The Settlement

Matthew Allcock

The boy and the father stepped on to the wooden suspension bridge across the bay. Their first steps were not the ones you’d expect, surprisingly confident and calm. The car they’d left behind disappeared out of sight, forgotten by their eyes as much as their minds. The bridge was brown but flaking with paint. This wasn’t noticeable to the boy and the father. What was noticeable was that the bridge was made up of wooden slats. The bridge took on a blue tinge as the bright sun overhead reflected off the turquoise blue sea. Beside the bridge was a steep cliff that looked the perfect match for the sploshing waves. The waves disappeared into the sound of the ripping air that tore at the bridge. The boy and the father walked on, seemingly unconcerned by what was ensuing around them.

The picture was one of continuous, connected flow. The waves lashed and the cliffs pushed. The bridge swayed and the boy and the father moved. Never once could one stop to take a photograph or contemplate things as they were in that very moment. If things were ever to come to a stop, it would take the end of the bridge to do it.

The boy and the father walked indistinguishably, save for the stimulating visual effect of size. For when the boy who trod in front took one step, he appeared shorter for a fraction of a second while the father appeared taller. When the father took his step, the boy assumed an unpronounceable height that dwarfed the father, but only temporarily. The creaking of the bridge sounded like someone’s screams from several kilometres away, the same situation transferred in space, at a contrary stage of development.

The sun looked ready to dip under the horizon, or maybe it was rising. The shimmer from the sea made it almost impossible to tell. Neither the boy nor the father seemed willing to give anything away. I thought I asked them to make this clear before they got out the car, but I guess I didn’t.

The boy was a reflection of the man in everything but appearance. They walked the same and wore identical expressions. Neither of them carried anything yet. The baggage that wasn’t stowed in the car was locked up inside them.

It must be mentioned that there were two rope hand rails on either side of the suspension bridge. But these were not used right now. Perhaps this is why they haven’t been mentioned already. The rope rails were there but their presence was not noticeable above the noise of the creaking bridge. Later on the boy would cling to the rails for reassurance, to make sure they really were there. The father might have gone somewhere else by this point, but he too would need them even if no one was there to see it.

The boy and the father descended the suspension bridge towards a row of stacked shacks to the right, away from the precipitous cliff. They’d been approaching the settlement for a long time. The bridge kept dropping towards the water but it never got there. The bay, even if it was a one, had disappeared so no sand could be sought as refuge. The outlying shacks were stacked three by three. There appeared a single line of rope connecting them to the vertical of the bridge, a drop ladder connecting the rope to the bridge itself. The shacks were light blue as well. It was hard to tell how far they lifted off the water.

The boy and the father were part of a relocation scheme undertaken while maintenance work was carried out on the existing settlement. This was the first time the boy and the father had seen the new settlement and it came as a shock to see it like this. For this reason the boy found it difficult to make a firm judgement on what he saw. The boy knew he had questions but didn’t know how to phrase them or even if he’d ask the right ones. He also wondered which shack was his and if this made a difference. Despite himself, the boy began imagining the benefit of being close to the edge, of seeing the sea each morning.

The father would help the boy ask the questions. He would do this by asking one himself or making an observation that led to one. The boy would have to accept this question to get anywhere. He could propose another one but this was unlikely to help. This thought made the boy sad.

While the boy considered how he might successfully reach the outer edge of the shacks without falling in, the father spoke.

‘There is a brown plume in the water. This is human excrement and is not safe.’

The boy began smelling shit. The smell made him immediately anxious of the whole situation and he kept looking back at the father for reassurance. The boy was stunned to think they could house anyone here and he thought there must be an explanation. The father was riled as well he might. The place was not safe but there was no choice but to try and access the shacks. The father seemed quicker to acknowledge this. The boy and the father had no comeback. For if their current settlements were not habitable, that could hardly be used as a reason for not settling here. There would be a written contract somewhere. 

The plume kept chuffing out the brown effluent. The boy considered the distance between the settlement and the outlet sizeable enough. Was it really that bad when all this would be temporary?

At the end of the bridge was a wooden gate. The gate was locked. To the right of the edge was a drop rope and to the left a single rope that swung round. The boy feared descending the drop rope which was only accessible through a small, square opening beneath the hand rail. He wondered how he would ever transport luggage to the shacks. The boy considered and considered again but he just didn’t know. 

The father walked back up the bridge to fetch the luggage, disappearing in the distance. The boy would wait, joined presently by other people. The others all wore blank expressions, indicative of uncertainty and hopeless detachment. The boy saw reason to sit down for a surer footing, but doubted this would incur favourable looks. He was increasingly tempted to try his balance on the rope as this was only what was coming. If he just let himself go he might get somewhere. But the boy was just as likely to fall into the sea, into the fathomless, blue deep.

While the father wasn’t there, the boy considered it a dangerous mission. Before long the father appeared with a rucksack and several other items of luggage, walking along the suspension bridge with the kind of ease either were unlikely to experience again. The sun was still up and the waves were still sploshing. The wind had grown by now and it threatened to spill the people over the edge. 

The boy thought it only right that he try the rope first before the father had room to do so. But the boy would not try the drop rope on the side of the bridge facing the shacks. He insisted that he navigate the rope which swung under the bridge from the other side. This was potentially more hazardous but the father knew the boy was in this alone. Against the force of the wind the boy dropped his thin legs over the edge and caught a glimpse of the cliff in his eyeshot, a glimpse he’d seen before? The boy was not to focus his attention on the cliff face for too long for he had other things on his mind. He thought for a minute he’d like to return to the beginning when all this might stop. He couldn’t make sense of how the rope might reach the shacks. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind.

The boy was making his way along the rope, each step a small victory. He was mindful of moving too quickly. The faces of the people still on the bridge focused on him and looked on the face of it like they experienced the self-same thoughts. The shacks had disappeared from view and the boy wondered if he’d ever see them again, that he had seen them before but was blind to them now. The boy feared he may get lost and kept thinking of how to get back on the bridge. The only way to reach the shacks now was along the rope and it was the only way for the boy. The drop rope was the other side and too far to reach at this stage. The boy had to keep on his chosen path and perhaps ask the question differently next time. This would set him free.

A seagull landed on a spot on the gate and abseiled along it. The gull seemed unruffled by a big gust of wind which shook the bridge and the rope with it perilously. The boy lost a footing. The last image to flash before the boy’s sight was of the father staring blankly