By Adam Dixon
Ken opened his eyes slowly. His attempts to retreat back into the safe oblivion of sleep were denied by the sunlight filtering in through his bedroom window. What greeted him that morning was what always greeted him: feelings of self-loathing and despair. He groaned softly, squeezing his eyes shut from the glare of the new day and from the punishments it promised. He fidgeted in his bed, trying to find some source of comfort within his duvet beyond the warmth of his body. There was none to be found and Ken glanced miserably at his digital clock on his bedside table. The neon-green digits declared proudly that the time was 07:11 A.M. Ken groaned again, noting how pathetic it made him sound even to his own ears. You are pathetic, whispered the malicious voice in the back of his head. That voice was often one of the first things he heard during the day, as well as one of the last. It was his own voice, but with a sneering, hateful edge to it. ‘Fantastic,’ thought Ken sarcastically, ‘this is going to be another brilliant day’.
Ken’s mind began to drift as he lay there, drifting to dark places. He felt increasingly as if he was merely a passive bag of meat and bones that was directed according to the whims of his brain. He thought about the torment that a new day could bring him, and a familiar feeling of crippling inadequacy and incompetence began to settle on him like a lead blanket. Why bother waking up at all? The voice seemed amused, as always, and faintly triumphant. He stared miserably at the ceiling, noting dispassionately the cracks in the paint and the stains from a recent leak. Another day with the empty hours extending endlessly before him like a barren stretch of motorway. Could he manage to endure another day like that? Ken didn’t know.
His eyes slid slowly from the ceiling and across his room. He was in the attic of the house, so his room was small and slightly cramped, with exposed beams jutting out from above. His belongings were scattered around without any particular order or thought. His jeans were tangled around the back of his desk chair, one leg drooping sadly a few inches from the floor. His t-shirt was crumpled on the carpet, the creased face of the Darth Vader print gazing forlornly up at him. Various unopened letters lay in a stack on his desk, on top of which sat a half-finished bottle of whiskey. Two more empty ones lay in the waste-paper bin beside the desk. Upon seeing these last objects, Ken’s self-loathing deepened. ‘Great,’ he thought, ‘become an alcoholic while you’re at it too. Why the hell not?’ His untouched medication was still in the white and green pharmacy bag. One box of finest citalopram, courtesy of the NHS. God bless ‘em, eh, Kenny-boy? Oh yes, the voice was definitely amused this morning. Ken had been told that he should to take them, but so far he had ignored that piece of advice. He knew he should trust the drugs, but he still refused to admit that he needed them. Even in his misery he was stubborn.
Looking again at his desk and saw that his mobile phone was flashing. He had set it to silent so that he wouldn’t be disturbed when he eventually managed to sleep. He had seen the screen light up a few times during the night as he lay awake, but he couldn’t summon the motivation to get up and retrieve it. He stared at it for several long minutes. You won’t find anything, the voice mocked, nobody cares enough to contact you. Ken tended to agree, but he decided to check his phone just in case. Sitting up required a herculean effort as Ken felt like his limbs were made of stone, but he managed it and reached over to snatch up his mobile. He instantly slumped back down in bed and held the phone up in front of his bleary eyes. He swiped his screen and saw the tally from the previous afternoon to that morning. Five missed calls and three text messages. So it seemed that some people cared after all. Big deal, the voice scoffed, they tried to call you, so what? None of them understand. Ken sighed, deflated. It was true, nobody who knew him understood what he was going through. They were sympathetic to a point, but Ken could almost hear the doubts forming in their heads and the things they would be saying if they had the nerve speak up. Things like “come on now, Ken, pull yourself together”, or “you’re twenty-one, what have you got to be depressed about?” or his personal favourite “lighten up, mate”. Lighten up? Lighten up?! As if it were so simple! Like the thoughts and feelings in his head could be changed from melancholic to cheerful like flicking a bloody light switch! Some people were so patronising in their ignorance that Ken wanted to scream at them. They didn’t understand, so what was the point of trying?
Unbidden, another voice echoed in his head. This was a woman’s voice, civil if not quite friendly, and authoritative. Remember, Ken, not everyone will be able to understand your feelings. But any who try will be worth having around. Ken grunted, but his contempt was only half-hearted. That had been the voice of Dr Matthews, his counsellor. He had been visiting her sporadically over the last six months, after his friends had begged him to see someone. Ken had expected to come face to face with an old crone when he turned up for his first meeting with her, and he fully expected it to be a waste of time. He had been pleasantly surprised to discover that Dr Matthews was in fact a red-haired beauty in a suit, probably closer to thirty than forty, but that didn’t change the prospects of the meetings in his mind. It had been difficult enough to drag himself out of bed for the damn thing, and he fully believed that he wouldn’t be returning. Strangely, however, he had returned. Dr Matthews had been irritatingly emotionless and almost condescending in her manner, but she had managed to coax a semblance of conversation out of him more than once. Just talking for a few minutes about his pains seemed to alleviate them somewhat, much to his astonishment. Dr Matthews seemed full of those obvious motivational phrases which seemed to come straight from syrupy self-help books, revealing such gems as “it’s okay not being perfect”, or “stars can’t shine without darkness”. The latter almost made him laugh out loud when she said it, except that he could not bring himself to laugh. What kind of watered-down psycho-babble was that? It merely served to cement his notion that Dr Matthews knew absolutely nothing and wouldn’t be able to help him. The stupid bitch would just keep spewing out this drivel in order to earn her salary. As if she really cared about him. Nobody else did, and she was a complete stranger.
Except…she wasn’t a stranger anymore. Not really. After seven or eight sessions with her, Ken had revealed as much information about himself and his struggle with his mind as he could, and that was a damn sight more than most people knew. He had begun to enjoy talking to her, even if he didn’t completely believe she was helping him. Perhaps that was a start. It got him out of the house at least. Just take each day one step at a time, Ken. That’s really all you can do. That was another pearl of wisdom from the good doctor. But that that one made some sense, at least. Sometimes Ken tried to act on that advice, and sometimes it worked and he would get up and actually do something. Nothing earth-shattering, of course, usually just getting out of bed, showering and tidying his room. Sometimes he would even read or talk to his friends online, although never for very long. He found their good spirits hard to bear. He had nearly applied for a part-time job online a few days before, but had backed down at the last moment, his cursor hovering over the ‘APPLY’ button for a tense few minutes. He had even made some progress with his university studies, even though he was still behind. He felt slightly more useful those days, more whole. Perhaps he had Dr Matthews to thank for that. Maybe she wasn’t completely useless.
Something else Dr Matthews had said rattled around in his head whilst he stared at his phone screen. Real friends will listen because they care. Instead of lying around wallowing every day, try calling someone. You may find that they can help you just by starting a conversation. Ken desperately wanted to call back everyone who had left him a message, but his thumb simply hung in the air in front of his phone screen; it was a mute, dumb appendage which failed him this morning. That’s what Ken tried to tell himself, that it was his thumb’s fault this time. He put his phone down in disgust and rolled on to his side to resume gazing around his room without interest. His stomach growled softly. Ken ignored it. Leaving his room to get something to eat was beyond the realm of possibility if he couldn’t even will himself to make a phone call. Just lie here and feel sorry for yourself, the voice sneered from inside Ken’s head, that’s all your good for.
Ken lay in miserable silence for a long time afterwards. He realised after a while that he was caressing his phone screen with his thumb, swiping the menu backwards and forwards and pressing random applications. He stopped, and after a moment’s pause opened his text messages. Two messages were from James, his best friend, and the other was from Chloe, another friend. Ken’s heart fluttered a little as he saw Chloe’s name. That often happened, because Ken fancied the pants off of her. He thought she may have liked him back, but he hadn’t allowed it to progress. After all, why would she want to be with a useless lay-about like him? But still, he liked that she had texted him. Her message was from 20:15 P.M. the previous evening. He opened it. It was short and sweet.
”Hi, Ken! Hope you’re doing alright. Pub some time? Gimme a call when you’re free x”
So, she wanted to meet up. A nice thought, but Ken didn’t see it happening any time soon. He sighed sadly, and opened the messages from James. The first one was predictably lively, sent at 19:25 P.M.
“Alright, mate? Me and a bunch of the guys are heading over to The World’s End in about an hour, so get your head out of your arse and join us, you old hermit! We’ve not seen you in days, and we’re starting to forget just how ugly you are. Come out and remind us!”
At another time Ken would have smiled at this kind of message from James, and more than likely would have sent a witty rejoinder advising him to ask his mother for the reason he hasn’t been seen for days. Following that he would have left the house and joined his friends. Perhaps he would have invited Chloe along too. But now it simply made Ken feel worse, as if he didn’t deserve to intrude on other people enjoying themselves. He saw that the next message from James had been sent at 23:15 P.M. Most likely James had been drunk by this point, and quick check confirmed that three of his five missed calls had been from James, at 21:23, 22:30 and 23:12. This message had come after his third failed attempt to reach Ken. It was not as lively as the earlier text.
“Ken, I know you’re having some trouble. Don’t lock yourself away, mate, it can’t be good for you. Call me if you need someone to talk to, I’ll make the time for you. See you soon, you hermit.”
Ken could have wept. He was slowly losing his ties to his friends through his apathy, and it was soul-destroying. Maybe he should try to contact them, at least to check in with them. He wouldn’t be able to explain his absence, as he could not find words with the depth to do so adequately. He checked his phone again. The two other missed calls were from his mother, at 20:45 P.M and 21:00 P.M. That made Ken feel slightly uplifted, bizarrely, even though he didn’t speak to his mother as often as he used to. He supposed she was worried about him, just like James was. Chloe didn’t really know about Ken’s difficulties, so her contact was just a friendly invitation. Maybe he should call them back. James said he’d make the time…
Ken sat up and dialled James’ number. It was early, but he was clinging to the hope his friend had given him. His heart leapt up as he heard James’ cheerful bass rumble, but sank immediately as he realised his call had gone straight to voicemail.
“Hello! This is James, sorry I can’t come to the phone right now, if you’d like to leave a message I’ll-“. Ken ended the call in disgust. So, James hadn’t really meant it when he had said that he’d make the time talk to him. Part of him knew that this was a little unfair, as James was likely sleeping off his night of carefree drinking, but another part of him didn’t care. This was the stronger side of him, his cynical, pessimistic side. I told you they don’t care, the voice said. Ken gritted his teeth in frustration. It was a moment or two before he realised that the dial tone was sounding from his phone’s speakers, and he saw with dumb horror that he had unconsciously called Chloe. He was about to cancel the call, when he thought better of it. Maybe she would pick up…
No. Her phone rang four times and then went to voicemail. Hers wasn’t even personalised. She had rejected the call. Again, the ever-shrinking voice of reason within him suggested that it was still early and perhaps he had woken her up…But the spiteful voice drowned it out completely. See! She doesn’t care either! Ken wondered why he had been cursed with a psyche which was so thrilled by his own pain. It was enjoying this! He whimpered and swung his bare legs out and over the edge of his bed. Surely someone would talk to him? It seemed so unfair, to be foiled right when he had finally summoned the courage to speak for the first time in days!
Dr Matthews! He could call Dr Matthews’ office and see if she was at work already. He knew it was a slim chance, but she was a professional, wasn’t she? Surely someone would be able to direct his call to her? He dialled the number for her office and listened with bated breath as it rang. It rang, and rang, and rang. Ken groaned with impotent anger as the precise, business-like voice of his counsellor’s secretary answered:
“Hello, this is Dr Matthews’ office. I’m sorry, but there is currently no-one available to take your call. Please call back during our opening hours, which are-“. Ken spat out a vulgar curse as he cut off the automated message. So, even the good doctor was unreachable? Fat lot of good she was to him! Just when he had begun to like her too…
Ken got out of bed and stood still, holding out his phone with a shaking hand. There was one more person he could call, who surely, surely, would want to talk to him. She was always up early, always. He breathed deeply with his eyes closed, composing himself and forcing down his rising dread and panic. You’ll regret this…the voice jeered at him.
“Shut up!” Ken cried, realising how ludicrous it was to be answering his imagination. He glared at the phone again, and then he called his mother. His free hand found his mouth, and he began gnawing on his fingernails anxiously. The phone rang once. Twice. Three times. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine…
Ken stood very still as fresh waves of despair began to creep into his body like a virus. Calling his mother had been supremely difficult, even more so than calling his friends or Dr Matthews’ office, and so to be ignored by her as well was so much worse. He let his phone drop to the floor as his grip loosened, the thud as it hit the carpet sounding far away. Hurt, angry tears followed it, spilling unbidden from Ken’s eyes. Dr Matthews had been wrong. Nobody cared enough to answer his calls, not even the red-haired bitch herself. He hated her deeply as he realised this, and he was once again hopelessly devoid of direction. He was alone, adrift in a sea of misery with no land in sight.
As he cast his eyes around his prison-like room once again, his gaze fell upon something near his window. There, on top of his wardrobe, with one end draped over its edge and hanging seductively, was a black tie. Ken stared at the tie, vaguely recalling that it was part of a suit set he had bought recently to wear for job interviews. The last time Ken had used it had been a week or so beforehand; he had given up on the idea of going out one evening whilst he was half-way through dressing himself. He had slung the tie vaguely in the direction of the wardrobe and there it had remained, forgotten. Until now.
With his tears glistening on his cheeks, Ken took a step towards the wardrobe. He was still staring at the tie, marvelling at how much it resembled a thin snake lounging casually in its domain. He took another step, his legs seeming to move by themselves. He passed his desk and his left hand found the back of his office chair. He gripped the edge of it and pulled it along with him, its wheels squeaking in protest. Or perhaps in alarm. It didn’t matter, Ken was oblivious to it. The only thing he was focused on was the black tie. The long, serpentine, seductive tie. As he drew nearer to the wardrobe he reached out his right hand slowly and pulled the tie from its resting place. It slithered off of the wood with a sound like a silken whisper, or a sigh of relief.
As Ken looked at the tie now safely in his grasp, he became aware of how fast his heart was beating. It was hammering against his chest like a lunatic throwing himself against the door of a padded cell. He could almost feel the blood rushing through his veins, accelerated cells vibrating with anticipation. Do it, whispered the voice in his head, you’re worthless anyway, and no-one will miss you. Ken whimpered slightly, blinking through his tears as he approached his window. He dragged his chair, which was still squealing its protest, directly in front of it and stepped up on to the seat. The chair groaned slightly under his weight and leaned to the left, but Ken kept his balance. With oddly steady hands Ken pulled his curtains shut, blocking out the morning sunshine and his small view of the world beyond. He cast one end of the tie upwards, watching it rise lazily into the air and over the wooden beam above his head. It came back down and hung limply in front of his face. He felt that it was almost expectant.
In his dazed mind-set, Ken briefly wondered if he should leave a note, but dismissed it instantly. That would mean delaying his chance to escape his torment for the benefit of those who didn’t care enough to help him when he needed it most. No, they would just have to deal with the outcome of their neglect. It was their fault anyway. Grimly, Ken slipped one end of the snake-like tie over the other and knotted it tightly. He then slid the knot upwards with a sharp tug so that it settled against the wooden beam. At least the Scouts wasn’t a complete waste of time, the voice scoffed gleefully, but Ken was unable to appreciate the dark humour in its words. He took a deep breath and carefully turned around on the unsteady chair so that he faced away from the window. He closed his eyes and tied the other end of the tie around his throat.
“I wanna be the very best, like no-one ever was…”
Ken’s eyes snapped open. The theme from ‘Pokémon’ filled his ears, with the low murmur of vibration accompanying the music. It was his mobile; someone was calling him. He didn’t even realise that he had turned the sound back on. He must have done it whilst he was fiddling with his mobile earlier on. Too late, sneered the voice in his head, but Ken cast his eyes down on to the carpet regardless. He couldn’t read the text from the caller I.D., but the picture on-screen was clear enough. It was his mother. She was calling him back. She’s too late! The voice screamed at Ken, you can’t back out now, it can all be over!
But Ken ignored it. With a plaintive cry, he tore the half-knotted tie from his throat and leaped from the chair, his sudden motion sending it crashing to the floor. He landed awkwardly and twisted his ankle. He swore loudly in pain and crawled on his knees towards his phone. He snatched it up desperately, swallowing a sob before slamming his thumb down on the ‘answer’ button with feverish strength. With shaking hands he lifted the phone to his ear.
“H-hello?” his voice quavered as he spoke. He hardly dared to hope.
“Ken! Hello, darling!” His mother’s chirpy, high-pitched voice assaulted his ears like honey-filled water balloons, shocking him intensely but oozing sweetness and life afterwards. It occurred to Ken that hers was the first real voice he had heard that day aside from his own, voicemail messages and malicious imaginings notwithstanding. It felt so good that Ken almost wept with gratitude.
“I’m sorry I missed your call, my love, but I was helping your father in the garden. Well, by ‘help’ I mean bringing him a cup of tea and telling him off for starting so early. I mean, honestly, who in their right mind starts weeding at half-past seven in the morning? But you know what he’s like, never one to waste the sunshine!” She broke off with an affectionate chuckle. To Ken it was like a damp cloth gently mopping his fevered brow.
“Anyway, love, how are you?” his mother continued. “I tried your mobile last night but I imagine you were out and enjoying yourself!” Ken looked guiltily over at the whiskey bottles decorating his desk. He cleared his throat carefully. His mother was mostly in the dark about how bad things were for him, and so he spoke cautiously.
“Yeah, I know you did,” his voice only cracked slightly this time. He hoped it just sounded as if he had recently woken up. “Sorry I missed it, I was…busy. I’m fine though, thanks.” The lie was an easy one to tell; it was well-rehearsed and barely required thought anymore.
“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Ken could almost sense his mother’s doubts. It was true what they said: a mother knows.
“I just thought I’d check up on you anyway. You know that I like to know what you’re getting up to. So does your father, of course, but he’ll never bother to pick up the phone to talk to you himself. I swear that it must be some kind of male pride rubbish. None of you ever call one another directly, and you only know that you’re all still alive through your mothers and partners!” Ken swallowed and shifted uncomfortably. She had skated dangerously close with that one. A mother knows, indeed.
“I must admit, I was surprised that you called me so early,” his mother wittered on. “You never were one to wake up early after a night out! Not that I’m complaining, mind you, it’s lovely to hear from you at any time. Have you got any news to share? You have been a bit quiet recently.”
Ken closed his eyes and wiped the moisture from his cheeks before answering.
“Erm, no, mum. I don’t really have any news. I’ve not really been up to much recently. I’ve been a bit…distracted, you know?” He finished lamely.
“Well, you shouldn’t let yourself get distracted, Kenneth,” his mother chided. Her use of his full name brought back childhood memories of being scolded. It almost made him smile. “You’re going to end up owing a lot of money once you get your degree, so you may as well study hard and get a good one!”
“Yeah, yeah I know,” Ken found himself smiling after all, a weak bubble of a smile rising tenaciously to the top of his torrent of emotions. Relief, self-loathing, happiness, anger and exasperation all fought for his immediate attention. However, it was disgust which prevailed; Ken was disgusted and full of revulsion at what he had almost done less than two minutes beforehand. If he had left his phone on silent… He prayed that his voice did not betray his feelings as he spoke again.
“Listen, mum, would you like to meet up? Today, I mean. I don’t have any lectures today, and I could use an excuse to get out.” The former part of that statement was a lie, but it had been a full fortnight since Ken had actually managed to attend one of his lectures. The latter, however, was all too true. Ken knew that he needed to get out of his bedroom as soon as possible. He couldn’t cope anymore. He held his breath as he waited for his mother to answer him. If she said no…
“Oh, that would be lovely!” His mother crowed, her delight full and genuine. “Where would you like to meet, and when?” Ken released his breath, emptying his lungs with a sense of relief which approached ecstasy.
“Let’s meet in the park,” he said quickly, excitedly. “This morning, preferably. Maybe in an hour? I’ll buy you some breakfast if you like. My treat. Ask dad as well. Please?” Ken didn’t like the pleading tone his voice took towards the end of his sentence, but it seemed to have some effect. His mother was silent for a few moments, and Ken knew that she was weighing something in her head.
“I don’t see why not, seeing as you’re awake,” she said slowly, her earlier chirpiness replaced with concern. “I’ll have a word with your dad, I’m sure the weeds can wait until later.”
“Great!” Ken’s reply was a bit louder than he had intended. “So, I’ll see you both in an hour then? In the park? By the fountain?”
“Yes, darling, that sounds lovely.” Again, his mother was silent for a few seconds. “Ken…” she said quietly. “Are you sure everything is alright? You sound a bit…off. You can talk to me if you need to, you know.” Ken squirmed as he fought down more tears. ‘I know I can,’ he thought, ‘but where can I start? What can I possibly say to make you understand?’ He took a deep breath and answered her.
“Yes, I know, mum. I haven’t been great recently, but I’m alright now. Let’s just meet up, okay? I’ll tell you more then.”
“Alright, my love,” his mother replied. “See you in an hour then”.
“Yep,” Ken said. He hesitated. “Thanks, mum. I love you”.
“I love you too, darling.” His mother sounded surprised and touched. “See you soon. Bye bye!”
“Bye.” Ken remained on his knees for several minutes after the line went dead. He then slowly got to his feet, wincing as he put weight on his twisted ankle. He’d have to come up with an excuse for that one, as he knew his parents would notice it. That, however, was unimportant. What was important was that he was getting out of his room! He was about to leave and spend time with people who genuinely cared about him. His mother had literally saved his life, albeit unwittingly. She would never find out either, Ken determined. Never. He thought again about his incredible luck concerning his phone volume. He shuddered as a chill ran down his spine.
Ken started moving about his room with a fresh purpose. As he dressed himself, he realised that his plan for the morning had made him feel better than he had in days, in weeks even. Life had had some of its colour restored. Not all of it, of course, but the bleak drabness of his recent existence was no longer so apparent. He pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans, a clean white shirt and slipped into his scuffed black trainers. He peered in the mirror long enough to run a comb through his unruly brown hair and to wipe away any trace of tears from his face. Feeling nervous with excitement Ken moved towards the door and opened it.
As he passed through the threshold and on to the landing, Ken stopped. He glanced back over his shoulder towards his bedroom window. He looked at the fallen office chair lying abandoned on its side. He looked at the black tie hanging from its knot on the solid beam. A new thought crept into Ken’s mind, spontaneous and unnerving. He turned around and walked back into his room, back to the window. He lifted the chair and set it back down on its wheels so that he could climb on to the seat and reached for the tie once again. A few seconds of fumbling saw the tie slide free of the beam and rest in Ken’s hands. Carefully, Ken climbed back down, gingerly putting weight on his injured ankle. With slow, precise movements he lifted the collar on his shirt and slipped the tie into place. He folded the collar back down and tied the tie neatly. As a final touch he pulled the tie tightly around his neck. A nice, snug fit. He hesitated for a moment before he pulled on it once again. It was now a little too tight, constricting his throat in a somewhat feeble chokehold. That was good. It would serve as a reminder of that terrible morning and how it had almost ended. The voice in his head said nothing.
Ken smiled to himself, and walked out of his bedroom.