The Mighty Task Is Done

For a city of more than seven million people, San Francisco in May is light and fresh, tinted only by the pretzel and hamburger stands. She remembers that contrast; the natural fog-filtered freshness, and the man-made hum beneath. Starting the long trek up the pedestrian side of the Golden Gate Bridge, she already feels her too-high heels rubbing at her ankles.

This time, the same as the last, she hasn’t worn the right shoes for walking. Elizabeth is not a vain woman, but here, today, she wants to look her best. It has been two years since she last made the journey from London to the west coast of America. Two years of living like a miser to make the eleven-hour journey, to return here.

On the Bridge, there are only two ways to look.  Skywards, the art deco lines of the steelwork stand majestically, like the entrance to a mythical kingdom. Orange vermillion, against the pale blue late spring sky. At the edge of the barrier, looking down, a thick carpet of white fog gives the appearance of clouds floating like cotton wool on the Bay.

A crowd has gathered halfway across, blocking further progress.  Cars slow to a crawl, the drivers rubberneck for a glimpse of the spectacle. Elizabeth frowns. She can see a gap, several meters wide, from where the crowd stops, maintaining a respectful—-or impotent—-distance, to where a man stands on the wrong side of the barrier.

As far as she can see, the man is alone, although even from a slight distance back, she can hear shouting from the crowd.  Some people haven’t stopped; they push their way past, and walk down, passing Elizabeth, back towards San Francisco.  She stops in her tracks, five metres back from the crowd, enough distance to still be able to see, to be able to gather her thoughts.  The man appears to be in his mid-forties, a little rounded belly visible even from this distance, despite his sporty looking clothes. She can’t make out his features, or his demeanour, from this far back.  She can’t tell if he means it. For a brief moment, she thinks about turning around, walking back down the bridge, leaving the scene to be what it will be, but she has come all this way. Instead, with a shake of her head, Elizabeth accepts the inevitability of her next actions, and walks onwards, pushing through the crowd, to stand next to the man.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” she says, nodding her head towards the fog-covered bay.

“Stand back, lady.  You don’t need to get involved in this.”  His gaze doesn’t shift from the Bay.

“There’s nothing like this in England. Have you ever travelled?”

The man’s face shows his confusion, “I’m going to jump, lady.  Whatever you’re trying here, you’re wasting your time.”

“My name is Elizabeth.  A long time ago, people called me Libby.  I’ll let you choose which, but I’m not a ‘lady’, I’m just an ordinary woman.”

“Libby,” he says, finally turning to look at her, “step back.  I don’t want to spoil your holiday.”

“I came here for this.  For the Bridge.  It’s very special to me. Do you know much about it?”

“I’ve lived in the Bay all my life. I’d say I know enough.” His accent confirms his words; he speaks in a deep Californian drawl. She wants to hear more, but first she must get him to listen, and to talk.

“Well, Mister...” she pauses, hoping that he will fill the gap with his name, but he doesn’t, “how about we make a deal?  If I can tell you three things that you don’t know about the Bridge, you step back over that barrier, and we go for lunch or something, talk about this.  And if I tell you three things that you already know, then you can just...” she gestures towards the Bay.

“What makes you think that I want to make a deal?”

“You’ve been standing here long enough for this crowd to gather, you’ve responded to me when I’ve talked to you, and you haven’t jumped yet.  I think you’re looking for a reason not to.  I’m trying to give you one. It’s not too late.”

“You don’t know anything about it, lady. Libby. You haven’t asked why I’m here, what’s made me want to do this.”

“I don’t think that dwelling on that is going to help you to change your mind.  It takes a lot of courage, or a lot of desperation, to walk up here and climb over that railing.  You must have some pretty good reasons.  So, how about it?  Deal?”

The man half-laughs.  “It’s not like I have anything to lose.  Go for it.”

“I’ll start with my favourite fact.  Joseph Strauss, the engineer who designed the Bridge, was a poet.  His mother was a pianist, and his father a painter and a writer.  As well as being an amazing visionary who imagined this beautiful poetic piece of architecture, he wrote poetry that captured not only the splendour of the Bridge, but also the work...the process that went into building it.  I think that’s why it is such an eye-catching, visually stunning structure – because he had the heart of a poet, creative...” she lets her voice trail off, seeing the man looking away from the Bay, towards the Bridge, taking in the hard geometric lines, and the curving parabola, “it is, isn’t it? Breathtaking?”

“It’s certainly something,” he says, still looking up to the highest point of the upright structure.

Elizabeth doesn’t wait to hear whether he already knew about Strauss’s background or not. Instead she continues, running her hand along the horizontal beam that separates them. “What colour would you say this is?”

“Well, it’s red. Orange. Obviously. Stops the rust, right? I see them out here, climbing right up there,” he turns his gaze again from the girder that her hand is touching, up to the heights, “repainting, keeping it looking fresh, keeping the rust away.”

“They tend to have safety harnesses though, right?” Elizabeth tries to lighten the atmosphere, and is rewarded with a smile from the man, “it’s ‘International Orange’ actually. The specific colour that they use to paint the bridge. Most bridges are grey or black, but not this beauty. There were suggestions from the Navy, when the colour was being planned, that it should be painted black and yellow, to alert ships, planes, anything that might crash into it, that it’s here. Luckily, someone had the foresight to opt for this instead.” Still stroking the beam, her movement attracts his visual attention, “it’s the same colour that they use for astronauts’ safety suits now. That fact was a freebie for you.”

“You sure do know a lot about the Bridge, Libby.”

“Well, Mister...”

“Henry. You can call me Henry.”

“Well, Henry, I’ve spent the last couple of years of my life thinking about this Bridge, this place. I’ve read all that I could find. It fascinates me. I guess I’ve become a little obsessed with it.”

“There are worse ways to spend your time, I can tell you.” Henry’s expression starts to change, becoming more reflective. He is looking towards the fog carpet again, she is losing his attention.

Elizabeth looks behind her to the crowd. The police still haven’t arrived. Has anyone even called them, she wonders. There is a hum of low-pitched conversation, but still the gathered masses keep their distance. Perhaps they think she has things under control.  Perhaps they think that she is a professional, an expert.  In a way she is.

“You ok there?” a tall man with an accent that is more of the Southern States than local shouts out to her.

Elizabeth nods. Thinks. Gives a ‘thumbs up’ sign. She looks up, then towards the San Francisco end of the bridge, the way that she has walked today, and the way that she walked two years ago. She looks across towards the Marin Peninsula, the opposite end of the Bridge, the other side of Golden Gate Bay. In the distance, she sees the Redwoods, imposing, their natural beauty an almost match for the artificial aesthetics of the Bridge. Finally, she turns back to Henry.

He is standing only centimetres away from the drop that could take him tumbling off the Bridge, down into the Bay. On the other side of the Bridge, on the 101 where cars can drive but pedestrians can’t walk, lies the Pacific Ocean. Metres away, but unreachable. If he jumped, his body could be swept down, out of the Bay, into the Ocean. Another lost soul.

“So, the third fact,” Elizabeth begins, centring her attention fully upon Henry. She reaches up, pulling herself onto the horizontal beam that she was stroking, and hauls herself over the barrier to stand alongside the astonished man.

“What are you doing?” he asks, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, “get back over there, Libby! You could fall!”

“Hush, Henry, listen. The third fact is that this, right here, is the single most common spot for suicides in the whole world. Can you believe that? More people kill themselves here than anywhere else. Thousands of people have done this here before you.  Thousands. But do you know what else?” she shuffles up next to him and reaches out for his hand, “some people survive. There’s a 98% success rate though, apparently, so it’s looking pretty good for you. If you still want to?”

“Oh God,” Henry grabs onto her outstretched hand with one of his, putting his other hand out behind him to grasp onto the barrier.

“You hear those odds and you think that’s pretty much near certain. Definite. If I jump, then the chances are that’s it.” Her voice is cracking now, and Henry is finally close enough to see her tears. “Last time, I fractured three vertebrae. Other than that, things are as they were.  All I have thought about since is this bridge. I just wanted to come back, to get it right this time.”

“Stop, Libby, please stop.” It’s his turn now to look around to the crowd behind them, “We need some help here,” he shouts. His first contact with them. “Someone.  Help.”

“But 98% isn’t 100%.” Elizabeth, who was once Libby, is looking out to the Bay herself now, lost in her own thoughts. “Poets build bridges, we paint them like space suits, and up here the fog looks like clouds and we could almost be in Heaven.”

“Stop it...Libby. The things you told me. I didn’t know them. Any of them. I listened because I wanted you to save me. I wanted a reason to get down from here alive. You were right. You won the deal. We get to leave here together, go for lunch, talk about this.  Isn’t that what you said?”

Her attention snaps back to Henry. She is mute, lacking the words to answer him.

“I think you wanted a reason too, Libby.  A reason not to do this,” Henry pulls her in towards him, holding her tightly against his chest as he shouts again to the mass, “someone help me, get her back over.”

And with those words finally, movement stirs the crowd. The Southern Gentleman hesitantly steps forward, then begins to walk purposefully towards them.

“Libby. You stood and talked to me. You know that there’s a way back, and you know that if you wanted to jump you would have already.  We can go back. There’s so much pain in the world, I know that as well as you do, but there is so much beauty. Look.”

Turning away from the Bay, Elizabeth looks up to the hard lines of the Bridge against the noon sky. She has learned so much about this Bridge. The magnificence of its architecture, the streetlights, the walkways, these very railings that now stand between her and the rest of her life.

“Come back over the barrier,” the Southern Gentleman has reached them and he stretches out his hand.  Henry is holding on to her, stopping her from jumping; this wasn’t what she had planned.  

Looking at Henry, and at the Southern Gentleman talking now through the barrier, trying to help her over, she begins to think that Henry could right.  Life was painful, but there is also so much beauty. Not just in forests and bridges, but in people. People who would help others, strangers who would reach out, not knowing why, not knowing how, but wanting to do something to help.

On the Bridge, there are only two ways; up and over the barrier to the future, or down, to an ending. There was enough doubt planted in Elizabeth’s mind now for her to look up, to reach for the hands extended towards her, to reach for a future.  There were many facts that she had learnt about the Bridge, many more beautiful, poetic facts than dark, deathly details.  More reasons to live than to die.

Sometimes you just needed reasons to choose the right direction.