Eleanor Rigby works at the Inland Revenue. She is that quiet kind of girl who lurks around in the corners; who slunks quickly down the corridors; who only speaks when she's spoken to (and never before); easy to forget. In another life, she could be an excellent spy. She doesn't have many friends (it sounds like a terrible cliché, but people believe that people working at the Inland Revenue don't have quite as many friends). But then, she doesn't even have many friends at the office.
One of the few people she calls 'friend', is Father Mckenzie. They meet every Saturday, the same every time. She sits by the window of his small office, always looking at the rows of tombstones in the churchyard. He sits on his desk, writing his sermon for tomorrow. Trying to write a sermon. Always been a bad writer, he tells her and she offers him some raisins.
She eats brunch with him, a simple egg sandwich and weak tea prepared by a nun. She eats her packed lunch alone, under a big tree in the churchyard. Sometimes there'll be a wedding service. When that happens, she'll watch the pretty people dance under a rain of white rice gleaming under the sun. Other times, when the church is quiet, she'll just sit in the shades and watch light twinkle between the leaves overhead.
Afterwards, she'll go home to the little house she shares with her mother, stopping at the grocers to buy vegetables for a week. She goes next door to get some fresh flowers, too.
The first thing she does as she enters the house is to key in the alarm code. It is the birth date of the imaginary friend she had when she was small. The friend went away when puberty arrived. She can't remember the day her friend went away, but she remembers the date of when it first arrived. Then she looks at the entryway clock. Her mother should already be halfway through her bingo.
She rearranges the fridge to make space for her vegetables. It's an old thing that hums noisily in the corner of a magnolia kitchen. Then she'll collect all the vases in the house, arranges them on the small space by the sink. She puts fresh flowers in them and puts the wilted ones in the compost bin.
Most of her chores will be done by four or five o'clock. It takes her fifteen minutes to prepare tea and biscuits. She then allows herself half an hour to enjoy the approaching sunset in front of the telly with the volume turned almost all the way down.
It's now time for her mother to arrive back home. She puts away the vacuum cleaner, straightens her back. She opens the door, hugs her mother. She listens to her mother talk about her day out with 'the girls': bingo and some progging. After dinner, she climbs up the steep flight of stairs to her room.
She sleeps through her weekend. She'll not remember if she ever wakes up in between her slumber to visit the toilet or to have a drink or even something to eat. She never remembers such things.
Monday morning. Her mother will shake her awake; tells her she has a few minutes to get ready or else she'll miss her bus and train. Her eyes will be so heavy with sleep, it's always a struggle to stay awake. She stares at the ceiling where little peeling stars adhere stubbornly for years and years already. She twists and turns in bed, stretches her arms out towards the ceiling. One day, maybe, she'll have hands long enough to peel childhood memories off the ceiling. She blinks, looks out of the window, licks her lips, yawns.
Then, she'll be up in no time at all. Then, she'll be washed, dressed, fed, ready to go.
The day's ready to go, too. In fact, it's already gone. Each day just goes so fast, she thinks, as she nearly misses her bus (as she always does).
Some days she'll stop one stop before the one she's supposed to stop at (the one in front of the train station), because she'll want to see the Hare Khrisnas. Some of those days she'll see them. Other days, she won't see them. She'll then hunch her shoulders and tuck her chin to her chest, counting the faded bricks leading up to the train station.
Once, her colleague caught her staring out of one of the office's many windows at a passing group of Hare Khrisnas. He told her it was rude of her to stare. They talked for a while afterwards (it was the first time she ever talked to him; the first of quite a few exchanges). Towards the end of the conversation, he told her that it was even ruder of her to objectify them that way.
She couldn't understand him, then. She doesn't understand him even now, as she looks around, listening out for the familiar harinama sankirtan. Then she hears them, sees them. They are so happy, she thinks. She never says that out loud; keeps her thoughts to herself. They look so happy. And they make her happy, too.
She'll have a smile on her face all day long. People will stare at her; they'll think she's a little crazy. But they're wrong. She's only happy.
She arrives at the office with time to spare (as always, unless either the bus people or the train people, or both, are on strike). She goes straight to her desk, as she always does. Her desk is always tidy (she clears the clutter every evening before she leaves for home). Usually there's nothing there until she puts up her laptop and takes out her stationery. This time, there's a flower-print vellum envelope waiting patiently on her desk, somewhat off-centre.
It's a wedding invitation. She knows the bride and groom; they all work in the same section. She runs into them at Cafe Nero while waiting in line for her coffee and pastry. She congratulates them, wishes them well.
They smile at her. They tell her their plan in a nutshell. Then they look at each other, still smiling, but now their smiles are for each other. She watches as he runs his hand through her hair, helping to keep hair out of the quiche. She watches them leave. She doesn't really realise she's staring. Someone speaks to her, but she doesn't know he's there.
The afterlife is what you wanted it to be, her mother told her once. Your heart knows what you want even before you realise it.
So, the things her mother's been telling her must be true after all. Because never in her living years she'd have guessed that the afterlife is, in fact, a great big yellow submarine. She looks out of the porthole and figures that she's floating somewhere between the sky and sea.
A sapphire sky, a turquoise sea.
There's an unseen band playing all her favourite tunes, all to match her mood even before she knows what she's feeling.
Is she really that sad? Is she really dead? Though sometimes it feels like she's never been born. She's confused, of course, and possibly a little bit lonely.
She's not always this lonely. When she was a little girl, she had many friends and everything was right. But she's not a little girl anymore now, and she doesn't have many friends now.
And there's nobody here. Is she really alone in this submarine? She hears noises though, like people talking. But they're all next door.
The band strikes a sad new tune. Is she really that sad? Is she really dead? So she closes her eyes and thinks that she has gone to sleep.
She opens her eyes. The band plays some sort of ditty. Citrine and amber rays filter through the portholes, making little yellow circles on the submarine's yellow floor. She takes a walk, but the sun burns her feet as they touch the ground. So she hops skips and jumps, does a little jig here and there to avoid being burnt. The band marches behind her. They play a merry march.
A cyclops bird sings merrily to the tune. The bicyclops bird hums. And over there, the encyclops bird recites facts and figures about the seven wonders. Hanging garden of Babylon, the bird says. The Colossus, the singing bird sings. They praise the beauty of a world she's never seen. See you around, they chirp finally.
So she walks, leaves the singing birds behind.
On and on she walks. She sees something light and shining bright some ways away, so she walks that-a-way. But she takes her time, doesn't feel she has to hurry. No need at all, because isn't she already dead?
The band follows from behind.
As she gets closer to the light, the band sounds farther and farther behind. She turns around but no longer sees them. She turns back towards the light, and in her eyes are tears. She doesn't even know them, she thinks, and still she cries.
She walks and walks, ever closer towards the light, crying for no one.
In the light, through the sheen of tears and a web of eyelashes, she sees a shadow.
“Well, well, well,” the shadow says, sounding so loud in her ears. “You're feeling fine?”
She blinks once, and twice, and thrice. A face comes into view. A face with a smile and crinkles 'round the eyes. “Well, well, well,” the face says. “I'm Doctor Robert, how do you do?” (and odd question, because isn't the doctor supposed to know more of how she's doing? she's only been sleeping, she thinks).
She merely cranes her neck, looks this way and that way, finds nothing familiar. She decides to stare at the ceiling instead. The ceiling is perfectly white. There are no sticky stars there, only lights. She frowns and stares at the fluorescent light until a strip of white burns itself into her sight.
She listens as the Doctor talks. The Doctor does everything he can to explain things to her. Her mother's been by, he tells her. But she has to leave because she has to get back to work, he says.
She nods absently, wonders how long she's been not-exactly-dead.
The Doctor continues to talk. She loses some interest as the clock ticks away on the far wall. This happened and that happened, the doctor says and she listens with half an ear.
The Doctor is still talking when someone joins them. At first she thinks its her mother, but the silhouette is all wrong. Maybe it's a nurse, she thinks. Maybe a male nurse, she amends. Then Doctor Robert stops talking, stands up from the chair he's sitting in. That someone sits there, replacing the Doctor in keeping the chair warm.
She shifts a little so she can see better.
It's her colleague from work, though she doesn't quite remember his name. She ought to though, she thinks. So she keeps quiet and stares at him instead.
She hears him chuckle. She hears him say, “I remember telling you that it's rude to stare.” He is probably admonishing her, though he sounds quite kind to her ears. She stares some more until he lets out an amused kind of laugh. “I can't win against you,” he says, smiling like a defeated gentleman.
She smiles back, but not a very big smile. She's tired so she yawns. He reaches out and rearranges the thin blanket around her shoulders. “I... want to tell you something,” he says. He hesitates a bit, fidgets with a blanket edge.
She nudges his finger from underneath her blanket. She feels warmth seeps out of his skin, drips through the thin blanket, onto her skin. She smiles, gestures for him to continue.
“I...” he hesitates some more, releases the blanket edge to sit back in the chair. “You're tired,” he says.
She wants to protest, but he's right. So she closes her eyes instead.
“I'll tell you later. I've got time,” he says, his voice already floating around her, disjointed, rather disconnected. “I'll wait,” he says, and that's the last thing she hears. She sleeps with a smile on her face.
She wakes up. He's still there sitting in his chair, but he's no longer alone.There's another chair next to him. In that chair sits her mother. They are talking to each other. She feels like an eavesdropper.
She tries to listen in on their conversation, but gives up when she knows they're not going to talk louder than a whisper. She stays quiet, lying there. She stares at the ceiling, until they realise she's awake.
“You're awake,” her mother says, already up on her old feet, already fussing. “Thought you're still asleep. Did we wake you?” her mother asks. Without waiting for an answer, her mother smiles, drops a kiss on her forehead and leaves her with him.
They stare at each other, trying to figure out what to say. There's a few moments of silence, then they talk for a while afterwards. She tries not to stare at him, only mildly looking.
“It's okay if you stare,” he tells her suddenly. “I don't mind.”
She frowns. Isn't it rude to stare at people?
“I'm used to people staring or glaring, even. Comes with the job description, you know," he says and they chuckle at their line of work. Tax men the lot of them (well, if anyone's playing semantics, it's really just him that's the tax man, she's just the lowly office clerk; but that's not the point). "I don't mind if it's me you're staring at,” he adds, all sheepish-like “In fact, it'll be nice if you'll say you'll stare at me every day.”
There are no windows in this room that she shares with four others. There's no way for her to tell if it's day or night or some time in between. She looks at him, tilts her head sideways to see him better.
He is still smiling at her. He smiles for what seems an eternity.
She stares at him then smiles at him, tries to match his smile. But she knows her teeth aren't as white as his, her face aren't as appealing as his. How long will “every day” last? She wonders and thinks and ponders.
A minute must've passed. But with the persistent white light overhead, one can never tell for certain.
Is it still today, by the way? Or is it already tomorrow?
She throws caution to the wind. She reaches out to clasp his hand in hers, and hers in his.
Her mother is out there, beyond the door some where. But she can hear her mother's voice in her head either way.
Your heart knows what you want even before you realise it, her mother told her once. And tomorrow never knows.