A Shipwreck of Memories by Sheena Billett

In my dreams I am still that eight year old boy, standing on the beach, staring at the image of the wreck. And although I am undressed for the beach, in my swimming trunks, it is never summer. 

My eight-year-old self feels isolated and vulnerable, although I don’t know those words yet. I just want to go home to the safety of my mother – except that my mother is not safe, and neither is my home. 

The dream always ends the same way. I am stuck in the mud and can’t move, slowly being sucked down – sinking into oblivion. The last thing I see is the crazy outline of the shipwreck floating in the sky above me before my eyes fill with mud. 

And then I wake up, gasping for air, thrashing my arms and legs about to make sure that I can still move. 

The therapist says that the dream means that I feel my life is a wreck, and that I feel isolated and vulnerable, that the little boy in me wants to run home to some kind of soft soothing mother figure. “It’s okay you’re safe now, it was just a dream.” 

She’s right, my life is a wreck. Although you wouldn’t know it from outward appearances. I am “happily married”, I have three children, I am a wealthy barrister, and yet – the little eight-year-old me still keeps returning to haunt me in my dreams. 

“What can I do to stop these dreams?”

“Well, it seems to me that you need to sort your life out, and get rid of the ‘wreckage’.” 

“I really don’t know where to start, because the wreckage is everywhere – although well hidden.” I give a wry smile. Did I just say that out loud? 

“Start at the beginning. What is going on with your eight-year-old self?” 

I close my eyes, pinch the bridge of my nose and take a deep breath. Can I really go back there? 

“It started when I was eight – after my father died. My mother changed into a different person, someone who didn’t seem to notice me anymore, I didn’t know why. And then she started bringing men home, late at night. I didn’t know who they were but there was often a lot of shouting, screaming, and other noises that I tried to block out with the pillow over my head.” 

I shift in my chair, crossing one leg over the other. Here it comes… Will I be able to say it? 

“Sometimes they were still there in the morning when I was getting ready for school, and my mother said whoever it was, was my uncle Tony, Max, Peter… I can’t remember all the names. But I do remember one – he was called Ralph.” 

I lean forward, elbows on my knees, and put my head in my hands. I can’t look up. 

“Ralph was there a lot, and he and my mother used to wake me up. He told her it would be good for me – it would make me a man. He always made her leave the room. I didn’t know… I didn’t know that this wasn’t supposed to happen. All I knew was that I hated it, and I hated Ralph, and most of all I hated my mother.”

I am shocked at the tears running down my face, and my whole body is shaking. There is a silence while I try to recover myself. I don’t know how long it lasts because time doesn’t exist in my past life. 

Eventually, I sit up. 

“How long did this go on for?” I sense a gentleness in her voice which brings on a fresh bout of undignified crying, and I can’t control the sounds I am making. Then there is another silence. 

“Two years.” 

“And then?” 

“And then it just stopped and he never came back. I don’t know why, my mother just said it was none of my business. But it was my business!” I can feel anger growing. 

“And you never told anyone?” 

“No. By the time I was old enough to know it shouldn’t have happened, it was too late. It was too embarrassing – too humiliating. I just locked it away in a box in the very back of my mind.” 

“But you haven’t really locked it away, have you? It’s there all the time.” “I don’t know what to do with it.” 

“You’ve taken the first step. It will take courage to open the box completely and examine what is inside, but that is the journey you must take to escape from your past.”

I look out of the window and through my adult eyes I see it is raining. The weather has come out in sympathy with my tears. Suddenly, I need to move. I stand up and walk a few paces to and fro, relieved that I am not trapped in the past, shrouded in the sand. Knowing that I am my adult self who can be in control of my own safety, and that I can create a better world for myself. I am no longer a small child at the mercy of the very people who should have kept him safe. 

Many gruelling sessions later, I had come to several conclusions: One, I had married the wrong woman. That I’d been looking for a substitute mother-comforter figure, something that she didn’t want to be – understandably! Two, I owed it to my children to get better and that I wanted to teach them to be courageous and always face things however difficult and embarrassing. Three, I loved my job and wanted to use my skills to make sure that the Ralphs of this world would never see the light of day once I’d finished with them. 

I’ve not had the dream for two years, and my eight-year-old self is now peaceful, understood and comforted.

Published in Issue #24

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