Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death
Robert Anthony Welch
Darton, Longman & Todd, £12.99
In its preface, the author of Kicking the Black Mamba asks readers to bear with him through the brief prologue before moving on to the book's narrative.
Robert Welch then outlines what is to follow: a heartbreaking account of the death, in January 2007, of his 27-year-old son Egan following four years of suffering and turmoil during which he lost his livelihood, sank into depression, sought solace in drink and became an alcoholic. Egan's death by drowning followed a bout of heavy drinking on top of Antabuse, a drug often prescribed for alcoholics to help them deal with their addiction.
Shortly afterwards, Welch was prompted by a friend to write about his son's death as a way of making sense of his sorrowful life and its sad ending.
"This book is the result of that prompt. It was a terrifying and exhausting thing to write. I decided not to pull any punches, but to lay bare my own experiences of what it is like to live with and to love an alcoholic, to go through the agony of watching someone decline towards what you know is going to be the outcome, death, unless some transformation of the mind and will intervenes."
Welch begins documenting his memoir in a soft, leather-bound notebook whose spine is marred by four cuts which expose the hide beneath the tooled nap.
The notebook was bought by Egan in November 2006 as a Christmas gift for his father. However he found a more sinister use for it before then when, later that month he wrote a suicide note on its thick, parchment-like pages – "If I die it is not alcohol that killed me. It's something else ... I love all of you. I hate hurting you."
Now, some four months later, his father ponders the marks on the notebook's tooled leather spine; he believes they were caused by Egan biting into it after he had written "these terrible words, so full of sorrow and love".
This was Egan's third suicide attempt in as many years. For his parents, by now sadly resigned to the emotional turbulence occasioned by his alcoholic behaviour, it was like more of the same.
And though he survived, and even briefly improved, it was only a matter of time before the demons that had tormented him for so long, finally brought him down.
There is little in Egan's childhood to indicate that his life would play out as it did; the third of four children he was, says his father, a blissfully happy boy, instinctively compliant, with a natural impulse to courtesy.
But as he grew older, life darkened for him.
Unhappy at his secondary school and thwarted by bureaucracy from transferring to a more suitable one, by his early teens Egan was anorexic and attending a child psychiatrist, who attributed his problems to the unresolved school situation.
However, despite giving up (too soon, his father now believes) on formal education, Egan was so brilliant and naturally gifted that it wasn't long before he was working at the University of Ulster, entirely self-taught, formatting materials for a revolutionary online MA in Biomedical Science.
He also started up his own company, specialising in graphic design and animated websites; in the first year alone it made around £60,000 profit – probably too much money, his father reckons, for someone so young.
Egan subsequently fell in with an older businessman who ripped him off, and this, combined with an increasing sense of self-loathing, set him on the path to ruin; for it was at this point that his drinking began to spiral out of control.
With shocking rapidity, he sank into alcoholism and his parents found themselves dealing with its relentless fallout: panicked phone calls, usually in the dead of night; journeys in numbed silence to the scene of the latest catastrophe; long hours in Accident & Emergency, and the constant fear and dread of what might happen next.
In the three years before Egan's death, his parents brought him to some of the country's best treatment and rehabilitation centres – to no avail.
Welch writes of the "banal predictability of drunkenness" and the grief and heartbreak of bearing witness to it; of being summoned from the family home in Coleraine to Mayo, where Egan, having discharged himself from a treatment centre there, had loaded up on spirits from an off-licence and was roaring in the street, out of his mind, barefoot and soaking in the rain; of the nightmare journey home and the violence and mayhem that ensued.
Looking back, Welch finds it hard to believe that he and his wife Angela, Egan's mother, got through such times.
"You go from one instant to the next in fear and trembling, but you go on."
On the night of January 28, 2007, Egan, after a brief period of sobriety, set out from his home in Coleraine to rent DVDs but ended up instead in a chalet on the banks of the River Bann where a drinking session was in progress. Eleven days later his body was pulled from the river.
And what meaning is there in all of this?
In its preface Welch states that this is emphatically not a religious book; he has neither the training nor the capacity to write in theological terms about death and love.
And yet he finds himself going back again and again to the Gospels for the language to help him cope with and write about sorrow and loss.
In his search for meaning in the life and death of a much loved son, Welch reveals the power of that love at its purest and most sublime.
A haunting and heartbreaking read.