A Death on West Street.
Somebody was moving outside my window. I watched as a shadow slid across the far wall, reflecting and pulsing with the huge neon sign mounted on the roof of the Londsdale Hotel opposite. Red, white, rolling lines and off. Red, white, rolling lines and off. Subconsciously, I counted ten sequences of the pattern, my eyes locked on the shadow as it moved steadily towards the foot of my bed. Then the figure moved into view, momentarily obscuring most of the sign across the road and the haze of white light from West Street below.
The curtains, as always, were open. Being on the twelfth floor, my flat was a few levels higher that the nearest hotels, including the Londsdale. So no-one – except the occasional window cleaner – ever looked in from the outside. The only way to do that – other than making some sort of James Bond effort with ropes and chains attached to the roof – was to climb out of another flat on the same floor and shuffle along the concrete ledge that ran the entire length of the building. Until now, no one had been crazy enough to try that.
I held my breath and sat up slowly in bed. The person outside was only a few feet away. Was the intention to climb into the open window and enter my flat? I couldn't be sure although it seemed as he or she was facing away from the window. I felt reasonably confident that I would have time to slam it shut if the person were to suddenly turn and attempt a break-in. And it wouldn't be easy to turn on the narrow ledge with nothing to hold on to and then to lift and crawl through such a high and narrow space.
But the figure outside stopped just as it reached the side window. A hand seemed to be holding on to the frame and I could just make out four fingers on my side of the glass. Everything was very quiet and still. For a moment there were no car noises or human voices from West Street below and all I could hear was the frantic pulse of my own heart and a slight buzz from the Londsdale's neon sign. Red, white, rolling lines and off. Red, white, rolling lines and off. Once again I found myself counting the patterns.
On the fifth pulse, the figure moved. It fell away from the window. Dropping silently forward, it slowly disappeared from view, almost graceful like a ballerina falling into the arms of an imagined partner. And for a moment, the cola sign seemed to stick, pausing for a second to turn my bed sheets the colour of red. Then the regular pulse began again; red, white, rolling lines and off.
I waited with mounting dread, my ears tuned to the sounds of the street below: a car horn, footsteps and the sound of someone laughing. Then finally, I heard the soft but unmistakable thump of the impact.
A silence followed, broken only by a slight breeze which flapped gently at the open curtains. And even though I had prepared myself for it and even as I sat forward on the edge of the bed waiting for it, I still felt the bile rise from the pit of my stomach and shoot up my throat at the horror of the scream that followed. It was a woman's scream: long and terrible and pausing only for a short and frenzied breath before resuming again.
I didn't want to move. I didn't want to climb out of bed, to look through the open window or rush downstairs to see the inevitable outcome. This was probably none of my business, this was not my problem and I didn't want to be involved. An ambulance would come, paramedics would deal with it – there would be police. I'd buy a paper later in the day and probably read all about it like every other uninvolved reader.
The girl downstairs was still screaming – a sound a bit like a persistent alarm clock that you can't turn off.
I didn't want to face the logic of the situation, but the facts spoke for themselves. The only way to get to the ledge outside my window was to climb onto it from one of the other flats on our floor. And I knew every single person living on that floor.
The scream carried on. How much screaming was one person capable of?
There would be questions. The police would want to know where the jumper came from. They would look up and work out the angles and surely it would only be a matter of time before someone came knocking on my door. What would I do then? Lie? Say that I was asleep and that I hadn't heard or seen a thing?
The more I thought about it the more I realised that I was already involved.
I got out of bed, reached blindly for a pair of shorts left haphazardly on a chair, scooped up my keys from the kitchen table unlocked the door. I walked halfway down the corridor passing five flats before turning right into the lift lobby. Pressing the downward button I listened to the groan of closing doors somewhere in the buildings and the rattle of moving cables. At three in the morning I didn't expect to wait too long. After a while the doors slid open and, as expected, the lift was empty.
I pressed 'G' and stared at myself in one of the mirrors. The lack of sleep showed; my tiredness multiplied many times by the infinite number of images trailing me in the facing mirror. I raised my eyes and turned my head upwards, counting down the red floor markers as the lift descended.
As always, it stopped at the first floor and the doors parted to reveal the reception area to the left and a sign pointing to 'Sealands Restaurant'. Pure force of habit made me reach for the 'door close' button but I quickly withdrew my hand and allowed the doors to shut in their own leisurely time. Closing my eyes, I tried to prepare myself for what was waiting just a floor below. But I couldn't think; my mind was a complete blank. I mean how do you prepare yourself for such a thing?
The doors opened again. My legs were weak and reluctant under me. I turned left and passed the unoccupied night watchman's booth glancing briefly at the shops on either side of the short arcade – naked dummies in one and woman's shoes in the other. There were blue flashing lights ahead and an ambulance was just arriving. That gave me some relief; this was something I didn't want to face alone.
The body was on the pavement, one arm twisted so that a hand was overhanging the pavement edge and the tar road. The face was twisted towards me at an odd angle. It looked peaceful and relatively undamaged and I wondered if the torso had taken the brunt of the impact. The screaming girl was a few feet away, her faced turned away towards the clothes shop. She was no longer screaming but seemed to be shaking and gasping for air. A young guy was standing next to her, talking quietly in her ear, his arms around her shoulder. The Sealands night watchman was just a few feet away, staring down at the body. He turned and nodded to me as I walked past. I returned the gesture. Although I had seen him many times in the last few months, we had never progressed beyond nodding acquaintances.
The two paramedics were leaning over the body, their hands searching vainly for any signs of life. One of them was a girl who seemed to be in her early twenties. She turned and looked up as my shadow fell across her. Blinking once, she shook her head and held my stare for a moment before raising her eyes to take in the twenty four floors of the imposing Sealands building. Her partner followed her gaze.
'It's a high one,' he said. 'I wonder which floor?'
I stepped forward.
They were both looking at me now.
'How do you know?' asked the girl.
'It's my floor,' I replied. 'And I know who it is.'
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