In the early hours on a cold winters day in Normandy, I heard scratching on the roof. Though alert, I was too heavy with the comfort of sleep to feel annoyed or whether it was a ghost or some strange spirit. I was too drugged with sleep to care about the Gothic church and its cemetery across the road. Unable to reach for my mobile phone to check the time, I told myself it was a bird of some sort scratching on the roof, and quickly fell back into deep sleep.
I was woken with footsteps on a wooden floor. The window screen was framed by the grey of the morning sky. My mobile phone was dead.
My laptop indicated 7am. I attached the iPhone’s charger to it and went back to sleep. I stirred again and went to check the time on my iPhone. 1:17am. Confused, I reached for and found my glasses. I tapped on to the calendar icon, and noted that today was 1 January 1971. In disbelief I took a screen shot.
I also noted the radiator was switched off. The room was cold. I scurried out of the warm bed and heavy quilt, and flicked both switches on to the bright orange light. Within minutes the room was warm, and after reading a few pages from a random book I took from my friend’s bookshelf I fell back to sleep again and woke when my friend called out from below that coffee was ready.
I tried to explain to my ex-Parisian friend, my weird awakening this morning.
I am in the middle of the Normandy country side, the rare winter sun is filling the kitchen with bright light. He is standing in front of the window and his features are blurred by the glare. He moved towards me with a cup coffee, undulating like an animated black Rorschart.
What I was describing to him was extremely surreal, he said. Unsure that he understood what I was conveying, I reached for my mobile phone to show him the screen shot. The photo was not there.
Bemused, I scoffed about the glitches of digital technology, but in the back of my mind I started to believe I was still caught inside a sleep so deep, I was alert, but not awake. I thought that this conversation I was having about my dead phone and the dyssynchronous time was just a chapter in in an episode of “lucid dreaming”.
After breakfast, we took a trip into the center of Conches en Ouche, so named after a shellfish.
We stepped inside a Gothic Church of Saint Faith, at the precise time when the church bell chimed midday. I heard twelve thunderous bell chimes. The church was empty, but the massive pipe organ was being played by the priest who we could not see. We entered so that my friend can point out an exquisite stained-glass window regarded as stylistically important in the history of art.
Walking around the nave of this church I could feel the complex harmonies vibrating through my skin and rattling ever so faintly my innards and my bones. Was I still in a dream I thought? My friend pointed to the stained glass window made in the late middle ages, explaining the use of techniques to emphasise three-dimensional form and a more diverse colour palate.
Is there a colour made more resplendent by sunlight filtering through a transparent and opaque pane of lapis lazuli like blue? Is my brain able to imagine such luminosity in a dream?
I lit three candles and prayed in front of stone carvings of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Is my dream landscape capable of such a detailed mis en scene inside the belly of a church built in the middle ages?
Are we apparitions in somebody else’s dream? Are we ghosts in a mad scientist’s machine? Am I writing all of this in a dream? Was I killed by the wind-swept pot plant which smashed a few feet in front of me near rue Picardie a few days ago? Am I visiting a phantom location as a spirit to meet my dead friend?
I was in a Gothic church. I am in the body of the church designed to capture and fill the nave with light.
“Look at the pointed arches”, I said to my friend.
The Gothic slender columns and pointed arches, achieved majestic height with minimal materials. I looked at the grandeur of the windows this new architecture introduced, enabling transparent glass to replace boulder and stone, allowing for the internal space to be illuminated by the light filtering through the stained colours of an iconography legible for both the initiated and illiterate to read.
Am I mere consciousness looking for forms from which to make meaning out of the infinite chaos within which I swirl? Is this the reason why human beings create? To carve out a meaningful existence and justify their fleeting presence by leaving a remnant behind?
“I am here for a purpose”, I called out to my friend over the organ’s heaving harmonies. “I must look for signs”. He scoffed, “but you are a believer cherie, I am not”.
As I studied the iconography of the carved relief, I noticed there was no sign of the priest Jephonias who on daring to topple the Virgin’s corpse, had both his hands severed by Archangel Michael. In Orthodox iconography, the hands are depicted still attached to the funeral bier.
I have a fascination with severed heads and limbs in iconography. Medussa’s terrified face permanently frozen on her severed head. Judith slaying Holofrenes. Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The same saint with a miraculous new head attached to his body holding his own severed head.
“Look at all the beauty that faith was able to create”, I said to my friend, as I looked over a stained-glass window depicting the Annunciation, and finding the white dove, located at the apex of an invisible equilateral triangle with Mary on the left and archangel Gabriel hovering in flight to the right.
“The Goths were the punks, the Avant Garde of the Middle Ages, les enfants terribles of their time”, I said to my friend, as I turned to look at him but saw directly into the cavernous sockets of a carved skull at the base of a crucifixion scene.
The battle-weary knights and travel weary pilgrims returned from their crusades into an unfathomable unknown. Travel can open minds, but it can also send one mad. Some came out of this medieval labyrinth with a madness more frenzied than before, some returned with riches and with knowledge, importing for example Platonic sacred geometry and the style of the Islamic arch and imposing the new style on the heavy Romanesque order.
Could I have seen all of this, said and thought all of that in a dream, am I capable of being trapped inside a lucid dream writing about something that happened today with such clarity?
Where was the sign I was looking for? Was it the missing Jephonia’s severed hands, that was the glitch that I was looking for to assure me that I was real and alive?
I found the basin with holy water, and in reverse order, and like a well drilled Orthodox, crossed myself three times but with pinched fingers before dipping my fingers into the water.
I massaged my temple with holy water, rubbed it into my eye lids, helped myself to some more and doused my entire face and neck with it. I felt instantly refreshed, assured at least that even if I was in a dream my phantom head was still attached to my phantom neck, my phantom neck to the rest of my phantom body.
I walked out of the organ humming church to find my friend outside in front of a hotel noticing that it had a white swan as its signage. I heard him exclaiming, how much he loved Mozart, and brought to my attention to the soundtrack of Mozart’s Requiem playing on the town hall’s loudspeaker as background muzak in the empty streets of his country town.
Am I going mad? What am I doing here, in such an alien scape?
The doubting returned, intensified. It is not possible to have this level of poetic irony and coincidence in a lucid dream the voice inside my head was assuring me.
What else, can I look for to make me realise I am neither dead, mad nor stuck in a dream? I can feel the holy water making my face cold. That was reassuring.
My friend took me to show me the dungeon where Richard the Lion Heart battled with the local Normans, capturing them and imprisoning them inside, where unimaginable and unintelligible horrors were inflicted on their human bodies.
I imagined the iron clad knights, with their terrifying visors, and breast plates and tassets marching resplendent, helmets with fancy crests and bright coloured feathers, but I also saw men and women in chains, hooked to neck devices, being whipped, stretched, flayed, skinned alive, torn, chopped, decapitated. I contrasted the beauty of the Cathedral with the horror of the dungeon and contemplated on the stark contradictions the human condition.
“It is over 1000 years old, but doesn’t not compare to age of Greek monuments, no?” His tone questioned then laughed.
“A torture chamber that is 1000 years old at that moment was both existentially horrifying and mesmerising.” I said.
My inquisitive mind is in a heightened state of fear and awe. My mind was murmuring, Richard the Lion Heart fought and tortured on this very spot. What does this mean? Am I going to wake up inside this torture chamber, is this my hell?
I can feel my body inside trembling, but feeling the freshness of the winter air over my holy water doused face, I suppress the fear but not without the consistency of doubt hammering about my existence. What did Descartes mean by cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. Is it not possible to think while still dreaming? Is it not possible to reflect on the day, to find the words to shape a story, is it not possible to do these in a dream?
My friend took me through the local market. He pointed to carrots, beets, leeks, potatoes. He turned his attention to the organic cheese maker selling ewes and goats cheese, and entered a bizarre conversation in French where he was explaining to the farmer, the difference in English between “you” and “ewe”. I could hear on repeat “ae-double ou-ae” with Mozart’s requiem playing in the background.
I laughed uncontrollably at the absurdity of this conversation. I do not believe my mind is that complex to have dreamt this up. The reason d’etre of absurdity, the glitch I needed to convince me that I exist, alert and not in a dream.
I was too ashamed to admit my crisis to my friend which began this morning with an iPhone glitch. The device just needed an update. I could not talk about it to a man who has lived through a prolonged period an uncertain existence, who went through two periods in two years as the Tarot deck’s hanged man, facing death’s abyss daily.
We enjoy a lovely meal in his favourite restaurant, little starters to amuse the palette, followed by snails, frog legs, pigeon, whipped Camembert with calvados jelly and an apple soufflé for dessert.
We return to his quaint country cottage with a church and cemetery across the road. He takes a nap, I write this story until I cannot take the absurdity of my crisis seriously any longer. If it is 1:17am on 1 January 1971, then so be it, even if it isn’t an iPhone glitch.
Later in the evening, we watched a little TV, ate a little cheese with bread and honey, and a fruit compote made with honey and the apples from his back yard, and we talked.
“You know Koulla, for two years I thought every day I was going to die. First cancer, the heavy chemo, I lost 25 kilograms. My cheeks became hollow, my body skin and bones. Then just as my health was improving, I had to undergo surgery to remove the pericardium that was slowly constricting my heart. I was told I had 40% chance of not surviving the operation.
“The night before my open-heart surgery, surrounded by friends and family I told them that I was facing death with no regrets and with these words I just abandoned myself and felt serene.
“I woke up feeling groggy, I saw that my body was attached to machines, with drips and hoses. In the fog and glare of the hospital light I saw shadows. I thought I was seeing a ghost, but it was the nurse and I asked her what time the operation was going to take place, and when she said that it had already happened, I realised I was alive, and I felt so happy.
“I take nothing for granted any more. Every day is special, everything has meaning for me, I am aware of every moment and am grateful for every breath.
“Life is short cherie, it all starts and ends as if in a dream.”