I have become an almost-human again. And I define ‘human’ in my own ways. I have utterly unravelled. I have opened my window at night, and listened to the strange, un-nameable things that you hear when it’s dark – the stuff you cannot quite identify, mixed with the stuff that you can. I have left my hair unwashed for three days. I have heard people say that if you leave your hair long enough, it rectifies itself, becomes self-cleaning. I have no proof of this. Nor I have I experimented with this theory myself. I have worn old jogging-bottoms, stripy socks, misshapen knitted jumpers. I have read – I have read at random, with no plan and have not completed a single book. Bits, paragraphs – poems with lines that I have loved – like a keen student, I folded the page down at the corner, in case. In case of what, I do not know. It seemed fitting to acknowledge my enjoyment of them in some way.
The clock has ceased to rule my days. Apart from getting my son up and out for school, my days have been my own and it has taken a fair bit of getting used to. Switching off has taken so long that I am already having to consider switching on again. This time, I am finding harder than ever to do. I have hidden from the real world good and proper, this time – I have become a garbage can, jumble sale, cupboard ferreting, sweat-pitted, grease-headed hedgerow fairy. I have eaten pea soup, have celebrated my need for it, made loving panfuls of it, green like a swamp. Sweet, bubbling. Add a potato, why not? Bread is not a sin.
The world is turning to winter. The sun, when it rises, is not rising high – it sinks behind the neighbourhood roof tiles before I have even finished cooking the tea. I try to look at it, though I know I should not. Watch its boiling disc, cushioned on bruised clouds. Lilac, orange, pink, sepia, red. Rain, blistering over the fields in giddy squalls. Wind, turning over wheelie bins, releasing paper recycling back to the wild. I have the time, right now, to not just notice these things, but to wonder at their deeper meaning.
Seventeen days. I have been off work for seventeen days. You can very easily become institutionalized in this time, or even less. I remember when I went into hospital to have my son. It did not go terribly well – what with all the ups and downs, my new son and I ended up staying in for two weeks. I cried a lot, the first couple of days. I made such a disturbance in the shared ward. I remember this family, sitting round the bed, opposite. Its wire frame had a helium balloon tied to it with curling ribbon. I remember them staring at me as I cried. In between bouts of bawling, I told her, your baby has a lot of hair. My baby has no hair. He’s bald. They moved me and my newborn to a single room. It was this wonderful bubble. I looked at this little thing in his clear-sided, plastic, easy wipe-clean cot, with a feeding tube in his tiny nostril and biliblankets front and back. I made a mantra, don’t die, don’t die, and I did not sleep.
They day I left, I was numb with terror. I cannot do this on my own. When I got home, all I could think was this is not my house. Notmy sofa notmy curtains notmy coats on the coathooks notmynotmynotmy things. I wanted to go back to my sterile, silent haven. I did not want people coming round, seeing the overflowing bins. I did not want anyone to see how humiliated I was. I was blood. Biblical fountains of it, a waterfall of gunk and womb. That butcher’s smell of too much bleeding. I did not know that childbirth would do this. I knew there would be mess, but not this space-galactic battlefield of mess. The health visitor, with her nasty little comments about how I couldn’t take my eyes off my child. I was not as brave then as I am now. I really wanted to tell her, getthefuck outofmy house! I didn’t. Now, I would have. I could not stop worrying that I would do something wrong, that something would happen to my baby. Four years and Prozac later, I was functioning again. Not cured, but handled, re-packaged, re-shuffled, one-day-at-a-time, dear.
Seventeen days. I have been off work for seventeen days. I realised last night that I have developed the same feelings of happy-prisoner, content containment. I have a few more hours to imagine myself back to the world of general public, did-you-bring-your-own-bags, beep beep, whinge whinge days. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, thick with people, shoving, talking, dawdling, taking, taking, taking, hands fast as dogs on a dish of meat.
You imagine yourself to be this wall – this wall made of, say, Lego bricks. This smart, shiny, click-together slab. The cracks are hairlines. This is how you keep yourself together through your hours, your weeks – something comes loose, snap in back. Top-line a little low? Add another row. Listing? Shore the foundations. This time off I have had, I have been tumbledown, capstones spilled, a dry-stone, moss-filled mess. I am dragging this chain of cast-off blocks behind me and I do not care. Bit come off the knee? Stick it where your ear should be. Bit come off the face? Stick it on your foot. I have left it too late this time, to knock the lot down and reassemble from scratch. I don’t have time to do any more than sketch a bit of render over bits, here and there, shovel at least the pixels of my face together into something more shop-girl, less moon-howler.
It’s like this white fear in your head. Not a fear of white things, like kitchen tiles or walls in a gallery. More like white noise, that fills your head with clock tick, fridge whine, boiler huff. Or white light – the light you are meant to see just before your number is up, or sometimes you see it and come back. Or snow, which is as beautiful as it is a thing that will kill you if maybe there is too much. All of these things, and the things that need you, want you, don’t want you, have to do, the things you did, that someone did to you.
I was standing on the end of the garden wall, watching my son waiting at the bus stop, two hundred yards away. I love him so much. It’s as if an actual piece has been broken off me, as is someone has hacked a sore lump from somewhere and I need it back, to stop the hurt. I know, I know I am way too crazy over him. I hate that he is out there without me, I hate that there is nothing I can do, if he needs me, if someone is hurting him. If someone were to ask me, what is it like, to have a child? I would miss out the gory, sore tits, episiotomy obvious bits. I would skip the tales of sleeplessness, of soot-smeared under-eye bags, of puke, of shit, squirted right up their backs, to the nape of their necks. I would tell them instead that you have them, for this incredible time that you are too plum-knackered to appreciate. You sit, at mum-and-toddler things like a fucking zombie. Some of them look back, with the same eyes. Some of them are thin again, straightaway, I just went ping! Some of them sit, as if they were Mother Earth, down on a level with their tussle-haired, macrame, yoghurt knit baby Einsteins, all peace and reason. Tell you about their no-sugar rule while yours is trying to locate the lollipop stuck in his hair. Make you feel this big. Some of them will tell you that they are going back to work, because they have to, because they want to, and they will remind you of how afraid of facing the real world you have become. Somewhere, somebody is crying in a corner and you might be lucky, this time, that it is not you.
I will tell them about this time and how all of a sudden, they are getting the bus to the big big school and there is nothing you can do about it. That you will stand on a garden wall just to watch them for five more minutes, that you will chew the skin around your nails and it will taste of good, clean soap and you must never tell them this, you closet nut-job, get-a-grip, brain-fuck mess.
Seventeen days. I have been off work for seventeen days. I will pretend that I am a fleet doe, that my scoop-shell ears are radars, full of the mechanics I will need to hear your slightest call. That the bleeps from the tills at the checkout are the blips of undisturbed radio waves, telling me all is well. If I hear him, I will sprout these marvellous wings, feathered and mighty, like a seraph and fly, saviour batangeldeer to wherever you need me. Scoop you onto my back, sturdy as a table top at a church fete, carry you home. Go via the chip shop – vinegar, no salt. No-one wants to have to cook after a day as special as that.
Seventeen days. I have been off work for seventeen days. I must rebuild my rituals. Green shirt, knifed pleats, pen, skirt or trousers, socks or tights. Sandwich for break time – fresh now, foisty and drooped when I come to eat it, later. Name badge, so that none of us workers can hide who we really are. They use your name, these customers – they trample on the last private places of you, make you a best mate, use it to add weight to complaints. Put you at their beck and call, act like they know you, intrude on your world. Jane. Jane, Jane, Jane. Every time I hear it fall from the tongue of a stranger, it is a small punch, somewhere soft. I am imagining myself as a valkyrie, I will call on my wingy slab again – I will sit you upon its great spine and leap the bank of tills as if I am Pegasus leaping the moon. We climb and climb until the houses below are smudges of thought on the Earth’s crust. We climb until those below don’t know if they are seeing a centaur, or seeing a nimbus wisp.
Jane Burn is a writer and artist who was originally born in Yorkshire, but has lived in the North East for the last twenty years. Her poems have been published in a variety of magazines, including Butcher’s Dog, Obsessed With Pipework, The Black Light Engine Room Magazine, The Interpreter’s House and The Rialto. Her work has also appeared in anthologies from The Emma Press and Kind of a Hurricane Press. Jane‘s first and second pamphlets are Fat Around the Middle was published in 2915 by Talking Pen and Tongues of Fire, published in 2016 by The Black Light Engine Room. She established the online magazine, The Fat Damsel in 2015.