Mum always said

The parapet was cold underneath him, the chill seeping though his suit trousers. Ten metres below his feet the Thames oozed past. The tide was on the turn, the turgid water below him not sure which direction to take. It sucked at the bridge supports. Johnson closed his eyes and wondered how it could come to this. How could everything turn from gold to crap in just a few days?


Johnson opened his eyes and looked round. A young man leant against the parapet. His clothes were dirty and his hair long. He carried a large bag over one shoulder. He looked in his mid-twenties, but could have been younger. The streets aged people.

“Nice day for it,” the lad continued, nodding towards the east. Johnson looked up. The sky was lighter there, heralding the rise of a new day some hour or so hence.

“Listen, no offence, pal, but I’m not feeling chatty, okay?” said Johnson.

“No offence taken. You wouldn’t normally talk to someone like me anyway, right? So why waste your last breath making an exception? You are thinking of jumping, right?”


“Don’t what?”

“Don’t try and talk me out of it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Deciding whether you want to die, that’s a basic human right, that is. One of the few the government hasn’t taken away yet. Anyway, you could be right. You might be suffering from some painful terminal disease. You might have been arrested for child molesting. You could be saving the tax payer a great deal by just ending it all now. Not that I pay taxes, but what I mean to say is, who am I to tell you not to top yourself? Not my decision. I was just saying, it’s a nice day to do it, that’s all. No rain. Not too windy. Bit cold, mind, for the time of year. A bit chilly. So that’s what you’re going to do, is it? End it all, to sleep, perchance to dream, and all that?”


“Yeah, I thought so. I saw you sitting on the edge like that, dressed in a city suit, and I thought, ‘He’s going to kill himself,’ I thought. ‘He’s going to jump.’ Bit of a waste, though.”

“I told you, I’ve made my mind up.”

“No, no, I understand that. That wasn’t what I was talking about. I just meant, you jump, you get sucked under. Treacherous currents, by all accounts. The tide will be going out soon. No knowing where you’ll end up. Somewhere out on the mudflats, probably, your coat soaked through, caked in mud. Pure wool, is it? Looks expensive. No offence, but that’s a shameful waste of such a nice coat, when there’s people out on the street shivering.”

Johnson looked at the stranger, disbelief on his face. Finally he gave a mirthless chuckle and unbuttoned his coat.

“You’ve got nerve, I’ll give you that,” he said, holding out the coat. The youngster nodded and took it from him.

“You don’t ask, you don’t get, my mum always said. Of course, most of the time you don’t get even if you ask, but you never know. No harm in asking.” He dropped his bag and shrugged himself into the coat. It was too generous for his thin frame, but the length was right.

“Nice. God, that’s warm. Thanks, mate. You have no idea how nice that is after freezing my bollocks off. I’m Pete, by the way.”

“You want anything else?” said Johnson sarcastically, holding up his hand. “Wedding ring? Wallet? Fillings?”

“No!” The boy looked offended. “Jesus, what do you take me for? You think I’m a grave robber or something? The coat, now that’s a nice gift, a useful one. You won’t need it, and I shall be like toast today. I thank you for it, but what use is jewellery or credit cards? I’d just sell them. The coat now, I’ll keep that. A memento, if you will. But the other stuff? Jesus, man, don’t insult me. I’m no thief.”

“I’m sorry,” said Johnson, still unaware of the distinction between taking a suicide’s coat and taking his wallet. “A man of principle.”

“If a man doesn’t have his integrity, he doesn’t have anything, my mum used to say. Complete bollocks, of course. There’s plenty of people that have no integrity, but have bucket-loads of money, fast cars and fast women. Bastards! And there’s plenty of us who have nothing, and integrity won’t fill your belly. You know what I’m saying? Maybe it’s integrity that put me down here and deviousness that put them lying bastards up there with all the money.” He dug his hands into the copious pockets of the coat that used to belong to Johnson. He pulled out an apple from one of them. He held it up to Johnson. “Do you mind?”

“No. Feel free.”

“Thanks.” He took a large bite. “Makes a change, breakfast,” he said through the fruit. He turned and hoisted himself up onto the parapet, facing towards the bridge. He leant backwards slightly and looked down at the grey river.

“Not my first choice, drowning,” he said. “Too slow. We’re automatic breathers, did you know that? Dolphins, now they’re under no compulsion to breathe in. When they’re underwater they don’t get the undeniable urge to breathe. A dolphin can suffocate to death if he’s trapped underwater, without once breathing in. Because it’s pointless, right? No air. But you or me, stick our heads under water and after a few moments we just got to breathe in, even if we know it’s just water and no air. Automatic breathers, see?”

“Is that right?”

“The gospel truth. Mind you, they do say that after a while, after the panic and the pain, you enter a euphoric state, drowning. Makes you wonder, though, how do they know? Who are ‘they’, anyway? No, if I was going to do myself in, I’d go for the overdose. Party like it was 1994, get my euphoric state in from the get go, know what I mean? Then just drift off to sleep one more time. That would be my choice, suicide wise. Though to be honest, my ideal death would be to be shot by a jealous husband when I’m ninety-four.”

“How do you do that?” said Johnson.

“Do what?”

“Well, you’re homeless, right?”

“I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the streets.”

“Right. So how do you do that? I mean, you’ve got nowhere to live, no job, you wouldn’t even have a coat if you hadn’t got that one off me. How do you get up each morning, carry on, and be so bloody cheerful about it?”

Pete looked down at his feet, kicking idly against the stone parapet.

“You think I don’t know what misery’s like? You think I haven’t cried my heart out? And not just because my life’s gone down the pan. Jesus, the things you see on the street. Kids, I mean proper kids not old enough to be out of school, having to do stuff adults shouldn’t do. Being treated like crap, being invisible, knowing this is all there is. I’ve cried, mate. I’ve wept for days on end. And you know what? It didn’t make a blind bit of difference. The world was just the same afterwards. So I’ve cried all the tears I got. The way I think of it is, the world doesn’t change whether you’re happy or miserable, so you might as well enjoy yourself. Life’s too short.” He looked down at the river again. “Well, shorter for some more than others.”

“So you’re a philosopher.”

“Me? No, I’m just mouthy. If words were money, I’d be rich, my mum would say.”

“You talk a lot about your mum. You obviously love her. Couldn’t you stay with her? Where is she?”

“Six feet under.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No worries. You didn’t know. Lost the flat when she died, and here I am. What about you? Your missus kick you out? The wedding ring.”

Johnson looked down at his finger and absently twirled the band of gold.

“No, not yet.”

“But she’s said she’s going to?”

“No, but she will. There’s this woman, she and I – well, she’s going public with it. June will find out, and she’s not the sort of woman that could endure that, not staying with me. The partners won’t stand it either. Scandal in the office, not acceptable.”

“Jesus, that’s so unfair. You know the last time I had a girlfriend, a regular one I mean? And you get to have two. So, both of them want you dead, eh? God, you’re more unpopular than me. My mum was right, there is always someone worse off than you.”

“You’re doing a grand job of talking me out of this. I feel so much better knowing I’m pitied by a citizen of the street.”

Pete threw back his head and laughed. “You’re welcome, mate. Whoa!” He windmilled his arms to keep his balance. Johnson reached out instinctively and grabbed his arm.

“Jesus, Joseph and Mary, I scared myself to death there,” said Pete, sliding off the parapet onto the bridge. “Thanks, mate. You’re a life saver. Ha! Life’s a funny old game, isn’t it? You save me from taking a dive into the river, and you’re going to do the self same thing. You know, in some North American tribes, if someone saves your life, you have a debt to save theirs.”


“Yeah. Of course, this is London, so you’re on your own, mate, sorry.”

Despite himself, Johnson grinned.

“You’re a bundle of joy, you are. You ever thought of joining the Samaritans?”

Pete tossed the apple core over the edge. Johnson watched it tumble through the air and splash into the murky waters. It didn’t reappear. Pete must be right, treacherous currents strong enough to sweep a buoyant apple core from sight.

“Weird, isn’t it?” said Pete. “I mean, right now, right at this minute, you got everything. Well, except maybe integrity. But you got money, a job, a wife, a house. All right, no coat, but you can buy another one. You don’t know what you’ll still have tomorrow. You don’t know your boss will sack you, not for sure. You don’t know your missus will chuck you out. Women, they’re weird. No-one can ever figure them out. And even if they don’t work out, you can get another job, another woman. You still got your money till then. But you’re going to jump. Me, I got nothing. You know the best thing I got? This coat. Yet you still stopped me from falling in. Weird, isn’t it? You think I’m worth saving, but you’re not?”

“You don’t know my wife.”

“No, but you don’t either, not for sure. So why are you doing it? Go on, I told you why I’m cheerful, you tell me why you’re suicidal.”

“I told you.”

“Bollocks. You told me what’s gone wrong, which quite frankly is trivial in the scheme of things. You’ve not told me why you’re jumping. You know what I think? I think you’re doing it because you’re scared. You’re scared of having to face up to your missus, your boss, your fancy bit. I think you’ve coasted through life, everything falling into place, and the first bit of difficulty, you can’t face it.” Pete patted the pockets of the coat. “No cigarettes?”

“I don’t smoke.”

“Yeah, cigarettes, they’ll kill you. So you’re too scared to face up to what you done, and you’re too scared to jump, otherwise you’d have done it hours ago. Jesus, and I thought I was trapped in limbo.”

“Piss off.”

“Sure, just as soon as you tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re full of it.” Johnson scowled at him, suddenly angry. “You and your trite sayings and your bullshit facts about Red Indians and dolphins and shit. Piss off.”

“Because you’re not doing it for your work. Not for your fancy piece. You’re sure as hell not doing it for your missus. You honestly think she’d want you dead? You think she’ll be better off? You’re the one spouting bullshit, friend. You have no idea what it’s like for those you leave behind, you know? We had our fights, of course we did, me and Mum, but when she left me, you have no idea. Too scared to face her, and too scared to jump. You’re just sitting there, waiting, hoping some concerned Samaritan will turn up and let you cry on their shoulder.”

“Look, just piss off and let me die in peace.”

“No. It’s a free country. Well, apart from the fascist government. No, I could do with some entertainment. Go on. What’s it to you if I watch?”

“I’m not doing this to entertain you.”

“Good, because you’re doing a piss-poor job of it.”

Johnson stared down at the drop, teeth clenched, willing himself to take the final step, to just lean forward, relax his muscles…

He swung his legs back over the parapet and dropped onto the bridge.

“Stuff you. I’m not doing it in front of an audience.”

Pete shrugged.

“Whatever. You’re not getting the coat back.”

Johnson glared at him for long seconds, fists clenched. Then he turned abruptly and stalked back towards the station.

Pete watched him go. When he’d turned the corner Pete bent down and opened his bag. Carefully he remove a crumpled rose stolen from a garden earlier. He leant over the parapet, held the rose out for a few seconds, then let it drop.

“Sorry Mum,” he whispered, as the rose floated slowly towards the estuary. “I couldn’t let him join you. No integrity, see?”

He picked up the bag and started to walk into the city. After a few steps his gait became a little jauntier. Cheer up, his mum had always said. It might never happen.


About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

4 Responses to Mum always said

  1. tskraghu says:

    Enjoyable reading!

  2. DaveH says:

    Nice one … got me thinking, loved the portrayal of Pete, Artful Dodger meets Sartre … far more interesting than a M6234

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