How it happens is a long story, always.
And I apparently begin with being here: a boxy room that’s too wide to be cosy, its dirty ceiling hung just low enough to press down a broad, unmistakable haze of claustrophobia. To my right is an over-large clock of the kind favoured by playschools and homes for the elderly, the kind with bold, black numbers and cartoon-thick hands that effectively shout what time it is whether you’re curious or not. It shows 8:42 and counting. Above, is a generalised sting of yellow light.
But I don’t know which one—night or morning. Either way, from what I can already see, I would rather not be involved in all this too far beyond 8:43.
In one fist, I notice, I’m holding a key. Its fob is made of viciously green plastic, translucent and moulded to a shape which illustrates what would happen if a long-dead ear were inflated until morbidly obese. I only know that it’s actually meant to be a leaf, because it is marked with an effort towards the stem, the ribs and veins that a leaf might have. I presume I’m supposed to like this key and give it the benefit of the doubt because people are fond of trees and, by extension, leaves. But I don’t like leaves, not even real ones.
I’ll tell you what I do like, though: what I adore—I’m looking right at it, right now and it is gorgeous, quite the prettiest thing I’ve seen since 8:41. It concerns my other hand—the one that is leaf-free.
It is a liquid.
I do love liquids.
Rising from the beaker to the jug in that continually renewing, barley sugared twist: falling from the jug into the beaker like a muscle perpetually flexed and reflexed, the honey-coloured heart of some irreversibly specialised animal. It’s glimmering and, of course, pouring—a drink pouring, hurrying in to ease a thirst, just as it should. I put down the jug and I lift up the glass, just as I should.
I presume it’s filled with some kind of apple juice and, on closer acquaintance, I find this to be so—not very pleasant, but certainly wet and necessary. The air, and therefore my mouth, currently tastes of cheap cleaning products, unhappy people, a hundred years of stubborn cigarette smoke and the urine of young children, left to lie. Which means I need my drink. Besides, I really do have, now I think about it, a terrible thirst.
I’m swallowing ersatz fruit, not even from concentrate; so I can’t have said a word—it wasn’t me who spoke.Terrible thirst: terrible weather
—but the echo is accidental, I would have to be feeling quite paranoid to think it was anything else. Nevertheless, the remark feels intrusive—as if it had access to my skull—and so I turn without even preparing a smile and discover the party responsible tucked behind me: a straggly, gingery man, loitering. He has longish, yellowish, curly hair, which was, perhaps, cute at some time in his youth, but has thinned now into a wispy embarrassment. I can almost picture him, each evening, praying to be struck bald overnight. God has not, so far, been merciful.
Mr. Wispy’s expression attempts to remain enquiring although he says nothing more and I do not meet his eyes or in any way encourage him. He is the type to have hobbies: sad ones that he’ll want to talk about.
Checking swiftly, I can see there are no windows, which may explain his lack of meteorological certainty. There’s no way that either of us can know what the weather is doing outside. Then again, Straggly has the look of a person habitually unsure of things: it may be he’s stolen a peek beyond the room and already has
prior knowledge of whatever conditions prevail—monsoon, dust storm, sleet—he may simply hope I’ll confirm his observations.
Of course, I have no prior knowledge, not a trace.
There is a fake cart rigged up, beyond us both—it’s clearly made of stainless steel, but is burdened with a feminine canopy and fat, little flounces of chintz. Inside, I can make out a seethe of heat lamps and trays of orange, brown or grey things which ought to be food, I suppose. The whole assembly smells of nothing beyond boredom and possibly old grease.
“Really dreadful . . . Yes?” He tries again: maybe harping on about the weather, maybe just depressive, I can’t say I care.
“Appalling.” I nod and angle myself away.
But Straggly has to chip in again. “Tchsss. . . .” He seems to be taking the whole thing very personally, whatever it is. And I notice there’s something slightly expectant in the scampery little glances he keeps launching across at me. It could be that he will give me a headache soon.
“Ffffmmm . . .” He nods, as if his repertoire of noises has any meaning beyond his own mind.
But I can’t deny that he is also speaking English, just about—which is a clue. It means that I can probably assume I’m in a hotel somewhere English-speaking. Either that, or I’ve been ambushed by Mr. Wispy who is himself English-speaking and has guessed that I am, too, and I could, in fact, be anywhere at all.
Meanwhile, he’s continuing to linger inconclusively and I do hope this won’t blossom into some weird expression of long-term, national solidarity. To help him move on, I try to sound forbidding, although I will never discover what I’m trying to forbid: “Ghastly. Almost frightening
That seemed to go well, though. He edges back a step, and another, then bolts into a crestfallen retreat. I feel I am safe to believe our exchange is exhausted.
Around me, various groups and solitaries are hunched over bowls of cereal, plates of glistening stuff, collapsing rolls. The carpet is liberally scattered with a sort of bread-related dandruff: each table has its dust- ing, too, along with a thread or so of unconvincing foliage in a throttled vase. At uneasy intervals the walls display reproductions of old European advertisements: a British hotel, then. This particular level of grisliness could only be fully achieved in the British Isles. And this surely must be breakfast. So: 8:44, no 8:45, in the morning and breakfast in a cheap, British hotel.
I’m home. Perhaps.
Their backs to a wall, a shouting wife and inaudible husband are picking at mushrooms and sausages. “We have to get a gas grill. That was the loveliest meal I had when we were there, the loveliest. That was the loveliest meal.” Her partner chews and chews while I try not to imagine the finer and finer paste he is producing. “And that Continental . . . Continental . . . Continental . . .”Continental what? Quilt? Breakfast? Lover? Self-improving language course?
She is never going to finish and I’m never going to know and he is never going to swallow—I can tell. I do not wish to think of them trav- elling freely across the globe, dementing people, everywhere they go—driving them into gas grills for relief. I refill my glass and concentrate.
Then I remember, with aching clarity, an air steward blocking the ragged perspective of an aisle and dancing his arms through the usual safety drill: the oxygen mask for yourself before your gasping children, the floor-level guides to coax you through darkness and smoke. He was enjoying himself, sweating only a little with all of those swooping indications in time to the comforting script. Then he tried to put on his For Demonstration Only life jacket and failed comprehensively.
I watched, couldn’t stop myself watching, while his previously smooth hands stuttered and the rubberised yellow crumpled and began to look unhelpful—like a grubby bib. By the time he was meant to be tying a firm double bow at his waist (and then moving on to display his inflation tubes, his convenient whistle and nice light) his drawstrings were only tangling perversely and the more he jerked them and smiled to reassure, the more everything twisted and snagged. His head dropped then and he fought at the jacket outright, a neck blush rising to his hair. Full-blown knots had developed now, his fingers scrabbling round them, wetly impotent. He blinked up for a breath and I grinned at him—what other expression was possible, but a firmly encouraging grin?—and something about the moment made it plain that we both knew he was now demonstrating a true emergency. This was precisely the way that we really would panic and fluster and take too long as the plane went down. This was how we’d be trapped in the dark, inanely struggling. This was how we would stare, while horrors struck against our wills. This was how we’d be plunged into water and feel every trace of protection ripped easily adrift. He was showing us how we would die.
The demonstration ended, but he stayed where he was, puzzled by himself, almost tearful, the jacket still round him, lopsided, improperly tied.
This is a recent memory, it tastes close at hand.
And I am, once again, grinning firmly and thinking that I must have been somewhere and must now be coming back, which is new and important information and a cause for joy.
One of the many pleasures of forgetting is, as we all of us know, remembering. You trot from room to room and can’t imagine where you left your keys the night before: without them, you’re locked in your house. Under the bed, in the knife drawer, behind the Scotch, behind your shoes, in the pockets of every garment that has pockets, the pedal bin, the compost bin, the bread bin: you have panicked into every likely nook. You sit on your bed, despairing, unsure of who has your spares and if they still like you and then—your hand gently brushes that lovely clump of metal, that heavy, little spider of keys to everything. They’ve been lounging on the duvet the whole morning, just winking whenever you’ve passed. But you have them at last and you are happy, much happier than you would have been if you’d picked them up without confusion from their customary place.
This morning it’s very clear that I’ve misplaced at least a day, so you can imagine that I’m pretty much delighted.
But still thirsty.
Now, I already have a substantial glass, filled and in my possession—probably 300 millilitres, or even a drop in excess. I’ve left a decent interval between the meniscus and the brim—anything else is antisocial and draws attention—but even if the juice were slopping right up to the top, it wouldn’t be enough. A litre might begin to be enough, might start to feel refreshing, a litre and nothing less. So I need to down this while I stand, refill, down, refill again and then sit somewhere secluded, rehydrate. You have to be undisturbed to rehydrate. I presume I am safe in believing that this is the usual snatch-all-you-can rolling buffet sort of situation and no one will intervene when confronted with naked appetite.
As it turns out, I’m not wrong.
Clutching glass number four, I wander through the wreckage and mumbling, keeping an eye out for somewhere bearable to sit. The place seems clotted suddenly, nothing unoccupied.
I may have a little toast later, if there is toast. I can only assume I have money to buy some, it’s unlikely I’d have come here otherwise.
“Ah . . . ?” Again
. Mr. Wispy is flapping one hand annoyingly above an empty seat. The only visible empty seat. “A-ah . . . ?” He keeps repeating that one sorry, wheedling vowel.
I could just stand.
On either side of him lurk what can only be his children: a surly-looking blonde girl of maybe eight and a smaller, darker boy. Happily, neither of them has inherited his hair. They are both intent on squeezing the contents from several tiny plastic containers of jam and then spreading the resultant mess across random objects.
I could dodge back to the fruit-juice counter.
I could run.
“You won’t disturb us. Really. It’s all right.”
“No you won’t.”
“I think I will.”
The children lose interest in smearing the milk jug and the girl sucks at her palm, eyes me appraisingly.
“Perhaps for a moment.” I edge past the worst of it. “Like pustules, aren’t they?”
Father Straggle swallows less than happily.
“The jam packets—when you squeeze them out, they’re just like . . . well, they’re a little like . . .” I give up, sit and sip my apple juice in the silence. Five or six swallows and breakfast will be done. Except I still feel below my volume, somehow, a glass or three owing, nagging me.
“Whee-HA. Whee-HA.” Of course he has an abnormal laugh, why would he have a normal one? How often would he get the chance to use it with his life? “Pustules
In any case, it’s ugly and should be stopped. “So . . . You’re leaving?”
He is sombre again, flushed, and softly offers, “Coming back.”
The little boy nudges me under the table, his hand unmistakably adhering as it leaves my leg. I’m wearing jeans—they look new—new jeans and a T-shirt. My forearms have a vague tan. The boy tries again. I engage him with my best patientandopenfunloving expression. Sooner or later, this always works. I am a person other people warm to—without exception, they all warm. My lack of memory, if I were in a film, would mean that I am a killing machine, patiently trained by some dreadful governmental agency and soon my amnesia will evaporate in a bloodbath of conscienceless combat and burning cars. But I know I’m not any variety of machine. I am a human being, a proper one. And I am likeable—almost unnaturally easy to like. The boy turns shy under my attention, but is not truly uncomfortable. The girl glowers with some vehemence. She would take me more time.
“Amelia. That’s not how we behave.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Paradise by A.L. Kennedy. Copyright © 2005 by A.L. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.