I know I complain about digital television but it beats the shit out of terrestrial. In the hospital there are only four channels. Rte 1, Network 2, Tv3 and T na G. Rte 1 is almost always crap. Occasionally you’ll get a good film or something but 80 per cent of the time it’s just boring. To be fair Network 2 is one of the better stations. Plenty of good shows and stuff. Tv3 is okay, kind of like a trashy magazine or something. I reckon I’d love T na G if I could speak Irish. Those Ross na Run ads look interesting. It’s been dark since about five o’clock. It’s probably a combination of this and bad entertainment that has everyone asleep.
Me and Zed are in the toilet smoking fags out the window. There’s tension for sure. I want to know about her scars and I’ll bet she wants to know why I pulled a runner earlier. I don’t know what it is about people. We always want to know about everyone else but never want to tell about ourselves. It feels kind of like it’s just me and her in the ward. If you had to guess the odd one out you’d probably choose the African woman. Not racism or anything just because five out of six have the same skin colour. But I bet if you had some sort of nifty glasses that let you see the...I don’t know...inside someone, you’d put me and Zed in our own little corner.
“What’s the deal with those totem poles man?”
“I don’t know. I was looking at them the other day, couldn’t figure it out.” I reply.
Zed hands me the fag.
“You want to level?” She says.
“Kind of. You might think I’m mental though.”
“Can’t be more mental than my arms man.”
“Okay so who goes first?”
“Got a coin?”
The coin spins in the air and Zed calls tails. It lands on my palm. I flick my right hand on top of my left and then lift it off. It’s tails.
“Okay so you want to go first or me?”
She inhales deep on the fag. The area around the window goes amber. Zed holds it in for a second then breathes the smoke out. She rolls up the sleeve on her dressing gown and points to a small white line on her elbow.
“This was the first. There aren’t a lot nerves in your elbow skin.”
“What age were you?”
It’s not really the explanation I was looking for. She’s obviously cut herself. I want to know why.
“I don’t know. It was just an impulse. I went with it.”
“If it’s any consolation I burned myself pretty bad when I was around the same age.”
I slide the left shoulder of the dressing gown down. Just under those two injection marks everyone has there’s a small, scarred blotch.
“How’d you do that?”
“I was trying to burn the Superman sign into my arm. Tried to do it with a poker. As soon as I felt the pain I stopped.”
“Haha, you used to be a super nerd?!”
“Used to be? One Christmas I asked Santa for Spider powers!”
“You know like Spiderman. I was about eight. I woke up Christmas morning and tried to jump off my bed and stick to the wall!”
“Hahaha you freak!”
“That’s not the worst part! My ma came down stairs after she heard the bang! She walks into my room and there I am lying on top of a broken bed with a fractured wrist!”
We laugh for a long time. Zed wipes tears from her eyes and takes another smoke out of the pack. She remembers to hold the match towards the ground.
“Your turn. Why’d you pull a homeward bound today?”
“Honestly I don’t know. It just felt like I had to leave. Like if I didn’t get back inside I was going to die or go crazy or something.”
“What like agoraphobia?”
“I don’t know. It happens outside all the time but I freak out inside too.”
“When did it start?”
I pulled a 2.1 from my first year results. English and History. Not a particularly great 2.1 but it was a good enough mark. The first couple of weeks of second year were all drinking and smoking. Missing lectures, sleeping in and generally being irresponsible. Me and Ellen were pushing the three year mark, Roger had turned three and dad was back home. I hadn’t really talked to him. Scratch that, I still haven’t really talked to him.
Me and Bobby (the ladder pusher) were living in a two bed house near enough to the Burlington hotel. Bobby had to work back home on the weekends so it was just me and Ellen. I was nineteen and so was she. It felt like we were pretending to be adults or something. Cooking dinner, drinking cheap bottles of wine and sleeping together for a couple of nights a week. I used to look forward to every weekend. Ellen was on campus. She was living with a family friend. Thing was this family friend was more of a family spy. If I stayed over or Ellen didn’t come home one night her folks would find out. Lucky for us she went home on the weekends. Friday and Saturday were ours. No Bobby and no spies.
It was coming up to the midterm. Halloween and all that. I used to like getting comfortably scared watching all the horror films. Nowadays I freak out a little too much. I was planning a mad Halloween party: ‘The Hellowe’en Fest’. No points for festival names. So it’s the 31st of October and everything is set up. Everyone, and I mean everyone, starts arriving. There’s got to be about two hundred people in the house and garden. It’s one of dad’s properties in Dublin. He’s got a couple of flats and stuff. If he’s on business he stays out in Monkstown Avenue. Like I said, I didn’t see much of him. Ellen arrives dressed as Psylocke from the X-Men. She looks amazing, or amazing to a comic nerd. I joke with her and say she should have died her hair purple for the full effect. That’s when the night turns sour.
Ellen is really pissed off. I tell her I’m only joking but it doesn’t seem to do anything. We go into my room to talk. She’s sauced and slightly slurring words. What happens next is like a levy breaking. Ellen says she doesn’t know anymore. She starts crying, I start crying. There’s someone else. I know before she tells me. She starts by saying three years is a long time, that we’re just kids, that she’s in a weird place right now. All the stuff you’ve heard from girls before. Right up until she tells me about the kiss. The kiss with Bobby. It blows my mind. He’s like my best friend. She tells me it ‘just happened’. She tells me she’s sorry. Says it didn’t mean anything, that she doesn’t care about him but it’s made her think differently. That maybe we’re not meant to be together. I get up and walk.
Downstairs the party is roaring. I need to get outside, try to categorise what just happened. I can’t feel anything. No panic or sadness. I’m just numb. I open the front door. There are a few kids dressed for Halloween walking around outside. Optimus Prime, Dracula and a banshee. Prime and Dracula are boys but the banshee is a little girl. The three of them are laughing together and looking through their white plastic bags. One of the little boys hands the girl a fun size bar. Then the other little boy quickly offers her a bar of his own. She takes them both.
A while later I’m sitting on a bench by the canal. The grass is covered in dying leaves. The water is still. I want to feel something. It’s like I’m sitting beside myself. Some guy comes over to me and tries to sell me some acid. I remember thinking who goes around selling LSD at night? Next thing I know I’m sitting there with a stamp. There’s a picture of the Mad Hatter on it. I guess this is like my elbow scar. I just wanted to feel something. I’d never taken any serious drugs. Smoked a bit of hash, that was about it. I put the stamp on my tongue.
“I haven’t been the same since.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it. It makes me kind of...I don’t know.”
“Were you okay?”
“Not really. I wound up in the Garda station.”
“Shit buzz. Have you been to counselling or anything?”
“No. I dropped college and moved out by myself.”
“Why didn’t you talk to someone man?”
“Has that worked for you?”
We’re both quiet for a second. Zed sparks a match, blows on it and throws it out the window.
“My sister is on at me to go. I don’t know, maybe” I say.
“Nothing to lose man.”
“I get this fear, like what if they put me in a madhouse or something.”
“If they put you in St. Senan’s then you’re probably better off.”
I’m not sure what to say to that. Things aren’t getting better. To be honest they’re going south of worse. I’m about two steps short of recluse. It’s like every time I have a panic attack I think I’m closer to the last one. Not ‘last one’ as in then I’ll be better, ‘last one’ as in then I’ll be mental. First you get nervous, then you can’t go to school anymore, then you can’t go outside. At this point sanity is the only thing left to take.
“Relax man I’m jesting. People like you don’t go to the mental.”
“People like me?”
“My dad was in there before I was around. He talked about it once. The people he met or whatever. Doesn’t sound as if people like you get sent there.”
“Sorry I didn’t know.”
“They could make a documentary on what you don’t know about me.”
“Is he okay?”
“He is now. He’s never really told me why he was sent there.”
“And your mam?”
“She died when I was younger.”
“That’s rough Zed. I’m sorry.”
“Relax you didn’t kill her.”
Zed takes out another fag and lights it. I put my hand on her shoulder. Maybe I imagine the water in her eyes. It never drips off her lash. She scratches her eyebrow, smiles and passes me the fag. I take a drag on it and realise that I haven’t asked Zed why she’s in the hospital.
“So what’s wrong with you? Why are you here?”
She doesn’t say anything until I hand her back the fag. She takes a pull on it and breathes out. The words almost get lost in the smoke.