Joined Up - Section 2

Chapter 5: I’ll still destroy you

Is it possible to have a soundtrack to depression? The thing about depression is that once you’re out of it, you’re out of it. You’re suddenly like everyone else again. It’s very difficult to describe what it is like at its peak. When you start thinking rationally it is almost impossible to put into words the processes in your mind that make you feel worthless – that you would prefer not to live.

This might just be my experience, but I would not describe what I felt as sadness. It is not like the feeling you get when you listen to a depressing song. We all feel sad and melancholic at times but this was something more. It’s like feeling so empty you can’t bear one more day carrying around with you that expanse of nothingness.

The days before Easter weekend there was this intense paranoia and self-loathing. A voice shouting how worthless I am, how everything is my fault. It was like this switch flipped and I would hear it over and over. Flaws and failings. That’s it. Numbness and supersensitivity because every little thing would be evidence of my worthlessness. I might go out with you if you still had your flat. My friends are everything to me. Throw away comments from Sarah, but I somehow saw them as evidence of my inadequacy and let them ruminate until something in me broke.

When I was transitioning through my teens, from the Games Workshop-obsessed board-gamer to what was effectively a wallflower at the cool kids’ house parties, I traded up my little painted orcs and druids for music – rare albums on vinyl and an acoustic guitar – in an attempt to make myself cool. I had thought an obsessive knowledge of indie and rock music would be the key to getting girls to notice me. After all, did not all women secretly want to be the girlfriend of a budding rock star?

No, not all women apparently, and of those who did, the majority seemed to prefer global superstars to a seventeen-year-old whose greatest musical achievement was covering two Ocean Colour Scene songs.

My bedroom at Loughborough Road was the converted attic. With Katie finally gone to bed, I quietly passed her door and climbed our second staircase. I switched on only my small bedside lamp and put on my headphones. The album on my turntable was Sleep Well Beast by The National. Those not interested in indie music, Pitchfork or post-punk, would not have heard of them, and I have no desire in going all High Fidelity. Let’s just call them an American rock band, now in their 40s, who sport suits and cardigans rather than tattoos or ripped jeans, and won a GRAMMY in the Music for Solitary Men Approaching Middle Age Who Take Themselves Too Seriously sub-genre.

This would be the way I would spend my evenings that summer and into autumn; lying on the bed, letting my stereo play, in my quaint little attic room, which I had converted into an emotional sanctuary. Before Sarah and I had so destructively parted on Easter Thursday, I had already planned to squat at Dad’s house. Technically, the house was meant to stay vacant until probate had been decided – that was the agreement Ellie and I had made with the potential new owner. But at the time I was sub-renting at my fourth Airbnb in a five-person house share. The Sarah situation was already going south and I desperately needed time alone. After our argument, I felt alive with vindication, that she was the one in the wrong, she was the one who had led me on, she was the one with the pathological need to be adored. At least that was what my head was partially saying. Another voice was also telling me what had happened was all my fault. I was in my mid-thirties, homeless, with no prospects, in a job I had no passion for and with hardly any friends or family anymore either. Sarah did not want me because, put simply, I was not good enough for her.

This one’s like your sister’s best friends. In the bath. Calling you to join them.

The song played through my headphones as I looked up at the skylight above my head. It had its blackout blind drawn, but I occasionally saw it flicker as air would get through the seal. I should be too old for transcribing song lyrics and ascribing meaning to them, but please humour me.

We all need something at times. A quirk, a place to go or perhaps a hobby that completely and solely belongs to us, and no one has to understand or needs to know. ‘Scott, I’d like you to make a list,’ Camille said during our first session. ‘Of all the little things that bring you joy. Be it a favourite meal, a place you like visiting, something you used to really enjoy doing. Then give yourself permission to go out and do them.’ I think Camille had meant a walk around Highgate cemetery, or sitting in a Chinatown restaurant at lunch, or watching an old film just to feel something akin to myself again. All these were on my list. But so was this song.

This one’s like your sister’s best friends

Having a popular older sister with a set of pretty, well-developed friends, who would spend countless days sitting around the house, was a source of both fascination and self-conscious anxiety growing up. I’m sure they knew I would stare at them, especially which part of them my eyes would find themselves resting on. Rather than nurture my confidence with women, I became all too aware I was Ellie’s geeky younger brother with thick glasses who built models of orcs and warriors in his bedroom. But it was a homely image. And like many a man growing up with an older sister, I very much related to that lyric. It reminded me of simpler times.

There were other lyrics like it. I have no idea where The National stand on copyright infringement but sometimes depressing songs can be just the antidote you need for battling depression. Each line transported me away from that friendless attic room and back to a part of my life I found altogether more reassuring.

This one’s like your mother’s arms…

When I began sorting through some of Dad’s belongings I found the photographs of all our old holidays. We were at the seaside. Mum looked so young. She was ridiculously beautiful. She probably still is. I guess having one of your parents leave is not overly uncommon these days so that feeling of abandonment and longing can be considered pretty much universal. Perhaps too those feelings of regret and nostalgia when you look back to a simpler time when everything seemed so perfect, or at least compared to those weeks, months and years after when there was an unspoken hole in our lives.

It was only a song. I stared up at the sloping ceiling and the attic skylight. The never completely pitch black London sky kept creeping through the sides of the blind. There was one line though, which reminded me of Dad. I was back at our old house and inside our conservatory. It was a summer night and Dad was scoring into slices of orange peel and dropping them into glasses. ‘It’s the oils, you see,’ he explained, adding a precisely measured amount of gin and topping it with tonic. He did make the best gin and tonics. When I was old enough to join him, we would sit there in these large wicker chairs with the conservatory doors open and look out on the garden as if the world and all its problems were a million miles away; this one’s like the wilderness. Without the world. I’m gonna miss the long nights, with windows open.

I don’t think depression is brought on by one single event like my argument with Sarah. As I would lie on my bed that spring and summer, most notably after my sessions with Camille, I thought back to those memories brought on by that song. What they all had in common was I was a little bit sad in each. The awkward teenager whose sister despised him and lacked friends of his own, let alone a girlfriend. The small boy whose mother was one moment loving and then absent the next. And the thirty-something whose best friend was a man in his mid-sixties who had left him too. It all felt a culmination. Like I said, it’s not exactly rational. The sky is getting white. I can’t find a lighter anywhere, I’m going crazy. But I’m not crazy. Perhaps that was the line in the song that made me love it. It was the only one who told me at the time that I was not crazy.

I was still fully dressed, but I closed my eyes, wrapped my duvet around me and switched off my lamp. I imagined depression as a young child standing with their heels against the wall having their height measured. I imagined it growing with me as I got older, a friend from childhood, in the room as I stood awkwardly staring at my sister’s friends, watching over me in the days after Mum left, at the drinks cabinet as I stared at Dad’s empty chair. Someone familiar, even nostalgic. Each time that little bit taller.

I then saw depression back in April hovering in the shadows at Dad’s house as I took the first of the pills. A mythical Golem, lurking in the corner of every room, waiting, biding its time.

I woke up with a start as my phone buzzed loudly. Since Sarah and I had stopped speaking my phone was largely devoid of messages, especially late-night ones. Reaching over, I wondered if it was her, perhaps one last message, maybe she missed me now I was gone. I am not saying I would have welcomed a reunion with Sarah, but there are times when I did look back at those early days and did miss some form of human connection. Or perhaps it was my mobile network informing me I had run out of data again.

It was not Sarah. Or Vodafone. But a message from Mike, my brother-in-law.

You might want to go to the house tomorrow. Orletta’s been in touch.

Chapter 6: Our House…

When I arrived back in the country for Dad’s funeral, it was Mike who did all the driving back and forth between Brighton and London, helping with arrangements and carrying messages between Ellie and me. It was also Auntie Pam who did her usual stalwart job of seeing us through, getting us into line and somehow knowing the ins and outs of burying not just my father but her younger brother. That was something we took for granted over the years: Auntie Pam’s steadfastness. She was the opposite of Mum in that respect. She had had a distinguished career as a senior anthropologist working all her life for the Royal Society. She was married once, had no children, but seemed far more content to dedicate her life to order and answering the big questions regarding the origins of man.

Growing up, we were the children who were permitted to run wild and free. However, a visit to Auntie Pam had us doing chores and eating pea soup for dinner – all chocolate was confiscated at the front door. ‘I won’t have them running around on sugar and e-numbers. You might as well be feeding them rat poison,’ was one of her popular sayings. She was divorced and, as I said, had no children of her own. Only us, and we were not too thrilled at the time by the association. But what you dread when you were younger becomes a comfort as you grow older. Auntie Pam was always there for us and even more so when Ellie and I drastically let her down that Christmas Eve a year ago.

The service was at eleven o’clock – prayers at St Augustine’s and then to the cemetery. Our family solicitor – Auntie Pam’s first husband – told us Dad had left wishes for such a day, he was to be buried for eternity underneath the ground eight miles from our family home. That was its own relief as making decisions would have involved Ellie and me having to communicate, but, at the time, we seemed to both find comfort in each other’s absence.

It had been six months since we last saw each other. I was in London for a couple of weeks at the start of the summer, and we had spent a weekend at Dad’s taking the kids to parks and then sitting up drinking wine. When Mike had offered to pick me up from the airport, I had assumed Ellie and I would have some time to sit quietly and talk about Dad. Or if that was too touchy-feely just sit together in silence and try to acclimatise. But she had relayed to Mike that with having to get the kids ready it would be easier to all meet directly at the church. She, Mike and the kids would travel up on the day so I would not see Ellie until the funeral service itself.

In hindsight, it was not unreasonable of Ellie, and if I stepped into her shoes I would see the challenges of trying to balance childcare and grief. But at the time, I felt it gave me the moral high ground as it was her way of having yet another dig at Dad. I remembered those teenage years especially those days before she left for university. All she did was goad him and yell at him and do her very best to humiliate him before abandoning him. And he just allowed it to happen. However, I wasn’t going to let it. Not that day. Not on his last day.

That day was never going to be all sunshine and rainbows, but for those attending, it would forever be remembered for one public spectacle. For me, yes, that moment would mark a low point in my quest for emotional maturity, however when breaking down the day’s events, two other probably more significant developments also occurred. The first was seeing the girl I loved.

It’s funny what we remember. And when. Those Proustian moments that arrive when you are doing nothing more than opening the garden gate to your once family home. I walked up the path looking up at the brickwork and the tall windows. I quietly opened the front door and felt a familiar air flow into my lungs. The hallway, always catching the light in the mornings; the staircase which we would come running down; the entrance to our long sitting room; Ellie’s piano still in pride of place and, just beyond, our dining table, chairs tucked in and placemats still laid out. It was quiet, too quiet, no signs of life in those rooms and I didn’t need to venture forwards to either the kitchen or Dad’s study. Instead, I climbed the stairs and made my way across the landing to what I still referred to as Mum and Dad’s room.

I saw her before entering. She was standing at the window looking out, the floor-length voile curtains blowing in the light wind making her look taller.

‘She’s taken the dresser,’ Ellie said without turning around. ‘And the ottoman. And the chest of drawers. But not any of the shit Dad got from Ikea, funnily enough. And she left the curtains. I guess whatever transport she had was already full from pillaging.’ The room was indeed bare. Spacious and tranquil, and Ellie looked like a ghostly vision as the warm light filled the room, bouncing off the champagne walls. ‘I thought you would be at work,’ she said, again still absently staring out the window. I wondered how long she had been like that. There was no doubt she had seen me lingering in the street outside.

‘I took the day off.’ Not quite a lie.

‘Lucky for some. What is it you do again? It’s so difficult to keep track.’ The first dig. It only took her three sentences. She was good – she knew just where to jab the knives.

‘Ha. For a second you sounded just like Mum.’

We’d not even made eye contact and the passive-aggressive point scoring had begun. I looked around at what had been left behind: the bed and bedside tables, and the wardrobe. In the twenty years since Mum left, Dad had not changed the room one bit. And I never thought about questioning whether that was healthy until now.

‘Fuck this,’ said Ellie, spinning around and walking across the room, past me and out of it. ‘I told Mike I would handle it.’

I followed her onto the landing and down the stairs as she went off on her low-level monologue. ‘I didn’t need him to postpone his session work. And that I didn’t need my little brother tagging along while I sort this mess out.’

‘But it’s not really up to you to decide that is it, Ell?’ Ellie ignored me, ducking her head into each room apparently looking for something. We made it to the kitchen and on the breakfast table was an official-looking letter. She picked it up and thrust it at me.

Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts requests proceedings commence for the clearance of Number 1 Queen Mary Grove in advance of the sale of property,’ I read. ‘All possessions deemed the property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts will enter auction at Southgate Auction House on January 14th 2019. We ask you to hence remove all articles not deemed legal property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts prior to the aforementioned date. All articles deemed property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Robert are listed as inventory on the enclosed annex and any such removal shall be deemed theft…’ I tailed off towards as Ellie stared at me.

‘Did you know her middle name was Imogen?’

Ellie then grabbed a small collection of papers which had been under the letter and thrust them at me too. It was the enclosed annex. For someone who didn’t want me tagging along she seemed pretty insistent I be kept up to date. There were a lot of pages.

‘Hang on, when did she have this done?’ Ellie shrugged. ‘Like, someone’s come in and looked at everything. This page has all of Dad’s books – all of them. There’s…’ I did a rough count of the rows and columns ‘… nine hundred books. None of these are hers. Why does she…’ I suddenly felt agitated seeing everything in the house listed in black and white. ‘But this is everything. There’s a watch I bought him for Christmas here.’

‘Don’t worry, Scott. There’s some shit in the basement she doesn’t want. We can sue each other over that if you like.’

Ellie walked around me and stood at the sink, her back turned again.

‘But… we agreed to wait. That was the whole point of me moving out and mothballing the house. We’d see what probate comes up with and sort things out then.’

‘Yes, Scott, you having to have moved out is the issue here. God forbid a thirty-five-year-old man should have to fend for himself and not still have to live at his parents’.’

Still surveying the list, I heard the tap running and glanced up to see Ellie at the sink pouring herself a glass of water.

‘I called Maxwell. He’s going to drop by and explain our options. But he said on the phone that if it’s got to this stage then Mum’s solicitors are pretty certain probate is now a formality.’

‘Ell, Maxwell’s not even our lawyer. He’s more or less sided with Orletta this whole time.’

‘You’re right, Scott, why don’t we just pool our fortunes and hire some fancy London barrister? Maxwell’s our only bloody option.’

And so summed up the last year of our lives. The low level bickering, constant but consciously never enough to cause a proper scene. After the funeral we tried to get on. In fact the events at the cemetery seemed to bring us closer together. At least for the one hour before Maxwell sat us down in the study and told us about the will. Since then our only point of conversation had been the house and how to stop Orletta – our mother – getting her hands on it. Ellie then snatched the inventory from me. ‘He’ll be here in an hour. I’m going to Dad’s study and see what’s actually mine on this bullshit list. Oh, unless you want us to search for any more little notes you’ve left lying around? Perhaps something to Grandma confessing to war crimes?’

She did have timing, I had to give that to Ellie. Standing across the kitchen, she delivered sarcasm without a trace of the sardonic. But she had brought up the note and I was obliged not to ignore it.

‘Ellie, we should talk about – ’

‘Save it, Scott. Like I said, I really, really don’t care.’

The church was chaos. We had arrived with Dad before Ellie and Mike. After we had settled him inside, Auntie Pam had me standing outside with the Orders of Service. ‘He never liked ceremony,’ said Auntie Pam at my shoulder as we waited, looking down the path where people would be coming from. ‘He hated being late. Even as a boy he would want that time to himself – to survey the scene before all and sundry. He would be happy with today.’

I didn’t know if Auntie Pam was emphasising that point because I had gone quiet. I was in my black suit greeting people who all seemed to know me and whom I vaguely recollected over the years. The majority of the time I was just staring out into the distance at the park over the road until I felt a body press into mine and a kiss on my cheek. And there she was, after seven years. Her yellow hair creeping out from under her hat, the black dress she was wearing making her look older but in such a good way. A beautiful way. This woman standing before me, an echo of the girl I once loved.


‘I’m so sorry, Scott. My parents told me. I tried calling you but…’

‘I don’t have an English number anymore. I forgot to… I basically… How are you?’

‘Tired,’ she said with a careful smile. It was such a pleasure seeing her smile, even on that cold, damp Christmas Eve when everyone in that church should have been sitting at home with their loved ones feeling joyful and not huddled together waiting to say goodbye to someone they all cared about. She looked down at her stomach and the protruding bump.

‘How many months…?’


‘Is it your…?’

‘Second. One girl so far. I think we’re going to stop after this little one.’

‘It’s been…’

‘Seven. Seven years. When I heard I felt I should come. I hope you don’t mind?’

She looked great. She always used to wear her hair long, ever since school, but it looked like it was cut short under her hat. She looked exactly the same yet completely different. A stranger from a dream. Something about her face was suddenly complete, the cuteness and that sweetness I adored as a boy converted into true beauty. We did not part on bad terms after the breakup. We broke up because she was brave enough to sit me down and tell me it wasn’t working – something I already knew. We were never high-school sweethearts. At school she was the only girl to talk to me, largely because she was the only girl in Maths Club and she had asked me how to solve integrations.

We went to the same university but she slotted in perfectly with the boys and girls who ran societies, attended balls and hosted dinner parties, whereas I found my own niche with friends like Joan. We were still friends but lesser friends than school. And then came the return to London and the great leveller. London treated you as irrelevant irrespective of whether you had won re-election to the Student Union council three years in a row or if you had spent four years playing computer games.

We ended up at the same parties. I was always at my best at my drunkest, and I had a job that instantly meant I could afford a nice place to live and to go out without having to worry about savings or being able to afford rent. It was about then that I stopped deliberately looking for her.

In five years of London, post-university living, there was by no means a conveyor belt of young ladies at my door. But there were drunken fumbles, a few overnight guests, and a French quasi-girlfriend who liked staying at mine and was my first experience of weekly sex with the same person.

And then Vicky broke up with her boyfriend. She was alone at a dinner party, and I saw her in the corridor putting on her coat about to leave. I asked her to stay and for the first time in years we had a long chat. We arranged to meet for coffee the next day and catch up on our diverging lives. Coffee then became drinks the following week. Drinks became dinner. And a taxi back to hers became me believing my life was finally complete.

‘How are you coping?’ she asked. ‘How’s Ellie?’

‘Are you coming to the…’ I did not want to say the word. ‘There will be something after, at Dad’s. It will be nice to talk.’ She squeezed my hand and walked into the church.

The service was lovely. I know everyone says that, but it was. It was astonishing all that Auntie Pam had accomplished without the help of Ellie or me. All I remember about the days before the funeral was sitting on the sofa in the living room, various different groups of people around me, and Auntie Pam talking, organising, while I stared petulantly into space quietly seething that Ellie had got away with not being there too. That probably says everything about me: my father had died and all I cared about was my sister having it better than me. And what did I actually do regarding the funeral arrangements? Nothing. There was so much I should have done but Auntie Pam had to step in at the last minute – telling the vicar about Dad so he could say some words about him at the start of the service; deciding on the readings and then contacting Dad’s friends to ask if they would do the honours. Auntie Pam’s first husband, Maxwell, did the eulogy, and it was perfect. He spoke of Dad’s career, his friends, his interests, and how proud he was of both Ellie and me. Maxwell was an excellent speaker and he had people laughing through their tears, exactly what Dad deserved.

Then, to my right at the opposite end of the aisle was Ellie. All in black, and crying. I had only seen her cry probably twice before in my life. Even at the car, when she and Mike arrived, she was more tense than sad, preoccupied with getting the kids sorted, and we just shared a brief nod, ‘alright’ and just as we were heading in she said to me softly, ‘surprised you could make it. Africa’s loss is apparently our gain.’

And now she was bawling, after all she had done and all she had said to him. All of us – Ellie, Dad, me – had somewhat patched things up in the last few years but there did seem to be a correlation between how broke she was and how often she would call or visit. At least that was what I was telling myself standing in the pew watching her as the church sang ‘Amazing Grace’.

By the grave side, she was the same. Unrelenting. We were throwing in a handful of dirt and she shook her head refusing, obviously wanting people to see how emotional she was. The kids didn’t understand. Mike was holding Ed and, as the vicar said his final words, Millie ran off with Mike having to give chase. People started moving away. Auntie Pam was talking to the vicar and suddenly it was just Ellie and me, next to each other, looking down at Dad’s coffin. She was still sobbing.

‘You can tone it down now, Ell,’ I heard myself say. ‘Nobody’s looking anymore.’ She shot me a look. But I stared straight ahead, determined not to see her.

‘You don’t want to overdo it, after all,’ I said again to my crying sister. In the corner of my eye, I saw her take a tissue to her eye. I then heard her say in a hoarse voice,

‘Scott, why don’t you do everyone a favour and go fuck yourself?’ I turned around. Through our entire lives she would always have the last word. But that’s the thing about grief and anger and trying desperately to hold back this intense rage that seemed to have come out of nowhere to run through my whole body: you say things you would normally keep well hidden.

‘Anyone would think you actually gave a fuck about him.’ I mumbled it and then walked away over the wet grass. The ground was soft and my shoes slid in the mud. I made to walk between the headstones to the cars where the rest had gathered. I then felt myself flying forward, my hands catching me as I hit the damp grass pressing into the mud. Flipping myself over I suddenly had Ellie on top of me.

‘You self-righteous little…’ she hissed. I’m not sure if she punched me. I don’t think she did. I think with the wet grass and the anger it was a push with her whole weight – and grief – behind it causing both of us to tumble. But she definitely winded me as her knee landed into my stomach and I then felt her palm press on my mouth hard as she covered it.

‘Shut up! You poisonous… waste of...’ She looked livid. In hindsight, understandably so. I could feel the cold and wet of the grass soaking into my trousers and suit jacket. I also felt a déjà vu of helplessness lying on my back with my sister trying to suffocate me, but now had the indignity of being a six-foot-tall man who had just been flattened by a five-foot-seven, barely one hundred and thirty-pound mother of two. I felt my hand squidge on a patch of mud. I grabbed a handful. As Ellie pressed her fist into my mouth I smeared soft, runny mud across her face, into her hair, reapplying it to nose and cheeks as she pinned me down.