It was a warm, wet, windy day in early May, and I was sitting in my car wondering if I should go and speak to my dead friend.
I was parked outside his old house, with the same garden he romped in as a child lying differently before the same empty windows and withdrawn brick walls. The slightest rain was dashing across the space between myself and the front door. I don’t know why I was there; something in my sleep had compelled me to come, though I don’t know what it was, and I felt like perhaps I would not find out.
Sam had died very suddenly six months ago, and the sorrows that a death can throw at a family were still clinging to the fabric of the household like a disease clings to the lungs of the breathless. I and most of our schoolmates attended the funeral with the utmost sense of the surreal clipping our heels, not being quite able to understand that a person so close to us could just disappear as he did. Seeing his family without him made them seem tremendously alone, even with all his siblings there with their parents, outnumbering the dead and yet still being weighed down by them. Growing up you simply never conceive of circumstances in which your friends could vanish into eternity, and what’s more is you never talk about it; so when it happens you feel as if the universe has deserted you. The first time you attend the funeral of someone you love is the first time you realise that the struggle is surreal. The childish belief that life makes sense is smacked out of your hands as if by a bully; and yet we keep on trying to make it make sense. The day of Sam’s funeral was one of the hardest of my life.
And now I was back at his house, wondering whether to go inside…
At length I finally decided that I ought to, and before I could think twice about it I was in the front hall, having found the front door unlocked and ready to swing open at my approach.
The corridor was the same as I remembered as a child, with the faded white skirting board running around bottle green wallpaper, the red tiled floor and the faint smell of barbour jackets emanating from the cupboard under the stairs. I glanced in the sitting room to the left and saw all the same furniture sitting unused, with the warm, wet early summer swinging about through the window outside. There was no sound anywhere. The next door to the left was a study, Sam’s father’s, which was also empty. For a moment I thought to cry ‘Hello?’ up the stairs, but decided against it – at which point I turned into the kitchen, where I found, sitting at the table with a cup of tea in his hand, my dead friend.
I sat down.
Sam looked at me calmly, meeting my presumably astonished features with a warm, quiet recognition of the strangeness of the situation. He stayed silent, letting his eyes drop to his half empty cup of tea. The wind hushed outside.
‘What are you doing here?’ I said.
‘I’m saying goodbye,’ he replied.
I was lost for words.
‘Did you have a choice?’ I stupidly asked.
‘Yes. Of course I did. We all do.’
‘So what –‘ I caught myself – ‘what… I…’
I met his eyes over the table, and was suddenly moved by the most intense desire to cry. I held it back, I think.
‘So what… I mean… Why?’
‘Why did you do it?’
He looked down again, contemplating the mug. A spatter of rain dusted the window.
‘I don’t think you know what that question means,’ he said. ‘When you’re in the place I was in you don’t think ‘why’. You think ‘how’. Life doesn’t have a value. Your family and friends are nothing. It doesn’t make sense.’ Then, with a strange flicker of humour, he added, ‘But that’s just the thing. I’ve sort of realised that nothing makes sense.’ Now he beamed at me. ‘You know what I mean, don’t you?’
I was stunned like my soul had deserted my body, and too confused to smile back at him.
‘I mean that life doesn’t make sense, so stop trying to apply sense to it!’
I couldn’t think.
‘I just… I don’t get it. What’s happening, Sam? Why are you here? Why am I talking to you?’
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ he repeated. ‘So stop trying to make it.’
‘I don’t know whether I want to carry on.’
‘Why wouldn’t you?’
I stared at him, perhaps even glared at him, though I felt too removed to understand how I might have looked.
‘This conversation doesn’t need to happen,’ he said. ‘I could just go. You won’t need to be troubled by me again.’
‘I can’t stomach it, Sam,’ I heaved. ‘I miss you. Your friends miss you. Your family misses you. You know what happened to them, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know. They don’t know that I’ve been watching them, but I have been. I know what they’ve been through.’
‘Did it not cross your mind that that would happen?’
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘Well, yes. I must have done. I don’t know. I didn’t think.’
Silence once more filled the space between us, a more complete silence. We regarded each other strangely.
‘I don’t know what to ask you,’ I finally said. ‘I suspect we don’t have long.’
Sam shook his head.
‘Then what should I ask you?’
He shrugged with the slightest of smiles you could imagine – but he continued to smile at me, in a way that took me right back to the beginnings of our friendship. The tree branches of our youth shook overhead with the sound of the playground shrieking with joy all around us; Sam was seeing how far up the unclimbable tree he could climb while I and the rest of his friends watched, secretly hoping that, if he didn’t reach the top, then one of us might succeed where he had failed.
‘What was it like?’
Now sincerity returned to his face.
‘At first painful. Then strange. Then peaceful. It was like tripping-‘
‘Trust you to bring tripping into it.’
‘Well it was! It was just like coming up on some powerful psychedelic, like an overdose of LSD… And at first it was scary because I didn’t understand it. But that didn’t last long. In fact, almost immediately, I understood.’
‘You understood everything?’
I laughed again.
‘What does that mean?’
‘You’ll see when it comes!’
‘And are you okay?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I’m better now than I’ve ever been before.’
‘What’s it like over there?’
He smirked again.
‘I’m not over there… But it’s beautiful. It’s the most immense beauty you could ever imagine. In fact it’s beyond the imagination. It’s as if all the pretty onenesses of the universe have gathered round you and drawn you out of yourself and into something greater and better… It’s divine. It’s all I could ever have wished for.’
And I felt like I did see. He was content.
‘I suppose that’s all I need to know then.’
Another pause occurred, in which we continued to observe each other across the kitchen table. Behind him was a chest of drawers, lined on top with photos of his family, and in the middle a photo of him aged eight, dressed in his school uniform, looking in awe into the lens of the camera as if he had never seen anything so gorgeously confusing before. I knew he was eight in that photo, because I was next in the queue to have mine taken.
‘John sends his love. So do Harriet and Miles. In fact so does everyone. I couldn’t think of a soul alive who doesn’t send you their love.’
He nodded and looked down once more.
‘And I send them mine. Forever.’
‘We miss you, Sam. Every day. Every time I wake up and every time I go to sleep, and in all the hours in between, I miss you. Everyone does.’
‘I know.’ A pause. ‘And I would say I miss you too, but the truth is I don’t. Not one bit. You know why that is, don’t you?’
My water-twisted eyes met his in a spate of confusion. I felt like I shook my head.
‘It’s because I never left. It’s because I’m right there with you. Everywhere, all the time. No matter where you go or what you do, no matter if you are thinking of me or not, or whether you hate me for leaving, or whether you’re glad I’m dead, or whether you feel as if the universe is the loneliest place to be – I’m with you. There is no such thing as being alone. I’ll always be there.’
Outside the wind brushed a gentle melody against the window pane, and a triangle of bullfinches whistled into the welcoming blue rain.
‘You have to go now,’ he said. ‘That’s how it works.’
We both paused for a moment as we took it in; then I put my hand on his, and held it there for a second. Then I stood up, and with one final blink in his eye, moved toward the door.
‘Bye, Sam,’ I said. ‘We’ll see each other soon. I’m sure of it.’
And not wanting to wait longer than I needed to, I left immediately. But as soon as I was in the corridor I heard him cry:
‘It’s never the end!’
With a shot of impulse in my chest I turned back, flaming to set my eyes upon him one more time, throwing myself through the kitchen door again to give him one last hug, one final word of connection – and I found him laughing the most beautiful, incredible laugh you could ever hear. It was a profundity beyond the profound… He was wearing exactly the same gorgeous, boyish smile he had all the way through his youth, and in his laugh was everything: there was an epic something added to it, a distinct flavour of everything all at once. He was sitting there laughing at me, laughing and laughing and laughing, and I saw it all of a sudden: because in his laugh was the sky and the ground, the sea and the mountains, the dogs and the lizards, the Mondays and Fridays, the exchange of money in a shop, the mundanity of a cotton skirt, the awe of a starry night, the boredom of a maths lesson, the endlessness of eternity; in his laugh I could hear the first word he ever spoke and the last breath I ever breathed; all and everything, throughout all time and space, from the birth of the stars to the stones beneath our feet; ultimate, wordless, indefinable; all here and now, summed up in the laughter of my friend.
And it was so funny and so perfect that we laughed all the way through the night and into the morning – at which point I blinked, and he was gone.