Moving forward through time, at a second per second, no acceleration. No brakes. No turning back.
If this were your last moment of life, what would you be thinking of?
I am thinking of Maggie.
I am thinking that memories do not travel through time. They are anchored in particular places and you move away from them, like leaving someone on the kerb and driving away, looking in the rear view mirror as their image diminishes, shrinking at the rate of a second per second.
The image diminishes, the details become less precise and are replaced by others left in your wake. I see Maggie’s face if I close my eyes, but is that really her? As she was? Or is it an amalgam, her face from when I first saw her, her hair from when she dyed it red, her eyes when she was happy?
These things seem to matter more when it’s the last moment of your life. When the last moment is stretched to infinities, you have the time to dwell.
Moving forward, I think back. I rolled my first car when I was 17. Driving way too fast, downhill into a tight bend. It span, once, twice, three times, so slow I could count the revolutions, see every detail picked out in the headlights, the faces of other drivers as they whipped past me. I felt unmoved, insulated from reality, as the car flipped, rolled over and over in apparent silence. Cassettes floated across my field of vision so slow I could read their titles, so slow I could recognise the one I’d been looking for not 5 minutes earlier, giving up, assuming it was lost. A second per second, stretched, spanned, isolated in the bending, tearing ecstasy of steel and flesh.
I felt no pain. Not until the moment I knew I was alive. Then someone switched my other senses back on. Noise, screaming horns and tyres, shouts, voices both cursing and caring. I could smell burned rubber, sweat, petrol, fear, flowers. I could taste blood and bile. Pain. I could feel pain.
I didn’t know Maggie back then. If I had, would I have thought of her? She was ahead of me then, standing on the kerb like a hitch-hiker, waiting for me as I approached at top speed, a second per second. I did not then know what she looked like, or even that I was looking for her, but I recognised her when I saw her. I did not have to slow my pace, she was just suddenly there, alongside me in time, moving forward at a second per second. And as we travelled, it never occurred to me that she could ever get left behind, a ghost in the rear-view mirror. She was with me, at a second per second, joined in time.
They say your life flashes before your eyes. It’s not true, at least not for me. Rolling the car was my first near death experience. No flashes, just isolation. The second was very different but the same. I was drowning. Going down for the seventh, eighth, ninth time. The thing about going down for the third? For me, at least, a fallacy. I did not want to die, so I fought, right up until I stopped. Realisation that I could not save myself, that I was getting weaker and colder and the water seeking my lungs was making me reach and I was choking on vomit just as much as that filthy, freezing canal water.
Slow motion. Like in a movie, I stopped struggling and slipped below the surface, down, down, an infinity of down, the glare of sodium lights dancing above my head. I opened my mouth and my lungs to inevitability, and my last thought was relief that I could finally stop fighting.
But someone pulled me out. I spent a month in hospital with infected lungs and pneumonia. Since then, I have always been a little short of breath, like I had left a little bit of my life-force at the bottom of the canal.
And here I fall, at a second per second, and for a large part it’s a result of the first two, a natural progression, evolution. When I rolled the car I was wearing a set-belt. It was the last time I ever wore one, the arrogance of youth reasoning that nobody has two wrecks like that in a lifetime. After the canal, this feeling of immortality was confirmed. Maybe I was immortal; maybe we all are, but we confuse immortal with indestructible.
I would push it, test it, believing in my own infinity. Skydiving seemed the ultimate test of the theory. To willingly, thankfully, hurl oneself into the abyss. To surrender yourself to fate, to play chicken with gravity and win.
My fall is characteristic of the other times. Driving recklessly, being stupid and careless near water when I couldn’t swim, packing a parachute when stoned. All conducted as if choreographed, at a second per second.
I always left it late to open my ‘chute. Less time to react when things go pear-shaped. Bigger buzz.
This time, my ‘chute didn’t open. I swore. How did Wilfred Owen describe it, weary men putting on gas masks during a gas attack? ‘An ecstasy of fumbling.’ That covers it. I fumbled for the ripcord for the reserve chute, knowing it was too late, accelerating towards the ground at a rate of ten metres per second per second, travelling through time at the rate of a second per second. But now, time ceases to have meaning. I can no longer feel the wind rushing past me, or contorting my face with pressure. I fall in silence, isolated once more.
I am reminded of a story, was it by LeGuin? One of her characters explained a theory where if a stone was thrown at something, it could never hit it, or something like that. As it travelled, the distance would halve, then halve again, and again, but always there would be a measurable distance -- if you carried enough decimal points -- between the stone and the target, forever and ever… That is how this feels, to fall forever, waiting for that slip-up where the distance is covered, where the half is the whole of it.
And so with the earth rushing slowly towards me at a second per second, I have time to worry about whether the image I have of Maggie is as she really was. And I know that I will know as I open my arms and prepare for the final embrace, the final kiss.