STRANGERS ON A BRIDGE
I wouldn't normally exercise on the weekend, but several days of continuous spring rain had hampered my attempts to run by the Aegeri Lake near our home during the week. The lake had brimmed over onto my regular running paths, turbid waters frothy with alpine meltwater. The sun came out that morning, accompanied by a cloudless blue sky I wanted to dive into. Simon knew I was chomping at the bit. He let me go, encouraging me to run for everyone’s peace of mind. He would go cycling later with a group of friends when I returned home for domestic duties.
I chose a woodland track from the lowlands near the town of Baar, and planned to run up through the Lorze Gorge beside the river, continuing along the valley to home. A local bus dropped me at the turn-off to the narrow limestone canyon, and I broke into a loping jog along the gravel lane, which dwindled to a packed earthen trail. Sunlight winked through trees fluorescent with new leaf shoots, and the forest canopy at this time of day shaded much of the track. The swollen river gushed at my side. Branches still dripped from days of dampness as the sun dried out the woodlands. I lengthened my stride, and breathed in the metallic aroma of sprouting wild garlic. The mundane troubles of juggling family time dissipated, and as I settled into my metronome rhythm, a feeling of peacefulness ensued.
The sun warmed my shoulders as I ran out from the shade of the forest. I focused on a small pine tree growing comically out of the mossy roof shingles of the old Tobel Bridge. Above me, two more bridges connected the widening funnel of the Lorze Gorge at increasingly higher levels, resembling an Escher painting.
Before I entered the dim tunnel of the wooden bridge, I glanced upwards. A flash of movement caught my eye. My glance slid away, and darted back.
A figure stood on the edge of the upper bridge.
In a split second my brain registered the person’s stance. I sucked in my breath, squinting to be sure I had seen correctly at such a distance.
Oh, no. Don’t. Please, don’t.
The figure stood midway between two of the immense concrete pillars rising out of the chasm, his fists clutching the handrail. His body swayed slightly as he looked out across the expanse to the other side of the gorge, the river roaring its white noise hundreds of feet below him. Birdsong trilled near me on the trail, strangely out of place in this alarming situation.
At first I was incredulous. How ridiculous to think this person was going to jump. But that body language, a certain hollowed stiffness to his shoulders and chest, even from a distance, radiated doom. Unsure how to react, but sure I didn’t want to observe the worst, I slowed my pace to a walk, and finally stopped.
‘Haallo!’ I yelled over the noise of the river.
My voice took some time to reach him, the echo bouncing back and forth between the canyon walls. Seconds later his head jolted, awoken from his reverie.
‘Hey! Hallo!’ I called again, holding my arm out straight, palm raised like a marshal ordering traffic to halt at an intersection.
I backtracked a few metres on the trail, away from the shadow of the covered bridge, so he could see me more clearly. A path wove up through the woods on the right, connecting the valley to the route higher up. I abandoned my initial course and ran up the steep slope, having lost sight of the man somewhere above me. At the top I turned onto the pavement and hurried towards the main road onto the bridge, gulping painful breaths of chilly air. My heart pounded with panic and the effort of running up the hill.
The man had been out of my sight for more than a few minutes. I dreaded what I might find on my arrival, scenarios crowding in my mind, along with thoughts of how I might help this person. As I strode onto the bridge, I saw with relief he was still there on the pavement. I was now level with him, and no longer had to strain my neck looking upwards. Fear kept my eyes connected to the lone figure as I approached. If I looked away for even a second, he might leap stealthily over the edge. Holding my gaze on him would hopefully secure him to the bridge.
‘Hallo…’ I called more softly, my voice drowned by the sound of the rushing water in the Lorze below. I walked steadily along the pavement towards him. Despite my proximity, this time he didn’t seem to have heard me.
‘Grüezi, hallo,’ I said again.
With a flick of his head, he leaned back again, bent his knees, and looked ahead.
‘No!’ The gunshot abruptness of my shout broke his concentration. My voice ricocheted off the concrete wall of the bridge. He stopped mid-sway, eyes wide.
My stomach clenched involuntarily as I glanced down into the gorge, when moments before I had been staring up out of it. I felt foolish, not knowing what to say. It seemed like a different world up here. As I approached within talking distance, I greeted him in my broken German, still breathing heavily.
‘Um, good morning… Beautiful, hey?’ I swept my arm about me.
What a stupid thing to say. My voice sounded different without the echo of space between us. The words sounded so absurd, and a nervous laugh escaped before I could stop it.
He looked at me angrily, but remained silent, perhaps vaguely surprised that someone had addressed him in a foreign language. Or surprised anyone had talked to him at all in this country where complete strangers rarely struck up a conversation beyond a cursory passing greeting. His cheeks flushed with indignation. I reeled at the wave of visual resentment. Then his eyes settled on my face, and his features softened.
‘Do you speak English?’ I asked. The man nodded; no smile, no greeting. He still leaned backwards, hands gripping the railing. Please. Don’t. Jump.
He was a little taller than me, and a few years my senior. Sweat glistened on his brow. His steel-grey hair was raked back on his head as though he had been running his fingers through it repeatedly. His coat flapped open to reveal a smart navy suit, Hugo Boss maybe, and I looked down to the pavement expecting to see a briefcase at his feet. He looked away. I desperately needed him to turn back, keep eye contact. My hand hovered in front of me, wanting to pull the invisible rope joining us.
‘I… I’m sorry, but I had this strange feeling you were considering jumping off the bridge.’ A nervous laugh bubbled again in my throat, and I hoped my assessment had been false.
‘I am,’ he said.
Immeasurable seconds of silence followed the man’s admission. My brain shut out external influences. A blink broke the rift in time. Sounds rushed back in – the swishing of an occasional passing vehicle, gushing water in the river below, the persistent tweeting of a bird, like the squeaky wheel of an old shopping trolley.
‘Now you’ve stopped me,’ he said. ‘This is not good. You should go away. Go away.’
But the daggers in his eyes had retracted. I held his gaze, trying not to blink for fear of losing the connection. Many clichés entered my head. In desperation I chose one to release the tension.
‘Can we talk? I know things must be bad. But maybe if you talk it through with someone…’
I shrugged, unsure how to continue. Perspiration cooled my body, and I shivered. Pulling the sleeves of my running shirt down to my wrists, I rubbed my upper arms. Wary of the abyss at my side, I took a step closer to the man. He didn’t speak, but stood upright, and raised his hand as though to push me away. He turned briefly to look into the depths of the gorge, and I grabbed his arm firmly below the elbow, gently applying pressure. His gaze at first fixed on the hand on his arm, then rose again to my face. He studied my furrowed brow, and the forced curve of my smile.
‘Please. Let’s talk,’ I said.
I had no magical formula for this, but I sensed my touch eased the tension in his body. My nails scraped the material of his coat as my grip on his arm tightened. He slumped down to sit on the pavement with his back to the bridge wall. I closed my eyes briefly and puffed air through my lips.
Step one achieved. No jump.
Traffic was sparse on a Sunday. One car slowed a little, but kept going. No one else was curious enough to stop. The regular swish and thump each time a vehicle drove over the concrete slabs echoed between the walls of the bridge. We must have looked like an odd pair. Me dressed in Lycra running pants and a bright-orange running top, the man in his business attire, now looking a little dishevelled. The laces on his black brogues were undone. I stared at his feet, and wondered if he had intended to remove his shoes before he jumped.
‘Can I help?’ I asked, crouching down. The man looked at me imploringly, hands flopped over his knees. The strain of anguish had reddened the whites of his eyes, making his irises shine a striking green.
‘I don’t know,’ he said uncertainly.
‘Well, let’s start with your name,’ I said, as though addressing a small child.
‘Manfred,’ he said.
There was no movement towards the traditional Swiss handshake. Still squatting, pins and needles fizzed in my feet. I kept one arm across my thigh, the other balanced on fingertips against the pavement.
‘Mine’s Alice, and I’m sorry, I don’t speak very good German…’
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I speak a little English.’
I snorted involuntarily. It was the standard I speak a little English introduction I had grown used to over the past few years living in Switzerland, usually made with very few grammatical mistakes. The tension broke, and relief flooded through me. He would not jump. I sensed my beatific smile softening my expression. Manfred looked into my eyes and held my gaze intently, absorbing the euphoria.
I turned to sit at his side, blood rushing back to my legs. His gaze followed my movement, a curious glint now in his eyes, and his lips parted slightly, revealing the costly perfection of Swiss orthodontics. Leaning back against the wall, the cold concrete pressed against my sweat-dampened running shirt. I extended my legs, thighs sucking up the chill of the pavement. Our elbows touched and he drew in his knees, preparing to stand. I laid my hand on his arm.
‘You must not do this thing. Please…’
He looked at me, tears pooling briefly before he swiped at his eyes with the back of one hand.
‘You stopped me.’
‘Yes, I stopped you. I don’t want you to jump, Manfred.’
‘You…’ He scrutinised me.
‘It’s messy,’ I said.
Manfred’s gaze travelled from my face, looking at the dishevelled hair I knew must be sprouting from its ponytail, down to my legs stretched in front of me.
‘Taking your life,’ I continued. ‘It’s messy. Not just the – you know…’ I made a rising and dipping movement with my hand. ‘Trust me, I’ve been there.’
‘You… wanted to jump?’ Curiosity animated Manfred’s voice.
‘Not jumping, no. God forbid. A failed attempt at overdose. A teenage stupidity after a heartbreak. But I wasn’t going anywhere on a dozen paracetemol.’
I’d never told Simon this, and I bit my lip at the admission. I remembered the ‘mess’ I had caused: a hysterical mother, a bruised oesophagus, a cough that lasted weeks after the stomach pump, embarrassing counselling that all boiled down to adolescent drama.
‘Whatever has happened to make you do this, people will always be sad. You will harm more individuals than yourself. Not just physically,’ I continued.
Manfred hissed briefly through his teeth. ‘Ja, guet,’ he said, the Swiss German ‘good’ drawn out to two syllables. Gu-weht. He stared at a point below my face. I knew he was watching the pulse tick at the base of my throat, the suprasternal notch. The place where Simon often placed his lips. I zipped my running shirt up to the collar.
His gaze shifted back to my face. A slip of a smile, and then a frown.
‘I cannot live with myself any more. I cannot live with who I am, what I do. What I have done,’ he said.
The back of my neck tingled.
‘But it doesn’t solve the problem for other people,’ I interjected. ‘It creates more. There must be another way to work out your… your problems. Your life is precious. Your life is sacred, and will be special to someone.’
His lips formed a small circle.
‘My life is…’
‘Precious. Valuable. Prized. A good thing, not to be thrown away,’ I reiterated.
He smiled tentatively, siphoning my relief, feeding on my compassion. I felt my euphoria returned to me, delivered on a platter of… what? Gratitude? No, it was something else.
My mouth went dry.
He shifted his body. My hand moved on his arm as he lifted a finger to wipe the dampness from under his eye. I wanted to reach out and hold his hand, relieve his sadness. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a pair of glasses. He pressed them onto his face, and the rectangular black rims gave him even more of an executive look. I wondered what dreadful mistake had led him to the bridge. The stereotype of a man on the brink of financial ruin.
‘We have to get you out of here,’ I said as I pushed myself off the pavement and knelt in front of him. ‘Did you drive here? Do you have a car nearby?’
He shook his head, and looked down to the pavement.
‘Do you have a phone on you? Is there someone we can call?’ I asked more gently.
As he gazed up at me without answering, I looked down at his feet. I tied his shoelaces, feeling his eyes on me as I performed this task, putting him back together. Rocking onto my heels, I reached towards his hand, and stood slowly. Manfred stared at my wrist, hypnotised by the contact. His hand, at first limp in mine, strengthened its hold. Pressing my lips together into a flat smile, I dipped my head in encouragement, and pulled him to his feet.
I felt like brushing the dust from his jacket, handing him his non-existent briefcase like the caring wife, and sending him on his way to his high-powered job at some investment bank. But I knew he wasn’t ready to be left on his own. I kept hold of his hand to encourage him along the pavement, if only to get him off the bridge. As we walked towards a distant bus stop, I relaxed as we left behind the chasm of this man’s destiny. Manfred seemed to realise this too, gazing up into the bright sky. I was unsure whether the dampness between our palms was mine, or his.
‘Where are you leading me? This was not my plan,’ he said.
‘It’s okay. You’ll be okay. Let’s go.’ I smiled again, encouragingly. ‘Will you come with me to the bus stop? I don’t think I should leave you alone, but are you okay with that?’
Manfred’s lips tightened into a line. I knew I should keep him talking. But what the hell do you say to someone who’s just tried to throw himself off a bridge?
I shivered now, both from my rapidly chilling body and the influence of the adrenalin wearing off. My upper chest whirred unhealthily, and I coughed.
‘Come!’ My tone was falsely boisterous, trying to convince a small child to share an unwanted excursion. ‘It’s not far to the bus. At least we can get out of this damned cold.’
Manfred frowned. In his smart suit and coat, he was unlikely to be feeling the deceptive spring chill with this blue sky and sunshine. Attempting to stop my trembling, I clenched my jaw, and had trouble speaking. It was hard to focus on the timetable once we reached the stop. The next bus to Zug was in over an hour’s time. Apart from the fact that I didn’t have enough money to get us there, I couldn’t wait that long. I’d freeze.
‘This way,’ I said as we crossed the road to check the timetable for the bus going the other way, back to Aegeri, towards home. Ten minutes. Thank God.
As we waited, our hands fell apart. I fiddled pointlessly with my ponytail, tucking wild scraps of hair behind my ears. I rubbed my arms, occupying my fingers, trying to forget the connection of our palms. There was a steel bench, but I chose not to sit on the cold metal. Manfred stood within a pace of me, moving with me when I walked to the other end of the shelter. I was tempted to sidle up to him, absorb his body warmth. I had to remind myself he was still a stranger, despite what we had been through moments before. Instead I leaned against the glass wall to shield myself from the wind. Having held his hand for so long, I almost regretted the rift, but detected the return of some confidence in his demeanour.
‘You’re cold,’ he said simply, but didn’t offer me his coat or his jacket. I wasn’t sure I would have taken it anyway.