by Emma Lee
a stiff whisky
Patsy opened the middle drawer of her chest of drawers and took out a pale yellow cot-sized blanket. Her hands were shaking now. The removal of the blanket revealed a small pink suede box. She raised the lid and picked up the tiny bracelet with the name Corina engraved in a flowing script. She placed it on a piece of tissue and softly polished it. Then replaced the bracelet.
I was scrolling through the messages I’d received - I maintain a website, http://www.bipolar-association.org - to check no one had posted any crackpot theories about manic depression being down to an imbalance of vitamins or a sin in a previous life. Because of the levels of prejudice some of our members faced, the chatroom was never live. Instead people emailed messages to me and, if not offensive, I posted them on site. Then a new message from my e-friend, Jen, who maintained a site that offered support for family and friends of people who had cancer, popped up:-
Hi John! Wanna run something by you. Recently we had some mails from someone called Trisha whose daughter, Carla, apparently had leukaemia. I say apparently because this Trisha used words like ‘fatigued’ and no one says fatigued unless they’ve swallowed a medical textbook. I left the first one, but took off the next two, because they were strange, but I can’t say why. Like she was talking about herself and how much care and nursing she’d given, but not about Carla. Most parents mentioned their children’s favorite TV show or what their last wish was. But there was nothing like that from Trisha. I have to give her the benefit of the doubt, don’t I?
Yeah, you do, I guess, was my first response. Couldn’t you check out hospitals? I asked out loud, there’d be a record of treatment somewhere.
Bad habit of mine talking to the computer. Realising the smudge I was seeing on the screen was actually dust on my glasses, I took them off and cleaned them. I pictured Jen as a female image of me: short chestnut hair and dark eyes. Only she’d be about six inches shorter and have a nicely curved figure. Of course, I had no idea what she actually looked like and hesitated about asking. We’d begun our correspondence via a site for a TV cop show we were both huge fans of.
I put my glasses back on and hit reply to sender and suggested this Trisha was maybe a bit shy so was hiding behind terminology and to give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I suggested a date. That always cheered Jen up. She was in Ohio, I was in Nottingham and neither of us could afford the air fares.
There was a new message for me on the site email address:-
Hi, I’m Patricia. Wondered if anyone could give me advice. My daughter Clare’s always been precocious and hyperactive, complaining of school being boring. But teachers turned a blind eye to her attention-seeking tactics as she’s always scored A pluses. But I’m at my wits’ end. I always knew something was wrong: the struggles I’ve had getting her out of bed some days, the risks she takes with no consideration for my worries. Like my nephew’s wedding when she turned up late in jeans and ripped tee shirt and gave this really funny speech when I just wanted to die with embarrassment. My GP, counsellors and therapists have accused me of being over-worried about an intelligent daughter. But finally, finally, Clare’s now been diagnosed as having bipolar affective disorder. Finally! She’s 15. It was such a relief someone finally took me seriously. The consultant mentioned lithium, but refused to prescribe. Can anyone help? Why not prescribe?
The email address was at one of the main ISPs, which didn’t tell me anything about its origins. It seemed a straightforward enough description of atypical bipolar affective disorder so I decided to post it. The chatroom regulars would explain that lithium’s also toxic so not usually prescribed for teenagers. It did seem odd to expect a teenager to think about whether she was embarrassing her parent though.
Patsy typed in ‘cystic’ then clicked on the search button. Yawning, she bookmarked a couple of sites that mentioned chatrooms and decided to check them out later. She hung up her internet connection and walked towards the bathroom. A wall mirror reflected her slightly overweight figure. She sighed. She ran a hand through her mousy hair that was losing its perm. Then hesitated by a closed bedroom door. She saw posters of popstars covering the walls, the pile of CDs on the floor, the make-up spilling over the chest of drawers. Patsy sighed and touched the door handle, but then let her hand fall back to her side. She’d contact those chatrooms tomorrow. Now she wanted to catch some sleep.
A week later, Patricia sent another message:
Thanks for all your advice. I understand about lithium now. But I’m still struggling with my daughter. We went to a restaurant. She had slapped on make-up and looked about 18. At a nearby table a middle-aged man sat on his own. After our meal I went to the cloakroom. When I came back, she was chatting to this man! He phoned for her yesterday. I asked him how old he thought she was. He said she’d said she was 22 and we were sisters. I told him her real age and told him he couldn’t see her. Then had it out with her. Suddenly her mood switched. She’d been happy and amicable. Then suddenly she sank on her bed in tears, said she hated me, hated herself and wanted to die. She refused to get up this morning. Said she couldn’t face the world anymore.
Sudden, extreme mood swings could be normal, but only a actor could produce tears on demand like that. I posted it anyway.
Hi John! Feeling better now. Trisha just posted to say Carla had died. So I left it on site and passed on the sympathy messages. I’m also getting over a bad cold so wonder if I was being ungenerous. I’ve just sent a bundle of advice to a guy in Boston who’s adding a chatroom to a cystic fibrosis site. He’s not asked me for a date yet. Jen.
I asked her for the new website’s address.
Patsy clicked on to her second bookmarked site, http://www.cystic-friends.com and quickly read some of the recent messages. Then typed, Hi I’m Patsy. My daughter, Colette, has CF and I was looking for some friendly advice. Her consultant doesn’t think she’ll live to see 16, but she’s so calm I worry she’s in denial. It’s difficult. How can I make sure she really does understand?
It took Jen a couple of days to come up with the site address. I guess I could have gone through the search engines, but there was no guarantee they’d be a “made in Boston” label on the site.
Another message came in:-
Hi. Patricia again. I think I’ve just been through hell and am only just coming back. I’m only typing this now because I finally persuaded a doctor to give her a sedative so we could both get some sleep. She refuses to eat. Refuses to do anything. Doesn’t she realise I’m only trying to do my best for her? How on earth do you cope?
It bothered me that for two messages now Clare had lost her name. I cut Patricia’s last message from the website but kept both messages in my email box. Patricia could be two doors or two continents away.
Patsy typed quickly, Hi. Thanks for your comments. Turned out I was right to worry. Colette was in denial. This morning she threw her breakfast across the room, in a really bad tantrum. Then began calling me all sorts of names, blaming me for her CF, telling me I should never have had a child, that I should have terminated my pregnancy... But how could I? I really wanted to do the best for her. I’m her mother. She’s threatened suicide. How on earth do you cope?
Patsy clicked send and minimised her mailbox. She then clicked on her favorites icon and chose http://www.bipolar-association.org/chatroom and began scrolling through the messages.
Hi John. Check this out! I clicked on the address Jen had given me and looked at the messages. It’s a bit uncanny, isn’t it? Have you any odd messages?.
I got up and went to wash my face. I’d talked a close friend out of suicide. I’d known people believe they could fly, known someone get so angry they wanted to literally destroy their house with a sledgehammer and I’d known irrepressible cheerfulness that was infectious enough to make the most miserable of crowds want to party. But none of these people had wanted my sympathy.
I returned to my PC, opened my favourite search engine and typed victim.
Patsy scrolled down the messages but couldn’t see the message she’d been looking for. Someone would have replied by now.
She scrolled through her favorites, looking for the leukaemia support site she’d found. The messages she’d left there had disappeared too. Then she clicked on http://www.cystic-friends.com and scrolled through the site. Her messages there too had disappeared. Patsy frowned.
Patsy opened a new message and clicked in the address, email@example.com from her personal address book. Then stared at the blank message. She got up and walked to the hallway, stopping in front of the closed bedroom door. Her hand felt cold and she realised she was holding the brass door knob. She opened the door.
She walked over the pale carpet and drew the green curtains, darkening the room. Then quietly walked into the neighbouring bedroom. The double bed was neatly made with a floral quilt cover and single pillow. She lifted out the suede box.
Tears welled as Patsy forced herself to replace the box. She sank onto the bed and let her tears flow.
When the sobs subsided, she blew her nose and washed her face in cold water. As she was drying her hands, she noticed the white mark where her wedding ring had been didn’t stand out as much as it used to. It was now as marked and lined as the skin on the rest of her fingers.
Patsy returned to her PC and moved the mouse to get rid of the screensaver. In the blank message, she typed, Can you help? and clicked on send.
A new mail icon flashed. My first reaction was to type No, see a pro. But I deleted my message. Instead I typed, Before I can help I need to know what the problem is. I will do what I can, and pressed send. Once it had moved into ‘sent items’, I re-read it. It seemed very abrupt and not very helpful, but, hey, I’m only human.
I emailed Jen, Not had any odd messages to site. But I think I’ve found Patricia/ Trisha or rather she found me. Don’t want to frighten her off but will update when I find out more. I padded out the email with some chitchat.
By the time I sent it, there was another incoming email.
My husband left, was all that it said but the address was the same as the Can you help? one.
What made him leave? I prompted and sent.
I waited a few moments: nothing. I left the PC on while I went and showered. As I was drying myself the new email icon flashed. I cleaned my glasses before reading.
I was pregnant.
So there was a child, I thought. Then noticed the scroll bar on the side of the email and scrolled down a blank screen before reaching more text.
I wasn’t my fault. He didn’t want children. I did. But I didn’t do it deliberately. It really wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t. He left. I wanted our baby. I wanted... Anything I’d have done it.
More blank spaces, as if she’d leant on the enter key. But no more text. I deleted the excess spaces whilst re-reading the message. There had to be more than that: her reaction was too extreme, even he had been a complete bastard that had left her at a vulnerable time. And the baby? I tried.
I wanted the baby.
Not the most helpful of responses. Something happened to the baby? There was a long pause before the next email.
I heard its heartbeat. I felt it move.
Quickly I typed, Patricia, you don’t have to share this with me if you don’t want to. You’ve made huge strides forward getting this far. It was obvious she’d lost the baby.
No, I want to continue.
OK, I replied.
I guess you’ve guessed my baby died. There, I’ve finally said it. I’ve always said the baby before. Now, I’ve typed my baby. It was my baby, wasn’t it? My baby.
Good, you’re taking ownership, I spoke to the screen again. Yes, it was your baby.
The cancer nurse helped me sell all the baby things. She said I should get rid of it all. Stop reminding myself.
Woah! Where did the cancer nurse come from? I banged my forehead with the heel of my hand. Assuming the messages pulled from the three sites were from this same woman, then she’d started at Jen’s leukaemia site. I needed Jen’s help.
You’ve come through a hell of a lot. And believe me, these few emails really show you’re getting to grips with it. That’s positive, really positive. I hoped that was sufficiently placatory or at least sufficient enough to buy me time to get to Jen.
Jen. A quick message for a quick response? It seems a woman lost a baby, then had cancer treatment which I think has left her infertile. Suggestions for bereavement guidance?
I got up, paced my hallway. Returned to the PC and clicked onto Jen’s site. Should have done this before, but you never think straight when you’re tired.
Do you really think so? It was from Patricia. No one’s said that before. No one’s let me talk about it, they all hurry me on to something else.
oYes, I really think so, I began. I copied in some links from Jen’s site. Hope these might offer some support. Keep in touch. I don’t know where you are but it’s late night here and I’m tired.
I clicked send, wondering where the hell Jen was. At this time she was usually on-line and responding in seconds.
Hi John. Nearly didn’t respond. Didn’t you look at my site? Thought we had a case of Münchhausen’s by Proxy: this women trying to get sympathy for herself via a non existent child. At least there was one. I couldn’t do what you do. I know you’re going to try and help her. I still want to kill her. Best of Luck. Jen.
I’d wanted to kill her too. It’s sick using an imaginary child to gain others, sympathy. But she needed help and didn’t find it. That doesn’t excuse what she did, but help should have been there. Maybe, if she understands that, she was entitled to help then but it wasn’t forthcoming, so her problems have been allowed to fester. She’s allowed victimhood to take over, demanding others give her the victim status she so desperately wants because no one listened, no one gave her support when she needed it, so it’s become a black hole and consumed her. But if I can get her to understand her problem can be solved if she wants to solve it. Just maybe it’ll work and she’ll see she can’t keep demanding help because she’s overwhelming, she needs somewhere to start and someone to provide a walking stick to help her make those first steps. I’ll do it simply to get her off our backs and stop her doing this to others. And if this email doesn’t make sense: I’m sorry, I’m tired. It’s late. Fix a date, another time? If I can get her to stand up, you’ll help, won’t you? John.
Let me calm down first. But I’m with you. Jen.
About the author
Emma Lee's short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including Fairlight Books, Gentle Footprints (Bridgehouse Publishing) and Extended Play (Elastic Press). She was runner-up in Writing Magazine’s Annual Ghost Story Competition. Her most recent poetry collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015), The Significance of a Dress is forthcoming from Arachne in 2020. She is Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015) and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com