The second installment of this week’s story in five parts.
The Bridge | Part Two | Pat Black
Mrs Sutton, 4B’s RE teacher, tried her best. A big-boned, wide-hipped woman, her loose floral skirt flared out as she marched along in front of the class, as if she was airborne. She chose the wrong tack at the start of the lesson and stuck to it.
“Now, I know we’ve all been through so much in the past few weeks. But I wanted to make an effort to welcome you all back, and I didn’t want to ignore things. So – I’ve left a tribute to, to, ah, our friends and colleagues.”
Seven candles were lit at the little altar she kept at the back of her room. An inscrutable Jesus statue stood above it, sacred heart bleeding.
Darren leaned back in his seat, allowing the tension to drain out of him. He kept glancing to the right, where the girl with the white shirt and hair the colour of copper sat stock still. When she turned to look at him, he smiled, and she looked away.
“I won’t say anymore words, won’t draw it out any longer for you. Today is mostly going to be about reflection and prayer. But if anyone wants to talk about it, they can. We’ll have no set lesson today.”
Hearts secretly leapt at this knowledge, because Mrs Sutton’s RE lessons were reviled, a compulsory piece of scheduling everyone at St Martin’s had to go through from their first day at school to their last.
It went wrong, and quickly. They did choose to talk about it, after Mrs Sutton pressed one or two pupils’ buttons. One sullen boy, who had not been in the gym that day, reacted thus: “What does God have to do with what happened?”
Mrs Sutton’s sails unfurled. “Well – I know some of you are believers, and some of you aren’t. As a believer myself, I understand that some things are beyond understanding, and we all have free will. But all the same, our lives are made up of lots of different elements, things which make our characters. And none of us really know what directions the universe goes in. To me, the mind of God is unknowable, if it is a mind at all. So – although I don’t think we can blame God for what happened, we can take comfort from Him, because all our lives were worth something and contributed to something greater, something too big for any of us to see or comprehend.”
Near the back of the class, close to the empty seats, Darren uttered a choked cry. Everyone turned around, to see him with his face in his hands.
But he was laughing. “Did you rehearse that?” he asked, incredulous.
Mrs Sutton’s smile never wavered. “Did you say something, Darren?”
“Yes. You didn’t answer Michael’s question. If God created everything – and the Bible said He did – then how do you explain it? How do you still have faith? I mean, not just in any god. Your god. The god you believe in. That guy.” He pointed to Jesus.
“As I said…”
“Aye, we heard what you said. But the thing is, you believe in God. You believe God’s good. But He allowed something like that to happen. So I think that proves that there’s no God, right? Because there is nothing good about what that freak did. Nothing. Not now or in a million years’ time. It proves that the god you believe in doesn’t exist. It’s a lie.”
“Darren, we’re all upset. We totally understand. It’s good to get your feelings out. And one day, you’ll look back and–”
“You just mentioned that these things are part of a bigger picture, right? But what bigger picture is it part of, exactly? What good is going to come out of what happened in the gym?”
“‘Good’ maybe isn’t the best word to use. No good will come of it, you’re right. Not for anyone involved. But someone, somewhere – maybe on the other side of the planet – will be badly affected by what happened. It’ll make some people think about what they’re doing. People across the world will remember what happened.”
“Fuck people across the world. That’s got nothing to do with this school.” Faces set, the gaze of the whole class was riveted on him. “‘Remember what happened’? People will forget about this in a fortnight. It’ll be old news. And what about that other nutcase in Texas a couple of days later? Maybe what happened here triggered that guy off.”
“And what good is it going to do Bernie’s family, or Jim Lachlan’s family? Tony McWhirry had trials for Celtic. He won’t play for Celtic. His mum and dad won’t see him play for Celtic. And Mr North had kids. I saw them at his funeral. It’s, you know…” And here, he choked back a genuine sob. He hadn’t even known there was one waiting to go. He stopped, clenched his jaw, blinking furiously. He held a hand up, as if signalling a waiter. “And that’s it,” he said, finally.
He wasn’t sure what Mrs Sutton said after that, or quite why the class applauded him so loudly. He was only focused on the girl in the white shirt with the copper hair, her hands covering most of her face except her blue eyes, brimming with tears, which were finally focused on him.
Lapis lazuli. Darren wasn’t sure what colour this was, exactly. He knew it was some sort of blue, but couldn’t have picked it out of a wall paint chart. It must have been something special though, for Darren’s little brother to use it in the stories he’d written and hidden under his mattress. His swords and his monsters. Lapis lazuli palaces, he’d spoken of. “Thrones glittering with rubies as red as blood, emeralds that twinkled like the eyes of the snake, and great blue lapis lazuli slabs.” It has seemed odd that Darren’s little brother hadn’t thought of some kind of blue to compare lapis lazuli to. What could be bluer than the sea, or the sky?
The girl with the lapis lazuli eyes took the path to Kilmadeley Way, not far from where Darren lived. Though he usually jogged home, his holdall on his back, he hung back behind the group of girls she was with until she was alone.
It was a harsh climb, a fairly steep hill that most kids bypassed on the number 43 bus. He was almost out of breath before he caught up with her.
She got a bit of a fright. “Oh. Darren.”
“You alright there?”
“Yeah, not bad. Heavy going in Mrs Sutton’s RE class, eh?”
He shook his head. “Ach. I dunno what she was trying to do, there.”
“Maybe she was trying to help.” Sybil pushed her fringe out of her face. She had terrific hair; even the boys, even the teachers, commented on it. Her eyes dropped shyly.
“Maybe she was just being nosey.”
“I don’t know. She’s got a kind heart.” Sybil shifted her schoolbag over her shoulder. He wondered if he should ask to carry it for her.
They reached the brow of the hill. In the distance, the bridge wound its way across the estuary. From this angle – looking straight down the road, with the toll booth lifting its toy town barrier in the spring sunshine – the bridge seemed to curve and undulate, not the straight structure it appeared from a lateral view. Men hung off the side of this beast, dangling, clinging to scaffolding.
“Wonder what they’re doing to the bridge?” she asked.
“Apparently they’re putting up netting. You know, underneath. Stops all the suicides landing in the pub car park.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Charming!”
“Happens all the time. They mean to land in the water, but end up in the car park. Or on The Golden Eagle’s roof. Apparently they get caught in the crosswind. I’m serious!”
“Yeah. The Golden Eagle complained about it to the council. Asked them to do something.”
“Must be a pest to put on a car insurance form.”
He laughed, much too loudly. “There goes the no-claims bonus.”
“Well. Been nice talking to you Darren. I have to head in, now.”
“Hmm. So. You coming along to Nellany’s party on Saturday?”
“I’d heard about that. Who’s all going?”
“Open house I think. Well… he doesn’t know it yet. His folks are away on holiday for their anniversary. So, you fancy it, then?”
She blinked. “Fancy what?”
“Uh, the party.” He hawked and spat loudly, turning away so that she wouldn’t see him blush. “Should be plenty of beer, knowing Nellany.”
“Sounds good. Well. Best be off up the road.” She hesitated then. Darren had not been a slow developer with girls, but he froze, entirely unable to think what to do.
“You take care then, eh?”
She turned off the path towards the house. The structure seemed to lean against the hill, this far up the slope. The curtains twitched at the main window, and an anxious face appeared before the girl slid her keys into the lock.