The Road North

He is not here.

Peaty lochans pockmark the surface of a scoured island. Barnacle geese, too sated with summer to fly away, scatter at my arrival.

I scramble around a headland.  Whitecapped waves circle and menace the skerries out at sea like sharks penning their prey. I climb up a steep, grassy gully hemmed between razor-sharp buttresses of rock, the sea broiling and hissing below.

As I climb, I pass stony ledges and guano-stained tussocks – the high rise homes of the island’s fulmars. They sit and chatter nervously at this stranger, the colour of the sea, in their midst.

Catching my breath, I lie back on the spongy grass and fix my gaze on the sky. Fulmars wheel above me, each effortlessly launching from their helipads, their spindly legs like broken nest twigs caught in their down.

They’re giving me a private aerobatics show, I think. Welcoming me home.

As they settle into my company their chattering ceases and, in turn, they arc over my head, no more than two, three feet above me. Their soft, white bellies look like sudden summer clouds, scuttling across the sky.

I spot my favourite. He’s the handsome, confident type. He’s been watching me for about ten minutes. Now he’s alone. The rest of the fulmars are banging beaks with their partners. He sits, imperiously, in his bachelor pad. Great views. Would suit outdoorsy type.

We exchange awkward glances. And then, seemingly struck with a more pressing concern, he opens his wings and, on an Atlantic uplift, he is airborne.

I attempt to follow his flight; to keep my eyes trained only on his wings. Then, at some point, they become indistinguishable from the peaks of the waves, far out at sea, and he is gone. He is out there, somewhere. Part of the sea, part of the sky – still bubbling in the aftermath of last night’s storm, when my grassy knoll would have been like the maws of hell.

Last night. When I was driving north

The matrix signs on the motorway were unequivocal: AVOID ROAD TRAVEL! they glared.

The warning, destined only to be read by motorists, seemed like a Zen conundrum. Something to chew on between service stations and stranded Astras, their yawning bonnets buffeted by the approaching armageddon.

But their plea had a purpose. The west coast of Scotland was being torn apart by an early winter tempest, registering wind speeds approaching 170 miles an hour. Gusts that turn high siders into box kites, uproot half of the Caledonian forest and make mountain ridges of upturned barn roofs. As I pushed north, I tune into BBC Scotland reporters, clinging to promenade rails in Ayrshire, waves curling over their sodden raincoats.

They talk of ‘significant storm damage’, of ‘cars thrown around like pebbles’ and of a wall collapsing on fleeing schoolchildren in a Border town.

The wind breaks the speed limit up the M74. It overtakes and undercuts me. A boy racer beating me to the border.

By degrees, I make it to the airport hotel. An out-of-town barn heavy with fretting businessmen and cut price Christmas parties. Airlines, delayed by the weather, unload their unhappy cargoes onto the rain-lashed carpark of the Premier Inn. A foyerfull of Emirates passengers hugs glasses of Belhaven Ale in the adjacent bar, dreaming of haggling over pale gold earrings in the Dubai sun.

I shuffle to my room. Room service pizza is delivered. “I’ve been on duty since seven this morning,” says a red-eyed waiter.

“Where are you supposed to be instead of here?”

It’s an oddly phrased question, and one that requires a quick crunching of gears.

“Tiree,” I say.

“You’ll be lucky,” he laughs, “It looks even worse out there.”

I palm him a pound coin, close the door, and pause. Where am I supposed to be instead of here?

What migratory programme, deep within me, insisted that, right now, I needed to be heading out into the north Atlantic, alone?

It was always there. There was no conscious settling on a plan. No therapeutic course of action, methodically hammered out. It was just what I would do. Would have to do.

I guess my flight is explained as merely running away. Of fleeing the scene of the crime, and getting latitude between the situation and myself. I wonder.

Heading to Tiree, to me, seems more like running towards something. A secret place – a place of safety. Of lucid dreams and summer picnics.  Residual energy and happiness. Just as the swifts that  screech above our garden every summer know exactly which tiny square of earth to return to, to nourish them through the certain winter, so too do I.

My mum said I should head south. “Go to Spain. Get some sun on you. It’ll do you the world of good,” she says. “I need some peace,” I say. “Just some time on my own.”

“You don’t want to bury yourself away,” she says. “It’ll be lovely there now. Not too hot. Just right. Your Dad says you look very pale.”

These past two seasons have bleached my skin and sapped my strength. My watch needs two links taken out of it to stop it hanging over my hand. But the Costa Del Sol is not the remedy for me. This much I know.

I need to fly north, into the eye of the storm.

After War

The landscape in November is like landscape after war.

Trench-long shadows of poplar slice through
fields silent with vestiges of summer.

Spent shells of fireworks. The defiant bloom of ivy.

A web of roads, like estuarine inlets,
ensnares the dark towns of North Wales.

Their hidden dips cauldrons of flood and slurry.

A land caught between what was, and what will be.

Each little lane holds a world swallowed up and still.

So still you almost forget to breathe.
And every small shrub shivers.

“Give in to November, for nothing good will come of it,” they say.

And I could stay.

Look at me now.
Two years off course.

The light that last left your face is halfway to the nearest star.

And still it travels.

Still – as the space between stars.
As the jagged edge of birdless trees.

What does it feel like,
to be two light years from you?

It feels like the A543,
between Pentrefoelas and Denbigh.

It feels like November.  

The Spaceman

Displaced, uprooted,
I levitate to a safer place,
where swifts and spirits
shriek across our square of sky.

Below, the garden rolls and
arcs away, without us:
cycles on, leaves Orion
in the cold.

The storm the earth forgets
stays with me, up here
between the ground
and the infinite,

where you are.

Spring forces
bulbs open out of habit.

It’s here -
everything you wanted.

Planted in hope,
when you crawled across the grass.

Untethered in summer, I drift
like pollen, through feverish dreams.

Autumn,
bruised and fallen, I land

to a fingernail moon, and scorched earth.

Brittle herbs, warm hearths, and an empty house.

The quality of light as it was,
when you turned your head,
this day,

to the same spot in the sky,

and flew.

Keep travelling, spaceman.

One day
I’ll catch you.

Getting Lost

To anaesthetise the ache of long, silent February days I embark on a series of ill prepared, vaguely plotted excursions.

As the country plunges into a sudden, severe cold spell, I throw random toiletries, books and clothes into an overnight bag and dive towards Wales.

I drive blind, headlong into the future. Its plains and valleys as yet unmapped.

It’s one of those bitter blue days when the morning sky is delivered, crisp and clean, from the Arctic, and the world appears to be bringing itself into being, moment by moment.

I’m travelling with a location-aware phone, a sat nav, glovebox atlas and that hidden slither of precious metal, lodged deep within our brains. The one we think only migrating birds have, but we have too. And it’s directing me now, I can feel it tingling, taking its reading from trees, forks in the road, distant hills and buried memories.

I sit, surrounded by wires. Little black boxes, blinking lights. My car seat cocooned by stuff designed to keep me content, safe and secure. I drive over the border.

And I see Mark, strapped into his hospital bed. His black boxes flashing, whirring, delivering tiny parcels of sedatives to salve his agitated brain as he approaches death, retreats, reverses, and starts over again.

I want to escape. As Mark did. In his more restless moments he would churn and thrash wildly, hooking his good leg under his paralysed one, in a desperate attempt to hoist his steroid-bloated body over the roll bars of his confinement, and launch his spirit – ailing but fighting – into the world again. One last push.

“Come on, let’s go…” he’d plead at me, longingly. “Let’s go home. Aren’t you going to help me?”

He’d tear and pull at his syringe drivers, their whisker-slim needles subcutaneously and stealthily invading his body with a cocktail of narcotics. A prescription designed to keep him from detouring anywhere other than his appointed route.

It took more strength then I thought I had to not to be his accomplice. And sometimes, now, I wish I had been. But I took the doctor’s side, and I fell for their ministrations.

That’s the deal with terminal illness. You take the journey, together alone, until at the very last moment, all control is wrested away from you. Like hapless pilots in a 70s disaster movie, Mark and I were hurtling, stunned and sleep-deprived towards a certain oblivion when a voice from the control tower tells us ‘thank you, we’ll take it from here’.

There is a dance we all do, as death approaches. It’s a choreography designed to save us from the terror of thought and compliance. If we’re not dealing with the machinations of death directly, maybe we’ll be saved its untimely outcome. In our most intimate moments, we relinquish the reins.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche talks about our reticence to discuss death. Our Western distaste for giving voice to the only law that never changes.

“It is important to reflect calmly that death is real,” she says. “Humans spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing. Only to meet death unprepared.”

I know the feeling. We’d been preparing for six years. And we were hopelessly unready.

“We desperately want everything to continue as it is that we have to believe that things will always stay the same. But belief has little to do with reality,” she says.

And I recall the hospice. Efficient, productive, calm and ordered. The model of advanced manufacturing: like a gold-standard Scandinavian production line. We know it’s manufacturing death, but we talk about how lovely the cakes are. Of birdsong in the garden. Of respite, not release.

The first time Mark came to the hospice, the ash and beech trees outside his window were beginning to blush after an unseasonal September cold snap. Now the November sun sets fire to the few golden remaining leaves and there’s a smoky, end of summer smell in the air.

A handful of days before he dies I’m taken into the family room by one of Mark’s consultants: a young woman no older than 30. She tells me that Mark needs more sedation, that they’ve tried lowering his heady cocktail of midazolam, morphine and lorazepam but it leaves him agitated and angry, bellowing for me, and refusing any intervention. They’d called me from work, and when I arrived I knew instantly that now is the time to stay. The thought of Mark crying out for me, and for me to be anywhere but by his side sickens me.

“Whatever we give him won’t affect the outcome,” his doctor says.

I nod blankly, “I don’t want him to suffer. I don’t want him to be upset.”

But there is a deal to be struck. The medication will, just as surely as a gun, take Mark from me. His eyes are closed, his mind now will obviously drift away too. And then his body.

I ask about the likelihood of overdose. “He’s already on enough sedation to knock us all out,” his doctor says. There are six of us in the room. “He has a high tolerance level.”

But there are limits. I know this. “But even my Boots sleeping tablets could kill, if I run amok with them,” I say to them, trying to break the tension. I grope towards a subtext. Are they saying they’ll sedate him to death? That time is now more precious than ever? That we should talk?

When you’re dealing with the end of time, you take things minute by minute. And this minute, I want Mark to be happy. The next? The next is a gift.

I nod. The medics leave. Mark’s shouting will cease soon, but I fear that, in reality, the doctors have just sedated me, too.

As I drive, a stormfront of 3G and GPSs swirls above. Crackling halos of connectivity keeping me firmly in my place. My sat-nav’s ‘home’ icon used to act like a beacon. At the end of a long day away, I’d eagerly prod it with my thumb and follow its call back to my place on the globe. To home. A route that’s been forever wiped off the map. Now the LCD cottage looks as deceitful as a gingerbread house in a Grimm tale.

Somehow, I find my way to a hushed town straddling Offa’s Dyke, hunkered beneath the hills of the Welsh Marches. A town that’s all past; antiques shops, an ironmonger’s and a second hand book store.

I take refuge in a half-timbered pub, sucking in the conviviality like a drowning man gasping for air. While I wait for my lunch, I use my phone’s weak internet connection to find a hotel. I call and book, and then, in a heady microsecond of excitement, reach for the keypad again to tell Mark where we’re staying. Some habits die hard.

After lunch I follow a trail that leads from the pub’s car park to the town’s scrubby section of Offa’s Dyke – the toothy remains of an ancient earthwork of banks and ditches, rising like a rictus grin from the frozen fields.

Beyond the Dyke the path continues along a waymarked trail up the side of a steeply sloped hill. A ridge walk rises high up above circling jackdaws, cawing like cables under tension.

I climb, and promise myself I’ll complete the two hour circular walk gleaned from a leaflet in the pub, but the final scramble to the top, lungs burning, confirms my suspicions: this past year has left me stupidly, comically unfit.

Below, a river deliberates in loops and bright, glinting shallows. It’s a border river – like Styx, I imagine. Up on the hill a melting hoar frost lags broken fronds, the brittle remains of a summer long spent. I run my fingers through frosted herbs singed with a memory of sunlight, and a scatter of buds catches the breeze, sparking the sky like embers airborne.

And I remember the herbs Mark grew in our garden, dried on the washing line and siphoned into little glass bottles: a taste of our last summer together. A collection of tiny bottles arranged now like exhibits of fragments ancient and precious. A souvenir of a place and time, destined, now, never to season any dish.

As I stroll, pheasants wheel away into the undergrowth, and a passing cloud chills the ridge top. I’m suddenly struck by the mutability of things – this landscape, my body, our plans. A mineral silence radiates from the mountains and presses hard against my ears. A spike of panic takes root somewhere deep within, and I head back to the car.

In another autumn, we came to this huddled little town, curved silently around the river like an oxbow lake. We shopped for things we didn’t need. Browsed an hour in the market place. Took pleasure in the unnecessary luxury of it all. A weekend break, a handful of new memories to pack up, take home and store away for later.

And then I realise – I’ve not been escaping at all. I’ve been searching. My yearning has found a physical route: as futile as a lovelorn teenager, returning to the Saturday afternoon spot where they spied someone they liked the week before. The logic of the restless.

Irrational, compulsive, primordial.

I’m searching for a lost object. And in this limbo of meaningless activity and reprocessing all I feel for certain is that I know had it when I was here, in this town stranded between two states, where nothing much changes, and every spire and street is numinous with memories.

At the hotel, I fall into a deep afternoon sleep. And, as I struggle towards consciousness, I hear Mark rummaging downstairs. He’s up before me, I think. I’d better get dressed. And then I realise that image, briefly so real, belongs again to another country.

The Last Day

When I wake, I don’t know this will be the last day I spend with Mark.

In the night, images gather. He is well again. Pruning the poppies in his Panama hat. Cats curled like parenthesis around his legs, stretched out in the sunshine, demanding he drops the secateurs and pays them some attention.

Then, sometime before dawn, his breathing changes. Becomes more urgent. Short, crackling bursts of static. The atmospheric disturbances of a distant radio signal trying to break through.

In my dream, it is the sound of Mark, calling from some lonely airport. He’s calling me to say he’s taking an earlier plane. But he’s ok. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.

Some dreams are easier to decode than others, I think.

Then his breathing becomes the sound of the propellers of a Twin Otter – cranking into life, as the plane taxis down a sand-blown runway on a Hebridean island.

And now it is morning.

Behind eyelids closed for a week, he is awake. I can sense it. These are the unknowable things. The gold card privileges you’re granted after a quarter of a century. So I talk to him. I hold his hand, and tell him we’ll write that list of things to do before Christmas.

Yesterday, his eyebrows arched at the sound of my voice. Today they are still. The day before, we shared a bar of chocolate. Before that, he was teaching me the soundtrack to Singin’ In The Rain.

Trace the line back further, and more of Mark appears from the fog of an illness that threatened, but never succeeded, in obscuring him from view. Maybe that’s why, lately, he loved his collection of torches so much. They were his fog lights. He has one with him now. So do I. So does his sister, Julie, on the other side of the world.

They all have names. He’s got Diddy torchy (named after me. It’s long and a little temperamental), I’ve got wee Torchy (bought in one of those scary hardware shops you on find on Scottish islands, with buckets rusting violently outside and paraffin, sold by the litre, to be served with Coke), and Julie has Sven (He was cheap. We picked him up in Ikea).

Once, on a ward round in Walton Hospital, Mark’s surgeon needed to inspect his stitches – gaping open like an old zipper as another infection took hold. The ward was dark, and he needed more light.

With a flourish, mark pulled out his credit card-slim ‘Wallet Torchy’ from his pyjama pocket.

‘I have a torch’ he said, waving it proudly to the stunned surgeon, as if it was a winning lottery ticket.

‘You think of everything’ his surgeon smiled, kindly.

Afterwards, Mark shoots me his pleased little grin: ‘Aren’t you impressed?” he beams. ‘He should have a torch,’ he says. He doesn’t hear – or filters out – the illumination the torch allowed: that his skin is failing, breaking down. Dying.

I tell him that his 14 operations have probably emptied the hospital’s torch fund for some time, and that it’s all about priorities. Tumour op or torch?

‘It’s a good job I was here,’ he says.

Yes, it is.

At home, in the black stillness of night, I’d awake to see the swoop of Mark’s torch beam illuminate my bedroom door frame. A lighthouse seeking safe passage away from the skerries and soundings of his fitful voyage from fathomless sleep and livid dreams.

‘Dave?’ he’d call out, checking he was home, and safe. (Some nights, four months later, I still hear him call. Loud enough to wake me. Convincing enough for me to fumble for my slippers before realising.)

‘I can see you Mark’ I’d shout out. ‘I’m here. Everything’s fine.’

If ever you need me, Mark, all you have to do is turn on your light. Diddy Torchy, snuggly tucked into his shirt pocket, hidden from the congregation. In the dark recess of his coffin.

The last time we spoke, we talked of getting the house ready for winter. Wine to be ordered for gatherings with friends. Logs to be dried out. Garlic bulbs to plant. A future to plan for. “We have to have a party,” he said, “…to thank everyone. I’ll cook a big paella.”

While he talks of giving, I can only think of what’s been taken away. But Mark’s particular gift, throughout these six hard years, has been his unblinking ability to navigate a route forward.

So I don’t have any peripheral vision anymore, he’d say? No problem – i’ll just keep looking forward.

So I won’t be able to return to work? Then I’ll get your filing system in order. That’s a full time job.

So I can’t cook any more? I can still hear you breaking eggs in the kitchen and shout out “You might want to wait until the sausages are cooked before you start on the omelette.”

To fill the silence, I turn on the TV. A smug couple are being shown a choice of three converted barns. A paddock and garage for two SUVs is all that separates them from the bliss they self-evidently believe is their due. I keep the volume turned down. Mark hates stuff like this.

Mark’s priorities never wavered. And they never included a hot tub and room for a pony. He was happiest when he was in his sunny garden, aimlessly deadheading and storing seeds in dusty brown envelopes. At a restaurant with friends, whispering something wildly inappropriate about the family on the other table under his breath, and laughing like a school-trip kid when the mother in the nasty blouse shoots him a stare.

In his cosy hospice room, totems of the life we once had crowd out the surfaces. Pots of decanted creams, soaps and candles offer smells stolen from home. I open one to give him an evening facial. He smiles and slurs ‘Liz Earle!’ as I swaddle him in soft towels and massage his swollen feet.

A tupperware of Rioja reminds us of picnics on the beach in Tiree, Mark valiantly struggling to read The Times as a westerly that whips the waves into a sorbet scatters headlines across the sand.

When Mark’s tumour was diagnosed as malignant his first response was immediate and plaintive: ‘So we won’t be able to go to Scotland again?’

Of course we did. But it wasn’t easy. For us, the holiday was a succession of safe and private spaces – the interior of a rented car, the berth of a sleeper train, the hotel room – where we’d close the doors and sit, dazed and silent. The rest of the world locked out. We must have looked like those elderly couples imprisoned in their cars at the seafront.

But we weren’t drinking in the view. We were fighting for our lives.

One evening, after a perfect meal at a Michelin-starred hotel restaurant, we sat out at midnight with a dram of whiskey in that simmering phosphorescence you only get in the far north. Mark looked at me, with tear-brimmed eyes: “I’ve had a lovely day. Thank you for everything,” he said. “It’ll be ok, won’t it?”

For the first time in six years – we both knew, then and there, that it wouldn’t be.

Like all our favourite ABBA songs, it was at once exquisitely happy and piercingly sad. It was worth every operation, every sinister scan, every one of those 500 difficult miles it took us to get here.

Mark had been released from three months on a lumbar drain and we’d ran away, almost as soon as his spine was secured, on the first sleeper out of there. Reckless, desperate fugitives keen to orchestrate one final twist to this predictable and mundane end game.

A low autumn sun temporarily floods the bedroom. Nurses bustle in to wash him.

I ask if I can shave him. And, as I do, I realise that the act is somewhere between cleansing and anointing. That this is my opportunity to ensure Mark is ready on time, as he’d done for me countless interviews and assignations before.

I slip out of the room, allowing family members some time alone with him. As I leave, I kiss his hand. His fingers are blue. His nails waxy and dull. A nurse registers my shock: “It won’t be long now,” she says, trying to soothe, but crystallising the fact that despite Mark’s spirited and sublime fight there is nothing special about his final act. It’s textbook stuff. Finally, he’s following the rules of engagement.

After a while, his sister Mary calls me back into the room. His breathing has shallowed to no more than a sigh.

His family shuffle out. I am in the room alone with him. A vein in his neck pulses weakly. Barely perceptible, easy to miss. I tell him how much I love him. How fantastic he is. How I’ll never forget him. The wildly unsatisfactory Hallmark platitudes I’d promised I’d avoid. The proof that cliches sometimes are all that’s left to say.

But I’m not sure if he is still here. Have we surrendered our last moments? Gifted them to others? Mark, so protective of the forcefield he’d built around us, wouldn’t have wanted this. Not now.

After a while, my sister Wendy joins me. She holds my hand, smiles, and strokes Mark’s hair.

I glance at her, searching her face for clues. ‘Is he still with us?’

“I’ve never felt anything like it,” she whispers. “As I came in, the room was full of Mark. It was overwhelming. He was all around. It was full of warmth. Full of love. He was more here than he’s ever been.”

And now, she says, it’s fading.

I should never have doubted, in these last moments, Mark was holding on.

Like all those long, interminable treks home up the A1 in winter, when Mark would phone to say a warm bath would be waiting. A wine bottle placed in the fridge. Risotto simmering away. Soothing away the miles.

Like all those nights I’d crawl in, stumbling, from Cream, to bedsheets pulled down and World Service tuned in.

Like all those aimless excursions I’d take into the wilderness… Mark was always waiting for me when I returned. Making sure I was safe, before he could sleep. As he was now.

I stare at his face. The stillness is obscene. This is the man that danced better than anyone I know. That built a Bedouin tent on the patio for a stupidly ambitious Eurovision party (planned by me, executed by him). Ski-doed across glaciers, abseiled down buildings I’d volunteered to do, but bottled out of at the last minute. That got me through, and made everything alright.

And then I get it. This stillness is what he’s been fighting for, for the past six years. And now he has won.

I kiss his forehead. Wrap his warm hand tightly around his torch. I thank him for looking after me.

And I say to him, as I say to you now, Mark – I love you. But I don’t say goodbye.

(bits and pieces of this pop up elsewhere on the site, I know. This is me just trying things out. Groping towards a structure for the book. Trying different combinations of memories. Comments welcome, thanks. Dave)

When Two Worlds Drift Apart

(originally posted on SevenStreets. I’m posting it here to keep everything together.)

You have to be in a very dark place before you decide that talking to dead people is your only way out.

It’s a place I find myself in. And it’s a course I’ve been plotting.

It’s easy to be cynical in a rational world. The laws of physics bounce and scatter light around you: mass, acceleration and motion beautifully choreographed in a ballet of equal and opposite reactions. You remain, steadfastly, at the core of your very own cosmos.

But when an unexpected force corrodes your hardwired belief system – such as the death of a loved one – all bets (and Newtonian laws) are off.

For the first time since childhood, I was consumed with the need to be unsure of everything. My subscription to the James Randi podcast hovered in suspended animation in my inbox, Skeptical Enquirer back issues stacked up, unenquired upon. For now, the faint possibility of improbable physics and para-science became the only things worth pursuing.

And so I find myself shopping for psychics.

Death’s arrival is nothing at all. It’s a breath and a silence. But it’s as profound as the falling of autumn apples. So numbingly unfathomable you can feel the cogs in your head whirring and clicking, as if a damaged DVD has been rammed home.

Can. Not. Read.

And, as you try to make sense of the nothingness, it renders every rule you’d thoughtlessly obeyed into a sudden and grinding confusion. A doubt that takes you right back to first principles. How can something becoming nothing? And, er, while we’re at it, what is nothing anyway? Haven’t we just built a circular tube underneath Austria to look for the nothing that holds us together?

The doubt is the crack into which the psychics crawl.

Merseyside’s not short of psychic fixes. I spot a Sixth Sense Academy, where you can train to become a psychic detective in your lunch hour. A Psychic College near Sefton Park, psychic fairs every other week in a community hall near you, and ‘palm readings and a pint’ offers mingle with the ‘two curries for a fiver’ deals scratched onto pub chalkboards across the city.

In short, in this town, you’re never more than six feet away from someone who sees dead people.

But how do you choose a psychic? There’s no Trip Advisor to the other world, no Rough Guide, no fingering the goods at John Lewis and keeping the receipt in case, when you get home, you realise it’s just not you.

For a psychic shopping trip, I had to follow my hunches. I had to cold read the google ads, the purple and black websites complete with flashing GIFs and comic sans, and count the exclamation marks and smileys in the testimonials. My metaphysical leniency did not – and would never – allow for para-normal punctuation.

The world of psychic self promotion is as ethereal as ectoplasm. Trying to trace a good one as slippery as catching spirits in a dream catcher. Like all good urban myths, there’s always a friend of a friend who saw some old woman in a caravan who was amazing. She told them everything. And there was no way she could have known…

Fortunately, the virtual realm of the internet is the perfect hunting ground for spooks. And it’s here I track down Purplemoon Jo – to a leafy avenue on the Wirral.

On her website, Jo describes herself as a professional psychic (so no Watchdog Rogues’ Gallery for her. She’s fully accredited). For £25 she promises to assist people from ‘all walks of life, with all kinds of problems.’

“Many people feel lost and in need of guidance at some time in their life,” she says. “We have lost the understanding of the meaning of life and we have forgotten the secrets of the universe and how we all have unlimited potential to be and do whatever we desire.”

Who wouldn’t pay £25 for the secrets of the universe? I’d pay twice that for the secrets of Penn and Teller.

There was only one secret I wanted to unlock, though. And I’d pay everything I had for that.
There’s nothing big or clever about grief. It’s a longing that rips at the fabric of your sanity. But it’s also, obscenely, a companion you’re reluctant to shake off. For, while it stalks you, it’s also the most reliable conduit to the person you’ve lost. Seeing a medium is, I figured, as comforting as scratching a deep and nagging itch. If the drugs don’t numb the pain, maybe a psychic can.
Jo welcomed me into a handsome, large family home – trickling water sculptures, pewter dragons and polished quartz scattering the surfaces.

“I’m not a fortune teller as such,” she says, “I believe we have the power to create our own future and would never take away another person’s power in the way I have seen many so called psychics do. This doesn’t mean I don’t make predictions, I’ve predicted countless situations that prove to be correct time and time again…”

Talk about keeping your options open. Is she or isn’t she? My allotted hour would tell.
The session begins with a clumsy shuffle of the tarot deck: if my fortune depended on not dropping these cards I’ve had it at first base.

Jo talks of issues surrounding the ownership of a house, of communication problems with a loved one, of misunderstandings and a young man with devilish intent. So far so Waterloo Road, I think. Yes, they could relate to me. But, then, they could relate to the fact that I’m crap at shuffling oversized cards with saucy pictures of heaving sorceresses straight out of Skyrim on them.

It’s after the card session that things start to unravel. The cards are the warm up act, helping Jo to zero in on my spiritual cross-hairs.

“Would you like me to go into spirit?” Jo asks. “I’ve been developing my ability to communicate with our loved ones in spirit and I’ll pass on any messages I receive.”

Well, in for a penny…

“This person, I can see him now, he had terrible headaches…” Jo clutches her head, “and nerve damage all down one side…”

Suddenly I am untethered. Jo is seeing Mark. And Mark is dead. The laws of physics have been upturned. Scattered about as carelessly as a tarot deck on an onyx coffee table.

“Go on,” I say, trying my best to stick to the skeptic line – Don’t Give Them Anything.
“He’s laughing, he’s saying you gave him red wine when you shouldn’t have…”
I fumble at a quick calculation. How many people enjoy red wine? Plenty. How many people who have died would, possibly, have been on medication strong enough to warrant abstinence? A fair few.

“…and dark coffee. He loved strong coffee…”

Damn. That’s cranked my calculations towards the spot on the dial marked ‘freaky co-incidence at best’.

For an hour, Jo talks of Mark’s gratitude for the way I cared for him: “he’s telling me you were brilliant. You were his angel.”

He did use the word brilliant. That’s exactly how he described me, I think.

I fight back the tears, I pinch my thighs. What’s happening here?

“I can see you splashing water on his face…” she says.

Well, yes, when he was in the hospice I used to shave him. Pamper him. It was a private thing. I’d spend ridiculous amounts on face creams. When you’ve lost feeling all over your body and you’re trapped like a lab rat in a roll-bar fenced bed, a facial, a Tupperware of Rioja and a flask of Bold Street Coffee are the only comforts that remain. But these were private comforts. Secret rituals we shared. Alone.

Now, as a DHL van rumbles past outside and a low winter sun fleetingly stings my eyes, they’re being relayed to me as clearly as if Jo had been lurking in the shadows of Mark’s room. Watching us, while we stumbled hopelessly through the final act. The stage directions we’d had six years to prepare for. All the time in the world. But we weren’t ready.

How does that make me feel? Am I comforted? Is this the counselling my confusion seeks, the extra time I’d been praying for? I’m not so sure. I’m reminded of a family friend who lost two sons at Hillsborough and, to this day, sees psychics: unwilling, and unable to hang up the phone. There is a process to grief, as there is to life. And that process must end. But what if your dearly departed has a talk time with unlimited minutes? What if. What if…

But I warm to Jo. Despite my lack of sleep and hunger for answers, my barometer is still, I think, accurate. She’s warm, caring, and has a steely determination to grope her way to an understanding when my puzzled responses indicate a ‘miss’. ”It must mean something, they’re telling me it’s relevant…” she says, when I admit to not knowing a Barbara. “This is important, the cards say so…” when I’m hesitant over a quarrel with a female friend.

As the reading ends, Jo looks obviously moved. Are those tears in her eyes real, or is it all part of the service? Does spiritual stroking come with a side order of faking it? She asks me whether I have any questions. Anything I want to ask?

“Does he know I’m here?” I ask.

“Of course. And he’s giving you a hug. He says he gave you a hug recently, and you felt it, didn’t you?”

That’s the money shot.

He did. I did. It was last night, about three in the morning. But surely I was only dreaming? I remember it vividly, as I do the ‘common side effects’ clause on my antidepressants: bizarre, lucid, and vivid dreams. And I remember a passing spike of excitement. Lucid dreams. How very exciting.

How obscene a gift of empathy is, too late. Why was I willingly subjecting myself to the waking terror of Mark’s tumour? Why was I so pliantly allowing these border skirmishes between my states of consciousness?

“This is a really weird dream, Dave, isn’t it? I wish the chaos would stop,” was, give or take a half-audible murmur, the last sentence Mark said to me. He was pleading to me, searching for clarity. And I was diving into that selfsame pool for, what, entertainment value? Anecdotes around the pub? Selfish reassurance that I was an angel? Suddenly, the session felt more like a spiritual pamper party than anything approaching genuine investigation.

Sooner or later, my friends used to tease, it’ll all be about you…

I remember all this, and I hastily grab my man bag. I have to leave.

The next day, I meet Michael Marshall, co-founder of the Merseyside Skeptics. I tell him about my experience, of the impressive hits, and the blurring of the boundaries between what I know, and what I feel. But I’m too ashamed to tell him the truth: that, on some level, I witnessed Jo bring the dead to life. In her sunny sitting room, on a

“Did you get it recorded?” he asks, eagerly.

“Well, no, she said she could, but she wasn’t sure if she had any batteries…”

“Did she give you his name?”

Not that I recall…

“What do you remember, exactly, from the session?”

I remember the facts I’ve just recounted. Maybe a couple more.

Michael doesn’t need to say anything. It’s to his ultimate credit that he doesn’t, then and there in Starbucks, call me an idiot.

“So, from an hour’s conversation, you’ve given me, what, six facts?”

But there was more to it, I say. I’m sure there was more. More than mere mathematics.

“You have to remember,” Michael says, fixing me with his gaze, “if a psychic tells you something purporting to come from a loved one, what they’re really doing is altering the memories you have of them. And memories are precious. They’re the only things we can rely on. They’re the proof that remains.”

I want to talk about zero point energy, of the quantum soup of subatomic particles that bind us inexorably together. But the angry intersections of the cafe, the harsh cold surfaces and the shrill beeping of smartphones ricocheting around like charged atoms in a collider make me realise: a chain store is no place to look for the God particle.

“Look, we’d love for there to be something in this,” he says, “but it comes down to one thing. Evidence. Show us the evidence, and we’d be the first to hold our hands up.”

Would they really? I find it as easy to imagine evangelistic skeptic Richard Dawkins fessing up and admitting he was wrong as it would be for Sally Morgan to admit she wore an earpiece. And there’s the problem. Grief plants you into that hinterland of doubt: wanting, needing answers to the Big Questions, too terrified to take a stand in any direction. It’s Pascal’s Wager writ large. Yeah, it’s all nonsense, you tell your pre-grief self. But what if it’s not? Wouldn’t it be churlish to stick a big ‘Return to Sender’ on any future communication? Isn’t doubt the quality that brought us down from the trees in the first place?

Later, at home that evening, I’m still trying to process the doubt and disquiet – and then I remember a simple truth.

In life, Mark would never chat to anyone who collected pewter dragons, so there’s no way he’d do it in the afterlife. This much I do know.

And, as the Cosmos continues to turn, I return to the silence in the house.

Suicide Notes

It’s a curious feeling, not wanting to be alive, but not having the motivation to do anything about it. It’s the lazy younger brother of suicide. It’s emo ennui. The ultimate duke out for the passive aggressive.

Fortunately, the flatline that follows profound grief can be a lifeline too. The gulf between listlessness and lifelessness is all it takes for you to arrive at Dorothy Parker’s assessment of the situation: ‘you might as well live’.

Death is a state. Killing an action. And, as I have to summon up the last dregs of determination to firm down the coffee grinds in my mocha pot, I think I’m gonna be here a while.

But last night, it was too close to call. I wandered the house in an agitated state of arousal: a feedback loop of fear and fatalism set in motion, as it often is, by the most innocent of triggers: the gas bill.

This week I lost my job. It’s all gone very Eastenders, I know. All I need now is to move house and I’ve got a royal flush of stress.

I’ve not worked, really, since I took unpaid leave at the end of last summer, to care full time for Mark. But, starved of cash, and seeking some semblance of a routine, I settled on a gradual return to work. A couple of days a week writing about jewellery isn’t going to kill me, is it? It might rot my brain, but hey, so’s the Highland Park and Laughing Cow chasers at three in the morning.

But the world had turned since I last clocked on. And no-one wants to pay writers any more. Why should they? Everyone’s a writer these days.

So when George Osborne’s piggy little fingers start stimulating the economy, we’re first against the wall. Mind you, better out of work than being stimulated by George Osborne’s magic fingers.

Friends breezily tried to take the heat out of the situation when I told them my news. ‘Oh you’ll be fine. You always find work. You won’t starve’ they trilled, nonchalantly. But their ministrations sounded clunky and insensitive. ‘Let me be fucking angry!’ I wanted to scream. “Let me feel sorry for myself. You don’t understand!

When you lose someone after a long illness, you’ve nothing left in your bucket. You’re all spent. So, should another careless loss catch you unawares, I’d recommend you stand well back.

I lost my favourite notebook last month. I tore the house apart like an addict searching for grains of crack. Separation – from anything – is just not an option.

If you’re not going through it, this all must seem an impossible and irrational business. But that’s the deal.

So I’m standing in the middle of the living room – my favourite spot. And the palpitations start. I’m left holding the bank balance: my happily coupled friends just don’t get it. I am the only one. I can’t rely on Mark’s Disability Allowance (such as it was), or his sickness pay. I have a house, a loan, a car, credit cards. Two Bloody Cats and a hole in my bucket. And I have no fight left. As the old joke goes, ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I need cash. I need a job. But I can’t go back to work. What am I going to do?

Then I am struck by a creeping, and thrilling thought: What if I don’t do anything? What, now, is the worst that can happen?

What would I work for? To pay bills? To go on holiday alone? To churn out words for brands I cared less about: to help grease the wheels of an industry as distant and disconnected from my life as God was from the tented village in St Pauls? What does Marks and Spencer care if some other faceless word monkey churned out pap about their Plan A Environment campaign (to be printed out on all those glossy leaves of varnished paper?)

If I don’t work, I don’t have to identify myself as that person who wrenched himself away from Mark, in the last few failing months of his life, to bash out copy no one wants to read, for companies no one cares for.

For what? Cash to stock up on wine still corked and stacked? A new iPod dock? Egyptian cotton sheets? To place Mark in the care of a minimum-wage girl with an Aldi bag of chick lit, tapping away on her iPhone while he dozed the remains of his days away, alone, in the front room. On a rented plastic mattress.

How much did I make that day? A few hundred quid? How valuable would it have been to sit, to hold his hand? To watch an episode of Stargate on iPlayer? To share milky coffee and digestives. And for him to say, at the end of it all: ‘We’ve had a lovely day today, haven’t we? Thank you Diddy.”

Suddenly, the secrets of the universe – the ones you don’t see when, Truman Show-like, you sleepwalk through the nondescript seasons of the hump years – were revealed to me. The myth of careers, the lies of possessions. The self-improvement, control and contentedness that comes with getting on.

I’ve done it. And I’ve seen how Egyptian cotton can’t sooth away the sleepless nights – no matter how high the thread count.

I could never know more or want more than I’ve experienced over the past six years. My work is done. And now the rupture of grief has torn a tiny hole in the set, like Truman’s prow piercing the horizon.

So where do you go from here?

Moving voluntarily from life to death involves, above all, action, motivation and scheduling. It’s more than just casually opening the bottle of sleeping tablets to discover you’re two days short of an overdose. Of midnight Googling for ‘painless ways to die’ to be found wanting because you don’t own a garage, let alone a length of plastic tubing. Nor the tweezers to set free the glistening innards of a new Mach 3.

Suicide. It may be painless; but it takes a hell of a lot of planning.

Still, it’s a tenacious little bastard. It skulks around like a charity mugger on a high street, ready to pounce when, sucked dry of sanity, it knows you’ll succumb.

Curiously, crowd sourcing doesn’t offer any group therapy.

I punch ‘Suicidal thoughts after…’ into the Google search bar and its auto-correct algorithm which, I assume, is based on a suicide catalyst query, offers:

Abortion
Miscarriage
Drinking
Divorce
Break Up
Smoking Weed
Quitting Smoking
Giving Birth
Lexapro
Desperate Scousewives

I might have misread the last one. But still, I’d have thought there’d have been room in that sorry and sobering top ten for ‘…after bereavement’.

There are powers greater than Google.

Colin Murray Parkes – the Godfather of grieving, and my new bedtime companion (well, I was getting nowhere with Wolf Hall. All that pacing about in antechambers. Get on with it Henry, don’t you know how persuasive you can be if you put your mind to it?). Murray Parkes’ comprehensive studies on bereavement point convincingly in one direction. To my head. With a Smith and Wesson.

Page after deathly page, Murray Parkes shortens the odds. I’m circling entire paragraphs in red ink, underlining key phrases and feverishly scribbling notes in the margin, like Woody Allen speed reading The A to Z of Neuroses in an East Village garret, while Dianne Wiest tells him it’s not a heart attack, it’s the Veal carpaccio he had at Sarties. Or something like that.

Still, bereavement mortality is no joke. Younger bereaved people are, surveys show, much more likely to die following the death of someone close. Younger people, bereaved of a companion of the same sex are even more likely (society doesn’t quite rate these partnerships as anything more than mutually convenient hook ups. The Odd Couple in number 5. Why wouldn’t he have bounced back now? It’s not like they shared a bedroom or anything…)

Younger people prone to stress-related symptoms are ’exponentially more’ at risk. Why a heavenly, finger-pointy hand doesn’t break the firmament and say ‘David Lloyd, it could be you’ is beyond me.

And you might say this is selfish. And I might say you should try pacing a night in my slippers.

I flick further into other books. There are tables and graphs. Mathematics. It’s death by statporn, and this only serves to seduce me more. Two years ago I was surrounded by Caledonian MacBrayne timetables and routes: tracing out dotted lines over the Atlantic, to plan a holiday for us. Now I’m comparing the timetables of yearning, anger, disbelief and depression. And they’re even more deadly than planning a route from Coll to Tiree via Barra.

Time is overrated.

If I had a quid for everyone who told me of its great healing properties I’d have enough for a set of gallows.

In time, tumours seep and leak. In time, remission turns to regrowth. In time, as Professor Brian Cox never tires of telling us, from some far flung desert, we’re all fucked.

Don’t tell me about time. I’ve seen what it can do.

I think this, and I look at the tables splayed out in front of me. Graphs charting vectors of time and bereavement indicators. Of grief curves surging towards a peak at six months.

Six months? Three more months of feeling like this?

Sorry, time, but I’m not waiting around.

Depression and ‘emotional disturbance’, lack of self care and increasing dependence on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol are, says Murray Parkes, the fallout classically observed in the first six months. They’re also, save for the words ‘Dear Diary’, the first 30 entries in my Boots Scribbler Journal, 2012.

More chilling still is the fact – I can see it now, underscored in crazed red Pilot finepoint – there is a ten fold increase in suicidal deaths among women, and a sixty fold increase in men (Bunch 1972) following the death of a spouse or close companion.

Men have it hardest in every conceivable way: their lack of attention leads to more life-threatening accidents at home, work or on the roads. More panic attacks. More nightmares. More coronary infarctions. Truly, we can tell you what becomes of the broken hearted.

The strain of grief (which is, I think, a more specific description than mere ‘stress’) can also be a precursor to other nasties. It pulls down our drawbridge and offers easy access for diseases known to lie in trauma’s wake – as swiftly and silently as parasites and bacteria cloud over a whale carcass on a sea bed.

Feelings of loss and helplessness have been shown to have a chilling correlation to the onset of certain cancers. Murray Parkes quotes one study in which women who were being re-examined for cervical cancers were, as well as being screened, interviewed separately by a psychiatrist (who knew nothing of their medical history).

Those admitting to having a recent loss in their life, and who felt helpless with grief were, the psychiatrist predicted, those likely to have the disease. In 71 per cent of the cases, his diagnosis was correct, and the cancer had moved in. Taking squatters rights in an empty bucket. Like the bastard it is.

Murray Parkes throws a final warning salvo my way “people with the highest caregiver burden also had the highest rates of mortality (Christakis and Allison 2006), and those with high levels of caregiver strain had a mortality rate over the first four years of bereavement that was 63% higher than that of those who were not responsible for care…”

Mark was never a burden, but his illness was needy and unforgiving of a moment’s idleness on my part. Latterly, when Mark finally stopped fighting after a superhuman and sublime six years as undefeated champion, I became his legs, his eyes, his valet, his envoy in the world. No sleep. Nothing but attention. No time for affection.

I’m actually surprised I passed the interview. I’d had no previous experience. But the on-the-job training was very intense.

What the studies can’t say – because they don’t know – is that ‘caregiver strain’ is a dress down Friday compared to the strain endured by those we care for.

Those who once drilled Rawlplugs into walls, scooped out the ashes and laid a fresh fire every evening, plumped up my pillows so that, when I returned home late and wobbly to bed, would sleep soundly. Those who did all this and who now meekly open their mouths to take a straw and sip at Ovaltine. Embarrassed to be the cause of so much trouble.

These are the pains of being a caregiver. Not positioning the slipsheets. Not guiding home the bedpans. It’s the pain of sitting and watching. The pain of being so utterly, numbingly useless.

After such pain, mortality could be seen as medicine.

Love, a friend of mine tells me, is a drug (Mark, the lifelong Roxy Music fan, would like this, I think).

Less lyrically, love actually releases calming opioids, and a cocktail of chemicals known to fire up our immune system. Blood taken from bereaved people is shown to be lacking in these health-boosting enzymes. I’m not surprised, I can hear Woody Allen saying, They’ve just lost their partner and now you’re bleeding them dry?

And if you survive the initial meltdown, grieving’s gonna get you in the end. The life expectancy of widowers is reduced by one and a half years, and that of widows by six months. (Mellstrom et al 1982).

Faced with all this evidence, options become severely limited.

It’s another long, silent night. A night like any other. Jupiter and Venus align like eyes above a crescent moon, casting a cold smile over my empty garden. I’ve taken five sleeping tablets. That’s either four too many, or ten too few depending on which end of the telescope you’re looking down.

And I think about the crap in my house. And of my friends and family having to come and empty it. Of them filling binbags in silence.

Of them left for dead.

And then I turn on the TV. Channel 740. QVC are selling a travel coffret of moisturizers and serums. Absentmindedly, I punch home the numbers.

I’m feeling suicidal. And I’m buying anti-aging creams.

Obviously, my heart isn’t totally convinced with the efficacy of one of them.

Let me sleep on it.


(Feeling suicidal, should you have reached this page because you too hit ‘easy ways to commit suicide’ in Google really does suck. I know this. And I know too that, if you have just one person who loves you, no matter how fucked you think you are, your parting gift to them would be too hideous to contemplate. I couldn’t gift that to anyone, and neither could you. See, I told you, it sucks. Try here or here for wiser words.)