Extract

 

His first impression was a grey light, the absence of pain, and a certainty that he was dead. A pause; a shift from grey to gold, from the absence of pain to the presence of something else; and with that – doubt.

This was not death. Yet nor was it life. It was something he didn’t recognise, and the presence he’d sensed was now a form, a clearly solid form in this most unsolid place.

Another pause. Who or what it was that paused, he didn’t know – himself or this form, perhaps both. He had a feeling it was aware of him. More light, a deeper gold: not pleasant or unpleasant, just gold.

Then a voice.

‘It’s a boy about fifteen.’

He felt a flicker of recollection, not of the voice – he had no idea who this was, except that it was a girl – but of himself. A boy about fifteen. Somehow he’d forgotten that. But he had no time to ponder this. The girl was speaking again.

‘I can’t find a pulse.’

There was something in her voice that he liked: a musical quality. It took him a moment to realise that he was more struck with this than with the sudden realisation that his first conviction was right: he must be dead after all.

Another pause, and now he understood. She was speaking on a phone. The pauses were when she listened to the other person.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve turned him on his side.’

Still the musical voice. He wondered who she was, what she looked like, how old she was. Maybe she was a female equivalent of him: a girl about fifteen. She sounded about that age. Not that it mattered. He was dead anyway.

She was saying something about a tree.

‘The sycamore tree. You can’t miss it. It’s by the turning to Havensmouth.’ Silence, then, ‘No, I didn’t manage it.’

Manage what? he wondered, but she quickly answered this.

‘I tried. I did mouth to mouth and pumped his chest but nothing worked.’

Silence again. He listened to it, aware of the girl close by, though all he saw in this golden sea was her shadow floating upon it. There was nothing human about it at all, just the trace of her voice, which hung strangely over it. Then he caught a new sound, somewhere above him.

Birdsong.

One bird, as far as he could tell, but a virtuoso singer. It rippled through its song and he listened, confusion cascading through him. Somewhere he sensed memories flooding too, but they were memories without definition: words and pictures that moved too fast. He clung to the song of the bird.

Bird, he told himself. The girl spoke.

‘Can you hear it?’

He wished she’d stop talking on that wretched phone.

‘Can you hear it?’

A change in the voice, a new direction. She was speaking to him.

‘You said, “Bird”. Can you hear it?’

He listened to the song, aware of the movement of gold, the clearing of the haze, the sudden heaviness within himself. He peered through the shifting light, searching for the strange form, and there it was – something of a paradox: dark and bright at the same time, more a ghost than a girl.

‘Can you see me?’ she said.

But he’d lost her. She was enveloped in gold once more. She spoke again.

‘He’s alive. I heard him say something.’

The phone again.

‘I definitely heard him,’ she said.

A long silence this time. Even the bird was quiet. He tried to think, tried to understand, but there was nothing in his mind that made sense. A girl about fifteen, he told himself. A girl about fifteen.

‘He’s doing it again,’ she said suddenly. ‘I heard him. He said something about a girl. Like he’s talking to someone.’

But this only filled him with more confusion. He hadn’t heard himself speak, hadn’t felt his mouth move, hadn’t felt – couldn’t feel – any part of him move. As far as he was concerned, he was a thought, nothing more. A memory of a boy. The only human voice he’d heard so far was the girl’s, and here it was again.

‘He definitely said something about a girl.’ Another pause, then, ‘No, still no pulse. I’ve been checking all the time I’ve been on the phone.’

No, you haven’t, he thought. I’d have felt you.

‘There!’ said the girl. ‘He just spoke again. I heard him. He said, “No, you haven’t”. He’s trying to communicate.’ Another change in the direction of the voice and he knew she was speaking to him again. ‘Can you hear me?’

Yes, yes, he thought, and this time he heard his own words, ‘Yes, yes.’

‘I knew you could.’ Still the musical voice. ‘Can you feel this?’

Something warm, something soft.

‘Hand,’ he muttered.

‘Yes. My hand round your wrist. Try and open your eyes.’

He’d thought they were open, but no, she was right. He must have closed them without remembering it. He opened them again. Gold broke upon him still, shadows merging on shadows, and here was the girl’s form again, or some part of it. He still couldn’t make out her face or features, just the spectral shape of her as she leaned over him.

But now his other senses were starting to work. He could feel warm air brushing his skin, dusk falling over him. He could see the outline of a tree, hear the sound of the bird high up. He felt a rush of excitement. He was going to live. He was going to pull through.

Then everything changed.

First the pain. It tore through him like a racing tide, scattering thought, hope, feeling; then the darkness, snuffing out what was left. He heard the girl screaming into the phone.

‘Quick! I’m losing him again!’

More pain, more darkness, more screams from the girl.

‘What do I do? What do I do?’

But there was nothing she could do. He knew that. More pain – harsh, relentless spasms that seemed to reach every part of him – then suddenly they ceased, and he felt a new sensation: a queasy tremor deep inside him.