MEMOIR: WRITING AND SILENCE (Updated)

MEMOIR: WRITING AND SILENCE (Updated)

Last year, for the first time in my life, I lost access to the part of my mind that has always made me want or perhaps need to write. Where I used to hear from that part of my mind all the time, as if listening to a constant chatter from a radio station aimed only at me, suddenly, in the midst of my illness and treatment, that radio station went off the air, leaving nothing, not even static. It, the creative, scribbling part of me, felt dead.

I had known quiet or fallow periods in the past, and was well familiar with manifestations of “writer’s block”. I sold my first two novels in the same year, during the 90s, and while deeply pleased about this I was also deeply worried about following up with a third book. What if it wasn’t as good? The usual “difficult second album” anxiety, only transferred to the prospect of a third book. I tried all kinds of things, and started in on different projects, each time thinking this would be the one. But no. I got so anxious about this that I stopped even trying to write, and fell silent.

But my head was not silent. I was still getting at least, as it were, “carrier wave” from that radio station. There was just no programming, no content, but the station itself was there and transmitting normally. In the end, as that silence went on, and I became more and more bothered by it, I ended up making a New Year resolution of, “this year I’m going to write a book even if it kills me.” My psychiatrist suggested I try writing longhand, rather than use a keyboard, to see if the unfamiliar writing method and environment made a difference. It did. I sat each day and scribbled out pages of what I knew was utter rubbish, but I didn’t care about that. I was writing. A story was being told. The story sucked, but that was fine. One thing led to another. The ice cracked and thawed. The radio station resumed transmissions, and, two junked manuscripts later, I ended up with something half-decent, my third published novel, HYDROGEN STEEL.

But last year, while I was in hospital, and during a time when my biochemistry was utterly out of whack, one day I noticed a a strange silence in my head. You know how you are just sitting there in what you think is a silent room, but then the airconditioning or a refrigerator shuts down, and suddenly that unnoticed background hum you never noticed is no longer there and you’re left in a state of “more silent than silent”? And it’s spooky and gives you chills because you didn’t think silence like this was even possible? It was like that. The signal from my radio station was gone. Or, if not gone, then I could no longer receive its signal due, no doubt, to interference at my end.

It was one of the most disturbing aspects of the entire experience, and one of the strangest things I can remember ever happening to me.

I have written, and wanted to write, since my earliest days. Some of my earliest memories involve stories, books, being read to, and reading books myself. I devoured shows on TV, then wrote imitations and transcriptions based on what I could remember about them. This is how you learn writing: you learn writing by imitating and copying other writing, and other stories. This naturally makes you produce derivative bollocks, but you get past that and start getting your own ideas. Even with the stuff you’re writing based on other things you’ve read and seen, there are flashes of crazy original stuff, embellishments and improvisations, that are all your own work. And over time these things become what you write about, and become the basis of your creative voice.

My creative voice died, though. It went away, and it was as if it had never been. It was like the characters in 1984 who get deleted from history, and suddenly never existed, because people like Winston Smith assiduously edit the official record of the past, to remove all trace of them. The part of me that has always, always written, was likewise deleted. It was as if I’d never written, and those books of mine now belonged to someone else.

I told my doctors about it. They would stare at me, astonished, and baffled. This was not a symptom or side-effect they knew about, or were expecting. And it was, indeed, most likely a consequence of the huge mental earthmoving operations going on in my brain. My brain was very likely simply too busy dealing with withdrawal from one medication and the phasing-in of another. I went through a great many medications, trying to find something that worked, and which didn’t bring with it unbearable side-effects.

I was not used to this silence. It was startling. I grieved for the loss of that radio station, and for the person I used to be because of it. It made me who I was. I was a writer before I was anything else. But if writing was gone, what was I now? If I wasn’t working on my writing, what would I do? I’m a guy in his 50s: the statistics about employment opportunities for men my age are not encouraging. But questions of work and employment aside, this felt to me like an existential question: what am I now? It was that abyss which, when you stare into it, stares back at you–and whispers that you’re only a couple of years away from being able to move into an early retirement village.

You’re reading this essay (I hope someone is reading this essay), so you know Adrian got his groove back. You know there’s something like a happy ending here, though I am suspicious of tidy endings. I am writing lately, and even writing every day, which is marvellous. But I don’t know if this is the new normal or what the future holds. Me and everyone else in the world, I suppose.

But this time last year there was the real and confounding possibility, indeed a likelihood, that I could perhaps be made well and whole again, but that I would lose my creative mind. I might no longer receive those transmissions. How did I feel about that? Was that an acceptable price to pay for being able to function in the world, to live my life? This was a question I faced. My doctors thought it was a fair deal. I was much less convinced. I who had always written the way I had always breathed.

A great deal of reflection did remind me that I did have one very serious, very important job, quite apart from my writing life–I was husband and partner to my wife, Michelle. She is the breadwinner in the household. Michelle works for Clinipath, a commercial pathology firm, where she works the evening shift in the Haematology section. My job has always been to look after everything else, more or less. My psychiatrist reminded me of this one day, pointing out, “you’re the drummer, but you want to be the lead singer”. My doctor has a way with metaphors. But he was right back then, and the thought remained true last year, in the midst of my strife. Even if I was no longer a writer, so what? I was still Michelle’s drummer, maintaining the steady rhythm in the background that allowed her to do her thing. Michelle doing her thing got us this far. Our house, for instance, is all paid for. We have a nice car, and very little debt. Michelle has managed to accrue savings, and we live in privileged comfort.

But could I live with “just” being the drummer? Could I bear no longer hearing from the radio station? They say you can get used to anything. I recently read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which includes his memoir of life in Nazi concentration and death camps during the war. Even he says you can get used to anything.

So what happened? Why am I writing again? And so much, so often? I had been waiting for my condition to settle down. I’d been waiting for some sign or indication that I was no longer sick, that my ordeals of last year were over. That I was well. I explained this to my psychologist. She told me that maybe I could use writing as a form of self-therapy. Maybe I could write my way to wellness.

Since starting this journal, I have indeed felt much better about things. I’m starting to get the occasional signal from the radio station. Writing is causing writing. Writing is meaningful to me, and I’ve read (in Frankl’s book among other places) that pursuing activities and occupations that are meaningful to you will lead not to happiness but to a sense of contentment. So I’ve been doing everything I can to pursue meaningful activities. All the things that are important to me, from writing to weight-loss, I’m pursuing as hard as I can. And it seems, so far, to be working. I feel quite okay. I don’t know, at this moment, if I will ever write another novel, but I do feel that all this writing will one day lead to some sort of memoir, or at least that’s the aim. And that might be enough.

Meanwhile, I’m still Michelle’s drummer. I can live with that.

MEMOIR: MEDS (Total Rewrite, All New)

MEMOIR: MEDS (Total Rewrite, All New)

Recently my doctor referred me for a sleep study. There was a lot of paperwork. Amongst all the paperwork was a request that I list all my medications.

Well, bugger. I had to go to some trouble for this. I am on quite a few medications, almost all of them new since my hospital experience last year. I had to get them all out, squint at the tiny print on labels, and copy details onto the form provided. It was quite a list. I think it came to eight or nine items, of which half are for psychiatric purposes. The others are for “you’re an old fart now” purposes.

This new regime works well, so well that my doctor (desperately grateful to have found a combination that works after the horror of last year’s medication change) is loath to change anything. I kind of want to change one thing. The main powerplant of my recovery from last year is a tricyclic antidepressant called Notriptyline. It’s not one of these fancy new high-tech drugs with a low side-effect profile and even makes coffee. I tried all of those drugs last year and they weren’t up to the job. The doctors told me I had “treatment-resistant depression”. They needed a nuclear weapon, and Nortriptyline is that.

The problem, though, is that it makes patients stack on weight. Two of its major side-effects are weight-gain and increased appetite. And since December 2012 I’ve been on a huge weight-loss campaign, and managed to lose fifty kilograms. I was keen to preserve and extend that if I could. But could I do it on Nortriptyline?

The answer is yes, but only just. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and requires a great deal of work on my part. It’s exhausting. I would like it to be less hard. But my doctor sees that my recovery is going really well. Look at all this writing I’m doing! Look at all the exercise I’m getting! I’m functioning at a very high level, higher than possibly at any time before in my life. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it?

It is, but at what cost? is what I want to say.

Welcome to the world of psychiatric medication. Where everything is a trade-off between function and side-effects. You want to be able to live your life, do your job, look after your family, maybe even enjoy yourself a bit, without finding yourself tangled up in a sticky web of nasty side-effects that make your life worse than the condition the meds are supposed to treat.

Last year, every time the doctors proposed a new medication for me (and there were many, many medications) there was a fact-sheet about it for me to inspect, and amongst all the facts and figures there was always a discussion of common, less-common, and rare side-effects that had cropped up during testing and trials, some of them guaranteed to be terrifying. So right away you’re thinking about trade-offs and compromises. You might get at least some of your life back, but at the cost of some other part of your life. Take your pick. And be aware that any given drug will only tend to work on about fifty percent of patients who receive it anyway.

Such as me and the great hope that was Zyban. When I went into the hospital last May for what I’d been led to believe would be a quick transition from the drugs I’d been on (for about thirty years, more than half my life) over to a sleek new powerful drug, I’d been on an antidepressant called Clomipramine (another of the tricyclics, in the same chemical family as the Nortriptyline I’m on now). It seemed no longer effective. I’d been very ill for a long time.

Almost right away once installed in the hospital the staff started reducing my Clomipramine dose, doing it over several days. This created some emotional turbulence with withdrawal symptoms, which they moderated with tranquilisers, which helped a bit. In time, though, it was time to start on the Zyban. The doctors had talked this up. It was new and exciting. It was an Italian supercar of a drug. Its biochemistry was amazing. It did so many clever and subtle things at once, it was like nothing else. I was going to love it. It sounded fantastic. And I was already feeling sufficiently unglued and stressed out, heading for a full depressive crash, that I would have tried anything if I believed it would help.

The night I had my last Clomipramine was a special occasion. I’d been on that stuff since about 1986. About the same time I was getting together with Michelle. I’d left university just the previous year. The Space Shuttle was still flying. I was in my twenties. I saw the last Clomipramine tablet in the little plastic cup, and wished I’d had my iPad with me so I could take a photo of that last tablet. It was lights out for a huge phase of my life. Every night for thirty years I’d swallowed ten of these little bastards, and while they’d done an okay job of moderating the worst of my depressive cycles, they had side-effects I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.

I started the Zyban, and within a couple of days felt pretty decent, even fine. I thought, this can’t be the new drug already, can it? Some drugs come on very quickly, I was told. So who knows? I thought, all chuffed.

That weekend I went to a writers’ group meeting at Edith Cowan University in Mount Lawley. Right away, as soon as I arrived, I was feeling brittle, antsy, irritated, aware of noises, some in particular. Every chair I sat on seemed made of broken glass and spikes. Wherever I sat it wasn’t quiet enough. There were people talking and eating, and wandering about the stacks. I kept having to change desks, trying to find a quiet spot, and I couldn’t believe there was this much noise in a library, especially a university library.

I ended up sitting in the lobby of the library, heaving with tears from the stress of a few people talking and eating and walking around. Michelle came and got me. Two dear friends stayed with me while I waited for her. On the way home I felt hollowed out, raw inside, undone and broken.

Back in hospital after weekend leave, feeling like a failure again, I saw my doctor, and told him about my experience. He concluded the Zyban, far from kicking in early and being great, was in fact having no clinical effect whatever. I was not in that lucky fifty percent who felt the Italian supercar thrill of the fabulous drug.

But this meant that I had no effective defense against depression. For the first time since my breakdown when I was sixteen, I was alone and naked far out at sea.

People get concerned about taking medication for psychiatric conditions in a way they don’t get concerned about taking, for example, painkillers for a headache, or cold and flu tablets when they’re under the weather. I think they worry that the psychiatric medication is going to profoundly alter their personality, their sense of who they are. And to some extent, with some medications that can happen to some extent.

I’ve never worried about that. I’ve always seen medication as a corrective to a distortion caused by the illness. As something like using corrective lenses to fix bad eyesight. Taking the right medication, for me, has enabled me to feel more like myself than less like myself. When the stuff works well, and these past few months my medication has worked extremely well, it feels even like I’ve had an upgraded to a higher, better version of myself. I feel like I can think more clearly, more creatively, and certainly more productively, than I ever could before. I tend to think of my former medication regime as like a nasty, dirty, noisy diesel engine, spewing out soot, rattling and banging, compared with the silent, efficient molten salt solar tower I’m using now. It’s as transformative as that.

And yet, I have encountered creative people who say that medication stops them feeling creative, or otherwise interferes with their artistic selves somehow. I’m never sure what to make of these claims. I can’t get inside their heads. I don’t know what else is going on in their lives that might be contributing to a crisis in their creative life. If everything was okay they wouldn’t have doctors prescribing medication. But it is possible the specific medications and the specific brains involved simply don’t work together. What should an artist or writer do?

My own feeling is that they should get the help they need that lets them work and function as normal as possible. If one sort of medication isn’t working, try others–there’s loads out there to try. And not only medication: these days there are non-medication treatment options (transcranial magnetic stimulation, for example, or even ECT), and the “talking cure”, meeting with a psychologist or counsellor to talk over your troubles can be very effective, too. The point of treatment is to help you get your life back. A life you can live with, that lets you do your thing. That lets you thrive.

Admittedly, this is a relatively new thing. In the years after my diagnosis, the Years of Hell, after I left D20, and tried to get used to my new existence, it was hard. I and every psychiatric patient I knew walked around looking like we’d all just escaped from a car accident. We all looked stunned, shocked, confused, kind of angry and nervous. We were hesitant and shaky. The blunt instrument medications we were on then were no Italian supercars. They were East German Trabants by comparison, belching out foul exhaust and barely functional. We were, as a group, either really fat and sluggish and prone to shaky-handed, sad-eyed smoking, or nervy, edgy, jittery and thin to the point of emaciation, and also inclined to smoke. We were on such heavy-duty medication we could barely function, let alone embrace the artistic, creative life. It was all some of us could do to make a cup of tea.

Medication has improved greatly. The Italian supercar drugs work a treat for the people who notice them. The non-medication treatments work well, too. I tried the transcranial magnetic stimulation last year, but I was in no condition to go through it. I couldn’t lie still in the chair, and the sound was, for me, at the time, intolerable. This was during my second hospitalisation, which while not as hard as the first one, still brought plenty of torment my way.

It took me a very long time, during those Years of Hell, to get used to the idea of taking medication every day, and to take so much of it each day. When I was eighteen I was taking about ten or twelve different pills each night. They all did something important. But it was hard to remember to keep taking them. With other things, like a course of antibiotics, you’re lucky if you can remember to take all of those, and that’ only two weeks, but this was every night forever. It did my head in, that forever. That I would never be well, not properly. I would always, as I came to see it, walk with a limp that only I noticed, but which I always noticed.

What helped in the end was coming to see the illness as no different from something like diabetes. When I found out what diabetes patients go through day to day, and across their whole lives, it resonated with me, and helped me very much. I could see my own chronic illness in context with another chronic illness. It helped to diffuse some of what at the time was still a heavy and suffocating stigma surrounding anything to do with mental illness. Nobody talked about it, but some people, once in a great while, simply disappeared, or died “and police report there were no suspicious circumstances”. It took me a long time to understand this bit of code.

Another thing that caused me problems when it came to taking medication as a teenager was my dad, who was generally against medication for anything, and would wheel out the old chestnut, “pills for dills with aches and ills”, which was to say, only an idiot takes pills. The rest of us are too smart for that. And he would use that to justify not taking anything for himself, and that undermined my own efforts to keep at it.

The most serious problem I had, as a bipolar patient, with psychiatric medication was this: when on a manic cycle you feel so ridiculously great, at least at first, for a while, maybe at least a few days to a week, that it’s like your whole brain has gone somewhere nice on holiday and is lying by a pool sipping cocktails and wearing sunglasses. You feel crazy-good, and you’re obviously not remotely sick, can’t you tell?

When you feel so fantastically upbeat, so cheerful, full of mad energy, hardly needing to sleep or eat, the last thing you want to do is take stupid pills. And yet that’s exactly when you need to take them. I have had the conversation with my mum where she tells me the fact I feel so fine only proves how sick I really am.

I am most likely stuck with the Nortriptyline, simply because it’s doing it’s job so very well. I am having depressive spells, but they are not so severe they are interfering in any serious way with what I want to do each day. The weight issue is a very urgent concern, so I imagine we’ll look at options there. A month or so ago my doctor started me on Topamax, an anti-anxiety drug that, unbelievably, has a weight-loss side-effect. To the extent that it’s prescribed off-label in the US in diet clinics. He might increase my dose of that and see what happens.

This is life on psychiatric medication. There’s always some damn thing to deal with, consider, weigh up, discuss. It’s exhausting just trying to achieve the normality most people take for granted and never notice.

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (Partial Rewrite)

MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (Partial Rewrite)

One day when I was about ten years old, I believed I was dead. It was a bright, warm day, the sun beating down. It might have been a Sunday, but am not sure. I have few details to go with this memory, other than that cold, numb sensation that at the time, I thought, could only be death.

I’m reading about the writing of memoir lately. Ever since my experience last year in hospital, I’ve been nursing the thought of trying to write down the story, if I call it a story, of my life with mental illness. But the more I think about the prospect of sitting down to work on it, it seems to recede in my mind, as in the sort of dream where you run towards a point up ahead, but that point telescopes out in front of you, a sarcastic version of Zeno’s Paradox, where not only can you never beat the tortoise to your destination, the destination gives you the finger and runs away.

Living with mental illness is a bit like living with a terrible house-guest or room-mate, one who won’t pay the rent or won’t pay their share of the bills or help out with chores. One who makes everything that happens about them, as if it’s their house, and not yours. And I’ve been living with mine my whole life, but only became aware of it as such when I was first diagnosed at age sixteen. The day I’m writing about here, the day I was ten and thought I was dead, is the first instance I can now recollect of something seeming wrong. It was a hint, foreshadowing a looming story development.

I started thinking about writing this memoir last year during the never-ending medication-change saga that saw me hospitalised three times in five months. The experience was so much worse than I was expecting–than even my doctors were expecting–so explosive and transformative, that I started thinking it might be worth writing about it.

I turned to memoir how-to books, and read a stack of them. THE ART OF WRITING MEMOIR by Mary Karr, and HANDLING THE TRUTH, by Beth Kephart, were two that became my guiding stars. They showed me that it’s okay not to be able to remember every last detail. That it’s okay to say you dont’ know, don’t remember. Also that you don’t have to follow a strict chronological sequence. You can fragment the narrative however you please, as long as it works. But the main thing they say is that you have to tell the truth as best you can remember it. Here it gets tricky. Truth is fuzzy. There are details missing. There’s the RASHOMON effect, too, where three different witnesses will tell three different stories of what happened. So you have to make your best effort, and be honest with the reader when you’re at the fuzzy edge of what you remember, when you’re standing at the edge of fiction.

Kephart suggests lots of exercises to limber up your writing muscles, to start thinking like someone writing memoir, and I’ll be trying some of them here in the near-future. But the one I’m doing today is the recommended exercise of trying to write down your first memory.

My first memories are elusive and fragmentary. I hardly know where to begin with them, other than perhaps as random blurry snapshots not to be taken at all seriously. But considering my overall goal, I thought it would be good to try to describe my first remembered experience with depression.

Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, I can see things from my pre-diagnosis past that look like episodes, or instances, of depression. The first that I can think of was this one where one Sunday when I began to be aware, as I lay in bed, that I felt very far away from my life as I had so far understood it. I was just a kid, and I was used to odd things happening–that was life: practically everything that happens is new to you. And this feeling was new. New and strange.

I felt as if I had died, that I was in fact dead, but because I was already lying down on my bed hadn’t fallen over. That I was awake and conscious seemed weird, but not overly so.

What was I doing before that? I have no true idea. The memory consists of only the details I’ve described. I don’t even know what happened after that. I have a vague and therefore unreliable recollection, possible fabrication, that my mum appeared in the doorway and asking her if I was dead, but I don’t know. I felt numb and, as they would say today, disassociated. Separate from myself. As if looking at myself from the outside. Not sad, either. It was like a freedom from feeling. Numbness. Blankness.

I’ve experienced that again many times over the course of my life, up to and including this past week. Depression is like this, like your heart has been removed. Like you’re a lump of something inert and lifeless. And as if you’re far from home, perhaps on the Moon, and made of the same arid grey stuff. I have felt this many times, including during the time I have been writing this book. All your personal mountain ranges have been eroded away to flat round lumps of dirt. All your excitement and joy and appreciation of colour has been pit away in a box to which you don’t have the key. You feel dead inside, just like that ten year old boy.

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 2 (Total Rewrite)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 2 (Total Rewrite)

I was sixteen years old and homework was going to kill me. I spent more hours per day on homework than I did in actual classes during the day. Each afternoon, when school was done, I had to load most of the books and files in my locker into my grey schoolbag to take home, to “help” with the homework. It was brutal, and never-ending. I was often awake into the wee hours, scribbling away, but sometimes just sitting there, staring at the matter before me, wondering what on Earth I was going to do with it.

I had colossal problems with everything. I felt as if I understood nothing, that I had no business in this “matriculation” part of high school. It was organised so that everyone first does three years of relatively painless stuff, and at the end of that, should you wish to, especially if you had no plans to go to university, you could leave and, for example, attend TAFE, do an apprenticeship, learn a trade, or whatever.

I couldn’t say I had a red-hot blazing desire, a longing, to attend university. It wasn’t really on the Bedford radar at the time. Even if I went, what on Earth would I study? I had no idea. All I did know, at the end of Year 10 (the old Third Year) was that just about all my tormentors left at once, having no interest in higher education.

I could have danced.

So I wound up staying on for the final two years, 11 and 12, for matriculation. It was a process deliberately designed to prepare hapless students for the serious rigours of university-level education. Which is to say, it’s bloody hard. Pants-wettingly hard. So hard you will find yourself wishing for a quick and merciful death sooner than you would ever imagine.

When I was just fourteen, my parents knew Something was Wrong with me. They saw signs in my weird behaviour, the way I did things, my moodiness, my temper, and much else. They took me to a doctor. The doctor told them there was nothing he could do, no help he could offer, until “something happened”. There had to be a crisis of some kind. There had to be, in other words, a breakdown. The doctor sent us away.

I remember this doctor visit, but I remember only my parents’ worried, lined faces. I remember nothing of what they talked about (they filled me in much later). I only remember sitting there, my scalp prickling a little, knowing I was being talked about but not understanding, as if the whole thing was in a foreign language.

I have already sketched in a little of the bullying/abuse I faced throughout my schooling. But perhaps even worse, when it came to Years 11 and 12, was the work itself, and my mounting sense of panic as I saw that I was simply not up to it. I should have quit at the end of Year 10, like my tormentors. There would have been no shame in it, and I would have avoided, most likely, what came next.

At the end of Year 10 those students who were staying on had to have a think about their future plans, and then talk to the career guidance counsellor about course selection for the final two years. My careers guidance counsellor was my Social Studies teacher, who did not like me one bit, and I was less than pleased to see her, too. She asked me my plans. I said I had no plans. I didn’t. She said, well, you like reading, don’t you? Well, of course I did. If left to my own affairs I would basically just read and write full-time. So I stupidly said yes. She made a note. Then she said, Oh, and you’re interested in science and stuff, too, right? Again, yes, of course, naturally, but–

But nothing. With these two answers she fashioned a set of classes for me. She had me down for English, Maths 2 and 3, Physics, Chemistry, and History. Despite the names, Maths 2 and 3 were the truly advanced units in mathematics. There was a lower-intensity unit, Maths 1, which was more my speed, and one lower even than that, Maths 4. But I wound up in 2 and 3, which also meant a truly terrifying teacher whom I call Mr Bastardface (not his real name), who is the subject of a whole separate essay in this book.

This set of courses was just about the most intensely difficult group she could assign. I tried to protest, to explain, that I couldn’t do these things. But to no avail. If any one single person put me in hospital after my breakdown, she would be that person. She dropped me into the pit of vipers, and just about killed me.

Getting out of school at the end of the day was meant to feel like a wonderful release, the end of your day’s labours. But for me and students like me dropped in water much too deep for them, it was only the end of Act One. Act Two lay ahead. In which the protagonist is trapped in a maze that only grows more baffling, more frustrating, that changes configuration around you, and quite possibly has no actual exit.

I sat in classrooms for all these different subjects. I listened as hard as I could, and I wrote notes like I knew what I was doing. I attended to everything, thinking that if I just paid enough attention, if I did my job well enough, it would pay off. The “aha!” momemt would condense out of the atmosphere of panic, and I would understand at last.

It never came. I was swamped. I couldn’t touch the bottom. Every night there was more homework. It never helped. I never caught up; I was always behind, and had to keep lists keeping track of what I was doing now and what could wait.

I had a teacher for Year 11 English who, at the start of the first class of the year, when I’d been thinking, well, I should at least be okay here. English had always been my thing. In lower high school I’d done extremely well with it, and imagined that would continue. I was wrong. This teacher’s first utterance, as she sat on a stool in front of her desk, addressing us, was, “Most of you will fail this class.”

It was shocking. More shocking was finding out she meant it. We’d spent three years learning various ways of looking at books and stories and so on. That was all out the window. We were now expected to engage in a new mode of literary analysis which, when she described it, sounded like dead TV static, like off-key piano music, like something circling and then falling down a drain. It sounded like doom. I never did understand what she was talking about. My very best, most sincere efforts meant nothing. It was a language I did not understand, a note I couldn’t hear.

And that was my best class.

Physics and Chemistry started off utterly incomprehensible and grew more opaque from there. Nothing made sense. The textbooks made no sense. The measurement of error. The measurement of uncertainty. The problem of measurement itself. Wave motion. The sublimation of iodine straight from solid to gas was cool. The careers guidance counsellor had been right about one thing: I really was interested in science. Ever since the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, one of the cardinal points of my life, I had had a keen interest in science (especially in any science to do with astronomy, rockets, stars, planets, etc). I wanted to understand, but everything required several blackboards’ worth of mathematics to “explain”, and mathematics teacher Mr Bastardface was too busy dreaming up ways to humiliate me in front of the class to concern himself with my lack of comprehension.

How bad was my failure to grasp maths? My parents shelled out a great deal of money to a tutoring firm that promoted heavily at the time, which promised specialised, focussed tuition in specific areas, and that the student would make huge gains. So every Saturday morning, in winter that year, wet and bitter-cold, I got the train to Midland, and made my way to a rented hall, where a bunch of beleaguered-looking kids slogged through homework as tutors who looked like they might be university students tried to “coach” them to success.

My coaching sessions, despite the huge amounts Mum and Dad paid, made no difference. Mr Bastardface still hated me, and was still determined to prove that I belonged in Maths 1 or even 4. My grades did not improve. It was a miserable, dreadful experience, on top of all the homework, including maths homework, I was already doing, or trying to do.

It was June 1979. Exams were coming. Panic was already here, and growing, getting louder, more intense, more urgent. I couldn’t breathe. How the hell was I going to pass these exams?

The short answer is that I didn’t pass them. They hit me like a set of huge waves at the beach on a cold day. I blundered my way through each one. I might have been better off writing sarcastic comedy answers to the questions. Because my honest, sincere answers were either all wrong, or mostly wrong. When I got the results, it felt like being at the bottom of a pit, then noticing that the walls are caving in on you. It feels like suffocating death.

Not long after this, towards the end of June, the mysterious “growing pains” in my abdomen I’d been complaining about for a couple of years suddenly turned out to be acute about-to-burst appendicitis. I was sent to hospital that night, and was in surgery the next day.

But it was the night after that when my life exploded in my face, and everything began to change.

The day after my breakdown I was tired and wrung out. My parents told me they had arranged for me to leave school, effective immediately. This was the best news ever. Because even though I was stuck in a hospital for surgery, I had homework with me. I had at least one novel to read for English (AS I LAY DYING, by William Faulkner). There was a pile of stuff, and all at once, like a magic trick, it all simply went away. The burden was gone. I could stand up straight again.

I was no longer a student. I had become a patient.

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (Total Rewrite)

MEMOIR: HISTORY PART I (Total Rewrite)

When I was sixteen my entire life was changed. It was the year I’d had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.

It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. My whole life up to now had, it seemed, been building to this point. The explosion itself was less interesting than the question of why did it take so long? Why didn’t it happen earlier?

I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage. I felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I felt numb and lifeless, but also terrified, inside all the time. My entire school career, since the first day, the very first day, the first moments of the first day, of what was then called grade one, while we tiny, cute, awkward, happy, upset kids queued before going imto the classroom to commence our schooling, a bigger grade one kid named Philip pushed me out of the line and knocked me to the ground. I sprawled, winded, my skin scraped on the bitumen, in pain but mostly hot shock and rage and WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. Some understood only brute force; others knew the power of cutting, quiet remarks; others still understood how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully were many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I thought, Why would you do that? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others

Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects are to be pitied as much as scorned. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a little boy who’s angry and hurting about all this won’t help. He’s angry, and now he’s also afraid, in part of horrible Philip but also, to some extent, the whole school environment where Philip and predators like him roam.

I have thought a great deal about bullying, especially as I’ve grown older, and seen how we humans carry it with us into adulthood, this need to crush those we see as weak, those we think of of as “beta” animals or “prey”. I know there are people who have whole detailed personal mythologies built around the idea of themselves as “apex predators”. The Internet has been a wonderful thing in many respects, but it’s been fabulous for these creeps.

It seems to me the real problem with “bullying” is with the terminology. The word itself. The word “bullying” comes packed with connotations of the schoolyard, of kids’ stuff, of childish things we put away once we’re adults. Everything about the word reinforces these notions. It feels weird calling an adult coworker or abusive spouse a “bully”. The accusation lacks punch and sting, I think.

It would, I think, be better if, starting in school, or even in kindergarten if necessary, we referred to instances of bullying behaviour as abuse, personal abuse, and those who do it as abusers. It’s a word that does work in the adult world. It has a heft and weight about it. It matters. Bullies can smile at that accusation (“can’t you take a joke, love?”), but the suggestion that they might be an abuser might matter to them.

Though, also from my personal observations of such people over many years, maybe not. There are arseholes who live to piss off everyone around them, who love to “get a rise out of” people.

People like these, years on end of it, every single day at school, and by the time I got to high school sometimes even a couple of teachers, caused my breakdown.

One of the most terrifying things about bullying, and even the psychological threat of bullying, in my opinion, was the certain knowledge that the teachers doing yard patrol tacitly approved of it. They would see it happening or about to happen, and they would walk off the other way. If you approached them, even if you were bleeding, they would often make various formal noises, demand to know who did it, but refuse to intervene. Some even seemed to find it difficult to suppress smirks. Even if you managed to drag your bully with you up to a supervising teacher to complain, the teacher would make various punitive noises in the right sort of scornful voice, as if playing a part in community theatre, and force you and the bully to shake hands, and you’d do it, all sullen and, “Yes, Miss,” about it, with a muttered sorry–but as soon as the teacher was gone, it was all back on again, and worse now because you got the teacher involved.

There was no help. No-one was coming to save you. I had some friends who were oddballs and outcasts like me, but also like me they were prey animals and just as likely to find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. We did what we could (travelling in herds), but the predators had too many tricks.

“Watch out after school, Bedford, we’re gonna bloody kill ya!” I heard that many times. What puzzled me was why they expected me to turn up to my own beating. I didn’t. There were other ways to leave school. But they’d keep at you, day after day, these sneered whispers as you were exiting the classroom for lunch. “We’re gonna getcha, Bedford!” Now, they seem so hopeless, but when I was a kid, they made me afraid all the time. I was afraid the entire time I was at school, and all the way home. Before I got a bike I would often try to run home, and try to be sneaky about which ways I went to confuse anyone following. I couldn’t relax until I reached my bedroom.

Nowadays, I know even that sense of a final refuge os denied bullied kids. Bullies can get to them not just with nasty whispers in passing along a school corridor or on the playground but inside their phones, in your most personal, private place. There is no place such bullies can’t reach you. I see these reports, and it makes me think, especially when the story is about a kid who’s committed suicide due to bullying. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but then I had a safe place to go. Even when my dad was moody or strange or angry and yelling, I could retreat to my room. It was mine. Nobody could get me here. But if I was a kid today, and if I had a phone full of bullying abuse? Of countless voices telling me I should kill myself?

I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t do it. I can’t guarantee anything. It’s terrifying, and I’m just plain lucky, simple as that, an accident of birth, that I came along in the time period I did, when it was possible to keep out the bullies.

And yet, even with solid brick walls between me and them, it wasn’t enough. There were too many, and some of them were teachers. One of my high school maths teachers. One of my Phys Ed teachers. One of my Physics and Chemistry teachers.

What also went against me was that I was sick. My brain was messing with my perception of everything, including my perception of myself. I believed terrible things about myself. I suspected the few girls who were nice to me of ulterior, sinister motives, that they were playing a prank. I didn’t dare accept their fleeting gestures of kindness because I believed myself unworthy of it. I believed the bullies. I believed the voices. I believed I was monstrous.

When I was sixteen, my whole life exploded. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine. But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.

SECOND CONTACT WITH PUBLISHER

SECOND CONTACT WITH PUBLISHER

I’ve just been talking to Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter about RANDOM ACCESS MEMOIR. I completed the last major piece of the manuscript for it last night (at 2am, writing in bed), and today will get stuck into rewrites for the older pieces, which I’ve seen are not as polished or well-done as later pieces because at the time I was still figuring out this whole memoir caper.

The upshot of the phone call is that once I’ve got the whole thing in good shape, and in a reasonable order, I’ll be sending it in. Georgia says she’s already very excited by the pieces she’s read online, and had the thought that it would be good to see those pieces in a book, so that’s as encouraging a thought as a writer can get without an actual promise of publication!

Meanwhile, I continue to be shocked that I’ve produced 90,000 words of this thing in just over two months of steady, daily writing when it has seemed, at times, it was blasting out of me. The most extraordinary writing experience of my life, and all the better because it’s not poisoned by my illness. I was similarly productive as a teenager, but I was high on mania, sick as sick could be but not only unaware, but would have denied it if the suggestion had been made.

A year ago today I was trying to explain to my doctors that I could no longer hear anything from the creative part of my mind. Everyone, when I tried to explain it, thought I meant writer’s block, but that wasn’t it. A blocked writer wants to write, but can’t. I had nothing. No signals, no transmissions, no signs or proof of life. It was an unearthly feeling, and my doctors were baffled, and put it down to all the work being done by my very busy brain at the time in dealing with drugs coming in and drugs leaving my system. It was exhausting, and yet also completely new to me: how to live in a post-writing mind?

I’m so pleased I never had to find out.

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD

MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD

It was the early 1960s, and Ken was a young man with tall dark and handsome movie star looks. He was up on the balcony at Perths’ classy Embassy Ballroom. He came here Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, every chance he got, for years. It was one of his favourite haunts, and he was well liked, cutting quite a handsome figure in a decent suit.

And on this one particular night he happened to glance down into the milling crowd below, where coloured light from a rotating mirror-ball spun stars around the room, and happened to catch one young woman’s hair at just the right moment, as Ken looked down. He was breathless. He had never seen such beautiful hair, so pale, so luminous, like a cloud of glowing light. He had to meet her, because he knew in that moment that he would marry that girl.

Marie was a sensible, well-brought-up young woman from a broken home who in addition to the social stigma associated with having divorced parents, she also had to live with the genetic disorder of albinism. The luminous cloud of pale hair that Ken had seen was Marie’s albino hair which had so little blonde pigment it was nearly white, and very fine. That night I believe she may have had a mauve tint through it. But she was there at the only place in Perth known to be safe for young women, because if there was one thing she loved it was ballroom dancing and the Embassy Ballroom, in the very early 1960s, was the place to be.

(Get info about Ballroom’s atmospherics, size, internal climate/humidity, stuffiness, noise level, how everyone dressed, behaviour standard, etc)

Marie lived in Fremantle in a huge, breathing, rambling red-brick pile of a house similar to the sort of place made famous in Tim Winton’s CLOUDSTREET. All the rooms seemed to have room for entire smaller houses to be hidden inside them. You could wear yourself out walking across in the dining room. Marie had lived there for years, raised by her grandmother, a stern but loving matriarch from which Marie learned many important lessons, especially about the importance or forebearance and persistence.

Ken at the time was a recently divorced, ex-army (dishonourably discharged) guy who was at the time working as a cocktail waiter in Perth’s Savoy Hotel. This was a temporary, passing thing. His work history before and after this all revolved around machines and engines in different ways. When he applied for his first job fixing outboard boat motors, having never seen one before, they showed him a workbench with a completely stripped motor, pulled into individual pieces, some 300 of them. They also provided a workshop manual, and all the tools he might need. “Fix this and you’re hired,” they said. It took him three days, but he did it and got the job. So his talents were wasted as a cocktail waiter, you might say.

The night Ken spotted Marie’s luminous hair down on the dance floor, and swore that he would marry her, Mum had already seen him around the place, in the company of a redhead woman named Mary who was wearing a red dress. Mum, even today, decades later, took a dim view of redheaded women wearing red. Especially those who seemed to have gobbled up Ken, as far her weak eyes could tell. That woman, named Mary, seemed very confident, Marie thought, and even though Ken was very nice, polite and charming, Marie looked at him a little askance, believing he was taken.

But he wasn’t. Redheaded Mary might have been quite serious about him, but he was not serious about her. She was, he says, a mate, a pal. Ken was determined to marry Marie.

But Marie’s family suffered a great loss. Marie’s grandmother’s husband, Jack, very suddenly passed away at work. Marie had spent a lot of her life growing in this big house surrounded by older relatives, but over time they’d all left, leaving just Grandma, Jack, and Marie in a big house. And now it was even bigger, the rooms like furnished hangars with bric-a-brac and doilies.

Marie’s grandmother, an extraordinary woman in her own right, fell ill. Her heart was weak. Marie stayed home on her former dancing nights for three weeks to look after her grandmother, who knew her granddaughter was giving up something she loved. So she told Marie on the third Friday night to go dancing, but perhaps just come home a bit early. She, Grandma, would be fine.

Reluctantly, guiltily, Marie went.

Ken had been searching for her, this living vision like no other woman he’d seen. And when Marie arrived, the first person saw at the entrance was Ken. They spent some time that evening. A mutual friend confided to dubious Marie that Ken was a great guy, and that he wasn’t involved with the redhead who had gone to Melbourne. This all made Mum lower suspicions somewhat. Even today, in her 70s, she is inclined to be suspicious of people she doesn’t know well, expecting the worst from them.

Despite Mum’s suspicions, and a droll misunderstanding involving a pair of Dad’s binoculars, he took her home to Fremantle that night, and was a perfect gentleman. Mum allowed that he might have been a decent young man. Over time, they went a bit more, and a bit more. At some Dad swapped his Morris Minor car for something like a Vespa or Lambretta motor scooter. There are family legends of Mum and Dad puttering around Fremantle and elsewhere in freezing weather, with Mum (pregnant with yours truly) riding on the back, wrapped in a blanket, helmet on skew-whiff, stopping at a burger joint in North Fremantle for snacks, and much else.

Dad has never once, not ever, given Mum a hard time about her albinism. I’ve always loved that about him. Mum’s eyes, a very rare pair of blue eyes (most people with albinism have colourless or pinkish eyes), wobble all the time, so that she finds it very hard to focus on anything. She’s legally blind. Her skin is exceptionally dry, and prone to skin cancers that are forever cropping up, sort of like pimples, only they have to burned off or cut out every few months. Her skin is also white like ghosts. No amount of sunlight is safe for her. Her condition also makes her allergic to summer heat.

Then there’s Dad’s troubles. He knew what he was getting with Mum because her problems are all very visible. But Dad “doesn’t look sick”. He tells me the first he knew something might be wrong was when he was 18 and his dad took him to a psychiatrist. He remembers little of the experience, other than that he was given an injection of something. It would have been the mid-1950s, so it’s very unlikely it would have been anything helpful or useful.

Dad’s troubles did not become serious problems until he was doing his national service in the army in the eastern states. By this point he was married (not to my mum; this was someone else) and at some point it collapsed and they divorced.

Dad was so distraught he attempted to take his life. I asked him about this. Was it “cry for help” or “actual suicide”? It was a large quantity of Librium, too, and it definitely the latter. He was devastated. In time this led to a dishonourable discharge. Between his divorce and this discharge he must have felt dreadful.

But things had cleared up by the time he was back in Perth, and was working at the Savoy Hotel as the cocktail waiter. Mum never found out about Dad’s psychiatric past until ten months in their marriage when dad fell ill again, which is to say some form of breakdown. This is the early-to-mid 1960s. Treatment options at the time were not great. The only things available were very blunt instruments, and often as bad as the condition they were treating.

Dad spent years, from when I was little until I was 16 and went into D20, living like this. He struggled to hold jobs. It was hard. He had a great mind for the work he was good at. But the pressure of being the breadwinner, of fatherhood, of bringing in money, felt like it was killing him. He was often spirited away in the dead of night to places like the mysterious Graylands Hospital, and might be gone two days or two weeks or longer. I was never allowed to visit. It was considered a very hardcore place. When Dad came home again, looking harrowed, he told some stories of the sort you can’t bear to hear.

It wasn’t until I was in D20 before Dad, and I, were both put on Lithium Carbonate, a metal salt. It changed our lives, though it took a long time to adjust. It was also a very blunt weapon–but it was a weapon. It was more than a stick or a club. It had a couple of rusty nails in the end. It did the job. Darkness and mist that had been with us so long it had begun to solidify around us started to melt away.

It saved us both.

But it nearly killed Mum. She had a heart attack around the same I was being put on Lithium. Dad was in Graylands, and I was in D20. Then one morning a male nurse found me in the Art Therapy Room, one of my main haunts, and gently, as if defusing a bomb, explained about my mum over in Accident and Emergency, and whether or not I’d be allowed to see her.

Mum, who has her own psychiatric history, had been holding Dad and me together all these years. Part of that was keeping me from fully understanding what was up with Dad. She was often pulled two ways at once. Sick Adrian was extremely reactive with Sick Dad. The two did not get on, not one bit. There was yelling, door-slamming, suspicion.

Dad, now, when I visit, says he has no recollection of any of it. He thinks we’ve always gotten along as we get along now, which is great! For my part, I can’t believe how well we get along now, considering the past, and the potential for grudges. But there’s no point having a grudge against someone who doesn’t remember why you’re pissed off. Now he’s just a nice old man with way too many medical complaints (tonight it was tingles in his legs)., and too much medication.

But Mum remembers all of it (just as she remembers how she felt when Dad came unglued on her just ten months into their marriage and he hadn’t told her about what happened to him in the army). When I’ve told Dad what it used to be like, she backs me up, which is good. It’s miraculous that we’ve turned out so well, that it’s come to this point. Neither Mum nor me expected Dad to last this long. He smoked until he was 45, but managed with Mum’s help to gradually quit, and never went back. He still, at 81, carries permanent lung damage and COPD, emphysema. He gets winded easily. We never thought he’d make it to this age. Now he says he’s going to live til he’s 90, and who can say he won’t?

I doubt they would say they are happy together, but I believe they would agree that they are content and peaceful. They and their many and various illnesses and conditions are great companions. Mum is still the boss, and is still keeping an eye on Dad, to keep him out of trouble (just as she still watches over me, whether I like it or not). One of Dad’s hardest adjustments is the gradual reduction in the range of physical handyman-type jobs he can do around the house. He always used to love being able to fix and maintain things. Never comfortable telling you he loved you, he was the sort of Australian male who showed you how much by cleaning your gutters. His long losing battle with time and entropy has been terrible to watch. Now it’s a lot for him to make me an instant coffee. I love his instant coffee.

Mum and Dad still have a framed head and shoulders photo of the two of them dating from the Embassy Ballroom years when they went there. I see it every time I visit, and it is striking how Dad could have been a matinee idol, and Mum could have been a wobbly-eyed platinum-blonde bombshell, if only she hadn’t been quite so self-effacing, modest–and suspicious!

GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 5: Letter From a Time Traveller (Updated)

5: LETTER FROM A TIME TRAVELLER

Dear Past Robbie–

I am so sorry. This was supposed to be a good deed. I hope it can still be rescued. That’s why I’ve sent you the phone, and I’m writing you this letter. Because where I come from, events can be rewritten, the way a story can be rewritten. Everything is up for grabs. The stakes are huge, as huge as a single human life, yours–mine. Because you and I are more or less the same person. You could say we’re different drafts of the same story. Different angle, different takes on the same material.

I’m writing this to you on 20 July 2017–Happy Moon Landing Day! I’m 54 years old as of my last birthday, and I’m still massively excited that we went to the Moon. I still think that “we”–all of us, all humanity–did that. It might be last thing we all did together. I’m inclined to think it was the apex of human civilisation, given what’s happened since then.

I’m sorry about what happened in your room the other night. I was trying to reach you, but the Widow, Fiona, got me. I managed to shift back to my primary self, so it was just the unthinking drone that was killed, but there’s no way to know that, based on what you saw when the smell woke you up, is there?

The weird thing is how even as I flashed into your room that night, I was remembering, when I was a kid, the following morning, waking up to find the dead body. I knew there would be an attack. I knew it was coming. So I was in a big rush to wake you up, to deliver my Message From the Future before Fiona turned up. But she turned up early.

As I say, this was supposed to be a good deed. I remember very well what life was like when I was you. Growing up in those days. I was trying to help you, in my idiot, ham-fisted way. It’s not as if there aren’t these days plenty of warnings about How Time Travel Can Go Wrong. We’ve had time travel since the 1980s, by the way. About the same time we got computers. Next thing, liquid reality. And next thing after that: hyperfoam realities. Then, now, everything is just “the smear”. Things are solid only as far as you can see, as long as you’re looking at them. Everything is interface.

Anyway. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m working on a way for you and me to meet up, so we can talk properly, so I can explain everything. What I want most of all is to take you and your Mum and Dad to my present, so you can meet my Mum and Dad. They are elderly now, but they are happy and well. They and I are close. I get on famously with Dad.

You’re shocked. Things is, Rob, your dad is very sick, and has been for a very long time. You are, too. It’s an illness called bipolar disorder. In your time its’ called manic depression, or manic depressive disorder. It means your emotions go way up and way down. With your dad it often manifests as anger and low, dark moods. He feels deeply frustrated about everything. He worries about not being a good provider and not being a good dad. He loves you more than life itself. But he can’t tell you. He has to show you, but he doesn’t know how to show you properly so he does weird, strange stuff.

But he loves you. He’s sick, and his sickness distorts his personality. You feel, in your time, listening to your parents fighting all the time, their arguments, their strife, and the way you’re always in trouble and getting yelled at, that everything is your fault, right? If only you were a better kid, a better person, a better student, things wouldn’t be like this, right? Dad wouldn’t always be threatening to leave you and Mum. He wouldn’t always seem so angry with you. He wouldn’t be yelling so much, or seem so upset or worried.

But it’s not at all your fault. This is what I’ve done all this to tell you. It’s not your fault, Rob. It’s not his fault, either. He’s just sick. He needs help. He’s been getting help all along, but it was no good, ineffective. This kind of illness has very poor remedies available to it.

This is all I have to tell you for now. Have a look at the phone. You obviously won’t be able to make calls with it because there’s no network there. But it does all kinds of other things, plus the time travel app (“application” or “programme”), “HG”. Note that you only have the limited free version of HG, which restricts what you can do. Also, if you do time travel, be aware that it gets very messy very quickly. It’s dangerous. Be careful not to go to a time where you can’t recharge your phone. That means probably no earlier than the 1950s. You can also send me a cross-time text, if you want to talk. I have a vague memory of doing that when I was you, but history is nothing if not fluid, so who knows?

So there you are. Watch out for Fiona. You’ll find photos of her and me and various others in the phone. Fiona is very dangerous, and she has a time machine phone as well. Everybody has one. She wants to kill me. She’s had a few red-hot goes, and will try to get you, or those close to you as well.

And, as I say, I’m so very sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a good deed.

Yours,

Robert

PS: Please don’t do what I did and disregard this letter. When I got it, It made me furious. I was very upset and overwhelmed. It was more than I could deal with. Just the day before a man had been murdered in my bedroom, and now this letter from the future, full of all this obvious bullshit. I ignored it. I tossed the whole thing in the nearest bin. Which, when I think now, in 2017, about throwing away a brand-new iPhone 7, roughly $1000 worth of mobile phone, boggles my mind, but when I was you I didn’t know that. I just knew it was too much, and it is too much, and I’m sorry. But you have to listen. Your life has to be better than mine. If you listen to me, and believe what I tell you about your dad and you, it’ll be better. It’ll be hard at first, but better later. But you have to listen to me. Please!

6: SIZE NINE BRAIN IN A SIZE EIGHT HEAD

6: SIZE NINE BRAIN IN A SIZE EIGHT HEAD

I could not think for all the thoughts I was experiencing, and all the emotions I was feeling. It’s a cliché of the worst sort to remark that your brain feels like it’s exploding, but after reading this letter, and then reading through it several more tear-blurred times, I felt very much that I had a size nine brain in a size eight head. It felt as if my brain was trying to erupt, a volcano of thought and feeling–and none of it good. It was intolerable, unbearable. I felt toyed with. I felt manipulated. I felt lied to, and patronised.

I ran to the school Admin Block, propelled by the sheer force of my hatred and anger; I could feel it roiling and burning behind me, expanding and pushing me like rocket exhaust.

At Reception I phoned Detective Lockley, and told him I needed to see him. I had some new information. What he would or could do with this information, with this time-travelling Apple iPhone 7, I did not know, and right at that moment I didn’t care. I wanted to be left alone. I was desperate to see “the Future” I’d been hearing about since I was a kid, but not like this, assuming any of what the man had said was even remotely true. I was prepared to age my way to it the hard way.

I had to leave a message for him. The person I spoke to said they would get in touch with him right away, that my case was a priority, and to just wait. Okay, fine, I thought. And made a photostat copy of the letter for myself, which I stuffed into my bag.

I went to the Science and Mathematics Block, and found the room of Mr Shit. By now it was late morning. My class had happened and finished. Another class was in there now. I waited outside. My thoughts were harrowing. The bastard believed he was doing me a good deed, sticking his nose into my life, and winding up dead. Part of me did believe him. That’s what made it burn so much. It would be easy to dismiss obvious nonsense and fantasy. You wouldn’t miss it. You could flick it away like a fly. But when it was something you secretly wished was true, when it was thing you always wanted, that’s when it was unbearable, when it destroyed everything in its path as it whirled and tore through your head, uprooting trees and sweeping away the roofs of houses. Because I did want it to be true that my dad was a decent, kind, loving man who was just sick, who couldn’t help what his illness did to him. That explained so much. I was gravely troubled by the suggestion that I was the same, and had the same illness. Did that mean that I was heading down the same road my father had travelled, into the same tightrope-walking future? Did I want to live in that future? Could I see myself there?

Could I see myself grown up and middle-aged, 54 years old, living in an age of casual time travel, a time machine in every pocket, writing a letter to my teenage self, because of a powerful urge to help him understand his otherwise fathomless father? Wasn’t that a decent thing to try and do? Yes, I agreed that it was a fine idea, a great gesture. But it messed with my head too much. It expected me to accept too many impossible things at once. I couldn’t do it. I was just a dumb kid. I longed for the gleaming science fiction future, but to have that future reach back in time and land in my lap was outrageous. What was I to make of it?

Mr Shit’s class finished and the kids filed out, looking grateful once again to see sunlight and the outside world. To have hope again.

I felt tension grip my guts as I pulled my assignment out of my bag. It was no longer quite as neat and pristine as it had been. I knocked on the dark blue door. Mr Shit, who was cleaning the blackboard, said, “Come in!”

XXX