Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
14. The parts that make sense
May (part two)
This is chapter fourteen. You can start here, or, if you’re so inclined, go back to chapter one.
If you look closely inner children are easy to spot. I see them everywhere now. The woman on the mobility scooter blasting AC/DC from a tape deck strapped to the handlebars with bungee cords, her inner child skipping alongside. The runner who stops to greet a black cat, her inner child staying behind to cuddle with it a moment longer. A woman holding hands with her inner child when crossing the road, which is very sweet. Or maybe that’s just her kid. The worst are the inner children of the trauma forward, like the alcoholic outside the church whose inner child is curled up on the bench next to them. The inner child isn’t an extension of the big self so much as a reflection. If a person treats themselves kindly, it shows. Their inner child laughs, sings and plays. If they don’t, well. I’ve yet to see another person divorced entirely from theirs. You have to be particularly cruel to yourself, it seems, for your inner child to just disappear one day.
How I’m making myself useful is I’m doing some work for Fern. Fixing, mending, painting. She offered me a day rate twice what I asked her, and said she’d include lunch. When I tried to refuse, she simply said nonsense, and that was that. Task one is painting her kitchen. There was a leak at some point. The ceiling and walls are stained with streaks of yellow and brown. The trick to painting is prep. The longer the prep, the quicker the clean-up. The painting is the easy part. Fern comes in to change the record. I never hear you play music, she says. Upstairs I mean. I point to my headphones, and she tells me it’s not the same. It has to bounce off the walls, she says. You have to feel it. She stops and sees my progress. You work fast. I point at her new paintings. She’s done three this morning. I could say the same, I say. She shrugs. Three today. Maybe none tomorrow. She plucks a record from its sleeve and places it on the turntable. Hope not, I say. All those tomorrows add up. She touches my shoulder as she leaves. The words will come, she says. Being an artist isn’t about how much you produce. It’s about how you see the world.
It turns out I can wear my spare eye for a few hours at a time at the cost of a couple of painkillers. I’m on the balcony with a pack of smokes and a podcast. Seagate is between clouds, and sits bathed in sunlight. I’d go out for a walk, but it doesn’t seem safe. Down on the street roving gangs of scaffolders compete for contracts from cash-rich arrivals looking to weatherproof their properties. They walk in packs, impact wrenchesslung in holsters round their waists, shirts off, tattooed and well-tanned, despite there being limited sunlight so far this year. They coerce and cajole pedestrians, intimidating them with filth-laden industry speak until they agree to erect a platform for as yet undefined works. Once someone coughs up a credit card, a finger whistle produces a flatbed truck and within minutes the building is wrapped in stainless steel tubing and wooden planks. Few things in life are as loud as scaffolders. They bark instructions at each other, yell into mobile phones and harass passing mothers. People complain, but the police, fearing for their ears, leave them to it. Locals rely on whatsapp groups to tell them when to stay indoors. I light another cigarette and wait for the scaffolders to tucker themselves out, which usually happens around lunch time.
Walking is superior to running and swimming in many ways, not least of which is you can smoke while you do it.
I wake up early to staple flyers to telephone poles. They feature a black-and-white picture of me at eleven-years-old. I’m happy, grinning out beneath blonde curtains. The kind of pep and verve in my pose that I used to brim with. I lost it somewhere along the way, shed it in my teens like an embarrassing coat. The cloak of disinterest I affected in its stead has only brought harm. In bold type the poster asks: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY? It’s my first public work in years. My mobile number is at the bottom. I printed them out at Fern’s because if the question is who owns a printer these days? The answer is Fern. So far, I’ve had three phone calls and a text. All spam. In the chaos of the last few months, I hadn’t even noticed he was missing, little me. I can’t say where he’s gone, but I have a good idea when he left. I didn’t want to be around myself after that either. My phone lights up with another call. I let it go to voicemail.
The part of twelve step that resonated most was what they called anorexia. When love addicts talk about anorexia they aren’t talking about food. They mean it as the counterpoint to sobriety. In twelve step, sobriety is the healthy choice. A considered abstinence from something you can’t do safely. Anorexia is a manifestation of avoidant personality traits. It means denying yourself something you need to an unhealthy degree. Anorexics think if I don’t have the thing – love, sex, friendships, intimacy – then I’ll be okay. The reason I felt uncomfortable in twelve-step meetings was at least partly because I didn’t relate. It’s not that I had too much love. I had too little. I pushed friends and lovers away. I moved house, changed numbers. Instead of staying open to the possibilities of intimacy – the exquisite unknown – I chose instead to pursue unavailable woman, unattainable relationships. Women who lived on other continents. Women who had boyfriends, husbands. There’s nothing to lose when you don’t have it in the first place. No, I might not be an addict. But I’m a lifelong anorexic.
What my friend V said: Keep the parts that make sense. Leave the rest.
Every time I open the fridge my stomach growls at me in disappointment. I might not be an anorexic in the food sense, but my eating has long been disordered. Food is a drug, not a fuel. I drink a litre of coffee a day, interspersed with energy drinks. My breakfasts are the kind of cereals so full of sugar the only way they can be sold legally is with a suggested serving size so low it wouldn’t feed a toddler. I snack on toast and protein bars and tortilla chips dipped in hummus. I reheat beige carbs; frozen pizza, breaded chicken in the shape of dinosaurs, sausage rolls served with a ketchup chaser. I wash it all down with chocolate buttons. My diet isn’t an accident. It’s a regime. One my stomach disagreed with. So I silenced the opposition. All I want from food is the buzz of familiarity, the false satiation that comes with being overfull. I want the flood of chemicals. The dopamine, the endorphins, the serotonin. The regime exists because if I have to be conscious, I want to feel good about something.
It’s early doors and I’m out for my morning walk. It’s sunny but cold, with a bracing wind that seems to be trying to push me back, but I press on. The curves of the coastline reveal hidden coves and stacks of white stone separated from the cliffs by the waves. Rumours abound of old smugglers’ caves cut into the chalk, with tunnels that run right underneath the town, but no-one seems to know where. Down on the beach, swimmers shiver their way out of swimsuits. On the footpath, runners pass with heavy feet, sallow faces, miserable gaits. They look at me with something like scorn. Walking is boring. It’s not enough of a challenge. There’s no point. People have this idea they can always progress. That we can advance ourselves, our bodies, our careers. And when they are done advancing, they retreat. They book phone-free weekends and silent spas and meditation seminars. They ditch their dreams in the big city and move back in with their parents. They dive headfirst into whatever substance helps them escape for a while. They burn out entirely and buy derelict homes for five pounds. And yet the narrative of constant advancement persists. What if instead of valorising the cold-water dips and the ultra-marathons and the personal bests, we respected people for the punishment they rejected. For what they refused to subject themselves to. What if we said I will not participate. I will rest. I will not endure. I will enjoy. I’m halfway through the thought when I realise the scorn might be due to the smoke I blew at them as they ran by. I make a note to do it more purposefully in future.
The rain is thick. Spirited. It determines that my coat isn’t fully waterproof and sets about finding the gaps. I’ve spent the morning posting flyers and have exhausted my supply. I shouldn’t have bothered. They’ll all be ruined by now. By the time I make it home the skies are howling, rain falling in sheets, streets lousy with makeshift rivers. I’m sodden, soaked-through, squelching. The hall carpet hosts a series of footprints where I’ve walked. I strip down to my boxers at the door and throw the bundle of drowned rags into the bathtub. The clouds flash and clear their throat. Wind knocks at the balcony door. It’s a proper storm, lads. The stuff cinema is made of. Downstairs, Fern is playing music. I decide to drown her out. I pair the speakers with my phone and hit play on the heaviest song I can find, something little me used to love, cranking it up so loud it bounces off the walls as the drums crash to life and guitar feedback gives way to a belting hook. For three minutes I dance around the living room, singing as loud as my lungs will allow, before collapsing on my back as the songs fades. And there, behind the music, beyond the storm, barely audible: a long overdue laughter.
The impact wrench is the cousin of the impact driver, but instead of a chuck for hex bits, they have a half-inch square driver at the tip that accepts sockets for driving bolts. Impact wrenches usually provide more torque and power than an impact driver. They are also louder, which is why scaffolders love them so much.