Trolls And Bridges
The university has a different quality at night. Now the spacious squares are intimidating, great acres I scurry across on my way to the exit, making myself panic with my own gasping breath. The streetlights reduce my shadow to nothing as I reach the road. Most of my walk home is through the High Street. There are people around, even at this time of night. I feel relatively safe until I’m nearly at the big bridge.
I slow as I approach it. Perhaps the Troll has moved on. He may even be asleep. He isn’t as fearless as people claim. Every time I’ve crossed the bridge in company he’s left us alone. But I’ve never been here after dark and I’ve never been on my own. We laugh about it in the staffroom at the university, how we stick together because we’re frightened of him because he reminds us of childhood stories of trolls. Most of them don’t know I have a better reason to be afraid.
I tiptoe across, my vestigial courage evaporating in the faint wind. I am halfway there when the shadows form themselves into his body standing at the far end, waiting for me. I stop trying to pretend he isn’t there. His hair is long and wild, his beard matted and dirty. His shoulders are so stooped you wouldn’t guess he was once a tall man. His hands are as clasped as bird claws. His lips are opening and closing as if chewing on words. I wait for him to speak.
‘Alone at last.’
His voice hasn’t changed, it still reminds me of chocolate. I stare at what he’s become searching for any traces of who he used to be, before the curse struck, before I lost him to it. The creases have almost buried his eyes, his beautiful lips are darkly stained. ‘Tim.’
‘How are you, Ingrid?’
This is ridiculous. I’m making polite conversation with someone who’s rejected all convention. He lives under a bridge, makes fires out of others’ rubbish, steals food from supermarkets, appears regularly in court. Even from this distance I can smell the alcohol. That fearsome Alsatian is by his side, already growling at me. I can’t see a muzzle or a lead. Tim will have no control over it, he never had much discipline. ‘I’m scared of your dog.’
Tim looks down at it. It wags its tail. ‘Don’t be. He’s never hurt anyone. Shadow just likes a good growl.’
‘But if you let people think he’ll hurt them won’t someone take him away?’
He raises his head, meets my eyes. ‘They’ll have to kill me first.’
He doesn’t seem to realise they might do just that. Can’t he see that people are petrified of him? He won't let people pass without giving him a toll for crossing the bridge. A toll that is quickly converted into Special Brew and Pedigree Chum. There are rumours that the council will try and move him on. My neighbours in the riverside apartments have been complaining. Neighbours that probably don’t recognise Tim from when he lived there too, with me, in the posh penthouse his city job paid for.
I know now why I left it too late to walk home with someone. I wanted to have this conversation. I wanted to have one last try at saving him before he passes away from me into urban myth. I want Tim to stop being a troll. I hurry forwards, reach out and take the can from his hand. ‘This stuff will kill you first. What will happen to Shadow then?’ I upend it and the beery stench reeks out. Shadow wags his tail again, stops growling.
Tim’s lips curl as he snatches the can back and rights it. He takes a deep swallow and throws the emptied can over the bridge. I wince, thinking of the wildlife. ‘Give me my toll, Bitch!’ He spits the words out. Shadow whines and comes to sit by me.
‘Can’t you stop? Go back to who you used to be?’ I’m pleading for both of us, my voice so high-pitched it could shatter the glass between us and those I can sense gawping behind their blinds.
‘I’m happy here. I don’t have to pretend anymore.’ He gestures at his sleeping bag under the bridge, the smoke from his fire, Shadow. Then he looks at me and glances up at our apartment and I can see he’s struggling with some impulse. He creases his eyebrows together, makes a lunge towards me and snatches my bag.
They come out of nowhere. Tim punches the air as they taser him. The darkly uniformed men tear me away from the snarling dog hiding behind my legs. They fold me into what they believe is safety. Perhaps it is although I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave the Troll with them. You read all those stories about what happens in police custody. ‘Leave him alone! I’m not pressing charges.’ I don’t want to be saved from myself.
They sit around their customary table in the darkest corner, nursing pints of bitter slowly over the course of the evening; The Trolls. All crooked teeth and scraggly remnants of hair, their postures are bent, shoulders hunched or sagging. They drink just enough that the pretty young waitress doesn’t ask them to leave, she never does, but she covers her mouth in mild disgust when one of them smiles yellow at her, and pretends she’s coughing.
Among the four of them there’s little conversation. Joe might ask if they’ll get a chipper later, to which Robert and George will nod, while Michael replies that he can’t, doctor said so, and tap his bag leg with his cane as though it has anything to do with high cholesterol. None of them mention the conspicuous hole left by Tom.
He’d been the conversationalist of them, the scholar too, and when there was no talk to be dragged out of them he’d recite poetry, old poetry, nothing they’d ever heard. They’d close their eyes then and listen to his quiet gruff voice as it washed over them.
He’d demanded they wear bright colours to his funeral, and forbade a wake, but they’d worn black anyway; none of them owned a second suit.
The Trolls, they’re called, by the manager and most of the wait staff. “Are The Trolls in tonight?” or when he’s kicking them out at two “Come on lads, get yourselves home before it gets light and you turn to stone.”
Offending patrons is against practice, of course, but theirs is custom he could do without.
Each night he looks around the busy pub, which has grown in popularity since he’s taken over, and count up how much he’s missing out on by having their table occupied by The Trolls instead of heavy-drinking twenty-year-olds. As he pulls his BMW out of the car park, crosses under the old railway bridge and drives home, he thinks that the bit of extra sales would push him just over his next target and he’d get another raise.
The last of their wives stopped coming half a year ago, whether she was dead or in a hospice he didn’t know. Either way that was a seat free that he moved to a different table. Another one went last month; that one had definitely died, the other four had been in two days later in sad, drab suits instead of their normal shapeless old people clothes. That hadn’t helped him much though; the remaining seats around their table were built in benches that he couldn’t shift.
If one or two more of them dropped now, that would suit him grand. He could insist they move to a smaller table out the back, then maybe they’d fuck off and find another pub to waste space in.
George scratches his chin, shaking little flakes of dead skin out of his beard. “Could we find a book maybe? One that had all the stuff he used to read.”
Michael downs the rest of his pint uncharacteristically, and pushes his seat back. He goes to get a round without another word.
“I don’t think we’d find them in a book. Wouldn’t be the same anyway, would it? I can’t read feckin’ poetry, and I’m sure the rest of us can’t either.” Robert said.
They lapse back into silence, and when the pints arrive each man looks at the place by the window where Tom sat and downs the remainder of his previous drink. No toast is made.
When it comes, the crash is so loud it seems the window panes must be shaking in their housing. The entire pub freezes at once, though the music plays on, ACDC uncaring of the imminent danger. Then the screaming begins and everyone runs to the front door. Drinks are left at tables by all, except for The Trolls who wander to the doors, pints in hand, after the crush has passed. Michael comes last, hobbling on his cane.
The rubble of the railway bridge is strewn across the street; big blocks of rough cut stone scattered like little castles on a flat grey plain. There’s a huge tour bus rammed halfway in the bridge tunnel, and a stream of Japanese tourists are still exiting its rear doors, pushing and tripping their way to safety. Because the bridge is only half down.
The remaining masonry protrudes in jagged fingers from the side walls, with two large blocks actually hanging from the remnants of vines that are somehow bearing their weight. And beneath, directly beneath, is a blue Honda Accord, wedged between the bus and the opposite wall, a visible baby-on-board sticker on the rear window.
The pub manager tells the pretty young waitress to ring emergency services, then picks out three young men from the crowd and they all run forward to help. Only to rear back again as a wide band of dark liquid pooled beside the bus bursts into flames. Screams from the tourists re-double, though most of them are free and clear.
As The Trolls shuffle across for a better view they can see through the haze the unconscious slump of a woman across the steering wheel of the Accord, and the flailing arms from the baby seat in the back.
They look at each other. They set down their pints in a line by the curb. They approach the flames together, passing by the manager who tries to call them back. Michael feels a hand on his shoulder and shrugs it off.
George takes off his old brown overcoat, drags it through a dirty puddle and throws the sodden result across the thinnest section of the flaming puddle. It doesn’t come close to putting the fire out, but douses that section long enough for The Trolls to tread across to the door of the trapped car.
There’s another flare as more fuel spurts from the bus’s tank, accelerating the blaze, and the shapes of The Trolls are obscured behind the ensuing heat haze. A man shouts a warning, pointing, as flames lick up one of the tyres, heading towards the leaky tank. But an explosion doesn’t come- either the tank is empty or some fluke gap stops the fire from jumping across.
Only glimpses can be seen of their clumpy movements as they pry the dented door open with Michael’s cane, or as they drag the woman unceremoniously from her seat. George stands over her, slapping her back to consciousness as the other work the back door open and retrieve the clip-in baby seat.
What can be seen is the flames licking up the side wall, setting the vines alight and producing even more waves of black smoke. There’s a huge smash and people instinctively duck as one of the suspended blocks falls onto the roof of the Accord, blowing the glass out of all windows at once.
It takes some minute or so more before another heavy coat is thrown across the flames and the woman dashes across the gap, baby in her arms. She’s crowded by people slapping out the little flames that have caught on her jacket.
The rest watch, unspeaking. George drags Michael across the coat, face set in a tight grimace. Michael’s cane is nowhere to be seen.
Joe and Robert never emerge from under the bridge.
When the ambulance and fire crews arrive George and Michael are sitting on the curb, drinking their pints. The other two remain untouched. Michael’s hands are shaking.
After they’ve been treated for shock and burns, the crew tells them that Joe and Robert were killed by fume inhalation. The fire never touched them.
Michael choughs as he replies “For the best so I reckon.”
George looks at the sobbing woman with her tiny baby “Two for two I guess.”
The one that says won't or the one that says will?
We sing to the demons,
we tremble and sing
the song is the singing
the song is the thing:
Ashes to smashes
To dusky to dust
All bodies bumble on up from the crust,
Ashes to smashes
To dusky to dust
Nethers have feathers and fly when they thrust
Everything’s rooted in earth, don’t you see?
‘Cept him and cept her and cept you and cept me
We are the flotsam, the bits and the dross
We are the ones left behind at the cross
Dropped from the heavens and pale as a pike
Ripe for the beating, the lash and the strike
Sore cut flanks, tender footed – skin thin as lettuce
Eyes big as onions but where does it get us?
Ashes to smashes
To booncocks and brine
Eight follows seven and seven ate nine
Ashes to smashes
To booncocks and brack
Wine turns to water and never turns back
Just like the spider that thinks it’s a flower
A crack in the mind will hold perilous power
We reach and we listen – we wade through the years
We hear the dead voices that no one else hears
We see what we see when we see in the dark
Our dream-conjured company, black as wet bark.
Ashes to smashes
To dusky til dust
Stacked up and smacked up and cracked up with lust
Ashes to smashes
To dusky til dust...
God’s golden blessings
are covered in rust.