I am six years of age, sitting supine, waist-deep in knotted shag-pile the colour of clotted cream. Behind me sits my mother, caught oblivious in deep conversation with a not unkind-faced older woman named Dr Jackie Smith (known to me as “Jaggy”). As they talk, I arrange the whorls and dips of the carpet into clumps and bury small plastic monkeys beneath them; imagining I’m sitting in a room full of mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes and primates. Imagination is awesome.
“I’m just not sure what to do,” my mother says. “I don’t know if we did it, or if he somehow did it to himself…”
I’m not used to hearing myself talked about so candidly – although, given my age, it’s rather difficult to properly ascertain exactly how they’re talking about me, I’m acutely aware that I am the topic of conversation.
“If he didn’t listen to that tape all the bloody time…”, Mum trails off.
For the past two years I have carried around a cassette tape of Johannes Brahms in the front pocket of my lime-green overalls, holding onto it with an almost autistic intensity and insisting to listen to the whole thing (sides a and b, thank you very much) at least once a day, always with the cry of “Big music! Big music!”. My parents’ initial joy – “classical music – and at such a young age!” – soon turned to tiredness (Mozart was another favourite, and occasionally Bach’d get a spin, but Brahms was the gold standard), yet still they let me play this “big music” – I suppose anything was better than The Wiggles.
As the tape would play, I’d sit stock still, back propped high in front of a speaker taller than my own person, and silently trace the figure of Brahms, etched stern and silver into a royal purple background. I’d imagine what his life must have been like – having zero conception of 1800s Germany basically limited these imaginings to seeing Brahms on a horse, or Brahms at a piano – and marvel that someone could make such beautiful sounds. (As an aside, I’m also fairly certain I thought he played all the instruments himself).
Dr Smith picks me up, world-weary, and slings me over a chair:
“Let’s see what’s going on, shall we?”. With the same amount of grace, she deftly penetrates my ear with her othoscope and begins to waggle it around. “I see…”. A pause, the chair spins, and the same sudden burst of cold metal. “Everything seems to be in order.”
As she turns to speak to my mother, I slide unscrupulous down face of the leather chair and crawl back to the shagpile, where life is more comfortable and there are plastic friends to play with. The adults carry on:
“We might need to book a specialist appointment – there’s only so much an initial examination will show, and if he still can’t hear – ”
“I can hear,” I pipe up, cheery, sticky hand clutched tight full of neon simians.
My mother and Dr Smith turn, almost in unison, to regard me. For what seems to be an eternity they simply stare, and I stare back, unsure as to what I’ve done.
“Christopher”, my mother says, tightly, hands wringing, voice under both violent stress and profound control. “Christopher. You haven’t replied to anything that’s been said to you in the past three days.”
“I know,” I reply. “I didn’t want to. You say boring things.”
I am twelve years of age, sitting in the school councillor’s office. She’s a cheery woman with short red hair, not unkind but a little distant, who sits on a medicine ball and has a fondness for using hyper-inclusive terms, as if she herself has suffered through your trauma: “let’s not talk about suicide, shall we? We know better than that. We don’t want to hurt our family and our peers, now, do we?”.
I haven’t said a word – I fear that if I do I’ll get myself into trouble – so the councillor and I have simply sat in silence; me avoiding her eyes, counting the coins in my blazer pocket, and her simply looking directly at me, floodlights for eyes, and occasionally bouncing on her medicine ball. Finally, she breaks.
“We mustn’t throw chairs at people, now, must we?”. Look, probably not.
“I… he called me fat.”
A pause. Then: “Even if people call us names, we mustn’t throw chairs.”
I imagine, for a second, trying to explain to this woman – lithe, high cheekbones, clean, milky skin, wearing a tracksuit I’m fairly certain she’s ironed – how in a sense, she’s right – how throwing a chair isn’t appropriate if someone calls you fat once, but if they do it every day – every hour of every day – if they grab your sides every chance they get and try and slap your ample body like a bulbous, fleshy drum – how then you might feel like throwing a chair.
I decide against it.
Smile growing ever wider, she presses on: “Now… what’re some names you can call him back next time he calls you fat?”. Next time. Oh, good.
“I… uh. You’re ugly?”, I offer. Sure, why not? “And your parents are ugly too. You should never have been born. I wish you’d never been born! Ugly!”
There’s a pause, and for a second, the smile on her face falters. Then: “Yes, okay. Okay! You’re doing good.”
I notice, acutely, she has stopped talking in the inclusive.
I am twenty, a vessel of broiling, nervous energy, waiting for the results of my first sexual health test.
A week before I had strut in, feeling terribly adult and confident – I wasn’t doing it because I had to, I was doing it because I wanted to, so surely I was a Bastion of Adulthood. The waiting time, however – upwards of an hour – had killed my bravado in one fell swoop. I had sat, terror dripping down on me with the quiet insistence of a leaky faucet, and witnessed men and women, young and old, have their names called – some fine, some jittery, and some with a dread calm that scared me most of all. The following week had been astoundingly hard, as I managed to convince myself with every waking moment that I had somehow contracted every sexually transmitted infection known to man – and probably some unknown to man. In reality, it was simply the wrong week for me to read Holding the Man.
There’s a call – “Christopher, October!” – and I free-fall from my sorry thoughts and back to reality.
“Me!” I bellow, as if I’ve won the lottery, suddenly and painfully aware that several sets of eyes have fallen, disapprovingly, upon me. “It’s… it’s me.”
“Right-o,” the voice replies – a small doctor with greying hair and a not unkind face – “Come this way, please.”
Seconds pass and now I’m in a small white office, my heart in my mouth and head all at once, feeling as though I might vomit all over the room. I look at the doctor again, and figure I’d better not, though – can you catch an STI through vomit? Could you sue someone for catching an STI through vomit? I don’t have any money, so…
I’ve barely sat down, when: “You’re all clear”. That’s all.
“Really?” I stammer. “Can I see?”
“Sure!”. He spins the computer screen around, but it’s an indecipherable cartogram of dots and squiggles. I gulp.
“I don’t – I’m not…”, I manage. Sure, at this point I haven’t had unprotected sex – random or otherwise – but somehow, somehow, I’m convinced somebody has snuck into my room at night and dropped a vial of concentrated syphilis into my open mouth while I slept.
“You’re clear,” he insists. “And even if you weren’t – it’s really not the end of the world. Read these.”
He hands me a bunch of pamphlets and sends me on the way. On the way out I survey the waiting faces – young and old, man and woman – and try to suppress the waves of shame washing over me, to no avail.
I am 23 years old, standing outside the front door of a palliative care unit. Inside, my Grandfather is dying. I have been at a rehearsal for a show.
“Now,” says the doctor in charge – a man with a not unkind face – “I understand your Mother has talked to you about the situation already?”. I try to remember what she’s said, but can’t. My face is numb.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Do you have any questions?” he asks, rifling through his papers.
“No,” I reply. Can you stop my face being numb?
“Whenever you’re ready,” he smiles, absent-minded, and wanders off. Well, then.
It’s the smell that hits me first – full of pleasantries and artifice, flowers and sweet oils burnt and dabbed to mask the real smell of cleaning products and stale piss and sedentary.
“You’re here,” Mum says, and silently I join her side.
Then, my Grandmother: “You can hold his hand, if you like.”
I reach out, slow and cautious, and peel back the tepid blankets – a thin, unforgiving wool the colour of clotted cream – and retrieve my Grandfather’s hand.
“Hello,” I say. A beat. I don’t know what else to say, so, again: “Hi.”
I wish I’d come sooner.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting with my Grandmother on an emerald-green leather couch that’s covered in squeaky, disinfected plastic. She’s nestled in, falling asleep, finally, and I take the dregs of a cup of tea from her grasp and replace it with my hand. Late afternoon sunlight streams in through the windows, and it bathes her face in an otherworldly, amber glow. Somehow – caught in the throes of a sleep that I know won’t last very long – she looks not only peaceful, but young again.
Directly in front of us stands a woman with a kind face, quietly, methodically mopping the floor. She looks up, catching my eye, pauses, and for a moment it’s just me and her, her and me, and my Grandmother’s hand, buried tight in mine, tracing her veins with my thumb over and over, and in front of me the woman stares, pale blue eyes wide and full of care.
She smiles, cautiously, and holds it out towards me like a gift. It takes a second, but I smile back.