Glittering in a December night, the river waters swell and suck and curl
back on themselves, as if resisting the logic of their journey, then surrender
and continue. Two metres below the surface, being carried towards the
estuary, is James, his arms, legs and head shifting not under his own will
anymore, but only in the strong currents. They say that at least one body a
week washes up in the muddy estuary of the Thames, many never to be
identified, and James fully intended to be one of them. As soon as he hit the
freezing mid-channel water, the shock paralysed his limbs, defeating his
body’s instinct to struggle and survive, and he lived for two more minutes
while he was dragged deeper and further into the embracing flow. The river
has him now; he has entered its underworld of darkness and silt, fish and
hidden junk; only it knows what will happen to him next.
By the Tate Modern, as James passes under the Millennium
Footbridge, the part of the river that holds him – as if the floodlit art gallery
reminds it of better alternatives – dithers again, circles on itself, spinning
the body around, and reverses. James tumbles back past the South Bank,
unnoticed by the revellers still lurching from bar to bar. Bubbles of air force
themselves into his lungs, his eyes open, his body spreads out like a startled
seagull’s, he punches through the surface head first and flies backwards
and upwards, legs and arms flapping, onto the middle span of Waterloo
Bridge, landing on the pavement on the other side of its railings. He leans on
them, grabs them, shaking his head, snaps into a body-remembered
position, thinking nothing at the city night’s blankness.
‘Hey! You all right?’ The voice is behind him. He turns. A woman
stares at him, while holding her mobile in front of her, its light a star. ‘You
all right?’ she repeats.
He looks down and notices that his left foot rests on one of the rails;
his right hovers just above the pavement; his weight is beginning to pivot on
the top rail. He looks at the inviting swirl much further below him, doesn’t
climb higher but says nothing to the woman either.
‘Can I say, “Don’t do it”?’ she asks. ‘Is that a bit corny?’
Somewhere inside, a remote, different part of him laughs.
She comes up to the railing, about four feet along from him, and leans
on it looking at the river as he is doing, but further into the distance.
‘I’m Camille, by the way,’ she says. ‘I was just on my way home from a
party –thought I’d walk – and I’m a bit pissed. I’ve no idea how to do this, or
what to say.’ She glances at him. ‘I think it’s best if I keep my distance, like
this - isn’t it? - while being companionable, talking? That’s what they do in
films or cop programmes. You’re not really going to do it, are you?’
James hangs his head. His body feels weak, as if he’s been clinging
onto the railings for hours. He slightly turns to take her in. Middle-aged,
slim, in a long denim coat, hair dyed red, heavy lipstick. She’s put her
‘So, what’s it about?’ She looks directly at him this time. ‘If I can ask
that.’ She has big, wide open eyes that look a lot more worried than she
sounds. ‘A girl? A boy?’
He stares into the water and feels his chest and lip trembling as he
watches lights slithering across the surface like mobile oil paintings.
‘Girl,’ he says after a while.
‘Will you be offended if I say she isn’t worth it?’
That almost-laugh again, from both inside him and away somewhere,
as if from a different James in a different world, one not as empty.
‘So, has she chucked you? Turned you down? Doesn’t realise you
exist? Sees you as a friend? That’s the worst. I can tell you all about that
one.’ She gives an exaggerated, bitter snort.
‘We’ve been friends for a couple of years,’ he says, still gazing into the
river - as if presenting his case to it, giving it reasons to take him. ‘Then I
told her how I felt about her. And she didn’t want to know. She won’t even
speak to me. I think she’s started to laugh at me.’
‘Definitely not worth it,’ says the woman. ‘Where’s all this happening?
‘We’re both at UCL.’
‘UCL? Uh-huh. Hmmm.’ She frowns and nods. ‘So, you’re going to
throw that away? A brilliant education, along with everything else? Great
‘I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t help to tell you no one is worth that, what you’re
thinking of doing? No one in the world. Whatever she’s done to you. Or that
there are plenty of other girls out there?’
He slumps down, one foot on the pavement now, his head hanging
between his shoulders.
‘And it won’t help to tell you that if you stick it out, you won’t feel like
this in six months? So if you jump down there it’ll have been for the sake of
six months’ pain. Or so. Well, a year say. One year’s… payback, you could
call it.’ She glances across at him again. ‘That’s all. Exactly enough time for
a gap year. Travel. You’d come back a different man.’
He finds himself smiling – not because he believes what she says, but
because of her. Because of a sort of impossible bravery, he can hear in her.
He could almost not jump – for her.
‘So, have you travelled much?’ she asks him. ‘In your short life? You
know – you look out at that river and it could be the Orinoco, the Nile, the
Mekong. The Amazon. If you use your imagination. So much out there.’
A convulsion rips through him, short and brutal – not a laugh, but
something else that makes him grip the rail harder. Then he gets control of
himself. ‘No, I haven’t travelled much.’
‘And have I, you ask. Yes, thank you. All over the place. I’ve had many
adventures. I don’t know how I’ve survived. But I didn’t get to be this wise by
accident, let me tell you.’
His body shakes and he leans forward, holding himself against the
railings. What he again thinks may be laughter runs away from him, then
turns into sobs, much heavier, deepening as he kneels down.
She comes to sit beside him, takes his hand. ‘Come on,’ she says. ‘It’s
ridiculously not worth it.’
‘I would have done it. I was really going to.’
‘I know. You weren’t kidding.’ She yanks on his hand encouragingly to
make him sit on the pavement with her, facing the small-hours traffic. ‘Then
of course there’s the Ganges,’ she says. ‘You’ve seen nothing till you’ve seen
(c) Dharmavadana Penn