Email Tale

By Alan J. Crabtree

My mother died recently (it wasn’t aujourd’hui). Initially I felt a bit numbed, and it was only when I saw her body in the tatty chapel of rest, at the small undertakers in Wood Street, that I really cracked up. It was the fact that what was in the casket didn’t look like her, it seemed to make death a very concrete fact.

It’s a good idea to see dead people, it acts as a rite de passage, a confirmation and closure. But to be honest the only other dead person I ever saw, some twenty years ago, was Matthew. He was friend and colleague and we had, within the past 6 months, spent a mad week in France not doing what we went there to do. Matthew was an insane driver. I don’t believe I’ve ever travelled so fast in car, especially with someone who was probably stoned and not fully awake. No surprise then when I had a call from a mutual friend to say he’d died in a head on with a van.

Unlike Mum, Matthew looked like Matthew. You couldn’t tell he’d broken his neck. All I would say is that he looked smaller, as if the absence of life had shrunk him, he was no longer as large as life, or so I thought.

This was years ago, but a few weeks after Mum’s funeral I had a dream which featured Matthew. I think a lot about dreams and remember many of them. In this one we were, naturally, in a pub, getting fairly pissed and he was burbling on about what he’d been doing since he died. I can’t remember what. He said we should meet up, but just as he was about to say where I woke up. This recurred several times. Often we were in the pub, or on the site in South West France, or in the bar in the village drinking perroquets. One time we were in that blue Escort XRi doing 90 through some dusty French town at dawn and I was yelling, “centre ville is to the left!”. Each time he would suggest we should meet up “to go over old times,” but each time I woke up too soon or what he said was drowned out by squealing tires and a gut wrenching crunch. Finally, and this was the weirdest thing, he told me his email address.

Like I say I have a lot of dreams, never what you would call nightmares. They are, like most dreams, pretty weird affairs. Generally the people in them are not identifiable as people I know. Aldous Huxley said that the strangers we meet in dreams are angels, but most of the people I met in dreams certainly didn’t behave like it. To have a recurring dream of someone I knew, a dead person who had died 20 years ago was unusual. In fact it did freak me out a bit and sometimes I had a something of a “dream hangover” where the events of the night seemed to bleed across into the day. Once, when I was at school, I had a recurring dread all day that I had murdered someone, only to instantly remember that it was my dream of the night before. Anyway, it got to the point where I was in Reading on my way to Heathrow and thought I saw Matthew on the concourse outside the railway station. He was, inevitably, heading into the station bar. I didn’t follow, I’ve seen too many stupid films to do that.

I don’t believe in life after death. Life after dinner is about as far as my metaphysics can stretch. In the absence of evidence, and as a scientist, I see no reason to believe in some bloke on a cloud wearing a nightie directing the traffic of my life. Oh, sure, I’d like to believe. It would make life so much easier wouldn’t it? And take the sting a ling out of the Big Nowhere. But the email address was weird. It burned a hole in my psychic pocket, to coin a phrase.

Now I tend to stay well away from the internet when I’m pissed. It’s hard enough to bite your tongue sometimes when you’re sober. Bladdered and you’re going to do something you regret. But the email address… Eventually, one night in a fit of madness I sent an email. Hi Matthew, how are things, Alan. Next morning I felt like a complete chump (do people still say chump?). I forgot all about it after that.

You know that I’m going to say; that some weeks later I got a reply? It’s essential to my narrative. My first thought was that some “friend” was fucking with me, but I hadn’t actually mentioned the dreams to anyone. I find that most people aren’t that interested anyway. What ever was going on I felt compelled to see it through. The email said “Let’s meet at the Cherry Tree Centre next thursday”.

I’d heard of this place. A huge new mall on the boundary between Finchley and Highgate, perched on the ridge like a parody of Alexandra Palace, which lies off to the east. There’s that view which you get across the plain of the city towards the North Downs, like the view from the Archway “suicide” bridge or Parliament Hill.

I went.

It was foggy that day, the kind of spring day when the weather inverts and traps a thick layer of gloom across the city. Getting off the bus at the junction of the A1 and the Great North Road, where North Hill heads up to the Village, I couldn’t see the centre. I walked up to Highgate tube and still couldn’t find it. Sure it was there on Google Maps, but even when I turned onto Muswell Hill Road I couldn’t find anything. Eventually I just gave up and went home, beginning to have serious doubts about my sanity. Maybe I’d dreamed the looming bulk of the shopping centre too?

“One door opens, another closes”

“That’s a bit trite” I said.

– Another exchange of emails and we rescheduled for the following monday. This time I had no trouble finding the Cherry Tree Centre, and still doubting my sanity I met him in the main concourse. Somewhat disconcertingly he was wearing the same red sweater I had last seen in his coffin. Inevitably we gravitated to the Wetherspoons (in the days before everyone boycotted them).

“You know about physics, those school experiments where where you split a wave in two. But each half is still the same wave?”

“So what are you saying?”

“Think of me more as a wave than a particle”

No mention was made of his accident. We talked about France, the queue for the ferry with all the car passengers furiously smoking the last of their dope before boarding in case they got searched. A mutual friend with whom he had a bit of a “holiday romance”. Walking widdershins around a medieval chapel up among the Puys of the Auvergne, to see if we would see the Devil.

Afternoon turned to evening and many pints were consumed. Next morning I had only a hazy memory of how we had left things, drink often adds a soft fade to black at the end of the day.

Shortly afterwards I went abroad on a research trip for several weeks. And with a kind of covert anxiety, didn’t pick up my emails until I got back.

When I finally did, not only was there no new message, but all the previous ones had gone. I checked my deleted and trash folders, wondering if I’d unconsciously hidden them from myself. They were gone. I sent another email, but it bounced, “This message was created automatically by mail delivery software. A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:” Etc.. Really beginning to wonder just how far I had fallen, I took the bus up to Highgate. I didn’t find the Cherry Tree Centre, but there were a long line of dark blue hoardings up the Archway Road, plastered with those artists impressions of future developments, some of which never actually get built. “Coming soon, The Cherry Tree Centre, a new shopping experience for North London”. Looking through the gaps I could see hectares of churned earth, some drainage pipes and surveyors tape.

Well, time wounds all heals, as they say. A little later, I went for a few drinks with friends from the university at the Landseer. Sat at the tables outside, this little bald bloke who I hardly knew kept giggling at me. A bit narked, I asked him what was funny. “You don’t remember?” says he. “I saw you up Highgate tube about a month ago with your mate, Matt, pair of you were pissed as farts”.

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