Book View Café is pleased to announce Chaz Brenchley’s newest ebook, Dispossession.
Dispossession: Free Sample
Everyone does this once, at least, or should do:
where you wake up in the wrong bed with the wrong body nestled close, unfamiliar smells on the sheets and in their hair and a beat of blank in your memory before their name comes to mind, a touch of strange where you touch them because their touch is so different to what your skin is used to, what your bones expect. You listen to their breathing as they sleep, and even that’s out of kilter with rhythms long established in your head; and you’re so, so glad they’re still sleeping, because you realise suddenly that you have no idea what colour their open eyes will be, or how your face will look reflected in them.
They say we fall in love to reinforce our own self-image; perhaps we sleep around to do the opposite, to remind ourselves that others see us differently, or can do. That we all have other faces, the possibility of alternate lives.
Whatever, it’s a thing that happens, we’re not a naturally monogamous species; and once, yes, once is terrific. Once in a while is okay, though you don’t want to make a habit of it. But every day, every day I wake up with a stranger.
I’m getting to know her well.
Doing it once, doing it the first time made the best sense. Waking was hard that day, consciousness was something to be clawed at, fingers too weak to grip; I clawed and it tore, it frayed to ribbons under my weight and couldn’t hold me, so that I slithered down into easy dark and had to start again.
And did, and struggled up and felt far worse for doing it, felt so bad I only wanted to slide again.
That was my first coherent waking thought, that waking hurt and I wanted none of it now that I had too much.
Didn’t open my eyes, nothing so foolish; if it was daylight out there—and it had to be, surely, I felt as though I’d slept forever—then that was only going to hurt more. My head was murder already. Spears of light in the eyeball I could live without.
Second coherent thought yet, and already I was making plans for the day. Don’t open your eyes, sunshine. This was excellent. Proactive and sensible, and what more could anyone ask of a man first thing in the morning?
Presumptive morning. Might be afternoon, but I wasn’t going to enquire. Not that much interested in clocks just now.
Curiosity, famously fatal to Felidae, is not dangerous to cats alone; but it was a sluggish poison in my blood that day. Took a while, took the longest time for me even to start measuring where I hurt, let alone wondering why.
Head, yes. Head was the worst. Bad head in the morning traditionally meant hangover, but this was a blinder, and I couldn’t believe I’d drunk enough to earn it.
Wasn’t just my head, anyway. All my joints were aching, my ribs were seriously sore; trying to be dispassionate, I concluded that I must have spent a couple of hours on a rack last night, doing stretching exercises before or after some kind lad in hobnails kicked my head in.
Trying to be sensible, I went back to the tradition again: bad head plus bruises meant being well pissed, getting into a fight perhaps, staggering home from one hard-edged lamppost to the next and falling downstairs a time or two before finally crawling to the top and so to bed.
That I couldn’t remember drinking last night—that I couldn’t remember anything about last night, where I’d been or what I’d been doing, even what night of the week it must have been—was only another confirmation, alcoholic amnesia doing its stuff.
Okay. I got stotious, though it wasn’t like me; I got hurt, though it really wasn’t like me. That just about covered the damage, the internal situation my body was reporting.
External situation: I was in bed, obviously, but not lying flat. Propped up against pillows, I guessed. Pillows and something else, warmer and firmer, tucked tight against my side. Something that moved, a little, when I turned my questing, tormented head…
Jonty, my brilliant mind deduced, you are not alone.
Nor should I have been; what is a helpmeet for, if not to succour the wounded partner and comfort the beloved?
Her fingers touched my forehead, and it hurt. I jerked away, and that hurt also; when I moaned I heard a chuckle close by my left ear, and a soft voice murmur, “That’s my man. Why be stalwart?”
Dry tongue, dry lips; hard to talk, but I managed her name, at least.
Said, “Carol…?” and felt her arm tighten, where it lay around my shoulders.
Her voice tightened too, acquired some edges; but she was still laughing, and all she actually said was, “Jonty, you’re a pig. But welcome back, anyway. I missed you.” Then she laid her cheek against mine and moved it gently, cool softness catching on bristles. This also hurt.
Her perfume caught in my nose, acting like sal volatile to clear my head a little after so long sleep. Perfumes, plural, at second sniff: I could smell fresh-washed skin too, conditioner on her clothes, toothpaste on her breath. But over all was the scent she was wearing, which was light, sharp, a little aggressive; expensive, for sure. It was also utterly unfamiliar.
Lances of light; my eyes had opened, regardless of earlier and wiser decisions. Squinting into the pain, they found her face and focused.
Uncertainties about the voice and the perfume, even about the way her body felt against mine, although my skin was registering little but its own discomfort: all doubts were resolved in a moment.
No, this was not Carol. Not at all Carol, not even a little bit. Whoever this was, she was only half the size. Petite, elfin, gamine: my mind might be running slow, running pretty much on empty here, but I was having no problems with vocabulary.
And she was younger than Carol by three or four years at least, which made her younger than me also, by pretty much the same distance; and her hair was black and cropped short and spiky, where Carol had tumbling mouse-brown curls; and she had a crucifix on a chain around her neck and three or four silver rings in each ear and the glint of a tiny jewel in one nostril, where Carol habitually faced the world quite unadorned.
Oh, and she was also Chinese, this girl. That was the clincher. No English rose, no Carol; and a very poor attempt at a doppelgänger, so why was she cuddling me so close?
“Hullo,” she said, smiling at me. Small mouth, neat teeth. Sharp, I thought, most likely. She didn’t look the type to grind them.
“Are you back for real this time?”
“This is the third time you’ve woken up in the last half hour. First time you just looked at me, and sighed a bit; second time you were very polite, you said good morning and your head hurt, and then you snuggled up and went to sleep again.”
“Did I? I don’t remember…”
“Never mind. How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” I said, and felt her chuckle. “Apart from that, sore, mostly. Confused…” Questions on this level I could cope with.
She nodded briskly, with the air of someone ticking items off a mental list. “You will be, for a while. The doctors said. Don’t worry.”
Doctors? I let my eyes drift from her face, and lost a few more assumptions very quickly. This was not my bed, nor was I at home in it. Small room, off-white walls, ugly curtains pulled against the glare of the day: okay, could be in a hospital, could well be, though I’d only ever seen or been in public wards before and didn’t understand this solitude, though it was welcome. On a table by the window, a dozen vases’-worth of Interflora’s best warred with each other for absent insects; looking down, I saw my own arm lying on a curtain-matching coverlet, bare but for a plastic name-band around the wrist and a cuff of bandage with a trailing tube. That led to a drip, hanging from a stand the other side of the bed.
An exercise in quick mental revision: the lad in hobnails was suddenly favourite again. I might or might not have been drunk, but my best guess now was that I’d been beaten up. And knifed, perhaps? Knifing was popular…
“Oy.” Her hand laid itself against my cheek—ouch, but I wasn’t going to say it—and turned my head gently towards hers. “Don’t worry, I said. I’m in control, all right?”
That much, I could believe. I opened my mouth to speak, but managed nothing more than a croak; she reached around and produced a glass of something tinted faintly amber, ignoring the feeble movement in my arm and holding the glass directly to my lips, while her other hand supported my head.
“Just sip it, okay? Take your time, there’s no hurry in the world.”
Stuff independence. If a beautiful stranger wanted to nurse me—and she was irredeemably beautiful, this unknown girl, as well as being irredeemably not Carol—then I wasn’t about to argue. I sipped, and almost choked; she pulled the glass away, scowling.
“Take your time, I said…”
Time had nothing to do with it, only surprise. I’d been expecting medicine, not whisky-and-water. But I sipped again when she allowed me, and swallowed till my mouth and throat were moist and my belly warmed; then I settled my head back—into her shoulder, purely because the world was suddenly spinning a little and her shoulder was there and not spinning, not going away—and said, “What happened to me?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember anything.” Don’t remember you, only I didn’t know how to tell her that. Didn’t want to upset someone who wanted to sit this close, who thought she meant that much. Maybe she’d come back to me along with everything else that was missing, if I could just find something to act as a trigger. One blinding flash, maybe, and the ragged edges in my memory would all be neatly hemmed…
She nodded. Another tick on the list. “They said you might not. I’m not supposed to help you, not till they’ve done some tests; but, hell, I’m not supposed to be giving you whisky either,” and the smile was sheer mischief now, shared devilry that I was sorry I couldn’t properly share. Just her name, that might be enough, if I could only find or figure out her sodding name…
“You were in a smash,” she said slowly, earnestly, eye to eye and very close.
“What, in a car, you mean? An accident?”
Her lips twitched, what else, stupid?, but she only nodded.
“Who was driving?”
“Shit.” There went my no-claims bonus. All these years with never a shunt, never a scrape, I’d always been so careful; and now…
Now something cold and living was uncoiling itself in my spine, stretching through my bones, worse than any hurt. I’d been in an accident, and it must have been a bad one; I’d woken up in hospital, with only a stranger to comfort me; and where in hell—no, not that, but where the fuck was Carol?
I gazed at this comfortable stranger, tried to ask, couldn’t find the words; and then didn’t need them, because I guess she could read the question in my pallor, in my fear.
“Just you,” she said quickly, “there wasn’t anyone else in the car.”
A long, slow breath of relief, and then my conscience pricked me towards another worry, before I could try again with where the fuck is Carol?
“What, then, was there another car?” Or a truck, perhaps, something big enough to crunch my cautious Volvo?
“Nah. You’re just a crap driver,” smilingly, while her hand smoothed the stubble on my cheek. I shook my head, not true, though moving jambled my brain; and she read that also, because the smile faded a little as she went on, “You came off the road, Jonty, that’s all. Over in Cumbria it was, middle of nowhere. Maybe you swerved to miss a rabbit or something, we don’t know, there weren’t any witnesses; but you must have been going a hell of a lick, because there’s a barrier on the corner where you came off, and you flew over that without touching it, as far as anyone can see. The car was on its roof, down in the gulley, and they never found you till morning…”
Again I shook my head, just not believing any of this. Volvos don’t fly. But she’d turned away, she didn’t see.
“If I crashed in Cumbria,” I said slowly, “where am I now?”
“Home. Well, in hospital, but home. They brought you straight here from the crash, it’s further but you had to have a CT scan to make sure your brain wasn’t slopping about like mushy peas in your stupid head…”
And then she slipped out from under, easing me back onto a heap of pillows. And drew the curtains with a flourish to show me I was home, and stood smiling brightly by the bed and said, “You finish that drink quick, and I’ll go get the doctors, okay?”
“No, wait.” Hide what she liked behind a smile, she wasn’t fooling me. I’d heard the remembered fear in her voice, they never found you till morning, and I didn’t want to play charades any more. Time to be truthful. “Tell me one more thing,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.”
She hissed and stood motionless for a moment, biting her lip hard, I thought; then she looked at me quizzically, looking for a joke and not seeing it.
“Straight up?” she asked.
“So much for bloody scans, eh?” And suddenly she was nothing but amused, trying to swallow little bubbles of laughter. “I told them, what does that machine know, I said, there was plenty wrong with his brain even before he shook it all up like that. But—oh, you bastard…”
“Sorry,” I said again.
“No matter. You know who you are, yeah?”
“I’m Jonty,” I said patiently.
“Jonty, right. And I’m Sue,” she said, or I thought she said; but it didn’t seem certain on the face of it. Not with that face. Soo, perhaps she’d said? Or Tzu?
“Er, how do you spell that?”
“The usual way,” she said. And then, helpfully, “It’s short for Susan.”
Right. Okay, I’d put my hefty feet right in it. Damn it, I used to know some people from Hong Kong—or we did, rather, they’d been Carol’s friends more than mine: like all our friends, a stray thought obtruded—and they’d had English Christian names. Come to think of it, they’d been Christians; and she did have that crucifix round her neck, that might be more than decoration…
“Susan what?” I asked with a gesture of surrender, hoping at least for Wu or Wong, if I couldn’t have Manchu.
“Marks,” she said. And then, slowly, visibly uncertain whether she should still be laughing, “I’m your wife.”
What happens next?