Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Bridge

"Hurry," shouted granddad. He turned halfway around, eyes facing the floor, using his peripheral vision to catch Billy and I punching each other in the ribs.
"And cut it out."
I smirked. We kept quiet. I threw a sideways look at Billy and pushed out my lower lip, staring ahead, like I was following the old man's orders. Billy laughed, wiped his nose, started kicking grit.
The sun was low. As we moved, barrels of light shot out from the houses' edges, then spread down their flanks. I let the lights blind me, then disappear. They left streaks across my eyes. I threw my face up into the cold. The wind buzzed into my forearms and made them burn.
We were headed to the salt-marsh. The old man often read about nature, though he'd not shown much interest in it until last Christmas. That was when I'd bought him the Usborne Encyclopaedia of Nature, as a joke. For lack of anything else, it had become one of his favourite books. That and some book about birds he had stolen from the local library. He mostly read those two, knocked back scotch with ice, and sat in his armchair, the one which molted fabric like flesh. I didn't want to be here, I didn't want to be walking with Billy, but at least I could avoid being there.
He toppled forward into steps. A hundred metres down the road he would buckle. He usually wore this forlorn expression. Every time he made a clean step you felt like cheering. I kept one eye on him, the other was on Billy, behind whose back I was doing the international sign of the wanker.
The path widened. Whitewashed cottages gave way to low stone walls hemming tiny yards, then rushes blanketing the hillside down to the marsh. The wind blew harder. We took a rest by a small, burned out car and granddad handed Billy and I carrier bags. We changed into our Wellies in silence. Granddad made a couple of grunting sounds.
"Where are we going?", I asked, trying to suppress the annoyance levels in my voice.
He looked back. He pressed his finger against his lips.
"Patience."
The hillside ended. Rushes covered our legs in a fine layer of dew. The soft earth crumpled underfoot. As we walked, Billy lit a cigarette from a pack he'd stolen out of his dad's pockets. He helpfully exhaled his first drag into the wind. The breeze scooped up the smoke and delivered it into my face. Codger turned around. He asked Billy to put it out.
Billy complained. He looked at me for support, but I just shrugged, so he took a final tug and pressed it into the sole of his shoe. He waited for granddad to move on before flicking the butt into the undergrowth. We ran to catch up.
"What's that pops?"
"I hope we're not too late." He took a swig from a hip flask and pulled his woolen scarf up around his mouth.
We approached a wide creek. There was a drop of around five metres from the marsh to a thick layer of mud which extended to a shallow shore. The creek water nervously lapped against it. The surface didn't look solid.
Granddad asked us to help. We stood either side of him and put out our arms. The old man grabbed my right and Billy's left and slowly lowered himself down. Immediately after placing one foot on the unstable surface beneath him, he swiveled round and toppled gracelessly into a sitting position. His cheeks blossomed with anger. Billy raised his eyebrows. Granddad took a moment to compose himself before wearily pulling himself to his feet, one soggy knee at a time. He walked over to the lip of water and peered down. I punched Billy on the arm and we both jumped down to join him. I went to stand by granddad. Billy stood staring at the sludge further back, before walking up the waterfront, biting his nails.
"It's too dark." granddad cursed. I squinted into the rapidly-approaching night. The creek was maybe 40 metres wide, a dark, deep, green scar that cut past our home town to the left, then out to sea. Granddad peered at the opposite side of the water, where grass scored with the faint chalk line of a road ran over a hill.
The old man fired up his torch. He looked down at the water. Billy had found a traffic cone some way off along the mud layer. He picked it up and muttered into its apex, converting his voice into a low boom. "This is reality calling," he mumbled. "Your old man has lost it." Making sure granddad couldn't see, I gave him the finger.
"Ah," granddad gasped. He pulled me in toward him and he gestured at the water. There was a strong smell of alcohol, and I recoiled slightly, but he put his arm around me and switched off his torch.
It took a moment. There was something happening in the water. Small patches of phosphorescent light were glowing blue. Granddad picked up a stick and passed it through the liquid. As he moved the branch, it left a bright, luminous trail in its wake, a wiggling tadpole's tail, flickering light blue patches giving way to darker blue giving way to black.
Billy walked over. "Wow," he said, sarcastically. He asked granddad whether he could have the stick. With some reluctance, the old man handed it to him and I dreaded what would follow. "Thanks," Billy said, before immediately throwing it aside, grabbing a rock the size of a tennis ball, and hurling into the air. I grimaced as it landed with a huge splosh. A purple flower briefly blossomed from the stone's entry point. Phosphorescent needles surfaced, then dived.
Billy crouched and grabbed another piece of wood, maniacally slapping the surface of the water, turning around to us with a crazed look of gritted teeth and wide eyes. Granddad turned towards me, exasperated, and turned his torch back on. He suddenly seemed to notice something over my shoulder. He took another swig from his hip flask. "There it is." Around five metres away were two metal trusses, reinforced with crumbling concrete at their base, emerging vertically from the mud layer. We hadn't noticed them when we'd descended. Reeds grew around them like unkempt whiskers, but the passing torchlight made them glisten.
"What do you know about bridges?" granddad asked. I looked at Billy. He let his mouth drop half-way open in mock-disinterest.
"They tried to span this river, 25 years ago," granddad said. "It took a huge team of engineers." He held his hands a metre apart to try to demonstrate, then pressed his lips together, straightened his back and dusted the right arm of his jacket. Billy lit another cigarette by cupping his lighter against the remaining wind. Granddad shook his head. Billy put out the palm of his hand in anticipation, twisting his head before expelling smoke, which fluttered in the torchlight.
Recognising our disinterest, the old man shook his head, looked down, placed his rucksack on the surface of the mud and removed his Thermos and two cups. He poured coffee for me then him, which he topped up with a tot of whiskey from his hip flask.
I looked at Billy and shook my head, almost imperceptibly. Billy ignored me. He put his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and it hung there. He cocked up his chin, and ash fell from the end of the cigarette on to the front of his jumper. He rubbed it in with his forefinger. He hacked up some phlegm, moved to the edge of the water, and gobbed into the creek.
Granddad got up, downed his drink in one and moved back to the water's edge. He bent down and picked up a handful of small pebbles which he lobbed up into the air. He seemed fixated by making little purple ripples. He waited for the water's surface to settle before setting another rock into motion. From several feet away you could hear him wheezing, loudly. He swayed from side to side. I quickly finished my coffee, burning the end of my tongue. Granddad coughed occasionally, breaking the rhythm created by the sound of stone hitting water.
Billy looked at me. He smiled. I was bored, and the old man looked like he wanted to be left alone, so I cocked my head at Billy and scowled. We didn't say much and started to walk back towards town along the mud. After we'd travelled around fifty yards we started fooling around, breaking off reeds and whipping each other in the head. Suddenly remembering granddad I looked back and saw what appeared to be the rough outline of a figure lying in the reeds next to the marsh layer. I started to move back but Billy caught my arm. He handed me a cigarette and we shared it, sitting on the mud, watching the last remnants of day descend.
After half an hour Billy said he needed to get back. We got up and started back to see what had happened to granddad. My feet felt heavy along the way as they stuck and de-stuck from the mud and when we found granddad I swore under my breath. He was half asleep in the mud. He'd rolled over on to his back, covering his jacket in dirt, and I could see his shirt was drenched in booze. He mumbled, fitfully, like he was dreaming things. I don't know what. I leaned down and shook him roughly by the shoulder.
It wasn't getting any earlier so Billy and I pulled the old man to his feet. I cursed again under my breath, thankful that he couldn't hear me, but in all truth this had turned into a nightmare. Billy told me I had to carry him, that he was my responsibility.
"I can't get him back up there," I said, gesturing to the higher marsh layer, half my body sagging down with the old man, who was kneeling next to me. It was Billy's turn to swear.
The the end, getting granddad back up there required both our strength. Each time we thought we'd wrested him up - Billy pulling from above, me pushing from below - he stumbled back into my arms, laughing into his shirt. We eventually had to drag him up, Billy pulling him by his arms and sliding him on to his belly.
I managed to get pops to his feet and he vaguely managed to stumble alongside me. Each time he fell down I hoisted his arm back around my shoulder. A couple of times the pensioner dropped to his knees. Once he almost slipped into a salt pan, his leg falling into some random, dark hole beneath us, but I shouted to Billy and he helped me pull him out. "You'll be back in your chair soon, Pops," I told him.
We worked our way up the path towards town, where a street lamp illuminated our path every 100 yards. When we passed beneath a pool of light, granddad's head glistened with sweat. We passed a bench and set him down. He collapsed his head into his chest. His head lolled to one side. Billy shifted in his seat uneasily and we took in the view. Aylesfords' lights twinkled from the other side of the creek.
Billy told me his dad used to work at a construction company outside town. He was made redundant seven years ago. He said he knew a lot about it because he'd wanted a new bike and his family couldn't afford one. He'd thrown a tantrum and Billy's dad had come up to his room one evening to explain. He said his dad was glad he'd left the mill because the construction industry was dead around town. He needed to re-train.
"I told him your granddad used to work in building," explained Billy. "He said not many people talked about that any more, that there'd been an accident, and that he'd never been the same since. He was annoyed. He said the compensation claims had ruined it for everyone else." Granddad's snoring rasped. He dribbled on to his shirt.
I looked down at the floor. The tarmac was flaking away. Black pebbles of tar spilled across the pavement. They looked like tiny ants marching towards me.
I didn't look at Billy. We sat there for 10 more minutes, talking about school, about our families, but I found it hard. Every so often we would stop speaking when we heard the sound of a distant engine. There were broken conversations which drifted to us upon the wind.
Billy helped me carry granddad back up to the house. He said goodbye. He punched me playfully on the arm, said he'd see me at school. Then I was alone, an old man dancing at my side.
"Why's the bridge no longer there granddad," I asked.
I didn't think he could hear me. He seemed as though he was going to stumble to his knees, and I tightened my grasp around his waist. He stared at me, drew back, and stepped away, hesitantly pulling himself to his full height. He looked blank. He drew his eyes much wider, so that I could see clumps of blood vessels clustered into constellations around his irises. He swayed from side to side. He eked out a wonky smile, raising one index aloft. His hands were shaking. "God," he said.
"It was God."
I snorted through my tears.
"That's why the water shines."
The front door slammed. Dan, my brother, wrestled his mountain bike on to its back and began adjusting its gears with a spanner. He hadn't seemed to notice we'd returned. After tinkering for a bit he glanced over his shoulder at us before getting back to work.
"Nice one, granddad," he laughed. "You show him the bridge?"
Granddad ignored him, and silently moved towards our front door. I stood still, for a moment, looking back along the road. The light of the street lamps ended abruptly several metres away. From the height of our house you could see the lights on the other side of the creek winking in the black.
I turned towards the house. Illuminated through the lounge window was the hunched silhouette of an old man, silently shuffling into his armchair. He nodded forward, as if falling asleep, before removing a dirty handkerchief from his top pocket and wiping his nose. He picked up the Usborne Encyclopaedia of Nature and began to read.

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