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The Veil – Extract Seven

Naomi goes to visit her Aunty Esther in her care home.

Great Aunty Esther had seen a lot and the shelves in her room in nursing home were a collection of the family history. Pictures of her lost brothers and sisters stood in dusty little picture frames on the shelves. Her husband that died too young gazed down at her from above the bed. She had never married again, she couldn’t bare to love another after him. After he had gone, she dedicated her life to baking cakes and presiding over the family as the gentle, but slightly infirm matriarch. Slowly though she had deteriorated and it was Aunty Esther herself that decided to move into care, not wanting to be a burden on the family. Now, it was only Naomi who made regular visits. Esther didn’t seem too worried. Her mind had started to stray and she revisited her memories and people through photographs and treasured albums.

Naomi loved Aunt Esther very much, and made time to go and see her every couple of weeks at the home where she stayed with a sweet, but all-be-it slightly eccentric collection of other old dears. She quite enjoyed going to see her. She enjoyed making Aunty Esther a cup of tea or two and listened to her stories. She also secretly enjoyed the flirtatious comments she received from the old boys there too. They always had a twinkle in their eye when they saw her as well as a good old fashioned chat-up line or two. Having seen some of their photos, had they been fifty years younger, she would have gladly accepted a date with some of them.

They mostly sat in winged arm chairs that had plastic upholstery that squeaked when they moved. These poor old dears had to have the furniture protected from any accidents they might have. They couldn’t help it. They couldn’t help that they had lost a lot of the control of their faculties and functions and smelt vaguely of urine and colostomy bags. Never-the-less though, her visits were always pleasant. It gave her a chance to escape from her hectic life and sit with her Aunty Esther and learn something of how life and love used to be ‘back in the day’. It always brought a smile to her face to listen to the innocence of nineteen forties and fifties loving.

Walking in through the automatic doors into the home, Naomi was overcome as always, by the smell. It was too much cleaning fluid mixed in with the unmistakable aroma of old age. It didn’t take long too get over it, it was just one of those things. Perhaps her sense of smell was being numbed by the acid in the air.

Waving to the nurse on the reception desk, she walked through the living room and greeted the residents as she went, stopping to pick up a tissue one of them had dropped on the way passed, patted the old lady on the hand and smiled sweetly to her.

Down the hall, she passed a gentleman struggling on his frame. She knew Albert from when Aunty Esther came to the home a few years ago. He looked dreadfully frail now and helped him along to the living room and into ‘his’ chair. She feared he didn’t have long left here and gently squeezed his shoulder as she stood up again and said that she had to go and see Esther. His crumpled old face drew itself unsteadily into a smile, a hand shaking it’s way up to hers on his shoulder and patted it softly, thanking her for her kindness.

Down the hall and looking into Aunty Esther’s room, Naomi saw her sitting as she always did, looking out the window towards the hills in the distance humming to herself and unrecognisable tune. The old lady seemed happy for someone close to a century old. She could still get herself around though. Nothing was going to get her down. The sun was streaming through the window down onto her knees, allowing her to leave the blanket off her legs for a while, the natural warmth gently baking her old legs through her pop-socks and long skirt. Naomi stood against the door frame for a moment and watched her, happy in her own little world and a lifetime of memories to think back on.

“Hello, Naomi.” Said Aunty Esther without looking. “Come in and sit down.”

“How did you know it was me, Aunty Esther” Naomi replied with wide smile.

“Your smell, deary. Your smell. You don’t smell like bleach and wee like everyone else here!” Aunty Esther chuckled to herself as Naomi came into the room and helped her out of her chair.

“I can do it, lovey, I can do it.”

“Come on Aunty, let me help you” Naomi took the old lady’s arm and helped her into her ‘reception chair’ as she called it: The one she sat in when she had guests. It had a clear path to the kettle and to the worn oval coffee table in front of the two chairs around it.

“Leave it. I can do it. Let me put the kettle on. Sit down, there’s a good girl.” Aunty Esther had a stoop and looked like she was constantly bending over to duck beneath low beams in an old house.

“Can I help . . .?”

“No, Naomi. Stop fussing, I’ll do it. What brings you here today. I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Oh, well. I need to tell you something, Aunty.”

“It can’t be good news if you’re stumbling over it. Come on, out with it.”

“It’s Aaron, Aunty. I’m sorry I’ve not been to see you before now. You remember Aaron, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course I do.” She snapped “I may be old, but I’m not stupid. What about him? He’s just come in, can’t he tell me himself?”

Stunned, Naomi’s heart began to race as she looked around her in the small room. There was no-one there with them. They were perfectly alone.

“No Aunty, he’s not. He can’t be He . . .” Her voice trailed off as she reached into her handbag for a tissue and looked to the ceiling, apparently searching for strength to hold herself together.

“Have you two split up?” Aunty Esther filled the uncomfortable gap.

Naomi coughed back her need to break down. “No Aunty. He died three weeks ago. His funeral was last week. I’m so sorry I couldn’t get here any sooner.”

Aunty Esther’s fingers slipped on the glaze of the china cups and sent one suddenly skidding along the worktop. She stood perfectly still. The natural shake in her hands now gone. She looked at the cupboard door in front of her. “Really, dear? Maybe I’m so used to seeing you both together that my old mind is seeing things. Yes, that’s it. My old mind is playing tricks on me. I’m very sorry to hear that. He was a lovely man. A real keeper.”

“I know aunty. He was.”

“Time to move on now, though, eh? Don’t waste time moping about it. Pick yourself up, brush yourself down and get on with it! You’re too young to be bowed down.” Aunty Esther’s matter-of-factness was interestingly refreshing. Here was an old lady who had seen her fair share of lost friends and funerals and had every right to be so blunt. These aged folk were made of much tougher stuff than most people many years their junior.

The tea now made, Aunty Esther carefully brought the tea tray over to the little table, spilling a few drops of milk from the small jug and nearly losing the teapot. Naomi reached up and helped guide the tray down, but still giving the aged aunt a feeling of doing it herself. “Shall I be mother?” Naomi said with a smile as Aunty Esther sat down in her chair, leaning back slightly with her hands in her lap.

“Yes please, dear. You’re very kind.”

The two ladies sat in silence for a moment as Naomi made the tea, added two spoons of sugar for Aunty Esther, and none for herself. “What happened with Aaron then, Naomi? What happened to the poor boy?”

“He was out with some friends and he collapsed and died of an aneurysm. He was gone in seconds apparently. The paramedics declared him dead right there. There was nothing anyone could have done.” Naomi was surprised at how straight-to-the-point she sounded. This was the first time she had really spoken about it with anyone, preferring to keep everything to herself, but now she felt a bit more ready to talk about it.

Aunty Esther looked shocked. “The poor, poor boy. So young aswell. How old was he?”

“Thirty four.”

“Such a shame, and such a nice man too. Very handsome.” Aunty Esther looked at Naomi with a sparkle in her eye. ‘The old girl always had a naughty side to her’, Naomi thought. ‘Perhaps that’s why she’s still so sprightly; an active imagination and a lust for life.’

“And how are you getting on, dear?” Aunty Esther’s tone was certainly serious. She adored her eldest niece. Naomi was the only one who bothered to come to see her and spend time talking to her, keep her up to date on family business. She was such a caring girl, a real catch for Aaron. Such a pity he had to leave her like that.

“I’m OK, thank you Aunty. Aaron’s funeral was as nice as it could be. There were lots of people there. I had no idea really how many people knew him enough to want to come. It was very touching. I thought I . . .” Her voice quietened as she was about to mention what she thought she had seen, and then changed the subject. “The wake was very nice too. Lots of people came to that too, but mostly closer friends and family.. I’m looking forward to getting on with my life now. My good friend Jane came round on the evening of the wake and gave me a bit of a talking to.” She giggled. “She said that I have to move on and let Aaron live in my heart and to never forget him.”

“People are very different to those my age, you know, dear. When I was your age, if you lost your husband, that was it, you never married again. One love, that’s all we allowed ourselves. When I lost your Uncle Joseph, I swore there would be another man for me. I don’t expect you to do the same, though, dear. You are too young and pretty to not allow someone else to love you. You deserve it, my girl. Look at you, you are a picture.”

Naomi’s phone rang out as she blushed at Aunty Esther’s praise. She took it out of her handbag and looked at the message. She quickly put it back, so not to interrupt the conversation any longer. “Sorry, Aunty. Thank you.”

“Seems like you already have an admirer.” Aunty Esther was very intuitive and could tell when anyone was hiding something. She smiled a cheeky smile that Naomi instantly recognised as one of all-knowing and it wasn’t trying to hide anything from her. She already knew.

“Just a friend, Aunty.” She avoided eye contact, instead looking at the picture of Uncle Joseph on the wall above the bed.

“Tell me more, Naomi. There’s more about Aaron isn’t there? You can’t tell me you’re not keeping something from me.”

“Well, at the funeral, I think, but I don’t know for sure. And then when I got home. . .” She was struggling to find the right words to explain what she had seen. It shouldn’t be that difficult, just tell it like it is, she thought to herself.

“You saw him, didn’t you?” Aunty Esther’s voice dropped to a near whisper, as if about to tell a secret. “And you don’t believe me that’s he’s here now, do you?”

Naomi went cold. This was the second time Aunty Esther had mentioned him being there, but she couldn’t see anything. “Yes, I thought I had seen him. I thought I saw him at the funeral and again when I got home. But it couldn’t have been him, Aunty. He’s dead, and there’s no coming back from that. And no, I don’t believe he’s here now. I can’t see him, or feel him.”

“Hmm, Naomi you are so blind to your heart aren’t you? When your Uncle Joseph died, I was just as distraught as you, but do you know something?” Naomi shook her head and Aunty Esther leaned forward and touched her knee. “There’s a very thin veil between us and them, you know. The dead are only a heartbreak away and sometimes they are right by our sides. And it only takes enough longing and desire of the heart to see through that veil for a moment or two, and then they appear, standing there in front of us, looking just as we remember them.”

“I can’t believe that, Aunty. Once you’re gone, you are gone.”

“Don’t be so certain dear girl. When Joseph died, I missed him terribly, as I am sure you do, Aaron. I could see him any time I wanted to for a short while after he died, and I didn’t even have to close my eyes and dream. He was right there with me. That is, until he went with the Principium Angeli.” She looked regretful now, missing her late husband again.

“The principi what?” said Naomi, confused and not really wanting to continue the conversation, but was now very interested in what the old lady had to say.

“The Principium Angeli. They are the ones who come and take the souls of the dead to wherever they have to go to. Heaven, I suppose. They came and took Joseph. They said that it was time to go and with a wave goodbye, he went with them one day. Just after lunch, it was as I was having a nap. Another cup of tea, dear?”

Naomi’s head was spinning. “Oh, yes please. But what is the Principium Angeli? Where do they come from,? Who are they?”

“Like I said, dear, they take the souls away. Cleaning up the realm between here and wherever they all end up. They are angels. There are nine of them in all I think. Everyone has heard of the head honcho, Gabriel. He’s the one who does most of the talking, he’s the most powerful I think. There’s also Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Samael. I forget the others, but everyone knows Sataniel. He’s not with them anymore. He went a long time ago.”

“How do you know all this, Aunty Esther? You’re scaring me.”

“Uncle Joseph used to talk to me in my sleep. We would share dreams together. It was nice for a few weeks after he died. We used to go anywhere we wanted and do anything we wanted to in my dreams for that short time. It was so lovely, and that is where he lives now. In my dreams.” Aunty Esther started to look up to the photograph of her handsome Joseph above her bed. She sniffed and turned back to Naomi. “There’s no need to be scared, my dear. It will come to us all, eventually.”

Naomi couldn’t quite find the words to reply with. Instead, she sat uncomfortably still with her tea in one hand and the other stroking the arm of the chair. Aunty Esther looked again at the picture in silence, memories rushing through her head when she turned back and looked Naomi straight in the eye with a comforting gaze. “We will all meet the Principium when they come for us. Did I ever tell you I met them once, briefly.”

Staggered by this last comment, Naomi coughed. “No, Aunty, you didn’t. What happened?” She felt like she was entertaining a child who had come home from school with a tall tale to tell. She couldn’t believe a word of it. God, Angels, the afterlife.? What a load of rubbish. As far as she was concerned, when you are gone, you are gone.

“Do you remember when I had my heart attack about 10 years ago? I was seventy eight at the time.” Aunty Esther waited, seemingly keen to tell Naomi all about it.

“Yes, Aunty, I do. Didn’t you nearly die?”

“Nearly? I DID die that day. Not at home though, but when I got to the hospital.” Aunty Esther was almost excited to be telling her story.

Naomi started to become interested “Oh. I didn’t know that.”

“Well, after the ambulance got me to the hospital, the doctors and nurses did some things to me. I don’t know what, but I seem to remember I had a drip in my arm and a mask over my face to help me breathe properly. There were a few of them around me, and I remember seeing them and hearing them talk about me like I wasn’t there. But I was you know.”

Naomi nodded and drank more of her tea knowing precisely what was coming next even though she had never heard the story before.

Aunty Esther continued. “I began to feel very sleepy and very light. The doctors and nurses started to move around me. Quickly this time, and I could hear a single high pitched tone in my ears. Then I think I must have fallen asleep and began to have a most bizarre dream.” She sat as upright as she could in her chair and was now leaning forwards, beckoning Naomi to come closer as if she was about to divulge an incredible secret.

“It was then dear, that I died. The doctors told me afterwards. But it is what I saw whilst I was dead that I’ve never told anyone before.”

Naomi put down her tea, completely intrigued by the old lady’s tale. She leaned forwards too, taking hold of Aunty Esther’s outstretched hand.

“Go on, Aunty. What happened in your dream.”

“Well,” she purred “I don’t think it was a dream as such, but I felt myself being gently pulled upwards. There was no resistance like my body was coming with me, but it was my soul leaving my body and moving upwards in the room. I could turn a see everyone doing things to me, but I couldn’t feel anything at all only peace.”

Naomi raised her eyebrows at what she was hearing. It sounded completely plausible, but something inside her made her dismiss this experience as nothing but nonsense.

“Now, the next thing I remember was the ceiling of the room becoming very bright and I went to it. Inside the light, I could see nine figures standing there in front of me, blindingly bright and they had their arms out stretched, welcoming me. Like this.” She pulled her hand away from Naomi’s and copied the gesture. “I went to them and the leader spoke to me. He said ‘You are The Lord’s child, Esther, and he is ready for us to take you to him.’ I was all confused and asked them who they were. The leader told me his name was Gabriel and he was one of the Principium Angeli and that they are the angels that meet the souls of the newly deceased.” She paused. “They are the guides from this life to the next, Naomi”

Naomi was so stunned, she wasn’t sure when she had last taken a breath. Her eyes were quite wide at the conviction with which Aunty Esther was telling her story. It seemed so far fetched that she thought it could never be true. But there was something about it, and coming from this aged aunty that she looked up to, that said the story had to be true.

“What happened next, Aunty.”

“Other than the nine figures in front of me, I couldn’t see anything else at all. I didn’t feel hot or cold, elated nor frightened. I was wearing the clothes I had on before going to hospital and everything around me was blank. It didn’t seem to have a colour, it was just blank. I can’t explain it very well.” She wet her lips with a sip of tea. “I asked who they all were, and all they said was their names. No second names, and they only said the one word each, except for Gabriel. He said, ‘Esther, dear child. Now does not have to be your time. You can return to your body and live out your days until your time comes, or you can choose to come with us now and your time of life will be over.’”

So engrossed with the story now, as tall as it may be, Naomi had blocked out all other sounds from her ears apart from Aunty Esther’s voice that was speaking quietly and lower than normal. Perhaps she didn’t want anyone else to hear what she was saying. After all, this story was far beyond what you would expect to hear from a little old lady in a nursing home. Stories of nineteen fifties dance halls and staying out till ten o’clock, maybe. But a near death experience?

“Just then, Naomi, my Joseph walked up to me and took me by the hand.” Aunty Esther’s eyes began to well with tears and she reached up her sleeve for a tissue.

Naomi shuffled her chair forwards and she placed her hands on Aunty Esther’s knees, squeezing them gently. “You don’t have to go on, Aunty. It’s alright.”

“Oh, it’s not painful, dear. It’s the most precious memory I have. Not everyone can say they hugged their husband or wife fifteen years after they died, can they?”

“No, I suppose not, Aunty.”

“Well, when I was holding Joseph he told me that I had to come back and finish my life and that I would be with him again soon enough. There was no rush, he wasn’t getting any older! He looked so happy and younger than when he died. He told me that I had to come back for the family. He said you all needed me and will do for many years to come. Like now I suppose. You’ve come to me and I hope I’ve helped you.”

Naomi smiled reassuringly at Aunty Esther. “Yes, Aunty Esther, I guess you have in a funny sort of way.” Quite how she had helped, Naomi wasn’t sure.

“So you see, I had to come back. I had a job to do. I didn’t know it was the Principium Angeli that had taken Joseph that day during my map. I didn’t make the connection until I had met them for myself. And now I am telling you, preparing you for when it is your turn to meet them. But you may not be lucky enough to come back for a second bite of the cherry. It depends if you still have a purpose for being here at all.”

“But what about Aaron, Aunty? Is he really here?” Naomi had ignored the last part of the story with an involuntary shiver and was now more concerned about the presence of Aaron around her.

“I don’t know for certain, dear girl. I thought I saw him, but clearly, as he is not here to see, I couldn’t have. As I said, it must have been my old mind playing tricks on me. What does your heart say?” Aunty Esther looked uncomfortable as Naomi reclined in her seat, sighing deeply.

“Honestly, Aunty Esther, I have no idea. I thought I saw him at the funeral. No! I know I saw him at the funeral and thought I saw him at home that night. But does my heart say he’s here? I have no idea what to think at the moment.” Naomi was sounding frustrated.

“Well, dear. Has he tried to contact you? Perhaps in a dream or when you are alone at home?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I have Naomi, just not through your dreams, I haven’t known how to.” Aaron said, sitting on the bed beneath the photograph of Uncle Joseph. Coming here had been a very good idea. He had been given the key what he hoped to be the way he could actually speak to Naomi. All he had to do was get inside her head.

“Joseph used to come to me in my dreams. We could go anywhere and do anything then. My dreams became our world together. Tonight, as you go to sleep, be aware that if Aaron is with you, he may try to contact you. Now, it’s nearly my lunchtime and I’m sure you’ve got better things to be doing than sitting talking to a batty old thing like me. I hope I’ll see you again soon, Naomi. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

Naomi felt as though she had been dismissed from her aunt’s presence. “Oh, Okay, Aunty Esther. I’ll pop by next week again.” She sounded slightly put out, but polite none-the-less.