Heal Thyself

“So, how does that make you feel?”

The question appeared to have asked itself. I looked across the desk at the familiar face that seemed now to be lightly smiling at me. How did it make me feel?

Loss was palpable, I said. The physical loss took up space inside me like a tumour, like anti-matter. It was there and not-there, like a phantom limb. It was growing alongside me, like two plants, now so entwined and so-dependant that it was hard to tell which was the host and which the parasite.

There was a long silence. I looked round at the consulting room: at the framed certificates, the bookcase, the low, comfortable chairs, the coffee table with, as usual, a box of tissues and beaker of water. I heard a slight tapping as rain started softly tumbling against the panes that I could glimpse through the half-drawn curtains. Dusk was falling.

“I don’t think…” I began, and then stopped. I found that indeed I could not think; only feel. Nothing I said mattered. I might as well not speak at all. For a while I didn’t.

Silence can have a peculiar quality of action. So it was here. Every beat of it left me craving something to fill the void. Nothing being said left me passionate for words yet unable to engage with them. Loss was an absolute change of tense from any verb yet encountered. Past; present; future – all were annihilated into fragments of time which rearranged into alarmingly personal conjugations: before we met; while we together; after you died. None operated in a way anyone else could grasp. I was in my own place with everyone else rushing or ambling past me in a way I could no longer adapt to. My needs were uncompromising but invisible. The oceans needed to have been poured away. They had not.

So what about needing to get over it? Well, I said, you never do. How can you? I can talk all day and it won’t make any difference. I shift my point of view, while I’m talking; rationalise myself into another state of mind. Then, when the working day is finally over, I walk back down familiar streets, taking whatever long-cuts most disguise my fondest and most casually adopted associations.

There was another silence. Then further words were said.

“You might well wonder,” I said with an atrocious attempt at dignity, “how I view my future.” What future? As a half-person? Twenty-four years; just about half my life. So, a quarter perhaps. As a quarter of a person.

This was no way to think, I knew it. I looked across again at the face I knew so well, the hair as dark as mine is fair, the eyes as blue as mine are brown.

What would you have me do? What can I even do myself?

Despite everything, I’m trapped in a cycle of despair that horribly resembles self-pity. Except I’m big enough and well-informed enough to know it isn’t that. It’s just a relentless and overwhelming failure to adapt to this awful reality. Six months ago – six months and three days – you were here. Now you’re not. My clock has stopped. It’s still measuring the seconds though it’s no longer telling me the time.

There was no movement from the other side of the room, merely what seemed to be a change of expression in the face that was regarding me with such fixed devotion.

“Oh, what did I most value?” I interrupted, before any other suggestions could intrude. “Well, the fact that he was there. He was always there. Not always…there. But with me. He was safety, as well as danger. He was bloody annoying. He was…who he was. We argued…” I allowed myself a light smile that was more than just one of remorse. “But he always took my side when it came to it. Now – well, it’s like life after an amputation.”

I looked defiantly across the room. Was this enough? I’djust de-personalised him, which might serve to remove some of the pain. My eyes were misting with the tears I’d long held back. Ignoring the tissues on the low table, I shifted my gaze towards the window.

Dusk had fallen. The sumptuous and hectic light of the late afternoon had collapsed into something soiled and wintery. Now the rain had stopped, there was also a stark and mysterious silence to it that reminded me of waking from a luminous dream and being briefly unsure what horrors I’d been dragged from. And then, once again, they washed over me. No dream could release me from this.

Slowly, my view of the room returned to a kind of desperate focus. I was once again aware that words were being spoken, questions asked.

What, I wondered, did I find myself thinking about? It was something I’d asked enough and had often heard some surprising answers. As little as possible, when I could. Chardonnay, swimming, work, repetitive tasks and the hoped-for oblivion of a few hours’ sleep if just the right combination of these had been achieved. That was about it.

And then there was the awful business of other people. I thought about and watched them all the time. Did they know about Steve dying in that stupid, pointless accident? Did they feel that enough time had passed so it didn’t need to be mentioned? Did those who unspokenly sought my company do so because I had a grief more intense than theirs? Did those who shunned me do so because they couldn’t winnow the emotions I might express? Were they even aware that Steve had ever existed? This was the worst of all: that I was just me, the sorrowed shade I am now, without the person who made me whole; as, I felt with what increasingly seemed only a fragile certainty, that I made him.

Outside, the last light faded into mist. I heard the clip-clop of two pairs of shoes on the street outside, the growl of the 73 bus pulling away from the stop at Newington Green, the cry of a man at the junction repeatedly calling a friend who had passed just out of earshot.

“When there was so little I could do?” I found myself shouting. “So little? There was nothing! I wasn’t there. He just…He…” I reached for the tissues as the face across the desk faded away into a damp shadow.

The buzzer called me back to order. I stumbled forwards and managed to press the button. “Yes? Yes?”

Who was it?

“Claire – your 5.30 client is here.” A pause. “Are you OK?”

“Yes…yes. I’m fine.” I blew my nose. A whisper of hair had displaced itself and I carefully stroked it back behind my ear. “Yes.”

“Adam Lucian.”

“Of course…send him in, please.”

I went across to the desk and carefully brushed my finger against the almost life-sized photo of Steve’s face which had been facing me. Then I gently turned it face-down on the leather top. I moved to the low sofa just as the door opened.

“Adam,” I said, extending my hand. I gestured for him to sit. Slowly, on opposite sides of the coffee table, we both did so. There was a long silence.

He started to talk about the voices in his head, how no one could ever understand what this was like. No one could know, he told me.

“So,” I asked him after a pause, “how does this make you feel?”

Brian Quinn

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