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Mainstream Fiction

A Near-Death Experience

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“You should pose under the bougainvillea tree. Some people like doing that, you know. Have you seen them? They place their palm under the blossoms, like this. Pass me your camera, you try it, and I’ll take a picture of you doing that, and, perhaps, just by going through the actions, we might get some insight as to why some people would do such a thing. I mean, why do they have to involve the flowers? Come on, man, give it a shot,” said Zach. I photographed the tree and told him I didn’t like being the subject of snap decisions let alone have a picture taken of me doing something as inane as standing in front of a small tree covered in magenta bracts, presenting its flowers.

Zach was getting bored. It was my idea to explore the residential estate in the low hills that resembled an English countryside. The timber-framed bungalows with roofs and tall shuttered windows weren’t exactly Cotswold cottages, but they were as close as you could get to storybook houses in super urban Singapore. The paths lined with trees on both sides made you feel like you were walking under a canopy of green. And when you looked at the houses scattered about the knolls, and Zach who was competent at making sheep sounds obliged, the pastoral air became complete. The editor of a magazine I was freelancing for liked my pitch about woods and fields thriving quietly in a corner of a city double-timing into the future. I had to turn in the article and photos in a few days. Zach decided to come along. He said he’d have the car till late afternoon and offered to drive.

We met about a fortnight before the outing. I also happened to be freelancing as a musician at that time, and Zach, a graphic designer who was out of work, was temping as roadie at the concert production company that arranged my gigs – half-hour concerts in which I played guitar and sang self-penned songs at public schools for 60 bucks a show. Zach could play the bass guitar, but his contract didn’t allow him to perform. I saw no reason why he shouldn’t accompany me on stage, and since he was willing to learn my songs, I’d sometimes invite him up to do the harmonies. It took us a couple of days to start a friendship that would have taken other guys our age (early thirties) years to develop. Within a week we were exchanging mix tapes of our favorite songs and playing live together. We’d both lost a parent when we were teenagers, which was probably why we were able to connect easily. Zach lost his mother to divorce, and I, my father to death. We had intensities capable of forging fast bonds.

I let him take the photo; a bunch of bright flowers hanging over my palm. It started to drizzle and it looked like a storm would soon take over, so we called it quits and thought we’d head to a food court for some tea. By the time we got on the highway the rain was starting to get heavier. It dripped on the roof of the car like metal pellets before pressing over us in a thick continuous thudding. Zach was saying something about how his father was always being critical of him and that he couldn’t stand it.

“I wanted to take the car out today and he fussed about it. He’s upset that I don’t have a proper job. I’m wasting my time driving people around, he says. He doesn’t see that I’m trying to keep busy and not burden him, but he’s never satisfied, never satisfied.” From what he said about his father it was clear that Zach was the more passive of the two. His reluctance to speak his mind to his dad was gradually infusing him with resentment and he had a tendency to take his frustration out on other things.

“You should be easy on yourself, brother,” I said, looking out the window on my side, which was misting up as the rain formed zigzag trails on it. “Don’t let his criticism of you become your criticism of you.” The radio was tuned in to a news channel. The murmur of current affairs under the air-conditioning vent was calming.

“Wow! Such wisdom. I wish you were my father,” Zach replied.

We were approaching a junction. A motorcyclist in front of us was slowing down to turn right, and for some reason this got Zach worked up. It’s one thing to lose patience when your steady progress has been interrupted, but it’s another to want to run down somebody because of it. Zach suddenly accelerated his car as if he was going to ram into the motorcyclist and swerved left at the last minute, missing the guy by a few inches. He blared his horn and cursed as if it had all been the other fellow’s fault. The biker jammed on his brakes and nearly skidded, and as we left him behind, I caught the look on his face in the rear window. The window was pretty much fogged up by then, so I couldn’t really make out his face, but it wasn’t so much the look but the essence of it that struck me. It had intent; it was a cursing look, a look that wished to God we’d die in a car crash. The man’s face disappeared as we pulled away. I looked at Zach who was swearing under his breath. He didn’t seem to care a whit about his conduct. Now, this is where it gets tricky, because, although it’d be easier for me to use the phrase, “I remember saying to myself” as I recount to you the inner speech occurring in my head that afternoon, what I really felt at the time was not so much me saying things to myself, but a voice that felt like a more prescient version of me, saying things to me. And it said: “You’re here sitting in the front seat of a car being driven by someone whose hang-up has usurped his judgment. You’ve no control now, no control.”

The vehicles were furrowing through the water on the road. Visibility was very poor and the windshield wipers were smearing instead of wiping water away. I would have informed Zach of the senselessness of his behavior, but that voice had stirred up certain thoughts in my mind (what goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, and sayings to that effect, which were products of my own mind rather than the voice) that suggested I’d better not distract him in case he bring to a head what he may have already set in motion. The pips before the hourly news sounded on the radio. We were travelling at about eighty kilometers per hour and drawing near a bend when I heard a deep, hollow sound like that from a rolling bowling ball rising behind us. I looked out the window on my side to see what hulk of a vehicle might have been making that sound and glimpsed a tour bus pushing its way forward in the process of overtaking us. As it did so, it hurled a large amount of water from the road onto our car, and for the next few moments, which felt like a very long time, we were driving in the blind. The water refused to pull away from the windows. The windshield wipers were ineffective. It was as if someone had thrown a white cloth over the car; all around us it looked like we’d been doused in icy light. “Hey man, I can’t see anything, can’t see anything,” said Zach. I could hear the bus beside me, inches away from the car door, hurtling forward. We were probably near the mid-section of the bus by then. “Everything is white,” Zach said. I looked at the windshield, the water slathered over it like cream. I remember myself thinking, How long is this going to last, how long is the water going to stay there? And just as I was on the cusp of the more chilling notion that the water might never clear in time, something happened. I felt separate from my body. It was as if the creative principle that had been dispersed throughout my senses had suddenly pulled back into the single point of its source, the “I”, the very essence of my being. There was also a concentration of light around my chest and head. It wasn’t light from the outside but some kind of glow from the inside, and I felt as if my whole being was suffused in it. I was cognizant of my presence in the car and of Zach saying something and looking at me and back at the blank windscreen, but I couldn’t hear or feel or see anything except through this capsule of light I found myself in. I remember that voice in me saying: “So, this is how it happens” and me uttering those words to myself. Again, those words were followed by a thought from my own mind – this is what happens when we’re about to die. I seemed to be simultaneously experiencing and watching myself experience that moment. I felt no fear. On the contrary, I felt calm in my skin of light. Perhaps being fully immersed in the present makes no room for dreading the future, and thus, no room for fear.

I noticed Zach glancing at me and then leaning toward the windscreen, trying to discern what was behind the opacity. We were rounding the bend as was the bus, and I could sense that his hands were relaxing their grip on the steering wheel. The light started to subside and I felt a thud on my door. Just then, the water receded from the windscreen and we saw the bus, having grazed us, speeding ahead. It was when I heard the sound of the radio again that I realized I must have been in a different space altogether. The radio had been playing all the while, but I hadn’t heard a single sound from it during the time we were driving blind. The newscaster was giving a summary of the headlines. Relating it to the pips that had come before, I figured we might have been travelling blind for less than ten seconds. But I was certain that my experience of time had been different. It had moved slower, it had stretched, perhaps even stopped. It was like some crucial part of me had been momentarily lifted an inch off the ground as the normal passage of time slipped forth under me.

“That was close,” Zach said. “That bus was so damn close it brushed against us. Did you feel that?” I said yes.

“It was funny. When I turned to look at your side, you looked bright.”

“Bright? What do you mean bright?”

“Your head was shining. It was like, bright, you know.”

I checked to see if he was joking, but he had a look of incredulity on his face.

“Maybe the water covering the windows had the effect of dispersing light inside the car and making everything look bright,” I said.

“No, it was a different kind of brightness. You remember I was saying, ‘Everything is white’? Then I turned to look through the window on your side, but that was covered with water too, so yes, it all looked bright. But your head and neck were like, glowing. There was light around you.”

“Right.”

“No I’m serious,” said Zach. “There was this calming light around you, which made me relax. I was about to panic. I couldn’t see the road and the water was not drawing back, but after looking in your direction I felt peaceful and my hands relaxed. I slowed down a bit and, you know, just allowed the car to move along, hoping the water would clear quickly. If I had been tense, my driving would have been different, and different things might have happened, you know? That bus could have more than tapped us, or we could have skidded and crashed into the railing on this side, I mean, we were driving blindfolded man.” I saw how what he was saying matched my experience of time slowing down.

“Maybe a miracle just happened and it hasn’t sunk in yet,” I said.

“I think in some way you saved us, man. You saved us,” replied Zach.

I didn’t feel like I had saved anybody. I was still trying to find my feet. Throughout the rest of the journey I kept going over what had happened. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush from a panic attack that had put me in hyper vigilance. But what I had felt was the exact opposite of a panic attack. There were no fight-or-flight responses, no shortness of breath or racing heartbeats. Zach, too, had noticed the light. I didn’t want to tell him anything about my experience; it was subjective, personal, but at least I knew it wasn’t all happening in my head.

Zach was on a different track now. He was worrying about whether the bus might have caused a dent or some other blemish on his dad’s car. Once we parked, he began scrutinizing its body, running his fingers along the doors and fenders, palpating the wing mirrors and tail lights. Then he rubbed his palm against an area under the door handle and peered at it from an angle before confirming the presence of a slight depression in the area where the bus had sidled into us. I could hardly perceive the concavity, but I deferred to Zach on the matter and assured him that his father probably wouldn’t notice it. He started grousing about how his father would react if he found out and this became the main topic of our conversation while we waited for our tea at the food court. This annoyed me because I was still evaluating the episode in the car and everything else seemed petty in comparison. I pretended to listen to Zach, occasionally glancing at the garden bordering the eatery and the public buses coursing through the drenched streets. Finally I lost my patience and said, “Things could have been worse, much worse than a dent on a car. Think about all the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t. We couldn’t see anything in front of us. A slight miscalculation, a sideways glance, more pressure on the steering wheel…you had to be really gentle while braking on the bend, you didn’t even know when the bend was going to end. A little too heavy on the brakes or accelerator and…I mean, I saw you going into that bend all pissed off at that biker. You weren’t even in the right frame of mind to assess the bend before you entered it. For heaven’s sake, man! Don’t you see how delicate the whole situation was, how much control we had to lose so that things could be just right, perfect, for us to get through that bend. We were saved by no effort of our own, man! You said it yourself. Something life-changing just happened, and here you are, worrying what your dad might say about a dent.” Zach looked at me, disappointed that I wasn’t being empathetic with him.

“You don’t understand my father. He doesn’t care about these things. He doesn’t think like that,” he said.

“Who cares what he thinks. You were the one who had the brush with death. I mean, the first thing you thought of when you got out of your car was to check the wing mirrors. From where I stood, it looked pathetic. I don’t get it, brother.”

“But that’s over now. We can move on, talk about practical things,” Zach said. The word practical somehow ticked me off and I said, “You saw a light and it made you calm down while driving. Don’t you wonder what that light was? It changed our fate. Aren’t you even a little curious about it?” Zach laughed, probably out of a mixture of nervousness and amusement, and replied, “Yes, yes, that light, it was like a hallow around your head, bro. You know, your head was shining.” I thought he was being sarcastic and said, “If your father is the sort of man who’d worry more about his car than his son, then maybe he’s not that much of a father.” Zach could have said something cutting in return, like pointing out that my father hadn’t lived long enough for me to know anything about how fathers and sons got along as men. But he didn’t.

“You don’t understand,” he said, “My mother left him because he’s like that. I can’t reject him, too?” The hurt on his face as he said this, I’ve not forgotten till today. It’s a memory that comes attached with that perception in the car, and a constant reminder to me of how different the worlds of two people can be. There I was, sitting by that drinks stall, gradually arriving at the realization that something of the nature of life had been revealed to me, something of its dual nature, its temporality embedded in an everlastingness, and at the same time thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything more important, more life-altering than that, but in doing so, I had forgotten that it was my friend, caught in the brambles of life, who had allowed the light to affect him and who had driven us to safety.

We drank our tea, talked about music and other things, but stayed clear of any discussion about the incident on the road. Then Zach said, “Hey bro, if we had died today, the last photo of you would have been of you with your palm under bougainvillea flowers. Not a good way to go, eh?” It is one of the few photos I have of me, and it’s the only one captured by a good friend.

 

 

 

 

Richard Philip (New Zealand)

Richard Philip is a writer and musician living in Hamilton, New Zealand. His published work includes short stories, current affairs and medical news. His story, Mutton Curry, was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2017/18. He holds a Master of Arts from the Waikato Institute of Technology.

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