‘The present is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands’ – Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
She sits, mug of tea cupped in her hands, and observes. She knows that she is in her home, and that she lives there with her family, but she does not remember their faces, or how she came to be here.
The voice comes from the speaker. ‘Live in the moment.’ She breathes in. Breathes out. Centres herself. Forgets that the speaker is there.
Her children come down the stairs – she knows, now, that there are stairs just outside of the kitchen, but it is something, she realises, that she did not know before this moment. Or maybe she did, and she simply forgot. Everything before this moment seems so cloudy in her mind. She leaves her mug of tea to make her children breakfast, and as soon as her back is turned, it disappears from her mind, as do her children’s faces. Her task remains in mind, and she wonders as she puts the bread in the toaster whether she has ever done this before. She certainly can’t remember doing it if she has.
She has a husband, she knows that for a fact. But she does not remember any of his individualities at all. Why did she marry him? She feels a strange claw grip in her lower abdomen as she realises she does not know where he is.
Her phone screen lights up.
The message on the screen reads ‘Greg’ in bold letters, underneath that, ‘Thinking of you, have a good day xx’.
Of course, her husband is Greg. He has a job. He is at his job. She remembers, although she still has no idea what his job is. Or who he is.
Her children soon leave the house, and she is left with a cold mug of tea wondering what they look like.
The speaker comes on again. ‘Breathe in. Breathe out. Live in the moment.’
She does as she’s told, forgetting the momentary fear about a stranger instructing her movements. As she hoovers the house, she wonders how the mirror got to be on the wall, or how the violet stain came to be so ingrained into the carpet. All her brain comes up with is that it does not matter, but she finds herself unable to stifle the worry. How did she even get to be in this house?
The doorbell’s sharp trill interrupts her thoughts. She turns off the hoover and abandons it.
The silhouette of the man on the other side of the door is visible through the frosted glass. She has a fleeting thought that it could be her husband, but despite still not remembering what he looks like, she knows that this man is not him. A feeling curls its way into her stomach, making her feel nauseous and clammy. She pushes it away and opens the door.
She recognises the man in a blurry sense. He wears a clearly expensive suit, his hair is very carefully styled, his face full of the tell-tale plump that only botox provides. She takes this all in whilst resisting an incredibly strong urge to slam the door in his face and lock herself in. She cannot recall why she feels that way, so she simply stands.
‘Hello, how are you feeling today?’ His voice carries a smooth control that only increases her panic.
‘Confused.’ Something within her tells her that this man knows why she feels this way. And how to stop it. But he simply offers his hand to her.
‘Come with me, I will help you.’
Every part of her screams against it, but she takes his hand and steps out of the house nonetheless. ‘I am still in my slippers!’ she says, suddenly embarrassed.
The man only smiles at her. ‘So you are. Would you like to change into shoes?’
She can sense that it is not a question, but nods anyway. She takes a step backwards, releasing the man’s hand and looking for a pair of shoes that are hers. She slips into a pair, leaving her slippers neatly in a gap.
The speaker fires up again. ‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ She obeys.
The man has not moved when she turns back to him, and he proffers his hand again. She takes it, and steps out, squinting at the bright light.
‘Where are we going?’ she asks. She knows there is something wrong with the question before he turns to her with a patronising smile.
‘Do not worry about where we are going. You have been there many times before. Just live in the moment. Appreciate the world.’ He turns away from her as he says this, and does not look at her again. Not as he opens the door to the back of the car, not a glance in the rear-view mirror as he gets in and locks the doors, not as he drives her through winding streets, not even as he opens the door to let her out of the car. He stands aside, lets her climb out and take in her surroundings before closing the door and walking away. She has no choice but to follow him.
‘In here please.’ He steps aside and lets her through a metal door into one of the giant concrete bricks that make up the surrounding landscape.
Flashes of memory come to her now. She knows that she has been here before, she knows that when she left here she never wanted to come back. She knows that there is no turning back now.
Two people wearing all white suits walk up to her, one moving behind her and restraining her arms, the other facing her, wearing a smile.
‘Hello again. I hear you are having some trouble. Are you ready to feel better again?’ The woman standing in front of her is blank faced, talking to her as if she is senile.
‘What are you going to do to me?’ she whispers.
‘Do not worry, you will feel better soon. Come with me now, it will make everything so much easier.’
She does not move. A sharp push in the base of her spine forces her to move, and she realises the person behind her is pushing her forwards, through this empty room, towards the next door. If she thinks about it, she can remember what the person behind her looks like, the way their white suit hangs off their tiny frame, their bleached white hair that perfectly matches the colour of their suit.
She struggles in a vain attempt to get herself free. The grip on her only tightens.
‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ The voice stills her, its presence in her ear unexpectedly restrictive. She tries to fight the urge to obey, but all she manages to do is make her breath shake.
She is forced down on to a reclined chair and strapped in at her wrists, chest, and ankles. The two white suits leave the room, and a woman in a lab coat walks in.
‘Hello, Lisa, is it? I’m Georgia.’
Her breath quickens. Is that her name? It sounds right, but how can it be? How can she not remember her own name?
Georgia looks confused. ‘You don’t remember?’
She does not give her an answer. ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ she whispers, ‘I want to remember. I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Her cheeks are wet. Georgia looks at her in shock and offers her a tissue before realising the restraints that encircle her arms. Georgia dabs at her cheeks.
‘It’ll make you feel better, I promise.’ Georgia does not sound as sure as her colleagues.
She is not sure of her memories, but she knows that she has not seen this woman before. She only shakes her head and turns away.
‘Right, the first step, here we go.’
The liquid in the syringe is unnaturally blue, and the fear escalates as it is pushed into her veins. She gasps as vivid memories flood back into her mind, straining against the straps as visions of her family dance behind her eyes. Her name is Lisa. She is thirty-six. She has been married for ten years. ‘Please,’ she gasps out, ‘Please, no more.’
‘Are you in pain?’ Georgia halts the rest of her preparation.
‘No, I remember. I remember everything.’ Her cheeks are wet again. ‘Please don’t take this away from me, please.’
Georgia hesitates. ‘It will make you feel better.’ She sounds as if she is convincing herself more than anyone else.
Lisa shakes her head. ‘No, it won’t, I’m sure of that, please, let me live.’
‘I have to do my job. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be, we know what’s best for you.’
‘How can you say that when I have no idea who the people I love are unless they are sitting right in front of me?’ Lisa knows she is winning even as her voice shakes – none of the doctors she has met have ever let her talk this much.
‘That is one of the unfortunate side effects of the cure…’
‘Cure? This is torture!’
Georgia breaks. She puts her head in her hands and begins to cry, at which point two others walk into the room. They push past her, pick up the syringe and inject step two into Lisa’s arm as she screams.
A week later, sat at home, she receives a letter that simply reads,
I am so sorry. I will try to fix this.
She does not know who Georgia is, or what she is apologising for, but she feels bizarrely content.