A red sun resentfully dawned through ribbons of leaden cloud and painted the ramshackle chalet on the beach in a lurid hue. The pebbles surrounding it gleamed malevolently as though soaked in blood. An old woman dressed in brightly coloured clothes came out to potter about the sea kale and dwarf broom of her garden. She cast a disapproving glower at the oppressive sun. At her frown the sky became filled with a glorious golden sunrise, the spangles in her skirt reflecting its light onto the flotsam and other bric-a-brac as she continued to rearrange it.
Satisfied, the old woman consulted a sundial made from a tangle of metal swarf filings. It was time to bring out the cracked plastic chairs. As an afterthought, she tossed a patchwork tablecloth over the ancient matching table to conceal the scratches and stains.
The old woman sat down to gaze at the marshland beyond the beach. A woman was emerged from the early morning haze.
Olive was in her mid-50s, worn out by persistent diets and expensively dressed. She wore the smart outfit as though it was an infringement of her right to select something more comfortable; casual clothes to fit the woman-sized figure. Unfortunately she had made a "good" marriage which required the appearance of elegance, however much it may have gone against her instincts. It was impossible to return to the days of a youth filled with challenges to an authority she now sipped cocktails with, or wear trousers made from the discarded crushed velvet curtains run up when she had been a pecuniary student.
Olive was unsure how to approach the crumpled old woman watching her and would have dashed back into the morning haze if she had not been beckoned into the ordered chaos of the beach garden.
On reaching the chalet, Olive become aware of the silence only broken by the waves gently lapping the nearby shore.
'No cars here?'
The old woman spread a gnarled hand. 'No need.'
'Are you really..?'
'Please sit down.'
Olive carefully negotiated the pieces of flotsam the sea had worn into fantastical shapes and wind chimes waiting for a breeze. She gathered together the pleats of her tailored skirt and cautiously sat in the discoloured white chair facing the old woman.
'But are you really..?'
The old woman's face creased into a wry smile as she waved away the suggestion. 'No such thing.'
'I won't go anywhere until I know,' her visitor insisted.
The old woman leant forward, supporting her chin on spindly arms to look her in the eye. 'Just what were you hoping for, Olive? Something more spectacular? Greek chorus perhaps?'
Olive felt abashed. That's just what she had expected. 'Perhaps something more mystical, more awesome...'
The old woman laughed mischievously at the expectations of someone who had once challenged convention so vigorously. 'Flowing white beard and all that?'
The old woman decided Olive had been tested enough. 'Like some tea?'
That was more amazing than a choir of angels. 'You have tea?'
'Only Red Label.'
Olive hardly had time to blink when a teapot, two cups and saucers, jug of milk and sugar appeared on the patchwork tablecloth.
'We're not lactose intolerant yet are we?'
'Not yet,' said Olive. 'Having to contend with more serious matters at the moment.'
'Never underestimate the cow's revenge. Sugar?'
'It is all right to indulge yourself here. Nothing counts.' The old woman poured tea into the two dainty, chipped cups without hardly touching the Paisley pattern teapot.
Olive watched in rapt wonderment at her host's magical coordination and velvet sleeves which seemed to have a life of their own. 'You mean there are no rules?'
'No panic attacks or ironing?'
'It's a drip dry dimension.'
'How do you pass the time?'
'Polish pebbles, drink tea, rearrange a few atoms in the Universe.'
Olive took her cup to sip tea as she rose to wander the pebble garden filled with the bric-a-brac of a life she had almost forgotten; from the vases made with old 78 records to CDs spinning rainbow patterns on a mobile of wire coat hangers, and from the lavender bedside cabinet inlaid with paua shell to the ancient flatiron of student days. It was all here, the life she had sacrificed for self-indulgent comfort which lacked the pangs and euphoria that gave existence its meaning.
'You can see forever here,' she surprised herself by announcing.
'No such place as forever,' was the immediate response from the other side of the pebble garden.
Olive had become comfortable in this untidy otherworld, but self-awareness refused to let her relax. It gave her a sharp jab. 'Where am I then?'
'Part of everything?'
'If you want.'
Olive had almost forgotten how much pantheism used to bother her. Then the recollections of a youth with multifaceted beliefs, fads, fashions and bold new futures swept back into her mind like the foaming tide of white horses lapping at the pebble beach. Her family no longer loomed large like a dense smog to suffocate the memories. They could not touch her here. All of the self-sacrifice, tension headaches and emotional blackmail could be seen for what they were... of no consequence whatsoever. Did Olive really squander so much of her life on self-delusion?
'You most certainly did.'
Olive turned, but the old woman had not spoken. She was still drinking tea and watching gauzy herring gulls merge with the brilliant sky laced with cirrus cloud.
Where had that hippy student taken the turning which could well have transformed her into a 22 stone hazard in the supermarket after the last diet failed, ignored by her self-centred, greedy offspring - a totally invisible 60 something? Better to become eccentric and annoy those she had wasted her life on. Or better still, remain that hippy, dippy student in a shack on some beach, rearranging pebbles and watching herring gulls.
She returned to the table and replaced her cup on the patchwork tablecloth.
'Well?' demanded the old woman. 'Have you decided?'
For all the self-awareness, guilt still prevailed. 'But what about my family?'
'You can't go on taking the blame for the choices they make.'
'But they depend on me.' Only then did Olive realise that she had been the one who decided to become their emotional safety net, walking at a respectful six paces behind her offspring with comforting words and credit card at the ready. She felt like protesting at the futility of the life she had chosen for herself.
'But what else is there? Oblivion?'
'No such place as oblivion.'
'Tell me what happens?'
'Nothing you don't want.'
Olive took a deep breath. Perhaps the unknown, like the anecdotal stranger, was safer to know after all. New dimensions to experience, the Universe to ponder; assuming that thought still existed.
'Ready?' asked the old woman.
The chance would come again, but probably not on her terms. Better to take the plunge while the waters were still crystal clear. 'Ready.'
The old woman put down her teacup, reached up a weather-beaten hand, and tugged on an invisible cord.
The sunrise went out and the ensuing darkness became infused with intense light.
Desmond gazed apprehensively at the woman he had married and
wondered at how major surgery had transformed her glowing features into wan
papyrus. He wanted to share his concern with their children but, as usual, they
were too busy bickering to pay attention. How had the bright, carefree offspring
they had raised turned into such self-centred adults, crabby with petty deceits
and Facebook trivialities before their time?
He decided to break up their argument before the rest of the hospital heard it. 'Look you two, I'm going to need someone to be with your mother for a couple of hours each day while I check on the business. Miranda and Marcus can get too adventurous with the firm's management if not watched.'
Griselda turned to him as though his mental health needed assessment. 'What's wrong with Sandra doing it?'
'She's only paid to clean the house and has her own family to cater for.'
'Well hire a nurse.'
Desmond tried not to raise his voice. 'I don't want some stranger from an agency to have free run of the place. And she is your mother, for pity's sake! Is two hours so much to ask?'
'What's liable to happen to her in two hours?' David demanded. In matters of self-interest he was prepared to join forces with even his sister.
'You know what she's like. She could try to start cooking - or some fine thing - with no one there to watch her.'
'Well I can't do it,' Griselda said firmly. 'I've got three children to look after.'
His daughter had a point. If her 14-year-old was left to look after the younger ones, he would be out of the door to join his mates as soon as the BMW had left the forecourt, and his son worked 12 hours a day to try and pay off his wife's credit card.
It was too late for Desmond to regret wasting half a lifetime rearing the ungrateful brats when he and Olive should have been cruising the world instead. Perhaps they could still do it; spend their children's inheritance on the indulgences of old age and leave them without a penny. Why hadn't he thought of that before? Olive deserved to at last be liberated from the matrimonial cage he had forged for her. They might even divorce, live in sin for a couple of years, and then remarry to spice things up.
Suddenly Desmond wanted to discuss the absurd idea with his wife. It would be glorious to see the reaction of their pompous children.
He gently shook her shoulder. 'Olive?'
There was no response.
'That's odd. The nurse said she should have come round by now,' Griselda announced as though discussing how long it took to boil a quail's egg.
'Don't worry,' David joined in. 'Mum is as strong as an ox.'
But Olive had stopped breathing. As Desmond had sat watching, listening to their children bicker, the life had slipped from her body without as much as a murmur.
Griselda's sudden panic attack brought a nurse running. She confirmed that Olive had been gone too long for resuscitation.
Desmond sat looking blankly at her body for an hour, thankful when David and Griselda decided to leave. His daughter had been more worried about what to tell the children than losing a mother, and their son fixated on where she had put his shed keys just before being rushed into hospital. It was probably their way of trying to suppress the awareness that they only had one more parent to lose before inheriting a small fortune.
In the clinical quietness of the private room, Desmond recalled what had attracted him to Olive. She had been carefree, guileless, and concerned for the welfare of all Earth's creatures. Perhaps it was time to realise some of those aspirations and sell his business. It was now worth enough to re-forest the slopes of the Brahmaputra - that would be a start!
Olive spread her arms, wanting to swim in the comforting strangeness
of the saturating light.
'Where is this?'
'The rest of your iceberg,' the old woman told her.
'This is reality. The part that would have turned your mortal mind if exposed to it.'
'So what we knew as mortality was only the tip of what actually is?'
'There would be untold collisions in the quantum universe if all mortals were exposed to it.'
Olive assumed that she was now a quantum anomaly in an ocean of endless alternatives, and all she had to do was choose one - or all - of them.
'Well let's go then!'
'You can go for both of us,' the old woman told her.
'How can I do that?'
'Easily. I'm only the shadow of what you will now never turn into.'
And, as Olive became one with the light, the old woman faded into infinity.
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