CW: suicide, death, description of dead body
I went past him on the bus. I could only see his feet, but I knew it was a him.
Sometimes my eyes see things that aren’t there. Well, they are there because I can see them, but apparently they’re not visible to other people, like the time I saw a bloodhound the size of a Land Rover bounding down the street towards me but nobody that I was with saw it, even though my face was covered in dog-slobber and I had its fur all over my jumper. Sometimes I entertain the things I see. Sometimes I assume whatever I see isn’t really real and ignore it. I wonder how many real things I’ve discredited because I’ve been told that parts of my brain aren’t trustworthy. But the feet were definitely real, and felt like something I should investigate.
I got off the bus at the hospital but, instead of going to the psych ward where I had an appointment, I turned back and walked the way I’d just come, to the small private park that was to be accessed and enjoyed solely by the residents of the road that smiled around it. I walked slowly but with purpose. I knew what I was going to see but I also didn’t know what I was going to see.
I climbed over the rusty iron gate, struggled through the hedge, pushed through the willow tentacles and jogged the outer edge of the park until I found him. There he was: strung up from the strongest arm of an oak tree. I was right, he was indeed male. Late 30s/early 40s. 6ft-ish. Looked Eastern European. Blue t-shirt, navy jacket, dark jeans, white trainers. Fists clenched. Gold band on the ring finger of his right hand. Purple rosary beads dangling from his left. I hope the Catholics aren’t right about suicide. Though his physical self was still very much present, swaying in a private park in north London, I had no idea where his soul had gone; assuming that life felt to him like hell on earth, he would have been well-prepared for the underworld, but still I hoped that he was somewhere better, somewhere calmer, maybe even somewhere fun. I was glad that his eyes were closed. It would’ve been more disturbing if they were open, less… peaceful. Less okay.
I stood about a metre away, lit a cigarette and looked at him for a while. He waltzed with the breeze. He was a reluctant dancer, and his timing was off. The only music was the rope creaking. When I was forced to draw him a few days later in mandatory art therapy, I shaded his skin with the Timberwolf crayon and used Cornflower for his lips (though watercolours would’ve made a more accurate portrait, but we’re not allowed paintbrushes anymore since DJ snapped one in half and swallowed it and the sharp bit ripped her oesophagus to shreds). I studied the rope and found myself smiling at a perfect slip knot. Boy scout. No broken neck. Would’ve been painless. A soundly executed execution.
I thought about him climbing up the tree; perching on the branch and tying the rope around and around it, double-checking that it was secure; putting the noose around his neck, tightening it, pulling to confirm its tautness, ensuring it’s failsafe; looking around at the world he’s quitting, taking a few moments to breathe in; then putting his arms over the branch and gently lowering himself down; placing one hand on the hanging rope, then another, slowly slipping further underneath the branch, taking one last glance at his surroundings and then letting go.
I reached up to his jacket pocket and took his wallet out. Polish national. Same name as my grandfather. Oh. God, I thought, possibly aloud. It’s his birthday today. He’s 38. Shit. I put the wallet back. I found two folded bits of paper in the other pocket. Ah! Of course. Notes. One addressed to his brother, one to his wife. I didn’t read them, even though morbid curiosity told me to go ahead. No: I might be crazy but I’m not heartless. I put them back in his pocket. They were not mine to read.
I looked around the tree for other clues. Bingo! A black plastic bag from the off licence. Inside: today’s newspaper, a Motorola mobile phone (switched off) and four cans of Dębowe Mocne, a strong Polish lager. Under the bush nearby I spotted a seemingly empty can of Dębowe, lying on its side in the grass, and another tin standing at the base of the tree trunk. Creak. I went over to it and picked it up. Creak. It was half full. Half empty. Half drunk. Half gone. Half left. Creak. Around the lip of the can I could see saliva mixed with beer. I remember thinking, Is this what’s left? What’s that’s left of a life? My existential musings were interrupted when a yappy little Jack Russell came running over out of nowhere. He looked at me and looked at the hanging man and started barking.
A broad Irish accent called out, “SAMMY! Come here, boy, over here. Sammy!”
I looked down at the dog and said, “You’d better be on your way then, Sammy.”
Sammy didn’t move, just kept on barking. Then the source of the yelling appeared in the form of a short, tubby man with a red face and a flat-cap.
“JESUS!” he shouted, removing his hat, “What happened?”
I stared at him, blankly, and said nothing.
“Don’t answer that, bloody come here and help me get him down!”
He hugged the hanging man’s ankles and tried to lift him up, I assume in an attempt to take the pressure off the man’s neck, though it was clearly far too late for heroics. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of his efforts, but it was neither the time nor the place.
“Bloody well help me then!” he shouted at me.
“He’s dead,” I said, unhelpfully, helpfully.
“Christ!” exclaimed Tubby, and let go of the corpse. “Have you got yer mobile telephone on yer? We need to call an ambulance right now. Right NOW!”
“I actually don’t own a phone,” I mumbled.
“WHAT?! I thought all you kids had a phone on yer these days! Christ. Right. Right. Okay,” he said.
Together, we stared at the body, watching it slowly rotate like a hunk of doner meat on a spike, turning forever in a kebab shop window. Tubby was clearly losing his shit. He crossed himself, his stubby fingers prodding his head, heart, shoulders.
“How very sad it is. It’s a sad business, suicide, isn’t it? Very sad. Very tragic. Good grief,” he said, before crossing himself once more.
I hadn’t been to church for years. I’d firmly turned my back on God because a) he never listened, and b) whatever he did hear, he ignored. But here we all were, an accidental congregation of Catholics, one Irish, one mad, one dead. I was thinking to myself there’s a joke in here somewhere… three Catholics walk into a park… when Tubby interrupted me.
“Christ. Right. Okay. I live just over that road there,” he said, pointing beyond the railings, “I’m going to run home and call the ambulance and the police and do yer think I should phone the fire brigade? You know, to… to cut him down, like? Jesus. Oh, Lord. Right. You stay here, won’t yer. Just… watch him… make sure he doesn’t… do anything.”
I didn’t know what was funnier: the thought of this fat, flustered old man running, or me watching a corpse to make sure it doesn’t move.
“You,” he said through gritted teeth, pointing his sausage finger at me, “stay here. Come on, Sammy, come on boy. God, oh God, Goddy God. Right. Polis, ambulance, fire, polis, fire, no, ambulance, fire,” he muttered, stumbling away.
I was still holding the can of Dębowe Mocne. I took a few swigs. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do. I suddenly thought about this dead man’s saliva mixing with mine, on my lips, in my mouth. I decided that I could either think of it as disgustingly disrespectful and too macabre to justify, or I could think of it as a sort of last kiss, a goodbye kiss. I looked up at him. The poor bastard. I noticed that whilst Tubby was manhandling this guy’s legs, one of his shoelaces came undone. I tied it up. For some reason I said aloud, There you are! All fixed! which is what I say to my five-year-old nephew when I help him with his laces.
I wondered about this man suspended above me, about who he is, who he was. What was it that made you so sad? I wondered if his sadness was equivalent to mine, or if he was even sadder than me or if I am, in fact, much sadder than he was when he chose to do this but by some major fluke or cosmic error, I’m still alive and he isn’t.
I read the beer can. Dębowe Mocne. That literally translates as Strong Oak. I wondered if the choice of beer was a coincidence—he ended his life on a “dębowe mocne,” on the strongest oak tree in the park—but decided that he probably bought this beer for the simple reason that it’s a super-strength lager, very cheap, and quick to get pissed on it. I lifted the can up as high as I could, about crotch-level on him. A toast, I said, To Stanisław. To sadness. To slip knots. To strength. Na zdrowie, mate. I necked the beer, threw the can in the plastic bag and walked to the hospital.
I ran past the A&E department, past the main buildings, took a shortcut through the temporary building site, buzzed the door to the psychiatric unit and flew in. Mandy, the wildly incompetent receptionist, glared at me through the safety glass.
“Sorry I’m late. It was… a roadworks thing,” I lied, terribly. “Can I still see Dr K for my review, or do I have to reschedule?”
Mandy sighed, like an exasperated horse. “Go through,” she said. “He’s waiting for you.”
“You’re late,” said Dr K as he spun around in his superior desk chair, “and you smell like a brewery. Have you been drinking?”
“No!” I said, offended.
“Well, you stink of beer,” he whispered sternly, and offered me a mint.
We went through the usual charade: how’s my sleep, how’s my energy, how’s my appetite, how’s my concentration, how’s my social life, how’s my sex life, how are my thoughts of harming myself, how are my thoughts of harming others, how’s my drug use, how’s my alcohol use, how many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Then Dr K asked me if I was still seeing, hearing, feeling or experiencing things that aren’t real.
“No,” I said, “not to my knowledge.”
I was always honest with Dr K. It was part of the deal: if I’m honest and attend all of the recommended [court-ordered] outpatient groups, I can live independently at home and not be detained for involuntarily treatment.
He asked if I was still taking my anti-psychotics properly, as prescribed, and I said, “Yes, yes I am,” which was true, and he said, “Great, I’ll see you in 3 months then,” and that was that. I was declared low-risk and free to go, back into the “care” of the “community.”
Instead of waiting for the bus at the hospital entrance, I decided to walk home via the private park. I was excited to see what was happening at the scene. Police presence. The area cordoned off. Definitely an ambulance. Maybe the coroner’s van. Officials milling about the tree. Stanisław being zipped up in a body bag, being wheeled away on a trolley. The mobile phone and lager cans being dropped into evidence bags. As I approached, I fizzed with curiosity, and felt very important because I probably knew more about the body and the scene than the experts did. Despite my fear of policemen and my permanent unwillingness to assist coppers in any way, shape, or form, I thought that, in this instance, perhaps I could be helpful. Maybe I’d be a key witness! It felt exciting to know that I’d somehow ingratiated myself into Stanisław’s life whilst only ever knowing him as dead. I could even meet his wife, I thought, and imagined myself stroking her pretty blonde head as she read his final letter and wept. Yet the closer I came to the scene, the clearer it became.
There was nothing to be seen. Nothing: not in the park, or around the park. Just nothing. And no one. Nobody anywhere. Nothing. No Thing.
I stood there for a moment in a state of shock, surveying the park. Wha—where is everyone? I panicked and ran to the tree. No rope. No cans. No cigarette butt that I knew I’d dropped earlier. The fuck…? I looked up at the tree. It wasn’t an oak. I don’t… how is? It wasn’t a fucking oak; it was a cedar. Whathefuclfkcufckk. My thoughts twisted at the revelation. How? I began trembling.
As I stood, in a state of utter shock, trying to compose myself, a yappy little dog ran up to me and started barking.
I heard a man shout, “SAMMY! GET HERE NOW!” in a broad Irish accent.
Then, a stout, gammon-looking lump of a man strolled up to me and said, “Sorry about my dog. Have yer been at the hospital?”
“I’m sorry, I jus—”
I spotted a rolled-up tweed flat-cap sticking out of his coat pocket.
“Have yer been at the hospital, like?” said Tubby.
“Erm, yeah… just now,” I said, perplexed, waiting for him to tell me what happened to the hanging man. Had they taken his body to the morgue there?
“Aha!” said the red-faced old man, chuckling. “That’s it, you see!”
“What ha—” I began to ask.
“My little dog Sammy, here, can smell death from a mile off.”
Originally published by Misery Tourism (April 2021): https://www.miserytourism.com/strong-oak/
Da fug? WP said I’m not subscribed, so I re-subbed, then I can’t find you in my reader, then you re-appear, varnish and I find you again, right where you was! bugs!
Great story, loved it – is the dog a catholic too? I mean, do pets fall under the divine protection of the good Lord? Or was the other Catholic the hanged man? :) XX
WordPress lost me when they introduced the new editor :( hahaha I didn’t consider the dog’s religion at all – I missed a trick there – the hanging man is the third Catholic, proper Polak ;) x
This is superbly written. I like the sense of detachment which reflects beautifully against the detailed observations. Impressive work.
Thank you so much, Chris! That means a lot coming from you :) :) hope you’re well x
Thank you and yes…and I trust that you are too.