That night, I was too frightened to pee. And before you ask, there was no flash, no bang, no burst of light. I don’t think I even went to sleep.
Instead I just lay there, whimpering, but even then I could tell the bed wasn’t in the right place, the shadow of the wardrobe somehow different. Ah, it was hell! When I couldn’t take it any longer I turned to my wife, and saw her head poking out of the covers, her hair spread out on the pillow – only this hair was black, not blonde, and the woman with her mouth open next to me wasn’t my wife at all.
I climbed out of bed very carefully and got dressed in the dark. I didn’t know what clothes I was putting on, but it didn’t matter. A fan whirred overhead, but it was still very warm. The strange woman gave a twitch and I picked up a shoe to protect myself. Then I put the shoe on my foot and went out. There weren’t any kids’ rooms. There wasn’t even a top floor. I was in some kind of bungalow or holiday home: everything seemed very new and empty, but I didn’t dare switch on a light. Instead I picked up a jacket and edged out of the door – it was a woman’s jacket, but never mind. The important thing was to get the hell out.
This time though, I wasn’t even on the right street – or even the right town. It was early morning but the air was soft and warm and smelled of … I don’t know – mango, maybe. Like some kind of shower gel, anyway. All the houses around here were single storey, with bare, dry looking little gardens, and tropical looking trees, all spiky leaves and big, hairy trunks. A cloud of little green birds flew from one spike to another and I thought ‘what have you got to chatter about?’ Then a car drove past on the wrong side of the road, followed by another. Yeah, yeah, the right. No, the right. After a while the weather got hotter and the houses got taller, coils of electric cables strung willy-nilly across the street. In one garden, I spotted a cactus: no, really, a cactus! I …What? No, there wasn’t any armadillo. Why would you even ask me that? Why should there be an armadillo? Aren’t the hairy trees and the green birds enough?
Anyhow, the streets were pretty empty, with just a couple of folk going off to work. Everyone looked tanned and healthy and in the right place, while I just drifted about, getting hotter and hotter in my ladies’ jacket. I passed a convenience store, a garage, some kind of industrial unit; a guy and a woman came out talking Spanish or Portuguese, or something like that – I don’t know, I’m no linguist. By now it felt as if I was heading toward the centre of town: long avenues, tall, old fashioned townhouses, endless queues of traffic. The sun was really beating down by now so I cut into a dusty little park and found myself a quiet bench in the shade.
Of course I’d only been there a few minutes before some guy sidling up, sitting far too close to me and making a soft smacking sound with his lips. Was he trying to help? I don’t know: he was chattering away like a bird but I couldn’t understand a thing.
First he pointed this way and then that and when I kept shaking my head, he laughed and put his hand on my knee. ‘Well, I have to be going,’ I said and the fellow grinned and did that strange thing with his lips again. What? No, no – the very thought! Ah, you know the kind of guy, doctor – this town is full of them…
As soon as I left the cool of the park the heat hit me like a wave. I remember walking between two lines of very tall, almost spiky buildings, like sharpened pencils, like knives, the sky terribly empty, as if somebody had scooped it out with a spoon. Foo – I can’t really explain. My head was pounding and I felt terribly sick, as if I might expire right there on the spot. Instead I pushed my way into the gloomy lobby of a large old building, half stumbling and half crouching, slumped with my head against one of those little metal signs, you know, for offices and the like … but the sign, doctor, it said Mangosta – yes, yes, the very same! Ah, it couldn’t have been a coincidence, that didn’t make any sense – it was a symbol, a clue! Next to the brass panel was a buzzer, and when I pressed it I heard a cackle of static and straight away – like magic! – the huge glass door had opened. It was so hot outside that I went straight on in: ho, even if I was in the wrong place, surely somebody here would help me. Past the door was a grey functional staircase, and on each floor, more glass doors with anonymous corridors beyond. No one came to see me though: the whole place seemed eerily deserted. I thought about calling out, but decided against it: who would understand me anyway? Instead I choose a random door, knocked and strode confidently inside.
Once inside, I immediately began to feel a little better. The air conditioning was cool and efficient, the walls soothing neutral. Best of all my desk seemed neat and well organised: no random scraps of paper, no half clean coffee mug, just a slim turquoise file positioned in the very centre of the surface. I looked up at the clock: five minutes to go. Leaving the file untouched I slipped into the small bath room next door, splashing cold water on my face and then slipping on my white coat. Finally I examined my face in the mirror, applied some lipstick, and ran my hands through my hair: professional, I thought, confident and professional…
I was back at my desk and flicking through the file when the nurse knocked and discreetly led in the patient: a middle-aged man of fifty or so, ill shaven and dishevelled, speaking with a strong, somewhat abrasive, British accent.
After first complaining that he had no reason in being here, that he was perfectly fine, and all this was some kind of foolish mistake, the man finally settled down and began to tell me his story.
‘Did this feeling follow some kind of flash, a blinding sensation?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, I remember going to the bath-room and the light was pretty bright, but, um… a flash? I don’t know. Mm, maybe, if you say so.’
The patient refused to make eye contact, instead staring at the abstract painting on the wall, the fish turning into lines, shapes….
‘I remember coming back in and bumping into our bedside cabinet, a glass rolling off and… No, no, it didn’t break. My wife was still asleep. ‘Sorry’, I said, or ‘I didn’t mean to wake you’, something like that. Not that I did – ah, wake her I mean, but … what’s that?’
‘I asked whether you were aware that the room felt different.’
‘Did I wonder what the table was doing there? I don’t know, I was very tired. I put the glass back upright and went straight to bed. I didn’t feel sick or anything. I just felt tired.’
And the man did look tired: infinitely tired, as though he had spoken these words a thousand times before.
The patient kept on talking, but for some reason I found it awfully difficult to concentrate. He mumbled ‘I mean, would it kill someone to clean up every once in a while?’ and I nodded and scribbled notes on my pad, all the time secretly thinking ‘oh shut up you dreary little man…’
Ah, if only I was done here, finished for the day, back home with Ana Sofia, surrounded by the comforting clutter of our own cozy little nest. The throw Sebastián brought back from Peru, the old sagging sofa, the gentle light of our kindly lamp: ah, how I longed for these things!
I stared at the fishy dabs and daubs on the wall and wondered when the old windbag might be done. Complaints, complaints, nothing but complaints! He kept going on and on in that awful, grating voice, and I felt my thoughts slowly turning into smoke. ‘An armadillo?’ I heard myself say. ‘An armadillo, do you say?’ Yes, at some point, the nurse would come and take this dreadful man away and I would be able to go back home. Ah, home, home: what a beautiful thing! But then a terrible thought struck me. Home – where was it? How was I supposed to get there? I pictured it in my mind’s eye and then – poof! – it was gone.