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An Encounter

The big day. Thank god his alarm went off this time! James turned the key, waited for the familiar click, and tested the brass handle. Nice and secure. As he descended the stairs from his flat, he ran through the inventory one last time: phone; wallet; keys; backpack. Inside the backpack: a clear pencil case, containing two pastel highlighters and four black biros (just to be on the safe side). James had, of course, packed all this the night before. He had the list memorised by heart. Still, no harm in double-checking (it was just the nerves!)

He wrenched open the main door, stepped down onto the pavement, and looked up. The sun shone…no, radiated, across a cloudless sky. Today was going to be a good day. A breeze bristled through James’ chest, and he zipped his black puffer jacket up to his neck. Should’ve worn a scarf. Still, at least his over-ear headphones kept his ears warm.


Some music to get him in the mood? Good idea. He loaded his Spotify revision playlist and pressed shuffle. Instantly, he was transported to the artificial glow of the 24-hour library, surrounded by piles of books. Funny how music does that.

James leaned backwards to compensate for the sudden steepness of Margaret Street. Something dug into his lower back, each step evincing a wince. What was it? All those bloody books! He really should stop packing so many. Words, words, words. Why did he even bring them? He knew he wouldn’t get a chance to read them outside the exam room.

Deep breaths.

James descended a steep set of stairs. What was that lumpy puddle over there? He rubbed his eyes to see clearer (reminder: get that prescription sorted ASAP). Eurgh. Vomit. The only remnant of a “great night out”.

That stuff is poison you know, son.


Yes, Dad.


Little pieces of carrot, undigested. They were beginning to freeze over.


You really should start getting more of your 5-a-day.

James pushed his wrist through his coat and glanced at his Casio. 8:14. He had ages. He could even take the longer route: through the centre and then down along the Wear. Better check Google Maps first, just to be sure. ETA: twenty minutes…but that was for the average person. He could get to the exam hall in fifteen.


God, the exam! His final one this year! James had almost forgotten about it. It was on those so-called Romantics: Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley etc. Revolution! Passionate effusions of feeling! An unmediated connection to the natural world! Even if you didn’t exactly agree with their politics, you had to admit they had a pretty good way of expressing themselves.


Why couldn’t his family read more poetry, instead of just rolling their eyes at him whenever he mentioned it?


He passed his friend Dom on the pavement, nodding hello. They were both walking far too quickly for any kind of conversation. Hope he wasn’t looking for a chat. Wait – why was Dom up so early? He’d only ever seen him in clubs, usually off his face. Probably had an exam to get to as well.


Now at the bottom of Church Street, James walked over the zebra crossing, matching each step with the stripes of white. Reading the Romantics had given him, if nothing else, a desire to pay close attention to the world; to appreciate the particulars of existence and nature’s never-ending assault on his senses!


Looking up, his eyes were drawn to the aeroplanes and birds dotted across the sky. From this perspective, those black dots all looked the same size. How often our senses deceive us! The lark ascends, with a grace and lightness that its metal counterpart fails to capture. Everything imitates nature!

You sound so pretentious right now, James.



How could he possibly describe his daily walk in a new way, a fresh style? Surely it had all been said already. What was the point even putting pen to paper?

Focus on the exam.

Crossing over the bridge, more and more people streamed into view. How can one see so many faces in a day, and yet feel so alone?

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have a great life, you ungrateful so-and-so.


A megaphone blared on the bridge:

—— Jesus Christ…one true saviour…our sins.


The words were being spat out from two chapped lips. A round, red face, poking out from a large navy coat. Must be hard, being a Christian, especially in this day and age. Crowds flowed past the man, showing not even a flicker of recognition.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.

Penance, James thought. What skeletons does this man have in his closet? Who was he to tell people how to live their lives?


Would he let a single soul peer into his closet?


The Wear rumbled underneath him, indifferent to man, shaping the landscape through vast aeons of time. Nice word that: aeon. The sunlight dappled through towering trees (Beech? or Ash? Remember to ask Dad for their Latin names), giving the morning fog an almost mystical glow. “Morning brings back the heroic ages” (that’s Thoreau, by the way).


Grunts echoed from the arches below. Rowers. Their oars pierced the water, leaving a pattern of ripples like those water boatmen he had seen in the school pond. A runner sprung through the undergrowth, leaving behind them a trail of breath and leaves.


What trail would he leave behind? How would he be remembered?


James now approached the centre of the city, the hustle and bustle. People were setting out stalls in the market square. His mouth watered involuntarily at the smell of fudge and roasted chestnuts (he had always had a sweet tooth). Perhaps he would treat himself to something after his exam. Only if it went well, of course.


—— James, hey!

A familiar voice. He turned around to see Emily bounding towards him from Tesco, grinning. No! Not now! If he got into a conversation, he wouldn’t make his route in time. And yet, he couldn’t just ignore her…not after what had happened.


—— Em! You alright?


—— Yeah. I mean, I’m totally dead from last night, but apart from that, I’m feeling good.

She laughed, putting her hand to her head as to signify the severity of her hangover. He missed that laugh.

—— Oh so you’ve finished your exams?


—— Y- yeah, a few of us had some drinks to celebrate round Brad’s house.

The name shot into James’ gut. He had always suspected something between those two. The thought of it sickened him. Not that he was jealous – Em could see whomever she liked. 


You can do a lot better than her anyway, mate.


Fuck off.

—— I bet that was fun.


James felt himself cringe. Why couldn’t he just move on? He had ended it with her, not the other way around. It didn’t matter now. Plenty more fish and all that. He tried to gauge her reaction. Hurt? Annoyed? Or maybe she just didn’t care. She tended to not care about things.

—— Yeah, it was.

His watched beeped.


Hurry up!


Why couldn’t he just say: look, sorry, Em, I’m in a bit of a rush…I’ve got my final exam in half an hour. Why don’t we meet up at some point next week? We could go for coffee, have a chat about everything?

All he could manage was the first sentence, and he was gone.

* * *


Please just remember, none of this was your fault.





Johnny folded the crumpled piece of paper in half, using his nails to crease it firmly, and placed it on his bed. No turning back now; take one final look at your room – you won’t be seeing it again. He left his bedroom door slightly ajar. Would his housemates even notice he was gone? Probably not. They would just think he’d taken a walk.

As he came downstairs, Johnny pulled his hood tightly over his head.


What was that smell? He wretched slightly as he walked past the kitchen. He traced the smell to an array of empty spirit bottles, along with half-full Coke cans. Judging by his housemates’ Instagram stories (why did he still go on that app?) none of them would be up yet.


Holding his breath, Johnny unhooked the latch and closed the door behind him gently. It was colder than had been forecasted. He strode to the end of Richmond Terrace, digging his hands into the shallow pockets of his jeans for warmth.


Was anyone watching him? He looked around quickly. No one. The coast was clear.


He had a route planned: cut through the outskirts of town, drop into the woods and then up to the bridge. The way was marked out with a black Sharpie on one of his Dad’s old OS maps, which hung above his bed. As he drove drawing pins and string through the plaster wall, Johnny envisaged himself as that character Matthew McConaughey played in True Detective (what was his name again? R- Rusk? No… Rust. That was it. Fe2O – iron exposed to oxygen for a prolonged period of time).


Johnny continued to walk. Still too early for anyone to be up and about. Laughs echoed from kitchens. A thick smoke crept out from a window and drifted into Johnny’s path. A familiar smell. Surely it was too early for that? He remembered the first inhale, the burning sensation in his chest and the dry coughs. He had told them he smoked all the time. Forced laughter, nervous glances. They seemed to snigger at everything he did.

What a fucking amateur.

As he walked, he peered into some of the windows. In one, he saw a bearded man rifling through a stack of flashcards. In another, he saw a young girl with round-rimmed glasses staring intently at her laptop. He couldn’t help but pity them all; he had been like them once. Every equation he had ever solved had given him a vague feeling of consolation. It was simple really. You work a certain number of hours, and the results reflect that.


We will always be so proud of you, Johnny.


Why couldn’t life be as simple as those equations?


* * *


A message appeared on James’ phone:

Mum: Have a good day today, let me know how the exam goes xx.

Do those x’s signify a horrible, sloppy embrace?

Don’t wipe them off, James!



He punched in a reply: Thanks. Will facetime you later xx. He didn’t have time for a conversation. Another message popped up almost immediately, but he swiped it away. He looked up: Clinton Cards.

You never remember my birthday.

Sorry, Mum, too busy at the moment, you know this.

Why couldn’t he remember things? (Go to shop later and buy her a card). Sam’s birthday was coming up soon. Should probably get him a present too. It’s the little things that count.


Give and you will receive.


James opened Safari, working his way through his bookmarks: Facebook, BBC, Guardian. Nothing new. What about Instagram? He cycled through last night’s stories. They all seemed to announce: “Look at me! Look at how many friends I have!” Wonder what people thought of his stories? It wasn’t like he was going out much at the moment…all he posted were pictures of sunsets he saw on evening runs. If people didn’t like that, they could just unfollow him. Simple as that.




—— Oi, watch where you’re going, mate.

An angry face, like he’s just chewed a fly. Or shouldn’t it be a wasp? (Avoid cliché). How was he not cold, wearing just that?


—— Sorry, wasn’t looking.


He probably didn’t even hear him. Keep walking, head down. Manoeuvre through the crowds. Where was he walking? What was the quickest route to the exam room? What was the exam even on again?

Calm down.

Deep breaths.



He knew he shouldn’t have chatted to Em. Now he would have to take a shortcut. Wonder if anyone had seen him chatting to her? What would they think? Perhaps they thought: it’s great that James has moved on after what happened. He’s being the bigger man.

Or maybe they thought nothing at all.


If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?


James cut through a narrow alleyway. Onto the cobbled streets now. Each step contorted his feet into new positions. Should really walk slower (but the exam!) How on earth did those medieval peasants walk through these streets barefooted? Even in his tattered pair of Reeboks, he was struggling (they were white originally, promise).


Remember to stretch daily.

Of course, James had forgotten. Stretching would’ve taken less than ten minutes, but he had quotes to cram! Now his ankles were paying the price.


Apply the physio tape after exam.


He would probably end up forgetting that too.


He had a gruelling schedule planned: sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, recovery runs on Tuesday and Thursday, and Sunday long run to finish the week. That track session a few days ago had nearly killed him. 12x400m (90s recovery). Torture. Why did he keep coming back to these sessions, only to hurt himself more? If James was honest, he enjoyed, almost relished, the pain. It focused him. No headphones in, just listening to the rhythm of his feet pounding the tarmac. Out on the road, there was a brief moment where life seemed to pause, his thoughts finally stopped, and life became nothing more than the next step. A temporary transcendence of the self.


Or maybe you just want to beat Charlie Walker next Saturday.


Ha. That too.


Something assaulted his nostrils. James located it, instinctually, dog-like: Greggs. Three yellow-jacketed men stood inside. Was it those fancy new vegan sausage rolls, or was it merely ground-up flesh? Tasty (stop salivating, you’ve just eaten breakfast!) Are vegans still allowed to smell meat? Are they allowed to enjoy the smell? Perhaps. Shelley wrote something on vegetarianism, so did Thoreau. Maybe he would give it a go. Only after exams were finished, of course.


He smacked his lips, trying to prise them open. The morning’s coffee had cemented his tongue to the roof of his mouth. So dry! Three scoops, not two (surely this was too much caffeine?)

You really should wean yourself off, James.

Perhaps four cups a day was too much. It was only temporary, though. Soon he could return to normal. He just needed to see this exam through.



Fifteen minutes.



James descending a set of stairs and was now level with the river. Ducks (weren’t they called Mallards?) chased each other on the surface. The sun filtered through the trees, illuminating the path with hundreds of specks of light. A melody of greens and yellows. Pink blossom carpeted the concrete, and each gust of wind reconfigured the petals into a fresh new pattern. Here, he could return to his senses; away from the city, the dirt, the people.


That being said, it would’ve been nice to share this walk with someone (even if they were just doing some last-minute revision).


Now would probably be a good time to go over the flashcards. They were colour-coordinated and organised by each poet. Got to keep the quotes fresh in the memory! All he had to do was finish this exam and then he would be free for the whole summer! If he smashed this one out of the park, he might even get a first overall.

Chance would be a fine thing.

The path stretched out ahead. Just keep walking straight. To save time, he could get to the exam room via the back-entrance. Sneaky! Bet Google maps would never have thought of that.

A shadow suddenly darkened his vision, and he was forced to look up. A bridge; that new suspension one (didn’t the Student’s Union protest it being built or something?) He was close now. Once he was out of the bridge’s shadow, he turned around to admire it. Its shape reminded him of those geometric patterns he used to doodle in Saturday detentions. It was a good way to pass the time – you would lose your mind otherwise. He followed each individual cable, tracing the curve of the bridge to its centre and


A man.


Sat on the edge of the bridge.

What was he doing there? Admiring the flow of the Wear? Perhaps this was something he liked to do in the morning. He wasn’t exactly dressed for the weather though. Looked like he was shivering? A few students passed him from both directions. Maybe they couldn’t see him? (He was pretty obscured there, face buried in his hands, black hoodie pulled tight over his head). An unknown sensation writhed through James’ body. What was wrong with that man?



He was still a good 5 minutes away. How long had he been staring at this guy? Now he would have to run to the exam (and on a bad ankle!) Would he be able to calm his heart rate down in time, sitting on those flimsy plastic chairs, sweaty and out of breath?

But what about the man on the bridge? Surely someone would notice him sitting there, ask him if he was O. K. etc. He would’ve gone up and spoke to him himself, of course, providing he didn’t have an exam starting in ten minutes.

And yet. What if nobody spoke to him? What if he just shuffled closer and closer to the edge, and then…? He couldn’t even imagine it. Maybe he could just


He was going to be late.

Would they accept this as an excuse? Surely this would be a case of “Serious Adverse Circumstances”? But what about all his hard work! All those hours spent in the library…for what? What would he tell Mum and Dad?

Something seemed to be moving him, unconsciously. He was already halfway up the stairs when he realised what he was doing. He pushed past a row of people, taking the stairs two at a time now. His forehead started to sweat. As he neared the centre of the bridge, he peered down over the edge.


Never been good with heights, have you, James?

He paused, steadying himself.

There he was. He had to crane his neck over the barrier to see him. What had once been a blur in his vision had now materialised into a physical presence sitting in front of him. The hooded man gripped the brown cables fiercely. His knuckles were white. Beneath that hoodie was a delicately small frame; it looked as if a strong gust of wind could throw him off. Into the icy river below.

Please, just hold on.


How should he approach him? What should he say? What could he say?

It was too late now. He was operating on instinct.


—— Hey, are you alright mate?


* * *

—— Did you hear what happened last night to Harry?


—— No…?


—— Oh my god. You’ll never believe it.


—— What! What happened!

Johnny overhead two girls standing in a garden. Both of them held cigarettes between painted fingernails. What was that accent? It sounded vaguely southern: Surrey, perhaps.

—— What. a. bitch. Why would she do that?

The same old gossip; he couldn’t listen to it anymore. Maybe one day they would realise how inconsequential and false it all was. Yet, was he any different? The more he tried to make a good first impression, the more of a fraud he became. Everything he had said in Freshers week had been a lie. He remembered how, when talking to a girl on his corridor, she had tried to look at her watch without him noticing. It was clear – he was a burden on others. Nobody truly cared about him, and why would they? He was just as fake as everyone else, projecting an image of himself he wanted others to see.


How many times had he been asked: “are you alright?” The question now rang hollow in his ears. There were a million other things he wished to say in response. And yet…what else could he do but nod in agreement?


You are just as fake as everyone else.

A dog barked from across the street. It was an apprehensive sound, coming from a small Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Its coat was dark grey, with a white patch on one of its paws. Around its neck hung a leather-studded collar. An older woman in a vest and tracksuit bottoms tugged vigorously at its lead. Johnny stood still, leaning his head against a brick wall, admiring the dog’s muscular hind legs. It was a bitch, just like Rosie. He followed the joints of her legs to her underbelly, and then her ribcage. He stopped when he reached the scars. Two cigarettes had been stubbed out on her side, leaving pale pink holes amongst the fur.


Please let her be a rescue dog.


An image of Rosie appeared in his mind. He had been cycling through the small patch of woodland near his house when he found her. Johnny had cycled this route hundreds of times before; it was a ten-minute round trip. There she was: amongst the trees, tied to an oak tree, left for dead. Fur was falling out. Patches of raw flesh were pulled tightly over her protruding ribcage. Instinctively, he dropped his rusted mountain bike and approached her. Hazel eyes looked up at him, revealing the pure white beneath her irises. Completely helpless. He remembered begging his mother to let him keep her; he remembered coaxing her into a cardboard box, bringing her home, feeding her milk from a bottle, telling her she was safe now.


He missed Rosie.


All things must pass.

Johnny continued walking, forcing his eyes away from the dog in front of him. As he pushed himself through a narrow alleyway, he felt his elbows scraping against the rough concrete walls. Trees were beginning to increase in number; the river was close. More and more students passed him, heads buried in phones or talking to one another. He seemed to be the only person walking in this direction.


A purple sticker on a lamppost, peeling slightly, perhaps defaced by somebody. “University Helpline: Open 24/7”. Only half of the phone number could be seen – not much use then. Johnny had called them once before. He remembered dialling the number through bleary eyes as a soft, disembodied voice answered him in the darkness:


—— Hi, you’re through to Helpline. This is Charlotte speaking. How can I help?


—— I- I just need someone to talk to…please.


The words were forced from a dry mouth. Whiskey burned the back of his throat. He spoke between muffled sobs, holding his phone at arms-length to prevent them from being heard.


—— Of course, don’t worry. We’re here for you. Where are you right now?


Why had they wanted to know? Would they have sent someone to his house? He could picture it now: the flashing blue lights; the sirens; men digging arms into his back, holding him down. No. Never again.


—— I…I’m round a mate’s house.


—— Right, and are you safe?


—— Yes. It’s just…


The first step is to admit you have a problem.


A pause. Words failed. To name something is to quantify it; to locate its source and come to terms with it. Yet, how could it be described? It was an empty, hollow feeling; as if he was standing inside a glass box, watching life unfold without him. Of course, if he told that to anyone, they would just laugh at him. Surely life isn’t all that bad? Have you been exercising every day? Perhaps you should try a bit of meditation?

The female voice had remained silent. What did she think of him? Probably that he was a selfish, pathetic person who was just wasting her time (and everyone else’s). Did he not know that there were people out there with real problems, who needed this helpline far more than he did? And yet he had the nerve to demand their sympathy.


You deserve nobody’s sympathy.


The cathedral bells announced the passing of another hour to those still awake: two o’clock. The voice resurfaced:


—— It’s O.K. Take all the time you need.


Another pause.


He hung up the phone.


The roar of the water flowing over the weir grew louder and louder as he approached. Johnny was alone now; nobody ever walked this far up. He climbed through the iron railings and approached the edge, trying to find his reflection amongst turbulent eddies. Two sunken eyes stared back at him. A willow tree arched overhead, dipping its branches into the river below. Purple lavender streaked the banks as honeybees buzzed from within. With each step, smooth grey pebbles slid past one another.


All of this will outlast you.


This would be the last time he took this walk. In fact, it would be the last time he did a lot of things; all those daily events, so mundane you could never imagine them ending. He would never attend another lecture; he would never submit another piece of coursework. He would never turn down an invitation to the pub (nobody wanted him there anyway). He would never see his housemates again, nor his parents.

He would never again see the sunrise from his window.


Had he recognised the significance of these moments?


Further down the river, he could make out a grey-haired man casting out a line. Fishing for sea trout, most likely. There were thousands of them here (so his Dad told him). He remembered those long weekends they spent together by the lakes, sat on two collapsible camping chairs, rods propped up on stands. It became hypnotic, staring at that red float all day, looking for any signs of movement. He had always seemed to get lucky – one time he caught ten trout in an hour. A photo of him holding the largest one was blue-tacked to his bedroom wall, immortalised in memory. He remembered when one of Dad’s barbed hooks had snagged his finger. Crimson blood had pulsated over cool silver steel, trickling down his wrist. His whole body had throbbed with pain; a sensation so painful it could only be communicated through tears.

Dad’s face. His blue eyes gazing down, rough hands cradling him tightly.

—— Shhh, it’s alright, little man. I’m here. You’re going to be alright.

Johnny brought his index finger to his face and inspected it. A shallow depression in the skin; almost fully healed.

Why hadn’t he told his Dad how he truly felt? If only he were here in front of him today, he would tell him. He would tell him everything.

For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

He gazed down again at his reflection in the water. What would death feel like? A black void, eternal oblivion. Complete and utter nothingness. No more voices, no more laughter, no more pain. The sweet release you have always desired. Silence at last.

His Dad had told him that hell was like falling into a bottomless pit.


He could never get that image out of his head.

Johnny climbed the stairs one at a time; steadying himself against the railings. He walked towards the middle of the bridge, pushed himself over the iron barrier, and lowered himself onto the edge. Thick metal bolts dug into his back as he slumped down. From here, nobody would be able to see him. Even if someone did, they wouldn’t stop. People had far more important things to deal with.

You deserve nobody’s sympathy.

Fog had descended on the river. A long way down from here. They say your entire life flashes before your eyes the moment you die. But what if he survived? He would definitely break his legs; probably his back, too. What if he shattered his spine, leaving him paralysed from the neck down, wheelchair-bound for life? His uncle had told him that it was a fate worse than death.

The water continued to flow underneath; white froth crested the ripples. Johnny watched as a gust of wind shook the trees along the riverbank. Each individual leaf seemed to be alive, rising and falling with the breeze. Blackbirds clustered overhead, calling to one another. A bluebottle hummed nearby, its wings beating against the air.

The last time you will ever…

Johnny rested his head against the railings and closed his eyes.


A voice. It pierced through the air, shocking him into life. It was a young man’s voice, slightly high pitched.


—— Hey, are you alright mate? What are you doing?

He pulled his hands away from his face and turned his neck upwards. His eyes adjusted to the brilliance of the light. Who was this man? How had he seen him? What was he doing here? Further questions with unknown answers raced through his mind. Surely this was some kind of trick. One final voice urging him off the edge. He turned to face the river.


—— Please, just go away. I need to be alone.


The man pulled back slightly, wounded, and glanced at his watch. Even now, in his final few moments, nobody had enough time for him. He was a burden to everyone, including strangers. He shuffled further towards the edge.

—— No, I’m not leaving. Look at me, I want to help you.

He glanced up again, and their eyes met.


—— You can’t help me, nobody can. Just leave me alone…I need to do this.


—— No. I- I can’t just leave you here.

The man leant his body closer, pressing his coat into the iron railings. He tried to extend a hand towards him, keeping the other one gripped tightly behind him.

—— You wouldn’t understand. It’s too painful.

A few people had gathered on the bridge now, staring at them both. He felt the force of their eyes on him as they whispered to each other, judging him.

—— Please. Can you try to talk?


—— I can’t.

—— Can I ask why?

He paused.

—— I- I just want it all to end. I can’t go on like this. I can’t live anymore, I can’t be here anymore, it’s…it’s too painful. I can’t deal with life anymore. Nobody cares about me…even my parents don’t care about me.

The man looked at him with panic in his eyes.

Why are you revealing all of this to a stranger?


—— I’m sorry. Oh God, I’m so sorry- It’s just-…I-


Johnny took a second to catch his breath. He couldn’t stop now.


—— I- I’m just a burden to everyone I meet. I always have been. Trust me, everything would be a lot simpler if I wasn’t here anymore. Just carry on with your day and stop wasting time talking to me. Please.


Something caught his eye. Something sticking out from the man’s pockets. It looked like those revision cards his lecturers always told them to buy. Did that mean he was on his way to an exam? Was he stopping him from getting to an exam?


You are a burden to other people.

—— Are those revision cards? Are you on the way to an exam? Honestly, if you have to take an exam, just go and do it. Leave me alone. I have to do this.


The man looked down at his pockets, smiling to himself.

—— What, these? Oh yeah, they’re revision cards. I’ve got my final exam today. I mean, I had my final exam.


—— What do you mean?


—— Well…

He hesitated.


—— I was walking along the river, and then I saw you. You’re pretty well hidden from down there, you know. Nobody was crossing this bridge when I looked up…I guess I just thought: is this exam really worth it? I mean, I’m such a nerd about these things usually…But then I thought, could I live with myself if I didn’t see if you were O.K? And, well, here I am.

The man paused briefly, looking down at his shoes.


—— I’m James, by the way…


A silence.


—— Johnny.


—— My brothers called Johnny you know.


They exchanged a brief smile. Perhaps this man wasn’t like everyone else.


James looked closer at his hoodie, and continued:


—— Is that a St. Cath’s hoodie?


—— Yeah, it’s my college.


—— Ha, really? My college too. What year?


—— First.


—— Ahh…probably explains why I didn’t recognise your face. I’m just about to graduate.


James laughed. He continued:


—— Play any sports?


—— I tried football at the start of the year but then I…stopped.


—— Ahh, that’s a shame. I didn’t play at the start of the year either – was out with an ankle injury. It would be great to get you back playing again though…what team did you play for?


—— The C’s. I’m no good honestly – no hand-eye coordination. I only played a couple of games.


—— Oh, the C’s! You must know Euan…Euan Hunt, the captain?


His face lit up in recognition.


—— Yeah, I know Euan. He let me play on the wing, just like I used to at school.


They continued to talk. Why was it so easy to speak to him? Words just seemed to pour out, uninhibited by the usual feelings of shame and resentment. Each time he spoke, James would just nod. It was as if, for once, somebody finally understood.


As they talked, he shifted slowly away from the edge.


James reached out his hand again.


—— Here, I can help you over?


He allowed himself to be lifted up and over the railings. Finally, solid ground. As he peered down towards the river, he felt his stomach lurch.


You don’t want to die, Johnny.


It was as if something pent up for years had finally been released. A thousand sensations coursed through his body.


James unzipped his coat and handed it to him.


—— You’re freezing mate, take this. Hey, err- you know there’s a café just down the road from here…? Should we…grab a coffee maybe? … Hey, Johnny…you O.K. mate?


A noise. Sirens. Their wail rose and fell with the breeze, getting louder and louder each time. They were getting closer. His pulse quickened. He looked around. Hundreds of eyes seemed to stare at him, burning into his soul. He could see the flashing blue lights now, reflected in windows along the street. Closer and closer. He couldn’t let it happen again.


Never again.


The sirens bore down on him, closer, closer. He wrenched free from James’ grasp and started to run. Lactic burnt his legs. The breeze chilled the sweat on his face. Shouts echoed from behind him, but he couldn’t hear them now.


Silence at last.

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