The girls on the train were talking about someone they called 'Big Jimmy'. Apparently, from what Paul could gather, on their last trip to California Big Jimmy had started to cry when they denied him the pleasure of gorging on half a dozen American cheeseburgers, and when they tried to pacify him, Big Jimmy had run wailing out of the hotel lobby and thrown himself, fully clothed, into the swimming pool.
It wasn't entirely clear to Paul whether this Big Jimmy they were talking about was perhaps some kind of retarded child-man or just a normal hyperactive twentysomething who had over-indulged on duty-free and complimentary drinks on the flight over, and so had lost all sense of proportion about the dimensions of American cheeseburgers, the quantities it would be wise to eat, and the appropriate reaction when he was forbidden them.
The girls who were discussing this eventful trip were at the other end of the carriage and Paul couldn't see them from where he was sitting. He could certainly hear them; they were talking so loudly, screeching with such laughter, that he could only assume they thought their story was so interesting that everyone else in the carriage deserved the chance to hear it as well, even if they were too polite to ask.
A picture formed as they spoke - California, blue skies, endless motorways, and those girls dressed in string bikinis as they relaxed by an azure pool, while a mountain of a young man, Big Jimmy, launched himself like a bomb into the water.
When the train reached Hyndland, Paul took the opportunity to steal a look in their direction while he waited for the carriage doors to open. It was difficult at the best of times to guess a girl's age, but he was sure this lot couldn't be much older than sixteen.
If they were sixteen, then Paul was only six years older than them, and a world in which a group of immaculately clad teenagers, laden down with shopping bags from Merchant City boutiques, found themselves unsupervised in California, in the company of someone content to be known as 'Big Jimmy', was beyond him. He stopped from the train and watched the girls through the window as it moved off.
Paul had been cataloguing the degrees of smell in the underpass from the staion into Hyndland proper. Most frequently of course, it smelled of urine, but sometimes this smell of piss could be overlaid with a subtle aroma of disinfectant, or spilled beer, or tonic wine. Today was different. Paul decided, as he drew his scarf up around his mouth, that this smell was most closely equivalent to a farmyard. It had that same grassy texture, and the reek of manure and slurry, mixed with a chocolately mud and brackish rainwater, was almost overpowering. On the scale of bad smells, this most definitely qualified as a noisome stench. It was by far the worst he had ever smelled. Appropriate.
Paul no longer had a flatmate, and rent was becoming an issue. Andy, whom he had rarely seen when he lived here, their work schedules keeping them apart as assiduously as a nineteenth-century chaperone, had left when he changed jobs about five months ago. Paul had advertised the room for three weeks, but nobody had enquired about it, and when the newspaper called and asked if he wanted to continue the advert, he said no. He didn't have the energy or the inclination to walk around the newsagents asking them to put up a sign, and he wasn't going to trek up to the university and tack up notices in the unions. Rent was beside the point now. He had made up his mind.
His flat was on the top floor, and the six flights of steps always brought a wash of sweat to his face and made his heart jabber in his chest like a boy with Tourette's. He unlocked the door and sat down on the wicker chair just inside the hall. He looked at the red weal on his fingers where the straps of the plastic bag had cut into his skin.
In the kitchen he unpacked his bag. Around various shops in town he had acquired a length of rope, an old-fashioned cutthroat razor that had taken some hunting out, and three packets of paracetamol that he would add to the five he had already accumulated. He laid these items out on the kitchen counter in a row, and then took off his coat and made a cup of tea.
There was a pulley in the kitchen for drying clothes. Arms of jumpers and legs of trousers fell down like creepers from a hanging bough. The wheels screamed as Paul took it down and removed his clothes, and although the pulley shook and rattled and looked as fragile as modernist decor, it was surprisingly sturdy. He had carefully tested it before buying the extra rope, hanging from it with both hands, suspended above the kitchen floor while he exercised all of his weight to bring it down.
After his tea, Paul paced about the flat making sure everything was in order. Bills, bank statements, personal and financial effects - all in clearly marked folders. All the switches on the plugs were up, and there was an atmosphere of poised expectancy in the kitchen, without the subdued grumble of the fridge's motor.
The razor and the paracetamol were back ups, in case he couldn't go through with the rope. He had read enough about kidney failure to know that the pills weren't the easy way out they looked, and as for the razor... The rope was paradoxically going to be a breeze compared to the other two, and the one that he was most likely not to chicken out of.
He fashioned a rough noose at one end, and then looped it over the central bar of the pulley, tying the other end to one of the pulley hooks in the wall. There was nowhere near enough space for the kind of drop that would break your neck. This would have to be the slow choke, but that was fine. The slow choke had been going on for years; what did another couple of hours matter?
Paul hadn't eaten for a couple of days, and for good reason. Death was as far from the Romantic, Chatterton image as the sun from the moon. Death was losing control of your muscles, voiding your bowels, becoming a shit-smeared jerking body clawing desperately on to life for a few more precious seconds. No matter how much the mind wanted life to end; the body always had the final say. When a hanged man's neck is broken, he springs a last erection and starts to ejaculate. At least, with the slow choke, Paul thought, I'll be spared that final indignity. He had never slept with anyone in his life, and he didn't want Death to be his first lover.
As he drew the chair to the centre of the room and tested the rope, Paul found the thought beginning to irritate him. It itched, back there in his skull. He focused on his surroundings and tried to dismiss it, anchoring himself on the chipped mug in the sink, the tinted glaze of the microwave window, the rattling whine of the nearby low-level train pulling into Hyndland station ... Those girls.
He stepped up onto the chair. He slipped the noose around his neck and drew it tight against his bobbing Adam's apple. All this was being done very rationally, but the rational side of his mind wouldn't let him evade the question for much longer.
He had never slept with a girl. He had never even kissed one. There was no getting around it. As far as he knew he wasn't unattractive, but the situation had never arisen where he had found himself in the company of someone of the opposite sex whom he wanted to kiss and who wanted to kiss him back. That was the crucial combination.