Submarine - By Joe Dunthorne



It is Sunday morning. I hear our dial-up modem playing bad jazz as my mother connects to the internet. I am in the bathroom.

I recently discovered that my mother has been typing the names of as-yet-uninvented mental conditions into Yahoo’s search engine: ‘delusion syndrome teenage’, ‘over-active imagination problem’, ‘holistic behavioural stabilizers’.

When you type ‘delusion syndrome teenage’ into Yahoo, the first page it offers you is to do with Cotard’s Syndrome. Cotard’s Syndrome is a branch of autism where people believe they are dead. The website features some choice quotes from victims of the disease. For a while I was slipping these phrases into lulls in conversation at dinnertime or when my mother asked about my day at school.

‘My body has been replaced by a shell.’

‘My internal organs are made of stone.’

‘I have been dead for years.’

I have stopped saying these things. The more I pretended to be a corpse, the less open she became about issues of mental health.

I used to write questionnaires for my parents. I wanted to get to know them better. I asked things like:

What hereditary illnesses am I likely to inherit?

What money and land am I likely to inherit?

If your child was adopted, at what age would you choose to tell him about his real mother?

a) 4–8

b) 9–14

c) 15–18

I am nearly fifteen.

They looked over the questionnaires but they never answered them.

Since then, I have been using covert analysis to discover my parents’ secrets.

One of the things I have discovered is that, although my father’s beard looks ginger from a distance, when you get up close it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond and strawberry.

I have also learnt that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to halfway.

I also discovered that my father suffers from bouts of depression: I found an empty bottle of tricyclic antidepressants that were in the wicker bin under his bedside table. I still have the bottle among my old Transformers. Depression comes in bouts. Like boxing. Dad is in the blue corner.

It takes all of my intuition to find out when a bout of my father’s depression has started. Here are two signals: one, I can hear him emptying the dishwasher from my attic room. Two, he presses so hard when he handwrites that it is possible, in a certain light, to see two or three days’ worth of notes indented in the surface of our plastic easy-clean tablecloth.

Gone to yoga,

lamb in fridge,


Gone to Sainsbury’s,


Please record Channel 4, 9pm,


My father does not watch TV, he just records things.

There are ways of detecting that a bout of depression has finished: if dad makes an elaborate play on words or does an impression of a gay or oriental person. These are good signs.

In order to plan ahead, it’s in my interest to know about my parents’ mental problems from the earliest age.

I have not established the correct word for my mother’s condition. She is lucky because her mental health problems can be mistaken for character traits: neighbourliness, charm and placidity.

I’ve learnt more about human nature from watching ITV’s weekday morning chat shows than she has in her whole life. I tell her: ‘You are unwilling to address the vacuum in your interpersonal experiences,’ but she does not listen.

There is some evidence that my mother’s job is to blame for her state of mental health. She works for the council’s legal and democratic services department. She has many colleagues. One of the rules in her office is that, if it is your birthday, you are held responsible for bringing your own cake to work.

All of which brings me back to the medicine cabinet.

I slide the mirrored door aside; my face cross-fades, replaced by black and white boxes for prescription creams, pills in blister packs and brown bottles plugged with cotton wool. There’s Imodium, Canesten, Piriton, Benylin, Robitussin, plus a few suspicious-looking holistic treatments: arnica, echinacea, St John’s Wort and some dried-out leaves of aloe vera.

They believe that I have some emotional problems. I think that is why they do not want to burden me with their own. What they don’t seem to understand is that their problems are already my problems. I may inherit my mother’s weak tear ducts. If she walks into a breeze, the tears come out of the far corners of her eyes and run down towards her earlobes.