It was standing room only. Every seat taken. I always wondered who would turn up, but I never thought I would find out.
Family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues gathered to say farewell. I recognised faces from my school and university days.
Up front was my body; encased in a dark, mahogany coffin. A large bunch of native Australian flowers cascaded over the sides. I was wearing my long green dress, one of my favourites. Someone had tamed my wild curls and I looked good—considering I was not breathing. It was such a pity I could not have died wearing that outfit. Instead, I was wandering around for eternity dressed in my ratty, old pyjamas. It is the sort of thing you really should know before you cark it.
My mood changed when I saw my husband, son, and daughter. All eyes in the chapel followed them as they made their way, holding hands, up the middle aisle to the front row. They hugged my parents, brother and my nieces and nephews before they took their seats.
I wanted to reach out, to touch them. I had never wanted anything more in my life. My life? I did not have a life anymore and I was still coming to terms with what it meant to be trapped between two worlds.
I thought I had done enough when I was living to earn a spot in heaven. I had been a decent person but when I died suddenly a week ago, I found myself trapped in the in-between. Call it purgatory or whatever you want, but it was not the afterlife I hoped for.
The in-between was full of spirits, roaming their graves, homes, the towns, and cities they had lived in. Some were happy to talk to a newbie, others hardly talked at all. Some were downright creepy. There were moments when my spidey-senses tingled. Someone was watching me.
I catalogued what I knew about my new existence. Firstly, I remembered everything about my life as a human and still felt love, joy, anger, and despair. If anything, my emotions were more intense than before. In the past week I had found it difficult to express the roller-coaster of emotions I was experiencing. Without a release valve I was worried my pent-up feelings would drive me crazy.
Secondly, I could see and hear my family, but I could not communicate or touch them. I could feel the sun on my skin and the wind moving my hair, but I could not hold a flower or open a door. I existed, but I could not physically connect with my past and I had no idea what the future held.
Thirdly, while everything still looked the same, there was an opaque quality to the world around me. It was like I was looking through a thin layer of cling wrap.
Finally, time moved differently. One minute I was with my husband at the funeral home as he kissed me goodbye, the next I was watching the mourners take their seats.
The service commenced and the priest read from the bible, talking about all the rooms in our father’s house. There was no room for me, I scoffed to myself.
My husband, son and daughter rose to address the crowd. I noticed my daughter touching a necklace as she shared funny and heart-warming stories about our life as a family. It was a small, gold crucifix. It had belonged to my grandmother. I always intended to give it to my daughter. I wanted to cry but the tears would not flow. Love and emotion threatened to engulf me. Finally, it was over, and my coffin moved slowly through a curtain to the cremation room. I was about to burn. The only thing to mark my time on earth would be ashes, memories, and my children.
I watched my family drift outside to mix with the other mourners. They stopped to talk to family and friends as they made their way through the crowd as they made their way to the car. I felt a ripple in the air behind me. I turned to find an attractive woman hovering close by.
‘Your service?’ she asked. She had long dark hair, manicured nails, immaculate make-up and was wearing a navy-blue business suit with matching stilettos.
‘Yes,’ I said, tucking a run-away curl behind my ears.
‘Good turn-up,’ she said. ‘Oh, but I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Helena,’ she held out her hand to me.
I shook it and felt her cold fingers grasping mine. I quickly pulled my hand away.
Helena laughed. ‘We can touch each other, but not them,’ she inclined her head towards my family who were pulling away, heading to the pub for my wake.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. It’s just the way it is,’ she said.
Remembering my manner’s, I introduced myself. ‘I’m Julia.’ I wanted to keep her talking. I was desperate to find out more about the in-between.
‘How long have you … umm … been here?’ I asked.
‘I died on 24 December 1989,’ she said. ‘Christmas Eve. What a bummer. I guess taking a cocktail of drugs wasn’t such a clever idea,’ she said in an off-hand way.
I nodded. Not sure how to respond.
‘How did you die?’ Helena asked as she surveyed my messy appearance.
‘Heart attack,’ I said. ‘It was … unexpected.’
Helena nodded and turned, watching the crowd slowly disperse. I didn’t want her to drift away. I needed answers.
‘Why are we here?’ I blurted out. ‘I mean, why aren’t we in heaven? If there is such a place. Are we stuck here forever?’
‘Those are pretty big questions,’ Helena replied as she turned back to face me. ‘I have some theories. Like to hear them?’ she asked.
‘Yes please,’ I responded.
Helena moved into the chapel and lowered herself until she was floating just above the back row. ‘I know we can’t really sit,’ she said smiling, ‘but I like to pretend sometimes.’
I positioned myself next to her as she told me her story. Helena had been a senior adviser to a high-profile politician. She loved him and their affair had lasted five years. On the night she died she had taken a potent mixture of drugs and alcohol.
‘Christmas was tough. I didn’t mean to kill myself, I just wanted to dull the pain,’ Helena said. ‘Now I am paying for my actions.’
I reflected on my life. I had been a faithful wife and I thought a good mother. While I enjoyed a drink or two, I had never taken drugs. I even donated to charities. There was the accident, but I was a child at the time. Surely God could not be punishing me for that?
‘So, is this it? There is no heaven? We just wander the earth like this forever?’ I asked in growing alarm.
Helena paused before continuing. ‘I knew a man. His name was Peter. He said he left behind a loving family. He said he had never been with anyone but his wife and had been a devoted father. But he said he had regrets and could have been a better person.’
‘A better person? How?’ I asked.
‘Peter said there were opportunities he hadn’t taken. Things he wished he had done. People he could have helped. At the time, he chose not to,’ Helena said.
I realised that I had chances to show a little kindness. Chances I had not taken. Like the homeless man I walked past every day on my way to work. The friends I forgot to call on their birthday or to reach out to when they were doing it tough. All because I was too busy with my own life. Yet, I had expected them to be there for me – and they had. I realised I had been a selfish person. Was that enough to condemn me? Or was I was still paying for that one thing?
‘So, how did he … move on?’ I asked.
‘Peter died in 1962 and he was here when I arrived in 1989. He often talked about the things he should have done and how he wished he could have his time over. He said he wanted to help new arrivals adjust to this world. Warn them before it was too late,’ Helena said.
‘Warn them? About what?’ I asked.
Helena lowered her voice. ‘Watch out for the others,’ she said looking around us. ‘They can’t reach you in holy places like this, but they are out there.’
‘The others?’ I asked and I shivered involuntarily. ‘Who are they? What do they want?’
‘They take different shapes and forms, depending on what you fear the most. Peter told me they like to stalk new arrivals. I wanted to warn you. They will try to take you down.’
‘Down? You mean, to hell?’ I asked, my eyes wide and fixed on Helena.
She nodded. ‘They get into your head. Mess with your emotions. Try to make you more reckless, angry, desperate, or numb. When you cannot bear it anymore, they take you. Like me for example. I was a very composed, professional person in my past life, but I ended up in a dark place. When I first came here, I felt like I was dying again, every day. I kept reliving the despair. It took the kindness of Peter to bring me back,’ Helena finished.
‘I could have been a better person,’ I said. ‘But did I really deserve this?’ I waved my arms in righteous anger.
‘That’s how they want you to feel. It has taken me years to accept I made bad choices,’ Helena said.
‘You have been here for more than thirty years …’ I could not finish my sentence. The possibility of being in limbo for that long scared the hell out of me.
‘Time plays tricks with you in this place, but I have been here a long time. You want to be with your family again one day, don’t you? Then you must keep trying,’ Helena urged.
‘What form did they take for you?’ I asked, my voice just a whisper.
Helena sighed. ‘Me. I was the worst monster I could imagine. It has taken many years to realise I was seeking forgiveness from myself, not just God.’ She rose.
‘Good-bye Julia and good luck. I hope to see you on the other side.’
‘Good-bye Helena. Thank you,’ I said shaking her hand again.
I moved outside. I was going to join my family at the wake. Then I heard a soft cry.
‘Juju, help me.’ She had always struggled to say my name.
I turned. She was the five-year-old girl l I remembered, blonde curls framing a pixie face. Except her face was caved in on one side. Clumps of congealed blood were visible in her hair. It was difficult to look at.
‘Jessie,’ my voice croaked, ‘Jessie I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to die.’
‘I fell. You let me.’ Jessie whispered as she moved towards me. She wore her yellow sun dress and her big blue eyes accused me of failing her.
‘It was an accident, Jessie. I tried to take your hand. It wasn’t my fault,’ the words came tumbling out as I replayed the moment again in my mind. I heard my own scream and relived the second my fingers helplessly brushed hers. I pictured her tiny body crumpled on the ground.
‘You let me follow you. Mummy and daddy said I was too little to play in the treehouse. You saw me. You were my big sister. You were meant to look after me,’ she said, as she inched closer.
‘I didn’t know the rope would break. I reached for you, but I was too late,’ I said, my head in my hands. ‘I love you, Jessie. I’m sorry I didn’t save you.’
I glanced up. She was gone.
Each time Jessie visited me in the in-between it became a little easier. It took a long time, but I finally let go of my guilt. I learned to forgive myself for something I hadn’t realised I was still holding myself responsible for. Then one day, Jessie never returned.