Hereafter

Pictures from life's other side

Another new story from the collection about death, Pictures From Life’s Other Side, which I am very slowly and laboriously assembling:

I had on occasion pondered upon the question of life after death: did it exist, what form did it take, with whom was one sharing the afterlife? Or was there to be nothing at all, a blank, a shutdown following the final heartbeat, no more fuss than you’d get after switching off the TV after News at Ten?

            Without wishing to give the appearance that the question had preoccupied me – which as I say I suspect it had done no more than it has perhaps exercised your own fine imagination – I can say that along with more ephemeral questions about the meaning of life, such as the definition of happiness or the difference between good and evil, this speculation as to whether there was a life after death had only occasionally diverted me as the years passed; unless one were a theologian or a great thinker, the ‘life after death’ ding-dong never really raced my motor.

            Had you asked me, I would have said something along the lines of: ‘One can never be sure, there may well be but of course one can never know.’ Had you suggested that in your own opinion there was not a shred of evidence to support the contention I would not even have ventured to argue with you and would in all likelihood have merely nodded in agreement, pulled at my ear and commented, ‘Yes, you are most probably right: from dust to dust it must be.’

            I have never had the same instinct for philosophical questions such as these as I have for the clear things in life. I could never focus my attention on such musings in the same way as I could watch the arc my greyhound ran across the field to corner the rabbit or as I felt when I saw the dew on the corn on the morning of the day when we knew the harvest was ready. Life after death? I’d discuss it with you genially in mixed company after the coffee had been served, but no more than that.

            Since it is now, according to the clock in the operating theatre, almost two minutes since I died, I can confirm that, had I been more insistent upon the view that some form of existence might persist beyond the end of physical life, I would have been correct. There is no question of it: I can clearly see my own body lying upon the operating table, and the heart on which the surgeon was operating is visible to me through the sizeable opening in my chest. My skin is still pinned back around the entry point and there are clamps and tubes scattered about my torso.

            The surgeon and his team have moved away a little and are deep in discussion; I wonder if they are discussing liability? That would not surprise me in the least: this modern day obsession with culpability and compensation is one of the more depressing symptoms of our national decline.

            I appear to be a little way off from my own body, although as far as I can tell I have no physical presence. That, I have to confess, is somewhat disconcerting: to be able to view one’s own body lying there several feet away in this bright white room was not an outcome which I expected when they wheeled me in here several hours ago.

            I should explain: I suffered a rather significant heart attack this morning. The emergency services were surprisingly efficient, more so than I might have given them credit for beforehand, and from falling down in the yard in front of one of our stable boys to entering this brightly illuminated operating room can have been no more of a matter than a couple of hours.

            So, yes, this has certainly been what one might call an unusual day. How do I know that I am dead? Well, look at me: I bear more than a passing resemblance to one of the stags that the hounds have been set upon. My chest has been opened up with considerable skill but now it lies there, ignored by the medical team who are gathered around a computer screen over to one side.

            Oh Good Lord, that was a comical moment: my left arm just fell down off the table and is now swinging free of that ghastly green nightgown which they put on me earlier. No-one even noticed that, they’re too busy examining what went wrong, I suppose. How curious to find myself the only witness of what I assume was the last movement of my dead body.

            How the devil am I seeing it? I can’t see me, if you get my meaning: the me that I remember is lying over there. But the me that is talking to you can see all around the room. I have no means of movement, as far as I can tell: I can’t go and join those fellows around their computer screen and find out what they are discussing. I’m rooted to the spot.

            Ah, now they’re coming back to my body and the surgeon is poking a scalpel into that rather unpleasant hole in my chest. Well, they clearly can’t see me otherwise I presume one of them would have pointed me out by now. What’s he doing in my chest?

            Oh dear oh dear, now of course I realise there will be all sorts of commotion. I know I’m dead, but I’ve only just died; I presume my friends in white here are the only other people to know at the moment. Which means that my poor dear wife will be outside in a waiting room somewhere, hoping to hear the All Clear.

            Poor old stick. Fancy me going first: she won’t credit it. Longlivers, the Randolphs, that’s what she always said; no chance of her outliving the old boy, she’d tell her chums. His father lived to ninety eight, he’ll outlast us all. Well, you got that wrong, old girl. What am I? Seventy three. Bang: heart attack at seventy three and it’s Goodnight Vienna.

            Ah, he’s stopped fiddling with his scalpel. Good, that was making me feel a little uncomfortable. Although I can’t feel anything, and come to think of it, I realise now I can’t hear anything. Everything is silent. I can see their lips moving but it’s like one of those old silent movies. No noise at all. Volume button’s kaput. That’s odd too. So I can see perfectly well, despite not being able to change my position, but I can’t hear and I’m pretty sure I can’t smell anything either.

            Hello, they’ve covered me up with a sheet now. What about all that spadework on my chest, doesn’t that get a bit of clean up? Obviously not. That pretty nurse is starting to gather up all the utensils; rather her than me, I must say. They look a bit grim. Surgeon wallah is heading for the door; I imagine he’s going to have to break it to Diana. I must say, this is all quite fascinating, although I’d like to be able to move myself; it feels rather strange to be stuck in this position while all these chaps are bustling about.

            Oh Lord, now two of them have got hold of the bed and they’re wheeling me round. I do believe they’re taking me out. They’re not hanging about, are they? Look, there I go, straight through the swing doors. Cheerio, old boy. Wonder where they’re taking me? Mortuary, I suppose.

            Now it’s just the nurse left. She’s got a twinkle in her eye, no doubt about it. Given other circumstances… She’s got all the kit and caboodle into that machine in the corner, washing-up machine I imagine. Damned efficient. Peels off her gloves. Now she’s heading for the door too.

            Oh, don’t turn off the light! Damn. She has. Flash of light from outside in the corridor, now the door’s shut and it’s all dark. I can just make out the odd chair, I think I can see the outline of the screen they put around me earlier. That’s about it though.

            Now what?

The Oldie Magazine: Shirley Collins wins The Penderyn Music Book Prize

Shirley Collins Penderyn Prize
Photograph by Emyr Young http://www.emyryoung.co.uk/

I did a short piece on The Oldie website yesterday on the great English folk singer, Shirley Collins:

For the last ten years, an eccentric arts festival has taken place in the West Wales township of Laugharne, once home to Dylan Thomas (pictured, his old house, the Boathouse) and a gaggle of pre-war bohemian refugees from London.

It feels like little has changed since Dylan and Caitlin were squabbling in the Boathouse by the estuary and then making up in the boozy bar of Browns Hotel. Elegantly tipsy festival-goers at the Laugharne Weekend stand about on sunny pavements listening to poets and drinking beer while the residents tolerate them with a weary but amused accommodation.

Each year, the festival also announces the winner of Britain’s only music book prize, the Penderyn Prize, and today this year’s winner was announced: Shirley Collins, for her account of a life in English folk music, All In The Downs.

Collins is perhaps the most authentic folk singer the English have produced, beginning her career as an ambitious 20-year-old in London, up from the sticks in Sussex, having to dodge the drunken advances of the largely male folk fraternity of the early 1960s (‘charming when sober, horrendous when drunk’).

For the next twenty or so years, she recorded a series of albums which celebrated the purity of the English song. ‘I had to defend English folk music because so many people didn’t understand it.’

Then, in the late 70s, a painful divorce literally took her voice away.

She was heartbroken and humiliated, and her voice began to crack and finally abandoned her. It was not to return for 35 years.

All In The Downs tells the triumphant story of her return to singing in 2014 after years of surviving – working as a cleaner and as a job centre clerk just to keep her two children fed and clothed. Now, with an MBE behind her (‘The Penderyn Prize means much more to me – they don’t even give you a cup of tea at the Palace’) and a successful new album Lodestar released in 2016, she is finally recognised, not as the great Unsung Hero of the English folk movement, but one whose song is now being sung loud and clear.

At 82, Collins is still filled with the desire to, as she says, ‘sing to people, not at them’, much as her grandfather sang the songs of the Sussex landscape to her and her sister Dolly in the indoor Morrison shelter during the air raids in Hastings during World War Two. Her prize-winning book is an eloquent account of a vanishing world but one which, in her wonderfully capable hands, might prove oddly resilient in years to come.

The Damnation Of Peter Pan

My third novel, The Damnation Of Peter Pan, is published today. It’s a dark and unsettling story of one family’s blighted relationship with JM Barrie’s most famous creation.

From the blurb on the back cover:

“Peter Mannering, the 75-year-old son of Maimie, one of the characters featured in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, reflects on a life of wealth, misfortune and violence. Demons summoned from the past combine to present an horrific foretaste of the future, yet down in the basement of his Kensington mansion, a new generation of the family surely offers the possibility of redemption?

“Ranging from the sweet green hills of Laugharne, the Welsh town made famous by Dylan Thomas, to the frenetic life of Soho and the new pop culture of the 1960s, The Damnation Of Peter Pan tells the story of the twentieth century through a prism of love, literature and the lexicon of the occult.”

The novel arose from a number of obsessions: an excessive interest in the life of JM Barrie, a curiosity about the turn-of-the-century secret societies such as The Order of the Golden Dawn, an abiding affection for the township of Laugharne in Wales where Dylan Thomas famously wrote Under Milk Wood, and an underlying thread of Oedipal psychological impulses.

You can buy the novel in paperback or e-book at Amazon or by contacting the publishers.

Hollywood Forever

Picture's From Life's Other Side Hollywood Forever Simon Petherick

Here’s a new short story which will form part of a forthcoming collection called Pictures From Life’s Other Side.

I’m spending a lot of time in the cemetery. You know the one, up on Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood Forever, that’s what they call it. It’s a beautiful place. You wouldn’t think that if you walked down the Boulevard, which frankly is a shithole: a four-lane piece of beaten-up asphalt with used car lots and overhead electricity cables. A couple of blocks down from the entrance to the cemetery, there’s a Chinese food supermarket and on the other side of the road, empty-looking sand-coloured office buildings with no windows.

That’s the thing with Americans, isn’t it? They’re not sentimental, not like us Brits, drooling over some piece of the past we’ve misremembered. Just because there’s a fucking gorgeous cemetery with Rudolph Valentino and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland buried here, it doesn’t mean they have to make the street outside look nice. They don’t care. You want to go see the cemetery? Take a cab.

But once you’re through the gates, it’s different. The sprinklers keep the lush trimmed green lawns in emerald health and there’s a silence here which calms me down. If you stand on one of the roadways inside the cemetery and look back out through the other gates, you can see the Hollywood sign up there in the hills, the wonky white lettering gazing down on the dead.

I’ve been coming here for a few weeks now. I take a cab from Downtown and I sit in the traffic on the overhead freeway thinking about what to do about them. I never know what I’m going to do about them, so I end up here walking around the gravestones.

If I don’t work out what to do about them…Anyway, that’s why I started coming up here, to the cemetery. It’s the closest I’m going to get to an estate agent’s now. I was going to buy a nice plot, except I can’t afford a plot, so it had to be one of those weird little crypts in the mausoleum, the ones with the glass front and the stuff inside. They’re pretty cheap. They can burn me, put me in a nice urn.

OK, let’s walk down this path. Neat gravel and the edges of the grass on either side have been cut very nicely. Who’s that? Leonard B Ravelstein. 1922-2001. Good long life, Leonard. Doesn’t say much on the stone about him. Had a loving wife and was a great father and grandfather. What did he do? Something to do with the movies, lots of them were. Maybe not though. Maybe Leonard was in insurance. Maybe he escaped the Nazis and came over here before the war and walked up and down the streets in old Los Angeles knocking on doors and selling insurance policies. Good for you, Leonard. I bet you didn’t owe anyone a dime when you died.

Marjorie Blatsky. Hello Marjorie. Phyllis Stoops. Bernard de la Reine. What kind of name is that, Bernie? Do you try and lord it over your neighbours here, with your de la Reine thing? I don’t think Phyllis is impressed. George Nash. George was in the movies, look: ‘And cut!’ Very funny, George. You must have been a wag on the set. Were you as funny when you got home? I hope so.

I haven’t been funny for quite some time. Or maybe I have. Americans use that word differently. Back in London, if you were funny, it meant you cracked jokes outside the pub before you got the late train back home to some Godforsaken semi-detached house in Surrey. In LA, funny is different: funny is like being a wiseguy. Funny means not on the level. I was never funny in London, but I’m funny now.

The palm trees line the edge of the cemetery and their leaves stand out against the blue sky like a line of eyebrows looking down on me. It’s hot, there’s hardly anyone here in this midday heat. There’s a fat Chinese woman cleaning dead leaves off a stone just over there. Is it her husband? Her sister? Or is she paid to do that? Even when the old sod died, she still has to go and clean up. There’s a couple over the other side posing by the Joey Ramone gravestone, the one with the statue of him standing over it with his guitar.

If I’m honest, I don’t even really remember London. Ten years now I’ve been here. Never been back. You can disappear, you know, if you really need to. Why don’t I disappear again? Because I can’t this time. They won’t let me.

Gareth Fishburn. Weird name. ‘Left for a greater adventure.’ You sure about that Gareth? I hope so. Donald Bright. My Dad was called Donald. He and my Mum are side by side in a grave in Yorkshire. I’ve made him turn a few times over the years, I suppose. Flipped Dad over, round and round, but there’s nothing he could do about it, stuck inside that freezing Yorkshire mud, trying to mouth insults at me through the cheap wood of his coffin.

It won’t be long. I know that.

Here’s the mausoleum. Front door’s always open when I come here. It’s very grand but honestly, the prices were pretty good. When you stand inside, it looks impressive, the long parallel lines of glass-fronted crypts stretching down the never-ending corridor. I think they shot a movie in here, some horror thing.

It’s quiet. My footsteps echo on the cream-coloured marble floor. Who’s in here? Daisy Fortune. Haven’t seen you before Daisy. You sound great. She’s got a brass urn in the little box behind the glass, and a pair of ballet shoes. Dancer, Daisy. Good for you. I bet you were cute. I bet there was just one thing that you always wanted to do and that was to dance and you went ahead and that’s exactly what you did. Now you’ve hung up your shoes.

Bit further. What’s that up there? Someone’s actually put a teddy bear in with their urn. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it? It doesn’t even look that old. Oh, kid died aged twelve. That explains it. That’s no good for people, is it, kid dying at that age? Then you’ve got no-one to mourn you, when you go. No-one at all.

Here we are. I’m pleased with it, actually. My crypt. I bought a ten-year lease. That’ll do. After that, they can just take the urn out and kick the ash into the gravel on the driveway. But ten years here, with everyone, hanging out. That’ll be nice. There’s no name on mine, they said I couldn’t have a name until I’m actually using it. But I’ve had my urn put in there, empty at the moment, and after a lot of discussion – they kept saying it wasn’t usual, whatever that means – they’ve let me leave a couple of things. I told them that I couldn’t be sure the undertakers would remember, so I wanted to make sure. Anyway I won, so there’s my gold signet ring which I took off a couple of weeks ago and put inside together with a little black and white photo of Ricky, my dog. Someone will look after him, he’ll be OK. And I’ll like having him there with me.

There. Looks OK, doesn’t it?