“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.’’ – Joseph Conrad
‘It’s like asking why I am still alive. I don’t live, I just haven’t died.’
The doctor leant in towards Alex with an air of well-assumed confidentiality, an action he had completed so many times before, instinctively entrapping the patient as they attempted to avoid the subject of their shattered arm or empty stare. The polished table boasted a subsequently grotesque reflection at his touch – flickering and merging under Alex’s eyes. He swallowed roughly as the doctor spoke –
“Let’s try that again. Can you tell me why you jumped from the bridge, Alex?”
The doctor’s tone was lacquered with a kind of persuasion one can only gain from narcotics and nights of insomnia, the strain evidently wrought over each eyeball. He himself was an ill man – awake through nights with eyes filled with fallen bodies, and broken minds, wrists mercilessly open like crying mouths. He thought things would calm down after the war. If anything, they were worse. There were new patients every day.
“I didn’t jump, I fell.” Alex replied bluntly, in direct imitation of each other answer he had given. The doctor’s posture did not change, though his eyes showed a slightly perceptible heat of frustration - he had a busy afternoon, being the only psychiatrist on duty, and was anxious for rapid answers. He let one hand whip through the air just in front of his face – purely a gesticulation of action.
“Well, what did you think made you fall, Alex?”
He clenched his glasses.
The conversation was stuttered and strained if the words were engaged in the physical act of pulling on sinew. Alex felt irritated – he had been irritated when we woke up, his head pressed and pounding against some regulation hospital pillow and the sensation thickened as he had been led to the communal gardens for what a pretty young nurse breezily said was for an ‘informal chat’ with the doctor. He had ‘informal chats’ too often – the chats telling you that you indeed had not escaped. His ribs ached as if under layers of past resuscitation attempts, the skin wedged awkwardly over bone like a straitjacket.
He drew deeply upon an almost exhausted cigarette, as if letting the smoke sift the words from the hole in his chest.
“It’s not my fault all you build for yourselves are low bridges,” Alex mused with a hint of aggression “You let yourselves jump – from bridge to ledge, like you move from job to job, you know you are alive, shock yourselves every so often.”
Anger was evident in the rough contours around his mouth. He nodded triumphantly in the direction of the doctor, as if scorning a weak man.
“I guess you could say I spend my whole life building a single bridge – with my reading and writing and all that. I didn’t need to access anyone.”
The doctor was evidently exhausted by the metaphor. He vaguely knew Alex was an author and a painter – a frightening author and painter – the horrors of some his work still anointing the forecourt walls which he attempted to avoid every morning. It pained him.
“But why did you fall then, Alex?”
“I fell because I was pushed.”
The doctor leaned forward further, his eyes wavering at a point of no significance beyond Alex’s shoulder. If the boy was saying he was pushed… perhaps it could go down in the accounts as an accident, one less attempted suicide on his case, perhaps allowing for a quiet night where he could head home and kill time in the conventional sense, sleeping pills, silence… . He did not deny that he was a desperate man.
Yet there he sat with curiously calm patient, hot and intense amidst the almost fleshy odour of unfolding roses as the horrible garden seemed to clot around them, overtly-colourful in its own sore. It made the doctor speak almost grimly.
“Who pushed you Alex?”
But Alex was still musing on the previous subject, his dark eye falling listlessly over one eye, his body tight and compact behind the table. He talked hurriedly, as if out of need rather than explanation, his eyes lingering on the doctor’s face almost quizzically, avoiding the eyes as if he didn’t quite see them -
“The thing about bridges – they are only bridges because they join one place to the other – it’s like life. If I would have jumped and died, therefore I must have lived, but it seems I’ve only fallen, and therefore still haven’t felt alive.’
‘What do you mean?’
Alex’s hands hardened beneath the table, his jaw set determinedly.
‘I exist, but I don’t live.’
The harsh cry of a crow punctured the air, as if the sound was sifting through the thickening shadows of the two men. The bodies seemed too taut and stark amongst the slumberous foliage, the incensing shades of flowers and fingers of ivy.
Unnerved, the doctor attempted to ease himself back into professionalism.
“ But Alex, here at the hospital we want you to live life, to feel what life is. Can’t you see?”
“I guess you could say I can see, but I’m still blind.”
There was something sickening about his voice, as if unlocking, unhinging the power of a single fluid movement. With one hand, he raised a revolver in a kind of salute and fired into point-blanc through the doctors head. The body seemed to fold into itself, blood thrilling on the portico. There was a speed that is not worth words, although Alex attempted.
“It makes me a bad shot.”
He sat drinking coffee until the police arrived – and then proceeding only to drink in the dull flush of proceedings, the questions, the court-case, the fixated stares in a kind artificial horror, the hours and the hours and the hours, the sentence –
His hands were hard from chain as he was led away.
“ Life sentence,” A fellow inmate alongside him whistled ‘’How do you feel?”
Alex smiled back.
“I’ve never felt so alive.”