Friday, January 22, 2016

Spring And Fall: A winter's grave

"Have you ever tended a child's grave in winter? Do you know what it is to look down on the earth that covers the bones you made? Do you remember the smell of wet leafmeal? Did you feel the cold in your knees? Did you weep when you wiped the grime from the tiny headstone? Did you think about the day when you first came to this place? It was a long while back; it was a lifetime ago that we buried Jolly."

This is the opening to a story entitled "Spring And Fall". I won't give details about the story, as to do so would seem inappropriate and disrespectful. The last sentence does, however, give an idea. "Then he opened the window." The "he" was Jolly, the diminutive for Jolyon.

The author was someone perhaps better known for his idiosyncratic television broadcasts. Well before those, I had become aware of Jonathan Meades. Less so for his journalism than for his fiction and essays. The story comes from a collection called "Filthy English". Published in 1984, it remains one of the finest collections of short stories in a contemporary tradition.

Why am I mentioning this story? Its context, as with the other stories, was mainly the Wiltshire where he grew up and the New Forest and Hampshire that he also knew. Much of the raw material for the stories came from his mother who was a teacher. It was a very English context of the 1960s. As such, it has nothing to do with Spain of 2016. Except, that is, it has everything to do with now, right here, because of the opening and the ending.

I haven't re-read the story thoroughly, but I don't think Meades reveals the boy's age. But from hints as I remember them, he would probably have been around eleven or twelve. It is the very sadness of that opening and of the ending that now come to mind. Have you ever tended a child's grave in winter? One who was eleven years old and who had committed suicide?

Diego González was eleven. He lived in the Madrid district of Leganés. On 14 October last year, Diego jumped from the fifth floor of the family home. On the windowsill was a note. He gave it a title, asking for "Lucho" to be looked after. Lucho was the name of a comfort doll he had had since he was a baby.

"Dad, mum. These eleven years I've been with you have been very good and I will never forget them just as I will never forget you. Dad, you've taught me to be a good person and to keep my promises, and also you have played with me a great deal. Mum, you've taken care of me so much and you've taken me to many places. Each of you is amazing, but together you are the best parents in the world ... I hope that one day we can see each other again in heaven."

Of the remaining content of the note, there is one line that explains everything but yet of course leaves so much unexplained. "I'm telling you this because I can't bear going to school." Diego had concluded, as he wrote, that there was no other way to not go to school.

The suicide was treated by the police as having been the consequence of bullying at school. Diego's parents, though, want the case to be kept open. They say that "odd things" have happened at the school.

It's impossible for me to offer any comment on this particular tragedy and nor would I wish to comment. But it prompted a search into suicide among younger children, a group about which less seems to be said than teenagers. The causes, however, sound much the same, with bullying being one of them. In December 2006, for example, eleven-year-old Ben Vodden took his life in Horsham, Sussex. The bullying had included name-calling by a school bus driver. Other possible causes, again out of respect, do not warrant detailing. The scale of pre-adolescent suicide, mercifully, is miniscule. But, again by example, 56 suicides by under-12s in the US in 2006 are 56 too many.

The circumstances of Diego's death and the one that Jonathan Meades wrote about are very different. There was no bullying in "Spring And Fall": quite the contrary in fact. But his story is one that affected me when I first read it all those years ago. And it still does. The opening is one of desperate loss and sadness. What follows is the wondering and the not knowing. How would the boy be now, as a man?

While Diego's parents believe there may have been reasons other than the one the police concluded, they will have other questions. How utterly and awfully unbearable.

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