Summer Baggage. (Not the sort that you lose in an airport.)
Summer is always perceived to be the ‘happy’ season. It’s something to do with the amount of melatonin produced by the pineal gland in the brain, which changes corresponding to light levels and subsequently affects moods. Not to mention the blazing warmth of the sun; the delicate floral scent carried on a gentle breeze, and the carefree holiday atmosphere.
More often than not, these days, I soak it up. I love to walk down my street during those long, long days hearing the sizzle of barbecues; the pop as another bottle of cider is opened; the laughter of people who’ve left their worries captured in the darker days of spring. Sometimes, though, the stillness stifles me. Where do you go when the world seems to come to a halt around you? The lazy calmness weighs down on my chest as though I’m deep underwater, and the happy cider-drinking barbecuers are sailing on the surface.
It was that one summer. That summer, five years ago when I was fifteen. Over the course of a year, I’d lost a boyfriend, several close friends, my health, happiness, and most of myself to anorexia. We lived in a big, cosy house on the corner of a quiet street. I was relieved the summer had finally arrived because it signified the end of my GCSE’s, and most importantly, the warmer weather meant that my insides weren’t pierced with icy coldness through every layer of clothing as soon as I left the comfort of an electric heater. Although I was still a slave to control and exercise, I remember vividly how I’d just started to be able to eat over 1000 calories a day without screaming in anger.
Throughout May, I was doing fine. Just fine, the doctor said. Not gaining, but maintaining at least. That all changed when June arrived and summer truly began, and my Dad lost his grip on life. He’s a man with a severe nervous disorder and a horrific alcohol problem, and at the time he was in a teaching job which was far too stressful for him to handle. I remember one day, at the end of June, I’d woken up late morning and I’d meandered down the stairs to make my breakfast: a sachet of golden syrup instant porridge made with half milk, half water. I had a technique of watering down the milk when pretending to make tea so that my mother never noticed. I liked to sustain the façade of quick progress when it came to my recovery (try as she might, my Mam could never quite understand why I wouldn’t just sit and eat a whole packet of fig rolls if I needed to gain weight.)
So anyway, I was watching the timer on the microwave as it zapped my oats into a watery gruel. As I was waiting, I heard a crash in the back garden. I ran through the conservatory onto the patio to see my Dad crippled on the floor, bright red, bruised and bleeding, lying there unconscious with the bike he’d just fallen off on top of him. My mother came running and tried to drag him into a chair. Disgustingly drunk, he was unable to form a coherent sentence as he communicated his aggression through his violent expression. He’d been cycling around the streets in pursuit of more alcohol, too inebriated to stay upright for longer than a minute.
We left him to it, and as soon as he’d sobered up enough to move he stood and staggered through the house, demanding money for more booze, slamming doors, wrestling my mother’s purse from her as he shouted insults into her crying face. After I’d torn him away from her, I couldn’t control my anger. The thick, heavy summer air smothered me until I cracked and hit him, wanting him to feel my pain, hating him for the person he’d turned me into. Wanting to smash up that stupid, fat red face until it resembled the shattered remains of my carefree childhood. Useless, pathetic prick pretending to be some sort of father as I slowly tortured myself trying to grasp some of the control which he himself had physically stolen from me.
My mother couldn’t handle it. She had some sort of breakdown which the rest of the family didn’t understand – they were in denial about the extent of my Dad’s problem and they didn’t know how to deal with it. The picking-her-up-off-the-floor bit was my responsibility at a time when I needed her be the one doing that for me. She decided we needed to leave that house and the nightmarish memories it held behind. We rented a flat after we’d sold it – sold our beautiful house with the big garden and the towering trees. The flat which was about an eighth of the size. Instead of leaving our problems behind, we concentrated the tension of my eating disorder and my Dad’s violent alcoholism into a small space.
The hatred I felt for him was accentuated and I spent weeks of that summer screaming on the floor in a series of violent tantrums worthy of a five-year old. Every time he imitated me in a mocking, babyish voice, every time he lashed out at me in pursuit of the booze or money I would hide from him, I tried to hold it together, but I couldn’t. I was too weak. I broke my mother, my poor mother who didn’t know what to do with either of us. My sweet mother who couldn’t decide whether to shout at me for losing it, hold me, or leave me on the floor and run out of the flat, crying.
Sometimes, when I’m walking alone in the summer and I hear the sizzle of meat on a barbecue, or the chatty buzz of a group of students basking in the sun, I feel as though I’m listening through a pair of old, fuzzy headphones. Some deeper part of me still exists, and will always exist, in that awful summer of 2009. The summer which hit me like a bullet-train: me, the tame rabbit who’d not yet learned to run from danger, standing in the train tracks wearing a startled expression on my pale, bony face.