When I was ten years old my mum tried to commit suicide. I remember her and my dad had been arguing again. If you asked me what they had been arguing about I'd not be able to tell you with any certainty, although I would guess money and I'd probably be right. What I do remember is more important. I mean, you can only be shaped by what you remember, right? This memory shines the brightest in my mind and everything seems to be connected to it. We always have these memories; anchors of to the moments that made us the people we are, and no matter what happens in our lives the thought of past experiences that shaped us snap us back and stop us from getting too carried away. I've always thought of this as how our conscience is formed, but it must be more complex than that because whatever happens in my life, I always seem to come back to the day I fought back tears and held my mum for what felt like the longest time before dragging her home while she pretended nothing was wrong. Maybe I was crying, because I can remember tasting salt in my mouth. Whether that was from tears running down my cheek into my mouth or from the salty air coming off the sea I do not recall. Anyway, the strongest memories from that day are senses, not thoughts; that salty taste, the sound of the rushing waves and my mum's smell. Peaches.
Money was always a factor growing up. I don't suppose we were any different to any other family in the area at the time, the whole idea of the undeserving poor was everywhere in the tabloids and a trickle down economic approach from the government essentially meant those in work had to rely on the generosity of their employers to grant them more hours on a wage that barely covered living costs. No wonder there were riots on TV, days off school when we watched the teachers stand in the car park holding up signs and waving banners, and empty stomachs all over the country. When talking about this time to my parents, I'm told they were both working two jobs, sometimes three. Of course they only officially had one job, the others were undeclared and paid cash-in-hand. When you can't afford to feed yourself or your children, you're mind isn't really on the collective benefit of tax revenue or of your National Insurance contributions and pension. Your mind is on getting in enough money to make sure your heads stay just above the water of poverty, debt and the embarrassment of picking up fag ends from the street, breaking them apart and collecting the tobacco so you can roll it into one thin and crooked cigarette at home. It seems so easy now to just brush this kind of environment off as a historical tale from the Victorian age but the fact is, this happened only twenty years ago, and to people you know.
As I say, money was always tight which means that tempers were always short and emotions were high. Stress will do that to a person. Later, my mum would tell me she had to force herself to have one meal a day so she had the energy to work again the next day, because while she would go to bed, she couldn't guarantee she would sleep. She rigidly stuck to one meal a day for years so that her children and her husband could eat. The shame of pretending you gave a cashier a £20 note and creating a scene so that they relented and gave you change from a £20 instead of the £10 you both know you handed over was nothing compared to the shame of sending emaciated children into school. No matter what happened, the kids always had to have clean, white shirts, shiny shoes and trousers with no holes in the knees. Being poor was no reason to be unclean or not properly presented. On good days we got a Fray Bentos pie from a can and boiled potatoes for dinner; otherwise watered down tomato soup and bread filled our stomachs.
I would later find out that the year of my brightest memory was the year the highest number of suicides was ever recorded. It wasn't just poor people suffering from far too much stress either. I'm reluctant to think about it because of the damage they caused but the people making the decisions about which employees get more hours, who gets to keep their job and who has to be given their P45 must be have been as stressful, if not more so than the prospect of clocking in every day not knowing if it will be the last time you do so. As we are seeing in China now, suicide was a big problem for any company with a building big enough for it's employees to jump from.
In one way, I've always thought of suicide as the most selfish act a person can make. It's your life, and you can do with it what you choose, right? If you end it, that's your choice and your problem alone, right? What about the people that depend on you? Your children, your husband, your friends, your parents and your siblings? What about the guy that gets paid less than you do that has to find your body; see your mangled corpse and who can't sleep at night because whenever he closes his eyes all he can see is your legs bending in unnatural places and your forearms poking out of the skin where you have instinctively tried to brace yourself for a fall that nobody can prepare for. But that isn't fair. That's me, a fully rational creature applying my reason to your situation and taking your decision completely out of context. Everything being equal, we all have a choice in what we do and while being among other people or situations can colour the choices and make one look more attractive than another, this doesn't change the fact that we could always do otherwise. This isn't the case under extreme stress or depression. In that state the mind shuts down and not only are some options painted black, but they might as well be invisible, such is the opportunity to grab them.
This is how I try to understand the way my mum was feeling when she left the house with her cardigan flowing free in the middle of the night. Lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of money, lack of hope. There's that song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Sometimes it isn't lack of love that we are torn apart. Sometimes we are torn apart by the black hole of despair and the lack of a light at the end of the tunnel, and the jagged silhouette of the rocks one hundred feet below that look so enticing because they can extinguish the final flame that keeps you alive but tortures you at the same time. The argument raving in her mind must have been deafening because calling out to her so loud that my throat strained and my voice cracked wasn't acknowledged at all. Maybe the wind took my voice and carried it down to the rocks, and she would have only heard it moments before the rock cleaved her face in two.
Looking like a ghost, staring at the wild sea crashing against the base of the cliffs stood my mum. The woman who had given birth to me and cared for me and fed me over herself. A woman who had suffered more than I could imagine just so that I had no less than any other child I knew, and I have the nerve to consider her selfish. That's what I think now, not what I thought at the time. I don't remember what I thought then, only what I did. I remember willing my legs to move faster than they ever had before, and I remember them obliging. I ran so fast I felt like I was flying. I remember the waves crashing below and the sound of my feet moving over the changing terrain; grass, earth, rock, until finally I wasn't running any more. I was holding onto my mum with my arms wrapped around her waist. I don't remember her turning round but she must have because my face was pressed into her stomach. She looked down at me and while her mouth said she was just going for a walk, her eyes told a completely different story. I held her so tight, engulfed in the wonderful smell of peaches.