The Beginning – Nicola Donovan

The hallucinations began after the car crash, on the day I should have died. I’ve done stupid stuff while being on the piss in the past, but what happened that night caused my world to come to a complete halt. I was driving my wife Annie and I home from a night out at our local pub. I insisted I was fine to drive.

‘Typical Dave’, Annie said, giggling drunkenly as she handed me the keys. Those words became like a catchphrase to her when talking about me, and you can be sure they always followed something bad.

‘You still haven’t taken out the trash? Typical Dave,’ Or,

‘I can’t believe you forgot to get milk. That’s so typical Dave.’

She tripped over her feet as we stumbled towards the car.

‘Oops!’ she chuckled to herself, her laugh sounding like a cute, fuzzy cartoon character.

Annie sang along to the radio as the rain continued to fall and blur my already limited vision. I pushed the button for cruise control, allowing the car to continue driving at 90kms.

‘Dave! Look out!’

Glass shattered as our heads sprang forward before being punched backwards by airbags. The car’s bonnet crumpled from the impact of the tree. I turned to see my wife balanced half way out of the smashed windshield, blood trickling from her nose. Staring from a car opposite us was a person. Through the beaming headlights, and the concoction of water and blood that was now pooling on the remainder of the front window, I vaguely saw a face- the face of a woman.

She will help us. She will help Annie.

Instead I watched as she reversed her car. Screeeeech! The smell of burning rubber wafted up my nostrils. I watched her turn her wheel and accelerate towards the road; the road she had just caused us to drive off in order to avoid crashing into her.

* * *

I’ve had trouble sleeping ever since the crash. I am now a prisoner of guilt.

‘Dave! Look out!’

I jolt up right at the sound of Annie’s screaming. She screams like that in my mind all the time. The doctor suggested I’m having a post-traumatic reaction to the stress of the accident. It makes sense but it doesn’t feel right. I know Annie is purposely haunting me, and that I deserve it. The alarm clock glares at me, my eyes trying to focus on the numbers that are at this moment a blurred, ball of light – 5:37. Before the crash I had always been an alarm guy- 6:30 AM, usually. But ever since the crash I had become a man of uneven risings – 4:58, 6:12 and now 5:37.

I walk to the kitchen, focusing on coffee to convince myself I want it more than a scotch. Annie’s miniature garden sits on the windowsill, now only full of soil and death. It had been like a project of hers, but I failed to take care of it. Typical Dave. I don’t have the heart to get rid of it. I rub my bloodshot eyes as I recall what day it is. Tuesday.

Today is doomsday, as I have taken to calling it. The day my transformation begins, I think, as if trying to reassure myself that change is possible. Annie had been hassling me for months to give up drinking. You’re doing this for her, I remind myself. One year after the crash I finally signed up to the local AA meetings. It’s funny how it takes losing the most important thing in your life to realise what a fuck-up you well and truly are. But the thought of losing alcohol seems almost as painful as losing Annie. Not being able to feel the cool sting of a spirit hit my lips, or the warm taste of beer bubbles slipping down my throat ever again makes me feel sick. You’re doing this for her. You’re not going to be ‘typical Dave’ anymore.

 * * *

Later that afternoon I walk into the local church. I haven’t visited this place in years, yet the brick building with its stained-glass windows and overgrown garden hasn’t changed a bit. I walk through the wooden door of the church and over to the only room, where a middle-aged man wearing a grey suit greets me.

‘Welcome, are you here for the meeting?’

He grips my hand and I feel like it is being crushed by an eagle’s claw.

‘It will begin shortly. Please help yourself to any coffee or biscuits.’

He reminds me of the Wall Street, rich-boy type: the tailored suit and firm handshake. The kind of guy that carries himself like he went to an Ivy League school and knows that he is better than you.

‘Go on in, sweetie, you’ve already made it this far.’

I am used to Annie whispering words of advice to me now. I realise that she is not really there, but the hallucinations of her, her silvery voice and her flowery scent, still linger. I walk straight over to an empty, plastic chair, before becoming aware of one face in particular that keeps looking over at me. She has an interesting face. That’s not to say it’s unattractive, quite the opposite, she just has noteworthy features: the elongated shape, the ski-slope nose and bright, green eyes that take up more room on her face than any other feature. She is quite slender and sits slouched as she twists a lock of brunette hair around her finger.

Bang!

The doors to the tiny, isolated room slam shut, separating us from the rest of the world.

‘Welcome guys,’ says the guy that greeted me earlier, ‘my name is Greg and I’m here to help you. You’re all here because you’re battling your addiction to alcohol.’

The douche really does think that he is better than us, as though he is some god-like figure sent here to ‘save’ us. Asshole.

‘It’s a safe space and I welcome you all to share your stories,’ he continues.

‘Lisa, would you like to start?’

The girl I noticed earlier stands up.

‘Hi, my name is Lisa and I’m an alcoholic.’

‘Hi Lisa,’ the rest of the people murmur.

I watch her talk as she says her piece. Her tongue rolls over her lips every couple of words, as if she is thirsty for a drink then and there. It makes me thirsty, too. A few more people get up, give their story and sit back down before everyone looks toward me, indicating that it is my turn. Annie caresses my hand while sitting in the seat next to me.

‘It’s okay, Dave. Don’t be afraid.’

‘Pass,’ I mumble.

 * * *

At the end of the hour Greg thanks us and once again invites everyone to have coffee and biscuits.

‘I wouldn’t try the coffee if I were you,’ a singsong voice says. The woman I spotted earlier is suddenly beside me. She comes across confident, as though she can have any man she wants and she knows it.

‘Seriously,’ she continues, ‘it’s horrible. I’ll show you a café on the next block that does decent coffee instead. I’m Lisa by the way, if you didn’t catch it earlier.’

Yes, she’s definitely confident. She’s probably slept around a lot, too. My hands grow clammy as I feel a shimmer of sweat spread across my forehead. How would Annie feel about this? Would it be disrespectful? What if Lisa tries to kiss me? Would I let her? I wonder what she tastes like. I battle with my thoughts internally, contemplating her offer.

‘Go for it Dave, heaven knows you need some company,’ Annie whispers.

I tug at my earlobe like I’m ringing a bell, a nervous habit I have developed over the years.

‘Dave,’ I reply, ‘and sure, I guess a coffee would be fine.’

Alarmingly I catch myself smiling at her. Since when did I start smiling again? She is just so . . . gorgeous. Distractingly gorgeous, the type of looks that lead even the most loyal of men astray and make even the most secure women jealous. I feel guilty just looking at her.

 * * *

The bell above the glass door tingles as Lisa pushes it open with her fragile arm. The trinkets on the bracelet wrapped around her petite wrists jingle at the movement.

‘How do you take your coffee?’ she asks. ‘I’ll go order if you go grab one of those window seats.’

‘Black, two sugars please.’

I go to give her some money before she slaps my hand away.

‘Don’t be silly. I dragged you here, it’s my shout.’

Annie would have never paid for coffee. She would have insisted that I be a gentleman and not give in so easily.

‘Letting the woman buy your coffee. That’s typical of you, Dave,’ she would say.

Lisa places the two steaming mugs on the table before taking the seat opposite me.

 * * *

Each week that month I return to the local church. Lisa has started greeting me at the entrance. Today she is dressed in a flowing, teal maxi skirt with a plain white singlet, her long, wavy hair covering her shoulder, collarbone and breast. Various coloured beads dangle around her neck and the trinkets on her bracelet jingle as she waves at me. When I reach her we hug, electrifying my whole body. Since having coffee that first week, I can’t get her out of my mind. It is so great having someone to talk to who knows exactly what I am going through. She understands me, she can relate. When I’m around her, I’m not the monster of a drunk my guilt makes me out to be. Tuesday evenings have become something that I now look forward to. I make the effort to get dressed up. I have even started wearing cologne. I’ve been attending the meetings for over two months now, and I’ve been talking to Lisa and seeing her more and more each week, both in and outside of the meetings. The coffee place down from the church has become like a routine of ours. Her hand fits perfectly in mine. Annie has been talking to me a lot less frequently. There’s still some guilt, but the pull Lisa has on me is just too strong.

Walking into the church on this particular Tuesday, however, feels different for some reason. But I can’t put my finger on why.

‘Hey Dave!’ Lisa calls, waving me over.

 * * *

‘Ok guys, this week we are going to talk about something different,’ Greg begins. ‘Today we are going to each share what caused us to come to these meetings, what was the tipping point that made you want to seek help? Lisa, would you like to start?’

She grabs my hand, her cherry red nail polish contrasts against my pale skin. Her eyes stay fixated on the floor as she sighs heavily.

‘I made the decision to drive home from a bar one night,’ she starts. ‘I hadn’t had my regular amount to drink, so I thought I would be okay. On the way home I . . . oh god . . . I drifted onto the wrong lane of the local highway and there was a car there, and I, I caused it to swerve off the road.’

Her grip tightens around my hand as our palms pool with sweat.

‘I pulled over and watched the car hit a tree. I knew that I had to get out of there before the ambulance arrived, so I did. I fucked up. I fucked up and that’s when I knew I needed help.’

She shakes her head as if trying to rid it of the bad thoughts. My hand releases hers as she looks up at me, confusion showing through her tears. I tug at my earlobe vigorously. It has to be a coincidence. It has to be. It could have been a completely different accident, right? Fuck. What the fuck!

The contents of my stomach threaten to escape as I get up and leave the room.

 * * *

Bzzzz Bzzzz Bzzzz! My phone buzzes with excitement as Lisa’s name illuminates the screen for the ninth time that night. I still need time to think.

‘Hi Dave, just me again. I’m really, really worried about you. Please call me back.’

I listen to Lisa’s voice on her latest voicemail. I did want to call her back. I did want to tell her what happened, but what would I say? Instead I sit on my couch, drinking straight from the bottle of vodka I got after leaving the AA meeting that evening.

 * * *

At 6.30 PM, four nights later, I pull up out the front of Lisa’s. I sit in my black Toyota; the exact make and model as the one I crashed. After I was released from hospital I had to watch Annie lay in the intensive care unit. Various tubes and devices were attached to her, making her look like an alien octopus. I ran to the car dealership that day and told them the exact car I needed, the exact car that I had written off. It had to be the same. If it were the same it would be like nothing ever happened. And then Annie would recover, and everything would go back to normal, or so I thought. I debate whether or not to go inside. Lisa practically begged to see me. I want to see her too, that’s why I’m here, but I feel so god damn guilty doing it.

‘What are you going to do, Dave? You’re not actually going to go inside, are you?’ Annie whispers from the passenger seat.

‘Oh Annie,’ I say, ‘it’s been so long. It’s the way she smiles at me, Annie, like she knows exactly what will happen between us but doesn’t dare say it. It’s the small of her back, Annie, and the way my hand fits perfectly when holding it. It’s her lips, Annie, they’re always begging to be kissed, she tastes so sweet.’

I exit the car as the chunky door swings open. Walking up the driveway I can feel Annie’s presence. Waiting. Watching. Wondering. But it doesn’t have the same effect on me as it usually does.

I ring the doorbell.

The door opens and all too quickly Lisa is in my arms, embracing me, consoling me. I hold her close, inhaling the smell of her freshly washed hair. In this moment nothing else matters. But I still feel guilty. She pulls back, carefully studying my face, searching for some indication of what might have been wrong. But she knows better than to ask questions. Instead she leads me through her door.

We sit apart, watching the television. You can feel the tension, especially when Lisa goes to cuddle up to my arm and my whole body stiffens. I sigh.

‘I need to say something, Lisa. If I don’t it’s just going to keep eating away at me.’

I take another deep breath, reaching for my earlobe.

‘Last night when you told me about that accident you caused, it sounded really similar to the accident that I was involved in . . . when my wife died.’

I see the tears immediately spring to her eyes as her hands jump to cover her mouth.

‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot,’ I continue, ‘and I don’t want to know any more of the details, I don’t want to dig too deep into this. We don’t know for sure it was the same accident, and even if it was, I want you to know that I forgive you.’

‘Dave . . . you, you can’t-’ she starts before I cut her off.

‘The fact that I was drinking that night makes it just as much my fault as anyone else’s. I forgive you, and I forgive myself. Just like you need to do.’

The tears are now streaming heavily down our faces. I pull her in and hold her trembling body tightly. There are no more words to be said.

 * * *

That night my hallucinations of Annie stop, the hallucinations of her silvery voice and her flowery scent. The next day, as I walk past the miniature garden on the windowsill of the kitchen, I notice the most peculiar thing. Where once only soil sat, a joyful, green stem has begun to peek through.

Nicola Donovan

Nicola Donovan is a features writer who has written for CLEO, Cosmetic Surgery & Beauty magazine and Total Girl magazine. She currently works as an Editorial Contributor for the online publication Beauticate. Nicola's lifestyle blog www.notesbynicola.com has seen her partner with iconic brands such as Carmex and Schwarzkopf, and awarded the title 'Expert Panellist' by Beauty Directory.

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