A decade or so ago, you would have found Tom sitting on Hungerford bridge, considering whether to jump into the Thames or not. His feet would have been wrapped precariously around the chunky lattice features of its wrought iron framework, his gloved hands holding on to the bridge. He was lost in unbelief, for himself, for his life, for his future. It was, as is the nature of these recounted stories, bitterly cold and foggy.
Tom remembers that early morning – night time really. He recalls shivering. Crying. He remembers looking up at the clear skies through tearful eyes. Traffic was minimal, if at all. Peace reigned.
He recalls hearing a couple of Israeli tourists as they approached from the Charing Cross end of the bridge. His gap year wasn’t the best, but he did manage to pick up a few words of conversational Hebrew on his travels.
Their voices, growing louder by every step, reminded him of a bygone season in his life. Life in a kibbutz community was not all it was cracked up to be, he had thought. He returned home thinking that there must be more to life than passing strangers in a foreign land. And here was that same scene being revisited, two passing strangers in his foreign land.
There was an assured comfort in their voices, in this language, spoken by Jews, ‘the language of angels’, Tom had once said.
These two men were speaking about life, and God’s part in it. They had tradition, thought Tom, noticing the Tzittzit wrapped around their shoulders. They had a history to cling on to, a purpose. As they passed, he saw the yarmulkes on their heads. For a moment in time, he envied them. And then all too quickly, the fog took them out of his sight, like so many before them.
People had come, and people had gone in Tom’s life. No one had stayed. Even his parents deserted him. His dad had left when he was 8 and his mother drank. Foster parents seemed to take him in, only for the authorities to take him out again.
For Tom, there was no life, only death. No belief. Only unbelief. No promised land, only places he was promised, never to arrive. At least those Jews had something that they believed in, he thought. Why didn’t he?
As the seconds ticked by, he knew that he was in need of something or someone that was going to transform his life. Jumping would transform his life, even if it was into death and that would be the end of it. But he wasn’t sure if he wanted transformation of that kind. And anyway, did he have the courage to end his life in that way?
Eating might help. Shelter certainly would. Money? Perhaps. But what of the day after tomorrow?
Lost in his thoughts, and looking at the dark, choppy waters below, he hadn’t at first noticed the footsteps of a young woman approaching. If footsteps can sound friendly, then these were them.
“Are you alright?”
Tom’s heartbeat increased.
“Would you like me to get you some help?”
Tom continued to look downwards. Like so many he had known, he spent his whole life looking down, at the ground, at his shoes, at his mobile phone and now, in this moment, at the waters below. It was the habit of his lifetime, a lifetime of being ashamed to show his face and confront the judgment that he anticipated and feared would come his way.
But the girl’s soft tone spoke to his pain. Without lifting his head, his raised eyes took in the skyline; County Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, its night lights glowing bright. He untangled his legs from the iron fascia and began to dangle them, back and forth.
“What could help me?” he uttered. The words came out more clearly than he thought they ought to have done from one so close to imminent death.
“Maybe I can?” she said.
He wondered if she was just another passing stranger in his life, another moment to forget. But he also sensed compassion, something that had rarely crossed his path.
“Thank you,” said Tom. “That is kind. But I think I am beyond help. And anyway, who can help me?” It was a good question for a moment such as this. Having got to the point of asking it, it was now a question that required an answer – preferably before the night was out.
The girl spoke again. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from?”
Tom had few happy childhood memories but he recalled those words from his formative years. It might have been at school, the nativity play perhaps, or maybe it was a rare visit to Sunday School class with his drunken mum’s kindly neighbour, Mrs Blackwell. Today, the question came back into his life, softly spoken by an unknown stranger.
“If only we knew the answer to that question,” Tom responded, still staring downwards into the Thames.
“My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth,” responded the stranger. Tom shuddered. This was something beautiful, the sound of music, even something to live for perhaps? For the passing Jews, now long gone, these were the words of the Psalmist, written some 3,000 years ago. But today, they were the words of the unexpected sojourner, who tarried alongside him for a moment, and offered him new words, spoken softly, quietly delivered, and with authority.
Absorbing the kindly words, Tom lifted his head, slowly. He leaned back, brought his legs back over the bridge and placed them on to the pavement. His eyes searched for the girl. Where was she? There was no one there, no girl, no stranger, no shadow, no one around.
Tom acknowledged the silence, picked up his rucksack, and looked upwards, towards the lights ahead. He began to amble back along the bridge, towards Charing Cross.