The Second Try

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The Second Try

By

L.L. Ballack

 

 

It’s never too late. The failure automatically goes back to the starting point for the second try… The hands go once around the dial and the condemned man makes his theatrical gestures again, pointing to his chest once more: “Aim for the heart, soldiers!” And again…

 -Alain Robbe-Grillet

 

 

I was dead when they found me. They weren’t entirely sure how long I had been dead for, but it was a good few minutes. I died twice, in fact; once at the scene and again in the ambulance. I had no recollection of the accident. My first memory following the affair was of Kate.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer. My jaw had been shattered and my face was locked-in by layers of bandages.

“Can you move your arm? Your fingers?” a nurse asked.

I tried shaking my head, but couldn’t. One of my arms was in traction, while the other had been immobilised by the cast running from shoulder to wrist. The mystery woman, Kate, leaned forward and looked directly into my eyes.

“Can he hear us?”

“Can you hear us?” the nurse repeated. “Blink if you can.”

I did as I was told.

“Do you know who I am?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I shifted my eyes from side to side, scanning the perimeter of the hospital room. It was grey, like a perpetual fog of nothingness.

“Blink twice for yes and once for no,” said the nurse, helpfully.

I blinked once.

“I’m your wife,” said the mystery woman, in a tone as perfunctory as her expression.

“This is Kate. Do you remember? Kate? Your wife.”

The repetition of the name did nothing to release the prisoners of memory. I sensed, even then, that if the inmates ever did emerge from incarceration they would have lost a lot of weight. I blinked once, again. Kate seemed satisfied and left. The nurse gave me a bed bath and reassured me that my wounds weren’t as bad as they might feel, and that there was a good chance I would walk again.

 

My recovery was slow and unforgiving. The stiffness which had set in as soon as the final cast was removed – and which seemed to baffle the doctors – was more of a hindrance than the various metal devices screwed into my limbs. Much of my body was still bandaged, but the absence of the casts should have given me greater flexibility. It didn’t. I felt strangely less mobile than I had when my body was in traction; an odd state of affairs given I could only blink during that time. Physiotherapy began almost as soon as the last cast came off. It took several weeks for the strange stiffness to go away, with the doctors speculating that it was some sort of muscle spasm; something to do with lactic acid levels and oxygen. My neck and shoulders, as well as my abdomen, had gone an unusual shade of green. At first, the doctors thought it was bruising, but the discolouration was inconsistent with a bruise. They speculated that I may have an unusual skin tone, or that there was a haemoglobin imbalance in my blood. One thing I do remember was that they spent a huge amount of time examining my eyes.

“What colour were your eyes before the accident?”

“Dark,” I replied. “Hazel or something like that.”

“Have you noticed anything odd about them when you look in the mirror?”

“Not really.”

“Have a look.”

The doctor guided me gently towards the mirror above the sink in my hospital room. He stood beside me, offering his arm in support. He looked vaguely alarmed.

“What?” I asked.

“Notice anything different about the tone, the shade – the colour in general, I mean?”

I suddenly felt nauseous.

“My head feels strange. Hazy.”

My reflection was blurred; distorted by the impenetrable grey fog of the hospital room. The doctor lowered me into a wheelchair and took me back over to the bed. I tried protesting, stoically insisting I was fine, but the doctor was adamant I should rest. He prescribed a sedative and ordered the nurse to watch me for the rest of the day. When I woke up, Kate was there. She had a large book under her arm. It was heavy and bigger than a hardback novel.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not so bad.”

“You look pale.”

“I felt woozy before.”

“The nurse said you’ve been out for twelve hours.”

“Christ, that long?”

I suddenly realised I hadn’t seen Kate for weeks. She hadn’t been to see me since I woke up from the coma.

“She said you’re struggling with the physiotherapy.”

“I am. My whole body’s stiff. The doctors don’t know what it is.”

“You have amnesia, too.”

She sounded relieved, as though I had conveniently forgotten something appalling: a nightmare I had woken up from, but a recollection of nothing but the attendant fear of nightmares. I was fumbling around in a vast haze of dread.

“The doctors say your memories may start to come back over time, but only with the right stimulus. They asked me to give you things to help it along: photographs, video clips, emails, chat messages and that sort of stuff.”

“Is that what you’ve got under your arm? A photo album?”

“Yes.” She placed it on the hospital tray in front of me and turned towards the door. “Bye then. I’ll see you soon.”

I watched her leave and felt something lift within me. My limbs suddenly felt lighter; they were flaccid suddenly; liberated even. I turned towards the photo album and looked through the first few pages. There were pictures of Kate and me in various locations. She looked younger. I assumed the photos had been taken around ten years ago, perhaps before we were married. A few pages in, I saw a solitary photo of myself wearing what appeared to be a grey morning suit – at a wedding perhaps. As I ventured further into the album, I noticed that the majority of pictures were of me, alone. Kate had absented herself from all but the earliest part of our life. The entire second half of the album was dedicated to pictures of Kate and a young boy, who I immediately realised was my son. Kate had written his name – Evan – beneath the earlier pictures to chart his development.

I felt odd. I was a father; I had been entrusted with the responsibility for another life, but had no idea how well I had done at it. I had been excluded from these pages of the album. Kate had only included pictures of herself with our son. The pictures of me had vanished. I constituted roughly a fifth of the compendium of my shared life with Kate. It occurred to me that we might have been divorced and that she had only turned up to the hospital out of some semi-legal obligation, like I had no known next of kin aside from her. I assumed my own parents were dead, as there had been no mention of them and Kate had not put any pictures in the album. The traces of my life had been reduced to two people I no longer knew.

 

***

 

It was months before I was allowed to leave the hospital. My recovery had been setback by a series of baffling ailments. My skin had succumbed to some strange and unpleasant condition. It had the characteristics of psoriasis or some other virulent form of eczema. My eyes and lips had become swollen, turning my face into a caricature. Like a cartoonist, my ailment had exaggerated my facial features and turned me into a grotesque parody of myself. My skin was badly blistered and my hair was falling out in clumps. They diagnosed me with alopecia, but revised their opinion when the hair samples were analysed. There was something irregular about them. They were also convinced there was a connection between my hair loss and the retreat of my fingernails into my fingers. The lotions and treatments the doctors applied were inadequate. Not for the first time, my condition got the better of their expertise. I felt myself turning into an object of medical curiosity: my continued existence served only to sate the interests of a profession. They wanted to keep me in for longer; I suspected, because they wanted to study me. I made polite excuses, not wanting to pass over a future opportunity. Who knew at that stage? I could have made a name for myself.

“There is always the possibility that your symptoms may be the manifestations of a psychosomatic complaint. Are you feeling any kind of stress? It’s often the case that victims of trauma suffer further medical complications as a result of the stress it induces.”

I had been handed over for psychoanalysis. The psychiatrist had a point.

“It’s possible, but I have to say that I honestly don’t feel anything except a, uh, I’m not sure how to put it. A sort of—lightness.”

“Light in what sense?”

“My limbs feel very flaccid. It’s almost like I feel as though I’m withering away.”

The psychiatrist wrote some things down. I assumed my responses had provided him with material as efficacious as that which I had provided the medical practitioners.

“You said you feel a sort of lightness, like you’re withering away. Would you say that you’re perhaps willing this to happen?”

“In a manner of speaking. Whatever it is, it seems quite important that it should happen.”

He asked me about hallucinations and imaginary voices, none of which I had experienced. He seemed quite keen to ascribe a personality disorder to me, but fumbled around just as pointlessly as the doctors had. There was no orthodox explanation for what was happening to my body and mind. My blood pressure was extremely low and, on a few occasions, the nurses struggled to find my pulse. Although I was sitting up and talking quite eagerly, to all intents and purposes I seemed dead. I wasn’t exactly pretty to look at either. By the time I left hospital and returned to my apartment, I was unrecognisable from the man I had been before the accident. In fact, I was unrecognisable from the man who had been admitted to hospital, such had been the dramatic alteration in my appearance over those previous months. My skin had become an intricate, labyrinthine puzzle by this stage. My blood vessels had won a battle for attention with my skin; the latter having become almost translucent. I looked like some extraordinary join-the-dots-puzzle, or an ultrasound scan of a complex underground system of tunnels or cables. I also had an appalling sinus problem. My nose and ears were secreting the most atrocious pus.

My apartment contained as few clues about my existence as had Kate’s photo album. It seemed that prior to the accident I had become something of a minimalist. Aside from a couple of bills and junk mail on the doorstep, I had left myself few clues as to who I was. The only item of interest to me was the clock above the mantelpiece. There was a mirror there, which was directly in the path of a larger mirror on the opposite wall. The intention, I presumed, was to create the illusion of even greater space in the room. The larger mirror covered almost the entire wall and appeared to double the size of the room when looking in its direction. I felt a strange power over the dimensions of the apartment whenever I looked in it, like I had somehow cheated geometry and exposed its filthy lies about the limitations of space.

The clock which took my interest had stopped at twenty past two. The curious thing about it was that it appeared to have been dismantled and put back together. The outer casing had been removed, and the internal mechanisms and wires were totally exposed. It seemed an odd place to leave a broken clock.

 

***

 

Given Kate’s prolonged absence during my recovery, I didn’t bother to contact her again. I had a sense that piecing together the fragments of my life would be as pointless as the efforts of the medical profession to explain my predicament. I realised that I had very little interest in what had happened to me before. This included the details of my accident. The doctors were surprised when I declined the opportunity to have them tell me. In the meantime, I had rejected further treatment of my skin condition. I had lost a considerable amount of weight and felt better for it. Even the odour coming from my flesh provided a strange sort of comfort to me. It was, though, greatly off-putting to everyone else. Public transport was a problem, although I had little difficulty in ensuring I got the seat to myself: whole sections of the bus, in fact, would empty for me, providing a solitude most people would never think possible. People had begun to stare at me in the way all agents of physical peculiarity get stared at. I would smile at them when noting the horrified looks on their faces, my state of decay had become a source of happiness. Although not everyone agreed.

“You appear to regard this all as a bit of a joke.”

The psychiatric profession was all mouth and no ears by this stage. There was nothing amusing about my predicament. I was serious about it; deadly serious.

“Not at all.”

“You’ve resisted all attempts to provide you with medical treatment and seem completely unaware of the severity of the whole thing.”

“Severity?” I was practically indignant. “I’ve never felt more serious about anything. Not that I can remember, anyway.”

“Look at you. You’re wasting away.”

He was right, of course. I had been neglecting myself. But like much else about me by that stage, I had little interest.

“Who’s to say I wasn’t wasting away before?”

“I’m sorry?”

“If anything, I’m being put back together; repaired. You couldn’t possibly begin to understand.”

I was spending a good deal of my time considering future events by that stage. The past was of no consequence and I could sense a reversal of priorities.

“You have no interest whatsoever in your life before the accident. Patients of amnesia often have difficulty accepting uncomfortable truths from the past, but this is something else. You seem preoccupied with little more than your own demise. Fascinated by it, even”

“Indeed. I think of little else. Everything else is merely a distraction.”

“Have you thought about what happened to you? The incident, I mean. The explosion.”

“What explosion?”

“Oh come on, you must follow the news at least. You can’t possibly be immune to that.”

He was wrong.

“I’ve no idea what you mean.”

“Almost twenty people died on that bus. You were terrifically lucky. You were only feet away from the bomber and escaped with your life.”

For the first time, I felt an association with myself. Well, my previous incarnation, anyway.

“Terrorist attack?”

“Religious fanatics. They didn’t officially claim responsibility, but it bore all the hallmarks. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again.”

“Yes,” I replied, almost as if I was speaking on behalf of my almost-assassin. “It wouldn’t be right otherwise.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It would need to be repeated or else there’s little point.”

He made a series of furious notes.

“Are you saying you now feel some empathy with these people?”

“Perhaps not.”

I didn’t. Their identity and cause was of no consequence. All that mattered was the act. It was the only thing that made any sense and provided a convenient explanation for what had happened to me.

“Look, may I be frank? Your condition is extraordinary in the sense that you appear to have completely rejected the process of living. Not only have you rejected it intellectually, but your body is showing signs of physical decomposition. The stiffness you reported early on resembled the early stages of rigor mortis. Your body is now literally putrefying; you’re a walking corpse and you see no reason to correct this.”

“Don’t you understand? It can’t be corrected. There’s nothing to correct.”

“You have no interest whatsoever in re-connecting with your ex-wife.”

“I’m sure she’s happier for it. I didn’t seem particularly significant to her.”

“Are you aware that you had undergone considerable psychotherapy before the attack?”

“It doesn’t surprise me.”

“You’d been suffering depression, agitated by the court order your ex-wife had taken out against you.”

“I feel a lot better now, thank you.”

“Don’t be flippant.”

“I’m not. Decomposition is tremendously liberating. Everyone should try it.”

He looked horrified.

“And what about your son?”

“What about him?”

He leaned forward and tilted his glasses towards the edge of his nose. His forehead looked severe; it had formed creases which resembled an arrow targeting the very centre of my brain.

“He’s dead.”

I said nothing for a while. I stared through the open window. A double-decker bus drove past.

“The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it, but it seemed like the only thing to say.

“What number bus was I on?” I asked after a while.

“What?”

“What number bus was I on when the bomb went off?”

“The 124.”

That was all I needed to know.

 

***

 

I spent the following months riding the 124 from the depot to the terminus. It was odd how the details of the bus’s route formed in my memory with extraordinary clarity. Quickly, I could recall all the road names along the route; the various landmarks; the sequence of the shops; the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples; the number of traffic lights; the duration the traffic lights would spend on red, amber and green; the precise time at which the bus would arrive at each stop; the colours of the garden gates along the mock Tudor suburbs; the number of windows on the urban apartment blocks; the time at which the bus would turn on A… Avenue or into J… Square. I could gauge the distance between the wheels of the bus and the kerb as it turned corners to within a millimetre, the braking distance the bus driver would leave between the bus and the vehicle in front, the space above the bus as it went through tunnels. I even began noticing the time the sun would rise and fall. Winter was coming and the light was fading quicker and quicker.

Weeks passed and I began to feel the 124 offered a greater sense of familiarity than my sparsely furnished apartment. Although my memories hadn’t come back, I could feel an affinity with the routine, circular motions of the bus. There was something perfect about the bus timetable, and the precision of its grids and numbers. It could be relied upon, traffic permitting, to exist within the parameters of a perfectly ordered universe. The progression of my physical ailment had, by that time, caused more problems than it had solved. My intestines were releasing the most appalling discharges of gas and my other internal organs seemed to have followed suit. My liver, kidneys, lungs and even my brain were producing the same nauseating discharge. My brain felt like it had been without proper sleep for several days. The distracted, fuzzy feeling which encroaches on the simplest of tasks was accompanied by an unfamiliar hissing sound; the sort of thing which could lead a paranoid man to suspect he had voices in his head. In my case, it was an expulsion of gas; a predicament which led to a few disgruntled looks in my direction and the amusing, if horrified, accusation that I had a farting head.

I had taken to concealing my face and hands with a heavy disguise, and cloaking the putrefying stench of my flesh with heavy lashings of aftershave and deodorant. It made little difference: I was still repulsive. I had little trouble getting a seat to myself. If I ever encountered a threatening, pugnacious type, I only needed to expose my face to make them think again about taking me on. My eyes had sunk so far into their sockets that they were almost invisible and the skin on my face was like dark, tanned leather by then; my lips had long since vanished and my mouth was all teeth and well defined jaw. My face no more than a skull concealed by a thin layer of darkness. I made even the hardest of them run a mile. I mean, who in their right mind would cross death and expect to win?

Although the vehicle and the driver changed regularly, there was some comfort to be had in knowing their schedules were synchronised. There were a few occasions when things were not as they should have been, but they were rare. I had come to think of the circular motions of the bus in the same way I thought of the broken clock above my mantelpiece: in a stasis of infinity. It had been suspended in a dimension of perpetual replication, as though the end of time would repeat itself forever. In perpetuity, I knew better who I really was. I was, it seemed, destined for this fate; a fate that had no end and no beginning; a fate that would dissolve and be rebuilt by the second. For me, there was only this; yet this, inevitably, would have to end.

I looked at the time. It was quarter past two. The bus was pulling onto Q… Road. I looked over the sea of people on the top deck. It was filled beyond capacity. There was a boy three seats in front of me. He had blonde hair. He looked just like the boy in the photo album Kate had given me. He was sitting beside a man I assumed was his father. Their hair was parted in the same direction and it wasn’t clear who was imitating who. Perhaps neither was imitating the other; perhaps it was just the extraordinary symmetry of nature: the immeasurable power it has to ensure geometrical precision with ruthless accuracy. The boy looked around at me with a frightened expression. I waved gently at him, which seemed to frighten him more. I wasn’t surprised: who wouldn’t be terrified of a waking nightmare? The boy mumbled something to his father and the older man turned to look at me. He looked afraid too, but the expression was different from the unworldly gaze of his son. He was staring at decades of failure and regret, powerless to find words to either express it or deny it, and least of all to comprehend it. I wasn’t sure whether he knew what was about to happen or not, but I doubted that he did. Nobody can truly comprehend the sublime violence of their end, even at the moment of departure; unless, of course, they have died more than once before. In which case, words become easier to find. But, whether he knew or not, it didn’t matter, because I would make sure I got it right this time. I placed the clock under the seat in front of me and got up to leave. It was almost twenty past two.