Love? What is love? Like the flesh-weak heart from which it stems, it pumps, it warms, it circulates, it makes dreams real, inspires hope, moves us smiling from one day to the next, infectious, consuming, until such time the delicate mechanisms no longer work. And then they grind and shudder like a great and weary clock, pheromones, hormones, inclinations all conspiring to end their streaming.
Love grows cold, snow and ice, the mind no longer caring, the eyes no longer seeing, blind to vivid colour and to gentle touch. Love like cigarettes enjoyed until the lungs turn black. Addictive, love as a stone weighs heavy on the chest and mind, torturing the cupid fool until his skin begins to burn, and blister, backed into a corner like an animal for slaughter, afraid, unsure, not knowing what will come and remembering not what came before, thinking to himself, my harp, my wings, my fortune withers on the vine, pounds become pennies and pennies dwindle to a poverty of broken soul, my soul.
What is this clinging film that conspires with atmosphere to storm the barricades, to bring down the love-lost soldier, love-smacked, love-torn? Love like a war photo fades to sepia brown, forgotten moments staring out of Time.
Love, he concluded, though he would change his mind because he often did, had been nothing but trouble: moments of acute galvanising misery punctuating years of paralysing contentment and comfort which, in the end, only masqueraded as such while being the opposite, stultifying and stagnant. He needed to feel pain, he believed, in order to get anything done, albeit he preferred to inflict that pain on himself by his own thoughts and actions, not simply receiving it, like a deposit of dirty money, from someone else.
He knew that the notion of ‘art is pain’, to put it as crassly as possible, was no longer popular these days, or at least not among the academics he’d met who were more likely to pour scorn on a person declaring a love of Plath, Sexton, Lowell and all the other so-called ‘confessional’ poets than they were to praise the power of the writing. He didn’t care. Fashions came and went with regard to what was popular, what wasn’t. He knew how his own creativity worked, and it didn’t work when he was in the middle of a comfort zone. He needed, to put it bluntly, a rocket up his arse to make him work and avoid distractions, get disciplined.
Threats would do it. Fear would do it. He had to be mindful always, though, of the fact that broken hearts do not in themselves make for good poetry. You also need a good poet. But he was wise to the perils; he knew how to navigate his own grief without too much over-indulgence. At least, he hoped so. Angst-ridden he may be at times, but he wasn’t a teenager.
You can have too little pain, he thought, but then you can also have too much. It’s how to get the balance right, working for you. Life. Death. Love. Hate. Two sides, same coin. The road to getting anything written was strewn with clichés and the interplay of dualities, the push and the pull. It wasn’t even 9am and already he was dealing with the big boys, the things that were out of everyone’s control. He didn’t have to, he knew that, but he felt compelled to take on giant themes or give up, turn his hand instead to churning out stories of fluffy rabbits spending all day looking for carrots and making friends with Everychild and his talking donkey along the way.
He was way too cynical to write stuff for kids, though he’d wanted to, and tried, for a very long time. Not that he didn’t like fantasy – he loved the genre, and he was the definitive dirty talker in the bedroom, using his imagination to stimulating effect, and, in good times, his wife had enjoyed his impromptu erotic stylings, spoken in hushed cathedral tones, never, ever, written down for posterity. And his work was intense, not all the time, but it allowed him to be himself, to use his inner voice more effectively. He could shout on paper and let rip in ways he couldn’t in real life, whatever that meant – his work was real life, there was nothing unreal about the need to make money to keep the roof over his head, and his wife in their bed.
Fuck those who saw writing as glamorous. Christ, he was wearing hand-me-downs from his father, at least a size larger than he was. That was just one example of reality for someone with a talent that, at best, brought fame to a few people, but certainly not fortune. Without his father’s generosity, and penchant for taking new unworn shirts and putting them to the back of drawers to be forgotten, he’d literally have no shirt on his back. And creditors would have taken everything from him were it not for the Bank of Mother, tired and disappointed as she was that by his forties her clever son wasn’t swimming in money. She thought writing easy, certainly easier than raising five children. It was unfair to compare, and besides – she was wrong. She never knew she was wrong because she spent her entire life knowing she was right.
He took the piece of paper on which he’d been teasing out the phrasing of a poem’s particularly tortuous third line (too fucking clumsy at second draft and not even worthy of a schoolboy), scrunched it up and binned it. He stared at the computer screen, sulking. That blinking vertical line at the end of his last sentence really, really pissed him off. When he didn’t notice the flashing cursor the writing was going well and at some speed but now, right this minute, now it was taunting him – “go on if you think you’re ‘ard enough” – to be a man, and write. It had been a thorn in his side and a goad for well over a decade since he forsook the temperamental green-screen joys of an Amstrad PCW in favour of a Mac long since sold to a guy who’d announced himself to be a German pornographer. Why he’d felt it necessary to let slip this information was anyone’s guess. It was obvious he was German, and his job came as no surprise given that he practically slithered up the stairs to the first-floor flat, leaving a trail of lubricant jelly behind him, like a slug. But it made for a great story, and being rather fond of that old Mac – the first computer he’d had feelings for, feelings for fuck’s sake! – he still had times when he thought back, and regretted selling the little machine into sex slavery.
At least they’ve got rid of that irritating on-screen paperclip, he thought. It looks like you’re trying to write a letter, can I help? No. Bugger off.
His inclination that very minute was to stick two fingers up at the screen and go make a coffee, which was exactly what he did. His relationship with the computer, and with his work, was as stormy as his relationship with his wife had been of late. He didn’t know right now if she’d gone forever or was coming back, whether they’d work through their difficulties or that was it, done, gone, over.
Outwardly plain somewhat dull dry peeling skin with a hopeful bud the weight of it in the hand comforts Pick up the knife slice the truth is revealed to you layer upon layer upon layer It will make you cry.
Waiting for the kettle to reach boiling point, he took the three minutes available to him and filled them with observations of the back garden, and thoughts pursuant to those observations. The garden was his pride and joy, his salvation in recent years when his world had shrunk with an astonishing quickness, when his family moved from London because they could no longer afford to live there and the doctors had told him relocation to somewhere less stressful might be beneficial. Might. They didn’t really know. His balance disability had come upon him like one of Job’s pestilences, perhaps not sent directly from God as a test – he wasn’t so far gone as to think he’d been singled out by the Divine, he left that kind of madness to priests and pop stars – but it was just as devastating.
Mal de Debarquement Syndrome was incredibly rare. It was first identified in a patient back in 1987 and still there was no known cause or cure, only theories and palliative medication. Doctors couldn’t even agree as to whether it was a condition in its own right, or a collection of underlying symptoms. Anti-depressants were prescribed, not to ease misery but to soften the maddening impact of the bobbing up and down, the seesaw motion inside his skull that was the chief characteristic of the disorder, disease, disability, whatever the hell it was.
He would have good days and bad days, but the condition had been disruptive enough to make his last full-time job impossible to maintain. Four years earlier he’d been working as an editor for a corporate publishing company, when he first noticed how, if he got up too fast to take a toilet break, he’d have a sense of leaving something behind on his chair, like Peter Pan’s shadow, only for this invisible something, this part of him unknown, to catch up with the rest of his body within a few seconds. That’s all there was first indicating that something was amiss: a hiccup in time and space, bizarre and otherworldly enough, so comprehensively alien, as to make him stop, think, and worry. It was another four months, the frequency and severity of episodes increasing day by day, before he summoned up the courage to make an appointment to see his doctor. It was two years before anyone said what they thought was wrong with him.
Now he had to take lots of screen breaks, so many that office colleagues would have been seriously put out, not understanding the concept of an unseen disability, not wanting to understand because, he knew, modern corporate life was needlessly and shamelessly brutal. Some days, some hours, the instability in his balance, the strange effects of his condition, got to him so much, overwhelmed him so entirely, that he had to take time out altogether, lie on the sofa or bed, cover his eyes and remove himself from as much external stimuli as possible.
He had to run away. For the sake of his head.
The problem was, he’d adopted this escape tactic when it came to his creativity as well, shying away for much of the time that had passed since the onset of his disability from putting pen to paper, let alone going anywhere near a computer to do anything that smacked of work. He could blog like a bastard possessed. He could tweet within the confines of a 140-character limit so easily, he thought he might be at risk of speaking and thinking within the same constraint. He could Facebook, sending virtual bouquets, frogs and vampires to all his online friends. But write anything other than a few creative lines, a first-draft-and-done poem? No.
The barrier was entirely of his own making, or so he thought for a long time. Nevertheless he’d been as aware of this secondary, at least as debilitating, condition as any writer is when it comes to writer’s block, that catch-all descriptive of the condition writers suffer from, that makes them unable to write. It tells you what the outcome is. It doesn’t tell you the cause.
The cause he discovered accidentally, over time, through a series of events, developed interests, thoughts and conversations with friends and family all conspiring together to bring him to an epiphany. He realised that the reason he didn’t write was because, deep down, he didn’t want to write. His interest, his passion, had apparently been killed off. He had not liked his last job. It was a means to an end, and what an end it came to. The pressures of that job, the kind of writing involved – mindless drivel, mobile phone technical specifications, dull and lifeless, purely functional copy, no room for truly creative expression – had murdered his interest in the written word, to such an extent that he awoke one day to the fact that he hadn’t even read a book or a newspaper article in six months. He was horrified.
It was this shock of self-discovery, of realising he had abandoned himself to victimhood, that started him back on the road to dusting down and polishing up his atrophied talent, the one skill he’d ever had any confidence in, once upon a time, before he betrayed himself for the most practical – indeed, noble – of reasons, to get off the roundabout of freelance, irregular, insecure work, to be able to support his wife through university. She hadn’t asked him to make any sacrifice at all. But sacrifice it turned out to be, and wholly destructive. He had made himself a whore, and he did not take to the profession.
He was not naturally drawn to the corporate lifestyle, suits and deadlines and unreasonable client demands. He loathed such things, he hated the superficiality and constrained behaviours of business types, wearing suits himself only for funerals, weddings and baptisms. Even as others spoke admiringly of what a handsome figure he cut, and he did – tall and strikingly noteworthy to all but the blind – he experienced a deep discomfiture, seeing the suit as a prison uniform, a symbol of oppression and submission to the will of others no better than one’s own self. He was anti-authoritarian to the core of his being, a life-long response, he instinctively knew, to his mother being a control freak. And yet, while he shunned as an adult his mother’s desire throughout his childhood to clean all surfaces at least three times a day, to iron underwear, to scrub the toilet daily, he had inherited – or imbibed through osmosis more likely – her obsessive compulsive disorder. He would check again and again that he’d locked the front door when going out, at least three times before he could even get off the driveway.
Try as we might, he would think to himself, we are all our mother’s sons and daughters. Chips off the old block. But with the growing awareness of how his experiences had impacted upon his mind, he determined to both change and to rediscover that which he had lost which was good, and necessary. He did not start with the writing. He started with the garden, seeking healing and renewal not by rushing headlong back into that field of work that had resulted in his spirit being crushed, but by doing something new, and, he hoped it would turn out, life-affirming.
He had never been a keen gardener. He had admired flowers from afar, kept a few indoor plants root-bound in pots, and that was it. But he set out to create something unique to him, an expression of his personality as he had once known it to be: eccentric, a little dangerous, wild and confident. There was to be no bowling green lawn, there were to be no neatly clipped borders. He created a wilderness in one section, filled with native grasses and clover, a haven for bees and frogs so tiny he did not dare impose a blade for fear of harming them when the foliage over-reached itself and tried in vain, but with admirable ambition, to colonise the cracks in the concrete patio. He built raised beds in which he grew vegetables, and planted fruit trees.
His wife bought him a greenhouse, indulging his new interest because she instinctively knew it was good for his mind and soul, and he populated it with tomato plants, aubergines and spinach, such an explosion of enthusiastic greenery that it was hard to move in there. He started keeping chickens, a few adopted ex-battery hens, developing a kinship with them that truly surprised him albeit he knew why without anyone telling him: these bald and pale-skinned ghosts, brutalised by the cruelty of intensive farming, spat out at the end of the most productive period of their short lives, were victims. Just like him. But they were also survivors, and he wanted to be one as well. Just existing was no longer an option. Existence without meaning, without function, was unsustainable, and he knew that.
The hens recovered quickly, growing back their feathers that they had ripped from each other in the cages in frustration, and discovering worms and bugs. They displayed a relentless and unquenchable gluttony, a joie de vivre that was made all the more pleasurable for their owner to witness knowing what they’d been through. He knew a man was more complicated than a chicken; he was lost inside himself, not stupid. But if they could recover from a year in Hell, he could heal from his wounds as well.
The animal husbandry, the mundane acts of cleaning out the hen-house, giving the ladies their food and fresh hay, collecting the eggs, all these things worked to enable him to look beyond himself, to be less inclined to feel daunted by even the smallest of duties, to slowly build himself back up again. He learned humility, and service. He became so enamoured of his new form of employ, albeit unpaid, as a poultry keeper that the risk became apparent that he might never return to his writing. It took strong words, frightening words, from his long-supporting, long-suffering wife, to make him realise his life, like the inside of his head, was indeed much healthier now but it was still unbalanced, and he needed to achieve a state of equilibrium, quickly. For both their sakes.
Time was running out. The thing that most made him happy, his relationship, was at risk of falling apart. Patience was a finite commodity. Money, the continual lack thereof, was causing distress to the woman he loved. He was full of resentment at first, the refusal to go further feeling like a hammer blow. Didn’t love conquer all? Wasn’t she being selfish? But then he realised, in a Road to Damascus moment, that the status quo, his writing in stasis, could not go on forever. His wife was right. He was ready to re-engage with the world but had to be pushed into doing so, for the mountain he had to climb was daunting and he needed to lose the admittedly stifling safety of being at ground level if he was ever to risk lifting a foot and raising an arm. The push had to be a shove, it could not be gentle. He had to be woken up from his reverie but he took comfort in it being exactly that, a dream-like state, and no longer the entirely crippling catatonia he had been locked into.
Okay then, he thought. This is it. He entered the home office a stranger to it and booted up the computer, knowing his life was on the line, dreading the blank page on screen that would shortly confront him and do the same at the start of every day from that point forward, for the rest of his life. He massaged his temples and took a deep breath. He began to type, not knowing what he was doing, engaging rusted instincts and faint memories, feeling his way through.
Within minutes he was surprising himself, though the tension remained, a constant companion. He knew no writers who would ever have described the process of writing as easy, or even fluid; for him it was painful, like walking on broken glass, every word dragged out of him kicking and screaming. But he had forgotten how rewarding it could be as well, peeling back the layers to expose his demons and his dreams, and turn them all into printable words. And he cried, just a little, by way of release from all that had held him back.
He wanted to write something beautiful. Just one line would do. It had to be clean and precise. Nothing nice, only true. He waited with a pen in hand. Three words came through. They were ancient beyond measure. The ultimate in treasure: I love you.
He changed his mind about love, as he had expected. His mood had been ugly that morning but he’d known it wouldn’t last. The more he faced down his word-stopping devils – they were not yet gone away, and probably never would go away, not entirely – the more he realised just how good for him the ultimatum he’d received was, how a part of him on the inside had kicked and screamed and eventually become subdued by his desire to show everyone, to show her because he loved her, that, he could win through. The last thing he wanted was for her to lose faith in him.
Love, he thought, is not enough for a person to survive on. It lacks all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. There has to be more. But – and this he scribbled down and pinned to the cork-board on the wall just above and behind the computer, to be referenced later – love is at its most powerful when it involves not hearts and flowers, but saying and doing the right thing, the most uncomfortable and painful thing. He smiled despite becoming aware that the swirling in his head was back. He’d been free of it all day but its return brought to mind the notion that love, like his balance disorder, could be viewed as a collection of symptoms, or feelings, and not just one thing. Some even argued love to be a sickness, but he found the idea ridiculous. Even he wasn’t that cynical.
His eyes narrowed. The third line of the poem righted itself inside his mind, and he rushed with his fingers to type it for fear of letting it slip away. He looked at the screen, satisfied. He saved and closed the file and would email it to a slew of magazines for consideration later in the day. He opened up another, this one his significant work-in-progress, or that at least was how he saw it: his novel, or rather his latest attempt at producing one. But this was different. In the past he’d tried to write fantasy and science-fiction, two genres that cross-pollinated each other. Spacemen and unicorns. He’d found, however, that his love for such work was counterproductive when he tried to write in a similar vein to the authors he admired. His characters, he knew, were constructed well and their motivations and actions were believable within the worlds he created but those worlds quickly became too ambitious, too complicated, and he became as lost in them as he had been in the real one.
More to the point, he’d never felt sufficiently connected to the writing to be able to sustain enthusiasm and momentum. He hadn’t found his voice with fiction, unlike poetry, and eventually he connected all the dots and realised his poems were more intimately linked to events in his own life, and his own feelings. That was why they were more often successful than not, not – as he had once thought – because they were smaller projects concluded in a much shorter period of time. He had spent years pretending in prose; he had always been raw and genuine in his poems. And so he had to approach fiction in ways similar to how he wrote verse, and that meant raiding his larder of personal experiences stretching back over four decades.
There had been a sea change in his thinking. It still felt strange to him to be writing not what he was drawn to, but what was urgently demanding to be given centre-stage. The synchronicity of having to look honestly at his life and where it was heading, at the same time as realising he must pen his own past with equal honesty, albeit fictionalised around the edges, worked a strange voodoo on his soul. It irked and surprised him in equal measure, every day. He believed in God, but without fanciful frills, and he definitely believed in fate without, in common with most people, knowing exactly what it was and how it worked its magic, or why. He just had this sense that, maybe, events and feelings and his ways of thinking were now dove-tailing in his favour, concentrating into a galvanic torrent of activity, the key to unlocking all that energy being his fear. It was happening because he was not willing to lose everything that mattered to him, which did not involve money because he had none to lose at this juncture, but it did involve the love of his life and the life he loved.
What was the point, he realised, in carrying a bloody great stone on his back, an immense burden of guilt ever since he first found himself in the pit, going nowhere? It had never helped him, it had only held him back, held him down, kept him prisoner. It had certainly never helped his wife, knowing as he did how she must feel at the end of every month, her salary going into her bank account one morning and gone entirely by the same evening, burned up in payment of direct debits, standing orders, all manner of financial obligations that the two of them should be sharing equal responsibility for.
Enough was enough. His wife had expressed the idea, and at the time he dismissed it out of hand, that he had become comfortable with discomfort, accepting of his own decline, unwilling to recognise that it was being brought about by him, that he was shaping his own world, his own fiction, making it depressingly real. Bad things had happened to him, yes, but his entrenchment, his hermit status, was entirely of his own making.
She was right, and he had been very wrong. It was her love for him that had brought her to her knees. She had entered into his darkness to embrace him, to tell him he was not alone, but for a time her efforts had been entirely wasted. Yet she had been unwilling to let go. She loved him that much. But now, if he insisted on taking that journey, she was refusing to go with him. They had been together many years, through good times as well as bad, but he had never been so richly and agonisingly aware of the love she had for him. He needed to tell her he was writing, consistently, determinedly, and writing well, writing differently. He needed to say he was sorry for being an arse, and he desperately wanted to see her eyes light up the way they used to whenever he was around, before he lost sight of his ambitions and fell into the fugue that had laid waste to everything. It was time to refocus, and rebuild.
When the phone rang and he answered, there were a few difficult minutes, but no more or less surmountable than finding the right word, the right phrase, ever was. He just had to be honest not only in his poetry and his fiction, but his life. And so he was. And she believed him. She was coming home, she said, a measure of happiness evident in her voice, and he glanced at his watch. The day had been entirely consumed by his own hunger for change, under his control, as much as anyone could ever be said to control time. The hours had gone by without leaving behind a sense that time had been stolen away from him, and that was a good, a significant, thing. He had made use of time in a disciplined way, navigating its fast-flowing waters with a courage and energy that had been, not so long ago, entirely absent. But time was always temporary, transient, whether you made use of it or let it go by, and as he now knew he could use it more wisely than before, he also knew he was just as deeply immersed in it as ever, carried along by it since his conception, towards one conclusion above all others that was entirely obvious.
The past was fixed, unchangeable, influential, forgettable, a mass of contradictions and paradoxical notions that somehow worked, and were real; the future, on the other hand, was malleable, runny, open to actions and ideas, capable of being influenced by both the past and the present. The past on its own taking charge of the future could lead to a man’s downfall; the past applied through the filter of the present, though, could provide a man with an unlimited source of strength and conviction, vision and wisdom.
Time was remarkable, and it was finite. For him, for everyone. A non-renewable resource. He would make the most of it for the simple, stark reason that, if he didn’t, there were no second chances.
He leaned back in his chair and looked out of the window. A fine drizzle was coming down on an unremarkable grey day. He hadn’t even noticed the weather until that moment, too preoccupied with his own thoughts and getting any amount of work done that he could. But he marvelled at the way the water just fell out of the sky, a natural occurrence – not all over the world, granted – but, because of that, hardly ever appreciated and more likely to engender complaints than admiration from anyone caught out in it without an umbrella. So much of how we feel and what we think, he typed, is determined not by reality, whatever that is, but by how we see things. We have such power. So, he continued, his fingers dancing across the keyboard, this is real life.
“You still scare me but I’ve missed you,” he said.