Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Crossroads (5 of 5)
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.
This one started with a Facebook status I read one morning at work. It was written by my wife.
'Had such a hard few weeks, but today we have reached a crossroads and had to make a decision. Life is never easy, but sometimes that just makes it more interesting.'
Always on the lookout for an idea for a story, I resolved to start with the predicament we found ourselves in at the present, but look backwards, taking a snapshot of certain times in my life when I'd been faced with potentially life-changing decisions.
The stories came easily, but I knew by writing them in a series, the expectation would always be that the final instalment would be the one that counted. This sense of expectation was confirmed by the odd comment from friends after earlier instalments were posted.
'An inspiring read, but start from 1 of 5. 5 still to come,' read one, referring to part 4.
'Part 5 is the clincher. Come on Saleby, don't keep us waiting. Revelations I hope!' read another.
In my head, I'd written and re-written the final part several times over, without actually putting ball-point pen to white copier paper.
Maybe that was a good job. Because sitting on the shores of Ennerdale Water on Saturday, I realised that the end of this particular story was just a beginning, and that a different story altogether was the one I needed to tell all along.
I have two names for it. I'm unsure of where they came from, but they seemed to capture the essence of what I was feeling inside: 'Keep On Burning' and 'The Sound Of Fire'. Although I didn't understand it at all for many years, I know now that they were always the flip sides of the same coin.
'Keep On Burning' was the positive manifestation. The motivational force that pushed me on to challenge myself, prove myself, do crazy things, stay up all night, look for adventure. I wrote about it once.
'The Sound Of Fire' was its negative alter-ego. This was the static that bred restlessness. The creak and crackle of burning timber that goaded me, reminded me that whatever I did, it would never be good enough. The encroaching wall of flame that drowned out mindfulness and, for no apparent reason, cast hopeful days under clouds of dense smoke.
I'd lived with both for many years. They'd shaped the majority of my adult life, and a part of me was content to let them dictate the rest. It wasn't until I reached the crossroads, however, that I knew that I couldn't let this continue.
Just over a year ago, a friend took his own life. He left behind a daughter a year older than our own little girl. I thought of little else for some time, but remained quiet whenever people spoke about his death. For most, suicide is impossible to comprehend. Some of us, however, understand just a tiny bit, because we've been to the dark place and been blessed to come back.
A couple of weeks after Robbie's death, we attended an end-of-term concert at primary school. As I watched the show, my mind kept returning to the same scenarios. If it hadn't been for a stranger on a beach, Lightning and Whirlwind - a fizz and bluster of unstoppable and eager energy - would never have been created. I thought of them, and I imagined Tammy speaking the same impossible words to our children as Robbie's wife had had to speak to their girl. It was just too much to take.
They say that people take their own lives when their fear of living is more than their fear of dying. I'd been spared the ultimate decision by the four throw-away words of an old man. I'd been lucky. But as I watched that concert, listened to the choir end the show with a rendition of Gary Barlow's 'Sing', I realised that I'd lived my whole life in fear. A fear that drove me to seek solace in running, alcohol and social isolation. A fear that had sought release in eating disorders and self-harm, and had paralysed me into making the wrong decisions time and time again. A fear that had led me to a beach and, even now, clouded my vision to the fact that I had as close to everything as anyone could get.
It doesn't take a choir long to sing a Gary Barlow song, but by the time they had, I knew what I must do and I knew I was strong enough to do it. It was then that I saw the little blond boy for the first time. Sitting on the edge of the stage, dirty black plimsolls dangling on the end of skinny legs, I was surprised at how much he looked like Lightning. But, of course, he wasn't Lightning. The boy was me.
Secrets are poison, and the truth sets you free. I would tell the truth about my guilty secret in a series of stories, just as I have for 'Crossroads'. I had no doubt that they would make people view me in a different way, that they'd cause embarrassment and unease. I had no doubt that the process would be difficult. But I knew I was strong now, and I knew it was the right thing to do.
'The Sound Of Fire (Part One): Four Songs By Gary Barlow' told the middle of my story. The Sound Of Fire (Part Two): The Rainbow told the end. Another story - 'Little Blond Boy' - my most brutally honest piece of writing and the work I'm most proud of - never made it through. Ironic, of course, because these were the words that told the beginning of the story. These were the words that told the truth.
I was seven years old. The story is simple. Take a little blond boy - a quiet little boy who smiles a lot, tries hard at school and is always running. Introduce him to an older man. An older man who flirts with housewives, spends the weekends 'fucking birds' on Butlins and who, surely, for the love of God, should have known better. For the six long weeks of a primary school summer holiday, have the man befriend the little boy, take him on day trips to Skegness and buy him books to read. Then have him repeatedly sexually abuse the little boy, and see where the story takes you next.
Seven years old.
The story will be long and complex, touched at times by ecstacy, but washed through with despair, self-doubt and self-hatred. The minor character will disappear at the end of the summer and, no doubt, continue living his life in the way he sees fit. The other will end up, nearly forty years later, watching a choir sing a Gary Barlow song and know that redemption will only be found by telling the truth.
This story was 'Little Blond Boy'. They say that Paul McCartney wrote 'Yesterday' in five minutes flat - that you know your writing is good because it just pours out and you can't stop it. I wrote my story in a single week-day early-morning sitting. I knew it would be hard to read, but I was unprepared for the depth of reaction from Tammy when I handed it over.
My guilty secret.
Of course, Tammy had been one of only very few people I'd ever mentioned it to. At the time it was happening, I'd told no-one, not even my Mum or twin brother. As I'd got older, I'd attempted to clumsily raise the subject, usually when I was drunk, but really got nowhere. In my late twenties, I'd seen a doctor, told him the thoughts I was having, the things I was doing to myself, and begged him to find me someone to speak to. I only visited the psychiatrist once, his proposed solution being a prescription for Cypramil and the words, 'Take these according to the dose on the label. You'll soon feel better.' I didn't. I did what I'd always done. Kept it to myself and just got on with it.
The act of writing is a cathartic process. Sometimes it's rewarding to know that other people will read your work. At other times, the fact that no-one will ever read it doesn't matter one bit. After speaking to Tammy for hours one night, I decided not to post 'Little Blond Boy'. It's currently folded up untidily in a clear plastic envelope in the kitchen cupboard, sandwiched between an old Lakeland 50 road book and a tatty copy of a Harvey's Paddy Buckley Round map.
With that simple act of writing, the sound of fire stopped. It had taken a lifetime to rid myself of my guilty secret. Now it was no longer a secret at all. And, more importantly, I was able to view the past with a clear perspective. Guilty secret? Seven years old. A little boy. All the guilt was his.
On looking back upon the crossroads of my life, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd taken a different path than the one I did. Where would that path have taken me? However, more times than not, I accept the decisions I made - after all, they led me eventually to a place I always wanted to be.
I look back on that summer with the same sense of acceptance. What happened didn't ruin my life, it merely led me a different way. It made things difficult at times, but now I'm free of its burden I can view things with a detachment I've never experienced before.
Would I have become a different person if the past had been different? It's impossible to know. Strangely, I'd like to think that it wouldn't be so. For without this past, I wouldn't be who I am. And, for the first time in my life, that person is one I'm happy to be.
Crossroads become important when they're overshadowed with fear. From almost the moment we're born, we're conditioned to take a certain path. Societal norms, parental expectations, schooling, government and the crushing grip of corporate advertising brainwash us to believe that one certain path is the right one to follow. And follow we do, for the main part, because it's easy. And because, eventually, after following this path for so long, we become scared to leave it.
When people speak of crossroads, they usually refer to a crisis in their existence - a point in which they realise the path they're treading is the wrong one, and they know, deep down, that they have to choose another. It's an intimidating scenario - it's scary - involving, as it inevitably does, leaving someone, something or some previous way of life behind. The crossroads I've described in my stories have all been examples of this scenario.
However, now that the sound of fire has gone, now I am no longer guilty, no longer scared, I've come to view crossroads in a different way. Whereas previously I'd avoid them, only making an important decision when the situation offered no other choice, now I welcome them. In a personal paradigm shift, a crossroads is no longer a crisis to be periodically endured, but the promise of opportunity that should be actively embraced.
I've reached plenty more crossroads since the day I told the truth, but now I tend to focus on the positives that might result from a difficult decision rather than fear straying from 'the path'. It's the same with our latest.
This one involves our livelihood and lots of pedantic and tedious legislative documents with titles such as The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, The Trade Marks Act 1994 and The Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011. It involves the reclassification of a children's colouring board from 'a stationery item' into 'a children's toy', and it means that, having built a successful business within a slightly 'grey' area, European directives dictate that we're now going to totally change our business strategy, or simply give up. 'Grey' areas have become 'black' or 'white'.
The paths from this particular crossroad may lead to a scaling-down of our operation or bankruptcy. They may lead to new markets, increased success and higher profits. They might lead to a new life doing something unimagined, exciting and totally different. Who knows? It's still too early to tell. For now, we'll do whatever's necessary to secure the jobs of the people we employ and make a reasoned decision - with a clear head, without fear - in the fullness of time.
Which takes me to the end of this story, the beginning, on the shores of Ennerdale Water.
A narrow, muddy trod leads through the tall grass from the main path to the shore of the lake.
It's mid-morning, and the view we're greeted by is breath-taking.
Before long, the superheroes are in their swimming clothes and gingerly wading out into the water. Tam lays down a couple of towels on the pebbly shore as I lie down, pleasantly exhausted.
After a 1.45am alarm call, I'd met a friend of a friend at Dunmail and spent the following six hours supporting him over Leg 3 of his Bob Graham Round. Having been welcomed by a stunning sunrise, we'd run across the roof of England, climbed Broad Stand and entered Wasdale well up on schedule. It had been a fantastic morning.
Nourished by bacon cobs and sweet tea, we'd left an hour later, but decided to make the short detour to Ennerdale Bridge on our way back to Keswick for a spot of post-run recovery.
As I drift into sleep, the sun on my face, the sound of children's laughter in the warm air, I can't help but think that life can't get much better.
I wake sometime later, disorientated but refreshed. Sitting up, I look out to the lake. Whirlwind's got a tennis ball. She throws it across the water and yells, 'Fetch, doggie!' Obediently, Lightning splashes across the water, barking as he goes. He grabs the ball, hands it back to Whirlwind, who pats him on the head and says, 'Good doggie!'
They continue the same game for a bit before changing to giving each other piggybacks. While Whirlwind's on Lightning's back, I reach for my phone and take a picture.
Tam leans over and gives me a kiss.
'They're good kids aren't they?' she says.
It's then that I think of the crossroads we've visited and the ones we're still to visit. The Facebook post that inspired recent words comes to mind, and I remember the extra sentence she'd written on the end.
'As long as I have Chris and the kids, then nothing else matters x.'
So true, I can't help but think. So true.
Every moment is a crossroads. Every thought. Every decision. Every yes, no or maybe.
Sometimes we'll get it right.
Sometimes we'll get it wrong.
But that's ok. It's the way it should be.
After a while, the superheroes get bored. The sun's disappeared behind cloud and we're all hungry.
We get changed and while towels and clothes are being stuffed away in bags, I paddle out into the cool water and look down the valley.
After a moment I hear a lazy ripple of sound as Tam joins me.
She wraps her arms around my waist and draws me close.
Then she whispers, 'So, what we doing next, Mr Rainbow?'