The cardboard factory, the hardest regrets, and the deepest shame of all

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regrets

Many people regret some of the things they did, said and decided in the past, and I am one of them. The sick kitten that I and a friend found when we were about 9 years old on a building site on the seafront in Famagusta Cyprus and put into a sack cloth before wading out into the warm Mediterranean water to drown it and ‘put it out of its misery’ while it squiggled around desperately dying, the girlfriend I slapped in the face as an angry young man of 23 in the Seventies, not having had children, deciding not to listen to the voices of those wonderful older and wiser people than I who gave me advice which I badly needed but which I stubbornly refused to acknowledge at the time; these are but a few of the many things I did and decided in the past which I now regret doing and not doing and which sometimes creep back into my mind, as if to haunt me.

But although I know we all do dumb things sometimes and shouldn’t spend our lives feeling bad about them – hey, we’re only human after all – there is one thing in my life that I regret doing more than any other, and which haunts me more than any other. I would give anything to be able to wind back the clock to undo what I did that day. My only real regret and my only real shame.

Art class that day was great! We had to build a cardboard model of a factory. You know, three-dimensional and all that, realistic and imaginable. We glued the bits together. Sort of. Anyway, it was good fun and the teacher was very pleased with mine and told me so.

That which meant that I was proud of it and really wanted to show it to my mum and dad when I got home. After all, I was only ten years old, you know, the age when when you take home academic victories to your parents as if you are the older kitten which has just caught and eaten its first bird and leaves its remains on the doorstep to impress mama cat.

I got home, and seeing that my mother was in the garden I went inside and carefully placed and positioned my model on the kitchen table, in pride of place, waiting for her to come in from the garden and admire it.

She finally came in. I just knew that she would immediately notice my masterpiece and praise it and my talent. But, she didn’t.

“Hi. Have a good day? Can you go get me a scuttlefull of coal please (yes, we had coal in them days to heat our houses) so I can light the fire? Your father will be home soon.”

She hadn’t noticed my model???!!!

Whereupon, and in a mad fit of rage, I picked up the model, threw it angrily down onto the floor, and stomped on it stomped on it stomped on it cursing and blinding and shouting with pathetically petulant egotistical arrogance and infantile rage until it had been crushed into a sad and sorry ruin, lying there forlornly on the floor. There. Crushed. Unrecognisable. Happy? That’s my revenge for you not seeing and recognising my grand art and telling me how talented I am. Yah boo sucks!

But when it was all over, and my furious words had disappeared into the walls, my mother stood there, frozen. Her mouth was wide open yet she said nothing. She just looked at me intensely and deeply, her big and beautiful dark brown eyes wide open with horror and incomprehension. They drilled right into my soul. It was the first time I had ever seen her look shocked and I was totally unnerved by it. I knew right there and then that I had hurt not only her, but myself as well. And I knew she knew it too. She turned her back on me and walked back outside.

Regrets? Sure, we all have them.

I shall never forget that frightened look in my mother’s eyes that day. After all, I had just refused to bring in the coal to heat the house. Our house. That was my job, to bring in the coal to heat my mother and my father and my sisters, and I would do it with a sense of pride. That was just how it was in those days.

But upon that day I refused to fulfil my role as a useful member of my family, stupidly preferring instead to think that I and my amazing model were the centre of the universe and to hell with everyone else. I really loved my mother more than anyone or anything else and I looked up to her as an example, yet I had let her down.

Yes. The deepest shame of all…

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Dead wives, cancer, sisters with plastic hair, and sleeping with snakes

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mythIn other words, mythomania. It was late in the afternoon one day last week and I had had a long day. I had just left a lengthy meeting at a client’s offices so I sat down on a nearby bar terrace to order a drink and put my thoughts in order. I was alone on the small terrace, the waiter came out and served me, and shortly afterwards a man of about sixty came out holding what looked like a double (triple?) whisky, sat down two tables away from mine, and lit a cigarette.

He said hello it’s cold. I said hello sure is. He said and that’s not good for my health. I said Oh really?

And he went on to recount that he had been diagnosed with liver cirrohosis six months ago. I said uhu, that’s awful I’m sorry (and I thought “and you’re drinking straight whiskey??!!) He said yes but the cirrhosis didn’t matter any more anyway because he had been diagnosed with what was probably fatal pancreatic cancer sometime between Christmas and the New year and so what the hell. Talk about a happy new year he said bitterly.

He went on to speak about his wife and informed me that she had died of cancer in September (or August maybe). That, he said was because she had had enough of all the bad hands life had dealt her, one of which had dealt the death of their 19-year-old son in a road accident earlier in the year. That’s why the cancer started.

But, he said, he managed to cope with his present reality because he was used to death, and this because his first wife had committed suicide (no, really, I am not making this up) because she had learned from doctors that she was infecting the baby they were expecting with a previously undiscovered genetic disorder she had had since birth.

What could I say? After all, it would have been totally inappropriate of me to lazily trot out the usual and cheery “ah well, you know how it is, things will be better in 2013 you’ll see” that one sometimes does in bars. Besides, his story didn’t seem to ring true. So I bade my leave, politely and sympathetically, and went inside to pay for my drink.

“So which version did he give you sir?” asked the barman. “Euhhh…Waddya mean?” I replied.

And he went on to say that he hoped that I hadn’t been too put out by the man outside, who was a regular client who could be a little boring with his stories sometimes but who meant no harm because he was a “mythomaniac”. One week he would talk about his three sons who joined the army, the next he would relate how he felt after his wife’s murder, and the one after that the story would be that he had lost his only wife in his twenties. Every few months would herald a new theme in his life, such as his job or his life in Italy as a boy or something, and, as had been the case for his cancer and two wives, the details of those stories would change radically as the days and weeks went by.

I recounted all this later that evening to a friend over an apéritif. “Oh sure” she said, I’ve known a couple of mythomanes too. Crazy stuff.” I asked her for an example.

Her example concerned a friend from school. They were 14 at the time and her friend would come out with some very strange details about her life outside of school. Details such as this;

She would say that her two sisters had plastic hair and that it was brightly-coloured, and that despite the cruel reactions from the other kids, who thought she was nuts, she would continue to resolutely insist that what she was saying was true. And that just as true was the fact that she slept with her two pet snakes every night. And that just as true as that was the fact that she was working on a project to record an album of her playing classical piano with a string quartet. And on on on it went, said my friend.

Now I don’t know much about mythomania or mythomaniacs. I am merely relating the words I heard at the bar and the words my friend said her friend said. In both cases though, those mentioned were/are considered to be mythomanes. But are they? Who says? Why? And if they are not, what ‘are they’?

All I know is that the things people say……

LSD, the psychiatrist, and the lesson

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lsdI used to take a lot of LSD when I was in my mid-twenties, back in the Seventies. Too much in fact. That’s why one day whilst on my way to Kilburn High Road tube station I decided to cross the road to get there by stepping across it. The cars were only six inches high, and the road was no more than three feet wide after all. So I began to step off the path and..

..what?! Wake up for god’s sake! I saw RealSize cars that would have killed me if I had stepped out off the pavement and in front of them. Very frightening. So I walked, frightened and sheepish, up to the traffic lights, and crossed the road when other people did. That way I knew I was okay.

A couple of weeks (I think) later I was on the the platform of some Circle Line station waiting to go somewhere. The train approached the station, the platform angled down sharply and I had to swiftly grab a hold of a fire hydrant to stop myself slipping down the platform and under the  wheels of the train.

Ah, okay, this is what LSD flashbacks are.

So I went to see the doctor. He said that I needed to see a psychiatrist because I was, he said, in a bad way. So I went to see the psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist asked me a few questions about how I was feeling, my drug habits and my background. He wasn’t very nice to me. No sympathy, no empathy, no dialogue and, it seemed at the time, no real interest in me either. Waste of time?

Then he leaned back severely and accusingly in his chair and spat out (something like) the following;

‘So if I’ve understood you correctly, you are a middle-class rebel brat who has no job and who uses the miserable pittance the state hands down to you to buy drugs which lead you to come and see me when you have taken too many and ask for other drugs and treatments to replace the drugs you already use? You want drugs? Here they are.’

And with that he scribbled out a prescription for something or other, threw it across the desk, looked into my eyes and quietly said “Get out”. I picked up the prescription and left.

Once outside I felt so humiliated and vindictively revenge-filled that I just had to take out my frustration on something or someone. And I found my scapegoat immediately. More drugs?! Hell no!

I ripped the prescription into as many pieces as I could and threw it into a nearby rubbish bin. I had taken my revenge on the psychiatrist. Then, that evening, I decided never to take LSD again.

And I have never taken it to this day. But what did the psychiatrist really mean by his words? Was he really being insulting? Or did he think that a hard dose of honest truth would somehow bring me to my senses?

Who cares. He gave me a very necessary slap in the face just when I needed it and that’s the most important thing.

Ah, the things people say….