After the accident I lost the knack of parties.
I preferred to stay home, chatting online and catching up on email. But Kelly gently insisted about this one.
I was standing in a living room, next to a woman I didn't know.
It was time to start a conversation. But I couldn't think of anything to say.
She, however, was better prepared.
"How do you know Bear?" she said.
"Bear. It's his party."
"Yeah? Which one's he?"
"You might not have seen him. He's probably upstairs."
I didn't know how to read that. "Right," I said, hoping that was safe.
"So how come you're here?" the woman asked.
"Kelly. My girlfriend." I pointed over to the corner where Kelly was deep in conversation with some people I didn't recognise.
"She knows Bear?"
"I hope so. Otherwise we've crashed the wrong party."
It was a small joke. She laughed a little.
"Can I get you a drink?" I said, thinking I could get lost on a trip to the kitchen.
Or maybe I could just lose myself entirely and go home. I could leave a message on Kelly's cell phone to say that I felt ill.
I wouldn't be missed, really. Surely the party was nearly over?
I looked at the clock.
It was only 9.30.
The woman was looking back at me expectantly.
It was a look that meant she had just said something and was waiting for me to reply.
"Sorry?" I said.
"I said: 'Do you want to know how I met Bear?'"
"Sure," I said. "How did you meet Bear?"
"I met him in a dream."
I looked down to her neck. She was wearing a crystal pendant.
It was probably one of those crystal pendants that ward off harmful rays that come from your computer. Amazing how many people have one of those. Rubbish, of course. You might just as well wear a pendant to ward off electricity bills.
"I know what you're thinking," said the woman.
The clock on the mantelpiece now read 9.32.
"Mmm?" I said.
"Come on, come meet Bear." She took my hand. "He'll change your mind."
"Oh, everything. Love. Life. Death."
I freed my hand from hers.
"That's kind of a touchy subject," I said. "Sorry."
I faked going into the kitchen for a drink.
Kelly found me in the back garden where I was chain-smoking, alone.
"Louise told me you ran off," she said.
We stood in silence for a while.
"Do you know Bear?" I said.
"I know everybody."
It was true. Going shopping with Kelly on a Saturday was a slow process. Every twenty yards she met someone she knew.
I'm different. My social life is mostly online; I don't have huge numbers of friends in real life. Which is lucky, otherwise Kelly and I would never get any shopping done at all.
"So what does Bear do?" I said.
"Bear's a shaman."
"Oh please," I said.
Kelly was the most logical girl I knew.
We met through an online discussion group for website testers. I tested sites for functionality, she evaluated them for compliance with disability access guidelines.
If you're blind and surfing the Internet then you should have access to the same information a sighted person has—for example, every time there's a picture there should be a text tag describing it. It's simple to do, but too many sites don't bother, or botch the job.
Discrimination is bad PR for corporations, so Kelly made good money by identifying flaws and getting them fixed.
She was good at the job, and it had changed her. Kelly now saw the world through the eyes of the blind. She was like that—she had empathy. She was big hearted. She was fond of the underdog.
But some of the underdogs in her life were pretty much out of contact with the rest of Planet Earth.
"How much?" I said to Kelly.
"How much does Bear charge to tell you that you have a very deep soul? How much does a quick rinse of your aura cost?"
"Shamans don't charge. And Bear doesn't do auras."
It was the tone that meant she knew more than I did on this particular topic, so I should stop being snippy. I tried my best.
"So what does he do?"
"He does what shamans do."
I tried to remember a shaman's job description. Shapeshifting into an animal, I thought. Leaving the body. Talking to the dead.
I didn't like that.
"I hope he's passed his shaman exams," I said. "I hope he's accredited. I hope it's a vocation, for him. I mean, anyone could call himself a shaman. Have you even checked him out? Has he done all the training? Is he supervised? Has he joined the professional body?"
She took my hand.
"Come meet Bear."
I didn't want to start shaking but I did. I told myself it was the cold.
"Will he know about me and . . . ?"
"I don't want to talk to her again."
We both knew it was a lie.
I went to meet Bear.
The upstairs room was black and red, full of candles and mirrors.
The man sitting on the floor was large, but not fat, and had a shaven head.
He gestured to the floor.
I stayed in the doorway.
"Hi," I said.
He gestured to the floor again.
"Cool party," I said.
He looked at me. It was a weary look I remembered from school, when a teacher had finally tired.
I sat down.
"Drink this," he said, holding out a glass.
I couldn't identify his accent.
"I'm driving," I said.
That weary look again.
"Look," I said. "I have to say my heart's not totally in this. Let's just chat for a bit and then I'll leave you in peace. Okay?"
"The drink does not matter," he said. "It is all suggestion anyway."
"I'm not very susceptible to suggestion," I said.
He did an unnerving thing then. He threw back his head and laughed. It was very uninhibited. I sort of admired that.
"Oh Squirrel," he said, "you are more open to suggestion than anyone else here."
My heart stopped.
"Why did you call me Squirrel?"
"It's what she called you."
He was right.
It's what she called me.
Elizabeth had been hit by a car that mounted the kerb, one ordinary March afternoon. She was pronounced dead at the hospital, an hour after the accident.
I was holding her hand at the time.
She used to call me Squirrel; it was her private name for me. When she was alive.
"You've gone white," said Bear.
"Can I come back, another day?"
I went downstairs.
I took Kelly by the hand and led her out of the party.
"Why?" I said, when we were home and safe.
"I thought it would be good for you."
"I don't believe in life after death. I was happy that way."
"Well, how happy could I be? My wife died. I was a widower. I'm not even thirty. Excuse me for not dancing with joy. And excuse me for not being ecstatic at a hint of the afterlife. Life should be like a computer file. At the end, it gets deleted."
"Yeah, and we all know that deleted files are totally wiped out—boom—so no trace of them exists."
"Well, they are if you do it properly," I said.
"You can't delete life," she said. "Not properly."
"And that's what Bear does? He recovers files?"
"Bear is a shaman. He does what shamans do."
"So what is she then? Is she alive? A ghost? What?"
"Bear says they're in another world. The world that shamans can see."
"Yeah? Then what's Bear's capacity? Can he transfer pictures? Sound? Movies? So far he's given me a single word. Next time I see him will it be a paragraph? Or will I see her in her favourite dress, standing in the corner of his room, waving?"
I was angry now.
"Can I fuck her?" I said.
"Do you want to?"
Did I want to?
That was a good question.
"Squirrel," he said, when I went back.
I wanted to believe his voice sounded like Elizabeth's. It didn't. Maybe it was still meant to be him.
I hated not knowing what was going to happen. Or what I was going to do.
He handed me a glass.
I could hear cars passing on the main road. I could hear people talking in the street. I could hear the sound of a neighbour's television, coming through the wall.
I stared at the glass.
"But you said the drink is only suggestion."
"Do I get to see her?"
He shrugged, noncommittal.
I put the glass to my lips and watched him, to see if he reacted. Nothing.
I closed my eyes and drank it all.
It tasted of the bitterest herbs.
I opened my eyes.
Bear was gone.
Elizabeth was there.
"I watched you die," I said.
"I watched you watching me," she said.
The time I thought had gone forever was back, like childhood.
She was whole and real and here.
We fucked. Her nails drew blood on my back.
We came together.
"Can we stay like this? Or does it wear off?" I said. We were both lying on the carpet, too tired to stay awake, but not daring to lose each other again.
"We don't have long," she said. "Bear will want to come back."
Sleep took me.
My face on a carpet. A sideways view of a black and red room.
A sideways view of a large man, not fat, with a shaven head, his eyes watching me.
I had a bad thought.
"Did I just have sex with you?"
"No, Squirrel," he said. "And now you have to go."
It was simple and compelling.
"I have to go now," I agreed.
After Elizabeth died I didn't date anyone for a long time. I didn't look, either. People disapproved. "Life goes on," they said.
Then came a time when I told myself I was ready to look, even though I wasn't, really. I kept seeing Elizabeth on the street, glimpsing her in a crowd. But when the person I thought was her turned round, it was always someone else.
I wasn't ready for dating yet.
People disagreed. They always said the same thing. "Life goes on," they said, to encourage me.
Another year passed.
Then I met Kelly, via the newsgroup. Neither of us was looking for a partner. I had lost Elizabeth. Kelly had lost Anthony.
Our relationship was piled high with emotional baggage but things were good, very good.
There were whole hours when I didn't think about Elizabeth.
But that was before Bear.
After Bear, I couldn't get Elizabeth out of my mind.
"I'm ready," I said, to Bear.
I was sitting on his floor. I had barged in, but I had to do something. I was ready. "Give me the drink," I said. "Let's do this thing."
"No," he said. Simple. Angry. Massive.
It was beyond a weary teacher look. He was a world away from how he'd been before.
"No?" I said. "Come on. You want money, is that it?"
Dark black eyes turned on me.
He stood up. I hadn't realised how tall he was. He towered over me.
All meat and muscle.
One swing of that arm would crush my skull.
"You don't know what you're doing," said Bear. "The dead are dangerous when they're pushed around."
"I have to see her."
He stared at me, and decided.
The change began.
It started with his hands. They thinned and grew the fingernails that once drew blood from my back.
I looked at his face. It was no longer his. It was Elizabeth's. His body was changing too, bulk becoming her until she was whole and real and here. And more angry than I'd ever seen her before.
"Wait," I said.
Kelly came to see me in hospital. She held my one good hand.
"I need another cable," I said. "I need a higher bit-rate."
The painkillers made everything metaphor. But Kelly understood.
I tried to smile, but couldn't.
"I shouldn't have taken you to see Bear," she said.
I wondered what I would look like when the bandages came off. I wondered if the skin grafts would take to my face. I wondered if the metal plates in my skull would rust and poison me from inside.
My wounds began to burn.
"Drink," said a nurse, holding a glass.
"Is this a shaman thing again?" I said. "Don't you need candles?"
"The painkillers do this, sometimes," the nurse said to Kelly.
I drank. I slept. When I woke up Kelly was still there.
My head was clearer. I asked the question I should have asked in the beginning.
"Did you ever go and see Bear?" I said.
"Yes," she said.
"And who did you see?"
You can't live long without knowing someone who dies. Widows, widowers, the otherwise bereaved. The niche group that everyone joins, sooner or later. We are such fragile meat.
"Who did you see?" I said, hoping it was a family member.
"Anthony," she said.
The night passed in pain and sleep and the blurred space in between.
The next morning I asked Kelly to marry me.
She said yes, without even knowing what I would look like when the bandages came off.
I was glad. Marriage is an exclusivity contract, and I felt I needed one.
We loved each other. We would be enough. We would not need the dead, the dangerous dead.
I slept again.
When I woke up I asked the nurse if I'd really proposed to Kelly.
"Yes," said the nurse. "It's all round the hospital. It's kind of cute. Are you having second thoughts?"
"No. I just wanted to check I wasn't dreaming."
"And what about Elizabeth?" I said.
"My ex. I'm a widower. She died. But I had a thing with her, a fling. And I think my fiancée slept with her ex, too. Those dead people, they have no morals."
"I think your dosage is too high," said the nurse.
They lowered the dosage.
There was more pain than sleep.
Under the bandages the wounds burned.
Kelly was there when I woke up, my link to the living. I told her: "I'm glad we're getting married. Though perhaps I should wear a veil."
The bandages had not come off yet.
My surgeon dropped by.
He talked about scars and discoloration and all sorts of conditions with Latin names. I didn't understand a word of it, but I knew what he was saying.
He was telling me I would never be Tom Cruise.
Elizabeth dropped by.
"You're dead," I said. "I know that now. But I fell in love with someone else. Life's like that. I thought I would never love again, but it's happened. I'm getting married again."
She didn't say anything.
"You left me, remember?" I said. "What did you expect? By the way, why are you even here? I didn't drink any herbs. Is this the painkillers?"
She still didn't say anything.
"I can't leave here to be with you. I can't do that to her. We've both been left, and it sucks. So we've made a pact, Kelly and me. No leaving each other, and no dying too young. Can you just bless my marriage, and then go?"
"Squirrel," she said.
I reached out to touch her, but she faded.
"Is that the end?" I said. "Are you done now? Was that the blessing?"
But the room was empty.
"Kelly's lovely," said the nurse, taking off my bandages. "We all like her. It's nice you're getting married."
"How does it look?" I said, when the last bandage was unwrapped.
She studied my face. She didn't say anything for a while.
"There's counselling," she said.
"For people getting married?"
"For people who look different," she said.
I did look different. She was right about that.
We had our wedding reception in a hotel.
We skipped the photographs.
The guests were mostly Kelly's friends and everyone was brave. They smiled at me and shook my hand, telling themselves my patchwork face wasn't catching. Telling themselves they wouldn't be sick. Telling themselves that maybe they would go vegetarian, after all.
Only one person acted naturally.
Elizabeth. I saw her in the crowd.
When she turned round it was not someone else, it was her.
"Squirrel," she mouthed, across the room.
It wasn't the painkillers. I had taken no herbs.
I didn't know what was going on. So I went to find Bear.
I found him in the hotel kitchen, eating from the wedding cake with his fingers.
The room was too bright. It was all strip-lights and steel.
It was full of people.
A teenage boy was drinking champagne, under a rack of knives.
A woman was singing softly to herself, near the fire escape.
An old couple were dancing by the ovens.
Bear was there, eating handfuls of cake.
"I saw Elizabeth," I said. "In the other room."
He didn't stop eating.
"And?" he said, through a mouthful.
I had no answer to that.
"Look what you did to me!" I said.
He glanced up at my face, not really interested.
"It wasn't me that did that," he said.
He took another handful of cake.
"Was that Elizabeth's way of saying goodbye?" I said to him. "Just now, in the other room, was that her blessing?"
"They never say goodbye," he said.
The woman near the fire exit still sang.
The boy drank more champagne, underneath the knives.
The couple dancing by the ovens didn't stop.
Finally, I understood.
I never liked parties, after Elizabeth's accident.
But when Kelly and I bought a house we set aside a room, upstairs.
The room is black and red, filled with candles and mirrors.
It's where I stay when Kelly throws a party. To special guests she says: "Come meet Squirrel."
I watch them entering the space.
I watch them sitting there, on the floor.
Some of them are nervous, some of them are composed.
I do not touch them. It is their loved ones, their lost ones, who touch them.
It is a flesh exchange. I lend my space in this world to the dead. And for an hour or two, while they are here, I walk the other world.
The world which has Elizabeth, and always will.
Some things never heal.
But life goes on.