Beneath the surface, I spit glittering vitriol in an acid arc around myself. These spattering thoughts blister words into the dirt: ‘Join me in lockdown… feel this grief for a past life… falter here with me, in this stuttering uncertainty.’
But there are those who continue to grow within four walls, plucking opportune plums from a laden bough and making life sweet. They barely stutter at all.
I, meanwhile, simmer in my acid bath, my skin growing thinner with every slow second. The liquid blooms rose-pink and rises.
At some point I should stand up and wade out, before too much of me is lost. But the burn is comforting and the return of full gravity is too much to bear.
I’m staying here. Hip deep in shed niceties, I pass the time by drowning well-meaning platitudes until they dissipate to nothing.
I remember the feel of it, that blanket of trust and warmth and pride and ease. From the inside, it seemed impossible that anything could exist outside the golden globe.
But I’m on the outside now. And I can’t find a path back through the purpling bricks of disappointment and hurt. A wall started stacking the minute disillusionment hit, the minute I slid out of the golden bubble. Each brick whispers a memory, and as I brush my fingers against coarse surfaces, those jolts of remembered pain rip their way back in.
And I jerk back from love.
My body built those bricks in response to threat: each one shaped around grit that would have scoured my heart raw. Each one is a warning that this love hurts.
To get back to love, I would have to pass through these mounds of past pains, feeling them anew.
I know that love is somewhere in there. But it might not be worth the journey.
Sometimes it seems they’re caught in amber, in beads cast down by a sweating Sun. And it’s a beautiful place to be – all golden light and weightless suspension, and they’re barely aware that the slide of liquid has stilled around them.
And sometimes the amber darkens to tar. Surface long unbroken, they suspend beneath a blackened crust accompanied only by the larvae of petroleum flies and the souls of all those creatures who discovered the afterlife was hot and sticky.
And sometimes a light catches the tar and it turns to ice. They’re barely visible within, just shadowed potential, but the faintest signs of thaw mark the gritted grey surface. There’s no way to know if they will emerge from Schrödinger’s ice cube unscathed despite their years of stasis.
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.
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.
I can never find the edge where we stop and illness begins.
The line that divides personality from disease is fractal, endlessly complex and barely perceptible. And the closer you are to someone, the more you realise that their illness invades every action, every reaction.
I wonder sometimes who you would be if it were cut from you, leaving only the pieces that are actually you behind. Would your soul buoy upward with every sinew sliced apart? Would a rose tint engulf your vision after a lifetime of grey? Would all those barriers and obstacles and weights and troubles clatter to the ground with a tremendous roar as you finally shook free?
I suspect the shadow shape left behind by the carving would continue to whisper. It goes too deep now. Its flesh is your flesh.
And so I learn to love what has become you. I watch my own flesh begin to entwine with illness and cannot stop decisions from being nudged by this poisonous pairing. A scorpion’s sting lodged in its own back.
We have become one and the same. Fraying at the edges.
The division was pleasingly symmetric, although it got a bit wonky along the spine (it’s not all that easy to do with a kitchen knife).
My left side had finally had enough of being the silent partner, the good one, the better half, always held back by its troublesome twin. All those shows it had to miss, the dinners it didn’t get to eat, and the sleep it could never recover.
My right side is the problem child. It throws tantrums until the whole body has to vomit, and it ruins everything. It gets all the attention: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Do you need anything else? Shall I get you some ice?’
My left side just watched all the while.
I’m not sure what pushed it over the edge. Maybe the conversation I had with the doctor about having to wait even longer for another referral. Maybe the paddy my right side pulled that meant I missed Hamilton (left side really likes musicals).
It’s free now in any case. A bit wobbly on its newborn single sole, and with half a tongue poking through half a jaw of teeth whenever its hand tries to do anything fiddly. But it’ll get there.
No longer hidden backstage, my left side finally has the spotlight.
*This is basically one long piece about vomiting, probably not a great accompaniment for food… (Unless that floats your boat).
Ah Cathay Pacific. Forever wedded to vomit in my mind. It was a very unhappy union.
I was on a long haul flight from China to London and had been cramping merrily for hours. Ibuprofen wasn’t making a dent, despite inadvisable dosages.
My main mistake was choosing to eat airplane food in a belated attempt to line my stomach.
My gorge rose with no warning. Gargantuan and whale like, it buckled my face in a wild bid for freedom. I attempted to keep all orifices closed but was scuppered by my nose, which released a high speed spray of tiny pasta bows – all over the business man next to me.
His suit was wrapped in a lap blanket (he’d clearly done something right in a former life), but he didn’t seem particularly comforted. He reached to prod me, caught sight of my bulging cheeks, and wisely opted to call the air hostess instead.
At this point, the flood gates opened.
A stream of hostesses approached me in masks and gloves with dozens of tiny Cathay Pacific wet wipes, the scent of which promptly launched another volley of vomit.
I assume they thought I was carrying some virulent disease that could land them all in quarantine, so I appreciate that they were willing to come close enough to drop the wet wipes off.
Interminable hours later, I arrived in London on wobbly legs and in a nose-hair dissolving cloud of scent (though I had been wearing a mustard and brown striped jumper, which turns out to be the best vomit camouflage gear you could ask for). I was left very much alone on the coach back to Oxford, free to concentrate on willing my stomach contents to stay put.
My parents picked me up (they were even willing to make physical contact, which is a sign of true love), and watched me with worried faces as I wove toward the car.
I arrived at the boot, and promptly booted over the back wheel – much to the shock of various tourists who clearly hadn’t spent much time in a university town before.
My parents, ever the heroes, actually let me inside the car rather than strapping me to the top, and got me back to safety and a shower at record speed.
I still find Cathay Pacific wet wipes lurking amongst my things. A small plasticky reminder of this proud occasion.
I’d never encountered anything that I couldn’t achieve so long as tried.
So I tried.
I held smiles on lips that no longer worked, turned precognition to maximum to put things in place before they were needed, and tried to follow the rules spoken on a million forums (not too much, not too little, not too keen, not too distant, be less annoying, be less pathetic).
I tried harder.
Helplessness began to claw its way up my throat over and over again, refusing to be swallowed back down. Wet footprints trod cheeks at first in darkness and then began to march in daylight.
I tried harder.
My heart was rubbed raw with myriad microscopic failings. My ears began to ring with siren calls that drowned every scene with portents of failure.
And when I finally cut myself loose, I still didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand that the problem was not one of effort but one of being:
I needed to not be me.
Stuck with me, as it were, I came to recognise the futility of trying.
And yet sometimes those sirens still whisper sweet nothings.
No matter how hard you try, you will never be enough.
There’s so much love there. Two people who will literally sandwich me when I’m howling and bathed in eau du vomit. They will hold me fast against the strange forces that wreck my body. They will feed me, comfort me, walk for me, and help me scrape the bottom of the barrel for sticky dregs of laughter.
Time stops there. Away from the life I have built for myself, the people I have collected, the places I call my own. There live the ones who knew me first, from knee high upward. There are the ones who taught me, inspired me, keep me in their hearts even now. It is there that childhood memories are unpacked.
Home brings summer flowers and cool rooms, new grown frogs and an old purring lap blanket.
And yet a part of me asks, what then?
Is this forever?
Am I letting go of this life I’ve been building and falling a decade backward? Acceding to whatever it is that tears at my body?
Perhaps home must be given new lines to speak. I must dust it off, wipe away the sepia and see it in the light of the present.
Safe harbour in the midst of this ship-wrecking storm.
I was carrying out the arcane and unusual hobby of pulling on my pants – knickers, not trousers – on Thursday, when one of my sacroiliac joints gave a forbidding clunk.
Possibly a(nother) sign from the Universe, this one telling me not to wear pants? (On previous occasions I’ve been putting on trousers, reaching for things, drying my feet, playing catch, or plugging something in, so I guess those are all out too.)
I’m now marooned on my mattress like an upturned turtle (or like a beached walrus as my mother flatteringly suggests). Walking is currently a spine-drenching shriek-inducing slow drag. My neighbours must be thinking I’m having quite the time of it, given the gasps, moans, swearing and thunks I’ve been making when trying to get to the loo. At least alternate reality me is enjoying herself.
Notes for Future Self
Keep the loo roll holder topped up (or else no loo paper for you).
Move all necessities to lower cupboards (but not too low). Or raise the entire floor of the flat. Or get taller.
Stock more painkiller packs by your bed, ditto emergency food for stomach lining. Don’t eat emergency food in non-emergencies, idiot.
Keep antiperspirant next to your bed. For the love of all the gods.
Those fan remotes you thought were stupid? Turns out, not so stupid. Dig those out.
Take the rubbish out whenever possible so it doesn’t fester for days when you can’t move. Adopt a zero tolerance policy for flies.
Rig charger cables to loop over the top of the bed so you don’t spend fifteen minutes wriggling millimetre by millimetre to reach them.
Keep instant edible things in the flat that aren’t just raw tomatoes and celery.
Get a bottom buddy. [NB. Not what it sounds like] [NB2. Not much better than what it sounds like].
The Pain Killer was born for the second time when his family died.
Or more accurately, after he had watched his wife, children, parents and siblings rot to pieces in front of him. Their screams had been just another sound in the hell that had become their village. One after another, no matter the water poured between cracked lips, the bandages placed over festering flesh. There was nothing he could do.
And when his oldest child finally passed, and he looked down upon himself and saw the rot beginning to spread across his tanned torso, he began to laugh. He wrapped his shaking form around the stinking remains of his loved ones and he gave himself away to the void.
The void had sent him back.
He now wore a thick grey fur cloak, a long way from the thin woven clothes his wife had made for him when he had lived before. A continent away, centuries past, but the loss burned fresh within his body.
He had spent weeks journeying to this town. As he approached, a familiar wailing rose from inside the walls. The snow on the road was splattered with red.
He could see the pain even from this distance, a dark miasma in a frenzy above the buildings. Meaningless slaughter had released the pain that had been held in those bodies, leaving it to dart and swirl until it found a target amongst the living.
Though pain could be generated by humanity, it could not easily be removed from the world. It might transform into grief, or physical pain, or mental anguish, it might linger for weeks or decades, moving from host to host. But it would not naturally dissipate.
The Pain Killer was one of the only ones left with the knowledge of how to ground pain. He had met others at major catastrophes, their interactions limited to professional nods of acknowledgement. But there seemed to be more and more pain erupting across the world, and fewer and fewer of them left to face it.
A light-haired young man had his hands pressed to the rough stone of the town wall. His head was bent, back heaving with deep retches interposed with sobs. Pain roiled around him, an impossible amount attempting to burrow its way in.
The Pain Killer kept his distance. He inhaled, and began to draw the filaments away from the bent figure, bracing himself against the lashing anguish. He channelled the darkness into the ground below, trapping the writhing mass in depths warmed by the Earth’s core. As he worked, the figure of the young man unbent, still burdened by grief but no longer maddened by it.
The Pain Killer eyed the young man. There were so many here that could be born into another life. Into this life. He could taste rage, grief, blood in the air. And there was more and more pain in the world, spreading from man to man like pestilence.
And yet even for the sake of the world, he would not have another be born again as he had been. He would not cause another to ‘live’ as he lived.