prosetry

Strong Oak

I went past him on the bus. Well I could only see his feet but I knew it was a ‘him.’

Sometimes my eyes see things that aren’t there. They are there, because I can see them, but apparently they’re not visible to other people. Like the time I saw a human-sized dog bounding towards me but nobody else saw it, even though my face was somehow covered in its slobber and I had dog hair on my clothes. Sometimes I entertain the things I see, sometimes I assume they’re not really real and ignore them. I wonder how many real things I’ve discredited because I’ve been told that parts of my brain aren’t trustworthy. But him, his feet, felt like something I should investigate.

I got off the bus at the hospital and instead of going to the psychiatric ward where I had an appointment I turned back and walked the way I’d just come, past the little park. I walked slowly but with purpose. I knew what I was going to see and I didn’t know what I was going to see.

I pushed through the willows and hedges and there he was, strung up from the strongest arm of the oak tree. Male. Late 30s/early 40s. 6ft-ish. Looks Eastern European. Blue t-shirt, navy jacket, dark jeans, white trainers. Fists clenched. Gold band on the ring finger of his right hand. Rosary in his left. I hope the Catholics aren’t right about suicide. He doesn’t look like he’s in Hell. And if his life was hell on earth then he’ll be well-prepared anyway. I’m glad his eyes were closed, it would’ve been more disturbing if they were open, less peaceful, less okay.

I stood about a metre away, lit a cigarette and looked at him for a while. He waltzed with the breeze. The only music was the rope creaking. He was a reluctant dancer. His face was pale grey and his lips were blue: he looked like a painting. I looked at the rope. A perfect slip-knot. Would’ve been painless. No broken neck. Boy scout.

I thought about him climbing up this tree, perching on the branch, tying the rope around and around, double-checking it’s secure, putting the noose around his neck, tightening it, triple-checking it’s all secure, taking a moment to look around, to breathe in, gently lowering himself underneath the branch, his arms over it, then placing one hand on the rope, then another, slowly slipping down, one last look at the world and then letting go. Bam.

I reached up to his jacket pocket and took his wallet out. Polish national. Same name as my grandfather. Oh, it’s his birthday today. He’s 38. Shit. I put the wallet back. I found two folded bits of paper in the other pocket. Oh, of course. Notes. One to his brother, one to his wife. I don’t read them even though morbid curiosity tells me to go ahead. No. I might be crazy but I’m not heartless. I put them back in his pocket. They’re not mine to read.

I looked around the tree for other clues. Bingo. A black plastic bag from the off licence. Inside: today’s newspaper, a switched off mobile phone and 4 cans of Dębowe Mocne, a strong Polish lager. In the bush nearby I see an empty can of Dębowe and at the base of the tree trunk there’s another. Creak. I go over to it and pick it up. Creak. It’s half full. Half empty. Half drunk. Half gone. Half left. Around the lip of the can I see saliva mixed with beer.

Suddenly a yappy little Jack Russell comes running over out of nowhere. He looks at me and looks at the hanging man and starts barking.
“SAMMY! Come here, boy, over here. Sammy!”
I say to the dog, “You’d better be on your way then, Sammy.”
He didn’t move, just kept on barking.

Then comes his owner. A short, tubby Irishman with a red face.
“JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH!” he says, taking his hat off. “Christ! What’s happened?”

I stare at him, blankly.

“Don’t answer that, bloody come here and help me get him down!!!” he yells and he hugs the man’s legs and tries to lift him up. I want to laugh but it’s not the time nor place.

“Fucking well help me then!” he shouts at me.
“He’s dead,” I say, unhelpfully, helpfully.
“Christ!” he says, letting go. “Have you got yer mobile telephone on yer girl, we need to call an ambulance right now, right now!?”
“No, I don’t. Sorry.”
I say.
“WHAT! I thought all yous kids had a phone on yer! Right. Right. Okay,” he says, clearly losing his shit.

He crosses himself. “How very sad it is. It’s a sad thing, suicide, isn’t it? Very sad. Very tragic. Good grief. Right. I live just over that road there, I’m going to run home and call the ambulance and the police and do yer think I should phone the fire brigade? You know, to, to cut him down, like? Jesus. Oh, Jesus. You stay here, won’t yer. Just… watch him… make sure he doesn’t move.”

I don’t know what’s funnier, the thought of this fat little flustered old man running or me watching a corpse to make sure it doesn’t do anything.

Right. Stay here. Come on Sammy, come on boy. Mary mother of God. Right. Police, ambulance, fire,” he muttered, shuffling away.

I was still holding this can of Dębowe Mocne. I took a few swigs because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Then I suddenly thought about this dead man’s saliva mixing with mine, on my lips, in my mouth. I decided that I can either think of it as disgustingly disrespectful and too macabre to justify or I can think of it as a sort of last kiss, a kiss goodbye. I looked up at him. The poor bastard.

I noticed that whilst the chubby little man was manhandling this guy’s legs, one of his shoelaces came undone. I did it up. For some reason I said aloud, “There you are. All fixed” like I say when I do my nephew’s shoelace up after he’s fallen over. I wondered about this man suspended above me, about who he is, who he was. I said to him, “What was it that made you so sad?” I wondered if his sadness is equivalent to mine, or if he was even sadder than me, or if I am in fact much sadder than he was when he chose to do this but by some fluke I’m still alive and he isn’t.

I looked at the beer can. Dębowe Mocne. That literally translates as Strong Oak. I wondered if the beer was a coincidence. He killed himself on a Dębowe Mocne, on the strongest oak tree in the park. Maybe he wasn’t strong enough to ask for help or to carry on. Maybe he came to this tree for strength and didn’t find any. Or maybe he just bought this beer because it’s a super-strength lager and it’s cheap to get pissed on it.

I lifted the can up as high as I could, above level with his stomach, and said aloud, “Happy Birthday, Stanisław. Wszystkiego najlepszego. To sadness. To slipknots. To strength. Na zdrowie, mate.” I necked the beer, threw the can in the bag and walked to the hospital.

“Sorry I’m late, fucking roadworks. Can I still see Dr K for my psych review or do I have to reschedule?” The receptionist eyed me suspiciously and said, “Take a seat.”

“You’re late,” said Dr K. “And you smell like a brewery. Have you been drinking?”
“Not really,”
I said.
“Well you stink of beer,” he said sternly, offering me a mint.

We went through the usual charade. How’s my sleep, how’s my energy, how’s my appetite, how’s my concentration, how’s my social life, how’s my sex life, how are my thoughts of harming myself, how are my thoughts of harming others, how’s my drug use, how’s my alcohol use, how many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Dr K asked me if I still see, hear, feel or experience things that aren’t real. I said, “No, not to my knowledge.” He asked if I am still taking my anti-psychotics properly and I said yes, yes I am, and he said great, I’ll see you in 6 months then.

On my way home, past the park, I anticipated the presence of a police car and ambulance, perhaps the coroner’s hearse, the area cordoned off, officials milling about the tree. But there was nothing. I stood there for a moment in shock, surveying the park. Then this yappy little dog ran up to me and started barking.

“SAMMY! GET HERE NOW!” I heard a man shout in a broad Irish accent.
I don’t understand.
This stump of a man strolls up to me and says, “Sorry about my dog. Have yer been at the hospital?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Have yer been at the hospital, like?”
“Erm, yeah, just now,”
I reply, perplexed, thinking he’s going to tell me what happened to the hanging man.
“Ah. That’s it, you see,” says the red-faced old man, “my little dog here smells death from a mile off.”

Standard
prosetry

Killing Time

In the hospital there is a shop. It sells newspapers and sandwiches and biscuits and cans of liquid sugar and tissues and balloons that say IT’S A BOY. Just outside of this shop there is a crate of books. There is no real literature in this crate. Just books that are easy to read, books that help you to kill time, books that probably aren’t going to change your life in any way. Some are 50p and some are £1. This isn’t much money to spend on temporary escapism. I always look at the books but never buy one. I only read soul-shattering books. I enjoy trying to put my soul back together afterwards. I looked at the books and wondered how many of them I’d actually bought.

When my father died I got all of his good books, his ‘proper’ books. The hundreds of crime/thriller novels he had amassed over a 20 year career in Time Killing were no use to me. I used to work in the Crime and Thrillers department of a top publishing house. I’ve read enough dreadful manuscripts with flimsy plots and ridiculous twists to last a lifetime. But they are perfect books to waste time on. So I donated them to this hospital and to a day-centre for homeless people. When I was a frequenter of that day-centre I remember being sad that there were no books. If anyone needs escapism, it’s people on the streets. And if anyone needs to kill time, it’s people surrounded by death and disease, waiting to receive their own slice of bad news.

So I’m looking at this crate. I spotted a few titles that I reckoned were my dad’s. I ordered a lot of them off the internet for him. He loved the idea of paying 1p for a book. I never told him about the £2.80 delivery charge. He always paid me the penny he owed me for the book. Even though that man owed me nothing. There was a Simon Kernick that I was sure was my dad’s. Its pages smelled like cigarette smoke. There were some James Pattersons and Lee Childs. I didn’t want to look at the books anymore. I went upstairs for my appointment with the neurologist. It was an appointment I had waited 3 years, 4 weeks and 3 days for.

I didn’t know that the neurology department is right opposite the ward where my father died. I did not like being there again. I paced around and around and around. An elderly woman stared at me suspiciously. “My dad died in there,” I said to her, pointing at the door. “Oh,” she said, walking around me. A man with a laundry trolley came towards me. “My dad died in there,” I said to him, “right through there. He died.” He said, “I’m so very sorry to hear that, my girl,” and went on his way. I told every person that walked along that corridor, “My dad died in there.” Anyone who’d listen. Anyone who wouldn’t listen. Some mumbled things, some expressed condolences, some looked frightened, some ignored me altogether. I just had to tell them. I don’t know why, but it was essential.

I punched the wall outside the neurology department and caught my little finger on the edge of a wooden frame. The frame fractured and I got a splinter caught in my skin, right on the joint. In the waiting room, a man was reading a crime novel. I didn’t read a crime novel. I picked at the splinter on my finger. I kept clawing until my name was called, long after the splinter had come out. The neurologist told me that my brain is broken and my nerves are shot. I told him that I already know that. I waited 3 years to find out something I already knew. And in all that time that I spent waiting for a letter, a referral, an appointment, an MRI, a CAT scan, a thousand blood tests, in all that time I didn’t read a single crime novel.

I went outside for a cigarette. On my way back in I looked at the books. There was a book called Private Vegas, part of the ‘Private’ series by James Patterson. I remembered ordering 8 books of the ‘Private’ series off the internet for my father. He paid me 8p. I picked up Private Vegas. It was well read. I had bought it for him second-hand. I opened the book and tucked in the back page was my receipt from the Book Depository. I put the book back in the crate.

I went downstairs for my blood test. The receptionist was reading Stuart MacBride. I introduced my father to MacBride when I worked at the publishers. He was always chuffed to bits when I’d bring early proofs or publicity copies of the latest thrillers home to him. He was so proud of me. Living the dream. Living the nightmare. The phlebotomist gauzed up the hole I’d dug in my little finger.

As I was leaving the hospital I walked past the crate of books again. Private Vegas was gone. Sold to another stranger killing time. That’s all life is, though, isn’t it? Killing time. We are all just killing time.

Standard
life

Misgivings

You know most of this already.

In the car with them, sitting in the back seat with her up front passenger-wise and turned back to me the two of us and talking fast like always like she had something to sell that she knew we hadn’t the cash or care to buy and the rain pelted the windshield and the wipers swung right back and the dark was outside full of unfocused and flickering points of light, streetlamps and headlights and incidental bokeh, while some vague figure in shadow form all the while drove us on.

Afterspiel, when she’d used up all her words and most of the air in the vehicle, I told her in fact no, our problem is we try to do too much too fast, all force and no finesse, just blind dumb vigor and ataxia and too little brains, like these wipers here, perhaps, I felt, reaching for a metaphor, sweeping dismissive overreliance on artificial intelligences built up around sleights perceived and true and entitlements seemingly due, ungrounded emotion and mechanical philistinism with an inarticulable mission like the goons who forcibly removed that doctor from a plane in Chicago and probably went home that night and had the nerve to believe in civil society though in their idiomatics it’s hard to believe any such nerve is needed, they haven’t even the proper vocab for the fact that kids in the same city kill with AK-47s and five people died last Wednesday just because, nothing happening, nothing going on, just a Wednesday in the city and what do you make of that, if you were to stop and sit still and be quiet for a minute.

The other there with us in the back seat with me was compelled to agree with me and I wondered what keywords in her repertoire of principled social consciousness I tapped, knowing for sure she wasn’t packing even the slightest hint of directional allegory, as oblivious to irony as those goons and maybe just as gullible, just as crowdsourced, giving a mere simple pacific piggybacking mhmm and nod of head, pleased that someone had done the thing and spoken out because somewhere along the straight and narrow well-meaning way she acquired the notion that speaking out said something but it at the very least for the moment changed our atmosphere.

And with that, nevertheless, just her up front stillness and quiet and that slight sound and musculoskeletal gesture in the back beside me within the still-floating presence of my words, I’ll be damned if a faint fellowship did not for a moment shine upon us all four road-weary travelers like the immediate aftermath of a photograph flash, a fraction of assent trying its best to be illumination and hanging in the air and draping us in what I can only think to call our common humanity, common and shared and base, and for that instant it felt not as if we were two against her brazen, impudent one, not as if the three of us outshined and consumed his resolute nothing drive-along indifference and better-knowing onlooker’s bemusement, but as if we were actual, and in that actuality a forward step might be taken, an honest word might be uttered, some responsibility assumed, a tide turned, a leaf flipped, a change made.

But it swiftly turned to dust as always tends to seems to happen with everything with vocal chords and no backbone and all was once again rain and shadows and distorted glows and she just looked at me through streaks of darkness and light and a sort of crazed eye blaze on par with Colonel Kurtz and I wished I hadn’t said a thing, wished I could vanish along with the dust of our fleeting fellowship, right along with it be turned to dust myself and taken away by wind and washed away by rain,

but all I could do was shrink from the terrible inordinacy of the space she occupied up front in that fractured darkness, already shaking off my rejoinder like a dog fresh out of water while I began inwardly apologizing by proxy and diminished presence for others’ misdeeds, her misnomers, our great misanthropy, daymare dreaming in my passive defense a wishful little thesis about going beyond thought as if awareness were something cartographical lying somewhere off the edge of the world, somewhere where I might forever sever ties to the false freedom of staying small amongst the throngs and the safety sense that silence might be the way to say what life’s about, beating myself into a backseat submission that like a deep bruise I felt lacked his up front strength and dignity, and yet

And yet there is hope, he said, and stopped us all.

Standard
prosetry

Soup

I had spent the week in the same way, lying in bed, flat on my back, arms straight by my sides, staring out of the window, watching the ash trees slow-dancing and the gangs of birds loitering with intent and the city skyline lurching woozily in the heat, listening to the rattle of spray cans from the garage downstairs and the mistakes made by the bell-ringers during their weekly practise peal.

On the third day, West London was on fire and the smoke was rolling in vertical waves: I didn’t think it would ever cease. And still, I lay in bed, useless, like a wildly unconvincing Frida impersonator, spitting words about inside my head, words that have already been said, already been read, counting magpies and missing dragonflies, thinking of names for the children that I’ll never have, tearing the skin around my fingernails, peeling ’til they’re bleeding, and waiting, just waiting.

In the mornings I lay waiting for nightfall. In the evenings I lay waiting for the sun. I lay waiting for sleep, for help, for silence, for affirmation, for you, for life, for a sign, for God, for answers, for revolution, for the tide to turn, for Godot, for death, for change, for justice, for love, for me, for reprieve, for miracles, for time, for everything, for anything, for nothing in particular.

Five days into my self-imposed bed rest, he phoned me up to talk about nothing in particular. He checked if I was still alive. I said that I was, that I am. I heard him smile down the phone but could not mirror the sentiment.

He told me about his brother receiving a big compo cheque for his motorbike crash. He asked me if I wanted to go to Dublin with him for a few days next month and I said “I’d love to but don’t think I could manage it.” He said that he’d picked up his neighbour’s cat off their garden wall and taken it indoors with him because it was a nice cat and he wanted to hang out with it for a while, but he wasn’t sure if that was called “kidnapping” or “catnapping” and what did I think? I said “borrowing.” He invited me to a party on Sunday night, I said, “Absolutely not.”

He told me about how Islington Council are chasing him for library fines. He said he’s lost the book somewhere in his house before he’s even read it, and that the overdue charges fine is now so huge that he could’ve bought the book brand new four times over and still have enough money left over for a bag of chips.

I asked what book it was and he said, “It was Book 5 of My Struggle, I can’t even remember what it’s fucking called.” He asked me what I was reading and I said Fireworks – short stories are easier for my broken brain to comprehend. Then he said, “I’m coming round to your place soon, I need you to I Ching me,” to which I replied, “Ooh, kinky.” He reminded me to eat and to pay my rent and to stay alive.

One day before Bed Rest I had made a huge vat of my special tramadol, tequila and tomato soup. It means that when I’m tired of being conscious I can drink some and quickly go to sleep for a few hours: when it’s cold it’s just a More Bloody Mary but is equally knockout. If I could sell this soup at the Farmer’s Market I would be a millionaire. The Grenfell death toll was creeping up and I was ready to go back to unconsciousness.

As I was crawling along the floor from my bed to the kitchen I spotted it in one of the stacks of books that line every wall of my flat. “Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard.” I only ever bought Books 1 + 2. I grabbed it and opened it. Sure enough, inside there was a stamp from Islington Central Library and a few sticky barcodes on the back.

“Fuck,” I thought. “That man will do anything to get me out of bed.”

Standard
prosetry

Other Girls

Once, during the summer of our confusion, you told me that you loved me because I wasn’t like other girls. I found that phrase to be repulsively hackneyed then, and still think it’s insultingly trite when men say it now, but because it was you I let you say so. I would’ve let you say anything.

I did ask you what made me different, though. And I remember you said, “You’re the kind of girl that would return to the scene of the crime.” I didn’t say anything else because I didn’t want you to know what kind of girl I actually was. Then you said in a cloud of smoke, “Through brazen curiosity, though, not stupidity,” and I still didn’t say anything and you didn’t expand on your thought any more, even though now I wish more than anything that you had, that you’d told me who I was, that you’d explained me to me.

That one thought that you almost certainly don’t remember now could have defined me. Perhaps it did, because here I am, standing at the scene of the crime and thinking about your thought while you don’t think of me at all anymore.

Standard
prosetry

The Chronicles of Us

ONE.
Sometimes I don’t talk at all. Mostimes I tell you interesting facts about ketchup and painters and space and Japan and coins and pregnant giraffes. But sometimes I don’t speak at all. Still you wait and wait, still, with the patience of a saint, until I come back and tell you that the man who invented Pringles was buried in a Pringles can and then I burst into tears because it would’ve been a much better story if he’d been buried in a tube of Smarties instead.

TWO.
I come home one day to find you reading a book that was written about me. It has an ugly cover. It was written by some doctors who have never met me and it attempts to explain why I am the way I am. By the look on your face I can see that it doesn’t help you to see me spread across the pages like that, dismembered into chapters, chunks of me dissected into symptoms and statistics, my soul turned into science by strangers. You’ve made notes. Lots and lots of notes. I pick them out of your hands and off the floor and set them on fire. You are impressed and annoyed all at once but mostly you are in love. You tell me that you’re never going to leave me, even if let you, even if I tell you to. I ask you if the textbook told you to say that. The smoke alarm begins shrieking. You say no and pick a piece of burnt note out of my hair.

THREE.
We always drink a bottle of champagne before bed, sometimes two– I think it reminds us that we’re not quite dead yet. We always drink a bottle of champagne before bed– we worry about those who don’t: those who don’t drink a bottle of champagne before bed, and those who don’t worry.

[Featured image source]
Standard
fiction

Part 1 – The Farmer

Once upon a fairly recent time, a farmer’s wife fortuitously procured a large piece of land. She did not expect to take on this piece of land and so she gifted it to her husband. This would be one of only two instances in which she was good to the husband.

The farmer was delighted. He invested all of his time, money, knowledge, energy and effort into nurturing this perfect untouched landscape. At first, the farmer was a little anxious, like an artist intimidated by a blank canvas. But the farmer put his heart and soul into the land and soon he was able to see how greatly it had flourished.

Under his watchful eye, the crops grew in abundance. His love and encouragement made the trees grow strong and fast, and all of the flowers bloomed as if his land was in a state of perpetual spring. He spent many hours in the field, talking aloud, reading poetry and playing music.

After some time, the farmer had created the most beautiful field in all the land. People travelled great distances to see the exotic flora that had magically emerged from the ground. He was able to sell lots of fresh produce, his fruits and vegetables won praise and awards, and his farming friends were in awe of him (and somewhat miffed that their own fields never turned out so good). The farmer was so immensely proud of his field, of all the varying aspects of it: the field was his pride and joy.

The farmer lived with his wife, but only for the sake of practicality. They were not friends and there was no love lost between them. But the farmer lived for his field and was determined to stay nearby so that he could continue to watch his seedlings grow every day and tend to this crops, even if this meant having to put up with his wife. The farmer’s wife was a very bitter, angry lady. She was angry for lots of reasons. She had been angry for many years, long before she’d even met her husband. But she was angry still, because the farmer loved his land more than he loved her. So she set out to secretly destroy his pride and joy.

In the middle of the night, the farmer’s wife would sneak out to the field and trample all over his crops, spray poison on the flowers and snap his saplings. If she knew where to find a swarm of locusts, she would’ve released them over the field. She was mean to the farmer and mean to the land.

The farmer was distraught. His beautiful creation had been ruined. Each time this happened, he tried desperately to revive his plants and tend to the sabotaged soil, and again the flowers would blossom thanks to his love and care until they were inevitably destroyed again.

Twelve years after he first started his field, the weather changed. It was unexpected. The farmer had never seen so many black clouds before. The black clouds hung heavily over his precious field, threatening rain and thunder and wind. But still, the farmer kept his faith in himself and his field. They had, after all, overcome hardships together before. He visited a friend’s farm which was very close to his own field, but the sky over his friend’s farm was blue. The farmer was confused.

The black clouds would not go away. And then it rained and it rained and it rained and the farmer’s field turned into sludge. The field looked so sad. The farmer became sad because he didn’t know how to help the field nor how to protect it from these horrible forces that were beyond his control. The farmer’s wife, however, was very pleased: her husband was sad and his darling creation was no longer beautiful or enchanting.

After the black clouds refused to leave, the farmer became very sick, both slowly and suddenly. The farmer was dying and the field was dying too. One day, when the rain tapered off, the field realised what she had to do: she had to help the farmer and look after him, just like he had looked after her for so many years and loved her even when the black clouds flooded her.

She had to learn ways to ignore the clouds and practiced pretending to feel sunshine even when there wasn’t any. She needed to make new crops so that the farmer wouldn’t worry about money. She worked very hard, even on days when she didn’t feel like she could do anything at all. She tried with all her might to become beautiful and strong and abundantly giving and helpful and kind, like she was when she was younger, like the farmer was himself. And sure enough, she grew.

Yes, the field was damaged in many ways, and she had scars on the bark of her trees from when the farmer’s wife had hurt her and footprints on her skin from where the farmer’s wife had stomped on her, but still she managed to return to something that the farmer would be proud of. And when the farmer looked out of the window one day, he saw how glorious his field was and he cried because he was so happy, so proud, so grateful.

When the farmer died, his field thought that she, too, would die. Her roots ached and her leaves dried up. The soil that had been her home for so long now felt like it was burying her alive. Her fruits rotted away by her feet, untouched. There was no more sunshine. Only black clouds and rain.


Part 2 will be posted next Friday here on Hijacked Amygdala

Standard