She appeared from nowhere, literally. I was drinking by myself in the snug of the King’s Head public house when she appeared on the bar stool beside me, and from that moment something inside me changed forever.
She was beautiful, if a little gothic in her long black velvet dress, elbow-length gloves and Victorian shawl. Her hair swathed her shoulders in a shroud of darkness. Like the matt black chalk of charcoal, it absorbed no light. The flowing mane framed her face like the black cloth once draped over a photograph of a deceased loved one. Her wide eyes glowed as dim and pallid as distant suns in a low dawn mist. They teased me with a hint of times past, the long forgotten ghost of a long-ago regret, a murdered love drifting on the dark lake of the mind. Her mouth wore a permanent smile, accentuated by a thick Prussian blue lipstick. Her stunning looks stilled me to muteness for a few seconds. I swivelled on my barstool to face her full on and eventually spoke.
“Where did you come from? Who are you?” I asked.
“Everywhere and nowhere.” She spoke plainly, in perfect English and with no hint of accent. “Like you and everything there either is or is not, I exist only when observed.”
I asked her to explain the meaning of her statement.
“I have always been here. It is you and this taverna that has appeared. I was at my master’s dwelling-house, attending my chores and duties, when this entire apparition materialised around me.”
“Who is your master,” I asked rather puzzled by this strange woman’s apparel and bizarre tale.
“He is called The Twenty-Second.”
“Who was the First?” I joked.
“God, of course,” she nonchalantly replied.
I quoted Nietzsche: “God is dead.”
“Well of course, they are all dead! The First was killed by Atheos and his followers, who in turn were imprisoned by the Politicos.”
“What happened to the Politicos?”
I was finding myself more and more intrigued with this wondrous story and finding myself being drawn inexorably into the glowing magnetism of this dark angelic apparition.
“The Politicos remain the Rulers, although they have since split into many diverse and warring factions.”
She took a sip of water from a glass before her and then continued.
“Some have joined with various Athean organisations, others with the multi-divisional Secondist movements, and some even, although they never admit this in public, have sworn allegiance to the paramilitary fundamentalist organisation, Sons of the Eleventh.”
She paused, swirled the water around in her glass and stared at the chaos and collapse of each ripple.
“Predominantly the politicos remain neutral, and thereby politically weak. They are afraid of upsetting the Castrato majority, who in turn remain neutral for fear of sectarian attack from the more radical sects of Believers, or of being ridiculed by the Atheans, the disciples of Atheos who, devoid of fear and free from greed, first freed our land from the omnipotent power of God.”
“So who is The Twenty-Second?”
“He is the twentieth physical manifestation of the Second. Only twenty men, since the Second was returned to The Holy Throne, have been recognised, sanctified and revered by The World Secondist Church. He is the spiritual leader of all Secondist movements and is acknowledged and accepted as the head of state by the Politicos, albeit in a politically impotent role. He is a charming, very devout man, physically weak from in-breeding but spiritually inspiring all the same.”
I looked deep into her distant eyes and smiled. She had a great power, a sexual command that I was sure she did not understand. Beauty is a mighty weapon. It can bring a man to his knees far easier than a prayer or a gun.
“Are you a Believer or an Athean,” I quizzed.
“It is a credulous man that truly makes a distinction between the world of spirit and the everyday world of objects. How can anyone truly believe in anything without doubt, despair or angst?”
She elucidated, “I am an attendant of The Twenty Second, the chosen one who dwells in the realm of the spirit, a realm independent of the scientific notion of cause and effect. I delight in his soft hymns and silent prayers and yet, although I acknowledge this man is chaste and spiritually and ethically incorrupt, I am sure the Atheans speak that which they also believe to be the truth. The truth is only a truism to the individual and not to the collective masses.
In public of course, I remain a Castrato. It is a dangerous thing to admit either total faith in one denomination or to favour heretical ideals. Castratos believe what they are told to believe. It is a sacrifice suffered to ensure one’s own self-interest. Free thought is not an attribute encouraged by the Politicos and is but a small price to pay for liberty, however shackled that liberty seems to the observer. Walls have ears, and nobody can be certain who is or who is not an Athean sympathizer, or worse, an Eleventh Son spy.”
I laughed, “I can assure you I’m neither an Eleventh Son spy nor a Believer of any denomination. Theists in my world build castles in the air then add the foundations as an afterthought. They use the fear of God and retribution as a deterrent against free thought and free will. As for the Politicos, they too discourage free thought and free will, nullify our potential with low wages and high taxation, tease us with materialism and high interest credit to realise these false necessities. They are corrupt and lack moral fortitude and are as beneficially ineffective and as self-interested as yours, if not a little terrifying with their gung-ho attitude to war.”
“Oh wars are often fought in my land, civil, territorial, ethnic, religious and inter-state. They wipe out generations, whole communities and ethnicities. They are indiscriminate and tragically include the deaths of millions of innocent children, healthy young men and women, as well as the old and infirm. Ironically, they leave the very land they fight over ravaged and unworthy for habitation or cultivation. Our world is filled with unmarked graves, monuments to the fallen, and epitaphs and anecdotes of heroic deaths.”
“Sounds like we’re from similar worlds,” I sighed. “Here we glory in war and hostility. We write endless books and make film after film celebrating violence and conflict. We forge medals as a testimony of honour, and bestow them on teenagers, kids barely out of school, as rewards for acts of heroism in wars they were forced to fight. Solely, those in power perpetrate war, whether that power is of a religious, political or nationalistic nature. In my world it is almost a certainty that religion and nationalism will end the human race.”
I banged my fist on the counter in a fit of pique. The barmaid came running and so I took the opportunity to order another beer.
“Who are the Sons of the Eleventh?” A draught of beer diluted my distaste of war, politics and religious influence, and I resumed my friendly interrogation.
“They are the followers of the eponymous Eleventh, who spoke out against corruption in the whole Politico system, and to their growing Athean sympathies. They are a strict fundamentalist organisation, extremists who adhere literally to the teachings of The Book of the Second. They advocate death to all Athean non-believers, fraudulent Politicos and to the weaker Secondist movements. Splinter cells have acted out all sorts of terrorist atrocities on religious and secular targets alike.”
“We had a Second here too,” I interjected, “He was known as Jesus, the son of God, and the embodiment of God as a mortal. Our Gods live forever by the way!” I sniggered with a defiant hint of cynicism. I continued with my brief synopsis of Christianity.
“Jesus was betrayed by his own people and murdered by the Romans who occupied and ruled his land. Many believe God sacrificed his only son in order to save humankind from sin, yet paradoxically believe we are still born sinners because of our original sin, a sin that chronologically predates this sacrifice, the betrayal of God by the first two humans who were tempted by a talking snake to eat fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge.
The majority of my world believes in all manner of Gods, and religious icons such as Jesus, but the growing trait among scientists and philosophers, as you say, is to be an Athean. Oh and by the way, in this world, snakes no longer have the power of speech!” I laughed and swallowed another mouthful of beer.
“That is so strange,” she raised her voice half an octave, “our Second was known unofficially as De Zeus, or ‘Of Zeus‘, Zeus being The First and therefore The Second was believed to be a direct descendant of The First. It is however forbidden as sacrilege to mention the name of Zeus or De Zeus. If the World Secondist Church is informed that someone uttered such blasphemies, they will demand in parliament the Politicos issue the death penalty, and the Politicos always consent to this atrocity.”
“You had better be careful what you repeat to me,” I warned.
“Of course, but I doubt The Eye can reach into what ever world I currently find me a part of.”
“The Eye?” I questioned.
“Our world is under constant surveillance by The Eye. It is the omniscient monitor set up by the Politicos that unite an unbreakable link of satellites, cameras and built in web cams that see and hear all things.”
“1984 and Big Brother!” I remarked with a little titter secreted from a wry corner of my mouth.
“I984? That was twenty eight years ago!”
We were both amazed that our calendar years matched exactly, that in both worlds it had now been 2012 years since the birth of both versions of the Second Coming.
We talked for many hours, swapped mythologies, discussed legends, argued at times vehemently over political conspiracy theories, cried at similar atrocities and personal loss, laughed at each others’ diverse religions and their ridiculous dogmas, compared end of the world prophesies, analysed the absurdity of humour and empathized with a parallel struggle for individual freedom within each society. We compared experiences of that struggle to exist in the outermost limits of free will, and the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of those experiences.
I introduced her to the experience of beer, its taste and intoxicating effect. We laughed, cried, raged, philosophised and laughed again. We inadvertently sought, as every individual does from the moment of birth to each last dying breath, the meaning of life, the philosophical theory of everything.
Eventually we acceded to the Existentialist ideal that, in times of tragedy or profound insight, we understand the naked meaninglessness of the world; that we are alone in that bleak world, cast adrift from any predetermined state; and that individual freedom is still chained to the world in which we exist, whether or not (her addendum) that world is spiritual or the everyday world of causation; and that we as individuals are mentally scarred by these moments of enlightenment.
At closing time, the landlord rang a bell and I explained to the familiar stranger that it was time to leave, to return to our own homes. She looked at me with a pained expression and spoke more softly.
“I’m not sure how we are to embark on such an impossible journey.”
Her snake-like eyes hypnotized me. The slow hiss of her seductive whispers and her sweet, intoxicating philosophical venom lulled me into a kind of false adoration. The hunger for knowledge had me bite into her forbidden apple:
“What do you mean?” I answered in a hazy daze and somewhat at a loss.
“Well for a start, who is in whose world? Who is who in whose life? How can either of us ever return to a point before we met? Every meeting ends a part of who we are and adds a new something to who we are going to be. Like clouds, we constantly shift and shape, drift apart and reshape. We are in a constant state of flux, fluid, yet the tangible sum of all our parts, a solid form, yet as unstable as any gas.”
Her solid form began to fluctuate, she seemed to appear and disappear, like the ghost of her own self she flowed in and out of existence.
“Are you a phantom, an angel or my nemesis?” I blurted out. “Do you actually exist as a physical form or are you an apparition, a figment of my drunken imagination?”
She smiled and replied, “We all exist in a state of distance from the world that we nonetheless remain in the midst of.”
Her quotation rang a bell of recognition inside my head. Was it Kierkegaard or Sartre? I could not remember. My academic database had been corrupted by the destructive effect of repeated alcohol abuse. I shouted in frustration, “Is it you or me that is alive? Which one of us is living this existence? Which one of us is the stranger in the other’s life? Who is in whose world? Who is who in whose life?”
Her physical appearance weakened, her projected image flickered, began to fade and vanish before my hysterical eyes. Her fragile voice remained constant to the last.
“Life is a lie, an unending paradox between the self and the observer. It is a never-ending battle between hope and despair, self-possession and angst, rationality and absurdity, acceptance and alienation, diversion and boredom. What we are now we were not yesterday and will not be tomorrow. Where we are today is a different place than yesterday, tomorrow we will journey forward to a destination as yet unknown.”
I could not speak. I was afloat on the doldrums of her all-encompassing sea of tranquil words. At once I was enchanted by the constant flow of her magical voice and yet disturbed by the inconstant hallucination of her visual being.
“Life is a persistent search for completion but it is never complete. It is a continual search for satisfaction but it is never fully satisfying because of the suffering and losses that occur within that life. It is an eternal search for perfection, power and control, but that search is futile when one considers the lack of perfection, power, and control one has over that life.”
As if I was saving her from falling into an eternal abyss, I reached out desperately to grab her. Like a lover who fears his love is leaving forever, I made one last gasp effort to hold her, to wrap her safely in my arms and save us both from an eternity of separation. I failed. I failed as a man, a lover and a saviour. I looked on in horror as she slipped through my fingers and disappeared from view forever.
A bodiless voice called out from the void of non-existence. “Reality is but an illusion. Everything you believe exists, exists only for you.”
I held my hands together prayer-like as I implored she stayed with me. I had so many unanswered questions.
“Where did you come from? Who are you?”
“I am from everywhere and nowhere. Like you and everything there either is or is not, I exist only when observed,” she whispered.
“But what is the name of this world of illusion?” I screamed.
“Life,” came the tapering echo.