Thursday, 27 May 2010



RIP Paul Michael Smith, died last night, aged 54. As he has done every night for the last thirteen years, three weeks and two days.

The alarm clock sounded at 6am. Insistent, shrill. A demand for response. He reached out a hand and turned it off.

Then panic overtook him. Where was he? He didn’t remember the alarm clock. He didn’t remember where he was. He didn’t remember who he was.

“Your name is Paul Michael Smith. Please be calm. Relax, and listen. Your name is Paul Michael Smith. Please be calm. Relax and listen. Currently you do not remember anything. Please relax and listen. There is a notepad on the table. Please relax, open the note pad and read it. All will become clear. Your name is Paul Michael Smith. Please be calm. Relax, and listen. Your name is Paul Michael Smith. Please be calm. Relax and listen.”

It was a recorded voice, soothing, reassuring. He looked on the bedside table and there was, indeed, a battered notebook beside the bedside light. He turned the light on, grabbed the book and started reading.

“Your name is Paul Michael Smith. You were born on 15th June 1955. You had an accident which left you with a head injury, which means you forget things. This book has been written by you over the years. If you read it everything will become clear”

“It’s a bad’un!” Sgt John Cleese said to me as I approached the wreckage. “Bentley, left the road at some speed. Three feet either way it would have missed the tree and ended up in the field. Three people inside. The fire brigade are taking the roof off. Air Ambulance lads are working on the occupants. Good luck!”

I’d known John for some years. We’d met originally at an accident and I was taken by how he resembled his namesake in every way but one. He had no sense of humour at all. Working in the ambulance service for some years I’d developed what people tell me is a sick sense of humour. It isn’t sick so much as a survival mechanism. But every time I made a joke he’d look at me. ‘Was that a joke?’ At first I thought he was joking, but came to realise that he genuinely had no sense of humour. He could see why something was supposed to be funny, in a strictly analytical way, yet could not laugh or understand even the mechanism for laughter. I saw this as a handicap. He saw it as a saving grace. Because although he had no sense of humour he had a phenomenal memory. Which, combined with his love of science fiction, made him a great partner on Pub Quiz night. Between us we were unstoppable!

“Beside your bed is a box with tablets in it. You need to take the three tablets in the box. There should be a glass of water beside the box. Once you have taken them carry on reading. Do not worry, they are painkillers for the headache you will have, and a tablet to reduce your blood pressure. Both these things are symptoms of the car crash. Take the tablets then go and make yourself a cup of coffee from the tray on the bedside cabinet. You like coffee, and it will make you feel a lot better. Trust me on this. Also, don’t drink the tea. You hate tea.”

Paul Michael Smith walked over to the tray, neatly laid out with coffee sachets, plastic cartons of milk, sugar. Like in a hotel. How did he know that? He knew what a hotel was. He knew what to expect in one. He knew he liked coffee with milk and sugar. He knew there would not be quite enough milk in one of those containers, yet two would be too much. Yet he didn’t know who he was. He looked at the reflection in the mirror above the cabinet. Grey hair, short and neat, clean shaven face, drawn, not pleasant. His eyes looked haunted. Looked as if they had seen something dreadful. It was him. And yet it was a stranger. He rubbed his hand across his chin, and his reflection rubbed its hand across the face of the stranger. Sighing, he drank the coffee and padded barefoot across the carpet back to the notebook. Sitting in the bedside chair, mug of coffee gripped in one hand he read on.

I approached the wreck as my colleagues were stabilising the driver. One of the paramedics was in the back, working flat out, shaking his head. He knew it was hopeless, but he carried on. It was the way we worked. You didn’t give up. You couldn’t give up. No matter how you wanted to. I hauled the emergency kit over and looked. In the back was a child. I couldn’t tell any more, the damage was too great. In the front a woman, in the passenger seat. She was being ignored by the other para. A quick look told me why. A tree branch. Not worth considering. He was working on the driver. Stabilising neck and back ready for extraction. He waved me away, so I went back to the child. My colleague had an airway in, so I grabbed the bag and started breathing for the child. In, out. In, out. A saline line was inserted into a canula in the child’s arm. In, out. In, out. The fire brigade started to cut away the back of the seat. In, out. In, out. In, out.

“This book should help you through the day. At various stages you will have to interact with people. These people know you, and will try and help you. You will meet a cleaner, who will clean and tidy your room. Later someone will come to refresh the coffee and milk. At noon a meal will be delivered. At this point you will be asked to select a meal for tomorrow. Choose the same meal. You like it. It is nutritious and healthy, and to be honest, you are not going to get bored with it. In the afternoon a nurse will come in to see you and check you over, to make sure there is no degradation in your health. You will almost certainly want to go outside. Please do not do this. Part of your condition means that if you stop and focus on something, if something catches your eye you can, and will, forget where and who you are. You need to maintain focus, then you can survive. You cannot come to harm outside the room, but it is embarrassing for you, and for the staff. Trust me. I know.”

Most of the rear of the Bentley had been cut away when the emergency Doctor arrived. She’d been held up at another accident. Saturday Night was a bad night. Drinks and cars do not mix in a good way. My colleague and I had the child ready for extraction when she turned up, and we delayed so she could make an assessment of our work. In, out. In, out. In, out. Stethoscope, listen long and hard to the chest. Fundoscopic examination of the eyes. Physical examination. In, out. In, out. In, out. She shook her head. “Good job, boys. But I’m calling it. No responses at all. Sorry” In, out. In, out. We didn’t give up. We couldn’t. It was our job. It was a child. In, out. In, out. You don’t give up on a child. She took the bag from me. “Leave it. She was dead before the car stopped moving, I’d bet. Massive head trauma. You did all you could.” I walked away.

“You were in a car crash, in 1996. You had massive head injuries, and yet you survived, and you have done since. You were in hospital for over a year. Nobody really knew what to do with you. Every morning you would wake up and not know who you were. You worked with Dr Sarah Blake, writing this book. Over the period of three years this book has become your life. Every day you read it, adjust it, edit it. You edit your life, in this book. Take care of it. It is literally your life.
You were moved to this hostel in 1999. The people here look after you, but don’t interact any more than they need to. There is no point. You won’t remember them tomorrow. Your memory is reset every day. Except for some of your long term memory. Read this carefully. It is the most important thing I have to tell you

There was a court case, of course. Paul Michael Smith. Born 15th June 1955. Chairman and CEO of ION Ltd. A successful product design and development company. Not up to Fortune 500 standards, but he was making a good 7 figure sum per year. He had a good lifestyle. And a good wife, Eve, and a seven year old rebellious but generally well-behaved daughter Chloe. They’d gone for a meal, and he’d had a few too many beers. And on the way home he’d lost control of the Bentley, lost his wife and child, and literally lost his mind. The court case was dismissed. He couldn’t come to court, he didn’t know who he was or what had happened. To make him face trial would have been cruel, and ultimately pointless. I went to the inquest. I had to. It was my job. It was no fun.

“Sometimes you will remember things. I cannot, and will not tell you what. Trust me, please. I am going to give you a phone number, and a name. Richard Hughes. If you remember the name Chloe or Eve, and you need to know, ring that number. But don’t ring it unless you really have to. I beg you, please don’t ring that number unless you have to.”

It was an unusual case. The courts could not, in all faith, confine him to a mental hospital. He wasn’t ‘mental’. He just had no memory. In the end the judge ordered that a trust fund be set up, and he should be housed at a medical hostel for the rest of his life. I received a request. Dr Sarah Blake had worked with Paul Michael Smith on a book that told him who he was and what was happening. Part of the symptom was that occasionally a small fragment, a tiny piece of memory from before the accident would flash in his head. Usually it was the name Eve or Chloe. Would I be prepared, as he had no family, to answer his questions? Well, sure I would. How difficult could that be?

Chloe? Eve? Yes! The names were familiar. Why? Why did he remember those names. They evoked sounds of laughter. Smells. Smells of Christmas? Warm newly washed towels? Happy feelings, happy ...he could almost *taste* the memory. Why? What did the book mean? Don’t ring that number? Of course he was going to ring it! He needed to know! Maybe he had family. Maybe someone could get him out of here. Bring him home. Bring him clothes, damnit! Instead of these impersonal pyjamas! Where was that damned telephone? 07896.....

My phone rang. I looked at the number and my heart sank. It was Paul Michael Smith. He’d not called for nearly two months. Two months my curse had left me. I answered.
“Hello, Paul. You have remembered something?”

“Yes! Who is Chloe? Why does the name make me happy? Is she family? Can she help me?”

I sat down. “Paul, are you sure you want to know? Okay, please, are you sitting?”

I told him. Once again I told him of the accident. Of his wife, and of his child. Dr Blake and he had decided that there should be no secrets. He should know. But it meant that every time he rang I had to kill his hopes, his family, and listen to him as he suffered the loss for the first time. Again, and again. In, out. In, out. You didn't give up. For thirteen years, three weeks and two days.

Last night Paul Michael Smith had a stroke. He was dead before he hit the floor. Last night he died again, for the last time.


  1. Heart-breaking story, movingly told. I wish those "Don't drink and drive" commercials were even half as powerful!

  2. Powerful indeed! Very well-written.

  3. Very interesting. At first I thought it was like the film "memento" or the opening to the novel "The Raw Shark Tests", but what lifted it into new territory for me, was when you consider the difference between specific, emotionally laden personal memory - of which he has virtually nothing left - and linguistic memory, in that he could put concepts together and understand them such understanding what a hotel was like - so long as it has no personal stake for him.

    Very very good and possibly worth further pursuing on your part?

    marc nash

  4. This is quite good. First sentence really grabs attention. Story unfolds in a way that kept me curious, interested, involved.

    Last sentence was perfect.

  5. Very immersive short story, especially in the beginning. It would be difficult to strip this down into a flash, though you might serialize it, or flesh it out even further towards the 5,000-word limit some zines use for short fiction.