Dixie Elliot ✒ continues in short story form.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
He opened his eyes and wondered why he was lying fully clothed on a steel bed. The mattress was hard and it stank, the pillow felt no better. He was in a prison cell, a very old prison cell by the look of it, with a barred window high up on the wall. But why was he there, in that place? There wasn’t much else in the cell other than a table with a plastic mug on it, a chair and a locker. He sat up, swung his legs off the bed, and tried to make sense of his surroundings. His shoes were on the floor beside the bed so he decided to put them on while struggling to come to terms with the fact that he could remember nothing. Not even his own name.
His thoughts were distracted by a key rattling in the lock of the cell door. Someone was opening it. Was this his jailer? Indeed it was. A tall thin expressionless man in a uniform stood at the cell door staring at him for a moment. The jailer took a metal tray of food from a trolley and held it out, nodding that he wanted the plastic mug. He took the tray of food and placed it on the table, then brought the mug to the jailer who filled it with a liquid which looked like dish water.
“Why am I here… in this cell?”
The jailer remained expressionless, nodded for him to move back and slammed the cell door shut.
He placed the mug of tea beside the food on the table and left it there. It looked disgusting. The cell window was too high up on the wall for him to reach, but he could see daylight through the filthy panes of glass.
Time passed slowly. There were no sounds of life outside of the cell. The silence was only broken when the jailer opened the hatch, looked towards the table with the meal still untouched, slammed it down again and left. He lay back and fell into a restless sleep, dreaming he had been in that cell for weeks. In his dream every day had been the same. The jailer would come, always the same one, collect the uneaten food and replace it with the same meal. Why wasn’t he feeling hungry?
He woke and sat up, then realised that the cell door was slightly ajar. Did the jailer not lock it properly? He quickly put on his shoes, went to the door, pushed it open and peered out into a long corridor. He had been expecting to see the wing of a prison, with rows of cell doors on each side but this looked like the corridor of a commercial building, one which hadn’t been used in many years. There were high windows, with frosted glass in the panes, running the length of the corridor on the side opposite the cell he had been in. Dust covered spider webs clung to the edges of these windows. The paint on the walls was dirty and peeling from age. He looked up and down this corridor trying to decide which way to go when he heard a faint humming sound coming from his left. There was a door at the very bottom of the corridor in that direction so he decided to see what was causing it. He moved down the corridor, looking behind every few steps dreading the appearance of the jailer. The doors on the same side as the cell he had been in weren’t steel doors, they were office doors which hadn’t been painted in years.
When he reached the door at the end of the corridor he listened but could only hear the humming sound. He knew he had no other choice but to open that door. He opened it and saw machinery, with people working it, on the floor of a huge factory. No one appeared surprised to see him. Some of the workers gave him a quick glance as he passed among the machinery but they didn’t speak, not to him nor to each other. He decided against asking any of these people for answers in case they would raise the alarm. He moved towards another door at the far side of the factory floor and looked back, half expecting to see the jailer but there was still no sign of him.
Behind this door was something entirely different, a hardware store. A storekeeper stood behind a heavy wooden counter serving a customer. He wore a fawn coloured coat like the ones worn by doctors. The storekeeper tore brown paper from a huge roll on the counter and wrapped something in it before tying it with string. The noise from traffic could be heard coming from outside the store but he couldn’t see past the cluttered window display. He did see himself in a mirror which was on sale. A young man in in his early twenties with brown eyes and thick black hair looked back at him. He wondered why there wasn’t a heavy stubble on his face. He had not, as far as he knew, shaved in days, maybe weeks. He decided that it was time to leave.
As he opened the door a bell tingled above his head. He turned around and saw that the storekeeper was furious.
“You haven’t paid.”
“I didn’t take anything.”
“You have to pay.”
He stepped outside the store into sunshine and found himself in a high street from the past with shops which had sun shades pulled down. The traffic passing in both directions was also from a different time, he knew that much but it only added to his confusion. A young man on a motorbike with a girl riding pillion passed by. This sparked something in his mind but he couldn’t think as to what it was. Then someone gripped his arm. An alarm was ringing, not from within the store but from further away. He turned and saw the person who was holding his arm. It was a young girl with fair hair, cut short like a tomboy. She was around his own age and wore a plain white t-shirt and jeans. He could not remember anything about himself, but he was certain about one thing, these had to be the most striking eyes he had ever looked into. He could see in them the colours of Autumn; brown, green and gold. The hypnotic effect they had on him lasted only seconds before she shook him out of his trance.
“You need to get away quickly.” There was an urgency in her voice. She spoke with an accent.
“Why?” He asked. “What have I done?”
“There’s no time for explanations. Go now.” She pointed down the main street. “Stay on this side and take the first turn you come to. Keep going, you need to find the oak tree.”
“An oak tree? You want me to find an oak tree… are you serious?”
“Do you want them to get you? They will if you stand here arguing with me. Now go. Find the oak tree.”
She pushed him away from her as the alarm continued to ring. He thought of that cell and moved quickly through the crowds in the direction she had pointed out.
The street was a place of dereliction. On one side there was a row of crumbling one-story houses, many of the roofs had collapsed in on themselves. The opposite side of the street was dominated by a disused warehouse with a high wall and a large wooden gate. A painted sign high on the side of the warehouse had faded into the brickwork and weeds grew from almost every crack and crevice in the high wall. Rusting cars were parked on both sides of the street. The whole area seemed to be in shadow even though the sun was high in the sky. At the far end of the street a motorway flyover was busy with traffic, beyond that high buildings with fading advertising signs dominated the skyline. Sunlight only seemed to be hitting the flyover while these buildings also remained in shadow.
He asked himself a question. Why would a complete stranger tell him to search for an oak tree? She didn’t appear to be crazy. She was beautiful, despite her tomboyish appearance. But was she crazy, or worse still, was she messing with his head?
As he passed under the flyover he noticed a homeless man standing beside one of the concrete pillars. He was rummaging through rubbish in a shopping trolley. The man lifted his head from his search as he approached. He scratched his matted beard as if he were trying to remember something or other.
“It has to be here somewhere,” he said.
“What are you looking for?”
“I don’t rightly know. Are you looking for something yourself?”
“As a matter of fact I am. I’m trying to find a tree.” He felt like fool for having said that.
“A tree?” Inquired the homeless man. “Sure there’s no shortage of trees, they grows everywhere. There’s forests full of trees. All types of them.” He giggled insanely.
“It’s a particular tree, an oak tree. A girl with short fair hair told me to find it, but she failed to even tell me where I could find it. It was all too hurried.”
“Ah now, why didn’t you say so. I knows about that particular oak tree but I haven’t seen it myself yet. Ask me to point you in the right direction and I’d have to point in that direction, over there.” He nodded rather than pointed towards another street between the high buildings with the advertising signs. “Keep going. You’ll come to it sooner or later.”
“I don’t seem to have any change on me,” said the young man as he searched his pockets. He heard the traffic on the flyover above them. A distant sound of a siren gradually got louder and then faded off into the sounds of the traffic again.
“You don’t have to pay,” said the homeless man.
The young man entered a street with three-storey houses on both sides of it. Steep concrete steps led up to the doors of these houses. The houses were boarded up and, as in the other street, rusting cars were parked rather than abandoned. Weeds were growing wild everywhere. This street was also in shadow. The homeless man was the only person he had come across since he entered this shadowland and he was clearly no demon. In fact the only demons seemed to be inside the man’s head. At the end of the street he turned a corner and saw a road up ahead. When he reached this road he stepped out of the shadows into sunshine again. There was a row of neat detached houses with well kept gardens on the opposite side of the road. People were tending to the gardens or chatting with each other, while children played in the sun. One or two of them looked at him but showed no surprise at seeing a stranger. The occasional car or lorry passed along the road. He turned to look back and found that the street was no longer behind him. There were similar neat detached houses with gardens on that side of the road. He was even more confused than he had been when he woke in that cell. How long ago was that?
Confident that the road would lead into a town he followed it for about two miles until it became more built up and he eventually turned a corner into a town square.
Then he saw it. A monumental oak tree stood on a green in the middle of the square. While most of the branches were covered with leaves, one long branch, which grew out and up from the side of the trunk, had no leaves on it. It was as if the oak tree was holding up an arm to let him know that it was the one he had been searching for. He seriously doubted this as he believed that the branch had to be dead. A wooden bench faced the oak tree. He sat down on it wondering what he would have to do next.
Behind him, where the road entered the town square, was row of tall Georgian houses. On one side of the square stood a building with concrete pillars and steps, this was either a bank or a town hall. On the opposite side stood an official looking Georgian building with steps leading up to an impressive red door. Directly in front of him, between a row of well kept shops, there was a tree-lined shopping street on a hill. People went to and fro about their business, barely giving him a second glance. The usual volume of traffic one would see in any town centre passed by but this place seemed to be frozen in time.
Someone was standing behind him. He turned to see an old man dressed in a suit, with a trilby hat on his head, and holding a cane. This person came around and sat on the bench beside him. He had a neatly trimmed beard.
“I see that you found it. The oak tree that is.” He pointed to the tree with his cane.
The young man studied his face as he spoke. “I’ve seen you before, I’m sure of it.”
The old man rubbed his beard. “I trimmed it down and got all cleaned up.”
“You’re the homeless man I met earlier… below the motorway flyover. But that was barely thirty minutes ago.”
“That was myself alright, I finally ran out of time back there. Your time is still moving in a circle, but I cut through that circle. This is a different me now. The new me… and I eventually found what I was looking for.”
“What was that?”
“What have you two got to chat about?”
They both looked around and saw the girl with the short fair hair approaching them.
“This has to be your girlfriend.” The old man rose from the bench as he spoke. “Sit here and I’ll let you both be.” He tipped the cane to his hat before he sauntered off in the direction of the tree-lined shopping street.
The girl sat down on the bench and looked back in the direction from which she had come, as though she were excepting the arrival of others.
“Your journey is not yet over and you must be on your way before they come,” she said.
“Who is coming?”
“Those who want you to pay.”
“Pay for what? I haven’t taken anything from that hardware store.”
“You haven’t taken anything from the store but you have taken something very valuable.”
“What have I taken? I can’t even remember my own name.”
“That is not for me, nor they, to judge. It is for your own conscience to decide, Mark.”
“Yes. Mark Farrell, that is your name.”
“And may I ask your name, given that you know mine?”
She reached out and took both his hands in hers.
“My name is Astrid Mark.” She smiled as she looked him straight in the eyes. “Now that the introductions are out of the way, we have no more time to waste. They will be here shortly.” She shifted her gaze away from him towards the tree-lined shopping street. “You must go to the top of that hill and go no further. There you will find a place of darkness which you must enter in order to find the light.”
“The light? Why must I find this light?”
“Because you cannot let it defeat you Mark.”
“Let what defeat me Astrid?”
“The darkness in here.” She touched the centre of his forehead lightly with her index finger. “That is where the real darkness is Mark, inside your own mind. You must not let it consume you.”
She happened to glance towards the row of Georgian houses. Three men stood on the footpath in front of them, the storekeeper and two policemen.
“There he is. Arrest that man… don’t let him escape again.” The storekeeper was pointing at Mark.
“Go Mark… go now.” Astrid rose and pulled him to his feet as the policemen came towards them. She urged him to get away with her eyes so he ran. He ran because he knew that she was right. He didn’t want to return to that cell, more so now because he might never see her again. There was no time for goodbyes, they were too close. He ran up the hill driven by the fear of being caught and found guilty of a crime he knew nothing about. He ran until he reached the brow of the hill. The street continued on down through the town on that side of the hill, beyond that was a wide bay with the sun shining on a sea which sparkled like diamonds. Distant show-capped mountains rose majestically skywards. He turned and saw that the two policemen were almost upon him with the storekeeper close behind. Then he saw the darkness Astrid had told him about. The darkness he must enter in order to find the light. It was a side street which appeared to be where the border between the light of day and the dark of the night began or ended. But how could that possibly be? The two policemen were within reaching distance of him so he ran into the dark street and kept running until he was certain that they were no longer chasing him. The policemen were still standing in the sunlit street and the storekeeper had joined them. They clearly weren’t going to enter this dark place.
It wasn’t entirely dark in that place, as the moon cast some light on it. He could see no other light, not even in the windows of the houses and shops which lined both sides of the street. As he walked he noticed that shadows were passing him by, going to and fro like crowds of people going about their normal lives. Shadows that weren’t cast by physical bodies. The street ahead merged into a dark void where even the moonlight could no longer penetrate, so he stopped at a corner where another street on a hill was still illuminated by moonlight. A church halfway up this hill dominated the skyline but there was no light coming from within it. Crows flew round the dark spire cawing aggressively. Mark believed that his presence must have angered them. He made his way up the hill and the shadows seemed to whisper to each other as he passed, maybe wondering why he was walking among them. A curtain twitched in a dark window.
When he reached the brow of this hill Mark saw what he believed to be the same view he had seen from the hill at the top of the shopping street. The same view only as seen during the night, but no lights shone in the town below him and the only light came from the moon above. It shone on the sea and it silhouetted the distant mountains.
Where was this light Astrid spoke of?
The cawing of the crows had become more incessant as they circled overheard. Mark decided that he needed to go back and find Astrid, as the desire to stay with her was stronger than the need to escape whatever he was running away from. As he began to hurry back down the street again he noticed that the crows were breaking off and flying down in front off him. The noise they made was nightmarish. A tall shadowy figure blocked his way and the crows flew straight towards it as it gradually took on a more solid shape. Mark then realised that the crows had been raising the alarm to make his presence known to whatever this thing was.
This dark man, if indeed it was a man, wore an ankle-length coat which flowed behind him like a cape. On his head he wore a wide-brimmed hat, from which long strands of fibrous hair hung down and over the high collar of his coat. His dark face had no discernable features. He wielded a heavy blackthorn stick, with a knob handle, like a weapon he was about to use.
As the dark man strode purposefully up the hill towards him, Mark looked desperately around for an escape route. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw a light coming on in a single window at the far end of one of the side streets. The window was at the end of a cul-de-sac and directly above a door. A flight of stone steps led up to the door. It was all or nothing so he ran towards the door. The dark man turned the corner as Mark stumbled up the steps in a desperate attempt to escape. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the dark man held the blackthorn stick out to the side and swiped it like a baseball bat. The crows flew around in a disorganised mass just above the rooftops of the cul-de-sac, they were cawing like an excited mob. The dark man continued to hold the blackthorn stick out to the side, swiping it as he got closer and closer to his intended victim. Clearly he was letting Mark know what fate lay in store for him.
Mark hammered on the door knocker frantically. He could hear the sound echoing throughout the house. The dark man was at the steps, Mark turned sideways and looked into his face. It was the face of a rotting corpse. He slammed his shoulder against the heavy door and felt it give a little. The dark man put a foot on the bottom step and tapped the side of his leg with the blackthorn stick. Mark continued to slam his shoulder against the door. The dark man held his head back and laughed like a cawing crow. Mark stepped back and threw the entire weight of his body at the door. It opened slightly and he saw light at the edges of it. The dark man also saw this and stepped back. His laughter had stopped. He sprang forward as Mark took one more desperate sideways lunge at the door hitting it again with his shoulder. It opened wide and light exploded, without sound, out from the inside blasting around him. He saw the dark man being torn to shreds by the light. Mark was swept up by the power of the light and had the sensation of being carried away by a rip tide.
He blinked open his eyes and saw, through a haze, that he was in a hospital ward with someone sitting at the edge of the bed he was in. His vision cleared and he saw Astrid leaning over him holding his hand in hers. She wore a white doctor’s coat. There was a name tag on it, Dr Astrid Pedersen.
“Doctor Peterson,” said Mark.
“Pee-der-sin. It’s pronounced Pee-der-sin Mark.”
“You’re a doctor.”
“I suppose I am.”
“That’s a strange answer.”
“Is it?” Astrid seemed embarrassed by the remark.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” It was Mark’s turn to feel embarrassed so he changed the subject. “You helped me get through this Astrid.”
“No Mark, no, you got through it yourself, I merely pointed you in the right direction. You fought the demon alone and you won. This time.”
“This time Astrid? What do you mean by this time?”
"The demon you fought doesn’t go away that easily but you have proven to yourself that you are capable of defeating it eventually.”
He looked concerned so Astrid leaned forward and kissed him. Then she sat back and smiled. “We’ll fight it together Mark.”
Mark smiled back at her. He then realised that he was wearing pyjamas, striped pyjamas. This caused him to blush.
“They look good on you, now lie back and rest, I must visit someone. But I’ll be back shortly.”
She got up and walked to the door where she paused. “I mean it, rest now.” Then she turned and went down the corridor.
Mark lay his head back and dared to dream. His memories were still lost to him but he had found new memories, beautiful memories. He didn’t feel like resting, in case he fell asleep and woke to find that he had in fact been dreaming. The sun was shinning in through the window. He wanted to stand in it’s warmth instead and look at the world outside this hospital ward. So he got off the bed and went to the window.
He saw it straight away. He could not help but see it. The oak tree stood in the middle of what appeared to be a park on a hill, with neat well trimmed lawns and pathways. The wooden bench faced it. How could this be possible? This was the same oak tree with the dead limb that looked like an outstretched arm. The same one which stood in the middle of a green in a town square. A man was sitting on the bench, he appeared to be a young man, maybe in his thirties. Then Mark saw Astrid walking towards this man. She wasn’t wearing the doctor’s coat. The man stood up and they embraced before they both sat down and got engaged in conversation. She took hold of his hand and rested her head on his shoulder.
Mark felt the cold hand of betrayal reaching inside his chest and tearing his heart out. He fumbled about the ward in search of his clothes and found them hanging neatly in a metal locker. Once dressed he staggered out of the ward like a drunk man. As he moved down the corridor in search of a way out, he noticed that the other wards were empty. There were no patients in them nor were there any beds, they were empty rooms. He saw the doors of an elevator at the far end of the corridor. He was nauseous and in a confused state by the time he reached it and pressed the button. It seemed to take ages to reach that floor. When the doors opened he stepped inside and hammered the button for the ground floor with his finger, in a combination of anger and confusion.
When the lift doors opened on the ground floor Mark stepped out and into the lobby of a luxurious hotel. He was seriously beginning to believe that he was trapped inside a surreal maze, from which there was no means of escape. People sat on sofas and armchairs around coffee tables, drinking from bone china cups or sipping glasses of wine or spirits. They were engaged in conversation or reading. A huge stone fireplace dominated the wall at the end of the lobby. High windows draped with heavy curtains gave a view of the outside world. Chandeliers hung from an ornate ceiling. There was a grand piano with a man playing a tune on it but Mark could only hear a faint beeping sound inside his head.
“If it isn’t himself again,”
Mark turned towards the bar area, the old man in the suit was seated on a high stool at the corner of the bar, his cane hung on a brass handrail which went the length of the counter. He was signalling to Mark by raising his trilby hat above his head.
“Come... come and join me in a drink. You don’t have to pay.”
Mark then noticed another old man rising from an armchair close to a window. This one had a look of pleasant surprise on his face as he came towards him with his arms outstretched. He caught Mark in a hug, then stepped back and patted his arms like a long lost friend. The old man looked around the lobby confused, as if he were expecting someone else.
“Where’s your granny Mark? And your parents and wee Katie of course. I can’t remember the last time I seen them. Wee Katie must be all grown up.”
Mark couldn’t remember who this old fellow was, or anything about his parents, or for that matter, this wee Katie he spoke of.”
“I’m sorry sir, I honestly don’t know who you are referring to… I can’t remember anything.”
“Don’t try and cod an old codder like myself Mark. I bet you didn’t forget to bring your motorbike. You go everywhere on that motorbike.”
“Motorbike… what motorbike?”
The old man looked around again as if he were still expecting the arrival of others. “I taught you to ride the motorbike Mark. Don’t you remember? Your mother wasn’t pleased. Not one bit but you insisted I teach you and she had to give in.”
Mark was confused, why would this old man be telling him these things? He must know something.
“That’s how I met your granny Mark and we got to courting each other. She saw me on my old motorbike in my leather jacket and thought I looked like Marlon Brando in that motorbike film. What was it called again? Anyways, she climbed on the back of that motorbike and she’s been on my back ever since.” The old man giggled at his own joke.
Mark could barely breathe, he needed to get air. He needed to see Astrid and get answers.
“Excuse me,” he said to the old man before he stumbled towards the door.
The old man at the bar raised his glass as Mark passed him. "Are you sure you won't have a drink?"
A man wearing a top hat held the door open as Mark stumbled outside. He felt nauseous again but was stopped in his tracks by a mixture of fear and wonderment. The cliff face of a mountain towered over the hotel and the parkland which was on a high hill. A pine forest grew down the side of the hill opposite the hotel. He could see a town with red-bricked rooftops and the spire of a church. The town nestled at the base of the same mountain range. A wide river flowed out into the sea and near the mouth of this river there was a cluster of islands. Snow-capped mountains rose up from the shore at the opposite side of the river.
“Where am I?” He called out.
Astrid was running towards him with the young man she had been sitting with close behind. She looked concerned as she took hold of his hands. “Please be calm Mark.”
Mark was looking over her shoulder at the young man and Astrid saw the confusion in his eyes. She released one of her hands from his grip and held it out to the man. “This is my father Mark. I told him all about you.”
Mark pulled his hand away from Astrid and stepped back a few steps. “He can’t be your father. He’s too young.”
“Mark…Where is your Granny Mark? Where is everyone?” The old man was coming towards him from the direction of the hotel.
“Gran… da?” Mark’s face was showing signs of recognition.
“There you are now, I just knew that you were trying to cod me.”
Mark heard the beeping sound in his head again. What was causing it? His vision blurred momentarily and when it cleared again he was in the middle of a road below a motorway flyover. Blue lights were flashing on ambulances, Garda cars and Fire Service vehicles. Medics were kneeling over someone who lay prone on the ground and nearby was the twisted wreckage of a shopping trolley with rubbish strewn about it. A lady was giving a witness statement to a Garda.
“The young lad on the motorbike was going too fast, far too fast. The old homeless man Jamsie, that’s the only name I know him by, pushed that shopping trolley out onto the road without looking. He was raving to himself about something. He’s a crazy old fellow, lives under the flyover.”
The wrecked motorbike was further up, on the opposite side of the road. There was a large dent on the side of a parked car. Medics were also kneeling over someone lying on the road near to the motorbike. When Mark got close enough to see who it was, he realised, to his horror, that he was the person they were attempting to revive.
Then he saw a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. The driver’s side was completely smashed in. Firefighters were using cutting equipment to remove the roof of the car. One of the firefighters stepped to one side and Mark saw another firefighter, who was inside the car, leaning over a young woman, she was unconscious and her face was covered with blood. She had fair hair, cut short like a tomboy.
“Astrid.” Uttered Mark. “It can’t be, I just spoke to you. Was I the cause of this?”
It was growing dark. Not naturally growing dark, but as if someone were turning down the dimmer switch on a light.
“You don’t have to pay Mark, it was as much my fault as it was yours.” The old man in the suit, wearing a trilby hat and carrying a walking cane, stood beside the medics who were attempting to revive the homeless man. They didn’t seem to be aware of him, neither did the Garda nor the lady giving him a statement.
Then he saw them. The storekeeper and the two policemen were moving through the shadows below the flyover. The two policemen began running towards him. It was getting darker still and Mark heard the cawing of crows coming from further down the road. It was almost totally dark but the emergency crews and bystanders were still clearly not aware of this. The dark man was moving quickly towards Mark with the crows flying just over his head cawing frantically. He was swishing the blackthorn stick to the side like a baseball bat. He put his head back and gave a cawing laugh as he came closer to Mark, who stood rooted to the spot in fear.
“Find the oak tree Mark. You’re almost there.”
Mark turned his head to see Astrid standing beside the wrecked Volkswagen Beetle. She seemed to be very much alive.
“Go now Mark, quickly. Go and find my oak tree.”
“But where Astrid… where will I find it this time?”
“Search your heart Mark. You’ll find it there.”
Mark remembered sitting with Astrid on the wooden bench facing the oak tree in the town square. He remembered how she touched the centre of his forehead with her index finger. He remembered how that felt.
The darkness was gone and the sun was shining. Mark stood at the end of a narrow strip of grass which went through a field of crops to an ancient oak tree with a branch sticking out to the side like an outstretched arm beckoning him. It was Astrid’s oak tree. He could see a river through the trees at the bottom of the field, and a pine forest which covered the hills beyond it, and wooden houses painted either red or white. The wooden bench was facing the oak tree but no one sat on it. Mark walked towards it but he didn’t seem to be getting any closer, even when he quickened his pace. He heard the beeping sound in his head again and a distant voice with an accent was speaking his name. He then saw Astrid and the man, whom she said was her father, sitting on the bench. She turned and smiled at him. But it was a smile tinged with sadness.
Mark realised that his eyes were closed. The beeping sound was louder, as was the voice speaking his name. He opened his eyes and saw a lady standing by the bed he was in. She wore a doctor’s white coat. The beeping was close to his head, it came from monitoring equipment. He realised that he was in another hospital ward. The lady smiled at him, her long fair hair was swept behind her head in a ponytail. She seemed to be in her mid to late forties. Mark saw something in her eyes that he recognised.
“You’re back with us Mark.” That accent again.
Mark looked at her confused. “I was in an accident.”
“Yes… yes you were involved in an accident just over two weeks ago. You gave us a scare when the alarm sounded on your blood pressure monitor, but you pulled through."
“The homeless man, Jamsie… is he?”
The doctor shook her head sadly but said nothing.
“And the girl in the yellow Volkswagen Beetle, with the fair hair… Astrid?”
The doctor turned pale, she was struggling to get her breath. Struggling to speak.
“How can you know about my Astrid? How?”
“Her car was right there, I saw it. The firefighters were…”
“No it was not there. It was not. My Astrid’s accident happened two years ago next month.” Tears were streaming down her face. “Astrid was returning to her flat after work. A drunk driver drove through a red light. She had no chance. This happened down at Eden Quay in the city centre, not where you say you seen her car.”
Mark read her name tag as she spoke, Dr Gretchen Pedersen. He saw Astrid’s eyes through her tears. This can’t happening. He was hoping desperately to hear about Astrid’s recovery as her mother spoke.
“Astrid clung to life for a week, but I knew. I knew that it could not be so. That our prayers would not be answered. I had to let her go. I had to let my Astrid go.”
Doctor Pedersen saw the anguished look on Mark’s face, the denial of what he had just heard in his eyes, which were welling up with tears, and she knew that this young man loved her daughter. But how could that be? She put her hand into her coat pocket and produced a small wallet. She took a photograph from the wallet and gave it to Mark.
Mark stroked the photograph with his finger. Astrid’s eyes, that smile and her fair hair cut short like a tomboy. She was wearing a doctor’s coat, just like her mother.
“Astrid was a doctor?” He remembered her reply to him back in that ward when he put the question to her. ‘I suppose I am,’ she had said. Mark looked at Dr Pedersen. She saw the question in his eyes so he didn’t need to ask if that were the case.
“Astrid was a junior doctor. She came here to Dublin from Norway to work in this hospital. She loved Ireland. It has mountains like Norway but not as many, she would tell me. Astrid loved mountains.” Doctor Pedersen sat down on the side of Mark’s bed and took his hand in her own two hands. “You have fallen in love with Astrid, I see it in your eyes, you grieve for her as I do. But how can that be so? Your family are anxious to see you, but I need to know Mark. Please.”
Mark told her about Astrid guiding him to the ancient oak tree with the wooden bench in the town square, about the place of darkness and the dark man. The light she told him to find and how he got through it to wake up in a hospital ward. How she was wearing a doctor’s white coat and her reply to him when he asked her if she was a doctor. He told her about the hotel and seeing the same oak tree with the wooden bench again in the parkland outside the hotel. Then he asked her a question.
“Who is the young man she was with? She said he was her father, but he was too young to be her father.” He gave Doctor Pedersen a description of the young man.
Doctor Pedersen said nothing for a few moments, she was searching for her own answers. “He was her father Mark. And the father of my two other children. He was my dear husband Lars. He too was a doctor before cancer took him from us when he was only thirty five years old.” She paused for a while before continuing. “The ancient oak tree you speak of, that is our special oak tree back home in Norway, near our home in the village of Mollestad. They say that it is a thousand years old. We took Astrid there from the time when she was a small child. In later years our other two children would come too. I told them of the guardian spirit who protects the tree. They loved that story. I told them the same story every time we went there and sat on the wooden bench. Then my dear Lars was gone from us. We continued to go there and we would pretend that he still sat with us on the bench.”
She stopped speaking and stared, trance-like, at the monitoring equipment. After a few moments she turned to Mark again. “I am a doctor Mark, who works in an intensive care unit. People who have been in a coma are known to have been aware of what was being said around them while they lay in an unconscious state. Could it be possible that you heard me speak of my Astrid, and of her accident, while you lay in a coma? I did speak about it to my colleagues in this ward. I also spoke of my husband Lars and our oak tree Mark.” Doctor Pedersen was clearly overwhelmed that she was throwing doubt on Mark’s story. “I am also a mother who had my eldest child snatched from me Mark. I need to know if what I say is true?”
Mark seen the despair, at having shattered her own hopes, in her face.
“Before I opened my eyes, I was there. Astrid told me to find it again in my heart, so I searched my heart and I found it. I saw your oak tree in Mollestad. It stands in the middle of a field of crops. A grass pathway leads to it. I saw a river through the trees at the bottom of the field and beyond it hills covered with pine trees. I saw red and white wooden houses. I saw Astrid and her father sitting on the wooden bench, she turned and smiled at me. Then I heard your voice. How could I know that Gretchen?”
Doctor Pedersen squeezed his hand tightly. “Thank you Mark. I came to Dublin with my children to work in this hospital so that I could be close to Astrid, I did not want her to be alone. I now know that she is with her father. She wanted me to know that I could go back home, but she couldn’t tell me herself, so she acted as your guide and brought you back to me instead. I will return to Norway, to live in Mollestad again, and go our oak tree every day. Promise me Mark. Promise me that you will come and visit and sit with me on the bench. You can hear the story of the spirit guardian who protects the tree.”
“I will Gretchen. As soon as I am able to, I will come and visit.”
Doctor Pedersen kissed Mark on the forehead then she stood up. “Your family are really anxious to see you, especially your little sister Katie.” She seemed hesitant. “I must tell you Mark, for you will know soon enough. Your family has already been informed of it.”
“What is it Gretchen?”
“A toxicology test showed traces of drugs in your blood.”
The look on Mark’s face told Doctor Pedersen what he was thinking. She saw the shame in his eyes. Shame that he was no different to the drunk driver who had caused Astrid’s death. She saw that it was tearing him apart.
“You cannot let it defeat you Mark, you must fight it or it will destroy you. Don’t let the darkness consume you.”
Doctor Pedersen was speaking but Mark was hearing Astrid’s voice.
The old man’s breathing was laboured. His younger sister, who was in her sixties, sat by the side of the bed holding his hand. Her husband stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. At the opposite side of the bed their grown up children wept tears of sadness for a dear uncle who was like a second father. An uncle who often told them a story they never tired of hearing. He had never married so he had no children of his own. A well-worn biker’s jacket lay across the old man’s chest, his other hand was rested on it. His eyes closed and he smiled before taking his final breath.
A young man with thick black hair, wearing a leather jacket and denim jeans, roared down a road on a motorbike past neat detached houses with well kept gardens. He overtook a lorry and continued on until he came into a town square. He pulled up at a green with an ancient oak tree in the centre of it. A young girl with short fair hair had risen from the wooden bench facing it. She rushed towards the young man on the motorbike and kissed him. Then she punched his shoulder in feigned annoyance.
"What took you so long Mark Farrell?”
“I couldn’t get here any quicker Astrid."
She climbed up behind him on the pillion seat and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Where do you want to go to?” Asked Mark.
“The mountains. Let’s go and see the mountains.” She rested her head on his back and looked towards the oak tree. “I want one of these leather jackets before we go there.”
“Then we shall find one on the way.”
They cruised around the green and up the tree-lined shopping street.
“Can’t this thing go any faster?”
“You will find out soon enough.”
Mark pulled up at the brow of the hill. The road continued on down through the town, just as he remembered it had. Beyond that there was a wide bay with the sun shining on a sea which sparkled like diamonds. He saw the distant high show-capped mountains rising majestically skywards. He looked to the street where the dark place had been. It was like the other streets, with houses and shops and people going to and fro about their normal lives, not shadows.
“It was never a dark place Mark. That dark place was in your own mind and you escaped from it a long time ago.”
Mark opened the throttle and the motorbike roared off down the hill. They were going to explore a world he had waited a life-time to return to. A world where the girl in his dreams had waited for him.