The blackness was complete. Somehow I wasn't afraid, though I felt that I ought to be. I just couldn't manage it. It was odd. I wondered where I was; the last time I had been in this sort of situation had been once in a sensory deprivation chamber. Perhaps that's where I was. I tried to remember how I had come to be here. Nothing. I couldn't remember anything. I felt fear then, but it was distant, a small thing, inconsequential. It was odd, the blackness; I tried to move my eyes, I may have succeeded, but there was no change in my vision so I couldn't tell. I tried turning my head, to no avail; for all I knew my head could have been revolving at 45 rpm, but the blackness gave me no clue. A vision of my disembodied head spinning on a turntable came unbidden to me; at least it was something to look at.
I may have slept, though I don't think so. How could I tell? Everything was black. I did the things that one does to open one's eyes and there was no difference as far as I could tell. I was bored. To relieve the boredom, I tried once more to remember things about myself. There was nothing. I became discouraged and gave up. This made me angry, what else was there for me to do? I tried another tack, if I couldn't remember personal things, what could I remember? I cast about for something basic, a beginning. An idea came began to grow, something about first principles. And suddenly there it was, fully formed and complete: 'I think, therefore I am.' This was not my idea, I knew that. How did I know that? Frustration grew and for a time I wallowed in it.
I think, therefore I am.
What am I? Who am I? The questions multiplied but I ignored them, trying to find the answers had failed before and only led to further frustration. I shelved them and thought about thought. I pondered how I knew the meanings of the words that I was thinking. Meanings. Abstract words have abstract meanings; perhaps if I thought of something more concrete I could get further? What concrete concepts should I think of? Now that I had an approach to my problem, I felt happier, but my problem was now a different one. My situation did not encourage anything more than cerebral concepts...
'Cerebral', that was a concrete word. Well sort of, what did it mean? Of the brain or something like that. The brain was certainly concrete. I remembered a diagram I'd seen once in a biology textbook. 'Book', another concrete word; I loved books. I shrugged aside the question that this begged. 'Library', shelves and shelves of books, just waiting to be read, bliss! Bloody hell, stuff was just pouring out - associations were fanning out from the central concept too fast for conscious recollection. Typical! You wait for half of eternity for a concrete concept then an infinite number of them arrive at once! 'Bus', big red things, that carried many people and travelled in convoys.
I remembered sitting on the rear seat of a bus with a girl. Kissing. Groping. Now this was more like it! I couldn't remember the girl's name, or mine for that matter, but the kissing was nice. More than nice actually; I drifted and let the memory play out. I could almost feel her tongue as it...
The vision faded and I was left with the memory of a memory. Still it had been pleasant while it lasted. My mind fizzed; I remembered that this was how I felt sometimes when I woke from oversleeping. Perhaps I was asleep and this was all just a weird nightmare. 'Horse of the night', 'lady of the night', sex. Every train of thought seemed to end in sex. I tried again, 'Road', surely that was innocuous enough? 'Road, 'car', 'backseat',... all right, I knew when I was beaten. I wondered at my preoccupation with the three-letter word. Jesus! Now I was thinking in euphemisms! 'Purple prose', I wondered at the derivation of that phrase. I recollected something about a period of American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I seemed to recall it being called the 'purple period' but was 'purple prose' named after the period or vice versa. I mentally shrugged my shoulders. 'Shoulders', 'body',... yeah, yeah! Enough already.
All of a sudden, I could feel my thoughts becoming disconnected and random. Vague associations skittered off in all directions and I felt myself fade away. I wondered vaguely if I would be back. Sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream...
Blackness, a familiar feeling, I wondered how long I had slept. If this was a nightmare, it was taking an extraordinarily long time to play itself out. Now that I had opened the floodgates, as it were, odd memories would pop into the forefront of my mind. A game of cricket played between the upper and lower 6th. It had been a balmy day, we'd imported a ringer, he was our age but he'd left school a couple of years ago. He played in his spare time for the county 2nd or 3rd team; even so he was the fastest bowler I'd ever faced. While we waited for the lower 6th to arrive he'd persuaded me to face him while he bowled a few looseners. I don't think I saw a single ball, I heard them though; they fizzed, the air over the lines of stitching made a noise that I had never forgotten.
I remembered a running catch, with the ball coming from behind me over my shoulder. I knew as I ran that I would catch it, the ball seemed magnetically attracted to my hands. The cheers of my team were wonderful. The vision of the game sat, jewel-like, in my mind. As was proper, the older team beat the younger team, and we all repaired to the pub across the road from the playing field. Underage drinking was tolerated there, even though the police house was less than fifty yards away. Actually, most of the upper 6th was eighteen or over anyway. We'd reflected that, now it was legal for us to drink, we spent less time in pubs than we had the year before!
I remembered the feel of being held between soft breasts...
Uh oh! Back on that track again. Since I'd failed to remember anything personal by directly trying to remember, I tried sidling up to some memories, using the cricket match as a starting point. This approach was marginally more successful, though I remembered nothing specific. I seemed to have the impression that, for most of the players, my presence was barely tolerated; the cheers when I made the catch were special because I rarely received such approbation. Unfortunately I couldn't remember why.
I waited some more.
Blackness. Try as I might, I could discern no variation; wherever I directed my attention, the uniformity of the blackness was absolute. It was almost as if I had no eyes. I became alarmed as I wondered if I was blind. Again, the strong emotion was distant, almost as if it were happening to someone else and not to me. While I was contemplating the thought of blindness, I noticed a difference in the blackness.
There, in the corner of my view, was a change, a tiny scintillating dot of light. I was entranced. For I don't know how long, all I could experience was a monotonous, monochromatic view, and now there was something different. I was afraid to concentrate on it, in case it vanished, like so much of what I experienced here whenever I tried that. Eventually, I could resist the temptation no longer and focused directly on the point of light. To my relief, the light remained. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that it was doing nothing interesting, apart from simply existing. However, in my sensation-starved state, I was not complaining.
Even so, it was a long time before I noticed that the light was changing. Slowly, it grew. First it was a point, then it became a line, and finally, as it approached, I could see it was like a string of pearls. Each bead glowed with an opalescence that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The beads continued to grow larger. It occurred to me that maybe the beads were stationary and it was me that was moving. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind, than I began to feel the sensations of falling. Like my fear earlier, it was muted and distant, but it was enough for me to reinterpret my current reality as a flight towards the beads. By now they filled my whole field of view; they were not so much beads as bubbles. Inside the bubbles I could see people; I yearned to join them, to have some contact with another person. By the time I'd thought to count the beads or bubbles, I was too close to see them all; I seemed to be headed for one somewhere in the middle. I was just starting to wonder about this when I slid through the surface of the bubble I had been approaching...
Angela was crying. Like this was something new. She was always crying when I was around. Of course, whenever I was around, she always seemed to get hurt and her mother blamed me. Angela's crying became louder and I looked down at her arm where I was gripping it tightly. I let go and I stared at the bruises starting to form. I'd really done it this time! Angela was inconsolable; she seemed to delight in getting me into trouble. I waited, resigned, for the inevitable.
"What have you done to her this time? You wretched boy!" The strident tones of Angela's mother reached my ears at about the same time as I saw her face being pushed close to mine. Her expression was angry. She grabbed my ear and turned my head so she could point out the marks I had made on Angela's arm. I said nothing, there was no point, and anything I said would only prolong things. I was the villain of the piece.
"Look at those bruises on her arm, what have you got to say for yourself, Mark?"
I stood mute, the evidence was damning and incontrovertible; I'd hurt her 'little angel'. I remembered the sick horror I'd felt as I watched Angela walk, without looking, straight into the path of the car. Time had seemed to slow and I'd felt as if I was striding through molasses. The grip I'd taken had been tighter than I needed, but I could take no chances, I would only get the one attempt to drag her backwards out of he way.
The car had passed, missing Angela by inches. For a blessed few seconds the silence had been absolute as the world had seemed to hold its breath. For those fleeting moments I'd entertained the idea that this time would be different; that this time even if I did not receive approbation, at least I would not receive abuse. My hopes were dashed when Angela began to cry.
I'd waited, wondering what would happen this time; debating silently on whether it worth extending the torment by trying to defend myself. For a moment I contemplated telling Angela's mother about pulling Angela out of the path of the car that had driven past, the driver oblivious as he chatted with his passenger. A fresh bout of crying from Angela distracted her and I waited for the rest of the scene to play itself out. The flat of her hand, as it cracked across my face, was as shocking as it was unexpected, and I fell bonelessly to the ground. My face reddened in embarrassment at being knocked down in this way.
"Let that be a lesson to you. Stay away from my daughter." She turned away from me in disgust and carried her daughter away. I lay on the ground, my ears ringing from the noise of her hand on my cheek. My face burning with the humiliation of being so ignominiously dumped here, like so much rubbish.
Angela cried fresh tears; I wondered at this, she hadn't been slapped, had she? Why was she crying still? I heard her mother speaking comforting words. Crooning to her daughter, she continued talking. She turned to glare at me and her words became distinct and understandable; they were as much for my benefit as Angela's.
"Don't worry darling, he won't hurt you any more." Her sobs continued but getting quieter as her mother carried her away. She must have turned back towards me as the next phrase was obviously directed at me.
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size, you cowardly bully?" Unjust as the accusation was, my ears still burned with the shame of being labelled a coward. I felt tears starting to leak from my eyes. This was all so unfair...
"Why didn't you say something?" I looked up to see Susan holding out her hand to me. I took it and allowed her to pull me to my feet. I wiped the tears from my eyes, angry that I was crying in front of Susan.
"She wouldn't have believed me. She never does. I don't understand it, she hates me and I don't know why."
"I'd have backed you up."
"I didn't know you were there. She always turns up when the danger is long gone, and all she sees is 'her little Angel' crying her eyes out and me nearby. I'd swear sometimes that Angela cries on purpose."
"Oh Mark, it's not fair!" I found myself enveloped in a hug. Susan, at fourteen, was older than I by three years. Even so, she was the youngest of four girls and she'd adopted me as the younger brother that she'd never had. Angela, the little brat, was three years younger still. We were all next door neighbours, in and out of each other's houses, though relations between my mother and Angela's were getting a little strained. Susan pulled back from me.
"You said, 'she never does.' And 'she always turns up... ' What did you mean?"
"You didn't think this was the first time this has happened did you?"
"How often do you save someone from almost certain death?"
I thought for a while. "Counting today, I'd say five times."
"The first time was when I stopped her pushchair from running down Coopers Lane. She'd been left outside Turner's, the butcher, then this dog ran past and knocked the pushchair; the brake slipped and off she went. I grabbed the pushchair as it went by. Of course by this time Angela was bawling her head off and I got accused of trying to kidnap her or something. No one else saw anything and I got shouted at. I must have been just seven at the time." I stopped to think. "Next was when some dickhead pushed a shopping trolley down Coopers Lane. I caught hold of it before it hit her; of course I couldn't stop it completely, so she got bruised a little. So she cries and her mum turns up to see me holding the trolley that has just run into her little Angel and she puts two and two together and gives me grief."
"Didn't anyone else see?"
"They may have, but you know how loud Angie's mum is?" I supposed it came from being a single mum and having to do everything for herself. "They probably reckoned that they didn't see what they thought they did." Susan laughed at this.
"That's three, what happened next?"
"Then when I was nine, about year and a half later, she fell off the climbing frame. I saw her start to fall and managed to get underneath her. Somehow, her head hit my nose and broke it and I split my head open on the concrete. Our little angel decided that her head hurt where she'd hit mine and ran off crying to mummy. This time I managed to get away without being noticed." I'd had blood streaming from the back of my head and my nose hurt and was bleeding too. Mum had rushed me to casualty, where an unsympathetic nurse had straightened the fractured cartilage of my nose with little ceremony and much pain on my part.
"So that's how your nose got broken! We all thought you'd been beaten up."
"I didn't see the point in telling everyone what really happened, it seemed easier to let you all make your own stories up. Anyway, a week later, that kid from out of town fell and fractured his skull, they pulled the climbing frame down after that."
"And number five?"
I was starting to see a pattern; I'd never listed all these incidents one after the other before. "That was last year. She got caught in some weeds when we were all swimming in the river. If she hadn't panicked, she could probably have got out by herself. Anyway I dived down and managed to get her untangled. But by then she was hysterical and her mother sees me with her little girl who's crying like she's being murdered and jumps to the wrong conclusion again. I didn't wait for the repercussions, I just swam off."
"So that's what the fuss was all about. You never said..." She interrupted herself, "But then you wouldn't would you?"
"What's that thing my Dad always said about good deeds?"
"No Good Deed ever goes unpunished."
"Yeah that's the one. I never understood what that was all about before."
"I don't think it has anything to do with what's happening to you." She grabbed me again and hugged me to her teenage breasts. I'd had a crush on her for ages and this was just heaven. The hug finished far too soon for my tastes, but the consolation prize of a gentle kiss from her sent me floating away on a cloud, the sting of my cheek forgotten. She smiled at the effect that her kiss had, had on me. She knew the way I felt about her. Then she turned and walked back to the cheering of her friends.
The blackness was back.
With nothing to distract me, my mind became a positive hive of questions buzzing angrily in search of an escape.
Shit. What was it all about? It seemed familiar and, while it was going on, I knew I'd lived it before, but it was like I was a spectator or something. Was I in some sort of super-duper VR machine? If so, why couldn't I remember anything? I mulled over the details of the scene I'd just been in. Angela: our little angel, something about her nagged at me. And the other girl, Susan; she'd felt like my older sister. I knew she loved me, but somehow I knew I didn't have an older sister. It had all been so clear when I was in the scene. Why couldn't I remember things now?
I knew that my Dad had died. He'd been a hero, saved a kid from being run down by a runaway lorry, but couldn't get out of the way himself. The pain from that seemed muted and I surmised that it had been some time ago. Was I the kid? I didn't think so, but I couldn't remember the details.
The enigma of Angela's mother remained, why did she hate me so much? Why did she always see the worst of any situation with me in it? What had I done to deserve it? The questions buzzed around in my mind, never alighting long enough for me to think coherently about any one of them. The sting of the slap on my face still seemed to throb, but it was fainter now. Just the echo of a memory of a memory...
I felt a ghostly acceleration and then I was turning and diving into the next bubble in the string...