The Journal.ie, February 18
An article in the news last week reminded me of an old friend. I told his story once before – it feels like a lifetime ago. I’d like to tell it again here.
Brian and I were 13 the first time we met. I wasn’t impressed. He looked a bit of a shaper as he marched around the schoolyard, clicking the studded heels of his George Webbs, with his hands in the pockets of an oversized Eskimo anorak.
We fought – I can’t remember why. It was one of those ‘hold-me-back’ affairs, with a flurry of missed groin-kicks and the loser ending up in a headlock. Brian, as it turned out, was no hard-man: he was rubbish at fighting. It was something we had in common.
The scrap was a sort of pathetic, pubescent, bonding ritual. We became best friends, constantly messing about to disguise our terror at being weedy First Years, surrounded by giant, moody Older Lads. We slagged everything off – as all insecure 13-year-olds do to deflect attention from themselves. Clothes, hairstyles, even bikes were fair game.
Brian had a 20-gear Asahi racer, while I had a crock of crap masquerading as a Chopper. He never let me forget it was crap – especially as it didn’t have a crossbar.
“It’s a girl’s bike.”
“It’s not. It’s just… streamlined. It’s a streamlined Chopper.”
“But it folds in half.”
“It’s a Chopper.”
“It’s a girl’s bike and you’re a girl.” The bike was eventually ‘stolen’.
Our afternoons were spent listening to records or cycling around ‘scoping out the talent’. At night we’d slip through back gardens, avoiding fathers filling coal scuttles, to steal apples which we never ate. We whispered instructions to each other on a shared set of Walkie Talkies. Their range was about 20 feet. There was no need for them: we could have spoken normally and still have heard each other.
Brian and I learned how to smoke together. We could only afford cheap tipped cigars. They were disgusting and tasted like burning doc leaves (I once smoked a doc leaf). I accidentally stubbed one out on my arm while swinging from a tree, making monkey noises to annoy the lawn bowlers at Moran Park. The scar lasted for a year. I told my mother that it was a result of two wasps stinging me on the same spot, one after the other. She didn’t buy it.
Brian and I rode around Dun Laoghaire with our cigars clamped between our teeth, thinking we looked like Clint Eastwood. We didn’t see ourselves as two short-arses playing at being adults from the safety of childhood.
We went to our first disco together, herky-jerk dancing like mad to Bad Manners to impress the girls. The more we ran on the spot, the more they liked it – so local stud, Macker, told us. What he didn’t tell us was that he had spread the word among the girls that we were “special needs boys” from a care home.
“We’re ‘in’ there,” I said, as one waved sympathetically at us. We ran faster on the spot to impress her even more.
Brian went on my first date with me. Not ‘as’ my date, obviously – he came along to act as witness in the event that I ‘scored’. When you’re 14, ‘scoring’ is everything.
He cycled behind me to the venue, Sandycove train station.
“What’s that smell?” he shouted at the back of my head. “It’s like oil and cat piss.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I cycled faster, knowing full-well what the smell was. It was the contents of a bottle of my dad’s Eclipsol hair tonic. We skidded into the lane overlooking the tracks.
“What’s up with your hair?” Brian was examining my forehead. A mixture of sweat and hair restorer was trickling down my nose.
“I haven’t washed it for a week,” I said. “…and I used Ted’s hair stuff. It helps to keep the bounce down.” Bouncy hair was for girls. My mother always said my freshly-washed hair reminded her of her own.
“You’ve got my hair.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.” My father ran the palm of his hand over his bald head. “Don’t worry, you’ll be like me some day. Then you won’t have to worry about having bouncy hair and looking like … Barry Manilow.” Bullseye.
Brian leaned his bike against the wall. “Go on, then.” I could hear him chuckling as I nervously approached my ‘girlfriend’.
“What’s that smell?” asked one of her friends. “It’s like pee.”
“Why’s your hair greased up like that? Are you trying to look like Elvis?” I had hoped I looked like Elvis.
“Did Elvis ever work as a toilet cleaner in a Pet Shop?”
“Or an old folk’s home?” Brian fell over his bike laughing.
I didn’t score. The love affair ended soon afterwards.
The day Brian moved down the country was the bleakest of my young life. I couldn’t tell him I was going to miss him. You didn’t say that to your mates. We played ‘Baggy Trousers’ on my Lloytron tape recorder over and over again as he unsuccessfully attempted to blow up his tree house with bangers. “I’m not leaving it for the next family,” he said, despite my protests. Looking back, he was scorching the earth of his childhood.
Before he left, he handed me his half of our Walkie Talkie set. I traded it for some now-forgotten item. I couldn’t share it with anyone else.
Years passed and Brian and I lost touch. We picked up our friendship again when he eventually moved back. Then we both got night jobs and lost touch again. We orbited the same crowds, but never managed to meet up.
In November 1992, Brian walked into his local pub and settled a few small debts. He was in good form. He was 25.
Later that night, Brian turned the exhaust pipe in on his car. He killed himself. No one had seen it coming.
I try not to think of his final moments. How alone he must have felt. How his family felt when they heard the news. How whoever found him felt. The 14-year-old who shared my growing pains was gone. The reason why is not important now. I have other questions. What would his children have been like? Would he have enjoyed my wedding? Would we still be friends, tilting at the bar in Finnegan’s?
Brian’s death went unreported. Newspapers don’t generally carry details of suicide stories because of the ‘Werther effect’ – where reporting can lead to ‘copycat’ cases. Suicide is contagious.
The article in last week’s paper that prompted me to revisit Brian’s life concerned euthanasia exponent, Dr Philip Nitschke. On Thursday, he held an assisted suicide ‘workshop’ in Dublin, where he demonstrated a device he calls the ‘Deliverance Machine’. It bears the slogan ‘I’d rather die like a dog’. He has ‘Exit Bags’ and refers to death as the ‘preferable option’. I thought of Brian. I thought of the Werther effect and all the depressed young people who will be influenced by Nitschke’s catchy suicide slogans.
I thought of the 10 Irish people a week who kill themselves.
I thought of myself in my early 20s. Two years before Brian’s death, I suffered a prolonged period of depression. I was luckier than him: I survived and learned from it. I think of what I could have said to him had I known what he was going through.
I could have told him we all crash emotionally, but it’s possible to walk away from the wreckage. I would have told him that he didn’t really want to leave, he just wanted the pain to stop. I would have told him that the darkness passes.
I would have told him that he will always be my friend.
I would have told him that he was never really alone.
The Samaritans can be contacted on 1850 60 90 60