But my friend Maurice had a very special talent. A talent big enough for the police forces of three different counties to keep him in ample employment.
Maurice was a suicide negotiator.
Whenever someone climbed to the top of a building to throw themselves off, it was Maurice who was called to change their mind. He had a good head for heights and would sit beside them with what he called his "lunchbox".
Now, I first met Maurice in a bar through a mutual friend one evening. I was so intrigued by the man that I turned up at his house two days later.
I'd guessed right. He was a lonely guy and welcomed company. Within minutes we were happily chatting in his front room with cans of beer from the chilled six-pack I'd brought along. I was dying to know more about his unusual occupation and the even more unusual talent that made him so good at it.
But it would have been bad manners to hurry him.
I could immediately tell that he lived alone. No woman would have stood for his untidiness. Catching me glancing around he said, "my wife--Nancy--er, she died five years ago. I try my best. Still miss her like crazy."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Maurice." There was a pause. "Um....five years is a fair while, though. You're an important guy. You earn good money. It's nice to have a woman in one's life."
Maurice glanced at me and immediately I regretted my words. There was a flash of anger mixed with sharp pain in his eyes. "No one can take Nancy's place, d'you hear?" he grated. I looked down, kicking myself for my big mouth. Finally Maurice relaxed. "Besides, take a look at my face. How many women do you think would fancy waking up to find a gargoyle sleeping beside them?" I kept quiet, convinced I'd done enough harm for one night. "I do miss a woman though, you know?" Maurice went on into the silence.
I nodded. "Yeah."
We sipped from our now lukewarm cans of beer. It was time to change the subject.
"Maurice, I don't care what you say, but I find your line of work fascinating. What does it take? How do you do it? And that night at the bar, you mentioned some kind of lunchbox? Hey, what's with the lunchbox?"
Maurice's eyes twinkled and suddenly he laughed, his little pot belly jiggling up and down with genuine merriment as he drained the last of his beer. I immediately opened another can for him.
"Ah---thanks, John. It just sounded so funny, the way you said it. But, you know, it's deadly serious stuff---at least to the person I'm trying to convince not to take their own life........"
Maurice reached sideways to a shelf and picked up what certainly looked every inch like an ordinary semi-transparent white plastic lunchbox. He opened it and pulled out a little screw-top cylinder. "It's only after I've talked to them for a few minutes---got them to relax a bit. That's when I open my lunch box. Here, have a whiff of this...."
I took the little cylinder after he'd opened it and cautiously brought it up to my nose.
"Wow! That's incredible, Maurice," I gasped.
Maurice looked pleased. "A chemist friend of mine got it together. Good, isn't it."
"It sure is. It's fantastic."
What did I smell? The loveliest perfume in the world? The balmiest Caribbean sea breeze?
It was the marvellous aroma of freshly baked bread. Absolutely one hundred percent authentic.
"Well, they smell it the way you just did," Maurice went on, "and I say to them, listen, ain't that the best smell in the world? Wouldn't you like to live to taste freshly baked bread rolls again? You can't do that if you're dead, you know."
"And what do they say?"
Maurice pulled a face. "Nothing much. Not at first, anyway. And then I take this out."
Maurice handed me a stunning full-colour 3-D picture of a school of dolphins playing in the sea. It was a great shot, full of movement and gay abandon. And the dolphins had the biggest smiles you have ever seen---or at least it looked that way! "See how happy they are," Maurice murmured. "You can be just as happy if you want. Just by going and watching them---and there are thousands of sights like this all over the world just waiting for you--- but how will you be able to see them if your eyes are closed for ever?"
"They're lovely. Beautiful. I know this place called Ocean World that do dolphins, and......." I caught myself and grinned sheepishly.
"See?" Maurice chuckled happily. "I'm getting you hooked already. And you're not even one of my suicides!"
I was now fairly bursting with curiosity. "What else have they got in there, Maurice?" I wanted to know.
"Listen to this." Maurice pulled out a tiny digital recorder and switched it on. I pressed it to my ear. At first all I heard was birdsong. All sorts. Totally enchanting. By the sound of it I guessed there must have been some really exotic tropical birds among them.
And then I heard another sound.
A tiny baby crying, far away in the distance. Insistently and plaintively.
"Hear him?" whispered Maurice. "A newborn infant. And you d'know what he is saying? 'I'm here, folks. I didn't ask to be here, but here I am, and you've got to listen to me. I don't know what kind of life I'm going to have---how the dice are loaded. What will happen to me, good or bad. But out of millions of other souls it was me who was chosen. Get it? Me! I was selected for this brief gift of life, and let me tell you, I'm gonna make sure I enjoy it, one way or another, 'cos I just can't believe how lucky I was. So here I am, naked and cold, flailing my arms and legs about to grab your attention. To make you listen!' "
It was more than just the words Maurice was saying. It was the way he was saying them. In a low, bass drone, full of intense emotion. Almost hypnotic. Sort of drew you in. Maurice leaned closer to me.
"And that's you, John. That baby is you when you were born," he whispered.
"You're right," I replied huskily. "That could be me."
Despite myself I was moved. I swallowed the lump in my throat and gave a nervous sort of laugh. Either Maurice was a genius or he was completely nuts! But whichever one he was, he obviously knew how to make it work.
"Is that it, then?" I mumbled in a daze. "Anything else?"
"Oh, just one more thing, John. It's this......."
Maurice pulled out the last object from his lunchbox. A tiny biscuit tin. He reached forward, took my hand, and poured out some pink crystals into my palm. "See, John? By this time they've got to trust me---most likely enough to let me take their hand. Okay, go on, then. Taste it."
What did the crystals taste of? The best gourmet meal in the world? The most sublime ice cream? No.
None of that.
It was strawberry popping candy.
It took my breath away with the riot of sensation that exploded inside my mouth. I felt my head was about to hit the ceiling. I couldn't help it. I began giggling helplessly.
"Maurice, you're completely out of your tree," I managed to get out. I really hadn't tasted popping candy since I was a little boy. And that stuff was really good. Electrifying!
"There....you see?" said Maurice softly. "You'll never be able to taste anything as great as that again if you are dead with your mouth closed forever, now, will you?"
A shiver went down my spine as I turned to look Maurice in the eye.
"I have no intention of taking my own life, Maurice, wha.....?"
I was doing it again!
"Yup." Maurice's face relaxed into a triumphant smile. "It works, doesn't it!"
I was impressed.
The thing is, as I keep saying, it wasn't really what was in Maurice's lunchbox. It was the way he did the whole thing. His tone of voice, the way he said it, his body language. He just had this way with him. He made you believe every word.
"Yes, Maurice. I now have absolutely no doubt that it works." I said. "But what does it matter what I think? You've proved it again and again, every time the cops call you out. You know, you're really something!"
Maurice looked faintly embarrassed.
"Ah---forget it." He waved a hand dismissively. "All this talking has made me thirsty. How about another beer?"
I dropped by to see Maurice off and on. And he was always glad to see me. A very private and very lonely man. Cheering everyone up except himself. Performing miracles in getting people to believe in life again, but unable to do the same for himself. It was so sad. I so wanted him to be happy. He really needed a woman in his life---some guys can get by without one better than others. Maurice wasn't one of them. I knew this because it was easy to read between the lines when we chatted about stuff.
It happened about a year later. One afternoon I got a call while I was at work. It was from a hospital in the next county.
"We have Mr Maurice Nesbit asking for you. How soon can you come? I'm afraid he doesn't have long."
Yes, that's the way they gave it to me. Right between the eyes!
"He was talking a jumper off a window ledge." Yes, apparently 'jumper' was what they called them. "Something went wrong. The guy jumped, but suddenly changed his mind and grabbed hold of Mr Nesbit. They both went down. Jumper's dead. Not much hope for Mr Nesbit either. Sorry to break it to you like this." There was a pause while I absorbed all this. "Can you come or not?" This time the voice sounded irritable.
"Of course I'll come. As fast as I can."
Five minutes later I was doing everything I could not to break the speed limits down the highways and freeways in my haste to get to the hospital where Maurice lay dying.
Maurice had the usual tubes and wires entering him this way and that. He opened his eyes at the sound of my voice.
"John---you've come," he mumbled. "Didn't know who else would come. Never made many friends. Seemed to kinda spook them, what I do. But you were different....."
"Maurice, you're going to be fine. You need to get out of this, my friend. Use the same techniques you're so good at, but this time on yourself. You want to live, I know it."
This was crazy. Here I was trying to get Maurice to do what he'd tried to get all those would-be suicides to do.
"Do I? I don't know, John. It's tough living all alone in this world. I wanted to see you. I enjoyed your being there. But there is this thing going drip-drip-drip inside me and I know I'm hurt real bad---and I was only really hanging on for you to get here....."
He was slurring his words now. I felt tears pricking my eyes.
"I'm still here, John. Because I need something. One last thing. I hadn't the courage myself. But now you're here I think it can be managed....that is, if you can help."
He glanced across to where the nurse was standing at the far end of the intensive care room. She was gazing out of the window, not really listening, trying to give us some privacy. I leaned closer to listen to hear Maurice's words. He was getting fainter by the second.
When I heard what he had to say I shook my head in wonder, and yes, I couldn't help a smile tugging at the stiff muscles in my face.
I went over to the nurse and repeated what Maurice had said. Her eyes sparked into life and one hand flew to face. "Of course. No problem." She nodded vigorously.
She walked briskly over to Maurice. "Why didn't you say so? All you had to do was ask," she chided him gently.
Reaching to his face, with infinite tenderness the nurse smoothed the shock of grey hair away from his brow. Slowly she massaged his temples with her fingertips, then let the back of her hand sort of trail down the side of his face. I couldn't believe it. Maurice looked at least ten years younger. An instant transformation.
"Gee, thanks, nurse," he got out in a slightly stronger voice. "You can keep my lunchbox, John. It's yours now. But let me tell you, there's nothing quite like the touch of a woman. Nothing to beat it in this whole wide world......and now I can take it with me, see....."
Looking supremely at peace with himself and everyone else in general, Maurice closed his eyes and was gone.
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