Cris Kay has come to the dispassionate conclusion that life – rather like shellfish or contact sport – just isn’t for him. But how do you kill yourself without heaping all the misery of suicide on those you love?
The solution, Cris believes, is within easy reach. He’s betting his life on it. But when his meticulously-prepared plan is unwittingly hijacked by a bumbling stranger, events quickly spiral far beyond his control, and suddenly everyone he has ever cared about is at risk.
Who would have thought orchestrating your own death could be such a killer?
‘Come down from the tree, please, sir.’
It was Hamlet who claimed that nothing’s good nor bad but thinking makes it so. But I’d have liked to see him maintain his claim to objectivity while wedged twenty feet above Clapham Common, a viciously sharp branch spearing his inky cloak and a head so pasted with rain he felt like a bog roll dropped in the pan. At five past eight on a soggy November morning, neither London nor I were at our best.
‘Sir?’ the man called again. Whether it was the need to expose his face to the downpour beneath his peaked cap, or the fact that I was so obviously hoping he’d give up and keep walking, his tone wasn’t getting any friendlier.
‘I’m trying,’ I shouted down, rain dripping from my nose. ‘It’s slippery.’
Through the yellowed leaves I could see him turn and mutter something to his colleague, as portly as he himself was lanky, before flapping his arms against his sides and stepping closer to the trunk. For a heartwarming moment I actually thought he was readying to catch me, until I realised he was just sheltering from the wind.
‘I’m alright, actually,’ I tried again. ‘Really.’
‘Then come down, please. Now.’
Clutching a branch of damp green, I checked Mel’s double-length scarf was snug around my neck and considered my route. Even as kids, she was the exhaustingly energetic younger sister forever bombarding me with an unaccountable enthusiasm for all things outdoors. Mel would have swung down in seconds, or abseiled on a web of intricately knotted vines, all the while commenting on the tree’s natural habitat, its leaf structure and all the rest.
I, by contrast, knew only that the bark was smooth and, in the wet, as treacherous as black ice. And I knew that only because I’d just spent ten precarious minutes climbing up, gouging the leather of my brogues, staining my cashmere overcoat and awakening the usual barbed itch of my haemorrhoids. It was the most exercise I’d done in years. So it took me at least another five undignified minutes to negotiate my way to the point I could safely drop the last few feet into the muddy grass to sway, bent double, sucking desperate lungfuls of dank, soil-cloyed air.
‘Want to tell us what you’re up to?’ asked the tall one, hovering impatiently.
My heart was near somersaulting with the exertion, the pressure at my temples – a combination of last night’s wine and my sleepless anticipation of what lay ahead – threatening to burst my skull. I put out an arm to lean against the trunk and it was only then that I looked properly at the badges on their fluorescent jackets. Community Support Officers. Not even real policemen.
‘Name?’ demanded the jobsworth at my silence, as though tree-climbing was one of the more threatening brands of terrorist activity.
‘I’m sorry,’ I panted, rubbing the worst of the dirt from my leather gloves to buy time. ‘Have I done something wrong?’
‘Are you refusing to give me your name?’
Typical. In twenty-eight years, no representative of the law had ever looked twice at me. Yet here I was under scrutiny, just when I needed it least. For a fleeting instant I actually considered giving the name of my ex-girlfriend’s new partner, but backing myself into a lie so easily disproven just wasn’t worth the risk.
‘Cris,’ I said.
He looked at me with ill-concealed distrust, like a sports jock tasked with entering a library.
‘Live around here?’
‘In Southfields,’ I said. ‘Next door to Earlsfield.’
‘I know where Southfields is, thank you, sir.’
‘Hey,’ interrupted his rounded colleague, jerking suddenly into life. ‘I recognise you!’
‘Oh?’ I said, politely but without encouragement.
‘Weren’t you in the local paper this week? Something about a bookshop?’
‘Uh, yes. Yes, I think I was.’
‘A Community Focus piece’ was how the editor had pitched it, supposedly highlighting the efforts of local businesses to foster cultural and religious integration. Not that our leafy, residential streets were a hotbed of division – one was more likely to be mown down by a speed-walking Bugaboo than a machete-wielding maniac – but, with the ever-burgeoning threat of homegrown terrorism occupying at least a small corner of every Londoner’s mind, it seemed likely to garner interest. Cultural integration was hardly the shop’s raison d’être, but I wasn’t going to turn down free advertising, and given the gratifying interest in our most recent author’s event – SJ Hussain and her newly-released Islam Versus Islamism – it had seemed a good fit, an easy opportunity to proclaim our philosophy and bolster footfall, depicting the proprietor as scholarly yet accessible, ever ready to welcome newcomers into his comforting world of intellectual succour.
Unfortunately, beneath the pen of an overexcited hack, my call for a more rational, humanist world had made me southwest London’s self-proclaimed ‘bulwark against the rising tide of radicalisation’, an epithet that incited such vociferousness from all sides that I’d been forced to shut down our answer machine and disable comments on the blog. Add to the deliberately misleading description the photographer’s insistence that I stand, smiling, before the shop with nothing but my overcoat and the scarf gifted from Mel last Christmas to protect me from the drenching October downpour, and I’d come across less as a considered voice of calm and more an evangelical Withnail. With lockjaw.
‘It’s called Proserpine’s,’ I now told the man. ‘On Northcote Road.’
‘That’s right,’ he smiled, very pleased with himself. ‘I remember reading that and thinking it was a strange name. It is a strange name, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a Latinisation of the Greek Persephone myth,’ I said, beginning the usual explanation. ‘Proserpine was Queen of the Underworld. Represents death and rebirth.’
He nodded as though I’d passed a test, his multiple chins applauding so heartily that I felt propelled to continue.
‘She was a daughter of Jupiter,’ I said. ‘The story goes that she was abducted by Pluto and dragged…’
‘So what’s the Queen of death and rebirth doing lurking up a tree in Clapham Common?’ interrupted the first. ‘In the pissing rain?’
At least that pissing rain was masking the sheen of sweat now oozing from my every pore. With a glance at the ground intended to signify sheepishness, I offered up my ready lie with a practised smile. ‘Actually, I’ve just been collecting firewood.’
‘Firewood?’ Clearly a crusader for truth and justice, he pounced. ‘You are aware, aren’t you, that both Southfields and the Northcote Road are within designated smoke control areas? It’s therefore an offence for you to burn any unauthorised solid fuel,’ he pointed at the two black shoulder bags at my feet, both visibly stuffed with damp sticks, ‘other than in a building or appliance that is exempt.’
‘No, I understand,’ I said, smothering my incredulity as I backtracked rapidly. ‘It’s not for a real fire. It’s for a display. In the shop window. Bonfire Night and all.’
‘Bonfire night,’ he repeated, with the same relish Scrooge afforded Christmas. ‘If only it were possible to find bits of wood just lying around on the ground, eh?’ He nudged a semi-buried stick with his black boot to emphasise his mastery of irony.
‘I had some idea that any dead wood caught up in the branches might be drier, less rotten. I read it in a book. Something to do with the wind.’
The men looked at me, one with scorn, the other now settled back into vacant indifference, while I maintained my innocent smile over the pain of a head threatening to crack with every heartbeat. In the silence, a couple of die-hard joggers huffed past, trailed by a sodden dog who offered up a pleading glance before padding on. Then the angular one delivered his verdict.
‘Alright, Mr Kay,’ he said, clapping his gloved hands together again to beat off the cold. ‘But don’t go climbing any more trees. We’d hate to have to come back and scrape you off the floor.’ Smirking to clearly imply the opposite, he nodded to his colleague and they moved off, doubtless to rescue the people of London from stray turds and dropped chewing gum.
Stepping closer to the tree, I watched them go, then looked down at my bags and their contents, each stick between twenty and thirty centimetres in length. Online guidance over quantities varied, but I wasn’t going to take any chances and neither bag was full.
So with the rain now beginning its inevitable trickle down the back of my neck and my jeans clinging ever tighter with each step, I squelched towards Battersea Rise, scanning the ground as I went, and cursing my delay through waiting in vain for a dry day.
Because it’s pretty obvious that the last thing you should do when planning your own death is draw attention to yourself, especially if it’s the attention of passing policemen. Or even Community Support Officers.
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