Otherworld Gates

This is a story four years in the writing. I've written things, factually, about losing Dad before. This blog in fact seems to be more of a storage place for writing about my grief. But every summer around his birthday in August, since he died, I have been writing a few pages at a time. It starts when I was wide awake, yet again, in the heat of a summer night, wondering what to do with my racing brain.


And so this story was born.


I am sharing it now it has finished, because I wonder if it might help some people - it helped me to write it, and I wonder if it will help people to read it?

 

OTHERWORLD GATES:

A SHORT STORY BY OLIVER TOWNSEND

“Cathy, I'm lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping And I'm empty and aching and I don't know why.”

America: Simon & Garfunkel

 

Death is final and lingering at the same time.


It is as if the act of dying shatters the boundaries between two worlds, letting them both bleed into one another.

In one, life continues. The sun rises and falls; the alarm for work rings each weekday morning; the emails continue to fill your inbox. The routine daily life goes on with what’s for breakfast, where’s the bus, how’s your day?


In the other, the world is broken and it feels like nothing will fix it. In this world, emotions reign supreme, striking without mercy and anyone caught unprepared. It is a world that we don’t often see. But when someone dies, those gates are opened and it all pours forth.


What’s for breakfast, you ask, after a death – and it becomes weighed down by rage. Where’s the bus, you ask – and it becomes sharpened by fear. How’s your day, you ask – and you can’t speak without despairing.


And it is never the big things. Not really. You see them coming, over the hill, from far away. They hurt, but you’ve had time to put your armour on. You’ve had time to warn people, time to hunker down. So when the big thing arrives, you’re ready. You’re going to take that bastard down, or you’re going to leave it in as bad a state as you are at the very least. The funeral, the birthdays, the anniversaries. They are sad, but they don’t shake the foundations

.

No. The little things. Those are the ones that get you.


They wriggle, and slither. They hide when you’re doing ok, because they know they can’t get you then. Instead, they wait. They wait for those dark moments, or the moments when you aren’t ready. And then they get past every one of your defences. In those moments, the otherworld of loss grabs you hard. It refuses to let go.


What kind of things? Well, the last message, an anniversary of something utterly silly and without meaning – a year since the shelves he put up. Perhaps an object left behind that never meant anything and was never meant to – a sock, their deodorant can. Or is it a meal you said you were going to cook them, that you just cooked for someone else?


And then there’s the strange way your memory works.


There was a point at which the dying, the death, was in the present. There was a point at which you would have experienced it all, seen it all. And then it vanishes, the immediacy of it goes. Instead you are left with flickering bursts of remembrance. A series of images or emotions that you have been left with. A series of images or emotions that you fear going back to, in case it will open the gate to the otherworld again.


Inevitably, your brain adds poetic licence. Or did it happen like that? Was the image that poetic, or did your mind add the details to make sense of chaotic happenstance?


And then you think of the future.


That long, ever-expanding future, where you are without.


The past then begins to look comforting again. If only it wasn’t still so painful – if the otherworld gates weren’t hovering just there – you might want to live there. But for now it is still too painful. So you live this halved life. You step on and on into the future, but you don’t fully commit. Because committing means confronting – and confronting means realisation. You avoid the past, whilst drawing on its memories. You avoid the future, whilst living in it.


So the present moments become this strange, arcane space of emotion, refusal and confusion.


And I suppose that’s where you dream.


And in dreaming, you step into that otherworld.

 

Now, there’s a real story behind this one of other worlds and dreams and magic. In that real story, a proud and brave man died and left a wife and children. In that real story, he was braver and stronger than any story could convey. In that real story, wider families than my own grieve, and share the real life memories of a remarkable man.


But in that real story, of real love and real grief, I can’t see him again.


Words have many limitations.


But through these words, I can at least dream of a place where he can speak, and know that we love him.


It was cancer.


In terms of the outside world, it was quick.


To me, it felt like time had slowed down.


But as with all things, no matter how sluggishly you command the time to flow, no matter how authoritatively you order fate to provide those days it has hidden behind its back – time runs out.


It was horrific and beautiful at the same time. In equal measure? I’m not sure. But the family was together, he was with us until the end, and we helped each of us as best as we could. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. You don’t get to practice death after all. Although I’m starting to think that we should. A run-through, a first attempt.


Nothing works like a story though.


There were movements of emotion towards the end – but no final deluge of it. There were hints towards a goodbye, but never a final one. There were conversations that nodded towards resolution, but never fully conclusive resolutions. Maybe that is normal, though. Maybe we are inculcated by modern media to think that deathbed conversations are commonplace or even welcomed.


There’s seven of us, two brothers and four sisters. And Mum.


That’s the real story. And the real story is one I can’t tell. Partly, because it isn’t my place. And partly because I don’t think any words I am able to write can pay a proper tribute to Dad in those last months, to his dignity and care for his family. If the way we die reveals anything to us about character, it revealed Dad was one of the good-uns. A good egg, as he’d say.


So the story of the otherworld, I suppose, is the only one I can tell. A place where conversations can be had, where memories can be shared, and where for a brief moment when I write it, I can dream that we are not powerless against the shadow of death, but can shape it as we wish.


As I said, this is the story of dreams.

 

The thought occurred to me one night.


It was a sultry, horrible night. Too hot to sleep. The space in the bed beside me was empty, he was away with work. The streetlight – far too bright – was illuminating the curtains like a fire lantern. And in the way of cities, it was all both too quiet and too noisy. Quieter than the day, everything around you almost silent – save for the occasional interruption of a police siren, or a car engine, or a wheelie bin being knocked over by a shouting and laughing drunk. And once you’re not sleeping, those noises and sounds are a personal invasion. They are the enemy of sleep.


I moved from one side of the bed to the other. I turned pillows around. I stretched, relaxed, stretched and relaxed again. That didn’t work, so I started lying there, eyes wide awake, looking up at the ceiling – becoming irrationally annoyed that the ceiling itself wasn’t in any way patterned. Just idiotically, wastefully smooth. Devoid of anything that could distract.


And so I got to thinking.


Slowly at first, and then the idea took feverish hold and burst away from me like the first attempt at flame, millions of years ago. Or thousands. I’m not an anthropologist, archaeologist or historian. Whenever “they” invented fire, then, basically.


The idea? It took hold of me: Dying shatters the boundaries between two worlds.


If sleep was hard to come by before, it was impossible now.


I’m no classicist, but there are examples in myth of people travelling to the land of the dead or talking to them. Orpheus springs to mind. Saul and the Witch of Endor. And I started to wonder, looking at the shadows in the room, peering at the dark corner where we hadn’t yet put a cupboard. It was just a corner. Unadorned, undecorated. But it was a perfect place for shadows to pool – soft shadow, a kind sort of shadow. It was the sort of shadow that you can tell is a misunderstood, quiet creature. Largely shapeless, just sitting back and watching the room.


It certainly wasn’t the sort of angular, jagged shadows you see as a kid – that you sometimes still see, that you don’t like to admit you see.


I squinted, and turned my head.


It was just an empty corner.


But for that moment, I did wonder. And I thought – what would a kind and gentle shadow say to me, if it was there? What would it be? Would it be telling me the truth? Would it be warning me even now, don’t do it, don’t think about it, just go to sleep and think in dreams.


I imagined that it would be like a mouse. It would have six legs, because even kind shadows are disconcerting. It would look at me with eight eyes – spider-like, but wide and sad and gentle – glinting orange from the too-bright lamps outside. Its fur would drape from it in odd chunks, matted as if neglected for some time. And it would look at me, terrified that I could see it, and it would hunker back into its pool of shadow.


“Ssh,” it would whisper, I thought. “Ssh, go to sleep. This isn’t the sort of story that you want to get into.”


And I wondered then, whether I would listen.


Would I go to sleep?


Or would I wonder.


I think I would sit up. I would feel my throat tighten with terrible anticipation, and I think I would say, “Who are you?”

 

“Who are you?”


It looks at me. It blinks. And even that is disconcerting. A Mexican wave in the crowd. First one eye, then the others following after like dominoes falling. It’s mouth – a too-human mouth with no sign of teeth at all. Were the teeth further back? Like some sort of lamprey?


I don’t like lampreys, so I shudder.


In the rest of my room, the other shadows seem to appear even more angular.


It twitches once, the strange mouse-creature.


I look at it, fixing one of its eyes with mine. “Who are you?”


It flinches, and even though it is trying to hide in the corner – and for a moment I lose sight of it, fading into the shadow, before I see it clearer again – it can’t quite manage it. Finally, with a shiver – its fur ripples like a pebble has been tossed upon a stream – it turns to me, and its whisper sounds like nothing I have heard before in my life.


If you imagine what a violin might sound like if it was nails being played on a blackboard. Now, instinctively you might wince at that. I might have oversold that sound a bit. So if you imagine a tuneful violin, expertly played. Soft, slightly whining as violins tend to do – but with every note somehow making your teeth itch, making you frown, making you feel just wrong.


“I’m –“


(I wonder what sort of name it would have, it would have to be something strangely silly, something alien but somehow charming. After all, this would be a kind shadow, the sort of shadow that gets ignored by the other shadows, but the sort of shadow that sees further than any others.)


“-Jim.”


I pause.


“That’s an odd name for a shadow,” I say, bemused.


“Oh you wouldn’t understand my shadow name. It wouldn’t make much sense to you. We don’t have names in words, we have names in music.”


I am a bit interested by this, and so even though I’m talking to a shadow rat mouse thing, I say, “Shadow names are music?”


Two of the six legs lift into the air – a shrug. “Well, as close to music as we can get, yes. Everything’s so silent when we’re in your world. But in our own world we play all the best sort of music. And we make sure we learn to play our names as well.”


“How can you speak in our world, then, if you’re just a shadow?”


Jim looks about, his eyes blinking wildly, nervously. “Oh, I’m not speaking. You’re hearing me in your head.”


(Well, that saves me time I suppose, from thinking about how shadows might learn to speak with us. Of course they speak into your head directly.)


I lean back, and say, “How long have you been there?”


Jim whimpers once, “I shouldn’t answer that.”


But I’m curious. (And I wonder, why wouldn’t he want to answer that? I wonder if it is because these shadows have laws, some sort of society, some sort of purpose…)


“But you will?”


Jim sighed, and one of his limbs scratches his back. “Yeah. I’m not a very good shadow.”


I stay silent, and wait.


He grunts, “You’re a bit mean, making me answer.” He sighs. “Well, I’ve been here with you all your life. I’m one of the shadows that’s just followed you around. I was there when you were born, when you used to be scared of wolves, when you were scared of all those other thoughts you had, and I was there…” He trails off.


“Recently, yeah?”


He nods, many times, quickly. “Yeah.”


I say, “Are there other shadows?”


This time he squeaks. “You don’t want me to answer that.”


(And I suppose I don’t, because even as I wonder what the answer could be, I can feel the shadows in the rest of the room sharpening, lengthening, growing odd knife-like appendages.)


He shrinks back, “Oh, erm, best stop thinking about those things. They’ve been there all your life too, and they’re much bigger than me.”


I feel a coldness in the room.


“So they’ve been here too?” I don’t like the thought of that.


(I wonder, and then I imagine the kind of world where there are rules for shadows, and where a not very good shadow seems to be pleasant… and the ones that seem to be good, are not very good.)


He says, “Oh, you don’t need to know that. You don’t. But yes, I think they have. They don’t really pay attention to you in the same way though, except… when something happens.”


I think I understand, but I’m not sure I want to.


“What are you doing here anyway?” I ask.


It shrugs, that rippling motion. “Just watching, learning, waiting, thinking…” It finishes, softly, “…hoping.”


I frown, and prop myself up against the headboard, gathering the quilt around me. It sounds off when Jim talks about hope. It is like the word gets stuck in his throat, like it has dried up in his mouth. But he still says it, and there’s something comforting about it – like it had to be forced out, but now there’s that word, hovering around us.


“Shadows hope?”


Jim looks annoyed at himself, some of his eyes blinking. “Well, we’re not supposed to. But I do. So do most of the ones like me. I think we’re created to break the rules, really. That’s why we’re so small, so we can sneak around the rules that we need to. But I’ve probably said too much.”


“You were there… when…”


He nods. “I was.”


“So…”


(I wonder – what knowledge would a small shadow creature have, for me to ask for. What would he share, if he did know things?)


“…you know what happened… where…”


The shadow pauses. “Where the man you came from went.”


I nod, “Yes, I suppose that’s why I’m asking.”


He frowns, “We don’t know those things. Nobody does really, not even us shadows. Big or small shadows, good or bad, we’re just here with you. We don’t see where you go when you step away. That’s why we end up missing you all so much.”


My mouth is dry, partly with fear, partly with anticipation. “When we step away, you can see where we go?”


The shadow sighs. “As far as anyone can, yes. It’s all quite peaceful, you just melt away into sleep. I think whatever created us all is kind, ultimately. It wants us to move to the new place with as little worry as possible.”


“What does it look like to you?”


He squeaks. “I’m really not allowed to say that.”


“Go on,” I whisper, insistently. “You’re here now, you’ve already broken the rules, why not just say?”


Jim shivers again, “I can’t say, but I… I… its only because I can’t explain it. One minute you’re there, and we’re sitting with you, being with you, drinking it all in and remembering when we first saw you, crying and red and wrinkled, and wondering when things got so cold for you, and then you’re gone. Asleep, yes, but then your journey’s starting you see, and we’re… we’re not allowed to be with you.”


“So was he alone?” I ask, after some moments in silence.


He looks away, “I’m sorry, yes and no.”


“I don’t understand, why can’t you just make some sense?”


Jim skitters to one side in distress, “Because you don’t have the knowledge to work out what I could say to that question, don’t you see?”


“I don’t see, no. What are you?”


“I told you, I’m a shadow.”


“No, but what do you do?” I start to get angry, now. What would these shadows do, if they existed? What would they be there for?


“I’m your, well, I suppose you could say I’d be your imagination.”


That makes me pause. Would that be how it would work? I suppose so, on reflection. Would that be how these creatures would show themselves? Not through logic, there’s no logic about shadows and grief after all. And not through anything else, I suppose, except for imagination. Is love just imagination, then? Shared imagination about what could be shared between people?


“That’s why you’re so tiny then, compared to those other things?”


Jim says, “No, no… I’m the… I’m the bit of your imagination that you hold close. I’m the imagination that gives you the first sparks of ideas, I’m the imagination that gives you hope, I’m the imagination that helps you make sense of all this stuff that makes things so bad. There’s others out there, bigger, grander, scarier, they are… different. They don’t really care about you, they don’t nestle inside your heart and dream with you like we do.”


I’m starting to understand, I think, and I wonder why it is occurring to me at this late – or early – hour, when I am alone and ponderous in thought. Then I wonder, and ask, “So… you don’t know where he went?”


He sighs, “We always know where you go.” He looks around, and his yellow-glittered eyes shiver with worry, “When you leave, the… the gates between worlds breaks down, just for a single instant. Sometimes you leave through it, other times… other times you are sent back. But we’ve never had the chance to step through it ourselves.”


“What happens to you then, when we leave?”


I still struggle to say die. Too final.


Jim whimpers, “We start to forget what we are, we start to forget whether we’re important or not, until we become just another shadow, forgotten about and ignored.”


“That’s horrible.”


“But worth it,” he says, angrily and determined, “because we’ve spent all your lives dreaming and hoping and remembering. Don’t try to take that away from us, it is all we have. Everything we want.”


I pause, before saying, “We should find him, you know. Find a way through the gates, and – and say goodbye, properly.”


(At this stage, I’m wondering how this would happen, and whether the shadow as I think of him would be able to imagine a way that could happen, or whether it is time for me to desperately, desperately sleep and wait for morning.)


Jim moves out of the shadow, inky blackness leaking from his matted fur, and he nestles upon my chest, then. Despite myself, I shudder slightly, and his eyes narrow, one after the other. “Don’t be so ridiculous,” he snaps, “I’m not scary, I just look strange.”


Then he says, “If you are serious about finding him, there’s only a few ways of doing it, and – well, it will be dangerous, scary, and heart-breaking, probably. And that’s if it goes really well.”


“Go on…”


Jim says, “When you’re grieving… the gates to the otherworld are always… a bit weaker. They’ve still got the splinters in the glass, so to speak, tiny fractures that we could squeeze through if we really had to.”


“But…?”


“But shadows and people aren’t meant to go there. It… it isn’t a place that we can understand, and we never know whether imaginations are strong enough to survive it.”


“You mean shadows, yes…”


“Shadows, imaginations, same thing.”


“Well, we have to at least try, don’t we?”


Jim says, “We don’t have to. You could wait, you know. Let the fractures fix themselves, let the sad, black gulf slowly fill with other things, cry out the bad feeling and remember the good, and then imagine better futures. That’s how people have done it since the start of everything.”


“I don’t think I can… it all just feels a bit empty, I can’t fill it with anything that means anything.”


“Not right now, no. He’s gone too recently, and too quickly. But it will happen, and then, maybe, you’ll be able to start feeling better.”


“I’m not sure if I want to feel better, I’m not sure if I want to be able to just move on, I want to be able to remember him properly, and all the time, and not just sometimes.”


“That’s just how life is, that’s how your brain works, that’s how your heart works, and that’s how all your imaginations work.”


I close my eyes, and for a moment, I wonder if I could just forget about this all, and let Jim hide, let me forget him, and go on with the path that people are meant to follow. But the gap, the empty wrench that has been with me for weeks, if not months now, is just there. It is an absence of feeling that is heavy and concrete. It is a noun and a verb, something hideously passive and inert, and at the same time active, snapping and snarling. Grief. Grief, such a simple name for something so present.


I understand as well, in that moment, that as the world gates repair, and the fractures fade, or are filled in, those fractures will absorb that pool of black anger, and the world will start to fill in the gulf that has been left. I realise that parts of him that have been with me, latched on to me with love, will gradually unclasp themselves, and he will pass through the gates. They will unclasp gently, perhaps they’ll pat my head, or give me a gentle hug before they are finished with me, but they will unclasp. Until I think of him less, and perhaps more calmly…


I knew.


“No. We have to go. I have to go through the gates, before I’ve forgotten him.”


“You won’t forget him,” Jim chitters, “That’s not possible. You know that.”


But I am insistent. “No, we have to go. We have to go now.”


(Before I lose the idea, before I lose the imagination I hold, tightly and desperately, about how this would work, before the idea becomes so ridiculous it vanishes.)


Jim sighs, “Ok.”


He gestures with his strange shadow head, and says, “Just close your eyes, and walk into the corner with me, and just think about that… about that absence you’re feeling. You can already feel, if you think about it, those bits of him leaving like morning fog, but they’re not burning off, they’re gradually leaking out of this world. Follow those shadows of him, follow me, and step into the corner, and you’ll be in the otherworld.”


I don’t even stop to think. I don’t imagine, I don’t concern myself with how ridiculous this sounds.


I tumble myself out of bed, intending to walk over, but end up crawling on my hands and knees into the corner.


And I tumble through the gaps in the wall that suddenly loom massive.

 

And I tumble through the gaps in the wall that suddenly loom massive.


I wonder.


I see Jim, tumbling ahead of me, his shadowed form flickering and fragmenting before knitting itself back together around a single pulse of light – which surprises me for a moment, before I remember that all shadow needs some sort of light.


I think that this world, this otherworld, would be indistinct, and scary. And it is. I am falling through spiderwebs, and things watch as I fall. The pit of my stomach an empty and desperate slice of nausea, as I descend into endless darkness. Things would catch at my cheeks, I am sure, and I see branches of withered trees extending from… from somewhere even darker. Willow leaf curtains acting as a great veil, shifting gauzes of lights – purple, red, black, blue, green, colours that radiate light and then absorb it back again.


I don’t know how long I fall, but eventually I stand at the top of cold, grey stairs – like an old castle, all the stairs uneven, some of them broken and wobbling. My breath catches in my throat, as I remember the times he helped me walk up and down similar stairs in castles, patient and stable – always there to lean on so I could get up and see the same things as everyone else.


“Is this… is this here for a reason, Jim?”


The shadow looks at it, and looks around, his many eyes flickering with fear – but one eye after the other, like someone pressing the keys of a piano in a scale. “Yeah, it’s your hook.”


“My – “


“Your hook. It’s something that reminds you of him, something that represents travel, movement, but also something from your past. Something tangible, powerful. It is one of your talismans in the otherworld, this thought – wherever you are, wherever you go, you can think of the hook and you have a chance to get yourself back.”


“How are you feeling?”


He shrugs, but the shrug catches in a shudder. “I’m fine.”


He isn’t fine. Of course he isn’t. But I don’t push it. Because I can see the eyes have a gleam they didn’t have before.

“We just go down these steps then?”


Jim looks at me and sighs, “Yes, but it’s the start of things, it won’t be the end. You’ll be going through your thoughts, your ideas, your memories, to find him. To collect your talismans, to unlock the final gate, where you can meet him.”

Yes, that would be how it would work, now.


There would be a quest of sorts, that’s obvious now I think about it.


I nod, and say, “Let’s get on with it, then. I need to find him.”

 

The first step is difficult. It is a deep drop, and I can see the other steps downwards are extremely narrow. I support myself by holding my arms outstretched on both sides. The walls are cold and wet, but when I pull my hands away they are dry, just with a hint of something upon them, the hint that makes me want to wash my hands. My feet make a slapping noise on the stone steps, and the sound itself echoes more widely and loudly than I thought it would. Jim winces, and says, “The stairs are welcoming us, they can’t speak into our heads like shadows can, so they have to use the sounds you remember from the real world.”


That makes some sense, I suppose. The dripping of water from the ceilings above me (which I can’t see, just a blackness) is so loud, and the sounds of my feet on stone, and the whisper of wind down the spiralling staircase. Now that Jim has pointed it out, it has a sort of music to it. And winding down, as I continue making my haphazard way, I can hear the sounds, hundreds of individual odd and standout noises, coming together to create a tune that I heard him play hundreds of times. But it is an alien sort of sound, not the full-bodied warmth of mortal music, but the shifting cascade of dead notes all arranged into one discomforting whole.


I glance at Jim, who is huddled into my shoulder, the crook of my neck. “It’s playing –“


“The song he liked, yes, or the piece I think mortals call it.”


“Yes. I suppose that means he came this way?”


(That would be the case, I think to myself, and Jim’s silent, although somewhat juddering, nod confirms it.)


As I descend, the music, formed from dripping and grinding notes, becomes overpowering. There is a thread of familiarity within it, which I hold to, but it also sounds desperate, empty of something – like when you’ve listened to something so often and for so long that the emotions are faded. I reach the bottom of the stairs, and find myself in a small office. Modern, unlike the castle stairs I walked down.


There’s some highlighters in a pot on a desk, and an impossibly tall pile of notebooks, which I can’t help but look up to. Somewhere on the top of that pile, high in the sky, on this teetering pile, I can see something moving. The highlighters are shining, the edges of their shapes bleeding out into the office, like a too-bright lamp casting its corona. On the wall, the too-bright, white wall, I can see the shape of him there, briefcase and suit, painted like a stone-cave daubing. There’s a space in the corner for me to sit, I can see that, and some notebooks and coloured pencils scattered. I can see on page after page, maps of fantastical kingdoms I’ve drawn, each one redone to try to be more and more accurate. They’re placed in front of the daubed shape like offerings, and when I look up to the pile of notebooks again, there is no more movement.


“What was up there, Jim?”


He nuzzles my cheek. “Don’t worry about it.”


“I want to know, what was it?”


He frowns, “I think it was part of him.”


“Here?”


“Yes, I think this is a bit of him you wanted to find – the bit of him in this place, the person you looked up to, the person you tried to be like, and maybe you could for a lot of it, but I think the bit of him on the top of that rocking notebooks… that’s not for you to be. You have to let that bit go, I think, or you’ll just stay here.”


I can see the flickering movement again upon that tower of notebooks. I can sense that he’s up there. I can hear the typing of the keyboards, the laughter of him with his colleagues as I waited for him on my graduation day, and I can hear the quiet discussions that I heard but didn’t understand, when I was young and visiting his office. I put my hands upon the notebook tower, and wish I could climb it. I want to find that part of him that I always knew, and hold it close.


Jim’s touch on my cheek.


I look at him.


His eyes are gleaming a little too brightly. “I said this might be hard, you can stay here, trying to find this small part of him… or we can keep going.”


I think I’m crying, and I feel a bit ashamed. “I think I always wanted to be exactly like him,” I say in a hushed tone. “Even though we’re different, but he was always so busy and important, and I think I wanted to be part of that too.”


“I know.”


I wipe my eyes, and pick up a highlighter. I put it in my pocket. It feels warm to the touch. Comforting, childlike almost.


“Lets go…”


There’s a door ahead.


A hospital door.

 

It’s got a medicinal sort of cold here. Not the earthy cold of the castle staircase, but a clinical cold that reminds you of metal and chemical. The smell is cloying, that too-sweet smell of cleaner. And the sounds that play his song here, are the rattles of porter trolleys, the beeping and buzzing of bedside alarms, and the chorus of cries of pain.


“I don’t like it here, Jim.”


He is hiding. I think he is in a pocket.


I am in a ward, all alone, six beds. Windows that look out onto a wild moor. Or the painting of a wild moor. Or a photograph. I’m not sure. It moves oddly, the wind-swept grass moving too slowly, like an echo in treacle. In the hallway outside the ward, I can’t see much, even though it is filled with a brilliant light. I can see the shadows of nurses and people walking past, casting terrible shadows into the room. The heat is stifling – as is the cold. Both at once, a confusing, treacherous combination.


I can see the bed I spent so long in. Books are piled high around me, like a fortress wall. And at the foot of my bed is one of those uncomfortable hospital chairs, with a cushion on, and I remember that’s where he would sit all those times, sitting next to the bed and talking, snoring, laughing, arguing. Even now seeing that chair, I feel my throat tighten and I find myself putting my hand on the plastic back. I squeeze, I want to find something there. Some sense of life, some hint that he is still there.


It is a pleasant warmth here. Just in this spot. And I can see that the fortress wall of books has only one breach, in the area directly facing the chair. There’s a sense of fear inside the fortress, in the shadows where I used to lie, but that fear can’t get past the chair. There’s a strength there, a comforting presence. A soft and gentle sense too, of someone who doesn’t want to be there or feel the hurt, but someone who is there all the same.


I can’t help but stand there for a long time. I look out at the moors, and I imagine I can see the photo – painting – memory of us driving through the Peak District, to get to this room in Sheffield. For the briefest of moments, I am back in that car, on the journey that seems to combine all the fragments of memories of journeys. Of discussions, debates, arguments, laughter, joking, curries…


…and then it is gone, and I am holding the back of the plastic chair again.


There’s a lot here. I can see in the corners of the room, more scuttling pains and old memories desperate to be seen. But against them all, stands this single, humble chair. And on it, a single spanner, one he used to use every morning for the legs, and although it scares me even now, it still reminds me of him. And I feel guilty then, too. A sharp, sudden guilt that makes me lean against the edge of the bed – I knock the nurse’s observation notes onto the floor with a clatter.


I look through the window, and I can see – watercolour – me years ago, shouting at Dad and saying that it was his fault I was hurting. I felt bad even then, I remember, it hurt me saying it, but I think even though I was little, I wanted someone else to be in pain. So I said it, and instantly regretted it, when I saw his face look so terribly sad. I cried, he cried, and we moved past it, made friends, but I never forgot it.


“It’s ok, you know,” Jim says, “He would have realised you were just little. He knew you didn’t mean it.”


“I don’t know that. I wish I did.”


“What would you say, if you were him?”


“I’d be angry, I’d be upset…”


“But…?”


“But I’d probably understand.”


“Why don’t you just let it go, then?”


“Because he’s gone, Jim. I can’t let it go without talking to him. And I wish I’d talked to him about it before he went, but it’s not something you have on a list ready to go, is it? Oh, you’re dying, well, here’s all the shit stuff I said that I feel guilty about, and here’s the shit stuff you said that I feel sad about… can we talk it all through before you die?”

The shadow-mouse-thing nods, “Yeah, when you put it like that…”


There’s a lot of stuff in this place. Stuff he didn’t do well, stuff I didn’t do well, stuff we shared with Mum, stuff we didn’t. Stuff that was when I was alone, wondering when I’d get to go home. I realise as well, as I am looking around, that there are different memories of all types here. And they are all pressing their way onto me.


They are different shadows, I realise. They are my shadows, not his.


Jim whispers, “There’s a different threat here… if you’re not careful they’ll stop your journey here… you won’t be able to come back if you’re not careful. We need to go now. Take the talisman, let’s go.”


It would be tempting. Already, I can see the memories I have hidden. Memories that want to take me down another path, but one that is further away from him, and closer to myself. I pick up the spanner. Jim points – all eight limbs – to a nut-and-bolt that has kept a window closed. I use the spanner to loosen it, and the watercolour – photo falls down, opening into the lounge in the house I grew up in. I step in, leaving behind the too-cold too-hot hospital ward, and the comfort of being close to that lowly plastic hospital chair, and I find myself instantly worried. Anxious.


There’s been a lot of conversations here. Conversations of disappointment, of anger, of shame and guilt. These are the places I go to a lot, and so finding this room isn’t a surprise. It feels like a comfortable t-shirt, one that fits loosely, warmly supportive, but also guilt-ridden. The sort of t-shirt you keep in your wardrobe for when you get fat.


So it is familiar, comfortable – but you also hate it, and you hate yourself for keeping it.


There’s a lot I don’t want to think about, either. Stuff that he said that was wrong, things that I find hard to think about. Things that I also wanted to talk to him about before he died. It’s in this room, I realise, that a lot of my anger hides. Those shadows are a dark red, hiding under the bookcases, their thousands of eyes raging. I can hear them now, standing here, whispering all the things that I felt were unfair, all the things I kept close to myself all these years, all the things that made the feelings sharp and difficult.


It isn’t scary, not like the hospital. But I want to be here even less.


Jim straightens, “You’re shaking.”


“Yeah, I don’t know what to do here.”


“I think you do.”


“I really, really don’t.”


“Well, I didn’t bring you here.”


“I know, I’m trying to find him. So this was the next step.”


“Yes, but none of this is geographical, you know. There’s no map.”


“Why do you think you’re here then?”


“I think to remember things properly.”


And I suppose that’s right, of course. Remembering. But remembering, as me, as an adult, the things that I wasn’t ready to understand – or able to understand – when I was younger. I sit down, opposite where he would have been sat, and I remember.


But I also try to understand. The things he said, coming from a place of worry. The things he got wrong, because he didn’t understand. But also, buried under those memories, because they are more powerful, are the many others. Many, many, many others. Of him helping me, again and again even though I kept failing or getting things wrong. And in remembering, in these hundreds of fragments, I find myself saying something to Jim that I didn’t realise I needed to say.


“He did love me.”


“Well,” the mouse-shadow said, with a complete lack of humility, and more than a little archness, “obviously. Did that need to be said?”


I can’t help but laugh a bit. When it is said out loud by a shadow-mouse taking me on a quest through the otherworld, it does sound a bit ridiculous. “Probably not. But it sorts of gets lost, doesn’t it? In all of this,” I say as I gesture at the room, and the carpet where, now I realise, tiny shards of glass glisten on the carpet, each one a half-memory, each one sharp and hard to think of. “It all gets lost.”


Jim smiles then, and I see him hop off my shoulder onto the ground. When he jumps back up, he is holding a small circle of glass, not a shattered fragment, but a decorated piece. I look at it, and inside, I can see myself. But I wonder then, whether it is what Dad would see. And I don’t really think I can understand it, because it is a piece of glass in the otherworld, and I can’t put it into words, but I think I start to understand.


The mouse-shadow points to the door to the hall.

 

The door has a single circular space in it, for the glass.


With a frown, I place the glass into the door, and it swings open.


I step into blackness, which soon resolves into a room that floats on a sea of shifting colour. Streams of light and waterfall collapse all about me, and with every scatter of water and reflection, I can see the shining memories that I try my hardest not to remember. I don’t even know why I do that, as I am here, I realise I have been hiding from them.


But they’re beautiful.


And they’re mine, and all of him.


They’re not tinged by expectation, fear, guilt, shame or anger. They’re just me, him, the family, every memory a new spray of water and a thousand times a thousand pieces of laughter and light. I can see snowball fights, long conversations into the night, laughing and joking – a multitude of memories that I hadn’t wanted to see. All behind that door, all hidden by that single piece of glass lost in the sharp broken ends of memories.


And the talismans I carry, fragment and float, turning into their own cascades of water and memory.


Memories of love and joy, hidden in those dark places that I always found myself trapped in.


At the end of the room, I can see him.


He is smiling, mostly – but I think part of him is wondering why I’m here and what it is I think I’m doing.


“Hello,” I say to Dad.


There isn’t any answer. Which isn’t surprising, I realise, because I wonder if there’s anything that he could say that would make any sense, or make me feel better.


“They don’t really talk, because even the shadow’s imagination has its limits.”


I still keep my eyes on him though. All around me the crystalline wash of water and the music surrounds me. Behind him, the otherworld gates gleam a great blue, and the water beyond it is eternal and deep. Briefly, I imagine and wonder what his memories show, whether that is where he will swim now, when he steps through the gate that even my shadow and I – my imagination and I – cannot follow. But I think I already know, really. They’d show Mum, and all of us, and his brothers, and his parents, because he never made a secret of that being what he loved.


I say to the shadow, to Jim, “I think I can go back now.”


“Are you sure?”


I nod, “Yes, I think I need to let him swim away, and be with his memories. And I need to find my own again. And make new ones.”


Jim smiles. We watch as Dad turns away, and is gone through the gate. A stab of pain again, in my heart, but I hold my hands under the cooling water of the memories in this room, and although the pain stays tender, it doesn’t hurt as much. “Goodbye, Dad,” I say to him as we turn away, and step towards a great, black chasm torn into the wall of the room.


I glance at Jim, “A bit over the top, that one.”


He shrugs, “May as well enjoy myself while I’m here.”


I nod, understanding.


Jim pats my cheek once.


We both step through.

 

And finally, I fall asleep.


The orange light of the streetlamps loses to peaceful dreams.


In my dreams, I swim.

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