Stress By Ben Gaffrey

By Ben Gaffrey

As soon as I wake up… as soon as I wake up they sweep in. Like being aware of my breathing I can’t ignore it. I squeeze the pillow over my ears and shout: “Get out of my head! Get out of my head!” There’s no one here to hear me anyway.

Black cloud, thunder storming, lighting up the corners of my mind, pouring a trailing skirt of rain over my body, melting it into a muddy stream, like too many boots have trodden on me. This homebrewed storm / there’s no off-switch for. I lunge out of bed, catching my ribs in the mirror, my skin white, underside of a mushroom white, the overgrown mound of pubic hair, hangover eyes, and I quickly cover it all up in a dressing gown, and then I search; fish through my pockets, rummage around my desk, surf through notepads, flick through the to-do list, ticking everything off and still, still it rages, flooding me.

I’m outside now, sucking at a cigarette, hugging myself in the cold. I look through the windows of University apartments. Most have shut the blinds but few are glowing and open, and I watch a man crooked over his desk, writing, and after a woman twist and snap into rubbery yoga positions. Catching both their eyes I smile, they smile back, it feels natural, and we’re connected by time: each of us distracted by our own lives but appreciating our distractions. I watch my breath hill for a moment, tracing the night, curling away with my troubles, with all these pointless burdens. Balloons. Then I return. Up the three flights of stairs, unlock the door to the flat, walk the corridor and shut myself into my box. I hack up a clump of brown, sticky stuff into the sink, and I feel light, light enough to become magnetised. I feel the pull. The burning in my head returns, it throbs, like it’s been branded from the inside. The thoughts of failures. Those people, inside the windows, working, progressing, whilst I stall, stale myself. I spin, see the wastebasket filled with crumpled papers, the airier folded with crisping clothes, the piles of unread books that I swore I’d read, and I collapse onto the bed. I burrow into the covers, into myself; a failure, and everything’s a failure here, in the place where everyone’s a success.

Then it hits me. I stare at the ceiling, at the bulking square light segmented like a chocolate bar, like a solar panel. Is this why I’m here? Validation? And the questions begin: why aren’t I good enough without it? Why do I need that sheet of paper that I’ve paid with this stress and that £10,000? Will this cut out these bad thoughts? Leave empty spaces in my mind as cleanly as a collage? Can I be cured?

“What’s my problem? I can feel myself breaking, steaming from my ears, so why won’t I do something about it. I sit in the shared kitchen now, writing this all out. The orzo’s baking, the smell of carrots and onions stewing, a chunk of chorizo rolling about my tongue. The hum of the air vent, the clicks of the oven as it adjusts its temperature, half-drunk wine, red lipstick at the rim of the glass, recipe book splattered open, specs of dried sauce freckling the page, tobacco folded tight in its pouch, keys with contraptions attached, clattering as I pocket them. Is this so hard? Just to live. To just live without the rules I set myself? To escape my prison. But again, just on this thought – prison – I feel the cage rise up around me and I can’t get out. I’m stuck. And I just add more bars whenever I add more rules. I shake them, rattle and scream, but I can’t even curl my fingers around them as more sprout to fill all the gaps, so if you were looking at me from the outside all you would see is a metal box, and maybe hear a faint muffling sound. That’s me. That’s my sound.

Still, in this cage I’m doing what I want, I’m where I want to be, I have all the time in the world to do it, whatever the thing is. Isn’t that enough? Why isn’t that enough? What am I looking for? Can I find it here? On this page? For the first time in my life I’m unsure. I’m unsure of everything. And I’m scared.


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