Chapter 1: Chocolate
I started seeing Camille six months ago when she replied to an email initially intended for Anthony. The email was more of an enquiring nature: a ‘top-up’ and to catch up with Anthony five years after our last session. As I wrote it, I told myself I didn’t need therapy again; it was more a one-off because I could do with the advice and for someone I trusted to reassure me. However, by the time Camille and I sat opposite each other, I had known nothing like it. Halfway through our first session, she handed me a questionnaire. The last question asked if I had considered harming myself or ending my life. My answer, ‘Yes, most days,’ triggered the start of a beautiful friendship.
The thing about depression is that it is a little bit depressing. In a corporate presentation, my friend Jeff once confidently used the immortal closing line, ‘in the end, people are people.’ The clients loved it but we, his closest friends, would use that line to rib him for the next three and a half years. Jeff ‘People Are People’ Martin now lives in Seattle and still receives emails from former colleagues asking, ‘how’s work, buddy, how are the people, are they still people?’ The point I make is that to anyone else depression must seem a cop-out – a made-up thing that can be fixed by giving someone a bag of Minstrels and telling them to cheer up. And that can work to an extent. But when you’re looking for hemlock online or writing suicide notes to your dead father, then there is probably something deeper going on.
It was Camille who suggested that I meet with Ellie face to face. Before, I would have hidden away and hoped we could brush the situation under the carpet like we had done with every other problem in our family life. I arrived at the café an hour early, partly to mentally prepare and partly because I could not keep my mind on anything else all morning. I had woken up at five. I had tried lying in bed with my eyes closed. I tried reading, meditating, even counting sheep. I ended up going downstairs to make a cup of tea, tiptoeing on our creaky wooden floorboards not to disturb my flatmate. And long before there was any sign of life, I was out the door, unable to bear another torturous second of waiting.
No one should feel that nervous about meeting their sibling for coffee. Nervous, guilty, and if I was completely honest, more than a little bit resentful. Your older sister finds out you’ve been contemplating killing yourself, and instead of ‘Oh my God, Scott, what’s wrong?’ she destroys your most treasured possession and calls you a selfish prick. ‘Thanks, Ellie,’ I wanted to say with cutting sarcasm. But I reverted to the fourteen-year-old boy who had become overawed by the whirlwind of rebellion and anger that was his seventeen-year-old sister and said exactly what I would have said back then – absolutely nothing. Even when she walked out, all I could mumble was ‘don’t call me a prick.’
The café was on Exmouth Market, or what used to be Exmouth Market before it succumbed to gentrification. Rather than a café, I was in one of the numerous bar-slash-restaurants serving coffee, cocktails, and overpriced ‘artisan dishes’ which could neither be considered a meal nor a snack. Menus were divided into Salads and Grains, Small Plates, Large Plates, and included modern classics such as London halloumi and Dingley Dell Farm pork schnitzel. Did being inside the M25 improve the taste and texture of cheese, or did above average diesel emissions and lack of space enhance the quality of dairy farming? Was ordering schnitzel more satisfying if you were forced to know the origin of the pig whom you had caused to be slaughtered? This might make me sound pedantic, but sometimes I think less is more when it comes to knowing where my food comes from. And perhaps about modern human existence in general.
I chose that specific café because when Ellie would visit me in London ten years ago, it used to be one of our favourite hangouts. Al’s Bar, it used to be called, and served lager in plastic glasses at two in the morning and had a tiny basement with an absolutely rammed dancefloor. Now it had a strict policy that a parent or guardian must accompany all twentysomethings and when I popped downstairs to the toilets, I found a giant wood-burning Aga had replaced our dancefloor.
I sat on a long white leather booth with an immaculate, dazzling white table in front of me, surrounded by healthy-looking, presentable, middle-class people in their thirties or forties. Okay, my gripes against gentrification and the middle-class are more than a tad hypocritical. My sister and I grew up in a large detached house in the North London suburbs, and both of us went to a fee-paying, private school. We were probably the first generation to start spending close to five pounds on Starbucks coffee, and years of sheltering from life’s problems meant we grew up comparatively healthy looking too. However, what I was not, was presentable. I looked down at myself, and compared to other men around me, all sporting incredibly well-groomed beards and the smart-casual-Sunday-shirt-and-pullover-combos, I genuinely looked scruffy. There was nothing designer about my five-day-old stubble (I was rationing my Gillette Mach 3 as was loath to spend ten pounds on four new blades), and I was still wearing my torn and tattered ten-year-old coat because the jumper I was wearing had some of Tuesday night’s curry down the front.
There was another big difference between me and those men with the well-groomed beards and the winter tans, which I imagined resulted from a recent visit to a European ski resort. At that moment in time, in that café on a Sunday morning, none of them were alone. Sitting in the corner with an airy and sunbathed room in front of me, I could see groups of men and women sitting around their tables, all engaged in conversations, laughing, smiling, gesturing, apparently content and unashamedly proud of their place in the universe. And that’s where Big Sis should have come in. Stop me looking like a loser in front of the cool kids.
I had brought with me a copy of The Great Gatsby. More as a conversation starter than me rereading it. And when I say conversation starter, I mean an elaborate ploy on my part to start us off on a united front and talk about Dad. Obviously, naming me after the author, he was a fan, but Dad also wrote his doctoral thesis on Fitzgerald, and many of his literary review papers centred on the great American novelist who only wrote four novels – to paraphrase a quote from Ellie to Dad from my wonderfully tension-filled teenage years. I then realised that perhaps the book was a bad idea. Our childhoods were privileged. Dad provided us with a big house, good educations, intellectual stimulus, and love and attention. But his one mistake was having Mum leave him and unfortunately, that was something Ellie would not forgive or let him forget. She was a kid, she was angry, but she was deliberately and relentlessly hurtful, and though it might sound trivial, continuous little digs at the great American author were her way of getting back at Dad.
I left Gatsby in front of me with my glass of hot chocolate next to it. An ashtray of sugar cubes sat behind them both. I’ve never claimed to have very adult tastes, and there is probably nothing sadder than a thirty-five-year-old man drinking a child’s drink, but it soothes me. The sugar rush and serotonin were comforting, and let’s face it, being addicted to sugar and chocolate is a lot less of an issue than me relapsing on gin for breakfast and cocaine as my powder of choice. Well, unless I suffered from type 1 diabetes.
And during my time waiting for Ellie, I had made it to my third hot chocolate – three was too much of a sweet hit even for me so I let the last go cold – and did end up rereading half of Gatsby.
We were due to meet at eleven, and it was noon by the time I finally got my phone out to text her.
Are you coming? I wrote. I was cradling the phone in front of me, staring at the screen, trying to avoid the fact I could see a rather sheepish, downcast face reflecting off the glass back at me. Immediately, I saw a text bubble appear and the dots of a response being composed.
I waited a few seconds to see if there would be another text bubble. There wasn’t.
Where are you? I sent back.
Brighton. Back home.
Thanks for telling me, was my reply.
I like to think I leaned back on the leather booth and rolled my eyes at her distant reply, but I’m guessing I didn’t. I do remember that with the sunlight directly flowing into the café and the heating on to combat the cold November day, it had started to feel stuffy, and my face began to feel warm and flushed. I then received another text.
Scott, I really don’t care.
It was probably no more than half a minute that I was staring at my phone when I decided I should probably go home too – not much point drinking cold hot chocolate waiting for someone who was in a different county. So I called for the bill. Or at least I tried. When I tried to catch the waitress’s eye, I felt my own quickly swell with tears. I looked down and tried to hide my face, pretending to be fixated by Gatsby. I could hear people around me continuing to chatter, cups knocking on saucers, and a coffee machine powerfully exhaling steam. But all I could feel were tears involuntarily streaming down my face and a lump developing in my throat. I had not had either sensation in about twenty-five years and had no idea how to stop them. Keeping one hand covering my face, I fumbled for any cash to cover the bill. I then pulled up my jumper to wipe it on the inside and made a rush for the door.
But I didn’t make it.
Halfway through my run, I tripped over the leg of a chair and fell crashing to the floor, face first. The next thing I knew, three of the men with well-groomed beards were helping me to my feet and asking me if I was okay. Someone else had passed me a tissue to stop my nose bleeding – at least that was one positive, blood being so less embarrassing than tears. I heard the waitress also say she would get some ice for my lip.
‘Thank you. It’s okay. You’re all very kind,’ I repeatedly said before finally managing to back out of the café and walk briskly away with none of my dignity intact and my sister nowhere to be seen.
I didn’t realise how much I needed Ellie until then. To be frank, I don’t think I even liked her that much, and feel I’m the one with ample grounds for calling her a prick for the shit she’s done over the years. She was the world’s worst sister. Vicky, my ex-fiancée, despised her. She said she was volatile, selfish, and had a pathological need to hate me. Ironically, Vicky had primarily known Ellie when she and I were probably at our closest – those Exmouth Market days of late nights and bar-hopping, when I was twenty-six. It was perhaps the best year of my life. I was engaged to the girl I had loved since sixth form, and my super-cool, music-journalist older sister, finally wanted to hang out with me.
When I was fourteen, she couldn’t wait to be away from us – me, Dad, and our house in Wood Green, North London. Ellie had been offered places to study music at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and Guildhall School of Music, and she turned them all down to leave London for the West Country and Bristol. At that age, I hadn’t fully understood the implications of this shunning. I had thought her university choices in keeping with her subversive nature and anything elitist she would duly turn her back on. That was why, on the day she left, when she was packing up her room, I had quietly hoped that she would be back at weekends and tell me about all her new adventures. But as her younger brother, I thought it was my duty to mask any acknowledgement of missing her with nonchalance and inane banter.
I remember the moment well. I was standing awkwardly in the doorway of her room, staring at all the crates and boxes, surprised that Ellie was taking absolutely everything and leaving a shell behind – no evidence of her whatsoever. She had her back to me, standing at her bookshelves, taking down her biographies of Cobain and Dylan. ‘You know, I think I might turn this into a games room when you’re gone.’ In my head, I thought it a way to break the ice. Ellie would laugh, sit me down on the stripped bed, and give me an inspiring, heartfelt pep talk – she would tell me that she would miss me and that I would be alright, like in an American teen drama. Instead, Ellie kept packing up her books.
‘If it makes up for the fact you’re never going to lose your virginity. Sure.’
With the pep talk pretty much over, I went back to my room and sat on my bed. On it, I had placed a newly made wooden box – by me in woodwork class – with a sliding lid and ‘Ellie’ engraved on it. I knew it was lame but I had spent the previous four weeks trying to craft it. It was for her to carry her pencils and pens for when she would compose music. I just sat there staring at it, thinking how stupid I had been to make it for her. Then I heard the front door slam. I got up and ran to the window seeing Ellie getting into the movers’ van. I ran out of my room into hers. All the boxes were gone. I ran downstairs, opening the front door, but the van was pulling away with Ellie in the passenger seat. Our eyes met. She then looked away and put her hand to cover the side of her face. I was fourteen years old. The next time I saw Ellie, I was seventeen. So much for weekend visits.
In hindsight, Ellie might have had a point about never losing my virginity. When I had suggested a games room, I wasn’t talking about a pool table, table football, or even multi-player shoot ’em up video games. I was talking about Orcs, Druids, Dwarfs, and Elfin Warriors, all hand-painted miniature models, laid out across a board on the floor that my dad had helped me paint so it resembled Middle-Earth. Yes, in my early teens, I was heavily into Games Workshop and fantasy-adventure strategy games. I like to think I’ve grown as a person since and developed some less ‘introverted’ and more outdoorsy pastimes. I’d also like to think that my and Ellie’s relationship has also evolved over time, perhaps taking longer than it should have, to the point that now in our thirties, I am godfather to both her children, Millie and Ed. Though the honour is a slightly dubious one seeing that both Ellie and her husband, Mike are agnostic and, as Ellie put it, ‘we only took part in the façade as Dad said he’d pay for the do and Millie would get some less shit presents than the crap we can afford.’
The do was lovely, to be fair, both for Millie and then for Ed two and a half years later. Millie is now four and what I remember most was Ellie arriving at Dad’s in a mood after a drive in heavy traffic, trying to force the pram and Millie’s stuff through the door single-handedly while virtually kicking off Mike’s attempts to help. She then walked into the living room, saw all the balloons, cake, and the piled-up immaculately wrapped gifts, and burst into tears. I think that was the second of only three times I had seen her cry. I guess that was one of the few things we had in common. The Roberts kids – Ellie and Scott Roberts – waiting until their mid-thirties before letting out a show of emotion.
And perhaps Ellie also had a point about not showing up to the café. The last year had not been the easiest for either of us. As I left the café on Exmouth Market, I felt my feet moving faster and faster, not just taking me away from the scene of my lost dignity but breaking into a run and running away from… the past? Myself? Ellie? I honestly did not know. And that was extremely frustrating since I was hoping that these were the types of questions I would find myself answering after six months of therapy. But whatever animosity I held for my sister and what grudges she held for me, were not merely a case of suppressed resentment from our formative years. Obviously, that was a contributing factor, but the roots of our current difficulties resided in the events of the last twelve months.
Where my feet did find themselves running to that day, at least eventually, was Stockwell allotments in South London, where I was late for my first day of work.
The Joneses were there already, Mr Jones – Ronnie – out with his fork digging up the turf.
‘There you are!’ he called over to me as his wife, Judith, looked up with a string of weeds in her hand. ‘I thought you’d stood us up!’ They chuckled to themselves as I tried to smile apologetically.
‘Sorry, got stuck at something north of the river.’
‘Where? North of what? Never heard of it!’
I had met the Joneses during that summer, just down the road at Ruskin Park Community Gardens. After a lifetime living in the part of the world which Mr Jones had claimed never to have heard of, I had found myself living for the first time in South London. I shared a flat with a flatmate I hardly knew, and who seemed quite happy to maintain that set of circumstances, and as already alluded to, I was not in the healthiest of mindsets. I found myself spending a lot of my free time wandering Ruskin Park. I would while away the evenings and weekends sitting on a bench in front of a hidden set of gardens, carefully secluded by hedgerow, so I could be alone. Until one day, I wasn’t alone. A dozen or so people of my parents’ generation had gathered out among the flowers and shrubs, with gardening gloves on and trowels in hand.
‘Might never happen,’ shouted a voice from among the plants. A man with short white hair and tanned, muscular arms stood mopping his brow, looking over at me. I looked to my left and right to see who else he could be addressing.
‘Kind of already has.’ I tried to smile back politely.
‘Don’t tell me. Lad your age, must be girl trouble.’
And he was right. Though my relationship with my sister was not exactly rosy back then either, my descent from depressed into depression was triggered by an affair of the heart. Her name was Sarah. And not only had she broken my heart, but she managed to flip a switch in my brain that I could not seem to un-switch.
I say she broke my heart, and she flipped the switch. In reality, one person rarely holds that power over another. And I can’t even say she was the love of my life, considering I was engaged eight years earlier to the real love of my life.
The entirety of our physical relationship consisted of one kiss.
‘Nice garden,’ I called back. ‘Is this…’ I was just trying to make polite conversation and avoid his question. ‘Is this all your work?’
‘Friends of Ruskin Park. Community Gardens. These, and the veg and herb ones round the back. Giving these a tidy today.’
‘I like the hibiscus shrubs.’ I nodded to a small bush of yellow flowers by his feet.
‘Good eye, lad. Planted those myself. You much of a gardener, then?’
I would not say it was from altruistic motives I took Ronnie up on his offer of putting on a pair of gloves and giving the Friends of Ruskin Park a hand that day – I felt too socially awkward to say no. And when Ronnie asked if I wanted to come along the next day I started showing up every day, even skipping out on work early to do so, largely because it also meant avoiding Sarah.
‘So, it’s pretty much gone to pot,’ said Ronnie, resting his foot on his fork and looking around at the large patch of allotment. ‘We really should have been able to do both this and Ruskin, but refurbing the community gardens got a bit out of hand – saying that, I’m not complaining about the result.’
‘I bloody am, Ronnie. This should have been us unwinding in your retirement, not you working yourself up into another heart attack!’ Judith stood up.
‘Oh, you do exaggerate.’
‘Scott, what my husband and I would like is if you took the reins here over the winter. Ronnie can keep Chair of the Committee at Ruskin and lay down the law there, but I don’t want him coming back here till at least the spring. There’s beds needing building, soil needs replacing, weeding, pretty much everything, and I don’t want this one sneaking back here. Three afternoons a week, and we’re paying you the going rate. No charity needed here, thank you very much.’
Judith was not one to argue with, and Ronnie stood there, grinning like a schoolboy.
‘I guess we’ve been told, lad.’
The first thing the Jones showed me was the shed. Anyone who spent their childhood watching old VHSs of Dr Who would be familiar with the acronym TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension In Space. But as there are fewer and fewer of us who admit to being old school Whovians, let’s just say their shed was surprisingly bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. As well as containing every form of gardening implement imaginable, there was also a kettle, two armchairs, and what looked like a home brewing kit in the corner.
‘Also, Scott, feel free to borrow anything you need to take around with you. If you’re to get your business off the ground, you’re going to need a few more little patches. We’re happy to help any way we can.’
Judith had a point. One that should keep a person awake at night. Today was my first day self-employed – no more working for someone else. And no more being paid for forty hours a week, sick pay, holiday allowance, or job security. At that moment, I had a total of one customer and ten hours’ worth of work to get me started.
‘I’ve designed some fliers,’ I said quietly.
‘Well, get them out there, lad! Me and Judith’ll put the word around. Don’t underestimate the value of good old word of mouth. Though, I can’t guarantee you it will compare with your fancy-arsed banker wages.’ He gave me a nudge and chuckled to himself as we stepped back out of the shed.
On that first afternoon at the Ruskin Park gardens, Ronnie had asked me,
‘What do you do then? A well-spoken lad like yourself? Lawyer, banker, poncey beer maker?’
I didn’t consider myself that well-spoken. Ellie and I had gone to a private school but it was down the road from our house in Wood Green and was more arty and weird than posh. But Ronnie did have one thing right.
‘I used to work in banking. But quite a few years ago. I’ve been abroad the last few years.’
‘Abroad? I’ve heard of that. ‘Em foreigners come from there?’
‘He’s pulling your leg,’ shouted a lady I would come to know as Judith. ‘We’re all very multicultural around here and very much proud of it. My parents were both Polish.’
Ronnie was practically bent double laughing as Judith shook her head and went back to her flowerbed.
‘The Middle East and Africa. Doing some… charity work.’
I hated the term ‘charity work’. It sounded more selfless than it was. For the last four years, I worked in international development, doing project work for an organisation that technically was a charity. It was a job that got me out of London at a time I was struggling with a series of temptations.
‘So where does a banker learn about hibiscuses? Your parents keen gardeners?’
‘I helped run a farming project in Burundi. There’s a lot of hills there. Surprisingly cold and wet at times. Like here. And before that, I would build little rooftop gardens and courtyards wherever I stayed in the Middle East. I did an online landscaping course to help pass the time.’
‘So what brings you back here?’
We packed up at the allotment as the November sun began to set, the tools back in the shed, the large padlock on the door.
‘So, is this you done with charity work?’ Judith was fastening up her coat as we prepared to leave. ‘You could always go back, I assume, if you get fed up doing other people’s gardens.’
‘I don’t think so. It was surprisingly corporate, the charity sector over here. A lot of office politics. I don’t think I really enjoyed one day of it.’
‘And that girl?’
Six months ago, even alluding to Sarah would have been enough to send me into a spiral. Now, at last, a weight felt like it was slowly lifting.
‘It was a relief,’ I said. ‘Knowing it was the last time I would see her.’
I thought briefly back to my last day, and Sarah doing the usual flick of her long brown hair and marching past me, determinedly ignoring me, as she crossed the office brightly telling someone how she was off to the south of France the next day.
‘She didn’t sound the right sort anyway,’ Judith said diplomatically.
‘It all works out for the best, lad. And take it from someone who knows, there’s more to life than working in an office. People pay too much heed to computers and that these days. I don’t know how you can stand being indoors all day everyday clicking and typing. It would do my head in!’ Ronnie chuckled as the three of us walked up a path, away from the shed.
‘In my day, work was about having a laugh with the lads. Out in the fresh air, the radio on and beers after. Didn’t need a degree or memorising the works of Shakespeare. You just did what you enjoyed doing.’
And with that I thanked the Joneses, said goodbye – telling them I would keep them updated on progress – and set out back to my solitary flat and even more solitary life.
Researchers now say we should plan for up to five career changes over our lifetimes. I’m sure this would have shocked our grandparents' generation, who fastidiously stuck to one through wars, strikes, and recessions. I had turned thirty-five over the summer and, as of that day at the Joneses allotment, was already on to my third while everyone else I knew remained happy with their first.
I should explain how I arrived at my present situation. The first transition probably takes less of a leap – an investment banker who regularly partook in illicit substances giving it all up to do good causes, is perhaps a cliché these days. But then giving up charity work, both in the hills of Burundi and then at home, to become a one-allotment gardener in South London, perhaps takes some more clearing up. The crux of the matter began eleven months ago.
It was the run-up to Christmas and I was due to fly home. As I have said, for the previous four years, I had been doing various jobs around the Middle East and East Africa. Or to put it more honestly, I had not been living in London since I had woken up on the morning of my thirtieth birthday and decided to quit my stable, better-than-averagely paid job in the City to become a ‘hippie do-gooder.’ At least that was what my dad called it anyway. A sentiment shared by my sister though she preferred the term ‘attention-seeking cock’. It was the first time in my life when I witnessed them actually agree on something. On the surface, everything in my life probably looked ideal, even aspiring. The thing about growing up playing strategy board games is, despite significantly diminishing the probably of losing your virginity before you are at least forty-one, it does make you better than average at calculating probability and the maths behind each roll of the dice. I, therefore, spent my twenties working for an investment bank, got paid enough to afford the mortgage on a nice flat in North London, and to most people – my dad (happily), my sister (begrudgingly), my friends from university and my friends from work – I must have seemed set to continue climbing the corporate ladder for the next twenty to thirty years.
My dad was in the same job his entire life. And he loved it. He was an academic and writer who wrote books on Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, lectured at a London university, and would occasionally be asked to appear on Radio 4 for some literature-themed documentary. ‘How can you write books – i.e. plural – about Fitzgerald when he only wrote four, of which two were s