I remember the dress; it had come from a jumble sale a few weeks before and was being worn for the first time for the wedding of my boyfriend's sister (I think). Odd, but I can recall nothing at all of the day, just the getting ready to go and wondering vaguely what it would be like to marry Andrew and inherit his family.
A few months later, I'd gone on to art college and they'd sailed for Australia so the vague wonderings never became more than that . . . Probably a good thing.
I googled him once, just out of curiosity to see where he's ended up in life, in fact, I've just opened up another page and had a look again, and . . . think I found him. CEO of some wealth management fund. Wow. Somewhat different direction from an art foundation course in Bournemouth, if it is him. I would swear it was his nose - rather a fine example of one, but the rest, hmm . . .
Some people look almost the same as I recall them from at art college - friend Ray, for example, give him a 1980s shaggy wig and yep - same person.
If we could time-travel . . . to slip into my eighteen-year old skin for a day and recall what the day was actually like.
In fact, that's the subject of my latest 'work in progress', a novel called (at the moment, anyway) The Panto-horse end. The story of a woman who meets her demise while filling in for someone as the back end of a pants horse. After arriving in 'Pendingville' she is invited to visit various stages of her life, to reflect on her mistakes before possibly going on to Heaven, back to Earth - but not necessarily as herself - or to another place called Perpetuania.
The lino tiles were dirty. Surely in a hospital, hygiene would have been a priority?
Marion suddenly wondered why she was staring at the floor anyway. Sitting up, she found she couldn’t. She stood instead, but as a human T-square. Her shoes were missing, tights splashed with dark stains. Hobbling around in a circle, she strained her head upwards looking for signs of hospital activity. Nothing.
Along the corridor a few yards away sat an elderly man in a brown suit. Marion advanced slowly towards him. He turned at her approach and nodded a hello.
“What were tha doing at th’ point then, lass?”
“When tha ceased to be, like.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Aye, Southerners often find me accent a bit hard ‘ont ears.”
“No, not that. You said, ceased to be.”
“Oh, aye . . . when tha left t’ Earth.”
Marion studied the creased old face. She must have stumbled into the psychogeriatric ward. His brown, watery eyes looked back at her with compassion, and he shook his head as his gaze fell to her waist.
She followed his eye-line and saw the cloying stain centered around gashed fabric. With shaking fingers she investigated further. A wound gaped: fleshy pinkness, wet . . . things. The sword?
The old man regarded her calmly. “Tha’d be reason then. Knife were it?”
Marion tried to straighten up, but the panto horse shape stuck. Somehow, she felt calm: shock of course.
“Oh. Tha’d be from further back then, duck. Them clothes look right modern though.”
“There be all sorts in ‘ere, from all over time, like.”
Marion eyed him warily; poor old sod, wandering mind . . . like her uncle.
“Where’s the matron of this ward?” she asked. “Did you see who brought me in here?”
“Matron? You just appeared like they all do . . . Fiiiizt, splat.”
“Fiiiizt, splat . . .”
“Aye. One minute, empty corridor, next, person wriggling on’t floor.”
Marion opted for a grubby orange chair next to the old man. This was obviously going to take some time, but what about the wound? Why wasn’t she on an operating table already?
“Why are you here, then. . .”
“Bill,” he said, and stuck out a veiny hand. Marion clasped it briefly: cold, really cold as if he was . . . dead.
“Marion. So . . .”
“Oh, aye. Sorry, forget what I’m about t’ say sometimes. I’m on parole, well, guidance, if tha likes.”
Images of her new acquaintance, masked and pointing a trembling gun at a post office worker filled Marion's mind.
“What did you do?”
“It’s what I have to do, still . . . t’ get back.”
“I don’t follow you.”
He wheezed gently as he looked at her.
“I died. Fell off a cliff at Whitby and ended oup ‘ere. They said if I work though my life’s sins and make good, I can go back . . . to Marge.” He sighed and scratched an ear. “S’pect she misses me. Well I ‘ope so – mind, that Reg Sutcliffe were always lurking about, waiting for me t’ keel over.”
As Marion sought through the spaghetti of questions in her head, a door opened further up the corridor. A woman leant out, clipboard in hand.
“Marion, . . .” the head bent as she checked the board, “Smith. This way please.” She disappeared back into the room and the door thunked shut.
The old man patted Marion’s hand.
“Off y’ go, Love. Just tell them the truth. It’s quicker that way.”
Rocking herself forward, Marion stood clumsily, and made her way towards the door with the grace of an arthritic speed-skater.
At her knock, the door opened and the woman ushered her in. Marion lifted her gaze as high as she could and looked around the room as the woman checked for something in a filing cabinet.
She had expected some sort of clinical office with a medical poster or two; this couldn't have been more different. The room’s 1970s orange wallpaper was part sunlight-faded to beige; flies buzzed about a macramé lampshade and ancient cupboards towered, a mess of papers sprawling from their doors.
“Take a seat, Mrs Smith,” said the woman, now seated behind the desk. She had found a file and was inspecting its contents, a small frown on her freckled face. Marion carefully lowered herself into the chair, removing a friesian-coated cat as she did so. The animal stood blinking and flicking its tail, before turning reproachful green eyes towards Marion.
Marion stared as words struggled to form.
Slapping the file to the desk, the woman scooped up the animal and deposited it outside the office door.
“Room five hundred. Now! Sorry about that,” she said, on returning. “He was doing quite well, really, considering he wanted to come back as a Persian.”
“To come back?”
The pale blue eyes regarded her steadily.
“He was run over on London’s Tottenham Court Rd – life number nine. Did you not realise we deal with animals too, up here?”
A small sigh escaped the thin lips: “The after-life. Now, if we can move on? I have two other cases to deal with before lunchtime.”
A memory inched its way into Marion’s steaming mind: herself aged about five, pulling at Father’s sleeve as he read a newspaper.
“Mmm, what, Tinky girl.”
“Where do we go when we die?”
He had lowered the paper and turned those deep grey eyes on her.
“Heaven, if you are a good person, Hell, if you are bad.”
“Where is Heaven?”
After pointing vaguely in the direction of the attic, he had raised the paper again: information complete and child dealt with.
Marion became aware that thin lips was speaking.
“I said, you are presently in Pendingville.”
“Did you not receive the pink form?” The lips pursed. “These staff sometimes . . .” She pulled a sheet of paper from a drawer and slipped it front of Marion. “Here.”
Marion must have misheard the Heaven bit, and Pendingville was some satellite New Town near Bracknall or somewhere.
“Is this the general hospital?”
The woman appeared not to hear, busy with the file.
Marion lowered her eyes, trying to take in the words on the paper.
Welcome. Please read the following to insure your passage into Heaven will be as trouble free as possible. Fill in all blank spaces, sign and date. You will be assigned a guidance officer during your initial briefing.
“Why am I not actually in Heaven?” asked Marion, as she allowed the surreal words to imbed themselves in her mind, pushing out the hospital idea.
“You have certain issues that need to be addressed,” said the doctor as she stood up and crossed the room. “Also. There are other factors which need explanation.”
Reaching up, she grasped a toggle and pulled; a rolled-up chart rattled into place.
“Right,” she continued, tapping the poster with a biro. “Here, is Earthly life,” she traced the pen up to the top. “Heaven . . . and down here, Hell.” The pen moved opposite Earthly life. “And here . . . Purgatory, or Pendingville as we renamed it. The Boss thought it needed to be a little less . . . Gothic. Of course, there are other destinations but we’ll explain about that later.”
“How long will I have to be here?” asked Marion, wincing as her back started to complain at the unusual angle.
“After my brief look at your details, I would say about six Earthly months.”
Marion’s hazy mind cleared. “Six months! But what about doing the house up? The kitchen’s about to be refurbished.”
The woman put up a hand to stop the anxious flow.“Mrs Smith. You are at stage one – acceptance of the fact that you are in fact, dead. Your kitchen is no longer of any importance.”