By Krishan Coupland.
It is fireworks night, and my throat is sore from faking orgasms down a phone line all afternoon. My back aches and I am cold, the air smells of caramel and gunpowder. Me and Amber are on the roof, watching the explosives climb and burst. The city is a universe. Someone, somewhere is getting burned alive.
“I’m tired,” I say. That doesn’t really cover how I feel, but I need to say something. Amber brushes her hair out of her eyes and nods. Amber has red hair. Amber is beautiful.
“This makes me think of coral reefs,” she says, pointing everywhere with one hand, at the fireworks. “You go down far enough, underwater enough, and all the fish have lights.”
Amber would be a poet if she had the time. She is places like Brazil and Turkey and Ireland and Japan. She is harsh and clever and sharp.
Downstairs again, my phone station blinks demandingly at me. I sit down, breathe, push the button. A man has called in to say he is going to kill himself. “I work in a factory,” he says. “We make drill bits. Today, the guys put a light bulb in the microwave in the break room.”
He tells me what happens when you put a light bulb in a microwave. In the next cubicle and the next cubicle and the next Amber and another girl and another are gasping and whispering their way to pretended climaxes. It doesn’t matter that I’m not.
“Gina,” says my guy on the phone, “she’s this girl. She has a pierced lip. I think she hates me. God, they all must hate me.” From his voice I can picture him as thin, tall. Bald perhaps, and scrawny; the kind of person who blinks with their whole face. His hands, his hand on the phone, his hand on himself-they are cartoon hands, the fingers long and slim and the joints as knobbly as marbles. Blue wires stretch back under the skin.
“Don’t kill yourself,” I say. In my voice is my mother from back when I was seven, telling me not to be sick. “Please,” I add, hopefully, just like she did. There are fireworks here and fireworks there-perhaps the same ones, echoing back and forth.
“But I love her. I love Gina, and I’m forty and she’s half my age and it’s messed up. I was there, looking at these little chips of glass and wire on the carpet and I knew she probably can’t stand me.”
“Don’t kill yourself,” I say again. I tap on the wall between Amber’s cubicle and mine until she comes over. We share the headset, the microphone on its wire hovering between us like a pregnant bug. Gina, Gina, Gina, love and hate and light bulbs and drill bits: the words haemorrhage down the line. I feel deaf and dull as a tree.
“I’m on a bridge,” he says. He has started to sob brokenly, in quick static rushes. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
I imagine him on the bridge, cartoon hands gripping the rail as he leans out, out. Up above him the sky is a coral reef and the sea is a universe. Can you hear me?
Amber says, “we’re not the god-damn Samaritans, you know.” I shut my eyes. When I open them the line is dead. “Attention seeking little prick,” says Amber.
I stand up. My phone station is blinking again and I still have half the shift to go. I sit down and answer, but it is not my guy, so I disconnect it. Amber disappears back to her own cubicle and I follow her, then I come back. Suddenly thirsty, I get a drink from the water cooler in the corridor. I sit down again in my cubicle with my drink and there are calls queued up, waiting for me, waiting to beat off to the voice of a stranger. I watch the lights until they tremble away.
I interrupt Amber in the middle of a call to say, “you shouldn’t have done that.” Perfectly unselfconscious she continues with what she’s doing. She winks lopsidedly at me. I can’t watch her do this so I go back to my own phone.
It’s too hot in here. I feel ill. Sick. The phones at our workplaces aren’t made for outgoing calls, so I have to use the one in the corridor to call Scott. It rings seven times, and then he picks up. It feels weird calling him from here – he thinks I sell insurance.
“I need you to drive me somewhere,” I say. We argue back and forth a bit, give and take, push and pull. He says he’s on the way and the end of the conversation clicks. Scott was the one who taught me how to weld in college. Somehow, we are engaged. Somehow.
Waiting out on the pavement, Amber joins me. It is dark and everything is coloured and rippled by orange streetlamps. “You ill?” asks Amber. “You quitting?” Then, “This is about the bridge-jumper isn’t it? I swear, you get so damn obsessive . . .”
We wait together as cars scroll past, headlights interrogating us briefly. Amber brushes her hair out of her eyes.
“I told boss you were ill. Me too. Both of us are ill.” I don’t listen.
Scott pulls up exactly twenty-two minutes after I called him. He pops the door and I climb in. Amber gets in the back, saying that she is coming too, smiling bright-bone teeth at Scott, who smiles back in the mirror. I introduce them: Scott, Amber. Amber, Scott – like a snatch of Morse code.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” says Amber, even though she hasn’t. Not that much anyway. I don’t tell Scott what has happened, only where we are going. He drives obediently-there is an understanding between us. The radio plays wordless songs that make me think of the ocean. Rockets screech up and detonate in the distance, building short-lived office blocks in the night. Towers, burning, for a few moments. I want to be like them, to scream, to burn up, to explode.
In the end, it is a good thing that Amber is with us, because she has to give us directions to the Itchen Bridge. She is speaking softly, holding back and not swearing. It doesn’t matter. We arrive and Scott says, “There’s no stopping on the bridge,” and then stops anyway, bumped right up on the pavement.
There are signs on the concrete parapet: “Suicidal? Despairing? Call -” and a number. Someone has to take responsibility, I guess. My shoes are too heavy to run in – I kick them off and run up and down. Sure enough, one of these signs has been altered. The 6 becomes an 8, the 0 becomes a 8, the 2 becomes a 4. In bad light it would pass, and I recognise the number. There is nobody here, and yet the place itself exists. I lean over and look down at the concrete-slab water. There are boats out there, bobbing like soap scum.
It is freezing out, and yet still I feel too hot-a band of heat and sweat climbing the back of my neck. Before, I always thought sick with worry was a metaphor.
Amber and Scott are leaning against the car, arms folded. They could be twins. Even as I watch she opens her mouth, bares her teeth. He puts a hand on her chin, as though holding a wine glass-Scott is a dentist. They both laugh and Amber brushes her hair out of her eyes.
“We have to do Northam Bridge,” I tell them. It makes me feel old, like a responsible parent.
“It’s kind of late,” Scott stops smiling to speak to me.
I get in the car and sit there staring straight ahead until Scott and Amber join me. We drive to Northam Bridge and the story is the same there as well. No signs, but no people either. I do not know what to look for, and I do not know what would happen if I found it. I feel faintly ridiculous. I feel like a stranger, in the car with those two.
We drop Amber off near her house, and we drive home in silence. Scott treats me like an invalid-he brings me soup and kind words. I don’t feel anything much. I tell him the story, minimising it, making it trivial. I was just curious. By the time I finish telling him, it’s as though it never happened. We eat dinner and watch TV for a while. “That Amber,” says Scott. “She’s nice. You never talk about your work friends.” We go to bed, and Scott kisses my neck. It has been a long day and I’m tired, but I relent and roll onto my back.
As he begins I wonder if I’ve cheated on him already. With words and grunts and noises fed into the pregnant black bug. Fed down wires to strangers who probably have wives and lovers and lives of their own. I should tell him the truth, really. If I truly believed that it was meaningless, that it was not cheating-then surely I would have told him a long time ago.
It is almost a distant thing-I cannot concentrate. He kisses me, but I don’t kiss back. I don’t do anything much but lie there. He finishes, rolls off me and we huddle together on the bed. He asks me if I enjoyed it, which he does sometimes because he cares about those kinds of things. I lie to him and he goes to sleep.
I wait, in the dark. Watch Scott breathing as he sleeps. It is not peaceful, it is not relaxing. I slip out of bed. I creep downstairs and pick up the phone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Krishan Coupland is a student living in Southampton. He likes writing stuff down and does it a lot. Sometimes he takes pictures. His work has been published in several literary journals including Dicey Brown, WildChild and Verbsap.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 11th, 2008.