Clean

When you get out of treatment, you and a guy you were in there with ride around town after dark, wide roads lit by fluorescent yellow-white, scarlet pin-pricks scattered through the night along the skeletons of cranes like paprika. Windows down, cigarette smoke pouring out of them like white water. You stop at the red lights, because that’s what people do when they’ve scrubbed up and got decent and, you know, law-abiding. The music makes the frame of the car shake, sometimes you sing along together but mostly you stare. At the kerb, at lone humans loping like wolves in tracksuit bottoms, at the blank glass of empty office windows. When you suck in air you get the pure oxygen of the deserted road hitting you, gunpowder line sparking straight to the core like cocaine, meltdown at the reactor. Hour after hour spent on adventures to the out of town Ikea or the old football stadium, just to watch them glow. Drinking cans of plain tonic water, hyped up on fizzy cola bottles like teenagers, a couple of gentle outlaws on a sugar high.

***

When you are fourteen years old, you eat a whole bag of contaminated hallucinogens. You’re supposed to stop at four, and this is probably one of the first indications you’re gonna have a problem. They say if you can survive 24 hours after strychnine poisoning, you’ll live, on balance. You’re about four hours in when you see an angel for the first time, during one of those neck arches that felt like iron rods being pushed through your nervous system and would you look at that, there is a man on fire. A roman candle of a man, second-storey high flaring with orange gold that sears the drip of your eyelids, white-hot corona around death’s eclipse. The sheer roaring noise of his arrival scars the air, brands it with the kind of living burn you get in a lightning-struck trunk. You’re busy, shapeshifting into a thorn tree, gnarled and pouring out sweat sap hotter than a sticky midsummer, twitching on the lower bunk while Lisa crushed the hours under the doped up gears of her brain. Couldn’t even wake her by screaming she was so deep, or she was a goner too. You think about Johnson and how the great bluesman had gone under via strychnine and figure at least you’d die like a legend, and then you think: fuck off, I don’t wanna die at all.

You don’t have enough liquid in you left to piss at this point let alone weep but you manage to wring out a few acidic tears because you’re never gonna see your Mother again, and you’ll never get to say sorry to so many people, like your Mother. And your scrawny fourteen year-old ass is going to get tossed into one of those forever alone graves at the edge of the cemetery where flowers are only left by the wind pulling them off of the other folks’ hump of grass and some well-aimed bird shit.

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So you’re lying there and everything is calcifying as these little crystals eat up your musculature as they go, and you know you’re not going to the hospital because it’s just you and the zombie in the top bunk so your brain tries to make some peace with The End but you’re too young and stupid, and this panting little animal body twisting in a noose of its own contorting flesh is so much smarter than you are, and somehow another four hours are done. You crawl to the sink and gulp all the water you can choke out of the old tap and swear to God if you can just make it out of this one alive you’ll be different. No one will have to find you fossilised in dirty sheets brittle now with old salt. Never again. Never, never. Anyway, you make it out alive. Years later, you tell this story to a pharmacist friend, he stares at you, says:

‘How much of this shit did you eat?’

‘The pack.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Yeah, I guess He had something to do with it.’

He shakes his head, cap mashed up in his massive hands. ’Well aren’t you a lucky son of a bitch.’

And bitterness rises up like a dark Nile flooding the plain of your gut, because you hear people talk about near-death experiences and how they were changed forever and you didn’t change. You kept change at bay in bars and on living room sofas with springs poking through and street corners and every time you nearly died you’d swear to God: ‘Get me out of this one, honey, and I’ll be different.’ Skinny little liar right off the bat, because even though you knew what had happened in the warped fisheye lens of your brain it was easier to shrug, say, Hell, it was a long time ago, and slide the empty glass back down the long coffin of the bar. 

***

Now you’re resurrected, dragged backwards into your body by the tough-love chest compression of the clinic. Autumn is here – you see it in the curling edges of the leaves fluttering above the benches in the square and feel it slide blade-like into your bones the way it does every year since the accident, but summer doesn’t want to take the hint. She’s a party girl talking too loudly on the stairs, hoping the colder season will take her number.

There isn’t much to do in these newborn days, so you guys drive. You drive around the outskirts of town like one more circuit and your new lives will fly up to meet you, will pour themselves down your throat like shining water. Like the man the size of a house made of flaming wheels will come again with that sound to raze these sleeping buildings to mere lines in the dust and hand you that map he meant to drop off almost twenty years ago when you were busy in the electric chair. You stop at the red lights. It’s what people do when they’re decent, law-abiding. Clean.

Tongue of Fire, Hand of Fate

There is a voice that seeks to discourage you.

I hear it when depression creeps like frost over the leaves resigning themselves to death fallen on the autumn soil, and I think: ‘Why live, when waking up is penance and my heart has no home?’ I hear it when my pages miss their mark, or worse, float into silence, ignored, and I think: ‘Why write, when my words fold like paper arrows?’ I hear it now, when a dear friend faces imminent death, body and soul caught in the black maw of crack cocaine and I think: ‘Why get sober, when years of struggle still end in devastation?’

The demolition voice, reducing hope to rubble. You become a ruined abbey, paneless windows open to the cold.

The voice says that this will never change, that the road will always be strewn with rocks and glass, and your feet will always be bleeding. It tells you to hold out your arms, and drops an iron bar into them every day, even when nothing terrible has happened but the sheer relentless passing of grey time is iron itself, until you can’t remember what it was like to stand up straight, until you can’t pinpoint the day your back became irretrievably bowed. That voice that says you have done nothing, will do nothing, are nothing.

You can’t stay afloat with your arms full of iron.

Yesterday I walked round and around Bedford Square, steps too quick, breath harsh, claw-hands. I walked because if I stopped walking I was going to start shouting, or breaking things, or breaking myself, and whatever I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. This week, too close behind my own recent stint in A&E, the unkindness of life has rained down in cold hail as the last of the year’s sun shines on like a traitor. There is a life waiting for the recovering addict, I know, because I’ve seen the power of the rooms in action, but right now I’m surrounded by the drowning as my own lungs are filling with water and I can’t see the salvation, just the living death of the spirit, and it’s unendurable.

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Except…It’s not. Because there is another voice.

The one that says: Get up, get up. You would have to be mad to believe in turning a corner now, so be mad. Ride that wave of lunatic fire, and that conviction like a bell ringing in your body, and that crazy terrifying love you have for people, you sit on that bitch like a horse and ride it right through the valley of the shadow of death. I see you afraid of what people think of you, because you care too much and are passionate beyond reason and thank God for that, because lukewarm and sensible and proper are getting this world fucking nowhere. And no, you’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, or every place’s, or every cause’s, but I will show you how that terrible iron can be forged, and where it can be wielded, so get up. Fate is a hand held out to you now, will you take it? These words are falling from a tongue of fire, will you heed them? Do not despair, do not come down, do not bow out, pour out that madness like oil on the wounds of the world and thank me later, because this is not how it ends.

I will not be discouraged. I will listen to that tongue of fire, I will be directed by the hand of fate. I will keep these sodden lungs going because I have spent twenty-five years learning how to breathe underwater.

These are the conversations I have with God. If you find me walking around Bedford Square with a face like the end of the world, don’t be afraid. I’m just walking it off, the weight of all this burning iron. I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.

Put to Sea

“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

– old Breton fisherman’s prayer

Exile’s a funny thing.

Some of you know why it has been so long without me writing, and without me needing to tell you. I have been in London now since June, drawn inexorably into its glittering grey web and feeling my marrow corrode like rust as the year draws on. The summer heatwave here cast an aura that threw my vision into cloudy kaleidoscope, a kind of hope-blindness, but winter is on me again and you know the steady tumour of lead that grows against my heart in those long months. I am becoming a loose collection of join-the-dots from one pain to the next; these ribs creaking, this heart in its death-throes, these bones in their aching, premature dotage. That scrawled letter left to untender mercies of gale and sea, the silver sheen of a Milagro tossed in the river, dissolved in the magic of a thing purposefully cast away. I think I threw my soul after it. My lungs won’t stop hurting.

I live in a funny little L-shaped box room just outside the heart of the city. I can reach out and almost touch both walls. There is a window to the rooftops but it is tucked out of the way behind a partition, turning the thing into a sort of eyeless cave. The walls are very thin and the colour of sour milk and lined with Russian literature, and people wonder why I am insane. The sounds of everyone else jammed into this plasterboard carve-up – a halfway house for fellow addicts – are so close they are like hearing my own thoughts. They are just as chaotic in their habits as I, and so half-finished poems breed paper legions across the floor, stained with cerulean and burnt umber. Music comes from the rooms beside and below me. Sprawling herbs are conquering the garden in irresistible green silence; the bathroom mirror was covered in pithy quotes scrawled in old lipstick, but we were told to wipe them away. You are not allowed your own furniture, and sometimes your own thoughts, on pain of eviction.

I have to get out in the days or I find myself lying on the bed with my body warped in a kind of contraction, sinews straining and hands clenched into fists, wanting to vomit nails. Often now I walk for hours simply for the dull rhythm of my feet hitting the ground; for the sensation of muscles flexing and swinging, tuning out the feathery static of the brain’s stuck channel. Like the ponderous shapes of women walking the halls of a labour ward, hands pressed to the small of the back. Walk it off until the pain recedes one way or the other, until the thing curled within you breaks into life or dies there, caught in the suffocating hollow of your body. 

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Exile. Known intimately to addicts and other misfits whose feet are ribbons from long walking the razor’s edge. I feel it standing on a crowded platform, commuters jammed together like a bunch of grapes in which I am inexplicably a stone. I feel it walking down the street when no one seems to see me but the beggars, as though we have the ability to see each other’s ghosts while still alive, submerged in this thin, cold stream running parallel to the river of warm bodies. I feel it in conversations I can barely start and certainly don’t know how to continue without stuttering into the embarrassed silence of someone who isn’t even there and still takes up too much room. Adrift in my little boat on God’s great sea when no harbour will take me for long, but then I never did like staying in one place. There is a peculiar grace in momentum, even as the waves are sometimes tall and black with horror.

Exile, without purpose, is not survivable.

And then a warm and holy thing fell into my hands, smelling of wax and burning leaves, and I became an apprentice beekeeper with my boat anchored in honey, if anywhere. The hum of the hives is a living book of secret hymns, and I am slowly learning the words. If you seek asylum as the outcast living then find the hives, you will meet other pariahs there, standing around a bucket in waterproof clothing. We are there when addicts take Communion with tea and biscuits for an hour in the beige side-rooms of methodist churches and service centres that reek of hand sanitiser and unwashed clothes, lined with faces like collapsing walls. We are there with change and cigarettes for fellow ghosts that haunt the tents on Tottenham Court Road. That, I suppose, is Manna in my personal desert.

Anyway. That’s where we are. This is the point from which I sail again.

 

Momentum

Opposite my window lurks the gaunt, grey shadow of the old people’s home. I look straight into their dining room, lit almost every hour with dim, soothing lights. The glint of ready cutlery. There is one woman in particular who sits out in the garden when she can, and always on the second-floor balcony at three. She wears a white dress and has beautifully styled hair the same bleached linen colour. The White Woman. Last time she was sitting out there she had a birthday balloon tied to her chair. My neighbour and I were going to take some roses around, but we got drunk in the afternoon and forgot.

I feel like pounding my fist against the door with a question – what the hell happened to me over the last few years? Too much solitude, the keyhole whispers. That long, dark brain of yours ate the silence and then it ate you. I ended up hating this pretty town; endless rainy pavements mocking every step, the ocean’s whisper sultry and lethal: ‘Come away, come away with me.’ I was most happy – back to the question of happiness – on a little boat, surging out to a jagged full stop of an Irish island, salt-fresh, lungs expanding. The sensation of movement (this is also why I adore trains). I clung on to some railings with the flute strapped to my back in case we sank and smoked cigarettes with a cable-knit man, so massive his shoulders took out the last view of the vanishing mountains. That was happiness, simply moving forward in no-place, no-time. A speck of flesh with momentum. The sea is so hungry and deathly and uncaring and obsessed with its own momentum too. I didn’t rate my chances if we flunked it, smooth as it was that day. The sun beating it into diamonds in a second when earth takes a million years to be so intensified.

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The Glass Boat, 2009

And then I was back, heavy again. Back into the world of execs quibbling over cab fare, back into the world of birds that sing only when the traffic dims down its white-noise mechanical hum at the close of day, or the opening of it. Back to the world of the communal (yet also of the solitary and desolate, as without action the relationship between you and the other lives stacked up above and around and below would remain passive and insensate). It’s too peculiar. I can feel the splinters of other lives in the walls working into the skin of my own, getting under the cells and itching there, like a piano being played atonal in the next room.

I said once to him that other people’s lives picked me out like torchlight; a beam slung under a canal at midnight, and all you can see are skeletal shopping trolleys and the dark, rainbow obsidian gleam of dirty water. Toads, reeds like green razors. Broken radios that have stopped talking about stranglings in basement flats and other unfortunate things that end always, always, in boxes being lowered into the exhausted ground. One of the windows opposite has been dark for a while, a tiny postage stamp of black. There is no wheelchair patiently parked on the balcony at three. I don’t think the White Woman is coming back.

Exit Wounds

Honk and I hop up to the bar, preening, magpies looking for shining girls. I’m all slicked-back hair and the kinda cheekbones you get after laying in bed for weeks eating nothing and listening to sad music. Honk bundled me into the shower and a clean shirt like ‘Do you think this is helping? You gotta get back in the game.’ Watching me brush my teeth like my mother, ‘Where’s your self respect at?’

We scoot around and knock back sour shot glasses and dance with girls with glitter-streaked tits and those glow in the dark rave sticks I remember from back in the 90’s – I remember Blue Lou once got ‘em confused with the sherbet ones, stoned out of his mind like, and bit the end off and had radioactive yellow all around his lips for a couple of nights.

I’m jiving with some girl under the orange strobes and I get this shudder running through me. I feel like ghosts are thick and close in here and I hope Honk is okay – he’s done up like Baron Samedi in a tailcoat and eyeliner and the girls are over him like pretty ants making sly, sliding eyes at a lonely honey jar. I try and focus on the mermaid shoulders of the girl in front of me, painted artful green-blue.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Annie, but most people call me AK!’ We’re shouting at one another in that eardrum-busting intimacy you get anywhere people are trying to figure out if they can screw to a bassline.

‘AK?’

’47!’ she yells, her hand picking out that pop-pop, wrists flickering.

‘That’s my lucky number!’

She spins around so I can see the lotus flower tattooed between her shoulder blades, between the thin ruby straps of her flimsy Indian cotton top. She tips a finger under my chin. ‘You’re cute.’

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The room spins and I gotta find Honk. I look over the jostling folks for his top hat, and I think I see it, but the face underneath is some pointy-chinned pixie-woman, all appropriative Bindi’s and the same fucking Indian cotton tops and patchouli oil. Honk’s type all over. I hope he ain’t snorting anything. I watch silver bangles glinting as arms raise themselves up to the beat, hypnotised like watching sunlight on the water. Annie is trying to grind her hips into mine and I’m just kinda standing there like my sleeves are stuffed with straw, like my eyes are painted on a sack and I got an old pitchfork handle up under my coat and it’s real awkward.

When I wake up I know I ain’t slept with anyone, and not just because the rest of the bed is the same sick unhappy fossil I got dragged out of last night. You can tell when you’ve shared a bed with someone, there’s a warmth there that doesn’t leave when they do.

I shuck myself back into my fraying blue denim pants and I need a coffee because I’m itching everywhere. Scratch under my chin and find this weal like a big bug bite, a white lump under the surface like a spider egg. But I can’t kid myself cause I know it’s weeks of shit eating their way out of me. Pints of cheap alcohol and metal sweat and bad convenience food that you cook under a pierced plastic film. Honk is there, watering the goddamn plants. He slumps into a chair and hooks his long pale foot around the table leg. He ain’t smiling, he’s looking at my phone like a black brick on the side, by the shiny green plant leaves freckled with tap water.

‘You don’t have to do it,’ he says first off. No preamble or nothing. I go check my phone and Jack is there like a ministering angel saying Man that sounds tough you wanna catch a flight and come straight out? Come stay in the cabin, we got plenty trees and whiskey and boo ain’t no trouble.

When I don’t say anything he pours me out some strong black. ‘Come on, you don’t have to do that, I’ll take you to the sea, huh?’

It takes a while before I can get my head around it. I push my hands out like I’m trying to show off the size of a fish I caught and let my hangover do the honest talking. ‘It’s no good, man. I can’t just go put my feet in the water, I need to…I need to put the big water between me and it.’

We just wait a while, listening to the traffic through the thin little window panes. We aren’t in St Anthony’s now but somehow the beds are still all floor mattresses and the hob rings are always crusted up with pasta sauce and the sunlight still filters through a sweatshop Om. I can smell ancient cigarette ash like this rickety two-floor over the electricians is our own personal Pompeii. I get a crazy sweat on, I don’t wanna be found by tourists in the same terrified position, palms up against a rain of fire.

He asks it straight. ‘What am I gonna do if you take off to fucking America? With that crazy bitch in the middle of no-place?’

He means Boo and their marital troubles, but I just murmur all noncommittal, ‘He says she’s okay now.’

He snorts, ‘This ain’t the way to get over it.’

Just then, I hear someone come out of the bathroom. It takes me a second to place those seaweed green shoulders but then her face slots into my memory like a penny.

‘Hey AK.’

She wraps the towel tighter around herself, eyes wary like her body got caught speeding. I stare at Honk.

‘You got some nerve, son.’

He just shrugs, sips his coffee. ‘More than you, yeah?’

I’m booked on that plane before 47 fires out through the front door, all stained flannel, and recoil and exit wounds.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.

Racing With the Rising Tide to my Father’s Door

In my dream, because odd, mystical little pockets of my subconscious are the one consistent thing in my life, I’m up to my waist in the sway of the sea. I can feel my legs fighting the sweep to and fro as the waves race each other to break their hearts on the shore; it reminds me again how powerful, how full of nature’s raw force, is something as clear and soft and submissive as water.

Christ wades in, the ocean moving like silk around him. I smile even in sleep because I remember how this man is no stranger to the sea and wonder why he doesn’t simply stand upon the surface as it whispers and shushes around us, then I think of baptism and purifying baths from time and temples immemorial and remember that in some ways we must be like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and I imagine he enjoys playing in the sea as much as the next wayward kid. He is wearing a plain robe that must have once been white, some kind of flax or rough linen, now rusty with red dust. We both look at the horizon, a long line of indigo melting into a strangely coloured sky that isn’t day or night.

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A silence that is not silence blooms; that feeling you get when you are with a dear friend and there’s no need to communicate with something as clumsy as words when a smile, a raised brow, the click of the kettle’s switch will do. Christ and I rarely talk in these strange little visions of mine, but that doesn’t mean nothing is said. The keening, echoing cry of the gulls comes, arcing across the water like dry ice.

He tells me in the silence that I will have to be brave, that I cannot be afraid of emptiness, and I feel rage bubbling up like lava in my gullet because I am done being brave, I have spent years in the exile of emptiness, I have wasted my life treading water in this lonely ocean and I will not crawl any further on bleeding knees, I will not come to you with wounds weeping vinegar, I will not be broken I will not I will not Thou shalt not…

He says nothing, merely watches the water, but I think he understands.

The tide turns. Now the pull is back to the sea and I feel my legs protest against being dragged out into that roiling void where monsters propel themselves through the black canyons at crushing depth. I stand firm with the rough tongue of the the sand against my soles and turn to look at the man beside me but Christ has gone, as quietly and unobtrusively as a feather falling to earth. The water whispers its ceaseless, primordial lullaby, the sky has darkened to the violet glaze of perpetual sunset.

Above my head, the gulls laugh.