What would you reveal if you knew the person you were talking to would listen without judgement?
Well, feel free to share. Your secrets are safe with me.
I’ve no idea how long I’ve been here, but I’m going nowhere fast. Last thing I remember is setting off for the ski trip. There must have been an accident because I’m in some sort of coma or locked-in syndrome. Wish I’d paid more attention to news stories and science lessons, but long story short, they’re not expecting me to wake up any time soon. They’ve guessed I can still hear, though – or maybe they’re just giving Mum and Bill false hope.
Whatever. Point is, right now I’m your perfect captive audience.
There are a few familiar voices. Bill’s is matter-of-fact with a smattering of false cheer; Mum’s is weepy. There’s an unfamiliar young male voice, presumably someone doing community service as he’s intent on reading me A Tale of Two Cities cover to cover. But here’s the thing. Everyone else who talks to me, whether they know me from Adam, winds up acting like they’re in a confessional.
And I’ve started listening.
Richie, for one, acts like an old pal. He sometimes talks about the office, but mostly he tells me his secrets. Cheating on his wife, for starters. And then a story spun out over several visits: he’d found a lump, went through the rollercoaster of being too embarrassed to go to the doctor, then too scared to go, then too scared not to go. Turned out to be an STD – his bit on the side was having her own bit on the side. Now he’s ditched her and is full of gratitude for his wife, what a wake-up call, etcetera.
What really throws me is the confessions of strangers. There’s a woman who works in the gift shop and a gruff-voiced man from the cafeteria, which makes me wonder whether anyone’s given a second thought to my privacy. Surely I should only be visited by close friends and family? But maybe these randomers pretend to be relatives and nobody checks. I wonder what perks I have in my room to draw them in – a fish tank? Window? Painting?
Nobody tells me anything useful, like what date it is or who won the Premiership or whether I still have all my limbs. The cafeteria guy gives a comprehensive menu which varies by a couple of items each time, and I assume it’s autumn because pumpkin soup’s been on two visits in a row. That’s been my only clue. I can’t even tell if the room’s warm or cold. I used to worry I might be stark naked, but the gift shop woman wouldn’t visit. She seems pretty puritan. Her confessions are things like parking in the disabled space or entering too few bananas at the self-service checkout.
One time, there was a nervous breathy woman who introduced herself as Cathy. Her mother-in-law had just passed away and Cathy’s husband was busy dealing with the formalities. Said she’d sat for so long by the bedside of an old, bitter, dying woman that she needed to balance it out, visit someone who gave her hope. Guess I must still look like a young man with his life ahead of him.
Cathy felt guilty because she was relieved about the death. She supposed her punishment lay in the coming weeks, in which her 55-year-old husband would act like his world had fallen apart. Said if he wasn’t so pathetic she’d divorce him, then joked there was some comfort in the fact that by sticking around, she’d eventually benefit from the mother-in-law’s inheritance. But there was the funeral and house clearance and all manner of things to get through first.
I liked Cathy and was glad she’d stopped by. I sometimes wonder what she’s up to now and whether her husband has grown a pair.
Listening is a good distraction, but there are too many quiet times. I’d assumed hospitals were busy, noisy places where it was impossible to get enough sleep between rounds of poking and prodding, but they seem to forget about me for long stretches.
There’s not much to distinguish between imagination, nightmare and memory. Dad pops up now and again, his voice as solid as everyone else’s. It’s oddly comforting. He talks about books and films, and I want to tell him I share his hatred of A Tale of Two Cities. He also keeps asking if I’ve seen Jedd recently, which is odd, because it was Jedd who organized the ski trip. Jedd hasn’t visited yet, but that doesn’t surprise me. He hates hospitals.
Flashes of the trip are coming back to me. There was a group of us, and we must have made it to the resort because I can picture Jedd in his new purple jacket.
A tap on the door interrupts my thoughts, which is welcome until I hear the tell-tale shuffle. Dickens guy. The chair scrapes backwards as he settles, and he proceeds to recite the funeral procession of Roger Cly. But soon, I hear the book snap shut. There’s a tinny sound of rock music, then the song ends and the radio presenter cuts back in. And I finally learn it’s November 2019, there’s another election on, Barry’s Hardware is having a closing-down sale and there are only 26 shopping days until Christmas.
Suddenly a woman comes in and gives the poor guy an absolute bollocking, so we return to Dickens. It must lull me to sleep, because next thing I know, Mum’s crying and Bill’s talking over her.
“Now, young Thomas,” Bill says gravely, “focus on getting better. We trust we’ll hear your side of the story. We’ll be here for you.”
What does he mean, my side of the story? No more clues from Mum and Bill, who exchange hushed murmurs before saying overly-cheery goodbyes. My mind’s racing backwards and forwards, trying to recover the lost memories.
I try to picture the flight out. Jedd would have booked it because the whole trip was to help boost his travel franchise. Hang on, that’s right! It was a promo, and the others were competition winners. But why was I there? I just can’t put it together.
Dad’s dropping in more often now – he predates this whole mystery, so his is the safest company. His musings are really outdated though, like wondering which A-levels will give me the best job prospects. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know I ended up selling insurance.
Of course. That’s why Jedd invited me. We must’ve done a quid pro quo – he sorted the flights and accommodation; I got us some top-notch travel cover. So why does Bill need to hear my side? Maybe there was a fuck-up with the insurance, I’m lying in a private hospital room and it’s bankrupting Mum. I wish I could figure it out. It’d likely only take five minutes on a smartphone to crack the whole thing.
The next voice I hear is Richie’s. Says he’s brought grapes and magazines. Gives a self-conscious laugh and I wonder if he’s planning to keep them. He’s all excited about getting his wife a diamond necklace for Christmas and I want to tell him he’s a moron, that’s a big fucking clue he’s had an affair.
“Listen, Tommy.” Another self-conscious laugh. “Sorry, mate, but no more risks. Deal’s off.”
He shuffles, then scarpers, leaving me more confused than ever. What would I have even been in on with Richie? We didn’t know each other outside of work.
Oh shit. Fuck. No.
I don’t want to remember any more. I push back against the blackness, but it’s spreading thickly now, like spilled paint, against which the images flash unwittingly, relentlessly, mercilessly.
Flash. Me and Richie in the office, laughing as we up the pay-outs to lottery-winning sums. Flash. The six of us posing for a selfie in the cable car.
Flash. The cabin.
It all went wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong. There were two cabins – Jedd and I took the smaller one, allowing the competition winners an additional treat. Their cabin had a hot tub. And a gas stove.
I cared nothing for these four strangers. They were irritating and vacuous and actually said the word “hashtag” out loud. I felt nothing as I set the gas leaking. The pay-out for emotional distress in the event of preventable fatality was huge.
How was I to know that Jedd had snuck over for a nightcap? That he was asleep in the same bed as that insufferable bimbo? By the time I realised, it was too late. I tried. I was desperate to drag him out. I really tried, to the point that I must have succumbed to the fumes myself.
The blackness in my head pulses to cover every last part. Then it all fades to the most brilliant white.
There is just time to do one last, good thing. I will take your secrets with me.