The Pocket

The boy I’m looking at is me. It’s over forty years since I’ve seen that face, I have no photographs of my youth, but I still recognise myself. If it was anyone else, a past image of one of the sons I haven’t seen in ten years, there wouldn’t be this sinking recognition in my gut. I’d maybe be able to do more than watch the mistake get made again—I have a sense that I could change the past, my whole life, if I could only act. Instead I just watch an evening I remember more vividly than my wedding night from the outside. I know I’m not dreaming. I’m really standing in the corner of my childhood bedroom, like a ghost or shadow.
I was a scrawny kid when I was eight years old. I’ve spent hours in the gym to avoid being the same as an adult, but I’ve never known until now just how scrawny I was. We were a poor family, all of us kids hungry almost every day. I never knew it was so obvious in the way we looked, the way I looked at least. The kid hunkered in the corner by the window, face half in his knees and hands over his ears, looks malnourished. Kids who look like me in the modern world get taken into care. Back then you had to be abandoned or broken before people would interfere.
Angry voices are echoing up through the floor, I can remember hearing them through my hands but at least they were muffled. There has never been anything unusual about raised voices in my life. They are there in my earliest memories. They are the reason my wife left, why I haven’t seen my sons in so long. I’ve never realised before now that the arguments that broke my marriage were the same as the ones I heard as a child. I guess they’re the same ones that most people heard as kids and repeated as adults—money and infidelity are perennials for us all. Perhaps if I’d been less numb, less secure in my bubble, I’d have picked up on it. I don’t think knowing would have changed much though.
It’s my parents arguing downstairs, the deep bass of my father that no one has heard for twenty-five years and the shrill shriek of my mother I’ve chosen not to hear for nearly as long. They had the same argument once or twice a week until my father finally dropped dead like she always wanted him to. He never earned enough to drink the way he did, and there was always some foolish girl willing to take a tumble with him—only sometimes for money. Thirty-seven years they had the same argument, him unable or unwilling to change and her refusing to end it because she believed in the vows she took. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to any of us if his days had ended with a blow to the head or poison in his food but it was a heart attack that took him. No one challenged the tears Mother shed at the funeral and I’ve heard from the sister I still sometimes talk to that she claims now that he was a good man—hard working and honest. Hindsight is rose-tinted at least as often as it is twenty-twenty, I guess.
There was nothing special or unique about this fight, or the way I sought refuge in the corner by the window. Father’s a little less drunk than usual and Mother a little angrier but that’s all. Even though I was only eight the fear was something I had grown used to. I learned not to cry before I was five and the corner by the window was my safe spot before I turned seven. Looking at myself now, I don’t know why I chose it, what made it feel safe—I was in full view of the door if either parent decided to turn the rage against me. That happened often enough but I never hid under the bed or in a cupboard like my sisters. It was just where I chose to go, where I still choose to go.
I’d like to say that it called to me, that what’s about to happen could only have happened in that corner, but that would be a lie. The change, the thing that made this argument unique, came from inside me. It would have happened no matter where I was—I sometimes think it would have happened even if my childhood had been happy. Perhaps it would have taken longer for me to work it out, but it would have happened one day or another. I don’t like to admit to believing in fate or destiny. I like the belief that the future is unwritten, but I know I was always going to end up where I am now. All there’s ever been left to me, the only things left undecided at the start, is the exact details, the window-dressing.
The sound of breaking crockery comes up through the floor and I watch my younger self cringe a little more, as I wish I could disappear. Just for a little while. The plate and cup throwing was all part of the routine, we never had matching sets for more than a few weeks and all of them were bought from thrift stores—eventually even the good china became a victim of my mother’s love of throwing things but that didn’t happen until I was almost fifteen. By then, Father had become skilled at batting the projectiles aside, sometimes even catching them and launching them back. His aim wasn’t as good as Mother’s, which is how my youngest sister ended up with the scar on her forehead—the good china really exploded when it hit a wall. When I was eight, he used to duck or hide behind a door.
I didn’t know it when this argument happened but, watching from the outside, I’m certain he’s behind a door now—laughing as he peers around it and taunts his wife. I’ve never thought before about how he must have believed all the arguments, the violence, were normal. I’m certain that, in his own way, he loved us all. We were the ones he always came back to, my mother and sisters the only females he wouldn’t allow his friends to insult or mock. I never knew my grandparents, on either side, but I guess they must have been the same. They say broken homes are a repeating cycle, maybe they’re right. My boys have good reason to hate me, to turn to delinquency if they haven’t already.
More plates break downstairs, punctuating Mother’s insults and jibes. My sisters and I were always beaten for swearing, even after we were grown we couldn’t cuss in front of Mother, but she knew every dirty word in the book. Today she was using them all, a commonplace detail I’ll admit wasn’t there in my memory of this day. I know that it was around this time that I started to learn the meaning of all the words I’d been hearing since I was born. Maybe that’s what makes this argument unique, the thing that gave me the impetus to start the ball rolling towards this return. I was still young enough to believe my mother was like a saint in Heaven, knowing that she understood and meant every word is a shock even now.
Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, I’m watching myself curl even tighter into my corner. I still have my hands over my ears and now I’m pushing my whole face into my knees. I can remember thinking that, if I could only cut myself off from the world—stop myself seeing or hearing—then all of it would stop. All I had to do was find a place, a truly safe place, and stay there long enough and the world would right itself. When I emerged the arguments would be over. There would be enough money in the bank and the cupboards would never be empty. Everyone would be happy.
I’m not ready for it when the moment comes, although in my heart I think I must always have known how it would look from the outside. Given how things have turned out, I’m not sure what else I could have expected.
The idea of a safe place, a bubble I could retreat inside where nothing can hurt me, has been with me for as long as I’ve been aware. I think it’s an urge we all have, some atavistic relic of the womb. Freud or Jung, some other less famous writer I’ve never heard of, probably wrote a book about it. I don’t know, don’t really care. It’s always been there in my head and, on the day that I’m watching replay, I learned how to make it happen. I learned how to step inside The Pocket.
It’s a simple process. I think there must be other people who’ve learned how to do it over the years, either by accident like I did or because they were taught. All you have to do is imagine a place where everything is calm and warm, where everything is still. It’s a little like meditation—until recently I was sure that it I’d found the paradise promised by gurus. Maybe it is and the reason I haven’t found myself in Nirvana is because I found a short-cut, a wide and easy road to damnation.
Whatever the truth, I discovered on this afternoon, forty years ago, that I could make the safe, warm and still place real. I could open a place inside my mind and step inside it, and once inside I could close the seam and stay inside until it was safe to leave. I could stay inside for a few minutes or hours. Later I learned I could stay in there for longer—days, weeks and eventually years. As long as it took for me to escape whatever feelings of pain or fear had driven me to seek refuge in the first place. Then, when I felt strong, or bored enough, to return I could return to the exact moment that I had stepped inside, continue my life without anyone knowing that I’d been gone.
It’s why people who don’t know me well think that I’m calm, in possession of some kind of Zen secret. It’s why people who know me well think I’m distant and cold. It’s why everyone who’s known me long enough is a little scared of my temper—if I can’t find the time I need to step inside a pocket I can’t stop the anger boiling over.
I don’t know how I expected it to look from the outside. I can’t describe how it feels inside—the closest I can get is like pulling the covers of a warm bed over your curled body on a cold morning but that isn’t right. I took a bunch of drugs when I was a young man, everyone in my generation did, and the way you feel coming up on ecstasy is almost right as well, but it still isn’t quite right. If I ever meet someone else who has stepped inside the way I have, all I’ll have to say is ‘Inside The Pocket’ and they’ll know what I mean. Working together, though, we still couldn’t describe it to someone else, not truthfully. Fact is, our own experiences probably wouldn’t even be the same. Things like this are always subjective.
From the outside, it looks very much like nothing. The boy in the corner—the eight year old me—relaxes, as if he has gone to sleep. My hands stop clamping against my ears and my arms slowly slip to the floor. The knees I was pressing so tightly together drift apart and also slowly sink, my head dips until my chin is resting on my chest. If I weren’t sitting in the corner, I think I would probably slump to one side or the other. Instead, propped up by the walls, I look like I’ve fallen asleep in a semi-lotus position. Downstairs the sound of breaking crockery is over, I can’t remember now if today was one of the times Father chose to even the score with a few thrown fists or not. Mother had too many delicate days and black eyes for any of them to stand out in my memory.
I stay like that for a few seconds and then I stir. I can remember the brief sense of confusion. I had been inside the pocket for hours, playing one of the secret, solitary games that unhappy children play. The confusion didn’t last for long, from the very first I had known that the pocket was a different place, a magical place. When I was older I read the Narnia books but I didn’t need them to understand that time passes differently in magical places. I can also remember how natural the sense of calm I left the pocket with felt—I could hear my parents still arguing downstairs as clearly as I can now I’m here again but it didn’t matter. I left my safe corner and returned to my meagre collection of toy soldiers and the battle I had been waging with them on my bed—most of them plastic but a few prized ones made from lead. The calm would stay with me for the next few days, protection against the world until the next time my parents fought.
I wish that I could feel that calm now but there’s only the sense of doom that had been building ever since I found myself standing in this corner, tinged now with a panic I know I’m only going to be able to ignore for so long. If I could, I’d step inside The Pocket now, even though I know it’s the reason I’m here. I guess this is how my teenage friends, the ones who weren’t able to dabble with the drugs and walk away, ended up feeling about the poisons that ruined their lives. I’d feel bad about the way I treated them for their addiction, the pity and scorn I left them with, if I weren’t more concerned about my own fate. It makes no difference that, having just seen my first time, I know that my fate was sealed long before I realised it. I saw it stamped on my childhood face, in the blank, dead face I had for the split second between leaving The pocket and fully waking to the room around me.
There’s no sense of movement, no Scooby Doo wiggling lines across my vision. I simply find myself standing in the corner of another room, watching another younger me about to step inside the pocket on another milestone afternoon. The details of this scene are far less clear in my memory than the first time, the importance of it is something I pieced together in retrospect. Until I saw the look on the face of my eight year old self, this is the moment I would have told you marked the start of The Pocket’s malignancy. I still want to believe that this is when it went from good to bad, I’ve believed it for so long that it almost feels sacrilegious to think anything else.
I’m looking at myself, aged twenty-eight. My hair hasn’t gone grey or started to thin, the gelled spikes look better than they do in photographs. The flab has only just started to gather and I don’t have the puckered scar on my left cheek. If The Pocket were a drug, I’d be counted an occasional user, a weekender. I’d been a heavy user throughout my teens but after I left home I hadn’t felt the need. Nothing in my life had been so bad that I’d felt the need to escape, to build up layers of numb calm to protect me from the world. I could go for weeks without once stepping inside, even making it through my father’s funeral and the semi-conscious decision to allow myself to become estranged from my mother without retreating.
I got married when I was twenty-seven. I still don’t know why I proposed, I’ve never been a traditionalist and I wasn’t pressured into it. It just seemed that, after three years in a steady relationship, it was the thing to do. We were both earning good money, we had a fancy ceremony without really stretching the finances. There used to be photographs of our Caribbean honeymoon but I don’t think they exist any more—I heard a while back that my ex-wife burned the album with her wedding dress and everything I never got round to collecting from the house I let her keep. Our first son was on the way by the time of our first anniversary, and I know we were both happy. The six months after I found out I had a child on the way, when she was already six weeks gone, were the longest I’ve ever gone without using the pocket.
The room I’m standing in the corner of now has already been decorated for our son. The due date is only a few weeks away and everything is in place—there’s a wooden crib in one corner and the yellow walls look clean and cheerful even in the grey light of a drab autumn evening. A stars and rockets mobile hangs over the crib and there are friendly looking rabbits and bears on the walls. I chose the mobile and my wife spent an evening cutting out the animals from a roll of wallpaper we both decided was too much to cover the walls after we bought it. There are shelves full of stuffed toys and a chest of drawers overflowing with more baby-grows than I think any child could ever need. I didn’t know then that you can need a dozen a day if you don’t want a grubby looking child, or that babies grow so fast you can only use any given size for a month or two at most. Standing in it now is almost enough to make me cry.
I don’t know why I chose to come here for my first trip to The Pocket in half a year, or even what it was that drove me to take the step in the first place. My wife hadn’t been sleeping well—we worked out with our second that pregnancy turns her into a night owl—and she was asleep in our bed. I’d been downstairs, trying to watch TV but I felt restless so I wandered upstairs. I want to be charitable to myself, claim that I was going to stand in the doorway of our bedroom and watch the love of my life sleep, or the one for my unborn son’s nursery and imagine the life I would give him. It was going to be so much better than the one I had been given. It wouldn’t be an outright lie, I did both those things more than once and I think I meant them. If I’m lying about that, then it’s at some level of my mind I can’t control or hear because I know I felt those things. I know they were real. You’ll have to ask my sons how well I did.
Whatever the reason, I came and sat in the corner by the window in my son’s room. I’m looking at myself now, knees tucked up to my chin and hands clasped over my shins. All I need to do is put my hands over my ears and I’d look just as I did in the last room, when I was eight. I’m frowning, like I’m struggling with some deep thought, but I can’t remember anything profound on my mind. All I can remember thinking at this moment is that I wanted to be inside The Pocket, that I needed to be safe and warm, to feel calm.
Maybe I was scared about the looming responsibility. Maybe I was hurt more by the loss of my parents—it was only two years since my father’s funeral and I didn’t turn my back on my mother until after the wedding. Maybe a lot of things, maybe nothing. Addicts like to make excuses, like to claim that something forced them from the wagon. My drug, my poison, is rare and unique, but it works like any other.
I spent a year inside The Pocket this time. I can’t remember much of what I did in there—the things I do inside are nothing like the things I do in the real world. I guess I played games, watched the fruits of my delusions grow. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing inside The Pocket even when I’m there. It’s Pocket stuff, not meant to be understood in any other world. If it was possible to understand it, to remember what really happens, then I don’t think it could have the same effect when I leave. That’s what the calmness is. It’s my mind learning how to interact with the real world again, remembering how to connect with people and things.
I only sit in the corner of the nursery for a minute, two at the most, before I relax and seem to sleep. It is exactly as when I was eight; I slump into the same half-lotus position and my head slumps against my chest. I think I can see myself stop breathing and I want to leave the corner and go shake myself, force myself not to do what I’m doing. It is too late. I’m here only as a witness. It’s too late for everything and the dead look lingers for almost a minute when I return, a year of peaceful isolation squashed into seconds. From the other side of the room I can see that my eye sockets are empty. Where my eyes, watery and blue, should be, there is a void. It’s like looking at a hollow statue.
Things began to turn sour after that, although it would be a decade before anyone realised how deeply the rot had set in. At the time, as I was living through it, I just thought that it was how life went, a natural part of growing up. The economy turned sour after the birth of my second son, eighteen months after the first. My wife quit her job to look after the boys and my pay rises didn’t keep up with inflation—we went from youthful affluence to middle-aged austerity without realising what was happening. The mortgage payments slipped, the bills began to mount. We sold the house for something smaller, became a one car household. My hair abandoned me and my stomach spread rapidly. Crow’s feet appeared at the corner of my wife’s eyes and her cheeks became pinched, her mouth permanently downturned.
I took to drinking, a couple at the pub on my way home and a couple more when I got there—being half-cut is the best way to either prolong the pocket’s calm or get something similar. It was easier to get home after the boys were in bed and my wife was too tired to put much fire her attempts to rekindle my interest, or the arguments she tried to start when it became clear I didn’t care. Sometimes I’d try to respond but even when she was attacking me, verbally at first and later with her hands, I didn’t really care. I was stepping into The Pocket two or three times a week, lived all my life inside the protective bubble. I think I could have found myself dying in those days and I wouldn’t have been bothered, The Pocket would have kept me smiling.
There’s a greater sense of movement as I move to the third corner, a sudden lurch to the side like a train passing over a set of points too fast. I’m looking at myself again, although I don’t want to admit it. I’m fat and bald, my skin is grey and my eyes sunken. It’s how I’ve looked for the last couple of years, I barely notice the change on the rare occasion I look in the mirror. Perhaps it is worse because I’ve just seen how I looked as a child and a young man, when I still had the time and opportunity to change the outcome of my life, but I don’t think so. If I had been spared the visits to my past, I’d feel just as repulsed by the sight of myself from the outside. I look like my father, only more pathetic.
I’m crouched in the corner by the window, my gut so large that I cannot hug my knees. Instead my flabby legs are sprawled across the floor, it’s been a long time since I could sit with my legs folded for more than a few seconds without my knees screaming in agony or my lower legs going numb from the cut circulation. I’m naked except for a pair of thin, dirty boxer shorts and my hands are resting on my inner thighs, as if I was considering playing with myself but couldn’t find the energy. I might have been—even though this was just moments ago, I can’t remember anything of what I was thinking when I sought the window corner. Most of the last year has been spent drunk, I can’t remember much of it with any clarity.
A decade has passed since my wife finally left me. My boys are young men now but I haven’t seen them since the divorce, not even in photographs. I sent cards and presents for their birthdays and Christmas, but only for a couple of years and only as an afterthought. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, it just never seemed to matter. Whenever it did, whenever I started to feel sad, I would drink until I could find the solitude to step inside. Then I’d stay inside for as long as I could, start drinking again as soon as I was forced out. All I’ve wanted for the last five years is to find a way to stay inside The Pocket forever, to never have to look at the real world again.
Four years have passed since I last worked. All my savings are gone and I’ve cashed in my pension, settling for a fraction of what it would have been worth if I’d held my shit together til retirement. After the divorce, I remember boasting that I’d buy myself a bachelor pad to replace the house I left my wife keep. It didn’t happen, not because I couldn’t afford it but because The Pocket made me think it didn’t matter. I was calm and happy, floating along. I didn’t need to bother.
I didn’t need to bother either when my employer told me my performance wasn’t good enough, that I needed to try harder to keep my position. I can’t even tell you now what it was I did for my last job—I was a field sales rep for a tech company but I never understood what I was selling. Never really cared. I stopped turning up for appointments, left the company car sitting outside the flat I rented. I turned the phone off so they couldn’t call me and didn’t bother opening my e-mail account. My contract was terminated in absentia, the decision sent to me in a letter I didn’t bother opening until the day the bailiffs arrived to forcibly evict me.
I didn’t put up much of a fight.
This last room is a bedsit, a squalid hole I know I’m going to be thrown out of in a day or two at most. After this, there’ll be nowhere to go but the street. I haven’t been to the Job Centre in a month so they’ve stopped my unemployment payments. I opened the notification letter yesterday, a week after it arrived. My landlord won’t have received anything from them in at least as long, the only reason I’m not already on the street is that he’s on holiday—I don’t know where. When he gets back, I suspect the first thing he’ll do is turf me out. I’m not his favourite tenant as it is—a fifty year old drunk who doesn’t care for the smack he sells to the others in this shitty house. He might already be back, already on the stairs with his heavies and the bin bag he’ll give me to put the few things I own in. The marginally younger me, chin slumping into his chest as he steps inside, doesn’t care about any of that—he still thinks that it is possible to step inside The Pocket and stay there forever.
That’s been my goal since the first time, back when I was a scrawny, scared child. It’s only been the last few years that it’s been conscious, but it’s been the only thing I’ve ever wanted. Everything I’ve ignored, everything I’ve lost, has been because I’ve had this secret place, this endless playground. As a child and in my teens, even for the first few years of adulthood, it was the only thing that kept me sane. The only thing that let me know the world could be a happy place. I don’t think I can be blamed for making use of it, for thinking that it was a good thing. I don’t think I can be blamed for trying to step inside it forever.
Now that I’m here, that I know I’ll be standing in the corner of these three rooms even after the buildings crumble to dust, I wish I’d found some other way to survive. The landlord is at the door of the last room and I’m trying to leave The Pocket, to step back into myself. I can’t. My body is cooling, cut off from me.
I’m inside the pocket forever now. I don’t feel calm.


5 thoughts on “The Pocket

  1. Deeply emotiional experience, and extremely well written.
    I was transfixed by the whole thing, and you ‘wrote off’ the life so carefully that i could almost beleive it to be true.


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