ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009




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Copyright © 2009

Niall Boyce

The Return

NIALL BOYCE

 

 

The second time I lived, I was aware of the painful experiences that lay in wait for me, both physical and emotional. I was braced for the fall at the age of ten in which I broke my arm. The knowledge that my marriage would fail brought a vivid quality to even its most mundane moments. I could experience these things, but I could not alter them. Perhaps I never truly had the ability to alter them, and it was only the second time around that I realized it.

.     .     .

My father grew up in a coastal town, where the best source for unsuitable literature was a local furniture business. It worked like this: they would get one of their suppliers to use comics as packing material, and then sell them on. My father and his friends snapped them up eagerly, as the respectable newsagents in town refused to stock horror comics. He was scrupulous in his habits from an early age, so he didn’t trade them, or cut the pictures out, or draw on them. He filed them away neatly in a wooden crate, and I got to read them whenever we went to see my grandparents, in between walks along the beach and trips to the amusements on the pier.

Reading the horror comics was always a highlight of my visits. They were lurid things, printed in crude primary colors on rough, pulpy paper. Morally questionable stories alternated with advertisements for crystal wireless sets, bodybuilding products, and X-ray spectacles. The one that gave me the idea contained a story about two mad scientists. Like many of their contemporaries, they had chosen to set up their laboratory in an eerie old castle, rather than a modern red-brick building of the sort my father worked in.

The scientists were working on time-travel—“the greatest discovery since the splitting of the atom!!!” as the captions put it—and they were growing suspicious of one another. Finally, one of them crept into the laboratory at night and wired himself up to the machine. As the power built up—represented by jagged yellow lightning bolts—his colleague burst through the door and shouted “Stop! Time-travel is impossible, except—”

But he never finished his sentence, as the first scientist pulled a revolver and shot him dead (this detail troubled me, as I had never before suspected that scientists kept firearms lying around in their laboratories). The scientist who fired the shot then found himself whipped back in time, to a generic medieval court where he was tortured and imprisoned. He was relatively untroubled by this, explaining as he crouched in a tiny cage, chewing on a rat, that he didn’t care what they did to him as he, and he alone, had mastered the secret of time-travel (more exclamation marks followed).

However, the final panels revealed that the scientist was in fact in hospital, curled up on his bed and surrounded by concerned doctors and nurses. We discovered what his colleague had been trying to tell him: that time-travel is impossible, except in your own mind.

I dismissed this conclusion as a swizz. My ten-year-old self found the idea of real time-travel far more interesting than a cheap twist ending. It was only many years later that I realized how profound this story actually was.

.     .     .

I had been feeling under the weather for a couple of weeks. I’d wake up frequently during the night feeling sick and sweaty. When I started losing weight and coughing bright flecks of blood I could no longer fool myself and went to see my doctor. I got referred on to a chest clinic urgently; the diagnosis was, as I had suspected, tuberculosis: the new, drug-resistant strain.

Facing my own mortality, I found myself increasingly preoccupied with the past. The more I thought about it, the more vivid my memories would become, incorporating all sorts of trivial details I would have imagined lost forever. And so my mind turned to that idea that had been stored up and fermenting all those years, which had started in the horror comic.

What if, I thought, I were able to transport my consciousness back in time, and experience everything in my life minute-for-minute exactly as it had happened? It would, I reckoned, have two benefits: firstly, I would be free of the physical restrictions and discomfort of my illness. Secondly, I could effectively double my lifespan.

Furthermore, I hoped that by pushing my consciousness back this way, by immersing myself completely in memory, I would appreciate things I hadn’t previously been able to. I imagined, for example, the fun I could have dating my first girlfriend again. At the time, I was bound up in anxiety and self-consciousness. Now, however, I knew how it started, I knew how it ended, and, angst-free, I could just sit back and enjoy the whole thing.

I didn’t have much time to put my plan into action. I ordered a collection of books about meditation, visualization, and astral projection. I cobbled together what I thought would be an effective system and started off by attempting to raise myself out of my body.

.     .     .

I was still well enough to live at home, and I had few visitors, so I could be sure of being undisturbed. I’d eat a light breakfast and take my medication. I would then go into my living room, which caught the morning sun, and draw the blinds. I had my armchair placed in the center of the room and would prop myself up in it carefully. I didn’t want to fall asleep, but I also wanted to avoid any distraction from my thoughts that would bring me back into the here and now.

I would face the shimmering blue light diffusing from the blinds; keeping my eyes open and my breathing regular, I tried to detach myself from my body. I worked on it, with a fervor I had never given to physical exercise, for a fortnight or so with little effect. I was preparing to give up on the idea altogether when I had my breakthrough.

I was seated, as usual, in my chair, and I had carried out my breathing exercises. Suddenly, I felt a lurching sensation, of the kind you get when your car hits an unexpected dip in the road. The light from the windows flickered, and I blinked. I registered something unusual—I had no idea what it was, at first—and then, slowly, gently so as not to rouse myself from my trance, I closed my eyes.

I could still make out the light with perfect clarity. It was as if my eyelids were now completely transparent.

Or—I realized—as if I were now outside my body.

I turned round—too quickly, as I had no idea of the lightness of touch needed. My field of vision span like a zoetrope, until it finally settled on a face. It was thin, the neck withered, the skin sallow, the hair sparse and close-cropped. Its mouth was open, the line of the upper lip interrupted by a thick, vertical scar, showing an irregular row of yellowed teeth. The eyes, though unclouded, showed no sign of consciousness.

It is a strange thing to see your own face as if anew, with none of the instinctive recognition that comes when you catch your reflection in a mirror.

.     .     .

Once I had worked out a way to detach my consciousness in space, the ability to move through time soon followed. After the shedding of my physical body, as my consciousness floated free, I could slow my perception of time down such that all movement in the room—a fly, say, buzzing around the blinds—would virtually cease. Then I would plunge myself deeper still, to the point at which time would begin to reverse. Imagine a car ascending a hill, the engine running down, the vehicle losing momentum until it reaches a brief standstill; and then, slowly at first, but picking up more and more speed, it rolls backwards.

That is what it is like to manipulate time. Once the flow is reversed, it takes a great deal of care, attention, and force of will to arrest it at just the right point, turn it around and make it run forwards again.

I will describe my first substantial trip back to the past. I sat in my chair facing the blue blinds as usual, induced the trance, and spooled back through my life, seeing my friends growing younger, the world becoming less complex, more innocent. I stopped the process at random and hefted time forward, and then flung myself back into my body.

I hadn’t transported myself to anywhere special—it was just a morning walk to work, the one I did every day when I lived in the center of town. I could see, and smell, and taste, and feel everything around me. The damp hint of frost thawing in the air; the firmness of the pavement beneath my feet; the cigarette I was smoking, the first hit of nicotine fluttering around my body. I had, of course, no control over my body at all, no way of tethering myself to it and affecting its actions. I was merely revisiting my own memories, projecting my own consciousness into something long dead. The past version of myself seemed to be tense, constantly looking over his shoulder, startling easily. It was as if he was aware that there was something else with him, following, observing. Was I always this ill at ease with myself? It sounds strange, but I honestly could not remember.

I leapt out of my body again, let time run forward, and returned to my present body. I looked at my watch. Barely any time had passed since I sat down to induce the trance.

.     .     .

It was better than I had hoped. I could experience whole years of my life while my present body sat suspended and vacant for a couple of minutes. Subsequent forays allowed me to estimate the rate of exchange between what I called “memory time” and the real-time world. I worked out that I could re-live my whole life in a little less than an hour. This was not entirely a surprise. After all, accounts abound of people re-experiencing their entire lives in the space of a few seconds during a near-death experience. I had hit on an artificial way of inducing that state.

I decided to leave the greatest expedition of all until the last possible moment. It came only a few months after my first experiments. I had been admitted to hospital for last-ditch surgery to remove damaged, fibrous tissue from my lung. It wasn’t a success, and in the aftermath I contracted a secondary infection; like my tuberculosis this, too, was antibiotic-resistant, and I spent seven terrible nights in the intensive care unit. All I can remember of this period is a dream. I was lying at the bottom of an ocean, rocked gently back and forth by the ebb and flow of the currents. It was light at first, and through the blue ripple of the water I could see the silver disc of the sun high above me. Gradually, however, both sun and water turned orange, then red, and finally a dark, purplish color as night set in.

I saw something moving in the water, an indistinct blur against the general darkness. It came closer, and I felt myself thrown from side to side by its backwash. The dream ended as the thing brushed against me; its skin was slick and cold.

Eventually I rallied enough to be transferred to a hospice. It was a compact white building. I had a room that looked out on a Japanese garden, small rocks sitting amongst artful swirls of gravel. I was offered psychology, art therapy, music therapy, even the chance to record a video of my reminiscences. I declined politely. I had another project that required my urgent attention.

I could already feel my consciousness becoming loose and detached from my body, all of its own accord. The time had come to put the final stage of my plan into action. I would roll time backwards as far as it could go; and then I would sever the last connection that bound me to my present state. In my final hours, I would experience my life all over again.

.     .     .

We talk about our earliest memories, but often they are a conflation of all kinds of things. Family anecdotes, books we have read, later memories misattributed. I experienced my first few years as an abstract collection of images, sounds and physical sensations. Some experiences were only half- or even quarter-formed, like early sketches by an artist. I would see the rickety edge of a garden fence, the fold of a blanket, or perhaps just taste food or milk in my mouth. Yet each of these impressions was accompanied by a strong emotional connection in me, a sense of familiarity.

I do not see the point in relating a blow-by-blow account of my life. I will, however, describe my first coherent memory. It was also the first real hint I had as to the damage I had done with my experiments.

I was three years old; I was being put to bed, and my mother read me a story. How good it was to return to the point at which my relationship with my parents was a clean slate, a simple state of care given and received, with none of the complications that would ensue in later years. The months of study, the hours of meditation seemed like an absurdly cheap price to have paid to achieve this. I dare say anyone who makes any kind of scientific advance does so with at least one eye on the material rewards; public accolades, wealth, influence. All of them seemed very poor in comparison to what I now had: a room, no more than ten foot square, with striped wallpaper, a space-rocket mobile, and a single bed in which I lay as a book of stories was read to me.

My mother finished the story and kissed me goodnight. My sense of smell—so long blunted by years of smoking—was fresh and rich. The strong, fragrant notes of sandalwood hung in the air long after she had tucked me in, switched off the light and closed the door.

I lay awake for what seemed like hours; my three-year-old self was becoming uneasy. It was the same sensation I had experienced during my earlier foray. I do not know quite how to put it into words. I can describe the physical aspects, my heart thumping in my chest, the sweat trickling out my pores, the tightening sensation in my guts. It is harder to convey the emotional impression. It was the sense that there was someone else in the room with me, someone who could not be seen or heard. I knew that this person meant to harm me, and that no matter what safety or comfort could be offered in the short term, I had a relentless enemy who would devour me in the end.

I could feel myself becoming more and more agitated; I got out of bed, my feet cold on the wooden floorboards, slipped, and fell. I experienced that mixture of disbelief and indignation that comes with physical injury when one is a child, a feeling that can only find expression through tears. I heard footsteps, and the light in my room was switched on. I was picked up off the floor, and my father put me back to bed, the space-rocket mobile jangling against his shoulder.

He talked to me gently, trying to find out what had happened, but I was unable to answer him coherently. He checked me over for injuries, and then, satisfied that I had experienced nothing worse than a nightmare followed by the shock of a fall, he switched off the main light and put my bedside lamp on the floor, so that I would not be left in complete darkness. I pleaded with him not to leave me, but he patted me affectionately on the head, smiled, and headed for the door. My mother was waiting there for him.

“I hate doing this,” she said.

“I know,” my father replied, “but we can’t have him coming into our bed every time he has a nightmare.”

.     .     .

Thus the three of us set a pattern that would remain more or less constant until I was older and better able to conceal my fear. The terror of being followed, of being observed, of my imminent annihilation, never went away. It continued as time flowed forward through my childhood and adolescence, through university, my first job, my marriage, my affairs. It was always there, worse when I was alone, but present even when I was in company. In a crowded room, at a lecture, at the theatre, at my own wedding, I would always feel that there was one person too many, one person who should not be there.

This fear was not something I had been conscious of the first time I had lived. Or was it? I tried to think back, using the imperfect, fragmentary recall of normal memory. I was surprised to find that memories of this other were now present, right up to the moment that I was now experiencing.

What else had come with me on my journey into the past?

.     .     .

My body in the real world was, I supposed, now virtually moribund. I imagined it lying in the hospice bed, the nurse sitting at the bedside injecting painkillers whenever it appeared to stir.

Meanwhile, my re-experienced life was becoming increasingly night-marish. My pursuer was closing in on me. My younger self was only a decade or so behind my real age now; pretty soon, the bacillus would take root deep in his lungs and begin to multiply. My wife and I had divorced, and I had moved into a new flat, the last I would ever live in. I was at that stage of life, the stage in which everything goes from being the first to being the last; the last holiday abroad, the last trip to the cinema, the last pair of shoes. The unease, the sense of the other that had begun as a patchy, intermittent sensation, was now a permanent feature of my re-lived existence. I became aware of faces pressed up against the windows of derelict houses I walked past. I woke in the night with the sound of heavy, labored breathing in my ear. I heard footsteps behind me as I made my way home in the darkening evenings, a muffled tread like a man walking on bandaged feet.

I began, irrationally, to wonder if there was any way to warn my younger self not to pursue the course of action that had led to this state of affairs. I knew, though, that it was futile. All that I was experiencing was in the past; it was like trying to influence the outcome of a film by shouting at the screen.

.     .     .

I was surprised to find that I became ill long before I remembered it. The first sweats and malaise started many months before I had first registered that something was wrong. As I became more tired, pale, and thin, I knew that I was now moving towards the last and most terrible trial of all. Experiencing my disease the second time was nothing compared to what I knew what must be waiting for me: I knew that when I caught up with my current life, I would finally meet the thing that had been stalking me all these years, that had filled every hour of my remembered life with a cold sense of dread.

.     .     .

I went again through the medical tests, the initial reassurance of the doctors turning into compassionate resignation. Then the failed experimental therapies, the surgery, the infection and the brief, disorientating period in intensive care. The ambulance ride to the hospice, the cherry blossom trees framed against the narrow windows. The Japanese garden. The beginning of my journey was almost at hand; soon my consciousness would snap back into my present body, into the real-time world, and I would find out what everyone wants to know: what happens next.

I watched my shaking hand pressing the button that closed the blinds; I caught a final glimpse of the outside world diminishing into a thin strip of light before it vanished entirely. A pause: and then I was thrown back into my dying body with a sickening force. I felt heavy and numb with the analgesia, and then unbearably drowsy. The sensation of being back inside my body lasted for only a few seconds before I felt myself alighting from it again, propelled forwards into the darkness. Or rather, not propelled—drawn.

.     .     .

I was on a darkening beach, with an oily sea lapping against the rocks. The wind was blowing hard around the bay, but no birds flew on the breeze. The sand was black and gritty, like iron filings, and the sky was a dirty, greyish color. In the distance, just around the headland, I could make out the skeleton of a burnt-out pier.

This was the coastal town my father grew up in. This was the place I had visited my grandmother; this was where the idea of time-travel had first germinated in my brain, silently growing and eating away at me from the inside like my illness.

A figure, pale and naked, with ribs and spine standing out in sharp relief, sat on the rock ahead of me. I moved towards it and felt again that lightness of the disembodied. It turned to face me as I drew near. The face was thin, the neck withered, the skin sallow, the hair sparse and close-cropped. Its mouth was open, the line of the upper lip interrupted by a thick, vertical scar, showing an irregular row of yellowed teeth. The eyes, though unclouded, showed no sign of consciousness.

It is a strange thing to see your own face as if anew, with none of the instinctive recognition that comes when you catch your reflection in a mirror.

I was home at last.