Authors: Julian Barnes
He said I was OK. No, I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what he said:’ ‘You’re OK.’ I sort of waited for him to go on but he dropped his eyes and I could see his hand moving to the top document on another file. Then he looked up, gave a little smile and said, ‘No, really, you’re OK.’ I nodded again, and this time he really was going back to his work so I turned and left. When we got out I confessed to Brigitta I’d been a bit disappointed, and she said most people were but I wasn’t to take it as any reflection on me, so I didn’t.
It was about this time that I took to meeting famous people. At first I was a bit shy and only asked for film stars and sportsmen I admired. I met Steve McQueen, for instance, and Judy Garland; John Wayne, Maureen O’Sullivan, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Tierney (I always had this thing about Gene Tierney) and Bing Crosby. I met Duncan Edwards and the rest of the Man Utd players from the Munich air-crash. I met quite a few Leicester City lads from the early days, most of whose names would probably be unfamiliar to you.
After a while I realized I could meet anyone I liked. I met
John F. Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, President Eisenhower, Pope John XXIII, Winston Churchill, Rommel, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Roosevelt, General de Gaulle, Lindbergh, Shakespeare, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Karl Marx, John Lennon and Queen Victoria. Most of them were very nice, on the whole, sort of natural, not at all grand or condescending. They were just like real people. I asked to meet Jesus Christ but they said they weren’t sure about that so I didn’t push it. I met Noah, but not surprisingly there was a bit of a language problem. Some people I just wanted to look at. Hitler, for instance, now there’s a man I wouldn’t shake the hand of, but they arranged that I could hide behind some bushes while he just walked past, in his nasty uniform, large as life.
Guess what happened next? I started worrying. I worried about the most ridiculous things. Like my health, for instance. Isn’t that crazy? Maybe it was something to do with Brigitta telling me about her heart condition, but I suddenly began to imagine things going wrong with me. Who’d have credited it? I came over all faddy and diet-conscious; I got a rowing machine and an exercise bicycle, I worked out with weights; I kept off salt and sugar, animal fats and cream cakes; I even cut down my intake of Fifty-Fifties to half a packet a day. I also had spells of worrying about my hairline, my supermarket driving (were the trolleys that safe?), my sexual performance and my bank balance. Why was I worrying about my bank balance when I didn’t even have a bank? I imagined my card not working at the supermarket, I felt guilty at the amount of credit I seemed to be given. What had I done to deserve it?
Most of the time, of course, I was fine, what with the shopping, the golf, the sex and the meeting famous people. But every so often I’d think, what if I can’t make it round the 18 holes? What if I can’t really afford my Fifty-Fifties? Finally, I confessed these thoughts to Brigitta. She thought it time I was passed on to other hands. Brigitta’s work was done, she indicated. I felt sad, and asked what I could buy her to show my gratitude. She said she had everything she needed. I tried writing a poem, because Brigitta rhymes with sweeter, but after
that I could only find neater and eat her, so I sort of gave up, and in any case I thought she’d probably been given poems like that before.
Margaret was to look after me next. She looked more serious than Brigitta, all smart suits and not a hair out of place – the sort of person who’s a finalist in those Businesswomen of the Year competitions. I was a bit scared of her – I certainly couldn’t imagine myself suggesting sex like I did to Brigitta – and I half expected her to disapprove of the way of life I’d been leading. But she didn’t, of course. No, she just said that she assumed I was pretty familiar by now with the amenities, and that she would be there if I needed more than mere practical assistance.
‘Tell me something,’ I asked her on our first meeting. ‘It’s silly to be worrying about my health, isn’t it?’
‘And it’s silly to worry about money?’
‘Quite unnecessary,’ she replied.
Something in her tone implied that if I cared to look, I could probably find things that were worth worrying about; I didn’t pursue this. I had plenty of time ahead of me. Time was something I would never be short of.
Now, I’m probably not the quickest thinker in the world, and in my previous life I tended to just get on with the things I had to do, or wanted to do, and not brood too much about them. That’s normal, isn’t it? But give anyone enough time and they’ll get somewhere with their thoughts and start asking a few of the bigger questions. For instance, who actually ran this place, and why had I seen so little of them? I’d assumed there might be a sort of entrance examination, or perhaps continual assessment; yet apart from that frankly rather disappointing bit of judging by the old codger who said I was OK, I hadn’t been bothered. They let me bunk off every day and improve my golf. Was I allowed to take everything for granted? Did they expect something from me?
Then there was that Hitler business. You waited behind a bush and he strolled past, a stocky figure in a nasty uniform with
a false smile on his face. Fair enough, I’d seen him now, and my curiosity was satisfied, but, well, I had to ask myself, what was he doing here in the first place? Did he order breakfast like everybody else? I’d already observed that he was allowed to wear his own clothes. Did this mean he could also play golf and have sex if he wanted to? How did this thing operate?
Then there was me worrying about my health and money and the supermarket driving. I wasn’t worrying about them in themselves any more, I was worrying about the fact that I’d been worrying. What was all that about? Was it more than a routine adjustment problem as Brigitta had suggested?
I think it was the golf that finally made me turn to Margaret for some explanations. There was no doubt about it, over the months and years I played that lovely, lush course with its little tricks and temptations (how many times I put the ball in the water at the short eleventh!), my game improved no end. I said as much one day to Severiano, my regular caddy: ‘My game has improved no end.’ He agreed, and it was not until later, between dinner and sex, that I began to reflect on what I’d said. I had opened up on the course with a 67, and gradually my score was coming down. A while ago I was shooting a regular 59, and now, under cloudless skies, I was inching down to the low 50s. I could drive 350 yards without trouble, my pitching was transformed, my putts rattled into the hole as if drawn by a magnet. I could see my target score coming down through the 40s, then – a key psychological moment this – breaking the barrier of 36, that’s to say two strokes a hole average, then coming down through the 20s.
My game has improved no end
, I thought, and repeated the words
to myself. But that’s, of course, exactly what it couldn’t do: there had to be an end to my improvement. One day I would play a round of golf in 18 shots, I’d buy Severiano a couple of drinks, celebrate later with sturgeon and chips and sex – and then what? Had anyone, even here, ever played a golf course in 17 shots?
Margaret didn’t answer a tasselled bell-pull like the blonde Brigitta; in fact, you had to apply by videophone for an interview.
‘I’m worried about the golf,’ I began.
‘That’s not really my speciality.’
‘No. You see, when I first arrived I shot a 67. Now I’m down to the low 50s.’
‘That doesn’t sound like a problem.’
‘And I’m going to go on getting better.’
‘And then one day I’ll finally do the course in 18 shots.’
‘Your ambition is admirable.’ She sounded as if she was making fun of me.
‘But then what do I do?’
She paused. ‘Try going round every time in 18 shots?’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘It just doesn’t.’
‘I’m sure there are many other courses …’
‘Same problem,’ I said, interrupting her, a bit rudely I suppose.
‘Well, you could switch to another sport, couldn’t you? Then come back to golf when you’re tired of the other one?’
‘But the problem’s the same. I’d have done the course in 18 shots. Golf would be used up.’
‘There are lots of other sports.’
‘They’d get used up too.’
‘What do you have for breakfast every morning?’ I’m sure she knew the answer already from the way she nodded when I told her. ‘You see. You have the same every morning. You don’t get tired of breakfast.’
‘Well, think about golf as you do about breakfast. Perhaps you’ll never get tired of going round in 18 shots.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said dubiously. ‘It sounds to me as if you haven’t ever played golf. And anyway, that’s another thing.’
‘The getting tired. You don’t get tired here.’
‘Is that a complaint?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Tiredness can be arranged.’
‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘But I bet it’d be a sort of pleasant tiredness. Not one of those knackering tirednesses which just make you want to die.’
‘Don’t you think you’re being perverse?’ She was crisp, almost impatient. ‘What did you want? What did you hope for?’
I nodded to myself, and we called it a day. My life continued. That was another phrase that made me grin a bit. My life continued, and my golf improved no end. I did all sorts of other things:
– I went on several cruises;
– I learned canoeing, mountaineering, ballooning;
– I got into all sorts of danger and escaped;
– I explored the jungle;
– I watched a court case (didn’t agree with the verdict);
– I tried being a painter (not as bad as I thought!) and a surgeon;
– I fell in love, of course, lots of times;
– I pretended I was the last person on earth (and the first).
None of this meant that I stopped doing what I’d always done since I got here. I had sex with an increasing number of women, sometimes simultaneously; I ate rarer and stranger foods; I met famous people all the way to the edges of my memory. For instance, I met every footballer there ever was. I started with the famous ones, then the ones I admired but weren’t particularly famous, then the average ones, then the ones whose names I remembered without remembering what they looked like or played like; finally I asked for the only ones I hadn’t met, the nasty, boring, violent players that I didn’t admire at all. I didn’t enjoy meeting them – they were just as nasty, boring and violent off the pitch as on – but I didn’t want to run out of footballers. Then I ran out of footballers. I asked to see Margaret again.
‘I’ve met all the footballers,’ I said.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about football, either.’
‘And I don’t have any dreams,’ I added, in a tone of complaint.
‘What would they be for,’ she replied. ‘What
they be for?’
I sensed that in a way she was testing me, seeing how serious I was. Did it all add up to more than a mere adjustment problem?
‘I think I’m owed an explanation,’ I announced – a little pompously, I have to admit.
‘Ask anything you like.’ She settled back in her office chair.
‘Look, I want to get things straight.’
‘An admirable ambition.’ She talked a bit posh, like that.
I thought I’d better start at the beginning. ‘Look, this is Heaven, isn’t it?’
‘Well, what about Sundays?’
‘I don’t follow you.’
On Sundays,’ I said, ‘as far as I can work out, because I don’t follow the days too closely any more, I play golf, go shopping, eat dinner, have sex and don’t feel bad.’
‘Isn’t that … perfect?’
‘I don’t want to sound ungrateful,’ I said cautiously, ‘but where’s God?’
‘God. Do you want God? Is that what you want?’
‘Is it a question of what I want?’
‘That’s exactly what it’s a question of. Do you want God?’
‘I suppose I thought it wasn’t that way round. I suppose I thought either there would be one or there wouldn’t be one. I’d find out what the case was. I didn’t think it depended on me in any way.’
‘Of course it does.’
‘Heaven is democratic these days,’ she said. Then added, ‘Or at least, it is if you want it to be.’
‘What do you mean, democratic?’
‘We don’t impose Heaven on people any more,’ she said. ‘We listen to their needs. If they want it, they can have it; if not, not. And then of course they get the sort of Heaven they want.’
‘And what sort do they want on the whole?’
‘Well, they want a continuation of life, that’s what we find. But … better, needless to say.’
‘Sex, golf, shopping, dinner, meeting famous people and not feeling bad?’ I asked, a bit defensively.
‘It varies. But if I were being honest, I’d say that it doesn’t vary all that much.’
‘Not like the old days.’
‘Ah, the old days.’ She smiled. ‘That was before my time, of course, but yes, dreams of Heaven used to be a lot more ambitious.’
‘And Hell?’ I asked.
‘What about it?’
‘Is there Hell?’
‘Oh no,’ she replied. ‘That was just necessary propaganda.’
‘I was wondering, you see. Because I met Hitler.’
‘Lots of people do. He’s a sort of … tourist site, really. What did you make of him?’
‘Oh, I didn’t
him,’ I said firmly. ‘He’s a man I wouldn’t shake the hand of. I watched him go by from behind the bushes.’
‘Ah, yes. Quite a lot of people prefer to do it that way.’
‘So I thought, if he’s here, there can’t be Hell.’
‘A reasonable deduction.’
‘Just out of interest,’ I said, ‘what does
do all day?’ I imagined him going to the 1936 Berlin Olympics every afternoon, watching the Germans win everything while Jesse Owens fell over, then back for some sauerkraut, Wagner and a romp with a busty blonde of pure Aryan blood.
‘I’m afraid we do respect people’s confidentiality.’