Happy Endings – A Story in Three Parts

mark sunset

Image by Jayne Bickerton

Part One:

Depression manifests itself in many different ways, depending I suppose who you are and how you’re made up.  Because I do think it’s genealogical; I never got to meet my granddad, but if my mother’s tales were anything to go by, he was an alcoholic.  And though I think the word was never used in those days, depression was what he suffered and died from.  Depression is not easy to describe, but with your blessing I’ll attempt to do so, at least from my own perspective…

Like a human drama serial, this thing comes in episodes.  They’re not time-specific though, they can last for a day, a week, a month…  And each one finishes but you know there’ll be another instalment – as for when, you’re kept in suspense.  I’ve had many episodes in my life, and while they’re always similar in terms of the physical (because it is a physical illness) the mental side can vary – from hopelessness, apathy, despair to the far end of the spectrum, suicidal tendencies or even an attempt to “end it”.

Let me first take the physical side.  The body aches, it doesn’t want to get out of bed, it doesn’t want to be dressed, it refuses to exercise, it’s seized-up, it’s blown a gasket, it’s just conked out.  This I admit is a simplistic portrait, but to me it is that simple; your body has just packed up.

The mental side is far more complex and I repeat, varied.  This won’t make for merry reading but I offer two examples of either end of the spectrum I outlined above.

Part Two:

The first example is triggered by nothing in particular but it can trigger something life-threatening (see my previous diary entry).  You wake up with a strange feeling that the hours are going to be dark.  It takes a while to get up.  You run a bath.  It goes cold because you go back to bed.  You finally get up and let the water out, and you hate the waste of a commodity we in this country take for granted while others are gasping for it.  You run another bath.  But the tank is cold now.  You sit in the freezing water for ages.  Your mind goes orange, you’re feeling nothing except hopelessness… What are you doing here?  Why were you born?  Why have you made your life a mess?  Where are you going?  Why does nobody love you?  Of course you know that people do love you, but that’s how it feels.  It’s not as simple as just feeling sorry for yourself, which is why it’s irritating when people tell people like you to “cheer up” or “get a grip” or “pull yourself together.”  Because the hopelessness makes that impossible, the hopelessness is overpowering and oppressive to common sense.  Some people say it’s like being strait-jacketed and you know what they mean.  But to you it feels like someone’s poured sand in your ear, making your head too heavy to function, blocking the ability to think straight, to appreciate what’s good about your life and the world itself.  So you have to wait till you sleep on the right side and the sand runs out.  But when the days go by and there’s no sign of the sand on your pillow, only tears, the only way of coping is to drink, find some escape, and drink, and drink… and nearly burn yourself to death.

The second example is work-related.  You have a great job, demanding and tiring but great.  You’re doing well, riding high.  Then one morning it goes orange.  Again no particular trigger, just everything turning orange in your head and your body shutting down.  You try to soldier on but the more you do the less you get done.  It’s the curse of the strong – you’re a strong man but you’re losing control, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone like you.  It’s time to get help, you know it, from your loved-ones, from your boss, but to ask is to betray your weakness so instead you bottle it up, the dog is mauling you but you conceal the teeth-marks.  The reluctance to show weakness is compounded by the fear that nobody will understand, your boss won’t get it, and the very real fear of losing your job or being “managed out”.  The fear of your talents slipping away or being ignored.  So you neither turn to others nor help yourself, you do yourself no favours which means you turn to drink.  Before you know it you’re on a spiral that only goes downwards and the self-loathing kicks in, you hate yourself so much that the very idea that anybody can love you seems ludicrous, and life itself seems impossible too, so what choice do you have but to weigh up how to do it… a rope, a hose-pipe or walk into the sea?

Part Three:

But there is always another choice, and there’s always the fact you have a responsibility, to yourself and your loved-ones.  If you didn’t turn to them for help, you only have yourself to blame.  It seems incongruous but you’re in a privileged position to be in the abyss, but looking up at the sun or stars.  The sun warms your face, and the stars say you can fight, you can fight both your circumstances and your dog.  Your reason to live is right there.  Your loved-ones, the things in life that give you pleasure.

Your pleasure happens to be travel, so what better way to leave this thing behind?  It’s not running away, it’s running to something new.  It’s not displaying weakness it’s showing you’re in control again.  And finally, you’re not hopeless, you’re full of promise, full of joy and full of knowledge that the fucking dog is no better than you.  You are the master.  And now the master heads for the sun, on his merry way.

The Story of Booze and Depression

IMG_2279So this is Salford Quays, Media City UK, where some time ago I was drunk and nearly burned down an apartment block.

I make it clear that I’m not proud.  I’ve told some people the story and laughed and made them laugh, but it’s time to face the shameful truth.  My eldest brother Podge was a firefighter, proudly decorated and making the papers for heroically saving a little boy’s life…  What have I achieved?  What kind of hero am I?  I’ve never been an aggressive drunk, on the contrary I’ve always been a merry one, but certainly idiotic and irresponsible, decorated in this instance by only shame.  But it’s part of my story and if you’ll bear with me you’ll see the reason for my recounting it.

Not for the first time in my life I was in a bad place, not financially or romantically or geographically – I had work in TV, I had a lovely girlfriend and I lived in a beautiful location – but mentally the location wasn’t so lovely or beautiful.  I loved my apartment and all the chattels I’d built around me.  It was my Sabbath and I set ready for Gillette Soccer Saturday, bent on blowing my mind on a cocktail of football and booze.  Come half-time I was tanked-up.  I’d prepped a curry the night before and all I needed was to heat it up and boil some rice…

Just to put this in some more topical context, Grenfell Tower had cladding which was seemingly the main cause of its devastatingly tragic loss of life (apologies incidentally for jumping the gun in an earlier post and presuming it was terrorism).  The place I lived in on the Quays had no such cladding, but the windows didn’t open.  I don’t mean they were stuck, I mean they were designed that way, I believe because of the dust from the timber yard nextdoor.  In fairness, the lettings agent made me aware of this before I signed, but I was desperate to get a roof over my head and be close to work.  I built my nest and the windows weren’t an issue until my first summer, when I realised just how hot it was, and how even as much as breaking wind brought me out in a sweat.  Some dear people I know still live there and I wonder what they feel about all this post-Grenfell.

… So the curry’s in the oven, the rice is on the boil, and I am on the piss.  Some time later, well past full-time, I was woken by the piercing scream of fire alarms and opened my eyes to see nothing but dense fog.  Still under the influence, it took a few second to realise a) where I was, b) what the din was, and c) that the pan on the hob had burst into flames.  Knowing I had to stay low, I crawled to the sink, reached for the tea-towel, drenched it and threw it over the pan.  Now the flames were doused I became aware of the frantic hammering on my door, the corridor alarms also screaming and voices shouting “what the fuck’s he doing in there!”

Unable to breathe properly, I was forced to evacuate along with all the others, and though there was no fire, the fear among my neighbours was palpable, as was the annoyance of the fire officers who were quick to tell me how much my carelessness and stupidity had cost – in pound sterling if not in loss of lives.

I repeat I don’t record this with any attempt to sensationalise or even entertain, I do so to illustrate what depression and alcohol can do to me if given half the chance.  I diced with death, it could’ve been full-time for me.  I was ashamed.  I am ashamed.  It’s not a good idea to go cold turkey, I have that on good authority, but I can’t use that as an excuse to keep drinking to excess.  It’s a constant battle to be moderate , and that’s another reason why this adventure has helped – getting legless in the privacy of my own home is one thing but when I’m on the road it’s absolutely taboo.  That day taught me a vital lesson and just as when I was at school, I was slow to learn it…  However, yesterday I said I’d find a pub to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday.  I didn’t in the end, and that’s a start.

Of course with no paid work coming in I don’t have the money to indulge so that helps too.  But the most important epiphany for me is that there’s no fun on a vicious circle, no pride on the alcoholic’s ring-road, no use in getting up to get down again.

Coping with mental illness can be achieved in other ways too of course… last night I was lucky enough to get a signal on the Ottermobile and watch Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime.  Billy Connolly has always been a hero to me – my friend Ash and I once saw him at the Hammersmith Odeon and we laughed until we cried.  The portraits in last night’s show were amazing, but not more so than Connolly’s indomitable stance against his Parkinson’s Disease.  I admire him as ever and can look to him for inspiration.  I can also make it my mission to trek around Scotland and finish up in his home town of Glasgow and see the portraits in the flesh.

The programme had a profound effect on me, not least because it sparked a conversation with my daughter Gabby, finishing with exchanges of “I love you.”  It’s things like this that can make you drunk with happiness, lasting happiness which can’t be found in bottles of quick-fix plonk.  Gabby said it was sad to see Billy so frail and this also impacted on me; I thought I’m a relatively young man, I should be fit and healthy.  I’m still able to walk for miles and miles and not run out of puff, but I must keep it that way.  I must make the fullest use possible of the number of breaths and heartbeats I have left.

 

The Day I Met Jeff Stelling

jeff

I love my Saturdays, especially in football season.  I buy the Guardian, I get me some nibbles and settle to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday and get drunk.  Once I got so drunk I fell asleep and nearly burnt down an entire apartment block in Salford Quays.  But that’s a diary entry for another once upon a time.

Jeff Stelling is my hero.  Part of me was uncomfortable with buying into Murdoch’s empire but the other part was addicted to Sky Sports’ hyperbole and garish colour.  The addiction to the show, and to the booze for that matter, wasn’t always conducive to relationships but selfishly I indulged knowing that with Jeff the black dog was locked in its kennel at least for the day.  But what will I do now I’m off-grid with no Sky dish or often no TV signal at all?  Nothing for it but to find a pub that’ll show it.

Gillette Soccer Saturday isn’t everyone’s bag (neither is football itself of course) but I can find myself transfixed.  Stelling is a brilliant wit, an intelligent brain and flawless anchorman.  Merse is hilariously malapropistic, Tommo is unfortunately Scouse, Champagne Charlie is cool as fuck and Tiss thinks he’s a saint, but all four are kept in line by the consummate Jeff.

About five years ago I was lucky enough to meet him.  I was working on Coronation Street at Granada (I miss that Quay Street oasis in the heart of Manchester – I had many happy days there) and the bosses offered staff a chance to cross-fertilise ie see what other TV practitioners got up to day-to-day.  I chose to spend a day on Countdown, shadowing a runner.  It was great fun; I got to sit in a contestant’s seat for a rehearsal, I got to play a game (but could only manage a five-letter word, much to my embarrassment and dismay).  And I finally got to meet my hero.  Jeff’s immediately likeable, affable, smart and handsome – he could play Bond… if he were a little taller maybe.  I told him I’d always been a fan and had written requesting a shout on Gillette Soccer Saturday for a throng of avid Stoke City fans – myself, Dom, Charlie and my muckers.  Apologetic, Jeff confessed he can’t always find time to give shouts but promised he’d try that coming weekend.

To my dying day I’ll regret that for some reason (must’ve been something dull and unavoidable like a wedding) I missed the show, so will never know if Jeff was true to his word.  I of course like to think he was.  But in some ways it doesn’t matter – I’d got to press the flesh of a “football legend”.

Talking of making good on promises, my welder showed up!

welder

The best result this Saturday!  Thank God for Steven and Yorkshire Mobile Welding Services!  Here’s a welder I must respect and here’s to getting back on the road to Scotland.  The Otter will soon be mobile again so lock up your rich Scottish widows!

Important Landmarks

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It’s my son Dominic’s birthday today and it’s scary that my second-eldest is pushing thirty.  Doesn’t seem that long since we were playing football in the park, my teaching a three-year-old toddler my silky skills.  Now he’s in Omagh with his beautiful girlfriend Zoe and I wish I were there too… but I’m stuck in my lay-by waiting for a welder, and I often told him you should always respect your welders.  Sorry I can’t be there son; I love you and here’s wishing you many happy returns.

Talking of landmarks, it’s now 75 days and nights since I started my off-grid project.  Yes I’ve treated myself to the odd pub steak or burger or haggis, and more than the odd pint of best as I’ve chatted up the locals.  And yes I’ve been called a paedophile by teenage thugs, been tooted at by tossers in white vans assuming I’m getting laid, or ran the gauntlet of fist-fighting gypsies… but on the whole it’s been a peaceful 75 days and I can’t help reflecting that the most stressful times have been at the mercy of bureaucracy and mechanical law.  The same problems everyone has, or at least every motorist – how do I get my car through its MoT?  How do I find a reputable, reliable garage?  How do I get a welder?  In other words, it’s more stressful on-grid than off.

When I’m off-grid it seems to me that by and large folk aren’t aware or don’t care who’s sleeping in his van in a lay-by or across from their house.  Is this because they’re too busy worrying about their MoTs?  Or their job, or whose arse to lick in order to keep their job, or who to befriend on Facebook because there’s a chance it might help keep their job…?  Or is it because actually people here are laissez-faire; they’re happy to let people get on with their life, however alien, as long as it doesn’t infringe on theirs?  I truly hope it’s the latter.  So anyway finding a lay-by and making sure I eat, I’m safe, and I get a good night’s kip has been far less stressful than I anticipated… so far at least.

The second point I’d like to make is that though I’m only a fifth of the way through my project/experiment/adventure, I’m finding it really helps manage depression.  This is because I live with the freedom to be where I want when I want.  I’m seeing some beautiful places and meeting some fascinating people with stories to tell.  I’m learning about them and I’m learning about myself.  I’m walking hundreds and hundreds of miles of the beautiful British coastline and countryside.  I’m making a cathartic journey through my past, writing what I want to write with freedom and without constraint.  I’ve seen friends and family I haven’t seen in ages due to my selfish and blinkered ascent of the career ladder in order to be pushed off it.  And most importantly and profoundly of all I’ve reunited with my beautiful daughter and met my grandchildren.

In short I’ve journeyed to what’s important and much of this, I believe, has been made possible because I made an alternative life-choice, went to “another place”.  And to the doubters who asked “what could possibly go wrong?” I say that so far nothing has gone wrong, bar the ball-ache of red-tape that you have every single day.  There’s a long way to go, both in time and in mileage… but so far, my friends, so good.  On this important day I reflect on all those years bringing up my kids.  And how quick time marches and how vital it is to make the most of it and make the right choices.

House and Garden

cheshireIt is no fabrication of the truth to say it’s impossible to get a welder in South Yorkshire.

What can you do?  Get your house and money back from Malfords – fuck the libel issue let’s name and shame Halfords – drive and park illegally, have a smoke and keep googling.  What on earth would a desperate man do without his dongle?

I wanted to be back on the road to Scotland by now but this is delaying my progress somewhat.  I’m learning some harsh lessons.  Still, at least I’ve got a roof over my head again, and as you can see my garden is looking good.  I’m writing copiously, knocking up a nice bit of pasta and locking the doors to keep out the black dog.  And yes, despite everything, I’m still smiling.

Camper-vanishes

I am technically homeless.  No, infact I’m really homeless.  So I’m having a moan about the tossers who’re doing my MoT.  I don’t wish to be accused of libel so I won’t name them – let’s just say it rhymes with Malfords and the logo is orange and black.

It’s already taken Malfords six days to tell me the Ottermobile has failed because it wants a bit of welding (like I want “a bit of pointing” according to John Stevenson) and now they’re waiting for someone to come with his tackle because they don’t do welding in-house.

How long this will now take is anyone’s guess so I’ve grumbled to Malfords Customer Services demanding a “tweak intervention” on the price (see Selling and Selling Out).  “Don’t you know this is my house?” I remonstrated, “To you the Ottermobile is just a number but to me it’s a living-room, a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, office and garden!”  It met with little sympathy so I added “You twats.”

To say a campervanner being minus wheels is an inconvenience is an understatement.  I have places to go, people to see and things I might want to write about!  Oh well, I’ll have to do what most writers do – sit on my arse and try to make something up.

The Land of a Thousand Hills – A Story of Genocide, Love and Human Strength

Rw-map

I’ve come to the point in my novel where I retrace my tentative footsteps through Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region.  And the story goes like this:

I first saw Aline Aimee when she came to me for a job on the radio soap opera Urunana (Hand in Hand).  She was tall, elegant and beautiful, with the kind of smile that only a Rwandese woman could have.  She spoke Kinyarwandan, English and French.  I wanted to give her a job but the vacancies were filled (I could’ve filled them 100 times over) so with a heavy heart I had to turn her away.

I saw her again in the Ramera Market and she smiled that smile.  I bought her a soda, over which she told me her story – both her mother and father were lured to the Nyamata Church on the outskirts of Kigali, believing they’d find refuge, only to be slain by machete-wielding Hutu Militia (Interahamwe – we kill together).  In hiding back in Kigali, Aline was left to look after her younger siblings and with the help of neighbours she made the long escape to Uganda.

After the war she made the 100-day trek back to her roots, carrying her little brother and sister and everything else she owned… a can for water and the clothes they stood up in.  Taken in once again by kindly neighbours she began to eke out a living by selling cobs of corn at the roadside so she could feed her family and buy herself an education.  Now, her siblings are six and eight and she wants to make sure their future would be better than hers.

Over the coming weeks Aline and I became friends and she like the team on Urunana would call me Mutijima (kind heart).  It transpired she had family in America and she dreamed of travelling to see them.  She also dreamed of saying her goodbyes to her dead parents, so I took her to the church near Bugesera where they rested…

Here, many hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered and their bones are piled like a skeletal monument to the dead, and their skulls are racked like hundreds of ostrich eggs, many bearing cracks where the machetes and clubs had met their target.  I wanted to stand back and allow Aline to pick over the bones but she took my hand, begging me to go with her.  We entered the church where layer upon layer of bones, clothes, children’s books and other worldly possessions were matted between the pews, and we had no choice but to walk on them.  It felt disrespectful to trample over the dead but Aline said we must, to get to where she needed.  At the altar, a bible lay open and a skull had been carefully placed on top.  Beyond this, in what I supposed was the bombed-out chancel, were the skulls.  I noticed nothing except stillness; no smell of death now, and no sound except for monarch birds tweeting in the eucalyptus trees.  Aline looked over the skulls, tears in her eyes, then reached out and touched one of them.

“C’est mon pere,” she said, “Et a cote de lui c’est ma mere.”

I’ll never know how she knew it was them, or even IF she knew it, but I couldn’t question.  Who could?  She was saying her goodbyes and that was that.  She asked me to touch her parents too, and so I did, running my finger along the crack where the machete had fatally fallen.  This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body but it was the first I’d touched; two people I’d never known but I’d never forget.

As Aline then knelt to pray I stood back to leave her in the moment, and choking my own tears I could only write something probably insignificant in the book of condolence – what words are there to amply embrace the horror felt at the sight of such murderous meaningless?

“Merci,” she said, “Merci de m’avoir permis de les voir.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Aline would visit me in the house in Kigali, where my night-guard called Joseph lived up a tree and Gysenge my day-guard tended the garden with his machete.  I hadn’t been able to give her work but I always made sure Aline had food in her belly and something to take home to her brother and sister.  One night I played guitar for her and sang (something to remind her of her family in America I think) and she told me she loved me but I said I couldn’t love her back.  I kissed her on the cheek and tasted her tears.

I visited her too, in her little hut in Ramera, and met her brother and sister.  And one day out of the blue she said,

“Je veux voir l’homme qui a tue mes parents.”  (I want to see the man who killed my parents).

So I took her to Gitarama Prison, a hell-hole where it was said that inmates stood up in their own shit, while ones more privileged for whatever reason would be tasked with making furniture, dressed in pink to tell the world who they were.  As we sat outside the gates, peering in, I wanted to know if Aline was sure.

“Oui je suis sur,” she replied, “Et je suis sur qu’il est le seul.”

As she pointed to one of the prisoners in pink, again I could only take her at face value.  I saw this time she didn’t cry.  There was sadness in her eyes but nothing fell from them.

“How does it make you feel?” I asked.

“Rien,” she said, “Je ne sens rien.  Maintenant je veux aller a la maison.”  She’d seen all she wanted to see.  She’d looked into the eyes of her parents’ killer, and now wanted to go home.

Soon my work in Rwanda was done and I was heading home to Manchester via Paris, eager to be reunited with my own family.

“Thank you Mutijima,” she said, in English this time, “thank you for everything you’ve done for me.  And for everything you’ve done for my country.”

But on the plane I knew I’d done very little.  Yes I’d done my best to create a project to help bring some sustainable stability to a troubled but beautiful country, and yes I was proud of my achievements.  I still am.  But what was this compared to the super-strength of a young orphan forced to mother her baby siblings, and her determination to make a better life after Genocide had taken nearly everything?

Now, more than twenty years on, when the black dog comes barking and I feel sorry for myself, I often think of Aline.  I wonder if she lived?  If she managed to get her siblings into school?  Did she save enough to get to America and reunite with her uncles?  Somehow I think she probably did all those things.  She’d lived through a horror and a sadness I could only imagine, yet I never once saw her feel sorry for herself.  She just got on with life.  I should never forget that.