When it rains in Hemingway it’s a precursor to something awful happening.
In A Farewell to Arms, Catherine articulates this fear to Henry declaring, ‘I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see myself dead in it. And sometimes I see you dead in it.’ It doesn’t end well.
In the summer of 2013 I was inter-railing with friends after we’d graduated. There was a torrential downpour on our last day in Prague. Caught outside of the city in shorts and t-shirts, we walked back to the centre much to the amusement of a slimy shop owner who cawed after us – “cute girls, so wet!” – while belly laughing. Having narrowly avoided sharing our hostel room with some burly Russian blokes by initiating an elaborate bed-muss improvisation plan, we settled in for an early night. At 6am the next morning I received the worst phone call of my life.
There’s nothing like sitting in Terminal 2 at Heathrow when a member of your family is close to death to make you realise the futility of material possessions. I was forcing down a Boots meal deal, trying to decide – in the likely event of throwing up – which shop choice would have the most impact. Mulberry? Gucci? It felt surreal to be surrounded by so much stuff when I was so empty inside. That expression ‘to be a shell of a person’ doesn’t really do justice to what I was feeling, to what I still feel. It’s like your viscera are being scraped out with a tiny toothpick. It’s like there’s a piece of you that’s irretrievably missing.
Revisiting my diary from that time it’s all medical notes. A record of meetings with doctors, surgeons, nurses. Charts. Stats. Not personal. For months it was a case of existing in the most basic way possible, to do the bare minimum to keep going. Staring across the hospital car park on a particularly dark day, I looked at the university I’d just left. Concrete, solid, full of knowledge; it was always somewhere I’d felt comfortable and so I committed to another year of study.
As the acuteness of a trauma fades there’s an aftermath, which is worse in a way. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my mam. I did lose everything as I once knew it. When I hung up to pack my bags and hurry home after I’d received the news she was ill, I became a different person; that’s not an experience I’ve necessarily had time to reconcile with
A year later, a group of friends and I are in the pub on an unremarkable Friday celebrating our final weekend together before everyone moves onto pastures new. We’re knocking back out-of-date beer from the top-shelf because it’s cheap and because no one here has a real job – unless you count M—- who ghostwrites essays for a suspect proofreading company. To make matters worse, we’ve innocently crashed a private event and the birthday girl can be no more than nineteen. Sir Duke is on loop. The area between the picnic benches is a tangle of limbs and dreadlocks. We feel conspicuous and world-weary and old in comparison. From an outsider’s perspective, the whole gaudy ritual is comical. Maybe it’s because we’re collectively miserable.
It’s possible I’m projecting because I’m mulling over another, very fresh goodbye – one inevitable in hindsight. It’s a strange kind of calm that arrives in fully comprehending just how much a relationship (of any definition) can take from you – not only in terms of borrowed paperbacks. Lover. Confidant. Friend. These are roles I’d adopted quite willingly for someone I earnestly cared about, except without much thought as to how they were affecting me. I’ve found respite in the realisation that I won’t have to fulfil these often-ambiguous roles anymore. There is a lingering, unavoidable sadness to every ending – unless you’re a robot or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. And I’m sure in this case there’s anger too. For me there’s also a great sense of relief.
We decide it’s time to leave when a partygoer in exceptional harem pants – who has wrestled the microphone from one of the “DJs” – announces gleefully, “BOYS TO THE RIGHT. GIRLS ON THE LEFT! GO!” As everyone reshuffles we sneak out to Roxanne by The Police. Ah, Roxanne! The drinking game that put my sixth-form boyfriend on the social map after he blew kaleidoscopic chunks, leading to an indefinite parentally-enforced house arrest. It’s been five years since left I school. I still have no idea where I’m headed.
I love The Bell Jar. It will always be my steadfast second favourite novel. If that’s clichéd, I don’t care. Plath describes the possible choices in Esther’s life as the branches of a fig tree – she could be an amazing editor, a famous poet, a brilliant professor. She could travel, have a family, encounter many lovers. She writes:
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped tothe ground at my feet.
This passage has forever resonated with me only – at this moment in time – there are no figs. They’ve all dried up, or so it appears. Your early twenties are billed as an era of excitement. Well, according to my experiences, they need to be rebranded; ‘flailing’ rather than ‘flourishing’ is the best description. At twenty-three I’m standing on a precipice with a chorus of internal voices pressuring me to jump into the unknown and cling onto everything! Anything! The first sort-of half-reasonable life-decision that comes my way! I’m going to resist.
Back to Friday. We’ve moved on to a different venue. There’s craft beer. Folk music. Conversation has become strained. I think we’re silent because “goodbye” is dense in the air. I’m finding it difficult not to breakdown; not because of the pressures of our final assignment or the recognition that I’ve been running on empty for so long but, because these are my friends who – without exaggeration – have kept me sane and safe throughout an abysmal shit storm of bad luck and unpleasantness. The sound of the band coasts towards us; they’re awful. The lights of the Ouseburn Valley seem to dim. I find small consolation in the shared quietness – after this evening, even if we can’t be in the same physical space, we’ll be together in our uncertainty. We’re all lost and equally resolute in trying to make life work, for each other and ourselves.