The Glass Bridge

(Sunday Express Magazine – 1000 word stories, 27th May 2007)

Byron Bradley woke one cold May dawn and knew, that day, he was going to leave his wife. Once the decision was made he fell back to sleep and awoke later to find the house empty. His wife had taken their son to school and left him a note on the kitchen table to tell him not to bother with the washing up. The note had a sticky jam thumbprint on it. Byron’s glasses were upstairs so he held it out at arm’s length to see if he could detect who it belonged to, and concluded that it was probably his son’s. He put the note in his pocket and went to the bedroom to pack.

He filled two suitcases with his clothes, which he thought would tide him over for the month he intended spending in Portugal. He knew if he didn’t go away then he’d weaken and within a few days be back home. He wasn’t currently working so there was no employer to mollify, and, after the last contract, the shifting of a road bridge in Northumberland, there was enough in the current account to support the family for at least three months.

Byron spent fifteen minutes composing a note. He used his fountain pen. It was difficult, explaining exactly what had motivated him to leave, and after discarding two clumsy attempts decided simply to write: “Something’s come up. Had to go away. I’ll phone tonight.”  He hoped the scrawl would indicate the urgency with which it had been written. Molly would wonder why he hadn’t contacted her on the mobile to explain but she wouldn’t have to wonder for long. He’d make sure his own phone was switched off until he was ready to use it.

When the taxi arrived Byron took one last look around the careful décor of the house, picked up his suitcases and went out. The day was cold. Stale heat blasted his legs through the vents in the taxi. The cheerful driver tried to engage him in conversation but Byron wouldn’t play along and the man, unresentfully, fell silent. Byron tried not to look back as they bumped away along the unadopted road, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a decent, solid, detached Victorian house. He and Molly had fallen for it the moment they saw it and had spent seven years renovating it. But when they’d finished there was something missing between them. When their son was born they had another project, but somehow, five years further on, that wasn’t enough either. Byron was thinking about his son when they arrived at the airport and they were caught in the queue of taxis crawling towards the departure hall.

 Byron had, of course, read about the new glass passenger bridge at the airport. The trade papers reported the scale of it: 2400 tonnes; the largest to span a taxiway in the world; nearly 200 metres long. So high that a jumbo jet could pass beneath it. Byron admired the concept but, from the photos and drawings, had decided it was unnecessarily showy. Scale for scale’s sake; form over function. What insecurity led an airport to feel the need to demonstrate it could command the sky? He was looking critically at it through the wide, grimy airport window, when the accident happened.

Everybody in the lounge heard the crash and the woman’s cry. She sounded in great pain, and people assumed she’d been badly hurt. But all that had happened was that a large earthenware cooking pot had fallen from her trolley and shattered on the floor. Her son, who looked to be around eight or nine, was already kneeling on the floor picking up the pieces and putting them on top of the suitcase. Frantic, he seemed to think that the pot would miraculously reassemble itself. He was a neat, wiry child – gelled hair, grey hoodie, well dressed and groomed. His mother, an inelegant, travel-tired woman, was standing beside the trolley, crying.

“That’s all I wanted,” she was saying between sobs. “Do you understand? That was all I wanted to bring home – a bloody Tagine - and you broke it.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy kept repeating. “I’m really sorry.”

“You just have to mess around – don’t you? Why couldn’t you just push the trolley without messing around?”

After a few moments the mustard coloured pieces of the Moroccan pot had been collected, but the mother was now slumped disconsolately in a corridor seat staring at the floor. The rest of the passengers from the incoming Marrakech flight had gone in the direction of passport control. The boy gave up offering his apologies and went to look out of the window at the passenger bridge: his nose pressed close, his breath flaring the glass.

“What if a plane drove into one of those legs?” the boy asked Byron.

“What if it did?”

“Would it fall over sideways?”

“The whole bridge?”

“Yeah.”

“No. That’s why the stilts are designed that way.”

The boy nodded. “I wasn’t messing around,” he said. “It just fell off.”

“Accidents happen,” Byron said and offered a smile. The boy turned to look at his mother who was now kneeling beside the trolley, carefully removing the pieces of the broken pot from the lid of the suitcase and stacking them neatly beside a cylindrical rubbish bin. They were too big to fit through the mouth of it. The boy trooped away to help her, and when they’d finished, Byron watched them walk away together. At first the mother pushed the trolley, then stood aside and allowed the boy to take over. As he did, the woman’s hand briefly made contact with her son’s back.

Was it that tender gesture, Byron wondered, that led him to decide to return home? As he crossed the glass bridge on his way back to the terminal he paused to watch an Airbus pass beneath him. It slid sleekly, the white skin of the fuselage glinting in the cold sun. Perhaps he would learn to fly. Perhaps it was time to move house again. Perhaps they should try for another child. Men need projects, he thought, to stop them looking down from the bridge. To distract them from what lies beneath.

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