I first met Shirley Bassey while sat on a green bench in Newgate park, feeding the pigeons rye bread and thinking unhelpful thoughts. It was one of those weeks. Nothing had been going right and I felt like I was in a room filling up with water, my nose pressed to the ceiling, waiting for the last of the air to go. I was so close to drowning on my own life. So close. Treading water. Surviving. The tragedy of always having enough air. Just. Staying afloat. Any moment, I could give up. Any moment, I could let myself sink.
Cheer up, said a woman's voice. They say it might never happen. She laughed before continuing, But, truth is, it probably will. Hopefully, it’ll happen so fast you won’t notice.
I looked at the woman. She had more hair on her face than teeth in her mouth. Her smile looked like a chess board. It was genuine, in a way that she had nothing to lose by being honest.
The week I’ve had, I said, I’m willing the worst.
You talking about death? she asked. Or, you talking about hope?
I’m asking about the end of the road, I said.
I need more than a metaphor, my dear, she said. If you keep talking in vagaries you’ll lose interest.
What do I have to lose, I thought. She looked like she had made her fair share of mistakes. The rags that wrapped her body looked like the remains of three or four different sets of clothes. The grey of her hands and neck told me she hadn’t washed in a while, and the hair that tufted from under her tea-cosy hat looked to be the consistency of a doormat. No one gets like that without living through a few bad days.
I shrugged. I feel like my life has fallen apart, I said. I’ve lost my job. My relationship went with it. My friends have all abandoned me and my bank wants to close my account. I’m pretty sure my house is going next. I feel like anymore I don’t exist. I looked at my hand. Do I exist?
You stop feeding those greedy pigeons and give me the rest of that bread, she said, I’ll answer that.
You can see me, I said. You know I exist.
You could be a figment of my imagination, she said.
It’s stale, I said, indicating the bread.
If it’s good enough for those pigeons, she said, it’s good enough for Shirley Bassey.
I shrugged, folded the bag over the last few slices and handed them to her. Did she say Shirley Bassey? It was many long years, many lives into eternity, before I found the answer. By then, all she had to say was old news. By then, the war was nearly over.
Pumpernickel, she said, weighing the bag in her hand. Too good for pigeons, anyway. She took a slice out of the bag, broke it in half, put one half back and started sucking on the other. Still good, she said.
I watched the leaves in the trees slice the beams of sunlight that fell through the clouds. All that light hits something, I thought, only the smallest part hits the ground. There is so much blocking the light. Who knows where it would go if this planet wasn’t in the way? Maybe the light resents us for being here, for absorbing it, for stopping it some eight minutes into a journey that could last the universe. Why isn’t the universe brighter? Every star is pumping out light in every direction without rest from birth to death. The universe should be brighter. What is eating all that light? Why is it so dark down here?
You don’t look like you are thinking much that helpful, said the woman as she finished her slice of bread.
I’m sorry, I said, regretting the apology, knowing I didn’t have to, that it was meaningless. I was thinking that the universe is darker than it should be.
Like I said, nothing that helpful. You still want to know about the end of the road, or have you moved on?
You can tell me, I said.
For you, she said, there is no end of the road. For you, all you have is choices of road, and none of those choices have an end, they just fork, all you can do is choose which fork to go down. This isn’t one of your fancy metaphors. It’s plain fact. You are moving forward. It’s how you are made. You have a road, and even if you step off the road, you are still on a road, and you’re still putting one step in front of the other. Death is only real to those who see it, who perceive it, who know it has happened to someone else. To you, death will never happen because you’ll never experience death. You’ll never be stood outside your body watching it stop and rot and turn to dust. To you, life is forever. It’s a road you keep travelling, switching as many times as you can stand. You are eternal. You are forever. Do you understand?
I don’t think I do, I said.
There is no end of the road, said the woman, clucking with her tongue. For me, us who share this road right now, we’ll see you die when all you’ve done is change roads. Every corpse you see is an empty vessel.
You’re talking heaven, an afterlife?
I’m talking about life itself. You exist in infinite dimensions. If you were to shoot yourself in the head you’d wake up in another dimension where the bullet missed, or it misfired, or it grazed your skull, or some other happening that explains why you didn’t die. To me, right here watching, you would be a corpse with a bullet in the head. You are you always, in this world.
You’re contradicting yourself, I said. If I wake up in another dimension, I’m not in this world.
Yes, you are, she said. You’re just in another dimension of this world. Your consciousness exists across the universe, across all space and all time and all dimensions, because all consciousness is one and the same.
I know you are trying to help, I said, but you aren’t. You can keep the bread. I stood up to walk away. The woman held my hand looking up at me.
Eternity is not for everyone, she said. Even the best of us get bored at some point. The trick is to know that your life will be lived, with or without you. You exist more now than ever.
I pulled my hand away. I smiled. Like I said, you can keep the bread. And, you can keep whatever it is you think is wisdom. It sounds like the spiel of a broken fortune cookie. What I need is money, a job, love, friendship. I need a life.
I’m sure you believe that, she said. Just as sure as I know you are wrong. Just know, a war is coming. You will fight. You will win, eventually, but you’ll have to lose first. You’ll have to lose everything.
I carried on walking. On the wind, played from the speaker of a jogger's phone, I caught a snatch of Black Sabbath; War Pigs from the album Paranoid(1970). Behind me, the woman shouted, laughter in her voice. I met Death a long time ago, she said, and we’ve been friends ever since.