Miles was mad about the TV when he got home. I had hoped he wouldn't notice until after I was gone (I am unscrupulous, apparently,) but no such luck. The air had been thick with his cursing, which didn't bother me as much as it probably should have. I let guilt slide off my face and leave it blankly innocent. I had tried to switch it on earlier, I say, all wide eyes and ignorance. It didn't work then either. Well, that's not exactly a lie.
That wasn't his concern right now, though. He is sat at the postage-stamp sized table in the kitchen, his hands in his hair, which is sticking up a little on all sides. He is wearing a slightly wild-eyed look. I started asking him questions, mostly about the accident - and this time, I haven't let him evade them. He looks cornered.
“How much do you need to know? I mean, you remember now, right?”
Wrong. I have exactly as many memories as I had when you left this morning.
“I don’t remember anything about the accident.” I spoke carefully, weighing each word before I let it escape. “I don’t remember anything that day really. It is still blurry for a little while before that. I am trying to piece together how long and what is missing.”
He definitely looks worried. What is it that he is hoping I won’t remember?
It turns out I am a suspicious and cautious person.
Why was I so hesitant to be honest with him?
We were both playing this game, dancing this dance - hedging, weighing our words. I suspected I was better at it, but I didn't know anything and that put me at a distinct disadvantage.
I could practically see the cogs in his head turning. Mine were too. A little faster, probably. Maybe because there’s less stuff in there clogging it up.
He looked tired and deflated. I made my voice softer, and, for the first time, reached out to purposefully touch him. I took his hand.
“Would you just take me home, please, Miles?”
Here is a thing I can find out from him without directly asking the question. It might be all I need. There will be so much I can find out once I get there. The prospect is quite exciting. I hope I don’t live too far away. Not because the car journey would probably be one long stifled and awkward exchange, (I could tolerate that, I think, since it is likely to be the last one) - but more because I really, truly can't wait to get home.
Maybe, Before, I was a very organised person with all my important documents in an easy to find file with my family tree and a list of contact numbers. I could hope, couldn't I?
Miles looked defeated. “Beth... I.... I hoped...”
What? That I’d fall into your arms in this dirty little flat and we would live happily ever after?
He doesn't tell me what he hoped for. He sighs and picks up his car keys.
“Come on. I'll take you home.”
There are still a few people outside hoping to get a few official words from the girl who died. We duck our heads and hurry. Miles spreads his designer coat wings to shield me, like an awkward mother hen. It feels like overkill, but it makes him feel useful. I get the sense he quite enjoys the drama of it.
“Did you at least manage to get some sleep, today?”
“Oh, yes. Loads. I feel a lot better.” I lie proficiently - another fact about myself.
“And you are sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
Something stirred again. Tread carefully.
“Not right now. I think I need to go home first.”
“Right, right. Get some proper clothes and things.”
I stretch my mouth at him in a semblance of a smile and say, "Yes, of course."
He sighs heavily, reaches over and pulls a set of keys from the glove compartment..
"I guess you better have these," he says, dropping them listlessly on to my lap. Something in his face is changing, hardening. Whatever it was he hoped, he has let go of it, I think. I have the vague sense I have lost an ally. Dull and useless, maybe, but the only one I had.
I have run out of words to say, and so I sit in silence with my keys digging into my hands and waiting patiently to arrive at my destination.
He pulls over on a side street off the main road, squeezed into a gap in the many other parked cars. There's a row of houses on each side of the road. I have no idea which one is mine, but I don't want to make this obvious.
"Thank you," I say softly. He doesn't answer.
I move to get out of the car, and he speaks abruptly, without looking at me.
"There is a box of your stuff on the back seat."
My heart is soaring - I feel like I have hit the jackpot twice in one day!
I'm standing on the pavement, awkwardly holding a cardboard box and still wondering which house is mine when he pulls away. He doesn't look back, or wait until his girlfriend - am I still his girlfriend? - is safely indoors. He hadn't even cut the engine. I wonder for the briefest moment if I will see him again, but the thought slips away willingly and I don't try to hold on to it. I guess being dumped hurts a lot less when you were dead yesterday. Dying gives you a sense of persepctive.
I look up at the houses around me, and my eyes narrow calculatingly. Almost all the ones I can see have lights in the windows - I'm not sure why, because it doesn't seem that dark, but it does give them a warm, homely glow. I head for the nearest darkened house on this side of the street.
I feel quite excited. I am not certain this is my home, but it is likely. And if it is, I have no idea what will be inside waiting for me. I can't remember celebrating Christmas, but I imagine this is what it feels like to open a really big, exciting present.
The key slides into the door and turns effortlessly. Triumph rears brightly in my chest.
The door clicks shut behind me, and I feel the place yawn widely around me, brimming over with possibilities.
I am buoyant. There is a spring in my step and I think I am genuinely smiling. I hope fervently that I wasn't a security conscious person before I died. I envision a laptop left switched on, with no password required, preferably already logged in to multiple social media accounts. I can sit up all night practising making coffee and learning about myself.
I push open the door to my right and stop dead in my tracks.
A small blonde child smiles down at me from several photographs on the walls. She graces a large canvas to my left above the sofa, wearing a red courdroy dress over colourful stripy tights.
Who is she?
But of course, I know who she is without knowing, and I balk at what must be true.
My excitement mutates into panic, and for the first time, I stop feeling drawn to finding out who I am, or who I was, and consider the possibility of running from that information, and from her. Starting afresh in a new place with a new name and a new job where I don't have to wonder whether other people know me or how well. A place where everyone else is as much of a blank slate as I am. The prospect of learning everything about myself is not exciting anymore, it is unappealingly heavy. How many more surprises like this one are in store for me?
The possibility that this child is not mine does enter my head, but is greeted roughly with the twin doormen of self-loathing and extreme scepticism. Some part of me recoils - what kind of person am I, to reject a child? My own child? Probably? - and yet I reject this shame defensively. Most women have several months to mentally prepare themselves somewhat for being a parent. Three minutes ago, I was not one, and now I am. That is a little bit of a shock, to say the least. No wonder I sought - am still seeking - a way out, a way for this not to be happening to me. Maybe she is my niece, a god-daughter or stepdaughter... But some part of me recognises that there are simply too many photographs, too large, and a number of them obviously professionally shot - for this not to be my own blood spattered across the walls.
She is fair-skinned, this little imp, and her hair is fine, straight and pale blonde. Nothing at all like Miles, with his olive skin and dark waves.
I stare at her face, looking for myself, and realise with a small jolt that I don't really know what I am looking for. It is an odd feeling, to realise you are not so familiar with your own face.
My left hand has strayed to my cheeks and is exploring my jawline and nose as fervently as my eyes are searching out her features. My precious box of treasure is still held awkwardly with my right arm. I don't even know how to judge the age of small children, and I doubt I even like them very much. This one can't be more than... three? Two? She looks small. In one shot, her face is tilted up and scrunched, teeth bared and eyes squinting - like someone has said "smile!", but she is too young to know how to fake it.
I wonder where she is, and what her name is, and how I chose that name, and whether she is safe (although this is from a sense of obligation rather than genuine care) - and suddenly all the things I need to find out are oppressively heavily on me, while the things I know for certain about myself - the things I would use as anchor and compass combined - are scant and flimsy.
Miles' little flat had felt claustrophobic and cloying, and all I had wanted to do the whole time I was there was escape it, and him, and retreat to a place of my own. And now I am here, and I feel no freer at all, my urge to escape only intensified.
I haven't yet moved, it's as if the too-big trainers on my feet are rooted to the carpet.
I am unsure which thing to do first, out of the many, many things that demand my attention. It doesn't really matter, I tell myself very firmly. Just do something. And after that, do something else. And keep doing things, one after another. Slowly, if you have to. Badly, if necessarily. But do things. Or they will drown you.
I turn back into the cramped hallway, and hang up the fleecy jacket I had taken from Miles' flat. I slide the trainers off one after the other and push them neatly against the skirting under the coat hooks next to my treasure box. I pat it fondly. I'll get to you in a bit, I think to it. First, I am going to explore my home, one room at a time, starting with downstairs and finishing with my bedroom. Then I will decide what to do next. I do not pry in the living room. I don't think I could, with her eyes on me. I walk straight through and into the kitchen. I open all the cupboards in turn, making snap judgement about who I had been before as if they were an entirely different person. Lots of pans. And well-used, too. Likes to cook.
I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh food stocked in the fridge, and nothing rotten or gone off. It felt like the last time I was here was a lifetime ago. In a way, I suppose it was. But at the same time, I probably stood in this exact spot just the other day.
I am nervous about what else I might uncover, but moving through the house feels good, familiar. I have a sense of déjà vu. Hope sparks inside me - am I about to remember something? - only to be squashed immediately by a flat pragmatism: Don't chase it. You might not like what you remember.
I am moving up the stairs when I hear it. A phone ringing. I retrace my steps and follow the noise all the way to the bottom of the treasure box. The name on the screen looks like a business, rather than a person, but clearly one I have saved, so it must be someone I want to speak to.
"Hi!" comes a bright voice on the line. "We were just wondering what time you were going to pick up Isla from nursery today? Or is someone else coming to get her?"
How on earth to explain that I died recently, and haven't quite bounced back yet?
"I don't know if you heard, " I begin cautiously, "but I was in an accident."
It was like I could hear the thing she nearly said, Yes, we heard you were dead.
"I will come to collect her," I said woodenly, "because there is no one else that can do it. But I need... Look, the reason I am late is because..." I didn't know I had a daughter until five minutes ago and I need a little more time to come to terms with it. Like, a year or so. "... I am suffering with amnesia since the accident and I can't remember where you are or what your address is."
She sounds a little incredulous at first, and then sympathetic. I grab an envelope off the doormat and hastily open drawers at random looking for a pen. It feels weirdly normal - a very human thing to do. I finally have both the address and the directions scrawled on the back of an envelope. It is five minutes walk away, which I am relieved about because I don't know if I own or car (the street outside is lined with them), or if I know how to drive.
Right. I suppose I better collect my child from nursery, then.
This is quite possibly the weirdest day of my life.
This one did not go in the direction I wanted it to. Dammit.
It's probably getting to a point now where it makes no sense without the previous bits, so here they are:
1. A New Home
2. Dead Man's Flip Flops
3. Sleep is for the Weak