By Baz Martin Gibbons
“Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case.”
— Inferno, Canto XIII
It’s 1990. I’m twelve years old and I want to die. I think about death all the time. I think about death and what death might be like, what it’s like to be dead and what it’s like to die—the actual process of dying—the feelings and sensations and the arousal and I think about the thoughts I’ll have as I’m dying, the death-throe-thoughts of death and the heady haze of convulsions and spasms. I wonder if I’ll regret anything or feel sorrow or sense pain or fear. I wonder what it’s like to leave life behind, if it’s like a house or a friend or a shoreline like Dover’s white cliffs—something I can wave goodbye to—or if life slips quietly and gently into eternal goodnight, or if death comes like the shrieking darkness of the basement with a sudden enveloping.
I fantasize about my corpse and the autopsy and the aftermath and the mourning and the tears and the communal guilt and regret of everyone who felt they could’ve—should’ve—done more to save me. I picture my pale freckled flesh burning up in the flames of the crematorium, the smoke billowing up to join the clouds. I imagine God smelling my musty burning and the singed flesh—the incense of death—and wonder if God’ll inhale me like an ancient sacrifice, like the burnt ram and the fatty Levitical pieces sizzling on Aaron’s altar on the holy dust of Sinai. I picture my ashes scattered from an urn over some piece of hallowed soil in Albert Park where I played football and rugby and stole kisses and the furtive touch of tender girl skin. Then I think of something better than being scattered—I could be preserved—I picture my ashes sprinkled in my cat’s food, his sandpaper tongue lapping up my ash, absorbing me into his system, into his cattish blood and brain—then we are one: cat and boy—Ginger and I—consumed and consummated.
I see a skeleton. I see myself as a skeleton—my bones bleached, strung and hung, like the prop skeleton in biology class—a fossil of youth. It’s proof of how misshapen I think I am, of how misshapen I know I am. I’m ugly enough to be studied by scientists. They did that to the Elephant Man, I think.
There’s kinship between us, the Elephant Man and I—something that unites us. The first time I watch the black and white film I cry into my pillow long into the night. I think I was nine or ten years old—“I am not an animal!” Merrick screams as the Victorian mob closes in on him. He’s cornered in the underground toilet crying, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!” and as he collapses by the urinals he groans, “I am a man!”—it’s my favourite film but I’m not sure why. My first favourite film was Watership Down with the cartoon rabbits in search of Paradise following the crazed prophecies of Fiver and there’s that scene when Art Garfunkel sings Bright Eyes as Hazel dies and Hazel’s shadowy rabbit spirit mingles with the spirits of all dead rabbits in the heavenly warren of eternal night. It’s a moment of strange intensity; a kind of sad elation—and that’s the very first time I cry while watching a film and that’s why Watership Down was my favourite film then. But now it’s The Elephant Man. I feel a connection to something I’m too young to articulate, a sense of identity with Merrick—I can’t explain it but I feel it—and I don’t tell anyone. In the future I’ll slash open my stomach to cut out the fat that’s bloating my 100lb body and a psychologist will mention Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Right now I’m only twelve years old so I don’t tell anyone anything. I haven’t started cutting myself yet. I’m just thinking about death and wanting to die. Besides, I’m kind of dead anyway. I’m dead on the inside, dead in the mind or the heart or that place where hope bellycrawls through the slough toward and ever-diminishing light. Killing my body is just a formality. Closure. I’m twelve years old and I want to die.
I’m not sure how to die. I don’t know what’s needed to become dead, how to find my way into death. But I think I understand death so I’m not afraid. Death is nothing, a kind of nothingness, and I want it. I want its emptiness and lifelessness. I know I’m not going to hell because I don’t believe in hell. My parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and don’t believe in hell because the Bible doesn’t mention hell. “God is love,” they say, “and a loving God wouldn’t torture people forever.” And I know I’m not going to heaven because my parents don’t believe in going to heaven either and they told me I’m not going to heaven because the Book of Revelation says that only a 144,000 are going to heaven and I—assuredly—am not one of them. So I believe, because my parents believe, that death is only sleep. To die is to sleep, to rest, to be conscious of nothing as Ecclesiastes says—For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead they are conscious of nothing at all. It’s a scripture we read all the time. It’s one of our core beliefs and most of us—if not all of us—can recite it verbatim from memory. There’s no such thing as an immortal soul or reincarnation or ghosts or spirits or dead ancestors or voodoo zombies. When you die—you die—and that’s it. It’s like being in a dreamless sleep. To die well is to be remembered by God. To die well is to have had your personality filed in heaven awaiting the bodily resurrection of the righteous. To die well is to have lived as if in Paradise already. But I want to die because I want to sleep for a long, long time. I want to sleep and don’t care if I ever wake up. I want to sleep, to be conscious of nothing, nothing at all.
On Hands and Knees on the Piss-Stained Floor
The first time I think about suicide is a week after I’m attacked. I’m twelve years old and I’ve just finished my second year of high school and it’s sometime in June or July and summer is here which in Manchester means rain, and not just rain that falls with a sense of finality but an endless drizzling greyness. Some classmates of mine decide to head into the city centre—the equivalent of ‘downtown’ in an American city. We go to hang out at the Arndale Centre, an American style mall. I meet them there and bring along my brother who’s a year younger. We wander from one end of the mall to another, trudging through the lower floor then the upper floor, checking out the coolest new pairs of trainers in JD Sports, the latest Manchester United kit, and then the newest computer games from Japan for the Sega Megadrive. We follow some cute girls—or ‘fit birds’ as we call them—following and staring and creeping and leering but never talking to them because we’re all too shy, and either the shyness or the shame of frigidity makes us all hungry so we buy Cornish pasties from Greggs with the most perfect golden flaky pastry. After a full day of walking and talking, loitering and leering, gawking and idling, we make our way to the sheltered bus station to catch our bus home. All in all it was a good day.
The sheltered station is the terminus. All bus journeys begin and end here. It’s ill-illumined with yellowish light like sickly sodium street lights—an aura of jaundice pervades the space shattered by darkness and shadow, shadows made darker by the overcast sky outside, and it’s out of the shadows that a boy appears and slyly approaches me. He gets up close and whispers in my ear. “My friend wants your jacket. You have thirty seconds to hand it over or I’ll slash your face.”
I say nothing. I do nothing.
I watch the boy walk back to his friend in the shadows to a bus stop some fifty yards away. I don’t know if my friends saw this boy talking to me or if my younger brother saw or if anybody noticed anything because nobody says anything, they’re all still waiting for the bus just like me, only I’m not just waiting for the bus—I’m starting to panic. I feel a flush of adrenaline surging through me, in my stomach there’s a feeling of a thousand thrashing butterflies, my mouth goes dry and my limbs fill with blood and without saying anything to anyone about anything I’m suddenly running.
I can run fast. I’ve run the hundred metre sprint in twelve-point-something seconds. If I can get out quick and get a running start into the rain I’ll disappear. I know Manchester well. I know all the back alleys and all the short cuts and so I think I can make it. As soon as I take off I see in the corner of my eye that same boy coming after me.
I’m being chased down like a hare—panting hard, leaping this stone wall, ducking behind that pub full of drinkers and through this church garden and behind that barbershop and down those stone stairs on to the rain-slick cobbled street toward the red brick railroad bridge in the direction of Boddingtons Brewery but that’s where my feet are kicked from underneath me and I’m stumbling headlong into a crashing heap, tumbling but still moving forward, lurching uncontrollably and I’m back on to my feet but I don’t have enough balance to keep myself going. I’m too unsteady, too forward-flung and that’s when I feel a heavy weight crashing into my back. I’m thrown to the floor, my hands scrape against the pavement and I shut my eyes tight.
I’m on the floor and two boys are kicking me in my ribs and my head and my back. Kicking and kicking and kicking. I curl up like a foetus, arms tight against my ribs, knees tucked up, hands gripping my head. They’re still kicking and kicking and kicking. I’m rolling and screaming and crying and they’re kicking and kicking and kicking. One of the boys drags me to the curb where he holds my head against the concrete. I feel a sudden pressure and hear a crack and I know it’s my skull. One of the boys stomps on my head. They pick me up. I’m lifeless, a mannequin. I’m dazed and terrified and in so much pain it doesn’t even hurt anymore. One of the boys holds my hands behind my back as the other punches me in the face over and over again. “You fuckin’ prick, you made me chase ya!” He punches me. “Fuckin’ prick you made me run after ya!” Punch. “Fuckin’ fucker!” Punch. Punch. Punch. But I don’t feel anything, I only taste blood. I’m terrified and serene, panicked and numb. My mind has left my body. I sense myself floating in calmness somewhere overhead watching the two boys as they beat me. I see their punches but don’t feel them. I watch myself being beaten but I’m not there. I’m absent but present. I’m present because I feel the blade of the knife slice against my Adam’s apple. I’m present because I feel their stale breath hot on my mouth. I’m present because I feel the stickiness of blood congealing on my face. But I’m absent because I’ve given up. I abdicate life—my life. I know death is coming and I accept it. I gulp and think the blade is slicing my throat—it’ll be over soon. I’ll be dead and at this moment that’s all I want… to be dead. I tell myself I’m going to die.
I’m not sure if I’m still floating above myself or if I’ve returned but I’m aware that there are other people nearby but they’re crossing over to the other side of the road to avoid us and I desperately want to scream out for help but I’m paralyzed. I can’t mutter or groan or whimper because my tongue is numb and all the sounds I’m trying to make are caught in my throat. That’s when they whisper in my ear what they are going to do to me. “You’re gonna suck our cocks faggot, haha!” “We’re gonna ream you and you’ll suck our cocks.” And that’s when I see the faces looking at me. “We’re gonna fuck your arse!” is what I hear but all I see are faces. Faces like a panel of goldfish jurors grimacing through the water-streaked windows of the bus. “Fuckin’ queer!” Punch. I see the faces of my friends and my younger brother who watch with sad goodbye eyes as the bus drives off down the road—the wheels on the bus going round and round—Slap. “C’mon faggot!” I’m dragged in the opposite direction beneath the grey and drizzly Manchester sky, away from the rain-soaked red bricks of the railroad bridge, away into the saturated darkness of the day, and down into the disused public toilet where they force me to undress in the dinginess of the battered urinals shrieking orders that echo off the cracked tiles. I’m on my hands and knees on the piss-stained floor praying for death—I pray that God won’t forsake me, that my God won’t forsake me, that he’ll make them kill me when they’re done, that this is the end; so I beg out loud for them to kill me but my pleas are answered with slaps and kicks. I close my eyes as my mind flees… I die to myself and abandon my body to them.
Baz Martin Gibbons is the author of two nonfiction books published by McFarland (2012 / 2016), a poet, a screenwriter, and a film critic published by the University of Chicago Press (USA), Intellect (UK), and Presses Universitaires de Provence (France). Originally from England, where his earliest poetry was published in small press journals and anthologies, he currently lives in California where he is writing his first novel and a poetic memoir of madness.