“You’ve got through this before. You will again.” I say to myself. I try to remember how and start by deleting the social media apps from my phone and putting on my running shoes.
In the Clough, the grit shifting beneath my pounding feet, I feel the conflict within me, the battle between letting go of the threatening maelstrom and allowing it to take hold. There’s no way of telling which side will win and there feels like little or no chance of influencing the outcome myself. I try to focus on not focusing, observing nothing except the compacted dirt of the track and the green foliage either side instead of telling myself off for the thoughts and feelings that come unbidden.
Shuffling up the path towards me is an old man and his old collie, both straining on failing knees, their progress painfully slow. I’ll brighten their day, I decide, show them the younger (relatively speaking, at least) generation aren’t all Spice-addicted criminals and lobotomised ignoramuses. I slow down to a walk, only now feeling the sweat trickling down my face and neck.
“Morning!” I say. I even smile.
The old man nods, which seems to be all the effort he can muster. Just as we pass each other I hear a voice growl. “Did ‘ee say owt to thee, twatty?”
I look at the man, shocked. He looks at me as if to say, What?
“No, ‘ee didn’t, so mind tha’ own bastard business.”
I look down at the dog. It is also looking at me. But its expression – I didn’t know dogs had expressions beyond hungry and excited until now – is one of cocky insouciance.
“Go on, fuck off,” it growls, then hobbles off. Its owner takes one more quizzical look at me, then turns and shuffles after it.
I walk on and progress to a run, absent-mindedly trying to recall when I took my tablet this morning, whether I accidentally took too many or none at all and whether that could result in hallucinations this quickly.
My Fitbit buzzes to announce I have run 5k and I take the excuse to sit on the trunk of a fallen tree and hawk up a lump of mucus that has been collecting in my throat for the last few minutes. A magpie swoops down to have a look at the glistening product on the track then hops away as if having realised it is not in fact an emerald.
“You’re not going to talk to me, are you?” I say.
“Only if you want me to,” it replies.
“I didn’t know birds could speak English.”
“I didn’t know people could speak magpie,” fires back the magpie, without opening its beak. “Generally they don’t even try. Unless it’s ‘shoo’ or ‘leave my cat alone’.”
“I think I’m having a breakdown,” I say.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the magpie. “What makes you think so?”
“Well, apart from you talking to me and a dog telling me to fuck off , I have anxiety and depression. I’ve been okay for a while but I can feel it starting to come back and I’m overthinking and catastrophizing and I’m trying to stop it before it takes hold again.”
“Caw, you’re one for sorrow aren’t you!” laughs the magpie like a machine gun. “Sorry. That’s a magpie joke. Couldn’t resist.”
“Maybe it would have been better to have seen two of you,” I say.
“Nah, that’s all bollocks. Have you tried to talking to anyone about it?”
“Except you, you mean? Not really. I mean, I write a blog now and then, put the odd post on Facebook, but…”
“What’s Facebook?” it says, then laughs again, two hundred rounds per minute. “Never mind. Does it help?”
“Kind of. Sometimes people reply to me and let me know they feel the same way too. That helps. But sometimes you don’t want to talk about it, even though everyone says you should.”
“Have you tried collecting shiny things?”
“Well, not shiny things, exactly. But books, CDs, DVDs, flowery shirts, socks, social media followers…”
The magpie’s wing feathers ripple in the breeze like a shrug. “I don’t really know what any of those things are. Can I have that?” It nods its head in the direction of my left hand.
“My wedding ring?” I twist it between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. “No, I’m sorry.”
“Worth a try,” says the magpie. “I’d better get off. Maybe try not thinking about things so much?”
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll try.”
The magpie caws again and launches itself into the sky. I watch it for a few seconds before it disappears into the sun’s glare.
I start running again, working up a sweat and trying to tire out my muscles and my brain. After a minute of two, a squirrel crosses my path, its movements swift and jerky.
I stop dead and whisper, “Excuse me.”
It stops too and twitches, alert for new danger, its fight or flight instinct kicking in.
“Can you… speak?” I say.
The squirrel takes a moment, cocking its head as if to consider the question. Then it bounds away, tail flicking, into the long grass beside the path.
Other priorities, obviously. I look at my Fitbit, vaguely take in the time and distance it shows then unbuckle it from my wrist. I hang it from the branch of a tree and pick up the pace again, feeling the effort burn in my calves and thighs.
I hear a machine gun laugh and look back down the track. There is nothing there. The watch is gone.