”There isn’t all that much I can do for you”, said Doctor Åkesson when he had studied my extensive medical record for quite some time.
”What do you mean?” I asked in a slightly despondent voice.
”It doesn’t look good”, he continued cryptically. ”But I can write you a medical referral, so that you can get away for a bit of R&R. That’s exactly what you need and will do you a world of good.”
I thanked him and went out to the waiting room where my wife Margaretha had waited patiently. It wasn’t the first visit to the doctor where she had to wait anxiously for me to come back out again.
Exactly seventeen days after my visit to the GP, the referral note arrived in the post. I was cordially invited to Eternity Hotel. Community transport was supposed to drive me there and they would be at my house to pick me up at 3pm sharp on the stipulated date.
After a light lunch on the day of departure, I lay down for a nap on the bed. My wife sat next to me on the side of my bed and we talked about everything practical she would had to take care of all by herself while I was gone. She told me not worry.
A few minutes prior to the pre-arranged time, 3.03pm to be exact, a yellow community transport vehicle stopped outside our house. As I came to the front door, I hung up the old, hand-carved wooden sign, as I always did when I left the house: ”Gone fishing”. I said a heartfelt goodbye to my wife, hugged her tenderly and got into the car. Before I managed to pull door shut, she leaned in, stroked my cheek and uttered the words ”You will take good care of yourself now, won’t you? And make sure you get some rest before I see you again.” As the car drove off into the distance, I turned around and peeked through the rear window. Margaretha remained glued to the spot, her eyes followed the car and she was waving at me. It was a beautiful farewell, even though I felt a certain loneliness and a bout of loss. I missed her already. Sorrow is the price of love, I thought to myself as she disappeared in the distance. Despite her reassurance to the contrary, I was I still worried about how she would manage while I was away. We had only been apart on a handful of occasions and had shared more or less our entire adult life. Had I said everything I needed to say? Thoughts and emotions were running riot inside my tired body and everything that had never been said bubbled up within me. But I’d leave that be for now until we saw each other again.
I sat alone in the backseat of the car and felt how the monotonous, dull drone of the engine slowly rocked me to sleep. My eyelids were getting heavier and heavier, my breathing slowed right down. I eventually fell into a deep sleep and was totally unaware of space and time until the car suddenly came to a halt.
I really had no idea how much time had passed since set off, but it felt like we had just left home. Our chauffeur nodded at me as he opened the car door for me. I grabbed hold of my bag and got out, stood there on the pavement and saw the yellow car drive off into the distance. It had dropped me off right next to a beautiful garden. A wrought-iron fence with a gate surrounded the property. Several tall elms grew inside the garden and were almost hiding the big white building located a bit further into the garden. I stood there for quite some time admiring the iron gate. A gravel footpath led to a pond with a fountain and formed a small circular feature in front of the stairs that led up to the main doorway of the hotel. I picked up my suitcase, which was very light as it only contained a change of clothes and toiletries. In the welcome pack I had received, it had stated this was all I needed because the hotel would provide everything else that might be needed during my stay.
I had to use some force to push the handle of the gate, it was a bit stiff. It opened reluctantly with lots of squeaking and I continued along the gravel path. The garden was full of footpaths, lined with herbaceous borders and flower beds with lots of flowering plants and evergreens. Countless little birds were tweeting and singing to their hearts’ content, clearly nesting in the elms. A beautiful wooden sign was placed on the left-hand side of the lawn; ”Welcome to Eternity Hotel”. On my the right, I could see another sign with the text ”Dilmun’s Garden”. I smiled to myself when I spotted the biggest apple tree I had ever seen. Something that also struck me as peculiar was the number of butterflies flying somewhat erratically from flower to flower. A bee buzzed past by very close to me on his hunt for nectar. The only thing that cut through the sounds of nature was me stepping on the shingle. I had clearly disturbed a peacock pecking at seeds on the ground, because the beautiful bird suddenly disappeared behind some flowering gorse bushes when I came too close. My old sciatica injury started to give me grief again.
Completely out of the blue, I had flashbacks from the past and old memories of events I should’ve forgotten popped up in my head. I could just about make out my own christening ceremony, when my beloved aunt held me in her arms and became my godmother. This was a task she managed very well until the cigarettes took her away from us. My childhood and teenage years flashed before my eyes. I, who had once upon a time been a promising handball player, was now a broken, tired man with aches & pains in both body and soul and I would finally at this ripe old age be allowed to rest.
One step at the time, I moved slowly up the path towards the building. I looked skyward and squinted at the sun. It was almost unnaturally bright in the garden, despite the trees with their huge leafy crowns. Rays made their way through the lush foliage and flooded the whole area in shimmering, enchanted light.
The sudden bark of dog made me jump and I looked around, but couldn’t spot the animal anywhere. Images from my wedding rushed past in my mind. That blissful feeling of saying ”I do” to my beloved Margaretha filled my chest once more. It was a warm, comfortable sensation that made me smile when I thought about our wedding night on my grandmother’s sofa bed. A few years passed before we became pregnant with our son. Years of yearning.
I paused for a brief moment and rested my tired legs right in front of the fountain, enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face and the hypnotic sound of droplets hitting the surface of the water. I gazed dreamily into the fountain and let my thoughts drift away on the ripples. Still not a person in sight. No traffic noise or other artificial sounds could be heard, nothing but the pleasant background sounds of nature itself. The only thing that seemed to be out of place were two big, jet-black ravens that circled the chimney of the building. A black pillar of smoke rose against the otherwise clear blue sky. As I approached the building, I noticed a paddock adjacent to the building, on the right-hand side. I could see a goat in distance, as well as a donkey and a grubby pig rooting around in a pool of mud.
I have to admit I found it all rather restful and the surroundings were tranquil and relaxing in a liberating sort of way, even if the whole situation seemed a bit surreal. I could now understand what Dr Åkesson had meant by R & R. Just walking through the garden made me feel very relaxed.
Rounded stone steps led me up to the large oak door and the entrance of the hotel. To my left, I spotted something that I assumed was an entry phone and next to that there was a sign. I pulled my glasses out of my inside pocket, leaned forward slightly and read: ”Please enter your social security number and the door will open”. As soon as I had pressed the right digits, I could hear a faint click from the lock. I pressed the handle and pulled the door towards me. It surprised me how light it was, despite its size, and before I stepped inside, I paused, turned around and let my eyes sweep across the garden one last time. Somewhere at the back of my mind, something was niggling me. There was something missing in this pretty picture. It suddenly hit me. There must be a fox and a wolf somewhere, otherwise, the scene before me would not be complete. I assumed that these animals were shy and that’s why they had gone into hiding when I arrived.
I let the door slam shut behind me. As I stood all silent there in the hallway, I glanced around. A slight pressure across my chest caused me to take a couple of deep breaths before I had the strength to carry on. A few more stone steps led to a reception desk, which seemed unmanned. Stained-glass windows ran all around the room, close to the ceiling, and when the sunshine came through the colourful window panes the whole room was covered in a rainbow-like glow. Faint music could be heard in the background as I admired the beautiful room and climbed the last few steps to the reception desk. Where was everyone? No guests to be seen either. The whole place was deserted. I quietly turned around and found two doors on the opposite wall, but they too were shut.
When I turned back to face the front desk, I noticed a lever arch file lying on the counter. I glanced furtively at it while I was waiting. After a moment or two, I felt there was nothing for it, but pulled the binder towards me and opened it. The first sheet consisted of a logo and a watercolour sketch/image of the hotel with the word ”Welcome” written below. The next sheet contained instructions of how to go about the self-service check-in at this hotel.
”Dear guest! Welcome to Eternity Hotel. We hope your stay with us will be joyful and will give you peace for both body and soul. We hope you felt a liberating sensation run through your body as the door shut behind you and all the troubles and worries of the world could be left outside. In order to complete your check-in procedure, we would like you to pick up the receiver located on the wall, to the right of the reception desk, and follow the instructions provided.”
The next page of the binder was a blueprint of the garden. I studied it in great detail and it was interesting to see that they had named all the different spots and areas. To the east of the hotel, there was a park area called The Copse of Remembrance. The fountain at the front of the main entrance was called The Spring of Life and the area closest to the house, where there were mostly flower beds with roses, was called Eden. I closed the binder and sat down on a divan right next to the phone.
My son popped into my mind. I really had been the happiest dad in the world when I joined my wife as she gave birth and I got to hold him in my arms when he was only a few minutes old. Images and memories of my life with him fluttered by quickly in my head. How we had gone for a dip in the crystal clear water of Croatia and how I had taught him to swim. Happy moments with him intermingled with rather chaotic events as life went by. How the love between us had existed deep within our hearts, even when he started to disappear into a cloud of horrid illness, hanging on like a living corpse and eventually left us. Such sadness and all-consuming grief.
It was as though my body no longer wanted to obey my wishes, as if my soul wanted to lead its own life and make me accept responsibility for whatever choices I had made and actions I had taken. I came to think of the seven deadly sins. Should go by Gianfranco Girotti’s contemporary interpretation? Margaretha and I had obviously used contraception during our marriage, but surely that couldn’t be considered a sin, could it? Nor had I managed to scrape together much of a fortune, even if we hadn’t lacked money for any considerable length of time and could enjoy little, everyday luxuries to add some pizzazz to our life. I couldn’t, even in my wildest dreams, see that this had increased any gaps in the world; I had tried to be generous and even sponsored a child in Vietnam. A child that both Margaretha and I had provided for throughout his upbringing. That fact that I have also had the opportunity to enjoy a really good whisky or cognac. Drugs were unknown territory for me, despite the fact that I grew up during the era of drug liberalisation and free love. I idolised Elvis and the Beatles and simply couldn’t get enough of them. Especially not John Lennon, who personified the rebel I wish I had been. I did not feel any remorse about this, nor did I find it wicked or sinful.
The only thing that really worried me was my negative contribution to the environmental degradation. I had never joined any environmental movement or association, but had instead questioned their gravitas. Would this now count against me? How would I fare on judgement day, when my every move and innermost thoughts would be scrutinized, and I would have to justify my actions? I felt deflated, I slumped and could hear myself sigh deeply.
Checking in all by yourself with no staff helping you out? The whole situation was perplexing to say the least and the scenario was both new and strange to m, which made me feel slightly hesitant but not afraid as such. I pondered for a brief moment, perhaps I should cancel the entire stay and go home again. I turned and glanced at the exit and, to my surprise, I saw the door had no handle on the inside. This didn’t actually make me anxious, perhaps because I could hear an inner voice urging me not to be afraid. I looked at the phone on the wall and after a few minutes of hesitation, I lifted up the receiver. A mechanical voice spoke to me and I listened intently.
” What is the reason for you coming here? Please press 1 if you have come here voluntarily. Please press 2 if you have been referred here by your doctor. Please press 3 if you have had an accident or illness without a medical referral. Please press 4 if you have been subjected to a crime. Please press 5 if none of the previous options applies. Please press 6 if you would like to hear the options again.”
I pressed number 2 straight away, no hesitation, and the voice appeared again. ”Please enter your age followed by a hash.” I pressed 66 and had to wait for a few seconds before the voice came back again to prompt me. I found things suddenly got harder and I had to do a bit of soul searching in order to provide honest, candid responses to the ten questions. Sure, these questions only required a yes or no answer, but had I really lead a life where the sacred ten commandments had been my moral compass? Of course I had obeyed the law and I saw myself staying within the conventional, socially accepted, ethical boundaries of our society. When I had answered all the questions to the best of my abilities, it turned out I had managed to scrape a total of 66 points together. I was then informed that there was some kind of lower limit of 55 points, but with my high score I had qualified for a check-in into the best area Eternity Hotel had to offer, namely the eastern part of Dilmun’s Garden called the Copse of Remembrance. When I hung up, the clock on the wall said 6.03pm. One of the double doors behind me clicked and then it opened automatically. The sound of an angel choir accompanied by sublime music flooded from the light, which by this point filled the whole corridor I could see stretch out through the open door and I must say I was drawn to the beauty of it all as if some invisible force was pulling me in. Once inside, enveloped in this light, I became aware that the souls of my beloved grandmother and grandfather were embracing me, as did my mother and my father and their hugs were tender and genuinely loving. My God mother smiled at me and touched the top of my head very lightly as I swept past. I even spotted a couple of my old heroes as I travelled further into the tunnel of light on my way towards the Copse of Remembrance. I was surprised to see Elvis and John Lennon in there. Had they really qualified for a place here? The last thing that swirled through my mind before I entered eternity, was that all the pain and sorrow had left my body and I felt free. The battle for life was over.
Total serenity. Time seemed never-ending, light and beautiful. I understood deep inside that Margaretha was no longer anxious. She had been quite worried lately and my well-being and health had clearly troubled her. But now I could sense she too had found peace, and one day we shall meet again in a world beyond. I do wonder how long eternity really is?