Who are all those people walking over Waterloo Bridge? I often wondered. Where are they going? And why? All those journeys, all that shoe leather. One evening I stopped to speak to someone. Some stories you don’t want to hear.
I’d worked late on a pitch I was due to present to a new client the following morning. I was pleased with the ‘Bank with us because we’re banking on you’ strapline so I treated myself to a drink at the Betsey Trotwood. I met up with the usual crowd from the Free Word centre but left them to it at around ten.
I took my usual route home down Farringdon Road, through the legal district, along the Strand and onto the upriver side of Waterloo Bridge.
Halfway across the river I stopped and breathed in London: the smell of money and diesel. I leaned on the cold, metal railing and took in the sweep of the Thames with the broken lights of London bobbing on the surface. Taxis rattled past as the swirl of October wind lapped the water below. I remember I could still taste the last pint of Guinness as I took out my mobile phone and composed a frame. One for the blog. As I was framing another picture I became aware of a still figure in the shadows a few metres away.
‘Don’t do it,’ urged a voice. ‘She’s not worth it.’
A man, possibly in his late 30s, stepped into the streetlight. Etiolated. A man of the night. He was wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Don’t Believe the Lies’, and had an acoustic guitar strapped across his back. Busker?
‘Some are worth it,’ I said.
He held a quick smile before killing it.
I recognized him.
‘Weren’t you just in the Betsey Trotwood?’ I asked.
‘Never been there before,’ he said, seriously. ‘I went to meet someone. She didn’t show. But I caught up with her later.’
I could remember the man coming into the pub but not speaking a word. He sat conspicuously alone on a tall stool and glanced at the swing door every time someone entered. When he didn’t have his eyes glued to the entrance he was checking his phone for messages. He left before I did.
‘Been playing long?’ I asked.
He swung his guitar from his back and strummed a D major.
‘Some pub gigs, a studio session or two. You?’
‘I can bash out a few chords,’ I answered. ‘Now I’m strictly words, no music.’
‘You write, then?’
‘For a living?’
‘Have I heard of you?’
‘No but you may have read something I wrote.’
‘“One word is worth a thousand pictures.”’
‘Like the ad for the phone company?’
‘Yeah. That was me.’
‘Not exactly Shakespeare, is it?’
‘Not exactly Ray Davies, are you?’
‘Helps pay the rent,’ he said.
‘One word is worth a thousand… which word, exactly?’ he asked.
‘You choose. That’s the point. It’s meant to inspire people to use their phone more. “It’s good to talk”, and all that.’
‘You mean it’s good to spend more money I don’t have talking to people I barely know on an expensive phone tariff I don’t understand.’
‘It’s only an advertisement,’ I said.
‘Yeah, well bollocks to it.’
Then he stuffed a hand into his trouser pocket, took out a mobile phone and, daring me to stop him, threw it in the air. It spun in a wide arc before disappearing over the railing. Instinctively I ran to the barrier and saw the glint of the phone at the moment it hit the water.
‘Shit, man, was that an iPhone?’
‘No use to me now,’ he said.
He stepped up next to me and looked down into the darkness. I surreptitiously slipped my BlackBerry into my jacket pocket and stepped away.
‘I’d best be off,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a Tesco curry at home with my name on it.’
‘Did you write the ad for that too?’
He was baiting me now.
He played the D chord again and sang: ‘No need to worry, when you can force down our curry.’ Then, to a C major: ‘Tesco’s curries, no worries.’
‘Very creative,’ I sighed.
‘New words to an old tune,’ he called, and then to the same melody, he sang: ‘My young love said to me… I’m sure you don’t want to hear the rest.’
‘Maybe some other time,’ I said, and began to head south.
‘If not now, when?’ he hissed, his eyes forced shut.
The guy seemed upset so I stopped. I was in no hurry (for my curry) so I took a few steps back and let him talk.
‘The things she said. I believed them all.’
‘Words are important,’ I said.
‘But only if you mean them.’ The tremor beneath his words held me. ‘You’re a man of words; do you mean everything you say, everything you write?’
‘I mean them to be suitable for the client I’m working for, if that answers your question.’
That line came out clever, which wasn’t intended.
Traffic streamed by as tourists up and down the bridge took photographs west to the Eye and east towards the OXO Tower and the City. Despite the bustle, this curious guitar playing man and I seemed to be trapped in a capsule of existence insignificant to the rest of London.
‘Look, I know it’s none of my business,’ I said, ‘but why did you throw your iPhone into the river?’
‘She took everything else. Everything that mattered, anyway. She might as well take the phone – and all her messages. The final word from my young love.’
He strummed D major, and sang, ‘My young love said to me, my mother won’t mind, and my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind.’
He seemed to sob, and then continued, ‘It will not be long, love, until our wedding day.’
‘She said she’d marry me,’ he said, ‘the girl who didn’t show at the pub.’
I felt like I was being dragged into something.
‘So, she called it off?’ I asked.
I breathed an empathetic sigh. ‘That’s tough.’
‘Life’s shit and then you die,’ he said, and held my gaze.
He leaned on the rail and balanced the guitar on the paling. It was a Martin, an expensive instrument, and one I’d expect to be carried in a case through the city.
He noticed me clocking it. ‘It’s a D forty two. Best one in my collection. Can’t go wrong with a vintage Martin.’
I was so far into the story I couldn’t pull out now.
‘Did she meet somebody else?’ I asked.
‘I’ll never know,’ he said. ‘She sent a garbled message while I was in the pub. The last text. I can’t show it to you as I seem to have misplaced my phone. Like you say, words are important. She never heard the song.’
He ran his fingers across the strings then let go of the guitar, which slipped over the railing. The open chord rang out but quickly died and we both winced as the guitar belly-flopped onto the water.
All I could think was: ‘What next?’
As I imagined the guitar floating towards St Paul’s, I searched for some words to fill the chasm that was growing between us.
‘No chance of making up?’ I asked. Daft question. This is serious.
‘It’s gone too far for that,’ he replied. ‘Too much has happened. Everything’s been said – spoken down the phone, whispered on the pillow, sung into microphones.’
‘Not necessarily,’ I said, too earnest. ‘You could give her a ca… contact her somehow. These things have a habit of working out. When did you see her last?’
‘Just before you appeared. Ten minutes ago.’
‘She was here on Waterloo Bridge?’
‘Which way did she go?’
‘Down there. Into the dirty old river. With all the texts and all the songs I ever sang for her.’
He pulled out a sheet of paper. Blankly, he said, ‘Except this one; the song she never heard.’
I ran to the railing and leaned over. A pleasure boat cruised underneath filled with people unaware of what was above them, or below.
‘Christ! We’ve got to do something!’
I took out my phone and called 999.
As I waited for the pick up, I asked, ‘What’s your name?’
‘And your girlfriend’s?’
I scanned the bridge for help.
‘Emergency – which service do you require… ?’
I turned back to see Terry standing on the outside of the railing, holding on with one hand and waving the sheet of paper in the other.
‘NO!’ I shouted.
He sang, ‘We are in paradise,’ and let go.
The song, written out in his own hand, fell to the ground before he hit the water.
by Alan Whelan