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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind

And Other Short Stories
Billy O'Callaghan
New Island

Over these past few weeks, I have come to understand that there is no substance to time. None. One minute I am thirty-four years old, doing all the things that people of my age do, all the things we can get away with, and the next I'm fourteen again, huddled beneath the sheets and wishing that the whole world was nothing more than a fetid dream. To the vast majority of us, time travel seems ridiculous until we actually experience its turmoil. Hiromi, my wife, says that everyone has their own particular way of dealing with grief.

We're born, we live, we die. Those are the facts, and good or bad doesn't enter the equation. People have been challenging is born/die theory forever, and the cycle has yet to be beaten, but knowing this in no way stops us from trying. Aiko was born, lived, died, and if the game had possessed even a single loophole I'd have gone all in with every cent in the bank that she'd be the one to find it. Our little girl. For six years she ruled Hiromi and I; always, it seemed, with a smile, always happy, but always in control. Six years, a span of time practically eternal in its passing but which feels trifling now that it has spun itself out. I've begun to think of time as an actual clock, and whenever I consider it now I tend to focus on its internal workings, the weighted  springs, the greased cogs, everything working in minute perfection with everything else, but everything also an accident waiting to happen. When you think about it, there is just so much that can go wrong. If any one of those tiny workings should crack or split apart, then that's it; as fast as a finger-snap the whole thing comes grinding to a halt. One small break and all of time stops. We know that it can happen, that it will happen, but until the moment of impact we never quite allow ourselves to really believe it. I didn't, anyway. All manner of menace surrounds us, stacked head-high and just waiting to topple. If it's not the ever-imminent threat of nuclear war then it is the six-mile wide meteor hurtling its way earthwards with every intention of doing to us what its illustrious cousin did to the dinosaurs. These and a million other worries hang above us like a piano on a string, and yet we wade ever onward, content in our glorious, purposeful oblivion. We know what's coming, but the inevitable lies somewhere beyond our scope of acceptance. It's how we are able to endure, I suppose, and it is how we careen, in a stunned, wide-eyed stupor, from one disaster to the next. The truth is that we control nothing, not our own lives, not the lives of others. Balance is yet another of our delusions. A doctor told me once that reality is just a concept. He smiled when he said it, so I smiled too, though I hadn't felt much like smiling, either then or since. But he was serious. And the example he offered up to prove his point was a coma victim. Our concept of their reality is that they are locked in a bed, those poor bastards fresh from a car wreck or a collapsed building or a bullet in the eye. As far as we're concerned, that's it for them until they either wake up or die. But studies have shown that other things are going on beneath the surface of their placid  sleep. More than lily scents and cool white light, more than machines that scat bebop and ripple sine waves across their screens. Not always, but in certain cases. Dreams, for want of a better word. The subconscious remains unfathomable to scientists; it operates in the same theoretical realm as the notion of an infinite space or the age and design of God. To these unfortunate creatures, the coma cases, it is possible, more than possible, that dreams have become reality. A question of concept, the doctor said. What their minds see is what counts as real. He was a psychiatrist, of course, and our business during those sessions was to discuss other things, but he did say it. A question of concept.

I thought about this for a while, slumped in a large tanned leather armchair and staring out of his office window at a colourless sky, and found that the words didn't fit quite right. I wanted the situation clarified. If reality were truly that fragile, how could the tangible be explained away? How did the mind differentiate between dreams and the physical world?...