I’m around at my friend Janet’s and she’s talking about death because her father’s been ill, and it’s appropriate because she’s teaching me how to cook a chicken, something that I never learned because I was a vegan for many years. Death is on the menu you might say. I never ordinarily get invited out to people’s homes because I’m unpopular, but today’s butchery lesson is the exception that proves the rule, and it’s also apparently the precursor for morbid ruminations. We are drinking coffee in the sunshine, and she says to me, closing her eyes: so Fred, what happens when we die? What do you think?
When I was younger I used to love talking about death. That’s why I was a vegan for so long. Death death death. The slaughterhouses, the factory farms, the foxhunting, I loved it. A friend thought that vegans were people who really hated animals and wanted nothing to do with them, it was funny. Now that I’m older I try not to think about death so much. I’m a bit closer to it now. Janet is three years younger than me and she looks younger than that so she doesn’t find it disturbing yet. I sense though, that some empathy is called for here, because of her dad being ill. So I try to practice some empathy.
“The Buddhists appear to believe in reincarnation, in the eternal cycle of life, in the immutability of constant change, moment by moment, if you will Janet,” I tell her. “But not in the self or the ego. They’re also quite big on science, more than the average westerner unfamiliar with Buddhism might think.”
Janet raises one eyebrow, slowly, for effect, a la Roger Moore. “Are you a Buddhist then, Fred?” she asks me.
“No, I’m not a Buddhist Janet,” I tell her without so much as a pause. “But I once looked into it.” She raises the other eyebrow: her eyebrows are now more or less level. Level but very much raised, like she’s surprised a burglar. Or has been surprised by one, I suppose. Or maybe the surprise was mutual. I wonder where that expression originated, to surprise a burglar. One would assume that, as most burglars are junkies, or at least fairly desperate people, that nothing much surprises them. They just want to steal your telly, sell it and get their gear. When they come across incest on a Hampstead kitchen table I see them as being really quite blasé about it: yeah, sniff, seen that before, cough, sniff. But now I’m curious as to whether they stop off at home first, plug the telly in and watch a bit of Eastenders and Coronation Street, and when the daily cliffhanger moment comes up at bang on two minutes to eight, and Lewis is doing something evil or Phil is having another moan and another alcoholic relapse, they fall sideways off their milk crate, exclaiming as they go, “fucking hell, I wasn’t expecting that at all!” Just how easy is it to surprise a burglar?
“So what does happen when you die then Fred?” Janet asks me again, seeing that I have been sat there for three minutes with my mouth open, catching flies. “I didn’t know that the Buddhists were big on science”.
She’s always saying things like that: pretending that she doesn’t know stuff in a not quite patronising way. It’s supposed to put you at your ease. But I haven’t got an ease.
“Well,” I tell her, “Buddhist scholars were talking about atoms around the time of birth of the christ, but they might have got that from the ancient Greeks, I’m not sure. I’m a little fuzzy around classical civilisations.” At this point I really want to shoe-horn in a joke that I’ve had for years but have never quite found the right opening for, about the ancient Greeks and science but the moment isn’t right, and so I keep my counsel. “Didn’t you do classical civilisations at university, Janet?” I ask her. “Or at that posh school in Kensington?” I’m bordering on the offensive now. I know that, despite all appearances, she didn’t go to a posh school. But I am unsure of myself, and so I stray onto dangerous ground; I’m also being contentious as a delaying tactic. So that I can have an extra minute or two to ponder on whether ancient Greece and Buddhist India ever mixed, if they ever crossed paths culturally, if they were even in the same time frame at all. But according to Buddhism everything is connected anyway, and time is either an illusion or a physical property of mass at the event horizon. Bingo. I’m all set. But as I look at Janet I can see that she has indeed begun to take offence. So I let her speak.
“I didn’t go to university, Fred” she tells me. I knew that as well, but I allow her to continue. “And I most certainly didn’t go to a posh school. It was a school that was quite near to Harley Street, but it wasn’t a posh school.” I attempt to make eye contact with her. She glances across at me momentarily but she isn’t having any of it. In a final gambit I say to her, “but it was an all girls school wasn’t it, Janet? With school uniforms and that?”
At this she laughs openly and I sense that my gamble has partly paid off. Some of the tension is resolved and I am relieved that I might live to bullshit for another day. After all, she has a garden that she could quite easily bury me in. Or under. You know what these posh people are like, with their drawing rooms and their dark secrets and their skeletons in closets. They didn’t get there just by smiling and being nice. I am working class and I know exactly where garden flats come from.
“Fred, you can’t possibly think that having a school uniform or going to a single sex school makes you posh. Tell me more about the Buddhists and their fundamental grasp of science. I’m slightly curious now… do we not all just come back as carrots or something?” She flashes me a mischievous grin so that I know she’s not being serious. We have this codex and signals thing going on now. I feel privileged, slightly accepted, if only for the most impermanent of moments.
“Well Janet, as I see it, they seemed to believe that we’re all made up out of atoms and the fact that we are, all fits in very well with their hypothesis that everything is connected, and that everything is part of everything else. So when you die the atoms and molecules that make up you don’t die, they go on to make up parts of other people, and of other creatures and compounds, or trees and rocks. They recombine and the cycle of life goes on. Even when they are broken down and processed and excreted by bacteria and whatnot, they still remain as atoms and molecules and they join up with other atoms and molecules and they become part of something much bigger or smaller than themselves all over again, which after a while will die and be broken down again too; except that nothing ever really dies in the accepted sense, and that paradoxically everything is in a constant state of death and rebirth. If we wait seven years, then we find that every single cell in our bodies has died and that we are, physically speaking, completely different people. Except to our own constantly changing eyes we look broadly the same. This is also a proof that the self is an illusion. ‘I’ have to feed ‘myself’ and get ‘myself’ the wherewithal to do that, but if I don’t as an individual do it then it doesn’t matter too much overall: if I die I just become something else. Or maybe even someone else. We are all interconnected, in constant flux, in perpetual birth, decay, respawning, evolution. That’s reincarnation. In the sense that you often hear of each and every one of us breathing in a few molecules in our lifetime that were once part of the body of Julius Caesar, none of us ever dies. We won’t come back as a rat or a dog or even a pantomime horse, somehow thinking at the back of our brains, ‘ooh, I was once Janet in Kensal Green the aspiring novelist and relative of the world’s worst Tory stand up comedian, I wonder what that was like, if only I could remember it better but it’s too blurry!’; but we have all lived before, and we will all live again, because we never really die.”
I’ve finished. I’ve finished for now. Like a disappointing stranger fuck, I have built up my game, then got going really fast, talked too much, said a few of the wrong things, and now I am spent and you are strangely empty… and I lie there naked on the rug, curled into a ball, farting intermittently, absent-mindedly stroking my distended belly, pregnant with the disturbing promise of perhaps more to come in half an hour if you don’t get me out of your house while you can. I have explained Buddhism and I am philosophically spent. I’m knackered.
With tired eyes I look across at Janet. I am waiting for her response. She cautiously meets my eye. “So … Fred,” she tells me slowly. Again I can’t quite tell whether she’s playing with me or not. “Is that it? Is that all there is? Because I’ve asked other people about this and they can’t give me a fucking straight answer either. You’re all like computer salesmen or car mechanics! There just has to be more to it than that.”
I hear her sniff and I look up at her, and for the first time I see her red eyes and I see that this isn’t a joke; that this isn’t just a tuppenny halfpenny philosophical conversation on a spring afternoon in a small garden. That this is all very real for her. Her father is dying and she wants answers, she wants those impossible answers for the questions for which there are none. Some day soon the man who 40 years ago, on a summers day in the summer of love, lent her half of her zygote, will disappear forever and there will be no way around that and no way back from that, and her life will never be the same again. He will never really die and his atoms and his molecules will live on, but she won’t be able to speak to him anymore and whatever kind of a relationship they have today, there will always be something that she never asked him and something that he never said back. And the best that she can do today is to be present, to get on the bus. To make him a cup of tea and cook him a chicken, and feed it to him, and to accept that no relationship can ever be perfect. That we all make mistakes, and that the perfect love that runs through everything encompasses both life and death and every clean and dirty thing that’s in between. And that when she’s on holiday somewhere nice in ten or twenty years and she’s walking through the woods and she hears a babbling brook that’ll be him talking to her through the ether, and the interference from the radio just before the government turned off the last analogue signal, that was him too, and the music from the ice cream van, and the foxes that bark by the bins at 3:45am. But I don’t tell her any of this. I’m afraid that it might sound lame, or that she won’t understand. So instead I say to her…
“Janet, did you know that the ancient Greeks invented science and developed the world’s first ever rudimentary computer, the abacus, and that they were actually the ancient geeks?”
© Ted Curtis 2013