At the railway station an old man approached the bench on which a young man was seated. He stood for an awkward moment crimping his hat in his hands before sitting, bringing close a strong perfume of hay and peppermints. The young man feared that the elder would speak.
‘I know something very few people know. There are small occasions of magic still lodged in the world. Books . . . Books are enchanted. Not in the way that people imagine. Not in the sense of wordy transits of delight wrought by restless writers, but something very specific and universal. When you die – when you die – you revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your . . . demise. I can tell that you don’t believe me and I don’t expect you to, but – because I like you – I wanted to warn you. What are you reading at the moment?’
‘Management Accounting for Non-Financial Specialists . . . for work.’
‘And Tiresias by Austin Clarke.’
‘Ah! That’s worse. Poetry is the worst. Never, never, read poetry . . . the torment . . .’
‘What are you reading?’
‘Goodnight Moon and Three Men in a Boat . . . but mainly Goodnight Moon. Those lovely bunnies. I insist upon an eternity of bliss after what I’ve been through.’
‘How did you discover this?’
‘I woke up one morning and I knew. Everything I have seen and heard since has confirmed the reality of what I have told you but, of course, on its own none of this proves anything. The original insight is true and gives me peace, although I fear for everyone else in their afterlives.’
‘But what happens to people who don’t read, after they die?’
‘Very few people have never read any book or never attempted to read a book. Even the illiterate have sweated uncomprehendingly over the few words of their elementary primers. That will be their book of death. Not such a bad fate.’
‘But what happens to the “very few”?’
‘They disappear. They die for all time.’
‘What if they had only read magazines?’
‘And what happened to the numberless generations born before the book was invented?’
‘Well, some of them lived in the time of magic, of which I know nothing, but all the rest are dead for all time.’
‘It’s not harsh. It’s not anything. It’s an opportunity.’
‘You speak fifteen per cent louder than anyone I know.’
‘Fifteen per cent? That’s not much.’
‘I suppose so, but it’s noticeable. My ears are ringing.’
‘I’m not sorry.’
‘You should be.’
‘Look, I was talking about death and after.’
‘My mother . . . father always said, “You’re innocent until you die.”’
‘ . . . which is rubbish.’
‘It might be. If I knew what it meant . . .’
‘Well, I can’t tell you . . . Anyways. Look. What are you going to read next?’
‘No! That’s my book!’
‘What do you mean? You mean that everyone who’s reading a particular book when they die ends up in an infinite afterlife together.’
‘I didn’t say it was infinite. I mean, I’m sure it wears out eventually like everything but, I’m supposing that it’s a long time.’
‘According to you.’
‘So what’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with spending the afterlife with me? After all you’ll have all those leukaemia kids, and toddlers who fell out of windows, and those dads who read the bedtime story, drank the fat end of a bottle of Rioja and crashed into a shop front on the way to visit their special friends or, on the way back, to buy flowers from the petrol station. To say “sorry”. All of them.’
‘Oh! You’re right. I never thought of that. How awful! Maybe you could keep me company. You seem all right.’
‘Thank you. Say: please.’
‘What if you want a slightly more exclusive afterlife? One where you don’t have to rub shoulders with Vronsky and a gaggle of lost teenagers.’
‘You’d have to write your own book . . . and get it published.’
‘Without anybody reading it? I suppose that must happen already. But I guess the agent and the editors must read it at least. You’d have to spend the afterlife with them.’
‘You’d have to edit and print it yourself. That’s much easier these days.’
‘What about e-books?’
‘Never heard of them.’
The young man could have let the conversation go at this point, it would have been no great loss, but he spoke up instead.
‘I’ve just thought of a foolproof method. Invent your own language, write your ideal post-death scenario in book form, edit, print and there you are.’
‘You’re a clever guy.’
‘Why, thank you.’
‘It’s a lot of trouble to go to though.’
‘Yes, well. I’m not saying that I would personally make up a language and etcetera. I’ve got a better idea.’
‘Let me hear then.’
‘Why don’t we just act as if there’s no path from books into . . . the beyond? We could read anything we want to, even poetry, and never have to worry about it.’
‘And what if it is true?’
‘It might be true but not in the way you think.’
‘You might end up in the book and all will be well . . . all the outcomes will be the best possible ones. Raskolnikov doesn’t kill his landlady, Werther marries his beloved, settles down and becomes a jolly burgher; Casaubon finishes his book and it’s great and everyone loves it, and he lightens up and sees the funny side of things. What does your sense tell you about that?’
‘Sounds good . . . might be true.’
‘Then why don’t we act as if it’s so and be happy.’
‘That would be good.’
The old man shifted around in his seat.
‘Actually, the truth is I don’t feel at peace at all. I feel anxious most of the time. I don’t sleep well. Great, bloody chunks of doubt float around my mind.’
‘What if none of it is true?’
‘Think what you like, something is true and it may as well be an afterlife of happy endings.’
‘I’d like that,’ he said weakly.
‘It feels like this train will never come,’ said the young man.
He looked around at the platform, the station. This was the kind of place that usually stinks of urine and bleach, but all he could catch was the faint, soothing smell of lavender.
‘This station hasn’t been used for ages. There are no trains. I was just looking to have a little rest when I saw you there.’
‘Would you look at the time?’
The station clock faced them, shattered, handless.
‘I’ve got to get to work.’
‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office. I can’t stand my family . . . the ungrateful bastards.’
‘I’m leaving now.’
‘Don’t leave me,’ the old man said in a small voice.
The leaving man rushed off the platform and out into the street. A taxi was driving at walking pace down the middle of the road. He flagged, it stopped and he stepped in.
‘Where are you going?’
The driver looked familiar. The passenger looked around. Across the street was his work place.
‘It looks like I’m here already.’
‘That’ll be three guineas.’
‘That’s outrageous . . .’
‘Three guineas – minimum fare,’ the cabbie said.
The passenger opened his wallet, took out three notes and climbed out of the cab, leaving the door open. The taxi set off again at a crawl before stopping dead.
The glass double-doors of the building were locked and the brass handles secured with a triple loop of chain joined with a brass padlock. He kicked out and hurt his foot and, in a rage, picked up a steel bucket filled with sand, swung it hard and when he let it go the glass shattered. A surge of ecstasy washed through him, stilling any pain or disquiet he might have felt at the blood pouring freely from a cut just below his left eye. The reception was dark and empty, and he walked through over crunchy marble to the atrium where a stand of trees had grown explosively, bursting the canopy, violet and orange blooms singing out of the lush foliage. All the lifts had out-of-order signs, so he took the stairs to the sixth floor where he worked.
All the workstations were closed and tidy except the finance director’s whose computer could be seen from across the floor glowing greenly in the gloom. As he approached the desk he smelled bananas. He leaned down to the keyboard and pressed the return key, the screen came back and he had just enough time to read the words “I know something that very few people know” when he heard:
‘Kevin . . . Kevin . . . What are you doing here?’ Kevin spun around.
‘You do realise that it’s the weekend, don’t you?’
‘What are you doing here? How did you get in?’
‘I have my own key. I mean . . . I’ve lived here ever since . . . you know . . .’
‘You mean . . . you sleep here?’
‘I have a camp bed in the boardroom. The MD has a shower room that I use. It’s all very neat . . . very satisfactory. I miss the kids obviously.’
‘I was going to talk to you . . . some Monday.’
‘About what happens when you wake up and you want to sink to the bottom where the damaged people belong . . . where you belong.’
‘I don’t know anything about that and if I did I’ve forgotten.’
‘There it is . . . you remember that there’s a forgotten, you just can’t recall what it is. The forgotten is always waiting for you.’
‘Yes and for me.’
‘I don’t give it a second thought.’
‘Yes, but it thinks about you.’
‘Well, I’m glad we had this talk. I have something to finish. I’ll see you on Monday. Bye Kevin.’
Kevin walked down the stairs and out into the atrium, the sky had turned dark and the bright blooms had fallen to the ground like rotten stars. Outside a street lamp winked on once, then off, but across the road a warm, welcoming light poured onto the night from a cafe.
Sitting in a moulded plastic booth smoking a cigarette is the old man from the station.
‘Hi Dad,’ says Kevin.
‘I’ve ordered you a fry, son. It won’t be long.’
‘Reading’ is included in David Hayden’s collection Darker With the Lights On, published by Little Island Press.