A Sam at every table

The first people I told about Sam’s death were a married couple sitting in the bar of the hotel where my girlfriend worked. I’d gone in to meet her but she was running late, and when Mr and Mrs Jones saw me sitting alone without a drink, they bought me one. Mr Jones was a gregarious Welshman with a profound love of the band ‘Joy Division’, as evidenced by his Unknown Pleasures shirt and a key fob. Mrs Jones was significantly younger than her husband and even more Welsh. She talked at length about their journey to Aberystwyth from Newport. I’d been to Newport once to get my passport renewed last-minute, so when she asked if I’d ever visited I said no, because I’m a firm believer in keeping silent when you’ve nothing nice to say.

We chatted for a while about their holiday, and my experience of being an Englishman living in Wales, but conversation dried up pretty quickly and, not wanting to seem aloof, I offered up an explanation for my reticence.

‘I just found out my oldest friend killed himself yesterday.’

Delivered without preface it probably seemed blunt, but the prevailing euphemism- ‘committed suicide’- just sounds too much like something you’d read from a scroll of parchment for me to take seriously. They gaped when I explained that I had received a call at work just a few hours before, and Mrs Jones welled up. I was unprepared for tears; I didn’t cry when I found out, and during the funeral I was too self-conscious, my doubt crippling me in the same way that erectile dysfunction compounds itself over time.

‘That,’ she said, dabbing at her eyes, ‘is absolutely bluddy traagic that is.’ I bit my lip to avoid laughing at her accent, an action that Mr Jones mistook for an internal struggle with churning emotion. He laid a powerful hand on my shoulder and asked me how it had happened. When I told him he nodded sagely and said, ‘Just like Ian Curtis’.

I’m not sure why people ask how it happened. It’s not that I don’t understand the curiosity- if Noah hadn’t told me over the phone I would have obsessed over it- it just surprises me that people are comfortable asking. As someone who doesn’t always have the keenest social instinct, it makes me wonder what the appropriate level of detail is when discussing death. If you were to tell me your Aunt died recently, I’m allowed to ask how. But if you told me she died in a car accident, can I ask you how fast she was driving?

This skein of morbid curiosity holds true for the note as well. As few as 25% of suicides leave a note, and although Sam apparently left three, I don’t know what any of them said. I think I expected to find out at some point but I’m not sure by what medium I was imagining his parents would distribute them. When a friend of mine first mentioned the probable existence of a note, I had a visceral reaction, like a cord tightening between my stomach and my temples. For some reason I panicked, thinking, ‘What if he mentioned me?’ A second later I felt it again as I thought, ‘He almost certainly didn’t.’

The funeral was a traditional affair held at the church where Sam’s parents volunteer. He had an eclectic taste in companions, and there were any number of dreadlocked, tie-dyed acid burnouts in the congregation along with the jobbing musicians, semi-professional jugglers and gypsies. Sam had been evasive about his own religious sympathies, but it’s likely that there were more pagans and wicca in the Church than Christians, so when the priest invited us to pray with him, there was a moment of nervous shuffling as we looked at one another as if to say, ‘Is this mandatory?’

Amens were thin on the ground.

When it finished, the family went to the crematorium while the assembly piled into a large hall with a bar. We disected the last times we had seen Sam and how he had behaved, if there was anything especially morose that should have given it away. We got drunk and made one another promise to say if we ever had suicidal thoughts. I received an undeserved share of attention and sympathy from people who remembered how close Sam and I had been at school. I counted the people who would be invited to my funeral if I died tomorrow and was disappointed by the number I came up with.

We told stories about Sam from his early teen years, and on the next table they told stories from his University years. His family reminisced about his childhood and we all recounted different plans we thought he’d had for his future. I had a vivid picture of Sam as I had last seen him, drinking from the bottle at a christmas party, sitting with us and listening in. Mid-teens Sam was across the room with some girls who remembered him as their first boyfriend while the musicians recalled a longer haired Sam patiently teaching them the chords for his latest eight minute metal ballad.

We drank steadily for as long as the bar was willing to stay open, and one by one the different groups left, taking their ideas of Sam with them. There was a book that people were signing, and I hung around waiting for inspiration until I was the only one left. Eventually his parents came back to clear up, and I scribbled the kind of nonsense you’d see in a highschool year book, before leaving and taking my last, fixed idea of Sam with me.