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Dan smiles at my wife again. He has such a beguiling smile; I wish mine were like his. When I smile at people, even if I'm happy, it comes across apologetically, like I'm embarrassed to be there, like I wish something dark would rise out of the ground and grab me, dragging me under and obscuring me from view. But, despite his problems, when Dan smiles, the room takes notice.
'What do you remember, Dan?' Natalie asks. She's not slurring. I would be after four glasses of wine, but I don't drink much anymore. Dan has never been a big drinker. I'd like to drink a little more than he lets me, but I must concede to his rules. After all, he's in charge now. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to adjust to: my lack of choices. Free will is something you take for granted until it's knocked out of you by a fast-moving vehicle.
'Dan? What do you remember about ...?' She says again, trailing off without finishing the sentence, like she can't bring herself to say, 'the accident'. We never discuss it, and we don't tell her what we remember, what we know. She thinks the details are foggy, but that's not true, at least not for me. I know Dan doesn't like to think about it, but the whole thing is crystal clear in my mind, a moment frozen in time, chrome-filtered and shining.
At first, it was like a silent movie, everything moving too fast, a burst-eardrum vacuum in the aftermath of an explosion. Except there hadn't been an explosion, there had been a car crash. Was it two cars or three? Then came the screaming and shouting. It was horrific, intrusive. Other sounds; someone must have called an ambulance, sirens were approaching, weaving their way through traffic, jumping red lights, wailing and crying in distorted blue grief. Cars were pulling over onto wet, puddled curbs to let them pass. Dan was there, standing gobsmacked in the road, but even he didn't know how life-changing it would be, not yet. He could feel the buzz of electricity filling the air. His breathing was synchronised with the lungs of the other witnesses littering the pavement behind him, inhaling deeper and deeper and deeper, forgetting to exhale until it became painful. Lightheaded, like he might pass out.
Life, in the form of death, had arrived on the streets of Brighton. Everyone was staring past Dan toward the cars that had collided and the pedestrian they'd hit. People were speaking in loud whispers, fumbling for their phones, for their Facebook and Twitter and Instagram apps, at once horrified and exhilarated by the carnage before them, desperate to share it, to validate it, to become a street journalist, just for a moment.
OMG there's been a crash on Western Road #carnage
A woman, maybe in her early thirties, was in the road as well, cradling a man in her arms. He was bleeding badly from his head and there was blood on her hands and jeans. She was screaming, shouting for the help nobody was offering, because everybody was frozen, silently acknowledging the thing she clearly couldn't. He was already dead.
Dan pushed past someone so he could see more of the scene. As he moved closer, he could see the woman more clearly. She must have been the man's wife. There was a gold band on her wedding finger matching one on the man's own. For a moment, Dan got lost in the detail of the guy's fingers, thin brown hairs, smooth knuckle wrinkles and pale pink flesh with a couple of freckles on his index finger. Slowly, he moved his gaze upward, careful to avoid the man's broken head nestling in the woman's lap. When his eyes found her face, he was shocked to see she was looking directly at him, making eye contact. That was strange. Nobody ever made eye contact with the homeless.
'Did you see?' She shouted, desperate, pleading, like she was scared, like she needed something from him. She was so beautiful. He knew it was wrong to even notice, given the mangled body on her lap, but he couldn't help it. He was lost in her.
'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, but there was so much commotion around her, he couldn't be sure she'd heard him. Maybe she hadn't been talking to him at all. The police and an ambulance arrived, pairs of rough hands pushed him backward, away from the roadside and back onto the pavement, where he could hear people shuffling away from him, muttering something about the smell — his smell.
'Madam?' an officer said gently. 'Madam? What's your name?'
'Natalie,' she answered quietly.
'And is this your husband?'
There were too many people pushing and shoving and he was being thrown backward, away from the scene, away from Natalie and ...
'Joe,' she said.
Dan didn't understand why, but he already felt connected to her. Every part of him felt needle sharp, focused and alive.
'His name's Joe.' Natalie reiterated to the policeman.
For a second, Dan couldn't tell if she was talking about him or the body on the ground, but why would she be talking about him? She didn't even know him and his name wasn't Joe.
But mine is.
I'm piecing things together. I must have been dead on the street that day, for a little while, at least. The car hit me and I hurtled through darkness, memories rushing past me, black-and-white Polaroids caught in the wake of a massive storm. I couldn't catch them or feel them. They were on the edge of reality, taunting me, offering answers to questions I didn't remember asking. I don't know how long I was dead. Seconds? Minutes? Either way, there were no tunnels with white lights at the end. There were no feelings of well-being or calm euphoria. There was nothing but a thick void, endless, timeless, emotionless. Then, a jolt. A painful explosion of heat rushed in as my body closed back around me. But it felt alien, uncomfortable, nothing like before. Not like my body at all, in fact. But I'd been hit by a car, I remembered that. I could still smell it, the burning rubber, the scorched metal and paint.
There was a commotion on the street around me. Pushing myself up, I leant back against a large black bin, rubbing the smooth plastic surface with my palm over and over again, shielding my eyes from the light with the other hand. It was weird, because despite being right handed, I was using my left hand to block the sun.
'Somebody, please?' I tried to speak, but couldn't make my voice sound like I wanted it to. Nobody was listening to me anyway; they were all too busy watching the drama unfold before them — the dead body being lifted from Natalie's lap, being carried to an ambulance.
'Somebody,' I whimpered again, fear and panic setting it. I wanted someone to tell me it was okay, that it was all going to be all right. Then came the blazing sirens, commotion and ...
'Help me ...' I croaked. The voice that came out of my mouth wasn't one I recognised. It wasn't my voice; it was deeper, much deeper. My head ached, like I had a hangover. No, not a hangover. It was like I was drunk, that kind of continuous, all-day-drinking drunk, part hungover, part paralytic. I couldn't work out why nobody was helping me, why they were all concentrating on Natalie and the other guy who'd been hit.
My body didn't feel right, it was like a scratchy knitted jumper I couldn't shake off. My feet were clad in stale, moist socks and I had a painful, persistent itching between the toes on both feet. Athlete's foot? My body didn't feel like an athlete's; it didn't feel fit or healthy at all, not like it used to. Painful molars ached in the back of my mouth, so much so that I immediately wanted to claw at them and rip them from my sweaty, bearded mouth.
Bearded? I was clean-shaven, I'd always been clean-shaven. But this face was itchy, covered in hair. My nostrils were running and sore, the snot so acidic it stung the flesh of my upper lip. I gagged slightly on the stench of half-eaten burgers and rotting fish coming from the black bin beside me. But there was another smell, like dried, day-old alcohol piss.
The body they were carrying to the ambulance ... It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. I squeezed my eyes shut again and concentrated on the red glow coming through my eyelids. For a moment, a hazy image flitted into my head; a small child on an orange space hopper wearing denim shorts and a chequered blue shirt. An old woman standing in an open doorway before the boy, wiping floured hands onto her apron. I didn't recognise her. I'd never met her but somehow, I knew who she was.
This couldn't have happened. I never believed in the supernatural, anyway. Natalie was the one who visited psychics and read her horoscope every day like it meant something. Gemini, you may tune in more strongly than usual to the thoughts and feelings of others, today. It's a good day to connect with lovers, friends and family. That had never been me. Natalie was the one who thought homeopathy was a science and acupuncture worked and Most Haunted was a documentary.
There had to be an explanation, but everything was a jumble of thoughts and feelings and it was hard to tell which were my own and which were ... Whose?
I squinted, allowing the light into my eyes as the street before me came into focus. Grey paving slabs, tarmac road with no cars parked on it, tower block walls on either side of me, grimy, charcoal smears. Taking a few steps, I saw I was now by some sort of alley, connecting one road with another. In the back corner was a row of large black wheelie bins, alongside a couple of green recycling bins. I think he'd slept behind these before, maybe even last night.
I glanced down at his clothes – jeans, a jumper over a T-shirt, dirty black trainers. The stains and sick and piss seemed relatively recent, but by the same token, the feel of the clothes on his skin suggested they'd been on him for a few days at least. They were part of him, an itchy and constant reminder of hard times.
'I don't know what to do, gran,' I heard a frightened voice say from inside my mind, a memory that wasn't mine, playing internally. He was sitting opposite an old woman. She was in a nursing home or hospital. She was important to him; I could feel it in the pit of his stomach. This memory was strong, at the surface, waiting to pounce and overwhelm me. She was quiet, staring silently at the wall, letting the warm light from the window penetrate her translucent, screwed-up paper skin. He'd have done anything to hear her speak to him, to say his name.
That wasn't my name. Who was I before I arrived in this body?
It was already difficult to remember, to maintain any clarity. I was terrified I was going to lose myself to his memories forever.
Joe, my name was Joe.
I scoured the street, pushing past pedestrians and making my way along the pavement as the ambulance with Natalie and my real body inside pulled away. As it cleared my view, I realised I was in Hove; I recognised the Waitrose and the Mad Hatter Café opposite me. Brighton and Hove. I lived here with Natalie. I had to focus, to keep hold of her face, her dark brown eyes, anything, I needed to stop his memories invading and taking over and consuming me ...
'You're putting a bit of weight on, Grandma,' came his voice. The memory was surfacing again, playing over and over in his head: Dan visiting the nursing home. 'You need to lay off the hospital puddings,' he smiled, leaning in to affectionately squeeze the roll of fat around his gran's midriff ... and, oh my God, no ... I was laughing. For a bizarre moment, I found myself standing on the street, wrecked cars and police all around me, and I was chuckling, making Dan's body shake with a deep-throated laugh.
'Shit,' Dan said in the memory, retracting his hand as if his grandmother had stung him. The roll of fat he had gently pressed between his thumb and forefinger hadn't been a roll of fat at all, it had been her drooping breast.
'Sorry,' he said desperately, trying to make her understand he hadn't meant it. But her small, dark eyes told him she was scared. They pierced him through wrinkled folds, scouring him, trying to work out who he was, why he wanted to hurt her.
'It's okay. It's me, Dan,' he said in a calmer, quieter tone. 'Bob's boy.'
Her shoulders relaxed a little at this and, gradually, her thin, pale arms rested back on her lap. Pursing her lips, she turned away, staring once more at her brown cream wallpaper. She'd died that night. Accidentally squeezing her breast had been his last interaction with her.
As soon as it arrived, my laughter disappeared. Her death had been the catalyst for everything; it's how he'd ended up living like this, on the streets and alone. She'd been more than a grandmother to him, she'd been like a mother. I staggered and leant against a wall, rubbing tears from my eyes — his eyes — as waves of fresh emotion coursed through his body.
Focus. I didn't have a grandmother with dementia. I didn't live on the streets, I lived with my wife. My parents lived ... somewhere. I tried to picture my mum, and saw her long red hair ... no, her brown hair. Short brown hair, flower print dresses. I needed to keep hold of my thoughts, my feelings. He was trying to get the memory of the car crash out of his head, trying to forget my mangled body, the beautiful woman, screaming and crying and looking right at him, like she was desperate for something from him. And he could give her something, I realised. He could give her exactly what she wanted, he just didn't know it yet, because I was inside him, if only he'd look for me. But he was scared. No, not scared, unsettled. Edgy, like there was something he was trying to forget. He thought of the way Natalie had stared at him, filled with fear and desperation. He wasn't used to people looking at him at all. Most people looked away, assuming he was a drug addict or a drunk or a criminal. He had to be something other, something removed from their daily lives, from their hopes and dreams and fears. If they were good people, they created a version of him to pity. If they weren't good, they saw him as something that needed to be removed from polite society, hidden away, forgotten or ignored. But most people? Most people didn't see him, a homeless man, at all — and that kind of invisibility hurt. It etched away at his soul. Some days, he wondered whether they were right. Maybe he didn't exist. Maybe he was just some phantom wandering the streets, begging for acknowledgment, for existence, for a self. He'd spent a long time feeling like that. Like he didn't exist. That's why they'd medicated him.
Did you hear me?
Nothing. He'd drifted off again, leaving me alone in his body. I was shivering; it was freezing. I could tell that part of him was comforted by the anonymity of life on the streets, but he was scared, too.
I don't know how long I drifted in and out of awareness. Sometimes it was dark, like I was sleeping, other times I felt fully conscious and part of him. At some point, I became aware he needed to find somewhere to sleep, anywhere that was warm and safe. Maybe he could sleep by the bus and coach station near the seafront, except he no longer had a sleeping bag and it was freezing at night near the sea. No, he was going to head for the park and sleep on a bench there because they weren't homeless-proofed yet. It would only be for a night, and then he'd have to find a hostel or something. He couldn't stand hostels, they made him feel anxious and there were too many people in a small space, damaged people, depressed people, people on brown or methadone. Unless it was absolutely freezing or pissing it down, he would rather be outside on his own. Better that than risk falling asleep in one of those places.
I wasn't used to sleeping rough, so I would have preferred him to go inside somewhere, because nowhere was clean outside and it was autumn and his arms, legs, and feet were all covered in insect bites. And the hostels might have given him food; they might even have given him a shower and cleaned his clothes. But going somewhere for help would have meant dealing with other people, and I could see why he wouldn't want to do that.
Everything was utter confusion, a bombardment of memories and thoughts and feelings that weren't my own. Darkness, light, awareness, sleep. Making sense of any of it was difficult.
'Did you see?' Natalie had asked him at the scene of the accident. She must have been devastated, watching me die like that. Natalie. My wife. I needed a pen and paper, quickly, while I still remembered. Scanning the street, I saw a café on the opposite side. I bolted across the road, dodging cars as I went, ignoring the beeping horns, slapping one car and terrifying the woman behind the wheel before bolting onward. In Pâtisserie Valerie, I ran up to the counter, where a teenage waitress was already wondering how to get rid of me, thinking that if she looked at the floor, I might disappear, taking my stink with me so she wouldn't have to deal with it.
'Give me a pen and paper,' I said. I was getting used to Dan's voice by this point, and was even starting to quite enjoy using it.
Excerpted from "The Pursuit of Ordinary"
Copyright © 2017 Nigel Jay Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Joe, 1,
Chapter 1, 2,
Chapter 2, 18,
Chapter 3, 38,
Part II: Natalie, 55,
Chapter 4, 56,
Chapter 5, 68,
Chapter 6, 83,
Chapter 7, 96,
Part III: Joe, 111,
Chapter 8, 112,
Chapter 9, 129,
Chapter 10, 145,
Chapter 11, 156,
Chapter 12, 172,
Part IV: Natalie, 189,
Chapter 13, 190,
Chapter 14, 203,
Chapter 15, 222,
Chapter 16, 244,
Part V: Dan and Natalie, 263,
Chapter 17, 264,
Chapter 18, 278,
Chapter 19, 289,
More from this author, 299,
About the author, 300,