The way home is long and narrow and the forest runs along either side of the road. It’s hard to keep both eyes on the road. I can never help but stare to the sides of passing trees, backdropped by the blanket pitch that collects them in gloom and secrecy. It reminds me of a zoetrope my father gave me for a birthday. When I was younger, I imagined a character, normally something I had seen from television, running between the trunks, fast and fleeting, as if they were printed on projector slides.
I approached the infamous corner before the bridge. It has quite the reputation for catching drivers off guard. The one-way road without dips or bumps, lit by moonlight, provokes one to be generous with their speed. A few times a month someone would find themselves at the end in the mud. It’s never claimed a life. Most of the time it’s a few bruises, a few cuts, a wrecked car and a lesson learnt.
The ground was icy so I stopped the car before the road took me further. I got out to see how much of the tarmac was covered, to save me drifting into the barrier. I always carry a torch on me, ever since the wife worried herself sick about me coming down this route in the later hours. What if you get stuck, she would say, what if you get stuck in the forest at night? What if you get lost or the car breaks down and you crash? So I take a torch to keep her happy.
The ice continued, thick and black, glistening in the torchlight, right up to the corner barrier ahead. Of course, it looked as if it had been knocked down and rebuilt a dozen times. The bridge, which spans across the lake, was quiet. An old thing, people call it, and only named by locals as The Bridge in their casual conversations.
There’s peace out in the forest; far from civilisation; no homes, no buildings, no factories or farms. There’s nothing, for miles. I savoured the silence and took a second to relish the absence of the city life.
Where the new metal of the barrier meets the old stone of the bridge, that part had gone. A huge chunk of the wall was knocked through and the metal was sharp and jagged as if it had been struck by lightning. A pair of tire tracks ran between them and when my mind clicked, I jogged forward and looked over the edge. The air was still and the night was calm and the water glowed with a set of hazard lights, warm and red beneath the skin, and my heart felt shot. I sprinted back to the car for my phone, sliding the way on the ice, and then raced back towards the bridge, dialling as I went.
“Hello – police, I need the police. And an ambulance.”
“What’s your emergency?”
“A car – a car has gone off the road. Into the water. The car’s in the water.”
“I’m on the Adley Bridge. Just from Compton Village. It’s gone through the railings. The car’s in the water.”
“They’re already on their way, sir. Where’s the driver? Is the driver in the car?”
“I don’t know. I don’t – The car’s in the water.
“I’ve got to save them.”
I dropped the phone and rushed myself down the bank, footing my way in the small shelves of dirt and mud. I didn’t hear the crash, nor did I recognise the back of the car from the journey. God knows how long it had been in there, submerged and silent.
I lost the ground beneath my feet and tumbled forward, somersaulting into the water. It was quick to seep through my clothes, to catch my skin, and the cold caught my breath, but I got myself up and waded through to the car. The lake wasn’t deep, only then did I realise, as the nose of the car was balanced a few metres below me, with its tail end on top of it near the surface. I held my breath, took my head under and swam toward the front door, aided by the weight of my jeans and boots.
I could only just make out the shadowy figure of an old woman inside. Her arms hung above her head. Her face calm, her eyes closed.
The door wouldn’t open. I tugged as hard as I could, and hit the window with my fist, only to sound a dull thud of weakness. My lungs depleted in flurries of bubbles and I resurfaced. I shouted for help. The odds of someone else being nearby were low, the nearest home was over ten miles away, but I shouted, and sent my voice as far as I could.
It couldn’t have been more than a second after when a splash erupted in front of me. The water threw itself up and showered quickly. A head emerged in the middle of it. Stern and strong eyes looked at me, the eyes of a man with a shaggy beard and long hair clamped to his head. He took a deep breath and went under.
I followed him down. In two broad strokes he was already at the car, his silhouette cast by the taillights. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, hard object and pierced the window in a muted crack. It shattered peacefully. He bore his arms through, his elbow forcing out the corner panes that stuck together. The shards sailed and spun in every direction as he wrangled his arms inside and pulled the woman out, pushing his feet against the door and rising upwards.
I surfaced and crawled to the bank. The man hauled the woman up by her shoulders and when she was close, I pulled on her jacket and dragged her back onto land. I was sure she was dead, her body was limp and cold and pale. The man pressed his ear to her mouth and then pumped down on her chest with his hands, his fingers locked at the end of his pillar arms. Her body shuddered with each press, her head rocking as the man continued. Minutes passed, the man rhythmic. I watched, helpless and afraid. The woman rattled and coughed, water spewed from her mouth and ran down her chin and she let out an old, long groan.
Call it a miracle. A woman survives underwater for a ridiculous amount of time. Call it another miracle, that a man jumped from the bridge and brought her back from the grips of a watery grave. To this day, I still don’t believe how she made it.
The man collapsed backwards and the air filled with deep breaths from all of us. The woman with her head on my coat, the man sitting in the dirt.
I knew the woman. I recognised her when I shone the torch on her face for signs of life. Her name was Martha Andrews. She used to be a gardener for the rugby grounds. Rumours told she turned to alcohol after she was sacked, and I didn’t refute them after her rich, whiskey breath travelled upwards and hit my nostrils.
The man’s breathing slowed and became silent. He cleared his hair and looked me straight in the eyes, holding a blank stare that spoke fatigue and tiredness. His face, worn and leathered. And then, he quietly got himself up, and made his way into the forest, his coat dripping as he went. His footsteps softened and soon dissolved with the crunch of sticks and leaves as the sirens began to fill the night.
“Thank you,” Martha said, staring up at me with a trembling lip. “Thank you.”
And I said nothing.