He is back from the war. A temporary thing, a snatched mercy, a future memory to conjure.
Sunlight enters the room through the louvred shutters, breaking up the milky morning light like knives. A line of brilliance lies across his face, illuminating the lines around his eyes, between his brows. His face is tanned by the powder flash of the gun he mans. She lies on her side and watches him.
“Don’t stare so.”
She places a hand onto the cover that hides his chest.
“You were in my dream,” she tells him. “Last night, I dreamt of you.”
He doesn’t move, not even his eyes. He lies still beneath the cover, the shaft of light slashing his face.
She presses on with her telling.
“I dreamt that I was making you smell my hair aggressively.”
“You wanted me to be aggressive? To smell your hair aggressively?”
It’s as though the voice comes from elsewhere in the room, he is so still.
“No. I was aggressive. I demanded that you smell my hair.”
Her hair was loose in the dream and smelled of meadows. She wishes he would loosen it now from its braid. She wishes he would touch her.
She sits at a window and thinks.
They are all wrapped up the same. We are all wrapped up the same. Stamped and labelled, rewarded with chemical bliss that masks the reality of existence. Take the muscle tension, take the distraction, accept that feeling is inconvenient.
Like automatons they move through the day, playing out the actions required to maintain the illusion of normality. The insides of their mouths are black. The windows to their souls are glazed.
She knows the root cause of this. Why can’t they see it? Why deny it, if they can? Do you put your faith in Freud, or Jung, or Berne? Behind the pure white veil, do you believe in anything?
If she sits in her chair, with ten minutes to make a diagnosis, is it unreasonable of her to ask what you would like her to do? Is it unreasonable for him to take the chemical path, to move you through the door?
Do you believe in anything? Do they? Find a window with a view of the sea. Find a chair. Sit at that window, sit in that chair. Look at the sea. Let the sea draw you out to the horizon.
Sunlight enters the room. The folds in the net curtains cast shadows like bars across the armchair that sits beneath the window. The reading chair that gets the light. The comfy chair that holds a body in its embrace.
A cloud moves over the sun. The room dulls, feels somber. Pigeons coo from their perch on the gutter, spattering the window ledge and pavement from time to time.
The knot in her stomach comes and goes like the sun. A tightness in her ribcage. Electricity in her elbows. Chemicals changing pathways in her brain. It has to get worse to get better, but why? Why can’t it just get better?
The sky has changed from blue to white. Cloud cover, no chinks in its arrangement. There is a tension in her muscles, as though she is waiting for something bad to happen. The clock she’s had since Preston ticks on, punctuating the quiet in the room.
She misses company, but she doesn’t want to talk. She craves the comfort of strangers.
Clouds shift again. The sun returns, she switches seats, basking in the warm light like a cat. She enters the labyrinth of dreams within the pages of a book.
Tony fiddled with the knot on his tie. Cheap acrylic, like his suit, it didn’t add any veneer to his appearance.
Tony sat in the passenger seat of his company car. Toyota Auris. Excellent mileage. A comfortable ride up and down the motorway, servicing the clientele. In the footwell, the detritus of his service station lunch. Sandwich wrapper, crisp packet, doughnut crumbs and a screwed up serviette. His feet, shod in a pair of £25 loafers, scuffled against the rubbish for something to do.
He thought about Lynne. He loosened the knot on his tie, unfastened it completely, pulling the tie from his collar. He sat and wrapped it around his fingers, thinking about Lynne and the hard disappointment in her eyes.
They’d met at a company do. She was in logistics. He was young enough to still believe he could make area manager one day. She was keen on his ambition. Twenty five years later, he was still on the road and Lynne was disappointed.
The world looked slightly different through the passenger side of the windscreen. He thought about quitting, about other possibilities. He wasn’t fifty yet.
Tony wound down the window and dropped his tie to the ground.
In response to a photograph seen on Twitter.
‘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.