FAR ACROSS THE WINTER'S WIDE
A LONELY TRAVELLER PLUCKS HIS FATE FROM THE STARS
AND STIRS HIS PATH TOWARDS THAT WHICH BURNS BRIGHTEST ABOVE
HOPING THIS CELESTIAL SIGIL WILL CARRY HIM
A LIGHTHOUSE LIGHTYEARS AWAY
FROM ROCKS AND PESTILENCE.
TIME PASSES AND IN THE CRAWL OF DARK, HIS BREATH COLD VAPOUR INTO MIDNIGHT
HE STOPS IN HIS TRACKS AND THOUGHTS TO GAZE ABOVE
AT A GREAT PITCH BLACK ABOVE,
NOW ROBBED OF STARS AND LIGHTS.
WILLIAM S. TURNER, 1897
Steel split open his skull. Funnily enough, there wasn't a twitch of hurt. There was the sound whaling in his ear drums. Like cracking open a coconut, except one inside his head. And the one inside his head was actually his cranium. The sensation of cool air upon the brain was weird at first. The bite of the steel pitched deeper still and pierced, in a handful of moments, the think pink sheath that layered his brain. The fluid around it burst outwards, likely covering his attacker's eyes. At least he'd need to bathe twice to get rid of the stains of me, he thought, that's the real victory here.
The steel tip carried forward and churned away the flesh. It wasn't real at first and then it all was. A huge shock forwards. Like an electric jolt of pain. Real bad stuff. Pain is such a uselessly useful thing, letting you know when you're helpless and ruined and reminding you to feel bad. It's impossible to put into words how much this hurt. This reminded me of the time I was running downhill and fell, scrapping his palms across the pavement. I saw specs of concrete, flecks of grey, buried in already scabbing wounds. My mother gave me some milk and stitched me up, but for weeks I thought the pavement bits were still inside my hands. Jittering about like little balls. Like if I shook them hard enough they'd make the same sound as a salt shaker.
Freezing, really. That's what steel feels like when applied to the frontal lobe of the brain. It was already arriving into his prefrontal cortex. Think about the brain as a giant spaceship. The prefrontal cortex is the bridge of the ship, where the dots of memories and the stuff that constitutes 'feelings' is bubbled in a broth and shot through the body like an electric-chemical cocktail injection. That's at the front of the brain. I know, a real nice coincidence to call it 'prefrontal'. What does that even mean? Just before the front. Why not call it second. This wasn't really time for thinking, really, with a steel-tipped pike slowly burrowing its way through his brain but, you know, the man wasn't in any hurry. All was fine, really, chips and gravy and all that. Again, think the prefrontal cortex as the bridge of the ship. Then there's the hypothalamus buried in the middle under a whole lot of other brain stuff. Think of that as the ship's electrical grid, controlling the entire nervous system. Responding to changes in temperature and touch and pain and all that. Fun stuff. And also think about the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland controls the flow of fluid around the ship, and whether or not it has a massive erection. Yeah it does hormonal stuff.
Also think about the fact that all of the above, all those glands and lobes and fleshy bits of, well, flesh, that's all in you. All sitting inside your head. Like a solid soup of stuff just in the bowl of your skull. Simmering in a whole lot of blood and water. Just be conscious of this fact because, well, the man whose head was slowly being split open was only coming to realize what was happening. As the tip sliced deeper and cut open whole pockets of vessels and burst him full of pain, all he could do was freeze his whole body in shock whilst metal made its way through his brain. A dark collapse into a harsh sleep, before the long goodbye of death, was coming soon but the man was still caught in this moment. In this thought. Because while the pike did its business, it started to take pieces apart already. Big whole chunks of brain. Stuff used for love and hate and anger and lust and jealousy and, well, when you think about, the brain is only made for fucking in the hand. Hate is love and all that. It's all the same emotion. Although I don't hate the postman because I want to fuck him, I hate him because he always seems to ruin the cardboard packaging whenever I get something delivered. Seriously, he can't take 30 seconds to use that brain of his, whilst we're on the subject of craniums, to slowly place the package in the back of his van. He has to just throw it in or, probably, let his dog have a few chews of it before giving it to me. What an absolute cunt.
So anyway, yeah, this guy was getting his entire life slowly taking away from him. The pike slowly burst whole balloons of fluid in his brain. And memories began to be pierced. These little clear bubbles, microscopic, all collections of liquid and flesh and neurones and synapses all clustered together. Tight little webs of thin, small stuff. All of it collapsing thanks to the steel plunger in his head. Thanks mate! Letting this weapon not only rob this guy of his life but also make him remember the time he took a shit outside and little Mary from down the farm ended up wandering by and seeing his cock was the size of a fucking thimble. Yeah, what an asshole. And there was also that time he watched his father slowly die from bubonic plague. Practically sweat himself to death, covered in these pustules and reeking of the most awful stench. Stuff that buried itself in your nose, really. It was the bubonic plague for fuck's sake, and not even the fun kind. And so the man just lie there on his knees. His chestplate completely useless. Just lying its weight on his shoulders, enjoying itself, like whoop-de-fucking-doo I'm a piece of expensive chainmail just sat here whilst the guy wearing me is slowly being carved out. What a fat lot of good I did, eh? What's the good of armour unless it protects you.
But as the memories burst and faded in seconds within seconds, the man came to realize that this was the cold embrace. Yeah, the day had already been freezing. Yeah his stomach was growling after the King decided to cheekily march to Calais for no good reason, and forgot to pack the potatoes because Kings don't have time for checklists. What a dick. Here, knees on some sodden mud, with a Frenchman's pike buried in his skull. Fun stuff, really. Remembering the time his mother nearly beat him to death for spending half their money. Not like the copper was going to do much good anyway besides feed all his young siblings and make sure none of them starved to death. What's the point in that, anyway, if they were all gonna die by plague anyway. Everyone dies. There's no such thing as a good death, really, just death. Kinda funny, though not really. And the young man, barely a whisker under five and twenty, found his entire life slowly unfurling itself like the carpet. Rolling itself across the floorboards, with a young couple of wife and husband dancing over it. Relishing in their domestic times. With walls all bare of paper, and a house empty of furniture, a whole new world to carve out their future. Talking of children and half-forgotten pop anthems, wishing that work was not in their mornings. Yeah, something like that or something. A bit less poigniant. And considering carpet wasn't really invented in the fifteenth-century it's hard to guess that this peasant warrior would have heard of it. Probably not. They didn't even have Nandos back then, unlucky bastards.
But there, in the bosom of a cold afternoon. Across the English channel where he had been seasick for hours. Far away in the fields of Cambridgeshire, there was the last pieces of his family. His aged mother, now talking care of his own children. She was the luckiest woman he knew. And there, sat beside her, his three little boys. Henry. Henry. Henry. Yeah, he wasn't exactly imaginative when it came to names. But he didn't even know how to write his name. Peasants were like that, disgusting creatures. They still are, really. Vote Conservative!
I kid, I kid. But this guy just with his knees on this field started thinking of his kids. Without dear old Daddy to come home, and with Mother already buried out back, there wasn't a hope in hell they'd have pennies in their pockets. Winter was approaching and they were all going to starve to death. A modern secular man would be incredibly terrified by the prospect that he couldn't leave behind even a pittance for his kids, that his mortgages and house and tax brackets and pension and long-term economic plan had all been for nothing. That if he really died giving nothing to them, it would really put a fear in him in the last few seconds. And as a secular man, a proud atheist with a capital A (that's Atheist if you can't read properly, or weren't paying attention), he'd know there's nothing afterwards. No chance to explain to your boys eventually that, oh, sorry I gambled my entire wealth in timeshares or, oh, sorry I was the only breadwinner in our family and I happened to be a medieval warrior-knight who pillaged and raped his way through France with his family at heart. Nothing. Just the cold hard black that's stirring still, waiting for us all. Can you imagine that, pitch darkness? Actually it's probably not even that. It's probably nothing. And there, stirring in your skull, is a brain struggling to think about nothing. Isn't that the scariest thing. Scarier than that naff horror film you saw last week, eh? Scarier than the first time you had sex and you weren't exactly sure what was going on. Scarier than asking out that redheaded big-breasted chick from school. Fear is deep in us, deep in our bones, and attached to every action is that anxiety bubbling beneath it all. That it's pointless. It's for nothing. That's what's at the end of us, and that's the stuff that's stirring in your head as your read this word by word. Maybe you even skipped over this sentence because it was so scary. Boo! See I tried to scare you into paying attention again. But here I am, writing sentences. Fun stuff.
But this dying man, on the fields of Agincourt, maybe he didn't feel so down because he wasn't burdened, as we educated lot are, with the notion that the entirety of existence is pointless and there is an eternity of nothingness following our end. Because he went to Church every other day and prayed to the Saints and even gave money once to absolve him of that time he looked down his aunt's skirt and saw something that made him ill. And even now and then he prays and gives his soul unto Jesus Christ. Because he wasn't with the thoughts that it was pointless, because he was with purpose. He was a warrior, fighting for his King and his country and his family. On the fields of France, taking it to the French bastard King bastard himself. Bastard. Yeah, he was slain in combat but it was a good run, right? Pretty cool stuff, all the rape and pillaging. Actually, no, in context and out of context it's some of the worst fucking stuff imaginable. And this is the stuff of wartime, from the stretch of World War II back into medieval skirmishes. It hurts and destroys and plunders whatever good stuff there is attached to humanity. But this young man still thought of doing good by God, even whilst slitting the throats of innocents and taking their gold. It was all by his divine design. Even in the nights afterward, caught in visions and nightmares that can only be described as the shivers of wartime trauma. It was all by his great hand. And this was his great comfort, that he would see his boys. They'd have starved to death, yes, and his mother would join them, yes, but they'd be together. And he took warmth in that fact, not knowing that oblivion was inevitable. That it was actually pointless, because he was a man of heaven and god. And perhaps that blissful ignorance that had soaked his life made his more worthwhile than ours, who spend hours and hours and books and books upon the thoughts of dark death. Towards a world unknown. Perhaps it is better to be ignorant than be stuck in fear. Perhaps it is better to love than hate, or maybe they're the exact same thing in the end. See what I'm doing. I'm tying this lucid loose stream of consciousness back to the narrative which is, itself, about the literal collapse of the stream of physical consciousness. See! Clever stuff, in't it? See, remember, there's this guy in 1415 getting his head caved in by a steel pike.
And he's remembering home and blessing God. And he's hoping his boys find some way out of the hell of it all. And he's remembering their mother and his late wife, who he had genuinely fancied for weeks but was still scared to approach. And when the families met him and they ended up getting together. Barely teenagers, but, in medieval times, middle-aged already. There wasn't exactly OKCupid or Tinder back then. Swipe right for the princess. Would've made life much easier. Matched by your likes on Facebook. Alcohol, pillaging and tending to manure, in that order. Funny right. Talking about death like this. Like a soggy joke. Except that guy was actually dying and, well, he's dead now. When the pike finally got its way through the bottom of its brain, the blood loss already took the man into sleep. Numbed him away from the pain now running in tides across his brain. The French thug swiped the pike out and ran off to go murder another Englishman, who would likely have it straight in his heart. A slower death, worse, but he too would think of home and family and God. It was common. But the brain-dead guy. The one, lying with his face flat on the mud of some foreign country half-quarter-known to him, he was an actual guy. And there were tens of thousands of him. And they died all for the cause of war, all for King and country and riches and whatnot. His life was just as valuable as that miserable sod who put a crown on his head whenever he felt like getting off with his wife. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, I can tell you. See, Agincourt was won by the English that day. But that bloke, dying by the pike to his head, he had his last minutes just like thousands of others. Whole lives snuffed out in seconds.
And here I sit, writing about it. Except it's all fiction. Yeah. I fooled you right. That guy dying? I made him up. I've borrowed stuff from medical textbooks and university lectures, and history books and documentaries and films. All of the above was just a patchwork of stuff I already know, all knitted from my brain. See, it is true though. That these guys hundreds of years ago who died on the fields of battle, their feelings and stuff were just like ours. And this fictional bloke, dying, he still had the adrenalin in him. With the sounds of swords and shields and the all bellow of war around him. When he locked eyes with that Frenchmen, he was expecting blood but not his own. The melee was quick though, and it was weird, because he'd won them before. He'd sent tens of men to their deaths and here he was, just a forgotten blip on the great sketch of history. A grain of ink on its stretching timeline. A dot of an 'i' in a great biography of Henry the Fifth and his incredible victory.
That bloke lay dying there. See, even with his brain caved in and his memories in tatters, he still wasn't death. Blood loss would get to him, yeah, and his organs would be shuting down within minutes. The full death of the brain takes about seven minutes after the heart gives out. People who manage to survive the last seconds, somehow, and get resuscitated and shit all say stuff about it. About the seconds. That they saw their dead family, that they saw a great light or God himself. The brain is likely utterly confused and in panic in the last few moments, caught in a frenzy of despair that everything within and around it is melting. Imagine right now if the entire world and everything you knew, besides yourself, just slowly turned to soup and fizzled out in seven minutes. That's what your brain does in the last throes, that's what this warrior's brain did. The blood gushing from his head wound and the memories of his wife's bosom now the last stuff. His last conscious thought. His last words were during the melee - if 'ugh' counts - or they were 'alright, alright', just before the battle commenced. Asked by one of his mates how he was feeling. And now he was dead. Gone. The last very nanosecond of existence, can you even begin to dance around the thought in your head? See, I'm asking you to picture your future. Asking you to simulate your final piece, your swansong, inside your now-alive brain. Hard stuff, right. Difficult. But that's your brain. Just a pound of flesh sitting in your skull. One day it'll be plucked into death.
By the way, this novel is a comedy.
You can laugh now, if you want to. That's how some people react to this sort of stuff. I want us to stay though, just in the braindeath of this fictional warrior and I want you to think about why I made you think this stuff. What exactly the point? Was it to shock you. Yeah, obviously. But maybe it's just to wake you up. Widen your eyes a little. It's like a coffee in the morning. Wake up. Because this is a difficult story and writing it down is kind of hard. Because a lot of it is hard to believe and stuff. It involves vegetables and time travel, in that order. It's about me, and it is also about death. It is almost obsessed with it. See, I've lived a few lives in my little one. Quite literally. I have this weird thing.
I lied, by the way. Layers of lies. That warrior, whom I described above? That I called an 'asshole' at some point for deciding to die and stuff. He was me. Or rather, I was him. It's hard to pinpoint but, well, it's probably best that we start from a beginning. From my beginning. It's for the best that we take a few steps back. Let's take our feet out from the braindeath of a warrior at Agincourt, and instead walk into my life. A few weeks ago, actually.
I'm forty-eight years old. I'm a medieval history lecturer at the University of York. I'm balding, with grey sparks around my ears. I'm married with one kid, who's at Cambridge reading Psychology. I like to tell that to a lot of people, because I'm quite proud of him. And my wife, well she's a babe. She's called Sarah and she's still the best thing to happen to me. My name is David Fergus Rowntree, but I'm called 'Fergie' or 'Big D.F' or 'Big D' or 'Dave' or 'Fruit Pastel' or... actually no-one calls me any of that. It's just 'David' really.
My name is David 'Fergie' Rowntree. And I am an alcoholic.
Actually, no, let's be more specific. Let's use our brains for this one. Just picture me, using the description above, and wonder why I of all people would choose to write an account of what occurred to me in the past few weeks. Wonder, why a boring middle-aged man would bother share this stuff. Mid-life crisis? Existential nonsense? History obsessions? Yeah they're parts of it, but I want to share this story because it's special. Because it's true, trust me. I've already lied about a lot but, truly, honestly... some of the thoughts above about death and stuff and family and whatnot, they're true. And so is what I'm about to explain to you. In excruciating detail.
In the theatre of your mind, constructed by synapses, think for a moment about a simple fact. All our senses and reflexes are all hooked up to the great spaceship of the mind. Yeah, I'm quite the Star Trek obsessive. My wife can tell you about the long hours correcting trivia I've found in books and how she kept rolling her eyes. I'm probably going to divorce her, or slaughter her actually. You know, the ol' murder-and-bury-all-the-evidence-in-the-backyard. Everybody's doing it, must be in fashion. Actually that's a lie, not everybody is killing their spouses and burying them in back gardens. That would make the police's work much easier. I mean, imagine being a detective in this ridiculous context.
"Hey, Sergeant, I found out that they buried the body in the back garden."
"Oh what a classic. Absolute routine. Just report it back at station and tell them it's a number one."
"I swear that's all we get with domestic murders."
"It is all we get from domestic murders," The Sergeant smirked, "also we are married and I've decided to kill you and bury you with the dog."
"Oh, alright then."
Actually that's even more ridiculous. Anyway, I'm going off point again. Apologies. We'll get to all that killing stuff later. But, in your mind, think of this. Think of how fragile your brain is. Think about the sum of all your experiences, think about your very self, contained within its little walls. Just placing a fingertip on the surface would disturb something, would trash some treasured memory or ruin your whole feeling of love. I saw this documentary once about a bloke who had a minor car accident and scraped a milimeter of flesh off the front of his brain, and could no longer love his wife. And she still put up with him. Typical women, eh!
But imagine it. And now imagine all those experiences tied up with the past. My name isn't David Rowntree. Except that's not a lie, because it is. Let me elaborate. Because my name is also Henry Barley, Richard Barley, Richard Baker, Edward Baker, Edward Baker (yes two of those), Edward Blakely. And so many more whose name I never knew. When I said I'd lived a few lives, I wasn't kidding. I'm not just a time traveler, I'm a brain traveler.
That sounds pretty cool, right?
Well, this is where it gets complicated.