There’s an old saying ‘memory like a goldfish’ – it’s used as a joke as people believe goldfish have three-second memories. It’s not, in fact, true; goldfish have memories of up to five months. However, people still say it as a joke if someone forgets something quickly.
There is no such joke about someone who has a problem with their long term memory. Probably because most people who do have that problem suffer from amnesia, and amnesia isn’t funny.
I would know, of course.
It’s funny – I remember my teen years, and I remember graduating – hell, I know I’m a teacher and I started a new job. But I don’t remember anything beyond that. It’s like a dark, black road that I can’t gain access to. That is until I woke up in the hospital to be told I was in a car crash, and that I have amnesia.
Knowing you have amnesia? It’s weird— it’s like when you wake up in the morning and being told you slept walk or snored and because you don’t have any recollection of it, you laugh it off. Except, my sleepwalking or snoring is around two years of my life, or so I’m told.
When my therapist told me a week ago that doing these stupid letters might help me, I laughed at her. I felt bad at the time and apologised profusely, and said I’d give it a go, but now I’m staring at the paper on the desk and the pen in my hand, the reality is worse. It’s a weird concept as it is – writing letters to a prisoner; someone who has clearly done something bad enough to warrant being locked away. It doesn’t sound right to me, but as the therapist told me, they’re still human beings and some friendly chit chat won’t do anyone harm.
“How’re you doing?”
I look up and smile sheepishly. His dark curls flop as he comes to a standstill beside me, his dark eyes lighting up when we make eye contact.
“I don’t know what to write about. Like, how do you even start writing to someone you don’t know? When they could’ve done something bad?” I ask.
“Just make it up. You can talk about the weather, or what you’ve been doing recently. Hell, you can tell them about how many walks you’ve been on with Harley—”
“Ethan, that’s taunting the poor man,” I cut him off with a grin. He chuckles.
“Juniper, you don’t know the person, it’s fine. Just make it up. You never know, it might help you – hell, talk about what happened to you. You never know, the therapist might be right,” Ethan shrugs. “You don’t know unless you try and if it doesn’t work you don’t have to do it again.”
I roll my eyes as he sits on the sofa. I stare around the room; I don’t have any recollection of this place beyond coming here after I left the hospital. Ethan says I’ve been here before, but I don’t remember any of it. I think if I had I would remember this place with the old wooden beams, the cream paint, the artwork on the walls, the way the old cottage feel of the place clashes with his modern TV, the consoles and modern looking décor.
But then that’s what amnesia is – to me it feels like a clash of interior and exterior. On the inside, I feel like I’m still twenty-two, fresh out of getting my teaching qualification with a new job. Yet in reality, I’m twenty-four and apart from the few scars and cuts from the car crash, everything about me has moved on.
I remember Ethan – I shared a flat with him when I first moved to university. We both became teachers and he and I scored jobs at the same school at the same time. I guess it makes sense then why I’m here, with him for my recovery. They said someone I do remember would be safest, and Ethan is all I remember. Him and my parents, who don’t live in the country.
My memories are like a piece of broken glass in my mind – smooth and stable until you get to the sharp point where it cracked, and then nothing but a cut if you try and touch it. Nothing above it, danger and pain when you try and force the memories.
Maybe writing this letter would help. Maybe telling someone this who doesn’t care, doesn’t know me and will read it because they’re lonely will be cathartic.
’Dear whoever is reading this!
I apologise for the weird name, I’m afraid they didn’t tell me your name. If you would have me, I am your new ‘penpal’ as they call it.
This is my first time doing something like this, so excuse me if I’m a little… strange, perhaps.
I’d love to know more about you, anything you’re willing to tell me I suppose!
I have just come out of hospital – a month ago now. I was in a car crash and have been diagnosed with amnesia. My therapist said this might help me ‘deal with it’ – whatever that means! So I guess you and I will learn something about me as we communicate – if we both get along that is!
I thought I would keep things short and sweet for my first letter to you. I would love to know who I am talking to.
Yours Sincerely (is that too formal? I don’t know!)
I stare at the letter once more: I suppose in a way, being abrupt and telling this nameless person the truth about me is cathartic - he’s nameless, I’m nameless, we’re strangers. There’s nothing to lose. Maybe the therapist was right.
I nod and put the letter in an envelope and write the address the charity gave me. It was them who suggested I use a pseudonym just in case – I didn’t really understand why until Ethan told me whoever I ‘matched’ with could track me down or become obsessed with me or something like that. I suppose when you’re alone in prison it’s easy to become attached to someone who shows you kindness. When he told me that, I suddenly realised it’s a lot like me. I’ve been alone in my mind, clawing at this blank, dark part that I know I experienced, and something so alien to me, that it’s isolating. Ethan showed me kindness, though we already knew each other, not even he can understand it. Whenever I ask him about the two years missing from my life, he just tells me I have to figure it out for myself. I want to know what he’s hiding—if he tells me, it could start ripping that veil off from my memory bank, but he won’t tell me.
“Done it?” he asks. I hand him the envelope while I put my boots on. He’s already ready and he’s already put Harley on the leash. His little tail wags, his blonde fur smooth yet we all know he’ll be rolling around in the mud in no time.
“Ready,” I announce and Ethan and Harley lead me out of the front door.
“Ethan?” At first, he doesn’t hear me. The English wind is picking up and being in the open wide space of Richmond Park means it’s colder than at home in the middle of all the houses. I watch Harley pounding after a ball by the small lake.
I remember the doctor and therapist both telling me if I keep listing off names of places and people as I go to them, especially having lived in Kingston Upon Thames all my life, things may start coming back. But so far, no such luck.
“You okay?” Ethan asks when he approaches me. His smooth hand lands on my shoulder. “You look out of sorts. We can go home if you want—”
I shake my head. “No, it’s fine. I just wanted to ask you something.”
“I just…I wanted to know—if I remember you in my life and at my new job… why don’t I remember you from the past two years? If my mind knows you, why am I not even remembering you?” I question.
He sighs, his dark eyebrows knit together on his head and he looks above my head over the hill behind me. Harley appears by my feet, ball in mouth and panting. I laugh and take the ball from him, throwing it aimlessly to my left. He immediately bounds those blonde paws after it.
“Amnesia doesn’t work like that, Juniper,” Ethan says. His hand brushes the blonde hair from my face and tucks it behind my ear. “It… it’s not about who you know, or what you know. It’s about something in your brain not functioning because of the crash. Hell, I wish you remembered, but it’s something your brain needs to work out and eventually they’ll come back.”
“What if they don’t? What if I’m forever destined to have those years erased from my mind? Why two years? Why not one year or one month?”
“I’m not a doctor, June, and I don’t even think a doctor can give you those answers,” Ethan sighs. His hand cups my cheek and he gives me a sympathetic smile. “We just have to get you better, okay?”
“Do you know what happened?”
He sighs. “June, we’ve been over this so many times. I saw you every day at work, we went out for drinks together, of course, I was there for you—”
“Ethan, the past two years of my life have been erased from me. Like—I don’t know like a thief has just stolen my memories. Inside I’m this new twenty-two year old and then I realise that actually, I’m not and I have no idea what happened, why and where. All I know is that I was a teacher, and we were friends because that’s all anyone’s given me. Hell, I have no home—”
“You do, you’re living with me until you can get back on your feet, your home is with me until you feel ready. Your memories will come back,” he cuts me off. I know he’s saying it to calm me down. Last time this happened I worked myself up in the middle of the supermarket because the packaging on the cereal was different to how I remember it and I couldn’t work out why. As far as I was concerned, my memory had this brown box with loopy writing, and when I couldn’t find some damn chocolate cereal it was the worst feeling in the world.
“I don’t… this is a new world,” I sigh. “I remember feeling like two years was nothing, back when we were at university. But now… it feels like a fucking desert in front of me with no end. I have no idea who I am anymore.”
Ethan stands back in front of me after he leashes Harley again. “You are Juniper Stephens. You’re a teacher, you are twenty-four years old. You have a brilliant job, you live in Greater London and right now, you need to take it easy. It will come back, June, okay? It’s only been four weeks. We got this.”
When I look into those dark, hooded eyes, I want to believe him. I know for certain that he wouldn’t lie to me. My memory bank has plenty of recollections of Ethan in it: getting drunk at the student union, climbing the hill from town to the big supermarket when we were poor students and we had to choose between the bus to buy the food, or spending an hour climbing the hill and spending the money on the food itself. I remember us getting accepted to the same teaching training together, landing jobs in the same school together.
And then blank.
Until I get told in the hospital that they’d called Ethan because they found my phone in the car I’d crashed in and I was on the phone to him when it happened.
“Let’s go,” Ethan says. He gestures me with him and without thinking I link my arm in his. “It’ll be all right, Juniper, okay?”
I don’t know what it is, whether it’s the way his voice stammers a little or whether it’s the way he keeps telling me it’ll be okay, but for some reason, I can tell he’s trying to convince me. I know he’s doing it because he knows something that my mind had forgotten.
I’ve had this feeling for the past week whenever I ask Ethan about the two years I’m missing that he’s hiding something big from me. I just don’t know what.