The Unborn Versus The Undead
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Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many."
— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Chapter 4: The High King of Ireland
John Rush began what he thought of as his first heroic quest on a Wednesday afternoon after leaving the house of his ex-girlfriend, but not before he had had the opportunity to see her undressing and preparing herself for a shower with her usual routine, which involved stretching and preening in front of a full-length mirror on the inside of her wardrobe door. He was surprised that this display didn’t arouse him as it usually would have, at least not physically. He felt a rush of energy which did not localize itself in his penis, or its spectral equivalent, but dispersed itself over his entire body, and it produced nothing but a sense of slightly intensified love and longing, which gave way in turn to his fear of what was going to happen to Sorcha when she found out about his suicide. This thought had turned from a preoccupation to an obsession that was drowning his ability to think about anything else, and it was in this frame of mind that he left the house, wriggling through an open upstairs window and shinning down a drainpipe, a route he had taken several times in reverse in the past when he had forgotten his key and she was lying on her bed stoned insensible.
Her estate was a phantasmagoria lit by two suns, both sinking towards the western horizon, and three moons in various phases shone in the darkening blue in the east among the twinkling of early stars in unfamiliar constellations. In the front garden of a house across the road a girl was pirouetting on top of a forty-foot-high pole that she had stolen from an Indian sadhu, who had returned the favour by stealing her pink bicycle and was riding up and down the street with his elbows and knees flailing madly, a manic grin on his face. He caught Rush’s eye and waved, then crashed into a telephone pole and disappeared into the wood, which crackled with a momentary electricity. The girl’s parents were in the garden; her mother was cheering her on, and her dad was flinging empty beer bottles up at her, shouting “Score!” every time he struck her with one. Their neighbours’ house was a blazing inferno full of faceless black figures running frantically from room to room. Further down the street bulldozers and earth-movers and cranes and hundreds of men in hard hats were busy knocking down houses to make room for a motorway that meandered back and forth through the estates for miles, leaving a trail of destruction as it passed and apparently going nowhere. Cars screeched up and down the residential roads blasting techno and rap, every car contributing part of a beat and harmony that reverberated in every brick and every wire.
Through this inconceivable landscape wandered thousands of vagrants, displaced by the meaningless motorways or forced out by the threat of violence, picking through the rubble, gathering silently and begging for food in the parking lots of the supermarkets where heaps of old fruit and vegetables were mounded up behind electrified fences and guarded by blank-faced yellow-jacketed automatons with guns and badges. Buses tore along their routes, refusing to stop, mowing down desperate pedestrians, their wheels leaving dark red stripes as their crazed drivers, minds fixated on the terminus like sprinters on the finish line, pressed their feet down on their accelerators and closed their eyes, driving from memory and instinct, neon midnight displays in their minds' eyes of never-ending clear roads, a city empty of people and tolls and traffic lights, every driver raising one polite hand in greeting to each one he passed, calling on the radio to each other where are you, where are you, where are you? Every stream and river was swallowed up into soil that smouldered below the surface. Electrocuted crows hung the wrong way up on the power lines, smoking feathers falling like leaves.
Here and there in the midst of the urban Gehenna there were pockets of peace – houses glowing with an aura of untouchable light, through whose windows could be seen foliage and fountains and smiling people, Chinese brush-painting tranquillity or Hollywood fulfilment-dreams against which the waves of dark energy dispersed.
The apparition of this chaos horrified Rush and brought back primal memories that were familiar to him from nightmares that until this moment he had forgotten: of destroyed cities and immense natural disasters, waves the size of cliffs and meteors smashing into buildings and earthquakes that split entire countries that then drowned under the inrushing seas. He could not think anything but that he had lived many times before now, and that those memories swam in the depths of his dreaming mind. He tried to walk but he was paralyzed by the insanity of the competing electromagnetic chaos of a hundred thousand unconscious fantasies and fears, and his own fears were rising: warplanes in the distance dropping bombs, the dull thumping coming closer. Families hiding under the stairs and listening for the spaces between concussions, praying and praying, and every day a celebration of being spared, until the final time, the incredible noise of the house collapsing and the final crushed breaths and pleas in a tomb of wood and masonry.
Don’t panic, it’s not real, don’t panic, it’s not real he told himself as he walked. He looked up and saw an angry red star, tendrils of scarlet wreathed around in a baleful glowing dance, and there was a high-pitched whine in his ears as he felt his body rising off the ground as gravity was reversed. Bricks and paving stones and people and cars rose slowly into the air and there was a warping sensation in his body, as if he were caught in a gravitational field that was pulling him in different directions. Everyone was rising off the ground and screaming Rajah Surya, Rajah Surya, and Rush felt panic taking him over, he thrashed and screamed it’s not real, Jesus Christ help me, it’s not real, and Tom’s voice in his ears said what’s real and what’s unreal? and Patrick Stewart said treat it as if it’s real, and act with a true heart and Paddy Coad said just relax and enjoy the ride lad, sure what harm? and the chant of Rajah Surya grew louder and they all rose higher and the star grew larger and the motorways peeled off the ground like strips of bacon and the cars hurtled into space and the houses crumpled and the roof tiles sped upwards like clouds of starlings and the destroying star began to sing. John Rush smiled and opened his arms and let it draw him into itself, the burning red apocalypse and its destroying song pouring over him.
Not real, he thought as he sat on the wall watching the traffic light. It had been stuck on red for five minutes and motorists were beeping their horns and standing out of their cars shouting at the people in front. It wasn’t real. He was at the exit of Sorcha’s estate, and the sky, while having that peculiar fluid quality he had noticed before, was blue, with wide brushstrokes of cirrus. I’m alive. The sun is just the sun. He felt very frightened and confused, and he didn’t understand the rules of this weird afterlife at all. He didn’t know if a day or five days or a minute or no time at all had passed since he left Sorcha’s house, and he didn’t know if there had ever been a football match due to happen between the unborn and the undead. The only thing he was sure of was that he had killed himself, and Sorcha was going to find out soon, and he needed to find out how to contact her to let her know that it wasn’t her fault.
He set off for town on foot, and aside from the normal hallucinatory madness of spending time around the living, the only incident of note was his discovery that by concentrating in a particular way on an object such as an apple, he could create a psychic replica of it that was as real to him as the original would be to a living person. He performed this trick on the first bicycle that he came across, and cycled the rest of the way into town feeling very proud of himself.
There was an undead homeless man sitting on the wall at Baggot Street bridge. Rush knew he was undead because of his lack of an aura and also because of the quiet, thoughtful way he was throwing pieces of bread into the water for the swans and ducks, instead of flinging them with all his might with a blood-curdling yell of hatred for all water-fowl as most of the living people Rush had seen were doing. Of course, his pieces of bread, being unreal, went unnoticed and uneaten, and in fact sat on top of the water without denting its surface tension even slightly, drifting downstream until they got far enough away from the undead tramp who brought them into being, and vanished.
“Excuse me.” said Rush.
“That’s a nice bike,” said the tramp. “Can I have it?”
“Eh...sure. Why not?”
“Never mind, it wouldn’t last long away from you anyway. That was just a test. I needed to be sure I can trust you.”
“Strange times, that’s why. Look.”
He pointed into the canal at a faint white glow deep below the surface.
“What do you think that is?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like it a bit. It’s not like us.”
The light wavered slightly, and the tramp recoiled, almost falling off the bridge. Rush reached out to steady him.
“Cheers. Thought it was coming right at us there. You can never tell what the little fuckers will do next.”
“What little fuckers?”
“Them things,” said the tramp impatiently. “The shapeless souls.”
Rush looked again. The pale light didn’t seem to be moving, and he focused in on it with his acute vision. He couldn’t tell why, but it gave the impression of being alive.
“Is it a ghost?” he asked, feeling that this was probably a stupid question but not knowing how else to ask it. The tramp cackled.
“You’re new, aren’t you? It’s not a fucking ghost, lad. You and me are ghosts. That thing in there, that’s something else. A shapeless soul. I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
Something dawned on Rush.
“Is that what they call one of the unborn?”
“Aye. Never bound to flesh.”
“What’s it doing in the canal?”
“Fucked if I know. Can’t even tell how many. Could be one or ten thousand. Like the angels on the head of a pin. That used to be a good one at parties. Don’t see so many angels now and when you do they don’t do tricks. It’s all New Age stuff – Will you choose to be a warrior for the light and shite of that general flavour. None of the old resonant language. None of the old symbols. They’ve gone out of fashion and the world is a poorer place for it. If you ask me they’ve all gone insane.”
They stood on the bridge for another moment. Rush wanted to ask the tramp what the fuck he was talking about, but felt it would be impolite. A woman passed them by on the footpath with a cartoon halo of tiny bluebirds in miniature flocks crying and fluttering in a kind of panic around her head. She was dressed in a perfect scarlet trouser suit and appeared to be concentrating on not walking on the cracks in the pavement. A spark of light followed in her wake, pulled along by the eddies of her aura, and it seemed to warp the air as it passed. Rush regarded it curiously.
“She’ll be having a babby,” said the tramp.
“Can’t you tell? They have an eldritch look to them.”
The spark bobbed and wavered like a buoy dragged by a boat, moving erratically, always staying close to the outer limits of the woman’s aura.
“When it comes time it’ll go into her and then she’ll have a babby, once it’s decided on who its da will be.”
“It’s not her choice?”
“She’ll think it’s her choice but it won’t be. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be that way. They’re coming too early now. Used to be that a man and a woman would choose each other and their union would call one of those little sparkly fuckers into being, but everything’s turning upside down now. Well, good luck to you.”
The tramp started walking off down the road before Rush remembered what he’d wanted to ask.
“Wait,” he called, and the tramp turned. “Have you seen a homeless man around here? He’s alive, but he sees the dead. He screamed at me.”
The tramp’s eyes widened. “You mean the king,” he said. “He’s up in arms over the shapeless souls. Doesn’t like them any more than I do.”
“The king of where?”
“The king of Ireland,” sighed the tramp. “If you’re out looking for someone you’d better find out who they are first.”
He continued on his way. Rush looked down into the water of the canal and where before there had been one will-o'-the-wisp, now there were two, orbiting each other like a binary star system.
He found the high king of all Ireland with his arse in the air rooting through the nether depths of a rubbish bin in one of the back alleys off Baggot Street. He almost walked past him in fact, mistaking him for yet another undead bum due to the fact that he had no discernible aura, but then the arse came down and the head and shoulders emerged from the bin with fresh fruit stains on the fabric of an ancient anorak and an unpeeled banana held triumphantly in one hand, and it was clear from his unmistakable eyes and beard that this was the man who had accosted him earlier and almost torn his arm off. Rush approached him warily, ready to retreat at speed if the man attacked him again.
“Hello,” he said cautiously. They made eye contact, and the man recognized him and raised one eyebrow in greeting.
“Hello again. I take it you’re sticking around in the fair city.”
“They want me to play a football match.”
“Indeed now. Would this happen to be a match for the fate of Ireland’s collective psyche, played against the uncountable hosts of the unborn?”
“That’s the one.”
The man peeled his banana thoughtfully and began to eat, removing small pieces of the ripe yellow flesh with his fingers and popping them into an almost toothless mouth where they were chewed with squishing noises. When he didn’t say anything for another few moments Rush cleared his throat.
“I was wondering why you chased after me earlier.”
The man’s eyebrows knotted together dramatically.
“When was that?”
“I’m not sure. It might have been today, or yesterday...”
“That’s admirably vague of you. I have no memory of this alleged incident.”
“But you remember me, don’t you?”
“I do indeed have your face and certain related information stored in my noodle for some reason, but I must admit that my ability to connect faces to specific incidents is not what it once was, so it is possible that I may have chased after you as you suggest. Was I saying any particular thing?”
“You were telling me to get out of here. You said something about me being only recently dead.”
“And is this true that you are only recently deceased? You no longer have the hallmarks of it.”
“Only today or yesterday, I think.”
He continued to munch on his banana, and his gaze became fixated on the behind of a pretty young Scandinavian girl of perhaps seventeen or eighteen dressed in tight blue jeans, his head turning to follow her until she disappeared around the corner. He finished the banana and wiped his fingers on his pants, and turned away.
“Excuse me,” said Rush.
“So you’ve no idea why you were chasing after me?”
“I imagine that it was an attempt to prevent you from staying in this place after your death. It’s been a good place for spirits for a long time, but it’s changing now. I thought that with you playing in this football match and all, you’d be aware of that.”
“So it’s true? The unborn are coming?”
Suddenly the man looked ancient and exhausted. He sighed deeply, and the light seeped from his eyes and his beard ceased to bristle and his reached out one hand to steady himself on the bin from which he had scavenged the banana.
“They’re coming all right. It’s been happening for a while but now the floodgates are opening. I don’t mean to dampen your fighting spirit but I hold out no hope for this football match. For one thing, I see no reason why they should abide by the result even if they lose. They are nothing but pieces of unsculpted life without much in the way of thought or morality and to be honest I think the only reason the match was agreed to at all is because they have an evil sense of play. Was that what you wanted to ask me?”
“No...there was something else.”
“There always is.”
“I need a favour.”
“Aha. Wait, let me guess. You want a letter written to a loved-one or some such foolishness.”
“That’s sweet. I’m sure she’s a lovely girl and that you only want to let her know not to feel bad that you’re dead. Am I right?”
“I killed myself. I want to tell her it wasn’t her fault.”
His face fell and grew weary again. “There’s always a good reason,” he muttered to himself. “I’m sorry, I won’t do it.”
“Have you any idea how many people like you have asked me to do this exact thing? Some of them even want me to make personal visits. One man even asked me to go to bed with his wife while he watched. I used to want to help, but not any more.”
“It wouldn’t take much. One letter.”
“I don’t do that any more!” the man screamed, his eyes filling suddenly with tears.
Passers-by stared, while trying not to look as if they were staring. The man waved his arms around him and continued, “Don’t you see what’s happened to me? As far as the world is concerned I’ve gone insane. My life is ruined. I can never go back. I had a family before and they won’t talk to me now. I was put in an institution and given drugs. I’ve got nothing, and all because I can see the dead and they won’t leave me alone. It’s not like in the pictures, where the hero learns to use his gift for good and solves crimes or tracks down a serial killer or the usual nonsense. It doesn’t get any better. There are two worlds where once there was one, and there’s no reconciling them. My life, the one I used to have, is over. Finished.”
“I’m sorry.” Rush felt bad for the man, who was now openly sobbing. He felt desperate inside because of the contradiction between his burning need to contact Sorcha and his feeling that he could not ask this man to give any more than he already had.
“A Rí Úasail?”
The voice came from behind Rush, and he turned to see a small group of undead men in their forties or fifties in smart suits, with the florid cheeks of drinkers and outdoorsmen. Their spokesperson, a man with a belly of the size, shape and skin tension of a woman pregnant with twins that bulged out of his shirt and drooped over his waistband, bowed as deeply as he was able and said again, “Tá brón orm, a Rí. An bhfuil nóiméid agat?”
“Ah, fuck.” said the man, wiping his eyes with one stained and ragged sleeve.
“Why do people call you the king?” asked Rush.
“They say that’s what I am. I don’t understand it. I don’t know if any of you fuckers are even real. For all I know the doctors are right and I’m just a hopeless schizophrenic who should be locked up and medicated.”
“You’re not schizophrenic,” said Rush, trying to be comforting. “I’m real. You didn’t invent me. I was a real person.”
“What’s real and what’s unreal?” asked the king, meeting Rush’s gaze with tearful eyes.
“A Rí Úasail?” came the voice again, both more obsequious and more insistent.
“Béarla...” the king grated, a foul-tempered expression coming over his face.
The spokesman retreated for a brief but heated discussion with his delegation in which they all alternately nodded and shook their heads, jowls and hair shaking vigorously and sweat flying off foreheads. He emerged from the huddle and bowed again.
“O King, although we feel it is proper to discuss matters of state in the official language, we will of course defer to your wishes and communicate in the language of the conquerors.”
The king looked at Rush with a kind of mute plea in his eyes. The spokesman continued.
“O King, we require your advice with regard to a most urgent matter, namely the incursion of the unborn into this realm. We feel that this should be pronounced to be illegal and that any of the unborn found in contravention of your ruling, or rather the ruling we hope to obtain from you, namely that they are forbidden to enter or otherwise attempt to influence events outside of their allotted temporal zone in the future, be incarcerated, interned, imprisoned, or, ideally, forcibly encouraged to return to their proper time. We are further seeking a ruling from you that the unborn should not legally be regarded as people at all, and should be returned to their indeterminate status prior to the addition of articles 40.3.3 and 40.3.4 to the constitution, and further, we are seeking permission for a public proclamation that the unborn do not and never have had any ontological or philosophical reality and have therefore been nullified, effective immediately and retro-actively.”
The king stared blankly at them for a moment.
“Have I spoken to you people before?”
“Indeed O King, we have sought your advice many times.”
“Then I must have told you that I’m not anyone’s king.”
“O King, your modesty and humility are as renowned as your sense of humour.”
“I don’t think I have ever given you any advice.”
“Indeed you have, O King. Your wisdom is as legendary as your asceticism and in every case your decision has been correct.”
“For Jesus’ sake won’t you leave me alone? I can do nothing about the unborn or anything else. They may or may not be real but they’re coming and no proclamation is going to change anything.”
The man bowed again, and said “O King, we thank you for your advice.”
“I didn’t give you any fucking advice.”
“As it please you, O King.”
He joined his delegation again, pronouncing in a tone of self-importance, “The King has told me that our proclamation of nullification and forbidding is unnecessary! The unborn may or may not be real, and therefore by extension of quantum mechanical theory applicable in such cases, if we do not observe them, they may not exist, whether they are here or not! A committee must immediately take charge of discussing how best to implement this strategy of blindness without impeding normal functioning.”
The king winked at Rush, saying “Watch this.” His eyes grew unbearably intense and bright and the air around him shimmered, his form appearing to grow to gigantic proportions as a concentration of power and will warped Rush’s perspective. The delegation squealed and shrank and changed shape until they had become rats, which milled around uncertainly for a few seconds before bolting across the alley and under a wooden door into the back yard of a restaurant.
The ringing in Rush’s ears faded and his perspective returned to normal, as the king was saying “I shouldn’t do that but sometimes I can’t resist.”
“How is that possible?” Rush asked.
“Lad, it’s all just a dream. None of it is real. Anything is possible.”
“Someone told me that I shouldn’t trust anyone who told me that.”
“They were right. I am not trustworthy.”
Rush and the king of Ireland went to sit in the park on Merrion Square where the king partook of old lettuce and nearly-bad tomatoes from the discount shelf in Tesco and continued to refuse to write a letter to any of the people that Rush had known while alive. Rush tried every tactic from polite cajolery to feigned uncaring to indignant anger, all of which elicited no response from the king other than laughter and the repeated assertion that he, Rush, needed to overcome his attachments to his old life and forget about playing football and get out of this place as fast as possible.
In the course of their conversation and the king’s lunch, three undead beings approached him with different hails and prostrations and beseeched favours and wisdom from him, and despite his rude refusals and dismissals they departed under the impression that they had received what they came looking for.
“I’m fucked,” said the king. “If I try to help them, they think I’m their king. If I tell them to fuck off, they still think I’m their king. I don’t know how it started but it’s unstoppable now and it has me tormented beyond human endurance. I’ve thought about finishing myself off, only I’m curious as to how this is all going to turn out.”
“Ah, you know. Life. Besides, knowing what I know, there’s no point wishing for death. Like as not I’d still just be sitting here afterwards, only without a body. It’d be nice to be rid of the aches and pains but there are disadvantages.”
Eventually the king stood up and said, “Well, you’re a nice lad, but it’s time to say goodbye before you get attached.” When Rush began to protest the king enunciated very clearly his final word on the matter.
“You will fuck off now, lad. It’s for your own good as well as mine. Begone.”
Without a transition of any kind Rush found himself alone on another bench entirely at the other end of the park, with the king nowhere in sight. He sat there for at least an hour, beaten and despondent and thinking dark thoughts. At one point the ground ten feet in front of him erupted and a grotesquely withered, soiled and wormy cadaver hauled itself out, cursing through a lipless mouth. When it finally stood up and looked around, Rush, who at this point was inured to the most fantastic or horrific sights, asked Can I help you? and the corpse said I’ve been murdered, I need the guards, and Rush gave him directions to Pearse Street garda station. An old undead man on the bench next to Rush said He’s been at that every day for the last forty years. Never gets tired of it.
Unable to think of what to do next, and having let go of the momentum that had sustained him since his death, Rush was overcome by a sense of crushing fatigue, and closed his eyes. In a second or two he felt the pulling sensation in his chest and knowing where he was likely to end up, surrendered to it gladly.
The Unborn Versus The Undead
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14