Expansion Joint – a short story


Cler-dunk, cer-lump, cer-lonk, ther-dunk, ther-tump.

I know, it looks ridiculous written down. Like bird song.

When it’s going at full lick my heart pounds, I feel giddy.

The carriageway runs directly overhead so the clunks are constant. Which makes it different, say,  from the clickety-clack of a half-hourly train. You can cope with a disturbance like that. With the continual other things poke through and you forget – the rattle of the letter-box, water bubbling in a pan, the feeble drone of the central heating.
But here, trapped in this house, under this bridge, it’s constant. There’s no respite, no forgetting.

It can’t and won’t end. What is it after all? People on the move. The sound of other lives being lived.

We try blocking. Do everything in rhythm. It works for a particular moment. But not the next one, nor the next. We suffer the tyranny of a timetable we’d no part in fixing.

We thought it beautiful when we first drove over the bridge. Slim, breathtakingly elegant, and a welcome relief to the congested town streets. An engineering masterpiece.
But concrete expands and contracts with heat and cold, and unless there’s give the whole structure cracks and disintegrates. The engineers’ solution? A soft elastic joint in the carriageway. It works fine for the bridge but it’s a disaster for the poor sods underneath. I’m no Einstein but I call that a serious design flaw.

The engineers? They didn’t give a toss.

Making tea. It’s there, the jarring disharmony. I try to smother it, think hard about the sound of the spoon sifting the sugar. Rattle it around in the mug like zen gurus tell you to.
But it’s back. Cler-dunk, cer-lump.  My insides jolt, like a worrying heart murmur. Frantic, I dip the spoon ten, twenty, fifty times, stay in synch with the thuds, try to trick it, cancel it out. When I lift the mug to my lips it’s more syrup than tea. I pour the whole lot away in disgust. Head bowed, hands clutching the draining board, eyes fixed on our unwashed breakfast bowls.

We tried getting help, frittered away money we didn’t have. Here’s what the therapist said: Think of patching over a crack in the wall. Gone, invisible. It’s still there, of course, under the new plaster. but only when you remember to look for it. Don’t remember and it’s not.

Simple. Try forgetting to remember. Thank you very much. Forty quid. Very existential.

But what happens when you’re not good with trowel and filler and the crack still shows? I know existential all right – existential’s which bits of the world you choose to let in or leave out. We’re not blessed with choice. A large lump of the outside has let itself in without a by-your-leave.

She says it’s Chinese water torture.

So, here we are. Stuck. No one wants it. We’ve tried, put it with half a dozen agents. Would you live here? People are too canny. I’ve watched them blanch when they stand in the hall listening. Cheeky fuckers, they’re thinking. Buy this?

She lost her job at the library. Now what does she do? Shopping, buying things we need and things we don’t, wandering the streets, hiding herself on a bench in the park. What else, poor soul? Mornings she sits in the café on the quay,  hunched over a cappuccino. Haunted, hearing it way down in the town, with a clear view of her torturer high over the roofs. When there’s no longer an excuse for not going home, she slips upstairs to the bedroom and lies under the duvet, cheap fiction littering the covers, radio turned up full.

And me? I’m hunched over my desk on the far side of town, imagining her suffering. When the phone stops I’m conscious of the trace. Like a tap dripping in a distant room. Am I hearing it? I can’t tell any more. But a sound in the head’s a sound, real or imagined. There’s existential for you.

It brought us together at the beginning, but quickly shook apart everything we were trying to build. Soon it was me downstairs doing my thing, her upstairs doing hers. Did we talk about it? Never. What to say? When you talk you remember.

Sometimes I wonder whether the same torment is being acted out next door.  And next door to that. The same hell in different rooms. Maybe they don’t talk either.

My day off. It’s only nine but it’s got to me already. I try to put myself in synch with it. Turn it into a rhythm. I tap the kitchen table, adjust the pace to the thuds. But it’s disorienting, atonal. Then I go wandering, pushing ever smaller pockets of dust across the floor with the toe of my shoe.

And Polly squatting in her basket licking furiously at her arse? I don’t see her skinny frame flinch every other second like my wife’s eyelid. Maybe the creature’s achieved some divine acceptance. I wish I spoke dog language. Polly could bark a solution, bless my wife with it. Heal her, heal us.

I came home one day and couldn’t find her. I searched all over the house, ran in and out of the rooms. I stood outside shouting her name through the volley of thuds. It was Friday rush hour and the heart of the great bridge was pounding.

Then I looked up and saw her. She was standing beside the Samaritans sign at the dead centre of the bridge looking down. Christ knows what she was seeing. I shouted, told her to wait, to hold on, that I was on my way up to her. But she wasn’t listening, couldn’t hear me over the roar of the traffic.

I ran. A good half-mile, through the trees, round the crescents of the new estate, in and out of the parked cars, all the way up to the new roundabout. And then a mad jog along the approach road, lungs bursting, the roofs of the estate alongside slowly dropping out of sight as the ground fell away towards the river.  Finally I saw her, her fingers clamped to the parapet.

A pretty woman standing on an elegant bridge. Passing cars must have thought she was enjoying the view of the town laid out below like a cardboard model.

Then she was running, in that comic way she does, arms and hips swinging, along the narrow pavement towards the joint. When she got there she stopped, pointed at it, and shook her fist at the cars. ‘Stop! For God’s sake stop!’ I kept running, calling out to her, pleading. She’d dropped to her knees in the road, lines of cars weaving in and out around her. Then back on her feet, banging on windscreens, forcing drivers to slam on their brakes.

I grabbed her, hauled her back to the pavement, and turned her to face me. Hugging her tightly I kissed her face and hair. We stood clasped together, crying, howling, while the bridge thumped out its end-of-the-working-day tattoo.

Cheers from a white van. ‘Go on, mate, give her one for me!’
Then I walked her home.

In the end she left. I visit her sometimes at her mother’s. Her eyelid flicking rhythmically as we sip our tea.

About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends (www.friendsofcoleridge.com). My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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