He’d never been close to death until then.
Yes, he’d seen dead bodies – his grandma, his father, a body in a road. True, this was death, but death as it had happened to others, deaths already tainted by premonitions of their passing or tinged with the innocent curiosity that characterises the young. This was not imminent death as it might apply to him: a moment of reckoning, a brief interval pointlessly proffered to put his house in order.
For those who’ve lived through it, even if memories have faded, the Cold War was a time of surviving on a precipice. Sometimes its edge visibly crumbled at one’s feet, as it did during the Cuba crisis. Sometimes there was just a feeling of vertiginous malaise watching grainy news footage of CND marchers, whether or not they were really cranks or communist stooges.
But one day death really came knocking at his door of his consciousness. It began with a huge hole opening up within his chest: this first inkling of dread was immediately followed by absolute certainty that this was the point of no return. There was rarely any sound – rather like newsreel and archive footage then – but instead a white light banishing all subtlety of shading or substance. The blinding was only temporary as the eye strained to make out a skyscape in which a growing and rapidly expanding organism gradually revealed itself. Sometimes it might be a roiling brain obscenely expanding upon its stem; or it might take the form of a superheated fungus, its cap haloed by multiplying lenticular clouds, the annulus a secondary fist about to fulfil its threat.
This dire image he knew as prelude to a period of slow, lingering extinction when mind and body succumbed to invisible poison. And as heavy limbs and numbed brain feebly but ineffectually struggled with debilitation and despair his being would rise up from the depths of lethargy, surfacing trapped by the sweat-soaked sheets. Awake he would relive the images, so real it was hard to believe they hadn’t just happened; and bit by bit the realisation would dawn that there had been a reprieve. Annihilation hadn’t yet occurred, even though it would only be a matter of time.
Time: it had been decades since he had last had the dreams. Somewhere around the eighties they had faded away like morning mist in a river valley. But surreptitiously, secretly, they had crept back closer and closer to his unsuspecting consciousness, conspiring with the worsening crises here, there and everywhere. And as atrocity after atrocity and bellicosity after animosity obtruded into current affairs his dreams became darker and his fears became stronger, until the certain knowledge of man’s inhumanity and unstoppable stupidity took physical form and death exploded into his vision and its dark cloud rolled once again.