That visit to India virtually ended Merrett’s career. He’d completed important work in human cognition but within three months of his return from the sub-continent he’d changed, wearing odd clothes, growing his hair long and twice taking extended sick leave. There were rumours of some wild theory, vague in detail and difficult to explain.
He phoned me to say I would be the first to be told about it. His new discoveries were related to the studies that had made his name and for which he’d coined the term ‘peri-mortal’. He now believed that death and cognitive ability were not necessarily co-terminous.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘What do you think I mean?’
‘I don’t know. That we retain some sensate capacity after death?’
I could tell he wanted to find out if I, a friend and supposedly intelligent layman, could offer an explanation that didn’t make me giggle.
I heard him sigh and imagined him marshalling courage to say what followed.
‘I believe that we are fully aware for seconds, probably minutes, after we are clinically dead.’
‘So not clinically dead, then.’
‘Well, er, that’s the thing…’
Although Merrett was an atheist and ‘one of Dawkins’s closeted disciples’, as I’ve heard them called, this wasn’t apostasy. So what was it?
‘Fully aware?’ At least I sounded interested. I hoped he wasn’t going to mention the after-life.
‘Yes. But that’s not all. In those post-mortem seconds, or minutes, we see, we confront…’
At that precise moment, his phone went dead. I called back but couldn’t get through. His mobile stayed engaged too. It was the last time I spoke to him.
Merrett has now been missing for three months. His elderly parents are distraught. He was an only child estranged from one or two distant and fearfully religious cousins.
Had he put the phone down on me that time? I swear I’d heard a surreptitious click; but I could be wrong. As time goes on, what we think we heard or experienced develops a certainty unaffected by any doubt we might have entertained.
Then, just before midnight last night, I received one of those unsolicited call-centre messages from an Asian voice seemingly echoing in the space between worlds. It confirmed who I was and said: ‘Tell Dr Merrett it is a vision of hell, of bloody war. Tell him war is our natural state, peace an illusion.’
‘Who is this?’ I inquired. ‘Hello?’
Silence. A background buzz, Babel suspended. Then:
‘The souls of the heroic dead once appeared to the living in the shape of a horse. But the horse is aflame. Tell Dr Merrett. Hayagriva burns in the sky. Wisdom is… hope cannot be… there is no…’
The rest crackled to nought, like gorse set on fire, as if these awful tidings, too, had been consumed.
So I sit here confused, entangled in a mystery.
I was never Merrett’s equal.
In fact, I don’t know what he ever saw in me. Someone neutral, perhaps.