It’s my birthday next week, forty-six. How the hell did that happen? If someone told me when I was a teenager I’d still be alive in my forties, I’d have laughed in their face. It was posh folk who had dreams―hopes for the future, not people like me. I struggled to make it through the day, never mind another thirty years. The adults I knew were having a shit time; either alcoholics, or well on their way to being one. Life was hard, and it looked tougher the older you got. Who wanted to hang around for that? Not me, that’s for sure.
As a result, I thought about death a lot. Although, it wasn’t really death that obsessed me; it was dying that filled my nights with panic and dread. There’s was nothing romantic about it; I was grieving, mourning my own death. Many nights I fell asleep with snot-stained cheeks lying on a tear-soaked pillow. This isn’t something I grew out of, it’s just that as I got older, I recognised it for what it was―anxiety.
One time, I must have been around thirteen, we found a mouse in our flat. I was traumatised and disgusted. Back then I didn’t understand the poor wee thing was no threat to us. I pulled my bed into the middle of the room so it couldn’t climb up the wall. With hindsight, it would have been more likely to climb up the bed, not a sheer surface, but it seemed like a sound idea.
That mouse tormented us: me, my mum and sister, for about a week. Lying in bed at night, I could hear it scurrying around. I imagined hordes of them, crawling up the walls and waiting for us to fall asleep so they could come out en masse and wreak havoc. I now realise the mouse was more petrified of us than we were of it. It was trapped on the third-floor of a block of flats containing more questionable vermin than mice.
My mum put down poison. I shudder even thinking of it now. She placed it on jam jar lids around the flat. Now, I knew I had never touched that poison. Multiple warnings of certain death and agonising pain did the job making sure us kids stayed the hell away from it. But, one night, I got it into my head that I had somehow touched that poison. I mean, I could feel the spot on my lips where it had transferred from finger to mouth, and no amount of reasoning could convince me otherwise.
I lay there as the toxic substance worked its way through my system, shutting down organs as it went. It was about one in the morning when the stomach cramps started. Piercing pain as it ravaged my insides. I lay there, tears streaming down my flushed cheeks as life drained out of me. It wasn’t long before I accepted my fate. What else could I do? Then, something I never knew I had kicked in: my fighting spirit. There was no way my time on this so far disappointing earth, would end like this. So, I did the only thing I could think of and prayed. I made promises I had no intention of keeping but, in that moment, even I believed them. I prayed if I could just live till I was eighteen, in case by some miracle life got better, then I’d be happy to give myself over to the big man. Whether that was the guy surrounded by blinding light offering eternal life or the other one, downstairs, with the flames and the brimstone and all that jazz.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke, I was reborn! I’d made it. The universe gave me another chance. Light poured in through the curtains, enticing me to look outside where every window in the street shimmered, making our run-down street look like the emerald city. It was as if I was seeing the world for the first time. I was alive! There was the niggling thought that my bargaining had only given me another five years, but I could deal with that. If nothing improved then in five years I’d be ready to go with my case packed and jacket on.
Then, my mother’s war-cry roared from the hallway shattering my majestic moment. I rushed out and before me was a rabid imposter dressed in my mum’s body. Her face was puce with rage, arms held high, gripping a floor-brush like a samurai sword. She smashed it down on top of the carpet sweeper propped up against the wall. The brush crashed down another two or three times before her features settled back into those of the woman I loved. Lifting the ancient sweeper, now dented and wondering what the hell it did to deserve the abuse, my mum revealed a wee mouse ― flattened and now at one with the floor.
Looking down at that splayed rodent I realised how fleeting life was. One minute you’re reading yourself your last rites thinking your time’s up, only to wake in the morning gifted with another day. Or, you’re scurrying around trying to find a way out of the shitty situation you’ve got yourself into, and some bugger bashes your head in with a brush. Either way, the message was clear; nobody has a clue what the future holds. The only way to find out was to live it.
I originally wrote this piece for Your Stories with the Scottish Book Trust, based on their Future theme. See the link below.