Today’s paper has a photograph of someone from my childhood. He used to live next door. He was tall, brown haired, hazel eyed. Very different from the rest of us with our mops of black hair and midnight eyes. Back then, I’d thought of him as my best friend.
I’d hardly see him without a book in hand. Though he was quiet around everyone, he’d describe to me scenes from his books, often at length because I listened. And I enjoyed listening to him.
“You should read this,” he said once, handing me a worn copy of Enid Blyton. “It’s full of magic and exploring fantastic lands.”
It was also over a hundred pages and I didn’t have the patience.
When I was eight, he was thirteen and reading novels. Those days his room had piles of paperbacks. He would devour just about anything. Until he discovered Stephen King. Then it was only King he read. I still remember those peculiar covers with King’s name embossed on them.
“Amazing stuff,” he said when I asked. “It’s so dark, the darkest stuff I’ve ever read.”
“What do you mean ‘dark’?”
“It’s full of fear and loneliness and death and other things that’s too horrible to say to a little boy like you.”
“You like those things?”
“I feel like he’s my soulmate.”
“What’s a soulmate?”
“Someone who understands you completely.”
I recall a picnic we went on with our families. It was to an island a few hours by boat from the city. Those days we didn’t have speedboat ferries. These boat trips were an experience unto themselves, a lot of jokes, a lot of storytelling. A lot of laughter. And you could watch the islands crawl past, separated by stretches of the most brilliant blue.
That time, he was reading King by himself on the bench, close to the prow. Some men, friends of the family, had traditional drums and they started beating out a rhythm. One that I recognised from the morning radio, which I listened to every day while I got ready for school.
I approached one of the drummers.
“Have a go,” he said.
I started playing, mimicking the movements of their hands.
“Wow, you’ve got it,” he exclaimed. “Hey everybody, this kid is magic.”
My friend put down the book and his beautiful eyes met mine. He grinned.
“Who’d have thought,” he said. “You’ve got talent.”
I felt a surge of joy so potent I lost the beat and everyone laughed.
After we’d arrived and settled in a house, everybody wanted to go to the beach. We took lots of soft drinks, a pot of instant noodles, a fiery mango-tamarind paste that I loved.
The beach was empty but for us. My dad took me and my friend to the jetty and we walked to its edge. The water below was a deep aquamarine, calm and inviting.
“Think you can jump off the end?” asked my dad.
I looked at the water again. It seemed a long way down but I wanted to impress my friend.
“Sure,” I said.
“Dive feet first, don’t land on your stomach,” said dad.
I jumped and regretted it immediately. Those panic-stricken seconds it took me to hit the sea were unbearable. Then it was water, water everywhere, in my mouth, up my nose. I rose sputtering to the surface. My dad was laughing.
“Well done, son, well done.”
I went back on shore, ate some of the mango-tamarind paste and watched my friend who was at the tip of the jetty. He was swinging his arms as though in preparation to launch himself into the water.
“One, two, three, jump!” My dad shouted. But my friend laughed a strange, shrill laugh and backed out. He repeated this at least three times, complete with the laugh. Then dad gave up.
“Why didn’t you jump?” I asked him later when we were eating our noodles.
“I have acrophobia,” he said.
“What? Is it bad?”
“No silly, it means I’m scared of heights.”
I thought of how I’d felt when I made the jump. It was scary. But only when I was in mid-air. Maybe he could imagine it more intensely, the terrifying process of falling, of not having a comforting anchor on solid ground.
We grew distant after he’d moved to Australia for his studies in his late teens. On those rare occasions that he was back in town, he’d visit me. He looked much the same but was quieter. Those visits quickly turned uncomfortable, we realised we had nothing to say to each other. Soon, we lost touch.
Looking at the photograph again, it seems unbelievable to think that this was the same person. The boy who couldn’t jump off the jetty had leapt from a building to his death. In Epping, Sydney. It made the local news because, for one, he was a professor, and for another, things like this never happened to distinguished Maldivians abroad. He suffered from depression, the article said. He was survived only by his mother.
A sense of loss grips me and my mind unearths a memory. I must have been nine years old. I was at his house playing a video game seated on the small sofa. He was reading King on the wicker chair next to it. After a while, he put the book down on his lap and looked at me with a curious expression.
“Life is a curse,” he said.
“What’s a curse?”
“It’s something terrible that passes on from person to person.”
“Like a disease?”
“Sort of. You have no choice in coming into being.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you here because you wanted to? In this world?”
“Well, but I like it. Don’t you? Do you think it’s bad?”
“For most,” he said. “For most of us, it’s very bad. It’s hell. Just don’t have any children when you grow up.”