Red in my eyes. Finding it hard to see. Hard to breathe.
The voice is all around me. Light, but distant. I can’t see him. I can’t see anything. I’m in a bubble of red light and there is a tune playing. Something I heard long ago.
“Is this your blood? Miss?”
His voice is hard. Hard enough to silence the music.
A hand roughly grabs my face and wipes it. I can see him now; greying, fluorescent yellow safety vest, tense face, brow knotted and eyes wide with agitation. He’s staring at my face without looking at me.
Beyond him. Ticket hall. Tottenham Court Road. Underground station. Yes! I was on the platform, westbound Central Line. Why am I in the ticket hall? Memories are in the wrong place, all jumbled and nonsensical.
“What happened?” I mutter, but my voice isn’t mine. Words forming sounds that have no meaning to me.
“Someone jumped. Hell of a mess. I think you were close. This isn’t your blood.”
The red clears. My eyes are open, but my face is wet and sticky. I wonder what kind of wipe he just used. I have sensitive skin. I must look a mess.
The ticket hall is packed with mainly bewildered, and a few irritated, faces. Heat rises from each of them like a ripple of invisible fire. Random thoughts converge in my already confused head as I look round. I wonder how long it’s been since they decorated this place. Wonder if anyone has noticed the obscene graffiti running up the side of the pillar opposite me. Or the man slumped in a corner, blissfully unaware of his surroundings, like he’s just drifted off to sleep in the sweltering heat of a weekday afternoon.
I was in a hurry. I wanted to get home. I wanted to crack open a bottle of Pinot Noir and drink myself to sleep. My feet hurt in the new pair of heels that I’d bought to impress the CEO. The hot flushes were relentless. And I was just so tired of it all. I wanted to get home.
I’d barely reached the platform – the train was coming. The noise. The sharp wash of cool air in the stifling heat. Bodies pressed against each other so tightly you could smell the sweat. There was a girl with long, beautiful blonde hair staring at me and then –
…And then I saw you, pushing your way through the crowd like we didn’t exist, like you had some right to be first on the train. Your silky blouse that probably cost you a fortune was sweat stained with a filthy black mark running down the back. You turned to look at me, those superior eyes of yours shooting me a look that just made me want to punch you…
A red-faced man shouts from across the concourse as he bangs his head on a wall, his whole body shaking as a fresh trail of blood slips down his forehead. The man in the fluorescent vest tires of me and rushes over to his new patient. He’s dwarfed by the other man’s size, but as he touches him on the shoulder, the man crumples to his knees in floods of tears.
I want to get to my feet.
He’s young and rather attractive and the only thing he seems to want is my attention.
“Take it easy,” he says with a cheeky grin, steering me back down on to the cold floor. “What’s your name?” He kneels before me.
“Ok, Christina, how are you doing?”
I have a lot to say, but no energy to say it. There’s that tune in my head. So unfamiliar and yet I know I’ve heard it before.
It’s our song.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions. Don’t worry if you can’t answer everything right now. We’ll cover all that later. I just need to sort the basics out first, all right? Do you have any identification? Bank cards or something?”
He picks up a cheap, bright pink thing with “Hello Kitty” written on it.
“That’s not mine,” I tell him quickly.
He nods his head but goes through the bag anyway. Despite being at least half my age, his eyes betray the attraction he is clearly feeling towards me. It’s been years since anyone looked at me that way.
He’s not looking at you.
“Anne Taylor,” he says, holding a bank card, a knot of confusion shimmering across his brow.
“Told you it wasn’t my bag. My name’s Christina Gunnersen.”
He continues to rummage as I catch my fragmented reflection in the ticket barrier I’m leaning on. I don’t recognise the face streaked with dirt and dried blood. My eyes struggle to focus and for a split second there are two of me, the old familiar face converging with a younger one, rippling together like visions in a burning pyre. My hair is too long, too blonde.
“It’s quite usual to feel strange,” he says, drawing me away from the unrecognizable face. “You may feel a little disorientated after an incident like this. Do you have someone to call?”
I have a cat, a distant cousin I met once when I was seven and an ex-boyfriend who emigrated with his new, younger wife to Connecticut.
Who’s Nick? Mind searches. References. Nick… Nick… Nick… I don’t think I know a Nick… An image forms in my head, sneaking in like a guilty secret that you’ve attempted to erase too many times. He’s nothing special: tallish, slumping shoulders and a crooked smile that reminds me of a young Cliff Richard. Despite the fact that I have never seen this man before, he feels desperately familiar. For a moment I can actually smell his aftershave. Why are you in my head? My memories?
“What happened to me?” I ask him, this young man so desperate to help me.
“I think you were too close. She fell. Or jumped. We’re not sure. You’ve most likely blacked it out…” He continues to talk, but it’s just words tumbling from his mouth with less and less meaning the more he goes on.
“What did she look like?” I ask, cutting the flow dead.
“I don’t know, Miss Taylor.”
“That’s not my name.”
He flashes a driver’s licence at me. “That’s you? Don’t worry, like I said, a little disorientation is usual. I can call you Christina if you prefer that?”
I reach out and take the card from him, staring blankly at the little computerised image stuck on the plastic card – pretty, blonde, and barely twenty-five. Girl on the platform.
The wave of nausea takes me completely by surprise as the station concourse starts to ripple beneath me, like someone picked it up and shook it out like a crumpled tablecloth.
A hand gently grips my shoulder in a move that’s far too intimate, and yet, one he feels completely confident in making. Something’s not right with me. Inside me. I reach up to run my shaking fingers through my hair, surprised to find more there than I had this morning. Long blonde locks fan out between my fingers. I look into the tarnished metal mirror beside me.
I want to see my face, but I can’t. I want to look away, but my eyes don’t belong to me anymore. They slip out of focus, intent on seeing something else. Blonde on the platform. I remember.
I close my eyes and for a second I am back on that platform, pressing through the crowd to ensure my place on the approaching train. I want to get home. There she is with hair so bright it’s blinding in the artificially lit tunnel. I head towards her, deftly side stepping her lithe, young frame and muscle in next to a man who thumbs his mobile.
You looked small next to him. Insignificant. Like a shadow struggling to keep up with its owner. You kept walking, those expensive shoes of yours clattering on the platform and you didn’t stop…
The breeze rushes into the tunnel bringing a much-needed flood of cool air across the waiting commuters. I see the lights, like giant’s eyes in the dark, speeding towards us and I turn to see her face.
Looked straight at me…
Her eyes are wide, filled with confusion and horror and her face, her lovely young face…
You kept walking.
… streaked in blood, red in her eyes. Whose blood is that?
The scream isn’t mine. It’s hers; an alien sound filling my mouth and erupting with force into the surrounding air. I can’t stop. The tunnel is huge and dark and swallowing me whole.
“Shhhh… it’s alright. I’m here.”
Strong arms circle my waist. I’m not where I was. I’m somewhere else. Somewhere small and cramped. A flat? A house? It smells of vinegar, like stale take-away has been sitting untouched for hours. I’m at a sink in a kitchen and there’s a salty taste in my mouth.
The man before me – Nick – who? His breath stinks and the closer he gets the more I want to vomit.
“I’m here,” he whispers into my neck. Kisses the bruise. “It’s alright.”
Me, screaming now. The arms tighten around me, pulling me inwards. Pulling me into the nightmare that isn’t even mine.
My face smashes down into the shining metal tap that drips incessantly.
I don’t know you.
The cold floor of the ticket hall is both reassuring and terrifying. The hands of a young policeman pull me upward.. He’s whispering something to me but I can’t hear him. I can only hear the wails of a blonde trapped in the nightmare of her own life. The bitter taste in my mouth signals the rush of adrenaline that’s pumping furiously through my veins. The realisation of what has happened finally hits home.
One stupid, blind moment of distraction and I forgot the edge.
You kept walking…
If you hadn’t been flicking your hair like a shampoo advert, I would have stopped.
I didn’t die.
It’s my life. You can’t steal it from me.
I’ve spent too many years being the bitch of the European Acquisitions Department to let some Barbie doll beat me into submission now. I can hear her screaming inside my head, thrashing about as if that’s going to do her any good. She hurls memories like impotent Molotov cocktails.
I have so much more to offer than you, Anne Taylor.
Heart races. Her heart. Not mine. Does it matter? The beat of it feels stronger, not worn out and abused like mine. She didn’t smoke. This chest expands effortlessly, unlike the faint, yet ever present rattle that used to accompany my every breath.
Then she strikes. My mouth gapes wide open, expecting the rush of air to fill my perfect lungs, but it’s like I’ve been thrown into a vacuum. I want to reach inside and force them to expand, but all I can do is claw the air as I slip to the floor and wait for everything to stop.
You’ll kill us both.
“Miss Taylor? Anne?”
I’m on my back, mouth wide and limbs splayed out like a broken doll. A hand reaches behind my head, tips my skull, and now I see the crowd of faces lined up like targets behind him, all waiting for more to gawp at.
Air fills my lungs as a heat touches my lips. More… more… I see blue sky and feel the wind on my face. I’m flying, a world in beautiful synchronicity below me. I understand it all. Every little mistake. Every wrong move. My life is a landscape of near misses and wrong moves. I can do it again. I can do it right.
Despite the overwhelming desire not to co-operate, this body finally gives in, betraying their true owner as it gives up its fight and swears allegiance to me.
I smile at him, this young, good-looking man. He smiles back, his hands still on my chest, oblivious to those who watch us. He believes he’s saved my life. He understands nothing.
“Don’t move,” he says. “I’ll get a paramedic.” My right hand starts flapping like a dying fish in the hot sunshine and my head hurts. There’s a sharp pain above my ear that curves round both eyes, like a thin wire band tightening. Nausea rises in ever increasing waves as the station walls shudder and undulate. . I smell steel and oil burning together in one almighty inferno, sticking to the roof of my mouth and solidifying inside my nostrils. The sound of metal grinding on metal burns through my head like huge fists of fire.
I’m in that silent zone you slip into moments after stepping off a plane, where you exist on a different frequency and the world feels like it’s moving in the opposite direction to you.
We exist. Together.
The hand signals its final gesture of defiance and then falls silent.
I exist. Without her.
Announcing the winners and shortlists for the Lucent Dreaming 2022 Prize. Congratulations all!