I’m in an ethnic lounge bar in Armenia as the Syrian refugee beside me, Niz, explains how he was at the shops when his home collapsed, killing his brother, just two months earlier. A barrel bomb, its origins still unknown, was the culprit. His voice is steady, his tone sadly acceptant of the tragedy, the gravity of his grief shielded from me. His possessions, his history, his brother’s life, all buried beneath the rubble of a war he did not choose. Had the explosion occurred ten minutes earlier, him too. There were probably moments, I try not to think, where he’d have been happy to join them.
I ask him how he hasn’t folded. He gives an incredibly eloquent answer about remaining positive and the beauty of being alive, even in the face of such shattering sadness, that I would only undermine in trying to relay.
He quietens and stares into his drink, a blanket of contemplation temporarily shrouding his glow.
“I never really talk about this,” he says, thoughtfully.
“Why now?” I ask.
A pregnant beat follows. Then he laughs. It bursts forth like water from a broken hydrant; so sudden it seems to surprise even him. It’s almost guttural, sonorous enough to shock me too, cutting through the gentle buzz of the bar around us, coming from somewhere beyond the usual abode of laughter, from somewhere somehow more genuine.
He looks at me and smiles. Wide, almost childishly toothy, wrinkles lining his eyes.
“I don’t know!” He says, and begins laughing harder still, so hard I’m concerned he might fall off his stool. I recover to join his laughter. The hysteria eventually slows. We clink glasses as he shakes his head in pleasant rue. We crack a joke, another, and accelerate back into the rhythm of the night.
The act of knowing someone and allowing yourself to be truly known is usually a carefully considered act. A gradual, deliberate, test-laden process. Trust built upon trust. Reliability diligently confirmed. The significance of what’s shared rising steadily until you reach what’s personally sacred; the origins of you, the foundations of him, the naked heart of her.
Travel tends to be a tremendously swift shortcut through this prolonged, if maybe wiser, build-up. Just hours or even minutes in, you find yourselves together at the equinox, balanced on the very lip of the unspeakable, just a whisper from plummeting over the edge. Recklessly, beautifully, you clasp hands and dive in with them, the most essential elements of their history unfolding in unrehearsed cadence. Their beliefs, their joys, their souls, their grief. An epoch, an elegy, an epiphany, an ecstasy. A pure highlight-reel of self.
Happier tales, sure. The champions, the advocates, the charity workers, success stories of people who worked tirelessly to earn something, a collection of people who’ve achieved incredible things and yet are so unassuming about it. Smaller details, too. My interest isn’t limited to seminal, life-changing moments; it can be as simple as a thought, a belief, a hope, a happy memory.
But I find myself more drawn to the tragedies. There’s something about knowing someone’s sadness that makes them feel three dimensional; real, whole and human in a way the entirely optimistic or untroubled never could be. If a person goes down the social media era presentation route of only exhibiting perfect bliss and happiness, it appears every bit as empty as something so edited, modified and disguised, so built out of deniability of self. It’s like the font fades to write, or the music playing in your neighbour’s apartment, muffled by the bricks between. Still there, but not quite.
Ups need downs. In an all blue world, colour doesn’t exist. So our tragedies make us whole, and make the happiness you see later, as you’re joining them to smear the night with fluorescent madness, that much more worthy.
The Portuguese man who came home from a trip to see his family to find his wife was now, in the space of four days, with his best friend instead. Without the money to move out, he was forced to remain living with them and the inescapable betrayal. The Swedish girl trying to help her twice widowed father pick himself up one more time. The Irish chap living in Australia, haunted by his last words to his brother, whose funeral he was heading home for. The American on a college campus, witnessing as a mass shooting began. More Syrian refugees. The gay Iranians whose government have found out and banished them. The riot police officer on the frontlines in Tottenham during the carnage of the first night of the London riots. The addicted sister. The overdosed brother. The missing father. The proud Australian struggling to come out as gay, particularly to his long-term girlfriend. The recovering Canadian alcoholic, off the wagon. And so very many more.
It all sounds maudlin. All quiet corners, scarcely held back tears and comforting clutches. It’s not. If you approach with a primed violin, the instrument in question will be promptly wrapped around your cranium. These dialogues are held beneath the flashing lights, inches from the dancefloor. Steady voice, composed gaze. It’s thick skin, witnessed thin, tales shared with a form of tender tenacity. I find myself spirited away in consecutive daze, blown away by foreign yesterdays. And in addition to absorbing their colours, I find myself emitting a spectrum of my own.
Nothing particularly extreme has ever descended on me, and for the few things that come anything like close, this isn’t the forum – ask me during a Serengeti sunset, whilst supine on the lagoon’s pontoon, on some beach under the stars with the bar lights close yet not too close – but we all have our struggles, regrets and afflictions. I find myself unravelling easily, a waterfall of words, about things I just couldn’t write here or even say to someone as familiar as a long-term friend, as backwards and almost conceited as that sounds.
Because not knowing someone presents a certain kind of freedom. You’re uninhibited, unburdened. Self-censorship isn’t required when the words can’t chase you home. No reputation to protect, nor the need to protect the way people see the friends or family at the focus point of your troubles; just a stranger, a beer, an empathetic ear.
These nights. The upward spiral of half-controlled chaos and uncontrolled laughter start from melancholy foundations with bizarre frequency. Contradictory though it seems on the surface, it makes a strange amount of sense that these are usually the best nights.
We spend so long living through insinuation, half-truths, knowing nods and buried emotion, what’s concealed outshining what’s revealed. It’s nice when the atmosphere is conducive to just throwing everything on the table. When you later swirl through the night, their smiles seem that much more complete. Mine, I’m sure, too.
Growing up, I’ve been, and I don’t know how else to put this, privileged to be a close witness to perhaps the most resilient of all of us. For the uninitiated, if you don’t know Henry’s story, read it for yourself, he puts it better than I ever could. Also have a look at his mouth art on his Instagram, try to wrap your head around it all.
My only input would be to say I vividly remember visiting him in hospital after school on Wednesday afternoons, and every time I arrived I’d learn he’d broken a new record of recovery or achieved something either twice as fast as the doctors said was possible, or even things the doctors said would never be possible at all. It was, and still is, difficult to comprehend just how much that took. Ineffable, actually, and it’s impossible not to be a wild believer in the human spirit having known this and felt it for the last seven years or so, particularly in the wake of where he is now.
Maybe that’s at the root of my fascination with people. How we are simultaneously completely unique and entirely the same. The same issues, differently. The brief moments, choices and chances that alter our lives irrevocably. The permanence of the past, and how it’s ours to decide whether or not we let what can’t be changed about yesterday dictate what we do with tomorrow. “Accept and adapt,” as Frase would say. Which we know, but aren’t always able to live.
There’s nothing as fascinating or scary as the mystery of your own mind. Study yourself until you’re ashes, you’ll never graduate. You’ll continue to unfold and find surprising hidden avenues until you perish, and what’s more beautiful than that? As well as people and places you’re yet to explore, spend a long night digging within and you’ll explode with interest at what you find, alone, in the stillest of rooms.
It’s only recently I learned this will only take you so far. Part of the process is thinking aloud, being seen, being heard, sharing it. In the space between people, there’s a sense of articulation and clarity that can’t be realised in silence. In the usual run of things, I could be accused of being difficult and closed, all stoic, stiff-upper lipped and “I don’t want to talk about it, thanks though,” as if that’s some form of heroism.
To know, and more personally relevant, to be known, is fucking mesmerizing. It’s an ideal I’ll carry with me, and hopefully maintain when I eventually find my way home. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be inspired by the resilience of those who are still striving and thriving instead of folding to circumstance.
Some consider love, platonic or otherwise, a limited thing. A squad that needs to be rotated when you meet someone new, space to be created. Others, a many splintered thing – the more people, the more diluted it is in each individual case. For me, the more you love, or the more you care about these distinct, identical people and their stories, the more the capacity of your heart grows. There’s always room, more and pure.
Life is meaningless. Wonderfully so. A big accident, a series of events so improbable, intricate and complex that people need to try to explain it by inventing higher powers and miracles.
And yet when you meet some people, it can feel very meaningful indeed.
There are many more people with captivating tales of resilience, redemption and courage. But their stories are not mine to tell, they are yours to find.