Following is an excerpt of the completed, published novel -- the first two pages. If you enjoy this excerpt, please look for the novel to add a copy to your library.
The mind roots itself in a body, anchors itself in a head, looks out through a pair of pink lids.
Blue-green curtains hang from a grey squared ceiling. White sheets are cold on hot body. A rocking motion.
A woman, dark curly hair, rises from beside the bed. White cap, blue tunic, pale blue belt, olive skin.
A gasping sucking breath; trying to hold the thin air in the inextensible lungs.
Another nurse rises from the opposite side or the bed. Short fair hair, pink skin, white uniform, white belt.
The rocking stops. The two nurses have been making the bed. The dark-haired nurse smiles,
"So you're back with us again?"
Another deep trembling breath pulled into the strained lungs.
The bed sways. The squared ceiling recedes. Arms move to counterbalance. Arms trapped under tight white sheets. Panic.
"Steady," the dark-haired nurse reaches out a hand. The nails are pink against the brown skin.
Jaws clenched, neck arching, another breath is pulled into the body. Sweat cools on the hot exposed skin. The pink nurse looks on through grey eyes. Curtain and ceiling move away.
"Take deep regular breaths through your mouth," the dark-haired nurse instructs him. Opening wide the jaws the lungs are ventilated.
The pounding within diminishes. The belaboured breathing becomes superfluous. Tension leaves arms, legs, shoulders.
"That's a good boy," the dark-haired nurse bestows a rewarding smile.
Boy. Male. Child.
He studies the smile. Why should a showing of white teeth have a calming effect?
With a friendly double pat the dark-haired nurse removes her hand from his chest.
The curtain around the bed billows out. Soft rapid footsteps on the other side. The pink nurse listens to two low female voices. The sheet again presses down on him. He tugs his arms free. The pink nurse lays her fingers on his forehead, smiling tells him to lie still. Each of her fingers feels cold. He decides he doesn't like her. Why doesn't he like her?
The dark nurse has collected a clipboard from the bottom of the bed. A red chair beside the bed is pushed back against the curtain, alters its folds. She lays the clipboard upon the red chair seat.
"You've had us quite worried..." the pink nurse says from the other side of the bed. She has put laughter into her voice. Her words though... He puzzles on the remembered sound of them. The smooth pink face doesn't look worried.
A woman laughs somewhere within the building, a startled laugh, trailing quickly off. He searches for words of his own, composes them, studies them, rearranges them, practises them with closed mouth.
"Where am I?" he asks the dark nurse.
"Would you believe," taking his wrist she grins at him, "in hospital?"
He looks at the green and white striped pyjamas on his arm, at his inert brown-pink hand beyond the probing fingers of the nurse.
He has a large crooked thumb, four bent fingers, a criss-crossing of lines on his plump palm. Not a child's hand. More words to be shaped and practised.
"How'd I get here?"
"Don't you remember?" her brown eyes flick up from the watch pinned to the breast of her tunic. He looks inside himself. A vacancy.
"No," he says without having practised the word.
"You collapsed in the street," the pink nurse tells him, "Early this afternoon. You recovered consciousness in Emergency. You remember that?"
Again he looks inside himself. Nothing.
"No," he tastes the movement of his tongue, "This isn't Emergency?"
"This is the heart ward," the dark nurse releases his wrist and busily writes on the clipboard. "You have a very erratic pulse. I need a name on this. Surname?"
Both nurses have name tags clipped to their tunics. His name? Surname? He has no memory of a name tag. He searches for other memories. But this is all he knows of himself: his being here.
"I don't know," he tells the dark nurse, "How did I get to this ward?"
"A porter brought you," the pink nurse smiling tells him, "No beds in ITU. So you were brought here."
The dark nurse has inclined her head. The pink nurse stares a second at her, then parts the curtains and leaves.
"We can take your temperature anyway," the dark nurse flicks a thermometer, reads it. "Open your mouth." The glass thermometer scrapes over his lower teeth, is cold under his tongue. "Close your mouth. And while that's cooking I'll take your blood pressure."
Breathing noisily through his nose he watches the nurse unclip the lid of a rectangular box and extract a black armband and tubing. Pushing up his pyjama sleeve she straps the armband around his biceps. Putting the two curved pieces of a stethoscope in her ears, she pumps up the inflatable armband, then watches the mercury fall in the tube on the inside of the lid. She writes more figures an the clipboard.
While she is doing this he wonders how it is that he knows what a stethoscope is, knows that she is taking his blood pressure, that these things are familiar to him. Has he been in hospital before? Looking about him he realises that he also knows what a curtain is, and a bed, and that this is a hospital ward; and yet he doesn't know his own name.
"Don't worry about it," the dark nurse has taken his blood pressure again, "It'll come."
Can she read his thoughts? He examines his thoughts. His sole thought is himself examining his thoughts. Curtains, bed, pillow, sheets, blanket, chair, bedside locker... he names all the things about him.
Turning his free hand over he examines the freckles on the back of his hand, the wrinkled knuckles, the short black hairs on the white wrist. A hand. He doesn't recognise it as his own. A hand, nothing more.
The nurse removes the thermometer, reads it and makes a cross on the chart.
"Still high," her smile says that it is nothing to worry about, "Any luck yet?"
He knows to what she refers, gives a slight shake of the head.
"What street did I collapse in?" he asks her, listens to himself speaking, wonders where he first learnt to form words.
"I'll find out later for you," she pushes herself up from the chair.
A doctor in a white coat steps through the curtain, is followed by the pink nurse. The man wonders why he isn't pleased to see her. Because she feigned concern?
The doctor is young. How old am I, the man wonders, feels the hammering up a tempo within him and breathes deep to quieten it.
The doctor has looked to the bottom of the bed for the charts, sees the clipboard on the red chair. The dark nurse steps out of his path. The doctor glances over the clipboard, takes the man's left wrist.
"I'll need an ECG," he says. Both nurses exit through the curtain.
The man listens to the doctor's slow breaths. The doctor has a pallid complexion, red spots on his cheeks. The man wonders how he knows he himself is a man, recalls the dark nurse calling him a good boy. He is beginning to learn. That thought pleases him.
The doctor looks tired, the eyes dull and blurred. His pale hair is cut short at the sides, long on the top. Straight hair it stands up at odd angles, looks unclean. With his free hand the man feels over the top of his own head. The hair is clipped short. It is damp at the roots from his sweating. What colour is it? He doesn't know.
Releasing his wrist the doctor makes a note on a pad.
"Name?" he says, waits with yellow pen poised. The man doesn't answer: the question has struck no chord in him. When the doctor looks over to him, the man gives a shrug. The doctor makes a one line stroke on the pad.
"Address?" The man knows what the word means, pictures an envelope. The word, though, has no meaning for him.
"I don't even know where I am now," he gives a weak apologetic smile, wants the doctor to smile back at him as the dark-haired nurse did. The doctor doesn't.
"Date of birth?" The question is meaningless. Days, months, years...?
He doesn't know what figures apply to him. What year is this? Age? He again examines his hand. He is not young. Is he old?
The doctor is watching the sweat form on the man's brow and nose.
"Amnesia is very rarely total or permanent," the doctor tells him, "Relax now." The words hold no kindness, are a professional observation touched with impatience for the man's unnecessary fears. "Do you think you can sit up?"
The man thinks about it — thinks about pushing his body up the bed with his legs, raising himself on his elbows and forearms. He wishes that the two nurses would return to help him.
"Yes," he hears himself say, and begins to move his limbs, the muscles on the tops of his legs contracting to raise his knees.
The doctor lays his pad on the bedside locker and helps pull him up out of the bedclothes. The hands of the doctor are thin and smooth.
Once upright, the man sits forward, flat hands pressing down on the bed, the smooth covers seeming to float away from below him. The doctor's voice is telling him to take deep breaths through his mouth. A man beyond the curtain calls pipingly to a nurse.
"Better?" There is no concern in the doctor's voice, simply a question that requires a yes or a no answer to establish a fact. The man, concentrating on taking deep breaths, nods. The giddiness has gone.
Going behind the man the doctor manipulates the metal bed and piles up pillows.
"Lie back now."
The man, exhaling, obeys. The doctor scrutinises his eyes, his pallor. From a blue cardboard wallet he extracts a form, hands the man the yellow ballpoint. The man takes it in his right hand, holds it between his fingers.
"Can you sign this? It's a form of consent for any treatment we may consider necessary."
The man studies the cross beside the line on which he is to write his signature. He weighs the pen in his fingers. He is sure he knows how to write, doesn't know, though, what to write. The dizziness returns. He moves the pen sketchily about above the paper.
Nothing. No response from within telling him what to write.
"I'm sorry," he lets out a breath, glances up to the doctor, "Nothing." The doctor's expression doesn't change,
"Next of kin?" The man looks sharply inside himself, hoping to catch himself off-guard. Wife? Sons? Daughters? Mother? Father? Family snapshots; but of no particular family. Brother? Sister? The doctor removes the pen from the man's fingers.
"Do you know what day it is?" It is day. He shakes his head.
"Do you know the days of the week?"
"Monday. Tuesday," he hears himself reciting, listens to learn, "Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Saturday. Sunday."
"Know what month this is?" Month?
"Do you know the months of the year?"
Again he listens to himself to learn. The doctor studies him, says as he writes on the form, "Wednesday 6th of August." A Wednesday in August.
The pink nurse comes through the curtains pulling a machine on a trolley. Through the momentary gap in the curtains the man glimpses a white bedside locker, part of a railed bed and a grey-haired man sat in a red chair beside the bed. The old man has a blue dressing gown on over pale green pyjamas.
Out of lacklustre eyes the old man looks directly back at him. Behind the flat grey head is a brown vase of orange flowers.
The doctor ignores the pink nurse's attentive presence.
"Unbutton your pyjama top," he tells the man; and from his white coat pocket he pulls a silver and black stethoscope.
Again, as with the pen, the man's right hand does as it is bid.
Plugging the stethoscope into his ears, the doctor presses the cold diaphragm against the man's chest. He listens, makes notes, moves the stethoscope, tells the man to breathe deeply, to hold his breath. He makes notes. The man passively watches him, awaits instructions.
The doctor is an untidy man, has violet biro stains on the breast pocket of his white coat, and both the collar of his brown check shirt and tightly knotted green tie are askew. His fingernails are bitten down. The man looks to his own nails. They are uniform.
Telling the man to sit up, the doctor gestures to the nurse to help the man take off his pyjama jacket. Once the man is sitting forward the doctor moves the stethoscope over the ribbed back, makes notes, then goes over the bare back tapping upon his own fingers.
"Lie back," the doctor tells him, adds to his notes. The pink nurse uninterestedly looks on.
The stethoscope is crammed back into the doctor's white coat pocket and a pointed stick, with a disc of white rubber on its end, is brought forth. The doctor tells the pink nurse to pull back the bedclothes, asks the man to slide down the bed. The pink nurse hovers helpfully while the man eases himself down.
He now hopes that she won't help him: the moving about is making him feel better. He flinches as the doctor runs the pointed stick across his stomach. The surprise makes him smile. The pink nurse nervously answers his smile. The man wishes that the doctor too would smile at him. He curiously examines this wish.
The man's arms are folded back on themselves, are straightened. Unbuttoning the man's pyjama trousers the doctor feels around the abdomen, presses his fingers into the soft flesh, asks the man if it hurts.
"Do you have pain anywhere?" Pain? The man searches through his body,
"No. I was just finding it hard to breathe. And I felt dizzy."
The doctor nods, lifts the man's leg and hits his knee with the rubber end of the stick.
"No chest pains? Stomach pains?'
"No." The man awaits the blow on his other knee.
"Relax," the doctor curtly orders him. The man lets out a breath. His knee jerks.
Having run the pointed end of the stick up his curved soles, the doctor tells him to sit up and to put his pyjama jacket back on. He gestures to the pink nurse to remake the bed.
While the man and the nurse co-operate the doctor sits on the bedside chair and adds to his notes.
"Have you ever suffered from a heart ailment?" he asks the man.
"Not that I know of," the man says. The doctor grimaces, apparently disapproving of the man's consistent ignorance. Why should he be disbelieved, the man wonders. Why should he lie?
"Do you remember collapsing in the street?" the doctor testily asks him. The man holds the word street in his mind, sees rows of houses facing one another. It doesn't seem to be any particular street.
"No." More notes are made.
Laying aside the notes the doctor stands and takes a heavy silver cylinder from his pocket. At its top is a black cone. Through this cone the doctor peers into the man's ears, then into his eyes. Inside the cone is a small yellow light. Staring, as instructed, into that light, the man tries to avert his face to avoid inhaling the doctor's stale breath. More notes are made. The man is told to follow with his eyes the yellow pen the doctor moves from right to left before his face.
The pen is used to make more notes. The doctor feels under the man's chin and down the sides of his neck. The man is told to open his mouth. The doctor presses the man's tongue flat to look down his throat. He frowns, reaches down and picks up the man's hands. He turns them over, examines both sides.
"One thing we do know about you," the doctor belabours a dramatic pause, "you don't smoke." The pink nurse dutifully smiles.
The doctor is feeling the man's armpits when the dark-haired nurse returns. She smiles at the man. He finds himself happy to see her. Watched by the two nurses the doctor searches up over the back of the man's head.
"How did you get this bruise?" Bruise?
Grunting his scepticism, or his exasperation, the doctor makes more notes. With a flicker of her eyes the dark nurse indicates that she wishes to talk to the doctor. The man has seen the exchange.
"Prepare him for an ECG," the doctor tells the pink nurse, and goes outside the curtain with the dark nurse.
The pink nurse asks the man to undo his pyjama jacket, folds down the bedclothes.
"Don't you remember anything?" she asks as she helps him slide back down the bed. Her watch, hanging from her tunic above him, is upside down. Glancing to her face he sees that her interest is genuine.
"Nothing that means anything," he tells her, "Not as far as I can make out."
"Don't worry," she says, unlooping wires from the trolley, returning to her concept of confident professionalism, "it'll all come back."
Spreading white cream from a tube onto suction pads, she presses the cold pads onto his bare chest, explains to him the function of the machine.
"Electrocardiograph," he says almost to himself.
"You know that then?" the nurse regards him curiously.
"Yes," the man looks inside himself for what triggered the recognition, "But I know language," he says to himself and the nurse, "I haven't forgotten that. Trouble is," he voices the thought as it forms, "I can't know what it is that I've forgotten."
The doctor and the dark nurse return. The pink nurse makes way for the doctor, joins the dark nurse at the bottom of the bed. The doctor checks over the machine, sets it running.
"He knows what an ECG is," the pink nurse blushes. The doctor looks from her to the man, nods without expression. He studies the printout from the machine, moves one of the suction pads, watches the new printout.
The two nurses are listening to a conversation between a nurse and a male patient beyond the curtain. Both smile at something the nurse sharply says. The doctor tears off the printout. Nudged by the dark nurse the pink nurse hurries to remove the suction pads from the man. The doctor slips the ECG printout into the cardboard file. The dark nurse helps the man to sit up, pulls the covers back over him, stands on the opposite side of the bed to the doctor. The pink nurse is relooping the ECG wires. The man is no longer dizzy.
"Now I require a blood sample," the doctor says.
Taking a syringe from a clear plastic bag, he finds a fat blue vein on the inside of the man's arm, pushes the needle into it and withdraws some maroon blood. He injects the blood into several small tubes with different colour tops. The dark nurse tells the man to take deep breaths through his mouth. The man smiles at her. The doctor presses a piece of white cottonwool onto the dark hole in the vein, folds the arm onto it, tells the man to keep it there.
The man and the nurses wait while the doctor reads back through his notes. With a tired sigh the doctor clips the notes into the file, for the first time looks at the man full face on.
"All I can safely say is that you appear to have had a shock of some kind. Any idea what it might have been?" The man shakes his head. "You also have a slight concussion. Now, whether the bang on your head caused you to collapse, or you banged your head when you collapsed, I don't know. At a guess I'd say that you banged your head when you collapsed. Does the word 'epilepsy' mean anything to you?"
"I think I know what it is."
"Are you an epileptic?"
"I don't know. I don't think I have fits. I know what the word means, that's all."
The doctor, who has been carefully studying his reaction, now looks aside.
"Sister says," his eyes come back to the man, "you collapsed in Harborough Road. Do you remember that?"
"You said I collapsed in the street before," he tells the pink nurse.
"No. Harborough Road," the doctor says. Street/road, road/street, the man turns the two words over: he sees again rows of houses facing one another, but this time houses painted different colours and with large trees outside their garden gates and cars parked beside a pavement.
"Are there trees in Harborough Road?" he asks. The doctor glances to the two nurses.
"Garages and things," the pink nurse is uncertain, "I don't think there're any trees."
The man pictures the open forecourt of a garage, petrol pumps, glass paybooth. The oily interior of a repairshop, a car up on an hydraulic ramp. Neither picture seems connected with him.
"Do you have any objection to Sister looking through your clothes?" the doctor asks. Why should he object? Could he object? What clothes? He wants now, as much as they, to know who he is.
"No," he says, "No objection."
The dark nurse kneels to the bedside locker and removes a pile of neatly folded clothes. Setting them on the bed beside his legs, she shakes out a dark blue nylon anorak, feels inside its pockets.
"Nothing," she reports.
"Recognise it?" the doctor asks the man.
"It's an anorak."
"Do you recognise it as yours?"
The anorak is well worn, has grease patches on the creased cuffs; an anorak owned by someone. By someone he doesn't know.
"No," he ruefully shakes his head.
The nurse finds nothing in the pockets of the grey trousers, nor does the man recognise the red underpants, the blue shirt, grey socks or faun suede shoes. All are well worn.
"Do you remember shaving this morning?" the doctor asks. The man feels his chin, watches the nurse fold his clothes.
"What's the Prime Minister called?" After a moment's reflection, the man shakes his head.
"What am I called?" the doctor holds his hand over his badge.
"I don't," the man hesitates, "seem to be able to remember names."
"What else," the doctor smiles crookedly, "can't you remember?"
"I don't know," the man gladly answers his smile, "until you ask me."
The doctor slots the cardboard wallet under his arm, prepares to leave. The two nurses stand aside.
"What I can tell you," the doctor says to the man, "is that, for some reason, you're in shock. Apart from that, I can't find anything wrong with you. Now I want you to rest, stay in bed. The police will have to be notified. Possibly they will be able to shed some light on your identity. Does that bother you?"
Removing the dark-spotted cottonwool from the crook of his arm, she pumps up the black strap, watches the mercury fall. A shiny blue and red dressing gown is draped over the end of a bed across from him. The inside red stitches of the dressing gown are like Arabic writing. How do I know, he asks himself, what Arabic writing looks like?
The nurse packs the tubing and strap away into its long box.
"I also require," she pauses significantly, "a urine sample."
With an apologetic smile she hands him a long-necked white plastic flask,
"Want the curtains drawn?"
Urine is yellow and comes out the penis. The feeble patient who waved to him took a flask off another nurse. Like him the man slides the flask down under the bedclothes, fishes inside his pyjamas for his penis and places it in the downsloping neck of the cold flask. Telling him to put the flask on his bedside locker when he has finished, the nurse disappears up to the ward offices. To consult with others on him, he guesses. And he feels and hears his hot urine trickling into the flask. And he wonders that he knows what to do but cannot remember ever having done it before. Something so functional, so ordinary, so everyday... and yet he has no other days but this one.
Following the other patient's example, he twists in bed to place the flask on the bedside locker, then pulls the narrow table with his tea on it back to him. The other nurses have worked their way down the ward, taking temperatures, bestowing headslanted smiles. The blonde nurse reappears, takes his urine sample, gives him a clean white flask.
"Remember anything yet?" she says. He smiles, his guess correct,
"No. If anything it seems to get worse. More confusing. Realising how much I don't know."
"Well... Take it easy," she squeezes his shoulder.
Lying back against his pillows he watches the influx of new nurses establish the order of their shift, notes the care with which they treat him, the precise omission of his name, the cheerful unconscious use of the other patients names; and he looks inside himself and he wonders where, whoever he was, he has gone.
He watches nurses bringing newly delivered flowers to patients, listens to nurses passing on phone messages from relatives, and with wonder he picks up his knife and fork when dinner is wheeled around, and he watches himself eat and he wonders that he cannot recall ever having eaten before yet he knows how to do it. He also knows, approximately, what the potatoes and the greens will taste like before they enter his mouth. The cubes of grained meat he leaves around the outside of the white plate. And twice more his temperature, blood pressure and pulse are taken; and he glimpses their uneven progress across his chart. That much he knows about himself.
(Voice Off. It hurts a human being to be born. It recovers. As toddlers human beings suffer bumps and illnesses. Most recover. So do most human beings, in their brief and painfilled lives, soon come to expect to be hurt and to expect to recover. They also, early in their lives, accept death's inevitability. Thus do most unwell human beings await cure or death with equal passivity.)
Detective Constable Derek Hawkins has an aptitude for paperwork and court appearances. Nursing a swollen bladder in a cold parked car has never struck him as glamorous: he is happier by far sitting in the office or waiting on a court bench. Fortunately his superiors appreciate his inclinations and talents, and they like to have him in court — he has a stolid unflappable court persona. And, with him in court, his superiors can concentrate their other officers on what they regard as 'real' police work — the garnering of evidence. Albeit that the presentation of that evidence in the courtroom is what leads to convictions.
For all of next week DC Hawkins has at least two court appearances per day. This week, the week of his obligatory nightshift, he has been looking forward to catching up on his outstanding paperwork. 'The suspect was seen to...' 'The suspect, when approached, admitted to...'
His superiors' derisory attitude to the courtroom often amuses DC Hawkins, occasionally it dismays him. He was not unduly surprised, therefore, when, on coming on shift, his paperwork was dismissed as secondary; and dogsbody DC Hawkins was sent to investigate an alleged amnesiac.
Making his disgruntled way to the hospital DC Hawkins considers amnesia, loses himself in a daydream wherein he realises how pleasant it would be to escape his own past, to throw off his imprisoning identity and to start afresh. At twenty three he believes that already he's done everything, seen everything. Never again in his life will he know such intensity of experience: his lot now is dulling repetition, is paler variations of the same. Life for him, he believes, is effectively finished; mistakes been made, opportunities missed, his future decreed, nothing more for this identity to do in the next sixty years but to act out his self-formed fate.
His past, he knows, indelibly shapes his future. At school his friends used his solemn round face as a front for them, to persuade parents and teachers how safe and sensible was their every madcap escapade. Authority seemed reassured by his guileless features, always found, despite his protestations of culpability, extenuating circumstances for his part in any prank. And so it was that authority, in the embodiment of the police, chose him rather than he the police as a career.
How tempting, he thinks, to slip now out of this constraining identity, to greet life with debonair laughter. And, even before meeting him, he resents this man who claims to have done so, and in so doing has interrupted his paperwork.
He has trouble parking, is misdirected to the wrong wing, and when, finally, he introduces himself to a blonde ward sister, she is at her paperwork.
"Somebody here says they've lost their memory." Hers is a small afterthought of an office.
"Yes," she bridles at his overt scepticism.
"Where is he?"
"Go easy on him," she admonishes him as she squeezes around the desk, "He's very unstable at the moment."
"No. Physically worried. As you'd be if you'd lost your memory. This way."
The bed is second along on the right. The man sitting up in that bed is in his mid-thirties.
"A visitor for you," the ward sister tells the man.
The man looks up startled. DC Hawkins watches the man seeking to recognise him, seeking to place him in his own life.
"Detective Constable Hawkins," he introduces himself, letting the man off the hook, says, "Thank you," to the sister who has fetched him a chair.
He pulls the chair closer to the man, putting as much distance as he can between himself and the family of Indians around the next bed. He lays his black briefcase on the bed, flicks the silver catches,
"I'm told you've lost your memory."
"Well..." the man visibly sweats, "Yes and no. I can remember lots of things. But not who I am. He smiles apologetically — ingratiatingly? — at DC Hawkins.
As he extracts a notebook from his briefcase DC Hawkins studies the man. A life's doubts and surprises are registered in the creases of the brow, a lifetime's wrinkles around the grey eyes. No-one can simply forget what has formed him. His own 23 year old face is smooth, bland; even so he is his past. His mother and father, brothers... there is so much of it, even at twenty three, to forget, to casually mislay.
"Before we go any further," he opens his notebook, "I warn you that should you, for whatever reason, not be telling the truth, and, as a consequence I have to go looking up all sorts of records, you will be charged with wasting police time. And if it turns out that you've known all along who you are, then you most certainly will be charged. Is that understood?"
"I'm sorry..." the man has a tremor in his voice, "I honestly don't know who I am."
The man's obvious agitation does not persuade DC Hawkins to the truth of what he is saying. The man may be trembling because he is simply frightened, and he may be frightened simply because he is not telling the truth.
This segment is an excerpt of the complete novel John John by Sam Smith, now available in print.