By Hannah Goldswain
There was a boy stood on the bridge. The sky was orange with pepper streaks in it, seasoned like soup. It was Autumn, so the trees were dressed in amber and gold and strained to hear the commotion. They creaked in the breeze, trying not to disturb the silence dawdling through the evening air.
The boy’s name was Barnabus and he was quite well known in the village. He had dark hair that looked even darker against the glowing sky and dark eyes that weren’t smiling today. It had started early on, when a few people had gathered by the bridge, echoes of concern flitting through the air, worry painted onto people’s faces. Observers continued to accumulate over the hours, quietly they came and stood and watched the boy on the bridge.
It wasn’t so much the fact that he was standing on the bridge, after all what else are they for. It was the fact that he was standing precariously close to the edge. Too close for comfort. Too close for people to ignore. Another problem was that the bridge itself had a foot either side of the railway tracks.
As the orange sky began to darken and melt to crimson at the edges, the world paused for an exaggerated second. Trains stopped. People stopped. Barnabus stopped. The village was holding its breath. Waiting.
People began to get agitated. The passengers from the trains paused nearby had marched off huffily, cross and wary at the same time. Wondering how angry and hard-done-by they could feel without showing a total lack of compassion. Some didn’t quite achieve the balance.
As the hordes gathered, attempts started to be made to coax Barnabus down.
Alfred the Baker stepped up first, brandishing a freshly made bun, Barnabus’ favourite. But food could not move him. Something Alfred and his protruding belly couldn’t quite fathom, so in his bewilderment he stepped back down shaking his head. In the end he shrugged and ate the bun himself; can’t have it going to waste.
Next up stood Elsie from the flower shop, holding out her best red roses, trimmed and pruned into perfection. She told Barnabus his mother would love them, but he’d have to come down to collect them. But Barnabus remained a statue carved into the bridge.
Marco the shelf-stacker was next. The infamous light-fingered Marco. He stood, with a slight hint of guilt brandishing a packet of biscuits at Barnabus. Who could say no to custard creams? But Barnabus remained. Marco supposed he’d better put the packet back with his collection at home, a packet here and there wouldn’t be noticeable he always told himself.
Barnabus’ mother inhaled a breath then. She stood behind him, and spoke to the back of his head. She told of love and old times and of tea waiting for him at the dinner table. She told of supper tonight being waffles with golden syrup and of Pete the dog missing him already. She told of his unmade bed and how she promised that could wait another day. She told him his father would be home soon and wondering where they all were. She mentioned the fish in the pond out the back and all the tadpoles that were flitting around under the surface. Then her voice cracked a little bit. It rusted up in the air. And Barnabus didn’t move.
Mart the best friend took up the mantle and spoke gruffly next to Barnabus’ mother. He told him if he jumped that his class might not have to do their homework, but that even doing homework was worth having his best friend around. He said he’d even try if Barnabus only stepped down. He said he’d buy Barnabus 100 penny sweets every day for a month, like they used to when the bus dropped them off every day outside Gladys’ corner shop.
Barnabus shuffled then and there was a gasp shared by the village.
Barnabus’ mother had been holding onto his little sister Sarah’s hand throughout the episode, but in that moment her hand slipped out. Sarah walked to the edge of the bridge and climbed up next to Barnabus. She didn’t look at him, she looked out to where the sky rested on the hills, to where the stars were starting to litter the ceiling of the world.
Her small hand took hold of Barnabus’ and she whispered his name so only he could hear.
Because no one realised that Barnabus didn’t want words. He didn’t want things. He wanted someone to hold him, and tell him everything would be all right. And that the world sitting on his shoulders wasn’t actually there, but was just a portion of the world, an illusion. His portion. And it was something that could be shared.
And in that small moment a small bit of his faith in humanity clung to him. And so when his mother took his other hand, he stepped down. And the train passengers tried not to show their glistening eyes and tried to tut at the delay, as if sympathy was a disease. And the villagers let out the breath they hadn’t realised they’d been holding. They nodded awkwardly at each other, knowing they had shared something together that they probably shouldn’t have. And with their minds elsewhere everyone trotted home along the cobbled roads, to their fire lit cottages with the shepherds pie in the oven.
Until three figures remained holding hands on the bridge, looking for where the sky and land met.
Photograph: Anna Gibbs