by Sam Dodd – an autobiographical piece
“Guess why I’m walking round in circles?”
I look at him reluctantly.
“Cos I’ve got all my spare change just in one pocket! Geddit? So I’m weighed down on one side. So the coins pull me to one side, and I keep going rou…”
“Got it, yeah.”
I remember this joke suddenly, thirty years later, in the middle of a Tesco aisle during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. It hits me in the chest and I swear I get a whiff of his cigar smoke. The aisles in this branch have never felt tight or close before, but the air weighs heavy now. (That could also be the mask I’m wearing, but I like the air/cigar metaphor more). I’ve done a circle round the same two neighbouring aisles three times looking for one bloody thing, anxious not to go the wrong way and upset someone head on, someone intent on a trolley standoff battle. I get dizzy and stop, the woman behind me tugging on her flyaway cart so it doesn’t ram my achilles. “Fuck’s sake,” I mutter as I catch my breath, “such a shit joke.”
Dad always made me dizzy.
When I pull myself together, I get moving again. Orange juice, cranberry juice, butter, milk, yoghurt, chicken, pork, frozen veg, frozen chips, frozen ice cream, frozen hash browns, barbeque wood chips, firelighters, batteries, orange juice, cranberry juice, butter… I finally spot the turkey bacon. I’ve given up pork but I do love my fry ups and I miss my local caff, E. Pellicci, where they serve excellent food and take the rotten piss out of every single customer all day long.
The next day, although it could be the same day as all days feel the same in lockdown, I am in the front room sitting on my couch, listening to the nothing outside. No cars, no planes, no trains, I cannot even hear the birdsong that is usually there. It’s eerie. At the same time, it is comforting. I have always felt bombarded in London, like all my receptors are on fire: complete sensory overload. I remember that this was how it felt to be a child, then to be a teenager, then a young woman, and then someone entering recovery from alcohol addiction. At every one of those stages, it was the same: total silence. Mute shock. And the feeling of having a roaring express train just behind my teeth, snaking down my throat; the engine room was my belly. I daydream, and wonder what it would be like now to have a drink. A quick trip to the shop, a quick sip and then shock, quick oblivion. I blink slowly and thoughtfully, using my eyelids to wipe the image of a bottle from my mind’s eye, and decide that my couch is more comfortable than self-hatred and the throat burn of cheap bourbon and bile. I swallow, shifting the express train, though it doesn’t dislodge entirely.
I love watching people who exude joy. Love it. It makes my throat swell with familiarity, peace, and fear. People with huge laughs are my favourite. I watch them, let the sound of their joy hit me in the solar plexus, right in the gut – and I stop in my tracks because nothing in my life is so urgent that I cannot find the time to watch joy. I will not waste my time on rushing – and if ever there was an oxymoron, that is it. Anyway, we have nothing but time right now.
Someone laughs at the entrance to the Parkland Walk northern end in Highgate, near the bat sanctuary. It’s a few days after Tesco now. I walked all the way here from Whitechapel. In that moment – when laughter floats through the trees and bounces off the bat cave, which makes me wonder how echolocation works – in that moment, everything is right in the world. I like watching eyes crinkle when mouths smile. Once, as a child when I was sick in bed, the doctor came to visit. He was wearing a face mask. It was the ‘80s, I was small, and I’d never seen one before. I don’t have many memories from childhood, but I vividly remember his laughter lines as he smiled down at me, mouthless. I remember reaching up to touch them and watching them deepen as I did. He just went about his temperature taking and various pokes and prods by weaving in and out of my outstretched arms, as I felt my way around his deep brown smiley eyes, giggling my arse off. He had no resistance to my touch at all. Dad did, sometimes.
I love laughing myself, too. When I laugh, I really do laugh – heads turn. I have a big gob and no shame. Not anymore. My friend once said to me, “Shame dies in the sunlight, Sam.” He was telling me to surface it, if I wanted to move through it to the other side. Shed sunlight on it, expose it. Use it to help others. It was a day when that train was blocking up my throat again, and I was hunched over with the silence of the things I did to others when I was roaring mute, and the things that were done to me. I couldn’t breathe when he said it; I swear to God I gasped for air. I was so frightened of being liberated from my shame that this made me feel like a caged animal being poked with a stick, because I did not know what freedom would look like, or if I deserved it, or even if I wanted it. Sometimes shame is so familiar that you’re frightened of losing it; a fear of the unknown. It’s like a fur jacket. Keeps you warm and safe, but someone died to make it, so it will always weigh heavy on your shoulders.
I try and pass on the joy I absorb from others, in a continuous loop of joy exchange, none of it static, none of it collecting or storing anywhere. It has to keep moving. I don’t have a joy bank, because I never need to be empty again if I can be a joy conduit instead. What I get, I give away immediately. I get blocked up if I keep it for myself. I like to imagine, whether it’s mad or not and who cares, that we are like electricity. We only function when there’s a continuous current, we cannot function alone with no input or output. And currents need conduits. So I try to be a conduit, because what else are we here for, but to love?
I forget this sometimes, I forget to collect and give away joy, I even stop hearing and seeing it. I begin to rush again, to snap, I get embroiled in the bullshit, and in those moments I run out of joy, ground to a halt, blink, swallow, and sit on couches wondering what a drink would be like now, even after five years without one.
Laughter is so beautiful, my God it is all we have.
I stare at the bat caves, desperate to see in, but it is pitch black and they don’t come out in the daytime. I stand there empathising with them on this, my weight slowly sinking me further into the boggy mud. I felt like that for a long time: better suited to the shadows of night, not good enough to be seen in daylight. In sunlight. This bat sanctuary is in the disused Highgate tunnels that used to carry a railway from Alexandra Palace to Finsbury Park, one that was never quite finished and is now a long slim nature reserve that takes a few hours to walk. I visit a couple of times during lockdown because it calms me. It has beautiful views of London. The city that overwhelms yet comforts me, because it is my home. It is large, yet I am small. On other days, it is small and I am large. London takes me as I am. So I belong, for as long as I want to belong, to its filthy clean streets.
Bats are hated the world round in normal times, but more so now than usual due to the link with Chinese food markets and COVID. They predate on excess destructive insects – termites, wasps, beetles and flies, among others. They’re an essential part of the food chain, sitting in the grey area of life – like the rest of us. Why do we find complexity so difficult to handle?
Light and dark, black and white, good and bad. Polarised, extreme thinking is very current in 2020 and has been for a while… No room for nuance, imperfections, bad judgements, mistakes, or even learning from them. There is a shame around being wrong, around inhabiting the grey area of life. That is madness and will never serve us. The news will have us thinking that we’re forgetting how to love, and that makes me feel desperate, because I don’t think we are – we’re just being taught how to hate more, and there’s a difference. More dark doesn’t mean the absence of light, because we cannot call it dark without its opposite as a point of reference.
I look at the disused tunnel mouth and think about how a train will never come roaring out of it again. I trace the outside O of my lips with a finger. I am terrified of my roar, always have been.
The next morning, I wake up from a dream in which the world outside my flat feels dangerous. In it, men are bricking up my front door while I stand behind it listening, frozen in fear. I hear them leave and open the door, touching the unfinished bricks. They’re red hot for some reason. There’s still space to leave if I want to; it’s currently just a jagged arch. The sky beyond the balcony walkway is grey and moody, clouds are moving much faster than they do in waking life. I swear I can feel a rumble go through my body, and I know it isn’t thunder or an underground train. My stomach twists as I realise that right below the walkway, on the pavement and just out of sight, there are dead bodies. People collapsing from coronavirus, rasping out their last breath, desperate for some reassurance from someone, anyone, that there is someone waiting for them on the other side… You do not need to be frightened, I want to call out, but I am scared of the men with red hot bricks who must still be nearby. You are loved, you always were, you always will be, you are from stardust and that’s where you’ll return.
Voices float, hanging in the still, scentless air, but I cannot make out what they’re saying. I decide in my dream mind that even if they come back later to finish the bricking up of my only exit, I would still rather stay indoors. I close the door, turn around, and my father walks out of my bathroom. He opens his mouth. “Jimmy Saville will be disappointed in you.” I am more surprised by his sudden appearance than what he just said, as he died eight years ago, so I just stare at him. Patiently, wordlessly. He blinks at me from behind his thick-rimmed glasses, then disappears. I look into the front room; the lights are on low and the cat is nowhere to be seen. I open my mouth to scream and though I put everything into it, nothing comes out. Then I feel the vibrations in my chest again. I open my eyes, to wake up on my back in bed. She’s right there on top of me, patting my sweaty face with the pads of her paws in morbid fascination, eyes large and purring deeply, signalling she wants food more than she wants to listen to me relay my dreams to her. I curl my toes under the duvet and ask her out loud if dad really came to see me again – did she see him too or was it truly only in my dream? My mind doesn’t cope in this moment, folds in on itself. But instead of getting up to move my body and expel the dream demons, I stay right where I am and wrap my arms around her, burying my face in her neck. She makes a noise between a purr and a harrumph, and I laugh. I stare at the ceiling till the need for a piss, a fag, and a cup of coffee takes over the need to hide.
My landline phone does this weird thing, at least a few times per week, where it’ll briefly ring – just for half a second – then stop. It’s a rotary phone, an old fashioned corded one with the pull dial. The ring tone is comforting, like something out of an ‘80s sitcom. You’re almost waiting for Hyacinth Bucket to come shuffling out of my bedroom to answer it; ‘Helloooo, Bouquet Residence, Lady of the House speaking!’ It’s never the cat brushing up against it, or a breeze. It’s just a weird happening.
Another memory visits. My dad came to me in my sleep a few weeks after he died. In this dream I called him on the phone, half knowing I wouldn’t get through, but wanting to dial the familiar number anyway. And the fucker only picked up. In an amazed, hushed voice, he said “You aren’t meant to be able to get through to us here – it’s only meant to work the other way round, and that’s only when they let us!”
For a brief moment, I couldn’t speak – the train in my throat was too big. Then, I just said:
“OK… but is that… actually you?”
“Yes”, he replied, “it’s me, love.”
“What’s it like there? Like – what does it look like?”
“It’s nice. Very comfortable. They’re so kind. There’s a lot of paperwork though.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I snort, and his answer hurts my whole body.
“They make you review every moment of your life before the next stage. For how you affected others. So, darling, I have a lot of paperwork to get through.”
I start to cry.
“You just wouldn’t believe the stacks of it.”
I can hear the smile in his voice. I start to laugh, which turns into huge, gulping sobs when I realise this time together is so limited; I’ve contacted the otherworld and I won’t get long. It makes me fucking desperate. I can’t lose this connection. I can’t lose him again.
Just then, my mum walks into the room. In this dream, we are somehow living in an enormous house, in which each room has a tunnel for an entrance, not a door. I say to her, in a hushed tone because I’m terrified that the angel bosses will hear me and cut us off, “Dad’s on the phone!”
She runs towards me and I give it to her.
“Is that… is that you?” I watch her face crumple in front of me as she falls apart at this one last chance to talk to him.
“Hello love”, he says, then their voices are muffled to my ears for the rest of their conversation. She hands me the receiver back.
“Dad… am I doing OK?”
“You’re doing just fine, darling.” I can hear his voice breaking. “I am so proud of you.”
When I wake up, I call my mum. It’s 4am and she picks up immediately. “I just woke up from the strangest dream about you and your dad,” she says.
As I write this, the landline does the ring thing again. I turn to look into the hallway, and it happens again as I look at the phone – I don’t usually get a double happening. ‘OK’, I say out loud, and keep staring, half hopeful and half frightened. I open my mouth again. “Do you still have the same feelings and emotions as when we’re in a human body? Or is it much more… dunno… wise and detached than that? Do you have angel feelings now? Or none at all? Um… so… do you still miss me too? Or is it just me that misses you?” A high-pitched noise comes out of me, an aching, desperate fury: “I don’t want to be alone with it, dad. I don’t want to be alone with my grief for you, without you.”
I think, fuck, my neighbours are gonna wonder who just died.
When I went to view his body at the hospital and put my hand on his forehead, it was freezing cold. I heard screaming from another room in the ‘death corridor’, set at the furthest end of the main hospital building, plain and smelling of disinfectant, with a long row of identical doors down it like something out of Black Mirror. I thought, ‘Why can’t they keep their grief to themselves?’, until I realised it was coming from me. Up to that moment in my life, I didn’t realise the shock of grief could be so large as to overwhelm and leave your body entirely, desperate for a bigger vessel that can contain it, like a room where the roaring can echo.
Another memory: apples and carrots, huge rubbery lips travelling across my small hand gently. Feeding Ben the horse, who lived in a paddock past the pet graveyard and through the tunnel. Walking back, dad sings Time To Say Goodbye. Andrea Bocelli was famous for it at the time, it was the ‘90s. His trained operatic baritone reverberates heavily, literally physically, around the tunnel. My mum shakes with shame and neuroticism; I shake with aliveness, and feel dizzy with adoration.
It was my dad who taught me to sing. When I sing, it’s so close to a roar it can feel overwhelming.
Dad had plenty of greyness, some black, and some white. He swung me, sang to me, hugged me, loved me, defended me, taught me how to punch, how to sing, how to ride a bike, and how to have a work ethic. He made me laugh a lot too. He abandoned me, ignored me, abused me, controlled me, sickened me, rejected me, slammed his enormous ham-sized fists into tables and doors, fell down stairs raging drunk screaming at me, distanced himself from me, was totally unreachable emotionally, and gaslit me on all of that and more. My knee jerk reaction is to write him off completely. Put my walls up and pretend there is no gaping hole where his love and his abuse, his closeness and absence, his breath-down-my-neck and distant hollers, all used to be. But I miss him deeply. We are complicated, so painfully complex, and yet so beautiful in that complexity that it literally takes my breath away. The inescapable greyness of all of us means we don’t ever need to strive for an unattainable perfection. We can destroy that myth, because lies about perfection kill. I am perfectly imperfect, and it’s a fantastically joyful relief.
“You laugh like your father.”
Hurt people hurt people; damaged people damage people. Break the cycle.
The radio alarm comes on. It is a week or so after Tesco now, about 7.45am – I am already awake. The news says we should all stay at home, and at the precise moment that declaration is made, it starts to piss it down outside. I think to myself, sure, I can do that, no problem. Hah! Jesus. I switch off the clipped, middle class, privileged voices relaying dystopian pandemic tragedy commentary in doomtones. What use is an alarm if I wake up before it goes off? Nightmares do that to my psyche: interrupt the natural order of things, show me the things I don’t want to see, but perhaps need to see. So does a national lockdown. I need to change my alarm tone to one that doesn’t make me want to burn my own flat down every morning.
I feel like a child again, but this time I am not frightened. Lockdown has surfaced my internal world, the one that usually goes unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of life, and that’s OK. It simply explains why I’m dreaming of being trapped with no escape, screaming with no sound, staring with no words, blinking slowly, listening for echoes, and smiling at the sound of someone else’s laughter while remembering my dad’s, with the aching realisation that I’ve forgotten the precise sound of it, and the feeling of how it used to rumble through my ribcage – the same as how his singing and laughter did. He was so large when I was small, everything about him enormous; his body, his fists, his laugh, his opera voice, his stature, his convictions, his oppression, his barely contained rage, confusion and shame, and his love for me. In the end though, at 79 years old, he was frail and lonely, wracked with all the pain he’d felt and caused. He died alone in the hospital bed from illnesses that took his soul long before they took his body, after I’d granted his request to a nurse for a Do Not Resuscitate as his power of attorney. A few years before this, he’d asked me to help him die with pills, and I just couldn’t. The guilt wracked me; I wanted to relieve him of his pain. But in the end I was able to. I collapsed in the shower at the moment of his passing; they called me as I was still sitting on the bathroom floor.
A few weeks after his death, a robin redbreast landed on a branch by my face as I was holding his favourite necklace and asking for a sign. I hummed Time To Say Goodbye; a shooting star went over my head above. And a few weeks after that, I threw the necklace in a bin on Bethnal Green Road to rid myself of his energy. I still remember the exact bin, and sometimes play with the idea of rooting around in the bottom of it.
We are complex, grey animals, aren’t we.
There is more laughter. It is everywhere, just waiting to be collected and passed on. Echoing, bouncing, reverberating, shaking; in search of vessels to be contained in and explode from.
Laughter is so beautiful, my God it is all we have.