Saturday, 21 January 2012

Afterlife Proposal no. 2: 'Nannicock', McKendrick, and the Post-Death Experience

Once, searching through an anthology of death-themed literature, I chanced upon the poet Giacomo Leopardi’s philosophy of despair. It was based on the supposition that life could only bring disappointment: its small pleasures fading in comparison to the ideal state it was our curse as reasoning beings to unavoidably imagine. Death, therefore, was not to be feared, but relished as a release from our miserable lot. If there is one person who could never have agreed with Leopardi, to whom we shall return later, it was my former colleague, the late Dr. Clement McKendrick.

As I looked upon him one last time before sealing him in the capsule, I could see the terror in his eyes, even through the haze of the medication the nurse had administered not long before. I hoped for some final words as he embarked on his great adventure, but there were none. His terror, therefore, was his testament, at least for the time being. I gripped his hand tightly and tried to smile. It was time to say goodbye, but I could not. So I just let go of his hand, and pulled down the lid of the capsule that seemed so like a coffin in that moment, it would have been humorous, had the irony of the situation not been so bitter.

I remember our first meeting as well as I do our last, as we sat in his cramped shared office in the university hospital, dunking biscuits in canteen coffee. I could not help but notice that McKendrick drank his with a splash of whisky, apparently unconcerned that I should see; his hand shaking slightly as he poured. ‘Throughout recorded history, Mr Singh Suri,’ he said, leaning back in his swivel chair as far as it would go, ‘men and women have declared to have experienced what they believe to have been the presence of spirits of the departed. This is not just a claim made by those who have sought to gain influence, money or attention, although those that do are obviously responsible for the lion’s share of these attestations. Everyday folk, also, with no interest in furthering themselves through spurious assertions of paranormal knowledge, also speak of such encounters. These individuals are often reluctant to discuss their experiences, and indeed are actually disturbed by them. Now, modern science’s response to these claims has been to explain them away as the products of mysterious processes of the brain: grief-generated wish fulfilment, or as just plain delusions. These are not unreasonable conclusions, and I understand perfectly the process of thought that would lead one to reach them. I would ask, however, is it also not reasonable to consider that simply by their sheer number, and the inability of great minds to explain them away completely, that these experiences could actually be clues to that much greater mystery: of what lies beyond death, and even the nature and meaning of existence itself?’ He had smiled at his own logic, before realising he had leaned too far back in his chair, and fought to stop it toppling over with him in it, dropping his biscuit into the coffee with a splash. Now, when I think of him, try as I might, I often cannot help but remember him in that moment, struggling to maintain balance as the coffee drenched his hand. Such a cruel and unkind trick of the mind to play - desecrating my memory of such a great man and good friend. McKendrick would understand it perfectly, however. He would no doubt see it as part of the larger, more cosmic joke that in his final weeks he became convinced was being played on all of us.

His terminal diagnosis had come late, leaving us precious little time to prepare. But now, as the end approached, and I was abandoning this poor man to face his greatest fear alone, everything was in place. The electrocardiogram was beeping steadily, accompanied by the sound of EEG readings being scratched onto paper. The line of detectors that ran all the way round the capsule, like so many sinister death-ray emitters, were operational, ready to capture the most minute fluctuation at any point of the electromagnetic spectrum. The scales on which the capsule sat had been expertly calibrated, proven to measure changes in weight of less than a nanogram. Now there was nothing to do but wait for the high-pitched scream of the flatline to inform me of the inevitable.

McKendrick had once told me that the idea of his own death, and his fear of there being no kind of life beyond it - just a nothingness that he would not even exist to perceive - had haunted him from an early age. An intelligent boy, he had no sooner grasped the central tenets of the Anglican faith he was being indoctrinated into by his family and schooling, than he had also sensed the terrifying implications of their being incorrect. He also discovered at this time that his religious educators had no interest in entertaining his demands for proof, while those trained to provide him with a basic grounding in the sciences found the questions he asked of them regarding the possible nature of the soul to be a source for some amusement: a pattern he would find repeated throughout his life.

Those early observations determined the course of what would follow in adulthood. Years of study, research and the maintenance of a low-key, some would say undistinguished, career in academic medicine; all undertaken in order to enable McKendrick to slowly, surreptitiously carry out his real work, away from the inevitably dismissive gaze of his fellows: this being, the scientific search for evidence of the existence of the soul, and its survival after physical death of the body.

For some years, McKendrick would disguise his experiments - receiving funding for apparently innocuous though unappealing research into the monitoring of brain function during bowel movements, ostensibly working towards a neurosurgical cure for incontinence - the results of which would satisfy his sponsors while secretly providing him with the data he hoped would cast light on his true interest.

Fifteen years ago, however, McKendrick went public. A change in intellectual climate, with quantum mechanics now feeding into the debates surrounding consciousness, gave him the courage to submit a paper presenting his intriguing but highly inconclusive findings to a scientific journal. Surprisingly, it was accepted. The response from his peers was not encouraging, however. Indeed, when I read the debate that followed in the correspondence section of the journal, becoming aware of McKendrick for the first time, I had never before seen so much vitriol directed at a researcher’s proposals. McKendrick’s work intrigued me, however, despite its obvious flaws. I was a research student at the time, struggling to reconcile the teachings of my Sikh faith and its claims of an eternal soul - reincarnated throughout time until freed from the cycle by divine grace - with the proofs required by my allegiance to science. This dichotomy caused me much anguish. Hoping for some reassurance, I wanted to explore an idea I had at the time as to whether religious ideas in general might in fact be rooted in an intuitive understanding of actual truth, and then modified by culture to create the diverse range of faiths found in the world. I could not think of a single way of investigating this, however, until I chanced on McKendrick.

On the surface, his data offered little in the way of evidence of anything in particular, merely unexplained neurological activity: usually recorded during, although not limited to, bowel movements. Yet I was intrigued by the underlying notion that if the soul were real, then it should be in some way observable. The issue was, said McKendrick, finding the appropriate method of observing it. My mind began to consider the problem, and soon I thought that I might have something to contribute to McKendrick’s work. Could the existence of a potentially observable soul be the underlying truth upon which all religions were based? I knew then I needed to be a part of what McKendrick was doing.

I immediately contacted McKendrick and offered my support, outlining some of my ideas and suggesting joint projects we could embark upon, funding permitting. Although he quickly disabused me of my naïve idea that I had reached some conclusions that he had not already considered and dismissed decades ago, he nevertheless appreciated my interest, and indeed, seemed surprised that I would even have any. Immediately, he offered me the opportunity of assisting with any further research although, he was afraid to say, he could not afford to pay me. Now that his cover story of bowel-brain research had been exhausted, so had any significant finances.

All that was soon to change. As the internet emerged as a conduit for all sorts of extraordinary notions in regards to the paranormal, so did awareness of McKendrick’s research. Just as he was being forced into resignation from the university hospital in the face of some scandal now that his true research interests had been revealed, he received a surprising communication. A wealthy Hollywood comedic actor with a known interest in ghosts, poltergeists and all things ostensibly of the spirit realm - as well as a fear of his own extermination as intense in middle age as that of McKendrick - was willing to provide him with significant funds, in the hope of receiving in return concrete proof that his soul would continue after his physical death.

Now McKendrick, with my salaried help, could begin his work in earnest. Establishing our own private research centre in the Swiss Alps for tax purposes, together we investigated all the peripheral activities that purported to provide evidence of a spirit realm: alleged hauntings; EVP recordings; Near Death Experiences; cases of apparent reincarnation and numerous other areas of greater or lesser veracity. Not only did we cross-check existing investigations, we also carried out many of our own - monitoring mediums under controlled conditions, and creating ‘presences’ in the brain with sound-waves amongst numerous other experiments. We also got to travel the world, searching for strange lights over World War battlefields; measuring EMF fluctuations in old slave quarters in Alabama, and much more besides. Although most of what we found could be discounted with all too earthly explanations, there was nevertheless much that was intriguing. Children with vivid and accurate memories of the lives of actual deceased individuals. Mysterious figures present in photographs who should not be there, with no sign of tampering with the negative or any other type of fraud. Hospital patients undergoing cardiac arrest who would report leaving their bodies and viewing their own resuscitation, complete with knowledge of conversations and unguessable details, all obtained while clinically dead. Although none of this could be called hard proof, the implications of our data were tantalising.

Ultimately, however, it was not enough for McKendrick. Although we were confident that the evidence pointed to something intriguing, it all fell frustratingly short of proving the case for survival of consciousness after death. ‘What if there’s just nothing?’ he would say to me in his darker moments, as he worked his way through the case of fine spirits that our Hollywood benefactor would send us every Christmas. (As my faith would not allow me to partake, McKendrick would drink for the two of us.) ‘What if this is all there is, and…’ His voice would trail off, and sadness would swallow his eyes. As for me, I found the search invigorating, to the point that it became an obsession, and all else that I had planned for my future - marriage; a family; a teaching post - fell by the wayside. The search for evidence of life after death filled my days to the point that it became my life.

We already had the experiment planned before McKendrick received the diagnosis. Working on the supposition that consciousness is a form of energy - and as an energy cannot be extinguished but merely dispersed and relocated - we had aimed to develop a means by which to search for any signs of spatial transference at the moment of death. Ultimately, it was decided that a terminally ill volunteer - presumably one of the many individuals who contacted us, seeking reassurance we could not give as they faced the final mystery - would be placed in a sealed capsule in their final hours. Their vital signs monitored to establish the exact moment of death, we would record all detectable points of the electromagnetic spectrum, while the scales upon which the capsule was to rest would establish if any weight loss had occurred in that instant. Any fluctuation of energy emanating from the capsule, and any decrease in its weight at the moment of death, would signal transference of energy and, therefore, its movement: proving the existence of, for want of a better word, the soul.

But that was not all. The purpose of the second stage of the experiment was to establish as to whether any consciousness that survived was capable of, or indeed willing, to contact the living. The volunteer would be presented before death with a codeword: one that was highly unusual and unlikely to feature in everyday life, even the everyday life of scientists investigating the paranormal. If still in possession of a sense of self and will after death, they would endeavour to somehow make themselves known to us by using that word, be it via a séance, a physical manifestation, or any other means we had not previously considered. Our physical remoteness would act in our favour, minimising the possibility of fraud. Needless to say, upon choosing the word, McKendrick and myself had no intention of revealing it to anyone: only documenting it by writing it down, then sealing it in a vault - a process we would record on video to verify the exercise as occurring before any potential spiritual communication might take place.

Then, when the diagnosis did come through, it was clear how it must be. We barely discussed it, so inevitable it seemed to the both of us. McKendrick himself, of course, was to die in the capsule. It would be his vital signs that would be monitored, awaiting expiration, and any energy escaping from the capsule would be his. We would endeavour to record his soul. And it would be McKendrick who might communicate to me, his colleague left behind in the world of what we perhaps naively call the living, the codeword that we would choose together and lock away, in knowledge of his certain and immanent death.

The process of selecting the codeword provided us with a brief moment of levity in those otherwise burdensome final months. We laughed at all the amusing, obscure and redundant words that might serve our purpose. We settled however, on ‘nannicock’: not so much because of its humorous qualities, but due to the fact it was a centuries-old word so neglected that no one now knew what it meant. The chances of encountering it in any usual circumstances would, therefore, be remote.

With ‘nannicock’ documented and sealed, the darkness that had permeated both our lives since the diagnosis returned, as I prepared myself to lose a dear colleague and friend, and McKendrick stared into eternity. With grim determination, we used the latest instalment of the millionaire’s fortune, complete with a bonus for McKendrick (presumably to pay for any services provided after his death), to hurry the construction of the capsule, along with the purchase of the ultra-sensitive electromagnetic detectors and the world’s most accurate weighing scales.

Sometimes McKendrick’s attitude would lean towards acceptance. ‘You know,’ he would say, as he downed his whisky neat after a hard day’s work, ‘I feel something like a deep-sea diver, descending into the unknown, tied to a rope, in order to come back to the surface and tell everyone what is down there. The only question is…’ But then his voice would go soft, and the brief twinkle in his eyes would die, his thought left unfinished.

Other times, he leaned towards an absurdist view of the situation. ‘I think’, he would say then, usually on his second glass of whisky, in the brief window of time before the third glass would send him into a despair far deeper than the one that occupied him whilst sober, ‘the more I look at this business of life and death, and these strange things we observe - all these might-be-ghosts and maybe-reincarnations that promise so much but prove absolutely nothing - the more I think that it’s all some kind of cosmic joke. Someone, some god, some extra-dimensional being, some silly alien or, who knows, maybe even the universe itself, is playing with us: dangling little titbits in front of our faces, making us leap for them and yanking them away - laughing while we grab at the air. It’s the same trick that’s been played on man since the beginning, with all its religions, and superstitions and illusions of the mind. Maybe the only thing that awaits us on the other side of death is the sound of laughter at our expense. And good on them, whoever they are. It’s a damned good joke!’

Most of the time, however, its all-too-sudden closeness did not make death any easier a concept for McKendrick to deal with. He would go about his work with the gaunt expression of a marked man. Sometimes, I would hear him sobbing to himself, although in preservation of his dignity I chose not to attempt to comfort him. I knew he would not have been able to bear it. (McKendrick did not handle personal relationships well. He had only recently been able to bring himself to stop calling me Dr Singh Suri and use my first name of Amarjit.) Meanwhile, the extreme attacks of pain brought on by his illness made his remaining life a misery, although it did not discourage him from clinging to it one iota.

His condition deteriorated markedly over a twenty-four hour period. After the doctor confirmed that he was indeed in the end stages of his illness, we knew that the time had come for him to start resting in the capsule, and soon after a further decrease meant that he was no longer able to leave it. The doctor continually advised that it would be better for him to die in a hospice, rather than at the centre, inside a capsule monitored by scientific equipment, but acknowledged that ultimately it was his choice. Now, finally, McKendrick was on his deathbed.

Soon, the amount of drugs needed to keep the pain at bay made speech impossible for him, but he had already stopped talking. I could only guess at the thoughts going through his head as he lay there, waiting. That haunted look in his eyes, however, told me that no acceptance had crept into his view, and that the dread was intense as it had ever been. I could only hope that the experiment itself leant the moment some positive anticipation, as he waited to see if any of his theories would be validated by the evidence. I doubted it, very much, however.

And so I said my silent, inadequate goodbye, closed the lid and walked away to the lounge we had shared for all those years. When the alarm sounded, telling me that death had come, and the crucial data was being collected, I could not bear to observe it. Somehow, at that moment, the continuation of life after death was irrelevant. Rather, the acknowledgement of the life already lived was what mattered. So I poured myself a glass of whiskey, breaking the strict rules of my religion regarding such matters for the first time since a rebellious phase in my mid-teens, and drank as much as I could before I gagged and could drink no more. In this way, I remembered McKendrick: all that he had done and all that he had been. Then I said a prayer for him, and went to collate the raw data.

There was nothing. No surge of energy anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum. No loss or even gain in weight of the body itself at the moment of death. No sign at all of anything that might indicate the evacuation of consciousness, of the path of the soul. There was simply nothing to report. I was relieved of the burden of writing a paper on the matter, at least. And so I opened the capsule, and the nurse phoned the hospital, established time of death with an invisible doctor, and arranged to have the body removed.

The work continued. The lack of positive results from the capsule experiment panicked what was once our, now, just my, Hollywood benefactor to pump yet more money into the project, with which I employed a team of young researchers to scour the globe for yet more suspected breaches in the barrier between this world and the next. If anything, the whole operation became more professional, more scientific. But without McKendrick, it was obvious, for want of a better word, that some of its soul had been lost.

Not that it had been that easy working with McKendrick, of course. As well as being a depressive and a drunkard, his personal hygiene left much to be desired. Although most of the time I put up with it, sometimes I felt compelled to encourage him to address the issue, particularly when on a field trip or receiving visitors. Although often defensive in regards to it, he did once consider the problem objectively, saying: ‘I suppose I don’t like to think of my body as a physical thing, with bacteria causing decay in my teeth; impurities being expelled in sweat; skin cells being shed to be replaced by others. Because one day the process will reach its conclusion, and the body will generate no new cells; its self-maintenance will cease, and all my bones will be as rotten as my teeth. So I choose to ignore it entirely, as if I had a celestial body - immune to age and wear, and without need of maintenance - though of course, I do not.’ He then went and brushed his teeth for the first time in weeks. It would be another four before he would do so again.

A year passed, then another. With our increased budget and manpower, the data grew, as did our means of analysis and depth of scrutiny. Truth be told, the more we looked, the less we found. Material that seemed pregnant with unknown possibilities during McKendrick’s lifetime now seemed easily explainable and banal. It was as if, in reality, it was only his desire that had made it come alive. Without him, it was all just so much wishful thinking and naïve delusion. Slowly, the focus of my interest shifted, away from the search for life after death - although to preserve our funding I still carried out this research, like McKendrick and his bowel movements – and towards exploring attitudes to death itself. For me, whether there was anything more had become strangely unimportant; my need to find a fundamental state of existence, grounding all religious faith completely faded away. It had been replaced for a desire for cultural understanding: observing how beliefs and ideas were constructed and encoded throughout society; as after all, it seemed at last, this was the only thing in the field that could be usefully analysed.

(I began also to consider life outside research, and briefly dated a fellow member of the team. It did not go well, as I was so out of practice at handling relationships of any kind other than with McKendrick, and work in the centre became awkward for everybody until she mercifully handed in her resignation some months later.)

Little did I know that at the very moment I veered away from our original mission, and lost myself in the pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, everything would change. In fact, I was reading a volume of his poetry when it happened; the event on which I can safely say my life now hinges.

It unnerves me still merely to recall it. I was sitting in my room one evening, - inspired by the immense beauty and command of Leopardi’s writing, and yet undeniably oppressed by the relentlessly bleak, some would say adolescent, world view that permeated it - when I came across these: the opening lines of a poem, ‘To Count Carlo Pepoli’:

This wearisome and agitated sleep

Which we call life, how do you ever manage,

Dear Popoli, to endure it? What high hopes

Sustain your heart? And in what thoughts, in what

Happy or harassing projects do you use

That idleness your ancestors have left you,

That burdensome bequest?

Upon reading, I found myself seriously reflecting on McKendrick for the first time in some while: observing that although both he and Leopardi saw life, in the poet’s words, as a ‘burdensome bequest,’ the difference in which they accepted relief of this burden was immense. I pondered as to why this should be for a minute, taking into account Leopardi’s hunchback and general sickliness - not to mention his virtual imprisonment by his parents for long periods of his life - as possible factors, before once again returning to the poem and rereading the opening lines, savouring their rhythm and grace of progression, clearly evident even in translation.

Once again, I read

This wearisome and agitated sleep

Which we call life, how do you ever manage,

Dear na-

I blinked my eyes. It seemed that it had said something different, for a split second. When I looked again, of course, the poem carried on, just as it should: ‘…Dear Popoli, to endure it? What high hopes…’

I read the passage again, absorbing its meaning further, ready to tackle the next section of Leopardi’s often dense and challenging verse. As I mentally prepared, resting my eyes for a moment, they darted up slightly, catching isolated words within the lines I had just read. And there it was again. This time it stayed.


Right there in the line, clear as day. ‘…how do you ever manage,’ it read, ‘Dear nannicock, to endure it? What high hopes…’ And it kept on reading that way, however much I blinked and shook my head.

Obviously, I told myself, one of two things was happening. Either I was having some kind of mental episode: a trick of the mind, a delusion, triggered by my reading of Leopardi and my subsequent remembrance of McKendrick, perhaps tied in with unconscious guilt over the drift in my focus of interest away from the starting point of his research. That was one possibility. The other was that McKendrick’s consciousness had indeed survived the death of his body. And that he was now making contact. I shook with excitement and dread.

I took a digital photograph of the poem. It distinctly recorded the word ‘Popoli’, and not ‘nannicock’. As I suspected, this was not a physical event. Nevertheless I stared at the page for a good half an hour. The word did not change back. It just sat there in the poem, looking back at me. ‘Nannicock.’

Like a good scientist, I experimented, shutting my eyes for various lengths of time. When I opened them it was always still there. Then I took to shutting the book for similar periods. When I reopened it at the marked page, the word was invariably waiting.

After several more experiments of a similar nature, I decided there was nothing for it but merely to stop looking. The only further test I could carry out was to see if it was visible to anyone else, but as the rest of the team were not present at that moment, some out on research trips, others presenting papers at conferences, I would have to wait for one of them to return the following week. So I closed the book, checking it one final time, rubbed my tired eyes, and headed for my room, and to sleep.

I opened the door. McKendrick was sat on my bed, his arms folded, as if waiting. I yelled at the top of my lungs and ran.

When I opened the door again several minutes later, he was still there. In the intervening minutes I had talked myself into conquering all fear, reasoning that from a scientific point of view running out of the research centre and into the garden as I just had done was worthless, while further investigation might prove revelatory. Nevertheless, seeing him for the second time I could not help but let out a terrified whimper, while I felt my knees go weak and my temperature fluctuate as if I had a fever. Still, I stood my ground, held on to the wall, tried to remember how my tongue worked, and waited for him to speak.

‘Hello, Amarjit,’ he said.

‘Hello, Clement,’ I found myself saying. ‘How are you?’

He looked at me wearily. ‘Well, that’s the question isn’t it?’

He was just as I remembered him, before the sickness took hold. He even smelt the same.

‘You must tell me everything,’ I said. ‘But first, I must establish, is there any way we can determine as to whether this is an actual event, and not just a figment of my imagination? ’

‘None whatsoever,’ said McKendrick. ‘There is nothing at all in this occurrence that could differentiate it from a mental incident on your part. What I am about to tell you will be of no use to the project; not that you’re that interested in it any more, as far as I can see!’

‘I am now!’ I said. ‘But please, what happened, after…’

‘Well, at first, it was a classic Near Death Experience scenario, though of course, I never made it back into my body, so I suppose we must label it a Post-Death Experience. First, I found myself looking down at the capsule. I could see the nurse reading a paper. He barely even looked up when I flatlined. Normally I would have been insulted, but I felt strangely calm about the whole thing. Then, I drifted somewhat, down the corridor, until I found you. Drinking whisky, indeed! I made a mental note that although I was ‘seeing’, and I felt that I had some kind of body, it was a very different experience to that of being a living, breathing person made of matter. It was as if I did not so much see, but know, and though I had a sense of self that occupied a space, I could not look at myself, and see a form.

‘Suddenly, I was travelling up the inevitable tunnel, towards an ever-growing point of brilliant light that did not hurt my eyes. Along the way, I saw my entire life, somehow summarised into neat clips of the most prurient moments, projected onto the walls of the tunnel as I passed. I saw how my actions had affected others: of the positive effect I had on them, as well as the negative, mostly through my lack of attention to personal hygiene. For a moment, I felt everybody’s pain, and was deeply sorry; a feeling soon replaced by an overwhelming sensation of understanding and freedom.

‘And then I emerged into the light. There, in front of me, was the most brilliant blue sky, while underneath was a pastoral landscape that went on for eternity, although paradoxically this also seemed strangely balanced on a cloud. In front of me were all who I had known but had since died: family; friends; acquaintances; enemies; schoolteachers. I bore no malice towards anybody and felt deep overwhelming love for all, and knew that it was reciprocated. And walking amongst them was a great, beautiful being, who I took to be God. Instantly upon gazing upon Him I found I had answers for all life’s questions: knowledge of why there had to be pain and suffering in the world; the meaning of birth and death; and the reason why the great cosmic secret could not be revealed on Earth. I existed in a state of pure bliss, feeling a great outpouring of love, and an equal receiving of it. All of my worrying about death, it seemed, was needless. There is life after, and it is supremely beautiful and good. At least so I thought in that moment.

‘But that moment did not last. Suddenly, all the reasons I had been given for the nature of existence seemed logically very weak, while the judgement upon my actions I had experienced in the tunnel struck me as hopelessly partial - failing to take into account any environmental factors and relying on a value system obviously geared towards encouraging notions of sin and guilt in order to maintain control, rather than a genuine attempt to evaluate a man’s life from various relative positions - surely the only sensible means of doing so. The light before me immediately seemed dimmer, while God appeared somewhat less godlike. The feeling of incoming and outgoing love faded away. Everything went blurry, out-of-focus. And then it went dark. Very dark. Not just the absence of light. But the absence of anything. I was on my own.

‘I don’t know how long I existed like that. Sensing nothing but a void, my own consciousness the only occupying presence. Time loses all meaning in such circumstances. At one point I thought it might have been for thousands of years, although your continued physical existence tells me I am wrong. Nevertheless, I had more than enough time to contemplate my illusory trip to Heaven. Perhaps it is an automatic mechanism, triggered by the act of the consciousness leaving the body, serving to ease the trauma of separation from it. If that is so, all I can say is that it is of very limited usefulness. Or maybe it is in some way a by-product of the dying brain itself, and consciousness has not entirely become untangled from it at that stage. Alternatively, it could be used as further evidence for my theory that we are all caught up in a cosmic joke; and that someone somewhere is laughing at us, as we believe ourselves to have rejoined deceased loved ones and become one with God, only for it to crumble away just as we grasp it. I just never considered that the joke would be taken that far.

‘Finally, it occurred to me that if I had not been transported to some other-worldly realm, yet was still in possession of my consciousness, then it stood to reason that I was still physically present in the world, in some way. The only problem was that I had no way of observing it, being devoid of sensory input. At that very moment, somehow triggered by that revelation, the most extraordinary thing occurred. I suddenly became aware of my surroundings, with that same sense of ‘knowing’ that I had upon leaving my body. I was indeed still on Earth. In fact, I hadn’t travelled very far at all. I was hovering near the top of a pine tree, about half a mile down the road. I recognised the landscape well, although I had never seen it from such a height before. You cannot imagine the relief I felt after being so long in darkness!

‘My immediate desire was to get out of the tree, and find some way to contact you in order to make my report. This proved harder than I thought it would be, however. I presumed that I could simply will myself down and move in any direction that I chose. This turned out not to be the case. After many hours of concentration, I had progressed about six inches. In all, it took me a period of several days and nights to get down, although in the process I did finally master the art of willing my forward movement at a reasonable speed. Yet, in that time, it did also occur to me just how daunting my situation now was. Although I was once again aware of the world, I also had no physical form, other than the network of subatomic particles that no doubt compromised my consciousness - as they must always have done, albeit previously contained within the neural pathways of a brain. What would my existence now consist of? Was I observable in any way? Could I have any effect on my environment? Would I ever be able to communicate with a living person again? These questions troubled me, those long days and nights floating down the side of that tree.

‘I began to make my way along the road at something approaching walking pace. As you know, the roads are infrequently travelled here, so it came as some surprise that I sensed something moving towards me at high speed. Although I could now control my movements, my competence was not great enough to fulfil the action the situation now so urgently merited: that is, to get out of the way. I prepared myself for the worst.

‘A car passed right through me. I felt a mild disruption to my equilibrium but nothing else. This proved two things. Firstly, as I suspected, I was completely invisible to the human eye. Secondly, that the actual physical effect the environment could have on me was negligible, while the effect that I had upon it was apparently none.

‘It was at this point that I had a further revelation. If human consciousness was indeed a quantum phenomenon, initially occurring within, but not dependent upon, the brain, then what would be the result of my disembodied self infiltrating the brain of another? I reasoned that it was my only hope of making contact. It would be a dangerous path to follow, of course. Each consciousness might obliterate the other in the fight for space, breaking the connections that maintain them and thereby causing the particles to disperse. Alternatively, they could merge: causing a double-consciousness that might resemble psychosis.

‘I decided that it would be irresponsible to attempt it on a person at first. As ever in scientific research, it would be prudent to initially experiment on an animal. Happily, I chanced upon a squirrel; I felt that the potential havoc if it were to go insane would be minimal. Consequently I drifted over towards it, and aimed for its head. The squirrel was oblivious to my presence, and stayed perfectly still as I attempted to penetrate its skull. Nothing happened at first, and though I sensed that I might indeed be occupying the same physical space as the squirrel, I was in no way locking in to its neural pathways. And then it happened. A sudden dragging sensation, almost like being pulled by the vortex of a whirlpool, and I was in; I could feel it. Not that it had any of the potential results I expected. I could not read the squirrel’s mind, and there did not appear to be any mingling of our consciousnesses. What in fact happened was that I sensed the squirrel’s head looking up at empty space, then darting up a tree, as if startled. I immediately understood what was occurring. The squirrel sensed my presence within it, but its brain had processed that impossible information by creating the illusion that I was in fact standing some distance from it, thus maintaining a coherent reality. By the same process, Amarjit, you see me on the bed now. Yes, I am inside your brain. Don’t worry, it’s easy enough for me to get in and out.’

‘I see,’ I said, somewhat disturbed by the idea that McKendrick’s consciousness was literally inside my head, sharing space with my own. ‘So have you tried this on anyone other than myself and the squirrel?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘This morning, as I made my way to the research centre, I saw the postman on his bicycle and, as a further experiment, drifted inside him as he passed. As I expected, he projected my presence to be standing several feet in front of him. Unfortunately, he remembered that I was dead and cycled away screaming. I’m afraid you may have a different postman tomorrow, or no post at all!’

‘So what do you plan to do,’ I asked. ‘Will you stay round here, in the centre? There must be some way we can record your presence. The capsule experiment produced no positive results, so we need evidence.’

McKendrick looked at me sadly. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I feel that I’m being drawn elsewhere.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

McKendrick pointed upwards.

‘I thought you’d discounted Heaven as a possibility,’ I said. ‘I’m confused.’

‘Not Heaven,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Just up. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to stay at ground level. It’s as if consciousness, once liberated from the body, is naturally inclined to rise, like heat. It is taking a substantial amount of my willpower not to just drift away.’

Fear filled his eyes suddenly, and he looked paler than he ever had: even towards the end.

‘What is it?’ I said, wanting to reassure him with a hand on his shoulder, but knowing I could not. ‘What’s wrong?’

He drew himself closer. ‘I see them,’ he said, his voice a whisper. ‘High up. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. They block out the sun. Only the clouds shield them from my view.’

‘What do? What’s up there?’

‘The dead!’ he cried. ‘The dead fill our skies! They’re all up there, above us! Everyone who’s ever lived and died. No place to go - no Heaven - just there, in the sky. And soon I will join them.’

‘It’ll be OK,’ I said, not even convincing myself. ‘It’s where you belong. You’ll probably enjoy it once you’re there.’

McKendrick laughed.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘it was a stupid thing to say.’

‘It’s not that,’ he said, the humour draining from his voice. ‘It’s just the irony of it.’

‘Irony?’ I said.

‘All my life I was terrified of death: the finality of it, my absolute non-existence. I let it permeate my every waking thought: influencing my every decision, stopping me from enjoying anything. I wished so hard for a continuation in some form. Now I have that, and I’m yet more terrified than I ever was when alive.’

‘Of the other spirits?’

‘No, although I’m not looking forward to meeting them. I’m terrified of eternity, of all things. The going on and on, without a boundary: no cut-off point. I don’t know; it makes everything seem so… pointless I guess.’

I found that I was crying, and so wiped my eyes with a tissue. When I looked again, McKendrick was gone. I waited some time for him to reappear, calling his name, but there was no response. Perhaps it had all just been a delusion on my part, I thought, after a while. Suddenly exhausted, I got myself ready to get into the bed where McKendrick had seemed to sit some hours before. There I fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning, before I had a chance to think about, or even remember, the events of the night before, I was awoken by the reception buzzer. Being the only staff member on the premises, I dragged myself out of bed, put on my dressing gown, and went to see who could be bothering me at this early hour. It was the postman, who happened to be shaking, desperately holding on to his postbag and bicycle. I was so groggy from sleep I did not think to wonder why, or immediately recall that the same man had encountered the ghost of McKendrick the day before. In fact, I had yet to even think about McKendrick’s visit; so extraordinary was it that my memory no doubt saw fit to hide it from me until I was more awake.

‘I was told to give you this,’ the postman said in a whimper, and handed me a letter.

As soon as I had taken it from his violently shaking hand, he hurriedly got on his bike and cycled away as fast as he could.

It was just a thoroughly ordinary item of post: a bill, in fact. I puzzled as to why the postman would feel the need to hand it to me personally, or what he meant by saying that he was told to give it to me.

I took it into the office and threw it into a tray, landing face down, in order to be opened, filed, paid and filed again at a later date. And then I saw it, on the back. A word, written in what I instinctively knew was the postman’s own trembling hand, scrawled across the envelope in hurried, joined-up letters. I mouthed it to myself in disbelief, my memory of McKendrick’s visit flooding back aggressively as I did so. ‘Nannicock.’

Was this it, I thought, waking up suddenly with a head-rush, as my brain processed the implications of what confronted me? Is this the proof that validates the whole project, and along with it, McKendrick’s life? Not for the scientific community, alas, for the postman and I could easily be in on it together, but for myself, yes, this was the proof. I picked the envelope up and stared at it for some minutes, unsure what to do next. As if in a daze, I stepped outside, still in my dressing gown, and wandered the grounds of the research centre, still holding the letter. I looked up, and saw that it was a gloomy day, the sun blocked out by a thick layer of cloud. Where was McKendrick now, I wondered, still around the research centre somewhere, or already on his way up there, to face eternity with the others: trying to find a new way to exist now that merely filling the hours between birth and death was no longer an option. It’ll be me someday, I thought. It’ll be all of us.

I went back indoors and put the letter, still in its envelope, in the ‘bills to be paid’ file to be dealt with later, although not by me. I then wrote an email to my Hollywood benefactor, informing him that I no longer believed that any evidence for life after death would ever be found, and therefore must announce my intention to quit the project; and furthermore recommend that he close the entire operation down, as it was ultimately a waste of his money. I told him to stop worrying about what lies beyond, and just enjoy life, because in all probability it’d the only one he’d ever have. Following this, I packed a suitcase, called a taxi for the airport, had one last look around in case McKendrick should appear somewhere - even going as far as to check the cupboards - before locking the door to what had been my home, but was no more.

As I sat in the back of the taxi, trying to politely discourage the driver’s attempts at conversation, the fear began to take hold. Unlike the religious-minded, who only had a belief in an afterlife that was without limit, continuing for all eternity, I had the certainty of proof. While their faith brought them comfort and strength, I sensed that it would only be a short period of time before my brain had fully processed the implications of what I knew, and my terror would nearly match that of the disembodied McKendrick. Somehow I knew my more sanguine temperament would offer no relief from the awful weight of endless existence that was already beginning to press down on me. I could feel it already: a dryness in the mouth, a tingling sensation at the back of the head. Fear, I thought.

As the taxi got ever closer to the airport, and the first low-flying plane dropped out of the clouds, I tried to tell myself that I had an advantage over McKendrick: thanks to him, I knew what was to come, and had my remaining years of my earthly life in order to prepare myself by developing an appropriate mindset for what lay ahead. But it was no use. It just kept on getting stronger and stronger. This was not fear, I realised, which had taken hold of me. It was that which lies beyond fear. Despair.

The airport was close now. The sound of jet engines pierced the taxi as the shadow of a plane fell on us. The sky had got lighter - the thick cloud of the morning thinning to a light haze, through which the sun and a hint of blue could be seen. McKendrick’s words were going round my head in a loop, all of a sudden; the terror in his voice perfectly preserved in my mind.

‘The dead fill our skies’.

I tried to stop it but, of course, the more I tried the more insistent it became.

‘The dead fill our skies the dead fill our skies the dead fill our skies…’

The taxi came to a halt. The taxi driver stopped the monologue in Swiss German that I had been almost completely unaware of for the past thirty minutes, unlocked the doors from behind the wheel, and demanded his fare. I stepped out of the car. Just as I did so, a plane roared over my head as it rose from the runway of the provincial airport. My eyes followed it into the sky, watching as the low haze began to obscure it, until it slipped entirely out of view, behind the clouds. Where the dead were.

The driver had been trying to get my attention for some time, as my luggage was still in the boot of his cab and he wanted to leave to collect another fare. I could not be bothered with it now, however. I was otherwise engaged, staring up at a patch of blue in the sky, and screaming.

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