His death was both inevitable and, somehow, unexpected. Like the proverbial creaking gate, he hadn’t been well for a long time; his blood pressure high, he was overweight and drank too much; he didn’t take any exercise. And yet one expected him to go on. Even when he was taken into hospital with a heart attack, I expected him to come home. I sent him a text saying, ‘Get well you bugger. I’m fed up with being polite.’ I found that text a few days after the funeral and wondered whether to delete it, whether to remove his number altogether. It seemed silly to keep it in my phone memory and yet somehow disrespectful to remove it, as though I were finally removing him from my own memory. I used to enjoy getting texts and emails from him – I could be rude as I liked to Damien, and it can be a strain being polite. I live in a very polite family – a charming wife who, now we’re both retired, fills her days with good works, and grown up children off our hands who come to visit with their surprisingly well-brought up children. Off our hands apart, that is, from Hester I suppose. Hester was always the bright one, the youngest, the spoilt one. She studied art history at university – an excuse to spend her summer vacation and my money swanning round Italy. She joined a commune for a while after she’d graduated and now lives with her boyfriend who’s trying to start the first bio-dynamic vineyard in England. Daft idea if you ask me but strangely it rather appealed to Damien. He’d got really into ecological ideas and ideals as he grew old and claiming ‘we’d’ really messed up – ‘we’ being, variously, affluent, materialistic Americans and north Europeans, post-Industrial civilisations, and the whole human race. Something else I could argue with him about – I wasn’t convinced by the whole ‘global warming’ thing; and if it was getting warmer it seemed like a pretty good idea to me – give me a mediterranean climate any day I’d say. But he’d rant on about how it wouldn’t be like that, it would be all storms and rain – or drought – and we’d either be flooded or run out of water.
But now, here I was, about to delete him from my memory – or at least the memory of my mobile phone. They’re something I rant about – how nobody talks to anyone any more, just texts and you can’t get any peace and quiet anymore. But I rely on my mobile as much as anyone. But just then I got the little tinkly bell sound that meant I’d received a text. The small screen was lit up and there – clear as anything – was the name ‘Damien’. I’d received a text from Damien, a dead man, two days in his grave already. I opened the text – one word: ‘Help’. Not knowing what else to do I pressed ‘reply’ and typed in: ‘Where are you?’ I don’t know what sort of answer I was expecting but it wasn’t what I got: ‘Hell’. I didn’t try to make sense of having a conversation by text with someone in their grave (would I have been less spooked if the text had read: ‘I’m in my grave – get me out – I’m not dead!’?).
– ‘How can you be somewhere you don’t believe in?’
– ‘How can you not believe in a place you’re in?’
There didn’t seem to be an answer to that. I continued:
– ‘What’s it like?’
– ‘Hot. Cold. Bloody awful. Get me out of here!’
– ‘I don’t know. You’re the goddam vicar!’
I went round to see Janey. Although I’m retired, I do occasional services and had conducted the funeral. It’s hard taking the funeral for a friend but it was what Janey wanted, and was probably what Damien would have liked. Even if he had told me he thought it was all a load of nonsense – ‘We just rot in the ground. End of story.’
I’d been meaning to visit Janey and, I suppose, putting it off. She’s one of those very capable women whom everyone admires for ‘coping’. ‘She’s coping wonderfully’, they all said at the funeral. But what do you say to someone who’s coping wonderfully? Whatever I say carries the danger of suggesting she didn’t care for him. Now, over a cup of tea and biscuits – made by a neighbour anxious to find something to do to help – I asked her what she’d done with Damien’s phone. An odd question no doubt but she didn’t blink.
– ‘It’s up in his room. I’ve been tidying. It was an awful mess. I put it away in a drawer, but I must cancel his subscription. It’s on my list of things to do. One thing at a time, you know!’
– ‘Yes indeed. It’s the only way,’ I replied, feeling some kind of hypocrite. If I wasn’t careful I’d be telling her she was coping wonderfully. ‘It’s just that I was afraid it had been stolen. I got a text from his number.’ I seemed to be trying not to say his name; I don’t know why.
– ‘Well, I can go and check. But I’m sure it’s there.’
It was. The only solution we could think of was that there was some confusion over numbers – virtual wires crossed.
– ‘What did the text say?’ she asked.
– ‘Oh it was nonsense,’ I answered. ‘Couldn’t make head or tail of it.’
– ‘Well I’ll get the number cancelled. Put it to the top of my list.’
I left feeling slightly guilty. There was no way the message could really have come from Damien; but was there something I should be doing for him?
The next day I got another text from him. Just the one word again: ‘Help’.
– ‘Yr fone’s in drawr at home. Subscriptn cancelled. How can you fone?’
– ‘Dont b bloody silly. Dont need fone.’
I switched my phone off – didn’t know what else to do. Was I going mad? Hallucinating? Or was this some great practical joke? But the only person I knew who would pull such a joke was the very person purporting to be sending the texts. I left my phone in my study while I went to make a cup of tea – but when I returned I’d received another text: ‘Help’. And so it continued. It didn’t matter whether the phone was switched on or not, the texts kept coming: ‘Help’. Even when I was outside I could hear the damn thing ringing. I couldn’t escape from it.
Early in the morning I walked down to the churchyard. It’s an old church, with gravestones dating back centuries, but a neighbouring field was bought some years ago so burials could continue here, in the centre of what is still a living community. The dead in the middle of the living; death in the midst of life. I hadn’t had enough sleep recently – even in my head I was rambling. I stood by his grave: the ochre clay soil piled on the surface, showing the underneath of the earth, what should be hidden under the clothing of grass. Eventually the soil would subside, grass would grow over and he would rot in the earth as though he had never been. I crouched down close to the earth despite the protesting of my old knees. What did I expect to see – a hand breaking through the crust of the earth? A hand with the flesh beginning to rot, to disintegrate? An accusing, bony finger?
The only thing I could do, I reasoned, was try to help. If he were in Hell then there was nothing I, or anyone, could do. But if he were in Purgatory, that was a different matter. The Church of England was no doubt supposed to have ditched Purgatory at the Reformation, but we prayed for people after their deaths, so presumably we believed that such prayers could have some effect. I started saying Mattins and Evensong quietly to myself in my study everyday. When I was ordained I had been enjoined to say them every day of my life – when had I stopped? When had I stopped to care about the vows I had taken, the discipline under which I had promised to live? Saying those simple services with their prayers, well known since childhood, and the daily round of psalms, was a comfort to me if not to Damien. He continued to ask for ‘Help’. I volunteered to take the 8 o’clock Holy Communion services, which were popular with the older members of the parish, but not the ‘Team Ministry’ – they were all middle-aged and middle-of-the-road, anxious to involve young people and families. It seemed to involve a lot of tea and biscuits and general jolliness. Since when has Christianity been jolly? I muttered to myself – it was the sort of comment I would have liked to text to Damien but it seemed heartless somehow. Instead, I invoked his name during Communion – Masses said for the deceased were always supposed to be effective in reducing time spent in Purgatory. What else? Alms? Pilgrimage? Should I be walking barefoot to Compostela? It was curious how popular that had become – walking to Santiago de Compostela a place at the very end of what had been the known world – in an evermore secular world, a world about which we thought we knew everything. It was the challenge of the walking, no doubt, not the spiritual benefit which might accrue which appealed.
‘Prayrs just drop of water on tongue. Not enuf. Help’, the text said.
‘What more do you want?’
‘It has to cost.’
What was that supposed to mean? I had to make some real effort? Some change in my life? Abandon my life and be a hermit? But was this, I wondered, about my religious life? If these messages were, somehow, my own conscience – what else could they be? – what was it I was feeling guilty about?
It was a warm autumn, almost too warm. Muggy and humid. The news programmes were running stories about how this had been the warmest summer so far – no one day had been particularly hot but overall the average temperature was up for the fourth year in a row. If this continued . . . there were dire warnings for the future of the human race. I looked at my car – a ten year old 3 litre BMW 5 series I was rather fond of. I didn’t drive it that much – it would be silly to buy a new car. Maybe I could drive it a bit less? Look out the old bicycle even? We liked to keep the house warm – too many draughty vicarages when we were young – but we could turn the thermostat down a degree I supposed. The energy company had sent us a load of those low-energy light bulbs and we’d replaced most of the old bulbs with them. But, dammit, that wasn’t going to make much difference was it?
Maybe I would talk it over with Roland. Roland’s an old school friend; he’s an MP now and there’s talk of bumping him up to the House of Lords – don’t know what else to do with the old curmudgeon I supposed. He’s no intention of retiring and his constituency have got used to him – it’s a very comfortable rural constituency and the party members are all too stuck in their ways to oust him. I met him regularly for lunch at some old-fashioned restaurant where you could get proper puddings like Spotted Dick – except of course such restaurants were now fashionable and cost the earth. Roland didn’t dare claim it all on expenses any longer, but we treated ourselves to a proper lunch anyway. A shared bottle of claret usually made it easier to put the world to rights, but this time we decided everything was a bit of a mess and there wasn’t much we could do about it. Walking back through Parliament Square we passed the old peace protester, hermit-like in his tent – ‘He must have been there ten years?’ I asked Roland.
‘Damn nuisance’, he said. But admitted, ‘You have to admire the fellow. Courage of his convictions. Can’t get rid of him.’
Heavy clouds were gathering, the air was growing sultry. It looked as though he were in for another wet night – imagine being out there in all weathers! I was looking forward to getting back to my own comfortable home. The train back home was hot and stuffy. A young child started to cry fretfully. A middle-aged woman, a business woman well-dressed in a dark suit with a leather briefcase at her feet and a laptop on her knees went pale. She looked clammy as though she might faint.
Outside a strong wind began to blow and the rain pelted down. I received a text – ‘It’s getting hotter.’ That was from Damien. But I also received texts from my family. Hester texted to say that the strong winds were damaging their vines – just when they were hoping to harvest their first good crop. They would be ruined. Tom, my older son, texted to say that his new home was flooded – it was a new house built in what had been a flood plain. They had been assured that measures had been taken to avert any floods but these, it seems, were unforeseen circumstances. His insurance probably wouldn’t cover the cost of the damage. He didn’t know how he could afford it – he would be ruined. What was I supposed to do? Then I got a text from the team vicar – he’d been called out to an accident. A tree had fallen on a car – it was Mary coming to pick me up from the station. She’d been taken to the hospital but it didn’t look good. I tried to pray. I’d thought I’d been praying ever since Damien sent his first text but now I prayed with all my might. Sweat was pouring off me. It was a physical effort.
The train stopped. The line was blocked by a landslide. The child’s cries grew louder; his mother tried to hug him to comfort him, but he pushed her away. The buisness woman’s face was white and sweaty. She looked scared, out of control.
‘The internet’s down. I can’t get through! What’s happening?’ I can hear the panic in her voice. She is used to being in control, to knowing what was happening. The skies outside are a lurid purple and rain is lashing down on the windows. The only movement is a slight rocking of the carriage. A young man stumbles out of the carriage but he vomits before he manages to reach the toilet. The windows don’t open and the air-conditioning isn’t working. The doors are locked: a big man is battering against them without effect. The air is thick with panic. Nobody’s phone is working but my phone doesn’t need a satellite to receive messages. The final text I receive is just an emoticon – a red face with horns, grinning. A devil. The lights go out. It’s getting hotter. A child is still screaming and the woman begins to sob hysterically. I want to pray but don’t know the words. All I can say is ‘Help.’