Bryan Pernice was growing fat, he realised this much too late, he was getting old, going bald, getting fat. It occurred to him that he might be getting too fat for the jump. He twiddled his pudgy thumbs, the skin rubbing together as he fumbled, anxiously staring out of the window of the first floor of his Cotswold house. Autumn was giving way to Winter, the dead leaves littering the cobbled streets outside had already lost their crunch, turning wet with the drizzle of rain.
The evening was setting in with a sky full of murky grey, casting a sheet of dusk over the village of Lochston. In the half-night the residents of the village often took strolls, getting a last bit of fresh air before turning in or stopping by the local grocers for larder supplies. Bryan felt his stomach grumble with disapproval. Never mind getting fat, he thought, he needed to eat something, no use starving himself.
He decided if he would lose weight, he would need a change of pace, skimmed milk instead of full fat, more exercise, a hobby or two. He would begin this change by putting on his wool jumper, which was getting too small for him, the fabric tearing slightly at the sides where it failed to cover his belly. Shivering in the breeze he walked briskly to the grocers, his pocket taught with half crowns, shillings and a few threepenny bits he’d found lodged in the back of his armchair next to cake crumbs and flakes of pie crust. No more of this trash food, he thought, arriving at the grocers after an uneven walk across the cobbles with the cold nipping the skin on the back of his neck.
The clerk did his best to maintain a smile for his last customer, just before closing time, as Bryan picked up some lean cuts of meat, no gristle, several fresh vegetables which he couldn’t remember the names of and some slices of warm crusty bread. No butter or cheese this time. Bryan smiled to himself as he made his way back home, suppressing his habitual waddle, a trait he said he would lose once too many times.
Back at home Bryan fixed himself a steak sandwich bulked up with sliced carrot, parsnip and broccoli. All these extras were alien to him, save for the left-over coleslaw he had found tucked away in the cold storage next to the larder. He sat plump in his armchair by the fireplace, his reddened cheeks illuminated by the crackle of the flames with his sandwich in one hand and poker in the other, stirring pieces of firewood. The fresh taste reminded him of a snippet of a film he saw one time in the village library where he worked as a porter. It was about a fat man on a beach in a place called Wales, it made him feel refreshed, fixated on the idea. It was a question that often brooded in his mind: if he could leave Lochston for a day where would he go? To the beach. His eyes smiled in the light of the fire. Yes, he thought, I shall go to the beach if I make the jump. In fact, he would do it today, yes, he finished his sandwich hastily and went to the telephone on a small antique wooden table in the corner of the room. He had to use his little finger to spin the dial for each number, the others were too big for the holes.
‘Hello this is the XXXXX,’ a censor beep, Bryan winced, ‘how can we help?’
‘Hi this is Bryan Pernice, I’m a porter at the information centre.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘I’d like to do my jump tonight if that’s possible.’
‘Certainly sir, we’ll have one of ours come by to escort you to the jump in five minutes. Goodbye.’
‘And good luck sir.’
Bryan put the phone down, his hands shaking. He wondered if he would make it this time, or if he was being too optimistic. His hands automatically went to his stomach, feeling the rotund shape. His anxiety intensified, he’d only just started eating right today and it certainly wasn’t enough to try the jump again. What was he thinking?
Bryan sat fidgeting in his armchair, he closed his eyes to calm himself. The fire was waning, the oncoming silence did little to calm his nerves against the chill that swooped across the walls. A minute passed, two minutes. He couldn’t help but let his eyelids flicker open every now and then to check his watch, the old leather strap straining around the fat of his wrist. He flexed his fingers and found them to be numb like rubber. Unfastening his watch, he set it down on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, for fear of it damaging his blood circulation despite the fact it was more to do with the cold than anything else.
As Bryan approached his armchair again across the uneven floorboards, the creaking of which echoed throughout the entire house as though it were in constant agony, he heard a sharp knock on the front door. He waddled over to it as a cold sweat caused a thin film to glaze his forehead, his tiny heart pounding with effort. He felt as if his skull was tightening around his brain, ready to crush it so all knowledge of basic movement would tumble out of his ears. He felt in his pocket for the key, fumbled with it and turned the latch to reveal a young woman in a grey uniform with a red beret atop her head, almost blending together with her mop of bowl-cut ginger hair in the dying light. She beamed at him with a plastic smile she had practiced every day since joining the XXXXX.
‘Hi, my name’s Jean Winters.’ She said, extending her pale hand toward him.
Bryan took it in his and squeezed gently, his hand enveloped hers entirely, it was almost as if he were holding a child’s hand. He withdrew promptly, fearing that in his current state of tension he might break her fingers.
‘Bryan Pernice.’ He said quietly, keeping his eyes to the ground.
‘I understand you want to do your jump today is that right?’ She kept the smile, though behind it she felt redundant in the act of reciting the same script over and over. She wanted to talk to this man, have a real conversation with him. She felt that way with several jumpers but knew that should she do so it would cost her job.
‘Um, yes. Of course, let me just get my coat.’ Bryan reached around for the hook on the wall, hands still shaking as he pulled it on with some difficulty.
‘Feeling nervous?’ Jean asked, after a moment of hesitation.
‘No, just a bit chilly that’s all.’ Bryan lied, forcing a smile.
‘Ok, if you could just sign here and then we can get going.’ Jean handed the clipboard and pen to him. Bryan winced as he scrawled his signature next to his name after flicking through a couple of pages. The pen was tied to the clipboard by a bit of old brown string, he found this ironic because the pen itself looked quite expensive. It was a black fountain pen with what looked like a gold filigree pattern on the nib. What he didn’t know was that this was Jean’s pen, she secretly preferred sharing her belongings with other people. Jean considered herself to be a generous person and in some way by providing her own pen rather than the cheap wooden pencils in the XXXXX office she felt her loneliness escape her. To Jean this was the next best thing to getting to know someone for real, her own way of being there for people.
‘Ok, that’s all done for you,’ Bryan’s voice trembled as he handed the clipboard back to Jean who tucked it under her arm in a professional manner.
‘Brilliant, if you’d just like to follow me. Um, north or south side?’ She asked.
Bryan paused, eyeing the sky as he thought, ‘south side.’ He grinned; he had never jumped from the south side before. In a way it gave him comfort knowing he would be trying something new. The north side of the jump was his “normal” so to speak, what he was used to, used to failing. So, in the hopes of success, or at least a better result, the south side would not carry the emotional baggage of potential failure so much as the north side did for him.
They both walked in silence for some time, straight down a cobbled walkway that led directly to the starting point of the jump. In fact, it led along the jump itself: across the cobbles in the centre of the street was flat paving of a kind that was alien to the rest of the village layout. A single strip of tiling that stretched across the entire diameter of Lochston. The jump gleamed in the moonlight, it was a pure silver glint, a spear through the village. The reason for its brightness, according to the XXXXX, was so jumpers would not lose their way while jumping should they jump high enough that they would have to squint at the ground they fast approached.
‘I haven’t seen you before.’ Bryan forced the words out, while he rather enjoyed his quiet moments, he could not bear the awkwardness any longer. He thought that breaking this silence would prevent his tension from rising any further and remind him that this was his choice. By attempting the jump again, and so soon in this month, was what he wanted to do just like how breaking the silence was what he wanted. ‘Are you new with the XXXXX?’ He asked.
She slowed up a little, the intensity of her black shoes that tapped on the cobbles faded, walking almost to his side now instead of straight in front of him. ‘Oh no, I’ve been with them a two years now actually. I usually monitor morning jumps.’
‘Oh, so why are you monitoring mine? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.’ Bryan corrected himself, worried if his tone might have sounded harsh at all.
‘I was asked to cover someone, they were sick.’ The truth was that Jean had already finished her shift for today, in the morning, but out of curiosity decided that she would stay at the office. Her parents had always encouraged her to try new things and that, within reason, she should always try to remain free enough from routine so life would stay interesting.
Jean felt bad, having to feel the need to lie to Bryan, she felt it created cracks in that feeling of being close to someone. It frayed the emotional ties that made up her psyche, like breaking the top of a crème brûlée with a teaspoon.
The street was practically empty as the two made their way toward the south side of the jump. The villagers, having turned in for the night, payed no attention to whatever would occur outside, much to Bryan’s relief. He always felt overwhelming embarrassment in failing the jump and still he kept coming back to it, like a spineless lover crawling to his mistress after countless rejections.
‘So, are you planning on going anywhere exciting if you make it this time?’ Jean asked, trying not to sound too patronising. This was a trait she found more and more difficult to suppress over the months spent with the XXXXX. She felt that by keeping the villagers here they kept them naïve, oblivious to everything beyond the walls of the Cotswolds, like children asking too many questions that remained without answers.
‘The beach.’ Bryan said, breathing out heavily, imagining what the air would be like there, ‘I want to go to the beach.’
‘Oh, any beach in particular?’
‘Llyn, it’s in a place called Wales.’
‘Do you know how to get there?’
‘Not really, but I’ll try to find a map at least. I hear you can buy them once you’re outside.’
The two arrived at the south side of the jump: an opening in the Cotswold houses in a cul-de-sac shape. The silver strip ended in a hollowed circle about half a meter in diameter. The reason for the two starting areas was due to the higher demand of jump attempts depending on seasons.
Civilians could apply twice a year, June and December, the XXXXX’s logic was that people would want to stay in the village in summer because of the festival and nicer weather. In winter, the weather was harsher, people would be more likely to stay put.
Knowing this always brought a sense of doubt to the cause she had signed up for in the first place. She purely wanted to help the people of Lochston, improve their living with her services. This was the first red flag, the seed of suspicion that the XXXXX was breeding a mass Stockholm syndrome among the hundreds inside the village walls.
Bryan stood fidgeting inside the circle while facing the open street, the silver strip extending ahead of him endlessly. Jean took a final few scrawls on her clipboard before looking up at him as cheerfully as she could.
‘When you’re ready.’
It took a few seconds for Bryan to register the fact he was trying again right now; it had already been a whole year since last time. He never attempted the jump in summertime because that’s when the festival was on, he lamented on the time he’d spent gorging himself on steak and slaw before retreating to his house to collapse onto his bed for days on end like a hibernating dormouse while depression slowly nibbled away at the weight he’d gained.
He shuffled slowly to the edge of the circle; eyes glued to the floor so as not to overstep the line. Jean, unknown to him, watched with equal intensity and hope. As the point of his shoes, unmarked from their lack of use due to all the time he spent indoors, came in contact with the circumference Bryan took three big steps backward, shifting his weight side to side and put his effort into a half-waddle run, tiny steps leading him to leap. Heaving both arms forward in a swinging arc to give himself some extra distance, he landed hard on his feet, stumbled and fell to one knee, pressing his wide palms to the cobbles to stop himself from falling any further.
The silence lasted for a time neither of the two could recall. According to the script Jean was supposed to tell him “better luck next time” in a friendly tone before heading back to HQ while Bryan made his own way home, but she found that she could not this time.
Bryan’s shoulders were shaking, but not from the strain of keeping himself from falling on his face. Twin droplets fell onto the jump like silent rainfall from Bryan’s eyes, he caught a scream in his throat and the sound came out like a half-retch. Jean took a few steps toward him, leaning around tentatively to see the man in a new light as a crying emotional wreck. This was a man who had had enough, a man who after a long time of feeling hollowed out suddenly realised how futile his position truly was.
She couldn’t help but reach forward, touching the palm of her tiny frail hand to his shoulder, the warmth of the gesture escaped him beyond layers of green and brown clothing sandwiched between alabaster skin: hers pale from the cold, his from the lack of exposure to sunlight. Bryan’s shaking ceased only slightly, yet he managed to contain further sobs to choke out a few words.
‘I just wanted to go to the beach.’
Jean had already strayed too far from the script to make a return journey. Compassion, or the false caring disguised as compassion, was all she was meant to show in a brief and fleeting moment so as not to leave room for desperation or create the risk of emotional attachment. However, it was Jean’s longing for someone else, her curiosity and kindness, that broke the mould. Not to mention her time with the XXXXX spent shrouded in self-doubt. Better luck next time, come on, better luck next time. Jean said it in her head over and over in the space of a few seconds but the effort to voice them was futile, you can try again in the Summer? No, it wouldn’t do, she froze to the spot, practically clinging to his shoulder. She couldn’t let him go, she didn’t want to, to hell with the job. She wanted to help him, make sure he would be alright by the end of the night, even if it cost her everything else.
A hollow clatter erupted in the silence as Jean dropped her clipboard and stooped to put an arm around Bryan’s shoulders as far as she could manage, coaxing him to stand.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s get you home. You’ll be ok.’
Bryan stood shakily as Jean took his arm, ‘can you stay with me for a while? I need someone. I need someone to talk to.’
Another pause as the two retreated from the south side, ‘ok.’ Jean said. They made their way back to Bryan’s house, leaving the clipboard behind them at the start of the jump.