Five-minute memoir: To the edge and beyond in Bondi


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The Independent Culture

For the paramedics of Bondi, The Gap is a weekly call. At its highest point, Australia's most popular cliff-top suicide spot is 90m above the bay. A bay that is always in shadow, or so it seems to us.

In the glovebox of the ambulance we keep salted peanuts just for this occasion. John, my paramedic partner, loves his peanuts. Suicidal people can hesitate for hours on the edge, you see. And if the police are doing the talking, all we can do is sit in the ambulance and wait for things to go one way or the other.

Those still on the edge rarely go over. The ones who take it all the way are more decisive. They jump before we get there. Sometimes we see their bodies on the rocks below, tumbled about by the waves.

"Inconsiderate of her to kill herself this close to our knock-off time," says John as we head to a girl standing on the edge. His gallows humour might be shared by paramedics the world over, but I sense today he isn't joking. I've worked with John for three years and never seen him miserable. Usually, his wit and jocularity makes every shift a joy. But ever since he broke up with his long-term boyfriend a few weeks back, he hasn't been the same. The well-groomed medic we know now comes to work unshaven, his uniform un-ironed, his hair a mess.

Arriving at The Gap, north of the lighthouse, we're met by a policeman who tells us the girl is nowhere to be seen. She must have gone over, he says. Her running shoes were found neatly placed by the edge. Why they always leave their shoes none of us know.

We park the ambulance behind the girl's blue hatchback and watch her father running across the road. John opens the peanuts. It's a silent movie playing out before us. We cannot hear the dialogue, but every movement and expression reveals unfolding tragedy. Extending his baton with a flick, a young constable smashes the passenger window. Reaching in, he takes a letter off the dash and hands it to the girl's father. With trembling fingers the man opens it. As he reads his daughters suicide note his lips quiver and he runs a hand through his hair. When he gets to the end, his chest rises in deep sighs of despair. His head tilts back and he closes his eyes. When he opens them again, a gush of tears falls down his cheeks. John and I are deeply moved by the man's grief. Suddenly our peanuts seem grotesquely irreverent. I step out of the ambulance, take a blanket from the back and put it round the father's shoulders. It's not even cold. But he huddles into it anyway, like a child.

We drive back to the station, John and I, silently. Before we leave work, I ask John if he wants to have a drink with me. He says he will soon, once his private life is sorted out. But a week goes by and he only turns up to work once or twice and doesn't answer phone calls. The others say they "carry him" on jobs. He won't drive, he won't treat. Just sits there in the front seat with a blank expression. All of us worry. But John won't talk, he doesn't ask for help. Give him time, we agree. He's sure to get over it. We've done all we can, haven't we? He knows we're always there for him, if he needs us…

The afternoon I get the call from a Bondi colleague, I am sleeping off a nightshift. I answer the phone dazed, somewhere in that foggy realm where reality could just as well be the extension of a bad dream.

"John's car was found at The Gap. There are witnesses who say they saw a man jump. His body was taken out by the third wave. It's gone. We're pretty sure it's him though. Ben?"

My throat closes up and I can't reply. Then, I cry. Sob, actually. How ridiculous, a paramedic sobbing.

One witness said John ran straight from his car to the cliff and stepped right off. Another said he climbed the fence, sat down and moved to the edge, leaning over and falling forward.

However he did it, there was no hesitation. He would never have wanted to be talked down. He had pulled enough people back from the brink himself over 16 years to know he had to be quick, to jump before the ambulance arrived.

Through the darkness of blame and guilt, great memories with John shine through. Now, whenever we go to The Gap, the peanuts stay in the glovebox. Instead, we listen carefully to those on the edge. And we tell them about John, how we lost one of our own, how we miss him and how he probably misses us. If only he'd stayed alive, we tell them, he might have realised by now that his pain was temporary, that humans are able to reinvent themselves and find happiness. Even after the greatest of losses.E

Benjamin Gilmour is a paramedic, filmmaker and the author of 'Paramedico – Around the World by Ambulance' (The Friday Project)