During the 1800s, Giovanni Aldini, Professor of Physics at the University of Bologna, applied electrical current to the severed heads of executed criminals, producing spasmodic movement from facial muscle that gave the appearance of life returning to these bodiless heads. Aldini conducted his experiments in front of select audiences. Austrian counts, bejewelled grande dames, Milanese financiers, wives and mistresses dressed in summertime muslin, overindulged young noblemen sporting the then fashionable Bedford crop, men of science, all would sit in short well-ordered rows in large dimly-lit rooms and wait for the show to begin.

History wants great men to be great but also trussed with a fringe of wrongdoing. Nature, we know, is rounded by its imperfection.

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Caffeinated and careworn, we both overuse internet search engines. We view funny/unfunny videos on YouTube. We binge watch on Netflix. We ignore emails. We pass time.

The white summer dress patterned with cockatiels is an old one, you tell me, from when you lived in Brighton and owned the second-hand pushbike with the mint-green frame. File folders on the hard drive of an old laptop, filled with party photos of bleary-eyed friends whose names are rarely recalled.

‘That’s Jean.’ ‘Elaine’s there on the right with the long blonde hair.’ ‘That’s Lucy, Jean’s friend.’ ‘Elaine, she’s the one who has the Betty Boop tattoo.’

You maintain that when the possibility of reinvention exists, cannot every life start anew?

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On a December morning in 1802, George Forster, an out of work coachmaker, waits for his wife by a lock gate at Paddington Canal. A mutual friend has arranged the meeting between the estranged young couple. Recent snowfall lightly dapples the embankment. The surface of the canal is scabbed-over in places with glassy crusts of ice, dank water underneath. Forster huffs on his purpling hands, shuffles his feet. His wife will be bringing along their infant daughter while their two older children remain in the workhouse up in Barnet. He knows she will ask for money, those few coppers amongst the lint in his coat pocket. Above all, she will demand from him that they become a family again. He will tell her he plans to remove his children from the workhouse that very afternoon, forever shot of bone meal and colicky coughs. The money in his pocket will buy them dinner. They will be a family again.

~

You obsessed over a dead young woman, a traffic victim, immortalised by a corroded bicycle frame attached to a railing opposite a busy intersection in south-east London. The weather-bleached photograph attached to the handlebars showed her smiling against an empty horizon. The same age as my sister, you said.

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Giovanni Aldini had, with his Roman Emperor curls, bow-tied silk cravat and frockcoat of bistre black, created with an impresario’s dash what for the Age of Enlightenment must have appeared the ultimate parlour trick.

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There was the story we followed through online news sites about a young couple convicted of a scam at a British airport that involved the claiming of lost and unclaimed luggage. The girlfriend had become fascinated by the clothing and personal effects she found within this misplaced baggage and the lives they suggested. She took to wearing wigs along with the stolen clothes and created multiple identities. The scheme had been exposed when her boyfriend had assaulted her and she had charges pressed against him. We debated what might have happened. Maybe the swindle was not bringing in the fortune he thought it would and this had him take his frustrations out on the girl. Perhaps he suspected that the girlfriend, who he would send to reclaim the luggage, was hiding the valuables. He might have also felt that in pursuing these alternative existences she was on some level being unfaithful to him. Then again, you said, he might just have been a sociopath. Either way, she went to the police.

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In the parlour room of a neoclassical villa, a small gathering is seated on satincovered Regency chairs. Attention has focused at the top of the room, where a man in a frockcoat approaches a suspended human head. Opposite the head stands a small metal column consisting of discs of zinc and copper interspaced with conductive layers of cloth. The man in the frockcoat produces a set of metal tongs which he applies to the face of the severed head. No one speaks. By today’s standards the pyrotechnics are minimal. There are no pale blue dancing Teslacoil tendrils of electricity, no rasps of static. Instead, sudden gasps resonate from the onlookers as the face of the executed criminal begins to twitch. The corners of the mouth spasm in elastic movement and the cheeks undulate. Breaths grow deeper among the small audience. Then the eyelids flicker, as if about to wake from a long slumber. The re-animated face breaks into a grimaced smirk, before relaxing back into a dead man’s frown. Silence settles once more in the room.

~

There was the laptop that lasted until the plastic hinges cracked like fissured skin, the screen buckled and the pixels died in large cloud-shaped patterns. Then there is the tablet down the side of our bed with the fractured display. You invoke cases of lead poisoning in cities in China and in areas of West Africa, cesspits filled with circuit boards, discarded mobile phones piled as high as termite mounds. Copper nodes and wiring pried like gold from long dead teeth.

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Aldini was a nephew of Luigi Galvani, the Italian anatomist who applied electrical current to the legs of dead frogs by means of two separate conductors, one made of copper and one made of zinc. Galvani’s experiments demonstrated how electrical current is involved in the process of life.

Count Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the world’s first battery, the Voltaic pile, after whom the unit of electromotive force was named, confined his experimentation to sheets of paper.

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More conscious now, we avoid websites with prominent cookie warnings and no longer download third-party modifications for our apps. We learn how to defrag and perform system restore. We share your old laptop between us. We do not buy the newly released iPhone model. A more important decision has still to be made. We have reached an impasse. There are, you tell me, other females, whose skin gleams like the models from shampoo commercials. Then there was Alex from your job, who told you how stars scintillate rather than twinkle and how so much wonder is missed through our common misapprehensions. Later, he explained how death is the permanent termination of consciousness, the end of our individuality, a thought so horrible many cling to the notion of an afterlife.

You started meeting him after work. It was because he listened.

You would still text him, even after…

Why do we wait, you say, when we are faced day-in with the reality of our transitory nature? Can we throw our old selves out with our old phones?

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You receive an email from a college friend who has not contacted you in over four years. The subject line of the email reads: eaRn CA$$$h from home N0w!!!!

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Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, in writing her famous novel about human flesh re-animated, had supposedly been influenced by tales of Giovanni Aldini and his experiments.

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I know how the news, with its distillation of death and destruction, depresses you. Often I find myself ignoring the newsreader and instead paying close attention to the headlines scrolling across the bottom bar. In the ether, victim and perpetrator now attain some level of immortality.

Yesterday’s news waits to be searched. The past has come to be inescapable.

~

In January 1803, Aldini would travel to England, and Newgate Prison, in order to attain a complete corpse on which to experiment. The body—procured, some say, with the blessing of a sympathetic magistrate—was to be that of a recently executed man named George Forster, an unemployed coachmaker, hung for supposedly drowning his wife and their infant daughter in Paddington Canal. Despite a confession, many friends and acquaintances believed Forster innocent of the crime.

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We had argued. I told you I disliked Alex, his glib logic and soft knowing smile. You were quick to inform me Alex was not arrogant, merely self-assured. I countered this. ‘Fuck him, what does he know.’ You then did that thing with your eyes, also that other thing you do when you skim your top teeth over your lower lip. You folded your arms and looked away.

Within weeks this disagreement about Alex seemed like a prelude to what happened to him, an invocation of the Fates.

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As a convicted murderer, George Forster would have known his mortal remains were destined for medical dissection. On the night before his execution, Forster tried to kill himself in his cell with a crudely fashioned blade. This type of suicide was not uncommon at the time. With a quick death on the scaffold far from guaranteed, more than a few condemned would view taking their own life on the eve of their execution as the ultimate assurance against the failure of the hangman’s noose, lest they suffer a slow strangulation, or come to while under the surgeon’s scalpel and endure a vivisection.

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I return one afternoon to find you have stickered over the laptop’s webcam, that ogling spyhole which you have begun to regard with suspicion. Thereafter you delete all your virtual accounts, even your email addresses.

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The experiment that took place in the Royal College of Surgeons (recorded for posterity in The Newgate Calendar) was unsuccessful. Surrounded by a small group of spectators, Aldini applied electrical current to various parts of Forster’s body. Facial muscle writhed and limbs were set aquiver. A dead eye was seen to open, a fist clenched as if grasping for the very air itself.

George Forster did not return to life.

Unsuccessful in his attempt to surpass his previous experiments, Aldini returned to the Continent lamenting his failure. This contemporary of Galvani and Volta, notwithstanding the fortune and esteem he earned, never achieved the greatness he judged within his reach.

~

You leave Alex’s number in the contacts list on your mobile phone for seven months. When at last you press delete, you are struck by the finality of it. ‘I can’t believe he’s gone,’ you say.

Someone leaves your life for good, but still remains in the same room, the same bed.

That invisible world said to be home to unseen currents and unheard frequencies conceivably represents that invisible space between life and death. This, you say, will be the place where we survive.