Dialogue-Only Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Kathy Goddard

Runner Up
Strangers on a Bridge
Dialogue-Only Short Story Competition


Kathy has lived all over the UK and is settled in the market town of Spalding, at the southern tip of Lincolnshire, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and a cat. She is a member of the Red Wine Writers and works closely with her mentor, Sue Burge. She has worked in various jobs from administration and secretarial to being an advocate for non-verbal adults with learning difficulties. Life lessons learned along the way often find their way into her writing.

Strangers on a Bridge By Kathy Goddard

‘Do you mind if I stop here for a moment, mate?  Just to get my breath back.’
‘Do what you want.  Free country, in’t it?’
‘So they say.  Doesn’t feel free though, does it?  What with food prices going up, not to mention the price of gas.  No, the government squeezes every last penny from us, doesn’t it?  I’m on a pension, what about you?  Got a job?’
‘Had one.  I was made redundant, right before the first lockdown.’
‘Sorry to hear that, lad.  It’s been a strange year, no doubt about it. No, nearly two years now…doesn’t look to get better quickly does it?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘I don’t mean to disturb you, son.  I’m not as quick on my feet as I used to be and I get breathless.  It’s a lot of steps to climb, isn’t it?
‘Is it?  Din’t notice.’
‘Let me know if my talking disturbs you. My late wife said she only kissed to shut me up!  Don’t worry, you don’t need to do anything like that, just let me know if I’m bothering you.’
‘It’s okay.’
‘You sure?  Just tell me to get stuffed when you’ve heard enough of my prattling.  I’m Jeff, by the way.  What’s your name?’
‘Malcolm.  Mal.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mal.  Strange sort of place to fall into conversation, isn’t it?  Though when I was a young ‘un we climbed onto bridges all the time.  Train-spotting, you see.  I had a notebook, wrote down every train I saw.  Strange hobby, I suppose, but it kept me occupied.  Is that what you’re doing?  Watching?  Traffic from here, of course not trains.’
‘Sort of.’
‘What are you looking for?  Lorries?  I know a couple who spend every weekend on the lookout for Eddie Stobart lorries - you know, stopping at all the motorway services and transport caffs.  All so that they can take a selfie next to Bertha Jean, or Elizabeth Jane, or whatever name they’ve given to the cab.’
‘Sounds daft.’
‘Aye, you could be right there, Mal.  Still, it keeps ‘em out of mischief as my old mum would have said, God rest ‘er soul.’
‘D’you believe in all that?  Souls and stuff?’
‘I was brought up to believe it, and it’s a comfort to think I’ll meet all them as have departed this life when I go.  I s’pose there’s no knowing until then, is there?  It’s a comfort though, ‘specially since I lost the wife.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘No need to be, lad.  It’s not as if you knew her.  She probably passed before you were born.  How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘A grand age, twenty-two.  I were twenty-two when I married my Edie.  She were only nineteen, bless ‘er.  They said it would never last, but we proved ‘em wrong.  Loved her as much at the end as at the beginning.  Oh yes, I choose to believe that I’ll see my Edie again when my time comes, else what’s the point?’
‘Maybe there is no point.’
‘Nay, you can’t think like that, Mal.  Edie always said that the sun still shines even if you can’t see it for clouds.  She had an eye for beauty - she loved the sight of rain falling into the bird bath, or the way the beech tree in the park looked magical on a misty day. Look for the bright things in life.  That’s what she used to say.  Not always easy though, is it?’
‘Not always, no.’
‘Sometimes I wake up on dark days, not cloudy I don’t mean, but those days when I feel the weight of grief, and all I want to do is pull my sheets up to my chin and lie there until the Grim Reaper turns up to take me away, but my Edie wouldn’t like that.  So I soldier on and you know what?  Once I get moving I feel much better.  It’s the wallowing that’s unhealthy, know what I mean?’
‘Not really.’
‘No, you’re still young. Not got so much to ruminate about, have you?’
‘You don’t know me.’
‘That’s true.  I don’t know you at all, do I?  Strangers on a bridge, that’s what we are.  Sounds like the title of a soppy old black and white film, doesn’t it?  Sunday afternoon viewing.  But I don’t know you, you’re right about that, Mal.  I’ve been doing all the talking, haven’t I?’
‘Can you just stop?  Talking, I mean.’
‘Sorry, Mal.  Do you want me to go?  I’ve rested the old knees now, I’m sure I can hobble off into the sunset…’
‘No, stay.  Just don’t talk so much.’
‘Fair enough.  I’ll just stand here with you and listen to the lorries roaring beneath us, loud enough to make the bridge tremble.’
‘Please - just give me a minute to think.’
‘Okay Mal.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Do you really believe you’ll see your wife again when you die?  That we live on after death?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘I don’t.’
‘Then what do you think lies beyond?  What do you hope for?’
‘Eh?  Sounds like one of those computer games.’
‘No.  It’s what I hope for.  Nothing.  A big black, dreamless nothingness.’
‘Sounds very bleak.’
‘Don’t care.’
‘Is that your plan?’
‘You know - the bridge - the lorries…the darkness I see in you.’
‘Are you with them?’
‘The police.  I know they’re down there.  Just because they didn’t rock up within sirens blaring doesn’t mean they’re not there.  Waiting.’
‘To see what I’ll do.  Are you one of those - what do you call ‘em - negotiators?  Sent here to talk sense into poor little mad Mal.’
‘No, lad.  I’m just an old man who stopped to talk to you for a while.  I’m here to pay my respects to someone who has passed over.  Look, I’ve brought flowers.’
‘Is that a rose?’
‘Indeed it is, Mal.’
‘For Edie?’
‘No, my Edie loved freesias.  I always make sure there are freesias on ‘er grave so she’ll smell the sweetness.  No, this is for someone else – someone as struggled to see good in life.  Like you.’
‘You’re right, I’m struggling, Jeff.  There’s nothing good in my life.  No job, no girl, no family to speak of and no friends. No life except a grimy bed-sit ’
‘Haven’t seen my dad for years, but I know he didn’t give mum any maintenance money.  It was just me and ‘er, the two of us against the world, she used to say.  Then she met Robbie and he became ‘er world instead.  She forgot about me.’
‘That’s tough.’
‘We used to talk about stuff, you know?  Now if I have a problem it’s all, ‘You’re an adult now, Mal.  You have to find your own solutions.’  It’s her mouth but his words.’
‘She wouldn’t want you to…you know.’
‘She wouldn’t care.  Nobody would care.’
‘I would’
‘You?  Why would you care?  You don’t know me at all.’
‘It’s true we’ve just met but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t care.’
‘Why should you?’
‘We’ll, let’s see.  I’d always wonder if something I said made the difference.’
‘What difference?  Oh - I see what you mean.  Don’t worry, I absolve you of any guilt.  Any decision made is mine alone.  It doesn’t need to affect your life at all.’
‘There would be someone else who would be affected too, you know.’
‘No there wouldn’t.  I’ve already told you.  No one would care.  The people gathering down there just want a gory picture to upload on Instagram or whatever.  They don’t care about me.’
‘So you’re just waiting for the right lorry?  The one that would do the most damage?’
‘Got it in one, Jeff.  The police might be hanging around down there but they’ve not stopped the traffic, have they?’
‘No, that’s true.  I wish they would.  It would be better for a lorry to be late with a delivery than for the driver…’
‘To wait for me to be scraped off the road?’
‘No, Mal - for the driver to live with you on his conscience.  Oh, I know you’ll absolve him too, but you can’t erase the memories, can you?  Or the sounds – that awful thud and the crack of the windscreen.   He’ll remember that all his living days.’
‘How d’you know?’
‘These flowers - they’re for a girl I never met, but I know her name.  Jodie Rose.  She was stood right where you are.  There I was, driving along, observing the speed limit I was, but it didn’t do no good.  The police never blamed me, said I had no chance of missing her but it can’t stop me from wondering - could I have spotted her sooner, started to brake?  She might still be alive.  Instead…’
‘Instead you blame yourself.’
‘No, I don’t blame myself.  I know that if I’d slowed down she’d just have waited for the next lorry.  She had a note in her pocket, you see, that proved she was serious.’
‘You’ll soon get over it, forget her.’
‘It were twenty years ago, Mal, and I’ve not forgotten.  Every year I bring roses here so that if her spirit lingers, she’ll know that even if nobody else cared, she mattered to me.’
‘Twenty years?’
‘Yes, Mal.  Murderers get less prison time, but drivers are sentenced for life.  She haunts my dreams and I still flinch whenever I drive under a bridge.  Please think about it, Mal.  Don’t do this to another driver.’
‘I don’t know…’
‘Tell you what.  Get down from there and take a walk with me.  No pressure, you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.  Please, Mal, just come with me.  I’ll just tie Jodie’s roses to the railing so she’ll know I’m thinking of her.  And bear in mind that I’m a pensioner, Mal.  I can’t afford to buy two bouquets.  Sorry, bad time to joke.  If you jump, you’ll be on my mind as much as her, but I’d rather get to know the real Mal, not the memory of another tragedy. Let’s go for a cup of tea, eh?’
‘Don’t like tea.’
‘But I do like coffee…’


Judges Comments

Dialogue stories don't get much more dramatic than someone being talked down from a suicide attempt on a bridge. In Kathy Goddard's Strangers on a Bridge, the runner-up in WM's competition for dialogue-only short stories, the desperate, cliff-hanger situation is grounded very effectively in the harshness of contemporary existence.

Early in the tale, in which garrulous old man Jeff chunters on, unwittingly creating a bond with would-be suicide Mal, there are references to lockdown and the current cost of living crisis. We're in a bleak, recognisable world where people are struggling to get by. Against this backdrop, we discover that both Jeff and Mal's lives are marked by sadness, disappointment and grief. The difference between them is how they view their existences.

It's well told, building from bleakness and despair through sharing of personal stories to a faint glimmering of hope that this moment in Mal's life will pass. The voices in ths naturalistic dialogue are clearly rendered so that the characters of the two individuals come through - Jeff in particular, who rambles on, kindly and well-meaning, probably lonely, glad of company even if it's an inadvertent encounter on a motorway bridge. Mal, whose answers are initially terse and short, is allowed less characterisation, but Kathy enables the reader to understand that at this point in his life, he's calmly, determinedly, desperate, and at the point where jumping into the oncoming traffic seems like a solution.

Jeff is an unlikely angel, but his life-lessons have been hard-earned, and there's a credibility to the way he tells them, in this dialogue. He's human, and humane - we're led to believe that perhaps the reason for his kindly worldview is the presence in his life of his now-dead wife Edie. And the turn in the story, where it deepens to reveal the extraordinary in everyday lives, comes when the two men start to talk about souls. This spiritual element is unexpected and lovely, and gives an extra dimension to Strangers on a Bridge, enabling both men to make a deeper connection with each other than the beginning of the story might have suggested, and leading to an ending which is, fittingly, both fragile and hopeful.