On the Bridge

Though the bridge is high, its roadway and pavement are so substantial that many of those who trudge across it are unaware of the railway lines beneath their feet. Amidst this evening’s homeward rush two figures are motionless, one seated on the outer edge of the bridge’s parapet, legs dangling over the sheer drop, the other standing beside him, leaning against the still-warm stone. It is clear that they do not know each other. The first man is hunched forward, staring downwards into nothingness, unaware that the attention of the second is fixed on him, his limbs tensed in preparation for any sudden movement.

Of those who make their way past these two men, some do not see them at all, and others see but look away – fix their eyes on the ground before them, or on the comforting familiarity of their smartphones. A few cannot pretend that they have noticed nothing, but react with anger – disgust even. Because the seated man is obviously a jumper, or soon will be, sending his ragdoll body to plummet onto the rails below as they look on. And whilst they are aware that such things occur – have heard the station announcements of a “person on the tracks” – they are not prepared for it to happen up close like this. Because, like it or not, a part of them is now forever seated there with the man. Can feel the hard edge of stone under their thighs and sense the enormity of the void.

A few more are drawn towards the scene by a more sympathetic impulse, but do not actually approach. Someone is there already, they tell their consciences, so no point crowding in. One of these calls 999, not slowing her pace as she passes, but doing her bit. The police will take some time to arrive though, because traffic is heavy, and they have been advised not to use their sirens in these circumstances.

One of those who passes has a particular reason not to be able to look away. The seated man slightly resembles her long-dead younger brother, but it is the other man her heart goes out to – that she wishes she could somehow save. Because she knows, and he does not, how his silent companionship there beside the seated man has already drawn him in, and will etch this moment into his mind forever. How, when the other does finally push himself off the parapet’s edge a part of him will make that death-leap too, so that all his life will be divided into the before and the after of this moment.

*

The seated man is called Peter, and though it is a long time since he has lived at home it is his mother that the police will call, because she is the “nearest relative” for the purposes of the Mental Health Act. Peter’s mother will feel no surprise, just that hopeless emptiness that she has come to know so well. The WPC will explain the circumstances – where Peter chose to go, how a passing stranger stopped to talk to him, and how another called 999. How people are pretty decent really, when you come down to it. And as Peter’s mother listens, memories will flood back of Peter as a little boy, high up in yet another tree, carving his initials into the bark. Everyone thought him fearless, but she knew different. It was the fear itself that drew him, even then – trying to face it down and knowing that he never could.

And in the dark hours of the sleepless night that will follow, the thought that will haunt Peter’s mother is this: if she had been there when Peter climbed onto that parapet, what would she have done? If it had been her he turned his empty eyes to, daring her to hold him back from the edge. Daring her not to.

It all got too much for Peter’s mother long ago. It is terrible what his illness has done to him, but what about what it is still doing to her? She hates him for it, and hates herself for feeling that way. They say a mother’s love is a limitless thing, but Peter found his mother’s limits long ago.

*

The other man is called Pavel, though Peter will never learn that. Pavel’s wife is at this moment sitting in their shabby studio flat waiting for him. Or waiting at least for some relief from the baby who will not settle, from the window that will not close properly against the autumn’s cold, from the strain of eking out Pavel’s meagre wages to the end of the month.

When Pavel does arrive home, she will ask what delayed him and he will say “Nothing.” It has become his favourite word of late. Every conversation between them this is how it ends: “Nothing.”

“So, what happened at work today, Pavel?”

“Nothing.”

 “What are you thinking about right now?”

“Nothing.”

Just once that evening he will mention the man on the bridge, but she will be too busy then to listen. There will be the washing up to do, the baby to get off to bed, tomorrow’s packed lunches to prepare.

And then the sofa and the shared can of cut-price lager.

It will not be until they are both in bed that she will remind him of it, as they lie there, neither touching nor not touching, sharing a silence that has recently become harder and harder to break.

“So, the man on the bridge,” Pavel’s wife will say. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” he will answer, and roll to face the wall.

*

Peter and Pavel were at the high point of the bridge in a silence that separated them from the bustle all around. Their coming together like this was pure chance, and at first they were unaware of each other. Peter, lost in the turmoil of his unmedicated brain, had been poised on the parapet’s edge for some minutes when Pavel stopped to gaze out over the railway far below.

It was the mathematical certainty of those infinitely receding lines that had drawn Pavel – that and the ever-present possibility of an express train roaring past beneath his feet – and it was a few moments before he registered the wire-taut tension that emanated from the man seated on the parapet beside him, or the way the man’s legs dangled unsupported over the brink, as the hunch of his body drew his head forward to gaze directly down at the railway tracks. Pavel felt the other man’s profound despair as a tangible force and knew that he must offer him comfort, but for a while no words of comfort would come. In the silence the tension grew, and then to his own surprise he heard himself speaking.

“Do you know where they are heading?” he asked. “The trains on this line?” But there was no response. The words meant nothing to Peter – came from nowhere. All that was real to him was the parallel polished steel of the rails far below.

“I like them,” Pavel added, “the express trains especially. They race off so fast that in a few seconds they look like toys, but I wish I knew where they are going.”

At that, Peter turned to him and for the first time Pavel saw the haunted emptiness in his eyes and took an involuntary half step back. Peter wanted to say, “Go away. Leave me here alone,” but the words failed to form in his throat.

“There was a railway line near my village. In Poland,” Pavel said. He was speaking only because silence had become intolerable to him, but as he did so the memory flooded back – of the roar those trains made while he and his friends dared each other to stand closer, then closer still, until the solid force of the train’s passing nearly knocked them onto their backsides.

“Who cares where the trains are going?” Peter said.

There was silence again, and close as he was to him, Pavel felt he would never reach this man – knew that when he chose to jump, nothing would stop him. “Have you been here long?” he asked, and immediately heard the absurdity in the question and wished he could take it back.

Peter stared out into the distance and for a few moments there was silence between them.

“I have been in this country seven years,” Pavel said, “but it feels like all my life, sometimes. This place I like though. Because of the trains.”

“Will you shut up about the trains,” Peter said, his voice alien and harsh in his own ears.

Pavel could think of nothing to say, or nothing that he could put into English words for this man, and he continued to gaze out along the receding lines of the railway tracks. “I just like it here,” he said eventually, and Peter turned his gaze away.

Then Pavel heard a scuffing of Peter’s heels against the outside face of the parapet. He turned and saw Peter’s forearms tense, and fear rose in his throat. “Why don’t we go and find a café?” he said in a rush, and Peter’s voice when he answered carried a cold and final challenge.

“Don’t try and stop me,” Peter said. “I will do it you know,” and to that Pavel could think of no response, so silence returned, as impervious commuters hurried past.

Then Pavel reached into his pockets with both hands and, turning them inside out, he faced Peter directly. “Too late in the month anyway,” he said. “Even for a cup of tea. I’m skint,” and at that a wry smile crossed Peter’s face. Pavel pretended to shake his empty pockets, then patted himself all over, a look of comic disappointment on his face, and to his own surprise Peter gave a little snort of amusement. The strangeness of the sound in his ears released something in Peter and soon he was overwhelmed by inexplicable laughter, so that after a while Pavel joined in too, nervously at first, but drawn into the shared awareness of the absurdity of their situation. Their laughter built, until suddenly Peter jerked upright, his hands gripping the parapet edge and he said, “Shit. Nearly lost my balance there,” and that was it for both of them, and their great guffaws carried out across the crowded pavement.

After a while the laughter of the two men subsided and the silence that followed it had a different quality, as if together they had passed some threshold that neither had known was there. For a while then they just chatted – about Pavel’s baby daughter, about the rural villages they both grew up in, about the way the setting sun was lighting up the clouds from below and seemed to transform the railway tracks into endless lines of fire. And slowly the silences between words lengthened, as if everything that could be said had already been said.

And just for a moment Pavel wondered what it would be like to sit up there beside the other man – to sense the awful promise of the precipitous drop beneath his dangling feet. He imagined himself climbing up, awkwardly bashing knees on brick before being ignominiously hauled onto the parapet’s stone. Could almost feel the convivial warmth of the other man’s shoulder against his as they sat in silence, side by side. He was a thirteen-year-old boy again, sitting beside his fifteen-year-old brother on the highest accessible ledge of the cliffs near their village, staring down at the deep mineral green of the sea below. He could feel the hard edge of stone under his thighs, the sun-warmed roughness of it against his palms, the moment of exhilarated terror before he pushed off. The ecstasy of the jump itself. The endless rush of the wind in his ears.

*

Eventually two police cars arrived together, sirens off but blue lights flashing, and their occupants stepped reluctantly out onto the pavement, huddling together to decide who should approach first.

“They’re here for me, aren’t they?” Peter said, and Pavel nodded.

“I didn’t phone for them,” he said.

“I know,” Peter said. “It’s OK,” and as the WPC approached, he swung his legs over to the safe side of the parapet. Leant a heavy hand on Pavel’s shoulder as he slipped down onto the pavement.

*

Peter’s psychiatrist will later encourage him to think of this as a turning point, but even when his medication has restored some frail balance to his troubled thoughts Peter will not be so sure. For the doctor it will be the symbolism that matters – the aching void, the bridge, the friendly stranger – but for Peter the bridge will never be a symbol. It will always be a real thing, with a parapet that he can swing his legs over until they dangle free. It will always have a drop beneath it, high enough to smash him beyond repair. It will always overlook rails that shine dully in the evening sun, and stretch forever outwards into a future Peter will never be able to imagine.

But if the bridge will always be a real thing, so too will the few minutes of conversation he had there with the man whose name he will never know. The man who taught him the Polish phrase, tęsknota da zomen, and explained to him that it means a yearning for the place you have left behind.

“Homesickness, you mean,” he will remember saying, though understanding even then that the English word does not capture the depth of what the man is describing.

*

For Pavel too, that conversation will always live in his memory as a tangible thing, though he would be hard put to it to explain why. He will remember nothing specific of what the Englishman said to him, and when he gets home that evening the flat will still be as small, his conversation with his wife as stilted, the evening as long as they have always been. He will never be sure why he went over to the parapet in the first place – maybe it was to catch a glimpse of an express train racing through, or maybe simply to delay his arrival home. It is not that he hates his wife, or even that he has stopped loving her, let alone stopped loving his baby daughter. It is just that something in his life has ended and he does not know for sure what it is.

Some days, as Pavel is making his long and weary journey home he wonders if the Universe would notice if he ceased to be. But on that particular evening, during the few moments he spent with the Englishman high on the bridge, he felt as alive as he has felt for many years. Two express trains passed below, and Pavel barely even looked down. He just stood there, with the Englishman beside him, each staring out at the slowly changing colours in the late evening clouds.

About Angus Walker

Angus was born in Madagascar and spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire, Berkshire and Argyll. He then worked on a smallholding on the Isle of Mull, an alternative technology workshop in rural Maharashtra and a series of London comprehensive schools. He made it to Headteacher before jacking that in, taking up writing and moving to Sussex. He now lives virtually next door to Virginia Woolf's old house with his partner Julie (also a writer) and too many cats.

Angus was born in Madagascar and spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire, Berkshire and Argyll. He then worked on a smallholding on the Isle of Mull, an alternative technology workshop in rural Maharashtra and a series of London comprehensive schools. He made it to Headteacher before jacking that in, taking up writing and moving to Sussex. He now lives virtually next door to Virginia Woolf's old house with his partner Julie (also a writer) and too many cats.

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