I have crossed this footbridge many times but still I take each step slowly. I approach, and each heel meets the ground and falls heavy as I make sure of the connection. Heels to flats to the balls of my feet and ending with my toes. My steps are considered because the river and the panorama of London, lit at night, rip my breath from my throat and leave me suspended and I feel I might find out if I can fly.
The stairs to the footbridge are those long planks and feet could break bloody in its windows; legs could slip clean through them. I will never be able to imagine my ascension without the wind, agitated and reckless, blowing my hair and making my nose cold; at times muttering its lament, and at others slicing its rage through my skull. I’m on the last step and then I walk in the middle. I look ahead and through the clusters of people I see that the bridge goes on forever. Teenagers muck about in the domes of light and I grow tense. Couples take their own photos, a large family from Up North sections off an area and to walk past them means I must walk near the edge. I veer with forced conviction and run my hand on the metal bar and keep myself at arm’s distance. I walk a little while and then I stop.
The city’s beauty is inimitable because it is London, yet its very existence may fuel Man to attempt to outdo Himself. This would be futile. He has excelled here and Nature is, for once, pleased. The Thames entwines free and strong from source to sea, bedecked with palaces flowing with legends, stamped with council blocks housing volumes of their own, in the blissful and troubling company of millions of lives. What sorrow when one of those millions ends in it? The river carries it as far as it can, soothing it in its embrace, till at last it must let it go. The leaving life is lifted past the sharp silhouette of Westminster, one of London’s celebrated jewels. The others – the rather less pictured, the almost ignored – are amassed in a great black bin-liner, infinite glinting and twinkling near-secrets mixed in with filth and gravel. Some God is carrying the whole lot, the black and the clear over his shoulder, to somewhere far away. He may have a plan or he may improvise but sometimes he stubs his toe hard, stumbles a little and curses. Behind me, Sir Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral is at once austere and warming, its contrast reflected so deeply romantically in the gold against its encasing midnight blue. Its palpable history is velvet, packaged pride and I’m privileged to feel a part of it. But, at times, I seep with yearning, to be engulfed by it, aching to be fixed in its stone. Further right there are the glass towers of Canary Wharf that leave me frightened and madly in love even though I don’t believe in them. The view is the most exquisite I will ever see and I know it has the power to hold my breath from me forever.
Suddenly I’m struck by the pole of the high jump, by how easy it’d be to scissor my legs over the bar. I’m at school again, in P.E., and there are groups of girls behind me, clambering and manic with frenzied chatter. It’s my turn next and I’m nervous and getting ready to run. “Go!” and I thrust my body forward but I’m back on the bridge, at the edge again. I push myself away from it and I’m pathetic, unable to meet the challenge. But challenge met, it’s said that one often dies on impact, body hitting block of water, shattering all of one’s insides like a pane of double glazing. I’d then blend with the river like a Bolognese in water. Or there are the night trips, those three course and jazz music cruises. Smashing on a boat would be a messy affair and I wouldn’t like to do it that way because of the people that would find me, broken and gooey and all over the place. Because of the man, about to retire, who would be asked to pick up all the pieces, put them in a bag and zip it closed.
Instead, first the cold will beat at me, turning me brown to blue to purple as I begin to sink. And this will be the moment when I’ll question whether I made the right decision. I’ll find I am suffocating far from the banks, with the current whipping and dragging at my feet and relentlessly pulling me deeper like an anchor. There’ll be no turning back and perhaps I’ll try to calm myself to thinking, “Oh, well this is a new experience”.
But I find I am walking again. A Big Issue seller asks me to buy his last copy, which is crinkled and months old. I give him a pound and he tells me that one is not enough for a hostel. It’s all I have and I push my hands deeper into my pockets, even though it’s a mild night. I walk to the rhythm of the steel drums I am passing and the glee of the drummer pulls my mouth and makes me smile. I allow the calypso to colour my mind with pinks and oranges and greens. But I don’t want to hold that fantasy; reality is dream-like enough. The descending stairs are not far away now and I slow down and think of the river.
It shimmers below me, treads water, looks up and invites me to swim a little with it. It tells me that it will look after me and that we will live together forever. It tells me it loves me. I wave, and I shout I love you too. But I will see you soon. I don’t want to swim. Not this time.