Bridge Across the Years

By Elleston Trevor

This spring my wife and I kept a promise we had made to each other more than thirty years ago.
     We had made it solemnly, at a moment when we weren't really sure, amidst all the noise and confusion, that we were still alive. Looking back, I suppose that was our real reason for making the promise there and then: to hang our faith on some kind of future at a time when the present seemed so final.
     We were both in London at that time, two strangers born in that same city where our paths had never crossed, until the night when we were thrown - literally - together as the skies rained death and the streets rocked to the hammer-blows of the bombs. I was on top of a bus and had a grand-stand view, and even today I can remember how St. Paul's Cathedral looked, its mighty dome thrust into the sky and lit feverishly by the glare of a thousand fires in the streets around. I remember thinking of it as the veritable Rock of Ages, the symbol of a city that refused to die.
     But of course our memory plays tricks: none of us, in those days, thought of life in such grandiose terms. The enemy in the sky was trying to kill us off (for Londoners in 1943 the enemy was always in the sky, and he came by night), and we were damned if we were going to let him. It was as simple as that. There was no confusion in our minds about this: the confusion was outside us, in the streets and parks and the narrow and ancient ways of the town the Romans came to build.
     On this particular night the bus I was on had been sent swaying once or twice coming down past the Palace from Hyde Park Corner. I don't think the bombs had been very close, but the driver was a bit nervous and I didn't blame him, because those buses were as top-heavy as they looked when Jerry was about, and it didn't take more than a hundred-pounder to send them sailing against the wall with their wheels in the air.
     By the time we reached London Bridge the sirens were screaming right across the city, announcing a raid in progress as if we didn't already know. Big Ben had joined in the racket, sounding out midnight and taking its time, as if the end of one day and the beginning of another was important to people who were expecting any minute to be hurled from one world into the next. So far our old bus was doing fine, but halfway across the Bridge we caught a bad one.
     It wasn't close but it must have been fairly big because I still can't remember any details. Someone was shouting and there was a sense of being upside down for a moment, then I suppose I came to because I could smell burning and somebody was underneath me and I got off and helped them up and we began running for any kind of cover as flames spread and threw a flickering light across the surface of the Thames below us. The person I was trying to help kept wanting to fall down so I stopped and looked at her.
     "You alright?"
     She didn't seem to know what was being said, and there wasn't time for polite conversation. She was young and in uniform and her face was sooty and she was bleeding a bit, and she was obviously in shock so I picked her up and got her as far as the first-aid post when another one came down and the blast caught us and threw us into a doorway.
     "He'll be okay," someone was saying.
     "Who?" I asked them, annoyed because I wasn't quite sure what was happening. There was the stink of ether and the lantern kept going on and off: we were in a bomb-shelter.
     "He's talkin'," someone else said. "That's a good sign."
     I was getting a bit fed-up, being discussed as if I weren't there, but I felt too lazy to argue about it. A certain amount of time must have elapsed, because I realized now that the city was quiet again. There was something on my forehead, a soft light weight, and I tried to push it away before I recognized what it was: a human hand.
     "Steady," a voice said gently. "I'm only trying to cool your fevered brow, old boy."
     I got my eyes fully open and there she was again: the girl with the sooty face.
     "Who are you?" I asked.
     "Jonquil."
     "What happened?"
     "There was a bang," she said, "and we were in it."
     She sounded pretty shaky, and was having to try rather hard to sound casual about the whole thing. I thought if there were any heroics to throw around I ought to get into the act, so I tried to stand up and then there was the most hellish pain I'd ever felt in my life and I remember just saying Oh my God! Then I was out again, cold.
     Jonquil came to visit me at the hospital. Three weeks later I was on my own two feet again, walking a bit like a penguin but getting the hang of it after a while. The first time I gave Jonquil dinner it was at the R.A.F. Club, and the soup was cold and the steak like a brand new boot. I think we wondered what we were doing together, now that Jerry wasn't making the introductions any more: her face wasn't sooty and I didn't need her hand on my brow, and altogether the evening was rather a failure.
     The next time our leave coincided we went to a tiny restaurant along the Thames, by Watergate Steps, and the soup was delicious, thick and piping hot, and the wine was young and noble and we drank it listening to the sirens and didn't even hear them because now we knew what we were doing here together. We didn't talk about it, but the feeling was there, somewhere among the words that came to our minds.
     "I've just been posted," she said.
     "Where to?"
     "Croydon."
     The wine had a sudden sour taste and I put down my glass. R.A.F. Croydon was one of Jerry's favorite targets.
     "You'll make new friends," I said brightly.
     "Yes." She didn't look at me. "Have they passed you fit for flying duties again?"
     "Another week."
     "You'll - you'll be glad to get airborne again."
     "It'll make a change."
     Then the table began shaking and the lights went dim and the waiters were hurriedly lighting candles, and a whole shelf of glasses went down with a crash and we went on waiting, smiling to each other a little feebly, her hands in mine across the table, till gradually the noise died away and the sirens blew the all-clear with their steady note, and we laughed together suddenly, about nothing - or, if you like, about being still alive.
     "Jonquil."
     "M'm?"
     "When's your next leave?"
     "I've got a forty-eight-hour pass in three weeks."
     "That’s funny," I told her, "because in exactly three weeks I'm going to get a bad twinge in my leg again, and the medical officer's going to say I need a break from duty. Just for a couple of days."
     It didn't quite come off, because we had to be in the air night and day as Jerry sent his bombers across the Channel in murderous waves. Jonquil and I didn't have much time for each other - a brief letter sometimes, or a snatched phone-call when there was a line available among the mounting rubble of London's streets. We spent a couple of nervy evenings at some hole-in-the-corner restaurant in Soho, but it wasn't the same, because we kept thinking of our little place by Watergate Steps, now a sadly gutted ruin, and because we had now began worrying about each other as the war dragged endlessly on and we lived in fear of instant and final separation.
     In the end we couldn't stand it, so we got married.
     It wasn't very exciting - a brief ceremony in uniform, with the popping of anti-aircraft guns as a background to the solemn declarations we'd come here to make. Then we were on duty again in our separate units, feeling we'd done it out of bravado, as if we were shaking our puny fists at the dangerous skies. It was only later that we knew what a wonderful thing we'd entered into, on that particular forty-eight-hour leave.
     It had been on that day that we'd made the promise to each other. We said that whatever happened, we'd meet each other in the middle of London Bridge, at noon on the first day of peace.
     But again, it didn't happen like that. On the first day of peace I was in Germany, and by the time I was home and out of uniform Jonquil was in a job and crossing London Bridge every day with thousands of other people. It wasn't a very special place any more, but just a convenient way of getting from one side of the Thames to the other.
     That was thirty years ago.
     It was just a coincidence that after thirty years we should find ourselves settling down again in a place called Phoenix, Arizona. I chanced to see the advertisement, soon after moving there, in the window of a travel agent. I stood there a long time, thinking back, then laughing a little to myself as I turned away. That evening I told Jonquil I was going to take her away soon on a 'mystery tour'.
     "Oh, not Grand Canyon again."
     "Not this time."
     Even then it didn't happen as I'd planned. We had built a house in the desert: out in the boondocks, according to most of our friends who regarded twenty miles from the nearest cinema as total isolation. And the settling-in process seemed to take for ever. I thought of my surprise from time to time and for some reason Jonquil never brought up the subject of the phenomenon at Lake Havasu. But one day I told her I thought we needed a break, and what about the 'mystery tour’ I had mentioned so many years before?
     She tried to wheedle it out of me, as she always does, but this time I held on; and as we drove into Lake Havasu City a few days later, my big surprise for Jonquil was still intact. We were driving from the south-east, along the Avenue, with the lowering sun ahead of us and in our eyes, so that for a while nothing happened. Then she put her hand on my arm.
     "Darling."
     "M'm?"
     "Stop a minute, will you?"
     As I slowed and pulled in to the side of the road I knew my little 'mystery tour' had been well planned - almost too well, because Jonquil's voice had been very quiet, and her hand was still on my arm. I began hoping I hadn't overdone things, by stirring memories of the war she'd rather forget. Very softly now, just a whisper, she said:
     "Darling, look. . . there's London Bridge."
     Then I knew it was alright. She was remembering us, not the war. And she was so stilled, so bespelled, that I knew I mustn't answer. We sat together looking at 'our' Bridge, as perhaps no one else has ever quite seen it. The sun was behind it now, and its ancient arches spanned the soft gold waters of the lake in perfect harmony. The scene was so beautiful that I was less surprised than I might have been that quietly she began crying, her head moving into my shoulder.
     Later of course she half-apologized, as we were tucking into a shepherd's pie at the City of London Arms.
     "I don't really know what it was. Maybe the sunset, and well not expecting to see a bit of old London suddenly so close."
     "But you knew they'd moved it to Arizona - "
     "Of course, but I just didn't give it a thought. It was just the fact of seeing it there, like - like a miracle."
     It was then that I reminded her of the promise we'd made, all those years before; and she laughed and the next morning we went through a solemn little ceremony. Going to the lakeside, we watched the pleasure boats in the rising warmth of the sun till it was a few minutes before twelve noon - because we wanted to get all the details right, just as, in a wish granted by a fairy, everything must come exactly true.
     Then I walked alone across the Bridge, turning and coming slowly back to where, in the middle, Jonquil stood waiting for me. She looked as young and as fair as I had ever seen her, and was trying to smile for me, but couldn't manage it. She just leaned her head against me as my arms went around her and we stood there for a moment lost in time. It was noon, and it was peace, and we had kept our promise.
     For an instant the ghostly memories came flitting through my mind - the stones shuddered beneath my feet and I caught the acrid reek of high-explosive - then it was over, and silently I thanked God that London Bridge could now span the waters of this pleasant land, as a monument to peace.
     With the sun on my face and my eyes closed, I had a strange thought come to me. Supposing, on the day when we made that promise, there'd been a fortune-teller near - an ancient crone with coal-black eyes, right out of the story books. What would she have cried to us, there in the flickering light of that beleaguered city? You will keep your promise, my children, but half a lifetime hence, and seven thousand miles across the world...
     We would have laughed at her. A promise kept, after thirty years? A bridge that could fly across an ocean? We would have laughed and forgotten her, unknowing of the ways of miracles.
     People had begun looking at us, I think, as we stood there, because Jonquil lifted her head and gave a little smile, taking my hand; and together we walked back along London Bridge, beneath the peaceful Arizona skies.




 
 
Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2001

"Bridge Across the Years" was originally published in the June 27, 1982 issue of Arizona Magazine, a feature of The Arizona Republic.