Jo had never told a soul that she had been terrified of wooden bridges, for as long as she could remember. It was the thought of wood splintering. She was scared of water; never went swimming. Wooden bridges were just too close to the cold wetness that threatened to close over the top of her head, fill her lungs till they burst. Somehow, in spite of living in the countryside, she had managed to avoid ever walking on one. Concrete bridges over roads – now, she was fine with them.
When she heard the splash a few feet (plus a bridge-length) away from where she was walking, at first, it didn’t occur to her to try and do anything. Still, she couldn’t resist having a look. She peered out from under her black fringe. There was a smallish person wearing a khaki coat and pink scarf thrashing about at the water edge. The parent was nowhere in sight. Probably one of those so-called mums she’d seen in the town centre, hair scraped back off their foreheads, cigarette ash dripping onto the snot-encrusted pallid faces of their child in a buggy. Jo was a terrible snob, and she knew it. She didn’t want kids herself, ever. There wasn’t a maternal bone in her skinny, well-dressed body. But that didn’t mean she approved of people who had them and didn’t look after them.
They always said (whoever they were) that it was possible to overcome fear in extreme situations – you heard stories of women doing crazy things to save their kids from danger. But this kid (the splashes seemed less frequent now or was Jo imagining this?) wasn’t her bloody kid, and she wasn’t prepared to step foot on the wooden, creaky, break-any-second-now, send-you-to-your-death slats, with God-only-knows-what lurking under the bridge. She thought of trolls from childhood stories, goats with trippy-trappy hooves. Thought of falling in. Like that poor kid has, through no fault of its own.
Someone else would have to sort it out, fish the unfortunate little bugger out by its coat. The problem was, and she was fast coming to realise this fact, that there was no ‘someone else’ around. By the time Jo had finished thinking this thought, her brain had sent the message to her feet to stop moving. They were frozen – two useless lumps of meat at the end of her legs. She stood still for what seemed like a long time.
When the kid shouted, ‘Mummy!’ in a way that sounded so forlorn, so resigned to its fate of drowning alone in a dirty river, it was like a slap round the face by someone a lot more sensible and, let’s face it, caring than Jo was.
You selfish cow, a child is drowning over there, and you’re pandering to your silly fears. Get a grip. She walked over to the bridge, placed a shaking hand on it and lifted her right foot onto the steps. Heart thudding, she placed one foot in front of the other. Easy-peasey, lemon-squeezy!
One step at a time, Joanna! This won’t hurt a bit.
God knows how, but she made it to the other side without being sick, and the bridge (the world) didn’t fall in, after all.
Louisa Adjoa Parker
Louisa is a poet and black history writer who lives in West Dorset. Her first poetry collection ‘Salt-sweat and Tears’ was published in 2007. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including the Forward Prize collection; Wasafiri; Envoi and Ouroboros. She has written books and exhibitions about the presence of African and Caribbean people in Dorset. Louisa first wrote flash fiction as part of a BBC project ‘Made in the South’ in 2009 and has continued writing short stories since then. She is currently researching the presence of African American GIs in Dorset in 1944 as well as working on her second poetry collection and her first novel. Louisa is co-editor of ‘Dorset Voices’ – a collection of local prose, poetry and photography, published this April by Roving Press.