A story in the news last week reminded me of an old friend. Before I get to that story, I'd like to tell you about him. Forgive me for being nostalgic, the pay-off is important.
The first time I saw Brian we were both 13. I wasn't impressed by him. He looked like a shaper as he stalked the schoolyard in his navy Eskimo anorak, hands in pockets, clicking the studs on the heels of his George Webbs.
I think our friendship started with a fight. If it did, it would have been all 'hold-me-back' posturing followed by a flurry of missed kicks at each other's crotch, ending in a headlock. Brian, as it turned out, was no shaper. Like me, he fought like a girl. He was also gregarious, insecure and infectiously funny.
We became friends and sat beside each other, trying to cause as much disruption as possible. We slagged everything, as all 14-year-olds do to deflect attention away from themselves. Clothes, hairstyles, even bikes were fair game.
Brian had a 20-gear Asahi racer, while I had a crock of crap masquerading as a Chopper. He never let me forget it was crap – especially as it didn't have a crossbar.
"It's a girl's bike."
"It's not. It's just… streamlined. It's a streamlined Chopper."
"But it folds in half."
"It's a Chopper."
"It's a girl's bike and you're a girl." The bike was eventually 'stolen'.
Our afternoons were spent listening to records or cycling around looking at girls. At night we'd slip through back gardens, avoiding dogs, to steal apples which we never ate.
Brian and I learned how to smoke together. We could only afford foul tipped cigars. I accidentally stubbed one out on my arm while we swung from a tree, making monkey noises to annoy the lawn bowlers at Moran Park.
We would ride around with cigars between our teeth, thinking we looked like Clint Eastwood: two short-arses playing at being adults from the safety of childhood.
Brian and I went to our first disco together. We herky-jerk danced like mad to Madness to impress the girls. The more we ran on the spot, the more they liked it – so local stud, Brian Mac, told us. What he didn't tell us was that he had spread the word among the girls that we were "special needs boys" from a care home.
"We're 'in' there," I said, as one waved sympathetically at us. We ran faster on the spot to impress her even more.
Brian was the reason we fell foul of our neighbour, Sinéad O'Connor. Yes, that Sinéad. When we heard she had split up with a classmate, we stood outside her house calling up at her window. We believed this would encourage her to go out with one of us. Instead, it terrified her. Her sister chased us down the road. (Sinéad, if you're reading this…).
The day Brian moved down the country was the bleakest of my life up until then. I couldn't tell him I was going to miss him. You didn't say that to your mates.
Years passed and we lost touch. We picked up our friendship again when he eventually moved back. Then we both got night jobs and lost touch again. We orbited the same crowds, but never seemed to meet up.
In November 1992, Brian walked into his local and settled a few small debts. He was in good form. He was 25.
Later that night, Brian turned the exhaust pipe in on his car. He killed himself. No one had seen it coming.
I try not to think of his final moments. How alone he must have felt. How his family felt when they heard the news. How whoever found him felt. How I felt.
The 14-year-old who shared my growing pains was gone. The reason why is not important now. I have other questions. What would his children have been like? Would he have enjoyed my wedding? Would we still be friends, tilting at the bar in Finnegan's?
Brian – that's not his real name – came back to me last Wednesday when I read that the Marks & Spencer model Noémie Lenoir had tried to kill herself. I was surprised at how hard that story struck me. Lenoir is young, beautiful: people like her don't kill themselves. People like Brian don't kill themselves.
Newspapers generally don't carry suicide stories because of the 'Werther effect', where reporting might encourage copycats. Sadly, Lenoir's attempt will have sown the seed in some minds.
The suicide rate here has risen by 35% since last year (CSO) as more people succumb to depression. (www.samaritans.org)
Two years before Brian's death, I suffered a prolonged period of desperate sadness. I was luckier than him: I learned from it. I think of what I could have said to him had I known what he was going through.
I could have told him we all crash emotionally, but we don't have to burn. It's possible to walk away from the wreckage. I would have told him that he didn't really want to leave, he just wanted the feelings to stop. I would have told him that the darkness passes.
I would have told him that he will always be my friend.
I would have told him that he was never really alone.