Albert Bridge

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July 5, 2015 by downwardlymobilewoman

The last seat on the bus was occupied by a large, white, patent leather handbag, liberally embellished with sparkling diamante bling. A slim young woman in a low cut, candy pink top sat next to the bag. She had long, perfectly straight, blond hair. Her glittering earrings and necklace matched and looked expensive.

I hovered expectantly, waiting for her to notice me and move the bag so I could sit down. She did not see me. She was staring out of the window, her shoulders hunched. How self-absorbed some young people are, I thought.

“Excuse me,” I said, feeling cross and awkward but trying not to let it show, “Please may I have this seat?”

She turned and looked up at me. She was extremely pretty. But something was wrong. Her eyes were reddened, big blue irises filmy with tears. The raw pink skin of someone who’s been crying hard and can’t stop showed through the orange tinge of her foundation.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, indistinctly. She pulled the bag onto her lap with both hands, as if it contained something heavy and precious.

“Are you ok?” I asked, feeling guilty for intruding and sorry for my determination to sit down.

“No. Not really,” she said.

She opened the bag and showed me the dog. It was a tiny Chihuahua, properly dead. Blood stains patched its blond fur. Rigor mortis held its little face in a rictus grin. Even the protruding tongue was stiff and unmoving. It wore a sparkling baby pink collar.

I felt myself recoil and hoped it wasn’t too obvious.

“Oh. I am so sorry,” I said.

The bus stopped on the Chelsea Embankment near Albert Bridge.

I have a huge soft spot for Albert Bridge. On the surface it’s so decorative and charming, like a little girl’s birthday cake, swathed in pink and white buttercream icing, with lots of twinkling candles.

But its fairy tale exterior is not the whole story. At a structural level it is deeply flawed. Its fitness for purpose has been questioned from the moment of its conception. It remains ever prone to damage and corrosion- from the river, from the elements, from heavy traffic it was not designed to carry. Soldiers must break step as they cross or it will tremble in alarm. Even the dogs of Chelsea, visiting Battersea Park for their daily walk, rot its boards with their gallons of urine.  It is constantly under threat from something, reeling under the strain of responding to its changing environment.

Yet Albert Bridge has a strange authority. It calls for protection and people respond. It is a unique hybrid of cable-stayed, suspension and beam-bridge due to successive efforts to strengthen and bolster it, to save it from collapse. Famous poets led campaigns to defend it from the unfriendly wrecking ball. John Betjeman thought that it was the very antithesis of Slough. It is a paradox. A supposedly weak bridge that exerts a strong power. It is hard not to love it.

The young woman shuffled in her seat, preparing to get off the bus, hugging the bag close to her chest.

“You’re kind,” she said. “Will you come with me? To the funeral?”

She could see my reluctance.

“Please?”

I will never know why I said yes. Probably because I find it hard to say no.

We got off the bus and I walked beside her to the foot of the bridge, past the pastel blue and green tollbooths. She told me that her name was Tamara and that the dog was called Pixie.

“What happened to Pixie?” I asked.

“Bouncer killed her,” she said. “My boyfriend’s bull terrier. Well, my ex-boyfriend now. I can’t stay with him after this.”

The tears were gone and her jaw was set.

The tide was high but had turned and was flowing towards the city. At the apex of the bridge she halted, put down the bag of dead dog, reached into an outer section and pulled out a small yellow tin bottle. She squirted its contents liberally over the dog, then took a shiny silver zippo cigarette lighter from the pocket of her light blue designer jeans and flicked at the flint with a determined thumb. It sparked promisingly a few times and then lit with a strong flame.

“Pick up the bag and hold it open,” she said. Polite but commanding.

I obeyed. I definitely find it hard to say no.

She dropped the lighter in and the bag went up like a tinderbox.

The smell of lighter fluid and burning dog hair assaulted me, alongside a panicked realisation that the funeral had begun and my role had moved at the speed of light from witness to crematorium assistant to being in danger of forming part of the pyre.

“Quick, quick!” she said, grabbing the bag and dropping it over the side of the bridge. It seemed inevitable that it would sink or that the fire would be instantly extinguished, by the fall or by the water. But then we saw it, the right way up, bobbing along on the tide, bright flame emerging from the opening.

A moment of magnificence.

Catharsis.

“Farewell, Pixie,” said Tamara.

“Farewell, Pixie,” I said.

A boat passed by, joggling the river into waves. The bag toppled, inverted then disappeared from view.

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