Lucy Murray is a fourth year student at the University of Dundee, soon to graduate with a MA in English and Creative Writing. Her interests at the moment include listening to audiobooks and shouting to anyone who will listen about Star Wars. This is bound to change within a month.

Blue Fire

There are five empty bottles next to the sofa. More stashed away in the bin, filling the small space completely. Wine. White. Red. Some Bucks Fizz. Champagne. Seeing them always made embers of blue fire come alive in my stomach. This fire isn’t one that keeps me warm at night. It doesn’t fuel my dreams, my hopes, and aspirations. It’s wildfire. It burns through them. Drives me to curl up in bed, Netflix playing as deadlines speed ever closer and everything turns to ash.

            My brother and I don’t drink. I barely had a sip of alcohol until my 21st
birthday, and even then, I only had enough to make me slightly tipsy and no
more. As far as I’m aware, my brother doesn’t know the taste of it; has no
temptation regarding the affects. We’re too traumatised to delve into that part
of life. A year ago, I would never have used that word: “Traumatised”. I didn’t
think it applied to me. It was for men and women who had been abused, had faced situations they should never have been in, lost friends, loved ones. Growing up with parents who liked to drink didn’t make me “traumatised”. Being blanked by the other kids at school didn’t make me “traumatised”. No one ever laid a hand on me. No one ever shouted at me. Perhaps I wasn’t happy, but I was unharmed in all the ways that seemed to matter to the world. It wasn’t until I started therapy, my anxiety spinning out of control, that a therapist looked me in the eye over a Zoom call and said, “I can see how that traumatised you,” that it really began to sink in: Something was wrong.

            My doctor looked at my stomach aches, those that started with the first flickers of blue wildfire, and the nausea that came with it, and I finally had a name for what was happening to me. For what had been happening for so long. Here was an explanation for the feeling of being choked, of having an invisible figure pressing down on my chest. Panic attacks. Not the type that feel like a heart arrest, making you gasp for a breath that constantly seems out of reach. Not the type that I had been trained to recognise by TV shows and movies. I had figured out it was my anxiety - just not the severity of it. When it happened, though, I did feel as though I were under attack. Being held down by something, and down and down.

            My brother is like me. Two years older, though our birthdays are just eleven days apart. I’ve had to talk him down from what looks like an anxiety attack once or twice - a year? A month? In his life? He also went to university for Creative Writing and is finishing up his MA in it now. Both of us studied some form of acting. I did a Performing Arts BETEC in high school while he did a Drama GCSE and then took it further for his A-Levels. I used to joke to my friends about how similar we are. He’s the one copying me, I would say, but because he’s so smart, he took the classes first to make it seem like the other way around. Today, I’ve started to question that. I’ve started to think about where both of our obsessions with writing came from.

            My grandma once told me that when my mum was younger she had wanted to write a book. That that was where my brother and I got our writing genes from. It’s entirely possible. We both inherited our mum’s bad eyesight after all. But I don’t really think that’s it. My mum loves to read and when we were children she encouraged us to do so as much as possible. And while my brother and I have completely opposite tastes in books, and don’t many titles that we love in common, I do think we both found what we were looking for in those pages.

            We found an escape. Worlds where the impossible is suddenly possible. Where people like us, children of an alcoholic and poverty-stricken family, can achieve something great. It’s why we both read and write fantasy and sci-fi. It’s why Percy Jackson appealed to us so much. Why even now, at twenty-one, I still read books from that universe. Percy’s step-father was an alcoholic and yet he had the courage to stand up to a pantheon of gods.

            Maybe my mum was escaping from something too. And when books were no longer enough, the answer came in spirits. I know why my dad drinks. It’s because he’s the typical man you see in the movies. Stoic. Doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. Refuses to show any weakness. Stuck in a job he hates that barely pays minimum wage. He drinks to cope. To try and ease the stress that has seeped into his very being. He never got the education he deserved and might have wanted if he’d known what it could mean. Each email he writes is painful to read. You can see the silent echoes of a child leaving school too soon with each missing comma and capital letter. I get second-hand embarrassment whenever he sends someone an email, cc’ing me in, and I read the conversation going back and forth...Even though I know it is a result of a failed education system. One that wasn’t designed for a boy living in a council house just outside of York in the ‘70s.

            His school has since shut down. 

            So has my mum’s. In those ways they’re alike; in others they aren’t. My brother and I inherited my dad’s height. I inherited his fascination with history. I
inherited my mum’s desire to escape.

            I ran away to Scotland for university. Put six hundred miles between me and my parents. My brother, not nearly as dramatic as me, still made sure there were fifty between him and home. Unlike him, I called almost every day. My brother and I were the first in our direct family to attend university. The fact still sits heavily in my mind. I ran as far as possible, to a city where I already had a friend, just to make me feel a little less alone.

            It has taken me a while to come to terms with the emotions that boil within me. The anger that hides deep beneath the surface. A result of growing up too fast. The resentment that comes from being fed beans on toast for days on end because we’re too strapped for cash, yet in the fridge rests bottles that could have paid for bigger meals. Because of those bottles, I often spent my days hungry, wore too short trousers to school that my classmates just had to comment on. Even as a child, I questioned how much money could have been saved if my parents stopped drinking.

            It’s not that simple, though. Never is. I can’t count the number of times my mum said they were going to stop. The cycle seems infinite. Something happens. They decide to finish with drinking. Then the bottles are back within a month. On and on. Logically, I know it’s an addiction. Emotionally, I want to scream and rage at them. They say they love me. But not enough to stop uncorking wine. To stop greeting me as I came home from school in the middle of the day, an open bottle sitting on the kitchen countertop. Half drunk wine glass next to it.

            British people are known for their serial drinking habits. Not drinking at university has made me stick out. My flatmates laugh and promise to get me drunk one day, as if it were inevitable, as though this is something I must have in my life. I’m so English that I enjoy the sound of tea and crumpets for breakfast, can sense the rain coming just by looking up at the sky. I was literally born in a hospital that sits upon the banks of the River Thames. Yet looking at alcohol forces me to frown, sets off sparks of blue flame in my stomach. Seeing a crowd of drunk people makes me nauseous. That uncertainty of their actions lights up within me the blue flame in my gut.

            Drinking is a joke shared by so many. I see it everywhere, on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram. I listen to strangers joke about wild nights out that they can barely remember.

            And listening to those jokes, I wonder just how many people are left shaken when they awake, the memories of their friends acting like strangers fresh in their mind, of actual strangers turning into bodies of threat and violence, of the truth behind the clinking of a loved one’s bins. It’s all a joke until it’s not.

            I have within me a wildfire I’m still trying to contain.

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