Over The Hill
by Patrick O'Connor
THE Boeing 767 was about 40 minutes out of Frankfurt where I was due to attend an architects' conference when we were told that the landing gear wasn't working.
The elderly German woman sitting alongside me, upright and austere like Bond villain Rosa Klebb, clenched my hand so tightly that her nails drew blood as the plane skidded along the tarmac on its belly, sparks flying, the stench of burning oil and rubber flooding my nostrils. They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you think you're going to die...
Running across a grassy, tumbling meadow chasing after a dog who is gallivanting in front, big pink tongue flopping around from side to side, tail wagging in happy harmony. The grass is dry and parched and apart from the frantic panting of the dog, the only other noise is the gentle trickle of a nearby stream. The horizon is punctuated by several medium sized peaks a couple of miles away, standing guard like giant centurions, sheep scattered around them, frolicking lambs at play. There's a shout of: ''Thomas! Wait for me!” and I turn around to see my brother Simon, unruly blond hair and freckles galore, running towards me, like the lambs, joyful and carefree.
We landed safely, surrounded by a circle of flashing lights and a deafening siren symphony. Nobody was seriously injured, apart from a few bumps and bruises but I was traumatised by something far more unsettling than a crash landing - I didn't have a brother!
Passengers and crew were taken to a nearby hospital to be checked over. I told the doctor I must have bumped my head because I'd had a strange vision, a vivid childhood memory but one which definitely wasn't mine! Try as I could, I couldn't summon up a single memory of 'my' own childhood. it was as if a barrier had slammed down, denying me access. All that was left was this intruder.
They gave me a through examination including a brain scan but after an all clear I returned to England, a far more nervous flyer than on the outward journey.
Simon is red-faced and sweating profusely. He's seven, five years younger than me. We are both dressed in a pale green all-in-one tunic which is very lightweight and appropriate for the stifling hot day. When he catches up with me he slumps to the ground: “You said you'd wait for me, that's cheating.” I tickle his sides and he giggles in that throaty, adorable way that has become his signature tune. Boswell, a loopy Irish Red Setter, joins us, tennis ball in mouth, body language demanding “Play with me!”. He's two years old and often engaged in a fruitless pursuit of his tail, something that Simon and I find hilarious. It's a happy day.
That second vision came after I'd been back in England three days. It burst through without any warning whilst I was having breakfast and left me feeling dreadfully unsettled. Like the first one, it felt very real, like a snapshot from a personal back catalogue. I rushed to the bathroom as nausea threatened to overwhelm me but managed to compose myself as I stared into the mirror, wondering who or what had lodged inside my skull. Dammit, I was sure we'd never had a dog – ever! And my sister Sarah was my only sibling. My name was Daniel so who the hell was Thomas, who was this child through whose eyes I was experiencing these images?
A kindly, well-meaning GP wanted to dose me up with anti-depressants and sleeping tablets but I needed something more proactive. Post traumatic stress was his diagnosis. He didn't think I was a worthy case for an NHS counsellor but gave me a few contacts and I ended up seeing a rather tense woman in her late 40s called Cassie.
She wore an anonymous grey suit, white buttoned-up blouse with a large Victorian Amethyst brooch which she was constantly caressing. Cassie had large, chunky, rugby player legs encased in black, fishnet tights which rustled annoyingly every time she crossed her legs which she did frequently.
She was totally obsessed with the idea that I was suppressing childhood memories because I had been sexually abused. As for my 'cuckoo' childhood memory, she hadn't got a clue and didn't seem that interested.
As she probed away, looking for a clue to the abuse angle, she constantly licked her tight, pencil thin lips, topped off by just the hint of facial hair, in a manner which I found distinctly unpleasant.
The very mention of sexual abuse filled me with disgust and eventually I stormed out of the session. How dare she suggest that my father or indeed mother was a monster capable of such a thing?
Although I could not recollect any of my own childhood memories, I was absolutely convinced that it had been happy and that parents were wonderful, compassionate folk who had devoted their lives to me and my sister. It was time to go back home to Warwick.
Simon and I play around with Boswell for a few minutes until the heat begins to have an impact on all three of us and we move over to shelter in the shade of a large oak tree near the stream. We lay on our backs and close our eyes as Boswell dives into the stream. When he comes out he shakes his body, splashes us and forcing us to leap up.
“Bloody hell, Boswell,” I shout in mock outrage. The dog looks at me as if to say “What?” and Simon proceeds to take his shoes off.
“Let's paddle,” he says. My little brother is such a splendid companion, cheerful and adventurous. We never row and I know that I would willingly give up my life for him. We sleep in the same room and at night time make up stories which take our imaginations on wonderful journeys across strange worlds before eventually sleep beckons.
I follow him into the stream, the clear, cold water initially a shock but quickly cooling my feet, eyes closing to accentuate the pleasure.
Suddenly we hear a strange noise in the air. It's an unnatural, unknown sound and when it reaches a higher pitch, slightly uncomfortable. It seems to be coming from over the hill, in the direction of our home. Boswell pauses, ears and nose twitching in the summer breeze.
“What is it?” asks Simon, concern etched over his face. I am just as worried as him but I try to look brave.
“Let's go home,” I say. We climb out of the stream, pick up our shoes and socks and head uphill towards the lane which leads down to our home, a cottage at the side of a winding, country road on the outskirts of the village.
“What are you doing dear?”
The ladder to the loft clanked downwards and came to a halt just inches off the landing floor. A few more tugs and it touched down like a moon landing and up I ventured, gingerly taking it step by step.
My mother Agnes, buxom and jolly in a healthy, matronly sort of way with an unruly mop of greying black hair, arrived at the bottom of the stairs with a quizzical look and W.I. tea-towel in hand.
“It's okay mum, just looking for something,” I shouted down.
A solitary bulb hung from the roof of the loft, providing a murky beacon of light in the dusty, cobwebbed, chamber of echoes from the past. There was no pattern to what was stored here, just a mad jumble of cardboard boxes, black bin bags assembled by devoted parents and then tossed randomly onto a floor covered by faded extracts of carpet, patterned in styles thankfully long consigned to the history books. An ancient oak chest of drawers containing old school reports and photo albums stood aloft in one corner. Foraging through like a desperate wino in a rubbish tip, I set out to re-acquaint myself with my youth, nervously flicking my way through album and album, trying to discover what sort of child I had been.
I stepped over a guitar with only two strings remaining, lodged under two violin cases. Was I the musical one or was that Sarah?
This amnesia was so frustrating. What was the point of it? Was something or someone, trying to get me to focus solely on the 'other' memories. If so, why?
I opened up one of the bags to find a faded white tutu and ballet shoes together with an old school blazer, blue with yellow trimming, football shirt and green-splattered cricket whites.
The front cover of a football annual featuring the hot-shot pose of a player, alongside a box holding a subbuteo table football game, provided more clues to the fact that I must have been a sporting youngster.
Like a private investigator, a Columbo but without the dirty mac, I delved away into my own past but I didn't recognise a single moment. Anger rose up inside me like the thermometer in a hot-house. Where were my childhood memories - not that imposter's?
My formative years had been kidnapped, whisked away by some unknown felon. What's that saying: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” well, you couldn't do that with me. I felt like a refugee – but from where?
I hadn't told mum and dad of my predicament, didn't want to scare them, especially with dad's condition.
The counsellor's remark about sex abuse was gnawing away at me. And you could add guilt to that emotional cauldron for although I loved my parents dearly, my own life, ambitions and attachments had led me well away from them.
I had hardly visited them in Warwick in the last five or six years, a situation not helped by the fact that my then wife Sheena found my parents “boring and provincial.” Sheena, the liberated and lively product of a bohemian background, thought that I was too strait laced and inflexible and blamed it on my parents. She mocked father's traditional values, mother's St. Trinian's gung-ho. Her negative attitude towards my character and personality extended to the bedroom and eventually our relationship completely disintegrated. Opposites which had originally attracted eventually destroyed.
In complete contrast to the always jovial Agnes, my father Frank was a shattered man. At the age of 62 he had been made redundant from his position as a bank manager and he'd never seen it coming. He had wallowed in a morass of self-pity, steadfastly refusing to talk about the matter ever since that fateful day 16 months ago.
Father was a big man, ruddy red cheeks, bald apart from tufts of grey hair on either side, and a very distinctive bushy handlebar moustache, a remnant of his airforce days. He was once a proud individual, proud of his achievements, his family and his standing in the community but now he was permanently hunched over as if stooping through a doorway and his once lively blue eyes had shrunken back into his skull. He slumped around the house, dressed in brown corduroy trousers and whatever shirt or cardigan mother put out for him in the morning. The only concession to his previous life was that he still wore his Rotary tie.
Back in the lounge after a fruitless time in the loft I asked whether we ever owned a dog.
“What a stupid question,” said mother and she was right for I knew the answer. Not surprisingly, she also looked aghast when I then asked whether I ever had a brother called Simon.
Father didn't say a word, just gave me a puzzled look, before drifting back to the stupor of afternoon telly.
“No of course not, we would have told you! What has got into you Daniel, such strange questions?”
“Oh it's nothing mother, just nothing, I had silly dream, that's all.”
Of course I couldn't bring up the sexual abuse question, totally out of the question. So next it was off to Surrey.
My sister Sarah was 14 years older than me and I could imagine that it could have been quite a blow to her cosy little teenage world when I came along, although of course I couldn't remember.
Sarah was single, a very successful chartered accountant always immaculately turned out with her prim, waif-like body, long straight blonde hair, piercing grey eyes, the perfect packaging for a steely, determined, calculating individual. She lived in a smart, immaculately furnished flat in a large Victorian house, only a stone's throw from the train to London where she worked.
She had a long standing 'platonic' relationship with a theology professor she met at chess club but she was at pains to point out that he never stayed over.
We didn't get on and very rarely saw each other, that I knew. But why? What caused this icy relationship,? Was its roots in my childhood?I couldn't work it out, I had no access to our history.
Long, spindly fingers, operated with spot-on efficiency as Sarah poured green tea into two expensive looking bone china cups. No biscuits.
'Mummy said you had a bit of a scare in Germany?' she asked.
“Yes, thought it was all going to end at one point but I'm still here, that's the main thing,” I responded, trying to inject an up-beat tone to a stiflingly sterile conversation which drifted along aimlessly for a few minutes before I eventually summoned up the courage to ask: “I know this sounds like a daft question Sarah but...well...was there anything dodgy about our childhood?”
Her back stiffening up as tension rippled through and she plonked her cup down on the saucer, splashing tea over the crisp white linen table cloth.
“What on earth do you mean by that?”
I had no choice but to tell her the whole story, every last detail of it. Her reaction when I mentioned the therapist's suggestion of abuse surprised me with its ferocity, leaping up with such force that she knocked the table and crockery flying. Eyes bulging and spittle flying she told me I was disgusting.
“No, no Sarah, you don't understand, I wasn't suggesting...”
She cut me off in mid-sentence and ordered me to leave, opening the door to the flat and blatantly avoided eye contact.
Two days later my mother telephoned in a state of high anxiety. Sarah had told them that I had accused 'daddy' of sexually abusing me. My father was in a fragile enough state as it was, this startling revelation had tipped him over the edge, said mother, her bonhomie now vanquished.
“He's in hospital Daniel, a psychiatric hospital, he's like a zombie, he won't talk to anyone.”
I wanted to come immediately but mother suggested I wait a few days. Was there a hint of aloofness in her voice? I couldn't tell, when it came to understanding human emotions I was now completely out of sync.
Why had Sarah told them, why was she so indiscreet, so callous and cruel? Was there some big hidden family secret, was there abuse and was it all my fault? Oh my God, had I abused my sister, was that it, was that what all this was about?
It's a long haul to the top of the hill and our young legs are getting weary. Every now and then I have to stop and wait for Simon to catch up. But the noise is becoming more menacing and I want to get home, mum and dad must be worried. Why haven't they come looking for us? It's unlike any sound I have ever heard before and although the sun is still shining brightly above, there is now a chill in the air, as if a storm is on the way. Boswell reaches the top first and starts barking, looking back anxiously at us as we approach the brow. Something down below in the valley is catching his attention.
That vision was much more powerful than the others. I was picking up far more sensory feedback and that sound, that damn sound, hung around for a moment like a busy bee in my head even after the images had disappeared.
An extensive Google expedition which ran on until the early hours led me to Stefan Malachowski, a therapist who specialised in past life regression. Could this provide the answer?
His consulting room was one of 10 situated in an alternative therapy centre, an impressive white art deco building, in a quiet, leafy suburb littered with trendy pavement cafés, antique shops and a variety of premises with 'eco' or 'organic' strategically signposted on its frontage.
Stefan was a distinctive looking individual with a fiery red beard scattered around an angular face, on top of a bean-pole 6ft 4in frame who spoke with a pronounced Black Country accent which I wasn't expecting, a bit of snobbery on my part because I didn't think anyone from Smethwick or Dudley could have had a proper education.
That snobbery had come from my parents, there was no doubt about that, I was a product of a middle-class upbringing in a middle-class, middle England town.
Stefan wore a white T-shirt with the words 'Trust Me I'm A Jedi', black chinos and pink flip-flops.
“So what's the problem chief?”
I learnt very quickly that Stefan had a very individual, informal style, as if we were mates sharing a pint in the pub. I gave him a detailed outline of what had happened since the plane crash and he listened intently, flicking a West Bromwich Albion souvenir pen between thumb and finger without taking any notes.
“Sounds to me as if this could be reincarnation buddy, you in a past life.”
He then wrote down my personal details - 32, architect, divorced, no children, 5ft 11in, black hair , brown eyes, slim build, fit, keen golfer, career minded, lived alone, no girlfriend or partner at the moment, and explained that my unconscious mind could be detailing the life of a person from the past as a way of helping me resolve an emotional or physical issue.
“No sex abuse!!' I shouted. “There was NO sex abuse!”
Utterly professional, he remained tranquil despite my outburst, a calming smile emerging from within the beard and a slight hand movement gesturing me to sit back down in my chair.
“I'm not suggesting that there was Daniel, but I want to get you to go back as far as you can to see if that can help. Are you willing to give it a go?”
I nodded, sat back in the chair and waited for him to wave his magic wand.
Stefan said that people could have more than one past life and that previous lives could be from any period in time. He wanted to know whether I had ever spoken in any foreign or indistinguishable tongue, whether there was any mental illness in the family or whether I was taking any medication.
“No, I'm completely normal apart from this bloody curse,” I said.
“Okay, okay. Listen, I am going to try hypnotherapy at first. This could all be part of process of letting go, of letting go of whatever is troubling you. I want you to try and look around and take note of your surroundings. Maybe we can even try and trace the child you are remembering. Can you do that for me Daniel?”
My brother races ahead of me to join Boswell at the brow of the hill and stops in his tracks. At this moment, he looks so tiny and fragile. Simon turns back to face me and I can see that he is quite clearly terrified. His eyes are filling up and his bottom lip is trembling. I race towards them, desperate to see what has frightened them so much but I stumble and fall forward.
Whenever you visit a doctor, dentist say or optician you are always left with the impression that you are in the hands of an expert who knows what he's doing. There is an expectancy that they can fix whatever problem is ailing you. When I came out my session to face Stefan, I got the feeling that this was what it was like when the surgeon tells you you've got terminal cancer.
“Hmm, listen Daniel, sometimes, some people just aren't suitable candidates for this sort of regression therapy. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, it just means that they ought to maybe try more traditional methods. Maybe a psychiatrist or a counsellor,” he said.
“What happened, what happened when I went under?' I demanded, conscious of a fury building up to a crescendo.
“I'm not sure – exactly. I couldn't get you to relate to anything apart from seeing your 'brother' and the dog.”
“But I don't have a brother or a dog! Was this a past life or not? Can't you tell?” I pleaded.
“Look, I tell you what, my next client has cancelled so I've got a bit of spare time. We can have another go if you want. I want you to try really hard to focus on what's happening around you, look for clues, clothes, buildings, anything.”
I am sprawled out on the grass and begin to rise, desperate to catch up with Simon. It is then that I look at the digital watch on my left wrist. It reads: 'Time: 3.37pm. Year: 2072'. As I get to my feet my head is suddenly filled with a picture, like a shot from a vidi-message. It startles me, what is going on? I can see a man, he is saying something but I can't quite work out what it is. The picture is a bit fuzzy and I can't see his face too clearly. He's sitting in a cream coloured chair in a darkened room and … now I can hear him clearly.
It was my voice but I didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I was back with Stefan, soaked in sweat and knuckles white from gripping the arms of the chair.
“You're doing really well. Just try and concentrate a bit more,” he urged. “All I want you to do is observe everything that is around you.”
Once more I put myself in the hands of this man and his belief that somehow, somewhere, I had lived before.
I reach the top and stand alongside Simon and Boswell. Looking down onto our village, I see a terrible sight. The sky is filled with strange crafts, jet black and sleek, hundreds of them, the like of which I have never seen before. They seem to be hovering in the air above the village in some sort of formation. The man must have known, that's why he warned me, but how? Who was he? The sky is beginning to darken as more and more of them arrive, blocking out the sunlight.
“Daniel...Daniel.” The soft, reassuring tone of Stefan's voice eases me back into the here and now.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
The noise is coming from these machines. Simon falls to his knees, hands clasped over his ear. “Tell them to stop Thomas,” he pleads.
I left Stefan's and lit up as soon as I walked outside. His parting words were: “This may, and I stress may, be precognition. It's also known as future sight or second sight but it's not an area I'm too acquainted with.” He suggested referring me to someone who specialised in this rather vague, unproven, theory, but I wasn't sure so I said I'd let him know..
I so want to hold my brother in my arms, to cuddle and reassure him but I am transfixed by the scene in front of me. Boswell cowers and yelps, I feel afraid and helpless. And there is another picture in my head, it's the man and he's outside now, walking.
The visions came very quickly now, pulsing rapidly like a cosmic heartbeat.
Dazzling bright rays of light emerge from the crafts, pouring down towards the ground and exploding like hailstorms in a winter storm.
I inhaled deeply – there was so much to think about - before strolling across the road to where my car was parked. As I did, I heard a sound, a deep, ferocious sound, a throaty roar similar to the one in my vision. But this wasn't a vision, this was real, very real. I couldn't quite work out where it was coming from and paused in the middle of the road, looking in either direction.
I scream for my parents. And then I scream again because I recognise the man.
No vision this time, just words, words pounding like the gong from an old black and white film.
“The Hill! The Hill!”
I barely had time to react before a huge black beast, sleek and lethal, came over the hill and roared down on me.
They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you think you're going to die...
© Patrick O’Connor 2013