My dear author-friend and fellow blogger, Helen Jones, has just released her fab new book, A Thousand Rooms, and I was honoured to be able to offer my beta-reading services… all part of my cunning plan to read a great new book by one of my fave authors before anyone else, lol! Helen is already well known for her delightful fantasy series, the Ambeth Chronicles, but A Thousand Rooms takes her writing to a whole new level… this is very much a grown up story, and in its own unique way, sits perfectly with the season. Read on to find out why…
Katie is thirty-two, single, and used to work in advertising. She’s also dead. Killed suddenly, hit by a car while crossing the road. But then… nothing happens. No angels, no loved ones arrive to help her. Instead, she’s left to wander the streets of Sydney alone, a lost soul in a big city. In this excerpt, she’s just attended her own funeral, and is now wondering what to do next. Then a light in the window of a nursing home catches her eye…
Another glow catches my eye. It’s in a window on the third floor, like a light coming on then gradually fading to off again. It’s golden and sparkling and intriguing and something in me is drawn to it, shaking me out of my fugue state. I wonder what it is, feeling a little tug under my breastbone. And, just like that, I’m inside.
I am in someone’s bedroom. I rub at the ache in my chest as I look around. The pale pink walls can’t completely disguise the fact that this is a sickroom, the ceiling hoists and metal trolley hinting at infirmity, the wheelchair folded and leaning against the wall proof of it. Yet there are touches of home. An old cushioned rocking chair next to a low table holding photographs that span decades, laughing babies grown to tall adults, young lovers to wrinkled companions. Two small paintings of ocean scenes hang on the walls, a quilted dressing gown draped across the chair. Despite the medical apparatus, it is a peaceful place. And I am not alone.
A frail old woman with soft silver hair is lying on the bed, wearing a dark pink dress and lighter pink knitted wool jacket. Her legs are bone slender in tan stockings that wrinkle around her ankles, her hands crossed on her stomach. A small group of people are gathered around the bed. Two men and a woman, all of them teary, while a teenager leans against the wall, wiping her eyes, black mascara smeared. A nurse is pulling a blanket up over the old woman, her voice gentle as she speaks to the bereaved family. The energy in the room is one of sorrow but also love and acceptance, joy of a long life lived, of life given to others. As the blanket covers the old lady the woman turns to one of the men and he holds her close, his hand on her hair as she sobs on his shoulder, his own eyes red rimmed. The other man also wipes at his eyes, his shoulders hunching. There is so much love here you can feel it, as though the air is thick and golden and warm with it, weaving soft tendrils around the little group. My own eyes tear up in response and I feel an easing inside me, as though the tense knot of wires is starting to relax, coils loosening.
But where is the old woman’s spirit? You know, the bit of her that’s like me? I can’t see her anywhere, but there seems to be a sort of glow near the door, like a faint trail of sparkles that dissipates as I watch. I stare at it for a moment and an idea hits me.
I need to be there when someone dies.
God, that sounds awful and macabre but hey, I’m already dead. I’m not some snuff film fan, someone who gets their kicks from watching others leave this world. I just want to see what happens to everyone else. To see if perhaps I can meet someone who can help me, or at least not be alone anymore. After all, it shouldn’t be too hard to find – this is a big city, people being born and dying every day. Pushing aside the idea that I’m in some sort of Purgatory to be judged, I figure this could, just maybe, work. I start to feel excited, considering the possibilities. Perhaps I could even tag along with them, if they know where they’re going, like some sort of buddy system to get you to Heaven. I giggle a bit at this, thinking of the ad campaign you could run. Something in nursing homes, you know – ‘Heaven – it’s harder to get to than you think.’ ‘Don’t die alone, take a friend.’ I imagine Darryl in the boardroom showing mock-ups to clients and I laugh even more then clap my hand over my mouth, shocked at myself. But seriously, I need to try this. I need to do something. I can’t be like this forever.
Decision made, I walk out of the room. I know, I can drift and go through walls and all that, but sometimes I just want to feel normal, you know? And walking through open doorways is a normal thing to do. I find myself in a long hallway carpeted in tasteful dark grey, the walls a restful shade of pale green. It’s deserted, thank goodness. There are doors along both sides of the hall, each with a number on them except for the occasional sign saying ‘Nurse’ or ‘Staff Only – Private.’ Paintings hang at intervals in between, peaceful scenes of landscapes and mountains and leaves. I start to wander along, knowing what I’m looking for but not sure how to find it, wondering what the odds are of two people dying on the same night in the same place. But I can’t think too much about that so I keep going, turning a corner into another hallway, the same as the one I just left. Rubbing at my chest where I felt the little tug before, I wonder if that’s what I need to follow. Concentrating, I look at each door when I pass, but there’s nothing.
When I reach the end of the hall there’s a set of swinging doors that open onto a stairwell. I go down one level, emerging through a similar set of doors into a large dining room, a small vase of flowers on each table. One end of the room is set up with rows of chairs, many of which are filled with elderly people who are all watching a film, projected onto the large screen set into the wall. I stop for a moment to watch the flickering black and white images, a love story, by all the kissing that’s going on. The ancient faces watching range in expression from teary to dreamy to unaware, eyes in wrinkled sockets gleaming like marbles in the reflected glow from the screen on the wall.
Then I feel something, a sort of tingle in the centre of my chest and my head turns. Something is happening, nearby. Following the feeling, I’m led out of the dining room into another grey-carpeted hallway, once again lined with doors. But I know exactly which one I need. I can see the glow, golden and unmistakeable as it comes around the edge of the closed door. I think myself inside, and then I am.
Another peaceful room, pale lemon walls and another padded armchair. There are paintings on the walls here too, but these ones are religious in tone, Jesus with his heart exposed, a sad faced Madonna clutching a plump baby. A small statue of the Virgin Mary is on a small table in the corner, a lit candle in front of it. There is a pool of melted wax around the base, colourful flowers scattered on the table, their bright petals mingling with the wax.
And the glow is all around us, as though the air is full of gold sparkles, floating gently like dust motes. An old man with wisps of grey hair is lying in the bed, looking small and wizened, his eyes closed, his skin slack. His covers are pulled up to his chest, his head supported by several soft pillows. A young woman sits in a chair next to him, holding his hand, tears gleaming soft on her cheeks. A young man stands behind her, his hands on her shoulders as if to support her. She is speaking softly, almost under her breath. I can only just hear her.
‘I am here, Tio, dear Tio, we are here. And if you need to go, you go, just know that we love you, so much, we will see you again one day, we know it.’ Her voice is softly accented and it gives the words a beautiful cadence, like a prayer, as she keeps talking and rubbing the old man’s hand so very gently, as though he is unutterably fragile and precious.
Then he dies.
Just like that, his last breath going in and then no more. No exhale. It’s so peaceful, especially when compared to the crash bang of my own demise. It’s as though everything stops moving for a moment, even the gold sparkles hanging still in the air. They glow brightly and disappear, winking out like fireflies at dusk. Then, and this is really weird and kind of creepy, the old man sits up. Except it’s not his body. That’s still lying there, his hand still being held by the young woman who is sobbing now, her head bent. The dead man’s spirit turns to look at her, sorrow on his face. He reaches out as if to touch her cheek and I swear she feels it, lifting her head to look around and then up at the man behind her. Once again there’s a feeling of love, pure energy throughout the room.
A young woman comes in through the door and she is gorgeous. Caramel skin and dark eyes, curling dark hair pinned up with colourful flowers like the ones on her dress. She is smiling as she goes straight over to the dead man whose face lights up when he sees her.
‘Maria!’ he cries, taking her outstretched hands and it’s as though she pulls him completely from his body and away from the bed. He pulls her into a hug, kissing her smooth skin, burying his face in her hair. And, again, this is weird but he is starting to look younger – his back straighter, hair going from grey to black again, wrinkles smoothing away from his face until he looks the same age as the young woman.
I make a face. This has not happened to me, I’m sure. If I could find a mirror that reflected me I’m sure I would have the same crow’s feet and dark circles as always. I’d been thinking about having them ‘done,’ you know, some sort of injections but couldn’t stand the thought of filling my face with stuff. Still, doesn’t matter now. Whoops! Looks like they are getting ready to go, holding hands as they move towards the door, smiling lovingly at each other. The air is starting to glow again, but just around them. As it gets brighter I lunge forward, managing to step into the glow with them just in time. We start to ascend, surrounded by whirling lights and colours, painted Mexican sugar skulls interspersed with the Virgin Mary, fairy lights twinkling and it all spins around confusingly in a mad mix of imagery, lifting us as though we’re in the centre of a tornado but it’s not frightening at all. In fact, it’s amazing. Whee! I’m finally on my way to Heaven! I guess the fact that I know I’m dead helps – after all, what else can happen to me? We land, and I look around in wonder.
Helen Jones was born in the UK, but then spent many years living in Canada and Australia before returning to England several years ago. She has worked as a freelance writer for the past ten years, runs her own blog and has contributed guest posts to others, including the Bloomsbury Writers & Artists site. When she’s not writing, she likes to walk, paint and study karate (when housework and family life permit!) She’s now working on several other novels, enjoying the chance to explore new fantasy worlds. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and daughter and spends her days writing, thinking, cleaning and counting cats on the way to school.