Standing on the 20th floor of a block of flats in Hulme, I could see the broad sweep of Manchester. It was dark and the lights threw enticing patterns across the the city. Momentarily, I was overcome by an urge to throw myself off. I was experiencing what psychologists call ‘high-place’ phenomenon. The building seemed to sway, pulling me off the edge and I drew myself quickly back inside; that sense of not feeling safe – it’s instinct to pull away. Otherwise, hundreds of people would throw themselves off buildings every day (now the image of falling bodies is etched into our collective consciousness after 9/11 but this happened pre-2001) but I interpreted my experience as a suicidal thought. A micro end-it-all moment. Then, I imagined drifting gently to the ground, saw myself half flying then falling fast: fast, too fast. So I drew myself further into the flat, back to its glow and comfort. This wasn’t me: I’m not that sort, I’m the sort who wobbles but doesn’t fall down.
M and I talked into the dead of night. Laughed about the last time we’d met and I was waiting outside for my lift home and a woman had walked past with a machete swearing she’d kill the bastard if she found him. That was Hulme. Another incident, M said, just the day before: a young man chased by the police had run to the top of edge of one set of flats, and unwilling to hand himself in, had jumped to his death. His mind wasn’t right, she said. He fell, and never got up again. (Years later I found out this was a boy I’d taught: one of those boys prematurely tall. He was spoilt, ruined my mother would have said. Difficult to like. His parents, never somehow learning the lesson that less is more, bought him a sporty car – he crashed it and messed up his head. Wasn’t himself: never really found his way home again. Lived from hand to mouth until finding himself on that roof with, as he saw it, all his choices gone: the end of the line and his impulse to escape all that was left. He’d always been the kind of boy who was never in the wrong and all he had was instinct. There, afraid, tearful, gone.)
The flat smelt reassuringly sweet, incense burning in all rooms. It was such a cool flat M kept – treasures from all manner of sources carefully and tastefully left about the place. There was a picture of her as a child on the wall: wearing a pair of dungarees, super cute and other carefully thought through things. Just things. She laughed madly about this and that. We talked of partners, hopes, their pain, things we planned to do…the life we meant to lead. She marrying P – maybe – me trying to work my way through.
Our time together was girls’ nights: us two. But we talked of him: his creativity, the danger of his brilliant mind, his kindness. His desire to get it right. His pain. His perfection and his sadness at never quite managing it. She loved him. P defined her, she said, made her world real, whole.
I only met him once.
I don’t remember how I got the news. In the world before proper mobile phone use, I don’t know by what means it came to me. Did we speak on the phone? Did she walk round? Did someone else tell me?
The details have gone.
Those were the days when we still wanted to be a separate self – perhaps behaved like singles when we were out. We drank too much, we smoked in days when smoking was still allowed. We made each other laugh.
He filled his car with petrol, one afternoon a few days after M and my night out. He drove at some pace. He drove from his flat in Manchester down the motorway, speeding all the way to his home village. A journey of 7 hours took 4. Later, they could track his path on the overhead cameras on the motorway. How he hadn’t crashed and taken someone with him, no-one knew.
She told me all this: wild-eyed – the wonder of it, and the pain like a tooth hole left in the mouth, impossible to leave alone. Impossible not to worry at it with the tongue but causing instant pain.
He found a field near his parents’ house. All planned. He drove right into the heart of it not caring if he’d ever get his car out. He wouldn’t.
He attached a tube from the exhaust to the window and with what remained of the petrol, just enough, started the car engine and fell asleep never to wake again. Nothing spontaneous about his death. Nothing instinctive or what Freud called a death wish: all carefully planned.
“He was just a bit down,” she said with all her pain exposed. I saw her soul – her life in the raw. She kept going over all the ground. Was there something she could do? Should have done? Could she have changed his mind? Over and over she told her part – how she felt to blame. Went through all the steps, over and over: sitting on the floor by my back door, smoking, in the pub – in the newly decorated rooms of her flat. All the stages. If she’d have been in to answer the phone the day before. If she’d said the right words. If she had not insisted on him going to the doctors…
“And now,” she said, “His parents won’t let me near.” Though they did eventually relent but the damage was done. Pain on pain. Separated by space – of being close but not close enough.
She blamed the medication: before he’d taken it he was down and, she thought, it gave him just enough motivation to kill himself.
She was wrong. He was already falling. Falling.
He would have done it anyway.
His life had everything you might want. The funniest girl on the block, talent, success.
But it wasn’t enough to save him.
And there were never enough times for me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault M. There was nothing you could do?’
In the years that followed she made massive life changes. Found love. Got pregnant. Bought a house. Grew apart from me. Our friendship fell through.
The last time I saw her, she was three cars away. I took massive risks to reach her. Over took. Ran a light. Beeped. Followed her into the hospital car park where she was attending ante-natal clinic for her second child. We hugged. Said hello. Said goodbye. That sense of feeling close, and far away: near the edge and the temptation to jump rolled over me. That sense of not feeling safe – we pulled away. Smiled. Waved.
All our chances gone, I never saw her again.