The stroke hit him like a thunderbolt in front of the whole Board. The world vanished as if a shutter had been drawn. Later, he remembered the feel of his left hand at his temple, where a knife seemed to enter his brain and twist, before all consciousness was snuffed out. He didn't remember the blow that left a deep, purple bruise above his left eye, where his head struck the table so hard it would've knocked him out cold if he hadn't been already.
Then...shadows, shapes, distant conversations. He wasn't truly aware for some time. Forever, it seemed to him, when he could think at all. He was a puzzle in its box, with all the pieces tumbled and unlikely to fall into place on their own.
When he returned to himself, he was flat on his back in a well-lit, white room, loomed over by an ashen-haired woman with protuberant ears.
"What happened?" he croaked.
The woman looked pleased but not unsurprised. "Welcome back, Mr Jameson. How are you <----->?"
He blinked. "How am I what?"
"<----->, I said. Is there any pain? Can you move? I'm Doctor Harrod. We put you on <-----> within an hour of your stroke and the scans seem mostly clear now. The devil, however, is always in the details. Can you feel it when I do this?" The doctor lifted his hand and manipulated the joints.
He pulled it back. "Yes, I can feel it, but--"
He didn't want to say it. He knew what a stroke was. Everyone in their 50s knew. If his mind was broken, would it be better or worse to see the cracks?
"Talk to me, <----->. If you describe your symptoms fully, there's a chance we can see to them."
"What did you just call me?"
The doctor lost some of her bedside cheer. "Your name, Mr Jameson. I used your first name. Don't you remember what that is?"
He shook his head, and the full force of his mortality struck him in that moment.
"Excuse me, Mr Jameson, just for a second. I will be back."
Unlike me, he feared as the doctor swept out of the room. Unlike me.
A battery of tests consumed the next few hours. He clearly wasn't entirely well, despite the full recovery of his physical functions. He could sit, point, eat, and excrete to the satisfaction of the therapists summoned to examine him. The problem was more subtle than that. He had trouble with some instructions, particularly those specific to one side of his body--a problem of comprehension, not volition. If he couldn't understand what was asked of him, how could he comply?
The disability was thus isolated to the speech centres of his brain, where words were formed. Even so its exact nature still proved stubbornly elusive. Some words were simply absent, excised from his brain with a semantic scalpel. There seemed to be no pattern to the excision. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs were victims, but not all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
His wife came to visit, flamboyant in sombre tones. She too called him by a name he could not understand, and looked appropriately dismayed when he could not say hers.
"Oh, pumpkin. What's happened to you? Do they think you'll recover? The Board is anxious. They can't keep the <-----> on hold forever."
He suppressed a flash of irritation. Who cared about the Board when his life had been shattered?
"Please don't call me 'pumpkin'," he said, aware of a nurse by the door. His circumstances embarrassed him sufficiently as it was.
"Well, what am I to call you, then? You've already made it clear you won't hear your name, and you won't use mine either."
"It's not that I won't. I can't. They don't sound like any words I've heard before." He searched for an appropriate metaphor in his oddly truncated vocabulary. "There are times when we're not in the same country. I'm here and you're in Paris. You speak French and I speak--"
He couldn't finish the sentence. The name he needed wasn't in his mind any more, escaped like so many other words. There had to be a way to talk about such matters, but all too frequently he found himself road-blocked.
The expression on his wife's face was one he would come to know well, in the days ahead.
More tests. Flash cards and electrodes taped to his scalp. Extended, self-conscious conversations with psychiatrists and speech therapists. Occasional incarcerations in claustrophobic tubes in which every neuron of his brain was untied and examined. The lesion proved difficult to isolate, and without isolation a cure would be impossible. He endured it all, keenly aware that with every day his case became odder, strayed further and further beyond the medical norm. Sometimes it was difficult to tolerate, the awareness that the puzzle he represented was more important than who he was. His condition was to be defeated, not cured.
In the end, an intern achieved what all the experts had not. Sam was affable, warm-natured, and had taken to him despite the difference in their years. He came frequently to chat. The topic of Jameson's condition could not be avoided, but Sam seemed interested in a personal capacity, as well as professional.
It was Sam, the intern, who had proposed that he, the patient, use his middle name, Lee, in place of his first. That worked. Lee Jameson was acceptable to his inconveniently broken mind.
"I had an idea, Lee," Sam said on another occasion. "You can turn left but not <----->. You can run but you've never been <----->. You can say Lee but not <----->. Has anyone asked you about the alphabet?"
Lee shook his head. "What about it?"
"How many letters there are, for instance."
"26. Everyone knows that."
"Tell me them, then."
He felt like a child but did as instructed. "A B C D E F H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z."
"Nonsense. Don't mess with me, Sam."
"I'm not. You missed a letter."
"I'm sure I didn't."
"Try once more."
"A B C D E F H I J--"
"Stop there, Lee. What comes between F and H?"
"There's no letter between F and H."
"Then that's your problem." Sam beamed. "You've lost <----->."
Lee shook his head. The sound Sam had made bore no relation to any in his lexicon. It didn't exist. It didn't exist to him.
More tests followed. Sam's theory was upheld. Odd as it seemed, one letter out of twenty-six had utterly vanished from Lee's life. Any word spelt with that letter was therefore incomprehensible to him, whether written or said aloud. The extraordinary plasticity of the brain enabled him to fold his speech around that absent letter so effectively that its absence was invisible to him, but the consequences remained dire. His name, which contained that letter, had vanished into the blind sport, as had his wife's. Whole sections of the dictionary and the phone book now meant zero to him. Some suburbs seemed like lands more distant than Denmark. Entire tenses were denied him.
The only consolation he could see was that he hadn't lost one of the vowels--E would have been very difficult to lived without--or a common consonant like S. How could he have coped without plurals?
"So you can say Jameson but not <----->, and Jesus but not <----->?"
His wife looked at him in a way that revealed she didn't quite believe him. Her scepticism hurt less than he could have expected. They still hadn't decided what he should call her, now her name was off-limits. That worried him. Now that his condition had been defined and declared no immediate threat to his life, he was free to return home.
Perhaps the condition would be named after him, he speculated. His last name, he hoped, not his first.
After Sam had finished his shift and when the shadows were thickest in the ward, Lee dressed in the clothes his wife had provided for him to wear home the next day. She had booked a car from him, under his new name. The clothes didn't quite fit. He had become thin in hospital, older. His hair stood up in a wild, ivory wave when he looked in the mirror. The bruise above his eye temple had turned yellow. He pulled at his cheeks and blew himself a kiss that looked more final than he had intended.
Somewhere behind that skull was a tiny scar, one that had thus far utterly eluded the finest of science's searches and could remain undiscovered for years, perhaps forever if he was unlucky. He would wait all that time for his name to be returned, for the lexicon to be restored. Wouldn't it be better to accept who he was now and move on?
Move on to what? He could be a carpenter, or a teacher. No, not a teacher. He was a card short of a full deck. His pupils would matriculate with a one-letter deficit, innocent inheritors of his own fundamental flaw. His choices were limited to ones he could pronounce and therefore think of, such as carpenter, mechanic, postman, scientist.
It would be unwise, too, he decided, to pick a field in which communication was essential, such as politics or the priesthood. How could he be a priest when he couldn't even say the word most people used for "deity"? He lay awake in search of the absent letter and the hole in his head that it had fallen into. That was an entirely different sort of existential mystery, one he was already tired of.
He tore his stare from the mirror and put a hand on the doorknob. At that moment it turned. The door opened to reveal a tall man in the corridor outside. His cheeks were hollow. The hat he wore was broad and old-fashioned, his suit conservative and uncreased.
Lee stepped backwards, filled with an unaccountable shame at his planned escape. It was his life; he could do with it whatever he wanted, even run off into a new one if required.
"I'm sorry to startle you at this late hour." The hat came off with a practised sweep. The man's shoulders were stooped, as of one ill-accustomed to his superior stature, but his manner was confident. "I came the moment I learned of your condition from Doctor Harrod. Here." A business card issued forth from an inside pocket, proffered with an economical motion of one hand. "My name is Simon Le Hunte."
The card said: "Treasurer, Royal Society for the Semantically Impaired."
"My condolences," Le Hunte offered with his hat held to his chest. "May I talk with you for a moment?
"I--yes, of course. Come in." Lee retreated to the bed, concerned that a sudden pins-and-needles sensation in his extremities heralded a new neuronal assault.
"I want you to know, first and foremost, that you are not alone." Le Hunte stood at the end of the bed, his hat now at his side. "Neither is the injury you have suffered completely unknown to science, even if it is often misdia--ah, that is, often overlooked in the normal rounds of medical treatment."
He understood then that Le Hunte's word-choice was carefully considerate, so Lee could understand every word. The rest followed naturally.
"Which letter have you lost?" he asked.
"Alas, I cannot tell you. I can only refer to it as the 17th letter."
A quick count revealed that to be Q.
"We are fortunate, you and I," said Le Hunte. "With a more inconvenient overlap, we could barely converse. That's why I am often chosen to introduce the Society to new recruits. I am pleased to be about that service today." He executed a small bow.
A joke occurred to Lee then, but he could not put it in words. In his mind's eye he saw an assembly of the Semantically Impaired, all with different letters lost and forever stuck in the attempt of conversation. It could be impossible for them to communicate except by Morse code or numbers or even semaphore. But he could not find the words to describe such an assembly. He had attended many such as chair of the Board of his company, but he could not name them now because those words were lost.
Words lost like those of the man before him and who knew how many others? Words that had never returned.
For the first time he wept, not just for himself, but for his wife whose name would remain forever unspoken by his lips--and for people without the letter L who could not speak of love, those denied M and the word "mother", and others whose incapacities he could barely conceive of. Even Le Hunte would never toast the Queen, which had never before seemed an important part of life. To be denied any aspect of speech and perception was unbearable. Inhumane.
Le Hunte made no move to physically reassure him, but he did speak.
"It's perfect alri--I mean to say, you shouldn't feel ashamed. We've all felt this way at some point. It is not easy to be as we are, alike and yet profoundly unlike. It's not amnesia; it's not aphasia. It's entirely too difficult to explain to those without our particular lack. And to lose your name..." Le Hunte's expression became mordantly sympathetic. "I would have you know that you're not alone in that circumstance, either. There are others on our books in the same straits."
"Is that supposed to cheer me up?"
"Perhaps not. But there is a chance of recovery, if that is what you need. Science has made terrific advances in recent years. Doctors cannot yet repair the lesions that cost us our letters, but there is talk of prostheses--artificial letters, if you like, rather than ones that have been reversed or distorted as offered to us in the past. I was born with this condition and remember all too well the awkward spectacles and lenses forced upon me. Now, there is none of that. Society has learned of our condition, however slowly, and makes adjustments. For instance, there exist translations of classic novels that permit even the most unfortunately impaired to read as others do. There is hope, you see, Mr Jameson. There is always hope."
"Yes. And--well, I don't wish to be harsh, but people survive far worse disabilities. We are fortunate, you and I. There is much we can still say--and limitations, some believe, only make us more creative. For every common word denied, an old one is revived. Shakespeare and Chaucer would be pleased, I think, with some of our more inventive members."
Lee reached into a pocket for a handkerchief and blew his nose rather messily. "Has anyone else lost my letter?"
"The seventh? Not anyone I have met."
"I'm unique, then."
"You are what?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm one of a kind."
"I see. Yes. That's certainly true. Is that a comfort to you?"
He wanted to say, no, not really, but that wasn't entirely true. He did feel somewhat better for the joint awareness that someone else had his condition too and that he wasn't just another in the herd.
"Well," said Le Hunte, hat atop his head once more, "you have my card. Call me any time. We meet weekly. Please join us. You are most welcome."
Lee stood to shake Le Hunte's hand. "Thank you. I really am terribly..." He floundered, at a momentary loss for the correct word.
For the first time, Le Hunte smiled. "I believed you would be. Farewell, Mr Jameson," he said with a wave. "Au revoir. See you anon. Until next time!"
When the sound of his visitor's footsteps in the corridor outside had faded to silence, Lee took off his street clothes and returned to bed. Prostrate in the darkness, with his hands behind his head, he considered all that Le Hunte had said. How peculiar that his condition could be so common that a Royal Society existed to assist its sufferers--and odder still that all across the world were dotted people whose alphabets deviated from everyone else's! Did such exist in China, Russia, Israel? He supposed they must. He hoped they had the equivalent of a Royal Society to cater to their needs too, to help them find a new path in their oddly contracted but expanded worlds.
No more did he feel the need to run away. There could be no escape from his condition, even if it was one that he would find difficult to explain to people. He had no visible symptoms. He could, with a little practise, function. Yet he had lost his name, which in every society had a symbolic and undeniable effect on his sense of self. He was Lee Jameson now, and who that was remained to be seen. His old self certainly wouldn't have resolved to tell his wife that "pumpkin" would be fine, provided he could call her that in return. And he wouldn't have spoken to the duty nurse to put in a recommendation for Sam the intern. He had been too busy with the Board and his other responsibilities.
Lee Jameson had new responsibilities, new demands. His relationship with the world had been turned upside down by a purloined letter. Never before had he suspected how complicated words could be. They were for much more than mere description. What one can't find the words for, he decided, cannot exist in one's experience--and what is the world, after all, other than the sum of one's experience?
Reassured that he had found a level of comprehension sufficient to survive the days and weeks ahead, he let his eyes drift shut and sleep take him away.
And his dreams, like those of the blind who dream in colour, were full of mergers, board meetings and gun-fighting guinea pigs riding stagecoaches of pure gold.
This story originally appeared in The Bulletin.