It took Victor many months to grow accustomed to his new rhythm of life in the Chapel. He could walk out of it but he found that he was happiest when he remained within its walls and there was little point, when very few people could see him, if he joined in prayers or sat beside patients. He didn’t need to eat. He didn’t require sleep, although he liked to rest. His time was spent waiting. He came to realise that he was there to help others pass into death. Some went straight away and needed no assistance from him, the content ones, satisfied with their lives and accepting of this next transition into the unknown. Some fought the process, their bodies dead and buried in the damp brown earth outside the Abbey, but their minds in turmoil or terror anchored them within the walls of the Abbey until Victor could persuade them to let go.
Victor was good at the task to which he had been assigned, he drew strength from the small chantry chapel and the belief that he had been given this role by Jude himself. He didn’t try to explain it with words, the experiences in his life were not sufficient to describe what had taken place, he accepted that he would be called away when his work was done and in the meantime he would maintain a watch over the people here who needed the peacefulness he was able to share.
Unfazed by Victor’s revelation, Juliet looked about her at the other occupants of the coffee shop. “And the others?” Victor was clearly more reluctant to answer this question. It had dawned on Juliet that Shaun, the old couple and the mother and young child were also permanent fixtures in the coffee shop although she wasn’t sure what they did.
“It became apparent as the population around here grew, that I wasn’t able to continue on my own and I found I was able to pass on the task that had been given to me. Albert and Sarah…” Victor gestured over to the elderly couple sat uncomfortably in the middle of the room who looked up momentarily and then returned to the crossword they were trying to complete in what looked like, from the yellowed paper and huge print typeface, a very old newspaper. “I find they relate particularly well to the old people we have enter the café.” Juliet understood that Victor was telling her that they had a lot of older people through their process. She looked over at the mother and child and immediately thought of the large and well-respected paediatric unit.
“Shaun serves coffee.”
Victor patiently explained that the history of the precise area, presently functioning as a coffee shop, was intertwined with the history of the hospital that had been built to serve the local community in 1115. Originally achieving a dual purpose as abbey and monastery, hospital and graveyard, the building, it’s surrounding land situated so close to the centre of a growing market town, had been a necessary service for the local people.
The building had witnessed many changes, some recorded in history, but most as part of the everyday transition experienced as tastes changed, fashions developed, inventions advanced and populations were educated.
The dissolution of the monasteries had dramatically affected the building but the walls had remained and eventually local dignitaries had donated funds in order to bring the hospital back into service and from there it had evolved with the times, quietly supporting the area through illness and death. Of course, ghosts roamed the hospital wards, though many were unseen. Only occasionally, at times of great upheaval or personal tragedy were their forms witnessed and reported.
“I regret not being able to help these people, but they refuse to allow me to assist them in their transition. Most of them are waiting for loved ones and don’t believe they have already gone before them” Victor looked genuinely sad and Juliet got the impression that he blamed himself for their remaining locked within the walls of a hospital that had changed beyond recognition since their body had died.
The sadness made Juliet want to change the subject for Victor’s sake and she had a question that she needed to know the answer to before the inevitable psychoanalysis from Victor commenced. “Will I know when I’m about to reconnect with my body?”
“That depends on how able you are to accept some of the difficulties your life has presented you with.” Victor reverted to his upright, patiently waiting position on the chair and glanced again at his watch.
“So are you telling me that actually my body is waiting for me to go through this with you rather than for medical intervention to start to take effect?”
“You could look at it like that yes” For the first time Victor took a sip of his coffee.
There was not going to be any getting out of this but when faced with a contemplative look back on her life, Juliet didn’t know where to start.
“Try starting at the beginning.”
“The beginning of my life? That is going to take rather a long time.” Juliet didn’t want to start at the beginning. She didn’t want to sit in this coffee shop holding on with a tenuous grasp to her physical form and whine about the tough cards she had been dealt in life. When compared to some she’d had it relatively easy, food in the fridge, a bed to sleep in, and an education. She had never felt it appropriate to complain. Her confidence was deserting her and she wanted to something that she hadn’t done for 2 years, 3 months and 15 days, cry.
“Take your time, don’t forget I’ve been waiting here for you and I must have been doing that for a reason.”
Juliet took a deep breath before she began, there wasn’t a lot of point in skirting the events that she knew Victor wanted her to discuss.
“You know you don’t have to discuss them with me Juliet, you have to think about them, relive them in your mind, accept what happened”
Juliet had never been particularly religious and her mother had never told her whether she had even been baptised. She enjoyed the Christmas story and she had thought that the local church was something that she might turn to as she got older, to make friends and be part of a community, after her retirement from work. “Is this a sort of confessional?”
“No, not at all, the only person that you need forgiveness from, is yourself” Victor’s implication wasn’t lost on Juliet but it also did not give her any answers.
“Why don’t you start with your mother?”
Juliet had sometimes felt that her life had begun and ended with her mother. She liked to remember her on a happy day but often only found an occasion of a summers afternoon spent with the roses in her memory. Was the rest of it so bad? Juliet decided that if she must look objectively at her life in any sort of chronology then she should really start with her father, as he was the person involved in her earliest memories.
Juliet’s father was tall and had been handsome with the look of the day in his early twenties. Soft brown hair that he had tried to persuade into a permanent quiff sat above intelligent brown eyes and a wide smile. It was Juliet’s understanding that her father had decided to marry the most beautiful girl in the town, regardless of character or compatibility, and he achieved what he set out to do by marrying her mother. This had always seemed short-sighted on his part and in Juliet’s opinion, the aim of making “beautiful children” was not a sufficiently fulfilling ambition in life and her parents had almost certainly, been disappointed by the first child they had made.
Juliet had been born in July and she fancied her father had some ambition that his daughter would be the beautiful heroine, swept away by passion and desire into the arms of some unsuitable young man, but she had no firm memories of him as a romantic individual to justify this fantasy.
Juliet’s earliest memories were with her father, tinkering with the car, planting vegetables in the garden, walking to the local shop, eating toast. By the time she got to an age when she might have asked her mother where she was during these early years of her life, her mother had descended so far down into her own pit of isolation in which, Juliet supposed, only despair and misery existed, that Juliet always thought it unlikely that she would get a truthful, if even coherent, answer.
Her father had never been indulgent. Juliet always understood that she had nothing that he had expected from a child of his. She wasn’t a boy. As a girl she hadn’t inherited her mother’s hair, skin or symmetrical features that might draw admiration as a classical beauty like her mother. She also had very little in the way of balance and coordination; meaning sports were of little interest. What Juliet had been given was a brain, but it had not been a welcome attribute for most of the short time she had spent with her parents.
Juliet’s mother must have been there, even if she struggled to remember any interaction with her, because six years later, her parents had a son. Juliet thought she remembered her father being overjoyed, planning and planting a rose garden as a present for his wife, although she accepted that these memories were probably derived from what she had been told later rather than contemporary experiences.
The new son was not at all like Juliet with beautiful baby features and golden hair. He rarely cried and it hadn’t taken Juliet’s father long before he accepted that his son wasn’t thriving. Juliet was sure that what followed were years of worrying, hospital visits, specialists and tests. Perhaps this was why her father had left, to focus on the health issues of his new son, although why her mother had allowed him to take her new baby away still wasn’t completely clear. Juliet knew that her father had left with her brother not that long after he had been born, was it months or years? Juliet wasn’t sure and she also wasn’t sure that it mattered. His presence in her life had gone, there were no weekend visits, no holidays at his house. Juliet accepted early on that she had been abandoned by someone she relied on, left with a person who was absent even though they occupied the same house.
Since her mother’s death, Juliet had begun to realise that there were important aspects of her memory that must have been there but were actually missing. When she was younger, who fed her and washed clothes? Who got her up for school? Juliet tried to concentrate on coming home from school, which she knew she must have done every day, who was there to meet her? Memories from her older teenage years were particularly vague. Had she sat exams? How had she got into college? Memories since her mother’s death, in contrast, were in particularly sharp focus.
“You’re not accessing the detail which will give you a clearer story” Victor’s interruption was unexpected.
“You’re looking at everything as if it is a memory. I suspect that if you really concentrate you can take yourself to that time and see what was really happening. Try it”
Juliet sceptically settled back into the armchair and closed her eyes in an effort to concentrate as Victor suggested. She abruptly found herself standing in her own hallway, looking at herself in the full-length mirror set into her Narnia wardrobe. The experience was unnerving and Juliet could feel panic rising within her. Hearing an echo of Victor’s voice telling her to take her time, Juliet stood quietly, breathing slowly listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and smelling the familiar smells of her home, wood polish, lavender from the pot pourri in a pottery bowl on the bookcase in the corridor to the bedrooms, musty carpet and a hint of pine from the bathroom.
The clock struck four times and a key turned tentatively in the lock of the front door. Juliet’s breathing slowed to be almost imperceptible as she anticipated the person coming through the threshold. The door opened just a few inches and a thin girl with unruly curly hair slid very quietly into the hallway. She wore a winter coat and a woolly scarf to keep out the cold November afternoon chill. Juliet held her breath, recognising herself at about ten. The girl, without looking around her or noticing the presence of anyone else in the hallway, tiptoed in an exaggerated fashion over to the wardrobe, opened the door a tiny amount and slipped inside, closing the door behind her. A small muffled sound from inside the wardrobe informed Juliet that the girl had sat down and clearly planned to stay in there for some time.
Juliet stood waiting, searching her memory for this event. She remembered the occasional Narnia game but she didn’t remember long periods of an afternoon spent sitting in a dark wardrobe. Juliet remained where she stood, barely moving and had a feeling that time was moving forward faster than it would normally. The clock struck five and then six, the girl remained in the wardrobe, reminding Juliet that she was there with an occasional quiet cough or a movement necessary so that her limbs didn’t go to sleep. The wardrobe door opened as the clock struck seven o’ clock and the girl tiptoed into the kitchen and, without switching on a light, over to the fridge. Taking the handle with the familiar tug, twist and yank technique that Juliet still used, the girl reached into the fridge and removed a bowl of plain cooked rice and a glass of water. The girl sat down at the table and ate the food quietly and drank the water. She then rinsed the bowl and the glass and put them away in the cupboard.
Passing right beside her, the girl then quietly walked down the hall and into Juliet’s old childhood bedroom, closing the door very quietly behind her.
Juliet stood quietly, straining to hear movement in the house, rooted to the spot in a bewildered combination of incredulity and fear. What seemed like a long time after, a door whispered open at the end of the corridor and her mother walked towards her.