Read an Excerpt
It is Sunday morning. I hear our modem playing bad jazz as my mother connects to the Internet. I am in the bathroom.
I recently discovered that my mother has been typing the names of as-yet-uninvented mental conditions into Yahoo’s search engine: “delusion syndrome teenage”; “overactive imagination problem”; “holistic behavioral stabilizers.”
When you type “delusion syndrome teenage” into Yahoo, the first page it offers you is to do with Cotard’s Syndrome. Cotard’s Syndrome is a branch of autism where people believe they are dead. The Web site features some choice quotes from victims of the disease. For a while I was slipping these phrases into lulls in conversation at dinnertime or when my mother asked about my day at school.
“My body has been replaced by a shell.”
“My internal organs are made of stone.”
“I have been dead for years.”
I have stopped saying these things. The more I pretended to be a corpse, the less open she became about issues of mental health.
I used to write questionnaires for my parents. I wanted to get to know them better. I asked things like:
What hereditary illnesses am I likely to inherit?
What money and land am I likely to inherit?
Multiple choice: If your child was adopted, at what age would you choose to tell him about his real mother?
I am nearly fifteen.
They looked over the questionnaires but they never answered them.
Since then, I have been using covert analysis to discover my parents’ secrets.
One of the things I have discovered is that although my father’s beard looks ginger from distance, when you get up close it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond, and strawberry.
I have also learned that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to halfway.
I also discovered that my father suffers from bouts of depression; I found an empty bottle of tricyclic antidepressants that were in the wicker bin under his bedside table. I still have the bottle among my old Transformers. Depression comes in bouts. Like boxing. Dad is in the blue corner.
It takes all of my intuition to find out when a bout of my father’s depression has started. Here are two signals: One, I can hear him emptying the dishwasher from my attic room. Two, he presses so hard when he handwrites that it is possible, in a certain light, to see two or three days’ worth of notes indented in the surface of our plastic easy-clean tablecloth.
Gone to yoga,
Lamb in fridge,
Gone to Sainsbury’s
Please record Channel 4, 9pm
My father does not watch TV, he just records things.
There are ways of detecting that a bout of depression has finished: if Dad makes an elaborate play on words or does an impression of a gay or Oriental person. These are good signs.
In order to plan ahead, it’s in my interests to know about my parents’ mental problems from the earliest age.
I have not established the correct word for my mother’s condition. She is lucky because her mental health problems can be mistaken for character traits: neighborliness, charm, and placidity.
I’ve learned more about human nature from watching ITV’s weekday morning chat shows than she has in her whole life. I tell her, “You are unwilling to address the vacuum in your interpersonal experiences,” but she does not listen.
There is some evidence that my mother’s job is to blame for her state of mental health. She works for the council’s legal and democratic services department. She has many colleagues. One of the rules in her office is that, if it is your birthday, you are held responsible for bringing your own cake to work.
All of which brings me back to the medicine cabinet.
I slide the mirrored door aside; my face cross-fades, replaced by black and white boxes for prescription creams, pills in blister packs, and brown bottles plugged with cotton wool. There’s Imodium, Canesten, Piriton, Benylin, Robitussin, plus a few suspicious-looking holistic treatments: arnica, echinacea, Saint-John’s-wort, and some dried-out leaves of aloe vera.
They believe that I have some emotional problems. I think that is why they do not want to burden me with their own. What they don’t seem to understand is that their problems are already my problems. I may inherit my mother’s weak tear ducts. If she walks into a breeze, the tears come out of the far corners of her eyes and run down toward her earlobes.
I have decided that the best way to get my parents to open up is to give them the impression that I am emotionally stable. I will tell them I am going to see a therapist and that he or she says that I am mostly fine except that I feel cut off from my parents, and that they ought to be more generous with their anecdotes.
There’s a clinic not far from my house that contains numerous types of therapist: physio, psycho, occupational. I weigh up which of the therapists will provide the least trouble. My body is pretty much perfect so I plump for Dr. Andrew Goddard, BSc MSc, a physiotherapist.
When I phone, a male secretary answers. I tell him that I need an early appointment with Andrew because I have to go to school. He says I can get an appointment for Thursday morning. He asks me if I’ve been to the clinic before. I say no. He asks me if I know where it is and I say yes, it is close to the swings.
I am amazed to discover that there are detective agencies in the Yellow Pages. Real detective agencies. One of them has this slogan: You can run but you can’t hide. I fold the corner of the page for easy reference.
Thursday morning. I usually let my Mum wake me up but today I have set my alarm for seven. Even from under my duvet, I can hear it bleating on the other side of my room. I hid it inside my plastic crate for faulty joysticks so that I would have to get out of bed, walk across the room, yank it out of the box by its lead, and only then jab the snooze button. This was a tactical maneuver by my previous self. He can be very cruel.
As I listen to it, the alarm reminds me of the car alarm that goes off whenever heavy-goods vehicles drive past. It wails like a robotic baby.
The car is owned by the man at number sixteen on the street below us, Grovelands Terrace. He is a pansexual. Pansexuals are sexually attracted to everything. Animate or inanimate, it makes no odds: gloves, garlic, the Bible. He has two cars: a Volkswagen Polo for every day and a yellow Lotus Elise for best. He parks the VW in front of his house and the Lotus out the back, on my road. The Lotus is the only yellow car on my street. It is very sensitive.
I have watched him many times as he jogs up through his back garden, swings open the gate, and points his keys at the road. The wailing stops. If it happens late at night, he looks up to see how many lights have come on in the windows of the houses on my street. He checks the car for scratches, tenderly sliding a large hand over the bonnet and roof.
One night, it cried intermittently between the hours of midnight and four in the morning. I had one of Mrs. Arlington’s maths tests the next day and I wanted to let him know that, in our community, this behavior is not acceptable. So I came home at lunchtime—having performed poorly on the test—went into the street, and made myself sick on the bonnet of his Lotus. It was mostly blueberry Pop-Tart. The rain that afternoon was fierce and by teatime the lesson had been washed away.
When I make it down to breakfast, my dad asks me why I am up so early. “I’m going to see a therapist at eight-thirty—Dr. Goddard, BSc Hons.” I say this as if it is no big deal, this newfound responsibility taking.
He stops dead in the middle of slicing a banana onto his muesli. The open banana skin sits in his palm to protect him from the downward slash of his spoon. This is a man who knows about maturity.
“Oh right. Good for you, Oliver,” he says, nodding.
Dad admires preparation; he leaves his muesli overnight in the fridge so that it can fully absorb the semi-skimmed milk.
“Yeah, it’s no biggie, I just thought I’d like to have a chat about a few things,” I say, all casual.
“That’s good, Oliver. Do you want some money?”
He pulls out his wallet and hands me a twenty and a ten. I know when I am spending Dad’s money because he folds the top of his twenties back on themselves, like a bedsheet, so that they fit inconspicuously into his wallet. Blind people also fold their banknotes.
“Eight-thirty,” he says, looking at his watch, “I’ll drive you there.”
“It’s only on Walter’s Road. I’ll walk.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “I want to.”
In the car, my dad treats me gently.
“I’m very impressed,” he checks his wing mirror, signals right, and turns onto Walter’s Road, “that you’re doing this, Oliver.”
“But you know, if you want to talk about anything then, me and your mum have been through quite a lot; we might be able to help.”
“What sort of thing?” I ask.
“You know—we’re not as innocent as you think,” he says, with a little sideways glance that can only mean sex parties.
“I would like to have a chat sometime, Dad.”
“Oh, that’d be great.”
I smile because I want him to believe we have a chummy rapport. He smiles because he thinks he is a good father.