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.

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.

A Room Somewhere

The walls are white, not the soft magnolia of new homes but the stark, sun-bleached white of Spanish monasteries or Provençal cottage kitchens. An iron cross made out of old horseshoes hangs on one wall, beneath it there are always fresh flowers. The sweet, earthy scent of myrrh unfurls through the room, the windows are open to cars and radios and kicked cans and starlings.

I lie on the soft cream bedlinen, mind untethered; I can while whole seasons away like this, the same bittersweet songs playing, the same food every day. In these contemplative pockets I finally find respite from the addict inside who craves novelty and flees from boredom. In these times I cultivate boredom like a beautiful orchid, I drift through the warmer days like a courtesan immersed in long, languid baths. I reflect on everything from the perfume poured on Christ’s feet to the scribbles in my old notebooks to the changing texture of my own skin as it enters a new, dimpled decade. The hours feel drugged, the clock becomes my lover and I can spend all day with him, watching the sun pray over that plain, white paint.

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When I come to, half the summer has gone, usually. Faded like the knees of my jeans as the days melt into each other like butter. I used to sip at pink wine in the bed like a bee regaining strength from sugar water, I wonder what it will be like now, sipping orange juice and green smoothies. A sour slice of yellow lemon in still or sparkling. I dare to hope I’ll write more, free from the shackles of liquor’s apathy which turned my blood to morphine.

I keep those quiet hours close to my heart, precious things pressed between scrapbook pages, mornings of easy solitude like wonderful seashells kept until the end of the holiday; afternoons like petals pulled from the pollen-heavy core of a flower, he loves me, he loves me…a little, madly, passionately, not at all. I become a dusky pink rose, sensual and drowsy with the weight of my own limbs. I hover above myself like pale steam, like incense. They are sacred, those hours, when all I want is a room, somewhere.

 

Shallow Graves

Sometimes I look back at the first few days of treatment, scuffing the toes of my shoes against the warm red brick of the garden wall and watching the stifling, sultry sun of August settle on next door’s yellow roses, and at almost eight moons sober it feels like another life – a Polaroid photograph or dream snippet half-remembered over morning coffee. The link between my two selves feels strained and trembling. The weight of my sober life is a drop spindle, pulling the thread tight.

I can stare into the past and catch glimpses of this new me amongst the chaos, like seeing veins of bloody red quartz running through a black stone. The last decade was a long game of hide and seek, my hands over my eyes as I counted to one hundred, and I kept expecting to find myself behind the sofa, or the curtains, but I never did. I get it now. Someone once told me you can’t go searching for enlightenment because it isn’t outside you, that’s like leaning out of a window and asking for directions to the building you’re in. Finding the real you after 16 years of being permanently drunk is kind of similar. People talk about travelling the world to find out who they really are but I didn’t go to India or Nepal or Peru and catch a glimpse of God, I went to a rehab clinic in a filthy grey little English town and dropped back inside myself like a stone shattering the surface of a frozen lake.

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I used to run up against the idea that sobriety is like a treasure map, that if I just went to enough meetings and made enough weak, watery tea and coffee in enough cold and echoing church kitchens then the path would become clear, that the red X would seep through the paper and I’d know where the treasure was buried, but the treasure isn’t out there, it’s somewhere under the ruins and ash of my old life; glints of iron and gold and pomegranate garnets piled up in the elegant fist of my ribs. The reality is that red X is like the medieval mark of a murderer, when the accused would place their hand on the shroud of the victim and if they were guilty the corpse would bleed. My old life is shouting my guilt from beyond its grave. I put my hands up, soaked as they are with something red, and it could be blood or wine, I admit that I killed myself.

Not everyone gets a resurrection, and I feel I’m letting down all those addicts who never rose again, because I should be happier. As the whole world around me cries out its renewal with lilting birdsong and the powdery purple crocuses carpeting the parks and the delicate yellow of primroses, I should be happier.

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.