The whole room is white. Is it even a room?
I turn around to see the wall behind me. It is wall-papered with a pattern of white petals falling from a white tree and landing on the white ground. The petals and tree are embossed in vinyl wall paper.
As far as I can see the place is white. There is no door in the wall.
The first colour I notice is a green lamp, facing out from a desk, on it a slumped figure leans over an opened book.
I walk up gingerly to the near side, the side which houses the lamp. Its green glow is on my left. It’s an old lamp, a much in need of re-finishing lamp. Its brass colouring being worn through where it’s been switched on and off just below the green glass shade. Sitting at a sharp forty five degrees to the desk I think to myself how it could be easily knocked off. I see no wire hanging from the rear side. The front of the lamp is covered with papers and cuttings. The whole desk resembles a teenager’s first scrap-book attempt. The man doesn’t look up.
I wait another minute looking over his shoulders. I see nothing. Looking right and left I only notice the wall behind me.
Impatiently I cough.
The white haired, white robed, greyish bearded occupant of the desk doesn’t look up. His left hand is holding a pen that isn’t moving. The arm bent at the elbow, forming a ‘T’ where it meets the right arm. The right hand moves, ever so slowly down a page crammed with names. Names crossed out. Re written, upside down, over other names, highlighted.
The hand stops. The man looks up. His youthful eyes don’t suit his wrinkled crow’s feet or his balding scalp. He smiles.
“I am sorry about this, mistakes are made I’m afraid. I’m just going to check again. Please take a seat.” He talks youthfully, not stopping in his ordered instructions, a voice in command. His accent sounds familiar but I can’t place it. I don’t understand what he says but follow his hand.
Looking left he gestures to the far distance with the hand that holds his pen and then moves his right hand to the top of the page, very slowly, as if the smallest touch would destroy the paper. I notice the clean area underneath each arm. The rest of the page covered in a light film of dust. His arms return to their exact place, not to disturb the grime that surrounds them.
Ignoring the invitation I look around.
In the far distance to my left I see a yellow light. I walk towards it.
The wall papered wall on my left follows me as I walk. The light gets no closer.
I wanted to ask about mistakes, what mistakes were made? How? Why? And what did it mean to me? Was I a Mistake? Was this a mistake? What was this even? Where am I?
I walk on studying the petals, each one slightly lower on the wall than the previous, as if falling ever so slowly. I pass the lowest petal that rests at the bottom of the wall, flat against the paper. I notice the next petal is a mirror image of the one before.
As I now walk the petals get higher and higher, as if they are somehow climbing back up the wall.
I turn around to see how far I’d come. I can’t see the desk but the green glow has not faded. Still the wall papered wall is there. I look up above the falling petals and above the bush of leaves. It goes on as far and as high as I can see. There seems to be no joins in the paper as I take a closer look. I reach out to touch it. It’s just like a wall, with silky high quality paper. I notice a brown stain on the bottom, like where a dog would lie, warmly against the wall. There is no bed and no stain on the floor. It looks like a big dog.
I stand still for a minute in silence. I walk back noticing how it’s so quiet. Not eerily as if to scare and not like in a morgue. It’s a pleasant quiet. Just, very still.
My shoes make no noise as I walk.
The green glow is in the distance, it seems a long way off. I couldn’t believe I had walked so far.
I continue towards its warm centre, feeling lonely and wanting an answer to my questions.
Suddenly the desk is at arm’s reach. I turn around slightly confused, looking back there’s nothing. Only the wall is there, now on my right. I’m facing the green glow. It’s the lamp I had noticed first. It reminds me of a traffic signal, the same green, the round glow, inviting you in.
The man’s right hand is still at the top of the page, the book itself isn’t thick, but the pages are big. I notice for the first time a low table in the other direction to that in which I walked. Two chairs stand behind it.
I head for the chairs. They remind me of children’s chairs. Like that of a primary school. They are white. The table is white. Against the white background I satisfy myself by stating how white the furniture is, allowing a reason why I had not noticed it before.
A magazine rests upon it. A small wind rustles the pages of the magazine. I didn’t notice the breeze. It doesn’t cool my brow or blow against me.
I sit down.
The chair isn’t comfortable but I straighten my legs out and feel more stable.
I look at my watch. The hands have gone. It’s an analogue watch, only the numbers are left on the face. It portrays no time. I decide not to question it. Stretching out on the small chair I look up to see the white robed man walking towards me.
“I was right it is a mistake. We will deal with it as soon as we can, but I’m afraid these seats are reserved.” Again the youthful command, cheery but allowing no room for negotiation.
“What do you mean, ‘It’s a mistake’?” I asked, confused and tired, worried about my speech.
“It’s a mistake,” he repeats calmly, as if talking to a child.
“But where am I?”
He reaches down and takes the magazine. “You are here,” he replies, again. My confusion seems to make him confused. He is upset I don’t understand.
Holding the magazine to his chest he walks away briskly and with a smile, looking down at the floor.
I stand up and move to the wall.
Crouching down I sit against the wall papered wall and wait.
The white haired man is sat at his desk. His elbows float in the air as he holds the magazine out like a Sunday newspaper. It’s too far away for me to read the covers. I rest on my heels, hovering against the base of the tree.
I’m not conscious of the time so I don’t know how long I am sat there for, or for how long I’d been asleep, but I’m woken by voices. I wearily look up to see two children in front of the desk.
They are the same height as my son Thomas. They are laughing. The man is telling them a joke. I stand up.
One of the children, a girl, turns to face me.
“He’s not our uncle,” she complains, in a loud whisper to the white man.
“No no, he won’t be long. Why don’t you two go and play over there?” He adds, pointing to the chairs.
I look at the chairs. The two small white primary school chairs. Two chairs the size of small primary school children.
I follow the girls to the chairs with my eyes and see for the first time dolls strewn around the ground. The second child looks just like the first. They walk side by side, in step and holding on to each other, playfully. They don’t look over to me rather obey what they have been told to do.
It takes me a moment to realise they are twins. I don’t know anybody with twins. Come to think of it, I don’t know any one of a twin. I vaguely remember hearing something off Susan, about twins. I don’t think she was one.
As they get closer one half of the twins notice the toys, shouts something and in unison they run over to the dolls. They settle down to the toys and I can see them talking, laughing and playing, but I don’t hear them now.
I lean back against the wall, and then hear someone call my name. I look over to the desk, the white haired, white robed, grey bearded man is smiling at me, he raises his hands and gestures me forward, to one side of the desk.
I stand up and in two steps I’m stood opposite him. I look back and the wall is a good twenty paces away. He interrupts my thoughts by talking.
“I am sorry about this,” he says. “We do have a busy day today and I don’t have much time for chatting at the moment.” On the word busy he pointed to his page.
I make out five names highlighted against the other ghost written, dust covered names on the paper.
“My name is Paul as well you know,” he says with a smile.
“Yes, my name is Paul,” I say unconvincingly.
“I know.” His smile grows, stating matter-of-factly. “Paul Henry Johnson, born 10th February 1977, making you 33, father of three and uh erh...”
“Father of two,” I correct him quickly, a little too arrogantly I think after.
“Yes, yes that’s right, Thomas five and little Jessie two.” He looks at the book, fiddling with his pen in both hands. Nervous I thought, maybe I was too aggressive. I try to make peace by asking a question. “How old are you?”
“Yes, yes, how old am I?” he laughs, “easy to make mistakes at my age.” He seemingly redeemed himself from his earlier error. “I’ll try to have a chair brought up.”
“Thank you,” gently now I speak, “how long is it that I’m I likely to be here? It’s just I have a deadline to meet.”
“Yes, yes we know everything Paul, do try to relax. I’ll make sure it’s a comfortable chair.” He is back in command now his eyes plead with me to understand.
He continues on his page. I return to the wall counting the steps, twenty three paces, I turn around and sit at the bottom of the tree.
The deadline is for a power concept that I have been working on for over 16 months. This is my final chance. If I fail this I would lose my job. Possibly even Susan, I try to convince myself it’s my paranoia telling me Susan is too good for me, but would I blame her if she left? It’s easy to, but it wouldn’t be her fault.
And this job, this job I so intensely hate, the suit, the office, the yes sir, no sir cubicle life of a newt. It’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to think for myself, I wanted to ask my own questions.
I love the outdoors, not sports, or walking, just spaces. Big spaces, not the two meters by two meters of slab space I call my back garden. I wanted to be a Gardner. A Landscaper, a designer of outdoor greens my mother would call it as I tore her vegetable patch apart.
As children me and my brother would excavate our sandpit, level it, plant some grass, move snails as boulders to direct traffic. We would decorate the sand with petals from the rose bushes. We would have sticks stacked intricately on top of each other, the first ever jenga, to make climbing frames for the pests we could find. Ants were the normal occupants, but sometimes a slug would make an appearance, enticed by a lettuce leaf. Spiders were the best. Our mother wouldn’t come over to us if we had spiders. We could play all day if we got a spider.
We would hunt through her vegetables looking for caterpillars too. This she told us off for and explained that caterpillars were the most amazing insect to be found in the world. Telling us how they became beautiful butterflies, we would hunt even harder for them, hiding them in buckets with grass and sticks. We would wait and try to catch them as they changed into our mother’s wonderful imagination.
We didn’t know our mother would go into our buckets and remove the trapped insects. So we had to stick with slugs, which our mother championed because they were a real pest. She didn’t believe in poison. ‘Not while I have two boys,’ she would proudly say. ‘What if my boys ate one by accident, or touched it and licked their fingers.’ Smiling at us she would tell everyone the same stories. Some people twice.
We would go out the next day to find our slugs dead, shrivelled in the sunlight, and all the snails gone. The ants would always stay, climbing over us and into our hair. Later our Dad would moan that they were all over the kitchen table as we sat down for dinner, falling into our food.
That was my dream. There wasn’t much call for landscaping along the road I now lived. The front door was three steps from the street and the back 4m2 yard held a dust bin and washing line.
I doubt I even fitted my bright purple wellies anymore. I’d kept them for sentimental reasons really. It was also what I wanted to name my company.
‘Purple Wellies-Landscapes and spaces’ I had so many silly drawings of how I would design my van, the fliers, and my business cards. Our company tee shirts for my ten man team-purple.
We would work from start to finish as one. From a concrete yard, in less than two weeks we would have developed a quiet space for her, a play area for the kids, and for him, we would make water run up hill.
The fresh air, the green fingers, the muddy boots. ‘Purple Wellies-Dusty in the loft’
“Paul,” I hear the word but it means nothing to me.
“I love you Paul,” again, I can’t place it.
“Daddy, I’m sorry for making you late.”
I’m a nurse. I trained to be a nurse for five years. It’s what I’m good at. After five years I should be good at it. I’d like to think I would’ve been a good teacher if I’d gone into teaching. Five years of being a student teacher should have made me a good teacher. But I didn’t do teaching. I went into nursing. That’s why I’m good at nursing, that’s why I’m now at my place of work without being paid.
I’m in the accident and emergency ward and my pager hadn’t been bleeped. I had received no instruction to go to the ward, to go to room three, to sit beside the bed for hours upon hours. But it’s where I find myself.
I’m sat next to Paul my husband with the worst decision in my life ahead of me.
Paul is stable.
Thomas our son is sat in the corner, restlessly reading his third Mr. Men book. My mother is helping him with the tricky words.
I was being selfish, I was starting to lose patience with Katherine. I needed support. It was hard for me, it was hard for my mother, but I couldn’t see how hard it was being for Katherine.
No mother deserves to lose a child, then lose her husband, and then have the possibility of being completely alone. Her last blood line lying in front of her in a coma, with answers to questions no-one wants to ask, we watch for her as well as signs of life of her son.
This was how my own mother put it when I refused to go and see ‘Her.’
I was so angry.
She was the last person I had in mind of visiting.
It was my mother who told me off.
My own mother who told me to grow up and realise what had happened had happened and to come to terms with it, wake up and stop being so ungrateful that my son was unharmed.
There was a silence as I looked my mother in the eye from the doorway of the room. We both looked at Katherine at the same time. Stood behind her we watched for a moment as she stood like a statue at the foot of the bed.
I had a sudden pain hit me like I had never before experienced. I was aware that Katherine was reliving what she had gone through all those years ago with her oldest son.
Her own Thomas taken from her and now she has to wait all over again to hear the words of the doctor.
Katherine was being so quiet I was trying to think how she was feeling. I realised what my mother was doing to me. Putting me in the place of Katherine, who had lost one child, and raised another. Making me realise the position Mrs. Clarke was in.
I looked to the floor to break my gaze from my mother’s eye as I heard a drop and a laugh. Paul’s mother had come out of her trance like state.
It was Jessie’s laughter that made her come back to life. She had pulled the head of her second hand doll and dropped it onto the floor. It made its way to her grandmother’s foot and broke the spell. Katherine picked up the head and was transported back to the moment.
She bent down and picked up Jessie. Instantly being the grandmother Jessie knew so well.
I don’t know how I would cope if my children were taken from me. They were my life.
Luckily Thomas had his seatbelt on. I repeat it again, luckily.
I was trying to make myself not sound too foolish and pathetic. My husband is lying in a coma in front of me. I’m told by the doctor, my colleague, he is stable. I know the doctor, I know his expressions, and I have learnt to accept his manner. I trust him. But what do I do?
When I first got to the hospital I didn’t want to see her. In rage, anger, I didn’t care about her.
Now it’s been said, I’ve been asked. I can’t simply ignore it. I wonder whether I should say something to my mother or to Paul’s mother.
Should I get hold of someone from her family?
We had met at her twin daughter’s birthday party as I had dropped off Thomas. I recognised some of the parents collecting their own children.
I hadn’t made much of an effort to make school time friends. It was always so false to me. So we are friends because our children go to the same school, share the same teacher, wear the same green jumper.
The whole house was full of women and screaming children as I went into to collect Thomas. No elderly grandparents there, no men in her life.
I felt outnumbered, all the other mummies talking, chatting comparing child raising notes. I stood there alone, studying the terrible paint job that was completed around the top edge of the walls as they met the ceiling.
I was handed a disposable plastic glass half full of wine to which I mouthed a thank you and drank in one gulp.
I noticed no photographs donned the surfaces of the long side board in the front room, only children’s paintings covered the walls. I found Thomas and left through a sea of staring silent eyes.
And now I’m in that situation again, being forced into a friendship I have no pleasure in being in.
I think again about contacting her family. I wouldn’t know where to start. Would it be like taking revenge? Could I live with myself after? Could I live with myself if I didn’t?
I walk out of the room and take little Jessie from Katherine’s arms. She has her favourite teddy with her and is trying to pull his arms off. She looks back over my shoulder, towards her father, as we walk the corridor to the outside.
It’s still raining outside. It shows no sign of stopping. Standing in the entrance way the rain cascades off the broken gutter in front of us.
Times like these I wish I smoked.
Jessie is complaining about the cold. She is only in her pyjamas as her one piece winter baby coat is thrown over the feet of her father. I hold her tight, squeeze her and she lets out a joyful laugh.
How would I cope?
I cry in front of the people busying themselves entering and leaving the wards. I cry in front of the smokers who stand to the side, under a purpose built shelter, like dividing the healthy and the diseased into separate groups.
I’ve never smoked but have an overwhelming urge to start. I close my eyes tight to clear the tears.
My daughter plays with her teddy. Water is dripping on to its head.
I turn back inside and make my way to the bedside of my husband. Hugging Jessie to keep her warm I hang onto her selfishly, saying to myself, no-one is taking you from me, No-one.
I weigh the options in my head as I walk, they go round and round like plate spinner’s tools.
Tired I walk into the small cubicle space that holds my family. I drop Jessie with my mum. Katherine had left the room. I walk over to the sleeping Thomas and stroke the hair out of his eyes. I kiss him on the cheek and walk out of the room.
Ashamed I make no move to meet my own mother’s gaze. As I walk away Katherine meets me in the corridor.
She has that presence of knowing everything before you’ve even said anything. That knowledgeable nod of the head to tell you you’re doing the right thing, even if you don’t know yourself what it is you are doing.
This time there is no nod, no right thing. It’s as if she can see the pain mounting in me. She can see the reasoning but she can’t condone it. She can’t tell me yes or no. Instead she takes a step forward and hugs me. It’s a good hug, strong and heartfelt, something passes between us, a bond that says we are family no matter what happens, we are always family. Her breath on my left ear whispers as it sails past.
I’m left alone motionless in the corridor. I stand a minute, shaking, blocking the task from my mind.
I think only of Paul.
He seems like a reason, but feels like an excuse.
Nick had married Hannah. But not after first having another kind of relationship.
A drug fuelled relationship.
Hannah and Nick’s relationship at first was a roller coaster. One week they were doing fine, the next they were chalk and cheese, lemon and lime.
Hannah was smart, all she wanted was to have some fun, and Nick was fun, whenever he wasn’t stoned.
At the end of his fortnightly paycheque they would be loved up, happy, taking romantic walks, sharing a bubble bath and planning for the future. As soon as the money was in the bank Nick was incognito. Never picking up his phone or answering the knocking on his front door.
Lying in bed late for work stoned as high as a kite. The only way he had kept his job was because his dealer Sedrick was also his boss.
Hannah had begged Sedrick not to sell to her boyfriend. Then it got to the point where Nick was stealing it.
Sedrick the record shop owner and entrepreneur was not satisfied with his drugs going missing so had started selling them to Nick again, much to the disgust of Hannah.
Then it all changed.
Hannah had had enough. She didn’t want to see him, sober or stoned.
He spent a month’s wages on drugs, almost lost his job and flat. Sedrick had to smash Nick’s door in after not turning up for work three days in a row.
He found Nick in bed with a fever. So high he shouldn’t have been alive.
Hannah, on the request of a pleading Sedrick visited Nick in hospital.
Hannah knew of Susan but not to talk too. It was Susan who walked into Hannah on the way out from his curtained cubical. She had been looking at his clipboard of notes and opened the curtained walled just as Hannah walked into the space that held her unconscious boyfriend. Her ex boyfriend, her boyfriend, were they still a couple? She didn’t know and was sure at this moment Nick was not thinking about that much either.
The two women smiled at each other, Susan had not long qualified and had yet to build up her customer relationship conversation. Looking blankly on she continued to smile and then left to an awkward silence.
If that was today you would be lucky to shut her up. She had developed a knack of reassuring visiting family and friends by gently turning the conversation to something outside of the hospital. The fact that a loved one was lying on a bed in an emergency ward was not the issue.
Hannah sat and read books to Nick. He always claimed that he could hear her soft voice telling the story. And later, much later, after a blissful wedding had taken place without a drug in sight, when the same book was turned into a film, he knew exactly what was going to happen, to the point where Hannah, lying with him on their new sofa, couldn’t believe him when he said he hadn’t read the book.
The film was interrupted by the crying of their second child, Maisie.
Their first child 5 year old James was the outcome of a holiday a month after Nick had come out of hospital.
He was told by doctors then that he had a health problem and needed to take things easy.
They spent a week in bed in Devon.
On their return telling tales of how beautiful the countryside was. How they saw some wild horses and ate at the same pubs that Hannah and her family had eaten at when they went on holidays as children.
The truth was they never left the bedroom. Pledging their lives to each other: “Me to you and you to me,” was what they said then, and was written into their wedding vows, after Hannah’s parents warmed to Nick’s changed personal life.
The wedding was just before the birth of James.
John was the best man.
Paul wasn’t invited in what was a very small entourage. One bridesmaid held the flowers and chain of the heavily pregnant bride. The whole wedding was forced upon Nick by his father in-law.
Not at all religious Nick who was moments away from being a father was not allowed to bring a bastard grandchild into the family.
Nick’s new in-laws paid for the honeymoon. His father in-law handing Nick an envelope with a smile “A week in Devon for you to go and really see the countryside.” The expression on his face showed the fact that their previous time spent in Devon’s beautiful green land, their cleverly practiced tales of wild horses, the log fire in the local pubs, was all accepted as myth.
The honey moon never materialised as James was two weeks early.
It was Hannah’s idea for her husband to find his family. Make amends with his mother and stop blaming his father. Be more of an older brother to his younger sister and brother.
It was easier than what he had expected. His father was no longer drinking and was dating a lady who lived in his block of flats.
His sister was still living with their mother and had grown fat. Both his sister and brother were bigger than he had remembered.
It was over 12 years since he left school, since they had last shared one of their mother’s homemade cakes.