How to Die

Some people are just born restless, I guess.

They’re the baby that never slept and the toddler that always got stuck trying to fit through unexplored spaces. They’re the five year old that flooded the bathroom trying to make a swimming pool and the nine year old that broke their arm climbing the fence to see what was on the other side. They’re the pre-teen that can’t sit still in the classroom or keep their mouth shut when they need to and they’re the teenager that experiments tirelessly with all those fantastic things like sex and drugs and alcohol whilst they’re still young and blind enough to see the high gloss these first precious follies into the land of adulthood wear for a time.

It’s rebellion, they say.

A phase.

They’ll grow out of it.

Most of us learn how to suppress every exciting instinct we have by the time adulthood kicks in proper. The vast majority of these restless children figure out a way, all be it and most often subconsciously, to remove the shrouds of mystery and wonder from the even the most common of common place things. The kids that started out with safety pins in their ears and green streaks in their hair grow up and grow tired of the extraordinary amount of effort it takes to be extraordinary. Their futures suddenly begin to stretch further than the weekend and the debauched revelry crammed so tightly into those two days that used to make them salivate now makes them nauseas. The idea of spunking their weeks wages up the wall instead of squirreling some of it away for the ominous “rainy day” that they always heard their parents speaking of when they were small, terribly behaved children, now fills them with dread.

Preparation.

The Prepared Generation.

They have learned from the financial fuck ups, crashes and collisions of their fathers and their grandfathers and now owning their own house and being able to keep up with the mortgage payments is a far more seductive midnight thought than playing to a crowd of a hundred thousands fans screaming the lyrics to their songs back at them or packing a bag and hitting the road Kerouac style. That instability that used to be so ethereal and enthralling is now a nightmare of monolithic proportions.

Stability.

Safety.

And, comfort.

They don’t want the world, these people.

No, they just want a little four bedroomed piece of it with a patio out back and room for two cars on the driveway out front. They want to marry nice people and have nice children that will then go on to populate the world with more nice children. They want to leave a legacy of niceness now, instead of neurosis. They want to go on holiday, all inclusive of course, because anywhere out of the resort is dangerous, especially in all those terribly trendy places like Cape Town and Dubai. They want to drink wine with their lunch on a week day and feel like buying the bottle is a daring feat of absolute insanity. They count every calorie and work off the red playing sports that they don’t really enjoy or fully understand, like badminton, or heaven’s forbid – squash.

And when they’re not on some court or another they pay a portion of their monthly wages for all inclusive membership to some shiny shit hole known as a Health Club (always capitalised, of course, ‘for these are the only places where one can purchase Health with a capital letter) where they run on treadmills like rats in cages never really getting anywhere or anything but heart palpitations and sweat in uncomfortable places.

They spend hours cooking elaborate meals for people that they have known for years and hardly know at all and they spend more money than they ever would have spent on a ten bag and few pints down the pub in their younger years, but it’s a worthwhile expense because it’s all so dreadfully sociable and lovely. They compare their children to other peoples children, but not in a candid or even remotely honest way. If Susan just graduated from Brunel with a BA in Mathematics then Benjamin better be working on his fucking doctorate in molecular biology from Oxbridge, quick sharp. Won’t have the likes of that bastard Benjamin showing me up to Terry and June from the Health Club.

It’s all about appearance, you see.

But then again, it always has been.

And your parents did it with you.

I know it’s hard to believe but when your parents first got together, they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. Even worse, still, your mother, beloved mummy has at one point or another had your fathers cock in her mouth. Shocking, but true. What’s even more shocking is that the dirty bitch fucking loved it. Your old man probably grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged on it when he shot his load at the back of her throat and depending on what kind of woman your old lady is, she may or may not have gobbled that goo right up.

We’re all interesting when we’re young because we’re dangerous.

And we’re dangerous because we’re stupid.

And we’re stupid because, for the first twenty five years of our lives or more – we have absolutely no fucking idea what we’re doing. And I’d love to tell you that we reach an age of enlightenment when some magical light bulb dings above our heads and we suddenly know exactly what to and where to go and who to be but for many, hell, for most, it’s a slow and arduous trudge to the finish line. Some of us, crippled by the weight of this hopeless disorientation, cash our own chips and punch a one way ticket to the end of the line long before our time, but the comfortable and contented masses wander aimlessly towards death, treating it with a weird breed of apathetic inevitability like taxes or hiccups.

Everyone dies.

It happens to the best of us.

And the worst.

It’s what ties us all together, isn’t it? We’ve all got a whole heap of shit in common with each other. We’ve all got a mother and a father out there somewhere, whether we were raised by them or by wolves, at some point in time, two people came together, figuratively and literally, and boom – there we were. A cluster of tiny cells brimming with infinite potential, cooked for nine months and heaved out screaming and naked and clueless. We were all taught how to do even the simplest of things like tie our shoe laces and write our names and fry an egg and open a window. These weren’t things we were born knowing and at a time in all our lives we were novice egg fryers and amateur shoe tiers.

Repetition, if not necessarily practise, made us into the beautifully broken people we are today. We were taught tact and how to read people’s emotions. We learned slowly and through this art of subconscious repetition, the difference between angry faces and sad faces and happy faces and later on we learned a tonne of new faces like stoned faces and drunk faces and come faces. We learned how to read people around us and how to interact with them like we once learned how to interact with the building blocks we had when we still got a round of applause for shitting in a bucket with feet in the living room.

And whether you were brought up or dragged up, we all learned how to make coffee and how to make out. Some of these things were learned by the art of education, by someone showing us how to do something or by teaching us about it had been done before and hoping that we would have the same successful outcomes were we to re-enact their battles. Others were learned by the brute force of experience, trying something once, realising that you ballsed it up, rewinding and going again until you got it right, or if you couldn’t get it right, you got it better than you did the first or third or fifth time.

Some things, though, even the most intelligent and interesting of people have absolutely no idea how to do. There are some things during the course of all of our lives that no matter how much we prepare or practice for them, when those things come around, we’re just as fucking clueless as we were when we were cutting our teeth.

How to feel.

How to forgive.

How to die.

That last one is probably the most important. I mean aside from being born, the second most significant day in our lives is when we are effectively unborn – when we die. Yet no one prepares you for it. You’re not taught about it at school and your mother never sits you down when you get to an impressionable age and explains that one day you’re going to close your eyes and you’re never going to open them again or that your heart’s going to stop beating and your lungs are going to stop breathing and more than likely you’re going to shit yourself.

They never prepare you for the fact that one day you might find yourself sitting in a little magnolia office somewhere with a doctor whose name you cannot remember and couldn’t pronounce even if you could remember it, being told that you’ve got something really fucking aggressive and nasty living in your breasts or bowels or bones that’s going to kill you pretty damned soon.

And when you’re a kid and you go to bolt across the road and your old lady yanks you back just in time to save you becoming road kill, she never says – “Look, Timmy, if that car had hit you it would have killed you and we would have had to scrape your skull off of that pavement and bury you in a black bag to keep all the leftover wet bits of you together.” And because your parents never tell you that, you’re not scared of a car slamming into your tiny body at fifty and rendering your once wonderful life pedestrian pate on the side of the road. So when you’re mums not about, you cross without waiting for the green man.

That’s universally a very early and very common act of defiance.

A sign of things to come.

But if, if, your old lady had said that to you the first time you did it and put the fear of endless darkness and death into you, you’d probably have grown up to be a much more cautious kid than you were. You wouldn’t have hung upside down off of the monkey bars or climbed loose limbed trees in the sunshine to survey the forest from the heavenly plinth usually reserved for birds and squirrels. You’d never have found the biggest hill you could have and rode your bike or scooter or board down it as fast as you could. And you’d never have jumped off of countless bridges and piers into the perilously shallow waters below to cool off when the air was still and the heat was fierce.

If you’d been warned about the inherent permanence of death as a child, you never would have taken that unknown pill at that party or a bummed a drag of that strange kids long, loosely rolled cigarette in the park when you were a teenager. You wouldn’t have known the bittersweet sorrow of that first, barbarous hangover or felt the pleasant shame of coming inside someone bareback or indeed having someone else’s come drip down your thighs and as a result, you’d never have found yourself alone in your bedroom trying to make your body do what it did with someone else’s hands on your body with your own hands.

And that’s why we don’t tell kids about death.

We don’t want to scare them.

Because it’s hard to live when you’re so preoccupied with dying.

This Time.

I would have told you that everything you do is art – the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you tie your shoelaces, make your tea in the morning and the way you laugh, but most of all, the way you feel. That always felt like art to me. The way you saw through the layers of the universe at the glue holding everything together without any deep scientific or philosophical meaning but with the burned out black and white eyes of someone who never got a chance to be a child and I would have told you how aggressively innocent that made me feel sitting next you, like my soul wasn’t stained with the same mistrust and mistakes and how you made me feel like maybe, together, we could have stitched all our broken pieces into each others hearts and made them whole again.

I would have told you that I knew how you felt and that I too had knelt in the darkness of the early hours of the morning with blood and tears and vomit in the back of my throat and begged for the gods to take it all away, but you knew that, because we knelt together, red eyed and cold limbed, in the night, praying together for the boat to stop rocking, to stop throwing us against the walls of our world and hoping blindly that the icy water lapping around our ankles would stop rising. I would have told you that we were in the same boat and that I didn’t need you to tell me that it was sinking, but that I needed you to let me help you bilge the bloody deck and that way, maybe, just maybe, we might have reached the shore together, shattered and bruised, but breathing and by each others side and alive.

I would have told you that one day you would have been as happy as they made you pretend you were and that one day, close to the first one day, you would have found the courage to run away from everything that made you feel miserable and worthless and out of place and out of sync with everyone around you. I would have told you that you’d find your place, in amongst the freaks and the geeks and the burnt out weirdos, that there was the most wonderful little nook carved out for someone with words on his arms and scars on his heart. That somewhere, out there, there was a woman of breathtaking beauty who had been living her life just waiting to find someone who she couldn’t live without, and that that someone, well, it would have been you.

I would have told you that it’s never too late to be who you would have been and go where you would’ve gone and seen what you would’ve seen and loved who you would’ve loved. I would have told you that because I know how important love was to you, how you lived for it and ached for it. How you managed somehow, when love was low in my bones to siphon out the last of it and pull me back from the brink more times than I’d care to count and how the first time I met you, you were singing “All You Need is Love” to a piece of pineapple whilst you read your book and how your jeans were too big for you but still somehow too short and your Cookie Monster socks were showing. And how you hadn’t shaved or cut your hair and how completely unkempt but entirely lovable you actually were.

I would have told you that were you ever to leave me, that’s how I would have remembered you. Entirely untethered to the world and those around you, free whilst trapped inside a place that revokes your freedom and your smile, reading Dean Koontz because you knew it would make me talk to you and like you said, you were looking for a way to start a conversation with me. And I would remind you of how I came and sat opposite you and when I spilled my soup on my shoe and you smiled and asked me if I was stoned and then you laughed, fuck man, how loud you laughed and everyone looked at you but you were only looking at me. And then you told me to sit down and asked me what I was reading and when I showed you the cover of ‘Salem’s Lot you ripped up the conversation you had had planned in your head since the day you saw me and instead we argued for the entire hour in that canteen about who was the better author.

And I would have told you how I fell in love you as the leaves fell through the courtyard and your hair got longer and my scars started to fade. I would have told you that I fell in love with you in the most organic and plausible of ways because I never once had the urge to kiss you or to run my hands through your hair or to fuck you or to even hold your hand. I fell in love with your voice and the way you said certain words and the way you used to take the piss out of people without them noticing. I fell in love with the way you used to rub your earlobe with your thumb and your forefinger when you were nervous and how you used to put a kilo of butter on your crackers and insist that the cracker was just there as a vehicle to get the butter to your mouth. I would have told you that I loved how soft your clothes were even though we all washed our clothes in the same place but somehow yours always seemed softer. I would have told you that the night you held me in your arms when we were still strangers, whilst I shook and threw up everywhere and screamed that I wanted to die was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I was safe until that point. And I would have told you that you were, and always would be, my best friend.

And I would have told you to stay, Joe.

And I would have told you that one day you would wake up at ten thirty in the morning on a sun drenched Sunday next to someone who loved you in all the ways I did and in all the ways I never did and that you would get out of bed and go into the kitchen and flick the kettle on and that everything would be okay. That it would have stopped hurting if you’d stopped picking at the wound and allowing those around you to keep it open with their own warped fantasies of how you should have been, because, man – you were incredible. In everything you ever said to me and everything you didn’t. You never told me that I was a bad person or that I was toxic to those around me and you never made me feel like the twitchy little junkie I actually was because you never saw me like that.

You saw me when I didn’t even recognise myself in the mirror, but you were the mirror to myself that I could never look away from and I saw you break your own heart along side my own. And I would have told you that that day I walked into you flat and saw you on your kitchen floor, covered in blood, white as the sky outside I have never been so scared and so angry in my entire life. And that when I skidded on my knees through your blood, because, man, it was everywhere, and I took my hoody off and wrapped it round your arms all I could say was “no” over and over and over and over again because it was the only word that summed up just inherently adamant I was that this wasn’t happening. You hadn’t done this, not again. I wasn’t going to lose you, not again. I couldn’t be alone, not again.

But you did do it this time. And I did lose you this time.

Difference is – I’m not alone this time.

So I’m going to live, my friend. And I’ll miss you, hell, I’ll damn near go out of my mind wanting you back here with me where you belong but if there is one thing our friendship taught me and taught me well its that there is nothing I could have said to make you stay.

And there’s nothing left to say now but to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, whom we spent many hours arguing about, I hope that wherever you are now, that everything is beautiful and that nothing hurts.

“Dear, Heart.” (2013)

Sitting alone with bended knees,

Scribbling away the minutes,

Marking the paper with desperate pleas,

When you know that your heart’s not in it.

Gave up looking for a muse,

Since time before hereafter,

Pecking at the mesh discouraging you,

From tying a noose to the rafters.

The walls are too close,

And the day seems too long,

When those who loved you most,

Seek salvation in the great beyond.

But the light that you breathe,

Cramps leaden in your lungs,

And the technicolor symphonies,

Curse you to a life lived half sung.

And there is no ever after,

No promises hidden in your prayer,

So hurry now, forsake their laughter,

Those that love you will meet you there.

“Which Way to Turn” (2013)

I wanted to believe in,

Every word that you had said,

As the sage of your voice caught fire,

And it’s smoke filled my head.

As you kissed the side of my mouth

And laid me on your bed,

As you promised me forever,

But forever is dead.

And I didn’t want a prince,

I, in fact, dreamed of a pauper,

But when this poisoned princess fell,

You never reached out and caught her.

Instead you let her fall,

Further and further down,

Spinning and singing until,

Her face hit the ground.

Holding your ears and,

Humming a tune,

Trying in vain to drown,

Out the sound,

Of her sickly sweet heart beat,

Thumping its last.

As the gates of the present,

Slammed on the doors of the past,

And the windows of to be,

Nipped at the grass,

Of a field where potential,

Used to grow and where,

The embers of hope did not,

Twinkle but glow,

And the tides of infinity,

Ebbed and flowed.

And every lost and,

Lonely bastard on the road,

Knew which to turn for home.

When I Dream of Beaches

I knew that it was him that they were screaming about in the streets and down the length of the halls. A body had been found on the beach where the decking met the sand and eventually gave way to the tepid southern surf. He had been strangled and exposed to the elements his neck had bruised into two small hand-prints the colour of black-currents. There was a book beside him but no one knew what it was. The police were already there and details that were gathered about the strange body on the beach, poised, almost as though it were waiting for the sun, are now fragmented and embellished, a hellish by-product of small town whispers.

My sister told me – about the hand-prints, the berry coloured bruises, the book that had been bleached in the sun – and how they weren’t sure who this mystery man was. I had been sitting in the conservatory reading when she burst through the door with the not-so-secret secret of her short, miserable life. Details tripped off of her young tongue and burst in the air, excited bubbles of misinformed joy. If my sister had seen the body, looked upon its face and likened it to someone she once knew, I was sure that the ecstatic nature of her gossip-mongering would fade into irreconcilable grief. Dead bodies were always exciting, unless you knew the sound of it’s voice.

The sun was rising high over the candy coloured houses of our little coastal town and in the streets, still the people hollered. I eventually shooed my sister away, a poisonous ball of anxious thought beginning to roll around in my stomach, shooting acid up into my mouth. When she was gone I went to the window, setting my book down on the ledge. I opened the single paned doors and stepped out onto the balcony where smoke was blooming low on the horizon. They planned to burn it; the body. And something about that didn’t sit quite right with me. I walked down the steps that led from the conservatory balcony to the pebble dashed streets below. It was warm and bright.

As I walked I wondered if he had known that he would die the day he had met his killer. At one point they had been on the beach together, throwing stones at the shore and talking, maybe even laughing if either of them cared to remember the sound of such joy. They had been reading together, talking about the book that had been found beside him as hours melted into memory and trickled down their throats like bitter lemon. And had he known, the first day that the dead man had been introduced to his killer, that that person would be the one to end his life? Had he dreamed of marriage and children, a white picket fence and dog named Dusty running and up and down the garden whilst his killer smoked on the decking and their children played along side the mottled hound? Had his dreams held water or leaked pus? I reached the beach and found the fire.

My heart was beating stoically in my chest. I had ran most of the way without even noticing, the spaces between my feet defying gravity with each slender stride and for a moment the sky swallowed the horizon. Then the hill dropped and the beach stretched out beneath me like a strip of shaven skin, bare and blistered. In the centred of this, a pestilent boil churned black smoke into the air. They had tied the body to a pyre and it had been burning for some time, the body already black and crumbling. I walked slowly down to the beach, trying to ignore the faces of those who had eyes to see what I was doing there.

I watched as the flames curled around him, licking at his hands and flitting lightly across his face. Could he feel it, somewhere, wherever his conscious mind found rest? A small part me hoped he could. His fingers began to twitch then, his head lolling to one side. I realised what was happening now, and by the sound of a thousand breaths escaping two thousand lungs, I assumed the crowd had caught on too. The dead man burning on the pyre was waking up. And when his eyes opened, they found mine in an instant. And the dead man smiled.

I went to him, stepped up onto the pyre and took his hand in mine. He was speaking but I couldn’t hear him. The flames stole his breath before it had a chance to mould itself into coherent words. But I knew what he was saying as he took me in his arms and pulled me into his bony chest, engulfing me in flames that I couldn’t feel. The crowd was now silent, the breeze and the beach, all without form or texture. Inside the fire I could feel nothing but his body and his presence, my own frantic heart drowned out the whooping beat of flame against flesh. I put my head against his chest and cried as the fire grew higher and masked our bodies. It didn’t hurt, not in the way it was supposed too.

When the flames died down they would find the ashes of two bodies, one living and one dead, by all accounts, but both very much united in their knowledge of each others demise. My sister didn’t need to tell me that morning about the details of the dead body on the beach, because I had been there when it became what it was when it was found and those tiny hand-prints the colour of summer juice trickling down a child’s chin; were mine. Fire to ashes, trust to dust.

Dragonflies

Suffocated in the silence of splintered injustice, she’d kill herself if someone could guarantee her that the memory would die with her. She’s got this far on the distant dawning of carrying the pain with her through the doors of death and into eternity. Would that be hell? She wonders…to be locked away in a windowless room with nowhere to go but inside yourself? No ones face scares her more than her own, no ghostly shadow cast against the bare walls makes her skin crawl more than the black silhouetted copy of her shape, hunched and vulgar in it’s profanity.

Just a guarantee.

That’s all.

What use would it be to get a little too close to the edge of the canyon – to taste the dust that lifts from the bellies of pebbles pushed recklessly to their deaths by the soles of her shoes that rest unsteadily atop the soft blanket of spicy pine needles, that sting their scent into her eyes, feral wasps, the beauty of the cold air coursing through her veins, her teeth bared in predatory lust – as she stands crucified to the blameless blue of the sky, her bastard shadow grimacing on the ground, the awkward mould of a dragonfly laying in wait behind her on the cracked red clay?

And she’s ready. She’s been ready for a long time. And she listens to him still, now, even though her ears of full of blood and words. Too many words. They cram themselves in, tripping over their own tongues and stumbling just before the finish line, a heap of broken backs and fallen friends, their carcasses piled high on the brink of comprehension. Her ears are heavy and aching, the rasp of their breath that close to her consciousness, toxic and unpleasant. And he told her, didn’t he? He told her all that he is, and all that he was, and all that he’ll ever be. And she knows what he can do. She knows because he did it to her. She is too tired to cry.

Her stained fingers brush against the swollen welts on her face, cracked and red they mirrored the earth where her inner dragonfly still waits. It laughs. Her fingers trace the shape of what was once her mouth. It hurts, the flesh hot and tender, a new burn yet to turn pink and fade to coffee. She bites down, hard, on the bottom lip. It splits, a rotten melon, and gushes foul coppery blood. It spills off of her chin and runs eagerly down her neck where it pools. A warm flower, the colour of claret, begins to bloom across her breasts. She is septic inside.

The muscles in her legs twitch, her chest muscles tensing and relaxing, repulsed by the feeling of blood against bare skin. Her head swims and inside her putrid body she feels something rising, like smoke, violet in the sun, grey in the shadow. Is that sadness trying to escape her, or is it something else? Is it all hope, rising and falling, following the wind obediently to a place where it can settle, where it can be left alone, and nevermore picked apart by the mind of a person addicted to their own cruelty and punishment? A ripple of revulsion crumples her to the floor, pine needles draw blood from her palms, the once great dragonfly now a cocoon of its former self. It seethes.

And she cries. Silently on the fractured lip of the ubiquitous canyon as the smoke that she mistook for sadness envelopes her, hands and lips and faces and eyes, all of the same, all around her. It’s not the sadness that is leaving her tonight, as the sun bleeds red across the tangerine sky.

Tonight is the night that hope leaves this girl and where it stops, nobody knows.

“Falling.”

“There was always the chance of falling, this was known amongst the roof folk, but I’ve always thought it a strange facet of the human condition – our preoccupation with falling, I mean. We pretend we’re scared of falling but we’re not. We’re scared of the broken bones and infinite end. We’re scared of death, not the path we take to it.”

From my current manuscript, “Rooftops”.