“Life can be odd,” said the man wiping a gob of yellow paint from his face. “You can’t get angry, because rules are rules, and the rules state that the world is chaos, bubbling in a glass jar.” Or something like that.
I had six years in a factory mixing paint and pouring it into plastic bottles. I looked up to the older man who probably didn’t say this, because inside I was a twitching wreck, and Uncle Jack (as I’ll call him) was calm, even when the industrial machine threw its guts up into his face. (I later found out that it was a mask he wore, and actually at home he was a cantankerous old b*stard but…)
Odd that my happiest times this trip have been sandwiched between strangers inside a cramped bus on a rain-swept afternoon in Lviv, a tour through the Chernobyl disaster zone and surrounding towns and villages, and an afternoon spent in a Ukrainian village cemetery counting headstones. In older days, when my OCD was a gunship and my depression a black fog that trailed it, any reprieve was multiplied to such manic proportions that when it came, I went supernova, from a hobbled, twitching creature lurking in a corner to a soaring rocket man annoying the skies with my roaring jet pack. Imagine a tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper. It explodes on impact with the ground and tendrils stretch across the immediate world; a tree is splattered in orange paint, a shop window, a passing car. I wanted to be everywhere, and know everything and everyone. My parents would never see me like this, but when I was out and Crow free, my confidence conquered a square mile, running on adrenaline; a greyhound released on a coiled spring, tail wagging, tongue slapping over my shoulder. Drink sometimes gave me the same reprieve, only on these occasions the fireworks were louder still, but with a bigger price to pay. (Gunpowder ain’t cheap.)
These days when I’m free of Crow and his black umbrella, I’m content to celebrate with a deep breath of fresh air, tasting the day and chewing it over. I’m not past mania, but now I’m a little afraid of where it can take me.
So we took a tour of Chernobyl, and the towns and villages the 1986 nuclear disaster had forced into non existence. It was an interesting but rather bleak day. I was expecting it.
Drudging through the evacuated ghost town of Pripyat with the rest of the tour, I found myself lagging, and took several minutes for myself in a ruined room. Water dripped from the flaking ceiling, a broken chair lay dislocated on the concrete floor beside a single brown shoe, and a gas mask, tactically placed by a tour guide no doubt, dangled eerily from a twisted hook – Everything, from wet concrete walls to burned plastic dolls, looked dead. So grim and blighted were my surroundings that I prepared for a wave of depression to crush me against the cold floor. No black tsunami came.
My demons nudged me with their crooked elbows, and breathing in the stale air, I decided to entertain them. I looked into the smeared glass of a gas mask eye socket, and imagined a long table filled with food in the reflection – They were all there, eating their pie and cake; the Crimson Knight, the symbol of my violent self harm, devouring the apple crumble, stuffing it into his metal face-plate; the temptress Gorgon, my fear, spilling beef broth down her filthy gown; Crow himself, Lord of the entire dance, didn’t even look up from his wooden bowl as he poured hunks of wet meat into his glistening black beak. A vast array of squabbling diners picked and pecked and pawed at the food. It reminded me of a phrase I once wrote on a cardboard box, deep in a factory warehouse, many years ago.
‘Watch them, let them feast, but never join them at the table.’ I knew what I meant when I scribbled it in thick black marker pen all those years ago, but only now did I see who it was slobbering over the juicy platter. It was me, or at least the ghosts of me.
And so I watched them, I let them gorge on barbecued chicken legs and gigantic hocks of roasted ham, lips smacking, knocking over jeweled goblets of red wine. But I never sat beside them. Never joined them in their gluttony. And I never will, because to join them is to drop dead on the ground.
It was Chernobyl, I was expecting them here, everyone on the tour must have felt a personal demon poke a finger or two into their ribs. But mine were quieter than usual, content almost to share stories with each other across the cluttered table. Of course I was dodging OCD spikes every few footsteps, but I could see them breaking through the floor, or protruding through walls like slow broken traps in an old Indiana Jones set. There were grey autumn clouds casting shadows across that ramshackle town, bloated behemoths setting the mood as lethargy thumped in my lungs and my nostrils were filled with the stench of things gone wrong; I saw Devils in gas masks, so bleak and grey and damp to the bones, this should have been a great harvest for that bastard Crow. Yet I was fine with my desolate surroundings.
Maybe it’s the beautiful places that pull the trigger, because Crow doesn’t want me to be happy and he detects a smile further away than a shark smells a severed artery. Maybe it’s the colourful markets in Central America that tempt his malice that little bit more – hiding in wooden crates of those succulent avocados and oranges and ripened bananas like a stowaway tarantula. Crow likes to suck away the juicy insides, until a damp husk is all that is left. When he leaves me a slice of meat, it’s the most succulent morsel of food I’ve ever tasted, or best film I’ve watched in years, or the funniest show, the sweetest treat, the happiest hour of the entire month – so when he’s absent, even if I’m in a trench half filled with water, I remember it as a positive occasion. Every minute without OCD breaking my toes, or depression suffocating me like a hangman’s hood thrown over my face, blows my mind every which way, just like that tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper.
It is the ruination of a spectacular day that hurts the most, I guess. The rancid hut looms ominously, you already know not to sleep on the p*ss-stained mattress, the roaches are already on the wall, there’s nothing that wants to jump out at you that you don’t already know about. It’s the five star apartment you have to check for bedbugs. So Chernobyl was depressing, but it was meant to be, there were no surprises.
And today, in the cemetery beneath the gun smoke sky, searching for Little One’s Ukrainian family plot, there wasn’t a black feather in sight – but as mourners paid homage with flowers, it just wasn’t the place for celebration.
Forget another trip to Asia or South America, I could have stayed in that graveyard forever if it meant peace like this – and I suppose it will one day.
It’s an odd world indeed, Uncle Jack. An odd world indeed.