Dead Flag Blues

Every time I listen to this song, I go back to that time. I’ll have it on a loop, for the duration of rereading King’s ‘The Stand.’

“I said, ‘Kiss me, you’re beautiful; these are truly the last days.’
You grabbed my hand, and we fell into it, like a daydream, or a fever.”

It was winter 2010; a few days after the first dumping of snow. You know the kind I’m talking about. It had already frozen to the roads by that point, after several nights of sub-zero temps. That day was one of respite; we had only had snow in the afternoon, not from first light.

I’d set off below a sky the colour of steel and brass, picking my way carefully along the pavement, placing each boot flat and yet still skidding slightly every few seconds with my heart lunging in my chest. My skin, below the multiple layers, goosebumped up with that age-old fear of falling down, of splintered bones. Mine in particular are susceptible to this; it’s been a few years since I had a DEXA scan, and to be honest, I don’t want to know what condition my skeleton is in now, after years of abuse to it.

I used my umbrella as a poke-stick, testing the ground for pockets of black ice. Wherever possible, I’d walk in the slushy side of the road, dodging back onto the pavement as cars shushed past. At that time of the morning, they were few and far between. I slowly made my way out of the village where I lived at the time, setting off in the direction of the nearby town. It was over 3 miles to walk; not a problem on a normal day, but this was something else entirely. It’s not often that I’ve begun a walk with my joints locking up from cold, and ended it with my hat and scarf combi pulled off, sleeves up, sweat rolling down my back and off the ends of my hair into my eyes.

As I moved away from civilization, the road wound its way up the steady incline. It’s a long, solitary climb, and one I recall fondly now, with extra rose-tinting; innumerable times I was bashed by every sort of wind possible, cut to ribbons by rain slicing in off the Beacon in the distance, with the cold stashing itself under my skin. Those were the harsh days; others were full of lazy gold light, and my ambling feet heading home towards the setting sun. I loved the extremes of weather, the unpredictability, which mirrored my own temperament.

That day, the air was still enough to be frozen solid, like the ground. Great green claws of grass hung over each side of the narrow road, locked in ice. The hedges were blue-white. The Downs in the distance mounded themselves up into the brassy sky – wreathes of mist, like dragon’s breath, skirled over them. All lines were blurred; the only things picked out in sharp relief were those blades of grass. It was like looking at everything from the corner of the eye; all colours muted by the cold.

I listen to this song and remember that morning, that achingly slow walk, which caused me to sweat so much despite the sub-zero air; the effort of climbing the hill, my feet barely finding grip enough to stand, let alone walk. Cars crawled on the road beside me, tyres spinning as helplessly as the words spat out behind the windscreens. I witnessed countless RTC’s that Winter, almost every one on that stretch of hill. Black ice is a murderer with a keen eye and careless heart.

When they said, Repent! I wonder what they meant?

An incident occurred at work the other day; a job involving a self-harming woman. It reminded me of the first time I had to deal with a self-harmer, other than myself of course: a young woman with whom I shared time in hospital. She suffered a similar illness to me, along with several other mental health issues; her wires were crossed. She could be sweet as blackberry pie, and just as bitter if bitten the wrong way. She had no one left in the world who cared. When I first met her, as she came onto our ward, she was very nearly dead.

She started to get better, as we all did eventually, when the system worked its “magic”. But as the body heals with the mind, emotions long buried will come to light. The therapy is there to help patients deal with these purposefully-repressed feelings, but sometimes it’s not enough of an intervention. Sometimes, the feelings well up too quickly. Flashbacks are never a wonderful experience.

This girl had been triggered by something that evening; I believe it was an argument with her primary nurse. The first I knew about it were the raised voices down the main corridor; then the girl blasting her way up towards me, as I stood outside the laundry room door.

She dove past me into the room, and – figuring she was having a quiet sulk/cry – I thought to poke my head around the door. Or at least I tried to, for the door was shoved open, and she came clattering out again. I saw the wink of glass in her hand, the bulbous shape of an empty jam jar. It took my mind a couple of seconds to grasp what she was up to.

I chased her up the corridor, and still thank Whoever for my sprinters’ legs. I got my shoulder and half my torso in the bathroom door before she could slam it shut. That hurt. Those things are reinforced fire-doors; pretty difficult to break down. She’d already smashed the jar on the floor inside. I remember the winking shards in the stark light. I didn’t have the breath to scream at her to stop.

It didn’t matter; I was yanked out of the door by the orderlies, who’d followed at a pretty fast clip behind me. They hustled in and held her down, carried her out – she was tall, very thin, but with a frightening wiry strength, and gave them everything she had, screaming blue murder all the while.

I wanted to find a dustpan and brush to clean up the glass, but the staff nurses wouldn’t let me; I didn’t understand why at the time. Not until the shock had worn off.

That girl only had minor cuts to her hands and forehead in the end – she had an awful OCD habit of slamming her forehead against walls, doors and mirrors, as a form of self-flagellation. It could’ve been worse. But I don’t like to think about that.

I still wonder where she is now, if she’s still alive; how long they kept her in for. I was released before she was. I hope she made it out, and let the hair on her forehead grow back.

I still dream about that place. Only 7.5 months inside, on a locked ward, but it was enough. It’s the reason why I lift my face to sunshine, with a smile; why I jump up and swipe at clumps of leaves on trees, become excitable and run for no reason at all on windy days. Why I walk through the twilight and feel at home, and feel soothed to hear bolts being drawn back from locks. I remember a time when these things were a commodity; when the majority of air I breathed was recycled corridor-air.

No one ever again underestimates the power of fresh air, grass underfoot, sunshine on the face, locks on door to be opened and closed at will, once they’ve known their absence. That’s one of the main reasons I recall hospital-time frequently, so as not to become complacent.
To remember where I once was, how it felt and what thoughts I had – who I knew, and know still, in my dreams. How things could’ve been, had I not tried to find a way out.

I am the evolved Me, who should have been here some time ago.


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