Delusion

by Heather Parker

This day had started like any other – foreboding, threatening and ordinary. I’d got used to seeing every day that way in the last few months. I woke up fearful every morning as the world pressed in around me. It wasn’t that anything dreadful was happening to me – I just couldn’t stop believing it was about to.

I still went to work at the library every day. I’d been brought up to think you didn’t give in to this sort of thing. You ought to be able to cope with life. And I suppose to most of the people around me, it seemed as if I did. Simon and the kids still saw me as the reliable wife and mother I’d always been. Not a woman terrified of what each new day might bring…

But this day wasn’t like any other, I realised, as soon as I found the old battered photograph album in the stacks and started looking through the sepia pictures. I stared at the images with a mixture of recognition and disbelief, feeling my hands shaking. Why did these photographs look so familiar? I had never seen this album before, and yet these people weren’t strangers. They were my family. No… that could not be right, I thought in an instant. This could not be possible! I felt as if the images were calling out to me, and I knew I had to follow.

Some small part of me wanted to be ‘sensible’. But I couldn’t erase what I was seeing, could not put the intense sense of recognition out of my mind. These pictures were not simply remnants of the lives of people long since dead and gone, they were pieces of me – my memories, my family, pieces of my world. I saw the farmhouse where I used to live, the one Simon had built with his own hands. I saw the apple tree I used to sit under and read on spring days, the stable where we kept our horses, the small family graveyard where Simon’s parents were laid for their eternal rest. I saw the places I had visited day after day, night after night in my lonely dreams.

I told the elderly library patron that the album she wanted could not be found, and hurriedly asked her to fill out a formal request slip instead. I did not care that she stared at me over her bifocals with puzzlement and concern- these were my memories, not hers, and not anyone else’s. No one would have them but me.

When she left the circulation desk I breathed a sigh of relief. I was safe, she was gone. I had discovered, at last, a glimmer of what had been missing from my life all these years, a clue to what was “not right” about my sensible life. These pictures offered me something I had only dreamt of: tranquility. Completeness. Was I having a nervous breakdown? I wondered. I had to take the chance that this was real, not a dream, not a delusion. I was hardly ever off work, and yet I walked out of the library, without a word of explanation, the photo album carefully hidden in my coat pocket, and took the bus into the hills. I don’t think I expected ever to return.

I asked the elderly bus driver to stop and I continued my pilgrimage on foot. I stopped to catch my breath and gazed out across the desolate, lonely fells. I still wasn’t sure what had brought me to this particular place, although in a strange way it was familiar. I simply kept going, pushing further and further into the fog. In my mind I could see an old pony and trap, making its uncomfortable way home from town after market, stumbling up the muddy track and onto the empty fells. Perhaps I’d seen an old painting somewhere, perhaps I’d seen it in a dream.

The wind moaned across the moors as I climbed higher through the mist. It was getting colder and the light was fading. I wasn’t sure where I was heading or what I would find there. But I knew I mustn’t give up.

I still clutched the album, not caring if it was valuable or if I should have taken it from the library. It was mine. A woman has a right to her own memories, doesn’t she? I carefully pulled it out and stared once more at the photographs which had such power over me. There it was. The stone farmhouse standing alone and yet calling to me after all these years. The family whose pictures appeared on these pages drew me to this wild place like a magnet. I knew I was close to home.

I had been here many times before. When I was feeling really bad, I would retreat into an imaginary world where I was at peace and happy. Everyday worries didn’t exist there and reality couldn’t intrude and spoil everything. Sometimes I felt it was the only part of my life that was actually real. It helped to keep me sane – if indeed I was. The pictures in this album mirrored my secret world perfectly, down to the farmhouse on the moors, my precious retreat. I knew I had to find out what was happening or I would regret it for the rest of my life.

I wondered vaguely what would happen when it went dark up here. Would I die of hypothermia? I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I started to feel cold. The wind blew the damp mist against my cheeks and with it a breath of reality. What the hell was I doing? I asked myself. Surely I was mad. I thought briefly about trying to go back, but that prospect seemed as bleak as the featureless scenery surrounding me in the moors.

During that moment of uncertainty, I saw the light. Not a blinding flash of clarity, but a real light coming from a window ahead of me. The daylight was fading, but I pushed my aching body on through the mist. I needed to find the people who lived here and yet I was afraid. In my secret imagined world, they were warm and kind and they loved me. I had a fulfilling peaceful life and I didn’t worry constantly. But were they real?

‘Thank God you’re back, Emma. We were just about to send out a search party.’

I jumped and turned to face the man I knew as my husband. He was so familiar it didn’t seem disturbing. The same untidy fair hair, which always refused to obey a comb.

The soft Cumbrian accent. And yet, somehow he was different. The lines around his eyes were less noticeable. He looked younger. Less strained than I remembered.

‘Simon?’ I whispered, welcoming the warmth of his voice and not wanting to question any more.

‘Who else would be daft enough to be out on the moors on a night like this? Looking for you,’ he emphasised, laughing and putting his arm round my shoulders. It felt so real. And so good.

I noticed his clothes were almost a century out of date and the welcoming glow from the window was soft candlelight. As it was in my dream. Was I going mad? Was I so anxious to escape the constant struggle of everyday living, I was imagining this world? I knew I should be frightened of what was happening to me but I wasn’t. I wanted it to be real. I needed to believe.

I took a chance. ‘Are Maggie and David at home?’

Simon looked taken aback. ‘Course they are. It’s only a few hours since you left them. Are you feeling all right, love?’

I smiled at him and nodded. ‘I was miles away. Daydreaming.’

‘Aren’t you always?’ he grinned as he opened the farmhouse door.

After a few weeks, I stopped trying to work out how this miracle could have happened. Or which life was real and which was imaginary. Life truly was simpler in 1914 and I was happy and at peace. Maggie was an easy child and David a normal teenager, with everything that entails. I felt I was beginning to understand the concept of hope and I was looking forward to the future with confidence. I tried not to think about that other world and settled quietly into the role of farmer’s wife with Simon, whom I loved dearly.

But my dream was shattered one terrible day when David returned from the village and made his dreadful announcement. My seventeen-year-old son had volunteered to fight in the Great War.

I still remember the horror his words evoked in me. The memories flooded me with chills and nausea, forcing themselves up into my brain with the desperation of water bursting from a breaking dam. I grabbed the edge of the table for support as I saw it all play out in front of me in an instant – the letter informing us that David had been killed in action, the tear-filled funeral, the polished gravestone we set beside those of his grandparents. There had been no photos of the funeral in the album, of course not. No, this could not be happening, no…

I did not realize I was saying that word over and over, out loud, as I heard it in my mind. No no no no!

David was disappointed and upset by my reaction.

‘Oh, ma, every lad in the village is joining up. We’ll be all right – we’re all going to be in the same regiment.’

‘But David, you’ve no idea what you’re getting into. There’ll be hundreds of thousands of lads like you killed or maimed in the next four years.’

David looked at me strangely and then across at his father.

‘You’ve said a few things like that lately, love,’ murmured Simon, concerned. ‘How can you possibly know what’s going to happen or how long this war will last?’

‘Everyone says it’ll be over in a few months,’ added David scornfully. ‘I thought you’d be proud of me.’

How could I explain? Perhaps the other world was just in my mind. My heart started to beat faster and I felt the familiar cold sweat breaking out on my face. Nausea threatened to overwhelm me and I rushed out of the house into the cold, sharp air of the moors. I realised suddenly that I was shivering. How could this happen? How could my perfect world be shattered so easily? I was having trouble breathing and everything around me started to spin. I knew I was losing consciousness.

When I opened my eyes, Simon was sitting by my bed and holding my hand tightly. His eyes were full of pain and I wanted to comfort him.

‘Am I in the cottage hospital?’ I asked, confused.

‘You’re in Middleton General, love. Don’t you remember anything?’

I was puzzled. Of course I did.

‘I know I had a dizzy spell when David told me he’d enlisted. But I must have passed out after that.’

Simon looked bewildered. ‘Enlisted for what?’

‘For the war, of course. He’ll be shipping out to France in a few weeks. But he’ll get himself killed, Simon, believe me.’

Simon spoke quietly but firmly.

‘Emma, you’ve had some kind of a breakdown. David’s doing his A levels in the spring and going on to Durham University in October.’

He let that sink in and continued.

‘You left the library yesterday lunchtime and disappeared. We were all frantic with worry. We searched the places we thought you might have gone but there was no sign anywhere. Then this morning, two walkers found you unconscious up on the moors. The police said it was as remote an area as you could get. If those two hadn’t found you, you would almost certainly have died.’

Simon’s voice broke and he put his head in his hands. He was trembling.

‘Or is that what you wanted, Emma? Were you trying to kill yourself?’

A month has passed since that dreadful day and I’m starting to feel better. I’ve talked to doctors and, more importantly, to my family. Simon was horrified to learn what I’d been going through and angry and hurt that I hadn’t confided in him earlier. Gradually he came to understand and he and the children have been kind and patient with me. I don’t know what happened during those hours, although I’m certain I didn’t go up there to die. The other life was still real to me. But I knew with the help of my family and the medication I had to move forward and try not to think about it anymore. I was glad to be back in this world, where my David was safe and sound.

This morning I opened the door and took the coat from the laundryman standing on the step. I shuddered, realising it was the one I’d worn that night on the moors. Simon must have sent it for cleaning while I was in hospital.

‘Now, lass, you should be more careful with your stuff. You were lucky you didn’t lose this in the wash!’

The jovial man passed me a battered old photograph album someone had found in the pocket.

‘Looks to be quite an age, too. There’s a picture of a young lad in uniform that could be from the First World War.’

After I shut the door, I sank to the floor, my heart racing and my head pounding. I had asked Simon about the album but he said he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t with me when the ambulance brought me to the hospital and he had gone through my bag carefully. Everyone said it was part of my illness and it couldn’t really exist. No one had looked in the pocket of my coat – until now.

I slowly opened the fragile book and stared down at the faded photos. I could see they were Simon, Maggie and David. They had the same faces as the people I was living with now. But these photographs were from 1914 and my David was wearing khaki uniform. He was standing in front of a lonely stone farmhouse high up on the moors and this time I noticed the figure standing closest to him.

It was faded and it was in sepia. But I could hardly fail to recognise myself.

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