A nightmare woke him. He opened his eyes and squinted. Memories of fire and screaming. Sounds of popping and crackling. The room was dark. Was that a real noise he had heard? Maybe it was a dream? He thought it had come from the passage beyond the bedroom door. Stayed in bed listening. Perhaps it was something in the room? He tried to focus his eyes and penetrate the gloom. A faint light from a street lamp filtered through his curtains, highlighting items of bedroom furniture and casting deep shadows in the darkness. From what he could see, nothing appeared to be out of place. Everything was still and quiet.
Calming himself, he closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep. Vague dreams of fire and screaming. People running. Sounds of popping and crackling. It was a noise. He was sure it wasn’t a dream. Fully awake now, he decided to investigate and so he peeled the covers back and stepped off the bed and onto the cold linoleum floor. Moved cautiously across the room towards the door. There it goes again. Definitely coming from outside the room. He reached for the door handle. His hand hovered above it. Should he open it? Pressing his ear against the door, he listened. Nothing. Then it suddenly started again, a curious crackling, popping sound. With a sense of foreboding, he lowered his hand and gripped the handle. This is it. Now or never. He could feel his heart racing, the panic mounting as he turned the handle. The door opened slightly and he peeped through the small gap. The hallway light was off but the soft amber light coming in from the street lamp enabled him to see down the passage. A framed landscape painting hung on the wall. There were doors in the passageway. They were closed. Nothing unusual, nothing out of place. No cupboards or chairs or ornaments, just a plain passage with a linoleum floor and rows of doors. But there was something odd about the passage. Something odd about his room. Something peculiar about his surroundings. Nothing made sense. Fire and screaming. People running. Crackling and popping noises. All silent now. Nothing.
Trembling, he closed the door and returned to his bed. Lay there with the covers up around his shoulders, his eyes darting around the room. No more noise. No more memories. Silence. Peace. He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Again he woke up with a start. Daylight filtered through the curtains. His door opened.
“Time to get up, Vincent,” said a man dressed in white. “I’ve got your medication.”
Moving like a robot, he climbed out of bed. The man gave him three pills in a small beaker. He swallowed them with a glass of water. The man said it was time to wash and get dressed. He followed the man out of the bedroom and into the passageway. Other people, strangers, were opening their doors. They formed a line and began to walk towards the washroom.
Men were showering and cleaning themselves. He couldn’t be bothered to take a shower. Stepped up to a sink. Looked in the wall mirror above the sink. His face was lined. His eyes were red. There were dark rings around the orbs. He had a slight beard. Didn’t want to shave. Turned the hot tap on and filled the sink with water. Put his hands in the water and splashed it onto his face. Rubbed soap on hands and then spread it around his cheeks, nose and chin. There was no meaning to what he was doing. His movements were automatic rather than calculated. After washing his face, he washed under his arms. After drying himself, he stepped out of the washroom and walked slowly back to his room and got dressed.
The man in the white uniform poked his head round the door and said: “Breakfast Vincent.”
He filed out of his room and moved slowly towards the breakfast room. Picking up a tray, he stepped up to the serving counter. A man asked him whether he wanted cereal or hot porridge. He looked at a container full of porridge. Using a ladle, the man scooped the porridge from the metal container and poured it onto his plate. He picked up a slice of toast. The man passed him a cup of tea, which he carefully placed on the tray.
Balancing his tray, he looked around the room. Men were sitting in rows eating their breakfast. Some were talking; some just sat there in silence and rocking backwards and forwards. Others stared out the window. He glanced out the window as he stepped passed them. A vertical cluster of Cumulonimbus clouds rose up in the distance like a nuclear explosion.
There was an empty table at the back of the room, so he slowly walked towards it. Sat down and began to eat. He shivered as a fleeting memory of fire, screaming, people running flashed into his mind and then quickly disappeared. He slowly began to eat, spooning the porridge mechanically into his mouth. Ate his toast and drank his tea. When he finished, he picked the tray up and deposited it with the others.
Later that day he was led into a large room with a television and armchairs. He had been in the same room before, though he couldn’t remember why. A woman dressed in blue greeted him: “Hello Vincent.” He looked her way. She smiled. His face was blank. Suddenly a chilling memory surfaced in his mind. Fire. Screams. He gasped. Then it was gone.
His head moved slowly from left to right as he looked around the room. He didn’t know anybody. An unkempt man with lank hair and vacant eyes glanced at him then turned his head towards the woman dressed in blue. His face was emotionless. Another shabbily dressed man stood by the window rocking backwards and forwards, repeating the words ‘going home soon’ over and over again. People were detached, existing in their own world and unaware of others around them.
“Okay Vincent, please sit down so we can begin the therapy session …”
He looked at the voice. His eyes met those of a middle-aged woman with short hair and a kind face. She smiled as she took his hand and guided him towards a chair.
“Sit there, Vincent.” He obediently sat down. There were other men either side of him. They formed a horseshoe pattern.
The woman sat in a chair and faced them. “Today we are going to say something about ourselves,” she began. “I want you to tell me who is the most important person in your life.” She looked at each man in turn and then said, “Let’s start with Tom.”
Tom recognised his name. He looked up. “Who is your most important person, Tom?” she asked.
Tom looked hesitant, bewildered. “I … I had a little girl once. Her name was Abigail …” Suddenly Tom started crying. His shoulders heaved as he wept.
“Tell us about Abigail, Tom,” the woman said, her voice sympathetic, almost whispering.
“I can’t think. I can’t say much about Abigail,” he said still sobbing. “I just know I had a girl called Abigail but something happened and I don’t know what. When I think about her I just want to cry because something inside me feels so horrible that it makes me want to run away and I don’t even want to talk about it because there’s nothing to say except it makes me feel sick to my stomach. I don’t know why you want me to bring this up …” Tom drew his arms across his chest and choked on his sobs.
“Okay Tom, we’ll explore your feelings a little later. Let’s leave it there for the moment.” Her eyes moved from face-to-face and then settled on Vincent. “How about you, Vincent? Who is your most important person?”
Vincent stared at her. He tried to make sense of what she had said. Something about an important person. Again a memory flashed into his mind but he couldn’t hang onto it. It was there and then it was gone.
“There must be somebody, Vincent, somebody important to you …”
Vincent opened his mouth but nothing came out. His mind was blank. Suddenly an image formed. Fire. Crackling and popping as furniture burned. Screams. Panicking. Sirens in the distance. People running. The memory was accompanied by a hideous sinking feeling, as if he had been disembowelled. He gasped for breath. Then the memory and the emotions disappeared. His shoulders slumped and he relaxed. Vincent looked blankly at the nurse and shook his head. He sat there shaking his head.
Shaking his head.
Shaking his head.