Sometimes I receive unbidden, a childhood memory so clear and real that I believe myself to be my nine year old self, living in a three storey maisonette on a hillside overlooking a wide expanse of sea to a mountainous island.
It is night time. The sky is the colour of paper-ash. Snow, falling in thick flakes through the still air, obscures the sweeping beams of the lighthouses on the faraway shore.
I am huddled in a blanket at my open bedroom window. The warmth of the room at my ears mingles with the cold air at my nose and lips. My eyes smart as I peer through the small aperture that I have created and my head feels as if it sits on the boundary between two weather fronts. The neighbouring houses are in darkness and there are no signs of life, just the snow falling thick and purposeful.
Below and to my left, a footpath runs down the hill and disappears. A lamppost marks the T- junction between this path and another. At this junction the world begins and ends. Beyond the wide halo of the streetlamp the night fades into nothingness. Not black, but the greyed out static of a television set that’s lost its signal. The world is drawn tight around the lamppost and the only thing that matters is the light and the snow that falls past it. I am simultaneously in my own private Narnia and the unwitting prisoner of a giant snow globe.
I am unsure as to why I return to this scene. Living beside a temperate sea, the salt air warmed by the Gulf Stream, snowfall was a rare thing. I recall the wonder of it. It would have been entirely within my boyhood character to sit there in the middle of the night and gaze at it for hours. Perhaps it was the first time I witnessed a serious snowfall and there is always something magical about the experience of such an event in early childhood. But there is something else. The feeling of suspension, the dislocation from the normal, of being between two worlds. The absence of the normal sensory inputs, in some way peeling back perception, reducing everything to a form of serene detachment. It is not the memory per se, but the sensation of being nine year old me again. I inhabit the boy, I see through his eyes. As if he occupies a liminal space within me.
Alternative realities, or other modes of being, are not restricted to our external world but very much a facet of our internal selves. In my snowfall memory, I reach a zen-like peace with the world, a transcendent state.
An experience of the liminal can manifest itself in the most unforeseen ways and occur in the moment. In adulthood we know that the world around us has a habit of knocking us down with an unexpected setback. We can be confronted by an event so abnormal that it threatens our very existence.
I can recall two such events. Both were violent struggles for life to the point of complete exhaustion and both were marked by a feeling of detachment as I crossed a threshold between that struggle and another, unworldly, state of mind. It serves no purpose to relate them both, so I will choose one. The time a well-built young man, under the influence of drugs and armed with two bayonets, attempted to murder me.
There is insufficient space here to provide a blow by blow account of how I reached this crisis. It is enough to say that I was police officer, who had taken part in a prolonged vehicle pursuit of an extremely violent man who was known to carry knives and firearms. He had a long criminal history and violently resisted arrest at every turn. Nevertheless, when he finally lost control of his stolen car that cold January night, my expectation was that he would run away and attempt his escape. Not leap from the car with a bayonet in each hand and attack me with singular purpose.
How we moved from car, to street, to driveway, and how I found myself alone with my back to the wall of an old bungalow fighting for my life is not something I can easily explain. My last coherent thought, as I leapt from the police vehicle and ran towards the crumpled stolen car, was that the object of my attention seemed to be struggling to extricate himself, so busy was he with something at his feet. It was only as I came abreast of the drivers window that I saw what he had been busy with. At that same moment he propelled himself through the broken window, hands first, slashing at my arms with two bayonets. My baton had been drawn in anticipation of having to break the window and seize him. Instead I found myself trying to stem the progress of a threshing machine, fixed to the body of a car thief, with nothing more than a varnished length of balsa wood. How it was he transitioned from car seat to pavement remains a mystery to me. I have played that moment over and over again. I cannot break it down into its constituent parts. Instead, I am left with a sequence in which my assailant propels himself head first out of the car window, vanishes and then appears standing beside me blades whirling, a look of ghastly intent on his face. We are already fighting desperately, my adrenal glands have opened to the max and every performance enhancing chemical my brain can muster has been dumped into my system. I am no longer thinking in sentences. I am incapable of anything more complex than a single syllable.
Fuck. Shit. No. No. No. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I am unsure how we then arrived in a nearby driveway, only that neither appeared ready to let the other go. And so, at 5am of a January morning, we made our way spasmodically up the gravel drive of mature bungalow in Bishopbriggs.
By the time he had driven me backwards onto the side wall of the house I could barely hear. There was no sense of smell or taste. I had lost the power of speech. My eyesight however was now bionic and focused exclusively on my attacker who whirled his arms in faster ever more complex patterns as he sought with utter determination to find a way through my ever desperate parries. He with his twelve inch blades. Me with my piece of balsa-wood.
The physical effort required to fight another human being to a standstill is enormous. To thrust, parry, swing, push, pull, kick, lunge, adjust your step and repeat, is unsustainable. Eventually you tire. At this point, somewhere in the brain a crises control room has reached lock down. It has shut down every function surplus to requirements. It is now act and react. Nothing else. Calculations are being run. Chances are weighed up. Somewhere in your reptilian centre a primeval desire to live urges you on and on, but at some point something has to give.
The point I realised I was likely to die occurred shortly after a bayonet passed so close to my face that my parry knocked the radio from the breast pocket of my tunic. He was getting closer and the absence of emotion in his face, eyes fixed on nothing but my chest, told me has going for the kill. I recall a detached conclusion that my life was shortly going to end, but there was no panic and no fear. I felt like an observer in the last minutes of my life as I fought back with ever tiring limbs.
And then. Serenity. A surreal state of mind to be in while the rest of your body, bionic and operating at hyper speed, strives to preserve existence. This is the point of crossover. Of beginning to accept that your best wasn’t good enough. A dangerous state, where defiance meets resignation. As if I remained part of this world, but had taken a step toward another and my chemically overloaded self was being prepared for that moment. It was all slipping out of my hands. There would be no pain. I would not feel the blade. There was nothing to fear in death.
It was not hands but teeth that swung the odds back in my favour. A large German shepherd sank its jaws into the leg of my attacker. His momentary distraction and stabbing of the dog, instead of me, won some space. From that brief intervention the tide began to turn. It took another hour and more skirmishes in various rear gardens before I finally subdued him. His arrest was something of great note it seems. I was awarded a high commendation for bravery. But I did not consider my actions to have been brave, but rather the culmination of a series of events, each seamlessly leading to another, each taking me another step along a path.
My protagonist went to prison and was reportedly very happy with his three month sentence. He had expected a lot more for the attempted murder of a police officer. So had I.
I do not often think of him. I have no personal gripe with him in any way at all and that is how it should be. I have reached grouchy middle age and have young children to keep me occupied. I count myself to be blessed by their company for they remind what it’s like to be a child. And lately, on those rare occasions when my mind drifts back to that night, I do not dwell on the violent struggle. I think about an emotionally misshapen young man who saw no alternative to a life of theft and violence. Or if he did, he could see no way out of it.
He was a young boy once. Had he not gazed in silence at the falling snow? Had he not looked upon the world with the same childhood wonder as I?