The Unborn Versus The Undead
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"...when you're watching television the higher brain regions (like the midbrain and the neo-cortex) are shut down, and most activity shifts to the lower brain regions (like the limbic system). The neurological processes that take place in these regions cannot accurately be called “cognitive.” The lower or reptile brain simply stands poised to react to the environment using deeply embedded “fight or flight” response programs. Moreover, these lower brain regions cannot distinguish reality from fabricated images (a job performed by the neo-cortex), so they react to television content as though it were real..."
— Wes Moore, Television: Opiate of the Masses, The Journal of Cognitive Liberties, Vol.2, Issue No.2
Chapter 3: Haunting Sorcha
The first thing that penetrated the dome of darkness surrounding his awareness was a high-pitched noise that was instantly familiar; the ultrasonic whine of an active television. He homed in on it, trying not to panic at the sensation of being bodiless and floating in an endless empty space. A beacon, he thought, the TV is my beacon, I’m a spaceship, voyager on the other side of the universe fell through a wormhole, dug too deep at the beach and hit a seam in the crust and ended up in China, warp through the centre of the planet, rocking in a cradle, a womb, a star crash, feather falling, baby in arms, quasar from the beginning of things, spinning and winking from billions of years ago, keep me company, help me home, mama, lord, holy lord god help me home
He opened his eyes and he was sitting beside Sorcha on her sofa as she watched TV. She was curled up in her usual place hugging a cushion with her legs underneath her and there was a new cup of tea beside her on the table. She never makes tea for herself, he thought. I used to make it for her. Maybe I’ve been asleep and all that other was just a dream. But as much as he wanted to persuade himself of this, he knew it couldn’t be true. I wonder if she’s heard yet that I’m dead. She didn’t look upset. He liked to think that even though they broke up in the worst of ways, she would have been upset to hear of his death.
Tony Blair was in the room too, sitting in a chair at the table. This hadn’t seemed odd a moment ago, but now it registered in Rush’s mind as something out of the ordinary. Sorcha was surrounded by the mental aura of the living, a kaleidoscopic sheath of half-formed and twinkling pieces of thought extending outwards from her body, dynamic and dancing, reaching out to the cup of tea before her hand moved, swirling and re-forming prior to her rearranging her limbs on the couch; Tony, on the other hand, had no aura. Undead, Rush thought. But Blair didn’t die, did he? Then he noticed that Blair was on the television too, sitting in a chair being interviewed by Peter Snow, who was asking him a convoluted question about the situation in Iraq.
“Well Peter,” said Tony-on-the-screen, but his voice was drowned out by the voice of his apparition in the room.
“Sorcha, what do you think of all this? We’ve talked before and I know you agree with my basic point that Saddam was – I mean is – a very bad man. So why are they giving me such a hard time?”
To Rush’s astonishment, Sarah responded.
“I think it’s obvious, Tony, so don’t give me that bullshit. You’re smart enough to realize what you’ve done. You lied to everyone so that you could go to war. You lied about the threat. There was no threat.”
“All right, say there was no threat, and I lied. What if it was a necessary lie, to do a good thing? You don’t realize how statecraft works and what it means to lead a nation. Every leader you see is telling lies. That’s how the world works. Most people don’t want to know how the world really is.”
“That’s not your decision to make. It’d be better to be honest and face the consequences. Tell people how the world really is and let them deal with it.”
“Whose decision is it, then? Yours? You really think I wanted to lie when I started out in politics? You don’t realize the true nature of the average person. They will punish you for telling the truth if they don’t like it. They elect their leaders to take care of what they don’t want to know about. Who would you have make these decisions? You think I’m some kind of ogre? Here – how’s this?”
He produced a newborn baby from thin air and began biting into its head. Mercifully, the illusion was not so real that the baby made any distressing noises. “Look Sorcha, I’m eating a baby! A baby, Sorcha, a baby! Lookit da widdle baby! Munch munch!”
Sorcha’s eyes were wide in horror. Tony threw the baby away and wiped blood from his mouth delicately with the sleeve of his dark suit.
“Yuck. Sorry. I got a little carried away there. But really Sorcha, you’ve no idea how difficult it’s become to govern. People turn against their leaders automatically now at the least provocation. The media encourages it. The ritual of the sacrificed god is enacted in the celebrity pages every day, as a young beautiful thing who has been adorned and garlanded and celebrated for a year and a day is savagely torn apart and their blood drunk by the masses and their remains offered to the gods of the earth and the sky and the sea in return for favour in the coming seasons. I’m not a bad guy, really I’m not. Listen, let me give it to you straight, because you’re a smart girl. It was a diplomatic move. It wasn’t because of weapons of mass destruction – how I wish I could never hear those words again. It wasn’t because of Saddam Hussein being a nasty man either, okay? That fundamentalist psycho in the White House, who by the way is Aleister Crowley’s grandson — you won’t read that in Burke’s Peerage, ha ha — he was going to invade Iraq no matter what anyone said, partially to secure control of the oil reserves, but mostly because he believes that Armageddon is going to begin in the Middle East before the second coming of Jesus Christ and His kingdom. Jerusalem is going to be encompassed by invading armies and laid waste, and he believes that he is strategically positioning the U.S. to defend Israel when the time comes, because when Jesus comes again it will be in terrible wrath and you’d better be on the right side. Okay? Now I’m as religious as the next guy but I don’t go for all the revelations crap. However. Britain is the United States’ ally. Okay? They go to war and ask for our help, we give it. That’s what it means to be an ally and that’s why you should pick your allies carefully. What’s the alternative? You don’t realize quite how powerful that country is and how vengeful their mentality is. If you piss them off or betray them they never forget it. Iraqis were going to die no matter what I did or didn’t do. By joining in that nasty little war I gained power and wealth for Britain, and I make no apologies for that because it’s my job. I’m not the pope, I’m the prime minister of Great Britain, and ultimately, if people don’t like what I do, they can vote me out. That’s the joy of democracy. I am the servant of the people, do you believe that? I do, truly. Serviam,” he proclaimed piously, his hands together in an attitude of prayer. “And in return I’ll be remembered. A place in history, Sorcha. Wouldn’t you want that too? Even if people said you were a bad person, you’d be remembered, and I will be. I will be remembered.”
Sorcha was staring at the television as the real Tony spoke politely yet earnestly to Peter Snow.
“This is Ireland,” she said quietly and despairingly. “Why do I even care?”
She picked up the remote control and changed the channel. Tony bowed, flickered and disappeared, and nothing else appeared for a time as Sorcha channel-surfed. Rush cleared his throat and said “Sorcha?” but as he’d expected she showed no signs of hearing him. She stopped surfing when she found a re-run of an old Friends episode and he saw her smile. The air shimmered, and then Joey and Chandler appeared in the living room hitting each other with frying pans and going “Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” and Sorcha laughed. The laughter track caused a mirage of thousands of tiny people sitting on her bookshelves giggling and whistling and clapping.
The scene on the TV shifted and Joey and Chandler stopped what they were doing, sighed, then tore off their own faces using their fingernails as claws, screaming hideously and making Rush scream himself in fright and disgust. When they’d finished mutilating themselves they had the faces of Monica and Rachel, and as they cooed and tickled each other under the chin their bodies changed shape and clothing to match the TV screen. Sorcha laughed again, and Rachel turned her head to the sofa and said “We love you, Sorcha,” and Sorcha said “I love you too,” without moving her gaze from the screen.
“We really love you, Sorcha,” said Monica. “I wish you could be our friend.”
“I’d love to be your friend, Monica. Nothing bad ever happens to you guys.”
“What are you talking about!” said Rachel. “Last week I stubbed my toe!”
The laughter track played and the thousands of tiny people on the bookshelves rolled around and held their sides, hooting and pointing. Sorcha laughed too.
“You guys,” she said in an American accent, and the laugh track played again.
“Oh, just fucking kill me, please,” said Rush, who had always hated Friends. Rachel turned to him.
“Listen here, mister, you’d better not poop our party!” she said, mugging as if for an imaginary camera.
“Can you hear me?” enquired Rush, surprised that the TV-mirage had responded to him.
“Well, duh!” replied Rachel, waving her arms around.
The laughter track played again, all of the thousands of tiny people pointing at Rush and making faces. Sorcha laughed particularly hard at this, still watching the screen, rocking backwards and forwards. The scene changed on the screen, and Rachel’s expression changed to one of pain, following which her entire face collapsed inwards with an awful sucking sound. Her body then started to shake, and she began to make retching sounds, until some kind of matter began to appear in her throat. She vomited up Ross’s face, her body continuing to convulse until it was completely in place and filled out. The body changed too, the figure growing taller and more masculine.
“That was a nasty one,” commented Monica.
“You betcha,” said Ross. “I don’t remember eating that!” Thousands of tiny people laughed and vanished and Rush buried his face in his hands, cursing under his breath.
“What’s wrong with Mr. Congeniality here?” Ross said.
“He doesn’t like Friends,” mocked Monica, pulling a pouty face and touching her bottom lip with her index finger.
“Hey Sorcha, your boyfriend doesn’t like Friends,” said Ross.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” said Sorcha absently without looking away from the TV. “We broke up.”
“So what’s he doing here?” said Monica. “Don’t you know that Oscar Wilde said that getting back with an ex was like a dog returning to its own vomit?”
There was silence for a moment as Ross, Sorcha and the thousands of tiny people on the bookshelves all stared at Monica. Tumbleweed bounced through the room, entering from the kitchen doorway and exiting through the opposite wall underneath the window.
said Ross, and all the little people appeared, laughed and disappeared, and Sorcha giggled a little uncomfortably, leaning back.
“She’s thinking about changing the channel,” said Monica. “We shouldn’t have mentioned...you know, the guy...the guy she doesn’t know is here...” She spoke with one hand over her mouth while pointing violently at Rush, who gave her the finger. She placed her hands on her hips and was about to say something when Sorcha raised the remote control. Ross and Monica screamed “No!” at the same time and all the thousands of tiny people reappeared, jumping up and down and shouting “No!” and waving their arms, then she pressed the button and they all withered like dry leaves burning in a bonfire, pieces of TV interference that were their bodies flying up into the ceiling and beyond, then they were gone.
She flicked through all the channels and then turned the TV off and threw the remote control down on the couch with a loud sigh, hugging the cushion tighter to herself. After a moment Rush felt that tugging sensation again in his chest, and felt an urge to sit closer to her. She’s thinking about me, he realized. He reached out to touch her on the shoulder, but even the folds of her clothing were as solid and unyielding as steel to his touch. He remembered how he’d been playing football, and decided to see if he could gather enough energy to affect her. He stood up and inhaled, concentrating on a swelling feeling of power and expanding force in his torso, then swung his arm and unleashed as much force as he could in a push to her shoulder.
His hand and arm crumpled like cardboard with an ear-splitting sound of bones crackling and tissues exploding under pressure, and he screamed more in surprise than genuine pain. Sorcha didn’t even blink. He raised his crushed, bloody arm to eye level and grimaced, hoping that he was going to remember how to fix this. He focused carefully, and in about twenty seconds his bone had re-bonded and straightened and his flesh had knitted itself back into its usual shape. Sorcha had picked up her mug and was sipping her tea. Her aura glowed brighter for a moment, and then her mother appeared in the room.
“Well, here he is, and he hasn’t even told you he’s dead. You’re going to find out on the phone that he’s done himself in. How’s that for consideration?”
“I can’t tell her,” said Rush. “She can’t hear me.”
“Shut the fuck up, junky,” hissed Sorcha’s mother, her face contorting into a sneer.
“Don’t talk to him like that, mum,” said Sorcha. “I was a junky too, once.”
He did a double take. “Sorcha? Do you know I’m here?”
“And whose fault was that?” continued her mother. “You’re well rid of that gurrier. The day I saw you bring him home I knew he’d be trouble for you.”
“Mum, you don’t know what he’s really like. I dumped him because he’s such a mess now and I don’t think he’s ever going to be able to get it together again. He’d started to be nasty to me and he wasn’t the same person he used to be. He used to be so sweet...”
Rush realized that Sorcha was only aware of him as a fantasy in her own mind, participating in an imaginary conversation. All of this was happening in her subconscious mind.
“What are you doing here, junky?” her mother said, glaring at him.
“I was called here. Summoned, just like you.”
“Well now you can leave. Go on, fuck off. She doesn’t want you around any more.”
“I can’t go yet. I haven’t...”
“Haven’t what? Talked to her? You’re dead, you poor stupid fuck. You should have talked to her before you did it. Now it’s too late.”
“You know...I never liked you. You never swore like this in real life, you always spoke all prim and proper with that ridiculous fake accent of yours, like you wanted to have been born an English aristocrat or something, but I knew that your thoughts were dirty underneath. I knew what you thought of me. You didn’t fool me.”
“Oh, you’re the smart one all right, that’s why you’re arguing with someone who doesn’t even exist.”
She hawked and spat on the ground, then shrank back into the background and was gone. Sorcha was looking up at the ceiling. He stood in front of her in a kind of despair, longing to touch her or talk to her. More than anything he wished that he had left her a note or sent her a letter before he had killed himself, so that she would know that it wasn’t her fault. He knew that when she found out she would be crippled with feelings of guilt and might forever be haunted in her own mind by the thought that if she hadn’t broken up with him he might have survived or even come off the brown and gotten his life back.
“I’m sorry, Sorcha. It wasn’t your fault. I wish I could tell you that.” He felt that he wanted to cry but no tears came, only that pulsing and tugging in his chest, as if fingers were groping around in his internal organs.
“I miss you, Johnny” she whispered, and tears appeared in her eyes as she stared at the ceiling. A flaring light appeared from the corner, and both of them looked that way. Rush saw that the telephone was shining as if spotlights were trained upon it, and guessed that Sorcha was thinking about calling him. She sat up and pursed her lips, frowning, and the light increased in intensity. Don’t call me, thought Rush. Don’t call me. He concentrated hard without thinking about it, and tried to quench the brightness there with his mind, and to his amazement he succeeded, the light bleeding away from the telephone, running off like liquid and briefly illuminating the fibres of the carpet before falling through the floor. She slumped back on the sofa, exhaling loudly and cursing under her breath.
Rush sat beside her on the couch as her thoughts played in the air about them. Tendrils of light and colour licked like flames around the curtains and the bare light bulb throbbed like a heart. Characters from her thoughts appeared in the room and he learned to ignore them even when they spoke to him. Occasionally Sorcha would get off the couch to interact with them, which puzzled him until his perceptions sharpened and he realized that there were two of her in those moments — one sharply defined, laughing and moving around and playing in a drama with her own thoughts as if in a dream, and the other indistinct and ghostly, her real physical self slumped in the sofa with a blank expression, a body idling and inert with its awareness involved elsewhere. This is how he found out that she was already seeing someone — a strange young man with spiked blonde hair, who looked around twenty, appeared beside her on the sofa.
“Baby,” she said, cuddling up to him. He ignored her and began rolling a spliff, and she went into a huff, turning the television on. For a moment the characters from her own mental landscape coexisted in the room with forms from the television, then the television’s field took over again. Rush, growing weary of this, took to wandering around her house. He found that if a door was closed then he could find no way of entering, but if it was open even a crack then he could focus his energy and push it open just enough for him to squeeze through. He got into her bedroom in this way and was immediately taken by a fit of nostalgia so strong that he felt himself falling into memory as vivid as reality.
They were lying down together on her bed and her top was off and he was touching her breasts. It was the first time since that night in the club when they had snogged the face off each other for an hour and exchanged telephone numbers. She’d invited him over for dinner and they’d ended up in the bedroom with the rice still simmering, fumbling and kissing and laughing as if it was the first time either of them had done this. He started to undo her jeans and she stopped him and he asked her what was wrong, and she said, the rice will burn, and he said fuck the rice, and she laughed and said yeah, fuck the rice, and he undid her jeans and she pulled his pants down and they proceeded to do what people do in those circumstances, and in the end it was over quick enough that they made it back to the rice before it had burned and even before it had boiled to unacceptable sogginess. He said sorry it was so quick, and she said I wanted it to be quick, I’m hungry, and they laughed and ate dinner and watched a DVD together, and for the next two years they followed that same pattern in blissful happiness – dinner, DVD, sex, in any order of their choosing. Their actions crystallized in time like the postures of insects caught in tree sap.
He wondered if he could sleep on her bed; if, in fact, he could simply stay with her, be around her, live in her house as a spirit and watch her as she lived her life and grew old. As soon as he thought this, he realized that many of the ghost stories he had scoffed at during his life might have been true; if he felt this way after two years with Sorcha, how would he feel if his wife or husband of thirty or forty or fifty years died? There must be thousands of houses with beings like me living in them. Millions, even. He remembered that on the way into town with Tom he had seen faces crowding the windows of every house. He could see it; five hands opening every door, ten eyes watching every meal and every fight and every intimate moment; ancient ghosts collecting year after year on the land of their lifetime.
“They don’t all hang around forever, you know,” said Tom. He had walked into the bedroom when Rush was looking at the photographs on Sorcha’s wall and had seated himself cross-legged on her bed with a smug expression, waiting to be acknowledged. Rush felt intruded upon and didn’t want to talk, but his curiosity got the better of him. He felt annoyed that Tom knew more than he did and used that fact to play odd power games.
“Spirits. Undead people like you and I. We don’t just build up in the attic like old photographs. After a while we move on to something else, otherwise every house would be crawling with souls and the air would be crackling with their noise.”
“So when do we move on?”
“When it’s time.”
“And when is it time? Please enlighten me, Tom.”
“What’s the attitude for?”
“I don’t know. It annoys me the way you pretend to know everything. You’re in the same boat as I am.”
“I’m not the one hanging around my ex-girlfriend’s house poking through her stuff.”
“Well maybe if I stalked you I’d catch you doing something you wouldn’t want me to know about. For fuck’s sake, I only died today. I mean, what do you even want right now?”
Tom held up his hands. “Look, I’m sorry. You can do what you want. I don’t want us to be enemies. I came to tell you who the eleventh player on the team is.”
Rush stared at him for a moment. “Is this to make up for not telling me anything earlier?”
“You can look at it that way if you like. It’s irrelevant. Do you want to know?”
“Well, of course. Who is it?”
“The Hound of Ulster.”
Rush shook his head slowly. “Who or what is that?”
Tom made a disgusted face. “Ah Jesus, maybe it’s not even worth trying to save this fucking country. Do you not know your own fucking mythology?”
“I was never interested. Maybe I read a book when I was young.”
“The Hound of Ulster. The greatest hero of Irish legend. Cuchulain, man!”
“I would have known if you’d said Cuchulain. I remember The Cattle Raid of Cooley.”
“Táin Bó Cuailnge,” Tom corrected.
“But Cuchulain wasn’t real, was he? It’s just a legend.”
“You haven’t really understood anything about psychic reality yet, have you? There is no real and unreal. After a certain point it doesn’t matter if something started out real or not. If enough stories get told, something comes into being. The concept of something leads to the thing itself if it can gather enough energy to manifest. That’s why we’re in this mess with the unborn.”
“So there’s going to be an immortal superhero on our team who used to fight off 150 warriors with one hand while pleasuring fifty maidens with the other and balancing a banquet table laden with food on the end of his cock. What does Paddy need the rest of us for?”
“Well, now, the thing is...having the Hound on the team may be problematic. Finding him may well be impossible, and even if he’s found, the talk is that he’s not quite himself. Ireland has changed and a lot of the folk heroes are gone, genuinely dead. Forgotten. All their energy drained into more modern symbols and stories. Cuchulain is one of the last ones left, and he’s not doing so well. Still powerful as fuck, mind you, but...well, you’ll see.”
Rush sat down on the bed, sighing and feeling very tired. Tom was right, there was so much he didn’t understand.
“Tom, I need some help. I need to know how to contact Sorcha.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, so it’s a good thing it’s impossible.”
“It’s not impossible. You read stories all the time about ghosts contacting the living.”
“For fuck’s sake, haven’t you seen the living? They’re surrounded by their own ghosts every moment of the day. They’re never alone, they’re wrapped in a cocoon of their own mind and I’m certain every single story you’ve ever read has been pure imagination or wishful thinking. It’s not possible. We’re on a different wavelength to them.”
“I’m sure I affected something Sorcha was thinking about, earlier. She was going to make a phone call and I’m sure that I stopped her.”
Tom got up, inexplicably angry. “It’s not possible,” he said. “You’re really fucking things up, do you know that? You shouldn’t be hanging around trying to haunt your ex. If you knew the danger you’re in you wouldn’t be here. Your life is over and you need to fucking get used to it.”
He reached out with one had and pulled open a doorway in the air as if drawing back a curtain, stepped through it, and it sealed behind him without a trace or a single sound. Rush stared at where he had been standing. That's a nice trick, he thought. I must find out how to do that.
For a moment he stood still in uncertainty, thinking about what Tom had said and wondering how on Earth he could contact Sorcha and tell her that his suicide wasn't her fault. Abruptly, he remembered the old homeless man who had rushed at him in Baggot Street, and felt a rush of elation and vindication. Tom’s lying to me. The living can see the dead. The membrane was permeable.
The Unborn Versus The Undead
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14