View From the Bridge

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This is Clifton Bridge, probably the most photographed object in Avon county. Designed by the colourful Isambard Kingdom Brunel, completed in 1864, four years after his death. At least he knew it was being built. It is an extraordinarily lovely thing. Little-known fact: it is also an optical illusion – to offset the optical effect of the different heights of the cliffs on either side it slopes 3 feet upwards left to right in the picture, creating the illusion of being perfectly level.

It is, inevitably, the best-known suicide spot in Bristol, although fewer than 10% of the city’s suicides actually take place there, almost all male. I’ll tell you why.

Leaning over the edge you look straight down 246 feet – 75 metres. It makes your feet feel funny, which I posit is caused by your body making sure it is standing on solid ground, or perhaps blood rushes to your feet to lower your centre of gravity, thus making you feel light-headed, literally. Scary, anyway. There are much less challenging ways to top oneself. That’s why. (And they call it the coward’s way out. Hah!) But it does have the attraction, under certain circumstances, of certainty. 95% of the four who jump every year die, a far higher success rate than most alternatives. Jumping from the Clifton Bridge isn’t a cry for help. Presumably the occasional survivor hits the water at high tide. That would mean life in a wheelchair, for sure; your spine would fly to bits as your body flattened out at whatever angle you hit, meeting the water at about 120 miles an hour. (In 1885 a woman survived because of the ballooning of her skirts. She lived a healthy life into her 80s.)

I’ve had a few very difficult years. At times it has just seemed like all too much. How much more can I take, or more to the point, do I want to take? The end result is the same. After a particularly upsetting day a few weeks ago I set off on a walk and, without really planning to, ended up at the bridge. Was I being told something? Was my instinct giving me a hint? Standing on terra firma at that moment a quick end seemed frighteningly attractive. Yes. Maybe this is the moment. What a relief, if it is.

I thought by getting into position at least I would find out. Maybe, looking down at the rocks, I would simply know that it was OK.

They have halved the annual rate of jumping by putting wire barriers above the footpath, but at the Leigh Woods end there are viewing platforms with chest-high stone walls deemed too beautiful to disfigure with barriers; it would also spoil the spectacular view. I love that about Europe – in New Zealand the all-powerful health and safety Nazis who have virtually destroyed Guy Fawkes night wouldn’t hesitate.

So there I was, sitting on the parapet with my legs dangling over 200-odd feet of space, rocking gently back and forth, knowing that if I rocked just a little further I would have slightly less than four seconds to think whatever I might think in those four seconds. That, in those circumstances, is quite a long time. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I sat there for a quite a lot longer than that.

I discovered several things. First, that I had finally succeeded in ditching my childhood fear conditioning about suicide sending me to hell. I felt quite sure that wouldn’t happen because the most powerful force in the universe is benevolence. Destiny is on the side of the good guys. The Hitlers always lose. Whatever my uncertainties about deity I felt sure that the universe isn’t run by by a cruel force which punishes those who can’t take it any more.

Secondly, I felt a powerful sense that this just wasn’t my destiny. I felt as if the story of my life, though still unknown to me, had already been written and this wasn’t how it ends.

I was reminded too, of something I have known since I was young. Although a hell of a risk-taker – my mother told me later in life that from my earliest years my lack of common-sense fear was her constant nightmare – I seem to have a powerful drive to keep breathing. At times it has produced behaviour I didn’t understand at the time and only later realised were about self-protection. This isn’t fear. I wasn’t afraid to jump. It seemed a pretty attractive option, even gazing down at the distant rocks. But there was something strong that I would have had to tear myself free of. I couldn’t have just slipped off. I would have had to hurl my self off. I’m not sure I could have done it. It’s a strong force, like electromagnetism, and as we know, that’s more powerful than gravity. I suppose everyone has that to some degree, although we do read of people calmly stepping off cliffs or shooting themselves. Not me.

Although I’m listing these things in sequence, they weren’t a sequence. All sorts of things were going on simultaneously. The whole time I sat and rocked I was in connection with the suffering my suicide would cause, and painfully aware that it wasn’t enough. Numerically, I mean. It would savagely hurt a very, very few people. Too few. This was not a good feeling or a good thing to reflect upon even now. On the other hand, there was no-one it would please, which should have offset its inverse corollary but didn’t.

I had made the discoveries I needed to make: this wasn’t my destiny, and the suffering I feel intermittently is too far short of the hurt my suicide would cause, so the whole thing was a no-go.

I wasn’t quite ready to get down. It was a special place, a moment in time. Unfortunately none of my discoveries had cheered me up even slightly. The opposite, if anything. But it felt nice, sitting there, rocking, looking down at my unattainable quietus.

Then an arm locked around my neck, I was dragged rapidly backwards and two guys were sitting on me.

CCTV. I could have guessed, but I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time.

So that was that.

The Camino Mirrors My Life Back At Me – Even the Schoolyard

It was only my sixteenth day; I would have bet, with real money, that it would have been six or seven more. But time, like everything else, puts on a different face on the Camino, or rather shows its true face. It has been wonderful, terrible, gruelling, easy, profound, irritating, painful, joyful and even hurtful. Perhaps pilgrimage is the Christian route to the Buddhist blessing of instant karma – whatever you need to happen to reveal what you need to know the Camino serves up. You just need to be paying attention.

The last three days have been coloured, although not dominated, by … bullying, I suppose. The incomprehensibly cold shoulder.

Evening One: I am seated at a table reserved for pilgrims in the Benedictine abbey restaurant in Léon, buying the table d’hôte pilgrim meal. The waiter seats me beside a strikingly beautiful young Brazilian of German extraction; no intention on my part. We talk, and discover that she has put the exact same image of the Camino as the new header on her Facebook page as I have. Of the thousands of Camino images on the Net, this seems an extraordinary coincidence. She invites me as an FB friend. We spend the evening in one of those lovely, deep conversations that the Camino offers.

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Two nights later I see her again in Rabana del Camino, the last stop before Cruz de Ferro. I stopped for a spot of tourism during the day and when I arrive she is already there, drinking with a handsome young American and two Australian gay men. We drink for an hour or so, big-time bonhomie all round. I play my guitar, the party cranks up, they leave to find more wine, but I just go to bed.

Over the following stretch I keep pace with the four of them – most people average 25km a day, so you tend to move in a loose cohort, seeing the same pilgrims repeatedly.

I say hi when I see them but … the blinds are down. The younger Aussie spends the first morning in blatant pursuit of the handsome American, who does a runner at lunchtime. From then on it’s a club of three and I am not included. It goes on for the next two days. At stops on the road, in the albergué at night, anything I say to them receives a closed response. Uh-huh. Hmmm.  By the end of the second day I stop trying. As I pull into the next town I see them gathered around a sign, checking out the map to find the albergué municipal. I say Hi and just keep walking. That night I’m put in a room with Hilary from the States, young Mary and old Joseph from Ireland. When I (Christopher) arrive Hilary derives great value from being with the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and Christ, all Catholics. We have a riotous evening.

The next morning Justin the American-chaser passes me in the café and, for the first time in two days, acknowledges my existence with a ‘Hola’. I ignore him because I instinctively understand what’s going on.

They want me on the periphery, to define the boundary of their little clique. It’s no fun if you don’t have someone on the outside wanting in. My ignoring them was not part of the plan. This is so familiar – playground politics.

Later, as I enter Villafranca I pass the young Brazilian saying goodbye to the two Australians as they toddle off. I walk past, again having no interest in greeting them. But: I see no hugs, no love you, missing you already, be in touch, blah blah. Can the young woman’s earlier affection have waned?

It seems a little egocentric, but I can’t help wondering whether my lack of interest in knocking on the door of their little clique has taken the energy out of it. Or, perhaps she has developed a slightly guilty conscience, because my rejection has been very clear and, frankly, pretty hurtful.

The next day I run into her in a café in La Faba. She is effusive, says she is so happy to have caught up again. I am so delighted; I feel as if she has recovered from a bad trip.

Why did this happen? The only explanation I can come up with was that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

Hey – we’re the beautiful people, dahlings. We don’t want ugly, old people around.

It was a wonderful experience; a catharsis, laying the demons of the playground. I am, once more, profoundly grateful to the Camino.

PS: This post reached Justin, who essentially confirmed my conclusions in a cascade of increasingly abusive flaming posts on Facebook, culminating in ‘we didn’t want a crazy, middle-aged man following us around creeping us out.’

And yet, when I made a point of avoiding even the appearance of following them, he greeted me. Pleased to attract the ‘middle-aged’ though. Some people would call sixty-six old. 🙂