Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan
‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is about resilience and hope and addresses aspects of mental health. It deals specifically with depression, self-harm and suicide.
Do you need to know more? Read the full script.
Script of ‘Every Brilliant Thing’
NARRATOR The list began after her first attempt. A list of everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for.
1. Ice cream.
2. Water fights.
3. Staying up past your bedtime and
being allowed to watch TV.
4. The colour yellow.
5. Things with stripes.
7. People falling over.
All things that, at seven, I thought were really good but not necessarily things Mum would agree with. I started the list on the 9th of November, 1987. I’d been picked up late from school and taken to hospital, which is where my Mum was. Up until that day, my only experience of death was that of my dog, Sherlock Bones. Sherlock Bones was older than me, and he was a central part of my existence. He was really sick and so the Vet came around to put him down.
The NARRATOR speaks to someone from the AUDIENCE.
Would you mind, I’m going to get you to be the Vet, it’s just that you have an immediate…Veterinary quality.
The NARRATOR gets the VET to stand.
It’s alright, I won’t ask you to do very much. Just stand here. And would you mind if I borrowed your coat?
The NARRATOR takes a coat from someone else.
Thank you. Okay, so you’re the Vet, and I’m me as a seven-year-old boy, and this here…
The NARRATOR holds the coat carefully in his arms, as if it’s a docile animal.
…this is Sherlock Bones. I know you because you’re one of the parents from school. And you say something reassuring, like: ‘You’re doing the kind thing. It’s not a moment too soon.’
VET You’re doing the kind thing. It’s not a moment too soon.
NARRATOR And I don’t know what that means because I’m seven. I’ve no real concept of finality. Or mercy. But you are clearly a very kind man, so I trust you. Now do you have a pencil or a pen on you?
The VET has one or the NARRATOR asks him to get one from someone in the AUDIENCE.
So that pencil is the needle. And inside that needle is an anaesthetic called pentobarbital. The dose is large enough to make the dog unconscious and then depress his brain, respiratory and circulatory systems, and to put him to sleep forever.
(To the owner of the coat.) It’s completely blunt so we won’t draw on your nice coat okay? When you’re ready I want you to come over here and inject Sherlock Bones in the thigh.
The VET approaches the NARRATOR and attempts the task.
No, the thigh
If the VET is smiling or laughing:
Now I’m going to stop you for a moment there. There is one hard and fast rule while euthanising a child’s pet and that is you really mustn’t laugh as you do it. Totally changes the tone of the situation.
So um, no…let’s do this again. Go back to the start and try to respect the solemnity of the situation.
Maybe take a moment. Okay. Let’s try this again.
The VET completes the task.
Okay, now stroke his little head. Could someone with a watch tell me when thirty seconds has passed?
I held Sherlock Bones, who I’d known my entire life. I held him as he died.
The NARRATOR looks at the coat, stroking it gently.
And I thought about the walk we’d had that morning. And about the smell of him in my room. His toys in the garden. The recently opened packet of dry food. His bed under the stairs. All the things that could now be thrown away.
The NARRATOR looks at the coat for a little longer.
And he became lighter. Or heavier, I’m not sure. But different.
And that was my experience of death. A loved one, becoming an object…
The NARRATOR hands the coat to the VET.
…and being taken away forever.
The VET returns to their seat.
It’s the 9th of November, 1987. It’s dark and it’s late. All the other kids had gone home long ago.
Eventually, my Dad pulls up.
The NARRATOR speaks to someone in the AUDIENCE.
I’m going to ask you to be my Dad if that’s okay. You don’t have to do much, just sit here on this step.
The NARRATOR indicates where DAD should sit.
Now, normally it’s my Mum who picks me up and normally she’s on time. Normally I travel in the back because I am seven and I make things sticky. But this time it’s Dad. And it’s late. And he opens the door to the front passenger seat.
The NARRATOR indicates to DAD to open an imaginary passenger door.
Dad looked at me. I looked at him.
When something bad happens, your body feels it before your brain can know what’s happening. It’s a survival mechanism. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin flood your system. It feels like a trapdoor opening beneath you. Fight or flight or stand as still as you can.
I stood very still, looking at my Dad. Eventually, I got into the car. Dad had the radio on. He’d been smoking with the window down.
The NARRATOR sits down next to the man. Now, actually what’s going to happen is that I’m going to be my Dad and you’re going to be me as a seven year old. You don’t have to do much, you just say ‘why’. Okay?
The NARRATOR speaks as the Dad . He doesn’t alter his voice.
Dad Put on your seatbelt.
Dad Because cars can be dangerous.
Dad Because other drivers don’t always pay attention.
Dad Well, because there’s lots to think about when you’re a grown up. There are bills to pay and work to do and relationships to sustain and there’s never enough time to do it all.
Dad Because there are only twenty-four hours in a day.
Dad Well, because that’s how long it takes for the Earth to rotate.
Dad Because…I don’t know.
Dad Because I don’t know everything.
Dad Because that’s impossible.
Dad Because there’s only so much anyone can know.
Dad Because if you were able to know everything then life would be unlivable.
Dad Because then there would be no mystery, no curiosity, no creativity, no conversation, no discovery. Nothing would be new and we’d have no need to use our imaginations and our imaginations are what make life bearable.
Dad Because in order to live in the present we have to be able to imagine a future that will be better than the past.
Dad Because that’s what hope is and without hope we couldn’t go on.
Dad Because…can you just put your seatbelt on?
Dad Because we’re going to the hospital.
Dad Because that’s where your mother is.
Dad Because she hurt herself.
Dad Because she’s sad.
Dad I don’t know.
Dad I just don’t.
Dad Put on your seatbelt.
Dad Because your mother is in hospital.
Dad Because she can’t see anything worth living for.
NARRATOR At least, that’s how I like to remember it. But we actually just sat in silence. The only thing he said to me was:
The NARRATOR feeds the ‘Dad ’ the following line:
Dad Your Mother’s done something stupid.
NARRATOR I didn’t know what that meant.
The NARRATOR thanks the DAD and, if relocated, indicates for him to return to his seat.
At the hospital, Mum saw me and said ‘not him’. So I sat in the corridor next to an old couple…
The NARRATOR sits next to an OLD COUPLE in the audience.
…who bought me a carton of juice and some chocolate from the machine.
He acquires a drink and some chocolate from the OLD COUPLE.
I don’t know exactly when I had the idea for the list but it was here, with the old people, that I started to write it down.
The NARRATOR eats the chocolate and calls out numbers.
1. Ice cream.
2. Water fights.
3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.
4. The colour yellow.
5. Things with stripes.
7. People falling over.
The NARRATOR does the following entries himself.
10. Kind old people who aren’t weird and don’t smell unusual. I don’t like it.
The NARRATOR hands the drink and chocolate back to the OLD COUPLE.
Dad was in with Mum for ages. When he finally came out I followed him down the corridor, I followed him out of the hospital, I followed him to the car park, I followed him in to the car, I followed him up the driveway, I followed him in through the front door, I followed him down the hallway, I followed him up the stairs until we reached his study, where he went inside and closed the door before I could follow him any further. I waited to see what music he put on. I knew the rules. If it was this woman singing I could go into the room. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ by Billie Holiday plays, beginning with her vocal. If it was the sort of music you could sing and dance to, it was okay to go in but I ran the risk of being hugged and spun around in his chair. Some upbeat vocal jazz plays – Cab Calloway perhaps. If no one was singing it meant Dad was working so I should be quiet. Some melodic instrumental jazz plays, John Coltrane or Bill Evans perhaps. And it if sounded like all the instruments were just falling down the stairs, it meant I should leave him alone. ‘Free Jazz’ by Ornette Coleman plays – loud and chaotic. After a moment it fades to silence.
So standing outside his door, I waited to see what he put on. ‘Free Jazz’ by Ornette Coleman plays. After a moment it fades.
I went downstairs and made myself some dinner. A ham and mayo sandwich. Just without the ham. I sat down in front of the TV and continued with the list. It occurred to me the list should be presented in no particular order. There was no way of saying that, for example, Danger Mouse was objectively better than Spaghetti Bolognese.
23. Danger Mouse.
24. Spaghetti Bolognese.
25. Wearing a cape.
26. Peeing in the sea and nobody knows.
I stayed up late writing and fell asleep in the living room. Dad must have carried me upstairs. Mum didn’t come home for a week or so. While she was away I had to speak to the school counsellor, which was actually just Mrs Patterson from upper school. She was a wonderful woman, the sort of woman you looked at and immediately trusted.
The NARRATOR looks at a woman in the AUDIENCE. I’m going to ask you to be Mrs Patterson if that’s okay. Now, what she’d do is, and it seems a little weird now but remember this was the Eighties and she got results, what she’d do is she’d take off her shoe…
The NARRATOR waits for MRS PATTERSON to take off her shoe.
Then she’d take off her sock.
The NARRATOR waits for her to take off her sock.
Then she’d put it on her hand and talk to you through her little sock-dog which she called – what did you call the sock-dog?
The AUDIENCE member says a name, for instance
Yes! That’s it, I remember now. What Mostyn would do is he’d ask questions like ‘how are you feeling today?’
Sock How are you feeling today?
NARRATOR I’m very well thank you Mostyn, how are you?
Sock I’m fine, thank you.
NARRATOR You’re brilliant. What kind of dog are you?
Sock I’m a… (She specifies a breed or colour.)
NARRATOR Wow, that’s amazing. When I was little we had a dog called Sherlock Bones, and he was a cross between a Border Collie and a Doberman, because a Border Collie and a Doberman lived next door to each other in our street and there was a very low hedge. You’re brilliant, by the way. I really like you. I’m going to put you onto my list. 164.
Mostyn the sock dog. Have I told you about my list?
Sock No, tell me about it.
NARRATOR I’m making a list of a thousand Brilliant Things. I’m not certain but I think I might be a genius.
If MRS PATTERSON wishes to ask more questions that’s fine, if not the NARRATOR moves on to: It’s been very nice talking to you, but can I go now? Sock Yes.
NARRATOR Mum did eventually come home from the hospital, and by that time the list was eight pages long and had three hundred and fourteen things on it. I left it on her pillow with the title:
‘Every Brilliant Thing.’
She never mentioned it to me, but I knew she’d read it because she’d corrected my spelling.
I kept speaking with Mrs Patterson and Mostyn once a week, then once a fortnight, then once a month and then one day I left the school and I never saw them again. I don’t want to make it sound like my Mother was a monster or that my childhood was miserable because it wasn’t. We had a piano in our kitchen. It wasn’t a big kitchen but it was the warmest room in the house and we’d gather around it and sing soul songs. There’s a Ray Charles song, ‘Drown In My Own Tears’ that she sang a lot. There’s a moment halfway through that sends shivers down my spine. This moment of the song plays – the drums building and Ray Charles singing ‘why can’t YOU…’ The song continues, quieter.
The way he sings the word ‘you’ gets me every time. It’s like it’s coming out of someone else. We all used to howl it like wolves.
313. Having a piano in the kitchen.
314. The way Ray Charles sings the word ‘You’.
The music swells and continues to play for a few moments longer. The NARRATOR listens. It fades. I forgot about the list until her second attempt, just over ten years later. Dad showed up halfway through Chemistry. The same trapdoor feeling. Fight or flight. The same wordless drive to the hospital. As a teenager I dealt with it less well. I wore my heart on my sleeve. The night she came home, she sat at the kitchen table and said that if it wasn’t for the ham and pineapple pizza lining her stomach from the night before she’d be dead. And I said: ‘You took three weeks’ worth of anti-depressants, a packet of Aspirin and half a tub of antihistamines. You’re probably healthier than I am. If you’re going to kill yourself go jump off a bridge.’ Rather than storm off I sat there and started to shovel food into my mouth. I’d spent ages on this meal and I was furious that she was sitting there, wishing she was dead and letting it go cold. There was a moment of absolute, deafening silence. And then she started to laugh. It was such a genuine laugh that after a while I found myself joining in. Eventually, Dad got up and left the table, going into his study to listen to records. I couldn’t sleep that night. I started to clear out my room, packing up the things I wanted to keep and throwing away the things I didn’t. I started shaking. Have you ever had that? Where you notice that your hands are shaking and your breathing is deeper and you’re surrounded by bin bags full of your things and you realise that, you know, I’m really upset. I must be really upset.
And then, inside a box under my bed, underneath some sticker albums, sea shells and action figures, I found the list. I sat on the floor and I read it through.
1. Ice cream.
The younger me had dealt with this so much better. He wasn’t self-righteous. The younger me was hopeful. Naïve, of course. But, hopeful. So once I got to the end of the list I picked up a pen and continued where that little boy had left off.
315. The smell of old books.
316. Andre Agassi.
317. The even numbered Star Trek films.
318. Burning things.
319. Laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose.
320. Making up after an argument.
The next morning I sat at the end of Mum’s bed and I read the list to her, and she got up and left the room. I followed her and read louder.
516. Winning something.
517. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.
Over the next few days and weeks I would leave messages on the answer phone. I would turn off the radio or stand in front of the TV. I spent a lot of time talking to her back.
518. When idioms coincide with real life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.
521. The word ‘plinth’.
I began leaving Post-It notes around the house, stuck to various things. On her mirror was:
On the kettle:
654. Marlon Brando.
And on her bed:
Every morning I would open my door and I would see a small stack of yellow squares of paper. I became more inventive, writing on the inside of cereal packets or shoes, carving words into fruit or rearranging the fridge magnets.
…inside the lid of some mustard.
324. Nina Simone’s voice.
…stencilled onto a baguette.
It was my aim to reach a thousand. I wasn’t allowed to cheat, which meant:
a. No repetition.
b. Things had to be genuinely wonderful and life-affirming.
c. Not too many material items.
For a few months the list became my sole focus.
761. Deciding you’re not too old to climb trees.
823. Skinny dipping.
Then, the week before I left for university:
992. Knowing to jangle keys at the wildlife park if you want the otters to come out.
993. Having dessert as a main course.
994. Hairdressers who listen to what you want.
995. Bubble wrap.
996. Really good oranges.
I started to be bothered by the thought that my Mum no longer loved my Dad. I put the thought out of my mind and returned to the list.
997. Cycling downhill.
998. Aromatic duck pancakes with hoisin sauce.
It’s common for the children of suicides to blame themselves. It’s natural.
However much you know that you’re not to blame, you can’t help feeling like you failed them. It’s not fair to feel this way. But it’s natural.
In the first week of university, I posted the list to my Mum, anonymously. When I returned that Christmas I found it on my desk, neatly folded back in its envelope. I still don’t know whether or not she had read it. It certainly hadn’t seemed to change her outlook.
I put the list between the pages of a favourite book and I forgot about it. That Christmas was quiet. Difficult. In the New Year, Dad drove me back to university. He gave me a box of his records. I wanted to ask him why but I knew better than that. We didn’t speak. We just listened to the radio.
The NARRATOR sits down next to the person he cast as his Dad.
Music plays – Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘My Melancholy Baby.’ They listen for a moment, then it fades slowly as the NARRATOR speaks.
I was quite shy at university. I didn’t socialise. I’d mostly just listen to records in my room. I would even avoid lectures and seminars. But there was one lecture series that I never missed. It was lead by someone whose books I had read and loved and had inspired me to choose the course in the first place. Would you mind being my lecturer? It’s just because you really look like her.
The NARRATOR selects someone from the audience to be the LECTURER, leads them to the centre of the room and gives them a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther. This particular lecture series was on the Victorian Novella and built up to this one book, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. What she would do is, at the start of the lecture, she would hold the book aloft…
The LECTURER holds up the book. And then she would leave a long dramatic pause…
…and when she felt she had everybody’s undivided attention…
…she would give a very accurate and detailed précis of the novel.
The NARRATOR sits in the audience and waits.
Eventually, the LECTURER realises they can simply read the plot summary on the back of the book. The summary will be different depending on the copy, but will basically say something like:
LECTURER Visiting an idyllic German village, Werther, a sensitive young man, meets and falls in love with sweet-natured Lotte. Although he realises that she is to marry Albert, he is unable to subdue his passion and his infatuation torments him to the point of despair. The first great ‘confessional’ novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther draws both on Goethe’s own unrequited love for Charlotte Buff and on the death of his friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. The book was an immediate success, and a cult rapidly grew up around it, resulting in numerous imitations as well as violent criticism and suppression on the grounds of its apparent support of suicide.
The NARRATOR puts his hand up.
NARRATOR Excuse me, I have a question.
NARRATOR Are you saying that a book, that this book, caused people to take their own lives?
NARRATOR And you want us to read that book?
The NARRATOR thanks the LECTURER and indicates for them to return to their seat.
NARRATOR I left the lecture and went to the library. I read up on social contagions; obesity, divorce, suicide. We’re all subconsciously affected by the behaviour of our peers. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death by overdose, the number of suicides in the US increased by twelve percent. Every time suicide is front-page news, every time a celebrity or a character on prime-time television takes their own life there is a spike in the number of suicides. Suicide is contagious. It’s called the ‘Werther Effect’, named after Goethe’s protagonist. Discovering this fact really scared me. Then it made me angry. I thought about the way suicide was presented in films and on TV, how it was reported in the news.
I found that the Samaritans had published a set of guidelines for how the media can report suicide intelligently. It’s astonishing how rarely these guidelines are followed. They’re really simple:
The NARRATOR refers to a piece of paper.
Don’t provide technical details. Never suggest that a method is quick, easy, painless or certain to result in death.
Avoid dramatic headlines, terms like ‘suicide epidemic’ or ‘hot spot’. Avoid sensationalist pictures of video. Avoid excessive detail. Avoid using the word ‘commit’. Don’t describe deaths by suicide as ‘successful’.
Don’t publish suicide notes.
Don’t publish on the front page.
Don’t ignore the complex realities of suicide and its impacts on those left behind.
Include references to support groups, such as the Samaritans.
Don’t speculate on the reason. That’s crucial.
The NARRATOR puts away the paper.
Don’t supply simplistic reasons such as ‘he’d lost his job’ or ‘she’d recently become bankrupt’.
I read the book. The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was shit. Well, I didn’t connect with it. I’d never been very interested in romance. Or at least, I hadn’t been. Until I locked eyes with the only other person who was always in the library.
‘At Last’ by Etta James begins to play and the NARRATOR locks eyes with an AUDIENCE MEMBER. This is now SAM.
The NARRATOR waves, blushingly. The vocal starts and the song continues as the NARRATOR speaks.
For weeks we would sit opposite each other without speaking. Occasionally we’d make eye-contact and then immediately look away as if blinded by the sun. For the first time in my life I understood the lyrics of pop songs. And then finally, after weeks, I summoned up the courage to say hello.
Slowly, bashfully, the NARRATOR walks towards SAM.
On his way he asks the person who read out 517 to check his teeth for broccoli, then gives The Sorrows of Young Werther to someone else.
Can you just…deal with this?
As he is about to reach SAM, he suddenly turns to the person next to her. Can I move you?
The NARRATOR gets the person next to SAM (usually their partner) to vacate their seat and move to the other side of the room. This is done very apologetically. Once relocated, the NARRATOR returns to SAM.
Is anyone sitting here?
SAM Not anymore.
NARRATOR Oh good.
The NARRATOR sits down in the empty seat. Hello.
NARRATOR What’s your name?
The AUDIENCE MEMBER says their name.
No, in real life her name was Sam.
What’s your name?
NARRATOR Hi Sam. Nice to meet you. What are you reading?
The NARRATOR addresses the AUDIENCE.
Oh, I forgot, does anyone have a book? We’re in the library so I need a couple of books.
The NARRATOR indicates The Sorrows of Young
Not that one.
The NARRATOR gets a couple of books from the AUDIENCE and throws one into SAM’s lap.
What are you reading?
SAM reads the title of the book.
What’s it about?
SAM reads the back of the book.
Sounds really good.
The NARRATOR tells SAM what he’s reading and tries to explain how great it is:
It’s really good. In fact, why don’t I lend it to you? And I could read (says title of SAM’s book) and we could meet up and talk about them, perhaps get a coffee sometime or a cup of tea or an or an or an orange juice, maybe, perhaps, if you’d like to, if you think that would be…
I had a date! We began to meet up in the library. We’d swap books and discuss them over coffee. I read things I would never have encountered otherwise. I probably learned more from the books Sam gave me than from any of my course texts. After several months of reading and meeting and trying not to look at each other, Sam returned a book to me, one of my favourite childhood books, and said:
The NARRATOR says the lines and encourages SAM to repeat them back to him.
NARRATOR Really interesting read.
SAM Really interesting read.
NARRATOR There’s something really interesting in this book…
SAM There’s something really interesting in this book…
NARRATOR That I want you to read.
SAM That I want you to read.
NARRATOR Now, this confused me because I’d already read the book. I’d lent it to her. Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t work out that it was code until weeks later, when I opened the book and the list dropped out. I was mortified. I’d never told anyone about my Mum. Ever. As a kid there were times when…I’d have nothing in my lunchbox or I wouldn’t have socks on or something and I…I didn’t want people to think that because my Mother was…I don’t know. And out of context this was just a stupid, childish list. The idea that a list of nice things could combat hardwired depression was embarrassingly naïve. I got so upset I went to rip it in half…and then I noticed someone else’s handwriting.
The NARRATOR says each number. SAM reads all the entries.
1000. When someone lends you books.
1001. When someone actually reads the books you give them.
1002. When you learn something about someone that surprises you but which makes complete sense.
1003. Realising that for the first time in your life someone is occupying your every waking thought, making it hard to eat or sleep or concentrate, and that they feel familiar to you even though they’re brand new.
1004. Finding an opportunity to say this in a way which doesn’t involve being in the same room at the same time, as we’re both shy and terrified of rejection and if I don’t say something now, it’ll never happen.
1005. Writing about yourself in the Third Person.
I have some advice for anyone who has been contemplating suicide. It’s really simple advice. It’s this: Don’t do it.
Things get better. They might not always get brilliant.
The NARRATOR indicates SAM.
But they get better. What I’m about to say might be really hard for some of you to understand, particularly the younger members of the audience. Back then there was no way to communicate with anyone after midnight. No texting or instant messaging, no email or Facebook. This world was called ‘1998.’ I couldn’t do anything but stare at what Sam had written. For about three hours. Eventually, I just continued the list from where Sam had left off.
1007. The fact that sometimes there is a perfect song to match how you’re feeling.
Music begins: ‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield. The NARRATOR moves quickly around the room.
1008. Dancing in private.
1009. Dancing in public, fearlessly.
1010. Reading something which articulates exactly how you feel but lacked the words to express yourself. I wrote late into the night.
1427. Not worrying about how much money you’re spending on holiday because all international currency looks like Monopoly money.
I wanted to get to 2000 and I kept writing as the sun came up.
1654. Christopher Walken’s voice.
1655. Christopher Walken’s hair.
So much to include that my hand cramped up.
1857. Planning a declaration of love.
My morning alarm went but I’d not slept. I passed:
2001. Films that are better than the books they’re adapted from.
And I kept going.
The NARRATOR does the following entries himself, at speed:
2002. Seeing someone make it onto the train just as the doors are closing, making eye-contact and sharing in this little victory.
2003. This song. Especially the drums on this track. The single ends at around four minutes but the album version continues for another five minutes and has the most insane drums. In fact…
2004. Any song with an extended drum break involving a full kit, bongos and cowbell, have you heard ‘I’m a Man’ by Chicago?
2005. ‘I’m a Man’ by Chicago.
2006. Vinyl records. I’m not being pretentious, the sound quality is better, it isn’t compressed and it’s tactile, you get to feel the weight of it in your hands. You can’t skip like with CDs or MP3s, you listen through to the entire album. Dad’s room had records on every surface and I loved the gatefold sleeves, the artwork, I love reading through the acknowledgements and the sleeve notes, the story of the making of the object. The next morning I took the list and I ran to the library and Sam and I kissed for the very first time. From that moment on we spent every second together. I wrote new list entries every day as a gift for Sam.
The NARRATOR continues with the list entries himself:
The NARRATOR puts his hand on someone’s shoulder.
2390. People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care.
Pages and pages of it.
4997. Gifts that you actually want and didn’t ask for.
4998. Falling asleep as soon as you get on a plane, waking up when you land and feeling like a time-traveller.
Everywhere I looked, everything I thought about…
9993. Dreams of flying.
9994. Friendly cats.
9995. Falling in love.
9997. Being cooked for.
9998. Watching someone watching your favourite film.
9999. Staying up all night talking.
10000. Waking up late with someone you love.
The drum-break kicks in. Now, this is the drum break I was telling you about. I know what you’re thinking: it just sounds like a bunch of drums but wait for it, you’re about to hear…
The NARRATOR waits for it.
…bongos! You are not getting into this in the way I anticipated. Alright, fine, listen, I’m going to try to be a little bit more…American about this. Let’s try…everyone put your right hand in the air. Everyone raises their right hand. I’m going to HIGH-FIVE THE ENTIRE ROOM!
He high-fives as many people as he can.
Eventually, the NARRATOR signals to the STAGE MANAGER to stop the record.
No that was a big mistake. It’s actually much harder than I anticipated.
The NARRATOR is out of breath.
My Mum… She would do this. Get carried away. Ups and downs.
As a little boy, it was never shyness, or thoughtfulness. Happiness scared me because it was usually followed by… you know.
The NARRATOR looks at SAM.
This was all very new. Feeling like this. Studies have shown that children with depressed mothers have a heightened reactivity to stress. Mothers who are withdrawn leave children to fend for themselves and it actually changes the chemistry of the brain, the fight or flight impulse. But the real risk as I perceived it…
The real risk, that I’d felt my whole life, was that I would one day feel as low as my Mum had and take the same action.
Because alongside the anger and incomprehension is an absolute crystal clear understanding of why someone would no longer want to continue living.
I took Sam back home to meet my parents. They were amazing. They were wonderful. They were fantastic. It was awful. It made it seem like I’d exaggerated everything from my childhood. My Dad made lasagne and played Cab Calloway records. My Mum laughed a lot and told a story about breaking a guy’s nose on a train in Egypt. We drank a few bottles of wine and sang songs at the kitchen piano.
The NARRATOR produces an electric keyboard and stands with it in the centre of the room. It doesn’t have a stand, so for a moment he tries to work out how to play it. Then he recruits two people from the AUDIENCE to hold either end of it while he plays. He thinks about the logistics of the room and speaks to the people holding the keyboard.
Um, because we’re in the round, we’re just going to do a very slow revolve. Clockwise, obviously.
The NARRATOR speaks to the room. Mum would always sing first. She sang Ray Charles… (Sings.) I’m so blue here without you it keeps raining more and more. Why can’t YOU… Dad wouldn’t normally sing. But he did this night. It was amazing. I’d never seen anything like it. He sang:
(Sings.) That’s Life. That’s what people say. Riding High in April, shot down in May. oh…and:
(Sings.) And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. Which, for me, was a little too on the nose. And then, quite spectacularly:
(Sings.) Wake me up before you go-go, don’t leave me hangin’ on like a yo-yo. Which, because he’d clearly never heard it before, actually sounded like:
(Sings, to the tune of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’) Wake me up before you go-go, don’t leave me hangin’ on like a yo-yo.
Sam sang the last song that night. ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ by Daniel Johnston. I’d not heard it before.
The NARRATOR sings a few lines of the song, ending:
(Sings.) The things we did, I can’t forget. Some things last a long time. Some things last a long time.
The NARRATOR takes away the piano and his assistants return to their seats.
With Sam’s encouragement, the list grew.
People asked if they could read it, add to it, photocopy it. The document got scrawled all over with different handwriting in different colours, exclamation marks, underlining, asterisks, footnotes and amendments, drawings and even the odd diagram. Anything generic or universal (clean sheets, new socks, freshly cut grass, the smell of bacon) had already been included and entries had become more specific:
253263. The feeling of calm which follows the realisation that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it.
525924. Track 7 on every great record.
777777. The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.
Not the action of dressing up as a Mexican Wrestler, but the prospect of it.
Sam and I got married. A year after university. Sam proposed. Got down on one knee. The whole thing. It was beautiful, it was…in fact, no, let’s just do it. We were walking in a park near my parents’ house. It was raining. I was saying that this is where I used to walk Sherlock Bones when I was a child. I kept walking and I thought she’d stopped to tie a shoelace because when I turned around she was on one knee.
The NARRATOR turns around to look at SAM, who is down on one knee.
She took my hands and said… SAM Will you marry me?
NARRATOR And I said yes.
Let’s kiss later.
SAM returns to her seat.
We picked a date. Hired a hall. Caterers. Band. Everyone was there. Even our old Vet. We didn’t invite him, but he came. Dad did a speech. It was the most wonderful, beautiful speech I’d heard in my entire life. And you know Dad, he hated public speaking. I said to him, Dad, you really don’t have to say anything but he said…
The NARRATOR gets the microphone, takes the DAD by the hand and leads him into the middle of the room.
…no I really want to. I really want to take this opportunity to talk to everyone, so…
The NARRATOR speaks into the microphone.
…Ladies and Gentlemen, in a break from tradition, please welcome the Father of the Groom.
The NARRATOR gives the DAD the microphone, asks him to wait for a moment, then sits next to SAM and links arms.
Say what’s in your heart Dad.
The ‘DAD’ improvises a short speech, after which the
NARRATOR hugs the DAD and lets them return to their seat.
I remember every word.
After the reception, when most of the guests had gone home, Mum sat at the piano and played soul songs.
The snippet of Ray Charles plays – ‘Why can’t YOU…’
After the wedding Sam and I went on holiday to Whitstable in Kent. We were so happy. The sun shone every day. We ate the most incredible seafood. We moved to London. We got jobs. A car. A joint bank account. A cat who peed on everything then ran away. We called her Margaret Scratcher. We settled into a routine. We saw less and less of each other. We were tired. We argued. We argued about money. We argued about whether we wanted to live in the city or the countryside. We argued about whether or not we should start a family.
We had one argument in particular. Sam suggested that I talk to someone. Professionally. That made me so angry. I knew what depression was and I knew I was fine. I had a study at home and I’d sit in there, listening to records and reading the sleeve notes. The lives of other people have always fascinated me. I always read the liner notes in record sleeves. The trials and traumas behind the music. Tortured geniuses.
Weldon Irvine. Albert Ayler. Ronnie Singer. Donny Hathaway. Amazing musicians. All took their own lives. I’m so grateful to be ordinary.
Sam told me I was becoming morose. That I was isolating myself. Wallowing. She encouraged me to carry on with the list, but I found it hard to notice new things.
The list ended, just one hundred and seventy three thousand and twenty two short of a million. It was finished. So I boxed it all up and threw it away.
I sat in my study while Sam packed her things. I helped her carry boxes to her car. I stood in our doorway and she looked at me from the car.
That horrible feeling when something is broken and can’t ever be fixed. The trapdoor swinging open. Fight or flight or stay as still as you can. I’d been feeling like that for a long time. I watched her drive away.
She left me a note, written in an album sleeve. She knew that when I wanted to think of her I’d look for the Daniel Johnston song she sang at my parent’s house and, as always, I’d sit and read through the record sleeve.
Sam’s note said that she loved me and that when I was ready we should try again. But I didn’t find the note for seven years.
Perhaps Sam had been right. Perhaps I’d been difficult to live with. Difficult to love. But I couldn’t hear it from her. I needed to talk to someone else. So, the night I found Sam’s note, I did one of the oddest things I’ve ever done.
MRS PATTERSON Yes.
NARRATOR I hope you don’t mind me calling you so late, I know you’ve retired, I know that because I called the school and they gave me your number. I know this is really inappropriate but…I’m an ex-pupil of yours. I was the little boy with the list. Do you remember me?
MRS PATTERSON Yes.
NARRATOR You do?
MRS PATTERSON Yes.
NARRATOR You used to have a sock puppet, do you remember?
MRS PATTERSON Yes
NARRATOR A black dog. Which, now I come to think of it is a little ironic. Mostyn, wasn’t it?
MRS PATTERSON Yes.
NARRATOR I was always able to talk to Mostyn. This may sound strange, but, would it be possible to talk to Mostyn now?
MRS PATTERSON takes off her shoe and her sock once again and puts the sock over her hand.
NARRATOR Hello Mostyn. How’re you?
Sock I’m fine, how’re you?
NARRATOR Well, I’m talking to a sock dog on the phone, so apparently not great.
I’m sad. I’m really sad Mostyn and I don’t know how to change that. And I wanted to speak to you because when I was a little boy you knew me better than anyone. I wanted to ask you: was I always like this? Do you remember what I was like?
NARRATOR Was I happy?
The NARRATOR leads the SOCK PUPPET through a brief conversation until a conclusion is reached that allows the NARRATOR to take the next step – either he’s always been sad or he was once happy.
Thank you. It means a lot to hear that from you. I’m sorry I called so late. I won’t call you again. Goodnight.
MRS PATTERSON Goodnight.
NARRATOR I did talk to someone. A group. A support group.
The NARRATOR indicates for everyone to respond.
NARRATOR This is my first session. I’ve resisted doing this. I’m – you know, British. I now realise that it’s important to talk about things. Particularly the things that are the hardest to talk about. When I was younger I was much better at being happy. At feeling joy. Being a grown up, being conscious of the problems in the world, about the complexities, the tragedies, the disappointments…I’m not sure I can ever fully allow myself to be joyful. I’m just not very good at it. It’s helpful to know there are other people who feel the same. I um – I made a list. Everything that’s brilliant about the world. I began making it as a present for my Mum. It’s kind of a long story. The list is – Actually, wait a second, I have it with me…
The NARRATOR exits the stage, then returns with a trolley on which sit several large, heavy, worn boxes. You see, I threw it away but, unbeknownst to me, my partner at the time…
The NARRATOR looks at SAM.
…got it out of the trash and hid it in the garage under an old tablecloth and then left a note about it in the record sleeve of a Curtis Mayfield record…well, you don’t need to know the details. He opens one of the boxes. It is full of scraps of paper, the list, written on pages of colouring books, on receipts and beer mats, on the backs of envelopes etc. He takes a moment to just look at it. He carefully takes out a stack and looks through it. He reads entries at random and drops them, scattering them on the floor. Peeling off a sheet of wallpaper in one intact piece. He reads another.
Mork and Mindy.
He holds up a sleeve from a shirt and reads what’s written on it:
My new sleeveless top.
He reads another.
Old people holding hands.
He smiles and looks around the room.
If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.
I wasn’t around for the last time. I was in Australia with work and when I got the call I was on the beach. Dad wasn’t around either. A neighbour complained about the exhaust fumes and eventually the police cut through the garage door. Hosepipe through the driver-side window. That surprised me actually, because Mum hated driving. She had poor circulation and would always complain about her ankles on long journeys. They say that it’s a masculine way to choose to die. But I don’t know what that means. There was a pad and pencil on the passenger seat but she hadn’t written anything.
I drove Dad to the funeral. We sat in silence. He smoked with the window down. I helped him with his tie. After the service, meeting my Mum’s friends and colleagues, I realised how much the list had changed the way I see the world.
577. Tea and biscuits.
The list hadn’t stopped her. Hadn’t saved her. Of course it hadn’t.
I got a text from Sam.
The NARRATOR gives SAM his phone to read.
SAM I heard about your Mum. I’m so sorry. Give me a call. Anytime. I’d love to hear your voice. Love, Sam x
Ps. I heard the other day that Beyonce is related to the composer Gustav Mahler. It occurred to me that this is a fact that should
be on your list. Truly a brilliant thing. I stayed with Dad for a few months after the funeral. We’d spend the days walking or reading or listening to records. He’d fall asleep in his armchair and I’d sit at his desk and type up the list, starting at the very beginning.
1. Ice cream.
It was a lot of work. Several weeks of sleepless nights. Once I got to the end I kept going from where I’d left off.
826979. The fact that Beyonce is Gustav Mahler’s eighth cousin, four times removed.
I completed the list. I printed it out and left it in Dad’s chair. I drove back to London. He never mentioned it directly, but when we spoke a few weeks later, he said ‘thank you.’
DAD Thank you.
NARRATOR And he said ‘I love you’.
DAD I love you.
NARRATOR I told him that sentimentality didn’t suit him.
999997. The alphabet.
999998. Inappropriate songs played at emotional moments.
999999. Completing a task.
The NARRATOR says the final entry.
1000000. Listening to a record for the first time. Turning it over in your hands, placing it on the deck and putting the needle down, hearing the faint hiss and crackle of the sharp metal point on the wax before the music begins, then sitting and listening while reading through the sleeve notes.
‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’ by Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots plays.
The NARRATOR shakes hands with or hugs the members of the AUDIENCE who played the principal characters – the VET, LECTURER, MRS PATTERSON, DAD and SAM, indicating for applause to be directed to them and inviting them to bow.
The NARRATOR then bows and leaves. The list remains scattered around the stage so that the AUDIENCE can look through the box and read the entries.
The music continues to play as they exit.