Jumpers

It’s out now, the fourth episode of the Oddcast! How long can he keep this up? I hear you say! Well, I’m just taking it one week at a time, but if nobody bothers to listen I will probably lose enthusiasm quite quickly, so help me out please!

Listen to my podcast and let me know what you think. If you have a short story podcast please tell me about it, I would love to listen to it! 🙂

https://anchor.fm/james-dunford/episodes/Episode-4—Jumpers-e8ttds/a-a10vri6

Jumpers

Katie fumbled for the phone next to her bed and answered sleepily, “Hey Suzi, it’s not even five yet, what’s up?” Her black cat Fritz, who had been asleep next to her on the bed, began nuzzling and butting her free hand to gain her attention.

“Turn on the news, quick!” Suzi answered excitedly.

“OK!” Katie reached for the remote and turned on the TV. A serious looking news reporter was standing on a suspension bridge with several police cars in the background, rooflights strobing in red and blue unison. Katie stroked Fritz absently as she took in the newscast.

“…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 Katie, “another one!”

“Yep, scary hey?” said Suzi, although she sounded anything but scared. “You never know it could be ours next.”

“Oh, come on Suzi,” said Katie, “you know nothing exciting ever happens on our bridge.”

“Make that our lives Katie,” said Suzi, “which brings us nicely around to you. Have you sent that application form off yet?”

“I will! Come on, if it’s not you it’s my Mum getting on my case! And she wonders why I haven’t returned her calls lately. 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.”

“Yeah, later Katie, watch out for the Jumpers!”

Katie closed the call and switched off the TV. Twenty minutes later she had fed Fritz and left for her job as a toll booth operator on the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

***

The bridge towers loomed above her, darker against the pre-dawn charcoal of the sky, as she made her way across the bridge to her toll booth.

She didn’t notice the figure until she was almost upon him, a silhouette leaning against the handrail, hooded head bent forward toward the river Avon far below.

As she drew closer, she could see that the figure was a man, tall and powerfully built, but the way his body hunched over the handrail gave the impression of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Above the handrail, the three rows of barbed wire designed to prevent anyone from climbing over had been cut between two posts, and the four foot fence and hand rail were all that separated them from a three-hundred-foot drop to the river beneath.

 Could he be another Jumper? She wondered, but they’ve all been girls haven’t? She tried to put the thought out of her head as she approached him.

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 option she could. 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. But before she could find the words to begin, he took the initiative and spoke.

“You should leave here 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 on my way to work.”

“You’d better keep moving then, so you don’t spoil your day.”

Katie didn’t move. “You’re not going to jump, are you?” she replied weakly, “I know things might seem bad right now, but they can get better.”

“Better?” he snapped, “how do 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, as if aware for the first time that he was frightening her. “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 sounded trite and clichéd, but she interpreted his lack of rejection as acquiescence.

He looked out across the Avon gorge 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 have to try and keep him upbeat, get him away from this bridge.

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 glimpsed another, swiped quickly past, showing two people together.

“This is my favourite. It’s the Millau Viaduct in the south of France. That bridge is incredible. It’s the tallest bridge on Earth. It measures 1,125 feet tall, one and a half miles long, and the bridge deck is nearly 900 feet above the ground. 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.

Oh no, he’s gone amber, think Katie!

 “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 oriental girl with long black hair and dark eyes probably taken on the same day 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 brief 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 thought. 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; He holding up the phone to show her the picture. “What a great shot, I am so glad I met you!”

Ok, now he’s back to green again!

 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, alarmed. “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! She thought, her mind racing.

“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 Katie,” 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, Katie!” 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 Katie, 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 she became aware of for the first time.

“I am so glad I met you Katie, you’ve saved me, you really have.”

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 she had tried to save. She imagined the news reports of her death, how would they ever know she wasn’t just another Jumper?

Another Jumper. Of course. That’s what they would say, another suicide to add to the crazy trend sweeping across Europe.

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 tattooed shape of a crouching panther stretched from just below his elbow almost to his knuckles reminding her of Fritz 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 did not 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 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. Hands shaking with the adrenaline coursing through his body, he allowed himself a few moments to scroll back through all the pictures he had taken over the last month. All those young women he had met; all the lives he had extinguished.  He googled the train times from Bristol to Edinburgh and smiled to himself.

Perfect, he thought. In as little as nine hours, he could be on the Forth Road Bridge.

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.

End

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