They were in the last house in which Gabriella would appear.
It was a large garden with a Mediterranean feel and could have been Italy. Then again, it might have been the Holy Land but only really on Mt Carmel, in a Garden of Eden way.
There was a series of flagstoned terraces cut into the hill, with a view of the far hills in the distance and though they could feel neither cold nor heat, it gave the impression of a warmly temperate place, not particularly verdant, nevertheless there were tall, thin trees and beyond that, further on, were orchards, fields, some sort of civilization over to the left – a lovely place.
They were on the main terrace and the sun was shining in a clear sky, except for passing cumulus clouds – a gentle breeze wafted around the hill. It was not something they’d ever have expected as an end-time scenario.
‘And now,’ she addressed the assembled throng of some thousands, ‘you have a space in time in this garden in which to meet. Then you will be called to the next house.’
It was most strange – simply by thinking of a person, that person appeared and yet how could that be? What if someone thought of another, just as that one thought of someone else? Presumably it came down to the notion of time and space here – perhaps time was more events based.
Nikki was running through her list and he began as well.
Both brought in the obvious ones – their fathers, their mothers, their stepfathers, wives. A certain amount of dressing down was done but also some praise. He felt such guilt over his mother, she said it did not signify.
They each went through a succession of mates, much bonhomie, they saw their Faroese friends who had now passed over as well – it was clearly over down there on what had been earth.
Nikki briefly came back and said she’d have to go here and there as she was being drawn to people and he nodded and rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder, only to find it partially go through her shoulder – she looked down and saw it too.
‘Oh dear,’ she murmured, ‘oh dear. Not much time, Bebe.’
He was now called, feeling himself drawn to the lower terrace.
It was Ksusha, and their child as a toddler and he was stuck to the spot, something she observed with amusement, plus she was half wraithlike by now.
The words simply wouldn’t come as they went through the motions of the passionate embrace – bodily form merging into bodily form. He was choking in his attempt to talk, never thinking this he’d ever see this day in quite this way, and she was deeply touched.
‘So … it took you long enough,’ she opened and he grinned. ‘As you see, Bebe, we lose solidity but I can still feel for you. Hugh, meet Hugh.’
‘Ah.’ He did what passed for lifting his son towards him and the baby looked at him, failing to be horrified. In fact, a smile broke out across his face. He looked more like mama than papa.
‘I’m so sorry about your flat, Ksusha, we visited it while we were in the last house by the way.
‘You speak of flats?’ But her voice was kind. ‘I’ve seen it anyway – it’s in good hands. Well it was, until what’s happening now. I was with you, Hugh, when you came on the 9th but not on the 40th. On the 40th, I was occupied here. It did help though – I want you to know that. I’ve met your Sophie, by the way – you like our kind, don’t you?’
That was nice. ‘Look, I have to ask you, Ksusha – did we stay together? Well, you know what I mean – if you were alive. Do they let you know those things?’
She put a hand to his face and those shapely fingers were as he remembered them. He tried to kiss them and she smiled.
‘I’m sorry to say, Hugh, that I was killed a second time, if I can put it like that. That was why I wasn’t … um … actually there on the 40th. You see, we’d gone back to Shadzhara, you and me, it was too much for me, this being married … about to become a mother and all that.
I ran away to have some time for myself. You knew I’d go to the forest and you found me there but they did too – the enemy, you remember? We were killed – you, me, Little Hugh, all three of us.’
He was shocked to the core.
‘Don’t worry, it was quick, summary, that’s how it’s done in a Russian forest. There is a third scenario though,’ she smiled. ‘I did not run out, I had our baby and we stayed together. So it depends on whether I ran out or not.’
‘And did you?’
‘How can I know because I was killed at the English Chapel first and you weren’t there the second time.’
‘That’s too much for my brain to sort out.’
‘I think I stayed – let’s remember it that way, OK?’
He asked about Zhenya and Ludmilla – sadness about the former, more joy over the latter.
‘There’s not much time, Bebe,’ she said, ‘I feel time pulling me away – well, I call it time. Is there anything in particular you’d like to … er … do?’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ He first bent down and shook Little Hugh’s hand, then hugged him. Then he took Ksusha and the passion built to the point where a sort of wind was surrounding them, buffeting them – some others on the terrace noticed it in passing.
She pulled back, her fingers on his cheeks. ‘Wow, after all this time. We can meet again in the next house, apparently we can. That’s if we’re in the same house, which I believe we must be. There’s someone waiting behind you, Hugh.’
He spun round and there was Nikki. She came up and embraced Ksenia. ‘He told me all about the last night before your wedding.’
‘Not unlike your own, Nikki, not unlike your own – we have that in common. You struck gold with this one, Bebe,’ Nikki did actually blush, Ksenia then took both their hands in a manner of speaking … and faded from sight.
Nikki put her arm around him. ‘That was difficult for you, wasn’t it?’
‘Have you had many tough ones so far?’
‘Oh yes, my parents and grandparents, Emma.’
‘Emma.’ He went quiet. Trouble was that by the rules of this house – Nikki had been about to remind him – if you say the name emphatically, they must come and now here was Emma, kicking and screaming against it, her face not her best expression ever.
‘Emma – why?’
‘Let me go. And you again – why do you torment me?’ She directed this at Nikki. ‘Release me!’
She then just disappeared.
‘When you had your tough ones, Nikki, I wasn’t there with you as you are now.’
‘Let’s do this next one together,’ said Nikki ‘– Mademoiselle and Jean-Claude.’
Geneviève and he appeared, Jean-Claude looking considerably better now than after his death and a brisk conversation began, cramming as much as they could in before they’d be called elsewhere.
Hugh was allowed to embrace Geneviève. Jacques, Francesca and Jean came through in quick succession, Thierry, Olivier and Gemma. Hugh didn’t really want this, he wanted to be holding Genie but there was too much swirling around going on and she was talking to Nikki, so Nikki suggested he call Anya.
Needn’t have bothered, as Anya called him to the upper terrace, as businesslike as ever, which amused him.
‘I was about to call you,’ he said, less solid than she of course.
‘I began to believe in all this,’ said Anya, ‘this Gabriella appeared and here I am. Lovely garden. Tell me, do I become like you – all faded and that?’
‘We all do, darling. May I hold you in a manner of speaking?’
‘I was wondering if you were ever going to.’
He reminded her of the icy knoll on the river, when they’d stood against the elements, rims of hoods sealed in that deep kiss and that’s what they tried to recreate now.
Forlorn hope of course and yet there were tears and a final frenzy which took them way over their allotted span, they felt each other drawn apart, he called out that they could meet again if they were in the same house, she smiled and then faded.
Strangely, one outstretched hand in the sunlight was the image which remained on his mind.
Two names – Anaïs and Francine – suddenly came to mind. Who first? Chronological he supposed. ‘Anaïs.’
She floated over and they embraced. ‘You taught me many things about life, Anaïs. That was by no means wasted time.’
‘I was too … what you call … bossy, I wanted it my way, I had two more relationships and then gave it away.’
‘It’s lovely to meet yet again.’
‘Yes but I know who you must call next.’ She made to kiss him, then disappeared.
Francine arrived and immediately grinned, ‘Guess who I just called?’
Suddenly, there was Nikki, herself grinning. ‘You haven’t had your kiss and cuddle yet, have you? Go on, I’ll look away.’
It was awkward with Nikki there so he said, ‘Nikki, help me here.’
They both did a job on Franka which left her in no doubt, then, when it was time, she drifted away, happy. They thought they’d done that one well.
‘Bebe, Nadine’s on the terrace below. Should we?’
They did and the girl was drawn, clearly against her will and resisting with all she had.
‘Even now, Nadine? Even now?’ asked Nikki.
‘What’s it to you?’
‘I don’t want this for you. What happened with you?’
‘Save your breath and let me go. Release me.’
‘Nadine,’ put in Hugh.
‘Ha,’ she shrieked and they let her go, watching her fade into the distance.
They were more than a little shaken but even as they held each other close, it was obvious that the feeling they had for one another was far stronger than their physical shape and they’d really started melting into one another.
Anyway, there was still much to do in this house and they felt the need to get on and do it but Gabriella suddenly appeared and reminded them that they could not, sadly, meet Sophie, though she was well aware they’d passed over and that they knew she, Sam and Little Nikki had. In fact, they could not meet any associated with Sophie for those dimensional reasons. Sorry.
Nikki and he were now standing in the middle of the upper terrace, she looked at him. ‘Quickly, Bebe,’ she said, always the anxious sparrow, ‘anyone we’ve missed?’
‘Anyone we should call, I mean? Personally, I’d like to see some of the bad ones and ask why … but we haven’t the time.’
‘I see Gabriella on the lower terrace now with Jean-Baptiste and those other children in her arms, though how that can be I really don’t know.’
‘That’s my new job – Lailah – perhaps that comes in the next house. I think we haven’t much time – there is one you’ve forgotten and I want you to call her. I called Rory but Gabriella told me he was no longer here, he’d moved into another house. Call her, Bebe.’
Gabriella appeared and looked at Nicolette. ‘Why would you think it would be different for her?’ She faded quickly – obviously much to do.
Nicolette just looked at him. ‘I’m sorry about that. I need one last physical time with you now, while we still can. Obviously we can’t publicly make love, Bebe, plus we keep falling through each other now – what can we do?
Why not – I know it’s not our forte but we did a good job on that island before Franka arrived and we could always do Save the Last Dance – we know the words and we worked out those step routines – it’s easy-peasy. And don’t forget our huge advantage now in this house – if we hit anything, swirling around, we just go right through it.’
‘W-e-e-l-l, I suppose we could try. See these stone steps going down from terrace to terrace – let’s work them into our routine. Maybe very slowly step down during the verses, holding hands, then in the chorus, we swirl about a bit – waltz, you know – then we step down to the next terrace, then waltz again and so on and so on, then we finish up at Gabriella’s feet.’
‘Brilliant. Shall we dance, m’lady?’
‘How do we sing it?’
‘During the verses, lines 1 and 3 we alternate, we both sing 2 and 4. During the waltz, we alternate lines.’ She nodded. ‘Ready?’
‘Stop, let’s start at the highest point over there and come down those first steps.’
They quickly went up the steps, watched now by Gabriella, who was intrigued. She couldn’t believe what she now heard:
‘You can dance [you can dance]
Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye let him hold you tight
You can smile [you can smile]
Every smile for the man who held your hand ’neath the pale moonlight’
‘Quickly, onto the terrace,’ he murmured. ‘Let’s waltz around.’
‘But don’t forget who’s taking you home
[And in whose arms I’m gonna be]
[I’ll save the last dance for thee, hmmmm]’
‘Over to the steps, Bebe.’
‘Oh, I know [oh, I know]
That the music’s fine, like sparkling wine, go and have your fun
Laugh and sing [oh I know]
But while we’re apart don’t give your heart to anyone’
The waltz now became bolder and in the general lack of gravity, concentrating on holding onto each other’s top halves, her legs flew out centrifugally and knocked over some pots, then went through the first observers who had gathered to see what the commotion was about – meanwhile, Gabriella was actually calling the names of people in their circle to come and watch this – a small crowd began to gather and sing along as best they could.
‘But don’t forget who’s taking you home
[And in whose arms I’m gonna be]
[I’ll save the last dance for thee, hmmmm]’
‘Nikki, next bit we waltz more and you go into the air.’
‘Oh baby, don’t you know I love you so?’
She was now flying around at shoulder level and finding it tough to sing along.
‘[Can’t you feel it when we touch?]’
‘You all right?’ he whispered and she smiled.
‘I will never, never let you go’
He sang this leaning right back, holding her arms tightly.
‘[Oh I love you, oh-so much]’
Suddenly he lost his grip and she flew in an upwards trajectory, not unlike a feet-first pole vaulter, the expression on her face was classic – right over the balustrade, he raced down the steps and she wasn’t coming down … but then she did and he easily caught her oh-so-light body, there was an enormous burst of applause – her fear turned to delight as she heard the crowd and realized what they’d just apparently achieved, though they were both sure it was with Gabriella’s help.
They were both now anxious to finish this thing well.
It was to be the verse again but as people were dancing about them now and as they were already on the lower terrace and as Gabriella was over there, waiting, Nikki said, ‘Straight to the finale and let’s waltz around the terrace.’
‘Cause don’t forget who’s taking you home
[And in whose arms I’m gonna be]
[I’ll save the last dance for thee]’
‘[Oh yeah, oh yeah]’
‘I’ll save the last dance for thee’
‘[Oh yeah, oh yeah]’
‘Waltz over to her, Nikki, then I’ll kneel, you’ll hold my hands and join in the last bit.’
‘I’ll save the last dance … for th-e-e-e-e-e-E!’
They’d stopped exactly as planned, the applause was thunderous from behind, Gabriella handed her Jean-Baptiste to cap it off.
‘You’re still show people, I see.’ But she was smiling. ‘It is very good. For everyone. But now the time for the next house is due.’
‘Is it Judgment Day?’ he asked.
‘No, it’s a pre-filtering if you like – the obvious cases. You two will still have to give an account of yourselves when the time comes but the good news is you still have a chance to do good works … as you have just done.’
They stood and turned, there were Franka and Ksenia – they were smiling and shaking their heads. ‘You two are simply crazy.’
‘I was worried he wouldn’t catch me and then knew he would – anyway, it would have been a soft landing.’
Gabriella now came over and spoke quietly. ‘That was fun but now, I’m afraid … it is time.’ Nikki was holding Jean-Baptiste, so Hugh reached out to shake Gabriella’s hand and she allowed a semblance of that.
‘Thank you for all of it,’ said Hugh, all of them agreed and Gabriella was actually touched. They now looked about and saw hundreds of ‘Gabriels and Gabriellas’, with human beings about them.
People had been slowly filing into the garden for what was an impossible time to ascertain, all the terraces had now become quite crowded in fact and a sense of foreboding crept over all.
There was a quiet hubbub.
After an indeterminate time, they heard the hush on the upper terrace, a hush which cascaded downwards like a wave, it enveloped them and someone was speaking out but they could not work out from where.
Then the whole scene changed. The hills and valleys, even the sun, dimmed and disappeared, to be replaced by a vast plain and on this plain stood countless multitudes.
A short distance away, some sort of rostrum now appeared, with a door set into the white wall on its far side. It seemed to Nikki that if they opened that door and someone walked through it … well no, that was not going to happen.
This is going to be a long day, thought Hugh.
A period of time now ensued, the door itself changed to two doors and this was more sinister – one of those doors did not seem all that inviting – they didn’t know why, it just didn’t. The other looked fine.
After a further delay, the voice began calling out names from a scroll – and when the particular person called reached the rostrum and approached the voice, he or she might go through that door on the right and all seemed quite calm, perfunctory, almost as if it were a homecoming.
Others though were drawn against their will towards the door on the left and that was distressing – they were often kicking and screaming, dragged by no visible force, at least to the two of them, to who knew where? Well they did know but did not wish to face it.
They watched one spiv, he’d been called, he tried to sweet talk the Voice, tried to cut a deal, tried to justify himself. He went the way of the others and this was the thing – screaming fit to burst, all spivviness now gone, a wreck of a soul – through he went.
To what though? They shuddered. They could hear his screams even now trailing away.
One woman tried bombast as a ploy, they watched her, as did the whole plain and he observed the woman. She was large but not fat, very tall, and when she turned this way, appealing to ‘them out there’, it was with a hard, brutal face and manner, a hard voice, as if ‘them out there’ had been given the slightest consideration in her life.
She demanded a retrial, another hearing – she went the same way – it was embarrassing the way she lost it completely at the end, a formidable woman who could have been a much beloved Queen – but she had instead become gnarled and bitter.
‘I pray I go with dignity,’ said Nikki beside him, a turn up for her to use that word ‘pray’. She tried to take his hand but that time had now passed – still, they both knew what the gesture had signified and they could both still smile.
‘Hugh Jensen.’ The voice rang out like a clarion.
Gulp. So soon.
Nikki ‘touched his cheek’, he made a funny face at Jean-Baptiste, ‘kissed’ both in turn and made his way through the masses who parted for him to walk to his doom, he mounted the rostrum but the Voice was onto the next name.
He turned one last time, blew a kiss back to both, to all of them actually, smiled and went through the door.
Nikki quickly looked over herself, making sure all was in order, she ‘prepared’ Jean-Baptiste as best she could and then heard both their names called, one after the other, mother and child, finding herself not drawn but allowed to make her own way through that crowd.
Frankly, she was weary now and more than ready to go. She mounted the rostrum and walked across, turned and waved. She blew a kiss.
Jean-Baptiste gave a little cough and she ‘carried’ him through that door.