This is not on The Tape, but I’m reminded of it here, and part of me thinks it doesn’t belong here, part of me thinks it doesn’t belong anywhere really, part of me wonders does everything somehow, ultimately, need to be told, and part of me knows: this is exactly where it belongs.
I hear myself overall so happy, so optimistic on The Tape. Improbably casual and emotionally understated: my delivery suggests I’m giving an account of a trip to Milton Keynes, but the words I choose—carefully, even cautiously, deliberately always—speak of a young person with everything going for himself, with abundance of confidence, and imbued with great hope. And I’m so glad to hear him thus, though in the tone of the voice and the distance to the heart I also hear the youth from which this young person had emerged, then relatively recently.
I’ve been blessed in that I have, to this day, had to suffer the loss of three people only. And of a cat. Of these three, one was someone I’d met once, very briefly, but really didn’t know: Diana, the Princess of Wales. There is no rhyme or reason to this, but her death shook me to the core and disorientated me for a week. I cried more over her than any of my grandparents, all of whom I loved dearly. All my grandparents died over the years, but that seemed the normal course of the world: people get old, then they die. Obviously, their passing was, in each case, a loss, and felt as one, too. But you can prepare for this, you know it’s going to happen, and when it does, you deal with it, and then you honour them in your thoughts and keep their memory alive in your soul. Princess Diana being torn out of our culture was a cataclysm. Of its own kind. It came out of nowhere, and it seemed to change everything, and, irrational though this was, it left a gaping hole in my life, in a way that I, myself, never expected. It was an extraordinary experience, unique, I am certain, to her.
One was a dear friend who decided to leave us. That was both shocking and unexpected, even if it had been, in a way, predictable, sadly. I mourned her, and I knew then, as I know now, that I had to let that be as it was. It was just so. More than anything I felt I was called upon to respect her, and her decision. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I do.
Losing our cat as a boy was dreadful: I loved that cat. I was unspeakably sad when we were told he’d been hit by the tram. I got over it.
And one is still around and still a good friend, and when we see each other now we have excellent conversations, but when I first lost him—I was fifteen, he fourteen—my world fell apart. We had been best friends at school, and we were in essence together. Not as lovers, not romantically, not anything other than as friends, but as friends we were as one. People didn’t even tease us, it was just the accepted thing, that where I was there was he, and where he was was I.
It had come about over several years, and it was my normality. Of course I loved him, but I didn’t know that. I had no conception of love (and none of sexuality, for that matter), I spent no time thinking about how much I needed him, or enjoyed being with him, or relied on him always being around. That was all just the way it was. It was solid, it was dependable, it was real.
And then something happened that I hadn’t seen coming, ever: he turned away from me. It was gradual, simple, undramatic, and also in its own way normal: he just started spending time with someone else, more than with me. At first I barely noticed, there was no cut-off point, no moment I could pinpoint where it began, it just gradually dawned on me: we are no longer one.
The other boy was a good person, still is: we’re still friends as well, he and I. He wasn’t cruel, he didn’t manoeuvre, or manipulate, he just took my place, without, probably, even knowing what was happening, either. I had been the one who was always by my friend’s side, and now he was there. At first he was there too, but soon he was there more than I, and then I realised I had lost my love. I still couldn’t name it that, because I still didn’t know that that’s what it was, but the incision was brutal. I was cut off. I bled.
I was lost. Abandoned. Bereaved. I couldn’t name the way I felt any of these things, because I didn’t know what they were, I only knew that I didn’t want to live. Really didn’t. Not melodramatically, attention seekingly didn’t, just didn’t. There was no point. I was distraught, yes, but more than that I was destroyed. There was no word for it, no expression, no therapy and no remedy, there was just emptiness, complete.
This lasted for eighteen months, maybe twenty. It was a crisis so profound, so categorical, so total, I felt that it would break me. I saw no way that it couldn’t. It was absolute, the despair. And all of this over the loss of a friend? Today, with perspective, I know it was obviously more than that: losing my friend was the trigger. What his extracting himself from my life did was tear open a wound which drew all manner of complications. The insecurity. The loneliness. The mind’s confusion over the heart. The heartbreak over the part of the soul that was missing. The pointlessness. The disorientation.
What sustained me was my brother, because I could talk to him—not about this, but about everything else that was going on in my teenage life—and my mother of course, because I could not then, and I would not now be able to, bring myself to do anything deliberately that would cause her grief.
And then something happened that I also didn’t expect: I found a way out. I hadn’t been looking, not consciously anyway, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but the subconscious knows and searches and finds, and without thinking much what I was doing, I wrote.
It was going to be and started out briefly as a novel, but then I remembered something our English teacher had said: that writing plays is way more efficient than writing novels: you need far fewer words to tell your story and to create your characters.
And so I wrote my first play. I was seventeen now, I called it 19. It dealt with a young man taking his life, and how that affects everyone around him. It had an original structure, because rather than going in a linear plot from beginning through middle to end, it started with events about a year or two (I can’t remember exactly) before and after the suicide and then circled in, closer and closer, to end with the moment of no return. That structure, too, was not something I really thought about, I just wrote it that way. Although the play has never been performed, nor ever even been read in public, it achieved several things for me.
Firstly, it was my catharsis. By abstracting the youth’s self-inflicted death and putting it on a character in a play, I was able to ‘deal with’ what I was going through, and absolved myself from actually having to do the same thing for real.
Secondly, it showed me I had a new friend. I gave this piece—which was really very revelatory, open and incredibly honest—to somebody I had started spending time with at school, and his reaction was perfect: he took it seriously, but he didn’t panic. He just talked about it as a piece of writing, and encouraged me to show it to other people, which I did. I knew now I had someone again I could trust.
Thirdly, it made me realise I was able to write. I gave the piece to my German teacher at school who, unbeknownst to me, gave it to a man who happened to be my favourite actor at the Stadttheater Basel, where we routinely saw maybe a dozen plays each season. Henning Köhler. He was invited to our school to give a talk about theatre and acting generally, and at the end of that talk he said: “and one of you has written a really good play.” I went up to him afterwards and said: “that may have been me.”
Nothing happened with or to the play, he was quite apologetic about that—‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do anything for you in terms of getting it on at the theatre’—but for Henning Köhler, to my mind the best actor in town, to have read my play and to have made a point of mentioning it, that was enough. That was something I could hold on to.
And it also paved the way for me to lose my virginity, at last. There was a man whom I knew well and liked and respected a lot, a writer, actor, performer, who lived in St Gallen, of all places, and I sent him the play. I knew he was gay, he was a few years older than me, in his early twenties. He was cool. And nice. And in an unspectacular way attractive.
He read the play and asked me if I wanted to come and talk about it, and I said yes. I went to visit him, and we talked about the play, and at the end of the evening, I went to sleep on the sofa, and he came over and said: “If you want to you can come to my bed?” And I said, “yes.”
The doors were finally flung open. It wasn’t quite the proverbial floodgates, though in a Hollywood rendering of the story there would probably have to be strings; but it was good. I was happy. I’d pulled through.
And I knew then, and I’ve known ever since, that having coped with that period of my life, and survived it, I’d be able to cope with anything. That was one great big case of something that could have killed me, but didn’t, and so made me stronger. A lot.
My enduring memory of this handsome man is on stage. He was singing a version of Es liegt was in der Luft—‘there’s something in the air’—to which he had written new lyrics. He’d turned it into a satirical number, as part of an environmental cabaret revue. It was glorious. And a roaring success. He was so alive, so in it, so buoyed by the love from the audience, so overjoyed about doing this, and doing it well.
Many years later—not on this trip, another eight years or so after that—I was in Basel where I’d heard he had since taken on a job as Artistic Director of a small theatre.
It was a sunny afternoon, and I walked into the foyer, to see if he happened to be around, just to say hello, on a whim. I asked a young man who was doing something to the display. “Oh,” he said. And I can still see the look on his face, of surprise and regret: “No. I’m sorry. He died a few months ago.”
I salute you, my friend, and I thank you for the time, the patience, the generosity and the inspiration: you genuinely helped me find my way – your spirit lives.
< Helvetia Les Grands Amours >
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