‘A squat grey building of only thirty four storeys,’ Mum said.
‘Anecdotes or floors?’
‘Floors you idiot.’
It’s OK. I didn’t rise to it. Her vitriol just slithered off me. My alkali thick skin neutralised her acidic tongue. I’m practicing a new me. The old one got burned.
I’m Mark II now.
‘What’s your room like? Do you have a sea view?’ I asked.
‘Not big enough to swing a cat! I don’t know how I’m going to cope!’
‘The whole country is in lockdown mum.’
‘It’s all very well for you,’ she replied, ‘You’ve been housebound for so long it barely makes a difference.’
She made it sound like I don’t count.
Mum said, ‘Let’s do HouseParty later.’
She was putting on a front. Best foot forward.
‘OK as long it’s just you and me,’ I said. ‘I don’t like crowds.’
‘Just you, me and Jesus.’
I knew she was going to say that.
She had to hang up; she had a synod to attend albeit online as the hotel management thought it best not to allow gatherings in its conference rooms. She went all the way to Majorca to have a conference and now it seems she is stuck there.
Mum’s always got something on – church stuff mainly; soul recruitment is her bread and bream, her loaves and fishes. On a Tuesday morning she goes to Zumba in the community hall. She is always trying to drag me to Zumba, never church, just Zumba.
She said, ‘Jesus comes to you but Zumba, you got to put the effort in and go.’
On Thursdays after lunch it’s ‘Knit and Natter.’ Too twee! I like to call it ‘Stitch and Bitch’. Mum doesn’t like it when I call it that. But that’s what it is. A gaggle of Christian do-gooders, sitting around crocheting blankets for Afghan refugees whilst denouncing the girl in the hijab who makes the coffee in the cafeteria. Double mocha with double standards.
It’s OK. At least she gets out.
I used to go out but it got me into trouble. That’s how I ended up where I am. I had a tendency to punch people out of principle. I’d get angry and vengeful, emulating my mothers idol: God One. Not God Two. God Two is forgiving, like Mark II only with more followers.
The jails were full of people like me: misunderstood geniuses. There was no room at the inn. So I became a prisoner in my own home with an ankle bracelet and a curfew. Makes sense I suppose, from a financial standpoint, if not necessarily an ethical one.
What is the point of incarceration? Society should be protected from rogue elements like me, the ‘old’ me – Mark I. But society has an obligation to rehabilitate the rogue too; for everyone’s sake. I’m not saying everyone that goes through rehab comes out a vastly improved citizen or a better version of themselves. Christ, if that were the case, everyone on the planet could do with a little prison time. Everyone would benefit from a bit of confinement and some ‘one-to-one’ time with a neurotic psychotherapist and their oily glove puppet. But surely it’s worth a shot. Surely society owes itself the illusion of benevolence?
While stuck indoors, I had time to think, and thinking, once I got started, turned out to be easier than people make out. I used the time I had to reevaluate my life, to consider changes, to reinvent myself. My moral compass needed to be realigned. I decided to cut out all the undesirable elements in my life, to rid myself of needy people, of those that wanted to keep me in the gutter.
Mum, I’d have to keep – I didn’t have the courage to severe that particular tie.
I also decided that violence was not the answer. Then, soon after this revelation, a few days into living as a free man, I punched a man clean out. It turned out to be a good punch, the right sort of punch, a well placed, timely, beautiful punch.
Mum said, ‘Violence is violence but on this occasion I think God will turn the other cheek.’
On the night of the good punch I had been to Benny’s. To get to Benny’s I would go through the graveyard, past the Cobbler’s Arms, nip into the underpass and then out the other side. It’s the quickest way.
The transaction went well; just a little weed: in through the red lacquered door, down the hall, past the piano and into the kitchen where Benny and his girlfriend sat playing cards. That was their thing; they played cards and waited for people like me to show up.
Benny said, ‘It’s a misconception that, drugs are bad.’
I said, ‘Well you would say that.’
He had obviously given his reply much thought, ‘No, society is bad. Society is so corrupt that the people at the bottom have no hope. They can’t see a better future for themselves and so rather than abstain from pleasure in order to gain more later, they just take pleasure whenever they can; in the immediate. The no-hopers feed the gluttony of the hopeful. Survival of the fittest means only that those that can make sacrifices will gain more in the long term. So here’s a new meme with a qualifier, ‘Drugs are fantastic (if used with a little common sense and due diligence).’
At busy times it felt more like a doctor’s surgery. They even had a waiting room with a well-stocked record collection and an aquarium no longer holding water, its Japanese fighting fish long since dead. People had, overtime, put their business cards in the tank. Taxi drivers, solicitors, IT consultants, window cleaners, restaurant workers, hospital staff; the lot! The whole of society, its cogs and levers were represented in that tank and all of them were practicing due diligence. If Chief Inspector Dorothy Cadwell had, rather than leave her card in the tank, removed the rest as evidence she would have had to interview the entire city. Rather, she left her card as a sign of solidarity.
I left Benny’s and went back into the underpass. The pass was dimly lit and had as many tags as Benny’s fish tank had business cards. I’d made it about half way when I heard a women screaming for help further along. She was on the floor with her dress up and he knelt between her legs. Obviously not a prearranged romantic rendezvous, nor did I believe a financial transaction had been made between the two.
‘Hey!’ I shouted.
I could feel the old vengeful Mark rising up within me and Mark II gallantly stepped aside.
The man, wiry, tall and drunk staggered to his feet and rather than run, which is what he should have done, he tried to tuck his member back in. Member tucking takes time and its not something we normally have to do on the move. His desire to conceal the weapon before leaving the scene cost him a beautiful punch. Out cold. I then escorted the girl back to Bennies. She sat shaking in the waiting room while I fished out chief inspector Cadwell’s calling card.
‘Hero of the underpass.’
That was the headline in the local paper. Mum cut it out and framed it. In the photo I’m standing next to Cadwell. She’s all starchy and reeking of authority and I’m trying to look like catching rapists is my day job.
During the trial I had my first panic attack. Earlier, I’d explored fantasies of leaping over the barrier and giving the accused another beating. However, something inside (‘Jesus,’ mum said) told me that hitting him again would not be rewarded in the same way. I had to walk the line, be the good citizen and do my duty according to the law. Perhaps this enforced restraint, this imposed curtailment of my basic instincts, caused a panic within. My freedom to act had been compromised and it left me feeling trapped and vulnerable. I said my bit, answered all their questions before hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.
After the trial I started on a path of self-improvement. I got a job in an office, it wasn’t a great job but gave me structure and Mum was pleased.
‘Praise be the lord!’ she said.
‘If I do something wrong it’s my fault but if I do something right it’s the Lord’s work.’
‘Amen to that.’
The second panic attack came in a cinema.
I always tried my best to get an aisle seat when going to the cinema or theatre or on any form of public transport. But, on this occasion an old lady politely asked if I could be persuaded to swap seats with her. Her seat was slap in the middle of the aisle and was, in her words not mine, ‘the sweet spot’. I couldn’t really say ‘no’. So with a little trepidation I shimmied my way past a dozen laps of varying dimensions until I found the old ladies sweet spot.
The film was twenty minutes in when I began to worry that I’d drank too much lemonade and might need, at some point, to shimmy past all those laps again! The worry slowly turned to dread, I began to feel nauseous, my ears burned like the whole world was talking about me but my skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. I saw my heart burst from my chest, catapult across the auditorium and splatter onto the IMAX screen before me. I hyperventilated and passed out. The young women to my left, nothing more than a lap before, noticed my condition. She, without worrying about disturbing others, had me dragged out of the auditorium by two beefy men and into the foyer. Gayle, my rescuer, (the girl with the lap), stayed with me until the Ambulance arrived.
‘From Hero to Zero!’ might have been an appropriate headline.
I don’t think I could construct a more embarrassing scenario if I tried. Nevertheless, that’s what I do all day; worry about what might happen. After the cinema debacle I tried to carry on with my life as normally as I could but with one concession, I never went to the movies again, I went online instead.
Actually, that wasn’t the concession I made at all: the concession I made was to not sit anywhere in public, no busses, theatres, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants
or cafes. I would not sit anywhere that, should something happen, I couldn’t escape easily. Crazy isn’t it? Or is it, really? When you think about what I’d been through?
Life went on like this for some time until I realised that driving my car to work was really dangerous, not just for me but for the other road users too. What if I had another panic attack while in the car, driving along at fifty miles an hour? I had to stop using the car immediately but the thought of cycling to work, which was the only option left to me, brought on another panic attack, this time at my desk, in the office, in front of everyone. I had basically tarred and feathered myself in public and paraded my nakedness before the crowd… I couldn’t go back to work after that.
My life narrowed considerably, yet at first I couldn’t see it that way. I replaced the things I’d lost with new things. Cinema with downloads, a desk in the office with one at home, shopping in a supermarket with a home delivery service and friends and acquaintances with a cat named Rambo. Then, one day, I realised that I had not left my house in three months; It felt like an achievement, something to be applauded, not worried about.
After my melt down at the office some co-workers called to see how I was doing, my mother rang sporadically and Nester, the milkman popped in for a cup of herbal. But, after a while, concern for my well-being calmed down and I let out a sigh of relief, a sigh of relief that people were no longer concerned for me. Weird isn’t it? This meant that I could continue with my self-imposed isolation and do so under the radar, undetected… but for how long? Not long as it turned out.
Mum turned up on my doorstep one morning and offered to take me to lunch.
‘Lunch?’ I said, the word filling my mouth like a lump of coal.
‘Yes, Lunch. I thought we could try the new place in Theale.’
‘Theale?’ I said, my mouth now very dry from all the coal.
‘Yes dear, go get your coat.’
‘Coat?’ I said now feeling the panic bubbling up inside me.
‘Yes, coat. What’s with all the monosyllabic?’
‘Monosyl….’ I couldn’t get that one out.
‘The cat!’ I said suddenly inspired.
‘The cat? What about the cat?’
‘I can’t leave the cat. Rambo’s got abandonment issues. Needs constant attention. He barely leaves my side.’
We both watched as, with perfect timing, Rambo walked through his flap and out onto the street without so much as a backward glance.
‘Seems alright to me,’ said Mum laconically.
So, I told her the real reason I couldn’t go to lunch with her.
Mum listened carefully, sympathetically even, which was surprising as she is defiantly of the ‘socks up’ generation.
It felt good to get it all out in the open, tell someone what I was going through and share the burden.
‘You need to come to my Zumba class on Wednesday evenings!’ was her response. ‘ That will do you the world of good, plenty of younger girls go, not just my age.’
‘Yes, Zumba. Why not?’
‘You are agoraphobic,’ said mum.
‘No I’m not, I’m just sensible!’ I retorted.
‘Well, I just feel that I’m better off not putting myself in harm’s way. I can limit the situations in which I might have a panic attack to an arbitrary amount by not leaving my house.’
‘The trouble with comfort zones, dear, is that it is always sunny there but nothing ever grows.’
My comfort zone remains small but for the first time in years I’m not alone because everyone else’s world has been reduced to the footprint of their home. I never thought that If I stuck at it long enough the rest of humanity would follow. But here I am spending my time giving guidance to people on how to fill their days under confinement! I’ve become a Guru, an authority, I answer peoples questions and give orientation. I’m magnetic North and everyone is drawn to me. A shining star! I go south, everyone goes south. I’m a trailblazer in a brave new world shouting out instructions, ‘Left right, up, down, South- south-west. South, south east…East.