Series 7 Episode 17 The Oyster Paradigm Part One Written by Peter Darwin
Beth was not having the best of days.
It had started off normally enough. She’d rolled out of bed, washed her face, brushed her teeth and changed into her uniform. She'd left her room, a yellow post-it note on the banister catching her attention. The message revealed her mother and sister would be out until late afternoon because of a hospital appointment. The news had elated her more than it possibly should have.
Everything had been fine, until she stepped into the kitchen.
Taken aback by the astounding mess, Beth weaved her way through the misplaced clothes, dirty plates and cups, and even an old carrot toy, before victoriously throwing the lid of the bread bin open. Her mood quickly soured when she discovered that all the bread had been used up, and only scarce crumbs remained. Clearly, her mother had forgotten to pick up some groceries after yesterday’s gruelling shift. Chrystal was losing her touch.
She had pushed it to the back of her mind, deciding to go to school on an empty stomach, eager to escape the thought of her mother. It wasn’t until she actually got there that Beth realised her medication was still at home. Things continued to take a downward spiral from there, and events led to her standing outside in the freezing cold with her classmates during second period.
Beth hated it.
The task was simple — or so they said.
Get from one side to the other — a simple premise, by the sounds of it. Shouldn’t be too much trouble — in fact, in a brief spell of arrogance, it would be possible for one to look at the task and think it easy. 'Live like lightning', her father had said once, regarding some minor detail that had, due to the passage of time, slipped her mind. But the expression stuck in her head. Things did that, stray words and phrases, sometimes they just lodged themselves in an instance. And sometimes, something would happen, and they could be recalled. That’s not to say it was a process undertaken by choice. Sometimes those words could wander back into life as happiness. Or sadness. Or laughter, or regret, or pain — or sometimes everything at once.
Carrying yourself across was never easy.
“Come on, you lot! Put some back into it!”
Beth made an effort to glare at Mr Chandra from the periphery of the draining exercise, as his words just blurred into one big, long, jumble of rubbish. She was not happy.
"Get yourself from one side to the other," the headmaster had said, as they’d traipsed outdoors for a bit of mid-winter team-building. He supposedly wanted to ‘take a leaf out of the basketball team’s book and do some team-building exercises’ or something.
Whatever the exercise required, it was irritating. Several crates were placed at equal lengths apart across the sports field. Their task was simple — get from one side to the other, with one, slight hitch. They could not touch the ground.
They had several planks to assist their crossing — however, none of the planks were long enough to stretch across the crates on their own, so they had to wait for one of their teammates to run across the first plank, hand them the second plank, and wait for them to secure that one so they could run across. Also, they had to transport a heavy barrel of nothing across with them.
It sounded easy enough, until Mr Chandra suggested they make it a competition. The initially reluctant students seized upon the opportunity like wildfire. All except Beth, who had attempted to talk her way out of it, but the headmaster denied her request. “Just pick yourself up and carry yourself across,” he had told her.
Often, people did not understand how hard the ‘picking yourself up’ bit was. But there it was. No other choice, but to grin and bear it. Beth did a lot of grinning and bearing — but the alternative was succumbing to her chaotic thoughts, and she never liked that. She always had to have her mind applied to something else, she couldn’t stand the thought of not doing anything. And so, resilience and grit was the best option.
Even when people were pushing her patience as far as it was willing to go.
Three identical courses had been assembled, and the class was split into three groups of six. The first team — consisting of Beth, Zoe, Felix and fellow classmates Matthew, Rebecca and Serena — stood on the obstacle course on the far left; Diana and her lackeys Elisabeth and Isabelle, alongside Laurel, Gabriella and Fred, were in the middle, the former three looking bored out of their minds; Nathan Drake and his dude-squad were leaning on the far-right, cackling at each other’s jokes and generally trying Mr Chandra’s patience.
“I’ll go first,” Zoe, eager to leap into the fray as ever, said with an air of finality. She shot a not-so-subtle competitive smirk in Diana’s direction, one which Diana reciprocated. It wasn’t difficult to see their long-time rivalry had flared up once again.
Beth looked over at the others. Matthew was cracking a joke that everybody laughed at, and Felix was smiling smittenly in Dan’s direction. Dan waved back from his spot on the bench, looking particularly pleased to be abstained from the course.
She hadn’t realised she’d zoned out until the competition was already underway and her team was across the first crate, urging her to hurry up. Slowly, Beth lurched forward sluggishly.
“Shift, man!” Rebecca whined.
“Yeah, Beth,” Matthew hollered. “I ain’t losing to Fred!”
Beth rolled her eyes as she hopped to stand beside Zoe, and watched as they all worked together throughout the chaotic din to get the second plank across to the next crate. She glanced over at the other teams. Diana’s group were coordinating just as well as hers, and were already onto their second crate, but Nathan Drake’s squad had already lost their interest in the competition and resorted to throwing the heavy barrel around like they were playing hot potato, cackling in the face of Mr Chandra’s exasperation.
The loud voice jarred Beth from her thoughts, and she turned to see Alfie jauntily stroll into the playground without a blazer, hands jammed in the front of his loosened school trousers, with his blue and white tie wrapped around his head like a bandanna. Not-so-surprisingly, there was an ugly purple bruise on his cheek.
“Oh, great,” Zoe and Haresh muttered at the same time. It was almost comical. Alfie sauntered over to Dan, sat down beside him, and gave him a cheery, laddish nod.
“Move!” Rebecca squealed, and Beth snapped back into focus, suddenly remembering that they were in the middle of an obstacle course. They hurried across the plank, patiently waiting for Matthew to cross with the barrel.
He managed about half-way before Alfie lunged onto the plank, blocking his path.
“What up, blud,” Alfie said with a grin.
“Move yourself, Alfie!” Zoe ordered. Rebecca and Serena laughed at his antics, while Beth watched reticently.
“Yeah, listen to your girlfriend,” Matthew chuckled, trying to weave past the boy, but the plank wasn’t very big, and he was quite large and burly, whereas Alfie was smaller and lithe.
“You what?” Alfie stuck his leg out, trying to trip Matthew up. He failed, and the older boy dropped the barrel in favour of trying to wrestle Alfie off the plank.
“Alfie, get lost, I ain’t messing about,” Rebecca said, though her amused tone betrayed her words. Words, words, words. Beth was starting to get sick of meaningless words.
“Shut up, fam,” Alfie grunted, adamant on winning the wrestling match, especially now that he had the class’ attention. Haresh yelled at him, but didn’t do much else out of fear of invoking Gita’s wrath later on.
Squaring off, with hands clamped around each other’s arms, Alfie shifted his leg to trip Matthew up. He succeeded, and the older boy went tumbling, but a flailing hand grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him to the ground as well. They both dropped unceremoniously, like sacks of potatoes.
Most of the class, except Beth and Mr Chandra, started cheering and whooping. Alfie looked up, grinning impishly, soaking in the applause. He leaned back against the plank, prompting the barrel to roll off and loudly thwack him on the head.
Everybody, including Haresh, started laughing at his dumbfounded expression. Everybody except Beth.
Chortling to herself, Zoe turned to Beth with a joke in mind, but faltered. “Beth?” she asked carefully. “You okay?”
Beth tilted her head to look at her friend, her expression blank. “Yeah,” she said simply, with no inflection or direction to her words at all. Zoe quickly appreciated the answer, but Beth could practically see her mental decision to pursue further at a later date. And Beth knew Zoe well enough to know that she probably wasn’t going to stop when that moment inevitably came.
So, both of them left the subject behind, and returned to the matter at hand — which was Alfie being dragged away to be lectured by Haresh, with the school bell trilling in the background. The lesson was over. The students dispersed immediately, chattering away to themselves all throughout break, until that was also over.
While the world happened around her, Beth focused on herself. Her mind, and the way it beat to an entirely different rhythm to the outside world. A thousand thoughts dominated her that day, and so she looked into herself — the dark thoughts, seeping deep into her being. Normally she would shut them out — but today, a depressive spell was eating away at her.
Beth could walk through school and still not feel at grips, or at ease, with the place. It was something she did every day, something that, if she thought about it, she didn’t find hard. But she always felt as if the environment were constricting, closing in on her and smothering the life out of her. It did not affect her badly, as she had constructed walls of wit and banter with stoic foundations, and an inner reserve of the things she held dear to keep her going, so as to ensure the other adolescent brains in the school couldn’t alienate her more than she already felt. Beth could function well anywhere — but to function and to be comfortable were very different things.
And as she traipsed down that corridor, with teenagers screaming and smelling of BO, Beth felt the drag of everyday existence more than ever.
Beth felt her bipolarity.
It was there every day, but some days she felt it harder. She could feel it chained to her, forcing her to crawl through the world, surrounded by people who couldn’t see the chain, or people who didn’t understand the force with which it gutted her.
And to have to slog through the everyday was sometimes the hardest thing of all — but the everyday held its depressing grip firmly on existence. That was what it felt like — a way to describe a condition that was indescribable. A hand tightly constricting her, and pinning her to the ground — but forcing her to crawl onwards.
But she couldn’t stop. The world wouldn’t let her. Beth wouldn’t let herself.
She turned into Miss Janine’s class.
At the end of the school day, the pupils branched off in different directions, with various plans for their Thursday evening. Beth also had her own plans — mope in her bedroom with crumpets and Naruto. She was stood by the school gates, ignoring the students that slowly passed her, staring at her friends.
Dan and Felix sat closely together, laughing at something on a poster they'd picked from the bulletin board. Felix had a basketball in one hand, and his other hand was protectively around Dan's shoulders, holding him close. Dan had revealed Felix's future living situation to his friends a while back, and the pair had been inseparable ever since.
Alfie and Zoe, on the other hand, were disrupting the flow of passing students. Alfie had skipped detention, deciding that wrestling Zoe was more important. The match appeared to be equal, but Alfie suddenly gained the upper hand and wrapped his arms around Zoe's waist, hoisting her into the air with a cackle despite her angry protests. Classmates stopped to laugh at the display, and even Dan and Felix were amused by their friends' antics.
Beth merely watched impassively, and used the distraction as an opportunity to slink away. She’d made it as far as the bus stop, when –
Zoe came bounding towards her with a spirit of energy. How she managed to escape Alfie's grip and cross the yard so quickly was a mystery to Beth. “Hey,” Zoe said as soon as she caught up. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Beth replied automatically.
“Sure.” Zoe glared scathingly at her. She wasn’t a fool. Beth sometimes wished she was. Life would have been so much easier. "It’s not, you know…” Zoe stopped, her brain already whizzing away.
“What?” Beth asked tonelessly.
“A mood swing?” Zoe said reluctantly.
“Then…” Zoe trailed off, her expression hesitant. It was puzzling to see such uncertainty on her face. She was usually very expressive.
Zoe scowled at her, her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed. There was her expressive body language. “Stop saying ‘what’.”
Beth teasingly cocked her head to the side. “Why?”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “Shut up.”
The corners of Beth’s lips curved into a half-smile. “Fine, fine.”
“Why are you so quiet today?” Zoe asked abruptly. “It’s weird.”
That was Beth, though. Quiet to the point of abnormal, to hide how she felt. As she’d thought earlier, those walls — the wit, and the sarcasm — that was what she built those emotions into. She didn’t even know why she did it — but it almost felt that by channelling how she felt into barriers, people would accept it more — and maybe, they’d even understand it. But for once… Beth just wanted to be who she was. And, of course, her ability to severe anybody with a sarcastic put-down was a part of that — but she didn’t want to turn her condition into that. Into something it wasn’t — something that was strange and laughable and stupid, she had stopped herself from accepting it. Maybe that was deliberate. Maybe it wasn’t. Whatever it was, Beth wasn’t sure she’d ever understand.
And Beth was stuck, in a way — drawn between letting those walls down, and still feeling that she had to keep them up.
So she did the only thing she could. She shrugged. “Tired,” she elaborated simply, when Zoe grew vexed.
It was clear that Zoe didn’t believe her, but she didn’t say anything. Possibly nervous of the possibility that Beth would react negatively, as she had supposedly done in the past, although she never remembered it. Bipolar disorder was elusive. It was often a spectre over her life that Beth could never quite see, or recall after she’d been washed away by the latest bout of hypomania-induced ideas. The last time it had happened, she’d developed a short-lived obsession with politics. And another time, in the thick of a hypomanic episode, she’d Wikipedia-d how to make an omelette, gone downstairs, made the omelette, applied to be a citizen of France, and gone outdoors to sit by the side of the road and eat the omelette.
She hadn’t slept that night, and spent the next day buzzing around school. She answered all of Miss Janine’s questions, helped Zoe and Alfie set up a trap to prank a friend, ate two boxes of chocolate with Dan for lunch and then raced Laurel up the stairs three times. And all the time, she had been delighted, flying through life without a care in the world.
That was the thing about her condition. It didn’t throw her off the rails. The hypomania would rock up, park itself in her head for a few days, and then leave.
And then it was back to the constant lowness of before.
“Okay,” Zoe said at last, snapping Beth out of her thoughts. “But you’ll be online, later, right? We still gotta clear Left for Dead.”
Beth forced a bright smile. “Yeah.”
The girls turned to see Alfie and Felix looking at them expectantly. Dan had already disappeared for his dreaded hospital appointment.
“Hurry up, man!” Alfie whined.
“Gimme a minute,” Zoe yelled back. “Chill!”
Alfie grumbled sullenly under his breath. Felix looked between them blankly, clearly expecting a showdown. Zoe rolled her eyes and shouted at him even more, sparking a debate.
Beth couldn’t help but regard her for a moment. Zoe had grown taller, sharper, and braver. Her hair flowed around her shoulders, and she looked capable of handling anything the world threw at her, a natural evolution for the fierce little girl in pigtails who had blundered into Beth’s life years ago.
Those days seemed ever-distant, now. Days where Beth’s bipolar hadn’t quite gutted the life out of her — and the sunshine brought it back. Sitting inside in the heat of summer, the sun roasting the entire village — and her, Zoe, and Dan, cooped up inside with some MMO or another.
But now, the winter lay across the village. They were older. Growing up was a pain in itself — to grow up with a brain hating you was even harder.
“What’s going on?” Beth asked politely, once Zoe turned back around to face her.
“Basketball match,” Zoe revealed. “Me against them. And I’m gonna win.” She grinned proudly. “Laters.”
Beth watched Zoe hurry over to the boys without waiting for a goodbye, her mind already preoccupied on the next greatest thing in her life. She looked happy. But Beth knew better than most that looks could be deceiving.
Alfie said something rude that prompted a swift punch to the gut, and Felix laughed at their antics. She couldn’t help but find the display annoying. But that was down to her mood. Today, she just wanted to wallow in her bedroom. Tomorrow, she would wallow even more. After that, hopefully, she would enjoy their company again.
Beth turned, and headed for the forest instead of the bus stop, on her way home.
Beth didn’t get far into Rose Gardens, before she decided to stop.
She wasn’t even sure why, but she’d seen the swing, and sort of gravitated towards it. Maybe she just needed to get out of everything, even if just for a few minutes.
So, Beth sat on the swing, letting it gently carry her back and forth, carried melancholily by the wind. She used to sit on that swing specifically as a child, for no reason other than that it was what she did. Human creatures were slaves to habit.
The days of being smaller, when Zoe would be sat on the swing next to her, shouting at some blackbird prancing across the climbing frame’s rope bridge, sprung to mind. Sometimes, Beth would think about how much they’d changed in four years, and then she’d realise that Zoe would probably still shout at a blackbird on a climbing frame. That was what people did, though. They grew, and their nature changed with that. After all. Change was natural.
Beth didn’t even realise why it was something she was brooding over, because the days she was reminiscing over were only four years ago. But four years of late-childhood and early adolescence was an epoch in itself — one changed so much, that even looking at herself a year ago would be like seeing someone else.
Around her was the play area in Foxgrove’s park, with its swings and roundabout and see-saws, and a slide that can’t ever be slid down no matter how old you were, and so stood as a traitor to its name.
Beth liked the idea of having principles. Having ideals she would stand so ferociously by, and would defend until she died. Sometimes, she believed she did. In fact, she knew she did, she knew there were some things that were so important to her. But even though Beth knew it, she didn’t always believe it. Knowing and believing were very different things. To know something was to understand the facts underpinning it. To believe something was to have that commitment, that dedication, that feeling, that it was true.
It was down to emotion.
And considering she dosed herself up on medication to keep her emotions in check, to believe something was always hard.
Maybe that was why, when a depressive spell lingered over her, there was a strange sense of uncertainty clawed onto her whenever she did things — because she couldn’t believe that it was right, or that it was good, or that it was even just okay. And belief was hard to come by.
Whenever Beth dared to venture back to the park, the climbing frame and the slide and the swings always felt so much smaller — but all that had happened, was that she’d grown. It was just a perspective thing. When she’d realised it, things made a bit more sense. That was not to underestimate the difficulty in changing that perspective in the first place — in fact, it was the hardest part of getting somewhere, and it was never fully there, either. Maybe Beth would, at some point in the future, get to a place where her brain was on a steady plane of nonchalance and happiness for thirty-years solid, and then went completely off the wagon again. And then became okay again. Because that was the mind — irritatingly unpredictable.
There were safety nets in her life, though. From the breathtakingly infinite realm of anime and manga, to the steady comfort of video games, to Coronation Street, her bedrock. She’d often thought, that was why she drifted closer to it. Anime had become such a beloved staple of her life, and a way for her to relate to her two best friends, but shows ended, like everything inevitably did.
And there was something gratifying about Liz McDonald’s garish outfits, or the tentatively held belief that Ken Barlow was actually immortal. Yes — Corrie was another never-ending world, and it was one where Beth could fully immerse herself without needing to worry about the outside world. So — of course she used it as an escape, when all other escapes failed her.
But above all, it gave her a starting point. A place upon which she could build a life for herself, a person that she knew she was. While life may be shaky and wobbly in its futile, brittle nature, Coronation Street was sturdy, and something she could always rely on to prop her up, whenever she needed it most. It was the bedrock that her mum, and her friends, had taken away from her.
It was something she could rely on.
And perhaps that was why Beth drifted closer to it — because she needed that thing to rely on. Life could leave her behind, but Coronation Street couldn’t.
Maybe it was a bit weird, but — who cared? She didn’t. And it made her feel good, and safe, and as if she were doing okay.
“For what it’s worth,” came a voice on Zoe’s swing. “I don’t think it’s weird.”
Beth glanced over, expecting to see the breath of wind that had gently rocked the swing forward — the wind that she’d just subconsciously channelled Liz McDonald’s voice through. It was funny when things like that happened — when a voice inside your head reaches out to you, and you can’t quite help but feel it’s most certainly real…
Except, to her surprise, this time, it quite literally was.
Liz McDonald from Coronation Street was sat beside her.
“Hey,” Beth muttered, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to blink and suddenly see a fictional, non-existent character sitting beside you. As Beth muttered that one, solitary word, her brain was screaming that Liz from Corrie was not an actual person, she did not exist, and even if by some miraculous coincidence she did exist, she would not be sitting on a swing next to some random teenager in a random Essexian village.
But somehow, she was.
“You seem quite calm!” Liz chuckled to herself, in a way that just took Beth back to the Rover’s Return pub. “I wouldn’t be, in your shoes, I’d have been half way across this park by now.”
It was as if life had numbed Beth, to the point of where such a shock as that of her current predicament would do nothing in making her remotely surprised.
“It’s a funny world we live in, I’ll grant you that…” Liz muttered. Beth always thought it must’ve been worse if you actually lived in the setting of a soap opera. You get at least three fires, two explosions, five murders and a good few affairs, and by extension unintended pregnancies, every year. The real world was nothing like that. And yet, it was just as hard, simply because it was real.
“So, hold on a sec,” Beth ran through the facts in her head. “You’re Liz McDonald.”
And then it truly began to set in, as Beth looked over and scanned over the woman sat on the swing beside her. She was exactly like the woman who graced her TV screen six times a week. She was Liz McDonald. Beth couldn’t help but laugh to herself, because of all the crazy things that she’d seen in her life, this was one of the funniest. The actual Liz McDonald.
“Wow,” Beth muttered as she laughed to herself. Liz even gave a few chuckles as well. “I’m probably tripping. Ugh, I sound like Alfie.” And for some reason, that thought made her laugh even more.
When Beth eventually stopped, Liz came clean.
“I’m not Liz. Or Beverly Callard.”
Oh. A little bit disappointing. But, that still did not explain the fact there was someone identical to Liz McDonald sat beside her.
“So…” Beth tried, but she couldn’t see any differences at all, “I’m going insane?”
“Beth, love, you’re not insane.”
The words hung in the air a little bit, as Beth was completely taken aback. There was something about what Liz had said that had struck her, and made her think, if only for a few seconds. They weren’t words that one heard often — and even if they were, they were words that Beth couldn’t hear, because her own voice would retaliate too much.
The words meant, in a way that Beth hadn’t ever estimated, more than she could have realised.
“Right, Liz McDonald. Thanks.” “Look, I’m not Liz, and I think that’s something you need to realise. Although I am quite versed on the character, actually. I streamed all of her episodes —”
Beth’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “That’s like, two-thousand episodes. Must have taken a long time.”
“Well, I’m an AI, so I consumed them pretty much in a matter of seconds,” Liz nodded, a friendly smile on her face as if consuming over eight-hundred hours of television in an instant was what she did every day. “Knocked out the entirety of America’s internet while doing it, but it was worth it for a bit of ‘get outta ma pub! Ya barred!’ and all that.”
“It is a handy skill, I must admit. Can be a right pain in the neck sometimes, though, when I overload my circuits.”
“Does that happen a lot?” Beth smiled at the ridiculousness of one of her favourite fictional characters having circuits.
“It does a bit,” Liz nodded, an almost melancholy look on her face. “All that info, whizzing about in my brain, sometimes I have to take myself out of it!”
“I don’t think I would,” Beth mused. It would be a good distraction. She always liked having her brain on the go.
“You watch Corrie, though. That anime stuff. And, I think —”
“Today,” Beth concluded, placing her hands on her lap, “I don’t want a fictional character telling me how to feel. No offence.”
Liz gave her an understanding smile. “None taken.”
Beth just wasn’t in the mood, and, as what seemed to be the story of her whole life, she was divided across two poles — wanting to hold the things she loved dear, and also wanting nothing more than to just huddle away alone.
“So, go on then,” Beth looked to Liz, still none-the-wiser as to how the current situation could be possible. “How are you here?”
“This is you, isn’t it?” Liz asked. “Always trying to work things out.”
“Yep. So, go on, then.”
Liz took a deep breath — for an artificial intelligence, she had captured not only the characteristics of a human being — but of Liz McDonald herself — almost perfectly. Beth waited patiently, relishing in the situation. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad after all — first Zoe, now Liz.
“I’m the AI of the Oyster.”
The what? Beth thought to herself.
“I chose this form because I thought you’d like it,” Liz explained. She had chosen well, clearly.
“I do, definitely. I’m surprised that you went for Liz, though.”
“Well, it was either her or Luffy. I chose this image because I am, I suppose, both Liz and Bev,” Liz — or the Oyster, continued. “Fiction is an escape, and a set of foundations upon which you can build your life. Also, I know Bev is an inspiration to you. As a fellow bipolar sufferer, you know.”
It was true. Beth was a great admirer of Bev Callard — the woman was an inspiration to everyone. The mastermind behind Liz McDonald, Bev Callard suffered with bipolar herself. Only a year ago, she had taken time out of the show to recuperate following a relapse in her condition, and — if Bev could make it through, then so could Beth.
“Well, you sound like her,” Beth admitted, feeling proud that she almost knew exactly the way Liz spoke.
“Yeah. I watched a lot of episodes to get this right.”
“Hold on. So, as an AI, do you… enjoy it?” Beth realised after speaking that she sounded ridiculous. “Like, do you get your kicks out of watching the show, or would you rather… I dunno, tune into the motherboard’s latest hard-drive gossip, or something?”
“Well, I don’t exactly… feel it. But I… watch it.”
Beth stared at her, puzzled.
“And — by consuming so many episodes,” Liz continued, “I suppose I’ve almost got to the point where I’ve got so far into Liz’s character, that I do start to feel things.”
“Mm.” Beth swung her legs for a few seconds, digesting the words. Then, because she could, she changed the subject. “We met these things once. Cybermen.”
“... good for you?” Liz looked bemused. Beth was amazed they’d managed to mimic her characteristics so perfectly.
“I just remembered how they wanted to take away emotions, and how I…” Beth paused, considering, and then said, “I was just thinking.”
Liz nodded. Beth expected to be judged for her eccentricities, but the AI just lapsed back into a comfortable silence, letting her lead the flow of conversation. She appreciated that.
“So… what do you actually do?” Beth enquired. She doubted the Oyster was some kind of fishery — and if it was, she was going to liberate it.
“The Oyster is a programme created in the Andromeda Galaxy — year 5062 — class number E4F56 — to help and assist those with mental health problems.”
Liz’s words hung in the air, and Beth quietly processed them to herself. A computer programme built to help people like her. One so advanced it could stream 2,000 episodes of Coronation Street in seconds. Wow. Bipolar was clearly on its death knell.
And yet she couldn’t help but be suspicious. It was a strange sensation, after she’d pleaded for Sarah Jane to give the Slitheen a chance, but the timing of AI Liz showing up when she had such a big day approaching was a little suspicious. And while Beth craved for the company of someone who truly understood her, she knew all too well that those who seemed the most genuine could actually be the most deceitful.
“Mm…” Beth’s voice trailed off, not exactly sure what to say. “How?”
“Talking, mainly. Giving you that time to run things over, teaching you some coping techniques. It’s your voice, and the Oyster gives you a safe place for you to talk about your mental condition — and, hopefully, although we can’t cure anything — we might be able to help you accept it.”
A few moments of silence ticked by, and both Beth and Liz looked out at the field, watching the crows prancing about in the park ahead of them, bathing in the evening wintery sunlight.
“I can see that you hate the idea,” Liz spoke bluntly.
“It’s not that bad,” Liz offered, looking to Beth hopefully. “I promise. And… I don’t think you’re entirely against the idea.”
Beth paused, thinking about it. No, she wasn’t entirely against the idea. She was just nearly-entirely against the idea. Beth knew that the Oyster would be good for her — and yet, she just couldn’t. There were no other words, apart from… just couldn’t. She knew what her brain was doing — stuck between knowing what it needed to do, and hiding behind its neurons and nerves and tissues, an invisibility cloak against acceptance.
“You’re divided,” Liz mused, watching a squirrel skittering around the base of a tree. It bounced up with immense confidence — and as it approached, it didn’t seem to know what it was doing. Liz continued. “I can see it, you’re getting help, you know you need it — and you do a remarkable job of living with it. You just blitz through life with an outer shell harder than those nuts we sell in the Rovers.”
“Mhm. I’m nuts.”
“Stop it. My point is, you do well — but you know it yourself, that you haven’t come to terms with what you need to. And that’s what we’re here for. A means of… acceptance. And that’s the hardest bit. People keep things to themselves. It’s not good.”
Beth didn’t look at her. She was worried that if she did, it would be the spark needed to catapult her over the edge and send her into a livid, ranting mess. For years, the only person that she could truly rely on during the depression, and the hypomania, was herself. She’d managed all this time, and handled it brilliantly, so the offer was pointless.
Or was it?
Shaking her head, Beth decided it didn’t matter. She simply gritted her teeth, pushed herself off the swing, and quickly walked away.
“You don’t need to find me now,” Liz called out. The understanding in her voice almost made Beth falter. Almost. “When you’re ready, come find me.”
As Beth walked away, she felt a pang of regret — but buried it.
The Oyster just wanted to help. To give you the help you need. And you need the help.
How was it somebody else’s right to tell her how to live her life? To tell her what help to get? What a ridiculous notion, to listen to somebody else, when she knew her mind better than they ever could. When you start internally collapsing in on yourself? It’s called looking out for somebody. Saving someone.
Saving… as if it was heroic. As if it was all like something from a fairytale — but Beth understood that it was nothing like that. There was no obvious happy ending in sight. Nothing beautiful or bittersweet about feeling sad, or alone all the time. It couldn’t be turned glamorous, or exciting, or emotional. It just hurt.
And it was complicated — and as she walked away, Beth still had no idea what was right for her. She hated it, she just wanted it to stop, and for it to become easy and obvious. But there were two sides of her brain, dragging her in two different directions.
As Beth looked up to the clouds, she could see it. The makings of a thunderstorm were brewing in the air, and she knew she needed to get home as quickly as possible.
Beth walked into the house, slamming the door against the billowing wind and rain that had begun to rage outside, the storm whipping through Foxgrove, with enough force that one could think it had the power to turn a whole civilisation to dust. She looked around the darkened hallway. Empty.
Carelessly kicking off her shoes, Beth trudged up the stairs and into her room. As she did so, she checked her phone. There was one new message, from her mum.
Can we talk?
She paused. It was a simple question, and it almost sounded like a plea — that surprised her. Chrystal Petite never pleaded, a trait Beth had subconsciously adopted. It instilled her with hope that they could start afresh, but then she remembered what her mother did, and she reverted back into her shell.
Chrystal Petite had validated truth to an idea that had framed every event and happening of Beth’s life, and it turned out all to be false. It was not something that could be forgiven, or forgotten in the name of protection. This was something that would take time to process and understand — and if her mother wanted to just talk, she should have thought about it before playing with her daughter’s mind in the way she had.
Beth switched her phone off and tossed it onto her bed, striding over to the desk and collapsing on her chair with a sigh. She swivelled aimlessly for a few seconds, running the proffered conversation over in her head. Chrystal would probably rattle off a mawkish apology, and then shift the blame of her questionable acts on a moment of grievous weakness. Once upon a time, the idea would have seemed as foreign as the random cat that broke into her home every Thursday for scraps of food, but now it felt like a feasible act her mother would even consider.
And that hurt Beth.
She shook her head to clear the lingering thoughts, and flicked on her laptop. There was one thing she always used to do when she had a crisis of faith. As the ancient computer slowly booted up with a loud whir, she reflected on her life.
It was difficult for Beth as she grew up. Living in a house with a mother who was away for longer than she’d have liked, and a sister who was the exact polar opposite of her, with features distinctly resembling her dead father’s wasn’t the greatest experience. Even with Zoe and Dan around, Beth felt lonely, isolated, and very sad.
She couldn’t explain the sadness, nor could she remember when it had started. Maybe it had begun when she moved to Foxgrove, or perhaps she’d had it all her life. All she knew was that she had terrible nightmares, little imaginary glimpses of her father’s death, that kept her up at night. At some point, she went to see a friend of Chrystal’s. Sometimes she’d attend the sessions feeling shy and withdrawn, while other times she loud and angry and excited. Her mum’s friend soon prescribed her medicine for something she’d quickly come to know of as bipolar disorder.
Later, she would realise that the man had been a psychiatrist, and years after she stopped visiting him, she would learn that her mother had exploited her condition for unthinkable reasons.
So Beth threw herself into video games. She’d liked them enough before, but truly grew to adore them when she felt isolated the most.
The only significant memento Beth had of Joey Petite were a series of books he’d brought upon recommendation from a friend. When she was six years old, she finally asked her mother where the books had come from, and Chrystal revealed that her father read them to her every night, before bed-time, because they calmed her down.
So Beth immersed herself in the six Warrior Cats books, desperate to remain tethered to her dad. She brought each book as they were released, and, on a whim, typed ‘Warrior Cats’ into the game search-bar when she was eleven years old. She’d stumbled upon a quaint little roleplaying server, though she hadn’t known what roleplay was at the time.
Beth was ready to leave, when another player approached her.
It was a bold, overzealous reply that appealed to the young. She typed back a reply before she even thought about it.
They talked a bit. Abby guided Beth through the basics of roleplay, played with and sent her a friend request. After a brief moment of hesitation, Beth accepted the request. It was a simple action, but she found herself coming back to the game whenever she felt lonely. Abby was usually online, so they’d roleplayed together, and over time, she’d met others: Art, Lightning, Kitty, Water, LazyCat, until there was a whole group of them.
And that simple action provided Beth with a secret outlet for her frustrations, and an opportunity to escape from her life for a while, to be someone else. Someone more exciting and adventurous, who wasn’t drowning in so many thoughts.
Someone who wasn’t bipolar.
The laptop finally started up, snapping Beth out of her thoughts. Her brain ran on autopilot, steering her to the correct webpage. The little blue buffering icon filled her with dread, anxious about the inevitable outcome but morbidly curious about having it realised. She impatiently waited for the page to load with bated breath.
Eventually, she finally got the answer she wanted. They were all offline. They had been so for two years. She didn’t know why she had hoped for a different outcome. She and her friends had been a group of kids indulging in childhood wonders, but now they had all grown up and moved on from the server. From her. One day, Beth would have to move on as well. Wherever life took her, it wouldn’t keep her tethered to one place forever, whether that was the game or Foxgrove.
The notion filled her with dread.
As she shut down her laptop, Beth suddenly became aware of the uncomfortable silence that blanketed her home. She usually didn’t have a problem with it, but today it felt wrong. Disrespectful. The house should have been bursting with restless energy, chatter, and consoling smiles, but instead she was alone. Her earlier delight seemed terribly misplaced, in hindsight.
Beth was wondering what to do with herself, when the sound of the front door slamming loudly jolted her from her thoughts.
“Beth!” Laurel shouted from downstairs. “You in?!”
Beth sighed, pushed herself to her feet, and slogged out of the room. She’d barely made it to the landing before Laurel stomped upstairs two steps at a time and almost crashed straight into her. Beth looked at her sister’s attire up and down, her eyebrows creased together. Laurel was dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans.
“Beth!” Laurel’s eyes were lit up mischievously. “Gimme your blazer!”
Taken aback by the abrupt demand, Beth could only utter a puzzled, “What?”
“Blazer,” Laurel repeated. “You know, that grey one Mum got you ages ago.”
“... why?” Beth narrowed her eyes, scrutinising Laurel’s hair. There was something strange about the style. “Did you get your hair straightened?”
Laurel ran her hand through her straightened hair. “Yup.”
“And you got your eyebrows done up?”
Beth tilted her head to the side, baffled. “Why?” A thought crossed her mind and she scowled. “You’re not gonna go out with Nathan, are you?”
“No!” Laurel exclaimed, a little too quickly. “Ew. As if. I’m getting my cosplay ready for Comic Con.”
Beth stared at her. “That’s ages away.”
“You don’t even like Comic Con!”
“I do now!” Laurel retorted. “So, can I have your blazer?”
“Cos I gotta complete my Laurel outfit.”
Beth blinked at her, unsure how to respond. “Your…?”
Laurel rolled her eyes. “Laurel Lance,” she clarified. “I’m an all or nothing kind of girl.”
“Use your school blazer,” Beth said with a noncommittal shrug, already ambling towards the living room, pondering on the humorous notion of Laurel dressing up as Laurel.
“My one’s not grey!” Laurel protested, following her sister. “Come on! The experience of helping others is its own reward!”
“Fine,” Beth acquiesced, plopping down on the armchair beside the fireplace with a sigh. “Just stop going on about it.”
Beth expected Laurel to disappear after that, but she still stood by the doorway, staring relentlessly. “What?”
“I’m off to meet up with Mum. We’re gonna go see Gran,” Laurel revealed, her expression expectant. “You wanna come?”
Beth looked away. “Nah.”
“Oh.” Laurel walked over and collapsed on the armrest. “How come?”
I don’t want to. “Got homework.”
Laurel snorted at the thought. “Come off it.”
Beth heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m gonna meet up with Zoe and Dan.”
“Aw, come on. You see them lot all the time, and Gran’s never around,” Laurel said.
“I just don’t feel like it.”
“Why not?” Laurel’s tone was more aggressive now. “How come you won’t talk to Mum?”
“Oh, so it’s about her, now?” Beth said bitterly, annoyed that Laurel had decided to reveal her true intentions. “Thought you were going on about Gran.”
“Answer the question!”
“I did!” Beth snapped.
Laurel scrunched up her face in confusion. “When?!”
“Halloween. It’s not my fault you forgot,” Beth muttered snidely under her breath.
“Beth!” Laurel barked in frustration. “Just tell me.”
“No point,” Beth said sullenly.
“‘Cos you wouldn’t get it.”
Laurel crossed her arms defensively. “How would you know?”
“I just do,” Beth said brusquely. “You didn’t get it then, you won’t get it now.” It was true, the last time Beth had tried to explain her situation to Laurel, it hadn’t ended the way she’d hoped. She doubted the situation would have changed so drastically in two months.
“Just talk to Mum!” Laurel pleaded.
“No. We have better things to do, anyway.”
Beth looked at her, incredulous. “Have you seriously forgotten about tomorrow as well?”
“Don’t be stupid, ‘course I didn’t,” Laurel said defensively. “Dad’s birthday. But that — and your weird mood — aren’t important right now.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true! You’re always banging on about us moving on from it, and that’s what I’m doing. Besides, you not talking to Mum is way more important. And you’ve been proper weird these past few days. Are you even taking your medication anymore? Teachers at school are worried, Nathan reckons you’re a proper weirdo.”
“Nathan can shut up,” Beth grumbled.
“And Mum thinks you need new pills.”
Beth’s head snapped up. “What?”
“New pills,” Laurel repeated. “Mum’s been talking to people at the hospital. They’re gonna prescribe you something new.”
“And she didn’t tell me?” Beth’s voice rose an octave.
Laurel looked at her strangely. “Who cares what you think? She’s only getting it cos it’s gonna help you.”
Beth stared at her. The worst thing was that as Laurel looked at her, she was not trying to be malicious. She was not trying to hurt her, nor was she trying to wind Beth up, to taunt and torment her. Beth could see that Laurel was being honest. She was genuinely vacant of any understanding and, in this situation, empathy, apparently.
Beth didn’t care about people who were cruel — they were easy to repel, easy to ignore. People who were cruel in nature were just not very nice humans, and to Beth, that was fine. There were always going to be idiots like that. Of course, that didn’t necessarily make living in a world with some stupid people easier — but at least with those people, they chose not to understand, and so Beth knew she was better than them.
But people like Laurel were harder to handle, because they were ignorant — and at least there was, perhaps, the chance of sitting them down and explaining to them what it was like.
Because they didn’t mean to be cruel, they were just being brutally honest with what they understood. And what did that show? It was simple — that some people did not understand it. They didn’t not accept it, but they were too out of the loop. And to know that the problem was almost that deep-rooted was almost just as terrifying as someone who went out of their way to hate her.
She rose to her feet.
“Where are you going?” Laurel demanded.
“Going on a walk,” Beth said in a clipped tone. “See you later.”
“Beth —” Laurel tried, but Beth grabbed her discarded hoodie from the sofa, and bolted from the living room. She could hear Laurel behind her, protesting, but she ignored her. In fact, in her frenzy to escape, Beth could barely even hear her. At the bottom of the stairs, she slipped on her trainers, left, and shut the door behind her.
She stood on the doorstep for a second, heaving loudly. She was surprisingly breathless. She could go anywhere, do anything. The world was her oyster.
But there was something she had to do first.
Beth dug her phone out of her pocket and selected a number. It rang five times, before the person on the other end picked up.
"Yo," Zoe said cheerfully on the other end. "What's up?"
"Can't make it online today," Beth said simply.
"What? You okay?"
"Yeah. I gotta go."
Beth hung up and started walking.
It was that easy.
But her mind was a mess, tossing and turning like an insomniac. She had no idea where she was going to go, what she was going to do, she’d just walked out impulsively because Laurel was being a bit annoying. Except… it wasn’t just a bit annoying. It was upsetting. Her twin, the one individual who should understand her more than anybody else — and she didn’t. She didn’t get how much she’d been hurt.
Beth just wanted her, and all her friends, to understand. That was all.
But now there was something that would understand her. Something that would help her.
The Oyster was waiting for Beth.
It was an alien computer thing, so she probably should’ve told Sarah Jane, but Sarah Jane didn’t need to know about it. Nor did Zoe, Dan, or Alfie.
For now, this was hers, and she didn’t want to spoil it. Which, when she said it to herself, sounded ridiculous, and petty, and Beth felt like a five-year-old again — but, she was going to keep it to herself. The Oyster was there to help people like her — and so, whatever it was, it affected her. It was Beth’s job to find out more about it — and perhaps, it was necessary, for herself, to dig deeper. And whatever she did do — Beth knew that she had to do it alone.
She wasn’t sure how she was going to find it. But she hoped that if she needed help, it would be there for her.
Beth walked down the road, and she kept walking, and walking, without stopping. She didn’t care where she was going — but she knew she had to go somewhere. And so, she walked, without concept of direction, or purpose, or instruction. As long as she walked, she knew she would be fine. As long as she could get away from her life tightening the noose around her neck, and leading her to the stand, Beth didn’t care.
And yet, as she walked the noose was still there, the rope with an infinite amount of slack so it could just follow her wherever she went. The question was there, haunting her — was the rope going to snap? Could it snap? Maybe this was what she was condemned to for the rest of her days — constricted by her life, a life ready to break her at any turn, putting her on tenterhooks as to when the floor would drop beneath her.
Beth was not a crier. She just lived, without making it clear about how she felt about anything. For her, emotions were things to hold personally, they were not images to be plastered on billboards for the world to see. And she hated nothing more than stewing in how she felt — wallowing was certainly not for her. She always had to force herself to keep going, force herself to do something, no matter how menial. Otherwise, she would drive herself insane. And maybe that’s why her mind didn’t stop, because it was always whirring in perpetual neuroticism, unable to keep calm. The fangs of depression would leech the desire to live, and yet Beth had to keep going, because it was the only thing that could block the truth from reaching her.
So, she wouldn’t stop, from dusk until dawn — until she slept — and she did so love lying in, because it was the only respite she got. And as she walked along the pavement, trudging as fast as she could through sullen, melancholy puddles, pulling her jacket as tight as she could against the cold (and even then, it was not tight enough), Beth felt it — that need to move, that need to keep going.
That was why she didn’t look back much, maybe. Because what other choice was there, but to go forward?
Foxgrove was empty, gutted by the thunderstorm that had blitzed its way through the village and locked people away in their homes, apart from the brave few souls who had dared to venture out and enjoy their Thursday evening, but still, it was the aftermath of a storm that was the worst — at least the rain gave one something to think about. It was the remnants hanging sullenly over the village that stirred up the gloomy aura, permeable in Foxgrove’s atmosphere, a brutal contrast to the usual warm and sunny atmosphere that was usually so prevalent in the air.
In a way, it was a relief. The sunshine could get sickening, and sometimes the light breeze didn’t touch the dust and the cobwebs gathering in the bricks and mortar of Foxgrove’s foundations — sometimes, the wind needed to thrash through the village and blow away the lingering shadows of memories that nobody wanted to remember, to at least bring about some kind of feeling that there might just be something better coming along.
But this alternative wasn’t much better — because there was no rain, no wind, and no sign of life. It wasn’t even cold, it was just… average. Just silence. Just emptiness. The storm had blown, but it had just pinned Foxgrove in a murky dreariness.
And Beth needed to get out.
She crossed the road, walking to the park. As she did so, a car raced past, frostily blazing through the dank, clammily cold air, its horn blaring at her, a protestation at her callous inability to do the simplest action of looking left and right. Beth stumbled up onto the curb, heaving in deep breaths.
As she walked into the park, something happened. It was a raindrop, large, almost the size of a large puddle, plummeting from the sky and splashing on the bridge of her nose, sending droplets ricocheting into her eyes, blinding her for a few seconds as she fumbled her way past the swings, those fateful emblems of her childhood. The treelined pathway ahead was a tunnel of skeletal, infinitely entwining and tangled branches, and as Beth walked under them, she felt as if she’d been caged in, almost like a zoo animal, with people pressing their faces to the glass as if somehow, there was something weird about the girl with a mental illness — with none of them quite getting it.
And all the while, as she stared at the still, sombre waters of the ashen lake ahead of her, and pictured the faces of people who knew her, but at the same time, did not know her, their faces pressed up against the glass of her enclosure, Beth tried to define what it was like. To find words to explain the difficulty behind simply living. The coldness of it — the flatness, the numbness. Simply doing something, and the feeling of detestation and regret and hollowness that came from it — the lack of fulfilment from anything. It was like being winded, but the individual who swung the blow intangible, and therefore unaccountable for its crimes. No dock for it to stand in, no sentence for it to be given. No locking it up to keep her safe. And it was nothing more than unjust. Brutally unfair that such an illness had somehow been bestowed on her, and would keep tormenting her, perpetually and with full enthusiasm, elusive at times, and merciless at others. And sometimes, both.
There was no witness box for those who loved her — but if there was, no matter what they said, Zoe, Dan, and Alfie could not overcome the silence of the never-were court.
Leaves lay like a sodden blanket all over the ground, recently shed from the old oaks, leaving sullen, spiky shadows creaking in the brusque storm wind, like undertakers lined at a funeral. Her funeral. And she could picture them, the non-believers lined up outside the chamber, calling sham as the case progressed. Beth could block them out, if she tried. But the words could permeate — and words led to ideas. Ideas were unkillable. Laurel would testify for the defendant — unintentionally, of course. And while Beth would forgive her, for she loved her twin sister, it didn’t change the fact that her ignorance was shared by so many. Then there was her mother — blatant in her ignorance, giving a false alibi to the condition on trial. All Beth wanted was for people to understand. Everyone who wasn’t malicious — but who just didn’t get it.
Beth needed those she loved around her — but she’d sent them away. Cowered away in her own little bubble to exclude herself from society. Her paradoxical attachment to people — to know she needed them, but to be unable to bear their company. It was like being in two cages, and trying so hard to reach out to them, but unable to. She knew them, of course, and they knew her, openly, and honestly. But her mind? That resided behind those fences, electric in their wit and sarcasm and neurotic personality. And she just couldn’t tear them down, no matter how much she wanted to.
And as she looked to the sky with rain bucketing down on her head, Beth realised the truth.
She was lost.
She had a dream, of course — everybody did, in their own unique way — but every day it became something whimsical, overly ambitious and unattainable, like a child’s dream to travel to Mars or become a celebrity, oblivious the full breadth of reality. And the walls of her pathway were sinking inwards, the pressure creeping in on all sides, and she knew that one day, it would squeeze the life out of her until there was nothing left.
And Beth didn’t know what to do.
She wandered aimlessly, traipsing around the trees with the mud increasing exponentially at their stumps. And Beth knew that was her life — to understand the noose could snap at any moment, and yet to have the burning desire to keep on ploughing through — as if the DVD pause button had got stuck, and she needed to stop before she crashed and burned at the impending dead end — but there was nothing that could be done. Her life was destined for more pain. It was as if she understood time, but needed to hang on to today before it faded away for good, the memories turning to cinders and ash, destined never to be as full and real as they were at that moment.
Her trainers were dirtied in the squalor, and as she walked back to the main pathway, a puddle seeped through their soles, drenching her socks and making her feet damp. As it happened, Beth protested, she just wanted the stupid water to go away — and yet it was there, its effects there to stay, haunting her as she meandered pointlessly around that park she’d grown up in.
Her childhood was around her, the skies baring down imperiously from above, suffocating all life — and yet, Beth could not bring herself to move. It was as if she were rooted to soggy, crunching gravel beneath her feet, keeping her out in the thrashing rain.
She hated the past — there was nothing that could be done to change it. So she ignored it, and buried it, as it slowly toxified under the growing weight of the light from today, the darkness growing like a multiplying petri-dish of bacteria. And a bacterium had escaped, and was infecting her today. The clouds and the past were enveloping her on all sides, and Beth could feel it, lingering over her like a shadow.
And somehow she found herself blundering over to a bandstand — a simple place of shelter against the elements. Because, as she walked towards it, the rain began to thrash down, hard from the sky, driving deep at her. And yet, as she cowered inside the bandstand, it was almost useless as shelter. While it kept the rain out, the wind still blew through its skeleton, its jaws gnashing away at her skin. People told her a new perspective could change the way she thought — but with an infinite cosmos of monochrome above her head, the picture seemed just as bleak.
Maybe that was the clincher. The inability to look to a new perspective. There was something gloriously ironic about her brain knowing that there was another perspective, but some chemical reaction within her ordering it to think another way. Was there no communication within the body, or was it as dysfunctional as her life? She often thought about it, though — whether there was a ‘clinching’ thing, a point of blame for everything — some stray, random factor that if she found, she would be able to ‘cure’ herself, to wipe her illness away forever.
And that’s what her life felt like, at times. As if her attempts to constantly be busy were all in the name of finding that one thing, a perfect alignment of conditions and factors that would unlock the puzzle of her brain. That’s all it felt like — a logic puzzle, so many different intricate cogs and wires and slips of metal and screws and bolts, lying incomplete and waiting to be assembled. But when it came to assembling the completed article, it wouldn’t fit, nothing would slot together in the way it should. An equation with an X, one which could somehow never be discovered.
But that was the clinching thing — that there was no clinching thing. No big passcode to type in and purge what felt like her diseased brain. No magical cure to put her demons to sleep for the rest of her days. Nothing that would forever reconcile her inner self. No perfect pattern or paradigm for happiness to understand. This was the completed her.
It was just… this. This life, and her bipolar.
Herself. And she knew it — but she couldn’t accept herself. She knew, deep down, that’s what she had to do. That’s why she had to find the Oyster — because she needed to accept it. At the swings, she hadn’t been able to — but finally, as Beth sat in that bandstand, a place for music and song, and yet stripped of note and time signature by the dark, gloomy, misanthropic cold of the world outside, she knew what she had to do.
To reconcile her depression. Her bipolar. Her mental illness.
And as it was always intended, music began to drift through the hull of the bandstand again. Not bars or notes strung together in perfect rhythm, but instead, a voice that she needed to hear. The perfect intonation, the delicacy of the way the words were formed, and the brusque, Mancunian way in which they were delivered, as if they were weaved intricately to bring Beth back to life.
Beth turned to see the Oyster sat beside her. Liz McDonald gave her a friendly smile — and maybe, Beth felt a small glimmer of hope.
“What do you need, Beth?” Liz said.
The hope in her voice was almost too much — it was as if suddenly, she realised what a tiny bit of hope meant. Tiny. Nothing achievable, just a stray chance straggling some distance away.
But then… Sarah Jane had taught her the value of that — just as her friends had taught her to seize it.
Beth was ready.
“A coat.” Beth pulled her hoodie close around her, gripping herself tightly as if it were all that she could manage to keep herself intact. Since the storm started up again, the rain had whipped right through her, driving her deeper into the cold. And yet, with her mind so caught in its tornado, she had barely noticed.
Liz slipped off her jacket, which was sort of like tinfoil, but gold, and, well — a jacket — and passed it to Beth, who slipped it on.
“I’m an AI,” Liz shrugged. “I don’t really need it.”
“Thanks, I guess…” Beth looked away from Liz, and out at the lake ahead of them, the rain-pebbles splashing against the lake’s once-dead surface.
“So? Now’s the time?” Liz asked.
Beth hesitated, knowing full well that if she hesitated for too long, she would back out. For her, it was always better to ride on a whim, than wait to see the wave grow, and a harder fall be all the more inevitable. But she couldn’t even get through one day without losing it. And if she couldn’t suppress that stupid thing in her head for just one day, then what was the point? And that made her terrified — for if she couldn’t save herself, then what could she save?
Do not back out now, Beth told herself.
“You’re not mad, Beth,” Liz reassured her, almost as if Beth’s thoughts were readable.
Beth sighed, and then prepared to speak the words. When she’d first been diagnosed, first been given her medication, first had therapy — all of it had just happened. There had been no moment of asking, no moment of her having to process the information. And in a way, she was grateful — but doing what needed to be done was a vastly different prospect — and no amount of medication, or therapy, had ever helped her form the words to develop an understanding.
Beth readied herself. These weren’t words she’d said before. All her life, she’d been hesitant to lay the pathway that she needed — and as she gazed down it now, she not only saw an opaque shield against a better place, but instead, a gate. And as Beth processed this ridiculous analogy, sat in Liz McDonald’s ridiculous foil coat, in a bandstand in the middle of the pouring rain, after briefly wondering whether all of this crazy existence was just a dream — Beth put form to the words she’d needed to, for so long.
“I… I just want help.”
And it was as simple as that.
Without asking any more, without any hesitation, Liz gave Beth a look of unwavering support. Her smile was calming, and in a way, she made Beth feel brave — or, at least, as if she was going to understand. Liz stood up, and Beth did the same, readying themselves against the storm lashing at the world around them — and slowly, they gravitated to the steps leading down to the Earth.
Beth looked out, almost like an alien leaving its spaceship — as if the world were something new — or maybe her eyesight had shifted just slightly, so things looked that bit different. But then, as if all nervousness evaporated, Beth strode down from the podium. For once, she was ready, without fear, or concern. And that was good in itself, she thought — that while there were monsters hiding in the shadows, lurking behind her every move, there was, at least, one she had confronted.
The barrier preventing her asking for help, to understand and accept, had crumbled.
Beth and Liz strode through the rain — but it did not touch them, as Liz drew an umbrella, a protection from the storm raging around them. The two of them walked, without fear, and in silence. No words were needed, as both knew what needed to be done. Who needed to be helped.
The world around her was dead and grey — the waters of the lake were a swirling asphalt abyss, and the thin, bony trees like skeletal guardsmen, in their cloaks of shadow, were stood watching over her. The trees and the mud squelched beneath her feet, as if the ground beneath the feet of every human being was unstable, with everyone at the risk of sinking into nothingness, with the foundations of the world hung in the balance of pure chance. All of it was true — and it did not stir her so much now.
As they approached the swings, Beth could see the road in the distance. There was a bus — which was strange, as the buses in Foxgrove were never meant to stop at that specific moment. And there was something off about it. As if the bus didn’t quite belong there. And at the same time, it was a normal bus.
“That bus — that’s where we’re going,” Liz eventually said. Beth was not surprised. As they approached the end of the pathway, Beth tried to look at the bright orange sign above the windscreen — but she couldn’t make out where the bus was going. The letters kept fading and flickering, the lights worn down by years of driving from place to place to place — driving people away, to wherever they needed to be.
That was okay — Beth didn’t need to know where she was going. As long as Liz was going to help her.
Beth was at the bus stop, and without even glancing back at the village behind her, Liz led her onboard.
“Take a seat,” Liz smiled. “Anywhere.”
Without looking to the driver, Beth, just like she would whenever she got on a bus, traipsed her way towards the back, so she, Zoe and Dan could laugh and chat without interruption — even though this time, she was alone, and unless it was going to be a mild pitiful chortle at the craziness of the situation. Such a chortle emerged when, in the corner of her eye, Beth saw Liz take out what looked like an Oyster card, and swipe it on the reader.
The bus was empty, as Beth made her way down the aisle. No-one else travelling. That was annoying — she’d have quite liked some noise, some… general hubbub, to take her out of the world.
Beth sat back in the far-left corner, her head lolling against the admittedly slightly uncomfortable spot between the seat and the back window. But, it took the minimal amount of effort, and she was quite certain she could feel a headache rearing its ugly... head — so, lying back at least gave her aching mind a little bit of release.
She looked up to Liz, who was making her way down the aisle to sit beside her. It was like all day, Beth had been running on adrenaline, some sort of strange burst, trying to push on through.
“You sit back,” Liz instructed. “I’ve got to switch on the dimensional phasers.”
“Huh.” Beth was pretty sure she said that out loud. But, she was too tired to care — and briefly, she closed her eyes. When she did so, she could feel the bus shifting, edging forwards as it always did, as it began to crawl down the road. Beth could visualise it — she’d got on buses a million times before at this stop. She could picture the houses slowly sinking away behind them, the street gradually being eaten up by the horizon, the origin slowly fading away as time drifted her forwards, as the journey would commence. It was no different to usual — with her eyes blind to the outside, she felt the bus’s steady movement, as it would snake out of Foxgrove and to the next village.
The sensation was weird with her eyes shut, so she opened them — it was only making her feel queasy.
What she saw next, however, didn’t calm her unruly stomach down.
Suddenly, the bus was full of people.
Some of them were human, seemingly from all over the world — a microcosm of the Earth, contained in a bus — cultures, places, people, all together, and all travelling. But, there weren’t just humans on the bus…
There were aliens too.
So many people from outer-space, races Beth hadn’t ever seen before. The whole universe seemed to have been bottled up on one bus, with tall aliens, small aliens,and a person sat opposite on the row in front that looked like a human-cat. A tiny mouse waved at Beth from the ground and she gave it a half-wave in return, too bemused to fully take it in, before the animal leapt into the air and back to the ground, scuttling down the central aisle of the bus. Somebody was standing, with tentacles for arms and a solitary eye blinking with bug-like intensity. A group sat a few rows in front of her had beaks and had almighty tusks protruding from the sides of their faces, and Beth was quite sure that the man sat near the front was made up of gelatine. And this didn’t even touch the surface, for the whole bus was buzzing with life from around the cosmos, all on whatever journey they were each on (although Beth wasn’t certain why they were using a rural English bus service).
When she looked two seats away to her right, Beth noticed something with a round, bulbous head, with spaghetti-like fronds dangling from its mouth — and nestled in its hands was a glowing, silver orb.
“It’s called an Ood,” said Liz McDonald, as she swooped and sat on the seat between Beth and the Ood.
“That’s… Ood,” Beth responded. The joke was either terrible or it fell on deaf ears, apparently, as Liz quickly moved on.
“He got released from slavery two months ago,” Liz whispered. “Poor thing, we’re trying to rehabilitate him at the moment — but he’s such a troubled soul. Oh, and look over there.”
She subtly gestured towards a humanoid woman in a burgundy cardigan a few seats ahead. The woman was staring out of the window, her eyes glassy and her expression unnervingly serene. She noticed Beth’s staring and scowled. Beth offered her a small, placating smile in return, and the woman’s expression softened marginally. She quickly flitted back to the window, and resumed her daydreaming.
“What happened?” Beth found herself asking. Perhaps it was nosy, but she felt a deep sadness emanating off the woman.
“That’s Val,” Liz explained. “Whatever you do, don’t parrot her words if you talk to her. The poor dear had a very violent experience on a bus a couple years ago, but it was her husband and son abandoning her that really broke her spirit. She has a portable light-source, to keep her comfortable. Terrified of shadows, you see. PTSD. We do the best we can for her.”
“Mhm…” Beth muttered, not sure what to say. Even as a hologram, Liz loved a gossip.
“That’s what we’re here for, though,” Liz continued, gesturing to the bus around her. And as Beth grasped what was going on, she suddenly began to feel at home — as if all the many people around her could grasp what she was feeling. No more having to make it up, or hide behind laughter and sarcasm. People who she could be open and honest with.
“People never get it,” Liz continued. “They either think mental illness doesn’t exist. Or they just don’t understand it. And then there are some people who think it’s almost cute. To be depressed.”
“But they’ve got no idea,” Beth said, knowing full well that there was nothing cute about it. Nothing fun. Nothing bittersweet, or adorable. It was just… awful.
“But that’s what we’re here for. To… help those who need it — and to show what it’s truly like to live with a mental illness. So...” Liz took in a breath, as she prepared for the challenge ahead. “Where do you want to start?”
Beth sat back, and looked at the bus around her, and all the people who were just driving away, grabbing on to whatever glimmer of hope they could to get them through the day. And the night, as well. And, for once, she felt understood.
But the prevalent fact still hung in the air. She needed to accept one other, rather important, thing.
And it was not going to be easy. Even after accepting herself, she was never going to save herself entirely. But to understand it was a good place to start. To reconcile herself with those demons lurching away inside her brain, regardless of whether they kept their hiding places, would make her life well. Worth living. And Beth was in the right place for it. She was with people who understood what it was like to be her. She was with the people who came to help. The extraterrestrials who just wanted to bring her hope.
Yes — it still hurt. Simply sitting there, thinking about the power of her illness, made her tired. The challenge almost too daunting, as if her bipolar could drag her down. But, for now, she had hit rock bottom — and there was no further destination for her.
The bus sped onwards, the grey and bleak world outside blurring around her, disappearing, and the feeling inside the bus, of vibrancy and warmth and the assurance that something good was on the horizon, suddenly felt tangible, for once in Beth’s life.
And maybe, Beth Petite was on her way to acceptance.
To Be Continued...
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