Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
12. A visit from the trauma forward
April (part three)
This is part twelve. Read on, or start from the beginning. I don’t mind which.
Last time: Split cigarettes, Swedish humour, straightforward answers and septuagenarian crooners.
I wake up to the news that one of the dogs I follow on Instagram has died. His name was Ridley and he had cancer. Like most of the fifty-one other dogs I follow, he was a golden retriever. The post explains he had cancer lodged in every part of his body and was put down so he didn’t suffer. He died as he lived, it says: loving with all his heart. The comments underneath the post are from other goldens of Instagram. They’re all so composed and eloquent. I’m neither. Social media seemed so innocent at first. A way to keep in touch with friends from school. Then a place where a well-timed DM could get you laid. Then the algorithms arrived, luring you in with cute puppies and lingerie models, and before you know it a very good dog is dead and you can’t stop crying.
A quote I read about parenting: Struggle is okay. Suffering is not.
On Sundays I call my Mum and she gives me advice I haven’t asked for. When writing dialogue they tell you to write two people having separate conversations. Talking to my mum is like that. I’m running on fumes, I say. I think I’m getting somewhere, then I realise there’s loads more left to fix. I’m asking for permission to fail. She’s griping about the post office losing a parcel she sent me. One of us is having the wrong conversation. I’m not sure who. Maybe Dad’s right, I say. About me not seeing things through. But I don’t see a way to finish it. There’s a pause as she tries to follow my half of the conversation. We can’t afford to do it for you, she says, and in the silence that follows I realise where our conversations diverged. She’s talking about the flat. Never one to let a pause get too pregnant, she continues. You could always try just living in it, she says. She’s still talking but I’ve tuned out. I’m stunned. Sometimes, very occasionally, her advice is sound. Sometimes, very occasionally, it sings.
Don Draper is what I like to call trauma forward. As in people who lead with their trauma. People for whom their unresolved pain informs every decision. The trauma forward are walking open wounds, time bombs who tick ever louder until they self-destruct so hard they take out entire city blocks. You’ve probably met a few. Like vegans, or racists, the trauma forward tend to make themselves known. There are also the trauma inward. That’s where your trauma works in stealth to undermine your core infrastructure. Like plaque. Or The Dam Busters. The trauma inward are harder to spot, but when they self-sabotage, it’s just as devastating.
The dogs of Instagram seem to have bounced back, which makes fifty-one of us. While I’m lost in the algorithm I see that a writer I follow, K, is currently in Seagate. When I was at university, K was a hero. He’s in town to promote his new book, a non-fiction volume about the writing process called The Creativity Drug. It seems to involve a lot of questionable advice about illegal substances. It was an instant best seller. Since I’m stuck between doing nothing and fuck all, I decide to go. It’s free, and it’ll give the ghosts a night on their own. As I reach escape velocity from the feed, one of the dogs I follow pulls me back in. A golden named Punch sits regal and resplendent, save for the fact his tongue is hanging out of the side of his mouth. The caption says: Tongues out for Ridley! Now my whole feed is full of dogs giving a tongue-based salute to their fallen friend and I’m sobbing all over again.
The Q&A has already started when I arrive. It involves many of the same questions that haunt every book event. How do I get an agent? How do I get published? How do I write a bestseller? K, on his best behaviour, manages a measured response to each: Keep going, he says. Keep going. At the end there is a brief applause and a short queue forms. I join it. When it’s my turn, I remind him we met once already, a book festival at a truck stop in Essex. K looks at me like I just shat in his cereal, then softens some. Oh. Right. He says. The fuck are you doing here? Are you writing? The bookseller is clearing chairs around us. I shake my head. No point anyway, he says. It’s all dogshit. Look at it. He waves at the books around us. Candy-coloured bullshit for kids. No one writes for adults anymore. This is his schtick, his pantomime. Though he seems to genuinely believe it. He picks up a copy of his new book. This wank on a page has sold better than my last five novels combined. Keep fucking going. If I were being honest my advice would be two words: Fuck off. K is a decade my senior and has had every success. Sales, plaudits, prizes. He’s been an enfant terrible, a provocateur, a troll, and cancelled several times over. He’s written words that’ll make you cry, come, and carve you into pieces, all in the same sentence. But the stench of sadness is unmistakable. And for once it’s not coming from me. He looks exhausted, miserable. For all his success, K is lonely. He leans in close, speaks just as loud. Know where we can get some gak?
K is curled up on my sofa, a bollock naked novelist of international renown sweating through the fabric of a couch I won’t be keeping. We stayed up all night talking shit and doing lines. Not my usual speed. I’ve no real nose for blow. Cocaine is a drug for the bored and the boring, but it beats loneliness. I hit my limit around four a.m., switched to coffee to take the edge off, and retired to bed around dawn. I could hear K huffing racks of chisel all morning til he passed out in front of Breakfast TV. Seagate is something of a cocaine mecca, which has to do with smuggling routes that see it ferried over from the continent in dinghies. It also has to do with the fact that everyone in Seagate loves a bit of beak. I leave him to snooze. When I wake next the front door is wide open and K is long gone. In his wake, a copy of The Creativity Drug. I flip it open to where he’s signed it. Fuck off, it says. It seems like a sweet gesture until I remember he made me pay for the coke. A visit from the trauma forward adds up.
In the middle of the night, my brain trying to cleave my skull in two, I clock that my spare left eye is the likely source of the monster headache I’m several weeks into. Something to do with focal lengths and too much TV. I guess sitcom dads were right about that one. With the help of some Bolivian anaesthetic I find down the side of the sofa and the business end of a teaspoon, I pop the eye back out and place it in a glass in the fridge for safe keeping.
There’s a voice at the door. A police officer is standing on the threshold. Do you always leave your door open? She says. I don a pair of sunglasses and check there’s no gear in view. It’s an April thing, I say. She doesn’t look convinced. Behind her, two paramedics are ferrying a trolley down the stairs. There’s a body strapped to it. Sad news, she says. Chap across the way died. Did you know him? I shake my head. She holds out a cardboard box. It’s addressed to me. Found this by his door. Must have taken it in for you. He’d been lying there weeks, by the looks of it. She turns to leave, and I think to ask his name. Huxley, she says. A month here and I didn’t even realise anyone was across the hall. He was quiet. He was dead. In the stairwell, grunts and curses document the poor bastard’s final exit from the building.
I’ve been lying on the kitchen floor for three hours. I have counted stab marks in cabinets and watched droplets glisten on copper piping. For a while I listened to the song of the refrigerator, a low hum that was difficult, but not impossible, to write lyrics to. My eyes settle on the note stuck to the door. Make yourself useful, it says. Since I’m in the habit of following notes left on the fridge, I resolve to do as it says. I get up and crack the front door a few inches. Pop a window or two. April comes from the Latin word aperio, which means to open. Maybe the ghosts, in all their guises, have a point.
You know: Marching powder. Nose candy. Nostril floss. Booger sugar. Pop. Cola. Charlie. Chalk. Charlie Chalk. Charlie Sheen. Betty White. Patsy Cline. The Aspen Diet. Etc.