© T. Saull-Hunt
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THE BRIDGE AT LITTLE TAPER
Brian Sadler woke with a start. He knew what woke him. Somewhere in the shadows of sleep he’d made a decision. It didn’t seem there was another option. Life was no longer worth living, and his sub-conscious mind had planned it all down to the last detail.
The room was filled with an orange glow from the street-lamp directly outside his window. He lay motionless, staring at the grim bed-sit with its mouldy walls and flaking ceiling. Overhead he could hear the young lad in flat 3; or rather he could hear his mattress taking an almighty pounding. The spotty little sod had obviously got lucky last night and was now cementing a relationship that would probably last until breakfast.
Brian threw back the covers and slowly eased his aching limbs towards the floor. It never used to be this hard to get out of bed. Once, not so long ago it seemed, he would leap from bed eager to throw himself headlong into another glorious day. That was before she walked out: before his world collapsed: before she moved her new lover into the home they’d shared for so long. Was it only three weeks ago that he still had a life? It seemed longer. Four weeks ago they celebrated his forty-ninth birthday. He’d spent a few long hours pondering over whether that was partly the reason his wife had taken it upon herself to shack up with a man who was still the right side of forty. He didn’t want to dwell on such matters, not today.
It was exactly three paces from the bed to the sink. Brian could make the trip in his sleep.
He brushed his teeth, praying the couple overhead would complete their exercise. The girl had now become rather vocal, paint was falling from the ceiling like it had a bad case of dandruff and the lad’s mattress springs sounded as if they were about to snap under the pressure. It ended abruptly a minute later with a loud groan from him, and very loud moan of disapproval from her. The lad had obviously not lived up to expectations. Those were the days, Brian thought as he splashed a handful of cold water on his face.
Now wide awake, Brian rummaged through the few meagre possessions he’d stuffed into the drawers of a tatty oak cabinet. He hadn’t brought much with him; a few items of clothing and a handful of memories spanning almost two decades. Not a lot to show for a lifetime, he mused, sliding into a pair of comfortable jeans. He slipped on his best blue shirt and a black leather jacket ‘she’ gave him two Christmases ago. Straightening, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the dusty mirror. It was a face he barely recognized. The young lad with fire in his heart and a wicked gleam in his eyes had been replaced by an old man, devoid of hope: a ghostly reminder of years past.
The only other item he took from the drawer was a photograph. It was old and the colour had faded, but it was his favourite. He and Suzy were leaning against a chest-high, brick wall. Behind them was a panoramic view over the valley; lush, green fields stretching towards the sea in the distance. The old bridge straddled a river almost one hundred feet below. He could remember the moment as if it were yesterday. The bridge couldn’t be reached by road, they’d had to park a mile away and make the trek through the woods. It was a warm day, the sun filtered through the trees and if he closed his eyes, children’s laughter still rang in his ears. It seemed fitting his life should end there.
He drove through the night, oblivious to the headlights coming towards him. It took almost two hours to reach Little Taper. The village hadn’t changed. There was a pub, half a dozen shops and a scattering of thatched cottages. Years ago he’d promised Suzy they would buy one of those cottages. She’d smiled and snuggled close. It was just another memory to torture him.
Half a mile past the village, he pulled over. This was as far as he could drive. It had started to rain and the early-morning wind held a bitter chill. He was sad about that. He had hoped to see the sun climb above the hills to the east. He could imagine blood-red ribbons of light shimmering in the distance before slowly melting into the grey skies. He turned his collar against the wind and set off along the well-trodden path, picking his way carefully in the darkness.
The journey took longer than anticipated, and by the time the bridge came into view the dark winter sky already betrayed signs of dawns early light. The bridge looked cold and forbidding, nothing like he remembered it. As he drew closer, Brian saw a vague silhouette perched on the wall half way across the narrow aperture. Within ten strides the shape became clear. Someone was sitting on the wall, facing out towards the sea. Brian stopped, disorientated by the intrusion into what should have been his defining moment. A twig snapped beneath his foot and the startled figure turned towards him.
Their eyes locked. “Don’t come any closer,” a woman called out. She turned away slowly, fingers raking at the cold bricks on which she was sitting.
Brian took three more paces. The woman shuffled nearer the edge.
“What the hell are you doing?” Brian called out, immediately aware of the stupidity of the question.
“Just leave me alone.”
Stunned, Brian could only stare at her. The woman was about thirty, maybe a little younger. She was wearing a cream pullover and beige trousers. Her shoulder-length hair was soaking wet, and she was visibly shivering. Brian rested his arm on top of the wall, leaned forward and looked into the abyss. It was dark, but he could just see the outline of the river shrouded by an early-morning mist crawling across the surface. Just thinking about the cold, unforgiving water made him shudder. He looked along the wall and said, “I hope you appreciate irony.”
There was a lengthy pause before the woman snapped “What!”
“Irony,” he repeated. “You are first in the queue.”
He edged a little closer.
“If you take one more step…”
Brian stopped. He was close enough to see her eyes now. They looked so similar to the ones that had stared back at him in the mirror that morning. All hope was gone, replaced instead by fear and despair. He knew those feelings well.
“You look cold. Would you like to borrow my jacket?”
The woman turned her head slowly. “What the hell are you doing? No, I don’t want to borrow your jacket. Just leave me alone.”
Brian was surprised that – given the circumstances – he could still appreciate she was attractive. She had high cheek-bones and a gently rounded, very feminine jaw-line. “I can’t,” he said, very matter-of-factly.
“If you don’t…” The woman stopped mid-sentence, her mouth suddenly falling open. Brian was hauling himself onto the wall only twenty feet from where she was sitting. “What the hell are you doing?” Her voice had gone up an octave.
Now seated with his legs dangling over the edge, Brian turned his head slowly. “Exactly the same as you,” he replied, trying to ignore the freezing water seeping through his jeans.
“You won’t talk me out of it.”
“I have no intention of trying.”
Her expression changed. “Then why the hell are you doing that?”
Brian stared across the valley towards the sea. It was getting lighter now and he could just about make out a vague line where land meets water; two distant shades of grey, similar but not identical. He didn’t want to look down. “Because you don’t have a divine right to this spot,” he answered simply.
“But I was here first...” before she finished speaking, the words seemed to catch in her throat, as if she realized the absurdity of what she was saying but it was too late to stop them coming out..
Brian glared at her. “And I’m a lot older than you. That gives me seniority. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like a moment to contemplate my pitiful life before I end it.”
The stunned silence was broken only by the sound of a seagull in the distance and the woman drawing a sharp intake of breath. “Bloody typical,” she screamed. “And what makes your life so miserable that you need to end it?”
“I’d rather keep those feelings to myself.”
“That’s probably half the trouble.”
Brian sighed. “What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. If men learned how to communicate, if they opened themselves up just a little bit, half the problems of the world could be solved.”
“A very incisive argument,” she replied, accentuating the sarcasm.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Brian felt a smile curve the corners of his mouth. He leaned his head forward a fraction and peered at the sheer drop. It didn’t look inviting. Obviously he didn’t know precisely how he’d feel at this moment, but he wasn’t expecting this. There was no sudden moment of revelation. His life wasn’t flashing before his eyes. Maybe that comes on the way down, he thought.
He edged along the wall an inch or two. “What about you? What’s your story?” he said, trying to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of icy water working its way slowly into the crevice of his buttocks.
“What do you care?”
“Just making conversation, I might be able to help.”
“I doubt it.”
“Try me. I’m Brian by the way.” He was much closer now. Almost close enough to reach out and touch her. The fingers of her right hand were white and wrinkled as if she’d been sitting in a bath too long, and she was trembling. “It’s a long way down,” Brian added.
She turned sharply. “I thought that was the idea. It would be a little pointless if it wasn’t.” Her expression changed suddenly as she realised just how close he was now. “I said don’t come any nearer,” she screamed.
Brian held up his hands defensively. “No, sorry, I won’t move another inch.” A gust of wind caught his jacket and he grabbed the wall. The shock snapped him back to reality. For a split-second he thought he was going to fall. A wave of fear coursed through his body. This wasn’t how he expected his final moments to pan out. It should have been a moment of silent contemplation before he threw himself from the bridge and hurtled towards his death. At no time did it ever dawn on him that his final few minutes on earth would be spent chatting to a total stranger.
“Danielle,” the woman announced quite unexpectedly.
Brian looked at her and nodded, “Yes, you look like a Danielle.” He took a chance and shuffled the remaining few inches along the wall. This time she didn’t protest. “So, did you want to tell me why you’re here?” he whispered.
“No, not particularly.”
“I’m not about to judge you. I’m hardly in a position to take the higher ground, if you’ll pardon the pun.” He smiled to himself. Even in the depths of despair he could appreciate there was something vaguely amusing about the scenario.
Danielle looked at him. “Tell me your story first.”
Brian drew a breath. It might feel good to unburden himself. It certainly wouldn’t do any harm. “Okay, my wife threw me out of the house and moved her lover in.” He spat the words out like he’d just swallowed sour milk. “Oh, and her lover happens to be about fifteen years younger than me.”
“Is that it?”
“What do you mean, is that it? How bad do you want it? We’ve been married almost twenty years. I’ve lost everything.”
Danielle shook her head. “That’s pathetic.”
Pathetic!! He was stunned. Here he was, sitting on a bridge about to jump to a watery grave, pouring his heart out to her, and all she could do was throw it back in his face. “And I suppose you’ve got a far sorrier tale,” he snapped.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
When she turned towards him her face had taken on a completely different expression. It was as if a light had gone out inside her. There was no life buried in her eyes; as if her very soul had been ripped out. “I made a promise,” she said simply.
Brian frowned, waiting for an explanation. When none came he pressed her. “So you made a promise. Would you care to elaborate?”
“Are you really sure you want to know?”
Right at this moment he wanted to know more than anything else in the world. “Yes, yes I’m sure.”
She reached out and placed her icy hands in his. “I was in love once, a long time ago. Do you know what true love is Brian?”
“I think so.”
“Have you ever felt so consumed by love that it eats its way into you, takes hold of your heart and never lets it go. When every waking hour is spent thinking about that person and how much you need them.”
Brian nodded without truly understanding. He’d loved Suzy, still did. Although he may not be able to explain his feelings in such deep and meaningful sentences, it was love all the same. He knew how much it hurt to have that taken away.
Danielle continued. “I made a promise when he left me; a promise that can never be broken.” She squeezed his fingers. “So many people come here every year to end their lives. Most of them change their minds. People just like you Brian. They think they can end it all, but when the time comes, when the bell tolls, very few can actually bring themselves to do it.”
It was true. If he was completely honest he knew it the moment he climbed up on the wall. The embers of doubt had floated into his head even as he walked here. The smell of morning rain in the forest had teased him, as if nature itself was trying to tell him there was too much in life to just throw it all away. Sure he felt sorry for himself, he was entitled. But now, with the freezing river waiting a hundred feet below, he knew common sense would prevail in the end.
“So what was this promise then?” he asked.
Danielle moved her face towards him, her eyes burrowing into his. “I made a promise to the devil that I would do anything he asked if he would save me from an eternity of despair. And do you know what he asked me Brian? He asked me to make sure that anyone who came to this bridge intending to take their own life didn’t escape. ”
Realisation came too late. Before he could do anything about it the girl leapt from the wall, pulling him with her. Brian opened his mouth to scream but the sound stuck inside him. As his body spiralled towards its fate, eyes bulging wide with horror, he saw the woman still sitting on the bridge. Now she was smiling, waiting patiently for her next victim.