:: Article

Joy of Suicide

A hundred naked bodies stretched across a carpark: dull. A broken toilet slumped on a square of grass: cliché. A bed shipwrecked on a sea of polished floorboards, a thin gloss of my semen draped across the pillow like a dead seahorse: possibly. I could entitle it ‘My Love Life’. There. I’ve got it.
Then a worry pricks me.

I pick up a copy of Art Monthly, flipping through the greasy, glossy pages. Page 34, paragraph 3: And Amy Lourdes’ Latest Composition is Entitled Why I Don’t Swallow, consisting of a sample of her Ex’s sperm draped across her bed… So the idea isn’t mine, just another one of those caterpillars which has eaten into my subconscious and emerged as a butterfly laying claim to be a new species, but turns out to be just another Cabbage White.

I glance down at the magazine again. Amy Lourdes looks like a token artist: hair dyed red and chopped into a bob, pointy cheekbones magnified by thick black-rimmed glasses. But she is very sexy; her black polo neck — the uniform of twentysomething trendy female artists ™ — clings deliciously to her swan’s neck and the peachy swell of her breasts. I wonder if I could persuade her to copulate with me for twenty-four hours as an installation, but I have a feeling that had been done before, if not by someone then by bloody Tracey Emin.
So, even though it is only eight o’clock, I climb into bed without bothering to undress, close the curtains and stare up at the ceiling, listening to the summer sounds of London and waiting, waiting, waiting.


In the morning I am woken by the depressing, shrill squawk of birds.

Twenty minutes later, I am about to force a soggy breakfast of cornflakes and rancid milk into my mouth, when the telephone rings. It is Archimedes.

“Hi, Adrian,” he says. “All ready for the auditions on Saturday?”

“Yep,” I say, “I’ve got a great idea, but obviously I can’t tell you…”

“Oh, go on…”


“Well, Sarah came up with something really wild. God…it’s…you have to listen, listen to this — ”

“I’m listening.”

“Listen: picture this: a ten-foot beetle, made of plastic, standing upright.”


“With a huge black cock sticking out of it and a white bed lying underneath. Basically, it’s a ten-foot vibrator. Women viewing the exhibition can lie down on the bed and use it if they dare. We’ve got a slight problem with working out how we can skirt around hygiene laws and how big the battery for the cock would have to be, but… can you see it, can you? And Amy Lourdes said they’re looking for something that illuminates and illustrates British life today.”


“Well — the high streets are exploding with sex shops for women, aren’t they? Female entrepreneurs arguing that women have the right to walk into a shop and buy a leopard-skin-coloured vibrator just as a man can walk into a newsagents and buy a porn mag without shame. It’s the Anne Summers revolution.”

“Wow,” I say, a pain stabbing into my heart. “That’s great.”

“Thanks, Adrian.”

I put down the telephone and contemplate cutting off my ear with the bread-knife but it’s too blunt and has strawberry jam on it, so I pull out two bottles of paracetamol from the cupboard instead.

If your life flashes before you when you die, it positively drags before you when you attempt suicide.
I sit by the Thames, trying to write my suicide notes. They started off reasonably long (Dear Mum, I’m sorry I never became the great artist I promised you I was going to be, but I’ve realised now that I am not able to manipulate life in the way I once thought possible and that sometimes one just has to wave the white flag and give in…) but gradually became shorter until they verged on the minimalist (Archimedes – see you in hell, Adders). An hour later, I’m exhausted, so exhausted I wonder if I have any energy left to die. It’s worse than Christmas cards; every time I reach out to take the pills, I think of a crucial person I’ve forgotten; white lid – Auntie Chloe! – pill on tongue – Mr Crisp, old Latin teacher who introduced me to Virgil — glug of water — old woman in the flat below! In the end I decide to write a communal one but it has the feel of one of those emails you send when you’ve been travelling in Asia along the lines of ‘Hi guys, yesterday I suffered from diarrhoea after a dodgy curry and was mugged by a beggar, wish you were here…’ So I screw it up and toss it into the water. Then I screw them all up and toss them in the water. They bob like baby cygnets, then mulch into white leaves, then sail away and sink into a soggy debris.

And then the idea hits me.

Back home, I ring up Archimedes and breathlessly tell him my idea.

“Adrian, you can’t do that,” he says, his horror palpable. “It’s just…sick…”

“As sick as a ten-foot plastic vibrator in the shape of a beetle?” I cry.

“But there’s a line — there’s always a line, and you’ve crossed it…you’ve crossed it.”

“But it’s not sick, it’s a fascinating exploration of the beauty of death – “ I try to explain, but he has hung up on me.


The facts about suicide: men are more likely to favour guns whilst women will use less lethal methods such as poison or knives; hence twice as many women as men try to commit suicide but a large proportion of them fail, so men, who have much higher success rates (in this age of feminism, it’s nice to know us guys are still good at something), outnumber women by four to one. Suicide has been made stylish by famous greats such as Socrates (hemlock), Slyvia Plath (gas asphyxiation), Kurt Cobain (shotgun in the mouth), Cleopatra (asp), Ernest Hemmingway (shotgun to head), and Johnny Ace (Russian roulette). The current number one suicide spot in the world is the Golden Gate Bridge; the first jumper said, “This where I get off”; the 500th jumped with “500” pinned to his jumper; the youngest jumper was a boy aged five whose father asked him to do so and then followed him shortly after. It seems that while we may lead lives of quiet desperation, nobody wants to die quietly.

Suicide has risen by 60% in the last 45 years. It is the main cause of death for men aged 18-24 in the UK.
In the US, it is the 2nd highest cause of death for women aged 15 up and upwards.
Every 40 seconds, someone in the world tops themselves.
The statistics tumble about in my mind as I walk out of the library having missed an entire night’s sleep. In the brown fog of a winter dawn, I watch the flow and flood of people over London Bridge. I calculate that approximately one in ten will die from suicide by the end of the day. The Chinese girl with the pinched face? Or the middle-age man with the sagging face who looks as though one day his skin will drop away from him like a snake’s, leaving a skein of exhausted soul? I try to unpeel their commuter masks, to translate a drown or interpret a fan of lines around a red-painted mouth, but in the end, it’s impossible: who can ever truly know what’s going on in another person’s mind?
Still, the odds are on my side…

By midday, I begin to wonder just who formulates these statistics: the drug companies who claim happiness lies in a pink pill to be swallowed morning and evening? I’ve spent all morning in Pret A Manger and still had no success. Or maybe ill-luck is on my side and the happiest people in Camden have all decided to congregate for a morning coffee in order to smile at the sunshine and sing along to STEPs crackling over the radio.

I decide to be methodical in my approach: I order a cappucino, sit down and spend five minutes sorting out the wheat from the chaff, those on the edge from the happy masses. I pick out the 3 most likely candidates, but all our conversations go something like this:

Candidate 1:
ME (having approached a young girl with the brown plaits and glasses (she looked quite happy but I figure those wearing glasses are more prone to self-loathing than those who are not): Hi, my name is Adrian and I was wondering if you’ve ever felt like topping yourself?

GIRL: That’s the worst chat-up line I’ve ever heard.

Candidate 2:
ME (having approached a young girl with rather lovely black hair): Have you ever felt depressed?

GIRL: Look, really, I don’t need a man to sort my life out, OK?

Candidate 3:
ME (having approached a young girl with long blond tresses): Would you be interested in taking part in a survey on life after death?

The GIRL merely waves at the six foot Pret A Manager assistant, who politely tells me to leave his café and stop harassing his customers.

I walk outside feeling despondent when suddenly the sweetest of sounds filters through my mind: a busker, blowing spittle through a mouth-organ. He puts the organ down and takes a swig from a can of Budweiser. Of course, I realise. Of course. The homeless. London is full of them. Perfect.

I approach the busker. He seems ageless; he looks as though he might be anywhere between forty and a hundred. Life has slashed deep frown lines across his forehead and a little chain of beer bubbles glimmers like a snail-trail on his straggling beard. His accent is Irish; his speech broken, as though in the passage from mind to mouth, some part of his brain has employed the Cut-Up technique on his sentences. Nevertheless, he is keen to tell me his story.

“I lost him…I lost my boy and she chucked me out…by the time I got back the locks were gone and the bank nicked it back…I drank after I lost my job and I knew she didn’t like it but she shouldn’t have taken him away…she said Greece…the bank’s got it now…I’ve lost my little boy…” his eyes are shiny with tears.

“So how would you like to die?” I cut in before his boring rant can continue. “I can help you…”

“DIE!” he roars, expelling hot, fermented breath into my face, “I CAN’T DIE! I’VE GOT TO BE ALIVE FOR MY BOY!”

Shocked, I back off. I decide it’s time to give up. This isn’t working; people are just too complicated.

By the time I got home, I was ready to start writing notes for myself again, when the telephone rang.

“Listen,” said Archimedes, “I’ve been thinking about your idea and, while I was disgusted at first, I actually think it’s quite good.”

“You do?”

“As a matter of fact, Sarah has a friend called Caro who might be just the person you’re looking for. She’s nearly thirty and she’s been suicidal for much of her life. Sarah says she’s staying at Guys Hospital at the moment — she slit her wrists two days ago – and she’d be happy to meet with you…”


My first impression of Caro is one of disappointment.

For the past day, I’ve been picturing her as I picture Virgil’s Dido: a tall, willowy woman with a heart-shaped face and tender eyes and a mane of long fox-coloured curls which, as the flames ignited it, would blaze out like a glorious comet. The logic of why a girl possessing this kind of beauty would want to die when she could earn a million a minute making perfume ads hasn’t crossed my mind.

The real Caro is sitting up in an off-white hospital bed like an anorexic beetle. Her hair is short and black and hangs in a squiff over her widow’s peak. A stud gleams in her chin, another in her nose. Her nail-bitten fingers, decked with dirty-silver-coloured rings in the shape of scorpions, crosses, and rats, nervously thread in and out of each other. I try not to stare at the scars on her wrist and stare into her eyes: black, and cold as marbles.

“Hi,” I say. “How are you?”

She rolls her eyes.

I put my hands in my pockets and stare out of the window at the grey-washed sky. This is harder than I’d imagined it would be. What shall I say? ‘Archimedes tells me you’ve had five failed attempts at suicide in the last year. Well, this is your lucky day because I can finally guarantee you a success!’
I must try to be delicate for once.

“Er…I can’t really understand why anyone would really want to…not live, when we live in such a beautiful world…with sunsets and birds, but…” I break off, worried that this is the wrong tack: I mustn’t persuade her out of it, must I? “I mean, even so, life is the pits, so I can’t blame you for wanting to get out while you’re young, I mean why let it drag out till you’re old and ugly and wrinkled and…” I break off, swallowing. “So I — “

“Cut the crap, OK?” she says. “I know you don’t give a shit about me. Just tell me what you want and how it’s going to work.”

A woman who speaks the same language as I do.

“Okay.” Feeling relieved, I sit down in the window-ledge and look her straight in her eye. “My name is Adrian Walker. I’m a graduate from the St. Martin’s School of art. I’m auditioning for the TV show, Art Idol on Saturday. Basically, it’s this: young artists can show their work on it and a team of judges, chaired by Simon Powell and Amy Lourdes and other notables, who couldn’t even recognise a Van Gogh, tear it to pieces — okay, so you know about it. Well, I made it to the final ten — you might have read about me in the papers? No…well, anyway, I want to be the next Damien Hirst and I just think…I know, I can win it…but I really need something impressive and dangerous and strange and something that hasn’t been done before. Because that’s the trouble — everything’s been done. Cubism, Impressionism, Modernism – there aren’t any isms left. Just posts. That’s why we’re reduced to pretending toilet seats are art or a glass of water sitting on a shelf is really an oak tree. And then I had a vision, I came up with a truly original and unique concept. Imagine it: a huge funeral pyre, red and orange flames blazing up in a fiery frenzy, a beautiful woman steps forwards, climbs the steps and flings herself onto it and it’s terrible — the crackle of the flames eating into her flesh, the hiss of her bones, her intestines and liver and stomach melting into a pink fleshy soup, reduced a few minutes later to ashes — but it’s beautiful, it’s glorious, it’s a celebration of death…” I gulp, blink, suddenly remember where I am. “But obviously I, er, needed someone who…er…well, didn’t really …er …fancy …sticking round…so I thought perhaps you…”

“So how much are you willing to pay me?”


“How much are you willing to pay me?”

“Well…” I laugh and wipe my sweaty palms on my knee-caps. “Forgive me for pointing this out, but you will actually be…”

“Yes, I know that. But I want to leave some for my father. He works as a postman; I’d like him to have a little present.”

“Ah…how much were you thinking of?”

“A thousand.”

“A thousand — Jesus Christ.”

“Oh well, how much were you planning to offer me? 20p? I’m not just breaking a nail here, you know, I’m — “

“Yes, of course, of course. A thousand is fine. Let’s make it two, in fact,” I say, immediately regretting it. I’ll just have to put it into my Barclaycard.

“Two thousand pounds.” She lights up a cigarette, the flare pirouetting in her mocking eyes. “A modest price to pay for your fifteen minutes fame, Adrian.”

I nearly say, “Fifteen minutes? — I’m hoping for a lot more than that” but manage to shut up in time.


When I was sixteen years old, I went through a crisis that afflicts everyone at some point in their lives: why are we here? It appears to be a crisis which particularly afflicts two groups of people: teenagers and those in mid-life crisis. Teenagers cope by indulging in sex, drugs and rock and roll; those in midlife crisis cope by resigning from their jobs and having affairs with blonde girls half their age; I reacted by turning to Buddhism, which was rather less fun. At the height of my obsession, I travelled over Thailand in an orange robe eating nothing but chick-peas and spending dizzy nights reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead with red eyes. My trek sprawled into India: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and finally, the Himalayas. I remember walking through a forest trail one day when a man suddenly burst out his hut, blowing into the curled pink lips of a conch. Its blasts, sounding like an invocation for battle, echoed around the mountains: beautiful and primal. A signal that a funeral procession was nearby.

They didn’t seem to mind me watching the procession. The men — fifteen or so Gurkas — had only just finished building the funeral pyre, a circular structure filled with logs. As the body of the ninety-eight year old man was lifted onto it, they all cheered. In Buddhism, death is celebrated, for it releases the spirit from the prison of the body, allowing a chance for rebirth. Theraveda is a school of Buddhism that takes this idea to its limits, encouraging students to meditate on the ten stages of the decomposition of the body. Following the funeral, I locked myself into a mud-hut to attempt this but after twenty-four hours I felt more unhinged than enlightened.

I keep trying to remember which materials they used to build the pyre, but my memory fails me. I surf the net and I Ask Jeeves but all he can come up with is a mass of articles protesting about the problem of sati still being practised in India.

I sigh and chew my pen and flip over my pad. Now that the initial fizz of inspiration has faded, there are numerous practical and legal issues to sort out, and only four days left to wrap them up.

And then there is Caro who, frankly, is proving to be rather a pain. My plan was not to see her until Saturday in order to preserve a kind of innocence. I also thought this would give her a chance to spend her last week with the people she loved. But this morning she insisted on dragging me out to her solicitor and listening to her making out her will, in which she left everything to her father. I can’t help feeling she is trying to punish me in some way.

Then on Thursday she comes with me to the carpenter who is having to quickly knock up the pyre (another vast expense on the Barclaycard). We discuss whether we want the pyre circular or square, plain or with simple carved patterns of angels and birds and it feels absurd, as though we are parents picking out a crib for our unborn.

Friday night comes and I’m exhausted. I’ve spent hours locked in hot offices with the Art Idol lawyers thrashing out the legalities of the situation. Naturally, there was no way anyone was going to give us permission to execute a live immolation, so I lied and told them that my art-piece was simply going to involve Caro, dressed in black, dancing like a nymph around the blazing pyre. Even so, they still had to make numerous calls to the Environmental Health & Protection Agency, various insurance agencies and even the local fire station, who are now on red alert and have several vehicles in the BBC car-park, hoses poised. I am dying to crash out for an early night so I am fresh for tomorrow but Caro calls me up and insists on going for a drink.

I go all the way over to Leicester Square to meet her and she informs me she can’t drink in a pub because she hates crowds. So we go back to my place.

I apologise for the scruffy state of my flat, but she doesn’t seem fussed. I pour her a Baileys (left over, thank God, from my last one night stand). We sit beside each other on the sofa, a Robbie Williams CD whirring in the background.

“I don’t like Robbie Williams much,” she says. “I prefer the Manic Street Preachers.”

I don’t reply; just because she’s going to die tomorrow I don’t want to listen to crap all night.

“So why are you so, um, upset?” I break the silence.

“I’m just unlucky. I’ve resigned myself to it now. I used to be so angry all the time and when I tried to kill myself I was sticking up two fingers at life…but now I just want to go.”

“Why are you unlucky then?”

“God, tact isn’t something you were born with, is it? Well, if you really want to know, last year I discovered that I was pregnant with my father’s child.”

“Oh God…” Suddenly tact does seem a virtue after all. And now I’ve prised open her soul and she can’t stop talking…

“The terrible thing is, I wanted to keep the baby, even after all these years of…everyone says he loves me, just a little too much…and even though everyone said you must give her up she’ll be brain-looped and la-la-ed, and even though they said I’d hate her because she was part of him, I wanted her, the feeling of something living and growing inside me made me want to live for the first time ever…but it wasn’t meant to be because she died as she came out…” She swallows.

“You can cry if you want to,” I said nervously, hoping she won’t.

“I never cry,” she says.


“Never. Maybe when I first emerged from my mother. Not since then. Anyway, enough about me, I’ll be dead tomorrow. What about you?” She reaches forwards to take the Baileys and the black strap of her top slips down her shoulder. Without thinking, I scoop it back up. My fingers freeze and then I pull back, about to apologise, but she sits back as though nothing has happened.

“What about you?” she says. “Adrian Walker, superstar artist, who has everything? Do you experience a single moment of unhappiness or doubt?”

“I’m not that happy,” I reply defensively. “Sometimes I get depressed too. But after Saturday, life is going to get good.”

“If you think that everything is going to change when you win Art Idol, you’re stupid — it won’t change anything.”

“Of course it will change everything. I’ll be rich and famous. People are being terribly shallow when they say fame and money don’t mean anything.”

“Yes, but there are plenty of famous people who are still miserable. I’m not preaching. The point is, depression is frequently hereditary and caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and though bursts of serotonin caused by outward luck can help, at the end of the day you are who you are.”

“Yeah, well….” I think of my own father, locked away in a padded cell in St Nicholas’s Hospital, and I feel rather irked.

Then to my surprise, she apologies.

“Sorry — I’ve been too many counsellors, as you can probably tell.”

I smile and ask her if she wants another drink.

“It feels strange,” she muses, rather dreamy now. “I keep feeling that because this is the last night before I die, I should be — you know, bungee-jumping or whatever.”

“And instead you’re having a drink with a guy you hardly know.”

“I feel I know you now,” she says, sounding offended. “After all, it’s not often you kill yourself for someone.”

I try to mumble a thank you, but she tells me to shut up and kisses me.

An hour later, we swing into my bedroom and collapse onto the bed, giggling. Our laughter fades as I slowly undress her. The curtains are open and the pale light from the watercolour sunset, set against the vibrant orange artificiality of the street-lamp, caresses her body, lighting up the tiny hairs so that her skin looks like the down of some fabulous exotic fruit. I lean down and kiss her for some time. She tries to hunch her arms against her body; but I unfold them and touch her scars with the tips of my fingers as she whispers a history of each cry for help. A slash on her left wrist; a slit on her stomach; a trio of cuts on her left shin. When tears fill her eyes I kiss them away and kiss her lips and drink her tears from her throat into mine. We make slow and tender love for hours, until the street-lamps are superfluous, and then bright, and then beacons in the blackness.

The next morning, I say:

“So I guess this was just a one night stand?”

And she says:

“That’s a bit of a stupid question, isn’t it?”


“Well, I define a good piece of conceptual art as that which alters one’s understanding of the conventions of art by altering our perception and in that respect I think China’s works in that it encourages us to reassess the human body and its role in society and is in some respects a rather amusing comment on the concept of the Body Politic; how about you Simon?” says Amy Lourdes.

Simon looks deeply bored and folds his arms.

“I think it’s rather predictable…”

“Not predictable! It’s a satirical comment on the organ trade that exists underground in London and the dilemma of the illegal immigrant,” Amanda Bubble enthuses, tossing back her curls. She is from the US and I think the extent of her art know-how is writing fashion pieces for Vogue; she probably has her dinner served by an illegal immigrant every night.


“I think that’s a little harsh, Simon,” says Amy.

“…and I don’t even believe it is his liver,” Simon concludes thoughtfully. “It looks like a beetroot.”

The audience laugh. China hastily lifts up his black T-shirt to reveal a scar.

“It really is my liver,” he protests.

“Isn’t that where your appendix are?” Simon asks.

“No, I had those removed for the semi-finals,” says China.

Watching the video monitor in the dressing-room, I smile. We are halfway through the show and so far the competition has not been very fierce. Emma’s contribution was the remnants of her old nose (before a surgeon perfected it). Piers’ installation involved ten small sample jars of his urine, taken on a daily basis, in a various shades of lemon (excepting a token purple one from the day he ate beetroot). And now China’s conceptual piece: his liver, removed from his body by an amateur surgeon, sitting in a glass jar (in order to stay alive he replaced it with another obtained via the illegal organs trade; apparently it came from an elderly Hindu and is already packing up). This has been glorious fodder for the tabloids, who have been joking that he won’t be able to drink any champagne if he wins.
Only he won’t win. He can’t win. I am going to win.
There are only two slight problems. Firstly, Caro hasn’t showed up. Secondly, I think I might be glad that she hasn’t.
I haven’t had time to shower since last night and I can still taste her in my mouth and feel her sweat and saliva like a fine layer over my body. I don’t want her to die. I want to look after her until her scars have healed and her skin is smooth all over. I keep reminding myself that sex always plays this trick the morning after, but nevertheless I am still amazed by the tenderness of feeling in my heart.
I gradually whip myself into a frenzy of agitation, not knowing whether to be relieved or furious that she has let me down. Then Archimedes tells me she’s been in the dressing-room for the last twenty minutes. I find her being made-up. The sight of an Australian blonde chewing gum and painting Caro’s beautiful face orange and spraying foul-spelling substances onto her hair reduces me to faintly hysterical laughter. Caro looks at me in the mirror, then quickly stares at her lap.

“Please go away,” she says. “I don’t want to talk to you now.”

“I — “


I walk out, feeling raw. I don’t know what to do; I swing between ambition and compassion, love and greed; and by the time I make a decision, it’s too late; Amy Lourdes is calling my name and the studio is full of terrifying hush and Caro is walking out from the wings.

I hug her tightly and whisper in my ear, “Please don’t do this. I really…like you.”

“Let me go,” she whispers. “Last night was just a fantasy. It wouldn’t work, Adrian. Everything I love…I ruin…”

And she walks away from me, leaving petrol stains like black flowers on my T-shirt.

I open up The Aenied and begin to read from Book 4 in a shaky voice:

“When pangs the tender breast of Dido tore,
When, from the tow’r, she saw the cover’d shore
And heard the shouts of sailors from afar,
Mix’d with the murmurs of wat’ry war!
All pow’rful love! What changes canst thou cause
In human human hearts, subject to thy laws!”

But nobody is really listening to me.

As she throws herself onto the pyre, the audience go potty. Some scream. Some clap. Some catcall. I look at the judges’ faces. Amy Lourdes’ hand is clamped over her mouth. Amanda Bubble is hysterical, raking her nails through her curls. Simon Powell raises an eyebrow.

Two helpless-looking security guards start barking into their walkie-talkies, summoning the fire brigade to “Get over here — now!”
Clouds of arid blackness fill the air, and the smell of burning flesh. I feel strangely deflated. I know I’m going to win, and yet I feel empty, as though I am filled with smoke.
I think of Ovid’s conclusion to Metamorphoses, where he declares his great poem will forever paint his name in the stars. I think of how the newspapers will construct a myth around us: A MODERN-DAY ROMEO AND JULIET! I think of Caro lying in bed beside me last night, her nose rubbing against mine in an Eskimo kiss. I think of the Himalayas and watching the old man’s body burn: the sheets of orange flame fading into glowing coals, the jets that flared from his remains in exquisite bursts of cerulean blue and saffron yellow. I take a running jump onto the pyre, fall against her charred body and hold her tight, and as the flames sear into my soul, above the crackle of flesh and my dying screams I am sure I hear Amy Lourdes say:

“What a load of ostentatious crap — let’s give it to the guy who cut his liver out…”


Sam Mills was born in 1975 and studied English at Oxford. Her first novel, A Nicer Way To Die was published by Faber in 2006 and described by one reviewer as “not for the faint-hearted”.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 26th, 2007.