||.Robert McLiam Wilson
||I was just about to kill myself when the phone rang.
I answered with no real sensation of the inappropriate.
"Yes." I replied uncertainly. Acknowledgement of my name was always understandably conditional.
"Is this a bad time?" my caller asked.
"Not at all."
What would you have said?
It was Eve on the telephone. It was almost always Eve on the telephone.
"How are you?" she asked.
"Fine." I lied.
She drew a breath.
"I donít believe you. You havenít called me for two days. That always means thereís something going on." She paused.
I looked around for my cigarettes. They were hiding, the skinny little shits.
"What is it today?" she asked.
Despite myself, I suddenly assumed a pundits voice, impassioned, expert, like some kind of well-read weathergirl.
"Claustrophobiaís quite strong. Yesterdayís paper problem seems to have faded somewhat. Pigeons are back. Electricity has disappeared completely." I stopped.
"Itís water." I said reluctantly. "Again."
Eve was an old friend, a good friend. I think I loved Eve. I think Iíd always loved Eve. But Eve had a problem. She knew all about all my problems.
"Water?" she repeated.
Iím phobic. Deeply, multiply phobic. I am claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. I canít go out or stay in. Naturally, Iím terrified of heights, spiders and flying. But I sometimes fear cheese, televisions or bicycles. I have a basic group of permanent and reliable phobias but I lighten their monotony with a series of sporadic visitors (paper, flowers, Egyptians etc.). They hang around for a week or so and then leave, seamlessly replaced by another temporary terror.
They usually come back after a couple of years or so like nostalgic or psychotic ex-lovers.
Occasionally, there are one-offs, brand-new arrivals. After more than thirty three years of being me, these blow-ins have not lost their capacity to surprise me. I never laugh - It is never funny - but the week when I suffered a (literally) crippling dread of my own feet was quite spectacular. I spent a week being lifted on and off the toilet with my feet encased in a wooden fruitbox stuffed with perfumed handkerchiefs. Eve had gaggingly done the lifting. Whatís the point in having doctor-friends if you donít get them working for you?
Now sheíd called me, interrupting my suicide, to hear that water was currently making me wet my pants. This had happened a couple of years ago. I had developed a bad water phobia. I hadnít drunk anything for nearly three days before Eve found me. Fortunately, she was a dab hand at rehydration. A couple of years spent lubricating the dried-out excessives of the e-generation every Saturday night meant that she was an old, old hand. I was in hospital for a fortnight. Eveís hospital naturally. She took two holidays in succession that year. I think I loved Eve. I think Iíd always loved Eve.
"Is it bad?" she asked.
"Isnít always?" I replied.
"Do you need me?"
"No." I replied, as always.
"Iíll be round in five minutes." Eve responded as usual.
So I put my aspirin pile in a tidy drawer and waited for Eve. She wasnít going to let me die of thirst. I decided I would be patient while she saved my life. Then, I could really get down to killing myself.
Why, Iím sure, I hope, youíre asking, why was I going to kill myself? Itís hard to say why I was going to commit suicide. I was mildly depressed, itís true but then I was almost always mildly depressed. Sometimes I quite enjoyed being mildly depressed and Iíd certainly got used to it over the last thirty years or so. There had been no new despair that had brought me to self destruction. I wasnít particularly ill, amazingly unsuccessful or hugely balding.
It could have been because I had run out of dreams. It wasnít that life had lost its savour - it was merely that my fantasies had run aground. I seemed to have nothing left that I wanted to be.
But I think in the end that I was killing myself because my book was going so badly.
My doorbell rang. Even before I opened the door, I could see Eve through the stained glass, shoulders hunched, desperately lighting a cigarette. I opened the door.
Lit, her cigarette flared spectacularly at her first deep inhalation. Even in the darkness, I could see her eyes go slightly glassy. She coughed rackingly.
"Iíve been trying not to smoke in the car." She offered as explanation for her desperation.
"Itís only about five minutes from your place to here."
She blew out her second lungful in rasping emphasis. She looked like someone who had just come through both the first and second world wars.
"Donít I know it?"
She looked at me as though expecting some praise for her fortitude, her great self-control.
"You look well." said Eve.
A supermarket plastic bag dangled from her non-smoking hand. This was very surprising. Eve didnít really eat never mind shop. Supermarkets were a superstition to her. She didnít believe that there was conclusive proof of their existence. Her eyes followed my gaze.
She smiled at me without explanation. Eveís smile was a devastating Lucifer of a smile. A true light-bringer. I had seen men abandon wives and children when they saw that smile, Iíd seen them have heart attacks, change religion. I felt the full force of its heady aura and felt grateful to her. I still wanted to kill myself though.
"Come in, smiler." I said.
Inside, Eve looked around anxiously for evidence as to my general state of mind. I glanced at the kitchen table. The nearly empty aspirin bottle looked entirely innocuous. Anyway, Eve always did this when she came to my house. There were sometimes little things that I didnít tell her and she would enter my home to find that fear would have prompted me to remove all the furniture, lampshades or windows. But the flat obviously seemed normal to her. Neurotic but customary.
Eve and I flicked eyes at each other. Encouraged, Eve slipped into the kitchen with her bag of soups, tinned, dried and cartoned.
She started banging around inexpertly in my kitchen. I followed her to make sure she didnít break anything
"Howís the book going?" she asked.
"How far have you got?"
"Iím still on page four."
"It will happen." she said.
"It had better."
"You sounded low tonight when I called."
I thought of my drawerful of pills longingly.
"Not really. You know, the usual."
She smiled nervously. Her nervous smile wasnít as glittering as the greeting version.
"How are you?" I asked very belatedly. Us crazy guys are very selfish that way.
"Sober but wired."
Her back turned towards me, Eve poured something into a saucepan.
"Whatís with the not smoking in your car?"
"That was Rachelís suggestion."
Rachel was Eveís sister. Iíll tell you more about Rachel later.
"Jesus, you mean you acted upon one of Rachelís suggestions?"
"It wasnít her only suggestion."
"You know youíll just walk everywhere now."
"Yeah but either way itís healthier."
"You know, Eve, you are the only woman I know these days who will smoke when sheís walking."
"Judas, I am the only woman you know of any kind."
She tugged my face towards her and kissed me lightly on the forehead. I looked at the clumsy clutch of kitchen utensils in her hand.
"Eve, do you mind if I ask you what youíre doing in here?"
She went back to the stove and answered without looking at me.
"I put some soup on the stove. I hope you donít mind, Judas. Iím starving. I didnít get any dinner tonight."
It should have been a tense little moment. Her assumption of nonchalance was poor. The stratagem was blindingly obvious. I looked at her carefully. But Eve was so blush-free, it was beautiful.
"Would you like some?" Eve asked as she filled two bowls.
My voice was disobediently thick when I replied.
"That would be nice, thanks."
The trick was to force me to take something sufficiently fluid but in which the water constituent was sufficiently disguised. Coffee was the obvious choice if it hadnít been for my three-week coffee phobia in the spring of 1995. Tomatoes faced a similar problem and fruit was always difficult.
So, I had some soup, joined by the almost-gagging Eve. She had obviously already dined, and fairly copiously by her standards. She could see that I was getting a good silent laugh out of her discomfort which was obviously an encouraging sign to her. We chatted it out imprecisely while we dealt with the soup in our differing ways. Eve complained some more about her sister.
It was a long story. We can discuss it later.
Eve raged profitably for some time. I knew that she guessed this would keep me diverted. There was a hollow ring to her indignation, a clownishness in the exasperation. But she was right. I could actually feel the pre-suicidal lines in my face soften perceptibly as she fumed.
After a while I stopped hearing her words and just listened to the buzz of her voice, to the strange sounds that friendship makes.
When Eve left I started killing myself again.
Incidentally, I am still alive. Iím sure thatís struck you. I didnít commit suicide. Iím not dead. Who do you think is writing this?
Twelve pills in, I realised that this was going to go on all night. I had two hundred of these fucking things.
I hated being a writer. I mean, Jesus, what a reason to kill yourself! Sure, the new book wasnít going well. None of my books had gone well. Sure, the new book was shit. All of my books were shit. Usually, I could deal with this using the brilliant ploy of not caring. People sometimes think that writers wander the streets thinking about being writers. I didnít. I thought about sex, money and football like everybody else.
People were always delicate around me if I got bad reviews or poor sales. I could never make them understand how little I cared. I was too busy thinking about house prices or local television weather-girls. This had stood me in good stead.
I had not become a novelist because it filled a profound need in my small soul. I had no great vision I felt compelled to share. I didnít even have a mission to entertain or delight. I was no Tolstoy (fucker!). I was no James Joyce (Mick prick!). I had become a writer so I could get up late and watch television all day.
But this book had finished me off. The Inflatable Citizen it was called. Every time I started writing it, I felt like the police were going to come round and arrest me for being crap. I had written thirteen different opening chapters. Each one had been thrown away, deported or just taken out and gassed. Lately, when I read the dreary pages Iíd just written, I could feel my internal organs withering in shame.
It was a book I felt Iíd never write. The idea was facile, the characters were clunkingly wooden, the dialogue laughable, the language autistically ineloquent. Morally lazy, emotionally underdeveloped, intellectually bankrupt, this was going to be a very bad book.
None of this would have mattered if I could have finished the fucking thing. I wouldnít have cared if Iíd published a novel so bad that people broke my windows, that people attacked me in the street. It would have been finished. That would have been a great deal. That would have been everything. But that was the depressing thing about this book. It was deeply awful and I still couldnít write it. These days I couldnít even muster the skill and energy to write badly. Even failure was beyond me. I really hated being a writer.
But, at least, itís better than having a real job, I thought as I picked up my twenty third aspirin. No reason not to kill myself though. I chewed the pill down like a stick of dangerous gum.
The phone rang on pill twenty eight. How annoying, I thought. How fictional. This was getting ridiculous. I looked uncertainly at pill twenty nine. The phone continued ringing, or rather trilling and burbling in that twenty-first century way it had.
I picked it up.
"You sound a little groggy," she said, "Were you asleep."
"No. I was taking an overdose of painkillers."
She laughed and then sniffed dramatically.
"That was good Tolstoy I found in the bathroom after you left." I said, spitefully.
"It wasnít Tolstoy. It was Dostoevsky."
"These days Iím too old to tell the difference."
"Thereís no Tolstoy in town at the minute and Dostoevsky is dirt cheap right now."
These were our private (and very annoying) telephonic euphemisms for Eveís drugs. Tolstoy was coke. Dostoevsky, speed. Gogol was dope and Pushkin was heroin (Like most people, in so many ways, Eve was staying off the Turgenev). She had once told me that she had taken some great Lermontov. I forgot to enquire the next time I saw her and was too embarrassed or scared to ask after that.
"Fair enough." I said.
"Iíve cut down."
"So you say."
"Thereís something in the paper today about you. Have you seen it?"
"You still get the same one as I do?"
"How long since you actually read it?"
"Four and a half years."
"But you still have it delivered everyday."
"I have to go out and buy it on Sundays."
"But you never read it."
She paused mirthlessly.
"Weíve talked about this, havenít we?"
"Eve, sweetheart, youíre a fucking junkie. Donít go giving me any advice."
"Well, take a look."
"Itís in the bin."
"Get it out. Thereís a picture youíll like. I insist that you see it. Thatís why I called you. I really insist."
"And hey, Judas."
"Then you can finish killing yourself."
There was no debate. I was going to do what she wanted. I was aware of the fact that I was about to die, that my whole life (so entirely the only one Iíd ever had) was about to end. It seemed to absurd to rob the moment of any lingering drama by hoking around in a bin for a newspaper Iíd never read. And I wasnít doing it in order to postpone the inevitable. The inevitable had already arrived. The inevitable had taken off its jacket and was rolling up its sleeves. I popped another pill on the way to the bin just to prove that I wasnít stalling. They were beginning to make me sick.
The bin didnít help my growing nausea. Well, it did as a matter of fact. It helped enormously, it assisted, it lent a hand. Gagging, I struggled through the banana skins and apple cores (ironically Iíd turned a fresh fruit new-leaf for a couple of months before I decided to kill myself). I struggled through the congealed sauce, the flaccid pasta and the small smattering of cigarette ends.
I found the soggy newspaper in a nest of wet junk-mail and rejected opening pages. I pulled the paper out quickly, suddenly convulsed by the desire to vomit. I closed my eyes, bent over the trash. The vomit-reflex passed. I opened my eyes and saw the failed opening pages, beached and guilty at the bottom of the bin. I almost wished Iíd puked.
Back at the kitchen table I leafed (or slopped) gingerly through the newspaper. I couldnít see anything about me. I wasnít very famous and I hadnít published a book for nearly four years so it was no surprise. I wasnít in any of the pictures. I popped another pill. It was getting very late and very irritating. I didnít want to be still alive when dawn broke. Nocturnal suicide was my deeply preferred option. I was so shallow that daybreak always cheered me up completely. I wasnít sure I would go through with it if the sun shone.
Nonetheless, I started again at the beginning of the paper. The pictures looked blankly back at me as I gulped and chuffed my way through more pain-killers (And how much pain they werenít killing those, pain-killers, those liars). I ignored the advertisements and concentrated on the editorial pictures. A politician grinned toothily at a bank of hacks. An American navy jet hovered mere yards above the deck of a Carrier. A sunglassed rock star walked hurriedly from a court. A murdered schoolgirl looked like a murdered schoolgirl in a school photograph. A wooden box filled with fish. A pretty girl on a train. A Russian President. A group of Chinese soldiers. An actress pouted dreamily. A dog barked. A desk. A street.
None of this had anything to do with me and my nausea was becoming increasingly pressing. I took another pill. Iíd lost count but it must have been close to forty by now. I hadnít long to live.
I was desperate to lose consciousness and get on with the dying business but the mystery of the photograph I was supposed to like was driving me nuts. I emptied the remnants of the first bottle of pills into my mouth and crunched. My eye fell on the newspaper which was so wet it was sticking to the wood of the table, the grain beginning to show through on the obituaries page. A rock star on a drugs charge and a girl on a train reading a book.
I looked again. I laughed boisterously, sending pill-splinters and a quantity of masticated aspirin mulch shooting onto the table just beside the paper. I went to the sink and spat out the remainder of my mouthís contents. Very good, I thought. I rinsed my mouth under the tap. Very good indeed.
I looked again at the picture. The girl on the train was illustrating a story about the poor performance of privatised rail services. It was a poor choice of picture. The girl looked very comfortable and happy there, reading her book. She was much too pretty for the negative slant of the story. The picture of the beautiful girl reading her book on the sunlit train was too cheering, too up. And she really was much too pretty.
But what had made me laugh, what had me spit my pills all over the place was the fact that the beautiful girl on the sunlit train was reading one of my books.
Beat the shit out of that.
It was the last one Iíd published. The most successful one, the most accessible, the one that a few people had seemed to like (the fools). I hadnít liked it but then I hadnít read it.
I laughed again.
Eve was right. It had cheered me up. A depressingly predictable wave of tickled vanity surged through me. I could even feel an extra, exhilarated warmth in my arms and legs. I was so transparent, so lightweight. I looked at the girls face. She was reading my book. I felt myself approving of her obvious intelligence, sensitivity and insight (I do the same thing with fucking countries!). And she was more than pretty. She was beautiful.
At that moment, I tasted vomit at the back of my throat and felt the contents of my stomach jolt in panic. The chemical consequence of my overdose was simultaneous with my sudden change of heart. I didnít want to die. I didnít ever want to die.
I ran to the bathroom, gagging hysterically. Stuff started coming up well before I made it to the toilet bowl. I rode the first torrents like a bilious cowboy, watching appalled as the pills came up almost whole. The first wave passed and I panted like a beaten dog. My gut lurched abruptly and I was off again. This time the stuff came up more glutinous - the aspirin, dissolved and corroding.
By the time this group of convulsions passed, I was lying on the bathroom floor, merrily spewing where I lay.
Listen, Iím sorry about this. Thereís always been too much vomiting in my books. I donít know quite why. But what could I do? What can I say? You try dropping fifty aspirin and sounding like fucking Wittgenstein.
A couple of minutes passed peacefully enough. The tinny hum of bathroom silence interrupted only by my broken breathing and the almost audible insurrections in my guts.
I must have swallowed forty or fifty of the fucking things. It didnít matter what impressive volume it seemed I had expelled. There was bound to be enough to kill me still lurking down there. Gripped with terror I stuck my hands down my throat and had another go (Relax, itís ok, like I told you, like you guessed, Iím still here, Iím still alive).
A couple of minutes later there was nothing left.
Lying there, staked out in the bathroom brightness, head nestling on that sloppy pillow, I felt pretty penitent. All twitching gut and throbbing head, I have to admit I really felt like taking an aspirin.
So I dipped my hand, found the two least corroded pills swimming in the vomit there and took a couple of aspirin.