The male voice from the bank sounded quite old, and a glance across the water confirmed this impression.
He chuckled, and far from pissing off, he settled on a rock, crossing his legs and clasping his hands round one knee. He looked set for the day. Just what I needed, a bloody audience.
“I won’t stop you,” he said mildly, “so don’t let me distract you.”
But he was distracting me. Offing yourself requires concentration – it’s hard enough to drown when you’re an instinctively strong swimmer. This may not have been the best method of ending my life, I thought. I held my breath, willing my arms and legs into immobility, and as a reward for my efforts my head began to sink beneath the water. But there was air trapped in my anorak and, as I bobbed up to the surface, I realised I should have stripped off first, despite the freezing weather.
I tried again but, now that my legs were becoming cold, I couldn’t help kicking them around to get the circulation going.
“Does it matter,” the old man called, as though he were inside my mind, “if your legs get cold? I mean, you’re going to be cold all over in a very short while, aren’t you?”
I sighed. Some other time perhaps. And possibly another method, since drowning clearly wasn’t my forte. I had some conditioned reflexes that were proving difficult to overcome.
I struck out in a leisurely fashion towards the bank, and then panicked after a few seconds as I realised how leaden my limbs had become. As I struggled, the man came to the water’s edge, staring intently at me. I was strong though, and managed to reach the bank unaided before staggering to the rock he’d just vacated. He followed me, rummaging around in a battered travelling bag before offering me a tartan blanket. I accepted it gratefully.
“I’m Finn,” he said, producing a primus stove, kettle, and some tea and sugar from the same bag.
“Hayley,” I muttered, through numb lips.
He didn’t answer, but suddenly he was pressing a bundle of dry clothes into my arms, jerking his head towards the car park.
“My van’s over there, the red one.”
He passed me a bunch of keys.
“Better get changed before you catch your death.” He smirked, seemingly finding this prospect amusing.
Wriggling around amongst packing cases and blankets in the back of the old red van, I found the clothes he’d given me were pretty much my size, and I exchanged his now wet tartan blanket for one of the less grubby ones. Parcelling up my sodden clothes, I locked the van and returned to the bank where a steaming mug of tea was waiting for me. I hunkered down, warming my hands on the mug, feeling the hot sweet liquid burning my throat.
“I don’t take sugar,” I said, shuddering.
“I know,” he said, “but you need it right now.”
“How do you know? And how do you know my name?”
“I just do.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered when he was going to ask me why I was trying to kill myself.
“I’m not,” he said.
“Can you tell everything I’m thinking?” That could be a bit awkward – I’d been considering the possibility of nicking his van.
“Pretty much everything. And who said the van was driveable anyway?”
“What’s the point of a van that can’t go anywhere?”
“I didn’t say it didn’t go anywhere. I said it might not be driveable.”
The man was a nutcase, I thought to myself. But apparently there was no such thing as thinking to yourself around here.
“The world isn’t limited by the breadth of your perception, Hayley. Maybe it’s you that’s a nutcase.”
And then he just stared at me for a while, and I realised that his eyes, which I’d thought to be a startling shade of blue when he was watching me at the water’s edge, were actually a very pale, translucent green, fringed with white eyelashes. He was a weird guy, about mid-fifties I guessed, with grey hair tied back in a ponytail and a gold hoop in one ear. If it weren’t for his yellow check ‘Rupert Bear’ trousers, I’d have thought he was a hippie. No self-respecting hippie would have been seen dead in those though.
Eventually the silence became awkward and I needed to say something.
“Were you going to stop me killing myself?”
He thought for a moment.
“I don’t think I could do that, if that’s what you really wanted to do. I’m not sure though…“ He seemed to be deliberating the question.
“So are you saying I don’t want to?”
“No. I’m saying you didn’t want to just then. You may do in the future, I suppose. Your mother tried three times before she succeeded.”
I went completely still.
“You knew my mother?”
This was only the second person I’d met who’d known my mother. The first was my Aunt Rose, the woman who’d looked after me since my fourth birthday, which was the day my mother jumped in front of the 8.25am Manchester-London Inter City express train.
Rose never spoke of my mother. That was one of the reasons I’d walked out, after 13 years of living with her in a home that hadn’t been a home. There was so much information about my mother locked away inside Rose, stuff she wouldn’t share, such as what kind of family the pair of them grew up in, and why my mother did what she did. Rose never talked about the past with me, even when I was at my lowest, begging and pleading for some kind of perspective on my life – who I was, and why I am the way I am. For me, life had begun with one single memorable episode, and that was Mum exploding like an over-ripe melon on the front of an express train. There was nothing before that, and precious little after.
I don’t think Rose refused to discuss the past because she wanted to spare my feelings; God knows if there was a chance to punish or wound me for being my mother’s daughter, I’m sure she’d have eagerly seized it. It seemed she just wanted our history forgotten, not to be raked over again, and I was pretty sure it was for her sake, not mine.
“I don’t know why she did it,” he said.
“She was depressed, I suppose, after Dad left.”
“No, I meant Rose, your aunt. I don’t know why she wouldn’t speak about your mother – why she dealt with it that way.”
He’d done it again, followed my thought processes.
“Did you meet Rose?”
He grinned, shaking his right hand as though he’d just dipped his fingers in hot water, and then pressing them beneath his other armpit.
“Did I meet her? Oh man…”
“Who are you? How come you know all this stuff?”
He looked at me as though he were seeing me for the first time.
“I must be off,” he said dismissively, standing and gathering up the primus stove and mugs. “There’s nothing much doing here, but I daresay I’ll see you again before long.”
I reached out to catch his sleeve, but he shambled away towards the van, his bag over one shoulder. I tried to run after him. He seemed to know things I needed to add to my sparse store of knowledge, things that might help me understand myself. I stumbled on the blanket and by the time I’d untangled it from my feet, the van had disappeared. I never even heard him start the engine.
In the months that followed, I moved to a hostel in another town. It wasn’t much, so far as rooms went, but the couple running the unit were kind to me, and for a while I kept myself on an even keel, getting a shelf-stacking job during the week and working in a bar at weekends. This time I stuck with the meds I’d been prescribed and, apart from the occasional bout of self-harming, I was doing well.
Twelve months later though, I was propped up against a ventilation shaft on the top of the second tallest office block in Manchester, the wind tugging at my fleece and whipping my hair across my face. I’d already walked to the edge of the building and looked down. It looked good. It looked… immediate. At the lake I’d had a lot of work to do, a lot of impulses to conquer before I could do the deed, but here all I needed to do was take a dozen steps towards the edge and step off. No changing your mind then. I wondered what I’d think about on the way down. Would I enjoy the ride, look around, and take in the joys of flying before my lights went out?
No,” said a voice from the other side of the ventilation shaft. “More than likely you’ll crap yourself on the way down and you’ll spend your last few moments worrying about how gross that will be for the emergency services.”
I peered round the shaft.
“Oh fuck, it’s you again.”
His eyes, brown today, crinkled at the corners. “Good to see you too, sunshine. I suppose it’s a bit of an irrelevance to ask how you are?”
“What do you want?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he said, watching me closely.
He shimmied along the asphalt roofing, until he was sitting by my side. His hair was loose today, a little on the greasy side, and he was still wearing those stupid Rupert Bear trousers.
“You going playing golf?” I asked, nodding at them.
He ignored me.
“You have your grandmother’s eyes,” he said.
“Oh yeah, I suppose you knew her too.”
“I met her once,” he said, looking into the distance, as though conjuring up the scene again.
“Rose never mentioned her mother,” I said. “What was she like?”
“I didn’t know her for long,” he said, “I seldom make lasting acquaintanceships. And I don’t think your aunt would have much recollection of her either. She died when your mother and Rose were quite young.”
See, here was the stuff I wanted to know, the bits and pieces that made up the past, facts that I’d been denied. I twisted round to face him.
“What did she die of?” I asked.
“The radiator grille of a truck,” he said, dreamily. “Scammonden Bridge, on the M62.”
“She threw herself under a truck?”
“No, she was going to jump off the bridge over the motorway, changed her mind and got hit by a truck as she backed away from the railings. Such a terrible waste.” He didn’t sound sad, but then if he hadn’t known her well, I suppose he wouldn’t.
“You must think we’re a right bunch of loonies,” I said, “forever trying to top ourselves”.
He scratched his chin.
“You’ve a very interesting lineage, that’s for sure.”
And with that he stood up, smoothed down his trousers and disappeared towards the service elevator.
Another valuable piece of historical information then. I wished I’d asked when this happened – I could have looked it up at the reference library. Still, it couldn’t be too hard, the newspaper archives wouldn’t contain many accounts of people jumping from the bridge overlooking greasy, grey Scammonden Water.
Before I knew it, I was leaving the building, and suicide attempt number two had gone up in smoke.
The archives yielded little information, but I learned that a 28 year old mother of two young girls had parked up on the bridge. Several motorists had seen her by the handrail overlooking the motorway. One person said he’d thought she wasn’t alone but, when he glanced in his rear view mirror, he decided he’d been mistaken. She was hit by a lorry as she walked back to her vehicle, and an open verdict had been returned.
That gave me something to think about, for a while…
A few months later I got a job as a nursing auxiliary in a psychiatric unit. I shouldn’t have, with my background and family history, but I’m nothing if not inventive when the need arises. It was hard work but interesting, and it was a real eye-opener dealing with people much weirder than me.
Some nights I thought I’d caught a glimpse of Finn hanging around the hospital corridors in the early hours of the morning, but I couldn’t be sure. I once mentioned him to the Charge Nurse, but she said she’d never seen anyone fitting his description and gave me a funny look.
“There’d be no visitors at that time of the night, Hayley, surely you know that?”
“Not even in an emergency?”
“We don’t have emergencies,” she said, smiling, “not during the night.” She clicked her heels together. “Ve haff vays of making it so,” she said, grinning towards the locked drug-dispensary on the wall.
The Charge Nurse obviously didn’t know that many of the patients were flushing their night-time medications down the toilets, while the more unstable ones were stashing them under their mattresses for a rainy day. Each morning when I made the beds I’d take any pills I found back to my place – for the patients’ safety – and for my next rainy day – if and when it came.
I got on reasonably well with the patients, and the closest thing to a friendship that either of us would ever enjoy, sprang up between me and a girl called Poppy. She could be volatile, especially when she was skipping her meds, but most of the time she was great company. She was everything I wasn’t, a tiny scrap of a thing with feet that never seemed to stop dancing. Even when she was in the middle of a conversation, her feet would be tapping to a rhythm only she could hear, her hips girating erotically. She was sensual, and loved sex, never being short of a punter. Although staff weren’t supposed to frat with the inmates, Artie, the hospital porter couldn’t resist her advances. Later he said Poppy went at it like it was her last ever screw, and at one point he’d seriously wondered whether it might be his too.
But when she was down, Poppy was really down. She plumbed depths I’d never even imagined, and at times like that I worried about her, in so far as I was capable of worrying about anybody. On Monday mornings, after my weekend off, I’d make a point of seeking her out, always apprehensive about how I’d find her. Sometimes she’d be curled up in a ball facing the wall; other times she’d be pacing the room, stopping only to press her nose and the palms of her hands against the window, as though someone were holding a gun to her back.
“You won’t do anything silly, will you?” I said one Friday evening, when I was leaving for the weekend. She’d been really low all day, and the nursing staff had moved her into a semi-private ward that was empty for the moment.
“Not bloody likely,” she muttered, not meeting my gaze.
“Do you know what happens when you kill yourself?” she said.
“You’re dead – that’s what happens.”
“Yeah, dead. And then?”
“And then nothing,” I said. I glanced at my watch.
“No, then you have to go back and start again. ‘Cos you cheated… you haven’t done what you were supposed to do. You didn’t complete the plan.”
“There’s a plan – your life is a plan that’s been agreed long before you even get born, and you sign up for it. So if you renege, that’s it. You have to start again.
“Brilliant idea,” I said sarcastically. “I’ll bet you got that from the Chaplain didn’t you? Those happy-clappers love to put the fear of God into the patients.” Poppy still went to the hospital chapel – not often, but enough for the others to tease her.
“No, it’s right, Hayles. It’s a sin, and you have to atone for it. You’ve got to do what was agreed, no matter how hard it gets.”
I slipped into my coat.
“Well, good luck with that then,” I said. “Personally, I’m hoping for a touch of oblivion when I decide to pop my clogs.”
On the bus home I thought about what she’d said. If Poppy really believed the only alternative to the depths she frequently plumbed was having to go through her life again, her torment must have been unbearable.
As I gazed down from the top of the bus, I watched a fire engine rushing past, closely followed by an ambulance, and I thought of all those professionals whose unswerving conviction was that life had to be preserved at all costs. Nobody questioned it, nobody asked you if you wanted to be rescued or to continue living. There might be an element of truth in Poppy’s view. Maybe we’d all been brainwashed with some ghastly plan. There were people out there popping vitamin pills, busting a gut on treadmills and cross-trainers, drinking raw vegetable juice, watching what they ate. All so they could get not only their seven score years and ten, but perhaps a bit more besides.
But for some of us, the brainwashing hadn’t worked. There were people like Poppy, who couldn’t wait for it to be over but were too scared to take matters into their own hands. Others, like my mother, just wanted to make sure it all stopped right then, or my grandmother, who might only have changed her mind at the last minute about how to make it all stop.
And then there were people like me and Rose, who’d tested the waters before drawing back. And the jury was still out for us.
So this Monday morning I’ve arrived at work on time and now I’m heading for Poppy’s room. As the lift doors open, I see a familiar figure leaning against the wall by the doors. It’s Finn, and he’s standing there, head thrown back, looking almost dazed, glassy eyed. He looks different, his skin is radiant, almost as though he’s been drastically rehydrated. He looks, if I’m honest, like he’s just had a monumental one night stand, and I wonder whether Poppy’s progressed onto one her highs over the weekend.
I push past him and peer through the ward window. There’s a sheet completely covering a thin form lying on the bed, and the crash-cart is being tidied up, ready to be taken away. There’s a covered bowl by the side of the bed, and now I understand why Poppy always insisted on making her own bed. She’d been stashing her sleepers, just like the others.
And now she’s taken her chances with the boss upstairs. Had she convinced herself that he might overlook the pass-out ticket this time?
I stumble back from the doors. There are no tears; that’s part of the way I am… this emotional void I inhabit. There’s no surprise either, despite our conversation on Friday.
“What went wrong, Finn? You were too late?”
He turns towards me, like a blind dog sniffing the air, trying to sense the presence of another, and I see that now his eyes are glowing a dull crimson, as though a fire is smouldering behind them. I take a step back.
“Too late?” he says.
“To help. You usually turn up at just the right time. Well, you always have for me. You seem to know when someone’s about to give up, don’t you?”
“I… I have a sense for it.”
“Well, it certainly let you down this time, Finn.”
“If you say so…”
I’m not happy about the way the conversation’s going, not sure we’re singing from the same song sheet, as they say. But he’s looking as though he wants to be off now, and I still need more information from him.
“Wait,” I say.
“Hurry up, I’m needed elsewhere…”
I want to ask him why my mother didn’t take me with her, when she jumped in front of the train. I mean, I’m glad she didn’t, or at least I think I am, but I worry that perhaps she wanted rid of me too, as well as her life. But I can’t think of a way to put it without sounding stupid and needy, and I shouldn’t have tried because, as always, he knows where I’m heading.
“I persuaded her not to. Your mother was going to take you with her, and I persuaded her not to.”
But Finn’s lost interest in me.
He walks down the corridor, away from me. Only he’s not walking in that familiar shambling manner; there’s a bounce in his step. He seems so energised I almost expect him to jump in the air and click his heels together.
And at that moment, watching him strut towards the exit, it’s as though a curtain lifts and everything suddenly becomes brilliantly clear. In his elevated state, it seems that his guard has dropped. Now I see as clearly into his mind as he’s been able to see into mine.
And I realise that Finn isn’t a kindly, rescuing angel at all. Finn has an instinct for desperation; he can sense it a mile away. But it has to be total desperation. He gets off on complete, unconditional and willing self-sacrifice – he’s a soul-eater. But each soul has to be cooked to perfection, seasoned with misery, and gratinéed with determination. It must be a soul that’s yearning to be extinguished, whatever the cost.
He’s turned up for me a couple of times, but I think he was just skewering me gently, seeing whether I was properly cooked yet. And each time he’s sussed that I’m not. The struggle in the water, stepping back from the edge of the multi-storey office block… all the signals were there for Finn. I wasn’t ready and my soul would be no good to him, unless perfectly presented to his taste.
He’d turned up and stayed for my mother, because he sensed she was a genuine, dyed in the wool, ready-to-end-it-all victim. If she’d had any agonising last minute shame about leaving her four year old daughter, stuck in a pushchair by the side of the railway track to watch her final act, that despair would have represented a true cordon-bleu finishing touch for Finn – the icing on the cake.
Was that the reason, the only reason he saved me that day?
Or was I just deferred gratification, an investment for the future? Coming as I did from a line of ‘jumpers’, maybe he marked my card on that day, filing me away for future reference. Since then, from whatever realm he exists in, he’s kept tabs on me, hedging his bets that I’ll turn out to be a chip off the old family block too.
And I’m sure now that he checked out my Aunt Rose too. But only the once, because Rose turned out to be the strong one. That’s why she wouldn’t even allow herself to think for one moment about her mother and her sister. Saddled with responsibility for her damaged niece, who she suspected would be more than likely to tread the well-worn family path she herself had aspired to, she clammed up, locking everything away, all that family history, and with it any vestige of affection.
Finn’s reached the end of the corridor, and he turns to give me a long, speculative look.
“I might see you again sometime,” he murmurs.
But I’m not hearing any real conviction in that voice. And that feels good.
Because I’m fairly sure now that I’m in it for the long haul.
And I think Finn can see that too.
The second Magic Oxygen Literary Prize invited submissions of short stories (up to 4,000 words) and poems (up to 50 lines). Almost 1000 entries were received from 32 different countries, and 19 judges (from five countries in four continents) reviewed them all. For every entry, a tree was planted in the Word Forest, Bore, Kenya, and each entrant has been given the GPS co-ordinates for their particular tree. Additionally the competition is funding the building of a much needed classroom at the Kundeni Primary School.
The ten short-listed stories, and ten short-listed poems have been compiled in The Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Anthology which is available through bookstores or from their website, priced £8.99. Another tree will be planted for every book sold. I was delighted to participate in such a worthy venture, and thanks go to Simon and Tracey West for their efforts in organising both the competition and the Literary Festival Prize Awards and Festival of Words in Lyme Regis, where the results were announced on 26 March.