Following on from A New Home
For a moment, I was asleep. The next, I was awake. And then there was this horrible feeling: certainty draining out of me, like dirty bathwater.
I panicked. Not because I was cold. Not because I was naked. Not because I was lying on a hard slab and covered with white fabric. I panicked for two reasons: the first was that I had no idea where I was. And the second was that, hot on the heels of this disconcerting realisation, was another, even scarier: I didn't know anything else either.
Everything had drained away with that bath water. Everything. I had the distinct impression that just a few moments ago, I had been very certain about a lot of things, including who I was and what was going on. But now... nothing. I strained my mind, grasping for something that would help me make sense of things. My own breath felt hot on my face. I became aware of the sound of my frightened gasps and I sat up, clawing at the fabric. Fright bubbled up out of me. For a second I tried to control it, but only for a second.
Someone screamed. And screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
The overhead light flickered. It was starting to give me a headache. All the same, it seemed easier to focus on that than on... everything else. The blanket I'd been given felt warm and heavy around my shoulders. I shut my eyes against the irregular blinking brightness and sighed my body into its warmth.
"I said: do you take sugar?"
It took me a moment to process this, like I was having to both translate the language and understand the concept. I stared blankly. "In your coffee. Would you like sugar?"
The honest truth was I didn't know. Did I take sugar in my coffee? Did I even drink coffee?
Funny, that I could know what coffee was in general terms, but not be able to remember whether or not I'd ever tasted it.
My brain felt like a tongue that was slightly too big for the mouth it lived in. The man was trying to be kind, despite feeling pretty rattled. His shirt didn't fit well and it hadn't been ironed. His ginger moustache was just a smidge too long. He looked tired. He smelled like he had used a little more aftershave instead of washing this morning. There were sweat patches blossoming under his arms. I wondered when his wife had left him.
"I'll just get you your coffee."
It came - the coffee - in a disposable cup, handed to me along with a paper sachet that contained, as it turned out, roughly a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. The coffee tasted bitter. The sugar didn't improve it. The heat felt good in my hands, though. I breathed in the steam and wrapped my fingers around the cardboard. I tried to gather my thoughts.
What do I know?
Well, not a lot.
I am in a morgue. I was pronounced dead at the hospital after the accident and brought here. So, I have been in an accident. Oh. And. My name is Beth. They told me my surname, too, but I haven’t retained that. I barely remembered “Beth”.
They keep using words like “shock”. “Did I want sugar” was, so far, the least complicated question I had been asked. Was there someone they could call? Did I have somewhere to go? All I could say in response was, "I don't know".
A crisp looking woman had come in and smirked at me. Crisp uniform, crisp bun, crisp make up. I got the distinct impression that she was somebody who Got Things Done, primarily by moving paper around and being unbearably sarcastic at somebody. She didn’t ask me many questions. She seemed to understand that I wouldn’t be able to answer them anyway, which made her more intuitive than she looked. As she clicked crisply passed my coffee bearing divorcee friend and out of the room, I caught the words, “Nice suit”, which I took for more heavy sarcasm because the poor man wasn’t wearing a suit, and what he was wearing wasn’t particularly nice. It was just a larger, scruffier version of what she was wearing.
Somebody had apparently suffered enough sarcasm to go looking through the paperwork for a phone number. Even now, somebody was making a phone call.
Apparently, I had a boyfriend. His name was Miles. He had dark hair, that would have looked better cut short but was getting shaggy on top. His face was objectively reasonably handsome, if a little square, with a nose just a sniff too wide, and slightly crooked, like it had been broken. His tan coloured coat complimented his olive skin and looked quite expensive. He had a dishevelled look, as if someone had just got him out of bed to tell him his dead girlfriend was not actually dead.
I don't know what was more difficult for him, that he was staring at a ghost, or that the ghost had no clue who he was, and, in a cruel twist under the circumstances, looked dispassionately right through him.
The wild hug he threw on me jolted me unpleasantly and I stiffened against it. Quite apart from the fact that I wasn't wearing much, I didn't much like him pawing at me and sobbing. It was exactly like being hugged by a total stranger. He seemed to have no grasp at all of the impropriety, which only made it worse.
I wondered where I lived and suddenly hoped fervently it wasn't with him.
"Excuse me? Sir? Did you bring some clothes? Only the lady here needs something to wear."
"Yes, yes, of course, sorry, of course - here - "I took the supermarket carrier bag and was shown to the staff toilets where I could dress. I struggled into the clothes in a cubicle that felt about half a size too small for the purpose. Something niggled at the back of my mind like a loose tooth. As I rubbed my bruised elbow, I grimaced in frustration at the sensation of something familiar slipping away.
What good were memories that only threatened to reveal themselves?
This was displaced by a more immediate and mundane concern. This was what he brought me to wear? The lacy knickers itched, the jeans felt too tight (I left the button undone) and the top was flowery and flowy. I felt ridiculous in it. What was wrong with a t-shirt or a jumper? Something comfortable. Something warm. Where did he think I was going after a stint in the morgue?
I tried to be charitable. Maybe he had just grabbed whatever clothes he'd laid his hands on. Was I charitable? Was I kind? Did I ever wear this? This was "me" was it? He had not brought me a bra, which I felt vaguely grateful for, because the idea of wrestling into one right now was a bit daunting. He hadn't brought any shoes either. I was gifted a pair of broken flips flops. They were blue. You can keep those. Oh. Um. Thanks.
I tried not to think what other feet might have been in them, and hobbled outside in that odd, curved-sole way that people use when they are trying to keep a loose shoe on their foot, awkwardly stepping around puddles. Pale, bright, watery sunshine had done nothing to warm the early morning air, and the chill bit through the flimsy fabric I was wearing and informed me why he should have brought a bra. Or better yet, a nice warm hoody. I pulled his tan coat tightly around me and let him steer me to his car. A beat up blue Ford escort. Ah. Not very successful, then, this boyfriend.
Am I so shallow? I don’t know. Am I? I stared numbly out of the window.
"Hmm? Sorry? What?"
It hadn't really sunk in that that was my name. It didn't feel like mine. I didn’t want it.
"I said, I don't think you should be alone. Don't you think? I mean. You should stay with me. Right?"
In my mind, I flipped through an index of probably-acceptable responses. "Where do I live, exactly?" didn't sound right somehow, even though the words itched on my tongue. "Shouldn't I go to hospital or something?" was a perfectly reasonable escape, but the prospect of being poked and prodded was disproportionately horrifying to me. "Okay. Sure." felt like the wrongest choice of them all, so why was that the one that burbled out of my mouth?
Oh, Christ. Does he want me in his bed? Please, no. There was something in his manner that I couldn't put my finger on, something hopeful, like a puppy.... But also awkward, maybe even apologetic? And a little bit frightened. Like that puppy knew the pile of poo in the living room was going to make someone very cross. I tried not to think of what might happen when we got... home... but what else did I have to dwell on?
He's not going to Expect Anything of me yet at least. Surely? I'm in shock, aren't I? People in shock don't have to do things like that. Anyway, I have just been dead. It's not very hygenic, it's probably not even legal.
I don't need a memory of what my mother looked like, or where I celebrated my last birthday. I need a memory of how to navigate situations like this one, and I have nothing to draw on. I have no standard of measure, nothing for comparison. I have no idea what is normal, or which way is up.
We pull up outside a small, modest looking semi-detached house in a cul de sac a little way out of town. Only it's not a house at all. Its a set of flats. I find this out after we get in through the door - it sticks - and we are immediately faced with a narrow, carpeted stairwell which smells faintly of cats.
"Up here," he says, quite redundantly really, since there is nowhere else to go. I feel this very suddenly and very acutely. For a moment, I consider bolting - but where would I go? Suddenly I feel gloomy and tired. It seems I am carrying his shock and distress as well as my own, and I don't like it. I just want to be away from him. And although, in a way, I have only just woke up, all I want to do is sleep. It is exhausting not knowing anything.
There is another door at the top of the stairs. I don't know what I expected on the other side of the , but this was not it.
"Have you.... um.... have you lived here long?"
Cardboard boxes forested the hallway.
"Oh, you know, a while, only a little while."
"And, umm, I've been here before haven't I?" I ask him this because it would explain the memory that tapped at the edge of my mind as we walked in, and I very much want for something to start making sense.
He drops his gaze almost sheepishly before he says, "Well, no, actually. I'd, err, only just moved in you see. You hadn't been over yet." He says this almost like he is admitting something. Then he brightens up a little. "I wanted to make it, you know, nice, before you came over. But, in the circumstances...."
I didn't feel like this explained everything and something in me stirred, lifting its head and trying to warn me. Suspicion. Something was not right here. I was ready to press him with more questions. How long have we been dating? was the one that hovered between my teeth. But it seemed I had stumbled on the perfect tactic to get him to leave me alone: ask questions. I squirreled this useful little tidbit away.
"Listen, this has all been a lot for you. I'm sure you need to rest, don't you?"
He shouldered a door open off the hallway and led me through to, presumably, his bedroom. As he walked he swiped bits of clutter, dirty socks and an empty crisp packet from my view. He seemed to be quickly coming to a realisation that the situation he had just landed himself in was twice as flustering as the one he had just tried to avoid. Frying pan, fire.
I perched on the edge of the unmade bed, waiting for him to leave. More accurately, hoping he was going to leave, and working out what I was going to do if he started to undress. He ran a hand through his floppy hair hair helplessly.
Neither of us have a script for this.
"Do you need... I mean.... do you want me to..."
The man seemed to be powered by helplessness, embarrassment and half formed questions.
Really? This guy?
A small, spiteful part of me took charge of my mouth and said sweetly,
"Could you open the window before you go?"
"Of course, of course, sorry, can I just -" He had to step on the bed to reach the window - the room was really quite small - and the fresh air that gusted in was very welcome to my nostrils. It was stuffy in here, and smelled of drink and sweat and maleness and body spray. He hesitated, perhaps waiting for me to be frail and damaged and, weeping, ask him to stay. I didn't. I waited. After all, I wasn't about to undress in front of a stranger. He turned without another word and left the room. I waited a beat or two, and kicked off the hideous flip flops, making a mental image to throw them iin the bin as soon as possible, or possibly even burn them. The jeans, they had to go. I might not know my own middle name, but I knew you didn't go to bed in jeans. These hellish knickers, too. This top, it didn't feel like it belonged to me, but if I take it off then my naked skin would be against those sheets. The stink in the room suggested this wasn’t the best idea. I left it on. For a moment, I considered looking for a probably-clean shirt, but that felt like a level of intimacy I wasn't happy with. I brought my feet up, drew the covers up over me and lay my head down on the pillow. Seconds later, I lifted it back up again to turn the pillow over. As I shifted, trying to get comfortable in my own skin, I felt something against my thigh. Ugh. Lace. But wait. What's this? Well, now that is odd. A probably not clean bra. In his bed. I thought I hadn't been here yet?