A PAST LIFE, SOMETIME IN THE MORNING

 (Winner of 1st Prize, Writers' Forum #224)



England, Now

This is the moment I realise I have fully learnt the truths of my previous life, in which I had failed to learn the truths of the lives that came before. I let the sense of ease, the near-wisdom, gently settle within me as I sip my tea, its heat rising to warm my cheeks. I recline in my favourite chair and watch my beautiful wife who I have both kept happy and refrained from strangling. And so I turn now to look upon you – you, my next incarnation – with quiet satisfaction, with a smile that says, ‘Is this not the life?’

And listen, I’m not saying that nirvana is only one lifespan away. And I realise that it’d take more than just one more existence to move on from murder to make it right, but you see the thing is, we overlap.

I know. Confusing. You can call me Ash, and let me take you back to 1992 – that should help. Back to me standing before my previous life, a Thai man named Aroon, as he lay in what would be his deathbed, the end of his life and the beginning of mine. Let him explain, in his near-perfect English.

***

Thailand, 1992

‘The thing is, Ash, when people talk about going back in time, they talk about meeting a younger self, not a previous self. Not someone who is not them but who will be reborn as them. That’s you now,’ he told me. ‘And the moment I die is the moment you’ll be born, and your current manifestation also cease, returning to your present. I know because it happened to me.’

‘How can I know you are me?’ I queried of the old man, his face worn, as rumpled as his bedsheets.

‘Well, you felt that deep bond the moment you found yourself standing there naked yesterday, didn’t you? You trust me. And I don’t think the nursemaid for one moment doesn’t believe you’re not the son of an old English friend. Anyway, do what I did. When you return to the time, the place, you came from, investigate, check my dates, when I died. I swear it’ll be the exact day you were born. Isn’t a dream that accurate!’

He raised his arms, quivering, to join his hands in circles. ‘We are like interlocking chains,’ he said. 'We overlap.’

‘For how long?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. Fifty minutes or fifty years. When you manifest you forget the day you were born. Again, I don't know why. But I don’t think we’ve got long, Ash, so let me confess, because you know little about me, and you need to know, learn, so that if all this can lead to enlightenment as the Lord Buddha preached, that whoever in our future lives we are and will be, we’ll make it there sooner.’ He coughed, spat into a well-used tissue.

I raised the glass of water to his lips, took the seat beside him.

‘You ask how long,’ Aroon continued, ‘well, for me it was longer than it’ll be for you. That wasn’t a good thing though, the way it turned out. Found myself in London, 1919, manifesting myself somehow as we do. You see, my previous life was an Englishman. Edward Abner. He was much younger when I met him, than I am now as you meet me. He talked little about the overlap, just at the beginning, to calm me. His was the generation that fought the Great War. Didn’t talk much about that, either. You see, the last thing I remember I’d fallen asleep in 1946, then I awoke in this man’s room, sometime in the morning.’

‘Like–‘ I needed to know.

‘Like you, Ash. And also like myself when you arrived, Edward wasn’t surprised when he saw me. He knew one day it’d happen. That I’d come.’

‘So he’d done it, too?’

‘Yep. Again, never spoke of his previous life. Anyway, I awoke next to Edward. Also naked. He had his finger to his lips, prompted me to get under the bed. He was so reassuring. I felt perfectly calm – just like you did when you met me. And so I hid.

I spied upon through the gap in the bathroom door at his wife naked. She was so pretty. Anyway, Edward made excuses to her for not going to the office that day, and she left, all spruced up for some society appointment. After waving me out, Edward let me know when and where I was and then he spoke of the overlap. It wasn’t impossible for me to get my head around. I’m Buddhist. That helped. Maybe it’s harder for you?’ Aroon paused, stared at me as if studying his future self, as if discerning the similarities between him and me. Or perhaps me and Edward.

‘So, Edward got me a job as cover,’ he continued. ‘Had a big family firm in shipping. I didn’t have to do anything, just pretend. Said to people I’d been brought over from Asia, that I was more civilised than most, that I’d live with them in their large house, learn the ways of a western gent. He was the boss, so no questions asked. Not at the time, anyway. And he showed me the city, gave me errands. It wasn’t so bad. Sure people’d call me names, but thanks to him, I passed as a respectable gentleman for those times. Yet there was one person I found it too difficult to be around. His wife, Stella. Boy, did Edward really love his Stella. Problem was, so did I.

I remember her saying as we lay in their bed, not long after we’d begun our affair:

“I’m like you, Aroon,” she said.

“How?” I asked

“I didn’t come from another country. I came from another class. It’s not so different,” Stella smirked, “Might as well be another life.”

Turned out she didn’t reciprocate Edward’s feelings. You know, I often wonder if this rebirth thing simply got it wrong, if it got unaligned, that I was meant to be born for Stella, not the sad, shellshocked previous life that was Edward Abner. He adored her, he really did. Must’ve to have married her, someone below his station, into his kind of family. They warned him about Stella. But Edward really loved her, I guess as much as in that short time that I loved her too.’

Aroon closed his eyes for a few moments, before opening them, continuing. ‘Edward never let on he knew. Maybe he didn’t have it in him to murder me, his next life. No, he ended it in a way that I guess made more sense to him, in a crueller manner. You see, one day I returned to the house from the morning’s errands and Stella discretely followed me in as normal. The servants were eating lunch downstairs. Still, I remember I strode up to the bedroom as quietly as possible.

I opened the bedroom door. I froze. I wasn’t expecting to see Edward there. But he was. Hanging. Still alive, but barely. All ashen, his swollen tongue sticking out from within his paling face, his blue lips.’

Aroon paused suddenly almost as if he could see Edward’s dying face in mine. Then he resumed just as abruptly. ‘I heard Stella approach behind me. We took him down, but it was too late. Yet Edward whispered his last to me, not her.

“You betrayed me,” he said, “but you betrayed yourself more.”

Stella shrieked before imploring me to hide, before the servants came.

So I went into the bathroom, watching back through the gap in the door. I saw Edward, his head on its side, the whites of his protruding eyes all blotched red, gazing up towards me, and those blue, blue lips, smiling one last time. A final revenge, perhaps. He knew he’d ended our love affair. For I disappeared, to be born.’

Aroon exhaled harshly, his mouth agape like the rictus of a crow. ‘I awoke the next morning, Ash, back in 1948, knowing it was too vivid to have been a dream. You can see from my house, that like Edward, I’ve been privileged in this life, I’ve not been wanting. So, I flew to London the next day. I checked the records, went into the libraries, read the newspapers, and I found it: ‘Shipping Magnate Hangs Self’. The time of Edward’s death they reported, the time of my birth.

Then I thought about my beautiful Stella, and I scoured all the newspapers until I came across another headline a few months later. ‘Magnate’s Wife Found Dead’. Poisoned herself. We were so in love. She must’ve thought I’d abandoned her. There was never any mention of me in any of the stories. They read as though she were a grief-stricken widow. If she’d left me a note, the family would’ve covered it up. I was so wracked with guilt though, but what could I’ve done? What?’

Aroon fell silent. His guilt pervaded the room, stifling its air.

I remember attempting to lighten things, to talk of his life then lived. ‘Aroon, you were still young when you returned to your own life?’

‘Yes, about your age I think, Ash. That’s what I’m trying to tell you – don’t make the same mistake. I tried moving on. But I knew that my next life – that you – would come. I just didn’t know when. So I got on with living. And it’s funny, funny because not many Thai men marry western women, especially not then, post-war, but Ruth’d been in Singapore, under Japanese internment. Wouldn’t talk of it, but she didn’t want to return to England. She took up work at the embassy. And when I saw her back in 1949 on the streets of Bangkok, I swore it was her straightaway – that she was my beloved Stella reborn.

Our connection was immediate. We married soon after. I remember one night telling her about my past life. She didn’t laugh. She’d learnt Thai well, knew of our beliefs. I told Ruth her name had been Stella, but she could recall none of it. I didn’t go into the details and I guess she shrugged it off, believing it one of those things to be accepted in a marriage across cultures.’

Aroon met my eyes. ‘I suppose we are among the few that overlap, Ash. If others do, maybe they don’t always remember. Like a forgotten dream. Either way, we were so happy, Ruth and I.

But then I thought of you – my next life – whoever you’d be. And the pain festered in me, sucked on all that guilt surrounding my previous, impossible love. I came to obsessing about when you’d arrive. And if, no, when you’d come take Ruth away from me as I'd taken Stella from Edward. I thought you’d come sooner, I did. I grew jealous, constantly asking Ruth where she’d been, where she was going, insistent she go nowhere. I spoilt our love, and understandably she stayed away from me more often, stayed at her office later and later, and my jealousy exploded. Maybe it was her, maybe Ruth was destined to be like that, I told myself, to be an adulterous woman. Maybe Stella had been like that. If it hadn’t been me, it’d’ve been someone else. Maybe Stella’d had others, too? Maybe those “society appointments”? Maybe. Maybe. It drove me crazy thinking that a woman who’d been unfaithful to her husband by having an affair with his next life, that she could’ve even been unfaithful outside that most bizarre of love triangles.

It got too much. One night Ruth came back late. I swear I heard her talk to someone, that somebody else was with her, and I asked her and she refused to answer, refused, and I-I-I put my hands around Ruth’s throat and–‘

Aroon gasped, coughed as he caught his breath, took a moment. Continued. ‘I was sure there was somebody else, some presence lurking, witnessing, but I looked around, checked the adjoining rooms. Found nothing. Just my own fear, guilt. She lay dead before me – I’d killed Ruth.’

We sat in silence a while, Aroon and I, his next life. What was there to say?

‘No-one ever found her body,’ Aroon spoke softly. ‘But after that I couldn’t, didn’t want to live. I wanted to end it, to become you so as to love her in the next life. But damn, I got the poison all wrong. They found me, revived me. My body never recovered though, and I was confined to bed and these hands, so puny. At least now a cancer has come, but even that takes too long. I am cursed. But perhaps…? ’

He gestured towards the pillow.

‘Ash, find her, trust her, love her. Keep her happy. Don’t make the mistakes of us, your past lives, of Edward and Aroon.’ He closed his eyes. ‘You know, I don’t think Ruth was seeing anyone.’

Of course, I hesitated. But it felt right, and I remember Aroon’s pulse weakening. Echoing faintly his passage into his death, my birth and my return.

***

England, Now

I awoke, like Aroon’d said, back in the morning of my life as I'd left it, in 2016. A dream but far too vivid. I don’t purport to understand it, if at all. Even poor old Aroon barely comprehended it.

But I flew to Thailand, and it checked out. Aroon Kasemsuk, 16 March 1920 - 18 April 1992. While I was there I met someone. We fell in love instantly. She was Stella and Ruth I guess, but to me she was Dao. I took her away from her work as a bargirl, took her to England to begin our married life together. She’s made a good friend nearby, Suzie. She's really helped her settle within these cold English shires. I’ve made sure Dao has everything, sent money back to help her family, taken her on trips to see the European sights. And the snow. Nothing’s wanting. And she helps me with my internet business selling WWI memorabilia, so we’re around each other much of the time, falling deeper in love.

And now you, my future self, have arrived. Call me Ash. Don’t be afraid. I know you trust me, and don’t be afraid by these old looking surroundings. It's 2020. And I have no fear of you falling in love with my wife for we can talk freely, for I can warn you of the consequences.

But one thing I do wonder is: why have you come now? I mean I don’t know how long we overlap for. Could it be that you live years alongside me – your past life – before you awake back in your future morning? But, don’t stand there naked. You are, I think, roughly my age, my size. What nationality I wonder? Never mind. Take some clothes from my wardrobe, we’ll go downstairs and I’ll introduce you to Dao, say you’re a friend, and we’ll talk of the overlap and perhaps you can tell me of the future.

‘Darling, this is Tom, my old uni friend.’ Tom will do. You can tell me your real name later.

‘Sawasdee kha, Tom,’ she wai-s as is her custom. ‘Tea?’

‘Please, sweetheart. And one too for my friend Tom.’

But sit. Now let me tell you a little about my previous life Aroon, and his previous life Edward Abner. Let me tell you about the overlap, how like chains we meet, we interlock. You are me next, and I am you before. How can we co-exist? Two lives from one strand, one continuum of life, the same but separate? There are more things, Horatio, that’s all I can say. You are a manifestation, I guess. A very real one. But why have you come so late? I have much to share with you. Here she is now, my wife returned with the tea.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. I was just telling Tom about the life we’ve made together.’

She nods. She’s never been one for too many words, my Dao. Yes, I’ve learnt all those lessons of the past. How not to be jealous, how to live without guilt or fear.

‘This is the life, isn’t it?’ I say, reclining in my favourite chair. I wonder again why you have come now, and I sense a change, a slight but accumulating force like water leaving the sinkhole in reverse. A change, not for the better.

‘I remember her,’ says Dao.

‘Who, my love?’ I ask touching the collar of my shirt, a little flushed.

‘Ruth. In 1953,’ she continues. ‘She couldn’t remember her life before, but I remember hers. And when I manifested she spent all that time with me, stayed out later making sure I was okay, teaching me English, preferring my company to her husband’s, a man called Aroon, a man so consumed by jealousy. And I was there. In the bathroom. I watched through the gap between the door. I saw Aroon strangle Ruth and then I too was gone, back in the morning, a bar girl waking next to a stranger wondering whether you’d come.’

I’m wheezing, suffocating.

‘So, hello and goodbye to your next life, Tom, or whatever you’re called this time. I’ve already met my next life. In fact, we're in love,’ she smiles. ‘She lives nearby. Call her Suzie. I’m sure we’ll be happy here together, Ash, in your English home. Perhaps Tom, one thing you can take away from all of this, is beware your future wife? Or maybe next time it will be you again who she should watch out for? Either way,’ she sniggers, ‘karma’s a bitch.’

My tea, my wife, my beautiful wife, poisoned it. And I thought… Edward, Stella, Aroon, Ruth, and now Dao and, me, Ash, and… Oh, there is so much to tell you, you my next life, but you too now are disappearing.

 

A PAST LIFE, SOMETIME IN THE MORNING

 (Winner of 1st Prize, Writers' Forum #224)



England, Now

This is the moment I realise I have fully learnt the truths of my previous life, in which I had failed to learn the truths of the lives that came before. I let the sense of ease, the near-wisdom, gently settle within me as I sip my tea, its heat rising to warm my cheeks. I recline in my favourite chair and watch my beautiful wife who I have both kept happy and refrained from strangling. And so I turn now to look upon you – you, my next incarnation – with quiet satisfaction, with a smile that says, ‘Is this not the life?’

And listen, I’m not saying that nirvana is only one lifespan away. And I realise that it’d take more than just one more existence to move on from murder to make it right, but you see the thing is, we overlap.

I know. Confusing. You can call me Ash, and let me take you back to 1992 – that should help. Back to me standing before my previous life, a Thai man named Aroon, as he lay in what would be his deathbed, the end of his life and the beginning of mine. Let him explain, in his near-perfect English.

***

Thailand, 1992

‘The thing is, Ash, when people talk about going back in time, they talk about meeting a younger self, not a previous self. Not someone who is not them but who will be reborn as them. That’s you now,’ he told me. ‘And the moment I die is the moment you’ll be born, and your current manifestation also cease, returning to your present. I know because it happened to me.’

‘How can I know you are me?’ I queried of the old man, his face worn, as rumpled as his bedsheets.

‘Well, you felt that deep bond the moment you found yourself standing there naked yesterday, didn’t you? You trust me. And I don’t think the nursemaid for one moment doesn’t believe you’re not the son of an old English friend. Anyway, do what I did. When you return to the time, the place, you came from, investigate, check my dates, when I died. I swear it’ll be the exact day you were born. Isn’t a dream that accurate!’

He raised his arms, quivering, to join his hands in circles. ‘We are like interlocking chains,’ he said. 'We overlap.’

‘For how long?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. Fifty minutes or fifty years. When you manifest you forget the day you were born. Again, I don't know why. But I don’t think we’ve got long, Ash, so let me confess, because you know little about me, and you need to know, learn, so that if all this can lead to enlightenment as the Lord Buddha preached, that whoever in our future lives we are and will be, we’ll make it there sooner.’ He coughed, spat into a well-used tissue.

I raised the glass of water to his lips, took the seat beside him.

‘You ask how long,’ Aroon continued, ‘well, for me it was longer than it’ll be for you. That wasn’t a good thing though, the way it turned out. Found myself in London, 1919, manifesting myself somehow as we do. You see, my previous life was an Englishman. Edward Abner. He was much younger when I met him, than I am now as you meet me. He talked little about the overlap, just at the beginning, to calm me. His was the generation that fought the Great War. Didn’t talk much about that, either. You see, the last thing I remember I’d fallen asleep in 1946, then I awoke in this man’s room, sometime in the morning.’

‘Like–‘ I needed to know.

‘Like you, Ash. And also like myself when you arrived, Edward wasn’t surprised when he saw me. He knew one day it’d happen. That I’d come.’

‘So he’d done it, too?’

‘Yep. Again, never spoke of his previous life. Anyway, I awoke next to Edward. Also naked. He had his finger to his lips, prompted me to get under the bed. He was so reassuring. I felt perfectly calm – just like you did when you met me. And so I hid.

I spied upon through the gap in the bathroom door at his wife naked. She was so pretty. Anyway, Edward made excuses to her for not going to the office that day, and she left, all spruced up for some society appointment. After waving me out, Edward let me know when and where I was and then he spoke of the overlap. It wasn’t impossible for me to get my head around. I’m Buddhist. That helped. Maybe it’s harder for you?’ Aroon paused, stared at me as if studying his future self, as if discerning the similarities between him and me. Or perhaps me and Edward.

‘So, Edward got me a job as cover,’ he continued. ‘Had a big family firm in shipping. I didn’t have to do anything, just pretend. Said to people I’d been brought over from Asia, that I was more civilised than most, that I’d live with them in their large house, learn the ways of a western gent. He was the boss, so no questions asked. Not at the time, anyway. And he showed me the city, gave me errands. It wasn’t so bad. Sure people’d call me names, but thanks to him, I passed as a respectable gentleman for those times. Yet there was one person I found it too difficult to be around. His wife, Stella. Boy, did Edward really love his Stella. Problem was, so did I.

I remember her saying as we lay in their bed, not long after we’d begun our affair:

“I’m like you, Aroon,” she said.

“How?” I asked

“I didn’t come from another country. I came from another class. It’s not so different,” Stella smirked, “Might as well be another life.”

Turned out she didn’t reciprocate Edward’s feelings. You know, I often wonder if this rebirth thing simply got it wrong, if it got unaligned, that I was meant to be born for Stella, not the sad, shellshocked previous life that was Edward Abner. He adored her, he really did. Must’ve to have married her, someone below his station, into his kind of family. They warned him about Stella. But Edward really loved her, I guess as much as in that short time that I loved her too.’

Aroon closed his eyes for a few moments, before opening them, continuing. ‘Edward never let on he knew. Maybe he didn’t have it in him to murder me, his next life. No, he ended it in a way that I guess made more sense to him, in a crueller manner. You see, one day I returned to the house from the morning’s errands and Stella discretely followed me in as normal. The servants were eating lunch downstairs. Still, I remember I strode up to the bedroom as quietly as possible.

I opened the bedroom door. I froze. I wasn’t expecting to see Edward there. But he was. Hanging. Still alive, but barely. All ashen, his swollen tongue sticking out from within his paling face, his blue lips.’

Aroon paused suddenly almost as if he could see Edward’s dying face in mine. Then he resumed just as abruptly. ‘I heard Stella approach behind me. We took him down, but it was too late. Yet Edward whispered his last to me, not her.

“You betrayed me,” he said, “but you betrayed yourself more.”

Stella shrieked before imploring me to hide, before the servants came.

So I went into the bathroom, watching back through the gap in the door. I saw Edward, his head on its side, the whites of his protruding eyes all blotched red, gazing up towards me, and those blue, blue lips, smiling one last time. A final revenge, perhaps. He knew he’d ended our love affair. For I disappeared, to be born.’

Aroon exhaled harshly, his mouth agape like the rictus of a crow. ‘I awoke the next morning, Ash, back in 1948, knowing it was too vivid to have been a dream. You can see from my house, that like Edward, I’ve been privileged in this life, I’ve not been wanting. So, I flew to London the next day. I checked the records, went into the libraries, read the newspapers, and I found it: ‘Shipping Magnate Hangs Self’. The time of Edward’s death they reported, the time of my birth.

Then I thought about my beautiful Stella, and I scoured all the newspapers until I came across another headline a few months later. ‘Magnate’s Wife Found Dead’. Poisoned herself. We were so in love. She must’ve thought I’d abandoned her. There was never any mention of me in any of the stories. They read as though she were a grief-stricken widow. If she’d left me a note, the family would’ve covered it up. I was so wracked with guilt though, but what could I’ve done? What?’

Aroon fell silent. His guilt pervaded the room, stifling its air.

I remember attempting to lighten things, to talk of his life then lived. ‘Aroon, you were still young when you returned to your own life?’

‘Yes, about your age I think, Ash. That’s what I’m trying to tell you – don’t make the same mistake. I tried moving on. But I knew that my next life – that you – would come. I just didn’t know when. So I got on with living. And it’s funny, funny because not many Thai men marry western women, especially not then, post-war, but Ruth’d been in Singapore, under Japanese internment. Wouldn’t talk of it, but she didn’t want to return to England. She took up work at the embassy. And when I saw her back in 1949 on the streets of Bangkok, I swore it was her straightaway – that she was my beloved Stella reborn.

Our connection was immediate. We married soon after. I remember one night telling her about my past life. She didn’t laugh. She’d learnt Thai well, knew of our beliefs. I told Ruth her name had been Stella, but she could recall none of it. I didn’t go into the details and I guess she shrugged it off, believing it one of those things to be accepted in a marriage across cultures.’

Aroon met my eyes. ‘I suppose we are among the few that overlap, Ash. If others do, maybe they don’t always remember. Like a forgotten dream. Either way, we were so happy, Ruth and I.

But then I thought of you – my next life – whoever you’d be. And the pain festered in me, sucked on all that guilt surrounding my previous, impossible love. I came to obsessing about when you’d arrive. And if, no, when you’d come take Ruth away from me as I'd taken Stella from Edward. I thought you’d come sooner, I did. I grew jealous, constantly asking Ruth where she’d been, where she was going, insistent she go nowhere. I spoilt our love, and understandably she stayed away from me more often, stayed at her office later and later, and my jealousy exploded. Maybe it was her, maybe Ruth was destined to be like that, I told myself, to be an adulterous woman. Maybe Stella had been like that. If it hadn’t been me, it’d’ve been someone else. Maybe Stella’d had others, too? Maybe those “society appointments”? Maybe. Maybe. It drove me crazy thinking that a woman who’d been unfaithful to her husband by having an affair with his next life, that she could’ve even been unfaithful outside that most bizarre of love triangles.

It got too much. One night Ruth came back late. I swear I heard her talk to someone, that somebody else was with her, and I asked her and she refused to answer, refused, and I-I-I put my hands around Ruth’s throat and–‘

Aroon gasped, coughed as he caught his breath, took a moment. Continued. ‘I was sure there was somebody else, some presence lurking, witnessing, but I looked around, checked the adjoining rooms. Found nothing. Just my own fear, guilt. She lay dead before me – I’d killed Ruth.’

We sat in silence a while, Aroon and I, his next life. What was there to say?

‘No-one ever found her body,’ Aroon spoke softly. ‘But after that I couldn’t, didn’t want to live. I wanted to end it, to become you so as to love her in the next life. But damn, I got the poison all wrong. They found me, revived me. My body never recovered though, and I was confined to bed and these hands, so puny. At least now a cancer has come, but even that takes too long. I am cursed. But perhaps…? ’

He gestured towards the pillow.

‘Ash, find her, trust her, love her. Keep her happy. Don’t make the mistakes of us, your past lives, of Edward and Aroon.’ He closed his eyes. ‘You know, I don’t think Ruth was seeing anyone.’

Of course, I hesitated. But it felt right, and I remember Aroon’s pulse weakening. Echoing faintly his passage into his death, my birth and my return.

***

England, Now

I awoke, like Aroon’d said, back in the morning of my life as I'd left it, in 2016. A dream but far too vivid. I don’t purport to understand it, if at all. Even poor old Aroon barely comprehended it.

But I flew to Thailand, and it checked out. Aroon Kasemsuk, 16 March 1920 - 18 April 1992. While I was there I met someone. We fell in love instantly. She was Stella and Ruth I guess, but to me she was Dao. I took her away from her work as a bargirl, took her to England to begin our married life together. She’s made a good friend nearby, Suzie. She's really helped her settle within these cold English shires. I’ve made sure Dao has everything, sent money back to help her family, taken her on trips to see the European sights. And the snow. Nothing’s wanting. And she helps me with my internet business selling WWI memorabilia, so we’re around each other much of the time, falling deeper in love.

And now you, my future self, have arrived. Call me Ash. Don’t be afraid. I know you trust me, and don’t be afraid by these old looking surroundings. It's 2020. And I have no fear of you falling in love with my wife for we can talk freely, for I can warn you of the consequences.

But one thing I do wonder is: why have you come now? I mean I don’t know how long we overlap for. Could it be that you live years alongside me – your past life – before you awake back in your future morning? But, don’t stand there naked. You are, I think, roughly my age, my size. What nationality I wonder? Never mind. Take some clothes from my wardrobe, we’ll go downstairs and I’ll introduce you to Dao, say you’re a friend, and we’ll talk of the overlap and perhaps you can tell me of the future.

‘Darling, this is Tom, my old uni friend.’ Tom will do. You can tell me your real name later.

‘Sawasdee kha, Tom,’ she wai-s as is her custom. ‘Tea?’

‘Please, sweetheart. And one too for my friend Tom.’

But sit. Now let me tell you a little about my previous life Aroon, and his previous life Edward Abner. Let me tell you about the overlap, how like chains we meet, we interlock. You are me next, and I am you before. How can we co-exist? Two lives from one strand, one continuum of life, the same but separate? There are more things, Horatio, that’s all I can say. You are a manifestation, I guess. A very real one. But why have you come so late? I have much to share with you. Here she is now, my wife returned with the tea.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. I was just telling Tom about the life we’ve made together.’

She nods. She’s never been one for too many words, my Dao. Yes, I’ve learnt all those lessons of the past. How not to be jealous, how to live without guilt or fear.

‘This is the life, isn’t it?’ I say, reclining in my favourite chair. I wonder again why you have come now, and I sense a change, a slight but accumulating force like water leaving the sinkhole in reverse. A change, not for the better.

‘I remember her,’ says Dao.

‘Who, my love?’ I ask touching the collar of my shirt, a little flushed.

‘Ruth. In 1953,’ she continues. ‘She couldn’t remember her life before, but I remember hers. And when I manifested she spent all that time with me, stayed out later making sure I was okay, teaching me English, preferring my company to her husband’s, a man called Aroon, a man so consumed by jealousy. And I was there. In the bathroom. I watched through the gap between the door. I saw Aroon strangle Ruth and then I too was gone, back in the morning, a bar girl waking next to a stranger wondering whether you’d come.’

I’m wheezing, suffocating.

‘So, hello and goodbye to your next life, Tom, or whatever you’re called this time. I’ve already met my next life. In fact, we're in love,’ she smiles. ‘She lives nearby. Call her Suzie. I’m sure we’ll be happy here together, Ash, in your English home. Perhaps Tom, one thing you can take away from all of this, is beware your future wife? Or maybe next time it will be you again who she should watch out for? Either way,’ she sniggers, ‘karma’s a bitch.’

My tea, my wife, my beautiful wife, poisoned it. And I thought… Edward, Stella, Aroon, Ruth, and now Dao and, me, Ash, and… Oh, there is so much to tell you, you my next life, but you too now are disappearing.

 

A PAST LIFE, SOMETIME IN THE MORNING

 (Winner of 1st Prize, Writers' Forum #224)



England, Now

This is the moment I realise I have fully learnt the truths of my previous life, in which I had failed to learn the truths of the lives that came before. I let the sense of ease, the near-wisdom, gently settle within me as I sip my tea, its heat rising to warm my cheeks. I recline in my favourite chair and watch my beautiful wife who I have both kept happy and refrained from strangling. And so I turn now to look upon you – you, my next incarnation – with quiet satisfaction, with a smile that says, ‘Is this not the life?’

And listen, I’m not saying that nirvana is only one lifespan away. And I realise that it’d take more than just one more existence to move on from murder to make it right, but you see the thing is, we overlap.

I know. Confusing. You can call me Ash, and let me take you back to 1992 – that should help. Back to me standing before my previous life, a Thai man named Aroon, as he lay in what would be his deathbed, the end of his life and the beginning of mine. Let him explain, in his near-perfect English.

***

Thailand, 1992

‘The thing is, Ash, when people talk about going back in time, they talk about meeting a younger self, not a previous self. Not someone who is not them but who will be reborn as them. That’s you now,’ he told me. ‘And the moment I die is the moment you’ll be born, and your current manifestation also cease, returning to your present. I know because it happened to me.’

‘How can I know you are me?’ I queried of the old man, his face worn, as rumpled as his bedsheets.

‘Well, you felt that deep bond the moment you found yourself standing there naked yesterday, didn’t you? You trust me. And I don’t think the nursemaid for one moment doesn’t believe you’re not the son of an old English friend. Anyway, do what I did. When you return to the time, the place, you came from, investigate, check my dates, when I died. I swear it’ll be the exact day you were born. Isn’t a dream that accurate!’

He raised his arms, quivering, to join his hands in circles. ‘We are like interlocking chains,’ he said. 'We overlap.’

‘For how long?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. Fifty minutes or fifty years. When you manifest you forget the day you were born. Again, I don't know why. But I don’t think we’ve got long, Ash, so let me confess, because you know little about me, and you need to know, learn, so that if all this can lead to enlightenment as the Lord Buddha preached, that whoever in our future lives we are and will be, we’ll make it there sooner.’ He coughed, spat into a well-used tissue.

I raised the glass of water to his lips, took the seat beside him.

‘You ask how long,’ Aroon continued, ‘well, for me it was longer than it’ll be for you. That wasn’t a good thing though, the way it turned out. Found myself in London, 1919, manifesting myself somehow as we do. You see, my previous life was an Englishman. Edward Abner. He was much younger when I met him, than I am now as you meet me. He talked little about the overlap, just at the beginning, to calm me. His was the generation that fought the Great War. Didn’t talk much about that, either. You see, the last thing I remember I’d fallen asleep in 1946, then I awoke in this man’s room, sometime in the morning.’

‘Like–‘ I needed to know.

‘Like you, Ash. And also like myself when you arrived, Edward wasn’t surprised when he saw me. He knew one day it’d happen. That I’d come.’

‘So he’d done it, too?’

‘Yep. Again, never spoke of his previous life. Anyway, I awoke next to Edward. Also naked. He had his finger to his lips, prompted me to get under the bed. He was so reassuring. I felt perfectly calm – just like you did when you met me. And so I hid.

I spied upon through the gap in the bathroom door at his wife naked. She was so pretty. Anyway, Edward made excuses to her for not going to the office that day, and she left, all spruced up for some society appointment. After waving me out, Edward let me know when and where I was and then he spoke of the overlap. It wasn’t impossible for me to get my head around. I’m Buddhist. That helped. Maybe it’s harder for you?’ Aroon paused, stared at me as if studying his future self, as if discerning the similarities between him and me. Or perhaps me and Edward.

‘So, Edward got me a job as cover,’ he continued. ‘Had a big family firm in shipping. I didn’t have to do anything, just pretend. Said to people I’d been brought over from Asia, that I was more civilised than most, that I’d live with them in their large house, learn the ways of a western gent. He was the boss, so no questions asked. Not at the time, anyway. And he showed me the city, gave me errands. It wasn’t so bad. Sure people’d call me names, but thanks to him, I passed as a respectable gentleman for those times. Yet there was one person I found it too difficult to be around. His wife, Stella. Boy, did Edward really love his Stella. Problem was, so did I.

I remember her saying as we lay in their bed, not long after we’d begun our affair:

“I’m like you, Aroon,” she said.

“How?” I asked

“I didn’t come from another country. I came from another class. It’s not so different,” Stella smirked, “Might as well be another life.”

Turned out she didn’t reciprocate Edward’s feelings. You know, I often wonder if this rebirth thing simply got it wrong, if it got unaligned, that I was meant to be born for Stella, not the sad, shellshocked previous life that was Edward Abner. He adored her, he really did. Must’ve to have married her, someone below his station, into his kind of family. They warned him about Stella. But Edward really loved her, I guess as much as in that short time that I loved her too.’

Aroon closed his eyes for a few moments, before opening them, continuing. ‘Edward never let on he knew. Maybe he didn’t have it in him to murder me, his next life. No, he ended it in a way that I guess made more sense to him, in a crueller manner. You see, one day I returned to the house from the morning’s errands and Stella discretely followed me in as normal. The servants were eating lunch downstairs. Still, I remember I strode up to the bedroom as quietly as possible.

I opened the bedroom door. I froze. I wasn’t expecting to see Edward there. But he was. Hanging. Still alive, but barely. All ashen, his swollen tongue sticking out from within his paling face, his blue lips.’

Aroon paused suddenly almost as if he could see Edward’s dying face in mine. Then he resumed just as abruptly. ‘I heard Stella approach behind me. We took him down, but it was too late. Yet Edward whispered his last to me, not her.

“You betrayed me,” he said, “but you betrayed yourself more.”

Stella shrieked before imploring me to hide, before the servants came.

So I went into the bathroom, watching back through the gap in the door. I saw Edward, his head on its side, the whites of his protruding eyes all blotched red, gazing up towards me, and those blue, blue lips, smiling one last time. A final revenge, perhaps. He knew he’d ended our love affair. For I disappeared, to be born.’

Aroon exhaled harshly, his mouth agape like the rictus of a crow. ‘I awoke the next morning, Ash, back in 1948, knowing it was too vivid to have been a dream. You can see from my house, that like Edward, I’ve been privileged in this life, I’ve not been wanting. So, I flew to London the next day. I checked the records, went into the libraries, read the newspapers, and I found it: ‘Shipping Magnate Hangs Self’. The time of Edward’s death they reported, the time of my birth.

Then I thought about my beautiful Stella, and I scoured all the newspapers until I came across another headline a few months later. ‘Magnate’s Wife Found Dead’. Poisoned herself. We were so in love. She must’ve thought I’d abandoned her. There was never any mention of me in any of the stories. They read as though she were a grief-stricken widow. If she’d left me a note, the family would’ve covered it up. I was so wracked with guilt though, but what could I’ve done? What?’

Aroon fell silent. His guilt pervaded the room, stifling its air.

I remember attempting to lighten things, to talk of his life then lived. ‘Aroon, you were still young when you returned to your own life?’

‘Yes, about your age I think, Ash. That’s what I’m trying to tell you – don’t make the same mistake. I tried moving on. But I knew that my next life – that you – would come. I just didn’t know when. So I got on with living. And it’s funny, funny because not many Thai men marry western women, especially not then, post-war, but Ruth’d been in Singapore, under Japanese internment. Wouldn’t talk of it, but she didn’t want to return to England. She took up work at the embassy. And when I saw her back in 1949 on the streets of Bangkok, I swore it was her straightaway – that she was my beloved Stella reborn.

Our connection was immediate. We married soon after. I remember one night telling her about my past life. She didn’t laugh. She’d learnt Thai well, knew of our beliefs. I told Ruth her name had been Stella, but she could recall none of it. I didn’t go into the details and I guess she shrugged it off, believing it one of those things to be accepted in a marriage across cultures.’

Aroon met my eyes. ‘I suppose we are among the few that overlap, Ash. If others do, maybe they don’t always remember. Like a forgotten dream. Either way, we were so happy, Ruth and I.

But then I thought of you – my next life – whoever you’d be. And the pain festered in me, sucked on all that guilt surrounding my previous, impossible love. I came to obsessing about when you’d arrive. And if, no, when you’d come take Ruth away from me as I'd taken Stella from Edward. I thought you’d come sooner, I did. I grew jealous, constantly asking Ruth where she’d been, where she was going, insistent she go nowhere. I spoilt our love, and understandably she stayed away from me more often, stayed at her office later and later, and my jealousy exploded. Maybe it was her, maybe Ruth was destined to be like that, I told myself, to be an adulterous woman. Maybe Stella had been like that. If it hadn’t been me, it’d’ve been someone else. Maybe Stella’d had others, too? Maybe those “society appointments”? Maybe. Maybe. It drove me crazy thinking that a woman who’d been unfaithful to her husband by having an affair with his next life, that she could’ve even been unfaithful outside that most bizarre of love triangles.

It got too much. One night Ruth came back late. I swear I heard her talk to someone, that somebody else was with her, and I asked her and she refused to answer, refused, and I-I-I put my hands around Ruth’s throat and–‘

Aroon gasped, coughed as he caught his breath, took a moment. Continued. ‘I was sure there was somebody else, some presence lurking, witnessing, but I looked around, checked the adjoining rooms. Found nothing. Just my own fear, guilt. She lay dead before me – I’d killed Ruth.’

We sat in silence a while, Aroon and I, his next life. What was there to say?

‘No-one ever found her body,’ Aroon spoke softly. ‘But after that I couldn’t, didn’t want to live. I wanted to end it, to become you so as to love her in the next life. But damn, I got the poison all wrong. They found me, revived me. My body never recovered though, and I was confined to bed and these hands, so puny. At least now a cancer has come, but even that takes too long. I am cursed. But perhaps…? ’

He gestured towards the pillow.

‘Ash, find her, trust her, love her. Keep her happy. Don’t make the mistakes of us, your past lives, of Edward and Aroon.’ He closed his eyes. ‘You know, I don’t think Ruth was seeing anyone.’

Of course, I hesitated. But it felt right, and I remember Aroon’s pulse weakening. Echoing faintly his passage into his death, my birth and my return.

***

England, Now

I awoke, like Aroon’d said, back in the morning of my life as I'd left it, in 2016. A dream but far too vivid. I don’t purport to understand it, if at all. Even poor old Aroon barely comprehended it.

But I flew to Thailand, and it checked out. Aroon Kasemsuk, 16 March 1920 - 18 April 1992. While I was there I met someone. We fell in love instantly. She was Stella and Ruth I guess, but to me she was Dao. I took her away from her work as a bargirl, took her to England to begin our married life together. She’s made a good friend nearby, Suzie. She's really helped her settle within these cold English shires. I’ve made sure Dao has everything, sent money back to help her family, taken her on trips to see the European sights. And the snow. Nothing’s wanting. And she helps me with my internet business selling WWI memorabilia, so we’re around each other much of the time, falling deeper in love.

And now you, my future self, have arrived. Call me Ash. Don’t be afraid. I know you trust me, and don’t be afraid by these old looking surroundings. It's 2020. And I have no fear of you falling in love with my wife for we can talk freely, for I can warn you of the consequences.

But one thing I do wonder is: why have you come now? I mean I don’t know how long we overlap for. Could it be that you live years alongside me – your past life – before you awake back in your future morning? But, don’t stand there naked. You are, I think, roughly my age, my size. What nationality I wonder? Never mind. Take some clothes from my wardrobe, we’ll go downstairs and I’ll introduce you to Dao, say you’re a friend, and we’ll talk of the overlap and perhaps you can tell me of the future.

‘Darling, this is Tom, my old uni friend.’ Tom will do. You can tell me your real name later.

‘Sawasdee kha, Tom,’ she wai-s as is her custom. ‘Tea?’

‘Please, sweetheart. And one too for my friend Tom.’

But sit. Now let me tell you a little about my previous life Aroon, and his previous life Edward Abner. Let me tell you about the overlap, how like chains we meet, we interlock. You are me next, and I am you before. How can we co-exist? Two lives from one strand, one continuum of life, the same but separate? There are more things, Horatio, that’s all I can say. You are a manifestation, I guess. A very real one. But why have you come so late? I have much to share with you. Here she is now, my wife returned with the tea.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. I was just telling Tom about the life we’ve made together.’

She nods. She’s never been one for too many words, my Dao. Yes, I’ve learnt all those lessons of the past. How not to be jealous, how to live without guilt or fear.

‘This is the life, isn’t it?’ I say, reclining in my favourite chair. I wonder again why you have come now, and I sense a change, a slight but accumulating force like water leaving the sinkhole in reverse. A change, not for the better.

‘I remember her,’ says Dao.

‘Who, my love?’ I ask touching the collar of my shirt, a little flushed.

‘Ruth. In 1953,’ she continues. ‘She couldn’t remember her life before, but I remember hers. And when I manifested she spent all that time with me, stayed out later making sure I was okay, teaching me English, preferring my company to her husband’s, a man called Aroon, a man so consumed by jealousy. And I was there. In the bathroom. I watched through the gap between the door. I saw Aroon strangle Ruth and then I too was gone, back in the morning, a bar girl waking next to a stranger wondering whether you’d come.’

I’m wheezing, suffocating.

‘So, hello and goodbye to your next life, Tom, or whatever you’re called this time. I’ve already met my next life. In fact, we're in love,’ she smiles. ‘She lives nearby. Call her Suzie. I’m sure we’ll be happy here together, Ash, in your English home. Perhaps Tom, one thing you can take away from all of this, is beware your future wife? Or maybe next time it will be you again who she should watch out for? Either way,’ she sniggers, ‘karma’s a bitch.’

My tea, my wife, my beautiful wife, poisoned it. And I thought… Edward, Stella, Aroon, Ruth, and now Dao and, me, Ash, and… Oh, there is so much to tell you, you my next life, but you too now are disappearing.