Tag Archives: Severn Bridge

All My Friends: Neil

I don’t function in the countryside. I’d felt myself tense up just driving over the Severn Bridge and seeing those rolling Welsh hills and valleys extend to the horizon. Well, I imagine there’d be rolling hills, great waves of grass spilling over itself, a dazzling emerald expanse, if I could have seen anything through the pissing rain that my one working wiper flapped ineffectually against. If there had been a way to cross the central reservation and hightail it back to a stale coffee and greasy fry up at Aust Services then I’d have done it. Why had Lizzie arranged this nostalgia freak show in the middle of nowhere? I’d just driven past Bristol and, presumably, several functioning bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. Everything, in short, required for a decent night out. The order sometimes varies. Finishing in the hotel rather than the hospital is optimal. I’ve never been to Bristol. It could have been fun. I’d even drink cider if it meant avoiding the onward trek into the wilderness. Is cider a Bristol thing? Or is that pasties? I try not to venture further west than Reading for precisely these reasons: the avoidance of hold-in-one-hand meals wrapped in pastry and alcohol distilled from apples bobbing around in some straw-chewing farmer’s barrel in a barn. But right then, squinting into the deluge plastering itself onto my windscreen, imagining the verdant fields beyond, I would have happily killed a kitten for the chance to bite into some stodgy mincemeat and sup on warm, flat scrumpy rather than keep going.

My first impressions of the cottage were not good. I didn’t really have a benchmark as cottages were another thing I’d deliberately avoided in my life along with tents, horses, farms, summer walks in meadows, autumnal tramps through drifting leaves in the woods, bluebells, campfires, and botanical gardens. I was yet to see a green space I couldn’t mentally improve with concrete, a Starbucks, and wi-fi. There was a purple flower climbing its way up the walls and framing the door that had prompted much delight in the others but which just looked like a drop in centre for drunken, drowsy wasps to me. I’d spotted at least two of the little bastards furiously headbutting a window as soon as I’d stepped inside. Later I learned that this mysterious plant was called wisteria but not before mis-hearing Lizzie and spending a few confused minutes wondering why she was quite so enthusiastic about having contracted listeria. Cue, inevitably, general hysteria.

My first impressions of the others were not good either. This was the second time they’d all made a first impression on me and at least they were consistently disappointing. That first first time, back when nobody was reflexively sucking in their stomach every time someone pulled a camera and everybody’s imagination still outstripped their income, I’d only really been impressed with Richard. He’d always had a confidence about him which I’d mistaken as an acceptance of himself and being a grown up when the rest of us were still kids. It wasn’t until later that I realised he was just a bit of an arrogant arsehole with an inflated sense of entitlement. Therefore, given my track record on first impressions, I wasn’t reading too much into my initial deflation this time around but, seeing them, listening to what they’d done and filling in the blanks on what they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but see my own failures reflected back. I wasn’t the person they had known but I wasn’t sure I was quite the person I’d wanted to be either.

I’d gravitated to Jon as the evening progressed. It wasn’t like I’d planned it but it didn’t surprise me either. If he remembered that night I tried to kiss him then he didn’t bring it up and I could tell from the way his eyes still tracked Clare around the room that not only was he still playing for the wrong side but that he was also still playing out of his league. I think I wanted to tell him that he was important to me but I wasn’t good at sincerity at the best of times and least of all removed from my urban comforts. I don’t mean that I still had feelings for him but I wanted to tell him that his rebuffal was the turning point for me; it was when I realised who I was and felt good about it. The details are a little hazy – tequila will do that – but I do remember him not being a dick about it. Just a kind, gentle even, letting down and then we sat round listening to records until I crashed out on his floor. I don’t tell him any of this. We just talk about some songs like we used to.

As the night started to find its natural end my need for a smoke finally became more urgent than my aversion to being outside. I figured the wasps were probably asleep but I didn’t really want to find out if you could fight off a badger by stubbing it in the eye with a lighted cig. The insistent nicotine nudge was too persuasive. I convinced myself that the same farmer that I wouldn’t be buying cider from anytime soon had probably killed all the local badgers to stop them spreading TB or something. I accept I’m not going to be offered the gig when David Attenborough goes. I know more about Country & Western than I do about the country. What I mainly know is that I don’t like either of them.

I avoided being bitten in the ankle (or throat – maybe they can jump?) by any of the myriad of woodland creatures running rampant in my mind and settled down on the sofa. Jon was still up, playing Astral Weeks now, but I recognised his look, even after all this time. Van was going to give him solace that I couldn’t. If he could hear Richard and Clare shagging through the floor above then he wasn’t letting on. Luckily for him it didn’t seem to last all that long. I flicked on the TV, turned the volume right down, and flicked the channels until I found something to look at that reminded me of civilisation. I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t green. Tomorrow I’d drive back to Bristol and spend the rest of the weekend in bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. I fell asleep wondering why the hell you had to pay a toll on the Severn Bridge going west but grateful, at least, that I could escape home for free.

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Beginnings ?

There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end, right ? That’s how stories work. So you’re probably wondering what this is ? The beginning ? The end ? Somewhere in the middle ? 

Let’s give ourselves something to work with. I’m clinging to the hand rail on the Severn Bridge, wind blowing in my face, cars rushing past behind me. Does that make this the end ? I haven’t told you on which side of that hand rail I am standing. What did you suppose ? Is this just an innocent walk from England to Wales or the prelude to a plummet into the tidal depths of the water below ?

I’m clinging to the hand rail, retching across the side of the bridge, watching flecks of my own vomit disappear, whipped in the wind, down towards the river. There’s a stationary car behind me at an angle across the carriageway, driver’s door open, headlights on. So perhaps this is the middle ? The reaction to what happened in the beginning but with somewhere still to go.

A hand on my shoulder startles me into pulling tighter on the hand rail. I look round to see a woman, her face furrowed with concern, her car pulled to an abrupt halt behind us, headlights left on to illuminate her route to me. She asks if I’m alright and I note the sadness in her eyes even as the wind wraps her long, dark hair across her face. A beginning then ? Two strangers meeting at the mercy of circumstance.

I want to tell her what happened and why I come back. Why it always leaves me like this; physically sick, violently forcing the memories back out of my body. I imagine that you want to know too. That’s how stories work, isn’t it ? If this was the end you’d already know, if it’s the middle then you’d be finding out, but if this is the beginning then you only know what I want to tell you. Perhaps I will tell her and you can listen.

I tell her that I’m okay. She frowns and I don’t blame her. I’m throwing up over the side of a bridge in the middle of the night. I’m clearly not okay. She asks me again, this time assuring me that she just wants to help. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and let go my grip on the rail with the other. Really, I tell her, I’m really okay. Just a sudden wave of nausea. Maybe vertigo. Now she starts to look annoyed. I don’t know why I bothered lying or at least I don’t know why I didn’t come up with something even half way believable.

She starts to turn away to return to her car. The bridge isn’t busy at this time but I guess she’s suddenly aware that she’s blocking up the inside lane, was in such a rush that she didn’t flick on her hazards. I take a step after her and start to speak. She looks over her shoulder and says that she’ll be back in just a minute. I watch her clamber back up to the road and walk back to her car, a featureless black silhouette in the headlights.

It’s the hazards that do it. I notice them wink on and then off and it all comes back. Lights flashing on this bridge a year ago. Lights that I could see reflected off the thousands of pieces of broken glass, the fractured remains of a windscreen. Fractured as I’d been thrown through it and onto the tarmac on that still, cold night. I thought it was the end.

And so I come back. I come back because it wasn’t the end but it won’t leave me. I am stuck in some kind of middle.

She finds me again sitting and weeping, my head buried in my knees, wrapping myself up tightly against the echoes of the accident. This time she doesn’t ask if I’m okay, she just sits beside me and puts her arm across my shoulders. I tell her about my friends and our trip to Wales. I tell her about the minibus and how I’d taken to slipping off the seatbelt when I sat in the front so that I could turn around to speak to everyone. I tell her that I should have known he was tired, that we should have done more to share the drive home. We were so close to home though. I tell her that I was thrown out when we hit the central reservation before the bus span around in the road, turned up onto its side and was ploughed into by the lorry behind us. I tell her that I only survived because I wasn’t in the bus. That’s what the police said later. They called it a miracle.

Now that you’ve listened to me telling her I guess this is the end ? This is the first time since I’ve been back that anybody stopped, the first time I haven’t stood on the bridge alone. It’s the first time that I’ve told anyone what happened. It’s the first time I’ve cried. With so many firsts perhaps this is actually the beginning ?

She still has her arm across my shoulders, that worried furrow creasing her forehead, and those sad eyes watching me with concern. I wipe my eyes clear of tears and ask her for her name.

……….

This short story is the first in a series of 42 to try to raise awareness and money for Mind, the mental health charity. Please feel free to share it if you enjoyed it. More details here:  https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/