This is a story about a man who jumped in the river. Here’s how it happened.
A man –not him we just mentioned but another– was rushing out of London Bridge station late one Saturday afternoon. Crowded madness as usual. There was a William Hill under the train bridge but he didn’t feel like a gamble. He hurried along Borough High Street overtaking strangers, so many strangers. The man was dressed in a suit and tie and sported fancy work shoes. In specific they were Clarks, greyish and uncomfortable.
After the bus stop a few steps onto London Bridge, he halted. A plump woman in a dull jacket and white trousers was taking a photo. He’d rather not be in her frame. The man took out his cigarettes. Lit one, inhaled.
‘Skews me, mate.’
The younger man before him was wearing a bright red baseball cap.
‘Give us a light, mate?’
‘Yeah yeah, sure.’
The man fumbled in his pocket and passed on the lighter.
‘Hey, ta.’ Cars sped by.
The man nodded distractedly as the stranger lit up and walked away. Now the fat woman had taken her photo and glanced at him as she continued in the opposite direction.
Frankie stopped, straightened his cap and grunted. Fuck. He’d forgotten to return the lighter. He turned around. The guy was still there, at the head of the bridge. Frankie started back.
As he got closer, the guy had moved near the edge of the bridge. He was finishing his cigarette, looking down at the water. Magine if he jumped off right now, Frankie thought, haha.
The man like a grasshopper raised his leg, his sock showing under his trousers, and climbed on the concrete block. Feet behind the rail. What the fuck, Frankie thought. He quickened his step.
The man tossed his cigarette into the night. Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. For real? Frankie was running now.
‘Hey hey mate! Mate, mate MATE!’
The man didn’t turn, it was noisy at any rate. Others were looking now too as he placed his foot on the rail, balanced awkwardly and shot himself into the night. Guts churning, Frankie froze. The man was in the air one moment, his shirt fluttering; the next he was gone.
Frankie ran to the parapet, like others, and stared below. The black Thames.
‘What the fuck,’ Frankie said to the couple next to him. The guy’s eyes were wide, the girl was pulling her phone.
‘I,’ Frankie said.
‘He jumped,’ the other guy said.
‘I just askedeem for a lighter,’ Frankie said.
Other people on the bridge were calling too. Cars, buses and bikers floated past. The girl had gone and stood a few metres away, speaking rapidly into her mobile.
He looked again at the dark waters. No sign of a body. Hell. The poor fucker had done it. Suicided himself. Why, Frankie thought. Fingers shaking a bit by the excitement, he took out another cigarette and lit it. Well, come to it. Plenty reasons to jump off a fucking bridge, weren’t there? Wasn’t everyone depressed. Maybe the guy’s wife cheated on him, maybe he got fired, maybe he was a Chelsea fan. Whaddyaknow, people checked out all the fucking time.
‘Hey, mind if I?’ the girl said, her eyes on the lighter.
Frankie’s hand stopped midway to his pocket and he passed it to her.
‘Can I borrow a cigarette too?’ she said shivering.
‘Fucking ell, sure you can,’ he said and gave her one.
Her boyfriend was still at the parapet, searching the waters. He thought he first heard her shrieking and then saw the black guy springing off the bridge, two paces from him. But it couldn’t have happened that way. The guy must have run, bounced on the block and over it, the red cap flying off his head, and then Kathryn must have shrieked. Or she shrieked the moment he was jumping.
Either way, he didn’t emerge. The red cap landed on the water a bit further from where he plunged and was slowly drifting away. Insane.
More people gathered around that spot on London Bridge. One even stopped his car right there and got out after seeing the young man dive. The girl Kathryn was shaken. Crying, she was showing to strangers the lighter the other guy had lent her. A Big Issue seller finally took it from her hands and made her sit down on the pavement, telling her to breathe, breathe lady breathe. For fuck’s sake don’t get worked up worse. They were all assembled around her when she jumped to her feet, broke out of their circle of bodies making for the parapet, grabbed the rail and catapulted herself into the river.
Her boyfriend yelled something incomprehensible or was it her name, he took off his jacket in a frenzy and didn’t hesitate to jump off after her. The bystanders followed him to the edge, their eyes glued to the waters beneath. Would he save her? What the fuck was happening? They paced nervously, calling 999, scanning the waves. When a body emerged, someone shouted, pointing. It was the first man that had jumped. A bit later they noticed the second man, the young one, buoying up a short distance away, equally drowned.
From then on, things took a tumble. The Big Issue seller borrowed a fag from a vegan. It was a vegan cigarette without castoreum in it but the Big Issue seller didn’t mind and gave the vegan the lighter so he could light up too. They were all fucking stressed. Then the Big Issue seller wandered a few steps and jumped off the bridge, magazines and all. Just like that. He fell like a brick, landing on the boyfriend’s body which had emerged and snapping his neck. The vegan then gave the lighter to the first police officer that arrived and was explaining to her the progression of events when he, too, swayed on his feet, turned abruptly and hurled himself into the Thames. Normally no one would have given a shit about a vegan, but this was crazy.
Freaking out, the police officer called for backup and carried on documenting details and taking testimonies of those present. Then, and as help was on its way, she took a brief break for a cigarette, lending the lighter to a paraplegic in a wheelchair who also needed a smoke. Haven’t you guessed it. She calmly strolled to the rail, grasped it and launched herself. The disabled man was freaking out quietly, watching from his wheelchair the rail off where she jumped, when somebody patted him on the shoulder. It was a foreign schoolteacher with a bunch of kids who were passing by and hadn’t registered what everyone was upset about. Absentmindedly, he handed her the lighter. As she walked away with a Danke, the paraplegic drove his wheelchair to the parapet, while the former crowd of bystanders was still freaking out over the police woman’s jump. Unnoticed and with tremendous effort he pulled himself onto the concrete block. At that point someone from the group saw him.
‘Dude! What are you doing!’ he shouted. It was the driver who had stopped at the scene earlier.
The driver ran to the paraplegic with a mind to stop him but the maniac punched him unexpectedly in the face and, opening his arms like a Christ, fell backwards into the river. Meanwhile, further down the bridge the German teacher, entirely unaware of the events behind her, lent her new lighter to a charming local who was walking his dog and paused to ask her for fire. She found him charming due to his accent and would have been willing to lend him another sort of fire but for the damned kids, they ate up her life. Hardly a moment had passed since the exchange when she swung on her heels and, running like a fucking triathlete to the edge of the bridge, leaped over the parapet. Unfortunately, she was tied to her half-dozen students with a basic rope that went around everyone’s left wrist. This was a precaution against losing any of the kids in crowded areas during the excursion. So she didn’t go down immediately but banged her head against the concrete wall, hanging and dragging the children to the parapet.
The local with the dog was watching and freaking out. The dog was freaking out too, and barking. The boy immediately tied to the schoolteacher and closer to the rail was screaming, struggling to release his hand from the rope which proved to be not so basic after all. His wrist was painfully pulled down by a hefty representative of the educational system. The German woman however hadn’t lost her senses. Dangling wildly, she caught the rail.
‘Fick dich, Adalwulf!’ she shouted, demented. Reaching out with her free hand, she grabbed the boy Adalwulf by the neck while the other eleven-year-olds were screaming (and freaking out), and pulled him over the parapet. With their weight combined, the entire class went down into the river in a series of splashes.
‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,’ the man with the dog said witnessing this madness and he dropped the lighter.
The lighter bounced on the pavement and rolled to the feet of an old myopic woman who was passing by. She stopped and picked it up.
‘Is this,’ she started saying but halted.
The man had knelt before the dog and was holding its paw in his hand.
‘Lulu,’ he said. ‘You’ve been a good bitch. I’m so sorry.’
Before the old woman’s frightened eyes the man picked up his Labrador and threw it off the bridge, the end of its leash disappearing from sight. A desperate howl echoed –hauauauuu!– then he jumped in the river himself. The old woman remained numb in place as others rushed to see.
For whatever reason, the Fire Brigade were the first to arrive on the scene after that police officer. They parked on the curb and were asking bystanders and peering into the Thames. Ignored, the old woman with the lighter approached the fire truck driver as he was closest to her and stationary. She told him what she thought she had seen, handed him the lighter, turned and amid the startled chaos flew off the edge of the bridge.
‘No!’ the fire trucker gasped. ‘Mamma mia!’ He was Italian.
He threw the lighter away and made to step out of the vehicle. The instant the lighter landed on the asphalt he paused and got back into the truck.
Stepping on the gas, he drove the scarlet beast all over the curb and against the rail. The impact was far from tremendous given the truck’s speed but in a mess of blood, flesh and broken concrete the vehicle went over the edge, bodies mashed like puree under it or flying left and right like puppets unhinged off their strings. Like something out of a fucking movie it fell, fell, fell and plummeted into the water almost vertically, raising large waves in the Thames.
The lighter lay in the middle of the road on the bridge.
Chaos spread around it as cars braked, police forces arrived and even a helicopter hovered over the illuminated street.
Now, there was someone watching all this not very far from there. He had actually happened to witness the entire sequence of events, from the first man to the fire truck. This someone was standing on top of the building at number 2 London Bridge; having once had an affair with a waitress of the London Grind espresso bar, she occasionally let him sneak out onto the terrace to write.
For our man was a writer and the circumstance exceptional in that he had indeed chanced to see all this from a vantage point. He had also noticed the lighter’s role in this otherwise inexplicable succession of tragedies. He was a young man of perhaps 26 years, 10 months and 14 days, with short black hair and a sexy beard. Behind his enormous glasses, his clever, mysterious and bewitching eyes sparked with the story at hand.
‘Later, Em,’ he called out to the girl as he ran down the stairs and out the building at 2 London Bridge.
He had seen where the lighter had landed. And was heading towards it, making his way around the sparse crowd on the street.
Blessed with a tested IQ of 301, he hadn’t failed to observe that the moment someone passed possession of the lighter, whatever the thing was, they lost their will to live. It couldn’t be just because of the object itself. These people, they must have had their own individual reasons for taking their lives. But the device –or the loss of it– must somehow accentuate these reasons or alternatively remove any inhibiting factors against suicide. Fascinating.
Of course he wanted to write about it but currently he was burning to get his hands on the lighter. He felt a pull to it which, if we want to be honest, was not really healthy. Nevertheless. He wanted, no, he needed to hold it himself. See if it would affect him too like the others. If he’d succumb to its command of death or whether he’d be able to resist whatever it inspired in him.
Our hero’s conscience wasn’t entirely clean. True, picking up the lighter he couldn’t be blamed for the fire trucker’s suicide as he hadn’t asked the man to borrow it. The driver had cast it away on his own for any next victim to find it. But our man could have intervened earlier, much earlier – he had been considering going down to the bridge since the couple jumped. But had chosen not to and let things unfold.
Hurrying on London Bridge he was worried someone else might pick up the lighter before him or, worse, that he would get to it but nobody would ask to borrow it. He’d stand there, he decided, until a passer-by needed a flame.
Worries in vain. He got to the lighter before anyone else and picked it up. It felt like a normal lighter. It was a normal lighter.
Crossing the street to the quieter side, he rested against the wall and watched the pandemonium opposite. Groups of people were gathered here and there along the length of the bridge while more and more officers arrived, trying to figure out the situation and send bystanders away.
Retrieving the pack from the left back pocket of his jeans, he took out a cigarette and brought it to his lips. He hesitated, almost theatrically, then lit it with the lighter.
‘Hey, what’s going on there?’
The glorious redhead had stopped in her tracks in front of him the instant he’d lit up.
‘Who cares,’ he said, smiling. A second fire truck, sirens on the loud, was pulling to the curb across them. The chopper was breaking the air overhead.
The girl examined him curiously. Her pupils dilated and she took a step closer.
‘No, you may not,’ he said.
‘What,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I’m not giving you a light,’ he said.
‘But. What, how,’ she said.
‘No. Get a move on,’ he said.
‘What the hell,’ she said and carried on walking, obviously pissed.
He watched her go. Pity. She was more or less gorgeous.
His attention diverted back to the lighter, he turned it over in his hands. Just a common Poppell, light blue and transparent. Had he broken its trick?
He saw the girl looking at him over her shoulder. He could still run after her, catch up and make up a story. Whatever.
He wondered what would happen if he dropped the lighter off the bridge. At some point, it would come out of the water. Somebody would pick it up. What then?
He extended his arm over the river. Let the lighter drop. A tiny splash.
Nothing. Nothing happened. No desire to kill himself, no suicidal urges, no imminent depression. Hm. He lit a second cigarette with his own lighter, then a third, then threw his own lighter in the river. Nada. Fuck all. He walked back and got another coffee, from the Bridge Café this time. Returned to the place where he had sent away the girl and stood there, watching as the world slowly came back into place. Nothing at all was happening.
‘Aw fuck it,’ he said and jumped in the river.
Kandinsky – Varied Horizontals