The Toll Bridge, p.1Aidan Chambers
About the Book
A Yard of Ale
He, Hi, Hippertihop
A Kind of Talisman
About the Author
Also by Aidan Chambers
About the Book
Fed up with parents and friends trying to decide on his future, Jan attempts to escape the pressures of home by taking a job as a toll-keeper. Going to live in the country – alone in the house on the toll bridge – Jan hopes to find out who he really is.
At the toll bridge Jan meets Tess and Adam. Their friendship works well for a time, but they all have to face a turning point and for one of them this has a devastating result.
Take this as a gift. The only gift I can give you that might, one day, mean anything to you.
I’ve visited you often. You never know me, never recognize me, always treat me as someone you’re meeting for the first time.
But soon I have to go away. Perhaps I shall never see you again. And who knows, one day it might all come back to you, everything that happened in the weeks we spent together. And if it does, what will you want to know? What will you ask? What will you think of me and Gill and Tess?
And what will you do? About yourself, I mean. That’s the only important question. One reason why I’m writing this is to show you how you seemed to me, to us, how we thought of you.
As I write, I remember we once argued about gifts. There is no such thing as a free gift, you said. All gifts are a payment for something. I didn’t agree. A gift is only a gift if it is freely given, I said. But maybe you were right. Perhaps a gift is always an exchange for something received. Or hoped for. Perhaps this gift is a kind of repayment for the life I live now. And perhaps by giving it I hope to quieten my conscience about leaving you.
Whatever the truth is, use (y)our story any way you like. Make of it what you will.
ADAM COMES TO me like a ghost. For a moment I think he is a ghost. And as so many times afterwards he turns his appearance into a game. He pretends to be a ghost, but only when he discovers he has made a mistake.
Searching for a place to shack up for the night, he finds the little eight-sided house by the bridge, no lights, looking empty and dead, and thinks he is in luck. He does not know I am inside; and it is Hallowe’en.
He forces the door quietly. This gives him no trouble. The lock is old and weak, and he is strong. Even though he is not tall – he’s thin and lithe – he sometimes seems to possess a big man’s strength, which belongs to the hidden part of him, his mystery.
He forces the lock so quietly I do not wake. I have been living in the old toll house for three months and am sleeping well, which I did not while the place was strange and I was unused to being alone.
Having broken in he sees by moonlight the door he does not know leads into the only bedroom, where I lie sleeping, and decides to try this room first. Just inside is a creaky floorboard. He steps on it. The sound wakes me with a start. I sit up, see a ghostly silhouette against the moonlit window, and scream.
At which, ‘Woo-whoo!’ he flutes and flaps his arms.
I really am scared, for a moment at least. And he, it is true, is an apparition, but of a kind I know nothing about. He also, he says afterwards, is scared, his woo-whooing and flapping arms a reflex action. So he acts the ghost and I act spooked, each of us acting in self-defence, each having taken the other by surprise.
I fumble for the switch on my bedside lamp, a bulb stuck into an old stoneware cider bottle stood on an upturned orange box (bottle and box found in the basement that is a lavatory-cum-woodshed the day I arrived).
‘Who the hell are you?’ I shout, acting indignant while my fingers fail me with the switch.
‘Woo-whoo?’ he flutes again, this time more like an owl with stomach cramp than a haunting spectre.
I find the switch at last and we scrutinize each other, blinking in the raw light.
He is not exactly reassuring. Wet black hair hugging the round dome of his head. Foxy features smeared with mud, perhaps from a fall. Body draped in an ancient army combat cape, also muddy and the cause of his ghostly silhouette. Very wet and weary jeans poking beneath, and marine boots scarred from battle.
‘I don’t know you from Adam,’ I say.
He laughs. ‘Right first time.’ And pulls off his cape. Beneath which he is leaner than I expect, the cape having lent a false appearance of bulk. A tatty soggy sweater, rust-red and out at his bare elbows, hangs on him like a skin ready to be shed.
And shed it he does.
‘Hey, hey, hold on a sec!’ I say. ‘What’re you doing?’
Sloughing his boots and jeans too, he says, ‘How d’you mean?’
‘I mean here . . . I mean stripping . . .’
Half out of bed, intending to be more forceful, I see, now he confronts me in the nude, the kind of cock boys in shower rooms honour with surreptitious glances. I stay where I am, the duvet hiding my middle.
‘Frigging soaked,’ he says, as if this explains everything.
‘Fell in the river.’
‘What – cape and all? A wonder you didn’t drown.’
‘No, no. It was on the bank where I climbed out. I’m freezing.’
He turns his attention to the room, not that there’s much to see. My bed – mattress on old iron bedstead. Lamp on orange box. Fireplace blocked off by sheet of cardboard. Books lining mantelpiece, river-rubbed stones for bookends. A few spare clothes hanging from a hook behind the door. Bare walls, long ago white, now a scuffed, geriatric grey.
Back to me, weighing me up, before he says, ‘Any chance of a kip?’
Given the obvious idiocy of taking in, like a feral dog in the middle of the night, someone I know nothing about, except he is called Adam, has an enviable cock, and has just been careless enough to fall into the river, my second surprise of the night comes when I hear myself reply, ‘Sure. Expect we can fix up something.’
But there was more to it than cock-and-bull. For two months I’d been living like a hermit. By desire, I mean, not accident or compulsion. Wanting to be on my own, having had enough of doing what was expected of me, of being what other people wanted me to be: Dutiful only son of ambitious parents. Conscientious student swatting to be good enough for university. One of the lads, doing boring spare-time activities so as to be sociable. Faithful boyfriend of ten months’ standing (and not enough laying, if anybody ever gets enough). And the rest of the ratbag people call normal.
In fact, an actor playing roles in other people’s plays. And I was fed up of performing. I didn’t want to play at anything. Not son, schoolboy, friend or, come to that, lover. I just wanted To Be. And To Be on my own.
Around Christmas – God, the play-acting you have to do at Christmas! – the Great Depression set in. At first my parents put it down to anxiety about the coming exams. Teachers dismissed it as a side effect of being a year ahead of other people my age, plus tiredness – the price any over-achiever working hard enough in his final year had to pay for success. ‘Keep at it,’ they said, ‘you can relax in the summer.’
By Easter what my father called The Glums weren’t any longer patches of ‘being low’ now and then, but were a permanent monstrous misery. Even Gill, my girlfriend, started to complain. And she, egged on by Mother, harr
Result: The Glums worsened, dragging with them clouds of lowering headaches that broke into sudden storming rages which usually ended in rows and me smashing anything smashable, preferably items of Mother’s favourite knick-knackery.
Otherwise, when not slogging through school work, I spent hours locked in my room brooding on the more satisfying aspects of being pissed off and the likely rewards of self-slaughter. Among which was the pleasure of taking others with me, especially Gill (spite: couldn’t leave her behind for others to get their gropers on) and the cheerier yahoos at school (revenge, there being nothing more infuriating when you’re depressed than other people’s high spirits).
One of the rows finally brought everything to a head. Exams over, nobody wanted to go on coddling this whingeing creep (except Mother of course). And Gill it was who finally flashed the storm that ended with me deciding I’d had enough. People disgusted me. I disgusted myself. I wanted out.
The way out turned up in the wanted ads. (Well, when you’re depressed you try anywhere.) Next after: Condom Testers Required – help a leading rubber company design next year’s chart toppers . . . (think of all the times you’d have to do it on command, tumescent or not) was this:
Young Person temp. toll bridge keeper
pvt. est. Mod. wage, few resp., free
acc. toll house. Gd refs nec. Box 365.
‘You’ll starve,’ joked Father, ‘you can’t boil an egg.’
‘Who’ll do your laundry?’ cried Mother. ‘I’ll be worried sick, you living on your own, no neighbours, no phone, anything might happen.’
‘You’ll be three hours away even by car,’ wailed Gill. ‘How are we going to see each other?’
‘What a mangy option,’ scoffed the lads.
‘Taking money from a few passing cars all day hardly sounds academically challenging,’ objected teachers. ‘If you want time out, go abroad, see life, gain some experience, don’t stick yourself away in a dead-end job in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I’ll learn to cook, I’ll do my own laundry, maybe it will be good for us to be apart for a while, I want a change from academic challenge, thank you – I want to be on my own and challenge myself and experience my life before I find out about other people’s,’ I said to scornful snickers, doubting glances, dour looks, exasperated eyebrows, huffings, puffings, and shoulders hucked against this perverse (Mother’s version was pre-verse) teenager.
Tarzan’s yodels woke me, followed by loud splashings from the river. My watch says six fifty, and Adam’s makeshift bed – a few cushions and a blanket on the floor – is abandoned.
He can’t be up already, can he, not after last night? And not in the river again?
I pull on my jeans and stumble to the back-door steps from where I can view the toll-house garden and the river.
Adam is clambering out of the water, glistening in the light of the morning sun filtered through a shrouding autumn mist. Shot from a TV commercial. Deodorant or Diet Pepsi.
A tree, its leaves turning paler shades of brown, droops over the water. From a riverside branch hangs a rope. I don’t remember seeing it there before. Adam, unaware of me yet, runs, grabs the rope, swings wildly to and fro, flinging himself higher and higher, the motion shaking from the tree a shower of dying leaves. When he is as far out above the river as the rope can carry him, he hollers his jungle call, lets go, and plummets, neat as a needle, feet first into the water. To surface seconds later, splashing and blowing and tossing his head and swimming briskly for the bank.
This time he sees me as he climbs out, and stands beaming like a kid let loose after a bad term at school, slicking water from his face. Definitely deodorant.
I shiver and call, ‘Aren’t you cold?’
‘It’s a great game. Ever played it?’
‘No,’ I lie.
But why lie? I had played it – with Dad in one of his crazy moods when I was a kid.
Some memories are not for telling, I thought then, standing at the back door blearily clocking Adam and not knowing how wrong I was.
Adam followed me inside.
I hand him a towel while I wash. When I’m done, I go into the bedroom to finish dressing, and tidy up. I’m an obsessive tidier, inheritance from chronically tidy parents. (You can’t buck all of your upbringing. Being a tidier is one of the roles I have no choice about playing because it is written in my genes. During blue periods I resent it all the more for that.)
Coming back into the living room, Adam passes me on his way to the bedroom. We avoid each other’s eyes.
I set about making breakfast. Bread, honey, tea. Even now, I never bother with anything more than this, hating all the business of getting up in the morning.
Adam reappears, towel round his shoulders, still damp jeans and sweater in his hands. He lurks just inside the door. I can tell what he’s after, and am unsettled. Having put him up for the night, do I want to encourage him by giving anything more?
All the business of giving. When we argued about it I said, as most people do, that taking from people is what makes you beholden. But Adam said, no, if people give you a present, then as far as he was concerned there were no strings. They were paying for something he’d given them, even if he didn’t know what it was. But there’s another side to giving that we didn’t talk about because I only half sensed it then. Which is that giving to people puts you in their debt. I learned this because of Adam. Somehow, once you’ve given you feel obliged to give again, and to go on giving, and feel mean if you don’t. A kind of reverse emotional debt.
[TESS: This is male-order talk. Women don’t think about giving like that. I’ve noticed, as soon as you give a man something he wants to give you something back straightaway. I think it’s a power thing, as if receiving a gift were some kind of threat he has to neutralize at once or else he’ll be in a weak position. Seems to me that for men gifts are a kind of trade-off, which they’re not for women. We give without thinking of getting anything back. We do it all the time.]
I begin to wonder who Adam is. And what it is about him that worries me. Nothing dangerous exactly, nothing threatening. Something betrayed by the look in his eyes and the way he stands there, silently expecting help. What unsettles me even more, I decide, is that he makes me feel violent. I want to rough him up, hit him, chuck him out, anyway be rid of him. Why, why?
‘They can dry in front of the fire,’ I say, ‘if you get it going.’
He crosses to the hearth and dithers.
‘You don’t know about wood fires?’
‘I’ll do it.’
Last night’s ashes, under the powder of their grey deceiving surface, are still hot, quickly ignite a couple of twists of paper, the paper flames a few thin twigs which in turn soon set fire to splits of log.
Three months ago, I tell myself as the fire grows, I didn’t know how to do this either. And feel a kind of satisfaction I haven’t felt for a year or more. A pleasure forgotten that makes me smile, and glance at Adam, who is crouching beside me now, wanting the warmth. But he gazes into the flames with a fixed unblinking stare.
‘If you’d like something to eat,’ I say, weakened by his lost look, ‘there’s bread on the table.’
He doesn’t respond.
Nothing. I touch him on the shoulder. He recoils. His eyes, flicking into focus, widen as though in fright at seeing me beside him. I’m sure he is going to scream, but he catches himself, and smiles, grins rather, just like last night when I switched on the light, a fox’s grin, wide-mouthed, lips stretched, showing bright handsome teeth.
‘There’s bread o
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Right.’ Springs up, full of energy again, attacks the loaf and honey with a taking-it-for-granted greed that rekindles my anger, and makes me decide I don’t care who he is, I don’t want to know, I don’t want him here disturbing my life with the switchback emotions he stirs up, I’ve got to get rid of him as soon as I can.
A car horn sounds in the road. The postman with a parcel and a letter, the parcel addressed in Mother’s writing, the letter in Gill’s.
As the van drives off towards the village Tess Norris comes puttering along on her Suzuki 150, L-plate flapping. Two wheels cross without paying, but she always stops for a talk. Not that she’d pay anyway. Her father is in charge of the toll bridge and of maintenance on the estate. My boss, a joiner by trade and the sort of man who can turn his hand to anything. Tess is on her way to school, her last year, English Lit., French, and Maths.
‘Dad says can you manage without being relieved today? Urgent job at the hall.’
Her voice is muffled by her helmet and the putter of her engine. Her dark hazel eyes, all that’s visible of her face, rouse me the more for being framed by the mask of her visor. The rest is ambiguous in old black leathers with a red flash down the sides. And biker’s boots.
‘I’ll be OK.’
‘A loaf and a jar of honey.’
I thumb at the house. ‘Visitor.’
‘Male or female?’
‘Thought you were a hermit.’
‘Oh yes! I’ll have a look this after.’
‘Be gone by then I hope.’
She taps my parcel with a black-gloved hand. ‘Weekly survival kit?’
‘Mummy’s boy!’ She laughs and revs. ‘See you.’
The hardest part, I’m finding, of telling this story – one of the hardest parts – is not only getting everything in, but getting everything in in the right place. Maybe this is the right place to explain about Tess.
The Toll Bridge by Aidan Chambers / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes