Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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Lead Wellies

by Ken Foxe

Do you remember how a cassette player used to work? Or maybe you don’t even know what they are. When the music was over and the take-up reel full, the tape deck would automatically stop with a click. Mine was broken because we hadn’t much money with dad being sick all the time. And so when the tape would finish playing, the reel wouldn’t stop. It would just keep trying to push forward – a couple of millimetres this way, a couple millimetres that, forward again, back again, forward, back, hopelessly stuck. Now, imagine that was your body, every limb and digit jammed like a rusted hinge from antiquity.

It always starts with the lead wellies. My feet get heavy like I’m squelching through a sodden field in wellington boots. It soon feels as if somebody is pouring molten metal into them so that I am rooted to whatever spot I happen to find myself in. Spreading upwards then, a stiffening, a seizing, through my calves, my thighs, into my abdominal muscles. Sometimes, I wet myself – sometimes, mercifully, not. My fingers stick, the rigidity radiating along my wrists and elbows, until my shoulders are immobile too. Next, my neck, my mouth. Then my eyelids as if propped open with an invisible matchstick, incapable of even blinking. I think I would prefer if my eyes remained sealed shut instead.

Fear of it happening again keeps me confined to my little home, a two-bedroomed artisan cottage in a Stoneybatter terrace. The groceries come in a Tesco van and the kindly pharmacist around the corner has one of the counter staff hand-deliver my medication. Over the past nine weeks, my world has shrunk by the kilometre as I await the next instalment of my inexplicable affliction. Why this is happening I cannot say. What difference would it make if I knew? My psychiatrist says it is an abnormality of my mind, a hyperreal manifestation of my panic disorder. But I know anxiety – and this is not it. His cure is yet more pills, or a stay in a hospital. No chance of that after what happened to my dad.

It began as I was waiting in line at a coffee van in Grangegorman with a half a dozen others in front of me. There wasn’t much in my mind except sitting on a bench sipping a cappuccino, and enjoying the October sun before winter came and took possession of the last of its warmth. The queue was shuffling forward, a bit more slowly than I would have liked. I was just off the bike, a pleasant spin out to Leixlip via the sharp hills that ran up from the Strawberry Beds like daggers. My legs were softly jelly, but in that satisfying way of having gotten myself out of my pyjamas and into nature.

The coffee line inched on again but as I went to take a step, it was like lifting my foot from play-dough. It was enough to set my heart flapping and I remember thinking to myself ‘this is a new one’. I ordered my mind to ignore it – my semi-permanent angst had flung such a medley of perplexing physical symptoms at me that I had become half-immune to random sensations, jolts, and twinges.

But then I tried to move forward again, my feet even heavier as if the dial of gravity had been turned up a notch or two. The dizzies set in, like my light head had been set adrift from a child’s bubble machine. ‘I’ll just sit down a minute,’ I said – my mouthed words intended to reassure, to try bring the anxiety to heel like an untrainable puppy. As I headed for the nearest bench, I wondered if this is what a stroke felt like. The seat was fifty yards away, no more, and with every step, I became less and less convinced I could make it that far.

I did. I turned and crumpled onto the hard wood of the bench, my back jarring against the slats. It was just in time, I think, as my feet became fixed to the cobbles as if with superglue. I tried to will my mind to move them, could almost feel the neurons firing, but failing to engage like the ignition of a car in a horror movie. The word ‘frozen’ automatically comes to mind but it was almost the opposite like my body was liquid metal being poured into a mould in a sarcophagus.

My hands were left resting at my side. No, resting, that’s the wrong word because it connotes ease. This was different, a feeling that even if I could pull my palms and fingers from the bench, my skin and flesh would tear and some get left behind. All movement ceased, my eyes wide open. There had been a soft aroma of hops in the air, breezing in from the brewery on the other side of the Liffey. But now, it was of a fathomless intensity like I was dangling above a storehouse.

I went to blink but nothing happened as if my eye lids were never made to move. Students and lecturers ambled by on their way to classes and two kids passed on scooters. All were oblivious to me, this statue on the bench. Then, the world took on a new aspect like I was watching things by way of a patchy wireless signal, things right in front of me moving in slow motion, then pausing, skipping, and reappearing a metre or two further away. A solitary magpie came loping towards me, hopped up onto the bench and this overwhelming dread drenched me – a fear that he might stand upon my thigh or shoulder and begin to peck.

Exactly how long it lasted, I cannot say. Five minutes, maybe ten, not fifteen? There was a tingling in each extremity and limb as they revivified, like my blood vessels had been flooded with some warm elixir. My bike was propped up against a building near the coffee van. Hesitantly, I began to walk towards it – suspicious of my body and any possible misstep. I threw my leg over the top tube, clipped in my shoes, and began to pedal slowly. All I could think was ‘please, please god, please let me get home at least.’

A normal person would probably have called an ambulance but I’d found out the hard way I wasn’t a normal person. In the three years preceding, there were few medical tests I hadn’t undergone, some of them multiple times, in an attempt to discover what ailed me. The results of each I waited on nervously – only to end in a quick call from a harried doctor or their secretary telling me the good news. The inevitable conclusion was perhaps more shattering than any of the physical illnesses I feared. The headaches, the nausea, the rashes, the incessant lightheadedness, all of them illusory, all of them were just the way my pathetic fragile mind made manifest its distress.

As I rode home, it was hard to know whether to go more quickly or more slowly. More slowly would of course mean taking longer. More quickly though might cause whatever it was that had happened to recur. I settled into an uncertain rhythm and at least it wasn’t too far back to my house. Once inside, I laid out on the soft grey Chesterfield couch, took two Ativan from my emergency supply, and flicked on a relaxation app on my mobile phone. I must have dozed because when I woke it was dark outside – my body felt complete again and I tried to hoodwink myself into thinking the earlier malfunction had not been as bad as I remembered.

After the pandemic, I had stayed working at home. My boss would have liked me back in the office a day or two here and there but I made so many excuses, he stopped asking. It suited me too because I wasn’t so good with people anymore. The thing I was good at – programming computers – guaranteed I’d always have a job, unless machine sentience made me redundant.

Being at home all the time got me into bad habits though, staying up past midnight, game controller in hand, waking up late, working on the laptop from under a duvet, Zoom meetings with a shirt on top and tracksuit shorts below. I kept making promises to myself. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll get up at 8am, get showered, go out for breakfast.’ Yet at 10.30am, I’d still be hitting the snooze button on the phone.

It was after midday when I surfaced the next day courtesy of half a Zolpidem and two bottles of Chimay before bedtime. All throughout the day, there was a tentativeness in everything I did – like I’d lost the certainty of my body. But it did at least diminish as the hours passed. Eight days rambled by, and I fell back into familiar old patterns, the memory of what happened getting shoved further back into the spider-webbed rafters of my temporal lobe.

Perversely, in those eight days that followed – a new motivation quietly caught flame inside of me. It was almost like the seizing had given me a metaphorical jolt, a reminder of the pathway towards a nervous collapse I needed to avoid. When my iPhone chimed in the morning, I would cajole myself out from beneath the quilt. If a little autumn sun deigned to appear in the Dublin sky, I’d wheel my Cervélo bike out onto the street and head straight for the Phoenix Park and the country roads that ran along the Liffey like a lush green arrow aimed directly at the heart of the city.

I was in the Savoy cinema when it happened the second time. The end credits of the film had begun to roll but as I went to stand up, my feet were leaden and bristled with darting pins and needles. My legs were getting heavier by the second so that the only thing I could do was sit back down. From the bottom up, my body glitched so that I was left motionless once more. The lights of the cinema came on and a young man arrived brush in hand to sweep up spilled popcorn and gather empty drink containers.

Something about me must have looked awry because I could hear his voice off to the left of me.

“Are you all right sir?” his voice cautious.

Instinctively, I went to turn my head to face him. But whatever movement I tried to apply seemed matched to exactly the joule on the other side. It wasn’t precisely like stillness, more a miniscule shifting back and forth, just like that broken tape deck I used to drown out the sound of my dad weeping in my teenhood. The cleaner’s voice was closer then.

“Sir? Sir, are you ok?”

I went to speak but the words seemed to go amiss somewhere around the hyoid bone, circling at the base of my tongue like a coin in one of those spiral wishing wells. My eyes got snagged on an illuminated fire exit sign and I could have sworn the legs of the illustrated green man were moving, as if he were mocking me. I felt a hand land gently on my shoulder.

“Can you hear me?”

I could feel a warmth in my jeans then, and tears streamed down my cheeks not in drops but in rivulets. Time seemed out of sync so that there were two paramedics striding up the gentle sloping middle aisle far sooner than I would have thought possible. Was it just coincidence that my body resumed normal operation as they approached?

“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m all right,” but I was fooling nobody. Least of all myself.

They took me to the Mater where they gave me hospital-issue pyjama bottoms to replace my soiled trousers and boxers. I was seven hours left sitting in a plastic chair as night feel and the emergency department began to brood and menace. A man came in, cursing, a sweatshirt wrapped around his head to stem the blood that flowed from his torn ear. A homeless man snored loudly a few seats away, not sick just seeking shelter. An old woman seemed about to pass away behind a paper curtain as her son sobbed helplessly. I could take no more and discharged myself. A taxi took me back to Stoneybatter and I fell into bed – never as thankful to be there.

The lead wellies come now unpredictably, every other day, sometimes more often. I know I should probably be in hospital and how the logic of that seems so inescapable. But the thoughts of cannulas, MRI scanners, contrast dyes, and CT machines leave me dread-laden. My psychiatrist says it’ll pass, just as physical symptoms have washed in and washed out before like some diseased cargo. He asked if perhaps a fortnight as an in-patient might help. “I don’t think so,” I say thinking of how my father died in one of those places. Maybe I’ll get better. Or maybe I’ll come to a stop again, and never restart.


© 2024 Ken Foxe

Bio: Ken Foxe is a writer and transparency activist in Ireland. He is the author of two non-fiction books based on his journalism and likes to write short stories of horror, SF, and speculative fiction.

E-mail: Ken Foxe

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