The year 2013 sucked for me. It wasn’t just that I was working three jobs, as well as training for a long charity walk, which in the end I had to do in two parts because I got ill.
No, the worst thing was learning that a close friend of mine, Damien, had died, I still don’t know quite how or why, at the time I assumed it was suicide, he’d tried it before, he text me for help, I drove to the beach he was living on with water and clothes, and helped pack away his gear while he chundered into the Marram grass, later on, I brought him some clothing and supplies. He had been living in rented accommodation, but the landlord was threatening eviction, so he left to live in hostels and a tent on the beach.
My experiences with Damien definitely made me a better person. I came to understand more about bipolar disorder, the pernicious nature of nicotine addiction and discovered an altruistic side of myself I had barely explored.
Damien rarely drank coffee, he never drank cola, two things I can’t go completely without, but could not kick nicotine, he was always polite, honest and kind, he would apologise if his smoke drifted my way.
In order to avoid being sectioned, he spent a week after his suicide attempt in my home, and I was glad to do this for him, had he not passed away, I would have done it again. Whatever his past, I trusted him and loved him like a brother, and miss his irreverent humour every day. He had a fantastic sense of humour and a way with words that left me helpless with laughter on more than one occasion.
I posted an RIP on Facebook when I learned the news, only to learn that two old drinking buddies from my misspent youth had also died, this time definitely by their own hand, we weren’t close, but Neil and Trevor were friends in my eyes all the same.
My Great Aunt Peg died that year too. I felt guilty that I hadn’t been to visit her more often, she was elderly and frail, and lived at least a couple of hours drive away, so I never managed to find the time.
So, after all that crap, I decided that what I needed was a bit of selfishness, so I arranged to attend a walk in the local park hosted by a community group who look after it. It was hosted by a lovely, bright, enthusiastic lady called Christine, who brought along various prompt cards and plenty of knowledge, we went around all the trees of note, when we got to the Black Pine, Christine needed to sit down, she put it down to being overwhelmed by the number of people attending.
This was when I witnessed a death first hand. Christine stood to move on to the next tree, she made it only a few feet from the bench before collapsing. The following year I received first aid training that would have taught me that the noise she made on the ground was her body desperately gasping for air, but unable to breathe through a collapsed palette and tongue, I could have cleared her airway and started compressions as the ambulance was summoned. Instead, ignorant as we all were, we put her into the recovery position.
That sound, a rattling gasp, the rapid change of skin colour and the facial expression as her muscles relaxed completely, the paramedics urging parents to move the children away as they performed the compressions I could have been doing, were I not ignorant of what was occurring, will stay with me for as long as I still have a functioning memory. It was without doubt the worst thing I had ever seen.
2013 seemed like a blip, a one off, shitty year, to be chalked down to experience, another old friend died, at the end of 2015 if memory serves (I am notoriously crap with dates), but on the whole, life, for me at least, was no worse than it had ever been.
Then 2016, with its slew of celebrity deaths, kicked off, it was just one of those years where idols and beloved childhood figures died, and also my maternal grandmother, having just learned of her diagnosis of dementia, hung herself in the garden of my cousins house. Soon after, his brother contacted me pass on information that has left me with the distinct impression that he might have been involved somehow, if only by coercion.
Brexit was approaching too, Farage and his fellow buffoons were in full flow, lying their stupid heads off, trying their best to hoodwink the public into becoming insular and hateful, and we decided to take the kids to a local aquarium to get away from thinking about it all.
Driving in the city our local Sealife Centre is in, is not a fun experience, so we decided to go by train, the rail service in our area is run by a company called Southern Rail, a shining example of how privatised services do not improve things, that day they were running severely reduced railway services, as a result of a, still unresolved, dispute with the unions, they were quite deliberately reducing the services and blaming it on their staff.
As we walked onto the platform, we saw a young man, I guesstimated after the event that he was in his thirties, standing at one end of the platform, leaning against the fence. We looked up at the display to discover that the train we wanted was going to be delayed for almost another hour, a couple of express trains raced through, so, because the kids were in need of a loo, we decided to nip home, go to the toilet, then return.
The man was still stood there, placidly leaning against that fence, the one with all the warning signs, the last barrier between the end of the platform and the trackside.
I stood with my wife and kids, chatting about what we were going to do, which animals we were going to see that day, another express train was approaching, I looked up at the display, hoping to see that our train would be next, and my eye was drawn to movement, the young man had moved to the edge of the platform, he was leaning out, the expression on his face was completely relaxed, he leaned forward like he was about to cross a quiet country lane and was checking for cyclists.
This was when I witnessed death a second time. There was a bang, the sort of bang you get on British railways when two trains going at speed pass each other, and the air pressure causes a bang that makes anyone not expecting it to practically shit themselves.
The man vanished from sight, his iPhone arced through the air and clattered to a stop a few feet away from us, I couldn’t quite understand what had happened, I said “That bloke’s just been hit by the train!” to my wife, it was almost a question, I couldn’t quite process the fact that it had actually happened, it’s all a bit of a blur after that, I guessed that if there was ever a reason to dial 999, it was after a person had been hit in the face with a speeding train, so I went and stood over the dropped iPhone, to make sure that it didn’t go anywhere or get trampled, people were crying, shaking, on their ‘phones telling people what had happened, I was trying not to keel over, shaking, heaving words out like lead weights, someone was walking up and down the platform, apparently checking that everyone was ok, I tried my best to give the right information to the 999 operator, she asked me where the victim was, I assumed that, given that the train must have been travelling at more than 60mph, he must have been carried away down the track, I could see a dark lump, fifty or sixty meters away, the train had made an emergency stop, can you imagine what the poor bloody driver was thinking? what he’d seen?
As I talked, I moved from side to side, being careful not to step on the handset at my feet, I was convinced that the man was meters away, a dark spot, too far away to make out any detail, but he wasn’t. As sirens came wailing towards the station, I was able to see past the same warning signs the man had been leaning against, there he was.
He’d been thrown twenty feet at most and was lying, mercifully for me, face down, hard up against a chain link fence, his left foot behind a post, his right in front. The train had somersaulted him to one side, where he’d blended into the rubbish discarded or windblown there.
“Oh no, is that him there?”
“Have you found the victim?”
“Yes, he’s just past the end of the platform.”
“Can you get to him?”
I had to answer “No”, in truth, he was far enough from the rails that I could physically reach him, but I was rooted to the spot, I couldn’t approach him, I couldn’t bear the thought that I might see that facial expression and hear that sound Christine made as she died. He’d been slammed into the front of more than sixty tons of train, I thought that he’d been killed instantly.
The police arrived, they did what I could not, making their way down to the man’s motionless body, “He’s breathing!”, I was stunned, his face, lungs, ribs and spine must have been shattered, what could I have done? But still, I feel that I should have tried. I feel cowardly.
Since then, I’ve had flashbacks and difficulty sleeping, not so much lately, I feel anxious, and whenever I see something risky I have to look away.
The first time I avoided a situation was on a holiday to the Isle of Wight, we went to the Isle of Wight zoo, they select volunteers from their visitors to put food in the tiger enclosure. I couldn’t watch.
Just yesterday, I was walking back from work past some tree surgeons who were using a wood chipper, a big one towed by a large, powerful van, the sort of thing that could drag a man in whole and spit him out as a puree. I had to cross the road and look away.
It’s like my mind has decided, without my permission, to assume that the universe has it in for me, that it’s ramping up the tension, that sooner or later it will throw yet another horror at me, and I’ll do almost anything to avoid the universe getting its way. It’s silly, magical, irrational thinking, which is why I have now relented and sought counselling, hopefully I can take positive action, take back control of my psyche, and learn to rule my fear again, rather than having it rule me.
I will win. There is no other option.
UPDATE: Good news! Sort of. I finally got the call from the British Transport Police (BTP), a very sympathetic man called Tony filled in some of the blanks. I now know the name of the young man who died, but it’s quite identifying, so I’ll be keeping it to myself, partly because I don’t know who’s reading this or what their motives are, and out of respect for his friends and family.
Along with revisiting the scene, a technique recommended by a therapist friend aimed at overwriting the fear response associated with an area or situation, learning the name of the victim, has parted the clouds, I’m larking about again, smiling more, I’m even feeling optimistic about the future, despite Brexit and the fuckwits (sorry, I can’t be any more polite about Theresa May’s government of wealthy sociopaths) who are currently running, or rather, ruining, the UK.
I’m back! A little older, a little wiser, and with coping tools I didn’t have before.
I am winning, and now I have a way of helping others.