Gone was inspired by a tragic event in the author’s life.
When only two and a half years old, her daughter’s heart stopped and she died. Unfortunately, doctors resuscitated too long and too late and brought back into this world a severely brain-damaged child, who was wiped clean of her memories and anything that had made her Samantha.
Samantha’s life (and that of her mother) became a nightmarish one of pain and suffering for seventeen years until she died for the second time at the age of nineteen.
One question haunted the author throughout those terrible years: Where had her daughter gone?
Gone is one answer to the question.
This story is about a mother who finds herself inexplicably linked to a mysterious world, where the impossible meets the undeniable.
The fantasy sees her struggle against insanity and fear, encounter extraordinary characters and grapple with the awakening of a dream.
(Death Of Fatwoman, Her Secrets Intact)
Normal. She despised the word. And what did it actually mean?
The dictionary told her, ‘conforming to a standard’, but where or how were these standards formed, and by whom?
In bygone years someone must have decided how people should behave, how they should look, and even how they should think or feel, branding, or ridiculing or even burning at the stake those who didn’t agree.
But which of us ever conformed, she wondered? Who did not err or deviate, or invited some disorder into their lives, using the litany of ‘normal’ emotions as an excuse?
She knew firsthand about the mess of shattered lives, so how elastic was normal?
How normal was it for one person to kill another, or others to wage war and annihilate millions of innocents? How normal was it to maim or wound or consent to the suffering of others?
Maybe somewhere there was a mental monitor, she reflected, like in those TV shows that measured audience response? A monitor where minds were calculated on a scale from one to ten, by some ‘normal’ boffin, who weeded out the spoilers with the stroke of a pen, to be forever exiled.
But she was kidding herself.
She may not know what normal was, but she knew what it wasn’t, what it couldn’t, and what it shouldn’t possibly be.
Normal didn’t lie within the unnaturally small, motionless, contorted figure she’d seen only yesterday. Normal may have a hidden agenda, be encompassed by the fear of the unknown, yet it wasn’t within those vacant dark eyes or the strange animal cry. The cry that always came without warning, from the tightly clenched mouth.
Extraordinary now shrouded the lives they were living, a bizarre umbrella under which they now existed.
And she was powerless to change any of it.
She hated each visit; wishing each one could be the last, yet love compelling the emotional cycle.
Was that normal?
For nearly fifteen years, unfortunately for Charley it was.
Hitching the eternally slipping strap of her handbag onto her shoulder and portfolio under her arm, she quickened her pace, pulling the bulging carry-case, one wobbly wheel squeaking its protest, whilst pushing yesterday’s visit into the dark place.
The streets heaved with people, even this early in the morning, each seemingly engaged in the race to riches, disconnected from those around them.
But, she asked herself, was she being fair? Were they only shaping bubbles around themselves, as protection from the sometimes cruel outside world? One of which even she wasn’t fully aware until Jenny had changed the course of their lives.
But wasn’t she as guilty as the rest?
With the bubble, yes, she admitted, but making money wasn’t the real motive behind why she drove herself so hard. Ali Baba’s cave could never reveal enough to recover what she’d lost.
What better anaesthetic than to slave in every available moment? That way she wouldn’t have to think about the figure that lay in wait.
Ignoring how her conscience picked at the wound, she dodged the gathering crowds, turning her back on the question of what she could have done differently.
“Mornin’, Charley lass, the usual papers?”
As she handed over the money, she smiled at Harry’s insistence on calling her lass. At forty-two, some lass, she thought.
She lingered, while gazing at the short, stubby man, compelling her mind to the moment.
He must have been well into his seventies, she decided, as he stood behind stacks of newspapers, magazines and rows of coloured wrappers that decorated the chocolate bars. She couldn’t help but notice the shine of his hairless head, which bobbed up and down as he served his constant stream of customers.
Each day she’d stopped, he’d told her snippets of his life, never for an instant interrupting the flow of reading matter leaving the stand.
‘Not tempted today, eh?” asked Harry, his usual grin stuck on his face, seeing her eye the chocolate.
“You know I’m trying to give it up, Harry, if only to wear this new trouser suit for more than a few weeks before I go up another size.”
“Come off it, lass, ya look great ta me! There’s nowt wrong with a bit of meat on a woman, somat to get ‘old of.” He sighed then said, “I remember when Maggie ‘ad ‘er generous curves, until a new fad diet took ‘old. I really miss ‘em.”
“There’s meat and there’s lard, Harry.” Changing the subject quickly, she added, “Anyway, how are things?”
“I’m alright, family too. Ya look a bit tired lass, what’s up?”
“I’m fine,” she replied, at the same time wondering how many times that stupid phrase was said in a day.
“Ya work too ‘ard, ya do, Charley. I’m saying ya should slow down, enjoy life a bit. If ya don’t, it’ll pass by like a double-decker when it’s rainin’,” he said, his eyes fixed on her, a serious expression on his deeply lined face.
She’d never talked about Jenny to him. How could she, like this, in the middle of the street on the way to work? And how could he understand, weren’t their lives worlds apart?
Stop wallowing, she told herself, while one hand strayed to one of the slabs of chocolate, the other gravitating to the bulge of her hip.
Surely one small bar wouldn’t hurt?
She felt its rippled back, could almost taste the mixture of caramel and chocolate just before the unmistakeable flavour of peanut.
Why did she deny Jenny’s existence? And how could the world of chocolate change things? Would it prevent the pitying looks if she confessed her secret, act like some magic talisman against the condemnation reflected in their eyes? Did guilt and shame intertwine, she wondered, and which came first?
How to choose, she pondered, seeing one of her favourites, anticipating the warmth of honeycomb melting on her tongue.
None, she decided, as if snapping out of a trance, shrugging away temptation.
“Must be going, important meeting,” she said. “And has anyone ever told you, you should have been a shrink?”
“Only for the people I like, lass,” he said, with a grin as she walked away, noting the anxiety in her face and voice.
Watching her stride into the distance, a strange feeling came over him and he almost called her back.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he muttered, before shrugging his shoulders and busying himself with the new flurry of customers.
Her shoes made a sharp clicking sound as she crossed the hard tiled floor of the cavernous foyer.
She needed all her energy today, she thought, as she joined four others in the lift for her ride to the eighth floor of the tower block.
Soon, she padded along the thickly carpeted corridor and unlocked the glass-panelled door, before switching on the office lights.
Setting down the newspapers on top of her desk, she plonked the wheeled carry-case next to it, the portfolio alongside, finally sliding her handbag into the bottom drawer.
After organising the coffee percolator, she extracted the paperwork for the meeting, stacking it in a neat pile on her desk.
Strolling to the large artwork station on the other side of the room, she stared at the drawings upon which David and she had been working so hard these past few weeks.
Would it all go according to plan? Would they sign? Why did she continually worry about everything, she asked herself?
Only this morning, before she’d left for work, Joe had tried to settle her nerves, warned her to calm down.
How could she when so much depended on this deal? But had he been right? He was always saying, what would happen would happen; no matter how much she pulled at her hair or paced the floor.
“Morning! I see coffee’s started. Now go, sit,” said the newcomer, hands flapping, as if shooing a wasp.
Charley followed Anne’s bidding, biting the corner of her lip as she at last sat down behind her desk.
“And there’s no need for that look, we’ve been friends too long!”
She watched as the short, rounded figure bustled around the rooms, her French plait already showing signs of rebellion, while indigo eyes flashed with buoyant optimism as each task was ticked off her list; sorting the mail, watering the jade plant and partially opening the blinds.
“Here, now relax and drink this,” she commanded, passing Charley a mug of steaming coffee. “And we’ll see what Mystic Belle has to say!”
Perching her backside on the edge, tucking her right foot under her, her left barely touching the floor, Anne flicked through the pages of the morning’s tabloid, after chucking the broadsheet onto the chair to the side of the desk.
Folding the paper in half then smoothing the correct page, she read aloud, “‘Change is in the air for Leos today and it’s no time for indecision or negative thinking. It’s time for these sun lovers to shine at their best, dazzling those around them. Lucky number five’. There, you see, it’s fate!”
“You’re making it up!” Charley countered through a fit of laughter.
“Nonsense, read it for yourself,” rebutted Anne, yet didn’t spin the page for her to see.
“That stuff’s utter nonsense!”
“When has she ever been wrong? Remember when you decided to start this place, wasn’t she spot on? ‘Leos mustn’t delay in taking new opportunities’. I remember, clear as day.”
“You should have become a full partner then, David said so too.”
“What me? No thanks, I like what I do; organising you two. And I can’t draw a straight line!”
“Stop with the clichés, would you? And there’s more to this place than that, you know it. I don’t know how we’d manage without you.”
“I’m happy with the way things are, I can work with my friends, doing a job I enjoy and sleep at night. All work and no play, and you know how I like to play! You on the other hand…”
“Work keeps my mind occupied, you know that, it’s easier, though if we don’t clinch today’s deal the business will start to drift and we need this,” said Charley, feeling her face redden.
“That’s it, that’s enough! There’s more than one way to skin a cat – yeah, yeah, I know, but it’s my way of, well who cares about skinning cats. No I didn’t mean that, oh just listen! If this deal fails, there’ll be others! The business is doing fine, don’t be so dramatic. You always think the worst! But it’s not going to fail; the illustrations are nothing short of brilliant, so there!”
“But there’re plenty of others who…”
“Not as good as you two! And…” Anne broke off, twisting her body slightly to look at the picture of the silky-white unicorn amidst a sea of blues hanging on the wall, before adding, “That one for instance, always been my favourite, there’s something so, so thrilling and yes, definitely magical about it.”
She gazed at the picture for a moment longer, and then said, staring back at Charley, “And who in their right mind is going to refuse any of those beautiful illustrations as covers for their books? None, right? David will be here in a minute, he’ll put you straight. More confidence than a cocked hat, that one!”
“Whatever that means,” Charley began, then quickly added, “Yes, okay, I get it!” raising her hands in surrender, after seeing the look that crossed Anne’s face as she raced to answer the telephone shrilling on her own desk.
Her mind rambled again, filling with worries and wants and wishes, until finally, sighing, she turned to stare at the paperwork in front of her, knowing that in a couple of hours they’d know one way or another.
Something about the picture drew Charley’s attention.
Alone in the office, she’d already been working on some ideas for the new artwork, had glimpsed the signed contract that lay on the desk, tossed the pencil to one side and smiled.
She’d stretched her legs through the kneehole of her desk as her body sought the comfort of her office chair and now fixed her eyes to the illustration on the wall.
As a cat might, she felt ripples of warning down her spine, while nerves jingled an unrecognisable tune, until a giant fist punched into her chest and opened its steel-like fingers to clutch Charley’s heart and hold it mercilessly, forcing her to lean forward and gasp for breath.
The unicorn’s eyes captured her own, the blue intensity drawing her closer.
Spasms of pain, which now crept menacingly up and down her arms, jolted her mind further towards the magical creature.
Cautiously, she leaned back in her chair and tried to breathe slower, while the unicorn held her gaze, beckoning.
A fuzzy haze filled her eyes and mind. She felt the soft brush of hair upon her brow.
The vision of a winding road flicked into being, chaotic scenes of herself, zigzagging between speeding cars, trundling lorries, tall buses and deafening motorbikes, straining to look backwards, avoiding what was ahead.
The road disappeared, leaving her tottering on the edge of a ragged and crumbling cliff, the malevolent void waiting to devour her. She wanted to call out, pull back, but as in dreams, the vision merely played out the horror of inevitability, until the eyes of the unicorn drew her into its realm.
Cold rushed into her every pore, as would an Arctic storm. She felt the pain had clinched its deal with death, now knowing there would be no turning back.
Now she had to face something different, she knew. What, what?
A vibrating aura now surrounded the unicorn, accompanied by a low motor noise, reminding Charley of the small boats that hummed on the park lake during the summer.
They’d taken Jenny there a month before life had changed beyond all reason.
Her mind twisted and turned and twisted again.
How many times had she stood over Jenny and wished she could kill her? The first time the idea had shocked her; that such thoughts would dare to enter her mind. Yet, as the years had rolled by, as Jenny had grown thin and twisted and colourless, that dreadful thought no longer seemed so wrong, hanging in the air between them like Damocles’ sword.
Charley’s mind jerked from one memory to another. Was it the unicorn, she wondered? Did it have the power to show her life within its large spherical eyes?
As through an age-old projector, she saw the glow of her wedding day; confetti-filled happiness, continuing through to the birth of her children, each ripening into the mainstay of her life, until tragedy had wiped clean emotional stability.
As she watched the scenes unfold, felt the daily drudge of her tormented mind, Charley felt not a little guilt at how, for most of Jenny’s life she’d wanted to run and run, put miles between them.
But, she knew, love had chained her as securely as Jacob Marley to his piles of cash. Forced to inflate an invisible steel wall around her heart; so to make possible those bleak-filled visits within those brightly lit, disinfected rooms.
Was it possible, she thought, to love and hate someone at the same time?
As the visions faded into nothing, she whispered goodbye.
She felt tears spill down her cheeks, mingling her fear with sorrow and regret, until her lips caught the salty trickle, forcing her to taste the acridity of her life.
Yet it hadn’t all been bad, no, it hadn’t, it hadn’t, she decided.
But as life relinquished its final breath, one last image magnified within the wondrous circle of the eye of the unicorn – the tortured figure she’d visited the day before.