Column for BBC Radio Four "Home Truths" 1999
It all started with a distraught call from a family friend aged 20, to say his big brother had just jumped off a tower block. We consoled him, lent money to tide him over and had special prayers said at the local church.
The whole thing turned out to be an unforgiveably sick hoax he'd dreamed up while bored and broke one evening. He at least had the grace to be horribly ashamed until, unbelievably, he pulled the same trick again. We got a message to say Andrew himself had jumped from the same building and would we please come to his funeral. The added twist (this time) was that it was true.
The supposedly dead brother weeping over Andrew's grave is not a sight I'll readily forget - and the emotional devastation he's inflicted on those of us who loved him is a lot harder to forgive than last year's savage practical joke.
But then Andrew himself had had much to forgive.
He was one of three children whose mother had run away with a lorry driver, leaving them to a drunk and abusive father. The Great Aunt who eventually rescued them was friends with my mother in law - and one day my partner brought Andrew home to tea. He was a funny, likeable ten year old - whose thirst for nurture was matched only by his skills of manipulation. Before long we'd become unofficial wicked godparents, spoiling him with weekend treats of cinema and circuses.
His mother, meanwhile, remarried and started a new family elsewhere. Andrew was devastated. "If I came to live with you", he once asked wistfully, "what time would you make me go to bed ?" "Eight O'Clock" said my partner without hesitation - and his face fell a mile. We did in fact give serious thought to adopting him - but by 12 Andrew had become a serious handful. We'd also started planning a family of our own.
The arrival of a breastfeeding baby hit our home like a tornado. Andrew no longer enjoyed our undivided attention, or even affection - in fact, his visits became exasperating. Utterly unable to entertain himself with a book or magazine, he would mope in front of the telly, sullen and resentful while we tidied up around him. Eventually he stopped coming altogether. With hindsight I feel horribly guilty. Much else was going on in Andrew's life, but the coincidence remains: within a year he'd gone off the rails completely.
Three new foster homes in six months were followed a squat, which he shared with two other runaways. He learnt to smoke, shoplift, snort coke, drop acid, roll joints, turn tricks and worse. He'd done stuff before his 13th
birthday that still makes my thinning hair stand on end today.
We followed his teenage years from a distance - first alarmed, then appalled, and (finally) resigned. Our every suggestion - and entreaty to get help - was brushed aside. No amount of advice or alcohol could quench the terrible infant rage he felt against his feckless mother.
And now he's finally had his revenge on everyone who ever loved him and let him down. He's also devastated the one person who (in those last few months) never let him down at all - his first and final girlfriend.
For me, the worst of it is having attempted suicide myself as a teenager. Blind with self-loathing I downed the pills so greedily, with never a thought for the suffering I'd inflict on those around me. Actually, I probably thought (with grim satisfaction) that they'd all be sorry.
And now it's me that's sorry. Sorry to have failed Andrew as a friend, not to have answered his last drunken phone call... sorry at this hateful end to his short and tortured life.
Most of all, I'm sorry to have even dreamed of doing this myself, all those years ago, to those I loved most. They were bighearted enough then to forgive me for trying. The least I can do now is forgive Andrew for succeeding - and so I will.
© TOM ROBINSON 1999
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