Sunday, 5 February 2012

Caught By The River


(The Doves: Caught By The River)

Alex stood on the narrow iron ledge two hundred feet above the river and tried to be brave. The wind grew impatient and tugged at his jacket, and he tightened his fingers on the girder. He'd never been in charge of anything in his life, so he didn't want to let this one opportunity be taken from him.

Up behind him, cars hissed on the wet road. Down below him, the river waited.

Alex held on tight with one hand, fished his cigarettes from his pocket with the other, managed to maneouvre one into his mouth. He didn't really want it, but it gave him something to do while he waited to become brave enough, and it made him think of condemned men coolly waiting for the firing squad and soldiers joking while they waited to go over the top, and that made him feel a little better about the fact that he couldn't take one step forward. His hands were cold now, and he fumbled his lighter. It hit the ledge, bounced out into the darkness, down to the water. He spat the cigarette after it, and that's when he heard the footsteps.

Now, he thought.  Now, before they come. But his arm wrapped tight around the girder and he didn't move.  Alex had spent a lot of time looking up at the bridge from down on the riverside, he knew it like it was a friend, knew its moods, its habits. Hardly anyone walked across at night, but then he never had been very lucky.  The footsteps stopped and there was silence for a minute.  Then a man's voice said "Hello". Alex nearly went then, and for a moment he was hanging between the iron and the air.  He tightened his hold.

"Go away."

"I can't do that."

"Yes you can. Just walk away, just keep going, just pretend that you never knew that I was here. This has nothing to do with you. Just fuck off."

There was a pause, as if the man were considering this.  "No, I don't think I can do that."

Alex felt angry in a petty way, like a child told to put down a toy in a shop, and realised that he had spent a lot of his life feeling that way. This was his moment, his time.

"You come near me and I'll jump, I swear to God, I'll do it now."

"OK. Then I won't come near you."

They both stood in the night, listening to the rain plinking off the bridge. The river slid on below Alex, deep enough and fast enough that it would catch him, and carry him, and sweep him out into the sea.

"It's not a very nice night, is it?" the man said.

Alex wanted to punch him, punch him in the face, hard. He had never hit anyone before, even though he had often wanted to, but now he knew he really could. Or rather, could have done had the bridge not been in the way, and had he not been frightened of falling off the ledge, losing his choice, losing his moment.  This was meant to be his time, and now some bastard was talking to him about the fucking weather. "Fuck off."

"Sorry."

More time, more rain.

"I am sorry," the man said. "But this is the best place. And if I stand around up here too long waiting for you, I'll do what I've done a hundred times before and I can't bear that again."

There was a shuffling noise from above and the man slid down onto the ledge a few yards from Alex. He wasn't as old as he had sounded, barely into middle-age, his brown hair plastered down over his head by the rain. He was wearing a suit and a raincoat, and looked as if he was on the way home from the office.  He looked at Alex and smiled, said, "Sorry for pushing in," and stepped out into space. Alex shouted something, he didn't know what, and his hand gripped so tight around the girder that it hurt and he watched the man drop down, arms and legs out like a starfish, raincoat flapping around him in the wind, all the way down until the black river caught him and took him in and then he wasn't there any more.

Alex felt sick. He stared down at the dark water waiting to catch him, and thought of that terrible long fall. The rain stung his face and this felt like it mattered very much. He felt alive in a way that he had not done for years, and he turned to climb back up to the road. But the iron bridge was very wet, and his hands were very cold, and he never had been very lucky.

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