The Life and Afterlife

Chapter One

‘Have you ever loved someone so intensely, so entirely, that it’s painful to be apart from them?  I’m not talking about a long-distance relationship or even a particularly painful case of unrequited love.  I’m talking about being in a completely different world from the other person, a world where you can see them and hear them, but you can’t touch them and they can’t see or hear you.

You will never again embrace them or feel their warmth or feel their big, beautiful beating heart against yours.  You will never touch their soft, fair skin or run your fingers through their alluringly silky hair. You are just a memory in their world, a fleeting flicker through the sharp, dazzling mind of the one you love.  Every time they look at an old photograph album or see a car the same model as you used to drive.  Every time they take a walk through the moors that you both loved so much when you were young; every time they dream about you… there you are.  A memory.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing to be remembered.  But every day their memories become fewer, less intense.  Certain aspects of the memory will become dishevelled, twisted into a form unrecognisable.  Until finally the person still at the centre of your world moves on and all you can do is watch.

They say that Heaven is a spectacular place full of beauty and pleasure in abundance.  A sparkling world of happiness and serenity.  No pain. No fear.  A world of calm.  For me it has been more like torture.  Because from Heaven I’ve been able to watch the woman I left behind on earth every day for the past five years.  And that woman would be Lucy Sophia Elliot.

My name is Charlie Brackwood and if I were still on Earth I would be thirty-one years old.  My short, happy life ended at the age of twenty-six.  I’d like to tell you I died fighting courageously for my country, or else a tale of a different kind of heroism in which, say, I came to my ghastly end while saving small children from a blazing inferno, not stopping until every child was taken to safety.  But in fact my death was far less sensational than this.  I was no fire-fighter, nor was I a brave soldier serving in Iraq.  Instead my life was cut short one warm summer evening in the small Yorkshire village where I had spent most of my life.

The first mistake I made on that momentous night was going to the White Lion Inn with my lifelong friend Russell Matthews.  We were just two lads celebrating a pivotal event, and we were both in high spirits.  It was a such a momentous occasion that fellow villagers were buying me quantities of alcohol and slapping me on the back, saying things like “well done, lad” and “at last, you two won’t be livin’ ower t’ brush no more”.  This is Yorkshire talk for “at last, you two won’t be living in sin any longer”.

The reason my greatest friend and I were getting ridiculously intoxicated that night was because I’d just proposed to my Lucy and she had said yes.  I was elated with happiness, my heart sang and I felt truly alive.  Just the sight of that blood-red ruby engagement ring sitting so perfectly on her finger was enough to make me feel light-headed… and that was before I reached the White Lion.

Towards the end of that humid evening Russ and I had reached the conclusion that we had consumed enough of the local ale and headed off towards our respective houses.  We lived in a small village named Burnsall in North Yorkshire.  Burnsall has a total population of one hundred and twelve.  It contains a village church, a primary school, a village shop, tea rooms and a pub.  The River Wharfe runs through the village and is a popular trout fishing spot both for locals and visiting holidaymakers.  The residents of Burnsall, especially the older generation, take their fishing very seriously and pay a yearly premium for the privilege of fishing the Wharfe.

Russ and I lived at opposite ends of the village so we parted ways. He slurred, “Seeee ya in t’mornin’, ol’ pal, nah git ya hide back t’ Beauty Lucy.”  When Russ was drunk his Yorkshire accent became thicker.  Sometimes so thick that I couldn’t understand him.  He also liked to call Lucy ’Beauty Lucy’ it was his nickname for her and she was secretly flattered by it.

I watched him stagger away up the lane towards his cottage, bumping into a few garden walls in the process while singing ‘My Way’.  At one point this caused an elderly resident of the village to shout, “Shut up, Russ, and get home, yer drunken fool!”  Russ carried on completely oblivious and I chuckled to myself as I turned away.

This is the part where I made my second mistake of the evening.  I decided that before I headed home I would make a detour through the Bolton Abbey Estate, which contains both the ruins of a twelfth-century priory and a thriving parish church.  In fact, it was in this church that Lucy and I planned to marry.  The romantic in me − or maybe it was the alcohol − decided that at that moment all I wanted was to gaze at the church and imagine our wedding day.  I was always sentimental but my natural soppiness was intensified when alcohol entered the picture.

Bolton Abbey is quite a way from Burnsall. In fact, a few miles.  Of course, at this point it barely registered on me.  I began my journey towards the ancient ruins of the abbey, high above on the hillside, stumbling over in potholes and terrifying the rabbits emerging from their burrows as darkness fell.  It was soon pitch black but a very clear, very beautiful night, the sort on which you can see every twinkling star.  Their brightness reminded me of the small diamonds glinting in the band of Lucy’s new engagement ring, and I turned my face up to the sky as complete and utter euphoria washed over me.

As I listened to the owls staking out their prey and watched the baby rabbits playing in a country lane that smelt faintly of freshly cut grass, I fell in love with the Earth.  I fell in love with living.  I was on top of the world that night and it is a memory I like to think about and revisit often because it was the last time I was ever to feel that way.

When I looked up at the sky for the final time in my short life I became dizzy.  The exercise had failed to sober me up.  I began to stagger, my head spun and I felt myself falling.  My knees gave way and my stomach flipped as I fell to the hard ground.  Unfortunately for me my forehead hit an innocent-looking rock.  I grasped my head in both hands, cursing. It almost exploded in pain but that is not what killed me.  It just equated to a huge lump on my forehead, a lump which stumped the police when they eventually found my body.

I moved on, determined to reach my destination.  The lane I was walking along was deserted and lined with trees.  In the night hours it was time for a different world to come out and play.  I witnessed the quick swooping of pipistrelle bats as they hunted for  moths; a soft rustling in a hedge revealed a female badger with two young kits, on the hunt for food. I felt out of place, an outsider in this world I would never belong to.  Little did I know that this feeling would linger with me for the next five years.

I moved on past a historic building named the Priest’s House. Today it is a restaurant and wedding venue and also hosts banquets where the guests come dressed in medieval costume.  Russ and I had often encountered medieval-looking wenches and knights, kings and queens, while we were taking a stroll around the village.

Earlier in the day there had been a wedding at the Priest’s House and it had been a lovely day for it, bright sunshine with no chance of rain.  Lucy and I had watched from afar as the couple had their pictures taken in the idyllic setting of the sixteenth- century ruins.  I had proposed to Lucy earlier that day and both of us still wore wide grins as the euphoria lingered.  We started to discuss our own wedding, which Lucy seemed to have mapped out already in meticulous detail.  I think she’d been making plans from ridiculously early on – childhood practically. I remember teasing her by saying I would be wearing a bright orange tuxedo and frilly-fronted shirt plus top hat. She tried to hide it, but cringed and wrinkled her nose at the thought.

She loved to wrinkle that small, perfectly formed nose of hers.  Sometimes I’d try to make her laugh, just to see it. Now I think about it, since my death, her nose-wrinkling has become a lot less frequent.

Lucy is beautiful.  As simple as this statement is, I don’t think anyone who has met her would disagree with it. Her dark, untamed curls give her an exotic appearance that is further accentuated by green eyes that never fail to reflect the emotions she is feeling. I never tired of the honesty of those eyes. Her smooth, ivory skin was like marble, perfect and unblemished, under her dark mass of hair. She would have made a beautiful bride.

Thinking about our wedding plans encouraged me to press on to my destination.  I staggered up the hill. “Onwards and upwards,” I said out loud to myself.  After a bit of zigzagging and fence-climbing, I looked up to find myself standing outside the church on the estate.

The sight induced a feeling of calm and comfort in me.  Churches did that to me.  If I had to say why, I would guess it was down to familiarity with them more than anything else.  I‘d been a frequent churchgoer for as long as I could remember, like my whole family.  In fact, most of the villagers were avid churchgoers and some of the older members liked nothing better than to preach to the younger residents.  I didn’t like this; I was a frequenter of the church but didn’t think worship should be forced on people.  I was not what you would call a ‘Bible basher’, but visiting church on a Sunday was a tradition that I respected.

As I looked at the stone building in front of me I imagined Lucy and myself visiting it on our wedding day.  I imagined us laughing and holding hands as we exited the church as husband and wife, and then ducking as handfuls of confetti were thrown at us by smiling onlookers, catching in our wedding attire.  Of course, I was not serious about the orange tuxedo, although I did want a fairly traditional suit, perhaps with tails. I knew that would make my mum happy.  I could imagine Lucy coming down the aisle in a white dress with a bell-shaped skirt and tight bodice, showing off her small waist.  I could even picture her dad wiping a tear from his eye as he walked her towards me. They had always been close.  I could see the long veil that she had described to me earlier that day trailing behind her as she gracefully made her way to the altar.  The guests’ eyes following her every movement, unable to look away from her stunning beauty…

A sound broke me from my trance. A door was opening.  Heavy footsteps came towards me.  I heard a familiar voice growl, “Get out of here, whoever you are, this is private property.”  It took me a while, in my drunken state, to realise who the voice belonged to.  It was old Mr Raven, the caretaker of the property.  When Russ and I were children we were scared of this man, the crabby, heavy-set fellow who took care of the cemetery and church grounds, with his gruff voice and permanent scowl.  All the children in the village were scared of the man who dug the graves.

Now a fully grown adult I was no longer afraid of Mr Raven but I knew that he had an old fashioned view of alcohol and deeply disapproved of drunks.  I didn’t want a confrontation with him so I hid around the corner of the church, slightly bemused by my own cowardice behaviour.  Mr Raven came into view and in his hand was a large torch that he shone around the grounds, causing shadows to dance as though they were alive.  As I peeked at him I realised with a sinking feeling that he was positioned so as to block my escape.  My only choice was to walk down to the riverside and let it be my guide as I followed the water on its way to the village.

I set off in the direction of the winding Wharfe, stumbling through the graveyard blissfully unaware that I would soon be joining the many resting there.  How ironic that instead of waiting at the altar to be joined by my beloved, I would soon be waiting by the gates, figuratively speaking, for my beloved to join me in the afterlife.

As I drew closer I could hear the murmur of the river, a sound that I found comforting, having lived with it my whole life.  The river was full of wildlife and again I marvelled at this secret world.  A full moon glinted off the surface of the water, casting a dreamy, magical glow over the scene.  I could understand why the area attracted many artists and photographers.

I stood there watching and saw a flash of silver in the fast-flowing river.  The week before, even though it was summer, it had rained for a week non-stop.  The water was running fast and high.  I looked closer and realised the flash of silver I’d seen was a shoal of trout.

Russ and I had a long-standing bet that involved this beautifully coloured fish with its rainbow appearance and prominent eyes.  There is a pursuit known as ‘trout tickling’ in Yorkshire, and it’s a way of catching trout without a line or a net.  It is very hard to do and I know of only one other man who has succeeded in this form of fishing: my father.

‘Trout tickling’ involves rubbing the belly of the trout using one’s fingers, which causes the fish to go into a trance-like state for a minute or so. In that time the fleet of finger can catch it by the tail and flip it out of the water.  I had attempted this myself a few times and always been unsuccessful. Maybe I had a chance tonight.

Russ and I made a bet when we were kids that the other one could not succeed in trout tickling.  I had to prove him wrong.  I imagined what his face would look like the following day when I told him I had done it.  I had a better chance of succeeding tonight, with such an abundance of fish, than I had ever had before.

I crouched on the riverbank, arms extended. My reach wasn’t quite long enough and the fish remained an inch away from my fingertips, tantalising me, drawing me on. I stretched out further. The tips of my fingers touched the back of one glimmering, silver fish.  I shifted position and knelt down so that I could reach further.  In my drunken mind I was determined to get one over on my childhood friend.  I managed to slide the fingers of one hand around the middle of a fish that was flipping and twisting vigorously.  As I moved to wrap my other hand around its writhing body all my weight was balanced on the edge of the river.

Before I knew what was happening, the edge of the bank crumbled and I plunged head first into fast-flowing waters.  At this point I wasn’t worried; I was a strong swimmer and had been in the river many times before.  I only started to panic when I saw myself drifting swiftly away from the spot where I had been kneeling only moments before.  I was rapidly carried downstream.  I was now quite sober and realised this was a serious situation.

As I stared at the spot where I had been kneeling just moments before, I thought I saw a figure standing there.  I flung my arms into the air and shouted for the figure to help me, screaming with all my might. I was quite sure the shadow by the water’s edge could save my life.  Then I was pulled under the black water and tossed around like clothes in a washing machine.  When I fought my way to the surface again the mysterious figure had disappeared and I convinced myself whoever it was had gone to get help.

It wasn’t long before the undercurrent started to pull me under.  I saw an overhanging branch and grasped it.  Unbeknown to me the branch was dead and it snapped away in my hands.  I tried to swim towards the bank with my last remaining strength but to no avail.  My head was frequently pulled under by the current and I would be cast up again at random intervals, spluttering and gasping for air.  Not wanting to give up, I gave it all I had.  My instinct to survive was strong.  I lunged for every overhanging branch I could see; each one just a little too far out of my reach.  In vain I lunged for the riverbank many times, with all the strength I could summon, but God was not on my side that night.

Although my mind was strong, my body was not. The river had won its cruel game and claimed my body as its prize.  I was pulled under for the last time, never to rise to the surface again.  My final thoughts were of Lucy and the future we would have had together.  My lifeless body was washed downstream along with the promise of our joint future. The promise of children.  The promise of growing old together with my wife.  The promise of life.’