This blog is a little bit different.
I wrote the following short story for a competition run by Mind, on the subject of Journeys.
I was very proud that my entry made it through to the final 10 out of 320 entries and I am looking forward to reading the winning entry when it is revealed in a few weeks!
I hope you enjoy…
Sole to Soul
She shivered and pulled her oversized cardigan in tighter. Gazing through the window, her fragile head rested against the hard glass and a red patch grew on her brow. She watched the horizon passively, staring into the distance at something and nothing. Her peripheral vision registered the river as it rolled past. It ambled into the distance before tapering around a bend, flowing beyond the cobbled quayside and out to the open sea to continue its lifecycle. There were a myriad of bodies, moseying through the maze of former warehouses, upcycled from previous lives as boatsheds and workshops and conjured into boutique jewellers and antique treasure troves – all polished wooden floors, stripped back brick work, large doors painted duck-egg or pistachio, wrought iron shutters. The bodies which wandered were enjoying the weekend freedom, journeying through the lack of time constraints apart from welcomed interruptions; nearly lunchtime, almost afternoon tea time, just about glass of wine time.
The weather was typical spring inconsistency, sun shining brightly on a ground which was wet from a recent April shower. Above the higgledy-piggledy buildings which scrambled their way up the hillside she could see the cathedral; fragments of the building were licked by shade while others glowed in sunbeams. Out to the horizon, the sky was schoolhouse slate; the sparkling sun would not be allowed to stay and dance in the puddles much longer. Swollen, leaden clouds drooped; the backdrop to a slowly fading rainbow.
She was restless. Her day – and, if she allowed herself to think of it, her life – stretched out like a marathon. She normally tried to break her days into segments to push through, until the night fell and she could crawl into her bed again. Today her mood was as heavy as the rainclouds, and she felt trapped in a vacuum of time. She had managed to dress, slowly and deliberately, consciously forcing her limbs into their second skins to ensure she was warm at least. This was a beginning of sorts. When her overbearing, bossy depression was at its worst, she tried to keep it at arms-length by shrinking her world to only acknowledge immediate factors. Sometimes the experience of simply being warm was enough to get her through an hour or so. She could concentrate on the cosiness of a crocheted blanket with its delicately woven yarns, stitches replicated again and again and again in bright rows, which became squares, which became her heavy warmth. Or she could centre on the ease of a woollen pullover, the almost-itchiness around her neck. She would lie crumpled in a ball, creased and dented and thrown away, and would spend hours focussing on the intricacies that her senses could pick up.
Today, her mind wandered and strayed with a force of its own, refusing to be channelled or restrained. Sunk with depression but wracked with anxiety, her mind clashed and conflicted; lacking care whilst simultaneously caring too much. She was one minute self-conscious and ashamed and desperate to be a different version of herself, and the next minute unconcerned if she lived or died. Thoughts flashed, intrusive and persistent. Sometimes they were meaningless; blocks of colour or patterned images, swirling nonsense like the effects of a hallucinogen but without the recreational purpose. Sometimes they were disturbing; suggestive and relentless. Sometimes they were flashes back to times past; happy or sad, vivid or vague, weighty or frivolous. She wrangled with her thoughts, frantic to simplify them and tune her attention. She decided to leave her flat and immerse herself in the outdoors where her flighty thoughts might be seized by external forces – by people, by sounds and smells, by the sun, wind and rain on her skin.
She pulled on her Parka, jerking the hood to cover her head, and pushed her feet into battered trainers, long since abandoned for their original purpose of running. She thought of all the good work they had done in the time before depression. They had been so important to her wellbeing. They had carried her body to a level of fitness of which she had been very proud, completing half marathons with relative ease, climbing mountains and exploring the world. She thought of the energy which once filled them, and she could not conceive of ever feeling that vigour again. Her life, which used to be so dynamic and demonstrative, as she flitted from place to place, bounced and gesticulated her way through her days, was now static and still; sofa bound. She wondered where it had all gone… all that verve and drive, that discovery and progression. Her trainers had been a symbol of a happy, healthy her. Now, they seemed a pathetic illustration of how things had changed. They were no longer splattered with mud from her most recent run along the tow-path, as these days they were used solely for scuffing about. Their only function was protecting her from the tarmac or the grass when the effort of lifting her feet proved too much and she resorted to scraping the solid leather along the floor.
She hauled herself down the stairs and through the door to fresh air and the glaring outside. The contrast of rainclouds and sunshine seemed only to make the brightness brighter. She blinked and waited for her eyes to adjust, slowly distinguishing figures and shapes in the dazzle. She was struck by the noise all around, a contrast from the vacuous silence in her flat – children laughing and crying discordantly, adults chattering and cheeping nineteen to the dozen, with so much to say. The muffled tread of Doc Martins and Converse, sharp clicking of stilettos and heeled boots marking the pavement; doors creaking, mobile phones ringing, birds shrieking and cawing; the noises of activity and busy-ness which characterised this area of town. She would somehow need to amalgamate with the vivacious life which encircled her, but she knew that, in contrast, she was a slow, sluggish blight on the picture. She knew she needed to walk, to stretch her limbs and breathe deeply, but she did not know how far her feet would take her. She walked with a gait which was normally only seen in the elderly; shuffling and laborious, shoulders hunched and head stooped. She decided that the best way to be unnoticed was to find a bench and sit. At least this way she could minimise the interaction between her greyness and the otherwise beautiful scene.
She lumbered forward towards the pavement, making sure she kept apologetically close to the wall in order to avoid getting in the way of someone else – someone more important with somewhere to go, a friend to meet, a day to enjoy. She didn’t want to interrupt anyone else’s weekend with her dragging feet and her slow pace. She found it impossible to make eye contact with anyone, and was grateful for her large fur-lined hood. She knew she looked dreadful, hair chucked up in wild knots, large bruised circles under her eyes, poor skin and chapped lips which exposed her lack of self-care. She couldn’t bear for anyone else to study her disastrous face, so she kept it firmly downward facing, only walking for a short distance before she began feeling lethargic and heady. She probably hadn’t eaten properly for a few days, so this sudden activity surprised her body and it struggled to keep up. There was a bench a little walk away, so she aimed for that. As she reached the bench she almost fell onto it, out of breath, dizzy and weak. How could just a few metres feel like such an expanse?
She caught her breath and shut her eyes until the stars which appeared in front of them had faded. Gazing at the ground through the tunnel of her hood, she watched the shoes and boots as they passed her. She had always felt that well-worn shoes held great character; she enjoyed honing in on the detail of their marks and scratches. She looked at the path in front of her and the soles which trod, and she wondered about the journeys they had travelled and the feet which they housed.
Along came a group of flat leather boots in varying states of wear, accompanied by hysterical laughter and the shrieks of friends catching up, discussing last night’s escapades with a sober view. Her eye was drawn naturally to the most aged pair of boots. They were beautiful black leather which had been cared for proudly but worn so frequently that the aging process was an unavoidable fate. Just like the skin of a human which, even given expensive lotions and complicated regimes, cannot dodge inevitable folds and wrinkles and discolouration, the boots were weathered by life. They had a brass buckle at their top on the outer side, just below the knee, and a brass zip which extended down the length of the leather almost to the sole. She imagined that they were the Old Faithful pair; going with everything, comfortable and familiar and called upon at a moment’s notice without a second thought. They were like a trusted friend who had been present at many a formative moment. If shoes could talk, this pair could disclose some juicy secrets.
Next came some young brogues, gleaming with a naïve freshness. She found them unattractive in their innocence, in their simple inexperience and spritely hope which was reflected in the shiny leather. She was not captivated by them in the same way that she was by the battered pairs which passed. She found them stylish in an artless way; they did not have the charm of old shoes and they were too effortful. She was not left wondering about their wearer in the moments after they had passed and smudged into the background.
A pair of desert boots approached. She studied their navy blue suede uppers; the texture was soft as the feet bent easily through the tread of their wearer. Their owner was a man, based on the size of the feet, the gait and the trousers which skimmed the laces of the boots. The laces were haphazard; snapped half way down their zigzag and re-tied together in a thrifty move, letting the owner dodge purchasing new ones for now. They looked well-loved. She imagined they might belong to an artist or a musician, who lived in a small attic flat where he worked on his creative pursuits and lived a contemplative life, translated into his art form.
As they passed, her sadness overwhelmed her. Her small, apologetic feet, tucked into one another under the bench, seemed so lacking as they sat passively beside the vibrating journeys which rushed past. She suddenly felt the air from her lungs seep away from her body, her energy evaporating; not her physical energy, but her will. Somehow, without knowing that she was going to, she spoke.
‘I think my journey is over.’
The desert boots stopped abruptly. She realised that she had spoken aloud. The toes of the boots turned towards her.
‘Oh, please no,’ she thought, very deliberately inside the safety of her skull. ‘Please don’t stop. Just keep walking.’
‘Excuse me – did you say something?’ he asked.
She could not look up, and continued to stare at the grey ground, her face still hidden by her hood.
She cleared her throat; she had not spoken for days. Her voice felt alien, as though she was a ventriloquist’s dummy, operated by somebody separate from herself.
‘I said, I think my journey is over.’
She sensed him sit down. A pause, elongated and tense.
‘So what now?’ he asked, lightly, breaking the quiet.
It threw her.
‘I – I don’t know…
I can’t carry on…
My journey is over…
I can feel it…
It’s time for me to go.’
She stumbled her way through the statements, shocked at what was leaving her mouth and her sudden lack of care. Normally she would have gone to great lengths to avoid acknowledging her depression, however painfully visible it was to others. She wished she could explain the deep embarrassment with which it came, hand in hand. So acute was her mortification about her mental state that she spent days and weeks hoping that she would not be disturbed by a well-meaning friend or relative popping round; that she would not have to look anyone in the eye; that her phone would not ring and force her to talk. She was well aware that her feelings were paranoid and ridiculous and inward-looking and that they appeared indulgent. This insight only served to increase her self-hatred by introducing shame and anxiety to an already complex depression. But now… now, as she sat on the bench staring at the navy desert boots with their untidy laces and scuffed toes, something had changed. She did not care, and she believed the words which she spoke, and it scared her. It was as though she had finally pressed the destruct button with which she had toyed so many times before. In that second, never had an idea made more sense or held more truth for her.
He sighed, and she sensed him recline so his back leant against the two slats of wood behind them.
‘OK.’, he said. ‘What then?’
Again, the question stunned.
‘W-What do you mean? Then – nothing. I won’t be here. I’ll be gone. Finally gone.
Then – nothing.’
‘Not you,’ he replied. ‘I mean everyone else.’
She was suddenly defiant. Who was this pair of desert boots sitting beside her, venturing to interrupt, to understand, to engage?
‘You don’t know,’ she spat. ‘You don’t know what I am like, who I am. I am such a – a – load, such a… drain. All I do is cause worry and… pain and… struggle. I am nothing but tiresome and exhausting. I feel so much pity for my family who have to love me, and for my friends who – for some reason – have chosen not to leave me’, – fists clenched, tears tipping – ‘I am a parasite, I contribute nothing apart from ruin and wreckage. I spoil everything; they should not love me. They should not love me.’
She continued to stare at her feet, her cheeks flushed and her body tense. She was exhausted by her outburst; a surge of expression the like of which she had not experienced in many moons.
‘I see. The thing is, you don’t get to decide in life how other people feel about you.’
Once again, she was thrown. He was not moved by her emotion, he spoke with consideration and calm. He did not say what she thought someone in his seat might say. He did not sympathise or offer platitudes. He listened, accepted, then offered a perspective on her self-hatred which was completely new.
‘What do you mean?’
He took a deep breath.
‘If you truly feel that you are going to end your journey – that you have lived all you want to, loved all you want to, learnt all you need to – then that is your decision. Only you know the raw secrets of your soul. But don’t think for one second that your decision will not affect other people. Don’t delude yourself that no one will care; that no one’s life will be changed. If you end your journey, you must do so with the understanding that the journeys of those around you will be changed. Forever. Your pain in life will become their pain in your death.’
‘But – but… but they will be so much better without me.’ There was no disingenuousness in her statement.
‘No. No, they won’t. No one’s journey is solitary. Journeys cross, sometimes for entire lifespans and sometimes for fleeting seconds. All these journeys matter. Having had this conversation with you, if I pick up The Gazette next week and read about a young woman who ended her life, and I see your picture and I realise it is you, do you think that my life will not be affected? Do you think I would feel no guilt or regret? I will always remember this day, this conversation, you – until I am an old man and the end of my journey comes.’
Silence, apart from a sigh which bled from her lips.
He spoke again.
‘It’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question that you need to answer.’ Another pause, as she was again flawed by his frank confrontation. Eventually, he continued. ‘Not necessarily aloud and not necessarily to me. I’m just a stranger who has seen a fellow human clearly in crisis, and I am trying to help – to somehow widen the picture and put their life in its true context in the world. You owe nothing to me. But you owe everything to yourself and to the people who love you.’
She chewed the inside of her lip in a place where it was already ragged and sore. She was both angered and chastened by his terse lecture, and somewhat startled by his insight. She did not know how to respond.
‘What do you know about it?’ she asked, more aggressively than she had wanted to. It was a genuine query, but it left her mouth like a grievance from a petulant child. She pulled her hood more tightly round her head to somehow protect herself from his perception.
He shuffled his feet and through her fur-lined window she could see him pulling edgily at his cuticles and quicks.
‘I’ve been on both sides,’ he offered. ‘I know what it is like to experience the blackness you feel. I don’t know what has caused your blackness, but I have felt my own version. I understand that you feel lost and powerless. I have felt the spiral of misery. I tried everything; medication – both prescribed and recreational – yoga, psychotherapy, NLP, running, joining support groups, locking myself away, immersing myself in company. I have read books, I have watched documentaries, I have tried to understand and I have refused to care. I do know those feelings. But the reason for my depression…?’ – hesitation – ‘I lost my brother to suicide.’
She suddenly wanted to weep, to collapse into deep rasping sobs which rose from the base of her stomach and stretched up to shred her throat. She felt a swell of devastation; not her own misery, but his.
‘That was the trigger?’
‘That was the reason. Trigger suggests that my depression was lying dormant, just waiting to be woken. But before he died I hadn’t experienced a day’s depression in my life. I don’t think I ever would have. I was happy-go-lucky, the life and soul, nothing got me down. When he died it blew me to smithereens. I smashed into a thousand tiny pieces. I knew he was ill; he had made several attempts on his life in the years before he died. I knew deep in my heart that his journey might end that way, sometimes I thought directly about it – about his funeral, about how we would let his friends know, about how our parents would cope. But when it happened…’ a rest, while he collected himself and tried to choose the words ‘… when it happened, nothing in the world could have prepared me for how it felt. The guilt and the visceral anger is like nothing else. It is so hard to bear – I actually don’t know how anyone gets through each day. And time does not heal. Grief is not linear. Bereavement by suicide is a big, tangled, complicated mess of confusion and agony. It has changed my journey, forever and ever. It has changed who I am. That man who shattered into a thousand pieces is still here, but in a different pattern. I am still living and breathing but I will never be able to reconstruct back into the old me, however much time passes. The legacy which he left is one of only sorrow. All of his anguish in life had to go somewhere when his journey ended. His heartache was so consuming and so enormous – just like yours – and that emotion cannot just disappear into the ether without leaving a scar. So it transferred into the journeys of every person who ever loved him, in one way or another.’
For the first time, she raised her face from ground-ward and looked at him. He was older than she had imagined; hair tinged grey at the temples and deep wrinkles which told something of his torment amid a face of overwhelmingly kindness.
He sighed, suddenly tired.
‘Look, I am not judging you. I am not heartless or cold. I understand that you are ill. Really, I do. I know you have not chosen this. I know you feel no control. But, please… your illness need not be terminal. I’ve told you my tale so that you know what would happen after you ended your journey, when your pain is over. You deserve to know what will happen to the people who love you, and you deserve to know the truth of this, not some sugar-coated “they’ll be relieved, they’ll get over it, time will heal” deceit. They won’t be OK. They love you. Your brain tells you they don’t, but that doesn’t change the truth. And because they love you, their lives will be shattered and their journeys will be changed beyond recognition if you leave. That’s what suicide does. It wrecks everything. So you need to fight harder than you ever knew you could, you need to bang on doors and shout from rooftops until you get a treatment which works for you. You don’t deserve to live like this, and your loved ones don’t deserve to lose you to this.’
For what felt like an age, silence.
She needed to think. She had learnt more in the prior minutes than any counselling, or meditation, or mindfulness had ever taught her. She felt enlightened, and with this came calm. The shocking, frank honesty he had shown had been an awakening, and she saw her life in the context of a world which was wider then her own mind. She sensed an unfamiliar and initially unidentifiable feeling prickling through her limbs, a pulsating electricity. It was determination.
In that moment she knew that her journey could not end; not here and not now. She was not miraculously cured, her illness would not disappear – she knew that. But she suddenly wanted to live alongside it, to accept it and to try with all her might to get better. She had not tried every medication, sought every therapy. Her journey could not be over until every option had been examined.
She turned again to look at him. Now, it was he who gazed at the ground as she stared ahead.
‘Your brother’s legacy is no longer only sorrow. Your brother’s legacy is now that he, and you, have prolonged my journey.’
She stood, and her feet took her back towards her flat. She consciously lifted her trainers, refusing to allow them to drag. She took down her hood and gazed at the world without its boundaries limiting her view. As she reached the door of the flats, she turned to look back at the bench.
He had gone, back into the crowds as quietly as he had arrived.