COUCH

I’m sitting on the arm of the leather couch in our family room. Its brown skin is pocked with scuffs and scars; ribbons awarded for fifteen years active service.

In the house where I grew up there was no couch. The lounge room had two armchairs and a matching ottoman. It had two in-between chairs too, used by my sister and I when we were big enough, but no sofa. The family living in this house did not sit next to each other. They didn’t do closeness.

So I’m looking with affection at the careworn covering of our family couch. Careworn. Worn through care. We’ve sat on it to watch Thomas The Tank Engine and The Terminator. In the cracks between the cushions are layers of crumbs and debris that probably support several complex ecosystems. Life on the surface filtering down, nourishing those below. I hope the microbes are happy in their microbey lives; falling in love, producing little microbes, making beds out of skin cells and sporting fields out of lost shirt buttons.

This lilliputian reverie is abruptly interrupted by the impact of my fourteen year old son, hurtling across the room and rugby-tackling me so that we both collapse backwards onto the cushions. He’s done it a thousand times before, a game we’ve played forever. A decade ago I used to have to push myself backwards to achieve the desired result—a tangle of limbs and giggles and a victory squeak from the boy as he grinned down at his vanquished Daddy. 

But he doesn’t need any help now. Almost as tall as his Mum and more than half my body weight, the moment of impact has a combined mass of 140kg. So backwards we go, thump! Ha! So loud and deep was the young fella’s triumphant shout that I did not hear the crack of splitting timber. It was only later in the evening when we were siting in a line watching a bit of TV that I noticed I was sliding forwards. Not just bad posture; the sofa had developed a pronounced tilt. Inspection revealed a fault line gaping between arm and body, the latter having subsided to floor level as if finally succumbing to years of play wrestling.

I pointed out the collapse to the others. They both stared at me, seeking to gauge my reaction. Because I am not always OK around stuff being broken or damaged. In the house of my childhood objects were supposed to last forever. Breaking things through overuse was frowned upon, even growing out of clothes viewed with suspicion. Wilful damage was a capital offence. I once hid at the top of the back yard willow for three hours after breaking a garage window playing cricket.

A kind of reverse scarring results from this insistence that things have to last. An obsession with protection stifles exploration and kills spontaneity. Scarring is the inevitable by-product of use. It’s a result of life.

I looked at the couch and at my partner and son, and smiled. It took a little effort. This couch has been good to us. It has opened its arms to a thousand cuddles, hundreds of rough-and-tumbles and we are sitting on it together now, despite the list to starboard. We continued watching tele.

Things wear out. People too. 

But love doesn’t.

EVE

There’s an orange pumpkin-shaped bucket next to the front door, full of sweets to bribe wide-eyed children in pointy hats and surly teens daubed in fake blood to go away without hurting us. The candy is individually wrapped. Halloween OH&S Department won’t allow any touching of naked treats. Must protect the junior ghouls from germs.

I usually feel angry about the ritual. Take this American crap away from us, it’s not ours! More commercialism, more meaningless expenditure. Don’t think, don’t reflect, just buy the sugar.

Yesterday I had blood taken for the annual tests. My pathology collector was very efficient and if I’d remembered it was almost Halloween I’d have tried a vampire joke. Instead I went to buy croissants as a reward for fasting overnight. What deprivation. Yet I deemed the delay of breakfast a suitable excuse for indulging. How soft we’ve become. 

The supermarket had a front line of seasonal lollies and other Halloween paraphernalia fully five yards long. I wondered if they had the individually wrapped eyeballs. I like those. Many cyclopses died in their creation. A young mum with two kids in tow stopped in front of me, a look of dismay on her face. Running the sugar gauntlet to get bread and milk. I left her to it.

It’s another appropriation of a pagan festival, of course. This time Celtic New Year, once the first of November. In this country it was taken over by a horse race, first Tuesday in November, but I don’t join in the holiday. I’ll be working, powered by the leftover sweets from the pumpkin bucket. Maybe the candy eye-balls will give me extra insight.

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MONITOR

It’s been pushing upwards for a year or more. Doesn’t rush, but doesn’t fall either. 

Being a chronic over-thinker, I associate the higher figures with increased dis-ease. Hopefully not disease. But you don’t know. That’s why it’s called The Silent Killer. You don’t know the pressure has been building, building. Then something bursts, and unless you’re lucky, that’s it, game over. Or it bursts free and lodges somewhere important and you’re worse than dead. The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Even typing that tightens my chest.

But is it a silent assassin if you can feel the creeping vice of tension and almost hear the rustling tendrils of anxiety? If the danger is not knowing the tension is climbing, and you know you are anxious, does that mean you aren’t in danger?

The doctor suggested a monitor. Twenty-four hours with a sleeve and a box the size of three stacked cassettes, connected by a piece of soft tubing; a synthetic umbilical cord. 

It’s set, the nurse said as she fitted the business end to my upper arm, to take a reading every half hour. Right, OK. And every hour overnight, she added in a voice that invited me to say ‘Phew!’. I didn’t say anything as I was busy noticing the slightly clammy snake of plastic slithering across my back and round to the box at my hip.

Felt odd, having something medical attached. Waiting for the big squeeze. And the device itself, a lump under my untucked shirt. If I’d brought headphones I could have pulled off the Walkman thing, easily. Just relax, were the nurse’s parting words. If you move your arm or tense, it’ll beep to say the reading has failed.

I was on the ring-road when the contractions started. I tried to relax my arm, dropping it into my lap like a prosthesis. Compression builds until the thump of blood is quite loud. It’s not painful, just a bit unpleasant. With eight hours on night-shift and sixteen at two per hour, there’ll be another forty or so of these. 

Beep. 

Shit. Must’ve moved my arm. The little box thinks for a moment and tries again. My free hand grips the steering wheel tighter.

Already I’m focussed on the moment where the release begins. The sleeve relaxes in beats. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Take a couple of deep ones; probably worth staying aerated.

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It’s put me into an odd space, this innocent little recording device. Forced me to adopt its cycle. When is the next one? What will the data show?

I should ignore it, but I can’t. I’m tense. I’m waiting. It’s going to happen, but when?

Probably shouldn’t drink, but what-the-hell. Couple of glasses of evening red. By half-past ten I’m wrung out. Tense and wary. How will it be to sleep with this thing grabbing my arm every hour? Quite a lot to do tomorrow, errands galore. Need some sleep. Half a sleeping pill just to help me get off. I feel sheepish but promise myself I’ll own up to the doctor when I see her next week.

The night isn’t so bad. In fact, I resent coming to consciousness in the morning as the anxiety jags straight back up.

Late morning there is a space for reflection. I realise that the feeling of waiting, of marking time until the next event, is deeply familiar. It’s a frozen place; not necessarily cold but immobile. It’s a waiting place, but not with particular expectations. There’s a level of dread, but it is diffuse and difficult to pin down. Something’s coming; cortisol says ‘tense’. There is only the now; a kind of rigid stillness that is alert and ready to be alarmed. 

I notice how every time the gentle vibration signals another squeeze, I jump. It’s such an old response there are no words. The reptilian brain, the ancient brain, the reactive brain, whose early programming sneers at thinking and defies overwriting.

So I wait, for twenty-four hours. Can’t think about anything, can’t write. Fold washing, load the dishwasher; music plays but I’m not hearing. The periodic lub-dub pulsing in my upper arm is the metronome of this day. Not until much later, does it occur to me that I was incapable of imagining an end to the process. Marking time, standing on the spot; it’s not a choice, but a state. Like a rest on a music stave, it signifies an absence, not relaxation.

The power of the metaphor rocks me a little. It’s a truth that can be felt. I see from a different angle why I’ve always been useless at planning. Can’t look ahead, don’t set goals, reticent to take initiatives, risk averse. But really good at monitoring, at waiting. At enduring. Stillness on the outside, tight inside with a dull throbbing undercurrent of fear. 

Waiting for a safety that never came.

*

 

WATCH

Got a new band put on the watch yesterday. The old one had curled up from years clasping my wrist. Looked all right on the outside, but inside it was worn and stained, the leather disintegrating under the surface. Looks horrid, Cal said, cracked and scaly. It reminded me of my legs. Old man’s legs with papery skin. Running about a tennis court doesn’t result in fresher, younger epidermis. Not to look at anyway; it must be doing something for the muscles, surely.

Played a couple of mixed doubles matches, standing in for a chap who’s injured. Last week the opposing team were all so young you could see the outline of school uniforms on the tennis kit. I did all right for someone giving away multiple decades; the sets were even but we lost by a few games on count-back. It not being my team, I didn’t care much as long as I played OK, which I did.

Afterwards there is supper. A couple of Men’s teams were outside singeing sausages and drinking beer. We were inside with cheese and crackers and dips and grapes and lemonade. Someone’s mum put this together, I thought.

They were nice kids, and not quite as young as I thought. Three in first year uni and one in second. He was the captain. I asked what they were studying and one, a girl built like a willow-wand but with the heaviest serve of all the women, grinned and challenged me to guess. I got two straight off and one with a bit of help. Smartarse. But I could not guess Twiggy. 

Politics, she said. How depressing, I thought, but didn’t say.

Got home and limped to the shower. Three close sets on a Thursday night. Jeez.

Horizontal at last, but legs aching so much I couldn’t sleep. Got up and did a few laps inside the house, trying to avoid cramp. Kept the lights low, to fool myself I was a few laps away from Lethe. Clocks grinned in the gloom as I passed them. Reckon they were mocking me. Eventually I took half a pill. Fuck it, I need sleep.

A Sunday morning game with a mate has become a ritual. Sometimes I manage to beat him, mostly he out-runs me. Younger legs and years of playing competition squash. He’s an executive. Knows how to get the job done. Last week it was a war of attrition; at six-all we agreed on an honourable draw. This week he rolled over me. My body was still grizzling about the mixed doubles. Recovery times lengthen, relentlessly, until you tear or break something and it ends. Now that’s depressing.

But I love it (though less when I’m crap, like Sunday).

When I got home the boy asked, could you not play next week as it’s my birthday?

There was a hesitation. I was thinking, the party is not until the afternoon, what’s the problem. A childless moment that passed. Sure, I said. We’re having pancakes, he said. Excellent.

It’s a significant birthday, though he won’t let us talk about the obvious. Thirteen. That last syllable serves up all kinds of complications, and soon he won’t want to spend time with his boring oldies. Tempus fugit says the smug new band on my watch. Shut the fuck up, I snarl. But somewhere I feel hourglass tears falling.

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