New York City
Winter solstice, December 20th, 1932
Frances blinked slowly, capturing the illuminated city one moment at a time. Her initial shock at the height had faded, but if she moved close to the edge, if she tipped her head over the waist-height balustrade, the hysterical sensation returned. A few months ago she would have been terrified. Tonight she was captivated. All around skyscrapers seemed to grow and thrust, dwarfing the miniature tenements at their feet. Fog clung to the tips of the highest towers. Snatches of street-level noise sailed up – blasting car horns, workmen shouting on their way home, swing bands tuning up in the ritzy joints on Broadway. She could see why people jumped. The city seduced from up here, as though instead of dying on the fresh asphalt, you might leap right into the electric heart of life itself. She bent forward, vertigo swelling. It was impossible to see them from here, but she could imagine the doomed washing lines criss-crossing her crumbling street, hundreds of feet below. Soon they’d be torn down, two-weeks’ notice: she wondered where everyone would hang their clothes.
The wind tugged and pulled, threatening to push her off with violent, icy shoves. She wrapped Stan’s overcoat around her more tightly, glad she had brought it, comforted by the sharp sensation that her own arms were his. Leaning her head to one side, touching her chin to the rough grey wool, she imagined it was his shoulder. The smell of his Luckies was burnt into the fabric. Frances sucked in the fading fumes, wishing with each breath that she could smell the smoke fresh from his mouth again, wracked by the awful truth that she never would, and shook – a lone, vibrating silhouette on the highest stones of the city. For the hundredth time since they’d made their promise, she wondered if she and Agnes were really going to go through with it, if she was brave and terrible enough, until a sudden gust almost stole her hat and she only just caught it, struggling with leaden fingers to pull out the pins as it twisted and strained. Free at last, her hair whipped her eyes. Tears fell. She hoped she’d feel better once they’d done it, she couldn’t bear the thought of this sadness sticking to her forever. Agnes had looked at her strangely when she’d suggested they both might feel more normal afterwards. She’d gotten this faraway look in her eyes and told Frances that that wasn’t the point. Then she’d gazed at the embers in the grate and said she didn’t know how they would feel but that either way it was the right thing to do. That was all that ever mattered to Agnes. Doing the right thing.
She could see why people jumped. The city seduced from up here, as though instead of dying on the fresh asphalt, you might leap right into the electric heart of life itself
Frances shivered, thrust the felt deep into Stan’s pocket, creases be damned, and turned, ears hollowed by the wind, breath caught, determined to take it all in. If this was the first and last time she was going to see her city from up here, if tonight was everything, then she had to commit it to memory. She must stain her mind with the sight of it. Beneath her the city flashed and sighed, revolving and expanding, new lights stretching the city limits as dusk fell. From up here it looked as though the dimming sky had been stripped from the heavens and ironed flat: a thousand lit windows scattered like sequins on the dress of the night.
Agnes called to her from inside. Finally. She had said it would only take forty-five minutes. Fifteen to set up, fifteen for the exposure, fifteen to get the hell out. They’d already been up here an hour and Frances was getting all balled up. He should have been here by now.
“Did you bring it?” Agnes called again.
“Yes,” she shouted, pushing the word away before the wind could throw it back. And yet still she didn’t move. One last look. She wished she had a smoke to mark the occasion. Undoing the button on Stan’s other pocket, she pushed her hand in, rooting around just in case. Her fingers trembled as they brushed against damp cotton, loose matchsticks and a few mucky dimes. Finally, she caught hold of something. It wasn’t a ciggy, it was the note. She pulled it out, fumbling in the cold. Whatever happened she mustn’t let it go. Not in this wind, not up here. It was only a few lines, but she and Agnes had spent so long agonising over the words. The right tone. The most convincing lie. Without it no-one would believe them. As soon as that filthy hood arrived, they’d persuade him onto the balcony. Frances would distract him so Agnes could press the note into his breast pocket. Then they’d both shove him over the edge with all their might.