Tag Archives: mental health

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.

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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.

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.

 

Fission

“His wife’s dead lieutenant.”

“General ?”

“She’s dead. The British know she’s been dead since ’41 but they’ve been keeping it from him so he stays… stays motivated shall we say”. General Groves sat back in his chair behind his impeccably tidy desk and motioned to his subordinate to stand at ease. There was no trace of doubt or regret in his voice.

“He’s asking for news again sir.”

“My hands are tied lieutenant, this is for the British. Rotblat’s with Chadwick and I don’t think they want that group disrupted. If Oppenheimer needs Chadwick and Chadwick needs Rotblat then our job is to make sure nothing gets in the way of that.”

“Then what do we tell him sir ?”

“Use your initiative lieutenant. Find out what the British are telling him and tell him the same. The Soviets are going to take Poland, it’s a mess. No one knows what’s going on in there. Tell him we’re doing everything we can to establish contact with her.”

The lieutenant fell silent and lowered his eyes to the floor. There was a short intake of breath as if he was about to speak but then thought better of it. Groves noted the reaction implacably.

“Do you know the story lieutenant ?” he asked suddenly.

“Sir ?”

“Rotblat’s story. How he got here.”

“No. No sir, I don’t. He doesn’t talk about it to us.” By “us” Groves assumed the lieutenant meant the military personnel on the project. He nodded briefly in acknowledgement.

“He’s a brilliant man. All of them, of course, are brilliant men lieutenant. We won’t build this thing without that. They need to be able to see this..” he thumped the desk abruptly “…and this…” he rolled a piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger “…in a way we can’t comprehend.” He stood and spread his arms to take in the room. “All of this lieutenant, this desk, this room, you and I, they need to understand all this as matter, as constituent particles, as the building blocks of the universe.”

“I don’t think I understand sir”

Groves laughed.

“I don’t need you to lieutenant. I need you to make sure that nothing distracts them from their task. Rotblat’s mind should be on atoms and nuclei and reactions, not on flesh and blood. They are scientists lieutenant – I need them to deliver the most extraordinary science project man has ever devised not ponder on the nature of humanity.”

“But he keeps asking after his wife sir.”

“Rotblat left Poland two days before Hitler invaded.” Groves paused. He was a practical man and war had hardened his pragmatism but he was not entirely without heart. “She was supposed to come back to England with him lieutenant but she was unwell. He was needed back with Chadwick and left her behind. Way I’ve heard it she was supposed to follow as soon as she was well enough. She never left Poland and our intelligence suggests she died, maybe in Majdaenk, maybe in the Warsaw ghetto.”

Groves sat down again behind his desk and lowered his voice, almost as if voicing his private thoughts aloud, softly.

“He writes to her. He still has hope. He writes to her every week, mailing the letters to his old address even though he’s heard nothing for almost three years. He knows about the camps and he knows what’s happening in his country but he still writes. Hell, somewhere in that head of his he must know we intercept every piece of mail that leaves this base. What does he think ? That we’d allow correspondence from the most important project in the war to a country occupied by the enemy ?” Groves shook his head. “He doesn’t think that. He knows those letters don’t go anyplace. I think he just writes to remember. I think he writes because it’s the only way he can talk to her.”

“So when he asks… ?” started the lieutenant.

“When he asks…” snapped Groves, his precise military tones returned, fixing his stare directly on his subordinate. “…you tell him what the British are telling him and keep his mind on the work.”

……

My dearest Tola,

Forgive my habits but I trust that you understand them well enough by now. I must write to you each week, the thought of you reading my words sustains me through the project and I fear that I need that sustenance now more than ever.

I am a foolish man writing letters that may never be read but I carry their words in my heart and will tell them all to you when we are reunited. It is my intention to return home soon to do whatever I must to find you; the Soviets loosen the Nazi grip on our home daily and surely the war’s end must be near ?

Our work here is close to being done Tola but the nearer we get to completion the more my concerns grow. Chadwick is committed and I owe him so much that it pains me to even contemplate what I am coming to realise I must do. The work itself is exceptional. You would not believe what we have achieved ! It is truly a miracle of scientific co-operation. We have come so far in understanding the power in the tiniest fragments of matter in such a short time. It is overwhelming and impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of such an endeavour.

And yet, at the same time, my doubts grow. They brought us here to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, to unleash an energy never before unleashed in the world. I understood the urgency; we all understood the consequences if the Germans built a fission weapon first but I don’t know that I believe that they can anymore. They still have Diebner and Schumann but everyone else of any standing is here, the sum total of our knowledge of atomic power is here. When I see what we have achieved I can’t believe they could have done so much. How could they without Oppenheimer ? Without Chadwick ? Without Fermi ? Even without Groves. I’ve never seen a man so driven, so certain of an outcome.

Only now I don’t know what outcome Groves seeks. What is he being asked to do ? We dined at the Chadwick’s last week and, quite off-the-cuff, I heard him remark that the project was really designed to subdue the Soviets. He laughed it off but I took something of truth there in what he said. Are we building a bomb to end this war or to start the next one ?

My love I will be with you soon. My mind is almost made up. The price of us being split apart was perhaps worth paying to end Hitler’s menace and free our home but my conscience will not allow for that price to be the end of all things. Patience, sweet Tola. Wait for me a little longer. I will be with you soon.

Always yours,

Jozef

……

Joseph Rotblat was an extraordinary man: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and the only person to leave the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience before its completion. Most of the bare facts in this story are – I hope – true although the devices by which the story is told are all fictitious. I have no idea if Rotblat wrote to his wife but I like to believe that perhaps he did.

This is the second story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

Mirror in the mirror

19. Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Part                                                                                          2011

More than any other record in this list I would urge you, before you read any further, to take ten minutes out and just listen to this one. Quite aside what it means to me and the associations it has it is a sublimely beautiful piece. If you’ve never heard it then it’s worth hearing “clean” before  anything I might have to say about it becomes part of your association to it.

Back ? Good. It’s quite something isn’t it ?

My usual start point in approaching any of these posts is to try to learn a little more about the record in question, mostly by listening to it but also by reading about it. Sometimes the latter exercise throws some new light on the music for me but often it’s just checking things I’d always assumed as fact: Abba getting divorced, Al Kooper sitting in on “Like A Rolling Stone” by accident, the difficult gestation of The Wall. I’m not sure what those facts add. I’m not sure that they particularly tell me, or you, anything about my relationship with the record. Not really. They tell you I can find my way around Wikipedia, probably know a little bit of this stuff anyway after *cough* roughly thirty years of listening to music, but beyond that ?

There have been pieces that have gotten closer to the spirit of what I’ve been trying to do I guess. The posts that reflect my love for my wife and family, that’s closer. The poetry. The thinly disguised fiction. All closer. All harder for me to do and all somewhat clumsily executed. But closer I think. I’m always simultaneously most satisfied and most disappointed with those ones  – satisfied that I tried and that it rings emotionally true, disappointed that it’s not better written. The other stuff is enjoyable (to me) but I’m less sure what it’s for – the Dylan piece, for example, is okay but the bulk of it, despite its early protestations to the contrary, is trying to do a Greil Marcus-esque job and there’s really no need; he’s pretty good at doing that job already. The more personal bit, the section about “having no secrets to conceal” flirts with something emotionally true to me and then gets cold feet, backs away.

The reality is that there is no “big” secret to conceal. The truth is that I suffer from – or suffer with might be more accurate – depression. Some days it’s bad. Some days, most days fortunately, I don’t really feel it at all. I’ve had long stretches of years in my life without a murmur. Then, in the last couple of years, I’ve had stretches when it’s gotten on top of me, been in danger of being swallowed by the rising tide.

Not every song in this list is about depression (“thank god” – entire rest of reading world*) but this one, for me, is. It’s the one that let me admit to myself what the problem was and start to get some help.

So, back to my usual approach, if we research “Spiegel im Spiegel” then we get something like this (it’s from Wikipedia – as I know absolutely nothing about classical music then I’m prepared to trust it as a reliable guide…):

Spiegel im Spiegel is a piece of music written by Arvo Part in 1978 just prior to his departure from Estonia. The piece is in the tintinnabular style of composition, wherein a melodic voice, operating over diatonic scales, and tintinnabular voice, operating within a triad on the tonic, accompany each other. It is about ten minutes long.

Okay. I got the bit about Estonia. 1978. Ten minutes long. That stuff in the middle might as well have been in Estonian for all I was able to understand it and, do you know what, even if I possessed the technical knowledge to decipher the sentence it still would have told me precisely nothing about my involvement with that piece of music. But that’s what I do, I try to understand stuff – try to take the songs apart to see what makes them work – rather than just sometimes experience it. In microcosm it’s what I do in life, I’m not happy unless I can rationalise something – solve it by understanding it – and sometimes there isn’t a rationale. Sometimes you just have to experience it, let yourself feel it, and wait for it to pass.

I don’t even remember how I found this piece of music. Poking around the web now there seems to be some concern that it’s almost become too ubiquitous, if something can be too ubiquitous. Is it one of those absolutes like unique ? Whatever, it was a surprise to me that it’s well known enough to even provoke a debate. It’s an odd thing to just find though, almost ten minutes of minimalist classical music – it’s not even as if any of the various algorithm sites I sometimes use would have thrown it up as a “people who liked… also liked…” recommendation. Let’s accept it as a gift and call it fate.

My memory of hearing it, whilst not a happy one, is crystal clear. I was lying on the sofa at home. I was spending a lot of time doing that, dimly aware that all was not entirely well. There had been an unprecedented run of what you might call bad luck or you might just figure was how life plays out sometimes; losing a job, struggling a bit with loss of status in a new one, reconstructing my knee (again), some unexpected and particularly unpleasant surgery, and discovering that I’d managed to displace my jaw joint. Away from my house you would never have known. Maybe that was part of the problem, trying to tackle it all myself for fear of letting anyone know that I was struggling. My wife knew of course and I will be forever sorry for the burden that it placed on her.

The circumstantial stuff wasn’t the real issue though. Each element on its own wasn’t ideal but was manageable. Even all of them together might have been okay if I’d not been pre-disposed to mental health problems. Am I pre-disposed ? Is anyone ? Maybe that’s the wrong phrasing. I’ve certainly suffered at various times in my life with mental health problems and this set of challenges pushed me further and further back into myself until I thought I couldn’t get out.

And then I heard this. Whilst that sounds a bit like it’s come straight from the “and with a single bound he was free” school of deus ex machina it genuinely was like that. I lay on the sofa listening to this and it was like someone had thrown me down a torch into the dark pit that I’d taken up residence in – the torch lasted long enough for me to see where I was and realise I was in trouble and probably wasn’t going to get out on my own. It enabled me to see myself very clearly. I don’t know if it’s the repetition or the tempo or just the still tranquility in this piece of music but whatever it is it just allowed me enough space and distance to understand.

Part moved from Estonia and spent much of his life in Berlin. I never studied German and know next to nothing of the language. Until I started this post in my usual researching fashion it didn’t even occur to me to translate the title: it means “mirror in the mirror”. Imagining two mirrors, endlessly reflecting themselves, disappearing into infinity in their planes, is absolutely the essence of how “Spiegel im Spiegel” works for me. For me it’s profoundly moving and desperately sad but also meditative and extraordinarily beautiful.

So it might seem a little strange to be so forthcoming now but there is method in my madness. After a while it’s just tiring carrying around the lie that everything’s always okay. Not allowing the bad stuff expression becomes part of the problem. It’s not about sympathy but I guess it is about empathy. It’s also an acknowledgement that lots of people either have or will experience something like this in their life and I guess this is my small attempt to let them know that I can empathise with that and that things can get better. Don’t try to do it on your own though. People will surprise you (in a good way). Find a doctor, find a therapist, find your family and friends, and they will help you find yourself.

——–

* based on current stats “entire rest of reading world” actually means about 4 or 5 people a day. Surely one will go viral one day ? What’s that you say ? Less depression, more videos about cats. Ah, now I see where this is going wrong…

Look ! A cat:

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