My memory returns to that summer of 1956 and that dark pram canopy, half obscuring my view. The deep blue fifties sky high above, and me lying there looking up and wordlessly thinking 'What the heck is this then?' But my mind is wandering around weirdly, jumping forwards and back and side to side and round and round the frantic multidimensional landscape of memories and thoughts and plans and possibilities... such that now, right now suddenly, I am vividly remembering something else.
I am remembering a much more recent evening when the lamp of the sun was ninety-three million miles behind me and throwing out the light on its eight minute journey to skim past our planet, only for a little bit of it to be denied the freedom of a long and lasting sprint through space by hitting the moon and bouncing back and down and through my frosted window and into my eye, where - bump - it was captured, absorbed, its journey done so soon. Where, I wondered would this captured light's near-neighbour rays that just made it past the moon end their longer journeys? In some other and very different eyes, perhaps, that will one day be looking up at the stars and wondering if anybody else is, or ever was, out there?
The moment in which such thoughts reside never starts or ends, but is the place where we live, always trapped in 'the bubble of now' as things flow into it and things flow out. And here, as always, that moment is with me. The mysterious moment, that swaps and switches and changes, somehow. And that man over there, that man looking at me right now, this instant... I can look in his eyes and know exactly what he is thinking, because travelling in light waves bouncing off the mirror, the image of that man is the image of me.
And thinking of another man, another mirror, although still supposedly me - the young man me - lying on a girlfriend's bed and looking in the wardrobe mirror at big hair and young face and thinking... that man is me; and wondering, deeply wondering that when I reached an adult age, what kind of man would I be?
Then thinking now of another mirror in a crowded pub, and a mirror so full of jumbled faces that it looked like a foaming sea, and focusing on the one pair of eyes whose head contained the thoughts I knew, because inside that head was me. Me... A mind. I am a mind, but I have no idea of what a mind really is, which is a thought that I should return to.
But in my memory now, there I was in a very different place nearly thirty years later and looking out from a coffee shop at a dark November. It was so dark out there that what I could see was mostly just reflection in the glass, which for some refracted reason reminded me of a thought that recurs so often nowadays - that what matters is not the situation you find yourself in, but the attitude you take to the situation. Life is lived internally, within the mysterious mind, even if we often blunder along with the illusion that life is what is happening out there. And internally it is attitude that matters more than external fact. Not that I was, or even now am, in any deep dark situation generally, but I can often drift close to one if I let my mind wander too far from the moment. And at that particular moment a little lad had been looking at me writing, and had more than once asked of his mother, 'What's he doing? What's he doing?'
'Quiet,' she had said, several times. 'Don't be rude,' but the little lad kept looking at me, suspiciously, before whispering to his mum, 'He's taking notes...'
Indeed I was, and am, and have been, through it all. Just taking notes, about this bewildering place I have been trapped in, for so many years now. Sometimes tiresome, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes ugly, very ugly. And thinking back now, right back to the beginning of it all, I'd say that at first there was the dark, just dark, then faint light, blurry light, and warmth. And then from much later a memory of puzzlement and realization that I was here. A realization that there was a time when I was not here, but that now was a time when I was here.
Then I recall the Summer of '57 blazing outside our back door, and I can see myself asking my mother, 'How old am I?'
'You are two,' she replied.
So I asked her, 'When will I be a man?'
And she said, 'Oh, not for a long time yet. Not for a long, long time.'
And quite possibly, at that very moment on a green-sky planet many thousands of light years away a four-legged child was defecating in a hole for the first time all for itself, and its snake-skinned mother was clucking encouragement and voicing, 'Amclaa, uul placa placa,' which perhaps meant, 'oh you, well done.'
And what had I been doing a year or so earlier, when a sperm in a dark warm wet cavity seven miles from my home was burying its head in the membrane of an egg and my wife was being created for me as I spent a summer blinking in my home star's sunshine?
Ions shuttle to and fro across cell membranes in my head, partially recreating the old patterns of brain activity in repeat showings that I now experience as memories. Somehow. But can the shuttling particles really create it all, I wonder?
And there I was much more recently, with the 'long, long time' that my mother had talked about now long gone. I was an ageing man, sitting in a busy café and looking across at a child, probably not even one year old. It was gazing with easy familiarity at the world around it. There seemed to be a wisdom in its eyes much greater than its years, and its skull encased a consciousness that arrived as a mystery defying scientific explanation. The atoms and ions were needed, but were they enough?
The man that I had become sighed and looked down at his dark black coffee and reflected on what he had done during the fifty-three years he had lived, approximately. All of my years, up until then... I looked out through the high plate glass window towards a pale sun, partly dimmed by cloud, and imagined the ninety-three million miles to its furnace, and ninety-three million miles beyond, to the other side, where we all were exactly six months ago. Sort of. It doesn’t properly work that way, as the sun itself moves through space, circling the heart of the galaxy, which itself sails on toward other places, collisions with other galaxies, things and times far beyond. I don’t really know where I was in the past, or where I am going. But I do know that I am circling the sun. And I found myself tracing a little circle on the table, beside my coffee mug, with my finger. One, two, three... Running through the years I had already had, up to fifty-three. It didn’t take very long. Then moving into unknown territory, the years I still may have. fifty-four, fifty-five... In a flash I was at seventy, where I stopped. Seventy years. Seventy circles round the sun, during which it will have travelled an infinitesimally small arc around the galaxy. A blip for the universe. A blip of time so small that it is almost absolutely nothing at all. And yet it is everything - all there ever will be, for me. And for that little child across from me, busy looking out at the world and just beginning to wonder about it all.
My friend returned from the news kiosk and sat down beside me. Would we have to start talking yet again about his failed marriage, I wondered.
'Look at her,' he said, nodding his head in the direction of a girl busker who was standing strumming a guitar, with one foot bent back up against the wall. She was about eighteen. Slim, golden-haired and quite remarkably beautiful, at least to this old man.
'I spoke to her once,' the good friend told me. 'She says she's homeless. Kicked out by her step-dad I think.'
He gazed at the girl, and shook his head a little as she started to sing, sending the high notes of girlish youthfulness echoing around the mall.
'Just look at her,' he said again. 'She's got nothing. Absolutely nothing at all in the whole world... And yet she's got everything that I most want. Absolutely everything.' And he sighed, laughed a little sheepishly, and said, 'Ain't that funny? Just the way things seem to work?'
I smiled, and turned my head, watching the steady stream of people walking onto the escalator and being transported down. Down to their instant execution. Never to be seen again. A painless death. An unknowing death. Walking unsuspectingly out of this world... Or not... No, of course not. I was dreamily fantasizing again, as I do when the mind slips momentarily into wondering...
And the child was sleeping now, its consciousness gone as my normal one returned.
We are our thoughts, and yet we don't know what thoughts are or how we think them. We have, in fact, no real idea of what we really are. We know that chemical processes inside a brain are required to let us think, and that chemicals can profoundly alter what we are thinking, but still... we don't know what thinking is, or, more fundamentally, how cavorting chemicals can create a conscious me, or you, or they. Regardless of all the many things we do know, or think we know, we just don't know what we are.
So what am I?
Am I just a pattern of electrochemical activity? I don't know. Am I just flesh and blood? I don't think so. Am I what my brain creates? I do think so, but what really am I? I don't know.
I just do not know what I am, in here, presumably... inside a bony skull, presumably, connected to eyes and flesh and nerves that let me work out some sense of what is going on out there, and in here, presumably...