by Mike Fox
The first time it happened I didn’t make the link. I put it down to the panoramic view across the flat Somerset plains and the sharp, gusting winds, both unknowable at ground level. Before I was ill, if I thought of it at all, I would have said the act of ascending is about leaving things behind. Perhaps that’s part of it, but I realise now it’s also about what can be known again, but differently.
I’m reminded of this as I sit writing. In the small, steep-walled garden beyond the window to my right, a drama is playing out. A pair of robins perch on the highest trellising. They make quick, agitated movements. Beneath them, on the ground, is a fledgling, new to flight. At one point the hen swoops down to feed it a worm. The older birds disappear and come back. The fledgling is still there. It flies about thudding into things, then wavers unsteadily, gathering itself. It can fly straight, or even in a slight upward trajectory, but it isn’t strong enough to achieve altitude, to find a place in high branches, to be nearer the sky.
Or so I think. Suddenly it lifts its gaze, as if to point itself. There’s a tremulous flap of its tiny ragged wings before it shoots up to perch unsteadily on top of the wall, where surely it is free.
I find myself rejoicing. I remember the feeling when my lungs finally allowed me to climb the Tor again. For a while that was all I’d hoped to do. If you spend long enough in an isolation ward you start to dream about being outside. Literally dream about it. The nurses said it was normal. But my dreams were very specific. I dreamt of being high up, away from anyone, able to look down on those level fields stretching out, taking my eye to the distance.
I imagine that the tiny bird and I share the same spirit. Our will has borne us upwards, after a struggle. I was tended by medical staff, she by her parents, both of us involved in survival. Or something more. After the first climb, leaning against the cold stone of the tower, I felt a mild euphoria. And I saw things. But not what was in front of me. Later, I wondered if I’d had some sort of peak experience. Perhaps, when you’ve been confined for weeks on end, freedom can act like a drug.
‘Sounds like a jazz high.’
My friend Rachel played jazz professionally before emphysema stopped her. She visited me in hospital, knowing what it was like to flounder for breath, and now we meet most weeks.
‘Your breathing has been shallow for so long, then you work your way up that steep hill and the pattern’s different – fast inhalation, slow drawn-out exhalation. It lifts you. I used to get it playing sax.’
Rachel has begun to teach me pranayam, and we talk a lot about breathing.
I’m sure she’s right – she really knows her stuff. But I’ve done it several times now. The images only come when I get to the peak, and then only if I find myself alone. They arrive like a culmination, and seem to need privacy.
Illness, if it goes on long enough, becomes its own world. Life contracts into a small space. A point can arrive when you regret what has gone and fear what’s to come. But then, with luck, you get better, though by the time that happens you might find yourself changed.
‘Convalescence used to mean “to grow strong”. It still should mean that.’
Rachel says this at the end of one of our sessions. We are seated on cushions opposite one another. My spine is straight, and aches slightly. The exercises she was taking me through are over, but our breathing is still synchronised, and probably our pulses too. Illness has taught us to notice things that normally just happen.
The following day, as I climb the Tor, I think of her definition. Certainly my legs are getting stronger, and now I’m confident I can reach the top. But I find myself shrouded in low-lying mist, and the peak, with its high, ancient tower, is obscured.
Perhaps convalescence is like this too. Healing allows you to believe. You can’t yet visualise a world beyond illness, but you know it’s there. I’m told that I’ve lost lung capacity, but can regain it. I’ll be able to breathe as I once did. The scarring will eventually melt into soft, elastic flesh, welcoming of life.
‘You don’t have to stick to the path if it’s too hard,’ Rachel says. ‘Walk in a zigzag and it won’t feel so steep.’
It’s good advice. If a goal feels elusive you can approach it obliquely. But I walk straight and slow in the early summer morning, and it’s fine.
When I reach the top I find I’m alone. No need to share the silence, if such a thing is possible – so much recent solitude has made me wonder if silence can be anything other than private. I’m looking down on cloud, which obscures sound as well as vision, and there’s no wind.
It begins to happen.
By now I know what to expect. I will find myself back in situations; times and moments I’d forgotten, or wished to forget. But this isn’t just memory, it’s as if I’m actually there, though not as a single being. Instead I’m both participant and onlooker: the person I was and the person I am.
‘Remember your breathing when you get to the top.’
Rachel has taught me to measure each breath, control it, and then allow it freedom as it leaves my body. I take time to do this. It clears my mind, as she said it would.
You’ve got here, but it’s not the end.
Where does this thought come from? What does it mean? I hear it as speech, but don’t recognise the speaker’s voice.
Then I’m taken back. There’s a small boy alone in a room. He’s crying. The door is closed and he reaches for the handle, but it’s too high for him. The door isn’t locked, but might as well be. His breath oscillates between his throat and upper chest, as if it won’t go any deeper. I stand in the far corner of the room and begin to breathe for him. I can do this because we are one person. Before long he ceases to struggle, then sits down on the carpet. Soon he’s talking quietly to people or things he imagines around him. I leave him like that.
The next time I see Rachel I tell her. She nods. ‘Sometimes I’ve seen that boy in your face,’ she says. ‘You’ve gone back to when it all started.’
I think about this later. When I was really ill I felt like someone else’s purpose, a child in an adult’s body. By the time I left, the nurses who cared for me seemed, not like friends, but something much deeper. I wonder what part of me they were healing.
‘They’ve taught you to be your own purpose,’ Rachel says.
In a dream that night the small bird revisits my garden. I can see it’s unafraid. The walls are just as steep as in reality but the garden is no longer a prison, just somewhere it can choose to spend time. Birds, I’m told, have memories. They return to the same places, even the same nests, season upon season. They seek what they most know. Whatever the small bird remembers about the garden, it has ceased to be tainted by fear.
I go back to the hospital. I choose to return. I take flowers and chocolates. The lift climbs to the ward that became my involuntary home. I reach the entrance, press the buzzer, and someone I can’t see opens it to admit me. A couple of nurses recognise me and smile. They thank me for my gifts, but now their attention is elsewhere, as I can see it needs to be. Before they walk away I ask if anyone is in my room—I came to think of it as mine—and could I see it? They say it’s been prepared for an admission, but I’m welcome to go in if I put on a plastic apron. They seem surprised that I want to.
I walk down the corridor, pull an apron from the dispenser on the wall, and tie it round me clumsily. The door is open and I step into the room. It’s uncluttered and sterile. I remember that the windows are above head height for someone lying in bed, and that if I looked out of them I could see only sky. Sky was the only thing I could see, and it was unattainable. I realise that this thought restricts my breath, even now.
‘Just imagine you’re breathing into my hand. The mind follows the breath, and the breath follows the mind.’
I’m lying on the floor, and Rachel has her palm on my abdomen. She has asked me to picture myself back in that white, barren room – to imagine I’m there, able to breathe freely. I start to do this but instead find myself in another room. It’s familiar – I recognise it immediately. I’m a small boy reaching for a door handle. I look up and suddenly know it will always be beyond my grasp. But my only choice is to keep reaching.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion and Footnote, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His story The Homing Instinct first published in Confingo, has been selected to appear in the Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye was recently published by Nightjar Publications as a limited-edition chapbook.
Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.