When I lost my job because of what even I had begun to call my mental health problems, I was suddenly grounded. I don’t mean in a good way. I was given a free travel pass, but it didn’t take me anywhere I wanted to be. All the same, I told the psychiatrist that I felt I was in the moment. I agreed that it often wasn’t the moment everybody else was in.
I missed my lunchtime visits to the church of St John the Baptist near work. I believed the legend that St John’s skull had found its way around the world to be secreted in the church’s walls. One priest tried to bar me from tapping them, but another said that if it was I who was destined to find it, then nobody should stand in my way. Patronizing dick. But it wasn’t like, if the walls sounded different, I’d be there next day with a wrecking ball. I know I told the nasty priest that, but I was joking, mostly. My enquiries had already shown me that hiring the ball and vehicle and mandatory two-man team was going to be prohibitively expensive.
Nobody would have heard of John if he hadn’t used a heads-up with King Herod to tick him off about his relationship with a stage-door mother called Herodias. Herod wasn’t too bothered, but the repulsive Herodias was mortified by the insult. She allowed Herod to perve over her daughter Salome as she danced – well, actually, like all exotic dancers, stripped, mainly – and persuaded Salome to ask for John’s head on a plate. What child would have asked for such a thing? She’d have asked for a Frisbee, I’m convinced, but they hadn’t been invented. Bad luck for John.
In the good weather, I went to the park. From its vantage points, I looked at the churches and the chimneys, the old mill, the city hall, the Victorian-style school buildings. I often watched the sky, its display of distance, its hint of the rest of the country, the coastal waters, and the world beyond the moment, where my travel pass didn’t take me.
I liked watching people in the park. The parole officer told me not to use these words to anybody, but I do. Many wore clothes in child-made plastics that gave them rashes, and wore sneakers that crippled them. In primary colors, they looked like giant children.
Some of the park drinkers were forty-year-old punk rockers, their Mohican haircuts flopped-over. The faded tints on their hair were matched by those of their clothes, like statues in museums which, the tiny browned writing says, were once painted, but now retain only ‘some remnants of polychrome’. They were like strange, aged teenagers, droning on about all they hated, but never about what they liked. They should have kept up the color, kept their hair defying gravity; they should have brightened up the park, like birds of paradise. I said this to one of them. After that, each time I passed him he looked my way. Once, he flapped his arms, and made bird-noises, but in slight puzzlement, as if he’d forgotten why he was doing it.
There were also walkers of dogs, all men, all with a strange look on their faces; it was confident, and yet fearful, pleased, and yet grim. I didn’t understand it at all: were they happy, or not? They made it clear that, if their dogs attacked you, it would be your fault. They were big, ugly, swivel-eyed mouth-breathers. So were the dogs, but at least they had some posture, and white teeth. I heard one dog man say to another, “Dogs are sincere – am I right? You know where you are with a dog.” But you could just as easily say you knew where you were with a bar of soap, or a pair of old shoes, a piece of cheese, with jello, or with being beheaded.
The Frisbee man stood out from other people in the park. For a start, he wore a red sweater. You know how children wear primary colors, but adults graduate to shades? A red acrylic v-neck will always be a child’s garment, especially if worn by a thirty-plus man with a boyish face and feather-cut hair, an intentionally messy style from the far past. I’m not sure what the desired effect is: just got in from a sail around the point in the boat, or for a ride in the convertible with the top down, or a spot of windy golfing. The style made me think of a man from a band who had a one-off popular music hit in the seventies, and featured in the parallel universe of YouTube often enough to be vaguely recognisable. The Frisbee man was too young for that, though. His jeans had been pressed. I didn’t know what was worse: whether he had pressed them himself, or his mom had done it.
He was walking across the grass when I saw him. I caught him looking away in that way that men adopt when they not only try not to look at you, but try to persuade you that they had never looked at all.
“People look at me all the time,” I’d told the psychiatrist.
He’d said, “What do they see?”
I hesitated before telling him, “They see their heads in my fridge. It’s not my fault. They just do.”
The Frisbee man passed me, and walked in the direction of a pretty woman. She had silky brown hair barely tamed, it was suggested, by a hair band, subtle make up and an ethnic-style skirt and top. She was perfect.
She was not the kind of woman I got on with. My traitorous husband had skedaddled, brain-addled, after a woman a lot like her, called Carmen, who made scented candles for a living. She’d called her company Carmen Collected. I’d bring her calm if I ever ran into her again, would note her peaceful expression each time I opened the door of my fridge.
The parole officer said I shouldn’t say this kind of thing to people. He said such things lay at the heart of my problems. Or was that the psychiatrist? Or did I simply read it somewhere, or daydream it? The drugs work, they do.
The man in the red sweater stopped near the perfect woman, arrested by the sight of something in the grass. What could the Frisbee man have possibly found? He did a mime of puzzled, then pleased. He pointed down, and called to the perfect woman with just the right mixture of urgency and friendliness. He gave her time to poise herself delicately on an elbow and look up from her pastel-coated paperback book. He said, “Is this yours?”
To cut to the chase, the red Frisbee he’d picked up wasn’t hers. They spoke. She admired his sweater. As this is actually unbelievable, I admit that this is just me, wanting her to have admired it. You know how that happens sometimes, when you’re half-listening to somebody talking, and you’re tired, and distracted, and though you’re talking about shopping, for example, what your companion seem to have just said is about the feeding habits of rhinos, or trends in twenty-first century novels to reflect a microcosm of the world via unfeasibly sexy vampires.
After a minute, the perfect woman got up, hair flying, blouse billowing, skirt shedding grass. They played. I’ve often wondered why anybody would want to throw a Frisbee to somebody else, only for them to throw it back. Only the dogs in the park really knew the answer to that. Perhaps it was a mating ritual; it was only slightly enjoyable, but both parties knew they had to go through it to get to the mating.
A thuggish-looking man halted to pretend not to watch. He’d also halted his patient, podgy hound, who looked like Donald Rumsfeld – just a little. The Frisbee play maybe mirrored their own play, except that the dogs didn’t throw the thrown object back, unfortunately, depriving the men of exercise. Perhaps both man and dog were alerted, excited, and disturbed, by the subliminal possibility of mating.
Two women then crossed into this triangle, and distracted everybody; the dog-walker, and dog, the Frisbee man, and perfect woman, and me. The Frisbee, everybody’s eye off it except mine, was claimed by a gust of wind that made it hover gently, a few feet from the ground, as if awaiting instructions.
Those two women were Pentecostalists. They had called at my apartment one Sunday morning, to talk to me about the Holy Spirit. There was a gabby one, and one who smiled and clutched things. I listened for maybe five minutes to the gabber. I was disappointed – no, crushed; Penetecost had brought tongues of fire to hover over the heads of the blessed. Without these signs of the spirit, it was plain that the women were faking. If they’d displayed them, and could have guaranteed the same for me, I’d have dropped everything, got my coat and bag, switched the gas supply on, slammed the door behind me, promised them my soul, and run away with them. My silent complicity in the encounter at last prompted the talking one to ask, “Um, is everything okay?”
I said, “Yes,” then spoke to them for about the same amount of time. What I said made some sense, because I recited a passage out of a catalogue about wall-coverings that had been on the ward last time I’d spent a week there. I’d amused myself by memorizing it, not knowing why, but my doorway encounter with these women formed the perfect reason for having undertaken such a seemingly pointless enterprise. Parts of it appeared to appeal to them, because the copywriter had used a lot of ridiculous metaphors about security, serenity and longevity. But, thing is, they’d knocked at my door; I hadn’t knocked at theirs. I came to my own silence, said, “Um, is everything okay?”
“Uh, yes.” They’d looked at each other, and checked.
I’d waited for the fire to spring into being over their heads. I gave it every chance. Then I smiled, and clicked fingers as if to say, I know what you want, then went in to find a man enacting the perfect picture of somebody in thorough enjoyment of a big Sunday breakfast and a weighty newspaper, my husband. I’d said, “It’s for you,” and had pointed at the door.
Nobody was going to capture the supernatural flames of Pentecost by calling at apartments on Sunday mornings. You had to go forth into the darkness armed with the right tools. I knew that, because my father had been a ghost-hunter. He trapped the supernatural for his clients – the odd thrill-seeker with money in place of sense, but more usually people guilty about their crimes and unable to atone for them among the living.
The benefits were impromptu holidays in places where there was sun – Florida, the Bahamas, farther afield, Spain, even, Italy, places where people ate eels tasting of river mud and played musical instruments hilariously ineptly – and stupid gifts from toy superstores – giant pedal cars and bikes and Meccano sets and dolls as tall as me whose eyes I had to put out because I hated the way they looked at me when I woke – and pricy meals out – New York’s Waldorf Astoria, and the Algonquin, the Ivy in London, England, the Closerie de Lilas in Paris, France, and a restaurant in Marakech, one time, served by a waiter who, elongated, and repulsive, had the look of a gargoyle on a church wall. It could have been great, except that I hated the sun, and was always too old for the toys, and was more comfortable with hunger than with nutrition.
Dad’s most notorious case had been his finding the spirit of a prematurely deflowered and dead girl in the mansion abandoned by her family after her death. He shot videos and photos of her, waving as she faded into the gloom. Her appearances – in corny period-appropriate little-girl-ghost dresses – had kept the family satisfied. They had given lavish church services every week to pray for her spirit’s release. To guarantee this, Dad had hired the priest, and they’d made a tidy living out of it until an observer noticed that the girl was sporting a pink princess digital watch from Hamley’s famous London toy store in one of the videos.
I think I wore the watch on purpose. I’d begun feeling that a young girl’s spirit was genuinely trapped in that house – mine. Spending part of your childhood as a ghost ought to have been much more exciting.
The Frisbee was set back on course, soaring high and swooping low. The perfect woman’s giggles sounded like a marker in place of embarrassment, and then sincere… if a giggle can be said to communicate sincerity any more than a dog could, or a Frisbee. “Frisbees are sincere,” I waited to hear, and in reply I’d have called out, “You know where you are with a Frisbee.”
At last, the Frisbee rested on the grass. The perfect woman gathered her stuff and folded her blanket. The feather-haired man and the perfect woman looked at the Frisbee. I wondered which of them was going to own it. The Frisbee man bent and picked it up, and stuck it in his bag.
He looked at me briefly. He seemed pleased. Not smug, exactly, but… satisfied. Then he turned away from the darkness in my eyes to the aura of sunlight around the woman he’d happened upon.
They’d go for a drink or a coffee – a drink, I guessed; I was sure that Frisbee man shared a brain with Nescafé man, and he’d be confused by the choices in a coffee bar, perhaps distrustful, even slightly angry at them. No, a beer for him, and for her, well… who knew? They probably wouldn’t go back to his or hers and have wild, uninhibited sex, not that day. They’d work up to that, would court each other, and marry – getting engaged along the way – and buy a house and fill it with children.
And all down to me. Had I not offered the Frisbee man my stare, the brief but unsettling vision of his feather-topped head in my fridge, then he probably wouldn’t have veered off course and found the Frisbee, and the perfect woman – all down to me. I left the park happy, and went off to St John the Baptist’s to tap the walls. Even if I sited the saint’s head, though, I couldn’t help thinking my good work was all done for that day.
That night, I lay between sleep and wakefulness, those few words – all down to me – echoing in my head. Down to me if it ended in court, or the newspapers. The scene of the pair walking across to the west gate of the park was no longer charming. I kept seeing the words: and she was last sighted walking towards the west gate of the park. I got up, went to the kitchen, and opened the fridge. I said, “It’s all down to me.” I took a pull of some grape juice, spat it out in the sink, and flushed the red away with water.
I underwent a spell of sciatica all round my neck. It was John the Baptist Empathy Syndrome, though my doctor denied the existence of such a thing. I had to wear a collar to support it. That, and pain-killers, and anti-inflammatories, and repeated looking from the painted roof of the church to its marbled floor, sorted it out, and allowed me back to the park. I amused myself by reading, but more often by looking up from my book to see grannies assist toddlers in their play. Most of them carried the toddlers’ scooters. I noticed that you rarely saw a toddler actually on a scooter, scooting: the scooters were always being carried by parents or grandparents. This seemed to be their sole purpose. In the future they’d be renamed carriers, perhaps. If I had toddlers, I’d have one simple rule regarding scooters: scoot out, scoot home. Except if they developed John the Baptist Empathy Syndrome. In that case I’d punch holes in two Frisbees and put one round their necks, and the other round their ankles, and roll them home with gentle pressure from my foot.
I wasn’t thinking of the Frisbee man. He’d long gone, taken vows with his perfect woman. I didn’t wonder if they were canoodling or cursing, in a mansion or a hovel, watching soaps or discussing verse by Robert Frost.
It therefore perturbed me to see a lone red-sweatered figure loping across the grass, feathery hair bouncing. He looked slightly lost, but even as I noted this, I saw clearly that he had a purpose. I thought I knew what it was. There was a pretty woman in a pastel blouse, reclining on the grass with a pastel-coated paperback book, and a pastel blanket spread out below her. I don’t need to say that the same ritual was about to occur, its first steps the Frisbee man’s look of surprise, not too delighted, not too blasé, to find a Frisbee in the grass.
When I stood up to see better, the movement distracted him. I took a few steps towards him. It was as if the ballet performance had begun, and somebody had started to wander across the stage. He saw his head in my fridge. He opened his mouth to speak, then settled himself back into his dance, barely missing a step.
I pointed, mouthed the words, “Frisbee on the grass,” but neither he nor the pretty woman saw me.
Under the Frisbee’s arc, there were pants, and giggles, denoting sincerity. Finally, the woman, perfect in her own way, picked up her jacket, paperback and blanket. She swirled her pastel skirt as she searched the ground and gathered up her things. He stopped her just as she was about to set off, one foot in mid-air, and held his hand out for the Frisbee.
“Yes, good,” I wanted to call out. “Frisbee out, Frisbee home. That’s the rule.” Because it wasn’t a Frisbée Trouvée at all, I now saw. The woman wasn’t to know that, though, as she walked off with the Frisbee man, headed for a drink and eternal happiness.
That night I was back in that annoying state between wakefulness and sleep. I pictured all the perfect Frisbee women. The Frisbee man had a harem full of them. He was pervy Herod, persuading them into salacious dances. But one thing had changed: I no longer said to myself, “It’s all down to me.” I was disappointed in the Frisbee man. To turn such an innocuous toy into an instrument for ensnaring unsuspecting women was… unethical use of a Frisbee. I vowed to watch for him in the park in future, and to warn those women of his coming, and the menace in his devil’s disc.
Out of funding for borderliners like me, the psychiatrist signed me off, not with a big happy tick, more with a reverse smiley. I said, “So I have no more mental health issues?” I was only messing with him.
I thought I might get another job, find another office peopled with reluctant dieters, lunchtime bet-placers and beer-chuggers, pursuers of pleasures that made them all guilty; I longed to greet them, back from the chocolate machine, the bookies, the bar. I remembered the microwave and its foul savoury crumbs, and the icebox full of half-eaten goodies forgotten under Tupperware and, sometimes, mold, and missed them, a bit.
The nice priest had been transferred from St John the Baptist; the nasty one cast me out of the temple like a moneylender. I didn’t care. I went to the Pentecostalists. I urged them to work on the tongues of fire, to call them down onto all our heads.
The park drew me back. I brought a pastel-covered paperback and a pale blanket. I wore a billowy skirt and a one-hundred-percent-woman-made ethnic shirt. I imprisoned my hair behind a hair band made from sustainable bamboo.
I nearly got lost in my book. My eyes were on the page, but something started to encroach on my periphery. I didn’t realise what it was at first, then saw it. Lying in the grass not ten feet away was a red plastic disc. The other disturbance in my vision was also liveried in red, his hair waving gently, his step with the appearance of a casual stride. I shut my book and raised myself delicately on one elbow, and waited to be called.