To complete the fulfilment of my promise, here's the first draft of chapter three of My Family and Other Ghosts. It's the longest of all them and ties things up nicely ready for me to move forward, introducing the last major character, Erica Immurson.
OK, I admit it, I have very loosely based Erica Immurson on Dr Noelle Akopian from the wonderful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – very loosely, but it's nice to have a mental image to start from. When my novel is a multi-award winning best-seller, I'll make sure Michael Hyatt gets cast in the role of the movie version.
Anyway, without further ado, here's chapter three, below the photo of Lacock, where part of the chapter is set. Coincidentally, I took this photo when the Downton Abbey movie was filming there, partly inspiring one of the scenes – which might get cut on second draft, unless I can make use of the concept later.
Chapter 3: A Consultation With Erica
Chris Parsons opened his eyes to a new day. All at once, everything felt so fresh, so vibrant; then remembrance dawned. He closed his eyes and tried to return to sleep.
It was no good. The roiling maelstrom of transient memories offered him no rest; flashes of Alex, evocations of Lisa burst into flame before reality extinguished their existence. They were gone. He was alone.
A nagging recollection that there was something on today's agenda dragged him fully into consciousness, anxiety born of confusion stopping the memory from coalescing into focus.
'Alexa, what's on today?' said Chris.
A disembodied woman's voice came from the small screen on Chris's bedside cabinet, which changed to show his calendar.
'You have one item in your calendar today. Appointment with Erica Immurson at 2pm in Lacock.'
'Thank you,' he said instinctively. It was the closest thing he got to a conversation most days.
'You're welcome,' responded the AI.
He'd been trying to forget about it; he should never have agreed to it. When someone, it must have been his doctor, had recommended a new type of therapy, it had been all too easy just to go along with it. He should have stood up for what he really felt. It would be a waste of time. All the other consultants and therapists he'd seen over the last year had amounted to nothing positive, as far as he could remember, so why would this one be any different? But he had no fight left, it was easier to go with the flow and keep everyone happy.
It wasn't clear to Chris what was supposed to be different about this therapist. He tried to remember what the doctor had said, but all he got were flashes of Alex's beautiful face. Tears filled his eyes as the remembrance of the loss threatened to overwhelm him. Was he ever going to get used to it? It was now over a year since he'd lost Lisa and Alex in that ridiculous accident, but the pain seemed just as intense today as on that first day. He could only hope and pray this new approach would bear fruit.
He closed his eyes again and breathed deeply, but his mind was too active now.
'Alexa, who is Erica Immurson?' he said, hoping his digital friend would have a piece of information that would jog his memory as to what the therapy was supposed to be about.
'You have one Erica Immurson in your contacts,' said Alexa. 'Is this who you want?'
'Calling Erica Immurson,' said Alexa, closely followed by a simulated dial tone.
'Alexa, cancel!' shouted Chris.
His heart beating faster, Chris sat up. He looked around his gloomy beige bedroom at the randomly scattered piles of laundry. That was something that desperately needed doing, to give the place a tidy and do some washing. Lisa would have hated the state he'd let her home get.
'Alexa, open the curtains thirty per cent,' he said. With a muted blip of confirmation and a gentle whirring, his bedroom curtains gradually opened a little and the autumn sunlight flooded in. Even if he'd let the place run down a little, at least he'd managed to get his home nicely automated. He'd been advised to concentrate on a personal hobby as part of one of the attempts at therapy after…the accident…and he'd chosen to experiment with the ever-expanding field of home automation.
For a while, it had turned into an expensive obsession, but at least it had kept him relatively sane, even if every room was full of gadgets. He still enjoyed keeping up to date with the latest things, but now he'd reached the point where he was feeling the need to look forward again. He either had to envision a new future for himself, a new role to fulfil over the next couple of decades, or he may as well not bother waking up in the mornings. Not that that concept hadn't crossed his mind regularly over the last year. Chris rapidly dismissed that thought. He knew how fast he could fall into depression if he wallowed in himself for too long.
It looked to be a beautiful day outside. Hopefully, the weather would hold up for his trip to Lacock, and he could go for a long walk around the old village. Fresh air and exercise always helped his mood immensely.
'Alexa, what's the forecast?' said Chris.
'The weather today will be sunny and clear skies, with a high of seventeen degrees and a low of seven. Overnight, light rain will spread in from the west, and the wind will increase. The magnetic field is expected to remain strong throughout the day, and no special precautions are required, but the prognosis is unstable for later in the week.'
That sounded perfect, he could have a walk in the sun today, and there was the chance of a decent light show later in the week. With a bit of luck, it might coincide with the Anderson-Howell comet finally being visible to the naked eye – two things he'd dreamed of seeing since he was a kid watching Patrick Moore on the TV. A major comet was a random happenstance that was well overdue in the northern hemisphere, but he'd never expected to be able to see the aurora borealis from his own garden.
With the weakening of the Earth's magnetic field as part of the ongoing gradual geomagnetic reversal of the poles, the majestic spectacle of the aurora was becoming a more commonplace event this far south, but he never tired of it. Admittedly, it was only a minor recompense for routine failures of the power grid and other electrical systems, and the increasing prevalence of cancers triggered by the high-energy particles penetrating more readily to the surface, but he had to take pleasures where he could find them these days.
Alex would have loved it.
Suddenly, he remembered what he'd done with the information about Erica Immurson. He opened the drawer in his bedside cabinet two reveal two small cards. The first was a business card with her name and job title printed in dark blue.
'Erica Immurson, Reconstructive Cognitive Therapist.'
The second was his appointment card. It wasn't much to go on, but it was a start. Next time, he'd put all the information about the appointment on the Alexa calendar, not that he really knew what to do with the job title of Reconstructive Cognitive Therapist yet.
He had a vague recollection that the therapist was Norwegian, but for some bizarre reason, the only mental image he could conjure was that of the actress Gillian Anderson. He had no idea where that came from. Not that he'd complain. At least his weird recollection gave him something to look forward to this afternoon, even if it was a delusional fantasy.
Chris shook his head at his own broken memory recall, swung his legs out of bed and stood up. It didn't happen often, but he was unexpectedly in the mood for housework, starting with tidying his bedroom. That was good, keeping busy helped him forget what had happened to Lisa and Alex. If only he could remember the details.
A sharp stabbing sensation in his temple caused him to stumble and sit down again. Clearly, that wasn't something he wanted to think about yet. It would come, hopefully.
Chris could already tell that today was going to be a strange one, and probably painful.
Chris left his dirty Renault in the National Trust car park on the outskirts of Lacock and walked past the abbey towards the village centre. At least he was making good use of his National Trust membership these days, probably the first time for many years. It had too often been a comfort blanket of possibilities, never to be experienced, especially since he’d been alone.
Virtually the whole of Lacock was owned by the National Trust, preserving the village in aspic to delight tourists and film crews, with its unspoiled appearance making it an ideal location for period and nostalgic dramas.
Chris wasn't going to complain. He loved the feeling of walking back in time as he approached the centre of the village, past the quaint stone houses, the old post office, the multitude of picturesque buildings.
He slowed to a halt when he realised how unusual the wide-open space of the High Street appeared today, lined with anomalous red and white striped parking cones, broken only by the odd vintage car parked in front of the quaint buildings. At the far end of the area, which was strewn with patriotic bunting, stood a huge white crane towering over the village. In amongst the bunting were flags that Chris didn't recognise, red rectangles containing a white-bordered blue circle in the centre, with a white lightning flash through it.
It was obvious they were preparing to film yet another production here. It wasn't the first time he'd seen the village overrun by a film crew. His first visit here with Lisa and Alex after their move had coincided with the filming of the Downton Abbey movie. That wasn't long before the accident when…
Chris stumbled as a jolt of pain shot through his brain. Unsteadily, he put his hand on the nearest car to support himself.
'Hey,' said a man's voice from behind the vehicle. 'Do you mind?'
'Sorry,' said Chris instinctively, pulling his hand from the car which he realised for the first time was a gleaming vintage model with a dark maroon body and jet black wheel arches. 'Nice car.'
The man walked around to Chris’s side of the car. He was carrying a bucket, and his hands were filthy, covered in what looked like very wet mud. He eyed the car suspiciously where Chris had touched it.
'No harm done,' he said, before adding gruffly, 'not that it would matter, anyway.'
'Something up?' said Chris, still feeling woozy after the pain, happy for an excuse to stay and talk.
With a look of surprise, the man studied Chris.
'You with the production?' he asked.
'Nope, just visiting,' said Chris.
'Good,' he said, visibly relaxing. 'They're using my car in the shoot today. Isn't she a beauty?'
Chris made a show of appraising it respectfully. He had no clue about cars, nor did they interest him. It was definitely old and shiny, though.
'Lovely,' said Chris, trying to be polite. 'What is it?'
'A Citröen Traction Avant,' he said, beaming with pride. 'Late 1930s, perfect for their movie. I've spent several days getting it ready. Immaculate, in fact, but it wasn't good enough.'
'What's wrong with it?' said Chris. 'It looks…great.'
'Too fucking clean,' he said with disgust, holding up his bucket and displaying his muddy free hand. 'They want it dirty. It doesn't look lived in, said the director. Not authentic enough. Authentic? What would that twat know about authenticity.'
Chris struggled not to laugh at the outburst.
'What's the movie?'
He paused briefly, before shrugging.
'You know Pride and Prejudice?' he said.
'Of course,' said Chris. 'I think the BBC version was filmed here. Another remake?'
'Sort of,' he said, raising one hand ready to semi-air quote. 'Except it's been "re-envisioned" and set in 1930s England. Elizabeth Bennet writes feminist novels, and Mr Darcy is a fan of Oswald Mosley. As I said, the director is a twat.'
'Sounds…odd,' said Chris. He enjoyed costume dramas and fresh takes on things, but there were limits. 'Not sure Pride and Prejudice fans will go for it.'
'They're calling it Author and Authoritarian, which just about sums up the barrel they're scraping,' he said. 'What do I care? As long as I get paid and can get my car clean again afterwards, then I'm happy.'
'True. Well, good luck,' said Chris, making his excuses before his amusement got the better of him. A bizarre exchange out of the blue about a weird movie. Alex would have been rolling on the floor laughing by now.
Chris's legs wobbled briefly before striding forward determinedly. It was lovely to think of Alex and Lisa, but he couldn't let the grief that always washed over him immediately afterwards dominate his life.
Yeah, right. Who was he kidding? That's why he was on his way to see this Erica Immurson. He had to find some way of stopping the remorse from dragging him down whenever he dropped his guard; the sadness that pulled him back into the happier past was stopping him having a future.
Oblivious to his chocolate-box surroundings, Chris marched directly to the end of the High Street and then down past the George Inn. Pulling out the card to double-check the address, he approached a pretty little cottage with a tiny name plaque next to the doorbell: Erica Immurson, Therapist.
Chris looked up and down the street, which was deserted. He checked his watch. Perfect timing, about five minutes before his appointment. He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.
He wasn't quite sure what to expect, probably not Gillian Anderson or the clichéd stern pony-tailed blonde woman that had been his other mental image, but he definitely wasn't anticipating the cheerful face that greeted him when the door opened.
'Well, hello there. You must be Chris Parsons?' she said, shaking his hand without waiting for acknowledgement. 'Erica Immurson. Come in, come in.'
She stood back and gestured him into her home.
Erica Immurson was a little taller than Chris, a slightly overweight middle-aged black woman with wavy dark brown hair and a broad toothy grin that seemed to stretch from ear-to-ear. She was an enormous, joyfully imposing presence that swept him straight into her consultation room.
'Please, take a seat,' she said in her warm, rich voice, pointing to a dark brown leather sofa. She adjusted the matching single chair to face the sofa at a slight angle and sat down. As Chris squeakily settled into a comfortable position, Erica picked up a notebook, licked her fingers, and leafed through the pages. After finding the right place, she read quietly for a minute, her face showing no reaction other than deploying a tranquil smile throughout. Chris was just starting to get irritated when Erica looked up at him and broke out the toothy grin again. It was hard not to smile in response.
'So,' she said, then briefly paused as if rethinking her approach. 'I've read your referral notes. Your doctor has been very thorough, and I can see the strategies your other consultants have tried. First things first, though. Tell me. Why are you here?'
'I want to get better,' said Chris, unsure what to say.
She held his gaze and shook her head slowly. Chris felt as if he was about to be disciplined by a disapproving teacher. It was Mrs Harris all over again.
'Not good enough,' said Erica. 'What symptoms are actually causing you problems? What of the many things troubling you would you like to fix first? Be honest.'
'I keep forgetting things,' said Chris. It was the first thing that came to mind. 'My past is full of holes.'
'Better. Give me some specifics. Tell me the way that affects your daily life.'
It was something so fundamental to who Chris was now, he initially struggled to think of a coherent way of explaining it using words. He could feel it, wasn't that enough?
'When I wake up, I often know I was planning on doing something, but can't remember the details. Mornings are always the hardest. So, I've taken to writing things down. Even then, often I can't remember why I wanted to do things. I know….I can feel that I've discussed it with someone, agreed it, and can even remember some of the conversation. I just can't remember who it was with. It's as if they no longer exist.'
'Good, good,' she said, scribbling some notes into her book while nodding. 'That's a start. Let's focus on that. Is it just recent events you're forgetting? What about last year? Two years ago?'
'I can remember things from longer ago. I can remember us moving to Calne together from Maidenhead. I can remember helping our daughter move in with her boyfriend – fiancé – to Basingstoke. Everything is pretty clear up until…'
Chris trailed off, tension spreading through his temples and stiffening the muscles in his neck.
'Up until the accident?' completed Erica. Chris nodded mutely.
'That fits,' she said. 'You have what we call dissociative amnesia, triggered by the accident. Yours is an unusually severe and long-term case, and you're suffering from both retrograde amnesia – difficulty remembering past events – and anterograde amnesia – difficulty learning new information.'
'Yes, yes, I know all this,' said Chris irritably. 'All my consultants have told me that. It hasn't helped fix it though. I know all about dissociate amnesia, I've read up on it online.'
She rolled her eyes at the online comment.
'Well, at least you remember that much,' she said. 'And you've tried hypnotism, music therapy, various medications, group therapy, all that sort of thing, but none of those helped at all?'
'You've read my notes,' he said. 'Nothing made any difference. Admittedly, I enjoyed the art therapy, but I'm not sure it really helped.'
She nodded and jotted in the notebook again.
'I understand you went to Avebury yesterday?' she asked, without preamble.
'How did you know that?'
'Who did you go with?'
'I…I went alone, of course,' said Chris. 'Look, what–'
'What about the West Kennet Long Barrow?' interrupted Erica. 'You went there on the same trip, I believe? Was that alone too?'
'Yes. How do–'
'Not with Lisa?' said Erica, giving him no time to form a thought. 'Or Alex?'
'Of course not, snapped Chris, his tension growing into a painful headache. 'They're dead! What–'
'How did they die?'
'There was…an accident.'
'Describe it to me.'
'It…' started Chris, unable to complete the sentence as an intense pain shot through his head, down his neck and left arm, accompanied by a white flash in his vision. He closed his eyes and rested his face in his palms. 'I…can't. I don't…'
'It's OK,' said Erica, leaning forward and patting him on the knee. 'Relax. Put it out of your mind for now.'
'Why can't I remember it?' said Chris as the pain lessened, and he was able to open his eyes again.
'That's the question,' she said, breaking out her warm smile again. 'Once we understand that, everything else will start falling into place.'
'I…I hope so.'
'This is good,' said Erica. 'I think you've made a lot of progress already, even if it doesn't feel like it. Reading your notes, you've broken down much more severely when challenged on your memories of the accident. That's a good sign. Let's build on that.'
'Let's not push not too hard for now,' she said. After a few moments contemplation, she continued. 'Tell me. Do you suffer from déjà vu? The feeling that you've lived through the same moment before?'
'Yes,' he said, showing the first sign of interest. 'Yes, I do. Quite often.'
'Good. It's good that you do, I mean. It shows there are memories in there that you're not quite accessing, but you know exist. We can work on that.'
'When you go to sleep at night, as you lay there, try to think of a moment from the last couple of days. Something that's a little hazy. Let yourself drift off to sleep envisioning that moment. Try to imagine what it would have been like if Alex was there. Or Lisa.'
Chris frowned, his headache throbbing still.
'How would that help?'
'It may still be in your mind when you awaken the next day,' she said. 'We can discuss your experiences next time, say in a week.’
‘OK, I’ll try,’ said Chris. It didn’t seem much to work with.
‘Can I make a specific suggestion?' she asked.
'Think of how you felt when you went to sleep on the long barrow. How you felt when you woke up. I think you know there's a discontinuity there, something for your mind to work on.'
'How…how do you know that?' said Chris, at a loss. 'I was alone.'
'It doesn't matter,' said Erica. 'I'll explain another time. Just trust me.'
Chris remained silent for thirty seconds, trying to remember that moment, trying to understand how Erica knew about it, about his itinerary that day. He felt violated, yet he also was starting to feel unexpectedly at ease with her. He felt no menace, just someone trying to help in her own, strange way. Her calm confidence, her unexpected knowledge of details of his life that he struggled to remember himself was an odd comfort.
'OK,' he said reluctantly. He had to go through with this. He'd promised…someone.
'One last thing,' said Erica. 'Have you changed your home since…since you lost Lisa and Alex. Redecorated, I mean?'
Chris shook his head. It hadn't seemed to be a priority, nor had he felt ready for it.
'Do it,' she said. 'Pick a room to decorate. It'll be a project that will last several days, so you'll have to remember about it when you wake up with pots of paint everywhere.’
‘True,’ he said with some reluctance.
‘You said you enjoyed your art therapy, so get creative. Be bold with your colour selection. Make your home your own, stamp your imagination across it. You need to…move on from your past. It's the only way you'll start to recover.'
Chris knew she was right, but it was hard.
'Don't guess. Do it,' she said. 'Go back via Chippenham and stop off at B&Q. Don't delay. You say that mornings are the hardest, so why not repaint your bedroom? Then you'll have a new experience whenever you open your eyes. Different than when Lisa was there, I mean.'
Chris instinctively reeled at the prospect. It felt like a betrayal of Lisa. It was hard enough to remember details about their last days as it was, but going out of his way to erase her from his future seemed a step too far. But he had to try something new.
'Sure,' he said.
‘Wonderful,’ said Erica, beaming her glorious smile at him like a proud owner of a compliant puppy.
She was right, though. It was time to start moving forward, put on a fresh coat of paint and see what emerged as the brush strokes covered the canvas of his life.