Carole finished her essay and breathed out, puffing out her cheeks. She swigged the last of her cold coffee and rested her forehead on her hands, pulling her unwashed hair away from her face. She was utterly exhausted. But the essay was done, finally.
The last of the daylight was being pulled down into the ground and she watched it disappear through the small kitchen window as she washed up, listlessly clanking away at crockery and cutlery, not really looking at where she placed them in the drainer, because she knew the whole routine by heart. It would all be done again tomorrow.
As she collapsed onto the battered green sofa in front of some late-night show, her mind wasn’t really concentrating, kept drifting back to the fine points of the English essay she had been slaving away on. She wouldn’t normally have struggled so much, but she was so tired these days. Always so tired, never quite alert. Her brain never seemed fully focused on one thing or another. She felt like a zombie, trapped somewhere between alive and undead.
Her phone rang and she chatted amiably to Rob, her partner of eight years. She couldn’t recall the conversation afterwards even if you paid her. The usual platitudes no doubt, the usual bored questions asking about each other’s predictable days; empty words implying love but not actually fully expressing it. She couldn’t even be sure if she loved him anymore, yet last night he had asked her to marry him and she again, caught in the middle of conflicting states, hadn’t said yes, yet she hadn’t said no. She knew he was desperately hanging on for a glimmer of enthusiasm from her, as surely, he must be blaming himself for her… sluggishness. In the space in her heart where there should have been passion, there was instead a grey mushy place, full of a dark, frightening uncertainty. She hated herself for stringing him along when she wasn’t sure about him anymore. And she also hated herself for not having the courage to let him go, to set him free so that he could find true happiness without being tethered to this stuck, unhappy woman. So that she could also have the freedom to make some wild mistakes and discover her own happiness. She was sure she was only one more bad day away from a full-on depressive crash; a blackening of mood and a self-destructiveness of emotion that nobody would be able to pull her out from. Not Rob, not her university lecturer, nor her mum. Ironically, she thought, a crash like that would cause such a crisis that it would restore factory settings, give the system a boot. Then, and only then, might she have the courage to do something completely different in order to try and make herself happy.
The rest of the night was predictable; she drank more coffee, she watched a bit more television and she stared into space, her mind throwing odd, random thoughts at her. She knew she would benefit from a warm bubble bath, but she just couldn’t be bothered; she’d have a shower in the morning, bleary-eyed. She popped a pill to help her sleep, she took another one out of habit. She changed into baggy pyjamas and she crawled into an unmade bed, playing with her phone, feeling lost, browsing endless YouTube videos. This wasn’t helping her melatonin levels rise in readiness for sleep; the blue light was keeping her awake yet exhausted, but this was a late-night habit long-ingrained now. Eventually the tablets kicked in and she started to drift off…
The dream, when it came, when it pushed up through the other murky crap to take precedence, was so beautiful, it took Carole’s breath away. Literally. She lay asleep in her dreamworld, gently gasping with the serene magnificence of the scenarios that made up this alternative life of hers. In her dream she was bathed in colour, not dressed in drab black, designed to stop anybody from paying too much attention to her. She was in love, happy, bathed in a glow that only pure happiness and being comfortable in your own skin can bring you. She was radiantly achieving her potential, doing what made her happy, every day. All the bullshit was cut away, all the expectations and the disappointments and the fear of failure, the fear of what people thought of her was simply irrelevant. What was left was a simple, miracle of living a life purely for her, involving only what fulfilled her and made her happy. Doing only what she wanted to do, not what was expected of her. Loving out of emotion and desire, not out of obligation and fear of being alone or letting anyone down. In her dream she was free.
When Carole awoke, she was crying, tears rolling down her cheeks because that beauty had not been real. It had been a dream and now she was back in her awful, draining reality. She grieved and she cried like she hadn’t in a very long time. Afterwards, she felt cleansed, and clear-headed. She knew what she had to do. She boiled the kettle for her morning coffee, before stepping in the shower and showing up for one more tiring day on this earth.
That night, Carole did her usual. Study, dinner, television. She wrote some letters to those she cared about. She enjoyed it all as much as she could. She didn’t answer the phone to Rob, however. She let it ring out, because she just didn’t know how to say goodbye to him.
At 4am in Worcester General Hospital, the steady beep of the life support machine informed Carole’s family that she was indeed still alive. Rob had turned up to her apartment late that night, after she hadn’t answered, and after he had left her several worried voicemails. She hadn’t seemed herself lately. Unable to wake her, he’d phoned 999 in a panic, worried she had taken an overdose.
The doctor on duty that night spent a while scratching his head and consulting quietly and urgently with the Diagnostics Expert before meeting with the bewildered parents and Rob. He could not attempt to disguise his confusion at her brainwave state, whilst she did appear – on the surface at least – to be okay.
“She is alive and breathing for herself,” he told them in a quiet corner of the hospital, before they had been in to see her. “Her vital signs are all perfect. But we can’t…” He stumbled here and ran his hand over a bedraggled face, framing strikingly blue eyes. “We can’t seem to wake her. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s not drugged. We can’t find any evidence of injury. She also appears to be dreaming. Her eyes won’t keep still. Her brainwaves are the most relaxed I’ve ever seen.”
Rob’s eyes were swollen from crying. “She left letters for people… I opened mine but it doesn’t really make sense. I don’t understand what she means…” He collapsed into his mother-in-law’s arms as the doctor took the note and silently read it:
I’M SORRY BUT I HAVE TO GO. I THINK I DO LOVE YOU, BUT YOU DESERVE SOMEONE HAPPIER.
I WANT TO LIVE MY DREAM…
FORGIVE ME. LOVE, CAROLE XXX
Dawn’s warm fingers rose up out of the ground, and after a long, tearful morning of holding his sleeping partner’s hand as against all odds she dreamt, and dreamt, and dreamt, Rob could be mistaken for thinking that the look on Carole’s sleeping face was, for the first time in many years, a look of peaceful serenity.
DEDICATED TO ANTHONY G - THE BEST DAMN DRIVING INSTRUCTOR EVER.