hagiography

the autogeography of a no/body

Jun 11

The Women Who Collect Nettles

“People,” said Isabelle, “are like milk, don’t you think?”

“Milk?” said Laura.

“Yes. Have you ever drunk milk freshly drawn from a cow?”

Laura shook her head, “Not as far as I know”.

“Oh, you’d most certainly remember. Quite delightful. Like a baby, completely unmitigated. And then they take it and pasteurise it. God knows why anyone wants to drink that skimmed stuff, worse still homogenised. Dreadful.”

“Everyone’s concerned about their fat intake,” said Laura.

“And yet they carry on getting fatter,” said Isabelle. “Children are pasteurised. They start off with muddy knees and messy hair, running around in the back garden, naked as the day they were born, until we send them to school. By the age of eight or nine they’re quite curdled with order. I regret that. Somehow we process the life out of them, separate the cream from milk, until everything is thinner, watered down. Do you remember gold top?”

“No,” said Laura.

“It was before plastic, when milk used to come in bottles. And what were those cardboard containers called, they had a special name? The man who invented them made millions. You had to peel back the wings and then fold out the spout. Never bloody worked. I always ended up tearing the damn things”

“I don’t know,” said Laura.

Isabelle sat back and looked at her granddaughter. “Sour cream,” she said, watching the young woman’s eyes staring through the French windows and into the garden. “You used to play out there.”

“I remember … with Peter …” Laura bit her lip.

“Swinging on that old tyre hanging from the silver birch, Sheba barking at you, trying to herd you as if you were sheep.”

A small, sad smile crept onto Laura’s face.

“And Grandpa,” Isabelle let out a long sigh, “pottering about in his greenhouse with those bloody orchids”.

“Phalaenopsis,” said Laura.

“Quite,” replied Isabelle.

The two women sat opposite each other, Isabelle in a high-backed armchair, Laura on the couch. It had been a while since they last met, three, maybe four, years. Laura had moved from Birling to live with her boyfriend in Australia. That didn’t work out as expected; but, for one reason and another, she didn’t come home, not on a permanent basis.

“How’s your mother?” said Isabelle.

“You know …”

“Yes, too wrapped up in her own …” The older woman checked herself. “She always did take everything terribly personally.”

Laura tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. “Do you still keep the kitchen garden?”

“Not as I’d like. Ted comes up from the village and gives it a quick once over every month. He takes most of the herbs and vegetables back with him. Age is a funny thing, so full of life that you can’t possibly manage anymore yet no capacity to actually live.”

Laura looked at the floor, her gaze following the patterns on the rug.

“At least people indulge you,” said Isabelle. “When one’s old, one’s afforded the luxury of wittering. Memory becomes story becomes history.”

A woman with carefully coiffured blonde hair popped her head round the sitting room door. “You two all right in here? Do you want some tea or anything? The vicar’s going shortly, I expect he’ll want to say his goodbyes and pass on his sympathies.”

Laura nodded to her mother.

“We’re fine thank you Jennifer,” said Isabelle. “Send the penguin in as and when.”

“I thought that was nuns,” said Laura, “penguins?”

“Ah, another privilege of age, errors are just silly mistakes.”

“Do you think he did it by mistake?”

“No,” said Isabelle, “I think Peter did it quite on purpose”.

“But I don’t understand why,” said Laura.

“You don’t need to. It’s not about you, or your mother, or me, or my mother. It was his decision, one he took on his own and executed on his own.”

“But he could’ve talked to me.”

“He didn’t want to talk to you,” said Isabelle. “He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Some of us are talkers, some of us are doers. Unfortunately, Peter falls, or rather fell, into the latter category.”

“How can you be so …?”

“Dry? Philosophical? Unemotional? Of course I’m not. He was my grandson. I loved him. Do you remember the time he took a tumble into those nettles at the bottom of the garden?”

“Yes. He was climbing the apple tree,” said Laura.

“Poor little sod. I told him not to eat the cooking apples, but he didn’t listen, writhed around for hours with belly ache afterwards. He was such a headstrong boy. Do you recall how I treated the nettle stings?”

“No,” said Laura.

“More nettles. You have to really grasp them, strip the leaves off, open up the stems and pull out the pith. What injures you most awfully can also ease the pain.”

Laura rose. “I think I might get some air in the garden Grandma.”

“Sounds like a good idea, my girl.”

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Jun 10

untitled

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Jun 2

The remains (of two soldiers)

I don’t like silence, it bothers me. The worst sort of silence is the one that descends at four in the morning. Leonard Cohen was right. Somewhere between night and day totality gets ripped. Falling into sleep, worrying about all the things I’ve done and not done, I started to feel suffocated, as if my face was covered in thin, black rubber. Quite still. Deathly silence. And then there was a man, with a rough bladed dagger, cutting the rubber. A cocoon? No, I wasn’t going to emerge like a butterfly and unfold my vernix wings.

The radio played scattered news reports from around the world and an interview with Ravi Shankar. I listened to Yehudi Menuhin and his violin. Such a sad sound. I thought about Primo Levi, the man who ‘died at Auschwitz forty years’ before he committed suicide. An American, drawling, nasal, began to talk about Hezbollah and how they had returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

The remains, in the remains of the night, the remains of a nightmare, the beginning of a new one, of a new day.

My father went to War. Twice. The first time as a sailor. The second time, I guess, as a mercenary. He never came back. Sure, his body, still pulsing and breathing, arrived at home, but in his head he was always somewhere else, with a secret terror, perhaps even a thrill. When he got drunk, which happened fairly often, he’d spring up, suddenly animated, and show me, amongst other things. how to quickly take a blade out of your sock and stab a man to death. He carried this weapon, strapped to his ankle, until he was well into his sixties. Unusually, for an English man, he also had guns and was a proficient marksman. He preferred his knives though, and fists. Close quarters. I think he liked the damage, that raw, cruel damage. Or maybe he just couldn’t avoid it and this was his way of trying to control it. Don’t get me wrong, my father was not a thug, there was nothing mindless about his violence, all of it was guaranteed to ensure you got hurt a lot more than he ever would. He didn’t have the capacity for pain. I saw him do things to himself. His relationship to pain … masochistic … sadistic …

and our heroes all died crazy

broken, poor or shot

let’s celebrate their tragedy

and sanctify the loss

and manifest the daydream

like those who fell before

and glorify our small attempts

and hate ourselves no more

One of the first writing jobs I ever had was to produce an article about tracing the war dead. It made sense to me to start with the story of my own uncle, Neil Kirkwood Devlin. Having joined up before the Second World War, he was an officer in the Royal Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Born some twenty five years after his death, I never knew him, except for the stories my mother would tell. He was her favourite brother; a strapping handsome man, thick black hair, always laughing and joking about, even when she fell off a five bar gate and cut her head open. He stitched it back together for her and gave Frank, another of her brothers, a good telling off. Small things, simple things, life is made up of these skin and bone patchworks.

Once every so often she would get his cap and cane out of her wardrobe and sit on the edge of her bed and cry, thirty years after he died, forty years, fifty years. A survivor told them, her family, what had happened. Trapped by the Japanese in Singapore, suffering from heat exhaustion, subject to a catastrophic pincer movement, diseased and desperate, they surrendered. The officers were buried, vertical, their heads remaining above ground, and left to … left … to die, in front of their men.

I found his memorial, an unobtrusive, stone, pyramid structure covered in names. So clean. It relieved her, to see the nearest thing she could to a grave. And then she showed me his picture. Sixty five years she had carried it around in her wallet. There he was, standing, in full uniform, his hand on the back of a chair, looking straight at the camera, as was the woman seated on the chair, the Japanese woman. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“His wife, Nancy.”

The other family member I researched was Charles Holmes, my husband’s great uncle. Charles died in the First World War, in France, in horrible conditions, like so many other men, thousands of other men, millions of other men. When I was at school my best friend’s grandfather, Ted, helped us with a history project. I remember him telling me about how he crawled off the battlefield at Somme. Fourteen years old. The wounded snaked their way through the trenches to the ‘hospital’, holding on to the man in front. Ted had lost a foot; the man behind him his face.

No one knew Charles, all that remains of his brief sojourn on this earth is a photograph. It’s an interesting shot. Again, full uniform, including the obligatory officer’s moustache, riding breeches and long, leather boots. Because the picture is sepia, I imagine the boots to be brown. Again, looking directly at the camera, but this time there’s no chair and no woman, instead a curtain behind him. It’s a hurried construction. The curtain doesn’t entirely reach to the floor, and where it does, it’s lopsided. This isn’t a studio shot, it’s an army shot, taken before he left, so that people had something to remember him by, while he was away, after he was dead …

The remains of two soldiers.

Archaeologists in Fromelles, northern France, have found the mass graves of thousands of Allied troops, mainly Australians. The battle of Fromelles, fought on 19 July 1916, was supposed to divert German attention from the Somme, but it didn’t work. Instead, Allied forces ran into heavily fortified German lines and sustained losses that are estimated at around seven thousand men in a little over twenty four hours.

The Battle of Iwo Jima commenced on 19 February 1945. Twenty one thousand soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army sought to defend their strategic position. After thirty five days twenty thousand seven hundred and three had either died as a result of their injuries or by their own hand in ritual suicide. Allied forces suffered nearly seven thousand fatalities.

the remains

what remains

two soldiers, close quarters, raw, cruel damage.

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May 23

bodiesontopofbodiesontopofbodies

There’s this man – short man, tall man, thin man, fat man, it doesn’t matter – and he eats her dreams, swallows them down as if they’re pain killers.

Once up on a time, way back when, it was a little more even. He still ate and she still dreamt, but it was as if they sat up in bed, trays on their laps.

“Croissant?” she said.

He shook his head. “Coffee?” Oh yes, he always had the capacity for more coffee.

“Sex?”

Similarly.

Eventually they rose; him a bipedal mountain goat; her a shy slut. And showered. Separately. And dressed in clothes the other didn’t recognise. In their respective costumes they lived their different lives, in different places, with their different stimuli and responses.

At the end of every day: “Wine?” she asked.

No.

“Beer?” he said.

No.

He preferred his steak rare, the blood still running. She preferred her steak well done, like shoe leather. Their meat didn’t meet. Their flesh was discontinuous. She sat down before him and he stood up before her.

“We’re not in synch,” he said.

“We’re not swimming,” she said.

“I like swimming.”

“I loathe swimming.”

“The”

“Water”

“Is”

“Healing.”

“Cleansing.” He was talking about wounds. She was talking about psyche.

Bodiesontopofbodiesontopofbodies, both of them, all of them, crushed unwillingly together, corpses of forgotten dreams.

“Croissant?” she said.

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May 18

breathless

I want to read this but my head won’t stay still; my breath flashes in and out of my body between gulps of coffee and half-swallowed ideas. Maybe I should dance, or sing – singing’s good, except when I do it. Can’t sing. Can’t find my pitch. Don’t understand where the music should be coming from. Sometimes it’s high in my head, in the top part, behind my eyes. EEEEEEEE. Sometimes it’s buried in my chest, under my sternum, struggling to come out. AAAAHHHH. Sometimes, but not very often, it begins down in my womb, I think, buried in my pelvis. UURRGGHH. Can’t sing. Can’t join the bits together.

There’s a man, he plays the mouth organ, keeps it in his desk drawer, on occasion, when he’s pausing, between this thing and that, he gets it out. He knows where to start and where to end, how to breathe it in and out so it sounds melodic. He can breathe music, like a fish can breathe water. He can play a tune.

Let me dance. All I have is this contracting body, twisting, turning, stamping on the beat. I can hear the beat. I can always hear the beat; in the air, in/visible bird wings, up and down, folded and straight, this constant movement, because my head won’t stay still. Breathless. I am breathless.

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May 15

Class a bastard – first draft

“K-Ris-Teen, St-Raw-Berry Girl, K-Ris-Teen …” Bruce wove an imaginary macrame pot holder above his head, twisting his fingers in and out of the air, for all the world looking like a fat belly dancer with a goatee beard.

Christine laughed and sat down opposite him. “How are you darling?”

“All the better for seeing you.”

“Is this mine?” she said, pointing to pint of lager on the table in front of her.

“Yeah, but it’s probably flat by now. Why are you half an hour late for everything?”

“It’s a woman’s prerogative.”

He leant forwards, as if he was about to tell her a secret, instead he sniffed the air, his nose searching out her smell. “You never guess who I saw the other day,” he said in conspiratorial tones.

“Ghandi? Phil Spectre? Richard Gere naked in your shower?”

He ignored her lack of gravitas. “Captain Snort.”

“Really,” she said, her eyes widening.

“Well, you know I’m working for Steve …”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“- Eight pound an hour, cash in hand, general labouring. We had to go out on this job, house clearance, getting rid of the old furniture, ripping up the carpets, that sort of thing. It was well weird. The place was meant to be empty, but when I went upstairs, into the bedroom, there was Captain Snort, lying flat on his back, a huge Nazi flag spread across the ceiling, and him on his bed, out of his face, staring up at the Swastika.”

#

"Here’s a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what’s in it today?"

#

Christine stood on the pavement, facing the door. She’d already rung the bell three times. Inside the house Patrick squared up to Katie, his jaw muscles flexing.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” Katie said, backing away.

“You. You’re the fucking problem.,” he replied, curling his top lip, showing his teeth.

There was nowhere left for her to go. He was in front of her. The wall was behind her. “Look, we can talk about …”

“With your moaning and whining and fucking griping about fucking everything.” He was close to her now, his face right up against hers.

In the bedroom two children lay flat. One, Scarlet, pressed the headphones of her personal stereo into her ears. Her feet were cold. The other, Reuben, chewed on the fabric of his pillowcase. They were twins. Mummy and Daddy often had fights, but Mummy had explained it, “All adults have arguments,” she said, “it doesn’t matter … Reuben! Reuben! Don’t do that to your sister, she’s littler than you”.

The house was comfortable. Three storeys high. Lots of houses in the area where they lived were three storeys high. They had to be built that way due to the hills. Fifty years ago, after a winter of heavy rains, several streets of these houses had slid down their particular hill and landed at the bottom in a mangled heap. Some people died, mostly women, because the men had been out at work that day.

Katie Maraschino’s house was organised in the usual fashion, kitchen in the basement – along with a lounge – a bedroom on the ground floor, next to the bathroom, and on the upper floor two more bedrooms. Her children slept in the ground floor bedroom, their bay window looking out into the street. It was on this bay window that Christine began to tap.

Reuben stopped chewing on his pillowcase and clambered out of bed. He had heard the doorbell, tringing away, and willed his mother to answer it. She hadn’t. Peeling back the curtains he saw a familiar face. Christine gesticulated, pointing towards the front door. Reuben nodded, let the curtain fall and ran into the hall. The adults arguing downstairs didn’t hear the child’s footsteps, nor did they hear the sneck being lifted, or the entrance another adult; but Christine heard them.

“You’re fucking useless. Useless piece of fucking shit.”

“No …”

“I’m …”

Something got kicked. Whatever it was resisted with a crack and then fell silent. Within seconds Christine was down the stairs. “Stop!” she shouted. Patrick, taken aback by the sudden intrusion, slackened his grip on Katie’s throat. She slid down the wall, until her feet were touching the floor, one breast hanging out of her torn top. “What the hell’s going on?” Christine demanded.

“None of your fucking business,” Patrick spat back.

“Let go of her.”

“Or what?” With two bounds he was across the room, nose to nose with Christine, breathing stale lager into her face. “OR … FUCKING … WHAT?” The vein on the right side of his neck stood out.

“It’s OK, it’s all right,” Katie said, her voice wobbling. “Let’s just …”

Patrick’s nostrils flared and unflared. There were sweat marks on his t-shirt, under his armpits and around the neckline, staining the fabric, turning it from olive green to dark khaki. He shook his head and forced a breath out from between his clenched teeth, ripping the bottom of it off with a grunt.

Katie began to walk forwards on new-born foal legs. “It’s fine, I’m fine,” she said, bending to pick up the remnants of what had once been a coffee table. “But I think you should go Christine.”

“No,” her friend said firmly.

“I want you to go,” Katie said, lifting her eyes to meet the other woman’s.

Patrick went into the kitchen and opened the fridge.

“What about the kids?” Christine asked.

“I’ll sort it out,” Katie said.

“Reuben’s terrified.”

“I said I’ll sort it out.”

“Are you fucking deaf as well as stupid?” Patrick said as he sauntered back into the lounge, a bottle of beer hanging loosely from his left hand.

Christine quickly papered over her scowl. “Phone me later, yeah?”

Katie nodded.

Outside, standing in the street, turning as she closed the door behind her, Christine saw Reuben’s face at the window. She waved. He stared at her. The glass was dirty, where the wind had thrown rain against it, leaving grubby tears tracks dried onto the pane. She walked down the street. At the corner an Italian take away, decorated in bright yellow, shouted about pizzas. A bus drove along the road in front of her, catching a puddle and spraying it all over the pavement.

They had an agreement, Christine and Katie, neither would interfere in the other’s life, no matter what. This way, both were free to make mistakes, to own their mistakes, to not be judged for the mistakes that they made. Support would always be given and never withdrawn. But that face. At the window. Smeared in trauma.

Christine reached into her pocket and pulled out her ‘phone. “Police.”

“I’d like to report some domestic violence.”

“Ongoing, I think, I was just there.”

“Christine Abernathy.”

“47 Hillfield Road.”

“Oh, their address, 8 St Martins Street.”

“Katie Maraschino and Patrick Finnegan.”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes, two, Reuben and Scarlet, six years old.”

“Yes, they’re in the house.”

“How long will you be.”

“Can you hurry?”

It began to rain again.

“And what was the nosey bitch doing round here anyway?”

“She’s my friend Patrick. We were meant to be going out,” Katie said.

He snorted. “Yeah, well, you’re better off without her, always sticking her fucking oar in, that’s what she’s like, no bloke or family of her own, so she tries to muscle in on yours. You sure she’s not a lesbian or something?”

Katie fetched the dustpan and brush from the kitchen. It was grey, matching the broom, bin, washing up bowl and cutlery caddy.

“And stop your snivelling woman. I can’t fucking bear it. Jesus, talk about ‘cry me a river’.”

Katie straightened up, pulling her torn top across her exposed breast.

“No, I like you like that,” Patrick said, “why are you hiding it from me?”

“I’m not hiding it, I just have to tidy up,” she replied.

He lunged forwards, catching her round the waist and dragging her onto the sofa. She squealed. And then he got on top of her, ripping her shirt all the way down to her navel.

“Open up. Police.”

Patrick froze. The front door rattled on its hinges. A hefty constable stood hammering on the wood while his colleague got out of their car.

“Mommy, Mommy!”

“All right baby, I’m coming.”

“Mrs Maraschino, are you in there?” shouted the officer.

Patrick was on his feet, looking left, looking right, his bottle of beer skittering across the floor.

“Mommy!” Reuben screamed.

“Police, open up.”

Katie pulled herself together and ran towards the door. Reuben shot out of his room. She tripped over him. “Coming,” she shouted, “coming”. Scarlet lay flat, hands clamped to her ears.

The police officer smiled tightly, his colleague shifting from foot to foot behind him. “We’ve had a report,” he said, straining to see around the small woman in front of him, “of a domestic incident. Do you mind if we come in?”.

“No, not at all,” she said, swallowing seven different colours of fear as she swung the door open.

“Is Mr Maraschino here?”

“Patrick? It’s Patrick Finnegan, we’re not married.”

“Right you are. Is Mr Finnegan at home?”

“Downstairs,” said Katie, scooping Reuben up and moving so the two uniformed men could walk past her.

“Reuben, you need to go to bed darling.”

The child clung to her, his hot face pressed into her neck.

“Sweetheart, I’ve got to talk to the policemen, then I’ll come and tuck you in.”

Still he wouldn’t let go. Some of her hair was caught in his grip, it pulled on her scalp.

“I’ll bring you some chocolate milk.”

Reluctantly he slid down her body and pitter patted, in his bare feet, back to his room, climbing into bed with his sister and chewing on his pillowcase again.

In the lounge the two officers stood stiffly, sweating in their stab vests. “Mr …” Policeman A frowned, “ … Finnegan?”

“Yes?” Katie replied.

“Where is he?”

“Patrick,” she called, starting towards the kitchen, but Policeman B checked her progress, stepping in her path.

“Mr Finnegan?”

No answer.

Louder. “Mr Finnegan, we just want a quick word, to make sure everything’s all right here.”

Nothing. The kitchen was empty.

“Maybe he’s in the bathroom,” Katie ventured.

“And where’s that?”

“Upstairs, directly above.”

No, Patrick wasn’t in the bathroom, or the bedroom, or anywhere else in the house.

“He must’ve gone,” Katie said.

“And when do you think he might be back?” asked Policeman A.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know he was going.”

Later, after the officers had left, Katie looked at her souvenirs: two emergency telephone numbers and a leaflet about domestic violence. She tried to phone Patrick; it went straight to his messaging service. Putting the once coffee table in the back garden, next to the mini trampoline and old push along/sit upon truck, she noticed that clumps of ivy had been ripped off the wall.

It was still raining.

She made herself a cup of tea and lit a cigarette. There was a gap in the lounge, right in the middle of the floor, where the coffee table had stood. It looked bare. She stared at the magnolia wood-chip opposite her, keeping her gaze wide of the clock. Tick tock. Tick tock. When her phone rang it made her jump. She always jumped afterwards, like a cat, her senses overly primed.

“Patrick?”

No, it wasn’t Patrick.

“Did you call the cops?”

Yes.

“I …”

Followed a shit cart and

“Thought …”

It was a funeral

“No, it’s OK, I understand.”

Sinking back into the sofa.

“He’s vanished. Must’ve run out of the back door and jumped over the garden wall.”

Getting swallowed by the sofa.

“The kids are asleep.”

She hadn’t checked.

“Fine. A bit sick. It’s all right.”

You keep telling yourself that.

You keep telling yourself that.

You keep telling yourself that.

Christine put the ‘phone down, feeling around her own hairline and throat with her spare hand. She was a spare woman, skinny, some would say lithe. Too much caffeine and nicotine. And worry. She worried a lot. Whether she did the right thing. The wrong thing. To much of a good thing. This she had in common with Katie. Patrick never worried. “A pointless exercise in self loathing,” he said when sober. “A fucking waste of time,” he said when drunk.

The night slipped by, like sand through fretful fingers. He didn’t return. The next morning Katie took the children to school. Reuben was clingy. He didn’t want juice, or a kiss, or his mother to leave him. Scarlet ran off to play with her friends. Shortly after eleven o’ clock she bit Annie, while fighting over ‘Joseph’s Yard’ in the reading corner. The incident was written down in the Report Book and Katie’s attention duly drawn to it at pick up time. She didn’t know what to say. Her polo neck sweater covered the scratch marks on her chest. That afternoon, at home, in the bathroom, she rolled up her sleeves.

“A woman,” Patrick said, between gulps of beer, “no hold on”. He waggled his finger at indiscriminate air and took a drag of his cigarette, carelessly letting the ash fall onto the floor. “You can always tell the mental age of a woman by the way she wears her sleeves.”

Katie waited.

“Rolled up, or pulled over her hands, that means she’s immature. A real woman,” and he stressed the word ‘real’, “wears her sleeves how they were designed to be worn”.

Katie turned on the cold tap and shoved her arm, white flesh side up, into the running water. She watched the diluted pink pain swill down the plug hole.

Day one: beans on toast for tea, five milligrams of Diazepam, fat Americans abusing themselves, and each other, on television. “This is a terrible tragedy. The Sarasota County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department contacted us and we are cooperating with its investigation. We’ve been asked not to comment beyond this.”

Day two: She woke up ragged. The children didn’t go to school. The dishes didn’t get done. By four she was dry retching, her abdomen convulsing, head thumping, sweat trickling down her spine. Cold sweat. Clammy sweat. She slept, helped along by vicious masturbation and a half a bottle of vodka.

Her room, that was their room, remained tidy, Patrick’s things mutely attentive. And there was the box. Her “fripperies” Grandma would have said. “Oh I do like something frivolous. Cake stands. China Teacups. Broaches. Feathers in hats.” Of course, Grandma also said the middle bits, that joined up her words, like little dots on the horizon of common sense, but Katie couldn’t remember the middle bits, the cherries and chocolate chips, or maybe she could only remember the middle bits, not the oats and biscuity goodness. There was the outside and the inside. She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t know where Patrick was either.

“I think you should go to the doctors,” Christine said, scrutinising her friend. “It’s been a week. You’ve hardly slept. You look dreadful.”

“Thanks,” Katie said, “that’s just what I needed to hear.” Her smile was thin, stretched to breaking point.

“I’ll take care of the kids. We can meet up for lunch afterwards, my treat.”

But there weren’t any free appointments at the surgery. Katie would have to wait. She “Could phone back in the morning,” the receptionist said.

Over lunch, in their usual cafe, where the jukebox played a selection of rare 60s vinyl, the women stoically refused to discuss the matter in hand. The signs were everywhere. Opening times, closing times. No smoking. In the street: no right turn, no left turn, no entry, one way.

“He’s never done this before, disappeared like this. I’m worried about him,” Katie said.

“I’m worried about you.” Christine replied.

“He could’ve gone to his mother’s. Or Paul’s? Or Mike’s?”

“Have you ‘phoned around?”

“No.”

Another question hung in the air between them. If Christine asked it, Katie would have to answer it. And she probably couldn’t. And it was better if she didn’t. That was the fatal flaw. The heart of the matter. Said. Unsaid. Everything reduced to a sticky mess stuck to the bottom of a cooking pan. Scrambled. Did she want Patrick back?

But Patrick didn’t come back. Not that week, or the next, or the next.

“Mommy, where’s Daddy?”

“I don’t know Reuben.”

“Why didn’t he say goodbye?”

Katie brushed the hair out of her face and dragged the soiled sheet off the bottom of Scarlet’s bed. Reuben waited expectantly, kneeling on his toy box, his face half-turned to the window.

“Mommy?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t Daddy say goodbye?” he repeated.

“He was in a hurry darling.”

Urine had seeped through the cover and into the duvet. Katie sighed. That would be the fourth time.

“Why was he in a hurry?”

“I don’t know.”

“Daddy doesn’t like hurrying, he says ‘less mess more waste … Less waste more haste … Less … What does Daddy say, Mommy?”

“About what?”

“Less haste more …?”

“I don’t know Reuben.”

“When is he coming back?”

“I don’t know Reuben.”

Later, sitting with Christine in the lounge, after the children had gone to bed, Katie cried, about Scarlet’s increasingly deteriorating behaviour, Reuben’s questions and her own confusion. It wasn’t fair.

“But that’s the rub,”Christine said, “and the comfort. If life was fair then you’d deserve this. It’s not and you don’t.”

“How can he be here and not here all at the same time though?” Katie said, exasperated, her cheeks flushed by cheap white wine.

“Because you’re hanging on to him, or the thought of him. His stuff’s everywhere, it’s almost as if you want to be surrounded by his … It’s him isn’t it?” Christine got up and walked over to a bookcase. “What’s this?” It was a statue of Buddha. “It’s Patrick’s not yours,” she said, “And this?” It was Patrick’s battered, old trilby. “And this? Yeah, what the hell [i]is[/i] this?” she said, turning the object over in her hand.

“A phrenology head.” Katie replied.

“He totally dominates the room and everything in it, and you, he takes up all the space.”

“He always did,” Katie said. “He still does. I can’t get his smell off me. He’s the last thing I think of before I fall asleep and the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning.”

“Have you even changed the bedclothes?”

Katie shook her head.

“How long has it been?”

“Three weeks, nearly four” Katie said.

“And you’ve not heard anything from him?”

“No. I phoned the police and reported him missing, but money’s still being taken out of our bank account, so I know he’s alive at least.”

“Of course he’s alive,” said Christine with force, “he’s just playing head-games”.

“You’ve never liked him,” Katie said defensively.

“Good God! He beats the crap out of you.”

“I wind him up.”

“What are you talking about? You make it sound like your fault.”

“It is in a way.”

“In what way?” Christine said excitably, her eyes shining, “This is why I don’t like him. You used to be sparky, a real live wire, and now you’re all squashed. He’s sucked the life out of you.”

Katie looked at the clock. Tick tock.

“Did you ever see that film,” Christine said, “’Touching the Void’, about those two mountain climbers?”

“No.”

“Well, they made it to the summit, then one of them got injured on the way down. The guy tried to help his friend, by lowering him on a rope, but the injured guy fell into a crevace. Even though the other guy struggled for hours, in terrible conditions, eventually he knew that he either had to cut the rope or face the fact they’d both be dead by morning.”

“Is this about me and Patrick, or you and me?” Katie asked.

“Oh God, I don’t know,” Christine said, “I just want you to cut the fucking rope”.

Katie stared hard at the gap in the middle of the floor where the coffee table had once stood. “What happened in the end?”

“The guy that fell landed on a ledge. He made it back to camp, serious frostbite though.”

“Mooooooooooooooooooooooooommeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Reuben’s high pitched scream sliced into their conversation.

“I’m coming,” Katie shouted.

“I’ll go,” said Christine, ‘”why don’t you put the kettle on?”

Reuben was sitting bolt upright in bed, rubbing his eyes. “What is it darling?” said Christine, glancing over at Scarlet, who appeared to be fast asleep.

“I had a dream.”

“Was it a bad dream?”

“Yes.”

“I have bad dreams sometimes,” Christine said, perching on his bed. “Do you want a cuddle?”

“Yes,” he said, disentangling himself from his duvet and crawling onto her lap. He was a skinny child, all elbows and knees. He hadn’t quite grown into his head yet, or his eyes, both seemed very big. And he was hot. Christine put her palm against his forehead and stroked the hair out of his face. “I was in the car with Mommy and we was stopped at the lights, cos they was on red, and this monster came right up to my door and he was pulling on the handle outside and I was trying to put the button down on the inside, only I couldn’t do it fast enough, and he got the door open and he was taking me away and Mommy was shouting, but she couldn’t stop him.”

Christine rocked him in her arms. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Reuben buried his face in her chest. At school the boys had told him only babies believe in monsters and Father Christmas and fairies. None of them were real. And girls. Girls believe in things, but they’re allowed to.

“Monsters,” Christine said, “come out at night because they can’t stand the light. That’s why they hide under your bed and in your dreams”.

“Oh?”

“Yes, and they’ve got power spell to make you think that they’re very very strong, when really they’re as weak as kittens.”

Reuben sat up a little straighter.

“I’ve got a special spell though,” Christine said, smiling, “I call it my ‘monster go away spell’”.

“Does it work?” he said.

“Every time,” Christine nodded. “First we have to make your duvet super armoured. Let me just go down to the kitchen and get the ingredients for a potion.”

“Can I come?”

“Sure, I’ll probably need an extra pair of hands.”

In the kitchen Christine found an empty jam jar, half a lemon and some cinnamon. She stabbed the lemon with a fork and squeezed the juice out. “This is the acid liquor of monster corruption ,” she said to Reuben, “and the cinnamon is the powdered totem of success.” She screwed the lid tightly onto the jar. “All we have to do now is say the magic words and tap the top three times. Ready? After me. ‘Stingy lemon and cinnamon spark, make my duvet strong in the dark’.”

The child’s voice came out quietly.

“And tap,” Christine instructed, “with this,” she said, swiftly grabbing a kebab skewer.

Back upstairs she sprinkled the mixture on Reuben’s bedding. He chortled and bounced onto his quilt. “But we haven’t finished yet,” she said, “next we need to catch the nasty spirits. They float around like dust, waiting to land on sleeping children.”

Reuben’s face clouded over.

“Only very special sleeping children,” Christine said hurriedly, “who are brave and have golden auras. The spirits want to steal these for themselves. Have you got a handkerchief?”

Reuben went over to his drawers and pulled a creased, white square out from amongst his rolled up socks.

“OK,” she said, “you’ve got to spread this on your pillow, every night, before you go to sleep, nice and straight. It’ll catch the spirits in the gaps between the this way and that way threads. Can you see them?” She pushed her thumb up against the fabric, stretching the cotton. “The spirits have long hair and it gets tangled in the weave, trapping them. Then, in the morning, you shake it out, very hard. They’re only little and you’re big and strong, so when you do that, they fly off.”

“But won’t they come back?” Reuben asked.

Christine bit her lip. “Hmmm, have you got a box?”

He shook his head.

“What about under your bed, one we could tip some toys out of?”

Like most boys his age, Reuben’s collection of action figures and assorted plastic construction materials was fairly comprehensive. He built things, putting the pieces together and the words in his characters’ mouths. “What is it?” Katie would ask, tilting her head to one side, trying to see her son’s reality. He usually gave her a bland answer, something that made sense, ‘a house, a school’, something beige and utterly average.

But, unlike most boys his age, Reuben was scrupulously tidy. His toys were organised and filed away in an orderly fashion. He became upset if they got messy. Patrick became even more upset. And then Patrick gave up being upset and fast-forwarded to the punishment schedule. “If I stand on another one of these fucking …” – he picked up the object that had just embedded itself in his foot – “ … [i]things[/i], I’m going to bin the whole lot.”

“Here’s a box,” Reuben said.

It was cardboard, its top flaps folded in and out of each other. Where he’d pushed and pulled at them the edges were soft and crinkled. Inside, small dust balls hid in the corners. “Ah, the fluff fairies,” Christine said, “excellent, you already have increased power. So, you shake your handkerchief in this every morning, and the fairies’ll trap the spirits.”

Reuben nodded, his eyes wide and deep. Sleep was already beginning to steal him away. Christine pulled the duvet back and patted the mattress. He clambered into the cotton envelope, his pyjama trousers scrunching up to his knees. “Now you sleep tight,” she said, kissing him on the forehead, “and don’t let the bed bugs bite”. He put his thumb in his mouth, curling his index finger until it reached over his nose and onto his eyebrows. As Christine turned the light out she could hear his gentle sucking noise.

In the lounge Katie sat staring at her mobile phone. The blue-green light illuminated her ragged features. “Patrick called,” she said.

Christine waited.

“He said he wants to pick his stuff up on Friday.”

Christine waited.

“Apparently, he’s found somewhere else.”

“What about the kids?” Christine said.

“He doesn’t need me or the hassle.”

“What?”

“Have you got any money? I want vodka now,” Katie said.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Probably not. Who the fuck cares.”

Later, after she’d drunk herself into something approaching oblivion, Katie lay with her head on Christine’s knees. “Seven years,” Katie said, “seven fucking years, and for what?”

“It’s …”

“Fucking unbelievable. I hate him. I actually hate the fucking cunt,” she said, swinging her body upright and wiping her hand across her face. “What a cunt, what a big, fat, blubbery, fuckin’ … geriatric … hairy … baggy … fuck … cunt, he’s such a cunt. Why is he doing this to me?”

“He’s not doing it [i]to[/i] you Kate.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“It’s just a situation, something you’ve got to handle.”

“Just a situation!” Katie shouted, “Just a fuckin situation! What are you talking about?”

“It’s happened. It’s what happens next that’s important.”

“Are you out of your mind Christine?”

“No, but you’re pissed out of yours.”

“Well, thank you, thanks a fuckin bunch,” Katie said.

“Look, it’s going to hurt …”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“All right. I’m sorry. Come and lay down. We’ll deal with it in the morning.”

Christine stroked her friend to sleep, but not before she’d held out a blue plastic bowl for Katie to be sick in, twice.

The next day they agreed Christine would be at the house when Patrick came round. It would be easier that way. Katie had no need to confront the issue head on, not at this time, and it would only upset the children. She’d pack up his stuff in boxes from the supermarket. Yes. And then, after he’d gone, along with his things, Katie could start thinking about a fresh start. If he wanted to talk

[“Talk, talk, talk, that’s all you women ever bloody do. Put a problem in front of a woman and she doesn’t try to solve it, she just tries to talk it to death”]

he could call her, arrange to meet up, like civilised adults, in a public place, where her safety was assured.

Christine sat on the stairs, waiting for the sound of Patrick’s key in the lock. She’d rehearsed the conversation in her head. First, there would be the cold “Hello”. Of course, his surprise would quickly give way to anger, but she intended to remain impassive. She practised her impassive face, all her muscles tight, lips open slightly so her features didn’t freeze into a grimace.

She jumped when she heard him. There hadn’t been enough time for one final run through. Wiping her hands on her jeans she rose to greet him.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he said.

“Katie’s out with the kids, we thought it best if …”

“[i]We[/i] thought?”

“Katie and me.”

He slung a large, blue holdall into the hallway. “You’re an interfering old cow Christine.”

Her face remained impassive.

“Get out of my fucking way.”

She stood her ground. He pushed right up against her, sandwiching her between the wall and his body. “Your eyes give you away bitch. You know what Kate sees in me, you’ve always fucking known, and I bet you’d like a piece of it yourself, huh. Huh!” He leant in closer. “Do you want me to lick you?”

Without replying she turned her head to one side and stared down at the floor.

“Just there,” he said, touching her neck, tracing a line to her clavicle and then fingering a pattern in the hollow above it.

She stopped breathing.

He pulled away suddenly and laughed. “Where’s my stuff, bitch?”

“In the lounge, all packed,” she said, throwing her head back.

“Right. You gonna give me a hand?”

“A big, strong boy like you,” she said, “needs the help of a poor, helpless woman like me?”

Patrick snorted. She went into the children’s bedroom and made the beds, after which she shook the rugs and folded up some scattered clothes. Ten minutes later Patrick was finished.

“I think I’ve got everything,” he shouted, one hand on the front door, the opposite foot stepping over the threshold.

Christine looked at the box next to Reuben’s bed. The nasty spirit handkerchief was neatly spread out on his pillow; he had shown it to her earlier, when she arrived, and told her, in conspiratorial tones, that it worked, because last night he dreamed of football and winning The World Cup for England. “Are they really trapped in the box?” he said.

She nodded, “Until someone lets them out”.

“Patrick, just this,” she called, emerging from the children’s bedroom.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Something Reuben wanted you to have,” she said passing the box to him.

“All right.” He tucked it under his arm.

#

"Here’s a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what’s in it today?"

#

Christine laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Bruce said.

“Oh nothing, nothing. If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Let’s just say ‘what goes around comes around’, and he always was a Class A bastard.”

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Feb 14

Valentine's Day

I was walking through town when I saw him, propped up against a lamp post eating a sandwich. We kissed. We always kiss. With my back to the scene he was surveying I asked in conspiratorial tones “Are you watching those big, strong boys lifting boxes?”.

He laughed and passed another crust to the child in the pushchair next to him, “No, I'm thinking about stealing that coat. What are you up to?”.

“Going to a book signing,” I replied.

He nodded. “Have you seen the queue?”

I hadn't.

“What are you getting Matt for Valentine's Day?” he said.

“Nothing.”

“Will he get you something?”

“Doubt it,” I said.

“Suzie will have my balls in a vice if I don't get her [i]something[/i].”

“Lucky you.”

“Seriously, it would be a fatal error.” Niall's an electronics geek. “Do you ever give each other Valentines?”

“Occasionally, depends on the ebb and flow,” I said.

“How do you mean?” he said.

“Don't know really. Sometimes it seems appropriate and important but at other times it just seems irrelevant.”

“And you know exactly which one of those times it is?”

“Pretty much. I bought a bottle of Champagne in January, the proper stuff not Cava, it took us nearly a week to get 'round to drinking it. Matt's busy.”

Niall sighed. Suzie's very busy, working full-time with a fifty mile commute thrown in for good measure. They've been married four years and Reuben's nearly two. “I thought of getting her one of those robins from Choccy Woccy Doo Dah,” he said.

“Don't. They're horrible. Have you ever tasted the chocolate from Choccy Woccy Doo Dah? It's overly sweet and kinda gritty.”

He lolled back against the lamp post.

“And don't steal the coat either, I think it belongs to that workman,” I said, pointing to a man in overalls who was painting a shop frontage.

Niall frowned. “It's been there a while though.” It was hanging on a sign, as if it had been dropped and then hung up, waiting for its owner to realise their loss, retrace their steps and reclaim it.

“Do you need another coat?”

“Not really, no.”

“Well then. If you want to buy her chocolates how about cherries in brandy from Montezuma's?” We were standing right next to the shop and he turned his attention to the window display.

“But they don't look very, er, romantic.”

“It's not really a question of what something looks like Niall.”

“You don't know Suzie.”

“So she'd rather have a shitty tasting chocolate robin in a pretty box than the best brandy cherries in the whole world?” I said.

He stared at the floor and mumbled “You're lucky”.

“And also now late. I gotta go.” We kissed again and I wandered up the street, past the hanging coat. I noticed small flecks of dried, white paint on the fabric. I was probably right, in all likelihood the coat did belong to the painter; but I was also probably wrong, because this proved that it does matter what something looks like.

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Feb 9

Heidegger

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Feb 3

Blitzkrieg

Here lies in stuttering eyes:-

The man who looks in sleep as he might in death, providing he had fallen from a small height – arm bent, twisted above his head, careless limbs scattered like thrown cutlery.

Cotton dreamish sylph, blown in by winds not of my own desire.

He wakes and says “Nob … Can you pass the baccy and vaseline [laugh] … You're groaning like a creaky old boat.”

Small hiccup words for a disjointed wooden phase. I pick the lighter up off the floor with my foot, curling my toes.

Perhaps life can be explained in shap snots: three silver rings large enough to imprint their design on anyone's face; 'The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester'; my musical fascination triangulated by a balalaika I can't play; coffee stains and small designs, unerect, falsifying their oblivious entrance into consiousness.

Should it? Make sense?

He said, after Heidegger, “Words and language are not just shells into which things are packed for spoken and written intercourse. In the word, in language, things first come to be and are.”

I took film from the train window, arm always held at the same angle, fields of dreams and tangled metal. Bridges we call them, industry is how they define themselves. The scene slid in front of my eyes, rhythmised by an acknowledged and necessary forward motion. At journey's end the carriages disgorged their occupants to flow, in a peristaltic mass, along an anonymous platform. Wedged into the wall a V2 Rocket, provisioning memories of a continuous attack. Blitzkreig they called it, on both sides.

Here lies in stuttering eyes:-

The man who looks in death as he might in sleep, arm bent, twisted above his head, careless limbs scattered like thrown cutlery.

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Jan 31

Lost in Holland with an AK47

I want to smash something, because the frustration in here [points to chest, body, head] needs to be out there. The kitchen would be a good place to start. There's lots of metal. Metal makes such a great noise, especially when it hits. Not like flesh. Thump, thud. Crash, bang. And glass, everything's so apparent when you break glass. Instant regret. Most of all though, I want to destroy the books and ornaments, standing in their straight fucking lines, sitting squat in their smug safety. “Oh look at me, I belong here, in this order, I've been here a while now, prettifying the place up, waiting to be read, holding lots of memories between my pages, in my form.” I want to rip them off their shelves and throw them as hard as I can against a wall. Instead, I'm just sitting here, with my fingernails in my forehead, trying not to gouge lumps out of my face.

They had tissues today. I only cried once. Can't stand it when I cry in public. It makes me feel so weak and as if someone might touch me. I don't like being touched with kindness, because I'm scared it'll all come out then, and I won't know how to make it stop. Don't touch me with kindness. Hit me. Hit me really fucking hard so I have to lock my knees and clench my fists and stick my chest out. The fighting stance. I can do that. I have to do that.

It was a silly thing, a short story called 'Welcome to Holland'. We'd done one of those group exercises first: imagine you win a holiday and spending money, but you've only got twelve hours before take-off, list the things you need to do. It would be kinda great, wouldn't it? Fifteen parents sitting 'round in a circle, all of us knowing that we couldn't take advantage of the prize, because we can't leave our kids, our disabled kids. The first thing we'd need to do is refuse the offer, even though we desperately need a break and good luck doesn't seem to come our way that often.

But just imagine you get on that plane and you're on your way to Italy. I've always wanted to go to Italy, to see Michelangelo's work in its natural environment, ride a Vespa, visit the Vatican. Of course, you might read some guide books to pass away the time during the flight and familiarise yourself with the territory. After a couple of hours you land, but when you get off the plane you notice the sign 'Welcome to Holland'. That's what it feels like when you give birth to a child with a disability. All those things you were looking forward to, where you thought you were going, they disappear in a moment and you're find yourself somewhere else.

The words started happening next, key phrases: 'exile, resentment, alienation, exhaustion, sadness, loneliness, guilt, frustration, anger, disappointment, isolation' … it's endless. We all agreed there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It's like staring down the barrel of a gun and being repeatedly shot in the face, except you don't die, because you can't die, that's not part of the contract, you just have to keep on keeping on, it's your responsibility and you can't escape. That's not what we thought we were signing up for. No one there, in the first flush of pregnancy, considered they might still be changing nappies or pushing a pram (wheelchair) twenty years later. Your kids grow up, leave home, get on with their lives, independently … Nah …

I remember when I was pregnant. At thirty eight weeks I went to hospital. “Please take this baby out of me,” I begged, but they refused. “He's too big,” I said. They disagreed, six pounds max they reckoned. I knew something was wrong. Three weeks later I had to be induced. He didn't want to come out. We were poor then, not even a pot to piss in, only thirty seven pence between us. It was a blasting hot June day. I walked to the hospital, couldn't afford a bus or cab. They forced my husband to leave me, sweltering, worrying, on my own.

The next day they shoved something up me and in me. It's tough being induced, going from no labour to hard labour. Seven hours of the most abject pain. I pleaded for an epidural. Eventually an anaesthetist arrived and insisted I pull my knees up to my chest. Lying on my side, my body shaking itself apart, feeling as if I was disappearing. Thank God for my husband. He recognised the signs of medical shock. Threatening violence, he cut through the intransigence of the midwife and other staff, making them to listen to me. They'd ignored me for so long that I'd actually birthed my son's head while curled in an impossible ball. He was slowly being starved of oxygen. Unbelievably, the midwife had failed to notice this simple fact. He came out at nearly ten pounds and unbreathing. They took him away. Alarms went off. Doctors crowded into the delivery suite.

“What's happening?” I said desperately.

They didn't answer.

“Is it dead? What's the matter with it?”

I tried to sit up, but a midwife pressed me into the mattress.

Later, back on the ward, I studied his little face. Half of it was covered in an angry blue mark. “It'll turn pink,” they said, “once he's fully oxygenated”. He was very quiet, fast asleep. I wondered into the nursery, situated next to the nurses' station. A woman at the far end, in a yellow dressing gown, was settling her baby. She turned around. “Can I see your baby?” I asked.

She started to cry. “He has a cleft palette.”

“What's his name?”

“Peter.”

“Can I see him?”

“No one else has said that after I've told them.”

He was beautiful.

I went back to my own bed and slept until morning. Breakfast. Strict visiting hours. No telephone. Jordan was, indeed, pink and the birth mark on his face had become red. I didn't like it. Why couldn't I have a baby that looked normal? What would people say?

A doctor arrived, poked about in the crib momentarily, then stood straight to address me. “ … A fifty fifty chance of being a cabbage.”

“What?”

He repeated himself.

“Get away from me. Get away from me and my baby. Get away. Get out.” My voice rose, I started to throw things at the doctor. Matron came hurrying down the ward and demanded to know what he'd said or done.

He repeated himself.

Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage. Cabbage.

She frogmarched him off the ward and then ushered me into a private room. I can't remember anything else.

Three months later the diagnosis was confirmed by CT scan. My son had (and has) Sturge Weber Syndrome. A facial birthmark, following the line of his trigeminal nerve, is reprepeated on his brain. This capillary abormality interrupts the normal electrical activity. About two hundred people in the UK 'suffer' from this condition and there is a wide spectrum, in terms of how the disorder affects individuals. They couldn't offer us any prognosis.

To a certain extent, the future is always unknown.

Fourteen years down the line and we've been through a lot. Jordan's first seizure was at ten months. They couldn't stop it, apparently that's a feature of Sturge Weber, intractable epilepsy. It did stop eventually, either of its own accord or because they finally managed to pump him full of the right combination of drugs. These little 'adventures' happened every three months for the next God knows how many years; one week in hospital, fervantly fussing by his bedside, followed by two months of rehabilitation, only to find ourselves back in hospital within a matter of days. A situation like that tears a hole in your life.

I could go on and on about: the time they declared him brain dead; the time there was no doctor available on a children's ward to site an intravenous line so we were bundled into the back of an ambulance and blue lighted across a city in rush hour; the time I watched an anaesthetist repeatedly shove an intubation tube down my son's throat in an effort to maintain his airway. It does something to you. It did something to him. Every bout of seizures not only increases the chance of a further cluster, but also, kills part of his brain, turns it to bone, steals a little bit of him and sets him up for further complications.

And you don't even have the luxury of just seeing your own child suffer. No, intensive care units, where the stools are on wheels so they can kick you out the way quickly, are full of children struggling to survive. There was the five month old baby, born prematurely, drowning in his own mucus, crying and crying and crying, until he stopped crying, then I knew he was going to die. Or the car accident victim, with his eyelids taped down, completely on his own, I sat holding his hand for an hour one day, it wasn't right that he should be so lonely …

As I say, been through a lot.

“Do you have any worries about the course?” the facilitator asked. Jesus yes. I've not done this before because I couldn't do it before, perhaps there's only so much reality one person can take. I don't want to go delving about in how I feel, what my expectations are, hopes, fears, dreams, bloody nightmares. As my mother used to say, 'it doesn't bear thinking about'.

“That I'll be defensive,” I replied.

She didn't ask me to justify my response. She didn't insist that I unpick it and work a way round it. She simply nodded. I liked her instantly.

Do you feel numb, blank, guilty, tearful, unable to cope, irritable, angry, suspicious, frightened? Do you have problems with sleeping? Are you easily startled? Do you have trouble concentrating? Do you deliberately isolate yourself? Do you find it hard to make decisions? Is your memory shot to pieces?

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

Define anger. Is that when you want to rip someone's head off and shit down their neck? Is that when you walk down the street, carrying a bottle back from the off licence, with your hand curled one way rather than another, just itching to crack open a skull? Is that when you attack people for no apparent or obvious reason? Is that how you can comprehend why someone might stab their wife to death/be a suicide bomber/get involved in a pub punch up?

Some nights I drink myself into oblivion.

Some nights I do worse.

Isolation, real, imagined, self imposed??? Despite all the anti discrimination laws, essentially it's no better. My kid still looks weird. People still try to talk with/to/at him in a language it takes his brain longer to sift and save, so he stands there, looking like an idiot, being unable to understand or articulate. If he were to say he wanted to get married, have children, that would be considered an outrage. He doesn't have the same opportunites or expectations. No, no, none of us do, everything's dependent and contingent but, broadly speaking, we're in agreement with regard to who, what, when, where and how. He can't even pattern those concepts and, because he's part of me, I find myself alienated from them as well.

The world's not a very friendly place if you don't fit in. What to do? What to do? Round peg, square hole. I guess you can hope the hole's bigger than the peg, in which case it'll pass fairly easily, like a soft stool. Alternatively, you can jam the peg through the damn hole, shaving off the sides, using brute force, but it might get stuck or damaged. Arse. Or you could get a big fuck off drill and make the square hole round. I mean why is the hole square in the first place? I've tried arguing with it, about its inhospitable squareness, pointing out how that invalidates the roundness of the peg, but that's got me nowhere. Fuck the square hole. Holes aren't meant to be square in any event. What bastard decided on all those frigging angles? Bloody squarist.

Back to the anger, the alienation, the suspicion.

Feeling murderous and armed with a drill for a number of years isn't healthy. I've ended up kind of twisted, head-wise, gut-wise, and I don't know how to straighten this out any more, or whether I should even try. Thing is, there was this one time when Jordan was really sick. The doctors, well, they couldn't make him better, stop the seizures, get him above a three on the coma scale. I asked a healer to come see him, she did some stuff I couldn't understand and then turned to me and said “He's in there, but you've got to go get him. He's very frightened and really lonely”.

“Get him?”

“Yes, you've got to bring him back.”

“How do I do that?”

She touched my hand … I sat by his bed all night, eyelids pinned open with matchsticks, WILLING him to come back, I've never wished so hard in all my life, and he did, come back, sometime round about dawn. The first word he said was 'Mummy'. That's my boy. God, that's my boy, tough little bugger, just like his mum, balls of steel, doesn't care what the odds are, what anyone thinks or says, doesn't give a rat's ass. I fight so he can fight to stay alive. I fight so he can have some quality of life. I fight because I don't know how else to be, what to do with it all, where to let it out or how to direct it. I'm like an AK 4fucking7, useless at targetting, loud and noisy, but you can drag me through a river, lose me in mud, get me covered in sand, and I'll still fire bullets, all over the place like, but it's usually sufficient for some purpose or other.

It's changing though. They got us to do this exercise where we had to pick out a postcard from a selection on a table. I chose some African art, man emerging from a stone. I don't really know why. One of the other parents chose a beach scene at sunset. He was talking about it and said 'it's because it reminds me that there's beauty out there'. I couldn't stop the tears. Bastard. He looked over at me and he was crying too. I guess we're all casualties, casually, by accident, in our own way.

I decided to buy myself some rose tinted spectacles, not metaphorically, literally, pink ones, round, £2.99 from some dreadful hippy shop, utterly useless for stopping UV rays, totally wonderful if you want the world to take on a different hue, warm and friendly. I don't know if it'll work, but the physical tends to impact on the emotional in ways I don't fully understand. I've got a lot to learn.

And then I heard this, “We are the universe manifest trying to figure itself out”. What a thought. I'm composed of star stuff. Everything that has existed, does exist and will exist is part of me. Maybe I don't need to let it out or let it in, it's already there, doing its thing, working itself through. Suddenly I didn't feel so alone or as if I had to hang onto Jordan for grim death. There is no death, no struggle, no finality, end or beginning, it just IS. Scary as shit, to be everything and nothing all at the same time. Got to be open though, got to let go, work with it not against it, but I don't know how to be vulnerable, how to accept, what will happen if I stop fighting. Won't there be a big hole if I give up the anger? Perhaps there's a hole already, where I've been eaten away. Does it work like that? I don't know, I simply don't know, but in the words of Otis Redding:-

“But there was a time that I thought

Lord this couldn't last for very long

But somehow I thought I was still able to try to carry on

It's been a long long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come

It's been so long

It's been so long

To live too long

But a change has gotta come

So tired

So tired of suffering and standing by myself and standing up alone

But a change has gotta come

You know

And I know

And you that

I know

And I know that you know

Honey

That a change is gonna come”.

I've taken my fingernails out of my forehead.

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