CW: mention of suicide, self-harm
Let me tell you the story of your death.
For me, it started with change. You couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave everything behind - my home, my family, my former job. I don’t think I understood either, not exactly. But I knew that I needed to start again, in an effort to clean the slate, to erase the past. I couldn’t tell you why; I just knew that it needed to be done. I moved far away to a grey city - a city with whitewashed skies and ghostly fogs. What better place to shed the burden of memory, in all its chromatic chaos, than in London - teeming and tireless, yet so perfectly colourless? I woke in darkness, slept in darkness, and in between, the skies were shifting shades of ivory, silver, dove, and dust. The grey stretched everywhere, from the skies to the footpaths, reaching skyscrapers, breaking through the earth like forgotten weeds gone to seed.
Here, I tried to forget myself and began the process of fading. My skin became as pale and brittle as chalk and I missed the sweet warmth of sunshine. I became obsessed with the sun. I saw it as the giver of light, of life, of warmth, and of happiness. I sought it out wherever I could, contorting my body to catch the smallest sliver through the glass of a window. The sun was everything. And then it wasn’t.
The sun betrayed me. Or was that you? I still can’t decide who, or what, was to blame.
2. A Cup of Tea
Jacob shook me awake. In the few seconds it took me to surface from sleep, I knew that something had happened to you. He made me a cup of tea as I sat up in bed, waking, waiting. The golden liquid swirled ominously as he handed the cup to me. I couldn’t look him in the eye. Something was happening and perhaps if I couldn’t see it, it would stop.
The last cup of tea I ever made for you made you sick. You threw up violently, the tea only a quarter drunk, a milky scum forming on the surface. Your medication made everything taste metallic and wrong, you said. I was the only one in the room at the time and ran for help. When I returned, you apologised. You said that you hadn’t meant to frighten me. The sadness and sincerity in your voice made my throat close up, but I was resolved: I wouldn’t cry in front of you, not yet.
I sipped the bitter liquid slowly, concentrating on the taste in my mouth over the words Jacob was speaking.
Your illness was silver itself, waxing and waning, brightening and tarnishing. Silver, so precious and beautiful, but so easily tainted; so very human.
A year after your death I found a small silver box under my bed. It was caked in greasy dust and stray hairs, but I recognised it immediately. Inside I had slipped an assortment of things: a box of your medication (still half-full), left on your beside table; a business card, found on the floor of your car; a sandwich bag of silver flecked clippings, swept up from your last haircut; a scrap of paper, torn from a book and scribbled on by you. These things are nothing special, but they are all I have. These are items I put away to remember and to forget.
Silver coloured your illness and thoughts of it leak into my memories of you, like the pure calcium that leeched into your bloodstream and destroyed your consciousness. I collected your silver memories and stored them alongside those other more tangible objects: the bell you used to ring for help, placed within reaching distance of your painfully prone body; your wedding ring, pulled off in your final unconscious hours, from your finger before it swelled too much and would have to be cut off you. After; the moon, my only companion through the sleepless nights, ever present and indifferent.
One morning, when visiting a client’s office as part of my job, I stopped suddenly in the building’s entrance and thought that I was having a heart attack. It started with a twist in my chest. My heart thrummed painfully and I was having trouble breathing. No matter how deeply I sucked air into my lungs, I felt like I was drowning. My hands shook and it felt like there was a small creature deep within my chest trying to claw its way out. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having a severe panic attack. After this, fear was a constant. I had trouble getting out of bed each day and I started falling into patterns of blame: It’s my job that had caused this, it’s clearly too stressful. It’s my flat, it’s too draughty and small. It’s because I don’t know anyone here, it’s too hard to meet people in such a large city. It was a problem of anything and everything except me. Until I discovered that it was me.
No one had put a label on this fear before. I had been diagnosed with depression at the age of thirteen, but I never admitted that it was something I needed help with. I refused medication and therapy, believing my environment, rather than my biology, was the cause: I would be fine once I finished school, once I moved house, once I found a better house, once I got a job, once I got a better job. But nothing was ever good enough.
5. Window Spider
I never knew when your illness became terminal. I was 10,000 km away from home; a free pass from worry. I was protected from the troubling details and didn’t know the truth of it all until much later. As far as I knew, you were going to be fine. So I turned those dark thoughts inwards and tormented myself in a prison of my own design. Those old damaging thoughts (thoughts I had travelled across the world to escape from) made themselves known to me at an alarming rate. The temporary euphoria at the change in my life had violently crashed around me and left me in a state unfit for human interaction. London was supposed to help me. It was supposed to be the final big change that I needed. But it was just more of the same.
I remember, with clarity, the day I decided that I needed help. I was home from work sick with tonsillitis, and I pressed myself closer to the heating bars in my tiny flat, listening to the mingling sounds of rain on tar, distant sirens, the sporadic ticking of the gas unit. I stared out the window into the swirling skies and felt the inexplicable electric energy, the smells, and the sounds associated with an oncoming storm: erratic wind, the rich smell of earth. I saw a precariously dangling window spider and heard the closing of windows in neighbouring flats. It struck me how this mixture of elements could make me feel simultaneously distant and present, home and foreign. Finding beauty on that day made me want to keep trying to live and to live well.
I didn’t know how sick you were then, but I was sick, too. I am still. Not in that way, not in your way. But there’s an illness there, creeping through my brain and into my bloodstream, whispering in my ears, turning my thoughts. Little white pills pepper my bedside table. I didn’t know then if they would stop the buzzing in my head or the constriction in my chest. But I was running out of options and I wanted to try to live again.
6. The Nine of Swords
During those uneasy days, I became more existential than usual. I wanted to know why we were here if we were all just going to die. Could there be something else? Could something have been overlooked in my atheist upbringing? Something missed?
I bought a pack of tarot cards with ink and watercolour illustrations. I had never seen anything so beautiful and mysterious, and I hoped that these cards, doubtful as it seemed, would give me the answers that I craved. I spent weeks practicing on myself, asking about my day, my week, my month, my year. One day at a time, I asked a question, inhaled the clean inky scent of the freshly printed surface, and picked a card. Mysterious symbols swirled indicating displacement, creativity, or confusion.
One bleached morning, as I sat in bed drinking tea, I finally worked up the courage to ask the cards if you would live. I shuffled the deck, contemplated, inhaled, and selected a card that called to me. The card showed something decaying. There were floating eyeballs, worms piercing flesh, and nine swords each skewering something that had once represented a living thing. I turned in panic for the guidebook. I knew that sometimes evil looking cards could actually be positive.
‘An extremely dark card, the nine of swords reveals the deepest shadows of the self. It indicates insomnia, nightmares, and worries in the midnight hour. Often these states are accompanied with guilt, despair, or even depression.’
I had never seen that card before and I have never seen it since. I don’t believe in much, but at that moment I believed that there was a greater power at work and that it had forsaken you.
As I admired the honeyed foliage and glowing sunrise on the top of a London double decker bus, I received an unexpected phone call from home: ‘Dad’, my phone screen read.
I had to get off the bus. I couldn’t stay there, couldn’t go to work and pretend that everything was ok. I pressed the bell and got off, not knowing where I was or how to get back to my flat. I didn’t have the energy to find out. I sat on a low stonewall on the side a main road and cried. I couldn’t stop. The streets were full of people rushing to work. No one stopped. No one asked if I was ok. Nothing happened. The world didn’t stop. No one cared. Life went on.
There were a lot of suicides in London. People threw themselves in front of trains on a daily basis, always during the morning commute to work. Were people more depressed in the morning? Does the smell of hot metal, close crushing bodies, and garbage create the perfect potion for existentialism and desperation? I loved the Tube in the early morning when there were less people around. The strange electricity in the air like an oncoming storm, the hot wind that starts to pulse through the tunnel, rustling trash and discarded Metro papers. Everyone on the platform is silent, apprehensive, unknowingly staring in the direction of the approaching train trying to catch a glimpse of the first glow of the headlights, listening to the nail biting screeching of metal on metal. There are tiny mice, like soot sprites, scurrying for cover along the tracks.
I had never seen someone throw themselves on to the tracks, but I was there to experience the trickle-down effect - the delays and crowds and chaos. There was never any sympathy from the commuters, only annoyance. We’ll all be late to work now, thanks to this selfish bastard, they would whisper among themselves. Kill yourself on your own time.
Your ashes surprised me. All that you were, scooped up and packaged neatly in a beige plastic box. I couldn’t believe how heavy it was; how much weight a human could disintegrate into. I was also surprised by how repulsive that plastic box looked. It was just a sickly rectangular box of thin plastic, partially see-through. How did we know that these were really your ashes? Could they have been accidentally mixed with the last person who went into the fire? How did they ignite the body? Was any extra fuel required? What happened to the coffin? Was it burnt as well or was it cleaned and resold to another mourning customer?
I couldn’t lift your box of ashes on my own, and I could barely stand to look at them. I collected them for your wife, because she didn’t have the emotional strength to collect them herself. I wish I had done something then, something to hold onto some part of you. After she took them, I wasn’t allowed to see them again. You were locked inside a novelty golden tomb and tucked away in a corner of a house I didn’t have the address of. She didn’t want you, but she didn’t want me to have you either.
I had twenty-four hours to pack up the last three years of my life. Flights were booked for the following morning, workplaces were called, shipping companies employed. I had originally planned to have Christmas at home and had applied for four weeks leave. My flights had been booked months in advance, but as your health declined, the date of the flight was moved closer and closer. That morning, I cancelled that flight and booked another. I would leave as soon as possible. I thought of all the money I was losing and immediately felt terrible.
I had left possessions at work - shoes, coats, books, umbrellas, and a desk plant. All would have to be abandoned for now. Our flat mates had moved out a few weeks before, following a fight about the frequency of my dishwashing. So I spread my life out in their empty room and sorted my belongings into four piles - to pack, to ship later, to toss, to sell. I worked with a surprising level of efficiency, happy to have some task to stop my mind from wandering to dark places. All my worldly possessions were before me and I cursed myself for collecting so much stuff. But how was I to know this would all happen? Jacob had just applied for a new Visa, I had just received a promotion - we were planning on staying for at least a few more years. Now we had some big decisions to make: do we put our things in storage, ready for us to collect once everything was over and we were able to come back? Or do we ship it all home and give up everything we had worked for here?
The weather in London was never more beautiful than when we were leaving. The air was crisp, the sky bright, and the trees dripping with golden foliage.
Jacob came with me to the airport and helped plea my case when it was discovered that my Australian passport had expired. I had my UK passport on me as well, but as I had no Australian Visa, it was useless. I begged for help - please, my brother is dying, please, I need to get home, I need to see him before he dies.
Two plane rides, one stop in Singapore. My mind was completely consumed with what awaited me at the end of this journey. I had nothing to do to distract me, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t keep still. I tried to read a book but just ended up reading the first few pages over and over again, never taking in the meanings of the words before me. Instead, I made lists of the things around me to calm my whirring mind: narrow padded plastic seat; strong, hot coffee and milk in little plastic tubs with foil lids; spilt sugar; cold, dry sandwiches; crushed Peroni cans; drink ring stains on tray tables; ink stained backs of chairs; crumbs; sticky spots; a cold cup of tea, only a quarter drunk, now cooling, a milky scum forming on the surface.
It would take me three years to gain the courage to pick that book back up again, but I didn’t know that then.
It would take twenty-one more days for you to die, but I didn’t know that then. For all I knew, trapped in an air-locked carrier in the sky, you could be dead already.
Chloë Cooper is a student of creative writing and English literature at the University of Queensland and is a bookseller at Avid Reader Bookshop. She has previously worked as an online content writer for various websites and was a regular contributor to Pitch Zine.