When Kurt Cobain died, Susan didn’t leave her bedroom for four days straight. She closed her door on that Saturday morning and stayed put until I went over and saw her on the Tuesday afternoon. She never joined the groups that gathered at our college when the following week broke; the circles of teenagers who grimly shuffled in the canteen and classrooms, who shrugged and sighed and slowly shook their heads. It was, I suppose, our defining moment. Naturally, none of us realised it at the time. As a generation we had no Great War or Woodstock, social media was science fiction and everyone’s parents had jobs. We were fortunate enough to be insulated from existence. It took a dead rock star to communalise our experience, to sharpen our senses, to force us to cower as the world fired its first warning shot. A snatched photograph of an outstretched leg with a limp Converse training shoe was the image that blew our adolescent minds. This was when the penny dropped that shit had finally got real.
There are things that I remember; there are things that I romanticise. There are things I’ve forgotten and there are things, of course, that I completely missed. On the Monday morning following Cobain’s death, I stood outside college with Pete and Lee and the supporting cast of my sixth form years. Many of the faces are now a little vague while some of the names are completely beyond my reach. Pete and Lee, however, would be impossible to forget. We were something of a gang. Not a particularly impressive gang, of course, but a gang nonetheless. Two days before, on the Saturday afternoon, Lee and I had headed round to Pete’s. Pete – who was already shaving and could have passed for twenty-five – had bought four litres of cider. We sat in his bedroom beneath posters of Soundgarden and Reservoir Dogs, getting slowly drunk while listening to Bleach, then Incesticide, then Nevermind and finally In Utero. None of us really knew what to say.
On the Sunday, I had to work at the petrol station. My dad’s friend’s daughter was the manager there, so that’s how I’d got the job. I worked one day at the weekend and most Tuesday nights. It kept my parents happy and meant I had enough cash to buy CDs or go to the occasional gig. That morning, Cobain’s death was on the front page of every newspaper. I sat behind the counter ringing up the till and turning on the pumps as the headlines stared me out from the shelves, spoiling for a fight. The revelation, the gossip, the theories and the fall out. I tried my best to ignore it all.
And then, inevitably, Monday arrived. The alarm buzzed and I fell out of bed, snatching a slice of toast before catching the bus into college. The day loomed with a sense that something was off kilter. Like people who have to work through the Christmas break, there was a tacit understanding that although we were turning up, nothing was actually going to get done. I met Pete and Lee outside the main entrance. Lee was wearing his “… Corporate Rock Whores” smiley-face T-shirt, which his mom had bought him for his birthday. We twiddled with the straps on our rucksacks, all covered in inked band logos and sewn-on patches. Everyone around us seemed quiet or withdrawn. Naturally, there were a few – there always are – with some strange shouts or snide comments. There were even a handful who hadn’t heard or, if they had, didn’t seem to care. They talked about football or cars or girls, oblivious to what the rest of us were trying to digest. Because something had happened, something had changed. It was nearly time for our first class when we realised that Susan wasn’t there.
Susan lived across the road from me on our suburban street. We’d grown up together, more or less – our childhoods colliding during neighbour’s barbecues or parties on New Year’s Eve. We’d gone to the same schools and were often in the same classes. She had straight blonde hair down to her shoulders. She wore cherry red DMs, black leggings, Sonic Youth t-shirts and military jackets. I never told her but, quite obviously, I was carrying a torch large enough to warn ships away from jagged rocks. Fortunately, I was painfully aware that any declaration would only end up with me embarrassing myself. Susan was sensationally out of my league. Her boyfriends were always older. They had cars or played guitar in awful bands. They came from one of the neighbouring towns. They never seemed to last more than three weeks.
But Susan loved Nirvana even more than any of us. Specifically, she loved Kurt Cobain. Since we’d been teenagers, I’d only had reason to go into her house a handful of times, like when we’d paired up at college to study or revise together. Her bedroom was like a shrine to the singer. Every wall was plastered in posters or cuttings from the NME, Melody Maker and Select. I knew she’d take the news of his death like a personal bereavement, so it wasn’t a surprise when she pulled a pyjama day that Monday. It was when she still didn’t show up on the Tuesday that I started to get a little concerned.
“Just go round after college,” Lee said. It was lunchtime and we were sitting in the canteen, eating chips. “You live opposite her, dude. Just go and knock the door… ‘Hey, we ain’t seen you around, hope you’re ok, sucks about Kurt, blah blah blah…'”
Lee knew I had a crush on Susan and, in his own inimitable way, was attempting to offer some encouragement. He was the kind of teenager who never had to try with girls. At every party, at every gig, Lee would always end up with someone. He didn’t parade or boast; he didn’t swagger around or reel through ridiculous chat up lines. I wouldn’t even claim – neither then nor thinking back now – that he was a particularly handsome or striking young man. Girls just seemed to like him for some reason that I could never quite figure out. Unfortunately, whatever enchanting quality he possessed, it remained one in which I was sorely lacking.
Although his advice that lunchtime did seem to make a peculiar kind of sense. I thought about what he’d said all through classes that afternoon and on the bus going home. When I walked into my street, I crossed the road and, rather than heading to my own front door, went and knocked upon Susan’s.
A shadow passed behind the small rectangle of frosted glass embedded in the white PVC. A set of keys jangled. The door swung open and Susan’s father stood before me.
At that age, I’d question whether we actually notice parents other than our own (and I suppose it’s debatable whether we even notice them). When you’re young, they loom like a colossus and, as you grow older, you perhaps begin to recognise their fears and faults, to appreciate their efforts and attempts. But, in the canyon of that inbetween age, freefalling in the air of adolescence, parents drift past as peripheral figures rather than distinct people. They enter our orbit with occasional subsidies of cash or lifts, with unheeded concerns of exam results and tidied bedrooms, with a dreaded scrutiny of where we are going and what time we’ll be home.
My memories of Susan’s father are, therefore, coloured by this disclosure. In the cinema of my mind, he appears on screen as an exaggerated caricature from the 1950s. Formal and correct, clinging to an anachronistic etiquette of a previous generation. I do distinctly remember that he used to call us all “long hairs”. Once, when we were heading to a college party, he bid Susan a booming goodbye from the porch with the hope that she enjoyed her freakout with the long hairs. No one really understood what he was talking about. But, that evening, as I stood before him on his doorstep, just the wary arch of his eyebrow betrayed the fact that he regarded me with that same, old-fashioned distain: here, at my own front door, another one of these bloody long hairs.
“Hi, Mr Daley,” I said. “Sorry to bother you. I was wondering if Susan’s ok? We ain’t seen her at college this week.”
I may have been a bloody long hair – and, at the time, plagued by acne with a sunken, sullen posture accentuated by ill-fitting clothes – but I was still a neighbour. Both of our families had lived in that street for a long time. If nothing else, this afforded me a little courtesy.
“Yes, she’s upstairs. In her room. She hasn’t come out since Saturday, I don’t think. This singer she liked or something…” His sentence drifted as he seemingly weighed up a new and unexpected opportunity: was it possible that my interruption could have been to his advantage? “You can go up, if you like. Maybe you could talk her out. Her mother’s starting to get worried.”
And, remarkably, in the space of a few heartbeats he’d decided that I was the answer he hadn’t realised he’d been looking for. I took off my trainers in the porch and followed him upstairs where he knocked on Susan’s bedroom door.
“Susan? Gary’s here. From across the road,” he announced. “He’s come to see you. Could he come in?”
There was an awful silence where it seemed that she wouldn’t answer. Eventually, her voice arrived from the other side of the door. A simple and faint, “OK.”
Susan’s father looked down at me and nodded, an act which implied I was fine to enter but there sure as hell better be no funny business. I returned the nod – an agreement, an assurance, a promise made man to man – and opened the door. Walking into her bedroom was like entering a distant land. We were no longer children and that space had become a country of controlled borders and assiduous checkpoints. My papers were not in order; my visa had expired. I stood on the threshold and gazed across her world. The bed was unmade, a twisted duvet piled towards the headboard with a tray of untouched breakfast at the bottom. A cassette bootleg of the MTV Unplugged session was playing and Susan herself was sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, staring at the rug beneath her.
“Hey,” I said. It was only then that she looked in my direction. She didn’t speak, so I felt that I had to. “You heard about Kurt?”
It was the lamest question possible. She answered simply with the look that it deserved.
“We missed you at college.” I walked a few steps across the room and crouched down in front of her.
“I needed a few days,” she said.
“That’s fair enough.”
“Your dad says you ain’t left your room since Saturday?”
She nodded. I was a second away from asking how she’d been going to the toilet when a rare adult filter managed to block the signal from my juvenile brain.
“Wanted some time out,” she said.
This was when I realised exactly how far out of my depth I’d swum. Coming round to see her may have seemed like a clever way to ingratiate myself – it may have even been a genuinely kind gesture and the right thing to do – but I hadn’t the faintest idea what to actually say. The capacity to empathise, let alone comfort or help, stretched away from me, glinting in the distance. I felt the prickly embarrassment of naivety – of ignorance and youth – flush beneath my skin. And so, for a few minutes, Susan and I sat in silence, listening to Nirvana’s cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night. As he sang the last line, Kurt’s voice stretched and cracked – bewildered with pain; daggered with anger and accusation. Back then, I remember thinking that I’d never heard anything quite like it. To this day, I’m still not sure that I have. And then, as the band rolled into their final refrain, Susan began to speak.
“You think that there’s people out there who understand, don’t you? You hear them and just the way they look or sound, it doesn’t even have to be what they say, but it makes you think, yeah, they get it, they get me. And then there are times when you think, well, actually, maybe they don’t. Maybe that’s not them. Not who they are, not really. But at least they can give you some comfort. At least it’s like they’re there. But finally, in the end, they’re not there, are they? They go. They go away and you’re left on your own and you’ve got to deal with it and they’re not going to help you.”
She looked at me, but the only reply I could muster was a mute stare. I hadn’t the faintest idea how to answer. I didn’t really understand what she meant. Of course she was talking about Kurt Cobain, but she was also talking about herself. There was a message in those words which I lacked the experience to decipher. She could see this in my narrowed eyes; it was confirmed by my silence. I’d like to think that it was out of kindness rather than disappointment that she felt compelled to put me out of my misery. “I’ll be in college tomorrow,” she promised. “I’ll see you then.” It was, apparently, time for me to go.
And so I went. I said goodbye and walked down the stairs, leaving her house to head back across to mine. But, as I think about this now, all these years later, there is a detail which has begun to play on my mind. I’m sure that I didn’t have to open the door when I walked out of her room. In fact, I can’t remember actually closing the door behind me when I first walked in. It’s possible – it’s even likely – that it was open as we talked. I wonder whether her father – forgotten the very second I crossed the threshold – had held his position on the landing, eavesdropping upon every whispered word? Did he silently scurry into another room when he realised our conversation had drawn to a close? Over the last day or so, it’s a suspicion to which I keep returning. It twitches and writhes and refuses to rest. I comb my memory, dwelling on the moment, trying to untangle a truth that has been matted by time.
But I do remember that Susan kept her promise. She came into college that next day and, over the following weeks, things returned to normal. And then – naturally, inevitably, inexorably – things began to change. We took our exams and left college. We cut our hair and bought Adidas trainers. We left our little town for university.
Not long after this, life pulled us all apart the way that life always does. Lee started working for a graphic design company before moving to London and its advertising agencies. Meanwhile, in his first term at Aberystwyth University, Pete met a girl who he married right after graduation. They bought a house and started having kids. Slowly, we all seemed to lose touch. Too much going on; too great a distance and disconnect. Predictably, it was Facebook that brought us back together. We were part of this older generation poaching the tools of youth to reconnect. Through the Internet we found each again. We shared pictures of our families and clips of Screaming Trees playing on The Late Show. We began to remember that we were friends.
It was Lee who found out first. His mother was the central hub for gossip in our home town and, during their weekend catch ups, she’d fed him the full story. He sent me a message asking if I’d heard which, of course, I hadn’t. I called him to find out more. Susan – who I had not spoken to for fifteen years – had taken her own life, dying in the bathtub of her Manchester home after opening her wrists. She had no partner and was found by a colleague from the restaurant where she worked. There was, apparently, a note, but Lee’s mother was not privy to its detail.
Although she did have one other piece of news. Lee mentioned it in passing, and perhaps I see something more in this than I should. Susan’s father had, apparently, died of cancer a fortnight before she killed herself. I do not believe that he and Susan had stayed close. After she moved to university, I know that she rarely came home. Her family sold their house just after I graduated. I wasn’t sure where they went, and I don’t think my parents were either. They evaporated into the world, the way people often do – when our backs are turned, when our eyes are off the ball. After Lee and I had finished our call, I walked down to the kitchen and sat at the table. My wife and children were out shopping and would not be home for another hour. I thought about Susan. I waded into the memories of our childhoods and teens, trying to see things from a different angle. My adult senses through adolescent eyes. I watched Susan and her father. I watched her recoil. I saw the bruises on her forearms that a slipped sleeve occasionally revealed. I’m certain that these were not a trick of time, of a misconceived memory. I stared into space, wondering if all those years ago there was something terrible that we missed, something that we should have seen, something that we could have changed.
HoneyKnut / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Kurt Cobain bench Viretta Park.