Ever since my first steps as a curious toddler I’ve been burdened with the nagging feeling that I’m doing something wrong. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, be the act illicit or virtuous, performed diligently or devil may care, I can’t seem to shake the sensation that I’m mistaken in some fundamental and irredeemable way. People tell me I can’t possibly remember learning to walk but I assure you, as real a memory as seeing me today would be for you tomorrow, I can still see and feel that moment vividly. As I toddled along experiencing life up on my feet for the first time the fear struck me. I worried that perhaps I wasn’t doing it right, that my legs were making all the wrong movements. I became so anxious that I panicked. With no parental guidance on the matter (where they were at the time I couldn’t tell you) I stumbled and careened head first into the nearby coffee table. That accident consolidated in me that nascent fear and ever since I’ve carried with me the unshakeable feeling that my fears had been proven entirely correct.
As you can imagine I have always thought of this as something of a cross for me to bear. No matter what I do it’s like a permanent black cloud hanging over me, sagging with rain and waiting for the least opportune moment to unleash a downpour upon me. However, as my childhood progressed, I started to feel oddly liberated by my endless run of bad luck. Think about it: if any action you choose produces the same result regardless then surely that gives one the freedom to do whatever one wants. For some time I managed to convince myself that this was actually something to be cherished as it took most of the uncertainty out of life and freed me from responsibility of the consequences of my actions. I maintained this slightly deranged manner of thinking through a number of accidents and misfortunes until the day of my 15th birthday when, whilst trying to impress the delightfully pretty Alice Leigh with my Frisbee skills in the local park, I found myself risking a daring leap for a throw that looked to everyone watching to be clearly beyond me. Much to everyone’s surprise I caught the Frisbee with my fingertips. I had perhaps a second to enjoy my triumph before realising I had jumped over the bank of the park’s lake. My less than graceful entry into the water aggravated a particularly territorial and aggressive gang of swans who, after a brief but loud altercation, somehow managed to relieve me of my shorts. I then found myself sopping wet, exposed to the elements and fleeing from an angry gang of white feathered pursuers who followed me all the way back to my house. They say that Alice laughed so hard she ended up vomiting part of the Ribena and cheap cider concoction she had been drinking over her brand new dress, after which she she never spoke to me again. After that incident the mental judo required to believe my accident prone nature could be thought of as any kind of blessing was forever beyond me.
I believe that the cause for my gift for instigating unfortunate incidents in part stems from me having something of an over-active imagination coupled with a short attention span. As a child I was unable to focus on a task for any length of time without my mind wandering to mysterious lands of magic and valour, dragons and knights, witches and wizards and all manner of mythical and invented creatures. Anything in my periphery could be turned into a prop for my internal adventures: I was like a miniature Quixote tilting not at windmills but at the shed at the bottom of the garden, or the TV aerials that adorned the chimney’s in the area that, silhouetted against the noonday sun, resembled toothy monsters looming over me, waiting for the right moment to swoop down. I’d be looking up at them thinking about how best to fight these wiry metal foes when my bike would run into the curb side and I’d find myself airborne.
My parents hoped that this was merely an awkward phase that I would grow out of but as I grew from a bemused child to a baffled teenager these flights of fantasy continued, albeit in a different form. At school I would spend the majority of my lessons staring out of a window at the fire station across the road, imagining what incredible feats of bravery those firemen were on their way to perform. I imagined I was one of their number, running into burning buildings chasing after some poor child’s terrified yells, ignoring the oppressive black smoke that scoured my throat and the overbearing heat cooking my flesh. I would kick the door to their bedroom through, throw the child over my shoulder and take them outside to their desperate waiting mothers. As I moved through the school years I must confess these fantasies evolved further. Their mothers became more and more grateful for my feats of daring-do. And they began to resemble people I knew…
But there’s no need to get into that. Suffice to say my grades were not improved by this detachment from reality, with the exception of the few subjects capable of harnessing my wayward imagination and entice my attention away from daydreams. English and Art were the only subjects I left with any real credit in. My mother despaired; perplexed as to why her erstwhile bright son had failed to achieve what both she and my teachers believed he was really capable of. Had I fallen in with a bad crowd? Was there some pernicious influence on me, say alcohol or drugs that they were unaware of? I could hardly explain to her that my attention had been swayed by me imagining how incredibly grateful her friend Mrs Williams would be when I rescued her beloved son Carl from a premature Viking funeral. So I stayed quiet. And my over-active imagination continued unchecked into adulthood, along with the embarrassment I felt about it and subsequent inability to discuss it.
And so I became increasingly quiet and withdrawn. To the less discerning eye I suppose this made me appear quite boring. In most social situations I would opt to stay silent and search for something opportune to chime in with from time to time, something safe that would not give away the fact that mentally I would be in a jazz band in 1950’s New Orleans or dramatically sweeping someone from the path of a speeding car at the very last second. I have found that people rarely understand. I like to think my predilection for whimsy child-like, which is to say endearing, but on the few occasions I’ve revealed this side of myself to people they have found it instead quite child-ish, which is to say irritating. So for the most part, ever since my impromptu diving act in front of Alice Leigh, I have unassumingly bumbled through life only being noticed by people when tripping over them in the street or crashing my shopping trolley into theirs whilst on the Nürburgring of the supermarket, lost in the florid running commentary in my mind.
There are some perks to my condition at least. I get along with children exceptionally well – though that is something of a mixed blessing as a man in this era of paedophilic paranoia. In particular my niece, Millie, responds much better to my flights of fancy than any adult. Sadly her mother doesn’t like leaving me alone with her, ever since the incident with the swing (it turned out that despite her insistence Millie was not strong enough to push her uncle and when it comes to jumping out of the way of incoming objects her skills are sorely lacking). In fact she’d rather I spent as little time as possible with her, fearful as she is that my lackadaisical approach to life might be passed on to her like the flu or some awful virus. But little Millie loves her uncle, and he adores her, so under the watchful eye of my sister we have embarked on countless adventures. We have thwarted evil wherever it rears its ugly head, be it in the park or their back garden. I love spending time with her as it allows my imagination to return to the places where it originally blossomed – escaping pirates on the waves of the Mediterranean, battling monsters in dark caves where humans were not meant to tread or rescuing damsels from the towers where they are held hostage by their cruel mothers. Millie is not so fond of that last one: she is a most reluctant damsel. Though she has from time to time been known to save me from those same towers. I suspect that, should she end up in that same classroom that I once inhabited, she’ll be imagining herself rescuing those firemen from the blazes that were too tough for them to fight.
But in terms of perks to living in my own private fantasy world this is where they begin and end. I had hoped that my rich imagination would become useful and lead to me becoming some kind of artist: a painter, a playwright, an author, an actor. But I have tried my hand at most if not all of the popular art forms and found myself wanting. I tried to act but couldn’t keep my mind on the role at hand. I tried to write but found that the words could not keep up with me, that my hands were forever playing catch up to my mind. I’d read my prose back and find it made little to no sense. Painting is the art form I loved the most, and the one I have kept on trying to improve at, but I find my hand does what it wants as my mind goes on trips elsewhere. When it returns the painting is not what it was meant to be. I try to bring specific visions to life, starting with deliberate strokes of the brush but end up losing my way and ending up with an impressionistic, wishy-washy mess. I have strange dreams at night – bizarre alien landscapes and structures, impossible architecture dramatically rising from endless dead deserts, castles that seem to walk on thousands of individual living tendrils, uncanny animals that looks like nothing that dwell upon our world. I try to paint them but they seem washed out, exactly like the memory of a dream. I enjoy their creation but cannot imagine any possible way of making a living for them. If this were the 70s they’d probably be used as progressive rock album covers which might have earned me enough to keep me from having to take a day job.
As it is like most I have to work to survive, in my case by stalking a warehouse floor, pacing the aisles picking orders whilst allowing my mind its usual forays into the unknown. It’s work which can be done without conscious thought, which may be the jobs only real virtue (the rate of pay and company it puts me in cannot really be considered such) but it is enough to make the daily grind bearable. Of course it is not the sort of work my family wanted for me, but then they do not understand my affliction. Instead they live in hope that I will, ‘get myself together.’ And, more often than I’d like to admit, when I’m alone on a night or in the manager’s office trying to explain away a spill or a collision, I hope for that as well.
I think of my world as a rich and wonderful place but when my mind is exhausted and I’m left to face reality it is also quite lonely. So much so that recently I’ve been accepting offers to go out drinking with my colleagues, despite us having as little in common as we possibly could have without us having completely different sets of organs. Every Friday night they go out to the same few pubs in town. Every week we take the same route. They run through the same jokes (or ‘banter’ as they insist on calling it), the same awkward flirting, the same drinks, the same post pub takeaway. To be fair they are a nice bunch, for the most part: if it sounds like I’m sneering at their choice of weekend entertainment it’s only because I envy the ease with which they interact. They seem in tune with their surroundings, they somehow exist in the moment. Whereas I can get bored of a moment almost before it ends. I’ve tried utilising alcohol, matching them drink for drink from pub to pub, treating it like it were an elixir to cure my social malady. But it only makes me even more clumsy, amplifying my already slapstick nature. Barely a night out goes by without me covering myself or some other poor soul in lager or going crashing into someone on a dance floor I wasn’t even dancing on. Dancers have a word, proprioception, which they use to describe the awareness they have of the exact position of every body part while dancing. There is no opposite word for this that I’m aware of, but whatever it is that’s what I have. I think that they only keep inviting me out despite my inability to ‘banter’ properly because my antics are always a good laugh for them. It is, however, not so good for my self-esteem: when your main value to someone is to inadvertently yet consistently make a fool of oneself one can’t help but wonder if they have any value at all.
Which is one reason why when I found myself offered a substance could potentially allow me to push my over-active imagination to one side and focus on the moment I couldn’t help but be intrigued.
It was on one of these Friday nights that I managed to convince our group to go a different bar, one not on our usual weekly itinerary. In one of our regular haunts the pump for the boy’s preferred overly carbonated lager had broken a down a full hour before the scheduled time for us to move onto the next pub on our tour. This threw everyone into a state of confusion. In a rare moment of lucidity and bravery I proposed we stopped by a pub that had been intriguing me for some time. My suggestion was initially met with derision, not least from Terry, the most obnoxious and generally unlikeable man in the factory. Terry always seemed to have a look about him, like he was out to intimidate somebody, anybody. I got the feeling he’d be wearing that look even if he were the only person in the room. He just seemed to exist in that white hot line where confusion blurs into rage. Permanent limitless frustration. Even on his best days, when all the cards seem to be dealt in his favour and the cosmos appeared to be smiling down on him, he would still look like he was working out the quickest way to empty a body of all it’s blood. It was as if he believed if he screwed up his face just right he could stare down the world. He didn’t like the plan because, I suspect, it wasn’t his, but once it was pointed out that it was only a very slight deviation for our usual path and that we could always leave if, “it turned out to be shit” the group eventually came around to my idea.
I’d always liked the look of the pace from the outside: it had a vaguely nautical theme, which was particularly incongruous compared to the rest of our entirely landlocked town. I liked to think that it was a safe house for smugglers and pirate refugees fleeing inland. I imagined it would be a hive of disreputable characters, a hotbed of fantastical stories from far off lands. I’d hoped the barman would have been a first mate forced to seek asylum far from the ship on which he had led a doomed mutiny, his life only spared due to a rare moment of sentiment from his fearsome captain, a man whom he had once been proud to call brother before his lust for booty had driven him mad.
Of course reality, as is often it’s way, stubbornly refused to live up to the ideal. Instead the barman was a fellow named Steve who seemed to be one of the many ex-students of the town’s college who was taking refuge from nothing more exciting than growing up. The décor inside did not live up to it’s fascinating exterior, looking as it did like a recently refurbished town centre pub that had been made to look exactly like every other recently refurbished town centre pub. It did at least serve my colleague’s preferred brand of lager at a reasonable price and so my suggestion was a lot more popular with them than it turned out to be with me. I tried to make the most of it: the regulars of the place may not have been the kind of people I was overly keen to get to know but I at least hoped I could leave the establishment without spreading further my reputation for being a bumbling oaf.
Barely a quarter of an hour passed before these hopes were scotched, dashed, ruined in a flurry of cheap lager and alcopops raining down upon me. The tall tables we sat around had an unusual leg structure with one pillar in the centre with awkward wooden tendrils stretching outwards. On my way to the toilet I snagged my foot beneath one of these and moved with enough vigour to pull the whole table down and over a step, tripping myself in the process. I fell under the table and made a futile attempt to catch and push it upright whilst my momentum was still taking me down the steps. It ended up rolling over me. I found myself laid beneath the table, pinned to the ground, surrounded by liquid and broken glass. It was too severe an accident to even be funny, and we were in a new bar where nobody knew us. Not one or two but all of our drinks had been upended. No one laughed. Most of them couldn’t even muster the energy to be mad with me.
Instead they just looked on in sullen disappointment. Those who did get mad were not shy in expressing it. Terry, of course, was the most vocal, delivering a summation of his thoughts about my character that was as savage as they were true. The language used was, to be fair, quite befitting of the kind of den of outlaw sailors I had quietly hoped for. They couldn’t understand how these things kept happening to me, and I could not explain myself. As they all no longer had drinks to finish they decided to move on, leaving me and a couple of kind hearted regulars to put the table back where it belonged and clean up the mess. I was left alone to ponder how my fickle, flighty nature had once again caused me grief.
Once I had done my best to clean the floor up of all the glass and liquid I stood at the bar to return some cleaning implements I had borrowed when I noticed an odd looking gentleman at the bar watching me. He was a shaven headed man in a long black coat. I remember he had an oddly large, confused looking face that made him look entirely incongruous to his surroundings. If I’d have taken a photo of him stood leaning against the bar you would swear that I had crudely photoshopped him in. He came over to me as I stood soaking wet and holding a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other and offered to buy me a whisky to, ‘steady my nerves.’ I was soaking wet and keen to leave but he was quite insistent. When I agreed he asked me to join him for a cigarette. As a non-smoker I declined, and instead drank my whisky clearly with the intention of leaving. I threw it back in one and found myself shivering at the intensity of it. When I had recovered I realised he had bought me another, along with a pint of lager. I drank heavily from the pint to wash the whisky down and soon found my mind changed: I did actually quite like the idea of a cigarette. And so we went outside.
He lit himself one in the small, dingy alley that made up the pub’s smoking area and then handed one to me. We were stood next to some large metallic bins in front of a wall half covered in inept graffiti, surrounded by beer crates and empty barrels. It smelled not faintly of urine; behind the bins I could see darkened areas on the wall where the smell originated. The scene depressed me and I felt the need to leave as soon as possible. Once I’d lit my cigarette the odd man took his lighter back and asked me:
“What if I told you I could help you focus on your surroundings a little more? To be a little less clumsy and a little more….present?”
I was taken aback. I wondered what exactly I had gotten myself into by following this fellow into a smoking area. I smiled, thanked him for his concern but said that I would not be interested in whatever it was he was selling. He said he thought I might say that. He produced a small brown bottle of pills from inside his coat and told me that the contents would be of use to me and that he was offering them for free. I told him I was not really interested in drugs and if he was hoping to get me addicted to something to make money later he was barking up the wrong tree. He assured me they were not addictive; I told him that of course he would say that. He laughed. I had heard stories of drug peddlers in seedy bars but had never been confronted with one. I’d always told myself that saying no in such a scenarios was the right thing to do and I was finding refusing his offer no trouble at all. But he kept on persisting, telling me he wanted to help me. He was once just like me, he said, and did not like to see people suffering in the same predicament he knew so well. He got my attention by describing labouring under the weight of an over-active imagination with a clarity that I recognised and related to entirely. After listening to him for a while I demanded that if he was indeed like myself did he think why I, a man with more imagination than most could handle, would want to get high on drugs?
“You don’t understand,” he responded, “these aren’t drugs as they are commonly understood. They don’t stimulate your imagination at all. They quieten it. If they open any doors of perception at all it’s the perception of reality, of what is happening around you in sudden, brilliant clarity.”
This is where I became intrigued. I was still wary, but the slim possibility of stopping my incessant buffoonery, at will, and allow me to interact with the people, to concentrate on my painting, to focus enough to choose a career, maybe even find a girlfriend… well. I had to know. I asked him to tell me more. How could I not?
He turned over a plastic pallet and used it as a small stage. The security light of the pub beamed down on him and his backdrop of overflowing metallic bins, grime and filth. It was like a scene from some grim, squalid gutter theatre. He cleared his throat and shook his arms as if warming up for some heavy lifting. Then he began his pitch.
“These pills sound too good to be true, yes? No drug comes without side effects, without some sort of downside. So what’s the catch? Perhaps you’ll become addicted, you worry. You’re thinking to yourself: ‘what if I should find myself rifling through my mother’s jewellery case for something to hock in the name of getting another fix of this man’s wares? Am I right? Or what if you find yourself in the hospital ward or, god forbid, the morgue because of some impurity in these pills I offer you? What if your mental faculties are diminished in a permanent way? I can understand why you would be fearful; I would worry for your mental state if you were not. Well, if you spare me a moment of your time I will assuage your worries and assure you that none of the above are genuine causes for concern. And I will also convince you that this that I offer you, despite our rather grim setting, is not some seedy street drug and is, in fact, medicine – medicine that you can ill afford to turn down.
“First of all, and I do hope you don’t take offence at my next statement, but I do believe you are not a man who could be considered au fait with drugs and/or drug culture. And of course you aren’t! And why not? Because you have no need for uppers or downers. A hit of ecstasy would see you finding your way onto the dance floor which, and forgive me for saying so, is that last place a man with your condition should be. Marijuana would increase the feeling of significance of your imaginings, a sensation which I imagine would be enjoyable in the short term, but would inevitably lead to paranoia, a state that a man with an abundance of imagination would do well to avoid. Who knows what manner of sinister plots and unseen assassins you would dream up? Cocaine would loosen your lips and make you more lithe and alive to the moment, but as you spend so little time in this realm you are worried what might tumble from your mouth should it be chemically prised open, lest you appear even stranger than you fear you already do. Too much too fast is all that offers to you. You should walk before you run, and cocaine would have you sprinting at speeds I fear you may never be ready for. And as for psychedelics, well, what meaning could they possibly have to a man so finely in tune with his own subconscious? I doubt that they could even have an effect on a man such as yourself, and if they did I fear they would take away the little control you have over your fantasies and blur the line between what is real and what is not, a line you have been so diligent in policing for many a year. Am I right? And the less said about the heroin and crystal meths of this world the better. Even if I were the kind of man to peddle the other substances I have described to you I could never hawk the kind of wares that could send a man down such a dark and sorrowful road in good conscience. And what else is there for the intrepid drug user to explore? You may be aware that we live in a time when new drugs are being created by enterprising souls all the time but their primary goal is to create some of the aforementioned effects whilst escaping the attentions of the authorities who prohibit their distribution. So what use are they to us? None at all. Let those who have need of them guinea pig themselves for sake of such highs. And Godspeed to them.”
“What I offer you today is none of the above. Now, all I’ve done is tell you what these pill are not and not what they are, I hear you say. True enough, but what I have is, I feel, best understood in contrast. These traditional street drugs seek to loosen the minds of those that take them, to lengthen the chains that bind them to reality for a little while. Your need is the opposite: you wish to be reined in a little. You need a few links of your chain removing for a time. And this is what my pills will do for you.”
“Your next question, if you are as discerning a man as I believe you to be, is where did I happen upon such pills? Well, you may not think it to look at me sir, but I am something of a scientist. The recipe is of my own devising. It is quite simple, easy enough for me to synthesise in my own private laboratory at a small cost. I own the patent on it but I am unwilling to submit my greatest achievement to the pharmaceutical industry and all the greed and avarice that comes with it. And as the laboratories that are big enough to mass produce these pills are in the pockets of this industry, why, I’m left in something of a pickle. Oh but don’t you worry – I have got plans for that. These pills will one day be as common as aspirin, you mark my words. However in the meantime I’m in the position of having produced something of potentially life changing help to who knows how many people but unable to get that thing to them other than by direct means. Handmade and handed over by yours truly, just like this. Absurd, isn’t it? I don’t blame you if you find it hard to believe: in any just world I would not find myself in this predicament. Though as I’m sure you are keenly aware sir this is far from a just world.”
“The pills have already been tested on a variety of lab animals and have had limited human testing with nary a hint of a side effect any worse than migraines in extreme cases. Should yours be one such case that would be most unfortunate, but the risk of a temporary headache is a small one to take for what they offer. The ability to focus, to be freed of your clumsy nature, with next to no side effects and no addictive qualities. The catch, such as it is, is that the first pack will be free and the price thereafter will be fifty pence per pill. Believe me when I tell you that their effects are worth a lot more and I wish I could afford to sell them for a lot less. What do you say?”
For a moment I was speechless. I was not prepared for anything like what had just happened. How could I have been? It seemed to have come from another place entirely, the fervour with which this stranger had conducted his argument to a one man audience. I was at a loss. After a moment I told him I’d think about it, excused myself and made my way to the bathroom.
I sat in one of the stalls feeling confused. Suffice to say I had not expected to be treated to such an elaborate and enthusiastic sales pitch when I walked into that stinking little pub smoking area. He had metamorphosed before my eyes from a standard if slightly odd looking pub drunk into a snake oil salesman from some long lost days of antiquity, pitching his wares with impressive skill and a disarming patter. There was no doubt in my mind it was at best snake oil he was selling but given the surroundings it seemed much more likely to me that he was attempting to get me hooked on some terrible drug in a most bizarre manner. His first lot being free was deeply suspicious. And his claim to be a scientist – what did he take me for? I couldn’t imagine any scientist no matter how dire his situation choosing to promote his findings in such tawdry surroundings in such an odd manner. No, he was nothing more than a drug dealer with the soul of a showman I decided. And it was, to be fair to him, quite the show. Once I had regained my tipsy composure I made a decision. I walked back out and took his pills, as a courtesy, out of politeness for bringing a little whimsy to this dreary parochial drinking town. He shook my hand with fervour, wearing a wide grin and insisting I would not regret my choice.
When I awoke the following day the memories of my mishap with the table immediately came callings. Time and time again the look on my colleagues faces and the venom in Terry’s voice flashed in my memory. I had no defence but to roll over, pull the covers over my head and beg sleep to be my saviour. But sleep, alas, was not so keen to swoop in and rescue me. Eventually I resigned myself to the fact my mind would not let me rest and hauled myself out of bed. I decided a trip to the corner shop was in order to stock up on painkillers to sooth my poor hungover head and perhaps pick up something sweet to lift my mood. I picked up the trousers I had worn the previous evening and searched the pockets for some change. There I happened upon the bottle of pills the curious gentleman had persuaded me to take off his hands. I held them up to the light and regarded them for a while. Standard capsules, pale yellow and green halves, in a brown case. The label only had the code HD899 on it. It didn’t quite look like the kind of thing you would pick up from a pharmacy but it also didn’t look like street drugs either. I placed them atop my drawers with the intention of disposing of them later on.
However whilst making my way to the shop I found myself unable to stop thinking of the pitch the man had given the night before. It was pure theatre, almost vaudevillian – whilst I’d never had any cause to deal with drug dealers in my life I knew that they didn’t go around getting new customers by putting on such elaborate and flamboyant performances for strangers in bars. It was an odd way to sell any product in this day and age, never mind those deemed illegal. It was bound to attract attention and there was always the risk of trying to make a customer out of a policeman. It was a lot of effort to go through to get oneself arrested. But if he wasn’t a drug dealer, what was he? If the pills atop my bedroom drawers weren’t some addictive narcotic designed to get me hooked on paying ever escalating prices to maintain my addiction, then what were they? Then an odd notion struck me: what if they were placebos? Why else would you go to such lengths to sell a product you’re giving away for free? Perhaps the pitch wasn’t for my money but for my belief. Perhaps he wanted to instil in me the idea that his product worked as he said it did, to embed it deep enough within me to be beyond doubt. If I took those pills of his with an unwavering faith in their effectiveness then maybe I would find my attention focussed and my mind no longer wandering. Then I would go back and start paying him for…what? Sugar pills?
If that theory was right then he was clearly a tightrope walker on that line between madness and genius. The pitch and the placebo: a mere performer who had found a unique application for his gift. And if he could indeed give his customers the peace they craved then why not? If he were performing such a ruse before people with serious physical afflictions then the idea would have been sickening. But when performed on acute troubles of the mind – that, I felt, was justifiable. Perhaps even noble. I wondered: did he look for those simply short of attention? Or was that barstool he perched on his own secret surgery from which he quietly diagnosed other slight maladies of the mind in the patrons-slash-patients around him? Did he see the social anxiety in the wallflower hanging back from the conversation? Did he have an elixir for him, too? What of the paranoia in the recreational drunk perched along at the end of the bar, carefully watching the crowd from the corner of a bloodshot eye? Did he have a panacea in his pocket to offer him? Where did he draw the line? Did he try to fix the mild depressives? The real low down drunks? The self-haters, the myopic gamblers? The love starved sex chasers, the self-medicating sky scrapers? The truly damaged and the damned? I couldn’t help but wonder.
I found myself speculating as to how he’d become drawn to such a bizarre line of work, painting a back story for him in the air before me. Before long I could see a portrait of the man: an actor frustrated with his craft who craved something more immediately rewarding, wanting to directly help people with a talent for bringing imagined realities to life his only tool. He had never looked likely to achieve the success required to fulfil such ambitions through philanthropy so had had to get creative. As is often with arty types he had all sorts of demons of his own he could barely keep tame. Somewhere along the way he created a character who could fight back effectively, but only against the demons who tormented others – through the power of suggestion he could take their afflictions from them. But from his position behind the curtain he would forever be immune to the effects of his own ‘cure.’ Physician, heal thyself. Philosopher, console thyself.
Of course I realised that if my theory had any basis in reality then in deducing it I’d have cost myself the opportunity to be cured of my own affliction. I was convinced I was right and felt suddenly quite sullen. Which was probably ridiculous: I recognised that it was still more likely that he was a bog standard drug dealer with an unorthodox line of persuasion. Or, admittedly a lot less likely, he could be everything he’d said he was. But I felt for some reason convinced that the synopsis of this man’s life I’d just dreamed up was somehow closer to the truth. I had imposed my own tragic version of this man onto him until his real self had melted away and ceased to matter. He’d been reconstructed as poor Chiron pierced by the arrow of Heracles. By stumbling onto it I had likely lost out on something potentially life changing. My excitement in solving the mystery of this man had dissipated and left me feeling disconsolate.
So I was already in something of a bad mood before the car hit me.
I was lucky, or at least as lucky as one can be when being hit by a moving vehicle. It wasn’t moving that fast, it had moments ago set off following the cue of a green traffic light just down the road from me when I absent mindedly stepped off the pavement. The cars weren’t moving when I last looked so I suppose I’d assumed I had all the time in the world to cross. I was too engrossed in my de-constructing the act of being sold drugs by the bins behind a pub and turning it into a Greek tragedy to look where I was going.
In my defence I was nursing quite the hangover, having over indulged upon my return home the previous night in an attempt to suppress the memories of my incident with the table. The intrigue that the dealer had provided had taken up what little attention I had to spare. And so what I think was a yellow Peugeot briefly sped up until it was crudely slowed again by my oblivious, lolly-gagging self.
The driver insisted on taking me to hospital despite my only affliction being bumps, bruises and scrapes. They kept me in thinking I might possibly be concussed, more due to the manner of my falling than the actual being hit by a moving vehicle. You’d think with all the practice I’d had I’d be good at tumbling over but my arms did little to stop my head bouncing off the tarmac.
My sister came to visit me alarmingly quickly, and having heard I had been ‘run over’ seemed quite disappointed to find me sat up, awake, with a cup of tea. Thankfully my niece was a little happier to see me.
“Did you hurt yourself fighting a dragon?”
“Yes, I did. A small yet fierce French dragon. I would have bested it, only it’s grossly garish yellow scales blinded me in the afternoon sun.”
“Will you stop filling my daughter’s head with such nonsense!” said my sister, “you got yourself hit by a car by not looking where you were blood going! That’s all there is to it!”
“Your mother just swore. I’m sure she didn’t mean it though. What do we say?”
“Swearing is for the feeble minded!”
“That’s right princess. Your mother is right though. Your uncle has been silly.”
“Very silly,” my sister added, helpfully.
My niece climbed up onto my hospital bed and we pretended it was a rowing boat. We had been cast adrift from our main ship following a mutiny from our normally loyal crew (we suspected Lollipop, a charismatic and strong willed stuffed toy mouse I gave her as a baby, had led the revolt during a bout of ocean madness or voodoo based treachery from our enemies) but I found myself distracted by my sister discussing with doctor how ‘flaky’ I apparently am and how I was clearly a danger to myself. That I had suffered similar accidents before and that it was only a matter of time before I did myself some serious damage. Wasn’t there something that could be done with me?
“Will we ever see land again, I wonder?” I asked. I put my hand on my nieces shoulder. “If we don’t make it, promise me you won’t let Lollipop get away with this.” she nodded solemnly at my request. Then she looked up and towards a bemused looking old lady in the bed opposite.
“Look, uncle, land!”
I put a rolled up magazine to my eye and looked over.
“Oh, Millie, we’re saved! But wait! That is no ordinary island…could it be? Yes! That is the back of the ancient giant porpoise Sir Galahad!” Millie gasped.
The doctor appeared sympathetic but said there was nothing I could do. I heard my sister, in not so many words, ask if she could give permission for them to take into care for a while. She wasn’t particularly quiet or subtle; most likely she assumed I was so far gone in my delusions that I wouldn’t hear her.
“But that’s just a ledger!”
“It is no legend madam,” I corrected with a wink, “it is as real as you or I! Have I told you the tale of how we met once before?”
“No uncle, tell me! Tell me!”
“Alright, but I should warn you; the upshot of my story is that Sir Galahad is not best pleased with me. If we are to convince her…”
The doctor said there wasn’t much of a case for me being taken into care. She asked, exasperated, if there wasn’t somewhere they could, “put me.” It took all my energy not to find the nearest bedpan and launch it at her.
“Why yes. Galahad is a unisex name..”
“But I’ve never met a girl called Galahad!”
“Have you ever met a boy called Galahad?” She looked puzzled for a moment.
“And who was this Galahad of yours?”
“He was a…” he watched her looking around trying to think of something. “…a goose! A heroic goose who I met in Camelot and we had tea and..”
As she continued I heard the doctor insisted there was nothing they could do with me without my consent, much to my sister’s annoyance. I felt satisfied with this, and pacified my anger by promising myself to find a fluffy goose to christen Galahad and give to my niece.
They discharged me a short time later, seemingly satisfied that I wasn’t harbouring a concussion or internal bleeding. My sister drove me home in silence (which is to say that neither of us spoke, though a CD of nursery rhymes set to jaunty modern tunes was accompanied by the sound of my half asleep niece contentedly humming along). When she left me she gave me a look much worse than the one she gave me when she was angry, but one that I was equally used to. She gave me a sad, pitying look one might give to a dog they had been told was not long for this world.
“Look after yourself,” she said, wearing a maddening half smile.
“I’m perfectly capable of that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That I’m not going consent to being sent away any time soon.”
She sighed and looked away.
“Look, I just…I worry about you. Here, on your own. Since Mum died..”
“Well, don’t. I’ll be fine.”
After getting back home, annoyingly without anything sweet to cheer me up, I went upstairs sat on my bed. I stared at the pills. The promises that man had made the night before seemed impossibly tantalising at that moment. I found myself asking: what had I got to lose? If I found myself on some kind of drug trip I would flush the rest and then make the choice whether or not to alert the authorities to this deranged new type of dealer making wild claims in local bars. And if they were in fact placebos then they couldn’t do any harm at all. I would just have to try my hardest to believe the lie. I spent all of my time in fantasy worlds anyhow, so why should I not be able to convince myself that these were the real deal? Flimsy hope, perhaps, but I was shaken by the words of my sister. She worried for me; she always had, but as Millie had grown older her concern had turned into fear. She was influenced by me and she was worried that her daughter was likely to turn out as hopeless as her uncle if she kept spending time with him. She needed me to straighten up or be removed from the equation. And after finding myself hospitalised by my own foolishness I couldn’t help but wonder if her fears weren’t well founded.
No, my only hope was that the pitchman was exactly what he said he was and these pills were the panacea I needed. The odds were not in my favour, but I needed to change something. Not just for me, but for Millie.
I’d made up my mind. I threw one back with some water in a defiant gesture, as if to say, “oh, I’ll show you!” to my sister. Which sounds rather pathetic in hindsight. But the mix of shock at recently being hit by a motor vehicle and the rage at being thought of as a child-like invalid by one’s own sister can do that a person. Once I’d swallowed it I just sat there for a time, expectantly, as if I was about to sprout a tail or suddenly be able to see a whole new set of colours. I didn’t want to get involved in anything that could be dangerous once they had taken hold. I went downstairs and got myself comfortable on the sofa, flicking through TV channels and reading the blurbs of the books I had scattered around my living room, before I decided my placebo theory was, as I’d feared, correct. After some time to calm down I realised how foolish and dangerous it was to take it in the first place. And whilst it was disappointing that it didn’t turn out to be the real deal I was at least thankful that I hadn’t been given anything less savoury than a sugar pill. So it was with mixed feelings that I climbed the stairs to go to bed and draw a line under the whole sorry business.
I slept fitfully for a few hours. I was still too wound up over the day’s events to rest. At around 3am I had to give up the ghost and admit defeat on the idea of getting a good night’s sleep. I sat up and stared out of my window into the street. A light fog was falling over the town. The street lights shone through the mist drifting gently onto the concrete, colouring it a burnt ochre against the night’s sky. Suddenly I felt a strange craving. Despite the turmoil in my head I found myself inexplicably drawn to the idea of getting out of bed and painting. I hadn’t been at the canvass for a little while so it took me some time to gather the necessary accoutrements from around the house. Despite the unsociable hour this didn’t seem to bother me. Once I had everything I needed I set them up by the window I was staring through moments ago. I lit a candle to give me a better look at my palette and the canvass. And I started to paint.
I was there for several hours. What I thought about, if anything, I couldn’t tell you. It was like my thought processes had evolved, if that is the right word, into that of a computer. Like someone had double clicked a ‘paint_street_scene.exe’ file in my brain and I was quietly fulfilling that request. My brush strokes always started out precise when painting in the past: each piece of brushwork placed with laser-like precision. But it would get gradually hazier, more impressionistic. Not so this time. I maintained a high accuracy of representation from first stroke to last. Nothing was out of place. When I had finished it was like waking up from a dream. Or, more accurately, like falling back into one: instead of returning from some far off place of unreality it was more like slowing down from some high paced sort of hyper real version of the world where everything is cogs and gears just needing to be arranged and turned in the right order. I sat back and looked at the product of my work and couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. It was an entirely accurate portrait of the view as seen from within the frames of my window. The colours, the perspective…it was like I had blinked my eyelids and captured the scene as a human camera. I hadn’t been painting – I had been developing my mind’s film. At this point it was close to 7am and finally I felt it was time to sleep. I’m not sure if I was even tired or not. It felt like the next thing to do. And so I lay down and slept.
Sunday passed without any incident I can recall, other than my decision to extend my trial period with the pills to a week. After the previous night, how could I not? I had no other bursts of creativity however: I became oddly focussed on getting my house in order. Suddenly the need for everything to have a right place and dutifully be in it seemed to be utterly paramount. It took me the whole of the day to organise everything and before I knew of it the coming working week had once again gathered over me like a carpet of gray cloud.
When I got into work the next day the staff had no desire to speak to me. I was not bothered by this. A few of them had a pre-rehearsed jab to make in my direction. Normally I’d find this excruciating, but I felt oddly sanguine about it. I felt sanguine about everything. Even when one of my colleagues snuck up behind me and put a crash helmet on me, causing a riot of laughter, I felt nothing.
“Don’t want you to hurt yourself pal,” he said.
I looked around. As I suspected it was Terry. I pulled off the helmet and tossed it in his general direction.
“You should give this to your mum,” I said with a casual air that came as an utter shock to me, “I hear that when she’s working her head hits the headboard so hard one time she woke up speaking Spanish.”
There was a stunned silence all around me. I had no idea where my words had come from. I was never the sort of person to lower myself to mum jokes and certainly not in the direction of work colleagues who could pummel me into a fine paste without breaking sweat. He looked about ready to cave my skull in with the first blunt object he could lay his hands on. Then, just when the silence had grown an almost physical awkwardness to it, one of my colleagues let out the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard in the warehouse.
“Holy fuck,” he said, “he just ruined you!”
The laughter spread. I sensed this was only making Terry more angry, and so with an entirely foreign sense of nonchalance I breezed away to start work.
The next few hours were a blur of productivity. I was used to not conversing with my colleagues, which suited me fine as it allowed my mind to wander wherever it may without interruption. But that time it didn’t wander at all. There was just me and the work. I had never really noticed just how nightmarishly dull my job really was until that moment. Just the same tasks repeated over and over to the point of absurdity. There was a point where I caught myself laughing at the simplicity of it all. The only respite I had was the moment when the odd co-worker came over to ask just what had come over me in my earlier moment of boldness and to inform me how angry Terry was. He was apparently already plotting revenge. Normally having something like that hanging over me would see me descend into fits of anxiety and become all but useless in my work. But if I felt anything it would have been amusement.
I carried on working at that same diligent pace until the day ended. The rest of the week came and went in a blur. Once I’d set a pace time seemed to speed up. If my co-worker really was set on revenge then he must have abided by that old adage that it is a dish best served cold as I didn’t hear anything more from him. The time I spent at home that week were a blur of paint and cleaning products. I found myself painting the scenes from each window in my house and even doing a few still life paintings of objects lying around the place, an exercise which would have bored me senseless previously. Eventually I had to venture out to find new things to paint; wandering to local parks and rural areas about town, easel and paint in tow. I was creating at an unprecedented rate, however I couldn’t say with any honesty that I felt inspired. In fact the very term ‘creating’ feels like a misnomer in regards to my work. I really was working as if my canvass was a camera lens – merely capturing whatever it was pointed towards. Whenever I tried to delve into my imagination to find something to paint I came up empty. The hazy, exotic dreamscapes of my earlier work seem to have been entirely exhausted. As had my tendency to work with wide, flowing brush strokes – the short precise strokes I had begun using were now something I didn’t feel comfortable deviating from. I was proud of the productivity I had started showing, the sheer scale of my output, as well as the technical proficiency I was displaying. But at times I felt like I was working from a paint by numbers kit that only I could see.
This new found precision and attention to detail had extended to my living space. Suddenly there were parts of my house I’d never previously given a moment’s consideration that had begun occupying space in my mind. It felt as if my very brain itched. Behind the fridge, under the sofa, behind the base of the sink – areas that, though happily out of view, I knew to be in a poor state had started to bother me. The thought of that kind of grime existing in my home disgusted me. And the little things I was normally happy to overlook suddenly needed doing. My skirting boards required almost daily dusting. Skirting boards!
I put this down to the new found sensation of being actually alive to the moment – a feeling that was almost overwhelmingly exhilarating. If a perhaps slightly excessive focus on hygiene was a by-product of said feeling then it was a small price to pay. And besides, I could certainly have used a more pro-active approach to cleaning anyhow.
And so I decided to extend the week’s trial into a fortnight.
I also decided to test my new, more focussed demeanour and went to see my sister and my niece. Also, whilst had hoped that her clandestine plan to get unwanted assistance for my problems would have been a heat of the moment thing, I decided it would be best to show her that I had the matter in hand before I had social workers on my doorstep. She looked genuinely pleased to see me as she opened the door, as if she was expecting me to have met some kind of terrible end in the week that had passed since my accident.
The moment I walked through the door I had my niece bounding at me, tugging at my jeans.
“You’re all better!” she shouted. I started to assure her that it was only a minor accident and an inconsequential period of convalescence, but she interrupted me with a new subject. “Mummy won’t let me have a dog tell her to let me have a dog!”
“Don’t you bring your uncle into this..”
“I want a big dog that I can ride around and I’ll have a sword and a helmet and I’ll be like “RAAAA!” she said, running around the living room, one hand gripping an imaginary dog’s pelt and the other flailing an invisible sword. I had to laugh, but her mother seemed to find it decidedly less amusing.
“You can’t have a dog, they’re dirty and they bite. And you especially can’t have a dog big enough to ride! What if it tramples you?”
“But my dog won’t be dirty or bitey or trampley it’ll be my friend and I’ll call it cardboard or Roxy and we’ll travel the world and and..”
Her mum rolled her eyes. She looked tired. This argument had clearly gone on for a while, with Millie using her impressive energy and stamina in the hopes of winning a war of attrition.
“How about we go into the garden and give your mum some peace.” She grinned and ran off toward the garden before I’d reached the end of my sentence.
“I’ll see if I can get this dog thing out of her system,” I said to my sister. She looked at me, surprised, one might a slice of toast that had climbed out of the toaster and headed towards the sink in order to cool down.
“You’re not going to encourage her?”
“No, she probably could use being calmed down a little.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. Millie was straddling a recently felled tree her mother had cut down after it contracted some form of disease. My niece appeared to be using an imaginary paddle to row across the lawn.
“I’m going down the river,” she said. Her mouth dropped open in shock. “Look out! There are cannibals on the shore!” She pointed past me towards the patio. I looked over curiously as if I were about to see a lost tribe sat on the doorstep.
“Quick! We’ve got to get away!”
I walked over, feeling oddly uneasy, and knelt down with one knee on either side of the tree. I started to pretend to paddle.
”Where is this river?”
“I don’t think they have cannibals in Sweden darling.”
“They do. Look!”
Again I cast my gaze over to the patio as if a group of cartoon cannibals with bones through their noses would be there to greet me.
“I think they’re aright for food in Sweden. They eat…meatballs and stuff. They have no real need to resort to cannibalism.”
My niece glared at me, confused.
“But they’re there!” she said, gesturing towards the patio. I didn’t want to argue with her.
“We, er, better get away then.” I said.
I pretend rowed a bit faster and tried to think up what happens next. My segues into increasingly bizarre scenarios never ceased to amuse her. She giggled at my frantic paddling and I could tell she was waiting for the escalation. But my mind was blank.
“What shall we do?” She asked eventually.
“What’s wrong uncle?”
“Nothing. Nothing I’m just…tired. It’s the medicine they gave me after my accident you see. They make me drowsy. It’s a, um, side effect.”
I watched myself doing this, making excuses to my niece with a level of detail she didn’t need or care about, and felt fairly upset with myself. I had never lied to her before. I had never had to. But I just couldn’t think of anything to add to her imaginary world. I wondered how I could redeem myself and remembered that I had not come to my sister’s house empty handed.
“Oh I nearly forgot, I have a surprise for you.”
“Ooh what’s that what did you get me show me…”
“Bear with me a moment little one.” I went back into the house to grab the bag I
“This may sound odd but I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I painted your daughter,” I said to my sister, now gratefully relaxing on the sofa clutching a mug of tea.
“I didn’t realise you still did that,” she said, craning her neck to get a view on the implements I had brought along.
“I never really stopped.”
“Ok, well…are you going to paint her properly?”
“How do you mean, ‘properly’?”
“Well am I going to be able to tell it’s her? And will she be fighting a dragon or something similarly idiotic?”
“I’ve never painted a dragon in my life.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Fine. As you wish. I shall paint a straight portrait.”
“Off you go.”
I marched back into the garden with my canvass under my arm and a bag full of paints, ready to show my sister what I could do. Painting out of spite is perhaps not the most romantic and artistic of reasons, but it must be said that it’s a fine motivator. And after my sisters quip about dragons I was ready to paint the living daylights out of my niece.
“Ooh ooh are they for me?” I was asked upon my return to the garden.
“No no dearest. I’m going to paint your portrait.” She looked thoughtful for a
“Don’t you think it would be nice to have a portrait of you? I know your mum would
“Well she won’t let me have a wolf!”
“Don’t you mean dog?”
“No I want a big wolf with big teeth that goes RAAAA and frightens my enemies.”
“You don’t have any enemies. You’re 5.”
“Well no but but I will get some enemies once I have a wolf.”
“I suppose that is probably a good way to get some. Now listen darling, I need you
to sit still for a bit.”
“For your portrait.”
This went on for some time. I had to use all manner of bribery and subtle manipulation to try and convince her to stay relatively still. Eventually I convinced her to at least stay within eye shot by bringing out all of her building blocks so she could build herself a castle in the garden. Her mother was less than pleased to see me hauling her toys into the back garden but it was the only way to keep her distracted. Compared to all of that the painting itself was easy. I painted her sat in the garden surrounded by blocks, having convinced her to sit long enough to trace an outline. After that I let her play whilst watching her to ensure I got the colour right and all her features in proportion. She did get bored with the blocks once she’d finished building but soon became enraptured with the idea of being a giant rampaging sloth stomping through the kingdom. This made her so happy she started the whole process again and I managed to get everything finished during the mighty sloth’s second destruction of the castle.
My sister stared at me for a while.
“It’s really good.”
“I mean really good. Since when have you…”
“I’m experimenting with different styles. The old one was a little…hazy.”
“Yeah. I mean it was…nice, but this is…”
My niece was looking at it with her head cocked, looking a little confused.
“What do you think little one?”
“It looks like me.”
“That’s the idea.”
That was all she said for a while. Then she got up and ran to the door, turned and
implored me to help her put an end to the mighty sloth’s reign of terror. I pointed out
that as she was the mighty sloth she really could put a stop to it any time she wanted.
She looked a little disappointed.
“Are you alright?” My sister asked me once she’d gone. “You seem…different.”
“I guess the accident shook me up a bit.”
“Well, maybe that’s for the best. You needed a wakeup call.” She put her hands on
mine. I made a noise that sounded somewhat affirmative whilst looking into the space my niece the mighty sloth had recently occupied, listening to the distant clacks of tumbling wooden blocks.
I considered this first test of my new more focussed demeanour to have had mixed results. My sister seemed pleased, which meant she would at least keep her nose out of my affairs. And I hoped my niece would come round sooner or later. She couldn’t stay in this daydreaming phase for too much longer, I reasoned. The complete lack of evidence for this assumption, particularly when compared to my own life long experiences, didn’t seem to occur to me at the time.
That night I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: I didn’t dream. Sleep was nothing but black silence. I lay in bed and woke up several hours later. Nothing in between. And when I awoke I sat up immediately, with no urge to lay in or attempt to get more sleep. The fact I hadn’t been aware of my dreams atrophied to nothing since I started taking the pills was almost as disturbing as the prospect of perhaps never dreaming again. I’d always treasured my dreams. They were the vague, misted visions that I’d chased in my pre-pills paintings. Forever just out of view, in the corner of my eye, on the tip of my tongue. They were why my paintings were always so odd and impressionistic – I tried to let my mind wander and let my subconscious guide my hand to where it was supposed to be. To capture those brilliant, vivid otherscapes of my dreams that rapidly faded from my consciousness the moment I awoke.
However I had started painting in an entirely different way now. I had to put aside the strange, unknowable paintings I had made before. I had to put aside my ability to relate so well to a 5 year old. What kind of role model was I in remaining so childish anyway? Thinking about those older paintings made me more resolved to continue the experiment. Millie needed an uncle with some kind of connection to the adult world to look up to, even if he might not be quite as much fun to play with. And as for her uncle, well, he needed some connection to the adult world for himself too. The change was welcome, I decided. Once my second week was up I would continue to a third. If that was a success then I would have to see about securing a regular supply.
Later in the week I found a potential second test to help me make my decision: another night out with work. There was considerable reluctance to let me join them after I’d embarrassed everyone with my table flipping trick on the previous night out. In fact I only found out about it at all when one of my more sympathetic colleagues quietly informed me of the details. I felt hurt to have them plotting a clandestine outing behind my back, though to be fair they had every right to want to have an incident free night out for once. But even so I decided I would make an appearance to see if my new found poise could stand a night out on the sauce.
When Friday came I left it until later on to go and meet them. The predictability of their plans was, for once, welcome – it wasn’t hard to plot a chance occurrence in one of their traditional haunts. I just needed a reason to happen upon them. I decided my excuse would be that I had popped into the bar after a date which had gone badly. I concocted a story about how we’d met at a gallery opening but our chemistry just wasn’t right. The advantage to my being quiet and diffident around my colleagues all this time is that they didn’t really know much about me, and so I could fill in the blanks however I chose. As a painter a gallery opening would be ideal – it lent itself to an easy segue into a talent none of them knew I possessed. And the date angle would make me seem more sociable than I have appeared and give me something to talk about from the off. In times past devising a detailed lie in this way would have seemed like a lot of effort for little reward, not to mention a fairly immoral deception, but I didn’t seem to mind. It felt like the most efficient way to get me back on good terms with the group. It would make me appear interesting and worth keeping around, and then all I had to do was try and spend the evening without tripping myself up or spilling anything onto anyone.
When I walked into the pub, pretending not to see my colleagues at all, I could feel their eyes on me. I overheard an angry whisper or two as they tried to work out who it was who had let slip their plans. I ordered myself a drink and walked to a table nearby, feigning surprise when I ‘happened’ to see them out of the corner of my eye. I walked over to a mix of forced smiles and barely concealed scowls.
“What are you doing here?” Terry asked. He didn’t try to pretend this was a friendly
question; he spat it with a nakedly accusatory tone. This took me aback for a moment, but I didn’t let my smile drop. I launched into my pre-rehearsed spiel about the date with the girl from the gallery opening. They demanded to know what opening: I had done my research and gave them the details. They wanted to know about the girl: I had planned for this too. She was called Janet. I gave them a description of a girl who wasn’t too far out of my league but that sounded like I was exaggerating slightly about to impress them. I pitched it just right. But still the questions came. No matter how detailed my story they still seemed to think I’d come just to see them. This irritated me a great deal. They were correct, of course, but the story I had written for my evening was not beyond the realms of possibility by any stretch. That they should question it quite so vociferously felt like a slap in the face. I had no choice but to change my plan. When they seemed to have run out of questions I said that they should have a good night and before they could respond I headed to the bar.
Then I did something entirely out of character which proved to me beyond doubt that the pills not only did what they said but they were a force for good. There was a woman stood at the bar looking bored. I decided to live by that old maxim that the best revenge was living well. To prove to my colleagues I hadn’t gone out exclusively to hang around them I would seek better company.
If the pre-pills version of me saw what ensued he would have been mortified. The idea of walking up to a complete stranger, especially a woman, and striking up a conversation was just not something I would countenance. It wasn’t that I was particularly scared of the idea as such, it just wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so, any more than it would have occurred to me to start flapping my arms to fly for a quick trip to Belgium. Like Belgium a conversation with a stranger was a place I felt I had no place being. And yet there I was walking up with an air of complete nonchalance and asking a woman if she would like a drink and a chat to tide her over until whatever it was she was doing with her evening started.
“Thanks. Actually I’m getting the distinct impression I’ve been stood up.”
“You?” I said with a raised eyebrow. “Well, that’s just unjust. But their loss is my gain I suppose. What’ll it be?”
We got chatting for a while. Her name was Helen. It was a friend of hers who had stood her up. Going through a rough time, apparently. I acted concerned and told her if she needed to excuse herself and call her then I wasn’t going anywhere. She seemed to appreciate this. Truthfully however I was only really thinking about what my colleagues would make of the shy, clumsy guy from work brazenly chatting up the most attractive girl in the room.
The whole conversation seemed to be conducted by someone else whilst I watched on. I was detached enough to find myself quite distasteful in my subtle acts of manipulation even whilst in the midst of enacting them. I was paying her thinly veiled compliments from angles that surprised me. It wasn’t as if I was lying – when I passed comment on her attractiveness I did so honestly. It was the manner in which I did it that felt somehow dishonest. In response she seemed more curious of me than anything. Which was understandable. I was curious of me too.
Also curious were a couple of my workmates who after a time came to the bar and insinuated themselves into our conversation. I made a few introductions and they invited us to sit with them. Helen seemed reticent but I managed to convince her to join us. And then, with my plan to reintegrate myself with the guys from work completed I came to realise I had no idea what came next. That was decided for me when Terry challenged me and my new friend to a game of mixed doubles pool. When I said we were happier where we were he became quite insistent. His chosen partner, one of the admin staff from upstairs, seemed less than enthused by the idea, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, goading me with talk of me being afraid to play him. He presumed that I wouldn’t like to lose face in front of the woman from the bar. This didn’t really bother me – but the prospect of playing pool on these pills started to intrigue me. With increased clarity and focus on the angles, would I be a better player? Eventually I accepted his challenge, and Helen shrugged in acceptance.
I knew this would be his play for revenge, of course. Though beating me at pool seemed to me to be an underwhelming form of vengeance. It would help him reassert his alpha male credentials in a roundabout way, sure, but I’d been led through whispered updates to believe his ire was such that this couldn’t possibly be the extent of it.
As soon as I had broken off in our first game I realised that his play was more ambitious than this. Whenever I was at the table he was blatantly flirting with Helen. And, worse still, she seemed to reciprocate. I quickly realised that being sharper and more confident than my old state weren’t necessarily good substitutes for common ground and physical attraction. I was still something of an oddity, physically and mentally, in these surroundings. The only thing I really had going for me was that my increased attention span was allowing me to spend longer picking the shots and spotting the angles than I had previously been. Neither of our partners were pool players at all and didn’t have much of an impact on the game – it was essentially me vs him. And I was besting him. Though I was taking my time doing it.
“C’mon, while we’re young,” he goaded.
“All in good time.”
“I’ve seen snails get around a table quicker than you mate.”
“Then you must hang out in some weird pubs.”
The first game went to my team. My colleague was paying too much attention to the woman from the bar to notice. But defeat changed his tune.
“Congratulations, you bored everyone into submission.”
“You should tie a white flag around that pool cue. I could do this all night.”
“What, put everyone to sleep?”
“No. I mean beat you.”
That jab landed on the nose with a crunch. He must have known he was better off stepping away from the table and claiming victory in winning the girl instead. But he didn’t.
“Now now boys, play nice,” said Helen between sips of some garishly coloured cocktail. She took to a high stool and perched to watch us figuratively square up to each other. She seemed to enjoy it, either through the ego flattery of having two strangers battle over her or in amusement at watching us embarrass ourselves acting like gorillas in the wild. Either the way she didn’t rush to diffuse the situation. The admin girl quietly slinked away to inform the others of what was happening.
“Rack ‘em up then. Just me and you this time. And let’s make it interesting, if you think you can back up that mouth of yours.”
We played for a fiver a frame. He tried to goad me into playing faster, hoping to put me off my game, but my concentration was impervious to his jibes. The first game ended just as the doubles game did. I was five pounds up. Then ten. He offered double or quits: I accepted. Our work colleagues had all gathered around to watch the show. My slow, methodical style didn’t win me any fans; those who made their preferred victor known were all cheering on my opponent. His third defeat earned him a consolation hug from the girl I’d met at the bar, though it didn’t seem to cheer him up at all. He was getting more and more frustrated at being unable to beat me. Then he seemed to remember he was fighting a war on two fronts and hugged the girl from the bar back, slow and tight, while watching me over her shoulder. This, I’m ashamed to say, got my hackles up. I don’t know why exactly: she didn’t owe me anything. If it was any other man in the world holding her I’d like to think I’d have walked away.
“Let me get you a drink,” she said to him.
“I’ll get these,” I chimed in, “with my winnings.”
“I’ll give you that on Monday mate. I’ve only got my beer money on me.”
“You’re not welching out on me, are you?”
He turned to face me, standing a little closer than I was comfortable with.
“Look mate, I you come in here and fucking hustle me, telling me you barely play pool-”
“-Yeah, right. So you cheat your way to winning twenty quid and expect me to pay up straight away out of my beer money?”
“Cheated? I played by the rules, did I not?”
“You didn’t tell me you were a fuckin’ pro though, did you?”
“I’m not. This is my first game in at least six months.”
“You fuckin’ liar.”
I could sense our colleagues watching us, in that quiet, expectant way people do when they sense trouble is about to start. Something in the air seemed to change. I’ve never been a fan of confrontation. There is little I wouldn’t do to avoid an argument or any kind of awkwardness. I’d admit to anything and be saddled with almost any task to keep from clashing with someone. Nonetheless I had done a lot of new things recently and moreover I was being challenged before a girl I found myself eager to impress. Backing down did not feel like an option. I looked him up and down, assessing my chances if things were to get physical. I reported back to myself that my chances in a confrontation would be between slim and none. My best chance of making it home that night would be to back down and make an exit as soon as possible. I made my recommendations to myself and hoped I would take them on board.
“What did you call me?”
“A fucking liar.”
“You’ve got some nerve. If you can’t back up your mouth on the table that’s not my problem. You owe me twenty quid.”
“Fuck you. You’re getting nothing from me.”
I could hear a couple of the guys from work trying to diffuse the situation, telling him to just pay up and that I wasn’t worth spoiling the night over. I noticed they were doing so from a safe distance.
“I should have known you wouldn’t pay up. I guess your word means shit.”
I don’t know who was speaking but it can’t have been me. The profanity was not my style at all. My cadences felt odd in my mouth. I was suddenly playing the part of the tough guy. The situation seemed to demand it. I was, to say the least, playing against type, but regardless I took to it like water taking the shape of the vessel into which it’s poured. I felt like a passenger. And my pilot seemed hell bent in flying me straight into the sea.
But I couldn’t help but wonder…what if I could adapt to fighting as well as I had pool? As well as I had trash talk? Or flirting or lifelike painting or all the other things I’d found myself suddenly adept at since taking these pills? With the focus to see attacks coming, to parry and counter, surely this ape would be no match for a smart fighter?
His nostrils flared. His eyes widened.
This was no Ali, no Sugar Ray Leonard. He was just a thug. If I could show any fighting ability at all I could take him apart with ease, I thought. I followed him out to the car park. My colleagues followed, half-heartedly trying to dissuade us. Their excitement was hidden under an extremely thin veil. I felt calm however. Collected. On paper my victory was assured.
My second hospital trip of the month didn’t last any longer than the first. I don’t remember much of the fight but from the little I do recall ‘fight’ would be a very charitable description of events. I managed not to sustain any major injuries despite being knocked unconscious, getting away with only mild bruising. The real damage done was to my pride.
When I awoke I was unsure of who had brought me to the hospital or how. No-one had opted to stay with me in any case. Helen had never followed us outside, presumably choosing to do something less barbaric with her evening. I didn’t know what my colleagues did after the altercation and I didn’t much care. I decided that, whatever could be said about the experiment, that I was destined not to be a part of their social circle. This did not sadden me as much I expected, but then I was still under the influence of the pills.
I decided not to call my sister. She was so pleased that I’d got my act together and I couldn’t help but think she’d see me being ending up back in hospital as something of a setback. Instead I discharged myself as soon as I could and caught a bus home. I headed straight to bed to catch up on sleep.
I awoke on Saturday afternoon feeling awful. After examining my injuries in the mirror I decided that I needed to consider what my next move would be. A scientific evaluation of the pros and cons of these concentration enhancing pills and the effects they were having on me was in order. I decided to look at the physical products of the experiment first. After seeing my face in the mirror and having no choice but to put that in the ‘con’ column I decided to look at my paintings. I went and pulled out the last one I’d done on that first medicated night through my window. It was close to photo perfect. Close, but not as close as I felt it was when I finished it. It still seemed a little too hazy, too inexact. I felt oddly repulsed looking at it. I put it away and started to rifle through the dozen or so paintings I’d done since. They gradually got more and more precise. The latest, a landscape of the park just around the corner from my house, really was photo realistic. It felt….right.
I made a trip in the attic to look some of the older paintings I had stored up there. I pulled out one from perhaps a year previous, titled simply, “Somewhere Else.” I had no idea what it was I was looking at. It was a vaguely desert-like landscape in the midst of a sandstorm. There were structures faintly visibly somewhere in the distance, the size and nature of which was obscured by the sand. But they seemed unfathomably vast. They jutted out of the ground towards the sky like shards of steel stabbing towards the heavens. There was something violent and unsettling about them. In the few spots where there was something approaching clarity amid the sand there were windows of some kind and I could just faintly see the silhouettes of figures gazing out. There was something disturbing about the image even before I took the pills but not it seemed entirely wrong. I felt a bitter dread looking at it. It seemed to be the work of someone else, someone whom I felt I would not like to meet. Part of me felt a sadness that I didn’t feel any sort of connection with my own work. Another part of me felt sorry for the older version of myself for being so deluded as to deem this work satisfactory. But at the same time I felt a tiny pang of nostalgia buried somewhere deep within me. Not so much for the painting style itself but for what it represented – the dreams I no longer had.
I thought about the intangible things that the pills had given me: the confidence, the improved relationship with my sister, the sudden ability to keep a tidy house and generally act like an adult. I had to decide whether or not to accept the trade-off of my losing my ability to dream, and the chance that I would find myself in dangerous situations like the one the previous evening, for the clarity and focus the pills gave me. I checked over the pros versus the cons in my mind and realised there was only one choice.
I went back on the nautical bar that night to find the pitchman. Sure enough he was there, leaning on the same part of the bar, looking as always like an imposter in the scene. He was watching the place carefully, presumably looking for other tortured souls to whom he could offer his miracle cure.
“Ah! If it isn’t my favourite tumbling act!” he said as I approached the bar.
“I need another…prescription.” I said to him.
We went out into the smoking area again. I’d walked in entirely sober this time, which made the already unpleasant smell of smoke, rubbish and urine almost unbearable.
“I’m afraid I’ve been having problems with my supply,” he said to me. The moment the words left his lips I felt a jolt deep within me, as all my early suspicions about this strange man came rushing back to the surface. The pills had worked and I had become so intrigued by their possibilities I never stopped to think again about how I had procured them in the first place.
“Well, my method of distribution has been surprisingly effective. These pills have been in high demand, whereas I have been unable due to my meagre resources to up the supply. I’m sure you’re aware of how that will affect the economics of the situation.”
“Well, let me see..” he looked off into the middle distance for a moment, smiling to himself. He knew he had me where he wanted me. I felt sick at myself. The stench of urine was making my eyes water and I was awaiting the verdict of a drug peddler on how much he wished to charge.
“Don’t rush me dear boy! I’m trying to work out a fair price.”
I found myself weighing up the virtue of taking the pills by force. He did not look to be a particularly strong man and whilst my recent battle had not gone well I was fairly sure of my ability to succeed this time. However I then had to ask myself how I could possibly continue to procure these pills if I burned my bridges with the only known supplier.
“I think ten pounds a pill would be about the going rate at the moment.”
“So for a two week supply that would be a hundred and forty pounds.”
“I don’t have that much on me.”
“Well, hasten you to a bank then my friend! I will be waiting in the bar a while longer.”
“Scumbag,” I heard myself say. He just smiled.
“Don’t worry, I shan’t hold that against you. I have been called worse. And besides you aren’t quite yourself at the moment, are you? No, you’re someone quite different now.”
I wondered if I could get him to tell me how to make the pills myself with enough persuasion. I’d have to take him somewhere quiet first. There was no exit to the street from the beer garden – I would have to lure him out. Perhaps I would ask him to accompany me to the bank so that I wouldn’t have to return to this wretched pub. But how could I get him to co-operate in public?
It didn’t occur to me how far removed from myself these thoughts were. But there was, thankfully, little time to dwell on it. A voice came from behind me.
It sounded soft and clinical, so I was somewhat surprised to I turn and see a huge monster of a man, all muscle and no neck, looming over me I was somewhat surprised.
“Another customer, how nice! You’ll have to take your turn I’m afraid, I’m just wrapping up business with this-”
The man walked slammed him into the bins before he could finish. He let out a yelp as the air in his body left him.
“What have you done to me?” The voice was disturbingly calm. The dealer was winded and couldn’t respond. He gave a meek shrug.
“Excuse me,” I found myself saying. I didn’t want to get involved with the horrible scene that was unfurling before me, but I couldn’t seem to stop my lips from moving.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m a buyer of this man’s pills. I presume you are too?”
“Not until I get my pills.” At this he let the dealer go. He fell to his knees, still struggling to resume breathing.
“He won’t be selling any more pills.”
“And why not?”
“You have not been using them long. Otherwise you would know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Save yourself,” he said, “and I do mean your…self.”
I heard the dealer splutter and try to pull himself to his feet. The man mountain turned his attentions back to him.
“Now now,” croaked the dealer, “I’m sure we can work something out. Do you need more pills, old friend?”
“I’m not your friend. Or anyone else’s. I used to have friends but they’re gone now. I don’t seem to do anything but work out. I wanted to lose weight. I wanted to get fit.”
“I would say you have! You’re looking like quite the success story. If I could do a poster campaign you’d be my lead model!”
“I can’t stop. Why can’t I stop?”
“Interesting. I haven’t come across this before. If you’d like to come back to my lab we can look at-”
He was once again cut short, this time by a punch to the stomach. I flinched at the violence before me and wondered how exactly I expected to be able to do something like this myself.
The man turned to me and said, once again, “leave.”
His tone suggested he would not ask a third time. I was about to do as he said when I spotted a bottle of pills that must have rolled out of the dealer’s pocket underneath one of the large metal bins. I contemplated making a grab to get them when he picked the dealer off clean off the ground. I got a look at the man’s face as he stared him down. It wasn’t rage in his eyes, or even the impassive face I’d seen a few seconds earlier. It was the face of pure sadness, his eyes staring through the dealer as if gazing into something far beyond the physical being he was roughing up. I took my leave.
My sister called me the following night to admonish me for not keeping her up to date with news of my recovery from the accident and to invite me to her house on the Friday. I didn’t feel up to it after the trauma of the previous two nights but she needled me with guilt in a way that she’d been able to do better than anyone ever since we were children. I was always powerless before such manipulation. I agreed to attend.
I called in sick on Monday, dreading the effects of withdrawal. The first few days without the pills felt fine but by Wednesday I started to feel odd. My focus was at an all-time low. I felt completely disoriented. I tried to paint but ended up with what could charitably be called a series of impressionistic shapes where the doorway to my house should have been. I did some light cleaning but once more couldn’t convince myself of the virtues of a thorough job. And, worst of all, the one thing I would have welcomed the return of stayed stubbornly absent: I still didn’t dream. There was something between my falling asleep and waking, but a dream it wasn’t. The best I can describe it as is a coloured mist swirling in the black.
It was the worst of both worlds – too fuzzy to think straight and yet unable to give myself over to any kind of reverie no matter how hard I tried. And I did try. The need to somehow escape the sudden sense of oppressive banality that came over me as soon as my focus began to dull was unbearable. I’d never had to force a daydream before. I’d often tried to force myself not to mentally wander off whilst at work or trying to paint. But I didn’t know how to go about making an effort to start. It was like trying to fall asleep. The exact moment you fall into sleep is impossible to be aware of, to be entirely present for. So was daydreaming. It was like trying to pin down water. I spent the best part of the week in this halfway house between lost and found, sense and nonsense. I sat in front of my canvass again on Thursday hoping that if I could no longer achieve clarity now I could instead paint something wild and incomprehensible instead. But I could do neither.
Instead I found myself thinking about my niece. It used to be that I looked forward to seeing her, to joining in with her silly games and imaginary play, but I found to my horror I was actually dreading Friday. I’d rationalised it as being in her best interests but I now realised just how distressing me suddenly being an outsider to her imaginary world must have been. It was tempered by finally painting such an accurate portrait of her. I wondered if I’d ever be able to repeat the trick should I find myself a permanent stranger to her playworld, unable to see things through with the sense of whimsy she did. My sister was very pleased with my initial effort, which was a unique feeling I had hoped to recapture at some point. She hadn’t wanted me to paint her before, fearing seeing a more fantastical version of her would distort her self-image or some such nonsense. It had felt good to finally get her on canvass. She looked proud of me.
Whereas Milllie had looked…indifferent. I’d managed to forget how she’d looked: she seemed about as interested as she would if I’d shown her a rock or a particularly uniform set of twigs. I was so pleased with how well I’d captured her likeness it hadn’t fully registered how little an impression it had made on her. And why would it have? I may as well have shown her a mirror. Why, out of all the infinite possibilities a blank canvass holds would she want to see herself as she actually looked?
After that realisation I felt even less keen on going to dinner. Come Thursday evening I found myself desperate to find some kind of excuse to avoid it. I sat by the phone willing myself to call my sister and make up some excuse. I veered from a feeling of sadness and loss at the distance that had suddenly appeared between me and my young niece and feelings of embarrassment that it meant so much to me. Despite spending most of my life in a dreamworld I am at least self-aware enough to know how creepy and odd such a connection with a child that is not one’s own could seem. I had always assumed that I would never have children of my own and my niece was as close as I would ever get. But more importantly than that, as young as she was, as she and I would play I would see parts of myself in her, parts that existed in a purer form before the world had done it’s best to grind away those edges on me. And I wanted to protect those parts in her. I felt as if she was some glorious, incandescently colourful fish in an ocean of dreary blue. I used to think of myself that way but as the years went by it was as if I’d found myself to be perfectly soluble and I’d simply been stirred into life’s great solution. Which was not where I felt I’d belonged.
Soluble fish. The thought amused me. It got me thinking about when sea life die their bodies must decay and become one with the sea, and how on some grander scale that’s what must happen to us all. Little pockets of whimsy like that pass by me sometimes and, when the air is just right, encase me as if in a balloon and get carried on an up draught until I have altitude enough to seemingly stare down upon all of creation, despite really sitting on my sofa gazing out of my window at the same yawning streets I’ve gazed upon a hundred thousand times before, musing on how silly little words that when put together can become a piece of delightfully diverting nonsense like ‘soluble fish’.
For a while I latched onto other mental tangents one after the other like an ape swing from branch to branch. I gleaned no insight. I came to no conclusions, made no decisions. But it was the first time in a while I’d been able to feel the pace of my mind racing within my skull It felt like fresh air after a long drive, or the warm part of a recently vacated bed. I felt myself smiling. And then the merest hint of an idea formed in my mind. Before it had a chance to escape me I mixed some paint.
“What’s wrong honey?”
“Good lord! What kind of aliens?”
Millie was hiding behind a bin with her knees pulled up to her chin. She tentatively looked around at the flower bed before closing her eyes tight and moving back into hiding position.
“Those ones! They’re big and tall and they’ve got three heads and I don’t like them.”
“Are they bothering you, little one?” She nodded.
“Right then.” I strode towards the flower bed, rolling up my sleeves as I went. “Now look here..” I put my hand up to mouth so they couldn’t hear me talking to my niece. “can they speak English?”
“They have a transameter!” I thought for a moment.
“You mean a translator?”
“Ummm…well one of them talks in alienish and then then one of them listens to the alienish and talks in English and…”
“That’s a translator honey. Ok. I got this.” I tilted my head up to look one of the aliens in the nearest pair of eyes to me.
“Now look here. I don’t know who you think you are inviting yourself into my sister’s garden and upsetting my niece but that’s not how we do things around here. If you want to…what’s that? Ok, I’ll speak slower. I demand that you alien ragamuffins behave your – what’s that? No word for ragamuffin, huh? Look, can you just ask them if they come in peace? It’s ok, I can wait.” I looked at my niece and winked. She giggled. Then I looked at my watch and tutted.
“What do you mean, “it depends?” I don’t think you quite know who you’re dealing with.” I moved myself into a fighting stance. “If you don’t come in peace you leave me no choice.” I put my fists up and started bouncing from foot to foot. “Put ’em up, you weird looking interlopers! Hmm? Yes, all of them if you like! Whatever it is you normally put up, put up! I’ll show you…what’s that? Oh, you do come in peace, eh? That’s what I thought. Now, will you promise to behave yourselves if my niece makes us all some tea? Good. I believe we have got off on the wrong foot. Let us sit together and find common ground.”
My niece ran off to get her tea set. I looked around to see my sister looking on disapprovingly from the kitchen window. When she returned I told my niece to give the aliens some tea and informed them that if they were to try any funny business they would be sorry. Then I went back into the house.
“I thought you weren’t going to encourage he anymore?”
“That doesn’t sound like me…”
“I should have known it would be too good to be true.”
“Well, I’m sorry but your daughter has an incredible imagination. And if it’s any consolation I’m sure the world will do it’s damnedest to grind that out of her in due course.”
“Oh don’t be so damn melodramatic. She needs to have her feet on the ground. Otherwise..”
“..she’ll end up like her crazy uncle, yes?” She just sighed at that. I walked over to the package I’d brought with me. I’d wrapped it in brown paper. I was dreading my sister’s reaction just as much as I was looking forward my nieces.
“You don’t think I can look after myself.”
“Back at the hospital you were hoping they could put me away so that I wouldn’t continue to be a bad influence on your daughter.”
“That’s…that’s a horrible thing to say…”
“It’s a horrible thing to think too. But you’ve been thinking it for a long time now.”
I picked up the package and called for my niece.
“You’re going to hate this.”
“What is it?”
“Yes. A more…honest one.”
“More…honest? What does that mean? The last one was perfect! What could be more honest than painting something as it is?”
“Painting something as it wishes to be? As it imagines itself? That’s much more honest and true if you ask me. I only realised that very recently. I’d got hung up on painting perfect pictures of dreary days. I didn’t realise how lifeless they were. If that’s honesty then you can keep it.”
“What is with you? You seemed totally different the other day.”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. So I didn’t. She seemed worried. My niece came running in and chastised me for keeping the aliens waiting and endangering intergalactic relations.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the package.
“Why don’t we see?” I handed the package to her. She tore the brown paper off with glee. The gasp she then made was exactly as I’d hoped it would be.
“I’m on a wolf! Look mum I’m riding a wolf!”
“Yes. Yes you are.” She stared at me. I ignored her.
“Do you like your armour, little one?” I instead asked my niece. “I thought you might prefer a more Viking look but if you’re going to ride a majestic wolf like this one I thoughta more valorous knight’s attire it would be more appropriate. Otherwise people might think you’re a bad guy”
“I love it I love it!” she said and hugged my leg. I looked at my sister who seemed to have softened a touch at my niece’s joy.
“So what’s for dinner?” I asked.
Over a plate of seafood risotto my niece told us of all the adventures she would have riding around on her wolf, becoming known across the land for her bravery and magnanimity in aiding the weak and helpless. My sister maintained a stony silence throughout, though I do believe I saw the merest inkling of a smile at some of my niece’s taller tales.
After dinner Millie refused to go to bed without having her painting up in her room. My sister didn’t look like she had the energy to refuse so I put it up and told my niece a bedtime story about a certain warrior princess and her battle against the werelions of Vhal’agh Duuun. Afterwards I went to bid my sister goodbye.
“I wish you hadn’t given her that painting,” she said, wearily. Then she hugged me.
“Let her dream for a while yet,” I said. “The real world will be real enough to her all too soon.”
“I just…just look after yourself, ok?” She said. I nodded, kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye. I knew then that approval wasn’t something I’d ever really get from her. But, for the first time in my life, I didn’t really mind.
That night as I slept I dreamed a dream. I was in my back garden staring into the night sky. The night was so clear I saw the very edge of the universe. And there amongst the limitless black I saw a celestial vagina dilate and the crowning of a new star. Beyond the end lies an endless eternal womb, forever pregnant with life. The babe’s incandescence burnt my eyes but I could not keep from looking. It was so clear it appeared as if the end of the universe was less than a stone’s throw away. I felt as if I could reach out and touch it. As the star was birthed it emerged with a colossal glowing chord trailing behind it. I felt a strange sense of responsibility, as if it was up to me to midwife this infant star. I started to reach for it and realised I had nothing with which to cut the cord. I turned and ran into my kitchen to find something. I barrelled in through my back door and as my heel hit the kitchen tiles it slid out from under me. I fell with a dull thud and woke up on my bedroom floor laughing, filled with the sweetest calm I’ve ever known.