I was thirteen years, four months and twenty-three days old on the day the hotel fell into the sea. I watched it on the television from my hospital bed. This, I still remember. Snippets, at least.
I’d have liked to see it fall in real life, in real time, perhaps watching from the beach or the cliff paths, like my schoolfriends did. Everything I’ve seen is from videos, photographs and newspapers. Then again, if you have to lose your memory, what a day for it! News unspooling, minute-by-minute, local, then before long, national. Obviously, the hotel’s fate had nothing to do with mine but, still, it’s helpful to have an anchor to history. Now and again I watch the hotel’s collapse on DVD. When the chimney peels off the side of the building, it’s like slow-motion. As though you could have stopped it with a button. From the front, the hotel is fraying, joists pointing to the sky; it’s trapped in the act of collapse.
You can visit, but there’s nothing there now – just a view, a scrubby cliff, and an information board marking that day: 6 June 1993, a Friday. I go every year and scan the facts – the hard rock and the soft rock, the timescales, the timeline. Some blamed the sea; others said soil creep. Each sixth of June, I read the commemorative plaque like it’s the first time, although it always rings a bell somewhere, muffled or distant.
Unlike the hotel, I can’t say my memory disintegrated, splintered or collapsed. Buried, perhaps. Word shadows hover on the tip of my tongue. There are sinkholes in my past. For years, I’d wake in the early hours, thinking I’d heard something roll from the bed onto the floor, as though my memory were an actual mass. I named the noise headfall: deft like footfall, but denser.
Six weeks before the hotel fell, cracks had appeared in the road, it was reported. The council filled them in, but they kept coming back. I often wonder about the rats. Did they scurry down the crannied camber of the road the night before, ahead of the first fissure on that blue June day? Were there cracks already inside the hotel, little warning lines riddling across the walls? Did gaps begin to wedge between architraves and walls?
‘Can you feel it?’ I say to Michael. My hair falls forward as I walk my fingertips across the healed-up line in my skull, like a dry stream.
‘The dent, just here.’
‘You’ve asked me before.’
My husband is marking essays at the dining table. He doesn’t move his hand towards my bowed head, or look at me. I straighten slowly, but the headrush comes anyway. The pain blinding, sun on ice. I focus on the wall, on the photos: one of us before we were married, and a framed picture, snipped from a magazine, of the hotel, mid-collapse. If you look closely, you can see paintings on the wall in half a remaining room.
My head hurts each sixth of June. Michael says it’s ridiculous. I’m ridiculous. He’d like to say crazy but stops short. The ache starts before I wake in the morning, and then thuds against my skull with every step up to the ghost plot where the hotel used to sit. By the time I arrive back at the flat, I can hardly see.
‘Have we got any paracetamol?’
‘In the cupboard.’
I peer at the array of cupboards. Once, I’d suggested we paint each one a different colour. I thought it might help, but Michael just laughed, as if I was funny. I start to open and close the cupboard doors.
‘Next to the fridge,’ he says, without looking up. ‘Top shelf.’ He swaps his red pen for green. ‘You know, you give yourself a headache. You don’t have to go and stand up there every single year, like it’s a weird pilgrimage. A hotel graveyard with nothing to see. It’s psychosomatic.’
‘So?’ I crack the pills from the packet. ‘It still hurts.’
They keep me in hospital for two days. I don’t know my parents or my sister. I don’t know my name or my school. I don’t know how old I am, what food I hate or where I got the scar on my elbow. When someone brings me a mirror, I’m terrified and curious. I have freckles and pale lips. I look nothing like my sister, whose name keeps jamming somewhere in my head I can’t get to.
There’s been a lot of rain, the nurse tells me as we watch the television. The hotel is 120 years old and full of unrescued antiques. I try not to cry, but the trying turns fiery behind my ribs. The hotel’s owners sit on the grass nearby and watch it go. Bricks and cushions. Beams and teapots. My mum thinks I’m crying about me. But I can’t cry about me, when I don’t even know me. There’s nothing to cry about, because there’s nothing.
I pour a glass of wine from the bottle I must have opened yesterday. Michael doesn’t drink red; that information has stuck, it has a pathway. He leans back in his chair, rolling his pens back and forth across the table, under his palm.
‘I was looking at your records the other day,’ he says, as if we are picking up from a recently interrupted conversation.
‘Back in ’93.’ He slips the year out, as though he keeps it under his tongue. ‘Hospital records.’
‘Oh? You were in my scrapbook? What were you looking for?’
‘Not looking for anything. Just curious. It’s a bit strange to keep your medical notes in that binder, isn’t it? With all those newspaper cuttings. Not the place for important information.’
‘If you say so. Makes sense to me.’
I’m sitting on a grubby, round rug in the lounge, in front of a fire that never seems to be on, when Mum arrives home. She always looks confused. Like it’s her trying to remember something, not me.
‘I’ve got your medical notes. Copies, anyway. I thought maybe we could get a second opinion. Or something.’ She holds the sheaf of papers in both hands.
‘Can I see them?’ I ask. I fan them out and shuffle them back together. They smell of hospital. I punch holes and slide the sheets onto the ringbinder’s silver clasps.
‘There was no bleeding in your brain,’ Michael says. ‘Nothing to show memory loss.’
The smell of the wine feeds my headache. ‘I know that. Unexplained amnesia.’
‘You knew? I assumed it was a proper brain injury.’ There’s a look on his face, embarrassment at the pleasure he feels in being shitty.
‘The brain’s complicated. Concussion can cause memory loss. They think maybe trauma changes the brain’s chemical structure.’
‘It’s just…’ Michael makes a noise that starts in his throat and comes out of his nose, like a fusion of pleasure and pain. ‘It’s just seems a bit pick-and-mix, what you remember.’
‘You can’t remember anything before you were thirteen? Nothing until the accident.’ He stares past me as though his gaze needs adjusting. He injects the word accident with doubt.
‘Nothing.’ My voice cracks. I had loved Michael for his solid conviction, belief, absence of doubt. This erosion is new.
‘No Christmases, no birthdays, no school plays, visiting your grandma. Nothing?’
‘Nothing before June ’93. And since then – well… You say you don’t remember our wedding day. But you remember my brother’s. Christ, you don’t even remember your own dad’s funeral, but you cry about some dog in the flat downstairs.’
‘I can’t choose what sticks and what doesn’t. Look, I’m sorry. I feel awful I can’t remember our wedding. It’s why I keep the scrapbooks.’
Sometimes I watch our wedding DVD. I seem to be having a nice time. I pause at the vows, rewind and replay. For better. For worse. Better. Worse. I remember planning it – parts anyway. Choosing yellow ribbon, yellow flowers. Yellow in winter. Michael had insisted on a winter wedding; I know that.
‘The scrapbooks.’ His slow, tired teacher-to-child tone. ‘You’ll have to do something about them,’ he says. ‘Have you seen the spare room?’
I drain my wine glass. ‘Has my mum called?’
He folds his arms, tightening his upper body into a rectangle. ‘Yes. Of course she did. She left a message, asking you to call home.’ His voice is too big for the flat, too loud for my head. He points down the hall. ‘It’s a bloody disgrace, Kirsty, all those boxes and binders and paper on the floor – your scrapbooks. It’s all pointless.’
Michael massages his hair, front to back, as though trying to tame himself. ‘It wasn’t what that room was supposed to be for…’
‘Michael, I know.’
‘You know what I know? There was no accident.’
A fuse of pain whips behind my ear and down the back of my head. I close my eyes, trying not to let the empty wine glass slip.
I wake; Mum is smiling like she has some news to break. ‘You’re coming home, love.’
‘Home? With you?’
‘Of course, with me. With us.’
‘That’s good. I’m looking forward to going home.’
Mum pats my hand. ‘Super. Your dad will be up in a minute.’
She fishes in her pocket. ‘Thought I’d bring a photo. Of the house.’ The white hospital light shatters on the photograph’s gloss surface and sets my brain ablaze. I pull the bedsheets over my head and examine the picture in the dark. There are three houses, but I don’t know which one’s ours.
I wriggle out from the covers. ‘Can I keep the photo?’
‘Course you can, love.’
I lean over the side of the bed and tuck the photograph into a plastic bag, among the two-days’ worth of newspapers. Mum dabs each eye with the cuff of her blouse.
‘Can we drive home past the hotel? The one that’s gone into the sea?’
‘Oh. I don’t think so. The road will be closed, I expect. And your dad won’t want to do a detour.’
‘Of course there was an accident,’ I say. I am sitting on the sofa, but I don’t recall getting there.
‘I’ve asked around.’
‘You’ve done what?’
‘The hospital couldn’t find anything wrong with you. That’s all in your notes.’
‘That’s not what the doctors said.’
‘I found your teacher.’ Michael crouches in front of me and grins like a child claiming a prize. He takes my wine glass and places it on the coffee table. ‘Look, Kirst, I’m sorry, but it needs saying. I found Mrs Lawlor – your teacher. She said nobody saw anything happen.’
‘But there was an accident slip – the school filled one in. I kept a copy.’ I push myself up from the sofa. ‘Hang on – it’s in the file—’
‘They had to fill one in, because they found you on the ground, but no one saw anything. Kirsty…’ He perches next to me. ‘I spoke to your friend Harriet too. She was with you that lunchtime at school, and she also said nothing happened.’
I feel for the little track on the surface of my skull. ‘You’re wrong. Feel—’ I grab his hand and pull it towards my head, but he draws away as if my touch is voltage.
‘I’ve felt it, Kirsty. There’s nothing there.’
My vision has gone now. I picture velvet: smoothing down the velvet. Always with the grain.
‘Michael…’ I cover my eyes with my hands to make it even darker. ‘Have you said all this to me before?’
‘Goddamn, Kirsty.’ He slams his palm on the table and the sound turns my brain to lava.
I lie on my side, on our sofa, cheek against velvet. Velour, Mum calls it. I run my finger up and down the fabric, close to my eyes. Light, silvery brown this way, with the grain, dark brown back again, against.
My dad stands in the doorway, straddling the space. ‘You had us worried for a bit there, Kirsty.’
‘You really can’t remember anything?’
My finger slides across the pile of the velvet. ‘Nothing.’
‘Nothing at all? Not the last two years?’
‘Nothing. Where’s Mum?’
‘She’s at work. She works nights on a Monday.’
He looks at me, as though he’s about to say something else. He kneels down next to the sofa, close enough to whisper. ‘Would you like a hot chocolate?’
And his breath is closer than memory, and I remember I’m only thirteen.
He flicks the TV on as he heads for the kitchen. The hotel has mostly gone now, says the news. Crashed and slipped away.
The flat is quiet with only me in it. Kneeling in the dust on the carpet in the spare room, I extract a folder from its pile: 1995. Two years after the landslip. It’s mostly cuttings – Barings Bank, John Major, the hot, hot summer, a page from Smash Hits, photos of friends who moved away. And, at the back, a neat list of dates and family names. The foot of the paper is snipped into little slips, ready to be torn off one by one. On each section is written an address – our address: Mum’s way of making sure I always made it home. Every pocket of every item of clothing contained one of these folded scraps. I rip one off and fold it into my palm. In the hall I reach for my keys, then pause, leaving them dangling on the hook under the name ‘Kirsty’, burnt onto wood.
It’s a short walk down to the grass promontory. The wind hustles and gusts me; I should have worn my coat. I head for the even rim of rocks that seem to pin the grass in place, keeping it from the North Sea. At the very edge, I turn to face the cliffs, my back to the ocean. My eyes are drawn to the flat; seagulls scrawl across the sky above it. I kneel down and close my eyes, listening to the yakking birds and the hungry waves. The grass is short, stubbly, its growth stunted by the salt and cold and wind. You’d never know that this was once landslip. You had to know the history to know where you were.
When I open my eyes, I’m not sure how many minutes have passed. The birds still call and scrawl. The June air is still sharp, coastal and familiar. My fingers pull a piece of paper from my pocket. It’s old and lined, the writing distantly familiar. It rests in the palm of my hand for a second, before a breeze steals it, dancing it across the grass, over the rocks and beyond, where it is swallowed by the waves. I turn from the cold North Sea and start to walk. Where the path forks, I take the one that leads home.
Johanna Robinson’s short fiction has recently featured in magazines such as SmokeLong and Mslexia. Earlier this year she won the TSS Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction, and in 2019 her novella Homing, set in Norway in WWII, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction. More of her work can be found at www.johanna-robinson.com.
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