*Note from the editor: content warning, suicide*
It started in the back of his taxi.
Overweight, swarthy, late fifties, greasy hair and belly fat hanging down under the limits of his over-tight t-shirt. Brilliant red, the colour he says he could never get out of his head, the colour that, now I think back properly, he always seemed to subconsciously avoid. Never wanted to buy any clothes in red, moved away from anything with a red cover in a bookstore, flinched at the sight of tomato ketchup being poured out at dinner. He could never seem to tolerate being around anything red, and it’s just one of many, many signs I feel ashamed for never having noticed.
It was meant to be a peaceful place. The resort. “Hotel Eirene.” The name literally meant “peace.” It was supposed to be somewhere you could relax, be a child, get away from the cares and stresses of everyday life back home. But, instead, it was the place that took away his inner peace forever. Cruelly, casually, and without hesitation. An evil lurking barely under the surface lured him into the back of a private taxi, his skin, all of ten years old, sticking to the cheap leather of the seats while the sun burned in through the glass, and stole away his innocence. Fat, oily hands reaching, groping everywhere. Cigarette-damaged voice telling him it was good, it was fun, that it was something special for them to do together. Touching him in ways no child should ever be touched. Grabbing at him like he was a toy, something to enjoy for his pleasure, then throw aside.
He still remembered, years later, the afternoon ending with just that. Literally thrown out of the cab, the backs of his legs scraping against the gravel of the dirt road where he left him, shaking fingers barely managing to pull up his shorts as the departing car sent clouds of dust and stones flying into his face as it sped off. Out of his sight, and into the depths of his psyche, for the rest of his life.
That day, the first couple of hours after it happened, there was some room left in the corner of his brain to be able to feel gratitude that he was still alive. That his throwing up a little on the leather, the consequence of sour breath and smoke, and the hot, stale air of the resort, the stench of body odour all pressing on a frightened ten-year-old until saliva rushed to his mouth and he was forced to retch, hadn’t driven the man to kill him for the inconvenience. But, it was only for that one day that the relief lasted.
Because, every day afterwards, growing stronger and stronger as the years went on, he wished it had made him put him out of his misery. He wished he’d gone further, had spewed it all up, every bit of the contents of that day’s breakfast, so that the monster might have finished him off when it was over, and not left him to live with the memory, the flashbacks, the all-encompassing shame.
He managed for a long time. Managed to hide it so well, managed to convince Mum and I that his quietness, his introverted nature, was just a personality choice. That he was being rude when we pressed him to open up to us, that he was shutting us out because of adolescent moodiness, that we just weren’t a close enough family to enjoy the open, warm, honest group dynamics of some. He retreated into college, into study, into his books, while I ran with the extrovert inside me and pursued acting, playing to hundreds on local stages, and soaking up the crowd approval my brother recoiled from. Chalk and cheese.
And yet, that didn’t stop us from being close in our own subtle, quiet way. For all the bickering, all the irritable backand-forth, all the mutual insults, there was a bond there, underneath, below all the layers of mutual dislike. Something fundamental, at the core of us both, that still shone through often enough for us to have, if not quite heart to hearts, then at least meaningful conversations that could have been heart to hearts if we’d both trusted each other enough to truly open up. Tantalising hints of a real brother/sister bond that, if nurtured properly, could have changed both our pathways, could have saved him from so much internal, lonely pain, and all the consequences it finally led to. But, that’s the tragedy of life. The amount of opportunities, there for the taking, that could lead us to better, richer, fuller lives, lives of greater happiness, that so often go unnoticed or unrecognised. And our chances of rescue disappear, without us ever even realising they were there.
And so, in the end, like the inevitable conclusion of a slow-filling hourglass, his pain could no longer be masked by academic success, or literary discoveries, or the relief of losing himself in fictional worlds. In the end, reality, the stark, unchanging truth of what happened across two hours on one afternoon of his life, overcame everything else, and staying in that reality, with those memories, was simply no longer possible.
He told me how it felt. The build-up of the depression that finally defeated him. How it grew and grew in strength until its insidious progress spilled over into open, visible, irreversible damage. Recognised too late to be stopped. He always took issue with people talking about it like it was a form of sadness. Like it was just a “feeling,” just an emotion to be ridden out, and before long he’d be back to feeling happy again. He said they never understood that what depression did was alter the very world around you, making it seem completely alien and strange. Like you couldn’t recognise it anymore, or the way things in it worked, even though nothing about it had technically changed. He told me it was like it began to shut out everything that used to be good in your life, that made it fun, or exciting, or varied. That they somehow morphed into horrible caricatures of themselves, and mocked you for ever thinking they were good. Used the comforts you used to take from life against you, and turned them into points of attack. Turning everything gray, and leeching all the colour out of your whole existence.
And, when you put it all like that…It really was no wonder he eventually hadn’t the strength left to fight it.
He remembered the moment he gave up. The moment the whole world finally felt like it was against him and wanted him gone. The moment the very crows in the trees felt like vultures waiting for his dead body to feast on, rather than just the creatures of nature going about their business they’d always been. The moment he couldn’t look at tall buildings anymore, without imagining whether the fall from one could successfully kill him. The moment he couldn’t think about times in the past he’d been happy without wanting to scream for the loss of his ability to feel that way. The moment he decided to wade out to sea one night on a family holiday to the coast, and let himself be swept out. Out where no-one would ever find him. Out where he’d never contaminate the world again. Not even with his body.
He’s just finished telling me that now, the final, heartbreakingly matter-of-fact words hanging in the air between us, deafening in the subsequent silence. He looks at me almost as though in guilt that I’m having to hear any of it, that he’s burdening me with that knowledge. And all I want to do is run to him and put my arms around him and tell him how he never has to feel that way again. But, I can’t. I can’t make myself move closer to him, no matter how much I might want to. My body won’t obey what my heart is crying out for. So, I just stand. And watch. And prepare myself to listen to what I know he’s about to say next.
As I expect, he starts to speculate about how what he’s just described is what drove me to do what I did, too. Drove me to respond to the isolation of my brother ending his life, and my mother losing hers soon afterwards in a car crash brought on by a brain addled to distraction by grief, by channelling all the energy I had. All the fortitude I needed to keep fending for myself, going to rehearsals, getting on with the show, channelling it into a slow, creeping madness. My mind disintegrating in its own way, bit by bit, just like his did. Their absence creeping up on me like a poison, finally reaching the stage where I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Couldn’t cope with being on my own, no parents, no brother, no family left to care about me. And so I finally snapped, got myself some pills, and gave myself one tiny, final, triumphant moment of drama. The ultimate death scene. Raised a handful of them to my mouth, and with one last thought about him…swallowed them down. A fitting end for an actress.
He’s staring at me with sympathetic eyes now. A sad sort of smile that suggests he knows I wasn’t fully ready when it happened, no matter how much I thought I’d prepared, how much I ‘d steeled myself. And sure enough, he starts to tell me that he wasn’t, either. That no one ever really is. That if I think there were moments when his lungs were filling with water that he didn’t become terrified by what he was doing, I’m wrong.
I want more than ever to go to him. To hold him, to cradle him, tell him I love him and that I’m sorry I wasn’t able to pick up on the truth, to realise what had happened to him, before it was too late for either of us. That I couldn’t save us from lonely, terrifying ends that still felt better than the pain of keeping ourselves alive. But, instead, all I seem to be able to do is stay where I am, and tell him how my own 63 end felt like being torn apart from the inside for a horrible few minutes, until my body just gave in, and broke down completely. In its own way, pulling me under, just like the water did to him. I tell him I can still, in some ways, feel it. Feel the churning in my stomach, the echo of that last onslaught of destruction as the pills did their work, the hollowing out from within that I’d made the conscious decision to experience. What I don’t expect is the little bit of dark humour this seems to inspire in him, the upturn of the lips, the crooked smile, the supposition that the sensation, the after effect, the lingering memory, is all just in my head. Something my gut is just conjuring up. And then, the black wit, the final zinger. “Or what’s left of it.”
Maybe it’s the clarity of it. The fact that I feel I can actually hear him speaking that sentence, rather than just somehow being aware of the general direction of our conversation. But, something about it, about the joke, triggers a memory of something I once read in a medical book, something I was researching for one of my roles. And even as I start to remember it, it begins to make a startling sort of sense, as though illuminating my thoughts in a way they weren’t a moment ago. Like the penny has at last dropped, and this whole experience, this whole encounter, seeing my brother again, being unable to physically touch him…hearing his confession about what happened to him as a boy, how his life was stolen from him, how he decided to end the remnants of it, how that led to me doing the same to mine. It all suddenly seems to come together as I remember the words in that book, and how, even at the time, I took a strange sort of comfort from them, even while understanding that, if it ever proved to be true, it would be a very bittersweet thing to experience.
Because, I read that the brain has approximately seven minutes of activity after death. A final sort of dream state accompanied by one last rush of endorphins as it dies. An experience that’s supposed to make the actual moment of 64 passing strangely pleasurable, and something that, if true, would make a lot of our primal fears about dying completely unnecessary. Like slipping in and out of consciousness, between different levels of a dream. Thoughts and images rushing through your head at random. A final little sensory experience, just before you go. After, in a sense, you’ve already gone. I remember thinking then, as I do now, as I look my brother in the eye and see him give me the smile I thought I’d never see again, that who knows what faces you might see in those moments, what interactions you might have. What understandings you might come to, how things that never made sense before might at last start to. Who knows how those final sets of images in your mind might swirl and mix, what wonderful clarity they might give you, right at the end? During that final, beautiful mess of dying brain chemistry.
Christopher Moore is a Northern Ireland-based writer, and a graduate of English from Queen’s University Belfast, as well as the MA in TV Fiction Writing at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is also an alumnus of the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, and the Fireworks programme for young writers with Tinderbox Theatre Company. He has had short fiction accepted for the Octagon Theatre’s “Best of Bolton” day (2017 and 2018), Pendora Literary Magazine (2018), Flash Fiction Armagh (2018), including a published anthology of that event’s stories, “The Bramely” (2019), and Nightingale & Sparrow Literary Magazine (2019).