Last Train

By Steve Sparshott

Memoir

There was a figure on the wrong side of the railing. Hunched, legs dangling over the water, left hand on the edge of the brickwork clutching a smoking cigarette. I kept an eye on him as I passed; he raised the fag to his mouth with a sudden movement, inhaled and put it back down just as abruptly.

These days, Hungerford Bridge is a riot of shiny white suspension poles and pretty blue lights; back then it was a wide railway crossing with a poorly lit walkway stuck on the east side which shook with the passage of trains. The tubes stopped running at midnight so I was on foot, heading down to Waterloo to catch the last train out of London, the 1:05 AM to Surbiton, where I shared a three-storey semi with five friends. I was crossing the last of the bridge’s huge cylindrical brick pilings when I saw the guy sitting there, out on the edge. I walked on a little way, then turned back and watched him swig from a half bottle of vodka. There was nobody else on the bridge. “Alright?” I called. He looked over his shoulder to see an ageing indie kid in a seventies ski jacket.

“Alright, mate,” he replied.

“Admiring the view?” I asked brilliantly, a Friday night’s worth of beer swilling around inside me.

“Something like that,” he said, any implication that I might have asked a really stupid question going right over my head.

“Let’s have a look then,” I said, climbing over the railing and crossing over to sit down next to him, both of us dangling our legs over the Thames. Actually the view wasn’t bad at all, Waterloo Bridge and the buildings on the north and south banks artfully lit and reflected in the water.

Clark (“Like Superman, yeah?”) was a good-looking black bloke in, I guessed, his early twenties, whose girlfriend had just committed suicide. They met at a drop-in centre where they went for methadone and counselling; they hadn’t been together long but he said the relationship had given both of them a lot of much-needed support.

Uh huh.

“So…what happened?” I asked, aware despite the beers that I was in at the deep end of a situation far, far outside my experience.

They had a fight. “But we were always fighting, y’know?” he said.  “Every day.  But this was a big one, and then she killed herself the next day.”

Oh.

Shit.

Even sober I’d have been in no position to offer any expert counsel. What I wheeled out, I realise now, were platitudes; like how she was still living in his memory and if he jumped he wouldn’t just be killing himself and so on. I thought I was being highly original. We shared the vodka and, because I didn’t think it would be clever to say Actually I don’t smoke, a packet of Benson and Hedges.

He stated plainly, early on, that if anyone was around he wasn’t going to jump, so I zipped up my jacket and settled in. The conversation went round several times, returning to different what ifs as he berated himself for inattentiveness, inaction, indecision and so on; always things, I insisted, for which he couldn’t take the blame. Eventually we managed to get onto lighter subject matter; he was surprised that I knew the spike below his lip was called a labret piercing. Common knowledge now, perhaps, but arcane enough back in 1998. One of the few times my trivia reserve proved genuinely useful.

Three hours on, the effects of the beer were compounded by vodka and half a pack of Bensons and, while I could keep talking crap, I couldn’t work out how to get Clark back over to the right side of the railing. I was freezing, and becoming unnerved by the long drop and my increasingly unstable perch.

The few people who came along weren’t much use; the occasional pissed-up group invariably shouting Don’t jump, mate! and a homeless couple who knew Clark from when he lived rough and who confused me by calling him John and saying they’d been in Jerusalem taking pills. Jerusalem’s a big noisy bar in Rathbone Place; I didn’t know that at the time.

About half past four no-one had come by for a while. A couple of girls came stumbling along, arm in arm, singing. They saw us and stopped. “Hello,” said one.

“Morning,” we both replied. One of the girls squinted at us in an exaggerated fashion. “Clark!” she exclaimed.

“It’s Clark, look,” she said, drawing the other’s attention, and they both climbed over the railing. “Come on. Gimme a hug,” she demanded, and Clark stood up and obliged. I’d been trying to work out how to get him away from the edge for three hours; she did it in two seconds.

Who would be the ideal people to turn up just as I was despairing of ever getting Clark to stop contemplating a cold, wet death? (Actually, by this time, a cold, sticky, muddy one). How about a couple of psychiatric nurses (albeit spectacularly drunk ones)? How about a couple of psychiatric nurses who worked at Clark’s drop-in centre? Yes, they’d be just about perfect, and here they were, heading over to the all-night burger van by the station for a cup of tea.

So we joined them, all sitting in a row on a bench, safely inland, drinking impossibly hot tea from polystyrene cups. I can’t remember their names, or what they looked like, or where the drop-in place (open all hours) was, but I remember the four of us piling into a minicab to get there, and I remember watching Clark walk up the brightly lit tree-lined path into the building.

I think that went pretty well.

A few months later I was looking at a copy of The Face; a new 24 hour supermarket had opened near the Complex in Islington and they’d gone in to interview shoppers at about 4 AM. I recognised one of the faces looking out of the page, not smiling but certainly not dead either, labret spike shining.

Who are you?

Clark, 24, unemployed.

What are you buying? (“What was he buying?” people ask.  “Razor blades?”)

Apples.

Apples. So fuck off.

I’m not under the illusion that I saved his life; when I arrived he’d already been sitting looking at the water for a long time. To be honest I’m not really sure what I did, except that it was, in a stumbling, roundabout way, the right thing. The best thing I ever did, in fact. People use that phrase to mean the most personally advantageous thing; buying a villa in Spain, that sort of thing. By best I mean most good; the most…honourable, most decent thing I ever did.

Another time I found a fifty pound note in the gutter as I was heading down towards the river. And I caught the train. Not a villa in Spain, but not bad.

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Formerly a professional modelmaker, STEVE SPARSHOTT turned to writing after brain damage sustained in a 2003 road accident removed much of his physical function. Typing with the three middle fingers of his left hand at a blistering fifteen words per minute, he has had work printed in London literary magazine Smoke, and various academic publications have featured his design-related social criticism. He has reviewed films for Screenjabber.com and Nude Magazine, and because his life just isn't difficult enough, he's writing a memoir called Get Well Soon. He is well chuffed to have an essay called Fin in the Nervous Breakdown compilation The Beautiful Anthology.

3 responses to “Last Train”

  1. Original comments:

    Comment by Dawn Corrigan
    2009-10-09 05:27:38

    That’s what I mean by best, too.

    I’m glad Clark lived.

    And welcome aboard the TNB train.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 05:36:55

    Thank you very much. I’m glad he lived, too, and I hope he enjoyed his apples.

    Comment by Amy
    2009-10-09 05:34:13

    Good read. Props to Clark, too.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 07:31:01

    Thanks! I’m glad I got that little update on him from The Face.

    Comment by Matt
    2009-10-09 06:30:03

    Steve, this is great. Major, major kudos to you, dude. I’m ashamed to think many (if not most) Americans would have minded there own business and just kept on walking.

    *sigh* Sometimes my countrymen bug the shit out of me.

    And good for you too, Clark, wherever you are.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 07:36:34

    Cheers Matt! Most Brits would (and did) stroll on too. Maybe I would have as well, had I not drunk just enough beer to be feeling that warm I-love-everyone glow.

    Comment by David S. Wills
    2009-10-09 06:36:13

    You paint a nice picture at the start.

    And it’s creepy how many times I’ve gotten drunk and ended up in unpleasant situations like that. Creepy.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 07:44:27

    Oddly, it wasn’t unpleasant at all. A bit cold (February) and obviously I had to choose my words with care, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Also, beer+vodka+four Bensons (that’s an old-skool full-strength brand, and I’ve never been a smoker)=a substantial buzz. Met some people, had a cup of tea – and I suspect that my subconscious was rubbing its hands and going This is going to be a GREAT story!

    Comment by Rich Ferguson
    2009-10-09 10:45:11

    Great read, Steve. Very compelling. Very humanistic. Welcome to TNB.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 13:15:25

    Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here – long-time listener, first-time caller sort of thing.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-10-09 12:21:57

    Hey Steve,
    I loved this. So well told, I could picture the scene so easily. Your kindness and humanity just shines through and makes me glad to know that there are people like you walking about.
    I’m glad Clark was buying apples. Apples mean he’s going to be okay.
    Welcome.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-09 13:26:46

    Hi, I was just reading about your shopping habits.

    It was a pretty grim place but I only ever saw it on the odd Friday night, when, along with everyone else there, I was drunk. And thank you.

    Apples are a good sign aren’t they? You buy them, at least partly, with your health in mind. I hadn’t thought of that.

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-10-10 13:33:15

    Hey, welcome aboard, Steve! The UK contingent of TNB is getting bigger and bigger. I’m going to have to recruit some more Australians.

    From what little I know from psychologist friends who have worked at suicide hotlines, often that moment of connection is the most important, just to postpone that black moment until its lost some of its appeal.

    So it sounds like it went pretty well to me too. As best things to do go, that’s a good one.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-12 08:03:59

    I just read about the time you blew a definite shag with a French girl in Melbourne. Two days ago I wrote about the time I blew a definite shag with an American girl in Melbourne. Is this the SSE thing I’ve been hearing about?

    I’m all for getting more Aussies on board, if only to increase the probability of seeing the word bogan, one of my favourites in any language. It’s just not the same if I type it myself.

    On a more sincere note, it’s certainly good to talk. I think Clark’s black moment had passed, but maybe having someone to talk to did indeed postpone the next one.

    And thanks! I’m pleased to be here.

    Comment by Ryan Day
    2009-10-10 15:25:48

    Well done. Weird how when you wait long enough the right thing tends to come along. Also weird how often nurses are the right thing…

    And apples… also good.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-12 08:06:44

    It’s a pity they didn’t emerge from the fog in slow motion, wearing old-fashioned uniforms with origami hats, but I’m not complaining.

    Comment by reno
    2009-10-10 19:47:29

    ha. that was a good saturday night read before i hit the city for some local jams. i figure i’ll see a figure or two holding some fags…

    i like the images, the detail. hey and the apples, too.

    why not.

    welcome aboard. now, tell me you’re an iron maiden fan!

    (that’s right, guys, i said it! didn’t think i wouldn’t?)

    thanks, steve. good deal.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-12 08:15:17

    I briefly – very briefly – considered making my words less Englandish. But I understand one of Brad Listi’s original TNB aims was to have an international flavo(u)r, so I’ll continue happily along the fag/bum/pants/fanny path. Sniggering all the way.

    The Maiden thing’s a mandatory requirement for British citizenship. I believe they’re the second highest-earning British band overseas, behind The Police but AHEAD OF COLDPLAY. Ha.

    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-10-11 08:04:48

    I can’t say I’ve ever done anything nearly as noble. I’ve listened to a lot of people discuss the prospect of suicide, including myself, but, except in one case, no action was taken — and it was unsuccessful in that case, and I wasn’t consulted beforehand.

    Here’s hoping that, should you wish it, you did indeed come by a villa in Spain.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-12 08:20:27

    Believe me, it was a one off. I’ve milked this story like some kind of bovine simile; thankfully joining TNB has inspired me to write something new, within a few days of putting my first post up.

    Thanks for the wishes – I was well pleased with the fifty. My friend Van was skint and needed new trainers; guess what brand I bought her…

    Comment by Mary
    2009-10-13 11:09:24

    Well, maybe you didn’t exactly save his life, but it sounds like maybe you helped him see some of what’s good about life and humanity, just by stopping and giving a shit, ya know? Great piece, man. Looking forward to more from you!

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-10-13 21:14:19

    Ditto on what Mary said. That you bothered to sit with Clark for hours. That you cared. That’s all we can ask of anyone, don’t you think?

    It’s a pleasure to be introduced…

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-15 04:41:16

    Hello, Mary and Marni. Now I’m not one of those “There are two types of people” people (I’m the other type) but in any situation, maybe there are two types – those who give a shit and those who don’t. Any of us can be either of those at any time, although obviously some folks are inclined one way or the other…anyway. Thank you both, I’m already writing my next TNB bit and looking forward to being a more active participant here.

    Comment by Steve Sparshott
    2009-10-15 08:41:36

    That looks like a job application.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Steve,
    This is a lovely story. I think anyone would be proud of you for what you did, whether you think you saved his life or not. I personally think that you probably did save his life. You kept him talking for three hours, and that ain’t hay. Lots could have gone through his mind, were he alone for all that time, perhaps enough to encourage him to really jump to his death.
    You are a good man, Steve.

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