REPORT A PROBLEM
Life isn’t a lot of fun when you’re in the gutter, arms stretched, fingers digging in to the side of the kerb. Can I pull myself out? Usually someone comes along and treads on my fingers, oh dear, I think through gritted teeth, here I go again. How did this happen, this amazing fall into the worse place imaginable … until you fall a little further and end up in the next worse place imaginable of course … how? Do you have time? Then I’ll begin … Once upon a time in a land far far away from fairy tales
there lived a happy woman. A woman with hope, dreams, friends. She was popular. She was funny and talented. She was glad to be alive, and she was about to pay the price for her complacency. One day the sun forgot to shine. There were no big black clouds, no threatening mother ship, no apocalypse, just the ordinary, every day “oops, the sun forgot to open its curtains and say hello to us” sort of day. On that dark day Demons came. From where? Who knows where demons come from. But two in particular moved in, danced round the traffic.
And laughed. The telephone rang, the gutteral rasp of a chain smoker. “Hello?” Silence. “Hello? Speak or I shall hang up on you.” Silence. I hung up and returned to the half finished email I was writing. "And then the strangest thing happened" I managed to type, before the strangest thing happened. The flat suddenly drained of electricity in a freak power cut at the same time as the sun disappeared behind thick black clouds. The temperature fell by several degrees and what had started off as a warm early summer day began to feel like the middle of winter.
Outside noises vanished; birds twittering, cars revving and motoring, people chattering, dogs barking. All wiped out in an instant. The instant that they entered the block of flats, permeating the air with the foul stench of destruction; oozing demonic dare that would be felt through dreams and glimpsed in dark corners. A cold wind sprang up as I rushed round closing all the windows. A fleet imp scampered into a kitchen cupboard – or was I imagining that? Then the noise began. Full throttle 70s female singers swayed along by a tuneless aria. A skinny blond with bloodless veins. No heart.
I stared at my floor and watched my feet hiccough to the beat from downstairs and knew, without being told, that something bad had just started and I had better watch out. My heart sank and bitter tears of frustration came from nowhere to shatter the illusion I had been living with for so long – life is only as good as the last time you laughed. And I had laughed at lot in the past few years. My sunny day was ruined and I was angry. The righteous anger of someone who was used to the daily babble of noise
not the intense cacophony I was now experiencing. What could I do? Did I even want to do anything? Would they not simply calm down once the novelty had worn off? Did it really matter, a bit of noise during the middle of the day? And anyway, wasn’t I about to be late for lunch with friends? I pushed aside the unquiet feeling, finished getting ready and went out. Life had been pootling along so nicely of late, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy or settled. I felt as if the weight from my life had finally been lifted.
That I could now build on the foundations of the past few years felt both exciting and calming. My life. To do with what I wanted. No interference from those who “loved” me and “only wanted the best” for me, whilst drawing down comparisons between the life I wanted (bad girl) and the one they wanted me to want (good girl). Damn it, I even looked fabulous. Was this the jealousy of the gods I’d never believed in? Upstairs front row is the best place to be on one of swanky new London buses (top rear for the old Routemasters).
A view that would make Nelson weep, although slightly lower down the skyline and so much fabulous people watching to do from behind sunglasses and iPod. Who, at street level would ever risk looking up? Count the smiles, I thought as Otis urged me to "Sit on the Dock of the Bay". Easy game as the bus stopped at Waterloo. Rush to rush, no time to smile, just push-push-push, all the while. I reckoned, as I glanced at my watch (12.40pm, on time), there were more trains on the platforms of all the London stations than smiles on peoples faces.
Did that count as a sad or a philosophic thought? The bus chugged over Westminster Bridge after discharging those who worked, or were visiting patients, at Guy’s Hospital. As this rag-tag of passengers disembarked, more took their place. A faintly hollow smell of disinfectant and raw emotions permeated the bus; the sweetness of hope and the fear of loss mixed with the stale taste of an unaired boudoir. To watch the Thames racing dirtily, encased by well-built banksides, helped to relieve the feeling of sudden guilt and sadness. The friend who was spending more time inside Guys than he should.
The sun performed a sudden light show across the river-facing façade of Westminster Palace, illuming the hope that Parliament was a faithful, loyal servant holding true the rights of its citizens. Some of the stained glass windows appeared to be on fire as the sun was reflected back and a temporary dance of sun-lit windows between Westminster Palace and Guy’s Hospital chatted amiably for just a few seconds. What secrets did they share, I thought as I glanced at my watch (12.50pm) and realised I was now running late. Ah, bless the London traffic that never ceased its orgiastic belchings.
To be early, and ten minutes later, late, was nothing unusual and I wasn’t worried about being late for lunch. Londoners rarely turn up on time, or expect it, and see running late as much a part of life as never finding a quiet place to sit and think: you want quiet, go and live in the country. I smiled as a group of tourists pointed their cameras towards the bus I was on and waved to make the photograph a little more interesting for the stories they could tell back home. How would I appear to the curious recipients?
An odd looking woman on the top of an old bus smiling for strangers, the anomaly of a friendly face in a crowd too busy to turn their mobile phones off, too lazy to see what they were truly missing? I didn’t mind. I was enjoying my short time between jobs, the chance to catch up with friends, complete a few projects I wanted to do. One of the joys of being a Londoner is that you can lose yourself as a tourist when the chance comes along, clutching a battered A-Z and looking far too relaxed to be resident.
“Why now?” “Because … marriage. We’re not getting on well. We’re falling apart but we keep up putting on the face pretending that we’re happy. We talk more when we’re with other people than we ever do when we’re at home alone. Sad isn’t it?” “Anything else?” “It’s all emotional. I’m not good enough. I drink too much, smoke too much, laugh too loud, spend too much time talking to men.” “What do you think he wants from you?” “For me to be a good little wifey. To know my place. To sacrifice myself to the pursuit of his happiness.”
“Did you become who you thought your husband wanted you to be?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because it was easier. Nobody encouraged me to be a person, they wanted me to be a good Missus, to capitulate in the face of tradition.” “You sound very angry, bitter even, about that.” “I am.” How had it happened, I thought? When had I decided to become someone else? At what point had I realised I was falling apart? I jumped off the bus at Piccadilly Circus and barely noticed Eros (why had he been moved? Was he a better shot in his new location?)
The odour of a collective armpit after a long march. A photography class high on architecture. A teenage meeting point. Shaftesbury Avenue. Regent Street. Haymarket. Piccadilly. All converging on Piccadilly Circus. I went down Haymarket towards a small café where my friends were probably waiting. I was now late but what is late in a world where timetables are no longer believed? Bea and Sally sat outside (good weather for smoking in) sipping from large glasses of wine (bad for livers, good for sales) and chatting away as I dodged the elbows and tortoise-shell tourists. Workers migrating from their offices.
Bea pulled out a chair for me “We kept it although it earned us filthy looks.” “Everyone wanted that chair, so you sit nicely on it.” said Sally, stroking the shiny metal and moving her bag. “I will, I promise. And at least people will forgive you now that someone is sitting on it.” Sally got up. “Shall we order before it gets too crowded?” “Tuna salad baguette.” Said I, what I always ate when I met up with Bea and Sally. “Chicken salad baguette.” Said Bea. “And I’ll have the cheese and tuna melt.” Said Sally. “For a change.”
“Oh yes, and a glass of wine for you, Miss Arrive Late.” She wagged a finger at me as she disappeared into the café. Heaving with hunger pangs and harassed workers. The sun glowed in an offbeat way even though the underlying temperature was chilly. To be outside, no matter the pollution, was a step closer to summer and picnics. To breathe something that hadn’t been recycled through an air conditioning system, years old, probably never cleaned properly. “Legionnaire’s disease.” I said, half aloud. “What?” asked Bea “Sorry. I was looking at that building’s air conditioning system.” I said, pointing.
Steam poured out of the air conditioning system on the tall building across the road that I was pointing at. Bea and I sat mesmerised by the sight of something that was so mundane it would barely register in people’s passing thoughts, yet there we were wondering about the bugs hitching a lift. Microsophic filaments of life that were invisible and yet deadly at the same time. “How’s the therapy going?” asked Bea bringing back the conversation to my current state of health. “Oh … you know … well, no I don’t suppose you do, do you? ” I stammered
“Well, no, I don’t suppose you do know, do you, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked, would you.” I babbled feeling myself prickle with terrorised sweat. “You don’t have to say anything.” She said “If it’s, well, painful or whatever.” “No. Well. Yes it is painful. Hard going. Not sure who I am anymore. Then I wonder: did I ever know who I was? It’s a feeling of whose life have I been living all these years?” I paused to look at Bea and watch her reaction, but her face showed nothing “Does that make sense, or do I sound mad?”
“You don’t sound mad at all. You sound, you’ve always sounded, sane. Messed up, confused, off the wall, whaky, but not mad.” She squeezed my hand to reassure me. “But do you think it’s doing you any good? Is it helping you deal with things?” “Da-dah” Sally returned with the food and wine. “Not interrupting was I?” “Bea was asking me about the therapy.” I said helping Sally discharge the food from the tray. “And how is it going? We do wonder, you know, if it’s working. Helping. Whatever the correct phrase is.” Sally put the tray on the floor.
“I don’t think I can measure how effective it is.” I replied “I feel like I’ve chosen to walk into this awful place that I knew was there. My past. It’s a place full of demons that I’m terrified of. I’m too scared to go to sleep without a light on, yet by day I manage to behave as if nothing were happening to me.” I said picking at the juicy tuna in my baguette. “I feel as if I put on ‘normality’ as part of getting washed and dressed in the morning. A cup of tea for the soul.”
I stopped as I could feel the emotions building up, and carried on eating, although silently I also added “yet inside I am screaming and screaming and screaming …” “Don’t really know what to say.” Said Sally “Don’t really understand what you’re going through.” Added Bea. We finished the meal in silence and were grateful for the distraction of lighting cigarettes to detract from any more conversation. This happened a lot and I always dreaded being asked about therapy. A true conversation killer. “I suppose one day I will look back and see how much this has helped.” I said.
“Yes, and very brave you are too.” Said Bea “Yes, cheers.” Added Sally and we clinked glasses. Lunch petered out soon after. It was the word itself: “therapy” that made people so uncomfortable. The idea of madness insidiously worming its way into seemingly sane people. It was the ultimate wet blanket in social circles. I was turning into a jinx. A someone to be pitied. I didn’t want to be pitied. Once I had been the most sought after person in town; the party animal who could liven up any get-together. I was the person to spread a good time.
I recalled those heady days when a party wasn’t a party without me. When not only friends of friends, but acquaintances of friends of friends invited me, on the strength of my reputation, to their ‘do’. We take so much for granted; the stability, the friends, the new outfit once a week for the next party. Work was for earning enough to spend at the weekend, save for a holiday. A career was something that graduates had – in the days when not everyone was expected to go to university. Graduate. Fight other graduates for work they probably could not do.
I waited at the bus stop, oblivious to those around me and tried not to become depressed by the thought of how the world had turned upside down for me. How fun and friends had turned into a land of visits back to the past, into the trailor of long ago happenings. There is something bestial about therapy with its periscope pointing ever backwards, its easy assurance that things would get worse before they got better. Be patient, work hard, reap the rewards. I was fed up with all the navel gazing and plugged myself back into wholesome, loud music.
I was hoping the music would drown out the gaggle of homunculi whispering to me, telling me things I did not want to hear, was bored with hearing. The past has gone and cannot be brought back or relived or changed. You can only accept what has happened, move on. Well, I decided, back determinedly straight, time to move on. Forget those pitying looks, those heartfelt sighs, the forgetting to invite me to places and events just in case the madness shone through. Time to get me my life back, get my name back on the map. But which map?
Was I comfortable with the penetrating stares of others? Did I still believe that my soul could be seen, shredded, digested? Oh stop it, I thought. Too many thoughts, and the bus was approaching my stop. Home. I would not sit around wondering what to do. I would be proactive. Do some exercises, sort through paperwork. Contact friends. Reconnect. Back on the map. As I approached the block of flats I felt the thudding almost as soon as I heard it. Those people who had moved in earlier this morning were wasting no time on niceties such as settling in.
Oh no, they were starting as they meant to continue: loudly. Great I thought. Perhaps I could reason with them? I rang their doorbell several times but received no response. They probably couldn’t even hear it themselves. As they lived on the ground floor, I went round to the window and banged on that. The woman, who was gyrating and screeching to something stuck up her fingers in a gesture that was universal. I responded likewise with a smile, which got me a result. She came storming out of the flat and began to scream at me in the street.
In a language not my own. “Oh well thank you very much.” I said when, red faced and panting, she had finished her tirade. “How nice to have a rude bitch living in the flat below mine. Have you always been like this, or is this something you’ve trained specifically for?” I swear she wanted to hit me, but by this time we had a fairly large audience watching and clearly she didn’t want witnesses to any assault, so she did what many bullies do – she burst into tears and ran back into her flat. The music stopped. For now.
The afternoon passed in a prism of fading light and dancing shadows. Peace and quiet that I would not exchange for anything. I spent a couple of hours sorting out post and writing emails. I then settled down to a dose of exercising when the male half of the downstairs partnership stomped upstairs and thumped on my door. I felt a chill of horror pass through me at the sound of his voice. “Oi, you, woman, open the door.” Thump, kick, as he used both fists and feet. “You done tell me girlfriend to stop making noise. Come out NOW!”
The Tip Jar