Fear of Falling

by H E Thomas

I have a fear of falling. I am told it is common. I feel a fear of many things, but most, I think, stem from that.

I am at mid-point of The Bridge, the half-way mark, the point where most exposed. I grasp the handrail tight, test its strength, seeing if it shakes. It rests solid; I look down. Below the river, a mile wide, is indecisive. The tide is turning, the water unsure which way to look. Milk Chocolate brown, it swirls in uncertain eddies and watery contraflows caught between the pull of earth and moon. I wonder if there is a moment, just a moment, when caught between conflicting forces the river just stops, a moment of inner silence, of surface calm, water caressed now by wind alone. A pause when the river, weightless, falls neither up nor down.

I lean backward, carefully, gently on the handrail, letting The Bridge take me, letting it hold my weight. At this moment it holds my whole being. Trusting The Bridge. For a moment I am one with The Bridge. I rest there.

There is a whisper of cracking metal, the handrail gives. I fall backward into vacant space towards the water far below, free-fall, beyond control. I cannot know what this fall would be like until that moment lived but beyond repeat. I could have anticipated: would the moment last for ever, suspended in eternal animation, would it pass so quickly no memory could ever form. Whichever, no memory could be retold. Only memories past of falls survived could suggest how this moment would be, but anticipation rarely survives experience.

The handrail still holds my weight. I have not fallen. An act of trust, of letting go, repaid.

I had not forgotten, because I never knew, how young I was when I first crossed this bridge. This bridge - The Bridge - born at the same time as me, a slender arc of suspended steel spanning a great river and linking states of mind. cannot remember, the memories are beyond recall, but I can imagine. Me in the front, on my mother's lap, a front row seat of this great Crossing, extended family of greats and grands wedged into the back. can only imagine we were crossing for the sake of crossing this modern-day wonder a mile wide and a mile high. We were crossing because it was there, a novelty, a marvel too near not to go and too challenging to be ignored. Who knows what actually was imprinted on my young child's mind in the days before memories formed. Perhaps was asleep.

When next we met, The Bridge and I, I feared heights. I know not how nor why I knew this, but held it as a fact of my young life. I remember a ladder placed against our house which one night I dared to climb, making it just a handful of feet off the ground before uncertainty or hesitation or giddiness took over. But by then I already knew this fear, and knew it had something to do with The Bridge. The Bridge - the only place high enough to engender this fear, the only place high enough to face it. Future crossings became a conflict of emotions in my growing mind: anticipated anxiety, and anticipated thrill. For years I and The Bridge eyed each other across crowded roadways, circled in a distant but flirtation dance of uncertain desire. We have a history, of sorts, The Bridge and I, but it's time we knew each other now in truth, not mind's-eye fiction.

There are stories we tell ourselves of ourselves; there are others we have been told. Stories that come to define us, become part of our taken for granted, but seldom challenged World. But what if some of these stories are not true. And if just one is not, what of the others, until a whole house of cards built on false assumption come tumbling down into a pile of, what, chaos or liberation? Do stories define us, or sometimes imprison? Can stories, or stories retold set us free? One story, one card in the pack, was fear of heights and to know its truth I have come to meet The Bridge. Eyed each other across a crowded roadway for so long, it feels like a first date, not blind, but slightly squinting.

We are to walk together, The Bridge and I, on the precipitous seeming footpath I have seen from passing cars. A passage that seems both exhilarating and terrifying: expectation of anxiety and excitement repeated, as any first meeting might be. I tried not to anticipate this, I wanted to experience it in the moment. But I had planned the trip none-the-less, nothing spontaneous, and my mind had issues with The Moment. Days before I felt a growing presence, a shadowy unease in the recesses of my brain. It wouldn't show itself but crept around the dark places, letting me know it was there; showing me, uninvited, sudden thoughts of cavernous drops and churning water, enough to trigger mental recoil, and tightening bowels.

I arrive at the start of my walk where I will meet my date. Beside me the roadway, the splat of accelerating tires, the percussive beat of eighteen wheels. The pathway is guarded by a cage-like gate of thick tubular bars. My mind's eye telescopes through, sees the bridge ahead as a steeply ascending whale-back - as much of a climb as a walk. can see only to the first pier, the first tower, an event horizon for the mind.

This entrance, to me, is a speed-bump of emotion, a barrier to be crossed. Through the gate, crossing this personal Rubicon, I do not know what I will do, do not know what I will find in myself, how I will respond to The Bridge. Beyond the gate I see myself naked and exposed to whatever it is I fear out there.

Fear of heights. Few people are truly fearful of this; and neither, so it turns out, am I. I would find myself drawn to high places, wanting the views, wanting the challenge. Mountain-tops, tower-tops, even, unfaithfully, I sought the embrace of other bridges. Each time, on each summit or mid-point I would grasp a handrail and look straight down, daring the drop to look back. No, not scared of heights, but more, it seemed fear of falling; and even more by a vertiginous desire to jump, an urge so strong it would make me recoil away to safety. Perhaps this is common, perhaps perverse, but fear of falling drew me to want to fly - if only down.

I push through the gate onto The Bridge. My date and I meet properly for the first time; we exchange coy pleasantries. The path is ten feet wide, steel, hard beneath my feet. I fear falling but am here to know this fear better. I want to take it apart, deconstruct, dismantle, to see what lies beneath. To know might decided whether this evening ends in consummation or disappointment or humiliation.

The fears had lived in anticipation. I feared I would not succeed - that some deep trepidation would hold me back on the edge of this Bridge never making to across the water, never reaching the other side. I would stand The Bridge up. No one would know - but I would: private shame, failure in something second nature to most. Or that I would get so far and freeze, loose the force to move forward or back and be found, foetal-like, grasping whatever I could pass as solid ground, headed for rescue and the evening news. Public shame. That I would fall off The Bridge, or that The Bridge would fall on me were of no issue. I feared falling and falling within myself: feared loss of control. I feared anticipation.

My first steps out onto The Bridge. Road and pathway forget the land and head into open space. They leap from a cliff-edge of multicoloured, pastel-shaded strata. The drop is at its most benign here; I take the handrail and look down. The handrail, open-barred, stomach high, looks fragile but feels strong. I look down. The tide is far out, below is mud and broken rock; ant-people pick their way along the beach; wooden stakes of ancient fish traps rise like standing stones from the shallow wate

There is a moment of numbness, physical ill-ease in my legs: my other fear that they will, at some point simply collapse beneath me, robbing me of my power of foot-stepped speech with my date. I recoil slowly from the rail, breath again, return. I walk on, repeating this like a swimmer acclimatising to a chilly sea, a slow process of emersion. A "getting-to know- you", an icebreaker. I reach the first anchor - a vast concrete block holding down the sequoia-thick cables of The Bridge. To here The Bridge has been held from below; I have been held from below. From here on it hangs suspended above water. I cannot perceive the difference, although I know it, and knowing makes a difference in the mind. I feel I am walking now, tentatively, on air.

I look out into the open Estuary. I have the presence of mind to be struck by the great beauty of this scene. The great width of the river towards low water; unpredictable, promiscuous shoals and sand banks lay strip-teased by the tide. There is a shelf of dark broken cloud and spot-lights of God's Light strobing the water. A heavy truck passes by, wheels pounding expansion joints and jars the footpath. I feel oddly, unexpectedly, unshaken by this. I feel nothing bad would happen here with this view, whatever my doubts. I walk on.

For a few hundred yards I remain uncertain, hesitant, occasionally foot-tied. Should I have been watched by cameras in some remote control room I would have looked like a drunk walking home, meandering across that narrow strip of steel. I would retreat away from the edge to where vertical stays fell like prison bars to the roadway, then veer back towards the edge, grasping the handrail as the drop became ever greater. Back and forth, back and forth, safety to danger, safety to danger. But as I progressed the pull of the outer edge becomes greater. I find myself drawn towards the drop, growing in confidence, easing into comfort. My date, The Bridge, is putting me at ease.

I come to the first pier, its cubic A frame rising hundreds of feet above: solid, comforting, the cables of The Bridge thrown casually over its high shoulder. The path veers out around, for a moment more precarious as it unhinges from the roadway. A tanker rumbles past, a distorted reflection in its polished metal side. The path shudders violent from this, but I feel safe here, as if The Bridge has comfortingly taken my hand.

This is not what I had expected, not what the invasion of darks thoughts of anticipation had wanted to frighten me with. A family pass in the opposite direction, a sunny afternoon excursion across The Bridge. Children ride by on tiny scooters watched over by grandparents, all oblivious to fears of height or falling. They are playing with The Bridge, and so am I. A father and young son jog past, wishing me "good afternoon" thought measured breaths. The Bridge, I am sure, is flirting with me, slowly seducing me. I am flirting back, allowing myself to be drawn in.

I return to the handrail. Embrace it as far as I can. I let my feet poke below the railing and dip into the free-fall air. No fear of falling, no fear even of wanting to fly. I am enjoying this: feeling safe, absorbing the view, loosing myself in abstract space, feeling the moment, being with The Bridge. Another truck passes, the handrail vibrates, I hold on, not for safety but for fun, letting the rumble thrill through my body.

The mid-way point is reached - the place that had once seemed so distant, but which is now nowhere far enough. Far below the chocolate waters churn as threatening as a Cadbury's bar. I watch the swirls and eddies of indecision, freed of it myself. I think it might be fun to lever myself up and sit on the handrail, but pushing boundaries to breaking point is one thing, exceeding common sense quite another. I am here for normality and honesty, not bravado. re is no fear of falling, no urge to jump. Anticipation born of assumption and false tales has dissolved in the face of reality. A pause, weightless, falling neither up nor down.

Out here, as far as you can get from either side, the giant cables dip down, bow shaped and plant a chastened kiss on the roadway. Playfully I wonder (because now The Bridge and I are relaxed enough to swap risqué jokes) if couples come here seeking thrills and puddles of shadows between the l.e.d. Do lovers come here rising and falling on the arch of The Bridge daring the sight of passing drivers. Out here the earth will always move - when a Tesco's truck goes by.

I lean back against the handrail - The Bridge takes me, holds me like a long-known lover. The Bridge and I have known each other almost since birth but only now do we share our knowledge of each other.

Out here, there is deeper water and deeper clarity. I feared falling, so I thought. But out here, naked and exposed to it, it was letting go I really feared, falling just a consequence. Feared losing myself to things beyond my control, which anticipation always made dark. Feared breaking the atomic-like bondage of an inner part so closely held I feared its release into the free-fall of the outside world where only harm would come. I look down: from a swirling, confused eddie below a tendril of brown current breaks free and leg its downstream.

I had thought, half a mile back, that stepping through the cage-like gate was steeping into my fears. Looking back along the gentle curve of The Bridge I saw I had stepped from them. Passing through was, in fact, letting go. I had free-fallen to a place of light.

                                                                                                                                  ..|.

I am at the mid-point and look back, the way I have come. The land is flat, open, the evening sun illuminating, inviting. I look the other way. The land rises, corrugates, fold over itself, closes in. It shuns the light, black, cold. The Bridge never joined real places, just a way-point on a highway linking a distant "there" to another. But from those distant hills it was a break-out to those mythical, mystical places of "out", and "away". So many of the stories come from those hills, and passing over water, going to the river, was supposed to carry them off. But stories last longer, and with them come the skills to tell more, until the day you wonder if the stories are true. Perhaps that is why I have walked this way, not cleaning them in the river, but carrying them back from where they came. To leave them there.

There are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and there are others we are told. Those rooted in reality, as far as we remember, are often true; those grown in anticipation, sometimes just fable and myth. Anticipation rarely survives reality, light chases away the shadowy fears of night; and with reality we can tell ourselves truer tales.

The Bridge and I begin to pull away. I keep walking: its all down hill from here.

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