This is going to be an account of something that happened to me about three months ago. It is a quite a departure from my usually light-hearted approach to writing, but perhaps you might find some meaning in the proceeding words. I’m going to start from the start, explain what happened, and then jump straight into the aftermath, followed by a few reflections at the end.
The Night in Question
Just another Friday evening working behind the bar. London is getting warmer out and the people are starting to dress for summer. You can feel the heat during the day but the crisp bite of Spring still lingers when the sun goes down. Only the front bar is open tonight. The back bar and seating area are closed off. While I’m relieved to see that it’s not too busy, most of the tables do have people sitting at them. Maybe twenty customers in total.
I’m standing behind the bar, drying glasses. Luke, one of our chefs, is telling me a hilarious story about something that happened to him last night. It involves an ex girlfriend, a smarmy suitor, a gang of scumbags, a convoy of Russian gangsters, and wouldn’t you know it, some high calibre weapons. I am close to wetting myself as he goes into the details. All I can see is the end of that Enrique Iglesias video.
My Monday night certainly wasn’t as eventful as Luke’s. My Tuesday night, however, will turn out to come very close.
Luke has headed back to the kitchen. I’m still chuckling to myself at his story, occasionally chatting with one of the girls, Emma, who works behind the bar. At that exact moment, Dave, our GM, bursts through the double doors from the back area, looking as white as a ghost. There is shock written all across his face. I don’t think I’ve been in a situation where I’ve seen someone look like that. I’m sure I’ve looked like that myself at least once or twice, but have never been on this end of it.
“Rob!” Dave exclaims, with a kind of guttural pleading in his voice, but softly enough so no customers can hear. “Someone’s just hung himself in the disabled toilets. We can’t let anyone see. Make sure no one goes in there.”
I stand there, looking at him stupidly for a moment. My mind is still on gangsters and guns. My brain divides itself in two. One side is laughing. The other knows and can tell that Dave is being serious. The rational side begins to take hold of the whole, and reality sets in. I feel my palms go sweaty and blood rush to my face. “What.. the fuck…” is about all I can get out.
Dave has already rushed past the customers and headed outside. I see now that he has been talking to someone on the phone. It turns out to be the emergency services telling him what to do.
I’m still standing behind the bar, frozen, and in shock. I look over at Emma. Neither of us know exactly what to do or say. Tonight is certainly going to be one for the books.
Like a bad dream, I float around from behind the bar. I have no idea what is going on. No one prepares you for this. This is as close to Chaos as I have ever experienced. A feeling of absolute uselessness descends on me. How in God’s name did I get here?
In spite of my own deep reluctance, I walk through the double doors and into the back bar area. It’s completely empty except for the kitchen staff, who are beginning to warily pad around from behind the kitchen station. Dave must have already said something to them. They’re wearing the news on their faces like sullen, grey Halloween masks.
I walk towards the disabled toilets at the back of this wide and empty space. My heart is pounding in my chest, and my temples threaten to explode. I slowly walk up to the door. I don’t want to look. I know I shouldn’t look. In some dark recess of my mind a voice is screaming for me not to look. And then, all by itself, my hand starts to reach for the door. I open the Arc and out pour the ghosts.
There he is. Just as Dave said. Like a scene from a Dario Argento horror film. A man. Middle aged. Hanging by his neck. Bloated, yellow skin and contorted features, standing out against the bright white tiles. Bulging, vacant eyes, staring up at nothing. Blood caked all down his head and sprayed across the grey floor. Completely naked except for his boxers. His suit, bunched together on the floor. His shirt, acting as noose. Dead.
A feeling of utter disbelief descends on me. And with it, a deep, churning sickness that engulfs my stomach and solar plexus. In spite of this awful sensation, I remember that I’m not here to look. I’m here so that other people don’t have to. I shut the door.
After what could have been thirty seconds or ten minutes, Dave rushes back in at the far end of the room, and this time, raises his voice (as there are no customers back here), and pleadingly reiterates “We have to cut him down, Rob, they’re telling me to cut him down.” I see the strained expression on his face, and I’m beginning to feel like this is going to get a lot worse.
In the next few minutes, Dave and I stand together at the open door looking in. Dave is holding a knife in one hand and a stool in the other. “We have to cut him down” Dave exclaims once again. “I’ll cut and you two hold” he pleads, referring to Luke and myself.
“We have to cut him down. We have to cut him down. We have to cut him down.” Again and again and again. Dave is in shock. We both are. But Dave is the one who found him. I, at least, had a moment to brace myself. The kitchen staff are still standing by, but keeping their distance. Besides Luke, they haven’t yet seen what we have. Maybe for the best.
Through all the horror, I say something that I will probably always feel guilty about. I’m not sure why exactly. It needed to be said. We’re not trained for this. But on some level, it proves that I’m not the person I thought I was. With all the finality of a rusty coffin nail, I say “Dave… he’s dead.”
I glance over at Luke, and with my eyes, hope to convey the message; “there is no fucking way me, you and Dave are going to cut this poor bastard down, with a fucking knife, and a stool. I’m pretty sure this is one of the worst moments of my life. I don’t want to make it worse still with the memory of a bloody, naked, corpse falling across my fucking shoulders.” I’m not sure how much Luke actually gets, but I believe the spirit of the message is received.
I still feel like someone is attempting to rip my guts out through my nose with a rake, but with stone cold assuredness, I reiterate, “Dave, he’s dead.” And while every ounce of Dave wants to walk through the threshold and cut him down, something deep inside is stopping him. And then, just like that, he finally understands what I’ve said, puts the knife to the side, and holds his hands to his head. Me and Luke look over at each other. There is a momentary sense of relief.
We close the door. Dave has been told over the phone that the paramedics are on their way. For good measure, I put the knife back in the kitchen. I make my way to the front bar and march straight up to the expensive Irish whiskey and pour myself a very large one. And with trembling hands, I down it. Emma doesn’t ask me anything and just does her job. The whiskey burns the back of my throat.
The paramedics arrive in what feels like seconds. I walk around and tell the customers that something has happened and we have to close. My face says more than my fumbling words can. I am pleased that everyone understands and makes their way for the exit.
Over the next few hours, more than a dozen paramedics and police do whatever it is they do in these situations. The hanging man is cut down from his noose, and placed on the floor outside the disabled stalls. The paramedics run through a host of procedures in an attempt to revive him. I presume they have some kind of check list, but in the end they reach the same conclusion I did. We are told he had been dead for an hour when Dave found him.
I don’t ask, but at some point I’m told that the reason there was blood all over the floor was because the man failed on his first attempt after his noose broke, and cracked his head open on one of the protruding corners. He then got up a second time and finished the job. I am brought to tears by the fact that this man, this man who I have begun to hate in many ways, had a truly horrific final few moments.
The police ask us questions and we fill out police reports. The bar becomes a crime scene. One of the police constables asks to speak with Dave, alone. Not without a little dark humour, but I am relieved that I put the knife back in the kitchen.
A very calming social worker gets us all to sit down and have a chat about the event. She recommends we get some alcohol if necessary. We do. Through speaking with her and the others, I realise who the hanging man was. It hits me like a tonne of bricks and the shock and pain only deepen as a consequence of this realisation.
The Memory of Him
I never knew the man, but when I arrived at work that evening, I remembered seeing him, sitting in the back area, drinking a beer. He was smartly dressed and alone. There was nothing inherently odd about this, but what struck me as strange, in retrospect, was that he had a newly opened packet of A4 printing paper, with lots of pages and envelopes spread out in front of him. I thought we were getting audited. He was writing a suicide note, as it turned out.
I reflected on what I could about the man’s character. In my very brief experience of serving him, he seemed dreamy, and friendly too, if a little quiet. When I sold him his last beer, I remember him holding my gaze for slightly longer than one does. Smiling softly as he did so. I also remember feeling mildly inconvenienced when he gave me the exact change so as not to break a note… I remember him walking to the front door, and standing tall in the doorway, taking a few sips of beer as he drank in his last few moments of life.
And then that was that. The paramedics and police finished what they were doing, and we proceeded to drink away any lingering memories of that night. I got lost on the way home, and woke up feeling like death.
The pain of that night still lingers. The memory of what we saw and had to do, or didn’t do, still causes me a great deal of grief. Guilt mainly over my own revulsion and inaction.
I will say this. I’ve thought about suicide a lot since that night, and while I’m really not educated enough to speak about it, what I have taken from it is this. If you feel like you are going to give up, don’t. There is always a better option. I realise some people are beyond saving. The roots of depression stretch all the way down to Hell. But you are a node in a network, and what you do affects all surrounding nodes. If you cut yourself off, like the man did, you are going to impact people’s lives in such a way as to damage them permanently. You cannot do that. It’s not right. You cannot let the pain and suffering of life turn into resentment, only to have that resentment foist onto everyone around you.
Life is suffering, and life is unfair. So try to find meaning in the suffering by carrying the heaviest load you can. Make today fractionally better than yesterday. Remember, you are stronger than things are terrible. And things are pretty damn terrible, which make you pretty damn strong! So, get after it. You are more than you think you are.