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A Heart Junction

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A Heart Junction

The memories from the crash came back to me fragmented and distorted. I saw glimpses of sparks, a rhythmic orange glow and blinding fluorescent figures illuminated by dazzling headlights. I heard the groan of twisted metal, the voices of strangers and the crunch of shattered glass underfoot. Then came the sickening smell of singed hair, melted leather and exposed flesh.
 
My recollections from those first few days in the hospital ward were hazy and incomplete. For days I writhed, soaked with sweat, as these undigested images dissolved and reformed in the thick fog of my memory.

Faces were meaningless blurs. Voices simply blankets of nonsensical fuzz. Lucidity was a stranger bestowing brief visits sporadically. I remember being conscious for a few minutes. I remember hearing the restless shuffling of the man beyond the partition to my right. He hummed a familiar melody.

Slowly reality emerged through the sterile aroma of disinfectant and starched sheets. I could feel thin covers holding me in a tight cocoon and the episodic sting of a drip in my right forearm. I felt the gentle touch of familiar skin as warm hands placed my cold limp palm into theirs and locked our fingers tightly together.
 
I remember the vague, somehow distant faces hovering above me. I was aware of concerned voices yet could hear only garbled murmurs as if listening to a conversation underwater.
 
I was awake again. Propped up. The man next door to me came into view. He was in a wheelchair, humming the same song from before. My head was fuzzy and confused but before I blacked out I recognised the unmistakable melody to Lionel Richie’s song Dancing On the Ceiling.
 
Eventually full consciousness was upon me and I realised where I was. Busy arms helped me sit up. I was dizzy and nauseous, my vision blurred. A giant vice grip seemed to have seized my head and was applying devastating pressure.
 
“Wha…”
 
The strain of attempting to speak took me by surprise. My tongue rolled the words awkwardly around my mouth

“What happened?” I managed.

I could make out the face of a doctor with gaunt facial features and wispy grey hair. The man next to him looked almost like my father, but that seemed impossible. This man was weeping.

The gaunt doctor leaned over me and said, “Hello Simon, I’m Dr. Richards. We’re all very glad you’re awake. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for some time. You’re very lucky to be here.”
 
There was a flat silence punctuated only by the squeak of a porter trolley somewhere in the distance. Dr. Richards said, “I imagine you have many questions.”
 
He held a glass up for me and I drank some water. It hurt to swallow and the residual metallic taste persisted. I used my tongue to explore the contours of my mouth. It felt like strangely unfamiliar terrain. I tried to speak.
 
“What happened to us? I can’t…I don’t understand…”
 
“Please don’t try speaking too much,” Dr Richards interrupted. “You sustained quite an impact to the head during the accident and we feared you might have suffered considerable injury. We’ll have to run the appropriate tests in due course to discover the extent of the damage. It’s really a very good sign you’re clear headed and speaking to us though.” At this his hopeful face creased into the hint of a smile. I didn’t feel clear headed.
 
The man next to me had stopped crying and I could see now he was, in fact, my father. He looked weary, his face sunken with glassy eyes gazing at me as if he had seen something miraculous. His big hulk of a body was the same but he looked weak, somehow stripped of his immense physical prowess. He wiped his face and took my hand. He squeezed it lovingly but a little too firmly. Over his shoulder I watched one of the nurses collect bedpans.
 
The doctor continued, “Other than the head injuries you did remarkably well, a few broken ribs and a lot of stitches. You were very lucky.”
 
“We’re so happy you’re going to be okay, son,” said my father, smiling but weeping. I stared at the two men facing me.

“You keep saying I was lucky. You mean we were lucky. Right? Emma and me. We were both lucky.”
 
My father looked at Dr. Richards, then at the floor. When he looked back at me his eyes had welled up again and he was quietly shaking his head.

I nodded silently. I understood. My father put his arms around me and held me tightly, pressing his wet face into mine. Next door my neighbour was fidgeting restlessly again and humming. This time the song was Lionel’s classic All Night Long. He was clearly a big fan.

A few days later I pieced together what I could remember of that day together with what my father told me. I was driving, but no one was to blame. That’s what he said. It was a warm, clear Sunday afternoon in late September and we were driving to the Wellingborough Valley in South Yorkshire.

There had been heavy rain and the modest waterfall that flows into the gorge can be quite stunning given those conditions. We were aiming to get there for sunset and set up a picnic with the small waterfall, the valley and some of the most rugged and beautiful countryside in England as a spectacular backdrop.
 
We had stopped a couple of hours before to stock up on supplies. In addition to the mandatory blankets and cushions in the boot, we had a comprehensive selection of picnic food and a bottle of wine compacted together on the back seat in carrier bags that rustled as the wind violently whipped through them.
 
No one was to blame. But I was driving. Emma was next to me in the passenger seat. She was reading Oliver Twist and intermittently read dialogue aloud doing silly impressions of different characters. She always did things like that. Occasionally she would break into one of the songs from the film and burst out laughing. I laughed too.

We were listening to an old mix CD Emma had made for me. Someone later found the disc entombed in the melted stereo. The air-conditioning was broken and the front windows were down all the way, making Emma’s hair dance vivaciously to Cat Stevens’ Here Comes My Baby as we sped down the narrow country road.
 
The sun was on its late afternoon descent in the autumn sky as we approached where the valley should have been. I hadn’t brought sunglasses and was having trouble searching ahead for signs, blinded by the sunset. The road was clear and straight and I was going just a little too fast. Or was I? I can’t be sure even now. We were having a perfect day. Emma was laughing and waving her hand across my face, jokily implying I couldn’t see anything. Everything was perfect. Everything was fine. Then suddenly nothing was.
 
The road ahead just ended, a solid wall ahead of us, maybe twenty metres away. Leading off to the left at a 90-degree angle was a gravel road. Maybe I should have braked and tried to stop there and then. It’s easy to change decisions in hindsight, but at the time there was no choice. I followed the road.
 
I tried to turn the car onto the dirt track. A powerful force pulled on the right side of us as I kept turning the wheel left. The car strained and protested and as we hit the edge of the road it flew sideways into the air. I pushed down on the brake pedal again and again. But it was useless, of course, because the tyres were no longer in contact with the ground.

Everything was strange. Dreamlike. Time stopped. All movement was reduced to slow motion. With events no longer in my control some kind of resignation crept in and I felt strangely peaceful. Sunlight streaked in through the windscreen at a strange angle.

Then there was an unnatural crashing sound, a cloud of dust surrounded us and the ground was suddenly above our heads. None of it made any sense.
 
In total I was told we turned fully three times before crashing into a rock, the only stationary object anywhere near that could have broken the path of us rolling towards the precipice of the valley ahead. Emma and I had both lain there unconscious for some minutes inside the deformed vehicle.

I was the first to come round. We were upside down, Emma bent into a strange shape, moaning. Then the fire started, the flame tips licking at the car’s broken body.
 
It was a family that saw us fly off the road. The father was a rugby forward and built like a wrecking ball. Undaunted by the carnage, he had run over to my side door and pulled me out as fire spread up all around us. I had lost consciousness by this point and remember none of the following moments or the eventual journey to casualty. Apparently the man wanted to go back to the car, which was now a fireball, as he could see another body trapped inside. But his family held him back, preventing him from the lunacy of attempting another rescue.
 
It was a Sunday in September. It was warm and I was driving. No one was to blame.

I had already missed the funeral, having been lapsing in and out of consciousness for over a week. As I recovered I said very little. My mind was hazy and I had trouble paying attention to any kind of discussion. I think the police came by at one point, although I have no idea what I told them. Friends and family visited.  Some people wanted to talk, but mostly they were quiet. Once or twice Emma’s parents came by, but I didn’t want to look at them, let alone say anything.
 
After a few weeks in the hospital I felt like I was going mad, seemingly trapped forever in a restrictive, sterile prison. But eventually, after multiple scans and tests revealed no apparent serious head injury, I was allowed to return home, armed with three different jars of painkillers for my two healing ribs.
 
My father brought me back. We were silent during the drive. A neighbour, Mr. Grady, helped us into the small flat Emma and I had shared together. Everything looked just the same. Mr Grady, unable to look me in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time, made his apologies and left.
 
“I’ll make some tea,” my father offered. I sat on our sofa. The flat looked a little different. Someone had cleaned and left a couple of New Woman magazines on the table. Mum.
 
I looked around the room. I had no pictures of Emma. In fact, I had no pictures of anyone. Where were they? Locked away in a photo album under a pile of clothes somewhere. We had never been ones for frames and displays on mantelpieces. I slouched into the sofa and stared at the poster opposite me. It was Amelie, one of Emma’s favourite films. I had promised again and again to watch it with her, but had never got around to it. The poster had been on the wall for eight months.
 
I suddenly became aware that I was crying. Crying was not standard practise in our family and generally took a back seat to stoic silence and Holding Yourself Together. I held back as much as I could but as my father came out of the kitchen asking me something innocuous, like if I wanted a biscuit, I just lost it and the tears flooded out of me.

The heaving of my chest was like burning fire where my ribs were broken. My father spilt one of the mugs as he hastily clunked them down and held me with his big arms, grasping tightly as if he could keep all the bad stuff away through sheer strength and will alone. Afterwards, I felt exhausted. My father sat silently and awkwardly, apparently out of ideas having exercised the physical comforting option. He mentioned the funeral. 
 
“It was lovely, a large gathering in her village church,” he told me. Emma hated church.

I dreamt about her. Vivid and intense dreams, much clearer than what I actually remember. I dreamt I was back in the car. I could hear the constant steady beep of the warning alarm and feel heat on my skin from the fire. I saw the torn brown upholstery of the car skewered by jutting twisted shards of metal.
 
And I could see her.
 
She was lying at an unnatural angle. Her blood was thick and dark, not like in films. I was talking to her. I tried to shout but she couldn’t hear me. She could never hear me in the dreams.

Pieces of glass debris sparkled in her eyes as she tried to open them. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or not. I tried to see more, feel more. Make sense of it. Then all of a sudden I would be pulled away, intensely clear images giving way to strange swirls and flashes of colour and light and indefinable sounds, spinning and disorientating me until I came back to my bed, and reality.

*
 
It was a crisp morning and winter was checking in for the season. Outside people looked glum at having to wear coats for the first time in months and at the prospect of nothing but Christmas breaking up the grey drudgery between then and next spring.
 
I took the phone off the hook as soon as I got up then switched off my mobile and spent the day watching daytime chat shows about steroid addicts, adultery confessions and paternity tests. I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone since I phoned my mum the previous night. It was the first day completely alone I could remember since the accident.
 
The doorbell buzzed me out of a mindless chat show stupor and I answered it to find a stocky man with short brown hair in a crumpled red t-shirt and scuffed black jeans stood on the street facing me. He looked expectantly, as if he knew me. I didn’t recognise him, but then that didn’t surprise me.
 
“Hello?” I said with arched eyebrows.
 
“Hello mate, how are you doing?” he asked. We stood for a moment staring at one another. He broke the uncomfortable silence.
 
“Oh, sorry, my name’s Chris.”

I shook my head.

“I pulled you out of your car.”
 
Inside the flat I made tea, then sat and listened as Chris told me about his family seeing us fly off the road, rolling and colliding with the rock. He talked about pulling me from the burning wreck, checking my breath, his wife shocked and his children upset and screaming. He showed me a picture of family and told me their names but I’ve forgotten them because it was then that Chris said something so shocking and unbelievable that I actually had to ask him to repeat it, as I was sure I had misheard.
 
“And is Emma coming around t’day mate?”

I was stunned.
 
“I’m sorry, what?”
 
Chris looked confused. “Your girlfriend, she coming around today to see ya today?”
 
My shock began to cross over into anger. “And how, Chris, could she come over to see me? How- What the hell are you talking about?”
 
Chris scrunched up his face and said, “Woah, woah fella, calm down. I’m sorry. I forgot she obviously don’t have a car now, does she? And I wouldn’t blame ‘er if she didn’t want to get behind the wheel straight away. I’ve had a crash before. Leaves you pretty shaken up and-”
 
I spoke in short, clipped sentences to prevent myself from exploding.
 
“I’m sorry. Is this some kind of sick joke? My. Girlfriend. Is. Dead. She died in the car fire. Nobody could get her out.”
 
“Er, yeah they did, mate. I got her out.” Chris had his shoulders hunched defensively. I was breathing so heavily my ribs had flared up again. But I was so angry I didn’t notice. Or I didn’t care. Chris was staring at me with concern and looked genuinely a little afraid. He glanced over at the contents of my painkillers spread out in a dazzling array of colours on the table next to New Woman.

He spoke softly. “I can see I’ve come at a bad time. I’ll let myself out.” He stood up and slowly backed out of the living room and the flat.

I was trembling. I struggled to control my breath. I grabbed the phone, paused, and then punched in the familiar number, the handset shaking in my hands. No answer. I tried a different number. A woman answered. “Hello?”
 
“Mum, it’s me. You won’t believe it. This man – he says his name is Chris - just came over. Oh, Jesus mum he was saying-”
 
“Oh, yes, Chris,” my mother interrupted me, “He’s a lovely bloke isn’t he? Very down to earth. He was so good to visit you and Emma while you were both recovering in hospital. Is he still-”
 
I hung up the phone. I felt dizzy and nauseous. I ran to the bathroom and threw up, the heaving motion absolute agony on my chest. I felt like I was being stabbed over and over. In a way, I was. I lay on the bathroom floor still feeling like my heart was about to burst out of my chest. After some time I slowly got up and went back through to the living room. I grabbed my various pills and some sleeping tablets and chased a handful down with a small glass of vodka from the cupboard. I staggered down the hall, collapsed onto my bed and passed out.

*

I woke. My head was clearer. It was still daylight. Or was it a new day? I looked at the bedside clock. It was 7.27am. I had slept some 14 or 15 hours.
 
I got up but didn’t dress. I had a couple of answer machine messages. One was from my mother, asking if I could come to dinner on Sunday, reminding me today was Thursday. The other was from the school, asking how long I would need to be on leave for. I phoned my mother asking one angling question. “Mum, how many people were at Emma’s funeral?”
 
“Oh, lots dear. I know you feel bad you couldn’t be there. Her parents have talked about holding a private memorial service so you can, you know, say goodbye.”
 
“Thanks mum,” I said. I told her I would see her on Sunday and hung up. I grabbed the vodka bottle and walked towards the bedroom, stopping briefly and examining the bottle. It appeared unopened, stopping me in my tracks for a moment. “Ah, screw it,” I said, giving out a defeated laugh, unscrewing the bottle and taking a morning swig. I was relieved the madness of the previous day was over. I looked over at my pills, shaking my head. I must have been tripping pretty badly.
 
I made some food in the kitchen and climbed back into bed. I re-read 60-odd pages of an Iain Banks novel and watched some TV before dozing off early in the evening and enduring a horrible night of disturbing dreams that I struggled to recall the instant they were over.

*

Like a switch, I was asleep one moment and awake the next. My eyes shot open. Morning. I was lying in bed, looking at the ceiling. It was beige and slightly cracked, same as always. But something was strange, different. I felt like I wasn’t alone.
 
Suddenly a hand came into view, arching over my chest and resting on my side. I started breathing heavily. What the fuck was happening? The hand moved and began to caress my stomach. I cried wildly and sprang out of bed, half tripped on some shoes that weren’t mine and fell into the door.

Trying to control my racing breath, I turned around slowly and saw Emma, my dead girlfriend, lying in bed. She was wearing nothing but an old Radiohead t-shirt of mine that she liked to sleep in. I looked at the photo of the band. They had really faded. Her hair was tussled and shiny and she was hugging the duvet like a cushion.
 
“Si, what’s wrong? What’s the matter?” my dead girlfriend asked. She sounded kind and understanding, as if she expected this to happen. I stared at her manically.
 
“I…I…What are you doing here? Emma?” I don’t know why I said her name.
 
She cocked her head on its side curiously and replied, “You said I didn’t have to stay at my parents’ any longer. You said you didn’t need all this space anymore.”
 
Smiling affectionately she whispered, “It’s okay if you feel a little weird honey, being…intimate. After everything that’s happened it might take a while.”
 
I was still staring at her. She was still smiling. She certainly didn’t seem dead. I cleared my throat. “Emma. I’ve been having these…dreams, you see, and I’ve been imagining that you were, you know…dead.”
 
She climbed off the bed looking concerned and came over to me. Her voice was soft and gentle. She asked, “Honey did you have a rough night again? I think it’s mostly just the pills making everything disturbed and fucked up. Once you finish them you’ll be okay, I’m sure.”
 
Emma buried her head in my chest the way girls are able to do when you’re the right height you can lock together, rest you face on her head and smell her beautiful, living hair.  “Hmm, yeah,” I said, not resisting her but feeling dizzy, my heart still racing.
 
I told her, “Emma, I’ve been…confused, and, er, imagining that maybe you didn’t get out of the car before that fire and everything. And that you got caught up in the fire and…died.”
 
She held me tightly and said, “It must have been horrible being pulled out first and losing consciousness and not knowing what happened. But it’s okay, honey.” She pulled my hand to her chest so I could feel her heartbeat. She laughed, “I’m real, honey. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
 
I felt as if I had been subjected to this fantasy long enough to give in. I stared down into Emma’s sparkling brown eyes, wanting her. I held her close and kissed her with the passion that comes from thinking you’ll never see someone again. So passionately, in fact, that my ribs stabbed me and burned in my chest and I pulled away in pain.
 
“Hey, easy tiger,” Emma said and laughed. She took my hand and slowly led me to towards the bed. She lay me down and carefully moved her leg over me, positioning herself across my waist. Patches of morning sunlight shone through the curtains and rested on her face. She peeled off the t-shirt and threw it across the room, crumpling up Thom Yorke’s face in the corner by the wardrobe. Then she moved her hands sensuously on me, stroking my chest softly where my ribs were healing. She kissed them and kept moving up towards my face. I tried to say something but she put her finger to my lips and said, “Shhhh. I’ll be gentle.”
 
We finished dozing around noon. I looked across the bed at he. She looked warm and beautiful and not really dead at all. I dressed and sat in the living room, thinking about what was happening to me. If all this was real, I could never tell Emma. What would she say? What would anyone say? I barely wanted to hear it myself. It was ludicrous. It was insane. It was perverse. But it felt real.

I stood and looked at myself in the mirror. Wasn’t there an old saying; if you thought you were insane then you weren’t insane? Did I feel crazy? Without a doubt. Everything that was happening was completely unbelievable. What was real and what wasn’t? I sighed, bewildered, and sat back down.
 
I became aware that I hadn’t left the flat in some time and that outside it was a beautiful day. I glanced at a calendar, noticing it was a Saturday. Throwing on my light winter jacket I called Jimmy and arranged to meet up. I wrote a note to Emma telling her I was popping out and left quietly. Jimmy was my best friend and I felt I could tell him everything.
 
Except I couldn’t.
 
We were drinking tea in a Starbucks that had been built into our local bookshop. They had knocked out an old section of the shop to build the café area. I’m not sure which section exactly, probably something no one would miss like Sociology. Erotica was still there, however, and suspicious middle-aged characters constantly hovered, browsing next to the muffin stand.
 
Like myself, Jimmy is a History teacher. We work at the same school. That afternoon he listened patiently as I tried to talk about what was happening. I tried explaining the dreams and images I was seeing, adding that sometimes I felt like Emma was dead. He was sympathetic to my fragile state of mind, especially, “what with the crash and all the drugs you’re on.”

But any hint of me actually believing that Emma was dead when he had seen her just three days ago gave him that sceptical and understandably concerned look I had seen before on Chris. I eased off the subject and talked about lighter matters. Jimmy would not be able to help me with this.
 
Still, it had been a good attempt to re-establish contact with the real world, whatever that actually was. However I remained bankrupt in terms of ideas on how to deal with my confusing situation. Jim parted from our meeting telling me, “You know, if you’re really having trouble dealing with all of this maybe you should talk to someone. A professional.” He told me I was expected back at the school whenever I felt ready physically. And emotionally.
 
I thanked him and made my way back home. Emma was still there. She cooked us a tasty dinner that night. Falafels. I stared at her a lot and ended up holding her so tightly in the kitchen that she could barely move. In bed later I cradled her in my arms. “This has been so lovely, Emma,” I whispered to her.
 
“What, the falafels?”
 
“No, having you here, today.” I looked down at her with so much love and intensity that I began to cry, emotions overflowing again.
 
“What’s the matter, honey?” she asked, looking worried.
 
“I just don’t know if…when I’m going to see you again.”
 
“Sweetie…I love you,” she said, smiling. She kissed me then whispered, “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

She wasn’t, of course. In the morning she was dead again.

*

My father brought round what must have amounted to over 200 condolence cards. I was touched, but determined to find out what the hell was happening.
 
Some investigating confirmed that Emma’s grave was at St. Luke’s church in her home village of Willeford. That was more than a three-hour round trip and having broken ribs and no car I decided I would just have to accept it was there.
 
I listened to a few more condolence messages that had been left on my machine from work colleagues, in particular a heartfelt one from Katie in the English department. I listened to it twice, and then I was off to the library.
 
It was a dull, grey, nothing day, where dark smudges cover the sky and the world seems somehow smaller, like the clouds are closing in on your very thoughts. A good day to be indoors.
 
In the library I found the area I was looking for and was soon sifting through archive copies of local paper The Chronicle like a detective in a Raymond Chandler novel.

Today was 15 October, nearly one month after the accident. I soon found what I was looking for – 22 September. Page 25. The Obituaries. There was only one that day. Halfway down the page on the left hand side; the picture was from her graduation day almost five years ago. She always cringed at that photo. There was text below the picture:

Emma Louise Ward. Born 3 June, 1981, Died 16 September, 2008. Loved and missed by
Frank, Mary, Sarah and countless friends.

Below that was an extract from one of Emma’s favourite poems, with a message that was written by me:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.

All my love, now and forever,
Simon

It was Remember, by Christina Rossetti. I had absolutely no recollection of contacting the Chronicle after Emma’s supposed death. I tore out the page, folded it and placed it in my pocket.  Everything was becoming very complicated and confusing. Or rather, everything was continuing to be complicated and confusing.

*

The following morning I consciously made a decision to ease off the drugs I had been taking. Pain spiked across my chest at regular intervals but I wanted a clear head to think.
 
The bed was empty when I woke around 10am. I could see one or two of Emma’s things but couldn’t work out if she had slept there last night and left without waking me, or whether she hadn’t been there for a month and I’d simply been disorganised and dirty.
 
I made a call to Emma’s office, palms sweating and pulse thudding in my ears. Without being too blunt I started talking to an obviously distracted receptionist about Emma and was told that I could be put straight through to her. She asked if I was okay, if anything was wrong? I said everything was fine. Better than fine. Fantastic. We made plans to meet up for lunch provided I felt up to it.
 
I made some coffee and breakfast and tried to get out the obituary page I had taken from the library. It was gone. I had a theory I was starting to put together and felt better for the lack of drugs already. I texted Emma and said I couldn’t make lunch and headed to the library, not sure whether I was returning or arriving for the first time. I examined the Chronicle archives. I quickly found the right issue. September 22. Page 25. The Obituaries. There was only one. Half way down on the left hand side. I eyeballed the paper. It read:

Ethel Green. Born 30 January 1922 Died 16 September 2008.  Survived by Geoff and loving dog Benny.

 
I was sad for Geoff and Benny. But I was elated that Ethel Green was dead. I scanned the rest of the obituaries and searched through other documents, but there was no mention of an Emma Ward anywhere. I went outside and phoned the police, making inquiries about any car accidents at Wellingborough Valley on 16 September. There had been none.
 
Outside it was a cool, clear autumn day. Brittle dry leaves the colour of milk chocolate rested gently upon the still surface of the lake. I briskly walked through the park ruminating and trying to put all these pieces together. What did all these pieces of information mean? Was I dreaming? Was I crazy? Or was something else happening, something perhaps strange and wonderful?
 
I stopped at Sainsbury’s on the way back to the flat to fetch some supplies for the evening. When Emma got home she found I had turned the living room into an intimate eatery, with one table. I gave her flowers and served her like she was at a Michelin star restaurant.
 
“What’s all this for?” she asked curiously.
 
“I want to cram two days of love into every one that I see you,” I replied.
 
She laughed and said I was silly. The candle flame sparkled in her eyes. After dinner we watched Amelie and we fell asleep together on the sofa.
 
In the morning she was gone again.

*

And so it went for several weeks, over and over and over. One day Emma was there, the next she wasn’t. I couldn’t explain it.

I was living two lives, and I was living each day twice…
 
My two lives gradually started to drift apart. In my days with Emma, things were excellent. Teaching was going well. Emma got a substantial company-wide pay raise and we could afford to move into a bigger and better rented house with en-suite facilities and a spare bedroom. We ate out a couple of times a week and we looked at trips together that we could never have even considered a few months before. We talked about our future together.
 
In my life without Emma things were not going so well.  On my own I couldn’t afford to pay for the flat, so I had no option but to move in with Jimmy and his girlfriend Mel, sleeping on their fold-out sofa until I could find somewhere else. I was back at work, but it was tiring and stressful, everyone wrapping me in cotton wool constantly.

I didn’t eat well. I would pass Emma’s friends in the street that I had happily chatted to only the day before, yet in this time they seemed gravely tired, only wanting to speak for the briefest of moments. I was a constant reminder of their lost friend, and some probably blamed me for the accident.
 
Weeks passed.
 
*

I was in the Head teacher’s office, waiting. Outside, the school grounds were full of bustling children leaving for the day. I could hear birdsong, bus engines and the screams of hormonally driven adolescents.
 
I was smiling, quite pleased with myself. My students had proved themselves in the January mocks as firm authorities on Lloyd-George’s war cabinet, the Russian revolution and Nazi Germany. Parents had phoned and written to the school commending me on my part in turning around their children’s academic year. For many of them the dream of applying to Oxford, Cambridge or Durham was back on. 
 
John Phillips walked in and sat behind his desk, somehow finding space for his excessive girth. He was an unfit man and took a moment to recover his breath. He finally spoke. “Simon, yes, hello,” he said, slightly flustered.
 
He shuffled some papers. “Okay, here it is Simon, we’ve been incredibly impressed with your performance this year, especially given your circumstances. As you know Ed Fieldman is leaving this summer and we’d like you to take over as head of department.”
 
Phillips peered over his glasses at me. He said, “It would be an impressive position for someone of your age.”
 
I accepted without hesitation. We stood, shook hands, and there were grins and back slaps all round. Outside children screamed and laughed loudly as they started home.
 
I called Emma to give her the good news.

*

I was in the Head teacher’s office, waiting. Outside, the school grounds were full of bustling children leaving for the day. I could hear birdsong, bus engines, and the screams of hormonally driven adolescents.
 
I was frowning, sick with worry. John Phillips walked in and sat behind his desk. I was still surprised at how he found space for his excessive girth. He told me that my students had almost, without exception, attained dismal marks on the January mocks. They had unequivocally shown that they had learnt, well, absolutely nothing this year. Parents had been on the phone and writing letters to the school, alarmed at the poor exam results and scared to death that their children would have to apply to Plymouth or Derby, or even Coventry. Coventry.
 
I sighed. It was all hardly surprising. My performance in the classroom had steadily slipped over the weeks as I spent most of my lesson time furiously scribbling notes, formulating complex theories and drawing extensive diagrams of timelines. My attention to students had gradually diminished. I had given up reading their work and assigned marks to papers based merely on the neatness of their handwriting.
 
In addition to these performance problems I had been generally distant and withdrawn from my colleagues both professionally and socially. Jimmy was now the only person I even saw outside of school life. I had also called in sick quite often, depressed at having to live half the time without Emma. During those ‘sick’ days I lay in bed, wondering, what would Emma be wearing the next time I saw her? What would be the first thing she said to me? What would we do? Where would we go? 
 
“…and of course…Simon? Simon, are you even listening?” Phillips was asking me.
 
“Mmm, sorry, what?” I asked, barely trying to disguise my distraction. Phillips slumped back and looked at me, defeated. He sighed.
 
And just like that, all of a sudden, my students were not my students anymore. Outside children screamed and laughed loudly as they started home. As Phillips started out of the office muttering about a meeting I just stared out of the window. It was a dark and grimy view. 

Things became increasingly complicated at Jim’s house. I spent a lot of time drinking, moody and uncommunicative. Jim and Mel both tried to help and spent a lot of time talking to me. One night I tried to honestly discuss with Mel what I was experiencing. She became upset and ran to get Jimmy, telling him what had happened. He came in wearing a tank top and a worried expression. He said, “Son, what you’re talking about is crazy. You realise that, don’t you? It’s just the stress and the fact you miss her. You’re not thinking clearly.”
 
He thought for a second then said, “Don’t go talking like that to people, Son. They’ll think…Look, things will get better.”
 
But things didn’t get better. Without anyone to open up to I withdrew even more into myself. I was morose, a loner. Mel, who had been patient and understanding, kept trying to help, kept asking me how I felt. Sometimes I made up answers but she saw through everything I lied about. She said she wanted me to be honest so I kept telling her about the timelines. Eventually she stopped talking to me.
 
It was decided it would be best if I moved back in with my parents. They welcomed me home and acted breezily, putting on a front that everything was fine. But every so often cracks in their behaviour would appear. My mother would drop a plate while washing up and start sobbing. My father would sit watching television and ask awkward, unnecessary questions.
 
One night I had too many glasses of wine with dinner. Emotions were running high and I was arguing with my father. I started to become upset and tearful and tensions built up from the preceding weeks came out. I started talking about the fractured life I was living.

My father stopped me almost as soon as I had begun, telling me I was tired, I should go to bed and that he and my mother would clean everything up. I went upstairs, not sure if he meant they would clean up the dishes or my problems. But my father had never been one for metaphors.
 
I heard more smashed plates that night. 

*
 
The transitions between days became harder and harder, perhaps a result of the divergent paths my two lives were taking. There was never a fixed time for the crossover, but it always happened sometime at night. I tried staying awake once or twice but eventually always forced myself to sleep, terrified if I stayed awake I wouldn’t wake up next to Emma. Previously, the nightly transitions were smooth as I always slept and woke up in the same bed, but now I was going to sleep in one place and waking up during the middle of the night with a searing headache in another.
 
*

Emma and I visited an art gallery. We wandered the long corridors filled with frames and models. We analysed and discussed and sometimes kissed when we were sure no one was looking.
 
A lot of days passed that way. We went to museums and plays and new restaurants. In the evenings, Emma cooked me surprise meals and I often bought her flowers for no particular reason. We were happy.

*

I was drunk. I had made the effort of dragging myself out to a dinner party hosted by a friend of Jimmy’s. What was her name? Gemma? Jill? I had lied and told him I felt much better. Was I ready to return to work? Yes, of course. He thought it would be good for me to get out and socialise. Before leaving the house, I washed and shaved but also helped myself to an aperitif – three quarters of a bottle of vodka.
 
As soon as Jimmy saw me he knew it was a mistake to have asked me to come. I staggered through the hallway into the living room. People were chatting about immigration and an interesting new film by Baz Luhrmann. I slurred my greetings and slumped into a chair. By rights I should have been asked to leave, but Jimmy was a good friend of the host - Jenna? Jessy? She was too polite to show me the door.
 
At dinner I sat silently at the table as conversations passed me by, snippets of small talk buzzing around my head. Some one asked me a question. I tried to focus on the person who had spoken. I found the task impossible and drank down the full glass of wine that was in front of me. I think I had been asked something like, “And how are you doing, Simon?”

I took a deep breath and started to explain my whole story including the crash, the distortion of living two lives, everything. Everyone thought it was all just a bad joke until after a number of minutes I was still racing on with no punch line in sight. As I kept going some people stared open-mouthed and others couldn’t look, preferring to hide their embarrassment by studying prints of Monet on the wall. Emma would have liked them. No one interrupted me as I spoke. When I was finished there was a lengthy silence, the awkwardness palpable. Jimmy stood up, saying, “Right, Simon, let’s get you home shall we? Thank-you Jenny.”
 
“Jenny!” I shouted, drunk. Everyone stared at their plates and pretended they couldn’t hear me.
 
Jim and I took a taxi back to my parents’ house. I went upstairs. He stayed to talk to my parents. I made out the sound of my mother crying.

*

Emma and I were in our bedroom. She was fixing her make-up. She looked beautiful. I had gathered various friends of ours from all over the country for a party. There was food, champagne, music, and the living room seemed to be decorated with a hundred smiling faces. Emma kissed me. She seemed happy but confused. Looking down the stairs she said, “I love you, but why have you gone to all the trouble of organising this massive party for almost everyone we know for no absolutely no reason? My God, my sister is here. What’s going on, Simon? You’re a silly boy. I love you, but you’re crazy.”
 
I smiled and led her downstairs and into the centre of the living room, where most people were gathered. They stopped to look at us and winked knowingly at each other. I turned to face Emma, trying to suppress my emerging grin. Nervously, I stared down deep into her eyes and said, “Well, Emma, you seem unhappy I’ve put on a party just for the sake of a party, so if we really must have something to celebrate…” And all of a sudden I was kneeling and handing Emma a box, she was opening it and starting to cry as I slipped the ring on her finger. The crowd in our living room were yelling and clapping and cheering so wildly the neighbours came by to complain. 

*

A strange man came by the house. He had thick glasses and a short, clinical haircut. He asked me about the other night at the dinner party and whether I believed what I was saying or was I just drunk. I thought about lying, but I told him that, yes, I did believe everything I had said. “I see,” he said in a disconcerting tone.
 
A few days afterwards the man returned with some friends. My mother was crying again when they arrived.
 
“Simon,” the man said, “Would you like to take a drive with us? We think it would be better if you came to stay at our facilities for a while. You can talk to us and we can listen and try and help you.”
 
“Okay,” I said feeling weary. I followed the man with glasses out to the car and sat in the back. My parents came along. As we drove the road stretched ahead, a dazzling neon-lit path to follow. I knew where it led. Maybe all this was inevitable.
 
When we got to the large grey building after twenty minutes there seemed to be a lot of paperwork to fill out. A few men came towards us and spoke to the man with glasses and my parents for a few minutes. Then a kind-looking woman appeared. She had a body that sagged, as if gravity had an unusually strong pull on it. She said to me, “Hello Simon, my name’s Sharon. Do you want to follow me, love? This way. That’s right.” She took my hand and I followed her as she disappeared down a long, cold corridor filled with shadows and darkness.

*

It was a Thursday morning in February. Emma and I were in bed, reading magazines. Nearly the whole bed was covered. Emma kissed me, her mouth covered with buttery toast crumbs. She laughed.
 
I was reading an article on gorillas in the Congo when the phone rang. Emma answered and was silent for a moment, listening. Then she started getting excited and flustered. She put the phone down and started screaming. A promotion.
 
She raised her arms out and started screaming again. Suddenly we were both jumping up and down on the bed, crumbs flying everywhere, screaming together. Then we collapsed together onto the duvet, holding each other and laughing. Emma kissed me hard and deeply. I held her until we melted into each other. She smelt of morning and was soft and warm.   

*

The day after I arrived in the hospital I found myself waiting for Dr. Porter in her office. Maria Porter had dark hair with an auburn tinge, looked to be about forty and had a long, peculiar face. She eyed me up and down with an audible mumble suggesting concern. Admittedly I was not looking good. My hair was clumpy and unwashed and I had grown a scraggy beard.
 
For someone that had dedicated her life to studying human behaviour it surprised me that Dr. Porter was seemingly unable to prevent her body language betraying what she was thinking. As I spent a full half-hour detailing everything I had experienced her eyebrows steadily rose higher and higher on her forehead to the point where I was concerned they might leave her face completely. As I spoke she wrote constantly in her notebook.
 
Finally I was silent. Neither of us said anything while she finished off her notes. She breathed heavily and looked at me.
 
“Ok, firstly Mr.-”
 
“Simon, please.”
 
“Very well. Simon, am I right in stating that you believe yourself to be a time traveller?”
 
Had she not been listening to me at all? “No, Dr. Porter. I experience time in a linear fashion the same as you. I simply alternate between separate timelines each day.”
 
She was writing again.
 
“Um-hmm. I see. You genuinely believe this?”
 
I paused, then gestured to my surroundings and said, “It would appear so.”
 
I felt twitchy and anxious, feelings that had been getting steadily more intense over the previous few weeks. Or maybe I was just very conscious of being in a psychiatric hospital having delivered an outrageously demented monologue.
 
“Well Simon, looking over my notes what you have told me is astonishing. Can I ask you, since the accident of September 16, would you say that you feel you have been feeling depressed, anxious or withdrawn?”
 
I pondered. I couldn’t lie.
 
“Yes.”
 
“I see.” There was more note writing and for a minute the only sound in the room was the scribble of pen on paper.
 
I asked, “Dr. Porter, give me your honest opinion. What do you think is happening to me?”
 
She considered me for a moment, then replied, “You appear an intelligent young man, Simon, so I won’t sugar-coat anything for you. Everything you’ve told me is consistent with paranoid and delusional schizophrenic behaviour. I believe that the loss of your girlfriend was incredibly hard for you to accept, Simon. I believe you have withdrawn into a delusional world of your own construction to protect you from the real one to which you simply cannot relate any longer.”
 
She stopped. I looked into her eyes and said, “Really? You really think that’s what’s happening to me?”
 
She sighed. “That is what’s happening to you Simon. The general symptoms are straight out of a textbook, however the architecture of these delusions are, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, quite fascinating and original.

“You are an imaginative individual. The timeline element of your fantasy allows you to partially accept that your girlfriend is dead, and while you stagnate in this timeline – which is real – you imagine a life you desired, a life you perhaps feel you deserved and were cruelly robbed of – which is fantasy.

“Eventually through medication you may lose the fantasy timeline and I worry you will simply alter the timeline theme of your delusion to protect your fantasy so you can continue to deny the reality of the outside world.”
 
I began to say something then sat back in the chair and looked out of the window.

*

I gazed out of the window as the train sped on. Emma had dropped her Sudoku book and curled up in my arms. I stroked her hair and kissed her head. She moaned cutely.
 
We stepped off the train at Gard du Nord in Paris, elated at our choice of winter break destination. Considering my ever-so-slight pay rise, and our recent accident I decided we had deserved it. Emma had never been to Paris before. When we first started going out I had lied and said I tried to get there every spring. Well, I suppose it wasn’t a lie, I always tried to get there, but never succeeded.
 
We only had just over a week and a half. We hit the Arc de Triumph, Champs-Elysee, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower and Montmartre, then raced down to the Loire Valley and toured around as many vineyards as we could, stocking up on bottles from Pouilly-Fume, Samour and Sancerre. We drove through beautiful countryside the whole trip, taking picnics by rivers, eating dinner in quaint picturesque villages and staying in charming hotels son with history and character. It was a beautiful, perfect trip. 

*

The ward was cold and damp and had the mixed smell of cleaning fluids and stomach bile, which was drifting out of the far corner where someone had, evidently, been sick. People came in to visit relatives and often broke down, completely distressed at seeing the empty shell that used to be perhaps their parent or brother or sister. I slept a lot. I sat in my chair. I stared at the wall. I spoke to know one. I had nothing in this timeline. No friends, no job, no Emma. Nothing much mattered to me.
 
Dr. Porter had put me on a lot of medication. Transitions between timelines passed disjointedly in the night like a meeting of awkward strangers. The differences between my lives in each timeline were confusing and disorientating. One evening I would be sitting silently in front in a panel of academics and psychiatrists who were armed with an extensive arsenal of questions and Dictaphones, convinced I was a delusional psychotic. I would be tranquillised and suddenly I would be sharing breakfast with Emma and her parents. Sitting around the table with juice and newspapers, Radio 4 on in the background. We would look out of the window at a BMW in the driveway and suddenly Emma’s father would be handing me the keys, smiling. It was all very bizarre and disorientating.
 
The transitions seemed almost like out-of-body experiences. I would feel myself drawn up, out of the stiff, narrow confinements of my hospital bed and suddenly inhabiting a soft and spacious queen size bed. Emma’s warm body would press into me and writhe at the suggestion of any movement. It was partly wonderful, partly torturous.
 
I cannot remember exactly when I came to my decision, my solution for this ‘timeline’ problem but it was like a sudden, jerky realisation, a moment of clarity, perhaps.
 
For some time I had been aware I was only really living in one of the timelines. It was ironic that while I had inadvertently been given the chance to live two lives I had ended up living only half a life. One timeline had become a grey, motionless waiting room where I endured time passing one second after another. I would take any drug I could to knock me out at night, knowing the sooner I closed my eyes the sooner I would be opening them and seeing Emma.
 
Why live miserably in one timeline and happily in the other? Why not try to live permanently in the better timeline? I simply could not live in this colourless world without Emma anymore. I decided I would cease living in this awful timeline and live the rest of my life in a world where Emma had not died in the mutilated corpse of our car.
 
How would I accomplish this? It was quite dramatic, of course: I would have to kill myself. But once I had made the decision I became immediately perkier. It was the right option as far as I could see. Days of coldness, isolation and boredom would be replaced with intimacy, warmth and joy. The more I thought about it the more it seemed like the only option. I decided the plan needed to be carried out as soon as possible. I studied medication times, nursing schedules and the hospital layout. I was meticulous. At that moment I had a great deal of freedom. If I tried this and it didn’t work I would be under constant surveillance and ‘protection’. If this happened it would be impossible to kill myself.
 
While not busily arranging what could be described as my timeline exit strategy, I sat by my bed. Sometimes I read, but mostly I just sat. I sat and stared.
 
I spent whole days just sitting, staring, waiting for the next morning. Dr. Porter said, “I’m confident the medication will soon show an effect.”

In the other timeline I spent days smiling, laughing, blissful. Emma said, “Honey, what would you think if I was pregnant?”

Days pass. My parents no longer spoke to me much when they visited the hospital. They just sat with me and wept, heartbroken. They held the medication out to me and pleaded, “It’s for your own good Simon. Please son, we love you so much. Take them for us.” They brought me pictures of my family and of Emma. I almost didn’t recognise her. In the other timeline she had styled her hair differently. It was really quite a huge difference.
 
I spent more time with Dr. Porter. I hated her. I didn’t answer any of her questions, refusing even to meet her ‘half-way’, as she described it. I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t going to be in that timeline for much longer anyway.
 
I thought a lot about my suicide as I planned it. What would it be like? I realised I would be in the unique position of being someone who had actually died and yet still be alive. I could pass my knowledge and experiences onto others in some way. Not sure how, though.
 
I decided I would overdose. Hanging myself or slitting my wrists would either be too visually dramatic or too emo. Besides, this was a hospital and as such was overflowing with wonderfully dangerous drugs. I imagined it would be just like falling asleep, waking to find your dream to now be your reality.

*

Emma and I were having coffee in the park. It was a bright, clear and beautiful late afternoon and we looked out at the shimmering sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water. A little boy threw a stick for a dog to chase. Joggers passed us and exhale loudly. The trees were naked, exposed to the cold winter wind but warmed by the last of the day’s sun. In my hands I held the envelope the doctor had given us. I sip my drink and looked at Emma.

Can you tell if someone is pregnant just from looking at them? Emma seemed to be glowing. She looked slightly arty and slightly French with her scarf and hat and cute little wry smile. She looked at me and said, “Okay, at the same time, after three, ready?” I nodded.
 
“Alright, one-two-three…”
 
“Stuart.”
 
“William.”
 
Short silence.
 
“Stuart? What’s that all about?” Emma asked. 
 
“You said you liked it for a boy’s name. It was my grandfather’s name.”
 
“Hmm, ok, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll pick the name this time, then you can pick next time. Deal?”
 
“Okay, deal.” I said. I reached over and kissed her. It was one of those kisses where it’s not a complete kiss because one or both of you start to smile before the end, your lips momentarily incompatible. It was a kiss of complete and utter happiness and contentment.

*
     
My head feels strange. Something is different. I feel like I’m about to blackout. What’s happening?
 
I wake. Try to open my eyes. They’re heavy. I still feel numb from yesterday’s medication. Can’t think clearly. Thoughts and ideas like beacons lost in a blanket of fog. I try to prop myself up in bed. I’m definitely groggy. Should feel better than this. The last thing I want right now is timeline hangovers. I almost smile at that idea.
 
Each night I have become more and more relieved of never having to spend these days waiting for the following day when I would see my Emma. Soon all the misery and pain will be over.
 
I turn. Soft red morning light creeps in through the window. Everything seems wonderful once again. My right arm reaches out, searching for Emma. But she isn’t there.
 
Wait. The other side of the bed isn’t even there. I shoot up and look around me. I see white sheets, white walls, other beds. Other people. Nurses. Jesus, what is happening? I’m sweating, breathing fast and hard. This isn’t right.

This isn’t the right day.
 
What the fuck is happening?
 
I throw my legs off the bed and get out. The floor feels ice cold and alien to me as I reach down for my boxes of notes in amongst my personal items. Dizzy, I scan through them quickly. I mumble as I read through my theories and diagrams, everything becoming clear. It was just as I had hypothesised. The patterns of timeline transition are becoming more and more complicated due to the divergent paths both lines are taking. The connection in my consciousness is breaking up over time. If I hadn’t already decided up until this point to choose a timeline to live in permanently, I would have had to do so at this moment. I have no more choices, no more options. I must follow the only path open to me.
 
It takes a short time to prepare for what I have to do. I calm myself. Breath steady. I arrange all my notes so that those close to me can read them and understand that I had no choice. I write a brief covering letter that I suppose will be mistaken as my suicide note. Well, it is my suicide note, but it doesn’t mean what they will think it means. They need to read the material underneath. At the bottom I write simply and to the point:

There is nothing left for me. Not here. I have no choice but to be with Emma now, Maybe you’ll understand. Maybe not. Simon.

Satisfied, I leave my notes on my bed and make my way out of our allocated patient enclosure using a key I swiped from a nurse two days ago. I hide several times in the various shadows and corners of that third floor corridor before things are quiet enough and I access the drug storage. I look up at the plethora of vials, needles, jars and bottles. So many drugs. I don’t even know what most of them are supposed to do. Maybe they all do the same thing. Maybe they all do nothing. Working quickly, I pick at different shelves and soon have what I need.
 
I leave the storage room and quietly make my way down the hall. Plastic shoes and trolleys squeak on the linoleum around me warning me of danger and interference around corners. I find an empty observation room and lock myself in, breaking the key off while it’s still in the lock. I sit still for some moments and stare at the impressive pill-shaped rainbow of chemistry in front of me. Deep breath again. This is it. After a brief minute of contemplation I begin opening various bottles and jars swallowing down handfuls of pills at a time.
 
Almost as soon as I begin I have an audience. Panicked and desperate faces press against glass that they have no hope of breaking. Nurses scream while orderlies and doctors impotently try to break down the door. I neck handful after handful of brightly coloured pills. They have a peculiar, bitter taste. As long as I can stay focused I think of Emma. I think of her smell, her skin, her warm breath, and her softness. No more days apart. No loneliness. No unhappiness. We will always be together now. Always.
 
Minutes pass.
 
Now I can’t swallow any more. My throat closes up. My mouth is dry and numb. I no longer taste the bitter powdery texture on my tongue. I feel very strange. My arms refuse to obey me and hung limp at my sides. Suddenly I’m falling. The fall should hurt but doesn’t. I feel sick. I don’t want to choke on my vomit. I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t want to go that way. Not like that.
 
The dropped pills scatter in multiple colours on the tiled floor. My body goes numb as I lie sprawled on my back. The faces on the other side of the door blur into peculiar pink and black blotches and the world is slowly going dark and silent, my senses like soldiers deserting my body. I’m suddenly scared. Terrified. What the fuck am I doing? What if I’m wrong? What if…
 
Panicked, I try to make a noise, shout, sing, anything. Nothing comes to mind in the blackness. I remember something. It’s funny but I can’t laugh because my face doesn’t work anymore. I cough the sounds out,

“Ohh…whaatta…feeelinnngg…dannncinngg…onnnnnnnnnnnn…thhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”
 
But I can’t make any more noise. My heartbeat slows. Each thud is a greater stranger to the next.
 
Stops.

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