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A thin line divides the sane and the insane...


Submitted:Feb 25, 2011    Reads: 44    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Sirens
The alarms began at 7:00am.
I swung my arm over Cliona to stab at the buttons. The ringing continued to echo in my ears. I groaned and rolled over, shoved my head under the pillow; it was no good. Cliona was awake now, and nudging me.
"Kevin. Come on, you have to get up."
I pulled my body up from the bed and stood there before her, naked and shivering. My room is perpetually cold. The low attic windows won't close all the way down, leaving a two inch gap at the top of each, about big enough for a rat to climb through. The landlady likes to tell me it's good for the ventilation, that it'll keep the room cool during the summer. But this is Wales; there is no summer. The rain is as much a part of the landscape as the sheep or the mountains, which are everywhere.
The street is a busy one, with two Chinese takeaways and a pub on each side of the road. Every night around 3am the barman of the Golden Eagle throws the last of the drunks out onto the streets. Most of them stumble away on foot or fall into taxis, but a few will linger outside, shouting, singing; sometimes fighting. Weekends were always the worst. I'd slept maybe three hours.
I shuffled through the drawers; searched, found and pressed out a single, sky-blue pill. Cliona had caught my cold and kept on sneezing and sniffling into a tissue. There wasn't any water. I washed down the pill with a swig of beer from the bottle.
Slowly, slowly, I crept down the three flights of stairs. Each step was a jolt to the stomach. It was enough to make me want to vomit. I shivered all the way to the shower, huddled there under the trickle of warmth while I waited for the Valium to kick in.
Cliona had all my clothes pressed and ready, coffee waiting on the table. In a week she'd be leaving for Dublin; then off across Europe; France, Spain. Over the water into Africa; Tunisia, or maybe Morocco. I could never remember the names. I didn't know whether I'd see her again.
I was running late, with barely time for a beer before breakfast. Cliona smiled up at me, her eyes half closed from sleep.
"I've never seen you looking so smart."
I dropped the empty bottle into her hand and kissed her goodbye. I felt terrible.
*
Frost licked at the lampposts and windows and crackled under my feet as I walked. The front windows of the house next door had been smashed in and thick layers of masking tape smothered the hole. Random vandalism, most likely; no reason why we should be spared.
A half hour later I was still stood at the bus stop. I paced back and forth to keep warm. The man in the booth said there was nothing doing, not for an hour at least. The roads were frozen, some snowbound. I dived into the nearest taxi.
"Bronwydd", I panted. The driver pretended not to understand. We drove until I thought I spied a sign. My eyes were switching from the meter to the mirror. The numbers were rolling and the bastard was grinning at me.
"Just drop me at the next bus stop."
The driver shrugged and smiled, pulled over and collected his coins. I stood and watched as he turned the car around and drove off into the distance. A river ran the ground beside me and, further back along the road, a steam railway curled over the hills. Not a soul in sight.
I called up the centre but couldn't get an answer. I ran from house to house, ringing bells and knocking on doors. A face looked out from the curtains. Someone switched off a light. No one came to the door.
With ten minutes to go I caught an old man as he crept around the side of his house.
"Trevelyan! Where's Trevelyan?"
The man made a break for it, perhaps taking me for an escaped patient. I grabbed him before he could disappear behind the gates.
He told me the home was just across the road, the house with the balcony, and the railings outside. Third on the left, you see?
"You'll never see anyone out on the balcony though."
The man grinned. He was missing three or four teeth.
*
Halfway homes. They stand in disdain of their neighbours, of the same street, but separate; shut off from the society that surrounds them. Houses full of those considered halfway to ok; or halfway to insane.
A tall, skinny woman in a green pencil skirt was at the door to greet me. She wore glasses perched on the end of her sharp nose and craned her neck to look at me with tiny, birdlike eyes. She showed me round the house without interest: six bedrooms, a study, kitchen and bathroom.
"As you can see, we have no uniforms here. Everybody wears their own clothes."
"How can you tell the carers from the clients?"
"Oh, you'll soon find that out."
Finally, we arrived at the lounge. It was warm in there, real warm. A man sat calmly in front of the television, rolling himself a cigarette.
"Hi," I said, offering a hand. He didn't take it.
"That's Charlie. He doesn't talk much."
Charlie looked up at me, nodded, and turned back to the television. The woman ushered me into another room. This one looked more like an office.
She was joined by a young man in a suit and tie. His balding head shone under the lamplight like the lines of a halo. We shook hands. Welcome. Pleased to meet you.
They seated themselves behind a large desk. I squatted on the tiny chair in front.
"Why do you want to work here?" They spoke as one.
"I want to be a useful member of society. I want to help people."
"Are you healthy?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I eat well; keep myself fit."
"Have you ever been in prison?"
"Not that I remember."
They laughed. I coughed into my hand, clearing my throat.
"Do you smoke?"
The laughter was making me nervous. I felt hot, dizzy, like maybe I had a fever. The pair of them kept making these strange faces at each other. I couldn't fathom it out. The silence went on and on, and on. I was thinking how nice it'd be just to sit and rest for a while, maybe watch some TV with Charlie. I saw myself nestling into the couch, rolling a smoke, sitting without speaking.
"You will be hearing from us shortly."
It was time to go. I forgot to shake hands this time. The lady led me outside.
*
I walked home along narrow roads without pavement. As the cars roared past I was forced to duck into the bushes to avoid them. I followed the line of the old steam railway as it cut through the country. I wasn't sure how far I had to go, but it seemed an impossible distance. I began to dream of turning back.
I knew I was close when I reached the hospital. At the edge of town I watched an old man collapse outside a shop window. He lay there on the pavement, keeled over on one side as the cars criss-crossed in front of me. By the time I had found a way through, a young woman already knelt beside him. She had a phone to her ear, and was calling an ambulance.
"Is he ok?" I asked stupidly.
She shrugged. "He says he's tired."
The man was eighty-two but couldn't remember his name. With every breath, a grey fog hissedfrom his throat. We tried to help him sit up.
I heard the sirens long before I saw anything. The ambulance crashed in, blazing blue lights, alerting all to the emergency. Two paramedics, burly, bald-headed blokes in their mid-thirties jumped out and began firing questions at us.
"What happened?"
"Do you know this man?"
I didn't know anything.
"He's tired," I said. "He wants to lie down."
"Tired..." moaned the old man.
"Do you know where you are?"
They shook the old man by his shoulders, slapped at his face. One of them spoke to him in Welsh.
"We'll take you for nice long rest, won't we Bill?"
"Sure will. Let's get you up then."
He wasn't a large man, but he lay like one dead, and looked heavy. The two of them struggled to lift him onto a stretcher.
"He'll be ok. Thanks for your help."
They bundled him into the van and slammed the doors. Then the sirens were screaming again and they were driving away down the street. I felt as though they'd stolen something from me.
*
The phone rang. I don't know why I picked up. The news is always bad.
"Kevin? It's Lisa."
"Hello. It's been a long time. How are you?"
"Not so good. I have a lump in my throat. The doctor says it may be cancer."
Hodgkin's Lymphona. Highly treatable, they'd said, especially in the young.
But it's still cancer - the killer
"You mustn't lie down. If you lie down they'll take you."
"What are you talking about? Kevin?"
I hung up the phone and tried to sleep for a while.
I wanted to be alone but Cliona was proud and happy and crawling all over me. She acted as though I'd already been given the job. She wanted to know who I'd been talking to. A friend. What friend? I don't want to talk about it. She began to sulk. I buried my head in a book and pretended to ignore her. She started to cry. We sat like that for almost an hour, Cliona crying and I reading the same page, over and over. Then she got up, grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the shelf and stormed out of the room.
She was back in a matter of minutes, the bottle already half empty.
"I'm going for a walk."
I didn't dare follow. The door slammed shut behind her.
*
Love had struck us like an accident. I never heard the alarms ringing, it just happened that way. I was in awe of her. She played guitar, and promised to teach me. She could sing beautifully. She was dreamy, philosophical; she wanted to change the world. I thought I had discovered her; my treasure. We'd get drunk on whiskey and poetry and make warm sleepy sex with the lights on. We were forced to meet in secret and our love was all the sweeter for it.
Neither of us had been home for the holidays, preferring to spend Christmas together. I'd never been allowed to meet her parents. As far as they were concerned, their daughter was sleeping with the enemy. I'd never even crossed the waters to Ireland, but they knew I was English and it was rumoured I didn't believe in God. The sins of the fathers and grandfathers; do they become those of the sons?
She had placed herself at my mercy. But I never heard the alarms, never saw the sirens. Now I felt only the dull buzz of static, a constant ringing in the ears.
*
When Cliona returned she was drunk as hell and her dancing, her touch, even her smile conspired to make me uneasy. She was showing me her new slip. It was lace, and red as blood. A delicate filigree traced the curve of her breasts and left just enough to the imagination. She whispered into my ears, kissed at my neck. She was trying to make love to me. I stared at my feet. I stared at her breasts. I was searching for some way to tell her.
"Something's wrong."
I'd been strumming the guitar when she came in, and I reached for it now. I played a few chords, she sang and for a moment, everything was ok. She reached to touch my face.
"You can't hide these things from me. I know you."
I thought of the old man, lying there on the pavement. I thought of Lisa, and her cancer. She too would have to lie down, under the knife this time. She who had wanted to be a surgeon.
"It's over, I can't do this anymore."
"You mean...us?" She stuttered.
"I mean us."
Slowly, deliberately, Cliona stood up and took a glass from the table. I watched in silence as she poured herself a drink. She clasped it with two hands; the glass shook between her fingers.
She launched the glass, sending it crashing against the wall. Then she ran out of the room, leaving me alone on the bed.
We had shared our beds but never our rooms. I always said I needed my own space.
None of this is was her fault. I had to go talk to her.
*
I found her tearing the pictures from the walls. The walls had been covered in careful pencil sketches of everywhere she planned to go; the whole trip laid out in pictures and diagrams. She'd had it all worked out. She'd spent time teaching in London, saved a little money. She didn't need me. She was leaving in a week.
But now she was screaming.
"All of it - it's just shit. Shit, shit, shit!"
"What about your -"
"My plans? I have no fucking idea where I'm going! I thought I could stay here, I'd hoped..."
She stood there holding these scraps of paper, tearing the maps and pictures into pieces. All I could think of was my sister, Ciara, throwing a tantrum after I'd smudged nasty red crayon across her finger paintings.
Do we really grow up? Cliona is four years older than I, but inside still only a child, a little girl, wanting to be strong, but afraid, so afraid of the world.
Cliona fingered a razor blade, stroking the edge along the length of her arms. She traced a line across her throat. Her eyes were a blank stare, vacant though full of tears.
She spoke of never coming back. Anything might happen, she said. She might fall on the tracks, in front of the train, or jump overboard on the ferry over to Dublin. It'd be a night crossing, too dark too see, too dark to find the body. She'd never been a strong swimmer.
I sat still, silent and dumb.
"I thought you loved me."
I write all of this down, in time it becomes a story.
*
For a long time she refused to talk to me. I returned to my room, drunk and slept for a while, for what seemed like days, staring at the wall that separated us. Later, when I knocked on her door, she wrapped her arms around me, and buried her head in my chest.
"You're bored of me. You want to smother me with your pillow."
My arms tightened around her. She slipped a hand through the cord of her gown.
"I brought this to look nice for you. Don't you like it?"
She ran her fingers across the lace, and over her breasts. Her face was still flooded with tears.
"Don't do that." I said.
"You don't like me. I'm too old for you." She covered herself up.
I muttered something about being too young to be in love. She begged tobacco for a cigarette but couldn't roll it. I took the papers from her hands and rolled one for each of us. We sat in bed together, smoking, letting the ash fall onto the floor.
"You hate me. Why did you ask me to stay?"
I skulked back to my room, swept up the broken glass from the floor and climbed into bed. Through the wall I could heard her sobbing into the pillow. I sat awake, watching my breath as it ebbed like grey smoke from my body.
*
Cliona left a few hours ago. Everything she owned was packed into two small suitcases. I walked with her to the station and kissed her goodbye as she boarded the train. I stood at the gates of the platform and watched until the last carriage had curled around the corner. She promised to call when she was safely across the waters.
It's closing time at the bars and outside, a man and a woman are fighting. I lay in bed listening to the shouting, the smashing of bottles on the pavement and, distant now but drawing ever nearer, the sound of sirens rising from the city.




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