The Toll Bridge

A Short Story

As he lay on the hot asphalt his body trembled and his leg kicked out violently in his uneasy dream.
“Dreams too much that bloody dog,” thought Kenny as he stood against the wall of the dark open arch that formed the North entrance to the suspension bridge. The day had been hot and humid and it was cool under the archway. A young woman approached, smiling at the sleeping dog and reached into her purse.
“Here,” she said dropping a coin into his paper cup, “Get yourself a cup of tea.”
“Thank you Ma’am,” he said, nodding briefly.
jack on bridgeHe looked into the cup as she moved away. A pound, hardly the price of cup of tea these days, but very good. He yawned wearily. The late languid afternoon was drawing to a close and soon the bridge would get busy as the city centre shops emptied. He should get his Friday target of ten pounds fairly quickly; enough for a bite to eat, and maybe a litre or two of cider, no going mad – a quiet night, maybe a bed in the hostel for a bit of a change. Tomorrow was usually his big earner and he needed to be on his toes.
He looked down at the dog and idly wondered if the dog really did dream and if the dog remembered them and confused them with reality – or did the dog think that reality was just another dream? Exhausted with such confusing existentialist thoughts Kenny slumped against the sandstone wall and drifted into the torpor of the afternoon.
Saturday mornings was when he worked the car parks – the open air one was best. He casually hung around the pay station, just under the tariff board, where he chatted affably, commenting on the weather and suchlike, while the fraught out-of-town shoppers raked their pockets and purses searching for money.
“Terrible the price of parking these days, I don’t know how they get away with it,” he would say shaking his head sympathetically.
Just as the frazzled motorist was about to pull out the ticket from the machine and pocket the rest of their coins, Kenny produced his cup and made his pitch.
“Excuse me,” he would pipe up brightly, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “Spare any change for the homeless?”
The dog too had his own routine. Early mornings were spent mooching around the grassy banks off the south side of the river where he found an endless supply of half eaten hamburgers and sausage suppers. For sport he raced after seagulls and snapped playfully at the tail feathers of the fat pigeon that roosted in the low branches of the horse chestnut tree and then, when bored with that, he would take to crouching in the long grass to await any squirrel that wandered within pouncing distance – but the squirrels were always too smart and too fast. Despite his lack of success the dog persisted… one of these days.
The dog’s afternoons were spent loafing around the bridge with the down and outs and other members of the demi-monde that hung about the archway on the North side. He was happy and content there. He felt part of the gang, loved and wanted; he was fussed over, patted and spoiled. To be tied up occasionally with a mangy piece of string and lie around looking woebegone and forlorn was a small price to pay.
God only knows what possessed the dog to throw his lot in with the beggars and jakies that wandered like a lost tribe around the North bank of the river. They were always on the move, shifting from railway arches to abandoned shops: they slept under wide oak trees in the summer and leaky garden sheds in the winter. They were constantly harassed by the police, patronised by do-gooders and continually pestered by social work students who asked them daft questions and always wanted them to fill in questionnaires and surveys. Some of them were hopeless alkies, some others, like Kenny, had some peculiar mental disorder, some were bout drinkers or failed gamblers or a combination of both or even all three, unable to control their lives, forever procrastinating, always going to change tomorrow, until eventually they were overcome by events and their circumstances changed – someone dies or they lose their job or their home or they simply got some other bad break and slowly drifted into the lifestyle, if such a state of affairs can be called a lifestyle. But they had their pride and stuck together: they looked down on drug users and other riff raff as spineless and dangerous parasites.
Friday was usually a good day and they each took turns on the bridge; Wise Eddie was due to appear shortly. Kenny wiped his brow and was now sweating even in the shade of the arch. One problem with being homeless was having to wear your entire wardrobe when you moved around. Not that it was entirely necessary, charity shops were quite generous when it came to handing out free clothes, after all, there are certain outfits that even the thriftiest would baulk at wearing – still, you got quite fond of some things like old cardigans or warm jackets, like that Grateful Dead hoodie Wise Eddie always wore under his army overcoat even in the middle of the summer. The bridge had now become sweltering, quiet and empty: quiet, that is, except for the hum of traffic noise that sounded like bees on a summer’s day. Kenny was slowly becoming overcome with ennui. The dog had come out of his slumbers and was lying quietly, using his front paws as a pillow. He was staring across the river, he was sure he could see a squirrel scampering about on the opposite bank. One ear pricked up with interest – then slowly went limp as if the sheer exertion of lifting a single ear was too much effort in the dull heat. He slumped back into his fitful sleep.
Kenny noticed from the corner of his eye some people approaching the bridge from the city side, a woman and two men. Although they were together as a group they look oddly apart and isolated. The woman was tall and elegant wearing a dark, sharply tailored suit, and designer sunglasses: the blonde highlights in her hair were catching the sun as she walked. The men were the opposite of each other, both were also fairly tall, but the younger one looked lean and fit whereas the other had a greying beard and was barrel-chested and stocky.
Although he couldn’t explain it or articulate it Kenny had a gift, a gift he shared with fairground fortune tellers and charlatan spiritualists; he could see auras around people, not coloured lights or halos or anything like that, just…. intuition, Kenny could feel ‘Bad Vibes’ as Wise Eddie would often say. He pressed himself against the wall. They walked as if they were lost and slightly bewildered, utterly grief-stricken by the look of it. From long experience he knew who to beg from and who not to. He pulled his cup into his chest and took an unexpected interest in his shoes. As they walked under the arch he could almost feel the hair on the back of his neck rising – a cold draft seemed to drift past him. The men walked on, the woman had stopped in front of him; he could see her neat expensive shoes opposite his. He looked up slowly.
He couldn’t see her eyes behind the mirrored glasses but he knew she was looking straight at him. Without moving her head she put her hand in her jacket pocket and took out a coin; she held it up between her thumb and forefinger.
“Do you know what this is?” she said.
It suddenly occurred to Kenny that perhaps some elaborate joke was being played on him. He glanced to his right; the two men had sauntered on seemingly unconcerned and oblivious to what was going on. He leaned forward and looked at the coin.
“I may be a homeless Jakie misses, but I’m nobody’s fool,” he replied warily, still considering some sort of malicious prank.
He rubbed his stubbled chin, weighing her up. He took a closer look.
“That there is a British gold sovereign,” he said eventually.
“George the Fifth, around 1911 to 1916, I’d say.”
A brief look of anguish and pain crossed her face.
“Here,” she said softly, dropping it into his cup, “Take it.”
She turned on her heels and walked away.
Kenny was silent for a moment as he watched her walking, slow and graceful in the heat haze, to the middle of the bridge where her two companions now stood listlessly, hands in their pockets, in the warm sunshine watching the late afternoon sun dazzle and glint in the still waters of the Clyde
He tipped the coin out of the cup, still half suspecting a hoax. He felt its weight in his hand, it was genuine. He brightened up. He knew a pawn shop up beside the old fish market. A gold sovereign? Two hundred quid, no questions asked! – He could still make it before it closed.
He bent down to the dog.
“Have the rest of the day off,” he said untying the useless piece of string, “I’ll get you a meat pie from the bakers when I get back.”
The dog quickly scampered off, delighted at this inexplicable turn of events. As he came to the trio in the middle he slowed down and eyed them warily, slinking back and sticking closely to the other side of the narrow bridge. He gave quiet growl and a last suspicious look as he passed them, straightened up and started to run again – he could see the squirrel sitting out in the open grass between the trees! – the fool!
Kenny whistled a familiar tune as he buttoned up his jackets and head up towards the old market area. He suddenly remembered there was a pub up there that catered and tolerated the likes of Kenny – as long as they had some money behaved themselves – maybe one pint.
“…no more working for a week or two,” he sang.
What was that song? He reflected, suddenly puzzled. What was it called? He had a memory of his mother singing it to him when he was a boy.
He stopped.
His mothers face appeared briefly before him singing; young, happy and cheerful – then it gradually dissolved leaving him oddly empty and lonely – he felt a weird kind of home sickness.
“I must ask Wise Eddie if he knows that song,” he thought to himself.
“I’ll come back and see him and the dog…later on”
Then an image of the pub, the company and the cool beer.
“Or maybe …”
He hesitated and shrugged.
“Perhaps tomorrow.”
The End

A short story I wrote for Waterstones a few years back. I thought I had lost it but found it a file in my old computer, it reminded me a photograph of the bridge by John Dyer and my thanks to him for allowing me to use his work. Click on John’s name to visit his twitter account where you can see much of his excellent work.

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