Listen, Learn, Read on.
By Helen Fayle
A Second Interlude.
A wake is the strangest phenomenon: it's one of the few times where people who cannot stand to be in the same room with each other for five minutes at a time will happily swap stories in a corner, before circulating to another conversation and verbally ripping apart whomsoever they were just talking to. Where family and friends can meet for the first time in years, only to realise that they have nothing to say to one another. And never really did.
And of course, there's always an elderly relative walking around the room holding onto an equally decrepit family tortoise, complaining to all and sundry that it's just done something unmentionable down the front of his trousers: Just don't ask him for a canapé.
This one, despite the attendees and the nature of the deceased, is no different. Thankfully, no one has invited the relatives this time.
This time. If truth be told, Sarah has no real idea when or where she is: Iris had made the arrangements, and as usual the result is - bizarre - to say the least. "Neutral territory" she'd called it. A pocket universe tucked away in a corner of the vortex, where timelines and space can mingle without fear for the consequences.
It looks as if the décor was created by a drug-crazed hybrid of Escher and Mandlebrot. And the surreal fractal pulsing of the surroundings is making her feel a bit ill. Unless it's the mushroom vol-au-vont.
"It's all rather over the top, don't you think?" The voice is quiet, full of conspiratorial amusement.
Sarah turns to look at the speaker - a young man, long red hair falling with only a slight curl to his shoulders; green eyes, and an oh-so-easy on the eyes smile framed by a neatly trimmed beard. Despite her mood, she finds herself responding to the smile with one of her own.
He reaches out and takes her arm, steering her to a quieter area. "It's a bit over the top, don't you think?" he repeats.
"Oh, I don't know. Some of him would have rather enjoyed it," she replies.
He finds a small garden area, with two wicker chairs nestled in the centre of a manicured, postage stamp lawn. Sitting easily in one, he flicks his long black coat out of his way with a practised elegance, and gestures to Sarah to sit.
"Please. You look like someone who needs to talk."
She eyes him suspiciously, but she takes the seat. "To a stranger?" She leans forward, making quite sure he knows she's not someone to be pushed around.
Those light green eyes look deeper into hers for a brief moment. "Am I?"
She rests her chin on her hand. "You tell me. Who are you?"
"That," he says quietly, "is a good question. Call me Taliesin, if you need to call me anything. Names can have peculiar qualities, don't you think?"
"They do?" She is starting to feel a little confused, and it isn't wholly due to the wine.
Another quiet, fleeting smile. "So they say. Personally, I think you can tell a lot from a person by the names they choose."
"Did you choose 'Taliesin'?" Sarah asks, sensing an opening.
"You could say… it chose me. It's certainly fitting, so I see no reason to change it."
Sarah is starting to feel like Alice caught face to face with the White Rabbit. She narrows her eyes, brushes a strand of silver-shot hair back off her face. "Why are you here?" There is, as ever, a refuge of sorts in questions.
"Another good question. Maybe it's one I can't answer." It's obvious he knows that place of safety as well. He sips at his glass of wine, his eyes fixed on her face.
She snorts. "That's ridiculous. I mean, it's a wake, everyone's here for the same reason - "
"Are they?" He asks abruptly, leaning towards her. "How do you know?"
Confused, she stares at him. "I don't understand…"
"Yes you do. He points back towards the main throng. "Friends, enemies, acquaintances, politicians… they're all here for different reasons. Some to gloat, some to mourn, some just because they think it's the thing to do. You were a journalist - are you telling me you couldn't get a hundred stories from the beings in there, if you wanted to?"
"That was a lifetime ago. And how do you know what I was?"
"I know a lot of things." He leaned back in the chair, relaxed again. "I've been many things."
"A friend of his?" Sarah hazards a guess. He shakes his head.
"I never met the man."
"But you're here," Sarah points out. "So why?"
Those eyes hold her again. "Do you know who Taliesin was on your world, Sarah?"
"A mythical bard. Pulled from a river, he was called Gwion until he was reborn from the goddess Ceridwen as Taliesin…" A thought stirrs, a flutter of hope. But no, it is impossible.
"Suppose," he says, leaning forwards again, and taking her hand, "suppose someone was granted a second chance. Suppose, just for a moment, that that someone was granted one short time to be somewhere- that this was a price that had to be paid."
Sarah opens her mouth to speak, but he reaches out and touches a finger lightly to her lips, briefly.
"Ssshhh. Let me finish. Just suppose that he was granted one gift. But that if he said anything directly, or allowed someone to say something that related to what had gone before, the spell would be broken, and like Orpheus, his one chance would fade away. What do you think he would ask for?"
Her eyes are fixed on his, widening suddenly. Before she can speak, he presses a finger again to her lips.
"Sshhh, don't break the spell!"
She almost laughs, he looks and sounds so earnest. "You're crazy - and talking in riddles!" she hisses. "It's impossible."
"Riddles are what I'm best at. And you're right. That would be impossible. A rebirth is not a renewal, after all. Maybe I'm not what you think I am." The smile widens to a grin, but the eyes are serious, and slightly worried. "But you didn't answer my question."
"Which one?" she shoots back. "You are a question, in yourself, aren't you? What are you?"
"I've been so many things… where do you want me to start? 'I have been in many shapes, Before I attained a congenial form…' " He declaims softly. She glares at him.
"Are you mocking me?"
His voice is still so soft. "Never that, Sarah-Jane." He gestures, and she sees a doorway shimmer in the riotous maelstrom of colour surrounding them. "I could start at the beginning, but I suppose, in a way, that's what I'm offering."
"You've lost me."
"I do hope not." His smile is mischievous, for a moment. "Here, where Iris has elected to hold a wake, in this place where so many possibilities meet, at a celebration of an ending, I'm offering you a new beginning."
Irresistibly, his hand pulls her from her seat, towards him. Standing this close, she notices vaguely that he isn't that tall - although he still has about five inches on her slight frame. He looks down at her, and lays his free hand -the one not still holding hers, on her cheek.
"It's a choice, Sarah. One step, to a new start, a new life. If you want it. One threshold to cross."
She looks away, her heart fluttering, her mind racing, still unsure of exactly what he's offering. "I'm too old to start again," she says, stalling for time.
"That's easily remedied. I wouldn't ask otherwise."
She bites her lip, and raises her head, her eyes seeking his again. "How do I know you are who I think you are?"
"Maybe it's a question of faith." He squeezes her hand gently. "All you have to do is not look back, remember?"
"You're mixing your mythologies," She snaps back, shivering, even though there is no draft… She stares at the pale doorway. Such a fragile thing…
"The universe is defined by our choices. Someone you once knew made a poor choice once, abandoned something he loved dearly. And because of pride, or fear, or simple arrogance, never rectified that mistake." His voice took on a deeper, compelling tone. "Choices, Sarah - and faith. Will you make a choice?"
He is standing behind her now, not touching her. Without turning, she says softly:
"The question you asked me - would - someone - ask to come back to correct a choice?"
"He might" is the barely audible reply. "He might."
"Then," she says, "why not?"
And in another time, another place, a woman in a rose coloured gown licks a finger and turns a page in a book she carries.
Author's note: "Taliesin" was written with Eric Stoltz (most recently in Little Women and The Prophecy) in mind.
The story follows on from "Nine Queens", and was sparked by a comment from Paul Magrs that he liked Nine Queens, but wanted to see the wake!
And I owe a big debt to Robert Graves, whose book on poetry and myth "The White Goddess" has inspired more than this little fragment over the years for me. Also this story owes a little debt to Deep Purple's "Book of Taliesin", for a song title and an image: "You have to turn the page to read the Book of Taliesin".