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.




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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.

In Paris

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Thinking of it right now – the holiday, the sunshine, the cold beer, the massive demonstration two streets away – I can’t remember what had gotten me into the bar on the Rue de Therese in the first place. And now here I was, talking to an Irish guy who was telling me about the parties he’d been going to while living at an amphetamine dealer’s house nearby. ‘You should come,’ he said. We talked loud, in the way people always do when they believe the locals can’t understand them. The barman watched us, scowling, dealing with the handful of locals drinking coffee.

‘Why are you in Paris?’ I asked the Irish guy.

‘I’m kinda travelling,’ he said.

‘You’re not here for the demonstration?’

‘Ha,’ he said, ‘those lazy fuckers are only doing it to get the day off work. A protest here is like a sandcastle on a beach – they appear sooner or later when the weather is good. No…I’m just travelling around a bit. Seeing what’s out there. I’ve just got caught up in Paris for a few months. Got some stuff I have to shift, if you get my meaning.’

I got the meaning ok. He was starting to look nervously around the bar. And why hadn’t I noticed his eye twitching sooner? His fingers drummed on the dark polished bar top. He excused himself and went off to the toilet. The sound of the protest was growing fiercer in the middle distance. Outside, sometimes a figure would run past the bar towards the noise. The Actors and Performers Union knew how to organise a protest, I’d give them that much. I heard a bang, then the crescendo of a wave of voices reacting to what sounded like a tear gas grenade being deployed. Figures began to run past the bar in the other direction, away from what I guessed were thick lines of heavily armoured French policemen all doubting their ability to remain patient with things much longer.

The Irishman came out of the toilet. ‘What the fuck is going on?’ he asked.

‘I think the police have decided to knock some actors about.’

Was that cocaine on his nose? White powder was lining the inside of one nostril. He was twitching more than he had been earlier, making larger gestures with his hands, eyes following the people running past the long windows. ‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘I’d better get out of here. I’ve got four kilos of Speed in this bag.’ He pointed to his rucksack.

‘In a minute this place is going to be threshed by hordes of adrenaline-fuelled police. You know that, right?’ I said. More protesters gathered outside. The eye of it all was moving towards us.

‘Fuck, you’re right.’ He drank the rest of his beer. ‘I’ll be going. Good luck to you.’ He walked calmly outside, shut the door, looked in both directions, then ran like a man with four kilos of hard narcotics in his bag up the street away from the Gendarme. Just another holiday maker, come to see what the fuss of a foreign city is all about. Caught up in the moment.


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The day of the Carnival. Not a non-white face in sight in the soup of countrified, rural, middle class, smugness. In a marquee the noise was ramping up to a point where people next to me had to strain their throats just to tell each other about how lucky we’d been with the weather. The piercing shriek of parents telling children off cut in and out of the air. Slicing a biopsy under the plastic canvas.

A man in a red tracksuit, my age, flat cap on back to front, walked slowly down the marquee from the tea counter. He was carrying a cup of tea and some cake on a blue tray, which was shaking violently, as was he. His whole body seemed cursed by essential tremor. He sat down and continued to shake in his seat. Most of his tea was pooling on the tray bottom.

‘Jesus…..everyone staring…’ he muttered, before turning round to someone on my table. ‘People must think all sorts about me,’ he said. He was right. I thought he had Parkinsons, or some other degenerative brain disease, and was just trying his best to live normally before he couldn’t even walk. He shoved the cake up to his mouth, barely getting some in before the tremors smeared cream around his cheek. He sighed and turned away.

The noise built up into a great cone of no escape. The vibrations pulsed through my brain. My head thumped, my heart started to race. I’d forgotten to take my tablets. I started to panic. People were speaking to me, I was sure of that, but none of it – even the parts I could hear – made any sense. The election, somebody’s ex husband, another woman reeling off the names of all the people she’d slept with: her husbands brother, uncle, best friend, neighbour. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something sinister going on. Like the knowledge we were moments away from an enormous meteor strike, or a biblical flood. God was going to start things over. He knew humans had gotten out of control.

I broke free and took a walk around on my own, watched some captive bees for a while. Those dumb insects, I thought. Trapped so easily in that Perspex with each other. All interweaving and breaking their backs for what? Going nowhere. I hoped for a message from my friend to lift the emotional fog. It arrived. I sat under a tree and breathed. And smiled. A dog display carried on in the background. Tired sad-looking dogs jerked about on leads. Whistles shrilled, signalling something or other. Some dogs believed what they heard, one ran away across the carnival and up the road to who knows where. It had seen the chance to escape and taken it.

At the pub later someone told me the guy with the tremors had been found in a catatonic state only last year. Total nervous breakdown. Unable to speak, move, acknowledge anybody. The shakes were being caused by a withdrawal from his meds. He was a topic of conversation for many. Everyone had an opinion on where it all went wrong for him, and some doubted the facts. But not me. I bought it all when I looked in his eyes. He’d seen hell. And it wasn’t over yet. Takes one to know one, I guess. Not that I’ve ever been catatonic, but I’ve tasted that fruit. Plus I was currently starting to have my own twitching, headache, thoughts racing, first throws of my own medically engineered sense of loss. He deserved better from the community he lived in. Don’t we all?

The day was a write off until the very end. I lay shouting at the Foo Fighters on tv, then laughed a lot messaging a friend. She made me smile, and a feeling of completely natural non-chemical warmth fuzzed out from my chest until I was sure I looked like the kid from the old Ready Brek adverts. A forcefield against the worst of things.



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You can’t believe the sound a pool ball whirled in a sock makes when it connects with a human skull until you hear it in person. A dull thwack, gristly, mixed with the sound of something heavy dropping into hard butter. There’s a sense of give. And then the sound of someone falling – which they almost always do. A face first plant into a floor, broken nose into the bargain. Followed, depending on the drivers of the situation – hatred, payback, random violence, kicks – with the running steps of the attacker, disappearing around a corner or into a cell.

I’ve heard all those sounds. Never caused any of them, but I was there. I saw the blood too, and watched the bodies being carried away.

But that was all a long time ago. The tiny gravity of half-kilo pool balls doesn’t play on my mind unless I let it. I only thought about it today because the Queens Speech is up and running. That, and the bizarre terrorist attacks taking place over and over again with the same kind of common implements: vehicle, bottles of water, kitchen knife, fists, and shouting. As a great man once said ‘Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.’ Death is easy once the cause is established and the medium figured out. We all have access to it. We can all be sucked down by the emotional gravity that’d push even a parish priest into a vicious blood lust.

But that’s not today. Not for me, anyhow. It’s the Summer Solstice. The interplay between vast gravitational celestial bodies, whirling around, too fast to comprehend. Days shortening until the end of December. Passing back round like a huge pool ball in a cosmic sock. Dependable, finite, march of Time. Moving too heavily to stop or change pace, even though sometimes I’d like it to.

What does any of that mean? Not much, I suppose, except I am valuing being alive at the moment. Happy that I dodged the worst orbits life aimed at the weak spots. Feeling re-birth, the circular way of things.

The Karma Instinct

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Right wrist swollen. Hot to the touch. Four hours of broken sleep thanks to a dog barking outside, then a neighbour coughing up the first cigarette of the day at 6am. The horsefly which bit me on the wrist yesterday is laughing hard from the place insects go to when they’ve been crushed to death. I felt the mouth pieces pierce my skin with a sharp jab. Now whatever bacteria was on that evil proboscis is breeding under my skin and causing me to fear things flying around right now. Every fly, or moth, is an animal trying to hurt me.

This constant state of fear won’t last. That’s the lie I tell myself, anyhow.

But beneath the fresh hell of another animal trying to kill me, I feel happy. It’s funny the effect people can have. Even from a distance. Thanks to my friends visit I now have a beautiful set of thoughts to return to when I want them. Like a good, righteous, film. Or the best album I’ve ever heard. Play and repeat, and love the feelings.

More Redbush tea. There’s no caffeine in it. And maybe that’s showing, because I’m 169 words in to this and I don’t know where I’m going with it. I keep returning to those thoughts. I suppose I’m allowed. I’ll take it as Karma, maybe some Cosmic payback.

You don’t turn your back on feelings like these. Not if you’ve learned anything about how the Universe works. Or the consequences of ignoring an instinct.

Risky Choices

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‘Didn’t add up. Forgot to carry a zero.’ – Carry the Zero, Built to Spill.

Last night was all muggy, breezeless in my bedroom. I kept waking up and staring into the heat. If it hadn’t been for a weird snake nightmare injecting some tension into the early hours then it would have ranked high as a bad waste of time and life. Sleep. Or a grim waking sleep – like a zombie heated paralysed old man lying there with no sign of the thin yellow curtains moving. No sounds outside either. No traffic. No vicious Owls screaming death threats into the hot air. Just the fuzz of unfamiliar warmth. Like a badly tuned old tv set.

Therapy hadn’t been great. We picked over the walk with my old friend. I told my Clinical Psychologist that it had had a huge effect on me. She told me that perhaps it was because I had realised I had an emotional connection to someone. And that now I was feeling scared I would ruin it. All the typical Borderline bullshit. Then we talked about my childhood for the millionth time. This is an easy task, on the face of it, but whenever I leave that room I find my thoughts don’t settle for a couple of days. This time I cried in there. I wasn’t expecting it. She didn’t know where to look, and she appeared sad and close to crying too. Her face turned red, she kept putting her hand up to her eyes. I apologised.

‘Ben, there is something missing between your emotional connection to the past and where you’re at now. Your friend coming over made a tangible link to a time many years ago – opened an old door. We need to go back more often and find those missing pieces, even if they hurt. You have to choose to stop wanting to die, or not.’

She said my friendship with my newly discovered old friend should be nurtured. I panicked, but then my old friend makes me really happy. She’s like an Angel without the job rules. Too good for those mentally deficient Hyenas lording it up in Heaven. I think if it had been anyone else I would never have gone through with the whole thing from the start. It’s a big risk. What happens if I ruin it? If she walks away? I was getting anxious just thinking about it. When you meet someone that great in your journey through life you kind of stand back in awe. Then worry about fucking it up.

But enough of futuristic emotional pain. I’ve had enough pain already this fine morning. A horsefly bit me on the wrist while I was watering the garden. I watched the sucker land, then felt the sharp jab of needle mouth parts. It moved too fast for me to slap a kill down, but kept at me, trying to land again. I let it, then crushed it on my arm. I looked over the body carefully. The horsefly had made a simple choice and lost.



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You know that feeling when you hadn’t realised how much you missed someone?

I had that feeling yesterday – it’s still carrying over right now as I sit at this old desk, magpie staring at me from the garden gate. But even that evil black and white thief can’t darken the mood today. No, no.

Yesterday an old friend came over to go for a walk. Have a catch up. It’d been twenty five rotten years since we last saw each other. I recognised her from a hundred feet away, driving her mini up the hill towards a fat man in a blue shirt waving furiously like a child on sports day. I might have even punched the air. I can’t remember. I was too happy.

She got out of the car and hugged me. Simple act on a bright and hot day. Two people standing outside an old stone barn and hugging each other. Just a basic act and unremarkable in every way except I loved it so much. For me, that little gesture sent a third person camera up into the sky above us and good, fine, music played over the ending credits of some harrowing film where the finish of the story is a happy one and the shark had been killed/the baddies driven into shallow graves/the war ended.

We walked for miles (9), watched stoned young men jumping about on the top of the viewpoint near my house, smelled the scent of Weed, and talked about the past. I never thought I’d be remembered. But she hadn’t forgotten me, despite all the horror she’d faced in the past few years – more than I have. I felt proud of her; sad that someone so good had had to go through so much. I felt her pain, for what that cliché is worth. A lot, if we’re talking about the capability of one human being to empathise and care for another.

She hadn’t changed at all. Still beautiful. We swapped stories. I told her dogs always poo’d facing North. I don’t know why. I think I panicked in the moment. Someone said once that if you’ve got nothing to say of any use, don’t speak. I never lived by that advice.

We watched a really bad village brass band play songs from Grease, saw my neighbour’s filthy false teeth rattling something vague, and drank Yorkshire tea. And I wanted to turn the clock back, do it all over again the right way. My entire life. For a moment there she had stopped me hating myself. And that, my friends, is better than any medication. A wondrous talent to have. Two old friends sitting in the sunshine up on a hill, accepting time, the fraught nature of growing up, the curveballs we dodge or which smack us in the face, the simple joy of that act nearly made me cry.

After she left I went back inside my old cottage and sat down and put on loud music, staying up until past midnight, sitting in the dark watching bats, thinking about the swirling way people can touch you inside.


Plain sight

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The blind guy had a white stick and was being helped onto the train by Station staff. ‘Step up here, sir.’

He tentatively put one foot onto the train, then the other, waving his stick, looking into the blackness, his eyes going in all directions, not seeming to see anything. She lead him to a seat and helped him into it. I was pretty sure by his mannerisms that he was totally blind. He looked just past her shoulder when he said thanks. Stared off into the back of the seat in front of him.

After a few minutes the train went through a tunnel and I wondered if the blind guy had any light perception at all. I turned around as we exited it. As I got a look at him he seemed to catch me and, for a moment, looked right at me the way anyone would who was being stared at by someone twenty feet away on a train. Then, as if he remembered something, his gaze moved to the window. I watched him following the sight of a herd of cows, turning his head a little to watch them as we passed. How blind was he? I needed to know if he was conning us. Like it mattered. Like it was my business to find out. The jaded and judgmental thoughts of someone coming back from therapy with too much to think about.

My Psychologist had just told told me she thought I was lonely. Hard to take in. I don’t feel lonely. We agreed that I would try to make some friends, just to test out the fear I have that they’ll hurt me, or they’ll find out how horrible I am and the whole thing will collapse they way it always does. I was hating on myself on the train, sitting there judging that poor blind guy. Taking the nastiest possible line of thought. The feelings made me feel sick. I took out my meds and necked a couple, hoping they’d sedate me enough to get off the train without upsetting anyone. Which worked.

An old friend from 25 years ago is coming over this weekend. I haven’t seen her in all that time. I’m nervous. My therapist says this is lucky, and to use it as opportunity to prove myself wrong. To show myself that people can really like me. All I know is that deep down I’m right about myself and she’s just doing some psychological back-slapping. Expensive cheerleading. It’s what you do – positive encouragement, compliments, ‘don’t kill yourself’ – in order to try and shift the balance in people like me. I rate her ability to keep focused despite our arguments on the subject. Her face flushed red with frustration and anger this week. I wouldn’t do her job, just like I wouldn’t tie myself to a chair and watch twenty hours of back to back shark attack videos.

Time has taught me it’s much better to keep myself secluded away, where I can’t form appalling thoughts about blind people, and where I can’t do any damage to folk. Where my vile form can’t be mocked by strangers in the street. Where I can’t be laughed at. Where people won’t work out what I’m really like. I like my Psychologist’s optimism and pig-headed take on my diagnosis, but the walk with my old friend won’t be anything other than showing someone I once knew that I am even more awful than all those years ago; a massive let down; a dreadful mistake. Even if my friend is blinded by the yahoo of our shared youth and memories of good times long gone, the truth of my ravaged personality disorder is in plain sight.



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The election was over. It was morning. Sunshine. I sat on a bench under the new green leaves of an ash tree in a plaza called ‘Place d’Arras’. Ipswich.

The day promised some heat. Hangovers walked slowly up past the Butter Market and into the precinct. Indistinct faces, mostly. Pastel shades of pensioners, young hipsters in converse sneakers, families rushing to do shopping so they could get back home and enjoy the two days of rest before the hell of school and two shitty jobs; jobs that pay for family shopping trips into town. A circular kind of hellish reasoning. Ingenious, entrapping, invisible treadmills. Tedious, pained, soulless expressions. The employed.

An old man wearing too many layers of clothes, walking slowly, headed towards my bench even though all the others were empty. I moved to give him space. He didn’t say thanks, just sat down and sighed.

‘I’m tired,’ he said.

He took two deep breaths, adjusted the rucksack on his back, then left, pausing to ogle a  young women as she tottered past a cafe.

By the side of the church, a group of four guys weaved along the pavement coming up towards the precinct. They were eating what looked like food donations. Almost fresh baguettes and cakes. One pushed a bike. They stopped right by me. The guy with the bike said he couldn’t push it any further. He swayed, dropping the bike on the floor.

‘I know, I know, mate,’ said his friend. ‘When you’ve been up for two days it’s a fucker, ain’t it.’

He took the bike from his friend and put the boxed CCTV home security kit he was carrying under his other arm.

‘We’ll score in a bit.’

By the marina – expensive yachts, sunshine on rippled water reflecting condos and waterfront bars – three homeless guys were in their sleeping bags. One had a huge pile of books. Couple of cans of cider, too. Two Police Officers were harassing them about a report they’d had of someone down there hassling the general public – you know, the safe, co-operative people who haven’t fallen on hard times. Nobody knew anything. It’s hard to be threatening when you’re in a sleeping bag, emaciated, gouching.

England had had an election. The papers were full of it. Big ideas. Hope. On the streets no-one cared. None of it made an ounce of difference. Things were the same as they’d always be; chemical dependence, hopelessness, tedium, futility, lack of direction, the savage feeling of the stone fall of reality on cool summer mornings. Waking up with a frantic sense of loss.