MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In those first few moments there is nothing. No pain, no fear. My eyes flicker open and in the grey light of a distant moon I see my surroundings, dark leather and the curved edge of a steering wheel. I see a shiny splatter of something oily, the deep burgundy of blood slick on my skin. What happened? How did I get here? Where am I?
I raise my head and look around. Is that rain falling, splashing cold against my face? I listen as my breath drifts in and out, glance towards the empty passenger seat just a few inches away. I try to look up, my neck in agony, see the shattered remains of the windscreen. The edges of the broken glass are red as if punctured with fire. I fumble a shaky hand down towards my seat belt, fiddle at the button. I don’t have the strength to press it. My eyes are glazing over and I can’t see clearly. I slip forward against the strap, my weight dead, but I think, just probably, I’m still alive.
How much time passes, slumped like that on my own, fading in, fading out, travelling in some strange and lonely place? The cool chill of the rain wakes me, lashing against the window, driven by the power of the wind. A night of violence is descending here. Pain in my chest, through the length of my arms, down into my muscles and broken bones. An ice-blue light flashes in the distance, reflecting in the cracked glass. It winks at me through swaying trees. Eyes open, eyes closed, tossed between life and death like a piece of ratty seaweed caught in the swell of the waves.
A voice calls out as rain drums the rooftop. ‘Can you hear me, love?’ A hand slaps against the wet glass. I feel the pull of fingers as they grapple against my skin, my bare arms slippery, my hair stuck to my face in matted red clumps. I turn my head towards the figure at my side. A yellow jacket, and a black hat hiding the man’s face. He shouts something into the night. Are there more people here? Water runs from his shoulders, the spray cold, sharp as it hits me. I hear the crunch of broken glass beneath me as I move.
‘Just hang in there. Try not to move too much.’ I think he opens the door. I can feel the heat of his body close to mine. ‘Can you tell me your name?’
Somebody slips a collar around my neck. It’s colder now, quieter. I can’t feel my hands. My eyes are getting tired. Then I hear somebody yell, and they drag me from the car, their movements desperate and rushed. Their voices carry on the wind. ‘We’re losing her!’ they shout.
* * *
Eyes open, wide. It is not a subtle waking, no gentle lull between dream and reality. It’s quick, the pull of a Band-Aid, the sharp slice of a knife. I am out of breath and sweaty. Memories of the dream recede as I glance around the room, a conscious effort to remind myself of where I am. That I am safe. That I am alive.
I turn over, pulling my face from the pillow, and sit up in bed, the only sound a gentle rain pattering against the window. I rub my eyes, listen as a door opens then closes. Footsteps on the stairs, the hush of voices as they chatter in the kitchen.
They tell me my name is Chloe. When I woke in the hospital, my voice scratchy and coarse, my throat almost too sore to speak, I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t remember anything about my life. Who I was, what I did. How I lived. I asked one of the nurses, a plump woman called Helen, whose small-framed glasses balanced on the tip of her nose. She placed a chubby hand on her hip. ‘Don’t you remember?’ she asked me.
I shook my head. It throbbed, felt swollen. I tried to think back, and I thought that maybe I had a vague memory of an accident, the same memory that I now dream of each night. But I wasn’t certain. I looked out of the window, knew there was something familiar about the rain, the distant sound of waves crashing against the shore. But what?
‘Your name is Chloe. You had an accident. You were in a coma for over a month,’ she said. ‘But you’re doing well, so try not to worry.’
Helen went back to the business of making notes, recording various measurements: pulse rate, blood pressure, my temperature from the inside of my ear. I looked at the card balanced on the bedside table: Get well soon, Chloe, it read. All our love, Mum, Dad, and Jess. My family, apparently.
I couldn’t remember them either.
Now I push the heavy embroidered blankets away and pick up a glass of water from the bedside table. My mouth is so dry and has been ever since I arrived here. It’s the dust, the whole place full of it. My family’s home is old and vast, some parts of it untouched for decades. I reach for the lamp, little dangly tassels hanging from the shade. I turn it on but it does little to brighten the room, the corners remaining dark, cast in permanent shadow.
I gaze about to remind myself of where I am. This place is home now, yet even after several weeks it feels unfamiliar. The walls are lined with a textured wallpaper, a heavy rose-print pattern in a sickly salmon pink. The corners are peeling away in two separate places. The ceiling is white, but appears grey and dirty on account of the heavy fog outside. It hasn’t lifted in days. The surround of the ceiling light is flaking too, everything falling apart. I take in the details each morning in the hope that it will help me to feel like I know this place. But nothing in this house is mine. I belong somewhere else. I belong to another life that I can’t remember. A life that doesn’t exist any more.
I stand up and move to the window, push aside the threadbare curtain. It is impossible to appreciate the vastness of my family’s estate from the first-floor window of the old rectory where they tell me I grew up. Acres of wet farmland surround the house, the grounds stretching all the way to a rolling perimeter of forest. Somewhere in the distance there’s a village. I would like to walk there, get out of this house, but my father says it’s too soon. I am a grown woman, yet I’m kept inside like a small child who needs protection. They tell me they want the best for me. So I stay here as they ask. But it’s hard to trust people when you’re not even sure you know them.
The muted colours of the hallway press in on me as I walk downstairs. The light outside is low, a winter’s light, silvery and soft. It’s a reminder of just how much time I’ve lost, the passing of a season I didn’t witness. What is the last thing I remember? I’m not sure. I can’t recall the life I had in the summer before the accident. So for now I have to make do with this place, these people. This version of myself.
Chloe. Whoever that is.
My father is already sitting at the table as I arrive in the kitchen, my mother busy at the worktop. Jess, my sister, pulls out a chair for me to sit. I watch as my mother takes anxious steps in my direction, a pot of tea in one hand, a plate of muffins in the other. She fusses about me as if it’s still my first day here. She prompts me to take a chocolate one, then I watch as she sets the plate down on the long kitchen table.
‘Would you like some toast?’ she asks. ‘We got some nice jam in.’ I smile and nod. She looks to my father, who signals his approval. An atmosphere of expectation hangs in the air, has done ever since the day I arrived. It’s desperation, I think, a need for me to feel at home. They want me to be comfortable, relaxed, for this situation to work.
‘Chloe, I’m afraid I have to go into the hospital this morning,’ my father says as I nibble the muffin, the edges dry and stale. ‘I have a number of commitments that I’m afraid I simply can’t put off. Your mother and sister are going out too.’
‘OK,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll be all right here on my own.’
‘Well, you won’t be entirely alone. Ben will be here.’ Ben is the groundsman, works at keeping the massive gardens under control. I see him each day, appearing and disappearing through the lingering fog. He stares at me a lot, the spectacle that I have become.
My father stands up and drains his coffee cup before kissing my mother’s soft cheek. He moves towards Jess, attempts to ruffle her hair. She tuts, moves to avoid it just in time. Then he leans over and places a cold, dry kiss on my cheek. A shiver runs down my spine. ‘I don’t want you to worry about anything,’ he says. ‘Everything is going well. But I think it would be a good idea if we sat down together a little later on, eh? It’s been a couple of days since we last had a session.’
A session. His part in helping me rebuild my life. These began when I first returned to this house. As a psychiatrist, my father appears to have taken on the responsibility of accelerating my recovery, determined to help me remember the past I have forgotten. But after several weeks, that past still eludes me. I would have expected my family to have told me more about my life by now. Where I used to live. Who my friends were. How I spent my time. But nobody seems to want to tell me anything, and I’m unable to remember for myself. All in good time, they say. I will help you, my father tells me. He wants me to remember. But it’s only ever on his terms.
He picks up a copy of The Times and folds it under his arm. ‘We will have you feeling back to normal soon, Chloe. We’re making excellent progress. But please, make sure you don’t go outside. You’re not quite ready for that. Oh, and I almost forgot.’ He produces a small ceramic dish with three tablets inside. ‘Make sure you take these.’
I place the tablets on my tongue, a concoction of analgesics and anti-seizure medication, washing them down with a sip of water. From the frosty window in my father’s study I watch as he gets into his car; Jess climbs into my mother’s, and they both, one after the other, drive away. To lives I know nothing about. My gaze follows the cars until their lights are swallowed up in the thick wall of fog. And as I stand there in clothes that are not really mine, in a household to which I don’t belong, I think about his instruction not to go out. I have the same thought I have every day: if I did go out, somewhere other than here, where would I go? But I can’t answer that question. Because beyond this house, and these three virtual strangers, I know nothing else about my life.
My father tells me that once we have finished the therapy sessions everything will be as it once was, nothing more than a faint, well-healed scar left behind to connect my past to my present. But no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, I’m not going to be able to slip back into my old life. The person I used to be is dead, taken away from us in the crash. And even though I’m confused about most things, there is one thing I do know: you can’t bring the dead back to life. The old Chloe is gone, and I’m afraid I might never get her back.
I’m more afraid that my family don’t want me to.
Copyright © 2018 by Michelle Lisa Theodorou