The Unborn Versus The Undead
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"I conceive that the land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless numbers are still unborn"
— Attributed to an anonymous Nigerian chieftain
Chapter 1: The Cryptic Words Of Patrick Stewart
John Rush, gambler, ex-footballer and drug addict, died just after 3pm on Sunday the 7th of August, 2005, prostrate on the floorboards of an anonymous bedroom with a needle stuck in his arm and a small portable TV on a stool emitting white noise.
It hadn’t been the best of years. Ten months earlier he had sold his car to play in a high-stakes poker game with several shady characters in a warehouse somewhere in Clondalkin, having heard from a friend that the players involved were both wealthy and unskilled. The information was correct but sadly incomplete without a warning. Rush won enough to buy his car back twice over, but on his way out of the warehouse he was struck on the back of the head by something hard and heavy and woke up a little later in a different part of Dublin, broke, shoeless, and concussed.
A couple of months later, what had at one time been occasional recreational use of speed and coke became an uncontrollable habit which consumed the rest of his meagre bankroll and began breaking down his previously robust footballer’s constitution. Furniture began to be sold and items began to disappear from the houses of friends. It was around this time that Sorcha left him, crying, after a horrible fight at 2 in the morning in which he said things that he didn’t mean, and in the morning couldn’t remember.
After that things got out of hand. Rush became known to the police. He couldn’t get into of the card rooms, he had sold his computer, he couldn’t get a job, and none of his friends would meet him any more. He had cold sores all the time. He’d thought he would miss Sorcha because of the sex, but the drugs had taken away his sex drive and instead he found himself crying at times because he just wanted her to hold him while he went asleep. Increasingly, however, he couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t eating properly. His metabolism was disintegrating. He couldn’t think properly. His family didn’t know where he was and he was glad of that in his rare lucid moments.
It both was and was not a suicide. He had introduced himself to heroin a while back and he knew roughly how much was a safe dosage; he knew he was taking too much, but he thought he could handle it. He wasn’t thinking of death; he was thinking of some kind of liberation. He thought it would be a perfect mindless day in a quiet room with his head in another universe and instead his overstressed body reacted violently to the massive influx of opiate chemicals, and he went into shock, lying trembling and thoughtless until the intangible principle connecting his soul to his sinews was severed.
He’d expected his death to be a more spectacular event. At the very least he would have wished for a great white light, or a great darkness; crashing sounds, the agony of his mind unravelling, or some kind of drug-like rapture as his soul did...something. In fact there was no "event" at all. The moment of his body’s surrender passed without his even noticing, until finally he realized a few things: firstly, that he was no longer feeling anything. No pain, no movement, no dizziness, no despair, no ecstasy; nothing but a very mild tingling feeling. Secondly, that his mind was completely clear, clearer than he could remember it ever having been, in fact. Finally, that he was not in fact firmly connected to his body any more; he felt himself slipping and sliding gently between its molecules as he breathed.
He got up. The room was empty and bright and full of a certain silence despite the hiss of the TV. He looked down at his body with dispassion. It didn’t take him long to work out what had happened.
Look at that thing there, he thought, seeing his body’s pallid flesh, and the way the folds of the tracksuit seemed to be draped over a bare skeleton. He noticed that his body had wet itself and that its eyes had rolled back. It looked ugly, and he was surprised to find that he felt no emotional attachment to it at all apart from a tinge of guilty pity, as one might feel for an animal that one had mistreated. Brother Ass, how I’ve abused you, he thought ironically, not feeling particularly saintly at this moment.
As he was standing over his own body wondering what on earth he was supposed to do now, a door slid open in the air beside him.
“Come,” a familiar voice said.
“Ah, you’re joking me,” said Rush, and the voice said, more emphatically, Come, so he stepped into the whiteness through the door, which closed behind him. Patrick Stewart was sitting there behind a desk, dressed as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything else but Patrick and the desk was so purely white and shining that no surrounding details could be made out. He looked up, smiled in a businesslike but kind way, and said "Welcome."
“I always said you were God,” said Rush, who assumed that this must be his pop-culture-saturated brain's version of the traditional white tunnel and admission to heaven. He had been a big Star Trek fan when he was younger.
“That's enough of that,” said Patrick, kindly. “I'm not God. However, it is very important that you listen to what I have to tell you. Would you care to sit down?”
“There's nowhere to sit,” observed Rush.
“That is correct. Well, to the point then.”
He took out a handheld device of some kind and examined the screen. “You may have noticed that your body has expired. According to the ship’s logs, this was intentional on your part. May I ask why you've killed your body?”
“The ship’s logs? What ship?”
“It’s a metaphor, Mr. Rush, in danger of becoming overextended. Please just answer the question.”
“I didn’t kill myself.”
“My information indicates an intentional drug overdose.”
“It wasn’t intentional...it was...well, I knew it was a bit too much but I didn’t think it’d kill me.”
“I don’t think you’re being fully honest with me here, Mr. Rush. Your psychological profile clearly shows multiple and elaborate thoughts of suicide, as well as the perfect social circumstances for the act – estranged from family and friends, addicted to drugs — statistics show...”
“I know how it looks,” interrupted John, “but I really didn’t mean to do it.”
Patrick glared at him.
“I’ll downgrade you from suicide to accidental overdose, although I find your claim somewhat dubious, but only on condition that you explain to me how you reached a state of mind where you would willingly overdose yourself. At the very least it indicates, if not a suicidal state of mind, one in which your own welfare was no longer of much concern to you.”
“I suppose I lost control of my life. I got so unlucky so many times. I mean, not just in cards, in everything. It’s like I was on one gigantic loser for so long that I lost everything, I lost my mind. The drugs were what did it in the end, obviously. It’s easy for me to say now that I should have just stopped, but I tried and failed before. I was a burden to everyone I knew. There was this darkness inside me…”
“Very well, that will do for now,” interrupted Patrick. “No need to tell me your life’s story. I am not a psychiatrist and I have limited time.” Patrick tapped his finger on the screen of his device. “Are you aware of the consequences of your action?”
“Sure how could I be,” said Rush, who was beginning to become irritated. “I don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on.”
“Well, it was possible. I can't make too many assumptions about the people who come to see me, Mr. Rush. Some of them are engaged in plans which extend across many lives and are fully aware of how their individual lifetime fits into a greater scheme. Most, however, are in what is clearly your position of relative, or at least apparent, ignorance. Very well, then. In your particular case, bearing in mind your place of origin, your individual tendencies and the leftover karma from your prematurely curtailed bodily existence, I'm going to recommend participation in a rather unique event.”
Patrick tapped furiously on his device, his brows furrowed in concentration.
“Are you Patrick Stewart or Jean-Luc Picard?” Rush asked. “Is this a dream I'm having while I'm dying or am I really here?”
“Your questions are natural, but the answers will be less useful than you may imagine. I am, of course, Patrick Stewart playing the part of Jean-Luc Picard, who as you know is a fictional character. You could really have answered that question yourself. Additionally, you, Mr. Rush, are really here, whether or not this is a dream. Finally, you are not dying – you are already dead. Let me, therefore, hurry matters onward by giving you a very important piece of advice. Are you ready?”
He nodded, feeling slightly overwhelmed.
“Very well. The advice is as follows. Various strange and possibly quite extreme things are going to happen to you. As I mentioned, I am recommending your participation in a unique event. Due to the nature of the realm in which this event will be occurring, there may be many pressures placed upon you, external or otherwise, encouraging you to disbelieve in the reality of what you are experiencing and act as if it is a dream, or of no real consequence. I assure you that the events and the realm in which they occur are as real as you or I, as real as your entire physical life up to this point, and their consequences are as important to you, or anyone else who is involved, as any decision you have ever made, including the decision to be born, and the decision to die. People may try to persuade you in different ways that what is happening is not real. Do not believe them. Really Mr. Rush, I cannot stress this point enough. You must not fall into the belief that what is happening to you is unreal, or that your awareness itself is not to be trusted, otherwise you may be trapped and lost forever. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that something that you are experiencing is not real.”
“If I can’t trust anyone, how can I be sure I can trust you?”
“Splendid! That’s the spirit, Mr. Rush. We’ll have your critical faculties up and running in no time.”
Patrick leaned forward and smiled with so much kindness and authority in his eyes that Rush felt faint.
“However, I didn’t tell you not to trust anyone, but rather not to believe anyone who tries to deny the reality of something that is clearly happening. Act with a sincere and loving heart and trust your own judgment, Mr. Rush. I know that you have had a rough time in your most recent physical lifetime, albeit much of it self-inflicted, but please treat this as a fresh start. You have talents which are needed.”
“Needed by who? What talents?”
“Needed by the team, Mr. Rush. You were a footballer, is that not correct?” Patrick frowned as if gripped by a sudden doubt and began tapping at his device again.
“Yeah...I was a good footballer until I fucked my knees.”
Patrick beamed. “Well Mr. Rush, your ‘fucked’ knees are no longer an issue and your services are required. A guide has been assigned and will meet you at your place of death. Oh, and I almost forgot...”
He opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out a rather ragged-looking book with a retro cover and corners swollen and darkened with years of handling, and passed it over the desk. Rush picked it up.
“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,” he read out loud. “Le Phenomenon...Humain?”
“Le Phénomène Humain,” Patrick corrected in an impeccable accent.
“This is in French,” said Rush, flicking through the book.
“Full marks for observation, Mr. Rush!”
“I don’t speak French.”
Patrick grimaced and tapped again on his device. “I was informed that you passed your Leaving Certificate exam in that language, is that not correct?”
“Ah yeah, but I’ve forgotten it all now. I don’t think I could remember how to ask where the toilets are.”
“As damning an indictment of your era’s education systems as I’ve ever heard. Very well then. Computer! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phénomène Humain, English translation if you please!”
“Certainly, Captain Picard,” spoke an inhumanly mellow voice from the ceiling. “Have you any preferences as to the format?”
“Late 20th to early 21st Century perfect bound paperback.”
“Thank you, Captain, that item is ready now.”
Patrick opened his desk drawer once again and pulled out another book, this time decorated with a picture of a blonde woman in a bikini in a bath full of money under the title The Phenomenon of Man. Patrick’s eyebrows drew down sharply as he handed it to Rush.
“Our computer clearly has some idiosyncratic ideas about your time period,” he said in an apologetic tone.
“That sounded like the HAL 9000,” said Rush, causing Patrick’s consternation to increase to the point where he began drumming his fingers nervously on the desktop.
“I do apologise, Mr. Rush. I am doing my best but the setup here leaves a great many things to be desired. Let us just say, between you and I, that insufficient research was done prior to this interview and this has led to the discrepancies you have noted. It is of no consequence. About the book – you may or may not get time to read it, and if you do, you may or may not understand it. It is intended to be a help to you.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, everything, really. Now, I really am very busy today, I have a great many of these interviews to conduct and to be honest I anticipate a great many problems and delays so if you wouldn’t mind...”
Patrick gestured towards the door, which had slid open again. Rush looked out to see his body lying on the grubby floor of his bedroom. It had stopped shaking. He looked back at Patrick Stewart, who was murmuring indistinctly into his device and was no longer looking in his direction.
“Did you say I was supposed to play football?” he asked. Patrick ignored him completely. Rush paused for a moment, then shrugged and stepped back through the door, which sealed itself with supertechnological bliss and ceased to exist.
On the other side of the door there was nothing but the empty room and his dead body. He watched it for a while. Some kind of whitish liquid had passed the lips and was oozing down the cheek. The chest was still and the skin horribly grey.
Time seemed to disassemble itself. Time is made of light, he realized. The body looked like a piece of furniture, no more animated or interesting than the floorboards. The walls danced in his peripheral vision. After a short time he noticed that there was someone standing in one of the corners where a moment before there had only been a shadow and a stain on the wallpaper.
“Hello,” the figure said.
“Hi. Who are you?”
“I’m your guide. My name’s Tom.”
“Tom, what’s going on? Am I dead or dreaming? Is this the afterlife?”
“Your body’s dead. I wouldn’t call this the afterlife though since it’s not actually after anything.”
Tom stepped out of the corner. He was a man in his late twenties, dark-haired and red-cheeked and with a slightly sulky expression, dressed in blue jeans and a black t-shirt and carrying a walking stick, apparently as an affectation. He stopped beside Rush’s body and poked it with the stick.
“You did a right number on yourself.”
“Yeah,” said Rush ruefully.” I suppose it was a big mistake. I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
Tom shrugged. “Mistake or not, you’re here now, and if you do well for the team then you’ll make up for it I’m sure.”
“Didn’t anyone explain things to you?”
“Patrick Stewart. He told me I’d be playing football.”
Tom laughed. “Patrick Stewart, that’s funny. I saw Marlon Brando. You know, as Vito Corleone. He was cracking walnuts with his fingers and making veiled threats.”
“So he's not real?”
Tom shook his head, not in denial but in an urgent gesture of dismissal, and made direct eye contact for the first time. He had soft, sad brown eyes.
“Don’t get into that shite now. He’s real, you just saw him in the best way for you, as I did for me. Don’t start trying to figure out real and unreal.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Yes you can. There are things to do. Come on.”
Tom led Rush out of his flat, opening the front door and holding it for him while he took one last look at his body. Sorry, he said to it mentally. I didn’t think things would get this bad.
“You may want to brace yourself,” Tom was saying as they walked down the hallway towards the front door of the building. “It’s always a bit weird the first time.” He opened the door and stood aside to let Rush pass.
The sun shed a ferociously bright and almost fluid multicoloured light and the sky was full of clouds that flowed and boiled, always on the verge of forming familiar shapes. Rush’s ears filled with a cocktail of voices and traffic and shaking leaves and what sounded like glass shattering very far away, or perhaps an orchestra tuning up – a confused, feverish hum at the very limit of audibility. On the steps outside sat a young girl with her arms hugging her legs to her chest, singing quietly. She was crying, the tears welling up on her upper eyelids and falling upwards from there. Rush looked up to see them disappearing into the sky as far as his eyes could make out. He listened closely to hear what she was singing.
Jumped in the river, what did I see
Black-eyed angels swam with me
In puzzlement he looked at Tom, who shrugged. He touched the girl on the shoulder, but she didn’t seem to notice, and when he tried to shake her gently he found that she was as immovable as a statue, immune to his touch. He straightened up and looked down at the street. At first glance it was a normal scene of Dublin traffic, but when he looked closer he realized that there was something strange about all of the people. Through the window of a blue Opel Corsa he saw an elderly man hunched over his steering wheel, gnawing on the torn plastic with long, dark teeth, his eyes livid. The car itself was shuddering and glowing with demonic life, a snarling metal animal superimposed upon the still, patiently waiting machine. The car ahead of that one was a bored bottle-green Mercedes driven by a small blonde woman whose hair was soaking with milk. She was smiling crazily, and staring straight ahead. The back seat was full of howler monkeys, their screaming audible throughout the street. Rush’s attention swung in every direction, drawn by movement and sound. The trees were swaying but there didn’t seem to be any wind that he could feel, and the lines in their bark swam and wriggled as if they were composed of hundreds of brown and black snakes.
“Holy fuck. What is this place?”
“It’s just Dublin, same as before,” Tom said. “This is what it looks like below the surface.”
He trotted down the steps twirling his walking stick, and Rush followed him out on to the street. A woman was walking towards them on the footpath wearing a fur coat covered with blood and tugging a plastic dog on a leash. She wore a fixed expression of glee like an old theatrical mask and seemed not to see them, her eyes crazed and fixated on a distant point ahead. Rush tried to touch her as she passed but his hand was repelled by some kind of force. As he focused more closely he saw that she was surrounded by a complex aura of forms that swirled like the patterns on a soap bubble, moving as she moved, densest around her head but extending to encompass her entire body to a distance of a foot or more from her skin. It was translucent and only visible in its disturbance, like water.
The woman caught sight of a brown lop-eared rabbit that had poked its head out from a hedge in one of the gardens, and flinging aside her plastic dog she shrieked in delight and tore after the bunny, who froze in terror. At the last minute it tried to run, but the woman’s manic sprint turned into a desperate leap at full stretch which carried her, fur coat, rabbit and all, into the hedge, which shook from one end to the other.
“Jesus, what is she doing?” Rush exclaimed.
“Who knows? Come on.”
Tom was walking on ahead. Jon stood and stared in shock as the woman rose from the debris of her fall, exultant, a broken-necked bunny dangling from her two hands. She held it up to the sky and cackled, then flung it to the ground and stamped on it in her high heels until it was nothing but an indistinct pulp mixed with the grass. Delicately she composed herself, wiping her bloody hands on her coat, and returned to the street, where she retrieved her plastic dog and resumed dragging it behind her as she walked.
Rush stood still, feeling faint. Can I feel faint? I don’t have a body any more. He was afraid to look at anyone else for fear that they might be doing something equally bizarre and horrible. He thought that he must be having a nightmare, and suddenly the comfort and promise of this thought seemed so wonderful that it had to be true. It’s a nightmare and I’ll wake up again in bed. His senses grew dim and he barely heard Tom shouting at him, hands grabbing him. He closed his eyes and felt himself fall backwards into misty darkness.
Mam was making a cake and it was his turn to lick the bowl, but Dad came in and swiped the whole bowl with all of the cake mix still in it and brought it into his study to have all by himself. Well, can you credit that, Mam said, he wouldn’t even wait for me to cook it. I swear that man is more dustbin than human. He cried so she gave him a biscuit from the tin, which he ate greedily. He wondered if he should cry some more to try and get more biscuits when Dad emerged from the study and flung the empty bowl on the ground, belching hugely. Woman, yeh make the best fucken cake. Bake us some more and I’ll love yeh forever.
Sure it was only the raw mix, you pig. Why don’t you just eat the eggs out of their boxes shells and all, spoon the flour out of the bag into your mouth and wash it all down with sugar water?
I tell you that’s not a bad idea. Dad lurched into the kitchen his face all covered with cake mix and began eating everything he could lay his hands on, wolfing it all down indiscriminately with gluttonous noises, and Mam hooshed John out quickly and closed the door behind them. She put her hands on his shoulders and leaned down to him. There’ll be no stopping him for a day or two, love. He won’t eat me because he knows there’ll be no one left to cook for him, but you’re in danger here. It’s not that he doesn’t love you, son, but when the hunger’s on him it’s best to absent yourself.<
He left the house with a small plastic bag with his homework and a raincoat inside, and got the bus to his granny’s house. On the way the bus passed under a low bridge and the top was sheared off completely, exposing the passengers in the top deck to the elements to an inconvenient extent. One of the passengers, a young man with dark hair and a vaguely familiar face, tried to engage him in conversation but his questions didn’t seem to make any sense so John pretended not to hear him. When he got to his granny’s the gate was wide open and so was the front door, and the lace curtains were ripped and hanging crookedly inside dark windows. He called for her when he stepped across the threshold but there was no answer. There was a smell of beef and potatoes from the kitchen and classical music was playing upstairs, and he felt a familiar sense of peace and contentment. When he went into the sitting room however, there was a clammy feel to the air and he saw with shock that his granny was slumped in her armchair, slack-jawed, one of her sleeves rolled up. There was a needle on the carpet and tracks on the inside of her elbow where the skin was thin and shiny and brown like greasepaper.
Ah Jesus, Granny, no! he cried, and ran forward, starting to cry as he held her and felt how cold she was. She mumbled something and he cried and told her he loved her, and begged her not to die. He threw the needle on the ground and stamped on it and she nearly fell off the chair and he caught her and hugged her and cried and he was five years old and it wasn’t fair that this old flesh had to pay for his sins and maybe if he took care of her she would get better and they could have a picnic again in the sun in her back garden under the crab apple tree on the plastic tartan picnic mat that was kept at the back of the shed between granddad’s ratty old golf bag and the set of neon yellow toy bowling skittles that couldn’t be used any more because two of them had melted one day when John left them leaning against a hot radiator causing his granddad to fly into one of his nonsensical rages and scream red-faced at the cat and throw John’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarves watercolour paint set out of the sitting-room window to land in a sunlit patch of the back garden where he and his granny would sometimes have picnics on an old, beloved red-and-blue tartan mat.
Um. I’m sorry, John...
There was a dark-haired man standing behind him who he recognized from somewhere.
What are you doing in my granny’s house, Tom?
I’m very sorry and I didn’t mean to intrude, but the door was open and I heard crying and I wanted to help. He was smiling solicitously.
John smiled with relief through his tears. It’s my granny, she’s eh...she’s been shooting up. It’s my fault. Can you help her? Maybe we should call an ambulance.
She looks alright to me.
He turned around to see his granny sitting in the same chair, her sleeves rolled down, looking healthy and smiling contentedly as she knitted a scarf out of bright red wool. This caused him some puzzlement.
Granny, you always said you hated knitting. She didn’t look up.
Tom cleared his throat embarrassedly and said, Sorry, I thought it would be a safe guess. Listen, John, do you know who I am?
Yes, but do you know how you know me? When did we meet?
I think...didn’t we go to school together? I think you were a year or two ahead of me.
That’s not it, John. Think harder, please. It’s really important you remember.
John realized as he tried to answer Tom’s question that there were certain holes in the plot of the story he had been following. For one thing, he was sure his granny would never have used smack. He looked out of the sitting room window and saw that the sky was flowing like a most peculiar liquid and that nothing seemed to be at rest. He tried to focus more closely on the poplar trees at the bottom of the garden that were swaying in oddly sensuous ways, but whenever he focused on any particular part of his field of vision it broke into its constituent elements, each tiny portion displaying an apparently infinite complexity that could not be fixed by any effort of his eyes or his mind. The only parallel to this experience that he could find in his memory was of his only lucid dream.
Is this a dream?
Yes, it is. Would you like to wake up?
I’m not sure. I think I’m dying on the floor of my flat.
It’s a little worse than that I’m afraid. Don’t you remember who I am?
He remembered a dark-haired figure with a walking stick. Tom, his guide. He remembered Patrick Stewart and the woman who killed the rabbit.
Yeah, I remember now. You’re my guide. And I’m dead, amn’t I?
More like undead, if you want to get technical.
You mean like a zombie?
Not unless you decide to try to re-animate that drug-riddled body of yours. Which I do not recommend. No. More like your conventional kind of ghost.
Looking back at the armchair, he saw that his granny had turned into their family cat who had died of kidney failure ten years ago and been buried at the bottom of the garden in the dark patch under the hedge that he had always been afraid to approach. She had one leg stuck up in the air and was licking her own arse. Tom held out one hand.
Come on. Take my hand and wake up out of this.
Where’s your walking stick? He asked forlornly as he took Tom’s hand, with an uncomfortable feeling of psychological nudity resulting from having another intelligent presence in his own dream.
It disappeared when I came into your dream. I could have made it again but I was hoping not to be here for very long. Other peoples’ minds give me the creeps.
His granny’s sitting room warped and spiralled as if reflected in stirred mercury, and then it was as if a year of days and nights crashed through the crown of his head. There were other voices, other lives, other familiar places close enough to smell, and then it all turned to darkness, which in turn, as he opened his eyes, became Tom’s gigantic, looming face directly over his, their foreheads touching, an electrical sensation on his brow at the point of contact. From this close, and with the enhanced and psychedelic vision that seemed to go along with being undead, the sight of Tom’s eyes opening was overwhelmingly intense, like watching glaciers melting to reveal hollowed-out hills, and he thrust him away convulsively, finding to his surprise that the other’s body, in contrast to the girl he’d tried to shake earlier, was vanishingly light. Tom elegantly back-somersaulted and landed on his toes with a wry smile.
Rush sat up and looked around him. They were on the street outside his flat, as before. Two young boys of about seven or eight were standing at the bus stop across the road in uniforms of Satanic red and black bearing a logo of slanted yellow eyes just over the heart of the pullover; they also wore black hoods and carried drawstring sacks instead of schoolbags. The sacks were wriggling and every now and then one of the boys punched or kicked one of them. They were chanting words which he couldn’t quite make out and didn’t want to. An elderly man who was also waiting for the bus was watching them with an expression of fixed horror; one of his hands was inside his trousers, moving rhythmically, while the other was fiercely pinching and scratching the skin of his cheek.
“This place is like a nightmare,” said Rush again.
“Careful with that now,” said Tom. “It’s real, try to remember that. It’s not always this bad, you know. Rush hour always brings out the worst in people.”
“How come you and I aren’t all messed up like them?”
“We’re undead. They’re alive.”
“Alive?” Rush stared at Tom in incomprehension. “I thought this was the spirit world.”
“It is indeed the spirit world, and it is also the real world, and I’m sure you’d love to stay here and chat about the existential whatness of it all but fortunately we have an appointment to keep, and we’ve already wasted enough time with that little excursion into your personal wonderland of guilt. I suppose I should have anticipated it, with you being a suicide and all.”
“Well fuck you too, boss,” said Rush, but Tom was already striding off up the road and there wasn’t much else to do but follow him.
“I didn’t mean to kill myself,” Rush called. The reply floated back to him along the wind.
“That’s what they all say.”
On the way into town John Rush saw: a man in a pleasantly wooded and flowery garden digging his own grave with a dessert spoon and eating the resulting soil, pausing every now and then to remove worms. A giant old sycamore inhabited by a colony of at least a hundred
living and undead squirrels, who had gnawed so many holes that as the wind passed through the tree different notes were played that resembled the sound of pan pipes and occasionally harmonized by random chance, and even more occasionally, although far less infrequently than chance might predict, reproduced the melodies of well-known songs. Pale and desperate faces crowding the tall windows of house after house in a long red brick terrace. Roads of such various character and psyche that the cars driving or waiting on either side took on the forms and movements of appropriate animals – lines of elephants with hollow bellies, lines of corrupted and malevolent dragon-lizards ridden by people whose skin was scaled and whose hands bore dark claws, lines of friendly bears on all fours with disproportionately massive heads bearing human beings who snuggled into their fur. The metal, familiar car superimposed on the animal, as if two universes intersected. Each person surrounded by a bodily halo generated by their mind. A young, heavy man in his late thirties who hunched behind a gate and waited for people to pass by so that he could growl at them, then giggle hysterically when they shied away from him. A statue of Patrick Kavanagh on a bench by the side of the Grand Canal beside which the poet himself, or a spirit pretending to be him, sat, grumbling and glaring at everyone who passed by and flinging unreal pieces of bread at the heads of passing swans. Processions of communicants lining up outside desanctified churches that had long since been converted into pubs and apartments. A young man sitting at a bus shelter whose head swelled like an overripe Halloween pumpkin as Rush watched, and then exploded, spraying the shelter and the nearby people with unpleasant internal matter and causing the poor lad no end of embarrassment, in the first place because he was forced into groping to pick up every piece he could find without the benefit of visual sense organs, and in the second place because what he managed to put back together out of all that mess looked like a disturbed young child’s papier-mâché creation. Living works of public statuary that breathed and shuddered and emitted groaning noises as if metal and stone were struggling to transmute into tissue and bone.
Tom refused to answer any more of Rush’s questions, saying that the answers would only lead to more questions and were a waste of time anyway, and after a while he accepted this and relaxed into a different attitude. After about ten minutes of sheer chaotic weirdness, his sense of disorientation and madness lost its edge, and he began to accept that this intensely surreal menagerie was simply the way of things when one was dead. He wondered that none of the living people he passed seemed aware of the dead ones, the throngs of spirits surrounding them. Perhaps, he thought, they only perceived the activities of the undead as internal mental events, thoughts and daydreams of their own. He was less sure what it meant when the living themselves performed clearly impossible feats of magick, for example the woman he had seen walking with the soles of her bare feet a good six inches off the ground. This had interested him enough to pursue Tom with questions until he eventually said,“Well, she’s definitely not a spirit, she’s alive, so maybe she’s wearing platforms but she’s forgotten about them? Honestly John, who cares? You’re so far behind with all this I honestly can’t see how you’re going to be any help to us.”
John gritted his teeth, fought back any hostile impulses and said “Call me Rush.”
“Because that’s my name. That’s what everyone calls me.”
“Everyone called you by your surname?”
“It’s just my name. It’s the only name I use.”
Tom refused to be pressed any further on where they were going or for what purpose, and for a moment Rush was tempted simply to walk away and leave his guide and explore this new, weird world, but he was prevented by a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. Tom had abilities and knowledge he lacked, and it might be child’s play for him to force Rush to do anything he wanted him to do. Besides which, cranky as his guide seemed to be, he was also his only point of reference, and had already rescued him once from a psychotic immersion in the paranoid fantasies of his own subconscious mind.
As they came down Baggot street a crazy old man wearing a long filthy duffle coat and black bin liners instead of shoes hurtled towards them from across the road, causing more than one car to apply its brakes with a screech of protest. He was practically frothing at the mouth, bright eyes bulging above a beard so bristly and mobile it seemed like a small animal that he had bred carefully into a shape suitable for the insertion of his chin and then electrocuted unmercifully until all of its individual hairs stood out from each other in protest.
“Get out of here, get out of here to fuck,” he screamed as he ran towards them, and Tom grabbed Rush’s arm, saying “Come on, don’t let him touch you,” but Rush stood still, amazed that the man seemed to be making direct eye contact with him.
“Get out of here, this place is cursed, yer only just dead, get out to fuck while yeh can,” the man continued to scream as his bandy legs propelled him towards Rush.
“Can he see me?” Rush asked. “How does he know I just died?”
“Come on will you, you don’t want him touching you, listen to me for fuck’s sake!”
Tom yanked him with gigantic and unexpected force and he felt himself flying forward, and began to run just to keep his balance. The bearded man launched himself headlong with insane energy and determination and missed grabbing him by fractions of an inch, his fingers clawing at Rush’s free arm but failing to keep a grip. He overbalanced in the extremity of this attempt and crashed into a middle-aged woman wearing a beehive wig full of real bees, sending both of them in a buzzing tangle to the pavement.
“Only just dead,” the man screamed again. “You can still leave, get out of here to fuck, they’re coming, they’re coming.”
Tom was running and dragging him along as if he weighed nothing and so he followed, trying to look back, but the crazy old man was lost in a welter of people and noise. Tom seemed to be in a panic and was still running, and Rush had had enough of being dragged, so he pulled back to try and stop them. It wasn’t working, and he felt that his forearm was in an iron grip and that Tom’s forward momentum was of such force and ferocity that no effort of his would be sufficient. Then it was as if his undead body was taken over by a far more canny awareness. He relaxed completely and willed himself to move forwards with blinding speed, easily overtaking him. With Tom’s hand still gripping his forearm with iron strength, he turned around and dove between his legs in a forward roll. This manoeuvre had the effect of flipping Tom entirely upside down to land on his back with an audible thud that drew confused, unfocused glances from the living pedestrians all around. Rush was left standing over him, looking down with amazement at what he’d just done, and they met each other’s gaze for a moment.
“Well now,” said Tom.
Rush found himself holding his forearm tenderly where the old man had tried to grab him, nursing a throbbing pain. He lifted his hand away and rolled up the sleeve of his tracksuit and saw four deep, angry indentations that oozed blood as the sides of trenches cut in a peat bog might ooze water.
“I thought he barely touched me,” he said wonderingly as Tom stood up.
“The living are very dangerous to us, if they can see us. They have so much more presence. We’re nothing to them. Like smoke.”
“So, can we be killed? How would that work?”
“Not killed, but we can be seriously inconvenienced. You could easily have been standing where you are now wondering how you were going to go about reattaching your arm. You might manage it alright, I’m guessing, though. I’ve seen some people whose severed body parts go scuttling off to live like vermin in the city parks. All depends on how integrated you are. I have to say that you don’t fit the normal profile for a suicide. May I ask why you did it?”
“I told you. I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident.”
Tom didn’t reply. Rush concentrated on the wounds on his forearm, not quite understanding how he knew to do what he was doing, and felt a tingle of warm energy emanate from the core of his body and wash over the welts in waves until they healed and there was no trace on his skin that anything at all had happened.
“Maybe Paddy knows what he’s doing after all,” Tom said grudgingly. “You do seem to be catching up a bit now.”
“How did he see me?”
“How did that man see me, if he’s not dead like us?”
“Some people can, that’s all. Never mind him. He doesn’t matter.”
They walked on, Rush bursting into happy laughter when he saw that the trees lining the black railings of Saint Stephen’s Green were full of monkeys and macaws, and Tom staring at the ground in thought. The laughter stopped abruptly and turned to a disincarnate version of nausea when further along the road the spikes of the railings began to sport human heads grinning in various grotesque attitudes, many of them singing rebel songs at passers-by or making lascivious comments. Blood trickled down from the stumps of their necks. He turned to Tom and before he could ask the obvious question, Tom said “Cromwell” in a dark tone without taking his eyes off the footpath. Any further explanation seemed unnecessary so Rush simply tried to avoid making eye contact with the heads as they passed, except when a pretty young female missing one eye commented that he had a fine arse.
“Can’t say the same about you,” he replied, and she stuck her green-mottled bloody tongue out at him and said, “Well aren’t you the ladies man.”
The Unborn Versus The Undead
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