‘What would you say to your younger self?
I get hit with his one morning after group, sweat rolling down my sides in metallic rivers tinged with sour brown coffee. Our lead counsellor sits across from me with that impenetrable cliff face and I feel my handholds giving way. I want nothing more than to call up my folks and fly back to a nest I haven’t been welcome in for years now, liquor-soaked cuckoo. I wonder if anyone from out there in reality has left anything on my phone, a text, a voicemail. I am in the underworld and it smells of chemical floor cleaner and the limp butter-slick Nike soles of everyone on this purgatorial treadmill.
‘Uh, I dunno…Say no to drugs?’
Eyebrow raise, lips tight as a government purse.
‘Come on now.’
So I think back to the little sunshine kid I used to be, fragile, feet made out of blown glass but stumbling on towards adulthood anyhow. Tree climber and river rat, picking bits of Victorian clay pipe out of the water. I found a doll’s head in there once and they told me that liquid body at the end of the garden used to be the garbage heap for the fancy house built further up the road three hundred years ago, that it stretched all the way to the edge of the fields under the foundations of our poor house, so my whole childhood was spent on some graveyard of wealth.
And then I grew older and didn’t fit anywhere, jagged little jigsaw piece full of rebellious sky. I can hear laughter from the yard, smoke break and two sugar tea. There is a guy sitting on the red brick wall in a flat cotton cap with his head in a book. He’s called Onkle here and says he wants to carry on reading me this poetry, it’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde and he wraps his thin little coat around him a little tighter when he reads it despite the late summer heat making the apples on next door’s tree blush. Sometimes I hear him reciting to himself in his room as I walk past, we’re on the top floor of this place, rickety and peeling with one out of service lift shaft and one bathroom for six, and he reads poetry late when the pain and jerking of his legs crying out for heroin chases any sleep away.
‘Listen man, I had a bunch of strange ideas growing up, my younger self weren’t no innocent canvas that just needed a few more hugs to stay on the straight.’
He gives me a look like he can see right inside the leaking cavity of my heart where that wobble-lipped inner kid is wondering why everyone leaves and why the other kids wanna beat up the freak and why is that freak always me and while we’re at it how come daddy never came back and mom returned from the hospital so different and thinking holy shit you whiny little prick maybe you did just need a hug.
‘I wanted to be a priest growing up.’ It just leaps outta my mouth like a rogue fish.
He doesn’t laugh, just takes me in like an oil painting ‘Why?’
‘I guess…’ My fingers twitch and my cigarettes feel like they’re burning a hole in my pocket like my sheer desire to get out of this magnolia interrogation has ignited them all. ‘I always felt devoted to something, God I suppose, like I’ve always been totally drunk on creation long before I got drunk on the other. Someone once told me I had a holy soul.’
‘Do you know much about the Higher Self?’
‘Yeah…I’ve seen some weird shit.’
‘I don’t doubt it.’
And suddenly that kinda liquid fire you get inside your chest with whiskey and confession grabs ahold of me and I want to tell him everything, about that time I met myself as a golden spirit and got taken to see the great river of all souls, about how I saw them passing through a long and starry desert in a line of glowing white before being breathed into a new life through an angel’s mouth. About how I saw pictures of angels in books growing up and those limp-wristed pastel fairies had nothing on this Being towering above the black mountains wreathed in eight fiery wings, bigger than a planet even, eyes full of time.
It dawns on me that I can’t hear laughter anymore, just the slightest summer breeze teasing the beech leaves.
‘Go get some food.’ He nods at my stomach which is bubbling like a mad scientist lab. I need to go alchemize some jacket potato, and then I need to find Onkle and gorge myself on poetry.