The Ghost on Angermunde Road

Engineers are, for the most part, rational people; careers spent reducing every aspect of the human condition to strings of numbers, one spoiler after another. So, the ghost was something of an anomaly – malware, even – and, as yet, there were no analytical tools sophisticated enough to remove her. And, perhaps because she was a benign, even comforting, presence, I left her in peace, made no attempt to logic her out of existence. I thought, in time, she would disappear; when my father died, I didn’t expect to encounter her again.

We had sat on opposite sides of the table, my father and I; the meeting with the deceased, that is supposed to help the bereaved come to terms with loss. We decided what was his and what was mine, then my father took with him all he owned. Unfortunately, there was very little on the table after he’d left the room and, for reasons best known to him, he didn’t take the ghost. Obviously, she was a construct, the product of a state of mind. An echo of those experiments in transcendence and altered states of consciousness carried out at Digithurst during the 1990s.

The starting point for this new experiment was recognising consciousness as an isolating experience, unique to each of us. Basically, we can imagine what it is like to be someone else, but can’t experience it for ourselves. If we could, if there was a truly collective consciousness, then spoken or written language would be redundant. In fact, before formal language, we got by quite well with subconscious processing of audible and visual cues. And, even today, with sophisticated languages at our disposal, we use eye movement, micro-gestures and tone of voice, even scent, as subliminal communication channels.

However, when the subliminal was all there was, we needed to create, in our mind, a virtual model of the person we were communicating with. Without this mental image, we would experience the world as white noise; everything that moved or made a sound would be interpreted as something or someone attempting to communicate with us. In the 21st century, this piece of neurological software is redundant, an inconvenience. It creates false positives, fleeting recognitions, the familiar looking face in the crowd. Our subconscious opens subliminal cross-species communication channels with pets we imbue with human attributes. We even converse with the inanimate – computers manufactured from plastic, metal and silicon – simply because they demonstrate minimal intelligence. Despite coming near the bottom of the class in the Turing test, our PC is reimagined as a person pieced together from a collection of half-forgotten social interactions.

Three Journeys into The Labyrinth and Fahrenbrink almost rationalised my ghost into oblivion. Then, when my father died, she disappeared, presumably to decay in that grave in the forest. But, quite honestly, damn the Internet, because whose idea was it to take that inanimate device, the PC, the machine our subconscious tricks us into thinking it’s a person, and connect it to people we can’t see? The machine that sometimes ‘did our head in’ now had the potential to make us psychotic. A subconscious that fooled us into seeing faces in clouds now had access to a machine that retrieved faces from ‘the cloud’. She was back, and as intrusive as ever. Not just hinting at her presence in the face of someone passing in the street, but anywhere she chose in virtual space. And no real-world cues to logic away her fleeting appearances on the screen. The illusion was compelling and the pursuit of it potentially obsessive. Perhaps not the ghost in the machine, but certainly the ghost in the age of the machine.

Naively, I forgot she could only come into existence with the assistance from someone in physical space, and communication with her wasn’t asymmetric. To borrow from object-orientated programming, I was exposing an interface to that piece of neurological code, leaving it open to a hacker’s exploit. Even our pets make use of this back door into the subconscious; Pavlov’s dog believed it had discovered a way of getting its master to ring a bell. Charismatic leaders represent themselves as our ghosts, courting popularity by shaping themselves into real-world images that match the fears and aspirations we project onto them. Only when standing in the dock, mere mortals again, is that illusion shattered. Similarly, my ghost had to be ‘mortalised’ and so, in 2012, I decided it was time to confront her. Unfortunately, setting up a meeting with a person who had been dead for seventy years, and who was originally a construct of a person who, themselves, had passed away three years earlier, would test the skills of even the best PA. But, as the ghost was merely a state of mind; perhaps there was a point where our timelines crossed? It transpired this was northern Germany, April 1945, somewhere between the Oder and the Elbe.

- 01000111 -

Through the crack in the door he watched the trucks pass; my father hid in the barn after seeing the Russian column advancing along the road. Fifteen minutes and they’d be gone. Except that one of the trucks bumped up onto the verge, its flat tyre creaking and slithering on the grass. Soldiers disembarked and stood in groups as the driver changed the wheel. Those fifteen minutes stretched into what seemed a lifetime.

How does a young man fill a lifetime, when death is just an inquisitive Russian soldier away? With what might have been, a wife and children, or what had been, that last Christmas. Despite everything – the rubble of Berlin and the threatened Russian invasion – it had been a good Christmas, a respite from the traumatic months before and after.

My father came late to the war, and the Eastern Front was only a short train ride away when he encountered the Red Army for the first time. He rarely spoke to me about the war. In fact, we hardly spoke at all. Edit out all the ‘pass the screwdriver’, ‘more bricks’ and ‘give me the bloody map’ exchanges and fifty-five years of conversation would fit on a single DVD with room left for a couple of Heino tracks. Not that there was a rift or any animosity; quite the opposite, as we seemed to share the same mind.

But one day, spreading out a map on his kitchen table, he asked me to take him on a tour of Eastern Europe, a reconstruction of those last four months. A finger tracing a route from the Balkans up to Berlin, then west to Wittenberg and across the Elbe. Only he stopped at a point north of Budapest, his hand tightened into a white-knuckled fist. ‘It was a bit rough around there,’ he said.

We abandoned the plan. It had nothing to do with Budapest; it was just a bad time to drive an S-Class Mercedes, or any other car, through Bosnia. It was only when old soldiers started writing their memoirs I discovered ‘a bit rough’ was a euphemism for near annihilation, the reduction of a 500-strong battalion to just nine men. This, like the fighting around Stettin in the January of the next year, he buried deep where he thought it couldn’t be found, or at least where it remained hidden from himself.

Ex-German POWs didn’t do post-traumatic stress, so there was no explanation as to why my father called out in the night. Or why my sister and I found the weeks leading up to Christmas so fraught, not that this was uppermost in our minds at the time. We were sleeping head to toe in a bed on the landing of a two-down one-up rural slum with a single cold tap, and snow that didn’t thaw when it came in under the door. There was a family dynamic shot to pieces: my father saw my mother as his ersatz mother and me as just an extension of his ego. Where my sister felt she was in all of this, I never asked. But no complaints because, like him, we were lucky to be alive, weren’t we? Well, actually, yes, because by the winter of 1963 we were looking at snowdrifts through the windows of centrally heated bedrooms of a bungalow my father built for us.

There was, just once, a hint of something approaching the maternal. When I was laying in that hospital bed in 1973, my father demonstrated a degree of concern and compassion that was worrying. Not usually one to show his feelings, he was an empathy-light sort of person. ‘Can you manage a couple more rows before we go home?’ my father said, when, as a five-year-old, I ran a fork through my foot while helping him plant potatoes.

Was there something the doctors weren’t telling me? Was I on the verge of death? Later, I discovered this was the anniversary of that firefight near Budapest. No doubt, that trainee doctor treating me, on an exchange from a Hungarian hospital, made my father painfully aware of the date. This was the first occasion when the ghost’s timeline intersected mine. After my father left the room, after I heard the door click, I noticed her sitting in the corner of the room – slight, with dark hair and rounded face. The woman in the black and white photograph from that place called ‘back home’. It must have been delirium due to fever, because, in the real world, in physical space, she was the student nurse who, for some reason, decided to sit with me after her shift ended.

So, as my ghost was merely a state of mind, it was possible that, given the right conditions, our timelines would cross again. In that barn in Brandenburg, somewhere within my father’s reconstructed past and imagined future. A more analytical approach this time, not a repeat of the random experimentation in Digithurst’s atrium and Steinkrug’s Knigge Salon. Instead, using two simultaneous equations I would determine the point of intersection. Then, of course, I had to find that barn ...

- 01000010 -

... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)

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