The write stuff: The Jump by Doug Johnstone

A mother is haunted by her son’s death, and she feels drawn to the place where it happened, in this extract from The Jump by Doug Johnstone
The Write Stuff illustration - Doug JohnstoneThe Write Stuff illustration - Doug Johnstone
The Write Stuff illustration - Doug Johnstone

There were widows and orphans, but why wasn’t there a word for a parent who lost a child? Because it was too awful to contemplate, too terrible to give a name.

The thought buzzed in Ellie’s brain, just as it had every day for the last few months, as she stood on the shore at the Binks, a rocky wart sticking out into the Firth of Forth. To her left was the road bridge, a concrete javelin suspended across the river from two giant supports. Beyond that she could see the yellow cranes working on the new bridge foundations, emerging from the water like sleepy krakens. In the other direction, past the low harbour wall and the Craigs, was the more famous rail bridge, the rusty red squeezebox of criss-crossed struts, with the smudge of the BP tanker berth lurking behind.

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The road bridge loomed over her, as always. She and Ben should’ve moved away from South Queensferry after it happened, made a clean break. But she was secretly glad they hadn’t, she liked the constant reminder, the open sore that she couldn’t help touching. Besides, she could never leave Logan behind.

Thirty yards back was the house she shared with Ben. Just Ben. It wasn’t a home any more, not without Logan. Greystone terrace, two bedrooms, though they didn’t need the second bedroom now. She hadn’t been able to clear away Logan’s stuff yet.

Every day at the shore the light was different. Today it felt like the start of autumn, sharpness in the bluster of wind from up river sweeping into the wider firth, high feathery clouds making the light somehow milky.

She looked at the distance from the centre of the road bridge down to the choppy surface of the water. Forty-five metres. She knew that from a leaflet she picked up at the bridge visitor centre. Not so far, you might think, but it was easily enough to kill you if you jumped. It was the method of suicide with the highest success rate. 97 per cent died. She wondered if Logan knew that before he jumped. If he’d Googled it, found the surest way. She’d checked his laptop browser history sometime after, when she briefly emerged from the blackness, but there was nothing unusual on there. Maybe he looked it up on his phone. It was still in his pocket when they recovered the body, but broken, obviously.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Counted to six. Opened them again and looked at the bridge. Imagined his body falling through the air. She’d watched hundreds of videos of people committing suicide this way since Logan jumped. Amazing how many attempts had been caught on film. Mostly it looked peaceful, somehow casual. Just a simple step off a ledge, a tiny splash of white spray on entry. But she knew the truth was different. You could reach seventy miles per hour. Hitting the water was like hitting a pavement, legs pulverised, spine collapsed, internal organs crushed, arms wrenched from sockets.

She wished for that oblivion. Less often than she used to, but still every hour, every day.

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Ben had identified Logan’s body. She wondered over and over if that was a mistake. She couldn’t really remember the events of that day, just the call at her desk, the frantic drive across Edinburgh, then people she didn’t know telling her things she couldn’t understand. Her fifteen-year-old son was dead. He’d jumped from the bridge.

A maintenance worker saw it, radioed in to control. The coastguard called the safety boat from the bridge-works at Port Edgar to go fish the body out. Not even worth scrambling an official sea search. He was only ten minutes in the water. Not that time mattered, of course, he was dead on entry, body smashed by the laws of physics.

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Back at Port Edgar someone in the coastguard office recognised Logan as Ben’s boy.

Ellie felt sorry for the man, suddenly given the burden of that information. He called Ben, who sprinted the short distance along Shore Road to the marina and confirmed what they all knew. Ellie felt excluded. By the time she’d got through traffic, Logan had been taken away. At first she thought it was a horrible joke, the sickest prank imaginable. But the look on the men’s faces, on Ben’s face, made the truth clear.

No note.

No previous attempts.

No cries for help.

No overdoses or slashed wrists.

No self-harming or mood swings or depression, no trouble at school, no bullying they could uncover.

He’d been quiet, but then he’d always been quiet and thoughtful, a good boy, never ran with the gang of loud, obnoxious kids at school. Preferred his own imagination, books and games to macho bluster or petty squabbling. He was respectful, polite.

And now he was dead.

It was unbearable.

She closed her eyes again and listened. The same two things she always heard when she stood here. The thin shush of waves on the shore and the rumbling thrum of traffic on the bridge, commuters, delivery drivers, people heading north or south to visit loved ones, friends and family. Mums and dads. Sons and daughters.

She opened her eyes and took her phone out of her pocket. Her finger hovered over the Videos icon. She was trying hard not to look at that any more. She had the footage from the CCTV camera on the bridge. It had taken two months of pestering John, the security guard, to get it. Pleading, crying, threatening to sue, offering money. Once she went up to the control booth drunk and tried to unzip his trousers, getting on her knees and grabbing at his crotch. He gripped her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. Looked at her with kindness and told her to get help. She cried all the way home.

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In the end she wore him down and he gave her the footage. Strictly against policy but maybe he realised she needed it to cling to. So now she carried it around with her, her boy’s last moments. A grainy image of him walking to the middle of the bridge, the highest point in the gentle curve of the road, looking out for a few moments, elbows on the railing, flicking his hair out of his eyes like he always did, then climbing over in an agile movement, not looking around or down. A step forward, one step, and he was gone.

She didn’t press Videos. Instead she opened Facebook, checked his page. No one had posted anything since last night. Had his friends forgotten him already? In the blur of their busy lives, was he just a memory now?

She typed quickly.

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Miss you so much it hurts every moment. Wish I could have you back. Mum xxx

She flicked through the pictures of him, snapshots from old parties or muckabouts in the park. One of him with his arm around Jackson, another of him looking shyly at Kayleigh amongst a group outside the chip shop. He had a thing for her, but nothing ever happened that Ellie knew of. Just one of an infinity of missed chances. She felt vertigo at the thought of her son’s non-existent future, all the possibilities branching off into fog. It was a familiar feeling and she was comforted by it. The sickness in her stomach, the dizziness, these had become more reliable to her than breathing in the last few months.

She went back to Logan’s profile page.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

Nothing. Of course. No likes for her comment. Why would anyone like it? She put her phone back in her pocket and picked up two stones from the beach.

She put one in her pocket and felt the heft of the other in her palm, the solidity of the earth it had once been a part of. She hurled it as hard as she could into the water, yanking her shoulder and elbow in the process.

She was weak these days. She’d lost weight in the last six months, and she didn’t have a lot to lose in the first place. But eating seemed irrelevant. She was wasting away, on hunger strike against the oblivion of the universe, refusing to take part in the basic chemical process of converting food into energy.

She rubbed at her throwing arm, felt the raw skin. Pushed her sleeve up to examine the tattoo. It was a decent likeness of the bridge, not perfect, but good enough. Still scabby and sore. She liked that period best, when the tattoos hurt. It was her seventh in six months, up her arms, across her back, down her sides. All connected to Logan and the firth. The road bridge, his name, his dates, the rail bridge, a boat and an island. A porpoise arching up her leg. She used to call Logan her little porpoise when he was a toddler, after they saw one together from the Binks, its snub nose pushing through the wash.

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Ellie knew the tattoos were compulsive but she didn’t care. Ben never said anything. He had his own strategy to get him through, they didn’t judge each other for coping however they could.

She scratched at her scabby arm, gazed at the water and thought about what lay under the surface. Junk, sunken boats, dead bodies, the ones they never recover. All of it hidden in hundreds of millions of tons of water. Imagine if the seas of the world dried up, what treasures we would find.

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She looked at the bridge again. Tried to think about breathing. In and out, in and out. She turned to walk up there.

“I’m coming,” she said.

• Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist. His novel Hit & Run (2012) was selected as a prestigious Fiction Uncovered winner and Smokeheads (2011) was nominated for the Crimefest Last Laugh Award. Doug is one of the co-founders of the Scotland Writers Football Club, for whom he puts in a shift in midfield. He is also a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, who have released four albums, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians. Doug has a degree in physics, a PhD in nuclear physics and a diploma in journalism, and worked for four years designing radars. He grew up in Arbroath and lives in Portobello, Edinburgh with his wife and two children. The Jump is published by Faber & Faber on 6 August