Upon Westminster Bridge – by Thomas McColl

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Being as I was going to kill myself in the next five minutes or so, there was no point keeping all the small change in my pocket, only for it to end up at the bottom of the Thames.


So, as soon as I was on Westminster Bridge, I looked around for someone to give my money to, and seeing a living statue in front of the first set of Victorian lamps – a silver cowboy stood on a silver crate – I decided that he was the one who’d get my fiver’s worth of shrapnel, which I emptied out of my wallet then threw without fanfare into a small rectangular silver tin that was perched on top of the crate.


Activated by my generosity, the cowboy came to life and, quickly drawing a silver gun from his silver holster, pointed it at me as if to shoot me dead.


“Feel free”, I said, putting my hands up in the air. “It’ll save me a lot of trouble.”


I didn’t care anymore so I just came out with it, but couldn’t tell what the cowboy thought of this, for his silver-painted face – his eyes obscured by silver wrap-around shades – remained completely expressionless.


He certainly looked like a pitiless cold-blooded killer but, unfortunately, I wasn’t facing a cowboy in a Western, just a cowboy in Westminster.


It would have been perfect: killed instantly by a silver cowboy’s silver bullet – dead before I even knew it had happened. All I got though instead, when the trigger was pressed, was “Bang!” on a flag released from the barrel.


I could hear some passing tourists laughing behind me, and being as I’d already started going along with the joke, I had no choice but to keep it up. So, closing my eyes, I clutched my chest in suitably melodramatic fashion, which made the tourists laugh even more. This is mad, I thought to myself. Here I am, feigning death just moments before I’m going to really die.


And feeling I’d done it long enough, I opened my eyes again, and saw, to my embarrassment, that the cowboy had already resumed his original position – including replacing the gun in its holster – rigidly staring into the middle distance, so I quickly ceased pretending to die in order to now prepare myself to do it instead for real.


And all there was between me and the river now, apart from the parapet, was the human river of tourists crossing the bridge. There hadn’t been quite so many people yesterday when I did my recce, but that was ten in the morning, whereas now it was midday, and even though the pavement was wide and long, it was packed along its length with all these slow-moving herds of extremely polite and docile human beings, no doubt fresh from roaming round the Royal Parks and Buckingham Palace, grazing on grandeur, and now, milling about on Westminster Bridge, still contentedly chewing the cud of culture, even if doing that meant their eardrums got assaulted by a guy playing bagpipes in traditional Scottish dress…


…who, thankfully, was today on the South Bank side, not that that seemed to make much difference: The shrill sound of his instrument cut through the air, undimmed by the noise of the traffic and the helicopter hovering overhead, and though it annoyed me that its droning plaintive wail was almost certainly going to be the last thing I would ever hear, my mind was set: I was going to end my life today on this bridge. Nothing was going to put me off or stop me – not even for a moment…


…except, it seemed, a family of four: A mother and two daughters, leaning against the side of the bridge, with the London Eye directly behind them in the distance, and the father, stood across the pavement, right at the kerb, viewing them through the lens of his camera, had created around he and his family a force-field that was strong enough to stop everyone in their tracks, including me.


That’s the problem with central London, I thought. It’s one big tourist trap. Where-ever you are, as soon as you start to walk, you’re forced to stop because someone’s trying to take a picture. And though the force-field was up no longer than a few seconds or so – enough time even for this dithering dad to frame and take his shot – for someone who right now felt the need to reach the end of his life as quickly as possible, the delay was almost unbearable.


“Thank you, thank you,” said the man – and, as if he’d just chanted a spell, the force-field disappeared, and everyone now continued on their way, including me. But not wanting to have to stop again, not even for a second, I veered sharp left, and walked quickly along the side of the bridge to the next set of Victorian lamps and the ledge from which I intended to jump.


On getting there, I glanced again at the metal plaque I’d first noticed yesterday at the base of the lamps, on which was inscribed a poem by William Wordsworth, called ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’. Yesterday, I read all fourteen lines, but today I just read again the penultimate line.


“…The river glideth at his own sweet will…”


Well, that’s one way of putting it, I thought, as I leaned over the side of the bridge and peered down at the river which had looked deceptively calm from afar but, looking at it more close-up, was actually flowing extremely fast. And seeing some debris – a plank of wood and then a large plastic bottle – quickly disappear beneath the arch after first crashing into and bouncing off the left abutment, I knew there was nothing “glideth” about this river, that even the strongest swimmer would be very likely dragged underneath in seconds by the currents…


…and I’d never learned to swim, so that was that. And, as the drop was almost six metres, there was a very good chance, in any event, I wouldn’t survive the fall.


So this was it – just seconds away – an end to all the loneliness, the crippling debts, the lack of direction, the pointlessness of everything.


My heart now was pounding, as if making the most of its last few moments of existence in this hopeless, pathetic body of mine.


I peered down again and, just as I did, a vessel emerged from underneath the arch, one of those open-top cruisers with lots of tourists on board, and they all looked back at me and waved, so I waved back and imagined, for a moment, they were kindred spirits, people who’d jumped off other bridges and had ended up being picked up by this vessel that was ferrying them all to the underworld which, in Greek mythology, had always been at the end of the River Acheron – but, in reality, was right at the end of the River Thames.


Yes, the people I was waving at weren’t tourists at all but souls of the dead – spurring me on with their cheering and hollering. Go on, jump, they were saying. Leave this unforgiving city behind and join us in Hades. There was just one problem, though. The ferryman, Charon, required his fee to take me there, and I didn’t have the money: I’d given all my change away to the silver cowboy.


So even now I was out of luck: the story of my life. But here I was, about to finish it, being in control for the very first time.


Firmly gripping the parapet railing, I took a deep breath. Yes, I’m ready, I thought. I really am. This is it: The end.


But just as I was about to clamber up, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and, in a Southern-twanged American accent, asked: “Could you please take a photo of me and my friend in front of the London Eye?”


I looked at her for a moment, this thin-faced tourist with jet-black corkscrew hair and large hoop earrings, and wearing pink jeans and an I Love London t-shirt…


…and, knowing it was unlikely she’d be able to truly empathize if I said I hated this city so much I wanted to kill myself by jumping off this bridge, and would rather not spend the last few seconds of my life taking snaps of total strangers – especially when one was wearing such an uncool t-shirt – I decided it best to bite my tongue and just get on with quickly helping her out.


So I took the camera and backed across the pavement to the kerb. Luckily, there was a small gap in the crowd, and though I took the picture quickly, I thought I did a good job of framing the shot – getting everything and everyone in, including the sour-faced pig-tailed friend, who was much more soberly dressed in a cardigan, blouse and slacks and seemed incapable of even breaking into a smile.


When I handed the camera back it was she who accepted it. She checked the picture and, frowning, showed it to her London-loving friend who looked unsure then shrugged. They exchanged a few whispered words – then the soberly dressed one, shaking her head, came back to me with the camera.


“Sorry, we need you to do it again.”


“Oh, OK,” I said, a little taken aback.


“You need to get the whole of the London Eye, and put me and my friend in the centre, not right at the side…”


Boy, she’s hard to please, I thought. Why can’t she just give me a break? After all, I’m a little bit distracted. Let’s see if she can take as good a picture of me in a moment when I’ve climbed up over the parapet and on to the ledge.


“…and if you can please give me time to smile.”


Well, if I’d had all day, I might have done. But I didn’t – so, shaking my head, I gave the woman her camera back and, without me giving her even another glance, walked back to where I’d been poised to jump and, there, peered over the side.


It really is now or never, I thought – and so, without another moment’s hesitation, and with a sharp intake of breath, I hauled myself over the side of the bridge, a little clumsily but managing to keep my balance and, continuing to firmly grip the parapet rail, got both of my feet out on to the ledge.


I gasped with shock – at how swiftly I’d done it as much as anything else – and the weird thing was I didn’t feel scared, just kind of giddy, exhilarated even, as the adrenalin started kicking in.


And even though the bagpipes were blaring still in the distance, the enormity of what I’d just done was enough to numb me completely to the sound, and to the commotion now going on around me.


Already, people on the pavement were stopping to stare, and in amongst this gathering crowd were the two women I’d left behind, gawping at me, shocked, and though I felt a little sad for them – they’d probably go through the rest of their lives convinced it was their picture-taking demands which had driven me to suicide – there wasn’t much I could do about that, and I’d gone too far to back out now. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to clamber back at any rate, and could feel myself slipping, for the ledge was more sloped than I’d thought it would be, which made it increasingly hard for me to keep my footing. And knowing I could either jump or simply slip and fall – and seeing two policemen running across the bridge towards me – I closed my eyes and let go…


…but, as soon as I did, I wanted to live – and, in that very same instant, was grabbed by a pair of arms which wrapped themselves around me so tight I was forced back firmly against the side. And, opening my eyes and peering down at my waist, I saw it was a pair of silver arms.


My feet were no longer even on the ledge – as I’d let go they’d slipped – but the silver cowboy, quick as ever on the draw, had saved my life. And, turning my head, I looked at his painted face, and saw it was no longer expressionless but wore a great big grin (or was he grimacing with the weight of me?). He still had his shades on but his Stetson hat had fallen off to reveal a messy mop of auburn hair – and now he spoke, in a heavy Eastern European accent. “Good luck to you,” he said then, after a pause, began to chant it, over and over again: “Good luck to you. Good luck to you. Good luck to you.”


And, like it was a spell he’d cast, I felt a change inside of me – a strange sense of optimism – and, filled with emotion, I started quietly sobbing uncontrollably.


Then the police arrived, and there were enough pairs of arms to haul me up, and I could see another vessel coming up the river, filled with souls of the dead all waving for me to join them, but it didn’t look like I would today – nor, it seemed now, any time soon.

thomasmccollThomas McColl lives in London, and has had short stories and poetry published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, Prole, the Ghastling, Iota and Envoi. His first full collection of flash fiction and poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, is published by Listen Softly London Press.

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