Take a breath, take a step, meet me down below
Everyone’s the same
Our fingers to our toes
We just can’t get it right
But we’re on the road
- OneRepublic: All Fall Down (2007)
How can I explain to you why I’d let some bug-fuck crazy cunt shoot bloody big holes into my body? What fucked up path had lead me to a point where I schemed to get her to riddle me with bullets? Where I plotted to have little 8 gram bits of lead rip chunks of flesh from my limbs, tear open my veins and arteries, break my bones with the force of 500 joules, and paint red the raw concrete walls of a back staircase in a dinghy Greek guesthouse? I kinda wondered so myself on that Wednesday evening in the October of 2009, while I was, you know, lying on the cold steps of that staircase, no longer able to breathe, my chest nothing but a spread of hurt: Where had the road begun that like a sentence running into an ellipsis ended in these three sharp reports not 200 meters from the lapping waves of the Aegean Sea?
I suppose the deceptively easiest answer would be that this road began at the front door of my aunt’s house in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, England. I stepped on it when I left there shortly before 9 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 29 July 2008. I had been 15 years, 157 days, and a little over 16 hours old, and everyone, including myself, expected me to return more or less straight away to my mum’s flat in Berlin, Germany. That morning no one had any idea that it would be almost half a year before my mum saw me again, and that by then things had progressed way beyond the point where I was still in control of my fate.
That morning my cousins Jane and Alice accompanied me to the bus stop. My own private farewell committee. I had spent two lovely weeks at my aunt’s, the first time in three years. The last time before that had been during my twelfth’s summer. When the time had been up back then I had cried and they had let me stay until school started again. But the era of tears was past now, their well long dried up. So I had to leave, however miserable I felt about it.
I have always been close to my aunt and my cousins, especially to Alice. Alice is one of those people that know how to be bad and look good at the same time. That summer I had asked her how she did that. We had been sitting on a fallen tree by the side of the pond under Wimley Hill, sharing a fag and squelching our naked toes in the mud. Alice had taken a long drag, elbows resting on her knees, and given it some thought.
Finally she said: “Maybe ‘cuz I make peeps think I see them how they want to see themselves? You know, once they swallowed that, they don’t dare to scratch on my façade either. So not to rock the boat they are sitting in.”
Maybe that’s it, I thought. I never learned how to do that – for all my lying, I can never make peeps think I see them for anything but what they are.
Alice looked up at me through her fringe, ginger like everyone’s in our family, with her inscrutable amber eyes. And then she did that thing where she lets her face slowly split from side to side by a maniac grin. The smoke curled out of her mouth and nose and she crossed her eyes trying to watch it get caught in her hair. And with a gravelly voice she said: “Course it helps that I’m cute as a button.”
God, do I ever miss her. Kahretsin.
Anyway, that morning, Alice and her sister Jane delivered me to the 9 o’clock to Stroud. We exchanged hugs and kisses and promises to mail and skype and all that, before I hoisted myself up the steep and narrow steps and found a seat by the window. I stuffed my backpack and jacket into the net above, popped the earphones of the mp3 in and settled down for the 30 minute ride to Cainscross. Jane and I exchanged a last wave. Alice was already drifting across the street.
As always the mp3 was set to random play. Snow Patrol struck up as the bus pulled away past the war memorial and St. Mary’s. “Light up,” Garry was singing, Mark and Jonny plodding heavily through the bleak rhythm. “Light up. As if you have a choice.”
The sky was clear, tinted emerald by the bus’s windows. The last of the grey stone houses rolled by. To the right the landscape opened up towards the valley and Blackquarrie’s Hill on the far side. To the left black and white cows dotted the green grass slope that reached into the sky past the window frame, all the way to the edge that had given this place its name.
“Even if you cannot hear my voice I’ll be right beside you, dear.” Gary sang on, cheerful hopelessness dripping from his voice. “I can hardly speak. I understand why you can’t raise your voice…”
For two weeks I had succeeded in staying mostly in the here and now. I had left Berlin in Berlin, and had been happy with that. But now I found myself helplessly watching my mind rush out ahead, back, back towards the life I had left there. I tried to cling to England, to soak it up, breathe it in, but I was failing fast.
The meadow of Coombe Hill to my left and up ahead became the sickly green interior wall paint of Plötzensee juvie hall, the lynchets running across it bars in front of the windows. That’s the past, I tried to tell myself. Look to the future. The rest of the summer, the coming school year, and the next and the next, they all loomed ahead. Family and friends, teachers, enemies, everything.
“Slower, slower. We don’t have time for that. All I want is to find an easier way to get out of our little heads.”
Have you ever had a panic attack? When all the heaviness and doubts and fear of your life become this fist closing around your chest, squeezing the air out of you? Your heart begins to flutter and race and skipping its beat like a miner’s bird suddenly aware that there is no exit, no light, no other purpose to its existence but eventually snuffing it.
Everything closed in on me, the aisle of the bus a long tube, stretching, and tightening, and finally tipping over, becoming a well with green balefire glowing hellishly at the bottom, and I was falling into it.
I clawed at the neck of my T-Shirt and tried to calm my breath, but all I did was make it worse. Then I couldn’t stand it any more. I rolled out of the seat, half ran and half crawled forward, bumping into seats and elbows, gripping backrests and shoulders for support. The driver said something, sharply, probably telling me to sit down or so but nothing reached me through the music and the panic. I stammered confused, jumbled pleas to let me out, nonsensical explanations about something forgotten, something left behind. I was about to scream at him when the good man – amidst sighing and eye rolling – brought the wheezing wale of a bus to a stop.
Doors opened with a hiss. I stumbled off. Doors closed again. The leviathan shook itself to life and roared off, leaving me beached at the side of the B4058. Alive. Breathing the air of a free man. It was not even seven minutes past nine. On the mp3 Snow Patrol’s “Run” gave way to Sixx AM’s “Van Nuys”. Life would never be the same again.
I had gotten off next to the tennis courts between Valley and Holywell Road, just outside the old town. Jane and Alice wouldn’t even have made it back to my aunt’s by then. I had no idea where to go, no plan what to do. I only knew that I couldn’t go back.
Perhaps guided by a craving for open spaces I decided to walk up to Wotton Hill and sit under the beech trees there, try to see the Canal, and think about it. I walked back to where Adey’s Lane starts up the hill when I suddenly realized that I had left everything on the bus: The backpack, clothes, the lunch my aunt had packed for me, the book I had borrowed from Jane, my mobile phone, the tickets, the wallet, money, passport, everything. Even my jacket. All I had left was the clothes I was wearing, the moss green Firestarter T-shirt my mum disliked so much, blue jeans, and the canvas trainers in that vivid shade of rosso corsa that I liked so much; that and the mp3 player.
Two kids, younger than me, were coming my way on the other side of the street. I called out to them.
They looked over to me.
“Can you catch?” I asked.
No reaction except for mild bewilderment. I decided to take their Brooklyn street-wear attire as cause for optimism, and wrapped the earphones tightly around the player.
“Here!” I called and tossed it in a high trajectory across the street. One of them caught it.
“Cheers,” I called and walked on past them.
“Hey, uh. Thanks, man!” One of them shouted after me. I grinned.
The last bit of the lane leads pretty steeply uphill through a narrow strip of chestnut and beech trees. At the top I turned left onto Old London Road. The sun was in my face, and I didn’t notice the sign post until I almost walked into it. It pointed to my right where the Cotswold Way – a national trail leading through most of Gloucestershire from Bath to Chipping Campden – goes into Westridge Woods. At the edge of the woods a fox stood in the shadow of a hawthorn bush. It looked at me attentively for a moment, then it turned around and disappeared in the brambles.
I scrapped my plan to sit on Wotton Hill. I would walk the Walk instead, and see where it would lead me, and what would happen.
When I reached the first trees of Westridge Woods I began shaking, badly. I began to stumble, had to put my hands on my shaking knees, reach out for a tree for support. It was a crippled old oak, gnarly and half dead. I was afraid I would pass out. But I didn’t fall, didn’t have to sit down.
It wasn’t another panic attack, you see, quite the contrary. Was I afraid? You bet I was. Was I excited? Definitely. But more than anything, all of a sudden, I was relieved. The wave of relief flooding me was so strong, so palpable, filled me so completely, it was almost like a seizure. I was really going. By God, I was. Right here and now.
For one moment the fear resurfaced, a corpse buoyed by gas rolling over in the water, beckoning me with a rotted arm. For one moment I thought about going back. But the moment passed, the corpse sank again below the surface. I was still shaking, but I could get up again, stumbled forward. I walked on into the woods. And after a few hundred meters the hiking did its magic: My body got into the rhythm, step, breath, step, breath, and the mind followed along.