The Sea of Trees by Greg Leader Cramer

Greg Leader Cramer's moving flash about a schoolboy trying to cope with the stigma of having a dead mother.

"Take it back." I've got Pank in a headlock, his head hovering over the cracked and dirty toilet bowl. Our faces are inches apart, which seems weirdly intimate. He's struggling now with everything he's got but he can't get free.

"She was a whore and you're a -" I don't give him a chance to finish. I yank the lever and shove his head into the bowl. He tries to shout but just chokes on the filthy water. The other kids go quiet. I let him up on the count of five Mississippi.

"Take. It. Back." I brace for another flush but then my collar is yanked across the cloakroom and Mr Leighton is yelling at us, at everyone. Pank's face is stained blue from the disinfected water and a small puddle forms at his feet. He is out of breath and panting like a greyhound. I realise I am too. Mr Leighton stands in between us, barking orders, but I don't hear him. The other kids drift away. Fun's over.

In Ireland, one in three suicides kill themselves by drowning. Craigavon Bridge in Belfast is a famous drowning suicide black spot. Popular places for suicide by drowning are baths, rivers and oceans. When unsuccessful, the lack of oxygen to the brain can cause permanent brain damage; the jump can fracture bones and damage internal organs.

On my first day, Mrs Whitley, our phoney do gooding bitch of a form teacher makes me introduce myself. My chair legs screech as I stand and tell the smirking fucktards that we've moved to Bournemouth for my Dad's work, my favourite football player is Eric Cantona and a person or persons unknown raped and murdered my Mum when I was five.

In most schools I've been to this holds up for about two weeks, the Internet being the internet. But what a golden two weeks. The teachers leave me in peace while the girls coo and fuss, all confused motherly instincts and sympathetic arm squeezes. The boys are more wary, respectful even, until familiarity kicks in and someone tests how far they can push me. Hence, Pank.

Sometimes, a brave or curious kid asks what happened, i.e. they've Googled it and come up with squat. I say my Mum was last seen helping a man with directions outside Bristol Temple Meads Station one Friday evening and never came home. That she was strangled with the beige cashmere scarf Dad bought for her birthday. That she put up an amazing fight. That they never caught the guy. Sometimes I say she was stabbed and crawled a hundred meters before dying. Or she was beaten to death with a garden spade. But she always puts up a hell of a fight.

In Japan, sixty to seventy per cent of suicides are by hanging. A famous hanging black spot is the forest at Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees. Fifty to one hundred people commit suicide there every year and bodies are often found after years or never at all. Popular places to hang oneself from include banisters, ceiling beams and trees. Unsuccessful attempts can lead to brain damage and neck or spinal injuries.

I remember the smell of her hair and what she looked like coming out of the shower, but my mental photograph of her is fading from the outside in, like I'm losing my peripheral vision. They argued a lot, Mum and Dad. I can't recall what it was about but the sense of it, an ugly blackness, still echoes in my head.

She arrived home one teatime in an ambulance, the neighbours' net curtains twitching. She was wheeled into the house in a rickety green hospital chair, her face pale and blank and wrists heavily bandaged, but she still smiled when she saw me. I remember that smile.

I used to try to make myself invisible. But kids have a way of finding your one weakness and picking at it until you break. In one school, an entire class of thirty-one kids, girls and boys, surrounded me in a circle, chanting "DEAD MUM! DEAD MUM!" for ten minutes, the teachers too busy bitching and smoking in the staff room to give a shit.

Then something happened. I got big. Gained ten pounds and three inches in six months. I became the shitkicker instead of the shitkickee. Things were easier like that. Safer. Fuck them. What do they know about it?

The technical term for wrist cutting is exsanguination, from the Latin 'ex' (out of) and 'sanguis' (blood). In order for death to occur, blood loss of one half to two thirds is required. Wrist cutting has a very low success rate, and most attempts are classified as cries for help. If the palmaris longus tendon and the median nerve are severed, unsuccessful attempts can lead to a permanent reduction in sensory and motor ability.

That's why Mum hid her left hand in the folds of her purple velour dressing gown.

Mrs Whitley asks me to go to the office after the lunch bell. It's been two weeks and three days. The brave and/or curious kid will have told their parents who will have mentioned it to Mrs Whitley who will have asked the Head. Now I am outside his office, waiting for Dad.

The Head holds a finely sharpened pencil and his fingertips are slowly sliding into the middle and out again. He suggests a counselling service. Dad points out I have tried counselling groups, without success. The Head explains that Art As Therapy is different, experimental. It explores unresolved grief issues through expressions of creativity. I stifle a scoff and Dad shoots me a look. The Head is resolute. It's this or we look for another school. I shift uncomfortably in my chair. There is no way I am doing this. No. Fucking. Way.

One week later, at my first Art As Therapy session, Therapist Mandy says we get to choose how we want to express ourselves. Susie, a sweet eight year old kid whose twin brother died of a rare disease, chooses to make a word collage. Hugo, a thirteen year old goth, doesn't make eye contact or say a word for the entire session. I ask if I can do a project about suicide, which makes Therapist Mandy smile in that lips-pursed-together way only therapists do.

In the UK, 41.1 per cent of female suicides kill themselves by drug overdose. Most drug overdoses are a cry for help. Females that ingest 10 grams of Nembutol, however, absolutely intend to kill themselves, given its difficulty to obtain and level of potency. A popular place for a female to commit suicide by drug overdose is upstairs in the bath at 7 Wood Close, Redhill, Bristol.

I hand my project over the following week, including photos and diagrams. I have put a photo of the Sea of Trees on the cover because I like the idea of camping. Mandy studies what I have written carefully. I wait for the talking-to but it doesn't come.

"This is excellent. A great start." Beaming, she closes the folder and hands it back at me. Susie, the little girl, wants me to look at her word collage. I do and, for no reason, it makes me want to cry.


  1. i found this very powerful and moving. very well written. i´ve just recently heard about two teenage suicides, some say in some cases it´s to punish the parents. still as far as i know a phenomenon not fully understood.
    anyway, well done

    Michael McCarthy

  2. Exceptionally deft handling of the distress experienced by this young person, bereaved in traumatic, and almost taboo, circumstances. He struggles to manage the pain internally, dysfunctional behaviour being the correlate, as he tries to cope. The first steps he makes towards healthier grieving are credibly written, and provide hopefulness that he might survive this assault to his own mental health. Thank you,
    Ceinwen Haydon

  3. Emotional and tightly written, with the great suicide "factoids" interspersed at just the right moments. Well done!

  4. I enjoyed reading this and thought it was very well written. How does one make sense of the suicide of a parent?

  5. A superbly-structured piece; four 'acts' defined by the three 'pillars' of suicide facts (factoids as Jim suggests). What gets to you is the boy's state of denial - not over the fact that death has occurred at all, but over the strange truth to do with taking one's own life, and he's prepared to spin all manner of dramatic yarn to avoid facing it. His intellect has accepted it, but not his emotions - until the final act...Proves that counselling works!

  6. This is one of the best pieces of have read on FOTW. Really class act stuff here. You handled tricky subject manner is a novel, realistic, moving way. You do the subject matter justice.

  7. Thanks everyone for your amazing comments. Much appreciated.

  8. Hi Greg, I found this a piece of excellent writing as it held my attention from the very first word to the last. I can only echo what has already been said and add, that sometimes its those who are nearest to the suicidal person who suffer just as much if not more. The message to me was clear.

    James McEwan

  9. Extremely well-written and sad, but with a hopeful ending.