I realised something was wrong about two weeks ago. The incessant ringing of the phone woke me. A glance at the clock radio said the time was 8am. That was unusual, the phone didn’t normally ring before 10am. I heard a voice yelling down the line before I put the handset to my ear. It was Martin. Martin Poole, the guy who hopes to marry me someday.
‘Where the hell were you last night!’ His voice said it all. He was really angry.
I was confused. He had rung me Sunday night, wanting to meet for dinner Wednesday evening. I guessed he planned to put ‘The’ question to me.
Anyway, I took some time to answer him. I didn’t like his tone. I wasn’t his just yet.
‘Dinner is tonight,’ I replied in that tone that said I was talking to a two-year-old. ‘Last night I was at yoga.’ I got to yoga every Tuesday night! I had done for years.
‘Last night,’ he said in that patient, condescending way he had that irritated me to the bone, ‘was Wednesday night. We were to meet at the Blue Duck at 8pm. I called you on Sunday. I booked a table on Monday.’
He let out an exasperated hiss like a steam engine.
‘Today is Wednesday and tonight is…’ I started to say but Martin jumped in, ‘… Today is Thursday. And you’ve got your pottery class.’
I was out most nights. I was about to correct him, he’d clearly lost it but I could see this would lead to a pointless argument. There was another way.
‘Look,’ I said in my calm tone, being the reasonable one. ‘The newspaper will be on the doorstep. I’ll get it, check the date and everyone will be happy.’
‘If you must,’ he said, and I thought, a little tartly.
Danny, the newspaper guy, had been as punctual as anything over all the years I’d known him. In summer, when the early heat drove me out of my bed, I’d watch him casually flip the rolled newspaper into the air. With expert precision, the paper described a perfect arc on its way to my door step.
On the way back to the phone I prepared a few sharp words, well-chosen phrases to let Martin know what I thought of someone who rang me so early in the morning to tell me I was pretty much losing my mind. I stopped cold in my tracks. Because I was losing my mind. I stared at the unwrapped newspaper. There in the banner was the date. And it said loudly that Martin Poole was right.
His breathing was loud in the earpiece when I picked it up.
‘Martin,’ I said feeling all kinds of guilt gushing around inside of me. ‘I don’t understand …?’
‘I’m right!’ he snapped.
‘But where the hell was I yesterday?’ I asked him as if this was some prank played on me and he should know the answer. I thought for a bit, thought really hard, then said, ‘I remember Tuesday clearly enough but I don’t remember yesterday at all. What’s going on?’
It was nice to hear some concern coming into his voice.
‘You’ve been drinking again!’ he said.
My friends down at the Grand Duke would probably admit that I’m known to enjoy a tipple or two from time to time. But I had, in fact, had nothing alcoholic to drink in over a week. And I let him know.
His retort was predictable.
I saw where this was going and was in no mood for an argument so I snapped, ‘I’ll see you later. I’ve got to look into this.’
With the phone on the hook it was quiet again. I sat staring into space, thinking. But I could not, simply could not remember a thing about yesterday. Not what I ate, what I wore, where I went. Not a single thing. As they say, I wracked my brains but nothing surfaced.
I wasn’t too concerned, then. I mean, what’s a day lost now and then? It’s not that my life is so busy I lose a day here and there but I thought, ‘It happens’.
One thing did matter though. I called the developer, Frantenelli, my only client at that time.
Frantenelli answered with his usual ‘Ciao, bella.’
‘Michele!’ I said. I always called him that. His name was really Michael but he liked Michele. It’s always a good move to keep in good with the client.
‘Bellissimo, Clare. How are you this morning? Good to hear from you.’
I’d had a quick think as to what I’d say to him before I called.
‘Michele, just ringing to see if you’re happy with the way the meeting went yesterday?’
‘Hey, that’s good of you, mate. No problems with the changes. As long as they’re ready by Tuesday.’
For a second there I panicked. I had no memory whatsoever of any changes. Michael was forever altering this or changing that. Trivial stuff mostly, but it was something I could charge against. I was struggling for an answer when I remembered my day book. One of the most important things I learnt at uni was to record any customers changes immediately in my notebook, or daybook as I called it. I didn’t believe in relying on memory. Mine or the clients.
‘They’ll be ready by Tuesday, Michele,’ I said.
‘Io sono molto contento, you’re a peach. I’ve never known an architect as good as you. Ciao.’
‘See you, mate,’ I replied, wondering how anyone could lie as easily as he did. I’d heard him say almost the same thing to everyone on the building site, even to a carpenter just as he fired him!
I was left wondering what to do next. Frantenelli was supposed to jog my memory, but nothing came up. I went in search of my daybook and there, written in my hand writing, and the only time it was legible, were the changes Frantenelli wanted. As I thought, they were cosmetic stuff, half a day’s work at most.
But I didn’t remember writing it. I didn’t remember a thing. Wednesday could never have happened for all I knew. Now I was getting worried.
I made a phone call.
Mel Tamburn, of Mel’s Café, makes the best coffee in all Kopperburg. That’s where I was born and where I live, by the way. Kopperburg its one of those small provincial ‘cities’ that the world has forgotten. It’s nestled in a small valley with the river Kopper to the south and a small mountain range at its back.
It’s an odd place to be an architect. There’s not much by the way of development work, but after I finished university that’s where I wanted to be. I put my shingle up with the words ‘Clare Bentley, Bachelor of Architecture’ cut neatly into the timber, eight years ago and have scratched a living ever since. I’m not complaining.
I leant on the counter, Mel’s oval face in front of me. Her dark brown eyes regarding me, while a twisted smile graced her lips. This week her hair was jet black.
‘Marriage or money?’ she asked intuitively.
I ate a lot of breakfasts here, drank too much of her great coffee and bitched a lot about Martin or the lack of work. Mel’s shoulder was a comfortable place to rest my problems.
I grinned awkwardly. ‘Not this time, Mel,’ I said. ‘It’s worse.’
‘Worse?’ she replied, eyebrows vanishing into her fringe.
‘I’m losing my mind!’
I’m not too sure but I felt I was confirming something she had long known.
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘I’ve just come from Doc Brownly.’
‘How’s the old quack?’
I shot her a glance to tell her this was about me, not the Doc, and to tell her to take this seriously.
‘He’s fine. I went to see him because I’ve lost a day.’
The twisted smile stayed fixed in place, though I was certain I caught a twinkle in her eyes.
‘We all lose a day sometime. I can’t remember what I did this time last week.’
‘Yeah, but I can’t remember what I did this time yesterday. The whole day. Not one thing!’ I looked earnestly into her eyes.
A slow change came over her.
‘Nothing at all?’ she asked.
‘Mel, I can’t remember a single thing. I was supposed to have dinner with Martin last night. I didn’t turn up. But when he rang me this morning I was asleep in bed. Boy, was he pissed off!’
‘I’ll bet. So, why’d you see the Doc?’
I remember shrugging my shoulders.
‘In case… there was something wrong with me… you know… physical… or mental.’
‘He found nothing wrong, right?’
‘Right. I need to exercise more, he said, that’s all.’
She grinned fully.
‘That’s the ol’ Doc all right. Loves his exercise, he does. So, what now?’
‘Try retracing my steps from yesterday. I called a client this morning. He confirmed I’d turned up for our appointment. But I don’t remember what was said, what happened afterwards.’
‘I can help you out there a bit. You came in around one. Just a bit after.’
I perked up when I heard that.
‘Yep. You had your usual, two salad and bacon sandwiches and three cups of coffee. You talked a lot about Martin and dinner that night.’
‘Really! I can’t recall any of that. This is driving me crazy,’ I wanted to yell out some of my frustration. After a few deep breaths, I said, ‘Still it gets me a bit further. I just need to work out where I went after leaving here.’
‘I can help you out there too.’
I felt the fear that had been dogging me all morning lift a little.
‘Where did I go?’
‘I don’t know where you went but you left with Normie.’
‘Normie?’ Now I was confused more than ever.
I’d better tell you about Normie. We were born the same year. We started pre-school on the same day. The same for kindergarten. I still remember seeing his face as I entered the classroom for the first time. My heart lifted at seeing someone I knew. Anyway, as time went by I went on to Primary, then High School and afterwards uni. But Normie got stuck in Year 2. The body grew up but the mind inside the head did not.
His dad died years ago and his mum is getting old. Normie spends his time wandering Kopperburg like a lost kitten. He’s harmless and everybody’s friend.
‘Why’d I go off with Normie?’ I asked expectantly.
‘Can’t help you there, Clare. Just after I gave him his lunch a bus came in. I was flat out like a lizard drinking for an hour. I saw you two talking, then later you left together. Maybe you gave him a lift home.’
‘Maybe. That could be it. Do you think he might know where I went after that?’
‘You could ask him,’ she said but looked doubtful. ‘Even if you reminded him…’
‘Yeah. Any idea where he is now?’
‘He came in at twelve and left after he ate. Just a goodbye and a wave.’
‘Hmm. I’ll try his mum’s. Thanks, Mel.’
I finished my coffee, paused only long enough to have another then left in search of Normie.
I struck out that day. His mum didn’t know where he was, which was normal. I couldn’t trace him all day.
I had to put some time into Michele’s changes, which took me through to Friday night. Then the weekend with Martin. In between jobs I tried to find Normie on Monday but with no luck. And to be honest, I was getting less worried about losing Wednesday. I was thinking that after all it was just one of those things and maybe I was a bit paranoid.
What happened next changed all that.
The phone was ringing. Straight away I knew that something was wrong. There was an insistence to it that wasn’t usual. As I struggled to wake up I realised it was early in the morning. As my eyes fought to focus on the clock, I saw it was 8 am. A chill ran down my spine.
I reached out to the phone and at the same time realised I was in bed. I had no idea how I got there.
‘Hello … hello,’ I said weakly. This was so much like last Wednesday I was expecting Martin to blast me again for missing another dinner appointment.
‘Bella! Where the hell have you been!’
‘Michele?’ I mumbled, totally surprised.
‘I rang you a dozen times yesterday at your office and your home. What goes on here? We had a meeting.’
Another chill ran down my spin, colder than the first.
‘Michele, what day is it?’ I asked carefully.
‘What day is it! Bella, are you losing your mind?’
‘Yes, I think so. I’m losing something.’
‘Wednesday,’ he said simply.
It had happened again, I’d lost another day.
‘Where are you, Michele?’
‘At the site, where else!’
‘I’ll be there in half an hour,’ I lied.
‘Blood oath you will,’ he said angrily.
I hung up the phone, threw myself into the shower and was out of the house in 10 minutes wearing yesterday’s clothes.
Perhaps it was my dishevelled state that woke the Italian linage that lay dormant in Frantenelli. The anger in his face vanished the moment he saw me.
‘Clare? What’s happened to you?
‘My boyfriend broke up with me yesterday… We had a dreadful fight, Michele …’ I lied, again. Well, would you tell your best and only client you were working with blunt pencils?
His long arms soon wrapped around me and I even managed a few convincing sniffs. And to be honest it was comforting to have someone hold me. To have someone care for me. It was strange but I couldn’t see Martin as my source of comfort.
At the appropriate moment I said, ‘I have those changes for you.’
As quickly as it had come the change in him vanished and he was the fussy developer again.
‘Fantastic! Let’s have a look.’
I pulled the updated drawings from my briefcase and handed them over.
He studied them for a while and seemed content.
‘I’ll pass them onto the builder. Thanks, mate,’ he said.
I drove back to town not knowing what to do next. I didn’t want to see Doc Brownly again. I was certain all he would do would be to order more exercise. I realised that talking to Martin was a waste of time.
I took a seat at Mel’s café and must have looked something like a lost dog. She came right over and cut short her usual pet phrase and simply said, ‘Marriage?’
I shook my head. ‘No’, and looked into her eyes. The expression on her face told me she understood my fear.
‘I can’t remember yesterday,’ I told her.
‘It’s happened again?’ Mel asked.
‘I have no idea where I was yesterday or what I did.’
She placed a comforting hand on mine; finally, she was taking me seriously. She poured two cups of coffee and came round the counter and sat next to me.
I sipped my coffee and said, ‘Frantenelli rang me this morning. I missed the meeting we were supposed to have at …’
‘… five at the development.’
I looked at her in surprise.
Then I asked, ‘How’d you know that!’
‘You told me when you were in here yesterday!’
‘I was here?’ Fear welled up inside me. I hammered the counter with my fist. Tears ran down my cheeks. That was the second time that day someone cuddled me.
‘Why can’t I remember?’ I asked her plaintively, sobs wracking my body.
‘I don’t know.’
Mel held me till the sobbing passed and I felt better. I finished my coffee and she passed me a serviette.
‘It’s a good thing you don’t need to wear make-up.’
I laughed and felt better for her joke. After a deep breath I looked at her again and asked, ‘So what happened when I came in? Tell me about it.’
Her face went blank as she recalled the details.
‘You came in around twelve. You were frustrated that you couldn’t find Normie. You told me about the meeting with what’s his name…’
‘That’s the name. I was pretty busy… I made you lunch… three coffees. No, that’s not right. I had just placed lunch and the first coffee in front of you when Normie wandered over. He must have come in with the bus crowed. You bought him lunch.’
Mel paused in thought.
‘And?’ I prompted.
‘… we had another bus… They kept me running around but I do remember you talking to Normie. You seemed…’
As she struggled for the word my impatience grew.
‘What! What did I seem?’
‘Happy? Surprised? Sort of like ‘Eureka’.’
‘Eureka… I’ve found it.’
‘I’ve found… what?’
‘An answer,’ she said. ‘You were excited like you had an answer.’
As though a curtain had been pulled aside, I suddenly began to see.
‘Normie’s the key,’ I said confidently.
Mel nodded, understanding.
‘Yesterday you went off with him somewhere. Last week when you lost Wednesday you had been talking to him. A few months ago, I can’t remember when, you went off with him, next day you were a little strange. I put it down to another fight with Martin. Now…?’
‘Now we know something different.’
I felt determination building up inside of me like a fire.
‘I’ve got to find him, Mel. I’ve got to find out what’s going on.’
‘That shouldn’t be too difficult,’ she said.
‘I don’t know how you can say that. I’ve spent five days looking for him without success.
Mel gestured to the entrance, ‘He just walked in.’
I swivelled around so fast I nearly fell off the stool. It still took a second or two for my vision to steady, but at last I saw him, Normie.
He wore an old green battle jacket. Heaven knows where he got it from, a checked shirt and blue jeans. I’d known him all my life and never seen any other expression on his face. It was one of deep introspection. It was as though his conscious mind was puzzling over the greatest questions to ever face humanity.
Normie sat down next to me and at first didn’t show he’d seen me but then he turned and looked me square in the eyes.
‘Good afternoon, Clare,’ he said like a preacher delivering a sermon.
‘Normie,’ I replied. I knew what to expect when I looked into his eyes. Despite the look of him, and the way he talked, they were as vacant as a long abandoned motel.
He turned back and looked at Mel and I had the chance to examine his profile.
‘What a pity,’ I thought. His hair was jet black, his face smooth and handsome in a movie star sort to way. If things had been different he’d have been a real catch.
‘The usual, Normie?’ Mel asked.
He nodded, gravely.
‘Normie,’ I started. ‘Do you remember what we were talking about yesterday?’
His face slowly folded into a frown and I quickly realised that that line of questioning was going to take me nowhere.
‘No short-term memory?’ I remembered.
I tried a few other ways but drew a blank each time.
Mel came back with his hamburger and OJ. He munched away quietly for a bit then just up and said, ‘Do you want to see the spaceman?’ as though he was proposing the merger of two conglomerates.
Both Mel and I were stunned. We looked at each other, with no idea what to say.
‘Yes,’ I replied when I could get my breath back.
Normie returned to munching on his burger like there was all the time in the world, while I squirmed next to him, desperate to find out what he meant.
At last with a final smack of the lips as though he had just dined on a Paris lunch, Normie turned to me.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, a little nervously.
Was this how it was yesterday? Had I followed him like a sheep?
Normie waited at the passenger’s side of my car while I fished out the keys.
‘Which way?’ I asked as the engine purred and we buckled up.
He seemed to be thinking in that grave way of his.
‘Do you know that old garage up in the hills?’
‘Yep,’ I knew it well. It was badly placed, away from the traffic. A succession of mechanics had struggled to make a go of it. John Roe was the latest.
‘Drive up that way.’
It was hot up there and humid and without a breath of wind. Occasionally we’d drive through patches of sub-tropical rainforest. Mostly we saw farms.
In a quiet corner, where the road formed a ‘T’ was the petrol station.
It was a sad, run down enterprise that should never have been built. From time to time hardworking, if myopic, mechanics took over the place, daubed a bit of paint over the peeling walls and for a month or two tried to waylay any unsuspecting traveller into using their services. John had been at it for three years now. Heaven knows how he made a living.
‘Here,’ Normie said, pointing at the garage. I assumed we got out and walked the rest of the way. A state forest backed onto the garage and ran over the tall hills behind.
I parked the car. John came out of the workshop wiping his hands on a clean rag. It was a testament to his struggle to make a living that his hands were clean, even down to his finger nails.
‘Hi, John,’ I said, smiling, as I got out of my car.
He smiled back at me and said, ‘Hi, Clare. Come to see the spaceman?’
I laughed at that and my mood lifted immediately.
‘Know all about it, huh? I s’pose Normie brings people trooping through here all the time to see the ‘Alien’’
I made that quoting gesture with my hands.
‘No,’ John said calmly. ‘Only you. Coffee?’
He led the way inside and I followed. The old shop was empty except for the bare shelves and a yellowing calendar from 1984. There were some cups and a jug at the sink behind the counter.
He didn’t say anything while the water boiled. I heard the tinkle of a spoon stirring then he set an old chipped cup in front of me.
‘What did you mean, only me?’ I asked.
‘Norman only ever brings you here. No one else. I think it’s because he likes you, he trusts you. Because you’ve got history.’
‘You know about Normie and me?’
‘Yes. You looked after him. Standing between him and the bullies in the third grade, keeping the teachers off his back, doing his homework for him.’
John looked at me all bright eyed as if he knew my entire history.
‘Finish your coffee,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you the spaceship.’
The ship was only a skeleton.
‘My people came up with a method of travelling faster than light. Before that we were confined to a few local star systems. But with this ship we could travel a good quarter of the galaxy in a couple of minutes.’
John paused for breath then continued, ‘They wanted volunteers. I made my living in space. Not a bad ‘Rocket jockey’, as your people say. I was with the security service at the time. I had no family, so I thought ‘Why not’. The insertion worked perfectly. But … but … I don’t know the physics but as I understand it the ship creates a huge burst of energy to start it all off. The transit worked fine. I was in orbit around Earth in seconds. We knew about your world but we didn’t know it was inhabited. Anyway, I was in orbit ready to take some readings when all the electronics blew up. From physics, you’ll know that any action has an equal and opposite reaction. The energy pumped out at the start when I left my world came back at extraction, only it hit the systems. The ship was in an unstable orbit, it crashed.’
He paused for a moment and I thought I’d never heard such a crazy story in my life.
‘I thought at first I could maybe jury rig something. Patch up the hull, manually fire up the engines, so on. I tried for about a year. Then I took a walk outside one night and looked up at the stars. I realised then it was hopeless. Even if I could get the ship up there, into space, I had no idea where home was. The truth was pretty hard to take but I knew I was stuck.’
He sipped his coffee, then went on like he was reading from a script.
‘I cut the ship up. Normie helped. He was there when I crashed. It was his idea to use this place. The ship has gold in it as part of the ‘reactor’. I melted it down, extracted the gold. It’s enough to keep me alive. What surprised me is that your people and mine are the same right down to the DNA. Makes me wonder if some time in the deep, dark past my people didn’t visit your world. Who knows?’
I sat there looking like a stunned mullet, saliva ran down my cheek. John picked up a serviette and wiped it away.
‘The problem is,’ John continued, ‘I can’t let people know about me. The locals I can handle. I mentioned I was in the security service. I have a drug. It acts on the short-term memory. People around here just tend to pop in unannounced. I got caught a few times in ‘compromising positions.’ The simple solution was to sit down with them, have a chat over a cup of coffee. Coffee’s great for disguising the drug. I help them home, they sleep it off. And forget.’
‘But don’t they miss the day?’
‘Not everyone lies in bed worrying about a day lost here or there. I tried it on Normie but his mind must be structured differently. The drug doesn’t work on him. I’ve made him promise to stop bringing you up here, but he still does.’
My mind was a whirl but one thing was crystal clear.
‘I’ve been here before! The coffee! That’s how you did it. Hang on… just how many times have I been up here? How many times have you drugged me?’
‘Eight,’ he said casually.
Nothing I had heard or seen so far shocked me as much as that one word statement.
‘Eight,’ I said slowly, trying to get a feel for what it meant. ‘Eight times!’
‘Over the last three years, yes.’
He was so cool about it, as if we were just chatting over a cup of …
‘Oh no!’ I gasped. ‘You’ve done it to me again. The coffee I had before …’
‘Was only a cup of coffee,’ he replied calmly. ‘Over the last 3 years I drugged you eight times and each time Normie brings you back.’ John shrugged.
‘Don’t you get angry with him?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but what can I do? As I said the drug doesn’t work on him and he’s such an amiable, inquisitive young man… and I enjoy his company. It’s nice to be able to talk openly with someone.’
‘So… what about me?’ I asked, looking him directly in the eye. Strangely I wasn’t afraid of him. His ship convinced me he was from another world yet he seemed like an old friend. ‘What do you plan to do with me?’
He looked at me for a long while, then he said, casually, ‘I thought I’d marry you.’
I said before John’s coffee was good, I needed it. Though now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink it without the ghost of a suspicion in my mind. A marriage proposal from an alien from another world doesn’t happen every day.
And yet, it’s funny it didn’t seem at all absurd.
‘I can’t see you marrying Martin,’ John said, mirroring my thoughts.
‘I know. I don’t know why he’s stuck by me all these years.’
‘He thinks you’re coming into money.’
I snorted at that.
‘Where would he get that idea?’
‘I told him.’
My stock of ‘surprise’ had run out and I simply looked at him blankly. He grinned sheepishly.
‘I put him onto you to keep you away from here. I told him you had a big inheritance coming.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
He said it so sincerely I knew he was.
‘I didn’t want to keep drugging you… and you looked lonely. I thought it would help.’
‘It didn’t,’ I said firmly.
‘Yes, I know. I’m not a very good matchmaker. Look, I can’t keep drugging you. I don’t know what the long-term effects of the drug are but I don’t want to risk it. Also, it’s starting to get around that you’ve lost a day here and there. People are starting to take notice.’
‘I see,’ I said.
‘So why not marry me? I like you, you like me. We’re DNA compatible. I like Kopparberg so do you.’
I couldn’t help a really broad grin, it was so weird but I felt happy inside.
‘So that’s how you plan to silence me, marriage. Novel, I’ll say.’
‘What do you think?’
For an answer, I leant forward and kissed him. He knew what to do; the kiss sent pins and needles racing down my spine.