Trigger

It can be innocuous. A tone of voice. A word. A touch. A smell. It can be more overt. Descriptions. News stories. But the effect of both can be the same. That in one instant you are moved, transported, experiencing two events at once. It’s that aspect people find tricky when you try to explain. The notion that you are experiencing it.

You can be anywhere, wholly aware of what is going on. On a train: conscious of the announcements, the discomfort of the seats, the reflections in the window, the presence of your fellow passengers, the passing countryside. In an office: aware of the draught from the window, the cursor flashing on the monitor, the murmurs of phonecalls by those in neighbouring offices.

In telling friends that you are transported they seem awkward, not comprehending. One perceived that you left, that your mind had gone. That you were not there. But that’s not the case. You still sense your surroundings. But you are simultaneously somewhere else, somewhere long gone but present still – experiencing that. And when you are experiencing the other place you smell, you hear, you touch, you see. You feel. Oh, how you feel. The raw, visceral emotions burn through your body, through your head. And your body reacts. It is present, aware of now, but feeling then, feeling that overwhelming, that body and mind encompassing distress that you feel in your heart and in your lungs and in your gut.

But how do you get there?

The unexpected smell of fumes from a car exhaust, a glimpse of certain Christmas decorations, the untrailed news report, each can transport you back to the town, to the park full of bags, to the house, kerosene and smoke heavy in the air, as you peer through the window. Feeling the touch of someone against you can move you years. An unexpected hand on the shoulder, a leg against yours while on the train, certain words, a voice, or a report recounting events. Each can punch you. Bend you double. Head here, and elsewhere. Looking in the mirror. Frozen.

And the incomprehension, the fear, is there again. And again. And again. Stuck in your head, relived, time after time after time. Stuck. In your head. And you can’t breathe. And you can’t think. And you can’t move.

Triggers they call them. Triggers. Events, sensory experiences, that transport you. That leave you debilitated, reliving, re-experiencing.

But there are ways sometimes to manage them. Instances where you expect something, and can be ready, can know that you will cope. Now this does not cover every scenario. The hands on your shoulders, the fumes, the throwaway reference in a news report, may arise without your expecting it, may prompt – however momentarily – the shift in perception, that moment where you are Schrodinger’s person. But sometimes a simple act indicating there are issues that will be addressed within a news bulletin (“coming up next”) or a table of contents in a book or, when a student, a wording in a handout or in a lecture that next time a certain topic will be dealt with can allow you mentally to prepare.

But if you were a student some years ago such civility allowing you to prepare might not have existed. Handouts were distributed on the day of a lecture. A much-loved lecturer would giggle his way through extreme tales of distress, egged on by those in the back row.

But such civility is common now. Handouts are distributed in advance, students are aware that certain topics are covered. Sometimes this basic decency gets a label: The trigger warning.

But the moment you use the expression you provoke certain zealots.

It’s the sneer that gets you. You know the thing. You’ve read it. The references to “snowflakes” or the “snowflake generation” where a man (bar a Hopkins or a Hartley Brewer it’s nearly always a man) writes disparagingly about the youths who can’t cope with modern life, who need “trigger warnings” (they italicise or use inverted commas for added snark). The contempt, the bile, they feel for those who have suffered trauma is uncomfortable.

It is bullying.

It is an attack.

Why are they so concerned by an institution or a lecturer acknowledging that where a student may face a visceral reaction that leads him or her to relive a trauma in a way that may render them unable to handle material and to miss an essential class or feel generally that a course or a programme is not for them? Why are they so offended by this? Why insult those whose lives are made a little easier by these warnings? Why do the journalists feel that those who have experienced trauma, who live with the events every day of their lives, are more worthy of contempt than others? Why do they hold those who have survived traumas, who have survived some of the worst experiences you can imagine, in such contempt? Column filed, coins for sneers banked, do they sleep easy? 

 

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I don’t have the word

Three, four months ago you sit in your office, a book open on the desk, next to it a set of photocopies and print outs ready to be scrawled on. You are meant to be preparing for tomorrow. A few moments ago you left the room. A radio story took you years before. You switched off, flinching. But it was too late. You were there, and here. And you are struggling to read. Words have shadows behind them. Often this is a sign of an imminent migraine, but there is no pain behind the eyes. No flashes. No spirals. But you can feel your need to hide. The letters jumble. The shapes becoming unrecognisable. You close the blinds. If someone passes and asks you can say it’s the late summer sunlight, maybe a glare.

And as you tense, on the pages where sentences can be made out their context vanishes. Words sit on the page with an odd look. Letters reaching up. Letters reaching down. Shapes do not relate to meaning. It is obscured.

And you fidget. You scramble through the papers, the book. They are the same, all of them the same. Black lines and curves on the page. An unreadable incomprehensible mishmash.

They’ve  gone. The words have gone.

You go to your door, lock it, and edge to the corner of the room where your coat hangs.

You crouch there, the coat over you.

Your breathing is erratic, your ears pulsing.

You close your eyes.

Try to concentrate on the rhythm of the breathing.

On the rhythm.

When you open your eyes a few minutes later you can make out titles on the spines of volumes on the shelves.

You unlock the door.

– I’m fine,

whispered to no one in particular, reassuring no one in particular.

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Some personal posts

This post just gathers together links to some personal posts. It will be updated over time.

 

desert island discs

Desert Island Discs – I

Desert Island Discs – II

Desert Island Discs – III

Desert Island Discs – IV

 

Of friendship

on being anti-social

Circles

Afterwards 

 

 

Mental health

Memories remembered

Train trip

Silence

Before talking 

I don’t have the word

Beginning

The questionnaire

Thought for the day

Talking

Talking again

The Spielvogel moment

Writing

The appointment – I

The Appointment – II

be kind to yourself 

 

Other stuff

Trigger

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be kind to yourself

– So this week?

– I was at the GP again. And at hospital. I’m off, still off.  Another month. Too long. It’s bothering me. There are people having to step in and cover stuff and they’re stretched already and I’ve made things worse. It’s a bad time for them, just now. I should

– But you’re ill.

– It’s not your fault.

– I should.

– Be kind to yourself.

– It’s hard. You know? It’s

– The hospital?

– The hospital appointment was helpful. She explained the physiology. How it worked. Why I’m stuck. That something is so overwhelming that your brain can’t handle it. That it can’t process it, leaves it raw, a giant knot of emotion and it’s stuck and can’t move through to the next part, and you can’t process. And you deal with it in various ways. You ignore it. You cope by ignoring it. By developing things to avoid it. And so this. This.

– She said that it happened. The. Well. It was because my reserves had been worn down, that the body and the brain could not keep up the effort to keep it out. And so I. Normal coping strategies would break down. And when, you know, when you’re faced with it it overwhelms you because it’s the raw stuff that hits you, the unprocessed mishmash, with everything that went with it. Everything. The feelings. The hurt. The. Distress. Understand? That distress. That overwhelming feeling that meant you couldn’t cope in the first place. The unprocessed raw emotional punch. And it hits your head and hits your gut and

– It’s not there in my head all the time. It’s not.

– But it must be. Because things that years ago wouldn’t have mattered matter.

– It’s the transporting. The sense that you are fully here and fully somewhere else. And when I’ve tried to explain to people they look at me as if I’m. Well, you know. They do. It’s like.

– Do you know The Prisoner? The TV series?

– [shakes head]

– He was a spy, and he resigned and is kidnapped and wakes up in a place where his identity’s been wiped. The identity of everyone has been wiped. They’re numbers. Just numbers. And if they try to escape there are guards, giant guards like. You know those big balls that people can use on water – you go inside them and.  The guards are like those big balls. And it’s like having one of those in your head. Semi-opaque. You can see through sometimes in some lights, you can see round it, but there are times where you are very conscious it’s there. Hyper-conscious. And at those times you view everything through that. It distorts your view. Everything is seen through it, but you’re still aware where you are, and you feel everything that’s there. If you were cut or pricked you’d feel that sharp pain. But you’re somewhere else too. Feeling that. Aware of that.

– And it can be a smell. Or reading about something, where you can feel what happened because it.

– You feel it. Triggers, they call it. And it’s not a great word, but it takes you. That instant you are there, and not there. Schrodinger’s person. You feel it. You feel

– I feel.

– Or it can be a touch or a smell or a voice or a tone. Sitting there and hearing someone, or a particular way of speaking, and I’m off. I’m there but not there. I keep hearing what is around me, but I see the. And it’s so vivid. So visceral. You are there, seeing the room, and everything. And feeling the

– And it is overwhelming. Because that raw emotion of being there, of it happening, engulfs you, takes over you, and you are caught. You are stuck.

– And it’s there. In vision. In your head.

– All the time.

– In your head.

– And you can’t

– You can’t

– Breathe in now. Breathe in.

– Out.

– And again.

– It’s not your fault. It wasn’t your fault. And again. Think about how you’d be with someone else. What you’d do. What you’d think.

– And again.

– Be kind to yourself.

– Be kind

  

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The Appointment – II

– It started last year. I was on a train. The GP described it as a

– well, it seemed too dramatic. I thought it was too dramatic, too strong. But as it’s gone on, I think he was maybe right. Maybe it was. But the word suggested something explosive, a bang. And it wasn’t like that at the time, but during the year the effect has been

– He said it was. Anyway, maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s right.

– I was on a train. Delayed, the last one cancelled. November night. Moved from platform to platform. It was packed, two trains worth of people. I’d got on, sat next to window and then it got busier. And the person next to me got closer. Just in my space. Getting closer, nudged over. And there was no need for it. The train was busy but they didn’t need to touch me. They didn’t need to. And I flinched. Tensed. And I was

– There’s someone at my work. He has depression too. We’d been for a chat, had lunch. And he told me how it oppressed him, how he felt swamped by the darkness, how he’d feel overwhelmed. And I explained that I’d be moved, transported’s the best word. Transported. In two places at once. Sometimes three. When I told him he moved away, looked at me as if I was mad.

– And I was in the train, and the person next to me came into my space. They didn’t need to be there. They didn’t need to. They weren’t being pushed from the aisle. They just moved close. They touched me. I felt them touch me. And I was in the train, and I was there. I was there. In the train. I was there. I could feel them next to me. I could hear them. But I closed my eyes. And it was dark, you know? It was November. I could see reflections in the window from inside the train. And it was dark and I leaned my head against the window and I was in the bus. And I was there too. I was there. And I started to cry. I cried. Nose running Juliet Stevenson crying. And the train was so busy that nobody moved. And I closed my eyes and I could feel them staring. And I. I was stuck. I wanted out. I couldn’t get out. And I was crying and I was stuck there, next to the window. And I leaned my head against it and felt the vibrations through my body like on the bus when we used to go to my granny’s. And I was there. And in the train. You understand? Transported.

– The following weeks were difficult. I stayed in. I worked at home. I couldn’t go out. I got phone numbers. Had them on sheets of paper. Searched for help. Visited sites. But I didn’t phone. Didn’t email. And then I got a message thanking me for help. I’d put someone in touch with a counsellor, with some support, after a bereavement, and she sent me an email thanking me and it was so touching. I knew. I knew that if I was someone I knew I’d tell them to contact. So, I phoned a counselling service at work, got an appointment. A cancellation. I don’t know if I’d have gone if there’d not been a cancellation. I was rushed into it. And I went. And

– I told her. About the plane, about the bodies. About

– Too complicated. She said it was too complicated. They only had six sessions. She said I’d need more. A lot more. She gave me numbers – charities mainly – said I had to see the doctor. I didn’t make an appointment right away. The doctor said I’d had a breakdown, had depression. That’s when he’d contacted you.

– and you turned down medication?

– at that point, yes. I worried. Dependence. The impact on creativity, on finding those connections – those joins. The leaps. The inspiration. You understand?

– [nods]

– But I am now. A few weeks. After I’d started the counselling. I was struggling.

– And the counselling has been for?

– Nearly four months. It’s been hard. It’s with

– [She notes the name, nods] and?

– It took a while to talk. Weeks. It was in the sixth week. Seventh maybe? I realised I was distracting, avoiding. Talking about talking.

– And I’m stuck. It’s in my head. Opening this up. It’s in my head. And there are reminders, flash points. Triggers. Yes, triggers. Things that send you there. And you’re transported. Again. And again. And you’re there. You’re

– The second person. I slip. I discussed that in counselling. It’s a defence. A distancing. You know? I do it a lot. In talking. In writing. You understand?

– I don’t want you to think I’m like that all of the time. But it became a distraction. My work. I couldn’t. I felt overwhelmed. It was in my head. What happened. It was there. It was

– In my head.

– Things I’d been doing on automatic pilot, the routine, the easy stuff. I stopped. It was in my head. And I couldn’t even

– And the GP signed me off. I’m off. Processing. Trying to process. Trying to cope. And it’s not there all the time. I have good days. Good periods. It’s not there all the time. It’s not.

– It’s not.

– And what do you want?

– Before I started, before the counselling, if you’d given me a magic wand, if you could just take that and. You know Total Recall? The story? I just wanted it wiped. If I could get it wiped I thought everything would be better. I’d be better. I’d be. Well. I’d be well. But not now. I want to ac. I don’t want to accept. Acceptance is the wrong word. It’s too positive. Too satisfied. You’re happy with it. And I’m not. I can’t accept it. Why should I accept it? But it’s who I am. It’s why I am. It’s part of. I want to. I want to park it. To acknowledge. To cope. To not have it in the front of my head. I don’t want that there, but it’s part of me. So through this I want to acknowledge it, and not to function. I’ve spent decades functioning. Avoiding. But I don’t want that. I can’t go back.

– I can’t.

– I can’t.

 

 

 

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The appointment – I

I arrive early at the hospital unit, half an hour early. I’d taken the train, walked to the offices, worrying I’d be late. The building was nondescript, a bungalow amidst other bungalows. There’s a security intercom. I buzz, give my name, and the door clicks open.

There is no one about when I get inside. Three empty plastic chairs, the sort of chairs you get in secondary school classrooms, are in the hall. I sit nearest the door, take out a book, wait to be seen, conscious of the clock on the wall opposite. I hear every movement of the second hand.

After a few minutes people walk past, carrying bags or files. There are nods, murmurs. I read the same sentence three times. Awkward. Not going in. Names merging one into another. I turn back to the start of the chapter.

And I hear every movement of the second hand.

Someone else comes in, a woman, younger than me, brown haired. She smiles. I mouth a hello. She is seen within minutes, leaves about ten minutes later.

I sit.

Every movement of the second hand.

Then my name.

– Hi, would you like to come through now?

Her office is large, computer on her desk, next to the keyboard an A4 notepad, narrow feint. Her chair is set at a height that looks uncomfortable. She perches. Fidgets in between writing notes.

I sit in a chair with is back to the window. I cross my legs, tuck my foot behind my calf, and fold arms.

– Sorry.

She looks. Makes a note

– I have the referral from your GP here. It was

She looks at the letter clipped in the file.

– ah. Ten months. Oh. I’m sorry there’s been such a delay. We’ve had, mmm, staffing issues. Some retirements. Lack of legacy planning. You know?

I nod. I know. It’s familiar. Such things happen across offices, across sectors.

– Are you off at the moment?

I nod.

– Three weeks past. I’d kept going and kept going but I was struggling. Things that had been fine became difficult.

She makes a note.

– Overwhelming.

She looks at me. I glance to the door, edge down in the chair, arms folded tighter.

– We can go through the things your doctor, Doctor

She looks at the letter clipped in the file, reads the name aloud.

– We can go through the things he identified. Of course with the time some things might have. Anyway, I can ask you questions or you can talk, tell me in your own words how things are, how you got to here. We’ll cover everything either way, so it’s for you really. Which do you?

Which do I?

– I’ve been in counselling for around twelve sessions. Could I?

She writes a note, gestures.

– It started last year. I was on a train. The GP described it. Well, it seemed too dramatic. I thought it was too dramatic. Too strong. But as it’s gone on, I think he was maybe right. Maybe it was. But the word suggested something explosive, a bang.

 

 

 

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Weinstein

It is about power.

It is about asserting that power and making the person the power is asserted against feel weak, whether that weakness is physical or emotional.

And the attacker, the (let’s call him what he is) abuser, he (and it’s almost always a he) knows that the person abused may not, often will not, tell because they are ashamed, or guilty that they didn’t, couldn’t, stop it – no matter how old they are – or fear that they may not be believed, or fear that by talking they may damage their career, that possible futures,  may vanish, or fear that awareness of the abuse will hurt those close to them, or fear that by telling they will relive the ordeal, that by telling there are some who will take the opportunity to define them by what happened.

And if the person abused does not speak is it their fault? Are they responsible for everything after? Those who are quick to blame the person abused for their understandable silence appear oblivious to the existing guilt, the trauma, the way they live with the incident for months, for years afterwards.

And those moments of asserting power, those moments of violation, of violence are gone quickly. Does the abuser lie awake at night remembering? Does he lie awake revisiting the moment?

 

 

 

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National poetry day

There came a point where you reached a stage of self-awareness as you read the poetry that you scribbled on A4 narrow feint lined notepads, the words spidering halfway along each line, those words scrawled in the half light, those words attempting to translate the sharply felt anxieties of the teenage crush, that crippling moment of being tongue tied when the object of your adoration bumped into you in the corridor, the realisation that the boy in the year above with the earring and the place in the school football team was kissing her in the doorway of the newsagents as you walked home. The clumsy rhymes and tone deaf experiments with meter gave way to free verse that was simply chopped up sentences, with arbitrarily placed line endings. And did the occasional allusion really add anything? Pretentious? Moi? It was no ode to a nightingale. It was not even the song of a crow. You know that the emotions are real, that the attempt to convey the emotions was sincere enough, but it was not good. You know that because you read the good stuff, the hard stuff – the irritatingly printed collecteds (two or three poems to a page – no space to breathe, not enough whiteness of paper to let you think) and the Chatto and Windus and Faber hardbacks gathered in the school library from the 50s not just the starter kits passed round in the class room. Sure you’d had a quick taste of Larkin or MacCaig, but eventually that wasn’t enough. You had to go to the special room in the library, eventually that secret section of the bookshop where customers waited until no-one else is there and took the books off the shelf and flicked them open, standing still as they read, hearing the silent music. You’d read the artists, those who expressed a thought or feeling you’d had in a way that explained to you, and others, what you thought, what you felt. Images stuck with you. Lines. Stanzas. And reading the good stuff you knew that what you wrote failed those tests. But you knew, you still know that what you read touches you, takes your heart elsewhere, and with the work you loved, you still love, best you empathised, and understood yourself a little better. You shared Nina Cassian’s rejections, and the broken love affairs. You felt the numbness of the depression as Plath came across the sheep in the fog. You’re on the plane with Walcott coming into land. All those years ago when your teacher urged you (as gently as you can be urged) to stick to short stories and fiction you (occasionally) ignored him. You wrote poems sometimes, self-indulgent – your wife, years later, calls them. They’re still not good. You’re still aping the styles of those you love. But you kept, keep, reading. And you would have a less rich, a less full life without the poets.

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Writing

She gives you a pad of paper.

– There’s a pen if you

You have your own. The ink flows easier from your rollerball.

– We’ve discussed writing.

You’re half listening now. You know. You’d tried. Sat down and tried. Have spent years sitting down trying to write. On trains. In cafes. In libraries. Last time you sat was at the weekend, the cursor flashing on a white screen. Single sentences. Sometimes just individual words. That’s all you’ve managed.

You take the pen. You begin. Sentences are short, clipped. It reads like a police report. All in the past tense. Distancing yourself. Until halfway down the page it becomes present tense, and you smell the smells, that sharp stench, and the hairs on your arm prickle as your breathing speeds and you slowly try to take control of it. Counting. Breathing out for twice as long as you breathe in. You fidget, you feel tears on your cheeks.

Present tense.

The sentences break down. Lose grammar. No structure. Eventually your writing spiders across the page. Individual words. Just words. Full stops.

“I hate”

Three, four times.

“I hate”

New line.

“I hate”

You look at the shape of the words on the page, don’t reread. Two long paragraphs. Now, single sentences occupying only a third of a line and you see the structure of each. Questions.

“Why” did this?

“Why” did that?

“Why me?”

“Why?”

You stop writing.

I start to cry.

For you, then.

For you.

For me.

I cry.

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The Spielvogel moment

and so twenty minutes or so into our sixth meeting I said to her,

– I realise what I’ve been doing. I’ve been talking about not talking. When I’ve talked about her, and our weekly chats, and that night when I left after she… Well, after she trusted me so much

She nods.

– and about that year in that house, all of it. It’s been about not talking. About building up to talking and not being able to, because something happens, because someone says something, or it feels wrong, or because I can’t. Because I just can’t. … And it hit me. I was talking to my wife about this at the weekend and telling her that everything was about not talking, about not being able to talk. Everything. All of it. It’s all been about that. That I’ve spent weeks with you talking about not talking. About distraction. Circling it. I realised. And I’m good at it. It’s well practised. I’ve spent years not talking, about learning how not to talk. About avoiding conversations. I mean people know. You know. But it’s just enough, just enough when people need to know, when it’s unavoidable. And I don’t talk, and I can digress and divert and not talk for ages. It’s a skill. An art. I do it exceptionally well. I’ve had to. I’ve had to. To not talk.

I turn away from the corner of the room I had been focusing on and face her and she nods again, and she tells me she had wondered how long it would take me to realise that.

And I know then that this is the Dr Spielvogel moment. That from now we may perhaps to begin.

 

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Talking again

You ramble.

You know what you want to say but you ramble, avoid it.

Talking is difficult. Talking about talking is difficult. It is hard work. And so you distract.

A bit about work, about now, about the past. And your eyes flick left and right. And you ridicule the stages of familiarity, those desperate days, student days, where conversations moved from where you went to school, to what subjects you studied, to favourite books, and favourite films. You sneer. The innocence of freshers week: the notion that a friendship can be built on happening to like the same book, happening to like the same film.

No one liked your favourite film. Pretentious? Moi? You know. You know the scene. Humiliated he left for home, ran the sink, and

And she questions. Gently. Sometimes repeating you. Sometimes not. And you stop looking at her. And your eyes flick left, flick right. And still. And you look at the corner of the room. Unoccupied. No seat. No table. A bare wall.

And you are elsewhere.

You recognised her, eventually. Brown coat. She was wearing a light brown coat – nearly knee length. And you bumped into each other crossing the road. And soon after you stammered that you were hating it, that you couldn’t stay, that you would give up. And she?

You start to stammer. Odd. Now infected by then. Time bleeds. You stammer. You have started to stammer.

Slow down.

“I knew her, a little. We’d talked. A little. Sports day. We’d both avoided it. And we’d talked.”

Yes, two years before you’d told her about him dying, and about the crash, and about the hills, and the windows, and the trees. And you’d talked. And so when you bumped into her, literally bumped into her, hand waving apologies gave way to the awkward exclamations of not quite familiarity, names asked as questions. And then affirmation, recognition, and soon, so soon, picking up a conversation from two years before.

And she?

“She saved me”

You don’t look. You don’t want to see the reaction.

But one night a week became something to look forward to. A meal. Something when you weren’t eating. She knew. Eventually you tell her but she knew you were not eating. Had you lost that much weight? Or was it the demeanour, the mournful demeanour?

“That’s a strong statement.”

“She did.”

She did. In retrospect you know she did. She persuaded you to stay.  And you’d talk. And you’d share stories of lives and loves, or the lack of loves. And talking became important. Some nights you’d stay late, catch the late bus – trapped in a crowd of blue haired women clutching handbags exiting the bingo hall. Some nights later still, needing a taxi. But you didn’t mind the expense because talking mattered.

And you start to talk about talking, and your eyes prickle, the sharp heat of tears, and the words stop, and you’re truly, madly, deeply in full Juliet Stevenson mode – reach for the handkerchief and

in her kitchen you are ready to trust someone more than you have trusted anyone when she tells you there is something she needs to tell you and you listen and you know she trusted you and you want to hug her and tell her that everything will be okay and that it changes nothing but you don’t move and you don’t speak and you sit not knowing what to do with your hands and

Through tears you stumble out, “She told me”

And you didn’t move. You sat there. You sat there, silent. Not knowing what to do with your hands. She trusted you and you sat there. You didn’t move.

And you sit silent. You look at the wall. You don’t move.

 

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Talking

She sits in front of the window.
She always sits in front of the window.
The curtains are open, and while the entrance to the gravel driveway leading to the building sits on a main road the view from the window is of the large hedge which shields the garden and the grounds.
She sits in front of the window, her back to it, a small table with files and papers to her right.
You had a choice of two chairs. One is in the corner of the room, diagonally across from her chair. You do not sit there. Instead you sit by the wall, between you and her a small coffee table, leaflets on it, black leaflets with bold white type. You use the top one as a coaster, so the cup of tea, strong and made in the cup, does not mark the table. There is a box of tissues. There is always a box of tissues.
You talk.
Between the silences you talk.
Between the silences, those moments where you are present but no longer in the room, smelling the kerosene, the stench, the sweat stained stench, of alcohol, hearing the whispered voices, seeing the windows, the orange sheets on the hill, the mirror, you talk. You sit there and talk. She can tell when you’re not there, sometimes lets it go. Sometimes she asks. But you don’t have to answer. Most of the time, just now, it is easier not to answer.
You don’t always mean to end up where you end up. After a couple of weeks you realised that preparing and thinking about what you are going to talk about did not necessarily help. You’d guessed you would be in the kitchen – looking out of the back window at the tree, at the house, that window, but you couldn’t tell that you’d be in a garden, grass taller than you, the hand opening to reveal a frog, a vibrant green frog. And you worry that that matters, that these routes, these detours to avoid, that she can tell, that she knows, that she is working out what it means, that she is doing this with every word, with every gesture. And so every time you become conscious that you slip from “I” to “you” you note it. You tell her.
She makes a note.
“We’ll come back to that”.
You nod. You will.
You will come back to it.
I will come back to it.
I will come back.

 

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EXCLUSIVE: No actual leak measures up to the ideal leak for which I yearn

It’s the middle of the night (again) and I’m back into bed from a relaxing leak. I’m not prepared to say which leak of the night because the problems between bearded Booker prize winning novelists and their prostates are not for everyone to follow on the Instagram or the tumblr. I am still trying to decide whether I have broken my jinx with leaks and enjoyed myself. I think I probably haven’t. On the plus side, I didn’t, sleepy-eyed, drop my phone into the bowl this time. But I was, again, woken in the early hours by the urge. At this age the flow doesn’t come sweeping every day like Niagara from the mountains. And as I’m not on holiday I didn’t have to listen to a twenty something leak bore telling everyone over breakfast how fast and uninterrupted his golden arch is.

So what was on the minus side? I suppose the leak itself. For some reason, no actual leak I take ever measures up to the ideal platonic leak for which I yearn. This could be because of a fleetingly beautiful leak I had as a child. We were just driving by. My father never liked stopping the car, but some way from a service station and in a relatively deserted part of Manchester, at my insistence he did – just long enough for me to hide among the bushes, quickly go, and come skipping back to the car. It seemed a vast leak to me, ending far, far away and whispering the impossible relief that only the other side of a leak can promise.

A leak in the bushes proves the leaker’s prowess, but also somehow bears his hopes, and is more suggestive to me than any leak cast carelessly over the boat side into the sea. A leak is more mysterious than the ocean. Think how fascinating the idea of a leak monster is. One of those insects you read about that swims up the flow and embeds itself in you. Scares the willies out of me, I’ll tell you. There are doubtless far stranger and more menacing things under the sea, but the sea is not our business as a leak is (in more ways than one!). What’s in a leak is mysteriously still part of us.

Say “leak”, and down in our unconscious something stirs. But what? I’m still trying to find out. And with this prostate I’ll tell you it doesn’t always make for a successful sleep.

Will this do? Who do I invoice? Can I go back to writing novels now?

[syndicated to The Guardian and all newspapers publishing Booker prize winning novelists]

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Desert Island Discs – IV

“…and your fourth record?”

I could check when the radio repeats took place, but it feels like cheating. I’d heard Hancock before but I’m not sure how or when. There had been cassettes at the library I’m sure, the old BBC logo on the cover. And there were some repeats on the television in the early evening. Prime time black and white repeats. Of course it wasn’t unusual to encounter black and white broadcasts at the time. There was Bilko, of course. And Channel 4 had showed the Beverly Hillbillies and I Love Lucy and The Munsters when it started, and in my head they were all in black and white. I loved Bilko. The careful construction. The characterisation. And Silvers. Oh, Phil Silvers. So sharp, so quick, never looking out of control. Even in The Court Martial as poor Private Harry Speakup is drummed out of the army Silvers improvises around the chimp reaching for the phone. Unflustered, masterly. I bought my granny a compilation of Bilko episodes, and never saw her laugh as much as she did when the chimp was making his way through the various tests before being sworn in. She laughed and laughed until tears left trails on her cheeks. Thinking about these shows sends me down youtube trails where I end up in old American What’s my line episodes, skipping from blindfolded guess the celebrity round to blindfolder guess the celebrity round.  And there were black and white films on regularly. Every Friday night used to have an old Rathbone Sherlock Holmes or a Charlie Chan film, and Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd regularly appeared in the holiday schedules. And Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the BBC2 presents of RKO movie seasons and another late night view of Cat People. I can’t remember what was in the black and white repeats but remember picking up VHS recordings of The Missing Page, The Lift, and The Blood Donor. And after catching the radio repeats one Christmas – starting with, of all things, The TV set – not one of the great episodes, and not with the perfect radio cast (Griselda Pugh in the person of Hattie Jacques was some way off at that point) – I went out and started looking for Hancock audio cassettes, and years later the CD box sets of the radio series. There is something special about the radio series. It is perfectly cast – Hancock’s delivery and pauses are a joy but Sid James and Bill Kerr were my favourites: the wide boy and the hopelessly naïve colonial. And Hattie Jacques is imperious – businesslike, flirtatious, a counterweight to the others. And of course Kenneth Williams through snide voice or others.  And the writing is wonderful. One liners built from character or situation, characters so well defined, so well inhabited, that even sighs can generate laughs. I could have picked a number of episodes. I love the pretension of Hancock (anticipating The Rebel) in The Poetry Society, Fred’s pie stall, the guest appearance of James Robertson Justice in Last of the McHancocks, Hancock’s retreat from society and Sid’s cash in in the Wild Man of the Woods, and the perfection of Sunday afternoon at home. But I’d choose the episode I listened to more than any other, a TV episode. I’ve bought Twelve Angry Men in various formats, repackaged and rebundled. As a single cassette with The Lift, as part of the Hancock’s Half Hour 3 double cassette, on VHS, on DVD in the single series, and then in the box set, and latterly in MP3 form. I love each part – the courtroom sequence, the toing and froing with the judge with Sid egging Hancock on, the jury scenes with Sid’s vote switch, Hancock’s speech, the slow act of persuading the jurors to change their votes, and Hancock’s final switch back. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?” The Corsican brothers comparison “and I say we’ve got the good one”. “He said he thought they were teddy boys”. On and on. I still laugh through it, waiting for each pause, the slight stumble (deliberate or accidental?) between wife and life. Few half hours have given me more pleasure. And so my fourth choice – Hancock’s Half Hour: Twelve Angry Men

 

 

 

 

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Thought for the day

Earlier today while I was still crying after telling the stranger I had first met twenty five minutes before about the bodies as I sat in the room and felt myself simultaneously elsewhere hearing and smelling and seeing the covered stretchers in the neighbouring garden, and the body in the tree at the foot of the garden, and the occupied airline seat, arm lolling by its right, in the window at the rear of the property, and the orange blankets dotted around the hillside I was glad to reflect on the words of Piers Morgan and be reassured that as I have no military background and am just some normal punter I clearly can’t be suffering from any form of that over diagnosed post traumatic stress disorder.

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Desert Island Discs – III

“…and your third record?”

Some people think I don’t like music. That’s not quite true. I listen to it, occasionally. But it is not central to my life in the way it is for others. I can go for weeks, sometimes months, without going out of my way to listen to it. But then there are a few days where I’m working to the accompaniment of an orchestra or band or solo instrumentalist (background accompaniment – usually familiar enough from days past that I don’t notice it). And then weeks more can pass with no desperate need to hear a tune. And as it’s not important to me I don’t know much about it, have huge blind spots. So bands and songs can be mentioned by my wife, or by friends, and I have no idea who they are. My wife likes Aztec this and Deacon that and the band names can be uttered and she can sing or play the songs with increasing frustration as I shrug my shoulders and offer no glint of familiarity. Other things stick in the mind. For example, I worked in a clothing factory one summer holiday, in a fish processing plant another, and in both cases was exposed to the Radio 1 playlist for the summer which played through every room from clocking in to clocking off.

In growing up there was never the urge to go to concerts. I went to the theatre a few times, and when I ended up doing my degree in Edinburgh spent time going to watch stand up comedy. But the first live music I went to see (through choice – by which I mean, not the desperate attempts to avoid pipe bands during my home town’s local gala festivities) was an opera. I’d heard James MacMillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie in the proms one year and saw that he had an opera (Ines de Castro) playing at the Festival theatre. My then flatmate and I got tickets, went along to watch. Among the first people we met was one of our former lecturers. He looked askance.

“What are you doing here?”

We explained, unnecessarily, that we were there to see the opera.

“Are you sure?”

We exchanged looks.

“It will be very difficult.”

I enjoyed it. Without any expectations or prior experiences the experience was visceral. The tuning of the orchestra gave a tension.

I saw a few operas – La Traviata, Die Zauberflote (you know? the one with the songs offof Amadeus), and Aida (oh poor poor Aida, a bizarre version which at one point involved some very strange goings on with car parts being transported across the stage for reasons that were not immediately apparent, and on reflection suggest that somebody had spiked my lemonade).

And as I stayed in Edinburgh over festival times ended up going to the jazz festival a few times. I saw Humphrey Lyttleton and his band, Tommy Smith with a jazz orchestra in a tribute to Gil Evans, and Jacques Loussier and his trio (an evening where each improvised piece of Bach (and that night Vivaldi) was greeted with a short red jerseyed man leaping to his feet arms aloft as if he’d scored a late winner at Hampden).

And out of festival time I saw Jan Garbarek and his quartet a couple of times, and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra. Each of the names was familiar from my CD collection. Marsalis was an entertainer – engaging the audience, introducing the band, and the tunes. Garbarek was austere. Silent apart from his tenor or soprano saxophone. He was leonine, his hair swept back from his forehead, his eyes slowly checking the hall, then back to watching his fellow musicians. His playing was exquisite, seemingly effortless despite the speed of some solos. I could not work out how his fingers moved that quickly, couldn’t work out when he was taking a breath. For someone with a reputation as austere, as cold, his music had a passion driven on by Marilyn Mazur his percussionist – who moved with every sound. Her performance was physical. Compelling. Arms flexing. She was like a boxer, or a black belt martial artist. Seeming to use all of her weight with each punch of the drums.

I have a few albums by that quartet but the two performances from that night that stand out were Witchi-tai-to and Her Wild Ways. The latter was a showpiece for Garbarek and Mazur. Unfortunately, there are no live albums of the Garbarek/Mazur/Weber/Bruninghaus quartet. But when I hear the Rites And Twelve Moons albums I am reminded of the two nights seeing them.

So my third choice: Jan Garbarek group, “Her wild ways” from the Rites album.

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Desert Island Discs – II

“…and your second record?”

I wasn’t planning to choose this, but thinking about the first choice sent me towards this.

At school I worked on Saturdays and one or two nights a week in a small shop. Weekends were spent marking time by noting the visits of the little old lady from round the corner who arrived three or four times daily for quarter bottles of vodka. Each purchase was apologetic, her voice cigarette cracked. “Sorry son, I’ve had visitors and need to get something in”.

The work was not difficult: stacking shelves, changing prices, arranging orders, serving on meat or fruit and veg counters or at the checkout. And people were, for the most part, friendly. When stacking shelves I had to move packaging from a store at the rear of the shop, and move the detritus – cardboard boxes, packing cases, and trolleys into a store at the side of the shop topped by a clear plastic roof which gave it the feel of a greenhouse.

I had finished school. And in that final year had achieved things what seemed a lifetime (three or four years) had been spent striving for. But achievement was disappointing. I remember the emptiness in the car journey following one success. Was that it? Was this what we’d got so worked up about? I sat in the front seat, my one vivid memory of the day an animal carcass on the road. Its ribcage framed by meat, blood red, leered. When I got home I headed straight for my room. Cried.

I had a university place. I was biding time, trying to build some money up for the months ahead. And so I increased my hours at the shop, having worked intensely at school to do as well as I could.

I grew tired easily, drained. I was flat. Simple things took an age. And then one night I couldn’t read. Concentration gone. Letters would dance on the page – I knew they were meant to make up words, and that words were meant to make up sentences, and that sentences were meant to make up paragraphs, but the letters moved. They would not stay still. I panicked. Reading was my being. Being unable to read, unable to write, would leave me as nothing, as no-one. I was heading for a degree in law where I expected to read a lot and I had forgotten how to do it.

The next day at work I collapsed.

I was in the store in the side of the shop. It was a sunny day. The plastic roof, the clear plastic roof, did its job. The room was hot. I was taking apart boxes, folding them to force into the giant bins. And then I wasn’t.

One of the women who worked there had noticed I’d not been on the shop floor. She brought me round with some water. I went home.

A few days later I was diagnosed with a post viral illness. I was not to go back to work that summer.

Ordinarily, having time meant a space to read. But I couldn’t. The words had stopped dancing but I couldn’t concentrate. I read and reread pages, forgot the top of the page by the time I got to the bottom.

Nothing.

So I hid. Day after day I hid.

I could feel nothing.

I could do nothing.

I was worth nothing.

I wanted to be better, and to be better I wanted to feel. I would mark myself with a pair of compasses, needles, one night a blade.

I could not feel.

I could not

feel

I was in my room a lot. My mum would come in trying to cajole me into life. I lay there. Flat. I kept the radio on a lot during those days. I worked through the channels. Lots of Radio 4, Radio 2 for the sport. And I ended up on radio 3.

In my head I associate getting better with the Proms, but it may be that if I checked the schedules I would find that the relevant thing was on in the middle of the day, or late at night.

It was the first time I had heard the Rite of Spring. The presenter spoke about the opening night. And the music started. And as it went on I felt every drum beat. They reverberated through me. I could feel the drum beats in my heart.

And I wanted to live.

So my second record? My second record is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

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Desert Island Discs – I

The Desert Island Discs list: plenty of us have one, ready to go, just in case the call arrives, “We’ve run out of celebrities, and famous scientists, and diplomats, and broadcasters, and authors, and artists, and musicians, and most of the nonentities have had a go already, and following the introduction of a lottery system based on close scrutiny of the electoral roll we’re delighted to say that you [insert name here], yes you have been selected as the next castaway on desert island discs.” And so lots of us have a list, a putative list, comprising records we love or that remind us of certain things and certain people and certain events.

And then you start thinking about it, about trying to explain the choices and suddenly feelings kick in other than sheer enjoyment – sentiment, love even.

I started writing a variant on this some time ago, my list a series of audio dramas and comedies with a couple of pieces of music primarily because that’s what I listen to, and yet trying to explain I found other pieces shifting to the front of the list – pieces with stories, pieces accompanied by the gentle melody of memories. And so this list, the list that follows, is no longer the eight favourite pieces it was originally intended to be. It’s more and it’s longer than it was meant to be – so it’ll be a bit spread out over a few posts.

“…and your first record please?”

Well Kirsty, we didn’t have many records in my house when I was growing up. My mum and dad had a collection of Christmas albums – Andy Williams, Perry Como, Mario Lanza – and an eclectic range of other records. There were the soundtracks for various musicals (South Pacific and the King and I) and some Scottish ceilidh music (light on the fiddles, they weren’t keen on fiddles). But they weren’t played, at least not as I remember it. Perhaps when we children went to bed the strains of “Shall we dance?” reverberated around the living room. But the only records that I recall being played in the house were the Christmas records for a period of a few weeks annually, coming to an end on twelfth night.

So music was not something that I heard much in the house, and when I remember growing up I don’t remember music. But what I do remember is listening to comedy shows. The local library in my home town had various cassettes from comedies. There was a Yes Minister cassette, both series of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Not the Nine O’clock News, Hancock, The Goons. As time went on I bought each of these, but in those teenage days I recorded them – a bulky tape to tape radio cassette recorder sat fat and squat on my window ledge. I played some of them so much the tape was chewed up by the cassette player, a pencil of just the right diameter sat on the window ledge in an Argentina World Cup 1978 pink glass ready for recovery procedures.

I’d remembered my mum and dad watching Not the Nine O’clock News when I was in bed in primary school – laughter coming from the room beneath my bedroom. I am not sure on first listening whether I understood the political content, but the National Wealth Service bidding for the hospital bed, the General Synod’s Life of Monty Python, Gerald the gorilla, the trucking song, the Moseley song these things made me laugh – even when I had no idea what was being satirised, what songs or song styles were being parodied. And I learned the scripts, practised them, tried to get the voices right, tried – most important – to understand the spaces, the beat in the delivery that converted a line that made you smile into a line that made you laugh. The first choice then takes me back to those years: the Not the Nine o’clock News album, Kirsty. And I’d like to hear Gerald the Gorilla from that.

“..and your second record?”

Another time, Kirsty. Soon, but another time.

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The questionnaire

Male

35 – 44

Yes

Yes

3

No

No

No

Yes, in January

No

Although recommended by the GP no

No

No

No

10

No

No-one

Yes, 20

Yes

No

No

Yes

The aftermath of the disaster

Sometimes

Sometimes

Once, 20 years ago.

Not since

No No No No Yes No

Flashbacks

No

Yes, not eating

Control

No

No

Yes

No

No

I am not sure

Phone or email

She does

They don’t

 

 

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Beginning

It’s an old house, big, looming behind a large hedge, at the end of a gravel drive. Each footstep crunches. A shadow appears behind the door, opening it as I reach for the doorbell.

We exchange introductions. She knows my name, of course. I sign in, and I am shown into a waiting room, containing two sofas, tables, but no magazines. I can’t sit. I pace around looking at the leaflets, the press cuttings pinned to the noticeboard. I’ve been offered a drink. And there’s a water cooler.

But I can’t drink. I feel sick. It’s been a rush. A phone message two days ago suggesting there might be available appointments, a call yesterday arranging one for tonight. Tonight. Too much of a rush. I’m not ready.

There is a large plastic box containing toys on the ground. Dolls.

I’m not ready. I’m not

“Hi.”

I turn round. A door with “Staff. Private” closes behind her.

“We’re upstairs.”

I follow her to the meeting room. There is a table with four chairs.

“Where would you like me to?”

“You choose.”

Is it a test? One chair has its back to the door. I’m not sitting there. I want to see the door. I need to see the door.

I sit.

She sits opposite me, takes out forms briefly explains that she will outline the terms of the confidentiality of the meetings, and the limits of that confidentiality.

It’s familiar. And reasonable. And I look around the room.

I’m not ready. I’m not

I can feel her looking at me

“and just some preliminary questions so we can ensure you have the appropriate support. And of course we have to do a risk assessment so I apologise if some of the questions are intrusive.”

I’m not ready.

“I can ask you them, they’re quite tick box. They won’t take long. Or you could just tell me why you’re here, what you’re hoping for from this.”

Well, I want to be

Breathe.

Ready?

“So, would you prefer me to ask the questions or just to talk?”

I nod.

“Talk?”

I nod.

She lifts her pen.

I look to the door, reach down and grasp my calf.

She is staring at me. I can feel her staring at me.

“I. Well, I want to be well.”

“Okay. So, let’s begin.”

 

 

 

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