Stigma

 

I always saw stigma as something attached to a shitty truth; something we all know is the case, but mocking or pointing to it isn’t popular at the time.

In regards to mental health, stigma is the word and the movement of the moment. It’s the easy one-word shield behind which all badness that runs alongside, say, a BPD diagnosis can be batted away and forgotten about. Stigma-bashing, or even just mentioning the word in the context of mental health, is the vague moniker of thousands. Especially if you use a hashtag to hammer it home.

I write a lot. I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder which, because it’s severe, means I also suffer a lot. It’s so normal and ingrained that I hardly notice it as anything other than the static position of life; the needle nearly always pointing to empty. I understand how things work. And, yeah, I know what stigma is. Just recently I think I’m questioning that knowledge.

For my part, the stigma I’ve encountered has been restrained to a few badly informed pseudo-friends incapable of understanding much about the things I tell them around my diagnosis. From a simple perspective I guess their stigma is simply just apathy. It’s kind of forgiveable. The worst I ever encountered to my face was an ex work colleague who thought it was funny to talk to me while looking over my shoulder. He thought I’d laugh when he explained he was talking to my ‘mate,’ – the voices. I laughed at the time. Looking back, it wasn’t funny, but it didn’t kill me. It was meaningless. Ignorant. Thick.

But it’s not enough. Stigma apparently now means much more.

I wrote a piece for a mental health website. It was half decent. Few jokes, some ok insight, positive, helpful, I even thought I’d hit the mark and was reaching out with hope and love to others with the diagnosis. It was a piece that wasn’t breaking literary ground, or scientific boundaries, but it was the truth. The piece was refused for ‘being too stigmatising.’

I read it again and again when I saw the Editor’s reply. I couldn’t see why. Then it hit me. I was telling the truth. You aren’t supposed to do that if you have a mental health problem. I was dumb. I should have known. What I was meant to have written was about how ‘normal’ I am, how easy I am to work with, how much of a great friend I can be. I was meant to write that every day of my life is a joyful struggle that I win; that I never want to die. In short, I was supposed to lie.

I thought about it for a while. I worked it out over a beer and some diazepam while it rained outside and huge spiders ran across the floors of my ancient cottage. I was alone in the candlelight – cliche place no263. Whatever stigma I experience/d is wrong – and will always be – but the ownership of it has been replaced by a crusading mental health army of people: all liars. Look at it like this: if life really is as good as you are making it out to be, are you selling the rest of us (the people who struggle day to day) a disservice? Don’t tell me that my BPD experience is fun. It isn’t. I am not fun; I am not good company; I don’t make a good co-worker; I want to die from time to time; I need support; I am sometimes not safe; I am paranoid; I sometimes hear things that don’t talk; I sometimes see things that aren’t really there. That’s the truth. That’s my truth. Tell me anything else and you are stigmatising me as a happy-go-lucky cheerful chappy who makes the best out of bad situations. It’s just a scratch; I’ll cope. I am not, I don’t. Clearly.

My neighbours won’t take this sort of information kindly. I won’t tell them. Imagine if they knew the truth. Stigma-provoking, eh? But on the other hand, if you tell them how cheery and interesting I am they will laugh in your face. Who wins? Not me, folks. Those are conversations with people I have to see face to face that I never want to have. Either way, personal terror like this is information which is hard to get across, though to really challenge BPD stigma it should be common knowledge. Tough stuff.

Fuck stigma into a hole, think of something else, tell the truth in your story: people with moderate to severe BPD are sometimes very odd, and at other times we’re kind of ok, but both are a struggle. Don’t hashtag me and forget the real me. Don’t hide the bad to put a false accent on the good. The normal people out there aren’t all dumb. They can work out a lie when they hear it. Then they’ll come down on us harder than they ever did. Think things are bad now? Wait until a few BPD death statistics hit the news on the back of some famous BPD sufferer killing themselves in a shopping centre. Try skipping around your office the morning that story breaks and see what their reaction is if your colleagues know you’re in the club too. Imagine if all they know about you are happy times; you were always stigma-busting. They will laugh at you, or deride you as an attention seeker who is no more ill than the paperclips on the desk. It won’t help anyone. Be happy, fight the good fight, be well, have hope – much love to all – but don’t hide a truth just because you think the real world won’t tolerate you. Be proud of every time you didn’t cut; didn’t drink; didn’t get high; didn’t die.

Stigma-busting…… No, no, no… Give me the truth. I’m worth that much, eh?

Ha….of course I’m not. #bpdjoke

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Fervour (Attic part Two)

 

‘There’s a war going on out there, Ben. Today the battle is raging and you need all the help you can get.’

Man….he was right, even if he didn’t know which direction the battle was in. The over-large cycle helmet, trousers in cycle clips at the ankles, and functional backpack made him look like someone vulnerable. The thing he was clutching in his left hand as we talked looked like a wooden ninja star. I joked about it but he was deadly serious.

‘It’s a holding Cross,’ he said. ‘It wards off Evil.’

I stopped laughing. He was deep into it. Against all other failures to understand people, one thing I know is you should never piss on someone else’s religious beliefs, no matter how bat-shit crazy they may appear. I mean, fuck, who am I to judge anyhow? I’ve seen things flying about, heard voices, been tapped straight into some supreme being’s femoral vein more than once. Tolerance isn’t just something you know you should exhibit, it’s something you feel. 

He was on my Team, I was his boss – laughable really – and he was a Police Officer at the end of a long and boring and fruitless career. Now, following a seventies conversion by the Rev Billy Graham at a huge open air Christian love-in, he was into his beliefs in a big way. The penny dropped when he told me about the holding cross.

‘Oh….yeah….I suppose. Martin, do you really think there’s a war?’

‘I have no doubt.’ He stared right at me with purpose and religious affliction. Unblinking, full of fervour and powerful New Testament gibberish. ‘Satan is testing us all. His time has come and we need to be ready to fight; mankind needs to be ready.’

I said I had to leave. Conversations like that were unhelpful at the time when I was heading back home to piss into a glass in an attic room for fear of coming out of the room and facing world. It was easier than having to talk to my girlfriend, and helped avoid those eyes of hers she always used like Jedi mind control. It was a self-imposed exile that was serving a purpose. I was getting sicker. What I didn’t need was to feed images in my mind of Satan rearing a thousand feet over my cul-de-sac while the dark early morning hours chugged by like greasy black slugs. No. Who does? Martin didn’t know my backstory, it wasn’t his fault. I liked him. He even bought me a bible one time – one of those expensive leather bound ones. He’d signed it “I’m so happy you’re in God’s Team now.” I couldn’t tell him I wasn’t. I mean, how do you go about making someone like him understand that you don’t believe what they do without that someone getting hurt? These things have, in my experience, a tendency to turn violent from time to time. Messy, protracted, shouting, shoving. All bad, however you look at it and whichever side you’re on.

I watched from my attic skylight that night. The sky was clear. I could hear my nearly ex-girlfriend downstairs in the bedroom on the phone telling the guy with the spiders how much she was looking forward to fucking him again. She really wanted his cock so badly, so she said. In my mind his member was already there and she was speaking those words right into it in the warm night. The stars were barely visible over the artificial streetlight dome cast up by our shitty new estate. I looked for Hercules with his sword and shield and belt and massive frame. He held sway over the sky. He’d deal with Satan alright, if he did manage to show a horn or two around here. I found the outline of his belt up there but couldn’t see much more than a bit of one leg. He was useless when faced with a couple of orange street lamps. Satan would murder him with less trouble than my girlfriend was going to have with that “huge, gorgeous, pulsating cock,” downstairs. Walk in the park. She was a fucking machine, when she was in the mood.

Next day, Martin took me to one side and told me he’d heard a sermon last night. The Preacher said we needed to get serious with our lives, the end was in sight – Fire raining from the sky; ‘Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed…Then they gathered at the place named Armageddon. Don’t forget that, Ben,’ he said.

I agreed, out of cowardice, but he was wrong. There was a lot of nakedness, and more, going on but there was no end in sight for me at the mercy of any fantastical being. Just the little man-made tablets I had stockpiled at home. Held in one trembling hand. Stigmata-free.

Attic womb

Image result for old attic room

 

 

The skylight opened. I reached out with the glass and poured the piss out onto the sloping roof. Along the street, people were cutting the grass or washing their cars. The place was a Toytown full of people who didn’t know anything and had no desires other than to be the same as everyone else, only just that little bit better.

I’d been living in the attic room for three months. She had the two floors below. I’d get up, go to work, come home, take food up to my room and shut the door. I fantasised about running off into the world – becoming homeless, free, away from her and the bullshit. The relationship was fucked. I was in a job I hated, and she’d signed me up to some scheme where, right then, I owed something in the region of £45,000 to banks. I’d never seen a penny of it. These situations are easy to get into if you are vulnerable at the time but they don’t last. They always move on to their next phase: you lose.

I wigged out on codeine, fentanyl, booze, and thought for too long about how I wasn’t just trapped in the attic, but in life full stop. Man, I was so ill up there. I took at least one overdose; Tramadol for sure one time. Pupils as big a saucers for the whole of the next day, confused. But it was good to be alone in my room all the time, even waking up from an overdose. She was out fucking some other guy on a regular basis anyway. Said he had a huge cock. All I knew was he was about five feet tall, wore leather coats, and kept tarantulas. She told me when he fucked her in the ass she would cum and cum until she thought she would pass out. She was kind like that. She’d bellow up the stairs that she was going out. I knew what it meant. I was relieved. At least she wouldn’t try to get me in the sack.

I suppose I was meant to feel jealous. I felt nothing at all about much at all in the attic.

High up in the rooftops I could watch the sun rise, hear the birds scratching on the tiles. It was sadly beautiful up there. I only left it to work, shit, bathe, and get food. I just didn’t want an excuse to leave the room if I didn’t have to. Solitude and mental illness….oh, and the drugs and alcohol. Resetting to point zero. That’s what I called it. That’s how I justified it.

She left after a vicious argument – I can’t remember what about – and that was that. She would be the Spider Guy’s problem now. All I needed to do was to fend off the Banks who were trying to get the money back that she lost for me. Then get my mental health back to somewhere near functioning. Tough ask. Actually, I don’t think it ever really recovered. I had two serious overdoses in the following two months. Shit like that doesn’t leave you easily.

In the attic there was something foetal going on. A re-birth of sorts. Snug and warm and trapped and with a lockable door. My head sometimes looked out of that skylight and wondered what was over the hill. If I’d ever get to a better place than this.

When I finally moved from the house I got a tiny flat just up the road. No skylight, no attic, no central heating. Two windows with the blinds always drawn, blocking out the desperate sobbing of a guy newly sacked from his job. I dodged the bailiffs and the knocks on the door from anyone and everyone. It was always dark in there. Dust, diazepam, late night television, xbox games, lining up tablets on the dirty table and wondering if I had enough to do the job. Crazy nights of opiate withdrawing, crashing around the flat ripping drawers out of their holes, searching for forgotten codeine to take the ache away. Nightmares, screaming in the early hours covered in sweat while, twenty miles away, she was being fucked in the ass for the fiftieth time that week and telling him lies, like she used to tell me. That poor sucker. I felt for him.

At the end of the summer I was barely alive. The room turned from a womb to a cocoon. Indefinite period of gestation, or mutation, or metamorphosis, or simply  still birth. Which one it’d be was anyone’s guess.

The Fabulous Gemma Funk

 

Picture by Mary Shepard.

 

Thomas Funk was high. It was his birthday. He lay back on a park bench in the most private part of the big city park. The sun had already come up. He was still drunk and still drinking. The drug buzz had died down to a wavering trickle. Next would be the awful boredom and the hatred of feeling how he felt without chemicals. He knew it was coming.

By then Thomas hadn’t been Thomas for a while. On and off he’d been Gemma. Fifteen years switching between the two. Hormones, a tit job, shrunken balls the size of peas, long hair, then short hair, then back. She was Gemma right now; said she always felt like Gemma. So, let’s call her Gemma from now on. It is what she would have wanted.

I met Gemma as Thomas – she was struggling with the hormone suppliments and trying to live as a man again – in a hospital waiting room. She was nervous, sweating, gripping her arms tight across her chest to try and hide the breasts. It had worked as far as I was concerned. She’d strapped them down and all I thought was that she lifted weights, or was just an oddly built gay guy, neither way mattered. She didn’t say hello, or smile. I was in a bad mood. Things were serious in the world out there. That day I was being forced to talk about how I felt about personal things, shitty self-indulgent crap. It seemed stupid when bombs were dropping on kids in the Middle East. Too much for me. Overload; terrifying. I was hating every human being who sucked life out of the air. A horrible default position to be in. Meet me some other time, eh, it’s better for all concerned. Gemma kept glancing at me across the room like she was keeping her eye on a snake. I reckoned it was fear that finally drove her to speak.

‘You in here for the group too?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you like chemicals?’

Weird question, and I took it that she was offering. ‘No, not really. Acid, perhaps, but not all this shit knocking about now. And I’m not a coke-head either.’

‘I love them. It’s my big problem right now,’ she said, smiling.

She didn’t maintain eye contact. She also didn’t speak again. Just fidgeted more, sweat dripping down her face and staining her blue t-shirt. She tried to cross her legs but her shorts were too tight and her thighs were too large. It upset her, she sighed and tapped her feet on the floor, jigging her knees up and down to high bpm music in her head.

The others turned up and ignored us both. I could tell she hated them – it was mutual by the look of things. Always the outsider, even in here amidst some of the most outside people going. I guess it’s what drove Gemma to the chemicals and to defend her point of view with the cattiness she managed to spit out when the group got started. Backed into a corner the woman was dangerous, softly lisping, arrow straight to the point. She’d tear all of us a new asshole. I took a warning and never needed to ask for one again. I didn’t need someone with a venomous tongue fucking me over when I was telling secrets in there. She was just doing the same as me I guess: protecting herself when she was at her most vulnerable. Don’t we all.

She left the group after a few sessions. Said she was moving to London. She didn’t. She took the time out to turn full time into Gemma again, ‘For good this time.’ Her social media was all glamour, champagne, Gucci shit, blonde hair, fabulous, fabulous, darling, darling, darling, mwah mwah. I was happy for her. She made it onto the telly. She looked like she was enjoying things for the first time in ages. I felt for her. I don’t know much about myself, but I do know I am comfortable with the gender I was born with. Small mercy, maybe, but a good one as a foundation. The unimaginable thoughts Gemma must have had….well….I can’t really begin to understand, so I won’t try to do her a disservice.

On the park bench, the daylight was growing stronger. She was alone. She closed her eyes.

She was found like that a while later. It was a busy park. Someone stumbled over the fabulous Gemma Funk, slumped and silent and not breathing. Too far gone to save. She had killed Thomas after months of working it out. Now it was Gemma’s turn. No chance to think it through this time.

 

My chickens died.

Image result for welsummer chickens

 

Got burned in a fucking hole.

The feathers spitting, stinking.

Body parts moving.

The dead panic.

 

Warm smoke in the afternoon,

a hundred or more black clouds and

waves goodbye into the shitty grey sky.

 

Omnivorous flames eat the bodies

alive in here one last time, in the space I left in the garden

I meant for growing.

 

Cloudy eyes gawp,

haze over, bubble,

boil and pop, then

the short sounds of clucking

from the depths of steaming lungs and up into the throats

of the two hens in harmony.

Mr Big

 

“I never lie because I don’t fear anyone. You only lie when you’re afraid.” – John Gotti, former head of the Gambino Family.

 

He was standing at the end of the bar in a small Public House in my village. The pub was old, cobwebby, all sticky carpet and cheap polished brasses hanging on the walls by a poster advertising that the latest football matches were ‘always shown free.’ It was a dark place with an untrustworthy landlady who tried to stiff the punters by shortchanging larger bills for smaller ones.

‘Hey, I gave you a twenty.’

‘Oh……did you….I’m sorry.’ There was never an argument, she never made out she was right. It was a giveaway act of a small-time mean chiseler, robbing the customers and doing it for peanuts. No risk. The old men loved her. She was tits and arse and rubbed both against the pissy stained trousers of grey-haired men who had never fucked anything for ten years or more. They copped a grope, maybe even a reminder of what a hard-on felt like, she got regular customers who were less likely to challenge her bad maths. There was a trade-off, old as time.

The guy at the end of the bar that day was dressed out of place for the situation and the surroundings. It was midday in the middle of no-where. The others were in the pale drab grey shades of retirement uniforms, or they were in the harrowed greens of farmers, splashed with mud from walking the dog. Some even had their dogs at their feet on rope leads as they perched on the high bar stools and laser-beamed the landlady’s tits. He was different. He was in a sharp metallic grey suit, sunglasses, black polished loafers, gold watch, gold chains. His head was shaved bald. With those glasses you could never tell where he was looking, not in the dark of the bar anyhow.

The others were ignoring him. They were talking about the latest immigration news, getting it all mixed up and lost in their backwoods ignorance and racism. Nobody in the gloom knew about much, except what they learned from each other’s fractured brains. The bar was a school of advanced Adult Learning for the alcoholic, the scared and retired, the dumb, and anyone who wasn’t prepared to intervene when talk turned to ‘fucking send em home.’ I’d nearly had a couple of fights as my answer to those debates – once clearing the bar with a promise to kick the living shit out of the next person who uttered something racist. I was unpopular, which suited me fine.

The suit approached. He came and stood at the bar nearest to where I was sitting at a small table on my own, set back from the others. I was reading the paper and pouring down a pint of cheap lager. He was looking my way – at least I thought he was.

‘Shit,’ I thought, ‘This motherfucker is looking for an opening to come and talk.’ I was right. He walked over.

‘You know who I am?’ he asked.

‘Er, nope.’ I continued reading the paper hoping he’d go away.

‘I’m Gambino,’ he said.

‘Who?’

He got out his wallet and drew out a fake driving licence. On it was a picture of him in his shades, and the name (I forget the first name) “Gambino”, place of birth “Sicily”.

‘There…..see?’

‘Er….yeah, I see. What are you trying to say?’

‘I have big connections. BIG connections, if you catch my drift.’ He leaned back away from me and smiled. The guys at the bar had stopped talking and were watching us. One or two were smirking.

‘Oh, really.’ I went back to my paper. ‘Another fucking nut in this nut department,’ I thought. If I ignored him he’d drift away and bother someone else. I stayed silent. He walked backwards towards the bar and started talking loudly to some wizened old ex farmer who was slowly nursing a stout in his own fancy glass.

‘I got arrested the other day again,’ Gambino said. The whole bar was paying attention. ‘They needed five cars of armed police to make me come quietly. They understand who I am.’

Nobody replied. He went on, ‘I was flying my Stealth Microlite over the Rocks and they knew I could cause trouble and that I was probably armed.’ Still no response from the bar. ‘SO….they begged me to just stop causing trouble, basically because I’m a pretty dangerous fucker and they know they can’t cope around here with the likes of me.’

‘Hey, Gambino,’ said a voice from the other side of the bar, ‘Weren’t you in the SAS last week?’

He remained motionless. His smile continued. He reminded me of a shaved testicle with a slit for a mouth, wearing those fucking stupid shades. ‘I can’t talk about that.’

I sat watching, thinking the man had Aspergers, but he seemed pretty normal other than the out of place clothes and the lies he was telling. On and on he went, moving from person to person, whispering secrets, trying his best to purvey an air of mystery and danger. They all listened. He was a millionaire, had land in Canada, boxed bare knuckle, knew politicians, the Mafia, he was a walking screenplay. Stephen Seagal would have lapped up his shit with his tongue. He went on this way for half an hour, then drained his drink and left quietly by the back door.

‘Off to catch the bus,’ said one of the guys. It was true. I left shortly afterwards and saw him standing, posing, at the bus stop, ready to pull an imaginary 9mm from the inside of that shitty suit.

I went in the place a month later. He didn’t show. I asked the guys at the bar where Gambino was.

‘Ha!’ said one, ‘I don’t think we’ll be seeing him for a bit. He was in another pub last week bragging about how he’d been in the SAS, and a guy who had actually served in the SAS was listening. Would you fucking believe it! Eventually he couldn’t take any more of Gambino’s bullshit. He said he’d served for fifteen years in the Special Forces and had never heard of him. He laid him out. One punch. Told him people like him should be put down. I never laughed so hard.’

A few weeks later the local paper carried a story about someone called Nigel who lived in another village not far from mine. He’d threatened his wife after catching her in bed with a local farmer. The police arrested him in the street. They tackled him, cuffed him, and confiscated the small BB gun he owned. He looked happy on the mugshot photo. The shades had gone but he was living the dream.

 

The Killers

Image result for Dirty Storm

 

Twenty some years ago on a late summer night the lightning zipped open the sky. It rained heavy great lines. Thunder soundtrack. Flash after flash after crash and boom. I was stoned.

She lay there on a bed in a private room. We were teenagers. Her mouth was smiling but her eyes were scared. They’d given her an injection and some other shit an hour or so ago. Now the process was beginning to kick in. Her stomach hurt. Soon, an unborn baby was going to see the bright artificial light in here, then die silently, unseen by her; just a coven of Nurses taking things down to where the Care-Plan route was already in motion now. NO turning back.

I’d bought in a teddy bear for her. She said thanks, but it was a stupid idea. The maternity ward – down from the room via a short connecting corridor – was full of soft toys, gaudy balloons, and flowers. In her stark room, serving only one purpose, there had probably never been a flower or a teddy at any point, ever. I sat by the bed and held her hand. She was trying not to cry. I told her everything would be ok. In truth, I had no idea. Lying to yourself is all you can do when you are about to be complicit in the killing of a baby.

When she’d found out she was pregnant I told her the whole thing was not a mess, and that I’d stay with any decision she made. If we kept the baby then I’d find work and do my part. I didn’t have the sway over her and her body and the responsibilities that she’d face if she gave birth to our child. She was three months gone when she made the final choice. I can’t admit to feeling relief or disgust, I was still numb from the whole thing. We told nobody. This was our cross to bear. No-one had noticed as she started to get puppy fat on her face and tummy. We’d sat in summer meadows and talked about the future. But the bottom line was we didn’t have one. It was never going to work when dicks were getting waved at her every five minutes by every guy for twenty miles around. No amount of acid or weed or booze makes watching your girl flirting with some leather-clad prick any easier. That’s what I’d found, anyhow. We were young and choices were meant to be something which weren’t forced on us. We were getting high, partying, living life. And now we were killing life for all three of us.

A Nurse came into the room and looked me up and down before telling me to go. Visiting was over. I kissed my girlfriend’s head, went and stood outside the hospital entrance and lit a smoke in the pouring rain, then cried. My friend turned up late in his car to pick me up. We didn’t speak until we got back to the Isle. He didn’t know what to say either.

I picked her up in the afternoon the next day. She was pale and quiet. I took her home. She fell into bed and pulled the covers over her face. We lay like that until it got dark, not even touching.

We split up not long after. It was angry and messy. I threatened the new boyfriend, banging on his door once, drunk, in the early hours, forcing her to quickly dress and come downstairs pretending nothing was going on. I laughed at them both, wished them luck, then went and got high. No grave for what I’d lost, no memorial, just a pathetic teenager with a head full of acid sitting in a summer dawn questioning everything that’d happened. Adrift, alone, and with blood on his hands: his own this time, smeared all down one arm, broken bottle laying there in the grass like an answer.

Heading for the top

 

Image result for yorkshire terrace in the rain

‘No-one would believe this. You can do it. You deserve it.’ That’s what Rick told himself. He was plucking up courage.

It was nine in the evening. Midweek. A typical February in a South Yorkshire shithole. He’d followed the instructions – ‘..go past the welding place, then the row of shops with the kebab place at the end. Wait just past there. I’ll come out.’ The rain wasn’t too heavy, so he left the wipers off and watched the row of terraced houses ahead of him on both sides of the road. As far as he could tell, the grimy bricks stretched on up the hill and into the night forever. He wondered just how many people were behind the dirty front doors and if they’d be watching out for strangers.

‘Man…..what am I doing?’ He tapped the steering wheel. It was his first time. At the start he’d been hesitant but then he’d gotten several offers and, after all, money is money. The equipment was in the back; everything he’d need for any situations, even banana flavoured condoms. His phone beeped.

He read the message. It was from the contact. She’d be there in two minutes.

At home Rick’s wife was making dinner for their three daughters. She’d had a tough day – she was the main breadwinner – and cursed Rick for not being the go-getter he should really be, and for not putting the wine in the fridge. She didn’t care where he was, probably with his friends watching football, but hated the fact he wasn’t there to be instructed anyhow. She was good at instruction. Rick was weak. He was dependable for it, along with his faithfulness, and his clean living. She knew he didn’t do drugs, ever. And hardly any booze. Good old Rick. Good old predictable, stoical, calm, feeble, Rick. You knew where you were with a husband like him. She liked that. It gave her room to wear the pants and wield the real power in the relationship. A marriage was all about the winning, and with him there was no chance of her losing. He was broken good.

Towards the limit of the light of the streetlamp, Rick saw someone walking up towards the row of cars where he’d parked. ‘Red umbrella,’ he’d been told. ‘Beige coat. Blonde hair.’ He squinted through the watery windshield. The car lights were off, though the engine was running. He thought about putting the high beam on but his gut instinct told him to wait. After all, it wouldn’t pay to get this thing wrong. There would be serious repercussions. He was nervous as hell. How would he start this off? Was it just a question of rolling down the window and saying hi?

Her advert had asked for a professional photographer. Rick wasn’t professional, it was just a middle-aged hobby; something to give him a good reason to spend time in the spare room each evening after he’d cooked dinner and washed up. Things had got too far, too quickly. She was a porn star. Not famous, but she looked hot, and she was only in the next county. She’d hired him via a porn site – he could hear the creaky stairs at home well enough to watch porn up there with the volume on mute each evening – and this was now real. It was the most exciting thing he’d ever done. He started to get a hard-on. She got closer…. She was enormous….

‘Holy fuck,’ Rick said out loud. She looked nothing like her pictures. She was at least three times the size of him, maybe four hundred and fifty pounds. Red umbrella, beige coat, blonde…vague resemblance to the woman he thought he’d been communicating with. He started to panic. Could he take the photos? Yeah, of course…just a job…point, click. But he knew that the photos were not the main reason he was there. In the frenzied messages arranging the thing there had been talk of sex – of part payment in kind. She was expecting it. He had been, too.

She drew level with the car, stopping at his door and seeming to fill the world. Rick sat rigid with fear, gripping the steering wheel and looking straight ahead. She tapped at the window. Her face looked like it was bigger than a truck wheel. ‘HEY! Come on, love, it’s pissing it down,’ she bellowed through the wet glass.

For a few weeks afterwards, Rick thought about her whenever his wife shouted at him for a badly mopped floor, or when the Soaps were on TV and he was being told to watch, but his newspaper was being turned too loudly. He could still see her face as he’d jammed the car into gear and screeched up the road, leaving her standing there in the rain waving her fist and kind of jumping in the dirty night. It was a horrible sight. He’d received a couple of abusive emails from her over the next few days but chose not to reply.

Rick went back to the evening masturbations in his spare room. It was just about all the thrill level he could take. ‘After all, why rock something good that you already have,’ he thought. He was prepared to stick things out. Get on with being cocooned away from those dangerous vicarious dreams. Three kids and a dull job was ok by him, after all. He knew he would always be a failure in his wife’s eyes, but breaking free, making something of himself, being who he wanted to be, wasn’t ever going happen. She would make sure of that.

 

I knew Rick as a friend. He was aching to be someone, he just didn’t know who or what. He was a guy who’d talk to everyone in a bar for far too long just in case one person liked him even a little bit. He needed a dream, but was unsure of the contents, or the end. When I had an overdose one time, Rick was the first friend to come round a few days later to my flat and see if I was doing alright. He was a genuine guy. But he had those secrets.. He’d sit and tell me about the life he was on the verge of living; or, as he put it, ‘being my own man, Ben, for once.’

I always thought he’d nudge around on the verges of call girls, covert smokes of weed, and the odd weekend away with the boys and a fumble round the back of a seaside pub. He was never going to ride off into his personal nirvana like he said. It was a pipe dream. His balls were in a vice and his direction was always skewed. At least, that was my opinion. Your dick is not the greatest compass in uncertain terrain. He was never going to work it out.

Rick told me six months later that his wife had left him. The guy was younger, wore sharp suits, snorted coke, was headed for the top. That same night Rick typed out an email – “Hi Tracey. I’m sorry about that time before. Can we arrange something again? I’ll pay. I think I love you.”

He pulled over past the kebab shop on the terraced street a day later. He was going places.