‘Okay then, so does somebody here want to bring me up to speed and tell me what the hell happened and just how the hell I got here, ‘cause I’m feeling a bit left out of the loop at the moment? And you better start at the beginning please . . . I mean, like, from the very beginning, like from school, seeing as some of us apparently go back that far,’ Ben demanded.
We had all gathered in the visitors’ room just down the corridor from the ward they had moved Ben into after he had woken up and seemed to be over the worst of his ordeal.
It was a sunny room, quite bright and airy with its large windows, painted yellow walls and modern artwork. It looked out over the hospital gardens where we could see people sitting on benches or wandering around, and where gardeners tended rose beds that would soon be blooming with the impending arrival of spring.
Over the week or so since Ben had woken up the doctor had told us that he was suffering from what he had called Retrograde Amnesia, adding that it was common where brain injuries occurred. What he couldn’t tell us was how long it may last, and so that was why our little gathering was taking place, just in case it might help jog a few of Ben’s brain cells back into place.
Ben and Sam were sitting on a lounge at one end of the room, while Ben’s parents sat in comfy seats along one wall. Most of the remainder of our little group, including his doctor, sat upon hard plastic seats that had been brought in specially for this little conference. It was the doctor’s idea, getting us all together like this, in the hope that by taking Ben through his past it might help jog some memories, as so far very little had come back to him, apart from a few images of stormy skies and rough seas and a mountainous island covered in dark green vegetation and half hidden by cloud.
There had been some excitement when he told the medical staff about these, but in the few days since then there had been nothing more worth getting excited about.
At Ben’s demand of wanting to know everything it seemed all eyes turned my way, which I assume was because I was the one with whom, apart from his parents, our relationship went back the furthest. I wasn’t surprised by this at all; in fact I had even prepared myself for it, having called home to my own parents and asked them to Express Post down my old photo albums, school year books and school photos.
I decided that I would start with the school year books, carefully marking the pages featuring Ben and our class from school by sticking yellow post-it notes to the relevant pages and hanging them out over the edges of the pages, to make it easier to flick through them. I had very much enjoyed the exercise of going back through the books after they had arrived, the class photographs and various reports on school excursions and other activities bringing a smile to my lips on more than one occasion. Even Sam and Guy had gotten a kick out of them as well.
Getting up from my seat I walked over to where Ben and Sam were sitting and handed them my school year books, then pulled up a chair so that I was sitting beside Ben.
The cover of the year book always featured the same old tired sketch of the school gates and the school sign which stood beside them, although each year the cover sketch would be printed in a different colour, dark blue one year, red the next, then green, or brown. Pretty boring and unimaginative I know, but then again so was the school.
We had arranged the pile of year books in chronological order, with the oldest on top, descending down to the last one from Year 12. Taking the year book from the top of the pile Samantha opened it at the first marked page. It was the group photo of our Year 7 class, all smiles and in our best uniforms. As usual Ben was being a smart arse and had two fingers sticking up behind the head of the person in the row in front of him, which was Sally Rafferty that year. It was something that became a tradition with Ben and each year there was always another hapless victim.
We were all watching him, hoping that there would be some glimmer of recognition at something, anything, on these pages, but as we flicked through it nothing seemed to come to him. Sometimes he would pause for a moment and study something, then look at me or Samantha or his parents, as if some memory may be forming in his brain, but every time it was the same, he would just shake his head and turn to the next bookmarked page.
We all watched as one by one he and Sam worked through the books. Occasionally he would stop and study something for a while. Occasionally he would even hold something up for us to see and ask us about it, but each time he came up empty and would again shake his head, or his face would be contorted with a frown.
Eventually he came to our Year 11 year book.
That was a memorable year for us all, for apart from it being Samantha’s last year at school it was also the year that we staged the school musical that we were all involved with, and the year that both Ben and I had fallen in love with the people with whom we now shared our lives.
When he opened the centre spread of that book and saw the collage of photos from the musical he looked long at hard at it, before then glancing up at me. I swear I saw something jump behind those eyes of his.
‘What is it?’ I asked him.
He looked up at me with a curious expression on his face, then turned and looked at Samantha.
‘I think I remember that,’ he said to us.
‘You do?’ came the chorus from the stands, which almost seemed loud enough to blow him off his chair.
‘What can you remember, Ben?’ the doctor asked him.
‘This,’ he said, while turning the book around and holding it up toward the others.
‘Can you remember anything specific?’ the doctor asked.
He put the book back on his lap and stared at the open pages for a moment, his head cocked to one side but shaking from side to side just slightly. I think we all thought that it was going to be another let down.
‘I was looking out at the crowd,’ he finally said. ‘I wasn’t on the stage. I was at the side. Samantha was on the stage. And Tim as well.’
He stopped then and looked from me to Guy and back again.
‘What?’ I asked him.
‘Why did I have to get Guy to stand in just the right spot for you at the end of it?’ he asked. ‘You made me promise I’d have him there.’
Suddenly I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks, and looking across at Guy I could see he was having the same problem as well. We both remembered that night well.
That didn’t matter though. All that mattered now was that Ben was on the way back, and thanks to the reaction of everyone else in the room, Ben now knew that too.
* * *
In the week that followed Ben was still able to recall only bits and pieces of his past . . . our past. It was obvious to everyone that there were still massive blanks there, but no matter what we tried we couldn’t seem to jog those memories loose.
He was becoming frustrated at not being able to remember things. Sometimes he would start to tell us something, but then he would stop, his mind having gone blank, yet again. We could see the frustration and anger that was building within him, and once when I called in to visit I even found him crying.
I sat on the edge of his bed and put a hand on his bare shoulder. It was awkward. I knew nothing about comforting people or being a shoulder for them to cry on. At that very moment though, it was all that I could think of to do.
‘I just can’t handle this,’ he said to me quietly, between sobs. ‘You guys all know me better than I know myself. I have no fucking idea who I am, apart from what you’ve all told me. I know you all love me and I know you all care, but this is just . . . it’s just. . .’
‘It’s a nightmare,’ I answered for him.
‘Yeah. I real live twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week nightmare.’
‘Mate, I’m really not sure what I should be saying here, but what I can tell you, is that I know it will get better.’
‘How can you possibly know that?’
‘Law of averages,’ I replied, trying to lighten things up a little. ‘The Doc says that the biggest percentage of people who suffer from this do actually make a full recovery, so I figure you’re bound to be in that group.’
‘And what about the rest of them? What happens to them?’
‘Total nutters,’ I answered, which at least brought the beginnings of a smile.
We hadn’t quite returned to our old relationship of being best mates; I guess that would take quite a while to happen – if it ever happened at all – but there was something that had developed between us in the days since Ben had been admitted to hospital, and it was something positive. It was hard to describe, but you could feel it nonetheless, and that was what gave me some hope at least about my mate making a full recovery.
Cye arrived a short time after that, looking rather uncomfortable and something like a fish out of water, but it was good that he had called around to look in on Ben every few days since the accident. They would sit and talk about this, that, and any old thing, or on a few occasions had even sat in the sunny visitors room and played checkers (Cye preferred that to chess for some reason). I think Ben enjoyed talking to someone else, other than Sam or his parents, or me, so I left them to it.
One thing that had surprised me a little was that Justin, who he had worked with on the boat, hadn’t called around to see him, even though his partner, Scott, had paid a few visits. I couldn’t say if there was anything that we should read into that, but I just found it a little odd, that was all.
As I was leaving the ward I saw Samantha and Ben’s parents talking to his doctor at the nursing station, so I stopped to say hello. They were talking about going back to the old home town when I left them, which was something else the good doctor had suggested may be worthwhile, to see if spending some time back in the environment in which he had grown up might be a good idea for him.
It would be strange not having him around I thought, as I drove on home, but if it helped Ben, well then really it was a no-brainer. Of course they should take him home.
That night as I lay in bed beside Guy, as an unusually warm breeze for August came drifting in through our open window and caressed our bodies, I was telling him about what the doctor had suggested.
‘Makes sense, I suppose,’ he remarked. ‘Sure would be quiet around here without the two of them though, wouldn’t it?’
‘Like a morgue,’ I answered.
‘Probably be for the best though.’
‘Yeah. I know.’
‘You’ll miss him being around.’
He pulled me in close to him and wrapped his arms around me.
‘He’ll be okay,’ Guy whispered into the darkness. ‘It will get better.’
‘That’s exactly what I told him today,’ I replied. As I watched shadows dance across the wall and felt the rise and fall of Guy’s body against mine, I just wished that I could know that for certain.
* * *
It didn’t take long for them all to make a decision. The following morning Ben was allowed to leave hospital and was brought home to our little cottage near the sea so that he and Samantha could pack some belongings.
We were all there to greet them when they arrived, and when Ben stepped out of the car and looked around him we held our collective breath, in the hope that he would recognise the place, but once again we were all to be disappointed.
‘This is all kind of surreal,’ Ben said quietly as Sam led him into the bedroom they shared. ‘It’s like I’m stepping into another person’s life or something.’
I hated seeing him like this. The Ben I knew and had grown up with was so full of sass, so full of life. This Ben, even though we would sometimes see glimpses of his old self, was like a man moving in slow motion. The spark and animation were gone, and in their place was nothing but uncertainty.
Even the interaction between him and Samantha was stilted. He was trying, we could all see that, but it was clearly more difficult for him than any of us had imagined. If we had been thinking that when he came out of hospital they would simply slip back into their old lives and live happily-ever-after then we were sadly mistaken.
And while we were all concerned for Ben, we could also see that it wasn’t that easy for Sam either. Every day she would go to the hospital and sit with Ben, talking to him, trying to help him as best she could, and every day she would come home feeling drained, each day that little bit worse than the one before it.
On more than just a few occasions we heard her crying herself to sleep and each time we asked if she were okay, or offered some assistance, she would politely say that she was fine. We knew better of course, but this was one chick with an inner strength that was amazing us all, and if there was one person who could help Ben through this, then it was our Samantha.
After the bags were packed and stacked by the back door we all had a quick bite to eat for lunch, then we helped pack the cars. Ben’s parents had been staying at a motel, despite our offer to let them bunk down with us, so it was only his and Samantha’s bags to pack into Sam’s car before they were all ready to head back up into the mountains to the city that we all still called home.
When this was done we stood around talking for a few minutes before Ben’s father looked at his watch and said enough was enough and if they didn’t hit the road soon they would be driving straight back up the mountain into the sun.
Ben came to me first and formally thrust out his hand for me to shake. I took it then pulled him to me, hugging him close.
‘Take care of yourself, mate,’ I said to him. ‘I’ll call, just to make sure you’re behaving yourself, and we’ll try and get up there soon to see you.’
‘Thanks. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me,’ he answered, hugging me back.
‘What are friends for?’ I replied. ‘And if you remember anything, let me know, eh?’
He managed a smile, but his face was still clouded with uncertainty.
Sam came and hugged both Guy and me, thanked us and said she wanted to see us soon. We promised her that she would.
Then it was Matt and Luke’s turn. They had kind of been staying in the background lately, but they had still been supportive nonetheless and Ben and Sam were appreciative of that.
‘All right then you lot,’ said Ben’s father. ‘You know how I hate long goodbyes.’
We all laughed, with even Ben managing a chuckle, as he and his father climbed into their car, and Sam and Ben’s mother climbed into her little jalopy.
Soon the car doors were closed and the vehicles were started, then before we knew it they were driving away from us, bouncing down our driveway. I could see Ben turned around in his seat and looking out the back window toward us, while Sam had her hand out the window of her car and waving at us.
Matt and Luke disappeared inside as we stayed there and watched their vehicle trundle on down the narrow track from the house to the main Thompsonville road and eventually disappearing from view.
‘Seems quieter already,’ Guy said to me as we watched them go.
‘Sure does,’ I replied.
‘So. What now, then?’
‘I suppose things can get back to normal now. No more hospital visits. There’s work to catch up on. All the mundane stuff I guess.’
‘It doesn’t have to be all mundane does it?’ he said, while slipping his arm around my waist and giving me a wink. ‘There’s a lot that we have to catch up on too, you know.’
‘No, Guy, you’re right. I know that these past few weeks haven’t exactly been a bed of roses, for any of us, but somehow I have a feeling that all that is about to change.’
* * *
Things did indeed get back to normal after Ben and Samantha left us, or at least as close to normal as possible. For Luke and Guy and me we all settled back into university life, having all missed a few days here and there while Ben was in hospital. There wasn’t anything that we missed that we couldn’t catch up on, so with a bit of work we all managed to get back up to speed quite quickly.
Those that were affected the most, following what most of us now called The Big Bang (so named because that was the noise that apparently emanated from the boat’s engine when it blew up), were Cye and Matt and Justin, who all now found themselves out of work.
For Cye the early retirement was self-inflicted, after apparently deciding that he had finally had enough of the fishing game and then putting the ‘Wanderer’ up for sale once the engine had been repaired, but for Matt and Justin it meant that their working careers in the fishing industry were rather short lived. They did spend some time helping Cye clean up the old tub and make her somewhat presentable once more, and in the process even managed to score a few shifts on some of the other boats in the local fleet. These were few and far between, however, and despite the boys’ regular visits to the wharves to see if there was anything on offer, more often than not they came up empty handed.
Justin and Matt seemed to become much closer, as mates do, and most afternoons you could find them visiting the local pub. There was no question of anything physical or romantic happening between them, it was just that they were two similar souls who had shared the same experiences and were now caught up in circumstances that were beyond their control. There was no bitterness at having lost their jobs; in fact they both still regularly called around to visit Cye in the little houseboat that he lived in, on the far side of the lake. They were all just getting on with their lives as best they could.
Over the next month or so we all kept in constant contact with Ben and Samantha, but unfortunately there was little progress to report. Even when Ben met up with some of our other friends from school he didn’t recognise them, which only sent him, once more, into the depths of depression. Whenever we spoke to either him or Sam we could hear the strain in both their voices. It certainly wasn’t easy watching either of them go through this, but we all knew . . . or was it that we just truly hoped . . . that they would come out the other side of this in one piece and we would soon have the old Ben back once more.
Then, just when it seemed that it couldn’t get any worse that is exactly what happened. The strain that we all knew was there between them became too much and one night when I called to see how things were going he told me that Samantha had left and gone back to her parents’ place.
‘You’re kidding me? Right?’ I asked him.
‘What happened? What did you do?’
‘Fucking hell! Why is it that everyone just assumes it was something I did?’ he snapped.
‘Mate, sorry. I didn’t mean…’
There was silence from the other end.
‘No, Tim. I’m sorry. I just wish I knew what the problem was. I know that it can’t have been easy for her, but . . . well, it hasn’t exactly been easy for me either . . .’
‘Yeah. We all know that.’
‘I’m not sure what she expected of me . . . I mean I can barely even remember anything that happened before the accident, so how am I expected to know anything about her and me from back then?’
‘Did she say anything about coming back?’
‘She said she just needed some space . . . some time to figure some things out and stuff, I guess.’
‘And how do you feel about that?’ I asked him.
‘Honestly, I . . . I don’t really know,’ he replied. ‘She’s a special girl, everyone knows that, but I can’t remember what we had, or what it was like before. Sometimes it feels so natural between us, like we have always been together, but then at other times it’s like . . . like we are complete strangers or something.’
‘So, what next then?’
‘I’m going to meet her tomorrow. I guess we’ll see what happens after that, eh!’
‘All right, then. I’ll call you again tomorrow night.’
‘Yeah, all right. And Tim . . .’
‘Thank you. Thank you for everything.’
‘That’s okay, Ben. What are best friends for?’
After I disconnected I told Guy and the others what had happened and as expected they were quite surprised, or perhaps I should say that shocked might be a better word for it. Almost immediately Luke said he would ring Sam and talk to her and headed off to his and Matt’s room to find his phone.
‘Man, I can’t imagine what they are going through right now,’ Matt remarked. ‘I’d be feeling totally lost I reckon.’
‘Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly how Ben is feeling right now,’ I answered.
When I called him twenty four hours later Ben was feeling a lot better about things. I could almost sense the excitement in his voice, so I figured that things must have gone well today.
‘So, how did things go today? Did you see Sam?’ I asked him.
‘Mate, things couldn’t have been better,’ he replied, his voice almost trembling with excitement.
‘Well . . . are you going to tell me?’
‘Well, we met up down town and were walking down the mall, just talking.’
‘That’s a start I suppose.’
‘Then we passed that little café about half way along and for some reason all of a sudden I felt like getting a milk shake.’
I remembered the place well. And they always made the best milk shakes in town. Ben’s favourite flavour was Cherry Ripe.
‘What flavour did you order?’ I asked.
‘Cherry Ripe, of course.’
‘Go on,’ I urged, laughing.
‘Well, we were sitting there at the tables outside just talking and drinking our shakes, and things were going good, then I looked up and saw this guy walking toward us.’
‘Well . . . for some reason the first thing that came into my head was . . . “I bet Tim would fancy that” . . .’
For a moment I was stunned to silence, trying to figure out why he would say something like that, then all of a sudden it dawned on me.
‘You remembered that?’ I gasped.
‘Mate, I remembered a lot more than just that. I remembered us sitting in those exact seats and playing Pick a Partner, or whatever it was that we called it, and I remembered that was when you first spotted Guy . . . then it was like . . . whoa, it was like the fucking flood gates opened! Everything is coming back . . . school . . . the shit we got up to as kids . . . Samantha . . . oh, mate, it’s unbelievable . . . she’s unbelievable . . . I can remember it all! Everything!’
To be continued . . .