“I’m not sure where to start,” said the frail shrunken lady in the hospital bed.
“Well, in my experience, it is usually best to start at the beginning.” Ray Dawson flicked over the top piece of paper on his clipboard. It was a printed green form. He licked the tip of his pencil and smiled at her.
“Just relax. Shut your eyes if you like.”
“Oh no. I’ve had enough sleep to last a lifetime.” She gave a wry smile. Ray thought how ethereal she seemed. A ghost made flesh. Her face was as pale as the pillow on which she lay. Her dark brown hair shot through with seams of silver formed a halo about her peaceful visage. An aura of calm extended from her, dulling the sullen bleeps of the life support machinery in the nearby rooms. An example of the monstrous instrument of existence extension sat beside them, silent and watchful.
When Ray had entered the hospital and walked down the corridor to this room, he was struck by the sensation of walking past a row of high tech torture chambers. Weeping and beeping bled through each doorway creating a miasma of gloom and quiet resignation.
“Anything you can remember will be useful. Try and concentrate on sounds and smells if you can.” A look of quiet panic crossed her pale face.
“You were on a flight from Sydney to Bundaberg …” prompted Ray running a hand through the hair he didn’t have.
“Yes,” she replied faintly, her eyes defocusing.
“Holiday or business?”
“Obligation, I suppose,” she smiled vaguely slipping away into the memory.
“An old school frenemy’s wedding.” Ray’s scribbling paused. She smiled across at him. “You know the type. Overly competitive bitch who takes every opportunity to compare lives and come out ahead. Turns into a total Bridezilla and invites the kids she hated at school to be her bridesmaids so she can force them to wear purple frilled velvet in the height of summer. She only invited me because she fancied my husband at high school and wanted to show off her investment banker catch.” Ray wondered at the bland tone of these words that ought to be injected with venom.
She chuckled weakly, “My word, didn’t she kick up a fuss that I’d put on five kilos in the year and a half since the fitting.” She patted her now concave stomach absentmindedly.
“Well, she did postponed the wedding twice.” She gave a sigh, “I wish her well. Life is just too short.”
The pause stretched into silence. Feeling the gloom starting to press in again, Ray checked the green form on his clipboard.
“So on the 22nd of January, you boarded flight 721 from Sydney to Bundaberg via Brisbane at 4:30 in the afternoon, is that right?”
“Yes. I was still horribly hung over. The flight was delayed on the runway. I called the husband a few times. He was tearing his hair out. The boys were driving him mad. He put them on and I reminded them that Mummy’s home soon and there’ll be Trouble if they’re not good for Daddy.”
Ray smiled at the picture of domestic nightmare. “Two boys?” he asked.
“Three. Eight year old twins and a four year old.”
Ray gave a low whistle. “Busy household.”
“I can’t wait to get home.” She started to cry. Ray sat awkwardly. You’d think I’d be used to it in this line of work. He touched her shaking shoulder. There, there, he thought, unable to voice the words. It’s okay. You’re safe now. Ray thought on how cold she was; like a statue coming to life.
She tried to stem the flood, screwing her balled fists into her eyes. After a shuddering sigh, she continued.
“I fell asleep and missed the take-off. I woke up and we’re in the air. The lights were low. The cabin’s bouncing a bit and there’s rumbling everywhere. I got up, wondering what the hell was going on. I was pretty disoriented. Never at my best when I’ve just woken up. I started demanding an explanation and this poor young flight hostess took hold of me and told me to get back in my seat. She was terrified. She looked so young under all that makeup. Still a teenager.
“A smell of … well … like a leaky fridge but much sharper and another smell too. A chemical, burning smell. But there was no smoke. There was a mighty flash and a crash. The cabin lit up and I looked around. Everyone was in brace position.”
The jumbled urgent narrative stopped. Ray scribbled furiously trying to keep up.
“Did she make it?” Ray looked up. There was a moment of wordless communion.
“Did anyone make it?” Ray dropped his eyes. His job relied on honesty. Collecting facts, examining plausible possibilities and writing an unbiased report. Consequently, he made a terrible liar.
She took it pretty well, almost as if she already knew.
“What’s the next thing you remember?”
“Splashing out of the surf. I lay on my back in the sand feeling as heavy as an elephant. The sun was just over the horizon, but it felt horribly bright. It took all my energy to get up. And then the wind! It felt like a hurricane, but only just stirred the sand. I thought I must have some sort of nerve damage, you know, like someone with hypothermia. I struggled up the beach and into town.”
That's 500 kilometres south of here. Ray flicked a disbelieving look over the edge of the clipboard. Unluckily she caught it.
“I know. I don’t quite believe it either. It all feels like a dream. One of those weird dreams you have after you wake up early and then try to go back to sleep. I kept thinking … if this is a dream … I want to see how it ends.
“I met a young surfer first. He looked a bit worse for wear. I called out to him and he looked round, but he looked right through me and walked on by. Same thing with a dog walker. The dog went berserk, but the owner ignored me.
“I kept close to the buildings. The wind and sun were killing me. I didn't know why I was there or how I was going to get home.
“There was a phone box. I tried to call Greg reverse charges. It was so hard to lift the receiver. Like having bad pins and needles. I got so screamingly frustrated. Then an arc of blue lightening jumped out of the receiver and there was a smell like burning copper.
“I kept moving. I tried again at every payphone. Same thing. I gave up.
“Then I found a little bookshop. I fell in the door as someone opened it. The nice lady behind the counter asked if she could help me. I was so weak, I couldn't reply. She said I could rest on the beanbags. Very kind. I think I went to sleep. I came around when the light was starting to fail. I got up and left as someone came in. I just had this feeling … this yearning.” She held her fist to her heart, “I just had to get home to Greg and the kids. They were going to be at each other’s throats. Eating takeaway for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No baths. Mess everywhere.” She gave a grim chuckle at the thought of being desperate to get back to such a scene.
“I felt much better when the sun set. I decided I was going home, even if I had to crawl to get there. I started off along the main road out of town.
“And then it hit me. I'm dead.” Ray’s scribbling paused again. He pushed on with some unnecessary filler words to mask his discomfort.
“But then I started thinking … some folks can see me. I stood outside a pub. It was dark now. A young fellow with a dog rode up on a bike. He went inside for a drink leaving the dog guarding the bike.
“Okay, I thought. A little experiment. I walked up to the bike. The dog barked at me, and then dropped its tail and ran. I heaved the bike up. God it was heavier than it looked. And I got on. I started peddling and soon I was out on the highway.
“I was just thinking, if I am dead then this must be the weirdest sight in the world! I laughed at the idea of an empty bicycle wobbling down a highway. Some lights came over a hill behind me and a Kombie van drove past. It stopped with a shriek of brakes in a cloud of dust. Two young German lasses jumped out shouting ‘Herrgott!’
“I ran up and blathered at them a bit about the plane crash until I realised they couldn’t understand me. I said ‘Bundaberg?’ and they replied ‘Yah! Bundaberg. Rum! Good rum. You come?’ And so I abandoned the bike and got in the back of the Kombie. The girls kept driving and I fell asleep.
“And I woke up in Bundaberg.” Ray felt relieved. The impossible story made him oddly queasy.
“The girls had stopped at a petrol station for breakfast and left me in the van. I had to shove so hard to get the door open it almost flew off its hinges. I was only a mile or so from my house. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to find my own front door. But everyone was out and I had no key. I had to sit on the doorstep in the shade of the frangipani tree. The sun was cutting me to shreds, but it didn't feel that hot.
“Then Greg got home. The car turned into the driveway and I ran out shouting and laughing and crying.” Her voice trembled away into nothing.
“They couldn't see me, not even my baby boy Alex. They trooped into the house like pall bearers at a funeral. I followed them in. The place was every bit the bloody tip I was expecting. They sat at the table and Greg made the boys cocoa.
“I couldn't believe it. I was dead.” Ray took a deep breath and looked about the hospital room wondering if he was also dreaming.
“I watched them all day. My family. Going on without me. Greg cooked dinner. The boys took baths without having to be nagged. And when it was time for bed he read them a story. He’s such a good Dad.” She stopped again and shot a look at Ray. Ray jumped at the laser beam intensity of the stare. His skin crawled.
“Alex said, ‘Daddy are we going to see Mummy again tomorrow?’” Ray’s crawling skin threatened to leap off his flesh. He sat up straight as an electric spill tickled down his spine. He couldn't even pretend to write.
“And then I worked it out. It was such an odd relief. I watched over my darling sons all night. Sleep softened their lovely faces into cherubs. I wondered if that sweet little lie we tell bereaved children is actually true. Mummy is looking down on you from Heaven.
“The next morning, I slipped into the car alongside them and came to this hospital. I had prepared myself for the sight, but it was still a shock to see my body lying in this bed. I was quite literally beside myself.” Ray jumped as she gave a short mirthless bark of laughter.
“And then I had to listen to a bloody doctor try to convince my husband to turn off the life support. Bless Greg! He nearly punched the guy.” She thumped a weakened fist into the blankets beside her.
“I knew I had to move quickly. I walked up and down the corridors listening to doctors and nurses breaking the bad news to folk. ‘You should prepare for the worst. The odds aren't favourable. They don’t usually last longer than a week.’ The old guy in Room 4 died that night. I heard his heart monitor fail. The nurses came scuttling. They did CPR. I heard his ribs crack. He gave a great groaning sigh, and then he was standing beside me. We had an odd sort of chat and he said goodbye. Then he just faded away.
“I worked out what I had to do.
“I watched closely as they turned off the machine for the poor old duck in Room 7. Just two buttons.
“I waited for the end of the graveyard shift. All the nurses were occupied with handover paperwork. I pushed the two buttons. The machine stopped. I kneeled on my own chest and pulled out the breathing tube. That was something, let me tell you. My body flailed and inhaled.”
She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath inflating her emaciated body. She opened them again and fixed Ray with a lopsided smile.
“I guess that’s it.”
Ray got up, nearly knocking over his chair. He closed the interview with the usual formalities and left his card with contact details at the Civilian Aviation Safety Authority.
Ray caught sight of himself in a mirror panel on the wall whilst waiting for the lift. The sheen of sweat covering his bald head made him look like a recently boiled egg. He checked the urge to perform the sign of the cross.
The plane had crashed into the ocean. The rescue teams had only recovered a handful of bodies. Was it possible? Was her spirit washed along the East Australian current to Byron Bay, the eastern most point of Australia?
He startled as the lift gave a ding, stepped inside and left the hospital with the firm tread of a man in search of a drink.
It didn't take long to find one. He gratefully sipped his beer, feeling the cool liquid quell the shivering in his guts. Fans whirred overhead bringing little relief from the stultifying heat. Ray let the sounds of the pub soothe him; good natured greetings, click and thunk of pool balls, the screechy creak of cicadas in the pub garden outside.
He drew a deep breath. Couldn't be. That simple act of denial brought with it a host of tender angels soothing his rattled nerves with probable explanations.
“Looks like you needed that.” observed the Publican, a mighty blacksmith of a man, the mere sight of whom would have defused any fight. Ray nodded and ordered another. He almost dropped the glass when a toolbox clattered down beside him and someone pulled up a stool.
“Hello Joe! Whaddya know?” greeted the Publican. Joe was a thickset sunburnt man in his forties wearing grease stained overalls with the logo of a telecommunication company on the left breast. Joe placed a finger firmly on the bar answered swiftly by the Publican with a schooner.
“Better than some mate. Just heard some joker went and blew out every pay phone in Byron Bay. Gunna take ages to fix em all. Glad it’s not me.”