Tag Archives: grief

The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

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Things can only get better…

If you’d asked me I’d have said it felt like things were ending and not beginning. They were difficult, uncertain times. I was spending my days distracted, worrying about Trump and whether the Korean Peninsula was going to ignite. Or watching Davis and Bernier butt heads in Brussels; as mismatched as Mayweather and McGregor but with even more money at stake. Trucks on Las Ramblas, crossbow bolts on cricket pitches, Neo Nazis marching in small town America. Stuff I couldn’t do much about beyond post disapproving links to my own personal echo chamber on social media. I think everyone switched off from those sort of posts after the referendum anyway. Some kind of political fatigue. I imagine if the English Civil War had played out on Facebook then Charles may well have kept his head and his crown; all that simmering New Model Army agitation dissipating, threads about Leveller demands for suffrage lost in a sea of cat videos and personality quizzes. Burford might have trended on Twitter for a couple of hours. Hashtag Thompson, Perkins and Church. Everyone left to get back to checking out the Daily Mail’s pap shots of a bikini clad Henrietta Maria on the beach in France with England’s exiled monarch. I know, I know. There were no long lenses in the seventeenth century. Or cameras. Or bikinis. But you get the idea: nobody’s changing anyone’s mind on social.

Driving home that day I took the detour I’d been taking all summer, the one that passed the fields blanketed in sunflowers. Their heads were bowed slightly now as Autumn approached. There was something strangely somber, dignified, in their quiet genuflection. It was only poignant, I guess, if you’d seen them in the weeks before, rows upon rows of bright beaming faces raised in praise of the sun. Who am I kidding? We see reflected back what’s already inside us. Maybe you’d have just seen a field of nice flowers without all the attendant pathos. I saw some metaphorical expression of my state of mind. Wilting. Still straining for the sun but wilting nonetheless. I make it sound more melodramatic than it merited but I think I was in my Poundshop Shelley phase. Or CostCo Keats. Pick the discount retailer and romantic poet combination that works best for you. Woolworth’s Wordsworth. I wandered through the pick n’ mix lonely as a cloud. The important part, looking back, is that I was still straining for the sun. It’s not like I’d passed by a field of rotten, broken stalks, dead headed beyond recognition, and thought: hey, that’s me. By my standards it was a pretty optimistic outlook but, as I say, if you’d asked it didn’t feel like the beginning of anything.

It was round about the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. I mention it only as it seems relevant as a kind of cultural sign post, everyone looking back at how we all reacted then and what it said about us all. Apparently it was the event that broke the great British reserve and prefaced our now seemingly endless embrace of public displays of grief. All magnified on social but let’s not go there again (I’m betting if Charles had been beheaded in our alternatively imagined Civil War then the outpouring of dislikes and crying emoji’s would have brought down the Facebook servers). I say ‘apparently’ because that’s not how I remember it. I woke up with a hangover that day that probably just about makes my Greatest Hangover Hits (middle of side 1: not a real face melter that you’d start the album with or one of the really brutal slow burners that you’d stick on the end of side 2) but it was twenty years ago – back when you’d shake that shit off before the first coffee and half a bacon sandwich was done. Not like now when drinking punishes you for days, a crime that always delivers a custodial sentence instead of the slap-on-the-wrist community service order you used to enjoy. To blow away the cobwebs I’d wandered down to the local newsagents to pick up the Sunday rags and had made it all the way back to the flat before noticing the front page: I used to read the sports first. Things had evidently been in the balance at whatever point the papers went to print over night as the headlines described the crash and her condition as precarious. I was staying with a couple of friends who didn’t have a TV so we flicked on the radio. Yes, we were that bohemian (well, I wasn’t, I had a 32 inch monstrosity that took up half of my living room but they were always a little more sophisticated than me). All stations were playing quiet classical music and so we knew long before a very BBC Home Counties voice gently intoned that “out of respect” all regular programming had been suspended. It’s the voice they will roll out in the event of nuclear armageddon: regretfully we are all about to be annihilated in a fiery radioactive inferno so we have suspended Pete Tong and bring you, instead, this piece by Vivaldi. The Archers will continue as usual. So we knew that she’d died. And you know what? I don’t mean to sound callous about it but it meant literally nothing to us: nothing then and, looking back, it means even less to me now. To paraphrase Morrissey: she said nothing to us about our life. I think someone cracked an entirely inappropriate, coal black gag and we got on with the day. It was only in the weeks that followed as I tiptoed through the bizarre and extraordinary public grief that it felt like it mattered to me at all – and it only mattered in that it was maybe the first time that I felt completely out of step with the public mood. Then again I never was good at picking sides. I voted remain. I had a job interview the day of her funeral, driving past abandoned flowers on the M1.

Maybe it was Brian Cox that sparked the beginning. My own personal, if unlikely, Higgs Bosun. Maybe he kicked it all off. When I made it home I’d eaten dinner with my daughter and we’d turned to chatting about astronomy. She wanted to know whether there were any famous astronomers and, mistakenly figuring she wouldn’t know the difference, I offered up the former D: Ream keyboard wizard and booted up a lecture he’d delivered on Youtube. Straight away she called me out on the fact that he was a physicist and not an astronomer. She’s nine. I took comfort that she’d spotted it and more comfort that when I explained that there weren’t really any famous astronomers she thought that was another good reason to pursue it as potential career. She also offered up Edwin Hubble as an example of a famous astronomer which gave me a reassuring insight into her frame of reference for what should constitute fame. We didn’t make it that far through Cox’s lecture if I’m honest. I’m not going to pretend that me and the pre-tween were scribbling out e=mc squared and back solving calculus on the kitchen blackboard long into the evening. She returned to watching Sam & Kat on Netflix and I opened a bottle of wine. But we did make it far enough to hear him describe the number of galaxies in the universe that they’d observed through Hubble in a patch of sky that you could cover with a five pence piece if you held it twenty metres away from your eye. Ten thousand.

Ten thousand galaxies under a five pence piece. I think that was when I felt a tingle of wonder return. Felt the possibilities. I think that was maybe the beginning.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ennui, Lorde, solutions architecture, and puns about hats

“Did you get it?”

“Not only did I not get it but they didn’t even talk to me about it.”

“But you threw your hat in the ring, right?”

“Yeah, of course but it looks like there wasn’t really a ring to throw my hat into. Or I didn’t have a very good hat. Or the ring was already full with a much better hat. Is that too much now on the hat stuff?”

“No way. I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. You’ve got a top hat-”

“Really? A ‘top hat’?” interrupted Pete. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Unintentional punnery, I promise,” protested Jen. “I would con-fez if it’d been a deliberate hat joke.”

“Good lord. Remind me why I call you again when I’ve got bad news? There’s a…,” Pete paused for emphasis, “…flat cap on my career prospects and by way of commiserations you’re doing bad gags about millinery.”

“Sorry, let’s draw a veil over the whole thing…” said Jen.

“That’s not a hat, is it?”

“It’s kind of head gear. Close enough to count as another feather in my-”

“No more. Enough.” Pete cut off the last pun but she could hear him barely suppressing his laughter.

“Okay. Seriously though, I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. I know I don’t really know much about that thing you do… what is that thing you do again? Actually, don’t bother, I didn’t really understand it last time. I don’t know much about it but I thought you were getting on really well.”

“So did I. And it’s Solutions Architecture in IT,” said Pete.

“Yeah, let’s not try and have that conversation again.”

“Agreed as long as you don’t try and explain PR to me again.”

“Like I said. It’s dead easy.” Jen let out an exaggerated sigh with a flourish. “I try to get journalists to write nice things about the company, or, technically get them to reproduce the nice things I’ve already written about the company for them,”

“Except…”

“Except when I think they might be about to write nasty things about the company and then I try to stop them. That’s basically it.”

“Doesn’t it ever strike you as, I don’t know, utterly futile?” asked Pete.

“Maybe. No more so than translating a bunch of user requirements into what’s basically just a rough idea for a piece of software design that you then give to some actual developers to go and build.”

“Touche. And I thought you didn’t understand it?”

“PR darling,” mocked Jen. “Knowledge for us is a mile wide and an inch deep. Don’t ask me what any of those things actually mean.”

“Depressing, isn’t it? I can’t decide if I’m genuinely sad about not getting the job or about the fact that I thought I might have even wanted it in the first place. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, was it? Me and Georgie used to talk about it. How we’d carve out our niches doing the things we loved and it wouldn’t matter too much if we never really got paid that well. I was going to write software, not ‘solutionise’ it or ‘architect’ it or any of those other pieces of jargon we invent to legitimise all this nonsense. She was going to get her club night off the ground, try and get into promoting stuff.”

“What happened?” nudged Jen quietly.

“I don’t know. It seemed temporary and that made it seem okay. Do the big corporate IT job while she got herself set up – I used to run out flyers for her from work on the company printers – and there’d always be time to get back to the other stuff later. Always later. You get used to the money I guess and then… since the accident, since she’s been gone, I’ve just stuck at it. On some level I think I understand it as hanging on to something constant as everything else changed. Even if it was hanging on to something that was a bit crap it was still… still better than everything else.”

“What does your grief counsellor say?”

“That I’m intentionally hanging on to something constant because everything else changed. You don’t think I came up with that phrase on my own, do you? I think what I said to her was that work was utter shit but I preferred sinking knee deep into it every day for the chance to briefly pretend everything else was normal rather than quit and face up to getting on with my life on my own.”

“I prefer your version. Hers sounds a bit like solution architecture. Do you worry we’re getting too old now to change?”

“I don’t know if it’s age or a mindset or what it is. You heard the Lorde record?” asked Pete.

“Of course,” said Jen.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re not 19 anymore, it’d be not that surprising if it had passed us by. I really like it. Like, really like it. More than someone in their 30s should maybe. That last track…”

“Perfect Places?”

“Yeah, Perfect Places. It’s like my experience of being 19 wrapped up in three minutes. All that ennui and that weird mix of thinking you’re having the time of your life but already wondering whether you’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. I just listen to it and wonder how it would have sounded to me when I was 19. How she’s nailed that down in the moment rather than ten years later, looking back, I just don’t know.”

“This is a little off topic but do you want to know something funny?” said Jen.

“Go on…”

“I always used to think ennui was pronounced ‘enn-you-eye’. Had no idea that last syllable was like ‘we’.”

“Really? After you gave me such a hard time about Choux pastry? It’s a French word, isn’t it? So it’s pronounced more like ‘oui’. There’s just not a decent English equivalent for that particular brand of boredom and dissatisfaction.”

“Weltschmerz,” declared Jen.

“Bless you,” Pete retorted. “Or gesundheit I guess would be more appropriate.”

“Very funny. Weltschmerz. It’s like the German equivalent of ennui, isn’t it? Or near enough. Wonder why the Europeans got all the good words for a yearning, world weary sadness?”

“Make the most of them. We probably won’t be allowed to use them post Brexit.”

“Why are you thinking about being 19 again? Apart from the Lorde record I mean.” Jen’s voice dropped as realisation struck. “Didn’t you meet Georgie when you were about that age?”

“Yeah, yeah I did. She was the right thing I found, I guess…” Pete trailed off and the line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.”

The line went dead and Pete whispered to himself: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”

 

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring Chantenay carrots, bad French, Taylor Swift, and a stuffed rabbit

“You know that Taylor Swift song ?”

“I may be familiar with Swifty’s work. Which one ?”

“Shake It Off.”

“It’s a fine, fine thing. Didn’t think it’d be your cup of tea though.”

“I’m a broad church. But why’s there that whole bit about baking ?” asked Pete.

“Baking ? What are you talking about ?” replied Jen.

“You know… players gonna play, play, play, and then haters gonna hate, hate, hate…”

“Yeah, then it’s I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake.”

“But after that,” interrupted Pete, “it goes bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. Like she’s doing a shout out to sous chefs or something.”

“Sous chefs don’t do the baking you idiot. They’re like second in command chefs. Literally, they’re under chefs. Well, literally linguistically, I don’t know if they’re literally under them physically. Depends on how cosy the kitchen is I guess.”

“Really ? What’s that sous pastry then ?”

“Choux pastry you tit. What were you doing in French ?”

“J’étais pas attention,” replied Pete in a more than passable accent, enunciating each syllable of att-en-ti-on with relish.

“Non ?”

“Non, j’ai seulement pris parce que je pensais que le professeur était très sexy.”

“You’re a man of hidden talents. And did you really just take French because you liked the teacher ?”

“Oui. It’s why I ended up doing Drama and Economics as well. My qualifications are really weird but I have a lot of happy memories in my formative years of vaguely stern older women trying to teach me things.”

“That’s quite enough insight into your adolescence thanks and it doesn’t get you off the hook with the baking thing. She doesn’t sing bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. It’s heartbreakers gonna break, break, break. The whole point of the song is that people are going to try and play her, hate on her, break her heart, or be a faker but she’s not going to let it get to her. She’s just going to shake it off.”

Pete answered quietly, reciting part of the verse. “Shake it off. I’m dancing on my own, making moves up as I go. That’s what they don’t know…”

Jen sighed. “You too, huh ?”

“Oh god yes, me too. After a while I just couldn’t listen to all that miserable stuff anymore. I couldn’t work out whether my own sadness would fade if I didn’t keep stoking it with songs in minor keys so I went through a phase of just playing pop music. I must have listened to Shake It Off ten times a day for a couple of weeks.”

“You heard the Ryan Adams version ? Covered the whole album for some reason.”

“Yeah, I have but you know what ? It doesn’t make any difference. I hear more sadness in her version than his. I know he broke it all down and plays some sparse, stripped back, slowed down take on it but it’s all borrowed…”

“…that’s kind of how cover versions work…”

“…no, I know but you can borrow the song but make the emotion your own. Listen to Buckley’s Hallelujah. Or, while we’re on Adams, listen to his version of Wonderwall, it’s like he found depths in it that Noel Gallagher didn’t even know he’d started digging. But the pathos in Shake It Off is all there in Swift’s original. All sunny on the outside but all dancing on my own on the inside. It’s the girl who didn’t fit in at school, the person who always felt a bit out of place, someone who retreats to their self when they don’t know how to deal with the world.”

“You seem to have given this some thought… Are you sure it’s not just a song about shaking off your troubles and jigging about a bit ?”

“Ten times a day. Two weeks. I know that song like the proverbial back of my hand. It’s not about jigging about a bit. Not for me at least.”

“So…,” Jen paused. “I’m guessing it didn’t actually help you shake it off ?”

“I’m not sure what would help that. The sad songs aren’t doing it and the bouncy ones aren’t either. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is but I just see her or hear her in everything. Always in the most unexpected places. Did I tell you about Valentine’s Day ?”

“Nope, I don’t think so.”

“It had become a bit of an in-joke between us. You know Georgie, she didn’t really go for the whole hearts and flowers thing but underneath it all she was romantic. Not that she’d much admit it but it was there. She liked it if I surprised her with something. It didn’t have to be anything traditional but just something that showed a bit of thought, I think that was what she liked.”

“Is that what prompted the teddy bear thing you two used to do ?”

“Yeah,” Pete laughed. “Sort of. It started as a joke one Valentine’s Day when I bought her the cheesiest bear I could find. It was holding a pink heart that had ‘I love you’ written on it and it had a matching pink bow on its ear. I mean it was just this awful thing that we just had a big laugh about. She went out the next year and got me this massive stuffed rabbit, all doe eyed…”

“Rabbit eyed, surely ?” said Jen.

“It’s an expression. You’re in a very literal mood today. Doe eyed. They’re stuffed toys, they’re not anatomically correct representations of woodland creatures. Anyway, it was all doe eyed, floppy ears and it was holding…”

“Wait, don’t tell me… Was it holding a love carrot ?”

“Hey, leave my love carrot out of it,” laughed Pete.

“With pleasure. Although… If it’s that orange and knobbly then you really should see a doctor, you know ?” Jen was trying and failing to suppress a fit of giggles. “Would you say your love carrot is from the Nantes variety or more of a stubby Chantenay ?”

“What are the ones you get in the shops ?”

“There’s loads of different ones. From the small but tasty aforementioned Chantenay, more of a snacking carrot that one, right through to the Purple Dragon. Ten inches of purple carroty pleasure.”

“You just made that up,” Pete protested.

“No, seriously. When I was at Uni I used to do some part-time work at a greengrocers and so now, along with my degree in History, I have a pretty decent knowledge of root vegetables.”

“Must come in handy.”

“Well, until now, not so much but I can confirm with some authority that the Purple Dragon is an actual thing. It wasn’t that popular, I think the colour put people off, so I used to get given bags of them to take back for the house. We pretty much lived on carrots, Marlboro lights and Thunderbird that year.”

“Was always Asda sherry in our house. Foul stuff but it had the best alcohol content to pound note ratio. I don’t remember many carrots, or vegetables at all to be honest. There was a lot of tuna pasta and a lot of toast. Especially in the third year after me and Georgie got together. We used to sit up after a night out, just talking and drinking coffee, eating toast…” Pete trailed off and there was silence on the line for a few seconds.

“You were telling me about the Valentine’s thing…” Jen nudged.

“The rabbit. Right. She got me the big stupid floppy eared thing and the next year I got her something sillier and it just carried on. She always said that she didn’t like those staged, formal occasions when you were supposed to declare that you were in love but I don’t know. We thought we were being all ironic and above it all but I know we both used to really look forward to that time of year.”

“It was just a different way of taking part,” said Jen.

“I guess. Now though, after the accident, I wish we hadn’t. Every February is just going to be an emotional assault course. I can avoid the card shops easily enough but there’s Valentines stuff everywhere. Supermarkets, petrol stations…”

“Nothing quite says I love you like a bottle of de-icer.”

“That must be the most passive-aggressive Valentines gift you can get your lover.”

“I don’t know. A Chantenay carrot might run it pretty close.”

“I have a run of decent days, maybe even a week, but it’s just too hard when the world is screaming reminders in your face. If we hadn’t made Valentines a thing then it’d be okay but…” Pete trailed off.

“But it was your thing and you should treasure that. Find some comfort in the things that you did and shared rather than mourning the ones you won’t have.”

“You sound like my counseller.”

“That probably means we’re right, yeah ?” said Jen gently.

“You probably are. You both are. But it’s easy in the text book version of stages of grief and not so easy when you’re dealing with it…”

“I know. I’m sorry Pete. I didn’t mean…”

Pete interrupted softly. “Don’t apologise Jen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know you’re looking out for me and you’re right. I do hang on to the happy memories of her but they’re all jumbled up with the feeling that I’ve lost the best part of myself. The past just reminds me that I’ve lost my present and lost my future.”

“It’ll be a different future.”

“I know but I’’m not sure I’m ready to accept that yet.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.” Pete put down the phone and picked up the large, stuffed rabbit that was lying in front of him, held it up in front of his face. “Do you miss her too ?”

 


This is the third time I’ve felt the need to just let Pete and Jen talk to each other. Format is always the same and the title continues to borrow (steal) from Sufjan Stevens. I just like hearing them try to work things out.

The other two are here: Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring balloons, AA Milne, Sufjan Stevens and phone sex

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit

 

When I grow up

I’m three years in to this blog now and have sporadically produced an end-of-year round up of my favourite records at year end. Okay, I’ve done it once. This will make it twice. Two out of three ain’t bad as Meatloaf wisely attests.

There’s no getting past the fact that it’s been a dreadful year. The world has gotten uglier, more stupid, and less tolerant. Irrespective of your personal perspective on, say, Brexit or Trump it’s been a  year characterised by a dearth of reasoned, fact based, rational discourse. We are all a little poorer and democracy is ill served by a toxic environment where lies stand as truth and dissenting voices are shouted down as traitors.

In “normal” circumstances the dumbing down and drift (lurch) right of our politics would have been enough to tip this year into the debit column. And, sure, we lost some fine people too. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. How’d I get through the 42 records thing without room for any of them ? All of that marked 2016 as rotten. But all of that, personally, ended up being nothing.

I lost my mum this year. I’m old enough at 44 to have known her a long time. In brighter moments I take some comfort in that but it’s only been three and a half months and there haven’t been many brighter moments. I’ve written about loss and grief elsewhere in these pages and it has seemed an easier thing for me to access or articulate in the abstract. I have exhausted metaphors involving the sea or the weather but it’s interesting that they were the props I reached for. There is something vast and overwhelming about the loss of a parent, even as an adult, that means you reach for things equally vast. I’ve written about depression a lot on these pages as well and there’s some equivalence in the feelings but they’re not the same. I guess the symptoms present in the same way but the root cause is different. Mum used to read my words and I suspect they were a route in to her hearing from me, understanding me. I’ve never been a great talker. I don’t regret. I can’t change the way I’m wired but I hope (I think) that she knew me a bit better as an adult by reading my ramblings about records and my sporadic, random stories. I miss her as my best reader but most of all I miss her as my mum. She was the best one anyone could have.

So my three stand out records of the year (the year being when I experienced them and not necessarily when they came out) entirely reflect all of the above. First up, Marillion’s FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run) deals in an angry, anxious reaction to the banking crisis, to changes in global politics, to a world in which divisions between rich and poor deepen and grow. It’s breathtakingly good. Broad in scope but personal and relatable, musically rich, technical but emotional. It won’t get much credit in the end-of-year lists because Marillion have long been abandoned by the mainstream music press but it’s a remarkable statement and a career high for a band that have already scaled a few anyway.

Second is Nick Cave’s “Skeleton Tree”. It was released after the death of his son (and partially written after that event, though not entirely) and is devastating. I’m not sure in any other year whether I’d have had the appetite to listen to Skeleton Tree very much. It’s too raw and too painful but I found it a conduit for my own feelings. A lot of stuff felt very trite this year in comparison to “real life” and this record was anything but.

And finally there’s Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” soundtrack/score and, in particular, the song “When I Grow Up”. The musical is an utter delight and I think I found its overtly clever lyrics a tonic in this post-truth year of all years. I’m well aware that the musical particularly speaks to me as a father of a smart, sensitive daughter and that I have become overly sentimental in my middle-ish age. However, “When I Grow Up” kinda sums up the year for me. On the face of it it’s a singalong call to be older, to get to “eat sweets every day” and do what you like – the imagined liberation of being an adult from a child’s perspective. Inevitably it’s more complex than that and I can’t listen to the song without feeling an extraordinary sense of sadness and pathos in the lines about being old enough to carry all the things you have to carry as a grown up, about being able to fight off the monsters under the bed when you’re a grown up. There are lots of markers of being a “grown up”. Formal ones like turning 18 or 21. Or informal ones like buying your first home or getting married or having children. Or losing your mum. I wish, I really wish, that you did get to easily fight off the monsters under the bed when you grow up and I really, really wish you learned to carry all of things you have carry but it’s not as straightforward as that. This year they all got a lot heavier. This year I got to be a grown up and I’d give anything to be able to be a child again.
Go listen if you’re so minded. They’re all great records although none will make the playlists at many Christmas parties. But it hasn’t been that kind of year.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit

“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”

“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”

“How to what now ?”

“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.

“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”

“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”

Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”

“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”

“That’s not quite how I remember it.”

“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”

“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.

“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”

“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”

“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”

“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.

“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”

“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”

“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”

“What are the fries in this analogy ?”

“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”

“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”

“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”

“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.

“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”

“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”

“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.

“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”

“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”

“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”

“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”

“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.

“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.

“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”

“Her own cheese ?”

“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”

“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”

“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.

“You asked him to calm down ?”

“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.

“What were the chances ?”

“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”

“So he started doing irony ?”

“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”

“No fucking way.”

“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”

There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”

“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”

“Keep going Chomsky.”

“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”

“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.

“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”

“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”

“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”

“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…

“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”

“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.

“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”

“Why’d we want to do that ?”

“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

……

This is story 40 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 direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.

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.