Well, here goes, the big sell-out, the retitled book, the second lunge at fame. Episode One of...
BLIND MAN ON CRACK
How Many Therapists Does It Take To Change A Life?
I was working for a counselling organisation in central London. Our office, on the first floor of a converted church, overlooked a swathe of Regent’s Park. A more pleasing vista one would struggle to find. Across the lawn, peppered with flowerbeds, a psychology college loomed like a monolith to good mental health. When empty, our high-ceilinged chamber retained some of the tranquillity of its pastoral past, but on a working day, with counsellors dropping off documents, dictating letters, and rushing in and out of the committee-room, the place could feel like a therapeutic railway-station.
I was the one below a stained-glass window depicting the return of the Prodigal Son, my desk a mess of leaflets and envelopes, big font on my computer-screen, magnifier for reading print, and white cane propped against the radiator. Contrary to popular belief, when you lose your eyesight, as I did aged nine, you don’t necessarily become any of the following: an oracle, a pianist, a mean pinball-player, basket-weaver, or Stevie Wonder – nor do you develop sat-nav. In my experience, you feel disconnected, pushed back from things, a blurred observer in a blurred world. The visual cues that most people take for granted are gone. Picking up a smile from a passer-by becomes a dreamed-of luxury. No more eyes meeting across a smoky room, or smoke-free one. Even in an intimate setting, feelings of low self-worth can rise up and grab the steering-wheel of self. You might feel you’re saying all the right things, but if you can’t see whether or not the other person is even awake, paranoia can invade the empty spaces. Seeing can be doubting as well as believing.
So, in my mid-twenties, having fallen short of other people’s dreams, not to mention my own, I found myself in clerical purgatory, agnostically praying daily for something, anything, to transfigure my life. Polly, our manager, had a flexible approach to the concept of the working day, her innovative lunch-breaks encompassing both elevenses and afternoon tea. Her hair, a New Age explosion of mottled ringlets, crazily framed a face that always seemed to care. A concerned frown was her default expression, even if the news was good. She’d waft in and out in charity-sector chic, hobnobbing with the higher echelons of the counselling profession. Her secretary was Sally, sandbagged behind a desk that betrayed her business heritage. She’d arrived from the cut-and-thrust of pharmaceuticals. Her hair, grey with ambition, was tied back so tight that her nose was almost on her forehead. Words like ‘workshop’ and ‘action’ were verbs to her. To ‘workshop’ a thing was to think about it, to ‘action’ a thing, to do it. You could even ‘breakfast’ something, at a push. George was my ally in this temple to self-betterment, and looked like George Harrison around the time of Rubber Soul. We’d offset the stress of repeated calls from people who’d forgotten to either meditate or medicate, by hanging round the water-cooler and slating our colleagues. George played the guitar, had a girlfriend, and did the accounts, the first two of which I envied.
I’d been there about six months when Polly and the counsellors announced a new member of staff was needed. An ad was placed in the Guardian for someone to fill an exciting role in an engaging environment. A few weeks later, a psychology graduate called Emma arrived, and we became firm friends in the frenzied world of counselling provision. She was alarmingly beautiful, willowy, with a blonde bob and a sweet, lilting Lancashire accent, made slightly husky by the occasional Marlboro Lite. We liked similar things, Morrissey, Reeves and Mortimer, and bad game shows. Many’s the summer lunch-hour we’d spend lounging on the lawn, deep in conversation, me in a state of extracurricular longing, wondering if she was too. Then, baguettes consumed, we’d return to earn our crust, for the next day’s baguette.
As autumn drew in, my feelings for Emma grew, and I decided it was time to express myself, to tell her how I felt. An airless afternoon dragged on, and the lights in the college opposite looked like little candles of hope. Emma was loitering by my desk, as she often did, spinning my chair as I tried to type. Swivelling assertively to face her, I said there was something I wanted to talk to her about, so ‘could we go for a drink after work?’ An hour later, there we were, tucked away in the corner of our local pub. I went into sombre teenager mode, weighed down as I was by years of hard-won self-consciousness, but this time there would be no backing out, as there had been so many times before. I had to tell her. I was 28 – that’s what 28 year-olds do. I asked her what she was doing at the weekend. She said her boyfriend was coming to visit. Well there’s a thing. Just when you want to put yourself up for audition, you find the part’s already gone. I felt cursed. But I’d come this far, and was not going to turn back now. I wasn’t sure I had the provisions for the return journey, without first reaching my goal. But I felt obliged to pay some lip-service to this unwanted urchin on my path to glory. ‘Oh really, what does he do?’ I asked, not caring. ‘He’s a professional footballer,’ she replied. I couldn’t trump that. Clerical Assistant doesn’t have the same ring to it as Liverpool Striker. Then she asked, ‘So what is it you want to talk to me about?’ I forced out some clumsy words, and she understood what I meant. She wasn’t phased, but replied in a gentle and humorous way, adapting a Reeves and Mortimer phrase to soften the blow. ‘Ben, you know that office-relationships are prohibited under the country-code.’ I was both disappointed and amused. And that, for then, was that. But at least I’d done something positive, expressed myself, reached out in the name of feeling equal, worthy of respect, yes, even love. I’d spent years not telling anyone anything, so I gave myself a B+ for effort, D for outcome, and went home to ponder my wounds.
My flat overlooked the canal in Westbourne Park. Milling around in domestic isolation, I did what I could to poeticise my loneliness and put some Smiths on, smoked a joint, watched Frasier, and went to bed. How could Emma call herself a Morrissey fan without even having the decency to be single? A few months later, I learned that her boyfriend played for Crewe, and it wasn’t long before she put him up for a free transfer, and that was the end of him. But his demise was not my cue to go blundering in. A friend had already filled the vacancy.
As the months dragged on, my feelings of isolation and inertia deepened. My social life was pretty sketchy, and many an evening I’d spend stoned alone, and even though it was good to have George and Emma at work, the job itself was mind-numbing. So, in a bout of self-respect, I decided I would see a counsellor. After work, I had a look at our database and picked one out who was based in my neighbourhood. There were therapists all over the place, so I narrowed it down to one whose name I liked, Louisette. It had a Parisian feel to it, and conjured up bookish boulevards, Bohemians in conference outside cafés. Her room was above an antique-shop in Notting Hill, and her profile said she’d worked with blind and partially sighted people.
So I hit the couch, except it was a folding canvas chair. I spent most of my sessions regaling Louisette with tales of Emma, and my inability to get into a relationship. I began talking about the effect of my sight-condition, the first time I’d really considered it a topic worth exploring. I even touched on the subject of abuse experienced in my early teens, and the general direction my adult years had gone in as a result. I also went to my GP asking for antidepressants. After telling him I was unhappy, had no confidence, couldn’t move on, was lonely, and anxious all the time, he happily scribbled out a prescription.
After a week or two, the tablets began to help, but it wasn’t long before George and Emma moved on to new jobs, which marked a further downturn in my spirits. There I was, forlorn and demotivated, alone in the office, with Sally talking in management-speak, and Polly coming and going, dumping a mailing on my desk, then swanning off for a three-hour lunch. Whenever a counsellor came by, I’d put out as much good cheer as I could, hoping my chirpy demeanour would put them off the scent. But one morning, an eminent psychiatrist gave me a bundle of papers to file. I took them, and they fell all over the floor. ‘Sorry,’ I said, shamefacedly scraping them up. ‘There’s no need to be sorry,’ replied the urbane Hampstead shrink. ‘Oh, I’m always sorry,’ I mumbled, prostrate before the filing-cabinet. ‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ he quipped, in a way that felt like checkmate in a therapeutic game of chess.
Then, just to keep things interesting, I had to move out of my flat. It was owned by a charity for blind and partially sighted people, and the deal was you could live there for three years. My time was nearly up, but I’d made no plans to move on. In the dying weeks of my tenancy, I did go and look at a flat in Notting Hill, a small room with a wardrobe, single-bed, and table and chair. There was just enough room to enter and stand. The landlord, who was about twelve, wanted more than I was already paying for my canal-view cell. I asked him about cooking and washing, and he said the kitchen and bathroom were communal, shared with six other tenants. I felt like throwing myself out the window, except I couldn’t get to it. So it was vaguely fortunate when an old schoolmate, Josie, asked me if I wanted to move in with her, over in the wastelands between East London and Essex. So this is what I did, for two main reasons, one, I had to move somewhere, and two, I fancied her.
One dazzling Saturday morning, two Australians rolled up in a removal-van and sped me across London, me perched precariously between them with no seatbelt. They helped me unpack at the other end, which was no easy feat, as the flat was at the top of a rickety set of backstairs. It was a struggle getting some things up, most notably my fridge, which, after a few attempts, we decided to leave downstairs. Then, my Aussie friends having wished me well, I sat in the living-room and watched telly. Nobody was in, but I knew from that moment I was not going to be happy there. I think it was the swords and armour hanging in the hall, the skulls and aliens lined up on the bookcase, and the fact that within a matter of days I was being invited to mock-medieval banquets, where everyone dressed up and said ‘hail thee’ and ‘farewell’ to one another, for Josie and her friends were members of a historical re-enactment society. I had Sally’s office-speak at work, and mock-medieval doggerel in the flat, and felt alienated from both. Josie’s boyfriend resembled George Formby in a Robin Hood outfit, and the other flatmate, pallid as a vampire, looked like a Goth who hadn’t changed his t-shirt since 1988. Josie, however, was a buxom Essex girl, whom I’d craved since school days, but never quite managed to ask out. If they weren’t having a banquet, or out the back waving swords around, they might be scuttling around a derelict castle on a treasure-hunt, pitting their wits against bards from far-off leagues - but this at least meant they were out.
To make matters worse, the flat was above the local Conservative Club, and I had to pay rent to the miserable dogs. It was not in good condition. We were up in the attic, where parts of the floor were so warped that you couldn’t put anything down, else it would just roll away or fall over, and the place felt like a tinderbox waiting for a spark. As for my stranded fridge, when the club secretary realised I couldn’t get it upstairs, her response was to drag it into their office to keep milk and biscuits in. Reversing Robin Hood’s dictum, they seemed happy to take from the poor, and give to the rich, the rich in question being themselves.
My life had become a form of medieval torture. The average weekend would be me in despair in my bedroom, the door of which wouldn’t close properly, listening to the vampire assembling a chain-mail vest in the living-room, a process which seemed to take months, week after week, the sound of pliers fastening one more silver hoop onto the bottom of his already lengthy metal smock. I was also disillusioned with Josie. I was jealous of her boyfriend, but unable to do anything about it, and bitter that she seemed to be in her element among these rapscallions. Some of my happier moments were spent on the Central Line, because this meant I wasn’t bored at my desk, or brooding in the flat. I felt isolated in both places, and just didn’t see an end to it, barring some kind of miracle, and there was no obvious sign of one of them.
A song: Tarantula
A song: Tarantula