I was late for the appointment. It had helped to talk about him at first but not anymore. I felt like lately Claire didn’t want to talk about him; she wanted to talk about me and I wasn’t interested in that. Or didn’t want her interested in that at least. I was my own puzzle to solve.
Her room was bright, pastel painted walls, a large print of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” hung above a walnut coffee table atop which sat a box of tissues, a sketching book and a selection of pencils in a jam jar. Claire was sitting forwards in her chair, smiling, and beckoning me into the room. It always struck me as odd. This incongruous, boxed off oasis of peace in an otherwise sterile set of shared, serviced offices. Grief counselling and therapy alongside A-Z MiniCabs, LB Accounting, and Mitchell & Hobbs Solicitors: wills and inheritance a speciality. That always struck me as particularly unfortunate and Claire hadn’t found it funny in one of our early sessions when I’d asked if she picked up many referrals. I always felt like she was testing me and I was failing. Maybe I’d just wanted to test her for a change.
“Sorry I’m late” I offered. She just broadened her smile and shook her head, gesturing at me to sit down. I perched on the edge of the armchair that was reserved for the unwell, the soft chair to sink into and surrender. I could smell her herbal tea. The more the room screamed calm at me the more I felt on edge.
“How are you ?” asked Claire. “It’s been some time…”
“I’m fine,” I replied, too quickly. She pursed her lips and inclined her head, expecting more. “Really. I’m sorry I’ve missed a couple of sessions but I think that just shows that I’m doing well. I haven’t needed to talk to anyone. No offence.”
“None taken. I’m glad to hear that you feel you’re doing well.” She fell silent. I knew how this worked by now; early on I used to hate the silence and would desperately fill it. Stories of growing up, memories of Dad. I would tell her I felt sad if I thought that was what she wanted to hear and other days I’d tell her it was getting easier, that I thought I was getting better. I did feel sad. But not in the way that I could tell Claire even if I’d wanted to. I don’t really have words for how empty everything had felt after he died, how numb. When I was little I broke my arm, fell off a swing in the park, and the pain was so intense at first that I blacked out. When I woke up in the ambulance they must have given me something because everything was duller, I could still feel the sensation in my arm but it was like I’d been separated from it. They stopped me feeling it because I couldn’t cope with it. That’s what the sadness felt like now: if I try to really feel it then I can’t deal with it. There’s just too much of it and so I try to stay separate from it. Claire cracked first. “I’ve been reading back through my notes and it struck me that we never really talk about the reason you’re here.”
“I don’t understand what you mean ?” I replied. I started to fold my arms but forced myself to leave them open, any change in posture usually provoked a flurry of note taking from Claire as if my innermost thoughts were laid bare by the position of body parts. We had spent twenty minutes in a previous session debating my fingernails, bitten to the quick. She saw some conspiracy of anxiety whereas I was pretty sure it was just because I couldn’t play the guitar with nails. Eventually I’d confessed to a concocted feeling of restlessness as she’d become increasingly interested in how I felt when I played music. I think I’d made the mistake of saying that I needed my fingertips exposed to connect to the strings, that in a funny way I felt connected to myself when I played. It was too close to the truth and so I’d deflected her with a lie. The pain isn’t separate when I play.
“We never talk about how you feel about your dad’s death,” said Claire. I held her gaze, fighting the urge to look away, to twist and hide in my seat. This was unusually direct for her. Perhaps she was as tired as I was of dancing around each other. Perhaps she’d given up trying to coax me out and had settled on a full on assault. She broke eye contact. “I’m just trying to help you Emily. Grief is a complex thing, it can eat you up without you even realising. I’m worried that you’re not…”
“Not grieving ?” I interrupted.
“No,” she said. “I can see that you’re grieving. You’re hurting so much that I think you’ve shut yourself off from feeling anything much at all and that’s a part of grieving. But it’s not a part you can stay in forever if you want it to get better.” She was looking straight at me again now and this time I did look away. I knew she was right. Maybe that was why I kept coming back, despite my deflections and defensiveness she kept on trying and, at times, she seemed to find me even as I tried to keep myself hidden.
“I… I don’t know how to do it,” I whispered into my shoulder.
“There’s no right and wrong way. You don’t get an instruction book. They don’t even give me one and I’m supposed to be helping.” I looked back at her. She was leaning forwards in her chair looking intently at me with a worried, weary smile. I smiled back at her.
“So what do we do now ?”
“I think now we try and do this a different way. Write me a song. Forget about today, we can just have a cup of tea and chat about the weather.” She must have caught the look on my face. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to have the herbal stuff. Come back next week, bring your guitar, and write me a song. I’d love to hear you sing. Deal ?” I was scared but curious. I thought I knew what she was trying to do but the quickening in my pulse when she’d asked me to write a song was the most alive I’d felt in weeks. Perhaps it was time to stop hiding.
This is story 31 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This is probably the last we’ll hear from Emily’s story (as spread across the previous three posts, Concrete Cowgirl, Broken, and Heartbreaker) for a while. Largely because I haven’t written anymore of it… However, I think she’s okay in Claire’s capable hands for a while. This one’s for anyone that’s ever sat in a therapist or counseller’s room and wondered how the hell they try and explain how they feel. I was spectacularly bad at it !
There was only one album I couldn’t bring myself to break. Ryan Adams: “Heartbreaker”. That’d be about right. It was his favourite and even though, right then, kneeling there amid splintered vinyl and ripped sleeves I hated him, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Hated him and still loved him. Heartbreaker.
I had stopped crying by the time Mum got in from work, heard the key in the lock and listened to her moving through the hallway into the kitchen. A tap running. The click of the kettle. The soft tear of her opening that day’s post, probably another reminder of how much we owed. How much things cost. I thought about cost as I looked down, again, at the letter in my hands. The one that had slipped silently out from between the rows and rows of records, undisturbed since he’d gone.
Dear Emily… please forgive me…
Fragments were all that stuck. I hope one day you’ll understand. Look after your mum. She loves you. I love you. Keep playing. Keep singing. He’d even made that stupid joke. Our stupid joke. Two kinds of music Emily: country and western. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to forgive that. What was that other thing we used to say ? All those songs are about escape, that was it. This can’t be what he meant ? Can it ? We were supposed to escape from everyone else, not from each other. You and me and Mum. They were about hope.
Look after your mum.
“Emily ?” Mum was calling from the kitchen. The kettle had boiled and she must have made her tea. “You here love ?” I didn’t answer but her voice was enough to loosen the numbness, to bring me back to the room. I rolled onto my side and pulled my knees up to my chest, choking back the huge sobs that were rising up inside me. I didn’t want her to hear. “Emily ?”. More urgent now, footsteps approaching, padding up the stairs.
She loves you. I love you.
The door swung open and bumped against my feet. Someone was calling my name, pushing harder at the door. I felt my body slide slightly on the broken, shining, black records strewn around me and then there was someone next to me, arms around me, whispering my name over and over, pushing my hair back from my face. There was a moment then, just the briefest moment, when I felt like a child again; like someone else would make it alright and knew what to do. Knew. I pushed her away.
She opened her mouth, covered it with her hands, tears tracing her cheeks and onto her fingers. She was shaking and simply opened her arms towards me, her face contorted with shock. She pleaded.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know.” Her arms were still outstretched. “Please Em. I didn’t know. I didn’t want you to find out this way.” It hurt too much to look at her. She didn’t move, didn’t try to stop me, as I pushed past her out on to the landing and down the stairs. I pulled on my coat and dug my feet into an old pair of trainers, laces still done up, before opening the front door. Escape. That’s what all those songs were about. Escape but not hope.
This is story 30 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This is a bit more of Emily’s story (from previous two posts, Concrete Cowgirl and Broken). I am still undecided whether Emily gets to tell her story in the first person or whether it falls to me in the third. And I’m still not sure if she has a happy ending…
Now you’re broken and you don’t understand…
Emily stopped flicking the CD cases forwards and looked up, inclining her head slightly to listen. She gripped the last album she’d reached in her idle browsing. It was that Fleet Foxes record she’d read about; another folk record about family and death. Like she needed another one of those. The song that was playing over the shop’s PA had just been part of the background noise until its chorus had cut through into her consciousness. She glanced up and down the aisles of the shop, the tips of her fingers whitening as she clenched harder on the CD. That chorus was so direct and she knew that voice. There was an honest simplicity to it, a yearning ache that spoke to her. Who was it ? What was this ?
Something’s mixed up and something’s gone…
She couldn’t catch all of the lyrics but some of the phrases stuck. Some of them were like salt water washing out an open wound. Into the second verse she realised that it must be the new Tift Merritt album, Dad had played the first two so often that her voice was like an old friend. Or a ghost. It wasn’t a voice she’d heard for a couple of years; it had been consigned to a small stack of his vinyl that she hadn’t been able to face yet. Her mum had wanted to clear them out but she’d begged her to keep them and now they gathered dust next to his old record player in the spare bedroom. Sometimes she’d thumbed through them and once she’d pulled one from its sleeve but the warm, rich smell of the wax had brought too many memories flooding back. There was nothing in that pile of records past 2006. Tift was still singing. He definitely would have bought this one.
And it’s these most loved losses are the hardest to carry…
The song was reaching its finish but Emily wouldn’t hear it. She felt a tightness in her chest and was suddenly short of breath. The strip lighting in the store was too bright and the D-E-F section in front of her blurred as she blinked back tears. The shelves and shelves of CDs that had initially welcomed her in now felt cold, all hard edges and smelling of cellophane wrapped plastic. Feeling sick Emily turned for the exit.
She stumbled out into the shopping centre and an alarm sounded behind her, red lights flashing on top of the tagging gates either side of the doors. She was still holding the Fleet Foxes album. Heart racing she ran back into the shop and replaced the CD on the first rack she came to. Her hands were shaking and she managed to disturb the fragile equilibrium of the display, four or five CDs and a piece of moulded plastic proclaiming ‘sale’ clattered to the floor. Emily fled not hearing either the continuing echo of the alarm nor the quietly optimistic final line of the song:
I think I will break but I mend
This is story 29 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This picks up Emily’s story (from previous post, Concrete Cowgirl) a bit further down the track. The lyrics are from Tift Merritt’s song “Broken” and no copyright infringement is intended: in the unlikely event that Tift or anyone from Fantasy Records a) reads this and b) objects then I’ll happily alter it. And I’ll double my total fundraising take for Mind. I am a massive fan and only borrowed the words because they help me tell fictional Emily’s story.
Emily lay perfectly still, flat on her back, and stared up. Straight up, unblinking, arms stretched wide, palms pricked by the blades beneath her hands. Soft when she was still, sharp if she moved. At the furthest reaches of her peripheral vision she could see the fuzzy green of the grass that was cushioning her head; otherwise nothing but a widescreen panorama of blue. A plane, too distant to be heard, crossed overhead and Emily watched it: a roughly doodled arrow sketched across the sky. She twisted her head to follow its trajectory but her view was broken by the cow, the sun reflecting back off its glossy, painted surface. It shone in a way that a cow shouldn’t. Emily became aware of the thrum of cars on the dual carriageway again.
“Moo,” she whispered, rolling onto her side and propping herself up on her elbow. The cow stared blankly at her, its mournful face forever frozen in concrete. Emily watched as a fly landed by its ear; there was no twitch of the head, no reflexive swish of its tail. She closed her eyes and heard a gentle buzz that receded to silence as the fly flew away before an angry exchange of car horns from the road broke the quiet. She opened her eyes and sat up, brushing grass from her arm and inspecting the dimpled imprint it had left on her elbow. As she pushed her way up to standing she caught sight of the cow’s feet, cemented into the ground, rooted and anchored in place. “You’re not going anywhere either,” she said.
A long chain of daisies snaked away from Emily’s foot, the result of a patient entwining as she had idled away the afternoon. She picked up the chain and held it draped around the cow’s neck, a cheery white and yellow garland to brighten up her bogus bovine companion. Dead wildflowers to decorate something that had never been alive. She tried to tie the two ends of the chain together but her fingers, usually so nimble, couldn’t work the delicate strands and the chain came apart in her hands. She was left clutching two or three daisies threaded together and a smattering of stray petals, like elongated white tears in her hands.
Emily stuffed the remnants of the daisy chain into her jacket pocket and patted the cow on its head; soaked in the afternoon sun it was warm beneath her hand. “I tried,” she said. Turning away she began to walk across the field, back towards the adjacent road, quickening her step as she saw a bus in the distance. She couldn’t make out the number but they all ended up in the same place. The impassive cow watched as she broke into a run. Had it been able to lift its head it would have seen a fading vapour trail high across the sky, the only sign of the plane that had slipped from view.
This is story 28 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
I acknowledge this one is not quite a story but more a hint at one untold (which I know and will one day try to write) but I saw the old concrete cows in Milton Keynes again recently and dug this out. There is something distinctly odd about them. I wrote this piece a while ago as an exercise in a creative writing course I was taking. The tutor suggested I take the “like elongated white tears” simile out. I am bad at killing my darlings so it remains for now but let me know if it’s surplus to requirements !
Rachel’s phone vibrated and the screen lit up announcing a new message. Tell me what you’re wearing so I can imagine relieving you of each item, piece by piece. He was nothing if not persistent. Her fingers tapped back a quick text. Go take a cold shower or something. I’m marking. She turned her attention back to the stack of papers in front of her: the combined efforts of her first year undergraduates’ take on whether Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s status as a genuine revolutionary in thought and deed was undermined by the commodification of his image after his death. Her phone shook again. Come home and mark me… with your long fingernails down my back. Jesus. Just watch some porn or something. Seriously, I’m busy. I’ve got fifty essays on Che Guevara to do before tomorrow. I’m really not in the mood for your sexting bullshit.
After a couple of minutes the phone’s screen faded back to black, powered down, and Rachel figured he’d got the message. Sighing she picked up the next paper. Emily Cunningham. She had attended every lecture this semester wearing the same tee-shirt: a screen print of the famous (infamous) Guevara image, beret, moustache, tousled shoulder length hair, idealistic stare into the middle distance. She also wore blue and white vertically striped tights which met a pair of boots painstakingly painted with a red triangle centred with a star. Inevitably she had a beret too. Her essay started with: whilst I inherently reject the Western Imperialist notion that education can be measured, believing instead that is is an inalienable right for each individual to seek knowledge for its own sake… Rachel sighed, skipped a few pages that waxed lyrical about Che’s travels through South America (so you’ve seen The Motorcycle Diaries, so has every other student on this course), and eventually found a paragraph that seemed to conclude that the West’s appropriation of him could never undermine his revolutionary spirit and zeal. She gave it a D. Realise you will reject my measurement of your inalienable right to learn but suggest you devote more energy to addressing the question next time or you’re heading for an inalienable fail. Nice tights btw.
If this was the standard it was going to be a long night. Her phone lit up again. Sighing she glanced at the screen. Let me control your means of production. She decided to ignore it. Maybe he would get bored and give up. Half way through reading the next student’s work another message buzzed for attention. From each according to his abilities, for each according to his needs… and I’ve got strong needs tonight. Exasperated she replied. Stop just googling quotes about Marxism. They are not sexy, you weirdo. I am working.
Almost instantly another message arrived. Worker of the world unite. With me. You have nothing to lose but your chains. Actually maybe we could keep the chains ?
Ignore him. Stop replying, it’s just encouraging him. Mark the papers, go home, he will have zonked out on the sofa in front of some highly inappropriate website, you can have a bath and go to bed. Her phone nudged her again. There’s been a popular uprising.
Rachel couldn’t help herself. Now you’re just making stuff up. The other ones weren’t even Guevara and that one’s not anyone. Your “uprising” isn’t popular here. Minutes ticked by. He’s given up. Mark the goddamn papers. She skim read another essay, this one arguing that Che’s eventual adoption of violence as a means of overthrowing oppression was an inevitable consequence of his training as a doctor. Another D. She was just about to pick up the next attempt when she saw her phone shake and shimmer again. Seriously. This is the last one. I’m turning it off. One has to grow hard but without ever losing tenderness. Really ? At least this one was actually Che. Give him credit. At least he’s learning something tonight. She tapped out one last response.
You can liberate me tomorrow and help me throw off the shackles of the yolk of capitalism. I’ll be your thesis, you be my anti-thesis and we can come together in synthesis. Maybe I’ll even use the shackles. No yolk though. That would just be… messy. Get some sleep. Love you.
Rachel turned off her phone and, sighing, picked up the next paper.
This is story 27 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
To be honest this slightly ridiculous story came largely from me finding the title quite funny and then trying to concoct something from that. Plus I got to tag a post with “sex” and “Marxism” and it’s not everyday that you get to do that… although I imagine that somewhere on the web there’s a site that caters.
The church sat atop a sea of freshly fallen snow, looming out of the dusk as Sean approached. The previous night’s storm had blanketed the graveyard and had covered the winding path up to the front door. Sean’s footprints followed him in a straight line: the most direct route to God was across the dead.
He stamped his feet clean of powder once he was inside and paused to compose himself. It was as cold in the church as outside but at least he was out of the wind. Flickering candles picked out the altar, rows of silent pews, a font, but gave up little heat. He hadn’t expected to feel the warmth of the Lord’s love but its absence disappointed him nonetheless. Stepping into the confessional he awkwardly made the sign of the cross as he sat down.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was…” He faltered. He couldn’t recall how long it had been since he’d confessed. It was a habit he’d slipped out of after he’d married Aoife and especially after Mary had been born. She’d been a difficult one, arriving early and struggling through her first few months, beset by illness. They’d almost lost her a couple of years ago in the winter of ’33. She was gripped with fever and he, Aoife, Dr O’Halloran and Margaret, his new health visitor, had sat with her in shifts, wrapping her in cool towels. Father Flynn had come down from the church and sat with them, leading the prayers. Twice she’d stopped breathing. Both times Margaret had revived her, forcing breath back into her lungs even as Flynn began his final administering.
“It’s alright Sean. Take your time. You’ve been through a lot.” The priest spoke in a reassuring but firm, low tone.
“My last confession was three years ago, Father. Before the wedding. Before the wedding and now, here we are, after the funeral. Perhaps if I’d come more often ? Been more diligent ?”
“God forgives. He sees the repentant man and he forgives. He didn’t take Aoife from us because your faith was found wanting Sean.” Flynn sighed. He had never had cause to question his own resolute belief and he sometimes wondered if some understanding of doubt would better equip him to bring the waverers in his congregation back into the fold.
“I know Father. That’s why I must confess.” There was a long pause as both men sat in silence. One searching for the right words, the other giving him the time to find them. Sean lowered his voice to barely a whisper. “I knew she was messing around. I saw the way he looked at her. James Ryan. Up from Cork originally he was. Always boasting about how he’d be leaving for America one day. It was hard for her, you know ? I was at the school all day and she never really took to motherhood. When we nearly lost Mary something changed in her, it was like she was scared of getting too close to her again. When I found out about the baby… Found out it was his…” Sean broke off, shaking his head. A sudden draught made the candles in the church leap and lean, some of them blew out and the confessional pitched further into darkness.
“What did you do child ?” asked Flynn.
“I took her to that place in Ennis,” he answered softly. “The parlour of Parnell Street, that’s what they call it. No questions asked. Pay your money and your wife’s mistake goes away and you never speak of it again. Except something went wrong. Was that your God, Father ? Was that his punishment for her for adultery ? Or for both of us for killing the baby ? Is that why he took her as well ?”
They both sat silently for a long time before Flynn offered up a prayer and talked of penance. He remained in his seat long after Sean had left. Against all that he’d been taught, against all that he knew, this was the worst sin he’d borne witness to. It was an affront to God. And yet, sitting there in the dark, he felt the first pinch of something new. Doubt.
This is story 26 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This one, like number 25, also came from an unlikely source. It’s actually part of a longer sequence of stories I’m involved in with my writing group – I’ll add a link when they’re complete. Consequently it’s not typical for me in either style or theme. But I’ll take them where I can find them…