The unfamiliar noise outside was enough to waken him, and for one moment, as he crossed the barrier between sleep and wakefulness he had a tantalizing snatch of memory, too vague, too transitory to do more than make him gasp with unrecalled and unremembered fear.
It was hard to breathe with the tightness, the panic that crushed his heart within him. Struggling for air he froze, terrified, unable to move for the utter dread that filled him. That inexplicable noise on the other side of the door paused, as if there was someone, something, standing out there, waiting to come in, waiting to harm him.
The scraping shuffle faded into the distance, and he breathed again, trying to hold onto that transitory memory, but it too, like the sound, faded away before he was able to grasp hold of it, to make it tangible. There was a fleeting impression of blood splashing on his face, on his lips, and a nightmare image of that solitary figure appearing from the surrounding darkness, its face hidden in sinister shadows.
Then it was gone. He could not bring back the memory, even if he had wanted to. Lying there in the warmth as silence spread through the room, he forced his reluctant body to relax again. For some reason the loss of his individuality, his whole past even, did not frighten him, did not worry him. It was as if his subconscious was satisfied, at least for the time being, to close off the past and let him start again. A new life. Anonymity. And with that obscurity there was a sense of peace.
So, content and at ease, he allowed himself to drift back to sleep. A deep, dreamless sleep, nothing to concern him, nothing to trouble him. Sleep such as he had not slept for a long, long time.
The light from the corridor was still filling the room with a soft night-light gleam when he awoke once more. Wide awake this time with no soft blurry half-conscious hinterland between sleeping and waking. Awake and alert. The quietness was not even disturbed by the faint clicking of the heating system. But it was morning. Some internal clock, some instinct told him that it was well after 6 a.m. and therefore time that he got out of bed, got moving, got dressed and then……
Despite his reluctance, the urge to get out of the warm bed was overwhelming, as if it had been ingrained into him over years. Once he had switched on the light, he considered the room, wondering if his impressions from the previous evening had been faulty. No. It was still a tiny box-room. Impersonal and austere but at the same time warm and somehow hospitable, as if it had no expectations of any of its inhabitants. It made no pretence to luxury or finery, and did not expect much in return. He had slept well. And had been warm. That was all that mattered for now.
Once dressed, with a scowl at the now stiffened bloodstains on sweatshirt and jeans, he picked up the plastic carrier bag of basic toiletries, slung the bath towel over his shoulder, and unlocked the door. He slipped the door key into his pocket, aware that it was the only thing that provided him with shelter and protection.
He could not remember much about the building from the previous night. He recalled the policemen, and the woman who had shown him to his room but little else. However, the bathroom was easy enough to find. Small and basic; a sink with unbreakable steel mirror above it, a toilet, a shower. Hanging up the scrubby towel, he undressed again, loathe to remain in the soiled clothes for any longer than necessary. With hesitation he stepped forward to peer into the mirror, unsure of what he was going to face. An unknown countenance stared back at him. Pale hair, pale skin, He had know that already, but it was quite different to actually see a stranger’s face staring back at him. Someone he had never seen before. Blue eyes, a cleft chin, a slight scar on their lower lip. Reaching up he touched his mouth with one tentative finger, wondering how and when he got that small disfigurement.
Then abruptly, without warning, a flash blazed across his mind and made him gasp with its suddenness, its threat. A silent figure, stepping forward from the dark, menacing, terrifying.
The memory flared like a spark before it vanished, leaving him hunched and clutching the edge of the sink with hands so tight that if it had not been heavy porcelain it might have cracked under his fingers. Head down, hands trembling he remained there for what seemed like an eternity, heaving great breaths into his lungs until he regained enough courage to look up again, to face himself once more.
He avoided looking in the mirror for any longer than necessary after that, and once he had finished at the sink he turned on the shower, grateful to be able to move away from that small reflective surface that held such unknown terror.
It was with relief that he stepped under the spray, wincing as hot water and cheap soap combined to sting on scraped and scuffed skin. By the time he was done and had redressed, grimacing with distaste at the feel of unclean clothing, he could hear other people moving outside. He put the bath towel on the radiator in his; he had already begun to think of it as ‘his’ room, and then with some trepidation opened the door and stepped into the corridor to face the future.
He stood there, uncertain, unsure. Wondering what he was expected to do, where he was to go, if there was some particular order to the day.
‘Hey. You.’ The voice slurred and drugged and thick with sleep startled him out of his confusion. Turning, he faced the speaker, an older man, short and thin to the point of emaciation, aged beyond his years. The speaker shambled towards him, hands trembling, feet unsteady, the shuffling scraping sound of shoes dragging along the floor repeating the sounds that had so perturbed the newcomer during the night. ‘You,’ the old man reiterated, ‘new here eh?
The man designated as Shepherd paused, thought, considered. ‘Yes. I came last night.’
The soft-spoken words were seized upon. ‘Last night. Don’t have any fags on you by any chance?’ There was an unspoken threat, a sense of intimidation behind the innocuous request.
A cool female voice interrupted the conversation, a voice that the newcomer recognized. ‘Eric, you know the rules. Any smoking inside the building and I will evict you. Be sure of that. Now go and get cleaned up. You stink of alcohol. No breakfast unless you are showered.’ Rebecca watched as the discomfited alcoholic shambled across to the vacant bathroom.
‘Good morning.’ She acknowledged the younger man. ‘Sleep alright? Get some breakfast and then I will need to talk to you. This way.’ He followed her along the corridor, past other closed bedroom doors, other small bathrooms, to a spacious open plan area where a large TV was relaying non-stop sports programmes.
Small canteen tables and chairs at one end, large sofas and armchairs clustered nearer the television. There was no one else in the room, no one to stare at him, or to ask questions that he could not answer.
Rebecca indicated a closed hatch at the end of the room, with a chalk board above it. A scrawled message about meal times just legible on the smudged and scuffed black surface.
‘You get your meals from there. The cook will have breakfast ready soon; just help yourself to whatever you want. There’s no rush, so take your time. I’ll come and find you when I am ready.’
And she gave him one quick apologetic smile as if to atone for her initial unwillingness to accommodate him before heading back to her office. Tense and upright, he sat at one of the tables, back against the wall, needing the security of being able to see who was coming into the room, grateful for the chance to remain inconspicuous.
As he listened to the noises from the kitchen; the muted clatter of pans, boiling water bubbling, a muttered angry comment in a foreign language, he felt his tight control relax and he tried to recall what happened last night. Some things were easy, the police, curt and efficient, lifting him despite his frantic protests, into the back of a van; a hateful experience being enclosed like that and unable to get out. Then the brusque examination at the hospital, his inability to recall anything, the doctor’s terse, unsympathetic diagnosis and then the journey in the dark but this time in the back of a police car, the accompanying officers concerned, sympathetic, gentle. Now………………..
The sudden rattle of the hatch startled him from his reverie.
Shortly afterwards, a little bemused but appreciative, he was enjoying crisp bacon, buttery scrambled eggs and thick white toast, a large mug of coffee on the table in front of him. With eyes lowered, but missing nothing, he observed the other men who wandered into the dining area. A rag-tag assortment of misfits, all ages, all sizes, all with one thing in common though. They, like he himself, had nowhere else to go.
He scooped up the last scraps of egg with his fork, sitting back to drink the dregs of the coffee from the chipped mug. A solitary figure, separated from the others by virtue of his recent arrival.
He knew they were assessing him as well. Eyeing him up and down, wondering if he was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a gambler, or simply yet another unlucky sod who had had the misfortune to lose his job and his way of life. If only it was that easy, he thought with a wry and somewhat cynical grin. Coping with losing a job was simple, coping with losing one’s entire life up to the present time was a little more problematic.
‘Ready then?’ Rebecca Steel approached him. ‘We need to get the formalities done as soon as possible. The quicker we get you sorted the better.’
He pushed his chair back, picking up his empty plate, mug, cutlery and taking them over to the hatch that opened onto the large kitchen area. ‘Thank you,’ he murmured to the cook, before following the woman out of the dining area, knowing that he was the focus of attention.
It was a small office, and for some strange reason he felt awkward sitting there in front of the utilitarian desk, as if he was in the wrong place. But he sat waiting, hands clasped like a small schoolboy sitting in front of his head teacher.
‘So, details.’ She was all brisk efficiency now. Complete the formalities and, with any luck he might be off her hands before the end of the day. ‘Name?’
He tilted his head, blue eyes staring into space, not focusing on her, as if he was trying to hold onto a glimmer of memory. ‘No idea. Sorry.’ His mouth tightened in annoyance. ‘I wish I did know.’
‘Right. So what do you know about yourself? What can you tell me?’
For a moment a flash of annoyance crossed his elegant features. ‘Tell you Miss Steel? There is actually very little I can tell you. I am, as you can see, a male, probably aged about 40, at least that is what the doctor at the hospital said. I am in good health, most-likely well-educated and a professional in some field or other, although exactly what career I have no idea.’ He moved forward on the hard plastic seat and held out his hands, turning them over, inspecting them as if he had never seen them before, as if they were the hands of a total stranger, ‘No wedding ring, no signs of manual labour, no…..’ and he pushed the stained sleeves of his sweatshirt back over his elbows on both arms, before holding his arms out, palms up for her close scrutiny. ‘No injection marks. I am not a drug addict, I don’t have a craving for alcohol and I have no interest in gambling. What else do you need to know?’ There was a frisson of anger in his voice, but also a slight tremble that betrayed his quiet distress.
She leaned back, contemplating him. A tall man, slender, mentally and physically bruised and battered by life’s callousness, and now looking back at her for help that she could either offer or deny. The decision was hers.
Shepherd. He was no naïve youth, no vulnerable homeless stray, easy pickings for the predatory drug addicts and troublemakers on the streets. But. If he was being honest about his loss of memory, and she had no reason to suspect otherwise, then he was helpless. He would never be able to look after himself. Not in this city.
He gazed at her, as if he could see right into her soul. ‘Thank you.’ he stood up, holding out one hand.
‘Sorry?’ she questioned him.
‘For giving me somewhere to sleep last night. I appreciate what you did. And now? Well, I’m sure I will be able to manage until my memory returns.’ He turned away, unwilling to show her the depth of his fear. Of having to leave here, having to face an unfamiliar world. Unprotected. Alone.
‘Oh, please, sit down.’ She was at the door, in an attempt to prevent him from leaving before she realized where she was. ‘You can’t leave. You wouldn’t last two hours out there. Tell me what the hospital said.’
He sat down again, and she could see his body shake as unspoken, unwanted tension dissipated then he grimaced as if remembering some unwelcome event. ‘The doctor diagnosed me as suffering from short-term amnesia. Told me it’s most likely a reaction to something I experienced and my mind just shut down. I might not regain my past for days or even months.’ He looked up, grateful for her sympathetic silence. ‘So. What happens now?’
‘Well, first you need a name. Then I can get you onto the system. We’ll take it from there. So, what shall we call you for now? Any preferences?’ she grinned at him, a wide welcoming smile that calmed his fears, and silently assured him of his worth, his significance. The fact that he actually mattered to someone.
His tone was diffident, hesitant. ‘I don’t know. I don’t mind, I mean. Whatever you think.’ He seemed flustered by the need to make the decision, as if he was happy to hand over that choice to someone else.
‘Well a surname is simple. Shepherd. And how about John, as in John Doe. John Shepherd. How does that sound?’
John Shepherd. He rolled the name around his mind, feeling it settle into place, as if it had always been there, comfortable and at ease. It fitted.
Sara Harper watched as the steel door to the cold body chamber opened and the tray slid in on silent, polished runners. Something about the man’s face, about his demeanour, even when dead, had affected her more deeply than she had thought possible after so many years doing this work. He was an enigma.
And not just because of the manner of his death. There had been an indefinable quality to his features, as if….. but she had another body to deal with and there was no time to stand and contemplate just another one of her many clients.
She went to scrub for her next autopsy. Another male. But an old man. And this time her job was simple. Confirmation of a heart attack. She started cutting a neat and precise line across from the shoulder to the sternum. And as she did so with well-trained, well-practised actions, her thoughts strayed yet again to that man who had seemed so calm, so peaceful.
Practical, efficient, methodical. She cut and sawed, opened and examined, weighed and recorded and all the time, throughout the whole faultless and exact process, her mind drifted back time and again to that perfect face in tranquil repose, in such utter, blissful stillness. She knew that it would continue to haunt her and wondered what kind of man he had been, imagined his eyes, flashing with humour, or perhaps anger. Dull eyes, when she had seen them, dulled by death, not by pain or stress. And that was a relief as well, to know that, whoever he was, he had not suffered. His death had been sudden, painless. A quick death, so quick that he had not had time to be aware of it. That must surely be the reason for the composure, the serenity that had suffused him.
She finished her work and prepared the old man. It was a task that she could have left to her assistant, but today she needed to immerse herself in the everyday task of sewing and washing and arranging the body. Just another old person. She would forget him. But the familiar routine did not ease her mind as she had hoped it would do, did not wash away that image of short blond hair framing a tranquil face. And she doubted that it would fade from her thoughts.
Another steel door closed. Another end.
Life went on. Regardless.
Hot water soothed her emotions as she cleaned already spotless hands, pushing the small scrubbing brush along and between her fingers, under her nails and around her wrists, the repetitive action calming her, washing away her surface thoughts, as it washed away any residual taint of the unpleasant tasks she had accomplished that morning. But his face remained there, in her mind’s eye.
With brisk efficiency she dried her hands and arms ready to begin yet another task, when she was interrupted by footsteps that heralded the arrival of her assistant.
‘SIS had been on the phone again Dr. Harper. They are asking for the report on the man you autopsied this morning. And Mr Freeman has also been in touch.’
‘The blond man? Straker? I haven’t written it up yet.’ She looked over at the mortuary table where yet another body lay, waiting for her to begin her examination. ‘You can tell them that there was no obvious cause of death. No injuries, nothing untoward in the toxicology results. Nothing. It was almost as if he just stopped functioning, as if his brain shut down. I’ll go over the results again this afternoon, but I know I didn’t miss anything. Most strange.’ She paused, thinking, then continued, a hint of regret and sadness in her quiet voice, ‘An interesting case. I was intrigued by his expression. There was something unusual about the way he looked, as if he was an innocent, a man with no worries or stresses. As if everything had been wiped away to leave him free of everyday cares.’ She shook her head as if to try dismiss such irrational thoughts, and turned to deal with her next patient.
But she knew that his face would continue to haunt her, however much she tried to forget. Sara Harper had dealt with many difficult cases; innocent victims of assault, young men struck down by seemingly inexplicable causes, the elderly, dying alone and ignored until the stench of decomposition brought them to the notice of uncaring neighbours. This one case, this single man, had made such a profound impact on her that she knew that she would always recall that perfect serenity of acceptance that had smoothed away the stress of past years. And she hoped that one day, when her life was ending, she would have that same calm acceptance, that blissful ignorance of approaching death.