I was in no condition to be driving an eighteen-wheeler. The medication kept me tethered to the world around me, but rendered heavy machinery out of the question. So when the dispatcher called me for an international run, I flushed the pills. I didn’t want Sarah to be worrying about the turns my mind might take without them, so I said nothing. Just kissed herself and our son on the forehead and told her I’d be a couple of days.
I felt fine at the depot, where I loaded computer processors into the lorry. During the drive to the port I nearly had myself convinced that I didn’t need the meds anymore. It wasn’t until I stood on the stern of the ferry with the salt water spray on my lips, watching the motor’s churning white wake drift back towards the Irish coast that I could feel myself coming apart. When things got away from me like this, I had the feeling of detachment from the world and everyone in it. At times I struggled to recognise even the people closest to me. The ferry crossing played out like a film seen through a fractured lens, with the picture and the sound out of sync. It was a picture I had been given no part to play in. I could only observe from the outside. When the voices started up, I knew I was in real trouble. They had nothing to offer but bad ideas about the ice-cold water below.
Then somewhere along the way I lost time.
I came back into myself behind the wheel of the lorry on a motorway where the heat rose off the tar in bleary waves. Returning from the same waking dream as always. It was the image of myself as a child, huddled alone in a dark forest, terrified. I used an orientation exercise I was once prescribed to ground myself to the present in these situations. It began with:
Naming five things I could see;
An army of dead bugs peppered across the windscreen. A troll doll swinging from the rear-view mirror. Bare grey mountains. On a blue road sign, that squiggle over the ‘n’ in La Coruña. Okay, so I was in Spain. I took out my phone and brought up the fifth thing I could see. A picture of me and Sarah smiling down at the baby who slept in my arms. My smile told the story that I was connected to the moment, to my family, but the truth was that I couldn’t remember when or where the picture was taken. All I wanted was to hold him then and be sure that he was real.
Next, I would name four things I could touch;
The hair on the troll doll, electric purple and bristly between my fingers. The sweaty grip of the steering wheel. The gear stick. The empty water bottles strewn across the passenger seat.
Three things I could hear;
The drone of the engine. The radio host speaking rapid-fire Spanish. The voice in my head telling me to steer into the oncoming lane and be done with it.
Two things I could smell;
The wild cherry air freshener. Seaweed on the breeze.
And finally, name one good thing about myself;
That I haven’t yet given in to the voice’s suggestion.
I sat once staring blankly at a wall of diplomas, in a beige room before a beige man with pale, searching eyes.
‘Childhood trauma,’ he told me, ‘would be the driving factor behind all of this. If you think about that for a minute, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?’
I opened and closed the clasp of my watch.
‘Nothing?’ he said, ‘No trauma?’
I turned my attention to the face of my watch, then to a lone dog wrestling a scrap of newspaper out in the car park. Anywhere but his face.
‘Well that would make you the first then. Could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with your mother, maybe?’
The brittle voice of a younger me spoke so timidly I had to strain to hear it.
‘You can’t,’ it said, ‘it was a secret, remember?’
I turned to shush a child that didn’t exist. The beige man saw and scribbled something in his notepad. He chanced some analogy about the mind being the most complex safe in the world and how a deft approach was required to unlock its mysteries. Still I gave him nothing.
‘Okay, well from the referral letter I received,’ he said, ‘all the signs point to –’
I stopped him there. The last thing I wanted was a label on what was broken. You can’t hide from a diagnosis. It leaves no wiggle room for what you can tell yourself.
‘This is reversible,’ he said.
Whatever he said next, he said to my back as I left the room.
Sarah didn’t seem too settled in her own skin when I arrived home from Spain. She was always wary of which version of me had come home to her. She asked about the trip and I lied. She fumbled with the beginning of a question about my mental state, but trailed off and instead told me it was expected to be the hottest day of the year. I think she feared the truth every bit as much as I did. I nodded, and we failed to meet each other’s eyes. Beyond her, in a shaded nook of the living room our son slept in his rocker. I wanted to pick up that tiny stranger from the image on my phone screen and hold his weight and his heat against me. Not wanting to wake him, I leaned in and touched his soft nose and felt the tiny current of his breath against my fingers.
‘Hello, stranger,’ I whispered.
I sat myself cross-legged on the carpet and watched the rise and fall of his tiny chest. Outside the window, the sun was blazing high and the kids of the estate were armed with water balloons, engaged in giddy battle.I was able to take it in exactly as it was happening and the fleeting feeling of lucidity was so beautiful that I could hardly stand it. It only served to remind me of what I was missing.
When I looked back, Sarah had stripped down to a pair of denim cut-off shorts and a bikini top and she was stooped low, rubbing sunscreen into her calf,
‘I’ve been looking out at that sun for the last two days,’ she said, ‘Will you two be alright for an hour?’
She capped the bottle of lotion and hovered in the doorway.
‘Okay,’ she said eventually, and disappeared towards the back garden.
Time got away from me and the next thing I knew, Sarah was screaming,
‘Jesus, Eoin, what were you thinking? What are you ever thinking anymore?’
The small fella was up on his feet holding onto the fireguard and reaching for the bright flames. His standing was a new trick I’d missed on the road. Or maybe it had happened on some earlier day before my glazed eyes. She scooped him up and held him tight to her chest. Tears brightened her face. In my haze, I watched the pair of them with the indifference of a show I’d a passing interest in.
Her features didn’t raise any warmth in me. I couldn’t grasp a single one of the many threads that bound our histories together. She was being drawn slowly away from me like a memory fading in real time. Then they were gone from the room and I looked down and noticed the coal dust smudged into my hands. I’d no memory of lighting a fire.
I was still between worlds when she came back in. Stumbling, in my mind, through a sea of pine trees, my shadow fading into the dusk. Drawn by the whisper of running water.
Sarah’s words snapped me back to real time. She sat on the couch with her arm around my shoulder and the small fella wriggling in her lap. So close to the image on my phone, but worlds away in truth. She had arranged my admission to St. Edna’s psychiatric ward the following morning.
I couldn’t handle the thought of my son losing his father before he got the chance to know me. Or worse, that he would grow into me. Into a man untethered from the world around him, existing in his own lonesome abyss.
We ate pasta in the living room. Sarah’s encouraging words sounded as if read from a script from the beige doctor. Forks scraped against plates, the small fella hand-fed himself soft slivers of vegetables in his high-chair and my mind churned and darkened.
I waited until she took the last of the dishes to the kitchen. The front door would be too loud, so I carried him out the bay window and into the car. I buckled us both in and rolled down the cooling tar slope before starting the engine.
He was soon asleep again, swaddled in his favourite blanket. Wouldn’t it be grand to feel so secure in yourself? I thought, to feel that the world is a safe and reasonable place. I wanted more than anything for him to never lose that feeling.
The drive took us up through the Shehy Mountains. The road was a narrow rut twisting between jagged rock faces. Nimble goats clung to jutting limestone shelves. Boulders pocked the sloped fields as if fallen from the sky in some storm in a time before our history. I’d told him on the maternity ward, while his mother slept, that we’d work it out. That we’d always be there for him, together. But I was already coming apart by then. It’s amazing what you can suppress when it suits you. There are parts of everyone, I’ve no doubt, that are blind to reason. Especially when the truth is at stake.
It all began to slip away from me then up in the mountains. Time fractured and warped as we climbed together into the bright, hysterical sky.
Sometime later, I sat in a wooded area. I came back into myself with a shrieking headache, like a bright storm behind my eyes. In the balmy heat I couldn’t be sure which side of the sea I was on.
Name five things you can see;
The dashboard display lit up like a constellation. A rank of brittle pine stretching skyward. The moon, pale behind thin scraps of cloud. Coiled in my lap, a length of hose running out through a thin crack at the top of the driver’s side window and drooping out of sight.
He was in the back, his little face livid red, crying end of the world tears. The key was in the ignition, but the car wasn’t running. I had fourteen missed calls on my phone.
I got out and unbuckled him and cradled him to my chest. I paced in the pine needles under that navy sky, gently swaying him, whispering apologies until his tiny body softened and settled into mine. Then I called Sarah.
The memories were slow to come. For years I had tamped them down out of my own reach.
‘Drawing blood from a stone,’ the doctor in St. Edna’s said, but he teased out a couple of drops. Fleeting snatches of memory, like the months after my father left, when the world got too heavy for my mother and she locked herself in the bedroom for days at a time, leaving me to eat crackers at the kitchen counter, watching my Scooby Doo tape on repeat.
Whenever she did leave the bedroom I followed her from room to room, begging to know when my father was coming home until the sound of my voice broke something in her and she left for the night, locking me in the apartment.
The memories began to pour out and soon I was haemorrhaging truth. I couldn’t stop myself if I wanted to. Then we came to my sixth birthday.
I stood with my mother in a nature reserve, flinging stones from the banks of the River Lee.
‘If you followed this river,’ she told me, ‘it would take you all the way into the city.’
The stones in that place were a sun-burnt pink, polished smooth and flat by the rushing water. I recall being amazed by how my mother glided them across the surface, skipping three, four, even five times before sinking. But no matter how much I mimicked her throwing style, my efforts arced limply into the current.
She crouched down and faced me with a softness in her eyes I’m not sure I’d ever seen before, and said, ‘You’ll figure it out, Eoin.’
Then she patted me on the head and walked to the car.
I continued to sink stones until I heard the engine start. I turned to see the car climbing the hill towards civilisation, a suitcase jammed against the back window. She had spent so much of my childhood avoiding me that I think I understood even then, that I was watching her driving toward some new life where I wasn’t necessary.
I was stranded with the therapist on that river bank for weeks. When we eventually got moving again and he asked me to visualise that day, I saw a crowd of pines towering above me. They seemed to pierce the darkening sky, hiding the starlight from me. I stumbled all that evening after the current with a tin-foil parcel of sandwiches and an apple-juice box – my mother’s parting gifts – cradled in my arm, watching out for a city that I now know was forty miles distant.
I found shelter in a crevice between two boulders. On a bed of damp moss, I sat hugging my knees, shivering against the cold, hiding from the howls and rustles of night, and watching clouds of my breath bloom and die in front of me I was so terrified I couldn’t keep my list of fears straight in my head. In that endless dark, anything was possible.
A pair of hikers found me in the morning. They fed me protein bars, and carried me in a silver blanket to their car.
From there, the therapist followed my tattered thread of memories from one care home to the next, and on through my history. Eventually, the world began to take shape again. My periods of lucidity began to stretch out until there were whole days without an episode or a blackout. Then weeks at a time.
Sarah doesn’t know about my trying to save our son from himself, from a future I didn’t want for him. I told her I’d just wanted some time alone with him before I went in. I told her I didn’t know when or if I’d ever get that again. I don’t know what she believes.
Since my discharge, I’ve been staying in a hostel in town. I get two visits to the house a week and she says I can take him out on my own again soon.
I’ve now taken a job landscaping with my cousin. He fills the days with talk about conspiracy documentaries. We clear dead flower beds and he tells me how Lyme disease started as a biological weapon that leaked from a government lab in Arizona, or how Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike. His wild chatter is entertaining enough to keep my mind from straying too far. The fresh air seems to do me good and the welts on my hands let me know I’ve a day’s work put down. All in all, it beats those lonesome hours in the cab of a truck with only my own thoughts for company.
This week we’re building a deck in the garden of a house that backs onto the River Lee. At lunchtime today I sat on the shore watching the shifting patterns of the surface glittering under sunlight, bream flitting through the clear water. I absentmindedly took up a flat pink stone and as my thumb glided across its smooth face, thinking of how the currents had shaped it, how the sluicing waters had moulded it into what I held in my hand, I felt the old darkness begin to well up in me again. I swung my arm and released it into the water. It skipped gracefully across the surface, ripples swelling out from its deft impacts. I counted six hops before I turned my back on it.
About The Author
Stephen Brophy’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Shotgun Honey and Clay Literary. He lives in Cork, Ireland with his fianceé and two sons.
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