31 January 2008

a new life - part 6

They knocked again. “Francis, you’ve got a visitor. Can we come in?” Francis swung his legs off the bed and cautiously walked to the door. He opened it and recognized the doctor, a memory specialist but the man with him, eyeing Francis from head to toe, was unfamiliar.
“This is Detective Black, Francis. He wants to talk to you. Don’t worry I’ll sit with you.”

Black motioned Francis to sit on his bed. Francis complied and the detective sat beside him. The doctor rested nonchalantly on the desk, legs crossed. Nothing to fear here, his body language said.

Black smiled. “Just routine, Francis. May I call you Francis?” He continued without waiting for an answer, “You had an accident and lost your memory. But you are an interesting man Francis, you are in a unique position and I think you may just be able to help me solve a little mystery.”

Francis shook his head. “I can’t help you.”
“Well. you were taken to hospital in an ambulance a few months ago,” confided the detective, “and the doctors tell me you were saying some strange things.”

“I can’t remember any accident,” Francis insisted. “All I know is they told me I fell asleep for seven days and then I woke up. They brought me here to rest and I'm slowly getting better.”

“You see Francis, I’m a patient man and I believe you. You told me the same story three months ago. I believe you but a suspicious man might ask, can’t help? Or won’t help? Can’t remember or won’t remember?” Black waited for a reply. None came.

“Francis, there are special doctors at a different hospital and I’d like them to run some new tests, ok?” Black scanned Francis hard for a flicker of reaction. There was none.

“OK, enough for today,” said the doctor. “We’ll organise a day at St James’ for next week and call you. Black held up his hands in defeat. “No problem doc, call me.” He pressed his business card into the doctor’s hand.

He opened the door, “I’ll see myself out.” He stepped out then slowly turned back to face the room. “Oh and one more thing Francis, you may like to think about why you were carrying a woman’s handbag at the supermarket back in June.”

Francis heart heaved in his chest. “Not me detective, I’m strictly a backpack man!” He managed.
“Thing is we saw you on TV Francis, saw you on one of those funny little cameras at the store. Think about it.”

The visitors left and Francis sank slowly into his chair. He would not be staying around for any more tests.

24 January 2008

a new life - part 5

In the days before he had resigned Francis had prepared for his new life. Making wax impressions of his bank front door key and one of the two keys to the vault was simple. It had been just as easy finding out who held the second key to the vault a week after he had walked out. He had watched the bank from a discreet distance after closing time. A couple of days’ surveillance revealed Tony and Sue were last to leave. Tony had taken over Francis’s key.

Sue was easy game. He followed her home for several nights and soon enough she headed for the supermarket. He swung into the car park behind her. Scatter-brained she flitted from aisle to aisle often leaving her trolley for a few seconds with her handbag in plain view. Sue bent to inspect the bottom shelf and as Francis glided past he plucked her handbag and dropped it into his own trolley. He moved swiftly but calmly to the far end of the store before dipping his hand into Sue’s bag. The heavy bunch of bank keys was at the bottom. He pocketed them and abandoned his trolley.

On his way out he dropped the handbag at the service desk, jumping the queue but leaving no explanation. Sue wouldn’t hurt a fly and in a curiously compassionate way he wanted her to be reunited with her bag. He knew Sue, she would go straight to the desk in a panic but he was guessing it would be morning before she even checked for the key.

He guessed right.

17 January 2008

a new life - part 4

The ceiling of his room was old and grey. It was cracked in neat rectangles and squares like a patchwork of farmers’ fields. Francis picked a stub of pencil from his nightstand and stood on the bed, his feet pushing deep into the old soft mattress. Reaching up he carefully marked a small X in the corner of one field.

All was quiet in his head. Satisfied, he sank back down and stretched out listening to the distant clatter of pots. The sounds were a reassuring affirmation that the world was turning and people had a purpose. He felt an inner murmur as the sleeping giant stirred. He thought about the day he walked out on his job. With the thought came a sudden incendiary burst of anger. You wasted the best years of your life, a voice thundered. Quiet reason countered, But it’s over now and you finally won, don’t forget that. You helped yourself to what you believed was yours and in so doing, balanced your life’s books. His mental referee stood poised to intervene.

He had been washed up for years and it had been a blessed relief to simply walk away. Something else played at the edge of his mind. He had needed to distance himself from an action… a deafening explosion, something utterly unspeakable. Sickened, he groaned and thought instead of the three bright silver keys which he had dropped from Westminster Bridge into the brown Thames.

Suddenly there were footsteps in the corridor outside and the sound of voices approaching. Francis stowed his memories safely away.
“… some kind of amnesia.” said a muffled official voice.
“Total?” asked another. There was no response but the footsteps ceased and knuckles rapped sharply on his door.

14 January 2008

a new life - part 3

Francis liked this café, it was old, dirty and usually quiet. He stared out the window, absently stirring his coffee even though he didn’t take sugar. He was thinking about his grown up children (a boy and a girl he felt sure) but whenever he tried to visualise their mother he saw a face out of focus.

Today he had been out walking but the rain had forced him indoors. Two office girls burst in shaking off their umbrellas as they slid into a booth opposite him. Their heads were almost touching as they giggled, sharing confidences. I bet they are laughing at me. To give his presence some authenticity, he began studying a dog-eared menu with no intention of eating.

Little by little, pieces of his past were falling into place. He remembered the layout of a large house and in his mind’s eye he moved from room to room, peering into the corners, searching for more clues. He knew how to drive a car, he knew because he practised manoeuvres and gear changes in his head. He had been a bank clerk. The truth is, he was scared to remember more. Closing off unpleasant realities was safer, yet he remembered more than he was choosing to admit. Sometimes he caught himself balancing on the edge of memory’s precipice, one slip and he could free-fall into total recall. There was horror lurking in that black abyss.

“Refill?” A young waitress in a blue check coat was hovering beside him, her steaming metal coffee jug poised.
“Refill before we close?”
“Sorry, I was day-dreaming…” Francis put a hand over his mug. “No thanks. See ya.”

He walked fast in light drizzle. The staff at St Agnes dolled out a little pocket money each Friday and he would be there to collect his. It wouldn’t do to be late.


Take your time… Francis, take your time. There’s no hurry old chap,” said the doctor.
Oh but there is, I’m 49 already. He was racing through a test paper, a kind of questionnaire designed to exercise the memory. He had never believed these tests were innocent and today he felt sure there were trick questions intended to catch him out. His paranoia bone itched. They are looking for inconsistencies. They think I’m faking.

He always rushed the tests, hoping to give the impression they didn’t matter to him. But a test means marks. Marks mean pass or fail. There would be consequences. If they ever guessed he had begun to retrieve his past he would be out on his ear. For now it seemed prudent to stay in this safe place while he formulated a plan.


He could see out of his high window if he climbed on the table. Autumn leaves swirled and danced on the grass below. On the horizon were the roof arches of Waterloo Station.

791. The numbers just came into his head. A locker combination for left-luggage.

Last night’s dream had been the most vivid. He was running helter-skelter along a railway platform, gripping a small heavy backpack with one hand and pushing travellers aside with the other. Head down he sprinted past blurred posters and lines of commuters. He was leaning forward to the brink of balance, running out of control and his pursuers receded in the crowd behind him. As he slowed a line of grey lockers came into focus. He dropped to a walk and looked about him. He slammed the backpack into an empty locker and snapped his padlock on.

Hands on knees, gasping for breath he felt suddenly very sick. Abruptly he stooped over a waste bin and spewed his breakfast, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. His heart hammered then suddenly behind him came the shriek of a whistle. He broke into a fast run again, sprinting toward the station’s exit gates. Bright sunlight dazzled him as he burst onto the street...

Francis jolted awake to the drone of his alarm clock. Red digits 7am.

06 January 2008

a new life - part 2

When he awoke the screaming had stopped. Mid-afternoon sun slanted in at his high, square window and a faint smell of missed lunch hung in the air. A dream vaguely about fat wads of banknotes slid away. The day had a different feel now. Gone was his early morning optimism, replaced by a mild defeatism. This was his pattern.

What is the point in trying, whined his inner voice, the usual sign he was spiralling. People don't notice, they don’t even remember what you say, so shut your mouth and speak only when spoken to. Keep your observations to yourself. Don’t make plans or develop a schedule. You’ll be the only one doggedly sticking to it. So loneliness had become his companion.

He caught himself thinking about the safety and dependability of numbers and lists. Comfort came to him in strange forms these days. But when it did his mind played video clips of a tidy office desk with sharpened pencils and impeccably stocked drawers. Today there was audio too, a hum of official sounding conversation, punctuated by phones ringing and the click and gush of a coffee dispenser.

Francis rolled on his back and stared at the ceiling. If your desk was amongst others then you weren’t a manager. Low level, that’s what you were, low level. In truth he had already remembered this but had kept the thought from taking full shape because it upset him. As a youngster his family and friends respected his intellect and were sure he was destined for high things. Oh, what happened to that bright, confident and alert boy?

Why had he made the crazy choice to suffocate his youthful exuberance counting other people’s money? He didn’t know any more but it had signalled the end of his development. No, he had never been destined for the top. Sure, he wore sharp blue suits and walked the walk but inside he was living a lie. He simply hadn’t believed in what he was doing. You were a square peg in a round hole and you hadn't the guts to get out. He felt he was better than most people but that had never been recognized. It made him introspective and frustrated. His ludicrously high standards were met only by himself.

The floodgates were wide open now and a swirling torrent of negativity filled his mind: stupid obsessions, sadness, bitter regret and crushed ambitions. Well, there’s no denying it now, you’re remembering stuff. Blurred images of an unfulfilled life swam in and out of focus. Can you remember now how you survived all those years? What your crutch was? He knew the answer precisely but refused to let the voice give it headroom. His mouth was dry.

Francis conceded there was more than one man in his head. While the bitter, angry one thrashed around then wallowed in self pity, a calm, quiet one was hatching plans for him, almost unobserved. He knew he was making a conscious effort to keep his quiet voice under the radar because thinking openly might jeopardise his progress. The angry voice would hear and scupper the plans. He needed to keep angry voice in the dark until quiet voice grew strong enough to survive another fight.

This time he was aware of a third voice, a referee to see fair play. There had been no referee four months ago, the day he had walked out on his job and ended his old life.

01 January 2008

a new life - part 1

By the time he had taken five steps Francis knew this path was the wrong one. All roads eventually wind up at the same place of course but it's the variety of routes that makes the journey worthwhile. Francis didn't care for the cracks in the pavement or the grubby shop windows. This road was distinctly not worthwhile. Not worth the erosion of shoe leather. Not worth the tendonitis behind his left knee. A change of scenery was what he needed.

He turned abruptly and walked into a tall city gent who had been tailgating him. "Pardon me, sir," muttered the suit, touching the brim of his hat as he regained marching speed. Francis shook his head in despair. The standard of pedestrian traffic was too shabby these days. Surely everyone knew the safe gap for in line walking was three full paces?

The point is, he told himself severely in his head, the point is... actually what the hell was the point? This was happening too frequently for his liking. Lost snatches of thought, like dream fragments hovering on the edge of conscious thought. He knew he was mad at something, but what? Come to think of it he was just mad at the world. He almost always held an opinion the exact opposite of everyone else. But that doesn't make me wrong does it? The insistent voice whined in his head.

Was it his own voice or the thoughts of another personality, camped out in his mind? Having retraced his steps he turned right at the lights. He was the only pedestrian to wait for the little green man before striding into the road. Walking rules, pedestrians and opposing views, phew! He was worn out and it was barely 9am. Time to return to base and revise his approach to the day. Soon the redbrick fortress came back into view.

Not an asylum more a home for the intellectually challenged. Francis read the words that formed an arch above the old Victorian gates: St Agnes' Home for the Frail. They wouldn't get away with such political incorrectness these days of course but to tear down those old iron gates would be an even worse crime. So the weak in mind, who were a danger to no one but themselves, retained the sobriquet "frail."

The shortest route to the grand front doors was across a manicured lawn but Francis used the stone pathway. He knew there was enough time to sing the first verse of Brain Damage. As usual his right foot touched the doorstep with the final line, "Got to keep the loonies on the path."

He climbed the wide creaking stairs to reach his top floor sanctuary. Shutting the door softly on the day's difficult world he laid back on the hard narrow bed. From somewhere deep in the building a man's voice wailed, winding up like a banshee. He couldn't make out the words, he didn't need to. The sound was unmistakable, despair. He rolled over and put his ears under the pillow.

Francis had been a banker, he was growing certain of that. Whether an important one or a trivial one he couldn't remember - he was still working on that. Francis was 49.