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Author:M. R. Carey

Fellside by M. R. Carey

To Louise. To David. To Ben.

If I lived a thousand years I could never love you enough.




It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.

Jess Moulson – not thinking of herself by that name or any other – found herself lying in white sheets in a white room, overwhelmed by memories that were predominantly red and yellow and orange. The colours merging and calving endlessly, out of control, billowing heat at her like she’d opened an oven door too quickly and caught the full blast.

Someone had just been talking to her with some urgency. She remembered the voices, low but coming from right up against her face.

Her face… Now she thought about it, her face felt very strange. She tried to ask one of the women in white who came and went why this was, but she couldn’t open her mouth very far, and, when she did, she wasn’t able to make anything happen beyond a few clicks and rasping sounds which hurt her in coming out.

The woman leaned in close and spoke very softly. She was younger and prettier than Jess but still managed to wear an air of authority. For a moment, Jess didn’t even have any kind of reference point for what this person might be. A nurse or doctor seemed most likely, but in the utter disorientation of those first few minutes it seemed possible that she was some kind of nun – that the crisis Jess was going through, against all the evidence, was a crisis of faith.

“You won’t be able to talk for a few days yet,” the woman told her. “You shouldn’t even try. There was a lot of damage to your lungs and the tissues of your throat, and they won’t heal if you put strain on them.”

Nurse then, not nun. The damage was to her lungs and throat. Her soul might well be intact, although it didn’t really feel that way.

Jess made a shrugging gesture with the arm that didn’t have a drip in it. She wasn’t shrugging the information away; she was trying to ask for more. But the nurse either misinterpreted the gesture or ignored it. She walked on without another word.

Jess was left feeling not just frustrated but afraid. The nurse’s expression as she looked down at her had been very strange. There had been compassion there, but also something that looked like reserve or caution. Did Jess have some disease that was communicable? But in that case, why get so close?

She didn’t worry about it for long though. There was something in her system that was pulling her endlessly towards sleep. She gave in to it – a surrender that was repeated on and off through that first day. Her conscious periods were short. Her sleep was shallow and haunted by whispers in what sounded like many different voices. Her waking brought the same questions every time as she clawed her way up out of the darkness like a swimmer hitting the surface just before her lungs gave out.

Where am I? How did I get here? Who’s thinking these thoughts? What was before this?

It wasn’t just the one nurse who was careful around her. They all seemed to have their issues. Jess kept hoping that one of them would answer the questions she couldn’t ask. It seemed like this should be something that got covered in Nursing 101. If a patient wakes up from severe trauma, you start by filling her in on the basics. “You’ve had a very nasty accident,” say, or “You were mugged and rolled and left for dead outside a tube station.”

Almost a clue there. A thousand memories twitched at those words. Tube stations had been a feature of her life, so London was probably where she lived. But there was nothing in her mind to back up either the accident or the mugging hypothesis. There was just a hole – the outline you might leave if you cut a paper doll out of a sheet of newspaper and then burned it or threw it away. She wasn’t Jess for now. She was the suspicious absence of Jess.

When she did start to remember, she got that same sense of blank confusion all over again, because she was only remembering earlier awakenings. The first day hadn’t been the first day after all. She had been here for much longer than that, drifting in and out of consciousness, living in a single fuzzy moment that was endlessly prolonged.

The earlier wakings had been different from the more recent ones. Her disorientation had been overwhelmed back then by desperate, uncontainable hunger. She was an addict (when those memories came back it was in an almost physical surge, as though her compressed mind were snapping back to its accustomed shape) and she had needed a fix. Had needed to feel okay. One time she had pulled herself out of the bed and crawled most of the way to the window, drip and all, intending to climb out of it and slip away down to the Hay Wain on a heroin run. Through the window there was a view of sky and tall buildings – no way of knowing how far away the ground was. But Jess had been prepared to try until the women in white embargoed the idea.

Remembering all this now brought the craving back, but it was dulled. Manageable. The hunger wasn’t strong enough to pick her up and shake her. It just sat in a little corner of her mind, politely requesting attention.

That in itself was scary. With the memories of her addiction had come another set of memories, pushed to the surface of her mind by the force of some internal pressure. She’d got clean before, just once in her life, and the process had been a dark streak of misery obliterating days and weeks. If she’d been through cold turkey again, lying in this bed, then she must have been here for a very long time.

The weird feeling in her face frightened her too. It was as though her flesh didn’t belong to her. As though someone had given her one of those cosmetic masks made of fragrant mud and then forgotten to scrape it off after it hardened.

On the third day she tried to sit up. Women in white came running and pushed her down again. “I want a mirror,” she told them in a bellowed murmur like the world’s worst stage prompt. “Please, just bring me a mirror!”

The women in white swapped uneasy glances until one of them reached a decision. She went away and came back with a tiny compact from someone’s handbag. She held it so Jess could look up into her own face looking back down at her. It was a nasty shock, because she really didn’t recognise it.

This wasn’t the amnesia. She knew what her face should look like, and what she was seeing now wasn’t it. Oh, it was a reasonable facsimile that would fool a stranger – and when it was at rest it didn’t look too bad. Well, yeah, actually it did. There was thick swelling around her eyes as though someone had punched her a whole lot of times. The skin was taut and shiny in places. And she was fish-belly pale, as if she’d spent a year or two living like Osama Bin Laden in a cave in the side of a mountain.

But when her face moved – when she tried to talk – it turned into something from a nightmare. The right side of her mouth was unresponsive, deadened, so the more animated left side tugged and twisted it into a parade of grimaces. The symmetry disappeared, and you realised that it had never really been there at all.

“Okay?” the nurse holding the compact asked. Gently. Probing the wound.

Jess couldn’t answer. There wasn’t any answer that covered how she felt.

Some of the recent past came back to her in her sleep that night. The whispering voices were still there, as though a hundred conversations were being held in the space around her head. With them came a sense of vulnerability, of lying exposed in some big open space. She wasn’t alone: a multitude surrounded her, invisible. So many that there wasn’t enough room for them all to stand: they were folded around and over her like hot treacle poured out of a pan.