Know your place.

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The kid was screaming in her pushchair. Really letting loose. High pitched. No words, just the air-splitting. I drew level along the path. It was a beautiful place. The father turned to me and said, ‘Morning,’ then shrugged his shoulders and sighed, nodding his head towards the screaming.

‘Good fun?’ I asked. He didn’t answer.

It took thirty seconds to walk to the corner of the viewpoint. It’s a popular place to scatter ashes but I couldn’t see any fresh ones down below. And no new flowers. Down the trail the young girl was still screaming. Dad had had enough. He leaned his face right under the cover of the pushchair and screamed back, inches from her face, ‘SHUT UP, POPPY. JUST SHUT UP. NOW!’

It did the trick. She stopped at once. Adult aggression had overridden whatever reason she had for screaming. She knew her place in the scheme of things and now she understood that adults are big, powerful, and threatening. Would Dad forever be a symbol of hurt and hate? She could see rage, twisting his face as the spittle flew from his mouth. I’d seen it at her age, too. Many times.

I walked the usual route from the viewpoint down the incline and back along the canal. The crowds were out but most of the people I said ‘Hello,’ to as I walked along didn’t answer me.  At the end of the canal, tourists grouped like muted bees around the car park. Pastel shades of mail order outdoorsy clothing everywhere. Kids paddled around in canoes. Ducklings floated around near the rushes. Typical Bank holiday scene from any English beauty spot. Solitude for the masses. I sat outside the café in the sunshine. Drank a diet coke. Took some diazepam. Thought about why I’d had an urge to kill myself yesterday. Two women at the next table talked about ‘Immigrants’ being The Problem. They were wrong.

The boy on the Island

Cigarette butts and splashed ice cream on the pavement below, screaming from the gulls overhead, a little blonde-haired boy hiding up high in a tree watching the clouds and praying for dinner time to never come around. The island sat in its muddy bed and hardened in the sun. That summer felt longer than the others.

Inside, another argument was booming around the large house. Things were going to be bad around the kitchen table when it came to eating later. Gritted teeth, fists coming down hard on the pine top, me sitting there waiting for death. I never knew what started it. I was just sure that I didn’t deserve it. I mean, what kid really needed to feel that level of terror. None. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances, the spark on the fuse. I guessed it was a hungover adult mind regretting my conception in the first place, but truth is it could have been anything. Sometimes it seemed like there never really needed to be a good reason. Things just happened out of the blue, catching fire quickly, ending up with me being the dog to kick.

Down by the beach the tourists ate cheap ice cream from the grey concrete parlour which smelled of mice and also sold plastic beach toys – nobody ever really successfully played beach tennis. Or made their shitty kite last more than five minutes before the onshore breeze shredded it like newspaper. Beach huts lined up facing the sea and families from London sat in the relative peace of tea brewing old England comfort and made jokes about fat people in bathing suits. The English coast. Tea, tins of lager, sandcastles. Sand giving gritty new meaning to cheese sandwiches. Beat the metropolitan fug of warm summer. Bracing sea air. Happy times for many. Happy faces.

I’d walk along the sand and shells imagining I could go live in a beach hut forever, or leave with another family and take my chances in London. I searched for weird stones or the flotsam on the high tide mark. Fishing floats, old bottles and, one time, some syringes and empty pill packets behind a sand dune. I played on the mud flats when the tide went out. Sticky grey goo, staring out at the nuclear power station across the water.

Back up in the tree I lay on my back on a heavy limb and the clouds hung delicate above. I turned my head with every noise that came from the house. There was no getting away from it. Sooner or later I’d be in there, right in the eye of it all. Confused, scared. Maybe I’d be punished, too. I made a promise to myself that it wouldn’t always be this way. Eventually the sky closed in. I found out years later that I had learned to dissociate in times like these. It dulled the terror. Made survival easier and stopped any crying. Crying got you nowhere.

A door slammed. More shouting. Somebody growled, then screamed with rage.

The holidays. Same format every year for the grown-ups: Time off work. Parties with rich sailing buddies. Drunk. Headaches. Aggressive arguments. Punishment. Regret. The slightest slip-up from me and that was it, bedroom door would come crashing open, followed by gritted teeth, shaking up above me with rage, fists pumping.

The night came soon enough. Dinner had been tough but there were no words, just the normal red-faced anger and noisy crashing crockery. That night, in bed, the house creaked as it cooled. I turned off the night light and stared at the darkness. There was no sense that I’d gotten away with another day, no relief, just the knowledge that tomorrow would come brooding and ready to spark off without warning. When you’re young you think these things will be repeated forever. The drip drip drip of fear. Constant adrenaline and self-protection. Terror. Faithlessness. Suspicion. Hatred. Anger. Sadness. Completely cut off from the positive normal emotions of a seven year old. Sitting alone in the treacherous currents created by fucked up adults who should have known better. On an Island.

Round One

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The first Trauma therapy session was a mixed bag. I like my Psychologist – she’s very intelligent, empathetic, and doesn’t mind challenging me when she thinks it’s appropriate. It’s a good therapeutic relationship. She’s excellent at her job. the problem is not with her, it’s with the subject matter. For an hour yesterday I reeled off a few examples of things which happened a long time ago; shrugged them off like nothing, like I’ve always done. They are stories which I won’t go into right now but the script will be familiar to many. They fall out of my mouth like an alcoholic telling a room about the time he last got drunk. It was easy. It’s always easy, and yesterday felt no different while I was going through the details – actually saying the words.

My Psychologist stopped the horror stories at the end of the hour and asked me what I was going to do afterwards. I told her I felt like getting drunk so I didn’t have to think about what we’d just talked about. That, or take more pills than usual. I had a headache and I was telling the truth. I expected a tut and a metaphorical slap on the wrist, but she stared at me for a few seconds then said: ‘This therapy is not an intellectual exercise. This is about feeling and how you feel in the time between sessions. Now, it might be the case you feel awful, but you need to sit with it and watch those feelings with the mind of an inquisitor. Why do you feel like that? Got it?’

I got it alright. But I walked out of the hospital and into the sunshine feeling pretty good that the process had started. I felt positive. The world was going to get better. I got in the car and tried not to think about what we’d talked about for the past hour. I would drive to my girlfriend’s and enjoy my evening with the family, path to healing started. The good feeling lasted about twenty minutes. Then a cold, unfamiliar type of anger began to rise up from the inside of my chest, stone-faced, primal. I could have murdered somebody, anybody, if they gave me the slightest reason. The coldness of it shook me. I stopped at a garage and bought booze, knowing I hadn’t got my psyche right to do what my psychologist asked and just watch the emotion. Things were too far gone for that. Medicine was needed. Under the counter. Off-prescription charts. Safe old obliteration.

At my girlfriend’s home I felt safe, but there was an inner something that had woken – one of the old monsters I’d shut away for many years. He/it was back. I marshalled it into it’s box with some beer and codeine and locked the gate. I didn’t want to feel that old hurt. There, in plain sight for the first time, was a glimmer of the root of the thing.

Good Therapy is powerful, so they say. This, I now believe to be true. Where it ends is still a mystery, a bit like a Prizefight or a Primal Scream record. This is just the start, chillingly. Already I feel punch-weary. Round one to the past.

 

Tolerate this…

My Grandad got a bad deal out of World War Two; even though good deals were thin on the ground back then for everyone. He was shot down over Hannover, beaten, hung up, tortured, locked in a Cattle truck in Berlin for three days while his own side bombed the place, and finally placed in a Prisoner of War camp that tried to starve him to death.

He escaped, so it goes, and arrived home to my Grandmother a broken man and a changed human being. Prior to the war he was a champion sprinter, and even rode the Wall of Death in a travelling circus. He laughed a lot, so my Nan said, but when he got back he didn’t even want to speak.

During his captivity the Gestapo had tried to cut out his tongue, and they had run a knife down his back while he was strung up in a small room with hardly any light, but plenty of chains. I saw those scars on his back once. They made mine look silly. But he would never talk about hurt and hate and the collapse of his mental health. It’s not what you did.

Still, after the War he brought up a family and made a living for the seven kids my Nan would eventually have. He set about driving lorries from the docks at London. Frequently he’d cycle twenty miles to and from work, in all weathers, and he never backed down from a fight anywhere. My uncle says my Grandad was a man who’d fight a Polar Bear on the street if need be. But he was also a man who beat his kids with things like broom handles and copper pipe and smashed things to pieces in catatonic rages which echoed along their council street. My Father knew this too well. It stayed with him as a model of parenthood and as a bleak reminder that childhood was not about enjoyment. He’d left home as soon as he was 16 just to get a job anywhere away from what should have been a safe and loving environment.

For all the time I knew my Grandad he made me laugh, and I had a soft spot for the old man. He was kind of my hero, except I didn’t really know him and I definitely didn’t know what horror he carried with him until almost the very end. We didn’t see each other very often, yet he had chosen me as the one to pour out the war to on one sunny Spring afternoon outside my parent’s house; one nightmare after another escaping the years and given to me through his tears. I was sad when he died. I cried a lot for his death, and for his life.

The War had filled our family and trickled down the effect of human cruelty through the eons and into naive genes, ending at my door as a little boy. I am partly the product – varyingly, maybe, with abnormal brain morphology and the evolutionary chance of a real, bona fide loser – of mass hatred and mass spite. I was born to lose, common sense. It’s why I hid in terror in my bedroom for most of my childhood; why I drugged myself into oblivion as a teenager; hated myself; cut myself; drank; all those things that ended eventually at the tipping point of far too many tablets and tears and large gulps, wishing I could make it all go away.

Today, the World has not become a better place because of the experiences of my Grandad, or the Fifty Million people who died in screaming pain in just six simple years. Palestine burns, Syria ejects children into the sea to drown like, well….children, and better nuclear bombs are on their way to the UK any time soon. Nah, the World learned nothing, but I did: “If you Tolerate this, then your children will be next.” (Spanish Civil War Propaganda poster)