Waxed leather; a shooting jacket. The smell of it was like laying back in a mouldering armchair. In the dim light of the port, I thought he looked like a spy. The drained vessel of my body is docked in the crook of his arm.
We half-wake, unconsciously shifting closer together. We have both sealed up our bodies against the whipcord of cold. The ferry will not be here for another five hours. Trembling fingers have long lost their grip on cardboard coffee cups. I have forgotten where I am supposed to be going; I have already reached the destination of this unfamiliar man.
My head lolls on his shoulder; his skull is flung back, resting against a dirty holdall. We are in a grey desert beyond tiredness; when I open my eyes the world has no definition, only a thick mist over the water. His hair is long and dirty blonde; it tickles my frozen cheek. Somewhere in my chest, I feel infantile sobs cracking like ice. The glare of harsh overhead lights is reflected in a dozen windows, a blinding kaleidoscope. Safer, better, to close my eyes again.
I imagine my fingers curling over the rail of the ferry, leaning forward to watch dark water churning below. I laugh because even the dull metal belly of the boat has direction when I do not. My hands grasp at unravelling thread in a monstrous Labyrinth, the bellow of the Minotaur sounds a long way away. Hansel’s white pebbles beckon my feet down a crooked path; the birds that fly about the wood have eaten all of my cunning crumbs.
I can say: You are a thing of dangerous and terrible beauty, gut-wrenching, half-seen in the tall grasses beneath the pine trees, vanishing into the shimmer of the afternoon heat haze. I can say: can you imagine what it’s like to sip wine from a bee’s mouth? Or become iron at the exact same moment someone else becomes North?
The coffee’s gone cold, she says: Are you okay?
I want to say: Did you ever see that film, Interstellar? Do you remember when the guy was swinging around the electric curve at the end of the universe, annihilated by the event horizon, all suffocating pressure and silent light? When everything broke into red-hot pieces until only the void remained, and still the bones of swallowed stars flew out from the abyss, because even nothing goes somewhere?
I stay silent, go to flick the switch on the kettle again. Feel again a spirit’s hair dragging like raw silk across my lips; wake to find strange eyes fashioned from fire and onyx at the end of the bed; see milk-pale wrists move in the dark like the kindest blades in the world; remember the sensation of being a heretic ablaze at the stake of my own spine.
You are the event horizon, you have become my gravity and suddenly falling – grazing knees and splitting lips – is pleasurable again. You have given me back my limbs, breathing flesh by candlelight into the hollow chapel of my ribs. You have given me back my fingertips, and the aching prettiness of my skull that will one day fall apart underground or crumble in one thousand degree crematorium heat. You have given back the Morning Star behind my eyes and the thin, soft line of white between my hair and the edge of my high collar. There are flowers blooming under my skin, gasping for one more mouthful of sweet pollen. Together we slide across celestial bodies, suspended in time that is not time, and I feel my face flush, then go cold as I understand something. I almost turn around and call for a square of glass to hold over a candle flame until it’s safe to look up…I think: of course, the pursuit of pure desire draws a halo around the moon and a shroud around the sun. You are an eclipse.
‘I’m not a mental health writer.’ I say, watching the water beneath me tangle itself up in silky spirals that vanish again in an instant. Beside me, he blows the air out of his mouth hard, frustrated.
‘You should be. Do something with it.’
I try to explain that teasing everything that’s beautiful about the world to the surface is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was never about how the warped lens of my brain saw the way sunlight looks rippling across a shallow riverbed, or the way the ground in that blistering olive grove I visit year after year steams after the rain. The silence you only ever find in church, candle smoke and frost.
On Sunday, walking home at night, I breathed in the air as it turned towards a new season and instantly flew backwards 22 years to throwing open my grandmother’s bedroom window, amazed at the sweetness of the evening air as summer comes. I remember pulling in deep lungfuls of it as a child, high on its perfume, and even the fullest, most rib-breaking breath never being enough. The same drugged sensation came over me again on Sunday night; it was intoxicating, it was Midsummer, it was faerie, it was limitless possibility and I wanted to run and run over the fields until I slipped somehow through the veil to the world beyond I always secretly knew was home.
It reminded me of all the time I’ve been wasting, trying to be normal. Because I do want to talk more about the strangeness that blooms under my skin in secret petals, about always being impossibly Other.
Honesty is a refinement of the spirit, a crucible that makes a molten puddle of your deceptions, but in this case I ask myself what good would it do. I worry; wonder if my words would disappear into the void of ‘mental health’ rather than remain standing as they are, barefaced. The way I see the world is warped, through sea glass and stained glass; lit by halos and moonlight on silver shillings. It’s the sound of doors to everywhere opening inside me, a thousand grandmother’s windows thrown open to let the night in. I don’t want my world to shrink to a word, would it? Why should I care?
Perhaps I’m protesting too much. Perhaps he’s right and I do have a gift, something to say about living with a mind full of watercolour. The fact remains that my name is stamped in black photocopy in doctor’s offices along the coast. I eat pink pills every night just so that I can get some sleep, but when I do dream, it’s of flying.
We’re walking through the marsh together; I know, because I see a wisp of black cloth in the corner of one eye, following me. He sits me down by the ruined wall, where everything is rotten from the ground up. A sickly brown heart throbbing beneath the bricks, like a wrinkled apple. The trees don’t care, they sip up the stinking water like lovers sharing wine, growing twisted.
‘What do you want?’ His voice is soft, coaxing, but there’s something else beneath it, full of molten metal; something else in the eyes. The thing that pushed us both through those dim corridors, spiders crawling through a tunnel web, tearing clothes from one another. Teeth popping through lips, the flood of copper-mouth. I wore bruises like bracelets for days, watching them change like mood rings from blue to yellow.
‘Nothing. Not from you.’ A wild bird is scraping at my ribcage, its wings fanning panic. My hands twitch into claws, of course I want something. I want relief. I want exorcism. I want annihilation. I know the dark mud of this place, foul as it is, would be gaspingly cold on the skin of my back. I want my limbs to shudder under those dreadful eyes. I look at the span of his hands and wonder if strangulation would be a kind of suicide.
‘I’m possessed,’ I say, my body feels like a violin string. There’s no oxygen in my blood without this; I’ve tried to burn it away under the holy light of stained glass, my face serene as a crocodile. I want something to crack and let my soul escape. I want sin written across me in thumbprints.
‘I can comfort you.’
Down, down. Into the nauseous heart of the dark water.
There is a tapping against the window. This time of year, spirits are abroad; floating like solitary shells or thundering through the teeming clouds on horseback. And because I see things they tell me are not there, I turn my head. The glass, of course, is blankly black. Raindrops shiver where they have fallen; tiny, delicate globes. No ghostly hands. No wavering faces.
In the morning, the bed is quicksand. I dress slowly, slipping on dirty shirts. I haven’t slept again; spinning in the 3 a.m. eye of a constant storm.
They tell me breakfast kickstarts your metabolism into solidarity, but too often I forget, and brew bitter coffee instead to wipe my eyes and rearrange insomnia’s regret. The fear hums through my body at night like a soundwave, reels of imagined and inevitable catastrophe; shadow play on the walls. I take my seat and buckle up, answer emails on automatic pilot, crash.
Because I am an adult, but I do not know how to live adulthood with its loss and focus and exit wounds. Its filthy fingernails, its silent, stoic, grown-up crying, its poisoned wells. I am sick, and yet my sickness manifests invisibly; in walking on clouds until my wings scorch like Icarus. In tidal waves of frenzied creativity. In terror of coffin-lining.
I call the crisis team, they say: Make a cup of tea. Have a hot bath, have two.
Imagine if I changed my name and ran away. To Amsterdam, Rome, Prague. Imagine a pretty, functional girl trailing through picture postcards. Imagine if I could starve myself back into perfection; ethereal slenderness, escape my life with a skeleton key. It’s never worked, it won’t now. Defeated, I sit back down, press send. Answer the phone and rattle out affirmations; yes I will do the things you ask, even though my head is a helium balloon held to my collar with safety pins.
I hate this loneliness, hate skittering around the inside of my skull like a spider in a matchbox. The sheer, pinned-butterfly exhaustion, the long squeezebox crush of the clock, the deathly irritant of the same frustrated faces all wishing they were somewhere else. The sudden surges of my too-bright rage and happiness, swirling together in terrible colours. Might as well plunge your hands into a bucket of nails, spend your cigarette break standing in a barrel of gunpowder.
I go and wait on the street corner speckled with drizzle, just to look at the people. Headlamps glide past me, a continuous river of will o’the wisps. A half-bottle, 6o mg, and the vague beat of music through the wall ceases to fall across the tripwire of anxiety, and the fire in my head dulls to a chapel’s glow. A soft prison formed of old walls, protecting the marshmallow and butter of me.
These things are a shield against the long silence, against the fear. It is a wall between me and the things I half-glimpse; behind my reflection, in doorways, stairwells. It is protection against the evenings too scared to leave the room, fervently imagining the flaming sword of the Archangel Michael sweeping down in a blaze of ferocious light. Watching shadowy heads fall. It is in these long nights that I realise the depths of my own insanity, covering the mirrors with cloths and saltwater.