As I lay there on the sofa in that strange house, with Natalie bringing me food and tea and looking at me with a sad confusion in her eyes, I was still trying to convince myself that this was all some kind of dream. But every time I woke up from my (blissfully dreamless) sleep, I would find myself in Natalie’s house. In November of 1963.
During those first couple of days I kept trying to fight her, trying to escape. Every time her back was turned, I’d try and make a break for it. I couldn’t walk very far on account of my ankle, but that wasn’t going to stop me. How did I know she hadn’t purposely hurt me just to keep me there or something? She was just some mad, ‘60s-obsessed woman who was probably lonely and wanted to convert me to some weird cult. No thanks.
I’d kick off the blanket (which I’d discover later was hand-knitted; an inheritance of Natalie’s from her grandmother) with my good foot, slowly swing my legs over the side of the sofa, and gingerly put weight onto my feet. Good foot first, and that would be fine. But as soon as I put the bad foot on the floor – BAM. Excruciating pain, and a few choice swear words as I fell backwards onto the sofa again.
I depended on her to get everywhere. So much for escape then.
Of course, my other plan of action was to try and contact my parents. But the home phone number I knew so well was never recognised by Natalie’s ancient landline. (She’d looked at me as though I came from another planet while I faffed and fumbled and failed to work out how to use that phone.) Failing that, my next instinct was to look them up online – Natalie gingerly asked me what I thought ‘a line’ was, and that set alarm bells ringing. It was one thing to purposely isolate yourself from modern technology, but to not even know what the internet was? That was something else entirely.
So, of course, I looked up ‘Jacob Ray’ and ‘Celia Ray’ in the phone book. My Mum and Dad. Tears fell thick and fast as I riffled through those pages, looking for those numbers. I missed them so much. All I wanted was to go home to them: to my wonderful mummy, who was always there with a hug and a shoulder to cry on; to my lovely daddy, who always knew what to say and what to do in any situation. If he had been there, he’d probably have made two calls and had a cab there in half an hour to drive him home. Not so much me. Instead, I trembled and sobbed and sniffled and silently prayed that somehow, somewhere, they were looking for me.
The Celia Ray I found was an 80-year-old schoolteacher. The Jacob Ray was a 30-year-old builder. Hide nor hair of my parents could I find. Had they even been born yet?
So, yes: I started to entertain the possibility that somehow, some way, I had actually travelled back in time. That I really was in the 1960s. This was how low I had sunk. All the signs seemed to point to this being the case, though: Natalie’s TV (which was rarely on) was always in black and white, and every news broadcast reminded me it was 1963. When the news broke over the wireless (which was always on) of Kennedy’s assassination, Natalie literally dropped the plate she was holding and let it shatter into a million pieces. Throughout the day, aghast, she would keep saying that nobody was safe any more. If the President of the United States could get so suddenly killed, then nothing and nobody was safe. That shock and horror was too sincere to be fabricated.
What was I saying? Nobody can travel in time!
Natalie was certain that the doctor had made some kind of heinous misdiagnosis: that I really was very ill, and maybe even an amnesiac. So she decided to take it upon herself to find ways of ‘jogging my memory’, to somehow make me remember that I really was a ‘60s girl after all. I told her she could try until she was blue in the face, but it wouldn’t help convince me I was something I wasn’t. She pointedly ignored that comment.
She started by helping me up the stairs to her room, and showing me all the things she owned. First, her clothes: flowing floral skirts; blouses in blues and whites and greens; knee-length dresses in pastel colours with collars.
“You can borrow whatever you want until you find your parents,” she said brightly.
“Thanks, Natalie,” I replied, appreciating the offer but looking doubtfully at the clothes. They were beautiful, and I would have loved to wear something other than the shapeless nighties Natalie was letting me borrow, but they were also currently being worn by a six-foot beanpole of a woman. I highly doubted that they would fit a girl who was both five inches shorter and considerably fatter than that.
There was an awkward silence. Natalie coughed nervously, and smiled.
“You can call me Nat, you know. Natalie sounds so formal,” she said. For some reason, that wound me up like nobody’s business.
“Look, Nat, I appreciate everything you’re doing, I really do. But I’m very lost and very confused, and I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to find my way back home. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not here to be your friend. OK?” I snapped, sounding a lot harsher than I’d intended. Natalie looked crestfallen, which quickly shifted to anger.
“You’re acting like this hasn’t been hard for me either. I didn’t have to take you in, to look after you! Do you think I have no life, and that I haven’t put everything on hold to look after your ungrateful arse? Do you think I enjoy waiting on you hand and foot when I don’t even know who you are? I mean, how do I know you aren’t going to murder me in my sleep or something?!” she cried. I felt terrible instantly.
“Natalie, I’m sorry – ”
“Save it. Just… if you could be a tiny bit less selfish, that would be wonderful. Thanks sweetheart.”
And with that, she stormed out of the room and down the stairs. I had to hobble my way down alone, feeling as though I deserved nothing less.
That evening, as Natalie and I sat round her tiny dinner table eating the soup she’d made, a thunderstorm raged outside. The wireless and TV had been switched off; we hadn’t said a word to each other for the rest of the day. The storm provided the only noise.
“That rain is something else, isn’t it? God. Glad I’m not out there,” I eventually said, stupidly.
“What, don’t they have rain in two thousand and fourteen? Do they have… weather machines that keep it at a perfect temperature at all times, so that the water doesn’t destroy the… robots?!” snapped Natalie.
A short pause. Then, we both burst out laughing.
“2014 might be the future, but be real here Natalie – this is England!” I cried, which only set us both off laughing even harder.
God, she was even more beautiful when she was laughing. Her curls bounced around her head as she doubled over in hilarity, and her smile was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds – especially considering the day we’d just had. Her beautiful brown eyes sparkled with tears of mirth.
Once we had both recovered, Natalie spoke.
“Oh God – ” she said breathlessly, clutching her sides in pain. “ – that really was the stupidest thing I have ever or will ever say, wasn’t it? God, I’m sorry!”
“No, Nat – I’m sorry.” I said sheepishly. “For being such a burden to you, and an ungrateful bitch to boot. I’m trying to make sense of this whole thing, really I am, but it’s not easy…”
My voice trailed off as Natalie got up and walked round the table towards me. She pulled a chair up next to me and, once again, took her hands in my own.
“It’s OK, Charlotte. I shouldn’t have been so harsh with you, what with everything you’ve been through. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”
“That wasn’t totally true. What I said earlier, I mean. I don’t have much of a life really. I’m between jobs at the moment, and my gi - …well, I’m not in a relationship or anything. I like having someone else around,” she blurted, growing steadily redder in the face and letting my hands go. I was equally red, and I suddenly wished that an almighty clap of thunder might distract us for a moment. Nat cleared her throat nervously, said yeah…OK then, and sat back at her end of the table.
Another moment of silence.
“Well…” I said, “…you can call me Charlie, if you want. Most people do. Charlotte just sounds…”
Suddenly this weird place I’d found myself in seemed a lot better than it once had.