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The Memory Room

It’s appropriate that I’m in Oxford, as I try to negotiate the rabbit warren’s of the John Radcliffe hospital, trying to find the memory room, walking around the outside of the children’s hospital, where a huge mural of a red cup and saucer stares down from the wall. There’s no white rabbit to guide me today though, so I traverse the stairs down to the West Wing and eventually find myself in a plush office type space. I fill in a form to offer further neurological research and sit down and wait.

A well groomed older man and his partner come inside and sit down opposite me, he looks like he’s in his mid-seventies. The appointment is running late (and what would the rabbit make of that?), when a younger man comes out from the office area and sits down next to me with his wife. He looks mid-fifties, with a blue identity badge hanging around his neck, impeccably dressed, with the look of a consultant.

He has his appointment letter in his right hand. His wife says to him that he can put it away now, but he folds it in half again and clenches it tighter. In his left hand is a tissue to which is is pulsing his hand open and closed, as it crumples in his palm. He looks forward, but distant, his wife says to him are they organising more tests, he sort of nods a yes. And I think to myself that I’m not old enough for this to happen. But I am.

I’m losing my short term memory. It’s not just leaving the oven on, the heating on and the front door unlocked (though I do all of these things), it’s fleeting, fading memories that seem to give the sensation of not being in a sense of reality, where you’re left in a state of discombobulation and deja vu, and it’s disconcerting. Like I know I was in Yeovil a couple of days ago and I know where I went, but the sense of actually being there and remembering anything about it is gone. It’s like walking in a dense sea of fog, where a wrong left turn takes you splashing into the river and the wrong right turn takes you into the onrushing stream of traffic.

At every attempt to gain a potted history, the talk always turns to suicide. There’s my brother (hit by a tube train, he’d probably have been about my age now when that happened), my cousin (an overdose), my aunt (a gas oven – at least a bit of the Sylvia Plath’s about that one). I didn’t mention my mum’s brother at her wedding, when told to take a running jump by someone, he did, but only off the roof. A fine way to start a marriage, my dad said.

I’m borderline honest about my alcohol misuse, I’m told that’s not the best coping strategy. My broken nose is tantamount to that. But it’s all I have. And sometimes, after drinking, I have no memories at all, which isn’t always a bad thing, at least until the cold, harsh light of day starts breaking through the window.

The actual memory room, is just a room with a table in it, and of course I sit the wrong side, the obvious wrong side. I’m ushered to the other side. It’s got one of those leather tops to it, that gets wetter during the testing as I sweat out of my shaky hands. It’s like some kind of dystopian kindergarten, where I play with building blocks, word and number associations, whilst trying not to get distracted by the huge graveyard I can see outside the window.

It’s like a job interview from hell that never ends, and I can’t explain how frustrating it is to try and recount a sequence of words from a spoken list again and again about 15 times in a row, without any improvement. And I’m sure I’ll score highly because I’m articulate and eloquent, which is able to mask some of the flaws underneath. When she asks me to name as many words as I can starting with “S” and I come up with Serendipity, she laughs. But this is no fortunate meeting of two like-minded individuals.

After what seems an eternity, the testing is over (in reality a little over two hours). I walk outside into the sunshine and I blink the day awake.

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When I think about what quotes I like or find really defining, you’d be quite surprised to find that it’s not Sylvia Plath (though the slime of all my yesterdays is definitely rotting in the hollow of my skull) and not William Blake and his briars, joys and desires, but a passage by Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation, where she describes “the atypically depressed as the walking wounded, people who are quite functional, whose lives proceed almost as usual, except that they’re depressed all the time, almost constantly embroiled in thoughts of suicide even as they go through their paces. It’s not just a mild malaise, but one that is quite severe and yet still somehow allows an appearance of normalcy, because it becomes, over time, a part of life. The trouble is that as the years pass, if untreated, atypical depression gets worse and worse, and its sufferers are likely to commit suicide out of sheer frustration with living a life that is simultaneously productive and clouded by constant despair.”

And not is it only frustrating, but also at times incredibly difficult to live in a world you don’t really understand and doesn’t understand you, or born too late, into a time that doesn’t make any real sense. It’s really difficult to live with a personality that has traits of hyper-sensitivity, borderline personality disorder and high functioning autism. April once asked me if “I felt like I’d arrived from another planet and didn’t understand the world around me”, before researching Asperger’s Syndrome and e-mailing everyone I knew that I fit into the criteria. And to be fair to her, I didn’t actually speak for six months. Sometimes, I’m all of these things, sometimes I’m none of them, but more often than not, I’m a combination of most of them. April was my friend. She’s not any more. And I really miss her.

It’s hard to explain. It’s like the girl you love, who you wake up every morning to her flickering image, that you try and grab in the cold light of day that fades out of sight, until you realise that she has departed a long time ago. Because you did the wrong thing. Again. Or the boy and girl who appear to be having an argument, but the boy is already dead, but he doesn’t realise it, only to realise as he chases after the distraught girl, and notices he doesn’t leave any footprints after walking through the milk that got knocked off the table.

And I no longer want to feel like this, I don’t want to go on feeling like this. I’ve had enough. I don’t want to be a bundle of past recollections and future dreams, knotted up in a reasonably attractive bundle of flesh.

Route 66 is a 2,448 mile stretch of highway that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles and takes in the Mojave Desert on the way, it’s a slice of Americana that somehow sits in the past in today’s present, taking in neon signs, rusty middle of nowhere rusty truck stops, abandoned diners, in a time that the world forget, in a world that no longer remembers.

Is it traversable? It might be. Though it does reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit through the Mojave desert and I was advised that unless I’ve competed in various Iron Man competitions in Qatar, or made of asbestos or just happen to be a scorpion than give it a miss. And a grizzled Canadian who walked parts of the Mojave Desert said he almost died doing it. But then he nearly died in a placid lake turning his canoe over, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of that advice. And there’s always the chance of ending up as road-kill or just randomly chopped into hundreds of pieces for no rational reason whatsoever.

So, why do it at all? I don’t want my life to be one that’s full of regret, broken dreams, a life where I can’t remember anything good I did at all, a life full of slowly fading memories.

Why don’t you drive it?,” someone asked. But that sort of defeats the purpose. The problem that is if you only ever stare off into the distance, than your life is a shame.

There’s a kind of vision you kind of get when you think of a Diner, a collection of bedraggled customers sat in a godforsaken town in mid-west America, soul searching into their black coffees, whilst the embittered waitress dreams about the life she’s never going to have, just waiting for the moment when the guy in the leather trench coat comes in and starts to blow everyone away in a hail of bullets, blood and puke.

But this isn’t mid-western America, though darkest Wiltshire does it’s best to run it close, and Ed’s Diner is uncomfortably placed in a shopping mall, where the few people wander around like ghosts of a previous life, going from shop to shop, where everything is exactly the same. Ed’s Diner isn’t the same though, it’s red and shiny and new, and though you just know it’s going to be better on the outside than the inside, there seems to be a magnetic pull. New is good, right?

Eating on your own nowadays is difficult, you need to find a place that is just on the right side of socially acceptable, so nothing intimate. Best to find a chain, preferably in a place where there other things to do, so you look like you’re eating because you’re actually hungry. “Mum, that man over there. Why is he on his own? Doesn’t he have any friends?”

Pizza Hut is acceptable, not only is it an overpriced chain, but often found in retail parks. My last experience of eating out there was on my birthday. The waitress strikes up a conversation mid-meal and asks what I’m doing afterwards. It’s in a complex that houses a cinema, so tell her I’m going to see a film. “Which one?” she says. I’m going to see a film called Finding a Friend at the End of the World. Somehow, actually saying that seems worse than not saying it at all, so I tell her I haven’t decided yet. “Oh well,” she says, “have fun.”

I’ve made it inside Ed’s Diner now, past the cardboard waitress, Jack Rabbit Slim’s this is not. A real-life waitress approaches me. “Do you have a table for one?” I ask, though I can see there are plenty of spaces. “For one?” she intones back slightly arching her eyebrows, and I’m sure she really can’t see Harvey. And offers me either a seat hidden away in the corner out of the sight of everybody, or the seat directly opposite the main window. It’s the singles seat – try going out to eat on your own and you’ll get offered that seat every single time. So I slink past the families with babies, and the couples sitting together, hoping that no-one notices too much. I choose to sit looking out the window, it’s far easier to see the accusations, than feel them burning into the back of your skull.

The music seems to taunt as well – Runaway, Bye Bye Baby and Alone Again. The food arrives without a smile, and is bland, tasteless and overcooked (and three times the price for better food elsewhere), but of course that was always going to be a gimme, a home run. No field of dreams here. Though to be fair, the banana and coffee milkshake tastes far better than what it says on the tin. And it got served in one.

It’s soon time to go though. There’s a sign to the right of where I am sitting. It shows a space rocket flying off with the legend “come back again”. Right now, I just wish I could get inside.

 

There are times when the most inappropriate things pop into your head for no discernible reason. This is one of those times.

The first time I was almost abducted was when I was about 6 or 7, was out in the street and was approached by a man in a car carrying a big bag of sweets (this sounds completely made up but is 100% true). He said if I got in his car he’d give me his streets. Having had the dangers of accepting sweets from strangers well drummed into me from the early age, I told him I’d got inside and ask permission from my parents. They, however, were distracted by company and I didn’t quite get the point across and I was told to go outside to play again. I assumed I’d been given permission – the guy was black and we’d had a black relative over not long before then, and it was actually quite rare to see a black person where I lived, one of my first memories is waving to a black man as I thought he was the coalman. So in my childlike state of mind, I went back out to look for the car but he’d already gone, presumably to chop another childhood kid into lots of little pieces.

I also remember when my parents had more visitors round, and to impress them, were watching The Generation Game. My parents would never succumb to lower grade television, so I asked them why they were watching it. We watch it every week my dad said, no you don’t I said, you think it’s rubbish. I left the room. They never returned either.

The second attempted abduction was when I was about 11, at Heathrow Airport. The two places I used to go as a kid during the holidays was either Chessington Zoo or the Airport, Chessington Zoo was more logical, as it had a penny arcade, and in those days, you could make £1 last all day, without even seeing any of the animals. I can’t remember why I kept going to the airport, as I have no train spotterish traits in my behaviour now, but think I’d met someone from school there and pissed around as you do as kids. When I was going home, a man in an airport uniform tried to get me to go into a locked room with him – he said there was something exciting in there. The only thing he had in his hand was an aerosol can – which, wasn’t as attractive as a packet of sweets, so I ended running away down one of the Travelators, with him shouting behind me “Where Are You Going?”

No one tried to abduct me again after that, but I did get my bollocks grabbed in a bookshop. There was a bookshop in South Kensington, with an upstairs and a downstairs bit, would have been 12 at the time, sometimes went in with my dad, this was one of the times I was alone. Went upstairs and got followed up by the man who ran the shop. Didn’t think much about it, then he started asking me how old I was, I answered him. He then said, “let me feel between your legs to see what age you are?”. And before I’d even considered his demented request, he shoved his hand between my legs and had a grope of my bollocks. “No, you’re not 12”, he said. So not only did he molest me, but managed to insult me in the process as well.

About 3 or 4 months later, I was in the bookshop with my dad – I didn’t obviously want to go there on my own. I’d bought a book and the guy was serving behind the front desk. I then thought that now was the time I was going to bring up what happened to me, right in the shop, with my dad standing there, with him right in front of me. He knew it as well, as he looked like he literally was going to shit himself. He gathered my book up, packaged it in a bag, and shoved change over the counter, more money than I had actually given him for the book. It was enough to distract me and the thought of saying anything went out of my head. So not only was I molested, I became a child whore as well.

There are some things that shape your behaviour as an adult that happen in your childhood, these incidents, quite possibly are some of those things.

I remember the conversation I had prior to getting Boo. I was working on my community placement in Camden, and was working with Emma. She was a little bit ditzy but fun to work with. She told me that her cat had given birth to 6 kittens and would I like one. I was living in a flat at the time, but it did have a garden, so I said I would talk it through with my girlfriend. She wasn’t overly keen, but we eventually decided to take him, the last cat I had was a family cat, and he disappeared without trace. He was about 16 years old, not unwell, and moody enough not to be taken easily, but one day he was gone and never came back, the last cat before that was Mischa, a docile Siamese that succumbed to cancer at a relatively young age.

Sometimes, it takes you a while to get over the loss of a cat, and replacing your pet does not always work out well, but it just felt like the right time. So, I agreed to pick him up. When I met him, he was tiny and scrawny, and looked dwarfed by the huge cat basket that he now only just about fits in. Apparently the runt of the litter, bullied off mothers milk by the rest of the brood. Emma wanted to sell the other cats for £100 a piece but gave him to me. I didn’t find out if she sold any more, but she lost two kittens when she left the back door open, and they ran away, scooting over her garden fence never to be seen again, a bit like my rabbit who was released into the wild by my parents when he got too big, he gave one quick look of reproach before scampering away, me being too young to know he had no real chance of surviving in the wild.

And sometimes you find a name for your pet that just fits. He had a habit of jumping sideways as a kitten, hiding behind doors, then bounding out to climb up my leg, then running off again. So Boo seemed right and the older he got, the more he grew into his name. And I don’t know whether it was the fact that he wasn’t nurtured by his mother, or possibly that he got left alone for periods at a time when he was a kitten, but he became very people attached, always looking to jump up onto my lap and would stay there for hours on an end, and would more than often share the bed as well, curling up where there was a divot between my legs and staying there until morning, until he woke me with several well timed paw splats to my head to tell me it was either feeding time, or that he just wanted me up, so he could sit with me in the living room.

And he rapidly grew into a big alpha male, but retaining some of the timidness and nervousness he had as a kitten. Then my girlfriend decided she didn’t want to live in London anymore and went up to live in Wiltshire to be near her parents, occasionally visiting me and Boo at weekends. By now, I’d just qualified as a staff nurse and was working in the community, but it wasn’t going well, so I made a life changing decision to leave my job (without having another one), to be closer to my girlfriend. I was able to stay with a friend, Boo was unable to stay with me so he stayed with my girlfriends parents, they agreed he could stay there for a short period of time, but as they did not get on with me, they would not let me see him, so began my first period of separation from Boo.

After about six months, I was able to find a private rental, and me, Boo and my girlfriend were reunited. The worry I had was that Boo wouldn’t recognise me, but once he got over his change of scenery, it took him about a day, bounding back out of the bedroom straight back up onto my lap again. Such a Daddy’s Boy, my girlfriend said when she came home from work, and I guess she is right, he always seemed to come over to me, to sit on top of the computer, or to sit on a pile of papers if I was working. And even when we moved into separate rooms when the relationship went wrong, 9 out of 10 times he chose to sleep with me.

And I remember when he got sick and I thought he was certain to die. Cats, for whatever reason, tend to hide illness very well, and there were no signs before. Despite being a house cat, he was always very active and liked to play. This day, when I got home, at first I thought he had picked up a cold as he was sneezing, which was odd as he had never been ill before, he had a penchant for vomiting the worlds largest furballs and occasionally got a bit grumpy if he wanted to bring one up. But his behaviour was odd, he was hiding under a chair, trying to shrink away from contact, and mewling when being picked up. He wouldn’t eat and drink, and hadn’t urinated, though he wanted to go. It was evident that something was wrong. Seriously wrong.

I especially remember the vets, because she was seriously blunt, which isn’t actually a bad quality. His breathing had deteriorated so she put Boo on oxygen, told me that he had a blood clot near his heart, and that he had a incurable cardiac condition, apparently very common in Persian cats. She gave him an injection to take some fluid off his back legs, and to help him go to the toilet, prescribed aspirin to try and thin out the blood clot, and told me to take him home over the weekend as that was where he was going to be most comfortable. She didn’t utter the words, “Boo is going to die”, but she meant it, if the veiled words didn’t convey it, the look on her face did. Being a nurse didn’t help, it’s what you call the conversation of death, I’ve had to give it enough times. Things looked bleak.

I wasn’t sure that Boo would last the day, never mind the weekend. He wouldn’t eat or drink, he still wouldn’t urinate. And he kept hiding himself under the bed. So I stayed in the bedroom for 72 hours, everytime he went under the bed I picked him up, stroking him and feeding him yoghurt off my finger, the only thing he would take, when drifting off to sleep, horribly waking up an hour later, looking under the bed expecting to find him dead, picking him up and undertaking the whole process again. I was 90% sure he was going to die. But he didn’t, he made it through the weekend, and the vet was almost flabbergasted that I brought a very sick but alive cat to her on the Monday, again she reiterated that there was nothing I could do, he could go on atenalol (to slow his heart rate down), and stay on aspirin (to help prevent blood clots), but he could go at any time and that his life span would be significantly reduced.

But slowly, he got better, he passed his 6 month check, then his next one. He seemed, however, to get even more dependent, and was always on my lap or on my bed, and gets tired a lot, and seemed distinctly unimpressed that his food was being rationed as the vet said that might help his condition. And, as my relationship with my girlfriend deteriorated, I came home one day after being at work to find an empty flat and Boo gone.

And now I occasionally see him, for maybe two hours at a time every fortnight, and though he seems well enough, his behaviour has changed, he’s a lot more moody, and he bites and scratches more than he used to, he’s always liked the rough side of play and hunting, I feel there is more to it than that, it’s almost as if he is questioning why I left him again.

And whilst the ex-girlfriend now chases the white picket fence ideal, where financial rewards are more important and material well-being has been confused with happiness. Real love was nurturing Boo through his sickness, though it appeared futile at the time, his life was saved through love, its the guilt about leaving him the first time and for the same thing to happen again, its why he is not just a cat, how he can’t just be simply replaced by another one, its the reason why money is irrelevant, it’s the reason why I find myself in tears most nights, and it’s the reason when I look into those eyes, that I see him asking me to take him away, to be like it used to be. And I miss him so much, I miss him snuggling up to me, and I wish I knew the right thing to do. But I don’t. And I hope I don’t make the wrong one. Because if I do, those questioning eyes looking into mine will never forgive. Ever.

Tragic Life Stories

So, I’m walking down the aisle of the book section in WHSmiths, and up looms a section called Tragic Life Stories, two whole bookshelves of this insanity. I hadn’t actually realised that this had actually become a genre, and it’s origins can probably be traced back to Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, a story of childhood abuse so chronically badly written, that you actually felt like taking the book and hitting him constantly over the head with it just to make him stop. But he, didn’t, three more came.

And now, it’s an industry. Whatever tragic event you want to write about, you can. Anorexia, bulimia, and especially, how hard life is, especially growing up in a northern town. And we know it’s harder growing up there than anywhere else in the world. But guys, life is supposed to be hard, we don’t live in some fluffy utopia that is portrayed on our TV screens, the real world is like this, your white picket fence ideal does not exist.

But now, if possible, it’s got worse. It’s moved on from humans to animals. Usually in the form of I got a cat for little Johnny/Sophie before they died from (*horriffic disease/drunk drivers/crazed axemen/acts of god *delete where appropriate), I wanted to get rid of it, but kept the cat and he helped me how to love and live again. The schmaltz, the schmaltz.

And I pick one up. This one is about Norton the cat (who for gods sake calls their cat Norton – has he never had a virus or something), and this is a sequel. But different to the others, this is a tragic life story without any tragic life events, it seems to be about some loser singleton bloke who lives with Norton the cat for company. Unable to reach his life ideals in the land of hope that is the United Kingdom he goes to France with his cat, he seems to have got there without any rabies checks as well.

Picking up a random chapter near the start I read on. He has just got to France and decides to go to a restaurant to have a meal. So he brings the cat with him as you do. The restaurant staff don’t want the cat in the restaurant so take him out to the kitchen. I’m actually surprised they don’t cook and eat the fucker, but no they feed him ice cream because we know all cats like ice cream. Norton refuses.

Of course, the staff are all conversant in English, and every other word is zis and ze because we know all French people talk like that all the time. Zis is a very rude cat you have there, he will not eat ze ice cream. Interspered with this dialogue is how he thinks for his cat like it is a human, he talks how he is disappointed in his cat in the third person in his thoughts, you kind of have to read it.

Anyway, his meal comes to an end, suddenly a waitress bursts out of the kitchen. Meeester, Meeester, your cat iz a geeeenius, the ice cream was off, that why he didn’t eat it, you have saved us. The author picks up his cat, looks into his eyes and says “Norton, I didn’t doubt you for a minute”. I think you will find you did, you hypocritical fucker.

I didn’t read any more.

Not all of our heroes fail us

The Quireboys burst onto the music scene in the 1980’s with their unique bluesy sound, a combination of The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones, Primal Scream and The Black Crowes, and their lead singer Spike often seen out leading the high life, in fact he tended to mirror Bobby Gillespie. Their debut album, A Little Bit Of What You Fancy, was a cracking album, full of guitar and piano based blues anthems that more than stand the test of time today, Spike’s gravelly voice probably only comparable to an early Rod Stewart.

However, it took them a long time to produce a second album, which, whilst decent enough, lacked the punch of the first one, and by this time The Black Crowes had got a foothold in this genre as music, though, truthfully, they weren’t as good. Then the 90’s came and grunge took over and no-one wanted to know anymore about piano based blues music, and like others The Quireboys simply seemed to disappear into the wilderness.

And now they are back, and are promoting their new acoustic album, Halfpenny Dancer, which is a combination of covers and some of their older tracks re-recorded, and it’s billed as an acoustic show. And they are late on. Everything points to a disaster, think of acoustic, and you think of Eric Clapton almost comatosing you to death with Tears from Heaven or a stripped down Nirvana having nothing to show without the bluster of their electric guitars. And you have just received a dose of vitriol from your soon to be ex-girlfriend over the telephone, and you are wondering why you are here to end up disappointed again.

So we shuffle into a small room and wait for the support band to finish (who did an admirable job doing an acoustic set when they clearly weren’t set up for it). And then Spike appears out of a side door and gets up onto the stage, a drink in hand. He’s older and bigger but still recognisable, dressed in the gypsy/pirate look that he was wearing long before Johnny Depp made it fashionable – and this is the moment where you find out what kind of night you are in for. And they start off with a note perfect There She Goes Again, there’s no difference with Spike’s vocals, the gravelly voice is still there, in fact you kind of expect chunks of tarmac to come flying out of his mouth and embed themselves in your skin. It’s unique and there’s not another singer who sounds like this.

And it continues in the same vein. All the worries about it being an acoustic show fade away, in fact, they appear suited by it, the piano comes more out to the fore, though Spike has a lot of trouble actually sitting still, and completely abandons the idea halfway through. He continues to drink throughout the performance and engages with the crowd after every song. They talk about front men, such as Liam Gallagher and Mick Jagger, and whilst these two either scowl or pout, Spike is the real front man, wants to interact with the audience, enjoys his music and you can tell the rapport with the band and the audience is strong.

And when he sings King of New York, which wasn’t a stand out from the second album, but dedicates it to his father and says that he hasn’t been ready to sing this for some time, the song takes on a whole new meaning. Spike is not ready to sing this, and for the first time since the night began, the gravelly voice begins to crack. But this is not a night for moroseness. “What time is it?”, Spike enquires. “7 o’clock,” is the reply from the crowd as another thumping slice of guitar and piano blues fills the room. And the evening ends with an outstanding version of I Don’t Love You Anymore, where the whole room sings in unison as one, beer glasses raised high in the air. And even the final irony of the song doesn’t detract from what has been a remarkable evening.

And when it is over, and I step out into the cold Swindon air, even if it is just for a minute, everything is alright with the world once again.