Tom woke up. He was near a window. There was light shining on his face. He was in bed. But it wasn’t his bed. It was soft. It was possibly the most comfortable bed he had ever been in. Those weren’t his pyjamas he was wearing. In fact he wasn’t even wearing pyjamas at all. It felt like he was wearing some sort of loose tunic.
He tried to sit up. He couldn’t. His body just wouldn’t move.
What was he doing here? Where was it, in fact, and how did he get there?
Well, he was definitely in a room. One that looked a bit like a church. An old one with pillars and arches. But it didn’t smell musty like those places normally did.
He could hear something. Birds singing outside? No, maybe human voices. They weren’t talking though. They were singing. And there was something else. Something which seemed completely out of place. What was it?
A mouth organ. He could hear a mouth organ. Somebody was playing a mouth organ. It was a sort of slow jig. As soon as he’d realised that, though, it stopped.
Then he remembered his argument with Amanda. Well, it hadn’t really been an argument, but it had left him feeling battered. He was going to lose her. He was definitely going to lose her. He just knew it.
But that still didn’t explain how he’d got here, wherever here was.
Another part of his mind arrived. He remembered the accident. It was almost a relief. That was it then. He must be in hospital. Except that he couldn’t quite remember where there was a hospital near Southampton in a building like this one.
He tried to move his arms and his legs. He couldn’t. Nothing seemed to respond to his brain. He didn’t hurt anywhere either. Surely there should be some cuts and bruises even if nothing was broken?
Perhaps, then, the accident had been a long time ago. Or perhaps he was paralysed. This must be one of those places where they care for people like that. Maybe he’d even been in a coma for a very long time.
Had she been to see him? How old was he now?
“Oh, you’m awake then?” he heard a voice say. It was a young voice. Somebody else his age.
The mouth organ sounded again. Just a couple of notes this time.
Tom tried to turn, but he couldn’t.
“Don’t worry,” said the voice. “You won’t be able to move for a bit yet. You’ve gotta learn to do it again. S’alright.”
Tom went to speak. He tried to make out where the voice was coming from. He wanted to ask the speaker who he was.
“Hang on,” said the voice. “I’ll come round where you can see me.”
A shadow moved from the right side of his bed.
“There, that’s better, you can see me now,” said the young man. Tom guessed he was probably another patient. He had an oval face, long brown hair and a small pointed nose. He was very pale and rather thin. He looked almost weightless. “Marcus is the name, by the way,” he said and grinned. He played a little trill on his mouth organ. “Hey, it’s good to have another’un like me. Most of the people here are old and grumpy. The young’uns don’t hang around very long if they come here at all. It’ll be good to have some company me own age. I’ve heard you’ve got an awkward problem. Probably in for a longish stint, then.”
Tom wanted to reply. He tried to ask Marcus where exactly they were. He just couldn’t get his mouth to open. It also seemed as if he had forgotten how to breathe.
“Hey, mister, I saw a muscle move in your cheek then,” said Marcus. “You’ll be ready in about half an hour.” He played a fast trill.
Ready? thought Tom. Ready for what?
“You’ll be able to get up, and get cracking on whatever it is they want you to do,” said Marcus. “The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be out of here.”
Tom supposed that could be a good thing. Get out of this place, wherever it is, and get back to normal life. Go and find Amanda. Perhaps she might reconsider going to London … or could he go to Wales?
“Naw!” said Marcus, frowning. “I bet they’ll process you ever so quickly, despite what they said. They always do. Then I’ll be on me own again. Nobody ever hangs around here long. Especially the young‘uns. Except me, of course, I ain’t going nowhere.” He played two desolate sounding notes.
“You again,” said another voice. It sounded like a woman. Someone a little bit younger than Tom’s mother. “What are you doing here? Haven’t you got things to be getting on with?”
“Just being friendly!” said Marcus. “Don’t you let her bully you,” he added, looking at Tom. He then darted between the pillars opposite Tom’s bed and disappeared completely.
Must be a door there, or something, thought Tom.
“So, how’s it going Tom?” said the woman. She was now standing right next to him, just where Marcus had been. It was really odd, because she hadn’t moved there. She was just there.
It must be the drugs they’ve given me, thought Tom.
The woman smiled at him. She had long blond hair and slender arms. Odd thing that she was wearing though. Very old-fashioned. Some sort of long white dress. But it did go with the building, he supposed.
“Still can’t talk?” said the woman. “Don’t worry. It won’t be long.” She pulled the duvet off the bed. It was white and light. She started to examine his chest with her hands. He felt a very slight pressure and at the same time some life seemed to come back into his legs.
“You felt that, didn’t you?” she said and smiled again. She was very pale. Why was she so pale? He could understand about Marcus, who was another patient. But why were the nurses pale as well?
She fumbled in a canvas bag that Tom had not noticed before. She took out a long metal instrument that looked like an oversized fork. She prodded it into his knee. That hurt. One by one, more odd-shaped metal tools came out of the bag. She used them to test different parts of his body.
“Yes?” she asked, as she stroked his arm with what looked like a rigid feather.
Tom went to nod his head. He couldn’t make it move. The hope he’d had a few seconds ago faded. He must be paralysed after all. Then his head did move. He felt as if he was moving a huge boulder just with his head. But at least it moved.
“Excellent,” said the woman. “We’ll have you up and walking about later today.”
Walking about? So, he wasn’t paralysed. Perhaps he’d had some sort of operation.
“Good. It’s all good,” she continued. “I’m Rema, by the way. I’m your body coach. I’m going to get Zeboth along. He’ll be responsible for your daily care. Hopefully you won’t be here for very long. You youngsters usually aren’t.”
What about Marcus? thought Tom. There didn’t seem to be all that much wrong with him, except that he was very pale, but not really any paler than Rema.
“Except of course, our dear Marcus,” she added, frowning as she pulled the duvet back over him.
She was doing it now, as well, just like Marcus had earlier. Reading his mind, apparently.
“Well then,” said a male voice. Another young male voice. It was coming from where Rema had just been standing.
How had that happened?
“I’m Zeboth,” said the owner of the voice. He was tall and slim, just like Rema. He had the same fine blond hair which was long and flowing and came down to his shoulders. He was wearing a pair of loose trousers and a floaty tunic, which looked as if they were made out of silk He was pale, too, just like Rema and Marcus. “It is my job to help you with everything apart from the maintenance of your body. That is Rema’s department.”
Now it sounded like prison.
“Don’t worry, though,” Zeboth continued. “You’ll be able to talk later today and then you can ask me questions … some of which I’ll be able to answer, hopefully. Now, are you comfortable enough?”
Tom was comfortable. He could feel the whole softness of this bed now. It was a great place to be.
“Good,” said Zeboth. “You can go to sleep if you like. Chances are, when you wake up again, you’ll be able to sit up and even speak. Then Rema can start her work properly.”
Tom did manage to sleep. It was just so comfortable here. He was soon in a dreamy half-awake half asleep state, and then he fell into a deeper sleep where he had soothing dreams. He actually saw the accident all over again, but it wasn’t scary or even distressing. He just saw what happened, as if he was looking down at it. It was amazing how the bigger car had whacked poor Binky and sent her spinning. At least he could be relieved that it wasn’t his fault. He saw snatches of other things too. Little scenes that he had lived through which he’d not thought much of at the time, but now he could see they’d been important. He woke up just as he was going again through his conversation with Amanda on the night of the accident. A faint tune was being played on a mouth organ.
Marcus was standing next to his bed.
“You’m awake again, then” he said. “Have you come back to life yet?”
Tom did feel more alive. Without stopping to think, he sat up in bed. Definitely everything was working better now.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m wide awake now.”
“And you can talk now,” replied Marcus. “Great. I’ll have some company for a bit then.”
Tom stared at Marcus. What was he wearing? He hadn’t really taken that much notice before. But it was definitely weird. It looked a bit like a judo outfit, but thicker.
“It’s a strange place, this hospital,” said Tom. “Why do the nurses wear such funny clothes?”
“Hospital?” said Marcus. He laughed. “This ain’t no hospital,” he said. “They ain’t nurses. Don’t you get it? You’m dead and you ain’t gone to the Good Place yet – nor the Bad Place for that matter, only we don’t like to talk about that. This is the Between Place.”