I was asked if I’d ever known a child who’d died, and I thought about it, and I supposed I had. I’d been in class the day that Danny Wheeler had killed himself.
No one knew why he had done it. Eight year olds don’t leave suicide notes. And we didn’t worry about that much because, after all, we were only eight year olds too. He hadn’t seemed particularly sad. He had friends, and the bullies in the fifth form tended to leave him alone because of his height. He was a bit stupid, I think, he got most things wrong in class, and we used to jeer at him for that. But it wasn’t an unkind jeering, and Danny never seemed to mind. Indeed, he offered his wrong answers with a grin, as if they were little gifts of comedy for us all to enjoy, as if he took the jeers as applause.
I would have thought he’d simply killed himself out of boredom. It was maths class, after all, and with Miss Baldock, who looked like a toad, and had a voice that never strayed from the same flat dull note. Except, the death was clearly premeditated. It must have taken him weeks to collect all those straws.
We used to get given cartons of milk with our school dinners, and attached to the side in plastic would be thin white straws. I never liked milk, but I liked the straws, I used to like flicking them at people. Danny clearly liked the straws too.
He waited, I remember, until he was called upon in class. Miss Baldock asked him to solve a problem, I don’t know what, it might have been a times table, Miss Baldock was nuts for times tables. And Danny smiled, and didn’t say a word, and got out his straws. And we saw that he’d threaded them together, they were held fast by sellotape, so that they made one long enormous chain. There must have been fifty straws there, at least, he must have been working on them since the beginning of term. And he put one end of it into his mouth, and the other end into his ear. He took a deep breath. And then puffed down his giant straw as hard as he could.
He blew his brains out.
Now, I seem to remember that the entire side of his head exploded with the blast. And that his brains were sent flying right across the room, pink and quivering and alive, and that they splatted into the wall, and that they slowly slid down to the ground. But that seems unlikely. That might be childish exaggeration.
What I do remember, quite certainly, was the look of triumph on Danny’s face, as if he’d pulled off a brilliant magic trick, as if death was the cleverest gag in the whole wide world. And then he slumped forward on to his desk.
Even at eight years old we knew you couldn’t really kill yourself like that. It was impossible. But Danny Wheeler hadn’t been very bright. He might not have known it was impossible, and that’s how he’d managed to do it.
You might have expected there to have been a scandal about it, a death in the school, but no one seemed to care much. I told my parents how Danny Wheeler had blown his brains out in maths class over dinner but they weren’t very interested. No one even tried to confiscate our milk straws, even though they were lethally dangerous.
There were a few copycat suicide attempts. One girl made a big chain of straws, but when she blew down it during warm-up for gym nothing happened. Even I gave it a go, I was curious, but I only managed to collect half a dozen straws or so before I got bored with the idea and started collecting football stickers instead. And there were no suicide attempts of any other form – it wasn’t so much death that appealed to us, the death had to be straw-related or we weren’t interested. Anyway, no one else died. Maybe we just weren’t as committed to it as Danny Wheeler had been. Or maybe we just weren’t quite as ignorant.
I was called into the school to see the deputy headmistress. I thought that it may not be too serious, because it was only the deputy, after all. But I was annoyed I had to take time off work.
“If this is about Jeremy,” I said, as I entered the room, “then I’m sorry, but he’s going through a bad time right now.” Of course it was about Jeremy, I only have one kid, his name is Jeremy, who else was it going to be?
“Please sit down,” said Mrs Kelly, and so I did.
Mrs Kelly spent all her days surrounded by children, I suppose, and that’s why she talked to me like I was a child too. She looked at me sternly, like I was going to be given detention. I tried to look sternly back, faltered, failed.
“I appreciate Jeremy is going through a bad time,” she said. “But lots of children are going through a bad time. Polly McAdam’s parents have just got divorced, and you don’t see her acting up.”
“We’re not getting divorced,” I said.
“And Johnny Milne’s dog died last week, he’s as good as gold.”
“We’re not getting divorced. It’s a trial separation.”
“You have to understand, we feel sorry for Jeremy,” said Mrs Kelly. “But our responsibility is towards all the children in our care, even the ones whose parents are in healthy stable relationships.”
“What has Jeremy been doing?” I asked. And she showed me.
There were half a dozen pieces of paper, and on all of them were written the same thing. “You’re going to die.” Mrs Kelly told me that the children had found them in their school bags and the pockets of their coats, Jeremy must have put them there when no one was looking. “How do you know it’s Jeremy?” I said, and she told me they were in his handwriting, didn’t I know my own son’s handwriting? And the truth was, I didn’t, I didn’t know that children even had handwriting yet, I thought it was all just scrawl.
“It’s very disturbing,” said Mrs Kelly.
“But he hadn’t actually tried to hurt anyone?” I asked. “He’s not, I don’t know. Tried strangling, or hitting kids over the head with blunt, ah, objects?” Mrs Kelly looked scandalised at the very idea. “Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll have a word with Jeremy, of course. But it doesn’t sound that serious.”
“Some of the parents found the notes,” she said. “Some of the parents want Jeremy suspended.”
“It’s not even as if he’s threatening them!” I said. “Just telling them they’re going to die, and he has a point, they are, we’re all going to die at some point, aren’t we?” I could see I wasn’t helping matters. “Look,” I said. “You know kids. Kids just say stuff. Jeremy doesn’t even know what death is. Kids don’t know what death is.”
She glared at me, and said, “Have you ever known a child who has died? I have known far too many, I’m afraid to say.” And I thought, and I remembered Danny Wheeler and the straw incident, and I decided I’d keep that to myself.
“If he had said he was going to kill them,” Mrs Kelly told me, with the gravity of a judge, “then he’d be out of the school instantly. We take death threats very seriously here, some of our children are Muslims. As it is, I want Jeremy off school for a week, and I think we should monitor his progress very closely.”
“Yes,” I said. And, “Thank you.”
She nodded, seemed to soften. “I’m sorry about you and your wife,” she said. “I’m sorry for your loss,” as if Liz was dead, we weren’t merely getting divorced. “We’re not getting divorced,” I said, “we’re fine,” and Mrs Kelly nodded.
She had Jeremy brought in, and there he was, my little boy, and he looked so young and so innocent and as far away from death as could be.
I said to Jeremy in the car, “Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” And he didn’t say anything, and I realised I’d made a mistake, I’d given him an option, so I said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
I didn’t think he was going to reply to that either. And then he looked at me, calmly, directly – and I looked back at him too, I took my eyes off the road, I admit it, but I had to hear what he was going to say, that was important parenting. And he had my full attention. And he said, very deliberately, “Fuck. You.” From the mouth of a six year old.
I swerved the car. I stopped it at the side of the road. I wanted to hit him. And he looked so thrilled by that. And I said, “I want an ice cream. Do you want an ice cream? Let’s have an ice cream.” So I turned off the engine, and let go of the steering wheel, and I realised only then how tightly I’d been gripping it, my hand hurt. And we got out of the car, and went to the nearest grocery store, and I bought us ice cream.
When we got home, Jeremy went straight to his room without a word. I’d decided I was going to send him to his room anyway, I couldn’t tell whether I was frustrated or relieved he had done it without my say so. I phoned up Liz, but Liz didn’t answer, he did.
“I’d like to speak to my wife,” I said, and calling her ‘my wife’ seemed such a petty thing to do, but maybe I am petty.
Liz came to the phone. She sounded tired. “What is it?”
“It’s Jeremy. He’s in trouble at school. I don’t think it’s anything serious. I think it’s all a storm in a teacup, actually. Don’t worry about it.”
“All right,” she said.
“I don’t know what to do with him,” I said.
“You’re the one who said bringing him up was so easy,” she said, and I thought, had I say that, had I ever? “He wants to spend more time with you. It’s a good idea. You said it was a good idea.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
She said, and it sounded like something from one of those TV movies she watched every day I was out hard at work, really glib, you know – she said, “Try to be a good father.” And then she said, “Try to be a better father than you were a husband,” and that was pure afternoon soap.
“Take him back,” I said quietly. And I also thought, that would limit your time with him, he won’t be at the house so often if my son is there, Jeremy can do some good after all.
“Just stick with it,” she said. “We know you’ll do great.” And then Liz hung up.
And over the years, of course, I doubted whether anyone had ever really killed themselves at school. I doubted there’d been a Danny Wheeler in the first place. And I didn’t think of Danny Wheeler much. I’d sometimes remember – or remember that I had forgotten, because he was always at a remove, like a fairy story I’d heard as a kid, like a resurfaced dream – and then Danny Wheeler might be in my head for days, I’d tease at the edges of the memory, I’d wonder whether any part of it was real or whether I’d made up every last bit of it. And then there’d be some other distraction – something urgent at work, or plans for holidays or Christmas, or school reports for Jeremy, or Liz and I, arguing or growing cold or falling in love all over again – and then I’d forget all about Danny Wheeler once more, I’d push him out of my mind again altogether.
There were occasional letters asking me to school reunions, but I never bothered to reply. Except that one year. And that may be because the invitation just happened to coincide with Danny Wheeler popping back into my life for one of his periodic visits. Or because that was about the time things started to get sticky between Liz and me, and I just fancied an evening away from her. Who can say?
The school seemed so much smaller than when I’d last been there; my classmates all so much bigger. There was a notice board in the entrance hall, and photographs of us as children had been pinned there, alongside pictures of how we looked now – fatter, mostly, and sadder, and less comfortable in front of the camera, not one of those pictures had a smile I believed in. I half expected to find Danny there. There wasn’t; but that didn’t prove he was dead. On the contrary, it may just have meant he had a life.
There was orange squash and expensive bottles of German lager. We all tried sitting in the little infant chairs, and laughed at how large our bottoms had grown. I asked a few people whether they remembered Danny Wheeler. And some said they didn’t, and some said they did, but I think they were lying. “Oh yes, Danny,” they’d say. “So, what’s he up to these days?”
I tried to find the very classroom in which the suicide had taken place, but they all looked the same.
I didn’t stay long. I bought a second bottle of lager, but didn’t finish it.
I stepped out into the cold. I heard my name called.
There was a woman by the main entrance. “Do you remember me?” she asked, and I said I did. She was smoking, and as she spoke she blew out clouds of the stuff, and I couldn’t tell where the cigarette smoke ended and steam of condensation began – and I remembered that that was another thing I had liked to do with those white plastic straws, I would pretend they were cigarettes and I would stand out in the cold and put them between my lips and suck deep and puff out clouds of steam.
She had a hard middle-aged face, she’d never been a schoolchild, surely, she was a teacher through and through. “We were in the same class,” she said. “A bit weird, all this, isn’t it? Makes you feel old.”
“Oh, I bet you’re not old,” I said, and that was silly, she was precisely as old as I was.
“Did you see your friends?” she asked. “Most of mine didn’t show up.”
And I said mine hadn’t showed up either; my friends were the sort of people who wouldn’t have come to school reunions; my friends were all working abroad, maybe, or too rich, or dead. “Did you know Danny Wheeler?” I asked, and she frowned, and she shook her head, and she laughed – “It was such a long time ago!” she said.
“He was quite tall,” I said. “Or, I don’t know, probably quite short, really, he was eight.” She laughed again, I don’t know why. “And I think he may have killed himself.”
And at that her mouth opened into a wide ‘o’. And the years fell off her, and she looked so young suddenly, and I don’t know, I thought maybe I did recognise her after all.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I always thought. God.”
“I thought I’d imagined that. What happened, didn’t he? Didn’t he hit his head, or…?”
“He blew his brains out in maths class.”
And she whispered, “With a straw.” And she looked so happy, she positively beamed. “With a straw, how could that be? I mean, that has to be impossible, right?”
“I thought I was stupid! All this time. All these years. But I wasn’t stupid at all.”
We went to my car. We began to kiss. Her teeth knocked against my teeth.
We remembered the teacher’s weary disapproval of the mess Danny Wheeler had left against the wall. (Miss Balding, she said; I’m still sure it was Baldock.) We remembered the squelching sound the brain had made as it slurped its way down to the floor. We remembered the way that Danny Wheeler hadn’t been mentioned again by anyone. We remembered Danny Wheeler, and we celebrated him, I think, in a way; we had sex on the back seat, and she was a noisy lover, and I was obliged to shout out louder than I’d normally have done so as not to feel left out.
“I’m married,” she gasped. “He’s a good man.” And I thought how formal that sounded.
“I’m married too,” I explained. “But it won’t last, we’re bound to get a divorce sooner or later.”
“He’s a good man,” she repeated. And after we’d finished we kissed a few minutes longer, and we talked about Danny Wheeler and straws for a bit, but we’d pretty much said all that there was to say. Then I thanked her, and she thanked me, and I let her out of the car, and I drove home.
For dinner I made Jeremy his favourite. I know I shouldn’t be seen to reward him, but it was my favourite too, why should I have to suffer? Jeremy took one bite, then pushed the plate away. “Mummy does it better,” he said. “Fine,” I said, “all the more for me,” and I spooned his portion on to my plate, and made a great show of enthusiasm as I ate it, “ Mmm!” But he may have had a point, actually. Maybe I used too much salt.
After, I turned on the television. Jeremy didn’t want to watch television, so he went upstairs. I watched one programme, and then I watched another. As a third was starting I decided I really ought to have a word with Jeremy about his behaviour and say some fatherly things. I went up to him. He wasn’t in his room.
“I’m in the toilet,” he said, when I called for him.
“When you’re done in the toilet, come down and see me, please.”
“I’m not going to leave the toilet, ever,” he said.
I laughed. “You can’t want to live in a toilet.”
And he said, “I’m going to die in the toilet,” and I went cold.
I phoned Liz. I got the answering machine. “Mark and Liz can’t come to the phone right now,” it said. Liz sounded inappropriately cheerful. I hadn’t heard the message before.
“Your son is dying,” I said. “I thought you’d want to know.”
I hung up. Then called back.
“And it wouldn’t have happened,” I said, after another beep, “if you’d been here. If you’d just had a little faith. You selfish bitch. I hope you’re happy.”
I hung up. Called back once more. Waited for the beep.
“ I wouldn’t have you back now if you begged.”
And I called the emergency services. Very possibly, I thought, I should have called them first. The woman on the end seemed respectful and calm, and I liked that, I rather wish Liz could have ever been like that, I wished I’d met and married this woman instead. She asked me which department I wanted, and I wasn’t sure, could she remind me which ones were on offer? – and then I thought a bit, and said I wouldn’t be needing the fire brigade or the coastguard. And I thought a bit more, and I don’t know, she sounded so efficient, it made me feel good, and I rather think the messages I’d left Liz had done me the world of good too. So I apologised, said the crisis was over, there’d been a mistake, and I put the phone down.
I went upstairs. I knocked on the toilet door.
“Jeremy?” I said. “You still in there? You still alive?”
There was silence for a while, and I briefly wondered whether he might really be dead – and if so, what I would do – and if so, whether this would be easier or harder for me in the long run. Then, grumpily, I heard, “Yes.”
“I was just wondering how you were going to do it. The killing yourself thing.”
“Why do you care?”
And he didn’t respond to that. So I said, “Because I have a few suggestions.”
He didn’t ask what suggestions. I could just have offered him my suggestions then and there, but sod it, I wasn’t going to offer him anything if he wasn’t listening, I’d spent years giving my son things that he didn’t seem to want or need, and I didn’t know what I should be doing, I’m not sure I’d ever got it right, I certainly wasn’t going to waste any more of my effort if that effort wasn’t going to be appreciated. “Do you want to hear my suggestions?” I said, at last. And he made a noise that might have been a yes.
“Well,” I said. “These are razorblades on the top shelf of the cabinet. You’ll have to stand on the toilet seat to reach them, but I’m sure you can manage. You could cut your wrists with razorblades, if you like, if you don’t mind the blood, there’ll be a lot of blood, if you cut down really deep enough.”
Not a word. He was considering this option.
“Or, whilst you’re in the cabinet, go for the pills. There are lots of pills in there, I don’t know what there are, a lot of them are your mother’s. I don’t know which ones will kill you, or which ones will make you more or less fertile, or which ones will just give you a stomach ache, but you could experiment, there’s nothing to stop you.”
Hmm. Still that thoughtful silence. I imagined him behind the door, weighing up the pros and cons.
“Or you could drown yourself, even. Why not? Lots of water in there, must be possible to drown yourself. You could stick your head in the toilet bowl and just keep reaching up to pull the chain. I’m sure the flush would polish you off eventually.”
“I mean to say,” I said. “Your choice.”
“It’s all the same to me,” I said.
Nothing. Or was that the faintest sound of a sob?
“Really boring ways to die, though, frankly,” I said. “If it were up to me, I’d want to go out with a bit more panache. In my day, the kids were much more inventive. There was a boy at my school, Danny Wheeler was his name. He killed himself with nothing more than a few straws. That was brilliant. There was genius in that, I think.”
Nothing. Then, very quietly, Jeremy said, “How did he manage to do that?”
“You open the door, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
In the fridge there were three little cartons of orange juice, we had the straws off those for a start. And then we had a look in the cupboards, and we found a couple of bendy straws that must have been left over from one of his birthday parties. “Is that enough?” said Jeremy, and I said, “I think that’s more than enough!”
I let Jeremy do the sellotape all by himself. He was very careful, he looked so serious as he performed the operation. But he couldn’t help but laugh in spite of himself when he kept getting the sticky end on his fingers, he had to keep shaking his hands about wildly to free them.
And he looked at his new giant straw a bit doubtfully, and I told him it was good, it was Danny Wheeler good, it was as least as good as Danny Wheeler’s and a damn sight more colourful too. “Try blowing down the end, see if the air passage is clear,” and he did, and it was.
“Let me go first,” Jeremy said.
I put one end of the straw in my son’s ear.
“You’re sure this won’t hurt?” And he sounded like such a little boy for a moment.
“It’s not going to do anything,” I said. “I think you have to really believe that it’ll kill you, and we don’t believe that, do we?” He shook his head firmly, and closed his eyes. He was shivering. “We don’t have to do this,” I said, but he shook his head at that too, and he was shivering, but he was giggling as well. “Do it, Daddy!”
I was going to give only the smallest of puffs. But I thought that would dishonour Jeremy after all the work he’d put in. And I thought it’d dishonour Danny too. “Here I come!” I said, and put the other end in my mouth, and I blew.
Jeremy squealed with laughter. “It tickles!”
“You want me to do it again?”
“Yes! No. No. Let me do it to you.”
He got up from his chair, came to my side. Even sitting down I was too big for him to reach, I had to lower my head right down to the table. It wasn’t very comfortable. He put the straw in my ear. He put it in deep.
I knew Liz would get the phone message sooner or later. And there’d be hell to pay when she rushed over here, and found out it had been a false alarm, and realised that neither of us were dying. I could imagine the disappointment on her face. But that didn’t matter for the while. I was playing with my son. I was playing Russian roulette with my son.
“I love you,” I said to my son, to my son, and I did, I loved him. And I hoped I would survive this round, because it would be so much better to be alive now I knew that and now I had worked out how to be a father. “I love you,” I said, but my son couldn’t answer, his mouth was full. And he was shivering again, I don’t know why. And he took the deepest of breaths, and screwed up his eyes tight, as if he were using every ounce of his concentration, as if he were trying to believe.