‘It will be alright,’ are the words I most want to hear. I’m an adult, independent, self-reliant, autonomous. I know stuff. I’ve done this life thing for long enough to know that very little is insurmountable. And yet.
I still want to hear my mum, or my dad, I don’t mind which, since they’re both equally gone, say those words, unpick the knot that sits at my centre, draw me back from the edge I seem to be living on.
I feel like a child who’s afraid of the dark, of going to sleep without knowing what waits for me on the other side.
I think I have things under control, but the mind plays tricks. I function, turn up to things, laugh in all the right places, absolve people of the need to worry about me. I tell myself I’m doing okay, but the sleepless nights say otherwise, and the adrenaline in my body says otherwise, and the panic at not knowing what will happen next says otherwise.
All of the words that I want to say are balled up in my throat. Where do I begin and how will I finish? Who will give me permission to speak?
This is part truth, part lie. It doesn’t bother me that you are right. It bothers me that I think I did something wrong. It seems so shallow to need reassurance.
Insomnia, my once familiar torment, took a stranger turn the night after I scattered her ashes. Insomnia, those long minutes of sleeplessness ridden out until I could sink back into what was left of the night, changed to panic, an hourly waking from dreams of amnesia and failure.
Morning found me staring down the all consuming nothing. Because she, finally and forever, is no longer in the world, and there was nobody to hear my grief.
(This isn’t true.)
I took a week and spent it idly. I took too much to drink. I drowned myself in absence. I surrounded myself with friends.
It didn’t work, so I took a walk to the doctor. I took some pills and another week ticking over. I drowned myself in abstinence.
Grief is like moving in a still frame. Everything paused but still in motion. Numb and silent, I’m waiting, unable to articulate what I need. I don’t know what I need. I don’t know how to ask.
It seems so shallow.
Written in response to Low from the R.E.M. album Out of Time
A message comes through. Alive how is all it says. No question mark, although it reveals a question in response. How alive can we be?
There are spatters on the lenses of her glasses. She polishes them off, in case they might be evidence of something, Alive how balancing its unquestioned statement in her brain.
Earlier, which was quite late, under tequila lamplight, lime wedged and salt wracked in a bar somewhere, she forgot something. Propriety perhaps.
How alive can we be?
She is immodest, she knows, spilling entrails without invitation. Unsolicited in character, but quiet with it. She pushes to get a reaction, like a child pushing against the legs of adults to reach the centre of the room, to stand uncomfortably in the spotlight of their surprised attention.
The tomorrow they looked at last night is here (Alive how) and she tries to forget that she made him, just as much as he failed to make her. How alive can we be when we make and unmake each other so frequently? She wants to ask him that, immodestly, hanging over him all hair and tits and naked ambition.
How alive can we be? After all that, alive how?
The way the woman would put it is this: there is a death for everything, with an inevitability of grief waiting beneath. Composure’s surface cracks eventually. After deferral, pain’s ugliness comes as a relief. To square your mouth and let anguish echo is bliss. Every sailor in a matelot jumper knows that.
She left him there, in his cornflower blue suit of ignorance. She turned away from his unseeing, unseeking, dead and lonely person, bound up in empty words and the harm of unknowing.
She stepped out into the wider world. She walked. Bravery didn’t come into it. Deferral had become untenable. She had come to an understanding with herself. The malice of silence wasn’t what she wanted. Nor the brutality of indifference.
She thought of a statue, of a green metal building. She thought about the horizon, and the sun caught the gold in her brown hair.
A small, dark girl watched her quizzically from a distance. The small, dark girl thought about possibilities. She thought about offering the woman the benefit of one of her finest skills, but the woman had purpose in her stride. The small, dark girl saw this with the glittering blackness of her eye.
Some truths go beyond just talking. They go to forever. They carry you beyond eternity. Do what’s right for you, he said. She needed a distraction from all the just talking that was circling around the truth of what she felt.
Felt. A kind of cloth made by rolling and pressing wool, or another suitable textile, accompanied by the application of moisture or heat, which causes the constituent fibres to mat together to create a smooth surface.
Matted together. All the mess of existence, matted together, smoothed down into politeness. She would like to rip her own body apart and rebuild it, reconfigure it, reset, begin again. Accompanied by moisture. Accompanied by heat. Rolling and pressing. A distraction that might create a smooth surface from all of this mess.
Another suitable textile might absorb the truths that leak out of her. That there is no right for her. That the right time never comes. That everything she dreams is a lie.
There is no such thing as just talking. There is no such thing as friendship without ulterior motive. There is no such thing as thirty minutes of ad-free entertainment. There is no now. There’s only forever, reaching beyond eternity.
Once upon a long ago, when dads had shiny shoes to dance upon and mums had demiwaves and A-line skirts, a stack of her mother’s 45s made its way into her bedroom. They came with a vanity case sized record player, hand built by her dad. Home made Dansette, cased in rough fabric that she would run her fingers over as the stack of records dropped one by one to circle under the cream plastic stylus arm.
Ten and twenty years earlier than current, the songs were the songs of her mother’s youth. Sparky pop and syrupy crooners, they filled her chest with a longing she couldn’t yet understand, the first swell of love inspired by minor chords and soaring key changes, a rib cracking expansion of her being that travelled through life and flowed through her marrow every time a songwriter moved her.
Her mum passed her driving test. A cassette stereo was put into the car. The sounds from the 45s were captured on magnetic tape. On escapes from the everyday, they would drive into the hills, wearing out the tapes, belting out the songs together. Two uncool girls separated by thirty years, moved by popstars and crooners.
I have put it off for long enough. Longer than the last time. Although the last time wasn’t my choice. It was hers, the one whose earthly remains I have put off collecting for long enough.
Today the drive will be through the drizzle of mid-May. The last time I turned my wheels in this direction it was the drizzle of late February.
Long enough ago, but still I need more distance. I need the sharp cleft chasm to become a valley, incapable of being crossed by sorrow. I need sorrow’s echo to die before it can even think of reaching me, so that I can stop pretending that I don’t still hear it.
Perhaps after we have scattered her to the winds that will carry her over the mountains. Perhaps then I can manufacture the seismic shift I need to break contact with the continent where I began. Perhaps I can find a way to flood the valley with tears I no longer want to shed and bury in that sea the memories of her last days.
It has been long enough and I would like to remember her in happiness, full of the life that gave me life.