Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

The Bridge

Rachel Cook


Her husband got out of the car. Despite his paunch, he moved easily in the narrow lanes between the blocked traffic, the top of his jet-black head visible above the stationary cars. When she saw him go up to the police officers and shake their hands, she felt relief.

She checked in the driver’s mirror and saw the line of cars stretching back two, maybe three miles down the motorway, flanked by the makeshift industrial buildings and factories that led the way into the city. The fog was bad today and hazy grey pollution shrouded everything, with only the occasional gleam of heavy sun catching at the bodies of the waiting vehicles. 

A few hours ago, as they’d neared the new bridge with its imposing steel struts rising up into the sky above the sluggish Pearl River, they had seen the blue flashing lights, and then the cars in front of them had began to slow down.

When they came to a stop, her husband gripped the wheel very hard so that his knuckles went white. He began muttering to himself. Eventually, when it became clear they would not be moving for some time he snatched the keys from the ignition and spat violently out of his open window. She stayed silent.

He had been in a foul temper from the moment she had met him in the car park after work. They both worked at the bus factory – he as a floor manager, she as a secretary – and recently he had been offered the chance to apply for a job as an upstairs manager.

The pay rise this job brought with it would allow them to redecorate their decrepit little flat, or even move into a bigger place. And they could afford to go and visit their daughter Shu who was especially beloved by her husband. Seeing Shu would be a good diversion as they had very little to talk about these days, and often during the hour’s journey back from the factory they would drive in silence, or let the radio screech out between them.

Chen Huang looked very different to how he did when they got married twenty-five years ago. But his hair was still beautiful, thick and black, with not a single strand of grey. Every once in a while she would open her eyes first thing in the morning, see his shiny hair ruffled up, his pale and considerable paunch hidden by the bedclothes, and his now rather hard eyes hidden by sleep, and forget that she no longer desired him, nor he her.

Or sometimes after dinner and a few drinks they would laugh about Gang Lee, the owner of the factory who, despite being only thirty or so, was prodigiously fat, very short, and had a squint. He was always the subject of much ridicule, especially amongst the factory workers. Chen would occasionally do a hilarious impression of him – he had his uneasy waddle walk and twitching face down to a T.

But when they met in the car park that day his face was pale with anger. They reached the motorway in silence before he spoke,

‘I was not given the promotion. After careful consideration they have given it to Zhi Peng.’

His voice was as hard as the steel rods he watched the men use to build the buses and so she felt too constrained even to commiserate. And then there was the traffic. 

‘Who are these people? What do they think of the people who get up and go to work and go home again without a whimper? Do they think we are satisfied? They only think of themselves. It is disrespectful! Disrespectful!’ The whisper had become a shout and he turned to her as if he accused her, ‘Cowards! Attention grabbers!’

She could see the rusty white car at an odd angle on the hard shoulder a hundred metres or so ahead of them, abandoned, its driver door flung wide open, the hot hazy air around it just starting to turn towards dusk. Then the police cars blocking the road, and high above their heads amidst the steel struts dappled in rotating blue police light, the dark little figure of a man, standing on a ledge many feet above the road, looking down at them all.

There had been ten other episodes just that month: men getting up on the bridge, claiming they would jump, the police trying to coax them down, then eventually, after perhaps four or five hours of waiting, allowing themselves to be rescued.

She did not hate them as Chen Huang did – perhaps they found themselves enjoying the attention and realised that they still wanted their hearts to beat – but it was certainly an inconvenience. Last time night had fallen and the lights on the bridge had glinted picturesquely before the man, windblown and in a cheap grey suit, had been helped down. As the hundreds of cars had driven past the people had thrown their rubbish and leftover food at him, and screamed abuse. They read in the papers the next day that he owed over two million yuan.

And it was another three hours of waiting this evening before Chen Huang got out of the car. They had sat in silence with only his angry solipsistic mutterings until he turned to her suddenly, his face lit up with excitement – all the grey unhappy anger gone. ‘I’m going to do something!’ and he smacked the steering wheel joyfully.

And something was happening now. The little group of officers drew back to let him pass, and to her astonishment she saw Chen Huang climbing the steps, up the hidden staircase amidst the glistening struts of the bridge that looked softer now in the dusk, up to where the man in the suit stood on a small ledge above the tarmac. He was going to help! He climbed swiftly and smoothly and she could see the shape of his blue factory trousers and nylon cream shirt. Then she saw him climbing out on to the ledge next to the suicidal man.

The two men stood together about a foot apart and she suddenly felt very hot and gasped for breath. Her heart was racing. She opened the door of the car and got out, and several other people around her followed suit. She gasped again as though she was going to be pushed underwater. She could see the two figures so clearly, as if she was watching them through a microscope, organisms squirming on a plate, trapped.

She watched Chen Huang’s hand go out to the other man’s as if to shake it, he spoke to him. But his hand didn’t reach the other man’s, instead it went quickly to his back and he pushed the man firmly and swiftly off the bridge.

Everyone gasped. But unlike the people who rushed forward to see the fallen man, she couldn’t take her eyes off Chen Huang. He was sitting on the ledge now, swinging his legs in the air and waving his arms quite wildly above his head, and even from here she could see his broad, happy smile.