“The Suspension Bridge at Clifton, Bristol”, watercolour painting by Roy Pearse
Midday on the last Friday in April
The weather is typical of April in the west of England: it is sunny for half an hour and windy for twenty minutes. Then there is a short but very heavy shower of rain, and after that it is sunny again. It is confusing weather but then spring is confusing. Spring is when young people ‘lightly turn to thoughts of love’. And that is how it will always be.
James, who in his mid-20s, has just come to Bristol after working for a year in Dubai. He has arranged to meet up with an old school friend, Henry. They are on the Suspension Bridge in Clifton looking down at the river far below.
James: Did we really have to meet up here? I can’t stand heights. I can’t think straight when I am peering down at trees and roads so far beneath me. Henry, I’ve just arrived in Bristol, and you’ve been here for ages. I trusted you to suggest somewhere more sensible than this. Isn’t there anywhere in this city that isn’t quite so dizzy? A bar perhaps, at sea level? Why the Suspension Bridge? (He looks over the railing.) Ugh!
Henry: I never could resist a touch of the dramatic. Enjoy the views. Over here, on the left, you have the city of Bristol. There in the distance are the rolling hills of Somerset and here, beneath us, if you look down, yes, if you look down, James, is the River Avon quietly flowing on its way to the Bristol Channel. On this river John Cabot set out on his voyage to America before America even had its name. The Avon leads to the Bristol Channel and the Bristol Channel leads to the high seas, to adventure on sunny Pacific Islands with sandy beaches fringed with palm trees.
James: You always did exaggerate, Henry. I remember that when we were at school together. This bridge is awfully high. I can hardly see the river down there.
Henry: That’s because the tide’s out. There is hardly any river down there at the moment.
James: I’ll take your word for it.
Henry: You’re an engineer, James. You shouldn’t mind high bridges.
James: I do foundations. I keep my feet very firmly on the ground or even under it.
Henry: Very wise, but very boring! Anyway what’s on your mind? What did you want my advice about? Why this cry for help? Why this urgency?
James: Well, it’s all bit tricky really. You see I have to go and meet this person.
Henry: This person?
James: Well, yes. This person, this girl here in Bristol. It’s a duty call. Her parents are old friends of my parents, and when my father heard that I’d been sent to work in Bristol for a year, he asked me to look her up.
Henry: OK, so what’s the problem? You call her, you arrange a meeting, you have a cup of coffee in Starbucks, tell her how pleased you are to have met her, chat for 10 minutes about how cold it is for the time of year, you then say you think it will be warmer tomorrow and she agrees that it will be much warmer, and then you take your leave. After that you phone your father, and you tell him how pleasant it was to see her. Job done! Now let’s go and get a drink somewhere and…
James: It’s not as easy as that.
James: She’s a lecturer at Bristol University. The Spanish department.
James: What do you mean ‘Yes’? Don’t you remember how terrified I am of clever women? She’s a university teacher of Spanish. She must be very high powered. Not for me at all. I’ll get all tongue-tied and shuffle about like a schoolboy who’s been caught smoking. Henry, I’m dreading it.
Henry: Yes, I do remember now. I also remember a dance in Manchester where I introduced you to a very attractive blonde lawyer. She had very blue eyes if I remember correctly. You shook her hand, mumbled ‘Excuse me a moment’, walked out the door and were never seen again.
James: So what are we going to do?
Henry: We? We? Oh alright. We’ll go together. You go in and say hello and order a couple of coffees, and after 5 minutes I’ll burst in and say you’re needed at work. Big crisis. Foundations falling in or something! And then we’ll rush off together. Job done. (He sings the song from ‘Friends’) ‘I’ll be there for you’, as they say.
James: It may work. I think it needs a bit of refining though.
Henry: Come on. Screw your courage to the sticking point. Phone up this formidable girl. What’s her name, by the way? And you arrange a meeting. Just a five-minute coffee, get it over…
James: Magdalena. That’s a good name for a lecturer in Spanish, I suppose!
Henry: Magdalena. Yes, very appropriate. Well, phone up this Magdalena, and arrange a meeting. Remember, I expect to hear from you later today! Why not meet her here on the bridge?
James: Thanks, Henry. But I will not meet her up here. It’s going to be bad enough meeting her anywhere, but here, at this height, overlooking a river that you can’t even see, that’s more than I can manage. Where do you suggest?
Henry: That’s for you to sort out. Now, I know a very good pub near here. Let’s have a drink.
James: You always know a very good pub near here. Oh well. At least we can get off this bridge!
Saturday morning in Starbucks. James is pacing up and down when Magdalena comes in behind him, bustling and cheerful.
He was looking at the other entrance, hasn’t seen her come in and jumps nervously.
James: Ah! Yes, of course. Magdalena. It’s awfully good of you to find the … er…time to meet me. Very good of you. Such a nice day, isn’t it!
Magdalena: Well, it’s alright, I suppose. So you were saying on the phone that our parents were very good friends.
James: Er..yes. Very good apparently. At least our fathers were. They were at school together. A long time ago now.
Magdalena: Yes it must have been.
James: Yes, it must. Really quite a long time ago.
Magdalena: So what do you do, James?
James: Me? Do? Oh yes, I’m an engineer. Foundations. Tunnels. That sort of thing.
Magdalena: And are you building a tunnel in Bristol?
James: Yes, I mean no. It is a tunnel but it’s just outside Bristol. It’s a sort of tunnel under a road junction. For another road…that joins the junction…and goes under it…sort of. (He looks round desperately for Henry).
Magdalena: And do like tunnels?
James: Oh yes, very much. Tunnels and …
James: Yes, that’s it. Foundations.
Henry: (Running in) James, thank goodness I’ve found you. Why don’t you answer your mobile? An emergency at work, I’m afraid. The foundations have caved in. All of them! All at once! You’ve got to go right now to sort it out! Terrible mess!
James: Ah Henry, thank goodness you’ve…. I mean, oh dear what a pity. I’m very sorry, Magdalena, I really have to go. It appears that all the foundations have…er..caved in. All of a sudden.
Magdalena: Yes, so I heard. How conven… I mean, inconvenient of them! Still, this is what happens, I suppose, with foundations! Didn’t you use enough glue?
Henry: It’s a joke, stupid. I do apologise for my friend. He’s in a state of shock. Because of his foundations!
Magdalena: Yes, I suppose he is. But I expect he will feel very much better when he has left here.
James: Oh yes, I will. I mean, no. I am very sorry to have to go. Very sorry! Must be an awful mess there, at the road junction. You’d never believe it!
Magdalena: No, I don’t think I would.
James: Well, there we are. I’ll be off. Very sorry. Would have loved to have stayed longer.
Magdalena: Would you? Well in that case we can meet again. At the Llandoger Trow. It’s in King Street. Will you remember the name?
James: (Hesitantly) Oh yes.
Magdalena: Next Friday! To celebrate our first meeting!
James: To celebrate?
Magdalena: Yes, at 8 o’clock. Will you remember the time?
James: Oh yes. At 8 o’clock.
Magdalena: Well, that’s that then! Thanks so much for insisting! I am really looking forward to it! (She leaves)
James: What a disaster!
Henry: Yes, she’s quite a woman. Very attractive.
James: Is she? I didn’t dare look at her face.
Henry: And, she fancies you.
James: That’s a cruel joke Henry. I didn’t say anything sensible all the time she was here.
Henry: It’s not only what you say, James. She wouldn’t have arranged for next Friday if she wasn’t interested in you. Anyway, finish your coffee and let’s leave the scene of battle. We have to plan for the next skirmish, you know.
James: Oh no. I’ll have to go through it all again next Friday. What a way to start the weekend! Henry, you couldn’t rush in again and say…
Henry: That the foundations have collapsed for the second time in a week. Don’t be ridiculous. Surely you’re a better engineer than that!
James: Yes, she’d never believe it a second time.
Henry: She didn’t believe it the first time. We’ll have to adopt another strategy.
James: A strategy. Yes. That sounds good.
Henry: Come on. Let’s go and get a proper drink.
James: Where are we going?
Henry: To the Llandoger Trow of course. It will be good for you to know the lie of the land. You know, to study the terrain. For your strategy. Come on. We’ll sort it all out over a drink