A woman with a long life behind her crossed the town bridge in the stark wintry light of an early February afternoon. Coming up close behind her, closing in as a strong wind took its first breaths, a young man walked slowly and precisely.
The woman was wearing a long black coat buttoned up tight. Only the very tip of the collars of a bright red blouse peaked out around her neckline. At the bottom, there was the slightest glimpse of bony ankles wrapped loosely in translucent skin, and then some beige sandal type shoes worn on top of thick black trainer socks. Her long hair was black in places and grey in others. .
Actually, the blackness of her hair is probably not correct. It is more likely that she in fact had very dark brown hair that looked black. But what the eyes filter out the brain never knows.
The young man was dressed smart, most probably for work, in a neat suit, shiny shoes, smart hair, a long grey coat and leather gloves. Firmly and comfortably in his right hand he held a sandwich wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. There was nothing in his left hand. The speed and length of his stride brought him closer still to the old woman, close enough that he could hear her muttering to herself but not so close that he could hear what she was muttering.
But he did not pass her by. He slowed to match her pace and just hung there on her wing like a swallow in the slipstream of a swan, his presence still unknown to the old woman and his intent still undisclosed by any tell.
The harbour bridge they were crossing was more than 100 years old. It was not a big bridge and its span was no more majestic in scope than a child’s first spontaneous reaches, but it was central to the town and always had been. It was the only way in or out by road unless you went around the long way, which people rarely did. And if you saw someone doing that, you’d know they weren’t local – assuming you were local that is.
The old woman was tightly clutching, in what looked to be desperation, a pure-white carrier bag in her left hand. Affording it – by the passionate nature of her grasp; by her evident desire for it – a respect far beyond that any regular plastic bag deserved. As though it contained all her infinite structure; all her bonds and beliefs; all the wisdom she had built up throughout her fragile and gigantic existence.
Her fingers were clawed round the bunched-together handles and neck of the bag, constantly twisting and readjusting her grip. Maybe she was just an awful worrier, maybe it was simply very heavy, but for whatever reason her hand didn’t stop. Her thin wrist looked like it might finally give way at any point and, despite all her fretful trying, that bag would fall to the floor; whatever was inside facing its final, awful suddenness.
The skin on her face gave the impression of being the oldest part of her. It was loose and grey. It no longer clung to her eyes, which themselves were no longer what they once were. No longer as crystalline. Even in the cold wind that would make mine stream, hers appeared dry.
Nor were her lips as full and soft as they had been in her youth. Instead, they were pursed and bloodless white and, as if resolutely supporting her hand’s deep concentration on that bag.
The bridge was the oldest part of town, aside from the old smugglers’ pub just up the harbour from it. You could tell this easily if you looked closely. Although it was re-painted every five years or so, the paint would quickly flake away due to the rusted and warped metal beneath.
Many of the wooden boards that acted as windbreaks on either side were also twisted or rotting, and some had fallen solemnly into the harbour and had been swept out to sea long ago. It appeared the local council could not keep up with the rate of loss.
The tarmac on the walkway was bulging and cracking, and the roadway was old and potholed. In places, the kerb stones were loose and one or two had fallen forlornly into the road to be repeatedly run over and gradually ground, first into grit and then powder, by passing cars and lorries.
The young man’s suit was well pressed. It was black with subtle charcoal pinstripes. His shirt was blue, and his tie was too. His shoes were simple timeless brogues. His face was tanned, clean-shaven and young. His hair was not very short, not cropped, but not long either. It was brown and neatly brushed to the right. He advanced still closer towards the old woman, almost within a breath’s breadth of her.
As he did, the wind grew around them and, in practised response, the old woman began to run her right hand loosely along the dented and twisted brass handrail of the bridge.
The wind was strong enough to cause her some trouble maintaining a perfectly direct course. Every now and then she would waver and, at these points in time, her hand would grip the rail firmly. Also, at these moments, as if she only had the strength within her frame to grip one thing at a time, that carrier bag would begin to slip from her left hand. But she never dropped it; not even close.
A small electric car had recently and rapidly come silently around the corner of the bridge behind the two of them. From the end of the bridge that was lost in the past of their progress, the car coasted gently and stealthily. But neither seemed to pay any notice to this subtle addition to the situation.
No crows cawed a single discord deep within their instincts.
The old woman was too intent on preserving her delicate balance, and the young man remained intent on her; still close and unnoticed, so close that the old woman should have been able to feel his warmth or hear his step, but she showed no signs of this. Caught up in her own fragile progress.
The young man’s eyes were focussed on her.
The bridge creaked as if it were being put under some awful strain. The lights that were positioned on high flagpoles at the two ends of the bridge, as if on sentry duty over the event, wavered violently. Almost shivering.
In front of the pair, a wooden balustrade was loudly ripped from its fixings by a strong gust of wind sweeping up from the water below. It clattered across the carriageway into the opposite side, cracking and destroying one of its adjacent brothers. Both took the long dive together into the grey-green-greasy harbour below, their various splinters becoming one twisting intricate form in the air as they plummeted.
She watched them fall.
The sky darkened a little and the air took a deep breath.
The young man moved as fast as he could.
The old woman’s fingers could not react quickly enough.
As the car came up adjacent to the pair, the old woman was blown off balance by a massive burst of wind. Terribly selfishly, perhaps almost jealously, that gust ripped the ever so important carrier bag from her brave fingers and blew it under the wheels of the car before the young man could get hold of it.
The carrier bag and its contents were torn, crushed and scattered to the four corners of the bridge in one bright, splitting moment.
For just one empty second, with the car racing past him – its driver entirely oblivious as they passed by – the young man, stumbling to keep his balance amidst the swift fury of the wind, could be seen – paused – confidently holding the old woman at an angle of almost forty-five degrees.
And then, as if lightly balancing a diamond on its fine point, he made sure she was sturdy again and that the wind had dropped before he relaxed his grip and quietly walked past her to the end of the bridge, disappearing through an opaque black glass door that was conspicuously set in the front of a bright white building.
After her loss, the old woman continued onwards, taking the rest of her journey with lighter steps. As she went, she wept. Her fingers felt the loss most keenly while the warmth from the young man’s strong arm still radiated throughout her body. Her tears refracted the white light of the day, brightening her eyes. Brand new courses were marked out on her face. The taste of the tears was sharp and new. Her lips unfurled.
Whatever it was, it was gone.