I don’t want to spoil your day, and I apologise in advance for any distress I may cause. The fact is I have to confess something, and it has to do with death and suicide. I’ve separated those two because, well, they have different places in my story.
My wife died. Two months ago. In a hospice bed. “After a long battle with …” the newspapers would put it. But the battle, if any, was only at the beginning, after the diagnosis. As soon as the aggressive treatment began, and in due course proved futile, she was willing herself dead. I didn’t want her to go, naturally—she was my whole life—but to see her torment as she went from bright, active soul-mate to bedridden shell, writhing in a pain that the drugs could not entirely deaden, was to feel a similar torment.
And so Jen left me. In the following days I occupied myself with the welcome task of arranging the funeral—‘welcome’ in that I had something to take my mind off the black hole of loss that had opened up at my feet. The funeral itself was lovely, in the circumstances. She’d helped me to plan it while she was still compos mentis enough. It was simple and humanist: the celebrant was a friend of hers, her best friends gave tributes, and her favourite music was played at key moments in the ceremony.
We had a lot of friends, but I soon found, by their desertion of me, that they’d been more hers than mine—not that I was great company at the time, though, and nor did I make much of an effort to socialise. So I drifted into a solitude that was at once soothing and toxic. Being alone gave me time to think, and I thought a lot about the plans and dreams we’d had—including having children—that had simply been excised from my future by her passing. All I could see ahead was a fog of uncertainty and a complete lack of purpose in life.
I began to take time off work—I’m a lawyer—and at first the partners were very understanding. But a law firm’s lifeblood is its billings, and I was bringing in very little. Even when I did manage some work, I have to admit it was below standard, and on one occasion the partners received bad feedback from a particularly valuable client. They had to let me go but were kind to the end, giving me a generous pay-off that they weren’t obliged to.
The money helped towards a course of treatment with a well-reputed shrink, but the talking was just that, and the drugs he prescribed did little more than wrap my despair in an unwelcome, cotton-wool fuzziness. I tried a dating site, too, although it was too soon, and I must have put the fear of God into the three dates I had; they never got back to me, anyway.
So I turned to drink, and I must say that it was a good friend initially. It took the edge off, then gave me oblivion—a great gift at the time. Of course, it made me useless for everyday life, so that after a while, I did little more than make trips to the supermarket to buy bottles, then spend the morning, afternoon, evening and night moving between different states of inebriation and unconsciousness … until it was time for another trip to the supermarket.
I did occasionally venture out to visit the local pub—perhaps it was my sub-conscious telling me that I needed contact with people. Having said that, I would invariably take my drink to a booth that sat in the corner of the rough bar, keeping myself to myself and thinking.
And my thoughts inevitably turned to ending it all. I’d tried but I just couldn’t get over the loss of Jen. She was there with me constantly, but not there, and that was torture. So the seed of suicide was planted, and little by little it grew into resolve. How to do it, though? I went through the obvious methods in my mind, and most had potential complications that made me discount them.
A rope? It would be very painful and might simply leave me brain-damaged if I didn’t do it right and were discovered. Likewise drugs. A razor to the wrists would take some time, during which I might change my mind, and then there would be the mess, and the questions, and possibly, worst case scenario, commitment to a psychiatric hospital. Jumping off something high? It would be final enough, sure, but there would be those moments of terrifying panic as I fell, and I imagined that however instantaneous death were at impact, it would also be very painful. Finally I arrived at my preferred method, but there was a fundamental problem.
A problem that was solved one evening in the pub. I’d taken a double whisky to my normal table and was staring into it when I caught a snippet of a whispered conversation from the next booth.
“I can go a hundred quid.”
“I’d be losing money, John. It’s two hundred or nothing.”
“You sure it’s clean?”
“As a whistle.”
“Hundred and twenty, then.”
“Hundred and fifty, and that’s as low as I can go.”
I wanted to see the end of the deal so got up as if to go to the bar for another drink. I feigned a stagger, supporting myself on the back of the booth as I took a quick glance at the table. There were two men, one in overalls, the other in a suit. The man in the suit had his hand on a plastic supermarket bag that he was pushing over the table; the tip of a gun barrel poked out of the bag. He saw me looking.
“Got a problem, John?” (I found out later that he called everyone “John”.)
“Sorry. Jus …”
I put on a slur and meandered to the bar. When I returned to my seat, the two men had gone.
It wasn’t until about ten days later that I saw the man in the suit again. I’d gone to the pub every night in the hope of his being there, but no luck. Then one evening I looked up from my whisky and he was making his way from the bar to the same booth as before. I gave him a couple of minutes to settle down before picking up my drink and joining him.
“What do you want?”
He wasn’t the friendliest of chaps, I’d already gathered that, but I pressed on regardless.
“I want to buy a gun.”
“What the … Shush, you idiot!”
He shot a panicky glance around the bar but it was practically empty and there was someone playing the slot machine in the corner, making enough noise to cover our conversation.
“Can you help me out?”
I looked him straight in the eye, which seemed to calm him somewhat. He returned the gaze, searching, I imagine, for anything he could mistrust. When he spoke, it was warily.
“Depends. What are you looking for exactly?”
“Anything that shoots bullets.”
He carried on scrutinising my face.
“What’s it for, John?”
“Look, I’m not going to ask you where you get it from so let’s just dispense with the questions, okay? I need a gun, that’s all.”
“How much can you pay?”
I could have paid my life savings because I wouldn’t be needing them, but I thought ‘Why should this bloke profit excessively from my demise?’, so I parroted the man in the overalls from the previous occasion.
“I can go a hundred quid.”
Rather than haggle with me, the man in the suit (I never asked his name) smiled, possibly remembering the other conversation.
“Be here tomorrow, same time.”
Apparently he trusted me now, but I didn’t stick around to test it; I polished off my whisky and left. All that evening and the next day, a little flame of illicit excitement threw some light on my black mood, but far from enough to dispel it.
When I returned the following evening, he was there in the booth waiting for me. Forewarned from my seeing the gun during the previous deal, he gestured for me to pass the money under the table, and as I did so, he handed me a plastic supermarket bag wrapped around the hard shape of a revolver.
“Six, in the cylinder. If you need more … you know where to find me.”
“I won’t need more.”
He gave me a strange look and frowned.
I felt a little silly asking him, but I needed to know. Now he laughed.
“It’s old—single action. So you have to cock it first before you can pull the trigger.”
I nodded, as if I knew what he was talking about. I figured I’d work it out for myself.
“Oh, and careful where you aim it!”
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“It works, does it?”
He gave me a withering look, got up and left, without counting the money. I suppose he was confident he could find me to break my legs if it wasn’t all there.
When I got home, I took the gun out and placed it on the table in the living room. It was an ugly, battered old thing, with worn metal parts and a cracked grip. At that moment I wished I’d splashed out on something a little more classy, especially given the significance of the job I was going to do with it.
But it was what I had. My concern now was that despite the man in the suit’s silent assurance, I needed to make sure that the thing functioned and that I knew how to use it before I worked myself up to the act, only to find that it wouldn’t, or I didn’t. I needed to test it, but where?
Anywhere in town would bring the police running, I thought, and I was likely to break something or kill some innocent passer-by with a stray bullet. But I live near the sea, so I resolved to go down to the beach for the test. If I went at the dead of night, the sound of the waves—the weather had been poor and the sea very wild—would hide the sound of the gun being fired. And because of the time of night and the bad weather, the beach would be deserted
I know what you’re thinking: Why didn’t I just go to the beach and do the deed there? Well, what I didn’t want to do was cause distress to the person who found me. I could imagine the mess that a bullet at close range would make, and I pictured myself coming across a body on the beach; I didn’t like the idea.
No, my plan was to lock myself in the bathroom and leave a conspicuous note for my cleaner, telling her NOT to try to open the door herself but to call the police. I was sure she’d get the idea; she wasn’t stupid.
I went that same night, leaving it until three in the morning. There was no one about as I made my way on foot along the short stretch of coast road that led from the town to the beach. It was very windy and the moon was almost full, appearing intermittently between the scudding clouds and lighting a road that glistened with recent rain. In the distance I could hear the crashing of waves on shingle. A car passed me driving in the opposite direction; I was surprised that anyone was out so late.
At the beach I left my shoes on the promenade and walked out barefoot to the edge of the water, where the sound of the waves was almost deafening. I’d brought a torch with me and used it to inspect the revolver again. What had the man in the suit said? “Cock the trigger”, was it? I played with the moving parts, trying to remember the cowboy films I enjoyed as a boy. At one point I found the barrel turned towards my face and quickly lowered it, smiling wryly to myself in the dark. Not yet, not yet.
Eventually I reckoned I had it sorted and pointed the gun out to sea. It fired much more easily than I’d imagined—it just needed a gentle squeeze of the trigger. The sound of the shot was loud, but I was confident it wouldn’t carry, given the roar of the waves. The recoil was something I hadn’t expected from the old piece, though, and it jolted and hurt my shoulder. I was satisfied that the revolver worked but fired it once more for good measure, bracing myself for the recoil this time.
I put the gun away in the side pocket of my coat and walked back towards the promenade, thinking now about when I would do it. Not that night for sure—I wasn’t quite prepared mentally—but soon. As I approached my shoes, a car pulled into the deserted car park next to one of the cafés on the prom. I recognised it as the car that had passed me earlier, and my suspicions were aroused—rightly so.
The car’s headlights were turned off and two dark figures got out. They passed under one of the half-dozen street lights that illuminated the prom and I could see that they were young men, probably in their late teens. I stood where I was and waited for them to approach.
“All right, mate?”
I ignored the shorter of the two men and stood my ground. He turned to his friend.
“Maybe he’s not all right.”
The taller one took a step forward.
“All we want’s your cash, man, so come on. Hand it over.”
He took something out of his pocket that glinted in the lamplight. The two started to walk towards me and I didn’t think twice. I pulled out the gun and fired at the tall one. I’d never shot a gun before that night, but I hit him somewhere vital and he fell backwards, landing on the concrete of the prom like a sack of King Edward’s.
The shorter one stood staring at the lifeless body of his friend as if transfixed by a thing of wonder. After what seemed like an age, he looked across at me and realised the danger he was in. He spun on his heel and started to sprint away, but I raised the gun and fired again; the pieces of his head flew up into the glow of the street light and pattered to the ground after his body, which skidded and sprawled along the concrete for several metres.
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced the sensation; I felt at that moment like the whole scene was enveloped in a bubble of silence. There I was, shoeless on the sand, and before me were two bodies from which I’d just removed the lives. I can’t say how long I stood there, but I was shaken out of what I suppose was shock by the crashing of the waves, eventually bursting the bubble.
I had to act quickly; it would soon be dawn and the daily life of the promenade would be starting up. I peered over at the car. They’d left the doors open with the interior light on. I was pretty sure it was empty. Now I needed to hide my tracks. Leaving the bodies as they were—I’d completely forgotten my earlier concern for whoever would find them—I put the gun in my pocket, picked up my shoes, and re-traced my steps to the water-line, walking backwards and rubbing the footprints out as I went. When I reached the water-line, I followed it to the end of the beach and a clump of rocks, which I clambered up to get back to the road at the top. I put on my shoes and walked briskly homeward.
That walk was the most exciting of my life. My mind was buzzing and I could feel my skin tingling with the rush. What you’ll be thinking is that I should have felt remorse, but here’s the confession: I didn’t. Quite the contrary in fact. Those kids were yobs that would have knifed me or anyone else for a fiver, and there were plenty more where they came from.
I knew that after weeks of wandering through a black maze that would have been the death of me, I was out; I wouldn’t need to write a note to my cleaner any more. And I knew that I felt alive again, that I’d found a purpose.