Mackerel Sky

“Mackerel Sky, Mackerel Sky

Never long wet, never long dry” 

I hope you don’t mind” he began “but I’ve gotta ask…”

And right then, my heart sank.

On a late autumn Saturday, between one thing and another, food and friends, and doing something and doing nothing, I found myself on Everton Brow. Everton Brow, if you don’t know it, is a hillside in Liverpool which affords viewers an elevated aspect of the cityscape, looking outward towards the Mersey, and the Wirral peninsula beyond the river; city, country, sky. Some people call it the View, others the Hills. I call it the Brow.

It was cold – Baltic, we say round here. Felt like winter was shoving autumn out the way and diluting the sun with its cold late afternoon sky. I had time to kill and was there for the sunset and to clear my head. A decent view is always good when you’re in a contemplative mood.

Liverpool had been playing at home and pools of fans had spilled out of Anfield after the final whistle, along Heyworth Street and Everton Road; dribbling down the Brow looking like Lowry painted them. Flecks of red and white round their necks, snippets of conversation and wisps of smoke in the chilly air as they passed me. 

Lads, more lads, dads and lads, dads and daughters, arl fellas. The Chinese couple with the selfie stick. Families of four. Grandads and probably two generations of namesakes.

I didn’t know the score, and watched them all as they passed me by for any signs of the result. Either it was a good result but their enthusiasm hadn’t lasted as long as their walk home, or a bad result but their brisk journeys were keeping them in good spirits. Some things I suppose you just can’t tell by looking at someone.

As a child I’d thought of this as our patch. Mine and my Dad’s. Not theirs. Not anyone else’s. The tower on our crest belonged to us, the view stretching to the Welsh mountains and out across Liverpool Bay belonged to us, the stories of seafarers reaching the Dome of Home belonged to us. But whether you’re red or blue, us or them, who you truly are or who they want you to be – it’s inevitable two paths will cross from time to time and this place wasn’t any more mine than theirs.

They walked right past me, all these reds. I was invisible as they filtered down the Brow. Didn’t even get the odd funny look, a bird on her own leaning on the bonnet of her car smoking like a Delta driver in between pick ups.

In the opposite direction, up the steep steps towards the spot I’d chosen to watch the sunset, came a man walking with purpose, fit as a fiddle.

“Never felt as old as walking up them steps” he said when he got to the top. I put my smile on for him, but my reply was sincere enough: “You did a better job than I could’ve” and then let the smile unfurl in no great hurry after he had passed by and disappeared behind me.

I was looking for a sign. A sign from – I dunno – the sky maybe, or from life, or from Liverpool. I asked for a sign and all I got was a brief exchange with a passing stranger. At least, I thought, I wasn’t invisible to him. The crowds might all appear to head in one direction, but you’ll always find someone else who chooses the other.

I carried on with my sunset watching. Clouds were gathering in the way of the pale sun, which would defeat the point of my being there, and made the Brow seem a bleaker and colder place. I had much to think about. Whether I was coming or going, mostly. Whether I was ok, or not ok. The cold crept round my legs and behind any part where the weak sunlight couldn’t reach to warm it up. 

I didn’t realise that as I was watching the sun start to set that the man, who I presumed was long gone, was watching me. He’d sat himself on top of the hill to do the same as I was. But whereas I was looking at everything and nothing, he was looking at me from his own spot, high up on Everton Brow.

My cigarette ends were smouldering in the grass in front of me one by one. Slight guilt about littering stopped me flicking them when other people were walking their dogs past me; it makes me feel like a scruff, smoking in public. Still I let them collect one by one, and was past caring about the environment: I had thoughts to collect too, and needed the comfort that was in it.

Whether it was to get more ciggies, or another lighter, or to keep warm in the car for a bit, or to give up entirely I can’t quite remember – after all my head wasn’t in the right place – but I broke my gaze with the skyline, pushed myself off my perch on the bonnet, and turned to open my car door.

That’s when I heard him. He called to me from the top of the hill, the man who’d walked up the steps before, asking for a lighter. He’d sat up there, he said, with a can and a rollie, but hadn’t brought a lighter. He’d sat there, on his arse in the cold, watching me. He said he didn’t want to interrupt me cause he could tell I was deep in thought but he also knew I had a lighter on me.

He sparked up and he asked if I had time to chat. I had all the time in the world. I had wanted to be alone if I was honest but I didn’t really mind him being there, didn’t mind him talking.

We talked about the view – the vista he called it – and the sky itself. He said his favourite kind of sky was Mackerel Sky. Mackerel Sky, Mackerel Sky, never long wet and never long dry – so called, he said, because it resembles fish scales. I knew exactly the kind of sky he meant but I’d never heard it called Mackerel Sky before. I smiled to myself because I like learning new things. 

We talked about photography, and what we prefer as subjects – people or places? What’s more important in real life, too – people or places? We talked about drink. He’s an old drunk he said; I hardly touch the stuff. He’d just lost four days he told me. I said I’d just lost four years. Everyone has their regrets. Everyone has their demons.

We talked about Liverpool. About moving away. About coming home. About feeling at home, and what ‘home’ really meant. Was it a place, was it the people, or was it a concept?

That’s when he said “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve gotta ask..” and my heart sank. It’s a disappointing and uncomfortable feeling you get when what you thought was just a chat between two human beings had to take another turn. Why can’t a man and a woman just engage in any dialogue without him asking her if she’s single or married or otherwise available? It immediately undid anything that had gone before, I thought. But goes to show what I know.

“You’re not… you’re not suicidal are you?”

In that moment I realised he could see right through me. Some things I suppose you can tell just by looking at people. Because the answer to his question was Yeah. Yeah, actually. I was.

Before the question, before the chat, before the lighter and before he climbed the steps, I’d been thinking about the future. I’d been thinking about, given everything I’ve lived and felt so far to date, whether I could manage a future. Hearing him say it out loud like that, I knew what I was really trying to decide on the Brow. Did I want to die?

The thing about wanting to die is that you don’t want to die at all: you want to live. You want to live a full life, maybe even a normal life, a life that feels like a life. It’s about seeking some respite from feelings that you didn’t ask for and can’t escape.

Feelings that are sewn into you and pinch at your flesh and tighten when you try to untie them. 

Feelings which whisper in your ear that you can put a stop to all of this if you want to, and they’ll show you the way, just say the word. 

Feelings which, with the best will in the world, can’t be magicked away by you or by anyone else.

Feelings which can camouflage themselves in family photographs, on Instagram, and in front of other people, at work, in the pub, at the school gates.

Feelings which can sometimes abate in the face of therapy or medication or time or self care or good fortune, but which consume all your energy and all your time and take over your life to the extent that it hardly feels like a life anymore but that you’re merely a host to these parasitic feelings.

You can’t kill them and you can’t pluck them out because they are woven into you until you can’t tell what bits of you are you and which bits are these feelings. So what other way than to find some peace, find some salvation, find some fucking rest? The prospect of carrying them round waiting for them to whisper and pinch and to smother again and again for the rest of your life seems too heavy a burden. Doesn’t some rest sound nice?

The Brow is not the final scene. Nothing will happen on the Brow. Nothing could happen – it’s Everton Brow not Beachy Head after all and it’s certainly not the kind of place you can really top yourself  – what are you gonna do, launch yourself over a railing and bounce down the grass like a lost flyaway? Not for me that, ta. Besides, heights are for views not demises. I’m more of a tucked up in bed at home kinda girl. But then I recall an old friend who discovered someone in a hotel room and the details leave me uneasy at the prospect of putting someone else through that. I can’t even throw my biff ends away with a clear conscience.

They say people have to be ready to go. To be prepared to go. Not just having made up their mind, but having got their affairs in order. They say people often experience a sense of relief when they have done that and know that the promise of rest and release is not too far away. I know I’m not ready, regardless of what decision I reach. I don’t know how to tell my little boy that life was too much for mummy, in a way that would ever make sense to him. 

How can I let him grow up thinking his love wasn’t enough to keep me? When I would give anything not to feel like this? But this isn’t the first time the whispers have told me he’ll be fine, that he’s got people who love him, that he’d be better off without me…

Nothing will happen on the Brow except searching for answers or signs. I came to watch the sunset, and to make some decisions but I am pushed and pulled in different directions. 

I take it all in. Up here on the Brow. Down there in the street. The lampposts and car lights are on now and it’s growing dusky. The ebb and flow of the tide. The light and dark of the clouds. This Mackerel Sky, never long wet, never long dry. Reds and Blues. Us and them. Past and future. Staying or going. Pushing and pulling. My head is fucking chocker.

As the sky turns from pale to deep reds and purples, he packs up his small tin of tobacco and tells me I’m a bright kid; that I’m strong and full of heart. He tells me to drive carefully and go where I can be with someone who loves me. I don’t know exactly where that is. What I do know is there will be no decisions made today. 

Before he goes, he says that next time I am there, I should go right to the top of the hill – where he’d sat – to watch the sunset. I smile and promise I will.

“You’re not seeing it all properly from down here” he said “You might even see a Mackerel Sky next time”. 

And maybe he’s right. Maybe there’s still more to see.


Edit: After writing Mackerel Sky my senses of purpose, fulfilment, pleasure, and hope gradually returned. If you need someone to listen to you, please please contact The Samaritans on 116 123.

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