As Aubrey Bailey slowed to enter the town of Ballyfrack he was pleased to see a hotel sign lit by an overhead street light and made up his mind there and then if there was accommodation available he would stop for the night. The meeting with the solicitor had taken far too long which meant he’d been caught up in rush hour traffic along the canal, then there was a big tailback because of roadworks followed by a ten mile an hour tractor that wouldn’t move over. So now he was running almost two hours behind schedule, it was already pitch dark, he was hungry, and to make matters worse it had started to rain.
He really disliked this time of year, there was more night than day, there was a chill in the air and winter lay ahead. Aubrey had always tried to avoid driving in the dark, especially in the wet, with all the confusing reflections, oncoming drivers who didn’t dip their headlights until the last minute and others blinding him in the rear view mirror. He flipped the indicator and turned up a potholed driveway to an old red brick building grandly named ‘The Boswell Hotel’ according to the sign above the door. He hauled his leggy frame out of the car, lifted an overnight bag from the back seat, and hunching his shoulders against the cold downpour he strode quickly to an entrance hall that was illuminated by a single bare bulb without a shade. The inner door opened into a gloomy foyer laid with a carpet that had seen better days. A sad looking leather sofa and a coffee table sat forlornly in the middle of the room, yellowed walls displayed hunting scenes in black frames and there was a faint odour of wood smoke and stale beer in the air. He didn’t care, he’d had a hectic day, he just wanted a drink, something to eat and a bed.
“Good evening sir, can I help you,” came a voice that appeared to come from nowhere until a head emerged from below what Aubrey assumed was reception judging by the old green filing cabinet and an untidy desk in the background. The head was followed by the body of a cadaverous little man wearing a scruffy white shirt without a tie and a knitted cardigan that hung loosely on his shoulders.
Aubrey stepped up to the desk. “Oh hello, yes, I was hoping you might have a room for the night, and some food would be much appreciated.”
The man dragged his fingers through his lank dark hair. “Well in one respect you’re in luck sir, as we’ve only just opened again after renovations you’ll be the only guest this evening which means you can take your pick of the rooms. The back of the house might be best because to be honest the front can be a bit noisy at times even though we’re off the main road. As far as food’s concerned there’s not much choice, but Mrs McConnell made a grand pot of stew earlier, or we could fix you up with sandwiches if you like. Oh yes, and the bar’s open, you’ll find it through there.”
Aubrey visibly relaxed and managed a smile. “Well first I’ll take your advice and go for one of your quieter rooms at the back, and when I’ve had a quick wash and brush up I’ll try some of Mrs McConnell’s stew, which I’m sure will be just lovely.”
“Right, so, we’ll have you sorted out in no time. I’m Dermot by the way, so if you need anything just ask. It’ll be fifty five Euro for the room including breakfast, and we can sort everything else out as we go. Let’s see now,” he said flipping open small leather bound book on the counter. If you would just sign yourself in please Mr, err?”
“Bailey,” said Aubrey reaching into his inside pocket for a pen.
Once the formalities were out of the way Dermot led the way up to number four, a pleasantly old fashioned room. The wallpaper was dated and the floorboards creaked, but it was warm enough, with a double bed, a wash hand basin and a tiny bathroom that wouldn’t have been out of place on a ship. The outlook was over a garden of sorts but rain was lashing against the window and as soon as he was alone Aubrey swished the curtains closed, unpacked and swapped his tweed jacket for one of his favourite sweaters. He dragged a comb through his mane of white hair, selected a folder from his case and headed back down to the foyer.
Armed with a promise from Dermot that stew would be along shortly he made his way along a dimly lit corridor to the bar which turned out to be the source of the odour he’d detected earlier. In a cosy corner of the room a couple of wing backed chairs sat invitingly on either side of a log fire, the chimney blackened by years of use, and in a nod to times gone by a set of old cooking pots and a kettle had been placed in an alcove beside the hearth. The only other customers, two men in boiler suits, were deep in conversation and barely gave Aubrey a second glance.
Behind the bar a girl with jet black hair and hooped ear rings reluctantly dragged her attention away from the book she’d been buried in to greet him with a watery smile. “Hiya, that’s a bad ol’ night, what can I get ya.” Aubrey’s request for red wine seemed to cause some consternation judging by her facial contortions, but she eventually managed to locate a bottle of eastern European Merlot which he settled for to avoid to avoid any fuss. She then proceeded to fill a wine glass to the brim, charged him six Euro for the trouble and immediately returned to reading.
Moments later Dermot arrived with a tray and set everything out on a table by one of the fireside armchairs. “There we are now sir, if there’s anything you need just let me know.”
Aubrey acknowledged him by raising his glass. “Thanks, I’m being well looked after.” He wandered over to the table, his appetite suddenly heightened by the smell of the stew which was steaming like a volcano and accompanied by thick wedges of brown bread, a couple of butter packs and assorted condiments. He sat down and sampled the wine which had more of an edge than his preferred Malbec but was palatable nevertheless. The stew did indeed warrant Dermot’s earlier description of ‘grand’ and he finished it with gusto before deciding on another glass of wine to sip while working.
As one of Ireland’s best known philosophers with the academic rank of professor, Aubrey was an accomplished lecturer who had been guest speaker at some of the best universities in the world, and although now officially retired he was still very much in demand. Because of his outspoken Darwinian views he was no stranger to clashing with theologians and the clergy, and his debates often resulted in verbal fireworks and heated exchanges which delighted radio listeners and television studio audiences alike.
Many in the scientific community also held him in high esteem for his clever observations on the meaning of consciousness. He was known to have a huge appetite for knowledge, and as someone who wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb like he had just done with his latest theory that the mind might work like multiple layered computer programs running on the hardware of the brain. But as a counter balance to that he’d also questioned how a three pound lump of neurons could come to possess a point of view and consciousness, which had left him straddling the fence between two camps. The physicalist thinkers believe that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms while the dualists believe that science can uncover only half of the picture and can’t explain the marvel of consciousness, that sudden awareness, a window swinging open onto a sunlit landscape from the darkness of being nothing.
Fresh ideas were bobbing around in his head as he selected a folder of documents to read through before the debate at Cork University in the morning. Deeply absorbed in reading, an hour slipped quickly by so the next time he glanced up he noticed that the two men in boiler suits had left and the bar girl had begun to tidy things away. She asked if he’d like another drink and when he declined she pulled down the shutters, switched off the piped music and a few lights and left him alone at the fireside. A tall floor lamp by his chair provided ample illumination to read by so he decided to continue what he was doing for a while before heading up to bed.
Dermot arrived to take away the tray and let him know he was going off duty. “I’m back on at seven for my sins,” he sighed, “but you’re welcome to stay on in here as long as you like. We’ll sort out your bill in the morning; so unless there’s anything else?”
“Nothing thanks,” said Aubrey, but I’d appreciate a call around seven thirty if you wouldn’t mind.”
“No problem Mr Bailey, good night now.”
“Good night Dermot.” He returned to reading the last document, occasionally letting his eyes wander to the embers of the logs, lulled by the sound of rain on the window panes and the ticking of a grandfather clock in the corner. The combination of all these things had a powerful hypnotic effect and Aubrey momentarily drifted off, to be jolted into wakefulness by a creak from the chair opposite and the sudden realization that he wasn’t alone. Sitting in the other winged back chair was a man who looked like a very old version of Ernest Hemingway, wearing what appeared to be a black quilted dressing gown with unusually wide cuffs and lapels and a cravat that was loosely tied at the neck. An untidy tangle of grey hair blended in seamlessly with a beard, and what was visible of his skin had the appearance of dried parchment.
When the stranger spoke it was a hollow sound that somehow didn’t seem to belong to him. “Sorry friend, I didn’t mean to startle you. I hope you don’t mind if I join you for a while, it’s so rare these days to find anyone with enough intellect to engage in meaningful conversation.”
Recovering from the initial shock of finding he had company, Aubrey blinked to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. “I, I’m sorry, it’s just that I didn’t realise there was anyone else here, I was led to believe I was the only guest.”
“Ahh but you are. I’m not a guest you see, I live here, I’ve lived here for a very long time. You might say I’m one of the family. But how rude of me, let me introduce myself, my name; well my name’s not important really, but please call me Cormac. As Aubrey made to reply he held up his hand in a sign to stop. “You are Aubrey Bailey, philosopher, sage, scholar and deep thinker. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” In the large armchair he seemed languorous but at the same time exuding an energy that was almost tangible. His pale hands held the armrests with fingers that were long and blue veined but the upper part of his face was almost lost in shadow making it impossible to distinguish the colour of his eyes. He nodded to Aubrey’s papers. “I hope I’m not interrupting, if you’d prefer to continue working please go ahead. I’m quite happy to sit a while in silence.”
Aubrey set the document on the table. “You’re not interrupting, as a matter of fact I think I dozed off a few minutes ago so it’s probably time to call it a day.”
Cormac laughed with the same deep sound that Aubrey had detected in his speech. “Still working on the theory that consciousness is an illusion are you, an interesting conjecture but one that’s bound to run into a lot of opposition.”
It was Aubrey’s turn to laugh. “I’m flattered that you’re familiar with my work, but yes, my theories regularly run into opposition because most people don’t allow me the flexibility that much of what I say is conjectural rather than proven.”
“Ohh don’t let that bother you, there’s no progress without folk like you to do the groundwork, you just have to ignore the sceptics and nay sayers. Not so long ago some people believed that there’s a door that leads from the mind we know to the mind we don’t and when that door opens, strange things happen. They believed that mediums discharged electromagnetic rays from their fingers or threads of ectoplasm like the silk spun by a spider. We may laugh at these things now but it’s plain that there are strange forces about us of which we know practically nothing, in the same way that we once knew nothing about electricity.”
Aubrey was by now totally intrigued. “You seem to be very knowledgable in such matters Cormac, tell me about yourself, after all you seem to know a great deal about me.”
“Lets put it this way, I’ve existed a lot longer than you and I’ve been through a transition that’s given me the ability to see things in a way you could never dream of. But I’d really rather talk about you, and if you’ll allow me I can hopefully shine a light on some of the things that have been puzzling you.”
Aubrey smiled and shrugged. “Very well, I’m listening.”
“In that case I’ll go on. Consciousness of course, is as you know notoriously difficult to pin down. You can’t measure it, weigh it, or hold it in your hand, you can observe it directly in yourself, but not in others. Generally speaking humans are so focused on their own being they completely fail to see something else right before their eyes. Let’s look at it this way, consciousness and simply existing may very well be a form of diversion from the truth because the human brain isn’t yet advanced enough to comprehend that truth. Just look at the clever user illusion of click and drag icons, those little tan folders you can drop files into on modern computers. What is actually going on behind the scenes is mind-numbingly complicated, but users don’t need to know about it and most don’t give it a second thought. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
Aubrey reached for his clipboard and a pen. “Indeed I do; now you’re intriguing me.”
The hollow laugh came again. “All right, but we’ll have to venture into the world of quantum mechanics for me to illustrate illusion on a grand scale, and you’ll see that within that world everything is possible, from tunnelling through impenetrable barriers to being in two places at the same time. But lets look at what’s known as entanglement. Albert Einstein once called entanglement spooky action at a distance, because altering one particle in an entangled pair affects its twin instantaneously, no matter how far away it is. Now on that basis just try to imagine entangled minds.”
As Cormac spoke, Aubrey felt a sense of complete awe, as a new understanding flooded his senses, but within seconds his awe had turned into trepidation and a chill ran through him making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Too late he understood what these terrifying revelations meant for humanity, and when he tried to get up from the chair he was shocked to discover that he was in still in the car, gripping the steering wheel like his life depended on it. The rain had stopped, clouds were scudding past a crescent moon that shed a ghostly light on the dark boarded up windows of the Boswell hotel and the for sale sign on the wall. He panicked and reached for the ignition, desperate to get away. His body didn’t react, nothing happened except for hollow laughter inside his head and a sinking sensation as something powerful invaded the deepest recesses of his brain, absorbing information and taking control of his thoughts. As nightmare visions flashed through his head he saw for the first time what he’d become entangled with and he knew that from now on he would be nothing more than a passenger inside his own body.
Satisfied with the perfection of the illusion he’d just created, Cormac Aubrey Bailey smiled and started the engine. The invasion had only just begun and there was a lot of work to be done. The morning lecture would be interesting to say the least, and the thought of all those intelligent enquiring young minds so open to suggestion was a delightful prospect indeed, as the time for taking over completely was approaching fast.
© John-Archie Lynn 2021