The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 12

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Waterloo Bridge in London

Kevin had long thought that the best place to start a tourist guide for London was the centre of Waterloo Bridge. Of course it was not possible to just appear there, even by magic, but this did not prevent him from announcing to Tanji that this would be the 'official' start of the trip.

He had been hugely appreciative of Tanji's enthusiasm for his desire to learn more about the world of Lyndesfarne and had been wanting to reciprocate in some way for her efforts in organising those jaunts in her own world.

Tanji had given him the impression that she had visited the Other World on many occasions, both as a student in the Guild of Directions and later as a Guide, escorting the occasional Visitors to their desired destination. Kevin understood that, usually, Guides for Visitors were natives of the world being visited so perhaps, he mused, she was not quite such a frequent a visitor after all. In any case, Tanji seemed delighted by the prospect of being shown the city.

"It'll be fun," she said, with her characteristic giggle in her voice, "Seeing your world through your eyes."

She paused and then continued more seriously.

"It's one of the things that I like about you. You are not so blinkered to the conventions of your society, the assumptions about the nature of the universe. I like the way you question things, all the time. And I think I would like to see your world that way too."

A convenient opportunity had come up soon enough. It turned out that Kevin had some business in Town - a presentation to give to some senior directors of a company for whom he had been commissioned to perform an initial feasibility study for a bridge. The company represented a consortium of London investors and international businessmen, many of whom were from the small but oil-rich states abutting the coast of the Red Sea.

The proposal was for a crossing over the natural waterway leading to Kilindini Harbour, south of Mombasa Island in Kenya. This was for a bridge as a replacement for the Likoni Ferry over the deep-water channel, as the travel delays increasingly incurred were fast becoming an economic constraint on the fast-growing economy of both that country and several neighbouring sub-Saharan African nations.

There were a number of complicated technical constraints on any solution, including the requirement that ocean-going ships should be capable of passing underneath, since the harbour was much further inland than any plausible site for the bridge itself.

In addition, the land on the island side was rather low-lying, being little more than a delta of sediment built up by the river over the ages, while the mainland was steeply sloping, rapidly rising towards the coastal hills which edged the continental uplands. This disparity in elevation made the selection of the technology for the crossing difficult in itself.

Even worse, the land on the island side was already rather heavily occupied by a series of rough shanty towns. The majority of the inhabitants had dubious legal grounds for their residency, but it would nevertheless take a considerable amount of time and money to evict a large number of people. So, the smallest land area on the island was also an important criterion.

Kevin felt that this was another opportunity for him to display the talent he had for suggesting imaginative and, more importantly, cost-effective solutions to obscure civil engineering problems. He briefly considered a lifting or turning bridge but moving crossing structures, especially of that size, were prone to breakdowns and needed considerable maintenance - something that might be hard to ensure in a country whose general infrastructure was several decades behind the times.

His recommended solution included an S-shaped ramp on the island side, to minimise the area required for vehicular access to the bridge without making any slope very steep - important in a world where the maintenance of vehicle brakes could not always be relied upon.

The main part of the bridge would take advantage of the naturally higher ground: an asymmetric cable stay bridge, with the bulk of the span supported from the mainland side and with cables fixed to the bedrock. A much shorter tower supported the other span, holding up both the bridge over the sea as well as the last part of the access ramp.

This was all unrelated to the Lyndesfarne Bridge project. Rather, it was one of several pieces of interesting and frankly extremely lucrative work that Kevin had managed to acquire after he left the old firm of architects who had employed him since University. As an independent consultant, and with rather more reputation in the industry than he was at first aware of, Kevin relished the intellectual freedom and flexibility his new circumstances afforded him.

Under other circumstances, Kevin might have travelled to his meeting and back in one day, getting back every late in the evening and sleeping late the following day. On this occasion, however, he had taken the opportunity to travel the day before and stay for a couple of nights in a hotel. Being accompanied by Tanji really did make all the difference.

In the event, the couple travelled in a leisurely fashion from Kevin's little flat in the suburbs, setting off quite late by taxi for the mainline railway station. The train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston was uncommonly pleasant, Kevin having indulged in first class tickets for the journey. Tanji's reaction to rail travel was fascinating to Kevin. She appeared to be particularly relaxed - much more so than he was used to. In addition, and something to Kevin's surprise, she insisted on sitting with her back to the direction of travel.

"I prefer trains to travelling by car," she explained when prompted by Kevin.

"Why?" he asked,

"Well, there's always the slight sensation of being out of control, of careering along far too fast."

She held up her hand to forestall Kevin's protestations.

"Yes, I know it's really quite safe," she continued, "And I'm sure you're a very careful driver, but I find it easier to ignore the sensation of rapid movement in a train."

Kevin suspected this was a reaction to the uniquely Lyndesfarne approach to travel, with instantaneous transport between two points using portals - although with absolutely no sense of speed - coupled with the insistence that land vehicles, even magical ones, travel no faster than traditional horse-drawn transport.

Euston station was bustling as always when they arrived. Kevin led Tanji up the platform ramp and across the concourse to the entrance to the London underground, keeping a close lookout for those wheeled bags that seemed to have a life of their own and were likely to clip you on the ankle at the slightest lack of attention.

View of Thames Embankment in London

Tanji was evidently familiar with the process of buying tickets, or at least unfazed by the necessity. After a short trip on the Underground trains, they emerged at Embankment tube station. Arm in arm, they walked along the Victoria embankment to Waterloo Bridge and up the steps to the bridge itself. From there, at that time of the year, it was a pleasant, if slightly breezy walk along the bridge to the very middle of the crossing. They stood on the pavement at the centre of the bridge, where a plaque thoughtfully provided for the guidance of tourists allowed Kevin to be sure about the information he was, proudly and a little embarrassingly, imparting to Tanji.

A little way upriver on the north bank were the familiar landmarks of the Houses of Parliament and the tower of Big Ben, the seat of the UK's central administration, deliberately built in a carefully archaic style to transfer the impression of stability and longevity from building to government.

London Eye

On the opposite bank, the great wheel of the London Eye loomed over the entire area. Kevin pointed out to Tanji that, like the wheel of a bicycle, the spokes did not hold up the wheel. Rather, the stretch and flex of the spokes meant that much of the weight of the rim of the wheel was hung from the axle; indeed the entire structure was under tension, the spokes being far too thin to be much good in compression.

The explanation left Tanji's face momentarily tightened up with concentration at, Kevin hoped, the effort to see the construction of modern artefacts through the eyes of a physical scientist and engineer. Or perhaps it was complete confusion; Kevin did not really mind either way, as long as she was amused by his prattle.

Continuing the rotating tour downriver, Kevin pointed out the South Bank complex: the National Theatre, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the headquarters of various international computer and petrochemical companies. All these buildings were rendered in the towers, monoliths and piled-box shapes of the 1960's poured concrete vernacular, now looking rather stained and water-worn.

By contrast, the more modern glass towers of the Gherkin - more properly, the Swiss Re Building - and the towers of Canary Wharf were clearly visible in the distance downriver.

"There's so much above ground," Tanji remarked, half to herself, "So many tall buildings."

"Well, most of these buildings will have basements," Kevin replied, "But most people prefer to live or work where they can see outside, and get at least some natural light."

"Ah, I see. No windows," she nodded, "I mean, no magical windows."

Further around the circle, Kevin pointed out the vast dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, standing proud and alone above the surrounding rooftops. This building was another astonishing achievement, he knew, and one which had advanced the reputation of Sir Christopher Wren, the foremost architect of his time. The great dome itself was so heavy that there was a risk that its weight would collapse outwards the supporting walls.

Normally, this risk would be averted by supporting the walls on the outside by buttresses or smaller constructions. The innovation that Wren had introduced, to give that famously free-standing dome look, was to embed thick steel cables around the entire circumference of the walls, tensioning the cables to take the weight of the roof.

In front of the Cathedral, water-front buildings that Kevin could identify included Devonshire House, home of the Inland Revenue, and the mysterious building occupied, by reputation at least, by one of the more secretive of government military intelligence organisations. Even so, he was personally inclined to the view that the phrase "military intelligence" was itself an oxymoron.

After the opening gambit on the bridge, the rest of the morning tour was a huge success. The couple took in several stereotypically tourist activities, including an open-topped bus ride, a walk along the Thames Embankment and a short trip in a rattling black London taxicab. After a light lunch in a quiet brasserie, Kevin left Tanji to stroll the streets and parks of the city, while he made haste back to South Bank.

The official business that Kevin had really travelled for consisted of a two-hour meeting in the afternoon, in the head office buildings of an international construction firm not very far from Waterloo Bridge. His presentation was attended by senior managers from the construction company, a junior Foreign Office official and a representative from the Kenyan Embassy as well as several medium-ranking dignitaries from assorted surrounding countries.

Kevin presented the simplest possible view of the shape of the bridge and the reasons why, and was listened to with a mixture of undisguised boredom, polite interest and calculated - even mercenary - understanding. It was not always easy to judge the tenor of such formal meetings, Kevin had learned from long experience, but he got the distinct impression that his technical recommendations for the crossing would be accepted.

Indeed, he felt that all that was now at stake was the cost of the new bridge and, more importantly, which combination of international mineral mining cartels and world banking institutions would be providing the funding. Flushed with success, Kevin met Tanji as arranged and retired to a hotel on the Strand. That evening, they enjoyed a luxurious and, Kevin was surprised to note, astonishingly expensive meal in the Grill restaurant attached to the hotel. Tanji also surprised Kevin by admitting to a taste for Champagne, gladly accepting a glass from the waiter as an aperitif and quietly but firmly suggesting that he order a whole bottle with their meal.

By the end of the evening, Tanji was quite giggly and Kevin needed to support her while they made their way upstairs to their room. Once inside, she collapsed on the bed before he could even turn on the lights, giggling more loudly now that they were alone. Smiling widely in the near-darkness, Kevin threw off his clothes and joined her.

The following day was quiet, as neither Kevin nor Tanji had any pressing engagements. They arose late, ate breakfast in their room later still and packed their few belongings before checking out. The day was fine and bright, and Kevin suggested that they walk the mile or two back to Euston station rather than take a taxi or the Underground. Tanji agreed immediately, and they set off, Kevin once again collapsing into tour-guide mode.

Tanji was by turns impressed by the buildings of University College London, wowed by the wrought-iron gates and railings of the British Museum and charmed by the unexpected peacefulness of Sloane Square. All in all, Kevin thought, as they made their way along the platform to board their return train, a successful trip to Town.


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