by Craig Robertson

‘L’appel du vide’ by Craig Robertson

I’m on the platform at Edinburgh Park station. It’s Monday morning busy, mobbed with suits waiting to get into the city before nine. Commuter heaven and commuter hell.

There’s a message on the screens warning that the next train doesn’t stop here. It’s an express and will be tearing through the platform at full speed. Anyone who’s been there when a train thunders past, not even blinking at the platform, will know what a visceral experience it is. The platform seems to shake, and waves of air make you rock back on your feet.

I’m a few feet back from the edge, just behind the bobbled strip of concrete that’s meant to be as far as you go. No man’s land. Mind the gap.

It reminds me that there’s a thing. A scientific thing. Most of us have probably experienced it at some time in our lives, some of us feel it often.

The urge.

It might just last for a second, maybe longer. And as long as it lasts, it makes perfect sense, seems the right thing to do. More than that, it seems irresistible.

The urge. To just step out. To see what would happen. To see what it would feel like. It would only take one step and it would be done.

The French call it L’appel du vide. Literally, it means the call of the void. Some psychologists think all of us have experienced it at least once.

You’ve thought it, haven’t you? Probably only for a split second, and you’d never actually do it, of course. But the thought has stolen through your mind, making you wonder, ever so briefly, if you should. Would be so easy…

Maybe if not at a train station, then when you’re driving. You have your hands on the wheel and a voice in your head says, just swing the car to the right into that oncoming traffic. You’ll have felt your hands grip the wheel just that little bit tighter. Or you’ve been giving someone a bath and think of drowning them, or when you’re holding a knife or hammer and think how easy it would be to stab and kill someone nearby.

It’s the call of the siren song. Maybe you’ve felt it at the edge of a cliff as you look down. It comes from nowhere. The thought. The urge. Jump. Scientists call it the High Place Phenomenon. They say it’s the result of miscommunication in your brain, that it makes you imagine the jump so that your body rebels at the prospect of death and you take a step back from the edge. Maybe, I’m not so sure.

I sometimes wonder what’s wrong in my life that makes me think it. What’s missing or what’s there that shouldn’t be.

Am I so unhappy deep down that ending it by being obliterated by a train seems a good idea?

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I have a job that I mostly like, children that make me burst with pride. I’ve got a roof over my head and good friends. Above all, I have a wife that I love. Fiona’s smile makes my pulse quicken, her laugh makes me happy, and I’d know her perfume anywhere. Narciso Rodriguez for Her. Peaches and roses, amber and musk. As soon as she walks into a room, my head turns.

And yet, for all that, I can stand on the deck of a ship and look at the waves churning below, and I hear the voice. I can stand on a bridge and feel the call. We’ve been married fifteen years and that doesn’t come without some collateral damage. A rough patch, I guess that’s what it’s called. A six-month rough patch.

I remember climbing to the top of the Wallace Monument in Stirling. 70 metres high on a hill that’s already 110 metres above the ground. You can see for miles in almost every direction and there’s just a chest-high wall between you and the longest drop.

The kids were full of excitement beside me, Fiona keeping a wary eye on them. It was me she should have been watching. As I looked over the edge to the ground below, the voice said jump.

I can hear the roar of the express in the distance as it careers towards us. Stepping out in front of a train that fast means certain death. A thousand tonnes of metal hitting 12 stones of flesh, tissue and brittle bone at nearly a hundred miles an hour isn’t much of a contest.

Fiona works long hours, longer than she used to. Her boss, Andrew, likes her to stay behind, push on with work. I know I’m too scared to ask. Too scared to hear that the truth is what I think it is. Maybe that’s why I hear the voice.

Sometimes, the train does such a number on a body that forensic teams are called in just to prove that it had happened. Traumatised drivers have told of someone stepping in front of their train but there being no physical sign of it having taken place. The body instantly vaporises on the windscreen, leaving nothing but trace elements that could be washed away by a shower of rain.

Andrew, her boss, takes the same train to work that I do. Fiona takes the kids to school and goes in later. And stays later.

Answering the call of the void into the path of an express train promises the sweet certainty of an instantaneous demise. A slow train coming is a messy alternative. It could mean broken bones, paraplegia, brain injuries; any number of things that stop short of death. And if the train just catches you a glancing blow, albeit a thousand tonne –hundred miles an hour glance, then that can be very messy indeed. Then people standing on station platforms have been known to be showered in blood, bone and entrails as the jumper is ripped to bits. It’s all about the timing.

The express is in view now, racing towards us. I can hear the voice.

Andrew, her boss, is standing just a few feet away, close to the edge. He looks so pleased with himself. Smart suit. Expensive haircut. My wife’s smell on him from the night before. They probably laugh at me together. I can feel the ground shake, the noise is tremendous, the air is moving towards us.

That’s when I feel it. The urge.

The voice in my head telling me to go for it. Do it.

I take two steps forward, one to the side. No stopping me this time. It will be like he’s never been here at all. I can hear the strains of the siren’s song and it’s playing for Andrew.

I’m within two feet of him when, from behind, I get a whiff of peaches and roses, amber and musk. I’d know it anywhere. Then I feel two hands pushing hard into the middle of my back, forcing me to fly.

Above the thunderous roar of the express, I hear the call of the void.


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