Memory

I have been in this room for one hundred and seventy-two days. I know this because the nurse gave me a notebook when I got here, and told me to write in it every day.

The early pages are headed with the date, written in an unknown hand. Underneath, my own scrawl, very shaky at first, records what I had for breakfast and whomever I spoke to that day.

“Write about what you can remember,” they said. “Not just what happened today.” But each page is filled with the minutiae of daily life, with not a single word about the past, or who I am, or how I came to be here. For a little while I continued putting the date at the top of the page, but this didn’t last. What was the point of recording whether it was April 17th or May 23rd? These are conventions for making appointments with friends or family, and I have none.

So I numbered the days, instead. And today is 172.

My injuries, although not life-threatening, were painful but have mostly healed. There are scars which you can see if you look carefully, but the hairdresser is skilful and they hardly show at all now. I appear to be normal, but I don’t feel that way. I’m not even sure what “normal” is, if truth be told.

And now you have come to tell me this news.

You are excited, as if you have solved some great puzzle, and it appears you are expecting me to join in your enthusiasm. Is that what I am to you – a conundrum to be cracked, like a crossword?

But if what you tell me is the truth, how can I have forgotten it?

It makes no sense.

You say I have a wife and a daughter, and that they want to see me. You tell me they thought I was dead, killed in an accident along with our son. My body assumed to have been swept away by the river into which my car descended.

This is madness: don’t you think I would remember something like that?

I tell you it’s not true; you have mixed me up with someone else. A man who looks a little bit like me, who had a dreadful accident at about the time I appeared here. You want to take a sample of my spit, to show that I am that person. Yes, I remember reading about DNA tests. I remember many things: I can remember words, and books, and almost everything I learned at school. Except geography, of course, no-one remembers geography.

You’re smiling. You think it’s good that I am able to tell a joke. Well, naturally I can tell a joke: I’m amnesiac, not stupid. I still know how language works and how to set up an unexpected ending to an amusing anecdote that will make people laugh. This is what we call a “joke”, and it requires no memory.

But if I am the same person as the man who drove into that river with his son in the back seat, surely I would remember the shriek of the brakes, the impact as the car crashed through the barrier, and again as it hit the water, as hard as a rock? Surely I would recall the icy torrent entering the cabin, filling it up to the roof, as I fought to release first myself and then my son? If I had escaped, while he remained inside, how could I not have burned into my memory the image of his sweet face, bubbles escaping from his nose, while I pulled in desperation and futility at his door? The sight of anguish in his eyes as he looked to the one man in the world whom he trusted always to keep him safe, failing him at the time he was really needed?

I would remember those things, and yet I do not.

So they did not happen.

I do not consent to you taking a sample from my mouth. You are mistaken. You must tell this woman I am not the man she is looking for; that her husband died in the river along with their son.

He cannot return, and neither can I.

First published in Unbroken Journal

Dear Tom

In response to a prompt – “The Letter I Never Wrote”. Thanks to scribophile.com for the idea.

 

Dear Tom,

I feel as though you have a right to know this, even though much of me is screaming to say nothing, as it will do no good. But how can we start our life together, joined as one with all our family and friends as witnesses, if not in a spirit of honesty and openness? Can a marriage built on a lie be anything other than a falsehood itself, a deception of ourselves and others?

You weren’t my first love.

That fact alone might be explained away as a little white lie, what-you-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-you. An old flame, a childhood fling – these things could be forgotten or, at the very least, forgiven.

But it’s worse than that: my first lover was your brother, Bill.

During those first few months after we met, before you and I committed to each other, there was a time of uncertainty for me. For you as well, I think, though I now believe you were just working up the courage to approach me.

Bill always was the bolder one, wasn’t he?

And so, while you dillied, we dallied in the sunshine. I can’t say I regret it. He was a kind lover and, when you finally got off your backside and I decided that you were the one for me, he accepted rejection with good grace. To be honest, I think he found it a relief to be rid of me.

So now you know.

Except that you don’t, for this is the letter I will never write. I’m afraid of how you might react, and I don’t want to run the risk of losing you.

There are some things you really don’t need to know, after all.

Your loving wife,

Martha

Crush(ed)

The wheels on Clara’s suitcase clickety-clacked over the pavement towards the station.

“I’ll miss you,” Tom said. He tried to gaze into her eyes, but it didn’t really work while they were walking.

“I’ll miss you too.” At the barrier, Clara disentangled her hand from Tom’s. “Don’t look so sad, you knew I’d have to go back to college.”

“You’ll forget all about me.”

Clara reached for her ticket. “Of course I won’t.”

“Please don’t go yet. Your train doesn’t leave for ages.”

They both looked at the clock. She had four minutes to get to her platform. Clara sighed.

“Hang on, just a moment.” Tom ran to the nearest machine and returned clutching a ticket.

“You can’t come with me, Tom, we agreed. Besides, there are reserved seats—”

He shook his head. “It’s just to get me through the barrier. So I can see you off properly.”

Clara went through the gate where Tom, yapping at her heels like a puppy, insisted on taking her suitcase.

They stood in a private pocket of silence amidst the bedlam of the busy station. Eventually, Tom spoke. “I got you a present.” He pulled a bag from his pocket. “Some headphones, so you can remember me when you’re listening to music.”

She smiled and thanked him, and they had a final hug as the train slid alongside.

From her window seat, she smiled again as Tom pressed his nose against the grimy glass.

Her final sight of Tom was when he reached the end of the platform and abandoned his chase with a final wave. She unwrapped the headphones. They would always remind her of him.

With great care, she placed them on the floor and ground the earbuds into tiny pieces under her heel.

Agatha

Note: credit for the inspiration for this story goes to http://thecultofme.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/april-short-fiction-contest.html … the idea came too late for me to enter the competition, but – having had the idea – I had to write it anyway!

Agatha stood, alone, in the cold dark room. No-one was coming. No-one would ever come. She had been abandoned by that horrid Maria – mean, nasty, deceitful Maria, who had been so full of hugs and endearments when it suited her, but who’d just run like all the rest when she was called upon for support herself.

Such larks they’d had. Tea on the lawn, with cakes and scones and lemonade set out on the tartan rug. Walks in the woods, hunting for heffalumps – not that they ever found any, of course, there’s no such thing as a heffalump, but Maria had seen it in a book and was sure they would find one among the trees.

There had been others before Maria, but Agatha couldn’t remember them very clearly now. There was Anna, who had a limp, and Theresa who had been cross all the time, and Mary who was always sad, no matter how much Agatha tried to cheer her up. All gone, one before the other.

And now Maria had gone, too. Just because Agatha’s lovely dress had got dirty. It was Maria’s fault, anyway, throwing her into the air as they passed the pond. A trip, a slip, and a drop – and Agatha was in the muddy water with the fishes and the frogs and the weeds. It had felt like hours before Maria’s father came and fished Agatha out with a net. “Looks like she needs a bit of a wash,” he’d said.

But when Maria saw the crack on Agatha’s cheek, and the missing eye, she screamed and run away, which explained why Agatha now stood where she did. In a corner of the junk room, waiting for a repair that would never come.

She’d be sorry, that Maria.

Agatha considered her options. Meningitis? That had seen off Theresa, but it was one of Agatha’s rules that she never played the same trick twice. Scarlet fever? Hadn’t she used that for Anna? No, now she came to think of it, there had been that little accident involving a horse and cart. That had been fun, hearing how little crippled Anna hadn’t been able to jump out of the way quickly enough. No, it was Mary she’d seen off with the fever. Funny how she’d seemed almost happy at the end.

Something appropriate. What could it be?

A heffalump, that would be it. Not a real one, of course, but close enough. It was so easy to plant the idea of going to the zoo in her mother’s head. They’d have to drive that old car through the lion’s enclosure. Meals on wheels.

In a horrific accident today, a six-year-old girl was mauled to death by lions after her mother’s car caught fire in the lion enclosure at Longleat safari park. Faced with burning to death, Maria Murchison ran away and, despite attempts by rangers to rescue her, was caught and killed by Sofi, a five-year-old lioness.

New Zealand

Janet was minding her own business in the shower when there was an almighty bang from beneath her feet. The pump slammed to a halt, and the invigorating  torrent was suddenly reduced to a pathetic trickle. Worst of all, her hair was full of shampoo.

“Colin!” she screamed. “What’s happened to the shower?”

Colin, however, was in his cave, and wasn’t going to hear no matter how much noise she made. In his mind, he was in New Zealand, checking out an itinerary. So helpful, the people on Trip Advisor, and so many wonderful places he’d love to visit.

In the shower, Janet was now officially Cross. She shut off the insulting dribble, stepped out, and wrapped herself in a towel. The hair and the shampoo would have to wait. Where was that useless husband of hers, and why wasn’t he coming when she called? She stomped downstairs and poked her nose into each room in turn, but there was no sign of him. Of course, he must be in his shed. She should never have let him spend their money on that wretched office at the bottom of the garden: he spent so long in there with his knick-knacks and his computer, it was almost as if he were trying to avoid her.

She grabbed her mobile from the hall table and dialled his number. A gentle warble leaked out from the drawer just in front of her. Damn. There was nothing for it, she’d have to go out there and get him herself.

Meanwhile, back on Aotearoa, Colin was tramping across the wilderness like a hobbit in search of a ring. There were rivers to cross and redwood forests to conquer and mountains to climb, and he was on a mission. The air was fresh, tinged only with the sulphurous fumes of distant volcanic pits. The peak of Mount Tarawera soared above him, and a cool breeze stroked his face.

Then the door smashed open and an angry figure entered, wearing a white robe and with a monstrous foaming head. Was this a wraith, come to slay him and thwart his quest? In a flash, he spun around and wrenched the samurai sword from its holder on the wall behind his desk. And, with one mighty blow, he was free.

Selfie

Christmas_tree_swIt was tough being cool, Harry thought, as he sauntered out of his room on Christmas morning. He cringed at the memories of previous years, when he and Abi had bounced downstairs, getting excited about the presents that “Santa” had left under the tree.

Now he was grown-up – nearly fifteen – he had no time for such childish things, and he ambled down to the living room where the family had been waiting for at least half an hour.

“Nice of you to join us,” Dad said. “Is it all right with you if we open our presents?”

“Oh, never mind that,” Mum said. “We’re all here now. Abi, why don’t you start dishing them out, so we can see what Santa’s brought?”

And so the annual ritual began. Harry slouched in his chair and tried – not very hard – to look pleased when he unwrapped yet another CD he’d never play or jumper he’d never wear.

It was always the same: a bunch of filler presents that didn’t really count, with the biggie held back till last. That was the only one that mattered: the question was, would it be bad enough to be worth sharing on Facebook?

His parcel was passed over, and everyone stopped to watch him unwrap it.

Harry opened it up to find – a shiny new iPhone! It really was something wicked! He fired it up, snapped a photo of the tree, and then looked for the result.

Odd; in the photos folder there were already several pictures. He opened one up.

It was a classic selfie: a grinning closeup, with the arm stretched out towards the camera.

But, in the background, alongside their tree, there was a large animal with antlers on its head. And the smiling face was bearded, and his sleeve was scarlet.

The Compass

CompassMark entered the doors of the Bodleian Library: so clever of her to hide it in here. Or so she’d thought. But now he had the key, and it was going to be his.

He knew the place well, as did she. They had spent many an evening here, in happier times, researching their respective projects. He, hidden among the history of science shelves, reading about old astronomical instruments; she, lurking among the astrology books.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that theirs was not a match made in heaven, with their entirely contradictory views of the universe: at the time, it had seemed amusing, the source of many a party anecdote.

But their romance had inevitably crashed like a spent satellite, burning up in the cold atmosphere of non-communication, and now here he was with a slip of paper in his hand, leading him like an old-fashioned compass to the buried treasure.

The note he’d stolen from her desk specified a section, aisle and shelf number: not identified as such, of course, but easily deciphered once he’d deployed his considerable analytical skills. And then a series of letters that had to represent the title of the book he was looking for – “NHUYCD”.

It only took five minutes to locate “Northern Hemisphere Uranus Yearbook: Constellations Discovered”, by JR Partly.

He looked to either end of the aisle to see if anyone was watching, but he was alone. He removed the book from its place, and leafed through it: a single sheet of paper slipped out on to the floor, and he snatched it up.

When he’d read it, he flew into a rage the like of which the ancient library had never seen before: security guards were summoned to take him away, and he was dragged, screaming like a banshee, to the police van that awaited him outside.

On the floor, the paper lay, silently mocking him: “Not Here: Up Yours, Clever Dick”.

The Invitation

MemorialThe invitation is unremarkable: it’s the date that stands out.

Printed on embossed card, as if for a wedding. It specifies a hotel, in a nearby town, and a time. But not the event or the sender.

And the date is twenty years ahead.

You examine the envelope. No return address. You peer inside, poking into the corners in case the key to the puzzle is hiding in a crease or a fold. Nothing.

You try the internet; Google finds the place immediately. It looks normal, an old country house with columns beside a grand entrance, and weather-worn statues standing on fake battlements. Hotel and conference centre, swimming pool for guests.

They should know: you call, feeling foolish. Is there a booking? The girl on reception must think you are drunk, or mad. No, sir, we don’t have reservations more than two years away.

For no good reason, you put the details in your phone.

Time passes, but you faithfully carry your diary through many upgrades, and the event silently follows you.

Until, one day, you are looking at your schedule six months later, and there it is. Your curiosity is reawakened and you search online again. The hotel is closed now, and standing empty. There are no more clues.

The day arrives. Will you go, or not? Two o’clock, it says. It’s an hour’s journey: at ten to one, you depart, still uncommitted. At least you will have the option of being there. Not that you’ve decided to go.

You arrive in the deserted car park. The traffic was heavy; it’s nearly two, there is no time to think. You leave your car and head for the door. The clock in the tower above strikes the hour, and you glance up to see the statue, falling.

Thomas and the newspaper

BridlewayJust a bit of fun: this story was created in three stages, as responses to writing prompts at thewritepractice.com  – (1) write about a crime, (2) write about money and (3) write about a character experimenting with a new identity. This has no connection with my WIP!

The bell on the door tinkled as Thomas pushed it open. Two boys on the inside, eager to escape with their purchases of sticky sugar, almost pushed him over as they rushed out to the street. No patience, that’s the trouble with youngsters today. No patience and no respect.

He shuffled over to the newspaper section. Piles of each of the national titles stood on a shelf at ankle level. This meant bending over to pick one up, he would have to be careful not to fall over again. He read the headlines and didn’t understand any of them. References to people he’d never heard of, words he didn’t know. Huge pictures of death or flesh that meant nothing.

Still, he had to have his morning paper. He usually bought the Express, but the pile was especially low today, he didn’t think he could reach that far. The Mail would do, and there were more of them, so he picked one up. Now, what else did he want today? There was definitely something else he meant to buy, what might it be?

Thomas tried to remember, and pretty soon had forgotten that he was even supposed to be trying to remember something. This was no good. The nice girl at the drop-in centre had talked to him about this a few days ago; she had tried to give him some tips for managing in situations like this. What had she said?

Oh yes, that was it. Retrace your steps to the beginning. Go back to where you were when the thought first came to you, and see if something comes to mind. He went back towards the door of the shop and stood there for a moment next to the lottery display. It was covered with bright colours and patterns and invitations to win millions. Thomas didn’t understand the lottery, either. He had bought a ticket once, when it was new, but didn’t know what to do with it. The ticket was probably still at home, in the kitchen drawer along with all the other unexplained pieces of paper.

He was standing at the door of the shop, where was he supposed to go now? He looked at the paper in his hand. Ah, yes, that must be it, he’d bought his paper and now it was time to go home. He pulled the handle, the bell tinkled again. Why does it ring when you are leaving, surely it’s only to let them know that someone has just come in?

Thomas had just stepped onto the street when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. “Not so fast, mate. You’ve not paid for that.”

He turned, and saw that it was the shopkeeper, a burly man who didn’t look like he was about to take any prisoners.

“I’m very sorry,” Thomas said. “I didn’t mean to leave without paying, but I forget sometimes…”

“That’s OK, just come inside and we’ll get sorted out, shall we?” The man ushered Thomas back to the counter in the cool of the shop. “Fifty-five pence, please.”

Thomas reached for his purse, which was always in the right pocket of his jacket. His daughter teased him whenever she saw him wearing a jacket and tie even on a hot day like today, but he had standards to maintain and he wasn’t going to let them drop now. Besides, he would feel naked walking down the street without his tie, and a tie without a jacket just looks silly, like some office junior who’s been sent out to buy lunch.

Now, where was he? His hand was in an empty pocket, and for a moment he didn’t know why. Then he saw the expectant face of the shopkeeper, and the hand reaching out for something. Oh, yes, money. There was none in his right pocket, how about the left? He started to tap all of his pockets in turn, but could find nothing of any value.

The shopkeeper lowered his hand.

“Could I bring the money tomorrow?” Thomas asked.

“Sorry, no credit. Not that I don’t trust you personally, but if I let you then off I’d have to let everyone out without paying. Perhaps you could pop home and come back later?”

Thomas’s head dropped. There was no way he was going to manage the journey twice in one day, but he couldn’t argue. He put the paper on the counter, and shuffled back to the door. No news today, then.

A fit young man might have managed the journey home in five or ten minutes. For Thomas, it took thirty, and by the time he reached his front door he was exhausted and hurting. Even his aches had pains of their own.

He fumbled in his pocket for the key and let himself in. Once inside the familiar surroundings of his hallway, he was able to relax for a moment. He rested his hands on the console table, and felt the strength return. It flowed from the very fabric of the house, through the stout solid oak of the table, and along his arms.

Wrinkles smoothed. Pains disappeared. Muscles, long since withered, were reborn. His stooping posture was replaced by an upright position, his chest thrust outward and his biceps rippled.

He was no longer Thomas, the old man at number 72.

He was ElderMan.

The newborn hero reached into the coat cupboard, retrieved his cape and mask, and put them on. He retreated to the small garden at the back of his house, where he could not be overlooked by nosey neighbours, and soared high into the sky, seeking justice and vengeance on behalf of old people everywhere.

First stop was the newsagent.

When Thomas pushed the door open this time, it didn’t so much tinkle as chime with the power of Big Ben. The door smashed into the lottery stand behind it, and two small boys ran for cover. Thomas marched up to the counter, where the man who just a few minutes earlier had refused him fifty-five pence of credit was cowering, wondering whether to reach for the baseball bat that he kept under the till.

“Don’t even think about it,” boomed Thomas. “I can see that bat with my X-Ray vision and it wouldn’t even put a crease in my cape.”

“W-w-what can I do for you, sir?”

“You can stop being so damned rude to your older customers, that’s what you can do. Show them some respect. Next time a regular customer leaves his cash at home, you let him take the paper and pay you the next day. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir, of course, sir, sorry, sir…”

His first mission for the day complete, Thomas returned to the door with a single bound. He listened, carefully, for any signs of distress in the vicinity. What was that? Mrs Tobbs having trouble crossing the road? He leaped over the row of shops opposite and landed in the next street, where the exceedingly frail Mrs Tobbs was indeed stuck.

Thomas was having none of this. He picked her up and, in less than a flash, had her on the other side of the road. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said.

Pausing only to rescue Mrs Johnson’s cat from one tree and to retrieve Mr Wall’s hat from the next, Thomas zoomed back to the wood behind his house where he could safely remove his costume without being identified.

Just another day for ElderMan.

In Maputo

dog_0381wHere’s a little piece following a collective challenge from friends in my local writing group: I had to write 250 words to include “five feet tall”, “Interviewing children in Mozambique”, and “Shakespeare – especially Hamlet”

The plane touched down, bounced and eventually settled on the runway. “Welcome to Maputo, where the local time is …” Maria couldn’t focus on the rest, her head was still swimming from the free alcohol. When the seatbelts sign went out, there was a mad scramble as everyone stretched up for their bags and duty free: Maria, as usual, couldn’t reach that high and had to ask the man next to her in the aisle to help.

He smiled and passed her suitcase down to her. “Your first time in Mozambique?” he asked.

Was it that obvious? “Yes,” she said, “just here for a couple of weeks.”

As they navigated immigration, luggage retrieval, and customs together, she shared everything with this handsome stranger. “I’m here to run a Shakespeare project with local students,” she said. He smiled, but said nothing about himself.

He offered to share a taxi into town: it would have seemed rude to refuse. They travelled along the shiny new road from the airport, a black artery of modernity running through a desert of poverty and decay. She saw the hotel from a distance, reaching up into the sky and looking down upon the dilapidation around it.

Her companion spoke to the driver, in a language she did not know. He looked back at them both in his mirror, and nodded. Just before they reached the hotel, the car turned off into a side alley, and stopped: the driver got out.

The rest is silence.