The Trip I

The second and, most importantly, final time I stared death in the face occurred on the same trip.

You won’t be surprised to know that something that started off so badly, ended much worse. After my near miss on the plane, I spent the rest of the holiday light-headed. I felt like I had been dislodged from reality. Like, instead of being in Sweden, I was floating alongside myself, watching the spectacle. Which was ironic, since that’s what most people think dead people do. And now that I’m dead, I can say: we don’t. It’s a very dangerous way to spend your time.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to explain: I remember being at a meal. There was so many of us on the trip. Too many of us for the restaurant. We’d split into fours to get everyone seated, and it immediately reminded me of primary school. So in my head, I named all the tables like they did at school. Red table, blue table, green. But instead, I used less abstract nouns. Dumb table, Obnoxious table, Unbelievably Vain table.

I was having fun with it. I even started laughing to myself. The only other person on my table also started laughing.

‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked.

‘I dunno. You’re laughing.’

‘You just laugh cos other people are laughing?’

‘I laugh cos sometimes I miss the joke. I don’t want to be rude. You know, cos I’m deaf in one ear.’

I did not know he was deaf in one ear. To be honest, that was the first time I had spoken to him throughout the trip. It had turned into one of those open-ended, tell-who-you-want, kind of things and before you knew it you were sharing a bed with someone’s cousin called Ben who you may have met once at a Graduation party or a Housewarming, but no one knows for sure.

For some reason, either the surprise of it or my own shame, I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard that everyone turned to look at me. And I couldn’t stop. At first, the guy opposite laughed with me but then he got really uncomfortable. He kept blinking his big blue eyes like he was trying not to cry and I thought at that moment he had never been, no- No one had ever been more awkward or more beautiful. And I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Eventually, the laughter subsided to tears. I wiped my eyes on the tablecloth and went back to studying the menu like nothing had happened. I felt the eyes on me. Not just the eyes of the guy sitting opposite me, or the people I was with who were now rolling their eyes, or all the other patrons who were looking down their noses. It was my own eyes. I felt like I was standing over myself watching myself. And I didn’t find that funny at all.

 

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The Pre Death Jitters

I was too young when I died. Most people will say that, but honestly, I was young in the way it counts. I had just really started to get it. To realise that there was a whole world outside of mine and instead of being liberated by it or excited, I found it overwhelming. It intimidated me and it made me hardnosed and stubborn. I kept butting my head against the unknown, daring it to fight me. Come on! Come and have a go!

And it did. Twice. The first, and unsuccessful, attempt was on the way to Sweden. I had taken two Valiums, or at least two pills that I thought were Valium. I’d bought them from my friend’s ex boyfriend, a guy I shouldn’t even have been talking to, let alone buying drugs from. I’d never taken any drugs before and never would take anything like it again, so to say it was out of character would be true but also, a boring cliche, so I won’t.

The thing was- I’d been having nightmares. Proper scream-inducing, jolting out of bed and wrestling with the covers level nightmares and they stared just before the holiday.

It started like this: I’d be walking up to the AirBnB we had booked. Surrounding the AirBnB was a tall green hedge, circular, like a moat between us and the rest of the world. Every time I turned around the hedge was right behind me, no matter how far forward I walked, how much closer to the door I got. I’d look to the left and the hedge would be there. I’d look to the right and the hedge would be there. I put the key in the door and I could feel the hedge against my back. I’d turn the key and the branches would be pressing in on me. I had no time, no space to open the door before I was slammed up against it, the branches of the hedge starting to pierce my skin.

I know what you’re thinking: She’s scared of a hedge? Everyone I’ve ever told started off with sympathetic eyes but as soon as they heard that a hedge was trying to kill me, their eyes would glaze over. I’d see them mentally check out. Even the most polite ones. The rude ones just out and out laughed.

As I got older (if you can call it that), I realised that the people who laughed probably recognised the fear better than anyone else. They’d almost always grip their seat as I described my face being crushed against the wooden door as thorns punctured my cheeks. It’s crazy how a person can cry and laugh all at the same time.

After two weeks of that same dream, I called the person I shouldn’t have been in contact with. He agreed to give me some of his Dad’s pills if I gave him information on my friend.  He assured me it was above board. He just wanted to know if she was seeing who he thought she was seeing now, and whether they’d started talking before or after he’d finished with her. I lied. He’d asked for information, he hadn’t asked for the truth. When I met up with him to get the pills, he asked me if she still mentioned him.

I said, ‘Yeah. Apparently one night she called your name out in bed. By accident. Or so she said. Maybe they’re into that, though. I don’t know.’

He nodded and handed over the pills.

‘You’re a bad friend.’ He laughed as he walked away.

‘Maybe.’

Maybe to you.

So that’s how I ended up on the plane with 2 pills that definitely weren’t Valium. I popped them like they were paracetamol. I was waiting to melt into a dreamless sleep but the opposite happened.

I got real sweaty and head high. I couldn’t sit still and at some point, I started crying but I don’t know when or why. I just remember my friend asking me why her blanket was wet and I guess I had been using it to hide my face? Who knows. I made it to the bathroom just as my heart started to beat out of my chest. Literally. I am so sure I could see it moving, forcing my whole ribcage forwards and backward and I slumped to the ground thinking this was the end. Thinking, Well, you’ve done it this time. You really have done it this time.

I leaned against the toilet. Just about able to cross my fingers. Willing myself not to die on an Easyjet flight.

To this day I still don’t know what he gave me. A couple of years later, he died of an overdose himself, so I guess he probably doesn’t know either.

 

434

You wait for your number to be called. In your hand, you grasp a withering white scrap. You don’t know how long you’ve been here, but you do know there were faces here that came before you, and many faces after.

You wait.

There is one window in the room. It opens out onto a brick wall. Earlier you are sure you saw a head bob into a view. A plume of smoke strokes the window frame. Just by watching you can taste it. You blow warm air out of your mouth and it floats in front of you before it dissipates.

You wait.

There is one set of double doors in the room. They swing open with great ease but creak closed. Slowly the wedge of blue light they let in thins to a straight blue line. Pointing straight at you, maybe.

You cross your legs as you wait.

No one is really moving. Stiff backs and even stiffer faces. Fixed smiles, slicked back hair. But the eyes. Their eyes are darting about in their skulls. Scanning. Checking. Watching each other.

You do it too, as you wait.

Watch their hands. Watch the paper tremble. Watch the numbers as they slide and smear. Who’s next really? And does it even matter? They come out and get you when it’s time. Blink and you’ll miss it.

You think you’re still waiting. But when you look down you’re not in the waiting room. You’re strapped to the bed and the only thing you see is the blue light. Not a slither but a blinding sheet of blue.

The last thing you feel is the slip of paper crumbling between your fingers. The last thing you smell is the sweet smell of burning flesh. The last thing you hear, as that sense fades away with the rest-

‘434 is ready. Prepare the host.’

Twin Bed

We can put some pillows down the middle. 

We can put some pillows in the middle and maybe top and tail?

We can top and tail and wear all our clothes. 

Or, let’s not sleep at all. 

I have some spreadsheets to check, you must have spreadsheets to check. 

We can work all night. 

All night. 

Then we won’t miss the plane. 

We might be groggy but we won’t have-

I’m not saying we would without all that, but I don’t want you to feel-

I’m not trying to say you have no self control, I just-

Am I over thinking this?

I’m being patronising, am I?

You think I think I’m god’s gift?

I’m just trying to help you! You’re the one either the reputation. You’re the one everyone gossips about chasing married men!

I’m sorry. 

I shouldn’t have- I don’t think that of you. 

I really am just trying to help you. 

Here, take my card. Get a second room. 

Or I’ll go, how about that?

I don’t want to cause any trouble and I don’t-

If I’m being honest, it would be me. 

It would be me. 

I’m not- I sympathise with-

No, I didn’t say you were pathetic. I just mean that I get lonely too!

I get lonely too. 

I understand why escaping from that for one night would seem worth…

I’m sorry. 

Forget I said anything. 

I’m going to the bar. Maybe we can just sleep in shifts. 

Carbury & Grant

Joel points at his screen.

J: What do you think?

C: It’s a picture of you surrounded by bubbles. Wait, no-

Courtney squints.

C: On further inspection, it’s a picture of you surrounded by-

J: It’s me surrounded by butts.

C: Yup. Why?

J: What?

C: Like, why do it?

J: For nights out.

C: What are you talking about?

J: Calling cards.

C: Calling cards are for when you visit people in the 1920s. What’s that got to do with a night out?

J: If I meet girl.

C: If you meet a girl what? First of all, you would have already met her, so you don’t have to leave a calling card. Also it’s not 1920. Also-

J: Something to remember me by.

C: Stop it.

J: What?

C: Stop.

J: It’s original.

C: That’s the only thing you’ve said that makes sense. You’re right. It’s original. It’s also bad.

J: How?

C: You want to be remembered with a hundred butts that aren’t yours?

J: It’s original-

C: I heard. You realise you haven’t put any other details on this design right?

J: What do you mean?

C: How are they supposed to find you again? You haven’t even written your name.

Joel looks at the picture again.

J: Oh.

C: Exactly.

J: I’ve printed…

C: What?

J: I’ve printed 500.

C: How much?

J: 5…500. But I’ve only opened 200, so we can send the rest back.

C: Why would you-

Courtney rubs her eyes.

B: I just wish I could see inside your head. I really honestly believe someone performed a lobotomy without you knowing. Or maybe you know and you just can’t articulate because you’re so fucking stupid.

Year Book

At some point, the most important thing was putting this book together. There were meeting, meetings upon meetings. Layouts. Representatives. And finally it fell in your lap. You had to get all the profiles, all the photos. On top of your GCSEs, on top of your applications.

And you loved it. Organising life, five years of your life, into a neat 100 page book was relaxing. Turned the chaos, and the confusion and the fear and the pain into something you could understand. One last thing to remember it all by. The girls you grew up with, fought with, envied, ridiculed. Laughed with, laughed at.

And 10 years on…you don’t recognise the faces.

And scarier still, you don’t recognise your own.

It’s almost as if, in making the book, you dumped all your memories in the pages and emptied out your brain. Or more, now that you’re away from it, out of that place where you perfected your shell, it seems like a dream. Did we wear those clothes everyday? Did we like it?

You look out of place in the photos. Uncomfortable. Your hair isn’t right, your uniform is too big. You move with such…shame and awkwardness. Like you’re in someone else’s house and you have to creep about so as not to disturb.

You wanted to be left alone. You wanted to be part of it but also away from it. You couldn’t handle it. Understand it. But you had to find a way to make it to the finish line.

So, you turned yourself down.

You turned yourself down, but not off. You’re right there, in all the pictures. Controlling it all. Monitoring it all. Recording it to analyse later.

But now it’s all gone. No. It’s in the book. No, the book is not the same. No, the book is better?

Isn’t it always?

You flick through the pages, a faint smile on your lips. A little unnerved by how distant it feels, a little relieved that it doesn’t mean as much to you anymore.

Hunger of the Pine

Getting off a person is a lot like getting off a drug. There are ups and downs of varying lengths and triggers that you never expect will hit you with such force.

From day to day, your feelings about the situation change. You don’t care about him anymore. You never cared about him. You just liked the idea of him. You liked the way he made you feel, and not necessarily how he did it. You don’t trust him, you can’t trust him and this, all of it, cutting him off, cutting him out of your story, is for the best.

But you love him. Or at least, it feels like you do. You’ve felt things like this before, but not to the same degree. Not in this overwhelming, painfully raw way. You loved being with him. That is true. You loved what he smelt like and his smile, his smile-

His smile was a lie. Everything he ever did, or said, was a lie. Those things were nothing to him, he would tell anyone. There was nothing special about you.

But he made you feel special. He saw you. He spoke to you in a way that got you to feel safe, for the first time, with someone other than yourself. And that’s important. That means something. That there’s someone out there for you. That maybe he could be that someone-

He left. He left. And every time you meet up, he leaves you all over again. Reopening the wound over and over, not giving you room to recover. Maybe, he likes you like this. On the edge of your seat, drinking him in. Aching. Pining. Someone to come back to when his confidence is low. Someone to reassure him that he is loved, liked at least. So he comes back, he seduces you, you start to fall and before you can catch yourself, he’s gone. Left you behind while he continues his life without you in it. Writes you out, like this is his story. Is that what you do to someone you love? Someone you care about? Is that that the kind of relationship you want?

But he’s only human and humans make mistakes. Maybe he’s as confused as you are. Maybe he’s just as insecure. Maybe hunkering down and letting this blow over, ignoring all these messy feelings, is how he protects himself. Just like you.

And that makes him a coward. You can’t build a life with two coward. You deserve more than that. You want more than that. You are deluding yourself if you think you can make something with a person who isn’t strong enough to know what they want. What you want. Who isn’t strong enough to make it happen.

But do you know what you want?

You want him. You want him always. To speak to him always, hear him always. Look at him, touch him-

It’s not healthy. It’s not rewarding. There is nothing glorious about this, nothing here to crave. Relationships require two people. Two. And at the moment, there is only one. There is only you. And by that logic, there is no relationship. There is nothing to mourn. You miss him and that’s fine. That’s allowed. He was your friend. But what you think you’re missing, this great life the two of you could have had, never was. He never was. Never was yours. You started to build, wanted to build and keep on trying to build, an alter. Some great shrine to this pure and perfect love, even though the foundations are on sand. Worse than sand, dust. Worse than dust, nothing. Air. A vacuum.  It’s a thing that you do and have done and are doing right now. But you must focus on what’s real: He wasn’t for you. He was close to it, but he was never going to be yours.

That’s what real. The life, the prospect, the dream, the cusp of something, was all just that- Abstract nouns. In real life, there was nothing. Is nothing. And that’s what hurts. That you feel so strongly about something that isn’t tangible, never was. It’s okay to dream, but you lost your way and thought the dream was real. The dream was happening, taking shape before your eyes. And now you’re both mad at him and mad at yourself for not being more present. More careful. Smarter. You do know what’s real and what is not, but you thought, maybe this time, fantasy might trump reality. Because, in reality, you’re bored. You’re lonely. And he looked like he could take you away from that. But here you are. Here you always were.

So now, back to the lull. The silence. You don’t ache anymore. You feel nothing. And there’s a kind of relief in that. You have pressed reset. Your mind stops buzzing and plaguing you with fanciful thoughts and all you’re left with is you. You look at yourself for the first time in a while. See yourself for what you are. Who you are. What you want, what you need. You can spell it out, you can touch it. You can make a choice to either grow or regress. It’s entirely in your hands. You’re in control again.

So close your eyes. Properly this time. Face the darkness, the unknown. Tomorrow will come, and maybe you will get answers or opportunities and maybe you won’t. But that sadness, that desperation, that displacement – it will dull, get duller until you think of him with polite indifference again. Like when you first met. Reset.

 Oh, him? You’ll say. Yeah, he was my friend. Just a guy who used to be my friend.