Prologue – What goes around…
I watched myself die in the reflection of a fish and chip shop window on a Friday evening in March, 1976.
The rain came early in the morning; a dark flush that cut through the streets and gutters, streaming along the pathways until the antiquated London sewerage system caught its breath and dragged it underground.
Daylight brought a few brief hours of tentative sunshine, but then the darkness returned; cold clouds pushing together like angry spectators, thickening from white to grey to black and filling the air with a metallic taste of ozone.
It is about this time that my story begins – and soon afterwards ends – at the south side of Tower Bridge, with two small girls pushing in single file between the wall and my slow-poke body. The last turned in embarrassment as I stumbled, my walking stick skipping along the pavement.
“Sorry,” she whispered as the other giggled and pulled on her arm. I sighed in bemusement as they hop-scotched down the path, then took a handkerchief from my pocket to wipe at my dribbling nose. With an involuntary shiver, I shuffled on.
Further along, sometime after crossing a side street closer to home, I tottered to another halt as a younger man lurched towards me, comically ponderous with a hessian bag swung over his shoulder. He was about forty years old and dressed in navy jeans, oxford shoes and a fraying blue cardigan that zipped up at the front. His dark brown hair curled tightly around his head and a trimmed beard pointed downwards at the base of his chin.
His smile widened as he noticed me staring. “I hope we don’t get more rain,” he said, then frowned at the sky as if it had already begun to fall. I stopped and followed his gaze, then looked back to find that he was watching me with a grin.
There was a sense of merriness that seemed to flow from him. “It certainly poured down, that’s for sure,” I said, laughing slightly in embarrassment. “I hope you didn’t get too wet?”
“Hahaha,” he chortled, the skin around his green eyes bunching into shapes. “Yes sir, I did. It seems like I got caught right in the middle of it.”
I felt an odd twinge at the back of my memory and stared more intently at his face, certain he was someone I should know; or at the very least, remember. “Have we met before?” I asked.
“Well…” The younger man scratched his chin. “Perhaps we have.” His eyes fixed onto mine and held me there. “In any case,” he said at last, “it’s nice to see you now.” He looked at me for several uncomfortable seconds and then glanced upwards with a sigh. “I suppose I should be getting along before the rain starts again. You have a nice evening sir.”
With one last smile he passed around me, the soles of his leather shoes slapping the pavement as he walked away.
I offered up a small wave to his as he rounded the corner, and then steered my stick forward, a sudden unaccountable happiness welling deep within my chest.
As I reached the end of the footpath a black Austin roared past, smoke belching from its underside. I waited, content to allow my thoughts to drift until the traffic paused and I crossed to the centre of the road. Seconds later, there was a rush of moving cars behind me and I was left to wait again, this time caught between two threads of metal.
I lingered for the stream of vehicles to pass, glancing over at the fish and chip shop across the road and counting, one by one, the coins in my pocket. I felt their size and rough edges as they rubbed against my fingers, finally deciding I had enough for a bag of chips and a sprinkling of vinegar.
I looked over at the line of stores and saw my neighbour Mary come out of the dry cleaners. She noticed me in the middle of the road and waved. Smiling, I pulled out my hand from the warmth of my pocket and lifted it in response. Then, with a nod of her head she turned away and into the florist, her long red locks disappearing in the gloom.
I began to hum softly to myself.
Glancing down at the footpath ahead, I saw a pigeon rise in front of me. It swooped up and beyond the rooftops and in my mind I wished it a happy evening; I did things like that. It seemed to tip a wing in my direction and I doffed a pretend-hat lightly in reply.
There was a lull in the noise of traffic, a hush in my ears. Looking forward into the window of the fish and chip shop and without further thought, I stepped out from the centre strip.
One foot, and then a second.
There was a shrill noise, and I felt a moment of intense surprise as my eyes drifted to the bent figure of an old man in the shop window reflection – me – and that of a blue car lifting the body into the air. It rose to its highest point and then gravity dropped it to the side of the road with a shudder.
I heard a scream from somewhere, the crunch of car against car as the vehicle stopped and those behind it were too slow to react, and then a moment of profound silence. I felt an almost imperceptible pain in my back, and an awkward rush from my stomach. A light touched my face and I found myself floating gently, as though loosened from physical binds and set free.
I watched people begin to gather around my body; the driver of the car wailing hysterically at the sky, the fish and chip shop owner clasping and unclasping the strings of his apron with trembling hands all the while staring blindly at my walking cane, and Mary weeping silently at his side. “I know him,” she said, bringing a cloth to her nose.
My vision and hearing continued to function as I left the scene of my old skin and found myself compelled forward. Dispassionately I watched a flicker of old memories – of arguments, hates, joys and loves – as they skimmed past in vivid camera shutter motion. And then the memories began to slow and stop, and I felt myself falling into a gentle softness…
Silence. Peace. Presence.
It was a feeling of joining and sharing and being.
It was at once all that could ever be, and everything I remembered.
I stayed in this moment timelessly aware; maybe months, maybe years, likely neither. Then, abruptly, I sensed a pull and found myself drifting and then enclosed, cocooned in a physicality that wounded in its intensity. At some point I felt a wet and comfortable warmth surrounding me. Quiet words echoed in my ears, resounding in my head as the sensation of living within something became obvious and present.
More time passed and then in an instant I felt myself pulled once more; a dragging, frightening sensation of being ripped apart. And then coldness. A tickling, itching, unforgivable feeling of loss. In a pitiful moment, I succumbed to the inevitable and screamed in frustration.
I was born.