Butterflies

Fiction
Louisa Adjoa Parker


Photo Credit: Ray Wewerka/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ray Wewerka/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It begins on a beach, with stones crunching under my wet shoes and huge seagulls screeching and circling above me. The sky is blue, so it seems like a summer’s day although I’m cold—my skin and clothes are soaked with water. I am thin (thinner than usual?), and bones poke through the white fabric of my shirt. I am wearing black trousers that cling to my legs. Leather shoes that were once smart; expensive, well-made.

I walk as quickly as I can over the stones, taking fast breaths like those of an upset child. In the few minutes I’ve been aware that I’m walking, the sea has come in closer. It is now only a few feet away from me. It’s loud and roaring, the green-blue waves tipped with white foam like hot, frothy milk. I don’t mind if it goes over my feet; I’m already as wet as a person could possibly be. I don’t know why I am hurrying, or where I am trying to get to.

It’s as though I have suddenly begun here, as though I was dropped from a great height. Perhaps one of the angry seagulls carried me here in its orange beak from a far-off place, over sea and land. There is nothing behind being in this moment, apart from a frosted glass wall that I can’t see through. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter—what’s more important is the walking, keeping in rhythm with the wind and the sea. It all fits together just so, like a piece of beautifully crafted music. The sea, the wind, the shouting seagulls and the sound of my feet, an ageless rhythm, crunch, crunching over brown stones.

My thoughts are slowly coming back into focus, becoming like bright colours, vivid, sharp. I can think, whereas before there was nothing. Thoughts are forming themselves effortlessly. I am a man, I think, walking by the sea. I need to get somewhere, where is it? I am wet, and I am cold. I need to be warm.

Suddenly a woman appears further up the beach. She’s waving her arms, trying to get my attention. I realise with a shock that people may have been watching me from the lone white-washed house that is perched on top of the cliffs. I don’t like the intrusion. This is my beach, my patterns of sound.

The woman is getting closer. She has long grey hair in a side ponytail, wears a man’s shirt, spattered with paint, and jeans. She is smiling at me, the sort of smile you might have when approaching a hurt animal, wanting to help but scared to come too close in case it bites.

‘Hello, are you lost?’ she says. ‘Can I help you at all?’

Her voice is soft and the wind carries it away.

I open my mouth but no sound comes out. I don’t know what I would say even if it did. I don’t know who I am, or what I’m doing here. I’m tired of walking now—my feet are wet and sore. The woman has something pink in her arms. When she lays it across my shoulders I realise it’s a blanket. She takes my arm, leads me up to the house. I have nowhere else to be so I go with her, smiling so that she knows I won’t hurt her. We crunch together over the stones. She is silent, staring at me when she thinks I’m not looking.

*

When I wake up everything is white and clean. There is a smell of institutions: disinfectant and the stale smell of food. I am lying in a metal-framed bed, propped on a pile of hard pillows. The room is quite small, painted blue like the sky on my beach, only there are no clouds here.

I stay in the same position for minutes, hours maybe, wishing for a drink of water. I try to sleep again but it doesn’t happen. Eventually someone comes into the room; a woman wearing a starched blue dress, black tights, shiny shoes and a tired smile.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asks, and doesn’t wait for my reply.

‘You were there for hours, you know, walking along that beach.’

She has chocolate-brown hair, fastened in a low bun on the nape of her neck. A beautiful, fine-boned face. Wide-spaced light brown eyes. Two deep laughter lines run down each side of her mouth, as if her face was once much plumper. She asks me to pull up my sleeve and fastens a cloth band around my arm. It gets tight as she pumps it up. My arm feels as though it cannot breathe.

‘What were you doing?’ she asks, chattily. ‘Your clothes were so wet and you caught a chill. You had hypothermia. We were worried about you for a while, but you’re doing fine now. Oh, that’s looking pretty good.’

She writes on some paper on a clipboard, produced from somewhere. ‘What’s your name?’

I don’t know the answer and am unable to speak anyway, so I say nothing. Instead, I shake my head to show her I can’t speak, then smile and meet her brown eyes with my own. I lay my head back on the pillows. The woman moves around me, smoothing my bedcovers, pouring a drink from the orange plastic jug on the table next to my bed. Someone has brought fresh flowers for me—the man who came from nowhere and cannot make a sound. They’re pink and purple with large waxy petals. For some reason, this makes me feel unbearably sad.

For days people come and go—nurses and brown-skinned doctors and a woman who asks me lots of questions that I cannot answer, and takes my picture with a large black camera. She tells me she is doing this so they can find out who I am. The bright flash hurts my eyes. They all ask me the same questions over and over again, but I can’t answer them. Who are you? What were you doing on the beach in that state, what had happened to you before you came here? It’s no good; I don’t know anything.

I spend my days lying in bed, staring at the tiny television on its black plastic shelf. Once I even see myself on the screen: the image of my gaunt face and unshaven chin send a shock through me like electricity.

When I see my face, I don’t recognise myself. When I first looked in the mirror I was surprised at how tired and thin and grey the face was, with purple-grey semi-circles like old bruises under my eyes. I look ‘foreign’, or at least that’s what I overheard one of the young nurses saying to her friend as they whispered about the strange man in room 14. I am strange, I suppose, not only to them but to everyone who sees me or hears about me on the news. I am no one, come from nowhere. What will happen to me when they decide it’s time for me to leave here I do not know. I imagine I will be given a little bag with some food and clothes in and sent on my way, to sleep in a box made of cardboard like the street people I saw once on my little window to the world, people who live on the margins, shadow men and women.

The only thing that brings me comfort is sound, the whirr and click of machinery in the night, music drifting in through windows from a radio outside, people’s voices and laughter. Sounds make sense to me when nothing else does. I want more of them but don’t know where I would find them.

Some days they take me into the small garden outside for a walk, and I can hear birds singing: coos and trills and caws, an orchestra. I sit on a bench and know the grass is underneath my feet—although I can’t feel it through the slippers—and look up at the sky; feel the sun warming my face. These are the best days.

Sometimes I hear music in my dreams, but that is rare. Usually my dreams are a chaotic mix of smells and big waves. There is the sense of the sea being close. Once I was on a ship which suddenly began to tip upside down and water came in. I was tumbling in dark water which filled my eyes and nose. But every time I told myself to breathe, I found I could. I don’t know whether my dreams are a clue to who I am, or a reflection of what I’ve seen on the television.

‘Memories’ is a word they use a lot. I remember the beach. I remember coming here. I remember yesterday’s lunch: mashed potato with no seasoning and tasteless grey meat swimming in gravy. But before this time: nothing.

‘Haven’t you got any memories at all?’ the young nurses ask. I suppose I must have memories, or at least I have knowledge, as most things are not new and surprising. Although I have not yet seen it, I know what snow is. I know what butterflies are. I know it takes the earth twenty-four hours to spin on its axis. I know how to brush my teeth, how to have a bath, how to read a paper. I know what children are, before I saw the few that came here to visit their grandmother, with their lively faces and neatly brushed hair, trying not break into a run in the shiny corridors. I know that I am lost now and I know one day it will all come back to me. I will come back to me. I know what it feels to walk in the moonlight with a beautiful girl. I know what it feels to love, to fuck, to feel a woman’s warm, soft skin against mine.

Yet memories in the sense they are talking about are out of my reach; they flutter close to me like butterflies, then dart off again as I move to grab them. I am fascinated by the idea that we are collections of memories, some shared with others, some private. Without them, do we cease to be a proper human being?

One of the nurses brings me a piece of paper and a pen. I take it from her, smiling, although I have no idea what I will put on it. Perhaps some words will come out, and I will remember how to speak.

She leaves me on my own and I stare at this small piece of paper, on which they are hoping I will paint a picture of who I am. I pick up the pen and draw, sketching black lines furiously without knowing what I’m drawing. When I finish I feel drained. I look at the paper. I have drawn a picture of a large piano, which makes little sense to me; it is just a dark shape on a white background which is trying to tell me something.

It causes a great deal of excitement when they see it. The nurse with the beautiful face seems particularly pleased, as though this will bring me back.

‘Oh, my goodness,’ she says, ‘you see, you do remember. This must mean something! I wish you could talk, we don’t even know what to call you.’ She bites her bottom lip in a way that makes me want to kiss her.

‘The doctors have named you Pierre, because they think you look French. Are you?’

Of course, I don’t reply. I open my mouth to try, but as usual, no sound comes out.

‘Let me go and tell them what you’ve drawn.’

Later that day she returns and leads me out of my room, along winding, empty corridors for what seems like miles, until we come to a lift. This takes us down, under the ground, where it smells of damp. When we come out of the lift we go to a room with a huge, walnut-brown piano standing on the concrete floor. Apart from the piano the room is totally empty.

I walk over to the piano, lift up the creaking lid and begin to play. My hands caress the keys. The room is filled with the sound I am making, crashing chords and trilling notes. I am lost in the music. I am no longer fully aware of anyone else’s presence, although a small part of my brain registers the fact that the nurse is crying silently. The sound is all there is. It holds a clue as to who I am. I have found something of myself.

I am crying too, the tears sliding off my nose, splashing like warm raindrops on the black and white keys.

 

pencilLouisa Adjoa Parker is a black history and fiction writer, and poet. She is of Ghanaian and English heritage. She has written various books exploring the history of black and ethnic minority people in Dorset, including Dorset’s Hidden Histories. Her first poetry collection Salt-sweat and Tears was published in 2007. Her poems have been published in various anthologies, magazines and blogs inlcuding Envoi, Wasafiri, Ouroboros, Coffee House Poetry, The Forward Book of Poetry 2008, Peony Moon and Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian poets. Her poem “Yellow Sheets” was shortlisted by the Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her first novel Letting the Light In, which was long-listed by the Mslexia Competition 2011, and for which she received a grant from the Society of Authors. Email: louisaparker3[at]hotmail.com