Alone together

In the further adventures of writing more often and pushing myself out of where I’m comfortable (which is mostly where I talk about writing and being a writer, but don’t do any in case someone wants to read it and then tells me I’m a terrible writer who should be ashamed of myself for thinking I can do it…) I am rummaging through old writing magazines again for writing prompts.

This prompt comes from a copy of Writing Magazine from last year, September’s issue, in recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10th) created to draw attention to a campaign led by Network Rail, British Transport Police and the rail industry called ‘Small talk saves lives’ – which recognises that a simple conversation could be enough to interrupt suicidal thoughts. 

This prompt made me think about how much we say without speaking, how loud a silence can be and how much meaning can be read and shared in a small gesture or touch. 

adult back backpack birds

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Alone together.

An island of pent-up, explosive motion sits, deliberately and palpably motionless, in the central seat of a bench at the edge of the platform. Despite the hour, and the people heading in their own busy ways towards work, the tense, dipped head discourages anyone from taking the empty spaces beside her. A space around her almost pulses with the volume of her silence.

Jenny, clenched around herself, letting her dark hair drop, unkept, across her face, is locked around her centre, and something in her mind is screaming such a painful silence that the strangers in the station seem to instinctively give it room, standing at a distance rather than resting their commuting bones beside her hurt where they might catch it. The electric fence of furious tension rings her, herding strangers past as their gaze slips by.

The metal of the bench is warmed by the beating sun, the waves of heat already absorbed by the baked stones reaching back in waves that blur the edges of the platform under a sky the blue of a postcard, but Jenny’s white-knuckle grip of the seat’s edge is hidden in a clenched fist of cotton as she pulls down sleeves to cover her hands, her feet tucked below in a skirt that brushes the ground. The clothes aren’t heavy, but still she stands out, dressed in her autumnal middle age in the burning heat of youthful summer.

Agnes, heading to work, has been travelling from this platform to the theatre where she dreams of being more exciting than she is, but her place has always been behind the scenes. Daily she can be found shaking the creases out of sweat heavy costumes and stitching repairs into burst seams between shows. Used to being unseen, Agnes, sticky in this heat and clinging to the shade to protect her ginger skin from summer’s cruel observation, takes in the scene.

Theatre is never still – at the edges of the stage Agnes waits and mouths the lines of actors so much bigger, bolder and braver than herself – but she holds no envy for their shining light. She takes great pleasure in her sidelined role, enjoying existing beside them, observing. This observational habit has caught a glimpse of Jenny, and something about the silence of her burns even hotter than the vibrating heatwaves on the trainlines passing through.

She wonders what the girl is mouthing, what unsaid words are holding her so still. It isn’t the stillness of a wait, of passing time in daydreams until the train scoops her into the rest of her day, cocooned in a space filled with other people’s lives.

That is the stillness of a person built from pain, from shame somehow. Agnes recognises it from the mirrors she avoids, and the question never fully forms in her mind, but the tips of her fingers tingle with it. Tiny hairs crawl to attention across the nape of her neck, and there’s something wrong that she can’t quite name…but this violently silent girl is the centre of a storm about to break.

A distant whistle doesn’t register but Agnes moves as if it has, stepping towards someone else’s storyline and biting her lip as she pushes through the bristling static that surrounds Jenny. Tentatively, not sure why she’s afraid, she takes the seat on Jenny’s right hand side and feels the curled-up girl beside her tense anew, though she was already stone still and firm.

The sound of her breath seems embarrassing, a slight catch and whistle in one nostril, and Agnes hopes that this quiet girl doesn’t think she’s grotesque, the bubbling human function of her breathing somehow feeling wrong, though there’s little she can do to change it. A sniff, involuntary, doesn’t shift the whistle, but the heaviness of rushing air sounds less obtrusive, and Agnes holds the next breath in, a sigh waiting to go when she thinks what she’s doing, why.

Another whistle on the still air, closer now, and the silent stone of Jenny glances up, a flick of blue that dulls the sky, just as quickly gone and waiting under the waterfall of hair. The stillness of her and the air under this early morning heat prickles dots of sweat across Agnes’ top lip, and the breath she was holding oozes back out in a damp puff.

Ten thousand conversations pass between them, lightning fast communication not voiced, not needed; people are bustling on the fringes of them, more feet stepping side to side, shifting weight from hip to hip, briefcases swapped from left to right, a gathering of people all together, but not at all, and Agnes feels the tension growing; a crescendo has to come, surely? This couldn’t have been better staged. The crackling, nasal tannoy tells them the next train doesn’t stop at this station, and platform two in five minutes will take them on to the next phase of their day.

A tiny nod.

The horn again, now almost upon them, and Agnes understands why she sat, why she crossed into the scorching sun despite the pinking of her rounded cheeks that takes so brief a time. Her fingers still tingle, her pulse speeding up as she lifts one hand; the prickling is as familiar as sewing slips, the needle marking her again, but her blood doesn’t bloom this time; the feeling shoots like lightning bolts to touch the arm beside her. When Jenny doesn’t pull away, Agnes feels emboldened, and slips her fingers further in, uncurling the cotton fist so slowly, and Jenny feels it too. The sleeve unfurls enough for elegant pianists’ hands to glimpse the day, and Agnes wraps her own into them, origami of comfort for a pain she doesn’t know.

The rigid, angular body beside her breathes some granite out and breathes this comfort in, again, again, and one more time; the grip tightens fiercely when the train rushes in, the tannoy shouting lost among the rushing air and flying metal, faces blurred as strangers travel to their destination, unaware and uncaring of the moment that just passed.

In the rush of air their hair blows, lifts, the red and black a dance of joyous life, and, smiling to herself, Agnes knows that it’s ok.

And so does Jenny.

The moment passes shortly after the train, and after a little squeeze, returned, Agnes reclaims her fingers, the tingle gone, and brushes her skirt smooth. She breathes again. The whistle of one nostril lost its impact, and she stands; the next train on platform two will take her where she needs to be. She’s done what’s needed of her here.

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Notes on reading

I am a note taker
note maker
scrawled into the margins
of a book
no longer virgin as my heart
and mind
reach out, reply
to ink written words
telepathy taking my
underlines,
responses, exclamations
all the feelings that I feel
back to the centre
of the soul who spoke to me.

I cannot keep my
emotive
skin-raw answers
to myself, too loud
the craving to be heard
by moments on a page
I hear so loud.

A baby – a baby!

The photo, alive in my purse, is grainy
poor quality
but Madonna bliss
glows clearly there
from deep within, where you
moon round
constricted
clench the very centre
of my body, tight
around the everything of yours.

And I am smiling, hands
caressing you-in-me
and keeping all the times you move
a secret
just between the two of us
because you’re mine this way, and soon
I’ll have to share
you
with a world not good enough
for all you are
and all you’ll be.

But not yet.
Not today.
Beneath the comedic swell
of body housing my whole world
you stretched
reminding of the deadline
fast approaching.

And I pushed back
smoothing, soothing
irritated flexes of an elbow
where an elbow surely could not be
had never been before.

You grew within a barren place
created landscapes
never dreamed
but all at once familiar,
like we’d lived this tale before
and all again you taught me
how
and who
to be.

But not quite yet
the sharing part
one more day
my smile says
and for that day
just one more day
I had my way
then showed you yours.

World mental health day

S’mental innit, mental health. I have seen so many posts today about the topic, and know my addition is just another piece of thread out there in the tapestry of the internet, where there are thousands of more interesting people telling thousands of more interesting stories, but I have spent so much money on therapy to convince myself that I’m worth just as much as other people that it seems a shame to waste it by keeping my mouth shut today.

My mental health has – like so many people – been a little up and down. Low points include taking all the pills I could find in the house when I was 14 (though that just gave me the shits, and a lot of shame) begging someone who’d just punched me in the face to forgive me despite not knowing what I’d done so wrong, and repeatedly moving house at the drop of a hat, quitting jobs, fleeing friendships, and starting afresh as if a few hundred miles could cure all my woes, forgetting that I would be taking myself along for the ride, so was unlikely to leave behind my issues…

I don’t know when it was that I first began to accept that, actually, I’m not broken, not damaging, not impossible to love, but am just a bit dramatic and maybe need to take some medication to hush those voices, and get a bit of perspective. That perspective gave me space to work on the mistakes I kept repeating, work out what it was I was trying to run away from, and build myself some more solid foundations just in time to be the kind of mother my amazing (infuriating, challenging, delicious) kids need as I became a single parent to them.

That was my fault too – it would be so easy to blame every problem in my marriage on my ex husband, but actually, two people wholly unsuited to each other and to marriage gave it a shot, and both cocked it up. I don’t carry anger towards him for his parts, nor do I berate myself daily for my own – but I acknowledge that I wasn’t at all ready to be in that situation, and needed to work on my own issues much more before I was ready to be in a proper, grown-up relationship. It’s still a work in progress; I’m still a work in progress – but as long as I remember to take those little pills, I’m getting there.

I know that I had some significant contributing factors to my problems – the things that happened to me left me with PTSD, and that’s something I’ve worked through with a counsellor – and it took me a number of attempts to find the right counsellor, to find the right time in my life, and to be strong enough to actually face those things and work through them. I think counselling is the most magnificent thing I’ve ever done, and I’m incredibly proud of myself – and phenomenally grateful to the wonderful woman who guided me through the journey.

And it has been a journey. I have travelled a long way and now, when I look back, I recognise the girl I was, the face in the photos, the feelings in the angsty poems and strange, late night ramblings – but I don’t know how to connect with her. It’s like bumping into someone I once knew and have lost touch with; nice to catch up, but there’s no friendship there – because she’s not me. She isn’t someone I can really remember being – can really connect to – because those feelings are so far away now. The anger and fear and crippling doubt belong to someone else.

I’m still very anxious – I still throw up whenever I feel a big feeling, and I have nightmares that throw me out of my sleep and keep me awake until dawn from time to time – but they are once every few weeks now, not a few times a week – and as long as I take my citalopram, I’m able to handle it.

Anxiety is an arsehole, and it has a huge impact on physical health – people think that mental health just means it’s all in  your head and you can shake it off – but your brain controls every other part of your body, and if you can’t keep hold of your thoughts, they take over everything else. The physical impact of anxiety and stress is immense – and taking control over it means you have to battle your own body and mind every day.

Sometimes it’s easy – but usually, not so much. It’s a choice you have to make every day, and every day I toy with the idea of giving in, just for a minute, just for a little while, and letting it snow me under – but I know it’s easier to battle on than it is to dig my way back out of the hole, so I pull up my socks and get on with it. I’m lucky that, right now, I can do that – there have been so many days before when I couldn’t.

So – today is world mental health awareness day. I am aware of mental health. Of my own mental health, of the mental health of the people I love, and the impact that it has on their physical health. I am aware – and I am grateful for how far I’ve come, for the people who stayed with me through the dark days, and for the beautiful family I have around me now that I feel like I’m worth their love.

Dream hangovers

Dreams area funny things, aren’t they?

Like films that you can’t quite remember the plot for in the aftermath, but you felt every emotion in real time, despite them flashing by in just seconds. Little brain farts, a twitch in your frontal cortex which processes your day, your feelings, your fears, and holds them all up to you like an identity parade for your own neurosis…

Why is it that the good dreams simply fade away, disappearing back into your sleeping body, and you wake without really feeling them – but the bad dreams linger?

The stupid thing about it is that, despite knowing it’s just a dream, and it isn’t real, a dream – a nightmare – can make you experience all kinds of emotions, and even though you’re responding to something in a dream, the emotions are still real – so when you wake after nightmares, you’re still left with all those tumbling feelings, spinning through your head.

woman sleeping

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I’ve always lived with nightmares – I’ve had enough bad experiences in my life that, often, they are more memories and flashbacks than dreams – and even at times where my life is lovely, and things are going well, where my real day to day stresses are pretty insignificant and I’m aware that I’m very lucky – the nightmares can sneak up on me.

I get them a lot when I have my period – another perk of hormonal imbalances I guess – and because I have endometriosis I have my period A LOT OF THE TIME (24th this year I think?) and I’m also full of cold at the moment, so not sleeping well – and not sleeping well = bad dreams. Bad dreams = dreading sleep, = not sleeping well = more bad dreams.

And those bad dreams leave me with a weird kind of hangover, a feeling that I’m not quite sure this world is real, that I’m real, and feelings of hurt, anger, fear, left with me from whatever has happened in the dream.

abandoned ancient antique arch

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There’s one in particular, a recurring nightmare, one I’ve had with very few changes since I was a child – there’s a man in the dream who is someone from my real life, but bigger, more frightening, darker, and the dream hangovers mean I sometimes feel like I catch a glimpse of him just in the corner of my vision, the corner of the room, waiting for me. He’s a malevolent cloud which follows me into waking and never quite washes away again, hanging around for days, making me feel fractious and anxious.

I know dreams aren’t real – but dream hangovers very much are.