by Mike Fox
‘It’s cold in there, mate.’
The bridge has been closed to vehicles for months now. Perhaps something about the untypical quietness has played into my choice. Or perhaps it’s just that I’d rather spend these last moments in the open air. Who wants to die alone in a bedsit in the early hours of the morning?
My arms are stretched taut behind me, my hands grip the mesh of the protective fence and my feet rest on a slender curve of mildewed stone. Thirty feet below the river is high and the tide fast. Lamplight flickers in the black water.
The police woman looks very young. I can hear her voice is nervous. For some reason I wonder if she’s a special constable. It’s a strange time to be thinking of a detail like that. But then it’s a strange time for her, for both of us, to be here.
‘Honest,’ she says, ‘it’ll be really cold.’ Simple words. I find myself worrying that I’m making her anxious.
‘It’s alright,’ I say, as if I’m the one doing the reassuring.
I have to swivel my neck to see her face, which makes the whole thing more precarious. She’s very pale, and I realise she must be cold herself. In fact she’s trembling. She takes a step closer and smiles—the type of smile that’s not quite complete, that’s betrayed by the thoughts it’s meant to conceal.
‘I’m Evie,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’
For a moment I have to think before answering. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten.
‘Ian,’ I say eventually. ‘Ian Slade.’
‘Nice to meet you, Ian,’ she says, and for some reason an aching wish comes over me. I wish she was my daughter. Some father, somewhere, must be terribly proud of her.
‘Where do you live?’ she asks. ‘Are you local?’
I find myself hesitating. How much do I want to say?
‘Housing trust—just off the roundabout.’
‘This is your manor, then?’ She smiles again, and this time looks as if she feels a bit more confident she’s said the right thing.
‘I wouldn’t call it that.’ Her face falls, so I qualify, ‘I wasn’t born here, but I’ve lived in this area for a while now.’
She takes another step forward.
‘I’m a Putney girl. From just down the river. We’re almost neighbours, Ian.’
She looks at me carefully, and I recognise something in her expression. Something rare in my experience. It’s the look of someone who’s really trying to understand. I have no defence against it.
‘Shouldn’t there be two of you at this time of night?’ I ask.
‘Not really. I’m on my way home now.’
‘Do you mean you’re off duty?’
‘I suppose so, yes.’
‘Then you don’t need to be here?’
She shakes her head.
‘I want to be here.’
She has a small voice, but there’s energy in it, and hope—just a hint of natural upspeak. She’ll always see the good in people, I think. The music of her voice, the openness in her face, make me remember a time when life fulfilled its promises, promises built from things I’d been told about myself but somehow lost the ability to believe.
‘Thank you,’ I can hear my own voice has a catch in it. ‘Thank you very much.’
She takes another step forward. She could almost reach out and touch me. She’s looking at me very intently now.
‘Come over this side, Ian,’ she says, as if the idea has just occurred to her. ‘Your hands must be freezing holding that wire.’
I realise she’s right. In fact I can hardly feel them. And my shoulders are aching and stiff. It’s as if her words have reminded my body that it’s here. And now, in turn, my body reminds me of the dull, wretched ache beneath my sternum, of the accumulated misery of my existence. But it also tells me something else: it insists that I’m here in the present moment, thirty feet from the end of my life and, incontrovertibly, that I’m terrified. I start to shake.
Suddenly Evie has a tight grip on my bicep.
‘I’ve got you,’ she says. ‘Come on. Just turn round carefully so you’re facing me and then we can get you over.’
She doesn’t sound convinced and neither am I, but her fingers bite fiercely into my arm. To do as she asks I have to let go with one hand then swivel on the damp, shallow ledge that supports my heels. I’m breathing so fast I begin to feel dizzy.
‘Just do it, Ian.’
For a moment her voice is sharp, and I obey. I swivel and grip, and suddenly, although I’m still on the wrong side of the fence, I’m facing her.
‘Brilliant,’ she says, ‘now lean forward.’
The fence isn’t high. It comes just above my hips. I lean forward and see frost is beginning to form on the pavement: my mind obeying its own laws, life continuing irrespective.
‘Come on, bring your right leg across.’
I do as I’m told and, within a few seconds, it’s all over.
Evie lets go of my arm. She’s trying to smile but her teeth are chattering, and I feel intensely ashamed.
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell her. ‘I’m so sorry.’
She just shakes her head.
Then a thought occurs to me.
‘Do you need to take me in?’
‘Take you in?’
‘To do your paperwork.’
She follows the movement of my eyes, then looks down at herself, pats her uniform and bursts into laughter.
‘I’ve been on a hen night. We did it midweek to give the bride time to recover. I don’t drink and I’m vegan, so they call me the fun police. That’s why I dressed up like this.’
I look at her more closely. She’s small and she’s cold and she’s laughing, and I can’t quite realise what she’s just told me. I can’t quite realise it.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.