The Beauty in the Breakdown
The half-brick weighed heavily in his coat pocket as John stood on the edge of the bridge. He shuffled his feet slightly on the narrow ledge, still nervously grasping the cold metal railing behind him with both hands as he looked down at the water. It was dark and unwelcoming, whipped into angry peaks by the wind. He took a deep breath and let it out, slowly.
"So, are you going to jump?"
The girl's voice cut through the chill night air to where John stood, looking out over the Thames. He started and almost slipped, clutching at the railing as he turned to look at the speaker.
"What?" said John.
"I said, are you going to jump?" the girl repeated, slowly. Her breath rose in a mist before her, and she stamped her feet, her hands stuffed deep in the pockets of her coat.
"Why? Do you think you can stop me?" he asked, returning his attention to the dark water, far below.
She tilted her head to one side, as if sizing him up. "No," she said.
He frowned at her. "So you're really not going to try and talk me out of it?"
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," she said. "I just said I didn't think I could stop you."
John looked at the girl properly for the first time. She was one of the few pedestrians out on the bridge this late. Most of them would be home by now, wrapped up against the cold, cuddling up with family members and loved ones. And here he was, on the edge of the bridge. And here she was, too. He took in her appearance. The legs extending from beneath her short black skirt were covered by black-and-white striped stockings, and the hair that protruded from beneath the thick hat on her head seemed to be a violent shade of purple.
"You do know that you're on the wrong side of that railing, right?" the girl carried on, as casually as if she'd just asked him the time of the last bus.
"Yes, thank you," he said, coldly, wondering when she'd give up and leave him alone. "I am aware of that."
"Just checking," she went on brightly. "Because if you were there by accident, I'd offer to help you back. But as it is, you probably don't want my help."
"No." John wished she'd go away. She'd have to get cold and give up some time soon. Didn't she have a boyfriend or someone to get back to? It was Christmas Eve, for God's sake.
"All right then," she said with a shrug. "As you choose."
When she did not leave, John shot her an irritated look.
"Are you just going to keep standing there?" he said.
"I could do," she agreed. "Or..."
"You could go away?"
"Actually, I was going to suggest I join you."
Before John could say anything, she had dropped her bag – which made a loud clunking noise that John found positively alarming – and slithered up onto the railing, sitting herself upon it with her legs dangling down on the river side. She swung them casually. He stared at her.
"Don't you have some place to be?"
"Here seems pretty good," she said. They fell silent. She watched him.
John sighed, and said at last, "So, go ahead, tell me the world is a lovely place and dying just isn't worth it."
"I can if you want me to," she said. "But you seem pretty set on jumping, so I wouldn't want to distract you. Of course... If you really are so keen to jump, why are you still standing here?"
"You interrupted me," John replied, and shivered. It was freezing. He could feel the wind in his thinning hair, and the hands that gripped the railing were white with cold.
"I'm not stopping you," she pointed out. "I mean, I'd rather you didn't," she added. "Obviously. But if you're going to do it anyway, I guess there's not much I can say."
"No," said John. "There isn't."
"Since we're here, though," she went on, apparently utterly unperturbed by his curt responses, "do you mind if I ask you why you're here?"
John said nothing. As he looked away from the girl and down at the icy water once more, he felt the familiar numbness fill him. The truth was that he had no reason not to be there. The alternative was returning to an empty flat, yet again, and spending his evening staring at the ceiling until sleep was merciful enough to claim him. Anything was better than that. The bridge was better than that. An almost-empty night bus trundled over the bridge, the lights illuminating the two figures by the railing for a few second before it passed them, into the darkness.
"You wouldn't understand," was all he said, shaking his head. The girl must have been half his age, he thought. She couldn't have been older than twenty-five. She couldn't have any idea what it meant to be growing old alone. What it meant to be so insignificant that he hadn't even bothered to leave a suicide note; no one would notice he had gone. The girl didn't speak, but continued to sit on the railing, seemingly unfazed by the treacherous drop.
"Try me," she said.
John shook his head. "Really," he said. He couldn't meet her eye. "You wouldn't understand."
"All right." She accepted his response philosophically, mulling it over. "You know," she continued, "the Hornsey Lane bridge is supposed to be famous for this sort of thing. Suicide, I mean," she clarified, unnecessarily.
"Then I'll be sure to go there next time," John replied through gritted teeth. He hoped that she would take the hint and leave him alone, but the girl seemed totally oblivious to the coldness in his tone. When, after another few minutes' silence, she still did not move, he abandoned politeness altogether, and said, almost begging, "Please go away."
"No," she said, softly, her lighthearted tone faltering. "I don't want to leave you here."
"You don't even know me," he said. "And you said you weren't going to try to stop me. So there's no point. You may as well get back to your boyfriend or your… whoever."
"Cat," she said, and there was a strange note in her voice that caught John's attention. When she spoke again, however, the old cheerfulness was back. "And I've fed him tonight, so he won't miss me 'til morning."
"So this is what you do with your evenings, then?" John said. "Stroll along bridges in the hope of finding someone to save? You fancy yourself as some sort of angel, swooping in and helping the poor lost souls with nowhere else to turn?" He was getting angry now, grated by her glibness.
"Actually, I was just on my way back from a party," she said, matter-of-factly. "I saw you here. Call it fate, call it whatever you like. Call it nothing more than the fact that I didn't want to let you die alone."
"Well, thanks, but I was doing just fine," John told her.
"If you were, you wouldn't be spending Christmas Eve on the wrong side of the railing on a bridge over the Thames."
"And now that you're here, what exactly do you plan to do about it?" he said.
"Nothing," the girl replied. "You've said it yourself – you want to jump, and I can't stop you. I could call the police, I suppose, but by the time they got here, it'd be too late. Besides, all they'd do is take you down from the bridge and send you home. And it'd take you, what, ten minutes to come up with a better plan? And that time you'd succeed. Waste of everybody's time and effort, really."
"Then what do you want?" said John, shifting position slightly so that he could face the girl better. Her chunky black boots kicked the railing that supported her.
"I thought that maybe I could remind you that it's not so bad."
He snorted. "Are you serious? It's Christmas Eve, and I'm on the edge of a bridge. How bad do you think it would have to be for me to end up here?"
"Pretty bad," she acknowledged. "I'm not disputing that. I can't fix whatever's wrong with your life. I wish I could, but I can't. I just thought..." John watched her, waiting for her to speak. "I just thought that maybe there's something you're missing."
"If you're selling Jesus, I'm not interested," he said, looking away from her, disappointed despite himself.
"No, nothing like that," she said with a patient sigh. "I just wanted to remind you how beautiful the world can be."
"So I'm here because I didn't skip through daisy fields or read Wordsworth enough; is that it?"
"No, of course not!" She gave a high, clear laugh that rang out incongruously in the darkness. "Wordsworth liked daffodils way too much for his own good anyway. No, just look."
"Look at what?" he asked her, glancing down automatically. The water below was hardly what one would call "beautiful." He'd counted on being killed by the pollution even if he'd been unfortunate enough not to drown or freeze.
"Not there," she said, exasperated. "Look around."
The girl pointed to the far bank, and John followed the direction of her gaze, but saw nothing remarkable. He frowned at her, nonplussed.
"The lights!" she said. "Look at them!"
He did, and, for what felt like the first time, he really saw them. London was on fire with light, a hundred different colours, piercing the darkness and reclaiming the night. Here and there, he could see the red and green dots of Christmas lights, contrasting with the perennial gold and white. He was forced to admit that they really were beautiful.
"And this is your big plan?" he said. "I'm supposed to see the lights, realise the error of my ways, and just climb back over the railing and carry on? It doesn't work like that. I'm sorry."
"I know it doesn't," she said, serious for the first time. "But it's worth thinking about. Just look at this city – it's all big and bustling and impersonal, and no one stops to give you the time of day, but even in the midst of all that ugliness, there are still these lights. They just don't give up. It's like a volcano," she said, and John stared at her, wondering where this was going. "It's totally destructive and violent, but there's so much beauty in the destruction. It's all about looking for the beauty in the breakdown."
"Which ceases to matter one the lava destroys your house and kills you?"
"All right, so it's not a perfect analogy," the girl said, rolling her eyes. "But do you see what I'm saying?"
John nodded slowly, letting his gaze roam over the lights, which blurred together as tears of cold stung his eyes.
"What's your name?" the girl asked, suddenly.
"John," he said, and the word felt strange and unfamiliar in his mouth, as if it had been years since anyone had asked him such an absurdly personal question.
"I'm Zoë," she said. "Merry Christmas, John."
"Merry Christmas," he responded, and they fell silent.
Neither of them moved. They remained fixed there on the bridge like figures in a tableau, both shivering in the semi-darkness of the winter night, the wind whipping at their clothes as the lights of the great city glimmered and sparkled all around them.
A/N: Written for the Review Game Forum's October Writing Challenge Contest. Please visit the forum and vote for your favourite story!