Do you have a story that you are scared to tell?
Exclusive extract from Totally Fine (and other lies I've told myself)
Scribbling in the Sky
‘To your knowledge, has he ever had sex with a man?’ ‘No.’
‘What about anal sex?’
‘What about drug use?’
‘Um, not like the proper ones, like a bit of weed, MDMA, very occasionally I guess.’
‘Intravenous drugs? Heroin, needles, anything like that?’
‘And his parents said that you spoke about organ donation and know that’s what he would have wanted. Is that right?’
‘Okay. We’re just waiting for the specialist surgeon to arrive from another hospital – we need to operate as soon as the machines are turned off. We should be doing that late afternoon or early evening. You can go into the room before his family and say goodbye.’
Earlier that morning, I’d arrived at the hospital, leaving my dad in the waiting area – he never came inside the intensive care unit. Richard’s parents took me to an empty room and told me Richard had signed up to the organ donation register when he was only 11 years old and his brother was ill. Sweet child.
‘We wanted to ask you,’ his mother whispered, ‘if you knew that’s what he still would have wanted.’
‘Yes,’ I said instantly. ‘Definitely, yes.’
I wonder if he knew, as he walked into the garage at his parents’ house that morning, that in taking his own life he’d be giving seven people back theirs.
Five days earlier, at 10 a.m., my phone buzzed. I reached over my sleeping friend Anna C., who I’d come up to Durham University to visit for a night out. Richard had wanted to join me, but I was craving some independence. The university holidays had just begun, and a carefree summer stretched out before us.
The text read:
I love you
I often think of that moment and wonder what would have happened if I’d responded differently. I read the text, smiled, rolled over, and shut my eyes. I fell back into a deep and restful sleep, for what would be the last time for a long time.
Anna C. and I eventually woke up around midday. I waited until the afternoon to reply to the text. I apologised for my hungover- induced freak-out about our planned trip to Exit Festival in Serbia that summer. I told him I loved him too. I got on the train at Durham station and rested my head against the window, hoping the nausea would subside.
My friend Dean called me. He said he’d got a call from Richard’s work, telling him that Richard had been in a car accident and was in hospital. I knew. Dean told me to get off the train at Reading, where he’d meet me and drive me to the hospital. I had four hours left on that train.
‘You alright, love?’ the train conductor asked. I was bawling. ‘Yes, I’m fine,’ I said.
‘I’m fine’ would be the tone of my grief for the next ten years.
Dean collected me and drove me to the hospital. Richard’s parents met us at the car. His mum took me by the arm and told me what had happened as we walked in. She couldn’t utter the words, so drew a line across her neck with her finger.
The next thing I knew, my mother was standing next to me by Richard’s bed in intensive care. She took a sharp intake of breath, covered her mouth and started crying. It was then that I realised the seriousness of what was in front of me. My parents drove me home that night. I texted my friends to tell them that Richard and I wouldn’t be going to Exit Festival.
The day that the doctor asked me about anal sex, just minutes after I had learned Richard was going to die, was a Friday. I suppose, technically, I’d had some warning. On Wednesday, the doctors told me he wasn’t coming back, that his brain damage was irreparable.
They didn’t tell me he was definitely going, just that he wasn’t coming back. On Thursday, hope had remained inside me, as the cheery nurse yapped away to him as she brushed his teeth. I sat in silence. His hand moved. She said he was responding. I genuinely believed this meant the doctors had got it wrong and he was coming back. She said it was a good sign – or at least, that’s what I heard.
Every day for a week, I sat in silence looking at him. We were surrounded by elderly people and their visiting families. The nurses told me to speak to him, but I was far too self-conscious, and I didn’t really have anything to say.
On one of those days, a middle-aged woman came up to me as I was leaving and said, ‘They’re amazing in there. They fixed our father back to health.’ I just smiled, too polite to tell her they had already told me that my boy wasn’t getting fixed.
Read 'It’s a bit shocking in places', an interview my mum about my memoir