My daughter had just turned eight when we moved to England several years ago, and while she made a few good friends right away, she had difficulty penetrating the cliques that are a part of grade school. When I heard that she was spending lunchtimes not in the schoolyard playing with her classmates but inside with one of the teachers, I was indignant, probably more so than she. How could the other girls and boys not want to play with her? How could they not appreciate how fun she is, how funny, how athletic, how smart?
I wasn’t filled with the anger that accompanied the one time she was taunted (a boy called her pancake face, which is apparently a disparaging term for an Asian; my daughter was the only non-Indian Asian—not to mention the only American and the only Jew—in the entire school; she and the boy eventually became, if not friends, friendly). Instead I ached with a quiet mournfulness.
Now that I’m submitting my latest manuscript to agents, I ache in the same way for my character Steve.
Steve is one of the two narrators of 100 Days, the novel I’m shopping around. He is also one of the two narrators of the novel I wrote before Beyond Billicombe (which, by the way, is available as a paperback and a Kindle ebook). That I wrote a second novel about Steve without managing to get representation for the first one shows how much I love the character. (Or it shows how absolutely pig-headed and impractical I am—your call.)
Steve is a young man from Devon who suffers from undifferentiated schizophrenia. The first book tells of his budding friendship with a visiting writer and his move to London. 100 Days picks up five years later, as he is hospitalized for a suicide attempt and a psychotic break following his first romantic relationship.
Of course, I don’t love Steve as fiercely as I do my daughter. But I think it’s fair to say that I adore him as much as I do my dog, a statement that may sound odd to those who don’t have a pet but one that surely makes sense to those who do. Just as I want everyone who meets my dog (that's him in the photo above) to acknowledge how cute, how sweet, how irresistible he is, I want everyone who reads about Steve to admire his self-deprecating wit, his gutsiness, his determination.
So it hurts me when agents read the first few pages of 100 Days and reply along the lines of, It’s well written, but it’s not for us; I just don’t love it enough to represent it.
How can you not love Steve?
So in keeping with the fiction writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell,” I’m including the first chapter of 100 Days below. Would anyone like to read more?
This time I’m going to do it right. No half-arsed slicing and dicing with a butter knife in a public toilet. No overdose of pills that makes you wish you were dead without actually doing the trick. No noose around a clothes rack that’s too rickety to support the weight and comes crashing down before you even have the chance to kick the chair away.
First, I lock the bedroom door. Next, barricade it with my nightstand. Then the pills, every one of them I have, except the ones for my high blood pressure and that. They wouldn’t be much good, would they? I wash them down, two and four at a time, with straight vodka. Like I said, I’m not taking any chances this time.
It feels good to focus. To have something to focus on. For the past few weeks, since getting out of hospital, or even since landing back in hospital before then, everything’s been blurred. Like those paintings that look like a landscape when you’re standing a meter away but when you get up close are nothing but dots. Sometimes I can barely make out where I am, what’s surrounding me. What all the colors are supposed to be. What all the shadows are from. But now everything is clearer than it’s ever been. The lettering on some of my pills. The grain of the wood on the floor planks, each lazy curve. Each tiny point of the knife along its edge, winking at me. A friendly wink.
By the fifth or seventh mouthful, I’m having a tough time forcing the pills down, even with the vodka easing the way. Last time I didn't take the pills in one fell swoop. Just shoveled down a few here and there when I remembered. Though last time I don’t think I was trying to kill myself. I didn’t have my shit together enough to have a goal, really, other than to shut up the mumbles and stop thinking. About Diandra, and everything else.
Harder and harder to swallow. Even though after all these years I’m a dab hand at pill-taking. Just about the only skill I have, isn’t it? Though as Cat would say, that and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee—not even, she adds whenever she uses that expression.
Woozy. Filmy. Hope to hell I don’t sick the pills up. Grit your teeth, hiss the mumbles. Swallow, you arsewipe, swallow. For fuck’s sake, surely you can do this right. I thought I’d drowned the mumbles once and for all back in December, during the bender that landed me in hospital and now here. But they’re back. Or maybe it’s their ghosts.
Now, the steak knife. I swiped it from the kitchen. The knives are supposed to be in one of the locked drawers, so only the staff can get to them. But you know what care staff are like. You can’t blame them for getting sloppy. They’re paid, what, eight quid an hour? Besides, it’s been so quiet here in the house, at least in the weeks since I arrived. No real fights. Most everyone agreeing to take their meds when they’re supposed to, coming to group more or less on time, all but one or two showering regularly. Julia’s the most troublesome of us, and she’s half-catatonic five days out of seven, so the main issue with her is getting her to actually eat and to use the toilet instead of pissing and shitting herself.
So I’ve got the steak knife, and I’m tying around my arm a scrap of an old T-shirt I’d ripped up last night. Tying it above the elbow. Like they do before taking blood, so that the veins on the inside of my left arm pop right up to the surface. Nurses have a hard time taking blood from me, seeing as I’ve got so much scarring on my wrists and arms. I don’t want to have a hard time cutting myself open. Especially not the way my fingers are growing thicker and harder to manipulate. That’s a good word, manipulate. Cat buys me these word-a-day calendars every year, which is where I picked up that one.
Fuck Cat, snarl the mumbles. The mumbles, so the doctors say, aren’t coming from anywhere but instead my head. Most times I agree with them, the doctors, I mean. But when the mumbles start chanting Fuck Cat, fuck the bitch, I have to doubt what the doctors say. Because while I may have a lot of crazy thoughts, I’d never think something like Fuck Cat. She’s pretty much all I’ve got.
Though I don’t really even have her.
I press the serrated edge of the knife against my wrist. I can’t feel it. Can’t even feel the knife in the grip of my hands, my fingers curled around its handle. Not until I’ve been watching a gorgeous pure red, gleaming rivulet of blood trickle down my arm, in no hurry as it glides toward my elbow, do I realize I’ve actually cut through.
It’s so wet, the blood, so bright. So clean. The way it pulses so slowly, it really is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
And right now it’s pretty much all I can see. Everything around it has constricted. I’m not even sure if I’m still slicing away.
I finally know what it’s like to be completely happy. No worries, nothing to fear. My eyelids close, but I can still see the blood. Nothing but blood. Not even my arm anymore. I’m floating on the blood, and it’s floating me away.