A lot of people can’t remember the sixties. In my case it’s as hazy as someone who spent their summers dropping acid in a field, without any of the pleasurable side effects. I don’t know if I was there or not. Consciousness bleeds in slowly, a surprise and not exactly a pleasant one. After all, consciousness was exactly what I’d hoped to avoid, having blown my head off in 1932.
The first thing I can be sure of is him. It didn’t take me long to recognise him, which is what persuaded me that this was all a sort of extended hallucination, or possibly the afterlife. I’d imagined a better world, but something told me this wasn’t it. I’d always thought in Heaven or Elysium or wherever we found ourselves we’d be young and beautiful forever, but Sixsmith is old, worn, a lifetime of grief and work and waiting etched onto his skin.
And I am not me, but Luisa Rey.
Consciousness slips out of my grasp. Sixsmith is gone in a blink of an eye, shot dead in an anonymous hotel room. I wonder for the first time what he must have felt, finding my body in the bath tub. Bodies are temporary. This mortal coil, and all that. I wonder what I am then, without mine. A soul, perhaps, and yet not any Christian construction of one. I wait for Sixsmith to join me, but he does not. The vastness of eternity frightens me. Why was I so quick to propel myself into this?
I am Luisa and yet I am not. She has her own consciousness, separate yet familiar. I am still me, more’s the pity. Luisa lives her life in episodes of mystery and heroism, with me along for the ride. She dies in the same way, heroically and all too soon.
Once again I am adrift, left with the lingering feeling that Luisa was not quite real, that she was someone I read about in a book. But that can’t be right, she was the one reading about me. Besides, people one reads about in books are often more real than those we meet in the flesh. Perhaps none of this was anything but a dream before dying.
And then I am Katy. She howls into the world, red faced and cross. She has the birthmark, the little comet. Our mother brushes it with her thumb. Are these marks formed at birth, or before, I wonder? Skin-sign of the imprint of consciousness. An heirloom, passed down from life to life.
I like Katy. For most of her life I’m only dimly aware of her, or she’s only dimly aware of me. Am I a parasite? My father certainly always thought so. There’s nobody else here. I wonder about Adam before me and Luisa after. Are they here, somewhere, planes of consciousness stacked like high-rise flats, one on top of the other, never interacting? Or has suicide given me a kind of special insight, thrust me into limbo, as it were?
And then there’s that thing in Hong Kong. It doesn’t like me. Katy thinks it’s her, that it’s some kind of psychic manifestation of her inability to bear children, but it’s not. It, she, the nameless ghostgirl can smell me out, somewhere I don’t belong. There are more things in heaven or hell than are dreamt of by your philosophy, Horatio. Was it Horatio?
I’m glad to get out of there, back to dear old mother England. Katy has more fun since the divorce. She’s attracted to men like me, the sort that climb out down your drainpipe in the morning. I don’t know whether to feel proud or protective or jealous, quite frankly. There’s one, a writer, passes out as soon as he’s finished, drunk as a skunk. The drink is strong on his breath but I can’t taste it. The afterlife may be nourishment for the soul, but I do miss the pleasures of the flesh. I’d sell my soul for a glass of whisky and a decent dinner and a good hard fuck on nice hotel linen.
Katy’s curious, that’s something we’ve all got in common. She roots through the writer’s bag while he snores on. She finds a manuscript, Half-Lives. Katy frowns, the name of the main character familiar; Luisa Rey, isn’t she that true-crime writer? It’s familiar to me, too, but for different reasons. I shiver. Someone walking over your grave, they say, but in my case it’s all too literal. Someone raking over your remains. All these stories, rising from the ashes of each other.
Perhaps I’m feeling it too loudly, influencing her without meaning to. Katy places the manuscript carefully back in the envelope, addressed in anonymous block font to one Timothy Cavendish, publisher.