2 Chapter sample of Vibes
Have you ever sat on a bus?
Of course you have – how stupid of me. We’ve all sat on a bus at some point, haven’t we? You’ve never done it the way I have though; my experience of travelling by bus is worlds away from yours, and worlds away from almost anyone else’s too, come to that.
I guess I should explain myself; I was born different, but not in an obvious, physical way. In fact you probably wouldn’t bother taking a second – or possibly even a first – glance at me if you saw me walking along the street. I’m very ordinary to look at and always make a conscious effort to stay as inconspicuous as possible. Unless I broke my most fundamental personal rule and decided to tell you my secret, you’d have no way of knowing I’m anything other than boringly average. I’d never confide in anybody though, not even a friend. If I did, they’d most likely laugh in my face thinking I was trying to pull a prank on them. If they did believe it, they’d begin to feel uneasy around me and start making up excuses not to spend time with me any more.
Having said that, you seem like the kind of person I could almost imagine myself opening up to, if only distrust weren’t so deeply ingrained in my psyche.
You are innately honest. I know because I can feel it, like a warm hug. It’s been enveloping me from across the room from the moment I sat down in the café, a few tables away from you. I’ve been soaking it up ever since the girl serving disappeared outside to clear a table. Now there’s just the two of us here, it’s easy for me to focus exclusively on you – or, more accurately, natural.
I wish I could thank you; today’s been a really tough day and imbibing a hug of honesty from somebody else is helping me a lot. Oh, don’t worry – I’m not reading your innermost thoughts or anything as disturbing as that. My ability doesn’t work like that, thankfully. I don’t read minds, but I do sense emotions. It happens spontaneously, especially if I’m unprepared. Sometimes I shut it out, but I’ll come back to that later.
Let’s get back to that bus ride I mentioned a minute ago.
Picture yourself climbing aboard a bus. You pay the driver and then wander along the aisle looking for a seat. Your primary goal is to find a spot that isn’t next to somebody else. Failing that, you try to locate a seat beside a person who doesn’t look like an evil axe murderer, so you glance around and try to size up a few people, quickly deciding upon the least disagreeable option.
Once you’ve sat down next to your ‘safe’ fellow passenger, you might get a bit bored and do some more detailed people-watching. The chances are you’d only notice the basic demographic mix of people on the bus: whether they’re young, old or middle-aged; quiet, chatty or downright loud; or you might note the wonderful diversity of ethnic backgrounds – you’d spot the plainly obvious visible and audible differences.
Now imagine what it would be like if you could feel the other passengers’ emotions: happiness, sadness and utter despair; optimism, suspicion and frustration – all untethered and unremitting, like a swarm of wasps buzzing around an open pot of jam. Are you starting to get the picture?
I wouldn’t blame you if you’re thinking, ‘She’s having me on, or at least exaggerating,’ or, ‘She probably uses people’s facial expressions and body language to work out how others are feeling, just like everyone else.’ But you’d be wrong; it honestly isn’t like that at all. I can detect somebody’s emotional state without seeing them at all.
Before you decide I must be a bit crazy, I’ll try to explain what it feels like. If someone is sad, it’s as though my heart is suddenly made of lead; cold and heavy, like an artificial object has been implanted in my chest. If they’re jealous, it’s like there’s a worm wriggling through my brain; an invasive pest like an itch you can’t scratch inside your own skull. If they’re angry… well, I don’t even like to think about how it feels when someone’s angry. One person and one emotion at a time is mostly manageable. Lots – like in my bus analogy, or worse – are not.
My experience of some emotions I sense from other people can be very similar to having the same feelings first-hand, so it might take me a little while to realise that an emotion isn’t simply my own.
Having tried out various terms to describe these second-hand feelings, the one that fits this unique and irritating phenomenon best is ‘vibes’. When I looked it up in the dictionary, it said: ‘Vibes (noun): emotional signals, both positive and negative, given out by a person and felt by those around them.’ When I first read it, I dared to believe I could be normal, but it turns out that other people don’t feel these signals in an extreme, physical way. It’s still the closest I’ve ever come to finding a word that defines what I feel though, so I’ve clung onto it and use it a lot – although only in my head, never out loud.
In everyday situations, I’ve learned to cope fairly well as a rule. But I’m absolutely terrible in crowds; I have to consciously shut out the bevy of emotions, which takes a while, involves a huge amount of effort and is totally exhausting. I always sleep deeply on nights when I’ve spent time in a crowded place and I can’t travel by aeroplane or on the London Underground at all, nor even go to the theatre.
One time, I tried going – to the theatre, I mean. I got so bogged down with the love, hate, excitement, jealousy and anger emanating from members of the audience – more than likely caused by events in their private lives rather than anything to do with the performance – that I left halfway through with no clue what the storyline of the show had been.
If I’m ever distracted and forget to shut people out when I’m in a busy place, the rush of emotions and the mixture of different sensations that fly at me can be completely overpowering. It’s not as if I have the luxury of collapsing and waiting for an ambulance either; whenever somebody falls over or is ill, it draws a crowd, and the ambulance crew wouldn’t be able to fix me anyway.
Hah! Fix me. That’s a laugh, isn’t it?
Once in a while, I get so completely overwhelmed that I can’t bear a situation. Then I have been known to run away – to put enough distance between me and the horde that I can’t feel their damned vibes any more. Nowadays, I don’t need to flee very often because I’ve learned how awful those unguarded moments can be and have trained myself to be more vigilant.
I’ve often wondered what people would think if they knew I could tell how they were feeling and I’ve come to the conclusion that they’d either be freaked out or plain angry. Undoubtedly they’d see it as an invasion of their privacy, but it’s not as if I can help it. If I tried to shut out everyone I met or passed in the street or sat on a bus with, I’d probably have to sleep so much that I’d only be able to function on alternate days. All I can do is put up with it as best I can.
On the positive side, there are good emotions as well as bad. My favourite is unconditional love. The sensation which accompanies it is even lovelier than a hug of honesty. It’s like the sun rising in my heart; a warm, melty, soft and squishy sort of feeling accompanied by a sensation similar to being scooped up and lifted high into the air, like a baby held high in her daddy’s strong hands. Parents with children and some married couples (less than you might think though) exude that wonderful sensation.
Another favourite is the vibe I get when children are excited, for example if they’re going somewhere nice like the playground, the sweet shop, or to a birthday party. For me it’s a pleasant little electric shock, fizzing away like a sparkler on November 5th. I know an electric shock doesn’t sound pleasant at all, but this kind is. It’s a completely unique sensation.
Even if I could talk to ‘normal people’ about my vibes, there would be no common ground. Imagine trying to hold a conversation about your insights into hallucinating or tightrope walking or cliff diving when you have first-hand experience, but the other person has never done anything even remotely similar. You could tell them all about it and they might nod and smile, but they wouldn’t really understand.
There are plenty of other good reasons for me not to confide in others too; not that I need to think about reasons when avoidance is so deeply ingrained in me.
I wish I could open up and tell you all about it, I really do, but this conversation could only ever happen inside my poor, weary head. If I did tell you about it – and about how I came to be sitting at the table across the café from you today – I’d have to start right back at the very beginning.
My mother used to relish telling people how I cried for four solid hours straight after being born. Nothing would stop me. Everyone tried – the nurses, the doctors, other mothers on the obstetrics ward – even a porter had a go. They passed me around from one set of arms to the next and I cried and cried and cried.
Apparently someone decided to order a blood test – goodness knows what they thought they’d find. I think they were getting desperate to shut me up by then and had started clutching at straws. They didn’t find anything wrong with me, of course, and I’m certain that sticking a needle into me didn’t help the situation.
Dad tells me I quietened down to a whimper for a little while when he took me for a walk along the quiet hospital corridors. He didn’t want me to be away from Mum for too long though and as soon as he returned me to the bustling ward, I commenced my bawling once again.
Eventually, even the most understanding of the other new mothers began muttering under their breath. Then people began complaining to the staff – and to my poor, desperate mum too. It was now the early hours of the morning (or late hours of the night, depending on how you look at it) and nobody was getting any sleep at all, especially with my crying making the other babies cranky too.
Then a junior nurse had a bright idea and Mum and I were shuffled off into a private room, with Dad dragging along behind carrying her hospital bag. I’m told that the expression on the face of the nurse as she shut the door of our tiny room was one of utter relief.
Mum ordered Dad to go home and get some sleep – which he reluctantly did – and steeled herself for a long, sleepless night with her firstborn, and in fact only child, as things turned out. And what do you know? A couple of minutes after the pair of us were left alone together, I finally stopped crying. Five minutes after that, I was sound asleep.
“She just wanted us to have a private room,” Mum would laugh when telling the story for the thousandth time. I could only smile obligingly, while attempting to prevent my shoulders from shuddering as a shiver raced up my spine, caused by the indifference of my mother’s reluctant listener.
My real reason for both crying and suddenly falling silent in the hours following my birth is blindingly obvious to me. Cushioned inside my mother’s womb, I had been protected. Her body must have acted a bit like a lead shield when it stops X-rays from passing through. Entry into a world full of emotional new mothers, stressed hospital staff and other babies coping with their forced expulsion into a cold, bright and noisy world was too much to handle for me, a poor, unfortunate newborn who, in addition to this new environment, was discovering an unwanted ability.
Once in a private room, alone with my mother – who was most likely gifting me the ‘sun rising in my heart’ sensation which accompanies unconditional love – I calmed down pretty rapidly.
My experiences in my first hours of life outside of the womb were most likely the reason why I developed such a very close bond with my mother, possibly combined with the fact that I’m an only child. I strongly suspect that my gift had a lot to do with it too, drawing me to the wonderful vibe of mother’s love and forging a unique bond between us.
I call my ability a ‘gift’, but I don’t actually think of it as the positive thing implied by the word. I’d use another term, but ‘the curse’ has already been taken, being the slang term for a completely different and much more ordinary condition, and ‘super-power’ is way too positive and rather conceited.
As a baby and toddler, I was incapable of understanding the full range of adult emotions. I remember being about three years old when I first noticed the array of feelings I could sense beginning to subtly expand. Before then, happiness was a big, bright light bulb turning on inside me, unconditional love gave me a sun rising in my heart sensation and anger made my throat tighten, but that was about it.
Then Grandfather Welling died.
I noticed something was wrong with Mum before anyone had even told me what had happened. She was sitting in the living room with her head in her hands and just being near her made my heart sit heavily, like a great lump of cold lead in my chest. Dad took me upstairs and told me the news, which I didn’t really understand. He explained that Mum was very sad indeed.
I’m sorry to admit it, but I avoided being near her for the rest of the day because I didn’t want to have to deal with the feeling it gave me. If I’d been older, I would have shut out her emotion – or maybe I would have tried to accept it as being mine too and gone to give her a hug – but I was young and still learning about my own feelings.
On the morning of Grandfather Welling’s funeral, being around Mum gave me another new sensation. It was an extremely uplifting experience; as if I were a puppet slumped in a corner that was suddenly pulled up on its strings by the puppeteer. I felt as if I’d instantly grown several centimetres taller. Mum’s facial expression certainly didn’t match the positivity of the vibe, though and I was puzzled.
“What’s wrong with Mummy?” I whispered to my father as Mum answered the front door to the neighbour who had offered to look after me for the duration of the funeral.
“She’s struggling to be brave, pet,” he answered, squeezing my hand.
I nodded as if I understood, but I didn’t, not then, at such a tender age. I’d been told they were going to church and you didn’t need to be brave to walk into a big old building and sing songs, did you? Now I can appreciate that the feeling of being taller my mother gave me on the day of the funeral represented the courage of a woman about to say an extremely public last goodbye to her beloved father.
Something else confused me that day too. Usually, when I was near both Mum and Dad, their emotions mirrored one another. On the morning of the funeral, they didn’t match at all. Mum made me grow taller and Dad made the sun rise in my heart. This mixture of reactions was uncomfortably different for me, especially since I was learning to cope with two new emotions which I had not yet fully processed.
No doubt my parents had been sad for other reasons long before Grandfather Welling died. In retrospect, it’s apparent that several things contributed to my emotional awareness expanding at this particular time: the depth of Mum’s sorrow and the effort she expended trying to find her courage on such an awful day, along with my own growing understanding of others’ feelings.
I wish things could have stayed simple for me, but it was not to be. The new sensations I’d experienced after Grandfather Welling’s death were only the beginning.
On my first day at school, I knew my new environment was going to be a real problem before I got as far as the classroom.
Up until then, I’d spent the vast majority of my time in the company of adults and very little with my own age group – possibly an only child thing. In everyday situations, adult emotions were fairly muted and not difficult to deal with, but a classroom full of four-year-olds was a different story. I thought I would burst like an overfilled balloon, causing a flood of mixed up emotions to spill out across the floor like a rainbow of multi-coloured paint.
As I passed through the tall iron gates, clinging onto Mum’s hand, light bulb happiness, electric shock excitement, heavy-hearted sadness and worm-crawling jealousy were all flung at me as if I’d been locked in stocks and was having overripe fruit hurled at me. Then, when Mum dragged me into the classroom – and I do mean literally dragged me by one arm while I did my level best to resist – my throat closed up so far that I thought I was going to faint.
Frantically, I searched the room to find the source of the problem, which turned out to be two boys standing beside a bookshelf, tugging at opposite corners of a story book.
“I had it first!” yelled the blond boy. His face was red with anger and his blue eyes were almost obscured by his thick, knitted eyebrows.
“But I saw it first!” insisted his rival, a heavyset boy with dark hair and brown eyes. The second boy gave the book a yank and tried in vain to tuck it under his arm while the first boy clung doggedly on to the other end.
A pretty lady with red hair approached to intervene. She was giving off vibes which gave me butterflies in my tummy, which signifies optimism. The dark-haired boy snatched the book, tearing it in half and the woman’s positivity faded along with her smile.
I looked up at Mum with what must have been an expression of utter horror on my face. If she could sense my feelings right now, she would take me away from this awful place and never make me come back.
Instead, Mum’s grip on my hand tightened, squeezing my fingers together like shrink-wrapped sausages.
“Emma,” she sighed, crouching down beside me, but not loosening her grip. “Don’t be like this. It’s your first day and you need to make some friends.”
I shook my head violently. Friends? I thought. With any of these? No way!
As I stared at Mum, I could tell how hard she was trying, because she started making me have butterflies in my tummy too.
“I believe in you, Emma,” she said, giving me a wink of encouragement. “It’s only until lunchtime, then I’ll pick you up and we can go home. You can watch that cartoon programme you like – the one about the bears.” I loved to watch cartoons because they don’t give off vibes. Hand puppets are mostly OK too, but not the huge ones like Big Bird and Sweetums which are just people in costumes.
Gazing into my mother’s eyes, I debated whether I could make it until lunchtime in this writhing mess of uncontrolled emotions.
“You can manage until then, can’t you.” It was a statement rather than a question, and her level of optimism made my butterflies churn around like a load of washing speeding up for a spin cycle.
I dropped my chin forlornly onto my chest. “Yes,” I muttered.
Although Mum’s butterflies were working overtime in my stomach, my own emotion was utter despair. In this kind of situation, what Mum said would go, no matter what I wanted.
“There’s my girl,” Mum responded with a grin, the butterflies trying to burst their way out of me as she loosened her grip on my hand.
But then the two boys next to the bookshelf started a confrontation over a second book and my throat tightened once again. I tried to distract myself with other people and swept the room searching for someone more positive to focus on. Unfortunately for me, the vibes emanating from a girl with blonde pigtails in the middle of the room drew me in. Huge tears were streaming down her cheeks and I thought I was going to be sick.
Swallowing hard, I tore my gaze away from her and scanned the room once more.
Another girl, this one with skinny legs, brown, shoulder-length hair and grey eyes, regarded me from behind her mother’s skirts. As we stared at one another, my skin felt as if it was being stroked with silk. It was a feeling I’d only imbibed from my parents before now, and which I associated with a positive emotion I had as yet been unable to label. A sense of relief washed over me to have at last found someone here of my own age who made me feel good.
Off in the corner, the boys yelled loudly at one another, distracting me momentarily from the skinny girl. My throat tightened yet again and I gulped, trying ineffectively to shift the phantom blockage in my windpipe.
My gaze returned to the girl who’d given me the pleasant vibes. She was still watching me, but now she was sucking her thumb. She tipped her head to one side and I got a distinct hug of honesty. I frowned as I tried to focus in on her and as I did the tightening of my throat dissipated noticeably, even though the boys had begun shouting again. Concentrating on her seemed to lessen the impact of the boys’ negativity.
The girl slipped her hand out of her mother’s grasp and skipped across the room.
“Hello,” she chirped. “My name is Letty and we’re going to be friends.”
I believed her because I could tell she meant it. I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea when we’d just met.
“Go on, tell her your name,” Mum encouraged. Then she leaned over and whispered in my ear “Make friends.”
I managed a watery smile. “Emma,” I said, simply.
Letty stuck out her hand and grabbed mine, pumping it up and down in an exaggerated handshake. “How do you do, Emmaaaah?” she replied in a posh, plummy-sounding voice.
We both giggled, cementing our friendship forever.
I was exhausted from everyone else’s emotions by the time Mum arrived to collect me at lunchtime. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs and collapsed on my bed, refusing to come out of my room until teatime. But I’d made a friend, which was vitally important; important enough that I didn’t resist going to school the next morning.
Without Letty, I swear I wouldn’t have got through my first day in school – or the rest of my childhood come to that. As perfect a friend as Letty was – and still is – I never told her my secret. She knows there’s something different about me though; occasionally when I look at her, she’s frowning and I start to get a headache. In the early years of our friendship, I often worried that she’d work it out and corner me into explaining it to her, but she never did and eventually my trepidation waned. Letty always accepted me as I am and whenever we’ve been apart for a while, she greets me with a plummy “How do you do, Emmaaaah?” and an exaggerated handshake, exactly like she did when we first met.
Letty was a girl who made friends easily. I was not. Many children of my age gave off emotions which made me uncomfortable – except for Letty, of course. For example, dishonesty caused my skin to itch and several times I scratched away until I was raw before noticing the damage I had done to myself. And selfishness gave me a nasty taste in my mouth, sometimes like neat vinegar or lemon juice, other times like ear wax or even dirt. I did my best to avoid children whose vibes upset me and luckily they rarely bothered with me either.
Oddly, Letty’s inner circle of friends tolerated me. Perhaps they considered that Letty’s comradeship made it worth putting up with ‘weird Emma’ as I became known. They treated me like I was Letty’s shadow: always there in the background, but only on the periphery of their consciousness. I learned to be happy left unnoticed and became skilled at listening quietly and attentively to the people and events around me. In the end, I discovered how to focus out people in my vicinity who had emotions that made me uncomfortable.
My favourite times were those rare moments when I could be alone with Letty. She was funny, clever and the truest friend a person could ever have – loyal and honest through and through.
One positive aspect of my early years at primary school was that the kids’ personalities matched the feelings they projected. They weren’t sophisticated enough at that age to mask any unpleasant traits with contrived, sugary sweet behaviour. Naively, I believed that people, although annoying, were fairly straightforward.
I had so very much to learn.