He sniffed the hot chocolate as if I’d dropped poison or a sleeping drug into it. Paranoid, presumably, without memory to cling to. Assuming he really didn’t have any memory of what came before he woke up on the beach.
My resolve faltered. Generally it wasn’t a good idea to pick confused and dazed blonde-headed Australians off the beach when you found them there prone and compound the offence by taking them home with you. So I dialled 999. As soon as I put the phone back on the stand, I regretted it. Even in his amnesiac state, he had a gentle air about him; a harmless giant. It seemed more troublesome to cancel the ambulance than to let the paramedics look him over. So I fretted, went back into the living room, and remembered too late as I came through the door that he was still likely to be peeling off his wet suit. He was standing there naked, looking down at his midriff as if he had turkey gizzards for genitals, absorbed enough not to be aware of my presence. By degrees I retreated, with time to take in the lean muscularity of his frame, proportions broken only by his buttocks, which were pale and curiously pronounced, as if that were where all the fat went. Perhaps when his memory returned, he would recall that he worked all day in an office, a sedentary life requiring a cushion for a backside, only emerging at the weekend to surf.
Those pale twin moons orbited my thoughts – elliptically, so that they would slide periodically in and out of view – as I sat on the stairs waiting for the door bell to ring.
I remembered something from my first year sociology class. Ethnomethodology. Goldstein or Goldfarb. Garfinkel, was it? Experiments in the disruption of every day life, so as to achieve a mechanistic breakdown and analysis of human interaction and social order. Hard to draw the line between this as a serious academic pursuit, and the humiliation meted out to gullible people on candid camera-type programmes. Involuntarily I looked up at the corners of the hallway to see whether spy cams were trained on me even as I sat there at the bottom of my own stairs. A quick mental scan of the small number of people I knew well told me none would have anything to do with such a programme. So for my Australian ethnomethodologist it was observation and notes in the field at worst. An artistic intervention, perhaps. That I could understand, though I wasn’t sure I would forgive him if this was what it turned out to be. I preferred being in control of art, not having it control me.
‘But you can call me Bill.’ A few moments before, he had been a total blank. Then he suddenly produced not only a name, but an informal, everyday and not especially Australian nickname. A strange barking noise broke from me as he said it, not one I recall making before, even when drunk. At that moment I could believe that he was playing me, and acting for the paramedics. If I hadn’t been worried that he – even as a freshly-revealed liar, a chillingly composed and convincing one at that – was still vulnerable in his current state, it might have been enough for me to show him the door directly after the ambulance men exited through it.
So it was with ice in the ventricles of my heart and barely melted fluid circulating in my veins that I heard him out. Because what he told me fell short of any logical explanation. And because before I could say a word, he spat an agitated question at me.
‘Why did you call them?’
There had been a promise implicit in my voice when I told him on the beach that he should come home with me, that I wasn’t taking him to a hospital, a promise I had broken by asking the hospital to come to him. Now he was making me feel guilty for that obviously sensible step.
‘You needed checking out. We still don’t know why you were lying there on the beach. I don’t think it was unreasonable to assume that you’d had a blow to your head. For all I know about head injuries, you could have lapsed into a coma as soon as you shut your eyes just now. In fact I thought you had, until the bell woke you. And then when the ambulance guys were quizzing you, you acted as if nothing had happened at all!’ I stopped abruptly, aware of how shrill I was sounding, and unwilling to admit out loud that he had made a fool of me.
‘I made it all up. On the spot. The name, Brisbane, London, the B&B in Newquay. I don’t know where I got it all from. Maybe from implanted memories, maybe somehow real ones. They would have taken me away if I told them the truth, or what little of it I know. They would have taken me away and – incarcerated me. Locked me up. Eventually, experiment on me. They might even kill me.’
It was the most he had said at one go, and it came out in twitchy, febrile gobbets. I crouched down by the armchair, in which he had rocked forward and back, and laid a hand on his arm, and spoke to him as soothingly as can someone who had deliberately starved herself of intimate contact for longer than was strictly necessary.
When he was calm, I placed my hand on his forehead, expecting heat. But it was still as cold as it had been on the beach. Bed, and a hot water bottle. After that we could see where we were.
‘It’s the name you reached for, whatever the reason. Until we know better, let’s call you Bill.’