The Death and Life of Eleanor Parker – Kerry Wilkinson

‘Life’s a lot like a well-made sandwich. The two ends are kinda boring but what truly matters is all the fancy stuff in the middle.’ My father told me this on the day he learned he was ill. His words flash through me as I splutter awake. Water sprays from my mouth, fizzes out of my nose and dribbles over my chin. I’m blinking, trying to figure out where I am, but it’s hazy, dark, and still the water comes. It feels like it’s everywhere: spilling from my ears, dripping from my arms and seeping into my clothes. I finally catch my breath and open my eyes wide enough to see the bright white of the moon splayed across the sludgy curve of the riverbank. The water is underneath me, tickling my toes, gentle dark ripples babbling towards the arch of a familiar stone bridge. With another blink, I know where I am. The river runs through the centre of Westby, the bridge linking one side of the village to the other. I’ve lived here my entire life, crossing that stone arch most days. None of that explains why I’m sitting in the river. I yank my feet roughly away from the water as if bitten by a snake and haul myself to the riverbank, then slide up the mud on my backside. Slushy muck squishes between my fingers as I hug my knees to my chest, trying to figure out what’s going on.

My exposed skin feels like it’s been basted with a slimy film of grease, a Christmas turkey ready for the oven. I’m cold – really cold – half-dressed, drenched, on the banks of a river. It’s night and I’m shivering under the darkness. This isn’t how I usually wake up. I’m more of a double duvet and fluffy pillow kinda person. What’s more concerning is that I can’t remember how or why I’m here. My red skirt – or at least it used to be red – and a spaghetti-strapped top with my favourite denim jacket offers little protection from the chill of the night. It’s the sort of thing I’d wear most of the year round. Daytimes, evenings, my house, a friend’s house. It doesn’t offer any clues as to where I’ve been.

There’s an itch at the back of my mind, a niggling something of utmost importance. Like when I flipped those pages of exam questions last summer, trying to scrape correct answers from a rebellious mind that was determined to wander. I take a breath but my chest is tight and there’s a gurgle, like the final bubbles of a bath disappearing down the plughole. When I roll onto my knees, I slide closer to the water, but slowly – really slowly – I scramble up the bank. Mud sticks to my palms and loose twigs and stones scrape at my knees but the further I get, the drier the ground. Eventually I reach a patch of flattened grass close to a gravelly towpath, where I sit and wipe the flecks of grit from my legs and mud from my hands. It seems obvious now, yet I’d somehow missed that I am barefoot. My toenails are a glossy pink but chipped. There’s a spark of recognition, of sitting on my bed and painting them on a morning where sun blazed through my window. It feels recent.

Maybe it was yesterday…? There’s still water prickling the back of my throat and I cough more up, deep hacks, wheezing and snorting, until the liquid finally feels as if it’s out of my system. When I clamber to my feet, my head spins and it’s as if the river is rushing towards me. Stars flare around the edge of my vision and I remember the first time my friend Naomi and I tried cider. We were barely fifteen and I don’t reckon there’s any alcohol quite as good as underage, illicit alcohol. Nor anything quite as bad as underage, illicit hangovers. This feels like that – the dizziness, the confusion and the empty, pained stomach. Except I know I haven’t been drinking. Among the patchwork of incoherent thoughts and memories, there is Naomi’s Easter party, where I awoke in her bathroom and vowed never to drink again. Not until I actually turn eighteen. That was April and now it’s June.

That much I remember. My phone comes out of my jacket pocket in one piece but the screen – severely scratched long before I ended up in the river – doesn’t respond. Jabbing the buttons on the side does nothing to persuade it to come back to life, neither does whacking it on the ground and calling it names. That’s the sum total of my IT skills, so back into my sodden pocket it goes. I untangle the necklace that has twisted itself around my throat, straightening out the coil of white gold links and letting it hang properly. It was a sixteenth birthday present from Mum – an inheritance from a great-grandmother I never met. It’s one of the few things I own that’s actually worth anything – but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t royally ripped off. Giving away things you already own shouldn’t count as a birthday present. That’s regifting. Those things I remember.

Either way, seeing as I still have my phone and necklace, I’ve not been robbed. But I have so many questions. Did I fall in the river? And where is everybody? It’s the middle of the night, so no surprise the village centre is empty, but where are my friends? There was a house, grey fuzzy blurs of being surrounded by other people. There was music, singing, dancing and… burgers with ketchup. Lots of ketchup. Still the filmy, smoggy haze hangs over those memories. There are shapes instead of actual people. It’s like waking up, briefly remembering a dream and then instantly forgetting it. I try to think of the most recent thing in my memory. Gears turn slowly but there was a car, music, singing and then… I don’t know.

The river and Dad talking to me about sandwiches. Using the trunk of a tree, I pull myself up and then wait for my head to stop spinning. I think about cleaning myself up in the public toilet block in the car park across the bridge, but it’s not really a place I fancy visiting at any time of the day, let alone in the early hours. It’s grim, dank and smells horrendously. With little other option, I start walking home. It’s only a mile or so, a route I’ve taken hundreds of times – though never in bare feet. Small stones scratch at the bottoms of my feet and I hobble awkwardly up the slope at the back of Westby Church. The clock on the tower reads a few minutes before half-past four and the distant horizon is beginning to burn orange. I’m never sure when late officially becomes early. The cobbles leave me oohing and aahing, with even the smoother edges tickling and scraping the soles of my feet.

They lead me to the top of a small hill, which opens out onto the back of a new housing estate. Well, new in the sense that I remember when it used to be a field. It feels like I should be in pain but I’m not. I’m cold and wrap my arms around my front, hugging myself. There’s not a soul out and about, nor a light lit inside any of the houses as I continue through the estate. From nowhere, I realise it’s Sunday. It’s a ridiculous time for a Sunday morning – any morning – and Westby is a ghost town. After passing through an alleyway overgrown with hedges on either side, I find myself on the road where I live. It’s wide, with detached houses and trimmed lawns on both sides. The type of place with neighbourhood watch signs in front windows, Britain in Bloom boards at either end of the street and an army of curtain-twitchers desperate for something – anything – to gossip about.

Luckily, given the time of the morning, I will not be a topic of discussion for my early hours walk of shame. The spare front door key is hidden under the third plant pot out of the eight that sit underneath the bay window, so I retrieve it, unlock the front door, and then put it back where I found it. This isn’t the first time I’ve crept into the house after midnight and probably won’t be the last. Hopefully it’ll be the only time I leave a trail of water on the welcome mat. That’s something to deal with in the morning, either that or deny all knowledge. It’s difficult to know if I’ll be in trouble. Mum will be in bed, so I stick to the edges of the stairs, where I know they won’t creak, and tiptoe my way up to the landing. The bathroom door is slightly open but the doors to my brother’s and mother’s bedrooms are both closed. The trickiest part of any late night/early morning sneak-in is the hop across the hallway. I swear the squeakiest part of the floor moves from one time to the next.

One day it’s in the centre of the floor, waiting eagerly to croak its annoyance when I put a foot out of place; the next, it’s one step away from my bedroom door. I gamble by walking across the landing as if it was the middle of the day. The floor goblins must be sleeping because there are no giveaway squeaks and I ease my bedroom door open before heading inside. Victory! The curtains haven’t been closed and the rising sun illuminates my room as if it is any other morning. The faded band posters are still fixed to the wall above my bed, my shoes still spill out from underneath, and my double wardrobe doors are open. The usual mix of clothes bomb and floordrobe have slopped onto the carpet. It’s now after five and, though I should feel tired, I’m wide awake. I’m still cold, though. The clothes I was wearing form a sodden pile on the floor but when I turn to find something warm to put on, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My wet hair is matted into clumps and there’s a slight graze on my ankle.

That’s not what scares me, though. There are dark marks around the top of my chest, not quite bruises but the type of bumps that might easily turn black or purple in a day or so. When I step closer to the glass and run my fingers over my dimpled skin, there is no pain… no anything, really, except the cold. The marks are small and rounded and it’s only when I splay my hand across them that I realise they’re fingermarks. Four oblong dents and a fatter thumb. I’m transfixed until another uncontrollable shiver creeps up on me and I turn away, trying to remain quiet. After sputtering more water, I find my winter pyjamas in my bottom drawer – the fleecy ones with teddy bears that I tell myself I’m too old for. I’m still shivering, so put on two pairs of socks and a thick jumper that was hanging in my wardrobe. There’s a woollen bobble hat patterned with grinning monkeys at the back of my underwear drawer, so I bundle my hair underneath and put that on, too. It feels like I’ll never be warm, so I close the curtains and clamber into bed, tugging at the duvet and twisting back and forth until I’m cocooned within.

It’s summer and I should be baking but I’m not. I should feel safe at home in my bed but I don’t. Something happened last night and no matter how hard I try to concentrate, it’s all a foggy, confusing grey. When I was young and couldn’t get to sleep, Mum used to read me stories – then she’d tell me to close my eyes and rest. Eventually, I’d drop off. Even though I’m not tired, I shut my eyes and will sleep to come, hoping I’ll wake with a clearer head. There’s darkness but little warmth and then, in a flash, I’m back in the river. There’s a hand on my chest, another on my head and I’m battling against the force pushing me down, trying to escape the liquid that’s filling my lungs. I gulp for air but there’s only water and I’m coughing, gasping, fighting… losing. It hurts.

I can’t breathe and the harder I try to give my body the oxygen it craves, the more water floods between my lips. It scratches and claws. Nails raking my throat and then… Then there’s only black. I sit up straight, kicking the covers aside, choking against the water that’s no longer in my lungs. I’m twisting and flailing against an invisible enemy, scraping at unseen arms until I realise there’s nobody there and I’m still alone in my bed. The memories are still just out of reach but there are two things of which I’m certain. I didn’t fall into the river – I was drowned in it and, somehow, despite the fact I’m still here, I died last night. CHAPTER TWO Sleep is not my friend. I eventually pad downstairs and plop myself on the sofa. My phone is still playing dead, much like me, I guess, so I flip open the laptop and start googling.

The problem with searching for things like ‘resurrection’ and ‘coming back from the dead’ is that there are generally two types of results. First is the religious websites, because we all know that famous dude whose name begins with a J that rose from the grave. I am many things, some good, some not – but I am most definitely not the daughter of any all-seeing, all-knowing, master of creation. Second is the zombie stuff. There’s the slow-moving undead, who flap around, go ‘urrrrrgh’ and try to eat people; then there’s the fast-moving ones, who flap around, go ‘urrrrrgh’ and try to eat people. I have no desire to either eat anyone or go ‘urrrrrgh’, so I’m pretty sure I’m not a zombie either. My searching gets me nowhere and I’m interrupted by Mum stretching her way into the living room. She yawns and it looks like her jaw might dislocate as tears stream from her eyes. She’s barefooted but wearing her velvet-like dressing gown with the belt around the middle. It has comfort and warmth written all over it.

After a second yawn, she does a double take when she sees me. ‘Who are you – and what have you done with my daughter?’ she says. ‘Huh?’ She nods at the clock above the television. ‘It’s seven o’clock on a Sunday morning and you – whoever you might be – are awake and on my sofa. My daughter doesn’t even know there are two seven o’clocks on Saturdays and Sundays. She’d be in bed until midafternoon.’ I close the laptop lid and put it to one side. ‘Har-di-har. Who are you and where’s my mum? There’s suddenly a stand-up comedian in the house.’ She treads closer, fighting back another yawn.

‘What’s up?’ ‘Couldn’t sleep.’ Mum leans forward and kisses me gently on the forehead. Her long dark hair has been fighting the grey for years but the battle is finally over. It was a stoic resistance but there was only ever going to be one winner. A strand brushes my nose as she pulls away. ‘You’re cold,’ she says. ‘I know.’ She frowns, doubling the wrinkles around her mouth, and presses a hand to my forehead. ‘You’re properly cold. I hope you’re not coming down with something.

’ ‘I feel all right, except for being a bit chilly.’ Mum stares at me for a few moments and then steps away, taken over by another yawn. Now she knows someone’s watching, she covers her mouth. It’s only when she moves backwards that I realise I’ve felt nothing of what just happened. Her hair didn’t tickle my nose. Her hand was on my forehead and yet I felt… nothing. It was as if she wasn’t there. I barely have time to consider that before she continues talking. ‘What did you get up to last night?’ she asks. ‘I went to bed, so you must’ve been late back…?’ She asks casually but the fish for details couldn’t be more obvious.

There was a time when I had strict curfews and every minor infraction would be punished as harshly as if I was someone who’d escaped from prison. Those were the days when we didn’t get on. Now, there’s an uneasy truce in which I generally do as she asks but, every once in a while, she allows me the odd night off to be a teenager. ‘This and that,’ I reply. I’d probably not tell the entire truth even if I could remember. Parents have to be kept on their toes. If adults think their kids are angels, it’ll only be a bigger disappointment when it turns out they’re not. Better to set the bar somewhere in the middle and then surpass expectations. ‘How did you get home?’ she asks. ‘Did Robbie give you a lift back?’ ‘Yep.

’ ‘Good – you know I don’t like you walking home in the dark, especially with everything that’s going on around here.’ ‘I know, Mum. We’ve had this conversation.’ I give her my best huffed annoyance stare and she nods. ‘I’m putting the kettle on. Do you want some tea?’ ‘Please.’ ‘Anything to eat?’ I have no appetite but it must’ve been hours since I last ate, so I nod and mutter something about toast. Mum offers a weak, consoling smile and then disappears into the kitchen. I’m still envious of the dressing gown. When she’s gone, I try pinching myself – first my neck and then my wrist.

I can definitely feel something, although the skin on my wrist takes a second or two to slide back into position. There’s no springiness, like there would usually be. Hmmm… Google offers little help. I try searching for ‘cold skin’ and ‘feeling chilly’ but it turns out I could have anything from a minor cold to full-on cancer. ‘Unspringy skin’ throws up the name of a grunge metal band, plus a bunch of adverts for menopausal women. Not much help. Considering the entire wealth of human knowledge is online, the Internet really can be incredibly unhelpful. I delete the search history, wipe any cookies from the past ninety minutes, and then turn the laptop off. It’s probably overkill but the last thing I want is my brother asking why I’m looking up stuff about life after death. I walk through the kitchen and tell Mum I’ll be right back, then head up to my room.

My phone is on the dressing table but still won’t do anything other than glare back at me with a blank, unforgiving screen. When I jab the sharp end of a hair clip into the SIM card slot, a sliver of water dribbles out and when I shake the phone, there’s a gentle sloshing sound. Our relationship has been fractious at best, peppered by over-zealous autocorrects (the phone), unfortunate incidents of being dropped (me), frequent instances of a dead battery (the phone), a broken camera flash (I’m blaming the phone), out of focus pictures (also the phone), and that time I swear I sent a message to Naomi, only to discover it was actually directed to my brother. Thankfully, there was nothing incriminating, but it was definitely, one hundred per cent, the phone’s fault. Despite our differences, I almost feel sad that our relationship has run its course. In all fairness, it was always likely to end in an instance of human-on-phone violence, but I never thought it’d be quite like this. My wardrobe is something of a shrine to everything I’ve ever owned. Mum calls it hoarding but that’s because she’s always watching those TV channels packed with reallife documentaries with people who are super-skinny or super-fat. She saw one about this guy who has never thrown anything out and suddenly she’s convinced I’m a hoarder just because I like keeping the boxes that go with things I’ve bought. At the bottom of my wardrobe there are rows of pretty shoeboxes, each with their own memory of what I bought and where I bought it.

Behind that are more boxes, including – luckily – the one from my old mobile phone. Inside is a charging cable, plug, manual and, thankfully, the phone itself. The screen is scraped and battered, plus there’s a chip of plastic missing from the top left corner but, as soon as I insert the SIM card from my other phone and turn it on, the device pings to life. Hoarding 1. Mother 0. As the welcome message swirls, I remember why I hated the damned thing. It’s slow to do anything and trying to type on the minuscule screen always left me feeling as if I had bloated whale thumbs. Hoarding 1. Mother 1. While the phone continues to do whatever it is it’s doing, I head back downstairs.

Mum’s on her way up, still yawning as she tells me she’s off to get ready for work but that there’s tea and toast on the table. If this is what being up for seven in the morning means, I could really get used to it. By the time I get to the table, the old phone has finally woken up. It’s bleating about not having much battery but then that was another of the reasons why it has spent the last year and a half in the bottom of my wardrobe instead of my pocket. It was always low on battery. It craved an electrical hook-up like a YouTuber craves attention. I’m hoping for a flurry of messages that might help clear the haze of the previous evening but there’s nothing. Literally nothing. My old conversations are lost to the river water and I’m left staring at a blank page as if I’m a friendless loser. Hoping to cheer myself up, I bite into the toast – but the moment it touches my tongue, bile begins to build at the back of my throat.

My stomach lurches, sending a noxious taste into my mouth that makes me want to be sick. I rush to the kitchen sink but the contractions give way to nothing but a pair of syrupy, rancid burps. Back in the living room, I examine the toast, looking for flecks of mould, but it seems perfectly fine. When I smell the bread, it’s as if there’s nothing there. That’s when I realise that the living room usually has an undercurrent to it. In the plug socket next to the kitchen door sits an air freshener, with a pool of yellow liquid in a glass bulb. The power is on but when I sit next to it, I can still smell nothing. It is only when I lie on my front and press my nose against the device that I can sense the merest hint of lemon. I sit up again, resting my back against the wall, and peer back towards the table. I have no sense of taste and almost no sense of smell.

When my mother touched my forehead, I felt nothing. I can hear and I can see – but only having two of five senses is a worry to say the least. Landslide elections can be won with forty per cent of the vote, yet my politics teacher claims forty per cent on an exam is a bad mark. Talk about a hypocrite. Other than that, forty per cent of anything is not a good result. Anyway, the fact I’m calm about all this is almost more of a concern than my missing three senses. I should be freaking out, going crazy, panicking about what’s wrong with me – and yet I’m not. Instead, I have the steady, calm realisation that I died a few hours ago. It’s hard to explain how I’m so sure of this. It’s like when a person is hungry.

It isn’t a conscious thought, it’s a feeling. Nobody needs to be taught what it’s like to be thirsty, they simply know. That’s how I’m aware of what’s happened to me. Knowing that as a fact gives me a calmness I should not have. When that’s the morning you’ve had, anything after that has to be a bonus.

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