Robin sat hunched up in bed, watching Breakfast on his portable television. He was eating a boiled egg with fingers off a tray and dropping crumbs down the sheets. When the newsreader droned, “In a surprise announcement today the Government are changing its plans…” Robin made a grimace and turned the set off. He got creakily out of bed, holding his hip. He was going to have to do something about that hip. But not yet.
It was a Tuesday, and the cleaner was due at nine o’clock. He liked to let her in and have a little chat. He put on his battered leather slippers, opened the curtain and peered out at a grey, damp day. He balanced the tray in one hand and opened the bedroom door with the other, and embarked slowly on the journey downstairs. The landing light had blown again.
Damn. He’d forgotten the coffee cup. He started to turn round, but his toe caught the worn stair carpet. His thin ankle twisted, and he gasped and fell. He tried to grab the banister, but the tray in his hand hindered him. He slid down heavily down the stairs, hitting every step and crying out in pain. The air was pushed out of his lungs, and his head struck the wall at the bottom of the staircase with a loud crack.
Gradually he was aware of bright lights, and chatter, and beeping sounds at regular intervals. Music was coming tinnily out of a headset hanging behind him, and someone was noisily moving a heavy object on wheels just out of his vision.
His head was throbbing like a jackhammer. He tried to shift, but there was a tube coming down into his arm, and another one from his groin into a bottle, making movement difficult. Each breath hurt, and his back felt raw and tender. He groaned and closed his eyes again.
A white smile in a plump black face, and a gentle hand on his forehead. ‘Can you hear me, Robert?’
It’s Robin, not Robert, he wanted to say. Has been ever since I was at school. He opened his eyes a crack or two. He winced, and forced himself to speak.
‘What have I … done to myself?’
The nurse laughed. ‘Fallen downstairs and hit your head!’ she cackled, as though it were a tremendous joke.
‘You’re in the General Hospital. You’ve had concussion. And you’ve broken a few other things…But you’ll be fine. I’m just going to give you something for the pain.’
‘What…’ he started to say, but she was bending close to him, so close that he could hear her breathing. The needle was in his arm, and pink mists were already forming around him, pink like the candy floss at the May Fair when he was a boy… –
‘You’ll have lovely dreams!’ said the laughing voice. ‘Oh, my goodness, yes! Lovely, lovely dreams!’ Then she vanished into the pink mists.
* * *
‘Woke up on a Chelsea morning…..Welcome to Radio Caroline!! And let’s hope it’s a fant-abulous morning wherever you are! Now the latest from The Everley Brothers to put you in the right mood for the day ahead – yes, it’s Cathy’s Clown!’
Ah, thinks Robin. That is fabulous! I am waking up in Chelsea, and yes, I’m feeling good. Oh, look! I’m wearing those new Wranglers I bought in Lord Kitchener’s Valet –gen-u-ine second-hand from the States, complete with rips and rust stains on the rivets. And that really close fitting shirt, with a flowery pattern and a long pointed collar. Wow! I feel great! This is amazing!
[‘Cathy’s Clown” is still playing.] What’s on the menu today then? Bomb down the King’s Road, check out the scene? Maybe do a bit of shopping – the Chelsea Cobbler should have the new stack heels in, and you can get them in bright coloured suede, emerald greens and electric blues and shocking pinks. Then a pint or two of Double Diamond at the Markham Arms … My mates will all be there, Doug and Eddy, and maybe Samantha with the red hair, little Adrienne, one of the Lindas… or, best of all, Cathy.
Yes, now I can hear the bustle of the pub and the music, smell the cigarettes and the aftershave. What perfume is that? It’s musky, haunting, evocative… It’s Cathy’s.
Cathy! She’s smiling at me, holding my arm, laughing, chatting. It’s all right. We’re still together. She’s beside me. She’s smiling. I’m not Cathy’s clown, after all.
Something in the pub keeps bleeping, but the landlord won’t turn the sound off. Cathy’s leaning forward, lighting her Benson and Hedges from mine, putting her hand over my hand…
Here he comes, oh oh oh, that’s Cathy’s clown…
‘You know what we ought to do, Rob? We ought to buy a house, and then we can live together, and I can look after you properly. My dad says it’s a good time to buy… there’s a little house in Fulham in the Evening Standard. It’s only a bit over six thousand. Dad says he’ll lend us the deposit!’
My head’s swimming, and there’s a pain behind my eyes. I can hear someone laughing. Why would I want to settle down and get a mortgage? A mortgage? No way. That’s for old married men, with a nagging wife, and kids, and an office job….
But, hang on – six thousand for a house in London? What’s going on? If only my head would stop hurting…
‘All right,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I’ll have a look online, and see what’s available.’ Cathy looks at me strangely. Her skin’s really suntanned against the white cotton T-shirt, and she’s stroking my hand. She’s still sunburnt from Spain, but I know her skin’s white where the bikini was….
‘What’s online mean?’ she’s asking. ‘You are a funny one, Rob. Come on, drink up, and we’ll go to the estate agents. They’re in the Brompton Road.’ I shake my head. There’s a job in Manchester I’ve been offered, and it’s looking tempting. I’ve got to think about it.
But it’s all gone quiet again. Now I’ve got the weird sensation of hovering above the scene. A time that isn’t the present, in a funny way, but it’s still real, but then again it isn’t. I can look down from the ceiling onto the top of Cathy’s blonde head and see dark roots, and I realise that she isn’t the natural blonde I’ve always imagined. Why have I never noticed that before? Not that it matters. And what’s wrong with that house price? That should be six hundred thousand pounds, surely? And how can anyone not know what online means?
Okay, I’ve got it now. I’ve travelled back through time! I have a chance not to make all the ghastly, stupid, ridiculous mistakes that have led me to this poverty-stricken apology for a life!
I can make a fortune snapping up properties in London at grotesquely low prices. I can choose the right wife instead of marrying The Tart and the Shrew. I can invest in Microsoft when it first launches, buy a farmhouse in Provence before the philistine hordes get there. Knowing what I know now, I’ll be rich and famous and madly successful. Unbelievable. Fantastic. Bloodcurdlingly exciting. This is terrific news. My head throbs like a steam hammer with the thrill of it all. I’m going to out-Virgin Richard Branson, be posher than Posh and Becks, be out of the gate before Bill Gates.
The noise and chatter and the beeping sounds are still there in the background. Someone is stabbing my back with a red-hot poker, and I’m desperately thirsty. That can’t be right in a pub, surely?
Cathy is staring at me. I try and smile back, and reach out to touch her arm. But she’s pulling away.
‘God, Robin, what’s happened to your teeth! And – uch! Your face – it’s all wrinkled! And what are those brown spots on your hands?’
I look down, startled.
‘And – your hair’s gone completely white! My God!’
She gets to her feet. ‘You’re old! You’re an old man! You’re disgusting! Get away from me!”
Clutching her handbag to her body for protection, she disappears.
Robin felt panic, bewilderment. There was a strange taste in his mouth, and an alien substance going down into his throat from the bottle above him. He put up his hand to wrench the thing out, but couldn’t move it. Two men in suits at the end of bed were talking quietly together. Finally one of them shook his head and walked away. The other drew a chair up by the bed, and looked down at some paperwork in his hand.
‘Feeling better, old chap?’ he asked.
He had a friendly smile, but looked tired.
‘You’ve taken a bit of a battering, haven’t you?’
“Fell downstairs,’ Robin tried to say, but nothing came out.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Your spine’s been badly injured, and there’s severe damage to the central nervous system. And a few other nasties too.’
There was a long silence.
Then Robin whispered, ‘Will I be able to walk again?’
The doctor shook his head sadly, and hesitated. Then he said, ‘No chance of that, I’m afraid. But they do some wonderful work in the paraplegic unit, you know. Wonderful. Now I’m just going to let you rest. And whatever you do, don’t touch that tube.’
Robin lay still for a long time after the doctor had gone.
Then he stiffened up.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ he shouted. ‘I’m not dead yet. I’m still a free agent!’
With a huge effort he sat up and yanked the tube out of his throat.
‘What do you think you’re doing? Hey! Hey! Come back!’
It was the nurse, calling urgently from the end of the ward. But Robin was off the bed and half running, half staggering to the door, dragging the catheter out with an agonising jerk as he went, snatching a dressing gown off the end of the next bed to the gleeful delight of its toothless occupant. Was that blood pouring out from his throat? No matter. Now he was out through the double doors and pounding down the road like a marathon runner, to freedom, to the station, to the London train. He was flying along like the wind. This was terrific! It was harder to breathe now, and his back was agony, but nothing could stop him. He was going to find Cathy again, before it was too late. And this time round, he wouldn’t make a mess of it.
I retired to the Cotswolds ten years ago after selling the retail business in North Wales which I had built up over forty long years. Fortunately for my sanity most of my time was spent creating advertising copy and promotions, which dramatically increased the business and taught me the power of words. Being a member of the Chippy Writers’ Group encouraged me to attempt a lifelong ambition to write a novel. Recently published, In the Shadow of Hitler is a romance set in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in 1946.... more