THURSDAY: The Woman in Purple

BY ANNE GOODWIN

Copyright is held by the author.

SOMEONE IS trying to kill me: I can feel their hunger knocking on my bones. Hear it. Taste it. Like someone’s hurling rocks at the glassy surface of a pond in winter. But I refuse to crack.

When I open my eyes there’s no sign of someone. No noose, no sword, no gun. No shard of ice or jagged piece of mirror. Only me.

Of course, the someone could be hiding in the wardrobe; in the ensuite bathroom; underneath the bed. Yet it’s too bland here to be a murder scene: a mid-range hotel room, decked out in shades of oatmeal designed to arouse neither pleasure nor offence. There’s nothing to snag the eye when setting out in comfortable shoes with a street-map and city-guide; nothing to spoil clandestine couplings in the conference coffee break. Perhaps I’ll elude my assassin if I stay within these pastel-papered walls.

I’ve no other reason to be here. I’m not at a conference or on a city break. I’m not at work or on holiday of any description, but neither am I at home: my apartment has more personality than this. I like bright colours, bold statement pieces and, unlike here, I’m never anaesthetized by the babble of TV.

Away from home you can’t escape the television: every hotel room has a strategically-positioned screen. So guests can get their fix of morning news when dressing for breakfast. So insomniacs can get off on pay-per-view porn. But even in low-budget establishments there’s a choice of what to watch, or whether to watch at all. When I can summon the strength, I’ll get up and pull the plug on it. But it’s a shabby service with no zapper to silence it from the bed.

With a sideways glance, I check there’s no remote on the bedside table. Only an empty water glass in need of a wash. At least there’s none of the usual hotel clutter: miniature note pads, Gideon Bibles and clock radios that shock you awake with ample time to pack, shower, eat a hearty breakfast and catch the previous guest’s pre-dawn flight.

Judiciously avoiding the lure of the screen, I scan the room for hints of where I am and why. The only irregularity is a folded wheelchair parked beneath the window: the lightweight style for transporting the slow but otherwise ambulant along hospital corridors. Like the wrong colour hairs in the plughole, is this something the previous occupant left behind? You’d think they’d have noticed, however; it’s not like forgetting a stale sock.

Sprawled semi-supine – propped up by pillows (a selection of feather, down and memory-foam fillings) and cushions (two-tone damask to match the bedspread and curtains) – the word that comes to mind is beached. Beached on the bed. Limbs heavy as tree trunks; I tell myself I could move them if I wanted. If I had to. But if I tried, and found I couldn’t, I’d lose something. Or gain an ocean of fear.

Why aren’t I more frightened already? I’m perplexed, but at a distance, as if someone is intent on killing a stranger, not me. I’m beached, almost willingly, for a child to heap sand on my legs and torso. Lying still, playing along, instead of up on my feet, screaming. If I really can’t move, I ought to be shitting myself.

Of course, my mind’s as sluggish as my body at the moment. Could it be that I’ve had a stroke? That there’s no mysterious someone trying to kill me, but a clot barring blood from my brain? Maybe I am at a conference or on a city break but the cells responsible for recognition have failed to fire.

My gaze settles on a plastic bag outside the window, pinioned by the bare branches of a tree. Gusted by the breeze, it balloons and slumps, as if it’s breathing, but can’t break free. Beached on the bed, as long as my chest falls and rises, I’m alive.

For how long? I need medical intervention, and fast, but who knows I’m here? I try calling out, drop my jaw, but all I hear is a squeak.

I hope I’m not on holiday. Or if I am, I haven’t come alone. Or, if alone, I’m where I know the basics of the language. Or in a place so clogged with tourists, even the chambermaids speak English; where, once I recover my voice, the requisite vocabulary will flow.

The chambermaid: what time is it now and when is she due? Once more I inspect the bedside table: still no radio alarm. What type of dump denies its guests some means of marking time? There’s not even a phone to ring reception to complain.

Ashen cloud hangs behind the window. My tree has shed its leaves. It must be winter or late autumn. But is it morning or afternoon?

The television! I look across, but there’s no digital display in the corner of the screen. So I watch a woman standing at a lectern in the centre, sheathed in an unflattering purple dress. The picture is hazy, as if a relic from the days of plasma and the cathode ray. The woman reads from notes but all I hear is a dull murmur, sounds too stubborn to separate into words.

How screens seduce us with their flapping images and their prattle! How much time we waste mesmerized by their fake charms! Even a woman droning on a scrappy screen demands attention. But I mustn’t give her it. Delay can be lethal following a stroke. I need help, and the woman mumbling into a microphone is in no position to provide it. I try calling out once more, but I’m no louder or clearer than the TV.

The camera zooms out to reveal a banner at the back of the lecture hall. I squint to decipher the letters, as if on an ophthalmologist’s chart. INIFRNAIIONAE OONCRFSS OT IHANAIOLOCT ANO FIHIOS. No clues there. Has the power of reading deserted me or was the sign-writer also compromised? A second attempt yields more jabberwockian gobbledegook: INIFRNATIONAE OONCRESS OF TEANATOLOCT ANO FIEIOS. 

Yet I feel lighter. No longer marooned in the sand. As if my body’s comprehension outstrips my brain’s. As if it’s a message from the future, to pledge I’ll leave alive. This isn’t ordinary TV, but footage streamed directly from a conference! A conference underway right now in this hotel. With luck, I’ll be scheduled to present a paper; they’ll come and find me when I don’t appear for my slot.

Now the woman in purple pauses, and her gaze shoots right over the lectern, across the heads of her audience, and through the screen to me. “In conclusion,” she says, her manner assertive, her diction now pure, “there are more arguments in favour than against it. If you care about human dignity, if you believe in alleviating physical and psychological pain, if you advocate for individual autonomy, then I urge you, I urge you, ladies and gentlemen, to lend your support. For the sake of your fellow citizens! For your family and friends! And finally, for yourselves!”

The audience hesitates, but not for long. My room thunders with their applause. The woman smiles, shyly and slightly dazed, and my heart reaches out to her. I want to hug her, yet I don’t even know her. I believe in her, and in her desire and ability to set me free.

The screen turns misty. A tear rolls down my cheek. I don’t bother to wipe it away. I’m not ashamed.

I’ve always been strong on the outside, but more fragile underneath than others suspect. My summers never warm enough to melt my icy carapace, and each winter creates another layer, glassing over the latest cracks. But I’ll survive this. Whatever it takes, I’ll conquer this stroke. Whatever state it leaves me in, whatever capacities I’ve lost, I’ll cherish the life I’m left with. Peering into the pit of annihilation teaches us to value what we have.

The boy returns me to the beach now, giggling as he plasters sand on my legs, and packs it down. Is he my son, my brother, the child who’ll grow up to be my mate? A male version of me? Whoever he is, I promise to live for him; if we’re estranged, I’ll seek him out and make amends. Although I know there’ll be no notebook and pencil to scribble a reminder, I can’t resist a peek at the bedside chest.

Apart from that grimy water glass, the room is spotless. I hope that doesn’t mean the chambermaid’s been and gone. But an official, a colleague, another conference delegate will come for me. The woman in purple who’s just delivered the address.

Now she’s taking questions from the audience. I see her nodding, but I don’t hear what’s asked. “Of course,” she says, “it’s anathema to those who think their life belongs to God. But I’m not advocating a universal solution, only that people can have the choice. It’s unfair that religion should deny the option to nonbelievers. Disrespectful of diverse points of view. And besides, it’s not as if we don’t interfere already. Blood transfusions. Antibiotics. Surgery. Don’t they override God’s plan?”

A theology seminar? Not my natural habitat. I avert my eyes from the screen. Whatever the conference topic, the neatness of my room niggles. Where are my briefcase, conference pack, laptop, piles of papers? No chambermaid would touch such things, let alone spirit them away.

Apprehension swirls my stomach. Perhaps God’s trying to kill me. He’s brought me here as punishment for rejecting His creed. Or perhaps I’m dead already. Beached on a bed before a screen in a vanilla hotel room would be my kind of hell.

Now my mind is really going haywire. I’ve got keep my wits to endure until rescue arrives. But my energy is limited. I return to the woman in purple in the absence of anyone else.

“As I said earlier,” she says, in reply to another question, “whether we prize one life above another is irrelevant. As it happens, such calculations are abhorrent to me too. And my record on disability rights might not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than most.”

The camera pans a row of delegates in wheelchairs at the front of the hall. Some are nodding, others shake their heads. But, whatever their opinion of the woman in purple, it explains the wheelchair under the window in this room. The chairs glimpsed in the conference room are high-tech affairs, too bulky to manoeuvre around a bedroom in a mid-range hotel.

So I have a roommate? Someone who exchanges their chariot for a simpler model at the door? Ordinarily I’d balk at doubling up, but it might save my life.

My broken brain offers no suggestions as to my partner’s identity, yet we must be close to share not only a room but a bed. It’s hard to reconcile the notion of a lover with my sense of myself as solitary. But I could be persuaded, as long as they don’t snore.

My eyelids droop, but I blink myself back to consciousness. I daren’t drift off, I might never wake up.

Back at the conference, Purple grins. “Challenge accepted. I’d be proud to have it broadcast on TV.”

The audience applauds, but I’m disappointed. There’s nothing more mind-numbing than reality TV. Having grown attached to Purple, I’d have hoped she’d be above those ridiculous contests, those love-ins and falling-outs. For all I know, the entire conference is an elaborate TV game, and I’m the pawn to Purple’s queen.

As if she’s read my mind, Purple continues, “No, I wouldn’t consider it degrading. So long as I had adequate pain-management and the time was right for me. Although I’ve campaigned from a rational and ethical standpoint, I’ve never hidden the fact that it’s personal too. I’ve witnessed enough agonising drawn-out deaths from muscular dystrophy to know a natural ending is neither noble nor beautiful. So if I can set an example, if I can demonstrate assisted death is merely the other side of assisted childbirth, then, yes, I’d be honoured to die on TV.”

Oh, Purple! The woman’s demented. Who do you think you are, Jesus f-ing Christ, dying to redeem the world? I hope my roommate doesn’t write me off as a candidate for martyrdom too.

As Purple walks off the stage, the letters on the backdrop banner sharpen: INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF THANATOLOGY AND ETHICS. Yeah? I doubt I’d have been any more inspired if I’d figured that before.

Instead of showing the next speaker mounting the rostrum, the screen switches to an anonymous hotel room. It’s a clone of this one minus the wheelchair by the window and the woman beached on the bed. If reality TV is cheap programme-making, then an empty room is bargain-basement reality TV. Perhaps they’ll jazz it up with a shot of Purple changing for dinner or making a phone-call home. My chin lolls on my chest before I jolt awake again. The screen resembles a test card from the days before round-the-clock transmissions, but I need more stimulation if I’m not to expire.

Here in my room, red lights flicker in monitors where the corners of the ceiling meet the walls. Relief juggles with embarrassment: so there are cameras in this room too? I imagine a security guard in an office overseeing them. Will he be alert enough to realize there’s something wrong with me or did he take the job to snoop on coffee-break frolics? If that’s the case, he knows more about me than I do. Yet this isn’t the time to be bashful. If I could raise my arm, I’d wave.

Inability to raise one’s arms is one of the main indicators of a stroke. A drooping face is another, although I’d need a mirror to check on that. But doesn’t it impact on only one side of the body? If I’m impaired both left and right, I’m in twice as much trouble.

Or there could be an alternative explanation for my immobility, for my stalled body and brain. But if someone is trying to kill me – someone outside me, not a blood block deep within – they’d have to have a reason. No-one gets murdered for bad-mouthing reality TV.

Aside from lack of motive, their process screams TV-thriller-with-commercial-break. Whilst it’s possible they’ve spiked my drink, brought me here, moored me on the bed, and left me to my own devices while they’ve gone off to catch Purple’s presentation before returning with their weapons, it’s not the most efficient way of bumping someone off. Unless they’re aiming more for befuddlement than slaughter, in which case they must be delighted with the result.

A door opens in the on-screen bedroom: a distraction from my own predicament at last. Three people, one pushing a woman in a wheelchair. She wears a purple dress; the other two, a man and a woman, are in pale-green hospital scrubs.

That’s not right. Purple stood to read her paper, although she might suffer from a fluctuating condition, I suppose. Or the woman in the chair is a different person altogether; the lecturer can’t be alone in possessing a purple outfit; it’s not beyond belief my wardrobe harbours one too. Besides, she can’t have aged ten years in the last ten minutes. Presenting at a conference is tiring, but not to that extent.

The darkening screen drives my attention back to myself. A new fissure snaps in me as the trio vanish from view. Layer by layer I’m cracking. Someone is trying to kill me. Someone is hurling rocks at the brittle sheet of ice that is me.

When the picture resumes, my heart’s hammering. Propped up by pillows and cushions like mine, the woman – I have to call her Purple – half-sits, half-lies on the bed. In latex gloves, the female nurse unwraps an instrument tray. The male mixes a sachet of powder with water in a glass. “Now, you can change your mind at any moment until you drink this. After that, it’s irreversible. There’s no stopping it, once it’s in your blood stream.” His words are for Purple but he addresses them to the camera. As if to me. “Can you confirm you understand?”

The viewpoint reverts to Purple, her face contorting with the strain of shaping words. “I un-der-stand.” But her eyes are smiling. She wants me to know she’s okay.

The other nurse shows her the label on a vial of pale liquid. When Purple nods she draws it into a syringe. “And there’s no guarantee it’ll go completely smoothly. You understand that too?”

“I un-der-stand.”

“It’s a novel procedure,” the woman continues. “Untested on humans until now. The drugs minimize the pain and anxiety, but we can’t control how long it takes. You could go out like a light or you might linger. Or – it’s unlikely, but I’m duty-bound to remind you – it might send you to sleep but you’ll come around again temporarily. Your body might resist, even though your mind’s determined. That could be disturbing. You might wake up and not know what’s going on.”

“I un-der-stand the risks. Please, give me the in-ject-ion.”

“Of course, but I need you to confirm you’re ready to die.”

Purple nods. Oh, Purple! What’s got into you? Isn’t life with a disability still worthwhile? We could buddy up and help each other. Don’t make me watch you throw your life away.

“I’m sorry,” says the nurse. “I know you’ve signed consent forms. I know this is what you want. But I can’t inject you unless you can state explicitly that you want to end your life.”

In the ensuing pause, tears trickle down my cheeks. I’m crying because I’m doomed to die prematurely. I’m crying because Purple perceives no purpose in carrying on. If only we could swap places.

“I’m read-y to die.”

“And be filmed in the process?” asks the man.

“I con-sent to my death be-ing filmed and screened.” A breath between each syllable, but there’s no mistaking her resolve, however misguided.

The female nurse winks. “Although perhaps not for fifteen million viewers to watch me stick a needle in your bum.”

The laughter that follows steals the breath from me. How can they be so flippant? I panic, as if I’ve let that child take our game on the beach too far. I’ve sacrificed my arms, my legs, my torso to his amusement and, too late to stop him, I’m immobilized by sand. So he continues up my body, smothering my neck, my mouth, my nose. Yet the three on screen are old enough to know life’s so precious we should savour every grain.

The camera glides from the bed to the window and the wheelchair collapsed against the wall below. Then we’re back to the male nurse, still stirring the contents of the glass. “Would you like to wait a while? There’s no rush.”

“I’m read-y.”

But I’m not! My mind’s a few steps behind, snarled on what I spotted beyond the window of Purple’s room.

“Okay, but shall we stay to support you if you wake up?”

For fuck’s sake, don’t be heroic, Purple. You’re more vulnerable than you think.

“I can man-age a-lone.”

“But do you want to? Wouldn’t you prefer to have company, even if you might not need it?”

“I’ll have the vid-e-o.”

“Fair enough. If you do need reassurance, no-one could be more persuasive than a younger version of yourself.”

The nurse holds the glass to Purple’s lips. There’s no resistance. She drinks it straight down. The nurses look on as her eyelids flutter and close.

Replacing the glass on the bedside cabinet, the man pockets the spoon. Then he tiptoes over to a television, and flicks a switch on the wall. As the screen within my screen brightens, I recognize the conference banner: INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF THANATOLOGY AND ETHICS. A figure dressed in purple crosses the stage.

Packing up her instruments, the female nurse shakes her head. “There’s not a single cell in her body going to fight to stay alive.”

Her colleague nods. He approaches the wheelchair, then seems to reconsider. “We can get that later.”

Through the window, 15 million viewers watch a plastic bag ensnared in a tree. The camera lingers as it inflates and empties, fills and deflates. Then it returns to the bed, where a woman’s lungs do likewise, apparently at peace.

Beached on that bed in my purple dress, my gaze flits from the screen to the window and that same plastic bag. As I watch, it tears itself away from the tangle of branches. To be borne to oblivion on the breeze.

***

Image of Anne Goodwin, smiling, wearing glasses in a red shirt with white polka-dots.

Anne Goodwin’s drive to understand what makes people tick led to a career in clinical psychology. That same curiosity now powers her fiction. An award-winning short-story writer, she has published three novels and a short story collection with small independent press, Inspired Quill. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polaris First Book Prize. Away from her desk, Anne guides book-loving walkers through the Derbyshire landscape that inspired Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free ebook of award-winning short stories.

1 comment
  1. Well done, Ms. Goodwin! Suspense, intrigue, and a twist! And points to ponder.

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