The Beckoning Precipice

A short story by Fletcher Kovich

Beckoning Precipice

John Baker could not decide when to commit suicide. Until three days ago, the only thing that stopped him was the lack of opportunity. But he had now engineered the opportunity. John was a doctor who worked in general practice. His surgery was in Clifton Village, only ten minutes walk from his home. But last week he told his wife he would be working in a surgery in Bristol for a week. And each morning this week he slipped a pair of wire cutters into his coat pocket and set off for work one hour early, drove into Bristol, crossed the River Avon and drove back up the hill on the opposite side of the river to park his car near Clifton Suspension Bridge. He then walked across the bridge into Clifton to arrive at his usual surgery, and each evening he walked back across the bridge, watching every detail of the distant floor of the gorge below, as a stalker eyes the object of his desire, held in limbo between the lack of the proper moment and the awesome sight he beheld. Then he drove for an hour around Bristol to arrive back home in Clifton—lest he arrived home too early and gave away his illicit design.

There was apparently something about the bridge’s structure that suicides found pleasing. Perhaps it was the ironically happy smile of its supporting members which seemed to so effortlessly defy that beckoning precipice beneath. Or perhaps it was the strategically placed ladders at either end of the bridge which allowed the keen sightseer easy access to the bridge’s railings which then offered ample opportunity for launching oneself into the precipice. Or Perhaps it was the inadequacy of the flimsy fence of wires that guarded the space above the railings for the entire length of the bridge, which wires were clearly erected to deter suicide but instead their presence only served to suggest it.

Yes, John had walked the bridge on three mornings and two evenings so far this week, and now he returned across it on the Wednesday evening. So famous was the bridge’s reputation that he previously avoided crossing it on foot, lest it be assumed he intended suicide. But now his purpose lent him an air of legitimacy; and when he first walked the bridge on Monday morning, he was struck by the sense of fraternity he felt, as though he were, for the first time in his life, where he truly belonged. He walked the bridge and watched the cast-iron lattice railings and those flimsy guard wires above the handrail, and as he looked down through the lattice work, he saw for the first time the gorge’s distant floor, a view that filled him with awe as he began to truly grasp his new relationship to it. And as he walked, he watched, transfixed—soon he would be united with that awesome ending; it would rush towards him and engulf him—but not today; today he would just enjoy this newfound feeling of legitimacy. He had four more days left; first he would rehearse his jump, in his mind; yes, that was it; today was just a rehearsal.

Throughout surgery on Monday, he recalled that new sense of legitimacy. He wished his patients away, wished his day to be over, and then, at the end, hurried, on foot, back towards the object of his illicit desire. And as he passed familiar faces in the street, he wondered if these were some of the people he was slowly poisoning, or were they perhaps relatives of his victims. All around him, the people seemed like ghosts in waiting, beclouded with the shadow of death, whose hand he had ushered their way.  And as he saw them, his guilt and turmoil resurfaced; those poor souls had appeared before him, wanting relief from pain or anguish and he betrayed their trust. He could have stopped sooner, when he began to suspect he was doing something wrong, but he was too weak to stop; he just continued doing the same, and now there was nothing left for him, no other option. He increased his pace towards the bridge.

As he walked onto the bridge on Monday evening, he stood by the wall surrounding the tower and watched the gorge below for a moment, as if transfixed, when he heard a voice from beside him:

“It’s a long way down.”

He looked up and saw a woman. She was vaguely familiar and seemed concerned, worried, as though she were sitting before him in his surgery, about to unburden herself.

“Yes, it is,” he replied.

“You look like a kind person,” she said, almost in a whisper. “Can I tell you something?”

To him, her face seemed to be wearing a particular shade of guilt and worry which reminded him of that look that was brought into his surgery more and more frequently over recent months by the steady stream of his victims who returned to confess they had stopped their “medication” and now felt so much better. They would sit there and apologize for deceiving him; they felt so guilty about it, him being such a kind doctor; and they could not live with themselves until they came clean; yes, looking at the guilt and worry in her face, he felt like waving her away and saying he already knew; there was no need to say anything.

She lifted the front of her coat and showed him her leg, which was bruised and had been recently bleeding. As he looked at it, he slipped into his physician persona, so much so that his right hand involuntarily twitched, as though reaching for his prescription pad, and he asked:

“How did you do that?”

“Climbing over my garden fence,” she told him. He looked up at her with a raised brow, then her confession poured out:

“There was a man at my front door, trying to get in. It was terrible; I can still hear the knocking. And I could see this big white thing through the glass; he was trying to deliver it but I didn’t want it, so I had to escape over the garden fence.”

John’s brow was still raised, so she told him, as if this explained it all:

“It was a big white thing; I could see it through the glass.”

“Why didn’t you just hide?”

“He kept knocking. He wouldn’t go away.”

John tried not to sound dismissive, nor doubtful of her sanity, as he asked: “And what do you suppose this white shape was?”

“A washing machine, of course!”

“A washing machine?”

“The one they’re trying to deliver, to help me with my leak.”

“Your leak?”

The woman seemed to be losing her patience with him:

“Yes, my leak! I have a leaking tap; it’s driving me had, and I phoned the helpline and he said to check my washing machine and I couldn’t open its door and now they’re sending me a new one.”

“A new washing machine!”

“I couldn’t say No.”

“But what does that have to do with a leaking tap?”

“It’s all connected. They found it in a trial, he said. The problem with the door has caused the leak.”

“But where’s the leak?”

“In the kitchen. They said it’s connected. But it will ruin me. I can’t afford to pay for it.”

“Well, just say No—you don’t want it.”

“But I’ve already said Yes.”

“Well, change your mind.”

“I can’t. I couldn’t think what to say, and now they’re trying to deliver it.”

“Just say No!”

“I can’t!”

“So, you’re going to spend the rest of your life climbing over your garden fence?”

“I can’t open the front door. It will be there.”

“Just look and find out.”

“But they might get in.”

“Well, close the door again, quickly.”

“But they might be too quick for me. What can I do?”

“Well, look from the outside. Walk along your street and look.”

“But they might see me. I can’t stand it any longer. The man might still be there, knocking on my door. I can’t go back home. I can still hear him in my mind, knocking—I can still hear him!—what can I do?”

John felt the desire to push her over the wall, which was the only solution he could think of. He said, “Oh, I’ve just remembered something; I’ve gotta go,” and walked onto the bridge. In the distance behind him she was shouting:

“What can I do? They’ve ruined me—”

On Tuesday evening, John walked back onto the bridge, having wrestled with his thoughts all day, and as he was midway across, he focussed on some of the now-familiar features of the gorge’s floor—familiar but seeming, as he looked down at them, an eternity away, across the flight of that dizzying leap from the bridge’s handrail. And as he was midway across, he became aware of movement about twenty yards behind him. He looked back and saw that same woman hurrying towards him. He recalled her distant words again “What can I do? They’ve ruined me—” which seemed in his mind as inescapable as the wind, as though those words were the accumulated cry of every one of his past victims whose dying sighs would now circulate within his head wherever he went. He turned back and quickened his pace.

After a similar encounter on Wednesday evening, he left work early on Thursday evening, so as to avoid the woman, and made his way back onto the bridge. He reached a quarter of the way across, proceeding as a zombie—numb, deaf, unfeeling in every sense. He was aware of his legs working beneath him but apart from this, there was no other thought in his mind. He now had no need for thoughts, for he knew what he was about to do. And as he walked, his right hand squeezed those wire cutters in his coat pocket and his eyes fixed on the guard wires ahead of him, at the exact place where he would cut. He was not even looking down at the distant floor of the gorge; he had already memorized every detail of it and now had no need to look; and he had also lived his leap so many times that there was now nothing left to think about; there was now only a great void within his numb mind and at the centre of that void was the picture of him enacting his leap. He reached the spot on the bridge and took the wire cutters from his pocket.

The problems first started a few years ago when he noticed that an increasing number of his patients were saying they stopped using drugs, which they found ineffective, and cured their problem with alternative treatments, acupuncture being the most popular. Common ailments were hay fever, depression, panic attacks, high blood pressure. Initially he shrugged off this trend, certain that the misguided fools were somehow deluding themselves. And then another brand of nutter (which was how he regarded the more vocal members of his “flock”) started saying the drug he prescribed had not only not tackled the original problem but damaged their health, and on stopping the drug and receiving acupuncture, their health recovered and the original illness cleared. They were most concerned to helpfully disillusion him, so as to prevent other patients suffering as they had. These nutters he managed to ignore, while silently waving them out of his consulting room. And then there were the silent nutters, the “secret” nutters, if you like. One of these, a man, whom he contacted, had stopped taking his fluoxetine, which John prescribed for depression. He contacted the patient to check on his welfare and the patient told him that acupuncture had cleared his depression and he was told his depression was caused by the drug omeprazole which John prescribed to him two years previously for heart burn.

John quickly put the phone down—lest he poured into it the colourful language that was surging from his mind towards his mouth, in much the same way that particularly wilful vomit behaves when your stomach finds food violently disagreeable—he put the phone down and, instead, addressed his devastating tirade to the empty chair staring at him across his desk, which chair, he was sure, was left in no doubt about what he thought of it. And two days later, when he finally regained his composure, he was sat behind his desk, dumbstruck, as a mother sat in that very chair and told him that three months ago her son was dying of an asthma attack, when, out of desperation, she called in an acupuncturist (who was been highly recommended by a friend of hers) who treated him and within minutes he recovered. Another two months of treatments followed and her son was now (allegedly) cured completely. And the acupuncturist suggested her son’s medication had worsened his condition.

John could take this no longer. He walked out into Clifton Village for lunch, found a secluded spot, ensured his mobile phone was set to conceal his number and phoned the acupuncturist. They agreed to meet, but John insisted on an after-dark meeting in a location on the far side of Bristol, lest he be seen “consorting with the enemy.” John went burdened with a backpack bulging with reports of drug trials and other supporting evidence which he had put together in the two days before their meeting, all of which served no purpose but to encumber him, since the acupuncturist simply pointed out that most drugs were deliberately designed to stop the body from working in some way, which John could not deny, and that in the long term this approach could only damage the patient’s health, since the body was being prevented from functioning normally.

“But that is healing,” protested John. “You find out what’s wrong and then stop it from happening!”

“No,” said the other, still managing to remain calm, “That approach only suppresses the immediate symptoms.”

“But that’s healing!” said John, at a loss.

“It isn’t healing. Healing is returning the organ functions to normal. It isn’t randomly applying chemicals to stop the body from working…”

“But they’re not random—” interrupted John.

“…to stop the body from working in the hope that its functioning will be blocked to the extent that the poor patient’s symptoms can’t be expressed.”

“But that’s…. But they’re not random. They’re carefully worked out,” banging his hand on his stack of papers. “This is all nonsense.”

“They’re random because your understanding of the body’s chemistry is so limited you don’t know the full effects you’ll have on it. Take the asthma example. Asthma is usually caused by a weakness in the kidneys, not the lungs. But you imagine the problem is in the lungs, so you apply bronchodilator inhalers to expand the airways in the lungs which gives short term relief, but it doesn’t tackle the underlying cause. And each time the drug is taken, it weakens the lungs and eventually the lungs become so weak that some patients may even die. But we cure the asthma by strengthening the kidney function, which was the cause of the problem. With your approach, your—understandable—ignorance only harms the patient’s health.”

“Understandable— You—”

End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.


30 March 2009

See also

Read my sketchbook entry on writing this story (which also contains info on Clifton Suspension Bridge)

See readers' comments on this work here