This is an exclusive extract of my novel, which will be released in March 2020
I never imagined my own death. Why would I? I was thirty-six years old. I had years left, or so I thought. I changed my mind about that when I woke up in the morgue. The dead body…my dead body laid out in front of me, provided a good indication that I no longer needed to draw breath. My eyes were open, and I could almost imagine I was staring at myself. Yet I struggled to look away from the shell I used to inhabit. My eyes wandered from my bruised face to the red mark on my neck, as if I was punched and strangled.
I closed my eyes. Maybe this would be gone when I opened them again. I’d have a laugh at the weird dream I had about being beside myself in the morgue. A brief memory popped into my head, hands gripping my arms, then the image faded. I opened my eyes to find my corpse wasn’t gone though. It seemed to be taunting me for thinking I could make it not real.
“Did somebody do this to me?” I asked my dead self, only to receive no response. She just laid still. I wondered if all dead people looked like…well…like they had been scared to death I suppose.
I watched enough crime shows to recognise the signs of a murder. I recalled those same crime shows. Copying what they did seemed like my best option. The first step was to examine the victim. I took a deep breath, although no air went in or out of my body, but the action remained the same. I twisted my head from side to side. I stretched my arms like someone preparing for a boxing match or an intense workout session might do. It helped to imagine I was looking for clues about what happened to a fictitious character. If I stopped to dwell on the reality of my death, I might have panicked. It also helped to have no recollection of the circumstances leading up to my death
The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. That’s the last time I recall sleeping in a real bed. I would give anything to go back there and feel the cold night air, instead of the clinging fog which seems to get everywhere here.
I’m in The Land of The Forgotten, but I still let my mind travel back to the place I call home, Earth. I only think of myself as Eve because my real name evades me. What was I there for? I strain my neck and scratch my head as if either of those two actions will answer my question.
It was 15 April 2017. How can that date be so fixed in my head, but everything else is blurry or feels like it could be a dream? I couldn't even tell you today’s date with any real conviction.
Of course, I went to the cash machine, but why? Whatever the reason was for dragging my daughter out so late at night, it can’t have been worth the consequences.
I close my eyes and can see the freak weather conditions from that night. The snow was falling fast and covering our shoes with each step. My daughter, aged just six danced around in each undisturbed white blanket we came across. She hadn't seen real snow before, only sleet. It was settling around us and I wanted to withdraw money from the cash machine and get her back to the car. I pulled at her hand as she tried to release herself.
‘Mummy, please, can we build a snowman?’
My eyes open and I’m disorientated. It sounded like her voice came from somewhere nearby. It was in my head. It’s one of the few memories I’ve held onto all this time, just an echo of the past.
I try to focus on reaching more of my memories. What happened next? There was something, an important reason for making the trip at that time, in those conditions. Maybe the memory is lost to me now. Does it even matter anymore?
Another memory I lost is how long I've been here. It's probably closer to years than months though. Nobody remembers me. It's how I ended up here; that much I'm sure of. That must be the kind of thing to happen to older people. Nobody is left to remember them. It shouldn't have happened to me. I wasn’t that old. Despite the years that could have passed while I’ve been here, I haven’t aged. My skin doesn’t feel as wrinkled as it should. Anyway, I had no excusable reason to take her with me that night. This is exactly what I deserve, to be forgotten, and stranded here.
I’m sure everyone who knew me has either moved on with their lives or passed over to The Land of Rest. That place is reserved for people whose loved ones keep them at the forefront of their daily thoughts, even after they've gone. Those people can rest, basking in the desperate wishes of their loved ones hoping that they will return.
Anyway, my daughter? I lost her on the way back from the cash machine. She'll be in The Land of Rest with her father if he's already passed on. Either way, they're both better off without me.
Some days I go for a walk to pass the time, but it's disheartening to encounter so many newcomers wandering around, looking forlorn. I used to try explaining things to them; where they were and why. It's a hard thing to accept that people have forgotten you. Many choose not to believe me. Sometimes I see them again, just lying in the road in defeat, hoping that something will come along and run them over. I like to imagine the ones I don't see again are suddenly remembered and therefore, have returned home. That idea keeps me going on the worst days, even though I accept that it's too late for me now.
I'm walking in the dark again. It's almost always dark here. There are different shades of dark. Some are lighter than others. Even during what should be daytime, the view is often obscured by fog. I hear the all-too-familiar weeping sound, signalling that someone new has arrived and hasn't figured out what this horrible place is, but knows enough to sense the misery of this land.
I never could work out how they get here. The place is full of roads and ditches; no cars or houses. Yet the people keep on arriving and they sleep wherever they can find a quiet spot. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the cold no longer affects me. Neither does the wet ground which occurs on occasion, despite me never having witnessed a rainfall here.
The cries sound like a woman, someone young. That's why I follow the sound. It's always heart-breaking when the younger generation are forgotten.
My maternal instincts pull at my heart, a little too late to change anything, but I still can't help feeling the desire to help. I’m sure it’s guilt related. I need redemption, as if anything can redeem me now.
'Hello,' I call out as I make my way through the dense mist.
The weeping continues. I can make out the outline of a young woman, crouched over, with her knees against her chest. Her head lifts in my direction as I approach. I'm close enough now to make out her long black hair covering most of her face.
'Where am I?'
I pause, wondering which combination of words could make this any easier for her to accept. There’s no nice way of telling her. It turns out I don't need to; she answers her own question.
'This is The Land of the Forgotten, isn't it?'
'I'm sorry,' I tell her, although my sympathy will do little to ease her shock and sadness. 'For what it's worth, you're too young to be forgotten. Maybe it won't be permanent.'
I don't know why, but I invite the young woman home. When I say home, I mean the cave where I sometimes sleep. It's nicer than most of the places people sleep around here. I've managed to scavenge a few blankets and bits of cutlery. Sometimes I even manage to find some food to use it on, if not I just eat leaves. Maybe that wouldn't be a good idea anywhere else, but if I die while I'm here, I won't go to The Land of the Rest. I'll go to The Nothing. That's a plane of existence where I wouldn't be aware of anything. It would be a definite upgrade from this place.
My new friend asks me, 'how long have you been here?'
'I don't remember,' I admit.
I ask her name, but she tells me her memory is hazy.
'Maybe it begins with M,' she offers.
'I'll call you Maria,' I say, feeling inexplicably proud of being able to name her. She seems to like that name.
Later I watch her as she sleeps. The memory of my own daughter returns.
‘Just a minute, please,’ she pleads. Her hands grab at the snow as I pull her away by her arm.
That’s when I lose my grip and a flurry of snow blocks my vision. The fateful sound of a car going faster than it should, then a horn beeping far too late. A second later I hear her scream. It’s the last sound I ever heard my daughter make.
‘Maria,’ I call out over the screaming. I take a minute to remember where I am and realise the screaming is happening now. It’s no longer a re-enactment in my head of that tragic day.
‘Maria,’ I say again, looking at the woman in front of me. She’s pale and her hands are shaking. My hands shake too as I try to recall, did she tell me her name was Maria or did I give her that name? Memory is unreliable in this place and I find myself unable to answer that question.
‘It was just a nightmare,’ she breaks the silence.
‘Okay,’ I say.
I sit here, trying to find a way to ask her if she’s my daughter.
‘Do you remember anything?’ I question, after she lies back down.
‘About the nightmare?’
‘No, your life before here,’ I say.
I should have asked about the nightmare instead. I have a lot of dreams and they could be memories of my life. It might be the same for her.
‘I had a family,’ she says, ‘but I couldn’t describe them to you, or tell you anything about them at all.’
The cave falls silent again, the moon shines through the entrance. It’s full tonight, providing more light than I usually get in here.
I lie down and fall asleep and the dreams greet me again. I don’t remember having this one before though.
Everything is dark, much darker than my cave without moonlight, but it has to be from Earth. We don’t have hospitals here. The beeping sounds remind me of a hospital. The voices say something about ‘losing her’.
My daughter? It must be. She got hit by a car and died at the hospital. They tried to save her of course, but there was nothing else they could do. I don’t blame them, I blame me.
The dream changes to an earlier scene. My hand over her arm, then I let go and she was gone.
I wake up. I feel a hand on my arm and hear the words, ‘are you okay?’
‘Maria, is that you?’
‘Yes,’ she replies, causing my heart to skip a beat, but it’s the young woman I saved and named. I did name her. I remember that now.
‘Not Maria, not my Maria,’ I say, sobbing into her arm.
She does her best to comfort me, stroking my hair as if I’ve become the younger out of the two of us. She can’t understand though. How could she?
‘You should choose your own name,’ I say.
She lets go of me, her blue eyes seem like they’re staring into my soul.
‘People don’t choose their own names,’ she replies. Her soft voice almost soothes me, but then I remember she’s wearing my beloved daughter’s name. I gave the name to her, but she can’t keep it.
I…I named you,’ I say, tears falling down my face. ‘Please, choose your own name. I can’t bear the constant reminder.’
‘You named me,’ she confirms, ‘but not today.’
If I didn’t know any better, I would say that’s excitement in her voice, but what does she have to be excited about?
‘I remember now, my mother named me, so not you directly, but Maria was her name and she passed it onto me.’
‘Maria,’ is all I can say.
‘Your daughter, my mother. That’s why I’m here. This place got to me, made me forget for a while, but I’m here to get you out.’
I stare at her while waiting for her words to make sense. When they don’t I say, ‘sorry, I don’t understand.’
I feel memories threatening to break though the block inside my head. I fight hopelessly against them, sensing the pain they’ll cause.
I’m taking Maria, I mean my daughter Maria to the cash machine, but I remember now. I was leaving my abusive husband, her father. He never left me alone until that night, perhaps assuming I wouldn’t try to leave in the middle of a snow storm. But it was my only chance, so I packed my bags. I see it in my mind now.
I’m loading up the car with enough clothing and food to keep Maria and I going for at least a week. I’m not sure where we’ll go, but there’s money in the joint account. Half of it is mine by rights, so I’ll take half, no more, no less. Graham, my husband, he’s at the pub, but he could be home anytime, or he could be out all night if the weather stays like this. I’ve deliberately driven to the next town to avoid bumping into him or any of his friends.
‘Come on Maria,’ I say, grabbing her arm as she digs her hands into the snow.
‘Mummy, please, can we build a snowman?’ She tries to break free of my grip.
A van shoots past, causing the flurry of snow which blocks my vision and the cold blast hits me, causing me to let go of Maria’s hand. I slip away on the ice, then hear her screams and the horn from the speeding car. Then the realisation of what actually happened hits me right before the car does.
I feel it as if it’s happening right now, but it’s not and the memory jolts me back to the present.
‘I died?’ I ask Maria, but I already know the answer.
‘Yes, Grandmother. My mum learnt to repress her memories of you because it hurt too much. That’s why you were sent here. But on her deathbed, she thought of you and told me to get you out of here.’
‘Where would I go?’ I realise that if she’s my granddaughter, it must be decades since I was last on Earth. I can’t go back. It’s too late.
‘The Land of Rest,’ she replies. ‘Are you ready to go, to leave here?’
I realise what she’s done for me. If she’s here, it means nobody remembers her and she’s stuck.
‘How will you leave here?’ I ask.
She puts her hand against my head and I’m flooded with memories, but they’re not mine. These are her memories. I see her being pushed around by a man as she lifts her hands in defence and pleads for him to stop. I recognise the behaviour. It mirrors my relationship. I suppose history really does repeat itself if people don’t remember and learn from it.
The scene changes to her learning about what happened to me. My granddaughter is researching her family history and how the abusive relationship with my husband led to my death in an accident involving a speeding car during a snowstorm.
‘Your daughter was brought up by your husband, my grandfather,’ Maria’s voice snaps me back to the present. ‘Maria Senior was beaten as a child, then grew up and married a man just like her father, because it’s all she knew. I did the same and so the cycle continued.’
She shows me another memory of her making a DVD and sending it to a TV station to be aired after her death. It features my story and hers, to raise awareness of domestic abuse, but also to make us known to people.
The cave lights up and a set of stairs appear, seemingly leading out of the top of the cave. I know where they really lead though. I grin as we ascend them.