Tag Archives: depression

Stage fright

He stood with his arm on the mic stand, elbow jutting out, as if it might prop him up like a crutch. He clutched the microphone in his other hand, head bowed to meet it. Hunched and bunched. Words swam in his mind but not the ones he’d sat up, late nights and early mornings, scribbling, scrawling in endless notebooks. Rhymes taunted him. Hunched and bunched. Clutch and crutch. He couldn’t see them out there in the darkness but he could hear patience running thin, the scrape of chair legs, glasses on tables, voices that began in whispers growing in volume. He stood framed and still in the spotlight. Hiding in plain sight. Light and sight. Clutch and crutch. Hunched and bunched. Words and rhymes, just not the right ones.

Come on, man. Give up the stage, buddy, let someone else speak. We wanna hear some verse.

The restlessness in the room has a shape now, an edge. It’s been given voice and all he can hear is chatter and disappointment and a room full of wasted Friday nights. There’s a hand on his arm and the compere is leaning into his ear, urging him to speak or sit down. He’s seen this before and there’s a note of understanding but the grip on his arm is getting tighter and he can feel a distinct tug away from the microphone. Some people just can’t do it up here. It’s all in their head and all on the page but not here, not here where there’s nowhere to hide.

He closes his eyes. Whatever he wrote in all those dripping minutes and sweeping hours has gone. Now or never. He speaks.

 

Life writes faster than I can write:

 

If I really – really – committed and held myself to the words,

A thousand words, every day,

Two thousand, three thousand, four,

I’d be too slow and too far behind the curve, the swerve.

Even if I lost some of my reflexive reserve I just don’t have that kind of verve

And maybe I don’t have the nerve.

 

Maybe I’m not ready to bleed.

This ain’t no magic trick, there’s nothing up my sleeve,

No facade or screen or Wizard of Oz behind the scenes and

No filter between you and me: you ready to hear my dreams?

My screams?

My brain and guts and heart and all the viscera in between?

 

‘Cos you might have met me tonight, or any night, any day

And all that stuff we learn to protect ourselves with would have been in the way,

All those masks, those crutches that keep me from your clutches, that suit of armour I lug around,

Each step heavier than the last as it drags me down.

Hunched and bunched and scrunched and out to lunched.

Gut punched.

And all the stuff would have been in the way and would have done its job.

Its fobbing off job: it would have said I’m okay.

 

But I’m not okay.

Not tonight, or any night, any day.

I learned too much of that stuff to protect myself with and it gets in the way.

I got to learn to bleed.

I got to learn to write faster than life.

 

‘Cos lately life’s been writing faster than I can write and faster than I can stand to live.

 

Later, when they buy him a drink, they tell him there was applause. Later, when he puts that armour back on, it feels a little different. A little lighter.

Careering: Saturday

It was late by the time Rob and Sarah arrived back at the house with Maria. She’d stayed at the hospital for twenty four hours, reluctantly agreeing that she might need the rest but impatient to be away from the array of medical equipment and drugs and professionals that could do nothing for her. She’d joked with the nurses that she was like a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store. You got nothing I can have but I want it all. Sarah had insisted on organising a taxi, worried about the hustle and bustle of the tube on Saturday evening. Maria had agreed on condition that  she paid, they use a black cab, and that they make the driver cross the Thames via Tower Bridge. She told Sarah that it’d be another landmark she could sketch for her game, another little source of dopamine for people playing, another marker to help them navigate. Sarah thought there was more of the tourist in Maria than she cared to admit and that she probably just wanted to see the strange castle on the river.

They crossed the Thames as the sun was going down, its towers short and squat against the skyline in comparison to the jagged thrust of the Shard which dominated the view to the west. London was a city of silhouettes in the dusk, the fading light leaving just familiar shapes, the impression of places. Rob pointed out the sights as they appeared, sometimes just a momentary glimpse between office blocks and flats, and then a broader sweep of buildings as they crossed the bridge. A jumble of shapes and styles from the past and from the future. St Paul’s. The Gherkin. The Tower of London. City Hall. Traffic was unusually light and they didn’t get stuck in their crossing. Rob had hoped that perhaps they would so Maria would have more time to admire the view but she had to absorb it in less than a minute before they plunged into Whitechapel and everything closed in around them again.

When they stopped outside their house it was dark. The streetlight hadn’t been fixed and all of the lights inside were off. Rob let them in and called for Alex. There was no reply but it was then that they heard the shouts from outside.

……

Alex hadn’t gone back to the hospital. The others knew he blamed himself for what had happened but didn’t realise how hard it had hit him. He’d said he wanted a bit of time on his own and they’d respected that. In the time they’d lived together it was something they’d gotten used to. Rob teased him for being grumpy and they knew he’d never really settled into corporate life but neither of them thought there was more to it than that. If he was honest with himself he knew that the way he felt had a name. Depression. He should have been more clinical about it, more scientific, but he found it hard to apply his usual, objective mode of thinking to his own internal emotional landscape. He knew it had been getting worse and could trace some of it to the small sets of decisions that had taken him further and further from the things that he’d thought of as making up who he was. He remembered the genuine disappointment that Prof Miller had expressed when he’d told him that he was giving it up. He hadn’t been angry and he’d even understood it – noone’s getting rich mapping the universe – but there was almost a resignation to it. A sense that another bright talent was about to be eclipsed by the need to make the rent. There had been occasional rational moments when he realised that he could just jack it all in, walk away from the office and start again. Lately those moments had come less often. The sane and reasonable voice in his head drowned out by a choir of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of the fragile peace in his head. It wasn’t just the guilt, on some level he knew that it wasn’t his fault, but the stark confrontation with mortality that had shaken him. There seemed to him to be a pointlessness to it. He’d always valued order and structure, causality and consequences, and whilst he could understand the facts of her disease he couldn’t explain why it was happening anymore than he could explain his own illness.

He put on his suit, straightened his tie, and headed up to the terrace.

……

Up on the roof Alex had his back to them. There was a small wall that ran round the sides of the terrace at knee height, there as a gentle reminder if someone got too close to the edge. You could perch on it and dangle your legs over the side of the house if you didn’t mind the guttering. None of them had ever thought of it as particularly dangerous. Early on the landlord had offered to put up a taller set of railings but they thought it would obstruct the view and had told him not to bother. Alex was standing on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the shouts from people in the flats in the adjacent street telling him to get down.

“What are you doing, Alex ?” Rob spoke quietly, holding his arms out, palms down, trying to signal a sense of calm that he didn’t feel to Sarah and Maria.

“Alex, please,” said Sarah. “Just step down and let’s talk.”

Alex didn’t reply and didn’t move. It had been a cloudless day and the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone, the air was still. Alex didn’t feel the cold through his suit. Pure wool. He vaguely remembered that fact had been important at work, they’d all been given pointers on personal presentation in the first year on the graduate scheme. A couple of the partners, knowing his background, had joked that he’d have to leave the cords and the elbow patches behind now that he was a professional. There’d been no malice in it. He hadn’t been offended. It wasn’t until later that he’d begun to reflect on his decision and wonder whether he’d got it badly wrong. It was Maria that broke the impasse.

“Where are you Alex ?” He didn’t turn but this time he did reply.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

“Latitude. Start with that. Tell me our latitude,” nudged Maria.

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “How would I know that ?”

“We’re not so far from Greenwich. I bet it’s roughly 51 degrees north and a touch over zero degrees west. How would you know if I hadn’t told you ? You taught me this Alex.”

“A fixed reference point. You need a fixed reference point and then you can work it out.”

Across Islington the lights went out. Later it was reported as a power cut, some problem with a sudden surge on the National Grid causing fail safes to kick in and the electricity to switch off. Around them the shining rectangular frames, the windows of the surrounding flats and houses, winked out. The streetlights snapped off. Shakespeare Street went dark. As their eyes adjusted to the absence of light Maria walked across the terrace, reached up, and took Alex’s hand.

“Tell me what you see,” she said.

“You can never see much here,” he replied. “Usually just Venus and some of the brighter stars. The moon obviously, when it’s out.”

Rob and Sarah cautiously crossed the terrace and stood on Alex’s other side from Maria. Sarah took his other hand.

“I saw Mars at the planetarium,” said Maria. “It’s the last thing I remember before I fainted. Where would it be if we could see it now ?”

Alex described its position relative to Venus and slowly began to tell them what he could remember about the positions of the distant objects they could see and the ones that they couldn’t. He was a little rusty but none of them would have known if he got anything wrong. He showed them Orion’s Belt, the three stars in a line that they could usually see above them, bright enough without London being dimmed, and then he noticed that the slightly skewed rectangle of Ursa Major. It was just visible now that the glare from the ground had been subdued and, just a slight turn of the head on from that, if he followed an imagined line from its two pointer stars, then he could make out Polaris. The North Star. He described it to the others.

“So you know where you are now,” said Maria squeezing his hand.

“It’s a start,” said Alex. “I could work out latitude but you know longitude is always trickier than that.”

“Because we’re always spinning, always moving,” said Maria.

“Yes. Yes, we are. I just wanted to make it stop.”

“You can’t make it stop Alex,” she answered. “Not like this. It’ll stop for you, sure, but everything else keeps on spinning. You’ve got your fixed point up there,” she gestured at the sky,  “and maybe you just need to pick your own fixed point down here. Your own Greenwich.”

“I think I had it,” said Alex. “I think I used to have it. Maybe I just need to find my way back to it again.” He stepped down from the wall and quietly accepted Maria’s embrace. Rob and Sarah clutched at his back and the four of them stood on the roof holding him as he wept.

They stayed sat out on the terrace until the power came back on about an hour later. Sarah had made them all tea and they’d sat staring across the rooftops, hands wrapped round warm mugs, steam rising into the night air. When the lights returned the stars overhead faded but all of them swore they could still see the North Star, unwavering, the sky rotating around it.

This is the sea

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Time steals the memories of that learning and now that I can navigate the river I can’t remember those days of running aground, of fighting the slow, easy current, or even of the repeated soakings as I was tipped into the water. Nor do I remember those early journeys, all way back upstream now, through the hurried rapids, down the narrow streams of my childhood. Perhaps at the time it all seemed bigger but looking back, up and across to the mountains we made our way down, I can barely make out the path of the water; like tracing my face for the lines left by tears that dried up long ago. As the river widened and relaxed into the valley some memories stick. I do remember that initial sense of freedom, striking out from the bank alone for the first time but secure in knowing that the river was slow, shallow, and not so broad that I couldn’t swim back to something solid. The river guides. That was the teaching: trust in its easy, forgiving flow and use it to learn for the sea. The unspoken truth though was that the river is poor learning for the sea but it is all we have.

The sea looked like hope from the river as I glimpsed it occasionally back then, wide eyed, staring downstream into the future. Just as looking back changed perspective, shrinking things that had seemed vast, looking forwards played the same trick but in reverse. The sea looked contained, bound by shore and horizon; it looked manageable. Navigable. The distance flattened the ceaseless rise and fall of the tides and ironed out the distant surges and storms. It looked like a gently creased, blue grey sheet stretched out between the land and sky and I miss that idea of it. I miss the time when I headed for uncharted waters with excitement and confidence, when apprehension felt like the precursor to discovery – something new and wonderful – instead of the prelude to fear. Even when the discovery was just someone else’s map of those uncharted waters, the discovery that they weren’t uncharted at all, that someone had sailed this course before and left you their notes.

And for a while, as I stuck to the charted waters or uncovered the notes from those that had sailed before me, the sea delivered on the promises whispered in its waves. Close to the mouth of the river it was as easy to sail as the river itself had been. The boat I’d built and sailed as a child rode the benign tides close to shore just as it had coped with the nudging currents that had eventually pushed it out into open water. The coastal squalls were exhilarating rather than frightening, the rush of adrenaline feeding the strength to trim the sails or tack back into the wind. And when they abated the sea was calm for long enough, and I was strong enough, open enough, to improve the boat, to make modifications and adjustments. To face each successive squall stronger than I’d faced the last. Perhaps the sea guides too. That’s what I thought in those days skimming the surface spray hugging the shoreline. I don’t think that anymore.

I don’t remember losing track of the shore. It must have happened slowly, over years, a progressive pull from the ebb of the tides winning out over the flow. Out here the sea doesn’t look contained or manageable and the notes left by fellow sailors are fewer and further between. Is it even navigable ? Out here there’s just the sea. Vast and endless and unforgiving: it can swallow you up and leave you cold, lost and adrift. When the storms hit my boat splintered and sank. I fought them until my bones ached and my fingers blistered from straining against salt lashed ropes in the desperate struggle to stay afloat. If I’d had a solid place to stand then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the drenched deck gave no purchase for my feet. If I’d battled a single, violent tempest then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the bad weather resolved itself into a change in the climate, storms piled on storms. If I’d learned to rest, to trust the sails to others, to admit to the weariness of near defeat, then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but even back in the days on the river I’d always sailed alone. There was no solid place to stand, there were many storms, and there was nobody to relieve me as captain: my boat splintered and sank.

The sea’s depths seemed to offer solace, they were untouched by whatever raged above. At first there was a relief in the isolation as I dropped beneath the roiling, rolling waves, pieces of my former vessel, fractured and sinking beside me. As I lingered there longer though it became colder and a kind of numbness set in; it became harder to strike out again for the surface. There was nothing up there but storms and the relentless toss and twist of the swelling waters. Nothing there but more sorrow. There was nothing here either but it was a constant nothing. It was predictable. Navigable. I was lost but if I stayed where I was I’d never be more lost and I’d never risk the hope of clutching at a way back to shore. I’d never feel the touch of the sun on skin but I’d never have to feel the rain either.

The sea doesn’t guide, it just is. The sea doesn’t guide but perhaps those that sail it still can and still do. The notes from fellow sailors are fewer and further between out here – down here – in the sea. But some remain. Even here some remain.  I found one of those stray, rare notes and it said this: even out here it’s not truly uncharted. There’s a universal map written in the stars for those able to raise their eyes and read it. Perhaps it leads back to your shore but you can’t read that map ensconced and ensnared under water. You might see the lights, foggy and distorted, but the water refracts and changes the true positions of the fixed reference points you must follow. You must brave the surface to see the way. The only way back to the shore is to risk the storms. How do you learn to be still on the waves ? Or how do you learn to lean in to the teeth of the gale and laugh ? When does knowing you’re not in control of the boat stop being terrifying and fill your heart with exhilaration ? How do you leave notes as you chart your waters that others might find and learn from in future ? These are the questions I asked and still ask as I seek the playful exploration of the shores close to the river that I learned to navigate when I was young. I read the note and draw strength to seek the surface.

This is the sea. Terrible and terrifying and relentless. Open and hopeful and limitless. Build the best boat you can and learn to make it dance on the river but accept that when you reach the sea it can crush the strongest vessel or the skilled sailor without thought or malice. All you can do is learn to sail again. Seek out the constants in the sky, learn to sail and as you chart your course leave notes that others might follow and might know that they are not alone, adrift in their storms. The river need not be our only learning. We are each other’s guides.

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Happily ever after remains my destination, out there on the horizon, across the sea.

 

……

This is story 42 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

So that’s it. Took longer than anticipated but all 42 are done and, to date, I’ve raised £700 for Mind. This one’s about everything the other 41 were about but also, in spirit, was about the value in sharing stories.

It owes a huge debt to Mike Scott and The Waterboys who said in six glorious minutes and two chords what I’ve struggled to say here.

Fragments

I remember the bridge and the accident. Or, at least, I remember that I wrote that there was a bridge and that there was an accident. Something bad happened. We can agree on that. I’ve been coming here for weeks now, perhaps months, and trying to talk about it but the words just won’t come. The summer house at the end of a garden, slatted windows open in the late summer to let in the air, shuttered tight in the winter to protect the heat rising at our feet from the electric radiator. There’s a box of tissues that I’ve never reached for although there’s some part of me that thinks that I should: the absence of tears no doubt noted dutifully in the book of notes I never get to read. Am I a secret to myself ? A wasp drones angrily at the glass in the summer house door.

“Perhaps we should let it out ?” he asks.

I look up at him, at his eyes, at his eyebrows raised expectantly, at his kindness.

“Letting things out isn’t my forte,” I reply ruefully. He lets me lapse back into silence and watch the wasp, a study in impotent rage, continue to fail to break through the glass, fail to fly to the garden it can see but not reach.

I remembered the shattered shards of glass on the bridge after the accident. The lights from the ambulance refracting through the splinters, red and blue light dancing across the wet tarmac as I waited for them to tell me what had happened. Does it matter if there was really an accident or if I just wrote it ? Something bad happened. It seems easier somehow to dramatise it rather than  just lay out the bare facts because the reality was so banal, so mundane, or at least it was when I said it out loud; inside it felt like an accident. It’s not as if I don’t have the words. I am not short of the words, whether recounting the miserable, ordinary slide into depression, or describing it second hand via a series of thinly disguised metaphors. All of those stories came from the same source, the same white light scattered through the mosaic of broken glass strewn across the bridge, a myriad of separations, a spiders web of my shattered self reflected back in shattered glass. Does it matter if the bridge was real ?

“So what did you want to talk about ?” he asks, more questions.

“I’m not sure that I want to talk about any of it to be honest,” I reply. “You know I prefer to write it all down.”

“The stories ? The music essays ?”

“I’m better written down,” I persist.

“But it’s another front, isn’t it ? Another way of packaging yourself up to present to the world ? The pieces of yourself you’ll allow people to see. Carefully considered and thought through. Nothing in the moment or out of control or truly vulnerable or exposed.”

“Pieces of splintered glass,” I murmur. “I don’t know. Is it just a front ? I’m not saying those stories amount to ‘Blood On The Tracks’ but there’s all of me in there if you search. They seem as real to me as a hand shake or a late night conversation with a friend or, or I don’t know, an imagined road accident on a bridge and its post traumatic fall out.”

“So why don’t you cry ? Or get angry ? Through all that pain, through that trauma. Where does it all go ?”

“It goes on the page. Or it pulls me down, eats me up. It’s better on the page. I’m better on the page.”

“And do you think you could put yourself back together on the page ? Tell enough stories, find enough of the fragmented strands of yourself that you can stitch them back, weave a tapestry out of the threads. Work it all out on your own. Is that the point ?”

“That’s not the analogy I use. In the story – you know, the first one – it’s glass. All of those stories are just the little pieces of glass sprinkled across the scene of the crash, little reflections of a part of my whole.”

“So change the analogy. Glass doesn’t really yield. It shatters or breaks and even if you could glue it all back together you’d always see the joins, you’d never see through it as clearly again. Sure, we unravel sometimes but when you knit the frayed threads back together you can make something new; just as strong as it was before, maybe stronger if you can see where the stitches failed last time. Don’t write stories to describe the fractured pieces of glass. Weave.”

“How would I start ?”

“I don’t know. You’re the story-teller. How do stories usually start ?”

 

……

This is story 41 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 intended as a wrap back to the very first story: Beginnings. It either all gets a bit meta or it disappears up its own arse. It’s a fine line… but it’s well intentioned. One to go.

Words nobody reads

We are the words nobody reads,

The wounds you don’t notice because they don’t bleed.

We are the sentences you ignore, paragraphs you discard,

We are the hidden, the invisible, the scarred.

 

We are the words nobody reads,

Scratched and scribbled on pages, the messages you don’t heed.

We are the letters you never opened, emails you ignore,

We are the broken and damaged in search of a cure.

 

We are the words nobody reads,

The maddening march of madness our self chatter feeds.

We are the fractured fragments, the anxious and edgy lines,

We are the imperfect, something remiss between execution and design.

 

We carry our words unwritten and unread

But they shout to us within self-sabotaging minds: louder than peace.

On paper, untrapped, they lie benign and quiet,

Released.

You read.

The undertow

 

You see the wave coming,

And you brace for its embrace.

Wedge your feet into sand, toes curled round sea smoothed stone

And stand before the swell and the break.

 

You see the wave coming,

But the impact still shocks.

And you rock, numb, breathless, on heels,

Taste salt on your lips and shake your eyes clear.

 

You don’t see the undertow.

 

Not as you’re drenched in the spray and fighting for balance and finding your footing and struggling to stand and

 

You don’t see the undertow.

 

You feel the undertow pulling and

Your firm footing starts sliding grain by grain away from your feet

And stones catch your ankles as they beat an urgent retreat

And you notice the pulse of the sea and your own staccato heartbeat

And the next wave is rising and rising and rising

And standing up to the first one, that short lived victory,

Now just feels like defeat.

 

You feel the undertow calling

And it whispers to let it seduce you

To enfold you in its eternal and endless depth.

 

Siren’s don’t always give warning.

 

Pyre

It was still warm even as the time approached midnight, all the nights that summer were like that, the heat of those long days settling and cooling into the darkness but never quite fading away. We looked at each other in the dancing light from the torches velcro fixed around our heads. Jones had said it made us look like the colonial marines in Aliens. I was pretty sure they had lights that sat just behind their shoulders, attached to their back but I wasn’t a hundred percent. Sam would have known. He always knew that stuff and it pissed him off when people got it wrong. Little things that shouldn’t have mattered – didn’t matter to anyone else – but that really riled him. I remember one time Jones had persuaded all of us to wind him up by saying that we thought it was better that Greedo shot first, that Han’s code of honour would never have let him kill something else without provocation. He made us watch the original scene frame by frame on his battered old VHS copy of Star Wars (never, never A New Hope, always just Star Wars) whilst he ranted about Solo’s narrative arc from rogue to hero and how Lucas had betrayed his own mythic principals of storytelling in making the change. He didn’t speak to us again for a week and for the next month he’d pepper his conversation with “Han shot first” like it was some kind of mantra.

Maybe we should have realised. Afterwards people put it all together as if it had been obvious, like it had been staring us in our faces all the time. He sat around in his room a lot listening to Joy Division. Or lost himself for hours in video games and unreal worlds. Scribbled out rambling, scrawling diary entries – that came to light later – that spoke of feeling isolated and anxious and lonely. Wore a lot of black. But that could have been any of us and we were still here whilst he was gone. That was just being fifteen and a bit awkward, wasn’t it ? None of us liked the way Sam’s life got retro fitted to his suicide, as if everything had led, neat and tidy and processional, to the point where he felt like there was no point carrying on. It just wasn’t like that. He just wasn’t like that. Not all like that at least. We remembered lying in the park looking at the stars and listening to him run through his terrible Star Trek impressions. He could make the sound the doors made pretty well but Patrick Stewart’s baritone always eluded him until he settled on repeating “make it so” and “Mr Data” over and over again until we begged him to stop. Or the time he cleared the floor at the school disco after finally persuading the DJ to put the Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” on and he’d turned the now empty space into his own personal piece of performance art, a mosh-pit of one until reluctantly we’d joined in at the end. He must have bought his own copy with him. That was Sam. All of us had slunk off embarrassed afterwards when the DJ, presumably as some sort of revenge, had teed up Rick Astley. All of us except him. He’d just laughed and pogoed harder and harder round the floor bellowing “never gonna give you up” until we dragged him away. Like I said, Sam’s death wasn’t the only thing that happened in his life.

We’d made him a character sheet. I guess it was for old time’s sake. None of us had played a paper and pen RPG for a while but it had been the thing that had brought us together in the early days. Sam had started it, albeit by accident. That first year at school he used to carry a full set of dice – three sided, six sided, eight sided, all the way up to the d20 – around with him until one of the older kids had tried to flush them down the toilet. I’d managed to salvage all of them by rolling up my sleeve and hooking my hand up and around the U bend. From then on they’d always made me play as a thief or some kind of character with a high Dexterity stat: my role as the retriever of stolen treasure was set. Jones always ended up playing a fighter. He was the smallest in the group and always had the most trouble at school, his mouth forever throwing better jabs than his fists.  He was brave though. He’d been the one that had really saved Sam’s dice as he’d pulled the perpetrator away before he could hold the flush down fully. It had cost him a couple of blows to the head and a scuffle that ended with him ripping his trousers at the seams and having to spend the rest of the day flashing Spiderman boxers every time he wasn’t sitting down. None of us ever mentioned it again and none of us ever said anything every time he picked a warrior or a berserker or a knight or some big, strong archetype to project himself into. We all did it. Maybe Jones was just a bit more honest about it. Rob was always the magic guy which I always chalked up as some kind of ironic acknowledgement that he lived the least magical, most ordinary life you could imagine. Outwardly at least. I always liked how Rob held whole worlds in his mind. He used to write poems. None of us were supposed to know but I saw them once, discarded notes stuffed under his bed. Outwardly you’d never have known but inside his mind he soared. And Sam ? Sam used to mainly run the sessions. Dungeon Master. DM. In hindsight maybe it was the only time he got to feel like he was in control but you don’t think that at the time. Back then he was just the one with the graph paper and the imagination to plunge the rest of us into an adventure.

We’d written up his character sheet as a Cleric. It was sort of a joke about his family and sort of because we liked the idea of him being a healer. A slightly dark joke I guess but it wasn’t disrespectful. Not that we’d have ever said it but all of us loved him. Boys just don’t do that stuff very well. Just don’t say that stuff. We did crap jokes and head locks and arguments about whether Star Fleet was essentially an oppressive, militaristic organisation. We had endless conversations about girls who would never speak to us and whether The Cult had sold out with “Electric” and headers and volleys because we could never find enough people to make up a proper game. All that stuff we did well but none of would ever have told him we loved him. As well as making him a Cleric we’d given him really high stats. He’d have hated it because he always hated it when someone kept re-rolling to cheat their way to some ridiculous Strength score or insisted that they wouldn’t play unless they could have an Intelligence of 18. We knew he’d have hated it but I suppose it was our way, our useless boys’ way, of telling him that we loved him. The sheet was stuck to the side of the coffin.

I didn’t remember whose idea it had been to steal the body. I knew we’d all been uneasy after his death with the way he seemed to be reclaimed by his family as someone we didn’t know. Grief does funny things to families I guess. Before it happened we never really used to think too much about why we never convened at Sam’s house or why we never saw him Sunday mornings or even really why he sometimes left stuff with us rather than taking it home. Especially anything related to fantasy or magic. Just tame stuff like his copy of Lord Of The Rings or his Predator video, it’s not like we were reading Crowley and reaching out for the dead. Rob brought round an Ouija board once but we spent the whole time tilting it to spell out the name of some girl Jones was trying to ask out. Eventually he caved in and called her with the three of us whispering and giggling like idiots in the background. Obviously she said no. Funnily enough she spoke to us after Sam died. Said she was sorry for what had happened and that she’d always liked him. Not, you know, liked him but thought he was a good guy. It was awkward but touching. At the best of times us talking to Alison Miller would have been awkward but throw our sense of loss into the mix and the best we managed were mumbled thanks and intense scrutiny of our shoes.

After his death it sort of all fell into place, things became clearer. We were all told to stay away, that the family wanted privacy. No one ever came right out and said it but we all felt that we’d been recast as somehow culpable in what had happened, that we were part of the problems that Sam had, and not the outlet that we knew we were. The friends we knew we were. It hurt when they told us to keep away from the funeral and hurt turned to anger when we heard the details of the service. It just wasn’t him or what he’d have wanted. I suppose if we’d been older then maybe we’d have realised that the service wasn’t for him anyway, it was for the people left behind. His parents were the ones that needed their god and their church and their prayers to mark Sam’s departure from the world. I don’t know. Maybe we did realise on some level but we were angry just the same. We knew exactly what Sam believed in (punk rock, Ellen Ripley, some ill defined concept of magic) and what he didn’t (God, religion, Ewoks). He was passionate on it, angry even. A few months before Sam had killed himself Jones had briefly declared that he’d found God. After we’d traded various gags (“where was he, hiding behind the sofa again ?”) we realised that he was serious, or at least as serious as a fifteen year old can be whilst trying out various bits of identity to see what fits. Sam debated and argued with him for days. It was like the Han and Greedo and who shot first thing all over again but ten times worse. Quietly me and Rob thought the group might break up because of it, that this might be the point friendships fractured and fell apart. Then, as quickly as he’d declared himself a believer, Jones declared himself an atheist again. Or agnostic. He wasn’t really sure but, either way, whatever faith he’d discovered vanished like it’d just stepped on to a Transporter on the Enterprise and Scotty had beamed it away. Or O’Brien if you preferred Next Generation like Sam.

We even knew what Sam had wanted after his death. I don’t think he’d told us because he was planning it. I get that it might look that way now, knowing what happened, but it was just one of those conversations we had. He hadn’t even started it. I think Jones was going through a Trek phase and, inevitably given his warrior fixation, had latched on to the whole Klingon idea about good and bad deaths. This was after he’d found and lost God. He’d spun out some stuff about how he hoped he’d go out fighting, like Vasquez in Aliens or Boromir in Lord Of The Rings, and so there’d be no need for a funeral because there’d be nothing left of him. That was what had sparked Sam off, it was the chance to be pedantically right about something rather than some grand plan foreshadowing his own death. In painstaking detail Sam proceeded to tell Jones that his examples were flawed because, in fact, there had been all of Boromir left at his point of death, enough indeed to have a brief chat with Aragorn and to confess to breaking the Fellowship. He’d wound up being set atop a boat and cast adrift towards the Falls of Rauros. If anything illustrates why girls like Alison Miller didn’t really talk to us until catastrophic circumstances prevailed then it was this conversation. That’s where the boat came from though. Sam and Jones had argued for a bit about whether Boromir’s boat had been set ablaze by a flaming arrow before agreeing that it hadn’t. In turn that had set Sam to talking about his own wishes.

That’s why we’re here now, carrying a stolen coffin in the dark down to the river.

“Who’s going to do it ?” hissed Rob. We looked at each other, pupils shrinking as our eyes were caught in the glare of the torches. We hadn’t really discussed it, as absurd as that sounds. There’d been so much other stuff to plan that it must have just slipped attention. None of us had really spoken as we’d dug up the coffin and then replaced the earth to cover the theft. We knew there was something terrible about what we were doing but to us it was the lesser evil than not carrying out what Sam wanted. Grief does funny things to friends too I guess. We didn’t talk because there was nothing to say and, besides, we were terrified of being caught. So we remained silent as we wheeled the coffin, wedged across the back of two bikes, down through the woods at the back of the graveyard towards the river.

“Who’s going to fire the arrow ?” Rob tried again. Jones stopped sloshing petrol across the rowing boat we’d tied up earlier in the day. Rob had sorted it out and we hadn’t asked him how just as nobody had questioned Jones on the jerry cans full of petrol or the cords of rope and nobody has asked me about the bow. That one was legit. It was mine, dusted off from under some old sheets in the garage, left there ever since the end of a brief period when I’d taken up archery. Abandoned along with a telescope, my BMX, and a set of lifting weights: no future awaited me in astronomy, trick cycling, or body building. There might not be much of any kind of future waiting for me if we didn’t do this right.

“I’ll do it,” I offered. “Tether the boat so it stays close to the bank so I can hit it though. I don’t know how these arrows will fly with the lit cloth on them. We can always throw one on if I miss and then cut it adrift. Hopefully the current will take it straight down to the sea.” There were nods of assent but I could see the doubt. None of us knew how this would go. It must only have been half a mile to the mouth of the river, if the wind dropped you could just make out the sound of waves hitting the shoreline in the distance, but we didn’t really know what would happen.

We lugged the coffin on to the boat.

All of us were to blame for what happened next. Jones blamed himself because he was holding the matches. Rob blamed himself because he was holding the rope that was keeping the boat hugged against the river bank. I blamed myself for all of it. For not seeing the signs, for not joining up the dots into the bigger picture of Sam’s sharp decline. They were there now that I looked back at them: changing the subject whenever we talked about his life at home, evasive when asked about his random bruises, that time we got caught swapping notes and wound up in detention and the look in his eyes when he was told there’d be a letter to his parents about it. They pinned it on the washed out, faded black clothes, and the escapism, and the devil’s music, and the unhealthy obsession with the occult. Fuck all that. He was a kid that liked small f fantasy and capital F Fantasy. Just a kid that liked to shut out the voices around him by listening to fast, loud songs. And, yeah, maybe to shut out the voices in his head too.   Just a kid like we all were.

Jones had tried to light a match. That’s when it started to go wrong. His hands were trembling, in the dark none of us had noticed that he’d started crying and he would never have told us. Boys just don’t do that stuff well. As he struck the match he managed to lose his grip on it and it tumbled over and over, a faint flickering light, to the floor. Everyone panicked. Jones tried to catch it, like trying to grasp a dancing firefly, throwing the box with the rest of the matches away to free up his hands. There was barely a ripple as the box hit the water and all of our other chances to make fire drowned. Rob saw the box leave Jones’ hands and he went for that, in turn relinquishing his grip on the rope holding the boat. He missed the matches and the eager tug of the river’s current pulled the boat, topped by Sam’s coffin, out away from the shore. I just stood, numbly watching the scene unfold in a kind of slow motion by the light of the twin torches strapped to my head, holding the bow and a solitary arrow.

None of us really know what happened. All I’ll say is that I saw the match go out and hit the floor and then it sparked back into life as Rob picked it up. Later on, when we talked about it, none of us ever used the word ‘magic’ but we were all thinking it. Back when we used to play D&D, if things were going badly, Sam would always find a way to even things up. Holding the game universe in balance, he called it. Not cheating exactly – there was always a pre-determined chance for something extraordinary to happen and there was always a dice roll – but something to tip the scales. As the match flared Rob held it against the damp, petrol soaked cloth skewered on the arrow that I had resting on the bow. It caught and I gripped tighter, fighting the impulse to move my hand away from the heat. The boat had drifted quickly, maybe thirty or forty feet from the shore, and I pulled back on the string, smooth as I could, arms shaking, lined up my shot and then released.

Some god we didn’t really believe in rolled a twenty sided dice somewhere and we held our breath. One last check against my Dexterity stat. Maybe it was Sam, wherever he was now, holding the game universe in balance one last time for us. The arrow arced up and out over the water, its flaming point streaking across the surface as a blurred reflection. The scales tipped. The arrow dropped soundlessly into blackness, there was no splash. Gradually flames appeared, seemingly on the surface of the water, but as they tightened their grip on the wood, burned through the petrol, we could see the silhouette of Sam’s makeshift funeral pyre stenciled between the night sky and the ink of the river.

Enough smoke blew back to the shore that all of us could later say that was what brought the tears as we watched in silence as our friend made his final journey, the boat drifting out towards the sea, a trail of embers in its wake.

 

……

This is story 38 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 the first longer one for a while. Was nice to stretch out a bit. Your mileage may vary of course. I really like the characters in this one and hope I did them justice. Perhaps I’ll return to it later and tidy up the ragged bits.