Digital Ischemia


Eye of the Storm: part 4 of 4

Series starts at part 1

After an unusually dry winter and a warm spring, the usual May heatwave has finished preparing the tinder. I don’t have time to swither over whether fire-fighting is a good idea for Jamie right now. The residual dampness in his freshly decontaminated clothes may be a blessing. I push a pair of heavy duty gardening gloves on his worn hands and lead him through the rocks to the moor. I only insist that he doesn’t let fire come between his back and the sea.

The sight of the machair is less frightening than I expect: a layer of smoke hugs the ground but most is fanned inland by the wind from the sea. We walk cautiously through this murk. The ground here is still springy. Ahead, a neighbour waves a greeting. Heading toward them, we hear the crackle, see the smoking glow: lines of flame. Unbelievable but terrifying. How can salty, calciferous bog be on fire?

Our disparate community is remarkably coordinated. We hand pump sea water through an unbelievably long hose to soak the ground at the natural fire breaks. It’s a relatively small affair, thankfully, for two dozen folk to tackle – mostly about maintaining a decent buffer to our cultivated strips of kitchen garden. We’re not stupid enough to try to beat out flames. Jamie lugs buckets with heart-warming gusto.

Once we’ve done all we can, we agree a watch rota and disperse again. Jamie stops before we reach the house. He seems to be shaking again and folds up against a rock. I wonder if it’s the intense activity or…
“I don’t know what to do next.”
Apparently activity isn’t just a distraction for him; he processes stuff that way.
“That’s OK.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know either.” I’m determined not to push him.

I lie beside him among tufts of lightly smoked wildflowers. Not standing. Not too close. This is my magic mantra now. The cool breeze is welcome. He waits before asking.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Whatever makes you happy. You’re always concerned with everyone else. It’s your turn.”
“What are you thinking though?”
“I’m wondering… Are you just with me to keep me happy?”
Could’ve sweetened that a bit. He laughs dismissively. He doesn’t say anything, but from the corner of my eye he looks very tense; too much emotion bubbling up again. I decide to try a little comforting.
“We will figure this out. After all, after the wind and the water and the fire, there’s still earthquakes to come.” I mean the humour to be cathartic.

The heat becomes appropriately humid for battering through some personal issues. When the rain finally comes, it’s spectacular. Jamie is rooted to the rock with this fantastic brooding expression. I get some great shots of him, of his curious allure. I get plenty of time to look at those.

One morning I wake up to that too deep quiet again: no storm, no shouting neighbour, no Jamie. His turn to leave. His turn.

Through the summer I share chores with another member of the community: a guy with a simple rationale, particularly about an unattended woman. He’s skilled and committed, but not… We get along so far but… Unattended but not unattached. Still infatuated. The one who cares.

The impending harvest brings thick air again. The plants are almost ready, drying and browning, and I’m impatient for something else. Eventually I give in to the urge to wander pointlessly along the cliff. The heat haze above the machair is magnificent. Perfectly ready for… Mechanically I scan the hemicircle from south around east to north. And back.

There it is: the artefact in the shimmer that could be… A vertical smudge rippling. I sit down on his rock to wait and watch.

Apparently I missed the earthquake. I missed the news. I missed any informative neighbours. Or perhaps that was what agitated me. Jamie says that’s pretty desperate clawing for a link. Campaigners always said fracking beside a nuclear power plant was Russian roulette. Guess what? He says he was close to the epicentre in Cumbria. I jump back, feigning repulsion at his likely radiation levels. He smirks. My first tremor.

He can’t remember if the earthquake was magnitude 3.4 or 4.3; small anyway, not harmful, but significant. I plunge into attitudey teen.
“Why are you not still there then, if it’s all safe, and anyway aren’t you exactly what they need?”
He raises the eyebrows. I’ve missed that most of all.
“What am I exactly?”
“Gaffer-taping a ruptured nuclear reactor is one of your top skills, after, you know, building a shelter and miraculously finding a piano to show off at. Post-apocalyptic man?” I tense up: hardly a welcoming— I stop. The self-conscious teen can rest. I could give him much worse for vanishing into the steaming wilderness while still unhinged, not to mention the clichéd over-worked mid-life meltdown phase. None of that is how we work.

He guffaws reassuringly, reaffirmingly. “You’re the food finder? I can’t wait to live on your last packet of mints.”
Tears of laughter, of relief, fill my eyes. He’s back.

He doesn’t miss a thing. When I can see again, he touches my hand, entreatingly, “did you like my post-apocalyptic smouldering across the plain effort?”
In his glinting eyes, I see little earthquakes on the beach. He cares whether I care. Can’t ask more than that.


Eye of the Storm: part 3 of 4

Series starts at part 1

As our emotional turbulence subsides, he notices the quiet.
“The wind’s stopped.”
“We’re in the calm centre of it now.”
“The eye of the storm?”
He’s drawn up from the bed, up the stairs, up to the front glass, trailing a blanket, a touchstone.
“You can go out, if you want.”
His head flicks around, startled.
“See where the dark churning stuff is, past the headland?”
“Is that rain clouds?” How adorably childlike his awe sounds.
“And debris and sea and whatever else it’s lifted along the way… Well, keep glancing at it and you’ll see when it closes in – when you can’t see the crags any more. You’ll feel the wind rise again too.”
“Time to get back inside? Where are you going?”
“Get some pictures. Last time I was too hypnotised.”
“Don’t take any chances.”
“Everything’s a chance.”

Two miles with a handcart laden with long-life groceries. My comprehensive domestic goods supply hub is Finn’s bar. My all-weather home is this Passivhaus embedded in cliff rock with its flexiglass face and wind turbine hairdo. All that planning and readiness. Nothing prepared me for this.

I keep reminding myself his state of mind is not my fault. But I still contributed, however little. I’m certainly involved. What else could I do? When did he stop being Jamie?

For months I had watched him slowly desiccate, despite encouraging him to talk to me. I had supported him every way I could imagine and asked how I could help further. I had trodden so very warily around the edge of the chasm of defensiveness. I do that myself: if I’m too frazzled, any enquiry about how I am or how to help tips me over into resenting the attack. How dare anyone pick on me when I just need to… Just need to…

He had had so many ‘just need to’s. Too many. And they kept breeding. With an awful jolt I saw how he’d made time and energy for me by squeezing his downtime, relaxation, and sleep. Simple arithmetic. Squeezed beyond sustainability.

Eventually I considered my own selfish perspective: I was stressed; I hadn’t worked creatively for weeks. I was foutering at admin because I had no mental focus. Constantly distracted by trying to anticipate his next need, trying to figure out how to break through his shell, solve the impossible time-management conundrum, fix him. Pair of stereotypes.

A couple of trusted confidantes, even his daughter, had been wonderfully supportive and understanding, and quite useless. No suggestions other than those I had tried and the only remaining option. I couldn’t avert the disaster. I was just pressing the accelerator. I couldn’t watch him implode. I left.

That always sounds defeatist to me. I failed. He careered on for six weeks. His daughter called me one day to say he had at last stopped, unspooled and harangued her until she told him where I was. Hiding.

When I entered the pub, Finn nodded to the lounge. “Package for you.” Jamie lay on the sweat-stained, beer-drizzled, velour banquette. He looked horribly gaunt and pasty. He’d probably been there all night.

He leant on the cart except for the uphill sections, rambling intermittently. I caught little of it through the whining wind. I was weirdly shocked at being with him again, but not him.

I introduced him to this wacky temporary residence in stages as we stripped him and hosed him down. I was on the brink myself, seeing him so drained of emotion and energy. Finally we staggered down to the sleeping den in the rock and he keeled over. I watched him a while, still adjusting to this new him. Upstairs again the usual quietness felt like a vacuum. I clicked on the radio: worky tunes. Don’t stand so close to me. Not the wisest relationship philosophy, but workable.

He awoke late afternoon and quietly tipped a pan of porridge into himself. Surprisingly he didn’t nod off again immediately. Maybe less surprising he didn’t want discussion. He announced he’d resigned one of his jobs. The subtext was that would make me happy. That was all that mattered to him: making folk happy. I love him for that. I wish he included himself. I left it. I was getting good at stepping away.

As always, my turmoil is superseded by events. I’m woken by a shout. Anxiety spikes as I reach for Jamie. Not him. He’s disoriented and startled, but not shouting. I pull myself up the stairs. My neighbour hollers again through the door: the moor is burning.

concludes at part 4


Eye of the Storm: part 2 of 4

Follows part 1

When my gawping continued beyond a natural period of surprise, he lunged at the piano stool, swivelled with practised showmanship, and launched into The Beatles – When I’m Sixty-Four. I composed myself by taking in the marvellous plastic veneer of the school upright: one of those mustard efforts with unrealistically textured panels and waxen slab keys. It was at least tuned. He was teasing me with my sixth year ‘light relief’ project. How the hell did he remember that?

He ended with irritatingly cocky embellishment. Two students cheered weakly. Jamie sprang up and flourished a bow. Mr Broadwood caused my chest to flip again. Not just in awe of his appropriately post-apocalyptic skills. Of course he noticed my collapsing dissemblance. I’m sure he took advantage of that idle amusement by volunteering the pair of us to chaperone those unfortunates who were assigned to the assembly hall dormitory.

As the night buffeted and lashed on, everyone else babbled away in their emergency blanket forts, even the reticent ones, and sleepiness seemed as unlikely as sleep. Our guardians’ post by the windows suddenly seemed foolish – what with gale-force gusts, sheets of water, and electrifying forks of lightning.
“Does it strike you as daft to be right beside eighty square metres of single-pane?”
He laughed. “Not keen on striking.” Always the ready quip.

The musty quilted rug I was perching on was suddenly a magic carpet, slaloming toward safety in the lee of that sturdy, serviceable piano. We made our own fort from empty blanket boxes and let the inevitable cheeky comments bounce off. So long as they were enjoying mocking us, they were enjoying themselves.

“Do you remember that other storm?” He asked tentatively, as though counselling me through trauma. Don’t be ridiculous: whenever the weather was wild I thought of him. That particular meteorological event had been all about wind. We had emerged en masse afterward, under-slept and under-informed, and had milled about like zombie ants. Everywhere had been tangled with strewn branches. Suburban tree-lined avenues had been transformed into queues of war-wounded amputees with weeping gashes.

One especially agitated member of the community had barked for assistance clearing roads and sorting usable timber. We had shrugged and let him shout instructions. The hilarious nature of the giant wheeze would all become apparent in due course. For the moment we had contentedly resigned ourselves to merely collecting mock-fodder.

After an hour dragging wet wood, the novelty and my energy had worn off like the skin on my palms. I had cunningly worked my way behind a conveniently large, damp, ready bonfire to obscure a skive. I gobbled half a packet of sugar and synthetic flavour lozenges and succumbed to the haze of an insulin spike.

“Do I know you from somewhere?” There he’d been, Mr Broadwood, the craft and design teacher, slouching among the debris. Somehow the residual hypoglycaemia gave me pique that came out not too shabby.
“I doubt it. I don’t usually do woodwork.”

For a terrifying long moment, he had raised his eyebrows and let me squirm. Had I just totally gone beyond the bounds there? Disrespected him and his profession? Of course not; we weren’t in school, I wasn’t in his class, plus he had started it, if that wasn’t too childish a retort. But that was how he kept the edge with his pupils, kept them teetering between triumph and ruin.

Somehow he roped me in to some woodcraft effort he had going with the primary school. It was fun. I never figured out how. I got to spend a whole Saturday swishing through sopping undergrowth, helping a few wide-eyed weans build a hut in some spare woodland. We all trooped home, mysteriously enriched by the experience. I was released at my road end before he deposited the last two fizzing forest folk at their respective homes. He had been careful that we were never alone together. That was how he kept the tension. Kept me teetering. They had planned elaborate activities for the summer; I would be gone.

Strange to think at that time he had been so keen to appear older, to fake the superiority he didn’t feel. Fifteen years on he was trying to be young still. Such as not quite getting around to telling me had a daughter. But that wasn’t an issue: she tactfully introduced herself after one of our classes, before I did anything daft. I like her.

Miraculously, the fifteen year old hut was still standing. You couldn’t call it a professional finish, but it was waterproof and private and securable – from the inside. Its furnishings and my arse will never be the same again. Still, it was quieter and more comfortable than a piano for succumbing to the effect of him with wet hair.

Now, here he is, another five years on, sopping wet again, seeming totally childlike in the face of adult problems. And I’m no help.

continues in part 3


Eye of the Storm: part 1 of 4

eye of a storm, typhoon, swirling cloud

He stands, trembling, in my rudimentary shower; the rain mixing in to the tears. When did he stop being Jamie?

You can’t go back? Sometimes a perfect storm of events and emotions parallels sometime past. Sometimes, then, all the moment needs is a tune, a snatch of melody, to trigger a momentary wormhole and plunge you back.

Not listening to a badly-tuned radio is a brilliant exercise in exhausting psychology. My brain detects speech and tune among the noise and spools rabidly. Its raison d’être is to recognise pattern, interpret meaning and apply to current events. Take a single phrase about Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Link to a lyric. Link to a reunion with a companion song from decades ago: The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me. Then comes the plunge.

There I was, then I was, five years back, trying to explain convincingly how I came to be there again, then again. Explain the tortuous convolutions of bureaucracy that had sucked me into a temporary teaching project and spat me out at my old school. But I was enthused, I was inspired, and most of all I was relieved: the guy I had been infatuated with fifteen years earlier, the teacher of course, was not there. I said it out loud. Some of the attitudey teens smirked.

I exited my temporary classroom and birled orientatively in the corridor. The distant rabble of departing students faded. This had been Maths. The toilets were still at the west end—the girls’ anyway; no idea where the guys’ was—so the hangout was… the radiator by… But I wasn’t heading there; I was being an adult. Turn about. Was it still called ‘staff room’? I managed only three paces. Less than a second of sound arrested me completely.

That companion tune, recognised in three-quarters of a bar, consumed my attention. After the first chorus, a friendly colleague battered out through the staircase door. He recognised my static bewilderment and reoriented me toward a mug of hot dishwater. He reattached me to present reality by gently mocking my confusion to the staff collective. I muttered self-effacingly about my weakness in the face of antique pop music. He seized the bait and blamed “Jamie” for always playing ‘worky tunes’ on local FM at breaks. My heart gave a final massive palpitation and stopped altogether.

‘Jamie’ had been Mr Infatuation. Not that we had ever dared address a teacher by their forename; school culture was not that egalitarian in those days. Their forenames had been for outbursts of resentful venom, well out of earshot. Common enough name anyway. Ridiculous reaction.

As it turned out, there wasn’t time to gently reintroduce myself to that emotional world. Two days later a predicted tropical storm escalated into one of those hurricanes that Britain would have to get used to. A burst river, a burst sewer—I’m still not clear which came first or if one triggered the other—blocked the main road and we were cheerily advised to stay put. The students gave a brilliantly tragic impression of having their human rights trampled, even the ones who were happy not to go home, or happy to have longer in the company of their current/targeted/pipe-dreamed beau. Yeh, I recognised that demeanour.

By the evening, we were camping out in the canteen, nourishing ourselves on tomorrow’s lunch. I was called to disaster summit in the hall. The head was all brisk war effort and relishing every moment. She was already rehearsing her gracious statement to the local press, in which she would downplay her heroic leadership. Thankfully she was literally drowned out by dirty water lapping at the full length windows facing the quadrangle.

Quadrangles don’t usually have watercourses but this one did have a rainwater drain. Which was allowing the water the wrong way. Plus fifty year old concrete architecture was not well insulated from the elements. A more enlightened senior staff member directed us away from moving air about and instead toward moving sandbags.

Between those unromantic heaves and splashes and whumps, a comedy wavering voice registered.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you.” He gave that non-committed half-smile that always left him an escape route from embarrassment among capricious teens. The one that unravelled us.

continues in part 2

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