The day I nearly died
Jack Fisher lives in Manchester with his partner and a cat named Lester. He (Jack, not the cat) writes short stories, and is currently hacking his way through the undergrowth of a half-completed novel. He has been published in various places, and you can read or listen to a selection of short pieces at MacGuffin. He has also self-published an ebook describing a trip to Mongolia, from which all profits go to charity.
You can find more about him at jackfisher.org.uk.
The wind changes. Stings your face with rain. You stop and turn away, then decide no. You want to face it. Yanking the drawstrings on your anorak, you pull the hood tighter around your head. And again, put one foot in front of the other. Continue to fight your way up the slope. The rainwater lubricates the chalky ground and you lose your grip, every few steps sliding backwards. You withdraw your hands from the coat pockets, for balance, exposing them to the rawness. Breathe deeply, resolutely, embrace the exertion, the adversity of nature. A simple, uncomplicated adversity. The wind gusts. You reach up to your hood, drag it backwards, uncovering your ears to the sound, the air rushing past, the waves crashing ahead and below, the sound, drowning out the conversations in your head.
But no, not quite. Too many voices. People making demands. Your partner. Family. Friends. Work. Always, demands. And conflict. Conflict because you can’t make everyone happy. Conflicts real. Arguments, fights, quarrels. And imagined, conversations played out in your head, justifications prepared for defences that might not be needed, against accusations that might never come. And inner conflict. Between guilt and selfishness. Ego and conscience. Between the desire to please and the knowledge that you can’t. Not enough of the time. Between your happiness and that of others. And then there are the demands you place upon yourself. The pressure. The unwillingness to compromise. You know you should be happy. You used to be happy. But you’ve forgotten how.
Pressure builds up behind your eyes, and you will the tears into being. They come, slowly at first, painfully, then you let go and they flow, washed away by the rain streaming down your face. You stride on, leaning into the wind, a few steps now from the edge. A couple more and you stop, two feet short, maybe three. You look out to sea, the grey sea, a shade darker than the sky, waves rolling like the clouds, churning, throwing up spray as they batter the rocks below you. You lift your head up, look left, right, behind, through the tears, the only soul here, wanting, needing to be here. And then down, again, at the rocks. People come here, you know that. Maybe this spot, maybe not, but these cliffs, other cliffs. People who can’t face living. Who choose nothingness over the pain of life. Who see no present or future worth existing for.
A melancholia overwhelms you. It acts like a drug, sedating, quietening the voices. The tears stop and you regain control of your breathing, slowly, deeply. A sliver of calm returns. And then the ground beneath you shifts. It’s a surreal feeling, one you struggle to comprehend, then the edge of the cliff, the edge of the land, the chalk, the grass, the soil, crumble away and fall, three feet away from you, two feet away, then, whether by instinct or gravity, you throw yourself backwards, landing on your rear, as the ground where your feet were breaks away and tumbles, leaving you sprawled, legs dangling over the edge, the new edge, of the cliff.
And then still. The ground, mercifully, and you, looking down, seeing the earth falling, crashing into the sea. Then seeing yourself. Falling. Crashing. Hitting the water, tossed around by the sea, pulled under, battered against the rocks. See life vanishing. See the moment you realise, mid-air, the finality of what’s about to happen.
You see your partner. At home, as the hours tick by, the knot in the stomach growing, the sense that something isn’t right, the irritation at your absence turning into worry, nagging at first, assuaged by other more benign explanations, then, as darkness falls, becoming panic. Phone calls to friends, family, no, they haven’t seen you, but they’re sure you’re alright, try not to worry. But they’re just words, and they do worry. Then the police are called. Make the right noises, take the details. Promise they’ll look into it. Probably a rational explanation. Maybe that night, maybe the morning, your car is found. Near the cliffs. The police now have their rational explanation. Just confirmation to seek. Had you been feeling down? Acting depressed? Having problems? Arguments? No, well yes, but isn’t everybody? Doesn’t everybody? That’s life, isn’t it? Nobody wants to acknowledge what the questions mean. Not at first. You must have just needed some space. To disappear for a while. You’ll be back.
Then you see the police car pull up outside your house. Two officers at the door. Your partner opening. Knowing. They’ve found you. Washed up. You see the pain. Later, guilt. And anger. How could you do this? But for now, and for a long time, pain, terrible pain.
You snap out of it. Able to move again. Inch yourself, carefully, each movement measured, backwards, away from the edge, until finally, exhausted, although you’ve moved barely a few yards, you collapse, flat on your back, breathing heavily, wet eyes staring into the greyness above. You see yourself again. At home, letting yourself in, hugging, coming together. Laughing. It’s okay. For today, at least, it’s going to be okay.
I’m walking home from work. To the left, cars hurry by. To the right, the river Thames. And ahead, a man. A big man, jeans and bomber jacket, dishevelled hair, and a troubled expression. He catches my eye and won’t let it go. I find I can’t either. His gait, a touch erratic, tottering even, alters direction, so that he’s heading directly towards me. Three steps away, I realise and stop. But it’s too late. Two steps, one step, and then it happens. He thrusts his arms out, grabbing my chest, under my armpits. His momentum carries me backwards, towards the railing, and then upwards, the power in his arms propelling me off the ground. Our eyes are still locked together, his stare vacant, as I feel myself lifted, my legs first catching on the railing and then, with a heave, I am hoisted over, and I feel, instinctively and suddenly, the vast space beneath. It all happens in an instant, and I am powerless. For a moment I seem frozen in mid-air. Then I start to fall. I feel the air rushing upwards, but I hear nothing. All I can take in is the sky. The unrelenting sky. I fall for one second, maybe two, then hit the surface. I read, once, that you can die falling into water, from the impact. But I’m okay. I plunge deeply, and my brain clicks into gear, my survival instinct. I wriggle free from my backpack. And then my shoes. I remember that from school. Then I float to the surface, looking around as I emerge, trying to get my bearings. The current drags me downstream, surprising me with its force. My arms and legs move automatically to keep me afloat, but sluggishly, encumbered by my winter clothes. The cold hasn’t hit me yet. I look up, to where I fell from. There’s nobody. It happened so quickly. Nobody to save me, nobody to watch me drown. I look across, see the floating jetty. That’s what I aim for. I try to swim. Slowly, painfully, my movements uncoordinated and feeble compared to the choppy waters, but still, I make progress, and I arrive, finally, at the wooden column, rising up from the riverbed to the jetty. I hug it desperately, thankfully, then I look back up to the road, to the railings, and I shout. Help! Help! It seems, suddenly, like I am far, far away, alone. I realise how noisy this city is, the possibility that nobody will hear me. I feel the cold, properly, for the first time, and I start to panic. Help! Then someone appears. Thank God, I think. I shout again. I see a response, an acknowledgment, and more people appear. They’re frozen, not knowing what to do, and that makes me temporarily, and unreasonably, angry. I see one of them running, along the pavement, stopping, I realise, at a lifebuoy, a rubber ring, one that I’ve walked past hundreds of times unthinkingly, never conceiving of this moment. He struggles to detach it from its case, the urgency of the situation complicating his movements, but then I see it, in his hands, held aloft, for a moment, while he prepares to throw it. Then it’s in the air, arcing towards me, but falling short. I have to leave the wooden column and swim towards it, and only now do I realise how exhausted I am, how little strength I have left. I reach the ring and struggle to clamber onto it, aware of the people staring at me, and I feel embarrassed at my clumsy, ungainly attempts, an embarrassment I will later find ridiculous. Somebody shouts, hold on!, or something to that effect, something well-meaning but unnecessary. And I do, shivering, relieved suddenly by the crowds, because I can’t possible drown now, not with all those people watching. And then I hear an engine, see a rescue boat approach, and I know it’s going to be okay. They drag me on board, wrap me up, take care of me, take me ashore where an ambulance waits. Now I feel excited. All these people, just for me. This amazing thing, happening to me. I’m taken to hospital, fussed over, kept overnight for observation. Journalists find me, I don’t know how, but that’s what they do. People thought I’d jumped, at first. That wasn’t much of a story. Who’s going to empathise with someone who wants to die? But then they find CCTV footage, because there’s cameras everywhere. They’re amazed. They interview me, ask me what went through my mind, whether my life flashed before my eyes like people say. I say something profound and they like it, they nod their heads sagely. By now the office is wondering where I am, why I haven’t showed up. My boss is texting me, emailing, but my phone is useless of course, all that water. I see the messages, later, read the annoyance in his words, and hope that he felt guilty when he knew, when the hospital rung him, like I ask the nurse to do, because I know that will have more effect. They see it on the local news, people from work. Oh my God, they say to each other, can you imagine? And then, when I go back, after a couple of weeks off for the shock, people treat me differently somehow, more respectfully. And I behave differently, too. I am different. I have gravitas. Something serious has happened to me. I nearly died.
I look up. I’ve reached Blackfriars station. I’ve no recollection of how I got here, lost in thought since that guy veered past me. I scan the board and see there’s twelve minutes to wait for my train. I sigh in annoyance, find a seat, take out my iPhone and start flicking idly through my emails.
My feet go in first. Startled by the cold, they want to leap back out. But I hold them under. I enjoy the sharpness, the presence of sensation. I spread my toes, feel the water forcing past them, between them. I edge forwards, slowly, until I’m up to my knees. Feel the hairs on my legs flow one way, with the tide, then the other. A wave breaks before me and droplets of spray career into my chest, causing me to flinch. Onwards. The water covers my groin now, and surges up to my stomach. I tense and gasp for breath, my belly unprepared, vulnerable, like the soft underside of a turtle. I hold myself still, breathing deeply, then push myself further in, the water climbing my torso, matting the hairs on my chest, reaching my armpits. I wave my arms, forwards, backwards, up, down, pushing hard against the resistance of the water. Setting them free. Then up to my neck, and now I can smell the sea, taste it as it laps towards my face.
These are the parts of my body, of me and not of me, and this is how they would feel. How they used to feel.
A seagull descends from the grey sky, braking with its wings and landing on the water, a few feet in front of me. It looks at me, then away. I mean nothing to it, nor it to me. That’s how it should be. Yet I want to speak to it, tell it of the life that belonged to me. Tell it about Claire. Claire, who I loved, with every part of me. Who could make me smile just by changing the expression on her face. How I miss being able to hold her, to touch her. Who I needed, without ever realising it. Alice, always full of mischief. And little Jacob, who I never got the chance to know, who I took, like so much else, for granted.
The water is rising. The earth, and its moon, turn slowly, to us, but inexorably. It’s reached my chin. The seagull paddles in random directions, jerking its head from side to side. Do you want me to tell you of the accident, seagull? What is there to say? A family, travelling away from a beach house. A mother driving. A father studying a map. Children quiet, tired by the sea. From the opposite direction, a lorry. Nothing to tell, then the lorry driver’s heart stops. It will happen to everyone, sometime. He loses consciousness, and the weight of his body pulls the wheel. There’s a second, two at most, and nothing the mother can do. Two vehicles, each at sixty miles an hour, meet each other. The father doesn’t even look up from the map. Instead, he wakes up in a strange room, among strange people, who tell him his wife and children are dead. Only himself, above the waist, has been spared. Like I said, seagull, it’s a short story.
I crane my neck and look behind me, at the beach house. When I turn back, the seagull is gone. Sometimes people tell me how brave I am. I don’t think they know what they mean. The bravest thing I have ever done in my life, I do now. I grip the wheels of the chair, and push. I feel the water rise above my mouth, above my nose, and finally above my head. I feel my hair float upwards. They may think it’s because of the chair, of my condition. They would be wrong. I had a wonderful life. Better than I could have wished for. And now it’s over.