Just after the junction where the side-road curves away to the prison car-park, the main road begins to slope gently upwards. If you didn’t know this was because the railway ran underneath you wouldn’t realise it was a bridge. I know, I realise. To me it’s a zone of demarcation – that’s precisely the term I use, along with the fancy word liminal – because it marks a transition between town and suburb, amongst other things. As I climb up onto the stone wall and test the slightly rounded capstones with the soles of my shoes, I take in the other demarcation. To my right is the pavement, three flagstones wide, and the busy road with its double yellow lines worn by constant traffic; to my left, between the bridge and the side-road and the railway line is a piece of scrubby ground where the grass is grey from the winter drought, and a couple of forlorn carrier bags flutter from the bare branches of alder trees.
It’s one of those days in early Scottish spring when the sun never gets above the brim of your hat, but leers from the cover of mobile grey clouds. I’ve walked past the car-wash, the flagpole belonging to the construction company, and the Inch where drooping crocuses are already being obscured by new, blind daffodils. Ahead will be the grey, Victorian ribbon-development, its 1930s hinterland, its parked cars. If I make it. Right here is an edge-territory, a frontier.
At the moment I’m a kind of non-event, I feel. The wall is only my head height above the pavement, and only little more than that to the grass on the other side. This thing has hardly started, and if it stops it will never have happened. Does that make sense? It does to me. I start to compose a shopping list in my head, while my shoes slow-march, continuing to test their grip on the capstones. I get to milk, cheese, and compostable rubbish bags before the wish that I’d chosen slightly flatter heels overtakes it. These are my day-shoes. I could have worn trainers. I tell myself that would have been cheating, and in any case it’s too late to go back and get a change of clothing – a change of clothing will mean a change of heart, I will find myself somewhere else, telling myself my plan is a stupid one. I will laugh, busy my fingers with stuff, listen to the radio.
They tell you not to look down from a height. But looking down is the whole point. I have to. To my right is normality, the difference between myself and the pavement is no more than it was before. To my left I can see that while I made that shopping list I’ve walked past the point where it’s possible – just – to jump down and land with a jar, maybe injuring myself a little but not badly, and I could have done that and walked away shamefacedly. I’m now above the tops of the alders. A dozen-or-so sparrows are maintaining a shrill argument, chasing each other from branch to branch, and I’m higher than them. To jump would be to fall. In five or six more paces I’ll be above the railway line. Now I really begin to appreciate what it means to be betwixt and between. I wish I hadn’t brought my shoulder-bag. Slung across me from left to right like a satchel, it makes me feel as though my weight isn’t even – I’m sticking my left hip out slightly to compensate, I’ve spread my arms out a little for balance but I’m holding one higher than the other. This is wrong. A piece or mortar between two capstones is slightly loose and I’m unsteady. My body’s hot but my hands are freezing, and my armpits have started to prickle.
I obey the command not to look down. Not to look down. Coward! Failure.
That’s the point at which I meet myself coming the other way. It’s not a mirror image, because she is – I am – wearing a shoulder-bag that crosses right to left. She tells me I’m not playing by the rules, I’m not doing what I came up here to do. It’s not about getting from one end of the bridge to the other it’s about – here’s where she uses, deliberately, the term suicidal ideation – looking down, about knowing the difference between one step to the right and one step to the left. One step to the right means a jump to the pavement and to the normal world. One step to the left means a handful of seconds of fear, a split-second of pain, and a long-deserved rest. I tell her I want to live. She won’t let me pass, grins cruelly and tells me that if I repeat that often enough I’ll even believe it. Her voice is the fast pulse hammering in my ears.
Two things happen together. On the road, a heavy articulated lorry passes, and the whole structure of the bridge shudders. On the track, a train speeds through the bridge, sounding its klaxon. I bend my knees, spread my arms wider, regain balance.
She’s no longer there. Somehow I have passed the summit of the bridge without knowing it. I’m still in danger, but when someone shouts “Jump, you silly cow!” from the open window of a passing car it doesn’t matter. The walk from here to the point where the heights are equal and I can allow myself to climb down is a formality. I just do it. I have done it. I’m there.
Scrambling down, I bark my knees against the wall and land heavily. The soles of my feet smart from the impact with the pavement. I brush my knees, inspect my hands for dirt. I need to blow my nose – I realise I’ve been sniffing as I walked the wall and my eyes are watering – so I get a tissue from my shoulder bag and, while I’m at it, some cologne to cool myself with. A police car pulls up ahead of me, its nearside wheels come up onto the pavement, its hazard indicators and its blues flashing. It takes and holds a liminal betwixt-and-between place, half on the pavement and half on the road. Two officers – a young man and a young woman – in hi-viz vests get out. There’s an empty foam-plastic box from the Indian takeaway skittering along the edge of the wall, impelled by the wind that has sprung up. I fasten the top button of my coat. The male officer back-heels the food container carelessly, and it lodges under the car, trapped by the nearside front wheel. He stands in my way while the young woman directs traffic around their car.
“Have you been on this bridge during the last few minutes, madam?”
“I’ve just crossed it. Why?”
“We had a report that someone answering your description was seen walking on top of the wall.”
“Good Lord! Why would anyone want to do that? Would they have broken a law?”
“None that I know of, madam.” The young woman comes round the front of the car and scrambles up so she can see over the wall. She looks over for a couple of seconds, then lets herself down again. She kicks the food box loose from behind the front wheel of the police car, picks it up, and shoves it behind the passenger seat. She doesn’t like litter, obviously. The young man looks at me and I look at him. I tell myself that, okay, I haven’t broken the law, but they have by driving onto the pavement. I won’t tell them.
“Well, if I had seen anything like that – if I’d seen someone who looked like me, even – I’d have noticed, if you know what I mean. I mean, well, I don’t walk around looking at my shoes.”
“No, maybe not.” He looks me up and down, just once. The young woman is talking into the microphone clipped to her lapel. They need to be somewhere else. “Well… you mind how you go, okay?”
They get back into the car. The blues stop flashing and the car pulls away. Five minutes walk from here is the supermarket. The sun’s out. I grin and shake my head. The supermarket has a café where they keep sausage rolls hot under a lamp, have a shelf of wrapped cakes, and serve flat white coffee. I’m ravenous.