I’m always cold, parts of me numb, but this time feels different.
No matter how much I tighten the skein of blankets holding me in, a constant chill haunts my bones, spasmodically freezing my limbs and pulse on a rotating loop.
I slide two fat pillows out from under my spine, hug them and flip over, cocooning my hips and ribs as I wriggle to the edge of the frame and peak through a gap in the curtains.
Powdery sunlight brightens an industrial bin eight floors below. I search the trees for winter, but the blossoms suggest spring.
A door clicks and the crowd move in like agitated serpents. Heads shaking, arms waving, hushed plans falling apart. All my attempts to reason with them have long since failed. I’m not afraid of governments or what they’ll do to me next.
I sink back and let the chaos sweep over me, trying to catch a glimpse of him in the periphery of my vision, but when I turn to face it, I find only the nurse with her bouncy flesh, rambling malicious orders. I ask her if she’s stalked by this chill or if something’s wrong with the heating.
“It’s boiling, Annie.” she says, leaning in like a tight, tense knot. Her voice sounds like a tube announcement sinking underwater.
She takes off my gown and measures my blood pressure, willing another bruise. I shift my gaze and notice a film of white fur coating my torso. It doesn’t extend to the cigarette burn tainting my left breast.
I shiver down to the scales, rubbing my hands hard to try and get back some feeling. She adjusts her specs and carries on scrawling loopy notes. Disdain creeps over her face as the needle starts to falter. The drill is painful and pointless, smearing rapidly into routine.
Some mornings, out of blind boredom, I disconnect the clips and wires tracking my fading heart, pad out the wheelchair with a pillow to protect my papery skin and work my way along the corridor, my mind pushing me on as my muscles protest each movement. Rooms on either side, all doors open.
I don’t have any friends here, but I like to observe the others. There’s a twisted hierarchy among them. A detailed code of respect and sympathy, nature versus nurture. They spend their days comparing notes and their evenings in front of the screen, flicking through neon drivel, suppressing hunger, thoughts, life outside, the odd hypoglycaemic rage.
I weave my way through them, onto the glossy tiles then a final push past the Custard Creams out into the courtyard. There’s no hint of warmth in my coat and my veiny fingers vibrate as I light a cigarette, watching the smoke spin out in front of me as I replay the circumstances surrounding my arrival.
It’s like watching a film, except parts have been damaged so badly I must reconstruct the missing frames from the wreckage of my memory, once so sharp and fresh, now a scattering of struggling cinders.
An evening in early October in Cambridge, nothing out of the ordinary. Tom Petty, Coldplay on the jukebox, arguments over change for the pool table, my heels getting sticky from the cider on the floor.
I remember his dilating pupils, but I don’t remember his face. A tiny window through which rusty light spilled, a rancid sticky smell on his breath and trembling, fleshy hands. A Zulu statue with a missing arm propped up against the wall. An industrial door with scabby teal paint and a calendar of Jack Russells. Shrieks fading from the revellers above, his pale, oniony skin. The back of my skull hitting a wall, slamming the night out of focus. The flying cars that whipped my hair up, headlights skimming and swerving my screams as I ran and bled, puking raw liquid. Everything goes black.
These days I’m rarely allowed to leave the room. They’re afraid if I venture too far from it that my skin will ice over and my blood will freeze for good. It’s similar to a standard prison – humourless guards, no razors, poor heating – with a few humiliating twists. No caffeine in case it speeds your metabolism, no exercise to wipe out the bulk they pour into you, monitored showers, sleeping, breathing, threats of force-feeding and shocks.
When my sister comes in with her husband – my nephews have said their goodbyes – I try to be grateful for their concern, but I can’t see them as anything other than the enemy. A gaggle of deluded whispers, reducing me to numbers; kilos, pounds, calories, days here, how many days I’ve got left. Too scared to speak at a normal pitch in case the volume breaks me.
I huddle back into the blankets and let the chill freeze my frustration. The probing lights hurt my head and I will the night to come and bring me the dissolution of reality I crave, a kaleidoscope of glistening dreams defying my truth and form.
Soon I’ll find his face somewhere in the corkscrew of my mind and stare into those kilowatt eyes as they watch the fire fade from mine, the memory of him, that night, that self, finally extinguished for good. The shackles are starting to loosen. They need to keep me warm.