Thoughts on the Manchester Arena Attack

I live around the corner from Manchester Arena. Last night, as I walked home from work, I smiled to myself at all the adorable teenage girls on their way to some concert or other. They had on their best sparkly tops, those terrible giant hair bows, pink lipstick cadged from their mums’ make up bags. Excitement was palpable as they streamed along the pavement, tugging away from long suffering parents, just kids on the brink of that first taste of independence. Last night, someone walked through that crowd of teenage girls like I did, a homemade explosive strapped to their body, and knew that some of them would never make it home.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the tragedy of what happened in Manchester Arena last night. Even listening to the sirens and helicopters from my bed, I assumed that it was a car chase or a drugs bust. Never, for one moment, did I think that someone would have attacked innocent people on my own doorstep. It is so easy for us to feel immune to these kind of events, to think that our privileged lives in this privileged city protect us from things like terrorism. Self-centred creatures that we are, sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to happen in our own community before it becomes truly real. Where we spoke calmly in my office about the attacks in London earlier this year, this morning my boss’s voice cracked as he talked to us about this attack in our own city. These could have been our children, our friends, even – had I been heading home past the arena after going for a beer, as I so often do – me.

So, what can we do? Firstly, our thoughts or prayers should be with those who have been affected by this terrible tragedy. With those whose loved ones went out last night and never came home. Those who, instead of stories told in voices high-pitched with E-numbers and excitement, of dance routines performed on the living room carpet, ended last night in a silent horror that can never be healed. Our hearts go out to them. If you know anyone that has loved ones missing, they can call the emergency line that has been set up to help on 0161 856 9400. There is also a vigil in Albert Square at 6pm tonight, if you wish to share this moment of grief with the community and show that our city will stand strong in the face of adversity.

Secondly, we can make sure that we have pulled together, both with our community and with our own loved ones. We are not immune. Our good jobs, our nice cars, our beautiful flats, cannot protect us from tragedy. This is not happening to someone else. Make sure you have called your mum. Lay all the hatchets to rest that would seem so utterly worthless in the face of real calamity. Tell all the people you couldn’t bear to lose that you love them. We are so lucky, but it’s so easy to spend our lives hiding from the hard emotions, to think that we have time to put things right. There may not be time: do it now.

I was hesitant to write this, because nothing seems so inadequate as the sound of your own voice when such an overwhelming tragedy has occurred. But if we allow ourselves to be silenced, by fear or by inadequacy, already these horrific tactics are beginning to work – beginning to win. This is a time to stand up and make your voice heard, a time to say we are not afraid and we will not be cowed. Fear and hate cannot win, because we will not let them win.

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Just the Words Will Do: A Short Story

The room was rich with blackness and, as the velvety dark enveloped her, she knew it was a mistake. Half cut on gin and grief, she thought perhaps she could sneak in unnoticed – or better, noticed and wanted. Instead, she lay on the rock hard mattress as though afloat on the huge, reckoning ocean, the messages arriving on her phone lighting up the ceiling where the stars should have been. In the next room, she could hear him breathing. Huge lungs that inflated his white back as she nestled behind him, her face pressed into the comforting scent of his spine. Perhaps she’d never feel as safe again as she did pressed into that boy’s back, listening to the heaving sighs become the gurgle of a snore.

She’d never slept in that room, always the other, and the perfumed bedsheets that held no memories had lulled her quickly into a deadening slumber. The creaking of the door stirred her and she felt his long limbs slipping into the bed beside her, his arms snaking the dip of her waist and pulling her towards him. Startled awake, she felt the wet tears of nightmare and longing coating her face. A dream, just a dream. Stirring inside her, The Sadness curled into her stomach, digging its black claws into the lining and making it threaten to throw the nothing she’d eaten up her throat and onto the counterpane in front of her. She lurched out of bed, nausea swimming over her, and threw the door open into the hallway. The clothes rack tilted and crashed to the floor, a tide of frilly underwear and careworn socks spilling down the corridor.

In the bathroom, the stark bulb lit up her ghostly face in the mirror, freckles standing out against the strained greyness of her skin like black holes on a galaxy of anguish. She was falling apart at the seams, the living redness of her blood showing through the corners where her skin was fixed on. Touching her face, she squinted in confusion at the mirror, leaning closer and then pulling away in horror as a huge swathe of skin detached from her lip and peeled away in her fingers. It was long and sticky, a milky white film made of spider’s silk that draped and clung to her. Letting out a moan of horror, she tried to shake it off, but it wrapped around her hand, nestling into the curves of her fingers, draping down her arm in a ghostly gossamer. Reflected back in the glass she saw her exposed teeth where the skin had come away, the tendons of her jaw, the lurid red of blood seeping unstemmed from the tissue.

What was happening to her? She picked at the edges of the skin, tearing it away in great chunks until the flesh of her neck was exposed, the startling white ridges of her collarbone. Rifling through the basket on the windowsill, she pulled out his razor, fiddling with the catch to free the blade from the safety mechanism. Panic mounting, she tilted it and plunged the silver edge into her skin, scoring the fraying edges until it came away like toilet tissue in a child’s party game of wrap the mummy. The crashing of the door distracted her and she looked up to find him staring at her, open-mouthed, as she crouched above the heaping of her own skin.

He saw her straighten, each tendon exposed, her skin swept away like Gunther von Hagens’ plasticised Körperwelten. She was ripping herself to shreds for him, The Sadness leering from the cavity of her stomach. Gurgling, the voice of it crept up her throat and forced its way out of her mouth.

“Please, please say it.”

“I can’t.” He whispered in horror, “You know I can’t.”

“Please!” Her black eyes pleaded with him from the exposed tunneling of her eye sockets.

“I can’t say it. I don’t feel it, you know I don’t feel it.”

“Please. You don’t need to feel it, just the words will do.” He watched the keratin claws of The Sadness creeping up her flayed throat, a strangling chokehold looking for some purchase. Her breaths came shorter, the mounting panic evident on the straining muscle tissue of her face. Helpless, he watched the horny hands forging their way upwards, squeezing the life from her as her mouth begged him for emotions he couldn’t feel. Stricken with terror, he let the door fall shut and stumbled blindly back to his bedroom, pulling the cocooned safety of his duvet around his shaking body.

In the morning, the red sludge of her sat as a bleeding stain on the tiles of the bathroom. The Sadness squatted on the bathmat, its black fur spiked with the drying bile of her broken stomach. It had grown fat with the richness of her, sated with the animal vehemence of her overwhelming emotion. Carefully, he mopped the floor, swishing the dirty tendrils and squeezing out the water until the bucket stood pink with what was left of her. Feeling a tugging at the hem of his jeans, he looked down to see the horn rimmed hands of The Sadness reaching for him. He felt the creeping pull of its irresistible candour. To save them both, just the words would have done.

Shrunken Jumpers, Smelly Dogs, And Why It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

“How are you?”

“Yeah, I’m okay”

How many times have you said it? How many times have you meant it? Okay is the polite position. It is what we all want to be, and even when we’re not, it’s what we all say we are. It’s a whispered pacifier, a half spoken prayer, a hoping: it’s going to be okay. We use it as a euphemism for sanity (“She’s not, you know, okay”), a marker stone for whether or not action needs to be taken (“Well, as long as you’re okay”). But what happens when we’re not okay?

This week my friend’s dog died, and she wasn’t okay. She’s always the person that is in control, that doesn’t cry, that can cope, and this week, for the first time in a long time, she wasn’t. Her blog post got me thinking about the notion of being okay, and how obsessed we all are with it. I know I certainly am.

I put a huge load of washing in on Monday and when it had finished, I realised that it had shrunk my favourite wool sweater to a size that would only fit the smallest of toddlers. Absolutely devastated, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried, as I awkwardly hugged a damp and strangely sheepy-smelling sweater. Sat there, I whispered to myself “It’s fine, it’s okay.” Now, this seemed like an enormous overreaction to the shrinking of even a treasured sweater and it made me think that maybe I wan’t okay.

Now, the sweater was important. Being a stupid nineteen year old who thought life was going to be an endless party now I had finally attained my freedom, I took hardly any pictures during my year abroad and so I don’t have many keepsakes of that time. The top I bought in Paris to make me look like a chic french girl long ago wore into holes and the disposable camera turned out to have lots of fuzzy shots of the inside of a car on it. What I did have, though, was my Norwegian sweater, reliably cosy, utterly comfortable, and a delightful reminder of a time when my biggest worry was the condition of the snow.

In a world when I feel increasingly adrift without an anchor, after eighteen months of enormous change that have altered the course of my life forever, crying my eyes out about the sweater wasn’t quite as crazy as it seemed. The washing machine just ate my past, and at a moment when I’m trying to hold on to it as much as possible, being upset feels like a valid response. Just like, for my friend, having to take the time out to mourn the death of your family dog is a valid response.

We need to admit that it’s okay not to be okay. Men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives, a statistic that is often cited in arguments against feminism. The reason that men are more likely to commit suicide is because they are less likely than women to seek help. Basically, it is less socially acceptable for men to admit that they’re not okay. Not only does this show that unequal social expectations harm us all, but it also shows how damaging it is when we stop ourselves from admitting that we aren’t okay.

Often, if you do seek help about the fact that you’re not okay, you are prescribed medication to numb that feeling. Rather than addressing the problem, we medicate ourselves. We are so obsessed with being okay that we will sacrifice our emotions, our creativity, the ups as well as the downs, to be able to reply to that dreaded question about how we are.

Well, do you know what? I’m not okay.

I’m lonely. I’m worried about my future. The giant hairy wotsit in charge of America scares me. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve anything more impressive than being able to eat an entire large pizza by myself. I think I might drink too much. Sometimes I cry for no reason and then worry that I’m going mad. I dream about my ex leaving me over and over again. I’ve put on too much weight to wear most of my clothes. I think I might be bad at my job. Some days I feel an overwhelming, bottomless sadness that I can’t shift. I still worry about stupid things I said more than a year ago. I think my cat might hate me.

Some of those things are more important than others, and it is always the important things that are harder to say. If you’re not okay, don’t tell yourself you should be. Reach out to someone, either someone you trust, or a professional person that can help you. Call the Samaritans on 116 123. Stop saying you’re okay if you’re not. Remember: that’s okay.