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The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
Genre: Contemporary Fiction/ Humor
Publication Date: January 26, 2017
With elements of The Wizard of Oz and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead shows how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, and how sometimes we can get a second chance.
On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions. It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… Or does God have a higher purpose after all?
At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decision to make and that maybe she needs to find a way home.
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The old man was as good as his word and a tray was swiftly brought by a male nurse in white clinical overalls who looked spookily like a young James Bond. On it was a plate of grilled lamb cutlets, string beans and sautéed potatoes. There was also a warm bread roll with a knob of butter and, under a silver dome, a bowl of chocolate profiteroles with cream. In short, exactly what she would have ordered in an expensive restaurant, given the choice, and if she’d ever been able to afford to eat in one. Also on the tray was a small metal jug of white wine, which made no sense. During her coma, had it become health service policy to keep patients inebriated? And why the metal jug?
“The boss says that you’re up and about now,” he remarked, placing the tray down and making sure it was well balanced on her knees. The jug of wine and glass he placed on her bedside table. Why wasn’t there a bunch of flowers in a vase? That’s the first thing her mother would have brought. It was the first thing she always took to friends and relatives in hospital, even the ones who suffered from hay fever.
“Who was the old man? The one who was here a minute ago?” she asked, as if there might be several old men in her wing of the hospital. “Grey hair. Beard. Beads,” she added.
The nurse merely gave a small shrug. “He’ll tell you himself the next time you meet. Anyway,” he added, making for the door, and looking uncomfortable, “if there’s anything else I can do, just ask.”
“I’d like to know how long I’ve been asleep.”
“Asleep?” The nurse raised one eyebrow.
“Yes, asleep. I mean, how long have I been here?”
He didn’t reply for a few moments, hands clasped behind his back. “Not long, as far as I know.”
“And how long is not long?” she asked. “Look, if you don’t know, could I please speak to someone who does.” Lorna, running out of patience, had raised her voice. The nurse took a step backwards towards the door.
“All in good time,” he assured her and indicated the tray. “For now, you need to eat. Get your strength back.”
“Look, I really need to know how long I’ve been here. Can I see a doctor? Actually, I shouldn’t have to bloody ask that, should I? What kind of useless hospital is this?”
The nurse, perhaps unused to being shouted at, had backed himself to the door. “Anything you need, just ask. Okay?”
Lorna wanted to scream at him. “But how?” she asked instead, looking around the blank walls for a call button. “And what did he mean by not feeding the little brutes?”
“Just ask, that’s all. Your room is sound-activated so don’t worry, I’ll hear.” He touched a blank place on the wall that somehow made the pneumatic door hiss open. “But he’s right about not feeding them,” he added as the white door closed again, leaving Lorna utterly exasperated. – The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is a modern fairytale of love and loss. It’s about the subtle ways in which we change, and how the small decisions that we make can have profound and unintended consequences.
On one level, the book is a simple story of a young woman’s life. But, for those readers who want to make the connection, The Things We Learn is also a retelling of The Wizard of Oz: how a young woman in ultimately tragic circumstances comes to reassess her life and find a new beginning.
Lorna Love, born and brought up in small-town Scotland, is apparently killed in a car accident on the day of the London bus and tube bombings. But the afterlife isn’t quite what she expected. For a start, Heaven is a broken-down spaceship and God is the double of Sean Connery.
However, the book is neither fantasy nor sci-fi; Heaven simply a dreamscape through which Lorna comes to see her life through new eyes. It allows the narrative to move between Heaven and Earth, retelling Lorna’s life in flashback – from the people she loved, to the death of her brother, and the ill-fated pregnancy and termination that precipitated her accident. The emotional finale of the book is when her best friend becomes a victim of the King’s Cross underground train bombing.
The reader will understand the overall familiarity and tradition of the utopia/dystopia narrative and that Lorna is far from dead. As Heaven begins to offer mirror-images of her life on Earth, the reader will also understand that the book is about why Lorna went to Heaven and why she’ll be given a second chance of life.
In fulfilling familiar expectations, the book offers a counterpoint between the absurdities of Lorna’s imagined Heaven and banality of her rather ordinary life. The book, grounded in the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, also offers the metaphor that we are all connected, even by distant events.
It is, essentially, a humorous book, using an oblique construct to provide a new perspective on a familiar theme. But, while making the familiar unfamiliar – and therefore making the readers’ journey worthwhile – it also reassures them that Lorna will have her second chance.
Of course, like Dorothy before her, Lorna chooses to go home.
– Charlie Laidlaw (Author of TTWLWWD)
I was born in Paisley, central Scotland, which wasn’t my fault. That week, Eddie Calvert with Norrie Paramor and his Orchestra were Top of the Pops, with Oh, Mein Papa, as sung by a young German woman remembering her once-famous clown father. That gives a clue to my age, not my musical taste.
I was brought up in the west of Scotland and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.
I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics. I interviewed motorbike ace Barry Sheene, Noel Edmonds threatened me with legal action and, because of a bureaucratic muddle, I was ordered out of Greece.
I then took a year to travel round the world, visiting 19 countries. Highlights included being threatened by a man with a gun in Dubai, being given an armed bodyguard by the PLO in Beirut (not the same person with a gun), and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa. What I did for the rest of the year I can’t quite remember
Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then. However, it turned out to be very boring and I don’t like vodka martini.
Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and I’ve still to listen to Oh, Mein Papa.
I am married with two grown-up children and live in central Scotland. And that’s about it.
Win 1 of 2 print copies of TTWLWWD, signed by the author