Saturday, April 17, 2021

Another Chance by Jeff Jones

After once again checking that he was alone, Paul Cooper shuffled tentatively towards the cliff edge, his eyes firmly fixed on the distant horizon. The sea was calm, and the sun glimmered off its glassy surface whilst seagulls bobbed about on the small waves caused by a pair of jet skis ploughing backwards and forwards in a seemingly endless race. He watched them speed off, their riders no doubt shouting and laughing, enjoying their adventure, blissfully unaware of his intentions. It dawned on him that in fact they wouldn’t even have noticed him, a distant speck perched on the edge of the cliff. Insignificant is how he would have looked from that distance. That had pretty much been the watchword of Paul’s life. Insignificant. When people tell you that enough times, you start to believe it’s true.


Paul closed his eyes and deeply inhaled, the faint smell of seaweed, the taste of salt on the air and the raucous noise of the seagulls all combining to bring distant memories of long-ago family holidays clamouring to the surface. Happy memories from a different time. A different life. Now was not the time. He couldn’t falter. He wasn’t strong enough. A shiver ran down his spine when he heard the waves breaking on the sharp rocks below, calling him. Taunting him. He opened his eyes and momentarily began to sway as his body fought for its balance, its equilibrium in such a dangerous situation.


He was close now, both to the cliff’s end and his own and his breathing grew ragged with fear. His heart was pounding, and his hands felt clammy, yet he forced his feet a few inches closer to the edge, almost to the point of no return. Delaying the inevitable, he briefly recalled the events that had led him to this defining moment in his life. The accident, losing his job and with it his self-esteem, before finally losing his family. None of it had been his fault. Circumstances had conspired against him. Deep down he knew that wasn’t entirely true but none of that mattered now. He had nothing else to lose. Nobody was going to miss him, not even Clare.


A solitary tear ran ponderously down his cheek and he quickly wiped it away with the back of his hand. You promised yourself you wouldn’t do this. You said you’d just come here and jump with none of this self-indulgent reminiscing. Something else you’ve failed in. It was a lengthy list, his catalogue of failures.


The tears began to run freely now, but he no longer cared. Swallowing hard, he stepped to the very edge, teetering on the point of oblivion. He had sworn that to avoid losing his nerve, he would just step over without ever looking down, but the temptation was just too much. Curiosity had killed better men than him. He slowly lowered his head until he was looking directly down at the rocks below as the waves beckoned to him.

His legs began to violently tremble, and he knew that he was just seconds away from tumbling over the edge, but still he could not tear his eyes away from the scene below. Summoning his last remnants of courage he swallowed hard and prepared to take a step forward. He knew it would be his last and he welcomed it. Or did he? Even now at 2 minutes past the eleventh hour, self-doubts began to emerge from the shadows and dark recesses of his mind, portions of himself he had long ago surrendered to the soul-destroying illness that is depression. No, it was cowardice. This he must do; he must see it through. One step, a few seconds of weightlessness and then eternal peace.


“It’s some view isn’t it?” said the voice. It sounded like a youth, a teenaged-boy.

He hadn’t heard anyone approach him and the last time he had looked, there had been no one else in sight, so the shock of hearing a voice so close startled him. Paul’s legs finally buckled, and he closed his eyes ready to embrace his death as he felt himself lurch forward, but instead of experiencing freefall, he felt his body being tugged back.


When he opened his eyes again, he was a couple of metres from the cliff edge.


“Are you all right?” asked the voice.


He turned to face whoever had pulled him back, a mess of emotions threatening to engulf him. Was he angry? Sad? Relieved? He couldn’t tell. Not yet. Instead of berating whomever had thwarted his plan, he did the right thing, the expected thing and thanked his saviour, even if he planned for the respite to be momentary. He’d reassure this do-gooder, wait for them to leave, buoyed by the feeling they’d done their good deed for the day and then he’d finish what he came here for, what he should already have done.


“Yeah, I’m fine...thanks.”


Smiling at him was a small, wiry looking young lad of about 16 and Paul found himself wondering how someone so small could have pulled him back so effortlessly. Weight loss and loss of appetite were two things depression had not robbed him of, and he’d actually put weight on, something else Clare had been quick to hurl in his face.


The lad was still holding his arm.


“You can let go now, son I’m okay, thanks.”

The young lad’s smile broadened, and he let go.


An awkward silence descended between them and Paul found himself wishing that the lad would just leave as quickly as he had appeared, but there was no sign of that just yet.


“What are you doing here anyway...?”


“Danny. My name’s Danny,” the lad said beaming even more, “I come here every year. It’s one of my favourite places. My family used to holiday here when I was younger, and we’d stay over there.” He pointed to some caravans nestling on a cliff top opposite and as he did so, the smile faded from his youthful face. “So what are you doing here?”


It was the question Paul had been dreading. “Oh, I just like to come here and think,” he lied.


Danny looked straight into his eyes and Paul felt as if his very soul was being scrutinised. He could tell that Danny didn’t believe him.


“I’d do your thinking a little farther from the edge if I were you, because next time I might not be here to catch you.” The infectious smile was back, and Paul found himself smiling back.


“I’ll do that. So I take it you’re here on holiday now?” asked Paul. He knew he should be doing everything in his power to encourage the boy to leave, but for some reason Danny intrigued him.


“No, I haven’t been here on holiday since just after I took my GCSE’s 2 years ago.”


That surprised Paul. He thought that Danny was maybe 16, but if he took his exams a couple of years ago that made him closer to 18. He certainly didn’t look it. He suddenly noticed the look on Danny’s face as he stared at something over Paul’s shoulder and turned to follow the lad’s gaze. About a hundred metres farther along the cliff a middle-aged couple stood looking out to sea. Even from that distance Paul could see that the woman was sobbing whilst the man tried to comfort her.


The woman freed herself from her husband’s embrace and bent down to place a bunch of flowers on the cliff edge. As his wife stood up again, the man noticed Paul watching them and said something to his wife who briefly glanced his way. The man continued staring and Paul suddenly realised how odd he and Danny must look, precariously close to the edge. “I think we ought to...” Paul started to say, but his words trailed off when he realised Danny had gone. Fearing that he had slipped over the edge, Paul turned towards the couple to call for help, but they too were now walking off into the distance. Standing over the flowers, watching them go was Danny. Paul hurried towards him but tripped and fell over. When he looked back towards Danny, he had disappeared again. He limped over to the flowers and fighting down an overpowering feeling of intrusion, knelt down gingerly to read the card attached to the flowers.


‘To our darling Danny. Your exam results were never that important. We miss you so much. Love Mum and Dad xxx.’


Paul felt a lump rise in his throat and looked about for Danny, but he knew he wouldn’t find him. He stood up and glanced at the cliff edge again, a shudder travelling the length of his spine. Then he returned to his car. As he drove home, he vowed that if he ever felt down again, he’d just think of Danny, the young lad who had tragically taken his own life, but who had given him another chance.

© Jeff Jones

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