by Emily Selencky
“Don’t you dare go near that bridge, missy.”
My da was a right pain in the arse. Always on at me. The other kids in the village got up to all sorts but he had his eye on me like one of the buzzards that circled around every time Smoky caught another mouse, one paw jammed down on its tail while the other batted it back and forth. Cruel buggers, cats. The poor thing would squeal its tiny lungs out until Smoky got bored and trotted off to find a warm car bonnet to curl up on. That’s when the buzzards swooped in to collect the leftovers. Either that or it would freeze to death on the grass overnight and the foxes got a mouse lollipop.
He was on about the bridge. The one that everyone turned to look at when they drove through our village because it looked like something from The Three Billygoats Gruff, except the troll would think it might fall in on him as soon as the first goat trip-trapped onto its stones. It was an old packhorse bridge. A narrow, humpy unstable strip - eighteenth century Miss McArdle said. I did a project on the village in Year 7 and the bridge was about the most interesting thing I could find to write about. That and the World Porridge Championship. Golden bloody spurtle! It was a sliver of bridge, a grey rocky arch across the peaty water that poured over the rocks like iced tea. The thin layer of furry moss and lichen-covered stones could hold a man’s weight – enough idiots had tried it – but as kids growing up in the village we were used to being warned off. Children at school told stories about Josh McInern, the boy who had ignored his parents’ warnings. He lost his footing and came to a sticky end larking about on the bridge. His name meant rebellion when I was growing up. Secretly we were all a bit in awe.
It was Hogmanay. The village Ceilidh was in full swing. Outwith the hall it was eight below but inside we were sticky with sweat as we whirled and galloped, swinging around and around until our heads spun. Micky Stewart had his eye on me. Every time the band played a reel he would find his way up to my end of the hall, grinning and offering his hand like something out of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I didn’t mind except there was a Rice Krispie wart on the side of his little finger that brushed against my hand. I’d never taken notice before but when I looked at his face close up I could see he was bonny. His dark hair was crusty with gel and he reeked of Lynx so he had obviously made an effort. Josie and me had snuck in a bottle of vodka she’d nicked from her da’s booze cupboard. Topped up with cola from the garage shop it wasn’t too bad and every so often we would sneak off to the toilets for a dram or two. Squeezed together in the cubicle, her on the bog seat and me with my back to the side partition, my feet wedged against the side of the bowl, we took turns drinking from the small curved glass bottle.
“Micky’s no’ bad you know,” Josie said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Have you heard what that Granton High girl said about him though?” I shook my head. “Just watch where he’s puttin’ his hands later,” she said.
I told her not to be such a dafty. I wasn’t interested anyway. That was a lie though. Luckily Josie didn’t get chance to say anything else because just then Mrs Prior’s brown leather courts clip clopped into the next cubicle and we had to be quiet until she left.
It was nearly half eleven by the time Micky built up the courage to ask me outside for a smoke. He spoke softly and said something about his pal nicking a pack of fags from his ma’s handbag. When we got outside his mates, Tommy and Scott, were already there, leaning on the wall next to the river, their boots sunk into the thick snow. Their hoodies were pulled up around their faces and when Micky introduced me they just nodded, the black holes of their eyes narrowing. I shoved on my grey bobbly gloves and pulled my scarf up under my chin. Even with the booze inside me I could feel the wind was Baltic, pinching at my face.
The fags turned out to be menthols but Micky and me shared one anyway, leaning against the frosty wall together. The cigarette was wet from his spit and I did my best not to cough when the smoke hit the back of my throat. My eyes watered as I handed the glowing fag back to him and he smiled, reaching out and putting his arm around my shoulders.
“You got any booze?” he asked.
“Not out here,” I said. “Do you want me to go back and get it? We’ve got voddy and coke.”
“Dinnae worry. Scott’s got beers.”
Scott pulled a bottle of lager out of his rucksack and we passed it along the line, drinking in silence. Everyone else wiped the top of the bottle when it came to them but I looked at Micky and smiled then took a swig. The lager was cold and sharp and I shivered.
Tommy stood up and walked over towards the bridge. Underneath the arch was lit up for the tourists and he had just stepped into the light. The river was full from the last dump of snow and it was fast and noisy, drowning out the music from the party in the hall. Tommy stood with his feet at the water’s edge and flung his arms around like a windmill as though he was about to fall in. We all stood up from the wall and the boys laughed and began to wander in his direction, their feet crunching. Scott whooped and ran towards Tommy, then Micky dropped my hand and followed too. Laughing, he stopped half way and bent down to pick up some of the soft snow, squeezing it into a tight ball and hurling it at his mates. He missed them both, making a splodge of white on the stones of the bridge.
“Come on!” shouted Tommy, “Last one on the bridge is a jessie!”
The others howled back at him and I ran behind, hearing my own voice laughing along.
It was Scott who first put his boot onto the stones. When we got closer I could see they were icy - sparkling where the light hit them on the side but covered with a thick layer of white on top. Scott didn’t stop to check his footing, he just went for it as though he were walking up stairs. When he reached the top Micky got out his mobile and took a photo with Scotty grinning like an eejit. He was pretending to be one of the pipers with a kilt and sporran who would soon be bringing in the New Year back at the hall. It was Micky’s turn next. He turned around to wink at me then grinned as he followed his friend.
“Tommy, get a video. We should put this on Youtube,” he shouted. And Tommy held up his phone while Micky whooped and high-fived Scott at the top. Their black shapes blocked out the light from the stars behind.
“Sarah, you coming up?”
I shook my head.
“Come on, Micky’ll look after you, won’t you?”
Scott gave Micky a shove and laughed.
Micky picked his way down the arch and held his hand out to me when he was nearly at the bottom. I took it, putting my trainer onto the first layer of stones and feeling it crunch into the snow then slide before I managed to wedge my foot in sideways against the rock, the stones squeezing my toes. As I followed Micky up I wondered if he could see my knees shaking under my jeans or hear my breathing, shallow and unsteady. The sound of it filled my head. I kept my eyes fixed on my feet, looking for little dimples in the stones where I could push them to keep them steady. For the last bit I went down on all fours and crawled like a toddler. Scott snorted.
At the top of the arch, Micky helped me onto my feet and held my right fist in the air.
“Get a video of this, Tommy,” he shouted, while Tommy let out a whoop which shot across the fields around us.
I stood still for a few moments listening to the rapids rushing below our feet, concentrating on the pin prick lights of the stars to stop myself wobbling. The Plough. Orion’s Belt. Da used to make up bedtime stories about them for me. I remembered kneeling at my bedroom window with him. He would test me on their names as I traced them with my finger on the glass. When Tommy slipped his phone back into his pocket I lowered myself gingerly onto my backside and slid back along the arch and down to the ground. At the bottom I patted off the snow that had collected on the back of my jeans and turned to look up at the boys, my breath shaky.
On the top of the bridge, Scott was trying to get Micky to play silly buggers and soon the pair were jumping around like bloody boxers, playing up to Tommy who had his phone out again. All three of the boys were laughing and I joined in, clapping my gloved hands silently. It was then that Tommy came towards me, sliding his phone back into his pocket and putting his hand around my waist. He said nothing, but the pressure of his hand on my back, sliding down towards my bum, made me move with him, turning my back on Micky and walking towards the hall, our feet falling into the holes they had made in the snow on the way out.
“What you doin’?”
The shout from the bridge was strangled and panicked, echoing around the emptiness.
Tommy pulled me closer to him but I turned my head just in time to see Micky lose his balance at the edge of the stones. Scott stood behind him; Micky tipped over the edge. He fell silently towards the river and plunged into the roaring water which carried him out of the circle of light and into the darkness beyond in seconds. Scott was left standing at the top as though Micky had never been there.
Tommy loosened his grip around my waist and turned towards the river. I broke away from him, running breathless with panic towards the stone-built village hall.
“Where’ve you been? You snogged Micky?” Josie asked, slurring her words from all the vodka. It seemed as though she’d drunk the lot since I had been outside. I pushed past her without speaking just as the countdown to New Year’s began - the contents of the hall began to spill outside for the fireworks.
I ran towards my Da.
“Hey missy, you look pale. You have nae been drinking have you?”
The scream of the New Year’s rockets drowned out my answer and my da was carried along by the crowd away from me. Through watery eyes I watched the lights in the sky pop and fizz and I wondered what would happen when they ended.