Jenny is dead and it turns out that, as in life, these situations are just things you have to get used to.
Jenny didn’t remember dying. It took her a while – mostly because it was extremely hard to gauge time when you don’t have a body telling you to be hungry or thirsty or tired or to go to the toilet – but she eventually realised that it wasn’t that strange. She didn’t remember her birth: why should she remember her death? Still, it was odd. She was alone, so far as she could tell, in a place that was both the familiar world and not. Because she couldn’t remember getting here, she couldn’t pinpoint how long it had been or what her first memory of the place was. It had just become her reality at some point and she supposed she had to accept it. Maybe that was part of it. Like how a newborn baby isn’t cognisant of its surroundings because it would be so terrifying. Maybe you get a little time to get used to death.
She wandered around a bit. She could see, in the most literal sense, that it was the world she knew. There were trees and roads and cars and buildings, but everything seemed to be grey and washed out, stripped of contrasts of light and shade, so it all looked like paper cut-outs plastered on a drab wall. It was nothing she could get a fix on exactly, either. She could see the sun was shining, or that the grass in the park was green, but it just looked colourless and empty to her now. And of course people ignored her. She could see them even less easily than her surroundings. They were just blurry shapes, mannequins without faces, moving jerkily through the world in fits and starts. She never tried talking to them because she knew they wouldn’t be able to hear her. She didn’t try to touch anything either, because she had no need to do so and the gesture seemed empty and futile. She could try to pick up a cup of tea, maybe, but she wouldn’t be able to drink it and, as much as part of her brain (if she even had a brain now) wanted nothing more than to curl up on the sofa with something warm to drink, she had an overwhelming sense that that was just not an option she had now and that it was therefore pointless to long for it. In life, she might have looked up at the circling birds high in the blue sky, but wanting to fly like them was only a brief fancy. The human mind had a firm sense of the impossible, and that was no different now she was here, in this place that came after death.
After a little while (how long? Jenny had no idea of course) of wandering around the shadows of her hometown, she finally saw someone she could speak to. It was an old woman, more solid than the other people, more focused in her mind than anything else she’d seen here so far, just wandering down the street appearing to be quite happy. She looked vaguely familiar, and Jenny wondered if she might have been a neighbour from long ago. She approached her and the old woman smiled at her invitingly. “Hello, dear.”
“H…hello…” It felt strange to speak. She knew, on some level, that she didn’t have a throat to make sounds with any more.
“Are you new?”
“I suppose so. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. It goes dark sometimes and I suppose that’s night, but I haven’t been counting.”
“Yes,” the old lady acknowledged, “it does get a bit confusing.” There was a bench nearby and they sat down on it without any discussion. Jenny had to concentrate to perch on the surface of it. She found that physical barriers were just that in this place – physical, and therefore not her concern. She could sink all the way to the Earth’s core if she wanted.
“This isn’t what I thought would happen,” Jenny said after a while.
“No, I suppose not.”
“Why are we here?”
The old lady shrugged. “I don’t know. Why would I?”
“I just thought…isn’t someone supposed to tell us what to do? How to leave?”
“Yes…this can’t be all there is, can it?”
“I’m afraid so, love. Everyone comes here and everyone goes through the same thing. There’s no man in a white suit who explains it, any more than there was before.”
“You mean when we were alive?”
The old lady nodded. “No one has the answers. Here’s just the same, except it’s just shadows in the fog now.”
Jenny shook her head doubtfully. “But where is everyone? All the dead people I mean. If this happens to all of us, shouldn’t there be crowds of them wandering around?”
“Ah, now I wondered about that too. A long time ago I mean, not long after…well, you know. At first I just waited around near where I lived, hoping someone might see me I suppose. Well, my friend Masie, she was very sick. Me, I got hit by a bus. Right over there.” She pointed across the road where the dim shape of a graffiti-covered bus shelter was visible. “It was a horrible wet day, you see, and I didn’t think the driver could see me. So I stepped out into the road and I lost my balance and, well, it turned out he couldn’t see me. But Masie, she was sick. Very sick. And I think how it works is your brain dies before your body gives up. Don’t ask me. But most of the people are old like she was and they don’t have much left over to walk around the place like us. So they just lie down and go to sleep.”
“Sleep?” Jenny was confused by that. She’d never slept here.
“Well, not sleep I suppose. They just lie down and stop thinking.”
“So where are they?”
The old lady laughed lightly. “Things change, dear. New roads go down over old ones, new houses go up on top of what’s left of what was there before. It all rises up, over time. They’re still down there though, sleeping in the earth. Maybe they fade after a while. I don’t really know.”
Jenny nodded thoughtfully. “With me it was cancer. At least I think so. It was very sudden. I was young and you don’t expect it.”
“There there, dear,” the old lady said, patting her hand. It was an empty gesture. She didn’t feel any emotions here, really, and it must be the same for others. She wasn’t at all upset about how she’d died.
“I didn’t have anyone. My parents died years ago. I had a boyfriend, but we split up I supposed eighteen months ago? So I went to the doctor by myself and got tested and there really wasn’t much they could do for me. So I just died. Like a light going off. What a strange thing.”
“It happens to all of us, love.”
“I know.” She looked around at the grey, shadowy world. “What should I do?”
“Whatever you like. Some people, they go far away, try to see all the things they couldn’t before. Of course it takes a long time to walk anywhere, but that doesn’t really matter to us. I met a young man once – I think he had an accident too – and he said he’d walk to Egypt to see the pyramids. Always wanted to go, he said.”
“Did he get there?”
“I don’t know. You don’t meet people much around here. Mostly people were ready to die and they just carry on dying, forever. They sleep with the old folks. The children are the strangest.”
“Children?” Jenny felt something like a sensation at that. A twist of some echo of an emotion. A child shouldn’t have to experience this.
“Yes. They seem to take to it best of all, I think. Children accept anything. They skip off and carry on about their business as normal, mostly. You might see them in gardens or near the sea, if you go there. Little shadows, playing in the waves. They’re more like the real people,” she pointed as a faceless couple flitted past them along the pavement, “the living. Not like us, who had a life to regret losing.”
“What about babies? What happens to them?”
“Babies don’t come here,” the old lady said shortly, “not enough memories of life to hold them here, I don’t think. That’s all it is you know, dear, echoes and memories. Shadows of what you knew. Don’t let it get you down though: it’s not so bad.”
And it really wasn’t. She thought about going to Egypt like that man the old lady had met, or Venice or Athens or the Amazon rainforest or Uluru or any of a million other places but for some reason she just didn’t. She didn’t really think she’d get a lot out of it. Nothing really made her feel anything in this place. In the end, she went to the only place she could think that might let her regain some semblance of contentment and wandered into her old flat. Someone else lived there now, a young couple, and she watched them move around the place, living their little lives. They didn’t see her but, every now and then, when the light was right or one of them was in the right frame of mind, they seemed to know she was there. Eventually they moved out and a young man arrived instead.
How long she pottered around her old home, playing at doing real people things, she wasn’t sure. It might have been years. She noticed things changing. Fashions, technology, people’s lives. None of it meant much to her, really. Eventually, the flat was empty for a long time and the whole building seemed to have been abandoned. She barely noticed it being torn down around her, just stood there in the falling rubble, moving her hands where the kettle and jar of tea bags used to be, so long ago, humming to herself the way she thought she always used to.
When there was nothing left of the place she’d known, it rather lost its lustre and she decided it was time for her to sleep. She lay down on the ground and closed her eyes. She couldn’t sleep like she did before, but she barely remembered any of that now anyway, so this was good enough. She stopped thinking, stopped watching the world and let them bury her under their new layers of life and be forgotten.