One day in March, when I was living in Leeds, I was walking across the waste ground near my house on my way to the doctor, when I heard someone screaming at the side of the road. The waste ground was empty, covered with bits of scrub grass and deep potholes filled with rain. At the corner of my street, where the waste ground began, I’d walked past a pool of white vomit from the night before. A pigeon was pecking hungrily at the pale chunks. The pigeon scuttled away a few inches while I passed, and then came back to its meal. It didn’t know it was eating vomit. It thought it was food. There’s no real way of deciding which of us was right about that.
The pigeon made me feel sick, but not really much sicker than I already was. I’d had diarrhoea for 2 weeks, and I hadn’t passed anything more solid than rusty water for days. I felt weak and light. I couldn’t go to work. I’d had this diarrhoea ever since eating some dodgy Bombay Mix at a party in a friend’s house, and I’d been waiting for it to clear up, but this morning I decided I would go to the doctor. I’d come downstairs for breakfast and opened the fridge, and the world had started to spin without moving. One of my housemates had used the fridge magnet letters to spell out “Wash up Paddy or we will shit in your bed”. This was a message to me (Paddy being a generic English term for Irish men). Last week the letters had spelled “Wash up dwarf or we will spunk in your eye”, which was a message to Mike, our short housemate. The jumble of unused letters at the bottom of the fridge door flowed and glowed, danced a little in the non-light of the sunken, barred kitchen window.
So I’d put clothes on and gone out the door. It was a cloudy day. I didn’t hear screaming then. That came later, when I was walking across the waste ground. The screaming stopped, and I wondered if I’d heard it properly. Maybe it had been the sound of a car driving with the handbrake on. Maybe I had hallucinated it. Later I’d ask the doctor if you could die of diarrhoea, and she’d said “Technically, yes, but let me assure you that the miracle of modern medicine is going to save your middle-class ass from an early grave.” Well, she didn’t really say that. She thought it. I imagine she thought it.
I heard the screaming again. It really was unmistakeable, like the sound of a cat you love crying on the windowsill to be let in at 3 a.m. on a stormy night. I turned aside and headed towards the main road, climbing swiftly up the embankment.
It’s important to understand how weak I was at this point. I had just about enough energy to get up and down the stairs from my room to the toilet five times an hour, and that was it. This was a steep embankment, ten feet high, slippery with rain, and I remember climbing it with no sensation of effort, as if I was being floated upwards by an invisible hand. I don’t even know why I turned aside. There was no thought in it at all, just a reaction.
At the top of the embankment, across the path, under a tree at the side of the road, a man was lying face down on the grass, screaming. His arms and legs were moving jerkily, as if he was having a fit. Traffic was passing, people were passing, as if he wasn’t there. He was wearing a blue t-shirt and blue jeans, and a grey jacket which was lying beside him.
I walked up to him and leaned down, and said something. I don’t remember what I said, probably “Are you all right, mate?” or something ridiculous like that. “Oh yes, thank you, I’m fine, I just thought I’d lie down and have a good scream, you know?” The man didn’t say that. He scrambled to his knees and looked at me. This was when I realized my mistake. His eyes were a perfectly clear, light blue, utterly wide, utterly insane. He had receding red hair cropped short and he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. There was some kind of gunk hanging from his nose and his lips, white and stringy like hardening glue. I looked down and saw a small red tin of paint thinner in his hands. It took me a moment to register what I was seeing, and the man leaned down again, stuck his nose and his mouth, his whole lower face, into the tin.
I stood back, slightly afraid, slightly light-headed. I was shocked, and my instant impulse was to just keep on heading towards the doctor’s like I had been before I heard the scream, so I started to cross the road. I heard something behind me, and I saw the man getting to his feet, looking at me. I reached the middle of the road, and had to wait for a break in the cars coming from the city centre. I could hear behind me that the guy was crossing the road. I wasn’t totally sure what to do. I thought “This is broad daylight in the city, nothing can happen,” and then I remembered all the people walking past the man like he wasn’t there. They’d walk past me too, I realized. Maybe they wouldn’t have. I don’t know.
I crossed the road and stepped on to the path on the other side, where Hyde Park began past the grass verge and the row of sycamores. My mind was very detached because I was so ill, and I started remembering waking up in the morning a week earlier, in my girlfriend’s bed. I’d been sick for a while, but I felt better, and I’d eaten some bread and tomato soup in the evening while we were watching Match Of The Day. I’d then spent half of the night running downstairs to vomit violently in her clean white toilet bowl. Eventually my stomach had settled down enough for me to fall asleep, and the next thing I knew was when I woke up in a shaft of bright sunlight from the bedroom skylight. I was lying in a liquid pool of my own shit, which was so weak that it didn’t even smell.
If I’d liked my girlfriend before that, I loved her afterwards. I woke her up and told her what had happened, feeling so embarrassed and low that I wanted to die, and she just took the sheets and my clothes and put them in the washing machine. She made me a vitamin C drink and propped me up in bed with pillows. She left for work without every saying even a single word to make me feel bad, not “Oh my God,” or “Gross,” or even “Don’t worry about it, I have this friend and you’ll never BELIEVE” – nothing. After she left the bedroom was full of a clear, peaceful white light. I sat and breathed the light for a long time, not thinking much. I was thinking, I love her. I was thinking, she brightens the room. But mostly I was just breathing the clear light.
Back in real-time, the man had followed me all the way across the road. He said “Oy!” and I turned around. His eyes were so far gone he could have been seeing the birth of constellations, all the episodes of the Smurfs backwards at high-speed, the insides of his own brain. I don’t know what he was seeing when he looked at me.
He reached out and grabbed my coat. He was saying “Fuck...y’fuckin...fuck y’fuck...” I didn’t move. I had no strength and I felt like everything was unreal. He pulled back his other hand, leaning back, like Superman would if he was just about to really knock the head off some bad guy. His goop-covered lips were moving constantly. I couldn’t even lift my arms. He looked directly into my eyes with pupils like pinpricks.
I said, “Don’t hit me, mate.” There was a kind of innocence about it. I had nothing to defend myself with. I just didn’t want him to hit me. He was still looking me in the eyes, and I saw something change. They grew wider, and his mouth opened a little more, and he suddenly looked fearful...not of me, but of something else. I know what I saw in his eyes when they changed – it was a clear light, like awareness would look if you could put it in a glass jar to show to people. His hand hung poised, and I thought he might still hit me.
Over his shoulder I could see some people had stopped on the other side of the road. I said, “Your stuff’s over there.” I meant his jacket. I have no idea why I said that. there was no context for anything that was happening.
He was still looking into my eyes. He let go of me, and I turned around and started walking. I walked for a few seconds, and then turned back. One of the most curious things was that I wasn’t shaking, I wasn’t scared, I had had no rush of adrenaline. It could be that my body simply had no resources, but I don’t think so. I think that because I saw the clear light something in me knew I was safe.
He was back across the road. People started moving again. Cars passed by. He leaned down to pick up his jacket, and walked along the path out of town without looking back once.
The doctor gave me a special drink to replace the water and salt I was losing, and told me I would have to wait for the diarrhoea to run its course. My body felt like an open channel, clear light for my eyes, clear water from my arse, clear bright air for me to breathe. If I saw the clear light and felt safe, what did the paint thinner man see that made him decide not to hit me? I could imagine him going home, washing the gunk off his face, going to bed and waking up with a blinding headache. He probably wouldn’t even remember what had happened after he’d given an experimental sniff to the stuff in the tin. I could make anything up about him to try and make sense of it, to make it into a story, but there isn’t really a story I can see. Just a clear light, and the strange things on which it shines.