Post-Traumatic Something

I click onto my emails and see the confirmation. I will be returning to the College of Law next week, to complete the very final piece of my mandatory professional qualifications. I had forgotten about this course, this exam, in amidst the whole actual-working bit of it.

I open the email and just seeing the logo takes me back.

It was February 2008, and I was closing the door of MindReader’s car behind me. I was six weeks into the glandular fever that would – though I didn’t know it – limit my life for over three years. Everybody’s recollection is that it floored me immediately, but it didn’t go exactly like that. There was a strange interim period in January and February when I was sometimes jaundiced, sometimes blue with anaemia, sometimes too tired to stand up, when my glands felt like stones around my neck and under my armpits. In February 2008, en route to my first exam, my spleen was enlarged – I could feel it against my ribs – and the motion of moving my hand to lift my bag from the boot onto my shoulder caused a tidal wave of tiredness to sweep over me. My eyesight was fading in and out, changing minute-by-minute; a combination of the epithelial layer of my eye being shot to shit from the virus and my prescription changing because the muscles around the lenses were weak.

I said nothing on the way to the exam. I can tell you even today what I was wearing – boyfriend jeans, a teal-colour t-shirt. I took with me three Quality Streets leftover from Christmas and a bottle of Lucozade.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I did the most un-Billygean-like thing I have ever done in my entire life and walked out of that exam before I began, declaring myself not fit to sit. It was a combination of not being able to see the questions, being too tired to pick up my pen, and the rule imposed by the College of Law that if you begin an exam paper you cannot declare yourself unfit to sit and would have to take a fail grade. MindReader was in that exam, and I didn’t even look at him as I left. I was too tired to email the law firm who sponsored me through the course – who I now work for – and too tired to give a shit about the £50 I spaffed on a taxi on the way home. I got home and went to bed. It was the last time I was out of bed until May. It was the last time I left the house until July. Between that exam and my recovery which began in June there were many, many moments I wish I could forget: sitting in an ambulance the day my blood stopped clotting, seeing the doctors’ puzzled faces around my hospital bed, my father having to wash my hair for me, my boyfriend having to feed me, being too weak to sit up for ten minutes to play a board game on my birthday, being carried into the garden in April, walking to the kitchen for the first time at the end of May. The horrors go on. It is not easy for me to re-live this.

And now I’m going back to that college. My exam will be – I don’t doubt it, such is my soap-opera life – in the same room 412 that I walked out of six years ago.

I accept the course dates into my diary, shake my head, and open a can of coke at my desk, looking out of the window and appreciate for a minute that here I am, sitting up, all my organs doing what they should, and that I am doing something as unhealthy as drinking a can of coke after the super-healthy gluten-free casein-free caffeine-free paleo algae-eating supplement-taking years that followed the glandular fever.

Somebody approaches my desk. They put a court order down on it, a fingertip tracing lightly across the date for the hearing. “Alright to cover this, Billygean?” they say.

I look at the date and my mouth twists with irony. I went to the exact same location a year ago on that date, which was my last day at work before I got sick again. So different were my symptoms to the glandular fever that they are not even comparable, but nevertheless the memory of me driving up north in my car, sweating even though the air con was on, a hand shaking as I reached to pull my hair off my face, a nosebleed in the car on the way home fills me with a horror I can’t really articulate here. They are not rational, these memories. I do not need to think about these horrible memories, but I do. For once, I curse my skill at recollecting dates and times, because it does me no favours.

“That’s fine,” I say, taking the court order and staring at it.

And so next week I will go back to the College of Law and the week after I will go back to the next location I frequented before the second most-serious health setback in my life.

And I will be fine. More than fine.

Subtext

I often think my legal career is better depicted not in the things I’ve learned or the late nights worked in the office or dashing to court at the last minute, a documents suitcase rattling on the cobbles behind me, but actually in sitting on the steps of Snow Hill station, watching the arrivals and departures beneath me passing in and out, their metal wheels squeaking on the tracks, waiting for my twice-hourly train and worrying about things just said to me in the pub.

That is where I am now, and where I have spent many, many hours of my legal career, and where I wished to be this summer when I was instead reading books on my sun-lounger in the garden. How privileged I would be when my worries were about qualification and job security and doing the right things, I thought then; how normal.

A green Arriva train pulls in and a girl wearing flared jeans that are too short for her gets off. I wonder where’s she’s going at ten o’clock on a Friday night. She meets my eyes as she climbs the stairs and I look away, embarrassed to be 29 and sitting on the stairs – they’re up high and warmer than the benches, but it doesn’t stop you getting a muddy behind.

My train arrives eventually and I get on it and stare out of the windows. MindReader is waiting for me in our warm car at the other end and I feel myself unfurling like a spring flower.

“You alright?” he says mildly.

“Mm,” I say.

“I haven’t cooked. Let’s get takeaway,” he says.

We drive ten minutes up the road and park outside a strip of shops and restaurants, lit up blue and red and white in the night. It’s neither warm nor cool outside and smells of spring sap and blossom.

We order Chinese takeaway and wait, like I used to do when I was growing up. We sit on the wooden windowsill and look out. The windows are steamed up and it’s warm in here and I could almost go to sleep amidst the smell of the ginger and chilis.

“What you thinking?” MindReader says.

I draw my knees up to my chest and a tear rolls down my cheek. There is nothing wrong, really, except change and uncertainty and finding my own way and feeling like everybody is watching me do it, both in the literary and the law worlds. There are interviews and decisions and what kind of firm do I want to work for? and what am I happy to earn? and shit, is this really happening? Questions I haven’t – due to lack of foresight – ever really considered. I have written a book and sent it to an agent and I have almost completed my training contract and now need a job and I feel completely and utterly alone in my professional lives.

MindReader dashes the tear away from my cheek. I start talking, steaming the windows up even further. Our food is placed on the counter by the chef, wordlessly, and we leave it there for a while.

 

The double lives of Billygean

I get up early on Saturday and get the train to London by myself. I treat myself to a mocha on the train and feel the ridges in the cardboard cup as I stare out of the window at the city becoming countryside becoming city. I find my way from London Marylebone to the address in Shepherd’s Bush I memorised last night and casually press my Oyster card to the machines like I belong here.

London always seems to carry with it a kind of self consciousness: that everybody, too, is aware they are in London and is pretty happy with that fact. The smog tinges my pink-manicured nails grey-ish before I have found the address.

The sun is shining and the blossom is at its height – fat and pink – and I take a few photos, zoomed in past the pink leaves and right to the spidery yellow stamens.

I let myself into the venue. The floor is uneven, wooden, and I order a cup of tea as I read my submission and sweat buckets. My feet are hot in my boots and already ache from walking.

“Time for the next group,” a girl in a blazer with a long plait says.

I approach her tentatively, look through the glass doors to see the agent I spoke to last autumn sitting at a table, talking with her hands. I have never met her before, but I recognise her.

“Are you…?” the girl says.

“I’m here to pitch my novel,” I say. “I sent my first book last autumn and then we agreed I’d write another…”

“Oh yes – you! She was telling me all about your beautiful writing,” she says. She opens the glass door for me, and I place my hand momentarily on the doorknob. It’s cool and fits snugly into my palm. “Ready?” she says.

I look into the sunny room and take out my novel, 182 and a half days; the product of six months’ worth of free time: of missed social occasions and neglected housework and sleep. I take a deep breath. “I’m ready,” I say.

***

“Right, you’d better go,” the recruitment consultant says to me today, a bright and fresh Wednesday evening. The sky outside is all the blues: light along the horizon and dark up above, as if God has ripped a seam in the sky to let the last of the spring sunlight through. “You’ll be fine,” he says. “You know the law.”

I turn and look at him, waving a goodbye as I walk through Birmingham’s finance district, towards a law firm I’ve walked past every day for three years without truly looking at it. Three years of learning is culminating in my hand reaching out to push a door, which opens automatically. The foyer smells of old wood and polish and my heels echo on the marble floor.

I place my fingertips on the glass counter at reception. I take a deep breath. “I’m here for an interview,” I say.

Summer boyfriend (shared outlook)

He has always felt like summer to me: the drip of condensation onto a picnic table, going to get a cardigan at 9:00pm at the beach, the imprint of warm toes on a car window in July. In the unwrapping of a barbecued banana and the first white wine spritzer of the season.

We met in autumn, of course, though I was optimistically wearing flip-flops on the first day of term. He had a caramel latte resting on the wooden bench next to him, dark blobs of spilled coffee on his faded jeans. It wasn’t until months later, when the air had cooled, leaves dropped, and grown again, that I felt his summer-ness.

“Let’s go to the pub,” he said to me one afternoon in early March. It was one of those stand-out March days, where it’s not warm, exactly, but no longer bitingly cold, and the sun feels more yellow than white. We sat inside in a patch of sunlight on a dark-wood bench, the seam of his jeans resting against the seam of mine. The sun lit up the dust in the air and it moved like falling pollen. It was 2007 and I felt it then: that afternoon, that week, that month, stretching out in front of me, with this man, making me feel this way.

I felt it again that June. We went to Canon Hill Park. We fed the geese. Our skin smelt of sunshine and sugar. My law exams were done, a job was long-arranged. It was the first day of summer. But, more than that, it was this man, with his easy smile and freckled arms, making me giggle so much I had to roll onto my stomach to catch my breath. It was his enjoyment of me, of us, his pouring me more wine, his languidness as he checked his watch and we decided to be late.

I feel it all the time with MindReader – when watching a movie and his hand rests on my knee and I am supercharged; when he squints up at on oncoming train on our morning commute, and yesterday was another such day. It was the first of March. I, newly 29, was walking up Camden High Street, the sun in my eyes and MindReader’s warm hand in mine.

“Let’s have an ice cream,” he said, pointing to a van ahead. I chose cherry – worryingly pink, full of additives, no doubt. He paid for London Zoo with only a moment’s raised eyebrows – £26! – and we posed to have our photo taken by a guide. “Why is this happening?” he said, which made me snort, and that’s when I felt it again. We rounded the corner, lattes and ice creams in hand, and there was London Zoo in the sunshine, Regent’s Park beyond it, sprawling out in the spring-morning mist. We had the whole day in front of us, there, and then shopping in Covent Garden – maybe we’d stop and eat cake for lunch, the crumbs making our fingers sticky – and then dinner and drinks by the river. We’d stop to take a photo of Tower Bridge at midnight and have a snog. And then next day, too, brunch, to Richmond park to see the deer; wherever we wanted.

“Come on,” he said, reaching for my hand. “Let’s see the gorillas first.”

So we did.

Celebrating the milestones not the destinations

“This is my book,” I say to MadFather. Forty-seven index cards are laid out on the bed, each representing one scene. “But it lacks pacing here, and I think these four scenes need to go, and this reveal needs to be… more.”

MadFather puts his hand to his chin. “Talk me through it, then,” he says.

So I do. It takes thirty minutes, because I am boring and like to explain all the nuances and themes. He listens silently.

“I think you’ve started too early,” he says. he points to the fourth index card. “Start here.”

“I agree.”

“And I think the two main plots need to interlink more…”

I look out of the window at the darkening Saturday afternoon. Why don’t you just write it how you want it the first time? is a think people say when you tell them you are on draft two of a novel. But it’s just… Writing a novel is REALLY HARD. There is so much to consider: pacing, plot, characterisation, development, whether there is enough action interpersed with character development, whether the main plot is the main plot or if a reader might be more interested in the subplot, whether the action moves quickly enough, or too quickly and doesn’t leave any room for incidental action, and not to mention whether the actual sentences are well-constructed. I could go on: writing a novel with an actual plot is somehow more difficult than writing one without one, in a funny way.

“He sees this crime,” I say, “but he doesn’t know it. Why would that happen – how could that happen?”

“The crime needs to be different.”

MadFather picks up one of the cards and stares at it. “Hang on,” he says. “Just look.”

“What?”

“It’s eighty thousand words?”

“Yes.”

“Look,” he says. “He stands and gestures to the cards. “You wrote a book. Just look at it for a second. And let’s not think of the work that needs doing or the deadline or your worries. Let’s just look at this – you said you’d write a book in three months and you have.”

If I should think of love

2003

I am out playing pool with my friends from sixth form. We got pretty good at pool, that summer, though my skin was pale from drinking too much inside under the dim red lights and not outside in the glorious summer.

A boy is texting me even though he is in the same room at me. I grimace at my phone, seventeen and inexperienced.

“Going well?” a friend says to me.

“Nah,” I say quietly. “Need to deff it off. He’s too clingy.”

I take my shot, and pot the black.

***

2005

“What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” OldHousemate says to me, drawing her knees to her chest on our cracked faux leather sofa in our dim house. She reaches over and switches a lamp on and it illuminates the slug trails across the carpet.

“Should I be doing something?” I say.

“Yes. He’s probably planning something.”

My stomach lurches as I imagine sitting opposite my boyfriend in a restaurant, trussed up in uncomfortable heels.

I send a text: Let’s not celebrate Hallmark’s profits tomorrow, it says.

***

2007

My eyes follow MindReader across the lecture theatre. I am not listening to our tutor teach us about the law of offer and acceptance, and I am certainly not responding to a text from my long-term boyfriend. Instead, I watch the way MindReader’s freckled arm tenses as he writes, watch the droplets of his latte linger on his lips after he takes a sip, watch how – as the lecture finishes – he stands and puts a hoody on, a glimpse of a taut stomach. He’s slipped his shoes off, and he puts them back on before he leaves. He leaves before everybody else, not caring, not saying goodbye to people – his own very full life at home in Shropshire.

I text him, later, having drafted and re-drafted a message as I paced across my bedroom. “I’m making meringues,” it says. “Any tips?”

He replies immediately, and my cheeks flush red.

There were no meringues.

***

2014

“Is it your year or my year?” MindReader says to me, his arm lazily flung across my shoulders on the train on the way home from work.

Your year,” I say, leaning to kiss him, looking forward to a very calm evening where three immaculate, complicated, tasty courses get delivered onto our table effortlessly.

“Oh yes, I forgot the breakfast fiasco,” he says with a smile that makes my stomach feel like it’s full of happy fireworks.

Last year – my year to cook – I made MindReader three breakfasts, having talked myself into a fry up being his favourite meal (it isn’t). The starter was a banana and a glass of orange juice. I’m not proud.

“This is our seventh Valentine’s,” I say.

He looks directly at me. His eyes are blue, ringed brown in the middle. I first noticed them when they caught the light in our lecture theatre.

We reach our stop, and leave together.

Discharged

“So your CRP wasn’t raised – in fact it’s unusually low,” my immunologist says to me. He has small, neat features and wild eyebrows. “But that means you’re extremely unlikely to have a heart attack.”

“Oh, good,” I say; as a hypochondriac, genuinely quite pleased by that sentiment.

“So my guess would not be a CFS diagnosis, even though that’s a diagnosis of exclusion. Where PFAPA and FMF are bacterial autoinflammatory responses, perhaps you have some rare viral form – are you still having the attacks?”

“Yes,” I say, “but milder – sometimes. Though January was bad. I was at work a lot with vertigo.”

He lifts his hands up in a kind of weighing-scales gesture. “C’est la vie,” he says.

“What now?” I say.

“Well I’m doing more tests – adrenal tests and I will re-check your vitamin D as it was very low.”

I nod. “Is there anything I can do, in the meantime?”

“Well, it will go away on its own,” he says, adjusting his tie. “But generally I would recommend some sun, sunbeds…”

“Right…”

“Eating more – you could stand to eat more. We’ve established you can exercise, so do. Actively manage the stress in your life,” he says, raising an eyebrow; a nod to his exclamation of a lawyer writing a best seller? Oh Christ. “I find viral things go away more easily if your life is on an even keel.”

I sit back in my chair. “My life is not on an even keel,” I say.

“No? Qualification – and the book?”

The two big goals: this time next year I might well be a lawyer with a literary agent or I might – I think in my darker moments – be neither, and all this hard work – for it is that – might have been for nothing.

“Not just that,” I say. “I’m just… finding it hard. It was always like this – after a bad health patch I always did come out of it a bit… anxious.”

“It is always a shock when one falls ill,” he says, his hand reaching towards me slightly. “Even if it’s happened before.”

“Yes,” I say. “For the first time in almost a year I have nothing to worry about.” I shrug. “But I am. It makes no sense. I am seeing someone.”

“Things like this don’t always make sense, Billygean. A depressed person has no cause to feel depressed, often. You do have cause for anxiety, and probably you’ve got used to worrying.”

I nod, feeling choked up.

“Sunlight,” he says as I stand to leave. “Stay in the sunlight and cast the shadows behind you.”