by Pete Pitman
“When you think about it, it’s all a bit pointless.” James English was sitting on the side of a large metal bridge, long legs dangling, revealing a pair of pale ankles where his overall bottoms were too short. He was pushing his lank, blond hair away from his blue eyes, as he continued, “Take our job. We start at one end of this bloody bridge, paint its entire length, then we do it all over again. Pointless!”
“I take your point,” agreed his short, stocky, bald headed workmate, Scott, with a twinkle in his brown eyes. His name was Duncan Scott, but everybody called him by his surname.
James ignored his joke and said, “Makes you think being up here. Gives you a different perspective on life.”
“How do you mean?” wondered Scott, who was tipping the crumbs from his lunch-box in to the water sliding by far below.
“Well, look at all those people scurrying about like ants,” said James, waving a ham sandwich in the direction of the city streets, clearly visible a mile away. “They’re all rushing here and there, doing things that seem terribly important to them. But, from up here, they just look comical and futile.”
“I keep telling ya, it’s all just one big joke. We’re just innocent fools in a great cosmic joke.” Scott was warming to the subject.
“How long do you reckon this bridge is?” said James.
“Three-hundred and twenty-five metres,” interjected the third member of the team, Iris, who was buried in big baggy overalls and woolly hat. These she wore to hide the curves, she’d been so upset to see, when she developed from a lithe tomboy into a voluptuous woman.
“Thank you, Miss Mann,” said James, as he swallowed the last of his sandwich. “If we say this bridge, all three-hundred-and-twenty metres, is equivalent to the amount of time the universe has been in existence. Then, we say this large section here represents the time our sun and the earth have been around. And that rivet is how long there has been human life on the Earth. Our miserable seventy years, or so, is probably one five-thousandth of that.”
“Put like that, it does seem pretty meaningless.”
“I hate to break up your meaningful discussion, but you’ve got a bridge to paint, and I’ve got some timesheets to fill in.” Phil, the foreman, sat separate from the others, on a collapsible chair, well away from the hypnotic waters below. The responsibility of his role kept him grounded. He didn’t get involved with the others’ fanciful ideas and conversations.
They left the higher plains of metaphysical discussion and returned to their mundane duties.
The following lunchtime, they were all sat as before, but twenty feet further along, eating their sandwiches. Scott turned to James and said, “You don’t believe in fate then, I suppose?”
“Course not. That’s just as ludicrous as believing in a God. It’s only a case of people thinking they are more important than they actually are. Once you look at the immenseness of the universe and realize how insignificant we are, then it’s obvious everything is due to happenstance. You’re lucky to have been born, you get a short time to make a complete mess of things, and then you’re gone and very soon forgotten. No there is no such thing as fate.”
“Isn’t the point though, that these things are meant to be immense and incomprehensible? Meaning we can’t possibly comprehend them.”
“Maybe in the past, but we’ve come a long way since we believed the Earth was the centre of the Universe.”
“Hmm, that’s true. What about the business of parallel universes, that they’re always on about? You make a decision, and you create an alternative path, or whatever.”
Before James could answer, Iris interrupted with one of her factual bits, “In sci-fi it’s called the multiverse, but I think it only applies to important decisions.”
“Well, that’s patent nonsense. You don’t know a decision is important until you look back on it, with hindsight. There are what, fifty-six million people in England alone, all making decisions every day. There’d be billions of multiverses. It’s another case of people trying to make us out to be more important than we are. It’s just pure chance, whether you make a good decision, or not.”
“Yes, I’m with you there. You could be sat on your sofa and think, I fancy a bar of chocolate,” said Scott, speaking from the heart. “So, off you go to the shop and when you get back, the chimney’s collapsed through the roof and on to the sofa, you were seated on two minutes before. Or, on the way to the shop, some drugged up daft lad drives his car in to you. But, most likely, you return, eat the chocolate and pile on some more calories. Pure chance. You’re right there is no grand design.”
“Exactly right, my chubby friend,” said James climbing on to one of the bridge’s crossbeams. “I’ll tell you what; as it’s all just a gamble. If I’ve got ham sandwiches again for pack-up tomorrow, I’ll lob myself off this bridge. Another insignificant death.”
Scott stood up, but didn’t climb up, and said, “I’ll join you, if I get cheese again tomorrow.” He knew full well the last of the cheese had gone on the sandwiches he’d just devoured.
“If I’ve got Marmite tomorrow again, I’ll do it too,” said Iris, who tended to do as the others did.
What the others were doing was pulling faces. “You like Marmite, yuk!” they chorused.
Phil, the foreman, folded away his chair and said, “You’re all nuts. Come on let’s get some work done.
The next day, the sky was a growling grey, the bridge was a freshly painted grey and the estuary it spanned was a thick turgid grey. The scene was still and expectant, as if waiting for something portentous to occur.
Right on cue, James snapped off the lid of his lunch-box, raised his eyes to the dulled heavens and shouted, “Bloody hell, ham again. That does it, if there were Fates, then I would say they have spoken.” He clambered on to the bridge, yelled, “Geronimo!” and leapt into the still air. A few seconds later, there wasn’t so much a “Splash!” as a “Glup!”
Scott hesitantly prised open his sandwich box. He lifted the lid, slammed it back down, lifted it again, hung his head and moaned, “Oh bugger! Cheese, its cheese.” Shuffling forward to the edge of the bridge, he let the weight of his lolloping head precipitate him into the waiting depths.
Iris, cautiously, undid her Bob the Builder lunch-box, the smell of Marmite rolled across the bridge causing Phil, the foreman, to almost retch and fall off his seat. Following in the large and small footsteps of her workmates, she climbed atop the bridge, lost her balance and plummeted.
Phil, the foreman, said, “Blimey. It’ll take me months to train up a new team.”
At the funeral tea, the wives and parents were huddled around the sausage rolls. Mrs English said, “I don’t understand it. He loved ham. All he had to do was ask me to do him something else.”
Mrs Scott said, “I don’t understand it. I fetched that cheese special from the farm shop. He loved cheese.”
Iris’s mother, Mrs Mann, said, “I don’t understand it. Iris did her own sandwiches.”