Adversary

Every day I walk across the bridge over the river. Today, the water swirls and eddies in cold competition with the dust. The rounded stump of the old bridge now barely casts a shadow over the rivers’ edge, while the painted railings of the existing construction cross the few hundred yards with proud Victorian ease. Today I wish I could use the old bridge, but the medieval stone was already crumbling four hundred years before my birth. On the opposite bank, there is a similar stump: a matching, stunted twin; slightly longer because of the rivers’ shifting course.

The eager, insensitive traffic pauses for breath, as it does every few minutes. I see, picked out by the sharp early sunlight, a bundle of rags turning in the wind on the other side of the bridge. They are dancing a wild, ecstatic dance. There must be an eddy above one of the parapets but they seem to be alive, turbulently fixed to one spot and confined by something more coherent than wind. The traffic returns and the rags drop into a random heap. Waiting for them to fly up again, I lean against the railings.

Looking back down the road, I see him approach. The wind is violently against the man, and it is plain to see that he finds it distressing. Slab-sided lorries batter their way through the fumes, dragging an army of minute, irritating particles in their wake. Every time one passes, I see him hit out at the wind and dust. He battles his way along the thirty yards of hostile pavement that lead to the bridge. Then, as if he is alone and at some private act, he turns all his fury on himself.

He lashes at his coat sleeve. He tries to kick his flapping trouser leg and punch the hem of his gust-rippled jacket. He twists and rolls like a tail-biting dog, and no-one stops to look. They give him an extra three feet and walk past; they all have somewhere to go, and are late. When I look at him again, he is glancing from side to side in panic, blind to everything around him. Then he begins to thrash about again. Even his hair is annoying him now. Cats, horses, dogs, all use the wind as an excuse to run about all over the place at strange angles, but humans aren’t allowed this crazy agile luxury. He fights it; battling and twisting from resistance against some similar urge.

The rags on the other side leap up again while the river of traffic silently inhales, ready for another blow. Because I am watching him so closely, I imagine that he might take offence, so I walk on over the bridge; the silent river tugging at the pillars beneath. Out in the centre of the bridge, the wind is so fierce and numbing that I begin to run. Then, as I reach the other side, it suddenly pauses, and the rags throw themselves to the ground in front of me. I just manage to close my eyes as the dust hits my face. When I open them and look over the railing, the rags are floating under the invisible span of the old bridge, scattered and calm. I look back, expecting to see him struggling. But he is standing quietly; gazing, like me, at the river. Clothes are pulling at his body and his thin hair is beating an uneven rhythm across his face, but he doesn’t move.

The rags flow out of sight. He slowly cradles his head in his arms and leans over the bright painted railings.


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