Geoff loves his job. Not the parts where he has to calculate costings and profit margins or negotiate with customers. The part where he has to manage me. He’s good at the noises – the teeth sucking and tongue clicking when I ask for time off are masterful, though the answer “Yes” tends to be silent. He loves making me wait, persuade, beg. I put up with him for Lynne’s sake.
‘It’s very inconvenient,’ Geoff says, yet again.
‘The care home staff have some questions about Lynne’s records,’ I repeat. ‘They’ve asked me to drop by before visiting time tonight to clear up a few details.’
He looks at me, sorrowful, the worker left to cope with a punishing workload while his deputy skips off for an evening of frivolity in a care home for those with complex mental health problems. I’m not playing that game. I wait, and finally he sighs and says; ‘Just this once.’
I won’t point out that I might need more such concessions. My wife will live out the rest of her life in her care home. Her doctors have given up on her recovery, though they can see an interesting research paper in the poor love. At forty-eight, her life sentence could easily cover five decades.
Lynne has a form of brain damage her doctor has never seen before, and he has trouble concealing his excitement. I’ve been told that memory loss from head trauma has two common forms; loss of short-term memory but perfect recall of incidents from many years ago, or loss of memory of anything experienced before the incident and full recall of everything that has happened since. Lynne can’t remember anything at all; not her parents or going to school, meeting her first husband or what she had for breakfast today. She says the strangest things and can’t remember having said them even minutes afterwards. Worse than that, all the basic safety drills we were taught as children have gone. The day I brought her home from hospital, the car broke down on the M5. I stopped on the hard shoulder and Lynne got out to walk across six lanes of motorway traffic to the service station on the opposite side. Without even looking left, right, left again. I grabbed her just in time.
I can’t cope with that on my own. I can’t watch her twenty-four hours a day and I couldn’t live with myself if she was killed or injured while I wasn’t watching. I visit her every evening and hope every time that she’ll remember who I am. She hasn’t yet, but she’s still the closest friend I have left.
As I leave the office, I see Geoff in the absurd little glass-walled meeting room at the centre of our open plan office. He’s talking to Paul, his manager. They’re both watching me, and Geoff’s mouth is set in a short and ugly line. I can’t afford Lynne’s care fees if I lose this job, so I keep a neutral expression and nod to them both.
Answering the care home’s questions doesn’t take long, and by six o’clock I’m knocking on Lynne’s door.
‘Come in!’ she sings.
‘Hello,’ I say, opening her door. ‘I’m Alan.’ I made myself a name badge to remind her of my name, and her eyes flick down to it every few minutes during my visits.
‘What have you been doing today?’ I ask her, settling in the cosy chair.
‘No idea,’ she replies, and laughs. Having no memories at all stopped bothering her weeks ago, and now she finds it amusing.
‘Josh called me yesterday,’ I say, drawing on my list of safe topics. ‘He’s fine, but his wife’s given up on her Masters course. She’s looking for a job locally.’
‘Any luck yet?’ Lynne asks. Her son’s name doesn’t ring any bells with her.
‘No,’ I say. ‘Two interviews, but nothing that suits her.’
‘Josh’s wife - is that Zoe?’ Lynne asks, brow wrinkled.
Lynne’s face grows sad. ‘That Agrichem job of hers will split them up,’ she said. ‘Poor Josh. I won’t know what to say to him when she runs off with her new boss.’ She blinks and looks startled. ‘Josh is my son, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I say, almost breathless with hope. ‘You remember him?’
Lynne’s face is alive with emotion, pity and anger twisting her face. ‘Oh, yes, I can see him now,’ she sighs. ‘He’ll be here for ages in January, sitting right there where you are today. Crying so hard all he’ll able to say for about ten minutes is “Mum”. What can I do for him?’ She shrugs, hurt and helpless.
‘Hold him,’ I say. ‘Give him a cuddle like you did when he was small. That’s what he’d need if Zoe ever left him.’
‘She will leave him,’ Lynne says, then her expression crinkles with effort. ‘I did cuddle him when he was little, didn’t I?’
‘You did,’ I say, though I don’t know whether she did or not. Better to comfort her, and anyway, she won’t remember what I said in a few minutes time.
‘Oh - lock your car in the garage tonight,’ Lynne says. ‘Those thieving little sods from the new estate will be out stealing cars. They won’t be able to break into yours, but the scratches they’ll leave on the door will be worse than getting it stolen.’
‘Okay, love, I will.’ I never can work out what prompts these odd comments of hers. Easy to agree with her. No-one will tell her that I’ll park on the drive as usual tonight; I’m her only visitor.
Lynne watches my face for a moment and her lips purse. ‘You won’t,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’
‘I do listen to you,’ I say, my throat tightening.
‘It’ll take so many years before you understand,’ Lynne sighs. ‘I know what’s going to happen. I remember it.’
‘I listen,’ I say, soothing. ‘You want me to put my car in the garage tonight, and I will.’ I hate to see her upset. If she insists that I lock the car away I’ll do it, even though it means an hour’s work shifting junk from the garage to make room.
She studies my expression, then smiles. ‘Ah, yes, now you will,’ she says. ‘That’s good. You would have been so upset tomorrow if you hadn’t, and it would have made you late for work.’
‘Don’t want that,’ I say. ‘Geoff’s half inclined to sack me as it is.’
‘They won’t sack you,’ Lynne says. ‘Give it six days…’ she pauses, eyes looking far away, then continues; ‘Six days, yes, and they’ll be grateful you’re still there. If you ask forcefully enough, you’ll get Geoff’s job.’
‘Geoff’s not going anywhere,’ I say. ‘He’ll never retire.’
‘Six days from now, you’ll be sitting here telling me about Geoff’s blunder,’ Lynne predicts. ‘Wonderful, perfect Geoff who somehow…’ She laughs, and I find myself smiling too, caught up in her happiness. ‘Geoff, who screwed up his calcs so badly that he quoted a major order of calibration units to Grafton Limited at a price lower than ten per cent of what it will cost your company to make. And they accepted immediately, in writing.’
‘He didn’t,’ I say. ‘I’d have remembered that.’
‘Maybe he hasn’t, yet,’ Lynne says. ‘But within six days it will all have come to light and you’ll be sitting in that chair telling me why Geoff got sacked.’
The way she looks right now… is the old Lynne. Before that car knocked her off her bike and head-first onto the pavement. Before she woke up in hospital terrified, not knowing where she was or who she was, unable to recognise me or her own son. Today, she waits calmly for my reaction.
‘Lynne,’ I say, working through her last sentence. ‘You know who Geoff is? But not who I am?’
‘Geoff is your manager,’ Lynne says, her eyes shut now, concentrating. ‘You’ll be explaining that to me next… Wednesday, yes. Telling me that Paul has sacked him for incompetence and told you how much he’ll rely on you in Geoff’s absence. When he does, you should suggest you take on Geoff’s job, and Geoff’s salary.’
I can’t bear it, this new Lynne, this woman with no fear of walking through motorway traffic and her eerie tales of what she thinks will happen in the near future. I hold my breath rather than risk tears in front of this fragile woman. We’re silent for long minutes. Then Lynne opens her eyes.
‘You’ll remember me telling you this,’ she says.
I shake my head. ‘You’ve never told me this before.’
‘No,’ Lynne corrects me. ‘I mean you will remember next Wednesday that I’ve told you today about Geoff and Paul.’
She’s waiting for my response. This is important to her.
‘I don’t think I’ll forget this kind of conversation,’ I say, trying to make light of it.
Lynne nods, staring at me. ‘I can see you remembering this,’ she says, and her eyes flick to my badge. ‘Alan – trust me. You’re so good to me, and you’ll never waver from that love for the rest of your days. It’s such a comfort to me and I wish you could remember what I do, all our future conversations down the years of our lives together. The least I can do for you in exchange is to guide you and keep you safe.’
It’s too much. I can’t keep back the tears. Lynne is locked in at night in case she wanders off and onto the road or falls into the canal or into the haunts of drug dealers or rapists, dangers she doesn’t fear because she doesn’t remember being warned about them. Lynne, vulnerable as a kitten in a python’s tank, is determined to keep me safe.
‘You’ll remember,’ Lynne says again, and suddenly she’s smiling. ‘In fact, I see the future opening out now. Because after you’ve told me about Geoff’s disgrace and Paul’s pep talk, you’ll realise that I’m not kidding and I’m not guessing. It’s proof to you that I’ve seen this future. You’ll wear… that green rugby club fleece, and halfway through telling me you’ll take it off. Knocking over my mug of tea in the process.’ She laughs. ‘When you knock over my tea, you’ll remember me describing that moment. The look on your face then! By the time you go home on Wednesday, you’ll understand that I can’t remember the past, but I do remember the future.’
‘You can’t predict the future, love,’ I say, wiping my face. ‘I won’t wear that green fleece, for a start. I don’t even remember if I still have it.’
Lynne shuts her eyes. ‘Green rugby club fleece,’ she confirms, grinning. ‘You don’t tell me where you found it, but - you’ll tell me that you dropped a slice of pizza down your jumper and didn’t have anything else clean enough to wear.’
‘Suppose – suppose I don’t have a pizza?’
‘Then the future changes a little,’ Lynne says, shrugging. ‘You’ll spill coffee on the jumper, or soup. But right now, I see you sitting here next week in that fleece, telling me about Geoff and then realising I’ve told you all this a week before you lived through it. If you warn Geoff before he messes up that quote and if he listens to you, well, then there’ll be a different future for me to see. Maybe one not so good for you. Do you want us to be sitting together next year, in a cosy room with green vine wallpaper?’
‘That’s our living room,’ I say. Lynne shrugs. ‘Yes. I’d love you to come home.’
‘With Geoff’s salary, you’ll hire home care for me and we’ll live together in the same house,’ she says. ‘Trust me. Don’t warn Geoff that he’s about to be a monumental prat.’
‘No danger,’ I say. ‘He never believes anyone who tells him what a prat he is.’
Not to mention that I know how it would sound, that my wife has seen Geoff’s future from her room in a care home for the mentally damaged. I loved Lynne dearly, and even I didn’t believe her.
The next day, Geoff calls me into the little glass meeting cage. We sit in full view of our colleagues, both of us knowing that the cage isn’t soundproof, that every word of Geoff’s pompous dressing down is audible to everyone in the main office. I’m not pulling my weight in the office, apparently, and my future in this organisation is in serious doubt. This will be raised at my annual appraisal, and targets will be set to ensure that serious consequences will arise if I don’t show my commitment by working the full hours set out in my contract, and by ceasing to mention my wife as an excuse.
With deliberate malice, Geoff books my appraisal for the following Friday, at 6pm, meaning that I’ll be late for visiting hours that day. If I protest, I’ll be giving Geoff proof of my lack of commitment.
‘I want you to stay late this evening,’ Geoff concludes. ‘I’ll be calculating prices for a major order. You’ll be covering the phone for me while I work.’
‘I can run the calcs if you like,’ I offer.
‘Absolutely not,’ Geoff says. ‘I need these figures to be right. Grafton’s could be sending a lot of business our way in future, and I don’t want any mistakes.’
I return to my desk too angry to think straight. There’s no doubt that I’ll be fired from here within six months if Geoff gets his way. I’m barely coping with Lynne’s care home fees as it is. I need to start looking for another job, and now, while the worst thing I have to explain from this job is Geoff’s lukewarm reference.
On Monday, Josh calls me to say that Zoe has accepted a job offer.
‘Agrichem Corporation, as a receptionist,’ Josh says. ‘Not a graduate post, but it’ll do for now. Let Mum know, next time you see her.’
‘Come and tell her yourself,’ I say.
‘I’ll try to get there next week,’ he says, though it’s clear that he won’t. Actually, I’d rather he didn’t, until he can accept that Lynne probably won’t know who he is. I scribble the name “Agrichem” and “receptionist, Zoe” on our telephone jotter.
‘I think you must have told me about this job already,’ I say, doodling circles around the word Agrichem. ‘Rings a bell.’
‘Can’t have done -- she only heard today,’ Josh says. Zoe’s voice yells in his background. ‘Gotta go,’ he says. ‘Love to Mum.’
When I tell Lynne the next day, she’s not surprised.
‘Dammit,’ she says mildly. ‘Ah well, Josh will be better off without her.’
‘Zoe’s only going to work there,’ I say. ‘She’ll be coming home to Josh every night.’
‘Hmm,’ Lynne replies. ‘Remember that next January, when she clears off with her wonderful boss. Josh will be sitting here unable to do anything but snivel and say “Mum”.’ She’s struck by a thought. ‘If he calls me Mum – that must mean that Josh is my son?’
‘Yes,’ I say. I should be encouraged, that she’s remembered her son twice in one week, but she says it as if it’s a surprise to her again.
‘Don’t be sad,’ Lynne says. She grins. ‘You wait till tomorrow. You’ll have such a story to tell me about Geoff. We have such a great time waiting for us after tomorrow.’
I can’t bear to tell her that our chances of having great times ahead of us were destroyed along with her memory, so I smile at her. ‘That sounds like fun. I’ll be here tomorrow.’
‘I know you will.’ Lynne says. She smiles at the memory of the glorious future that only she can see.