A Link in the Chain

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No one could slip here. How come she fell? Emily had spikes, jugs and flakes from which to choose. It’s all good hard millstone grit. I mean, this is barely ‘Very Difficult’ and Emily can … could do ‘Hard Very Severe’ in trainers. We first came up here together when we were fourteen.

I decide to climb the last ten metres using only my arms. Hard but not impossible, though I’m gasping a bit at the top.

I sit, chin on my cupped palms and I’m wedged into my tight seat. Emily used to sit slightly higher than me, her jacket folded thick over that flake. I used to rest my head against her hip. We lost our virginity here. A moment between old friends – nothing more.

So Emily … what? Fell asleep? No, too silly.

She fainted? No … hang on … she’d fainted a couple of days before. And she’d been looking a bit wretched and pale. I hadn’t given it much thought. Emily seemed indestructible. And Charlotte took up a lot of my time.

It hits me again and again nearly every day. Emily is gone. Shit. My best friend … like a sister. We grew up together. Met under the bus shelter every day and walked to school … for years. Sat here, watched the sun come up, go down… I’m never going to see her again.

Emily of the blue, blue eyes, the short hair and short nails. Nails for climbing. Emily of the long thin limbs. She could do E grade climbs before me. She left me behind. Brilliant climber, gawky dancer. I can’t remember another boy that would dance with her.

Six months ago, she teased me about my bum fluff. All my mates have real beard hair. She called me baby face and stroked my chin.

Then she came here and died.

A gust rattles the plastic of my jacket, whipping the hood against my face. I shouldn’t have come here again. I feel like someone has emptied me out. Rain runs down my face. The clouds make tears for me.

You know those moments when you are looking at, say, rocks and one moves by itself? When your brain has to wake up and see what is really there rather than making it up? Then you see a lizard or a mountain frog.

I’m looking at the scratches that crampons make on rock. Somewhere in my head a thought pops up saying no one comes here with crampons and anyway they don’t make scratches like that. My brain fires up and sorts out what it’s seeing among the scratches.

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Josh

I love you

So sorry

Goodbye

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The words crash like storm waves against the cliff of my denial. My brain is quick. I can blind myself to the truth, the obvious, as well as anyone. Everything I try fails. Something so simple, so brutal, can’t be avoided.

Head back, hands squeezing rock like they want to crush it. I’m shaking my head from side to side. I’m trying to say no, no, no.

All that comes out are moans.

I’m shaking, weak. I shouldn’t be up here like this. I need to recover, put it all out of my mind or I’ll never get down.

Down.

To what?

To the rest of my life. My wasted life. And the emptiness where Emily should be.

Numb for ages. I’m getting cold. I’ll need to move soon or these gusts, more like blasts now, will pull cold stiff fingers from holds as I descend.

I don’t want to move. I don’t care.

What have I got? A little karabiner; the silly ones posers use to hang their keys on. I only wear it because Emily said…

No, my keys, even better.

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Emily

I love you

So sorry

Goodbye

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Wind makes waves in the grass around the rock Emily died on. The rock comes up so fast

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~

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I wake with a start. I hate dreams like that. Your heart is pumping so fast and full of adrenaline. Brilliant. I won’t get back to sleep for ages.

I roll over to get out of bed. A thick silky duvet strokes my chest as I move. Nice. Don’t remember getting that.

The streetlight throws enough of a glow through the curtains for me to see the door. Why is my body so heavy, so muscled?

On the landing I can see two other doors. One has a little plaque attached. The sort people put on children’s rooms. It probably has a name on it. The other door must be the bathroom.

Yes, success. Now, is it OK to flush the toilet at night here? Will it disturb people?

My brain wakes up. Where am I?

I look in the mirror. That’s not me. I’m not that old. Why do I have a shaved patch on my head? A ragged healing wound. Scars from stitches…

Reality, dreams and confusion whirl together, a kaleidoscope of thoughts trying to cling onto something. The only real thing is the feel of the plastic toilet seat through my boxer shorts.

I’ve never worn boxer shorts.

A door opening. A tap, soft and hesitant on the bathroom door.

I say come in.

But the voice that comes out of my mouth is deeper than mine.

The door opens and a hand, shoulder and head come into view.

A woman, about twenty five years old I think, looks at me. Her sleepy eyes blink against the glare of the bathroom light.

Pale skin, long fingers, brown eyes with bags under them. She looks exhausted.

She asks, you all right, Matthew?

Matthew?

This must be another dream. It’s freaking me out. I can’t wait till I wake up.

Why is this woman hiding most of herself behind the door like she’s afraid?

The sudden shriek of a baby makes us both jump. The woman’s eyes close as if in pain. She tells me to go and make some tea. She’ll be down in a while.

And she’s gone. A door closes and a grizzling child’s noise quietens.

Make some tea. That’s the only sane thing to do in this madness.

I find the landing light switch but wonder if that will wake the baby when the woman opens the bedroom door. Giving it a miss I creep downstairs.

A curtain and a glass door with street lights showing through. Front door, I suppose. Another door to my right. Switch light on … a lounge. A space after that, small with a dining table. Turn right again. Kitchen.

Opening cupboards in sequence shows me where everything is. Even the fridge is behind a cupboard door.

I’m sitting at the table, two cups of tea steaming in front of me. Mind blank; I don’t know what’s happening.

I’m not Matthew: I’m Josh.

A door opening and closing so softly I can hardly hear it. Feet padding across carpet. Slow steps, someone wanting to delay the moment.

There she is. A tired mother. Tousled hair, tense hands pulling a heavy dressing gown around her. She sits not making eye contact, reaches for the mug. She’s wearing a wedding ring. My eyes flick down. I’m wearing a wedding ring.

What’s this? A new life? I’m married to someone I don’t know and we have a baby?

She looks up and says sorry, I wasn’t here when they discharged you. You were already asleep when I got here… I didn’t want to disturb you so I slept with the baby.

I don’t know what to say but she goes on, you haven’t seen him yet. He’s seen you and slept beside you in the hospital but you were still in a coma….

She’s not acting like a wife who has just met her husband after he’s come back from hospital. She’s tense. There’s kindness but no welcome, no intimacy. She looks like she’d like to run away.

She tilts her head and asks are you all right, Matthew?

I shake my head and say no I don’t think I am.

She asks if she should call the doctor.

I say no, it’s just that I had this vivid dream and it seems still too real.

A sudden flash in her eyes: her head comes up. Her mouth moves like she is trying to ask a dozen questions at once. After a deep breath she says tell me about your dream.

It’s nothing….

Please tell me.

She’s hugging the dressing gown even tighter, the skin around her knuckles hard white and red.

Please. Her voice is almost a squeak.

I shrug and say that I dreamt I was climbing. I found a message for me at the top of a pinnacle. A message from the best friend I ever….

The woman, my wife, gets up and passes me a tissue. She takes one for herself and asks what that friend called me.

Her words come out in a whisper.

I blow my nose. I’m crying and shaking like I’m freezing on the pinnacle still. I say she called me Josh.

A little gasp and she asks me what happened after I found the message. Her voice is faint and quavering.

I tell her I jumped. In my dream I’d messed up my life and missed the best opportunity … didn’t even know I was in love.

Her hand goes over mine. Warm skin, a caress. The wedding rings click together.

She asks how do we really know what’s a dream and what’s real?

I daren’t raise my head. I’m looking at an envelope addressed to Matthew and Christine. I don’t know what to think.

Both her hands go over mine, hot now, clasping tight. She says hello, Josh. I’m Emily but people call us Matthew and Chrissy in this world. We’ll have to get used to it. Different world, different bodies, different lives … Josh … wherever we are, wherever this is, we got it right in this place.

She pauses and takes a shuddering breath in.

She says after I jumped I woke up here. My husband was out on active duty overseas. I was married to a man I didn’t know. I was scared. Until you mentioned a dream … it sounded like mine, the dying, the new life. Josh, oh Josh, when I woke up here, I was still pregnant. A boy. I called him Joshua. You want to meet our son?

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© A. G. Bonn 2011

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