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MARY BAKER'S STORY
from Chat Magazine, 1997
Story by Fiona Wright
'I'm 28!' ... 'No, you're not - you're 44!'
Mary couldn't understand it. What were all these odd clothes in the shops? And what happened to Wagon Wheels?
Mary Baker turned over in bed and reached across to the table for her watch. But it wasn't there. 'That's funny,' she thought, scrabbling around in the dim morning light. 'I always leave it here.' She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Everything around her looked so strange...
As she stared around the room, she realised she didn't recognise it at all. It had flower wallpaper and a pink carpet. The dressing table did look vaguely familiar, but there were strange perfume bottles on the top of it. 'Where on earth am I?' she thought, feeling panicky.
Pulling back the sheets, she stumbled to her feet and looked out of the window. She recognised the garden, but it looked so overgrown, and there were strange shrubs and trees in it.
Just then, the bedroom door opened. Her husband, Ian, walked in. 'Where are we...?' Mary began, turning round. Then her voice trailed away as she saw his face. There were lines round his eyes and mouth, and his lovely black hair was grey at the sides.
'What's happened to you?' Mary spluttered. 'You look so... well, old.'
'Thanks very much,' Ian retorted, laughing.
'But you do,' Mary insisted, hardly able to believe her eyes. 'You weren't that wrinkly yesterday. It's happened overnight.'
Ian picked up a hand mirror from the dressing table and gave it to her. 'You're no spring chicken either,' he grinned. Mary looked at her reflection. The woman staring back looked about 45, with greying hair, and crow's feet round her eyes. Frozen with shock, Mary sank onto the bed.
'It's me,' she said, horrified. 'I look dreadful.'
Ian looked concerned. 'What's the matter, love?' he said. 'Why are you acting like this?'
'Everything looks so strange and awful,' said Mary, starting to cry. 'I don't know what's happening.' Ian put his arm round her.
Perhaps it's your tablets,' he comforted. 'Maybe it would be a good idea if you went to see the doctor, love.'
'What tablets?' Mary asked, puzzled.
'Your Valium,' Ian said gently. 'I know you haven't taken it for a while, but the doctor did warn it'd take time to leave your system.'
'What are you talking about?' Mary said irritably. 'I haven't taken any pills. I'm just confused. I don't recognise anything.' Ian tried to calm her.
'You've been taking Valium since you were 28,' he said. 'Nearly 16 years ago.'
Mary stared at him. 'Don't be ridiculous,' she laughed hollowly. 'I am 28.'
'Mary, you're 44 years old,' Ian said softly. 'You've been on Valium for your panic attacks but you've stopped taking it now.'
Mary couldn't stop shivering as she tried to take in what Ian told her. It was like some sort of horrific dream.
The last thing that she could remember clearly was being 28-years-old, and working as an assistant in a local dress shop. The year was 1973 and she'd married Ian, 31, the year before. She was certain... so how could another 16 years have gone by?
She started to feel hot and dizzy. She pushed Ian away and ran towards the door. 'It can't be right, it can't be,' she wept.
The hall looked more familiar. She recognised the red carpet, and the Victorian print Ian had given her for Christmas in 1972. She opened the door to the study. There was her old wooden desk and filing system.
'Thank God,' she breathed. She pulled all her files out and spread them on the floor. There must be some clues in these.
'My pay slips should sort this out,' she muttered, hunting feverishly through her mail. But the slips stopped at 1980. The date on a letter from a friend made her catch her breath - 1988.
Ian walked in to find her sobbing brokenly 'It's not 1988, is it, Ian?' she begged him. "Tell me it isn't, please?'
Ian led her into the living room. He carefully explained what date it was, where they lived in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, and how they'd just come back from their holiday in Bournemouth.
'You'd better tell me everything,' said Mary, trembling. 'Because I hardly remember any of it.'
Long into the evening, Ian told her all about their friends and relatives. He explained that she'd started taking Valium in 1973, to control her panic attacks. They'd got so bad, she'd had to give up work. In 1980 they'd moved from their home in Burton Overy, Leicestershire, to the seaside in Cliftonville, Kent, and started a bed-and-breakfast business. But Mary couldn't cope and they'd moved back to Leicestershire, this time to Market Harborough.
Mary shook her head, speechless. So have I been asleep all this time?' she asked Ian in astonishment.
'No, you've been just normal,' Ian shrugged. 'You were always a bit vague and forgetful, but I put it down to the Valium. Now it looks like you've lost your memory completely which is why I want you to go to the doctor.'
Mary went the following day. The doctor was surprised.
'Memory loss can be a side effect of Valium,' he told her. 'But it's temporary. I haven't known a reaction as bad as this before.'
Mary took a taxi back home in case she got lost. When she got there, she decided to play detective.
'I have to find out who I am,' she sighed. She found all her old photo albums and a box of letters. Gradually, with Ian's help, she put her life back together again.
One afternoon, Ian took her round the shops. Mary just couldn't believe it. The clothes in the shops looked so odd to her. 'I wouldn't be seen dead in those!' Mary giggled, pointing to a pair of leggings.
She picked up a blouse. 'And look at these!' she laughed, squeezing its shoulder pads.
Mary even noticed that there were less crisps in a packet and Wagon Wheel biscuits were smaller! And someone called Michael Jackson was on posters everywhere...
When she watched TV, she was shocked at the sex and violence. 'They can't put that on at this hour, I'm going to complain,' she said, as she and Ian watched Fatal Attraction.
One day, a familiar-looking woman came to call. 'Mary, it's Ros,' she said, smiling.
'Ros Smith,' Mary murmured. Ros was a good friend but now she looked so old. Mary just stopped herself from saying so.
'Ian said you'd had a few problems, so I thought I'd pop round for a chat,' Ros said.
They chatted for hours as she filled Mary in on all that had happened over the years. I've missed so much,' Mary sighed. 'Don't worry,' Ros patted her hand. 'We'll help you make up for lost time, you'll see.'
Mary found she couldn't recall simple things, like how to make an omelette. She'd forgotten Ian's favourite foods, music and films.
When she tried to write, she found she couldn't even remember simple English. Slowly and painfully, with the support of friends and family, she began to learn everything again. She taught herself English grammar from books and did an Open University course. She went to the library every day and read old newspapers to find anything to jog her memory. Ian patiently helped her relearn all her friends' names, and she even managed to get a part-time job in a dress shop.
Today, scraps of her memory have come back to her. 'It's like a huge jigsaw,' Mary, now 52, says. 'I have flashbacks from the past. I can remember parts of the house in Cliftonville, and people and places we used to visit.
'It's like I've been living in a fog for 16 years that has suddenly cleared. But I think the important thing now is not to waste any more time. I want to put all this behind me and make the most of life.'
Influence of the Pharmaceutical industry, Mary Baker,
Health Select Committee Submission, 2004 (PDF)
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