issertations are cruel beasts. They weigh a great deal and and have sharp teeth and claws. Having worried me for over a year, mine climbed on to my back sometime in late July and refused to let go, clinging to my neck and shoulders till they ached, breathing in my ear at night, so that my dreams were nightmares and I woke up before dawn and couldn't get back to sleep again. Its breath was so hot that my skin and hair shrivelled. It scratched my eyes till they were red and swollen. It made whatever I tried to eat huge and indigestible and it got into my stomach and twisted my intestines. When it was on my shoulders it whispered to me that I wasn't good enough, that I would crack, that I wouldn't finish on time. It made me so afraid that my words got stuck inside and I had to force them out one by one.
In the few moments when it left my side it created a mountain range of books in my sitting room, which kept changing and growing, so that I could never find the one I needed.
I went for fast walks, trying to get away from it, but it was always the only thing in front of my eyes. August passed. I am told it rained.
And then one morning a week before my dissertation was due, my cat, Flo, was killed by my neighbours' dog. For a few hours I became present again, almost relaxed. I was forced to notice the ash trees beyond my window, and the ripples of light on their leaves, their movement in the wind. I saw that they were beginning to change colour and that autumn was coming. I found I was once more sitting on my sofa on a sunny morning at the end of August, not solving any puzzles or making any connections or thinking about the beast at all. For a few hours it left me alone. There was a stillness, which I hadn't known for weeks. My husband and I took the morning off work and went for a walk, carrying the first of our pain and anger out of the house with us, walking it across the fields, trying to earth it in the Boletes that we collected for lunch.
The day after, I remembered a poem by Sharon Olds:
The doctor on the phone was young, maybe on his
first rotation in the emergency room.
On the ancient boarding-school radio,
in the attic hall, the announcer had given my
boyfriend's name as one of two
brought to the hospital after the sunrise
service, the egg-hunt, the crash - one of them
critical, one of them dead. I was looking at the
stairwell banisters, at the lathing,
the necks and knobs like joints and bones,
the varnish here thicker here thinner - I had said
Which one of them died, and now the world was
an ant's world: the huge crumb of each
second thrown, somehow, up onto
my back, and the young, tired voice
said my fresh love's name. It would have been
nice to tear out the balusters, and rail, and the
stairs, like a big backbone out of a
brontosaur, to take some action,
to do, and do, as a done-to, and
dear one to a done-to-death-to, to have run, on a
treadmill, all night, to light the dorm,
the entire school, with my hate of fate,
and blow its wiring, and the town's wiring,
pull the wires of Massachusetts
out of the switchboard of the country. I went back to my
room, I did not know how to get
out of the world, or how to stay -
I sat on the floor with the Sunday Times
and read the columns of the first page down,
and then the next, and then the next.
I can still see how every a,
initiator of his given name,
looked eager - it hadn't heard yet, that its
boy was gone - and every f
hung down its head on its broken neck,
its little arms held out, as if to
say, You see me, this is what I am.
I got rid of the dissertation beast two weeks ago, dismantling its mountains on the Sunday evening and handing it in at 9.40 the next morning. I staggered beneath the two armfuls of books that I had to take back to the library. Other post-grad's smiled sympathetically as I passed. One remarked that he'd been wondering where all the books had gone.
I drove home very fast and dangerously and that night I got drunk.
The beast's ghost is still with me, though my osteopath and I are doing our best to exorcise it. After handing it in, I cleaned the house and tidied the pile of letters, pens, pencils and old, sticky sweets that had gathered in my corner of the sitting-room. I removed my Ovid vision board and hid it upstairs.
We went on holiday last week to the Forest of Dean. While we were there, to further shake it off, I threw a stick into the fast-flowing river Wye, imagining it was my no-longer-needed past. I don't know whether the beast jumped in after the stick, but I think I can still feel it around me.
Flo is here too, though she's a welcome presence. I keep seeing her in the house, a little black shape on the bed, or sliding on the tiles in the kitchen in her hurry to go out to the garden. I hear her cracked 'Ack' of a meow as she comes downstairs to greet me. At least now I have the time to miss her.