Mick brought the banter. He was the life and soul, necking cold tins of lager as the stereo blasted away in our shared flat in Wood Green. We’d head out the door and hop on the Piccadilly Line, find a pub near the venue, sink a few, chat with our mates and eye up the girls. Then into the gig, and after that stumble out sweaty and elated onto the late-night places. 12 Bar usually, or another dimly lit den in Soho that was loud and raucous and confident – places that couldn’t last.
We were obsessively into heavy, intense music. How healthy all that is, I don’t know. But a life that embraced the caustic edge of things always appealed to me and Mick. We both accepted that life was in essence a cruel, badly-executed joke, and that liberated us. Or so I believed.
I walk through central London now and see it gutted by construction sites. A new railway is rising as buildings are torn down. Men in fluorescent work jackets are everywhere. The foundations, the substructures below the pavements and under my feet, are out of sight; but I wonder how long they can hold. On Denmark Street I look up at Centrepoint and imagine it tumbling and crashing into a crowd of innocent tourists thronged outside Pret a Manger.
Mick always had a cheeky word for the girls. Always the first to get a round in and the last to demand shots.
‘One for the road, come on boys don’t let me down.’ So we’d have one, grimacing as our bodies tried to accommodate the poison. Hold it down, keep it in. I really didn’t want to let him down. Funny to think of that, now.
‘I need to hit the hay, Mick,’ I said countless times, sat on our shitty Ikea sofa, blurry-eyed from the whisky nightcaps we’d treated ourselves to after finally stumbling home.
‘Off you go then, pussy.’ And he’d laugh hard as I stumbled to bed. I presume he just stayed up drinking from his bottle of Jim Beam and finishing off the cocaine alone, as I nearly always found him snoring on the sofa the next morning, television or laptop playing silently.
He could hold his drink, for the most part, and he never acted out when I was around. I never saw him flip or break down or anything like that. Which begs the question of how much you can ever really know someone; even the man I called my best friend for all those years.
We had been mates since school, our families from the same small, boring town in the south of England. We both ended up in London, as did many of our peers, chasing work, women, parties, gigs, all the exciting stuff that couldn’t be found in the placid environments of our childhood. It made sense to get a flat together. We were lads finding our feet in the big city, and we loved it.
Mick lasted a decade in London before moving to the south coast, into a nice two-bed place in St Leonards-on-Sea, with his wife Debbie. He met her in the capital. She was from one of its dull suburbs out in Barnet, but it was actually her who suggested they head to the coast. I think Mick always missed the city, if I’m honest, and I was disappointed that he left.
But it was a lot cheaper to buy a place down there and they had a kid on the way and that’s the way life goes. I stayed on in London with no intention to ever leave, but Mick and I stayed in regular contact; we were mates, always. And it was nice to have a reason to go down to the coast or have him come up to stay with me. It gave nights out a sense of occasion.
I was the best man at his wedding, a fantastic do held in a place not too far from Hastings, on the High Weald. I took my then-girlfriend, Sandy, and we had a great time dancing at the reception to a covers band belting out Pogues and Specials classics, but I think she noticed how often I looked at Debbie. I never could help doing that.
None of my relationships seemed to last. I envied Mick his stability and he envied my freedom.
We both accepted that life was in essence a cruel, badly-executed joke, and that liberated us. Or so I believed.
After the wedding I’d see him a few times a year, when I’d get down to St Leonards or when he’d come up to London for a gig – a reunion show of one of our favourite bands from the early noughties, usually. It was like we’d never missed a beat. He was always a funny fucker, though with a dark sense of humour at times. Of course, that darkness was something I analysed endlessly in the aftermath.
Did that joke actually mean something else?
Was that edgy banter or painful truth?
And so on.
So much of what was wrong was plain to see. But, at the time, I felt Mick should deal with those things himself.
Mick was great to be around. Certain mates just make the world a bit brighter, don’t they? I don’t think I ever told him that, and I should have. It seems obvious, but his death made it clear to me that what is gone is gone forever.
Three years after Mick and Debbie moved to St Leonards, their daughter Rachel now an irrepressible toddler who almost made me want kids of my own, Mick left his house at four-thirty on a Tuesday morning and drove to the small coastal town of Eastbourne. He parked in a quiet side street; if the curtain-twitching retirees who populated that road saw him, they said nothing to the police later. He walked through the town and onto the early summer coastline. I like to imagine how he listened to the sighing waves as they caressed the shingle, how the herring gulls screeched above his head and how he said ‘good morning’ to the early dog walkers. How he politely declined the pleas for cigarettes and change from the alkies and junkies who gathered in the town, under the pier and along the promenade.
He walked up onto the cliffs, his dark shoes scuffing with chalk dust as he ascended. He must have passed the RAF Bomber Command Memorial – Mick was an armchair lefty like me, but his grandad had been a pilot and he always talked affectionately about the old man – before finding a spot on Beachy Head, looking down into the blue of the Channel and out into the distant hazy shapes of France. He removed his shoes, three-week-old black Converse pumps now chalk-white and dusty, and arranged them neatly at the cliff edge.
I try and imagine what went through his head in those final moments. I wonder what the sea looked like, if it sparkled like costume jewellery, if there was any hesitation in him, what images sped through his mind before he stepped off the edge.
His body was found later that morning, broken and torn, his clothes soaked with seawater. Alcohol and cocaine in his blood. His eyes gone, I heard, taken by gulls.
One of the benefits of life in London is that you can lose yourself in it, keep yourself busy, dive into the speeding currents and get swept along without having to stop and think for weeks at a time. You can submerge and never come up for air. Some people find that terrifying, but I adore it.
I don’t know how country people or even the small-towners like my own family deal with the alternative. How can they cope with the silences and the blackness at night? I couldn’t stand it – not as a teenager and certainly not now. Leaving the city seemed like leaving life. Maybe this is why men have their families, wives, children to attend to. A sense of purpose. Anything to avoid being left alone with your thoughts in the dead of night in a quiet English coastal town.
His foundations were cracked and in dire need of repair, and I should have noticed.
I’m not sure Mick ever really subscribed to the family-man lifestyle. He just loved his wife and certainly his daughter and he went with the flow of it. Maybe he felt that was what could illuminate the darkness inside of him. Get on the straight and narrow, settle down, mellow with age, all those things that are supposed to help quell what writhes inside.
Obviously, it didn’t work. Debbie and Rachel couldn’t save Mick, and it wasn’t their responsibility to, anyway. How selfish of him to try and use them like that. He shouldn’t have bet on them as his salvation. I miss him, but I don’t respect him for that.
Maybe no one could have helped him, but I know that’s a lie. I was his best mate and I should’ve seen there was something off, that there was a voided part of him. His foundations were cracked and in dire need of repair, and I should have noticed. But it’s easier to pretend there’s nothing below our feet.
You should have said something to me mate, I would’ve tried to understand.
I would have listened. Maybe not back in the day in Wood Green, but I would now.
I should have asked you how you were and actually probed for an answer that wasn’t ‘Yeah, not too bad mate’. But I put it out of my mind. Your weakness made me uncomfortable.
I gave a short speech at the funeral, touched that Debbie had asked me. It took all of my strength to smile and make eye contact with her and Rachel that day. What do you say to people who’ve had a hole punched through their life? I felt useless, as if all language was meaningless and the whole ceremony a charade. I wanted to scream that he’s dead and he’s not coming back and nothing will ever change that. If you wanted proof of life’s absent logic, this was it. But I kept quiet, did what I was supposed to, offered a shoulder to cry on for Debbie. I gave Mick’s mum a hug. Got a bit pissed at the wake with a few mutual mates.
In the months after the funeral, I threw myself into a tailspin of work and partying that helped to block everything out. But in the rare moments when I was not working or drinking myself to sleep, my mind drifted towards other suicides I had known. People I had forgotten now bobbed to the surface of my mind’s polluted lake:
Toby was a lad we’d moshed with at Reading Festival back in 2000. A few months later he chucked himself under a south-east rail train on its way to Ramsgate. Too many drugs, it was widely agreed, exacerbating existing psychological issues. Seventeen years old, and swiftly forgotten by all but his parents. I hadn’t thought about Toby in years, but Mick’s skydive had brought him back, vivid and troubling.
Then there was the girl we all fancied at school who threw herself off the top of the multi-storey. Christ, what was her name? I couldn’t remember, but I could remember why she did it. A bad homelife, a smart and polite middle-class dad who had been fiddling with his daughter for years while the mum turned a blind eye and sustained herself on bottles of white wine and menthol cigarettes. All these facts I found out later, in the paper. The council put in some sort of special fencing after that. This was just before me and Mick moved up to London and I think we even made some crass jokes about the whole thing.
I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.
A few weeks after the funeral, I was at home in my one-bedroom flat in Edmonton and watching a streamed BBC documentary about Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As the narrator described the painting The Cripples (or The Beggars), my phone buzzed.
It was a Saturday morning, and I was alone. My on-off girlfriend, Sam, was away on a girls’ trip to Ljubljana for a mate’s hen do, and I was enjoying the time alone. I assumed the message would be from her, or something similarly prosaic – an update from my mother, a notification from my phone provider, a stupid meme posted in a WhatsApp group.
But the text was from Debbie.
Are you free to meet?
The well-spoken narrator on the television was explaining that whilst we may think the painting was created to elicit sympathy, it’s much more likely Bruegel intended to provoke contempt and amusement.
What do you want to talk about? I thumbed back, after a preamble of how-are-yous and hope-you’re-doing-okay-considering-the-circumstances. I felt uneasy and a little excited, a bit sick, as if I were hovering near a line that shouldn’t be crossed but I sensed often was.
Debbie asked to meet in a fashionable cafe in one of London’s hipster districts. Rachel was being looked after by her grandparents for the weekend.
I looked at the television, now paused, framed on The Cripples. Debased men using wooden stumps as replacement limbs, bestial grimaces, and what looked like a fez or a red dunce’s cap on one of the beggar’s heads. Bruegel had no sympathy for them, and neither did I.
I said I’d meet her at Hackney Downs overground station.
Later that day, the train squealed into the station and I milled out with the rest of the crowd towards the ticket barriers. As I passed down the short corridor to the exit, I noticed a small metal-plate etched with technical terminology, screwed to one of the pillars supporting the station roof. It was a string of numbers followed by the words ‘voided substructure’ in capital letters.
As I exited the station, Debbie was already there waiting for me. I felt something shift inside. She looked great.
I gave her a hug and we walked at an odd and nervy pace, neither fast nor slow but like we were both trying to not to overtake the other, to the boutique cafe she wanted to visit. Thankfully it served beer.
It had been a while since we had seen each other. Not since the funeral, eight months previous. But we’d stayed in touch, via email, and I dutifully liked the pictures of her and Rachel she’d started to put on Facebook.
She asked for a chai latte and I ordered a small bottle of hoppy beer from a new craft brewery. We found a table and sat down.
Three hours later we were tipsy and back at my flat, fucking like we hadn’t done since we were nineteen.
Afterwards, as we lay in bed, she opened up.
‘Mick was a heavy drinker, you know? And sometimes it all got ugly.’
‘Ugly how?’ I asked, staring at the patterns on my ceiling.
‘He’d get angry. He broke a lamp once. He never hit me or anything, but it scared me. He had a lot of demons and he took them out on me. I hated him sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.’
I didn’t know this, but I was not surprised. I assumed all of us, men of my generation I mean, were self-medicating in some way. But Mick, clearly, could not control it like the rest of us.
‘I’m sorry. I wish I’d known.’
‘You never talk about anything, do you?’ she said, looking at me with a contemptuous smile.
Mick met Debbie through me. I never told him that me and her had slept together on a few occasions. I always really liked her, and I can’t really remember why I didn’t pursue it at the time. I think I was seeing someone and the hook-ups with Debbie had interrupted that and made everything more complicated. I called it off as I wasn’t that much of a scumbag to continue two-timing someone.
And then a few months went by, and we were all in the pub in Holloway and Debbie and Mick hit it off, and there we go. I don’t recall being that bothered about it, but I always had a soft spot for her and found her deeply attractive. I always wondered what might have happened and whenever I saw her there was an unacknowledged yearning. I see that now. Like everything else, I pushed it deep down, extinguished the feeling with drink, wasted the time of other women. This was one of life’s big no-nos.
Debbie opened up to me more over the following months. Our relationship, if that’s what it was, was clandestine and kept under wraps. No one would accept it if they found out. We deserved to be mocked and lambasted on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It was disgraceful in the eyes of others and that gave things a violent spark that turned us both on in ways I’d never known. We were not behaving how people should behave. Nothing could be sexier.
It turns out Mick’s grandad, the one in the RAF had been a nasty bastard, beat Mick’s dad to a pulp as a kid and Mick himself a few times had received a slap. I thought he’d idolised the guy. He talked about him with such misty-eyed respect. Debbie talked to me about ideas of inherited trauma, epigenetics, how we could be doomed by our DNA.
Mick would get so angry, hungover and inarticulate, that he’d cry and break down in Debbie’s arms. He’d shake at times. She never really knew what was wrong, only that something really was, deep down in the very foundations. I had never seen him cry and was glad of that fact. Even the tears of women made me uncomfortable and want to leave a room.
Debbie had thought about leaving Mick several times. I couldn’t blame her – I would have jumped ship from a relationship like that long before. They’d been to counselling, and it always felt like he was getting better for a period, and then he’d relapse. She’d find him half-cut and with a baggie of coke he’d scored from his dealer in Hastings. Probably the same stuff he’d bring for me when he came up to London. Then they were back to the beginning, and I suppose part of that was my fault. I encouraged Mick to come out on wild nights out with me. But he could have said no. He was his own man.
I wondered privately why they’d bothered to have a child.
‘What was wrong, really?’ I asked her.
‘He just wasn’t happy,’ she said.
I learned all of this from my dead best friend’s wife, as she lay in my bed in north London.
Over the next year I undertook several work trips to Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and other British cities. Sometimes Debbie and I would use the opportunity for a weekend away; I would extend my stay if she could come up and meet me. I enjoyed the feeling of being in a city not our own, far from the south coast and anonymous. We could be ourselves, act as strangers, far from where Mick threw himself off the edge of the country.
One of my fondest memories with Debbie is of a Saturday morning in Manchester, browsing book stalls at an independent publishers’ fair at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. I can still picture the bright spring day, the deep red of industrial brick buildings now repurposed. Debbie bought a book of feminist horror fiction, the cover image a grotesque parody of a sun-dappled romantic scene. I found it very striking.
Other trips I spent alone, or with women I had met on the internet.
I travelled by train a lot and enjoyed the anonymous crowds of human life in the stations around the country. At Temple Meads or Manchester Piccadilly or Glasgow Central I watched the families milling around me as I waited for Debbie’s train to arrive. The tightly wound mums and tottering kids, the doting or aggressive or indifferent dads, unsettled me. The feeling was akin to nausea, like what I felt when scrolling through my phone on social media, looking at my friends and colleagues’ posts about their day-to-day lives. Each one thought they and they alone were unique by dint of their family unit, yet all confirmed to the same visual code with a few key buzzwords attached.
I was amazed how quickly people slipped into the clichéd roles of mum and dad; stock characters for a digital world. Perhaps it was just our nature, great apes who briefly have ideas above our station before we settle down. And I realised what skill it takes to convey the mystery and poetry of the everyday; most of us do not possess it and so can only celebrate the banal.
The dad character intrigued me the most; a man who was cheerfully beleaguered by his family, put-upon but really, obviously, enjoying it. He loved the attention of the unit he had created; perhaps lacking validation out in the wider adult world, this is what gave him satisfaction. The dad-character was a wally, easily confused, a bit overweight like myself. He was similar to the fathers I saw in adverts on the television for cleaning products, gravy, tools, and so on. A fully-grown idiot incapable of looking after his children or surviving without his wife’s domestic skills. He’d burn the roast, use the wrong cleaning product, be horribly out of breath after attempting exercise, punch a hole through the wall when attempting DIY. This was a state to be aspired to.
One night in a Premier Inn in Leeds, the night before a conference, I was watching television and working my way through a bottle of South African white wine. A documentary caught my eye, titled Britain’s Biggest Families. A father who had twelve daughters and a pleasant, fertile wife, was talking to the camera, his pudgy beetroot face split into a grin. He seemed delighted with himself and as one of his shrieking children called for him, he laughed goofily and did an impersonation of a man rolling his eyes in exasperation. He loved his life, and I both envied and hated him. He knew what his role was.
Maybe, I thought that night as I looked at the nudes she had sent me, I should give it a proper go with Debbie. Build my own tribe.
The boozy dads, the absent dads, the violent dads, the shitty let-down dads, like the one I had known, never featured on my timelines. Never on the adverts. Maybe on a grim British social-realist drama, battering his wife and terrifying his kids, but that was it.
Mick’s posts, after they had Rachel, followed this established visual and linguistic code – talk of the nipper, the little one, the rugrat, child, boy, girl, the offspring, the sprog, etc. Pictures of little Rachel cradled in his beefy arms or sat on his shoulders. Cute tweets from a thoroughly modern man.
But Mick was a void inside, a fuck up like me, a functioning drunk who threw himself off Beachy Head like the cliché he always was.
So, I looked at the families walking through the train terminals and prayed for Debbie to arrive soon, so we could head to the bars of the city and indulge in adult things.
I had attended a conference in Glasgow and had time to kill the next day before my train home in the early evening. I decided to take a trip out to see the necropolis, a grand Victorian cemetery that oozed stately and respectable gloom. It was a place I had always wished to visit but had never found the chance until now. There was light drizzle in the air, the skies dull military grey, and I shivered a little as I walked through the rows of the dead.
On top of a grave commemorating one of many Lord Provosts entombed there, I watched a trio of magpies pin a diseased city pigeon to the ground and plunge into its body with their beaks. You had to laugh: all this opulence dedicated to the long-dead, while the living suffered everywhere. Mick had been cremated and had no gravestone to visit. Did Debbie have the ashes?
I sat on a bench and sipped from a bottle of water. I scrolled through my phone, to see two new texts from Debbie.
As the magpies flew away shrieking, I vowed to end things with her, and to put thoughts of Mick out of my mind. No good could come from dwelling on the past.
Gary Budden is a writer and editor and the co-founder of Influx Press. He is the author of the books London Incognita (Dead Ink, 2020), Hollow Shores, Judderman (as D.A. Northwood), and The White Heron Beneath the Reactor with artist Maxim Griffin.