Raining Like Popcorn
Brian trembled as he switched off his car’s engine in the tiny car park opposite the school. His heart had raced as his car’s wheels crunched the gravel stone floor and he had been careful to check in all directions for signs that someone may see him. He’d seen nobody, but this hadn’t calmed his nerves any.
What am I doing here? I should just go. Before I get in trouble again.
He thought about it. For a minute he nearly convinced himself to go. But the bigger voice inside of him won the argument, the voice that told him he should stay. The one that made his widened eyes fix upon the school gates in front of him, and the building beyond.
It was a small countryside school with no more than eighty or ninety children. It sat at the top of a hill some two miles from the nearest town. A lonely, isolated place. No wonder Brian hadn’t seen anyone. He could sit here in his car and watch the school gates. Sit here and wait.
But why? Why was he waiting here? Somewhere deep within him he knew, but it was… blocked. As though the information was highly confidential.
That’s top secret, Brian. No access allowed. Password protected. Encrypted. No unauthorised users permitted. It’s been put safely away and guarded. Hidden.
Locked up. Just like you were.
He shuddered. Whatever mental block was causing him to forget exactly what it was he was doing here mercilessly wouldn’t let him forget his time in prison. The endless days avoiding the other inmates who had all taken a dislike to him, the daily scrubbing of the kitchen, the occasional punch and kick…
He looked forwards. Forwards to the school. The railings were colourfully decorated with large paper circles hung in a zig-zagging line across the whole fence. Each circle spelled out a letter and was adorned with pictures of animals, or the sun, or delicate patterns. Together they spelled “PLEASE SLOW DOWN”. Both of the letter “O”s had been magically transformed into smiling faces.
And this struck something in Brian. His heart jolted. If he’d looked at himself in the rear-view mirror he might have seen how sickly pale he’d become. And his mind now wanted to race backwards in time and broadcast to him whatever it was that it wanted him to remember. Except now it was Brian that was forcing his own mind not to go there.
No, no no! Think about something else! Something else!
He closed his eyes and thought of something else.
‘Inmate 30759. Brian Johnston. In his possession upon entry to Bluefield Prison: one mobile phone. Samsung. One wallet containing thirty-eight pounds and seventy-two pence. One ballpoint pen. Black. And one…’
Here, the prison warden raises an eyebrow before giving Brian a cynical look.
‘One child’s hair bobble. Minnie Mouse. You got kids, Brian?’
Brian doesn’t speak but he shakes his head, his eyes fixed on the table in front of him and his cuffed hands on the top of it.
‘No,’ the warden says. ‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so.’
Brian is sure the warden wants to say something like “I’m bloody well glad about that”. But he’s biting his tongue. Remaining professional. He’s used to dealing with criminals but how many guys like Brian does he see?
The warden places Brian’s belongings into a small metal container and attaches a padlock to it. ‘Your stuff will be kept in a safe place in our offices and will be given back to you upon your release from prison. We’ll also allow you to change back into the clothes you arrived here in. Is that understood?’
‘Good. In a moment, myself and my colleague will take you into the prison and we’ll show you to your cell. You’ll be sharing this with a fella named Steven. He’s alright. Just don’t say anything cheeky to him and he won’t mind you. We have a strict zero-tolerance policy on violence in this prison – whether that’s against your fellow inmates, the prison officers, or anybody else. Just remember, you might get wound up sometimes but it’s not worth extending your sentence just so you can get a good smack on someone, alright?’
Brian neither speaks nor gives any sign that he’s heard the warden. The warden leans across the table towards Brian.
‘Look, just keep your head down, do your time, and hopefully the time will pass quicker than you would ever have thought. Nobody wants to be in jail, but try not to make it worse for yourself, alright?’
Brian sits and looks at the warden. There’s an awkward moment of silence, and then an officer takes Brian’s right arm and the warden takes the other. He’s led into the prison and as the doors swing open his mind half-horrifyingly half-comically tells him that this is just like the scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when the kids are taken into the chocolate room for the first time. But instead of gazing in wonder at a world straight from the dream of a child, Brian looks out upon a scene from a horror movie. The eyes of every thief, murderer and rapist fix upon him as he’s led through, and Brian’s imagination tells him that they’re licking their fat lips in gross anticipation.
And he thinks, “I don’t belong here. I really don’t belong here, do I?”
Back in the car, Brian jumped and his eyes fixed on the school in front of him again. His hand fumbled inside his jacket pocket and pulled out the object he had carried with him for so many years. The hair bobble. He’d been surprised when this had been given back to him on the day of his release from prison. He’d assumed the warden would have been too freaked out, too disgusted to let Brian have it back. Yet on the day he left Bluefield it had been in the metal container alongside his wallet, his phone and his ballpoint pen. It was a lady who had discharged him, and she’d eyed the bobble with incredulity and aversion as Brian had quickly pocketed it.
He looked at the bobble. The pink colour had faded somewhat but Minnie Mouse’s wide smile remained fixed on her bright face and her eyes remained widely fixed on Brian’s. And he looked away from them now with a feeling of… what was it exactly? Revulsion? Shame?
A light rain began to fall now. It thudded on the roof of Brian’s car and the sound of it would have calmed him if it weren’t for that prickling feeling in the back of his mind that what he was doing here was totally wrong. And something about the exact way the rain sounded filled Brian with a sort of dread. It sounded like it was popping, slowly at first and then getting faster. Like a bag of popcorn in a microwave. He imagined the children coming out of the school gates and his heart began pulsating rapidly. He could see their young faces, bright, happy and beautiful. He began to sweat and he dabbed at his forehead. He imagined it all being a bit too much for him; he’d turn the key in the ignition, lift the handbrake, speed away…
‘No!!’ he shouted aloud.
And he found that he was crying a little.
Crying… He hadn’t cried since the early days of… of…
He shut his eyes again and let the memory take him.
Lisa’s office is a calming space, as usual. Brian sits in the usual comfy chair with his mug of black coffee. It’s a warm, sunny day and the window is open welcoming the happy sounds of the birds in the garden into the room. Lisa sits with her clipboard in hand and a friendly smile on her face.
‘How have things been this week?’ she asks.
Brian takes a sip of his coffee before responding. ‘The usual. Up and down, really.’
Lisa’s smile changes somewhat. It softens in a way. It communicates some of the things Brian thinks he might need to know and appreciate. It says things like “I understand”, “I’m sorry”, “I hear you”. She nods slightly, and this warmly tells Brian that she’s listening. Really listening.
‘It will be like that for some time,’ Lisa says.
‘For how long?’ Brian asks.
‘It’s rarely a good idea to put a number on those sorts of things,’ Lisa says. ‘It’ll take as long as it takes. But it’s a path Brian, one that has an end out there somewhere. Always remember that.’
There’s a silence for a little while. Lisa continues to smile half-comfortingly and half-sadly. When she speaks again it’s with an even softer tone than before.
‘Last time we spoke, you said that you might be ready to try some techniques that may help you regain your memory. Would you like to try that now?’
Brian closes his eyes and takes three long, deep breaths before nodding and agreeing to Lisa’s suggestion.
‘Okay,’ Lisa says. ‘Keep your eyes closed Brian, and try to remain as relaxed as possible. Let’s talk about the day of the incident.’
‘Okay,’ Brian says with a shaking voice.
‘Let’s start with a few general things. What day of the week was it?’
‘What time of day did you get in your car and start driving?’
‘About eleven o’clock.’
‘What was the weather like?’
‘It was raining a little.’
‘Do you remember how the rain sounded?’
‘It sounded like it was popping.’
‘Yeah. Slowly at first and then quicker. Like popcorn in a microwave.’
‘Do you remember seeing the rain?’
‘Yes. A little.’
‘Where can you remember seeing it?’
‘The tree… the big tree on the road out to the countryside. it’s an oak tree I think. It stands at the fork in the road. I remember the wind was moving it and it made me think that it looked like it was trying to shake the rain off.’
‘That’s very good, Brian. Did you drive past it?’
‘...Yeah. Yeah, I did.’
‘Did you take the road to the left? Or the road to the right?’
‘Why were you driving in the countryside? Did you have something to do?’
‘No… No, I don’t think so. I think I just wanted to go for a drive. Listen to some music.’
‘What do you remember about the drive?’
‘I saw an animal… a cow. It watched my car as I drove past it.’
‘And after that?’
‘There was a car coming the opposite way. A blue car. It drove past blaring some awful music. The guy must have been going a hundred miles an hour.’
‘How did that make you feel?’
‘He could have caused an accident. There’s a little school on that road. It… Oh… Oh God. Oh no, no, no. Something bad happened there. At the school. Something really bad.’
‘What happened, Brian?’
‘No! No, you can’t make me remember! No!’
Brian opens his eyes now and quickly stands up, spilling a drop of the coffee he’s holding on his hand. He places it firmly on Lisa’s desk.
‘I’m sorry…’ he pants, breathless. ‘I can’t. I… I just can’t.’
He ignores Lisa’s voice as he storms out of the room, swinging the door shut behind him.
Brian wasn’t awoken by the abrupt end to his dream-like memory, but rather by the passenger side door of the car swinging open. A tall man with glasses stepped inside, sat himself down and shut the door beside him, blocking out the rain.
‘Uh… hello?’ Brian said. ‘Who are you?’
The man looked at Brian with a firm sort of face. Grim, dour.
‘My name is Mark,’ he said.
Brian didn’t know what to say. He just looked at this strange man and wondered who he was and why he was in his car.
‘You don’t remember me?’ Mark asked.
Brian shook his head. ‘No, sorry.’
‘Hmph. I’d heard that about you.’
‘That you’d lost some of your memory.’
‘I… I’ve…’ Brian stuttered. ‘I’ve had some trouble lately, yeah. My uh… My therapist. I think. She’s been trying to help me by asking me all sorts of questions.’
‘Something bad happened in your past?’ Mark asked.
‘Yeah, but I don’t really remember it. I think it has something to do with this school.’
Mark looked ahead to the school and nodded slightly. ‘My daughter came to this school.’
Something in Brain stirred. He felt a stupid urge to ask this stranger what his daughter did now. Was she at high school? Or older now? But this didn’t seem the right time for making trivial conversation.
‘Maybe I can help you remember, Brian,’ Mark said.
‘How?’ Brian asked.
‘Let’s just do what you did with your therapist. Shut your eyes and I’ll ask you some questions.’
Nervously, Brian titled his head back and leaned it on the headrest behind him. He closed his eyes. ‘Alright then. Ask me.’
‘Do you remember driving up this way on a slightly rainy day? A little like this one?’
‘Yeah,’ Brian said.
‘Do you remember that you were going a little fast?’
Brian’s heart jolted again. ‘No,’ he said with a whimper. ‘No, I wasn’t, I wasn’t…’
‘I’m afraid you were, Brian. And you sped past the school. Do you remember that?’
Brian was crying again, the tears spilling out of him like secret spheres of guilt that had been in hiding within him for many years. And when Mark spoke again he realised through his shaking voice that he was holding back tears of his own.
‘Do you remember a little girl? On the road?’
It’s not Brian’s fault. The little girl appears so quickly there’s no time to brake. She’s in the middle of the road by the time Brian sees her and his foot instinctively presses on the correct pedal but he knows the car is going too fast to be able to stop in time before it reaches the child. So he swerves to the right and he can hear the car’s tyres begin to screech as they slide on the wet road. It sounds like the car is screaming; screaming in terror and turmoil and grief and unhappy anguish as it reaches the girl and the side of the car slams into her so hard that it creates a dent on the passenger side. He can hear the body of the child as it slams loudly against the door, and then again when she hits the ground. It’s such a horrible, loud sound that for a moment, Brian is afraid she will have made a hole in the ground, one that she’ll be trapped in forever more.
And he’s half-right about this. Except the hole isn’t here by the school, it’s in the cemetery two miles from here.
He races out of the car and runs to the lifeless girl, still clutching on to foolish optimism that she’ll be alright. When he reaches her, he finds that she’s holding something in her hand. He doesn’t know why, but he takes it an pockets it. He’ll realise later that it was just too terrible. The Minnie Mouse bobble was just too awful, too sad a thing to have found in the hands of a girl he’d just killed.
But it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault!
It wasn’t my fault…
‘It was my fault!’ Brain wailed in the car. ‘I was driving too fast! I wasn’t careful! I knew the school was here and I didn’t slow down! I’m an idiot! I deserve to die! It was my fault, my fault!!’
And now Brian remembered exactly who Mark was. The man sitting in the stands at the court when Brian stood trial and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The husband cradling his weeping wife, Sarah. The father to that beautiful little girl. Emily.
‘If you want to kill me, I understand,’ Brian said. ‘Are you here to kill me?’
‘Kill you?’ Mark gasped through his own tears. ‘Don’t be stupid. I just… I’ve seen you coming up here the last few days. I wanted some closure. That’s all. What’s that in your hand?’
Brian handed the bobble to Mark. ‘Here, take it. She was holding it in her hand when I found her. I shouldn’t have taken it.’
Mark’s eyes reddened now. His face trembled as he looked at Minnie Mouse’s bright, smiling face.
‘She loved Minnie Mouse,’ Mark said. ‘I got her this. The day before she died. We were running late for school and we didn’t have time to put it in her hair so I put it in her pocket and told her that maybe her teacher could tie up her hair. She must have been playing with it.’
Brian looked at Mark. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so, so very sorry.’
Mark met his gaze. He held out his hand to him. ‘I forgive you.’
Brian shook it and the tears ceased, temporarily. Nothing much more was said between the men before Mark opened the door and stepped out into the weeping sky, disappearing into the rain to join Brian’s haunted memories as they sat in everlasting and painful remembrance.