Autopsis

The man opposite me is a troll. He is stone-coloured, a bland, inoffensive creature in grey and khaki. I imagine that he shuffles around the cafes as the sun goes down, stony skin safe in the half-light of candles on tables and mellow fairylights. In the morning he will slowly walk along the beach as the sky bleeds into pink and gold, and lie down amongst the pebbles and disappear between them.

I watch white crumbs collect in the sad corners of the troll’s mouth as I sit in the corner full of weary students tapping at Macbooks with steamed-up glasses from the freezing night outside. I feel like a breathing heap of clay, something dormant and Biblical, a little Golem rendered dumb and immobile by endless cups of soothing tea and watching people pass the window, so variable and yet so hypnotically the same. Clutching newspapers and little fingers in warning and restraint before crossing the road slick with rain…Thinking about sex and divorce and sucking in killer cigarettes, tapping at tiny squares of coloured light with aching thumbs.

I am glad my thoughts are secret, close to my chest, hidden behind the acid green padlocks of my eyes. I am imagining in exquisite detail performing a slow autopsy on my lover. Not because I do not love her, or because my brain is cruel and sparks sadistic neurons, but because I can hear things rattling the bone cage that keeps my heart pressed in, tied down with bruised, scarlet muscle. Our skeletons are burrowed deep and tangle together, and I must consider the inside of her skin my own simply because it is hers, and because I am terribly afraid of death.

Dead flesh does not bleed even when penetrated by knives and isn’t that funny? How the great gasping gush of red inside sinks to a thick stillness when the soul leaps out – doesn’t it thrill you, how alive blood is? Lungs are empty chapels of stained violet glass, where once a choir exhaled. I look at the rosy arms of the girl sitting next to me and imagine her thrumming skin pierced by an expert scalpel like teeth entering a crisp apple. I imagine pulling back the sheet covering a still, cold face and realising it is my lover. I flinch inside, a steel door shutting in my guts. I shiver in uncontrollable terror and excitement, and the girl looks at me as though I am a dangerous snake; madness coiled and about to strike.

Walking home is cold and loneIy. I cherish the silence and the reflection of the street lamps on the pavement. Great splashes of orange, like a row of suns dropped carelessly on the concrete. I count them all, but I am not certain that I have caught all the suns and so I count them again. When I open the door the smell of her crawls into my nostrils and wraps around my hair. We are about to eat together, her voice pierces my brain like a long, silver splinter.

The eggs are boiling. Thin little shells bubbling and jostling in the pan. The fish is cold and vaguely metallic on my tongue, it is the cool, thick texture that at once repulses and attracts me. She smiles shyly over the table and I feel invisible wires twitch and coruscate between us. She does not know that I am thinking of her skin under hard flourescent lights, waiting patiently for attention like a child striving to be good in a hallway full of motionless silhouettes. She would have turned a mottled blue-white, like the underbelly of something dreadful, and her face is set in a terrible calm, even as her long guts are pulled out like handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve. The steel trap closes quietly around my stomach; sharp, writhing, wonderful.

Every time I think of her like this I tap my left index finger on my heart three times to keep her safe. I know that if I have a thought about her dying I can knock on the door of my heart like this and her spirit will fly there, where nothing can touch her. It is by this ritual that I stop the angels of death and protect her within the great fortress of my white ribs. They tell me this kind of thinking is abnormal.

The eggs are ready. The shells are hot and steaming. Benign and smiling, I lay my hand upon her shoulder, and in my mind they carefully crack open the globe of her skull, precise and melodious. The sound of colossal hammers ringing a hundred temple bells.

No Space for Wild Girls

I never stop marvelling at our changing world.

When I was young, and could have sailed away on the sheer volume of my tears as I looked for somewhere I belonged, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk without creating silence; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the water against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I didn’t hurt myself that way, in descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshipped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new and silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and cry wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there’s space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind.

Fly. Fly.

I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.

Persephone’s Feast

Get up, because the draught has woken you again, make a thin, weak instant coffee and listen to the absolute feathery white static silence of the night. Try to be positive; think how lovely this breeze will be in the summer, as you rub the blood back into your feet. Check the cupboards and nibble a slice of hardening bread.

Back in bed, with the covers wrapped cocoon-like around you, wonder if today’s the day you can have a hot shower, or a bath without boiling the kettle seven times, because maybe by some miracle the plumbing your landlord won’t fix is better now. Wonder how many calories there are in the bread you’ve just eaten, tell yourself to relish the cold night because shivering burns fat. Wonder what you’ve become.

There’s an ethereal quality to the hours just before dawn, when the night is over but the day not yet born, it’s the counterweight to faerie’s dusk, when it’s dangerous to look in hallway mirrors. You know you should be writing but instead you’re thinking about Victorian seances and bathroom suicides and bad omens (before you woke you dreamed about a buzzard dying with its wings torn off). About bisexuality and lesbianism in bohemian Paris, about the likelihood of WWIII predicted in Buzzfeed articles, about dying your hair in lilac pastels and changing your name again. About the food you can’t afford (it doesn’t matter, starvation has 0 calories).

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When the sun comes, listen to the crowing of a rooster in someone’s back yard. Dress in cold clothing, staring at the freckling of peridot moss on next door’s tiles. There are bargain plums ripening in a bowl on the kitchen counter but they are not ready to eat; remember that time you bought a pomegranate and every seed was flawless and the most mystical thing you’d ever tasted, rivalled only by farmhouse eggs with the richest yolks of golden orange. Remember a house with heat and light and carpets, look around at the mould beginning to creep through another coat of nunnery-white paint. Wonder what you’ve become.

Call your partner, your sponsor, your friend. Tell them everything’s fine. You miss them, you’re still sober and getting to meetings, what are they up to. Block out the insistent whispering in your head by trying to act like a normal person. With going to the shops and gazing longingly at meat that won’t be reduced until 18.00 like a normal person. With running a tepid bath and lying there until your flesh is numb obsessing over torturous cold water therapy in Georgian sanatoriums like a normal person. With picking up the tablets that stop the worst of this putting you back in hospital.

Wait…Just wait for the quiet night to roll around again, when it’s just you and your ghosts in the Hades of this room, waiting for revelation between the clock hands, eating up the seconds like those pomegranate seeds.

Wonder what you’ve become.

Venice of the North

‘Look at that,’ she says, pointing out of the train window. There is a wave of roiling cloud washing through the trees, streaked with yellow; a bruise flying over the fields. The long key is a kind of cold bone in my hand, the carriage smells of damp wool. ‘Do you think we can race the storm?’ I smile, I don’t tell her that we raced it months ago and lost. The little bed under the eaves has a patchwork quilt. An old dressing table leans by the window as the rain gently hurls its melody against the ground. She twirls, laughing, the hem of her black lace skirt ghosting across the old floorboards.

‘Isn’t it perfect? Isn’t it sweet?’ The beaded necklaces around her neck clack together, lapis lazuli, carnelian, amber. Her hands are as white and smooth as lilies, the brass buttons on her coat catch the light like old coins. ‘It’s Alice in Wonderland! You can be the Hatter.’

Yes, I think. Eat me. Drink me.

Outside the surreal womb of the hotel, the clip-clop of hooves striking the cobbles is always in the background, like the church bells. Faint wisps of snow flit across the bridges like tentative spirits; a haze of Christmas lights and camera flash and the raw wind stripping you, like silver bark peeled from a birch tree.

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We go to see the Holy Blood, a strange, speckled cloth housed between jeweled crowns, and her eyes fill with tears. I know she is not Catholic, but she crosses herself and smiles with folded hands and damp eyes at the woman standing patiently behind the sacred relic. I see communion in the woman’s eyes; happiness, approval. How does she do this? How does she connect so completely through so much impulsive artifice? It’s like holding a gloved hand, can’t they see? I want to drag her out into the aisle and shout, ‘It’s an act! Look! She’s an actress!’ As though the plaster would crack and fall and they’d all see the brick beneath.

I won’t. It never happens. Only my silence is required. I wonder sometimes if I am even there at all. I watch the glow of candlelight warming the old white stone and think of all the people who huddled in church as winter roared silently on down the centuries, staring at the little flames as I am now. Sanctuary. A pool of gentleness in the long, medieval terror of freezing water and salted meat.

After the wedding, we walk slowly through the town. There are shreds of cornflower and rose petals in her hair, from the moment they rained gently on the bride and groom. When she smiles, I remember everything. Somewhere underneath the plaster, the brickwork shifts. The laughter of tourists in a canal boat reaches me, a babble of French voices in a major key. I love that musicality transcends language; that I can tell those souls upon the water are happy, even though I do not understand what they are saying.

 

Flying in the Crucible

‘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.

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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.

Tripwire

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.

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Daere (Fiend). Self portrait.

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.

Dark Amber

I’ve been away for a while. I try to explain why, but it’s like opening a bag full of amber beads, polished into whiskey darkness, that scatter everywhere. How do I say, ‘my brain is a bear trap and it’s caught my sleeve again.’ Sometimes, they try to blame it on the time of year. My doctor and I look sourly at each other, we both know I am more likely to be hospitalised in the spring.

One of us has to die, I realise. One of my selves, because the tug-of-war is getting stale, like trying to chew old bread. It makes my gums bleed.

But which self lives, and which is taken away? Can you even remove a part of yourself like that? They say ‘fake it ’til you make it’ but what’s there to fake? I am twins, but only one of us can be born again. Do I save the soft and anxious ingenue or their darker, cleverer sibling? A fairytale in each hand, but I have to cast off one of the witches. Which one burns?