I had a sudden moment of clarity as I eyed the pieces of junk. What was I supposed to say? What could I say?
In the end I said nothing. I just sat there and stared at it all; the bits of broken glass and debris that he’d carefully placed on the floor.
He’d arranged them in lines.
‘This could be part of an old pot’ he said. ‘Maybe a drinking vessel, or something they served food in.’
I nodded politely. The object in question was certainly a fragment of something, but I doubted it would be of any interest to anyone. It was just another piece of worthless flotsam. It all was.
It was a hot August evening, and he was showing me the things he’d found in the sea.
‘Wait there!’ he’d ordered me – as if I was about to run off somewhere – ‘I’ve got something to show you!’
He’d returned a few seconds later with two crumpled-looking white carrier bags. One bit of junk after another emerged, and was placed with great care into one of the three categories – glass, wood and clay. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and I suddenly thought to myself: I’m just a kid, I’m smart, I’ve got quite a lot going for me – what the hell am I doing here?
You can’t just walk out on your friends, though. Even though I suppose I did. I just couldn’t take it any more. There’s only so much you can say to someone, and if they don’t want to help themselves then what can you do?
It had been going on for years. Anyone who couldn’t see what was coming must have been stupid. He hadn’t worked for almost two years. He said he just couldn’t stand it any more. And he thought everyone was plotting against him; all his friends, people who actually cared. It was obvious from a mile off something was seriously wrong.
By October he’d lost his mind completely. I’d barely even seen him in weeks. I think he felt I’d abandoned him. I think he thought everybody had, and they did, but in a way he didn’t really give you much of a choice.
I just couldn’t listen any more. There was no point in saying anything, because he honestly believed all the crap he believed and there was nothing anybody could do. It depressed me. I had my own problems.
He said to me once: ‘You don’t need me in your life’ and at the time I told him not to be so silly, but the sad thing is he was right.
I didn’t like the company he kept, either. He was always a terrible judge of character. I meant to tell him that, a long time ago, but I don’t think I ever did.
One of his only remaining friends, by the end of the whole nightmare, was a guy called Jee.
You probably know somebody like him. Probably everybody does. I’ve met maybe six people like Jee in my life; people who aren’t mean because they are pissed off at you, or because something has happened to them, but just because that’s what they do. Like all of them, he wanted you to think he was your friend, he wanted you to let him in. Then he could twist your mind and fuck your head up. If you were already halfway there, all the better. Someone who collected bits of junk he found in the sea, and thought he was having psychic visions of his friends breaking into his flat, was a prime target for Jee.
‘Jee is not a nice guy’ I told him, but he didn’t listen.
His real friends got pissed off with him because he kept on at them about how they were all plotting against him, and because he hadn’t worked for so long and he kept bumming off everybody. You couldn’t really blame them. But it was sort of bad as well. That’s how people end up hanging around with psychopaths and collecting bits of rubbish and arranging them carefully in lines. He even got barred from Ernie’s, our local. I felt awful about it, but he sort of had it coming. He used to DJ in there, but his nights got weirder and increasingly disorganised, and nobody went to them, and he just hung around all the time trying to get a free ride, and nobody wanted him around.
In the end, this other guy, who was the DJ in there on a Thursday night, went for him. He wasn’t even a violent bloke, this kid from the Thursday nights, but something must have gone off in his head, and he went for my friend – his friend once – and said he’d jack in all his nights there unless they barred him.
It pissed me off, because when he got barred they said he was smoking a joint inside, which wasn’t true. He was skinning up, but they all did that, the hypocrites. And worse still, all the people, all his old friends, said he deserved it. Good fucking riddance they said. But then, not all that long later, when I came in saying I’d had enough of his shit, when he’d properly fallen over the edge – after they’d given him the final push, and no-one offered him a hand – after that, they said I shouldn’t say things like that, and that he was a good bloke and they were all really concerned about him, they hoped he was okay.
When I went to see him, on that night in October, I knew it was all fucked.
I spoke to him, after ages, the week before, because a friend of ours died. We’d shared one of the funniest nights of my life, me, him and our friend who died. It was in the summer, before he got really weird, and we were sat in his flat from the early hours of the morning till three the next afternoon, just laughing our heads off.
He could be very funny. It’s a strange thing, but depressives are often also the life and soul of the party. Having said that, there’s a huge gulf between being cheerful and being happy.
Another night, me, him and this other kid sat up all night talking nonsense, like you do, and he got on to the subject – I wish I could remember how – of how he was going to open a bric-a-brac shop.
‘I’ll sell a few records’ he told us, ‘And broomsticks and things.’
‘Broomsticks?!’ we asked.
‘Yes’ he replied, mock serious, ‘Why? Is that not strictly legal? I suppose if it’s not then I’ll have to go underground. I’ll have to disguise the broomsticks. People will come in my shop, and it’ll look like they’re buying haystacks – but that’s where the broomsticks will be hidden – inside the haystacks!’
We were all in stitches. I suppose it’s not that funny if you’re not there – things like that get lost in translation – but at the time it was hilarious.
That was also the night he went to show us something on his computer and then realised it wasn’t there because he’d hidden it behind the sofa so that the people who broke into his flat couldn’t fuck about with his tunes.
It was also the night I mentioned how lucky he was to live in a flat with such a perfect view of the sea. To which he replied: ‘If I rented an allotment do you reckon I could live in the shed?’
The thing was, you never knew how much of it was real and how much of it was just play-acting, a desperate ploy for attention. I think all along it was all a bit of both, and it was hard to tell, a lot of the time, which was which.
His tunes were another thing – Christ. They were definitely material for being completely dumbfounded. Not in a good way.
The thing is, he was a great DJ, he knew his stuff, but he tweaked about on his PC and made the most godawful music you’ve ever heard in your life. Again, you were never sure if he was for real or not, because every now and then he’d play you something that was actually really good, and you’d be like: ‘Wow. That’s really good mate!’ and he’d be like: ‘Nah, I don’t like that one. Now, this one…’ and then he’d play you something that sounded like a drunk falling over a load of metal dustbins and expect you to recognise his genius.
He was definitely no genius. He was far from stupid, though, in spite of his attempts to appear so. He was devious in that way. If you make people think you’re an idiot, you can get away with loads of stuff.
Anyway, we got talking again because of our mate who died. I mean – we never really stopped talking, but I drifted away from him, I chose to divert my attention away from all of that, because it was sapping the life out of me watching him lose the plot.
I don’t even know why he rang me. I mean, I thought there was going to be some kind of point to it, but after we’d been on the phone for nearly an hour, I realised that there probably wasn’t, and then he said that if we were spending all this time talking on the phone that I may as well just go round, and that there was a documentary on about the war.
It was the documentary about the war that sold it to me. I put my coat and gloves on and went out into the cold night air. We barely even watched any of it.
At first, he seemed normal. Or as normal as he ever was, anyway. It was only when he started talking about college that it started to get weird.
That was my fault, as well; I brought it up.
He’d gone back to college that September, to do a music degree. We all had mixed opinions about it. It was one of those things where I would have loved to have thought it was for the best, but I knew it was as much a part of his breakdown as the imagined burglars and the terrible compositions.
I’d walked past him, sometime in late September, on the seafront. He was sitting outside one of the cafes eating a fried breakfast, wolfing it down. He never had any money, you see, and he would have just got his student loan. It was probably the first time he’d eaten out in months. He looked more desperate than happy.
College lasted about a month or so. I ran into a friend in a pizza shop, and she told me he’d dropped out. I wasn’t surprised. He didn’t know I knew when I went round that night. I suppose I landed it on him out of the blue.
‘Why did you drop out of college?’
‘It just wasn’t working out for me’ he said. ‘I knew I wouldn’t do it, anyway. That wasn’t why I went.’
That made perfect sense. I told him that, too. Then he said it wasn’t too late, that he’d only been dropped out a week, and that it wasn’t official. ‘I could go back’ he said.
Then he got this laptop and starting showing me all his work. Some of it was actually quite good. I was surprised. He wasn’t the most literate person in the world.
‘You should go back’ I said. ‘It’s a waste. Your work is actually quite good.’
I sat there reading it for a while, and then he showed me this other thing he’d written, this suicide letter.
I thought it was a desperate and terrible ploy for attention, showing me this letter. If I was going to do myself in, the last thing I’d do would be tell anyone. I mean – they’d obviously try and stop you, so it would defeat the whole object of it all.
So anyway, it made me kind of cross, and I was cross as well because he made me feel like I’d abandoned him, and that I should feel bad about it.
I did feel bad about it.
‘You were the last person that really cared’ he told me.
‘That’s not true’ I said.
‘Well, no’ he agreed. ‘Jee’s been a good friend to me.’
‘Jee’s not a good friend to anyone’ I replied. ‘The best thing you can do is stay away from him.’
‘He’s been good to me.’
‘He’d like you to think so.’
It was pointless.
‘You see’ he carried on, ‘This psychic told me that my spirit guide was an Indian.’
I nodded politely. I am extremely sceptical about Indian spirit guides and the suchlike.
And anyway, everyone’s spirit guide is a fucking Indian. It’s such bullshit. What the fuck has an Indian got to do with me? If they told me it was some dead relative I’d be more inclined to believe them, and even then I think that most of them are money-grabbing, mind-twisting liars.
‘At the time’ he continued, ‘I was sort of pissed off. Because I didn’t want my spirit guide to be an Indian.’
‘Anyway, they told me it was an Indian chief.’
I nodded politely again.
‘But when I got to know Jee’ he explained, ‘I thought maybe they’d got it wrong, maybe they meant an Indian from India, and that…’
‘Mate, if you think that Jee is your fucking guide, then God help you.’
‘Yeah, but Jee helps me’ he said.
‘Jesus’ I said, ‘If that’s what you think then you really are fucked. Jesus fucking Christ.’
‘That’s another thing’ he said. ‘I’ve been getting quite church-minded lately.’
‘Yes, I’ve been going to church every Sunday. I’ve been writing poems as well. Do you want to see?’
It didn’t really matter whether I wanted to see or not, because he was going to show me anyway.
He had this big, purple ring bound book. It had hard, shiny covers, and inside there was lined paper with all these crazy doodles and scrawling on it. Another day he would refer to it as his book of madness. Which was about right.
His poetry was terrible. Worse than his music I think, because music is a little more subjective. A lot of poetry is just bad.
It was a little alarming as well – all this preachy, religious stuff, as if he thought he was some kind of prophet or seer. I mean, he did think he was a seer, but until then I had no idea he also saw himself as being some sort of religious figurehead.
He’d dabbled with the psychic stuff for quite some time, and he was never any good at it, although you couldn’t tell him that. One of his finer moments was when this guy we knew was going to place a bet on the horses, and he said to him: ‘That one! Pick that one! It’s going to win. I know. I’m psychic!’ and then this horse fell over before it even got to the first fence. I think that said it all. If he was any kind of psychic, what he probably should have done, all his life, was listen to his gut instinct and then do the exact opposite. I think it all might have worked out for him that way.
He started reading this poem out to me. I’d already read it to myself, and that was bad enough. It sort of offended me as well, because he didn’t really know anything, and he’d gone all religious, but he didn’t really have any knowledge about any religion, he just took little bits from everything, things he wanted to hear, and he thought he knew it all. And what was worse was, here he was, in the middle of this massive breakdown, with all this badly written bullshit advice for everyone else. Like he truly thought he had some kind of wisdom to impart to us all. It was beyond a joke. I partly wanted to throw my arms around his chest and tell him how terrible I felt for him, and I partly wanted to land a good hard punch square in his face.
‘We had to do this live performance at college’ he said. ‘And I was going to read this out while I played the guitar.’
I started to think that maybe him dropping out of college wasn’t such a bad thing after all. I nearly said it as well, but then I thought maybe I’d better not.
‘I bottled out, though, in the end’ he explained. ‘That was one of the reasons I left. I was scared of playing the guitar in front of everyone.’
I wasn’t surprised. He couldn’t play the guitar at all. I mean – he didn’t even know any chords or anything.
‘Why didn’t you just take your decks and show them how you can mix?’ I asked.
‘Nah’ he replied, shaking his head, ‘I didn’t want to do that.’
‘Are you off back?’ I asked him.
‘Where?’ he exclaimed, looking slightly alarmed.
‘To college’ I said.
‘Oh’ he replied, ‘There. No, I don’t think so. I think it’s time to go.’
‘Just go, die, leave this world.’
‘Oh, don’t start that again’ I warned him. ‘Anyway, why? I mean – I know you’re not happy, but you can get help. You don’t have to be like this forever. There are people who care about you.’
He put his arm around me.
‘You used to care about me’ he said.
‘I do care about you’ I told him. ‘I’m your friend. I’m not your only friend, either. There are people who are still your friends in spite of the fact that you’ve actually been quite awful to them, accusing them of breaking into your flat, stealing your stuff…’
‘We’ll agree to disagree about that’ he replied.
I shook my head.
There had been an incident in the summer that I will probably never forget. It was one of the things that led up to my keeping out of his way. I worked in a bar back then, and he used to pop in sometimes for a drink. Mainly he drank water, because it was free. Or tea because Jee bought it for them. Jee used to come in a lot as well until I asked him not to. He bummed off Jee quite a bit. He bummed off everyone who let him except me, because I always offered and he said he shouldn’t do it. I took that as a kind of weird compliment. Anyway, I’ve digressed completely.
What happened on that day in the bar was that he came in when my mate Paul was there, and Paul said hi to him, and he said: ‘Fucking cheeky fuck saying hi to me after you know you all go in my flat and…’ and Paul looked absolutely stunned. I mean – his face was a picture of absolute disbelief, and, even worse, he looked offended. And Paul is a guy who you just can’t offend. He takes everything on the chin, and that is the one and only time in all the years I’ve known him that I’ve seen Paul look offended, and he just stood there for a second, and then he turned around and walked out.
And even after that, Paul still was friends with him, he still said he hoped he was okay when we talked about it all the following week, he still said hi to him in Ernie’s on a Saturday night.
He still had his arm around me. I wasn’t sure whether I should feel uncomfortable or not.
‘We could have had something’ he said to me.
I thought about it for a second and decided that we could never have had anything like that, for many reasons, but it was no moment to say that, so I didn’t say anything.
‘You’ve got your whole life ahead of you anyway’ he said. ‘You’re so young. I’ve had my life.’
‘You’re only thirty-seven’ I told him.
It doesn’t matter’ he said. ‘It’s over for me. You don’t want me. Nobody wants me. You don’t need me in your life. You’re young and lovely and… It’s time to go. You read the letter.’
‘What about your family?’ I asked. ‘How fucking selfish are you? What about your son?’
‘My family don’t need me in their lives’ he said.
‘Of course they do. They’re your fucking family. What would it do to your mam? How would your son feel growing up knowing that his dad did himself in? That kind of thing can fuck a person up for their whole life, and it’s not nice being fucked up. Is it?’ I was angry by that point. Really pissed off.
‘Well, that’s the thing’ he said. ‘I sort of thought maybe if I left I could go back.’
‘Left where?’ I asked him.
‘If I died. I thought maybe I’d wake up and I’d be back in my old life, before all this happened. And I’m not sure if I’d want to, because I wouldn’t know a lot of my friends any more, but everything was going alright for me back then, and I had everything, and now I’ve got nothing, haven’t I? And so…’
‘You can’t go back’ I told him. ‘You’re here. It’s now. If you kill yourself then you die, mate. That’s it. And I can’t claim I know what will happen to you when you do die, but I wouldn’t bank on it being that you go back.’
‘I think I am dead’ he said. ‘Or in a coma.’
‘Oh, not this again’ I said. I was sort of almost laughing, but it wasn’t all that funny.
The first time it happened I’d seen him in the street, and I asked him how he was, and he just looked at me with the weirdest look in his eyes and said: ‘Something’s happened.’
‘What’s happened?’ I’d asked him, ‘Are you okay?’
‘No’ he said. ‘I don’t know. I just woke up the other day and I felt like I couldn’t stop feeling like crying. And I thought my boy was dead. I kept thinking something’s happened, my boy’s dead, and then I spoke to him and he was fine, he laughed at me, and then I thought maybe I’m dead. I think I’m dead. My feet have gone green.’
The whole time he was saying this, Jee was stood there with this rolled up poster in his hand, and he kept hitting me over the head with it until I told him to pack it in.
The worst thing about all that was that a few days before, me, him and Jee had been talking, and he’d said that he didn’t like to answer his phone to his son when he was out of his head – which I thought was quite reasonable – and Jee had said: ‘Yes but have you ever thought that he could be in a terrible accident, something absolutely awful could have happened to him, and he could have tried everybody and you might be the last person he could possibly ring, and then if anything happened to him it’d be your fault because you didn’t answer the phone.’
A few minutes later I thought to myself: he could just go round or even ring 999 but the conversation had moved on and I never said it. I wish I had.
‘Why do you think you’re dead again?’ I asked him.
‘Or in a coma.’ He corrected me.
‘Or in a coma, sorry.’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘All the signs are there’ he replied, looking completely serious.
I laughed out loud.
‘What signs?’ I asked him. ‘What signs for God’s sake?’
‘I keep getting messages’ he explained.
‘What, from the TV?’ I asked him.
‘Not just from the TV’ he replied. I was taking the piss and he was being entirely serious.
‘You’re getting messages from the TV?’
‘And in church. I’m going to have to stop going to church. Everybody keeps talking to me?’
‘Talking to you how?’ I asked. I gathered he probably didn’t mean they were saying ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’
‘Like whenever the vicar starts talking, I know he’s talking to me. It’s all messages. And the radio as well. I know what they’re doing.’
‘What who’s doing? Look, nobody’s doing anything. It’s you. Have you spoken to anyone?’
‘No! They just all keep speaking to me!’
‘I mean like a doctor’ I said.
‘It’s not any good’ he said. ‘I went in the end, but they gave me all these anti-depressants and they make me feel worse. He told me not to smoke weed.’
‘And rightly so!’ I replied. ‘That’s the last thing you need to be doing.’
‘I think it’s good for me’ he said. ‘It takes me to another level.’
‘What? Where you are now?’ I asked him. ‘Fun, is it?’
‘You never tell anyone else not to smoke weed’ he said. ‘You never say anything to all them lot.’
‘All them lot are not getting messages from the radio’ I said. ‘They’re not mad. You are.’
‘I like it that you actually tell me that’ he said. ‘Nobody else does.’
‘It’s the truth’ I said. ‘There’s no point in trying to be nice about it. You’re completely fucking crackers. And it’s a well known fact that anybody with schizophrenic tendencies should never, ever smoke weed. It does something funny to your brain.’
He looked even more downcast.
‘Sorry’ I said, ‘But it’s true.’
‘And have you told your doctor that the anti-depressants make you feel worse?’ I asked him.
‘It won’t make any difference. Any doctor will just tell me I’m mad and not that I have a gift.’
‘How is this a gift?’
‘I see things’ he told me. ‘I hear people. You were in my room the other night. You spoke to me.’
‘But I wasn’t’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’
‘Whatever’ he said.
‘You really need help’ I told him.
‘Nobody can help me’ he replied. ‘You can’t, can you? Can you give me any answers? Can you? I want some answers!’
‘No’ I said, ‘I can’t give you any answers.’
‘Well then it’s time to go.’
‘Don’t start that again’ I warned him. ‘It doesn’t have to come to that.’
‘But it might not come to that’ he said. ‘I might just go back. I think I might just be in a coma. Probably none of this is real.’
‘I’m real’ I said. ‘I’m not a figment of your imagination, and neither is this room or this moment. We’re here, it’s now, and this is reality. You might not like it, but this is where you are.’
‘Maybe’ he said.
‘I think you are real anyway’ he carried on. ‘But you’re not who you’re presenting yourself to be. Like my stepdad. I think he’s really my boss who died. And the doctors. They’re all shapeshifters. I can tell.’
‘Jesus Christ’ I said. ‘Look. Your doctors are not shapeshifters, your stepdad is not some dead guy, and I’m me. That’s it. Everything is not something else. Things just are. You have to accept that and deal with it.’
‘I don’t deserve anybody’ he said. ‘It’s time to go. I’m no good to anyone. I’ve been thinking about going into the church, but I can’t because I’ve been angry. I can’t join the priesthood like this.’
I fought the urge to burst out laughing. It was difficult.
‘You can’t join the priesthood anyway’ I told him. ‘You’re not even a Catholic, are you?’
‘Whatever’ he said. ‘I mean like a vicar. Anything. I can’t. Because I’m angry with God. I went for a walk the other day, and I told him. I was standing in the sea, shouting at God, telling him how angry I am that I’m like this.
I could just picture it. Him standing there in the estuary, shouting at the sky. One of those perfect comic-tragic moments that people find themselves in when they truly reach the end of the line. I felt deeply sorry for him.
‘I’m no good for anything’ he said, ‘It’s time to go. My family don’t need me. I tried, but I messed it up. I did try as well. I used to cook them tea.’
And with that he burst into tears.
He cried for a really, really long time.
I didn’t know what to do.
He had his arms around my neck and he was crying into my shoulder, and I didn’t know what to do.
At some point I started to think about how uncomfortable I felt, that my neck was aching, but I couldn’t say anything.
After an impossibly long time, he looked up and said: ‘It’s my head. It was my head’ and then he started crying again, really bawling this time, and he kept saying he was sorry.
Eventually he stopped, and he said: ‘I think I’m alright now.’
‘I think you really need to talk to someone’ I said.
‘I know’ he said, ‘I will. I’m going back to college as well. You’re right, I should.’
He seemed better after that. We talked about his college course, music, normal things. He said he’d burn some tracks onto a CD for me. ‘I’ll pop it round to you tomorrow’ he said.
I said I should probably be going. It was about four o’clock in the morning.
‘I’ll walk you home’ he said.
When we stepped outside, into the biting cold, he put his arm through mine, and we walked like that, talking about all the nice, normal things that you talk about with your friends, and he seemed genuinely more cheerful.
‘I’m sorry I broke down on you like that’ he said.
‘It’s okay’ I told him, ‘It’s nothing to apologise for.’
‘I will go and talk to someone’ he said. ‘Properly. I know it shouldn’t keep happening. I’ll go and see my doctor again tomorrow. Or I might go to that MIND place. The drop-in centre.’
‘You should’ I said to him.
It was a crisp and clear night. The stars shone like sharp little diamonds, bright and remote, and there was a pale, cold moon, and I knew there wasn’t a thing in the world I could do.