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A Bridge of Sighs

by Doug Pugh

Alex sat on the edge of their reclaimed elm bed, pushed back the damp duvet and pulled on his hiking boots. As his heels found their familiar grip with a statement of purpose in the left boot, and finality in the right, Alex sighed. There was no need to wriggle, or shift in this exercise. The boots were moulded and comfortingly broken in through daily use, shared trials, tribulations. There were no questions or answers in these boots, merely the comfort of an old friend.

Throwing a canvas pack over his shoulder, he left the apartment, conscientiously locking the door behind him. He wanted more, so much more, but would accept a walk, a moment to think, a space outside humanity in a place where it might be possible simply to be himself.

One foot, one boot at a time, on automatic pilot, he walked. This was how the rhythm of his days had rolled lately and he did not yet know how to alter the beat. He was only slightly surprised when he realized where he was two miles later.

He stopped and gazed up at the wires that spanned the towers of Ikuchi Bridge. The wind had picked up strength as he had drawn closer to the ocean and Alex listened for the first traces of steel thrumming in the breeze. From below his feet, he heard the whispering of breaking waves.

Tomoko had acquiesced that first day, pulling the car cautiously over to the edge so he could get out and stand on the swaying structure. Deep within, he welcomed the vibration of the bridge, its thrumming pulse seemingly in synch with his soul. He glanced over his shoulder to examine the questioning look in Tomoko’s eyes.

Nanra, Tomoko stated, shrugging her tiny shoulders, and Alex knew she could not understand. With his photographer’s eye, he scanned voraciously, sucking in with awe the vistas of near and distant landfalls, ships trickling along the horizon’s edge, small fishing boats chugging doggedly through the wake-filled sea.

‘Love,’ he explained. Tomoko closed her eyes and lightly shook her head. She smiled when he got back into the car and kissed her.

Seven hundred and ninety metres long, thirty-seven metres high, twenty-four metres wide at the centre, its spans supported between wires and towers, the bridge connected Innoshima Island with Ikuchijima with its Hill of Hope and Sunset Beach. Alex could reel off facts and figures like a well-rehearsed tourist guide, but they were just numbers. They could not touch the soul of this structure. Nothing ever seemed to scratch time when he stood on its decks. Time only passed at its insistent rate in the world beyond the bridge.

And now he’d arrived back here, unconsciously. But it was with deliberation that he took his next steps although they were difficult. He felt almost reluctant now to create movement with his feet on this bridge. Riaru. That was the word for it. Just one step would make his walk here ‘real’, confirm why he had come to the bridge today.

Tomoko was gone.

He began to walk, rubber soled grip cushioning his undecided pace, heartfelt anguish pulling at his emotions. One pace, then another swung through in gathering rhythm, another, again and again. It was done. Life moved forward. Alex settled into a regular stride as he transported himself in this world that was within a world, yet somehow secluded and outside of existence, passing cars the only reminder of humanity. These automobiles seemed remote and cocooned, insulated away from the bridge and its world, zipped tight in their shells of steel, denying the elements.

The wind pushed and pulled against him, strokes of ozone tipped sharpness that slid their hands around his light anorak and played with him, tugging ripples in the cloth and his jeans, then sweeping them back once more. Alex felt as if they were trying to bring smiles to his face with their play, but knew they would not be found.

Almost unnoticed, the wind’s strokes, the harsh calls of gulls and cormorants, pulled him gently and insidiously into their embrace. The tang of salt in the breeze, and the sun on his face took him away to a place that was not just a strip of concrete hammering its way across a sea, but a walk in the sky and the spray.

He conjured up Tomoko’s face, smiling and quizzical, all of her expressions blended, every aspect held against a backdrop of memories, rumples of silk, yellows and oranges painted by a sunset, flashing neon as they danced and felt each other’s heat. The images tumbled one after the other with each stride, making her real, here, with him. Not just pictures but feelings, whispers, sounds, all swelling her into texture, action and reaction.

Alex reached the centre of the bridge and a hammer fell inside his heart, its fall making him stop suddenly. His chest heaved, finally, with sobs long held, his throat snatching at cries from deep within, and the tears dammed deep within burst forth as the man let forth the child that mourned within. He reached for a firm handhold on the rail and looked out across the sea as tears fell at last unashamedly, windblown tracks across his face, drops snatched and borne down the winds to join in salty communion far below.

He had not heard from her for two days, despite calls to her apartment. Calls to her parents had been answered, as usual, with carefully weighted simplicity for his gaijin ears. Formal and harsh, rigid and defensive, no charm nor succour in their tone. He was used to it, yet this felt different, though he excused it with explanations to himself that the nagging voices and feelings betokened naught but insecurity. Then a letter had arrived, its fragile weight belying the forcefulness and portent of the words within.

She had surrendered. The pressures of loving a gaijin had taken its toll, their bonds stretched and steam-rollered by a constant buffeting of familial disdain. All that they had held between them was tattered and torn, ripped like butterfly wings that fluttered feebly against a mad storm’s wind.

Alex felt the wind pluck at his clothes and his face, allowed it to tear away the anguish, his cries futile as he shouted into their ever-absorbing strength, the words whipping back into him, pummelling his face and neck with futility. He braced himself against the rail and screamed even louder, revelling in the extolling of deep-felt frustration. The tears were gone, visible now only as dried crusts on his cheeks. He closed his eyes, the odd drumming of tyres in the background now palpable as cars thumped their way from block to block across the concrete behind, the sounds reverberating through the rail rather than being perceived in the whip of the winds.

Alex stood there forever. The winds, in synch with his rage, dropped slowly, the burning furnace of sun sank to a simmering glow, the warmth on his face cooled as his soul’s fires subsided. A chug from below made him open his eyes, a flash of colour on a deck far beneath unveiled a sailor looking for the way home.

Home. Salford. Images flashed in Alex’s mind of fish & chip shops, driving rain, newspapers blowing in the streets, kids in school uniform bustling by the sweet shops at the close of their day. All long swept away by his taste for the exotic. Exotic. Jesus! Here he was heartbroken, red-eyed and sore-throated. Nothing too exotic about that!

He was caught between two choices: stay in Japan and move on, hoping to find that elusive something magical that was love, family, home, all against the damn tides of a foreign society. Or he could just take the ‘easy’ way out, and head back to England. Of course, that came with the inevitable burden of ‘I told you so!’ from friends and family who had all given Tomoko the very same, not quite cold, shoulder on their visit.

He looked to his left where he could see the almost distant isle, stacked with its huddle of houses, some hiding behind the road sign that spoke of limits and restrictions which he as a gaijin could not possibly understand.

A simile definitely not lost on him now: they drove on the same side of the road, the same side of the car, but the signs prohibited all but good speakers of the language from driving here. He was truly a ‘fish out of water’ here above the sighing waves where fog and mist was now gathering, the dropping wind allowing its plumes and tendrils to creep eerily from the shore across the sea below.

To his right, Alex saw the mainland, glistening lights of advertising and streetlamps flickering in a noxious nest of traffic-fuelled pollution, stewed further in the mist that lifted from the shore. The fog began rolling in, heavier, from right and left, billowing in gathering strength and surety of its bridgehead at the feet of the spans.

Two directions.

Alex stared at his fingers clenched on the rail, condensation now beading in a cold fever around his handholds, as the chill of limited possibilities closed in. He looked down again, listening as waves sighed in beat with his heart. He watched them fade in the rising mist.

He was only a man, just one simple man who did not want to choose alone.

Copyright © 2006 by Doug Pugh

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