All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

No Past, No Future, Just Now by Michelle Ann King

Front door shut and locked. Push it again, jiggle the handle a few more times, to be sure. I left it open once — maybe more than once?—and next-door’s cat got in the house. Henry wasn’t pleased with me. He’s been so good, so patient, but he was very upset about the door. I’ve been much more careful since.

So: front door, shut and locked, yes. Keys, purse and shopping list in my bag. Map and directions in my pocket. Coat on, glasses on, outdoor shoes on. Everything in order, ready to go.

Have to take it easy, no rushing around. Hip’s been playing me up again lately, and I can’t afford a fall. If I go down, will I be able to get back up again? Best not to find out. I can’t rely on Henry coming to help me, not anymore.

I glance back and he’s at the window, watching. I wave. He doesn’t. I smile at him anyway. Poor Henry. It’s my turn to be the patient one now.

The pavement is covered with broken glass, so I watch my feet. It’s like Dr Ellis told me: stay present. No past, no future, just now. Now is what matters. Now is all that matters.

I’m pretty sure I treated most of my doctors rather badly. I don’t feel good about that, but it’s too late to apologise now. Ellis, though. Ellis I liked. The others were all about tests and pills and forms and charts, but they never once looked me in the eye. Ellis was the only one who talked to me like I was still a person rather than just a malfunctioning brain. He gave me things I could use — techniques, strategies, ways of coping. Ways of feeling like I still had some control. Some hope. Bless him for that, wherever he is.

It’s quiet out, apart from the sirens. You hear them a lot lately. Cold, too, for the time of year. Or maybe I feel it more than I used to. But still, despite everything, it’s a treat to do the shopping again. I always loved supermarkets, with their colour and bustle and endless stocks of weird and wonderful things. Henry thought it was a symptom, the times I spent hours trying to choose between twelve different kinds of tinned olives, or came home with cassava chips and gaudy tins of Chinese braised eel instead of coffee and bread. But he was wrong. It wasn’t my illness, just the magic of the World Foods aisle.

Concentrate. Be careful. Look where you’re going. Stay present.

Broken-down, abandoned cars line the road — my beloved old Fiesta’s among them, somewhere. Henry crashed her a few weeks ago, and it took him all afternoon to walk home.

A large ginger cat sits on the bonnet of the car closest to me. It watches me, unblinking.

I stop and hold out my hand to it. ‘Hey there, Tom.’

It drops its head to one side, as if trying to decide if I’m worthy of its attention.

I like cats. I remember telling someone — a student? Didn’t I have students, once? — that they used to be worshipped as gods in ancient times. You can see why, in spite of the occasional lapse into cuteness.

The cat gets up slowly, stretches and gives a wide, sharp-toothed yawn. It leans forward and bumps its head against my hand. A kind wish, maybe, from a superior species watching a lesser one fade away.

But I have to go. Have to stay focused. I have things to do.

Luckily, I don’t have to go far. Most of the shops along the parade are blacked out or boarded up, but the supermarket still blazes with light and activity. It looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for a while, but the shelves are at least half stocked. So many lovely boxes! Cheerios, Weetabix, Rice Krispies. So wonderfully ordinary. So normal.

A woman shoots past me with an overloaded, wobbling trolley. She’s not looking where she’s going and tips straight into a display stand. Everything goes over. If it can smash, break or split, it does. The woman, a middle-aged blonde with untidily-pinned hair and garish make-up, yells obscenities at her spilt groceries. Other shoppers stop to watch until a pair of older men in the freezer section start shoving each other. Then they drift over to watch that, instead.

I pick up a box of cornflakes and put it in my basket, and skirt around the mess on the floor. Concentrate on the job at hand. Stay with what you’re doing. No past, no future, just now.

At least I have that in my favour, over all these poor people: practice. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Can’t remember who said that, now. Someone clever, obviously.

In the next aisle, I spot what I want: coffee. I can’t quite reach the top shelf, but after a few minutes of struggle a girl dressed in yoga pants and a man’s shirt walks over and pulls one down for me. It’s not what I was aiming for but I’m sure it’ll be fine. I thank her.

The girl nods. She looks at her trolley, which is empty. ‘You know… it’s daft, but I can’t think what I came in here for.’ She shakes her head. ‘Don’t you hate it, when that happens? It’s so silly.’ She smiles, but I recognise the look in her eyes. Confusion. Frustration. Fear. I’ve seen it in the mirror often enough.

For me, it started a year and a half ago. Maybe a little longer. A slow, creeping fog that gradually began to swallow things up. Names, words, memories. It seemed insignificant at first, easy to explain. To rationalise. The pace of modern life, the stresses and expectations, the constant bombardment of information. So many balls to try and keep in the air. ‘For God’s sake,’ I used to snap at Henry. ‘I’m always trying to do fifteen different things at once, it’s no wonder I forget things sometimes. It’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean anything. It happens to everyone.’

Sometimes, on the nights when I can’t sleep, I wonder if this whole thing is my fault. If I released some kind of dark genie from a bottle, if my bitter fury gave my words the power to shape the universe. It happens to everyone.

Foolishness, yes. But still. If there’s a reason behind this, a cause, no-one seems to know.

The young girl in the shirt is still looking at me. ‘Sorry, Mum,’ she says. ‘What were you saying?’

‘My name’s Louisa,’ I tell her. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not your mother.’

‘Right,’ she says. ‘Right. Of course, yes.’ She looks into her empty trolley then back at me. ‘Sorry, Mum, what were you saying?’

I used to regret not having children. Not anymore. ‘Food,’ I tell her. ‘You came to get food. And bottled water. Plenty of bottled water.’

‘Right,’ she says. ‘Yeah, that was it.’ She picks up a tin of green beans and stares at it uncertainly, then puts it back on the shelf and wanders away.

Seven years, the doctors said. The average life expectancy following diagnosis is approximately seven years. I’m sixty-five, or thereabouts. This girl doesn’t look far out of her teens.

I put the beans in my own basket. No past, no future, just now.

I go to the checkout. I don’t know how much the stuff in my basket costs — mental arithmetic, never my strong point, was one of the first things to go — but it hardly matters anymore. It’s just a gesture now, like making coffee my husband doesn’t drink, and sitting him at the dining table with a newspaper he can’t read.

I give two twenty pound notes to the man sitting at the till. He thanks me warmly and stuffs them into his mouth.

Whatever this is — virus, mass hysteria, demonic curse, who knows — it’s happening faster for the others. Much faster.

I check my watch, but it seems to have stopped working. I don’t know how long I’ve been out, but it feels like a long time. I should be getting back. My husband will be waiting for his coffee.

My husband. His name won’t come to mind right now, but I’m not going to dwell on it. The best way to remember is not to try. The nice doctor taught me that.

Outside the shop, I stop and look around. Can’t get my bearings, nothing seems familiar. Do I turn left down this street, or right? Both ways look the same: dark, dirty, deserted. Which way is home?

Breathe. Stay calm. It comes back if you stay calm.

Inside the shop, there is a rumbling of raised, angry voices. Something hits the window from the inside with a thump. Time to go, one way or the other.

A small noise at my feet makes me look down. A big ginger cat rubs against my legs, then sits down and begins to lick its fur. I reach down and scratch its ears. ‘Hey there, Tom.’

The cat makes a little chirruping sound, winds itself twice around my feet then ambles away.

I watch it go. I might not recognise the street, but I’m sure I recognise the cat.

Maybe it’s my cat?

Maybe it knows where I live?

Very clever creatures, cats. Used to be worshipped as gods. I’m sure I heard that somewhere.

There’s another crash from inside the shop, more yelling. Sirens in the distance. You hear them all the time lately.

So: I’ve got my bag, my shopping, my purse, my keys. Coat, shoes, glasses. Everything in order, ready to go.

I look for the cat. It’s a few yards ahead of me, stepping off the kerb. It turns left.

I hoist my bag on my shoulder, look both ways, and do the same.


Michelle Ann King

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6 thoughts on “No Past, No Future, Just Now by Michelle Ann King”

  1. One of the best for a while. The narrative held my attention from the beginning and I was left hanging in suspense at the end. There was a sense of helplessness and acceptance which lulled me into a sad empathy for the character, suffering possibly with the early stages of dementia. Then bang. Like the skill of a James Herbert novel the true horror emerges. Slowly through one incident at a time, I was drawn into the dystopian world where minds are deteriorating and the normal is chaos. I am left feeling anxious, can we trust the cat to lead our protagonist back home to Henry? Has some megalomaniac sprayed the area with a slow acting Nerve Agent? Or has the mass production of food with their combination of additives and pesticides caused the degeneration of the biological species known as human – the end.
    Great story.


  2. Hi Michelle,
    I totally agree with the previous two comments.
    This resonates with the reader and the dread of dementia is there from the start. Then the revelation that this is not what we know but what the time and circumstance has made them all have to face. And yet we are still brought back to our own, of this time, dread of our minds wasting away.
    Very bleak but very good!!


  3. Nice story, Michelle. I wonder if she made it home…

    & I agree w/ the comments as well, as above. When the younger gal forgot why she came to the store was a highlight for me. So was “Weetabix”– I love that word; is that a real cereal?


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