me understand how you reached here. Then maybe I can help you choose that memory."

"I only know little English. But I know England. I want go there. Please help me."

"I will try, Ehab. Let me see ... You're from Syria. You were brought up in the ancient city of Aleppo. You were at a school which taught you some English. The civil war broke out when you were eight and you left the city six years later. Then your family moved several times. I see that both your parents were killed by a barrel bomb dropped by a government aircraft. You managed to get to Turkey. Ah, you made contact with people smugglers. You travelled across Europe on one vehicle after another. Then what? I see that you've been in a camp in Calais for some months. Last night you tried to cross the English Channel."

"Yes. Yes. How you know so much about me?"

"It's complicated. It's my job to know all about the people who have just died that come here and it's my role to help them choose a beautiful memory that they can enjoy for perpetuity."

'I not know this last word. What it mean?"

"It means that you're dead but you will have one memory - which you can and must choose - and that memory - and only that memory - will be with you forever and forever."

"But how I choose a memory? Please help me."

"Of course, that's why you're here. Let's see what we can do together. Let me check your log again ... Ah, I see that your father had a stall in the souk of Aleppo. That's a famous location: as I understand it, a place built by the Ottomans. I know that there are miles and miles of passages. Did you ever help your father there? It must have been magnificent."

"I help him all time. Special place."

"So I believe. Let me check that part of your sensory file ... Oh, this is amazing. So many stalls with different foods, clothes, jewellery. There seems to be a stall for everything. And so many people - all that hustling and bustling and shouting. And I just love the smells: coffee, spices, candles, that famous Aleppo olive soap. Is there a time here that you'd like to choose as your memory?"

"Souk is good. Aleppo is good. But England - that is better."

"But you've never seen England. You never reached it."

"Since war, I dream England all time."

"I'm so sorry, Ehab. You can't choose a dream. You have to choose a memory of an actual experience."

"OK. I choose. Time just before boat sink."

"Really? That must have been an incredibly frightening time. Why would you possibly want to choose that? I don't understand. Let me check your sensory file again and home in on those last few minutes. Alright, I have it ... The cold is incredible. The waves are huge. The dinghy is being flung all over the place. The other refugees are crying and screaming. Ehab, this is awful, this is terrifying."

"You wait. You see ..."

"I can hardly see anything. The weather is miserable. There is so much spray. I'm waiting ... I can see something ... It's the white chalk cliffs. I'm waiting ... There's a break in the clouds. I see it ... There's a bright golden beam of sunshine coming out of the clouds and hitting the cliffs. The cliffs seem to be on fire. Is that your memory?"

"That my memory."

**********

"Next case. Name: Debbie Jackson. Age: 64. Cause of death: Covid-19."

"You mean I'm dead? They told me they were going to put me on a ventilator but I thought I'd be OK."

"I'm afraid not, Debbie. You didn't make it. Tough luck that: some two years down the road of the pandemic, you lost out. Did you have the booster?"

"Actually I didn't have any vaccines at all. I didn't trust them. I read so many terrible things on social media. I think - well, I thought - that the body has natural defences. "

"I should have checked your log more thoroughly. Well, in that case, you shouldn't be too surprised that you're dead. If you trust online chatter more than scientists and doctors, then I guess you get what's coming to you. If people with two or three doses of vaccine caught Covid and some still died of it, someone who chose not to take any vaccine was dicing with death, especially with your underlying health conditions."

"You're being very hard on me."

"I'm not here to be kind, Debbie. I'm here to help you chose a memory that you can take with you to eternity. And I hope that you can make a sounder choice than you did with the vaccine. Last time, you were just deciding between life and death. This time you're making a decision forever."

"I don't know if I can do that. What sort of memories do people choose?"

"Many women start by thinking of the birth of a child. Then they remember the pain involved and decide that they don't want to be reminded of that forever."

"I can go with that. I love my two to bits but having them was agony."

"Many people consider the day they met or married their partner. Then they remember how things worked out and think better of it."

"Unfortunately I can identify with that as well. You know, I don't think I can do this. What happens if I don't make a choice?"

"Then you stay here until you do. And while you're here, you become a Processor like me."

"That doesn't sound too bad."

"Well, it's a joy to help people find their most beautiful memory. But it's not a lot of fun interviewing dead people all the time. Their lives never end well. It can get you down. It's not something I want to do forever."

"So how long have you done it?"

"The notion of time is not really meaningful here in what we call The Last Station. Put it this way: I was a British officer at the Battle of Waterloo. I remember seeing the silhouette of Napoleon on the crest of a far hill. The whole thing was a slaughter house. Not my favourite memory."

"You've been here over two centuries?"

"Some of my colleagues have been here much longer. After all, humankind is some 200,000 years old. But I told you: time is not measured here in years. For us, time is simply the difference between now and eternity. So I suggest that you stop trying to avoid a decision and choose your memory."

"I decided straightaway."

"So you've been wasting my time?"

"I thought you said that time was meaningless here? Ha, ha!"

"You know, Debbie, I'll be rather glad to see you move on. What's your memory?"

"Well, the older I get, the more I think we should find regular occasions to gather together family and friends. My 60th birthday was a perfect time for that. I was wondering whether to do it again when I'm 65 or when I'm 70. I guess I don't have to wonder about that any more. Anyway my 60th was such a joyful occasion. So many people were there: almost all my relatives, including my ex-husband, some neighbours, lots of work colleagues, friends from my choir and my yoga class."

"And was there a special moment at the occasion that you want to select?"

"I'm coming to that. Don't rush me. If you've been here since Waterloo, you can give me a bit more time, even if that concept doesn't mean much here."

"You're right. I'm sorry."

"Anyway, out of the people there who meant so much to me, two were totally special: my son Ben who lives in Canada and my daughter Beckie who lives in Australia. Those days, it was so rare for the three of us to be together. They both flew over for a few days and everyone at the party wanted to meet them. My brother was taking photographs all that afternoon and he saved the best till the last. Ben was on one side of me and Beckie was on the other. I had one arm round the waist of each. Each of them had an arm round one of my shoulders. I was so, so proud of them. I was so, so delighted to have them with me. Our smiles went for miles. The second the camera clicked: that's my memory."

**********

"So, who have we got here then? Let's check the log. Name: Frank Wright. Age: 62. Cause of death: traffic accident. Welcome to The Last Station, Frank. I think the situation has been explained to you. My role is to assist you in choosing your happiest memory. Let's see now. You've had a rather distinguished life, Frank. I've never had a politician before me for processing. It says here that you were a member of the House of Commons when you died so I suppose there will have to be the little matter of a by-election. The Government won't like that, given their current troubles. But you managed to rise to Minister of State before that business with your Private Secretary. They do say that all political careers end in failure. But most of it must have been fun. Plenty of scope for happy memories, eh?"

"Not really. I never did as well as I hoped. I never rose as far as I deserved."

"Come now, it was quite a gilded life. Boarding at Harrow. Degree at Oxford. Time in the City. Two decades in Parliament. Six years in office. What more did you want?"

"How about we start with a happy childhood?"

"Let me check things. I see: your mother died of breast cancer when you were young. But you had a father. Ah, I see that he was not around much and that his parents largely brought you up. But he paid for your time at boarding school and covered your university expenses. You were fortunate."

"Materially, perhaps. But I rarely saw my father and we never got along. My grandfather never recovered from his experience in the war and was never warm to me. It was my grandmother who brought me up. I owe her everything, not my father."

"Interesting. You know I see so many successful people who have had one or both parents missing, either physically or emotionally. Seems to give them a special drive for some reason. Perhaps trying to prove their sense of worth."

"Can we have less of the psychotherapy? I had a enough of that in my life. You said that I had to choose a memory that made me happy, so help me identify one."

"Alright, what about a particular election that you won or a special speech that you gave or a piece of legislation that you guided through the Commons?"

"No, none of those. I mean I've had many proud moments - but none that I would want to be my only memory for eternity. This is difficult ..."

"No, it isn't really."

"What do you mean?"

"OK, let's try a different angle. You died because of a car accident. Why did you have that collision?"

"Don't you know? Isn't it in my log?"

"Of course, it is - but I want you to explain it to me, Frank."

"I told you this was difficult. I was driving too fast. I was emotional. It was totally my fault."

"And why were you so emotional?"

"I'd just visited my father in hospital. I told you that he effectively gave me over to be raised by his mother, my grandmother. I saw so little of him, especially as I grew older. I was so angry with him. I didn't want to see him. Then I heard that he had advanced lung cancer and was close to death. I don't why exactly, but I decided to go and see him in the hospital."

"And how did that go?"

"It was a weird experience. As you know, the global pandemic is still running and to keep the staff and patients free of Covid, I had to wear all this PPE: a mask, a visor, a plastic apron, rubber gloves. It felt surreal. I hadn't seen my father or spoken to him in years. But I spent a couple of hours with him sitting by that hospital bed and, before I knew it, I was holding his hand, feeling his pain, and hanging on his every laboured breath, thinking it might be his last. In fact, he was remarkably lucid in spite of the circumstances. He seemed to want to talk about his life. I'm sure he sensed that it was coming to an end."

"This sounds promising."

"The longer I sat with him, the further back his recollections went. Little stories. Small anecdotes. Eventually he reached the war years - his childhood in south London. He told me an astonishing story that I'd never heard before. How a V1 had hit his house and how he and his mother, my grandmother, had almost died. I was unbelievably moved that he shared this story with me so close to the end of his life. I realised that, had he not lived, I would never have been born. I knew that, had his mother not lived, I would not have had such a wonderful grandmother who gave me the only love I knew as a child. I was convinced that, had he not told me that story, our reconciliation would not have been so complete. I confess I cried my heart out. I was at peace with my father at last. I promised to visit him each day. But, of course, now I can't - because of my stupid accident."

"Frank, I have to tell you something. I'm sorry, but your father died a couple of hours after you. You would never have seen him again, even if you hadn't had your accident."

"Poor man. And has he been here - to The Last Station?"

"Yes."

"And has he chosen his happiest memory?"

"Yes - it was the point at which he and his mother knew that they had both survived that V1 attack. And, I think, Frank, that you have now selected your memory for eternity too, haven't you?"


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 19 February 2022

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