Jessica’s day felt wrong, as if she were invisible. No one spoke to her at school. She knew she hadn’t upset anyone, so they couldn’t have sent her to Coventry. On her way home, she stopped at the corner shop to buy the pint of milk her mother wanted. Paying for the milk, she felt Mr Thompson didn’t recognise her. Lindon Avenue was ten minutes away. Turning the corner, she could see the front door was open. Her mother would never leave it open; something must have happened.
Stepping inside, she wondered how long she could sit in an empty house, wondering what had gone wrong. Her mother wouldn’t leave without her. They had lived here for the past nine years. Jessica’s birthday was coming up at the weekend. Her mother had promised a posh lunch and a trip to the cinema.
Standing in the middle of the living room, silence scraped at the windows like cats claws, but not even a ghost would stay inside this space.
Leaving the milk on the window sill, Jess knocked next door. Ms Amos would know what had happened; she was always at her window.
Having pushed the bell, she remembered Ms Amos always took her time coming to the door. The door opened with the usual squeal of hinges.
‘Yes, dear, can I help you?’
That strange feeling from school came over her again, and she knew the answer would be wrong.
‘No one has lived in that house for the past five years; I’m sorry, dear, I don’t know you or your mother.’
Going back to the empty house, Jess sat on the floor. She drank the milk, hoping to ease the hunger rumbling in her stomach. She couldn’t stay in an empty house without food, furniture, or a mother. She had to find out where her mother was and why she had left without a note. But where to start?
It was dark now and cold inside this empty room. Jess couldn’t hold back the tears. What chance did she have if Ms Amos didn’t know her?
She fell asleep, thoughts running through her mind like an old strip of telegraph paper, holes punched in her memory. Waking to the sound of birdsong, frozen stiff, the floor was no place to sleep.
The world outside frightened her. What if no one knew who she was? Mass amnesia was possible but telling herself this didn’t help. She searched her coat pocket for money as she needed food. Change from the milk plus her pocket money from last week. The memory reminded her of a house full of furniture, her soft bed with warm blankets, and her mother giving her the money she held.
Norman’s cafe, where she spent most Saturday afternoons helping with the dishes, would be open now, and she had an hour before school started. Not many people sat waiting. Rushing to the counter, she asked Norman for her usual sausage sandwich and cup of tea.
‘Take a seat, young lady and I’ll bring it over.’
What was he talking about? He always called me Jess? She sat by the window, and everything was as she remembered. Clark’s shoe shop across the road, the post office on the corner waiting to open.
Jess forced herself to eat the sandwich and drink the tea, knowing she needed it. Once outside again, she passed faces she knew on their way to work. No one smiled or said hello. The paperboy rushed past as if he hadn’t seen her.
She took her seat at the back of the class. The register was taken, but her name was not called. Why not? She was here? Jess couldn’t let this go. Ms Johnson was ignoring her now, despite Jessica’s hand up, waiting to be noticed. Making her way to the desk, she said, ‘Excuse me, Miss, you didn’t mark me in.’
Ms Johnson looked at Jess and said, ‘I think you must be in the wrong class.’
Jess insisted that this was her class.
‘Maybe Janet should take you to the Heads office. You are clearly upset about something.’
Jess let herself be led away. She had never had much to say to Janet over the years. Still, she should know this is my class.
Janet left her sitting outside the Heads office. Five minutes later, the door opened, and the same grim face she knew asked, ‘Why are you sitting outside my office? Shouldn’t you be in class?’
At last, someone who knows me. ‘Mrs Johnson says I am in the wrong class.’
‘Surely you and Mrs Johnson must know where you belong?’
‘I do know.’
‘Then off with you, young lady. Time is wasting.’
Jess turned to leave. The wrong still surrounded her.
‘Wait a minute, what’s your name?’
‘Jessica Wilde. Two days ago, you called out my name in assembly.’
‘There is no need to be flippant, young lady. You can’t expect me to remember every name in the entire school. Off with you to class.’
By now, Jess was getting sick of being called ‘young lady’ by those who deemed to speak to her. She couldn’t return to class; she would only be sent out again. With the key still in her pocket, she went home to find the key didn’t fit. There were curtains on the window now and sounds coming from inside. Ms Amos said that no one had lived here for five years. Had the whole world gone mad?
Jess decided to knock, and a small boy about four years old opened the door, his mother behind him.
‘Can I help you?’
At least she didn’t say ‘young lady’. Things must be looking up.
Jess stood for a moment, not knowing what to say. From the doorway, she could see carpets she didn’t recognise, furniture that didn’t belong there. Again the woman asked if she could help her.
‘I don’t think you can. You see, I am supposed to be living here with my mother. For the past nine years, this has been my home.’
‘You must be confused. I was told it had been empty for five years. I moved in this morning with my husband. I fell in love with the house. It was the magnolia in the front garden that sold it for me.
Jess remembered when she planted it with her mother, the memory causing her body to shake with sobs.
‘Are you sure you have the right place?’
All Jess could do was nod her head. A small whisper escaped her lips. ‘God help me…’
‘Would you like to come in for a moment? I could make a cup of tea. See if we can get to the bottom of this. My name is Jill, and this is Thomas. We are trying to find a nursery for him. Jess didn’t feel like telling her that her school had a nursery. Maybe anyone living in this house would be invisible once they stepped outside the door.
Jess drank the tea, grateful for the warmth. She couldn’t bring herself to say much. Standing too quickly, she almost knocked the cup from the saucer. ‘I have to go now. I need to find my mother.’
She made her way to the park and sat on a bench, trying to remember her life. She began when she was three, her birthday, her friends, and her father, who died when she was eight. Ms Amos always came for a slice of cake, such happy memories. Starting big school, making new friends, it was all there inside her head. She knew she couldn’t sit there forever; she would have to go to the police station, and they would know how to find her mother.
She was wrong. Her name didn’t show up on any listing. She heard the sergeant say that she didn’t exist. Yet she was standing there.
They told Jess they would keep looking, and they called Child Welfare to find her somewhere to stay.
Jess could feel herself shaking as this new information swept over her. They couldn’t find a record of her or her mother. Jess pinched herself, and it hurt, the pain telling her she was real enough.
Temporary foster care was found, a Mr and Ms Foster. Jess couldn’t say she liked it there. She was just taking up space she would rather not be in. Her days were pleasant enough. She was sent to a new school where this time, they knew who she was. A new uniform and books were supplied, making her feel even more out of place. She had almost forgotten how to talk. She couldn’t be bothered, for this wasn’t her life.
One afternoon, sitting in the library, she came across a book titled ‘Wrong time’ about people who believed they were born into the wrong time. So many people believe they are living the wrong life. Jess wondered if this was happening to her. Was she wrong? What if she shouldn’t be here yet? What if her mother was somewhere waiting in the life she remembered?
Jess wasn’t doing well at school. She drew into herself. The Fosters didn’t know what to do to help her. Every day after tea, Jess locked herself in what had become her room, full of things she didn’t want.
The curtains, the bedding, all wrong. The new shoes hurt her feet. Her mother would have known how to soften them.
Reading more of the book made her feel so much worse. She almost convinced herself that she had been born too soon. She felt out of place. She believed her memories were real, no matter how often they told her that her mother must have run away. They must think her really stupid, or her mother some kind of genius, able to vanish their names from existence.
This new life was too dark for Jess, and she couldn’t stay there. The water of the canal closed over her body, and in the last three minutes, she knew she would return to Lindon Avenue and the mother she loved…