The Unborn Versus The Undead
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"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."
— Article 40.3.3. of the Constitution of Ireland
Chapter 2: The Dream Team
They entered Davy Byrne’s. Rush was vaguely aware that it was a famous pub for some reason and he could therefore have guessed that there might be something a bit unusual about it in the psychic world, but he was unprepared for the stark duality of the place. There were two distinct realities and times superimposed in this one location, jostling and interfering with each other and with the living beings occupying space within it, all of whom looked slightly frantic, as if aware of and worried about the fact that their psychic energy was being called upon to feed an active clash of actualities. Old men dressed in the conservative fashion of the early 1900s leaned over a curved, hand-carved wooden bar, which somehow managed to be bathed in a weak light filtered by smoked glass from a non-existent window; they complained loudly about the fashionable and wealthy young people who sat at the modern circular tables that stood before a comfortable length of sofa, bathed in turn by an altogether harsher fluorescent light. Sections of the bar morphed from weather-beaten wood and thinning leather to shining varnished oak and expensive plastic as the older and newer entities moved to and fro surrounded by their own spheres of memory.
One of the old men poured a full pint down his throat and smashed the glass loudly and suddenly on the bar, then glassed the man next to him in the face. Blood and lager spilled on the floor and there was a cry of pain, then the scene rippled as a young girl in a snazzy blue leather jacket and trendy black-rimmed glasses walked between the two trailing a wake of modernity and brightness, a small makeup mirror floating constantly in front of her, allowing her to inspect herself for flaws at any moment. After the disturbance of her passage the two old men were back where they had started, pint glass and face intact, tired old light falling on their dusty clothes.
Tom led Rush to a far corner where a powerfully-built, craggy-looking older man with swept-back silver hair sat, dressed in a plain brown suit with a white shirt open at the collar. The space around him was resolutely old-fashioned, complete with flaking white paint on the wall and a pint of Guinness that gave off such an aura of alcoholic and nutritional concentration that Rush would have been afraid to drink it for fear that it would simply eat through his inner organs and fall out his arse in a gelatinous heap. Two feet of empty seating was left on either side of him even though the pub was crowded and there were many people standing. Rush met the old man's eyes and instantly felt the power of the mind behind them – a mind that was maintaining this being and his immediate environment in the attitude and trappings of the 1930s, despite the crowded and chattering pressure of all the modern, living minds occupying the bar. Tom gestured to the empty seat to the left of the man, and sat down himself on the right.
“Drinks?” queried the man in a gruff yet friendly voice.
“Not for me, thanks.” said Rush, eyeing the black ichor in the man’s glass.
“Nor me,” said Tom.
“That is acceptable. Now. Has our mutual friend the artiste told you why you’re here?”
Rush looked at Tom quizzically. “The artiste?” Tom looked away in apparent annoyance.
“Anyway,” Rush continued, “no, he hasn’t told me anything. I don’t even know your name.”
“Most neglectful. I call him the artiste because that is how he is tickled to see himself: as a literary chronicler and an elevator of the human soul. He is as a result most unhappy when called upon for practical action requiring no soul-searching or reflection. His omitting to inform you of my name or the reason for your being here is an example of subtle rebellion against what he perceives as my creativity-suppressive authority, through an over-literal interpretation of my instructions to him not to overwhelm you with too much information all at once. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment, Tom?”
Tom didn’t reply. Rush noticed that his walking stick had disappeared when they had sat down next to the man. He looked chagrined and somehow smaller than before, and yet there was no feeling of enmity or disrespect that he could detect between the older and the younger man.
“Anyhow, my name is Paddy Coad. If you were of an earlier footballing generation I might expect you to have at least a vague recognition of that name. However a great deal of time has passed, and three entire generations have been born since I was well-known. I am a very different person now than I was when I died and this is reflected in my manner of speech which I have deliberately tried to fashion into as precise an instrument as possible without sacrificing the ability to communicate directly or emotionally. I feel that this precision is an essential weapon for an undead being to develop in order to combat the miasma of shifting realities in which he must operate, but I will spare you that particular digression for the moment and instead I will ask you a question. Did you meet anyone directly after your physical death, before Tom came to you?”
“I met Patrick Stewart acting as Jean-Luc Picard.”
“I will forego the most obvious next step, which would be to inquire what beings are referred to by those two names, and instead proceed to a more relevant line of enquiry. Did this person tell you anything which seemed to be important or upon which he laid particular stress?”
“He told me that I should treat everything that was going to happen to me as if it was real, and not to believe anyone who tried to persuade me that it wasn’t, and he said that he was recommending that I participate in a unique event.”
“Patrick-Stewart-acting-as-Jean-Luc Picard gave you excellent advice, although I have to say that his claim to be ‘recommending’ you reveals a certain amount of ego. It was in fact I myself who requested that you be assigned to the team when I learned that you were soon to be shedding your physical body. My speciality is the coaching of football teams and I have been given a very difficult, some might say impossible task for which I have been preparing since my own death in 1992.”
He picked up his glass of Guinness, which was now so darkly luminous and gave such an impression of density and gravity that space seemed to warp around it, and drained its contents completely in a few tremendous gulps, placing the empty glass on the table in front of him, where the black liquid began to bubble up again from the bottom at a leisurely pace. The ingestion of such powerfully concentrated Guinness caused Paddy’s aura to extend outwards for a greater distance from his body, and the people participating in the modern timeframe seated or standing closest to him looked uncomfortable for a few moments until they had unconsciously shuffled themselves a few inches further away into their zones of temporal familiarity. Paddy looked around the pub with an expression of resigned distaste.
“It was Joyce’s fault that this happened. Not that I think that this terrible temporal split in what used to be a nice little pub was his intention, but this is what results from the well-intentioned actions of artistes like our friend Tom here, who in their attempt to capture the essence of a particular place or time end up interfering with the natural development of the place both psychically and otherwise. It is just as the physicists have understood for decades now: you can’t capture and measure something — you can’t even observe something — without altering or affecting it in some way. You may notice that the bar curves in an odd and perhaps fashionable way there at the end.”
Rush replied that he had noticed that.
“That is not, of course the original bar that would have been in place when Joyce wrote Ulysses, but in the scene that is set in Davy Byrne’s pub, Leopold Bloom makes a casual observation in the interior stream of his consciousness that he likes the wood of the bar and the way that it curves. Therefore, when it came time to redecorate the bar and refit it, the better to attract the kind of young people who have a great deal of money and time to spend consuming alcohol, the new owners will have specified that the new bar, whatever it looks like and however it is made, must, above all, curve in some notable way. This pub has made a great business of its mention in Ulysses, as have many Dublin establishments, in order to benefit financially from the resulting touristic interest. The echoes of Joyce’s book therefore carry through time, not simply because it was a successful work of art but because it has spawned a successful industry. In attempting to understand and represent the Dublin that he knew, Joyce perhaps unknowingly contributed to its lingering falsification and exploitation in which familiar images and motifs of the past are recycled through the present and converted into money. We had a great richness of unique images in this country but we have now spent our capital and have been digging ourselves into such psychic debt that the upcoming catastrophe was probably inevitable, although it could have been put off for quite some time longer if it hadn’t been for the damned Roman Catholic Church.”
He shifted in his seat and engaged Rush in direct eye contact, smiling slightly as he did so in order to reduce the possible intimidation.
“I have always been a Catholic, or at least I was until I found myself in my present deceased situation, which I have to admit has given me a priori evidence that the Church is, to put it kindly, not giving an accurate picture of what happens to a person after death, one of the central and most important jobs of any religion as I’m sure you’d agree. Despite my wholehearted consumption of the vast majority of their religious products while alive, and the psychic fortitude this consumption afforded me, something that never tasted quite right to me was their stance on birth control and abortion. It was not a moral question in my mind. Morally I would have been on the side of those who said that the thing was a crime and should not be allowed. On the other hand I was also a realist who recognized that were this thing forbidden it could cause young desperate pregnant girls to attempt to perform it themselves or go across the water and have it done elsewhere. I tried not to become involved in the debates on it as they left me with a headache and the feeling that there could be no final answer and therefore no absolutely correct morality or course of action, a very insecure feeling which I believe everyone involved in those debates felt at some level and which contributed to the amount of alcohol drunk and therefore the number and seriousness of the resulting fights. The upshot of it all was that I came to understand the nature of cause and effect, or karma as it is known to the Buddhists.
“Every psychic action, be it as simple as a statement of morality or the painting of a picture, echoes through past and future and will have unforeseen consequences. In this case, the statement and the religious conviction that the taking of an unborn child’s life is wrong and against God has led directly to consequences unforeseen by those who at the time were only trying to protect their ideas about what is and is not ‘life’. The mind logically extends everything from its original starting position to the point of madness, you see. Reductio ad absurdum is not a mere rhetorical technique, it is the natural method and operation of the human thoughts and it is because of this that everything you currently see around you exists. Once it was discovered that the atom can be split to release vast energy, it was inevitable that a bomb would be created to use this power, and subsequently inevitable that enough of these bombs would be created to devastate the entire planet’s surface many times over. Once it was fantasized that people would fly through the air and into space in silver ships, it was inevitable that one day it would happen. Once it was stated and written that all men and women are created equal and therefore have equal rights, it was inevitable that in the fullness of time the legal systems derived from that philosophical statement would become subject to misuse. We have not yet begun to see the poor suing the rich simply because they are poor and the rich are rich, but we soon will.
“Now I am coming finally to my point, and the cause of our current situation. Once it was stated and believed en masse that an unborn child is alive in the same way as a born human being, then it was inevitable that the search would begin for that point at which that unborn life comes into being. When, exactly, does the soul fuse with the flesh? The parameters of that debate vary but in general the outer estimates for that magical instant vary from the moment of conception when the successful sperm penetrates the egg, to the moment when the child is born and fully emerged, toes and all, from the vagina. There is no clear agreement on when a life comes into being, and there can never be, not only because those disagreeing, for example the Catholic Church and the atheistic scientific philosophers, are attempting to communicate verbally with each other using brains programmed with entirely irreconcilable perspectives, but also because no one knows what life actually is. It is a word bandied about as if its meaning is obvious and only those who have studied philosophy or science in depth are aware, if they let themselves be aware, that there may not be any such distinct thing as ‘life’ at all, and therefore that there may also be no such thing as ‘death’. Our obsession with the future, both our own and that of the unborn generations to follow, combined with our obsessive and exploitative recycling of our own past, have made a most unholy alliance, a perfect storm if you like, and we who are alive and undead at this moment in Ireland’s history are at the focus of two great colliding gyres of past and future time, if I may borrow one of our most famous poets’ metaphors.”
Paddy paused for a long time, downing another pint of Guinness and then setting it down to watch solemnly as the glass refilled itself. Rush shook his head as if he had been in a trance.
“I’m lost, Paddy. What does all this mean?”
“It means, John Rush, that the unborn are coming. They have been imagined and discussed and forbidden and planned for and fantasized and murdered past a certain critical point of actualization. We have made the unborn real. Can you understand what this means? Every person yet to be born — every person even potentially yet to be born — now has the same psychic reality as you and I and all of those living and dead in this nation. Past and future are not as distant from each other as you may believe, and those who are yet to be, now are. They are pouring through numerous singularities into the present and they want this country. There is going to be an almighty fight over it because this country currently belongs to its past and to all of the legions of ghosts who lived and died in this place. The unborn, however, have an advantage over the undead, for the simple reason that there is potentially an infinite number of them, and in this realm what is potential becomes actual faster than you can fall off a short stool. It is a slight relief to us that the hosts of the unborn souls have agreed to settle the dispute by means of a football match rather than a war that could do untold damage to all the living and the dead, but all the same, if you can think of a way to win a football match against a team consisting of an infinite number of players then I will be very glad to hear it.”
“If he wasn’t in the unfortunate position of still being alive it would probably be Jack Charlton coaching the team instead of me, purely on the basis of name recognition,” Paddy said as he, John Rush and Tom, whose second name turned out to be O’Malley, strolled along a pure white corridor existing in a null space between realities. Rush recognized the corridor from The Matrix and commented on this, and Paddy nodded.
“A most effective allegory,” he said as he searched the featureless walls with his penetrating gaze. “The myth of which the directors made use is one of the most powerful and ancient, and the story and the medium were impressive in their ability to distract the attention, thereby enabling the myth to be inserted directly into the subconscious of most viewers. This corridor is not their doing, however, although they may have stumbled across it if they have the sensitivity or had taken the correct narcotics. It has been here since at least 1993, which was when I first discovered it, but I would be surprised if it has not existed since before the universe began, due to the everywhichway nature of its extension through time and space.”
He reached out to a portion of the wall that looked like any other and black filaments spread from the contact of his fingertips to trace the cartoon outline of an old wooden door with a circular knob as a handle. The cartoon took on colour and depth and in another second or two Paddy’s hand turned the knob of a real wooden door and all three of them stepped through it into a cluttered and dusty old shed.
“Be sure to shut that securely,” said Paddy. “I left one of these doors open a crack last year and a cat got into the corridor and ended up exiting it at an unmarked point eleven years previously and falling three hundred feet out of the sky onto the deck of an Aran Islands ferry, more specifically onto the head of a young man standing upon the deck of that ferry taking the sea air. The sight of a cat embedded in a man’s head was sufficiently out of the ordinary run of things to induce obsessive nightmares in many of the other passengers. That man’s children will now never exist, indirectly because of my carelessness.”
“A cautionary tale indeed,” said Tom in a tone of apparent innocence.
The shed belonged to an older lady who had become increasingly immobile over the past decade and was no longer able to do any gardening, and it was full of cobwebs so old that the spiders who had spun them had long since died and been replaced by younger spiders, who had died in turn, multiple generations of eight-legged corpses dried and hanging from tattered and rotting strands of silk that caught in their hair as they groped their way through the stacks of rusting tools to the door. It opened into an unkempt garden in which an overgrown path led down from the back door of a small semi-detached house through a narrow space crowded by thriving wild bushes and finally to a low wall which backed on to a well-kept football pitch in the grounds of a private school.
They followed Paddy over this wall and into the centre circle of the pitch where he produced a slightly old-fashioned leather football from inside his jacket and placed it on the ground. He further produced a referee’s whistle upon which he blew three times, the third tone falling and then rising.
“The others will be along presently. What I would like you to do, Mr. Rush, is practice your old football skills. You will find in time that there are many more techniques and abilities available to you than you will ever have used, but the first thing is to bring your mind back to its highest level of skill and coordinate it with the subtle body as it was coordinated with the physical before your death.”
Rush poked gingerly at the football with his left toe. “Are you just going to watch me?”
“Indeed no.” Paddy produced another football from inside his jacket and smiled at Tom. “Mr. O’Malley and I are going to practice some penalties.” A grimace came over Tom’s face.
“You mean you’re going to hammer shots at me and I’m going to practice my medical skills,” he said.
“We’ll have you toughened up in no time. You have a strong mind, Tom, if you would only free it from the shackles of irony and bitterness.”
They strolled up to the goal at the sunny end of the pitch, leaving Rush alone in the centre of the circle. His thoughts drifted as he continued to nudge the ball with his foot, not sure what he was feeling. Memories rose up in his mind. He imagined himself back in school, playing keepy-up until long after break-time was over because it was his best-ever run and it was worth getting into trouble over. The shadows of the trees stretched out across the grass and there was a very soft breeze. Somehow he was seeing himself from the outside, short brown hair with hints of red glinting in the sun, arms outstretched for balance, his conscious soul flowing in his feet and his legs, the ball a part of him, his shadow dancing like a Hindu god. He was fifteen years old, immortal energy pulsing in his limbs, and nothing else existed for him until the moment when the ball slipped treacherously off the dew-damp side of his shoe and struck the ground, and all of the suspended time crashed down on him at once and he picked it up and went running back towards class, only human again.
“What are you waiting for, Rush? That ball isn’t going to jump onto your foot by itself.”
He looked up to see Paddy wave at him, then turn around and begin his run-up to take a penalty. Tom stood crouched in the goalmouth. Paddy struck the ball with his right foot with a concussion that shook every leaf and blade of grass for fifty feet around and sounded to Rush’s ears like a sofa being dropped from a second-story window onto a pile of watermelons. Tom launched himself to the left at full stretch and got his hands to the ball, which was travelling at a seemingly impossible speed and simply severed them neatly at the wrist to proceed unimpeded into the back of the net. There was a short and aesthetically pleasing double explosion of blood onto the grass, and Tom got to his feet clutching the stumps of his arms under his armpits.
“Good anticipation, you got to that one nicely,” said Paddy.
“Go fuck yourself,” said Tom sullenly. He walked over to the net where his hands were lying and knelt down, placing his wrists, which were no longer bleeding, in contact with them. An intensity and light grew in the goalmouth, and for a moment Rush thought that he saw the entire scene warp slightly into the form of a spiral around that point, like a reflected image on the surface of water spiralling into a plughole. Then it was gone, and everything was as it had been before, including Tom’s hands.
“Tom is going to be our goalie, if he ever manages to toughen up that flimsy body of his,” said Paddy, “and you, Rush, are going to be a striker, if you can stop wallowing in the memories of your ex-life and remember how to kick a ball again.”
This statement made Rush angry because he felt that Paddy was mocking his entire life and saying that it had been of less worth than some absurd football match in a surreal afterlife. The anger coursed through his form as a swelling energy that gave him a sense of expanded dimensions and suddenly he felt that if he didn’t become active he would explode. He rolled the ball onto his foot and hooked it up to chest height where he began to bounce it back and forth between his knees. He dropped it to his feet again and tapped it back and forth between them, then up to his head. He found it all so effortless that he began doing tricks that he had had difficulty with while alive, such as catching the ball on the back of his neck, flipping it up again and catching it in the crook of his right foot. He found that he could narrow his awareness down to the tiniest instants of time, so that the ball appeared to be travelling in slow motion. Energy throbbed in his entire body, seeming to emanate from his heart, or at least his chest, and he began to attempt things that he had never dreamed of while alive. He kicked the ball high in the air, back-somersaulted to land on his feet again, and caught the ball on his head. He lay on his back and kept the ball in the air using the soles of his shoes, then flipped himself up to a standing position, bumped it on his chest and started bouncing it on his knees again. He kicked it over his head and caught it behind him with the sole of one foot without looking, then started kicking it from one foot to another in that position, looking straight at Paddy and planning something in his mind. He kicked the ball back over his head to land on the ground in front of him, drew back his right foot and let fly with a powerful blow that caused the ball to compress into a hemisphere for an instant before rebounding and taking off with an audible scorching of the air in the direction of the aged footballer’s head.
When he looked up to see the results of his kick he saw that Paddy had already been moving before the ball was struck, bending his knees and adjusting the flexion of his body and preparing himself internally, his personal density increasing to such an extent that he actually sank a couple of inches into the ground. When Rush’s strike reached him he met it on his forehead, flicking his head around at Tom in the goalmouth and sending the ball that way with no decrease in its speed. Tom, taken by surprise, raised his hands to ward off the shot and did his best to brace himself, but the ball passed through the guard of his hands as if they were not there and struck him with full force in the chest, a nauseating sound of shattering bones carrying across the pitch as he was flung into the back of the net along with the ball.
There was a moment of silence during which Rush ran up towards the goal, worried that irreparable damage might have been done, then came a bubbling groan from Tom’s distorted body.
“I think my spine is broken.”
Rush stopped to look down on the mess left by the impact of the ball. Tom’s chest was crushed and his back bent at an unnatural angle, and the ball was imbedded deep in the area of his sternum.
“Does that hurt?” he wondered.
“Yes it fucking hurts. What does it look like?”
Paddy approached with a smirk on his face.
“You’re getting stronger, lad. I expected that one to go straight through you.”
“Paddy, I swear...please just don’t talk to me right now.”
Rush sensed the now-familiar electrical sensation of healing as Tom concentrated on repairing the damage. Wanting to help, he reached down and tugged the football out of Tom’s chest with both hands. It made a wet popping sound as it emerged, and Tom yelped angrily.
“Don’t fucking help me! Jesus.”
Rush looked at the blood on the ball, and at Tom, and then at Paddy.
“If you don’t mind my asking, there must be plenty of dead professional goalkeepers and strikers and football players in general. If this match is so important, what are you doing with people like Tom and myself?”
“It is not physical strength or skill that is important so much as strength of the mind and will, and a certain flexibility as regards what the person has always considered to be the laws of reality. Most of the dead footballers are just like every other undead person: locked into their own dream-world that is usually an extension of their mental preoccupations and fantasies while they were alive. Also, if one of them took a blow such as young Tom has just taken, he most likely would not be able to put himself back together again half as well. Being an artiste has its uses.”
After another few seconds Tom stood up, still slightly misshapen and hollow-chested, but straightening up and filling out before their eyes.
“Why don’t you go in goals for a change, Paddy?” he said, glowering.
“A fine idea. Watch closely, now. John, would you do the honours?”
He gestured towards the penalty spot. Rush shrugged and walked over, placing the ball down on the spot and taking a few steps back. He flexed his legs, loving the sensation of painlessness and complete freedom of movement in his knees.
Rush fixed his mind on a point mid-way up on the right-hand side, and his gaze on the mirror image of that point mid-way up on the left-hand side in order to try and throw Paddy off. Then he turned his entire concentration on the ball and inhaled, building up his energy. It seemed to him as if a hush fell on the field and the traffic noises were obliterated in his ears. He took a few light steps up to the ball and swung his right foot with all his might, creating a most interesting sound like a truckload of space hoppers all exploding at the same moment. The ball shot towards the point he had intended, but when he looked up he saw that Paddy was already standing there, his density increasing, knees bent, feet sinking, arms crooked at the elbows, eyes shining, the light all around the goalmouth dimmed as if pulled back into a region of awesome attraction. He extended his arms with casual speed and met Rush’s strike full on his palms. A wave of transferred energy rippled through his form, passing along his arms and through his torso and down his legs to enter the ground and dissipate harmlessly. The light returned fully around the goal and Paddy straightened up, tossing the ball up and catching it again.
“You see there, Tom, the difference between trying to use your own energy to block it and using the ground energy to do it. You have to ground yourself well and feel the gravity running up from your feet all the way into your fingertips. Effectively you have to remember what it was like to have a solid physical body again.”
He turned around to face Rush.
“As for you, Rush, you can get a lot more power than that into a shot. You need swift-moving, easily-transferable energy, so you will be drawing your energy from the air rather than the ground. Again, this is something that you did unconsciously all the time you were alive. Breathe it in and feel it pulsing through your whole body, then when you strike the ball let it all flow out into your foot at that exact moment. Still, it has to be said that that was not a bad effort.”
At that moment they heard the sound in the distance of cursing and of garden implements being knocked over, and then of a rickety wooden shed door opening and closing. “Here come the rest,” said Paddy, and the three of them stood watching as eight other figures came wandering down the garden path and over the wall. When they reached the goal where Paddy was standing they stopped and everyone regarded each other. Introductions were made. The new arrivals were, in order of seniority:
Cáit and Micheál O’Sullivan, late of the kingdom of Kerry, a couple who had died in their seventies within a year of each other — Cáit of a heart attack and Micheál of an infection brought on and exacerbated by malnutrition resulting from the fact that Cáit had looked after his domestic needs all his life since he left home as a young lad, and so after her death he had eaten nothing but boiled cabbage, the only thing he had ever learned to cook. Rush was not able to ascertain exactly when they had lived, but judging from the quaint nature of their clothing he guessed it was in the early 1900’s at the very latest. They spoke only the native tongue, and an obscure dialect at that, and most of their verbal communications had to be relayed through Paddy who was the only other person present with anything beyond school-level Irish. It was a mystery to Rush why they were part of the team until he saw them practicing together. They turned out to have a deep psychic rapport which enabled each to know exactly what the other was about to do, and they were surprisingly adroit dribblers and passers of the ball.
Jack Murphy, a wiry, evil-looking man in his late forties wearing a blue anorak with the stuffing coming out of rips at the elbows. His face was cadaverously gaunt and dark around the eyes, which were constantly in motion. He tended to stand aside from any discussions or midfield combat over the ball, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, watching carefully in a defensive position just outside the penalty area. However, if anyone made a break for goal with the ball he would be on them like a flash, and without anybody being able to see precisely what he had done, the ball would be in his possession and the other person would be on the ground, more than likely clutching some temporarily damaged part of their ectoplasmic anatomy. It turned out later that he had been an interrogator for the IRA until a particularly disgruntled former client of his caught up with him in the street one day and took both of them under the wheels of a lorry in a story that made the middle pages of the daily papers as a mere accident.
Hugh, an extraordinarily large man who wore no clothes and never spoke a word to anyone. He was at least seven feet tall and enormously fat, with roll upon roll of naked, hairy flesh quivering as he lumbered up and down the pitch, his footsteps sensible as a vibration in the air. He could have died one hundred or four thousand years ago; not even Paddy knew. It was not even clear how his name was known, how he knew the rules of football, or even how the need for the game had been communicated to him, for he didn’t seem to understand any language that anyone there spoke. Rush thought that he would have been an ideal goalkeeper due to his vast girth and weight, but he turned out to be Paddy’s choice for the other striker, his height and unstoppability being the deciding factors. “You can kick them and he can head them,” it was explained.
Pat Kenny, a well-known television personality, tall and grey-haired and smartly dressed in a blue suit, shirt and tie. His presence on the team caused Rush some consternation for obvious reasons.
“Pat Kenny isn’t dead,” he said to Paddy.
“Well, is he?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
Rush approached Pat as he was taking off his shoes and socks and neatly positioning them on the sideline.
“Sorry Pat, but I didn’t think you were dead. What happened?”
“That’s a very good question. I honestly don’t understand what has happened but that man you see on your television screens is not me. I don’t know what they have done but it’s a travesty and an abomination. I died three years ago when I was set upon in my own house on my way back from an extremely satisfying bowel movement in my favourite toilet. They beat me, strangled me and proceeded to make it look as if the place had been burgled without actually taking anything of value. The next thing I know there’s another fellow walking around live as you like, pretending to be me, and nobody knows the difference! It is a source of deep frustration to me to see an impostor profiting from such a vile deed and I only hope that in the end the truth will out.”
Rush related this story to Paddy, who nodded.
“That’s the same thing he told me. I don’t know if it’s true. It could be that this is someone else entirely, perhaps a psychotic fan with such an unhealthy obsession with Pat Kenny that after their own death their soul assumed this form and identity. It could equally be that Pat Kenny has two souls, a not-unheard-of condition; or perhaps his story is true, and Pat Kenny really is dead, and that thing walking around in the physical world is merely an automaton or a robot operated by the Chinese military for reasons unknown. I am only a footballer and investigating this issue does not interest me.”
Assumpta O’Neill, a woman with dyed blonde hair and grey skin who had been christened in the middle of an unfortunate fad for odd Catholic names and had lived in Ballymun until her death from lung cancer. She had deep-set, expressive eyes and a mournful voice, and a constant rattling cough that made her entire body convulse. The story of her life was almost unbearably sad, and it was her relation of it to Rush while they stood together on the sidelines that revealed to him her particular talent: she had a remarkable ability to channel the energy of her emotions into actual changes in the reality around her. She began to cry while she told Rush about the daily beatings that her husband used to inflict on her, and suddenly he was standing there in front of them, a ghost of a ghost dressed in a black bomber jacket, threatening both of them and waving his fists. One of their children appeared beside him and pulled on his elbow tearfully, and he swung around to backhand the young girl across the face viciously; then the scene wavered and disappeared, and only Rush and Assumpta remained there, she with tears freely pouring from her eyes. Sorry as he felt for her, he rapidly discovered that when she was not playing football there was nothing else she knew how to do but talk about the hellishness of her physical incarnation, and conjure up relentlessly disturbing images, so he soon took to avoiding her with a feeling of mild guilt.
Ryan Fassbender, one of two brothers from a family of three parents and four children in a wealthy Dublin suburb. The extra parent in the equation was his father’s new wife; in an arrangement unique for its time in Dublin, his parents had decided to remain together after separating from their marriage, in order to avoid the massive legal fees and emotional trauma for the children that they knew would ensue if either of them tried to force the other to leave the family home. They had both been much happier living together after separating, and even sleeping together occasionally if the mood took them, until Ryan’s father had decided that he was going to re-marry. Since his new fiancé was twenty years younger and had been living with her parents up to this point, it seemed logical that she would move in with them, and surprisingly their mother had agreed to this, although it was noted that around that time she began bringing home young, handsome lovers of roughly her eldest son’s age.
Ryan had been sixteen years old at this point and in order to escape the slightly crazed atmosphere of his family home he spent most of his time out with his friends drinking, smoking hash, and intimidating the pleasant older people of that area. His absence was agreeable to his parents due to their preoccupation with their own fulfilment in various areas of life, and he was therefore provided with more than enough money and freedom to do whatever he wanted in the evenings; a situation ideal in all respects except that Ryan took greater and greater risks to win the admiration of his friends, who had become a surrogate family, and ended up dying tragically after falling from the edge of Dalkey quarry one Friday evening after consuming two-thirds of a bottle of tequila. After spending at least a year after his death trying to find ways to contact his depressed and guilty parents to let them know that he forgave them, he decided in the end that they were selfish and narcissistic people undeserving of forgiveness, and moreover were far too materially-minded to acknowledge the increasingly obvious signs of attempted otherworldly communication, so he gave up and left home finally in order to wander the chaotic landscape of the undead world. He was a decent midfield player, even though he had a tendency to perform showy and unnecessary tricks and to avoid tackles due to a fear of injury. The thing Rush found most annoying was that he openly mocked everyone else on the team. Paddy was conspicuously excluded from his consistently ignorant sense of humour, and Rush knew intuitively that this was probably because of something unpleasantly violent that Paddy had done in response to some kind of jibe in the past.
Róisín White – a young girl five or six years of age, Róisín had trailed behind the others when they arrived and spent a lot of time staring at everyone with wide eyes. She wore a plain grey cloth dress under a dirty grey duffle coat, and black shoes without any socks. She brought out a side of Paddy that Rush would never otherwise have suspected – he spoke to her kindly, crouching down to her level and explaining everything that was happening in simple but not patronizing language. Not only that, but he deferred to her every whim. At one point, after sitting on the grass for five minutes playing with her ‘doll’ – a small piece of rag with a face painted on in biro – she stood up and stated loudly that she wanted to play piggy-in-the-middle. No one made any kind of criticism or noise of discontent, and Paddy instantly said yes, yes, piggy-in-the-middle it is, I wonder who wants to go in the middle first? She had instantly called me, me delightedly, and they had formed a circle around her. Even when she caught the ball, which was quite often because they went easy on her, she still wanted to stay in the middle, and they let her, and as she laughed and ran around and fell over in pursuit of the ball it began to seem to Rush that there was an ethereal sun moving at the centre of the circle in place of her figure. He found it hard to focus on her, and his eyes began to water, and suddenly he felt the deepest sense of love and caring that he could ever remember, a feeling that pulsated in his undead tissues and radiated outwards, and he could see from the expressions on their faces that the others were feeling the same way, and Róisín had stopped moving and was standing still wondering why no one was playing any more, they were just standing there with funny expressions, and the sun around her faded and Rush was left weeping and weeping, wanting to hug the child to him and never let her go. He fell to his knees. What’s wrong with you, she asked, a puzzled expression on her face, and he stared at her, unable to answer. That’s enough piggy-in-the-middle, child, said Paddy, his eyes damp and a wide smile on his face, and she shrugged and said okay, poo face. Rush asked Paddy later who she was and why she was on the team, and he had refused to be drawn on it, saying She is just a girl. She is on the team because we need her. You will see.
His experience during the game of piggy-in-the-middle affected Rush internally in some way, and he could find no heart to practice with the others afterwards – memories had been awakened in him of Sorcha and his family and the people he had known while he was alive, and when he stood still and thought about nothing he could feel their presences near him, as if next door to this field, through a translucent membrane, were other portions of reality where his loved-ones could be found. He felt increasingly weak and distracted, and when Paddy noticed his condition he called him over and drew him off from the others and put one hand on his shoulder.
“You had some unfinished business in your life, is that right lad?” he asked in a low voice.
“I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about my girlfriend. I mean, my ex-girlfriend. And my parents. I was horrible to a lot of people before I died. I’d like to let them know I’m okay...maybe tell them I’m sorry.”
“Chances are that you’ll not be able to let them know. They won’t hear you, and even if they did, more than likely they’d only be frightened and think you’re there to haunt them or some such.”
“Maybe I could just see them.”
He felt a tugging in his chest and Sorcha’s face came to his mind so clearly that both he and Paddy saw her image form in the air beside them for a moment before the light took it to pieces again. Paddy sighed and nodded slowly.
“Unfinished business indeed. Now listen to me,” he said earnestly, looking directly into Rush’s eyes. “You go and do whatever you need to do or see in order to be able to leave your old life behind, but be quick about it, because you’re needed for this match. I don’t have another goalscorer of your calibre lined up. None of these others can kick a ball like you, even if you don’t quite know it yet. You may not realize the seriousness of the situation, but the unborn cannot be allowed to take possession of this country. They are neither alive nor dead, just like you and I, but it goes further. They have no mind and no identity, no memory and no history. They are not even truly individuals but more like the innumerable pulses of a heart, sparks of a mindless yearning desire for life, nothing more. If they win this match and enter in their uncountable multitudes into this land, every living person here will go entirely insane. No one can tell what the full consequences of such a thing might be, only that it must not be allowed. It would be as if the Ireland that we have all known had never existed. This band of idiots in this field may not seem like much to you but there are forces at work behind all of this that you do not understand and it is the alchemical combination of these souls and yours that is the important factor; that, and the eleventh player who as you may have noticed is not present today.”
“Who is that? And when is the match?”
“I will not tell you who that player is until it comes time to go and find him. And the match is, of course, on All Souls Day, a month from now. When else could it be?”
He held up his whistle and said “You’ll always be able to hear this, and you’ll be able to follow the sound to where I am. Please come when I blow on this. If you don’t I will have to assume that you’ve become lost in some way and send Tom again to retrieve you. It’s easy for us to become lost if we spend too much time around the living, such is the constant force of their subconscious mental projections, and I beg you to remember the difference between what is real and unreal. If you find yourself drawn into your own dreams or memories, or those of a living person who you used to know, remember that what is happening to you is not real and that you can leave it any time you choose.”
Rush stared at him, remembering Patrick Stewart’s advice. People may try to persuade you in different ways that what is happening is not real. Do not believe them. Was he supposed to believe Paddy now, or not? He found the whole question of distinguishing between reality and unreality problematic and stressful, because everything that had been happening to him since his death had been so surreal. He thought that Paddy was trying to help him but how could he be sure? How could he be sure about anything? How could he be sure that this entire football match was anything other than a delusion or a fantasy of his own, or Paddy’s, or of someone else entirely?
The older man must have seen the doubt and fear rising up in Rush’s eyes, because his face fell a little sadly and he stood back, nodding gravely at him.
“Do what you have to do, John Rush, and I will pray for your soul.”
He turned his back and walked towards the other end of the pitch where Tom was defending penalties again, apparently with a little more success, or at least a little less injury. Rush watched his retreating form for a few moments, then he felt the tugging in his chest again. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to dissolve into that feeling and follow the pull; a door opened up in the air behind him, and he fell backwards in a delicious faint.
The Unborn Versus The Undead
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