Terrible Questions

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Welcome to the third issue in Season Three of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s invitation to write concerns terrible questions. Subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt:

Share a story of the most difficult question you’ve ever asked – or had to answer. One where you felt your whole world depended on it. OR: Share a memory of a time when you yearned to ask a question and didn’t. Recreate for us the place, the sensations, the stakes…

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

I sat hunched and small, a fizzing bundle of self-hatred and yearning, a 22-year-old woman in the front passenger seat of a small muddy Peugeot. Dusk spring skies darkened quickly. A sole blackbird chanted dutifully, highlighting the yawning silences between our words.

He spoke softly. ‘But — do you not love me anymore?’

It had taken me months to get to this point. A slow process of noticing, feeling, knowing. Wishing otherwise. It would be years before I would experience my own trust, my own heart, broken. But somehow I sensed it: that this was the worse side of the deal. That doing the breaking is worse.

My heartbeat was doing strange things. Speeding and slowing. My neck ached from cowed posture. I gazed up at the empty terrace in front of the car, felt my thumb rubbing against the fabric of the seat, searching for familiarity, reassurance.

I inhaled slowly, silently, and considered his question.
And considered what was beneath it. What was really being asked, by both of us, was not of love but: Where do we go from here? Is this the end? Can we carry on, even if we want to?

I loved him, but that was beside the point, and I didn’t understand why. All I knew was the tight itch in the centre of my chest was whispering leave, go, stretch. This isn’t for you anymore.
So much about my life depended on what I said next. Oh, the vertiginous height of a binary decision. And right before I spoke I felt the weight of all that I knew I would eventually be brave enough to give up: the supportive family, the home to escape to, the friendship group. First love’s gentle adoration and sharp fierceness. Its history powerful, but not quite enough.

Rebecca Broad

Tell me what you’re afraid of.

How to push through the ache of fear that bridles my tongue? How to piece and police the tumble of raw emotions that shunt into my head at every, waking moment? How to know that, if spoken, the darkness in my mouth won’t pool, thick like tar and engulf everything I love with the same sticky filth that lives in me now?

How to believe that the words aren’t a spell of becoming? How do I say that I am sacrificing myself to save them from what I know and worse, what I don’t know but fear is true? How to trust that this person will know how to save me?

I don’t believe him. I don’t believe in him. He is just a ghost on the margins, while the things in my head are real, glossy and slick with fear, growing fat in the dark of my mouth. There is too much risk. Too much to lose.

My mouth is stitched shut. My teeth bite down on flesh. Blood wells.

I can’t say.

Katy Wheatley

Rhododendron walks

Under the rhodies, sound and light dark-damped. Fusty soil and rot and chlorophyll and—in May—flowers (but those were on the outside of the tunnels and we were within). Do you remember the tunnels, Daddy? Do you remember the smells?

Duckboards wrapped with non-slip chicken-wire. Their song so familiar: ti-clunk ti-clunk ti-clunk. Wellington boots on twisted metal on wood on boggy ground. Do you remember the sound of them, Daddy?

Out. Blinking onto the swan-guarded bank. Lakeside swan-avoidance smells emanate from the glaucous spikes. Minty, but not mint… but… rushes! A smell all of their own. Do you remember the rush-crush, Daddy?

Sweet chestnut stands beyond for prickly lime-green Yule-tide forages. Do you remember those, Daddy?

Furthest point: best bit. Magic sand. Particles of finest silt and clay. Alum Bay colours though it would be years before I’d bring back a bottle from there. Grief-stricken and homesick. Do you remember the sand, Daddy? Do you remember the feel of it under a scribing stick?

Do you remember the old weeping willow watching our lake walks from the far bank, Daddy?

Do you remember the snow on Christmas Day, Daddy? The fern by your desk?

Do you remember Mummy was out, my brother asleep, and I felt poorly so you lifted me


into your arms, Daddy? I think this is the only time.

Do you remember any of those moments, Daddy?
I remember them for us, Daddy. For you.

Kid x

PS I can’t remember if you held my hand, Daddy? Did you?

M Nivalis

The question was lost in the statement, and found later in the pleading explanation. ‘I want to die.’ The missing conjunction: and will you let me? The parts of this unfinished sentence as broken as she was, as separate as we were.

Forced apart by this illness, our communications, emotionally easy but physically impossible, had taken the form of long, intimate, soothing text messages. Today’s had simply said:

‘Can you speak?’

Well enough to speak, for the first time in two years, this was progress. My heart started going. I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t stop until hers did. I had no time to figure out this feeling. Here was her voice, finally.

‘I want to die.’

All of a sudden, here we were, so close and so far apart. I gave her the response that no one else would give. The response her body refused, locked as they were in daily conflict. The response that went against the instinct and responsibility of any parent or doctor. The response that kept me close to her. I couldn’t have her rally against me as she did with all those hell-bent on keeping her alive. I couldn’t lose her before I had no say in the matter.

In giving her the permission to go, I hoped she might grasp to life. Having her pain and knowing acknowledged might be an act of empowerment, propelling her toward life, instead of away from it. I knew it was a gamble and I had more to lose.

I wonder now if the unsaid question was ‘Do you know me?’ or perhaps ‘Are you my friend?’

On the day she died, I felt special. We’d colluded to this end.


Tiny and momentous, it seemed to be the only real option to take. I still wonder what if though…

It was a hot summer that year.

From May to August, Marie Peters and I walked the canal in Tommy K’s that chafed our ankles, sometimes in Scholls, soon abandoned after too many times of hurt insteps and cramped toes from clinging to their unforgiving support.

The pathways turned dusty and brown; the canal – lower than I’d ever seen it – forged slowly onward. Choked in weed at parts, host to predatory pike in the bends, and cheerfully inappropriate fishermen on the banks.

Marie and I, friends from junior school separated by the 11+, found each other again during those weeks of limbo. With all our previous routines displaced by O Levels and CSEs, we met to journey together through free falling days. United by the AEB timetables, and a sense of something ending, something beginning.

We laughed about me being woken up by the Deputy Head and taken (in her powder blue jag) to sit my Physical Geography exam, a journey that both humiliated and exhilarated me. About Marie’s hatred of the Games Teacher, talented runner that she was, and her pleasure in infuriating them by her refusal to perform to the school’s glory.

We circled results day, orbiting planets in a moment of conjunction.

Failure of six O Levels for me; I discounted the CSEs – they were of no consequence. Reasonable results for her, but our mutual disaffection with school, with education, was already set.

We would not return. Marie had a job already as a telephonist receptionist, found by her father the caretaker at our local Catholic secondary school. I had been beguiled by an advert for GPO telephonist training – I would have skill! My parents celebrated, unaware of my abject failure.

Our destinies set, we parted.

Complicit in small horizons and limited choices.

Wendy Clifford

That deepest unspoken fear of mine haunted me: a seizure during sleep, and being found in the morning, dead in bed.

I’d been scared to think wild thoughts in case it tipped my mind into riotous colour. Seeing sounds, chewing lips. I’d known for years before I had a diagnosis that there was something unusual.

I asked my neurologist gingerly, unable to keep the wobble from my voice: ‘When it feels like I am dying, am I really dying?’

I’d voiced the question that had privately troubled me for 15 years.
He was young-ish, probably about my own age, and he looked at my notes instead of at me. He paused, put down his pen and swallowed awkwardly in that magnolia-coloured box of a room we were in together.

‘No,’ he said carefully. ‘You’re not dying. Your brain just thinks you are.’

I breathed out for the first time in years and nodded, unspeaking. He might have been feeding me a comforting lie.

But if he was, it worked.

Anxiety, which had been grabbing me and twisting me into hunched forms, lessened.

I took my fears and began weaving them into the tapestry of my life. Fear lifted for a couple of days or so at first, but then for weeks, until I realised it had been months.

No longer stuffed into a tightly closed box, my epilepsy became something I could speak about.

I let my wild mind untangle and stretch itself out, to create new things.

Ideas, long stifled – if I gave them room to breathe, I worried they would drag me in and damage my brain – were freed.

It left room.

And I grew into that space.

Alice Murphy-PYle

Did I say goodbye to you?

I don’t know, can’t remember. An unsaid moment, a memory unmade.

And yet something precious I needed to cling to and reassure myself about afterwards. Both as a child and now, fully grown with a daughter the same age as I was. Or perhaps not fully grown…still stuck rootless in the past.

I can picture getting up and getting ready for school. Brushing my teeth in the icy bathroom, sharp light filtering through the translucent glass. Stroking our sleepy cat, hastily throwing books into my bag, slurping my breakfast of soggy cereal. All the other ordinary, routine things that morning I remember in detail. But I can’t recall the one thing that really mattered, still matters. It’s haunted me for years.

Friends and family tried to help. You’d have said it automatically, they say to me, you probably wouldn’t have remembered because it’s something people almost always say without thinking.
But somehow I needed to know that I said it. Such a small word, but with so much significance. I wish I’d given some thought to it just that once. Because it was the last time I would ever see you.

You were standing back to hold the front door open, letting the sunlight in, letting me out. Still in your nightie and dressing gown, tired and careworn because you’d been up all night again. Keeping him company, talking calmly because he couldn’t sleep and the pills still weren’t working. You’d have had to get dressed and head to work soon after I left, ironically leaving him deep asleep on the settee.

I remember reaching the end of the path, stopping and waving back to you. You were smiling at me. I’ve held on to that smile for years.

‘Goodbye Mum.’

Davina Adamson

‘Do you have children?’

Just like that. Anywhere and everywhere.

People will ask me this question even before they ask me my name. Without any warning and without giving me the chance to avoid the subject. I brace myself for it almost every day, although the grief is settling into that familiar feeling I know will become part of me and I will just have to learn to live with. But I can still feel my heart tightening, my body tensing up, the mask setting and my face contorting into disarming ugliness (I caught sight of myself in a mirror once and I was shocked) because I am still smiling. Most people do not seem to notice or, if they do, it’s too late, we will have to run through the awkward motions and see the conversation through. I have considered making up answers and making it easier for me and the other person, and I am becoming bolder so maybe I will: ‘Yes, a little boy’; ‘Yes, yes, I do – five-year-old twin girls’; ‘Yes, three teenagers currently living with their father in Vietnam’. Instead, I wish I could tell them how not having children has heightened my fear of death for example. I do not want anyone’s pity or sympathy though, and I most certainly do not want my childness to define me. But I would prefer to continue to be honest and I do reserve myself the right to make it clear that, no, it has not been a choice I have been given the chance to make. Think twice before you ask the question next time, I always want to say. Give it time. Because the answer may very well be the same as mine:

‘No. Sadly not. And I find it heartbreaking to talk about it.’

Maria Simões 

We’re huddled under a blanket, by a fire. I am drunk.

My friend hugs me, strokes my hair. ‘You always ask me that when you’re drunk,’ she says. ‘Of course I will. Of course.’

My friend is a hairdresser. The thing I always ask her when I’m drunk is ‘Will you do my daughter’s hair for her wedding?’

My daughter is 8, is 12, is 15… I’ve been asking this for years.
Sometimes we have cried when I ask this question. Sometimes we’ve laughed as well. We cry because we don’t think I’ll make it to that wedding. We cry because what I’m really asking is ‘Will you be there for her? Will you have tissues in your bag in case she needs them? Will you hug her and tell her she looks beautiful? That she is beautiful? That she is loved?’

I am lucky. I’ve been here longer than anybody expected. My health rollercoasts a little, but my body never gets back to where it was.

The cancer is slow – so slow – but implacable.

I’m about to restart chemotherapy, so this is raw. It’s hard to write.
Of course, I’m not just asking about a wedding, I’m asking about mothering. Who will mother my children? I recruit friends, relatives. Now they’re old enough I try to help them mother themselves, and each other. Sometimes I think they’re better at it than I am.

Sarah Connor

Last words

‘Why are you so quiet Helen?’

A text message at 6.30am. ‘You need to come now’. A stomach-lurching awakening. Four hours to think about 49 years. To reflect on the unsaid, the hurt, the pain, the disappointment. A life. Foot to the floor, a reel of words and memories flashing by. How can I choose?

‘Don’t leave anything unsaid’ they told me. It’s all fucking unsaid. There’s no time now for any of this.

Where will they go, these unspoken words? I don’t want them anymore. I want them to leave with him, for him to own them in his skin but that seems cruel, unnecessary now. I’m driving too fast through a life long tunnel of duty and doing the right thing. It haunts me but it won’t stop the clock. We just aren’t that kind of family.

Death looks uncomfortable. Weird, out of sync. Chaotic sentences, arms twitching. Morphine soothes him but it doesn’t help us witness. His hands are freezing and his finger tips white. I hold his hand as I haven’t done in forty years. Sliding away. Where does it go, this force, this energy, all these words. Gone in one last long groaning breath then waxy yellow silence.

‘Why are you so quiet Helen?’ The last question he asked me. It has all stayed inside me until I can find a place to leave it behind.

Helen Louise

In the small hours of the night – my willpower expended and the animal heat of my son bundled safely in my arms – I petition Google with incoherent strings of keywords.

Poor eye contact ceiling fan hates clapping.

The words, which feel like a betrayal, form a kind of spell or instruction sending the search engine’s spiders crawling across the web for the gossamer threads which will link the terms. As I scroll through the results (returned too soon as if there was no doubt or reason to hesitate), my heart thumps towards a crescendo and then fades out leaving me feeling transparent; edgeless.

Classic sign of autism in early infancy
Red Flags That Warrant a Referral
Worried about Autism at early age

Autism? That word and its question mark echoed through my first year of motherhood. There were signs and I saw them. Undeniable and unequivocal. At first the question was silent. Trapped entirely in the black box of my mind. It felt dangerous to speak the word out loud, as if voicing it might create something where there was nothing.

In the light of day, as I folded my son’s small clothes or offered him spoonfuls of sweet potato purée, this superstitious thinking embarrassed me. Perhaps it was more helpful, more reasonable, to view the status of my son’s neurotype as less of a black cat and more of a Schrödinger’s cat.

By keeping the question in mind, unvoiced, I was keeping the lid on the box. My son was both autistic and not. But that too felt like a delusion. Surely cats and brains are either one thing or another? I see now that I was buying myself time. Time to mother in the present, without having to invite in the outside world and its questions.

anoushka yeoh

That autumn everything changed.

The summer had been strange, foreboding somehow. We’d been to Bournemouth to visit my grandparents – my mother, my sister and me. Mum was strange, unpredictable, her tongue lashed, her skin was grey, eyes dull. I didn’t think too much about any of this at the time. I was 14 and my teenage angst had little to do with Mum and her mood.

September came. Back to boarding school – the usual gut-wrenching punch of homesickness; existence made bearable by twice weekly letters from home. But now her writing sloped, words falling off the page, thoughts and pen dropping to the floor.

‘I’m having a little trouble with my arm and leg – nothing to worry about.’ And for a while I believed her. My mind was full of dreams, of plans, of boys and books.

I’m lying in my bed, in my dormitory. January 1972 – the miners are on strike, power cuts, gloom, and a growing chill – sensations of aloneness and foreboding I’m coming to know well. There’s frost on the windows. Christmas has been and gone. I’d been home for the holidays. Mum is wearing a caliper now and a wig. She can’t drive or walk more than a few steps. Her head hurts and nothing is said.
Her letters have stopped. I’m scared and full of dread. I write a letter to Dad. He’s coming to see me. ‘At last I’ll know,’ I say at first, but inwardly my body trembles.

I’m cold, freezing cold and my tummy churns. Dad is here now. His eyes fill with tears, and I know the answer. I squeeze my nails into my palms until it hurts. I must be brave. I must not cry. I must be good.

‘What’s the matter with Mum?’

carolyn dew

Terrible questions.

How terrible a question might ever be? It’s the intention and intensity that matters; that sweet spot between a medicine and a poison.

For me the gaps that are left by the unasked ones are much worse. The silence that is loaded with mistrust and misunderstanding.

Some of them are as big as crevasses high in the mountains and far too uncomfortable to stay around. Others are like sinkholes in a pretty manicured garden with uniformed lawns and perfectly shaped hedges. Dig a tad deeper and you are at risk of unearthing long forgotten lead mine from two centuries ago.

Terrible unasked questions will sentence you to a life of loneliness as deep as those unseen old mines. Small talk and polite manners keep one in one’s place. The place one doesn’t want to belong…

How are you?
I’m fine; kids are Fine; husband’s Fine

Elena Yates

It feels like lifetimes ago.

In many ways it was because I am older now, yet it is still so close, raw to the touch.

It was a sunny spring day; I was sitting in a college lecture hall with close to two hundred students. All in attendance taking a mandatory class, a graduation requirement. The topic was simple – health. And being a nutrition science major as well as a health nut, this subject felt like repetition. Looking out the window, my attention kept being drawn to the bright sun-rays outside…

…until the topic of rape came up. I froze, but why?

Paralysed, everything began to close in, like a tunnel getting smaller, narrower. Don’t look, turn away, my body said, tightening even more in an attempt to keep the memory deeply tucked and hidden away.

For a year it had done such a good job, but the flood gates could not hold back the truth that had just been laid on the table. The memory came rushing in. All I wanted to do was scream NO.

No to the remembrance.
No to the no that was not listened to.

I could feel the tentacles of denial crawling around this truth, wrapping its many arms around it to take it into the deep. I kept saying to myself, ‘No, not me.’ Defending the situation. I was not forced by knife point after all and I put myself in a vulnerable situation.

Meanwhile, as I was battling inside between wanting to know and wanting to forget, the lecturer continued talking about the various definitions and ways that this violation happens. The more she spoke, the more I wanted her to be quiet, to please enable my forgetting. But it was too late. The damage was done or in other words the healing began.

Beneath it all the question rose: ‘Was I raped?’
The answer was yes.

Julie Schmidt
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