Here is a little reading from my brain injury memoir that I did at the last Parkin Presents. It’s an extract form a chapter where I talk about writing my “clinical depression concept album” Good Friday. This deals with the inspiration for “Sweet Heart.” I also play the song with help from the lovely Rebecca Stickland (or Becky O’hara). And here’s that chapter in full…. (I hope people don’t mind me quoting a certain book. It’s clear that I think it’s great). More clips of the other acts at Parkin Xmas Presents to come ….
I was having a wobble.
I was slowly reclaiming my old life. I’d returned to work and was easing into it gently. I was far from being mended but I had begun to see a future. I had got the piano and was beginning to write songs, which felt pretty damn ace. So, not better, but slowly getting there. But every now and again I had a slip up.
Sleep was the main problem. An old poet or philosopher once said that there are two sorts of people in life: those who can sleep and those who can’t. And you know what? He had a point.
Insomnia is a motherfucker. I know how that sounds but I’m sorry … I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Fucking insomnia is a fucking mother fucker. Insomnia is a cunt.
If you are one of those people who have never been there then listen up because it is something that divides us. People who have never had to battle through the early hours tossing and turning can’t understand, don’t understand the sheer squealing horror of not being able to get to sleep. Yes, you may have had the odd night when you found it difficult to drop off, but that isn’t a clue or even a hint of the sheer terror of a fully-fledged bout of insomnia. It’s a different world, a whole other blackened universe.
So if you are one of those people to whom sleep just simply happens, then listen up and pay attention. And if you are in bed don’t you dare doze of as you read this section. Keep those peepers open you bastards.
As I have said before insomnia was a huge part of depression for me. The weeks leading up to the Crawley moment were riddled with it. It takes over your entire life, it becomes all consuming. You look at the clock when you wake up and foggily work out how many hours you have had (in my pits the best I could hope for was for an hour or two). Then you spend the rest of the day thinking about it, dreading the evening, hollowly waiting for the night time with all its terrors. At my worst, it was running through my head every other minute. It is a full time job. It’s exhausting.
So I was scared. I’d had a bad night the day before, and the thought of the coming night time was just too huge, too terrible to bear.
I phoned Ruth and she, of course, came round. Because that is how she was. That is who she was. If she had decided to help you, to take an interest, then there were no half measures, she was on your side completely. And Ruth was on my side. She came round and sat with me in my darkened room. First thing she did was put one of her CDs on. Ambient and woozy, it filled the room and its calmness sat around her, her presence and the music seemed to go hand in hand. There were distant trees and a feeling of flight, it didn’t progress or go anywhere but that’s not what I needed. I just needed the sounds, the echoes, the growing swells and the light of my red lamp catching the side of her face.
“And I’ve got something else for you, “she reached into her bag. “Now this is something a bit special”
She pulled out a kid’s book. The illustration on its cover showed a lovely old fisherman (resplendent with beard and black fisherman’s cap) holding a happy looking cat in his arms.
“This is ‘The Mousehole Cat’” said Ruth proudly. “Perfect bedtime reading… Fancy it?”
“Yes please …”
“OK then … get tucked up and we’ll begin.”
I got into bed and Ruth sat next to me so she could show me the pictures.
It was not your average picture book, with a few lines next to the pictures. The Mousehole Cat has whole pages of beautifully written prose, sitting next to the charming illustrations.
Ruth wiggled her bum into a comfy sitting position, flicked to the start of the book and, very deliberately, began.
“At the far end of England, a land of rocks and moorland stretches itself out into a blue-green sea. Between its high headlands lie tiny sheltering harbours where the fishing boats hide when the winter storms are blowing in.” So began the story of the cat, Mowzer, and her old fisherman Tom.
Tom was a well-trained person. He kept Mowzer’s saucer filled with cream and knew exactly where she liked being tickled (just behind her left ear).
Ruth read the story slowly, luxuriantly … she obviously loved the book. I imagined Ruth as a child, sitting up in bed, as a parent’s voice wove pictures around her of how, one winter, the Great Storm-Cat descended upon Mousehole.
“Mowzer watched as the Great Storm-Cat clawed with his giant cat’s paw through the gap in the harbour wall. But it was too small. He snarled and leaped up at the great breakwater under the lowering sky. But it was too high.”
It was a dramatic moment in the book (with great pictures). Ruth paused and raises her eyebrows at me.
“What are they going to do?” I said with mock innocence.
“Well, just hang on and we’ll see,” Ruth turned the page. “And because the fishermen could not fish there was no more food. They ate up the few vegetables that were left in their storm-wracked gardens. They ate up the salted pilchards that were left in the cellars. Mowzer hated the vegetables and the pilchards were too salty for her tastes”.
Slowly Ruth gently unravelled the story for me. She told me how brave Mowzer and her Tom went out to fish for the whole village, Mowzer singing and purring the Great Storm-Cat into a gentle kitten.
“The Great Storm-Cat grew quiet: gone was his hunger for hunting, for making his meal of the mice men. Only the pleasure of the purring remained. Then the Great Storm-Cat began to purr with Mowzer, and as the soft sound grew, the winds waned and the waves weakened.”
The old fisherman managed to get a huge haul, a bulging net filled with ling and lances, scad, hake and fairmaids, enough fish to feed the starving village.
“As they came in sight of home, a strange sight met their eyes. The whole village of Mousehole was shining with light and lanterns gleamed along both arms of the harbour”.
“Cool,” I said.
And so the plucky cat and her pet Tom returned to a heroes welcome and Mousehole feasted that night. The book finishes by telling us that every year on that day (the night before Christmas eve) the village celebrates Mowzer’s and Tom’s brave fishing trip.
“And every year, folk come from all over Cornwall at Christmas time, to see Mousehole lit up with a thousand lights, shining their message of hope and a safe haven to all those who pass in the peril of the sea.”
What a lovely ending. I smiled. Ruth sighed, quietly closed the book and looked at me. I wasn’t asleep but not far off, my eyelids were heavy and I blinked lazily.
“You want me to kip over? Keep you company?” It was an offer from a friend; there was no sexual connotation for either of us. We’d done it before, once or twice, and nothing had happened. It had just been nice to sleep with her there. Her hot breathe resting gently on my neck.
“Be my guest,” I said and pulled the duvet back. She didn’t get undressed, just hunkered down in her clothes. We moved about a bit awkwardly and then finally found our places. I rested on my right side and she huddled up behind me. Ruth hooked her arms around my chest, I lazily thought of the word “spooning” and gradually drifted off.
Although I got a good few hours I did wake up later … but I didn’t feel panicked or alone, Ruth was sleeping next to me.
I rolled over to look at her, and for a while just watched her sleeping face. There was a strange delicate intimacy, a hushed secret, to watching her sleep. In the distant night a police siren echoed through the streets, and her brow furrowed slightly as she traversed her dreams. I wondered what pictures were in her head. Perhaps, she was sitting at the helm of a little fishing boat, trying to appease the Great Storm-Cat, as the distant lanterns lit up the shore. Under stormy skies, adrift in the slackening sea. Returning home as the clouds lifted and cleared, alone with her Tom. Alone under a thin moon.
I listened to her breath, soft and gentle and steady.
I was awake but it was OK.
Ruth was there.
I watched her sleep.
I watched her dream.
Another late at night and the phone rang. This time it was Ruth’s turn for a midnight call. Her voice sounded a little agitated. Something was bothering her.
“Hi, sorry, I didn’t get you up did I?”
“What do you think?”
“Right, of course. Erm … just seen Ben and I’m a bit worried about him.”
Ben is a friend and like me his is occasionally mental.
“He’s a bit down. Not great. Could you keep an eye on him? I just don’t want anything happening again …” she paused but then went on. “I don’t want anything happening again … on my watch.”
I knew what that meant, it sat in the silence between us for a moment. Ruth and I were friends before the Crawley moment and when things started to go wrong for me (and things get pretty hazy here) I don’t think we communicated well. I don’t think we communicated in the right way, at the right time.
Then Crawley happened and I thought … no … I knew she blamed herself a little. That’s maybe why we were so close now. She had decided that something like that wasn’t going to happen again … not on her watch.
The moment passed and we moved on. Moved on to the details of how we can solve a problem like Ben. It was good to do this. It was good to get together and worry about someone else for a change.
But that sentence really stayed with me.
“On my watch.”
I thought about other people. I thought about how, for some friends and loved ones, my failure was not just my own.
We said goodbye and hung up. I was left in the bed … thinking.
Other people. I was beginning to think about other people. I was worrying about Ben and I worrying about Ruth. My thoughts had moved on from terrible self-absorption. I was thinking about how my actions (or the actions of my illness) had affected others. And it felt good, it was part of getting better.
After a while I kicked off the sheets and got up.
My piano was calling.
I needed to write a song.
WRITING THE SONG
I wanted to write something for Ruth. It was a moment of action so I found my favourite chords … again. I just needed to get this down now.
“On my watch…” echoed through my brain. That wasn’t right, she didn’t deserve to feel that way.
I thought of a little phrase to describe her. It was right but not quite right.
“Language is so strange …”
It was a term of affection but also “the kind of thing you hear when you’re getting your change.”
“And it’s two little words I’d like to reclaim.”
What was special about Ruth was that she cared. OK … she was pretty and thoughtful, but she cared … almost too much. Sometimes you could feel it in her, like she was ready to burst.
“‘Cos your heart is so sweet,
You protest but it’s true.
And it feels so much,
It must ache to be you.”
Pretty soppy but fuck it. She deserved it. I came to the point of the song.
“And when you say it happened on your watch.
I don’t know where to start.
All I can say is it wasn’t your fault.” Then the G, very clear and true.
It’s normally written as one word. But this time it wasn’t a term of endearment you might use flippantly. It was two words, it was description. I thought of her sleeping face in the darkness of my room, I thought of her touch.
PLAYING THE SONG TO RUTH
As I played the song to her it slowly dawned on me what it was.
It was, of course, a love song.
A love song.
I blinked. Really? I couldn’t quite believe it. A love song now? A love song dropping into fray … amidst all the darkness. A simple little tune with a simple little message.
I watched her face out of the corner of my eye as I brought it to an end.
“And I never thought the sky could be this blue.
And it’s a new start.
And all I can say
Is I’m here with you.”
She looked a little troubled.
I took my foot off the sustain and the last note slowly faded into nothing.
I suddenly felt embarrassed.
“It’s … erm … it’s lovely.” She was enthusiastic but a little guarded. She was trying not to show it but there was something there, a catch in her voice …
I sat blankly for a moment and thought about the meaning of the song. I wanted to lift any feeling of guilt. That was the main thought as I jumped out of bed that night, but I realised that I had said a lot more that that. Surrounding that line was all this … all this feeling. It was meant to be warm and kind … and it was … but the real meaning had only just occurred to me. It felt like I’d just dropped to my knees with a rose between my teeth.
I think we are both a little shocked.
She hesitated then ran a hand over my shoulder, “It’s lovely … it really is … thank you.”
“Well you know …”
“I’m gonna make a cup of tea. Want one?”
“Yes … go on then.”
“Sweetener or sugar?”
“OK then …” she said and beat a hasty retreat to the lounge, shutting the door behind her.
For a while I sat and pondered what had just happened.
I played an E, not the chord, just the single note. I let it hang in the air.
I looked at the closed door.