The Man Who Turned a Stone Bridge into a Hammock
by Kerry Hood
She doesn't say‘he's out'. She says‘he's gone'. She slams the graffiti door, but not to undo the chain. I hear her swear and knock over the singing green bottles...
One week and ten minutes ago, I was walking along Sea Road carrying a bag with stretchy handles like liquorice laces. Whenever I go out and pass my wall with its diamond spikes that stop people sitting or wanting to come in, I look back at my block where other Special People live. Our curtains stay closed, always. Only, one week and ten minutes ago - Monday - number 9B's shivered and number 9D's were sliced by a knife of light.
I sat at the bus stop. It is what I do. I sit at the bus stop until it is too dark or until someone shoos me away. Last Monday, I was shooed so I went along a path (where you have to lift your bag because the path is a dog's toilet) to a bridge. You know the sea is near. You lick your lips. You feel its salt.
You stand on the bridge and see office blocks with black windows sealed like twenty floors of secrets. Behind you is a slope with Japanese maple trees, in Dorset. At lunchtime, people stop work and sit under them and look over the bridge to the sealed windows they have been looking out of all morning.
Last Monday, it was dark at six o'clock. Office-People had crossed the bridge, so I felt I could, but kept my head down. I was going to walk over and back, but halfway across I tripped on a cobblestone. Shouting without letting noise out, I bent to cuddle my big toe, and saw a dirty cardboard sign, held in two beautiful long hands.
The sign was asking if I could spare some change. I tipped my purse into a green velvet hat. The beautiful hands belonged to a blond man with a beard in the shape of bikini bottoms. He was cross-legged on the cobbles.
I carried on because I had planned to, and planning and doing is my way of getting over bridges. I stopped, dead. My key.
My key was always in the purse ready for my front door. Now it was in a green velvet hat on a bridge in the dark. My key. I was saying it inside again and again, bashing my head with my hand. The man was facing away, putting a blanket and the sign in a bin liner. His legs were long and straight in army tree-trousers and could probably do the splits without him saying ouch. I leaned over the hat and parted the five pences to my key. The man turned, grabbed my hand and twisted it, hard.
I bit my lip. He saw the key, let go and stroked my wrist. Despite my bruisey toe I walked quickly, feeling along the wall because the bridge swayed like a stone hammock. A hand had touched me and all the way home I was afraid, followed, linked. I stopped at the diamond spikes, my side-eyes catching him five houses down at a graffiti door I had never seen before, with pine trees either side that make your eyes sting. I went into my Special Flat and locked the door. I was safe and Special. Looking at the clean, white, the white white walls.
I watched him, the next afternoon, making the middle of the bridge his middle. I went nearer.
‘Hey hey, got home all right?'
I nodded. Office-People were passing but I wasn't afraid because they weren't looking at a Special Person but looking straight ahead, sometimes the other way.
His name was Munshy and he was forty-seven, younger than me. I looked in The Book of Facts for Boys and Girls and discovered he was born on the same day as Donny Osmond. It was possible he knew but the subject never came up. Munshy told me his date of birth because a) he knew I wasn't from the Government and b) he was talking about astrology.
‘Your sign and its planets makes up your self, your aura, and it's all crap.'
Then he smiled. Right up to his eyes. I looked away, even though I knew he wasn't going to shoo me. He sat on the bridge, his legs folded over the cobbles, eyes blinking right into mine like a dog who'll do anything, even carry you in its teeth, to save you. I didn't speak, but I didn't run.
I stood on the bridge and Munshy asked Office-People if they could spare some change. Some put foreign coins in by accident or buttons or pocket fluff. No one stopped. I started to see how everyone was scared of getting caught on bridges, of looking back, of looking at their selves, and I started to enjoy it.
When Munshy packed up, I gave him a clean sign saying Thank You in thick pen. It took all night to make. He smiled and I put my change in his hat and walked home, knowing he was behind.
The next day he was on the bridge playing an old brown-stained guitar that shone bubbly like pork crackling. A man in a black suit was telling him he should get a job, that he was a piece of rubbish. Munshy waved me over.
‘Hey hey! I'm getting more money, Chatty, because of your sign.'
The sign was dirty, but Munshy smiled and played and I stood next to him tapping my foot to the notes of my new name.
I thought about Black Suit. The next morning, I knocked on the graffiti door. Mini answered but kept the door chain on. Mini was tiny, with a drawing-pin in her eyebrow and no hair on the sides. Munshy stood behind her.
‘S'alright, it's only Chatty.'
‘So you're the famous Chatty?' Mini said. ‘I'm just getting up; cold, innit? Don't just stand there, come in, daft cow.'
I went in - past enough green bottles for a coach of scouts to sing about - and into a room with candles and mattresses and people, asleep; all together, asleep. Sticky tape kept the windows on and bits of the floor were bashed in. Someone had scraped the walls and written either foreign words or clever English ones I could never learn. Underneath you could see strips of velvety paper from olden times when a nice family sat and ate kidneys from silver plates and a man opened their post with a knife made of yellow teeth while the nice family smiled at their lovely walls. Munshy shrugged.
‘It's bricks, place to kip. It doesn't make your own self.'
I thought of my Special Flat and the man who comes if you can't open the marmalade.
In my stretchy bag was a duster, wax and brush. Black Suit had told Munshy he had no self-respect so I polished his boots then followed him outside.
‘Hey Chatty, let's go out for brekky.'
He reached for my bag. I held on.
‘Chatty, if you don't trust me, I'll go on my own, if you think I'm going to crap on you, if you think I'm going to run off with your crappy bag.'
No one had ever wanted to carry my bag. I blinked away the stinging pines and walked with Munshy, each of us holding a stretchy handle.
The place he took me to was called The Night Shelter but you could go in the morning. Munshy said he'd had a smoke first thing. He was excited and it made me too, inside. An old man was saying ‘oi oi oi oi' into a tablecloth then told me to cock off. Over and over. Munshy smiled at him.
‘Cock off yourself, Bernie.'
A lady wearing her photo on a chain asked me how I was coping and gave me some condoms. I didn't understand. Munshy took them and smiled at her.
‘I'll give them to Mini, she does it with anyone.'
‘Do you wish to exchange your needles?'
‘Sure, I'll have a fish farm instead.'
She stared at him. Her photo swayed. She opened her mouth and turned to Bernie, who told her to cock off.
Munshy was still giggling on the bridge as he shook off his boots. He started to talk about who he used to be - a scientist with a cancer research programme and a lovely wife with two walk-in wardrobes who wanted him to leave the NHS for America where the golden dollars grow. He told her he needed to stay even though the NHS was killing itself. His wife thought she was pregnant. Instead, she was lumpy with cancer but he hadn't invented a stop to it. Worse, he believed he had brought it into the house, that he had opened his briefcase and spread the cancer onto the kitchen table. He couldn't save his lovely wife. That is why he was on the bridge.
The rain started, big wide-apart spots. I went up to the slope and polished his boots again under the maples. He came over, talking loud, un-Munshy.
‘You don't need to do that.' Then he shouted, spit hanging off his lip. ‘What do you want from me? What are you waiting for?'
He grabbed the boot. It hurt. My hand was still inside. He stroked it, a tear falling, melting, buffed, waxy.
‘I'm sorry, Chatty, sorry sorry. I'm rubbish. You're worth ten of me.'
He went down to the bridge to earn his smoke money. Feeling him looking over, even with my eyes down, my breath started to come loose and dreamy and slow. Tomorrow I would bring sandwiches. I know how to make them. All I needed was for Munshy to keep checking me. I looked up. He wasn't.
A man was limping across the bridge, carrying magazines called Street. He was pushing Munshy, telling him to get off his pitch, sending the magazines splashing over the puddles like toddlers in Wellington boots. Munshy walked backwards, holding up his beautiful hands.
‘Hey hey all right, mate, take it yeah!'
It was over. I breathed out... then the man dived and hit him with his very own head as though he was someone to do with Manchester United. I started to run down the green slope, started to slide down the maple leaves, down to the bridge. The magazine seller ran, not limping now. I didn't know what to do, with Munshy on his back on the cobbles with blood on his face and passers-by walking around me. A lady slowed down, talking on the phone.
‘Uhuh mm sure sure, got to go, mental woman on the bridge.'
Then a Christian man followed by two Christian ladies in headscarves came. They were grinning. I pointed to Munshy, my mouth wide, silent. The Christian man gave me a leaflet and said ‘Jesus Has All The Answers' and he grinned to the Christian ladies and they all walked very quickly off the bridge. As the headscarves disappeared into the crowd like capsizing sailing boats there was a kick, then another. Boys and a girl in uniforms were kicking my legs. Then they surrounded Munshy.
Suddenly, I saw the cancer scientist before he had his smokes and Mini, before his lovely wife even, before he wanted to be one hundred per cent best at everything to everyone and nothing to his own self and I needed to tell Black Suits, Christians and Uniforms that he wasn't a piece of rubbish.
That is how the scream came, a scream so grown-up that Uniforms ran across the bridge laughing and scared; a scream that made Office-People look in slow motion, that made them swallow my scream right into their stomachs.
I went to him, on my knees I went to him, putting his rain-bloodied head onto my thigh, the man who turned the stone bridge into a hammock. I saw my life running away, running over bridges without its boots on. I saw I had to take a bite and keep this taste, this sharp horrible beautiful taste of a real world, of being linked, of being followed, of being touched right up to the eyes. All this I saw two days ago, as I bent my sweaty face over Munshy and whispered into his blood-blond hair ‘thank you.'
I have brought a get well card. It took two days to make. Mini is staring.
She doesn't say ‘he's out.' She says ‘he's gone.' She slams the graffiti door, but not to undo the chain. I hear her swear and knock over the singing green bottles. I turn and brush against the green and my pine tree eyes start to sting.
©2005 Kerry Hood
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