This was English rain. Not the erotic tropical lashings from the movies in which the starlet gets improbably caught wearing only a t-shirt and no bra, but the kind of rain the English prefer to think of as a heavy mist.
Peter’s skin was clammy with the light covering of moisture. Dewdrops clung to the fibres of his overcoat and dampness permeated the leather soles of his hand-made shoes. This kind of weather cloaked the city in a grey tent of low cloud; damp enough to be irritating but devoid of the thrill of a downpour. It was as if the whole city was inside a Turkish steam bath, but without the warmth.
The night, at least, was a relief from the oppressive sky. Peter watched the signal lights dance in red and green streaks across the wet rail tracks below. Forgotten debris lay in the dirty rocks between the sleepers. Toilet paper sprayed in a line. A half-empty plastic Diet Coke bottle and a single Converse trainer, its laces strung behind it like entrails.
From the bridge he had a good view of the track extending off into the distance. Scrubby brush bushes, blackened by pollution and shiny from the rain, struggled for life along the embankment by the rusty railings. Someone had sprayed "Girls out. Where?" on the side of a small brick worker’s hut. The question mark had been awkwardly squeezed in underneath the words.
Peter ran his fingers over the letter in his pocket, feeling its folds and corners. Pulling it out he saw that he had ripped it slightly. Madeline was a perfectionist even when it came to writing letters of passion and he knew she wouldn’t approve of the tear. He unfolded the hand-made writing paper and watched her calligraphic letters run in eyeliner tears down the wet page. "Love" and "never see you again" mingled like the delta of a river and gathered in a black drop along the crease of the page. He let the paper drop and it twisted in the breeze sticking to the sooty wall of the bridge.
From behind him the overhead power lines made whipping sounds as the train to Northwick Park approached from Finchley Road. As he climbed onto the wall of the bridge his foot slipped and he dropped to all fours in a reflex of fear. The wet soaked through the knees of his suit trousers. The track below ticked from the wheels of the oncoming train. He sat on the edge and looked at his dirty hands. The concrete had made an imprint in his cold, white flesh. The roar of the train was close behind him. He wrapped his overcoat around himself and jumped, his tie fluttering in his face.
Peter felt his left shinbone crack as he hit the metal rail of the track nearest the bushes. The rest of his body simply crumpled into a heap like a doll dropped from a pram. He could smell the electricity overhead and the hot asbestos brakes of the train as it rushed past on the other set of tracks. The air pressure pushed him aside and rolled him into the thorny undergrowth where he cracked his head on rock. With the smell of wet earth filling his nostrils and struggling to remember the Latin for his broken bone, he passed out.
Madeline had already eaten dinner, washed the dishes and gone to bed when the police knocked on her door at half-past nine. She pulled on her fluffy pink dressing gown and opened the door with the chain on. A tall male officer and a young female officer stood on the step.
"Miss Trent?" said the male officer.
"Yes, can I help?"
"I’m officer Dalby and this is officer Struthers. Do you know a Peter Jacobson?"
"Yes. He’s my ," she corrected herself. "Was, my boyfriend. Why? What’s happened?"
"May we come in?" said Struthers.
The two officers walked in and took off their caps. "This is never easy for us," said Struthers glancing at Dalby. "But I’m afraid your boyfriend has had an accident."
"My God! What kind of accident?"
"We’re still investigating, but he appears to have thrown himself off of a railway bridge near Finchley Road. We found your name and number on a slip of paper in his wallet."
Tears welled up in Madeline’s eyes and she put her hand to her mouth. Struthers’s squawking radio broke the silence. She quickly turned the volume down.
"The doctors think he has suffered some damage to his " Struthers stopped and took out her black notebook, " hippocampus when he hit his head. He has lost his memory and had no idea who he was or how he came to be lying by the side of the track. He didn’t recognise your name either."
"We were hoping you would come with us to the hospital to see whether you can jog his memory," said officer Dalby happy to add to the conversation.
In the waiting room of the hospital a skinny blonde woman with flecks of vomit across her cheek slurred abuse at anyone who walked by. The two officers rolled their eyes and waited patiently. An old man hacked up phlegm in the corner.
The doctor was a tall Indian man who looked as if he hadn’t slept for about three weeks. He nodded to the officers and smiled at Madeline, holding out his hand.
"Dr. Hassan," he said.
"Madeline Trent. Look, I know you want to try and jog his memory, but I’m not sure if I’m the best person for this. I mean, we had a pretty bad row the last time we saw each other and "
"When was that?" asked Struthers taking out her notebook.
"Two days ago, Wednesday night, when we decided to split."
"Even so, such an emotional experience might help him Miss Trent," said the doctor. "If you wouldn’t mind?"
Peter was in a separate room with his leg in a cast raised by a pulley over the bed. His eyes had deep blue and yellow patches underneath them and a gauze dressing was taped over the left side of his forehead. The room smelled of disinfectant and plastic. He half-opened his eyes and tilted his head towards the gathering.
"Who’s this?" he croaked.
"We hoped you might be able to tell us that. Perhaps you remember her?" said the doctor. Peter lifted his head slightly and dropped it back onto the stack of pillows.
"Peter? It’s Madeline. Don’t you recognise me? I’m so sorry we had an argument. Please tell me you didn’t "
"Perhaps we had better leave you two alone," said Doctor Hassan. He swept the two officers out of the room. Struthers paused and stared as if she were about to say something but then closed the door behind her.
Madeline stood silently for a moment before moving around the other side of the bed and sitting on an orange plastic chair. She looked up at the door and then back to Peter.
"You don’t recognise me at all do you?"
"No. Sorry. I don’t remember much at all, not even my birthday."
"The fourth of April. You’re an Aries. You were born in Stratford in 1967. Your mother’s name is June and your father is Steven, although everyone calls him Steve."
Peter considered the information for a moment as if he were tasting a wine in a restaurant. He shrugged. "And you?"
"I’m your girlfriend, Madeline. We’ve been together for the last four and a half years. We met at a Christmas party organised by your work that’s as a derivatives trader at Solomon’s by the way." She smiled and took Peter’s hand. "And you have been besotted by me ever since."
Peter furrowed his brow and stared into Madeline’s eyes searching for something he couldn’t quite grasp.
"Really?" he said.
"We’ve been engaged for three months." She showed him the diamond on her finger. Peter raised his eyebrows and nodded.
"Wow. Well, I don’t remember any of this. I’m sorry, I really am. This must be hard for you."
"Oh my darling, you will. Give it time." She held his hand against her cheek and closed her eyes. "Thank God you’re not dead."
Peter just stared at her face, too weak to do anything else. A nurse pushed a squeaking trolley down the corridor. The footsteps of the doctor and the police officers followed behind. When the door opened Madeline jerked her eyes open and let go of Peter’s hand.
"Any success?" said Doctor Hassan.
"No, I’m afraid not," said Madeline. "But I did fill him in on some details."
"Sorry," said Peter trying to smile.
"It’s not your fault darling," said Madeline patting his hand.
After another round of questions they left Peter staring up at the ceiling. Fragments of old Christmas decorations were still stuck in to corners by dry, crispy sticky tape. He groped for the switch on the cord and clicked off the light trying to still his mind and go to sleep.
Peter was standing by the door of an apartment. A white entry phone was buzzing and he could see the top of Madeline’s head in the black and white video screen.
The next fragmented memory was of the two of them having an argument and Madeline shouting at him through the door. He stared at her warped image through the peephole until she banged her fist against it from the outside making him jump back in shock.
Then it was later, dusk was already draining the colour from the park outside and lights glowed yellow in the windows. A drinks party was beginning to warm up across the green, a woman with short red hair stood on the porch smoking. Madeline was on the sofa trembling with tears and Peter stood leaning against the kitchen bench pleading with her to go.
The next day Madeline was already sitting in the orange seat when Peter awoke. He looked at her blonde hair tightly tied back with a black band and her carefully painted lipstick. It all seemed familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like seeing an old friend after a long absence.
"How are you doing this morning, my love," said Madeline.
"I’ve been having crazy dreams. I remember Well, it was only a dream, so I’m not sure if it was a real or not." He gingerly touched the bandage above his eyebrow and winced.
"You can tell me darling, I know it must be hard." She held out her hand and cupped it over his.
"Well, I dreamt we had an argument, in an apartment by a park."
Madeline dropped her hand back onto her lap and fingered the edge of her handbag. Rain started tapping on the window outside.
"Yes, we did have a row. A stupid, stupid argument which never should have happened," she said.
"Shh! It’s okay. Really. I don’t remember it anyway," he said smiling. He stretched his hand across the bed towards her.
Madeline visited Peter every day for the following three weeks while his leg mended and the doctors tried to work out what was wrong with his memory. During the course of each visit she gradually won small intimacies from the scattered seeds of his mind. A squeeze of the hand, a stroke of his hair, and finally a long, deep kiss goodbye.
Peter sometimes became angry at his inability to remember simple things like the colour of his car or his favourite restaurant. His past seemed to be a shadow world warped by mirrors. Every time he thought he had his fingertips on a memory, it slipped out of his reach just had he tried to take hold of it. He would break down and cry and Madeline would comfort him caressing his cheek.
Once he threw his food tray across the room in frustration; he couldn’t remember whether he liked fish or not. After that he decided that he needed to restart his life and learn everything all over again. Somewhere his memories were the lonely suitcases left on the luggage carousel. Here was his chance to leave behind the baggage that everyone else carried around with them and start afresh.
"I think I remember something," Peter said to Madeline one rainy afternoon. She looked at him wide eyed, expectant and slightly afraid.
"Yes?" she said. "What? What is it?"
"I remember that I love you," he said with a satisfied grin.
"My love, that’s so beautiful. The most beautiful thing you have ever said to me." Tears welled up in her eyes, she leaned over him, kissed him and then wrapped her arms either side of him to hug him as best she could in the bed. He stiffly reached around her before giving out a small yelp as her handbag swung down her shoulder and hit his head. "Oh Darling! Sorry!"
They both laughed and then Madeline sat back in the chair, dragging it closer to the bed with a squeak.
"There’s one more thing," said Peter. "As soon as I am out of here I want to marry you. I want to start afresh and make a new life for myself. Not many people are given this chance."
Madeline threw herself at him again with a small yelp that sounded as if someone had stepped on a poodle. "Why not now! Let’s get married in the hospital!"
"Well, I thought " he paused and mulled the idea over for a moment and nodded. "Yes, why not?"
Two days later, after a ceremony in which Doctor Hassan was the Best Man and one of the young nurses Madeline’s maid of honour, Peter finally had his cast removed and was allowed out of the hospital. The doctors warned Peter to be cautious because he might find he had flashes of memory that could be disturbing. He shrugged and strode into his new life as boldly as he could on crutches. Madeline waited outside the hospital for him in her white BMW. When Peter got in she stared at him and grinned. There was a photo of him on the dashboard and a familiar smell of perfume and cigarettes that made him feel a little sick as they drove towards his apartment.
"Can you drop me off here?" said Peter suddenly.
"Why?" asked Madeline looking out of the window. Then she noticed that they were near Finchley Road train station. "Oh Peter! No, this isn’t healthy for you. You know what the doctors "
"Please," he said placing his hand on hers. "I need to do this, I need to see where it happened."
"But what about everything you said? About leaving it all behind and starting afresh?" said Madeline. She had a look of panic in her eyes like a frightened bird.
"Relax. It won’t change a thing, my lovely wife." Peter smiled and struggled out of the car with his crutches.
"I’ll go and find somewhere to park," said Madeline pulling the door shut.
Up on the bridge Peter looked down the tracks and at the brick hut. None of it jogged his memory. One of his crutches slipped out of his hand and when he bent down to pick it up again he noticed the letter still stuck to the wall of the bridge. One side was coming away and so he peeled it off gently and started to read.
I know you deny my love, I know you say you love Alice but she doesn’t love you, not the way I do. You just don’t see that it is destined for us both. I MUST be close to you. I WILL be close to you always. What you did last night was cruel and I am forced to punish you. I hope you understand, it is because I love you so much.
It was so degrading when you shouted at me, when you said I was like a stalker. How could you? I love you Peter, I would only ever hurt you if I knew it was for the best never out of spite. That’s why Alice had to go. She was bad for you Peter. Evil and manipulating. You will never understand my love. You will never see me again. You will never see anyone again.
Peter dropped the letter to the ground and steadied himself against the wall, dizzy with memories flooding back. Madeline waiting outside his apartment at night. Madeline screaming at him across a restaurant when he was having dinner with Alice. Alice’s body being pulled out of the canal, blue lipped and bloated. He slid to the ground and sat with his back against the bridge.
"Peter? What is it?"
He looked up to see Madeline standing at the top of the steps. Her voice changed into a commanding tone.
"Peter. Get up. Now!"
The track started ticking and the overhead wires ringing with the sound of an oncoming train from Finchley Road.
"You " said Peter shaking his head. Madeline looked down at the rain soaked letter on the ground.
"Oh Peter! Forgive and forget. We can be happy together now. Come here." She started walking towards him and he pushed himself up with his crutches. "Peter, it has to be "
The train was moments away and the sound drowned out Madeline’s voice. Peter looked back at the track and used all the remaining strength in his arms to pull himself onto the wall. He banged his bad leg against the ledge and cried out in pain.
"Peter! No! Don’t " shouted Madeline, but she was cut off by the sound of steel screeching against steel as the train locked up its emergency brakes. The only traces left of Peter were his crutches on the bridge and a shoe lying in the bushes.