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Dedication and Acknowledgements
Chapter 1 – Friday 4th June
Dawn pushed open the door quietly – reverently – as she had done so many times over the last two years. She frowned and sighed, shaking her head as she stared at the sage green bedroom walls. Why on earth had she given in and allowed Gary to redecorate?
Stepping inside, she pulled the door to behind her and crept across the wooden floor, perching carefully on the edge of the single bed. She ran her palms over the plain, dark green duvet cover and closed her eyes.
Her mind instantly accessed the familiar memory of Ben’s star-field duvet cover upon which the Horsehead Nebula had been a striking central feature – Ben had loved the stars and space ever since he was tiny. His first duvet cover had depicted colourful, stylised planets and a bright orange rocket with an astronaut smiling from its single, round window.
Dawn’s mouth tightened into a brief, sad smile that slowly twisted into a tormented grimace. A tortured, guttural moan escaped from between her distorted lips. She screwed her eyes tightly shut, but there was no holding back the flow of hot, salty tears that began spilling down her cheeks. Drawing a shuddering breath, she doubled over her knees, clasping her hands either side of her head and dragging a handful of hair into each fist. She raised her gaze to the framed photograph she had lovingly placed on the bedside table the day after Gary left and whispered croakily, “Love you, Ben.”
Her shoulders slumped and she averted her gaze from Ben’s image, unable to bear the pain of seeing his face smiling back at her as she wept.
But now her eyes were drawn to the green walls and bedding once again. Anger welled up inside her and she realised that she was actually grateful for the arrival of a different emotion – albeit another negative one – to temporarily displace her overwhelming sense of loss.
After Gary had gone, Dawn had tried to recover Ben’s bed set from the charity shop Gary had sent it to – along with any other of their son’s belongings she could identify. She had despaired when she’d discovered how few items remained in the shop for her to buy back; although, after more than six months, she should have been grateful to find anything at all, she supposed. If only she’d been strong enough to call the shop and get Ben’s things back as soon as she’d discovered what Gary had done, instead of suffering in silence until he’d gone.
After recovering so few of her son’s things, she decided to try to replace his distinctive duvet cover and had spent days trawling the Internet looking for an identical one. Eventually she had been forced to admit defeat, telling herself that a duplicate wouldn’t have been the same as retrieving the one Ben himself had bought and slept under. Her only real consolation was that she had at least managed to buy back his favourite denim jacket, which now hung in his otherwise empty wardrobe.
Snatching a tissue from the box she’d placed strategically beside Ben’s photo, Dawn ran across the room and flung open the wardrobe, pulling the jacket noisily from the hanger. Hugging it to her wet face, she inhaled the smell of Ben that lingered on it, even after all this time.
Twenty minutes later, her tears having eventually run dry, Dawn replaced the jacket on its hanger and ran her hands down the sides to ensure it was neat, exactly as she had done so many times when Ben had worn it.
Feeling around the thick denim, she located the source of her puzzlement – something hard concealed in a small, inside pocket. Struggling for a few moments to unfasten the stiff, stud-like button, she pushed the little object up from underneath and a stone popped out into her palm.
Dawn recognised it immediately: it was Ben’s good luck charm – a pebble he’d found on the beach during a holiday to Devon when he was twelve.
It was grey, flat, roughly circular and just the right size to sit comfortably on the palm of her hand. There was a perfect round hole just about big enough to push a pencil through offset from the centre and a raised, brown, heart-shaped spot on one edge. Ben used to say it must have been a one-in-several-million chance that he’d spotted this unusual stone amongst all the other ordinary ones lying on the beach, concluding that luck had drawn him to it.
From that day on, it had been his ‘lucky stone’ – it had seen him through both GCSEs and A levels, sitting on the front corner of his desk when he took his exams – although Dawn knew that it was brains and determination that had earned him all A*s and As – along with a single stray B grade – rather than his precious talisman.
But how was it here? Her brow furrowed as her memory struggled to make sense of this conundrum. She clearly remembered taking it to the hospital and positioning it at Ben’s bedside, where he’d be able to see it if he regained consciousness. She was almost certain she hadn’t brought it back home with her, but since her return home on that dreadful day was a memory she actively avoided reliving, she couldn’t be a hundred per cent sure. Perhaps it had been Gary who picked it up and returned it to the house after…
A lump formed in her throat and she hugged the lucky charm to her chest. If felt oddly warm for a stone – especially since it had been inside Ben’s jacket in his cold, dark wardrobe. Such a pity, she thought wryly, that he hadn’t had it with him to keep him out of harm’s way that foggy Saturday morning two years ago. If he hadn’t left it on the sideboard when he went out that day maybe the accident wouldn’t have happened; by the time she’d picked it up and placed it beside him it was already too late for his good luck charm to help him.
Nonsense! She berated herself. It was just a stone – nothing really special, although it was attractive and fairly unusual.
Dawn would keep it of course; it was a link to her son – something deeply personal that she could treasure and keep to help her hold on to those precious memories that Gary would have had her suppress and try to forget.
She lifted the stone to her lips and kissed the little heart-shaped mark on its surface then flinched, dropping it on to the laminate floor, where it skipped under the edge of the bed. Dawn immediately fell to her knees, scrabbling to retrieve it before it rolled out of reach.
“Stupid woman,” she said out loud. “Stupid, stupid woman with an overactive imagination!”
Just before she’d dropped it, she thought she’d felt the stone vibrate like a mobile phone. She plucked it up from the floor, placed it on the palm of her hand and stared at it. It certainly wasn’t vibrating now and almost certainly never had.
She must be going daft, she decided, shaking her head in disbelief at her own foolishness as she closed her fingers around the stone and sat back on the edge of the bed.
Ben’s picture smiled crookedly at her from the picture frame and Dawn smiled too. “Your mother’s finally going round the bend,” she said, kissing her index finger and pressing it gently against her son’s cheek.
Slipping the lucky charm into her jeans pocket, she made her way reluctantly back out onto the landing, shutting Ben’s door quietly behind her.
“Night night, baby boy,” she whispered.
It was several seconds before she could bring herself to release her grip on the doorknob. Then, with a deep sigh and a heavy heart, she wandered along the landing to the master bedroom.
The reminders in this room were of a very different kind. The photo montage on the wall opposite the bottom of the bed now bore only three photographs – one of Dawn reading a book as she sat beside the hotel swimming pool on a forgettable holiday the summer before Ben died and a couple of cute snaps of her cat, Tonto, sunning himself on the patio. The other apertures remained empty, since Dawn had no recent snaps of happy times with which to replace the images that had featured Gary. She had torn those out and burned them in a fit of rage just two days after the acrimonious end of their twenty-two-year marriage. Gary had removed the photos of Ben some months before that and Dawn hadn’t been able to face the agony that trawling through photos on the computer to find replacements would inevitably cause.
On the wall beside the bed hung a pretty print depicting a forest in spring, carpeted with vibrant bluebells. Bought for her as a birthday gift last year by Gary, the only reason Dawn kept it was because she’d chosen it herself and spent several weeks dropping less-than-subtle hints to her heedless husband about how pretty it would look on their bedroom wall. Finally she’d had to spell it out for him in words even he couldn’t fail to understand.
Dawn undressed quickly, neatly folding her jeans before placing them on the wicker chair in the corner and depositing her shirt and underwear in the wash bin. She turned and plumped up the pillows, admonishing herself for doing Gary’s too. “Old habits…” she muttered to herself, slipping into the refreshingly cool bed.
A moment later, she jumped back out, grabbing her jeans from the pile of folded clothes and thrusting her hand into the pocket. Quickly locating the stone, she grasped it firmly in her fist, clumsily refolding the jeans before jumping into bed once again.
Turning off the bedside lamp, Dawn lay in the dark staring up towards the ceiling. Unable to see the little object properly, she turned it over and over in her hand, running her thumb around the outer part of the hole and then feeling for the heart-shaped bump with her forefinger. Finding it, she pressed it to her chest, desperately seeking a link between her broken heart and her lost son.
When Dawn eventually fell into a restless sleep, Ben’s lucky charm was still pressed to her chest, where it vibrated gently and grew warm against her skin.
Chapter 2 – Saturday 5th June
On Saturday morning, Dawn was awake not long after sunrise, as seemed to happen frustratingly often. Her very first thought was of Ben’s lucky stone. She panicked, realising immediately that it was no longer in her hand, but she quickly found it tucked under the edge of her pillow. Retrieving it, she closed her fingers tightly around the precious object and let out a little sigh of relief at having found it.
She glanced over to see what time it was. It was 5:12am.
Experience had taught her that, once awake, she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Somehow, she always woke up facing Gary’s vacant pillow too, an unwelcome reminder of exactly how alone she now was.
Her family home, once full of life and laughter, was now inhabited only by herself and Tonto – and this morning even the cat seemed to have abandoned her.
Dawn frowned. Tonto always crept into her room during the night, sleeping curled up at her feet by the time she awoke. It was her beloved cat that she turned to for a cuddle when the inevitable morning tears began to flow.
This morning, with Tonto missing from his post, Dawn found herself irrationally worried about her feline friend. Panic rose in her chest.
“Tonto. Tonto,” she called, softly. Then, remembering that there was no-one else in the house to be woken by the noise, she called again, louder this time. “Tonto?”
There was a thud from below and the sound of paws padding their way upstairs, then Tonto’s tabby-striped face appeared beside the bed.
“Maow,” he said, jumping up next to Dawn and rubbing his face affectionately against her outstretched fingers.
“Where have you been?” she asked, reaching for the light switch. “I’ve woken up with you by my feet ever since I’ve been by myself. Where were you today?”
Suddenly, a black cat with white feet and whiskers joined Tonto on the bed, making Dawn jump.
“What…? Who the heck are you?” she asked as the second, smaller cat sat down beside Tonto and started purring loudly.
Tonto, who normally hissed and spat at any unknown cats, simply sniffed the newcomer.
“Well, it seems that you two are friends – or at least acquaintances – otherwise fur would be flying by now. You haven’t found yourself a girlfriend have you, Tonto?” Dawn teased.
Tonto was a rescue cat and, although he had been microchipped, Dawn had also bought him a collar and a tag with his name on one side and her telephone number on the other. The interloper, she noticed, was also wearing a collar with a round ID tag.
“Let’s see who we have here,” said Dawn, leaning slowly towards Tonto’s new pal, trying not to scare her away. She needn’t have worried; the black and white female butted her head affectionately against the extended fingers and Dawn stroked the cat’s head with one hand, reaching tentatively under her chin for the ID tag with the other.
‘Custard’, it read.
“Well hello, Custard,” said Dawn, smiling as she remembered the cartoon series she’d enjoyed watching as a child about a dog and a pink cat named Custard.
Turning the tag over, she read the telephone number on the reverse and did a double take. She checked it twice more before she was absolutely certain – the phone number was precisely the same as that engraved on Tonto’s tag – her own home telephone number.
“Someone’s made a curious mistake,” she muttered, reasoning that Custard’s owner must have a similar telephone number to her own and hadn’t noticed the error by the engravers. “But that’s a heck of a coincidence.”
She checked the tag one last time: she must have made a mistake. But it was definitely her telephone number. She shook her head in disbelief.
“How weird,” she mumbled as Custard curled up next to her thigh and Tonto began casually licking the other cat’s head.
Climbing out of bed on Gary’s side so as not to disturb the two cats, Dawn went to choose a clean shirt from her wardrobe, picking up her jeans on the way. As she crossed the room, something in her photograph frame caught her eye. There, in the centre aperture, was a photograph of Custard.
Dawn stared at the image for several seconds. Her mouth, she realised, was gaping open in amazement. She crossed the room to turn on the main light, returning to scrutinise the photo once more; a black cat with white paws and whiskers, sitting on her sofa in her conservatory.
She sat heavily on the side of the bed, her jeans still hanging over her left arm. She gawped in utter disbelief first at the photograph, then at Custard, who was now making a wheezy snoring noise while Tonto sat a few inches away giving his face a thorough wash.
Dawn tried to think logically. No-one else had access to the house except her best friend Sarah. She had given Sarah Gary’s key once he’d posted it back through the door after picking up the last of his belongings a couple of months ago, and Ben’s hung downstairs in the front hall.
She grabbed clean underwear from her drawer and put it on, her mind still awhirl. The appearance of Custard had to be some kind of peculiar practical joke, surely? There simply wasn’t any other explanation.
Pulling on her jeans and shirt, she stuffed Ben’s stone into her trouser pocket then hurried downstairs, almost tripping in her haste to check that Ben’s key wasn’t missing. It was still in its usual place on the first hook of the coat rack.
As the feeling of panic and helplessness grew within her, Dawn racked her brain for a logical answer. The only possibility, despite all evidence to the contrary, was that someone had been in her house – in her bedroom – while she slept. A cold shiver ran up her spine.
Had she perhaps left a door unlocked?
Feeling uncomfortable, as if she was being watched, she checked first the front door, then the back. Both were securely locked, and the back door key was in its usual place under the rug. Dawn didn’t know whether to feel relieved or not – she’d assumed she would find a rational explanation for the situation, even if that meant someone had been in her house.
Scratching her head, she wandered vacantly into the living room. Unable to think clearly and decide what to do next, she sat down on the arm of the sofa.
“OK,” she said out loud. The broken silence served to dispel the oppressive atmosphere and calm her racing heart a little. “Come on, Dawn, think about this logically. How can this have happened?”
Custard could easily have gained entry to the house through Tonto’s cat flap, but that didn’t explain the photograph. A prankster then, she guessed. But what kind of person would creep into someone’s house in the middle of the night and leave a cat and a photograph? It simply wouldn’t happen, would it? And even if it had, Tonto certainly wouldn’t accept a strange cat in his domain without literally putting up a fight. And what about the telephone number on Custard’s ID tag?
There was only one possible answer left: she’d actually, finally, totally lost her mind.
Custard must have been here for some time for Tonto to be so comfortable around her – and for she herself to have taken a photograph of the cat to go in her montage frame. And logic told her that she must have been conscious of Custard’s presence since her arrival, whenever that had been – after all, the little cat was well cared for and friendly enough.
So why now? Why today had she apparently suddenly forgotten that she owned a second cat?
“Aha!” she exclaimed suddenly. “She must be a neighbour’s cat that I’m looking after. That’s it!” But no, she’d remember something like that and it didn’t explain the ID tag or the photo either. “Argh!” she cried, her hands flying up to clasp either side of her head.
Custard chose that moment to saunter into the room and begin rubbing her face against Dawn’s knees, soon followed by Tonto.
“Amnesia then,” Dawn said to Custard. “Stress-induced amnesia. I’m sure I’ve heard of that happening to other people – some of them even forget who they are and can’t remember anything of their lives at all. Perhaps I should be grateful that all I’ve forgotten is a cat. It certainly explains everything – a logical answer. One I can accept… I suppose.”
“Maow!” shouted Tonto loudly.
“Miw!” chorused Custard.
Dawn took a deep breath through her nose and blew it out between her lips, then stood up.
“Right then, you two, time for breakfast. Whatever’s going on with me, you still need feeding, don’t you?”
In the kitchen, there were two food bowls and two water dishes – more evidence that Custard truly belonged there and giving support to the conclusion that Dawn had some kind of selective amnesia.
Once the cats were eating, Dawn searched the cupboard where she kept Tonto’s vaccination record and quickly found one for Custard too. It showed details of vaccinations for the younger cat dated just over six months ago.
Six months? How could she forget half a year of cat ownership? That meant she’d had Custard since before Gary left, and she clearly remembered that.
Suddenly it occurred to her that there could be other things she’d forgotten about too. That thought bothered her considerably, niggling away like a mental itch she couldn’t scratch.
While chewing a spoonful of breakfast cereal, she considered ringing her friend Sarah. Abandoning her breakfast, she dashed into the front hall and picked up the phone. She got as far as dialling Sarah’s number – but then she hung up, too embarrassed to ask even her own best friend for help. It was her life, she’d lived it. Surely it would come back to her of its own accord. Surely…
Rinsing her breakfast bowl, Dawn wandered into each room in the house in turn in an attempt to discover whether she’d forgotten anything else. She was relieved to find that everything was in its normal place, with the only additional discrepancy she could find being the contents of the fridge; she was sure that she’d bought half a dozen eggs yesterday, but there were only two in the fridge. And the bag of salad she’d bought for today’s lunch was missing too. Rooting through the recycling, she found her till receipt from the supermarket: no eggs and no salad. Odd.
Although she was pretty sure that items missing from her fridge didn’t really tally with the selective amnesia hypothesis, Dawn decided it wasn’t significant enough to be a worry and resolved to carry on with her day trying not to fret too much about things she couldn’t do anything to change.
At quarter to eleven, she made herself a cup of tea and went to sit in the conservatory. As she sipped her drink, she pulled Ben’s lucky stone out of her pocket, turning it over and over in her hand.
She was about to put it back in her pocket when somebody knocked on the front door. She put her cup on the floor, pocketed the stone and went to answer it.
“Hi, Dawn. Ready to go?” asked Sarah.
Seeing her friend’s puzzled expression, she added, “The big shopping trip to Ashford. You hadn’t forgotten, had you? Are you OK, Dawn? You look a bit…” her voice trailed off as she seemed to search in vain to find the right word.
Feeling her face redden from embarrassment, Dawn decided to bluff her way out of the awkward situation. “Yes, I’m fine – I lost track of the time, that’s all. Come in for a sec while I get ready. It won’t take me long.”
Dawn rinsed out the cup she’d left in the conservatory and then popped upstairs to fetch a cardigan and run a comb through her hair.
When she returned downstairs, she found Sarah sitting in the living room with Custard on her lap and Tonto curled up next to her.
“I can’t believe how friendly these two are with each other,” commented Sarah, smiling. “I have to admit I thought it was a mistake when you said you were going to get a second cat, but Custard is such a sweetheart that even Tonto couldn’t object to her joining the family.”
“They do seem to get along pretty well,” agreed Dawn.
“Pretty well? You told me they’re inseparable – like newlyweds without the ‘how’s your father’, that’s what you said.”
“When did I say that?” Dawn asked, rather abruptly.
“I… I don’t know,” Sarah stuttered, frowning at her friend’s odd reaction. “A couple of months after you brought Custard home, I think.”
“I’m sorry,” Dawn sighed, scratching her chin. “I didn’t sleep very much last night and I’ve been a bit on edge since I found this.”
She reached into her pocket and drew out the stone, opening her fingers to show it to Sarah.
“Wow! That’s Ben’s lucky charm, isn’t it? Where on earth did you find it?” Sarah leaned forward to touch the stone, but Dawn closed her fingers protectively around it.
“It was in one of the pockets of his jacket.”
“The denim one you bought back from the charity shop? I thought they normally washed donated clothes and emptied the pockets.”
“It was in an inside pocket. Maybe they didn’t notice it,” suggested Dawn. They couldn’t have washed it, she reasoned, or it wouldn’t still smell of Ben like it did either.
Sarah laid one hand gently on Dawn’s arm. “It’s no wonder you’re a bit out of sorts this morning – that little stone was…”
“One of Ben’s most treasured possessions, yes,” Dawn finished the sentence for her, having to clench her teeth together to suppress a sob.
After a few seconds’ silence, Sarah said quietly, “We can cancel the shopping trip if you like – if you’re not feeling up to it.”
Dawn shook her head and forced a smile. “What? Cancel the big shopping trip? We’ve been planning it for weeks!”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed. “I only arranged it with you the day before yesterday.”
“Yes, well,” Dawn blustered, standing up. “Let’s get a move on – you know how the car park fills up.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Sarah, tilting her head slightly and wrinkling her nose.
“Yes, yes!” insisted Dawn. “I’ve just been a little distracted since finding Ben’s stone. Come on, let’s get going, shall we?”
Several times during their shopping trip, Sarah had shot worried glances in Dawn’s direction.
Dawn tried her best to smile brightly and act normal but, despite her best efforts, she didn’t seem to be fooling her friend.
Sarah shopped enthusiastically, buying a variety of items including a pair of shoes, a handbag and two pretty summer tops. Dawn, usually an avid shopper, bought only one item for herself – a pretty blue scarf with an elephant pattern border that Sarah encouraged her to purchase. Dawn knew she’d been less chatty than normal too, but hoped that her friend would put it down to the discovery of Ben’s stone. Although Dawn wanted to share her troubles with her closest friend, she didn’t want Sarah to think that she wasn’t coping – that she might need professional help.
The missing food in the fridge and forgetting she’d arranged a shopping trip were merely minor memory lapses, something easily explained away. Something that could have happened to anyone. It was the Custard mystery that niggled away and the more she thought about it, the more Dawn convinced herself that she might be suffering from amnesia.
By the time she hung up her new scarf and slid into bed that evening, she had relented and decided to tell Sarah everything, concluding that having someone trustworthy to talk to about it would help her decide the best course of action.
Tomorrow was Sunday and, with the weather forecast being favourable, Sarah had invited Dawn to share a picnic lunch in her beautiful back garden.
As she stared at Ben’s stone, Dawn felt certain that telling her friend about the amnesia was a good idea – at the very least, Sarah would be able to help her fill in any more obvious gaps in her memory and a trouble shared was a trouble halved, so they said.
Sliding the pebble underneath her pillow, she pulled the sheet up under her chin and closed her eyes.
Almost two hours later, she eventually fell into a listless sleep just as the stone beneath her pillow began to gently vibrate.
Chapter 3 – Sunday 6th June
Dawn woke up stupidly early as usual the next morning. Thanks to her heavy curtains, it was still quite dark in her room. She glanced over at the clock to see that it was 5:08am – even earlier than she’d woken the day before. Sighing deeply, she turned her back on the glowing green numbers in disgust. Her messed up body clock certainly did not respect the concept of a Sunday morning lie-in.
Pushing her fingers under her pillow, she retrieved Ben’s lucky stone. It was warm – from body heat conducted to it through her bedding, she supposed. As she ran her fingers lightly over its smooth surface, she recalled that she’d been dreaming about Ben – specifically the day he’d received his GCSE results.
She drove him into school that morning, parking about a hundred yards from the gates. Once she turned off the engine, she expected her son to leap straight out of the car and join the trail of other students heading inside, but instead he just sat there, staring at his clenched right hand.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“What if I didn’t do very well? What if I failed one of my science exams and they won’t let me do the A levels I need to get into university?” he moaned.
“Don’t be daft. You worked so hard – spent ages revising and doing past papers. And science has always been your strongest subject,” she countered.
He didn’t look convinced. He held his lucky stone in the palm of his hand, having dashed up to his room to get it immediately before leaving the house.
Dawn, knowing how much store he set by his little talisman, added, “And you had your lucky stone with you right through the exams – not that you needed it.”
Ben uncurled his fingers. “This?” he asked. “Dad says it’s just a stupid stone, that we make our own luck.”
“Well… even if he’s right,” she began, wishing her husband could be less practical and more open-minded.
Ben shot her an anxious look and she reached out a hand, resting it softly on her son’s forearm.
“I said if,” she reiterated, raising a forefinger. “Sometimes we all need a little reminder that we believe in ourselves,” she continued. “Your stone does that for you – it helps you create your own luck by giving you a little confidence boost. Confidence is a powerful thing, you know. Right now, I have immeasurable confidence in you and your brilliant brain and in all the hard work and preparation you did. Your results will be fine. But you won’t stop worrying until you go and fetch them, will you?”
Ben gave her a nervous smile, then leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“Thanks, Mum,” he said. Then he climbed out of the car and merged into the string of students wending their way nervously into school.
His worst result had been a single stray B grade and he’d got A*s for all of his science exams, as she’d known he would.
Her mind returning regrettably to the present, she looked at the stone and smiled weakly, a tear running from the inner corner of her eye and dripping onto her pillow.
“Ben…” she whispered, gulping back a sob.
Tonto appeared suddenly beside her on the bed, rubbing his face against her wet cheek. Extending an arm out from under the covers, Dawn pulled the cat to her side, hugging him like a comfort blanket. She was thankful that Tonto seemed to be empathic, often turning up when she was upset and unfazed at being hugged.
A few seconds later, Custard jumped up too, choosing to position herself near Dawn’s feet. The little cat commenced washing her face rather than offering herself up to be cuddled. That was fine with Dawn – even though the black and white cat had apparently lived with her since before Gary left, Dawn’s memory loss meant that she was still getting to know Custard’s personality. She didn’t even remember if the newcomer enjoyed a tummy rub, like Tonto did, or whether she was one of those cats who’d go for her if she so much as touched her belly.
An idea crossed Dawn’s mind and she reached out slowly towards Custard, hoping that instinct would tell her the answer – that deep in her mind she’d know if it was safe or not. But nothing came to her. Custard stopped washing and stared impassively at the approaching fingers. Dawn stopped a few inches short of making contact. Withdrawing her hand, she shook her head in dismay. Not even an instinctive memory – how could that be?
She lay in bed until 6am and then turned on the radio to listen to the news. Two minutes later, the news bulletin finished, she realised that she hadn’t even listened to it and turned the radio back off.
Tonto and Custard, apparently recognising this as their cue to eat, both jumped off the bed and bounded noisily down the stairs. Custard miwed loudly, Tonto quickly joining in the chorus.
“Alright, alright,” grumbled Dawn. Throwing off the covers, she sat up, raked her fingers through her thick hair and slid her feet into her slippers, mentally acknowledging the fact that without cats to feed she’d most likely lie moping in bed for hours before getting up.
Gary had always been irritated by Tonto’s morning chorus, and insisted on his Sunday lie-in, rolling over and pulling the sheet over his head when Tonto had fussed for his breakfast, leaving Dawn to get up and feed the cat. She had never minded doing it, and when things became tense between her and Gary after Ben died, she was glad of an excuse to get out of bed and distance herself from the problem. However had she managed to persuade her husband that they should get a second cat, she wondered? He’d never been particularly fond of Tonto, referring to him as ‘your cat’.
Ben, of course, had loved Tonto, often sitting with the contented cat curled up asleep on his lap while he watched TV in the evening. He sometimes offered to feed Tonto if Dawn was watching a programme she particularly liked when the cat’s mealtime came around. Ben was such a good boy…
After a morning of slopping around the house in her dressing gown and slippers and ‘watching’ the BBC News Channel until she finally registered that it had begun repeating itself, Dawn eventually trudged upstairs to have a shower and get dressed ready for her lunch with Sarah.
As she roughly blow-dried her hair, Dawn reflected on how lucky she was to have an understanding friend like Sarah, someone who knew her well enough to both anticipate her low points (generally Sundays, Ben’s birthday and Mother’s Day) and recognise both when her support would be appreciated and when Dawn would wish to be alone.
Choosing a pair of cropped trousers and her favourite printed top, Dawn dressed, not bothering with make-up, as usual. Glancing at herself in the mirror, she decided that the new scarf she’d bought yesterday would complement her outfit.
But the scarf wasn’t hanging up on the door, where she’d left it. She checked underneath her dressing gown, guessing that she might have hung it on top of the scarf when she’d come up to get dressed. But it wasn’t there.
Dawn scanned the floor, but still didn’t find what she was looking for.
Tonto appeared beside her. He tilted his head to one side and stared at Dawn almost quizzically.
“Have you had my scarf, Tonto?” she asked, hands on hips. “I hope you haven’t damaged it – I only bought it yesterday.”
Concluding that the cat would have neither the motivation nor the reach required to pull her scarf from the hook on the back of the door, Dawn checked her wardrobe, her chest of drawers and then the coat rack in the front hall, in case she’d absent-mindedly moved the scarf from its original hanging place.
“Now this is really silly!” she berated herself, sitting heavily on the edge of her bed. How could she have forgotten where she’d put it?
She ran through, in her head, the things she’d done the previous night, and had a clear memory of hanging up the scarf just before getting undressed.
She sighed with frustration. There wasn’t time to worry about it now – it was already after 12:35 and she’d agreed to be at Sarah’s by half past. Dawn hated to be late.
She dashed down the stairs, pulled on her sandals, grabbed her keys from her handbag and hurried outside, almost running the couple of hundred yards up the hill to Sarah’s house.
The missing scarf was still on her mind as she pressed the doorbell. Where on earth could it be? She’d tried everywhere that was likely and she was so sure she’d hung it up in the bedroom.
She rang again, leaning on the push-button: the bell was sometimes a bit temperamental, but she heard it go ‘ding dong’ this time, for sure.
She couldn’t have left the scarf behind in the coffee shop they’d stopped at straight before driving home, could she? No. That was silly. She’d definitely had it after arriving home. She’d hung it next to her dressing gown – she clearly remembered doing it!
Sarah’s front door remained stubbornly closed. Dawn checked her watch; it was after twenty to one now. Perhaps her friend had popped to the loo just before the bell rang. Dawn rang once more and waited.
Five minutes later, having tried knocking, calling through the letterbox and trying to peer over the garden gate, Dawn decided it was time to resort to using the key Sarah had given her for emergencies and holiday cat-feeding, reasoning that if her friend had had an accident and was lying helpless on the floor inside she would thank her. She opened the door and called Sarah’s name.
She felt like a burglar letting herself in uninvited and steeled herself to bump into her friend at any moment and to have to apologise for intruding. When there was no reply to her call, she went around the house, peering into each room to see if Sarah was there.
Having checked the kitchen, she heard a noise behind her and turned to find Sarah’s cat, Bluebell, trotting along the hall towards her.
Apparently recognising Dawn as someone who provided food in Sarah’s absence, Bluebell let out a loud meow, ran into the kitchen and reached her paws up the side of the nearest cupboard.
“Hungry, Bluebell?” asked Dawn, crouching down to give the cat some attention.
Bluebell meowed again.
“I suppose I usually feed you if your mum isn’t home. But she must have fed you this morning. You can’t really be hungry.”
Bluebell stared at her.
“Well…” Dawn relented. “A couple of treats wouldn’t hurt.” She opened the cupboard and pulled out a box of treats, giving Bluebell four of them.
Having searched the rest of the house and not found her friend, Dawn looked out of the rear window and checked the garden, also to no avail.
Sarah must simply have gone out and forgotten about their lunch arrangements. Fancy that – it couldn’t have been very important to her then, she thought, realising guiltily that she herself had forgotten their shopping trip only yesterday.
Feeling confused and disgruntled, Dawn left the house and stomped off down the road.
Inside her own house, she dropped her keys back into her handbag.
Perhaps a last minute emergency had called Sarah away, she speculated. But it wouldn’t have taken more than a minute for her friend to ring and explain her absence. Sarah was normally so reliable.
Picking up her mobile phone, Dawn noticed a message blinking away in her inbox. There, that would be her explanation. But it was only a marketing text from her phone provider.
Tutting with annoyance, she tapped on the icon to take her to her contact list and then swiped at the screen until she reached the entry for Sarah and pressed the ‘call’ button. After four rings, her friend answered.
“Hello Dawn? Are you alright?” asked Sarah, sleepily.
“That’s what I was about to ask you. Where are you?” asked Dawn.
There was a short pause the other end of the line. “In Lincoln… with Pete.”
“With Pete?” asked Dawn, blankly. Sarah’s tone of voice implied that her friend really should have known about this, yet Dawn had no idea who Pete could be and no memory of Sarah mentioning a trip to Lincoln.
“I’m meeting his parents, remember? And Pete’s going to tell them that we’re engaged?”
“Engaged?” echoed Dawn, scratching her head. She felt numb with shock; Sarah was engaged to someone named Pete and she had absolutely no memory of him – or of Sarah being romantically linked with anyone at all during the past six months, come to that. “What the…?”
“What was that you said?” asked Sarah. “I didn’t quite catch it. Is there something wrong? Is that why you’re calling? It’s not Bluebell is it? You said you’d feed her for me today – she’s not ill, is she?” Sarah’s questions spilled out one after another.
“No, no, nothing’s wrong,” Dawn chirped, trying to sound cheerful and realising how badly she was overdoing it. “I just thought I’d ring and let you know I’m thinking about you and that I hope it goes OK with Pete’s parents.”
“Well… thank you,” replied Sarah, sounding calmer now, but clearly unconvinced by Dawn’s attempt at a cover-up. “Are you sure you’re OK?”
“Yes, of course. I’d tell you if there was anything wrong, wouldn’t I? We’re best friends.” Dawn picked a cat hair from her trousers as Tonto rubbed against her leg, adding several more. Normally she would scratch behind the cat’s ear, but right now she couldn’t deal with the disparity between the emptiness she felt inside and the affection of her cat, so she pushed him gently away.
“Anyway,” she continued, sighing, “I don’t want to keep you away from Pete any longer, so I’ll let you go. Don’t worry about Bluebell – she was fine when I saw her earlier. See you soon.” She pressed the ‘end call’ button before Sarah could question her further, reasoning that, with Pete undoubtedly nearby, her friend would be too preoccupied with her fiancé to worry much about anyone else.
Dawn hurried straight back out of the house and up the hill to Sarah’s. Bluebell had been hungry after all. She might have had to last all day on a few treats if Dawn hadn’t spoken to Sarah.
Returning home again a few minutes later, Dawn wandered into the kitchen, pulled out a stool and sat down heavily. Ben’s stone dug into her hip and she pulled it out of her pocket, placing it on the worktop in front of her.
First Custard, then the forgotten shopping trip, then the missing scarf and now… now her best friend was engaged to a man she had no memory of ever meeting. She stared at Ben’s lucky charm, then began mentally trawling through the conversations she and Sarah had had during yesterday’s shopping trip. She was absolutely certain there hadn’t been any mention of Pete or of a trip to Lincoln.
As much as a mad person like her could trust their memory anyway, she thought darkly. “What would you think of your crazy mother now, Ben?” She sighed and picked up the stone, turning it quickly over and over in her hand. Feeling empty, confused and alone, Dawn pocketed it and hurried upstairs to her son’s room.
Desperate to feel the wave of comfort that always enveloped her when she entered her son’s sanctum, she skipped her usual reverent entry, instead throwing open the door, flying inside and flinging herself face-down on the bed.
“What’s happening to me, Ben?” she wailed into the dampening pillow.
Hours passed as Dawn lay on Ben’s bed, cycling through a string of different emotional states that ranged from confusion to anger, frustration and despair and eventually settling into a kind of blank nothingness that somehow seemed more bearable.
Once, she looked up and gazed at Ben’s photograph, hoping for comfort from beyond the grave. But his cheerful smile made her sink instead into torturous self-pity and she felt as though her heart had been locked up inside a dark, empty box.
She rolled away from Ben’s picture, pulled the stone from her pocket and gripped it tightly in her fist. She found its unyielding surface oddly reassuring – something constant and stable in a world that had suddenly become so unpredictable.
It was getting dark before she finally registered the fact that she’d had nothing to eat since breakfast. Even then it was only the simultaneous appearance of both Custard and Tonto looking for their tea – followed by a short, whimpering grumble from her own empty stomach – that made her come to her senses.
She hauled herself to her feet, slipped the pebble back into her trouser pocket and made her way downstairs, deliberately avoiding her customary glance in the mirror as she passed the bathroom doorway – she didn’t want to have to look herself in the eye right now, feeling that even her own reflection would judge her to be a pitiful sight.
Leaving her own cats looking rather disgruntled, she made her way quickly up the hill to Sarah’s house to feed Bluebell again.
Once she’d returned to her own kitchen, she fed Tonto and Custard before making herself some instant vegetable soup. She cut herself a chunk of bread, adding a scraping of butter before carrying her mug and plate into the living room, where she placed the mug on a coaster to cool for a minute or two.
She sighed. Whatever was going on – even if she was completely crazy – she had to do something about it. There was no point burying her head in the sand and hoping the problem would go away. Even when Ben had died and she’d felt as though her whole world had fallen apart, she’d muddled through. And then, when Gary left her too, she’d still managed to carry on somehow, hadn’t she?
The trouble was that life had suddenly turned into this awful jumble that she didn’t understand. Things that she was certain about had become lies – no, not lies. They had changed and become something else completely different. It wasn’t like shifting sand – it was like falling into a black hole.
Black holes, she thought with a wry snort. If Ben were here, he could tell her all about black holes. Science and space had been what Ben loved most and he’d been forever telling her about the latest theories from Stephen Hawking and other brilliant scientists. What a shame he hadn’t had an interest in psychiatry so that she might remember him talking about amnesia and how it could be treated, if indeed it was amnesia from which she was suffering.
“What else could it be?” she asked herself out loud, reaching down to scratch behind Tonto’s ear as he rubbed contentedly against her shin. The cat dropped onto his side at her feet, baring his stomach and looking up at Dawn expectantly.
“You daft old thing,” she chided, gently. “I wonder if you’ve even noticed that anything’s wrong with me. I don’t suppose you care as long as you get fed, do you?” She bent down a little further and scratched his tummy, feeling a pang of guilt over Bluebell’s late breakfast.
“Do you think I should call in sick for work tomorrow? Technically, I am ill after all. I need time to think about what to do next – whether to go to the doctor or… or something else, goodness only knows what!”
Tonto made a ‘frwp’ sound and sat up, butting his head against her waiting hand.
“I can’t work in this state anyway. I will call in sick. And I’ll go to see the doctor too – what’s the worst that can happen? With any luck the problem will go away by itself and in a couple of days’ time I’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about and having a laugh about it with Sarah and Pete.” Whoever Pete was.
“Well then, that’s what I’ll do,” she announced as Tonto lay staring up at her. “I’ll call in sick tomorrow and make an appointment to see the doctor – assuming things haven’t righted themselves without any intervention before then, that is.”
Making a decision about what to do gave Dawn some small comfort, but she still spent the remainder of the day feeling a bit like she was inhabiting someone else’s body – someone else’s life. It wasn’t quite hers, and yet it was. Amnesia was a condition she’d never given serious thought to before; in fact she had found it amusing to hear news stories about people not remembering who they were and not recognising their families and friends. She would certainly be less glib about it now.
Chapter 4 – Monday 7th June
Dawn rang the doctors’ surgery as soon as it opened and made an appointment to see Dr Flack at 11:30am. Then she rang the office at the supermarket where she worked, expecting to speak to Ann. She was a little perplexed when an unknown male voice answered the phone with an abrupt, “Yes?”
“Hello. Is Ann there?” she asked.
“Ann?” asked the voice rather sternly. “No-one here called Ann, but then I’ve only worked here for a few weeks and I don’t quite know everyone yet. Can I help you?” he didn’t sound like he wanted to help anyone, Dawn thought.
“Erm, yes. I suppose I can just as easily leave a message with you,” she replied, trying to sound ill. “My name is Dawn Foster – I work in the bakery.”
“Oh yes?” he said, disinterestedly. “I’m sorry, I don’t know you either. What can I do for you, Dawn?”
“I… I have a coldy-fluey thing. I’ve been coughing and spluttering all night. I really can’t make it into work today. Can you tell Jason, the bakery manager, for me, please? I only work Monday to Wednesday and, the way I’m feeling, I don’t expect to be in this week at all.” She cleared her throat noisily to add credence to her story.
“OK, I’ll tell him,” came the curt reply.
“I have a doctor’s appointment later,” she added, glad to have something true to say.
“Uh huh,” replied the voice, even more disinterestedly.
“Right then, thanks. Bye,” finished Dawn, replacing the receiver. Well, that had felt awkward. She didn’t like him at all. She was glad she hadn’t bumped into him during the few weeks he’d been working there, and hoped she wouldn’t need to speak to him again.
Arriving ten minutes early at the surgery, she registered her arrival on the annoying little screen inside the vestibule and went upstairs to sit in the waiting area. Luckily, it seemed to be a quiet day and there were only two other people waiting to be seen – an elderly man with a walking stick and a young girl of about twenty with a fake tan and dreadful slug eyebrows. Dawn chose a seat next to the window, as far away from the other two patients as she could manage.
The information screen on the wall opposite was scrolling through patient information about avoiding sunburn, making sure your barbecued meat was thoroughly cooked and telling you how to get medical treatment abroad.
As Dawn put her handbag down at her feet, there was a little ‘ping’ noise and the message ‘Derek Norman to see Dr Flack in Room 2’, scrolled along a black bar at the bottom of the screen. The elderly man squinted at the screen then stood up and shuffled past her and along the short corridor to the treatment room.
Watching him go, Dawn hoped his problem wouldn’t take too long – she was already regretting her decision to come and see Dr Flack and might resolve to make a bolt for home again if she had to wait too long.
She’d spent half the night running through how she could explain the problem. “Doctor, I’ve forgotten that I’ve got two cats instead of just one, then my scarf disappeared and my friend got engaged to someone I’ve never heard of. Oh – and the food in my fridge isn’t right.” It sounded pretty silly any way she thought about phrasing it and she wondered if Dr Flack would be able to take her seriously. He had to, she supposed; it was his job to listen to all kinds of odd stories and unpleasant symptoms. At least this one didn’t require the provision of any disagreeable samples or submitting to any unpleasant examinations. She winced at the thought then noticed the girl the other side of the room shooting her a disdainful look. Dawn put her hand on her stomach, feigning miscellaneous gastric pain that could explain her expression and the girl looked away.
A few minutes later, just as Dawn was beginning to become irritated by the information screen repeating itself over and over, the elderly man trundled back along the corridor, the screen pinged again and her own name appeared. She stared up at it. Maybe she should leave after all – there was still time if she…
Dr Flack’s door opened and he popped his head out, smiling as he caught her eye.
“Ah, Mrs Foster, you’re next!” he announced cheerfully. “Didn’t you see your name come up on the screen?”
Dawn shook her head and gulped, realising that she’d missed her chance to escape. She snatched her bag from between her feet and scurried towards the doctor’s office.
Settling into the padded chair inside, she waited for Dr Flack to return to his seat.
“So,” he started, tapping his splayed fingers on his thighs, “what can I do for you today?”
Dawn cracked a finger joint nervously, looking around the room so as not to make eye contact. She’d been Dr Flack’s patient for around twelve years, but had avoided going to see him since Ben died. Even when she’d suffered months of insomnia, she couldn’t face having to talk to him about her feelings – he wasn’t a psychiatrist, after all. So why ever had she decided to come here today?
“Mrs Foster?” the doctor leaned forward, his words cutting through her thoughts, and she finally looked at him.
“It’s nothing really; I don’t know why I’m bothering you. Perhaps I should go and not waste any more of your time.” She pushed herself up using the arms of the chair.
“That’s your decision, of course,” Dr Flack said, quietly. “But since you went to all the bother of making an appointment, you might as well stay and tell me what’s wrong. I’d like to help, if I can.”
She glanced at the doctor to find him peering at her over the top of his wire-framed glasses. He tightened his lips into a reassuring smile and she sank back down.
“I’ve been having some trouble with my memory,” she began. “It’s probably stress-related. I expect it will sort itself out.”
“What sort of problems have you noticed, Mrs Foster? I always think that if you’ve noticed that you have a problem then it probably isn’t as bad as you imagine.”
“You’ll think I’m silly,” she muttered, chewing nervously on her right thumbnail.
“Oh, believe me, Mrs Foster, I’ve heard silly and this really doesn’t sound like it. When did you first notice the problem?”
“It was only a couple of days ago. And I know it will sound silly – I’ve been running over and over it in my head and it sounds stupid any way I tell it.” She sighed. “But now I’m here…”
The doctor remained silent, waiting for Dawn and letting her take her time.
“I have a cat named Tonto. I’ve had him since he was a kitten and I love him to bits. But I only have the one cat. Then I woke up on Saturday and there were two. And it wasn’t some stray intruder or a neighbour’s cat that got into my house or anything – there are photos of her up on the wall and she has a tag on her collar with my phone number on it. And I have a vaccination record for her in the cupboard along with Tonto’s. So I’ve had her for a long time, but somehow I forgot her. How could that happen, Doctor? How could I simply forget her?” The words had tumbled out so quickly that Dawn felt a little out of breath.
“Is it just that one, isolated incident?” asked the doctor, leaning forward.
She shook her head. “No, that isn’t all; there are several other things too. The latest one is that my best friend is engaged to someone called Pete and I have absolutely no recollection of her even mentioning this man that she’s apparently going to marry! My best friend, how could I forget that? I must be completely off my rocker, surely?”
Dr Flack steepled his fingers together and leaned back in his seat. “Have you found yourself in a place but with no memory of how you got there?” he asked.
“And this new cat in your house – you say it must have been there for a while?”
“Yes – about six months.”
“Six months? Do you recall other events from the last six months, or is it all a blank?”
Dawn thought for a moment. “I have very clear memories of various things that have happened – my husband leaving me for one. It seems to be the cat that’s the main problem – and my friend’s mysterious engagement, of course.”
“I see.” He hesitated for a moment. “You mentioned it being stress-related?”
“Yes.” Dawn looked down at her hands and gulped. “I… I lost my son…” the words trailed away and she struggled to suppress the tears that threatened to fall.
“Yes. I remember hearing about it. I don’t believe you’ve been to see me since he died. You must have found it difficult – and you mentioned your husband leaving you too.”
She ran her palms up her face and used the heel of her hand to wipe away an errant tear. “It’s been hard,” she said, almost in a whisper. She took a couple of deep breaths to help regain her composure before continuing. She cleared her throat. “Yes, it’s been hard, but I’ve managed up until now.” She gave a little half smile. “I’m pretty resilient really – or I thought I was…”
Dr Flack smiled back briefly. “I have to admit, what you’ve described isn’t quite like any condition I’ve ever heard of. There’s something called dissociative amnesia that would account for some of what you’ve told me, but I’d like to refer you to see a psychotherapist.”
“A psychotherapist? Is that really necessary?” she asked, horrified. “I thought I could just have a chat to you and… and…”
“It would be best if you see someone who specialises in this kind of problem.”
“Couldn’t I wait and see if it goes away by itself?” she asked, desperately.
“Well, I won’t refer you if you don’t want me to, but I would recommend that you see a specialist before the situation gets any worse.”
“Worse?” she asked, aghast. She blew out a breath between her lips, trying to take in what he was suggesting. “Alright then. If that’s what you recommend. How long will it take to get an appointment?”
“Probably a month or so. If I make it an urgent referral it might be quicker than that. They’ll write directly to you with the details.”
“Thank you, Dr Flack,” she managed, standing to leave. “Thank you for your time.”
“Mrs Foster?” he called as she reached out for the door handle.
“Yes?” she replied, without turning.
“Please don’t hesitate to come back and see me if you have any more worrying episodes between now and your first appointment with the psychotherapist. I want you to realise that, even though I’m referring you, I am available to talk to about your troubles. You’d be surprised at how many people come to me with non-medical problems,” he added.
Dawn nodded, muttering a quick, “Thank you,” before slipping out into the corridor.
In the waiting room, the girl with the slug eyebrows watched as Dawn passed her, making Dawn feel as though she had ‘crazy woman’ tattooed on her forehead.
She hurried outside, grateful for the rain that fell steadily, hiding her tears.
Chapter 5 – Tuesday 8th June
She woke up from a nightmare the following morning to find Tonto standing on her chest. The cat turned, flicking his tail into her face. She spluttered, wiping a couple of stray bits of tabby fur from around her lips.
“Good morning to you too, Tonto,” she commented croakily, before clearing her throat. “Where’s your partner in crime this morning then?”
“Mraow!” replied Tonto.
“I see,” retorted Dawn, feigning indignation. “Well, I suppose you must have abandoned the poor thing downstairs – does she even know you’ve gone?”
“Frraow,” countered Tonto, as Dawn climbed out of bed and slid on her slippers.
Downstairs, she expected Custard to join them in the kitchen. When she didn’t appear, Dawn assumed the little cat must have popped out into the garden to answer the call of nature. Dawn opened the wall cupboard to access the cat food and stopped.
She stared back down at the floor beside her feet, and frowned as she realised there was only one food bowl and one water dish. Turning 180 degrees, she found that the missing bowls weren’t on the draining board either. Strange.
“Custard!” she called. “It’s breakfast time!”
Still there was no sign of the little cat.
Dawn wandered into the living room, with Tonto winding annoyingly round her ankles in an apparent attempt to encourage her to return to the kitchen. Then she opened the back door and called quietly, not wanting to wake up her neighbours at this early hour.
But there was still no sign of her second cat.
Realising that Tonto had followed her and was winding round and round her ankles, hopeful that he’d be fed, Dawn ambled into the kitchen with the cat at her heel.
Something that felt like dread crept its way into her chest as she prepared Tonto’s breakfast and, after putting his bowl on the floor next to his water dish, she rummaged through the cupboard looking for vaccination records. Yes, here was Tonto’s. But where was Custard’s? It had probably fallen down behind the cat food container and the box of cat toys.
Methodically, she pulled everything out of the cupboard and then ran her hand fruitlessly around the empty carcass. It definitely wasn’t there.
She left Tonto fastidiously licking his breakfast bowl clean and hurried past him to make her way upstairs to her bedroom. The photograph of Custard that had been in her montage frame was no longer there.
She slumped onto the edge of the bed, staring at the almost empty frame. If Custard was gone, then couldn’t she simply have imagined her? Perhaps this was a good sign – a sign that she was getting better and that things would go back to normal now.
But it didn’t feel like a good sign. Sarah had spoken to her about Custard just the other day, so the cat had to exist, didn’t she?
She showered and dressed in a bit of a daze, wondering if other things would have changed back too: was Sarah still engaged to Pete?
Dashing back into her bedroom, she hunted around for the scarf she’d bought on her shopping trip. Searching every drawer, the back of the door and the wardrobe, she came up empty-handed. No scarf. That was bad. Or was it good? She was so confused that she didn’t know how to feel.
She missed Custard too – even if the little cat might never have existed. After all, she had memories of feeding her for the last couple of days and of playing with her. Tonto would never know that he’d missed out on having a playmate, though, if she’d truly existed only in Dawn’s imagination.
And this really didn’t fit in with the selective amnesia hypothesis either. Custard had been here for a couple of days and now was gone. Dawn had no memory of the cat’s arrival, or of her departure. But she’d stroked her, fed her, started to come to love her… How could this all have been unreal?
Was it a dream, she wondered suddenly? Everything from when she’d ‘woken up’ on Saturday morning could actually have been a dream. Well, there was a quick way of checking that. If she’d dreamt it all, then today must be Saturday.
She ran down the stairs scaring Tonto, who had paused halfway up, and making him bound back downstairs in front of her. Running into the living room, she turned on the television and pressed the ‘guide’ button on the remote control. Tuesday. Today was Tuesday, which meant it hadn’t been a dream.
“Arrgh!” Dawn growled. “What then? What’s this all about? How has Custard flipped out of existence? What’s wrong with me?” She sat in stunned silence, as if waiting for a reply.
Tonto jumped up and nuzzled at her elbow, trying to gain access to her lap. “No, sorry Tonto. Not now,” she said with a sigh. Moving his paws from her leg, she traipsed up to Ben’s room.
As soon as she saw inside, she knew it was wrong – the walls should be green. But instead, they were yellow – bright ‘Pooh Bear’ yellow.
She closed the door and then re-opened it slowly, irrationally hoping it would revert to green if she only gave it a second. But the room was still yellow. For the first time in many months, Dawn couldn’t face going inside.
But where would her consolation come from if not from Ben’s room? His stone! Of course – if that was still there.
She hurried along the landing and into her own bedroom. Throwing the pillow aside, relief washed over her as she seized the warm pebble and pressed it to her chest. It was here – thank goodness for that! It was – quite literally – her rock in this crazy, mixed up world of changing events.
She sat on her bed, clutching the little talisman and staring blankly at the blue wall in front of her. How could she carry on, she wondered? Every day, she woke up and something had changed. Every day…
She frowned. Here was something – every day, every morning in fact. She went to sleep and when she woke up, things had changed. So something in her brain was altering every night when she went to sleep. Except for yesterday, there had been no changes yesterday. She raked over the events of Monday one by one – calling work, the visit to the doctor’s. Everything seemed normal except for that unpleasant man who’d answered the phone at work. She tutted. He hadn’t been nice at all and she had no memory of someone new starting work in the office. Hmm, no memory… Was the abrupt office worker another of her unpredictable changes – one that had gone unnoticed until now?
If events were changing every day, she reasoned, perhaps she should try not going to sleep. But she had little enough good quality sleep as it was, although things seemed to have been a little better on that score for the past few days – since everything else had gone haywire.
But if things carried on in the same vein, who knew what could happen next. Maybe she’d forget that she ever had Tonto – or worse still, Ben. What if she woke up and couldn’t even remember who she was? If this morning’s events were anything to go by, she couldn’t predict anything and couldn’t rely upon anything either. What kind of life was that?
A referral to a psychotherapist could be the answer after all. They might be able to ‘fix’ her.
Until then, she’d just have to try to be positive and do her very best not to put herself in awkward situations, like when she’d spoken to Sarah without knowing about Pete. Perhaps for today she would ‘hole up’ at home and not go out. She didn’t want to become a permanent recluse, but the events of the last few days made her uneasy and home seemed like a good place to sit it out for now.
She made herself a cup of tea and a slice of buttered toast for breakfast, then wandered up to the box room and turned on the computer. She didn’t often go online, but found herself wondering whether events were different in the wider world too and, despite growing trepidation, resolved to find out exactly how big her problem was.
The BBC’s website seemed a good place to start. She put ‘BBC’ into the search bar and hit ‘enter’, then followed the link that said ‘News’.
Politics… terrorism… immigration… everything looked how she expected it to, but then the news always changed from day to day anyway. Perhaps this wasn’t the best place to look after all.
Suddenly she had a bright idea – social media. She had her own Facebook account, and she knew Sarah did too. Her best friend may have shared pictures of Pete. She could find out what he looked like.
Tapping the first few letters of the website name in on her screen, she was soon logged into her social media page.
She frowned. Apparently she’d posted something yesterday. It was a single post with no following comments and it said, ‘I think something is seriously wrong with me; all kinds of strange things are happening. My husband has apparently left me – my friend Sarah says it was months ago, but I don’t remember. How could I forget something like that? Our relationship hasn’t been good since Ben died, but this is crazy! I wonder if I might have a brain tumour or something. I know I should see the doctor, but I’m not brave enough to do that’.
“What?” Dawn frowned and reread the post. She’d forgotten that Gary had left her? And she posted this yesterday? But she hadn’t been on the computer for over a week. Also, she had a perfectly clear memory of the day Gary left and of the months since then. And she had visited the doctor yesterday… She strained her eyes to see the time of her post – she had actually been in the doctor’s surgery when she supposedly posted the message.
Could her account have been hacked – was someone playing games with her? She shook her head. No, this was a bizarre turn of events, but somehow it fitted with everything else that was happening.
Her immediate reaction was to go and see Sarah, but she hesitated. What must her friend think of her? At least it looked as though no-one had read her post, otherwise there would surely be concerned replies. Quickly, she deleted it from her timeline.
If she’d told Sarah, her friend would be worried, and rightly so, she reasoned as she took a bite out of her now cold slice of toast. But Sarah would help her any way she could. Dawn frowned. Hang on though: Sarah was supposed to have been in Lincoln yesterday, meeting Pete’s parents, wasn’t she? How could they have had the conversation mentioned in the Facebook post? She tapped her fingers on the desk in front of her. Perhaps they had spoken by telephone. “Who knows?” she said with a shrug. Anything could have changed since yesterday. The colour of Ben’s room had changed, Custard had gone – goodness only knew what else had altered since she went to sleep last night.
She gazed out of the window and a glimmer of an idea formed in her mind. She could leave herself a message of some kind every night saying what changed that day so that she could compare it. But she didn’t need the Internet for that and certainly didn’t want other people to read about her problem.
“I must have a notebook I can use somewhere,” she said.
Dawn opened one drawer after another until she found a notebook with a hard, brown embossed cover. This was a very good idea, she thought. The only problem would be if the book was one of the things that disappeared overnight, she realised. “Oh well,” she said with a shrug. It was the most useful idea she’d had since this situation began, so it was surely worth a try.
She opened the book and reached for a pen from the pot next to the computer monitor, then paused, the pen hovering above the blank page before her. She pondered where to start, clicking the pen rapidly as she thought through the events of the previous days. After several moments’ thought, she began writing:
Saturday 5th June
1) Custard appeared – a black cat with white paws and whiskers. Also his photo in my bedroom frame, food bowls and vaccination record.
2) Sarah came to pick me up for a shopping trip that I don’t remember having arranged. I bought a scarf with an elephant print design.
3) Eggs and salad I bought are missing from the fridge.
Sunday 6th June
1) Custard still here.
2) Scarf I bought yesterday disappeared.
3) Had been invited to Sarah’s for lunch, but she wasn’t there – actually in Lincoln meeting her new fiancé Pete’s parents. I don’t remember Pete at all. As I didn’t know she was away, I apparently forgot to feed Bluebell too, until Sarah asked me about her.
Monday 7th June
1) 11:30am appointment with Dr Flack, who said he’d refer me to a psychotherapist and I might have dissociative amnesia.
2) No strange events today – hooray! (Although when I rang in to work to say I was ill, I spoke to an unpleasant man who I didn’t recognise. It could just be someone I haven’t bumped into yet, but with everything else that’s going on, it does seem likely that this was indicative of my memory problem too.)
Tuesday 8th June
1) Ben’s room is now painted bright yellow instead of green. The furnishings are different too.
2) My cat Custard (see Saturday) has now disappeared.
3) Although I went to see the doctor yesterday, I also posted on social media – at the exact time I remember being at the doctors’ surgery – saying that perhaps I should go and see the doctor about my problem.
4) The post also said that I forgot about Gary leaving me. I have deleted the post – I don’t need lots of old work colleagues and distant family getting in touch, or thinking I’ve flipped.
5) Decided to start this diary to record the strange changes taking place in my life.
Closing her notebook, she returned to social media. She tapped in Sarah’s name in the ‘find friends’ box and navigated to her page. There was nothing there about Pete – no pictures, no posts – and her relationship status said ‘single’.
Dawn sighed. She was beginning to get used to things randomly swapping about now and since she’d never met Pete anyway it wouldn’t make any difference to her if he’d popped back out of existence, like Custard had.
Her heart twisted a little at the thought of Custard. She missed the little cat and had enjoyed watching the games she played with Tonto. Poor old Tonto wouldn’t even know she was gone or what a lovely playmate he was missing out on.
Dawn took her notebook journal into the bedroom where she placed it on her dressing table, along with a pen. Hopefully it would help her keep track and work out what was happening to her.
She was returning to log off the computer and collect her plate and cup for washing-up when there was a knock on the door.
She hurried down the stairs and, after peering through the spyhole and seeing a postman with a parcel standing outside, answered it.
“There you go,” said the postman, thrusting a large, square box into her hands and turning to leave.
Dawn was puzzled – a state she was fast becoming accustomed to. She carried the box into the kitchen and pulled the scissors from the knife block, making short work of the brown tape that sealed it.
Inside was a cat’s scratching post.
“Oh good, something else I don’t remember!” Dawn grumbled, checking the name and address on the box, which confirmed it was addressed to her. “Unless Tonto’s ordering his own accoutrements now.” Tonto’s old scratching post had been looking rather the worse for wear for months and she had kept meaning to order another one. Apparently she had done so.
“I’ve saved myself a job then,” she said with a nervous giggle, adding, “I really am losing my marbles!”
Leaving the opened box on the kitchen floor, Dawn went upstairs and checked her Amazon account. She had indeed ordered a new scratching post on Sunday afternoon, paying for premium delivery.
She turned the computer off and then popped back into her bedroom. Opening the notebook journal, she added another entry:
6) Apparently I ordered Tonto a new scratching post on Sunday, which has just been delivered. I have no memory of ordering it.
Feeling emotionally drained, Dawn considered watching television but decided instead to try to boost her mood by going for a walk. She put on her shoes and a light jumper and was reaching for her key when there was another knock on the door.
This time it was Sarah standing on the other side.
“Damn,” Dawn cursed. She hadn’t wanted to bump into her friend after reading the social media post – Sarah would think that she couldn’t remember Gary leaving her. Should she fake it or admit her problem and ask for advice?
Sarah knocked again.
With no time to think, Dawn decided to let her friend in first and allow her conscience to decide how much she should tell her later.
“Good morning!” she said brightly, giving Sarah a little smile.
Her visitor looked surprised. “I’m glad to see you looking so happy,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how you’d be after yesterday.”
“I’m feeling OK, thanks,” Dawn replied, trying to sound noncommittal.
“Can I come in?” asked Sarah. “Or is now a bad time?”
“I was about to go out for a bit of a walk – to clear away the cobwebs, you know?”
“Do you want me to go away until later, then?”
“No, no. I can go for a walk any time. Come in.”
She stood back to let her friend pass, then followed her into the living room.
“I was really worried about you yesterday – you seemed so… distressed.” Sarah settled onto the settee. “About Gary.”
“I was so tired yesterday, that I barely knew where I was. I’m sorry I worried you. It’s all fine now.”
Sarah looked her in the eye, holding her stare for several seconds and making Dawn squirm inwardly.
“How is it fine now?” Sarah asked.
“It just is. I remember everything. I mean it’s not fine, of course. But I remember Gary leaving. I feel a bit silly, to be honest. I think I must have been in denial yesterday – you know I haven’t had enough sleep and everything just got on top of me.”
Sarah screwed up her face. “It didn’t sound like you were in denial – you sounded terrified. You were crying and shaking and I didn’t want to leave you alone. I very nearly stayed overnight, didn’t I?”
“I was tired,” Dawn insisted. “Tired and lonely and feeling confused. But today I’m better.”
“I still think you should see Dr Flack,” Sarah declared. “No matter what you say now, yesterday wasn’t right.”
“I’ve seen him,” Dawn said, without thinking.
“When did you do that? There hasn’t been time!” Sarah’s expression was a mixture of confusion and confrontation.
“I meant to say I’m seeing him – tomorrow – about my sleeping problems. I… I rang this morning and made an appointment.” Dawn’s heart was speeding. Not lying would have been the easier option, she realised, but she’d got this far and wasn’t going to backtrack now.
“Ah. Well, I’m glad you’re being sensible,” Sarah responded, still looking unsure.
“Thanks for your concern, but I’m alright – really,” Dawn told her.
Sarah nodded. “OK.”
Tonto sauntered into the room, sniffed the visitor’s leg and fell on his side in front of her.
“You tart!” teased Sarah, scratching between his ears. “I still think it’s a shame you didn’t take on that little girl cat you were thinking of having – what was her name?”
“Custard?” tried Dawn.
“Yes, that’s it, Custard. I should have remembered the name because it sounds like Custer and you could have had a little cowboy (or girl) to go with old Tonto.”
“Why ever didn’t I?” Dawn asked.
Sarah’s eyebrow twitched. “You told me that someone beat you to it and put on a reserve about five minutes before you arrived to book her for yourself. Dawn, are you sure you’re OK?”
“Yes, yes,” replied Dawn, flapping her hand dismissively. “It was a rhetorical question – a bit of regret coming out, I suppose. If I’d only been there a few minutes earlier, Tonto would have had his playmate. None of the others took my fancy like Custard though. If it wasn’t her, it wasn’t going to be any of them.”
Sarah gave her an understanding smile. “Never mind, perhaps the two of them wouldn’t have got along anyway. It might have been a complete nightmare!”
They’d have got on brilliantly, Dawn thought mournfully. She looked at her watch. “Ah! I’ve just remembered. I need to pop into town to pick up something I ordered from the pet shop and I wanted to get down before lunchtime. I hope you don’t mind?”
“Oh,” said Sarah, looking a bit nonplussed. “Well, I’ll… I’ll go then.”
Keen for her friend to depart so that she could think through the revelation about Custard, Dawn saw her out of the house. “I’ll let you know how it goes at the doctor’s,” she assured her. “It was nice of you to call in and check up on me though. I’m sorry I worried you yesterday.”
“Bye bye then. See you soon,” Sarah called. “Take care.”
Dawn shut the door, then leaned her body against it. She scratched her head and remained where she was for several moments before wandering back into the living room. Looking around, she spotted Tonto staring down the garden from the windowsill.
“So,” she said out loud, “Custard wasn’t a complete figment of my imagination.” But it still didn’t make any sense. Had her brain made up a couple of days in which she’d actually adopted Custard after all? She couldn’t think of any other answer.
She joined Tonto beside the window and cat and human stared out into the garden together.
Dawn shook her head. Nothing explained everything though. What about Sarah and Pete? They were supposedly in Lincoln yesterday, but then Sarah had said she was here. What was happening didn’t fit any sensible theory at all. And surely, if she was actually crazy, Dawn wouldn’t be able to think about it logically and try to puzzle it out like she was. Or would she? “Aargh!”
She picked Tonto up and tried to hug him, but he’d spotted a neighbour’s ginger cat crossing the bottom of the garden and wriggled his way free of Dawn’s grasp, trotting off to dispatch the intruder.
“Hah, thanks for the support!” she called after him as the cat flap clattered.
She dipped her hand into her pocket and pulled out Ben’s stone. It was the cornerstone of her existence right now. She wondered how she’d be managing if she didn’t have her little talisman to cling onto through this bewildering period in her life. Thank goodness she had found it! It had been the perfect time to discover it too, she realised. Exactly when she needed it – just when everything else was about to start going cuckoo – that was when she’d found Ben’s lucky charm.
As she thought about Ben, she felt drawn to go up to his bedroom, as was her habit. But its change of decor put her off.
She was being daft, she decided, shaking her head. She hadn’t stopped going in there when Gary painted it green, had she?
So, still in two minds about it, she drifted up the stairs and gently pushed open Ben’s door. The room was still yellow, of course.
It was Ben’s room, she reminded herself. Looking around, she noted that the duvet cover was different and the curtains too. But the lightshade was the same and his wardrobe still stood in the corner. Would his jacket still be inside it, she wondered? She reached out as she took a step towards it, but then stopped, her arm dropping to her side. What if it wasn’t? What if it was gone?
She scratched her temple and backed towards the bed, turning as her legs made contact with the duvet. Ben’s photograph was still here too, she noted, grateful for at least some consistency.
She considered sitting on the bed, as she often did, but instead stepped forward into the middle of the room, her face twisting into a grimace. Yes, it was still Ben’s room, and she could feel his presence in it. But the room was also part of the problem right now – something she didn’t want to have to deal with.
“Sorry, love,” she muttered under her breath as she departed, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Needing something to keep her occupied, she considered going out for the walk she’d intended taking earlier, but rejected the idea: fresh air was good, but too much time to think was not. So, instead she donned the old shoes she used for gardening and headed outside. She spent the afternoon mowing and then edging and feeding the lawn, stopping only briefly for a snack and a glass of water.
When she ran out of room in her garden waste bin, she finally sat down on the bench at the bottom of the garden and surveyed the results of her hard work with satisfaction. It had taken her mind off her problems, as she’d hoped, and she felt pleased at spending her time productively.
Looking back at the house, she could see the pattern on the golden brown curtains in Ben’s room through the windowpane; a reminder that things weren’t as they should be. Briefly, she considered the idea of moving to a different house. Perhaps that would help her put all this behind her. But no, she wouldn’t leave the memories of Ben that filled every inch of the home he’d grown up in. If she sold the house, she’d be as bad as Gary – worse even.
Tonto’s cat flap clattered and the cat bounded across the grass to join her – he must have sneaked in while she was busy with the lawn. At least she had company, even if it was feline rather than human. Tonto still loved her, no matter what.
“Dawn? Hello, Dawn!” croaked a voice nearby.
She turned to see her elderly neighbour Beryl holding onto the top of the fence separating their two gardens.
“Oh, hello, Beryl. Sorry, I was miles away.”
“I could see that, dear. Everything alright?”
Dawn sighed. “I’m not sure,” she admitted, with a hint of a grimace. “Things have been a bit… difficult for a couple of days.”
She and Gary had lived next to Beryl since Ben was three years old and, with their houses being a pair of semi-detached, Dawn was certain that the old lady must have heard many of her and Gary’s marital problems through the adjoining wall. At least the noise wouldn’t bother the old lady anymore, she thought wryly.
“Well, lovey, if you ever need a bit of company you should feel free to pop in. I could make you a nice cup of tea and we could have a bit of a chin-wag. I know what it’s like to be alone – it can be too quiet, can’t it?”
Beryl’s husband Sam had died about eight years ago and the old lady’s words suddenly made Dawn feel guilty about not having made an effort to visit her more often. They did chat if they bumped into one another outside, either in the back garden or at their front doors, and Dawn was very fond of the old lady. But she didn’t ever just ‘pop in’.
She realised that she hadn’t answered Beryl’s question. She nodded and gave a little half smile.
In the distance, a telephone rang. “Oh! That’s the phone!” chimed Beryl. “Must dash before they ring off – although it’s probably only someone trying to sell me something. Don’t forget what I said, dear!”
“I won’t. Thank you!” called Dawn as Beryl bustled off inside. Tonto jumped up on her lap and Dawn scratched behind his ear. Talking to her neighbour had given her conscience a bit of a nudge and made her realise that she wasn’t the only one in the world who had ever lost somebody. Maybe the reminder would help alleviate her stress a little.
Later, in bed, Dawn reviewed the diary of changes in her notebook before turning off the light. Lying in the dark she wondered if something else would have changed when she woke up tomorrow.
Dawn opened her eyes with more than a little trepidation. What changes would today bring? She tried to convince herself that it hadn’t been every day. On Monday nothing unusual had happened at all, had it? But the unknown person who’d answered the phone to her when she’d rung in sick still played on her mind and served to throw her into a state of confusion once more.
She tried to cling onto her hope that today would not bring another series of inexplicable changes, grasping in vain at a fast-dissolving thread of optimism. She sighed.
Rolling over, she noticed a notebook on the dressing table. But it wasn’t the book with the brown cover that she’d found yesterday and remembered writing in. This one was just an ordinary-looking, spiral bound notepad.
Tentatively, she reached out and touched it, almost expecting it to disappear or to give her an electric shock. Flipping it open, she quickly discerned that several of the pages had been written on. The handwriting was clearly her own, and it did seem to be a diary. This really made no sense at all. How could the journal be written in a different book? She took a deep breath and turned to the last page with writing on it.
Tuesday 8th June
1) Ben’s room now painted green instead of blue. Furnishings are all different too.
2) My cat Tonto is back – apparently he went missing over a week ago. I’m glad he’s here to keep me company – cats never judge people, do they?
3) Sarah is living by herself – no sign of Pete in her life.
4) All the food I bought yesterday has gone and I did a load of washing but my wash bin is full.
5) Had a letter saying that I’ve got an appointment to see a psychotherapist on 1st July at 2pm. I have no memory of requesting a referral.
She reread the entry. Ben’s room green instead of… blue? Where had Tonto been? At least the other entries for yesterday made some degree of sense but it wasn’t what she remembered writing at all. Where were her entries about Custard, forgetting Gary and the scratching post?
She decided to look at previous entries and turned back to the very front page of the notebook.
Sunday 30th May
May? She’d started the diary just a few days ago, on Saturday 5th June. How did it now contain entries from as long ago as 30th May? She read on.
Sunday 30th May
1) Gary has gone. Apparently he left me months ago. All photos with him in have gone too, and all of his clothes etc. I don’t even know where he went to, since I’m far too embarrassed to ask Sarah.
2) Tonto is missing. Sarah tells me he disappeared a couple of days ago. She came round saying that she’d offered to help me make some posters to put up around the neighbourhood. I hope someone finds him and calls me soon.
3) I know I washed up last night, but the kitchen is a mess this morning. I only had a salad last night, but one of the saucepans on the cooker seems to have the remnants of a pasta sauce or something in it.
Dawn sat up in bed. Her hands began to tremble and she had to take several deep breaths before she could continue reading. There were entries for each day, so she carried on where she’d left off.
Monday 31st May
1) Apparently I have a part-time job. They rang me this afternoon asking if I was OK. Luckily the girl who called started the conversation with ‘Hello, is that Dawn? This is Amanda from work – from Asda. Are you alright? You’re supposed to be here today’. I put on my best ‘sick voice’ and told her I’d eaten something dodgy and had been up all night being sick. I don’t remember working at Asda, or even applying for a job there.
2) This sounds silly, but the objects on the desk in the box room are all in the wrong places.
3) I found a letter from Gary, so at least I have an address for him now. There’s a mobile number for him too on my phone. I daren’t ring him though; whatever would I say to him when I didn’t even know he’d gone?
Tuesday 1st June
1) I’m making a list of all the things that are apparently changing in my life, so that I can keep track, in case there’s something that will help me figure out what’s happening.
2) Today I went for a wander into the town centre. My favourite cafe has apparently shut – it’s turned into a charity shop for the RSPCA. Perhaps they can help me find Tonto.
Wednesday 2nd June
1) OK, this is now really worrying. I’ve read through the previous days’ entries and I don’t remember writing any of these. My diary started on 28th May, but this one doesn’t start until 30th. What’s going on?
2) Monday 31st says ‘apparently I have a part-time job’. Of course I have a part-time job. But it’s at Boots, not Asda. And I don’t work on Mondays either.
Thursday 3rd June
1) I don’t know how to handle this now – this is the third day when I’ve reread my diary and things have been different to what I remember writing. The start date keeps changing too.
2) How many different jobs can I have had? Apparently I’ve worked in Boots and Asda, but there’s no mention of my work at the animal shelter.
3) Gary is gone. It says so in the entry for 30th May, but I don’t remember writing that entry. As far as I’m concerned, his leaving me is something I’ve only discovered today. I suppose this entry should have come first really, since we’ve been married for so long. But it’s actually a bit of a relief in a way.
Friday 4th June
1) What happened to Custard and Tonto? Both of them have gone. 30th May mentions Tonto going missing, but not Custard. Perhaps she’s gone off looking for her friend. I hope she’s alright.
2) Apparently I’m going to have to go shopping more regularly – I remember shopping every Thursday, but today there’s hardly any food in the house. It’s ridiculous!
Saturday 5th June
1) I don’t remember starting this diary, but I think it’s a good idea, so I shall continue it.
2) Ben’s room is different. Green instead of cream. Not blue – I don’t recall it ever having been blue.
3) I know Gary’s gone, so why didn’t I last Sunday, and this Thursday too? Who knows?
Sunday 6th June
1) Sarah says we went shopping yesterday. She says I bought a scarf and when I went looking for it, I found it hanging on the back of the bedroom door.
2) There are lots of little things that have changed. Too many to write down here…
Monday 7th June
1) I checked my outgoing e-mails today to find that I’ve been in touch with Susan Gooch from primary school. Apparently we got in touch through social media about three months ago.
2) My lovely wooden blinds have all gone, without so much as a screw hole to show that I ever had them.
3) I have no car. Either that or it’s been stolen, but however would I know for sure? I could ask Sarah but she’d think I was bonkers. She already suspects something is wrong, I can tell.
As she finished reading, Tonto jumped up next to her.
“And where were you for that missing week?” she asked, stroking his head. “On the positive side, I didn’t miss you – or rather I must have missed you, but I don’t remember it at all.
“It appears that my ‘now’ stays constant but my past keeps changing. No, not even that. I thought that now was constant, but this book – this journal – says otherwise. But then every night today becomes yesterday, I suppose.
“This is all too strange. I don’t understand what’s happening. Nothing makes any sense. Selective amnesia doesn’t seem to fit the situation at all. If it was that, I’d have blank spots in my memory – I wouldn’t have memories that are different from what has actually happened according to this journal, would I?”
Tonto stared at her. “Mraow,” he said.
“Oh, it’s alright for you, isn’t it? Everything’s the same for you. You get fed, you go out, you wash yourself, you get fed again. You probably wouldn’t notice if things did change, as long as somebody was still here to feed you.”
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and put the journal back on the dressing table. There was no point writing in it now – the only thing that had changed so far today was the journal itself. After pondering for a moment, she padded along the landing to Ben’s room. It should be green again if the journal was correct.
Tentatively, Dawn opened the door a couple of inches and peered inside. Yep. Green – possibly a slightly darker shade than she recalled, but it was no longer that dreadful bright yellow.
She was about to go downstairs when she noticed a large picture hanging above the stairs – one of those canvases you could have made from a photograph. Dawn gasped – it was a picture of her and Ben. Gary had taken that photograph on Christmas Day three or four years ago. It was her favourite picture of her and Ben together. Although she didn’t remember it being made into a canvas and being hung above the stairs, somehow this particular unexpected change didn’t scare her like the others. It was a lovely surprise to find it there and she couldn’t help but smile.
Dawn stood for a moment admiring the picture, almost rooted to the spot, before returning to her senses and continuing down the stairs.
Tonto followed her into the kitchen and coiled around her feet as she prepared his breakfast. Then she got out a bowl and served herself some cereal.
Opening the fridge to get the milk, she was pleasantly surprised to find it well-stocked. Juice, grapes, salad, vegetables; she couldn’t remember buying them, but it meant she didn’t have to go out and shop today. She shrugged. The phrase ‘Accept the good things gratefully’, popped into her head.
Was that it – she needed to simply accept each day as it came? If she wasn’t feeling stressed all the time, perhaps it would trigger a return to normality. And if it didn’t, at least she’d be happier.
She smiled at Tonto as he finished his breakfast and strolled off into the living room, then poured milk onto her cereal and followed him.
Out of habit, she turned on the television to watch the BBC Breakfast News. She had just missed the headlines and the camera panned in on the female newscaster.
“The death toll from yesterday morning’s earthquake in California is now estimated to be over 250 and may go higher,” she heard. “The quake, which measured seven point six on the Richter scale, had its epicentre in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The area is still on tsunami alert and is suffering aftershocks. The majority of the fatalities occurred in Oakland, where part of a shopping mall collapsed.”
Dawn knew she hadn’t heard about this on yesterday evening’s news. A natural disaster like that wasn’t something she was likely to forget.
“The Queen spoke yesterday of her excitement on the birth of William and Kate’s third baby, Alexandra, last week. Her Majesty was attending a dinner for injured veterans in Gloucester when she made the comment, adding that the new princess was ‘adorable’.”
Something else Dawn didn’t remember. Not earthshattering, but nice for the Royal family.
“There is more trouble in Calais this morning as ferry workers in the terminal go on strike over pay.”
This story was one she remembered being mentioned over the past few days, along with the following item about the continued delays to flights caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
She picked up the remote control and clicked the television off. What was the point in watching anyway? Tomorrow, everything could be different again. She couldn’t hope to keep up with worldwide changes when she was having enough trouble keeping up with the ones happening in her own life.
Standing up to return her empty cereal bowl to the kitchen, she suddenly stopped in mid-stride as something caught her eye in the back garden. The lawn was straggly and full of weeds. But she only mowed it yesterday. She shrugged. “Oh well, there’s no point me bothering if that’s what’s going to happen,” she said. At least she knew not to waste her effort again. Assuming she had actually mowed it. She couldn’t have done, surely? How could grass regrow that quickly? She told herself to stop fussing – after all, she’d only just decided that none of this mattered, hadn’t she?
As soon as she was dressed, though, she couldn’t resist popping outside to check the contents of her garden waste bin. It was empty, which was only logical, of course. “Bother, bother, bother!” she said. “Damn this stupid memory of mine.” She had a very clear memory of mowing the lawn and even had a blister on her hand to prove it. She rubbed the sore patch with her forefinger. It was definitely real. “How could I have a blister if I didn’t mow the lawn?” she growled. “I did do it. I did, I did,” she insisted, shaking her outstretched hand as if giving evidence to an invisible jury.
Realising that a man walking along the road past the end of her front garden was shooting her a bemused look, she clamped her jaw shut, gave him a nervous half-smile and hurried back inside.
She locked the front door, but then found herself rooted to the spot. What should she do with her day? There was no point mowing the lawn again if tomorrow it would revert to its uncut state. There was no point washing-up or shopping or doing anything, was there? There was food in the house, so she didn’t need to shop. She could wash up because then she’d have a clear drainer when she came to cook dinner later. It was only things that would affect her on subsequent days that weren’t worth doing, she reasoned. She’d simply have to live one day at a time for now. She’d decided to do exactly that just a short while ago, but with the way things were, even the best laid plans were easily unravelled.
Unsure what else to do with her morning, Dawn decided that she would go and check on the Internet and see if anyone else reported having memory problems like hers. There were lots of medical websites where you could check your symptoms, so there were surely plenty of places you could go to look at mental health issues too.
As soon as she sat down in front of the computer, something occurred to her. She slid open the drawer, peered inside and drew out the notebook she remembered finding yesterday and using as her journal. Inside, every page was blank. Like her mind, she thought wryly, shoving the drawer closed and switching on the computer. She didn’t want to think about what the empty book might mean.
On the Internet, there were pages and pages of results from her search on ‘memory gaps’. The most helpful comment she’d found was that high levels of stress could be responsible for a person having prolonged periods of time which they were unable to recall at all. But that wasn’t what had happened to her. Obviously ‘memory gaps’ was the wrong phrase to search on.
She back-tracked to her original search screen, deleted the word ‘gaps’ and replaced it with the word ‘errors’, then hit the enter key.
Scrolling down the page, she soon realised that every search result pertained to computer memory errors. That was no good either.
The search ‘memory loss in adults’ simply gave her a list of websites about Alzheimer’s disease.
She amended the search again to ‘memory loss in young adults’ and tried again. This time, she managed to find a list of different types of memory loss. She skimmed through them: Anterograde amnesia… no. Retrograde amnesia… no. Transient Global amnesia… she didn’t think that was right either. Psychogenic amnesia… she seriously doubted it. Trauma… yes but no. Drugs – “Goodness, no!” She closed down the web page. All of them seemed to involve losing memory rather than memories changing from day to day.
Dissociative amnesia was what Dr Flack had suggested, she remembered and typed the words into the search field.
Scrolling through the results again, she soon realised that dissociative amnesia was the same as psychogenic amnesia – one of the options she had already discounted. It said that dissociative amnesia was often caused by a traumatic event, which certainly fit in her own case. Perhaps this was right after all. She continued reading.
Symptoms were a sudden inability to remember past experiences or personal information. It said ‘some patients might appear confused and suffer from depression and/or anxiety’. Well, she was certainly confused. But she did remember her past experiences; she just remembered them differently from how they had apparently happened. The journal was proof of that.
At least she’d be seeing the psychotherapist in three weeks. Somehow she’d have to manage until she could speak to a professional who could explain the problem and treat her. She’d keep recording everything in the journal and take it along to her appointment so that the therapist could see the scope of the problem. The journal would also help her to keep on top of the changes too – she’d known about some things in advance this morning because she’d read the previous days’ entries and had been prepared.
She sighed. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it would have to do – it was the only one she could come up with, after all.
What if the psychotherapist couldn’t explain it either? The thought popped into her head unwanted and unwelcome.
“There has to be a logical explanation,” she said out loud. “There has to be.”
Dawn turned off the computer and made her way downstairs. What should she do with the rest of her day, she wondered once more. Productive activities were pointless unless they would benefit her today.
Unable to come up with anything better to do, she reached for her favourite romcom on DVD and watched it from start to finish before pausing for lunch and then choosing another film for the afternoon. This time, she chose a longer one, one that would keep her occupied until she had to cook dinner.
By the end of the second film, she had a headache – caused, she supposed, by eyestrain. But at least it had taken her mind off her problem for a while, in addition to keeping her out of situations that could potentially be difficult, like talking to Sarah again.
Immediately, she felt guilty for having that thought – Sarah was her best friend and she ought to be able to talk to her about this. If she couldn’t talk to Sarah after all the years they’d been so close, she might as well become a hermit.
Tomorrow. She would speak with her best friend and tell her everything tomorrow.
Chapter 8 – Thursday 10th June
She awoke to the smell of tea.
How was that possible? She sat bolt upright, pulling the covers up with her as if wanting to protect her modesty from an intruder in the house, even though she was wearing her summer pyjamas. But who would break in and make tea?
She snorted, recalling last Saturday when she’d been convinced that someone had broken into her house and left her a cat, together with photographs!
But this was no cat.
With increasing apprehension, she noticed that the bedding had been pulled back on Gary’s side and his pillow had a head-sized indent in the centre.
Her mind whirled as she desperately retraced her memories of yesterday. Had she perhaps gone out for the evening and drowned her sorrows, bringing home a one-night-stand to temporarily dull her misery? No. That simply wasn’t her style. And besides, she clearly remembered watching a third film then deciding on an early night and turning in at about half past nine.
But today was a new day… the journal might enlighten her. Her head whipped around and she scanned the top of the dressing table, but the book wasn’t there, not in either of its manifestations.
She was just considering jumping out of bed and going to see if it was back in the drawer in the box room when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs and the jingle of teaspoons rattling against teacups.
What should she do?
Lying down again, she wriggled quickly under the covers, facing towards the door with her eyes open the tiniest slit so that she would see whoever it was as they entered the room, while giving them the impression she was still asleep.
As the figure entered the room, Dawn’s eyes widened in surprise. It was Gary.
“Morning,” he grumbled, sliding the tray he was carrying onto his bedside table. “I thought you might fancy a cuppa.”
He shifted his pillow to an upright position and slid in next to her.
“You alright?” he asked, gruffly. “You look like you’ve seen a… you look a bit…” he paused, searching for the right words. “You look… scared, for want of a better word. Nightmare?”
Dawn’s gaze wandered from Gary’s face to the wall where the photo frame hung: the pictures that included her husband were all back – every last one of them.
“Yes. Nightmare,” she mumbled, trying to gather her thoughts. How should she handle this? In her memory, he had left months ago. They’d been having problems since Ben died.
Since Ben died…
She was out of bed like a bullet from a gun – if Gary was here, couldn’t Ben also be back?
As she dashed past her husband, he snatched at her arm. “What’s wrong?” he called after her as she evaded his grasp and raced along the landing.
She threw open Ben’s door and her heart sank. The walls were green – and the duvet cover too. There was no photo of Ben on the bedside table. She leaned against the doorframe and a sob racked her body. She dropped to a crouching position, her hands shielding her face to disguise her torment from Gary.
“So, it was that nightmare,” he said from behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder to see him standing about six feet away, his arms folded and his lips tight.
She nodded, mutely, grasping at the opportunity he’d given her to provide a rational explanation for her behaviour, even though she had no idea what nightmare he was referring to.
“I hoped that when you found that ‘lucky stone’ of his yesterday, it might help somehow. God knows I’ve tried to help – although everything I do seems to make matters worse.”
Yesterday? He said she’d found the stone yesterday? Her mind whirled. It had been almost a week since she found it. But today, Gary was here and he was telling her it was only yesterday.
Going by her husband’s manner, she knew that their relationship was strained – like it had been right before he left her: there was no hug, no reassurance and no warmth. His tea peace offering was almost certainly just a pretence – he always liked to ensure that he had some means of proving he’d been ‘trying his best’, something he could use in a heated argument to show that he wasn’t at fault and that she was the one in the wrong.
Behind her, Gary tutted loudly. “I made you tea. It was supposed to be a peace offering. But there’s no point, is there? You still can’t let Ben go and you still think I’m a cold bastard for trying to make you.”
He turned around and stomped back into the bedroom.
“Fucking pointless,” he muttered, under his breath.
She heard him climb into bed and pick up his teacup. The callous sod was going to leave her there to cry by herself. She rolled her eyes. Curiously, she no longer felt like crying. What she actually wanted to do was go after him and tell him to leave. It would be easier, and the other time it had happened – if her memory was even real – she had to admit it had been a relief in some ways.
But it hadn’t been easy after all those years of marriage. Being alone in the house wasn’t something she’d imagined having to do for another couple of decades at least, and managing the finances had been hard at first. But it was easier than pussyfooting around, trying to pretend that Ben’s death didn’t bother her anymore. Her attempts to cover up her emotions never fooled Gary anyway.
She decided to go and get some breakfast, leaving her husband to stew, like her tea.
Downstairs, she cussed under her breath when she discovered that, instead of feeding Tonto, Gary had merely shut the poor cat in the conservatory.
“Really?” she said loudly, actually seething with anger now as she freed the pacing cat. She didn’t care if Gary heard – as far as she was concerned, he shouldn’t even be living here now. She stomped to the bottom of the stairs and shouted up. “You shut the cat in the conservatory, you inconsiderate toad!”
“He’s just a fucking cat. He’ll get over it. He wouldn’t get out from under my feet,” Gary retorted.
“Just a fucking cat,” she mimicked childishly, under her breath. Wow, it was surprising how quickly she’d slipped back into the confrontational ways she’d left behind months ago.
She picked up Tonto and he rubbed his face against her cheek.
Dawn sighed. “Come on, fella, let’s get you your breakfast and leave Mr Inconsiderate to his own devices. I really can’t be bothered to deal with him.”
As she prepared Tonto’s breakfast, she finally had time to think through what had happened during the past few minutes. Her first thought was that the events of the last six months – maybe even more – hadn’t happened at all. Instead they’d been a vivid, minutely detailed nightmare. But no, she’d thought that before and it proved to be wrong; she had checked on the TV guide to confirm the date.
She glanced over at the kitchen calendar – right month and right year. So it wasn’t a Bobby Ewing in the shower moment. She smiled. At least her sense of humour was still intact, even if everything else was going to pot.
What was going on, then? There was no journal on her dressing table and Ben’s room was still that awful shade of green Gary had painted it. But he hadn’t left her – not yet, at any rate. It seemed likely it would be soon though; their relationship was obviously pretty strained.
While Tonto crunched away on his biscuit breakfast, Dawn prepared herself a slice of toast and marmalade and a glass of milk and went out into the conservatory. Glaring up through the glass roof, she realised she was in plain view out of the bedroom window and, not wanting to give Gary a chance to watch her without her knowing, she returned to the living room and plopped down on the settee.
She shivered. It was a little cool this morning and she’d left her slippers upstairs in the bedroom. Well, she was damned if she was going to go back to fetch them. She’d simply have to suffer cold feet for a little while.
A few minutes later, she heard Gary get up, followed by the opening and closing of the wardrobe as he retrieved his work clothes. Then he went in the bathroom. She heard the radio turn on, followed by the shower; he’d be at least ten minutes.
She wandered into the kitchen to drop off her plate and glass, then crept upstairs to get dressed and retrieve her slippers, doing so quickly and furtively – before Gary had a chance to finish his shower.
Downstairs, she returned to the kitchen and found herself on autopilot, making her husband’s packed lunch. She was buttering the bread for his sandwiches before she realised what she was doing. Staring at the butter knife in her hand, she shook her head and then shrugged. She might as well continue what she’d started; that way he wouldn’t have reason to linger in the house or to have another go at her.
Gary finished in the shower and returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
Dawn, meanwhile, made a start on last night’s washing-up. Apparently they’d had some kind of casserole.
She had just put the cutlery to soak in the washing-up bowl when Gary clattered down the stairs. In the front hall, he paused to put on his shoes. Then he popped his head into the kitchen and grabbed his lunch box, which Dawn had left on the worktop closest to the door.
“Bye,” he said. Not waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and was gone before she could even dry her hands.
She pursed her lips as she watched the car pull away from the driveway, and sighed with relief as it turned the corner at the bottom of the road. No kiss, no hug. Perhaps she should consider herself lucky that he’d bothered to say goodbye even, although it would have been churlish not to, since she’d made him a packed lunch.
“Bye dear! See you later. Love you!” she said, in a singsong voice.
“Oh God,” she muttered to herself. “I hope this all changes again tomorrow. I’m not sure I can go through all this antagonism again.”
Later, when she went to make the bed, Dawn reached under her pillow and retrieved Ben’s stone. It was warm and smooth as she ran her thumb over the raised heart-shape on its edge. She had a brief flashback of her gangly twelve-year-old son, with his crooked smile, proudly showing her the unusual pebble he’d picked up on the beach.
She thought about all the changes she’d experienced over the past week – Ben’s room, the photos in her frame, Custard, Sarah – and Pete – Gary. Even Tonto had apparently gone missing, although she only had the journal’s word for that and now even that had disappeared. So many things had changed – but not the stone.
Ben always said it was a one-in-several-million chance that he’d picked up this particular pebble on the beach. But every day, when other things had changed, this little object remained constant.
Not everything was changing, she conceded. She lived in the same house, she had the same curtains and carpets – apart from Ben’s room, of course. Lots of things were the same, so it wasn’t so strange that the stone remained unchanged.
Ben was still… dead. A warm tear formed and ran down her cheek, dripping from her chin and landing on the carpet with a ‘plop’.
She frowned and sat on the edge of the bed and forced herself to apply some logic to the situation.
She was not going mad. She remembered every day, but every morning there were changes – significant ones. But she still had the same memories, and they were real. She was not imagining the last week. Finding that version of the journal with different changes in it meant something. She wasn’t sure yet exactly what it meant, but she knew it was important. I’m. Not. Mad. Somehow the world was changing, but she was not changing with it. Perhaps she was the only one who realised – the only one who saw what was happening and remembered…
“Or maybe,” she said aloud, “maybe I’m in a room somewhere attached to a drip feeding me psychogenic drugs. Who knows? Who really knows?” She gulped. “I just wish it would bloody well stop. I’m not sure I can take much more.” The only thing she could predict, she realised, was when the changes would happen. Maybe she should try to stay awake through the night and see if that stopped events from changing: if it worked, it would tell her something useful, wouldn’t it? Not tonight though. She realised that she wanted today to go away, wanted Gary to go away – at least this angry, antagonistic Gary. Tomorrow would be a better day if he wasn’t here.
Tonto jumped up beside her.
“I’m so confused, Tonto,” she groaned, combing her fingers through her hair before leaning down to stroke the cat’s head. “One minute I think I’m going crazy and the next I’m deciding that the rest of the world has the problem, instead of me. How could that possibly make any sense? But then none of this does – make sense that is. It’s all completely impossible. The closest thing I can think of to what’s happening to me is that series Ben used to watch on TV, the one with the man who flips about living different lives. But that’s not right either – this is all the same life, but different versions of it. And anyway, this is reality, not fiction! Aargh! There really doesn’t seem to be an answer to this beyond the realms of bloody science fiction. And I’m stuck living in the middle of it – like that other man in that film where he relives the same day over and over. I can’t fix it and I can’t change it.
“It’s not looking good when the only way to even start to come up with an explanation would be to keep myself awake all night and see if it makes it stop.” She paused as Tonto rubbed affectionately against her back. “But I’ll do it – just not today. I don’t want to chance today carrying on into tomorrow.”
She paused, remembering the TV programme about the man who flipped about, living bits of other people’s lives. He had to put something right before he could move on, didn’t he? She felt a pang of guilt. Waking up this morning, it had been easy for her to revert to old ways – to blame Gary for everything that went wrong between them.
She’d had lots of time since he left to think about why he’d gone, and had certainly come to the conclusion that she had to take some of the blame herself. She could have done things differently. Perhaps she should take the opportunity, now he was ‘back’ to put some of that right rather than assume it was an inevitable road along which she was passing. She had no control over what changed each day, but she did have control over her own actions. Maybe a tomorrow with Gary in it didn’t have to be an unhappy tomorrow after all. But what if she went to sleep one night and he disappeared again anyway? It couldn’t hurt to make an effort to resolve their problems though, could it?
She gazed out of the window, watching the clouds drift slowly past.
Perhaps it was too late – if not for him, then for her; she’d gone through their break-up already and it hadn’t been pretty. Knowing what she knew now, did she even want to try and turn things around?
Somehow, while she’d been pondering deep thoughts about her relationship with her husband, Tonto had sneaked onto her lap and was sitting there with a big, deep purr rumbling so hard he was actually rocking back and forth.
Dawn’s hand drifted to the cat’s head, stroking him with her fingertips.
She didn’t know if she could try to fix her marriage. Gary was the same Gary – pig-headed and argumentative and self-centred. At least that’s how he’d been since Ben died. He didn’t like Tonto and sometimes she had to wonder whether he liked her very much either. Maybe she should leave well alone, or even encourage him to leave.
This new life of hers was so odd. It felt as though she was improvising a part in a play about her own life, but the director kept interfering and saying, ‘Ah, but what if this happens…?’
If she had any choice, she’d drop out and let someone else play her part. But she had no choice, did she?
Finally, deciding that her husband was a problem she didn’t want to face, she lay down, shifting Tonto onto Gary’s side, and tried to sleep in the hope that she’d wake up and find he’d gone again and she didn’t have to deal with him after all.
She knew it was unlikely – she rarely slept in the middle of the day, even when she was dog-tired. Today was no exception. Eventually, at about half past twelve, she gave up her attempt to sleep and conceded that lunch would probably be a good idea.
So, leaving Tonto on the bed, his paws and whiskers twitching as though he was dreaming of chasing squirrels, Dawn crept downstairs to see what was in the fridge today.
Gary arrived home from work just before six o’clock that evening. He came into the house quietly and didn’t call to see where Dawn was. Instead, he went straight up to the bedroom, presumably to change out of his work clothes.
Having had the whole day to ponder and re-ponder how to deal with the current problem, Dawn had decided to try to remain neutral – like an onlooker rather than one of the two parties to the relationship. With any luck, he’d have disappeared again by tomorrow and in the meantime she didn’t want to antagonise him.
She’d decided to cook for them both, as she used to do. But not knowing when he’d return, she had scarcely started preparing the vegetables when she heard him come in and head upstairs.
She carried on with the task, expecting him to come down and see what was for dinner at some point.
Once the potatoes were baking in the oven and the beans washed and trimmed, she decided to bite the bullet and go and find him. He must have finished changing by now, surely? She’d heard the cupboard doors in the bedroom opening and closing more than once – whatever was taking him so long?
As she traversed the landing, she could see what he was doing and her heart sank. He was packing a suitcase.
She knew it didn’t make sense to feel upset – she’d been through this before, after all, and earlier on she’d debated forcing the issue and encouraging him to leave – but this was real and it was happening now. What was in the past was apparently only in her past, not his. Today was the day he’d decided to leave her.
She took a deep breath and he whipped around, having not heard her approach until then.
“Dawn. I… I’m–”
“Leaving? Yes, I can see that,” she said, flatly. “Let me save you the bother of explaining it to me. You can’t stand watching me torture myself every day about Ben. You can’t understand why I won’t ‘move on’ and I’ve rejected all attempts you’ve made to help me. That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?” she asked, leaning against the wall and staring at his half-filled suitcase.
“No.” He looked at his feet.
“I mean yes, up to a point, everything you’ve said is true – although if you recognise that I’d have thought you might have done something to improve matters before now. But it’s not why I’m leaving. Not the only reason anyway. Not the main reason.”
She stared at him and he blushed.
And she knew.
“There’s someone else, isn’t there?” she asked, her eyes widening in surprise.
“Who?” she asked. “Who is it?”
“What difference would it make to tell you?” he growled, turning away from her and reaching into the wardrobe for a pair of shoes, which he added to the suitcase.
“Well,” she swallowed hard. “I suppose you’re going to move in with her and I’ll need to know where you are, won’t I? To forward your post and–”
“It’s Janet,” he interrupted.
She racked her memory. Coming up empty, she shook her head slowly.
“My new boss, Janet – she started about four months ago. I told you about it. She took Phil’s job after he emigrated to New Zealand with that girl from Human Resources. I told you.”
“You didn’t tell me you were having an affair with her,” Dawn said, deadpan.
“Of course I didn’t tell you that. You and I hardly speak anymore anyway. This is the longest conversation we’ve had in weeks. And I’m not going to say ‘Oh, by the way, I’m having an affair’, am I?”
“That’s what you’re doing now, isn’t it?” she asked, pursing her lips.
He fiddled with the laces on the shoes he’d just taken from the wardrobe.
“I love her,” he announced without looking up.
“Really? How nice,” Dawn responded, sarcastically. “And what about me?”
“You? You don’t love me – you haven’t done for ages. It’s in your tone of voice, your body language, everything. We don’t spend time together and when we’re forced to it’s like two strangers with nothing in common. The only thing we do have in common is Ben and… well, he isn’t here anymore either.”
“Why did you leave it until now?” she asked. “If you’ve been so sure we’re finished, why wait until now?”
He turned to face her. “I do have feelings, you know. I could see what Ben’s death did to you – although apparently you had no idea what it did to me. He was my son too. I miss him every day, but I had to carry on. I didn’t waste away my life mooning about like some ghostly apparition hoping that he was going to come back. I tried to be understanding and I tried to help you. But you didn’t want to listen. Eventually I decided to move on by myself. And then I met Janet.”
‘Moon about’, was that what she’d been doing? “And now you’re ‘moving on’ together? How nice!” she laughed lightly.
“There’s no point being like that,” Gary muttered.
“Oh, really? No point?” she looked at his face and faltered. His lost expression reminded her of Ben. She took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re right. There’s no point. You should go then, I suppose. But dinner’s in the oven.” She realised too late that the last sentence had tripped from her mouth rather than her merely thinking it.
“Do you want me to stay for dinner?” he asked awkwardly.
She shook her head. That would be ridiculous. He could eat with Janet and she could get on with her life without him once again.
“Go,” she said quietly. “Leave me an address and go. I’ll be fine.” She had been the last time, anyway. “You can call and arrange to pick up the rest of your belongings. I won’t stop you, and I won’t sell it all on eBay for tuppence or anything stupid like that.”
He cleared his throat uncomfortably and shut the suitcase. “Right then,” he said. “I’ll be off.”
She laughed involuntarily – that was exactly the phrase he’d used before.
He looked for a moment as if he was about to question why she’d laughed, but then shook his head, hauled the suitcase from the bed and sidled past her onto the landing.
Ten seconds later, he had gone – again. And Dawn was alone – again.
When the night began to draw in, Dawn closed the curtains and turned on the light in the living room. Now Gary was gone, should she try staying awake tonight to see if she could stop the changes happening? She yawned and rubbed her eyes. She was too tired. She decided to leave it for now and try another day – when she was feeling less… whatever it was she was feeling now.
Later, alone in her bed, she felt too numb to cry – Gary had left her twice now. She pondered whether his leaving for another woman was worse than him merely leaving her, eventually concluding that this time at least she could partly lay the blame on a third party, which ought to make it slightly more bearable. But then, shouldn’t having experienced their separation before have made it easier anyway?
Nothing made sense to her anymore. What was the point in trying to rationalise the irrational? Tomorrow, he might be back. Or perhaps she’d be married to someone completely different, or never have married at all and have a house full of cats to keep her company instead. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?
Chapter 9 – Friday 11th June
It was dark in Dawn’s room when she woke up. She looked at her clock. It was 3:48am. No wonder it was dark.
The events of the previous day seeped slowly back into her consciousness and she tentatively slid a hand across the bed. Encountering only a cold patch and no sleeping body on the other side, she let out a sigh of relief.
She yawned and stretched out her legs. Finding a lump of resistance, she felt a sudden sense of panic.
“Rrh-raow,” went the lump. It was Tonto.
She sat up to stroke him and found herself only mildly surprised to find a second cat curled up with him. After yesterday, it would probably take quite a lot to shock her, she supposed.
She turned on the bedside light to check, then smiled as she turned the light off and lay down again, pulling the cover up under her chin. Black with white paws and whiskers – it was indeed Custard, as she’d suspected.
That had to be a good omen for the day, she thought, smiling as she closed her eyes.
A moment later, she reopened them; what if she fell asleep and Custard disappeared once again? She flicked the light back on and sat up, crossing her legs.
The two cats blinked at her before laying their heads down once more, Custard resting her chin gently on Tonto’s rump.
On the dressing table, Dawn noticed the return of her journal. It was the original book this time, the one with the brown embossed jacket that she’d found in the box room drawer. She might as well read it now, since she was awake.
Turning to the first page, she found it almost exactly how she remembered writing her first entries. It started on Saturday 5th June with the appearance of Custard and the ‘forgotten’ shopping trip with Sarah. It all seemed very similar, except that there was an entry for yesterday. Like the reappearance of Custard, this entry didn’t surprise her – she’d almost expected it, in fact.
Thursday 10th June.
1) Someone mowed the lawn. Perhaps I hired a gardener??
2) My elephant print scarf has gone, but according to a previous entry, that shouldn’t surprise me.
Nothing else. I stayed indoors and did very little today. I could rewrite this entire journal though – nothing it says is right. There really isn’t much point wasting time rewriting it. I’m not sure why I’m bothering with it at all – it’s a bit like talking to myself, surely? I was relieved to have an uneventful day though.
Yesterday – an uneventful day? If only!
She felt a sense of relief, though, having read the journal, it seemed that today wouldn’t be full of unpleasant surprises, as she had feared.
Custard was here, so the world hadn’t completely returned to normal, but she allowed herself to hope that things could be settling down – that she might wake up tomorrow to find everything had reverted to how it had been before all this.
“Sorry, Custard,” she said. “I’d love it if you stayed, but I think I’d love it more if I could only put the last week behind me. Maybe I could find Tonto another soulmate.” Her words were hollow; she knew that Custard was irreplaceable and felt guilty for wishing the little cat out of existence.
She closed the journal and slid it onto the dressing table. Maybe she would stay in bed and read quietly. A nice lazy day just might be what the doctor ordered, she thought with a hint of a smirk. It was much easier to find her sense of humour on a day when she could put her failed marriage firmly back in the past.
She reached for the rather tatty-looking novel that lay beside the journal and opened it at the bookmarked page, about half-way through the first chapter. The story was right in the middle of an extremely racy scene.
Sarah must have lent her this one, she decided: it definitely wasn’t the kind of book she’d choose for herself.
Closing it, she turned it over to look at the cover.
“Seriously?” she squealed. The picture was of a bare-chested man with a six-pack embracing a scantily-clad girl with enough cleavage showing to leave very little to the imagination.
“Pfft!” she spat, laying the book – face down – on the dressing table. “No thank you!”
She climbed out of bed, turned on the main light and blinked across the room at the photograph frame. She needed to be as well-prepared as possible for any changes there would be today. Better to face them early than have them creep up on her, she reasoned.
The photo frame contained pictures of her, of Tonto and of Custard. All what she would have expected, given that Custard was lying nearby.
Ben’s room next, she decided, sliding her feet into her slippers.
Along the landing, she opened his door softly and peered inside. The walls were green and the duvet cover was green too. Good.
Above the stairs, there was no canvas print of Ben – a shame in a way, but a good sign in others.
Downstairs, she traipsed around the house, room by room, checking everything she could think of.
In the kitchen, there was a big pile of washing-up next to the sink and she had washed up yesterday, so that shouldn’t be there. But except for that, everything looked fine. She made a mental note not to bother with washing the dishes until the morning in future.
Peering outside, she could see very little other than to note that the journal had been correct about the lawn being recently cut. She rubbed her hand – she still had the blister from doing that.
Custard was here and there was a pile of washing-up: nothing earthshattering for her to deal with. That was such a relief. Perhaps she’d be happy if things stayed like this after all.
“You can stay, Custard,” she announced, leaning down to stroke the little cat who, along with Tonto, had followed her downstairs in the hope of getting an early breakfast.
After feeding the cats, dealing with the washing-up and pouring herself a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk, she wandered into the living room. She retrieved the TV remote control, hesitating for a moment before turning to the BBC News Channel.
“…would soon be back to normal,” said the handsome newsreader.
“Normal would be good,” Dawn commented, sipping her milk.
“Three British women and two men have been named as being among those missing following the disappearance of an airliner off the coast of Japan yesterday,” continued the newscaster. “They are Sally-Ann Peters and her husband Derek, both fifty-two and from Cumbria, Isobel Flack, a student from Manchester and Sarah Pritchard and her husband Peter from Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, who were returning from their honeymoon.”
Photographs of the missing people flashed up on the screen. “No!” cried Dawn, her hands flying to her mouth and her glass of milk falling to the floor at her feet, spilling its contents over a wide area of carpet. The name Sarah Pritchard hadn’t struck any chords with her, but the photograph on the screen was definitely her best friend Sarah Broadhurst. It was a wedding photo, with Sarah grinning broadly on the arm of a tall man with dark wavy hair and a beard – presumably Peter Pritchard.
“No, no, no, no!” Dawn cried, ignoring the spilled milk as she stared disbelievingly at the television screen in front of her.
“Damn it, no! Not this; not my best friend.” But there was no doubt in Dawn’s mind that it was her. Sarah and Peter Pritchard. Although Sarah hadn’t mentioned Pete’s last name, the photographic evidence was backed up by the fact that the missing couple came from Bexhill. It must be them: it must be her Sarah. Even if the missing woman looked pretty much identical to her friend – which was impossible enough in itself – the chances of this lookalike having the same first name and coming from the same town was infinitesimally small.
Tears began rolling down Dawn’s cheeks as the newsreader continued. “The flight, which crashed twenty-two minutes after its take-off from Tokyo, disappeared just minutes after a brief interaction with air traffic control in which no problems were apparent. Relatives of the missing British passengers will be flying out to Tokyo later today.”
Dawn sat bent double on the sofa, oblivious to the fact that Tonto was lapping the spilled milk from the carpet.
“Why is my life so full of people dying or leaving?” she asked.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright and a trace of a smile appeared on her lips.
“Tomorrow!” she whispered. Tomorrow it could be different again. Custard was here, then gone, then back again. Gary was gone, then back, then gone again. So Sarah could be back tomorrow too. After all, yesterday her friend had been single again with no sign of Pete in her life. Had that only been yesterday or had she lost track? It didn’t really matter. Things changed every day – even big things. Tomorrow Sarah would be here, she decided. Maybe the aeroplane wouldn’t even have crashed – all the people on it could be alive again tomorrow. She had to believe it.
Noticing Tonto, she pushed him away from the milk. “Don’t drink that, Tonto! You know it doesn’t agree with you.”
Persisting for a moment, Tonto sloped off when Dawn continued barring his way. She dashed quickly into the kitchen to fetch a damp cloth and a spray bottle of carpet cleaner.
“Damn it, Tonto!” she said upon her return, once again having to shoo the determined cat away from his milky find.
As she mopped the carpet, she pushed back the niggling doubts – the ones that reminded her that not everything changed every day. She didn’t want to face the idea that Sarah might be gone forever, like Ben.
She sank into the sofa, the damp cloth still hanging from her fingers.
If all the changes over the past week had been because of some stress-induced memory problem, how could she even guess what was actually real? Probably not Gary’s reappearance; she remembered him leaving a couple of months ago. But then she’d had Custard for six months and… she sighed deeply.
“Oh, sod it! How can I know? How can I know what’s real and what isn’t until things return to normal? What if they never return to normal? What if ‘normal’ doesn’t even exist anymore for me? What if, what if, what if…?” her words faded off into an uncomfortable silence.
When she’d got up that morning, having read through her journal, she had felt so positive about today, so certain that it would be a quiet day with only insignificant changes. The news story about the aeroplane crash had changed all that in a few short seconds. Her cheerfulness had turned into gloom and her hope into despair. She had never felt so alone.
Around mid-morning, Dawn decided to go and visit Sarah. Just to check. Just in case.
Strolling up the road, she could see her friend’s car parked on the driveway facing the house, the rear of the vehicle obscured by the hedge that ran along the edge of the front garden. When she reached the gate, Dawn stopped and stared. Tied to the bumper of the car were the remnants of three deflated balloons and a string of tin cans.
So, there had been a wedding. Being Sarah’s best friend, she had most likely been one of the guests, or even matron of honour. It didn’t matter now. The news story was true – Sarah was gone. Missing, presumed dead, along with Pete. For now, at least…
She forced herself to go into the house and feed poor unwitting Bluebell, but found no sign of the little cat. Dawn opened a tin of cat food and left a bowlful on the floor, having first checked that the cat flap wasn’t locked.
Back at home, she wrote an entry for today in the diary, hoping for all she was worth that the first item at least would read differently tomorrow morning.
Friday 11th June
1) Sarah and Pete are missing after their return honeymoon flight ditched in the sea off Japan.
2) Custard is here today.
3) I didn’t write in the journal yesterday (even though there’s an entry above), but I remember Gary being back yesterday. But then he left me for his boss, Janet (who I don’t even remember him mentioning).
She put down the pen and closed the book. Why was she bothering to carry on with this damned journal? It wasn’t helping – things didn’t all suddenly click into place when she read it. And somehow the entries she remembered writing changed overnight too, along with her life. The only purpose the journal served was to forewarn her of one or two changes, most of which turned out to be insignificant anyway.
But in some small manner, she felt the journal was helping her hang onto her sanity. If she still took the time to write in it, then the changes still mattered. It meant she knew that things weren’t right. If she stopped, it would be giving in and conceding that this was the natural state of affairs. But it couldn’t be. There had to be a way to put everything right and to return to normal.
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts and she hurried downstairs. It was her neighbour, Beryl.
“Hello, lovey,” said Beryl softly, her tone solemn and a frown upon her thin face. “I was watching the BBC news earlier. I wondered if you’d heard about the plane crash…”
“About Sarah, you mean?”
Beryl nodded gravely. “And her new husband, yes.”
Dawn took a deep breath. “I heard first thing this morning – on the telly, like yourself.”
Beryl looked shocked, clearly expecting that Dawn would have heard the news earlier – perhaps from Sarah’s family. But Dawn knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if she had been told before today, there would have been a journal entry about it.
“I know you two were very close – she was always talking about you,” Beryl told her.
“I didn’t realise you knew her that well,” Dawn said, surprised.
“Yes, she often stopped for a chat if we passed one another on the hill and she would sometimes give me a lift into town if she saw me waiting at the bus stop. When I saw that she and her husband were on the aeroplane that crashed, I simply had to come over and see how you were, knowing what good friends you were.”
“That’s very kind of you. Would you like to come in?” Dawn offered. “I could get us both a cup of tea.”
“That’s a tempting offer, lovey, but why don’t you come round to my house instead? Then I can make the tea. I might even have some chocolate biscuits in the cupboard.”
Seeing the concerned expression on Beryl’s face, Dawn nodded in response. “Thank you. Yes, I think I would like that. I just need to put some shoes on. I’ll be there in two shakes. You go and put the kettle on.”
“Alright, lovey, I’ll leave the key in the door. Lock it behind you when you come in, won’t you?”
Dawn slipped on a pair of sandals and was soon in Beryl’s house. She locked up behind her, as instructed.
“I’m in the kitchen,” called Beryl above the sound of clattering cups. “Go and make yourself at home in the living room and I’ll be there in a minute.”
Dawn had been in the front hall of her neighbour’s house a couple of times before, and knew that the building was structurally a mirror image of her own. She made her way into the living room and sat on one of the two rather shabby floral-patterned armchairs. Looking around, she saw a photograph next to the television. It was an informal shot of Beryl’s son and his wife with two teenaged girls, presumably Beryl’s granddaughters. Dawn found herself staring at the picture and felt jealousy churn around inside her. Theirs was such a happy, intact family, while hers was so unhappy and so badly broken apart.
Looking around the room, she saw other family pictures too. Wedding photos of Beryl’s son and his wife, a black and white one of Beryl and Sam’s wedding, baby photos – presumably of her granddaughters – and a rather battered looking picture that Dawn guessed might be of Beryl’s parents.
The clock on the mantelpiece above the 1970s gas fire ticked the seconds away loudly and Dawn wondered how the old lady could stand to hear it mark the inexorable march of time like that.
Tick, tick, tick. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, years… Tick, tick, tick.
“Here we are, lovey,” announced Beryl, making her entrance pushing a serving trolley that reminded Dawn of one her grandmother had owned when Dawn was little. She smiled at the memory as the old lady manoeuvred the trolley in front of the other armchair and sat down with a grunt. Then Beryl wriggled herself forward to perch on the edge of the chair. “Do you take sugar?” she asked.
“A little milk. No sugar, thank you.”
“Sweet enough without?” Beryl smiled briefly and Dawn saw the same smile from the wedding photo she’d seen. The old lady had certainly been beautiful once – and still was come to that, in a way that somehow defied age.
Beryl poured the tea, adding two teaspoons of sugar to her own before adding milk to Dawn’s and passing her the cup.
Tick, tick, tick went the clock, coldly marking the passing of each second.
“It’s so sad – about Sarah and Peter. They were such a lovely couple, weren’t they? And only married a fortnight ago,” said Beryl before blowing a little noisily across the top of her teacup.
“Yes, it’s shocking news,” responded Dawn, wondering why she’d agreed to come over. Any other day would have been better for visiting her neighbour, but not today. She’d only just lost Sarah, and Gary had left her yesterday.
“I remember when my best friend Dotty died. Three years ago it was. She had Alzheimer’s, you know. One of my sisters had that too – she was in a nursing home for several years. I used to go, but she didn’t recognise me in the end…”
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” responded Dawn, sipping her tea and reaching for a chocolate biscuit.
“I had four. All gone now – I’m the last one left. I’ll be turning eighty-six later this year. Luckily for me, I still have all my memories. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose your past like that.”
Dawn sighed. “It’s terrible,” she agreed. “It must be as if every day is something new, but not in a good way. What you think you knew simply isn’t right anymore. It’s such a scary thing to have to face.”
Beryl frowned. “You sound like you’re speaking from personal experience,” she observed.
“Oh, no, no!” insisted Dawn, realising that she’d let slip her private thoughts. “I… My aunt had memory problems. She was never diagnosed though. She died from a heart attack before anyone persuaded her to see a doctor about her memory.” At least part of this cover story was true.
The old lady nodded knowingly. “I see.”
Feeling safe behind the lie she’d told, Dawn continued. “It was so strange with my aunt; she said that every day things seemed to change. She didn’t lose her memory exactly, because she had memories – they just didn’t match up with reality.” She looked down into her tea.
“Well, how peculiar – and how very disconcerting for her,” Beryl replied, sympathetically. “With my sister, she could remember some things, but others disappeared completely. She had gaps in her memory that seemed to get progressively bigger and bigger. It was so sad the first time I went to visit and she didn’t recognise me. Her husband said, ‘Look, it’s Beryl!’ and she just said, ‘That’s not our Beryl. That’s an old lady’. But then the next time I went, she remembered me again and she was so pleased to see me.” The old woman took a sip of her tea. “What you’re describing sounds equally bad though – maybe even worse in some ways. Imagine your past changing – not merely disappearing but actually being different. How would you know how to act today when everything that came before has been jumbled about and changed?”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Dawn, eagerly. “I mean, that’s what I always thought too! The poor thing didn’t have a clue how to deal with it and the doctor told her it could be stress-related.”
“No… That doesn’t sound right to me, dear. Stress can make people confused but I’ve never heard of it changing people’s memories. Doctors today – they blame everything on stress! How did her family cope?”
“Yes, your aunt’s family. How did they cope?”
“Oh. Auntie had no family living nearby – she and her husband moved to Newcastle about twenty years ago when he was offered a job up there and she didn’t move back down south after he died – goodness knows why. So she was all alone, a bit like me.”
“I see,” Beryl nodded. “What kind of things did your aunt think were changing?”
“All kinds; she said that food appeared in her fridge that she hadn’t bought, that she did washing-up and the next day the plates were all dirty again,” Dawn looked at Beryl and decided to confide in her further. “She said that her husband, who had left her, reappeared in her house and left her all over again.”
“I thought you said he died.”
“Um… Did I say that? I meant that he left her.” Dawn blushed. “I must have got a bit muddled, what with this morning’s terrible news.”
There were several seconds of silence, filled by the chinking of teacups against saucers and the ticking of the mantel clock.
The old lady looked thoughtful. “How did your aunt react when people told her that her memories were all wrong? She must have been so upset and confused.”
“She lived alone so mostly it wasn’t an issue. When other people visited and questioned her memories, she insisted that everything around her had changed and she was the only thing remaining the same. As far as she was concerned, her memories were right and everyone else’s were wrong. That’s how it feels – I mean that must be how she felt.”
Beryl shook her head and took a large bite out of her biscuit. As she chewed, she seemed to be chewing over Dawn’s story too.
“Then I suppose, now that she’s gone, no-one will ever really know, will they? It’s a mystery and a puzzle, for sure. But I do feel sorry for your poor dear aunt. One expects one’s memory to worsen with age and for events from the past to fade, but to face a different past every day and never to know what might change next? I can’t imagine.”
“No,” Dawn agreed, finishing her tea. “It’s a mystery, for sure.”
“And what about you, lovey?” Beryl asked, leaning forward and placing her hand gently on top of Dawn’s own.
“Me?” For a moment, Dawn thought her lie had been discovered and she struggled briefly to maintain her composure.
“Yes, you lovey. You must be lonely living all by yourself.”
“Well, you know what it’s like,” Dawn said with a shrug, realising with a pang of guilt that her neighbour did know exactly what it was like. She vowed silently to visit regularly from now on – it could benefit both of them.
Beryl nodded sagely, patting Dawn’s hand and releasing her grasp. “Take it from me, lovey, you should try to get out and meet people. You’re still young and fit. Don’t close yourself off from the world, it isn’t good for you at all. People can be annoying, but four walls are much worse.”
Especially when the walls keep changing colour, Dawn thought, miserably.
Lying in bed that night, Dawn thought about her conversation with Beryl. Her neighbour hadn’t judged her – or rather her aunt – for having the memory problem. She hadn’t said she was crazy or stupid. To Beryl, it had been a puzzle and a mystery – nothing more and nothing less. Dawn was grateful for the opportunity to share her problem, even though she hadn’t been totally honest with the old lady.
But sympathy wouldn’t make things better, would it? Perhaps nothing would.
Maybe Beryl had been right about getting out more too. Dawn knew that isolation could have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health and wondered if it could possibly be the cause of her problem too. Being alone could mean her mind was wandering and making things up to fill the void in her life. After all, the peculiar events of the last week couldn’t be real – they simply couldn’t.
Chapter 10 – Saturday 12th June
Dawn woke up before 4am for the second day in a row. She’d been dreaming about the day she and Sarah first met.
As she reached for the bedside light switch and turned it on, her thoughts came quickly into focus. Sarah, her poor friend. But couldn’t she be alive today? Things changed every day, didn’t they? She’d never even heard of Pete a couple of days ago and now he and Sarah were married. Gary had come back, and then left again. Maybe Sarah could reappear too? But dead people couldn’t come back – even though she’d always known death was final, she’d still had to learn to accept the inevitable when Ben died.
But there had been changes since then. She almost laughed; things had changed over and over and over… Grabbing the journal, she quickly flicked through to the last entry. Her shoulders slumped and a sob racked her body.
The entry she’d written in the journal before going to bed last night looked almost exactly as she recalled it. Sarah and Pete were both dead.
A tear ran down her face and dripped off her chin onto the journal. She wiped it with her hand, leaving a smudge across the page, but she didn’t care – it wasn’t important.
Dawn put the book down, turned off the light and huddled under the covers. In the dark, she slid her fingers under the pillow and retrieved the warm stone from beneath.
Thank goodness she had something constant, even if it was just a stone.
With the lucky charm wrapped tightly in her fist, she lay awake until the birds began chirping outside, eventually falling into a restless sleep as the sun peeked above the horizon.
She was woken by the sound of rain pattering against the window. Looking at the clock, she saw that it was almost 7am. She lay for a while listening to the rain as the gentle patter built into a heavy summer downpour. At least the weather matched her mood. She wasn’t sure she could cope with a sunny morning when she was at such an emotional low point.
As if on cue, Custard jumped onto the bed quickly followed by Tonto. Both cats trotted across and rubbed their noses affectionately against Dawn’s face and arms. “Cupboard love,” she said with a sigh. “Would you two still love me as much if I wasn’t the one who feeds you? I very much doubt it!”
The insistent pestering of the cats finally persuaded her to get up and make her way wearily downstairs to serve them their breakfast, but she couldn’t face making anything for herself. She’d been the same when Ben died; then, she’d lost almost a stone in weight before Sarah called by and insisted not only on preparing lunch, but on watching her best friend eat it.
But today, there was no Sarah to nudge her along and care about her. Just Tonto and Custard, and they wouldn’t notice if she didn’t eat as long as she continued to feed them.
She went upstairs and returned to bed. What else would she do on a day such as this? The weather was miserable and she had nobody left to care about her, except for one elderly neighbour. Was this, she wondered, what it was like to be Beryl; her friends and family all either dead or getting on with their lives elsewhere and only the television and a ticking clock to keep her company?
How could a world with over seven billion people in it seem so empty, she wondered?
After almost an hour of her mind churning over things she’d rather not face, she tried reading a book to take her mind off recent events, fortunately finding a more palatable novel on her dressing table this time. But, try as she might to concentrate on the plot in the book, she kept finding her thoughts drifting back to Sarah and Ben. She closed the book with a thud and shuffled down the mattress, tugging the sheet up over her face to block out the daylight.
A minute later, she turned over restlessly and heaved a sigh.
After another two minutes, she cursed under her breath and shoved the covers aside. Inactivity, she recalled, had only made her dwell on Ben’s death even more, and the same was now true with Sarah’s.
Stomping across the room, she opened the curtains. The sky was still grey, but it had stopped raining – not that the lack of rain made any difference to her mood.
Then, like a ghost, she glided along the landing to Ben’s room. The house around her was deathly silent and still.
Dawn wrapped her arms around her body and stared at the plain wooden door and had just reached out to open it when there was a knock from downstairs. Who on earth could it be? She looked at her watch and realised it was only quarter past eight. It was probably the postman. She decided to ignore it and traipsed off towards her bathroom to have her shower.
Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!
Dawn sighed, pulling on her dressing gown as she trudged down the stairs.
Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!
“I’m coming!” she grumbled, grabbing her key and pulling the door open without her customary check through the spyhole. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Hello, Dawn,” said Gary.
“Gary. Is there something you left behind – I thought you’d taken everything that was yours…?”
“No. I didn’t leave anything behind. I heard on the news about Sarah. I mean I wasn’t even aware that she was getting married, but the photo on the telly was obviously her. I know how close the two of you were and I came to see if you were OK.”
Dawn looked down at her bare feet and swallowed.
“Not brilliant, but I’ll get by, thank you,” she replied. “I don’t imagine your girlfriend would be happy you’re here.”
“Girlfriend?” he looked confused. “What on earth makes you think I have a girlfriend?”
Dawn made a mental note of the change. “One of the girls at work said they’d seen you with someone,” she said, hurriedly making up what she hoped was a believable excuse.
“Well, they were mistaken,” insisted Gary. “No girlfriend. Not even any friends who are girls come to that. Perhaps no-one else will have a miserable sod like me.” He gave a wry smile and raked his fingers through his thinning hair.
“I see – about the mistake not you being a miserable sod,” she sputtered. There was an awkward silence. “I’d ask you in, but I’m not dressed yet,” she explained.
He glanced down at her dressing gown and she found herself blushing. He scratched his head. “I could wait out here in the car for a few minutes while you pop up and get dressed.”
Dawn’s mouth twisted with indecision.
“Or I could come back another time. Or not. Maybe I shouldn’t have come at all.” Gary looked at his feet and twisted one toe like a nervous five-year-old.
She relented and took a step backwards. “No. Come in. It isn’t as if you’ve never seen me in a dressing gown before.”
He raised an eyebrow slightly and cleared his throat. “No, I suppose not.”
Gary followed her into the hall and hesitated as she climbed the first three stairs. “Shall I make us a cuppa?” he offered, “or would you rather I didn’t? I don’t want to assume it’s OK to start rummaging around in your kitchen.”
Dawn nodded. It felt odd him referring to it as her kitchen rather than ‘our kitchen’ or even just ‘the kitchen’. “Yes. Thanks. That would be nice. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
As she shrugged off her dressing gown and quickly donned her customary jeans and blouse, she wondered how long he had deliberated before coming to see her. He wasn’t very good with emotional situations – Ben’s death had proved that – and since their split, she’d only seen him a couple of times, if you discounted his leaving her for Janet last Thursday. But here he was now, when she needed someone, this time he was here and with the events of last Thursday having happened only for her, she decided to try to put those behind her and take today’s events as completely separate. Otherwise, she’d just appear foolish.
She could hear him downstairs in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards and drawers, then opening the fridge to get the milk.
Hesitating in the bedroom doorway, Dawn chewed her top lip, indecision creeping into her mind. She shouldn’t have asked him in, her inner voice told her. This was going to be really awkward; how would she face him knowing what she knew? Or thinking what she thought. Or whatever the heck it was that went on in her memory these days.
But he’d made an effort to come and check how she was. It couldn’t have been easy for him. He was making tea for goodness’ sake. The last time he’d made her tea was… well, for her it was only Thursday, when he’d left her for Janet, but to him that hadn’t even happened – Janet hadn’t happened. And the last time he’d made her tea before that, Ben was still alive. She sighed. Since she had let him in, she might as well go and drink his blasted tea, mightn’t she?
She shoved her feet into her slippers and went down to the living room where Gary had already made himself at home on the sofa. Two cups of steaming tea sat on the coffee table.
He smiled as she entered the room.
Custard trotted up and butted her head against his leg. He leaned down and scratched behind her ear. Tonto watched from across the room, apparently less convinced than his playmate about having Gary in the house.
“Hey, Custard!” Gary said with a grin. “How you doin’?”
“I thought you weren’t fond of the cats,” Dawn commented, dryly.
“Well, call me an old softy, but this one grew on me a bit. Tonto never liked me much – and he probably had good reason, if I’m honest. But Custard here, she’s an affectionate little thing.”
“Tonto is too, given half a chance,” Dawn grumbled.
Gary let his hand drop and Custard pushed her nose against it. “Perhaps I really shouldn’t have come,” he said, shaking his head.
As he started to stand, she found herself saying, “No, I’m sorry. Don’t go.”
He looked at her, uncertain.
“Sit down and have your tea,” she said quietly, sliding into the seat next to him on the sofa and reaching for her own cup.
Taking her lead, he lowered himself into his seat and picked up his tea. There was an awkward silence between the two of them as they each took their first sips of piping hot liquid.
“Do you know when the funeral will be?” he asked.
Dawn shook her head. “No. They’re still… still recovering bodies from the crash site. I suppose Sarah’s parents will have to make arrangements. I don’t even know how I’d find out. What if they don’t think to tell me?” The thought hadn’t occurred to her before and now she found her panic level rising.
“Don’t worry. We’ll sort it out and make sure you don’t miss it. Do you have her parents’ telephone number? Or can you use your key to get into her house and find it?”
“Ah, yes! Of course – I have a number for them somewhere. She gave it to me when I started looking after Bluebell for her while she went on holidays etc. I have it programmed into my phone. I should have thought – they must think I’m so rude not contacting them to offer my condolences.”
“It hasn’t been long, has it? They won’t be offended, I’m sure. What’s happening about the cat – Sarah’s cat I mean?” he asked. “Have they collected it? Is someone feeding it?”
“Oh goodness, I haven’t been up there yet today! I fed her yesterday, but I haven’t been up this morning – I only just got dressed though. I should go straight away.”
“Finish your tea. She’ll wait another couple of minutes. I could go with you if you don’t want to face going on your own.”
“That’s kind of you, yes please,” she said gratefully. “You’re being very understanding.”
Gary’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly. “Hmm. About time, I guess,” he said sheepishly, glancing up at her and then away again when their eyes met. He shook his head and shrugged one shoulder. “Understanding was never really my strong point, was it?”
“Nor mine,” Dawn admitted, knowing they were talking about Ben now. “I had trouble seeing things from any perspective but my own too.”
The silence returned, but this was a more comfortable, amiable quiet. Something subtle had changed between them, something small but important.
He drained his cup and returned it to the coffee table. “Shall we go and feed Sarah’s cat then?” he asked.
She was grateful for Gary’s company when she went to feed Bluebell – she’d never have managed alone. The only downside was that his presence reminded her of the day Ben died, when they’d returned home from the hospital together in silence and the house seemed to ring with a desperate, hollow emptiness that could not be filled. Sarah’s house felt the same – ghostly and with an odd chill in the air.
If not for Tonto and Custard, Dawn would have brought Bluebell home with her, even though the little cat seemed completely unaffected by the atmosphere sensed by her two human visitors.
Gary returned home with Dawn afterwards too.
“I’ll make us some cheese on toast for lunch,” he suggested at around one o’clock.
She screwed up her face. She couldn’t face food.
“I’m making some for myself anyway,” he declared, strolling off towards the kitchen. “So I might as well do enough for both of us.”
Returning ten minutes or so later with two plates, he offered one of them to her.
“I can’t face it,” she said, her eyes pleading him to take it away.
“Come on,” he urged her. “You have to eat. You’ll make yourself ill otherwise.”
The words he left unspoken were, ‘like when Ben died’.
She managed a little smile and took the plate from his outstretched hand. “Thanks.”
When Gary eventually left, he gave her a rather awkward kiss on the cheek and promised to call by to check on her again tomorrow.
She simply smiled and nodded in response, while at the same time wondering whether the tomorrow he promised would even exist.
As she watched the television that evening – avoiding the news as she couldn’t face all the stills of mangled aeroplane parts dredged out of the sea for forensic examination – Dawn thought about Gary’s visit and about how kind and thoughtful he’d been. It had felt good having him there to support her through such a difficult day. And he was going to call in again tomorrow too. She found herself looking forward to it, hoping that any changed events for tomorrow wouldn’t preclude his visit.
Before she turned off her light that night, she reached for the journal to write today’s entry, placing it on her lap and opening it to the first blank page. She paused briefly, rattling the pen against her teeth.
Saturday 12th June
Gary came today and offered to support me through losing Sarah (and Pete, I suppose).
Give him a chance, Dawn. He apologised for treating you badly when Ben died, and you apologised in return for not seeing his side. He made you lunch (and made you eat it too). He really tried. He’s coming back tomorrow morning (Sunday). Don’t screw things up again!
She clicked the pen shut then read over her entry. She’d written a note to herself as if a different person would read it tomorrow. She hadn’t thought about it first – it had just come out that way.
Of course, it was stupid. But then, events changing from day to day like they had been was stupid too, wasn’t it? And when she read the journal every morning, although it contained her handwriting, the events described weren’t those that had happened to her.
Dawn stretched out to put the journal on the dressing table, having to pick up Ben’s stone to make room for the book. As had become her habit, she hugged it briefly to her chest before sliding it underneath her pillow and turning off the light.
“Night night, Ben,” she said into the darkened room.
Beneath her pillow, the stone vibrated silently.
Chapter 11 – Sunday 13th June
Dawn drifted into consciousness the next morning and as her mind slowly de-fogged, she found her first rational thought being the hope that Gary’s visit yesterday wouldn’t have been wiped away overnight.
Dragging herself out of bed, she yanked open the curtains.
Once the morning sun had burned away her mental cobwebs, she immediately felt guilty that her first instinct had been so selfish – when her friend had died such an awful death only a couple of days ago too.
She was just reaching for the journal when Tonto jumped up on the bed. When he was not immediately followed by Custard, Dawn looked up at the wall to see what photographs filled her frame this morning. Her shoulders slumped. No Custard. Tonto’s little playmate had been there yesterday when she and Gary had been getting on so well; perhaps Custard’s absence meant that all the events she remembered happening yesterday would be changed again today. He might not come, she thought sadly. There was that selfish thought again!
Opening the journal, she read yesterday’s entry.
Saturday 12th June
1) Apparently there hasn’t been a Royal baby born in the last few weeks.
2) I bought a scratching post for Tonto, but it’s not there anymore. Checked on-line and I haven’t ordered anything for a couple of months.
3) I had a call from the dentist today saying I’d missed an emergency appointment that I’d made yesterday because of a chipped tooth. I don’t have a chipped tooth – I even checked in the mirror to be doubly sure!
Underneath the numbered items, she had written:
I saw Sarah and Pete arriving home from their honeymoon late this evening. They must have decided to stay on for an extra couple of days. A good job too – they might have been on the plane that crashed on Thursday.
“Oh my! Oh, thank God!” Dawn exclaimed. “They’re alive! I can’t believe it! I didn’t think it could happen. Tonto, look!” she turned the book towards the disinterested cat. “They’re alive. Their plane didn’t crash.” She pushed away the thought that two other people might have died in their place.
Then she realised the implication with regard to Gary; he had only come to visit her yesterday because he’d heard about Sarah’s death. Her heart sank like a lift dropping down a lift shaft.
“Don’t be stupid!” she admonished herself out loud. “And selfish – you’re selfish too!” Sarah was alive. Her best friend and her husband were alive. Nothing in Dawn’s mixed up life should be more important than that. And anyway, wasn’t there a chance that today Gary had reverted to being the swine who left her for Janet?
He only left you because you were both so pig-headed and wouldn’t communicate with one another after Ben died, her internal voice told her.
It was true too – they’d both admitted their failings in the yesterday she remembered. Even though it couldn’t have happened for real, she recognised that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that, if only she and Gary would talk about things rationally, the events as she remembered them could happen. What they had said had been honest and somehow cleansing for Dawn and she deeply regretted the way she’d behaved towards her husband since Ben died.
If only her life could be different. She sighed, tutting as she realised the irony in that thought – all she’d wanted for the past week was for things to stay the same!
Thinking of the inexplicable changes that kept taking place, she decided she ought to read the rest of the journal to see what else she could expect to be different today.
She reopened the book, which had fallen shut in her lap and read backwards, starting from Friday 11th June.
A quarter of an hour later, having reached the beginning on Friday 28th May (a full week before she recalled having started the journal, but things like that were no longer a surprise to her), Dawn closed the journal and got up to feed Tonto.
Downstairs in the kitchen, she refilled the cat’s water dish as he weaved insistently round her ankles.
Once she’d put down both Tonto’s water and his food, she stood beside him, leaning against the worktop.
The journal hadn’t contained any major surprises. In the beginning, the entries were those of a confused Dawn, trying to make sense of what was happening to her, but later entries were far less frantic and more matter-of-fact. Dawn found it hard to imagine being so blasé about changes being sprung upon her every day. But then today’s copy of her journal didn’t seem to contain very many major changes at all. Sarah and Pete hadn’t died and Gary hadn’t reappeared in her life and then left her for Janet either. If not for the memory of the day by day ups and downs that she’d been forced to struggle through thus far, she might even be willing to believe that today would be bearable.
All morning, Dawn kept finding her mind wandering – not to thinking about Ben as she usually did, but to predominantly thinking about Gary. She recognised now that the behaviour she’d previously considered selfish – his insisting on the repainting of Ben’s room and getting rid of his belongings – had been, to a significant degree, a reaction to her stubborn refusal to admit Ben was gone forever. If she’d been willing to even begin to come to terms with her son’s death, perhaps they would still be together.
There was Sarah too, of course; she was desperate to see her friend and badly wanted to run up the hill to see her. But she knew that as soon as Sarah answered the door, she’d just fall apart and tell her everything that had been happening and there was too much going on today without adding that emotional rollercoaster to the list. Seeing Sarah would have to wait.
Her mind drifting back to Gary once more, Dawn thought about the entry she’d written in yesterday’s journal. ‘Don’t screw things up again!’ If yesterday’s conversation with Gary hadn’t taken place, would she pay any attention to that comment at all or would she merely roll her eyes, wonder what on earth she’d been thinking and ignore it completely?
How had her life become so complicated? Just thinking about it gave her a headache. But she vowed to heed any advice she left herself in the journal from now on.
When she’d read it this morning, there had been no mention of any recent contact with her husband at all. In fact, on the face of it, today seemed rather ordinary compared to her recollection of the past week. Not that she wanted to be put through an emotional wringer like that ever again, but it had given her food for thought, hadn’t it?
Well, she decided, since every day brought a bucketful of changes along with it anyway, maybe today she’d start making some of her own modifications instead of merely sitting about waiting to see what fate had in store for her.
Not giving herself a chance to change her mind, she picked up her mobile phone and rang Gary’s number.
His phone rang once, twice, three times. She had butterflies in her stomach and her thumb hovered over the ‘end call’ button. No, she told herself, no chickening out, Dawn. Don’t screw things up – remember?
The phone rang several more times, then suddenly she heard his voice.
“This is Gary Foster. If I haven’t picked up, then I must be busy. If you’re ringing about an accident I’ve had, or to see if I was mis-sold PPI, then please go away. Otherwise, leave a message and I’ll return your call later.”
Dawn hesitated. “Um…” she started. “This is Dawn – your wife.” Stupid! What other Dawn would it be, and Gary would certainly recognise her voice if not her number! “Um… I was wondering whether you might be free to come over for dinner tonight. I mean, I’d like it very much if you’d come for dinner. I mean… oh, just call me and let me know if you’re available. Six o’clock? Bye then!”
She pressed the ‘end call’ button and almost threw the phone down onto the sofa, as if it were burning hot. She realised she was blushing. How foolish, she thought.
Five minutes later when her own phone rang, she stared at it in trepidation as it lay beside her. Peering at the screen, she saw that it was indeed her husband calling. “Don’t screw things up, don’t screw things up,” she mumbled, intertwining her fingers and cracking her joints. She snatched up the phone and poked at the ‘answer’ button.
There was a moment’s pause before he answered her. “Dawn. This is Gary. I… err… I got your message about dinner tonight.”
“Oh! Right… right.”
“I’m afraid I have a late meeting this afternoon, so I won’t finish work until half six or so. Any other day and I would have come, but I’m hosting the meeting so I can’t not turn up.”
“I see,” said Dawn, rather mournfully. Don’t screw things up, repeated the voice in her head. Gary didn’t sound like he was making up a lie – his voice always lifted by an octave when he did that. “I could make it later if you like. I don’t mind eating late if you don’t. How about half past seven?” she offered.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t want you to have to eat late because of me. I could come tomorrow evening instead, if that would be more convenient.”
Dawn’s heart lurched; tomorrow wasn’t any good. If events changed overnight, tomorrow he might be with Janet again – or someone else entirely – or he might have moved out of the area or be away on holiday or…
She laughed nervously, realising she hadn’t answered his question.
“Yes, I’m here. Sorry about that. Um… half seven tonight would be fine, truly. It will be good to see you,” she added, trying her best to convey the sincerity she felt.
“OK. See you later.”
She stared at the phone in her hand. She’d done it – she’d taken a first step that she should have taken months ago. Gary was coming to dinner.
Early that afternoon, Dawn found herself sitting in the conservatory, staring out into the garden. She hadn’t made a conscious decision to go out there and only had a vague memory of having wandered through from the living room. But the ‘indoor/outdoor room’ was her favourite place in the house – after Ben’s room of course – so was the logical place for her to go.
She had asked Gary to dinner; Gary who had left her because she wasn’t coping with Ben’s death; Gary who had – or at least was capable of – having an affair with another woman. Why had she invited him to dinner? Only a couple of hours ago it had seemed like the right thing to do and now she was already regretting it. She drummed her fingers nervously on her leg while chewing on her bottom lip.
She really needed to talk to somebody about this, she realised. But she knew she couldn’t cope with seeing Sarah – who had always been her first choice of confidante in the past – so soon after her ‘resurrection’ from a watery death.
Suddenly, she stood up and strode to the front door, grabbing her key en route.
Moments later, she was standing on Beryl’s front step, chewing on a fingernail as she used the other hand to press the bell.
After a brief delay, Beryl answered. “Oh, hello dear,” she said.
Dawn stopped chewing on her nail and managed a half smile.
“You look like you need a cup of tea. Do come inside,” the old lady offered, making a sweeping gesture with her arm.
After following her inside, Dawn trailed along the corridor towards the kitchen.
Beryl filled the kettle then opened a cupboard and took out a tray. On it, she placed two cups, teaspoons, a bowl of sugar and a small, brown teapot. “There’s a box of teabags in the cupboard next to you, dear, if you wouldn’t mind?”
Dawn found the teabags and handed the box to her neighbour, then let her arms drop to her sides.
“What’s the story today then?” asked Beryl, bustling past Dawn to get the milk from the fridge.
Dawn knotted her brows, wondering what the old lady meant. It was an odd phrase to use.
Beryl tilted her head to one side. “You don’t remember, do you?” She placed the carton of milk beside the cups and then turned to face Dawn. “The day before yesterday you came here and told me your story – about how events change for you every day. You were here for… probably about two hours. You told me about lots of things that keep changing; your cat Custard being there one day and gone the next, the colour of Ben’s bedroom changing, items going missing and appearing. You even told me that you’d ‘forgotten’ about your husband leaving.”
Unable to speak, Dawn merely shook her head in disbelief. She could feel the blood draining from her face.
There had been no record of this in the journal – it hadn’t even mentioned forgetting about Gary. She resolved to make her entries more thorough from now on. It was obvious why she’d confided in the old lady though. It was kind of like telling your darkest secret to a stranger on a bus.
“I assure you, we did have that conversation. It was on Friday morning. When I saw you on my doorstep today, my first thought was that you were coming to tell me about more of these changes. It didn’t occur to me until just now that our conversation might be one of the things that has changed for you. I really should have realised, shouldn’t I?”
“Why would you?” asked Dawn, crumpling down onto a nearby stool. “It’s all so stupid. I haven’t told anyone for fear they’ll think I’m crazy, but apparently I have told you. Actually, that’s not quite true – I did go to see the doctor and he’s referred me for psychotherapy, but…”
Beryl was frowning. “What?” asked Dawn.
“It’s just that you specifically told me you hadn’t seen the doctor.”
“Marvellous,” mumbled Dawn. “No doctor, no referral, no answers. Bloody marvellous.”
The kettle turned itself off and Beryl swirled a little boiling water around inside the teapot before adding teabags, filling it to the top with water and replacing the lid.
“Let’s go and sit down, shall we?” she suggested, placing the tray on her hostess trolley and leading the way.
Once they were sitting, Beryl poured them each a cup of tea, adding milk and sugar to her own and just milk to Dawn’s. As she passed the cup over, there was an almost musical rattling of cup against saucer, caused by the shaking of the old lady’s frail hand.
The clock on the mantelpiece ticked loudly.
“What’s troubling you today, dear?” asked the old lady, relaxing into her chair and lifting her cup of tea to her lips.
“Sarah died on Thursday,” Dawn said, bluntly.
Beryl’s eyes widened slightly.
“She and Pete were killed in a plane crash – and there was a plane crash on Thursday, but Sarah and Pete weren’t killed – they stayed for an extra couple of days on their honeymoon and arrived home safely last night.”
“Oh, my! You must have been distraught to think your friend was dead. How dreadful! And now – now you must be immensely relieved to hear she’s alright after all. What a rollercoaster of emotions you must be experiencing!”
“Yes,” Dawn admitted, raking her fingers through her hair. “It’s been a rough couple of days. But there’s a twist – yesterday, when I thought Sarah was dead, Gary came over, because he’d seen her picture on the news. He was really nice to me and we had lunch together. We said things we should have said many months ago. And now…” a tear spilled down Dawn’s cheek. “Now that didn’t happen either – Gary coming over I mean. But I realised that I wanted it to have happened. So this morning I called him and invited him over to dinner tonight. But how can I predict how he’ll react – how he feels? All I know for sure is that things have changed for me since yesterday, and it follows that they are different for him too. But how different? Does he care about me at all or does he hate me? How will I know how to speak to him when he comes over tonight? What if I mess everything up?” Dawn gulped.
“How long have the two of you been married?” asked Beryl. “It must be a good number of years, surely?”
“Twenty-two years! You must know him quite well then, after all that time together.”
“Well, yes. But the changes…”
“Indeed, the changes. From what you told me before, the changes have all been to events since… since you lost Ben.”
Feeling her throat tighten at the mention of her son, Dawn merely nodded.
“So Gary is still Gary; the same man you’ve been married to for all those years. You’ve been through the majority of the last twenty-two years together. So although you know his recent experiences don’t match yours, you still know him better than just about anyone else in the world, don’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Dawn conceded.
“Perhaps you should tell him what’s been happening to you,” suggested Beryl, meeting Dawn’s gaze.
Dawn was horrified. “No. No, no! I couldn’t do that – he’d think I’d gone completely bonkers! It was bad enough that I wanted Ben’s room left the same and fought him over redecorating and getting rid of Ben’s belongings. He told me then that I was unbalanced and unreasonable. If I told him what’s happening, it would only make him judge me even more harshly. I’d never manage to patch things up between us.”
“And that’s what you want is it? To patch up your relationship?”
Dawn hesitated briefly. “Yes. That’s exactly what I want. But even if tonight were to go really well and it started to look like we could resolve our issues, what about tomorrow?”
Beryl sighed deeply and leaned forward to return her teacup to the tray. “None of us can accurately guess what tomorrow will bring, dear. You should try to just worry about today for now and hope that tomorrow will sort itself out rather than assuming that all your efforts will be undone. What if tomorrow is even better than today? What if Gary comes back home tomorrow?”
“Huh! That happened on Thursday and I managed to mess that up too.”
The old lady raised one eyebrow. “Thursday?” she asked.
“Yes. I woke up on Thursday and Gary was there. He hadn’t left me after Ben… He hadn’t left me. But he did on Thursday. He left me for some woman named Janet.”
The old lady swallowed hard. “It’s no wonder you’re so confused and anxious, dear. All these goings on would be enough to test anyone’s sanity.”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Dawn, sitting forward in her seat. “Now you really understand.”
“It’s a difficult situation you’re forced to face, with every day being different. But I still believe that all you can do is take each day as it comes. Use your diary every morning to alert yourself to all the changes you can, but try to live each day in as positive a way as possible. Like I said, no-one can guess what tomorrow will bring; the only difference with you is that you don’t know what yesterday brought either.”
Dawn nodded slowly, absorbing the old lady’s wise words.
Beryl stared out of the window as a squirrel skittered along the top of the fence. She frowned. “You’ve got to wonder, haven’t you?”
“Wonder what?” asked Dawn.
“Why the changes only affect your recent life. Surely that must be important somehow?”
“I suppose so. I wish I could wake up and find Ben’s still alive. But it really isn’t going to happen and I have to accept that he’s gone – like Gary tried to tell me. At least I have his lucky stone. It makes me feel closer to him. I carry it with me everywhere and sleep with it underneath my pillow.”
“It’s nice that you have something like that, something personal that you can keep with you all the time.”
“Yes, but I haven’t had it very long. I found it in his jacket pocket. It was the day before everything started going peculiar, as a matter of fact. Whenever I hold it in my hand, I feel a strong connection to him. It’s almost like he’s standing right behind me, but if I turned around he’d disappear.”
Beryl smiled sadly. “I feel that way about Sam. When I’m sitting here in the evening watching the television, it’s like he’s watching with me. I even talk to him sometimes. Anyone who hasn’t experienced the loss of someone so close to them would say we were both completely barmy. But neither of us is, dear – neither of us. Losing someone so precious would have a profound effect on anyone. Your reaction is merely a little less conventional than mine.”
“Reaction? This isn’t just a ‘reaction’, it’s very, very real.”
“Of course it feels real – the same way it feels as though Ben is really standing behind you. But it can’t be real, can it? Not truly.”
Dawn mulled this over for a moment. It felt real. The journal changed from day to day. There didn’t seem to be any logical, scientific explanation. But it was real. She knew it.
“The weird things that have been happening to me are real. I’m not imagining them or making them up. I know it must seem impossible – and you’re right that logically speaking this can’t happen. But it is. The fact that I’m the only one who sees it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
There was an uncomfortable silence and she could tell Beryl was trying to come up with a response.
“Alright,” the old lady declared, finally. “I believe you. I don’t understand how it could be, but I do believe you. It’s really happening to you, exactly as you say.”
“Thank you.” Dawn felt relief wash over her, lifting a weight that she hadn’t realised was there from her shoulders. But now she felt like she needed to come up with some answers about how and why these things were occurring. Talking to Beryl had shaken loose some thoughts that she didn’t want to give air to at the moment though.
“Goodness, look at the time!” she said, pointing at the annoyingly loud ticking clock. “I should go. I need to do some shopping if Gary’s coming for dinner. Thank you so much for the tea and the chat though.”
She stood and hurried into the hallway. She was about to go outside when Beryl said from behind her, “I hope I didn’t upset you just now, dear. I was only trying to help. I’m happy to listen whenever you need support, so please feel free to pop in and visit any time you like – I don’t go out very often, after all.”
Feeling guilty for departing so abruptly, Dawn relented a little. “Of course I’ll visit again. You were very kind to ask me over and you certainly helped me with the Gary problem. I’ll pop in again in a day or two, I promise.” She managed a cheerful smile which seemed to mollify her neighbour. She would visit again soon.
Dawn pushed the trolley lackadaisically along the supermarket aisles, preoccupied not with what food to buy for tonight, but instead with why her world was so topsy-turvy. Most of all, she wanted to find a way to regain control of her life – to stop the changes from happening. But to do that, she had to know how and why they were occurring in the first place and on that subject she’d made no progress at all. Except…
Beryl had said it must be important that the changes only touched relatively recent events. What time period had the changes influenced?
Custard. Tonto’s playmate had apparently come into her life about six months ago. Was that the furthest back that the changes had influenced? Gary leaving her was more recent than that.
“Custard?” she said out loud.
“Aisle fifteen, madam,” said a passing shop assistant.
It took Dawn a moment to realise what the young man was talking about and he’d gone by the time she processed it. She grinned to herself. How foolish!
Refocussing herself on the problem, she shook her head. A cat couldn’t be significant in determining why everything had gone haywire, could it? That was complete nonsense.
But if not Custard, then what?
Perhaps it wasn’t the changed events that were important, but when they started.
According to the journal, the changes had begun on different dates though – weeks apart in some cases. But for her, they’d started last Saturday – on 5th June. Was that date significant in any way, she pondered? No. It was nobody’s birthday, not an anniversary of anything, nothing special at all as far as she could see. It would have been just another ordinary day if it hadn’t been for the appearance of Custard and the start of all the other changes in her life. In theory, she surmised, the changes must have started over six months ago anyway – otherwise how could Custard have come into her life that long ago?
She sighed and stared down at her shopping list.
“Can I help you, madam?” asked another shop assistant. “You look a bit lost.”
“Err, yes. Can you tell me where to find fresh chilli peppers, please?” Dawn asked, deciding to focus her efforts on the meal for tonight – for the time being at least.
At home, as Dawn unpacked the shopping bags, she recalled her conversation with Gary. He’d suggested not coming until tomorrow and the idea had set her flying into a panic, realising that by tomorrow things might be different between them again. Until she figured out why the changes were happening – if she ever could – she had no control at all over what tomorrow would bring, or rather what past tomorrow would bring.
“Don’t live in the past, Dawn,” she told herself sternly. There was no point anyway, when she was standing on shifting sand. She should live for today with the hope of a more settled tomorrow. This had all started little more than a week ago and surely it could stop again just as suddenly. She had to believe the situation would get better rather than sitting around trying to avoid living at all.
But that was what she’d been doing since Ben died she realised, her heart twisting like a wet cloth being wrung out.
“I’ve learned my lesson now though,” she muttered. She looked up to the heavens, even though she didn’t even believe in God. “I’ve learned my lesson now – you hear? You can stop doing this to me and let me have my ordinary, boring life again!” she called out. She wished it could be that simple.
“Oh, whatever,” she grumbled, returning to unpacking her shopping.
After making herself a late lunch and watching her favourite afternoon quiz show, Dawn turned off the television and went to start the preparation for the evening meal. It was hours before Gary was due to arrive, but she needed something to occupy her mind.
So she chopped, diced and sliced, sealing the prepared ingredients in plastic tubs to keep them both fresh and out of Tonto’s reach – he was a devil for jumping up onto kitchen work surfaces and wasn’t above stealing food, even vegetables!
She’d finished by 5pm and still had about an hour before she needed to start cooking.
So, scouring the bookshelf in the living room, she chose a favourite novel to keep her occupied for a while and went to sit out in the conservatory, where Tonto was already doing some bird watching.
She opened the book on her lap and began to read, but was soon interrupted by Tonto pushing his head against her arm. “What do you want?” she asked, affectionately.
Tonto pushed against her again, taking a step onto her lap.
“Go on, you daft beggar,” she admonished, playfully. She lifted the book to make way for him and the cat climbed on, circling her legs awkwardly before curling up on her lap, his nose tucked underneath his tail.
Shifting her novel into one hand, Dawn used the other to stroke the cat, who began purring softly. “Who put the ‘cat’ in cathartic?” she said with a gentle smile.
Gary had never been fond of Tonto, but she knew that the feeling was mutual. Tonto had scratched Gary pretty often, and hadn’t endeared himself to his ‘daddy’ at all, right from the day he’d arrived. Perhaps, she reasoned, Tonto had had a bad experience with a man in his previous home. The shelter told her he’d been abandoned at their gate in a cardboard box, so there was no way to know for sure.
If things improved between her and Gary, she resolved to improve the relationship between her husband and the cat. The Gary who had made her lunch only yesterday had got on well with Custard after all, so with a little work…
Whatever she wanted to happen, there was no guarantee she’d get it, of course. Although the future was at least something you could influence, not like the past – you couldn’t change that. Even in her current mixed up state, there was no way for her to alter the past. She was stuck with it, whatever it decided to throw at her.
She looked back down at the book she’d been reading, realising that she hadn’t turned a page for at least ten minutes. And when had Tonto wandered off? She glanced at her watch, doing a double-take when she saw it was now after quarter past six.
“Bugger!” she swore under her breath. Now she was running late. As if she needed any more stress!
By half past seven, Dawn had managed to catch up with the cooking and had even found time to concoct a meringue and fruit-based dessert.
Confident that Gary would be at least five minutes late and leaving the dinner cooking in the oven and on the stove top, she dashed upstairs to change out of her jeans and into a blue floral summer dress. She made sure to transfer Ben’s stone to its usual night-time spot underneath her pillow before throwing the jeans into the wash bin. She was about to run downstairs when she made a last minute decision to put on some make-up – only a little, to cover up the dark rings under her eyes, she told herself.
She had just stepped over Tonto at the bottom of the stairs when a knock signalled Gary’s arrival. Tonto scuttled off up the stairs, almost tripping her in his hurry to escape; he always ran off when somebody called by.
Dawn looked at herself in the hall mirror. Damn! She’d forgotten to run a comb through her hair. Quickly using her fingers to straighten the messier bits, she gave her reflection a rather nervous smile and then opened the door.
Flowers, Gary had bought her flowers. It was a small bunch – probably from a supermarket or petrol station – but he hadn’t bought her flowers since the day after Ben was born. She stood staring at them for a moment as he clutched them tightly to his chest.
“Hello. Do come inside,” she offered, stepping back to allow him past.
“Thanks,” he replied, shuffling into the house and thrusting the flowers awkwardly at her. “My mother taught me never to come to dinner without bringing something for my host,” he explained.
“Oh, I see.” So the flowers weren’t a sign of anything more than good manners – although Gary’s mother Beatrice hadn’t been much of a one to bother with manners, so Dawn doubted that any credit was actually due to her dearly departed mother-in-law.
“I’ll see if I can find a vase for them,” she said inhaling the sweet scent of the flowers.
“Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, so you might as well go and sit in the living room for now.” Leaving him to make his own way, she scurried into the kitchen.
After searching the depths of a couple of cupboards to no avail, she finally found a suitable – if rather dusty – vase secreted away behind the bread bin. She quickly arranged the flowers and then left the filled vase on the kitchen worktop while she attended to the dinner.
Just as she was shaking up a bottle of freshly made salad dressing, Gary’s face appeared behind her, making Dawn jump. She put a hand up to her mouth to stop herself from giggling foolishly, pretending instead to cough.
“I wondered if you needed any help. I’m sure you don’t though; you’ve always been so well-organised in the kitchen.”
“I’m fine. Thanks for the offer though.” He was turning round to head back along the hall when she added. “You could take some glasses through if you like. And there’s a bottle of wine in the fridge.”
“Wine? I should have thought to bring wine; much more use than a bunch of dodgy-looking flowers,” he grumbled, stepping past her to retrieve two glasses from the cupboard.
“Don’t worry. The flowers were a nice gesture.” Nice? she admonished herself. Couldn’t she have come up with a better word to use than nice?
“So,” he began, holding the glasses by their stems and reaching to open the fridge, “I assume you need to talk to me about something. Have you found someone else – do you want a divorce?”
“A divorce?” she gasped. “Whatever makes you think that? I haven’t even been out on a date since you left. I’m still wearing my wedding ring – look!” Dawn held out her left hand towards him, fingers splayed to display both her engagement and wedding rings.
Gary’s shoulders slumped and he extended his own left hand. “Me too,” he said quietly. “I just thought… I mean I… ” He shook his head and swallowed. “I couldn’t think of any other reason you’d invite me over for dinner,” he mumbled sheepishly.
Dawn took a deep breath. “I thought it was about time we talked – about Ben.” She stared at the floor unable to meet his eyes. She could feel him looking at her and fought back the tears that almost always flowed when she spoke about her son. Their son.
Gary didn’t respond and as the seconds passed Dawn imagined Beryl’s clock going tick, tick, tick on the old lady’s mantelpiece.
Eventually, it was beeping of the timer on the cooker which broke the silence.
“Why don’t you go and sit at the dining table? It will only take a minute or two for me to serve up.”
“Alright,” he assented, grabbing the bottle opener from the drawer beside him before disappearing along the hallway.
Once he was out of sight, Dawn leaned against the kitchen worktop and took a deep breath, blowing it slowly back out between her lips and hoping her heartbeat would soon return to a reasonable speed. If it had been that difficult to tell him that she wanted to talk about Ben, how much tougher was their next conversation going to be? Could she do it, she wondered? Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea after all… Don’t screw things up again, her internal voice reiterated. Nerves or no nerves, she had things she wanted to say and she was damned well going to say them.
A few minutes later, Dawn was carrying two plates of roasted vegetable and chilli-stuffed peppers with a feta cheese topping into the dining room.
“Excuse me serving up before bringing it through…”
“It saves on the washing-up,” they chorused in unison.
“I never could be bothered to put food onto one plate just to transfer it to another and then have to wash up both,” she said with a smile, sliding Gary’s plate onto the table mat in front of him.
He inhaled deeply. “Smells great, love – one of my favourite meals too.”
“Mmm,” she responded, sitting opposite him. He’d called her ‘love’, but she wasn’t setting any store by that – the word had probably come to him automatically rather than being a conscious choice.
“Salad?” she offered, reaching for the bowl of fresh green leaves, chopped cucumber, celery slices and cherry tomatoes she’d placed in the centre of the table earlier. “No – you don’t like salad on the same plate with your hot food, do you?”
Gary shook his head and Dawn served herself a helping of salad.
“Would you rather talk now or eat first and talk later?” he asked.
Dawn replaced the salad bowl in the centre of the table and chewed her bottom lip.
“I think we ought to talk now, otherwise dinner will be really awkward. And the longer I wait, the more anxious I’ll get and I have things that I really need to get off my chest,” she explained.
“Sounds ominous,” Gary said, frowning as he chewed his first mouthful of food.
“No, not really – not at all, in fact.” Dawn took hold of her cutlery and held it hesitantly above her food for a moment before placing it lightly on the sides of her plate and resting her palms on the table.
“I want you to know that I believe I handled Ben’s death poorly.”
Gary leaned across the table and clasped her hand. Looking her directly in the eye, he said, “He was your son.”
“He was your son too,” she whispered, her eyes dropping down and then staying that way. “I should have… we should have talked about it. Without the shouting. Without the blaming. Without the anger and recriminations. We needed to hold onto each other and instead, I pushed you away. I pushed you away until you couldn’t stand it anymore and you felt you had no choice but to leave.”
He didn’t seem willing to release his grip. Not knowing what else to do, she left her hand there underneath his, waiting for his next move – for him to break the silence that hung heavily between them.
Slowly he released his grip, sliding his hand back across the table and leaving it lying limp beside his fork.
She chanced a glance up at him. His eyes glistened with tears, although none flowed down his cheeks. It was her turn to reach for him.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a gulp, meeting her gaze at last. “I tried to make you accept that Ben was gone for good before you were ready.” He shook his head then shrugged. “And I kept on badgering you even though I was struggling to deal with it myself. My biggest problem was that I couldn’t bear to go in his room and see all his stuff in there like he was going to walk in and say ‘Hey Dad!’ like he used to and start chatting about his day. The only way I could come to terms with his death was if I forced myself to face it head on, to make something change. But I shouldn’t have insisted you do it too. Getting rid of his belongings and redecorating effectively pushed you away at a time when you needed to be held close – like you just said. What was right for me was wrong for you and I knew it – it was obvious. I was stupid. I was selfish. And then, to top it all, I left you. I walked out and left you to deal with it alone.”
Dawn realised that Gary’s other hand now rested on top of hers. She hadn’t noticed it when it happened.
After the death of their son, she had known that he must be suffering as much as she was but, being an old-fashioned type, he had held it in and grieved in silence. However, holding his pain inside him had meant the only way left to give vent to his emotions was through anger. Both of them had been blinkered by their grief. But deep down, Dawn realised, she had known how Gary felt long before he walked out. But she had felt powerless to stand down from her stubborn refusal to accept Ben’s death and apologise to her husband. How had it taken this long, she wondered, to accept the obvious – that her husband wasn’t solely to blame? Twenty-two years of marriage thrown away because she was too stubborn to make the first move.
A hot tear spilled down her cheek and she wiped it quickly away before it could drip onto the table.
“What should we do now?” asked Dawn. “Can we fix this?”
Gary turned his head and glanced out of the window before returning his gaze to meet her pleading eyes. His mouth twitched at one corner and he pulled both his hands away.
This was not a good sign, she decided.
“The food’s going cold,” he commented, picking up his cutlery.
“Gary, please. We must be able to do something to sort this out. We’ve been married for twenty-two years for goodness’ sake. Surely we can talk this through and set things right again?” she pleaded.
He put his cutlery on his plate and shook his head. Dawn’s heart felt like it turned into a lump of lead.
After a few seconds, he spoke. “I don’t know. It’s not as if we can turn back the clock and do things differently, is it? We can’t undo all the resentment and the anger and the pain we caused each other.”
He said he ‘didn’t know’. That wasn’t a definite no. It wasn’t a yes either, but somewhere in between was better than an unequivocal no.
“Can’t we try? I’d very much like to.” She held her breath.
Gary drummed his fingers on the table top. “It’s not going to be easy…”
“It hasn’t been easy. But I hope we can rebuild our relationship.”
He shot her an uncertain look.
“Slowly, of course,” she asserted. “We shouldn’t rush into anything. I’m not saying you should just move back in and pretend we never had a problem.”
“Glad to hear it,” he muttered.
“I’m willing to put my hand in the air and admit that I wasn’t easy to live with. I mooned about, drifting around the house like a lost ghost. When you pointed out how I was acting, I shouted at you and refused to accept responsibility for my actions. Now I’m willing – and able – to do that.” She stared at him hopefully, holding her breath again as she waited for his answer.
She’d reached the point when she’d have to breathe again soon when he replied. “Alright.”
Dawn let her breath out noisily.
“But it will take time,” he attested. “Water under the bridge and all that – we can’t simply forget everything that’s happened since Ben died and pretend nothing ever went wrong between us.”
“That would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Not to learn from our mistakes,” she said quietly. “I realise that I’ve made a lot of them too. But I really want to make up for all the horrid things I said and all the stupid, childish sulking about.”
“It wasn’t childish.”
“Oh, come on – it was! The day you repainted his room I refused to cook dinner and went storming out of the house. I wandered around the park for three hours – three hours – before even coming home. Then I refused to speak to you for the rest of the weekend. Not very adult – not very adult at all.”
“Well, the first thing you’re going to have to do is stop beating yourself up about it,” Gary remarked. “Let’s eat, shall we – while the peppers are still hot?”
She stood on the front step and watched him drive away.
Conversation during the remainder of dinner had been stilted and difficult, but afterwards Gary had offered to wash up and the two of them had chatted in the kitchen. Falling into an old routine had helped the awkwardness wear off a little. But he had been right when he’d said that they couldn’t simply choose to forget the animosity that had existed between them because of Ben’s death.
It would take time.
The mere thought of it made Dawn let out a hoarse, “Huh! Time!” Who even knew whether any of this evening had really happened? And how would things be different tomorrow?
“That decides it then; tonight is going to be the night,” she said to Tonto. “It’s the night when I’m going to try staying awake. I don’t want all the good work Gary and I put in tonight to be wiped away before I even get up tomorrow. And sleeping seems to be what makes it all go ka-ka so tonight there’ll be no sleep for me.”
But how could she make herself stay awake?
Coffee would be a good start. And the wine had probably been a mistake, but it was too late to worry about that.
What else though?
She’d heard that blue light helped you to wake up in the morning, so perhaps it would stop her falling asleep too. Not having a blue bulb though, the best she could do was to sit in a brightly lit room with blue walls. Only the bedroom was blue though, and sitting on the bed in there was asking to drop off, surely. But with no other blue rooms in the house, she’d have to manage somehow.
What else…? Music; something cheerful with a fast beat. Somewhere she knew she had a CD collection of fifties and sixties music, full of Rock and Roll. That would be ideal.
Soon, Dawn was ensconced in her room with everything she needed to make coffee, plus a CD player and her music. She’d borrowed the lamp from Ben’s room and placed it on the opposite side of the bed to her own, directing the flood of light from either side and above into a spotlight right in the centre of the bed. She turned on the CD player and cranked up the volume, quickly having to reduce it by a few notches when Buddy Holly started belting out ‘Peggy Sue’ loudly enough to wake up the whole neighbourhood.
She turned on the kettle and made herself a large mug of strong coffee, then sat back leaning against the headboard. It was going to be a long night.
Chapter 14 – Monday 14th June
She looked at the clock radio for about the twentieth time in the last five minutes. It was still only 12:17am. Dawn turned the volume up on her CD player.
By 1:45, she was seriously struggling to stay awake. She’d had three cups of coffee and now had a thumping headache caused either by the caffeine or the loud music. But she was determined to carry on.
A few minutes later, Tonto came in and curled up on the bed, only to depart a few minutes later giving her a disgruntled look as he trotted out. He’d never been keen on music and with his sensitive hearing it was obviously too much for him at the present volume. But Dawn knew she’d probably fall asleep if she turned it down.
She was so tired…
Her head jerked up. Had she dropped off for a second? Why had the music stopped?
The main light was on in her room, but the bedside lamp was turned off. Ben’s lamp was nowhere to be seen and neither, she realised with a start, was the tray she’d brought up from the kitchen or her CD player.
The clock told her it was 2:01am.
If the objects she’d brought with her to keep her awake had disappeared, there was only one logical – or illogical – explanation.
“Damn, bugger and shit!” she yelled, leaping to her feet. Five minutes – ten at most. That was the longest she could have dropped off for – ten lousy minutes!
Letting out a primal growl, she banged both fists against the wall, “Damn, damn, damn!” Salty tears began racing down her face – if the coffee things had disappeared, what else would have changed? Had she squandered away the hope of mending her relationship with Gary for the sake of a five-minute nap?
Her head whipped round to look for it, but there was no sign of the bloody book. Scrambling onto her hands and knees, she scoured the floor, pushing her fingers under the edge of the bed in case it had fallen and somehow slid underneath the divan. But it wasn’t there; it wasn’t anywhere.
Kneeling on the floor, Dawn wept.
Tonto made a ‘frrup’ noise from above her, on the bed and Dawn looked up. She must have fallen asleep on the floor and now it was after half past seven.
She gazed, bleary-eyed at the cat. He was eyeing her up as if trying to decide whether to jump down on top of her or not.
“Don’t you bloody dare,” she grumbled, pushing herself up to a sitting position with her legs curled to one side. She reached out to stop him and he pushed his head up to meet her fingers.
Ignoring him completely, her eyes sought out the journal in its usual place, until she remembered that it had been missing after she’d dropped off in the early hours of the morning.
So today she’d have no means of discovering what changes had taken place before encountering them. It was bad enough that she’d fallen asleep without there being no damned journal to help her keep up with the ever-shifting events in her life.
What did it all mean? Was she mad? There could be no other answer.
Tonto jumped down off the bed and strode confidently onto her lap, curling into as small a ball as a cat of his size could manage. Dawn felt the tension in her shoulders and back ease a little and stroked the cat gently – an unspoken ‘thank you’ for helping to calm her nerves.
She wondered what today would bring. Would Custard be here? That seemed unlikely as she hadn’t turned up along with Tonto and… no, a quick glance confirmed that there was no photo of Custard in the frame either.
What about Sarah? Was she alive or dead? Married or single? Who knew? If she was dead after Dawn had deliberately avoided seeing her yesterday, she’d never forgive herself.
And then there was Gary. She sighed. Last night had probably been wiped from existence and perhaps he was even with Janet again now.
Her whole body drained of energy and she slowly slumped sideways, forcing Tonto off her lap as she collapsed down to lay on the floor. What was the point in getting up? What was the point of existing?
Tonto rubbed his wet nose along her forearm, dragging her back from the edge of despair with a shiver of disgust.
“Fraow!” he insisted – a simple demand for breakfast.
Pushing herself up to a sitting position once more, Dawn stared at her cat and gave a tight smile. “Now you’re being a selfish git!” she muttered. “Can’t a girl wallow in self-pity for five minutes without you insisting on breakfast? It’s OK for you – I don’t imagine you know anything is different.”
Tonto stared at her unimpressed, his head tilted slightly.
“OK, OK,” she grumbled, heaving herself up onto her feet. “I suppose I should be grateful that you’ve been the one constant thing through all of this – except for when you disappeared, but that was merely a journal entry as far as I’m concerned. With no Custard again today, it’ll just be you and me for breakfast.”
Dawn snatched Ben’s stone from underneath her pillow, donned her dressing gown and shoved the pebble into its single pocket. She trudged out of the bedroom with Tonto following eagerly close behind.
As she passed Ben’s room, she noticed the door was ajar. She pulled it shut and was about to continue down the stairs when she heard Sarah’s voice call out from Ben’s room.
“Hello? You can come in if you like – I’m decent.”
What was Sarah doing here, Dawn wondered? Tentatively, she retraced her steps to Ben’s room. “I thought you’d be asleep,” she called.
“No. I’ve been awake for hours. Can’t stop thinking about Pete,” replied her friend, miserably. “Come in, Dawn. I could use some sympathetic company.”
Dawn’s mind raced. Sarah had slept in Ben’s bedroom. For one night or more? And she sounded very glum – something to do with Pete. Had he left her at the altar, broken off their engagement, died even? Damn not having a journal!
Steeling herself for seeing a ‘ghost’, she pushed open Ben’s door and peered inside.
Sarah was fully dressed, sitting on the edge of Ben’s bed tapping away on her mobile phone, her thick, dark hair flopped forward concealing her face.
“Who are you texting?” asked Dawn, hoping for a clue to help her determine what was going on today.
“Pete,” answered Sarah, glancing up briefly and revealing red-rimmed eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.
Well, that wasn’t much help, was it?
Dawn tried again. “Is that a good idea?” she asked softly, hoping she was reading the situation accurately.
Sarah sighed heavily and threw the phone face down on the bed with such force that it bounced on the covers before dropping onto the floor.
“No, I suppose not. He’s not going to reply anyway, is he? He’s got his hands full.” She spat out a giggle. “Possibly literally – who knows? If he ‘doesn’t want commitment’,” she used her fingers to draw speech marks in the air, “he could have easily moved on to the next poor sap-of-a-girl by now. Perhaps I should put up a post on social media saying, ‘Hey all you ladies out there, watch out for Pete Pritchard – he’s a total commitment-o-phobe who will just use you and then break your heart’. You wouldn’t think that a man of his age would still have that problem, would you? I should have guessed by the fact that he’s never been married, I suppose – red warning lights flashing all over the place and me too smitten to even see them.” Sarah put her hands up to her face, palms covering her eyes. “Maybe I shouldn’t drive – I might jump a red traffic light and cause an accident.”
Dawn had crossed the room and was sitting next to Sarah with one arm wrapped around her friend’s shoulder. As Sarah sobbed, Dawn wondered how a few days ago, Sarah had been married to Pete – if as she said, he was frightened of commitment how had that ever even been a possibility?
Perhaps he’d wed Sarah despite his fears and their marriage had been doomed to failure from day one. Dawn’s own relationship with Gary seemed to alter from day to day, from distant through discordant to optimistic. So surely anything could happen – anything could change.
She didn’t have time to wonder about her own relationship right now though; her friend was distraught and needed a shoulder to cry on. At least Sarah’s emotional situation had distracted Dawn from falling apart at seeing someone apparently resurrected.
Sarah turned and flung her arms around Dawn’s neck, burying her face in her shoulder.
On the floor, the phone buzzed to indicate it had received a text message.
Dawn shifted slightly, automatically bending down to pick it up.
“No, leave it!” insisted Sarah, her voice muffled by Dawn’s dressing gown. “If it’s him, I don’t want to see it and if it’s anyone else they can wait.”
Dawn felt helpless; she didn’t know any of the background to this story at all. She had never met Pete, she knew nothing about what kind of man he was beyond what Sarah had told her and she had no idea how serious the relationship between her best friend and Pete had been either – she didn’t even know how long they’d been seeing each other. There wasn’t any way she could help the woman weeping on her shoulder without potentially putting her foot in it and saying something stupid, unhelpful or just outright confusing.
She decided to simply let her friend cry until she was ready to talk, then to try and take her cues from whatever Sarah decided to tell her.
The two sat without speaking for several minutes. Sarah’s shoulders shook every now and again and after a little while Dawn reached for a tissue from the box next to Ben’s photo. Sarah took it from her, mumbling something that sounded vaguely like ‘thanks’, then blew her nose loudly.
Finally lifting her head, Sarah looked Dawn in the eye, her expression one of desperation; the same expression Dawn had tried to avoid seeing in the mirror every morning in the months straight after Ben died.
“Thank you for letting me stay here. I couldn’t go back to the house after he… after he…” her voice rose in pitch and the last word came out only as a high-pitched squeal. Sarah gulped, opened up the tissue and used it to wipe both eyes simultaneously. “I’m going to have to go home – Bluebell needs feeding.”
“Isn’t Pete there?” asked Dawn. “Couldn’t he feed her?”
Sarah frowned. “No. He left yesterday afternoon. With a bag full of his stuff. I told you.”
“Yes, of course you did. Sorry,” Dawn murmured – she should have stayed quiet, like she’d decided only a few minutes ago. Stupid woman, she chided herself. “I could go up and feed Bluebell if you like. Then you can have a shower and some breakfast and take your time. You don’t have to go home until you’re ready.”
The edge of Sarah’s mouth managed a twitch of a smile. “Thanks – you’re a good friend. But I have to get on don’t I? I can’t just wallow in my own misery.”
Dawn’s face fell. Wallowing in it was exactly what she had done – first when Ben died, then when Gary left. She’d been doing it moment ago too, until Tonto had talked her into getting him breakfast.
“Heavens, I didn’t mean… I never intended… Oh, I’m sorry, Dawn,” sputtered Sarah, reaching for her friend’s hand.
“No, no. It’s alright. I know you weren’t judging me – only dealing with your own situation. You gave me a bit of a kick in the conscience, that’s all.”
“No.” Dawn shook her head. “Stop apologising. I’m fine. In fact I think I’ve moved on quite a lot over the past few days. Right now though, I want to concentrate on you. You need my support and I’m bloody well going to give it, whether you want it or not!”
They both laughed.
“I do want your support,” said Sarah. “Thank you for offering. If you don’t mind me using your towels I’ll take you up on that shower and breakfast. Then I’d be really grateful if you’d come with me when I go home – just for the first few minutes.”
Dawn nodded and stood up. “I’ll find you some towels, then.”
An hour later, Dawn and Sarah left the house and strolled together up the hill to Sarah’s.
“I thought I heard you crying in the night,” Sarah revealed quietly.
Dawn glanced at her friend and saw concern in her eyes. The tears in the night had been borne of frustration at having fallen asleep and the likelihood that events would have changed yet again as a result – especially after she had made such a Herculean effort to begin mending her relationship with Gary.
The realisation that they hadn’t been sad tears, as had been the case most other mornings since Ben died, surprised her and she gave herself a mental pat on the back.
“Are you OK?” asked Sarah leaning forward and touching her friend’s arm with her fingertips.
Dawn gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Not wanting to detract from Sarah’s problem, she said, “I’m fine – really. I had a nightmare and woke up crying. It was a silly dream actually, one of those confusing mixed up ones. I’m not even sure why it made me cry.”
Her friend didn’t look convinced. “Honestly. Cross my heart,” Dawn added, drawing the sign on her chest with her index finger while concealing the crossed fingers on her other hand behind her back.
Inside Sarah’s house, they were immediately greeted by Bluebell who stretched her front paws up onto her owner’s leg, flexing her claws carefully.
“Did you miss me, baby girl?” asked Sarah through pouted lips, leaning down to stroke the cat’s head. Turning to Dawn, she managed a brief smile. “Thanks for letting me stay last night. You can come in if you’d like to, but I think I’ll be alright now. I mean I won’t be completely alright – of course – but I’ll get over it. It’s a good job I found out now rather than another four months’ time.”
“Why four months?” asked Dawn.
“Another four months – it’s how long I’ve been seeing Pete. It hasn’t been all that long in the scheme of things and it’s only been a couple of weeks since he brought a bag full of overnight stuff around to leave in my bathroom.” She gave a little snort. “I should have realised even then; he brought the bare essentials and nothing more – as if he wasn’t intending on hanging around for long. Oh well.”
“Ah,” responded Dawn. Four months. Custard had first arrived six months ago, so Sarah and Pete’s relationship didn’t predate her arrival at least. But why was there no journal this morning – if changes have been happening for that long, surely there should be a record somewhere? She’d certainly have written something down to help her keep track of events.
She realised her friend was staring at her.
“Are you sure you’re OK, Dawn? I’m worried about you.”
“And I’m worried about you too,” countered Dawn. “So that makes two of us. Let’s go out for lunch together, shall we? We can spend an hour or so in Rainbows chatting about anything but men, then go for a wander around the shops.”
“Aren’t you working this afternoon?” asked Sarah.
“Day off,” lied Dawn, wondering where she was supposedly working now. It didn’t matter anyway. Wherever it was, they’d manage without her.
“Right then, you’re on! I’ll call for you at 11:30 and we can stroll down the hill together. Come on then, Bluebell – time for breakfast.”
Dawn turned away and ambled down towards home. Her hand slid into her pocket, encircling Ben’s stone.
Dawn soon found the journal. It had been shoved into the drawer of her dressing table – probably because Sarah was in the house and she hadn’t wanted it discovered.
Today, the journal was in a different book again – this time a large ring binder file with loose-leaf pages. Yesterday’s entry was on the top, so she started there. If she’d only found it sooner, she thought as she began reading. It might have helped her respond better to Sarah’s situation.
Sunday 13th June
1) Pete left Sarah. She’s in a bit of a state so I offered for her to stay here tonight. It means giving her Ben’s room, but I can do that.
Just realised, I’ve started with the last event first – never mind, who cares about order when you live in chaos?
2) Went downstairs this morning to find a massive fish tank in the living room. I like tropical fish, but haven’t had any since I was a child. They seem to amuse Tonto and Custard and I’m happy enough to have them.
3) Thought I’d lost Ben’s stone! It wasn’t under my pillow this morning – where I always put it. I panicked a bit – well, a lot – but then I found it underneath the bed. It must have fallen out from under my pillow and rolled there. I was so relieved to find it.
4) Food in the fridge is different, clothes washing I did yesterday is right back in the wash bin – all the usual sort of stuff – yada yada yada!
No mention of Gary. She turned a couple of pages, scanning for his name. Finally she found it, in late May.
Wednesday 26th May
What the hell is happening? I found this journal earlier today when I was looking for my gold hoop earrings. I couldn’t believe what it said. It goes back almost to the beginning of May. And it’s bizarre – none of it can be true – except apparently it is.
Gary has left me. All his clothes are gone from the wardrobe, and his toiletries from the bathroom – everything’s gone. He went early last month according to my neighbour, Beryl. He wasn’t there when I woke up, but I assumed he’d got up and gone to work early, as he so often does.
From what I’ve read, we’ve been suffering relationship problems since Ben died. It really doesn’t make sense! And speaking of making sense, this journal certainly doesn’t. It’s full of inconsistencies and nonsense, but it’s all in my handwriting. Have I gone mad?
Yesterday everything was normal, as far as I know. Gary and I were going through some of Ben’s belongings and I found his lucky stone. Gary said I should keep it as a memento of our lovely boy, so I did. But after such a good day yesterday, today everything is topsy-turvy and turned around and inside out.
I tried calling Gary but he wouldn’t even speak to me. What in hell has happened? I’m writing in here because… well, because that’s what I seem to have been doing. I suppose it makes sense to keep a record. I hope I wake up tomorrow to find all this has been a crazy dream. It must be.
So on 26th May she’d forgotten Gary leaving again and their relationship had apparently been sound before that. She frowned and reread the entry. It said she had found Ben’s stone the day before things started to go crazy. She was pretty certain that she’d read exactly the same in a previous version of the journal and she clearly remembered finding Ben’s lucky charm in his pocket the day before everything started going loopy too. Was this a common thread somehow? How could a simple pebble have anything to do with it? It was ‘just a bloody stone’ after all, an inanimate object.
She reached into her pocket and pulled it out, staring at it as it lay in her palm.
She gazed at if for several seconds and then shook her head vigorously. “It’s a sodding stone. Ben’s lucky charm. Nothing fancy, nothing weird, nothing supernatural – only a lump of rock. Really, Dawn – reality check time, love!”
She shoved the pebble into her pocket and decided to see how far back today’s version of the journal went – early May had been mentioned, hadn’t it?
Dampening her index finger on the inside of her bottom lip, she flipped over the pages until she came to the last one. It was for Saturday 8th May, almost a month out of sync with her own experiences.
She considered reading every entry to scan for any indication of what the real trigger for the changes could be. But she was tired – not physically, but mentally. Every day more changes – some small, others huge, but every day they were there. On the one day when nothing seemed to have changed, she was now convinced that something had been different – at work. That awful man who’d answered the telephone when she’d called in sick; he hadn’t known who she was. He hadn’t known Ann either and she’d been working there in the office ever since the store opened and was a bubbly person who made friends with absolutely everybody. He’d know Ann for sure. She hoped Ann was alright.
Closing the journal’s purple cover, she made room for it on her dressing table. She’d get around to reading it thoroughly later.
As she made her way downstairs, she wondered how the journal only went back about a month when Sarah said she’d been seeing Pete for four months. Their relationship was clearly one of Dawn’s changes, but somehow it didn’t tally up with the journal. But then, a few days ago Sarah and Pete had been married. How long must they have known each other before getting hitched? Surely it took months to organise a wedding let alone to be at the point in a relationship where marriage was on the cards. And there was Custard too, the little cat who had apparently come into her life six months ago – how had she forgotten that?
It occurred to her that the changes in her life might have started even longer ago. Maybe even those ‘I swear I put the keys in my handbag, but they’re not here now’ moments were actually tiny changes in events that she had written off as memory lapses?
“Pfffuh!” she spat, rolling her eyes. Now she was being ridiculous! Those silly little things happened to everyone.
But Dawn had so many questions in her head that she almost felt dizzy with them. A host of questions and no answers – not one – not that made sense, anyway.
That evening after Dawn turned off the TV, she debated trying to stay awake again tonight. Perhaps she should hold her hand above a bowl of ice water so that, in the event that she fell asleep, her arm would drop and the shock of the cold water would waken her.
It wouldn’t work if even a single moment of sleep was enough to make the changes happen though. She would have to think of something else to keep her conscious through the entire night.
But reflecting on her day, there didn’t seem to be any reason to avoid changes right now – nothing particularly positive had occurred today; nothing that she desperately wanted to avoid being undone. She would, she decided, bide her time. Wait for a good day and make sure she was rested enough, when it came, that she wouldn’t fall asleep and lose it all again.
Yes, that was the best idea. A night’s sleep might even fix Sarah’s relationship with Pete. She smiled at the happy, unselfish thought and made her way upstairs to bed.
Chapter 15 – Tuesday 15th June
Dawn woke up feeling remarkably positive – a feeling to which she was particularly unaccustomed. Somehow, even though she knew there would be changes again today, she felt more in control. Not of the changes, she realised, and not of her life, but of herself.
It was light outside, so she sprang out of bed and threw open the curtains, freeing the morning sun to spill into her room.
Padding across the carpeted floor, she grabbed the journal – back to the original book today, she noted – and slipped once more into bed.
She was about to flip it open, but found herself hesitating.
“You know what? Surprise me!” she challenged, with a confident jiggle of her head. “I can take it.”
With that, she tossed the book onto the dressing table, ignoring the faint whisper from her inner voice telling her that she needed to read the journal – to be prepared.
“Tonto?” she called, wanting company to distract her from that tiresome little inner voice. She deliberately avoided looking up at her photo frame too.
She smiled as she heard the clatter of paws bounding up the stairs; by the sound of it, Custard would be with her today too.
A moment later, her suspicion was confirmed as both Tonto and Custard appeared simultaneously beside her. She stroked each of them in turn. “Good morning, both of you,” she said just as Custard reared up onto her back legs and rubbed her face against her owner’s chin, leaving a soggy patch of saliva that Dawn wiped away with her knuckle. She giggled.
As she scratched behind Custard’s ear, she wondered why it was that she was feeling so good today. Was it the summer sunshine pouring in through the window? That was lovely, but not the reason behind her good mood.
“Life is what you make it,” she told Custard. “But not for me – all I can change is today. Tomorrow it could all be wiped away. So why am I feeling good?” she paused, chewing on her top lip. Her eyebrows lifted in recognition. “Because I’ve decided to take everything as it comes and not get dragged down by things I can’t change. Hah! If only I’d decided that months ago!”
If only indeed.
She showered and dressed in quick succession, the half-empty wardrobe in her bedroom confirming that Gary wasn’t living with her today. Then she pocketed Ben’s stone.
Hurrying along the landing, she passed her son’s bedroom and was three steps down the staircase when she wrinkled her nose and stopped. The two cats eyed her suspiciously from the bottom of the stairs, having raced ahead of her in their eagerness to be fed.
“No. Can’t do it,” she admitted, retracing her steps. “I’ll check what colour the walls are today and leave it at that,” she told herself out loud.
Shoving the door open rather too hard, so that the handle banged against the wardrobe, she took a single, large sidestep into the room.
Green. Ben’s room was green and Gary wasn’t there. So far she was right back where the silliness had all started – on the day that Custard appeared. Where would things lead from here?
She checked the side of Ben’s wardrobe to see if she’d dented it with the door handle then, satisfied that she hadn’t done any damage, trudged back out onto the landing.
She paused to think for a moment. Then, although she acknowledged that it wasn’t exactly a daring idea, she decided she would leave Ben’s room open today. It could be part of the house – part of normal existence instead of somewhere she went to hide away from reality.
Joining the cats in the kitchen, she quickly fed them then prepared a slice of toast and a glass of milk for herself.
Once she’d finished, she took her plate into the kitchen and deposited it next to the sink. She glanced up at the kitchen clock. It was quarter past eight.
Sarah would be leaving for work in a few minutes, if she was at home and not off on honeymoon – or dead, her irksome inner voice suggested menacingly, but Dawn chose to ignore it again. So she quickly picked up her bag and dashed off up the hill to Sarah’s house, deciding that it might be nice to meet Pete at last, if he was there.
She was a few steps away from the front step when the door flew open and Sarah appeared.
“Hi Dawn. I’m just on my way out – is everything alright?”
“Yes, fine. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that I wouldn’t normally expect to see you at this time of day, that’s all,” Sarah explained with a half-smile and a quick glance at her watch.
Dawn nodded. “I was wondering how everything is with you – and with Pete.”
Her friend rolled her eyes and sighed. “Still no luck – him and Louisaaaaah from accounting seem all loved up. He wouldn’t notice me if I fell down the lift shaft right in front of him. Never mind, eh? There’s plenty more fish in the sea and all that crap! And besides, between you and me,” she leaned in to whisper in Dawn’s ear, “I think he’s about to make a move on Ellie from payroll – she’s only nineteen too, so he’s old enough to be her father for goodness’ sake. If he goes out with her, that’ll be the third girl from work he’s dated since he started, so I’m probably better off without him anyway. He might be handsome and charismatic, but so is Johnny Depp.”
Dawn squinted at her friend. “Your point being?” she asked.
Sarah sucked her cheeks in and gazed skyward for a moment. “You know what? I haven’t a clue,” she said, grinning broadly. “But I do love Johnny Depp. Anyway, I promised to get in a bit early to finish polishing up my presentation for this afternoon. Perhaps we can catch up this evening?”
“How about we have a girls’ night out tonight, then? We could go out for a meal or something and have some girly chit-chat,” Dawn suggested. “We could spend the evening slagging off Pete’s taste in girlfriends.”
Sarah grinned even wider. “That would be great. Look forward to it.”
Dawn stepped aside to let Sarah pass and watched as she backed her car onto the road, giving her a cheery wave as she drove away.
No Pete today either. Oh well, maybe she’d meet him tomorrow – although it didn’t sound like he was good enough for Sarah at all. Why on earth had she married him? Except today, she hadn’t, of course.
Dawn shrugged her shoulders and trounced off down the road to her own house once more, her feelings about Pete now completely mixed up. If Sarah had married him, surely he couldn’t be all bad, even if the revelations about his relationship-hopping were true.
No! She wasn’t going to start second-guessing. Today was today and tomorrow would be what it would be. Stuff it all! She’d just make the best of the here and now and enjoy a meal out with her best friend that evening.
As she approached home, she noticed the sound of a ringing telephone and, realising it was hers rather than a neighbour’s, she fumbled with the key in her hurry to get to it before it stopped ringing.
Almost falling in through the front door and not even closing it behind her, she grabbed the phone. “Hello!”
The voice the other end of the line sounded frail and wobbly. “Hello, Dawn?”
“Yes, this is Dawn. Who’s this?”
“It… it’s Beryl, dear.” There was a long pause followed by a weak groan.
“Beryl, are you alright?” asked Dawn anxiously. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve had a bit of an accident dear. I fell you see…” there was another groan.
“I’ll call an ambulance. Don’t hang up – I can use my mobile phone and that way I can keep talking to you too.” Dawn lifted her shoulder to wedge the receiver in place beside her cheek while reaching into her bag and rummaging around to locate her mobile. “Whereabouts in the house are you?” she asked Beryl.
“I’m in the hall. I fell down the stairs – well, the last five or six of them anyway. My chest hurts. I only just managed to get to the telephone. I thought I was going to faint but…”
Dawn had found her mobile phone and dropped her handbag onto the hall floor, reaching out to shut her front door with one foot when she noticed Custard creeping cautiously towards it. She managed to unlock her mobile using only her right thumb on the keypad, then dialled 999.
“Beryl, are you still there?” she asked apprehensively.
There was silence the other end of the line, then eventually a weak voice replied, “Just about, lovey.”
On the other telephone, the operator answered. “Emergency, which service do you require?”
“Ambulance, please,” answered Dawn. “My elderly neighbour has had a fall.”
“Are you with her now?” asked the operator.
“No. She called me on the phone – on my landline that is. She fell down the stairs and says she has pain in her chest.”
Once she had given the emergency operator all the details, Dawn hung up her mobile phone and returned to speaking with Beryl. Luckily, it turned out that her neighbour had a key secreted in a security box that looked like a wall-mounted garden ornament near her front door. The old lady revealed the code to access it and Dawn was soon inside.
She immediately saw Beryl propped up against the leg of the hall table, the telephone receiver still in her hand. Dawn looked her over quickly as she rushed to her side and replaced the receiver for her. There was a small amount of blood running in a rivulet down her face from a minor cut on her forehead but no other wounds that Dawn could see.
First crouching, then sitting next to the old lady on the floor, Dawn suggested that Beryl could lean against her rather than the wooden table leg.
“I don’t think I should move,” explained Beryl. “They always say you shouldn’t move until the ambulance people arrive, in case you’ve broken anything and it makes matters worse. Besides,” she winced and grunted in pain, “I’m not sure I could move if I wanted to. Goodness only knows how I got myself to the telephone.”
Through the glass panel in the front door, Dawn saw the ambulance arrive and a few seconds later a tall, burly paramedic let himself in.
“Why didn’t you call the ambulance yourself?” Dawn asked her. “You managed to get to the telephone but you rang me instead of calling 999.”
The old lady looked at her blankly, then frowned. “What a shame I never thought of that!” she said, managing a weak smile. “My son always says my brain will never save my life, and apparently he’s right. Still, you were there to help me, weren’t you?”
Dawn shook her head in disbelief. “I’d just arrived home. If I’d been a few seconds later I might never have even heard the phone ringing. And it doesn’t look like you’d be able to reach up to the table to dial another number.” Not that she even remembered having given Beryl her telephone number, but that didn’t matter now – or at all, come to that.
The old lady’s face paled. “No, you’re quite right. I don’t know how I dragged myself upright enough to dial your number. It’s lucky that I have it written in large writing on my notepad after you gave it to me last week.”
“Well then,” said the paramedic. “It looks as though you might have cracked a couple of ribs, love. Stay put there and me and Jim will get you into the ambulance and whisk you off up to the hospital for some X-rays and to have you checked over. You’re lucky your neighbour arrived home when she did, very lucky.”
Dawn’s mind was spinning. What if Beryl had fainted before she could convey the code to access her key? What if one of her cracked ribs had punctured her lung? What if the fall had broken her neck and she had…
The paramedic’s voice broke her away from her negative thoughts.
“Thanks for helping. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to contact her next of kin for her and tell them what happened and where she is.”
“Yes, of course!” She quickly located an address book beside the telephone. “What’s your son’s name again, Beryl?”
“Jeremy. Jeremy Potter. His wife’s name is Sue.”
“Right then,” Dawn responded. “I’ll give him a call as soon as you’re gone. Then I’ll pop upstairs and collect some overnight things for you and meet you at the hospital.” She couldn’t believe how unruffled her voice sounded. She was being helpful, logical and practical – almost like the Dawn that had existed before Ben died.
“Thank you, dear,” replied the old lady, reaching out a shaking hand as the paramedics wheeled her outside on a trolley bed. “It seems I was right to call you after all!”
Dawn watched the paramedics transfer Beryl into the ambulance, then took the address book back to her house with her, locking her neighbour’s front door after her.
That evening, when Sarah arrived to drive them both to their favourite restaurant, Dawn related the events of the morning. She had dealt with calling the ambulance and, after Beryl was taken away, had rung her son to tell him about his mother’s accident. Then, as promised, she had collected overnight things for the old lady and taken them up to the hospital.
As they pulled up in a side road near to the restaurant, Dawn said, “I was sitting on the bus on my way home before it hit me that the last time I’d been in the hospital was when Ben died. And even when I did think of it, it didn’t upset me really. It was just kind of ‘Oh yes – that was the last time I was there’, and that was it. No tears. No panic attack. No blaming myself for his death. But then I felt guilty – guilty that I hadn’t cried, guilty that I hadn’t even thought of it until afterwards. I’m stupid, aren’t I?”
“No, of course not!” Sarah reassured her. “Grief is an evolving process. It doesn’t stay the same forever. And the fact that it changes isn’t a reflection on you, simply a function of time.”
Dawn nodded. A function of time.
She gulped and a tear slid down her cheek. “I don’t want to forget him,” she mumbled.
Sarah leaned across and laid a hand on top of Dawn’s own. “You won’t forget him, not ever. You might just remember him a little less painfully as time goes on, that’s all. You have so many good memories to hold onto and you can talk about him whenever you like.”
Dawn extricated one of her hands and used a knuckle to wipe away the tear. “That was the problem with Gary,” she said, sniffing. “He didn’t want to talk about Ben. It was as if he wanted to forget him and I couldn’t let that happen.”
“I know. He couldn’t cope with the intensity of the pain of thinking about Ben, so he tried to shut it out.”
“He shut me out too. But I understand why now. I can see his point of view – even if I can’t agree with it. We simply found different ways of coping that were completely at odds with each other. I’ve been meaning to talk to him about it – to see if we can sort things out.”
Sarah frowned. “I thought you’d already done that last week. You asked him to dinner and tried to get him to talk stuff through. It ended badly, as I recall.”
“Yes but…” Dawn stumbled, trying to find a way out of the corner she’d unwittingly backed herself into. “But I want to try again. I need to try again. There must be something I can do to start mending bridges between us. We can’t throw away all those years as if they meant nothing.”
Silence settled between the two women.
Dawn patted Sarah’s arm. “Let’s get back to our pleasant evening shall we? I can worry about Gary another time. I’d decided that today would be positive and I don’t want to put a dampener on it now.”
She picked up her handbag and climbed out of the car.
In bed that night, Dawn went to turn off the bedside light, but her fingers hesitated over the switch. She hadn’t made a journal entry today, and something inside her was insisting that she had a duty to do so.
That morning, she had made the choice not to read anything in the book – to let the day happen as it would without any preconceptions and if that was the case, was there any point writing her daily entry knowing she wouldn’t read it?
Thinking back over the day, she considered her situation. Read the journal every day and be forewarned about the changes; if she did that, she would know where she was – and where Gary was too, come to that. Had there really been any advantage to not reading up in advance for today?
No, not really she decided, her shoulders slumping. She’d been so buoyant this morning that she’d felt ready for anything. And of course that was good – very good in fact. But if she’d had the positive attitude and the benefit of having read the journal, perhaps things would have been better still. Yes, that seemed most likely.
Besides, she had to tell tomorrow’s Dawn to visit Beryl in the hospital. Tomorrow’s Dawn? What did that even mean? She was the same Dawn every day, wasn’t she?
But what if she wasn’t? Every day it felt as if she was a different version of herself and tomorrow’s Dawn needed to be told to go and visit Beryl. If she didn’t go, the poor dear would be alone, since her son couldn’t get there until Friday evening. Beryl was relying on her. Not on her son, but on Dawn. If she wrote it down, she could make sure Beryl got the support she needed. Unless she decided not to read the journal again tomorrow, of course!
With a deep sigh, she pulled herself to a seated position with her legs dangling over the side of the bed. She reached for the journal.
Ten minutes later, she closed the book and replaced it on the dressing table. There hadn’t been any surprises in the entries for the past few days – not after having lived through a day in the life of today’s Dawn, anyway. And she’d scribbled down a quick entry about Beryl’s accident and needing to visit her in hospital tomorrow.
As the darkness closed in around her and she felt herself beginning to drift off to sleep, she wondered what tomorrow would bring.
Chapter 16 – Wednesday 16th June
She opened her eyes slowly. She was lying on her front and her pillow was damp with saliva, so she lifted her head and turned the pillow over before allowing her head to collapse back onto it. Then she wiped her mouth clean with her thumb. At least it meant she’d had a good night’s sleep, she realised.
Turning her head towards the journal’s usual position, she frowned when she found it missing. Heaving herself to the side of the bed, she peered down onto the floor in case it had fallen off, but there was no sign of it anywhere.
Damn! She’d just decided that it was a good idea to read it after all and now there was nothing here to read!
Then she remembered that it hadn’t always been left on top of her dressing table so, still lying on her front, she slid open the top drawer and reached inside. Success!
As she lifted the book, she noticed that the pages looked well-thumbed. Hauling herself up to a seated position and dragging her pillow up behind her for support, Dawn placed the journal on her lap. It fell open at a page near the beginning.
Friday 19th March
She tipped the book over so that it opened onto the very first page.
Tuesday 10th March
Oh, my! How could that be? The journal entries she had written had started on 5th June. This one began almost three months earlier. Three months!
She read the first day’s entry.
1) Tonto is alive! I don’t understand how – it’s completely impossible. I thought at first that it must be another cat that looks exactly like him, but he answers to the name Tonto and he just is my Tonto, I know he is. Luckily, he seems to get on alright with Custard.
2) There’s a tank full of tropical fish in the living room.
3) There was a completely different bag hanging in the hall where I put my handbag. When I opened it, it was full of all my stuff, so I’m certain it’s mine, but I don’t remember buying it.
She reread the entry. She ought to feel shocked about Tonto – the Dawn who wrote this clearly thought he should be dead – but it would take even more than this to shock her nowadays. The date of this first entry was enough to unsettle her a bit though.
So there was a fish tank in the living room again. Well, she had always wanted fish, and Tonto and Custard would love watching them. And the bag? That was such small fry compared to the extreme changes she’d seen!
With that in mind, she wanted to find out what yesterday’s entry would tell her. She realised that she was so keyed up that her hands were shaking – nervous yet eager to find out about today’s version of yesterday.
She took a deep breath, dampened her thumb and leafed through the book until she came to the right page.
Tuesday 15th June
The writing was messy, she noted with a frown – almost illegible in places. And there was no neat numbering of different changes, just a couple of untidy paragraphs scrawled scruffily on the page, not even managing to stay on the lines.
Tuesday 15th June
If you’re reading this, then you need to know: it’s real – all of it is real. Everything happened precisely how you remember it. But then overnight things change and you’re the only one who sees that it’s changed.
Every day is a little bit different – some days more than others. But nothing is predictable. And don’t bother staying awake overnight – it makes no difference. That’s how I found out – I sat up in bed last night determined to stay awake to prevent any more changes happening, reasoning that it’s caused by something changing in my brain when I go to sleep, so staying awake might stop it. But the mug of coffee I’d made myself to keep me awake disappeared right in front of my eyes! It was as if it just blinked out of existence. The time was 1:57am exactly.
When I went downstairs, the mug was back in the kitchen cupboard – clean, dry and cold. I didn’t stop shaking for hours, but then I sat there and thought it all through and it has to be like I said before: things do change, but I’m the only one who knows about it. It’s like being in the middle of a science fiction story.
Keep on with the diary if you want – it won’t help you though and the doctors won’t be able to do anything for you either. No-one can help. All you can do is try to learn to live with it. And talk to Sarah – she always tries her best to support me… you… us. Good luck, Dawn.
She gaped at the page, her enthusiasm having disappeared like midday sun suddenly dissolving into starless night. She shivered.
“No. No, no! This is ridiculous; impossible and ridiculous.” But the entry was definitely in her handwriting. She ran her finger over the page as if hoping the words would fade away before her.
“God, I must be completely deluded. It’s nonsense! Get a bloody grip, Dawn.” She shut the book with a bang and shoved it back in the drawer, shutting it in there as if doing so would protect her from the problem. Then she scrambled out of bed to distance herself from it further.
“It can’t be true,” she muttered under her breath. How could it be true? It was mad – and she must have been mad to have written it. But she’d come to accept that every day was different and that her memories couldn’t all be delusions, so it wasn’t such a big deal was it? Just confirmation of a hypothesis. But hang on – if she’d written this, why didn’t she remember writing it? She didn’t understand what it all meant! Just when she was starting to feel more in control too!
But the more she thought about it, the more certain she was that trusting the journal wouldn’t be good enough for her. Despite the entry telling her not to bother, she was going to have to be awake at 1:57am to see with her own eyes if what it said was true.
What she’d read certainly fit with the events of the night when she’d tried to stay awake – she’d fallen asleep for a few minutes and it had been a few minutes before 2am. Was it really possible that the changes occurred at a given time, and weren’t just in her head? Even if she was awake at the appointed hour, how would she be a hundred per cent sure? It had been far easier to believe that the problem was with her memory than to conclude that the world around her actually changed.
The journal mentioned her holding a cup of coffee when things had ‘flipped’. It said that the mug had disappeared out of her hand and reappeared in the kitchen cupboard. Perhaps she should try that – or something similar. It seemed like a logical idea, and she seriously needed to cling onto logic right now.
It was either that or regress to believing she might be insane after all.
She wandered over to the full-length mirror and stared at herself for several seconds. Then she looked her reflection right in the eye.
“You’re not insane,” she told herself. “And talking to yourself certainly doesn’t make you mad either – quite the opposite. You need to know what’s really happening, so you’re using logic and reason to find out. Talking to yourself helps you sort through your thought processes – nothing mad about that.”
There was one way to find out for sure. Be awake at 1:57am. She laughed. She didn’t even need to stay awake all night – the journal was very specific about the time, so she simply had to set the alarm for 1:45 or 1:50 and wait.
If it really was true, wasn’t it also possible that there were other people like her who realised that something was wrong with the world? What if there were scientists working on the problem right now and they couldn’t make it public because of the panic it would cause?
She shook her head. She’d never believed in conspiracy theories, so she was probably overreacting.
A sudden image of Beryl in a hospital bed flickered into her mind and she reread the journal entry to see if she’d skimmed over any mention of her neighbour and an accident. No.
A niggling worry crept insidiously into her mind, forming slowly into a conscious thought. What if Beryl had fallen but she hadn’t been found? What if she was lying unconscious – or worse – at the bottom of her stairs?
Her plans for tonight temporarily forgotten, she leapt out of bed and quickly dressed, foregoing her usual shower in her haste. All the while her mind ran through possible scenarios with Beryl.
Glancing at her clock, she realised that it was only five to seven. If she called on Beryl at this time in the morning and the old lady was asleep, a wake-up call wouldn’t be appreciated. And yet, if her neighbour was injured and needed help, waiting a couple of hours might be the difference between life and death.
She might be in hospital. Perhaps some of the events from yesterday would have remained unchanged; after all, there were always things that were the same from day to day as well as the many changes.
Dawn went downstairs, shutting Tonto and Custard temporarily in the living room since the two were meowing for their breakfast, then picked up the telephone and rang the hospital.
“Hello, Queen Victoria Hospital,” said a male voice the other end of the line.
“Hello. My… mother was admitted yesterday after a fall at home and I was wondering how she is this morning. I was the one who called the ambulance for her.”
“Which ward was she admitted to? I can put you through to the nurses’ station.”
“Um…” Dawn hesitated. She clearly remembered Beryl being admitted to Garrett ward, but if events had changed and she was in a different ward today, the nurses on Garrett ward wouldn’t know anything about her. “I can’t remember. Could someone check for me, please?”
“I’ll transfer you to admissions. Hold the line, please.”
“Thank you,” muttered Dawn, although tinny music was already playing as the operator put her on hold.
Explaining the same partial lie to the woman in admissions, Dawn was asked to give ‘her mother’s’ name.
“It’s Mrs Beryl Lawson. Do you need an address?”
“No, that’s fine,” replied the woman. Dawn could hear the rhythmic tapping of deft fingers on a keyboard, followed by the irregular ‘click click’ of someone using a mouse.
“Beryl Lawson you say? She couldn’t have been admitted under any other name?”
“No. Definitely Beryl Lawson.”
“I’ll try searching on just her surname – sometimes names get mistyped and a full name search doesn’t find them. One moment, please.”
There was more tapping. “Are you sure it was this hospital? I’ve tried searching on her surname and on her first name and I can’t find any record of her being admitted here. She wasn’t perhaps taken to the neurological unit or another specialist unit, was she?”
Not knowing how to answer the question and Beryl clearly not having been admitted to the Queen Victoria Hospital yesterday after all, Dawn hastily hung up.
Well, that hadn’t been much help; the poor old lady could still be lying injured or dead inside her house.
If that was the case, then she’d be visible from the front doorway. But Beryl had a PVC front door with two narrow obscured glass panels, and there was no window that Dawn could peer through that would give her a view of that part of the house. All there was was a letterbox.
Her shoulders slumped. She had a sudden mental picture of herself crouched on her neighbour’s front step with her fingers shoved through the letterbox while looking up over her shoulder at an angry-looking postman. She’d have to make sure that no-one caught her in the act.
Five minutes later, feeling the nervous excitement and relief of a schoolgirl who’d just got away with putting a live spider in her teacher’s desk drawer without being found out, she returned home. Beryl’s front hall had been empty. Panic over.
She’d still pop in a bit later in the day to check on the old lady, but right now it was time to give the cats their breakfast.
After eating a bowl of cereal and watching the BBC news to catch up on world events (apparently there’d been a cyber-attack on an Internet dating website and Prince Charles had been making some noise over some obscure environmental issue), Dawn decided to go on the computer and check any recent posts on her social media page.
Frustrated to discover that she must have changed the password, she clicked on the ‘forgotten password’ link and waited for the e-mail that would allow her to go back in and reset it. Not that it helped – it turned out that her page had no recent posts of her own anyway – only a couple of random news items that Sarah had shared with her and a link to an article featuring pictures of cats with moustaches shared by an animal charity whose page she had apparently ‘liked’.
Realising that her journal was the best source of information she had, she turned off the computer and returned, rather reluctantly, to her bedroom.
She had to admit that, having read yesterday’s emotional entry, she had been put off reading any further in case there were any other unpalatable revelations. But, as difficult to accept as the shocking entry had been, it had given her useful information that she hadn’t had before. And that information was something she should and would act on. Couldn’t there be something in the journal about Gary, or about Sarah and Pete, or an earlier entry about Beryl? The journal was the one solid thing that appeared to belong in the day that she found it. Her idea to not read it and let events happen as they would seemed a distant memory and, in retrospect, a stupid notion to boot.
Resigned to the possibility of finding out things that she’d really rather not have to face, she sat on the edge of her bed, slid the journal onto her lap and rifled through to the final entry, deciding that working backwards was as logical a method as any.
Fifteen minutes later she closed the book, replacing it on her dressing table. She ran through a mental summary of what she had discovered: Sarah didn’t know Pete – either that or he hadn’t been important enough to warrant a journal entry. Gary had only moved out about a month ago and she hadn’t heard of any new woman in his life. She herself had been fired from her job at a local pharmacy about six weeks before he left; it seemed that she hadn’t been turning up to work very often. Luckily, her departing husband had told her that he’d continue paying the household bills for a year after which she’d ‘damned well better have sorted herself out and got a job’ because he wasn’t willing to ‘keep subsidising her’ if she ‘wasn’t willing to help herself’. Of Beryl she had found no mention at all.
So Gary was paying the bills. She contemplated why he would do this. He had apparently been quoted word for word in the journal, and his words sounded harsh and uncaring. But what he’d actually said – the underlying message – was that she needed to help herself and he’d given her the financial support to do that in her own time. He’d left her, but in a way he was still there – still supportive.
Hmm. He was trying to make her see that something had to change. How ironic, when everything kept changing and she couldn’t seem to do anything to stop it!
It occurred to her that the shifting sands upon which she now lived might continue to shift for the rest of her life. She shook her head and pushed the notion back down the deep dark hole from which it had crawled. No. It had to end sometime. It just had to.
After briefly dropping in next door to check on Beryl, who she caught in the middle of packing for a trip to visit her son Jeremy, Dawn spent the rest of the day trying – and failing – to distract herself from the task that lay before her that night.
As day turned to twilight, she found herself sitting in the living room, her chin resting on her palms, watching the tropical fish swimming round and round and round in their tank. It seemed to empty her mind somehow and she wondered whether this was why she had bought them – for fishy therapy.
She turned around to find Tonto and Custard sitting like bookends on the back of the settee behind her, both of them staring at the tank full of little fish. A wry laugh escaped her lips.
“Keep your eyes off my little fishy friends you pair of carnivores!” she admonished. Both cats glanced briefly at her, quickly returning to watching the fish.
Dawn sighed and stood up, immediately regaining the cats’ attention. “Come on then. Dinner time, you two.”
Tonto gave her the kind of knowing look that only a cat can give.
“Yes, yes. I should have eaten dinner myself – and lunch too, come to that. But I simply couldn’t face it. Anyway, you’re only bothered about yourself getting fed, so stop giving me grief.”
An hour later, her stomach growling with hunger, Dawn eventually grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. She still didn’t want to eat at all, but the grumbling and churning of her stomach had forced her to provide at least a small amount of fuel for the night ahead. She grudgingly crunched away at the crisp apple, avoiding a large, soft bruise, and then threw the core into the kitchen bin.
It was half past ten, she noted. Time for bed, she told herself, yawning. She would set her alarm clock and find out what 1:57am would bring.
Chapter 17 – Thursday 17th June
What the heck?
Dawn woke up already clambering to an upright position in her bed. She’d been dreaming. It was a nightmare about being surrounded by dozens and dozens of clocks that all read 1:56am. At the exact moment when they switched to 1:57, all of them had disappeared – like a sheet of tissue paper sucked into a vacuum cleaner nozzle – except for one. As she’d gazed at the remaining clock – the only one that wasn’t digital – two eyes had appeared on the clock face. They’d blinked open and stared at her menacingly. Then a nose had grown from the centre of the clock face, right where the hands were attached, followed by a twisted, angry-looking mouth. “Tick, tock, Dooooooooorn,” the clock had snarled aggressively.
She was glad to be awake.
Her head snapped round to face her own clock. The alarm was sounding; it was 1:50am. Seven minutes to go until… what? Would it really be like it said in the journal?
In her still half-awake state, she wondered how she would be certain that something had happened and thought back to the journal entry. It had said that a mug disappeared out of her hand and then reappeared in the kitchen cupboard. She needed to have something with her that she wouldn’t ordinarily have if she was just lying in bed.
She reached out to turn on a light but hesitated, her finger hovering over the switch. If things really changed at 1:57am mightn’t the light go out too, she reasoned? And her eyes were accustomed to the dark right now, so she’d certainly be able to see well enough to know whether or not an object had disappeared.
That was decided then, she’d leave the light off. But what object could she use for her experiment? She didn’t want to run off downstairs to fetch something because that would necessitate turning on the light, which she’d only just decided against. And anyway, she might miss the moment she’d woken up to witness and her broken night’s sleep would be for nothing.
In a flash of inspiration, she slid her arm under the pillow and drew out Ben’s lucky charm, running her fingertips over its smooth, warm surface.
What else? The stone by itself wasn’t enough. She needed more items – the more the better.
She opened a drawer, pulling out a trinket box containing a pair of earrings Ben had bought her, a manicure set, a tube of hand cream and an old diary she’d kept (goodness knows why) from 1981. She laid them all on her lap except for the stone which remained clasped tightly in her fist. Then she shut the drawer and stared at the clock.
She reopened the drawer, not to get something else out, but to see if it would shut by itself at the appointed hour. Would it be like having a poltergeist – some malicious ghost who would slam the drawer shut, she wondered? But the diary had clearly said that objects simply blinked out of existence, so in theory the drawer should be open one moment then closed the next. That would be weird – very weird indeed. If she blinked, she might miss it. If she didn’t blink, would it seem as though she had?
How could time pass so slowly? There was a saying, wasn’t there, that a watched pot never boils? It meant that time goes by slowly when you are impatiently waiting for something to happen. God, it seemed like hours though. She looked away for a moment but then felt compelled to look back at the clock.
Still 1:53am. She watched the dots between the numbers blinking away the seconds. Too slow, come on! She found herself counting the blinks. ‘Don’t wish your life away’ her mother had always told her when she complained of being bored as a child. Pfhhh! If she’d only known!
1:54am. Three minutes to go. Dawn continued counting the seconds. 23, 24, 25… At least she wasn’t tired anymore, so there was no chance she’d fall asleep and miss it. How stupid of her to drop off that other night she’d tried to stay awake – right when things were about to happen too!
1:55am. “Really? Come on!” she grumbled, immediately cussing as she lost count. Was it six or seven seconds she’d got to? Never mind, she’d only be a second or two out and she could correct any errors when the clock switched to 1:56am. 10, 11, 12…
Something landed on the bed next to her right leg, making her jump and squeal. It was Custard. “Hello, Custard,” she whispered, reaching out to stroke her and noting with a silent curse that she’d lost count again. “Come to join the party, have you? You might not want to be here – you could well be one of the things that vanishes, assuming anything does, of course.”
1:56am. At the change of minute, she recommenced her count, this time deciding to count down rather than up. Not long now.
Custard circled before laying at Dawn’s side. “On your head be it!” Dawn remarked, making a determined effort not to lose track of her count.
“5, 4, 3, 2, don’t blink…”
Holy…! The journal was right!
She hadn’t blinked, she was sure of it, but they were gone – Custard, the hand cream, the trinket box, manicure set and diary – all of them. No slow fade-out, no flickering, no flash of lightning and no being sucked into a vacuum cleaner nozzle; just there one moment and gone the next. And the drawer had shut too, without a sound.
But wait. Slowly, she uncurled her fingers, already sure what she would find. Ben’s stone sat solidly in her palm. “What…?”
She turned on the bedside light then checked the drawer, quickly confirming that all the items she’d taken out were now back inside. The trinket box, which she’d found in the front corner of the drawer, was now at the rear on the other side, but everything was definitely there.
She gulped and slowly closed the drawer, almost afraid that it would snap shut by itself or come to life, like the clock in her dream, and take a bite out of her.
Staring down at the talisman, she took a shuddering deep breath, blowing it slowly out between parted lips. What about poor Custard? Where was she now? Was she dead? Had she never lived? Panic welled up inside Dawn along with an overwhelming feeling of being responsible for the little cat’s demise. A sob escaped her lips.
“Tonto? Tonto! Tonto!” she called with increasing urgency, relieved to hear the almost immediate pounding of paws up the stairs. “Oh, Custard!” she gasped as both cats appeared simultaneously on the bed. “Oh, thank goodness! You haven’t blinked out of existence after all!”
Tears poured unchecked down Dawn’s face. She was immensely relieved that the little cat hadn’t disappeared completely, as she’d feared. She knew it was illogical to blame herself for something beyond her control but, being in the middle of all this, she blamed herself – rather illogically – for the changes. If Custard had simply ceased to exist, she hoped the cat herself would not have felt anything.
Dawn found her gaze drawn to the dressing table. Something was missing… The journal – it was gone too.
Reaching over, she opened the drawer once more but, having rifled through it moments before, she already knew the book was not inside. She checked the floor and the table on Gary’s side, but still there was no sign of it.
At least her husband hadn’t appeared next to her demanding to know what on earth she was doing. She would probably have just told him she’d woken up from a nightmare; it wouldn’t even have been a lie. And anyway, perhaps it would be nice to have him home, sharing her bed again.
What should she do now? She’d seen what she’d set her alarm to wake up for, hadn’t she? She decided to try to sleep – it was the middle of the night, after all and there was little else she could do at this hour.
She leaned over to turn off the alarm function on her clock only to find that it wasn’t set; one more thing that had changed a few minutes before, she reasoned.
After tucking the pebble beneath her pillow and turning off the light, she shuffled down between the sheets and Tonto and Custard curled up together beside her feet. As she lay there in the dark, she kept wondering why the items she’d chosen had all disappeared except for Ben’s stone. But as she finally drifted off to sleep almost an hour later, she was still none the wiser.
She dreamt of being in a garden with the pink-striped Cheshire cat sitting in a tree above her head. As she watched, the cat became transparent and faded away leaving only his grin behind. “Come back!” Dawn shouted as even the toothy grin blinked out of existence. “Please come back. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
It was late when Dawn woke up again – much later than she normally awoke anyway – just after eight o’clock.
She’d seen the moment when things changed, but it didn’t really help her at all. And with no journal to help either, she had no alternative but to take today as it came now. At least Custard was here – curled up and sleeping soundly on Gary’s pillow.
From beneath her own pillow, she retrieved Ben’s lucky stone, staring at it in wonder as she pondered why it had been the only one of her hastily gathered objects that hadn’t disappeared at 1:57am.
Suddenly, her chest tightened – a noise from downstairs; the cutlery drawer opening, the clatter of metal against metal and then the drawer being closed again.
Tonto lifted his head, gave a cavernous yawn and, despite Dawn’s best efforts to keep him on the bed, jumped down and sauntered out of the room.
She took a deep breath and told herself sternly to pull herself together. It had to be Gary. It wouldn’t be a burglar, would it? Would it…?
She decided to go downstairs and find out for sure, but her feet felt like lead weights. Perhaps she should call out then? But if it was a burglar, he’d know there was a woman alone in the house. She didn’t have a telephone in the bedroom to call the police – not that doing that was an option anyway – they could turn up only to find they’d been called out by some crazy woman scared of her perfectly harmless husband. Gary would not be impressed!
Creeping out of bed, she pulled on her dressing gown and tip-toed to the top of the stairs. She realised that Ben’s stone was still clasped in her fist and, reasoning that it wasn’t big enough to be useful as a weapon with which to threaten an intruder, she shoved it into her pocket.
She was about to start downwards when Tonto appeared in the bottom hall. Staring up at her, he tilted his head to one side and let out a plaintive meow.
Dawn froze. Then, as Tonto galloped up the stairs to meet her, took two small, swift steps backwards so that she couldn’t be seen by someone coming out of the kitchen.
She seized hold of the cat rather unceremoniously and shoved him into the bedroom, straight into the path of Custard, who had jumped off the windowsill a moment before. Then she pulled the door as far shut as she could without it making a noise; Tonto could open it, but he was pretty lazy and would almost certainly wait for a while to see if she would open it for him.
Then she peered cautiously over the bannister to see if there was anyone in the front hall.
As she crept tentatively forward, she heard someone in the kitchen filling the kettle. Burglars wouldn’t make themselves tea, would they? It had to be Gary.
Feeling somewhat reassured but still not completely safe, she descended the stairs quickly and quietly.
At the bottom, she turned to face the kitchen just as the realisation hit her that Gary would have appeared in bed beside her at 1:57am if he’d been here. Why ever hadn’t it occurred to her to check her photo frame?
The figure in the kitchen was taking a mug from the cupboard, his back facing towards her. He closed the cupboard, revealing a head of wavy brown hair. She recognised him instantly and her heart did a somersault. She had to reach out and grab the bannister to stop herself from collapsing.
“Ben!” she wailed.
Ben turned. Seeing his mother’s panic-stricken face, he hurried to her side and slid an arm around her shoulder.
“Mum, what’s wrong?”
“It can’t… it can’t be… you’re not… I must be…” she stammered, beginning to shake as she registered the weight of her son’s arm around her shoulder and felt the warmth of his living flesh through her thin dressing gown.
“Come with me. You need to sit down, Mum,” he asserted taking her by the elbow and leading her into the living room, leaving his tea behind.
As she allowed herself to be steered towards the sofa, Dawn couldn’t tear her eyes away from his face. Was this a dream? An hallucination? If it was neither of those then she had lost her grip on reality – whatever that was. Her heart was fluttering like a caged bird now, and her lips felt icy cold.
Lowering herself into the seat, she lifted one hand and stroked his cheek with the back of her quaking fingers. There was a day’s growth of stubble and he undoubtedly needed a shave but it was real flesh; real, warm, live flesh. So not an hallucination. A dream then – that must be it. Just another stupid dream. But she still couldn’t stop staring at her son’s handsome face.
“I… I can’t believe you’re here,” she stuttered. “It has to be a dream – except people in dreams never know they’re dreaming, do they?”
Ben frowned. “Why on earth do you think you’re dreaming? It’s the middle of June and I’m home from university for the summer. I arrived yesterday… didn’t I?”
“What do you mean ‘didn’t I’? Aren’t you sure?” she asked uncomprehendingly.
“Ermm, kind of.” He looked uncomfortable and avoided making eye contact. Then he said, “When do you think I arrived?”
Dawn searched for a way to answer. “I had a dream. Yes, a dream. You were dead – you got hit by a lorry and you died.”
“I see. A dream, you say? Are you sure?” He looked dubious.
“Mmm hmm,” she mumbled, nodding. “It must have been what woke me up. I’m still a bit… disoriented I suppose.”
Ben’s expression morphed into a thoughtful one, then his eyes widened. He tried to look Dawn in the eye, but she stared down at the floor instead, sensing that she’d been caught in a lie.
“So,” he said, standing up in front of her and pulling his T-shirt up. “You didn’t know about this?”
His abdomen bore a curved scar about eight inches long. It was obviously an old scar but the skin along its length was still slightly puckered and shiny.
Dawn flinched and her hands flew up to her mouth.
“Sorry Mum, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Ben said as he hurriedly re-tucked his T-shirt into his jeans. “It’s not my only scar either,” he said softly. “But given your reaction, I’ll spare you the others. I was hit by a lorry. It was touch and go for weeks. You and Dad were there at the hospital every day. I was lucky.”
“Lucky?” she said incredulously, the image of the scar still fresh in her mind.
“I could be dead.” His eyes narrowed as hers broadened. “But I think you already know that. From what you just told me about your ‘dream’ and the look on your face when you saw me in the kitchen, I’m going to make a really wild guess. Please don’t judge me and think I’m going crazy if I’m wrong, but here goes. You have my lucky stone, don’t you?”
Delving into her dressing gown pocket, Dawn took hold of the stone then reached her upturned fist towards her son. Slowly, she uncurled her fingers to reveal it to him.
“How did you know?” she asked.
Ben in turn reached into his jeans pocket, producing a second stone – the twin of the one she was holding – and held it so that the two sat side by side on opposite-facing palms.
“They look exactly the same,” she said, looking bewilderedly up at her son. “I don’t understand.”
He was staring at the pair of pebbles. He extended a single finger and touched hers, as if checking it was real. “I never imagined this could happen,” he said, taking the seat beside his mother on the sofa.
“They look absolutely identical,” she reiterated. “How…?”
“They are the same,” he replied. “The same size, the same colour, the same hole and the same heart-shape. That can only be because they are exactly the same stone. In actual fact, I’m not sure how they can exist together like this; every science fiction book I’ve ever read would tell me this can’t be.”
“What are you talking about? Science fiction? You’re confusing me, Ben.”
“It’s… complicated,” he muttered. “I really didn’t realise this could happen.”
“You can say that again,” responded Dawn, rolling her eyes. Seeing his mouth open to speak, she raised a forefinger and quipped, “Don’t!”
He grinned sheepishly. It was something he’d done ever since he was little. If ever someone said ‘you can say that again’, Ben would repeat whatever had been said immediately beforehand. Eventually it had become a ritual for Dawn or Gary to cut him off before he could do so.
Dawn grinned too. She could feel the familiarity of their interaction mending the void in her broken heart.
“Right then,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I think we’ve established that where you come from I died in that crash. I am right, aren’t I?”
The sensation of healing shuddered to a halt. Dawn’s smile twisted into a grimace and as she nodded, a tear ran down her cheek.
Ben leaned forward, resting a hand on her knee and she whimpered, unable to hold back as her jaw began trembling uncontrollably.
“It’s OK, Mum. I’m here and I’m real.”
“Oh Ben, I want to believe you’re here so much that it hurts,” she wailed. “But it doesn’t make any sense, does it? And what does the stone have to do with all this?”
She wondered again whether this was all a dream, like the one about the Cheshire cat, and fully expected either Ben to disappear or herself to wake up at any moment.
“Have you ever felt it vibrate or noticed it feeling warm?” he asked quietly.
“Um, possibly,” she said hesitantly, staring down at the pebble. “I thought I felt it vibrate once but dismissed it. And it’s warm most of the time – that’s just from absorbing my body heat though.”
“No Mum, it isn’t from your body heat. Isn’t it sometimes warm even when you first pick it up?”
She gazed at him for a moment and then nodded. “I suppose I should have realised there was something odd about it. Now I come to think, there was the tiniest inkling somewhere in the recesses of my mind that it wasn’t right in some way. I assumed I was being irrational though, what with everything else that’s been going on.
“Odd things have been happening, Ben – every day there are random changes. And last night I… I set my alarm for ten to two in the morning. I sat on my bed with items from my drawer all around me and at exactly 1:57 everything… disappeared. Everything except for the stone. I had it in my hand and I wondered if it might have stayed with me because I was holding it.”
He shook his head. “It caused the changes,” he said quietly.
“A pebble caused it?” Dawn asked, gaping at him in wide-eyed disbelief. “Don’t be daft, Ben! You’ll be telling me next that it was created by Merlin or Lord Voldemort or someone. There’s no such thing as magic, I know that for sure.”
“I can’t be one hundred per cent definite, but I’m as close to certain as I can be. The stone is the cause of all this. I carried it in my hand for a whole day to see what would happen. Sometimes it warmed up, getting quite hot on a couple of occasions and it definitely vibrated several times. If you put it on a hard, flat surface when it does it, you can see it shaking as if there’s an earthquake. It’s really weird – like a jumping bean or something. I can’t imagine why I never thought of staying up overnight though. Did things fade away or just –?” he snapped his fingers.
“It happened in the blink of an eye – here one moment and gone the next,” she told him. “What you say about the stone can’t be true though; even after the events of the past two weeks, what you’re suggesting is simply too far-fetched.”
“Two weeks?” asked Ben.
“Yes. Two weeks ago I found the stone in the pocket of your denim jacket.” She hesitated briefly. “Every night since then the changes have happened. Custard was the first thing because I didn’t remember adopting him. I thought someone was playing tricks on me. Then Dad appeared.”
“What do you mean Dad appeared?”
“He left me.”
Ben looked stunned.
“I couldn’t accept you were gone and the way he was trying to manage his own feelings… Well, it didn’t work with how I was handling it. I didn’t understand at the time but now I do. Now I wish I could do things differently. But I don’t need to, do I? You’re here. You never died. We’re all together.” Together. “Where is your dad?” she asked.
“Not upstairs in bed then?” asked Ben.
Dawn shook her head.
“No idea,” he replied with a shrug. “He’s most probably gone to work; I’ve only been awake about half an hour and I haven’t worked out what today’s changes are yet.” he explained.
She stared at him blankly. The changes only happened to her, didn’t they?
“The stone, Mum – I have one too,” he explained. “It does the same to me as it’s been doing to you.”
“But you’ve had it since you were twelve years old. You haven’t been…?”
He laughed. “I suppose I should be thankful that I haven’t been shifting realities for all that time. I’d probably be completely bonkers by now, like Ben Gunn stuck on his desert island obsessing about cheese.”
“How long then?” she asked. “How long has it been for you?”
“A few months,” he raked his fingers through his wavy hair.
“How many?” she asked, reaching out and resting her fingertips lightly on his arm. It would take a while to get used to being able to touch him again.
He wrinkled his nose. “Nearly four; long enough, that’s for sure.”
“Poor Ben,” she whispered, squeezing his arm gently. “You must have been so lonely. Did you try telling anyone about it? Did you try telling me?”
“I did – more than once, actually. You said I was probably suffering from stress, because of uni. And Dad said I was reading too much science fiction.”
“You’re at university? Of course, you would be.”
“I’ve been thinking of dropping out actually. Trying to study while all this other stuff is going on has been a bloody nightmare! If only I could find a way to stop it. Thankfully it hasn’t swapped me onto a different course – or a different university. That would really have me scuppered.”
Dawn snorted. “Fancy both of us having the same problem,” she said with a wry smile. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you those times when you told me what was going on,” she added.
He shrugged one shoulder. “It wasn’t you was it? I can’t blame this you for the deeds of another you.”
Her mouth fell open. “What on earth are you talking about? Another me?”
“Yes of course – the you from the reality in which I told you about my reality-shifting.” He stared at her baffled expression. “Oh crap! You haven’t worked it out yet, have you? I should have realised. It took me over a month to get to the bottom of it and you said it’s only been two weeks for you.” He turned and looked out of the window, shaking his head. “I really should have known: what an idiot!” He slapped the palm of his hand against his forehead.
“Ben,” she said softly. “Tell me what you mean. Tell me what’s happening to us.”
Ben plucked the stone out of her palm and placed it, together with its twin, on the arm of the sofa. Then, taking both her hands in his, he looked her solemnly in the eye. “I believe that the stone creates a bridge between different realities.”
Dawn laughed, but Ben looked completely serious. She shook her head. “Different realities? I haven’t got a clue what that means.”
“Let me think how to explain.” He paused for a few moments. “OK. Imagine that your life is like a road network. As far as you’re concerned, you’re travelling in a straight line along a straight road. In actual fact though, every time you make a decision, you change your fate. If you decide to have toast for breakfast rather than cereal, your life from then on is just a little bit different – like changing lanes. But if you decide something bigger like changing jobs or getting married – that’s like taking the exit off one road and heading onto another.
“There’s a theory called ‘multiverse theory’ that says every possible universe that could exist does exist somewhere. So there are an infinite number of them out there, all a little bit different from each other because things occurred slightly differently. There are realities where the Earth never formed or life never evolved here. There are realities where Hitler won World War II and where slavery was never abolished. They’re all out there. The stone is like a bridge that takes you from one reality to another. And when you cross over, you swap with the version of you who was already there.”
Dawn thought for a moment. It made no sense, yet it made perfect sense. It explained the diary entries; they must have been written by alternative versions of her all – what had he called it – reality-shifting? All of them were clearly equally as confused as she was and were trying to work out why their lives had been turned upside down.
Infinite possibilities, eh? A horrifying thought popped into her head. “You mean I could wake up one morning in a world with no other living people on it? Or with England being run by the Nazis?” she asked.
“No, no. There seems to be a fixed starting point. I haven’t figured out when that was yet though. It could be when the stone first came into the house when I was just a kid, or maybe something occurred much later on to trigger it. It’s difficult to know when two realities might be almost identical anyway and you wouldn’t even realise you’d shifted.”
“Perhaps we could work out the trigger point by figuring out where our lives started diverging?” Dawn suggested. “In evolution, if you go back far enough we all have a common ancestor. We need to work out where our roads branched apart.”
“At least we are sure of one thing, aren’t we? The result of my accident was very different for me than it was for you. But if we assume that the accident was the trigger – and we have no real proof that it wasn’t earlier than that anyway – where does that get us? We still can’t stop it, can we?”
A tear spilled from Dawn’s eye and she wiped it away with her forefinger. “I don’t want to lose you again, Ben. What if I wake up tomorrow and you’re…” she couldn’t even say it. “In all the – realities – I’ve been to, this is the first where I’ve found you.”
“Mum, it’s only been a couple of weeks. Logic says there must be loads of realities where I survived the accident. It’s only a matter of time before you find me again.”
She looked him right in the eye. “This is the first. In two weeks, this is the first.”
“Yes, but I’ve been reality-shifting for months and, given that it’s not possible for me to shift into a universe where I’m dead, there must be at least ninety-odd realities where I’m alive, since I’m fairly sure I haven’t been to the same time-line twice.”
Her mouth twitched. “And have you met another me that has your stone?” she asked pointedly.
“No. You said yourself that you didn’t think two of them could exist together. I think that means that an overlap like this must be rare at best.”
“Not with infinite possibilities, Mum,” Ben insisted. “Think about it.”
“Ben, I’m not stupid. Think of probability; only one out of fourteen reality-shifts has given me you. Tomorrow is unlikely to have a living, breathing Ben in it for me.”
Her logic silenced his argument.
“Now we know the stone causes it, couldn’t we just get rid of it – I mean them?” she asked.
“But then we’ll never get back to our own realities,” he said, sighing.
“If, as you say, there are an infinite number of realities, what are the chances we’d ever be able to anyway? Can’t we try it? Like I said, I don’t want to return to a reality in which I don’t have you.”
“With unlimited possibilities, there’s little to no chance that I’m the Ben from your timeline though,” he pointed out.
She stared at him. “You could be. And I don’t really care if you’re not, to be honest. You seem like my Ben and I can’t lose you again.”
“Mum, you have to think about the bigger picture. Even though I’m here, other things may not be right for you.”
“Well, Dad for starters. He’s not here. So where is he? What if he’s dead in this reality? Would that be something you’d be willing to ‘trade’ for me?”
Tears welled up in Dawn’s eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “That’s not fair, Ben!”
“I’m sorry, it was rather heartless of me; I shouldn’t have said it. But I am right. You don’t know what other differences exist in this reality. You can’t take it for granted that everything else will be fine because I’m here.”
“Then I have what’s left of today to find out and make a decision, don’t I.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“And what about me – what if I don’t want to stay here? I haven’t found a single reality in which you’re dead, so I won’t lose you if I shift again tonight. I can’t just decide here and now that this is where I want to stay. Much as I love you, I can’t stay if it isn’t right for me too.”
Dawn hadn’t thought of that, and her mother’s instinct that had been dormant for so long surged to the surface. “No. No, of course. It hadn’t even occurred to me. I’m sorry, Ben. Of course you must do what’s right for you too.”
He was silent for a few moments.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Mum. I don’t want to disappear and leave you chasing around realities trying to find me again.”
“And I don’t want to hurt you either,” she responded. “I’m your mother and I love you. You are – and always have been – my number one priority. If you need to be in a different reality, then you must keep the stone until you find a place that suits you.”
He stared at the identical pebbles, side by side on the arm of the sofa. “Who knows whether getting rid of them will stop us shifting about anyway? It might not make any difference–”
“–Or it might equally well send us back where we started and you’d be gone from my life again, possibly permanently this time.”
“It seems that whatever we decide we could as easily be wrong as right,” Ben concluded. “But one idea does make sense to me. We need to discern whether this universe is any good for us before we even try. If we’re going to attempt to stay here, we need to know what we’re getting into.”
She nodded. “How do we do that?”
He scratched his head. “Well…” he began.
“We could start with the BBC News,” she interrupted. “It might give us some indication of how different this reality is to our own. If events are very different here, surely we could tell from the news? It’s worked reasonably effectively for me on other days. Then we need to find out about personal stuff, but doing that without making people think we’ve lost our marbles may not be so easy.”
“I suppose so,” Ben conceded. He laughed and shook his head.
“What?” asked Dawn.
“On the third or fourth day after all this started for me, I went to see my mentor at university. She was seriously freaked out by the time I left, I can tell you! I was so relieved the next day when it became clear that she had no memory of having that conversation with me.”
“What was your first day like? When things first went awry, how did you first realise?”
Ben blushed. “Mum, I’m not sure I can say…”
“Don’t tell me you woke up in bed with a girl?” she asked, giving him an expression of mock horror.
“Maybe,” he replied cagily, as his cheeks reddened.
“Oh my! How embarrassing for you. I bet she wasn’t impressed when you couldn’t remember her name.”
“I could remember her name alright,” he muttered. “It was Lois. The problem was that the last thing I knew, Lois was going out with my mate, Joel. I knew I wouldn’t do the dirty on him by… ahem! you know… with his girlfriend. It wasn’t as if I’d been drinking the night before either. She wasn’t best pleased by my reaction though. I couldn’t disguise the look of horror on my face and you’ve never seen a girl look so angry – I thought she was going to explode. It took quite a while to talk my way out of that corner, and then I realised it wasn’t the only thing that was different from how I expected it to be.
“What about you, Mum? What was the first change for you? You said something about some custard – what’s that all about?”
“The cat, not the sauce!” Dawn giggled.
“But that’s Tonto,” he said, pointing to the cat who had freed himself from the bedroom and was now cleaning his whiskers in the middle of the floor.
“Not that one, the other one – a little black female with white paws and whiskers. You don’t know her then?”
“That’s alright, I didn’t either until a fortnight ago. Now she pops up fairly regularly. Tonto’s very fond of her too, aren’t you Tonto?”
Tonto looked up briefly then resumed his ablutions.
“She appeared one morning, along with her photograph in the frame in my bedroom. I thought someone was playing a prank on me, but her collar has my phone number on it and I have her vaccination record in the cupboard along with Tonto’s.
“Anyway, what about this girl – this Lois? How did you manage to talk your way out of such a tricky problem?”
She and Ben chatted about the changes in their lives, losing track of the time and temporarily forgetting the idea of checking the BBC News headlines.
Once, Dawn found herself staring at her son’s face, no longer listening to his words. After a few moments, tears began streaming down her cheeks and Ben wrapped his arm around her shoulder, drawing her close. She leaned her head against his sturdy shoulder clinging onto him until the tears eventually stopped.
“I’m so sorry, Ben, it must be the shock of having you back after all this time,” she explained as he handed her a clean tissue from his front pocket.
“Of course. I can understand that,” he said reassuringly. “How about I get us both some tea? You know – do something ordinary and normal for once?”
Dawn nodded her agreement, but when he got up to go to the kitchen, she traipsed after him like a dog on a lead, unwilling to be separated from him for even a moment.
“Go and sit down, Mum,” he insisted. “I’m not going anywhere for now.”
For now… she thought as she trailed off into the living room. What about tomorrow though?
The twin stones still sat on the arm of the sofa and Dawn momentarily considered taking them both and running off to hide them somewhere far away. But Ben’s logic had been sound; they both needed to discover whether today’s reality was reasonable for them before deciding whether to try to remain here indefinitely.
It didn’t occur to her to question her son’s hypothesis about shifting realities, since his knowledge of theoretical science was immeasurably greater than her own. Everything he’d told her sounded feasible, given that their situation was such an extraordinary one and given that he was even here to tell her about it.
“I’ll feed the cats while I’m here, too!” called Ben from the kitchen. “Tonto seems pretty desperate! And little Custard is a friendly thing, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is. Thanks for offering – they must be hungry by now.” She glanced up at the clock on the wall. “It’s half past two already!” she exclaimed.
“Gosh, you’re right! I’ve been ignoring my rumbling stomach for at least the last hour. Can I get you something to eat?” he asked, poking his head around the door frame.
She shook her head vigorously. “That’s not what I meant. Time is passing us by and we haven’t done anything constructive at all. We haven’t checked the news headlines, we haven’t found out where your dad is, we haven’t discovered what changes there are to our personal lives in this reality. We’ve wasted half the day!”
“Right then, we’d best crack on,” he said. “I’ll be with you in a sec.”
A few moments later, he reappeared carrying a mug in each hand and a large bag of crisps tucked under his arm. “I’ve fed the cats,” he told her as he put the tea mugs on the coffee table.
“Thanks, love,” she replied as he tore open the crisp packet and thrust his hand inside.
Crunching his way noisily through a large mouthful of crisps, Ben pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Surely he didn’t want to call somebody now, she thought?
“I have a journal,” Dawn told him as he tapped in his security code.
“Well, go and get it and we can start there,” he said, looking up briefly from what he was doing.
“Damn it, I can’t! It wasn’t there this morning.”
“OK then,” Ben waved his phone. “We can start with mine.”
“You keep a journal on your phone?” she asked.
“On social media,” he replied.
“I didn’t think that was very secure – and I wanted something more easily accessible too,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“It’s pretty accessible if you have a smartphone. Here – I’ve logged in already. I’ve got my security set up so that only I can read it too – apart from Facebook themselves, and the government of course. But, in the unlikely event that government security systems ever flagged it up, they’d probably assume it was material for a novel or something, rather than taking it seriously.”
Ben began scanning the entries on his phone.
“Can you read it out loud, please love? There could be something that’s relevant to me that you don’t think important enough to warrant a mention.”
“Fair point,” he conceded, “but this goes back months. Do you want me to read all of it? It could take hours and time is short.”
“How about I read over your shoulder instead then? Hopefully it will be quicker that way and since I already know about Lois I doubt I’ll be too shocked by anything you’ve done over the past few months.”
He looked a little doubtful, she thought, but nodded his approval and mother and son shuffled together so that she could read over his shoulder – once he’d increased the font size a little to accommodate her less-than-perfect eyesight.
With her leg touching his, Dawn could feel the warmth of her son’s skin and it made her heart swell with joy.
Starting with yesterday’s entry, they began to read. The two soon established a system whereby she would tap him on the arm once she reached the bottom of a page, so that he’d realise she’d finished and that is was OK for him to scroll to the next entry.
They found out that Ben had indeed arrived home from university yesterday, although Dawn had been surprised to see him since she’d expected him to stay with friends for a week before coming home.
He’d mentioned his mother having a new cat named Custard (which was news to him) and that his father was away on a business trip (which yesterday’s Dawn had apparently known about).
An entry from a week before simply read, ‘Can’t find Cassie’.
“Who’s Cassie?” asked Dawn.
Ben shrugged. “No idea. She must have been pretty important though, to warrant the only comment for that day.”
“Girlfriend, perhaps?” suggested Dawn.
“It’s frustrating not knowing,” he grumbled, scratching the side of his head. “If she was that important.” He sighed. “I can’t go second guessing can I? It’s a waste of precious time. If I don’t know who she is, then she can’t be important enough to worry about. Not for me – not for today.”
She tapped her hand on his knee. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“For what?” he asked. “I don’t have a friend called Cassie. I won’t miss her, will I?”
“You might – now you know about her.”
“What do I know? All I have is her name – I’ve no idea what she looks like or whether we were… close.” He blushed. “Let’s move on; we’re wasting time.”
Twenty minutes later, as they passed the beginning of June, Ben suggested they skim-read the rest. “For the sake of speed.” Dawn reluctantly agreed.
For him, it had been a similar story to her own, except that he’d had the stone in his possession ever since he was twelve, but had only been ‘reality-shifting’ for about four months. His life too had taken many twists and turns, with day-to-day events, relationships and world events changing from one day to the next.
When they reached the first entry in Ben’s diary, he abruptly turned off his phone.
“I hadn’t finished,” Dawn complained.
“No? Well, never mind, we were just about done weren’t we?”
“Is there something you don’t want me to read?” she asked, making a grab for his phone.
He stood up and stuffed the device into his pocket.
“I can take it – is it me? Did something happen to me? Or to Dad?” she gazed up at him imploringly.
Ben sighed and turned away from her, staring out of the window. “No. You and Dad have been the most consistent element of my life since all this started actually. You’re always here – only a phone call or a train journey away.”
“Huh!” Dawn muttered. “It’s not like we were any help to you though, was it?”
“You were here. That helped,” he said simply.
She extended a hand, placing it on top of his.
“Was it another girl then?” she teased, hoping to lighten his mood. “Are you some secret Casanova?”
“It’s nothing like that at all,” Ben grumbled. “If you must know, my best friend committed suicide.”
“No!” Dawn was stunned. “Lucas has been your best friend for–”
“–Since the start of secondary school,” he interrupted. “I… I didn’t even realise he was unhappy either. Then one day he didn’t turn up for our physics lecture and I went to his digs and found him…”
She stood up and stepped towards her son, standing on her toes to wrap her arms around him. It felt good to hold him again, she thought for the third time that day, then she repressed the notion; this was about him, not her.
Ben stood stiffly for a moment before relaxing into her embrace and folding his arms around her in return.
“I’m so sorry, love,” she whispered. “But it wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have known there was something wrong. I should have stopped him. I should have been a good enough friend that he decided to talk to me instead of doing what he did. Every day, the first thing I do is check that first diary entry and every day it tells the same story, with very little deviation. There hasn’t been a day yet when I’ve woken up and found that Lucas is still alive.”
“But I found you,” Dawn said quietly, pulling away enough that she could look him in the eye. “After all I’ve been through, I finally managed to arrive in a reality where you are alive. Lucas is out there somewhere – lots of versions of him who didn’t make the terrible choice that you remember. You can’t be held responsible for decisions he made – his choices were his to make, not yours.” She paused for a moment and then added, “Perhaps this means that we have different trigger points – mine is your accident, but yours was Lucas’ death – that’s why it’s always the first entry.”
“You could be right – it makes perfect sense. But what bloody help is it to know that?” he asked dejectedly. “I can’t change what happened because the stone shifts between realities but keeps us moving forward in time. He was dead when I found him, so if that was the trauma that triggered the shifting, there’s no universe I can get to where Lucas is alive.”
“No,” she conceded. “You’re probably right.”
“Dad was right about one thing though,” Ben said. “It’s a stone – a lifeless object. It might have fancy powers, but it’s rather too much of a stretch to imagine it’s intelligent. It doesn’t ‘know’ what it’s done. It was probably activated by pheromones or maybe by a particular type of brain activity,” he pondered, frowning.
“I suppose so. I expect it’s something sciencey like that. All things considered, I have to think myself lucky.”
He pulled a questioning face.
“Lucky that you didn’t die straight away,” Dawn clarified. “If you had, I’d probably never be able to find a reality in which the person I love most in the world hasn’t died.”
Ben’s shoulders slumped.
She stared at him wishing, as she always had, that she could take away his pain. “If we’re right, then we really need to stop this,” she said, her hands on her hips. “There’s no point to it – no reasoning behind it. There’s no grand plan, no divine intervention and no fairy tale ending. We’ll just keep on shifting realities until we can find a way to stop it.”
“Most likely, yes,” he agreed.
“Pfuh!” Dawn rolled her eyes. “I have to admit, I was starting to believe that there must be a reason for it all. But that’s totally stupid – perhaps I’ve read too much science fiction too – or too many fairy stories.”
“I could easily be wrong,” he admitted. “There’s nothing to corroborate our theory.”
“No, but you’re far more logical than me and you know much more about science too… But on the positive side, isn’t it possible that if something triggered it in the first place, there could be a simple way of triggering it to stop too?” she asked.
“It’s possible,” he conceded. “But if we assume it was pheromones or some chemical reaction or another, how would we ever figure out a way of triggering it in reverse? It isn’t simply a matter of understanding chemical reactions – it isn’t as if this is a commonplace event that has been observed and studied before. There’s no precedent to go by.”
“We’re right back where we started then, aren’t we? Where our only hope is to get rid of our stones and hope that physical distance between us and them will do the trick,” Dawn sighed.
Ben lifted his eyebrows. “We still haven’t determined whether this universe is somewhere we’d both like to stay.”
“And I don’t have a journal. Yours didn’t mention very much about me at all. You were away at university for a lot of the time though, so why would you mention me? You would never have guessed that you’d bump into a version of me who had a stone too.”
“But that doesn’t help me much, does it? I’m going to have to find out about my life in this reality some other way.”
“When we were talking earlier, you talked about Sarah getting killed on her way home from honeymoon. It would be pretty easy to find out if that’s true here – and whether she’s married.”
“Yes, a quick walk up the road would do it – after Sarah would normally be home from work, of course.”
He nodded. “Whenever you think, Mum. Do you want me to come with you?”
“Oh, Ben love,” Dawn sniffed, “I’m not sure I could let you out of my sight again – the five minutes you spent making tea in the kitchen was almost too much to bear.”
Dawn and Ben spent the rest of the afternoon watching the BBC News Channel and trawling the Internet to look at older news stories. It was quickly obvious to both of them that this reality was quite different from their own, and also that Dawn’s was significantly different from Ben’s.
“What about the terrorist attack in Manchester last month?” asked Ben, tapping away on the computer keyboard. “I can’t find any mention of it on here.”
Dawn shook her head. “I don’t remember anything about a terrorist attack in Manchester,” she revealed. “What about the fire at the Louvre?” she asked him in return. “Did that happen in your reality?”
He shrugged. “Nope.” He tapped on the keyboard again. “I can’t see anything about it on here either.”
She was finding this fact-finding mission frustrating – she wanted here to be right for both of them and yet every time they found another obvious difference between this universe and either of their own, he would shift uneasily on his chair.
What if he decided he didn’t want to stay here? She’d have to let him go if he wasn’t going to be happy… She sighed softly.
“What’s up?” asked Ben.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a shrug.
“Yes it does; tell me,” he insisted, swivelling the computer chair round to face her.
“I’m just not sure you’re going to want to stay here. Every time you see something that doesn’t fit into your reality, you look all edgy and uncertain.”
Ben chewed his top lip. “To be honest, Mum, I don’t really know what I want. Knowing that there are infinite realities out there, it seems unlikely that either of us will ever find the exact one we came from. And even if we do, we might not be able to stop what’s going on simply because we find somewhere that fits what we want.”
“You’re quite right, of course. But we can’t accept that this is how our lives will be from now on – we have to try to stop it at some point and right now we’re both in the same boat. We’re in possibly a one-in-a-million reality where we’re both here with a stone. If there’s ever a good place to stay in, surely this is it?”
“We have to check on Sarah first though,” he reminded her.
“Yes,” she replied with more conviction than she felt. “Of course we must. She should be home now; shall we pop up the road and see her? I… I could go by myself if you don’t want to come.” Dawn wasn’t sure she wanted Ben to find out about it if there was a problem with Sarah.
“No, s’alright. I’ll come with you. I’ll shut the computer down and then we can go.”
A few minutes later, they arrived at Sarah’s house. Passing her car on the driveway on their way, Ben tapped the palm of his hand tentatively against the bonnet.
“The engine’s warm,” he observed. “Someone’s driven it recently. It seems unlikely that it would be anyone but her.”
Dawn was relieved when her friend opened the front door.
“Dawn – and Ben too! How lovely to see you both!” Sarah gushed. “How’s uni going, Ben?”
“Yeah, good thanks,” Ben grinned. “How are you?”
“Great, thanks. Pete should be home in a few minutes, so I was about to start on dinner.”
“We won’t keep you then,” Dawn responded, realising that she’d neglected to tell Ben the name of Sarah’s possible husband.
Sarah laughed. “You haven’t even told me what you came for yet.”
Dawn hadn’t thought about making up an excuse for their visit. She nudged Ben, hoping that he’d come up with something helpful.
“I thought I’d come and meet Pete,” he said brightly.
Sarah frowned. “What do you mean? You met him at the wedding.”
“Not properly though. You can’t really get to know someone at a wedding, can you? Anyway, you’re in the middle of cooking. We can come back another time – at the weekend perhaps,” Ben offered.
“Erm, OK,” Sarah said hesitantly, still looking puzzled.
“I’ll call you on Saturday morning to arrange something,” Dawn said brightly, taking her son by the elbow and turning to leave. “Bye for now.”
As they reached the end of the drive, she turned towards Sarah’s house in time to see her friend shaking her head as she closed the front door. Well, at least they had found out what they set out to discover. Sarah was alive and she was married to Pete.
Ben let out a giggle that Dawn knew he’d been supressing.
“I’m sorry!” he said, smirking. “I nearly messed that up, didn’t I? Sarah’s husband is called Pete then?”
“That’s right,” Dawn said, hooking her arm around his. “When she’s married at all, that is.”
“It was complicated enough dealing with one life that changes from day to day without having a second one to worry about,” he said, laughing.
“I see what you mean,” she replied with a smile.
Ben stopped in his steps, forcing her to a halt too.
“You know what?” he said, taking both her hands in his. “We can’t keep doing this forever. No matter what the changes are, we have to try to stop this – today. If reality is different from now on, then at least the people that matter most are part of our lives – apart from poor Lucas of course, but nothing can be done about that if our theory is right. So tonight should be the night when we do everything in our power to stay put. Deal?”
Dawn looked searchingly into his eyes and, seeing nothing but determination, replied, “Deal!”
Later that evening, Dawn took Ben out and treated him to a meal at his favourite Chinese restaurant. She didn’t admit her real reason for taking him there though – she didn’t want to inject any negativity into her day with her handsome, wonderful son.
The two of them chatted amiably across the table, with Dawn successfully redirecting the conversation every time Ben tried to talk about her life since his death. She asked question after question about his experience of the last two years making a concerted effort to cling onto and remember in minute detail everything he said and every moment of their evening together. This way, she’d have some happy memories to remember him by – just in case things didn’t work out tonight.
Chapter 21 – Friday 19th June
Dawn couldn’t get enough of Ben’s storytelling – although if she was honest, he could have been reading aloud from the phone book and she’d have been equally thrilled. His voice, his crooked smile, his unkempt wavy hair – she soaked up every detail, overjoyed at his existence once more in her world.
Midnight passed and Dawn wished fervently that the moment between 1:56am and 1:57am would pass as uneventfully.
“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do with the stones,” Ben pointed out at about half past midnight. “We could drive over to Hastings and throw them off the end of the pier,” he suggested.
“Can’t – it’s shut,” Dawn pointed out. “Why don’t we just bury them in the garden? As far away from the house as possible though.”
“What if that’s not far enough away from us?” asked Ben, scratching his head.
“We can’t exactly post them to Australia in the time we have left, can we?” Dawn reasoned. “The bottom of the garden will have to do. Come on.”
She took her son by the hand and led him to the back door.
“We’ll need a torch,” Ben pointed out. “Is there still one in the cupboard under the stairs?”
Dawn nodded and he disappeared, returning a moment later wielding a small, black torch.
In the garden, she retrieved a shovel from the shed and the two quickly changed implements – he’d be better at digging a hole in the hard, dry soil than she would – and they tramped their way to the very end of the garden.
“I hope the neighbours don’t see us – they’ll think we’re burying a body or something!” she said with a grin.
Ben glanced up at Beryl’s house. “It’s alright – there aren’t any lights on. She’s probably been in bed for hours.”
Ten minutes or so later, he had dug a hole about eighteen inches deep. “Is this enough?” he asked quietly.
“Oh, bugger, I forgot the stones!” Dawn left him beside the hole and dashed back inside. She snatched the twin talismans from the arm of the sofa and took them outside.
Ben had decided to dig a little deeper in her absence, but he stopped as soon as she appeared at his side. “Right, drop them in then,” he said.
Dawn crouched down and dropped them in one at a time, the second clinking against the first.
“Should we say something?” she asked.
Ben looked at her doubtfully. “It’s not a funeral, Mum.”
Dawn felt foolish. “No, of course, how silly of me; it’s just that it feels like there should be some kind of ceremony somehow.”
He looked bemused. “Do you want me to say something?” he asked.
She thought about it for a moment. What was there to say? ‘Go away and leave us alone’, was all that sprung to mind, and that wasn’t very ceremonial.
She shook her head.
Ben lifted the shovel and began refilling the hole.
“We’re going to stay up, aren’t we?” Dawn asked. “To see what happens – to see if it works?”
“Of course,” he replied, stamping down the loose earth.
1:57am would be a make-or-break moment, she realised; either Ben would stay in her life or he’d disappear before her eyes like the things from her drawer had the night before. She tried – unsuccessfully – not to think about it as they trudged back indoors.
Their conversation began to wane as the crucial moment grew nearer and Dawn felt as though she was waiting for her heart to stop beating. She could almost hear Beryl’s noisy clock ticking away the seconds as she tried so very hard to remain positive and believe that her son wouldn’t disappear from her life again.
“I feel as though I’m about to be snuffed out of existence,” Ben admitted with less than three minutes to go.
“If you do disappear, you won’t be aware of it. You’ll be in another reality and so will I. The chances are you’ll find another version of me wherever you end up. And who knows, perhaps burying the stones will work and everything will be fine; we can rebuild our lives in this reality, starting afresh from wherever it is we are.”
“I…” he began, but seemed unable to find the words he wanted.
“What is it?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t think it will work,” he confessed.
Dawn’s face fell.
He reached for her hand. How was he always so warm? How had she forgotten that he was always so warm?
“I have to believe it’s at least a possibility, love. The alternative is so… unthinkable,” her final word was little more than a breath of exhaled air. Pulling both lips between her teeth, she tried in vain to suppress her tears.
“You managed before and you can manage again,” he told her. “I believe in you, Mum.”
She shook her head violently. “I can’t… I really can’t–”
Ben stared at her. “When I was in hospital after the accident, the first thing I was aware of when I started to come to was this.” He lifted her hand. “Your hand in mine, your strength helping to make me strong again, your love for me and your belief that I’d pull through.”
“It wasn’t even me though was it?” Dawn wailed. “By then you were already… gone in my reality. It wasn’t me. I can’t be strong.”
“Every version of you I’ve met or spoken to by telephone over the last few months has been you. Not exactly – not in every experience you’ve ever had but almost. As near a carbon copy as it’s possible to be. You are you, even in all those other realities.”
Dawn wiped away a tear. “Thank you,” she said, trying to smile. “I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations. It’s nice to have someone believe in me so much.”
She glanced at the digital clock on her DVD player and a feeling of terror swelled inside her. It was 1:56am – there might only be a few seconds left.
His jaw tightened as his eyes flicked down at the clock, then back to his mother’s face.
“Don’t let go!” she insisted, tightening her grip.
“I won’t,” Ben promised. “I love–”
And he was gone.
“No! No!” she screeched. Staring at her empty hand, she balled it into a fist and smashed it into the spot where Ben had been sitting a moment earlier. She could still feel the warm patch in her palm – how could he be gone if she could still feel the heat of his hand? In stark contrast, his seat on the sofa was cold.
Remembering the mug reappearing in the kitchen she raced headlong up the stairs.
“Ben!” she bawled, desperately, “Ben!”
Part way up, she slipped and slid down three or four stairs, but she continued upward without hesitation – without even acknowledging the pain in her right knee.
At the top of the stairs, she threw open his door, hoping that she’d find him lying in bed, wondering what all the noise was about. But when she flicked on the light, she found an empty bed and green walls.
Letting out a primal wail, she flung herself onto the mattress, buried her face in his pillow and wept.
She awoke to the sound of chattering birds – it must be sunrise. She turned over away from the damp patch on the pillow, then remembered where she was and why she was there. An empty feeling as big as a black hole seemed to swallow up her heart and a dozen unthinkable swear words tried to escape her lips.
“Shit and fuck it!” she exclaimed indignantly. But it didn’t have any effect on the empty feeling.
She glanced at the wall clock – it was still not quite 5am.
“You were wrong, Ben,” she called out towards the ceiling. “I’m not strong at all. Look at me – I’m a complete sodding mess!” She picked up the photograph on the bedside table. “You were wrong,” she said quietly but firmly, placing the picture face down then immediately regretting it and standing it back up again.
“What’s up with my knee?” she muttered to herself. Reaching down to touch it with her fingertips, she found it was sore. She yanked open one of the curtains and stared at the red, weeping wound. Ah yes – carpet burn from falling on the stairs. Now she remembered.
She lay there unable to find the will to get up and clean her wound.
Several minutes passed as she tried not to think about anything at all.
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the door move.
Instantly bolt upright with her feet planted on the floor, she breathed a sigh of relief as a pointed ear and a set of whiskers came into sight. It was only Tonto.
Then she frowned. What about Gary – was he here? Was he sleeping in their bed while she wallowed in self-pity in Ben’s room? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. If he was there, he might be about to leave her anyway and if he wasn’t then she was alone again.
As if sensing her loneliness, Tonto rubbed his head against her leg and started purring.
She decided that she had two choices: she could either wallow in self-pity like she had when Ben died or she could try to be the strong person he’d told her she could be. If she wallowed in it, it wouldn’t fix anything anyway. And it wasn’t as if she wanted to die – she wanted things to be different, that was all. She laughed at the irony of the thought; different was the problem, surely – every day a different reality?
Then a thought hit her like a lightning bolt – Ben was still out there. He wasn’t there with her, but the Ben she’d spoken to those few hours ago was alive and well! A glimmer of light flickered into life inside her, replacing the dark chasm that had filled her chest for so long, and a hint of a smile played on her lips.
“It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat,” she said to herself. “Both alive and dead at the same time. He’ll never be gone – regardless of how long it takes before I find him again.”
The idea perked her up considerably and she felt as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Yesterday she had learned a lot. She’d learned all that multiverse stuff, she’d learned that Ben could be alive in her reality and she’d learned that burying the stone didn’t stop her shifting. But something must stop it. There must be a way; she just had to find it.
But what if she did find a way to stop it and she got stuck in a Ben-less reality?
Then she’d be no worse off than when she started, and at least now she knew – she really knew – that he was still out there somewhere. And not only one version of him either, hundreds or thousands or millions of slightly different versions of him. It would only be as if he’d emigrated to some far away country with no telephones or Internet. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? It was a huge improvement over ‘he’s dead – full stop’. Ben had believed in her – and still did. She could hold herself together.
So, with her son’s confidence in her in the forefront of her mind, she pulled herself up, straightened her clothes, picked up Tonto and strode off to her own bedroom.
The double bed was empty, but looked as if her side had been slept in. The thought made a shiver run up her spine – some other version of her had slept here last night, presumably disappearing at the same moment she’d appeared downstairs.
She gasped, causing Tonto to wriggle his way out of her arms and drop down onto the floor. There, poking out from underneath her pillow, was Ben’s stone.
The little object which had so recently been like a lifeline for Dawn – a portable, personal, emotive link to her dead son – now only served to make her angry.
She glared at it then, unable to stand the sight of the source of all her problems, she picked up her pillow and moved it to cover the little object, muttering a swear word under her breath as she did so. She’d have to move it later, but right now she couldn’t bear to touch it.
With a heavy sigh, she sat on the side of the bed.
Noticing the journal sitting on the dressing table, she pulled it onto her lap where it fell open at the final entry. Reading the journal had always felt a bit like reading someone else’s diary, but today the effect was magnified. Although Dawn Foster had written the words in front of her, she now knew that person truly was a different Dawn. She read the entry for yesterday.
Thursday 17th June
I woke up this morning with a plan: read the journal, find out what’s going on in this reality and start to try to fix some of this Dawn’s problems.
It seems that Dawn from here has persuaded Gary to move back in, and I agreed with him today that he could come on Sunday. That’s a positive move, I’m sure. Goodness knows how she/I let it get so bad that he moved out in the first place, but I suppose I can’t judge myself, can I? After all, I’m just a few life choices away from being her, anyway – if what Sarah’s friend Professor Dawson told me last week about the nature of reality was true. (He said it was all theoretical, but he doesn’t live my life, does he?)
Anyway, hello to Friday’s Dawn – assuming you read the journal every day that is. Let’s try and stay positive and you need to be nice to Gary – he’s coming over after dinner, at about seven o’clock this evening, with some bits and bobs in advance of moving himself and the rest of his belongings in on Sunday. Let’s do our best to encourage every Dawn who visits this universe to see that our marriage is important enough to mend.
Have a pleasant day.
She closed the journal.
Talking to alternate versions of herself via journals left in different realities was something it would take her a while to get her head around.
Without the information about Gary’s intended visit later though, she’d have been caught off-guard by his arrival and possibly screwed things up, so ultimately she had to be grateful.
The other Dawn’s plan of fixing problems in whichever universe she was visiting seemed as good a plan as any too. She had, after all, had plenty of experience of playing different Dawns already: one Gary had left for Janet, a second who’d lost her friend Sarah and a third who hadn’t lost Ben. As long as she had the journal to keep her abreast of happenings, she was confident that she’d manage to act the part of her alternate-self effectively.
It wouldn’t help her stop the reality-shifting though, would it?
She shrugged. Ben had said that with no known precedent for this situation, they had little hope of finding a way to stop it and his disappearance in the early hours of the morning had sadly proven him right.
Where was yesterday’s Ben now, she wondered? Wherever he was, she hoped he’d find a way to stop shifting realities; he was a clever, resourceful young man. Sadly if she was correct about his trigger point, he’d never find his friend Lucas. Perhaps though, she thought with a smile, he’d find that girl Cassie he’d mentioned in his diary. Maybe they’d get married – have children and then grandchildren – start myriad of possible new realities together. The thought was comforting.
Suddenly she realised that she hadn’t seen Custard today. Her eyes were drawn to the photograph frame on her bedroom wall and she was relieved to find a photograph of Custard and Tonto sitting together on the back of the sofa in the conservatory.
A moment later, as if Custard had sensed Dawn was thinking about her, the cat flap in the kitchen clattered loudly and Tonto ran out onto the landing to meet his friend. Dawn followed him out and soon had both cats curling around her legs. Tonto meowed pitifully.
“Come on then, you hopeless pair. It’s still early, but I might as well get the day under way by giving you your breakfast,” she said.
Later that morning, remembering Ben’s use of social media, Dawn decided to see whether she could find out anything useful from Facebook. Quickly logging in, she visited Sarah’s page and found her friend’s profile photo was of her with Pete on their wedding day. That was one question answered.
What else did she want to know about?
She checked her own profile to see if a workplace was specified, but wasn’t surprised to find no information available about that – she’d never understood people who advertised where they lived and worked and when and where they went on holiday. She’d only set up her Facebook account because Ben had encouraged her to keep up with the times.
Social media having proven of limited help to her, she shut down the computer and decided to go and check on Beryl. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if the old lady didn’t answer though – she didn’t feel comfortable letting herself in, even though she knew the code to get into the ornamental key box by her front door.
She would have to cross that bridge if and when she came to it, she told herself.
Outside, she was confused to find a large van parked beside Beryl’s house, with ‘House Clearance’ printed in large letters on the side above a local telephone number.
Beryl’s front door was open and Dawn watched a burly man in shorts and a grey T-shirt come out of her neighbour’s house carrying a large box. Ignoring her presence, he shoved the box into the rear of the van before going back into the old lady’s home.
Dawn stood frozen to the spot. What was going on here?
A few moments later, the man reappeared carrying one end of a bookshelf, with a second, younger man with similar features appearing at its other end.
This couldn’t be good.
“Um, excuse me?” she called.
“Yes, love?” answered the older man as the pair lifted the bookshelf onto the van and the younger one climbed in to slide it further inside.
“Is Mrs Sandhurst in?” she asked uncertainly.
“Mrs Sand’urst? No love. Mr Sand’urst will be here a bit later though, if you need to see him about somethin’.” He looked at his watch. “Actually, he should be ’ere in ten minutes or so. Is there anythin’ I can ’elp you with?”
Dawn’s mind raced. Mr Sandhurst? He must mean Beryl’s son, surely. “Do you know where Mrs Sandhurst is?” she asked.
“Old Mrs Sand’urst moved into a care ’ome a couple o’ days ago. Didn’t you know? I mean, you’re ’er neighbour, didn’t they tell you she was movin’?”
Dawn shook her head. “I’ve… been away for a while. Mrs Sandhurst is alright, is she?”
The man looked at her blankly. “Not a clue, love – I didn’t ask for all the details. Not my business is it?”
“No, of course. Well, I don’t want to stop you from doing your job.”
The younger man jumped down out of the back of the van and both of them vanished into Beryl’s house, leaving Dawn to return indoors.
When had Beryl’s accident been? She tried to remember. It had only been on Tuesday – three days ago. Unless events had moved forward very quickly indeed, it didn’t seem likely that she’d moved into a care home because of the after-effects of the fall.
She hoped that the old lady had gone willingly – that her son had moved her because it was the best option for her and not just for him. She couldn’t change it anyway.
With all those realities out there, she shouldn’t be surprised about this development – or any other that came along come to that. Perhaps she’d never get used to it. Maybe she’d always be shocked by an unsavoury turn of events. She wouldn’t be human if such things didn’t affect her.
Ben had described reality-shifting as being like driving on a motorway, but that wasn’t strictly accurate, was it? The motorway scenario implied that the choice was always yours to make, but that wasn’t true at all. A lot of the time, the choice was under someone else’s control – like the lorry driver who didn’t check his wing mirror before pulling out in front of Ben, or like Sarah’s choice to come home on a later flight. Every decision had a knock-on effect. The phrase butterfly effect flitted into Dawn’s mind from somewhere.
All she could do was make choices for herself (and alternative hers) and react to what other people chose. “That’s life, apparently,” she said out loud.
In this respect, her life now was not much different from the life she’d left behind; there were things she could change and things she had no control over whatsoever.
If a different Dawn had appeared in this reality this morning instead of her – one who didn’t want Gary to be part of her life – that Dawn could have easily ruined any chance of reconciliation between them.
She wondered what other versions of her were doing to mess up her own reality. Not that she had been doing a great job anyway. Chances were they could only improve matters.
Then she realised that it wouldn’t even matter unless she could get back home. And she still had no clue how to make that happen – or if she even could.
At least she knew that Gary was coming back, and the past couple of weeks had taught her how upset he had been both about Ben’s death and how she’d reacted to it. She understood him better now. Hell, she even understood herself better now.
At seven o’clock – almost to the second – there was a knock on the door.
With the butterflies in her stomach working overtime, Dawn glanced in the hall mirror to see an anxious face staring back at her. It was only Gary, for goodness’ sake, why was she this nervous? Probably because this evening was important, not only to the Dawn who belonged in this reality, but to her too.
An additional layer of panic rose within her as she wondered what the etiquette would be for greeting her husband. Should she go for a peck on the cheek or a kiss on the lips? He was going to be moving in, after all. She decided to aim for somewhere in the middle and hope that he’d take the initiative.
Forcing herself to relax her taut facial muscles, she managed a cheerful smile as she answered it.
He was carrying a suitcase in one hand and a very substantial bunch of beautiful, vibrant flowers in the other.
“Hello,” he croaked, putting the case down on the step.
He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello. These are for you.”
Dawn took the flowers and inhaled their sweet scent. “Thank you. They’re lovely.” It sounded like a line from an old black and white film, but she didn’t really care.
Gary took a small step towards her and then leaned in the rest of the way, his lips drawing together as he prepared to kiss her. As planned, Dawn aimed for midway between mouth and cheek, adjusting to meet him when it became obvious he was aiming for her lips.
It was a soft, sensuous kiss. Dawn felt herself melt appreciatively into it, any remaining tension leaving her body as he wrapped his arms around her.
Eventually pulling away, he bent down to pick up the suitcase and Dawn stood aside to let him in.
As she lay in bed that night, Dawn smiled as she thought about their evening together.
By the time Gary finally said he had to leave, things had been going so well that she’d asked him to stay, and he’d obviously been reluctant to turn her down too, but he had rather a lot of packing still to do and what he called ‘a few loose ends to tie up’.
“I’ll be back on Sunday – for good,” he had said. If only he knew that two more reality-shifts might put the Dawn he’d kissed tonight in a world where he didn’t care about her at all anymore. But she knew she couldn’t tell him about the stone and its trickery; it might ruin everything. It was odd enough for her to realise that the Gary she’d kissed tonight was quite literally not the man she’d married, so who knew how he would handle the concept – or if he’d believe it at all?
She turned over, sliding a hand up onto his pillow. He’d be home soon.
She’d left herself another journal entry so that tomorrow’s Dawn would hopefully carry on where she’d left off. She let out a resigned sigh as she struggled to cling on to the hope that tomorrow’s reality would be kind – that the stone would be kind.
The bloody thing!
She yanked it out from under her pillow. It was warm.
She glared at it, wanting to throw it across the room but not willing to deal with the damage it might cause if it hit something precious or expensive.
“Damn you!” she growled. “What if I don’t want to keep shifting about and dealing with alternate lives every day? It doesn’t matter what I want though, does it?”
Not wanting to even see it anymore, she pulled open her top drawer, plopped it inside and shut it in.
What she wanted didn’t matter.
Or did it…?
Ben said the stone might have been triggered by a traumatic event – his accident: that somehow it had been activated by a state-of-mind. Surely it was logical to deduce that it needed some other form of emotional feedback to un-trigger it. She wished Ben was there to help her with the logic – he was so good at that sort of thing. But was another deeply emotive event required, or was an opposite reaction necessary instead? She had no way of knowing and even if she could determine what was required, it was doubtful she’d be able to consciously influence it.
With a deep sigh, she rolled over, placed a hand on Gary’s pillow and closed her eyes.
Chapter 22 – Saturday 20th June
She awoke with Custard pummelling her stomach and purring loudly.
“Oh, good morning, Custard,” she responded, letting the little cat rub against her outstretched fingers. At least that was one question answered straight off. It was nice to see the little cat. What else could she expect today, she wondered?
She turned her gaze to the photograph frame on the wall, where she found pictures of herself, Tonto and Custard – very similar to the day before. No Gary, but then there had been no pictures of him yesterday either, so that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign.
Sadly there were no images of Ben though. She really should have replaced the ones Gary had removed, but had found it too difficult to trawl through family albums full of poignant memories.
“Excuse me, Custard,” she said, lifting the cat off her stomach so that she could turn over and grab the journal – in a different book than any previous day, today’s version was contained in a hard-covered spiral bound book adorned with colourful butterflies.
Reading yesterday’s entry quickly, she fist-pumped when she discovered that her relationship with Gary was in the process of being rebuilt here too. It hadn’t quite got to the point where he was ready to move back in, but yesterday’s Dawn thought it was imminent. The person who’d written the entry seemed very matter-of-fact – resigned to the fact that she was shifting about realities like a Mexican jumping bean. Dawn found this somewhat comforting.
Reading to the bottom of yesterday’s entry, she saw a small scribbled note in the margin. It read, ‘Shifting started 13th Jan’.
“January!” she cried incredulously. “Bloody hell! January?”
Flipping to the front of the journal, the first entry there was dated Monday 10th May – almost a month before her own first experience of shifting but more than four months after the date she’d found in the margin. Of course this date didn’t match the one written in the margin – they’d all been written by Dawns from alternate realities and their experiences were different.
She wondered briefly whether there was a Dawn Foster somewhere whose reality-shifting had been triggered by an event other than Ben’s accident. But she quickly concluded that this was unlikely because if Ben was alive, he’d have the stone and then it would be him – if anyone – suffering through this experience instead of her.
Yesterday’s Dawn had been reality-shifting for five months. That was sobering. She seemed to accept what was happening too. Perhaps after all that time, she had concluded that there was no way to return where she came from and no way to stop the stone from doing its thing.
When she’d been doing this for five months perhaps she might want to give up too, but she wasn’t ready for that yet. She had to keep on trying to do what was right wherever she ended up and she had to keep believing that it would stop eventually.
She climbed out of bed. “Come on, Custard – let’s get you and Tonto your breakfast.”
After feeding the cats and eating her cereal, Dawn was about to turn on the television when there was a knock on the door.
She went to see who it was.
“Hello, Dawn!” said Sarah brightly. “How are you today? Can I come in?”
“Of course,” replied Dawn, standing back to let her pass.
As soon as Sarah was inside she said, in what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech, “I know about the weird stuff that’s been happening in your life; you told me about a month ago. We’ve arranged that I’m to come here every morning and check in with you to make sure everything’s OK. Oh yes, Gary isn’t here, but your relationship has been improving steadily. I’m not with Pete whatshisname and… what else? I nearly forgot, you work on Mondays and Thursdays at the children’s library, so no need to worry about dashing off to work this morning.”
Dawn nodded. “I see.”
“You usually do,” responded her friend. “Although there was that one time when you slammed the door in my face. I try to get inside before telling you since then.”
“Why did I do that?” asked Dawn, surprised.
Sarah shrugged. “No idea. I think we must have had a big fall-out over something. I had to write that day off and try again the next. You were as nice as pie again the following morning.”
Realising that they were still standing in the front hall, Dawn said, “Come on in and sit down. Can I get you a cup of tea?”
“No thanks, I had one before I came,” answered Sarah chirpily. “How are things today then?”
Dawn lifted Custard off the sofa to make room for her friend and then sat down with the cat settling sleepily on her lap.
“Well, I’ve read my journal – you know about the journal?”
“Right. I’ve read it and it corroborates what you told me in that things are going pretty reasonably here between me and Gary – do you think he might move back in?” she asked hopefully.
“Hmm. Yes, I do think that’s a possibility. Part of the ‘job’ you gave me was to tell each version of you that you should keep trying with Gary because at the start of all this peculiar business things were just beginning to improve a little for the pair of you and you think it’s best to keep your relationship moving in the same direction. It hasn’t always been easy though – some of the versions of you I’ve met have been very anti-Gary. A couple of you have insisted that the best you could do was ignore him for a day. Luckily it didn’t backfire and cause another rift between you. Goodness knows how we’re going to manage if he does come home. What if he’s back and a version of you turns up who feels that negatively about him? You – she – could throw him out before I can get to her and explain…”
Dawn wrung her hands together. “It won’t be your fault, whatever happens. It sounds like you’ve been really brilliant about all of this. First of all, you believed me – which must have been a real leap of faith – and you’ve put yourself in the difficult position of coming and having this conversation with me every day, regardless of how upset or screwed up the version of me you find actually is. Thank you, Sarah. With all my heart, thank you.”
Sarah shrugged again. “You’re my best friend.”
“I have to admit that I haven’t confided in you – I truly wish I had though. This whole thing sounds crazy even to me, so I suppose I assumed you wouldn’t be able to believe it.”
“I understand,” Sarah gave her a reassuring smile. “At least you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of explaining it to me again, since I already know. But I have to be honest, I wasn’t all that easy to persuade.”
“What about Ben?” Dawn asked urgently.
Sarah frowned uncomprehendingly. “Ben…?”
“Yes. Have any of the other versions of me been to a reality where he’s alive?”
Sarah’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. “You mean…?” she asked, dumbfounded.
Dawn nodded. “The day before yesterday. I woke up and there he was, making tea in the kitchen.”
“Oh my good Lord!” Sarah gaped at her. “What did you do? How is it possible?”
Dawn laughed at her friend’s reaction. “I nearly collapsed for starters; that’s not surprising really. As to how it’s possible – well, I’m not sure I can explain. Ben described it so cleverly, but I’m not as good with words as he is. It clearly is possible though, because it happened. Only once so far, but I hope it will happen again.”
“Well that’s just… just… you must have been bowled over!”
“Almost literally, yes.”
“Different realities – I suppose if I can return from the dead, so can Ben.”
“I told you about that then? About the plane crash?”
“Yes. And about Pete of course. I don’t even know anyone named Pete and after you told me, I found him on Facebook. He does look nice, but I’m not going to stalk him or anything. It says he’s in a relationship anyway.”
“I probably shouldn’t have told you about the crash. How must you have felt?” Dawn admonished herself.
“Oh, don’t worry. It wasn’t me, was it? And I knew something was up by the way you stared at me. You had seen a ghost, after all! But tell me about Ben.”
The friends chatted for half an hour or so about Dawn’s experiences over the past fortnight and Dawn tried to explain Ben’s theory about a trigger event, although Sarah didn’t seem to understand completely.
When Dawn finally finished, Sarah put out a hand and touched her gently on her upper arm.
“You’ve been so brave,” Sarah said softly. “I want to help you make it stop, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“Honestly Sarah, our conversation this morning has meant a lot to me – to be able to share everything I’ve been through. I talked to Ben, of course, but to have someone who isn’t actually experiencing it believe every word of such a seemingly tall tale? It’s a huge relief. And you’ve helped me already too, by telling me what’s going on where I am today. You’ve brightened up my day considerably, my dear friend.”
She didn’t tell Sarah that she’d confided in Beryl. It seemed like a betrayal to have told an elderly neighbour rather than her best friend. Thinking of the frail old lady, Dawn asked, “I don’t suppose you know what’s going on with Beryl?”
“Oh don’t worry, she’s fine. She had a fall the other day but her cleaner found her and took her up to the hospital. She was home later the same day. Her son says he’s arranging for her to have a home help come in every day to make sure she’s OK, since she was so adamant that she didn’t want to move into a care home.”
“That’s great news!” Dawn let out a sigh of relief. Today seemed an altogether good day – the kind of place she’d happily stay if not for Ben’s absence.
Unfortunately, she still had no choice in the matter.
“You know what?” she exclaimed suddenly, sitting up straight and clapping her hands on her knees.
“What?” asked Sarah.
“It’s bloody Saturday. Let’s see if I can have one restful, uneventful day. You can come to dinner this evening if you like and we’ll chill out and watch a DVD or something. I really could use some rest and relaxation and this reality seems like the right place to get it.”
“OK,” responded Sarah with a grin. “But let’s make it my house – I’ll cook and you can take it easy and be waited on.”
“Hand and foot?” asked Dawn.
Sarah wrinkled her nose. “Hand, yes. But I think I’ll draw the line at feet – I’ve always hated feet.”
They both laughed.
“And how about a shopping trip?” suggested Sarah. “A bit of retail therapy.”
“Nah. No point when you can’t take it with you,” Dawn pointed out.
“Of course. I didn’t think of that – sorry! What else then?”
“A trip to the cat rehoming centre,” suggested Dawn. “A bunch of cute cats and none of them will judge me or argue with me.”
“As long as you don’t mind me bringing one home with me,” Sarah said with a giggle. “Bluebell could use a friend to keep her company while I’m at work.”
“Sure, why not? I’ll help you choose.”
When she arrived home from Sarah’s house shortly before midnight, Dawn had a smile on her face. It had been a lovely day. At the cat-rehoming centre they’d chosen a sweet-natured two-year-old tortoiseshell cat named Rumple for Sarah to adopt (although she’d have to wait for the result of an assessment visit to her home first, to confirm whether it was a suitable environment for the young cat).
Then, in the evening Sarah had thrown together a delicious spaghetti bolognese and the friends had lounged in the living room watching a Hugh Grant romcom with a bowl of popcorn squeezed in between them on the sofa.
It all felt so normal. If only it could stay that way – but with Ben back again, of course.
Dawn had left his stone in her bedroom all day rather than carrying it about. She wished she could destroy the damned thing, but it was a piece of rock, so you couldn’t burn it or tear it up or melt it and she already knew that burying it outside wouldn’t work.
“Damned stone,” she grumbled as she pulled the sheet up under her chin and rolled over to face away from the drawer where she’d stashed it. “Just leave me alone, can’t you?”
Chapter 23 – Sunday 21st June
When she opened her eyes, Dawn saw Ben’s face staring at her. Her heart leapt into her throat but, becoming immediately fully conscious, she quickly realised that it was only his photograph, the one that normally sat on his bedside table.
She lay there staring at it for a few moments. “Morning, Ben,” she whispered, kissing her fingertips and reaching out towards the image.
Then she realised that the shower was running.
Spinning over, she found the picture frame lacking both Gary and Ben, and Gary’s side of the bed was empty and cold.
Scurrying out from under the covers and pulling on her dressing gown, she stood outside the bathroom listening. Could it be Ben?
She debated opening the door and taking a look, but didn’t quite have the nerve to interrupt someone’s shower, even if it could be her beloved son. So she decided to have a peek into his bedroom instead.
The room was painted boring magnolia, and smelled vaguely of stale perfume. The bed was unkempt as though someone had had a restless night. A pair of green women’s shorts, a strappy top with Union Jack decoration and a pale pink balcony bra were strewn across the floor. Under the edge of the bed, three mugs had been discarded containing varying amounts of coffee dregs and each bearing a smear of red lipstick along its rim. Further underneath was what appeared to be a pizza box.
“OK…” Dawn mumbled, scratching her head.
Not wanting to get caught red-handed poking around amongst this unknown girl’s belongings, she scampered back onto the landing and gently closed the door behind her.
What should she do now, she wondered, frozen to the spot. The shower water stopped running and Dawn heard her unknown guest humming a tune that she vaguely recognised; from a Disney film, wasn’t it?
Then inspiration struck, taking over from the alarm which had overcome her moments before.
The journal – of course!
Tiptoeing into her room, Dawn clambered across the mattress and snatched the book from her dressing table.
Saturday 20th June
Cassie has been here for two weeks apparently. She seems a lovely girl, although rather messy in her habits. She’s a student at the university, studying Sociology. I took her in to help pay the bills, but it seems we’ve bonded rather. Her own mother left when she was seven and subsequently remarried a rather unpleasant, violent man. So she’s moved in here in preference to going home over the summer break. I think she appreciates a supportive female role model and I’m quite happy to have her here, even though it meant I had to pack Ben’s remaining stuff away (don’t worry – it’s in the cupboard in the box room).
Cassie? Was that a coincidence? Ben’s diary had mentioned a girl named Cassie. It was a common enough name though. Surely it must be a fluke that Dawn’s house guest had the same first name. The diary didn’t mention any link between this Cassie and Ben either.
But then, even if by some twist of fate this was the same girl, the two of them originated from different realities. Gary wasn’t here and Ben was dead. If Ben had met Cassie at university then they hadn’t met in this reality.
She was about to return to reading the journal when the bathroom door opened and closed, followed by Ben’s bedroom door. Then came the sound of a hairdryer, followed by the recommencement of the Disney song – this time being sung rather than hummed. Was it from Pocahontas, Dawn mused?
Flinging open her curtains to let in the morning sun, she suddenly realised that she hadn’t seen Tonto or Custard yet this morning. Tonto at least should be here. She felt a sense of panic, and the urge to find out whether the cats were here today overtook her reluctance to bump into Cassie before she was ready.
In the frame on the wall, Tonto was the only cat that featured today. One was better than none, she thought with a sigh. Hopefully Custard was here and she just hadn’t added her picture to the collection yet.
She was about to go back out onto the landing when she realised she was still wearing her dressing gown. However comfortable other Dawns had been with having Cassie in the house, this one wasn’t ready to bump into a stranger dressed only in her flimsy nightwear.
Two minutes later, she was dressed and ready to go downstairs. She rushed along the landing and down the stairs, where she discovered the living room door was shut. Perhaps the cat had made a nuisance of himself by scratching at Cassie’s bedroom door in the early hours – he’d never been keen on being shut out of bedrooms. As she opened it, she was greeted by Tonto’s head shoving through from the opposite side.
“Alright, alright!” she responded, opening it wide enough for him to gain his freedom.
The cat curled around her legs then looked up at her pleadingly.
“Yes, yes, but what about Custard? Is she here today?” Dawn peered into the living room, but no second cat appeared.
Wandering into the kitchen behind Tonto’s retreating figure, she found only a single food bowl and water dish.
“Bother!” she exclaimed.
“What’s up, Dawn?” said a female voice from behind her, making Dawn jump with fright. She hadn’t heard Cassie come down the stairs.
Turning for her first look at her houseguest, Dawn struggled to think of a reason for her outburst. “I… I just realised that I forgot to buy milk yesterday,” she blustered.
Cassie was a pretty girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She was a little taller than Dawn and a bit on the skinny side. She was wearing the shorts and top that had been on the bedroom floor a few minutes before.
“I bought some on the way home from work on Friday, so there should be plenty,” the girl announced.
“You did? Thank you,” replied Dawn. Cassie must have found herself a summer job then.
Tonto meowed plaintively.
“Do you want me to feed him for you?” offered Cassie.
Dawn realised she was staring at the poor girl. She smiled self-consciously and reached up to open the wall cupboard. “No, it’s alright, I can do it. But thanks for the offer. Why don’t you get yourself some breakfast?”
Cassie nodded and squeezed her way past Dawn and Tonto, gathering together a cereal bowl and a mug from different cupboards then opening a drawer to find herself a spoon.
Dawn fed Tonto in silence as she struggled to think of something to say to this stranger in her home. She still wanted to determine whether this could possibly be the girl Ben had mentioned in his diary.
“So Cassie, did you consider other universities than our local one when you finished college?”
Cassie filled the kettle. “Yes,” she replied. “I very nearly ended up going to Exeter actually. Then my friend Jen talked me into coming here because this is where she wanted to go. Stupid really, since she dropped out after only a couple of weeks. I’m quite happy here though, so I don’t suppose it really matters.”
Exeter. That was definitely one of the universities Ben had been looking at. Why hadn’t which university he was attending come up in conversation when he’d been here on Thursday?
Dawn put Tonto’s food bowl on the floor for him and he pushed his face eagerly into the soft meat and jelly.
Cassie pulled a box of cereal out of the cupboard. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want some of this?” she asked. “I should have got a bowl out for you.”
Dawn shook her head. “No don’t bother, love. I fancy toast today, if we have enough bread.” Why was she so bothered to find out whether this girl was Ben’s Cassie? It wasn’t as if she could match-make across realities, was it? Ben was dead here and besides, she didn’t know the girl well enough to consider her potential daughter-in-law material.
“Hmmph!” Dawn let out the sound without thinking. She hoped Cassie hadn’t noticed, but when she glanced up the girl was looking at her with a concerned expression.
“Are you OK, Dawn? You seem a bit out of sorts today – not quite yourself, you know?”
Dawn smiled awkwardly. “No I’m fine, thank you. Tonto’s being a bit of a greedy guts today and I don’t fancy having to clean up if he brings back his breakfast.”
Cassie smiled then went about making herself a mug of tea.
“Can you make sure you bring those dirty mugs downstairs please? We don’t want them festering up in your room, do we?” Dawn told her, realising too late that she’d just admitted to snooping in the girl’s bedroom.
Luckily her lodger didn’t seem bothered. “Of course; I really must get out of some of my bad habits now I’m living in someone else’s home. I’ll bring them down later, I promise.”
Well, if she was Ben’s Cassie, Dawn could see why he liked her. She was an unassuming and well-mannered girl – and she must be smart too if she was studying Sociology at university. If she truly was the same girl, perhaps some version of Ben somewhere was proposing to her at that very moment. Who knew? But it was odd that Cassie’s path had crossed with Dawn’s in this reality, wasn’t it? Of all the possible places for her to go, wasn’t it beyond a coincidence that she’d come to university here and she was living in Dawn’s house – staying in Ben’s bedroom!
She remembered the conversation with Ben where he’d told her that the stone wasn’t intelligent – that it didn’t understand what it was doing. She shook her head. He had to be wrong. There must be some method to the reality-shifting. Why else would the girl be here?
Cassie stepped over Tonto, who was lapping up some water, having finished his breakfast.
“I’ll get out of your way so that you can get your own breakfast then,” she said with a smile.
“Thanks,” replied Dawn, reaching into the fridge to get the marmalade.
Once she and Cassie had eaten breakfast together in the conservatory, Dawn went upstairs to resume perusing the journal; having speed-read only the entry for yesterday while her new lodger was having her shower, she now wanted to learn more about this reality.
Meanwhile, Cassie cleared the dirty mugs from beneath her bed and Dawn heard her turn on the kitchen tap – the dear girl was washing-up!
Opening the journal, Dawn flipped straight back to see the date of the first entry. It was Thursday 25th February. Returning to the final page, she read through the entries for the past week.
Monday’s entry was quite funny: Dawn had woken up and heard someone in the shower, exactly as she had this morning. Then, assuming that it was Gary in there, she had gone barging straight in. Cassie hadn’t even flinched at the interruption to her ablutions and had just smiled sweetly, told Dawn that she’d be finished in two shakes and assured her that she wouldn’t use all the hot water. Dawn however had been mortified at finding a naked young woman in her shower and had almost fallen over her own feet in her hurry to get back out of the bathroom. She had apologised profusely over breakfast, explaining that she hadn’t been properly awake and had temporarily forgotten about her lodger, blundering into the bathroom to use the loo. Luckily, Cassie seemed to find the incident amusing.
Dawn’s relationship with Gary seemed to be amicable here, as far as she could tell. But sadly there was no indication of any imminent reunion in any of the entries she read; no mention of a new girlfriend in his life either though, she noted.
Flicking absently through the pages, she suddenly stopped, staring down at the page dated Tuesday 2nd March. In the margin, someone had written ‘Shifting started 13th Jan’.
She had seen this before – yesterday in fact. Exactly the same phrase, written in the margin in the same way. Could this mean that she and another version of herself had both been to some of the same realities? If that was true then could the number of realities she was able to visit be limited? Maybe she could end up back where she started again any day now.
Did she even want that anymore, though? Things hadn’t been good for her there – no Ben, no Gary and no Custard. The only one of the three she could hope to regain if she returned was her husband and that would most likely take a monumental effort on her part with no guarantee of success.
The entry in the margin was probably not relevant anyway – just a coincidence, a fluke.
What, like coming across Cassie was a fluke?
She gazed blankly out of the window, her mind awhirl with theories and possibilities. Could there really be method to her reality-shifts – a logical reason even? Surely not. She shook her head slowly, then determinedly brushed the absurd fantasy aside. Ben would say she was being foolish giving any credence at all to such a stupid idea.
But after Cassie went out to meet with some friends, Dawn’s mind kept coming back around to the notion. If the stone’s trigger had been her emotional state following Ben’s accident, wasn’t it likely that her state-of-mind was feeding it, even to the point of influencing which realities she ended up visiting?
Without Ben to talk to, she wasn’t confident that her idea even made sense. Perhaps she could run it by Sarah and see what she thought. Of course, that might mean having to explain the whole situation to her friend and hope she wouldn’t be judged crazy – assuming she was even here. But she really needed a second opinion, so she decided to ring and see if she was in.
Grabbing her mobile phone from her bag, she wandered into the conservatory and sat down to make the call.
“Hello?” answered a male voice.
Dawn, caught off-guard, gathered her wits quickly. “Oh hello, Pete,” she said, wincing slightly as she wondered if he’d say, “Pete? Who the hell is Pete?”
Luckily he didn’t.
“Hello yes. Who’s that?” Pete asked.
“It’s Dawn. I was hoping to speak to Sarah…” Why hadn’t she just called her mobile number? That would have saved her the embarrassment of talking to Pete when she’d never even met him, wouldn’t it?
“Sure, hold on a sec,” he replied amiably. “SARAH!” he shouted. “Dawn’s on the phone!” Then to Dawn he explained, “She’s on her way. Here she is now.”
“Hi Dawn,” her friend’s voice sounded strained. “Are you ringing to find out how things went yesterday?”
Yesterday? Dawn decided to take her go-to course of action and bluff. “Yes, that’s right. How did it go?”
“He’s doing OK, all things considered. It wasn’t a severe stroke and they think he’ll recover reasonably well – he’s a strong-willed man, Pete’s dad…”
Phew! Pete’s dad. She’d been beginning to panic about who the stroke victim might be.
“…and because Pete’s mum recognised the symptoms,” Sarah was saying, “they got him to hospital very quickly. We only got home from Lincoln about ten minutes ago, actually. We haven’t had any sleep so you’ll forgive me if I cut this call short. I’m very tired and Pete is exhausted, the poor love.”
“Of course, yes. I’ll let you both get off to bed then. Keep me up-to-date with any developments won’t you? And give my love to Pete.”
Sarah yawned loudly. “I will. Thanks. Bye then.”
“Well,” said Dawn to the empty conservatory after hanging up the call, “that’ll teach me to be so self-centred. The world moves on and other people have their own problems to deal with. It isn’t all about me. I’ll simply have to figure stuff out for myself.”
After more than an hour of hard thinking and scribbling down notes in the back of the journal, Dawn was none the wiser. Her knowledge of science was sketchy at best – she certainly wasn’t Albert Einstein – and any theory she came up with wasn’t provable anyway.
There was a knock on the door and she closed the journal and bustled off to answer it. Cassie had a key, so it wasn’t likely to be her.
It was Gary.
Dawn’s shoulders slumped. She was pleased to see him, but was finding today’s mix of new events and lack of answers to her questions about the reality-shifting all rather exasperating. His arrival could mean so many different things…
Gary frowned. “Nice to see you too,” he said. “I can leave if you like.”
“No. Sorry. Please, do come in. I’ve had a bit of a morning, that’s all.”
“Your new houseguest isn’t causing problems is she? Bringing back boyfriends and having loud sex at all hours of the night or having raucous raves with lots of druggies?” he asked, wiping his feet on his way past her.
“No, not at all,” Dawn said, laughing. “She’s a lovely girl. I couldn’t ask for a nicer lodger.”
Following Gary into the living room, she asked, “So, is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes, sort of. More something I can do for you, actually.” Delving into his trouser pocket, he pulled out a small plastic container about an inch square. “I found this in amongst all my stuff. I’ve no idea how it got there, but I thought we could take a look together. It’s a memory card from Ben’s camera. I had no idea what it was until I put it into my laptop and well, I thought you’d like to see it.”
“I see. Then you’ve looked at the pictures already, have you?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I’ve only glanced through them though. I thought we should do it together, if you’re alright with that? There are probably a couple of dozen pictures give or take, so it won’t take long.” He looked at her intently, obviously trying to read her emotional state. He looked worried.
There was a long silence where Dawn chewed over whether to say that she wanted to look at the pictures by herself or if she wanted Gary there with her.
As if reading her mind, he said, “I can leave it with you if you’d rather look by yourself…”
“Let’s both look, shall we,” she said. Taking him by the hand, she led him upstairs to the computer desk. He didn’t seem at all nonplussed at her holding his hand, and she felt his grip tighten slightly as they reached the upstairs landing. In the box room, she gestured towards the chair.
“You’d better do it – I’m not great with technology, as you know,” she said, releasing her grasp.
Gary turned on the computer and the fan swiftly churned up to full speed as the monitor blinked into life with a beep. He quickly found a program for viewing photographs and slid the memory card into a slot in the computer casing. A few seconds later, a row of thumbnail-sized pictures spread across the screen in front of them. Gary clicked on a button at the top of the screen that said ‘Slide Show’, then pushed the chair back and took Dawn’s hand.
“OK, I might have done more than glance at them,” he admitted as the first photograph filled the screen.
It was a selfie of Ben – his grinning face, with the living room sofa as the backdrop. The expression was pure Ben. Just as a tear was welling up in her eye, the picture disappeared to be replaced with the next.
It was a picture of Tonto sitting on Dawn’s lap. The cat was sprawled out to his full length, with his head resting on her forearm and his legs and tail stretched out over the arm of the sofa.
“Typical,” she remarked, tutting.
Then the third picture appeared. She recognised the setting – it was Jersey. They’d been there for a holiday the summer before Ben’s accident. It was a picture of her and Gary sitting on the terrace of a beachside restaurant with glasses full of some kind of fruity cocktail in front of them. Dawn was leaning into Gary’s shoulder and he had an arm draped around her. They were both smiling – not at their son, who must have taken the picture, but at each other.
The fourth picture must have been taken seconds after the first, as the pose was almost identical. Then in the fifth, Dawn’s chin was tilted up towards Gary as he approached to kiss her.
Gary took her hand and squeezed it gently as the screen flicked on to the next photo.
Ben must have passed the camera to his dad for this one, and she smiled through her tears at the image of her and her son. This time, Ben was grinning from ear to ear while Dawn threw her head back and laughed. If only she could remember what had been so funny.
The rest of the pictures were all from the same holiday; Ben on a bicycle they’d hired for the day, her and Gary trying to come to terms with riding a tandem (they’d given up and gone back for ordinary bikes after a few minutes of fruitless effort, she recalled), a picture of all three of them taken by a fellow diner at a beachside hut that sold pizzas.
Soon, the slideshow started repeating itself and Gary reached for the mouse to click the button to stop it.
“Please don’t,” she pleaded.
“I can give you a copy,” he offered, his voice thick with emotion. He cleared his throat.
“Of course I’d love to have a copy. But I’d like to see them again now, if you don’t mind.” She looked at him beseechingly.
He nodded and, as he stepped away from the computer, Dawn coiled one arm around his waist.
As they watched the slide show once more, she felt Gary slip an arm around her too.
Somehow, before the end of the second viewing, he was kissing her. It began almost as a question; would it be alright, his lips asked hers? She liked that he didn’t assume her assent. It was a tender, healing kiss rather than a passionate one and it lasted no longer than five or six seconds.
When they drew apart, Dawn clicked on the mouse and turned off the slide show.
“Thank you,” she said, turning to him.
“For the pictures?” he asked, uncertainly.
“For everything,” she replied. “For the photographs and for the kiss.”
He gazed into her eyes, but she looked away.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, trying to read her expression.
“I don’t know… what it means,” she explained.
“The kiss?” he asked.
“I’m not sure I do either,” he admitted. “I found the memory card last week. It’s taken me this long to get up the nerve to bring it over because I wasn’t sure how you’d react.
“When I left you, it wasn’t because I didn’t love you, Dawn. I care deeply about you and about Ben. But we needed to start living again and I felt like I was stuck in suspended animation or something. The frustration built up and up until…”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I know. I understand what you went through now. You were in pain too and I was too caught up in my own to see it.”
“And I pushed you too far,” he said, shaking his head.
“We both made mistakes,” she whispered as a large tear rolled down her cheek.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“Well,” she wiped away the tear with her knuckle, “we can either forget that kiss ever happened…”
“Is that what you want?” he asked urgently.
“No – you?”
“Then perhaps this means we’re on the same motorway again,” she suggested.
Gary frowned. “Motorway?”
Dawn laughed lightly. “It’s an analogy for life. We drive along it and the decisions we make are like changing lanes, or bigger ones are like turning off at a junction. We’ve been on separate motorways but now we’re back on the same one.”
“I see,” he replied uncertainly.
“Someone explained it to me like that a few days ago. I thought it was appropriate.”
He scratched behind his ear. “Can I…” he said, raising both arms towards her.
Dawn stepped into his embrace and lifted her chin. “Yes please,” she said.
An hour later, she was waving Gary goodbye, having arranged a date for the following evening.
Sleeping with him had been a little awkward and hesitant at first, but had quickly evolved into a passionate experience that left both of them glowing.
He had wanted to stay and was ready to dash back to his flat and pack up his belongings to move in, but Dawn had been the voice of reason and told him that they shouldn’t rush things.
His crestfallen expression had almost been enough to change her mind, but she kept worrying what tomorrow’s Dawn would think if she woke up to find Gary beside her with no idea how his return had come about.
Instead, she decided to write a journal entry that would inform the next version of herself to appear in this reality what had happened between them. She smiled as she realised that this wasn’t the first universe in which they’d taken a significant step towards reconciliation, so it could be more likely than she’d thought.
But, she wondered as the smile faded from her face, how could he ever move back in if she was forever worried about the reaction of tomorrow’s Dawn?
“Damn and blast that bloody stone!” she grumbled, shutting the front door.
“After all I’ve been through I know that I’m capable of dealing with whatever life throws at me. Ben is… somewhere out there – alive and well. Maybe I don’t need to find a reality where he didn’t die after all.” She paused, realising that it was almost true. But not quite.
Knowing he was out there could be enough, couldn’t it – if she could only stop this nonsensical flipping about in different realities? But she felt a pang of guilt just thinking it – for giving up on her son.
She was still leaning against the wall inside the front door when she heard someone trying to turn a key in the lock.
Cassie was home.
Dawn reopened the door to let her lodger in. “Hello Cassie, did you have a nice time with your friends?”
“Yes thanks, it was good. A whole bunch of us met up with our partners etc. One of the guys there said he knew your son too – in fact, they used to be really good mates apparently. Lucas was his name.”
“Lucas? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Lucas Johnson. Doesn’t the name ring a bell?” asked Cassie, apparently taking Dawn’s surprise as an indication that the name didn’t mean anything to her rather than the exact opposite, as was in fact the case.
Good grief! Today was getting crazier and crazier. Lucas! But then this was one of her realities where Ben wasn’t here. She supposed it followed that the event which triggered his reality-shifting didn’t have to have happened here either.
“Oh yes, Lucas!” said Dawn, trying to look as though she’d just remembered the name. “How could I forget Lucas? He and Ben were friends for years. How is he?”
“He seemed to be doing OK. It turns out he’s at Exeter University – funny that, since you were asking me about my other university choices this morning and then I go and meet a friend of your son’s who’s going there. Was Ben going to go there too?”
Dawn gulped, feeling as though she was being backed into a corner.
“Goodness, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t be waffling on about your son. How insensitive of me. Please forgive me,” gushed an embarrassed Cassie.
“Let’s drop the subject, shall we?” said Dawn, glad for a means of escaping the topic – not because she didn’t want to talk about Ben, but because she was worried she’d say something that wouldn’t fit this reality. It was so difficult not to blindly put your foot in it and she didn’t want to have to be left struggling to cover her own blunders.
At least, if she found Ben again she could now tell him that Lucas was alive and well in some of her realities – but then he’d probably worked that out for himself, since he was such a bright boy. Young man, she corrected herself.
“Um, I think I’ll get myself a coffee,” Cassie said chirpily. “Can I get you one?”
Dawn was glad to let the girl off the hook. “Yes, that would be nice, thanks.”
After she finished writing in the journal that night, Dawn reflected on her day. It had been an interesting one, with plenty of surprises and none of them unpleasant as far as she was concerned. It was the second day in a row, she realised, where she’d almost be happy to stay here.
“Pah!” she spat. “Almost… I’m always hanging on for Ben though, aren’t I? Despite what I said to Gary, I’m still clinging on by my fingernails, unwilling to let go.”
As she drifted off to sleep, the words played on her mind: unwilling to let go.
Chapter 25 – Monday 22nd June
That’s how long it had been: eighteen days of different realities. Dawn had counted them out on her fingers.
The journal lay open on her lap.
Cassie wasn’t here anymore and Gary had a girlfriend called Miranda – the name alone was enough to make Dawn feel inadequate!
Sarah was with some person named Charlie, Beryl had sold her house and gone to live with her son and Custard wasn’t here either, by the look of things. Shutting the book with a bang, she stared into space and sighed.
The stone had given her a couple of pleasant days in a row and now she was apparently paying the price with a bloody terrible start to today. It served her right for thinking that she could cope with whatever changes came her way. Perhaps the stone was trying to prove her wrong.
She contemplated the idea of staying in bed and only getting up to prepare some food – she wasn’t willing to starve herself to death after all – or Tonto either, of course.
Thumbing through the pages of the journal earlier, she’d quickly discovered that this version had only been running for six days. And there was no mention of reality-shifting anywhere – just confusion and fear about the changing events from one day to the next. Evidently this Dawn hadn’t come very far at all.
“Six days? Well, lucky you!” she commented dryly. “You wait – you could be doing this for weeks or months. Who knows – it might even be for the rest of your life, you lucky woman.”
In disgust, she pushed the journal off the side of the mattress and it landed with a thump on the floor.
She reached beneath her pillow, retrieving the stone. Of course it was there, where else would it be? If she didn’t know the ins and outs of reality-shifting, the Dawn from this place was still clinging stupidly onto Ben’s lucky charm – a reminder of him to taunt herself with day after day.
She turned it over in her hand. It was warm. Then it vibrated and she dropped it in her lap.
“Oh sod off!” she yelled at it. “Stop it, can’t you? Just stop it! Leave. Me. Alone.” She grabbed it and hurled it at the curtains with all the strength she could muster, not caring whether it would hit hard enough to break the window behind; in fact, she was almost disappointed when it didn’t. But it merely plopped down onto the floor and sat there on the carpet. She felt like it was mocking her.
She seized Gary’s pillow and threw it after the stone, landing it directly on top – exactly as she’d hoped.
Unfortunately for her, out of sight was not out of mind.
“What’s your bloody problem?” she yelled at the pillow-covered pebble. “Do you want to torture me? I’ve been tormented every day since Ben died anyway, so why did you need to bother?
Tonto appeared beside the thrown pillow. He sniffed it, then turned to stare at Dawn, his pupils dilated.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
When she opened them, Tonto was on the bed, walking rather cautiously towards her, his tail puffed out like a Christmas tree.
“I’m sorry, Tonto. You don’t like it when people are angry, do you? It gets you all agitated. Come up here and see me, sweetie,” she said gently, stretching her fingers towards him.
He approached slowly and tentatively, but his pupils had decreased in size and his tail was deflating too.
Dawn stroked his head, continuing along his spine and the full length of his tail, smoothing his fur back down.
The cat took a step onto her lap, pushing his face against her chin. She could hear him purring now – the kind of purr a cat saved for its special human, like the private smile shared between a mother and child.
Dawn took another deep breath. “Thank you, Tonto,” she murmured. “Where would I be without you?”
Where indeed? With no Ben, Gary, Cassie, Custard or Beryl and Sarah probably distracted by her boyfriend – what was his name again? Charlie? – it was just her and Tonto against whatever this reality had in store.
“Bloody brilliant!” she groaned, keeping her voice quiet so as not to upset her cat again. “Bloody sodding marvellous!”
Yesterday, she had slept with Gary and today he was probably sleeping with someone else. She wanted him home, and in several realities had been fairly successful in making steps in the right direction. But here she was, thrown right back where she’d started – worse even, since this was the second universe she’d visited where he had a girlfriend. Who knew how serious their relationship was here and how long it had been going on? Perhaps today he’d turn up asking her to sign divorce papers!
At that thought, she made a decision; today she wasn’t going to answer the door or the telephone – except if one of the emergency services turned up of course, but that was very unlikely. She would close herself off from the world and hope to get a reality that was more acceptable tomorrow.
Today it would only be her and Tonto. A half smile crossed her lips. She’d be the Lone Ranger.
While Dawn was preparing Tonto’s breakfast, the telephone rang. She hated leaving it unanswered at the best of times – which this most certainly was not – but forced herself to ignore its incessant jingling. Eventually it stopped mid-ring, which she found even more infuriating.
She stared at the handset. Would whoever had called leave a message, she wondered? It would be OK to pick up one lousy message, wouldn’t it?
No, she told herself firmly. She didn’t want to interact with anyone today. If Gary wanted a divorce, he’d have to come tomorrow, after she’d slipped off somewhere else.
Five minutes later, she was still standing in the kitchen doorway, almost hypnotized by the silent telephone. Tonto, she realised, had finished his breakfast and wandered somewhere to sleep it off.
She’d just decided that picking up a single message couldn’t do any harm when the phone trilled into life again. Answering it was not an option though – a message could be listened to and ignored, but a person on the other end of the line required interaction and she simply couldn’t face that.
So once more she waited for it to stop ringing.
She left it long enough that her caller would have had time to leave a message, then dashed into the hall and picked up the handset. The alternating tone indicated that at least one of her callers had left a message. She punched in the code to retrieve it or them.
There were two messages: the first was an automated notification from the hospital reminding her that she had an appointment on Wednesday at the fracture clinic. She pondered the implications of that, imagining what it would be like to have a broken leg and to be flipped into a version of her house with no crutches available. She hoped it was something insignificant like a finger that she’d fractured, and it seemed fairly likely too, since she hadn’t seen any crutches.
The second message was at least from a human being – one whose voice Dawn didn’t recognise, however.
“Good morning, Mrs Foster. This is Helen from the cattery. We were expecting you to come and pick up Custard yesterday afternoon. Could you please give me a call on 01998 237904 to let us know if you still want her? If you don’t then we need to be told so that we can take the reserve off her and let someone else take her. I hope to hear from you very soon. Bye.”
Dawn dashed into the kitchen with the phone still in her hand.
“To listen to your messages again, press 1,” said the automated voice as she scrabbled in the drawer for a pen.
Grabbing a discarded envelope from the pile of opened letters on the worktop, she pressed the ‘1’ button, pacing up and down the kitchen as the first message replayed and hopping back to the counter with her pen poised as soon as the cattery message began replaying.
She scribbled down the telephone number, pressed the button to end the call and dialled.
So much for staying in today and not interacting with anyone.
“Hello, could I speak with Helen please?”
“Helen speaking,” came the reply.
“Oh, hello Helen. This is Mrs Foster. I’m terribly sorry about yesterday; my neighbour had a fall and I had to take her to the hospital. I couldn’t really call you to let you know because… because my mobile phone ran out of charge.” Dawn was becoming accustomed to lying by now.
“I knew it had to be something like that,” replied Helen sympathetically. “I do hope she’s alright.”
“Yes. Yes, she’s fine. She’s being discharged this afternoon.”
“Do you want to make an appointment to come and collect Custard then?”
“Yes please. Yes. Can I come straight away? I mean I’ll need to get a taxi, but I should be able to get there quite soon.”
“Um… yes you could do that. Don’t you need to be there when your neighbour comes home from the hospital then?”
“No, no. Her son drove down when he heard about the accident. He’s going to pick her up and sort everything out. I don’t want to leave Custard where she is any longer – not that you don’t do a wonderful job of course – but Tonto really could use some company,” Dawn babbled. “I’m only a few minutes’ drive away, so if I can get a taxi straight away I can be there in… say ten minutes? Half an hour tops.”
“Right then, see you soon. Bye bye.”
Dawn rang a local taxi firm whose number she knew off by heart and they said they’d send a car straight round to pick her up. Then she dashed into the hall, replaced the telephone on its stand and hared up the stairs to grab the cat box from her bedroom cupboard. She was out of the house in less than a minute, planning to be ready and waiting when the taxi arrived, but had to go back indoors when she realised she was still wearing her slippers.
An hour later, Dawn was home with Custard.
Helen at the cattery had asked her to sign a form before taking her new pet away, which revealed that Dawn had reserved Custard two weeks previously – over a week before the Dawn from here starting reality-shifting.
She had no idea how the little cat could turn up at different times in different realities, but she didn’t really care. It had been such a tremendous relief to see her big green eyes staring at her from her temporary pod home.
In the living room, just moments after Dawn opened the plastic front of the cat box and sat back to see what would happen, Custard strolled nonchalantly out onto the soft carpet.
Tonto was shut out in the conservatory, but was eagerly watching from the other side of the double glazed doors. Dawn hoped that Custard wouldn’t be frightened by the bigger cat prowling around in clear view but, knowing how well the two of them had hit it off before, decided to chance it.
Custard took in the surroundings of her new home and almost immediately spotted Tonto. She trotted confidently over, sniffing the glass in front of Tonto and leaving it clouded by her breath. She turned her head and looked up at Dawn, who was still crouching next to the cat box.
“That’s Tonto, Custard. He’s harmless. If you let him, he’ll become a very good friend of yours, and believe me – I would know.”
Custard turned to look at Tonto once more. The cats sat watching one another for a few moments before Custard sat down on the floor and lifted her leg to clean her bottom. Taking her cue, Tonto did the same.
“What a relief,” said Dawn with a sigh, sinking onto the carpet. “I didn’t want you two to meet and have a falling out straight away. I could easily have messed up your whole relationship and I’d never have forgiven myself for that,” she told them earnestly.
A few minutes later, Dawn tried opening the conservatory doors an inch or so, allowing the pair to sniff one another at closer quarters. Again, this was a resounding success, with the pair assessing each other without a hiss or a growl to be heard.
Tonto tried poking an exploratory paw through the gap making Custard shy away a little, but she soon returned and sat down in a puddle of reflected sunshine, washing her face.
By mid-afternoon, the pair were in the same room together and when the evening came, Dawn sat with Custard on her lap and Tonto curled up next to them on the sofa.
Today had been a good day after all – despite a terrible start. Both of her cats followed her up to bed that night, sleeping side by side at her feet. She made sure to leave a journal entry explaining the arrival of Tonto’s new playmate, remembering the confusion of her own first encounter with the little cat.
Thankfully, Gary had not appeared with divorce papers, which was certainly something to be grateful for, Beryl would be happier living with her son than in a nursing home and hopefully Sarah would be happy with thingummy too. Ben wasn’t here and neither was Cassie, but she could hope that they’d find each other in some reality or another and make each other happy.
She fell asleep with a smile curling at the corners of her mouth.
Chapter 26 – Tuesday 23rd June
Dawn awoke with a sound intruding at the edges of her consciousness. Snoring; gentle, rhythmic and very familiar. Her eyes opened and her suspicion was confirmed – it was Gary.
Should she shuffle over and snuggle up or was this a day where he would be on the brink of leaving her? She was so happy to see him that she didn’t care. The idea of snuggling up to her husband was simply too tempting to ignore so, disregarding the shred of doubt that tugged away in a corner of her mind, she slid herself across the mattress and slipped an arm around him, enjoying the soft warmth of his body against hers.
The snoring continued and Dawn smiled. It was odd how snoring could be such a comforting sound – something she had missed during the months since he’d left. She’d told herself that it was an annoyance – one of the reasons she’d be better off without him. But she knew it wasn’t true.
At exactly 7am, Gary’s clock-radio turned on just in time for the local news. She was about to be discovered.
Gary opened one eye and looked at her.
She smiled at him, hopefully.
He gathered her gently into his arms and the sense of relief was so huge that she was crying before she had a chance to compose herself.
“Hey…” he said softly, wiping away a tear with his thumb. “What’s up, sweetheart?”
“Nothing,” she replied, staring into his concerned eyes. “I’m just happy you’re here.”
He looked at her quizzically. “Where else would I be, exactly? It’s a Tuesday morning. Is this because I had to go away for that business meeting last week? I told you it was a one-off. If they make me go again, I’ll pay for the upgrade to a double room and take you with me.”
“No, it’s not that. I don’t know what it is really. I woke up feeling rather emotional for some reason. Perhaps I had a bad dream or something, although I don’t remember it if I did.” She hoped that her explanation sounded plausible.
Gary reached out and turned the radio off. “I should get up,” he said, “or do you want me to stay in bed for a few more minutes? You know how tight I am for time in the mornings since I started my new job.”
“You get up. I don’t want to make you late. I can do you a packed lunch if you like.”
“I’ve been doing it in the evenings recently – remember? Goodness, you are a bit out of sorts this morning. Are you sure everything’s alright?”
Dawn nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. I don’t think I slept very well, so I’m still a bit fuzzy. I’ll be OK once I get moving.”
He got out of bed, grabbing his dressing gown off the back of the door. “I’m off to have my shower then. See you in a few minutes. Smells like Ben’s got some coffee brewing already,” he commented casually as he disappeared onto the landing.
Dawn scrambled up to a sitting position and her eyes flew up to the photograph frame on the wall. It was full of photographs; her with Gary, her with Ben, her with Ben and Gary. Tonto and Custard. Ben with… Cassie! Her hand flew up to her mouth and she whipped around to grab the journal from the dressing table. It wasn’t there. She yanked open the drawer and scrabbled around inside to no avail.
This must all be a dream surely, she thought, beginning to feel light-headed. All those wonderful, wonderful pictures… But no journal to help her discover what was going on. Fumbling underneath her pillow, she located the stone and pulled it out. Her hand was shaking so much that she thought the object would fall off her palm.
“What have you done?” she asked it. “Is this a dream or have you really done this? Do you want to torture me – to give me all this only to take it away again tomorrow? Why would you do that? Why have you done any of this?”
The talisman vibrated and she curled her fingers tightly around it. “Stop that!” she said, her voice getting louder. “Stop it now!”
“Dawn?” called Cassie’s voice from somewhere nearby. “Are you alright?”
“Err. Yes, love. I can’t find the off button for the radio, that’s all. Got it now! Problem solved,” she chirped, trying to sound upbeat.
“You sounded upset.”
“No, frustrated, that’s all,” explained Dawn.
“OK. See you downstairs in a bit then.”
“Uh-huh. See you downstairs.”
Dawn’s mind was racing; Ben and Cassie and Gary and Custard. She really needed to find out what was going on and her son was her only way of doing that. It was extremely unlikely that this Ben would be the same version of her son she’d met a few days earlier, so she’d have to show him her stone and explain how she’d got it all over again. But he’d help her understand – they could look through his Internet diary and fill in the gaps left by hers having disappeared completely. She’d have to be discreet though; Gary would be leaving for work soon, but Cassie was still in the house and it was possible she didn’t know about Ben and the reality-shifting.
Once dressed, Dawn pocketed the stone and scampered out onto the landing, eager to see her son again.
She stopped in her tracks as she passed his room though; there was an extra bannister rail fixed to the wall down the full length of the staircase. Glancing into the bathroom, she noticed a slatted board across the width of the bath and a couple of strategically placed grab rails too.
These adaptations clearly weren’t for her or for Gary. It made sense that it must be for Ben. If he had been injured in the same accident that had killed him in her reality, then he could have been left with life-changing injuries in this one. No stairlift though, she noted, so hopefully his injuries weren’t too severe.
She took a deep breath, steeled herself to see him disabled without reacting adversely, and descended the stairs.
She’d been right in her assumptions. Ben was standing in the kitchen, facing away from her. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and pair of almost-knee-length shorts. His left leg was a prosthetic. The foot looked like skin-tone moulded plastic with a thick, black rod coming from the centre that was joined to a wider mechanism six inches or so above the ankle. From where she was standing, she couldn’t see as far as his knee, so couldn’t tell how – or how high up – the prosthetic attached to his body.
He turned to face her. “Morning, Mum,” he said. “Could you give me a hand carrying the mugs through to the conservatory, please?” He pointed down at his leg. “I’m not steady enough on Marjory here to carry drinks without spilling them.”
“Of course,” Dawn rushed forward to help him, almost bumping into him in her hurry. “Oh God, I’m sorry!” she babbled. “I nearly knocked you over. What an idiot!”
Ben placed a hand on her arm. “It’s fine, Mum. You’ll have to try harder than that to finish me off.” He laughed softly.
It was easy for him to joke about it, but she had lived through his death and mourned for him.
“Ben, I need to talk to you about this.” She pulled his stone out of her trouser pocket.
“Wow! I’ve been wondering where that was! Where did you find it?” he asked, taking it from her.
Dawn leaned against the work surface. “I found it in your jacket pocket,” she told him. “Don’t you have one too?”
“I don’t know what you mean. How could I have one too? It’s unique, remember?” He slid the pebble into his pocket and she felt panic rise in her chest. It had been hers for weeks now – it was the reason she was here – what would happen if Ben kept it? Would she still reality-shift? Would he?
“Can I keep it?” she blurted.
He stared at her. “Keep it? My lucky stone?” He looked mortified.
“Forget I asked,” she turned, picking up both mugs. “It was a stupid idea.” She strode off, leaving him standing in the kitchen.
Moments later, Ben followed her through the living room into the conservatory, where Cassie sat up at the table, a heavy-looking text book and a ring-bound folder in front of her. Seeing them approach, the girl smiled brightly and reached out for her mug. “Thanks, just what I need. I’m having trouble getting my head around some of this,” she pointed at the text book.
Dawn took the chair beside Cassie at the table while Ben lowered himself gingerly onto the sofa. It was clear now that the amputation of his leg had been above the knee, as the knee joint on the prosthetic limb was now visible. Dawn had so many questions she wanted to ask – about his leg, about Cassie – about everything. But she couldn’t do it now. She should try to bide her time.
The house was adapted for Ben – to help him with mobility. He’d said that he wasn’t completely steady on the prosthetic limb yet, indicating that he hadn’t had it all that long. But this Ben belonged in this adapted version of the house. It was much less likely that he was reality-shifting at all, which also meant she wouldn’t be able to talk to him about it. She could choose to confide in him, but with his girlfriend here it didn’t seem likely she’d get an opportunity to do that.
“You OK Mum?” he asked, sipping his coffee.
She forced a smile and tried not to look at his artificial leg. “Yes of course.”
“You don’t look OK. You keep staring at Marjory,” he tapped his mug on his false leg.
“I’m sorry, love. I’m still getting used to the idea, that’s all,” she said, hoping the remark wouldn’t raise even more questions.
“It’s been over a month, Mum. I thought you were used to it. We agreed that it was better to have the leg off because of all the pain it was causing me. Perhaps I should have worn jeans…”
“No, it’s fine. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.” She raked her fingers through her hair. “I had a nightmare shortly before I woke up and I think it’s made me start the day on a bit of a downer. It’s not your fault – or Marjory’s.”
“Are you sure?” he asked anxiously. “What about that business in the kitchen?”
“I’m absolutely fine,” she insisted, rather too vehemently.
Cassie frowned but didn’t say anything.
“I’m feeling a bit ragged this morning, so sorry if I’m not acting myself. I’ll be fine once I’ve had some breakfast, I expect.”
Ben gave her a reassuring smile and sipped at his coffee.
Finding her gaze drawn to his prosthetic leg again, she glanced up at his face. Luckily he hadn’t noticed this time. Pull yourself together, Dawn, she told herself sternly. You’ve seen artificial limbs before! Just not on Ben…
It was good that he had a prosthetic rather than put up with pain every day. If it had only been a month since his amputation, she thought he was doing rather well, as he clearly managed the stairs somehow and there was no sign of a wheelchair in the house.
Custard wandered into the conservatory and rubbed her face against Ben’s artificial limb. “You do realise I can’t feel that, don’t you, you daft cat?” he said, laughing.
“Ben, stop berating poor Custard. You’ve got work to do you know,” Cassie reminded him. “You missed a month at uni when you had your leg amputated and Professor Newick told you that you had to catch up over the summer.”
“I’m well aware of that, but it’s still early. Give a man a chance to have coffee and some breakfast before slogging away on coursework for the rest of the morning. I’ll make a start after Dad’s gone to work.” Ben stroked Custard, who fell onto her side and began rubbing her face repeatedly against his right foot. “At least you’ve got the real one this time,” he chuckled.
Upstairs, Dawn heard Gary come out of the bathroom and a few minutes later he trotted through to the kitchen, emerging soon afterwards with a bowl of cereal and a spoon.
“Morning all!” he said cheerily. “Not working yet, Ben?”
Ben tutted. “Don’t you start on me now; I’ve already had Cassie having a go at me.”
Gary sat beside Ben and tapped his artificial leg. “How’s Marjory doing this morning? She up to speed yet?”
“Not quite. It’s easier outside where there are fewer obstacles to send me flying. Mum had to carry the coffee this morning because I still don’t trust myself. It wouldn’t hurt to spill it on my peg leg of course, but Mum’d give me hell if I stained her carpet.”
Gary nodded and then looked at his watch. “Damn, is that the time? I need to get a move on. I’ve got a client coming in first thing this morning, and he mentioned that his train gets in pretty early. I said I’d be there by eight.” He gulped down the rest of his cereal, scraping the bowl for the last remnants of milk before handing the empty bowl to Dawn.
Kissing her swiftly on the lips, he said, “Gotta go, love. See you later,” and then was gone.
“Aren’t you working today?” Cassie asked Dawn, looking her up and down.
“Um…” Dawn muttered, panicking. “Err…”
“She has the week off, remember?” said Ben, rolling his eyes in mock incredulity. “Because of us being here.”
Dawn was relieved she didn’t have to go to work because she wasn’t sure how she’d find out what her job was. Even if she’d tried to bluff her way through it with Ben and Cassie, she’d have had to disappear out with nowhere to go and no idea when she’d be expected to return home.
It seemed that the more people she had to deal with, the more difficult it made for her not to put her foot in it somehow. Having them all here was a lovely surprise, but it was certainly going to make today interesting. And what about the stone? Ben had it now, and she couldn’t let him keep it; what if it stopped shifting her and started on him instead? And if it did, how would that work with his prosthetic leg – imagine if he turned up in another reality with half his leg missing and his prosthetic left behind here! Whatever else happened today, one thing was certain – Dawn had to retrieve the stone.
After they’d all had breakfast, Ben and Cassie agreed that they would spend the morning working in the conservatory before allowing themselves the afternoon off to do some tourist-style sightseeing with Dawn at the local aquarium.
Dawn meanwhile offered to do a couple of loads of washing for the pair, who had decided to bring bags full of dirty clothes with them to save having to take it to the laundry in Exeter.
She didn’t mind doing their washing – it wasn’t exactly an effort to load up the machine and add detergent and fabric softener. Today was a fine day for outdoor drying too, so standing in the garden bathed in the summer sunshine pegging out their wet clothes didn’t feel like a chore either.
Unfortunately, Ben hadn’t agreed when she’d offered to put his ‘grubby-looking’ shorts in the wash. She’d suggested it hoping that it would give her a chance to recover the stone from his pocket, but he’d merely given her an affronted look and told her he’d put the shorts on clean that morning.
As she stood pegging out the second load of washing, she looked at her son and his girlfriend working away in the conservatory. The pair sat side by side and as Dawn watched, Cassie put down her pen, threw an arm around Ben and leaned her head onto his shoulder. Ben rested his own head on top of Cassie’s and they stayed like that for several seconds. It warmed Dawn’s heart to see her son so obviously in love.
The young couple lifted their heads and Ben drew his girlfriend in for a kiss. After a few seconds, Cassie pulled back and whispered something in his ear. The two of them turned in unison and looked at Dawn, who quickly ducked her head behind a pair of Gary’s trousers. She didn’t want them to think she was snooping on them and didn’t want to interrupt their ‘moment’ either.
She’d just pegged the last sock onto the rotary washing line when Ben called to her out of the window. “Mum – door!”
Breaking into a trot, Dawn was quickly back inside. “Why didn’t you get it?” she asked exasperatedly, hurrying to answer the door before the caller gave up waiting.
“Hi Dawn,” said Sarah with a smile. “I bought home-baked fruit scones,” she announced proudly, thrusting a plastic container at her friend.
Dawn, having little choice in the matter, took the container and clutched it to her chest.
Why wasn’t Sarah at work? She couldn’t ask – undoubtedly she’d be expected to know about it whatever the reason was. How frustrating!
“Can I come in?” asked Sarah.
“Yes. Yes of course – sorry!” Dawn swept her arm in invitation.
“Have you heard any more about Beryl?” Sarah whispered conspiratorially. “Has her toy boy moved in yet?”
“Uh, I… I don’t think so,” Dawn stuttered. She really needed to think more quickly; her slow reactions to people’s questions were making her look like a complete dunce. The thought of Beryl with a toy boy made her smile though. She hoped the old lady had found a soulmate, irrespective of his age.
Fortunately, Sarah didn’t seem to have thought twice about Dawn’s hesitant response. She trounced straight past into the living room.
“Ben! You’re looking so well! Having the prosthetic leg seems to have given you a new lease of life. And this lovely girl must be Cassie,” pronounced Sarah enthusiastically as Dawn followed after her, still clutching the plastic box full of scones.
“Hi Sarah,” said Ben, giving her a quick wave and then sauntering over. “Yeah, the leg’s so much better. Mum says I’m like Steve Austin but I’ve no idea who that is.”
Sarah glanced at Dawn and rolled her eyes. “The Six Million Dollar Man,” she explained, but Ben looked none the wiser. “Don’t worry – she’s just showing her age. It was a 1970s television series starring Lee Majors. If they made it now it’d probably have to be the sixty billion dollar man. So outdated.”
Dawn gave her friend a good-natured slap on the arm. “That’s insulting. The fact that you’re younger than me doesn’t give you the right to be rude. I have so much more experience than you, so don’t give me a hard time.” Experience you could never dream of, she thought.
Cassie was still sitting in the conservatory. She looked a little nervous, Dawn thought.
“Cassie, come and meet my best friend Sarah. She doesn’t bite, I promise.”
“I might if you don’t get some of those scones onto a plate pretty sharpish!” Sarah giggled.
“Come and give me a hand then,” Dawn ordered. “You want scones, you’ll have to work for them,” she added, taking her friend by the arm and leading her into the kitchen.
“But I already slaved over a hot stove to bake the bloody things,” protested Sarah, although she didn’t resist being led away.
Once in the kitchen, Dawn wanted to find out if Sarah knew about the reality-shifting.
“I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit odd lately,” Dawn said vaguely, hoping that Sarah would catch on and realise what she was talking about.
“You’ve always been odd, but I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary recently – for you that is. What do you mean?” Sarah asked as she opened the lid of the box and began slicing scones in half.
Dawn opened the fridge and extracted butter and two kinds of jam. “I just think I haven’t been myself recently. You haven’t noticed anything then?”
Sarah stopped cutting and popped a stray currant into her mouth. “No. I’d have mentioned it, wouldn’t I? You know me – I’m not one for holding back. Has Gary said something to you? Or Ben?”
“No.” Dawn sighed. “Forget I asked. It’s not important. I’m probably imagining it.” If only.
“Do you want to butter or jam them?” asked Sarah.
Sarah accompanied Dawn, Ben and Cassie on their trip to the aquarium that afternoon, saying that she hadn’t been in years. The four of them had a lovely time, although Cassie had avoided the squid tank, saying that she found them so repulsive that she couldn’t even look at them.
By the time they all got home and Sarah left for her own house, Dawn was starting to feel rather agitated. Everyone was here, alive and well. It all seemed too perfect – even Beryl had a toy boy, apparently.
She excused herself from Ben and Cassie’s company, saying that she was tired and went upstairs to lie down.
Staring up at the ceiling, she tried to analyse how she was feeling.
There was no journal here; why was that? It had to be significant, surely. Did it mean that the Dawn from this reality was experiencing her very first shift? It was easy for Dawn to imagine how traumatic that must be for her – especially if she’d shifted to a universe where Ben was dead and Gary had left. She’d be feeling pretty miserable right now. But what right did she have to be feeling out of sorts? Was it guilt at displacing a version of herself who had such a perfect life? Yes, that was it: guilt.
But why should she feel bad – it wasn’t as if she had any control over where she shifted to, was it? That was at the whim of the stone.
The only slight imperfection in her life here was Ben’s leg. The Ben she’d met before had nothing more serious than a few scars to show for his accident – although he’d told her it had been touch and go.
‘Marjory’, as Ben called his prosthetic, was clearly an improvement on the pain he’d apparently suffered through for the last two years.
“I’d give my right arm to stay here,” she muttered, under her breath. Then she snorted at the poor taste of the unintended pun. “But what about her? What about the one who belongs here? I don’t have the right to take this away from her.”
She stared at her reflection in the mirror, then stretched out to touch it with her fingertips. “All these realities, so closely connected but never touching. Like my reflection – I’m not really touching it, just the surface of the mirror an atom’s breadth away from it. And then along comes the stone, able to cross the barrier.” She imagined the surface of the glass turning to liquid and her reaching her fingers through the surface to touch her own reflection. “Bizarre. But I can’t influence where I end up – not consciously at least. I can’t get home and neither can she now. It’s like being the ball in a pinball machine. The flippers and bumpers fling you about and you can only wait and see where you’ll end up next. So I’m sorry, Dawn, but I can’t help you come back home.”
Chapter 28 – Wednesday 24th June
Dawn didn’t want the day to end – didn’t want to face tomorrow without Ben and Cassie and Gary again. She stayed up late, agreeing to watch a dreadful slapstick-style comedy film that was a favourite of Gary and Ben’s in order that that she could spend every possible moment with them.
Cassie was the first to go to bed a few minutes after midnight. Ben followed soon after, giving his mother a worried look when she hugged him and didn’t want to let go.
Gary turned the television off at about half past midnight.
“Can’t we watch something else?” Dawn pleaded.
“Shouldn’t stay up too late – tomorrow’s another work day,” he replied, rather sadly.
She thought about staying up by herself, but quickly realised she wanted to be with him when 1:57am came. Even if he was asleep, she could be there beside him, listening to him snore like she had this morning.
Gary stood then offered Dawn his hand. She reached out and he pulled her up, giving her an extra tug to draw her into his arms. He kissed her – softly at first then becoming more sensual.
“I love you, Gary,” she said tenderly, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“I love you too,” he responded, pulling back to look at her face.
She couldn’t maintain eye contact with him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Ben said you didn’t seem quite yourself today.”
She snorted involuntarily, turning the unwanted outburst into a cough.
“He’s worried about you, and now I am too. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she insisted. “Nothing a night’s sleep won’t fix anyway. Everything will be fine in the morning,” she told him, closing in for another kiss.
If only it would.
Gary was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow – an ability Dawn had always envied him for. It left her alone in the dark to contemplate what was to come in – she looked at the clock – fifty-eight minutes.
She picked up her Kindle from her dressing table – apparently it had been a birthday present from Gary last year – and turned it on. Finding herself in the middle of an unfamiliar book, she tapped on the screen, trying to find out how to return to the beginning. There, that was easy enough.
She began reading, but stopped at the bottom of the page. She’d never finish it anyway, so what was the point?
Giving a little shrug, she tapped to turn the page. So what that she wouldn’t finish it?
“Oh, sod it!” she exclaimed, luckily not waking Gary. Ben still had the damned stone.
She debated leaving it where it was, but couldn’t bring herself to risk her son disappearing off to a different reality.
Sliding out of bed, she gently returned the Kindle to her dressing table before tiptoeing out onto the dark landing.
Outside Ben’s room, she bumped into Tonto who was sleeping on the floor.
The cat blinked and raised his head.
She wondered briefly where Custard was, then noticed the little cat about three feet away, at the top of the stairs.
Tonto laid his stripy head down on his paws. Dawn hoped he didn’t decide to follow her into Ben’s room – the last thing she needed was to trip over a cat and wake up the whole house.
She knocked lightly before entering, hoping for no answer then, hearing nothing, she knocked slightly louder to be sure. Still nothing.
Soon she was inside. She could see Ben and Cassie lying together under his Horsehead Nebula duvet cover in his narrow, single bed. Like two spoons in a drawer. She’d have found it adorable if she wasn’t so darned scared of being discovered.
Creeping over to the chair where Ben always put his discarded clothes, she quickly found his shorts and searched each pocket, finding the stone in the third.
Then, as quietly as she’d entered his room, she departed, the pebble in her hand and her heart beating so hard that she wondered how it hadn’t woken the sleeping couple.
The door catch clicked as she shut it behind her and she heard someone inside turn over in bed.
Freezing to the spot, she waited several seconds before tiptoeing into her room and sliding unnoticed back into bed with Gary.
She had the stone now. The chances were slim that a mere change of ownership would have meant Ben shifting instead of her, but even a slim chance wasn’t one she was willing to take. She’d go to a different reality every day until the end of time if it would spare her son.
Dawn lay there, listening to her husband breathing. She wondered about the version of herself who belonged in this reality; she probably hadn’t even discovered that Ben’s lucky charm was the reason for the strange happenings of whatever day she’d had. Ben had said that his stone had gone missing – she must have found it. The poor, unfortunate soul.
Still forty-two minutes to go.
The sky was clear tonight, and moonlight filled the room with an eerie glow. If she was awake at 1:57am, she’d see Gary disappear – although technically it was her disappearing rather than him. Perhaps sleep was the best option after all, she pondered. It would be too terrible to have this life blink away like Ben had before.
She closed her eyes, and turned over with the stone still clutched in her fist.
A tear slid down her cheek and dripped onto the pillow.
Dawn rolled over. It was a warm night and the sheets seemed to cling to her skin as she turned, causing her level of consciousness to lift and the cobwebby feeling in her brain to dissipate.
She opened a single weary eye. The clock in front of her said it was 1:53am.
“No…” she grumbled. “I don’t want to be awake now.”
Instinctively she rolled back over, facing away from the clock and towards the lump that was Gary. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to be facing left or right as her choice would be to watch the last couple of minutes in this reality tick away or to watch her husband blink out of existence.
“Bugger!” she swore quietly, flipping onto her back. She raised her right hand, which was still closed around the stone, in front of her, then uncurled her fingers one at a time, holding the pebble in place with her thumb.
It was no consolation to her that she held the only thing in this universe that would pass with her into the next.
As she lay there, she could feel the temperature of the little object rise slowly. She hadn’t noticed that happen last time she was awake at ‘zero hour’. It was quite warm now – almost hot even. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, it began to vibrate.
She wanted to shout at it to stop – to leave her alone – but she didn’t want to wake Gary – it wouldn’t be fair, and what would she tell him anyway?
The vibrations grew stronger and eventually Dawn had to cup her hands together around the stone to stop it falling onto the bed. It reached the point where it was shuddering so vigorously that it felt like she was holding a trapped bluebottle. And it was hot – hot enough that she didn’t think she could hold it much longer.
Then – she couldn’t help herself – she turned her head towards the clock. It read 1:56am and as she watched, it changed to 1:57am.
“No!” she cried.
Gary sat up. “What’s wrong, love?” he asked urgently.
Dawn stared at him in disbelief. She was holding her hands out in front of her, like Oliver from the musical asking for more food.
But they were empty. The stone had gone, leaving nothing but a warm patch in the centre of her right palm.
“Bu-huh!” she exclaimed, scrambling up to a sitting position.
Gary had his arm around her. “Dawn – it’s alright. It was only a nightmare.”
She stared at him, her eyes wide with disbelief.
“G…Gary?” she stammered.
“Yes, love. It’s fine now. Everything’s OK.”
“Ben? What about Ben?” she asked, grabbing him by one arm.
“Ben’s fine too, in bed in the next room with Cassie.”
Dawn swallowed hard and tried to understand what had happened. The stone was gone. She let go of Gary’s arm.
“Switch a light on,” she ordered.
“What? Why?” he asked.
“Switch it on – please,” she pleaded desperately.
He flicked the switch and her eyes ached with the suddenness of the change in illumination. Her fingers smoothed out the covers, searching every fold for the missing stone. Then she lifted her pillow and scrabbled underneath. Nothing.
“What are you looking for?”
“Stone. The stone.”
“Dawn, you must have had a nightmare. There’s no stone here. We’re in bed, in our room. No stones – just us.”
She leapt up and almost tripped in her hurry to get to Ben’s room – she had to check he was still here. What if the damned thing had taken him instead?
She flung open the door and heard Ben’s voice saying, “What the…?”
He sat up and turned on his reading light, swivelling round to face her, his legs exposed as he flung back the covers.
“Sorry!” she exclaimed, staring at the stump of his leg, noticing that the amputation must only have been a few inches above his knee. “So sorry!”
“Wha’s going on?” asked a sleepy Cassie, lifting her tousled head from the pillow.
“Nightmare. Sorry. Terrible nightmare. Go back to sleep. Sorry. Sorry.” Dawn retreated out of the room and bumped straight into Gary.
He pulled her into his arms and held her as she began to sob. Seconds later, Ben came out of his room, balancing on his good leg. He must have hopped across the room to reach her, she realised guiltily.
With Ben on one side and Gary the other, Dawn cried.
Epilogue – Saturday 27th June
There was a song lyric, wasn’t there – something about it being ‘just another ordinary day’? Dawn knew she’d never take an ‘ordinary’ day for granted again. This was her fifth morning in the same reality; an infinitely better reality than the one from which she had originated.
She was, of course, grateful for being here – and for being allowed to stay. But guilt still nagged away in a dark corner of her mind reminding her that, if she was here, then another version of her must have lost Ben.
How was she coping, that other Dawn?
She had lost Ben once herself – twice if she included their reunion in that alternative universe – and she knew how hard it had been. But to be thrown into a world where he was already gone and there was no chance to say goodbye except by visiting his headstone in the cemetery…? Unthinkable. Unbearable.
She knew, of course, that she’d had no choice in the matter – not a conscious one anyway. And she had no idea why she’d been allowed to stay in this particular reality either – this perfect world just a few ‘roads’ away from her own impossible one, like all the others she’d fleetingly visited over those nineteen confusing, eye-opening days.
The stone was gone, and Ben had lost his own version of it too, so there was little chance that it would be able to interfere in their lives again.
The day Dawn stopped reality-shifting, she’d taken a photograph of herself with Gary, Ben and Cassie, downloading it onto the computer to print it out. She’d added it to the central aperture in the photograph frame in her bedroom so that every morning she would see it and know immediately that she was still in the same reality, because she’d never truly believe that it couldn’t happen again. If the stone had disappeared right out of her hand, wasn’t it possible that it could reappear too?
And what about that other Ben she’d met – the one who had helped her discover what was going on, the one who had lost his best friend Lucas? Where was he? Had he stopped shifting? Had he found Cassie? She’d never know the answer. If he had to swap places with a version of himself who had the stone, then she’d never see him again. Ben but not Ben; not Ben but still Ben. She hoped he was alright.
Staring out of the window, she wondered, had it even been her Ben who had died? She’d taken the supposed lucky charm into hospital and left it at his bedside. It was there when he died. Was her Ben still out there – or was it actually him that she now had staying in her house with his girlfriend Cassie?
Dawn sighed and stroked Custard, who was curled up on her lap, purring contentedly. It had all started with Custard – a cat who appeared out of nowhere – and now, thankfully, it was over.
Three weeks later, on the coast of California, a young girl with long, blonde hair and sad blue eyes strolled along a pebble beach, poking at the ground with a piece of driftwood she’d found.
Suddenly she stopped, discarding the driftwood and stooping to pick up a stone.
“Hey, look Mom!” she called to the woman who was trailing reluctantly along several yards behind her. “Look at this pretty stone. It has a hole that goes right through it and a heart-shaped mark too! Isn’t it amazing?”
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The perfect life is out there, waiting for you to live it…
Bronwyn Bowen had been an inspiring woman: a talented teacher, a gifted artist, an exceptional piano player and a hardworking business woman. Carys thought she was the perfect mother too; she admired and loved her and wanted to be just like her when she grew up.
But when Bronwyn dies, 10-year-old Carys’ father Gareth sends her away to live with her aunt. It has always been obvious to Carys that she isn’t as good as her mother and now her beloved father is proving she’s right by not letting her stay at home and look after him.
And the dreams don’t help…
Growing up in rural 1940s Wales, Carys has a lot to learn about life, love and what’s really important.
Leaving her rural home for the excitement of London, Carys hopes she can prove that she’s good enough.
Doorsteps & Dreams (the sequel to Turning Points)
Perhaps it’s time to stop running away…
Carrie has married the wonderful Jack Mason, but all is not perfect: Her old-fashioned husband isn’t keen on the idea of his new wife having a job, even if it makes her happy.
Life in London seems far from home to Carrie too, and she’s keen to move back to Wales and build on her renewed relationship with her dad. Finally an opportunity arises to return to her beloved Wales.
But Carrie, longing to become a mother, finds that fate stands firmly in her way. And then tragedy strikes…
A collection of short stories, poems and ‘other scribblings.’
Read ‘Hot Under the Collar,’ a tale of jealousy and its consequences, ‘Poor Law,’ the story of young Will Thompson’s life in a 1903 Cottage Home (or workhouse for children) and what happens when he is unjustly accused of theft, ‘Watching,’ the story of Luke Peterson’s ghostly encounter in the woods, plus other stories, poems and what the author describes as ‘other scribblings.’
Connect with me:
For details of these, and future works by Sian Turner, please visit:
my website or
my Facebook page
I’d like to dedicate this book to my dear friend Deb. I know I shall always remember that emotion-filled Saturday afternoon (and the following days too) that taught me so very much about friendship. Here’s to standing at Ladies Parlour on the West Hill at sunrise, hand in hand with our special people.
And to you, the reader, thank you for reading my work. A novel is nothing if it goes unread (especially an e-book, which isn’t even a pile of paper).
To my husband Martin, thank you for your unwavering belief in me, both as a writer and in general. To my daughter Abi, thank you for being who you are – I am so proud to be your mother. Thanks to both of you for standing by me always and giving me strength when I need it most.
Thank you to Sally and Roland Gardner and the many talented members of Shorelink Writers in Hastings for your feedback and kind comments, and also to Helen Baggott for her proofreading and copy editing services, which have made the book the best it can be.
Finally, I would like to thank any of you who spend a few minutes giving my novel a positive review on whichever website you bought it from.
I hope you enjoyed the book.
Dawn Foster lost her 18-year-old son, Ben following a tragic accident two years ago. Desperate to cling onto her memories, she wanted his room kept how it was when he was alive. But her husband Gary, in a misguided attempt to force Dawn to ‘move on’, badgered her into letting him re-decorate Ben’s room. Next, Gary made matters even worse by sending all of their son’s belongings to a charity shop. A serious rift in their marriage resulted and Gary moved out, leaving Dawn alone in the house – except for her dear cat, Tonto. After Gary left, Dawn visited the charity shop in an attempt to buy back some of her son’s precious belongings, but managed to recover only one item – a denim jacket – which she hung in Ben’s otherwise empty wardrobe. A few months after Gary’s departure, Dawn discovers her son’s ‘lucky stone’, which Ben found on the beach during a seaside holiday when he was twelve, concealed in the pocket of the salvaged jacket. Overjoyed to find such a personal link to her beloved son, she carries the treasured stone with her everywhere, even keeping it under her pillow during the night. The day after finding the stone, Dawn’s life suddenly begins to take a series of inexplicable turns that leave her suspecting she has some form of stress-induced amnesia. But after days of increasingly confusing events that she records in a daily journal, Dawn is forced to face an even more frightening explanation that leaves her doubting more than just her memory. With her son dead, her husband gone and life quite literally out of control, how will Dawn ever be happy again? 'A wonderfully imaginative account of a woman trying to cope with life, love and loss. A beautifully written story that invokes both our sympathy and our empathy. I thoroughly recommend it.’ Sally Patricia Gardner (Author of 'Lilian’s Story')