A Night on the Bridge

Some dark clouds shadowed the crescent of the moon, which was still five days till its disappearance. While the others were camouflaged perfectly in the otherwise dark sky. Their irksome grey appeared clearly as soon as they came closer to the moon. But the moon tried its best today. Several clouds had attempted tonight, but none could tame its light for so long. It came out shining every time. It’s light spread over the city, which was quieter than the usual for it was a calm night before the storm. Every one had taken shelter under whatever form of roof that they had. Still, a few late runners glided through the otherwise empty roads, feeling satisfyingly safe in their cars, yet afraid to stop and admire the beauty of the night. The roar of their engines would startle the birds hidden behind the leaves on the trees. They would shoot a sharp look toward the sound and then blend back to their silent rest.

The night was a strange calm, quite unusual for this city on a Sunday night. The breeze was gentle, swaying the leaves back and forth but with a grace of a dancer. Occasionally, one could hear the flutter of a bat near the old architecture—a sore eye now, the remains of once a beautiful world. The river tore through the city, dividing it into two parts, which had each flourished over time, however totally different from each other. The northern side, the side with rich soil and plainer landscape had been occupied by the rich folk with their grand gardens surrounding their monumental palaces that they called their home. The south side however was a ride on a roller-coaster with many tiny hills scattered like pieces of puzzle on a board. It was mostly dwelt by the workers and employees of the riches and corporations of the city; rags, as the rich used to call them. The houses were so close to each other, joint together like pieces of Lego, with only enough space on the street to squeeze two cars with their side mirrors turned inside. Still, the south side shined brighter in the moon light somehow. A few people stood in their windows admiring the night or singing a hymn to their children. The north side looked like it had been abandoned by their people, all dark and silent.

A single bridge connected the two noticeably distinct banks of the river. It was an old, all steel and iron, truss bridge supported with a single concrete beam in the middle. The two truss arches started each from the end of the bridge and ended together exactly in the middle, above the beam. Both the sides of the bridge had a huge brick and stone gate, welcoming you to experience the bridge. Some old carvings were done on the walls of those gates, which were ambiguous now with all the plants sprawling all over them. There were exactly six lights on the bridge, two each on each end of the bridge and two on each side in the middle. In the moon light, the bridge would shine like a beautiful sketch in the night. But when the clouds would momentarily hide the moon, those lights gave this mammoth of a structure its devious look that would scare anyone in the dark of the night.

A man, probably in his late twenties, was walking on one of the side-walks on the bridge. His youth was hard to guess as his skin looked pale and dark at the same time, his hair disrupted without the need of the wind, and his walk was shabby and dragging like an old man, tired of his aching back and knees. He looked at his feet all the time while he walked till the center of the bridge. His hands were hanging on both of his sides like he had forgotten he had them. He had missed a button on his shirt and without the shirt tucked-in, his mistake was clearly visible with an uneven hem. He stood at the spot below the light on the bridge, and one could easily mistake him as a part of the old, decaying bridge. His eyes looked weary. He hadn’t had a proper sleep in days. His mouth smelled of all sorts of residue from the food he had halfheartedly eaten as a daily habit. A sudden rush of wind pushed past him and he lost his balance for a split of a moment before steadying himself on his trembling feet. He wasn’t wearing any shoes.

He turned to look at the moon, his eyes shone in the moonlight. The slightest tear in his eyes sparkled like a diamond. He looked as if he was talking to the moon, asking for its help. Take me there, take me to her, will you? He seemed to be saying. His hands moved with a jerk as he grabbed the railing on the bridge. He stared towards the moon for quite some time.

A huge dark cloud slowly moved over the bright face of the moon. It’s reach was so wide that one would assume it to be a no moon day. The white light faded out into the dull fluorescent glow from the bridge lights.

All the sky that was visible from that bridge was now a dark nothingness.In the dull yellow, the man appeared to be flickering and disappearing in the overpowering darkness. He shook his head, then stopped and shook his head again. He looked down. The river was flowing at a quick pace. It wasn’t visible clearly, but the sound of the water tearing at the beam was audible enough. The sight from the bridge towards the dark depths of the river was a frightening one. Yet it showed no trace of fear on the man’s face. Instead, his face had suddenly started to appear to get clear and calm. His eyes looked steady and focused. He looked at the bottom of the river with surety. He had found his way, rather, a way out.

His grip on the railing tightened. The muscles on his shoulder flexed and he jumped over the protective railing, hanging over on the other side, holding the pole near to him. He steadied himself on his feet, there was enough space for him to stand on the other side of the railing. But he kept check on his balance, aware of the consequence of a tiny little slip. He gulped the saliva accumulated in his mouth and blinked for two, long times. Then he looked up, towards where the river was flowing away from him, till the curve at the end of the horizon that was visible to him. Beyond that was all black.

He closed his eyes and felt the cool breeze caress his face. He tucked his hair up with his free hand and exhaled through his mouth for a few times. He was gathering courage to do what he had intended to do all this while he walked to this place. He had expected flashes of memories rush through him at such a time. But strangely, there was nothing in his mind. He felt like he hadn’t been alive. No incident, no person, no feeling came to his mind. He tried to tuck his hair up again, which probably annoyed him by constantly falling on his forehead. He started to loose his grip on the pole and pushed his chest outwards towards the fall before him. His body arched like the arches on the bridge and it was moments from letting go of the pole completely. The trees on the riverside showed no sign of notice. Birds didn’t care of this man jumping off the bridge. The roads were empty. The last of the late runners had returned home. By the time, these roads would carry the weight of another car, this man would have floated several miles with the gushing river.

A single cracking sound startled the man and he opened his eyes. His grip on the pole tightened again. Surprised, for he was sure that he was alone on that bridge before jumping the railing, he turned around to look in the direction of the sound. An elegant man in his formal clothing and an overcoat stood before him. He stood with his hands behind him, folded, a stance of a soldier at ease. He looked directly at the young man standing on the other side of the railing. His gaze was strong and intimidating almost. His hair were grey on the sides, yet his face showed no sign of his mid-age. His hair stayed perfectly in place even with the slight breeze blowing in the night. The younger man from the other side of the railing noticed this and a little embarrassed at his state, he again ran his hand through his hair, pushing them off his forehead.

“Don’t be afraid.” The man said. His voice was calm and felt like carrying an echo, although it wasn’t possible as they were out in the open with no way for the sound to bounce back. “And don’t worry, I won’t stop you from… doing whatever you were about to do. It’d be your choice.”

The younger man stared at the other guy, confused at his strange statement. He noticed that the man was wearing his best clothes. The color hadn’t faded, the threads were all in place, and there wasn’t a single crease anywhere to be found. His buckle shined in the bridge light whenever he would inhale beyond his diaphragm. He had a considerably big mustache for his face yet it suited him perfectly. His face wore a permanent smile, which was so hidden that it was almost unrecognizable. But it was there, and it spread a little bit wide looking at his confusion.

The younger man tried to speak something but he couldn’t find proper words. Should he greet the man? Should he tell him to leave him alone? He was just about to jump! Where the hell did this guy come from! He turned to face the strange man and held the railings with both his hands. Somehow, he didn’t want to fall on his back. It’d be more scary. He wanted to see it happen, he’d keep his eyes open as he would fall into the dark depths of the river, he had decided.

“Who are you? And what do you want?” The young man finally managed to say. His voice was wavering like that of a baby on a cold night. He kept scratching the pole with the nail on his index finger of his right hand. He was feeling nervous about all this. He bit his lips to push that thought away. It is today. It has to be done today.

“Oh, I don’t want nothing from you lad! I am just out for… let us say… a stroll.” The man replied in his strong accent. His eyes still gazing straight into the young man’s eyes. It wasn’t that visible in the bridge lights, but his eyes seemed to flicker, turn darker at times before turning back to normal. Of course that was just his imagination, the younger man thought.

“Please leave me alone.” The young man said, this time firmly and loud enough to make it sound like an order, and not a request.

The man just casually looked to his sides and looked back at the young fellow. His mind processing several things at the same time, his jaw tightening, and his eyes searching. He looked away from the young man, and walked to the railing, a few feet away from the young man.

“Please. I want to be alone.” The young man said again, the firmness in his voice had disappeared. It was a request now.

The man didn’t leave. He didn’t react. He didn’t do anything. Watching the river where the young man was gazing a few minutes back, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from inside the pocket of his coat and lighted one. He had a silver lighter with an embossed stag on one side. He had to try a few times to get the spark. He took a slight puff and without turning to look at the young man, said– “Are you sure?”

What was that supposed to mean? Am I sure? Of course I am. I do not want anyone with me now. I just… I just… I just wanna jump. The young man thought but didn’t reply.

“One last cigarette before you do that?” The man offered, as if reading the younger man’s thoughts.

The young man watched him and then towards the cigarette the man was holding. Finally he took it from him and bent towards the man, putting the cigarette between his lips. The man lit it with his lighter, this time on first attempt. The young man flinched a little when it burned, but held on to it. He inhaled and immediately started coughing, holding the cigarette in one hand, and holding on to the pole with the other.

“Was it your first smoke, eh boy?” The man said, irritated and bemused at the same time. He helped the young man climb back to the inner side of the railing and then gave him his cigarette back. The young man didn’t answer his question. He kept coughing and making attempts at the cigarette. The other man looked at him inquisitively.

“What’s your name, boy?” The man said. Each time he said, his pitch would rise and fall in a rhythm that was almost melodious, if you ignored the hoarse texture of his voice, that is.

The young man, now smoking well, replied taking his time– “Matt.”

After a few puffs, the other man said– “I am Svalov. Oleg Svalov.” Svalov looked at Matt through the corner of his eyes, but didn’t press further. He shouldn’t pester, he thought.

Matt completed his cigarette rather quickly for a newbie and threw it by the side of the pole. He took a few breaths, as if trying to clear the smoke from his lungs with the fresh air carrying the smell of the river. Leaning on to the railing, his eyes unfocused, he spoke– “Strange, isn’t it? How the river never stops to see the beauty that lays on its banks. Never bothers to turn back and fix the lands it washes away. Never misses the water it lost to the ocean. It just keeps on flowing. Unaffected of it all.”

Svalov didn’t know what to reply to that. He lit another one and continued smoking, staring into the dark, expressionless.

“I want to be like the river. I do not want to feel anything that happens to me. I do not want to feel those feelings, I don’t wanna live in those memories. I wanna live on, without the care of this world.” Matt continued after a pause. “Yet, it can’t be, can it? We can not turn out faces from our past. It is part of us. It is us. And we have to carry it all till we die.”

“We don’t have to keep feeling those feelings though. We can just carry them like…” Svalov couldn’t find a good metaphor. “…like hair on our body.”

“Ah!” Matt let out a sound. It wasn’t clear whether he meant his understanding of Svalov’s words or a reaction to an ache.

“You sure about this? There’s nothing left to give it another try, nothing at all?” Svalov said, careful with his words, looking at Matt.

“I don’t know. Haven’t really thought about it.” Matt said dreamily. “My family would definitely be devastated. My friends would cry, for some days may be. People will question my decision and send each other some random quotes to believe in life, to keep on trying, to never quit. But they won’t know, will they! They’ll never know what ate me.”

“Do you know what’s eating you?” Svalov said with a raised eyebrow.

Matt looked at Svalov, confused and starting to get irritated. Who is this man! He chose to not let the rush that was boiling up inside him out of his mouth. Don’t think about it. Don’t think. DON’T!

“What should I say! It would sound all cliche, same as every other person who wants to die.” Matt couldn’t keep it in. “There’s no reason for me to keep going, nothing that inspires or makes me happy. Nothing that I care, rather.”

Svalov smiled a bit. “No no. Nothing of this is cliche. Rather, I understand exactly what you’re saying. I’ve been through all this in my time. So I know it exactly when you say that nothing matters enough to you anymore that you’d care.”

It was the first time that Matt showed interest in the man standing beside him. He turned slightly to face him, listening to him with all his attention now. “What happened with you?”

“Ah! You don’t wanna listen to my cribbing, lad! It’s the same old, rubbish, story.” Svalov said with a wave of his hand and continued smoking.

Memories flashed before his eyes. Matt tried to push them away, but he had never been able to do that. They appeared, and weaved a story that explained why he was where he was today. A tear trickled down his face. He didn’t stop or wipe that off. He continued his stare at the river.

“There’s no one reason that can explain why I wanna do this.” Matt said, breaking the long pause between the two men. “But, it all started when I loved a girl, who didn’t love me back. I grew emotionally more vulnerable after that. Every thing in my life was the same as before I had met her, the same job, same people around me, same situation. But it all bothered me more than ever. And then…” Matt stopped, unable to carry on further. A car ran out of control on a dark road and fell off the cliff. There was a loud crash. Matt shuddered at that.

“I was never close to my family. My parents are separated and they both live their own lives. They hardly bother what’s going on in our lives. My brother was all the family I had. He… He died in a car crash. Some technical failure they say in the car. He was driving. And I couldn’t even meet him before he…” Matt broke, tears now running on his face like the river before him.

“I cared for only two people in my life. Both of them left me. I died for one of them, and the other died himself. After that, nothing really mattered anymore. Even when I try, when I travel or when I meet new people, it just wasn’t good enough. It was like a mediocre version of what I had lived before. And… I didn’t want to live like that.”

Matt cleared his face of all the tears. His breath was getting normal. He turned to look at Svalov, who was already looking at him. Cigarette burning in his hands without use.

“I know I can be happy if I try to be. I can achieve the glory and earn the money I deserve. I am still really good at what I do, my colleagues say. I haven’t stopped working out, you see?” Matt said pointing at his own body. “But… I dunno… It doesn’t matter now.”

Svalov took a deep breath and looked away from Matt. He finally took the cigarette and took the last puff available before throwing it in the river. He said, his voice strangely calm and soothing: “I understand that. You can, but why should you. That’s your question. For whom? As you don’t wanna live for yourself. It doesn’t matter to you. It mattered to some people, who… who aren’t there in your life now, left or dead. So why should you? Right?” Svalov lit another cigarette and looked at Matt.

Matt nodded, his eyes lost in the darkness beyond the river. He felt better that the man understood what he said. He never thought anyone would. All those help groups he had participated in always replied with the same old lines from the book, to try, to live for yourself, to do this, to do that… No one really understood that he doesn’t wanna live for himself anymore. This man understood.

The silence between them was unnerving. The night seemed to be never-ending and the clouds above them weren’t moving away. The crescent of the moon had given up, for probably he wouldn’t be able to brighten the sky tonight. The winds had slowed down, tired of ruffling and swaying the unaffected leaves. Only the river was flowing as it was. Only it could stay unaffected.

Svalov completed his forth cigarette and didn’t lit the fifth one. He took some fresh breaths, like Matt had. He finally broke the everlasting silence between the two: “My story is similar to you. But in my case, it started when my business failed. As soon as that happened, everyone around me started to drift away like autumn leaves. My wife left me for another man, more successful than me. My pal, to be honest. My brothers and sisters were doing well in their lives. I was under tremendous pressure. Or so I felt. And rest all was similar to how you described. I had given up.” Svalov drifted away in his past.

Below in the river, he saw nothing but the dark water flowing in a rushing speed. At first at least. Then he saw his own reflection in the river, distorted and rippling. His reflection was nothing like him, his hair a mess, his eyes sunken and his teeth dark yellow and red of smoking. His reflection suddenly took form of an actual person, lifting itself from an image, embossing into a protrusion in the water. His eyes were dark, and dead. His saw the reflection, the body, his imagination, whatever it was, floating in the water like a dry leaf, and then it was taken away by the water with it towards the turn up ahead the river, after which there was nothing but darkness that he could see. His throat got dry at the vividness of it all, almost as if it happened right then, right there.

Matt looked at him, but didn’t disturb his thoughts. He would say when he’s ready.

Svalov said: “Probably I would have got the business running again. But for whom? My wife, the only person who mattered most to me, the person for whom I was doing all that, had left me. Now, there wasn’t any reason for me to continue. I’ve been coming to this bridge ever since…” An unnecessary detail, shouldn’t tell the boy this. Svalov thought. “Ever since then. I feel a bit better, peaceful here on the bridge, watching river flow.”

Matt felt confused and asked: “So how did you manage to turn things around? Did you meet someone else who… who mattered?”

Svalov took a quick breath and wet his lips before looking at Matt. “Well, of course boy! We always find someone who matters again. There’s always something out there. Even when we lose everything that we think matters, there’s always something new to be found, something new to matter.” Svalov smiled, but his smile wasn’t convincing.

Matt looked away, disappointed in Svalov’s story. He was the same after-all, looking forward, positive. Why did people never understand that nothing new could replace what he had earlier, nothing new would matter like it all did before. But in the back of his mind, the idea had started to flap its wings. What if?

The silence was back between them. The river continued its rush, and only other sound that was audible was the breathing of the two men.

A sudden bolt of lightning appeared in the dark sky, that illuminated the whole area with a bright white light, for just a second. And then came roaring after the lightning, the monstrous thunder. It was so loud, that momentarily that was all that one could hear in the night. Both the men looked at the sky where the lightning had appeared. The dark cloud above them was stationary and the wind had changed directions. It was going to rain. It was going to pour rather.

Svalov said: “I should better get going. Don’t wanna drench in this rain too much. First of the season.” He looked at Matt. Matt was still staring at the sky, lost deep in his thoughts. His face was dark, but a light was visible in his eyes. Svalov had done it. But he didn’t want Matt to know that he knew. “Well, farewell my friend. I wish I could hope to see you again. But it’s your choice to make. I would leave you to it.”

The rain started with a burst. Bolts of lightning and the subsequent thunders came frequently. And the water poured from the sky like a million tiny jets. They splashed on the flowing river inaudibly. The gushing force of the river against the strong splash of the big raindrops. The fight between them was fierce and unending. The bridge light flickered continuously in the rain. And a stream had started to flow on the bridge road already. Water had started to accumulate on the side-walk. It was an old bridge, the drainage was probably filled with plastics and filth. Soon, the water would overflow from the bridge on both the sides and fall on the river. The sight would be marvelous, like a waterfall falling on both the sides.

Svalov drew his coat over his head and turned to walk away from Matt. “Although, I wouldn’t want to do it today, if I were you. May be a day more, I would say. It’s the first rain of the season, lad!. Let’s just try and live one more day at a time, shall we, boy?” Svalov’s voice shouted in the rain, the echo clearly audible now.

Matt smiled while looking at the sky. Let’s just try and live one more day at a time. A thought that would dwell upon him and probably help him live his life. He turned to look at the man, may be thank him for talking, or at least bid him goodbye. But Svalov had disappeared like smoke in the air. Matt looked on both the ends of the bridge. The bridge stretched almost half a mile. There was no way he could’ve walked away at such speed. And there was no one on the bridge now, definitely. Matt ran and looked down on both the sides of the bridge, in the river. No sign of a man. He turned to look at where he was standing again. A shock on his face, rain flowing through the tresses of his hair on his face. He breathed with his mouth open at an uneven pace. He turned and looked at where he had thrown the cigarette butt. It was no longer there, disappeared like the man who had offered him the cigarette.

Matt couldn’t move. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t even think properly as to what had just happened. A bolt of lightning strike in the sky again, for a moment illuminating the area, for a moment Matt could actually see the rain drops falling mid-air, their size and shape, their speed. For a moment, he could see a silhouette of a man right in front of him. A man in his big black overcoat, a man wearing formals. A man with a big mustache. And then there was darkness all around him as the lightning ended. The thunder echoed in the night, reminding of the echo in Svalov’s voice. Matt stood there for a long time, his mind deluged in the rain of his thoughts.

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