Two Stories about Death


March 1988. Walking absent-mindedly up the ten or so steps to the engineering department, I meet R's brother and his brother's girlfriend. I'm happy, and welcome them as a happy person might. Hi, I say, How are you doing? Then - a shadow of confusion - what are you doing here? R's brother tells me it's not so good, he has bad news for R. His mother has died the previous night. A severe asthma attack.

I absorb what's been said, I know I should say I'm sorry, but it sounds wrong when I need to say the right thing. I say it anyway. R's brother asks me if I know where R is. I say yes of course, it's this way. I lead, pushing open the glass entrance doors. R's brother and his girlfriend follow. R is on the third floor, in his lab, soldering a circuit board for his final-year project. Happy, like me. We walk up the stairs.

In the time it takes us to walk three flights of stairs I realise that I know that R's mother is dead, whereas he doesn't. For a few moments I hold a position of privilege, knowing an important fact about someone's life that they themselves don't know.

We reach the third floor and walk in silence to R's lab. He is bent over the waist-high work area, concentrating on the electronics in front of him. He looks up as we approach. I tell him, self-evidently, that his brother is here. S, he says, surprised, how are you doing? Not so well, his brother replies, Mum died last night.

The information stops him, his usual air of playfulness checked. There is a moment of disbelief - maybe this is some sort of joke? - then unshakeable realisation. Mum is dead. He takes off his glasses - the same glasses he offered the barman at the end of the previous evening when he shouted 'lets have your glasses'. He rubs his eyes. He looks at his brother, his eyes reddening and glossed. His brother begins to find details: places, times, people, events.

I feel out of place in the intimacy. I've become useless now that my duty has been fulfilled. I say that I'm leaving, and then leave. Just as I go R and his brother embrace, sharing their sorrow and absence of a mother. I walk away to my own lab. Thoughtful; touched by a shadow of sadness, but still, basically, happy.



June 1988, three months later. I pick up the phone, dial M's number and stand facing the wall as it rings. Yesterday I got back from a hitch-hiking trip to Scotland. It was a good trip and, with my finals over and a job to start in September, I am happy. The phone is still ringing. M has become a friend of mine over our three university years. We play tennis together in the summer, squash in the winter, and he shows me his guitar technique as I try to learn. Today I'm keen to play tennis.

A girl answers. I ask to speak to M. After a pause she tells me he's not here at the moment. There is another brief pause: is that Pete? she asks. I say yes and ask if she knows when he will be back. She says no and then changes tack. How's it going now the exams are over? Fine, I reply, I've just got back from Scotland, I had a good time. Where is it you live again, she asks. On campus, I say, East slope. Oh right, she says, must be quiet there now? Yes a bit, I say. There's another pause. Anyway, I'd better go, I say. The girl says goodbye.

There's something strange about the conversation but I don't know what. There has been no promise to give him a message or for M to call back. Maybe he'll just come around, like he usually does, to see how I'm getting on. I walk away, thinking about what I can do instead.

At lunch time I decide to walk to the student union cafe for something to eat. It's turned into a nice day, it would have been good for tennis. As I walk through the car-park I stumble into R, M's flat-mate.

R, I say, surprised. What are you doing here? Don't see you round here much? How's it going? Ok, he says, actually I've come to see you. Really, I say, doubly surprised. Although we've played squash in the same team for the past year I've always been a little suspicious of R. Not quite friends. I've got some bad news, he says. He looks serious now, I notice his face is taut and grey. Something is coming. 'M's died'.

You're joking, is my reaction. A casual figure of speech to help temporarily cushion the words I've just heard. He goes on, shading in the detail. Four days ago. M went off for a run, I went to the shops. When I came back I found him collapsed on the toilet. He was blue. I absorb each bit of information without really comprehending. M, 23, is dead. I've come back from Scotland to a different world.

R suggests we sit down so we walk slowly to the student union cafe. R explains the phone call. We didn't know where you live so we had to wait for you to phone, I wanted to tell you face to face. I sit in a puzzled state of interest as R talks about what will happen. The funeral in a weeks time, how M's parents want his friends to have his possessions (I end up with two LPs: Purple Rain and Born in the USA). I want to cry, but I'm nowhere near crying.

After an hour or so we part. I am left with the blue sky and an empty afternoon.


May 2004