We speak with those ghosts all the time, even before we recognise who they are or what they are telling us
|Rock arch, St James Gardens, 2017 (source)|
I stared into the blue light of the computer, in total silence, and didn’t even cry, because I didn’t believe it was real. If he’d died, I thought, surely I’d have felt some shift in the world, or sensed some thread of my own life snipped and unravelling inside me. A rupture in the matrix of time – some past completed, some possible future shut off. But nothing. He had gone and I hadn’t known a thing, and had carried on as normal, all those months, hearing his voice, as if he were speaking from wherever he was, as if it were still echoing from its source, and he was still there, still someone I might return to.
‘Everyone I love will leave me,’ he said, over and over again.
‘What do you mean? I won’t leave you. Elias, look at me. Look. I’m not going anywhere.’
After a few days of this, I felt my eyes blur with tears whenever he started again. I was so confused at not being able to pinpoint what had happened.
‘Hush, hush, don’t be silly,’ I’d say, ‘of course not.’ Or I would say, ‘Don’t think about the big questions now, they’re not important. Just take it day by day, hour by hour. Everything will be just fine, trust me,’ holding his hand and whispering into his ear, holding his face to my chest, his long hair between my fingers, and feeling the warmth of his breath like a child, and eventually, terrifyingly, his tears against my shirt.
From that moment, I came to know that fear exactly, though from an entirely different perspective. For the weeks that followed, I would be afraid of Elias, as though he was a new person now, or was inhabited by a new person; someone who might, at any moment, kill him. It was as though he was shadowed at every turn by an inversion of himself, someone who stalked his every thought and followed his every move, and whispered dark things in his ear. He was both the man I loved and the person who wanted to kill the man I loved. And as time went by, I would be afraid of myself, afraid that the stalking stranger had turned his eyes on me and was, slowly, silently, inhabiting me, too.
It is hard to account for the trauma of a thing that didn’t happen, hard to accommodate a fear based in an almost-event, a thing that might have occurred, but didn’t. The truth, though, is that Elias found himself so close to the edge of life, came so near to the brink of it, that he changed us both forever. Still, years later, it is the music of what almost happened that haunts me most, and will not leave my mind.
Everything was silent, but it was a ringing silence that seemed to pierce right through me. It felt as though my body had been struck, like a tuning fork, held to some alien frequency. Roads, trees, fields, birds. The world was there and somehow we were not.
There were times when I thought Elias would never leave the hospital. The longer he stayed in there, the more insurmountable the idea of leaving became. For me, the outside world was a place full of sinister possibilities, sinister intent. For him, it was a place where time drudged forward, relentlessly, where life carried on. The limbo of the ward was numbing and safe. Lifted outside of the world, it allowed us to hold life in abeyance. Time, like a river, flowed quietly past us, never bearing us with it.
I couldn’t trust why Elias wanted to go. I knew the hospital was threatening his sense of self, his independence, but it was also secure. Selfishly, I wanted the reassurance that he was safe. I was scared of having the whole responsibility of his life placed into my keeping. As much as I wanted to believe him, to meet his need to be trusted, I worried that he was planning something, another escape, and this time, I thought, this time I might not be there to stop him. I could feel myself being overbearing, controlling, but I couldn’t dislodge the thought that it was all a collusion, a trick, that I was falling for it all over again. Once the doctors were gone, and the nurses, and the other patients, there would just be me and Elias.
In the ward everything had been taken care of. Independence was traded in for safety. Whereas the hospital was regimented, contained, life outside was unpredictable. I didn’t know if I would be able to leave the apartment without Elias. I didn’t know if I could sleep, not knowing if he was sleeping, too, or if he had snuck out again. I couldn’t protect both of us at the same time. Besides, I didn’t really know what protection looked like, or what healing looked like, or how it was done. There were no scans, no X-rays, no medicine that would fix things completely.
When I finished, he didn’t move. He was just staring, not quite out of the window, but at it, as though everything beyond it – the bare silver birches, the scrubbed grass, the pathway to the road – were unreal, a daydream he wasn’t a part of.
‘Should we get some food?’
He jerked his head, surprised by my voice, and then looked around, as though he wasn’t sure he knew what it meant to want anything at all.
I didn’t know what was good for him, but neither, I thought, did he. I was lost, grasping on to anything I thought might haul us out. Every day I had pushed, changing tack, coming at things from a different angle, and still nothing had seemed to work, at least not permanently. I thought that I could read him – I thought I could tell when his mind was moving into its darker spaces, but I had been wrong before, and couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t be wrong again. Some hours, I felt him – the old Elias – with me, but always we arrived back to this same point: him on the bed, staring into empty space, at something only he could see.
He just needed to be listened to, to be heard, and I wanted to do that for him – I wanted to hear him – but that was easier said than done. If he said that the only way out was to kill himself, could I listen without saying no? If he began to spiral downwards, should I sit beside him or try to lift him up? It was unbearable to listen, unbearable to be passive when he was slipping away, unbearable to watch him drowning and not hold out my hand, not to take his, not try with all my strength to haul him back to the light.
* * * * *
It was as though I had reached back through time and felt a familiar hand, reaching back. Exclusion, difference, impossibility. Maybe there were clues there, after all. Maybe Hopkins had left a code in the poems, or maybe his life could teach me something.
Part of me wondered if a lifetime of hiding who he really was had left a latent fear of being found out.
Growing up, I veered one way, then the other. I leant, as a child would, into the arms of its protectors. I tried to hide myself, to not give myself away. I wanted to show that I was good, that I was kind, that I followed the rules. My brothers could break them, had the freedom in themselves to not care about disapproval, but I had a secret to keep, and guarded it by shoring up my personality against any reprimand. It was a sort of displacement of shame. While I boxed off the part of myself I knew I couldn’t let show, I magnified others, over-identifying with anything I might use as protection.
For too long I had chosen to cohabit with the world’s tacit disdain. Then, before I realised what was happening, the people I had hidden behind turned against me. It was as though I had been walking step by step with an advancing army, and then suddenly there were whispers, movements, and one by one the faces turned and looked at me, the stranger in their ranks.
For years and years, I curated my mannerisms, my hobbies, my taste in music, books, friends, clothes, haircuts. Every extrinsic thing became an opportunity for diversion, a way to deflect any chance that people might see the part of myself I was keeping hidden. In fact, I’m not sure I ever outgrew that armour.
* * * * *
It was at school, aged seventeen, that I first became aware of my blood as somehow historical, extending back before I was born. Though I had known it in different ways as a child, I was carrying the weight of the past in my veins. Every day, without thought, my heart pumped it around my body – it seemed natural, unconscious, free from morality. It was only later that I found out that my blood could be a clamp, could be tightened to hold me in place.
Every day, the present and the past coexist in the body. I think we carry those other histories, too, even before we know them. We speak with those ghosts all the time, even before we recognise who they are or what they are telling us.
*according to my reader
*according to my reader
Seán Hewitt - All Down Darkness Wide: A Memoir (Penguin Press, 2022)