I'm happy to share with you the first chapter of my new novel, that is currently being read by a few trusted friends, before I let it free. Please comment below or if you prefer to comment privately you can email me on email@example.com
THE GLUTAMATE STORM
I know now exactly what happened.
I was driving down Euston Road in a rainstorm. I was late. On the radio, David Cameron the prime minister was droning on in parliament. I switched it off. As I nudged forward in the queue, getting closer and closer to the next set of lights, I recited a shopping list to myself.
“Butter, bread, salt, shampoo, scallops.”
Isn’t it strange that I can remember that list now so clearly, as if it were the most important thing in my life?
That’s the random nature of an ischaemic stroke. Nobody knows why it affects some parts of the brain and not others. Nobody can predict how, or if you will recover.
My first symptom had been a headache. It started with a dull ache in the centre of my forehead. I’d ignored it, but it refused to go away so I’d taken a walk in the park. I don’t often need to resort to medication. But this time the discomfort intensified so that by the time the rain started drumming on the roof of the soft-top, the pain was unbearable.
Red light. Stop. I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I looked myopically out at a constellation of lights. Traffic lights, brake lights and multi-coloured neon shops signs were all confusingly reflected in the droplets of rain streaking down the windscreen.
I was hot. Condensation was building up inside the windows, clouding my vision. Or was that a symptom?
Green Light. Go.
I tried to recite the list, “Butter, bread, salt…”
My attention was drawn by a motorcyclist that cut across the lanes in front of me. I hit the brakes. There was a rude hooting. The motorcyclist zipped off. I looked in the rear-view mirror. A battered pantechnicon behind me was clearly the source of the aggression. The driver glared down at my insubstantial two-seater. He waved an arm and mouthed an obscenity. I looked away, his anger didn’t seem very important.
Green Light. Go.
“Shampoo, butter, salt…”
Ischaema is caused by a blockage. A clot, had formed in one of the main arteries of my neck and was slowing down the supply of blood to my brain. Blood delivers oxygen to every cell in our body, without it brain-tissue will die. The books say it takes only sixty to ninety seconds. The cells react by trying to generate energy in other ways. They start to draw in glucose to keep themselves going. It’s like a sugar rush. But in order to be able to absorb the glucose, the cells are forced to release glutamate into the extra-cellular space. Glutamate is a powerful enzyme. Once set free, it will eat into the protein of the cells. My brain was cannibalising itself in a desperate struggle to remain functional.
Red Light. Stop.
You would expect that the mind, as it closes down, would start to generate incomprehensible rubbish. Imagine a computer where half of the data is suddenly wiped. You’d get gobbledegook. But the brain is not a computer. Your mind tries to make sense of whatever data it receives. The less information, the simpler life seems. Despite the deluge, my thinking was blossoming with the sort of clarity you get on a crisp spring morning.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter. It kills the cells by over-exciting them. So that rather than feeling frightened, I was able to interpret my feelings as euphoria. I felt alert, lucid, ecstatic.
Green light. Go.
In my mind the green lights were starting to signify something good. The movement of the car felt good. All the cars in Euston Road were sailing along in a flotilla of happiness.
By this time they say that large parts of my left brain, the seat of logic, would have shut down. My creative, sensitive, insightful right brain would have been set free. A side effect of this is an inability to distinguish between self and other, between animate and inanimate. I felt that my body and the car had fused together; my hands and the steering wheel were becoming a single entity. This did not seem at all strange to me. The power of the car was my power. A gap in the traffic allowed me to accelerate forwards. I felt the rush of speed as petrol gushed into the engine. I was firing on all four cylinders.
“Butter, butter, butter.” I didn’t even realise that my powers of speech were going, that I was reciting just one word, over and over.
Red light. Stop. Bad.
I braked hard at the last minute, jolting my neck. This might have saved my life; it might have dislodged the clot a little. I was plunged from euphoria into misery. Logic must have kicked in for a moment. I was now supremely aware of the seriousness of the situation. I reached out for my mobile on the passenger seat beside me.
The left brain manages all right-side motion. I tried to use my right hand to dial; it dropped limply from the steering wheel. I felt a pin-prick of fear.
Green light. Go.
In hindsight, it’s amazing that I was still able to drive. With my left hand I lifted my right, now paralysed foot off the brake. I moved my left foot onto the accelerator pedal. I pressed down hard. With one good hand on the wheel, I accelerated past the gates of Regent’s Park, ignoring the lights. I saw a car coming out of the park swerve. I heard the moan of its wheels against the wet tarmac.
Positive feelings engulfed me again. At the periphery of my vision the scene was dissolving into wonderful colours. I observed this with curiosity. My fear had dissolved in the glutamate storm.
Perhaps somewhere in a deep crevice of still active mind I realises that my powers of speech were going. I still knew the list, I could still picture the items, but the words would not form in my mouth. My speech was becoming a meaningless monotone,
Red light. Stop. Bad.
I was fully conscious again. I braked. I remember thinking to myself, “I must get help, now.”
I realised that I was in real danger. A monster inside me was transforming me from a quiet middle aged woman into a speed hound. If I started driving again when the lights changed, I knew that I might never stop.
Then, I though of David, and my daughter Hope being told of the accident. A picture of rain falling on crushed metal flashed in my mind. So that when the lights turned green again and the rush of excitement hit me, I made a superhuman effort to remain in control.
Green light. Go. Good - no bad. STOP.
With my one good hand I disengaged the forward drive. I used all my strength to pull hard on the handbrake. Now when I hit the floor with my left foot, the car remained stationary. The engine growled. The pantechnicon driver behind me started to hoot again. The rain on the rooftop increased to a tropical din. I could see pedestrians darting along the pavement. A man in a suit covered his head with the pink financial section of a newspaper. I wanted to be on the pavement too - running with the crowd.
I pressed the button which opens the soft-top roof. As it slid back I lifted my eyes to the clouds and let the cooling rain fall down my cheeks.
“Go on; go on, it’s green.” I heard someone shout.
But I didn’t want to go on. As I sat there, with the rain washing my face, everything seemed to clarify. I felt as if I was on the point of solving a puzzle that had been torturing my mind for years. I closed my eyes to think.
“She’s not well,” someone said.
I heard the click of the car door as it was opened to free me. But by that time my mind had already freed itself.
© Wendy Shillam 2012