THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF IT ALL
In the minutes before Bright O’Connor tumbled nineteen floors to his death, he thought about everyone he’d ever known. Even those he wished he’d had nothing to do with flickered there in the high windy darkness, lit by a row of harsh spotlights intended to illuminate only the image on the side of the building. Get out of my floodlighting! hissed the billboard girl with the three-foot-high pout — and Bright might well have said the same words, had he not been preoccupied with staring down his past.
Bouncers he’d insulted, fans he’d endured, girls he’d tried to escape from: even Vincent Delatour had showed up to farewell him, which was astonishing considering that the last time he and Bright had met they’d punched each other until the blood streamed.
For a short while there was quite a horde teetering on the gritty, blowing parapet. Not a bad crowd! The billboard girl, her semi-nude body stretching over multiple storeys, raised a sexy eyebrow that was as large as a bridge. Yes! Bright, too, was surprised. He wasn’t a People Person; this had been ascertained by the time he was twelve, written indelibly on his school report and subsequently his character. But his green eyes had a certain magnetism and his flaming hair was frequently mistaken for a beacon in what is — let’s face it — this fairly rough sea we call life. And once people had made their way towards Bright and reached him, they often found it hard to let go.
‘Unique.’ This was another term often applied to Bright. ‘An individual.’ ‘One of a kind.’ He objected loudly whenever he overheard this crap, but only on the grounds that everyone is singular, however much we might prefer not to be. Admittedly, there was an element of the gritted teeth about these descriptions of him. When other people said, ‘They broke the mould when they made Bright O’Connor’, the comment was only half-admiring. What it also meant was that they had no idea how to place him within their own familiar boundaries, which is naturally upsetting for anyone.
It’s true he’s a solitary; that’s one reason he’s avoided living in London and is hiding here in this non-descript city, which is constantly, vehemently, hopefully/hopelessly being touted as the next new ‘Capital of the North!’ (the exclamation mark is always included). He may be a loner but, as many people have learnt, he’s also very special. So if you care to look at the final moments of a special and unforgettable boy, who’s about to soar feet-first, then head-first, then arse-first feet-first head-first (arms spinning in a Catherine wheel of nothingness)—past windows light and dark, past humming photocopiers and half-empty coffee cups and crooked desks and office chairs reeling on carpet, all the way down to the final floor, and the street-level doorways, and then the hard ground rising to meet him and finally the thudding splintering SMASH —
Well, if you can bear to glance this way before the End begins, you’ll see that all the people who have brushed against Bright’s life for a month, a year or even a minute, have gathered to nod to his death. They may look like nothing but moths, flickering in the glare of extinction, but Bright could tell you (with a laugh or a roll of the eyes) exactly who it is you’re seeing:
— that’s Mary-Jane Vesey, from the days when Bright was captivated by art history and all who studied it, particularly those with rounded breasts and double-barrelled first names
— that’s Teddy McPhee, aka the Vulture: the first to pick Bright out of a slush pile on an agency floor and let him shine
— and that’s Dr McLaverty, better known as Dr Lavatory through no fault of his own but simply because once he witnessed a tear fall from Bright’s gooseberry eyes
— and there’s the old librarian from Maida Vale who used to recommend World War Two histories as good bedtime reading, as well as whispering inappropriate comments about —
But the onlookers are too numerous to name, particularly as many of them have played spectacularly insignificant parts in Bright’s two-decade life. Besides, already they’re passing along the ledge at a pretty fast clip, even Bright’s cousin Edgar who usually walks infuriatingly slowly but particularly when a) rain is pouring down one’s neck, b) sleet is flying up one’s nose, c) one’s bladder is so full that it’s become a hot bursting pain.
You were a pain,’ says Bright, almost affectionately, for some reason speaking in the past tense as if Edgar is the one about to be dead. How strange! Even tardy Edgar, normally so slow that you might expect a gleaming snail-trail to appear behind him, is now dancing frenetically in front of Bright’s eyes.
He can’t help himself. He looks for his parents. Typically, they’re way out near the periphery, almost beyond the circle of light, with a whole lot of gusty air between the two of them. They’re not even looking at him. His father’s profile is turned stubbornly in the direction of Africa, while his mother’s bird-mouth is pouring forth a litany of justifications, mercifully drowned out by the squeal of tyres far below. ‘Bye, then!’ says Bright in a forced, casual voice.
It’s almost beautiful: hundreds, perhaps thousands, moving like flames in the night wind. A quick parade in front of Bright and the ninety-foot two-dimensional girl dressed as a provocative lingerie bunny, before they disappear fast into thin air, not wanting to see a human body (particularly one they’re acquainted with) exploding into bone and flesh and matter. (Now Bright hears the voice of Aunt Eugenie, otherwise known as Aunt Euphemism.) But can you blame them? If you’re at all squeamish, this might be a good time to look away.
‘Is it just me, or is it cold?’ There’s a quaver in Bright’s voice and there’s no one left to answer him.
When does the soul leave the body? This is a never-ending issue for philosophers, who are often fonder of posing questions than providing a limiting answer. But honestly —? It seems unlikely that the soul would wait until the moment after impact, having to clamber from the wreckage, pick its way out of split skin and pieces of bone whacked apart so hard that they could cause nasty cuts.
Bright’s eyes are smarting. He takes a deep breath. I could tell the philosophers a thing or two. For instance, that in the second before death one’s sense of smell becomes so strong it’s almost overwhelming. Even nineteen floors up, he can smell the tobacco-scent of leaves crumbling on branches, and the sweetness of oil lying like dark coins under the lorries parked in the loading bay. There are separate layers to the wind: exhaust fumes and pure air, yesterday and tomorrow, anticipation and a sharp regret for a lost summer. And there’s his own sweat, and the pigeon shit on the ledge beside him, and the dank moss crawling under the ledge (suddenly he’s choking).
The departure of the soul might be an individual matter, but Bright feels it occur just as he positions his toes over the edge, teetering like a ski jumper whose tracks will lead straight out into the dark reaching air. At this moment he feels newly and utterly empty.
Nineteen floors up — this had been a mistake. He’d tried to exit the stairs on the twentieth floor; he’d decided this some time ago, perhaps because the same number of years is folded up behind him. But the twentieth-storey door was jammed shut: dangerous when you think about the fire risk in cheaply constructed buildings like this. Although Bright has actually chosen to die here, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t: who’d rather choose to burn up any place other than between these shoddy walls with an unprepossessing cityscape leaping on the other side of the glass.
As the twentieth floor wasn’t possible, Bright had trudged back down the stairs to the echoing landing between floors, and then one more flight to the door marked ‘19’. It was okay going lower than planned. There should be a humility to death, he thought, trailing his hand over the window ledge, ruffling up dust and the veined wings of flies.
He’s wearing black jeans, a thin black pullover. Nothing ostentatious, no hoods or belts to catch or be caught at. His fall is to be clean and unencumbered, the way he’s tried to live. The clarity of a deep-sea diver, the inevitability of the skydiver. These are the words he’s heard all day, as he’s walked around the city looking with heightened interest at squares and parks he’ll never see again.
The problem is, he’s become muddied by the moth parade. He came here expecting to see no one but the bunny girl, whose monstrously slender thighs are pixellated when viewed at close quarters. Instead, he’s seen everybody.
One of his bootlaces has come untied. Is this right at such a time? There are plenty of things he’s been meaning to find out before this moment — definitions never verified, family secrets never revealed — but suddenly it’s his bootlace that’s troubling him the most. Should he retie it? If he doesn’t, will his boot fly off in mid-air? (He’s doing what his grandmother called dithering, something he’s always despised about himself.)
Before he can weigh up the importance or otherwise of dying with a pair of double-knotted boots on his feet, it happens. He feels a pair of hands in the small of his back, pushing him outwards, towards oblivion. ‘I’m not —’ he cries. ‘No, I’m not —’
But in the end he goes. Somehow jumping seems easier than stepping back.