SCARBOROUGH STEPS by Barrie Purnell

SCARBOROUGH STEPS
She lives beneath the crying sky pressed up against the foam flecked sea.
In a clifftop house, hugged close by rhododendrons, her clock ticks away our time.
She offers you shelter from the approaching storm
Then, when the sun sneaks through the window,
She will walk you through the stained glass dappled hall
To take you on a scenic cliff top ride,
And watch the evening ocean tide,
As she holds you tightly to her side,
While talking of life and suicide
And other truths of which we rarely speak.

 

She takes you to a church, set down a rain veiled cobbled road
In which Rossetti clothed the solemn stones with romantic artistry,
Where she tells you of those Pre-Raphaelites
And of their lovers and their brotherhood.
Then leaving with downward steps onto the shore
She serves you cake and cinnamon tea,
While the gulls shriek out their misery,
And a rainbow surrenders to the sea,                             
While she talks of death and poetry,
And other truths of which we rarely speak.

 

We drove through wooded hills, clad in their autumn leaves
Painted the colour of molten lava by the late October sun.
The tortuous path of the country road hid its ending
Like a metaphor for the enigma of our own lives.
Cocooned inside the car we become philosophical,
Did big bang or God the universe create?
Have we at any time outwitted fate?
Have we souls death will liberate?
Does love all actions validate?
And other truths of which we rarely speak.

 

She is asking me the question, “what is life really for?
When we have no god to satisfy is love the only answer?”
But I can find no words. My lips are sealed
By the poverty of my own wisdom.
There is little time left to answer this question.
We are near the edge, we are in the queue,
There is nothing she or I can do,
But hold on tight and see it through,
Until the end comes into view,
When all the truths we spoke of are revealed.
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You Gotta Laugh by Kevin Murphy

[HEALTH WARNING: This is a sad story about Suicide]

You gotta laugh!

 

A kid peeping in a back door and seeing a man trying to hang himself from the light fitting – it’s one of the funniest stories – Alan Sillitoe’s “On Saturday Afternoon” . Told like a joke, a few minor laughs build-up to a punch line…

You’ve just got to laugh.

Funny, yes, but I would watch it unfold peeping out from under the blankets–  a Catholic boy  – suicide – a great taboo.

Suicide – deadly sin – Despair – the final deadly sin – Despair of God ever coming to help you. A final loss of Faith – never get to Heaven. Aware of it from so early an age, one of my father’s off the cuff, matter of fact stories of a bloke who committed suicide – by accident!

My Dad had to laugh.

He was making a plea for help – everyone agreed it was just that. A bit of a lame duck who looked to his wife as prop. She got a bit fed up herself – withdrew her sympathies. A woman of meticulous habit, who would nip to the shop at the same time every day and return – at the same time every day. He put his head in the oven just in time for her to come in and find him faint.

But she didn’t .

You have to laugh.

“Poor chap, God rest his soul! He was a bit soft, but harmless. He’d done it several times before so everyone knew he didn’t mean it. You shouldn’t laugh really, because old Mother Norton blamed herself completely … and she was a Saint!”

My Dad’s telling me this, probably among Ghost and Horror stories I loved him to tell my sister and I – “The Monkey’s Paw”, “Pandora’s Box”, “The Picture of Dorian Grey” – but, a devout Catholic, he’d have to make sure we didn’t think it was actually funny – what with being the final deadly sin and all! However, though a Catholic, he was also a true follower of Jesus, so it came through that he knew the poor soft chap would not actually be consigned to the flames.

We didn’t laugh.

I’ve been a wildly optimistic extrovert for fifty years, way out in the “I’m OK, You’re OK” section. When I learnt all this Eric Bern’s Transactional Analysis (TA) stuff, I learnt that everyone has their own place in an area of the “I’m OK, You’re OK” Continuum. I also learnt that if we flip, as most of us do at some time, we flip straight through the middle. I’m not explaining it all here – read the book yourself – Bern said I would flip from being a wild optimist to a total suicide.

I had to laugh!

But what about poor Gerry McGuinn, “the loveliest-devoutest-daily-mass-going-lodger” Granny Mac ever had. He always gave me sweets as if he didn’t notice he was doing it, speaking only with his gentle eyes, eyebrows above and below his eyes where the razor missed his cheeks. At the end of lunch break found hanging from a steel hawser in a trench he’d just been digging.

I couldn’t laugh.

“A Steel Hawser! – Sure that’s Dishparate ahll togedder!”

All his lovely mates had to laugh – ‘twas the Wake y’ see – “owl Gerry wouldn’t be wanting t’ see ye grieving, now would he, such a lovely fella, never spoke a bad word in all his life!”

“Did y’ever hear him speak at all, Missis?”

They had to laugh.

I was thirteen – I couldn’t have been fourteen or they would have let me in the hospital alone – I watched a woman kill herself.

I had to take my Dad’s clothes to the Hospital where he’d had his appendix out. I pedalled right across Oxford, suitcase over the handlebars, round Walton Street the very back entrance. My Dad in a kind of Sunny Conservatory Ward, recuperating. I had to hand the case in through a window and wait for him to take out the suit (and put it on) and hand me back the case containing his pyjamas. He wouldn’t want to burst his stitches carrying all that back home on the bus!

Leaning on the wall waiting, I heard a window in the first floor of the next block bang open. I looked up – a young woman at the window. She was pretty in her flowery housecoat , but sad. Her sad eyes unchanged as her mouth inexorably gritted , her lips squeezed – I’ve had a lifetime to watch – she mustered all her strength and lunged, broken leg first, out of the window. Her nightie billowed a little at first as she floated the first few of the fourteen or so feet – not very far to fall – before a huge force came and slammed her flat on her back so hard she bounced as high as me.

It was a lifetime until I moved into gear, running towards a door shouting “Nurse! Nurse!….” but I needed a lifetime to convert the truth from “Someone’s jumped” to “Someone’s fallen out of the window!”

A crash team came running, surrounding her with a bed screen that was useless, it didn’t screen ‘til two feet off the ground!

I couldn’t laugh.

A Doctor lifted her a little and her poor head lolled.

It always just lolls.

It’s lolling still.

I took up Genealogy and my Aunts’ asked “What if you come up with something horrible?”

I didn’t care – the past is the past and it’s fascinating, even if it might be horrible – even better if it is. I had a greater incentive than many because my father and his seven siblings reckoned to know nothing at all of their father’s upbringing. They had an image to upkeep, their father being the local Headmaster and keen to retain his status as ‘Mister’ Griffin, among his friends ‘Doctor’  Lees, ‘Father’ Rector and ‘Mister’ Towns.

What about his Mother? Having survived infancy herself in the Irish Famine, her children were starving in the colliery disasters and strikes of 1880s Wigan. A bit of a legend said Grandpa’s baby brother had accidentally strangled himself in his high-chair. I sent to the registry office to see if they could find his Death Certificate. I included a separate fee just in case they could find anything about the mother’s death about which nobody knew anything.

An envelope arrived with two Certificates inside – good – it would be the first anyone knew about Grandpa’s mother. I unfolded the first and found that the story of Richard was no legend, and no shock. I unfolded the second Certificate and started eating my words to my Aunts – I’m eating them still. I had come up with something horrible and I did care. I’m caring still.

I cannot laugh.

In that corner of Hell that was the Boiler-furnace of the Industrial Revolution, baby Richard’s father was a stoker! His pay was just enough to live, and die, in slums comparable to the ‘hovels of the Irish famine’ said the London Times. Grandpa’s mother had strangled herself  “while the balance of her mind was disturbed”. It was Guilt over allowing little Richard to strangle himself! She was tortured inside for three long years – through the birth of her fifth and only surviving other child, beside Grandpa. Were the Aunts worried about a suicide gene? What other skeletons were in the closet? Auntie Meg was a depressive who died before her years. My Dad was a Depressive. Will my kid’s be depressives – it’s skipped me!

None of this! It was not giving up or giving in. She was fighting for her life! She was fighting to stay with her children, to get as many of them to survive as possible. She had a huge tumour in her stomach and the Doctor insisted she go to Hospital to have it removed. She was an illiterate from the Bog of Allen. She was scared she would never return. They weren’t going to take her alive!

She tied an apron round her neck to try to strangle herself. At the inquest the Doctor said she was too weak to even do that – with the little strength the tumour left her, she had willed herself to death. She had faded away in his arms.

It was such a relief to find the Coroners report in the Newspaper. I didn’t have to worry about me and mine! But I have worried about my Father and his Family. I never told him before he died peacefully, full of Faith in God.

He laughed!

When his terminal Cancer was diagnosed he said “God is Good!” He said it again seven months later just before he died. He’d survived a hundred hunts, chased by the Black Dog of Depression and its pack. Certain death from a disease of the body, not the mind! He had to laugh.

“Suicide is Painless” says the jolly theme tune to M*A*S*H one of  the funniest Television Programmes ever. Kids get blown to bits and Hawkeye and BJ have to sew them back together.

But they Gotta Laugh…

…. or what? …. well Suicide is painless!

Much as I love the programme, it’s the theme that haunts me in my darker moments.

Darker moments, yes. After fifty years as the eternal optimist I flipped!

It’s not like that at all! The stories were getting it all wrong! You wouldn’t go to Hell at all – you’d be getting out of it!

One grim time there was nothing – except the river of course. There wasn’t me. There wasn’t my wife, or the kids. There wasn’t that bastard of a Boss. There was the river – maybe a bit cold. Kind of solid. Not wet. Molten … ice! If I went in I’d be buoyed up on a meniscus – like a pin in Mercury. I’d need to break the meniscus – to become molten – but cold – like the river and be the river. And nothing else. There’s nothing else.

Except Phoebe, her hot wet tongue kissing my hand back into life, wondering how come “The Walk” has become “The Stand”.

You gotta Laugh.

It was such a shock. It was actually a coming round. Such a shock – what I might have just done. But it wasn’t me. I’m the good old fun loving eternal optimist – don’t need anybody, it’s everybody that needs me. Me and my infectious hope that everything will turn out right. Nobody’s offered to help me. You can’t see the cast on my broken spirit. You can’t see the scalding on my frozen soul. You can’t see the stitches on my torn up hopes.

You can’t see me. I’m not there to be seen. I’m not here.

But Chin up – You Gotta Laugh, see.