My friend Alan

I want to tell you about my friend Alan, but when I try, I always seem to start with the thin man.

Once on a flight from Amsterdam to Vienna I was happy to have an empty seat beside me, but at the last minute an extraordinary man came yelling and elbowing in. He was wild-haired and wild-eyed, carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He was very, very tall and very, very thin. His face was all bones and nose and jaw.

He ricocheted down the aisle and threw himself beside me with the parcel on his lap. Although it was November and snow-cold he was running with sweat, so to cool off he removed his T-shirt and sat bare-chested, all angles and hollows and sheen. He didn’t smell good. He smelt of underarm and woodsmoke and beneath it was something wild and fishy. When I described it later to my friend Alan, he said, ‘Did it smell like a hole in a riverbank in which a family of otters have been living all winter?’ That was exactly how it smelt.

The man was in a good mood. He told me that he was going to Vienna to visit his Cambodian girlfriend and that he’d almost missed the flight because he’d been awake for two days drinking with his girlfriend who was an actress from Romania. He asked where I was from and when I told him he said he’d like a girlfriend in South Africa, but not an actress. I asked him what the Vienna girlfriend did for a living, and he said he suspected that she might be working as a prostitute, but mostly she sold drugs.

I nodded thoughtfully at that, and he asked me if I wanted to know what was inside the brown parcel, and I said I didn’t. Then the cabin attendant asked him to put his shirt on, and he tried to kiss her hand, and she called the captain to come and speak to him, and after that I pretended to be asleep.

Back home I went up to Alan’s flat and we drank whiskey and talked about the thin man with the brown paper parcel. Alan made me tell him over and over about the thin man. He thought the thin man was lying because everyone lies, but he thought the truth might have been even more interesting. We talked about the people we encounter once and never see again. We wished there was some sort of computer program that could show us on a world map the movement and location of all the characters that we’ve met but don’t necessarily want to know too well. It would be good to be able to log on and keep tabs on the thin man.

For some time after that, Alan would call me and say, ‘I think I saw the thin man today,’ or halfway through a conversation he’d say, ‘I wonder what the thin man’s doing right now.’ Once he called me late at night and pretended to be the thin man, although obviously he didn’t have the accent quite right.

Alan often made late-night phone calls. He called his friends, but they didn’t always answer, so he’d make prank phone calls to radio shows. Once he complained about a pothole in his living room, and queried why the municipality hadn’t come round to fix it. ‘Standards are slipping!’ he quavered.  He was funny, but I thought he stayed up too late. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to be awake and alone with whiskey too often in the hours after midnight.

Alan and I were at school together, although he was two years older so we weren’t friends back then. Brilliant is an overused word, but Alan was brilliant. He gave off light. He was a public speaker and a debater and he had charm and was funny, with a wit that would cut you but somehow also invite you to laugh along. He spoke to adults as though they were equals, and the more intelligent of them recognised that they should be flattered by that.

He was perhaps my first hero, certainly my first real-life hero. He won a public-speaking competition with a ten-minute speech about the satire of Lewis Carroll, and I acquired a copy of the speech and studied it obsessively, trying to understand how it worked. For years everything I wrote was in answer to the silent question, ‘If Alan were writing this, how would he write it?’ He belonged somewhere finer, in more splendid halls. He made me believe that if the shallow and unpromising soil of Glenwood Boys’ High could produce so extraordinary a bloom, there might be hope for others of us too.

Years later I had moved cities and was working my first job to pay off my student debt. I found a tiny bachelor flat in Rondebosch, and on the day I moved in I met Alan in the lift. He was living two floors above me. We were both poor and neither of us had a car. I had borrowed a portable black-and-white television from my friend Julia Fraser, and he would come down on Tuesday and Thursday nights to watch with me. He had his chair and I had mine and I gave him ice for his whiskey. We were like an old couple in a retirement home.

There’s so little else I can tell you about him. He visited America to see his family and brought me back a mug from Cape Canaveral with the space shuttle on it and my name, and to please him I drank wine from it. Sometimes I still do. In 1994 we queued together for two or three hours to vote in the first democratic elections down on the playing fields of some school. The queue looped like a fly-fishing line across the width of the field, and I spent most of my time watching a girl called Wendy who was in the loop ahead of us. Alan read Private Eye magazine and played jazz piano. He never cleaned his toilet with anything but clear bleach. He bought a second-hand paper shredder because he didn’t trust garbage bins. On the rare occasions I had to attend formal functions he lent me his suit and tie. We were so close and I loved him and I can tell you so little about him.

We fell out in 1996. One of us felt slighted by something, and quickly the other one did too. Whatever the something was, it was nothing, but when you’re young you don’t know anything. We stopped speaking, and the next year I bought a car and drove to Johannesburg to try to make my fortune.

We only had contact three times after that. He came to a book launch of mine at the Waterfront and I saw him at the back of the crowd. A few years later I wrote a television series called Hard Copy, which was set in a newspaper. In one episode a newspaper subeditor who has led a life of quiet frustrations and unchased dreams commits suicide while working the overnight shift at the paper. Late on the night that episode aired, someone left a message on my phone. When I listened to it later, it was a lengthy diatribe from an irate citizen who had subscribed to the fictional newspaper on the TV show. For two years, not a single newspaper had been delivered, and if this continued for much longer, he would regrettably be forced to cancel his subscription. It was a very funny message.

The third time was last year. He came out of a bar on Kloof Street because he saw me passing and crossed the road to speak to me. He looked well and he had that same fine skin, but he was mysterious about what he was doing. He said he’d like to see me, but he wouldn’t give me his cell number. He told me I could find him in that bar on most afternoons. I told him I would, and I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I become uncomfortable when people write about friends or relatives who have taken their own lives. No one knows enough about another person and what they feel. When you try to write about them, you end up writing about yourself and how you feel: you write yourself a starring role in their story. I didn’t have a starring role in Alan’s life, or even an important one, but he did in mine.

Last month, Alan was working the overnight shift as a part-time subeditor at a newspaper in town. At a certain time of the morning, I think around 2 a.m., the security camera footage shows him standing up from his desk and taking the elevator to the roof of the building.

I think it’s human to wonder why someone killed themselves, but I think it’s impertinent to speculate about it. I can’t even decide whether the why ever matters.


14 March 2014