Short Stories 1st Place: Road to Nowhere by Dianne Bown-Wilson
Where is she now?
Fifteen years ago, Midlands housewife Gail Williston was cut free from a six-vehicle motorway pile-up. Having suffered a catastrophic brain injury, she technically died at the scene.
Do you know the worst thing about being back? Most people assume it must be looking in the mirror and seeing yourself: aged, damaged, and damn-near unrecognisable. That’s disconcerting, naturally – but not devastating. Far, far worse is discovering that your kids, who all those years ago you thought were so full of potential, have grown into ordinary Joes. I expected so much of them: Sarah, a beauty, Jasmine artistic, and Simon – he was going to have it all. My firstborn, my prize, my blue-eyed boy had intellectual greatness, sporting prowess, humour and good looks. By age seven, all I could see on the horizon for him were outstanding accomplishments and inestimable wealth.
On admission to hospital, Gail was treated for multiple fractures and burns and put into an induced coma while medical staff monitored the swelling on her brain.
The fact that the girls have turned out to be so average is disappointing but ultimately tolerable. Since I’ve been back, they’ve visited regularly, but I’ve struggled to reconnect with them. They embody so much that’s changed in the world: technology, vocabulary, self-obsession, and everyone so damned fat. Both the girls used to be petite and perfect. Now they have bleached straw hair, fish lips and Groucho Marx eyebrows. They’re inordinately proud of hideous tattoos.
And they’re loud. Altogether too loud.
They’re strangers to me now, so when I talk to them, it’s with the care I take when speaking to the old friends who occasionally drop by. I don’t want them to know how I see the world, so I feed them just enough information to stop them from asking more.
Weeks later, when her physical injuries had stabilised sufficiently, attempts were made to bring Gail out of the coma. These were unsuccessful.
And Simon? The last time I saw him, he was a young boy. Now he’s in his twenties, and as soon as I worked out who he was, I could tell there were no ticks in any of those pot-of-gold boxes I’d planned for him. He’s scruffy and surly, wears torn t-shirts, and reeks of cigarettes and sweat. I asked him what he does. ‘Chef,’ he grunted like I should have known. That was unexpected; whatever and wherever he’s cooking, I suspect it isn’t cordon bleu. Unlike the girls, he’s not fat but looks more muscular than his lifestyle might suggest.
‘Fit,’ I said, nodding towards his impressive biceps.
‘Boxing,’ he replied.’
Well, I guess that explains the broken nose. It’s hard to believe he’s mine.
With Gail demonstrating no signs of consciousness, she was relocated to a long-term care facility. Her husband, children, and other family members had to accept that they would never be able to communicate with her again.
I was thirty-nine years old when I had the accident; the kids were nine, seven and five. I’d been married to their father, Neil, for ten years. Why this fixation on numbers? Because numbers and facts help me give form to this new, confusing reality. My brain is putting it all together, but the process is painfully slow. Frankly, despite everyone’s excitement, I know I’m like a frog in a pot of water slowly being brought to the boil. The end-point will be an achievement, but it isn’t going to be good.
Incredibly, after twelve years, Gail woke up, restored to full awareness. Within days she uttered her first words.
So here I am, risen from the (near) dead like Lazarus. All very astonishing. When the media found out about it, they drooled. A true-life miracle – the kind of thing Sunday papers adore. But in reality, although I’ve been refurbished and returned to my family, I’m still nowhere near as good as new. Restored isn’t what it feels like to me.
My first conscious memory of this new life was watching my son cutting up my food (an indication of how far I’d come in terms of physical recovery, as throughout my coma, I’d been kept alive by ingesting liquids through tubes). What I recall with great clarity, and perhaps it jolted my consciousness sufficiently to push me onto a new plane of consciousness, is that as he raised a spoon to my mouth, he looked into my eyes and muttered, ‘Why the fuck didn’t you just die?’
After that, I was back in the land of the living and very, very slowly, became able to perform basic tasks like standing, picking things up, and counting. In my head, I could speak, I hadn’t forgotten how, but on top of the physical strength and coordination it required, I was so overwhelmed by where I was and my new reality that I decided to keep quiet. Most of the time, people around me (not the medical staff, obviously) seemed to be in tears, babbling, touching me, wanting things. As I worked out who they all were, I suspected that they probably wouldn’t like most of what I wanted to say.
Medical specialists forecast that Mrs Williston’s road to recovery would be long and problematic.
At first, my sister, Ruth, was the only person I felt I could trust. With only two years between us, we’d always been as close as twins. Now, while everyone else was in a lather, she remained unfazed.
‘So here you are, back then,’ she said in our first conversation (the first I remember, at least). ‘The things some people do to get a lie-in.’
I must have responded in some fashion, or maybe not; I guess, by now, one-sided conversations would have been the norm.
She scrutinised me like a prize pooch at Crufts before speaking again. ‘You may or may not understand what I’m about to tell you, and certainly, if you can, you won’t like it. But I don’t want you to hear it from anyone else or to have to draw your own conclusions.’ She was sitting close with her head bent toward me, speaking so softly it was almost a whisper. I could see the grey speckled through her hair and the lines etched around her eyes and how her outline was now sagging, despite once being so toned.
‘First, Mum died three years ago,’ she said. ‘Cancer, and a broken heart. She never got over losing you and used to come here every week, without fail. She moved mountains to try and get you back, but she never succeeded, so I decided it’s down to me now to take her place. Especially as the second thing is that Neil’s moved on. Some years ago, he got together with Alice. He sold your house, and he and the girls live at her place now.’
I remember thinking a few things then. First, I could understand what Neil had done and why. After all, for all intents and purposes, I’d been dead, so I couldn’t blame him – especially with three kids to bring up on his own. But Alice? She’d been a neighbour, divorced, as wet as a rained-on lettuce. I’d always joked that she fancied Neil and even said (or perhaps I’m imagining this) that she’d offer him a home if ever I threw him out. So she was an underwhelming choice for my replacement even though I was pleased that it meant I wouldn’t be expected to resume wifely relations with the bald, overweight, depressed-looking stranger who apparently was still my husband.
That Neil is as he is (and has achieved so little) is much further down the list of my back-to-life disappointments than how the kids have turned out. When I left, he and I were still young enough to believe all was before us, that we might yet have and be everything we desired. Now, looking in the mirror and seeing someone even more defeated than he is, I accept it’s not his fault. Even if I hadn’t had the accident and had been at his side, fully cognisant of each move in our chess game of life, I suspect the outcome might have been very much the same.
Very few coma victims have regained consciousness after such a long period. Regrettably, none have returned to fully-independent living.
I spend a lot of time thinking, but continue to say very little. Consequently, most people think I’m less aware and capable than I am – although Dr Chowdhury, who often comes by for a chat (You’re a fascinating case, he says), seems to think it’s a good strategy. ‘People expect a lot of you, and they all have their own ideas about how they think things should be and how you should behave. It’s all a bit of a tinder box, and if you’re not careful, you could get caught up in a lot of heat and flames.’ (Considering my burns, I was surprised at the analogy, although I suppose it was apt).
Dr Chowdhury’s right, however. My daughters seem in denial, somehow expecting that I’ll be able to move back into the role I had when they were young: Mummy, looking after them, doing for them, protecting and bolstering them. Having gone through a period of initial, Oh my God, we must look after you, when I first came round, they now seem to be impatient for my return to the previous status quo. Quite honestly, I think they’re bored with the whole thing. But Simon? He’s a deep one – I still don’t know what to make of him.
For cases such as Gail’s there is no miracle cure. Hope, patience, perseverance and a large measure of luck are the building blocks for a future life, experts say.
Neil’s visits have been awkward.
I can see the struggles going on within him as clearly as if his synapses are operating on the surface of his skin. ‘I’m glad you’re back,’ he says, although I suspect his feelings are more to do with relief that at last things might move on than actual joy at having me here. I guess he knows that I’ve been told about Alice because he’s said nothing, and I’ve steered well clear of the whole issue of our relationship myself. Someday, when I’m feeling stronger, I’ll have to talk to him about divorce, but I’m ignoring all that for now.
‘Alice is okay,’ one of the girls said. ‘She’s been good for Dad. But she’s not our mother. We can’t wait to spend more time at home with you.’ They seem to be overlooking one key point. I’m now stateless, rootless, entirely without a home. The house I shared with Neil is gone, so, I suspect, have most of my things. But why would I want them anyway? My old life seems so long ago. All I treasure are the few fuzzy memories I have of when the children were young. I’m in a different country now.
But at least I don’t have to worry about money. Ruth told me that I got a large compensation payout (she gave me the figures, but they’ve slipped away), and although quite a bit has had to go on funding my care for all these years, the rest’s invested somewhere safe. It means I have enough to live on for the remainder of my life – however long that might be, something I was relieved to hear. Although I hadn’t got round to thinking about it in-depth, I knew I couldn’t ask Neil for money, or Ruth, so now I have choices at least.
Over the months, as I’ve grown stronger and less dependent on external aids, I’ve been on a few home visits to Ruth’s place. Her kids are gone now, and her husband, Mike, is a quiet sort. She says they’ve discussed having me live with them (much as I wish otherwise, there’s no way I can live by myself), and apparently, he has no problem with that.
But me? I don’t think so. I need something more.
Medical staff called her recovery ‘inspirational’.
Simon is an enigma. He comes to see me more than any of them but still says little and, unlike the girls, doesn’t occupy the silence by fiddling with his phone. Of all of them, he’s the kindest, able to second-guess what I might want and when, whether it’s a glass of water or my pillows re-arranged. And from the first, he’s seemed keen on getting me out of this bed, my erstwhile coffin, and on the move. In an echo of our previous time together, a reversal of our roles when he was in a pram, we often go for walks – that is, he spends hours pushing me in my wheelchair. He decides for me about cups of tea, or wearing gloves, or whether I should close my eyes and sleep. Invariably, he gets it right.
For all that, he still seems to resent me. When I challenged him about it a few months ago, at first, he refused to respond.
‘I want to talk to you about how things are,’ I said. ‘Will you sit down and listen?’ We were in my room at the time. Although there was a chair immediately opposite me, he remained standing, hands gripping its back.
‘Not sure I want to hear. The past is water under the bridge. All that matters now is the future.’
I shook my head. As ever, speaking was a struggle, my mouth contorting to form the words. ‘Only the future? Do you want to wipe out everything else?’
He shrugged. ‘You don’t understand how it was. While lucky old you lay in state like the Queen of bloody Sheba, for us, on every level, it was hell. You weren’t alive, but we couldn’t bury you either. Just how crap was that?’
‘So you might be back now, but it doesn’t give you the right to say anything.’
I held up a finger. ‘One thing. Then I’ll shut up.’
He looked distrustful. ‘Okay…’
‘You have a really shit bedside manner.’
I smiled. Then, as if a dam had been breached, we both started laughing uncontrollably as if we were never going to be able to stop.
Eventually, panting, red-faced and self-conscious, we calmed down. He handed me a tissue, and I wiped my eyes and mouth.
‘Was that it?’ he asked
‘No. I wanted to tell you I’m sorry. And that I know that I’ll never fully appreciate how it’s been for all of you. I think it probably would have been better for everyone, me included, if I had died. But I didn’t. I’m back, and I’m grateful for everything everyone’s done for me. You in particular.’
‘But I need to stop being a victim. I want to be a person again, someone who can be left to her own devices.’
‘That’s not going to happen for a while, if ever.’
‘But I want to try.’
Two years after her astonishing re-entry into the world, Gail was discharged from hospital and immediately vanished.
Simon has an old transit van. He’s taken me out in it numerous times. It rattles and is far from comfortable but is amazingly clean. Today, we’re going somewhere I’ve never been before: a place he knows on the coast. A friend is lending him a cottage, he said, and he thinks it’ll do us fine.
‘How long for?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘Long as we want. We’ll see how things go.’
Today, I’m being discharged, although no one else knows except Ruth. And as Simon’s just told me that he’s given up his job, I guess we might be away for a while. I don’t know why he’s decided to do this for me, but I’m hoping that as the weeks go by, it’ll gradually become more clear.
Simon helps me into the front seat and stashes my wheelchair in the back. I’m wearing dark glasses and will have to put in earplugs as the noise and movement of the traffic are still too much for my senses to bear. Wearing these devices is like shutting down again; truth told, I quite like the break.
Not that Simon and I still ever say much, although his tone is much kinder these days. Weeks ago, I asked him if there was anything he remembered fondly from the time before ‘all this’.
He didn’t spend long thinking. ‘Plenty actually, but what I really liked were our trips in the car, just you and me, with the music on. You used to play Talking Heads, and we’d sing along.’
‘Did we? When? Where were the girls and your father?’
‘There were lots of times when they were away somewhere, and we’d go and pick them up, and at least once when you took me to visit Grandma – just the two of us.’
‘And you were happy then?’
Now, perched in his van, I’ve placed my entire trust in him. I’m letting him direct the future, but our starting point is that memory from the past. As he turns on the engine and reaches for the gear stick, I’m swamped by new emotions: excitement, joy, expectation.
How could I have thought him ordinary? He’s everything I could have wished for and more. I lean toward him and put my hand on top of his. ‘Thank you,’ I whisper.
He doesn’t respond, but as we pull away, he allows himself a smile.
Gail Williston is thought to be still alive somewhere in the UK. In the weeks before she left hospital, she told a media conference, ‘The only certainty in my life is that my future is a road to nowhere, but I’m looking forward to the ride’. Her family have declined to comment.