Friday, January 13, 2006

The Bridge.

I woke up to the sound of a helicopter again this morning, a far away drone rising in my dreams. I opened my eyes to a grey darkness and I knew that somebody had jumped off the bridge. It was Sunday. It usually is. Things have a pattern. Winter’s the most common season, which makes my walks less pleasant. I don’t know exactly when I started or when I first realised what the helicopter signalled or the sirens heralded. It grew unnoticed like the weed in the shared garden. One day a talkative person passed and said,
‘Lot’s of berries on the elder bush this year.’
It doesn’t normally make the paper, perhaps a paragraph in The Messenger. I look for them. I’ve noticed that they’re usually on page 7, just a name and an age. It’s not much, but I like that. I like to have a name, although I never say anything. No words. No prayers. That’s not what it’s all about.
What is it about? Perhaps it’s about finishing a journey. A journey started should reach its conclusion. When they walk on to the bridge I imagine that they think they’re ending it all. Ending the pain, ending the hurt, or perhaps a simple end to the sheer unnecessary, weary business of existence. Ending it all. It’s a cliché; I imagine them repeating it as they peer over the dizzying parapet. I’ve peered too, and around me the bridge has trembled with the passing of an HGV. Once I dropped a mint from my coat pocket. I couldn’t eat it anyway; it was coated with fluff. I dropped it secretly to see it fall. Silly really, I couldn’t see it after the briefest moment. It was much too small; I don’t suppose it even made a splash on the Clyde’s hard back.
But as I make the crossing I can imagine them thinking that; ‘I’m ending it all. I am on the bridge but I will not cross it.’ That’s a great pity.
The bridge was built between 1967 and 1971 and HRH The Princess Royal opened it on 2nd July 1971. I know that. I didn’t help build it or anything. I can picture the men who did, laughing daringly and cursing freely as they swung dangerously above the world. Let me see, between 1967 and 1971 I would have been clerking in Woolwich. That was when I used to photograph the buses. I still have all the photographs; they’re in boxes in the bedroom. But the bridge is more beautiful than all the pictures of the buses and the trains and the ferries. I don’t carry the camera anymore. I don’t have to, the bridge is right outside my living room window.
When I first came back home, and I wanted somewhere quiet, anonymous, I saw this flat advertised in an estate agent’s window. Plucking up courage I viewed it the following day, and the owner kept pointing to the view from the window. I suppose there wasn’t much to point out in the flat anyway. It was a winter’s day then, but bright, and the bridge’s curve was an advert for grace under pressure. It was slender and strong like a mother should be.
Sometimes I pass people as I cross. Many people cross regularly. Often I can see their eyes recognizing me. I usually say hello to the older gentlemen. If people want to ask about the bridge I’m happier to talk. I even laugh when they mistakenly call it a suspension bridge. That’s when I tell them right away,
‘This box girder bridge with cable stays is 524m (1720 feet) in length, not including the two approach spans of 68m (224 feet) each. The masts of the main span are 38m (125 feet) high, while the steelwork weighs some 11,000 tonnes and runs a length of more than 1310m (4300 feet).
Sometimes, I don’t talk at all, if I see someone approaching on my side I stop and gaze out along the river as though I’m contemplating the view. I always do that on the days that I’m finishing a journey. The journeys should be finished solemnly and alone. Ideally, the journeys should be finished on the same day. That’s easiest if I see a helicopter searching over the river in the morning or if I overhear talk in the newsagent. People talk quite loudly and openly about allsorts nowadays. It was very different when I was young.
Sometimes, I probably don’t hear from any source that someone’s jumped so that’s why I always cross it on Sunday. I put on a shirt and tie to do that.
I’ve crossed in sunshine, wind, rain, snow and sleet. I’ve crossed in December’s early dark and August’s blazing noon. I’ve seen trembling messages in the phone booths at either end and I’ve seen bunches of flowers tied to the railings and watched them fade to brown over weeks. That’s how some people remember and how some people mark events. Once I passed three sobbing teenage girls.
I mark things in my own way. I finish the journeys, and when this last act is done I feel at peace again. Perhaps the bridge is at peace again. This now is my secret, my little conceit. The bridge is solid, but all artifice; a span unimaginable to Nature curving impossibly through a space seen only in the minds of men. It is an extrapolation, a link between two places where none should exist.
My imagination has grown slowly and improbably too into this air. I imagine gazing numbly, uncomprehendingly on the Kilpatricks for the last time. Their ever-changing colour cannot be guessed at but I can see them in reds, greens and greys and know that I at least will cross again to touch their feet. I imagine making to cross this river, it’s famous name now an echo of glory but its hard power barely concealed and choosing not to finish the journey. Stopping in the middle, hands white on the railing, looking down and failing to register its steel cold might. To stand swaying in the air, hurt and lonely, as the river flows dimly below.
The Romans recorded the Clyde as ‘Clota’. Like many other river names Clota is really the name of the river goddess worshipped by the local tribes and means the cleanser or washer. I like that. I hear in my head the psalms of childhood:
‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. ‘
I know what love is I felt it then with a hot bowed head in Sunday School. It was an ideal. It surged to the rhythm of ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’ and I knelt in humility with tears in my eyes as I imagined myself in Africa with Livingstone humbly washing the dusty black feet of the poor. Love was an ideal and to feel it for all humanity was to feel Divinely. I did not know an intimate or a specific love but I felt the oblique and remote power of this transcendent and comprehensive love. I don’t think I really felt love again. The purest of feelings can become corrupt in human flesh. I know what sin is. I grew up and humanity grew away from me slowly and imperceptibly. The reality of life is that now in these times of explicit flesh and pleasure, I barely touch another human, perhaps just the briefest rub of a palm as I’m passed change in the newsagent. But I can feel. I knew I could feel and the bridge helped me to feel again. I could feel during all those years and I knew too the things that cruel people thought I didn’t. I knew lying in my bed in Woolwich as life sounded horns and rushed past outside. I looked at my clock in the wee small hours and knew the thoughts that are taken on to the bridge. I am a human and I am alone and I will not be alone.
The Clyde flows forever west, sometimes struggling in the face of the incoming tide but never stopping. The dirty, coal-specked water flows endlessly from the low, unsung hills of Scotland. Through the towns where modern life has gripped too hard, past the pinched and scowling faces. Finally, it flicks its tail past Gourock and clean at last surges redemptively out to the sea. The sun rises daily in the East creeping like a slowly growing faith over Duntocher and sets nightly behind Dumbuck in a hallelujah of oranges and pinks.
I watch these events with quiet repose, for now I know truly that at last I love and in doing so I too must be loved. To leave something incomplete is against my nature. Once I collected all manner of things. It was all ephemera, nothing of real value. Now I collect souls on my crossing. I cannot finish their business for them. There is a hole in life where they used to be. I cannot finish their life. I finish their last journey and lay them to peace.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm enthralled but at the same time intimidated to realise there is another sole out there who understands my plight. i find your words cleansing and your pictured inspiring. Thank you my brother for what you have released me from, i will not forget this. C.P.Bacon

12:20 pm  
Anonymous Yuill said...

I left OK before the bridge was built.
I spent many a time crossing over on the ferry, mesmerized by the river, and feeling emotions evoked by your writing.

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