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The starched white sheets crinkle beneath my thighs. The walls are white; clinical. The door is pale and open. Beyond it, the muffled voices of people in white travelling along the corridor. I see flashes of clipboards, glasses, and white; maybe jackets. I am not sure why I am here. My head is woolly and my feet numb. Looking through the window, which is higher than usual, there is a meadow of greens and splashes of yellow. Beyond that nothing but sky; grey mainly. I need to wash my hands but they refuse to move, lying heavily, tingling, as though dipped in iced water. I was told to lie prostrate. It’s the drugs, they said, just rest.
My mind never rests. One. Two. Three. The tiles above the sink are unsymmetrical. Four. Five. Six. There is no middle groove where the grouting should lie. Seven. The fourth tile should not be in the middle. The lack of symmetry makes me feel uncomfortable and unsettles a sense of order, or disorder, in my mind. I remember, maybe earlier, a doctor in the house, an ambulance, a cup of coffee, a dog and Sandra, in no particular order. Why do I remember Sandra last? Where is she?
She said something about help. I have had the same job for over twenty years and I have an engineering degree. Why would I need help? I pay taxes: twenty percent. I put my children through school: fifteen years times three. I cut the neighbour’s grass every Sunday: twenty seven neat strips of green. I watch the news: thirty minutes each night, minus five if I don’t feel like sport. I do the crossword in the local rag: fifteen questions last time, three blanks still left. I was head boy at primary school. Why would I need help?
I am still sitting on the crinkly material. I stare at the coat by the door. It falls lifelessly from the peg as though a person has just slipped out and is due to return at any moment.
“Mr Ravenstone, you need to rest. The specialist will come and see you, rest.”
Rest. The word repeats itself in my head. They speak to me as though I might be dead, or unhinged. I suspect that they would not speak to me if they thought I was dead. Are there one or two coats? The clipboards and the glasses leave the room, leave the door open, and disappear into the flashes of movement in the corridor, slipping away like eels into a murky river.
Tick. Tick. Tick. There must be a clock somewhere. It sounds as though it is at the bottom of a bag, which is below me on the floor. It takes some rummaging through items of clothing, which are not neatly packed. They are not laid out in the way that I would fold them and stack them, carefully. Instead they have been manhandled like meat. I can feel the smooth cover of a new book but I do not have a new book, and the bristle of a hairbrush which is definitely mine; I know this from the grip on the handle. A pair of felt slippers, haus schuhe my mother would call them, and an electric toothbrush I never use. Tick. Tick. There is it, the travel clock nestled beneath a wash bag. I do not recognise it and it occurs to me that it looks as new as the book. I pull the book out and look at the cover then run my fingers across the raised letters, undulating as low hillocks across a moor. It looks like a memoir with the picture of a woman on the front. My fingertips rise and fall as they would across the weave of the bedspread at home. I am not at home, which is why the tiles are not symmetrical. Where am I, if not there?
I don’t remember where home is but I remember the bedspread, and Sandra, a dog and the felt slippers. I usually keep them on my feet or by the bed, and I kick them off only when I write. I am a Writer. I am a Father. I am a Husband. I think Husband should come before Father but it has never felt that way to me. I can hear voices in the corridor again, and see the flicker of white jackets filled with arms and beating chests, clipboards, and hair. Two or three enter the room. Two: An even number.
“Mr Ravenstone, you are still sitting, I see.”
“Yes, does it bother you?”
“We told you to rest. Someone can unpack your things.”
I am not sure that I want someone to unpack my things.
“I’m fine, thank you. I have everything I need, although some of the items do not look as though they are mine.”
“I’m sure your wife packed everything you need.”
Wife. It sounds strange to hear the familiar word rolling off the tongue of a stranger in a white coat, as though she were available to anyone. I suppose Sandra is my wife. I suppose it means that I am her husband. Why am I here?
“Thank you,” I say, failing to understand why I should be thanking a man in a white jacket.
“Mr Ravenstone, please just lie down.”
I open my eyes to find the ceiling straight ahead like a stop sign. I must be lying down now, there is no way forward. I can feel my toes. One. Two. Three. The tiles are still not laid out in an even number. There should be a middle groove where the grouting would lie with four tiles across on either side: four down and eight across all together – thirty two, an even number. The neighbour said something about the lawnmower, about it being unplugged. I always unplug it, always check. And Sandra, she said something about my books. I can’t remember what, exactly.
I can hear more footsteps in the corridor: Two, four, six, eight; two less than the length of the corridor, unless it’s longer than my count. I pick up the book again, then put it down and wipe the fingerprints from the cover. They ruin the image of the woman’s face, mar the sheen. She looks sad. You call tell if someone is sad from the look in their eyes, unless they don’t have a look. She has a look – pretty, vulnerable, wanting help, but unable to ask. Not like Sandra, her look is fierce, assertive, self-assured. I like her that way, she doesn’t really need me and that is how I like it as long as I can write, and mow the neighbour’s lawn, and watch thirty minutes of the news, or twenty five.
I need to get to the sink. The tap is dripping into the white ceramic bowl, echoing into the room in ripples then waves. Everybody has a touch of sadness in them I think, but some are better at hiding behind carnival masks and plastic smiles. Perhaps there is a way of dealing with sadness without looking as pained as the face on the memoir. The face gives away so much, unless you are a carnival queen who can hide behind layers of colours and feathers. Sandra once said that mine showed nothing. I do not think she meant it exactly. She has a way with words making her sentences sound abrupt, carving through your heart.
The door is still open. It should be shut. There are flashes of white and shoes brushing along the vinyl. Clickety clack, clickety clack. A phone is ringing somewhere in the distance down the corridor. The sound ricochets off the walls and around the corner in to my room. The barrier of white stretches from wall to wall overhead, threatening to close in and crush the life out of my bones. My chest feels tight as though pressured by something. I remember a time when we had to line up at school and we were packed in so tightly that I couldn’t breathe.
Sandra is at the door now. I can smell her perfume and feel her presence, her eyes fixed on my body then my bag.
“I packed everything nicely,” she said.
“Yes, thank you.” I raise my eyebrows and nod.
“Do you like the book?” She looks at the paperback with its undulating letters, resting on the table beside my head. “I thought you’d like it.”
“Yes, very kind. She looks sad, don’t you think.”
I show her the cover. She frowns. I don’t know what the frown suggests so I move on.
“How is the dog?”
“Bertie? Yes, he’s fine. He misses you.”
“How long will I be here? Do you know?”
“It depends on the treatment,” she says. “They’ll try cognitive therapy to see if it helps to unravel your mind, not that it needs unraveling. All the unfurling happens at your computer. That’s why you write, isn’t it?” I assume this is a rhetorical question and smile. She grimaces.
“Have I been difficult to live with or unkind in any way?” I ask.
“No, you have just been yourself but the doctor thinks that you need to talk.”
“And the ambulance?”
“That was for Mrs Jefferson opposite. She had a heart attack. She’s pulling through, though. Don’t think about anything except getting better.”
Better implies that you are not quite right, or that there could be a problem, or that things are just worse than normal – all phrases my Father used on different occasions, and never in a pleasant way.
“You’ll be brighter than moonshine,” she says, sounding hopeful. She doesn’t always sound hopeful.
“Don’t you mean sunshine?” I squint and wait for a response.
“I suppose so, why does it matter? Anyway, you’ll be out of here soon. You haven’t been yourself since…never mind.”
I don’t know what she means and I still have an overriding need to wash my hands. I glance at the sink and feel anxious.
“Well, I’m glad they are keeping an eye on you and I’m sure this will help,” she says, kissing me on the forehead like a child. She scoops up her shiny bag and walks towards the door without turning back. I hear her footsteps fade as they move towards the exit. She is gone.
I count the tiles again: two, four, six, eight, and I wonder what she meant about me not being myself and I remember, I remember beyond the lawnmower, the dog, and the news. We lost our youngest – our only son – several months ago. I do not remember anything between now and the car crash. I only know that I have felt anxious and my need to count has taken over. It has become all-consuming. I know that they can help, know that they will unravel my mind and stop me from undulating like the shiny words on the book. They will take the sadness from my face and give me a new expression, a glossier one. I know that if they cannot help me here there is nowhere else that can fix things. I take comfort in the fact that I was helping a neighbour and that everything else is all right, and that my wife cared enough to pack my bags and to buy me a book with a face.
I look towards the door and I see clipboards and white then I pick up the book, turn to the first page and read the words. Then I flip back to the cover and see the letters under the face: R.J. Robertson. This is my book. I open the book again, turn to the first page, and begin to read.