Chapter no 27

Anxious People

This is a story about a bank robbery, an apartment viewing, and a hostage drama. But even more it’s a story about idiots. But perhaps not only that.


Ten years ago a man wrote a letter. He mailed it to a woman at a bank. Then he dropped his kids oP at school, whispered in their ears that he loved them, drove oP on his own, and parked his car by the water. He climbed onto the railing of a bridge and jumped. The following week, a teenage girl was standing on the same bridge railing.

Obviously it doesn’t really make any diPerence to you who the girl was. She was just one person out of several billion, and most people never become individuals to us. They’re just people. We’re just strangers passing each other, your anxieties brieAy brushing against mine as the 1bers of our coats touch momentarily on a crowded sidewalk somewhere. We never really know what we do to each other, with each other, for each other. But the teenage girl on the bridge was called Nadia. It was the week after the man had jumped to his death from the railing where she was standing. She knew next to nothing about who he was, but she went to the same school as his children, and everyone was talking about it. That was how she got the idea. No one can really explain, either before or after, what makes a teenager stop wanting to be alive. It just hurts so much at times, being human. Not understanding yourself, not liking the body you’re stuck in. Seeing your eyes in the mirror and wondering whose they are, always with the same question: “What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like this?”


She isn’t traumatized, she isn’t weighed down by any obvious grief. She’s just sad, all the time. An evil little creature that wouldn’t have shown up on any X-rays was living in her chest, rushing through her blood and 1lling her head with whispers, saying she wasn’t good enough, that she was weak and ugly and would never be anything but broken. You can get it into your head to do some unbelievably stupid things when you run out of tears, when you can’t silence the voices no one else can hear, when you’ve never been in a room where you felt normal. In the end you get exhausted from always tensing the skin around your ribs, never letting your shoulders sink, brushing along walls all your life with white knuckles, always afraid that someone will notice you, because no one’s supposed to do that.

All Nadia knew was that she had never felt like someone who had anything in common with anyone else. She had always been entirely alone in every emotion. She sat in a classroom full of her contemporaries, looking like everything was the same as usual, but inside she was standing in a forest screaming until her heart burst. The trees grew until one day the sunlight could no longer break through the foliage, and the darkness in there became impenetrable.

So she stood on a bridge looking over the railing to the water far below, and knew it would be like hitting concrete when she landed, she wouldn’t drown, just die on impact. That thought consoled her, because ever since she was very little she’d been scared of drowning. Not death itself, but the moments before it. The panic and powerlessness. A thoughtless adult had told her that a person who’s drowning doesn’t look like they’re drowning. “When you’re drowning you can’t call for help, you can’t wave your arms, you just sink. Your family can be standing on the beach waving cheerfully to you, completely unaware that you’re dying.”

Nadia had felt like that all her life. She had lived among them. Had sat at the dinner table with her parents, thinking: Can’t you see? But they didn’t see, and she didn’t say anything. One day she simply didn’t go to school. She tidied her room and made her bed and left home without a coat because she wouldn’t be needing one. She spent all day in town, freezing, wandering around as if she wanted the town to see her one last time, and understand what it had done by failing to hear her silent screams. She didn’t have any real plan, just a

consequence. When sunset came she found herself standing on the railing of the bridge. It was so easy. All she had to do was move one foot, then the other.


It was that teenage boy called Jack who saw her. He couldn’t explain why he’d gone back to the bridge, evening after evening, for a week. His parents had forbidden it, of course, but he never listened. He snuck out and ran there as if he were hoping to see the man standing there again, so he could turn back the clock and make everything right this time. When he saw the teenage girl on the railing instead, he didn’t know what to shout at her. So he didn’t shout anything. He just rushed over and pulled her down with such force that she hit the back of her head on the tarmac and was knocked unconscious.


She woke up in the hospital. Everything had happened so quickly that she had only caught a glimpse of the boy rushing toward her out of the corner of her eye. When the nurses asked what had happened she wasn’t even sure of that herself, but the back of her head was bleeding, so she said she’d climbed up onto the railing to take a photograph of the sunset, then fell backward and hit her head. She was so used to saying what she knew other people wanted to hear, so they wouldn’t worry, that she did it without thinking. The nurses still looked worried, suspicious, but she was a good liar. She’d spent her whole life practicing. So in the end they said: “Climbing up on that railing, what a silly thing to do! It’s sheer luck you didn’t slip oP the other side instead!” She nodded, dry-lipped, and said yes. Luck.

She could have gone straight back to the bridge from the hospital, but she didn’t. It was impossible to explain why, even to herself, because she would never know for sure what she would have done if that boy hadn’t pulled her down. Would she have taken a step forward or back? So every day after that she tried to understand the diPerence between herself and the man who had jumped. That drove her to choose a profession, a career, a whole life. She became a psychologist. The people who came to her were the ones who were in so much

pain that it felt like they were standing on a railing with one foot over the edge, and she sat in her chair opposite them with eyes that said: I’ue been heve befove. I bnom a bettev may domn.

Of course sometimes she couldn’t help thinking about the reasons why she had wanted to jump, all the things she thought were missing from her reAection. Her loneliness at the dinner table. But she found ways to cope, to tunnel her way out of herself, to climb down. Some people accept that they will never be free of their anxiety, they just learn to carry it. She tried to be one of them. She told herself that was why you should always be nice to other people, even idiots, because you never know how heavy their burden is. Over time she realized that deep down almost everyone asks themselves the same sort of questions: Am I good? Do I make anyone proud? Am I useful to society? Am I good at my job? Generous and considerate? A decent shag? Does anyone want me to be their friend? Have I been a good parent? Am I a good person?

People want to be good. Deep down. Kind. The problem of course is that it isn’t always possible to be kind to idiots, because they’re idiots. That’s become a lifelong project for Nadia to grapple with, as it is for all of us.


She never met the boy from the bridge again. Sometimes she honestly believes that she made him up. An angel, maybe. Jack never saw Nadia again, either. He never went back to the bridge. But that was the day his plan to become a police officer became unshakable, when he realized that he could be the diPerence.

Ten years later Nadia will move back to the town, after training to become a psychologist. She will acquire a patient named Zara. Zara will go to an apartment viewing and get caught up in a hostage drama. Jack and his dad, Jim, will interview all the witnesses. The apartment where it happened has a balcony, from which you can see all the way to the bridge. That’s why Zara is there. Ten years ago she found a letter on her doormat, written by a man who jumped. His name was written neatly on the back of the envelope, she remembered their meeting, and even though the newspapers never published the name of the

person the police found in the water, the town was too small for her not to know.


Zara still carries the letter around with her in her handbag, every day. She’s only been down to the bridge once, the week after he climbed onto the railing, she saw a girl climb up onto the same railing, and a boy who rescued her. Zara didn’t even move, she just stood hidden in the darkness, shaking. She was still standing there when the ambulance arrived and took the girl to the hospital. The boy vanished. Zara walked out onto the bridge and found the girl’s wallet and ID card with her name on it. Nadia.

Zara has spent ten years following Nadia’s life and education and the start of her career in secret, from a distance, because she’s never dared approach her. She has spent ten years looking at the bridge, also from a distance, from the balconies of apartments that are for sale. For the same reason. Because she’s afraid that if she goes down to the bridge again, maybe someone else will jump, and if she seeks out Nadia and discovers the truth about herself, perhaps it will be Zara who does it. Because Zara is human enough to want to hear what the diPerence is between that man and Nadia, even though she realizes that she doesn’t really want to know. That she bears the guilt. That she’s the bad person. Maybe everyone says they’d like to know that about themselves, but no one does really. So Zara still hasn’t opened the envelope.


The whole thing is a complicated, unlikely story. Perhaps that’s because what we think stories are about often isn’t what they’re about at all. This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing, or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.


Perhaps this is a story about a bridge.

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