Last week I went along to a pain clinic appointment.
Middle-aged, male doctor, blunt opener:
‘I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know why you’re here.’
Not the most auspicious start.
The barrage of honesty continued. I had the wrong type of pain (he only does localised pain – one joint, for preference), and I was still under investigation so shouldn’t have been sent to him.
He’d mis-read my notes and wasn’t all that happy when I pointed out the mix up (‘I don’t make things up. I don’t lie.’) I upped the amount of solicitousness in my tone and added a hefty sprinkle of ‘I’m so sorry’, and ‘of course’.
I queried whether he had any advice on painkillers, and he assumed I was trying to scalp him for opiates:
‘You shouldn’t be taking opiates. I don’t want to see another drug-addled patient walking through my door.’
I made an attempt to explain that opiates were all I’ve got, given that we don’t have a way to treat the muscle behaviour because we don’t know what’s going on.
‘My best advice is don’t lose your job. And don’t take opiates.’
‘You’re well educated? You google everything? Know things better than your consultants?’
He’d nailed that one – I’m an inveterate googler, but I’m also wise enough to go into medical appointments with an open mind. It was rapidly closing in this particular appointment.
‘You could join a Pain Management Programme. There’s one here, but we don’t have a psychologist and you need a good psychologist, that’s what you really need.’
It was around this point that I crumpled into tears, thereby annoyingly underlining his point.
The nurse was sent for some hand towels (I foolishly seem to see consultants without tissues to hand), and the tone rapidly shifted from ‘honesty’ to ‘I really wish I could do something for you.’
He described me as ‘delightful’ and ‘distressed’ in his letter to my GP. I feel like I stepped into another century.
The 33rd High Lord of the Eternal Worshipful
Brotherhood of Cheats was having a really bad decade. With his back pressed
against a dubiously stained wall in a dubiously shadowed alley, he took stock:
limbs intact, all digits present, eyes and ears functioning, lungs and heart a
tad wobbly but getting the job done. Left sandal lost; robe torn; hood still
covering face. And so far, so not followed. Things were looking up.
It had been fine at the beginning. Life had been simple: follow the Five Commandments and reap the benefits of being born with a scrupulously honest face. He went from being the eternally hungry and perpetually grubby 15-year-old Billy Druthers, to the smugly sated and only slightly shabby, Brother William.
The only catch in the whole deal was Commandment Number Five, ‘Thou shalt Cheat Death’… And even there he’d had some roaring good luck: he’d drawn thirty years, a far longer reprieve than that of his brothers. Thirty years peace of mind and exemption from accidental death (brothers still had to be wary of death at the hands of others.)
As the bottom rung of a very creaky ladder, Brother William had only the vaguest interest in the politics of the brotherhood, but even he had begun to worry as High Lord after High Lord toppled from their lofty perch. In the space of two years, the brotherhood raced through High Lord #2 to High Lord #27; they’d barely had time to compose adequate welcome speeches before the next body turned up. Deaths #2 through #10 were all unfortunate results of the Fifth Commandment; the brothers became High Lord just as their time ran out.
The other deaths, however, were of brothers with plenty of time left on their slip. Hale and hearty High Lords started to suffer curious accidents – one was bitten by the rare and highly poisonous Kitten Spider, and another was believed to have smothered himself to death while sleeping (he was succeeded by High Lord #24, his roommate).
In his 15th year in the brotherhood, as the eldest brother, Brother
William became High Lord #33. With his easy-going nature, decided lack of
interest in power or politics, and thanks in part to the awe inspired by his 30
Year Fifth Commandment draw, Brother William was allowed to become the longest
running High Lord in the history of the brotherhood.
But over the years, as his hair greyed and then abandoned
scalp, strand by strand, it seemed that he was losing his enjoyment of the
He had never had the slightest bit of trouble with the Second Commandment in his younger years; ‘Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing’, was an easy task for an angel-faced youth with puppy dog eyes. As a middle-aged man with an overly well-known face, the High Lord was now finding it decidedly troublesome.
The Commandment demanded that The Cheats were never to pay for a meal, and the more nefarious the plot to attain food, the more devout the Brother. The early years had seen the High Lord clothed in a well-patched dinner suit, his voice wrapped in earnestly plummy vowels, tied up with crystalline consonants. He would plead entry to the gilded, marble arches of elite restaurants, the maitre d’ would inevitably decline, only to be swept up in a tale of sorrow and disaster (or sometimes a tale of hope and triumph, if the mood took him).
When the maitre d’s of all the best restaurants had grown sick of his tales, he started visiting the second best restaurants, but they too soon grew wary of the man with the rapidly sagging angel face. Gradually, he saw his evening meal turn from stuffed quail a la Contessa, to bangers and mash a la Kevin-what-works-down-the-pub. The doormen and barmen of the lesser establishments were also less inclined to believe his elaborately woven tales and so getting dinner had become a nightly trial.
The other Commandments had grown equally frustrating as time had passed – cheating on a young naïve girl was one thing, but Thou Shalt Cheat on Thy Partners was a damn sight more risky when your only option was your twenty stone, rolling-pin wielding landlady. After being turfed out of three different bedsits, the High Lord had decided to nullify the Third Commandment by avoiding the company of others. This had made his life easier, but hadn’t improved his mood.
Tonight though, it was the Final Commandment that was causing him trouble. The High Lord closed his eyes, quieted the thundering of his pulse and opened his ears to the sounds that filtered into the alley. A cut-off shriek from two dubious alleys along, the clicking sound of a mouse gnawing on rotten wood, footsteps, the sound of knuckles meeting cheekbone – footsteps.
The High Lord held his breath, the owner of the footsteps was making no effort to silence his feet: his heels hit the ground first with a click muffled by the grit that lined the cobbles, the toes twisted as the foot lifted away, a grating sound that punctuated each step.
HELLO BILLY. The voice boomed inside his skull.
FANCY. MEETING. YOU. HERE. There were hesitant pauses
between the words, as though read from a script by someone with no idea of
their meaning. The footsteps splashed into the entrance of the alley.
IT IS TIME FOR OUR GAME. At that, High Lord Billy of the
Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats opened both eyes and bladder, and
stared in horror at the robed figure.
“Oh, uh, hello. Is it that time already? I was sure it was
next year – are you certain it isn’t next year?”
The robed figure did not respond, but withdrew a glowing
timer from his robe and set it carefully on the uneven slabs at the High Lord’s
feet. The sand in the top bulb was draining into the bottom half at a somewhat
“Right, right. Well, I get to choose the game, right?”
THE 32ND HIGH LORD CHOSE THE LAST GAME. THIS TIME
I GET TO CHOOSE.
“Ah. So – so what’s it t-to b-be?”
I THINK… YES… I
RATHER THINK I FEEL LIKE A GAME OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS.
The High Lord reared backward, affronted,
“You want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors for my soul?! That’s hardly respectful! What about the almighty
game of Kha-Lan? The reverent game of Shin-sou? What about a bloody game of
THEY TAKE TOO LONG. I’M IN A RUSH.
“You’re in a rush?! I’m
about to die and you’re in a rush?”
The High Lord’s indignant bluster fell away with a huff.
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
WAIT… HOLD ON, I NEED TO GET THE WORDS RIGHT… WHERE WAS I… AH,
33RD HIGH LORD OF THE ETERNAL WORSHIPFUL BROTHERHOOD OF CHEATS, ALSO KNOWN AS BILLY, I GREET YOU.
ACCORDING TO THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FIRST HIGH LORD AND MYSELF,
I CANNOT TOUCH THE BRETHREN EXCEPT BY APPOINTMENT.
TODAY I COME TO YOU TO KEEP OUR APPOINTMENT.
IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE GRANTED ANOTHER 15 YEARS OF LIFE. IF
YOU LOSE, YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO YOUR SOUL.
The robed figure paused and then held out a skeletal hand,
bones so white they seemed to glow in the dimness of the alley, fingers curled
into a fist.
2nd Commandment: Thou shalt never pay for food,
shelter or clothing
3rd Commandment: Thou shalt never trust a brother
4th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat on Thy Partners
5th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat Death
 The Kitten Spider is covered in grey striped fur. It tucks its legs underneath its hairy abdomen and mewls like a cat until another creature approaches, whereupon it sinks two inch deadly fangs into its target.
It’s been a while since we got to do this, you and me.
We’re clanking into gear, picking up speed, finding those tracks we’d neglected and re-railing.
There’s a beautiful flow when we get going. Clacking puzzle tiles that constantly shuffle and reshuffle as more information gets added, or new ideas nudge their way out of the bag and click onto the board.
There’s a game of hot potato afoot, email ping pong, a chance to make a tiny piece of the world as I wish it were. And this absolute focus and the desire to shrivel apathy into a puff of long-forgotten ash.
My younger self roamed wild over these moss sprung hillocks, feet incautious until one would sink calf deep into a hidden burrow beneath a troublesome root. It was here we found blunt badger skulls, dragonflies the size of a grown up’s hand, and an endless supply of scratches and stings.
Today wavers between sunshine and shade, shifting from dappled scenes of teddy bears’ picnics to the gloomy hollows of a Forbidden Forest. The wild scabious has hung glowing violet lanterns to light the way, painting a purple haze onto retinas. Willowherb withers and dries, then casts itself to the winds in curls of fluffed seeds.
The other floral efforts have retired now and the bees have moved on to less green pastures. This year, the blackberries never made it past livery pink before mummifying on the bramble. An early autumnal transformation signals stress amongst the deciduous.
My younger self delights in the feel of hollow thumps beneath scrabbling hands and feet, she wields lichened stick-swords that are longer than she is, and stares up at a sliver of sky that snakes impossibly far above.
She’s quite a while away from thoughts of climate change, invasive species, dieback, ticks, or sustainable woodland management. But it’s comforting to know that her uncomplicated delight can now wander hand-in-hand with the concerns of adulthood.
There’s a kneading in my chest, a drawing out, a punching in, a folding over. I’m not quite sure what the end result is meant to be (and I’m doubtful it’s worth all the commotion). My lungs are doing their best to press on despite the surrounding churn, thin breath in, thin breath out, a constant battle against diaphragm.
Shoulders are corded tight, ratcheted two clicks past comfortable and tugging up toward my beleaguered neck. They too, appear to know something I don’t.
It slithered in from somewhere, maybe alongside that dream last night with all that frantic dismemberment and panicked swipes of fingerprints. Maybe it came in as I drew away from the present and slid toward the past without shuffling my thoughts into order first.
It’s refusing to answer questions in any case.
This feeling is the one that wants to consume everything in sight. Fill all bodily cavities until there is no room for churn or movement or tightness. There is only the sturdy counter press of repletion.
It always passes, sliding out of my skin and into another’s without any pattern or cause. In the meantime, this mound of flesh I call ‘mine’ will continue to jitter and jolt its way onward, desires and motives entirely opaque.
I spent the past few days bathing in a pool of like minds.
(Also a lot of sweat.)
There’s an inordinate sense of comfort when everyone around you shares your values, when you can speak to a stranger without carefully excising all the bits of your self that might prove controversial.
In times like these, the warmth and friendliness of fellow humans smooth over the bruises that bloom daily in the wake of the morning news. The songs that break lips begin to burn away the helplessness coiled around hearts. Determination long dimmed stokes at the touch of new hands.
And in the real world, where strangers don’t talk to strangers, eyes dance to avoid another gaze, and another bruise marks my skin, I’ll recall that this stalwart silence does not mean that I am alone.
Painkillers are saviours. With them, there’s a chance that things won’t escalate and I’ll get back to normal much sooner. With them, I’m less likely to do something stupid to make the pain go away. They’re an occasional safety net, a buffer that stops my brain from blowing its tolerance gauge.
But they also coat my brain in lethargy and sew my eyelids shut. They drain me of saliva and dangle me by the nape of my neck so my limbs hang heavy and helpless. My words come slow and cracked, and bruises bloom on my shins and shoulders.
“Is she in love with you?!” They ask, young eyes wide at the impossible concept of love actually being a many splendored thing: one apparently shouldn’t write poems for one with whom you are not in love.
I didn’t get the memo.
And then there’s the careful note in the arms of someone who feels that love has now become something to be coloured within the lines. The innocence and ease has become increasingly self-conscious and cautious as childhood disappears into the distance.
Eyebrows rise if I share a room with my brother or father when travelling, and assumptions are made if I go to dinner with a male friend. Handholding over the age of ten seems to only signal romantic love, so I receive speculative eyeballs when I support my mother – lover? Daughter? Carer?
A spectrum of love exists to be expressed in a spectrum of ways. So I’ll take off my judgy-pants if you take off yours.