Photo by B — New Zealand — Dec 2013

Outside this window #57

A garbage truck idles on glistening tarmac darkened by the shower early this morning. Sunlight floods everything in her path, beaming my world into clarity. I have been housed in the shadow of this world for three days, dulled by a bout of flu that connected with the force of a sledgehammer seeking to destroy. A world listlessly punched and pummelled by a mind teeming with words, and a body too aching and tired to do anything with them other than read theory and make notes. The loss of my sense of smell made the world dull. Dullness is never good.

Working for studio time. In our bright breezy worlds my life is one forged — as an old friend of mine remarked to me on my good fortune — from “landing with your bum in the butter, hey Fran”. I’d rather have others think me lucky than a person dulled by fear, anxiety and the great creative What If. I work hard for my studio time and I have learned to do so with a clear precision and efficiency; in exchange my surgical dedication affords me anarchy on the page. But dullness muddies the mind. It renders cogs gloopy and full of swampy soup, each bucket of the water wheel tipping stagnant slimy liquid into a moat of stagnant slimy liquid where I drown slowly.

So I go to my usual Go-To’s. Cooking is a loyal companion to writing; the process of creating nourishment unearths treasures for the page. Pleasure glimmered in the ritual but the loss of being able to taste a preview of what was to come left me blind to what I was creating. A very strong curry it turns out. A traditional recipe I grew up with. B’s visiting Italian friend is fascinated: they have curry in Cape Town? I show her the book I must return to my sister. She is fascinated. “In Napoli we have just opened our first Indian restaurant — our first! Can you imagine?” I sprinkle nutmeg and brown sugar, floundering in the dark with this blasted babotie, trying to temper flavours created when I forgot I could not smell a thing.

Dullness is a disease; an insidious bastard that creeps into lives on the back of jarring experience. When the 24cm chef’s knife entered my left thigh it felt like the dull thud of a hard punch. So convinced was I that I’d been hit I bellowed at the Chef before me, misreading his bulging eyes, and tried to thump him back. Difficult because I was carrying a heavy platter at the time, but I did it anyway; my temper overrode reality. I was brutal. Who does this guy think he is? What a fool. But his eyes. His eyes.

The light caught the blades glinting between us beneath the platter. There were two. One paring knife. One chef’s knife. “Please be the small one” my mind whispered, before I registered what had happened. In the background a dull NO grew louder and louder until the pressure inside my head forced me to see my blood on the larger blade. NO. The white tiles. White tiles. Nice white tiles. The night Chef pulling back the innocent looking flap in my suit trousers revealing the hole in my thigh.

Living with PTSD was a bizarre tripped out experience of dullness placing me at the pointy end of my life. Alice fell down the wrong rabbit hole. This one full of shadow and fear; reflections inverted, insisting whispers describing imminent danger, reliving the moment he removed the knife while I fold the laundry, when I turn to greet B…. My life left balancing on the lip of a bristling scream.

At first I had no idea. I felt great. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened and I wanted to return to work immediately. I jumped at the silly Playschool challenge B set me: if I can walk around Sainsburys then of course, back to work I could go. Easy. See? I’m doing fine. See? But the experience felt as though it was happening in another room. I could not put my finger on it. I didn’t like the way the shoppers felt, the way they converged on me, That one nearly knocked into me! The man helping at the self check out stood too close to me — what the hell is his problem? Stand back! Give me space! Why is everyone staring? Why am I crying. Why can’t I stop.

Limping to the car park. B telling me I’d be alright. The world rushing rushing up to meet me. I felt so unprepared; why won’t the rushing stop. This man I have been dating two weeks who I inexplicably phoned while on Park Lane waiting for the taxi to take me to A&E so no one would see an ambulance stopping outside this iconic address. I am terrible at asking for help. But that night I knew the truth, even if I was unable to admit it. And the next day in the carpark I wanted to cower in the sooty corner and scream until there was nothing left. I didn’t. What would people think? We walked slowly home. He switched off my phone. Tucked me into his bed. And I drifted between worlds, watching my old reassuring place in life drowning slowly beneath the waves of this uninvited experience. I watched it go under in silence. Someone else’s mistake costing me my place.

“Be nice Frances, he’s trying to apologise”. Shoving his face into mine as I stared down at the hole in my leg. The panic around me. No one knew what to do. I kept talking. My only goal to get out of that basement kitchen. Three weeks later I took the sleeping pills. Months of drifting suspended in a muffled reality interfered with by flash backs, nightmares, counselling and confusion. I didn’t believe for a moment I had PTSD. I felt I was hitching my sorry self to a bandwagon I had neither the right nor the experience to claim. I just needed to snap out of it. Or scream. I really wanted to scream.

I was referred to a PTSD clinic at St George’s hospital. I sailed through the assessment process, and was confused when they said they believed they could help me. Help what? That specific pang of fear that comes when one feels utterly alone. How wrong everyone is about me. How disconnected. So when I was offered the choice between a five day intensive clinic and a three month weekly session plan, it was a no brainer. I knew the five day intensive would reveal the obvious medical error with their diagnosis. I would be set straight by a team of two psychologists and I’d be able to return to my old life. Because I didn’t like this one. I didn’t like who I had become. I didn’t trust my aggression with crowds so I avoided them. I didn’t like how angry I felt at the supermarket so I went at odd times. I didn’t know what to say but I didn’t stop talking. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me! It must be, right? It must be! The circumstances are so WEIRD — it must be the best thing!

I did not shut up. Get me out of here. Get me away from here. I was lost in a dull channel of blurred distorted truth. Whatever you do, don’t scream. You will not be able to stop.

Accepting my strange reality was a gradual sharpening of perception. And by gradual I mean my life had morphed into a slow process. Recovery. Those five days with two psychologists was what it said on the tin and arrived nearly twelve months after the ‘incident’. No words of mine could ever capture their dedication and fearless relentless gentle pressure nudging me towards clarity, and the desperate gratitude I felt towards a system that took care of my every medical need from the moment I arrived at A&E.

The five day clinic culminated in a return to the site of the trauma: me and two intrepid psychologists. In my case we were unable to return to the actual site, so we went to a similar five star establishment. They made the arrangements; all I had to do was show up. We met at Victoria Station and walked together in the sunshine. I had no idea what to expect. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to see this thing through properly. There’s no way I’m coming back here to do this again.

Three women watching a busy lunch service inside a five star commercial kitchen. No one, not even the Executive Chef of twenty five years, knew which one of us had experienced the trauma, nor did they know what the trauma was. At first, breathing was my focus. Breathing through the rage of all I left behind that night. Two pairs of eyes checking on me. You ok? I’m ok. How many? I shrugged. How many? Defeat. I know where they all are. All of them. My Bourne-like ability to know where every single knife was located in a room at any given moment was a frustrating foray into the world of detail I had heretofore avoided.

Hypotheticals can be an inrresponsible and dangerous way to communicate ideas. This experience was my exception; it led me to truth. The Executive Chef had at some point made his way over to me, this redhead watching the pass like a hawk, checking each dish like a professional before it left the pass — yet jumping at anything and everything as though she’d never seen the inside of a commercial kitchen. Oh yes, he said, managing to get a word in through my hypothetical chatter. People do get stabbed. But then he described inexperienced chefs popping a paring knife into their pocket and crouching down to retrieve something from the regiment of steel fridges beneath the pass. Ouch.

No. I mean when someone is stabbed say, like over there where you have the stairs. His eyes narrow. Then widen. I don’t understand, he says. So I point. If for example, someone was walking down those stairs and then a Chef came round the corner —

A flurry of his incredulous questions discredit my outlandish suggestion. His eyes glare down at me. He is insulted. What is this woman on about? What sort of kitchen is she describing? Who would allow such a — She can’t possibly mean —

Our exchange was swift. We smiled at everyone as the kitchen wound down lunch service, and I quietly set out the facts of my hypothetical situation…. that became But What If when he challenged me… and became This is what happened to me when I knew I must travel beyond the scream, beyond those stairs spiralling down to a knife and beyond what anyone thought of me. The defeat and liberation involved in saying This is what happened to me…. To me. When I was coming down the stairs. When I was thinking of seeing B later after reading his text about a bottle of red. This is what happened to me — when I wasn’t looking. This man I had just met who made me so happy. Instead of all the fun and happiness I had worked for that night, I was left contending with someone else’s mistake.

The A&E doctor says, You’re lucky. This cut is surgical. Oh yes, said my friend accompanying me who is also a chef. The knives were sharpened just yesterday. The doctors eyes swivel to mine. You are very lucky, he said. Yes, I am, I said. What’s that white stuff? I pointed at the hole in my thigh, nearly glued closed. Fat, the doctor said. We laugh. This isn’t so bad, I thought. My only concern was the time. It was nearly 2am and I had to be back in the kitchen expediting a double shift starting at 10.

Its a stormy night. No taxis outside. We wait and walk and wait in the downpour and wind. And I catch the bus alone, because my friend the chef has work tomorrow and….you’ll be ok though, right? Me? Of course! But after a few minutes rocked slowly by the bus trundling through dark wet streets I don’t think I am. I stare down at Chelsea through the wind and rain, watching people running in their Saturday night finest to cars and taxis and doorways for cheeky cigarettes. I watch them and feel engulfed by this night. Swallowed by ridiculousness and stupidity and what in God’s name just happened. Going past Park Lane on my way home was a guided tour of absurdity. Watching the place where I rang B just a few hours earlier. Seeing one of the waiters waiting for his bus looking up at me at the bus stop. His shock at seeing me. His eyes asking a million questions to tell others his answers to later. Feeling paranoid. See? If anything was really wrong you wouldn’t be on this bus. I try to smile from my seat up top. Not knowing what to say or do because there is this dullness wrapping everything as we move off towards Hyde Park Corner and beyond. Dullness eating me breath by breath. Wrapping my life in bubble wrap. Placing me on the shelf. Wrapping me up in a scream I am too frightened to make.

This is what I could have prevented if I was paying attention. Those words feel so true. The mountains I climbed towards accepting these words could never be so was what the five day clinic was about — and this conversation with this Executive Chef was as authentic as I allowed myself to be.

When Chef replied it was after his eyes followed the path down the stairs I describe, and after a silence where his eyes looked around his kitchen and his chefs. We are no longer smiling. We agreed its uncanny how similar the two kitchens are. But mine didn’t have the mirror showing round the corner, I pointed. Chef shook his head. His attitude and choice of words bring some air to the room. His anger and frustration and sole intent was to make me understand just how unlikely and unfortunate my circumstance was that night. He described how ashamed and disappointed he would be in himself, the lord of his kitchen, if a chef from his kitchen made such an error of judgement. My whispers of taking responsibility for everything began to lose their hold.

He walked us out. He hugged me at the entrance. I didn’t know how to say Thank You and nearly told everyone a secret he told me in the kitchen. That made him laugh. The three of us walked in the startling winter sunshine. I was elated, yes. I had Chef’s words and blazing eyes telling me what I knew to be true. I also felt hollow and alone and angry and ripped off. But alive. So fucking alive.

We walked to Victoria Station. I said Thank You over and over to the two women who now know me better than most. The crowds drove me mad and I was frustrated that this was now my experience doing something as ordinary as walk in a city, something I’ve always been able to do, something I’ve always loved to do— something I missed and was determined to do again; but I no longer needed to scream. The dull thump of fear had lost its grip of this clarified heart. Finally.

Dullness. Its like living your life from another part of the house. Losing my sense of smell may not seem like big potatoes to most. Rest up, get better, repeat. Simples. Surely? To work your ass off to get coveted studio time — three whole days of precious time devoted to being tucked away inside my favourite place in the world writing the pages waiting to be captured — and wake up stapled to the matress unable to breathe, drenched in that hideous cloak of dullness nearly sent me round the twist.

Nearly. But not quite. I explored a world I couldn’t smell or taste. I drifted into that uncomfortable rest involving the sudden inability to breathe, and remembered what life was like balancing on the edge of that shrill scream. Its been four and a half years. Three days blocked by flu put to bed eighteen months of muffled steps through a hell so personal and accidental four and a half years ago, most days my new life absorbs the experience so it barely makes a ripple on my surface. Perhaps we aren’t supposed to know how close we come to losing ourselves.

A magpie makes her machine gun rattle, warning anyone who thinks of attempting to rile her to think again. The breeze has kicked up. I can just about smell sandalwood drifting through the studio. I’m ready for more coffee. The new path I’ve created these past four and a half years is indeed the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And B has just popped home, offering me tea.