When I was at University, quite a few years ago now, a couple that I knew well committed suicide.
They were found by a close friend of mine with whom they shared a house. He came back from late one Saturday night and discovered them sitting opposite each other in a bathtub full of warm, red water.
Romantically they had scattered a handful of rose petals into their watery domestic grave and a few pink and pearl flakes clung to their chests, arms and faces while the rest clustered around the four floating incense candles that bobbed gently in the space between their bodies, lighting them from below and sending thick, fragrant coils of smoke up to the bare white ceiling above.
The four tallow candles that had been stuck to each corner of the tub were dying down and were an inch or so above extinction. In the white plaster soap dish my friend had grouted clumsily among the neat rows of sky blue tiles six months earlier lay the razor blade with which they had opened up each other’s wrists, a tiny star of pure, white light dancing imperviously along its keen edge in time with the candles' guttering.
The soap-dish itself was latticed with thin strips of the blood that tinted the bathwater, a little of which, spilling from one of them as they replaced the razor, had smeared the tiles beneath it and spattered the white enamel on one side of the tub.
My friend said he knew instantly that they were dead, even before his eyes had taken in the whole scene. From the doorway, as he entered out of the relative brightness of the landing he saw, in a sudden flare of light among the shadows that were being thrown violently across the floor and the walls, the pale, drained face of his best friend Simon.
His head was caught between the dull chrome gleam of the taps, his shoulders rounded and relaxed, arms hung down by his side and hands floating palm up, the fingers gently curled. All that was visible of Helen was the back of her head as it lolled against the right corner of the bathtub and her long jet-black hair which draped over the edge and pooled on the grey-white floor tiles below. The angle of her head allowed him to see a pale semi circle of brow and the hairline into which small spherules of candle wax had dripped and set like a garland of white berries.
My friend, Alan, was understandably shocked. Not only because of the sudden spectacle of two of his closest friends dead in the bathtub, though that was horrific enough, but also because, and people often say this about suicides, there had been no indication in either of their manners or moods that they might have engaged in such a pact. No broken hearts or bitter disappointments, no pre-emptive traumas. Quite the opposite in fact.
They were in love and their relationship was the envy of most of the people I knew, though because they were so self-contained many found them aloof and unapproachable. Because they were happy they became a little unpopular, and because they had no need to confide in anyone they were considered distant. People were jealous of their hermetic world and, reluctant perhaps to admit to any longing for something similar in themselves, occasionally belittled them.
I felt, I believe, that jealousy more keenly than most because of recent disappointments in my own life that had led me to conclude I would never find an equivalent security. Also, I had never had a women so beautiful as Helen and felt, I suppose, that I was entitled to one.
Alan had drunk and smoked a good deal and upon finding them was plunged into an incomprehension that brought on half an hour or so of frantic, irresolute activity. He told me later that he ran repeatedly downstairs to phone the police and then back up again just to confirm what he’d seen and to persuade himself that he wasn’t about to make some stupid mistake. Every time he stood on the threshold of the bathroom he was convinced of what he saw and each time he returned to the living room doubt crept over him and made him pause.
It was an odd situation for him, knowing implacably that they were dead but requiring confirmation somehow. Instead of the police he phoned me.
In the early hours of that cold winter morning my phone started to ring. Normally I would have ignored it but this time I got up. I was drunk and generally annoyed, not by the lateness of the phone call but by a certain inconsistency in my evening. I had gone to the pub with one of my groups of friends and had expected to see there, behind the bar as always, a girl that I and a few other people I knew were lusting after. On that evening however she simply wasn’t there and even though I lacked the confidence to make any overtures to her and our interaction was limited to the familiar pleasantries of a barmaid and a customer my evening suddenly became sour and hollow. Finding it impossible to hide my mood I started, as I became more drunk and less self controlled, to argue with my friends and to snap unnecessarily at the normal teasing and sarcasm that constitutes a boys night out.
Eventually I had a tantrum and left, walking on my own through the grim little snow covered streets with my face pushed down into the collar of my coat and my eyes watering, back to my cold flat while the rest of them went off to some club and later to some promised party. When the phone rang I presumed it was one of them calling to try and persuade me to come along to the house they were currently getting drunk in.
It wasn’t my friends though, it was Alan, stoned and whimpering on the other end of the line. I had great difficulty understanding what he was trying to say as I stood there in my white toweling dressing gown, swaying a little drunkenly in the semi-darkness of the living room. I kept telling him to put his mouth closer to the phone. It sounded to me as though he were talking from the other side of the world when in fact he lived just around the corner.
All I could understand was that he wanted me to call round now and see Helen and Jason.
I said that I would and I had two motives for going. Firstly I liked the idea that my friends, full of remorse, might come knocking on my door and discover that I was elsewhere, a rebuff without the prospect of a confrontation suits my disposition, and secondly because I was obsessed with Helen and flattered myself that to a degree she returned my interest.
Up in the bathroom I prepared myself for our meeting. I dressed again in the clothes I had worn for my night out and which I’d discarded on the damp floor. I cleaned my teeth and brushed my hair even though I was venturing out, hatless, into a snowstorm. I sprayed deodorant under my arms and squeezed a little floret of sebum out of a black head on my nose.
As I walked round there I composed myself and rehearsed replies and lines I hoped might impress everyone. I had been waiting patiently for her, over the year or so she’d glided through the periphery of my life to grow bored of Simon, to leave him and to look around for somebody new. All the relationships I’d had in that time were overshadowed by my desire to be with her and I was full of fantasies and reckless plans about how I might come between the two of them.
I cannot help but feel, in retrospect, that it was the impossibility of this idea that sustained my fantasy and made it richer. Being in her presence was an exiting prospect and as I arrived my heart was pounding out of all proportion with the effort required to walk halfway up the gentle hill their house stood on.
I knocked firmly on the door and steeled myself for the prospect of Helen answering it, determined to be calm and easy. Instead it was Alan who answered and who stood, eyes raw with crying, shivering in the doorway.
"Dead," he said to me, with an inflection I can find no word to describe as we stood in the glare of the living room.
He looked down at the carpet, a plain brown carpet peppered with butts from a spilled ashtray.
"I think so, anyway." He sniffed and looked at me for a second and pulled a strange, pained face.
At first I didn’t realize what he meant and I started to ask - who? and then I thought I knew.
"Helen?" I asked him.
"And Simon," he told me. A great sob burst out of him as he said the name and he reigned it back in quickly with a strangled whine, raised his eyes to the ceiling and clenched his hands. A long strand of off-white snot had whipped round from his nose and was plastered along one cheek. After a moment or two he became aware of it and wiped it away with his sleeve.
"Helen," I said again. "An accident?"
He neither moved nor answered for what seemed like a long time and then he sat down in the armchair opposite me, pulled a crumpled packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and made no further attempt to smoke it. Eventually he said in a voice that had an impatient, dismissive edge. "Upstairs. The bathroom."
I stood and waited for more but he didn’t look at me again and he didn’t speak.
The silence between us lengthened and became uncomfortable. I couldn’t escape a feeling of incredulity. I was sure that I was the object of some practical joke, or that Alan had been. A sudden brusque and matter-of-fact attitude took hold of me, a desire to discover just exactly what was happening. I left the living room and climbed the short staircase up to the second floor, walked along the landing for a few yards and went into the bathroom.
The candles had gone out now but I could see by the light that glanced in from the hallway a few pale disconnected planes against the far wall, which, as my eye adapted to the darkness, resolved themselves into two naked bodies lying on and around each other in the bathtub.
After a moment's deliberation I reached across toward the doorway and switched on the light.
The shade was a globe of Aquamarine material stretched over a wire frame and it lent the predominantly white surfaces a cold blue tinge and made the water in the tub look blacker. I stood and gazed at them for a long time and then I took a few steps forward so I could see Helen's body better. The peculiarity of seeing them both like this, naked, was so great that it dissipated all the shock and dread I had initially felt. I giggled and then put my hand over my mouth. All the time I was looking at Helen I glanced at Simon too out of some fear that he might suddenly open his eyes and discover that I was staring at her. I didn’t look at him solely for that reason but also because I was interested in knowing how large his penis was.
His arms were floating upward in the water and I could see two long vertical slits along the undersides of his wrists, no more dramatic than two black lines drawn in ink and interrupted here and there by little flecks and crumbs of pink tissue. A rose petal clung, completely static, below his right nostril.
Mostly my attention was absorbed by Helen. I had longed to see her naked and had imagined what she would look like many times. She was lying on top of Alan and her slightly separated legs ran the length of his body and disappeared up under his armpits so that her feet were not visible. Irrespective of them, I could see every inch of her.
I reached out a hand and rubbed the knuckle of my middle finger across her lips and then quickly drew it back again. As I stood there gazing at her I became aroused and began to speculate about their reasons. They had not been personally unhappy as far as anyone knew and I could only conclude, knowing what I did about them, that this act they’d performed hadn’t been done out of desperation. It had a ritualistic and an aesthetic quality about it. As the idea occurred to me, that in some ways it had been celebratory I found it more erotic but it also incited my jealousy further and the two emotions fed on each other.
This final culmination of their love. This canceling out of every thing except each other. Running the blade tenderly along each others wrists, pressed together naked in the hot water, exchanging a last deep kiss and sitting back in the candle glow to watch each other die. Looking into their lover's face and seeing their own image slowly fading, pale and trembling in the iris of the other's eyes. The light dimming down, the pulses slowing, a soft, dark veil falling between them.
I rolled up my sleeves quickly, plunged my arms into the water and leaning over and grappling my fingers together behind the small of her narrow back I tried to lift her out of the bath tub.
She came up a foot or so toward me and then my hand slipped and she fell back again with a great sluicing of water. Below me I heard Alan stand up, walk out of the living room and call up from the foot of the stairs, asking if everything was O.K.
"Fine!" I shouted, hunched over and soaked with my arms locked round her again, her face pressed close to mine and my hot breath melting the water drops that had frozen on it.
"Don’t move anything," he shouted and I heard the pressure of his foot creak the first step in the flight. I cursed him bitterly in my mind for stealing these last moments of possibility from me. As he was halfway up the stairs the doorbell rang.
"Get rid of them," I yelled down hoarsely in a half-whisper. Outside I could hear the shouts and the drunken laughter of the friends I had deserted earlier.
I tried to lift her again and again I was obliged to drop her because her feet were wedged under Simon's armpits. I grabbed her ankles and pushed them down trying to free her feet but with every downward push Simon's unsupported weight moved down with them and there was no way to get them out.
"Bastard." I hissed at him. I took a step back and let out a sob as my eyes prickled with frustration. There was nothing else I could do or at least no time left to do it in. I stood breathing heavily between my teeth, looking at them locked together. Helen's hair had fallen forward over her face now and long black tresses of it rolled and tangled in the gentle swell of the bathwater. I pulled the hair tenderly back and let it drop over the edge of the bath where it set up a gentle, methodical dripping against the floor like the ticking away of seconds on a clock.
Outside the snow had stopped and I heard the last of my friends calling one of their more insistent party away from the door. Their voices echoed out through the empty streets telling Billy - hurry up - come on- growing more distant as Billy, drunk and belligerent, hassled Alan on the door step about the party he’d promised them.
Go on Billy, go now or you’ll get left behind I thought as I sat down on the edge of the bath and put my arm into the water that was coloured by their mingled blood so I could fish her warm, wet hand out and hold it until Alan came upstairs.
Later, on the pretext of looking for a suicide note I stole a handful of her underwear from the laundry basket in their room.