Pam followed Mrs. Davis out of the hospital and onto a covered drive, the air dank and heady with fumes, no improvement over the antiseptic stuffiness inside. Close to Pam’s feet, a scabby gray bird hobbled, pecking at flecks embedded in the grimy hardscape. One of the bird’s legs terminated in a bulbous, bright red stump.
They skirted both the bird and a white vehicle labeled “ambulance” and continued across the pavement. Pam trotted close behind Mrs. Davis, taking in the vehicles—too many vehicles, some motionless and arrayed in rows on lined tarmac, others zipping along a road in the distance. A cluster of low buildings hunkered across the street. The late afternoon sun hovered above treetops, a yellow-green slash in a leaden cloud bank. The scene was too humdrum for a hallucination.
Bearings, facts to latch on to, that’s what Pam needed. The doctor hadn’t mentioned the town’s name when she’d failed the “oriented to place” question. She should’ve asked. The hospital’s facade offered no hints, slabs of drab concrete, rectangles of glass rimmed in black, the signage vague and unhelpful: “Regional Medical Centre.”
Mrs. Davis, hands on hips, stood ahead. “Don’t dally. I’ve lost most of my day. Wouldn’t mind being home before bedtime.” She'd used the same tone all day: brusque, efficient, a dash of irritation. Still hard to believe this woman was her mother-in-law.
The ringing in Pam’s ears coalesced into grousing murmurs as if the noise had decided it didn’t care for Mrs. Davis. The doctor couldn’t explain this “tinnitus” either which amplified until her steps became unsteady. She caught her balance on a weathered maroon vehicle.
How could the medical exam have found nothing? Then again, the hospital had seemed backwards, its clunky equipment, and the endless paper forms, not to mention the absurd behavior of the doctor. He hadn’t asked once for consent and had discussed her condition with Mrs. Davis, right over her prone but conscious form, as if Pam had been a mottled corpse on a slab. And the euphemisms he’d used, “interfered with” and “hysterical conversion reaction,” had seemed quaint but vaguely insulting. Not that she’d complained; no need to alienate an authority figure in an unfamiliar place. Much wiser to smile and nod while backing slowly toward the door.
A film of sticky sweat coated Pam’s skin by the time they halted at a small brown vehicle. While Mrs. Davis searched inside her purse, Pam leaned against the small squarish vehicle. Protrusions, sticks, and levers surrounded the front seat. Beneath a transparent shield, a wheel, a panel of gauges and indicators—
“Pamela, the doctor said you shouldn’t drive.” Pam jumped. The older woman’s tone suggested misbehavior.
“Yes, of course.” She nodded and bowed gently at the waist, hoping to convey a willingness to assist or follow direction.
Mrs. Davis snapped her purse shut, a ring of metal pieces dangling from her fingers. A bell-like tinkle sounded when they jangled together. “It’s the other way around here.”
Mrs. Davis frowned. “No more games, young lady. I’ve wasted enough time on your nonsense. Go ’round to the other side.” She opened her door and flung herself onto the seat.
Pam darted to the opposite door and flipped the handle several times. Thwack, thwack, metal against metal; useless. Mrs. Davis reached over and pulled up a diminutive knob on a ledge beneath the window then glared at Pam through the glass.
A poof of air smelling of sunbaked disintegration filled Pam’s nose when she plopped onto the seat. Cracked upholstery snagged her dress and pinched her thighs. The safety harness must be somewhere. She searched every nook and cranny to no avail. Time to ask, but Mrs. Davis appeared deep in study, a multicolored paper covered with squiggly lines and letters spread over the wheel. The woman folded the paper. Pam hazarded the question.
“Excuse me. I can’t locate the harness.”
“Do you mean the belt? The belt broke ages ago.”
Mrs. Davis, grumbling about Americans and their butchery of the language, inserted the paper into a compartment above Pam’s knees and shut the lid with a sharp and final slap, then began an intricate series of movements, almost a stationary ballet, her arms and legs shoving, pressing, lifting, rotating. The odd motions could only mean one thing.
“You’re operating the vehicle manually?” Pam asked.
“My motor-car? You know I wouldn’t trust an automatic transmission, even if I could afford one.”
“Ah.” Pam bobbed her head politely, unsure of the word “transmission” in this context. “I applaud your independent spirit.”
“Enough of your foolishness.” Mrs. Davis drew her lips into a firm line and maneuvered the vehicle…motor-car onto the road, then onto an immense boulevard carrying a chugging convoy. Pam gasped at the spectacle.
“Lovely. The evening commute, topping off a perfect day.”
Despite the words “lovely” and “perfect,” Mrs. Davis sounded cross. “There’s safety in numbers,” Pam said, hoping to comfort her companion. Mrs. Davis deepened the lines around her mouth in reply. A large rectangular vehicle in front belched a torrent of black fumes. An acrid stench filled the motor-car. Pam’s nostrils curled, and she plugged her nose.
“Every young fool smokes marijuana and LSD. No concern for health or safety. No thought for the future.” Mrs. Davis glared out the glass in front.
“Oh?” Several of the woman’s words were unfamiliar. Did “smoking” refer to the vehicle ahead?
Mrs. Davis shifted the lever between them. “You two and the irresponsible life you lead.”
Presumably, this statement related to the last about young fools, both likely fragments of an extended rumination. Pam couldn’t discern Mrs. Davis’s meaning; she lacked context and several nouns. Regardless, Mrs. Davis’s attitude towards her felt…wrong. Despite the buzzing in her head, despite Mrs. Davis’s scorn, despite the gaping memory void, underneath it all was herself, Pam, responsible and kind, who wanted to help, be useful, to serve the needs of the many.
Pam's intracranial noise rumbled, not a pleasant sound like breaking waves, more like an ill-tempered, grinding machine. Her stomach rolled, and she clutched the armrest.
If she mentioned the noise, Mrs. Davis might return her to that archaic hospital. She squeezed her lips shut and turned to hide her face. A child in the motor-car adjacent stared then stuck out his tongue. Her vision wavered and swam. She shut her eyes.
The glass pressed smooth and cool on her cheek. Somewhere, somebody must care for her. Pam’s head bobbed, and her thoughts drifted off track.
She woke as they pulled from the caravan onto a lonesome conduit wheebling through darkening countryside. Hedges cast long shadows over deep green pastures; agricultural land, hence uninhabited. Why were they traveling out here? Lights appeared in front, spotlights illuminating the road ahead. Two lonely splotches of light in this dusky expanse, wandering, wandering just like her. Except she was mentally off-kilter and traveling to places unknown with a somewhat hostile person.
She sat up straight, folded her hands in her lap, and double wrapped her legs, hooking ankle around ankle, the flexibility a pleasant surprise. “Excuse me. Might I ask, where are we going?”
“To the address Martin gave me last week, hoping I'd forward his miniscule royalty check. Quite the address, given his lack of gainful employment.”
Martin? Pam’s spine snapped straight, and her fingers tingled. Finally, something familiar. Martin. She knew the name Martin, and she knew something else: Martin was mission critical. “Martin! I know that name."
“You should. He’s your husband, and you’re his mis—responsibility. Would’ve been nice if he’d answered the phone today.”
Oh, dear. The woman had sounded peevish. “I can’t fully express my gratitude for your help at the hospital and with the transport.” Mrs. Davis shot her a quick sideways glance and bunched her eyebrows, Pam’s gesture of goodwill rejected. A tense silence stretched between them.
In a village, Mrs. Davis pulled over to the road’s edge, switched on an overhead lamp, and consulted her map. Pam peeked over her shoulder, reading strange words in the yellow circle of light: Much Hadham, Sawbridgeworth, Thaxted; place names dotting a map.
“The gin and Jaguar belt.” Mrs. Davis sniffed loudly and folded her map.
They bumped forward over a primitive road into a neighborhood of substantial homes sheltered behind bulky hedges and low stone walls, then turned into the drive of a large brick building outlined in stone. Intermittent flashes of light in one set of windows and the two vehicles—no, motor-cars—the word was motor-cars. Anyway, the motor-cars parked in the drive suggested somebody was at home.
What now? Should she flee Mrs. Davis’s disapproval and run off into the deepening shadows? And what of djinns, daggers and belts? A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed. “Thanks again for your help.”
“Lucky my number was in my handbag, wasn’t it?” Mrs. Davis waved her hand twice toward Pam’s lap.
The bag, a shiny pink rhomboid, lay across her thighs. “Is this yours?” A cheery young nurse had passed it to her along with this foolishly short skirt and glossy red underwear.
“I noticed it missing after the last time you two came by.”
Was Mrs. Davis accusing her of stealing? Memory loss or not, she was no thief. “The nurse must have made a mistake. Please. I’m sure...I wouldn’t… I’ll empty it and give it back.” Hands trembling, she opened the bag, swept the contents to one end, then tugged at her shirt, planning to yank it out of her waistband and use it as a basket.
Mrs. Davis held up a hand, palm flat. “Don’t bother. It never suited me, so I won’t miss it. I must say, you’re coiled tightly in your jar. If you’re putting on an act, you needn’t bother.”
Pam wasn’t acting; she couldn’t remember a thing, and her brain buzzed and clattered. Rubble and rust. She cleared a tremor from her voice. “I’m not pretending. I promise. Something is wrong.”
“The doctor found nothing wrong. And he said, ‘complete amnesia only happens in films.’ You’re playing a foolish game, and I’m not having it.”
“But I’m not.” Pam tucked in her lips and dropped her eyes. Her rested in her lap, nails chewed to the quick as if she’d been under enormous stress. Willing herself to be brave and prudent and ignoring the inner rampage which now sounded like garbled cursing, she composed her face and looked up. “Stress. The doctor asked about stress. I remember Martin’s name. I’m supposed to find him, but I don’t remember much else. He’s not stressful. Is he?”
Mrs. Davis laughed, a sudden barking sound that hopped Pam off her seat. “Martin? Oh yes, Martin’s stressful, but it’s hard to imagine much stress in such a posh neighborhood.”
“Is he violent?”
“Selfish, addle-brained, unrealistic, but violent? Good Lord, no! Couldn’t work up the energy for violence, that one. You’ve seemed capable of violence from time to time, but thank goodness, you were born small and female. Now, it’s been a long day, and I must be off.”
Pam glanced at the house; most of the windows were dark and the steps to the porch were falling into shadow, no welcoming lamp, nobody bounding out to meet them. Her throat contracted, and she blinked back tears. Perhaps Mrs. Davis had just sounded slightly more companionable. “But…I don’t know what to do. It’s dusk, and we’re on the edge of this settlement.”
The row of lines reappeared between Mrs. Davis’s eyebrows. Pam didn’t flinch under the woman’s steely gaze and hoped her face looked beseeching but not pathetic.
“I’ll see you to the door, but you’ll manage Martin on your own. I don’t need the aggravation. I’m already expecting his bored slouch and that eye-roll.”
Mrs. Davis disembarked without hesitation. Pam followed suit, crunching across gravel and past a sizable and graceful motor-car, its design a symphony of gently rounded forms, then past a boxy little number with a dent over one wheel. A chill wind swayed the trees, now masses of bluish gray. Pam hugged herself and picked up her pace. Mrs. Davis was already at the porch stair. Since when had she needed to jog to keep up?
After an awkward moment before the high and broad front door, Mrs. Davis grimaced. “It just occurred to me that this address might be an unpleasant joke or a flight of fancy. Wouldn’t be the first. Pamela, do you have a key?”
A key. Pam brushed her hand alongside the door jamb, expecting…something, but the wood was smooth and solid.
“In my former handbag.”
“Ah, sorry.” Key must mean something other than expected. But what did she expect? Pam grappled with the word “key,” finding only blank spaces, abandoned rooms, and empty drawers. She fished around in the purse. What was this? A leather packet? Word-like gibbering: stupid, hurry, go, jumbled her thoughts.
Mrs. Davis’s eyes bored down on Pam’s efforts. “I doubt your keys fell into your wallet.”
Pam dropped the packet, and with a jangle extracted a ring bearing two metal slats, like the ones Mrs. Davis had jingled while standing by her motor-car. Were these keys? She could probably bend this lightweight, bright silver one with her teeth. The other was larger, heavy, brass colored and ornate, a carved pattern on the flanges. “This one.” Pam displayed the larger, which seemed more in keeping with the door. Mrs. Davis didn’t sneer. What next?
Pam startled at the word, spoken clear as ice and clean as jade. She fought an impulse to check her back. Was that breath on her neck or just the wind? Mrs. Davis must have sensed Pam’s hesitation. “The keyhole, just below the knob.”
Given her mother-in-law’s casual reaction, nothing lurked behind Pam. She’d misheard, thanks to the tinnitus. The last remnants of daylight were rapidly fading. Pam bent and fumbled beneath the knob; a hole. Genius! The key slotted into place. She stood back and waited, hugging herself against the cold. A chill breeze wrapped around her legs.
“Are you planning to turn it?” Mrs. Davis tapped a finger on her forearm.
Pam worked the key back and forth, feeling for the direction of give. Clack, thud, and the door swung open. She hopped with enthusiasm. Her instincts had been correct: a large metal key for a large door. A grin spread across her face. “Thanks, Mrs. Davis, again, for all your support. And if you need this purse back, just let me know.”
“It’s Margery, dear. You usually call me ‘Marge’ in some vulgar accent that sounds like a bad cold, but Margery will do. Keep the bag. I hope you’re not play acting, because this accident or overdose or seizure may have improved your attitude, if not much else.”
Pam grappled for an appropriate farewell gesture. Had Mrs. Davis’s—Margery’s—voice sounded almost kindly? But the lady still stood ram-rod straight, hands folded neatly over her belly, not the body language of a hugger. Should she bow? But how deep? Pam tentatively reached for Margery’s hand. The handshake ended up like more of a double-handed squeeze, Mrs. Davis’s hand lying limp in response, like a dove with a freshly broken neck.
YUCK! The crazy scream reverberated in her skull. It must not be real since Mrs. Davis just stood there, frowning. Pam plastered a smile on her face, nodded politely, then quickly closed the door.