This is the latest story I have written for my work-in-progress, Lifting the Gloom: An antidepressant primer of short stories. I am posting it now, because I want to use it to illustrate my contribution to the August, 2020 Rhobin’s Rounds, due to take flight on the 22nd of August. You can find the link to that here.
I still can’t believe that Paul has passed away. Oh, I know he’s been battling the cancer for four years, and the specialist told him it was terminal over two years ago, and we could see him fade from visit to visit, but… I can’t imagine a world without big brother there to spread his loving protective mantle over everyone he came across. The doctor has said, self-satisfied fool, that Paul had done well to last this long. How well is it to die at 32? Come on!
A eulogy at a funeral is supposed to cherry-pick all the good things. With Paul, I’d need to search far and wide to find anything else. Big brother was always, always there to protect us from bullying. I remember, I once forgot to take my lunch with me to school. He insisted on giving me his and stood over me until I ate it all. When I was worried about failing some of my exams, he stayed up till 2 a.m. studying subjects that were strange to him, just so he could coach me.
Sorry for the tears. I’ll… I do have more to say, somehow.
He was the best man at my wedding, and godfather to Li’l Paul. Three guesses why we named our son that.
OK. Yeah, sure, he and I had a special connection. But he had a special connection to anyone who needed him. Even when he was between jobs, he contributed to charities. I remember arguing with him over that. Do you know what he said? “I’m not starving. I don’t need to sleep on the streets.”
There is a cliché about the good dying young… Sorry. I’ve just got to go.
Tears tracking down his face, Kevin Morrissey stumbled off the stage, made it as far as the front row of seats and plopped down next to Julia, with Li’l Paul on her lap. The five-year-old reached out his arms toward him, and Kev hugged him close.
Dad was now speaking, but Li’l Paul said, quite loudly, “It’s OK Daddy, I’ll look after you now!”
Dad stopped, and led the friendly laughter by the fifty or so people in the hall. The old man spoke into the microphone, “You see, it goes with the name. Kev is right: even as a tiny tot, Paul always put his own needs last. He nursed injured animals back to health, as a twelve-year-old got it into his head to regularly visit the nursing home near our house to read to the oldies who had no family, and his chosen profession of social worker is one of constant giving.” Dad took off his glasses, wiped his eyes with a handkerchief, then replaced the glasses and looked around. “He was no saint, no angel, but this planet is surely a worse place because of his passing. It’s… it’s not fair, a young man dying before his parents. Well, all I can do is to be the best grandfather possible for Naomi and Jimmy, though no one will ever take their father’s place.”
The ceremony went on, but Kev was hardly aware, until Julia gave him a little nudge. “Pall-bearers,” she whispered. Kev handed Li’l Paul back, and stood to take his corner of the coffin.
Afterward, other people ate, and chatted, but Kev couldn’t stand it. He managed to sneak outside, and looked up at the starry, clear sky. “Why?” he murmured.
Was he going crazy? He heard Paul’s laughter. It was so real he looked around, even behind himself. Paul said, “Buddy, I ain’t got a body anymore, and with the one I had, that’s a liberation, I tell you. Death is not the end of a book, but the end of a chapter. This was a short chapter for me, but a good one. Speak to you again when you need me.”
I guess grief does that to people, Kev thought. Oh well, an imagined voice was better than no voice at all.
On Monday, Kev was sitting at his desk, in the quiet buzz of the open-plan office, looking at a meaningless jumble of figures on the spreadsheet. It might as well have been Li’l Paul’s scribbles. Urgent project be damned, he just couldn’t do it. Paul…
Paul said, as if standing next to his seat, “Kevin, buddy, this won’t do.”
Kev looked around, but no one else seemed to have heard anything.
“Nah, silly bugger, I’m only here for you, and no, you haven’t gone crazy. You need me, I’m here.”
“As always,” Kev said, and wiped his eyes.
Dominique, six-seven feet away, asked, “You speaking to me, Kev?”
“No, sorry, it’s my brother, you know…” Well, all his colleagues did know.
She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Yeah, it’s a raw wound, isn’t it? When my Mom died, it took me over a year before things became sort of normal, most of the time.”
Kev decided to take a risk. “Did she ever talk to you?”
Looking at her face, he could see this was a mistake, so continued, “My brother does, in a manner of speaking. He is with me, sort of, you know?”
Dominique smiled sadly at him — good save — and returned her attention to her screen.
Paul said, “Silly bugger, you’re here to earn your salary. Do it.”
Kev closed his eyes, took a deep breath and looked at the screen again. This time, it all made sense and he did as he was told.
That night, he couldn’t get to sleep. He listened to Julia’s quiet breath, and the occasional creak as the house cooled, and watched the numbers on the bedside clock, and thought of the unfairness of it all.
“Jee, Kev, you’re a nuisance,” Paul said, again so lifelike that Kev was sure he was standing next to the bed. “I’ve got work to do, but can’t get onto it while I need to look after you. We can’t have this, so my wonderful guide gave me permission to help you to stop this nonsense.”
How to answer without waking Julia?
Paul said, “I can hear your thoughts, buddy.”
Oh, OK. It’s not nonsense to grieve for my best friend, even if he was an overbearing tyrant sometimes, like now. In his mind, he laughed with Paul. Anyway, what work? What guide?
“One question at a time. Right, the guide. If I say it’s an angel, you’ll imagine a human with wings or some such. There’s nothing I can describe, not even if it’s male or female. It’s a loving Parent, a Mother-Father, a beautiful glow of Caring and Love and Acceptance. Imagine you’re a chick fallen out of a nest and someone caring picks you up. Multiply that by a million, and you may be getting close.”
“Don’t know. I’ve asked, and what I got back was the feeling of a smile. The message is something like ‘I am God, and so are the two of you.’ That’s you and me, right?”
Not the way I feel! If I was God you’d still be alive, and healthy. Be great to have a magic wand like that.
“Not the way things work, Kev. I’ve got lessons to learn, and the personality I formed as Paul got in the way of them. So, I need to come back and do things differently. That’s the work I mentioned. My guide will help me to set up a new life, so I can do better next time.”
Kev sat up in bed, carefully to avoid waking Julia. This was completely new to him. Is there a next time?
“Buddy, that’s what I’m told. I need to decide the lessons I’m ready for, and be born into a situation where I can learn them. And, you know what? At my funeral, you talked about when I gave you my lunch. I was hungry for the rest of the day. What I should have done was to give you half, not all of it. And you were right when you said I should hold off on giving to charities during those six months when I was unemployed.”
So? What’s the big deal?
“Next time, I need to learn to look after myself, too. I reckon that’s the lesson I’ll ask for. Hey, wait a minute…”
“Some people take hundreds of years between lives. Some sort things out almost immediately. I’ll be coming back in nine months, if you make a home for me, right now.”
Grinning, Kev leaned over and gently kissed Julia’s lips.