Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of death and traumatic injury.
My friend died recently.
He was my age – still young – so naturally, people might say, ‘was he sick or something?’.
No. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t even something.
He fell off a cliff. South of Sydney.
I didn’t find out until almost a week after the accident, already a couple of days after the funeral. I was at work, but I didn’t tell anyone because I knew my face looked wrong. Blank, bland. Nonetheless, I knew I needed to acknowledge it somehow, so I confided in a friend that evening. She’s sensible. She didn’t know him personally. And most importantly, she understands me and my wrong-looking face.
It didn’t go as planned, though. I wasn’t ready for her comment:
‘Oh no, I’m so sorry, Alex. That’s awful!… Say, was that the story on the news where he was trying to get a good selfie?’
I snapped at her for that, though I didn’t mean to. I apologised immediately, but I still feel bad about it.
It wasn’t her fault that the media had initially reported the accident as a misadventure in selfie-taking. It wasn’t her fault that I’d already seethed my way through all the articles and Facebook comments suggesting the same. I was on the defensive before she’d said a word, however misguided she was.
I know that cautioning people against risky selfies is a worthwhile endeavour in itself. But my now-buried friend barely used Facebook, didn’t have an Instagram, and had probably never taken a selfie in his life. I wanted them all to know it: the commenters, the reporters, everyone. I knew they didn’t care. It was a good story.
But I care. I care that this wasn’t – isn’t – his story.
Nonetheless, this ill-timed attempt at talking it out was enough to stop me from telling anyone else. Well, until now, I guess.
I’ve become obsessed with the media coverage: the videos of flashing lights and chopper blades converging at the base of the cliff, the one photo of his stricken friends talking to the police, and shots of the postcard-picturesque location on any other day.
Spoiler alert: it isn’t helping.
I don’t know why it surprised me that all of the reports are endings. They begin at an end, and finish there too.
How a 24-year-old man plunged to his death over Sea Cliff Bridge
Man dead after 40-metre fall near Sea Cliff Bridge
Man falls to his death off cliff over Sea Cliff Bridge
Sea Cliff Bridge tragedy: People flock to ‘Secret Lookout’ to take selfies day after fatal cliff fall
These headlines circle around the end like a shark closing in on its bloodied prey, or a dog’s relentless pursuit of its own tail. It’s like reading an unsatisfying conclusion to a novel – unconvincing, lazy, and spurring an irritated sigh as you close the back cover in bewilderment. They did what to our protagonist?
In their books, my friend wasn’t even a protagonist. He was the literary equivalent of an extra: the nondescript Man who facilitates someone else’s narrative before fading into obscurity. A means to an end.
An end, alone.
The headlines read like an unsatisfying conclusion to a novel – They did what to our protagonist?
I tried my best not to dwell in that space of the end, but it’s challenging. I found myself picking at my skin without realising – a bad habit borne from stress that I thought I’d all but kicked. It creeps back when I don’t notice, when nothing else helps. Before I knew it, I was obsessively unravelling my own skin: its freckles, ingrown irritations, and the acne that comes after days of emotional eating.
As soon as I stopped, I was bombarded with loose ends again.
I hope he died immediately on impact, I caught myself thinking. I need him to have died immediately on impact.
I was sitting next to my dog, Ziggy, wrapped in a towel as my legs stung from a particularly aggressive session of plucking at hair follicles in the shower. I was jealous of her in that moment, forever carefree and licking the air in my direction – her own brand of blowing kisses.
I felt like a monster. Who wishes that their friend died immediately on impact? What kind of hideous thought is this?
Even worse was that I already knew this wasn’t what happened. He slipped on loose gravel. It was not a clean fall.
His last letter to me is dated 3 September. Just weeks before the end.
I hadn’t – still haven’t – even opened it yet. I’d been busy, and well, now… Now I can’t bear to open what is inevitably the last of our correspondence. Forever. The very end.
My long-overdue response to his many letters also sits upon the coffee table, its paper crinkled and stained with crescent moons of tea.
I’d also been too busy for that letter, and had planned to complete it after the end of semester. It chills me now, thinking of how I’d postponed my response on the assumption of time he didn’t end up having.
I’m still going to finish it, I’ve decided. But when I re-read what I’ve got so far, I don’t know how to continue, now clouded beneath the shadow of his death.
It’s written in bits and pieces already. Messily, fragmented, across and between contexts. Like our friendship, in many ways.
I’m drunk and r-r-ready to ramble! On the train back from Richard’s 30th… Remember when you performed in an all-boys production of Grease?… How’s your mother’s Eid food this year? Too salty? Not salty enough?…
I stayed up all of last night writing in the pages of the notebook he gave me – the one I use as my diary. But none of what I wrote seemed letter-worthy. Writing in the wake of his death felt like the words were leaning towards a goodbye I had no intention of saying.
Writing in the wake of his death felt like leaning towards a goodbye I had no intention of saying.
But then, flipping through the pages of my diary, I found the card he’d left as a bookmark when he first gave me this gift:
Somewhere for you to write the beginnings of your bestseller – M xx
I hadn’t – still haven’t – cried yet. But the parchment-perfect, familiar slant of those letters, and the reminder of his unwavering, over-ambitious belief in me, was a moment beyond emotion itself.
Beginnings: that’s what I needed to hear. Bestseller or not, I’ll write the beginnings.
I met M in middle school in Dubai. We shared a habit of arriving at class earlier than everyone else. I was long-settled in this pattern of getting to class first and choosing my seat exactly as I wanted. Then he started at my school, and suddenly I was on someone else’s heels – someone who was trying to make a race of it.
M seemed to just appear one day, out of the haze of the mirage-like Emirati summer on to the school bus.
Little did I know it, but that step was the first beginning.
M had a crush on me when we reached high school. At the time, he always said he didn’t, and I believed him. I took people on their word. Still do.
He admitted it later, along with the sad confession that he couldn’t deal with how our classmates would’ve behaved if he’d said anything. They used to call him my stalker, with his long, swift strides always chasing me down in the schoolyard, and his inquisitive questions pushing too far.
In its early days, our friendship was frequently undermined by our clashing immaturities. Angsty, autistic, and nowhere close to unravelling my sexually-confused psyche, I was defensive as a child. M, on the other hand, was enigmatic in his pushiness.
‘How are you today, Alex?’ He’d ask keenly, somehow emerging out of thin air in the split-second that the harsh sun pierced my vision.
‘That’s a personal question and I don’t have to answer it.’ I’d answer flatly, acting as unlikeable as I felt.
‘Why isn’t your mother around?’
‘That is also a personal question. Goodbye.’
He was overly eager. I was easily overwhelmed.
Eventually, we wore each other down. We reached a point where our edges eroded, and our friendship became a smooth journey across years, continents, and now life itself.
Up until that last weekend, M was completing his PhD in Engineering. His thesis was on the durability of concrete. M loved concrete. I guess it’s nice that someone does – did.
A couple of months back, I finally asked him why he had such an affinity for it.
‘Concrete is one of the most structurally reliable materials made by man. It endures over time and binds the collective strength of its components. It’s sturdy and certain: an engineer’s dream.’
Our friendship became a smooth journey across years, continents, and now life itself.
As I pondered this in the aftermath of his death, my mind tripped me up again.
Concrete is sturdy, it echoed. Not like loose gravel.
I fixated on the poetic tragedy of concrete and gravel, concrete and gravel, over and over in my mind.
Why couldn’t he have slipped on concrete? A scraped shin, a bruised forehead, but ultimately cradled by the predictable thwack! of solid ground.
I’d give anything for the certainty of concrete now.
One Halloween, ten years ago, I ran into M while trick-or-treating at the American University. My friend Catherine lived there – her dad was a professor – and the large proportion of Americanised residents meant that celebrating Halloween on the dusty desert campus somehow became a reality.
She and I bumped in to him as we door-knocked through the dormitories. He was with other friends, who were too cool to dress up. I was self-conscious in my oversized, enthusiastically decorated costume. It was uncharacteristic for me to be seen caring about anything. I was worried he’d make fun of me the next week at school.
He didn’t. He just said it was so nice to see us, and asked how we enjoyed the trick-or-treating. I realised then that we should’ve invited him to join us.
If we had, I could’ve kept that memory too.
The day M gave me the notebook, I beat him at Scrabble in a bar. It was the first time I’d seen him in a long time. He was visiting Melbourne for an engineering conference.
He drank straight whiskey. I drank something pink and fizzy.
When I looked at our drinks, I knew nothing had changed. I felt that nothing would.
I loved that.
I was originally going to number these memories, but I couldn’t. They’re all worthy beginnings. They’d just go: 1, 1, 1. Jump in at any time. I keep remembering more moments, of course, though not all of them are ready to be written down.
But right now, I’m not living in any of these beginnings. I’m at the end. Beyond the end, even, at least in terms of the media coverage. The news cycle has moved on to something else, too fickle and factual to linger on a moment.
The beginnings just skip through my mind like a grainy videotape, as I sit in front of a letter that begs for the past because it has no possible future. He has no future anymore. We only have pasts.
Like my letter, this story is in bits and pieces too. Messy, fragmented, across and between contexts.
When I read these memories back to myself, I worry that they all end too abruptly. Through my editing eye, I know they surely do.
But so did M.
And I cannot edit that away.
Even if I shaped these memories smoothly, easily, and cleanly, they still couldn’t hold him, comfortable as concrete.
Beneath our feet, the gravel is still loose and the story still ends, one way or another.