By A Patient
Through persistent denial of the looming, black – bellied thunderhead of his shadow, she had tried to keep still – as still and as quiet as a bunny in a bush – for one move, one rustle, one hitched breath and he’d see her. She didn’t want to look at him. she knew she shouldn’t through years of learning that one look was enough – Calypso Barbie when they first met ‘Hello, Penelope, my name is depression…did Santa bring you lots of nice things today?’ A blood stain on her summer dress, the sixth form exit button, Lady McBeth, gin. And now, famished through the weight gain, through the medication, through the doctors – and a cauliflower for dinner. ‘Why, Penelope, you know we really shouldn’t keep meeting like this.’ She stared down at that pathetic cauliflower before her and felt her foot slip, the brambles in the bush snapped and seemed to cackle, she caught her wrist on a thorn and everything that she had been hiding from billowed in the air and fell upon her like a 50-mile-wide, black parachute. ‘What’s the matter? Are you not enjoying your cauliflower?’ Through time and familiar sights and smells one can sometimes run – but where is there to go when the innocuous cauliflower is no longer just a cauliflower and ‘produce’ turns ‘trigger.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Well now,’ he said. She felt a familiar hand rest lightly upon her shoulder as he bent down and whispered in her ear with that intoxicating purr she both missed and loathed ‘what a pity.’
Please forgive me, please don’t blame yourself, I know you may not understand, and this is selfish…
In placing a heavy chess board between herself and her mother, chequered with life and death (was her mother white or black? Is death white or is death black?) he once again accompanied her to therapy and split a gut it at the comedy. ‘TRIGGERS,’ he bellowed, clutching his stomach, ‘why this fellow should do stand up.’ He went with her on long walks ‘gosh, isn’t nature ugly. Look at that fat ox over there, trying to better himself.’ He sat with her when she tried to read ‘I wrote this book, you know,’ he said, leaning over her shoulder. ‘Silvia Plath, pure plagiarist.’ He kicked things about her room when she tried to tidy, he sprinkled soiled cat litter on her food, he tucked her in at night and kissed her forehead, he stroked her hair in the mornings. she lay with him, lovingly cradled in the crook of his arm. He listened to her, he smoked cigars and watched her from across the room. ‘You will always be someone to me, Penelope.’
I don’t want to ruin your life and hate that you might not now ever have a merry Christmas or that you’ll forever live in dread of my birthday – a day in remembrance of a life given and then thrown away. But I hope that you will come to see, in time, that all the other days are actually all the better. You’re a great mum…
Picked up by the nerve strings, the pickup – or rather the drag down – is merely preliminary and he rarely bothers with it himself. In his tricky subterfuge, he recruits his cabinet to break her so he can play the hero.
First, there comes the woman, with her taunting beauty and her words spoken so sweetly – a vacuum in and of themselves – with a sinister distractedness, she prods at the flaws on Penelope’s face ‘Did Satan spit you out? You’re just so ugly’. The ever-self-destructive profligate, stinking of vodka and poking Penelope with a gnawed toothbrush ‘you’re hungry. Here, you can take it out again afterwards.’ The fearless musketeer and his watchful python ‘what’s the matter, Penelope…why…I think you’re having a heart attack…you’re choking…you…can’t…breathe.’ The hag of the haunted house ‘do you remember…do you remember…do you remember?’ The petulant child, ‘that therapist is a hateful brute!’ And the old man and his wild and frenzied raven, who give her sticky thoughts – thoughts that stick to everything, so that she can blindly appreciate nothing. They make her teeter and question, gulp sulphuric puss in wondering – am I? Should I? Will I? Did they? Is that true? With each one of them a kettle weight, the descent is perpetuated by a heavy thought process, until he catches her like a dark prince and the mind begins to melt as if doused in acid, seeping through the eyes – I’m not crying, my mind is melting – into a world of ‘HE.’
HE is the solitude of a dripping tap, the mould eating the plaster, the cockroaches, the infestation. He is the old man weeping in a broken chair – his mind melting. HE is the girl who opens her legs and immediately feels need to apologise – her mind melting. HE is the waste that chokes the seahorse and dirties the plumage of the noble swan, HE is the bullet that fells the proud stag, the warm needle in the shivering vein. It is HE, who suckles the breast of every man, girl and abandoned child as the mosquito does blood, who has made her face no longer a face – her eyes do not tear, her eyes her mother will no longer meet, her eyes now the red of picked-at sores. Each organ slows to its final pulsing beat – from tissue to turning leaf and she will soon to be dust.
I’m frightened…I’m frightened of it and I’m frightened of the battle, the Same battle I must keep fighting as his numbers grow while mine diminish. Will I ever be able to turn my back? It is said that Abraham Lincoln used to storm through the woods with a shotgun in his hand on every successive assault…
Two weeks have now passed, and he comes to show her what her life is. She sees herself lying on the bed asleep, or awake dreaming, lying amongst his allies who will never leave her to ensure that she will never leave him. She sees the old hag tormenting the mouse that was her rationality. She sees the fluttering faun, once her feather of happiness, chained to her self-destruction and covered in cigarette burns. Her beautiful insecurity blows a kiss at the squawking raven as the beloved pet of her fear is snaked around the chandelier and watches her sleep with eyes meaner than cat piss. Linen in anarchy and waste scattered like blasted brick, are swathed beneath the hovering wraiths of her dreams. Above they twirl and float as the ballerina floats – but their skin has now taken the form of their bones and the residual, oscillating ribbons of putrid hope left to rot, smell of sewage and nicotine.
He scoffed in the face of dreams. ‘Dreams,’ he’d say, ‘dreams are like lily pads for the croaking toad. But one must plop back into the pond to sustain oneself and SNAP comes the cunning water snake. It is better to learn to hide than to fool oneself and forget what is lurking.’ So, she let them die. Dreams die a slow death, and they let one know it for the lingering stench.
I do not feel like a person because I am so afraid of people. Does a zebra fear the zebra as it does a lion? Why is it that when I look at a person’s face, they seem less human to me? Why is it that a woman is ugly when she whispers but a man is oh so beautiful? Men do not whisper to me… I left the reading and the man thanked me for coming. If he hadn’t thanked me for coming, I’d have said ‘he hates me.’ But he did thank me for coming and so I say, ‘he hates me.’ I was in a lift with a boy, when we got to his floor, he walked out too fast. Do you understand, mum? Does this help…a little.
‘So,’ he says. He stands behind her with his hand on her shoulder. The slick black of his cane slices through the periphery of her vison. ‘How are we doing on the food front?’
‘Good. I’m on two weeks.’
‘Not a morsel?’
‘And your mum?’
‘Great, said I look thinner every day.’
‘Good,’ His voice is warm with stoic pride as he gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze. ‘You’ve done very well – if you’re sure this is how you want to go about things. There are…easier ways.’
‘I know,’ she answers and swallows down the modicum of doubt once again blossoming, as persistent as the dandelion, in her throat and chest and stomach. ‘But I’m a coward and I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want her to…find me, and I can’t get the note right. Its better this way.’
‘Very well,’ Let’s be off then.’
The gym is empty, there’s no one there, no merciless humming of machines, no jousted joints. He leans languidly against the treadmill and adjusts the speed every two minutes, until she’s on 6mph and can feel her feet and trainers infuse into one static mass – it crawls upwards, ankles now frighteningly numb, then the knees begin to lose pressure. ‘I hate it here,’ he scoffs. Disgust etched on his face with a hard grimace, he observes the room from beneath the velvet rim of his top hat as if afraid to expose his eyes to the pungency. ‘The place REEKS of endorphins.’
‘Endorphins are good for people.’
‘Endorphins are a lie!’ He snaps and fixes her with a hard, penetrating stare that seems to manifest as a ringworm in her gut. ‘You feeling anything yet? Chest pains?’
‘I feel sick.’
‘Right stop!’ He slams his hand down on the stop button and yanks her backwards by her elbow. His grasp is hard and violent, and yet his face remains impassive as he drags her weak and stumbling to the door.
‘Why did you stop me?’
‘Because,’ turning to face her and cocking his head in mock perplexity which makes her shiver, ‘you’re going to faint, and a fainting spell will only work against us. On to the next.’
He takes her to the city centre, his cane tap…tap…taps against the cobbles – it sounds like the beating of a rusty heart – where they sit by the fountain and the ice-cold marble travels up her spine, from arse to aorta. ‘You’ll get piles,’ her aunty Beth used to say. The bottom of the sleeping fountain is peppered with coins, clutching the dedicate little wishes of children. In the daytime they glimmer and twinkle like rebellious stars, but in the dark they lie in the murky water dead and dirty and useless. There are no stars in the sky tonight. Drunks stumble about beneath, laughing coarsely like syphilis infested libertines. ‘Well now,’ he says, ‘If your heart won’t do the dirty work, perhaps someone else’s will. Now, make yourself look vulnerable.’ He straightens her back and overbearingly lifts her chin with his fingers.
‘In case you haven’t noticed, I am vulnerable.’
‘No, you’re too hard in the face.’ Leaning in close, he winks with the dark luminosity of an onyx and murmurs behind a wayward grin: ‘Sweet little girls are much more fun to strangle.’
I know I shouldn’t do this, I don’t want to hurt you. I tried, I promise I really tried but I can see nothing and feel everything while empty and the still silence thunders and I can’t catch my breath while I sleep. The man sits there, before the girl without a gun to her head so he’ll just talk to fill the time. There is wanting to die and then there is dying – is there? The man sits there, before a withering mess who wants to die but is not dead and is therefore, as he declares, contradicting herself. Then he leans back in his chair oh so pleased with himself for isn’t he clever – check mate. I am contradicting myself? Of course, I’m contradicting myself! By definition, the suicidal mind is a contradictory mind. A mind that has found a way to deny the very nature of its being, the most primitive and potent instinct engrained into us since the beginning of man – self-preservation, survival. So yes, well done, alert Sweden, I AM contradicting myself. I am choking on my contradictions. For example, do you know how frightening it is to feel nothing…
So, she tries to smile and cross her legs like some languorous starlet or the silk-clad concubine. She tries translucence, amiability, panting puppy, sex kitten, lucid and gagging for it, pissed and pleasantly puzzled – but, despite her best efforts, she remains unnoticed. In an indolent oblivion they move past and around her as merely blurred outlines and they can no more see her than she can see them. ‘Unfortunately,’ he declares, to her relief, ‘I don’t think you are going to get anything out of this lot. Nothing but horny little boys, Eros without an aim for his arrow and abandoned old dogs! Not a psycho in sight, the bold-eyed slatterns. Don’t worry,’ he adds, slipping his hand into hers, their fingers entwine like slithering smoke, ‘you will always be beautiful to me, Penelope.’
They arrive back at Penelope’s house and walk up the back stairs. ‘Penelope,’ he says suddenly, breaking the silence. His voice is quiet and serious, equal parts assertion and interest. ‘How do you feel about South Africa?’
‘Why?’ She answers. She is devastated and baffled to need to use the bathroom – why is her body still working. She looks down at her shoes, they shrivel with every step to the tiny toes of a toddler. These shoes don’t know where they are going, she thinks.
‘Well, you know…sharks have an excellent success rate…. SLOBS!’ They find Penelope’s room still and quiet, permeated only by the occasional, tepid murmurings of a room asleep. Even the Raven, usually blabbering on with the hardy vigilance of a tomcat, was snoozing upon the old man’s shoulder. ‘Slobs,’ Depression reiterates through gritted teeth, ‘Don’t I do enough! Oh, Penelope, why so glum? We can try again tomorrow.’
‘How about you just go away,’ she answers. She sits down on the edge of her bed. Her eyes, limp and painfully hooded, are blunted with the inertia of being open.
‘Why would you want that? I mean, look at all these wonderful books I have allowed you to keep – have I not been very good to you?’ He wanders over to the book shelf and begins picking them out one by one: ‘wrote this one,’ flings it over his shoulder, ‘oh, and this one too…and this one…why, you’ve got some of my best works here. Ahhh, ‘No Longer Human,’ I must say Dazai was a pleasure to work with.’
‘Don’t say that,’ she snaps. In that moment he sickens her. His callousness sickens her. His unabashed vulgarity starts to fill her with a formidable revulsion that begins to steam through her body – until, eventually, it groans and starts to clatter and clang against its russet tracks, breaking down somewhere around her left leg.
‘Oh, and why ever not?’
‘Because…he… killed himself.’
‘I know,’ he says, half turning, still with Dazai’s book in his hand, and throwing her that salacious wink she could neither resit nor bare to look at.
‘Well, it’s in very poor taste, even for you.’
‘Poor taste? What other option was there? Of course, there’s always therapy,’ he wretches and spits the word out as if coughing up phlegm. ‘But does the artist live longer through the latter?’
‘It depends on how you look at it…’
‘It depends on nothing. Therapy aims to untangle the web, but without its web, how will the spider eat? Intriguing little creature, the spider. Most will see one, scream in revulsion and pounce to a nearby perch. They wait for it to scurry away and yet… they can never quite stop staring at it. No web, no spider – imagine that. Look at him over there, with his slippery snake – can you imagine a world without him? A world without fear?’
I can’t see anymore. I have two friends – one is a god to me and the other makes me laugh – but I can’t see anymore.
‘Can you imagine a world without crippling insecurity, pain and bladesmith memories that sharpen their knives upon the bone?’
I love you…
‘No planned, well devised, bordering meticulous schemes to destroy oneself…’
I hate you…
‘…no questions, no answers, rose petals in the place of blood?’
‘A world without…ME?’
I love you…
‘Do you think it would be a better place?’
‘So, we should all just be…miserable. For the sake of the so-called spider?’
He approaches and crouches down before her – his long fingers entwine around the tip of his cane as his dark eyes gleam within the hollow shadows of his face. ‘It depends on how you look at it,’ he answers. There’s an undertone of mocking in the forlorn resonance of his words, in his voice coated in silk and sugar. With the tranquil stillness of a lily pond, he smiles the lazy, slow smile of a prince, of the insatiable wolf, of the devil courting.
They sit in silence for a while. She keeps her head down, he bores into her. She is thick, she is sloppy, she is a viscous blob of distilled meaning. ‘You want me to die…’ she whispers. She feels her throat tighten and close over the word die – that serrated, final word that can mean one of a million different things while thought, definition and meaning flap about inside her skull like bats with broken wings.
‘Do I? I don’t recall telling you to die. I recall you wanting to die and, as always, I have offered my unflinching support. But, don’t confuse things, Penelope. Death at the hands of oneself is the purest choice a person can make and, contrary to consensus, is totally detached from one’s afflictions. I am what you make of me.’
‘I hate you,’
‘No, you don’t.’ he calmly asserts. ‘I only want what is best for you. I want you to be who you are…’ he shoots his hand out and pinches her chin between his fingers. Locked in a struggle of submission and fear and a cloying need, their hard indent forces her eyes up to meet his ‘…and I am a part of who you are.’
Her self-destruction, draped across a chair and holding an empty bottle close to her chest as if it contains a love letter from captain Morgan himself, snores a resonating grumble from the depths of her gullet. Depression sneers over at her with searing contempt and with one giant swoop of his cane, bonks her on the head shouting: ‘GET UP! We’re leaving.’ Suddenly the room leaps awake with feigned alacrity as the insidious glitter in the eyes of his flock is replaced by an embarrassed submission that never fails to surprise Penelope – the fire breathing dragons now doe-eyed and wheezy.
‘Are you going?’ She asks.
‘Must I’m afraid, got a meeting with a chap in canary Warf – you know, there’s nothing like the newly bankrupt to keep me feeling young.’
‘I’ll be back tomorrow,’ he coos and smiles down at her – it’s a warm smile, a tender smile, but a smile written in cypher that speaks of the interspersing paradox hidden beneath. ‘You will always be special to me, Penelope.’
After he leaves, she sits listening for the tender tweeting of a wagtail outside her window, the one she sees every morning – it probably isn’t the same one every morning, but she likes to believe it is – and has named James Brown for its funny little wiggle. But delicate little birds are not accustomed to singing in the dark and are often replaced by the lonesome cawing of a distant fox. Delicate little birds that can shit on the head of an unsuspecting child, replaced by the ruthless fox, howling like a banshee, that was also the charming and irreverent Basil Brush from her childhood and teacher to the lost little prince.
I suppose things are not always what they seem and the things we see are like clouds in the sky, lured by shifting currents of air. The trees are bare. They have given the last of their bounty to the earth and remind me of emaciated orphans, naked and waiting. I can’t see the clouds, but I know they are there for the sky is black – thick and heavy, its velvet veil seems so impenetrable even the wind can’t billow its weight. I don’t think I’ll ever see through that sky. But then, as I sit in quiet submission to the vast desolation above and the good in me labours to breathe, suddenly the sky reveals an imperfection. Blown by a distant wind like the metamorphosing wind that pursues the caterpillar – that thick, imposing curtain becomes merely a gossamer wisp of smoke, unfurling before a lone star- or is it Venus? Was it always there? I’m not sure, it doesn’t matter I suppose, it’s there regardless. Perhaps if I hadn’t looked closely at the sky just now, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all- a hopeful wink amidst the waves of shifting darkness – there… incomparable… merely waiting for a wind to shine its shoes.
A Patient has been having treatment with us at Oaktree and written an account of her experience. She would like to be a published writer and has agreed to share her story with us. The sketch is also by the Patient. [Note: Patient’s name has been edited due to privacy.]