The Boy On The Bridge: a short story

Short fiction written on the train

1952

He puts his gloved hand over mine and clasps at my fingers. He means to be reassuring, but the firmness of his grip cracks my finger joints. I say nothing. It’s very good sometimes to say nothing.

Silence is a subtle art. Too long spent between fastened lips and you become invisible, a background character in your own painting, nameless and faceless to time. Too little time spent silent and your tongue runs you to ridicule and ruin. I’m learning to be silent. A hard and uncomfortable task.

“I’ve booked in for dinner at Harley’s at 9.” He speaks assertively, a detail made beyond my control. I say nothing. There is nothing to be said.

“You should wear the pearls I bought you, my dear.”

An order, a command, the general has spoken. My voice is a challenge. The correct answer is nothing. I force a smile, staring out of the car. If I look at him, I’ll break. I won’t give him the pleasure of my tears.

We drive on wordlessly, the chauffeur faceless ahead. He has a scar down the left side of his neck, ending where his spine meets his collar. I know better than to ask. This is a city of unspoken war wounds. The unburied dead drive vehicles for the men who bought their blood, traded their skins and wagered on their lives.

I am a stranger in my body, numb with cold. Nothing I am wearing is my own, no word in my mouth one I wish to say aloud, no thought in my head one that is not caught with reflection. I was alive. Country girl, feet free from the pedals of my bicycle as I rode through the minnows and mud. Now I wear perfume chosen by a man I loathe and remove my lipstick at a flippant demand.

He takes my silence as my defeat. Perhaps it is. He unfolds his newspaper and reads it disinterestedly. A Russian bride grins at me in black and white dots above his hand. In his trench coat and suit, he looks as greyscale as the photograph. He was probably a handsome man once, years ago, before the war, before I was born. Now he reminds me of an old folk story whispered over bonfires as a child.

The undead who were unreceived in the next world were awake in their graves, rotting into the earth and filled with a great hunger. They pull back the church land and stalk the night, huge and starving, grasping and stalking with incredible strength through the village at the children and-

Yes, that was him. Someone like him should have been buried twenty years ago, forgotten as moss covered the last of his name. But here he was, looming and decaying with great wide hands at a fresh young world, the keeper of secrets and the merchant of life. The streetlights illuminate his white hair with blue, red and green. He meets my gaze, aware of my stare. His eyes are hard.

“It needed to be done.”

I say nothing. To speak is to betray truth.

“I hope you’ve learnt your lesson.”

Nothing arrives in my throat but hot angry tears. To him, I am an eternal child, naive and unaware of a dark and unforgiving world. He deals with everything as one might a wolf: pursued and skinned without mercy or remorse.

The boy was no exception.

I imagine the young man’s face in a fate I don’t fully know, or ever will. I hope it was quick. I hope it was done on the bridge in Berlin with a gun he never heard to the back of his head. I hope he died drunk and loose with thoughts of sweet wine and cabaret women. His removal could not have been motivated by jealousy: the corpse beside me is incapable of so human an emotion. This could only be cold pragmatism. Hunt the wolf before it hunts you.

I only knew of his death when the letters stopped coming.

The only reassurance I have is that the old murderer beside me is not foolish enough to have tortured him. “Too many fingerprints,” he had remarked casually over the piano, as if commenting on his technique to iron a cravat.

I know where his gun is, right pocket of his coat. I know it is loaded with two bullets each morning. A detail you’d miss from talking. I could reach forward and do it, death to the temple. He’d never suspect it. But I know better than to gamble on his agility. This is a man who shoots to kill. The car swerves suddenly, turning right off Archway Road.

“Knightsbridge is the other way,” I tell the driver, regretting my words instantly. Panic inflects my voice, betraying my thoughts.

He pauses, folding his paper with his long fingers. “I’ve told you how I feel about you talking to the staff, Rosie.”

I pull at the car door handle, but it’s locked. The driver doesn’t flinch. I’m being driven to my funeral. I turn to him, my mouth dry.

“Please, Carl, I don’t know how he died-”

“I know.” He says calmly. “But there is a little something you didn’t tell me, isn’t there my dear?”

How could he possibly know

“I don’t know what you mean-”

“That young man wasn’t your lover, was he, Rosie?”

I rattle at the door handle, hoping it jars open.

“Because you don’t like the company of men, do you, my dear? Even wealthy ones. Although that holds some appeal.”

“Carl, I-”

“Which leads me to wonder, my dear, why were you meeting with a penniless communist fellow in East Berlin?”

I say nothing, staring into his cold hard eyes, the scent of my perfume making me shiver.

“I must congratulate you, the love letters to the boy showed a delightful flair.”

He smiles, pulling a string of pearls from his right coat pocket. “You should wear these, my darling. I won’t be needing them.”

Written by

24 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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