Perhaps I should be less heroically independent. As I’d fumbled with my stick and the handles of the car door, the taxi driver offered to take me up to the entrance, but I waved him away, embarrassed by my need for assistance. Now I tic tac my way up to what he said was an impressive façade of shining glass.
A slight breeze from the revolving door alerts me I am near the entrance. I put up a hand to catch the speed, insert myself into its spin, and let the metronomic click of its passage tell me when to step out.
A vastness opens around me; I can feel its echo. After a beat I opt for the direct approach and start straight ahead. The leather soles of my shoes squeak across the hard floor, and my stick keeps a syncopated rhythm until it hits the front of the reception desk.
‘Good morning, sir. Can I help you?’ A young female voice with the flattened vowels of a northern accent.
‘I have an appointment with Doctor Eric Meadows at Third Dimension. Eleven o’clock. My name’s Roy Collins.’ I hear the flick of a page, forward then back.
‘Very good, Mr. Collins. You just take a seat and I’ll tell Doctor Meadows you’ve arrived. Here, let me help you.’ Her chair scrapes back. A gentle hand takes me by the elbow to a nearby seat and, as I sink into it, the firm vinyl makes a similar sound to the floor. The receptionist leaves a trail of violets and vanilla in her wake as she returns to her desk. I fold up my stick and lay it across my lap.
My GP put me in touch with this place. Doctor Calder is a good sort, one of the ones who truly cares about the patients, not just dashing off a prescription and propelling you back out the door. She’d read about the new process in some science journal or other and thought it might help me. ‘What do I have to lose?’ I told her, and she put her hand over mine and gave it a squeeze.
Now I sit and listen. A lift pings intermittently and voices drift past. Footsteps resonate confirming my original impression of great space. Eventually I become aware that someone has closed in and stopped before me.
‘Mr. Collins?’ The rustle of a sleeve as a hand is extended. I hold out my own hand and it is firmly grasped and shaken.
‘That’s me. Doctor Meadows I take it?’ We release hands.
‘Call me Eric.’
‘Eric. In that case, I’m Roy.’
‘And how are you feeling today Roy?’
‘Ach.’ I face the voice and give a shrug. ‘Can’t complain Doctor Me… Eric.’
‘Do you think you’re ready to come with me up to the lab?’
‘Yes, I believe so.’
‘And you brought a photograph with you?’
I pat the breast pocket of my tweed jacket and offer a smile.
‘It was always my favourite.’ I feel my eyes dampening already and remind myself of the vow I made this morning. No tears.
‘Good stuff. That sounds ideal. Right, let’s get started then, shall we?’
He also takes my elbow and guides me towards the pinging lift. ‘We’re very grateful for your participation in our trial. Your perspective will be most helpful to us.’
The lift doors shush open, we take a step and they shut behind us. I can feel the closeness of the walls and there is a strong smell of brass polish. Eric taps a button and the lift shunts into action. It is hard to tell if we are going up or down.
‘There’s nothing more for you to sign you’ll be pleased to hear, Doctor Calder kindly sent us on all the forms.’
‘Ah. She’s very efficient. Been a good doctor to my family.’ My voice catches.
‘I would imagine she would be, yes.’
The lift thrums. Eric gives a little cough.
‘I understand my colleagues have already gone through the process with you, Roy, is that correct?’
‘I’d a very long phone call with one of them on…must have been Monday? I’m pretty sure we covered everything.’
‘Yes, that’ll be our Doctor Stewart. She’s a devil for the detail.’
The lift jolts to a stop and Eric guides me out. A silence hangs between us as we walk. Finally, he opens a door and escorts me into the room.
‘If you’d just like to have a seat, I’ll go and check they’re ready for you. In the meantime, is there anything we can get you? Tea, coffee, water?’
‘A coffee would be lovely thanks. Just black.’
‘No problem.’ The door closes. The air in the room is a mix of lemon freshener and institutional mustiness. There is a low hum, I suspect from the air conditioning, and a clock ticks loudly. I take the photo from my pocket and with my fingers lightly trace the scene as best I can.
The picture sat on the mantelpiece for years, watching as its occupants in the real world grew bigger and bolder or smaller and greyer; morphed from flat black and white to the colour of the three-dimensional world. The frame surrounding it changed, reflecting passing tastes and trends, but the picture remained a constant. When Gemma married and moved overseas, that image was a visual reminder of those early carefree days. A few years later, I would look at it to see Linda, the woman I married, as she gradually left us. When I could no longer cope and she was moved to the care facility, the photograph was still there. My sight went not long after that.
I’ve heard folk say the one thing they can never take from you is your memories but that’s a lie. I watched Linda stripped of hers. Then as I grew used to the darkness I realised that the images in my brain were also beginning to fade. One night as I was feeling my way to bed I knocked the photo to the floor. I picked it back up and tried to remember the scene. My chest chilled; I recalled the form, the beach and the chairs, but could no longer visualise their faces or what they were wearing. I couldn’t see them anymore.
The door opens again.
‘Hello Mr. Collins.’ A different, younger male voice.
I hear him cross the room. ‘I’ll just put your coffee on the table here.’ He pauses as I don’t react. ‘It’s just to the left-hand side of the sofa.’ He passes back in front of me and the door closes once more. I track the surface of the table with my hand until I locate the paper cup. The steam blasts my face as I lift it to my lips, but the coffee is low on taste and I set it back down. The clock counts the seconds aloud until Eric returns.
‘All ready for you, Roy.’ He leads me out the waiting room and into the lab. There is a buzzing noise and a smell like electricity. It reminds me of the strange odour given off by the little engine of my childhood train-set, as I laid my head at the side of the tracks trying to make it look life-size. I take comfort from it in this alien world.
Murmuring voices are working through a checklist. Every so often there is a loud clunk. From Doctor Stewart’s description of the process, I guess it’s the sound of the projectors being positioned.
‘Could we have your picture, please, Roy?’ I pass him the photograph and listen as he inserts it into the machine. Fingers rap on a keyboard and another voice says ‘set’. Eric ushers me on a few paces.
‘Sounds please Jez.’ The room fills with the staccato shriek of seagulls over the velvet rolling of waves to shore. Children laugh and chatter in the background. I have no idea where the soundtrack comes from but today it will be my North Berwick.
‘That’s you, Roy. Just reach out.’ Eric lets go my arm and I stretch out my hands. A small gasp escapes my lips as I touch the soft wool and floral embroidery of Linda’s favourite cardigan. That’s right. She wore it most days that holiday. She’d got it in the women’s drapers beside the Co-operative when we’d just moved into the house. I can picture her standing in the kitchen swirling round as she held the front panels straight to show off the pattern. She’d never had anything so fancy, she said, but she just couldn’t resist it. She wore it all through carrying Gemma too, even when she couldn’t do the buttons up anymore, the panels sitting either side of her swollen belly like curtains. That little top was a constant in the early years of our marriage and one of the reasons she loved this picture so much.
I long for the sweet scent of her favourite perfume as I trace the shape of her arm up to her shoulder, then bring my hands up in front of her face. There is the gentle heart shape of her chin, the tilt of the corners of her mouth and the upward sweep of her perfectly permed hair. A pair of large round sunglasses, so fashionable at the time, perches on her small snub nose. Her face reforms in my mind.
My eyes are wet and I don’t care. For this fleeting moment they are returned to me, yet I am reminded of how much I have lost. My shoulders heave but I am smiling. It is worth it.
In the photograph Linda sits in a folding chair and I follow the cold steel of its tubular frame down to where I know Gemma kneels, frozen as a five-year-old. My hand skims her pigtailed hair, the cool cotton of her tee shirt with the three pearl buttons on one shoulder, and the frilled skirt of her bathing suit. She is carefully constructing a small empire of sandcastles with her bucket and spade. Over the soundscape conjured by the lab, I recall her soft voice explaining to the inhabitants of her castles how their sand city was evolving. I hear Linda’s voice too, sharing the gossip gleaned at breakfast about the other residents of our B and B.
I remember where I was immediately prior to taking the photograph and, with some difficulty, resume this position. Sitting beside Gemma, my back resting against Linda’s legs, I am engrossed by the B and B tittle tattle and Gemma’s great construction project. I run my hand around the contours of the castles and, as the details regenerate, I will them to stay in my memory this time. The pressure of Linda’s knees against my spine reawakens the sensation of her stroking the shorn hair at the base of my short back and sides. I can smell the mix of sunscreen, brine and ice cream that was Gemma after a day running around in the sun. Everything I used to see when I looked at the photograph, I sense as I sit inside it.
‘One more minute, Roy.’
His voice sounds quieter and a little less confident than before.
‘Yes, Eric.’ I give Gemma a kiss on the top of her salt straggled hair then haul myself up. The temporal distance, oddness and presence of an audience make me feel almost shy as I lean down to hug my wife a last time. Now I catch the light rose traces of Linda’s perfume. She feels firm and alive, not the frail echo that sits in the hospice hiding sandwiches in her dressing gown and screaming because she doesn’t recognise me.
A touch on my arm and I jump.
‘Sorry, Roy. Didn’t mean to startle you.’ Eric steers me back across the room. The seagulls and waves cease, and I realise, once again, they are gone.
Eric hands me back my photograph.
‘Thanks again Roy. Karen will be in shortly to look after you. You okay?’ Once again I nod. I don’t trust myself to speak just yet.
The next steps have already been explained to me. They’ll take me through to a clinic where all my vitals will be monitored, and a psychologist will debrief me. The scientists have learned to be more careful what they release into the public domain after the last time. They want to assess the medium-term impacts as well as the immediate, so in a fortnight I’ll go through a second batch of tests, then a third lot after six months.
The real world can wait, though. For in this moment, I see everything clearly again, and for as long as I can I will cling to this image. I will stay sitting on the beach with my young wife in her favourite cardie and my beautiful little girl building castles made of sand.
SHEILA SCOTT is a hybrid writer-scientist who most enjoys sitting with pen and paper turning idle thoughts into short narratives and illustrative doodles. Published in Causeway, Cabinet of Heed, Flashback Fiction, Poetic Republic, Qmunicate and shortlisted for Arachne Press Solstice Shorts, she also helps lead New Writing Showcase Glasgow and has an intermittently hyperactive Twitter account @MAHenry20.