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Authors: Morag Joss

Across the Bridge

BOOK: Across the Bridge
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Morag Joss

Across the Bridge

2011, EN

Among the Missing

When a bridge collapses in the Highlands of
Scotland, dozens of people vanish into the river below. A car hired
by a woman tourist was filmed pulling onto the bridge moments
before it fell. Now numbered among the missing, the woman seizes
her chance to start her life over. But her new path takes her no
farther than a wooden cabin on the riverbank, where she seeks
rebirth and freedom from her old self. There she lives with Silva,
an illegal immigrant whose husband and daughter have not been seen
since the day of the bridge’s collapse. The women are befriended by
the boatman Ron, and together they create a fragile sanctuary. Lost
souls all, they keep secrets from each other, yet connect in ways
none of them expects, as they strive to reconcile their past
histories with the present and shape for themselves an elusive,
longed-for future.

Table of contents

Part One


Part Two


Across the Bridge

“Thousands of people are reported missing each year,
yet very little is understood about who they are, why they
disappear and what happens to them. It is known that most people go
missing intentionally, to escape family or other problems. Adults
most at risk of going missing are those going through a crisis or a
difficult transition.”

“The likelihood of missing adults being traced and
possibly reunited with their loved ones decreases over time. Among
those who are ever found alive, only one in five returns.”

Extracts from:
Lost From View: A Study of Missing
Persons in the UK
by Nina Biehal, Fiona Mitchell and Jim Wade
(Bristol: Policy Press, 2003),
research undertaken by the
University of York in partnership with the National Missing Persons

Across the Bridge

Part One

Across the Bridge


hen Ron was first
released he discovered that prison had made him observant, as if
he’d been reminded there, by its sudden absence, of the world’s
surfeit of objects, its over-abundance of things to look at. Not
beautiful things. It wasn’t a case of seeing the world’s wonders
anew or anything like that; rather, it was the opposite.
Observation didn’t sharpen his faculties, it stupefied them. He was
dazed by the quantity and variety, the massive, compacted volume of
it all; he noticed everything but had no idea what was worth his
notice. People’s faces and brick walls, town gutters and ploughed
fields, church towers and shopfronts, all claimed his attention
equally. He couldn’t discriminate, nor could he find in himself a
particular attitude to any of it beyond disorientation, sometimes
mild alarm. He surveyed the burgeoning, seething material of other
people’s lives, and very little moved him.

After a while, his alarm grew. He began to think there must be
some invisible force at work in the world, some unstoppable law of
accretion filling up every surface and corner with streets, office
blocks, rivers, factories, houses. Only he seemed to see it, this
chaotic, impossible density, all this hoarding and flowing over;
was nobody else concerned? If it went on like this, some day the
whole planet would clog up and there would not be enough room in
the sky for all the criss-crossing exhaust trails of planes, or on
the sea for the countless interweaving, frothy wakes of ships.
Swirling lines of traffic would spill off the teeming highways.
Already there was no such thing as an unfilled space; it was
impossible to see
. However deserted or arbitrarily
spacious, every inch of the world was a place taken up and touched
in some way, claimed for one purpose or another, even if it was, as
he found in Scotland, to be left bare so that people could see it
empty. But there was no true emptiness, no real nothingness, no
desert stillness
, a phrase that came into his mind and he
now wished were more than a phrase. Everywhere – crowded and
disorderly, or deliberately pristine – was somewhere, laden with
the paraphernalia and expectation of some human design, and in not
one of these places was his presence relevant. He tried not to
think about it. He tried not to panic, and to concentrate instead
on tiny things, one at a time.

He practised on people. In cafes and checkout queues he would
study them and take in only physical details: the curve of an ear,
a ridged fingernail, the asymmetric lift of one eyebrow. Every
feature was odd in some way, once he focused on it – not that this
disappointed him at all, since he was not looking for perfection or
hoping to find a special value in the unique. He simply noticed and
remembered. He filed every detail in his mind disjointedly and
without cross-reference, each alone for its isolated, particular,
frangible self. He welcomed this dullness of perception in himself;
it would have been unbearable to dwell on anything more than how
precious and how breakable were these vulnerable, separate, flawed
parts of other people’s bodies. Sometimes he knew he was staring at
a stranger too hard and should apologize, but he didn’t know what
to be sorry for. For not knowing how his own mind worked? For not
being sure he bore more than a trivial surface resemblance to other
human beings any more?

He would have liked someone to tell it all to. He called his
sister. She told him it would be fine for him to come for a few
days if it was up to her, but Derek wasn’t ready to see him.

“Listen Ron, he accepts it was an accident,” she said. “So do I.
But he’s just not ready, you know?”

Ron did know, but he said nothing.

“I mean, Ron, criminal negligence is, well, what it says. You

“I know,” he said.

“And as Derek says, six children died. Plus the pregnant woman.
Give us a few months.”

“I’ve been in prison over five years.”

“And then he says, it just makes us look at our two and think,
you know? Anyway, the extension’s not finished.”

He left her another couple of messages. Then she sent him a
cheque with a note saying she trusted the enclosed would help him
make a fresh start ‘somewhere new’. She’d be in touch, she

He called his former neighbour Jeff and thanked him for the
card. It had meant a lot, he said, on his first Christmas in

“That’d be Lynne,” Jeff said. “She sends cards to

He left the words
even you
unspoken, but Ron heard them

“How’s Kathy? Has Lynne seen her?”

Jeff hesitated. “They’re in touch, yeah. Doing better. Knocks
you sideways, divorce, never mind everything else she’s had to
contend with.”

Ron said it would be good to meet up for a drink. They agreed on
a day the following week. The next day Jeff sent a text message to
say he couldn’t make it and he’d call soon, but he didn’t.

They’d found him a room for the first month, and a social
worker, and he worked the night shift for a while in a bakery,
standing on a line wrapping buns and cakes in a warm, yellow-lit
factory that smelled of sugar icing and machine oil. His fellow
workers were all women who spoke rapidly to one another in their
own language and ignored him except to pass on commands about
cellophane or cardboard boxes.

To get away from all of that he cashed his sister’s cheque,
bought an old Land Rover and reverted to his life’s previous
pattern, the covering of distances. He knew how to measure a day or
night in miles rather than in hours on a factory clock, and he
found comfort in the old equation of roads travelled
time spent
a portion of his life somehow suspended in
transit. As a boy he’d been fascinated by time zones, which he
could hardly distinguish from time travel; if you went west
crossing zone after zone, going always back in time, one day would
you be a man of twenty-one in a high chair with a bib and a spoon?
Or going always east and forward, would you find yourself stooped
and white-haired and still ten years old? It couldn’t be so, of
course, but he had concluded then that the secret was to keep
moving. Forget about direction and destination, just keep moving,
and surely your life would never be able to catch you up with
restrictions and obstacles and all its weighty boredom.

Now, amused by a childish hope that was, if foolish, at least
familiar, he took again to the road, sleeping most nights in the
Land Rover, parking at the end of the day within reach of a pub and
whenever possible near a fast-running stream or a river, whose
sound in the night was perhaps a lulling echo of the flow of the
daytime traffic. Occasionally he stayed in cheap places when he
needed to shave and shower and wash clothes in a hand basin, and
sometimes he halted for a week or two here or there and took casual
jobs: kitchen portering, labouring, hauling timber, loading and
moving, anything physical; it was surprising how often he got a few
days’ work just by asking. But mainly he drove. As the first year
passed, that was the task that kept him becalmed, though he had to
get used to the absence of passengers. There could never be any
more passengers.

There we were at breakfast in the Invermuir Lodge Hotel, on the
last day when our distress was of a containable and ordinary kind.
Colin was eating sausages at a table in the bay window, and I had
gone to the sideboard for orange juice. The dining room was quiet,
just us and a retired couple in hiking clothes, and a flat-footed
teenage waitress going to and fro. I started to pour the juice, and
suddenly the sugary scent of my shampoo as my hair fell over my
face and the hot smell of the fried eggs the waitress was carrying
past combined and attacked me, and I thought I was going to be
sick. I had to put down the jug and steady myself with both hands
and look away, and as I tried to swallow some air and breathe
without drawing in more of the smell, I found myself concentrating
on my reflection in the broad mirror fixed along the back of the
sideboard. My face was not a good colour, but it did not reveal any
disturbance, never mind dread. The hiking couple were squabbling
about distances over a map unfolded across their table and did not
look up. The waitress was waiting to set down their plates. So much
is invisible.

My focus in the mirror lengthened across the empty tables to the
window and the moving silhouette of my husband feeding himself, his
head as solid and bony as a calf’s, swaying down to the fork, his
mouth opening and closing, working, emptying. I switched my gaze
back to myself and saw all I expected to see: a nondescript woman
over forty, her make-up slightly too determined and even a little
clownish on a face sallow from sleep and perhaps also from some
other cause – some new, active trouble. Then my attention flicked
back as Col’s knife tipped off his plate, clattered on the table
and hit the floor. He picked it up, scrubbed at the cloth with his
napkin and then he licked his index finger and scrubbed some more,
sighing and wincing as if it were all the fault of a vague, absent
someone who had failed to materialize in time to prevent this
latest blunder by an overgrown, under-supervised child. I faced
myself in the mirror in time to see the expression in my eyes turn
thin and resigned. I was used to the idea that the someone was

I returned to my place as if nothing had happened, and maybe
nothing had. We beamed at each other. Not even the briefest of
dubious marriages foundered ultimately on a matter of dropped
cutlery, did it? We smeared our toast from tiny unfolded packs of
butter and miniature pots of jam, our faces puckered by the strain
of being together on holiday at all, as well as in a worn-out hotel
in mid-February. I’m sure we looked unremarkable, perhaps slightly
formal, sitting up a little straighter than other couples about to
enter a slow-moving middle age in a way that suggested they had
never felt young or led rapid, excited lives. The hiking pair
folded their maps and got up to leave, wishing us a good day as
they went.

BOOK: Across the Bridge
9.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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