• 09 Oct - 15 Oct, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The first thing of which he was aware was a smell of disinfectant and the echoing voices of young women far away, chatting and laughing. His head seemed heavy on the pillow, his thoughts dull and sluggish . With an effort he opened his eyes. He could see a fire-extinguisher and some kind of transparent plastic tubing looped over a bracket on the wall. The effort of focusing was enormous so he gave up and allowed himself to drift back into a dreamless sleep.

The second time he woke there were two nurses leaning over him, one in a grey uniform, the other a dark blue. Dark Blue addressed him in a kindly tone. “Hello Mr Chenkov. You’re in hospital and there’s nothing to worry about. You’ve had an accident but you’re going to be fine. Can you hear me all right?”

He found it easier to nod than to speak. He seemed totally devoid of energy. “Oh good,” Dark Blue replied in the kind of voice people use for children, “We’re pleased to have you back. Just get some sleep, don’t worry about a thing. We’ll be in to see you again in a little while.” Then like a fade-to-black in a film, they were gone.

The moments of consciousness increased in frequency as time went by. How much time it was impossible to tell. As well as the nurses he was visited by a dark haired woman with big sorrowful eyes who was wearing something different every time she appeared, but always looked tidy and respectable. She claimed to be his wife, Anna. She called him Ivor. That’s who he must be then, Ivor Chenkov. Both names seemed completely foreign and meaningless. At first he lacked the energy to worry about what was going on, but as his body returned to relative normality and he was able to sit up and eat solid food, the strangeness of it all began to bother him a lot.

The dreams began at the same time as his waking consciousness returned to something resembling normality. They were mostly dreams of childhood, long summer days spent among trees and paths through woods, with a small clear river where he could see tiny fish darting around in shoals. He had a companion and they laughed and chased one another and climbed trees, but he could never quite see the boy’s face. Some of the dreams though were very much darker. He was locked in a small empty room, like a walk-in closet, but without a door. He explored every inch of the walls, one by one, and could never find the way out. These were merely dreams, though, he could dismiss them from his mind. It was the total lack of real memories that he found alarming.

“Please tell me,” he whispered conspiratorially to the nurses, “who am I? How did I end up here? What exactly has happened to me?” They were reluctant at first, and referred every question to a serious-looking middle-aged man with grey-flecked hair and a goatee beard who visited about twice a week. Then, presumably having obtained his permission, they began to open up more. Ivor began piecing things together.

Apparently what he was going through was nothing unusual. When people suffer a head injury they forget things. They need time, sometimes a lot of time, to get it all back. Some bits might never come back. The man with the goatee beard, whose name was Dr Sullivan, listened to his questions and his anxieties and the contents of his dreams and told him a great deal about his condition, at least in general terms.

After he went home with Anna he read books about it, and visited websites, and joined an online head injury support group. Everybody told him he was having a very normal recovery. And they always added that things could have been a great deal worse. Ivor wondered if anybody had ever been made to feel better by being told that things could have been worse.

It would be quite a while before he could return to work, they told him. The concept meant nothing to him; he didn’t even know what work it was that he had done. The most embarrassing aspect though was living with Anna. She seemed a pleasant enough woman; good-looking for her years, kind, attentive and well-meaning, but he didn’t know her and was embarrassed about sharing her bed and living so closely with this total stranger. She seemed ill at ease with him too, and at times quite depressed, which was entirely understandable, but she was obviously determined to carry on. There was a forced cheerfulness overlying the depression that he found a barrier to real contact. He presumed that he must have had some kind of sex life with her before, but felt no arousal now, or even, If he was honest, very much affection. Just that wretched awkwardness. He had been more at ease with the nurses. He would not have admitted it but it was a relief when she went off to work each morning and left him to the Internet and the TV and the never-ending walks around the nearby streets and the parks. He liked walking, and it was high summer, with the manicured suburbs looking their best.

He was hesitant about asking her questions, for he could see that it added to her distress, but she was his only reliable source of information about his former life. Because his memory let him down so frequently he found that he needed to write her answers in a notebook, but tried not to do it in front of her. He felt like an actor who was a very slow study trying to learn an exceptionally difficult part. At least he did not have a deadline, there would be no first night. Slowly, painfully, as a complete outsider, he built up a dossier on this other person named Ivor Chenkov and the life he had led.

The happy dreams of childhood became less frequent and the dreams of imprisonment almost constant and ever more dark and elaborate. Sometimes it would be a cell with bars on the windows, with the forest and the river outside and the boy whom he knew to be his friend playing by himself, netting fish far away by the riverbank. Sometimes he would be trapped in a dark cave where water dripped from the ceiling, completely alone. He seemed to spend all of his time searching for an exit, which was never there.

Dr Sullivan turned out to be his principal ally and support. They continued meeting twice a week, and their conversations ranged from Ivor’s dreams over the generalities of head injuries and the particulars of Ivor’s situation. To Dr Sullivan it was completely familiar territory; he could be matter-of-fact about it all.

Ivor learned that his family history had been quite exotic. His father had been a Russian chess champion, Yaraslav Chenkov, who had defected to the West in the 1950s after defeating the American challenger for his title. He had settled down with an English widow who held American citizenship, and they had lived in New England. A few years after Ivor’s birth they had separated and he had come to real England with his mother, who had remarried and had a further child, a daughter. He was able to find out without much trouble that both of his parents were dead. About his half sister he was able to discover nothing. He wondered if he might have inherited any chess talent himself. Most of all he wondered why it meant so little to him, why none of it triggered the tiniest recollection.

After a few days of his aimless daytime life, a snippet of conversation on an afternoon TV show became the very first thing to trigger a faint memory. It was a discussion about the filmÊCasablanca, an argument over whether anybody had actually said the words “Play it again, Sam” which had entered popular mythology. It was the name “Sam” that hit him like a slap in the face. There had been somebody named Sam in his past life. That name was more significant to him than Ivan or Chenkov or Anna. He couldn’t be more specific but he was certain that he was right. Perhaps he had found the first link in the chain. He wrote the name in his notebook and circled it many times until the pen began to cut through

the page.

Ivor’s childhood dreams were beginning to take precedence over the imprisonment ones again. He had played in a tree-house, and wandered among guests at a barbecue in the huge grounds of what he now knew to be Yaraslav’s house in New Hampshire. The dreams were becoming more like memories, the images clearer and more constant. If he returned to that house now he was sure that he would be able to find his way around its grounds, walk to the rope swing that overhung the little stream, perhaps find a clue to the loneliness that he always felt in the dreams, even when the house was crowded with people.

He learned all he could about the accident that had wiped all these things from his mind. Ivor had been driving on a country road late at night and had been involved

in a head-on collision with another car, whose driver had not survived. There was no way of determining blame, but the other driver’s blood had tested positive for alcohol and for cocaine, so it was naturally assumed that he had been the one who had lost control. What had Ivor been doing on that road? What had been the purpose of the journey? Nobody seemed to know, which heightened his curiosity about the incident. Rightly or wrongly he felt that the key to everything must lie with that ill-fated drive. Anna seemed to tighten when he asked her about it. “No, Ive,” she assured him, “nobody knew where you were going or why.”

Who is that woman? Storming off after a row? A secret meeting? Some kind of double life? There had to be a clue here. He waited for a better moment, when they had eaten and were relaxing, and raised the subject again: “Is that true? Do you really have no idea?”

She swallowed hard. “I can think of… possibilities, naturally, but no, I don’t know. Have you got ideas of your own about it? Things you can remember.”

He shook his head. “Can you take me to the exact spot?”

“What… right now?”

“Maybe tonight. When it’s dark. If it’s dark it should look the same. Maybe I’ll remember something.”


Ivor sat by Anna’s side and stared at the piece of road for a long time. There was very little to see. It was a corner on a narrow unlit country road with a warning sign for the coming bend. There were trees and fenced-off fields on either side, and a small farmhouse with lights in its three windows just visible directly ahead, between the trees on the crest of a hill. An unremarkable fragment of rural Essex. He was about to apologize for asking her to drive him to the spot, when the first flashback occurred. It was nothing more than a momentary recollection of two dazzling lights approaching him. The first image that he had been able to regain from his entire life prior to the accident. “I’ve remembered something,” he told her with a childish excitement, “Lights. Bright lights coming towards me.” She squeezed his hand and smiled. It was the first time he could recall seeing her smile.


Dr Sullivan was interested in his breakthrough but less encouraging than Ivor had hoped. “It’s quite unusual for events close to the accident to come back first,” he explained. “Often they’re the last thing a person in your situation is able to recall. It makes me wonder if it could be a false memory.”

Ivor shook his head. “I’m certain it’s real,” he insisted. “When I close my eyes and think about it, I can see it very clearly, even now. I can see the three lights of the house in the distance, the road sign for the bend, and then the lights of the other car coming towards me.”

Sullivan nodded approvingly. “And what do you do then?”


“Yes. You’re driving a car and another one is coming towards you fast. What do you do? Do you swerve? Do you brake?”

to be continued...