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the creation of time and will

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She hasn't slept in three days.

The doctor in prison is surprisingly helpful, all things considered. She's young, only a very little bit older than Effy - perhaps three or four years at the outmost, and the white coat sits awkwardly on her shoulders like she isn't quite used to it yet. She looks at Effy, with the look that Effy's grown increasingly used to. It's a look that says more clearly than words "what are you doing here?" She doesn't know why she gets that up and down glance, when she looks in the mirror she doesn't see anything different from the other prisoners.

"White collar crime doesn't pay," she says, more to break the silence than anything else. She can't stand that look.

The doctor blinks. Dr Khan, her nametag says. "I wouldn't know," she says. "I've never tried it."

Effy laughs. It's not the first time she's laughed since she was bunged in this shit hole, but it surprises her still. There'd been some bit of her in the courtroom that had thought she'd never laugh again, but one month in here, is like a year on the outside. She sometimes looks back at just two weeks ago and considers herself painfully young,

The doctor smiles back, a small twitch of her lips like she can't help responding to Effy’s laugh. Yeah, she definitely can't have been in the job long, Effy thinks. "Tell me how I can help you Elizabeth."

She's back on John's couch in her head at the sound of the name. It's something to do with the white coat she thinks, the whiff of antiseptic, and she traps her hands between her knees to stop the sudden shake. "Effy," she says sharply, more sharply than she'd meant to. There's no need to alienate someone she needs. "My name is Effy."

"Effy," the doctor says agreeably, writes it down on paper. Her handwriting is astoundingly neat for a doctor, curved neat little letters, pretty on the page. "The question stands. How can I help?"

"I can't sleep," she says. "I, I can't sleep at all."

Dr Khan is looking at her with no surprise. "I'm not surprised," she says. "You haven't been here long have you Effy?" Maybe there was a smell new folk gave off, Effy thought, they recognised each other, fish in the water, bellies up and pale, ready for the knife.

"A month," she says. There'd been a different doctor at the intake from Eastpark. The rest of the words sit in her mouth, but she’s always lacked the urge to talk so it isn’t too hard to hold them back. 

“Is it drugs?” It’s not an accusation, just a question. A practical one really, given the rampant drug use in the prison. 

“I wish,” Effy said. “Recreational only and strictly pre prison.” 

“So not withdrawal. It’s usual for prisoners to struggle when they first come to us, especially with sleeping. It’s a big change after all. You’re sleeping in the same room as other people. It’s a little bit scary,” she stops at that, and takes in Effy’s expression. “I know, you know this,” she says. “I’m just saying depending on the length of your sentence, high value medication even for insomnia might not be the right avenue.”

“The best night’s sleep of my life was on a psych ward,” Effy says. “I slept like a baby for the first two weeks in here. Sleeping isn’t usually a problem for me.  I just haven’t slept in three days now.” Her hands are still clenched between her knees, and she’s suddenly glad she wore grey jeans and a black jumper. It’s cold in here, and the doctor’s gaze sees too much anyway.

“Three days,” the doctor repeats without inflection. The next few questions are quick and standard, jump out of Effy’s memory as soon as she’s answered them. Under threat of perjury she wouldn’t be able to say what they were. The doctor’s voice is flickering in and out, and Effy closes her eyes for a second, suddenly afraid that if she opens them, the wall in front of her is going to crack open and something is going to climb out. The only thing that makes her open them is the fact that if she doesn’t, somebody’s going to come along and make her. 

The doctor has crossed the invisible line that divides them, doctor and patient, free and prisoner, is sitting on the desk waiting for Effy to open her eyes again. Effy doesn’t know if she’s supposed to do that. Outside the door, she knows the officer is waiting to take her back when she’s done here. Maybe Dr Khan doesn’t think Effy’s a threat. Maybe she just knows that all she has to do is scream. 

“Your records haven’t been transferred even though you signed the OK. NHS mucking up again,” Dr Khan says apropos of nothing. “You mentioned a psych ward stay?”

Effy stays silent. That bit is easy, she has a lot of practice. 

Dr Khan is mostly undeterred. “It’s not like the old days,” she says. “I really am trying to help you, you know.”

Jake had said the same thing. So had Simon.  Effy maintains an agreeable silence and the doctor sighs. “I’m giving you a prescription,” she says, picks up her little pad and writes another note in her pretty handwriting. “You’ll have to report to the dispensary wing each day for your dose. If you are caught giving this to another inmate or hoarding the pills, then I will not prescribe it for you again. If I were you, I’d tell anyone who asks that it’s a cystitis medication.”

She’s smiling a little bit again. It’s the first time since she’s been in here that Effy feels like someone’s on her side. 

When she’s lying on her side that night, curled up into the fetal position to sleep, she pops it into her mouth and swallows. Closes her eyes and dreams. 

She’s crawling through one of Panda’s paintings. There’s a melted clock on the ground, cut and paste directly from Dali. Plagiarism she teases Panda in her memory. Inspiration, dream-Panda says directly into her ear. She’s kneeling beside the clock and repainting the edges that Effy’s smeared with her knees. There’s time all over her hands, and Panda looks at her reproachfully. 

Effy wipes her hands uselessly together, seconds sloughing off, minutes melding together, and Panda sits back on her heels as well, yellow tights with hours on the knees. Swipes at a hair on her face with exasperation, leaves a little clock-arm on her nose. “Effy, where do you even want to go,” she says. 

There’s a pretty definite answer to that one. “Take me back,” she says without hesitation. Around her trees whisper, she knows this place, she’s run this path before, there’s someone behind her as she runs. Panda’s fading into the distance as she paints a doorway, something just big enough for Effy to slip through, but Effy can’t see her through the trees. There’s a breathless silence in this place, a quality she recognises. There’s crisp leaves on the ground this time though, they weren’t there before. She’s been here before, there’s a quality of deja-vu to this.

Behind that tree, there lurks a little girl in a mask. She’s certain of it. Certain enough that when she rounds the corner and only finds Katie crouching down, a rock clutched in her fingers, angel-ribbons in her hair, she hesitates just long enough for the ribbons to extend, silky-white and somehow menacing, like unnatural vines, and Katie’s not even looking around, she’s hunched over something on the ground, something Effy can’t see, and none of this is right. This isn’t how it happened. 

It’d been Effy with the rock. The ribbons wrap around her ankles and she kicks at them uselessly, tears at them with fingers that seem impossibly clumsy and slow. Gets one foot free, and bends down to claw the other foot free. Whatever Katy’s looking at, down on the ground is not anything Effy wants to see.

There’s a spill of dark hair, just a glimpse of an ear, but Effy’s torn herself free from the ribbons, and she’s gone, legs as affected as her hands, a slow pump against remorseless time. Her knees are bare now, feet lacking shoes, and she’s been here before. Behind her on the path, there’s a long low growl, something hungry in it, and she can smell antiseptic sharp and bright in the air, hear the sound of the cars outside the window, feel his hand hovering three inches from her face. 

“Here,” Cook says, as she passes. “You need to go further back.” He’s leaning against a tree, clipping his fingernails, wearing the only jacket she ever remembers him wearing, warm and easy. “And stop taking the fucking pills this time. Not all of them though.”

Katie’s on the other side of the tree, still in her angel get-up, this time with her ribbons twisted neat and high where they belong, not winding around Effy’s ankles. “You’re so gross,” Katie says, looking at Cook’s hands. Her lipstick is immaculate, red mouth bright as she looks at Effy, same colour as the little smears of time left on Effy’s hands, and a similar red is slipping down the tree. Looks at Effy, and her smile is soft, shades of her curled up in a hospital chair waiting for Effy to wake up. 

“I’m not gross sweetheart, you’re picky,” Cook says back, and the red is pouring down the tree now, the colour of Simon’s front room, his notepads.

Katie clicks her fingers to get Effy’s attention back. “Oi Effy,” she says. “Listen to that last bit. Not all of them. And this time, you think you can manage not to brain me?” Overhead the jackdaws are screaming in the trees, and the wind is picking up, Katie’s ribbons coming undone around her face, Cook looking sharply upwards. 

“Further back,” he says again, and she wants to reach out and touch them both, but Cook is stepping backwards into the tree, and Katie’s taking off with the wind, like her angel wings are real and she can fly. When Effy turns around and puts her feet back on the path, it crunches with glass under her tread, a linoleum floor unfolding in front of her. In the reflected glass of the door, she sees a little girl slip past. On the table there’s more money than she’s ever seen in one place at one time.

The fifties are in wads, tight little packs of them with hair bands wound around them in place of elastic bands. The ones at the bottom are stacked neatly, the ones on top are like a house of cards, leaning against each other haphazardly. It reaches halfway to the ceiling, an impossible structure that looks like a miniature Eiffel tower built with notes instead of matchsticks. A motorbike crashes by outside, high intensity streak of sound that rattles the table a little bit, doesn’t disturb the money in the slightest.

Effy steps closer. There’s something written on each of the bank notes, an endless repeated variation on the same theme, but she can’t read it letters curling up and reforming as she looks. The ink is dripping off the table now as it runs off the notes, liquid as time and Effy thinks if she looks under the table, Panda might be painting with it. The table is still shaking from the residual sound, like a memory inside a memory, and the ink is dripping down and reforming into new words on the floor that she still can’t read. The money’s beginning to crumble now, the topmost points of the cash castle crashing down. Somewhere upstairs, her mother is laughing, voice high and on the edge of hysteria.  

She reaches out, perhaps to steady it, perhaps to knock the rest of it down, and Tony is there beside her, fingers tight on hers for a second, meeting right through her skin, like she isn’t real. “Don’t touch it,” he says. 

“Says who?” she responds, the only way it’s ever been between them has been questions.

“Says the Prince of Fuck Up mountain,” he says and dashes it down himself, tears the pink hairband off one of them and throws it in the air, smiles as they turn into ash, and drift down around them, little puffs of white smoke that smears and stains. Tilts his head to the side, and let's her hand go, light as a little smudge of charcoal himself. “You found her yet?”

Effy bends down and looks under the table. Pandora isn’t sitting under there, there’s just the painted letters on the cheap linoleum floor and they rearrange themselves again to something that’s still unreadable.

“Not her,” Tony says, impatiently. “Don’t play stupid Eff, it doesn’t suit you.”

She looks back up, ready to let both barrels fly, but he’s gone, and there’s just the cash on the table, a heaped mound of grey ashes now, still in the shapes of fifty pound notes.

Upstairs, her mother is still laughing. 

The stairs are as shabby as she remembers them, worn under her feet, and the sound grows louder and then stops. She doesn’t turn her head into the room as she passes it, but a picture floats softly from the door, a blurry black and white print of a photo she blurrily remembers pinning up some time, a long time ago, a Victorian mourning photo, dead seated and steady like they’re still alive. Freddy stares up at her from it, Cook has his arm slung around him. Somewhere at the bottom of the frame Naomi and Katie are laughing in opposite directions. She doesn’t look at the woman in the middle, rips it into as many pieces as she can manage, scatters it to the floor.

In her room, crouched on the floor, is the little girl, hair swinging down around her face, intent on rearranging the cards she’s playing with. She doesn’t look up as Effy crouches beside her. Effy doesn’t expect her to speak, that wouldn’t be like her when she was little. Just waits a little while until her younger self tilts her chin up and takes a peek out of the corner of her eye. 

Effy doesn’t know what to do, understands for the first time how powerless her family had been in the face of her silence. She can’t use gentleness, can’t use force. “Hey,” she whispers, and watches herself play on, a meaningless, pointless game of matching card to card in a system that would never make sense to anyone else. “Come on,” she whispers. They don’t have much time, she knows that. There’s a creak at the foot of the stairs, a slow measured tread on the first board.

Finally her younger self looks up, tucks her hair behind her ear, face guarded. “Cook and Katie told you,” she whispers.

Effy closes her eyes. In the back of her head, she hears another creak. 

“It’s not enough,” she whispers. “It can’t just be that.”

“It’s always too easy for you,” the child on the floor, Effy, whispers. “It’s always been so easy.”

“Sometimes it needs to be hard,” Effy whispers back, a secret just between them. She’s learnt that she has to pay.

“Not this time,” and it’s Tony, at the door, eyes bright. He’s holding the door closed with his body, as something thuds on the other side, and his body jolts and shudders like the money on the table, and she’s afraid he’ll shiver to pieces all over again. 

“Start believing,” her child self says. “You never believed before. Give it a shot now. You’ve got time on your side.”

“Wise words for someone who hasn’t even started secondary yet,” she says, a final desperate attempt, but she wants to believe so hard, closes her eyes and listens to the radio on the other side of the wall. Uptown Girl, she’s been living in an uptown world. 

When she opens her eyes again, she’s in a club, and the music is so hot and heavy that she almost forgets why she’s here. Feels her limbs loose and ready to fall into the dance, eager to disappear into the press of everyone around her, the voluntary sacrifice of identity. She’s up against a girl in a slip of a dress, hair big and pinned on top of her head with a clip, her head tilted back and high, eyes closed as she grinds against nothing. “Hey,” Effy says into her ear, and Effy moves back against her, casual and easy, tips her head back onto her shoulder. “Don’t take it,” she whispers, and sinks back into the crowd until the music spits her out in another club, another scene, another girl with an even shorter dress and every one in the world watching her every move.

It doesn’t change much, but it changes enough, and she doesn’t even notice the scenery alter around her, not any more, she’s just tracking herself from place to place, changing just a little. Just a little each time. Sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s small. Sometimes Effy says no to the beige jumpered doctor and his too eager, too sharp smile. Sometimes she opens her mouth and speaks to Tony, spits it out into his shoulder, feels his arms come up and around to hold her. Once or twice, she fulfils Katie’s dearest wish and forbears to respond to her strangling.  She doesn’t know what sticks and what doesn’t, there’s things as far as she’s concerned, that she can’t change. It’s a kaleidoscope of moments, dizzyingly tumbling over each other.

At the end of it, she’s on her knees again, crawling into Panda’s painting, all acrylics as bright as her tights and the logo on her Harvard sweater, crawling through the clock and onto the other side, onto the cheap brushed carpet tiles of Dr Khan’s office. Gets to her feet, shaking and sweating, music dying in her head. There’s a bitter taste in her mouth, and she’s terrified.

Dr Khan is perched on the edge of the desk still, legs as neat as her handwriting, crossed up and round in her plain sensible Zara trousers and prim Oasis shirt. She's looking at Effy without perturbation.

Effy snatches the notepad from her hands, looks at the letters. They don't read as words at all, little fancy chicken scratches. Behind Dr Khan the wall cracks open again, right across from picture to picture, bricks crumbling in on themselves. 

"Is this real?" Effy whispers. When she wakes up finally, is it going to be still in prison. This doesn't feel like psychosis, but she's not sure she can judge.

"Call it a second chance," Dr Khan says. "A second chance to do things right. Can't promise there'll be a third."

The crack is widening now, filling the room, swallowing everything inside it, coming right up to Dr Khan's desk.

"What did I change?" Effy asks, shouts across the sudden whine of traffic that fills the room. 

"You'll find out," the doctor shouts back. "A thousand changes Effy, only one constant, you. Take the bull by the horns." She sounds a little like Cook now, crosses her feet like Katie, something in her smile reminds Effy of Freddie, and her heart does a painful clench, oh god, if this is real, if she managed to change it all...

She wakes up in bed, disorientated. Can't tell for a moment what's real, mouth dry and parched, the smell of fabric conditioner the same the world round, won't be able to tell without turning her head where she is. Somewhere a car backfires. Slowly, each inch an impossible concession, she rolls over.