If it was possible to learn what your future holds, would you want to know? For most people that would be one of those questions you’d never seriously consider the answer for. Even if you wanted to, it feels impossible and if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, it might even sound insane. But what if you were open to believing that it could be possible? That you didn’t have to know how it worked, just that it did. Would it be wise to want to know what happens tomorrow or even if there’s a tomorrow for you? It could be fortune or suffering or anything in between. What would be the point of knowing, of anticipating what you couldn’t change? I wasn’t sure where I stood on all this. Whether I believed it or not and if I did, whether I wanted to know it or not.
The thoughts whizzed around in my head as I stood in front of this towering building with its dizzying decorations. A rainbow of deities. How did I end up here, in this town in the South of India? I came a long way from the person I was a year ago lying on that hospital bed back in London; confused, scared, grief stricken and generally a bit lost.
My life had taken turns I didn’t envisage, and I had to learn to swim with the tide rather than against it but being here felt like the end of something. Perhaps a beginning of something too.
Staring at the dark archway in the middle of it all I felt a pull. I wasn’t made to come here. It was my choice. I could walk away if I wanted to but something in me wanted to peer inside. Other than the cold stones that held the place up and the images of otherworldly beings adorning the walls, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find. Peace perhaps. A connection with someone I’d lost a long time ago. Maybe answers to the ever-present questions in my life. Was it realistic to think I would find those there? Maybe not. But one thing I knew was, that I couldn’t find them standing out here.
This wasn’t the way I planned to spend the start of my birthday weekend. The air was cold around me. I’d been squinting for so long trying to screen out the brightness coming from the overhead neon lights that my head started to hurt. The strong smell of disinfectant made things worse. The walls were void of life. They made me miss colour. The muffled sounds of people’s feet rushing about outside kept me alert. Snippets of conversation. A word. A question never answered.
“Are the results ready for the Mr Lucas in room two?”
The sounds outside had waxed and waned but the predictable beep over my head reassured me that I was still here. Alive. I still didn’t know what happened exactly. The last couple of hours had been a bit of a blur. A nurse took my vitals and my blood, then I was taken away down the corridor for a view of my insides. But where did it all start? I remembered being scared. I still was to be honest. It’s not much fun waking up in cold sweat with the feeling that your heart might just break out of your chest and thirty minutes later still trying to pin it on a nightmare you can’t recall. The intensity of fear that had started to take hold, took me by surprise. It was so primal. The clammy cold sweat that clung to my skin made me shiver. Pins and needles in my arm and my heart racing frantically. The fear! I could still feel its hold. I shut my eyes tight trying to barricade my mind from this awful memory.
How I got downstairs and the taxi journey from Kingwood Road was still a bit hazy, but the thing I could recall was the expression on the driver’s face when I got in wearing my pyjamas. Like he had seen it all before. But then the lines on his face seemed to soften when he looked at the destination on the screen. He probably guessed that no-one went to Charing Cross’ to have fun. That one glimpse in the rear-view mirror was enough to see his concern as he sped up over an amber light turning the corner of St. Dunstan’s Road. I couldn’t hold his gaze for long. I didn’t want to talk. I wasn’t ready to deal with someone else’s concern; I had enough on with my own.
But here I was. In the best possible place. I felt exhausted. For a while now I hadn’t been prodded or disturbed, but no matter how much I tried to get into a comfortable position, it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t sleep. Every now and then the sticky pads fixed to my chest were tugging on my skin; the wires getting in the way. I had no idea how long I’d been waiting for or how much longer it would take for someone to come to my cubicle with some news, but I was ready. Ready for anything. Anything was better than nothing at that point. My mind was flowing freely conjuring up images of alternate possibilities. None of them particularly promising. I tried to stay calm, twirling the charm on my bracelet. The motions so automatic, tracing over the grooves of the pattern.
Memories flashed back from a long time ago. Another time, another hospital room smelling of disinfectant. I must have been about twelve, lying on a bed in Sarzana with my arm in a sling. My father by my side telling colourful tales to distract me. It was working. My mother was pacing anxiously. There was nothing that could distract her.
Today I really missed his level-headed optimism. His steady words full of life; how he could transport me out of that room into a world of wonder. But I was here now. Alone, cornered by these cold walls of reality and no-one to take me out of it. My throat tightened, the corners of my eyes prickled, and I swallowed the emotions before they could have their way. They couldn’t have it. Not for a long time. Not with me on guard. I got too good at it.
I continued to twirl the charm when footsteps stopped outside my cubicle. The curtain opened. I don’t know why but I expected dad to appear. Of course, it wasn’t him. That wasn’t possible anymore, but seeing Elliot there was the next best thing. His face was creased by lines of worry. Not an expression I saw often. I was more familiar with his lines of annoyance lately.
“Tash told me you were in here. Why didn’t you call or text?”
He came in and kissed me. I wanted to say it was good to see him, but instead I felt the urge to apologise. I didn’t know when this all started. Me feeling apprehensive about his reactions, but I knew it wasn’t always like that.
“Sorry. I knew you had a busy shift, and I didn’t exactly have time to think. I was in the safest hands here anyway. Besides, I still don’t know what’s wrong with me. I spoke to the nurse, and she said she’d ask the doctor to let you know I was in here,” I said finally.
“She did. You didn’t half scare me, Elena. What happened?”
“I don’t know. One minute I was asleep and the next my heart was pounding mad. I thought it was just a nightmare or something, but it wouldn’t go away. Then I started to have all these weird sensations. It was awful.”
I stopped. I could hear the monitor beeping faster.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re here now. I’m sure Tash will figure out what’s going on.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s ten to three in the morning.”
Just as Elliot answered, the curtain opened again, and Dr Bruce appeared with a pile of paperwork.
She doesn’t look too worried, I thought. That must be a good sign. If there was something awfully wrong, she’d look more concerned. Or maybe not. Doctors need a good poker face.
“What’s the verdict, Tash?” asked Elliot.
“Your pulse was quite high when you came in and your blood pressure slightly higher than I’d like for your age. But it had come down nicely since then. Your blood work is good. No obvious cause for concern there either. Your chest X-ray was clear too, so we could rule out a potential blood clot,” she said turning to me.
I felt slightly lighter, but I still couldn’t explain what had happened earlier.
“But why did I feel so awful then? I thought I was having a heart attack,” I said. Then soon regretted it. I’d realised it probably sounded a bit dramatic.
“We’ve ruled that out. There’s nothing in your results that would suggest an underlying condition. The most likely explanation is that you had a panic attack.”
“A panic attack!? But I was asleep when it happened.”
I was dumbfounded. Maybe I had a few anxieties. Who didn’t these days? But I was asleep when these symptoms came on. How could that be a panic attack? And why?
“I know it might seem unusual, but it can happen. Have you been under more stress lately? Has anything out of the ordinary happened?”
“No, I don’t think so. Just the usual stuff. Been feeling a bit run down in the last couple of days, but that’s all.”
“That’s not strictly true. You’ve been working a lot lately,” said Elliot.
“It’s just the normal pre-Christmas stuff. A bit busier than usual, but it’s not like it has never happened before and I was fine then.”
“Stress builds up over time and if we don’t address it, it can find a way out. And it usually happens not when you are busy rushing about, but once the adrenaline had worn off. Just try to take things easy for the next week or two. If it happens again, come straight back and we can run some more tests,” said Dr Bruce.
I was shocked but too tired to argue and since Elliot had finished his shift, I was glad he was there to take me home. Still, the idea that stress or the thoughts in my head could have caused me to feel like I was having a heart attack sounded preposterous.
We sat in the back of the taxi Elliot putting his hand on mine.
“Don’t worry. Tash said there was nothing major to be concerned about. You just need a bit of rest.”
I wanted to believe him. It was true, I had been a bit stressed about work lately. But I couldn’t shake the thought that something more might have been at play. I was too tired to think. I just wanted to go to bed.
“You better call Holly tomorrow and cancel your evening with her.”
This was the last thing on my mind, but I was looking forward to our girls night out.
“We’re only having dinner and a few drinks. That’s hardly stressful,” I said.
“Tash said to take things easy for now. You can celebrate in a couple of weeks. I’m sure she’ll understand. We can have a night in.”
“I thought you were working late again tomorrow.”
“I was, but I swapped with Eddie. Thought I could cook you something nice. Maybe I could make that vegan lasagne you like. Watch a movie?”
The vegan lasagne wasn’t my favourite, it was his. Dad would have been turning in his grave if he saw me eat that strange concoction, but I wasn’t going to nit-pick.
I knew there was no point arguing with Elliot. So, I said,
“Lasagne sounds great. I’ll call Holly tomorrow.”
I wish I could say that I was recharged over the weekend, but I felt far from it. I was meant to be celebrating my 26th birthday. Instead, I felt like an invalid. Begrudgingly, I cancelled my night out with Holly. I didn’t want to worry her, so I said I wasn’t feeling well and that we’d arrange something in the next few weeks. She was disappointed but she was more concerned about me. I think she knew something was up.
With Elliot insisting that I did very little around the flat over the weekend, I had heaps of time catching up on a couple of half-read books, pretending to watch war documentaries with him. They were interesting sure, but it wasn’t the kind of entertainment I really needed.
I had to cancel Sunday lunch with mum too. Elliot didn’t think it was a good idea for us to travel. I hadn’t been back to see her for over a month. This wasn’t unusual given the time of year, and I was due to visit in a few weeks anyway. So, I went along with his overprotective request. Not to worry mum too much, I told her I’ve had a bad cold, and I didn’t want to pass it on. I wish I could have been honest and told her what happened, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. She was always a worrier but since dad passed away, she had become even more protective of me. In any case, I didn’t really know what was going on with me.
The full-on panic may have subsided, but I still felt on edge. I chalked it up to being anxious that it might happen again. I didn’t want Elliot to know, so I tried to deal with things internally whilst putting on a show that everything was fine. Like a swan, my feet were frantically flapping under water whilst I glided gracefully over the surface. It was hard work at times, but we got to Monday in the end.
Elliot had to get back to the hospital and thankfully I could go back to work. I’d been working at Enigma for the past five years. After finishing my art degree, I felt a bit lost. For a brief moment I had the wild idea to follow in dad’s footsteps setting up my own studio, but I didn’t think I was good enough. I told myself it would have never worked. So, I got a job at Enigma, a creative and design agency as one of their junior creatives. I loved the job, the place, the people and I was soon given more responsibilities. My designs were often unconventional but Hannah, my manager, loved them and saw the potential in me. Eventually, I was promoted to be one of their Lead Creatives and given one of my own clients and my list grew from there. Lately, Hannah had been talking about the next step, to take the role of Head of Creative, but I didn’t think I had what it took to do the job well and Elliot thought it would cause me too much stress, so I told Hannah I wasn’t ready.
“I think you’re brilliant, El! You’ve got a talent that not many people have in this industry. You need to believe in yourself more.”
I knew she had a point. Somewhere along the way I stopped believing that I could create things that were special. I knew I needed to work on this, but I didn’t know how. So, I stayed at a level I was comfortable at. It was only meant to be temporary whilst I worked things out, but as time passed it got harder and harder to move forward.
It was promising to be a busy day with creative and project meetings; the distraction I needed. Dan was even more dramatic than usual for a Monday morning. Shortly before the first catch-up of the day, his voice elevated to an uncomfortably high pitch, he mostly reserved for emergencies.
“It’s a disaster, El! I’m telling you; heads will fall this morning and one of them will be mine!”
“Dan, you’re not making any sense. What disaster are you talking about?”
“The decorations that were supposed to be delivered for the window display this morning.”
“And? Have they not arrived?”
“I wish they hadn’t! They were here at seven. I came in early to check on them. Most of them are unusable! Now the display will look nothing like the plans, and it’s all my fault!”
“What do you mean they’re unusable? What happened to them?” I asked with increasing concern. This was the first year that Hannah had left me in charge of designing and creating the store window display for an important client. Olivier Dunn was one of the biggest new names in fashion and everyone had waited to see their winter collection displayed in their flagship store window on Oxford Street. If this didn’t go to plan it wouldn’t just be Dan’s head on the line, but mine too.
“They are all broken! Smashed to pieces!” he replied.
“How did that happen? Didn’t they stamp them fragile?”
“I forgot to add the comments on the order when I booked the transport. I was rushing about and now everything’s ruined! I’m so sorry, El.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I said, trying to calm my own anxiety as much as his. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“You haven’t seen them! It’s bauble carnage!”
“Alright, alright. Just calm down. We still got time to go down and check on them. We might be able to salvage some and make some adjustments to the display.”
We’d made our way to the storage room where Dan revealed the extent of the alleged carnage. At first it didn’t look too bad but opening more of the boxes I could soon see why he was flapping about.
“It’s worse than what I remembered them to be. I might as well pack up my desk and leave.”
“Stop thinking of the worst, Dan. It’s not ideal but let me think for a minute. I’m sure we can do something.”
“But I don’t think…”
“Shh! Let me think,” I said.
Dan’s arms had stopped flailing mid-air and I started to rummage through the shelves. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for exactly, but I’d hoped I’d know when I saw it. The centrepiece of the display was a large carousel made out of specially designed paper. It was so sturdy it almost looked as though it was constructed of wood. In a box on one of the top shelves I’d found some large white polystyrene balls left from another display a few months back. An idea started to take shape in my head. I gathered a few more boxes. I could see Dan was really struggling to keep quiet, so I’d decided to put him out of his misery before all the pent-up frustration was going to burst him open.
“I think I’ve got an idea.”
“Please, do tell!”
“We’ve got to go. The meeting is about to start. I’ll tell you the plan on the way up.”
“Fine, but I hope your plan doesn’t involve me doing anything too artsy. I’m not very good when it comes to creating art. It might end up looking like my year two art project and let me tell you that wasn’t a pretty sight. Even my mother struggled to convince my father to hang it in the hallway.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll tell you exactly what to do and it will look great. I promise. But we better get going now.”
I couldn’t be sure my plan was going to work, but it was our best option. Dan was nervous as it was so I couldn’t give my doubts away. Worried that another panic attack might loom large if I didn’t keep things under control, I told myself it would be alright. I needed to believe it as much as I needed to convince Dan.
I got busy sketching as the meeting got underway and tried to keep my doodling under wraps as much as I could. By the time it came around to discussing the progress on the display, I had a rough draft ready to go. Dan nodded along in agreement, and I sounded convincing enough about this new plan. The mad rush of the season likely worked in our favour as Hannah was surprisingly easy to get on side.
“I like it,” said Hannah. “It’s bold, it’s different. I’m happy to give the go ahead as long as there are no changes to the budget, and you don’t run over the deadline.”
“There won’t be any extra cost or delays,” I said.
“I can’t believe you’ve pulled this off, El! You’re a genius! I would have never thought of using the shattered pieces,” said Dan as the others left the room.
“We haven’t actually pulled it off yet, but I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
We’d agreed to start work at four and I managed to convince a couple of other people to help us out. The storage room felt dark, and a bit crammed with everyone in, so we took the supplies to one of the empty meeting rooms. I left Cami and Dan in charge of assembling one element of the display with strict instructions on colours and I started to work on the large polystyrene balls.
I scanned the colours on the small black tubes of paint planning which ones to mix. The metallic yellow and purple ones were a definite match as were the green and orange ones. I looked for the mixing palette and picked up the widest brush I could find.
Something felt so natural, but yet alien at the same time as I held it between my fingers. It had been a long time since I held a paintbrush in my hand. With everything going on I made less and less time for painting. It slowly faded away and with Elliot’s hypersensitivity to the smell, my art supplies had been gathering dust in a box under the bed. I always loved the familiar smell of acrylic paint. The memories attached to it; found it strangely comforting. As I lifted the brush and mixed the colours I wondered if I still had it. If I could create something beautiful that spoke to others. I didn’t feel confident, but I’d let my instincts guide my hand. I knew it wasn’t only Dan’s head on the line, it was my reputation too.
“You’ve got this,” I whispered.
This has loads of promise. The mystery of the panic attack/illness leaves me wanting more. And there is some super prose. 'Bauble carnage' -love it!
Thank you Nikki!
In reply to Great characterisation! by Nikki Vallance
Thank you Nikki!
Thank you Nikki!
Thank you Nikki!