A short story by Ken Morlich
‘Coming on to rain, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said the old man on the bench outside the Clydesdale Café. I nodded. ‘That wee dog of yours will not be liking that,’ he went on.
I was inclined to agree. I said so.
‘I shouldn’t risk the tea,’ said the old man. Old man? He didn't have so many years on me. When I sit outside a greasy spoon on a bench making uninvited remarks to passers by people must say about me, ‘there’s that old boy again,’ or, ‘shame, isn’t it, that there’s nowhere for these people to go.’
‘Don’t look, he’ll start talking at us.’
‘He looks just like his dog.’
‘Shoot me if I ever get like that.’
I went into the Clydesdale and got my usual seat by the window. You have to go up to the counter to order, but I usually claim one of the false leather bench seats first, by dropping my jacket on it and looping the dog’s lead round the table leg. I went to the counter, took a marshmallow 'teacake' from a diminutive wicker basket and plonked it on my tray.
I looked back at the dog.
'Can't see what people want with a bridge like that one', I said to the proprietor as he served me a cup of bad coffee. 'Popular with people who want to kill themselves, but everyone else preferred the ferry. I always took the ferry.'
'My sister-in-law killed herself,' said the proprietor, a heavy man with tattooed wrists. 'Pills. Didn't go near a bridge.'
'I'm so terribly sorry,' I said, avoiding the man's gaze. Behind him, above the tubs of margarine and grated cheese, were hung dozens of roughly framed clippings from magazines showing draught horses, wagons and vintage motor lorries. 'Wrong of me,' I muttered. 'My apologies.'
In my pocket the blank slab of my mobile phone made an electronic peeping sound. Fumbling a little, I drew the still unfamiliar object out of my hip pocket. The screen was lit up, and by clicking inexpertly at the keypad I managed to open the message.
Can't wait for u 2 get here Kenneth gone since lunch time.
I laid the phone on the Formica table top and spread my hands out in front of me, examining the coarse hairs on my knuckles. I swore quietly, and reached for the bad coffee, spilling a little in the saucer as I raised the cup to my mouth.
Kenneth. Never Ken or Kenny: always Kenneth. I would be lying if I said I'd never seen him as son-in-law material—he was likeable enough in a superficial way. I'd always felt about him as I did about my dentist: It was reassuring to know he was always available to be called on in case of need. Kenneth was overly meticulous – fussy, even – and he wore expensive shoes. I suppose I could say the same for my dentist.
I drank some more coffee, though I didn't really want it, and ruffled the fur on the top of the dog. He liked having his fur ruffled although he never showed it. I picked up the phone again and prodded at it until it showed me the previous text message from my only daughter, Mrs Kenneth David Bridger.
When I'd first received it, at about 7 o'clock that morning, I had felt an overwhelming sense of urgency, that if I didn't act, something terrible was sure to happen, so I emptied my underwear drawer onto the unmade bed and stuffed half the pile of assorted socks, vests and underpants into a Marks and Spencer's carrier bag with a drawstring. Then I descended the stairs, took a quick drink straight from the tap and hustled the dog into the car boot. Hunched in the driver's seat, I wrestled the phone out to read the message for a second time. Clearly it had been a serious falling out between my daughter and her husband.
Please come, Kenneth boxing up skull collection.
Collecting mammal skulls was not such a very eccentric interest, particularly in someone who worked in finance, but I had never completely approved of Kenneth's hobby. At least he didn't kill the animals himself. The specimens were either found in the bushes by chance or bought from gamekeepers and other collectors. It was a harmless enough, and, to my surprise, quite varied pastime. Kenneth once assured me that there were more than thirty species of vole.
My first attempt on the bridge had not come to much. According to The Civil Engineer, the Kyleinver was the first lightweight concrete bridge to be completed in Europe. Lightweight. The first lightweight concrete bridge. I turned that thought over in my mind as I cruised towards it, tyres hissing on the newly smoothed asphalt of a trunk road that now linked us to the mainland. What exactly is lightweight about it? Is it the eight pairs of reinforced concrete pillars that support it eighty feet above the choppy Atlantic? Could it be the fourteen-foot box girders that run in lengths varying from thirty-four to eighty-two feet per section? Or is it the flimsy concrete road deck that stops the whole confection from plunging onto the rocks below? I turned the car around and drove to the Clydesdale Café.
My first cup of coffee of the day felt undeserved. I pulled on it tentatively, and found it tepid, with a scum of imperfectly dissolved instant granules circulating just shy of the rim. The bench beside me was occupied.
'Suicides are often drawn to bridges,' I observed.
The trucker next to me nodded as he shovelled down something brown and slick in texture that gave off a strong odour of meat.
'Wouldn't know mate,' said the trucker. 'What sort of dog you got there?'
'Oh, he's a mixture—something smooth mixed with something hairy,' I said. 'Only thing about him is, some days he won't go over bridges. Just won't go over them.'
'He driving is he?' said the trucker. He finished his breakfast and left. 'See you around,' he said, and, pointing at the dog, 'You should get him a licence, mate.'
The proprietor shuffled past and gathered up the debris of the trucker's meal.
'Gephyrophobia,' he said. I stared back at him, uncomprehending. 'Gephyrophobia,' he repeated. 'Come across it in a pub quiz. The fear of crossing bridges. Common enough problem. Another coffee?'
'No,' I said, reaching for my jacket from the back of the bench. 'I don't think so. Got to be on my way.'
Outside in the car, I sat with my hands in the ten-to-two position on the steering wheel and tried to visualise myself driving over the bridge: the speedometer registering between fifty and sixty; the dog asleep on his rug in the boot; passing the turning for the old ferry terminal, coming level with the gravel car park overlooking the straits with the three camper vans with Dutch plates parked as close to the edge as they could get; through the cutting where the rock is still bare and pink from recent blasting; out over the first expansion joint that jolts the body of the car with a double thunk, then, still with the speedo hovering near the limit, into the main curve of the first span.
And that was as far as I could get.
My palms became slick on the faux-leather of the wheel, and my mind confused. The hiss of the tyres became the recurrent screech of a gull and the sensation, one of falling. I shook my head and drew my hands over my face and through the remains of my hair. Taking out my phone, I dialled my daughter's number and left a long message explaining myself: the dog, the car, the weather, the dog again. Her answer machine remained mercifully silent.
Then I turned the car around and went home.
The next morning I was awakened once again by a sound I was beginning to dread. A newly received text message.
Kenneth back 5am. He's taken the light bulbs. Please come.
My bag was still packed from the night before. The dog, reluctant this time, tried to pretend he hadn't heard me. I found him in his basket, one paw over his snout, one eye open.
The day was a blustery one, and the tops of the birch saplings on the coast road were whipping first one way then the other, but it was dry and not particularly cold. As I drew level with the viewing car park immediately before the bridge, my nerve failed, and I turned in and rolled to a halt beside one of the inevitable camper vans. I opened the boot, and pretended to walk the dog up and down the fag-end strewn gravel. The middle aged owners of the camper van climbed out and braced themselves against the updraught from the sea.
'Wonderful place,' the man said to me. He gestured towards the woman. 'I came here on a bicycle thirty years ago, before I ever met Marieke.'
The woman fought to keep her hair out of her face. She smiled, confirming what the man was saying.
'No bridge back then,' he said. 'I preferred it that way, but I suppose if you live here you are glad of the bridge every day.'
'No. Bridges are a sort of magnet for suicides,' I said, then immediately felt ashamed.
'Ah,' said the man. 'Well, have a nice drive. Perhaps the rain will hold off.' He got back into the passenger side, and his wife climbed behind the wheel. She took out a flask and began pouring them each a beaker of coffee. I took a few paces further towards the drop, and sat down on an asymmetrical wooden bench next to a wildlife information board. I had only been sitting for a moment or two when I heard a voice at my elbow. It was the woman from the camper van, holding out a third cup of coffee, keen to talk me out of my imagined suicide.
I accepted the coffee, feeling under an obligation to explain myself.
'I'm quite alright,' I said. 'I'm sorry if I spoiled your enjoyment of the spot. I just miss the old ferry. Bridges don't work for me.'
Back at the Clydesdale Café, my usual seat was unoccupied. The owner gave me an inquiring look, but served me in silence.
'What kind of dog is that, mister?' said a child's voice at my elbow. I swivelled my body round against the orange vinyl of the seat to get a good look. Probably a boy, I thought. He was standing about an inch away from me, goggling under the table at the dog.
'This dog?' I said. 'He's an excuse hound.'
The dog thumped his tail on the streaky lino tiles, backing me up. The boy went off, disgusted. 'That man's a liar,' I heard him telling his father. 'Grown-ups shouldn't tell lies.' I ruffled the fur on the top of the dog. He ignored me, head on his paws, giving me no excuses this time.
Rather than leaving another phone message for my daughter, I decided on a plan. If I left immediately, I could reach the small, roll-on-roll-off tourist ferry at the other end of the island and cut out the bridge altogether. I wouldn't reach the city until long after midnight.
I drove fast, taking care to slow down for the bends. The wind had died a little, but clouds were moving in, and by the time I had reached the terminal, queued in the line of three or four other cars for twenty minutes or so and bumped down the gangway to the open, exposed car deck, it was beginning to rain softly.
Sea spray, mixed with the drizzle had turned the rust on the pitted deck to a dirty brown. The bows of the stumpy, baking-tray of a vessel jerked to the left, as the hawser corrected the angle of the boat against the fast moving tide.
‘Out you come, now.’ The dog was shaking, eyes turned up to meet mine, breathy whistles escaping him as he shifted from foot to foot. Still, restless as he was, he was reluctant to jump down. ‘Come on, boy,’ I encouraged him, swinging an arm over his shoulders and under his chest to lift his front legs clear of the lip of the boot.
In a movement that sent me staggering back on the slippery, punched steel sheeting of the deck, the dog bucked on his hind legs and sprang past me. For a moment I could hear the snare-drum roll of his claws close to my ear and feel his breath on the top of my head. Then, as the ferry entered the choppy water in the centre of the straits, the sounds from the dog died away into the greater sound of the wind, the sea, and the engine.
I sat up and groped for my hat. Norman, the ferryman came over to me and reached down a hand.
‘Best catch the dog,’ he said.
I looked around me.
‘Best catch the dog.’
I walked around the back of the cars.
I climbed the steps to the walkway that led to the wheelhouse.
Grasping the dripping rail, I descended back to the car deck. I walked to the front, all the time expecting the dog to come skittering up to me, eyes wide and apologetic.
But he didn’t.
As I turned to repeat my circuit of the vessel, I felt a vibration in my chest pocket. A text message. Mentally, I prepared the reply I would shortly be sending:
With you by midnight. Dog staying the night with Archie.
Finally, it seemed, I had run short of excuses.
Ken Morlich is an Edinburgh based writer who likes muesli and old-fashioned bicycles. Recently he’s had work in webzine Bleak Bleak Bleak, been short-listed in the Berlin Reader prize and won runner up in the Skye Baker short story competition.