by Digby Beaumont
In Memory of Ed Lewis
Halfway across the footpath on Hammersmith Bridge, Wilson stopped and leaned over the wrought-iron parapet. Pools of silver, orange and green light shimmered on the fast-moving Thames below. He looked up. The bridge was deserted, the late night sounds of the city a distant hum.
As he removed his coat, he wondered who would find his body. The river police most likely, or someone out walking their dog. He clambered over the parapet. The outer ledge was narrower than he had expected and coated with green algae. He thought of the irony as his foot slipped and he had to cling on to stop himself from falling in.
But as he was about to jump, he heard a sound. Moments later a man appeared. He was tall and slim with a nut-brown complexion, and he was pushing an old bicycle that had a squeaky back wheel.
He waved to Wilson. "Evening. Everything all right?"
"Yes, thank you," Wilson said.
The man stared at him. "Suicide, is it?"
Wilson held up a hand. "Keep away. Don't try to stop me."
"No, no of course not. No, I can see you're a very determined man."
Silence followed before Wilson spoke again. "Look," he said, "are you just going to stand there, gawping?"
"Oh, sorry. Am I putting you off your stride? Should I go?"
"Could you?" Wilson said.
But the stranger didn't budge. Leaning his bike at an angle, he propped himself against the crossbar. "Tricky, I imagine, taking that final leap into the unknown. You're about to find the answer to life's eternal conundrum. I envy you that." He put a finger to his lips. "Sorry, call me a nosey parker, but I was wondering, how did you arrive at your modus operandi? I mean, did you consider pills, for instance?"
"What? No, yes, oh, I don't know. What difference does it make?"
"No, nothing. It's just, well, that would be my method of choice, pills. Clean and quick."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. But no, fair dos. You've opted for the drowning route. An Englishman's right, freedom of choice and all that." He paused. "Much of a swimmer, are you?"
Wilson shook his head. "No, no, I can't swim at all."
"Oh, well, excellent choice, then. It'll all be over in a minute." He folded his arms. "No, you go ahead. In your own time. Act as if I weren't here." But Wilson didn't move, so he continued. "Excuse my prying, I was wondering, what are you, mid-thirties?"
"What? Forty-five. Why?"
"Really? You look very good for your age."
"Yes. Health all right, is it?"
"As far as I know."
"Any money problems? Problems at work?" He spoke as if he were checking items on a list.
"None to speak of," Wilson said.
"I see. And what is it you do for a living, may I ask? From the look of you, I'd say something in the arts."
"I’m a film cameraman."
"I'm always in work."
"Well done. So, what does that leave us with, then?" He puffed out his cheeks and let the question hang in the air.
"Sorry?" Wilson said.
"The cause of your distress, your wish to end it all? Desperate feelings of loneliness and self-loathing, is it?"
Wilson tried to speak. Before he could, he lost his footing on the ledge and plunged headlong into the cold, murky water.
At first he fought for breath then reminded himself why he was there and started to let go. As he fell deeper, a memory came to him from earlier in the day: The Underground. A crowded train. A young woman sitting opposite. A paperback open in her hands. Her red hair tumbling onto her slim shoulders. The soft white skin. The outline of her breasts through the black T-shirt. The sensual smile she gave him. But what would have been the point? It would have ended in disaster, just like every other time. Wouldn't it?
At that moment he became aware of a large object moving towards him on the river bed. When it got closer, he blinked twice. It was the stranger on his bicycle. "Still with us, then?" he said, his voice distorted under the water. "Having second thoughts, are we?"
Wilson stared at him, unable to speak.
"Don't worry. Hop up," the man said, and reaching out, took Wilson's hand and helped him onto the crossbar. Then he pedalled with a fury and the bicycle rose like a rearing stallion before they hurtled upwards and burst through the surface of the river.
Wilson looked around him. He was standing on the same spot as before, on the ledge of the bridge, his coat nearby. He was dry, and he was alone. He didn't understand. What had happened? Had it been some kind of rehearsal?
For quite some time he stood there, unsure what to do. Then he came to a decision: He would wait and see who the next person was to cross the bridge. If it was the man with the bicycle, he would put his coat back on and give life another try. If it wasn't, he would jump, and this time he wouldn't accept any lifts from strangers.
He let out a breath. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. After a while, he thought he could hear something. He turned his head and listened. Was that the sound of a squeaky bicycle wheel coming towards him borne on the night air?
Digby Beaumont lives in Brighton on the south coast of England. His work has appeared in Barfing Frog Press, The Raging Face, Zygote in My Coffee, Static Movement, Laura Hird's Showcase, Whim's Place and The Scruffy Dog Review, among others, as well as in the anthologies Small Voices, Big Confessions and Late-Night River Lights. One of his stories won a Spoiled Ink Writer’s Choice Award in 2006.