When her alarm rang at 4am Miranda Parker sat up, reached for the TV remote and clicked the ‘on’ button. She stretched, threw the remote on the bed and headed for the tiny en-suite bathroom. As she fumbled drowsily with the shower control her black cat Harvey, her only companion, weaved in and out of her legs purring rhythmically.
The sound of canned laughter from a Cosby show re-run was quickly drowned out by the thunderous drumming of water striking the acrylic bathtub as she got ready to begin her day. She finished quickly and was towelling her short brown hair when her mobile began ringing from the beside cabinet. She sat on the bed and answered, slightly concerned by the hour of the call.
“Hey Suzie it’s not even five yet, what’s up?”
“You’ve got Sky right?” Suzie spoke quickly, obviously excited.
“Turn on the news, quick!” Suzie interrupted.
“OK!” Miranda reached for the remote and swapped channels. Bill Cosby’s smiling face was instantly replaced by a female news reporter standing on a suspension bridge with several police cars in the background, their rooflights strobing in red and blue unison.
“…Not yet know the identity of the young woman, thought to be in her early twenties and we are currently awaiting formal identification. This latest incident, this time on the Queen Elizabeth bridge, is the eighth of its kind in the last month and appears to be yet another in a worrying trend of copycat suicides across Europe.”
“Wow!” said Miranda, “another one!”
“Yep, scary huh?” said Suzie, her voice sounding anything but scared. “You never know it could be ours next.”
“Oh, come on Suzie, you know nothing exciting ever happens on our bridge.”
‘Make that our lives Miranda, which by the way brings us nicely around to you. Have you sent that application form off yet?”
Miranda groaned. “I will! Come on, if its not you its my Mum getting on my case. And she wonders why I haven’t returned her calls lately.” She glanced at the clock, “look, in case you have forgotten we have a shift starting in a little more than an hour and I have a half hour walk to get there so I’d better go. See you on the other side.”
“Yeah, later M, watch out for the Jumpers!”
Miranda closed the call and flipped back to Cosby. Twenty minutes later she had fed Harvey and was on her way to work. Her small flat was in England, but her workplace was a toll booth, ‘on the other side’ of the Severn Bridge, in Wales.
* * *
She had first noticed him almost ten minutes earlier, a distant silhouette leaning against the handrail, hooded head bent forward, toward the river far below. Could he be a Jumper? She tried to put the thought out of her head as she approached. Anyway, hadn’t all the recent ones been girls?
As she drew nearer she studied him, searching for clues to his possible intentions in his appearance and bearing. He was tall and powerfully built, but the way his body hunched over the handrail gave the impression of a man who was utterly defeated. A sense of foreboding passed like a shadow across her heart, a feeling of inevitability, as if somewhere deep inside her she had known this moment was coming.
She considered her options, imagining the reporter questioning her later. ‘So you didn’t want to be late for work so you just kept walking?’ No, there wasn’t really any choice. Whether it was her conscience, or the fear of what might happen if she didn’t stop, she chose the only path open to her. She stopped a few metres away from where he stood, silently weighing her words before she spoke them, anxious to engage him without alienating him. Yet before she could find the words to begin he took the initiative and spoke.
“You should leave, right now,” he said without turning, “before you see something you’ll never forget.”
“It’s a wonderful view, isn’t it?” She offered, cringing inside at how lame her words sounded. “I guess I am very lucky to have this kind of scenery to look at whenever I am at work.”
“You’d better keep moving then, so you don’t spoil your day.”
“You… you’re not going to jump, are you?” she replied weakly, “I mean, I know things seem bad right now, but they can get better.”
“Better?” he snapped, “how would you know that? What could you possibly tell about me or my situation just by looking at me?” He spun around to face her, his gaunt face covered in a patchy salt and pepper growth, reddened, puffy eyes fixing her own, shaming her for her lack of suffering.
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, bowing his head. “It’s not your fault, but you can’t help me – no-one can. You should leave here.”
“I might not have the answers, but I can listen if you feel like talking… would you like to talk?” She forced a smile and waited, her words were clichéd but she interpreted his lack of rejection as acquiescence.
He looked out across the estuary and then back at her, surprising her with a smile. “I love suspension bridges. I love everything about them. The scale, the massive towers and hanging cables and the great views you get when you stand on them. I’ve been all around Europe looking at bridges, you know. Come and see.”
This guy’s moods change like traffic lights, she thought, I must try and keep him upbeat, get him away from the edge.
He took out his iPhone and held it up for her to see. She moved reluctantly alongside of him and he began scrolling through pictures, each time a different bridge but always the same shot, a selfie taken in the middle of the bridge with the railing behind him and the sweep of the suspension cable climbing away behind. As he swiped across the phone to change the images she thought that for every image he showed her of him alone, she had glimpsed another showing two people together.
“My favourite is Millau in the south of France. That bridge is incredible. It’s really high up and you get an amazing view of the gorge and the village down below and some days you can see clouds passing beneath you. That was where I met Veronique…” he finished quietly, leaving her in no doubt of the significance of his final sentence.
Uh-oh, he’s gone amber, think Miranda!
“is she your girlfriend?” she asked. She felt obliged to keep him talking, to get him to open up and put his trust in her – that’s what you do with Jumpers isn’t it? Her eyes swept the bridge to her left and right but they were completely alone. The burden of responsibility towards this fragile, lonely man rested firmly on her shoulders.
“She was… my first.” His voice was low and flat. “But she’s gone now. Would you like to see a picture?”
“Yes, of course.” What else could she say?
He pulled up an image of himself with a pretty girl with dark eyes and oriental features framed by long black hair, the picture clearly taken on the same day as the other, on the bridge at Millau. His smile was broad and genuine, hers looked… uncomfortable? “she’s beautiful,” she ventured.
He stared at the image for a moment, nodding silently. “It’s no fun taking selfies on bridges all on your own, reminds you of how alone you were when you look back at them, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” she shrugged, guessing where he was going next, but feeling unable to take the conversation on a different course without souring his mood.
“Would you let me take a picture of us, here on the bridge?” he asked. “That way when I look back at the picture I will think of you, and remember the kindness you showed me – make today into something positive.”
“Yes, of course.” Damn him, he’s manipulating me. She allowed herself to be turned and positioned in such a way that he could take a nice shot of the two of them together; he with one long arm around her shoulders, the other outstretched, holding the camera. It was a nice shot, the long sweep of the suspension cables rising away behind them towards the second of the support towers that made a frame around them; a good composition, obeying the rule of thirds.
He was overjoyed. “That is just fantastic!” he exclaimed, holding up the phone up to show her the picture. “What a great shot, I am so glad I met you!”
Ok, now green!
She studied the picture, hiding her irritation. He looked tall and powerful with no hint of the vulnerability that she knew lay just below the surface. She on the other hand looked much smaller, the top of her head barely up to his chin. How ridiculous it seemed to her that he should need saving by her.
A thought she couldn’t quite compose was nagging at her consciousness when he spoke again. “What’s your phone number?” he asked, smiling, “so I can send you the picture?” She stared back at him in uncomfortable silence.
His smile shrank a little. “It’s ok, I’ll delete your number straight away, I mean I understand you don’t really know me, yet.” He waited, phone in hand ready to type the number. In that moment, she knew she had reached a crossroads. To give him her number now would be a huge leap of faith, a gesture of trust and a token of friendship. To refuse him was to reject him, to send a message that their meeting, which was so important and pivotal in his life, was of no importance to her, or worse, an experience she wished to expunge from her memory.
As she stood immobile, unable to commit to either path, her hesitation spoke for her. His smile disappeared and his hands fell to his sides. Crestfallen, he turned once more towards the estuary and she knew that she had lost him. She had failed to take control of the situation and he had stepped in to fill the power vacuum.
Without warning he pocketed the phone and vaulted lightly over the handrail landing on the narrow ledge beyond.
“What are you doing?” she said, panic rising within her, “wait!”
He faced her now with his hands on the rail and his back to the estuary. His eyes were wild and hostile and his nostrils flared with each tremulous breath. “That’s the difference between you and me,” he spat bitterly; “we’re from different worlds. You only peer over the fence at my world, you can’t comprehend what it feels like to live on my side!”
Red! Red! Red!
“If you’d been ten minutes later you would never have met me, and if you had seen me on the street and not here on this bridge you would have walked straight past me without a second glance!” He looked away from her as if disgusted with what he saw and looked up and down the bridge. “well, you can walk on now. No-one else is here to know you walked away, it’ll be our secret. Pretty soon just yours. Go on, fuck off!” He screamed the last words at her, tiny droplets of spittle showered her face and she wanted so badly to go, to just leave him to get on with it.
She had never imagined that she could feel that way towards someone who wanted to take their own life, but there was little about this man that she could find to like. He watched her now, waiting for her response, his mouth twitching into a grin at some secret joke that repelled her all the more.
Of course, he was testing her, she knew that. He had probably driven away everybody who had ever been close to him and this was his only way of exercising control on the outcomes of his relationships. Well, she didn’t have to like him to save him and she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of proving him right about her.
“I’m not going anywhere, and nor are you,” she managed with an air of confidence she didn’t feel. “Let’s start again, shall we? I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced yet, have we?” She offered a small pale hand with a thin gold band on the little finger. “My name is Miranda,” she stated, forcing a smile.
He looked at the hand with it’s perfectly manicured nails, the thumbnail embellished with a tiny daisy and his hostility evaporated as quickly as it had begun.
His eyes locked with hers as he stretched out a broad calloused palm with thick dry fingers. Yet instead of taking her hand, his thick fingers clamped around her delicate wrist and his mouth twisted into an ugly, lop-sided grin. “Pleased to meet you, Miranda!” With a sudden, powerful wrench he lifted her tiny frame up and swung her over the railing, smashing her hip against the handrail in the process.
She cried out in pain and terror as he dangled her by one arm, her shoulder burning from the entire weight of her body and her feet kicking helplessly below.
“Don’t look down!” he commanded, “Look at me!”
“Please!” she sobbed, her eyes wild with fear, “Please don’t drop me!”
His face was transformed. All the misery and despair it had worn when she first saw him had been shed. In it’s place an expression of pure, unbridled joy. “Make sure you keep looking at me on the way down, I need to see your eyes. It’s really important Miranda, don’t forget.”
One of her sensible black shoes slipped from her foot and fell noiselessly towards the water below. She felt a warm wet sensation as her bladder emptied and first her knickers, then her right leg became wet, as urine ran freely down into her remaining, sensible shoe. The warmth dissipated quickly, to be replaced by the chill of damp clothing in the cold wind, that she had now became aware of for the first time.
“I am so glad I met you Miranda, you’ve saved me, you really have.” He said earnestly, a broad smile spreading across his angular face.
She knew then that she was going to die, that she was going meekly to a death that had been conceived and executed by this man that she had tried to save. She imagined the news reports of her death – how would they ever know that she wasn’t just another Jumper?
In her heightened consciousness, in the seconds before her end, she noticed the network of thick veins that wrapped around his muscular arm, like the feeder roots of a tree protruding above the ground.
The shape of the crouching panther tattooed on his wrist that disappeared up his sleep reminded her of Harvey, sitting on the neighbour’s wall, waiting for her to come home. She thought of the voicemail messages from her mother that she hadn’t returned, the university application form that she would never send and the new life she would never get to live.
She didn’t scream when he opened his hand and let her fall; no sound escaped from her open mouth. It worked noiselessly, opening and closing like a stranded fish as she plummeted towards the cool, dark waters far below.
Transfixed, he watched the silence of her fall, the transfer now complete. She had taken on his burden. The despair that had been his, she now wore in his place.
Smaller and smaller she became, never taking her eyes from his, until at last, with barely a splash, she disappeared into the water. Tiny concentric circles made by her impact spread momentarily, before disappearing with the current under the bridge, her passing marked by barely a ripple.
For a few seconds he remained motionless, gazing down at the water before turning and climbing back over the railings. His hands shook with the adrenaline coursing through his body. He held out his iPhone as he had so many times before, adjusted his position, framed the perfect shot and smiled for another selfie, on another bridge.
He allowed himself a few moments to scroll back through all the pictures he had taken over the last month. All the young women he had met; all the lives he had extinguished. He glanced at the time, then googled the train times from Bristol to Edinburgh.
In as little as nine hours, he would be at the Firth of Forth.