James had known for weeks that he was only just managing to keep it together, that the possibility of losing control and being swallowed by a familiar smothering blackness was ever present.
He sometimes felt that depression and anxiety formed the foundation of his world, as they bubbled up at various times throughout his life to pull him into their depths. Mostly dormant but ever looming, he had long learned to live with the milder symptoms. Even if some of his coping mechanisms (those involving whisky for example) were rather inadvisable. Since he’d joined the force it was the job, more often than not, that caught the brunt of it, triggered his self-loathing or his guilt at letting the victims down. Wore him down to the point of emotional exhaustion and then came back to deal another blow.
So, when he felt himself growing progressively on edge, in turns melancholic and riddled with the clench of nameless anxieties, he knew he was heading for some sort of crisis. What he hadn’t expected was that the moment that finally broke his composure was not a distressing case, but a quiet and otherwise lovely moment when he was completely off duty.
In his defence, he thought later, it had been a long week; He’d worked a case for 6 days at breakneck speed and then attended a 3-day conference on evidence collection procedure without a day off in between.
The conference had been tedious and long winded, even for his intellectual stamina, and after his long week he’d found himself almost nodding off in more than one seminar.
Luckily the venue was in the centre of Manchester and as Robbie had also been attending, he secured them leave for the following day so they could have a rest before driving home, as well as spend some time with his family.
James had offered to travel home on his own after the conference but Robbie had insisted that he’d be very welcome to visit Lynne, Oliver and his grandkids. It was a difficult decision. He liked Lynne and her family, and hadn’t had a chance to meet her new baby, but despite Robbie’s apparent sincerity he felt too much of an imposition on the man. Surely he wouldn’t want to spend even more time with him after three days together already, especially when he had his family to spend time with instead.
He dragged out his reluctance until Robbie told him he’d already booked two non-cancellable hotel rooms near Lynne’s house, so he may as well stay up in Manchester for the night, make a holiday of it – even if he didn’t want to spend the time with Robbie. And it was this, the act of a man who knew his own mind, that convinced him at least to visit for the evening after the conference, even if he ended up doing something else the next day.
The last seminar had finished at three thirty and afterwards they drove across the city to the 3-bed terrace in the suburbs and James was welcomed in with incredible warmth. Within minutes he’d been re-introduced to little Matthew as ‘Uncle James’ and had baby Harriet thrust at him to hold. It was hard to work out who was more amused by this, the baby, who giggled in his arms, or Robbie who chuckled heartily at the introduction. It certainly wasn’t James, who felt supremely under-qualified for holding such a precious and wriggly infant.
They were plied with tea and biscuits and ushered into the cosy living room where Matthew was playing with a Playmobil police car, zooming it around the carpet making loud nee-nawing sounds.
“He saw the two of you on the news last week.” Lynne said, referring to an operation they had been seconded onto which had ended with them pursuing the suspect down the M40, “Hasn’t stopped playing with that car ever since. I tried to tell him that it’s not all high-speed car chases but he’s not having it!”
“Yeah- Police evidence procedure training isn’t as fun as that!”
“Boring conference then?” She asked.
“Ah, you know.” Robbie shrugged. “Necessary evil aren’t they, got to keep up to date. At least it was up here and we got to drop in on you lot.”
The conversation moved onto how Matthew was getting on in his first term at school and how he was adapting to sharing his time with the new baby. James couldn’t join in much with the conversation, his in-depth knowledge of many subjects did not stretch to the emotional needs of a four year old. He sat back and let the conversation flow around him. An unusual soundscape, with the undercurrent of police chases, interspersed with whines from the baby when Robbie became distracted and stopped bouncing her on his lap. It was very pleasant, listening to the family chatting away. But somewhere during an anecdote about Matthew trying to help bathe Harriet he began to feel a bit strange. Fuzzy, somehow, and far away from the other occupants in the room, like they existed in some other realm.
He felt a twist of emotion surfacing, wobbling and pulsing through his belly making him suddenly restless and shaky. Disorientated and with a sudden desperate desire to hide from everyone, he pushed himself up off the sofa without looking at anyone and excused himself from the conversation. Outside the living room he stumbled down the hall to the small downstairs toilet and managed to lock the door behind him before the real emotion hit.
He was flooded by a terrible sadness. A deep empty grief – if that was the right word, a grief for a life he didn’t have. He groped for the toilet seat on wobbly legs, eyes crowded with tears teetering on the edge of spilling over, and sat down as they started to pour, bracing his head in his hands and clenching his short hair between his fingers to try and ground himself. The tears wouldn’t stop. They poured out of him from a seemingly bottomless well of despair.
He swallowed back the noises fighting out of his throat, taking snatched, gulping breathes between the tears. He didn’t cry often, even if he was frequently on the edge. It’s not that he repressed the emotions exactly, he brooded on them enough, but he’d learnt the dubious art of self-medication. Pushing himself to over-exercise, rowing or running, when he struggled on his days off, or drinking himself into a stupor if it was the evening.
He had no idea why it should affect him so much, hit him so hard then. He’d met Lynne and her family several times before and had never felt anything but a strange affection for her (as the daughter of someone he cared so much about). Perhaps it was his mood that day, although he’d felt perfectly fine at the conference – tired perhaps, but not emotional. Or perhaps it was being so engulfed, so very surrounded with things he’d never have. Perhaps it was the 360 degree, high definition, live experience of domestic family life. The smiling photos on the walls, the child-smudged paintings on the fridge door, the laughter and the verve of the children. Giggles spreading through the house infecting everyone but him. It was in every pore of their house – family, love, children. Every decision made for all of them, every inch infused with toys and crayons and child safety locks.
The more time ticked on, the more other emotions started to surface; guilt and shame that he’d brought his melancholy into this joyful house, and self-pity for his patheticness. Embarrassment too, for a man in his thirties to be weeping in a toilet. Focussing on these emotions rather than the dark pit within he was able to pull himself together and gradually the tears stopped pouring and started to slow.
James pushed himself up and shuffled over to the sink. He ran the cold tap and used cupped hands to splash water all over his tear-wet face. He rubbed his eyes with water too, then reached for the peach hand towel to dry off before finally looking in the mirror to inspect the damage. His anxiety released a fraction at the sight, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could be. Being so pale his face reddened easily, but perhaps his earlier efforts to control his breathing, to prevent the absence of wracking sobs, loud cries, had saved him both the indignity of being overheard and of emerging with a blotchy face. His eyes were red and puffy, but you would have to look closely to realise. Robbie no doubt would, for when did anything get past him? But if he tried he could hopefully hide his lapse from his hosts at least. The last thing he wanted was for them to think they’d done anything wrong.
He emerged from the bathroom feeling blank and empty, shaking himself and pasting on a fake smile. The conversation seemed to be still continuing in the living room so he retraced his earlier footsteps and pushed the door open with a confidence he didn’t feel.
No-one made a comment about his extended absence and he slotted back besides Robbie on the sofa, trying to work out what the conversation had moved on to. Lynne started to describe their recent holiday to Wales which gave him some time to reacclimatise and settle without having to say anything. Robbie caught his eye once, questioning and concerned, and he knew his red eyes had been noticed. But James inclined his head towards Lynne as if to say ‘not in front of her’ and Robbie nodded slightly in agreement. James had no idea what he would say, how he would explain how he felt, if they did talk about it, but hopefully he had a couple of hours respite before he’d have to decide.