The Last Cig in the Packet
‘What are things like at home?’
I think of the thick layer of dust that sits on every surface in my living room, the unopened mail which carpets my hallway and the stacks of dirty mugs in my kitchen sink.
I shrug. ‘Fine.’
‘Do you live alone?’
Dr Taylor looks away from his computer screen. ‘And how do you find that?’
I shrug again. I’ve lost count of how many shrugs I’ve given him over the course of the past five minutes. ‘Fine.’
‘What about when you need support? Who can you turn to?’
Another shrug. ‘My mum, I guess.’
‘Does she live nearby?’
‘You see her often?’
‘Does she know about the self-harm?’
My hand automatically moves to my forearm so that my fingers can poke at the fresh wound which lives there. It’s just beginning to crust over. The stab of soreness calms me. I’m looking forward to the inevitable sting that will occur later when I peel away the fabric from sticky, angry flesh.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘So if you were in crisis you could go to your Mum’s house?’
‘And do you?’
Course not. When I’m in crisis I wallow in it.
‘Sometimes,’ I say.
‘Good. So your mum is an important part of your support network. I’ll make a note of that.’ He turns back to his computer screen and taps away at his keyboard.
I look at the beige walls of the bland office and wonder how Dr Taylor himself isn’t stir fucking crazy.
I walk back through the park, dragging my feet, putting off my arrival home. My legs and arms are heavy and I can almost feel my joints creak with every step. I want to feel some heat on my skin but the sun’s all watery and insipid, like it’s not all there. I know how it feels. But even if it was warm, you’d never catch me rolling up my sleeves and bearing my tattered arms to the world.
I want to erase the last 15 minutes from my memory, pretend like I didn’t just share with another human being some of the darkest thoughts from the murkiest corners of my brain.
I wonder what he thinks of me — if he’ll go home to his partner and talk about me. What a day. You’ll never believe the nutter I met at work.
Or maybe he’s used to it. Seen it all. Just doing his job. That’s what Mum would say, anyway.
Speak of the devil. I hear my phone buzzing in my bag and it can only be her that’s calling. I don’t have the energy for an in-depth analysis of my appointment, and certainly not over the phone while I’m in public. I let her witter away to my voicemail.
I plonk myself down on a bench and retrieve my last cigarette from the crumpled packet in my bag. It’s been rattling around in there for weeks. The tobacco will be dry and acrid by now, but I won’t bin it.
I roll the cig between my fingers. I don’t want to smoke it but I want to have the option. It’s a comfort thing. Like the wound on my arm that throbs each time I poke at it.
Did I tell him enough? That’s what Mum will ask me. Was I totally honest? Did I make it clear how bad I am? Was it enough to say that I want to die, or should I have laid it on really thick?
I could have told him that I’d like to be floating along the river Humber. Described to him in vivid detail what I imagine my body will look when they fish me out. Puffy and bloated and blue from the water. Tongue swollen and lolling out. Eyes protruding from their sockets. Big hunks of sodden skin sloughing from my limbs, exposing raw muscle.
And I could have told him I know all this because I Googled it with utter fascination. That I picture it every time I close my eyes.
Nah. I don’t think he needed to know. He’d still have prescribed the pills, made the referral to the right people. No point making him feel sick enough to throw up his breakfast.
I shove the unsmoked cig back into its packet and retrieve my phone from my bag. There’s a voicemail and three texts.
She won’t leave me alone until I update her.
I got it right, practically word for word.
‘Did you tell him enough?’ Mum says. ‘Were you honest? Did you make it clear how bad you are?’
‘’Cos you might not get the right help if not. They might fob you off. You know the NHS is overstretched — they can’t give help to everyone who asks. They need to know how hopeless you are.’
Hopeless, am I? I take a big gulp of tea and scald the roof of my mouth with barely a flinch.
‘Don’t you want a biscuit?’ she says.
I shake my head.
‘Have you eaten today?’
I shake my head.
‘I can make you a sandwich.’
I think of her trademark sarnies. Slimy slice of ham between two wodges of bread which have been slathered with a quarter-inch layer of butter. I wince.
She tuts at me. ‘You can’t live off tobacco and air.’
‘I haven’t had a cig in weeks.’
‘Really? What a good girl.’
I turn to Mum’s dog which is curled up in its bed in the corner of the kitchen. We share a look of mutual sympathy.
‘So have you done anything stupid recently?’
I grind my teeth. She knows I hate it when she asks me that. As if I was only a bit cleverer I would know better than to slice open my skin or stub a cigarette out on the back of my hand.
‘You have, haven’t you? What did you do this time?’ It’s like she’s asking what got me into my latest detention. Like she’s bored of going over the same old shit.
‘I’m not showing it to you, Mum.’
‘I just want to understand. Why do you do it?’
I sip on my tea without a word. It doesn’t do either of us any good to keep tramping over old ground, time and time again.
‘And I wish you’d call me.’
‘I do call you.’
‘I mean before you hurt yourself.’
She says “hurt yourself” in a whisper, just in case the neighbours will hear her.
‘I could try and talk you out of it.’
‘Or into it,’ I mutter.
Her head snaps towards me and her face turns hard.
‘It was a joke,’ I say.
She stares at me, eyes glistening.
The dog gets up from her bed and plods to Mum’s side, where it nuzzles at her hand until she scratches at the top of its head.
‘Is it my fault?’ Mum says quietly.
‘Course not. I didn’t mean that at all.’
‘I smother you.’
I don’t say anything.
‘I just worry,’ she says.
We sip on our tea. The dog seems to sense that master’s strife has passed and it plods back to its bed, walks in three circles and slumps down with a relieved groan. It doesn’t know how lucky it is.
‘I wish you’d move home,’ Mum says. ‘Just for a little bit. I wouldn’t have to worry as much then.’
I shake my head, squeeze out a smile. ‘I’m fine. Anyway — this isn’t home anymore, is it? I have my own place.’
‘What if I move in with you, then?’
She smiles. ‘Joking.’
I curl up in bedsheets that smell of month-old sweat and body odour. The dank musk repulses me, but I know that after half an hour snuggled up with it my nose will block it out. The washing machine must be enjoying its extended holiday.
I bring up my emails on my laptop and scan over subject lines that scream about last chances in the sales and hot new products. And then I see something about an interview request and a tingle of fear runs through me.
It’s been weeks since I last had enough desperate hope in my system to apply for jobs. I barely even remember which position I would be interviewing for. They must be short of decent candidates if they’re scraping the barrel with me.
Work. Responsibility. People.
No. It’s impossible.
Tears flow quickly and sting my cheeks. I slam the laptop closed and shove it away from me. Pull the duvet up over my head, take some snotty breaths in my grotty fabric cave.
I can almost see Mum’s face when I tell her about it. Eyebrows raised hopefully, only for them to drop three seconds later when I tell her I’m not going. And then there’ll be an interrogation about how I’m paying my rent and what my savings account looks like and whether I need any help and how I should just move home.
She must be ashamed of me. I bet her face burns up when her friends ask after me, ask what I’m up to, ask about my career, and she has to scramble for some vague excuse as to why I’m doing nothing. I feel my cheeks grow red with second-hand embarrassment for her.
She wants me to get better and I don’t think I can. It’s been too long now. I really ought to save her the worry.
It’s funny how hard the wind blows across the Humber Bridge even when things feel calm and serene on solid ground at each end. The breeze batters me as I lean against the barrier and gaze down on the river.
It’s dark now. Not much to see except for the lights of homes and businesses which edge the river’s banks. Cloud clings to the sky and makes it impossible to see the stars. The street lights on the bridge illuminate me and reflect in the water below. Water that looks like ink. I could simply slip through its surface and sink right to the bottom. Throw myself away from the world in a matter of seconds.
I thought coming face to face with the possibility would scare me out of it, but it doesn’t. It seduces me. It seems an inevitability at this point. One day I will hop over the edge and fall down into the blackness to become nothing. And if it is truly inevitable then why not today?
I lean as far over the railing as I can manage. Climbing over won’t be easy but it is possible. Others have done it before me. I know because I Googled that, too. Some were even sure-footed enough to take a breather on the other side before they dropped. They had time to change their minds.
I wonder if anyone has ever changed their mind halfway down.
A gentle knock rouses me from sleep, and then there’s the squeak of a door handle. I don’t bother to open my eyes.
I’m in clean sheets. I can smell familiar fabric conditioner and I realise that I’m in my old bed. My old room, my old house. I remember the cold walk home and knocking on Mum’s door somewhere close to midnight. It almost felt like I was dreaming when she tucked me up in bed with a hot water bottle and a soft kiss on my forehead.
I hear the dull thud of a mug being placed on wood. The bed squeaks and sinks gently on one side and the duvet tightens across my body. Mum leans over me, strokes my hair and wipes a gluey tear from my cheek.
‘Move home for a bit,’ she says.
The Humber Bridge will always be there should I need it; it’s like the last cig in the packet. For now, I’ll stay at home.
I wrote this story nine months ago and put off publishing it in case it was too morbid or doleful. It’s certainly a lot different to the silly, whimsy fiction I tend to post. I was also scared of sharing too much of myself. This story is fictional, but it is inspired by own experiences with depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK right now. I figured that sharing fiction like this might help in one way or another.
Accept help. Lean on your loved ones. Don’t be too proud to admit when things are getting too difficult.