Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen.
But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger. As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.
Read on for the first chapter of If I Die Before I Wake!
If I Die Before I Wake
‘What’s your intro, then?’
That’s what my news editor used to ask me as soon as I walked into the office. He’d say it without turning his gleaming bald head away from the computer screen. His unnervingly delicate fingers would be spidering across his keyboard, his bottom lip sticking out and wobbling as he mouthed the words he typed. I’d be expected to rattle out my answer straight away. The top line of the story. What you’d say to your friends at the pub to catch their attention. The most important part to tell the reader, so that if they stopped there, at least they would know the gist.
As a cub reporter I stammered out a few answers, staring down at the brown carpet tiles, sweating in my suit and tie, hoping for someone to step in and tell me how I should start. Before Bill could bark at me, I might try and beat him to it and ask, ‘What do you want me to go in on?’ It worked a few times but then he got irritated. He’d drag his eyes from the monitor, wheel his office chair out from under his desk with a push of his feet, place his hands gently on his medicine-ball stomach, and say, ‘I don’t know, Alexander. You tell me. You need me to hold your hand, sweetheart?’
In those days, I thought it would be impossible for me to ever despise a person more than I despised Bill, or for anyone to deliberately humiliate me more than he did. I have been proved wrong on both counts.
I’d attempt another answer, mesmerised as always by the disturbing pink smoothness of his flabby face. Then he’d add his pet catchphrase, which he delighted in shouting across the newsroom even after I learned to file perfect copy, ‘Want me to wipe your arse as well?’
Given my current condition, the irony of that final question is not lost on me. I heard it about once a week for four years but I never dreamed that I would actually need someone to clean up my shit on a daily basis before I turned thirty.
I learned to work out my intros as I walked back from press conferences, or drove back from interviews. What most excited me? What was the most important, the most arresting bit of information? How could I pull two, maybe three, elements into it and still keep it under twenty-five words? (‘Keep it short, keep it sexy,’ Bill used to growl.) That way, when I came through the doors of the Bristol Post offices, I could just sit down and write, knowing where I wanted to go.
But I’m struggling with the intro for this. I’ve got Bill’s voice in my head – he’s telling me to go straight in on the drama. How I ended up in hospital, the injustice, the heartbreak, the deceit and so on. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s the obvious stuff. The story I really want to tell boils down to one question. What will happen to me next?
The opening lines for the article Bill would want would be easy. But the version I want? That’s harder. The trouble is, you can’t write your intro until you know how the story ends. So I have two versions ready:
A BRISTOL man has been hailed a medical miracle after waking up from a two-year coma to enjoy an emotional reunion with his family.
A BRISTOL climber, who had been in a coma since a fall in the Avon Gorge two years ago, has died.
Everyone thinks that behind my eyes there is darkness.
They think that when I wake up they will have to fill me in on months of lost time. They believed, of course, that I would wake up. At first. But after a year or so had passed – when I heard nurses discussing their New Year’s Eve plans for the second time since I’d been in this place – I knew. My family were turning. When they visited my hospital bed, I picked it up in their voices. Hope and determination were becoming weariness and
Hope For An End – whatever end – raced head- to- head with Hope For A Sign Of Life. Would the race have been run differently, if they’d known the truth about what happened when the starting gun was fired? Who knows? As it was, Hope For An End was edging it.
And who can blame them? I must look totally lifeless. I can’t talk, I can’t move. I can’t tell them that I hear every word they say.
My life as I knew it was stopped shortly after I turned twenty-seven. Now hours, days and months merge together into a trick of time, so all I know for sure is that I’ve been conscious for two Christmases – you can’t miss it when carol singers visit each bed on the ward – and I assume that makes the length of my imprisonment a couple of years so far. The words the doctors and nurses use include ‘coma’ and ‘vegetative state’. They have no idea that I am awake; no tests show them the activity in my brain that I’m desperate for them to see.
I don’t know what is wrong with me either. How can I be paralysed but still able to feel when a nurse touches me? How can I seem to be a vegetable but actually understand everything that’s going on? Sometimes my eyes open of their own accord. The doctors tell my family: ‘it happens – nothing to get excited about’. But how would they explain the fact that I can see, in those random, thrilling, moments? A coma patient can’t see, surely? Okay, so I can’t see properly. I see shapes, shades of grey. Changes in the light. Not people’s faces or features. Not colours. But still – this isn’t what I thought being in a coma would feel like.
I wonder if I’m the only one of me in the world. A medical phenomenon they don’t even know exists.
All of this leads to one place: a decision my family must make about whether they should pull the plug. From what the doctors say, I know I’m not attached to any kind of life-support machine. So, strictly speaking, there’s no plug to pull – but I have learned that there are other ways to let someone like me fade away. I am fighting for my life, fighting to be kept alive. I have to prove there is something worth saving.
I’ve tried moving: nothing. I can’t even make myself blink. I’ve tried talking: nothing. The doctors never notice any physical progress. But what if there is some other way I could show them that my mind is working? If I can keep my brain ticking over as much as possible; if I can think and think and think; if I can train my mind to keep active and moving; then maybe things will change. My brain might jump-start my body. Or perhaps they will see something when they next wheel me into the MRI scanner for tests.
Maybe then they will grab me by the hand, or by the collar of this hospital gown – I don’t care which – and pull me out of this hole. Give me back my pile of clothes, hand me my release papers, open the doors and let me walk out. Maybe they will talk to me, treat me like a proper human being. There must be a way.
So, here I am: telling myself my own story, to keep my mind moving. Back in the day I’d have been delighted to land this assignment. There’s a lot of meat, plenty for me to get my teeth into – both in the darkness of my time in hospital, and the darkness of what put me here.
There are details that I’d have had to phrase carefully to get past the editor. There would have been legal hoops to jump through so that I didn’t risk prejudicing the trial. The paper would have splashed on it; maybe even for two days in a row if I’d found enough angles. It would have been picked up by the nationals and won me some awards. This is the kind of scoop that could make a career.
I feel like I used to when I called in to a copytaker, back in the early days before they were all made redundant. Before we all started emailing our articles straight in to the newsdesk. Every now and then I am tempted to use a bit of the lingo – add an extra level for me to concentrate on and exercise my brain that bit harder. I could say ‘Point’ to indicate the end of each sentence. ‘Par’ for a new paragraph. ‘Ends’ for the end of each piece. Point. But I’m not sure I can be bothered to do that the whole time. Point. This story isn’t just a quick fifty-word NIB. Point. It could get tedious. Point. Par.
But I like to let myself run with this scenario, sometimes. Allow myself to believe I’m not so alone, and that I’m not talking to myself. I imagine it just like the old days. I’m sitting in my car, parked up next to a murder scene: a pot washer in a Fishponds café has stabbed his boss over unpaid wages, in front of horrified customers enjoying their fry-ups. I have spoken to a barber from across the street, who tearfully told me the dead man was a ‘top guy, the kind of person who always stopped to say hello’. The usual kind of thing.
Murder, I learned in my years as a reporter, affects the lives of the most ordinary people. Not just those you might think deserve it. No one ever thinks it will happen to them, until it does.
‘Put me through to a copytaker,’ I say. She answers the phone brightly with a thick Bristolian accent, ‘Morning! Where you to, then?’ She’s wearing her headset, tapping away on the keyboard with painted false nails, as I read to her. She stops me every now and then to check a sentence, tell me I’ve used the same word twice, or that it’s too windy to hear me, but otherwise all she says is, ‘Mmm. Yep. Go on,’ before she eventually signs off. And that’s what I want now: I don’t want questions, demands. I want to explain how everything I felt sure of was thrown into doubt, how horrifying it is to find out that someone wants to do you harm. I just want to talk.
That’s a lie. I don’t ‘just’ want to talk. It hurts – physically hurts – to think about all the things I want to do.
Had I known this whole situation was on the cards I would have done so much more. Led on the most difficult climb in the Gorge. Pitched to present a TV show where I explored remote deserts and interviewed indigenous tribes living halfway up desolate mountainsides. I would have scaled Everest. I would have enjoyed the small stuff, the everyday things, too. I would have looked at the sky more.
If I could get out of here, I would spend a night asleep in my own bed under a duvet that didn’t smell of starch, lying however the hell I wanted to lie – not where a nurse had arranged me, propped up with cushions. If I woke up to a sound in the night, I wouldn’t be terrified of the dark, because I’d be able to defend myself. In the morning, I would roll over to face Bea, and watch her sleep for a few minutes before waking her up. She would climb on top of me and take over my lips with those starving kisses. One thing would lead to another, and afterwards I wouldn’t make the bed.
I would eat a bacon sandwich – crisp salty meat on slices of soft white bloomer. Brown sauce. There would be fresh coffee in the cafetière filling the flat with the smell of toasted nuts and sugar on the edge of burning; there would be ice-cold apple juice; Bea would hand me a bowl of bright pink fresh grapefruit so sour it would make me wince. I would walk – no, run – through the streets in the rain. I would talk and talk and talk.
Since being struck dumb, I have so much to say.
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