I sometimes think, I should only write about serious subjects. War, poverty, pandemics, and other really depressing stuff. And I do, sometimes. Then, as if my mind is recoiling from too much sadness, I burp very loudly (no one is around to hear me, but I’m still embarrassed and I think the cat rolled her eyes), and I suddenly remember: I can write about anything I feel like writing about. It’s not like all the sad stuff won’t be around later. I can worry about it then.
Sometimes, I launch into writing about purely happy or absolutely bonkers stuff. Pink fluffy aliens called Sprograts; or, an old gardener called Jack Winkle whose assistant, a young guy known as Rusty, is convinced that a tomato plant has become the first plant to develop coronavirus. He is certain this must have happened because he saw the plant “shiver, like it’s got a fever!”. There was no breeze at the time or anything that might have shaken the plant (he thinks) so Rusty will not listen to Jack explain that plants don’t get coronavirus. “I’m no goin’ near that plant ‘til I get full PPE, Jack. It shivered!” Jack is very patient with his young assistant, and gently asks: “But did it cough, Rusty?” After a pause to think, Rusty replies emphatically: “Aye! Come to think of it Jack, it did!”
I don’t make up wee stories like this every time I’m not thinking about or dealing with sad stuff. I have to sleep sometimes! And, a lot of the time, maybe like a lot of people, I’m neither very sad nor very happy but somewhere in-between. And if I feel any sad feelings sneaking up on me, I’ve usually got ways to stop myself thinking about them.
From about the age of eleven or so, I avoided thinking about anything too sad by noticing and thinking as much as I could about good stuff. At an earlier age, there wasn’t much thinking involved, but if there was it was usually about sweets. Or asking if it was nearly Christmas yet. “No, it’s July.” Then, later, I noticed all sorts of things and wondered about them. Like, I would be walking along Broughty Ferry beach, spotting jellyfish washed up on the sand: big, floppy discs, gleaming and clear and purplish. Or, in the winter on the same beach, I watched amazingly large waves and lashing spray which you protected yourself from by wearing a parka with a snorkel hood and zipping it up so that the zip almost cut into your nose, and it sometimes did.
Or, there was other good stuff. Like walking a mile in the dark to get to the library that was full of people who were all busy reading and being as quiet as they could, like it was a game, and sometimes you’d expect some old man to suddenly jump up and shout “Boo!”, but he never did. Or, not when I was there. And you’d search for books about whales or dinosaurs, escape stories, or Barnes Wallis, and you’d notice the smell of different books. Some smelled like tomato soup: cream of tomato soup, to be exact. Others smelled like pine-cones. Others – like a soft, salty breeze on the beach. And when you walked home, you held on to the books tightly, because of course it was treasure, and you didn’t want the darkness to steal it.
If you had stuff like that to think about, then the thought of moving house that summer and leaving all your friends behind in Menzieshill – that wouldn’t bother you so much. For a while.
When I got a bit older, I used other ways to not think about anything sad. In the summer, the best way was to move around a lot. To go for miles on my bike, or ramble through forests and jungles (well, sort of jungles), climb trees and fall out of trees, and play long games of football, when time just disappeared somewhere up in the blue sky. And if you ran around fast enough and long enough, or whizzed down lots of long hills on your bike, then – by the time it was time to sleep, you could sleep like the River Tay on a summer night ,waves gently lapping waves, sparkling blue like a dimmed memory of the day’s sky.
And when you get a bit older, I suppose there’s more things to worry about and sometimes feel sad about; so, you find other ways to feel okay. You find about sex, alcohol, and you really hear music for the first time. And you might notice other new stuff – like the way your dreams can shine even when you are awake, through all the normal kinds of magic: falling in and out of love and back again; caring about the world or a job or a football team or a blue velvet jacket no one would be seen dead in now.
And you might keep on moving around a lot: running further; cycling more determinedly to get to actual other towns instead of around and around your own neighbourhood. Or, you might go boxing, like I did, and knock the hell out of sad feelings on a heavy punchbag. And I did all of that, and in between times I would lie on my bedroom floor listening to Bob Dylan singing words from his cluttered dreams straight into mine. And the beaches and forests and books in those words somehow became real. And I’d read, and read, and find out about good people and real monsters.
We live and grow and hide from stuff that makes us feel too sad. But sometimes we face it. A little while ago, Nergal was using me as a cushion – she likes to do that, and she was curled up on my lap and purring loudly, as I stroked her. She looked up at me, and I thought: sitting with a cat must be one of the best ways not to think about anything sad. Her eyes are amber; and when she looks at you, she seems very wise, as if she has been around forever and knows a lot of secrets. So, I confided in her, which cats appreciate. She didn’t actually nod as I spoke, but I felt that she was nodding. I said: Nergal, I’m not exactly sad but I’m trying not to be sad. She looked up at me and purred wisely and listened. I’m hoping I get my first book published soon, but I’m sad – because I’m worried something will go wrong. That’s daft, isn’t it? There’s more important things to worry about.
We listened to the rain on the window. Nergal turned her head to one side and lay gently against me. I could feel her purring beneath my fingers. And the rain on the window said: Don’t worry. And Nergal dozed off to sleep, but just before she did, she looked up at me again and said silently: Don’t worry. Whatever happens, it’ll be okay.