The Edge

31 Oct

Will wasn’t suicidal, he just wished he was. He obsessed over the idea of being in control of his own destiny. Over the idea of the peace of mind that he imagined would accompany that final sleep, that final meal, that final walk, that final kiss, that final word. Climbing into bed in the evening, knowing that the following morning he would wake up, wash, get dressed, walk out the front door, and never return. He would leave no note. And there would absolutely be no warning. No one would have the slightest inkling of what was to come. Will wouldn’t kill himself whilst in a cloud of depression. He would do it at a time of contentment. He had heard too many times the commonly accepted argument that the decision to commit suicide could never be made by a rational mind, and he disagreed with this profusely. ‘The only certainty in life is death,’ he argued, ‘It will get me at some point. It will get every one of us. So why should I wait for it to come and inconvenience me at a moment not suitable to my situation? It should come knocking only when I invite it.’ 

What was that if not totally rational?

Will was never going to actually do it. He knew this. He was just comforted by the thought that it was possible. That just as you could get up off the settee and switch off the light, you could get up and switch off your life. The reality, though, was that Will was far too curious a man. Life was too interesting to quit just yet. What engaging character would stroll into his life tomorrow and inspire him? Which strange town or city would he wake up in next week? What new high would he experience next month? What new low? Would he be a grandad one day? Would he finish up a drunken recluse, buried under crushed aluminium cans and empty pizza boxes? Would one of his neighbours report a pungent stench coming from his flat? And would the same neighbour say that no one had seen him coming or going from his home for about a week? Would anyone be surprised by this? Would he get diagnosed with a disease? Surely cancer was on the cards. He wanted to see it all. His only brother had decided enough was enough and one morning nine months earlier had taken himself out the front door for that final walk. Down the hill, past the shops, past the library, through the square, under the bridge, to the train station, up the slope, to the edge of the platform, on to the track, down on to his knees, and bang! Gone from this world. The London Express taking him out. Will wondered how many people, all strangers to him, would remember that morning for the rest of their lives. How many of them would never again be able to take a train. Or even set foot on a station’s platform. All because of his brother. It wasn’t an easy thought to deal with. Will definitely wasn’t ready to follow suit. He was just fascinated by the whole concept.

Will was a painter. An artist. Ha! No he wasn’t.  He was a caricaturist. He just about eked out a living sitting on a foldable deck chair, sometimes for 12 hours straight, sometimes for 45 minutes, depending on his mood and the flow of people, outside the Hugo Boss shop, taking a fiver a pop from tourists with more money than sense, mostly Japanese or German, who rejoiced at having their grotesque physical features exaggerated onto A3 sheets of paper in permanant marker. Every now and then an American would sit down in the chair, and Will would be kinder in his interpretation of his subject’s appearance, as he knew there was every likelihood of pocketing a tip.

Oh, Will could paint. Hand him a brush, an easel and some acrylics and he could create majesty. Pieces that could bring tears to the eye. In his younger years he would sit down in front of his window with the most powerful photo from that day’s newspaper – a bearded Chechen carrying a dead child from a bombed house; riot police beating a black man to death; people desperately trying to escape the Tokyo metro system, suffering the effects of sarin gas – and he would recreate the image so powerfully and emotively that he often couldn’t share it with anyone. It was too much. But that was then and this was now. Will didn’t paint any more. Ever. His last piece, which no other living soul had seen, had been of the cordoned off railway platform, with British Transport Police in their luminous vests on the track picking up pieces.

Over the past four months Will had developed a strange habit. A secret hobby, if you will. It had started unintentionally, on Christmas Day of all days, but had quickly evolved into a time consuming activity. Will had spent the 25th of December alone. As far as he was concerned, there was no Christmas. It was just another day like every other. Except for the fact that the buses weren’t running, the shops were shut and there was nothing to bet on. He had been invited to stay with his sister and her family, but had turned down the offer. He didn’t do family get togethers. He was the black sheep of the clan and he didn’t need to be reminded by the fact that he was older than all of his silbings and cousins, and yet the one that never needed an extra chair (or chairs) put aside.

“Isn’t it time you met a nice girl and settled down?” his sisters would ask, as he helped chop vegetables. Or, “Why did you end things with that Claire girl? We all liked her.”

Why couldn’t his family just accept that he had accepted the company of alcohol and fags over women? That he was okay with drinking himself to sleep every night. That he found the warmth and affection he needed in a bottle. He functioned as a loner. He didn’t have to make compromises to please himself. It worked! And so, he had started boycotting family gatherings, starting with that Christmas. Instead, while his family tucked in to their turkey and pulled their crackers in a town far away, Will zipped up his coat and strolled the five minutes from his flat down to the cliffs that marked the southern edge of Britain, to enjoy the unseasonal sunshine, the crisp air, the bright blue English Channel and to send out some thoughts to his departed brother and parents. He walked as close to the edge as it was possible to get without crossing the safety fence. He had only lived in the area for a week, and this was the first time he’d come down here. It was the first day it hadn’t been raining. It was calming. Peaceful. Beautiful. He walked along the cliffs’ edge for three or four miles, and then he walked back again, stopping every few minutes to peer down to the gentle waves below, the rocks, the groynes. He breathed in the sea air.

‘I live in a nice place,’ he thought, ‘Why did I stay in London for as long as I did?’

He thought about painting. Memories came flooding back. Was he happy or sad? He didn’t even know any more.

peacehaven et al 112

His phone rang. It was one of his sisters, wishing him a Happy Christmas, asking if he was alright and seeing what he was up to.

“Yea, I’m good. Just walking along the cliffs.”

He hadn’t thought before speaking that this kind of statement might be misinterpreted. His sister had already lost one brother in the past year, she now feared she was about to lose another. The anxiety in her voice was obvious as she said she’d come pick her brother up and take him to hers to be with the family. Will realised where his sister’s imagination was taking her and he laughed.

“I’m fine, honestly. I am literally just having an afternoon stroll. I’m not him, okay? I’m not him.”

“Right, well I’ll call you later to see how you are. You should’ve come here. The kids miss you.”

The conversation ended and Will carried on walking, smiling to himself. But now the thought had been planted in his thinking. It hadn’t crossed his mind up until the chat with his sister, but yes, this would be a very obvious place for people to come and take the plunge. He wondered if it happened a lot here. He started looking down at the rocks below with a different perception of things. ‘They would butcher you,’ he now thought.

And as he straightened himself after kneeling to tie his shoelace, he read the words on the sign that he was using to pull himself up. They answered his question of whether or not this was a hotspot for the suicide-minded. The Samaritans were urging desperate people to call them for a chat rather than stepping over the edge.

samaritans

Will stood looking at the sign as he took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He wondered if such a sign had saved a single life. He also wondered how far the Samaritans took their policy of total confidentiality. In particular, he wondered whether or not they would send a police car along to the scene if they got someone on the line telling them that he was contemplating taking the plunge. He really wanted to know now! There were two ways of finding the answer. He could phone them directly and just come out and ask the question, in a hypothetical sense. Or… Or he could dial their number, get through to a volunteer and tell him or her where he was and that he was about to jump. And then wait to see if the boys in blue turned up. He really did want to know the answer!

He took out his phone and tapped in the digits. 0 8 4 5 7 9 0 9 0 9…… he stopped, pressed ‘clear’ and replaced the mobile in his pocket. What if while he was connected to them, completely wasting their time asking a silly question – a silly question that still he desperately wanted the answer to – somebody on the brink of hurting themselves couldn’t get through because of a busy line? He couldn’t take that risk. These volunteers were giving up their Christmas Day to make themselves available for the desperate. It was probably their busiest day, Will thought, all those people with no family, no friends, just wanting to speak to another human on the one day of the year when people were made to feel like they should come together. The loneliest day of the year if you had nobody.

Nope, he couldn’t waste their time. The police, now that was a different story. He had no problem wasting their time at all. He would have loved nothing more at that moment than to waste a bit of police time. However, wasting police time was a crime, and he didn’t fancy having to ring his sister later that night to ask her to come and pick him up from the local nick. It would just have to remain a question unanswered.

Will was being watched. The whole time he’d been standing there, reading the sign, contemplating his unanswerable question, smoking his fag, and looking over the edge of the cliffs, a middle-aged and well-dressed couple had been keeping an eye on him from a distance of about 30 yards. He turned to look at them and they quickly turned away and began speaking to each other, doing their best to look inconspicuous. Will instantly knew their purpose. They were there to keep a look out for potential jumpers. He looked over to them again, they now were sat together on a bench, the man pretending to show the woman an interesting article or picture in the book he was holding. Will was just about to turn around and make his way back to his flat, when a thought of mischief crossed his mind. He was going to play with these two for a little bit. What harm could it do?

‘I am the puppet master!’ he said to himself, ‘Now dance to my tune!’ And at that, he began walking at haste along the cliff top, away from the couple. After 30 seconds he stopped, turned towards the sea and walked forward, as far as the mesh fence, and then…. he stepped over it. He was on the edge. He turned to see the couple walking rapidly towards him.

“Young man!” the man called out, “Young man, hold on a second!”

Will climbed back over the fence and jogged further along the cliff, still being pursued by the pair. This time he stopped dead in his tracks and kneeled down on the grass with his head in his hands. As if crying, on the edge of despair.

“Young man, do wait up!”

Each time that the couple got close, Will was up and away again. He felt like the Pied Piper. He knew it was unkind, but all taboo had been taken out of suicide and mental illness for him after what he had been through with his brother. He could laugh at anything, and there was very little he was overly sensitive about. This was just a little game, a bit of fun, no one was going to get hurt playing it.

Eventually Will’s curiosity as to what they might say to him got the better of him, and so he stood looking over the edge, but this time stayed there and allowed the couple to approach him.

“Young man, Merry Christmas to you,” the man first said. And then his wife said, “Yes. Merry Christmas to you. We were just wondering if you were okay. Are you okay?”

Will, staying in character, turned to the pair with a look of deep despair and sadness in his eyes and said, “Yea, Merry Christmas to you both. I am okay, thank you. I have to go home now.” 

“Young man, if you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t seem as okay as you say you are. Would you like to talk to someone?”

“No, I am alright, ta. I have a question, though. Are you here every day doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“This. Looking out for potential jumpers.”

“Oh, are we that obvious?” and the pair chuckled, awkwardly. “No, altogether there are probably about 40 of us, so we split up the, um, shift work.”

The man’s wife again chuckled at her husband’s words.

“Have you ever saved anyone’s life?” Will asked.

“Oh no, no, we don’t save people’s lives. God does.”

‘Oh great,’ Will thought to himself, ‘bible bashers.’

Still, he had respect for their good intentions, and so decided not to debate them on religion (and the absurdity of it all).

“Right, well, God might just have saved me through your hands today,” Will said, completely in jest but also in the knowledge that these two wouldn’t realise his facetiousness, “But I really am ready to go home now and look at my life.” 

“Please, take this with you, young man. Consider it a Christmas present,” the man said, handing Will the book he had been pretending to look at earlier on the bench. Will didn’t even have to look at it to know what it was.

The man’s wife chipped in with, “A Christmas present from the birthday boy!”

Will again couldn’t help himself, saying to the man, “Oh it’s your birthday? Well, I wish you a happy one!”

The couple chuckled in their usual way.

“No, no, not my birthday. The good lord’s. Jesus Christ! Send him a prayer tonight,” said the man.

“Oh I will!”

And at that, Will was gone. But only until the following day, when he killed an hour of his afternoon wallowing around the cliffs’ edge, leading a couple of new volunteers this way and that, before eventually getting bored and going home. He didn’t speak to these two. He didn’t need another bible.

And so his new hobby was established. His habit was formed. Every day, either early in the morning before he made his way to his spot outside the Hugo Boss shop, or after he’d finished in the afternoon or early evening, he was there, pretending to be someone about to jump off of a cliff. As the weeks wore on, turning into months, it became less of a hobby and more of an addiction. A strange compulsion that Will couldn’t explain. Not even to himself. He just had to go there. He began spending less and less hours sat on his deckchair drawing foreigners, and more and more time climbing over the mesh fence and literally standing on the edge of his existence. He also started drinking more and more heavily.

P1000130

There were no artificial lights on the cliffs. There was just the moon, which on this night happened to be full. And there were the beams that emanated from the boats, far out at sea. Will stared out onto the horizon, to where these boats floated, and he wondered whether on any of them there was a man in emotional crisis. It was a strange thought to have. This was the first time that Will had ever been down here at night. Proper night. 2:30am. The forceful wind provided a constant rumbling inside his woolly hat, pulled down over his ears, which combined with the crashing noise of the waves below, as they pulled in the white surf in heavy servings and battered the base of the cliffs. In his hand was a large bottle of Jack Daniels, a quarter of which he had already polished off. Will peered over the mesh fencing and watched the forces of nature at work, as he continued to slowly make his away along the path that lined the cliff’s edge. It all made him feel tiny and insignificant. He liked this. He fantasised over the possibility of a strong gust of wind knocking him off balance, sending him slipping, grabbing at the fence to regain his footing, the fence giving way, falling in slow motion down to the rocks and water below. The idea that nobody on the planet would know it was happening, no one apart from him. A secret between him and….. ‘Who’s that?’

Up ahead, what appeared to be a large man, also wearing a hat, was kneeling by the side of a small bonfire he had made. Will was intrigued. Who the hell came down here on their own, on a stormy, horrible night such as this? Well, Will did. But who else? The man seemed to be burning something. Documents, perhaps. Will took a seat on one of the benches, a small distance away from the fire, and watched the man. He had a slow and methodical way to him. He didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he just didn’t care, that he was being watched.

After a few minutes Will could take the curiosity no more. He walked slowly up to the fire and asked the man if he had a lighter. The man, who was instantly recognisable as a Pole, said nothing but handed Will a Clipper. Will, in return, handed the man a cigarette.

“Thank you,” the man said, in a heavy accent.

“No problem. Do you mind if I warm myself at your fire for a few moments?”

The man didn’t say anything, he just gestured for Will to come closer and make himself comfortable. Will handed him the bottle of Jack and said, “Have some of this, I feel like an alcoholic when I drink alone. But now I am drinking socially.”

The Pole laughed at this, took the bottle and began swigging at it. And then he started to cry. Silently. Will looked at him through the cracking of embers from the fire, and knew that this man wasn’t planning on going home again. It wasn’t documents he was setting fire to; it was photos. Photos of a woman. A beautiful woman. Will stayed silent. He made a point of not staring at the man. Not intruding on him.

“Sorry,” the man apologised. “I never cried before. Not since I am baby, you know?” He wiped his eyes.

“Don’t apologise to me, mate. This is your fire.”

“You could never understand. Nobody could ever understand,” the man then said.

“You’re probably right. I rarely understand anything. Did she leave you?” Will nodded towards the photos of the girl.

“She is dead.”

“Ah man, I’m sorry.”

“Ah, kurwa! Fuck it. She killed herself. Overdose. How could you ever understand that? How can anyone know this pain? I loved her, we had a fight, she was sad, I go to drink, I come home and I think she is asleep. Then I see the empty bottle. Pills, you know? And the vodka is gone. And…… And I know straight away. Fucking bitch!”

The man began weeping loudly. Will stayed silent.

“You see? You see that you cannot understand where I am?”

Will understood only too well exactly where the man was. But he lied and said, “I can’t even imagine losing someone to suicide.”

“Lucky, when I go, in a few minutes, there is nobody that will lose somebody. I have nobody now. Nobody will miss me. Nobody will be sad for me,” the man said.

Will put another cigarette between his lips and handed the man one. And then he said, “Will you stay until we’ve finished this bottle? You know, so I don’t feel like an alcoholic. I don’t think an alcoholic would be able to handle watching you go over the edge on a night like this. Or even knowing that you are about to do it. So let’s maintain my status as a social drinker, please.”

There was silence as the two men smoked and drank from the bottle. Will’s mind all of a sudden came to life. His thoughts were loud and clear.

‘Shit, I’m feeling content and warm inside. I’m not depressed. I’ve left no note. It is not an inconvenient time in my life. The time is right! I have to do this. I have to do this now!’

Will stood up, threw his cigarette butt into the fire and walked calmly towards the mesh fence. He stepped over it. And he was gone. In an instant.

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