Written between February to April 2014
Elizabeth is yelling and her cheeks are becoming swollen and rosy. I don’t know what to say to her, so I just stare at her scrubs and hope that she calms down. Of course she doesn’t and I find myself shouting at her; there’s the tiniest moment where our eyes meet and I can see nothing of the woman I married. She’s looking at me with a contempt that I have never seen before and I’m scared to admit it moves me. Almost.
There’s no explanation of the situation she’ll accept. She’s telling me that I deliberately undermine people with pointless schemes engineered to benefit only myself. I try to make her see it from my point of view but she just laughs in my face. Beneath this, I can see the echoes of a buried devastation. She’s watching for my reaction, but I only sigh, leaving her with little doubt of my feelings towards the whole matter. Silence falls.
Elizabeth stares at the antique clock on the mantelpiece as I tiptoe out of the living room. There’s nothing left to say. Double shifts always make her irrational.
She doesn’t follow as I unlatch the front door and stride out into the dull afternoon sunshine. It’s a typical autumn’s day and I lose myself in my thoughts. I make my way to the lane outside our house; preparing to cross. I look both ways; remembering the green cross code from my childhood. Nothing is coming; all I can hear are the high-pitched chirps of birds flitting about in the light grey sky. I step out onto the road; the sun is shining down on me despite the soft patter of raindrops striking my neck.
I’m nearly across to the other side when something distracts me and I look down to see what it is. I blink. Perhaps it is just my imagination but I’m hit by the sudden realisation that I’ve been standing in the middle of the road for some time and I gather my thoughts.
But before I can leap to safety, I hear the unmistakeable roar of an engine and the next moment I am lying on the tarmac. My face is hot and damp; I’m sure there was a snap as I fell. The pain is excruciating; I feel as if my strength is draining away. My assailant is nowhere to be seen and I am too weak to cry out. My eyelids begin to droop and there is nothing I can do to fight it. I slip into semi-consciousness; a strange feeling of euphoria enveloping me, briefly numbing the pain. For a time. It’s comforting. I relax and my eyes finally close. Is this death? I don’t know – nothing about it seems to make any sense. All I can do is wait. But wait for what? I never believed in God…before.
I open my eyes. I’m lying spread-eagled on a white marble floor. The walls are marble too and the ceiling…everything. Its brightness is dazzling; it’s akin to staring into the sun on a summer’s day. A screen on the farthest wall flashes up my name, Hector Knight, Status: DECEASED. I’m confused but determined not to let it show to whoever is watching me; whoever brought me here. I look up at the screen again; this time my occupation is flashed up, Member of Parliament. I can’t quite get my head around this and the word echoes around my mind.
It cannot be true, I’m not dead. I have so much more to do. This is just a trick, a cruel joke. Perhaps this was Elizabeth’s way of punishing me.
I shout empty curses to the air and demand that she release me at once. But she doesn’t come and I remain alone. I run to the door and slam my fists into it, hoping I’ll somehow break free. I stare at my hands, such force should have cracked my knuckles but they are as smooth and clean as before. I slump to the floor and slip out of consciousness.
When I wake, I hear a voice calling to me out of the air; it’s ethereal – a soft and delicate hum. It offers little comfort. My heart is beating in my chest – at least, I think it’s my heart. Do I still have a – no, it’s best not to get myself drawn into that line of thinking. The moment I accept it, it’s true.
Who are you? Why am I imprisoned here?’ I don’t even know whether I’m shouting or looking in the right direction. I ask what it wants from me, but it ignores me. Instead I hear a low whirring and the voice tells me that Phase One has been initiated. Confusion has given way to terror now. You have been chosen, the voice says. You must change. I stare.
‘What can I change?’ I beg the voice to answer me, to offer an explanation of some kind but none is forthcoming. Something throws me against the wall as the room begins to spin. Do you accept the conditions? I nod although I don’t know what I’m agreeing to. The whirring echoes as I am thrown to the floor and everything fades.
I wake up in the middle of a jeering crowd. The first thing I notice, however, is that I’m alive. This wonderful realisation grips me and I smile. There’s a faint memory in the back of my mind but I shrug it off as a stress-induced nightmare.
This moment to myself is short-lived, however as a folder is slammed against my chest as a hand grabs mine and leads me to the podium. Someone, I don’t know or care who, introduces me and steps back so that I am thrust into the full view of the expectant crowd. There’s a smattering of applause but the tone is mostly sarcastic among a sea of grey faces. I don’t care. I have no reason to. They’re just commoners; commoners incapable of doing a thankless job like mine. All they do is complain. I glance briefly at the folder; that’s all I need to get abreast of the situation.
I begin with a good morning and pause. The pleasantry is not returned of course, nor did I expect it would be. I continue on regardless. My speech is expertly constructed and at points I think I even have the full attention of the younger, less inebriated members of the crowd. The elderly are too set in their ways; they are beyond hope. The elderly’s whines stop when I outline my plan to close their local hospital. A stunned silence; I smile again – this is just how I like them. Quiet. It’s the usual response to Government plans. First silence, then denial and finally outright refusal to face the simplest of facts.
I close the folder with a snap and climb down. A gruff looking man attempts to waylay me as I make my way back to my car. He is Tristan Harding, a six-foot-five giant of a man with broad shoulders and a thick grey moustache curled beneath his bulbous nose. I wave at my entourage and they leave me alone with Tristan.
With feigned interest, I ask how I can help him. Tristan scowls before embarking on a tirade of pointless drivel. This is obviously going to be a tricky one. It always is wherever Tristan’s concerned.
A unionist, he belongs in the 70s and his opinion was no more relevant then than it is now. He threatens me over the planned hospital closure and makes a passing remark regarding my wife’s career. I tell him the people will do as they’re told and walk away from him. I feel faint as the ethereal voice enters my head again. I enter Phase Two and the world goes black.
I wish I knew what that voice meant; I still have no grip on my situation. I hate not being in control.
But it’s a familiar setting when I wake; I’m back in my living room again but there’s the slightest hint of déjà-vu as Elizabeth hurls pent-up emotion at me. I’ve heard it all before. It’s a sequence of car-crash television permanently set on repeat and I know exactly what I’m going to do before I do it.
I leave the room and find myself outside the house before I even realise that my legs have moved. It’s only when I’m standing in the road that I remember what happens next. I can do nothing to prevent it and as before, the car ploughs into me; I hit the ground and darkness engulfs me.
Red lights are flashing and I see the words, Sequence Failure, appear on the screen. The voice announces a Program Repeat and I barely have time to stand in the white marble room before I’m whisked away again.
This time I’m standing back in front of the crowd and I hear the barrage of snivelling whines and jeers. I find myself looking down at the back of my right hand and to my astonishment, I see the word, Change, tattooed across it. I’ve never had a tattoo before in my life. Is it trying to tell me something? – I don’t know, however as I quickly regain my composure; the eyes of the watching crowd burn into me.
Change. I don’t know what to change. I think of what Elizabeth would say.
I don’t trip up as I outline my disapproval of the hospital plans yet they don’t applaud and I can’t understand why. I’m doing what they want. Apparently you can never please some people. I step down from the podium and wait for Tristan to appear. Our conversation is different this time but he remains distrustful of my motives.
There’s more to your job than just doing what you think they want you to do…that’s what Tristan is saying to me but the rest of it is lost as I stifle a yawn. He concludes by informing me of my attitude problems and here I come alive. I take great pleasure in telling him that I’m doing what’s best. Tristan scoffs but says no more. I start to explain my reasons but the voice coming out feels alien to me and yet I seem to agree with what it says. I stumble away from Tristan into the shadows.
I’m in my living room again. I attempt to see things from Elizabeth’s point of view but the argument turns to different issues and I am out of my depth. I can’t help but see the similarities as she, like Tristan, points out my supposed bad attitude towards everything.
I want to put things right with her; I want to change but it is not enough.
I’m stuffy inside this room and I’m trying my best to listen to her but her words are muddled in my head.
I have to get away. I walk outside and turn back to the house as the old scene plays out again. I know what’s coming, I can’t stop it.
The car collides with my body and I wake up in the white room again.
Failure. The word is etched into every corner of the room in dripping crimson letters. A face appears on the screen – the skin is as white as the rest of the room and, where its eyes should be are glowing orbs. When it speaks, I recognise it as the same voice I heard before. But it has no mouth. My knees lock together. I’m trembling.
It says I was told to Change and I plead that I did; stammering in my haste and indignation. The voice laughs; it’s harsh and I try to turn away but something roots me to the floor.
Now the voice is claiming that I changed the events but remained the same. I refute this and begin to list several reasons why it’s mistaken. It cuts across me and decrees that I must change myself and that I have One Final Chance. I just stare.
Initiating Phase Three.
The room starts spinning again.
I’m the man I’ve always been; I don’t how or what to change and I’m up against impossible odds. I’m arrogant, confrontational and ambitious; I had to be in order to survive in the career I chose. But as I stop and think, I realise that I never appreciated all the good things or the people who cared about me until one by one, they were taken away.
I have the chance to put things right, to sort out my mess of a life and be the man I should be. But I don’t know where to start. I need Elizabeth to point out the obvious, to tell me where I’m going wrong and maybe I’ll listen.
I carefully outline my plans to strengthen the infrastructure of the NHS in my constituency and it’s a moment of intense pride for me as I inform the crowd of my passion for ensuring the NHS remains the greatest institution of this country. It makes me think of Elizabeth.
The crowd meets my proposal with thunderous applause and even Tristan is smiling. There’s a white light this time and I know I’ve finally made a difference. There’s one last thing I have to do and I’m ready for it.
I greet Elizabeth with a bouquet of fresh flowers. She laughs and tells me that it’s the first non-event present I’ve given her since we got married. I try to hide the shame I feel by laughing. We laugh together for almost an hour; it’s been too long since we last had fun as a couple and weren’t bogged down by the increasing demands of our respective careers. My eyes go to her scrubs and the NHS badge clipped to her waist.
I can still remember the fights we had before the change.
Her surprise deepens as I show more than my usual casual interest in her nightshift and she takes the opportunity to raise the issue of overworked staff. There’s a moment of tension between us but it fades as I tell her I’ll do all that I can to help.
Overcome with emotion, she flings her arms around me, kissing me softly on my neck and dragging me over to the hi-fi. She presses play and Coldplay’s The Scientist begins to soar out of the speakers.
We’re dancing. We move with the music and as happy as I feel with her head on my chest, I can’t help feeling there’s one last thing I have to do. I stare at my hands resting on her waist; it startles me to see that they’re fading.
I look up at Elizabeth but her eyes are closed. I twist my head to gaze out of the window and at the end of the road. I can see the olive green car parked; it’s waiting for me. I have to complete the circle and there’s no avoiding it now.
But I’m not afraid any more. I turn back to Elizabeth and, with her head on my shoulder, we continue to dance.