I AM A BLUE whale in the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean, adrift in an unending sea of fathomless blue. I am in my element down here, and nothing can touch me.
“Can you hear me? Are you awake?”
I am entombed in the pristine Arctic ice, clear and pure as ancient rainwater. Comfortably numb, I could wait out the eons in here, safeguarded from all the storms of the world.
“Can you move something for me? Can you respond to my voice?”
That was how I faded back into consciousness after the accident. After what seemed like an eternity of fragmented, half-remembered dreams, that voice speared through my slumbers and dragged me back to reality. I wish it hadn’t. I was happy where I was. I was told I raised my index finger and that was how they first knew I was back in the world of the living again: what they didn’t know was that I was actually trying to punch the owner of that damn voice.
Although I was now awake, this was when my nightmare really began. A nightmare of never-ending pain, anguish and misery. “You’ve been in an accident,” the voice said, “You’ve been very badly injured. Particularly your face.” I knew that already. My face felt like it was on fire. There was a constant, deep-seated ache that never relented, day or night, which was punctuated by occasional random stabs of agony that could strike at any time. Sometimes my entire skull would throb and pound as if it was a giant heart which squeezed my brain with each violent contraction. I had never felt anything like it.
The days passed in absolute darkness. They’d covered my entire head in bandages, with gauze pads over my eyes. It was hot and stuffy, and itched abominably. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. My jaw had been wired shut, which made talking impossible. I had a foul, metallic taste in my mouth which may have been blood. I was barely conscious most of the time, thanks to the medication they were giving me.
I don’t know how long I spent like that, stuck in a kind of limbo between sleeping and waking. There seemed to be a wild panic bubbling just beneath the surface in me – I felt like I was skimming across the surface of it, perhaps because of the drugs, but I knew I was never far from sinking down into it and becoming irretrievably lost. The pain battered and buffeted me like an internal storm, but somehow I clung on and edged my way through it, sometimes only on a second-by-second basis.
Sometimes, when I felt that there was no-one else around, I would press the heels of my hands into the pads over my eyes and rub them as hard as I could. It hurt like hell, of course, but the glowing colours and swirling patterns that resulted would at least give me a temporary relief from the endless, unfathomable darkness that had become my world.
Gradually, however, the intervals before the pain became intolerable grew longer, and I felt the fog begin to lift from my mind. I seethed with questions. They buzzed around inside me like wasps in a hornet’s nest. What had happened to me? How badly hurt was I? What kind of accident had done this to me? Information wasn’t forthcoming from the voice (and who was that, anyway? A personal nurse? A doctor?), and I couldn’t talk to ask questions myself. All I was left with was uncertainty and speculation, which only made the situation even harder to bear.
My salvation came in the form of Sandy, a fellow patient who started spending time with me just when I needed it most. Apparently he’d been through a similar operation – although not as serious as mine – and was in the process of recovery himself. Our conversations were rather one-sided, of course, but I could nod or shake my head to his questions, and it was incredibly reassuring just to hear the rhythm of his voice and remind myself that I wasn’t wholly alone.
I still had long periods of time where I was left to my own devices, though, and my mind would inevitably return to the question of the accident. I had no memory whatsoever of what it might have been or of any of the events that had led up to it. Thinking about it was like looking at a photograph of myself as a tiny infant: there was incontrovertible proof that the event had happened, but not a trace of it remained within my head. I would run over countless imaginary scenarios in my head, as if I could stumble over the truth of things by sheer force of will. A terrible fire in which the flesh had been burned from my skull; a car accident that had sent me flying face-first through the windscreen; an attack by an unknown assailant with a broken bottle. I imagined all these eventualities and more, and each one seemed equally plausible, but also utterly unreal to me. I felt like a stranger in my own skin.
Sandy helped me to build up a picture in my head of where I was. He seemed to enjoy the sound of his own voice, and I had nothing better to do than listen. He described to me the room I was in – all pristine white walls and scrubbed linoleum floors – and this helped me find my bearings again, which was something I needed more than I knew. From what I could gather (not being able to ask questions myself I couldn’t quiz him directly), I was in some kind of a private clinic set in luxurious, well-tended grounds, receiving the best personal care money could buy. Who was paying for it all was just another mystery to me. I certainly couldn’t have afforded it on my own.
My dressings were changed regularly, although exactly how often I could not say. Time seemed to telescope and contract capriciously around me as I swung from agonizing pain to spaced-out oblivion. I quickly grew to hate those dressings. When on, they were suffocatingly hot, and made my face feel like a single, solid mass, a great hard scab that I couldn’t even pick at. When they were unwrapped, the process was slow and excruciatingly painful: some patches would be stuck to whatever was left beneath them, encrusted with who knows what forms of dried blood and pus, and these would have to be prised off roughly in great hard clumps.
The voice was always at hand during the process, talking me through every moment of it even though it was the last thing I wanted to hear. “Now this might hurt a little…” and “this spot might be a little tender…” That voice soon aroused a hatred and bitterness in me that I didn’t know I was capable of. “There we are – good, that all seems to be coming along nicely.” Despite the pain, it was always a relief to be free of the bandages for a time. I felt like a drowning man coming up for air. “Now, we’ll just get you sorted out again…” Devastatingly slowly a fresh set of bandages would be applied, smothering me again one turn at a time. God, I hated that voice.
After each unwrapping, Sandy would come round to commiserate. Having gone through something similar himself, he knew something of the dull, pulsating ache that persisted for hours after each fresh dressing, and his rambling monologues were always a welcome distraction from the pain. For such a one-sided relationship it was amazing how deeply I began to trust and depend on Sandy. He soon began to feel like an old friend, his voice as welcome and comfortable as an old leather armchair.
“Well,” he said one day during one of his usual visits, “it’ll soon be time for those bandages to come off for good.” He must have seen my reaction: a jolt of surprise passed through my body like an electric shock. He chuckled, and explained that he’d heard a rumour that my face was healing well. “You’ll soon have your eyes back again.”
For once I didn’t hear the rest of what Sandy had to say. I was lost in my own thoughts, a maelstrom of joy, apprehension, and even something approaching terror. I would be getting my sight back! After all this time I would at last be able to see again! But what kind of face would those eyes peer out of? Whatever had happened to me had obviously left its mark, but how bad would it be? Would my eyes greet some kind of monster when they first looked into a mirror?
Every fibre of my being was alive with anticipation. For the next few hours I could think of nothing else. This was the moment I had waited so long for, yet now it was almost here my excitement was only matched by my trepidation. Finally, I heard a familiar voice from behind me.
“Now, this might hurt a little…”
The bandages slipped off easily this time, like a snake sloughing off its skin. When the gauze pads over my eyes were removed, a bleary red light streamed in through my closed eyelids. It was the most glorious sight I think have ever seen.
Opening my eyes was difficult. Having been used to nothing but darkness for so long, I found the light to be almost unbearably bright. My eyes blinked and spasmed under the pressure of the light that now bore down on them. My vision swam with tears.
Slowly things started to come back into focus: amorphous blobs and patches of light resolved themselves into recognizable shapes and objects. My upturned eyes took in a patch of ceiling – oddly, it was dark and grimy, stained with damp and mildew. Not like a hospital at all. Groggily I lowered my gaze, only to find myself staring at my own face. A mirror? Already? My features seemed to spread and shift before my eyes. The skin was grey and clammy looking, and the face looked somehow odd and alien to me. It was grotesquely swollen, the flesh drooping like a dead weight from the skull.
Still: not as bad as I had imagined. Not a monster, and still recognizably me.
But suddenly I was overtaken by a horrible and overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. Very, very wrong. As I watched, the contours of the face slowly moved, forming something approaching a twisted smile. The lips opened, and an all-too familiar voice filled the room: “Well, that all seems to be coming along nicely.”
Stricken with terror, I glanced around the room seeking some kind of escape. Instead of the expected stark white hospital walls, my eyes were met with the dingy, dark surroundings of a cramped attic room. Piles of soiled bandages lay tangled in one corner, and on a rickety old table were spread a selection of rusted knives, bloody scalpels and hopelessly antiquated medical equipment.
“Not quite what you expected, eh old chap?”
This time the voice from the stolen face was Sandy’s. My mind reeled. The figure laughed harshly.
“You’ll find I’m full of surprises,” he said, in a perfect mimic of my own voice.
I tried to scream, but only a dry, hollow moan emanated from my lipless mouth.