Bipolar Coach Trip

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Tim Frank

Bipolar Coach Trip



They came in dribs and drabs to the bus stop, tired, weary, and stoned from the olanzapine and the lithium, exhausted by the early hour of eight a.m. because they usually rolled out of bed by at least two p.m. Their bags were full of nibbles that they attacked as soon as they were up—Kit Kats, dime bars, potato chips, and diet Coke, plastic wrappings crackling all up and down the coach. Everyone was bulging at the belly and the cheeks, weight they’d all gained within months of their diagnosis and couldn’t shake off no matter how much yoga, spin classes, or brisk walks they took. Eating less was nigh on impossible so they got used to buying bigger clothes from M&S and being misunderstood by the masses, lurking in the shadows of the public’s consciousness.
   Kate and Simon arrived, bickering and bitching, having gotten lost in the maze of streets around Soho despite the detailed directions on Google Earth and in that period they had broken up for the fifteenth time. The depression made them see each other as hopeless losers and their love affair doomed, but the highs brought them together again without fail. When their moods didn’t match, one high the other low, they just fought and bullied each other, sometimes entering into stony silences, sometimes fiery exchanges, accusing each other of real or imaginary betrayals. The only solution was to spend money or eat.
   Samantha came alone and packed her bags into the bottom of the coach silently, not sure where she was on the mood scale that morning and uncertain how her temperament would dip and slide for the rest of the day. She sucked on a giant lemon lollipop, looking childlike in pigtails despite being over thirty and having gone through it all, both sides of the coin. But going through it all never prepared her for doing it all over again and so she braced herself for a difficult day.
   Martin played the stock market on his iPhone and was constantly chattering to himself as his next deal was dispatched. He didn’t say a word to anyone but yipped and yupped to himself, eyes fixed on the phone and generally being antisocial as the highs and lows of the stock market sent shivers down his spine. He popped a benzodiazepine to chill himself out and took in the view of the gathering coach trippers, seeing nothing but shadows under their eyes and a slight sense of blooming hypermania.
   Shez was a Muslim but thought he was Christ that day and the coach trip a good opportunity to proselytize. He was thin and not on any prescribed drugs. He was there to help a group of people who clearly needed it. They were lost and he knew the way and he was going to tell them  . . . eventually, because at that moment the light was filling his chest and his mind was churning like a tumble dryer on magic mushrooms. He needed a moment to compose himself so he sat alone at the front trying to avoid eye contact with the newcomers shuffling on board, squeezing their waists down the aisle and picking their special spots that suited their assorted moods at that specific time of the morning, taking into account the angles of the light, the proximity to the street and how alienated they felt by the other fellow sufferers.
   David was the guide and he had bipolar too, though it was pretty much under control since the late nineties and he’d only been sectioned twice in the eighties when he was a teen. He was on lithium, epilim, lorazepam, olanzapine, and risperidone, and because of that he was fine, sensible, and a terrible bore, always speaking in a deep monotone voice of intense drowsiness, like a powerful sedative without the perilous addictive side effects.
   They were heading for the Somme to see the trenches and nobody really knew why this was appropriate for a group with bipolar but everyone seemed willing to buy into the theory that something therapeutic would come of it, as if some mythological boon would be bestowed upon them if they faced down the grim realities of World War I.
   David droned on about the air conditioning and what to do in case of panic attacks, seizures, and nausea (“feeling it right now,” someone murmured). He explained, with a slight drawl, the procedures for the fire exit, the toilet, and the vomit bags. He described the general plan for the day and called on one and all to be understanding and to try and not judge each other because everyone had their “story” and their reasons for being who they were. He reminded everyone to take their pills when needed and encouraged the group to relax because it would be a long journey—his usual rap for every trip he took, even boring himself now.
   By the time they’d reached the boat Kate had moved away from Simon and seated herself beside Shez. She munched from a box of Cheerios and wiped her nose with her free hand, having noticed something irresistible and glorious about Shez yet she didn’t dare disturb him as he was making a list of names from the group that he felt could be possible followers in the name of Christ—him. He sensed Kate peeking at his list and he scrunched it into his pocket and began to stare at the row of cars lining up to board the ferry. Kate kept her silence except for the crunching of her cereal and her sniffling sinuses, trying her best not to fall for Shez.
   Simon peered over at Kate and Shez. She’d had affairs before, mainly in secure hospitals with delusional inpatients. She was easily influenced by the God-fearing, the demagogues, and the truth seekers that had lithium injected in their asses once a month. Vengefully he eyed Samantha up and down, finding her ankles to be thin, sharp, and attractive, and he thought “she’ll do.”
   “Hey,” he said in a sonorous baritone that he used whenever he was coming on to someone.
   Samantha was chewing on her lollypop stick—the lolly long gone—and she gave a wide smile and shifted over to another seat, allowing Simon to move in next to her. They began babbling about pills, mania, breakdowns, mental hospitals, and doomed love affairs—the usual scene. Before they knew it they were kissing under the blasting air-con, their tongues slipping and slithering, and Kate was on her feet screaming, stamping her feet, and yelling to be let off the coach—damning the entire group as a bunch of misfits. David said there was no turning back and blocked the aisle, taking a few slaps in the chest from Kate as she dropped the Cheerios and began to sob. Shez crossed her off his list.
   Martin was oblivious to the outburst. He was in line to make two grand off his current deal and he was sweating from his forehead, drips forming at the peak of his nose—but he was calm and centered. He never felt nerves during a deal but suffered chronically after, win or lose. When he won he couldn’t sleep for days and was unable to stop his legs from quivering. When he lost he fell into a deep trough where the world seemed meaningless and he lost his faith in the cosmic ordering of the universe and was unable to face the light for days, sleeping until the afternoon and cutting diagrams in his arms with a Stanley knife.
   Once they boarded the ferry they all headed for the bar and knocked back sambucas and depth-chargers, smoking on the balconies and watched the waves form at the base of the ship like the moods shifting and changing in their minds. Samantha was the first to vomit but she wasn’t the last and the effect of the medication and the booze made everyone low and mean. Samantha ignored Simon and Shez ignored Kate. David kept his thoughts to himself but he’d seen it all before and stuck to his orange juice and a rollie before rounding everyone up for the last leg of the trip. Soon they’d be at the Somme and the purpose of the trip would be revealed.
   David gathered the group by the bus and said a few words about safety and how alcohol can be detrimental to the health of those with The Illness and taking pills so he begged those who drank to take it easy and to try and get some sleep and be nice to one another. Everyone was fed up with him, his miserable tone of voice and tedious announcements. They all regretted they had come.
   When they reached the Somme it was pelting down with rain creating a thick layer of mud that drenched the group’s shoes and added another layer of gloom to the already grim mood. David showed the group the trenches, gabbled on about trench foot and how soldiers had to stand guard at night as bombs shrieked overhead and the men would sleep on their feet with their eyes open. “Feeling that right now,” someone chirped in.
   Shez got lost in one of the tunnels and felt the hand of the devil on his shoulder in the dark. In fact it was Kate but her face, clouded in the murky light, looked like a masked avenger out to steal his healing powers. He screamed as Kate pushed her mouth onto his and he swatted her away as her cries were swallowed by the sound of the rain.
   David called the group to attention and they all stopped their snooping around, all completely nonplussed by the experience. Then silence swept across the fields as the rain came to an abrupt halt and one could hear a few depressed groans as the group realized they were going to be lectured again, except for Martin who let out a yelp as his Wi-Fi crashed.
   “The reason I take these trips,” David began, “is I feel it’s an important stepping stone to learn about our illness.”
   “Oh God,” someone sighed.
   “And the reason for that is this: the sands of time and the ebbing and flowing of history are an insightful metaphor for the bipolar illness itself. By that I mean times change, events transform and the past becomes the present ever moving into the future just like our illness moves and alters. What happened here is another episode that modifies into dust. We are all changing, us more than most, and we must learn to see the past as another event beyond our grasp. We need to understand it and move on. The Somme is us and we are another piece in this puzzle of mutating life.”
   There was a stunned silence. Someone perked up and said, “I don’t really understand, but that’s probably the most profound thing I’ve ever heard.”
   The group stood blinking at their muddy shoes, sorry for judging David as they had and were ready to move on but the silence just got longer and someone began to weep as the rain came down again and they all felt somewhat unnerved by the experience.
   “Right,” David said, “who’s for a drink?”
   They holed up at a cheap hotel a few miles from the front line at a place called, somewhat distastefully, the Firing Range. They all bought bottles of Bacardi and vodka from the bar and the barman did them a deal on strong cigarettes and mixers. They all amassed in Kate and Simon’s double room, despite the fact they were still ignoring each other and the rest of them were wasted by nine p.m., playing strip poker, truth or dare, and other suicidal drinking games involving revelations about their checkered pasts mostly to do with an array of sexual acts and mental disturbances.
   Samantha was a dark horse. They went around the room each asking a question about what particular debauched act someone had committed and if they’d done it they had to drink a shot. Once the group had nearly run out of questions and Samantha had drunk each time they asked her if there was something she hadn’t done and she said quizzically, “I don’t understand the question,” then leaned to one side in a stupor, trying to stop her eyes from spinning to the back of her head.
   Martin was still fixed on his iPhone as it wavered drunkenly in his hand, still without any reception and not knowing whether his last deal was a success and thus unsure how he should be feeling, high or low, stressed and anxious, or bleak and miserable, so he played along with the drinking games in a state of limbo.
   David had drunk two Czech beers and was knocked out stone cold. He rested his head on Samantha’s lap and snored like a chimpanzee, puckering his lips every few minutes and giving the odd hiccup.
   Shez was still on fire, convinced he was The One and that this bunch of degenerates, now of all times, needed his healing hands and his wide-eyed innocence. But he’d crossed most of the group off his list of followers and decided this time the Second Coming would fly solo and change the world single-handedly. The alcohol was really messing with his brain though and some doubt was edging into his mind. Could he really be as mad as this rabble?
   Kate banged a plastic fork against a near empty bottle of gin and got everyone’s attention although most of the group were horizontal, drooling, and holding back the vomit collecting in their bellies.
   “They all died for us!” she said, breaking down into tears with childlike ease.
   “Who did? Who’s dying?” someone said in a panic.
   “I’m dying,” Simon said raising his hand aloft then letting if fall, slapping himself on the cheek.
   “No, the soldiers. You know, at the Somme. It’s just so sad, it fills my heart with despair.”
   “You’re just drunk. Take a tablet, you always forget and get sentimental,” said Simon.
   “No it’s not that. I mean for God’s sake why does everything have to come back to The Illness? Can’t I have a mood that isn’t judged by that, a thought even, something that’s real and true? Samantha, all those guys you’ve been with, that’s real, you wanted to do that and you did it, just because you were manic doesn’t mean it wasn’t genuine. And Shez the amount of times you’ve been in and out of hospital for taking paracetamol and lorazepam and threatening to jump off low-rise buildings in crowded areas . . . that’s real. And Simon even though you’re an asshole and I don’t want to speak to you, you’re still my closest friend and I can see that now. Martin, you’re antisocial and bad-tempered and you ignore everyone including your kids but given half a chance there’s a real man underneath the veneer. And David, if you can hear me, the tedious monotone voice with a beautiful spirit hidden somewhere deep inside, well, it’s just perfect. Like I said the soldiers died for us so we can, you know  . . . live.”
   “I love you Kate,” Simon muttered, his body collapsing under him.
   “I’m Christ!” Shez piped up.
   “We know you are,” everyone said, and with that the lights seemed to transform into a vital glow, everyone gradually sobering up, and as one they all headed for a sublime never-to-be-forgotten soaring high.