The Life and Second Life

Chapter One

I was standing in an unfamiliar room. There was a faint scent of furniture polish in the air as well as a hint of smoke from a recently lit fire.

In front of me was a bed, an old-fashioned four-poster with an intricate twisted design carved into each post. It was either an antique or a clever replica. Directly above the bed dark wooden beams were exposed, weathered and gnarled with age but still managing to project an air of beauty and stability: the backbone of the house.

The room was painted a soft caramel shade. There were expensive-looking deep-pile rugs scattered over the wooden floorboards. Large Art Deco prints adorned the walls and stylish lamps set upon solid wooden tables stood either side of the bed. The room’s design was contemporary but many of its components were old, two different styles skilfully complementing each other.

I began to wonder where exactly this house was and what kind of person it belonged to. That was important to me as I knew I would inhabit the body of that person until my short stay on earth was up.

I moved towards the narrow window and looked out at an unfamiliar scene.  I could see a village green with a huge oak tree at the centre. Branches erupted from the trunk, twisted and crooked, as though desperately reaching towards something on the ground. They were covered in fresh green leaves, telling me I had arrived in summer.

In the distance I could see a neat terrace of brick-built cottages with small walled gardens to the front. All of them seemed to contain at least one variety of rose, a familiar sight in small villages such as this. I knew this was not the beloved village I had grown up in, but nor was it entirely unfamiliar to me.

In an effort to jog my memory I ventured outside to explore my new surroundings. On my way out I noted that the area downstairs was small but just as well thought out as the master bedroom. Whoever lived here must be keen on interior design, but less enthusiastic about cleaning. There was a pile of dirty pots in the sink and almost everything was coated in a layer of thick dust. Apart from that, it appeared very tidy with no visible clutter and, once again, I found myself wondering whose life I had temporarily taken over.

I stepped outside: a summer’s day but overcast. Ash-coloured clouds hung menacingly in the otherwise blue sky and the sun fought a battle to be seen. Through the low cloud my human eyes could just make out the outline of the fells and dales beyond and I knew instantly that I was in my home county of Yorkshire.

I breathed in the crisp air hungrily and savoured the taste of it. I walked past rows of old cottages with traditional tiled roofs and well-tended gardens containing bright flowers. Many of the cottages had been enveloped by lilac-coloured wisteria and invasive ivy, which seemed intent on taking back what was rightfully theirs.

I saw smoke billowing out of a chimney despite the warm air that surrounded me and assumed the fire belonged to an older member of the village who was perhaps more sensitive to the cold.

It had been so long since I was last on earth that it felt almost as if I was day-dreaming, reminiscing about the past and its impact on me. It’s strange how experiences can linger soul-deep, leaving you permanently altered.

I found myself marvelling at how different life seemed to me now that I had experienced death. I watched as people rushed from one location to the next, all eager to complete their daily chores. If only they could realise that their time here was precious; that a leisurely stroll to absorb the pleasures of life could be enriching. There were many things I took for granted when I was alive; it was only after they were taken away from me that I realised how much I should have valued them. I slowed my pace as I watched the people around me quicken theirs. If only they knew….

A plucky blackbird burst into song as it perched on the wall surrounding the church. I stopped to say hello and it angled a sharp eye in my direction before singing again. The small bird sang so beautifully and with such precision that I felt like a guest of honour at a private performance.

In the distance I could see the village square, complete with a ribbon-covered maypole and pastel bunting. Perhaps all this was in aid of a festival planned for the not too distant future. The traditional sight pleased me as it was a reminder of my youth and my days with Lucy.

Thoughts of her reminded me why I was here, the mission I had been given by God. It seemed Lucy was in danger and I was supposed to help her, but at the moment I didn’t know where she was.

I thought back to the last conversation I’d had in the afterlife. God had mentioned that Lucy’s husband was in hospital following an accident. According to my calculations his injury must have occurred shortly after their honeymoon and sometime after their return to the village. I assumed they were living in the house I had bought and lived in with Lucy and wondered if the incident had happened there. I needed more information and knew there was nothing village-dwellers loved more than a good gossip over some poor soul’s misfortune. I would more than likely hear all the details if I made a few casual enquiries.

I glanced around the busy village square and tried to determine the name of the village I found myself in. I was gazing at the shop signs in an attempt to find a place name when I heard footsteps behind me.

“Now then, Adam, ’ow are you?” An elderly gentleman wearing thick, black-framed spectacles peered at me, his feet planted a little too close to my personal space.

“I… er… ” I struggled to conjure up words as I reminded myself that I wasn’t simply Charlie; my outward appearance was someone else’s. “I’m not too bad, thanks,” I managed.

“Them kids behaving, I ’ope? Hard work, mischievous kids are.”

I started to panic. I’d seen no evidence of children in Adam’s home, but there were bedrooms I had not yet explored. How was I ever going to keep up the charade if this man had a family… people he was close to?

“Kids?” I asked innocently.

The man chuckled as he patted me on the back. “Good one,” he said cheerfully as he walked past. I watched him leave, hoping the confusion I felt was not visible in my expression.

Why exactly had God chosen this borrowed life for me?

There was a row of shops ahead and I scanned them for clues as to my whereabouts. One establishment appeared to be open. Wooden carvings, no doubt popular with visitors from the city, spilled out on to the street, waiting to be picked up and admired by tourists. A quaint art gallery stood next door, promising fine sculpture and local artwork. A trinket shop was next, a chocolate shop after that.

These places would be attractive to tourists and those fond of a weekend coach trip but none was of any use to the locals, who no doubt craved shops that would make their lives a little easier.

As I walked, I noticed the street was almost deserted. Only one other individual could be seen: a young man carrying a large framed picture under one arm. It was wrapped in brown parcel paper and I wondered about the colourful image that lay beneath. As my eyes followed him I noticed a clock attached to the trinket shop. It read five o’clock.

A young woman of around eighteen was winding in the red-and-white-striped canopy that shielded the chocolate shop. She had a slender build that made the job seem more strenuous than it should have. When she looked my way I saw recognition in her eyes and she waved enthusiastically in my direction.

“Oh, hi, Mr Gibbons.” She looked embarrassed for a moment. “Sorry. I know you keep telling me to call you Adam, but you’re still Mr Gibbons to me.”

I remembered the comment the man with the thick-rimmed glasses had made earlier about mischievous kids.

“I was your teacher,” I said aloud before I could stop myself.

“Of course,” she replied, looking puzzled, “My English teacher. I bet you’re enjoying the summer half term.”

“Oh, yes.” I nodded, struggling to find anything else to say.

“Got anything nice planned?”

“I’m thinking of taking a trip to Burnsall.”

She laughed. “Well, don’t you travel too far,” she said in a teasing manner. “Burnsall is just up the road, you could walk it.”

The logo on her uniform jumper caught my eye then.

All Choc-ed up: Grassington Chocolatiers since 1955

I was two miles away from Lucy! No wonder the village had looked familiar. I often used to come here as a lad, it was a favourite fishing ground for my dad and me. Back then the walk from Burnsall had seemed short and easily achievable and I’d tackled it with the ease of youth. Grassington had always been a favourite of ours, a place where my dad and I could bond, father and son, sharing a love of angling.

Grassington’s quaint prettiness seemed to attract swarms of tourists and when I was alive my dad and I would see a new B&B open here almost every time we visited. This village was bigger than our own Burnsall, and with a thriving economy, but was best known for holding the record for the highest number of marriage proposals in all the villages in the Yorkshire Dales. It was known as the village for romance, and every year couples came in droves to attend a festival that involved floating handmade lanterns on the river to celebrate the one they loved. The delicate flickering of candlelight could be seen for miles around and the visual effect was always stunning.

Satisfied that I had found my bearings, I said farewell to the girl from the chocolate shop and made my way back to the cottage that was to be my temporary home. I quietly thanked God for this opportunity he had granted me. My beloved Lucy was close and I was eager to see her again, even if she could never know who I really was. I was concerned for her safety and wouldn’t be satisfied until I had seen her in person.

After returning to the cottage I decided it was time to learn a little more about the man whose life I had abruptly hijacked. I saw a neat pile of blue exercise books stacked on the coffee table. One had been left open at random and I pictured Adam settling into the overstuffed armchair in the corner, cup of coffee in hand in preparation for a long night ahead. As I scanned the room I saw a dirty mug on the coffee table, a heavy, slate coaster placed carefully beneath. I noticed that the television was left on standby, its remote control perched haphazard on the edge of the sofa, as though its owner had left suddenly. It was almost as if Adam had been plucked from his own living room while in the middle of his daily routine.

In the kitchen there was a calendar on the wall, the kind you design yourself online with photos you have taken displayed each month. This month’s picture was of a small boy building sandcastles on a beach. Behind him the sun was making its descent into the gentle ripples of the sea,the burnt orange colour reflected in the calm, rolling waves of the ocean. I could only assume the picture had been taken on holiday somewhere. The twenty-fifth of the month had been circled and the words ‘Ben’s birthday’ had been scribbled there.

My stomach growled as I realised I hadn’t eaten since my transfer to earth. Hunger was a feeling I was no longer accustomed to and it took me a while to remember how to deal with it. I peered into the fridge and found a selection of cheeses that should go nicely with the crusty loaf I had spotted in the bread bin. I raided the cupboards for a bottle of wine that would wash the cheese down nicely.

After some searching I came across a large assortment of bottles containing various spirits and wines – I could only assume that Adam had a party planned in the future. For Ben’s birthday perhaps? I grabbed a bottle of a 2005 French Chardonnay and added it to the mini-feast I had prepared. I ate my supper with delight, savouring every mouthful while wondering how I had gone without this earthly pleasure for so long.

When I took a sip of wine I felt my entire body relax. It was almost like taking the first sip of water when waking up in the morning, as if a thirst had been quenched.

I sank into the leather sofa and switched on the flat-screen TV in front of me, imagining the man whose life I had borrowed settling in every night in this manner. There was a digibox beneath the TV and I knew from my years watching Russ that it would have the ability to record programmes. I knew I could find out more about Adam by observing the programmes he was interested in.

I found many recordings of programmes about Shakespeare, also documentaries about Chaucer and the Bronte sisters, but it was the number of recordings he had of a show entitled Leslie Craven –The World’s Greatest Psychic that really sparked my interest. There had to be over fifty episodes. If Adam was an English teacher, this programme seemed strangely out of place.

I watched a few programmes I’d found on various channels, none of which were familiar to me. When my eyelids grew heavy, I made my way up to the master bedroom.

I drew the curtains and changed into a pair of clean checked pyjamas I found in a nearby drawer. As I climbed into the unfamiliar bed I felt a strange sense of loss for the life I had abandoned so easily. Without my realising it, Heaven had begun to feel a lot like home. I felt far away from the people I loved, both in the afterlife and on earth, and it wasn’t long before I began to miss my adopted son, Timmy. If only I had a photograph of him. A reminder of his easy grin and gentle gaze. This thought led me to wonder: why were there no photographs of people in this house?’