When Mark Johnson died his family fell apart.
Like the scattered fragments of a delicate ornament fallen from a great height onto a concrete floor, they were left broken and so very far from one another.
His Son, John (how he hates his name!), felt obliged to move back into the family home. After a week he couldn’t stand to be there any more. The turgid atmosphere was intolerable: the dirty dishes, the dirty washing, the dirty everything. The tears that fell so easily from the eyes of his Sister and Mother but would not come to him.
Not a single fucking tear troubled his eyes.
He felt them though, the tears. Felt them welling up within him, swelling and pushing against the dam of his diaphragm.
No, he couldn’t cry…but he needed to.
Two days after the funeral he was sat in front of his Mother at the dinner table, despairing at yet another failed attempt to make her eat something. She was crying again. A single rope of mucus hung from her nose. For a few brief seconds it swayed gently in the air, before attaching itself to her chin. With every convulsive movement of her crying the green shiny thread twitched like a thin disgusting ribbon. John was appalled to find his upper lip curling in disgust.
He realised in that moment that he was a terrible, terrible human being, and understood that he had to leave.
So he did.
He went to a friends house and spent a night and a day binging on alcohol and cocaine. His friends, though compelled by comradeship to stay with him, slowly dropped off one by one, felled by the chemical attrition. John spent the second day drinking in the corner of a pub. His eyes bored holes into the wall opposite him for hours, while his body burned with the white heat of amphetamines. Eventually, he was discovered by two people he was vaguely acquainted with. Something about John made them feel vaguely uneasy, but these boys didn’t like to ask questions…then again, they were off to a house party nearby, did he want to come?
He was forcibly ejected from this house party a few hours after arriving: an MDMA-earnest student had asked “Hey, are you OK?” and a few minutes later John was as surprised everyone else to find himself brandishing a knife. It was a butter-knife. He kept hold of it as he was thrown out of the door. A few of the more curious – or voyeuristic, depending upon your persuasion – party-goers stood around outside and watched as John ranted maniacally on the front garden. Mostly he just screamed obscenities, but scattered amongst all the fucks and cunts were words of self-recrimination and references to hospitals and decay. The onlookers were content not to ask for clarification. When John threw the knife at a window – missing his target considerably – they gave him a sarcastic burst of applause. When he started crying, they grew bored and went back inside.
He came to consciousness on the third day laying fully clothed in his bathtub.
Soon after waking, he spent 30 minutes retching out of his bedroom window. All that he managed to expel was a trickle of yellowish phlegm. When his vision regained equilibrium after the dizzying ride of racking coughs, he spent a silent minute staring at the small pool of liquid on the windowsill beneath him. He thought of his Mother, thought about his shameful disgust, and was disgusted.
The street lights oozed their sickly orange glow into the night. He still couldn’t cry.
“Fuck you!” he said to no one.
Sarah (who rather liked her name, she just hated everything else about herself) spent the days after her Fathers’ death thinking of nothing but regret; about how spitefully she had spoken to him in the past, about what a terrible Daughter she was; about the endlessly litany of complaints against her parents that she had recounted to her friends over and over again. Every bad word she had ever spoken about him returned to dance a circle around her head in a mocking parade celebrating the uselessness of her grief…because she couldn’t bring him back, could she? Nothing could.
She felt as if she were choking, choking on the words that haunted her, on the hospital-smell that never left her, on the impossible fucking trauma of it all. On more than one occasion she actually did choke: a person can only cry for so long before she cannot breathe. Or, at least, Sarah couldn’t.
Then her Brother left. Selfish bastard.
What was wrong with him, how could he just walk away from it all, and leave the grief behind? Leave her behind?
The misery didn’t stalk him all day and all night like it did to her. She hadn’t even seen him cry! Not once, not even a single tear. In the Funeral parlour, as she comforted their sobbing Mother, he had sat there calmly as he picked out the coffin and the flowers and all the other decorations that were displayed in disgusting banality upon the pages of a big, glossy catalogue. It was as if he were a disinterested landlord absently choosing the furniture for a cheap flat he was renting.
It was as if none of it were really happening to him.
And then there was all that shit at the hospital. Kicked out of the place when they caught him trying to steal drugs! He still hasn’t explained, but Sarah hadn’t asked. She didn’t need to, she knew why he did it.
He was too much of a fucking coward to be there at the end. To be there when he finally expired.
Or maybe she was crediting him with too much humanity, and maybe he was just doing what addicts always do: looking for a way, any way, to get fucked up.
Whatever his motivation was, she didn’t care. She hated him.
She hated him with a fury she had never felt before, but like so many who hate with such passion, what she detested most was what she knew to be true of herself: she wasn’t there at the end either.
Sarah told herself that it was an accident, that she had just left the room – oh fuck, that room, that stinking, beige tomb! – at the wrong time. Sometimes, in her weaker moments, she almost believed herself.
Now, she was being punishment for this unforgivable act of abandonment, for leaving her Mother to be sole witness to the dissipation of a life. Of his life.
She all but had to wash her Mother, the woman was so immobilized by grief. The house soon deteriorated, the mess became just another consequence of the unrelenting shit-storm that had descended upon them. For all her diligence and effort, nothing got better, it only grew worse.
She was 18 years old. 18 years old and in charge of a broken household.
It wasn’t long before her friends slowly, silently, began to shunt her out of their social group. They made some gestures of pity at first, but mostly that amounted to a few :(‘s over texts or on social media. Her BFF Claire braved a visit to the house, but when Sarah saw the grimace Claire didn’t even attempt to hide as she made her way up to Sarah’s room – dainty little footsteps, hands held high in the air, as if she were a pampered celebrity walking over a pile of rotting garbage for a photo-shoot – Sarah realised that Claire was already like the rest of them. The distant dispensers of pity. In that moment she knew that this would be the last time she would see Claire again. Unless she could somehow emerge on the other side of her grief clean and visibly happy, Sarah was doomed to social exile…and she knew that she would never be clean or happy ever again. I mean, fuck, it took so much effort just to appear happy before he died!
Sarah looked at Claire looking around her room as if at a homeless person sleeping by a bus stop she needed to wait at. Not that Claire would ever dream of catching a bus, the entitled bitch.
“Fuck you!” She said to Claire.
Brona Johnson no longer existed.
She was an absence, a negation, an empty shell. When she looked into the mirror she saw not the old familiar face, not the person she once was, but the face of an old woman, a woman aged far beyond her years; a face suddenly sagged and furrowed by deep wrinkles, its skin stretched thin and drained of all colour. Maybe all those years he would now never know, now never share with her as they had shared so many of the others – the memories of which were now painfully thin; brittle and transparent things that she could not keep in her grasp – maybe all those years had fallen to her to live now, to live all at once and at the cost of all else?
Maybe…or maybe not. She didn’t know.
She knew nothing other than that he was gone and that she was alone.
Brona Johnson didn’t exist.
We are all of us, at one time or another, controlled by compulsions we will never really understand.
John had decided that he wanted to write a letter.
This was a strange decision considering he had never before felt any urge to write. Writing had always seemed an antiquated and unnecessary chore, an act of vanity that it was beneath his dignity to indulge in.
But still, the compulsion remained: he needed to write. To begin with, John couldn’t shake off the vague feeling that what he was writing was a long and sentimental suicide note: addicts are adolescent souls, after all, and he was no exception.
To his credit though, this was one thing John knew about himself.
He knew also that his Sister – poor, annoying, brilliant bitch; ancient enemy of childhood! – despised him for what he did at the hospital, and he needed desperately for her to know the truth, because if she knew the truth then maybe she could forgive him.
If she forgave him, maybe he could forgive himself. Not for what he did, but for what he failed to do.
He was trying to steal morphine, copious amounts of morphine, to put an end to the misery and suffering. Not his own, though; on that last day in the hospital John had already decided that he deserved all the suffering that had ever come his way and any that there was left to wait for. The pain that ravaged his Father as he lay there in that hospital bed had, until then, been first and foremost experienced as a suffering that John experienced himself; the suffering of a child loosing paternal protection, losing safety and guidance. Losing love.
Realising this, John began an ongoing process – a seemingly endless process – of discovering just how much of a selfish dickhead he was. He also resolved to do what he knew he must: John didn’t want the morphine he was caught stealing so that he could get high. For once, he wasn’t thinking of himself, wasn’t trying to get fucked up and to forget.
He wanted the morphine because he wanted to kill the old man.
Sarah had fastidiously written in various journals since her 8th birthday. At the age of 10 she furtively began to write poetry. Almost all of the early notebooks she wrote in were burned in a spectacular fit of melodrama when she was 15: re-reading the early poems, she was mortified at the sickly-sweet poesy of a little girl writing about things she did not understand.
Things like love.
For a year she wrote nothing that she considered ‘artistic’, although she kept up the diary entries: habit is a hard thing to kill. But eventually the urge to express herself through poetry came back.
She kept every word she wrote as a fiercely guarded secret. The thought that anyone would ever read anything she had written filled her with a skin-crawling fear.
When she had left the hospital room, left her Mother alone to watch her Father take his final, broken breath, it was to skulk to a shadowy corner of the car-park to chain-smoke cigarettes and to read her beloved, battered copy of Ariel.
When he died, she had been reading “Daddy”.
Or so she wanted to believe, without quite knowing why. Without wanting to know why.
No one in the family was aware that Sarah smoked. Not even her Father, from whom she stole her first delicious cigarette at the age of 14. No one in the family knew that she wrote poetry either.
Now one of the family never would.
So when she sat down to write about her Father, about her grief; when she let the words seep out of her like a poison, all she could ask herself was this one question:
Like the disease that corrupted his bones, the image of his agonised death-grimace had invaded every last memory that Brona had of her husband. At night, as she lay staring at the ceiling, she would try to summon the face, the body, the living, breathing human being she had so adored. But she couldn’t. All she could see was his death.
So she cried, she cried and was alone.
For a few brief moments in the endless swell of agonising time that was now her life, she felt something other than pain: she felt shame. Shame that she could do nothing, shame that she was nothing; her eyes had almost drowned her and all that now remained was a weak and scared shipwreck. It was in these moments that she saw Sarah, her poor suffering daughter, struggling in vain to hold them both together…and what of John, where was he?
Brona Johnson did not exist, but what about her children, did they exist?
There is nothing here.
Nothing but white, a whiteness so vast and bright it consumes everything. Proprioception is obliterated and there is no more fixed position of observation; there is no more you. The whiteness is swallowing you whole.
There is nothing here.
But that isn’t quite true, is it? There is something else here. It is black; a small, thin, vertical black line.
It blinks – or is it you blinking? – it disappears briefly and returns. You remain where you are, focused on the only other thing that exists.
The line grows bigger – or is that you are growing smaller? – it comes closer, it looms before you, huge and black.
Are you afraid?
You don’t know. There is no way of knowing.
The black line, incessantly blinking, terrible and unfeeling, moves closer. Nothing can stop it. It moves again…and then, you are gone.
There is a Vulture.
The eyes of the Vulture are black, and so are its feathers, so is its head, its neck and its beak. Still, you know what it is.
It looks at you with an unwavering gaze that seems neither hostile nor indifferent. The vulture moves; it takes a few steps forward, faces you directly, holds out its wings and opens its beak. For a second it holds this pose, glaring at you, silent and still.
Then it screams.
A noise of terror and animal fear hits you like a wave, knocks you down and carries you away. The noise forces itself into you, fills your lungs, floods your veins, shakes your bones.
The scream continues. It never breaks, never falters, never stops.
The eyes of the Vulture are red now, a violent, burning red, and soon so are its feathers, so is its head, its neck and its beak.
Suddenly the Vulture burst into flames, its flesh begins to melt but there is no smell, there is only the noise that never ceases, the noise that contains you completely.
You are far away now, still carried by the noise.
You are far, far away.
The Vulture burns and it screams, but you can no longer see it. You can no longer see or feel or hear or smell anything.
You are far away…and then, you are gone.
When Mark Johnson died, his family fell apart.