Character Study in A Minor

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He was odd. I knew that much the first time I’d met him, before he even started talking. Today he was wearing a long duster coat and cowboy boots, white shirt open nearly down to his navel, blue jeans. It was 1990.

The kid had lived up the road from me for years but had gone to a public school rather than mix with the rest of us in the festering pool of genetic freaks, shared girlfriends, and poor educational prospects delivered at the local comprehensive. Now we were standing outside the smokers common room at the sixth form college in a nearby town. It was sunny. Dust blew along the old surface of what used to be a tennis court. He was a few feet away, chest puffed out so it looked like he had some form of spinal problem. Inane grin showing too many teeth, arrow straight, like a nightmarish Muppet or a horror film cyborg. His chin extended far in front of his face, not helped by a sight underbite. Flattop hair, buzz shaved at the sides, sloped downwards and mirrored the angle of the chin. I was studying him, watching him leering at a girl he was talking to. I could hear him telling her lies about having signed up for the Army, being trained in close combat. She was disinterested, took a cigarette out of a packet, and went to light it. Like a gunslinger, in a blur, he took a matchbox from a pocket in his jeans, lifted up a snakeskin cowboy boot, and struck a match on the sole. He flourished it at her cigarette. I guess she was too overcome with the ferocity of the gesture and the stares from the people around us to refuse. He waved the flame out and tossed the dead match onto the ground with too much effort. Now she looked embarrassed.

His voice was kind of mid-Atlantic. Gravelly, too. Cross between Clint Eastwood and Eton. The accent took a lot of effort, and he spoke slowly, considering the vowel sounds and the tone of the thing before saying the actual words. He was trying to portray a superior air. We were all beneath him. He was leering again, his eyes flicking down to her chest when he thought she couldn’t tell. Most of the other people on their smoke breaks had stopped talking to each other by now and some were openly laughing at him.

‘Hey, Alastair. Why do you light matches on your fucking boots?’ someone asked.

‘If it’s for a lady, then I have to make an extra special effort,’ he replied, grinning at the girl. My God, those teeth went on forever. I wondered how many teeth a human head is supposed to contain and if he had broken some kind of natural order of things. She took a step away from him, her legs unconsciously moving her away from danger; primeval instinct of self-preservation. He had the same look in his eyes that I had seen on nature documentaries: a shark heading up through the surf and about to open its mouth before the first exploratory bite; the adrenaline keenness and focus of an apex predator. Like a San Francisco harbour seal, stranded from the safety of its own kind, she could sense a shift in the atmosphere, she looked scared.

‘Err…thanks for the light, Alastair. I’ve got to run, I’ve got an art lesson in a minute.’

‘I’ll see you on the bus then, my lady.’ He looked pleased. Okay, so he had missed the target in his first rushed attack, but he knew where the prey would be heading and he was going to make damn sure he was ready for the ambush next time. On the college bus, no-one could hear you scream.

The clock ran round to the hour. People began to leave. I had a free period and was going to smoke some hash on the playing field, so I was in no rush. I sat down against the wall and checked I had enough Rizla papers. I looked up. Alastair was standing there, blocking out the sunlight.

‘You know, Ben-boy, drugs are bad for you. They make you weak.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘The women prefer someone with class. Someone who can operate at maximum performance all the time. Drugs just slow you down.’

‘Really…’

He fidgeted a bit, like there was some kind of internal struggle going on behind the crazy look in his eyes, then grinned again, pirouetted around on one of those high cowboy boot heels, and walked slowly down towards his GCSE retake class.

Le Sourire

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Heart beating hard and fast. 2am. I kicked off the duvet, stared at the ceiling again, and tried to focus my thoughts. I could almost see the feeling in the air above me, all around the dark room, moving just that tiny fraction out of phase with everything else. You could squint and maybe you’d catch it for a second moving quickly out of the corner of your eye or right ahead of you disappearing, fading quickly into the stone window frames. If I didn’t know better I’d have said it was a spiritual intervention or message. Religions have started on lesser foundations.

And over it all, that feeling thumping, cossetting, working deep inside against the grain of everything I’ve ever known. Call it what you want. This thing has power.

When I finally woke up, the sun had started to aggressively pound into the hillside, a dog was wailing, and my head moved quickly through the gears from early waking numbness up into that feeling again. I couldn’t have stopped it if I tried. I took my meds, swallowing them down with cold water, and went into the bathroom. I looked in the mirror over the wash basin. My eyes were red, I looked old, fat, ravaged by years of bad experiences. I told myself this was only a dream. No-one could really be that crazy. I soaked my face, grey beard and all, in the sink and lifted my head back up to the mirror. Nothing had changed at all except the water running in great globules from the straggled edges of my face. Then I thought of those images stored in my brain from the night before, the things that were said, looked once more in the mirror, and couldn’t stop a smile.

 

Where were you?

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Only God knew why I was in that farmhouse with a head full of acid. I’d been up for two nights – the first at a party with a girl, talking into the early hours, no sleep at all, smoking, cadging drinks, trying to hold it together and get our heads down in a little pink bed (which broke). After the party I’d gone home, showered, met some friends and bought the acid. The next night had been wild and crazy in a small house in another village. And for the first ever time LSD had caused a proper hallucination – a great starry dog face looming out of the night sky down at me. I’d taken some more at midday, watching tv all afternoon, laughing. Now I was coming down slowly from the trip in this farmhouse. People mooched about in the big rooms, a door was off its hinges.

The farm was owned by the parents of two twins a year younger than me. We were all at the same sixth form. They were crazy. Always fighting with each other. Really punching hard, smashing things around the home, there were fist sized holes in doors. The parents had gone away and they’d regret it when they got back.

Three or four kids were rolling joints in the kitchen, and there was talk of some amphetamine arriving soon. I was beginning to feel good again, more in control, but they saw through me and, like most morons who never understood LSD, began making weird faces and doing strange gestures with their hands to provoke someone in the early stage paranoia of a trip. I grabbed a joint and told them to chill out. The hash tasted sweet. I took long tokes, watching the blue smoke collect up high near an unmoving ceiling fan, some shit music drifted through from another room.

There is a point in a trip where you cross from total madness into a serene, calm, phase. It was the best part of LSD for me. I felt in touch with the way of things; the Cosmos; whatever greater being was tending the campfire. The come-down was beautiful every time. I always tried to string it out for as long as it lasted, make the most of things, lie down in a cornfield and watch the clouds, or put some great music on and watch the cars pass by my bedroom window. Sometimes I’d walk out to the Church and sit on the low wall and look over to the nearest town. Even the smoke from the steelworks there looked beautiful. Everything in a come-down made sense, you just needed to have the capacity to accept what the acid was telling you. Go with it.

In the farmhouse the mood was beginning to shift. People were drinking heavily out of whiskey bottles and getting macho. We were heading to a crisis point and if those other poor saps couldn’t see it then more fool them. I had been smoking for a couple of hours and now it was time to leave before the place exploded. I took a back lane home as dusk began to soak up the light. By the old air raid bunker I sat down and watched the Scunthorpe streetlights turn the horizon into a vast orange blob. The last parts of the acid were leaving my brain. I’d stay and sit it out up there. The warm night hugged tight.

 

The Scunthorpe Wife

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He moved closer, hoping the dwindling light of his fame was still visible enough in the gloomy hall; that it still meant something after all those years. He’d traded on his pudding bowl hair cut in the early days – almost registered it for trademark purposes, wigs, the silhouette on a t-shirt bearing his band’s name – but now he was bald and just prayed people looked at him through the lens of their youth. And some did. He was grateful for it.

The music skipped on. The crowd were all riding the joyous wave of being back in the early 90’s. Driven now not by being part of a zeitgeist, but by white wine and the chance to escape how awful things had turned out for them. Most people were sitting down. Back in the day the only people sitting were too-fucked-up to stand or dance, or were colluding young couples seeking the dark. The lights were worse then. He knew all those little truths. How many clubs like this had he been at over the years? He couldn’t begin to count. The ones he’d played at were just a blur, but they were nothing compared to the monstrous conveyor belt of punters in the places on the Appearance Circuit he was working now. Thousands of photographs, ‘Hello, mate,’ people singing old songs to him spilling beer, and everyone looking older. Sometimes he wondered if this phoney fame would last forever. Would he still be appearing when everybody had white hair and the crowds were reduced by time to ten people in Shackleton high seat chairs in the sunny glow of a retirement home lounge? He shuddered.

At the bar, a beautiful woman was talking with her friend. She was petite, sparky, the kind of face you don’t forget – an imprint of something perfect that maybe even touches deep down into some level of the subconscious: you are meant to take notice of a woman like her, it’s just evolution, baby. He remembered her face from the appearance last year. He was sure of it. They’d chatted, he’d enjoyed it. Of all the women in the town she had stood out. He was glad to see her again. Maybe this time he’d be lucky. He touched her arm. She turned around and laughed. Man, she was so pretty. He adjusted his shirt, made a sweeping motion with his arms to level up the collar, and began the honed charm of somebody who meets industrial numbers of people.

They talked for a while, she was good company, people were taking photos, the Stella tasted sweeter, as it always did, the more he drank. He called her his ‘Scunthorpe Wife’. She thought that was funny, but she knew what he was really getting at. She wasn’t going to let that happen. The music continued, the lights blitzed, people were shouting over the noise, laughing, this was what it was all about. The time was right. He was in the zone. He hugged her. She hugged back, laughing to her friends. Then he turned his head, aiming to kiss her. She let him, puckering up jokily, but he was too far into this and into her. Their lips touched. She felt his tongue try to force its way into her mouth. She drew her head back, looking confused. He laughed, fobbing it off as something people who are drunk and used to be famous do all the time. Like sitting alone in their little flats, sifting through yellowed press clippings and trying to drink in those feelings for the thousandth time. Like a cocaine addict chasing that first buzz. Never truly replicating it, but not ever wanting to admit the terrifying fact that they’d been as high as they’d ever be. No second chance.

At the end of the night he went back to the hotel and took out the few warm cans he’d put in his suitcase. He sipped on one as he thought about failing to snare her. For a moment he wondered about the lucky guy who she’d gone home to. If he was ever famous?

 

Panda

 

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She was talking in a softer voice. And she had leaned forward towards me. By then I was staring at the floor, breathing heavier, letting the tears find their own path. She kept going ‘Ben, this is the sadness that you have to feel, and to get to know. It’s ok.’

My mind was jumping from childhood images, to recent events, to hopes, and then into the overwhelming void of all of our fears and horrors. It was an overload of such harrowing proportions that I stopped being able to see anything in the beige room clearly. Only the sound of her soft voice encouraging me, telling me I was ok, kept me free from disassociating into that secret place I’d found when I was little. I used to be able to choose the entrance point, the length of stay, and the depth, but now I’m sucked inside without a choice. I could feel the unseen hands on my shoulders. She kept talking. I guessed she knew what was going on.

After a while I looked at her. She was flushed pink in her thin face, unsettled, it seemed like what I had said and how I’d reacted had resonated with her. ‘Can you hug anything when you get home…a teddy, pillow? I know it sounds stupid, but try.’

I nodded my head but had no intention of following her advice. I glanced at her again, she seemed sad too. I thought of how stupid I looked – tears still wet on my face, trying to breath calmly – and apologised. Most people do when they’ve come out of a crying fit in front of another person. I guess it’s because we all know how it feels to see somebody in distress. Watching someone cry is difficult viewing.

I drove home feeling emptier than normal. I pushed the accelerator down harder than usual, drove fast and careless, skidding the car around tight corners. I was trying to get out of the fug, just to feel something. I made a vague plan to hurt myself when I got back.

When I finally came home I locked the back door behind me. I was heading for the kitchen and the knife drawer. That’s when I saw it, looking at me from a shelf. Just as I’d left it. Old as me, nose squashed from all the hours and days and years of being held tightly in times of trouble. Keeper of all my childhood, comforter, the only friend I’d had in dark times, now just an old bear sitting in my little old house gathering dust, kind of forgotten.

I walked over to it, laughing at my own stupidity, then picked him up and held him like I did when I was just a blonde-haired boy who never knew if he’d die tomorrow. I hadn’t hugged that bear for thirty years. He knew what to do, he didn’t ask me anything, didn’t judge, just quietly listened. I forgot about the knife and put him back down on an armchair. He still worked.

 

Staying Alive

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At 3am you get the sense you’ve been here before; light crawling up the hillside, the grey porridge of the end of night, too early to move, too late to go to sleep. Early July, 3am, is a time to sit on the edge of a bed and draw the curtain and create the notion of hope in the forming daylight. You might sit like that for a while, pausing to throw yourself back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling and wonder, and think, and try to let all those thoughts drift up and out of the open window with any prayers you might have silently mouthed. And I did.

Where thoughts like that go is anyone’s guess. I could almost see them reaching out from inside and forming long golden lines like cosmic silk, floating up into the morning. Almost. Perhaps some God somewhere gathers them in and weaves a better future if you can only provide enough? A vast omnipotent being, taking in my hopes and dreams and slowly piecing the threads together until it hands them back to me fully formed into a gold jacket. Maybe that’s what happened to Barry Gibb? He had the right contacts up there, a direct line. Priority customer. Maybe I’m still in the queue, further down the list? Or they boogied all their bonhomie away on that one sacred item of clothing? NO energy left to complete my order.

And that’s it today. The birds need feeding, the grass needs mowing, and I still have to write some more stuff in order to eat. Standard day on earth. Basic human events. Totally under control. So why is my heart beating faster than it should? My thoughts aren’t still. They get only so far then return to the same point over and over, like a looping disco track. I just don’t have the right clothes.

 

Paragon of Animals

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Quiet up on the moor this morning. No sounds of outward bound groups screaming with the delight that trees and air and rocks can zap into an inner city brain if you let it.

As I stood at the viewpoint a guy came past, looked me up and down, smirked. He was fit, sinewy, tanned, hardly out of breath as he ran. I watched him kick up the dust on the old railway line. He was moving. I looked at myself when he’d gone out of sight: old, out of shape, dusty boots, shorts, rucksack. Dressed for suck-sess. He was superior in every way, bouncing along like an impala, too fast to catch or throw a rock at, smug. Men like that always win, always sprint past through life. They are go-getters. The sharks in the sea. Viewing the rest of us as prey. Too full of testosterone to see properly out of their eyes. I thought about turning back, writing the day off in maudlin self-hurt, but ended up on auto-pilot down the incline under the canopy of July, 2017.

The walk was quicker than usual. Maybe a trick of the mind, maybe worm holes, or some psychotic delusion. I kept reciting the Hamlet Soliloquy, famous as the ending of Withnail and I. It seemed to make sense. ‘What a piece of work is a man!’

A pretentious mental tick…… ‘Man delights not me..’ over and over, and the geese on the canal heard some of the words before they could paddle away with their chicks in the early morning sun. The village was empty. I made it back up the hill, locked the garden gate behind me. Got to typing.

Pawed-at-4-Life: Hallucination

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Some things aren’t meant to be explained. A face peeking at you through a fence on a rainy morning, the rhythmic thumping of a headboard on an adjoining wall, grim face at a Dog Funeral. These things might all have come into my life in one form or another in the recent past, but I learn quickly. I don’t ask questions when the answer could be something I don’t want to hear.

My CPN didn’t turn up the other day. I cursed her slack ways. She rang the next morning to offer an explanation about admin workers, cut-backs, and the world being full of people with Borderline Personality Disorder. In fact, that was the theme of this week. In an argument with my Psychologist I said ‘Well, I’ve got BPD…..that means I can say what I like, eh?’

‘So has everybody right now,’ she replied with a sigh.

This might be true, I don’t know, I never check the facts about anything. Gut instinct – that’s where the future of Mankind lies. The unscientific, unpredictable, untrustworthy method preferred by most people with BPD. The thing that has kept me from being eaten by a shark, mauled by a bear, or beaten to a pile of bloody pulp and rags in prison. Sneer all you want about gut instinct, but when a hundred pissed off prisoners are corralled in a room and you’re the only member of staff in there, you learn to trust the sudden psychic shift in the ether. And your gut responds by sending messages of preparation for extreme violence – to meter out, or to be on the receiving end of – or to run. Sometimes it will tell you that all will be well. It never failed me. People thought I was tough, but it was all simply down to the precognition of gut instinct.

I guess this is the only benefit of BPD, apart from the compulsion to create stuff, hatred of humans, and getting to spend lots of time in windowless rooms with Psychiatrists. I can’t think of any others. We’re supposed to be more passionate about life, generally, and easier to hurt, but I don’t know if that’s true or just a cop-out. Stops us facing facts.

But back to the face at the fence. It wasn’t my eighty-five year old neighbour. And it wasn’t the other neighbour who masturbates drunk most nights, headboard pounding on our shared wall for a good thirty seconds until he reaches his climax. I sometimes wonder who he thinks of. And why?

The face outside was hairy. Female, I think. Kinda looked a bit like a big dog. Yeah, that’s a good description. Out of place in the rain of the morning. Gently popped up to peer over at me, blinked a couple of times, smiled, then ducked back down.

For the first couple of seconds these things are shocking. Like seeing a tiger leaping out of an enclosure right at you. Then you realise you are crazy; none of it is real. That’s when the vision leaves. Mostly. I still don’t know why I see Bigfoot. A Psychiatrist said it’s a metaphor for when I was in uncontrolled states of terror at the hands of a powerful adult when I was little. Returning again and again when I feel stressed, scared, or mixed up. And they could be right. I guess I don’t really ever want to know the truth. The truth would take the edge off. Make it worse.

Some people see Aliens, some see men with enormous chins wearing long leather coats and chrome-toed cowboy boots. I should be thankful for small mercies. Regardless of the explanation.

Face upwards

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All the moments in my life – the Sunday morning grass cutting and washing the car, the shitness of working in jail, the sad knowledge of the wrong marriage, and the drifting years since – led up to a deep breath moment in a windowless room yesterday.

I’d never felt so alone.

My Psychologist handed the phone back to me. She was watching me for a reaction. I put the phone on the empty chair by mine. No-one spoke. She was eyeballing me, really trying to look in there.

‘What do you want me to say?’ I asked her.

‘You say whatever you want to, Ben.’

I couldn’t think straight. The lights flickered. Someone walked past outside talking loudly. She was tapping on the laptop balancing on her knees. More typing than usual. Whatever she had planned for that hour had gone completely off kilter.

She was trying to help me.

‘Are you taking your medication?’

‘Fuck off….of course I am. Don’t try and bring this thing down to meds.’

‘I’m not. It was a simple question,’ she said. ‘Do you think you’re being appropriate? Are you behaving in the right way? Are you scared? Boundaries?’

‘Yeah,’ I answered. ‘Yeah to all of it.’

And there it all was before me. That’s when the whole rotten lot lurched into technicolour view: my wedding, years and years of drudging mediocrity, something missing. Images of it all, every single moment of hurt and boredom, and now the overarching realisation I’d been alone through everything. No connection to anybody; old jigsaw. Left in a drawer forever and forgotten until the bits I missed turned up. I never expected to come across those pieces.

But I’m getting confused. It’s early. Light is starting to hang on the raindrops outside. They are falling in a random pattern that looks like it’s weaving in and out of focus just to make things feel worse. I guess it’s what I deserve. In a moment I’ll stand outside just to feel the weather on my skin. I’ll turn my face skywards. I might say some form of prayer. Don’t know who to. Don’t know why either. Just feels like this is one of those moments where a prayer couldn’t do any harm. I’ll try to be mindful of the precious feeling of being alive, watching thoughts passing like the drops of rain rolling right now from the leaves in front of me.

 

 

Bombshell

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Ant people. As the blind, stumbling, hairless, disorientated, people who survived the closest to the Hiroshima bomb were called. Ant people. Charred skin. Wondering why.

Today on the radio I heard two men arguing about Nuclear weapons. One guy just didn’t want them at all. He figured the World was better off without them and without some city somewhere being one computer glitch away from disappearing in a cloud of unimaginable horror. Ant people.

The other guy talked about protection, as if he was under some constant threat, calling from under his kitchen table. Too much anger in his voice, as there always seems to be in the voices of people wanting more guns, more bombs, more sharpened teeth. More ant people.

The radio moved on. People were going to Mars. Billions of dollars would propel them up into the vacuum and give the poor fools who volunteered the opportunity to drink each others urine for months on end, fighting off cabin fever, psychotic urges, and the type of panic only the really insane feel on any regular basis. Trapped like rats in a chrome watering can. Gnawing frantically at each other out of fear.

But so what, eh? Who cares what I think. It’s raining outside for the first real time for a few weeks. The foxgloves in my garden are shining and their flowers are lifting the dull day. Perfect form and colour, standing out from the crowd like a beautiful friend. Something and someone good.

I have therapy tomorrow, then a visit by my CPN on Thursday. There’s a lot to talk about.