F A L L E N________W O M A N

Look: a falling figure hits the water and half the world collapses inwards. Lurching of heart and lungs. Towerblocks double-over in pain, bridges spin round in half-recognition.

The wind gasps and the leaves of trees panic hysterically. The river runs up to tackle you and greets you with a smack. The brakes of a few cars scream abruptly. But the newspaper stands won't shout about it. Your fading trace on the river's surface is three lines of lonely print on the late edition.

I row like a madman towards you, because it is my job to save people from themselves. And like a madman I have learned to love the lives of strangers. My chest aches with the tasks I ask my arms to do: but the rhythm of my lungs is louder than the waves beating the boat. A crowd is gathering on the bridge to view your slow demise: a flurry of limbs gesturing wildly. Like the roots of a tree turned upside down: I know you are growing downwards, reaching out for death.

This sudden weight of water and cold facts. You never knew how ice could fill your veins: this agony of lack of air which shocks your brain into fast forward. You see the world ripple and distort above you. Fact and fear collide and shatter into silver fragments which clog your eyes and ears, fill up your mouth with bitter filth. See the green lichen on the sweating stone arches now: the angry bridge lunges at you and batters into your face, throwing you under again. The water turns red with your blood. You hear your teeth break over the death-roll drumming of your pulse.

And I am nearer you now. I calculate the tides and currents and the path I know your agony will take. You thought your death would be unique, but the river denies you even this. I have seen so many cases like yours: but if the water is strong enough it will carry you over that whirlpool, that eddy will hold you but may set you free. The onlookers shout and plead impotently: a sad choir of dispossessed children swollen with the grey grief of pregnant skies. Behind them, I see Calvin's brittle city, hungover with beer and rain: raising itself blear-eyed above a bed of overgrown railway sidings and the rusting bones of shipyard cranes.

The hurt and shock have released new chemicals in your brain. Your are surpised to feel less and less. You almost drink the river. Learn to turn to meet you death with open arms. And as your weight begins to drag you under, you turn your bloodshot eyes to heaven in gratitude. At last, the punishment and suffering are over, Father. In a blinding light of harmony and grace, you are finally able to forgive God. You are four years old again, with blonde pigtails, running across a summer beach to catch up with Daddy: he is a swaying ice-cream coloured flame. Panama hat and fawn canvas shorts. His sand and biscuit smell is the colour of the sun.

But now I have reached you and throw the rope around you. My boat tips and nearly capsizes, but I haul you half-aboard and distant voices cheer. Somewhere a siren wails and you vomit water into my face, stinging my eyes. I can feel your pulse. You cough and gurgle, your chest rising and falling in spasms. I reach down beneath the water to grab your waist and pull you up. But suddenly your knee hits me in the face with surprising force. You bite my hand and the boat lurches. As I shout in pain, my face hits the surface and water floods my mouth and nose. The boat is over. I catch one last gasp of the world above before I am enveloped in silence and the crushing pressure of freezing water. I can feel your body jerk, still fighting me as reality spins out of control like a broken catherine wheel. Lights and fragments of thoughts assail my mind. I know ten feet of rope is wrapped around you and me: with an iron grapnel tied to the end. We are sinking.

You are angry with me. You detest this stranger who tries to spoil your perfect death. Who wants to steal your sacred glimpse of peace with his overpowering chains of male authority. You try to kick my groin, but you are weak against the weight of water. Your mind is fogged by pain. You see my face and are pleased to see my fear and confusion: now we have so much in common. You hate my eyes and spin me over. Upside down against the tide and gravity we sail towards oblivion together. In my grimacing face you see every man who ever wrote his arrogance upon you. The bristling bulls drunk on pride, who wore you on their arms bruised black and blue like a cheap tattoo.

Six seconds and nine feet down. You've stopped struggling and the coils of rope relax. I try to organise my scattered thoughts but the thrashing of my heart and pressure in my lungs sends waves of panic through my blood. My shirt collar is shrinking and choking me. With a free hand I tear it open. My eyes bulge with disbelief. I know I have approximately a minute and a half to live. I try to find the end of the rope to struggle loose the tangle. Your straggling fronds of seaweed hair hit my face soundlessly. I push through them and your right hand grabs my ear. I meet your your white unblinking eye: blue china dish of the upturned sky rippling with ailing light. Bloodshot sun tired to death: a spinning wheel of horror rolling off the edge of the earth..

You push my chin back and roll towards the blackness gladly. The flickering patterns of weed beyond my twitching shoulder become a burning city night: neon signs and sizzling cars. Laughing teenagers, lipstick and miniskirts. The secret codes and games which won you any man you wanted. The bars and clubs and cigarettes. You kissed the unflinching faces of beautiful dream-boys. The movie-idol posters on bed-sit walls. Behind the paper-thin masks you never saw the writhing insects: black fungus of damp rot. Desire: a wriggling can of worms inside the mind. The users and losers struggling for supremacy on a bed of lies in a darkened room. You fall deeper.

Fifteen seconds and twelve feet down. I think of my wife and baby. If I can't get free I'm done for. In my mind's eye, I see them waving to me from a distance. Outside the open door of our whitewashed cottage. Maria's blonde hair blowing in the wind. But I can't see her expression. Is she crying or smiling? Oh God, I can't breathe. I'll never breathe again. But that tree in the garden, the one I forgot to prune last autumn: in my mind's eye, I see it's branches grow and change. Growing next to Maria and the baby: the tree becomes a gnarled emaciated man. Tall and dark and strange he lays his slender branches on her shoulder. Tickles her pretty nose with his little green leaves and reaches down to kiss her. She laughs and I fall deeper.

You feel me struggling with the ropes. It doesn't matter. You don't hate me now: we are united in your perfect plan. Clutching my throat you look towards the iron grapnel below us which glimmers in the dark green half-light. You think of a silver needle winking in the moonlight in a hushed back street of crushed beercans and broken glass. The impassive face of the full moon: cold and unfeeling, becomes the sight of banknotes exchanged at night. The exhilirating rush of heroin made your body a white sheet: soft and compliant, folded over in submission. But always the cold mornings of sweating panic and the next hunt: police-car-conscience following you down dead-end streets.

Thirty seconds and fifteen feet down. The crushing weight of water is an enormously heavy black coffin. I am being lowered into my grave. Above me I see the turf is frayed along gaveside, roots and fronds of life severed arbitrarily by the spade. The mourners wear black suits and ties, but Maria stands in a long white nightdress and my baby son wears a halloween mask. But the hands of one of the pall-bearers slips and the rough rope burns his hands as it runs. I am loosening the rope at last. I am nearly free. I refuse to die.

Your fingers are in my hair, you are losing consciousness. You are lying on your back in a rented room being worked on by the fifth slavering drunk of the evening. He groans like a whale and his whisky breath burns your ear. Watch the peeling plaster ceiling shaking. The Irish labourers drilling for Guinness with their pneumatic lust. You disgust yourself. But you are one fix behind reality, two blocks short of self-respect. You pass out.

Forty seconds and seventeen feet down. I loosen the rope and the grapnel falls towards the river bed. Still enough air in my lungs to survive, I turn towards the roof of pallid daylight where the living used to live. I kick off my boots and trousers take hold of you again. Your black hair crosses your sleeping face like a clock hand, and I grip your waist and lunge towards the surface. I curse your weight and tear your shirt and fight the panic and impatience. I think of my wife. We are in bed on Sunday morning and I am skaing her to wake her up. I can smell buttered toast and bacon. The baby is crying and his nappies need changed.

You have escaped. You roll over into forgetfulness. You feel beautiful and unspoiled. You are lying in a warm soapy bath, or the amniotic fluid of your mother's womb. You are naked and left alone. You are the river itself. Long and smooth reclining under the lather of summer clouds. You light a cigarette and the factory chimneys smoke slowly. The city is calm and friendly around you. Buses rumble and children laugh. Somebody's coming to take you home to the quiet suburbs. They'll pull the curtains and send your friends away. They'll sing you to sleep.

I break through the surface, and light and air and sound explode around me. I vomit and convulse violently and someone is dragging me from the water. I hit the hard floor of a boat and double-up and cough and gasp. My breaths are pushing like a football crowd at the turnstiles. I choke. Jesus Christ. I speak. Jesus bloody Christ. Is she alive? Don't talk. Keep breathing deep. The bitch tried to kill me. More cough and splutter. And look at her: lying on the deck. A policeman sucks her breath and jolts her chest. Mouth to mouth like a kiss. I laugh. The world blinks and the bridge sways with cheers and gasps. She is breathing. Unconscious, but gurgling with water and air and life. I don't know why a good-looking woman like that should try and kill herself. Maybe that's exactly why, I say. What? Looks of incomprehension. A real sleeping beauty. They move and tear her shirt and bare left arm. I see the blue-black stains around her swollen veins. Looks like she pricked herself with a needle alright.

(First published in West Coast Magazine Issue 10).

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