I can either keep quietly screaming through life, or accept that this life is not right for me. It’s the choice I must make. To either struggle with the pandemonium or take some time to look at the sky before silence. It’s like the falling man.
Breathing deeply, I caress the dense material sitting inert upon the benchtop. Waiting to be manipulated, forced into twisted positions, exaggerated curves and indents. A performance of static movement.
I’m comfortable within these rooms when the gallery is closed. Here I escape from expectations, there’s freedom to create. I work alone, unwilling to share this time. The hours before opening where I can focus on personal projects. Not that the mainstay of the gallery isn’t enjoyable. The satisfaction of throwing a vase, the hypnotic motion of the wheel and the pleasure of packaging the piece up after purchase. It was bread and butter work, generic for the paying customers, it kept the gallery open. The evening workshops allow some space for innovation; teaching others the joy of craft and creation. But this pales in comparison with my private projects. Pouring forth twisted forms: limbs, torsos, faceless, erratic, partial people distorted in their familiarity. Grotesques. ‘They remind me of Dante,’ someone once said, ‘or Blake.’
The encrusted overall is shrugged on eagerly. The delicate prints that make up my public uniform eclipsed. Now I’m imagination’s slave, a bold confident creator, passionate in my ideas and the ambition to exhibit a full collection. Nightmares are my friends, waking me so I can seek solace with work, the scent of damp clay under my fingernails.
Insomnia has its advantages as the sun tentatively breaks through the trees, introducing a new day with optimism and coffee. As the dawn advances, I work vigorously, capturing the frenzied inspiration which hits as the pressure of opening hours creeps closer. Here time is fleeting, scrabbled together before customers and routine.
A retro bell and hammer clock jumps across the parquet floor. I must tear myself away to silence it. Drifting from my work, I shed the overall, stepping fluidly from it. Turn the clock off, give it three winds and replace it on the desk. Wash hands and face, apply subtle make up in the tiny toilet. Draw shoulders back, fix the public smile to this face. Another day.
What will it feel like?
Is it like dreaming? I hope to have one good dream. When everything just feels right.
There’s only one way to know.
It’s as good as any. Are you ready?
Of course. I can’t do anything spontaneous.
She stares at the photograph on the fridge held in place with a brightly coloured magnet.
Because he is perfect.
What makes him perfect? It’s not like you knew him.
It’s because nobody and everybody knows him. Someone loved him, someone misses him. But no one wants him. In this instant, he is everything anybody can be.
I don’t understand you on this.
He is the perfect paradox. Neither dead or alive. The Schrodinger’s cat of our time. Strong yet vulnerable. Wild but controlled. He made a choice of how to be remembered and how to live. You’re drawn to look, but you know you shouldn’t, almost guilt in the fascination. You shouldn’t find any beauty in such violence.
You really think about this, don’t you?
He made a choice where there wasn’t one.
I touch the faded clipping. ‘The Falling Man’ by Richard Drew.
There were so many of them. So many. And nobody wanted them to be seen, like they didn’t exist because then it’s all too real.
I don’t exist.
Censored away. But they should have been celebrated because they made their choice. To have that one last look at the sky. It must have been like flying. And they were destroyed, you know. On impact. They hit the ground so hard.
This has nothing to do with us.
Taking the photograph, I pad to the bathroom and begin to run the taps. Light candles, add bubbles. The window is wide open.
Every time I think I can’t keep going, he helps me make a choice, because even though he had limited options, he had the ability to own his choice in the end. We all need to own our choices.
The water helps me relax, enveloped by scent and softness. I look at the picture blu-tacked to the tiles at the foot of the bath. The choice where there was none and the dignity gained by it being made.
You’re really doing this?
They will figure out why.
This doesn’t feel like flying.
On the counter, I keep a book. Inside are all my creations, documented, named, numbered. They are individuals. If they get lost I can claim them. I know who they were.
I wander through the house with the picture-perfect rooms, the careful façade which greets the weekly book club, this staged normality. The lounge, rarely used, is passed by. I close the door.
What do they think when they see me?
They think you’re insane.
I sit on the worktop and inhale the room. Pale yellow walls with blue gloss. It shouldn’t work, but it does. A leap of faith in B&Q with a clipping from a Sunday magazine. Well-worn units, solid pine (obviously) carefully painted cream and then sanded back allowing the wood to peek through. Mismatching ceramic knobs adorn the doors, all from different markets, shops, countries, eBay (but don’t tell anybody). An open plate rack is above the toaster; a large wooden chopping board still has this morning’s crumbs. In the plate rack is an assortment of dishes, bits of many sets that have dwindled, but still function. Breakfast dishes drain by the sink that is in front of the window. A ceramic jar, made to look like celery holds the dish brush and brillo pads. In the alcove is the Aga. Comforting and warm, the enamel kettle waits on the lid, oven gloves draped over the bright stainless-steel rail. There are biscuits in a Quality Street tin, and utensils hanging from a set of hooks. There is a table with four chairs, it extends but hasn’t for a long time. There are books on the table with corners folded and notebooks and a bunch of pens and pencils in a jar. An aging spaniel used to nestle in the armchair: still covered with a crochet blanket, just in case he was damp from his dewy morning waddle round the lawn.
This is a space that has taken time to cultivate, time to collect and wear the edges away. Soft and simple, with the smell of toast and marmite, instant coffee. My utopia.
The bath is running; I planned this, to prove it is not a spontaneous reaction.
You don’t do spontaneous.
This is my decision.
It’s not one of your best
I’m sick of the sessions, her sycophantic voice, the bit of lipstick on her teeth…why is there always lipstick on her teeth? Does the woman get ready in the dark?
Stop going, don’t take the meds, don’t look at her bloody teeth.
He doesn’t want to be born this one. The clay detaching from the frame with satisfying dense thuds. I try to mould it back, vainly willing him to hold together. The twisted torso and far flung arms, defying gravity, succumbing to the weight.
“Please stay together, stay with me.”
Determination overrides practicality as I force material onto the unstable structure. He responds, discarding extremities. I throw myself around his body, fingers splayed willing him to stay, my hair creates another texture upon his skin. This is the closest I have come to a hug for months.
How long is he going to take? He looks like shit.
I’m not giving up on this one. He’s in here, I just need to get him out.
Are you the best person to do that?
I’m the only one that can.
You look like shit.
As the clay dries into my clothes, I scrape my hair back into an elastic band. Nine days I have been with him; he has caused me little sleep, heated arguments and reconciliations. I stink, sweat, cigarettes, cold coffee. I lean into him, and rest my cheek against the smooth surface of his back. His head lolls sideways away from me, slides forward and hits the floor with an explosive sickening thud. Instinctively I throw myself towards it, but it’s beyond saving. As his eyes turn towards mine, angry sobs hurt my throat and bubble from my lungs, snot floods my nostrils. I am not an attractive crier. I hit him, again and again tearing his body apart with broken fingers. Later I wake up on the floor alone.
I told you he was shit.
‘Yes, I am here to see Dr Morris, 11:45.’
These places make me nervous. Absentmindedly I scroll through my phone, trying to look busy, like this is an everyday occurrence. Trying to appease that relentless inner voice that demands answers.
I promise that I won’t let them take you. They can’t make you leave anyway. You’re here because I need you. You said it was a good idea. To get help. You look after me and in turn I will not let them take you. No, I promise it will go back to normal afterwards, it will be safe again, but something needs to change. Everything will be fine. I promise.
‘Please come in, take a seat. Do you want a drink?’
Say no, you’re fine. You’ve got one already.
‘I got a coffee on the way.’
Sit up, look like you’re fine. Make eye contact, answer like we practised, then we can go.
‘So, we left it last time with looking at breaking habits. You show signs of ‘ritualistic behaviours’ ‘
‘It’s more organised than ‘ritualistic’; routine, then nothing gets disturbed and then I am left alone. It’s best to stick with what you know, to stay safe.’
Look at her. She knows I’m here.
‘Safe from what? Do you feel threatened?’
That’s a leading question. They’re not allowed to ask leading questions. I told you this would happen.
‘No! it’s to stop things going wrong, to stay controlled. But then again, I have been told to try everything once, else you might never know you like it.’
Where did that little anecdote come from? Who told you this?
‘Sorry, that was a tangent.’
I sip at my coffee, distracting myself.
People like this are clever, they find ways to get things from you, for you to let go of your deepest secrets, and then I’ll be gone and where will you be? Who will keep you safe?
‘What sort of things would you try?’
‘I don’t think about it. It’s best to stay with what you know. There can be no surprises then,
I am not pathetic; I’m needed to be’
‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘I can do more, I want to do more, but
may I suggest you leave now
it’s difficult. I know I’m safe where I am.
may I suggest you stop talking
I mean it’s not much to ask from me really. It has got me through so much.
shut the hell up
But then again, I never know what to do, I’m always aware there is more, that there can be more to this but the risks’
‘Do you want to discuss this? We can arrange another appointment.’
I am not ignorant of the joy in her mind.
She came out easily. Pliable, graceful, tall and smooth. Like a dancer stretching on tiptoes. Toned, athletic. Everything I’m not. No hint of trauma, no sweat, blood or tears. Claimed and awaiting collection. She never even went on display.
You don’t like her, do you?
No, I fucking hate her.
These rooms are designed to make you feel comfortable, apparently; I find nothing comfortable about a Formica table and wipe clean chairs, must just be me. The reassuringly bespectacled creature opposite, knees crossed, clipboard with my pile of notes. I know what they contain.
Overdose aged 20, ketamine.
Overdose age 15, miscellaneous tablets.
Signs of split personality.
Irrational repetitive behaviours.
Historical eating disorders
It’s endearing really to be broken down to these elements. Neutral coloured pen at the ready. Give it a minute. There will be the assurances of confidentiality, nothing leaves this room. I know this, but the thing is that I can’t ever escape, that it will always know, will punish me for any little mistake. So far, we have skirted round and round. Yes, I had a perfectly normal upbringing,
No daddy issues, did well in school, cut yourself in the toilets on lunchbreak one Tuesday.
No, I wasn’t hugely popular, but I didn’t mind. Yes, I did ok at uni.
Stay forgettable, don’t get involved, people are only there to hurt you.
I acknowledge I had a problem. I don’t feel like I have had the best career, but I am fulfilled with what I do. Yes, I run a shop, well it’s all unique pottery, local artists, some of my own work.
Do you still have those scars…?
So, I spew forth my uneventful life, the normality, the resignation to it. That I have ritualistic behaviour because I am pathetically dull.
Pathetic, alone, and mine.
We talk with stunted politeness, this is a waste of NHS funding; she is persistent, hoping there will be a breakthrough that will prove this is her vocation.
He held together, perfect as he went for firing. It’s up to him now, I’ve done all I can. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis I wait with building anticipation. His ancestors lie in the reclaim bin, the next generation awaits in my mind.
Today I showered, washed and plaited my hair, all clean clothes. The shop is swept, cleaned and ready. Displays of the new glazed housewares are lit. I have made a space, not conspicuously for his arrival. It’s a special day.
Wait ‘til later.
No, he is going to be perfect. I know what I was doing wrong. He is ready.
I excitedly open the door, throwing it wide. And pieces start to fall, making beautiful music as they hit the floor. Details I had lovingly crafted pouring to my feet, a finger, nipple, unblinking eye. I wipe away silent tears, and go back into the brightly-lit gallery. Fix my smile and turn the sign to open.
She was always cautious. So complex, but you couldn’t help liking her; she needed a friend. I think I was the closest she ever got. She seemed under control, aware of keeping up the persona. But I agree she was afraid of something. The voice in her head; Wendy. Or maybe its silence. I was never sure. She kept explaining about this epiphany, that she could make ‘the choice’. There was nothing religious about her, I asked her if it was connected to religion and she laughed at the absurdity. ‘Nobody is that crazy’. She said; ‘Nobody is that crazy’. She could escape in her work, get lost. This meant she would disappear, for extended periods. I assume this was when she was in the throes of mania. The rest of the time she seemed desperately sad. Sad and lonely. The creation of herself she described as ‘a shroud she willingly wove and wore.’ Wendy helped her; kept her controlled. She would work frantically. I could tell if she had been working, or was near to working. It went in waves. She would come back thin and pale, but animated, nervous energy. Her hands wouldn’t stop and her eyes would bore into me, trying to make me understand. Obsessive? Very. Especially about Wendy. She would have full conversations. Wendy gave her the confidence to fly, to make choices, her guidance, protection, but also her demon, a parasite. She was always watching. Wendy was destructive; we were working towards breaking free from her. To stop the cycle of her control. She said once, ‘She chips away, and I listen and act. I fall to pieces then try to rebuild myself. But each time I lose more little pieces, slivers seem to disappear and I am less and less.’ I thought it was beautiful. The falling man? He was a symbol for ‘the choice’. In the way she wanted to live, I think, or die.
She closed the door on her neatly ordered home. Pressed her forehead to the sanded pine, took in a deep breath and turned around, eyes tightly closed.
Here was her secret. Where people never came, that nobody ever saw. This is not who she was, rather what she had been made to be. How she coped with the façade of ‘normality’, or the turmoil of the battles within herself. Hidden behind a flimsy barrier, this is where it got to her; this is where she didn’t control, no matter how she tried to organise, tidy, make things liveable, extend the fantasy of the chocolate box life she craved and formulaically created.
A naked light bulb illuminated the detritus of her mind, chaos building in layers from the small patch of cream carpet where she stood, staggering upwards, gripping the walls, balancing ever more unstable, a loose grip on a weak foundation. Clothing spilled out from a dark wood chest of drawers, a pair of doors disembowelling itself, spewing forth floral prints, dark jeans, coloured scarfs, the uniform in which she faces the world. All of it is clean. She does not allow the dirt which fills her mind to infiltrate any part of the house, even here. It all starts folded neatly in the basket, fresh from the laundry room, where the clothesline levitates it above the threadbare tasselled rug, the pattern indiscriminate after thousands of footsteps. Here the windows are always open to let in the breeze, gently pushing the scented fabric conditioner aroma into the house where it can mingle with lavender candles, warm incense and the slight tang of wet spaniel. But once it comes through this door, as everything else, it descends to chaos. Here it doesn’t seem to matter, here nothing has a place, what is the point?
The window is closed; to keep bedlam in. The curtains are open but loose from their matching tie backs which hang forgotten. She can see the stars on a clear night, awake and staring into the blackness that engulfs her. She doesn’t like to sleep here. This is when she is vulnerable, anxious and afraid. This is where she is not herself, or is this where she is most herself? Here she lies awake in the tangled plethora of bedding wondering, questioning, waiting for the replies that will surely come through. This is the space she owns that in turn owns her. This is the space that allows her to not function whist in the throes of mania.
As she pads forward, books creak underfoot, half-forgotten jumpers, newspaper articles and hastily-sketched images struggle for attention and receive none. She surveys the bed. The patchwork cover, multiple blankets of varying size and texture, a heavy feather duvet with its matching pillows crumpled in the aftermath of another nightmare.
Her skin shines like a pearl, bright and smooth under the artificial glare of the bulb. She arches her back and moves her shoulders, trying to wriggle the day out of her muscles. They relax and with that she withers, the weight of effort too much to bear. Exhausted and unshielded, she finds an open wound in the beast of her cradle and inserts her body slowly, not wanting to disturb its weighty slumber, backing into the obscure recesses where she could maybe be unnoticed tonight. She extends a hand and pulls the beaded cord eradicating the luminosity highlighting her weakness. She hides in the dark, eyes wide waiting to see if it will come tonight or allow her some relief.
How can you do this to me? Look at the state of you. You need me, but here you are all ‘free’, ‘independent’. How free do you feel? You can’t survive without me. You don’t eat, smoke, bathe. You’re encrusted with filth, stinking, skinny. Who will love you? Not him. He isn’t real, you made him to fill a void, like you made me.
Scattered tools, matted hair, bloodied hands feverishly moulding rough clay. Dark, dense and gritty. The ground remains of others reclaimed. Weirder than usual. Building with bodies. Trancelike I watch you sensuously touch the form, measuring your hands against his. His cheek will never warm to your touch.
I cannot remember when you started, what day it is. You’re is lost in this creation. Everywhere are photographs, sketches, ideas, plans, that goddamned photograph. There are little ones, tiny grotesques, a twisted Lilliput. Limbs, fractured torsos, all watching. your audience. Stripped down, sweating from the kilns and drying ovens. Dehydrated and thin in oversized boots. You disgust me. You’re weak without me. I’m ashamed of you, and more ashamed that I need you. You’re all I have. I’m all you need. Sort your fucking shit out.
Bloated and distorted. It took five days to find her. The bespectacled doctor knocking persistently on the door, calling the authorities after peering nosily through the window. White taut skin, protruding ribs, swollen tongue. Clay streaked through her hair like external rigour mortis. Everybody aghast. Fascinated and appalled. Vulgar in their interest. As they went through the notebooks, dog-eared on the table, she came to life more and more. She grew, developed features, a sense of humour that was dark and twisted. Letters to and from, all together, some replies, pleas, forthright demands. Different voices emerged, alternate hand writing, a plethora of pens, colours, drawings. Conversations consisting of pages and personalities. Initially addressed to no one, then suddenly a name. Wendy
No one claimed her.