23 Jul Jumpers
By Steph Matuku
Every morning when the alarm went off, Brent farted, sat up and stretched. This particular morning however, the alarm didn’t go off and the usual irritated mound of wife next to him was absent. He found her on the couch downstairs drinking coffee, morose and unkempt, the sharp smell of old alcohol oozing from her pores.
“Darling,” he groaned, an earnest hand to his heart, “I am so sorry.”
A stray speck had found its way on to the sleeve of his otherwise pristine Ministry Issue Jumpsuit. He flicked it off with distaste.
“Work was fierce. Bloody protestors got in again. The Ministry might sugar-coat it for the public but they’re terrorists, no doubt whatsoever. Still, it wasn’t a big anniversary though, only twelve. Ten was the big one, do you remember? Twelve is hardly anything.”
Alice didn’t reply and for that Brent was relieved. He simply didn’t have time.
“We’ll do something nice tonight.”
He picked up his briefcase, blew her a kiss and headed for the door.
“It’s Jenny’s Jump party tonight,” she said.
“Everyone will be here at six. Don’t be late. Our anniversary’s one thing but…”
“Of course, I’ll be here.” Brent gave his new laugh, the one he’d adopted since starting work at the Ministry, a jolly, fatherly kind of laugh. “Not a good look for a Jump Official to miss a family Jump celebration!”
If he’d bothered to notice, he would have seen Alice’s white knuckled grip on her coffee cup, would have seen the black smears across her hand. But he didn’t. He just didn’t have time.
The carpark at the bottom of the hill was packed with protestors. Some recognised Brent’s car and angrily brandished placards as security hustled them back.
Brent breathed deeply in through his nose and out his mouth until the crowd shifted and he was able to drive on, up the hill alongside the Jumper’s track. He passed an old couple walking hand in hand. A young man, cursing wildly. A stumbling, middle-aged woman with wailing sobs so shrill that Brent had to roll up his window to hear the news on the radio. Last night’s JumpSpace infiltration wasn’t headlining, he was pleased to note. The abysmal performance from the country’s national rugby team had taken the lead.
At least, thought Brent, I’m doing something right.
Everything was business as usual at the JumpSpace, apart from two cleaners balancing on a rickety scaffold scrubbing at a thick black scrawl splashed across the white curved wall. The protestors had misspelled the word ‘Government’. Typical.
“Mr Davis?” The new hire hurried up to him, spilling his notes. He gathered them together awkwardly, thrust a sweaty palm at Brent, dropped his notes again. “Sorry.”
“First day nerves,” Brent smiled his new fatherly smile. “Nothing to worry about. Richard, is it?”
“Come with me. We’ll start at the end, if you like.”
Brent was amused by Richard’s considered air of casualness as they walked, saw the place anew through Richard’s eyes. The large circular pavilion dotted with armed guards. The stalls hawking refreshments, insurance, wills, funeral accessories and souvenirs. The tiny cubicles for prayer and meditation, the video booths to record last words, the wishing wells collecting donations for Government charities. And the people, people, people, celebrating, mourning, dancing, dying. Morbid, yet excitingly festive.
“Quite something, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I’ve been here before. My grandma.”
“Ah. Easier on everyone when the Jumper is elderly. Inevitability and all that.”
They came to the far end of the JumpSpace. A small queue was positioned outside large silver double doors set into the white marble wall. A little further down, almost camouflaged, was a white door.
Brent opened it with his passcode and led Richard into the viewing chamber, a small room redolent of the calming lavender oil diffused automatically through the room. A row of seats stood opposite two windows of one way glass.
The smaller window showed a room with double doors at one end and a single door at the other. A man with a pleasantly crinkled forehead sat at a white desk with his eyes closed, palms downward on a large embossed book. He was muttering under his breath but the tinny speaker above their heads wasn’t sharp enough to pick up individual words, just a rushing murmur like wind through leaves.
“That’s Harry. Top man, Harry,” said Brent. Richard hurriedly scribbled a note.
The larger window looked out onto an outdoor space, peaceful and green. A path tiled in white led to the cliff top edge and then there was nothing but blue sky.
Two women stood in the sun adjusting their white and silver cloaks, laughing as they talked. Brent rapped sharply on the glass. The women started, fell silent.
“Disrespect will not be tolerated.” Brent said to Richard. “Remember that.”
Brent ushered Richard to a seat and it wasn’t long before the double doors through the small window opened to admit a woman. She was forty-ish, skinny and sad.
“Hallo,” said Harry, his voice gentle.
“Hallo,” she slurred.
“Come and sit.”
She fell on to the chair and clung to the sides as though she was on a rolling ship. Harry picked up a pen, flicked to an empty page.
“Amanda. Amanda Matthews.”
“You’ve paid your $50 Jump Fee? And I see you’ve taken your tranquilizer?”
She nodded, a dreamlike motion of her head that seemed entirely unconnected to her neck.
“Fine, fine. Now, for statistical purposes we need to ask you a few questions.”
Harry clicked his pen. “Reason for Jumping?”
“Could you be a little more specific? Post-natal? Midlife crisis? PTSD?”
Amanda clasped her hands. “Just… everything really. I’m always unhappy. I got to the Ministry maximum allowance for drugs and counselling but I still hurt. All the time. So they said I should Jump and here I am.”
“Quite right. Shall we say…General Malaise?”
“For 20 dollars we can give you an internet code for loved ones to download the event and watch it themselves.”
“I haven’t got any loved ones. That’s partly why I’m malaise-y.”
“Oh. Well, Amanda, just sign here… and here… thank you.”
He stood, tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and walked her to the single door.
Brent shook his head with admiration. “You see that, Richard? That’s the last person she’ll ever speak to, and she’ll remember that gesture forever. Well, for the next few minutes anyway. Very kind. Very classy. Top man, Harry.”
Harry bade her open the door and as she did so, a blast of wind blew through the room. The pages of the book snapped and fluttered.
Richard darted to the far window and watched the two women fasten a white and silver cloak to Amanda’s shoulders. They kissed her on each cheek and walked with her, slowly, along the tiled walkway. There was no laughing or joking from either of them now. Before they reached the end, the two women stopped. Amanda carried on to the edge, alone. She looked out at the sky. She stretched out her arms as though flying. And then she jumped.
The next morning Brent farted, stretched and sat up.
Alice was downstairs already dressed and made up, the living room tidy and devoid of the white balloon and paper swan party debris from the night before.
As Brent approached, she held up a finger. “Not one fucking word.”
Brent went back upstairs and ran a shower. It wasn’t his fault he’d missed the party. He’d been held up. More protestors, more paperwork. Besides, he’d see Jenny at The JumpSpace. He’d make a special point of it.
He practiced saying this to Alice, eyebrows anxiously furrowed, hands earnestly outstretched, hot water running over his palms like a benediction. It didn’t matter. When he went downstairs again, she was gone.
He went straight to the Jump queue looking for Jenny, searching for her among the crowds. Finally he saw her, thin and weak in jeans and several layers of woolly jersey. She was near unrecognisable. Her illness had eaten her up, bitten out her plump cheeks leaving them hollow and drawn, swallowed her long glossy hair and spat back a gleaming white dome.
She turned and the tranquilizer made it a slow, graceful motion. “Brent.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t make the party.”
“Party. Whoop whoop.”
“I wanted to see you off, though.”
“Have you seen Alice off?” Jenny’s drugged smile became sly.
“She’s there. There, look. At the front. She’s saving me a place.”
Alice stood motionless, resolute, the dazzle of sunlight giving her a holy nimbus as it reflected off the silver doors.
“She’s saving me a place in heaven.” Jenny let out a braying sobbing laugh, as only a teenager could. “God, Brent. You’re so dumb.”
Alice unbuttoned her coat, revealing a mass of wires and grey putty.
He ran to her, thrusting Jenny aside, pushing others out of his path. The guards turned at the commotion, uncomprehending.
Alice faced him, mocking and broken.
“You pompous dick,” she said. “You and your precious Ministry. Bringing a human life down to the worth of 50 bucks and a video download. Shame on you.”
The unfairness of it all was like a punch in the gut.
“That’s not true,” he blurted. “The download is extra!”
She laughed. It was the first proper laugh he’d heard from her in a long time, ever since, he realised, ever since her baby sister Jenny was told she had to jump. Alice was still laughing as the guards shot her.
The next morning Brent farted, stretched and went back to sleep. There was no time left for anything. No time at all.