When my nephew Michael died last year, a little over a month after his 15th birthday, the greatest part of the tragedy was the future his fate had stolen from him.
In the weeks after his death, I wrote a short story about what I like to think happened to him after he died, giving him a future of sorts, mostly to make myself and those who knew him feel a little better.
Today would have been Michael’s 16th birthday and the story is one of the happiest thoughts I can conjure of him, so I thought I’d share it.
I’m not sure how much sense this will make to folk given that all the other characters are also family and friends who have passed away, but I hope is some solace and joy to be found in the idea that those lost to us are still within the reach of our imaginations.
Michael woke on sandy ground. He was lost, confused.
Anxiety gurgled up from his stomach, was converted to rage in his chest, and took flight as a full-blooded roar.
It was like he’d got rid of something he didn’t need, and it felt good.
He took a deep lungful of air and felt a sweet, warm ocean breeze invigorate his insides. Something was different – everything was different. He felt strong as he rose up from the ground and peered at his surroundings.
Hillocks of golden sand and sharp grass undulated away from him on all sides, fading into a warm haze. The uneven terrain prevented him from catching sight of the sea, but he knew it was nearby. The shimmering opal sky teased from beyond the encircling white shroud. The warmth of an unseen sun energised him and beckoned him to walk.
‘Was that you shouting?’
The question floated over from the nearest dune crest and as Michael turned to investigate, he saw a quizzical youth’s head appear from over the rise. As the figure made his way down the sandy slope toward him, Michael guessed the newcomer was perhaps a little older than himself, although he’d never been very good at working out people’s ages.
‘I wasn’t shouting!’ Michael began indignantly, ‘I was just…’
‘Not to worry,’ the stranger smiled, ‘there’s no one around to tell you off. That’s the beauty of it here. I often come up here to talk to myself, or shout. And sometimes to sing,’ he added with a self-conscious chuckle. Michael’s growing frown suggested his attempt at levity had landed wide of the mark. He tried to explain, ‘haha, because I’m not a very good singer… so I stay away from…’ but seeing he wasn’t making an impact, the youth changed tack and held out one of the blue ice-cream cones he was holding, ‘this is for you.’
Michael shrugged, not really knowing how to respond. He hesitantly took the offered cone, studying the creamy whorls with bemusement and suspicion. This was all a bit strange. It did look tasty though – and he was quite hungry.
‘You’re a bit lost, aren’t you?’ the stranger continued. ‘I think I saw your family down near the water. I’ll show you when you’re ready.’
‘Okay, thanks,’ Michael managed, then fell in to walking through the dunes alongside the older boy as they both enjoyed their ice creams. Things still weren’t making sense to him. His head felt as foggy as the horizon. He stumbled slightly as they meandered up the next rise, but a steadying hand from his new-found friend prevented any loss of balance or sugary snack.
‘You’re probably still feeling a bit discombobulated, aren’t you?’ the ice-cream bearer said with a chuckle. ‘Give it time, you’ll soon get your bearings.’
‘Discombobu-whatever? Is that like lag? I feel laggy,’ Michael complained.
‘Laggy? Hah, yes that’s a good word for it. Like jet lag.’
‘No, like when your internet is too slow and your ping rate goes really high.’
‘Ah, I’m not so familiar with all that. But you have been on a long journey, so…’
‘Have I? I can’t remember it,’ Michael interrupted before taking a thoughtful lick of his ice cream. The older youth gave him a sage look and was about to say something, but stalled as Michael’s attention was drawn away by the view before them which expanded to reveal a glorious, sunlit palm beach beyond the dunes. A lustrous, verdant coastline curved below them and beyond into the distant haze. Sporadic clusters of white buildings were dotted among the foliage, facing toward the calm, glittering sea. There was a hint of fields and mountains inland.
‘Oh cool, is that a race track?’ Michael indicated to a distant, open area nestled between the treeline and the dunes.
‘I’m not sure, quite possibly,’ Michael’s companion said hesitantly as he led the way along a descending path, ‘is that what you’re into?’
‘Yeah, I just got the new Forza on my XBox,’ Michael grinned enthusiastically, ‘you can come round to my house and play it if you want? Just as soon as I get back from hosp…’ his voice tailed off as he tried to wrestle with an uncomfortable inconsistency in his current situation, but then pushed it to the back of his mind. ‘I’d have to ask my Mum. Where did you say you saw her?’
‘I’m more of a strategy game guy, but yeah, okay. I’d like that,’ the other boy answered selectively, ‘what do you like to race?’
‘My favourite at the moment is a Murcielago, but I like anything that goes fast really. We could play Company of Heroes after, that’s a good strategy game.’
‘Cool. So that’s a car? The Murcielago. A Ferrari?’ the youth ventured as he repeated the word slowly.
‘No! It’s a Lamborghini!’ Michael gave his guide a frustrated glance, ‘Is this the way to where my Mum is?’
The youth pursed his lips and his brow furrowed. He ran his fingers through his centre-parted blond hair and rubbed the back of his head as he tried to physically grapple with something on his mind.
‘Some of your family are there,’ he replied ambiguously, as he pointed ahead along the path which led down toward a compound of pristine single-storey buildings hewn from white stone. A low wall demarcated the boundary and within was a cornucopia of well-tended, colourful plants. Several cats basked in the shade. A wide lawn overlooked a pool fed by a small fountain which babbled gently. An elderly man reclined on a striped deckchair, his unkempt, thinning grey hair dancing in the breeze as he slept in the sun.
A short, older woman in a floral dress appeared briefly from inside the nearest building, delivered a cup of tea to a table beside the recumbent man, then scurried back toward the building. As she did so, she saw the two boys and gave them a friendly wave, followed by a series of clumsy but charmingly effective hand gestures that illustrated that she felt it was too hot to be outside.
‘I don’t know who they are,’ said Michael, ‘I thought you said my family were here.’
‘I did. And they are,’ said the youth, ‘but let’s try down on the beach.’
Michael peered curiously at the scenery as they followed the path which skirted the perimeter of the villa, through some cool, leafy foliage and out toward a secluded section of seafront.
‘This reminds me a bit of Rhodes,’ Michael speculated. ‘It’s definitely not Norfolk.’
‘Haha, yes, you’re right there – it’s definitely not Norfolk,’ Michael’s friend agreed.
They arrived at a perfect sunbathing spot at the centre of a secluded bay nestled between the dunes and lined with palm trees. Out on the sand were two sun-loungers, each beneath a parasol made of dried grass and bamboo. Upon one was a blonde woman in a bikini who appeared to have fallen asleep reading a book. The other sun-lounger was empty, but a short distance along the beach was a dainty beach hut. A dark-haired woman wearing oversized sunglasses, a bikini top and a long skirt watched them from the shade of the veranda as she sipped a colourful cocktail. She smiled as she looked over, then put her drink down and began to walk across the sand toward them.
‘Does everyone around here just sleep all day?’ Michael pondered as his friend led him toward the approaching woman.
Michael’s companion smiled, ‘If that’s what they want to do, yep. You can pretty much do what you like.’
‘Heh. If you like. Or peaceful.’
‘Boring,’ Michael reasserted.
As they grew closer to the woman, the fog in Michael’s head began to clear. He felt an odd sensation rising in his chest as her hand rose to her face. She removed her sunglasses, revealing the smiling, tearful, love-filled eyes of someone impossible.
She dashed the last few yards, threw her arms around him and gave him the warmest, loveliest of hugs. Banishing his bemusement, he hugged her back with a heartfelt squeeze.
‘Ooof!’ she made a melodramatic noise as if his hug had forced the air from her lungs, then laughed effervescently, ‘you’ve got so big and so strong.’ She leant back to take a good look at him and beamed, ‘and handsome too.’ Then, as she read deeply into his eyes, a look of soulful sorrow came over her face. ‘ I’m so, so very sorry for everything you’ve been through, Michael. And I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with you. Or Nathan and your Mum and Dad.’
She pulled him in for another hug. Michael couldn’t stop grinning. He felt so happy and safe. Everything was right again; he felt well, they were all on holiday, Nanny was here. Somehow. He couldn’t wait to tell his Mum and Nathan and everyone else.
‘Where’s Mum? Does she know you’re here? How come you’re not… dead?’
Nanny tried to cast aside a pained look, then gave Michael’s friend an empathetic glance.
‘Thank you for bringing him, Paul. If you’ve got time, could you be a love and just pop up to the villa and ask Doris to make Michael’s bed up while he and I have a bit of catch up? Thank you, dear.’
‘No problem, it was a pleasure,’ Paul smiled, ‘I’ll come check back with you at sunset. Then we can talk about…’
‘Yes!’ Nanny blurted with an alarmed smile. ‘Absolutely. There’s no rush. We can talk about everything then.’
Paul gave Michael a hearty pat on the shoulder, took his hand and shook it, grinning. ‘Nice to meet you. I look forward to that game of Xbox. See you later.’
‘You can’t play a game of Xbox, you play on the…’ Michael tried to advise, but Nanny was already linking arms with him and leading him back toward her beach hut, while Paul was jogging back up the beach toward the villa nestled in the dunes.
‘We have got so much to talk about,’ she said excitedly as she beamed up at him, ‘but first I’m going to have to get used to you being taller than me.’ Then, more mischievously, ‘do you feel old enough to drink a cocktail?’
‘I think I’ll just have juice.’
Nanny guided him to sit on one of a pair of dark wood rocking chairs which seemed oddly out of place on the sun-bleached veranda, then with one final squeeze she disappeared inside to get him a drink, returning so quickly Michael didn’t have time to gather his turbulent thoughts.
Passing him a glass of brightly coloured liquid as she sat down brandishing her own beverage, she cocked her head slightly as if trying to see inside his skull.
‘You’ve got a lot on your mind, I bet.’
Michael grunted in acknowledgement as he looked around.
‘I think I’m meant to be in hospital,’ he said quietly as he glanced at his surroundings with suspicion.
Nanny bit her lip and beamed at him compassionately, ‘you don’t need to go there anymore.’
‘Not just better. Best. You are your best self,’ she said with earnest.
‘Thanks, but how did I get better? I can’t remember. I thought I was getting worse. I…’ a dark expression wrinkled his face as the pit of his stomach began to twist again.
‘Drink your juice,’ she placated, reaching over and rubbing his arm affectionately. ‘It’ll settle your stomach and…’
‘Let me guess. Did I die?’, he said abruptly as he looked directly at Nanny with a new realisation. ‘I died. I don’t really remember it, but that’s what happened isn’t it? That’s why you’re here.’
Nanny was caught off guard by Michael’s epiphany and moved as if to reassure her grandson before realising he was not emotionally escalating as she anticipated. To her surprise, he instead seemed calm, even pleased.
‘That’s… true, yes…’
‘Thought so,’ he took a triumphant sip of his juice and grinned, ‘didn’t you think I’d work it out?’
Nanny blinked as she adjusted to Michael’s unexpectedly positive demeanour. ‘I did think you might need more help to realise it. It’s a big change.’
‘I needed a change. My body was giving up. So is this heaven? Where is God?’, he glanced around with comical alarm, as if he might be ambushed by a mischievous deity hiding nearby.
Nanny smiled as she adjusted to Michael’s thought rhythm. He could change direction so abruptly. She took a breath and tried to explain,
‘It’s a lot to take in. This is… your existence reshaped. You are perceived differently now and whether you are in heaven or in the spirit world or something else is a matter of opinion.’
‘Good question. Any moment, any thought, any feeling someone has about you is what defines your existence. Every time someone talks about you, looks at a picture of you, or reads about you, their minds and imaginations feed your perpetual presence.’
‘What? Are you saying I’m imaginary!’
‘Who’s to say imagination isn’t where God lives? But of course you’re not imaginary. And don’t worry, neither am I, or anyone else here. We just don’t exist in quite the same way that we used to. It’s about collective perception, it takes some getting used to but it’s nice. You’ll like it once you get used to it.’
‘Okay,’ he said, flatly. ‘Is grandad Clive here?’
‘Er, yes. Somewhere,’ Nanny changed direction in line with Michael’s erratic conversation flow. ‘He has a workshop down the coast. You’d like it. Lots of cars,’ then with a disapproving look, ‘most of them in pieces.’
‘Oh cool, when can I go see him? Can I drive some?’
Nanny laughed, ‘Maybe later, we’ve got to get you settled in first. Do you have any questions about what we were talking about?’
‘Not right now. I’ll let you know,’ he dismissed due to another, more exciting thought barging its way into his awareness as he looked out at the twinkling, pure ocean surf. ‘I can go swimming! I can, can’t I? Oh yes, I am going! You can’t stop me!’
Nanny laughed as Michael sprinted off across the sand with all the energy of a healthy soul, his noisy passage disturbing the sunbathing woman who cast him a confused look as she sat up. Brushing away the sand Michael had kicked over her bronzed legs, she made her way over to where Nanny sat beaming at her cavorting grandson as he waded into the crystal waves with joyous abandon.
‘That went well then,’ she said as she sat on the rocking chair Michael had vacated.
‘He’ll never not surprise me,’ Nanny said.
‘Then why the face?’
‘Diane, I know you. You’re worrying.’
She puffed out a sigh, ‘Oh, it’s not Michael, not exactly. I’m glad he’s here.’
‘So what’s the worry?’
‘You know me. It’s everyone else, Pauline.’
Pauline smiled comfortingly, ‘they’ll be alright, you did your job well. I’ll make us a cuppa then we can tune in and see how they’re doing.’
‘No, not just my mob. I mean everyone.’
‘Okay, you need to tell me what you’re thinking,’ she said with concern. ‘But I’m still putting the kettle on first.’