CARRY THE HEAD. BEGIN
Next to the lectern was a yellowy human skull, warm and wet to the touch. The rolling script continued, and with that due diligence and discipline that had forever been my strong point, I began shouting aloud each word as instructed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, how are we doing tonight? Cheering”, this last section I accidentally read aloud too, causing the text to begin flashing red wrathfully. I continued. “You’re all looking very lovely tonight.” More cheering. “I hope you’ve all been good. Welcome to The Talk Shop, the chance for you to have your say. Tonight, is love in the air?” The audience began cooing and ooing. “But first of all, we begin with a serious topic.” Some sad strings music began playing from some corner to convey a change in gravity. “In recent times there have been problems with user experience of the post-life period.” The audience erupted in groans and awwing. “Some people have said that the manager shouldn’t have made them, or the afterlife, or that even the master doesn’t exist.” At the bottom of my vision began running past a small blue banner, with white text, saying something like
HAVE YOU BEEN AFFECTED? SEND IN YOUR VIEWS NOW.
My vision was otherwise restricted to the small lit focus of the tablet and beyond that, a vague comprehension of the audience, otherwise such intensely bright lights glared in all directions at me, preventing me from looking around. “Today we’re going to talk about this. And with me, I have three guests who I’ll be talking to in a moment. With discontent growing by the day, one thing the manager cannot do is change human nature retrospectively. But is eternal consciousness the happiness that each of us had come to expect? Or, as critics claim, is the manager wrong, or is wrongness itself the manager?”
I looked to my left as the glass auto-cue instructed. A white European man stood there in a bluish-grey suit, with dark hair and silver glasses, perhaps in his 30s or 40s or 50s, possibly the most dull and most generic man of the mid-20th century one might imagine. “My first guest is Dr. Henrick Peabody.” Great clapping. “He believes that the eternal sadness is just a misunderstanding, isn’t that right doctor?”
“Yes that’s right Mr. Gameshow host. Now, there once was a story of a man who was very sad.” The doctor had the audience wubbing and awwing already. “Now this man was very sad because he was cold, he was hungry, and last of all ladies and gentlemen, he was very lonely. And this man thought that maybe the answer to all his troubles was somewhere beyond his means. And so he waited and waited, and hoped that through all his thinking and wishing maybe in the end he might get what he thought he wanted. And the moral of the story is, he already had everything to make him happy all along. The end.”
Perhaps the doctor had finished too soon, or had gone off-script, in any case, the crowd were for a moment silent, before beginning to boo, and to hiss, and to curse and swear. Coins and pebbles began raining down on the stage. The skull in my hand cracked and the doctor too was struck early, and had collapsed behind his desk, face-down in a pool of his own blood, before being quickly consumed by fire. “Order!” I shouted. The rage immediately subsided.
The autocue began running text again. “Our next guest is Terry Wide, who rejects Dr. Peabody’s view.” Hearty cheering. “Mr Wide, you believe that the manager is a self-contradicting fallacy, isn’t that right?” I couldn’t quite make out this figure, but he seemed to have been stood next to the first person.
“Lissen yeah. See this right, see this here, this is wos facked up abat the after-life. Every blimmin day we’re told shit about why we’re unhappy, when the truth is, we never even ad anything to be appy abat in the first place, til the manager came and told us that this was all of it, when it ain’t.” Cheering. “See me yeah, I don’ even think we’re dead yet, but we ain’t alive no more either. All my life yeah, people tol me be appy wiv this, be appy wiv that. But I ditn’t buy into that, no-one did. I watched TV, ate shit, drank shit, got fucked up, ad kids not for the sakes of appiness, but because there weren’ no choices otherwise. Every day I used to ahks him for help, tell him my worries yeah, but nothing.” The audience were clapping and awwing in consolation and admiration.
“But I’m here with a warning to people about the manager. There ain’t one!”
Silence now. “And lissen, if there is one, he’s a cunt, and not the one you was expecting.”
The autocue began flashing in red, but I was unwilling to stop him. “When I first got here, it weren’ too bad, ain’t that right ladies and gentlemen?” Hoots and affirmation. “We all thought, this is a bit of alright. But, not long after the cocktails, rest, and meditation on your life’s doing and memories, I was thinking what next? I could see there was shit in my life I wanted to go back to and relive, or fix. But I couldn’t. And this is it. We can’t do anything. What I don’t get yeah, is how the manager, who I ain’ even seen right, can’t do anything. Like, if he was around, and he’s able to do anything at all, because he’s the manager, then why can’t he make us all happy? Or, why can’t he do something about all the evil in the world, the kids going murdered, the wars, the genocides n shit? I know you’ve eard this before. Ok, maybe he doesn’t want to get involved, thas’ humanity’s problem. Then how can he be a loving and caring manager then? That don’t fit. So maybe he can’t do anything, maybe everything in the past and future’s already written, like fate yeah. Well that’d mean that the manager wutn’t have free will to go change anything, which would mean he either ain’t all-powerful or he ain’t got any free will – either way, not exactly the manager we was expecting?”
I felt a buzzing in my ear. Apparently one viewer had emailed in a response to Terry, which began streaming on the autocue. “Hold on for a moment Terry, we’ve got a question from Mrs Ethel Ball from Camberwell. Ethel asks, ‘what if the manager does exist, but not in the way you imagine?’”
Terry laughed. “Don’t get lemon wiv me sunshine! You think I ain’t thought of that?”
I continued reading. “Say perhaps the manager doesn’t exist, but she’s no longer a person. Maybe people’s happiness comes from imagining the manager to have human qualities, like compassion, or physical strength, or wisdom. What if the manager is the hotel, is everything here – is basically everything, and the source of everything that is? Thank you very much for that Ethel. And remember, if you’ve got something to say, contact us now.” I was getting into this malarkey. I turned back towards Terry’s distant figure. “How would you respond to Ethel?”
“Don’t get me a wrong, it’s a fair point yeah. But why bovver sayin there’s a manager in the first place then innit? I don’t get why it’s now needed, if it’s just everything that bloody well is, like the fackin periodic table. It’s an unnecessary position. And it just goes to show that all the stuff that was supposed to tell us right from wrong, all them inconsistent and violent cults from all over the world, were just talking shit.”
“Hold on, if you don’t mind me interrupting.” The third figure on the most distant desk who I could not make out at all, but who had the voice of a young woman, began speaking. “If it’s all just talking shit as you so colourfully put it, then where are we now, talking?”
“That’s a great point, err…. Soph-Charlotte, Charlotte! Charlotte Smith.” The autocue was beginning to get confused with the great uproar and unrest that continued to rage and cheer away. “Charlotte Smith, how do you respond to the problem of eternal consciousness then?”
“Thank you Mr. Gameshow host. While I’m also unhappy like the gentleman here that the after-life hasn’t really lived up to expectations, I don’t think we can really blame the manager. All she did was give souls a chance to comprehend their lives after death. It was the way we lived that’s causing us all these problems.”
There was some less enthusiastic clapping from the audience, and the glaring lights seemed to dull a little, revealing a tall and lean black man, perhaps middle-aged, wearing a green vest and baseball cap, and to his left, a young and pretty-looking woman with dark hair. In the course of my distraction I’d lost track of what she was saying.
“…Hierarchies of status and symbol are intrinsic to our individual formation. We couldn’t escape them, nor all the madness and misdeeds of our lives, the prejudices, the repressions, the habits – we took them with us. But what would be the alternative? To leave behind the addictions and restrictions that made us the persons we were? Is that what you’d like, Mr Gameshow host? But then, that would be an afterlife without consciousness, of use to no-one, as joyous as – to use that lady’s example, the molecular reactions of elements in the periodic table. We deferred hope for after the limit of the end. We’re now faced with the impossibility of hope, of future for something beyond. No face to wash, no intoxicants to disorientate the senses. No redemption in rage or sex, or the gratitude of a infinite father who exchanged punishment for grace. The wrathful and benevolent Man or being, or beings, people were expecting was always absent, replaced with an abstract and missing energy that soon became infinitely disappointing. Who knows, maybe even the manager was all those things, powerful, wise, loving, but in order to complete himself, she had to die and become one with everything?”
The lights were now too dim to read the auto-cue, which didn’t seem to be functioning in any case. I could no longer see the audience, or the jerky figures which had been dancing and parading about with the cross and tick cue-cards. I suddenly felt overcome by a very heavy sadness and a great tiredness too, as if all these debates had happened repeatedly in different tongues, with slightly different cultural inflections, but ultimately to the same effect. Perhaps I had let the contestants speak for too long without interruption, and had once again profoundly failed in my task, which was far beyond my limited abilities.
I turned to the audience, my lectern gone. My task had always been alone, and unique I expect, but I won’t be able explain how that parliament decided to come to such a disturbing consensus without telling you a little more of this infinite sadness. Suffice to say that the incidence of you reading this account is not mere chance. No word or thought must survive of this, and these words will be the final testimony and message of our zone before I close it.
On account of my stoicism and due diligence and discipline for the task at hand, I became responsible for overseeing the collectively-agreed closure of the afterlife.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you heard the three contestants, what do you think? In a moment, you’ll have the chance to vote. Should the after-life be closed and immortality ended? Has eternal consciousness been beyond the limits of our souls endurance? Has the manager made a serious mistake in even conceiving an afterlife. Fingers on key-pads…”
The key-pads connected to nothing, and no-one voted, and no-one was there to count votes or clap or cheer or cry for shame or anger. Through consensus, it was perhaps agreed that the infinite would be annulled, shelved, postponed. The intense and breathless claustrophobia of this space abated, to the point where only souls who did not desire their own end remained, til they to began disappearing, their vain clinging to their apartments taken with them, echoing under bridges, in cellars or abandoned houses, where they still continue their lives as inconsolable spectres.
The young man came forward, the last of them all, and wordlessly, conveyed this song.
That Moon’s abandoned, like myself and my laughter,
But let’s just pretend for a moment that there’s peace,
That we can burn, so willingly and lovingly
Becoming fire to each other.
Love is not apologising for tears or silences,
The clay died, what’s left to be done
For the spirits of mere pots?
But we doubted, like the manager and her dark star
Permitting lies, the god-hawkers reported
That circumstances change with time’s passing,
When time itself never passes.
Through love and deeds, I learned nothingness.
And everything that now eludes me is nothingness.
Take it back now, sweet fire I never knew.
How had we come to this point?
It was only years later that I could return to begin to make sense of these things. I say years, but time is just a metaphorical concept in these parts now, as basic and impossible as a god, or the existence of omniscient shadows orbiting the stratosphere. That god we had feared had been of our own making, a devil of sorts we had done service to in those lives of ours, supped on hunger, beatings, and cheap mysteries. Had I not such a venerable and well-regarded responsibility in the collective restructure of the post-life period, I scarce would have bothered telling you the sorry story of our collective self-termination.
With the advantage of an eternity’s reflection, my life had contained little worth re-examining. I had known the laughter of my children playing in the streets outside a small suburban townhouse. My hand had written and signed deeds in languages like French, Russian, and possibly Latin, using words now even more absurd for their fetishised regional inflections. People often congratulated me, but in them I only saw the image of my schoolmaster and father humiliating me in front of my older brothers, and that success did not feel valid. I had known my wife deeply, had first come to distrust and then love her simple heart, had found domesticity in the punctuality of Sunday evening love-making, in her fretting over the one aspect of control she had in the upbringing and morals of our seemingly-wayward children. With age came both an uncomfortable combination of a heightened need for romantic comfort and love, and an increasing callousness in obtaining it. Affairs became intense, distressing but ultimately boring things, as both parties realised there was no remedy to escape the scorch-marks of past mistakes. I was like the others, one man and no man, knowingly devoting my life to a name that would disappear within a generation, preserved only accidentally in the names of hospital wards and libraries within which my accountant had deceitfully pressed the firm’s profits into.
The moments after my physical death came like awakening from a long sleep. Not conscious of crossing the threshold between dropping off and dying, I awoke in the space after life, infinitely passing. Like the eye that can never see itself, nor never know the edge of the horizon.
The first sense that everything that we had come to expect may have gone awry came at the river-crossing, where a suffocatingly large group of huddled figures, seemingly cloaked in the same coarse-cut cloth of brown and grey, groaning and grumbling together in the most pathetic fashion on the edge of a long harbour. Dock-side and restless, boots dragged over the barren muds and sands, soles crunching over mountains of broken crab-bits and oily fishes choked up by the seas. The atmosphere was fevered, humid, the air humming with an earthy sourness, like wood-rot in abandoned mushroom-picking sheds. Maybe some epidemic had ravaged their former homes, and these refugees now sought little more than a gentle place to collapse? The ferry-man had not come, had not been known to have ever arrived. Perhaps we were waiting in the wrong place? But it was too late to move forward or to move back, as the figures continued to assemble under a dirty dull-blue sky that seemed to become one with the ocean.
But even those murky waters contained some other life like that of women and men, grasping at the surface of the water before submerging back into the sub-currents. This tide-scene shifted continually, its features and figures temporarily magnifying and oscillating to the centre of my extremely disorientated ‘sight’, before shifting away again, as if in a kaleidoscope of memories. It was here that I first came across the first of many paradoxes of the post-life period, and perhaps one of the least difficult to grasp, which I will attempt to recount to you now.
A man without face or form told me a story of a wanderer. The wanderer had long left his home and had travelled through unknown lands, finding bread and shelter in the teaching of riddles and seditious doctrines. A president had asked him to summon the devil: under threat of death, he had relented, composing his usual shadowplay of glossolalia, light-trickery and street-magic. But in some rip between chance and absurdity, the devil did indeed creep out of that grotto-scene and took the form of a burning fire, impossible to comprehend without lasting blindness yet compellingly lovely to see, blinding all of the spectators in the grand council assembled in that huddled, smoky assembly, and the president with his long black moustache and pointy accusations.
The devil then took a more familiar form to this wanderer, who had always invested superstitious significance in the form of the goat-man, as had many of his culture. For the pleasure of summoning him, the wanderer had already been punished – had he not already known? – to wander for infinity, desperately clinging for pathetic emancipation in some enlightenment that would take him to the end of one long dream’s journey, and into the beginning of another. An infinite chain, which he must pass through for eternity, that is, until he could discover true faith in the credulous belief in the devil’s double, God. For aeons then this wanderer desperately did all he could to know the innocence of faith and love of God, prostrating himself before the altars of deities of all hues, shapes and caprices, but at each point he was reminded that this task was only guaranteed and instructed by the vanity of such a vocation. His burden was infinite knowledge, and with that, the capacity to judge and administer lives. With that weight, the wanderer was condemned to journeying through an infinite corridor of dreams, to the point where even that first detail of the wanderer, his meeting with the goat-man, just seemed another detail from another dream, sandwiched between lives as equally lustrous and luckless as all that preceded and exceeded it. ‘Who will announce to this sorry wanderer that here is the end of his journey?’ I replied, after a long silence between the two of us. ‘You would have to tell him that’, and with that, the man disappeared.
There was unrest at the harbour-side. Some demanded compensation, others, mere release. The narrative of guilt, worship and absolution still dovetailed the frames of comprehension. Although we had each probably long abandoned our expectation of ever realising or being released from the ultimate object of our desires, we had at least expected some promissory note or some bread and circus distraction. Finally, came a visual means of interpreting our situation.
I was inside a small lit bathroom unfamiliar to me, a probable feature of some deep-placed memory, facing the reflection of myself as an elderly man. I ran the taps and went to splash some water on my face, water which I couldn’t feel, and which ran through my bones. I looked up, and saw my thirty-year-old self confidently splashing water against its cheeks. Outside the bathroom was a small beige room with fairly archaic interior fittings. My wife was making love with my close friend, whose name now escapes me, a scene which had affected me deeply at the time. My children were fighting, scratching and pecking away at each other. They could not hear me, and I could not hear them. I picked up a solitary brochure from a desk by the door, which seemed to suggest some kind of hotel, but in my hand the text disappeared. On the back was titled a note of apology:
THE MANAGER REGRETS TO INFORM RESIDENTS THAT HE WILL BE AWAY FOR SOME TIME. ALL INQUIRIES SHOULD BE FORWARDED TO THE RELEVANT DEPARTMENT, VIZ. SEE OTHER SIDE. ETC.
On the other side of the brochure was the same message, again. I went to return the brochure to its place when it at once became a key, which the locked door refused to give back after insertion. To the left and to the right were corridors which proceeded without pause for an incomprehensibly exhausting direction. Small doors of each chamber faced each other, with figures opening these doors in both distances, figures too small and inscrutable to properly attend one’s focus to. All I could tell was that each had a grievance, a story, like those in the chamber I had left behind. And had there not been another entrance opposite the one I had left, on the other side of the children? And immediately I knew that that door would open onto another corridor like this, with fairly archaic interior fittings of varyingly dull and translucent hues, and an ever-expanding caseload of unanswerable questions by figures one could neither focus on nor distinguish between, each wanting to similarly realise what was most improbably possible and at the same time probably impossible, happiness, in spite of themselves. I collapsed in tiredness.
I awoke in the hotel lobby, where a young man was wordlessly addressing me, his animated eyes communicating some happy and very important message. His hard brow and raised cheekbones glared towards me, commanding me to check my appearance in case of shabbiness. I looked down to find my body had disappeared. “Now you are beginning to be able to see things”, I heard, “as they are.” I went to reply, but wordlessly we both instinctively agreed that anything I might say would be unnecessary, and certainly counter-productive. He continued: “the manager has left behind instructions that a man like you be recruited to solve the problem of misery, given your knowledge of worldly things and their passing.” But my suspicions were later confirmed, that they had captured the wrong man, but had lacked the will to reappoint my brother, he who had counselled souls into death and might’ve known something of this after-life. Still, I attempted to proceed with the task at hand with due diligence and discipline.
My first task was to comprehend the infinite scale of the after-life. Although the manager or one of his team seemed to have generated some clever equation to ensure sufficient capacity to accommodate all residents, there had been no strategy to address the welfare of the residents, provide some kind of activity programme, listen to their feedback, or provide information on other activities outside the hotel. I had begun to voice my misgivings about the hotel’s mismanagement when my investigation was consigned to just my room again, where I had to work with the background of my bickering children. I had no means of summoning witnesses other than randomly dialling numbers on the hotel’s room-telephony system and summoning whoever answered and could understand my tongue. Those that were then able to find the room had never seen that brochure nor anything else I had described.
The atmosphere of the hotel felt always cold, breathless and stifling. There were the souls of all ages, some arriving, some ancient. To most, the languages we had spoken and images we had established our mental worlds upon were unknown and alien, a cause of mutual suspicion. The most common exchange between souls was that of shriekish heckling. For those that spoke to me of their grievances, a common experienced emerged. First a welcome state of immaterial bliss, one’s memories endlessly replayed, close and soft, filigree etchings around forms so wondrously beautiful to mentally conceive of, all flowing into each other and becoming one matter, like mind but feeling intensely close. That state of infinite delight would not last.
One posed in beatific reflection, of the kind performed perhaps by only a handful of prophets, embellished and brought to life by a mendicant’s hand. Few could manage. Without body, experience was mediated through the nerves and not through the senses. It was confusing at first, but soon one learned how to ‘feel’ and ‘hear’ what was nearby, but the inability to distinguish individual forms meant that the basic cooperation, feedback and social reinforcement of communication became frayed. What had once appeared as a hotel or dock-side had become something far more queasily cosmic. The intense proximity of other souls sparked resentment over privileges unfairly bestowed by the manager towards them and not us – arguments would erupt about whose afterlife this was, and whether it was heaven, nirvana, valhalla, or some biochemical effect of permanent neurological bliss in the mind of a higher being.
The manager had not yet returned, nor did return of any kind seem likely. My notes from the investigation continued to disappear, and I could not be sure if it was my elderly son or elderly daughter who were eating them, or some conspiracy of the two. Gazing into that bathroom mirror at the reflection of a forty-five year old Freud-looking figure, it became clear to me momentarily that when provided with everything it might need, man could not be possibly sustained by abundance. Idleness gave way to crime. Plenty gave way to greed, or to a compulsive and insatiable gluttony. Possession gave way to rivalry and war. Happiness, to the terrifying prospect of having no point to fear, no past to regret, no brutalised memory of famine from which one could then, momentarily, concede happiness. The human was not built for it. Personality, memory, desire, were all premised on lack, deprivation, and fear of punishment. The deferral of happiness for an after-life had been a gross miscalculation.
I did not have any solution to this matter, but when finally permitted to leave the war of my chamber to speak with the commanding figure again, I felt some sympathy for the now weary-looking boy, who distractedly picked his years and adjusted his sleeves as he glared at me. For his benefit, I generated some half-truths about an intrinsic flaw in human nature, that could link together these god-fearing Latins, war-loving Teutons and pill-popping Yanks. “Most interesting,” he finally replied. “And what do you propose?”
Later, an unsigned note had been pushed beneath my door,
I felt the uncanny intuition once again that this instruction had been delivered to the wrong destination, or that there had been some great delay in the arrival of this message, which on second-examination had become an unpriced menu of items that could be ordered from room-service. I fretted for several days, standing over that leaflet until finally I relented, and unlocked the door beside my children, who were now pointing ballistic weapons at each other, and my wife, who was weeping most grievously at her own looking-glass’s reflection. The menu became a key, and the door gave way to a long black corridor, its only exit – the faintest twinkling of a silver circle – facing me in the far distance, which I proceeded to follow for some time, but without ever getting closer, until after some hours I turned to look behind me, to its black nothingness, and then ahead of me, which was now too just darkness, until I could not be sure which direction I had first travelled towards, or if I had ever been travelling towards a direction at all. In the far distance, I could see again something, the faintest particle of a silver circle, like a very distant moon which, with an immediate shift in focus, became a white ‘on air’ cue-card. The parliament had not long been in session.
The audience sat in tightly-packed rows on a single stand facing the open arena, seemingly apprehensive for some kind of performance. The young figure from the hotel lobby was with two others, perhaps older sisters or brothers who were much uglier, and without word they pushed me towards the centre of the stage, which featured a colourful small lectern, which in turn faced three numbered desks behind which figures also stood. I couldn’t make out the text behind this lectern but it was most probably the name of the performance, given the overweeningly filigree fancy script. I could make out only the first row of the figures, who were the usual collection of physically shape-shifting spectres glanced in the hotel, none recognisable. Some figures hurried through the crowd and out to the front and lifted up more cue-cards with green ticks painted on. The audience erupted in cheering, whipped on further by the dancing and clapping figures.
What did they expect of me? Had I not already done enough? The lectern was even smaller once one was standing next to it, and what had seemed like fine mahogany was in actuality a flimsy paper mache effect. Upstanding on the lectern was a large glass tablet, on which lines of words continued to roll down, seemingly matching whatever phrases the dancing figures were shrieking at the audience.
My reflection now stood self-pitifully proud in the bathroom mirror of the empty apartment.
For a short time those unending hotel corridors were empty and silent, and I was able to stroll along them until I tired. However I had inherited a kingdom whose dimensions and laws I did not know, and I was unable to cease the equation that meant that after a time, new souls arrived, with the same new old doubts and wars raging within them. I was able to persuade these to congregate for their own safety in one apartment, which I was then able to lock, after which, after tearing around in the hotel’s plant room, I was able to smash the electricity power, which from thereon prevented the entrance of new beings. The explosion created a rip in the room. I fretted for a long time, until finally I chose to venture through that tear to the other side, which was a place much like that I had known alive, a small late-modern London suburb, whose dimensions realistically correlated to the laws of physical space, rather than carrying on in vertiginous circles of infinity as I had long known. I was as ancient as sand, able to see and preside over decisions of death and doubt that the lives of towns like these contained.
There must not be any repetition of that blissful suffering known after life, do you now comprehend? I closed that portal behind me, and determined to teach this world not of the after-life, but of the pleasures of destroying the self in servitude and collective hedonism. But I found few adherents to my ideas, reproduced occasionally in fringe publications of seditious or esoteric doctrines. I wandered for many years, vainly attempting to study the problem of human nature and writing down my story, of which this version here is just one of many accounts, all of which vary in circumstances and details as my limited memory and confabulation permits. Now, in this hotel quite like any other, with archaic interior fittings, I write these words again for the benefit of no man. The women and men of the era claimed that self-abandonment would not feed their children, and in their misery demanded justice, demanded witness, demanded compensation for every crime and insult against them. And who was I to deny them that afterlife? And if only it too would now allow me to return.
They must not understand that there is nothing more desperate than the space after the end.