I've made a handful of submissions to agents but had no luck yet. Considering the competition out there, have I just been unlucky so far, or is my piece not up to scratch? This is chapter one of my novel, "The Name in Shadow". Any feedback would be greatly appreciated:
How can that be me?
The aspirin packets have been moved – they’re not even together. What’s going on?
As I rearrange them on the shelf, I spot the bruises on my knuckles. Please, not again. I pull back my shirt sleeve. There they are: more cuts and scratches. And a graze near my elbow.
The inside of my mouth tastes foul. I pick up my jacket from the floor and take a sniff: it stinks of tobacco smoke. No pack of cigarettes in the pocket, but that doesn’t mean much. Maybe I smoked last night, maybe I didn’t. Who can say?
The headache’s getting worse. Flashing lights, the works. Time for some more aspirins. There must be enough here for a whole football team.
* * *
I’ve been stupid: I should have counted how many tablets I took, instead of swallowing the lot.
My heart’s racing, my ears are ringing, and I’m panting like I’ve just run a marathon. I’m beginning to shut down. Stupid, stupid!
I can’t make it to the door because my legs have turned to jelly. The carpet is pressed against my face, and I might be sick.
At least the phone’s in my back pocket. I can barely focus on the screen, though, and it’s slipping out of my sweaty hand. I’ll just have to lie still and wait. Nice and still. Close my eyes…
* * *
A hard smack. My cheek’s stinging, and Dad is shouting at me. What’s he on about, waving his arms in the air like a deranged mime artist? Why can’t he just leave me alone?
How long have I been here? Was I unconscious? Did Dad knock? All I can hear is buzzing and hissing.
What are they? Wood splinters? He probably had to break down the door. I wonder if the lock—
Now he’s shaking me. Or am I dreaming? Hang on, I think he’s lifting me to my feet. Ah, we’re heading for the stairs. This’ll be interesting…
* * *
My head’s lolling from side to side. How can I be expected to sleep?
Ow! Stop pinching my leg! I look through the passenger window, but everything’s a blur. Dad’s driving like a maniac.
* * *
They’ve rushed me into some sort of emergency room. The doctor keeps asking me questions: ‘Do you understand why you’re here? Can you tell me your name?’ I don’t know what I’m telling him.
Now I’m retching, except I’m not being sick. Something’s being forced into my throat, and I’m too weak to fight back. They’re pinning me down, and a harsh light is shining straight in my eyes. The whole world is trying to penetrate me! I scream, but there’s no sound.
* * *
‘Breathe normally. Try not to swallow.’ A cool sensation is spreading through my stomach. I can’t speak; a snake is sliding deep into my body, gobbling up my entrails. I don’t care anymore. Let it eat me.
I want to close my eyes, but a voice keeps talking to me. An elephant is standing on its head. What on earth’s it doing here? Somebody with an enormous mouth is coming my way, spitting at me. Tiny pieces of coloured paper are flying towards me, and now the bed’s covered in them. The more I try to brush them off, the worse it gets – they’re all over the place.
A blaring noise makes me jump, and I look up into a grinning face. No! I turn away and bury myself in the sheets. When I look again, the face has gone, and so has all the paper.
* * *
The snake has eaten its way right through my body. Someone must have carried me off because I’m sitting on a toilet, and my insides are falling out. Maybe this is what I’ve needed. Not to die, but to purge myself of everything within me, literally to lose myself. Did it have to be this bad, though?
* * *
I can’t move my arm in case the needle falls out. I’m comfortable enough, apart from a sensation of emptiness, which I don’t mind. Because they finally let me sleep, I’m nice and relaxed at the moment. My head hurts, although I guess I’d better not ask for an aspirin.
I’m in a small room of my own here: a solitary bed, a white bedside unit with a vase of yellow flowers, an empty chair and the stand holding the intravenous drip. Thankfully, the sheets are heavy. Tucked in tight. All good.
There’s a gentle knock. A nurse appears by the door, her head tilted slightly, her expression friendly. ‘You have a visitor.’ The door opens wider, and Dad walks in, already unbuttoning his overcoat. Mother’s not with him. Probably for the best.
‘How are you feeling, Paul?’
‘My throat’s pretty sore.’
‘That’s not surprising. They told me what the doctors had to do to you.’
‘You didn’t deserve to be put through this, Dad.’
‘I’m just glad I got to you in time.’ He sits down beside me. ‘It’s your mother I’m concerned about. She was terrified.’
‘Tell her I’ll be OK.’
‘I have a better suggestion. Why not tell her yourself? They’ll be letting you out soon – you can stay at our house for a while.’
‘Is that what they told you to say?’
‘Don’t start getting paranoid, son. The consultant said it would be a good move, that’s all, and I agree with him. No one’s forcing you. You’re being seen for an assessment after this, aren’t you? Why not give yourself a break and recover at home with us?’
‘So you can keep me under observation, you mean? Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through this again.’
‘Glad to hear it. What do you say, then?’
I can’t really turn him down. Not after all this. ‘Yes, I’ll come home for a bit.’
‘Good. Your mother and I can never get used to the thought of you living on your own in that tiny flat.’
‘It suits me.’
‘Well, it suits us to take care of you right now.’
I smile my thanks. ‘Would you mind taking a look in the cabinet for me? I can’t reach that far. Have they put my things in there?’
Dad pulls open the bedside drawer. ‘Your phone’s here.’
‘What about my Arsenal key fob?’
He holds it up. ‘There’s no key on it.’
‘I know. Could you pass it to me, please?’
He hands it over without asking why I want it, thank goodness. I roll the fob around in my palm. The number ten has almost completely worn away.
Dad gazes out of the window. ‘Nice view from here. You can see the park. Not that you’ve had a chance to enjoy—’
‘I need to ask you something. When you brought me here, how was I acting, exactly?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘I appreciate I was in a bad way, but did you notice any particular change in me?’ He watches me intently without saying a word. ‘Did I do anything that was so different, so … uncharacteristic, that I was like, I don’t know, like somebody else? Something I said, for instance? To be fair, I was probably talking gibberish the whole time.’
‘You did come out with a few words before they put the tube in you. It wasn’t gibberish, though.’ I don’t like that look of his. ‘Paul, remind me, what languages did you study at school?’
‘A bit of French.’
‘Nothing else? Evening classes? Phrase books?’
‘Because yesterday you were speaking fluent Russian.’