The cold bit into her fingertips. She squeezed her hands into fists and pushed them deep into her coat pockets. Though she couldn’t see her breath in front of her, she felt the cold clinging on to the core of her. There was something about the dark, empty streets, absent of people. It was like the warmth had been sucked out of the world. It had been left empty, hollow of life.
She had been walking, without thinking, toward the park, but now she slowed. She stopped at its entrance. She shouldn’t walk through the park so late in the night, she knew it. But she was tired and it would be easier; the quickest route home. She looked down the open path ahead, she considered the strength of the light beyond.
Then it came, a piercing through the still night; a scream. Her mind faltered. Students was it? Probably. Messing around. Drunk. She shook herself free of her fright, and allowed her mind to make itself up. It was probably nothing. Not a good idea to go into the park at this time of night anyway. She turned on her heel and continued her walk down the street.
There was another scream, but deeper this time, like a cracked voice. It was frantic; someone calling for help. She stopped on the spot. It could be nothing, her stomach dropped, but it could mean so many other things. She looked down the street, and then she looked toward the park. Her mind prickled with endorphins. She wasn’t the kind of person to do this, to do anything. But she knew she should, and she would.
The park suddenly seemed darker than she remembered, but the noises had stopped. Maybe the screams had come from somewhere else, maybe it had been nothing? The tension melted from her muscles as she convinced herself of the safety of her situation. Then there was another scream, and another, they became louder, more agitated.
She heard noises, human noises; bodies falling, rustling through the undergrowth. Her feet picked up speed before she could reason the want out of them. Walking turned to running and before her mind had caught up she was upon them; a man, grabbing at a girl, pulling her back into a thick wall of bushes. She stopped, stunned, but for only a second. Then without the knowledge of what she might do next, she launched herself at the warring bodies.
She pulled at the man’s hands as they grabbed at the girl and in one fell swoop the girl was free, but her own body seemed to stop. She had been shocked stationary. The eyes of the man before her widened in an unprecedented fear. Something unseen clattered to the floor. Her eyes fell down to find it. A shard of metal glinted in the ray of a street light. When she looked back up the man was gone. She was all alone. She knew there was something she should be feeling, but she felt numb.
Endorphins coursed through her body and rushed to wake her to the pain that fired through her abdomen. Her hand trembled toward her belly and touched it. Her coat was damp. She looked down to see the thick dark wetness oozing from somewhere inside of her. Her hands shook as she fumbled with the buttons of her coat. Pulled open she could see the dark liquid that flowed from her, she touched her fingertips to the wound.
She held her hand up to the amber street light glare, and she rubbed her fingertips together. Deep, scarlet, blood, like she’d never seen. How pretty the colour was. She fell to the floor. The impact shook her free of her shock and her mind woke her up to the coldness of the ground, the pain biting at her body, the blood leeching from her. She began to cry in pain, and in panic. She thought about her mobile in her back pocket, she thought about her mum.
She clutched at her stomach and rocked back and forth in pain and sadness. Squeezing her eyes tight, she croaked in agony. Was she was going to die here? As she struggled with the million thoughts her mind produced a presence above her blocked the street light. She opened up her eyes. A man in a long coat crouched beside her. As her eyes adjusted his face came into focus. He smiled gently, and she noticed how his eyes crinkled.
‘I’m Sam,’ he said. He kneeled beside her and took her hand. ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ She knew she should be frightened, alarmed by his presence. But there was something in his eyes, they were kind, he would be honest with her. She took a deep breath. ‘Am I dying?’ she shot at him, looking for reassurance, no matter what form it took. He took a moment to ponder the words he was about to deliver.
He looked into her eyes and spoke carefully. ‘Yes, yes you are.’ She braced herself for her body’s response, more tears, more pain. She doubled up. But nothing came. She stilled, she wasn’t scared. At least, she didn’t think she was. She had known his answer, and felt she had known it for some time, long before she had walked into the park. She looked up into his face. ‘Did the girl, did she get away?’
Sam nodded, a light smile on his lips. ‘Yes, she got away.’ She took this and breathed a small sigh of relief. She rolled on to her back and looked up into the dark sky above her. She had never learnt all the constellations, but had meant to, funny to think of that now. ‘I saw him, y’know?’ she said, knowing that by saying those words she was agreeing to the fact she would not have the chance to say them again. She looked across to meet Sam’s eyes. She cleared her throat. ‘At that pub with the board game night. He works behind the bar.’
Sam listened without acknowledgement. She nodded to herself, she looked up again. The sky was vast, she felt like she would be happy to be sucked up into it. The pain was gripping her now and her mind raced. There were so many questions, so many things to say. She tried to work out which was the most important. She looked back to Sam but she couldn’t find the question she wanted to ask. She couldn’t have guessed he would have the answer she was waiting for. ‘I’ll tell her, your mum. I’ll tell her how brave you were.’
She cried for the goodbye she would never get to say, and for the life she was leaving behind. Then she opened her eyes and she looked up into the night sky. Strange how it should end like this, when there were so many things she wanted to do. She should be sad, she should be afraid. But she wasn’t and she wouldn’t be.
Louise Whitlock died, at ten minutes past midnight. It was a cold night and there would be frost on the ground when her body was found the next morning. She had been fatally wounded after saving a young girl from an attempted rape. Or at least that’s how she would have remembered it.
In a hospital room in Wimbledon Dr Sam Johnston’s job was done. He looked up from Louise’s lifeless body across to the still ashen figure of her mother. A solitary tear ran down her cheek. She felt Sam’s eyes on hers and she looked up to meet them. ‘It was okay? Was she okay?’ He nodded gently as the tears welled again in Sarah Whitlock’s eyes. ‘She was very brave.’
Sarah Whitlock’s eyes fixed on the body of her daughter. The tears came thickly. Sam stood and turned away, ‘I’m just going to be outside.’ As Sam left the room Sarah Whitlock buried herself in the body of her daughter and howled with grief. Sam stood on the other side of the door; he leaned against the wall and let out a deep sigh. The nurses eyed him with caution as they passed by; the air was thick with hospital sterility. Nobody deserved this death. Louise had had ovarian cancer, at twenty-eight years old. She hadn’t seen home in months, and now she was gone.
Dr Sam Johnston walked past his assistant. She nodded to him in acknowledgement as she spoke on the phone. He walked into his office and shut the door gently behind him. He took off his suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He moved slowly and deliberately. It was how he did everything, noiselessly; weary of waking some unseen foe.
He turned on his computer and opened up his emails but only observed. He did not see the questions waiting for him. He was still lost in Louise’s words, spoken to him that morning; spoken to him, years ago, in the middle of some lost night. Stuck in the moment, he did not hear the knock on the door or acknowledge the man who entered.
‘Hello,’ the man ventured lightly. Sam saw the laptop bag at his side, the pad in one hand, the phone in another. Shirt sleeves rolled up under a waterproof jacket; journalist. Sam waited, as he always did. Not one to make excuses for the rudeness of others. The man recognised this and stepped out to offer a hand. ‘So sorry to intrude on you like this,’ the man wasn’t sorry, ‘but I was working on a story and I wondered if I could ask you a few questions?’
Sam stood and looked over the man’s shoulder to the open door, his assistant’s voice echoing in the distance. The man followed Sam gaze. ‘She was on the phone,’ he offered as an excuse, which, Sam believed, was no excuse at all. The man’s hand was still hanging in mid air so Sam took it.
‘David Moore, from The Herald.’ Sam nodded lightly. He extended a hand to the seat across from him and made to sit down, ‘please.’ Sam would meet with anyone, whether he would say anything was a different matter entirely. He looked up and fixed his eyes on the man who sat across from him. Silence reigned.
David Moore was suddenly nervous. Generally he wasn’t nervous, people were largely impressed by or scared of the press, and he found answers came quite easily. But this man was not impressed, or scared, and was not going to offer up anything that he was unwilling to give. David stumbled through his notebook, excusing himself from the eyes that watched him. ‘Ah, yes,’ he looked up. ‘Mrs Deirdre Singleton.’ David caught the note of recognition in Sam’s eyes.
‘You’ve met Mrs Singleton? In your job as a…’ he fumbled with his notes. Sam looked down at his desk, rehearsing the lies he would have to give. ‘Hypnotherapist,’ he offered. David looked up from his notes. ‘Yes, yes of course. The family said you helped her?’ David Moore let the words hang, hoping to prompt a response. Sam studied the man’s face for a moment, what was he after?
Sam took a moment, deciding on what to concede. He would talk, he would stick to his story. He wanted this man gone. He leaned back in his chair, and tried to appear casual. ‘Yes, I helped her. I’m called in by families to help their loved ones in their last moments, to soften the blow so to speak.’ That’s all he was getting. David Moore raised an eyebrow. ‘And you make people think they’re somewhere else? Sunny beach at sunset etc?’ He said this with an air of smugness, Sam didn’t like his tone.
‘It’s a little more complicated than that,’ Sam looked him square in the eye. ‘But yes, I take them to a better place.’
‘And you don’ feel bad about that? Lying to people in their final moments?’
Sam stared David Moore down, he was exactly the kind of man Sam suspected he was. ‘No,’ Sam responded firmly, ‘I do not feel bad about that.’ He watched as the words sunk into David Moore’s smug grin. His face twitched, David Moore was not happy. ‘The night comes to us all Mr Moore. I think if anyone had the opportunity to have a better ending, a less lonely ending, they would take it. Do you disagree?’
David Moore said nothing. He was not an emotional man, Sam saw this. ‘Besides,’ Sam continued ‘I only take the person to where they have been before. It is their own memory.’ Sam saw David’s mind pondering his next question, he also saw the road he was being taken down. He added, ‘And I’m brought in by the family, with their blessing.’ He stressed these last two words.
David Moore said nothing, he looked down and went through his notes again. Sam watched the way his eyes seem to blank in front of the scrawled notes, he wasn’t looking for anything in particular. The notebook was a crutch, a distraction, for a man not entirely sure of himself. He finally stopped on a page and looked up. ‘So in this case where, er…’ David Moore was losing his composure. ‘Mrs Singleton,’ Sam offered, masking his exasperation.
‘Um, yeah, with Mrs Singleton. She survived.’ David Moore delivered this with an air of finality. Sam cocked his eyebrow. ‘Your point being?’
‘Well, that changes things doesn’t it?’
Sam took in the man’s vacant expression and his clear lack of skill in interviewing. He sat up in his chair and fixed him with a glare. ‘It changes things for the person. But it does not change things for me.’
‘Yeah, yeah, of course. But it must be weird. Isn’t it? For someone to come back?’
What was this man getting at? And when was he going to leave? The silence hung thickly between them, each unsure if they were expected to talk next, but neither of them wanting to. Sam moved uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Yes, it is unusual, but it’s certainly not a cause for upset. Mrs Singleton was close to death, she survived. It wasn’t her time.’ Sam paused, this was his moment to finish the story and send this man on his way. ‘She took me to her childhood home…’ David Moore raised an eyebrow. Sam had misstepped.
‘So you don’t decide on where to take them?’ David pushed.
‘Sometimes,’ Sam conceded, ‘the family have an idea of where they’d like to go. It all depends.’
He was offering excuses now, he wouldn’t give him anything else. David Moore fixed him with a look that he couldn’t quite fathom. ‘So do people always want to go to their happy place?’
Sam paused, what did this man know? ‘Not always,’ he said ‘people have a lot of unresolved memories. They like to go there sometimes, to make a change, see something in a different light.’ Sam looked down at his desk, this man definitely knew something.
‘But they’re not changing things though are they?’ David said, slyly. Sam flicked his eyes up. ‘No,’ he said, with more steel than he had anticipated ‘it’s a fiction: reassurance, a chance for them to let go.’ David Moore wasn’t looking through his notepad now. He was looking at Sam, trying to work him out. Sam saw this and folded his arms in response.
‘Mrs Singleton said she went back to her childhood home,’ David offered, ‘she saw her father beat her mother. Not a very nice memory is it?’ he said, waiting for the response in Sam’s eyes. They gave away nothing.
‘That’s where she wanted to go.’
‘She says she remembered it like it was yesterday, like she was really there.’
‘She was there,’ Sam burst out, too loudly. He lowered his voice. ‘It’s her memory, she was there.’
‘Then how do you explain the scar on her arm?’
Sam stopped. He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
David looked down at his notebook, suddenly it held something very important indeed. He read it, cleanly and quickly, like he was reading out a shopping list. ‘Mrs Singleton went back to a memory where her mother was left seriously injured, stabbed by Mrs Singleton’s father. She grappled with her father, cutting her own arm in the process.’ David Moore looked up at Sam, a small smirk on his face.
‘She has a scar which wasn’t there before,’ David said lightly, knowing he had won.
Sam looked away, feigning a lack of interest.
‘Not only that but her memories have changed.’
Sam went cold, he looked down at the carpet under his desk. Beige, such an ugly colour. He felt David looking at him. He had to end this.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Sam stood up. David Moore followed him.
‘She says you did something that changed her memories!’ David stated, accusingly. Gesturing, too wildly, his notebook now weapon like in his hand.
Sam fixed David Moore with a stare. ‘Did Deirdre really say that?’ David Moore glared at him, then his confidence failed. ‘In not so many words, but she said things have changed! A woman with no history of mental health disorders or dementia, then you get inside her head!’
Sam walked to the door. ‘Mrs Singleton had an end of life experience. Of course life is going to seem different now.’
‘Seem different, but actually be different?’
Sam opened the door and turned to face David Moore. ‘Memories are subjective Mr Moore, and they are apt to change. And unless Mrs Singleton or her family take any issue with my services, I’m not exactly sure what you want from me. Now leave!’ Sam tensed his jaw and waited for David to make his farewell. Without acknowledgement, without a goodbye David Moore walked through the door. Sam’s body began to relax as he saw the back of the man disappear through the doorway.
Then David Moore stopped, he talked without turning around. ‘There is still the matter of the scar Dr Johnston.’ He turned around to look at Sam. He leaned in closer. ‘People’s lives, their bodies, don’t just change like that. I don’t know what it is you’re doing, but I’m going to find out.’ Sam didn’t say a word, he held the man’s gaze until he turned away and walked down the corridor.
An hour later Sam’s body was still reacting to the threat David Moore had brought to his door. His office felt close and stifling, he needed to go out. He took a walk in the park. The benches were full and workers on breaks busied themselves. He had wanted some quiet. He headed to the furthest corner of the park and stood in the shade of a young oak tree. There he closed his eyes and let the sun’s light filter through.
It wasn’t peace, but the traffic around this corner was always quiet. He breathed deeply and took himself away, back to the old oak tree on the edge of the school playing fields. No one bothered him there, at lunch time. He would lie in the sun, reading, and all the world’s noises would fall away. Sam fell back into the moment, blissful. Then, without warning, he was torn from it. A car horn beeped nearby. He looked around, searching for the source of the sound, instead he saw a phone box.
He took a bracing breath and knitted his brow, determined to do the unhappy thing he had been avoiding, but which must be done. He walked out of the park’s entrance and rounded the corner. He stepped inside the phone box and glumly retrieved a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. He picked up the receiver and dialled a number. He waited for the answerer to finish their well practised introduction. He cleared his throat.
‘About seven years ago there was a spate of attacks against women in the centre of Southampton. I believe they’re still unsolved?’ He carried on quietly and firmly, not waiting for an answer. ‘You should be looking into someone called…’ he looked at the piece of paper still held in his hand ‘a Martin Rayford. He worked in The New Park Inn. He was called in at the time but never charged. Did you get all that?’ He waited long enough for the faint ‘yes’ of confirmation, and then hung up the phone.
When Sam returned to his office there was a lady waiting for him in the small reception. His assistant stood to great him. ‘This is Dr Johnston,’ his assistant offered as the lady rose from her seat, ‘Mrs Parsons is here about her husband?’. His assistant’s voice rose in a light question to remind him of what he’d forgotten. He was ten minutes late for their meeting.
‘Oh yes, yes I’m so sorry,’ Sam stumbled, looking for an apology that he could not give. Instead he gave her look which he hoped would convey all he was trying to say. In the woman’s face he saw a tiredness which he could relate to; a world weariness that she was willing to end. He spread an arm wide, gesturing to his open office door. He followed her in. When inside he shut the door behind them and again gestured to the waiting seat across the desk.
Mrs Parsons sat quietly, timidly. She had said nothing. Did she not have anything to say? He wondered. Or was she saving her energy for what would come next? Sam observed her. ‘Sorry, you said your name was Parsons?’
‘Sylvia Parsons,’ the lady said the words as though they were alien to her, made up on the spot. ‘I’ve come about my husband, Andrew Parsons.’
Sam nodded in acknowledgement. Sylvia Parsons opened the heavy handbag she was holding on her lap. She spread before Sam a number of photos; a young man in a Naval uniform. ‘He’s in a coma you see, he had a stroke and there were complications, and now,’ she looked up and fixed her eyes on Sam, ‘it’s time.’ They sat in silence for a moment. Then her face creased and her eyes began to well.
As Sylvia Parsons broke down with the fear that had brought her here Sam thought about the strength of mind it took for people to say goodbye. Sam looked down at the photos and nodded. Sylvia Parsons took a tissue from her handbag. ‘He was in the Navy you see, during the Falklands. His ship went down, and well,’ she steadied herself so she could stress the importance of what needed to be said.
‘Some of his friends died. And he deeply regretted not… trying harder. He did nothing wrong, he really didn’t. But he could never quite get over it. When he got sick it was all he could talk about.’ She looked over the photos as if they might explain it better. Sam followed her gaze and then looked up to face her. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, reaching across the desk. Sylvia Parsons offered up her hand, he squeezed it, and he smiled. ‘Everything is going to be okay.’
Warrant Officer Andrew Parsons plunged into the cold water of the South Atlantic Ocean. Grasping for breath, he kicked his way back up to the water’s surface. He inhaled deeply. Above him the dark sky was lit up by the glow of fire. He turned to the touch of heat behind him, the ship was engulfed. The roar of the fire was deafening. But still, he felt he heard a voice, calling out to him.
He looked around, there was a lifeboat in the distance. He began his swim toward it. But then there was that voice again, behind him, calling out. Was someone there? Could they swim out to him? He should swim to the lifeboat and have them come back. But would there be time? The diesel was pooling around him now, the smell thick in his nose and throat.
Warrant Officer Andrew Parsons stilled himself, kicked his legs quietly in the roar of the growing fire. He turned to the lifeboat in the distance and then back to the voice, calling from beyond the flames, and he swam towards it.