The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 31

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There was absolute silence in the room after the Ferryman had spoken. Even though he had instigated - albeit somewhat involuntarily - some part of this train of events, Kevin had the obscure urge to make some kind of appeal. But he knew, in reality, that there was no point; it was clear that a majority were convinced and that this was the end. There was no appeal to higher authority, no place to discuss the issue further, and too much of a majority to make any kind of resistance anything other than futile.

There was a sudden buzz of conversation all around the room; everyone seemed to be talking at once, suddenly very animated. Kevin could make out very little and, given his extremely limited language skills, could understand practically nothing.

"What's being said?" he asked Tanji, who had clearly been listening intently.

"It's so very difficult to summarise," she answered softly with a wry smile, "Although it seems that many people are not very surprised, although almost everybody is saddened and disappointed. Most are saying that this is a turn of events that had been seriously considered, if only hypothetically - at least, up until now."

She listened again, turned her head this way and that so as to pick up fragments of conversation from all around. Kevin waited as patiently as he could, frustrated by his inability to understand anything of the undoubtedly strongly-held views he could hear. Nearby, a large and loudly-spoken man in a deep blue robe started pontificating. Such was his manner and voice that several people nearby turned to listen to his views.

Tanji turned back to Kevin and spoke quietly in his ear.

"The increasing sophistication of the Other World," she began, adopting that tell-tale sing-song intonation that meant that she was translating from the language of Lyndesfarne, "Not to mention the number of people in it, has been thought to be an increasing risk for a long time. The common knowledge of the existence of our world would instil a sense of fear and panic for much of the populace of the Other World. They would demand action, protection, and our representatives in the seats of government of that world would not be able to deflect this clamour."

There was a murmur of approval from the man's listeners. Kevin wondered who he was, concluding that he must be some big-wig in the Board of Control.

"In this world, too," the big man went on, "The fear of the different, the stranger will for many people provoke a similar reaction. They will perceive a threat, a terror of being overwhelmed by the teeming billions of the Other World, despite the manifest advantages of our magic."

The man in blue seemed to be catching the common sentiment, speaking - it seemed to Kevin - with the practiced ease of the long-term politician. More people seemed to be paying attention to his words, ceasing their own discussions and forming an enlarging circle around the big man.

"Indeed, if the existence of that art called magic came to the attention of the organisations and companies in the Other World, they would regard it as an opportunity to extend the reach of their science, to make devices and products currently outside their reach, and therefore make money and consolidate their positions of power. This would be amplified if their cunning machines and powerful technologies could be employed to study the intricacies of our devices. The secrets of Lyndesfarne would not last long under such intense scrutiny."

Again, these points seemed to meet the approval of the listeners.

"That's why there was such a majority for the closure," Tanji added in her own voice.

The large man in blue spoke again.

"Of course, there will be those who will lose out, those who will be impoverished by the decision," she continued in her sing-song tone, "But we must protect ourselves, each of us in our own worlds."

Kevin knew that the group or organisation - maybe there was more than one - that was trying to open its own crossing away from the authority of the Board of Control, was not really the first such threat. Indeed, he had become aware, from numerous tales and discussions, that the final crossing to Lyndesfarne has been under increasing threat over the last hundred years or so: attempts to wrest control away from the Board, or to force its closure though a variety of stratgems.

There was a loud bong, as if a vast gong had been struck, just once, by a short but extremely muscular assistant, although Kevin could see no sign of either. Just magic, he imagined. The reverberating tones echoed around the meeting chamber, and at once an anticipatory and slightly anxious silence fell. Even the pompous man in the blue robe shut up immediately.

The gong was the cue for a series of further announcements from the Ferryman. Again, her voice rang out across the huge hall, subtly amplified by magic, and again Tanji's translation was whispered into his ear.

"The crossing closure will be three days from now, at noon," she announced, "All trade will cease with immediate effect."

This last point caused a furore in the room as, Kevin understood, a major purpose of the crossing was for commerce. "Those whose livelihood is affected will be compensated," the Ferryman thundered, "And I do advise those who have goods in the warehouses to remove them as soon as possible."

There was another moment of confused muttering.

"Everyone is to return to their own world, without exception," the Ferryman went on.

Again there was an outcry from the floor.

"This is the decree," she said in a steely voice, "Those who have interests in the Other World have just under three days to get your affairs in order."

The noise in the room was incredible. It seemed to Kevin that plans were being made, options debated and contingencies previously discussed were being revived and put into operation. He just stood there, unable to think coherently, to plan, to do anything. The din and commotion in the room seemed to swirl around him, not touching him, events now taking their own course for him and everyone else. Tanji too seemed to be in a daze, standing close to him, her hands enclosed by his own.

After an indeterminate time, Bret managed to track down Kevin. He stood close, presumably to make himself heard over the noise in the room.

"I suppose this was inevitable," Kevin said without preamble, "I'm really so very sorry."

Bret nodded.

"It was not your responsibility," he said, "That duty is mine, and many others. But thank you for you concern." Bret grasped the other man by the upper arm.

"My duties will lead me elsewhere over the next few days," he went on, "I'm afraid I am unlikely to be able to be with you. Besides, Tanji will, I feel sure, wish to accompany you in these last days."

Bret looked directly into Kevin's eyes.

"It has been a pleasure and a privilege working with you. I thank you again for everything you have done, for me, and my family, and this entire world. Sincerely, I wish you well in the future, whatever that may bring."

Unexpectedly, Bret leaned forward and embraced him, planting a kiss on his cheek, an action which seemed distinctly and slightly disconcertingly feminine, despite the male appearance Bret still wore. The co-designer of the New Bridge, and Kevin's friend and mentor, stepped back and said something formal-sounding to Tanji. She responded in kind, both holding up their right hands in the Lyndesfarne way that was used as both a greeting and a farewell. Bret then turned on his heel and disappeared into the crowd. Kevin realised, with an unexpected tear in his eye, that he would very probably never see Bret again.

Kevin turned to Tanji.

"What are we going to do?" he asked very seriously.

She stood on tip-toe and kissed him full on the lips, then pulled back to look him straight in the eye.

"The instructions are clear: we will have to part, and very soon," she said gravely, "So we will have to make our plans accordingly."

Kevin nodded, suddenly feeling desperately sad.

*

The next few days - Kevin's last in the Other World - were a whirlwind of activity. He did not want to leave this world until the last possible moment, so he and Tanji were almost inseparable; they spent every minute together, asleep or awake, except for a couple of brief trips - in her own world, of course - she felt compelled to make alone, one to visit her Aunt and Uncle, and another who's purpose was unclear to Kevin.

They did make just one trip to Kevin's world, right at the end, to the little flat in Manchester which he still called home, to collect Tanji's belongings so as to be able to return them to her world. In fact, there were precious few things, and little of any real value. Even so, Kevin insisted that every item - Tanji's few cosmetic items, toiletries, clothes and odd pieces of inexpensive jewellery - was carefully packed into a couple of rucksacks.

They spent that night in Kevin's bed, holding each other close, making love repeatedly, almost out of a sense of desperation. He did not actually sleep very well, waking several times in the night in the panicky realisation that this was the last time that they would lay together here.

In the morning, after a early start and a light breakfast, Kevin persuaded Tanji to go for a short walk in a large and unfrequented municipal park that the council maintained not far from the flat. Under the trees and in the watery morning sunlight, Kevin took an endless stream of photographs of Tanji using an inexpensive digital camera he had acquired recently. They would be something to remember her by, he considered, in future years.

When he came to review the snaps later, he could see that there was a common feature in Tanji's expression, whether she was laughing or smiling or feeling sad. The look - a certain tightness of the skin around the eyes, perhaps - communicated a persistent sense of wistful loneliness, the anticipation of a loss, one which had not yet happened but was nevertheless inevitable.

Kevin drove Tanji back to the Lyndesfarne crossing in near silence, unsure of what to say to each other. Their conversation was stilted and superficial, concentrating on niceties and nondescript comments on unimportant topics. There were, perhaps, in some state of denial, somehow not yet emotionally ready to accept the fact of their impending separation.

The traffic on the approach roads were unusually heavy, with a larger than normal number of HGVs ploughing their way along the narrow road, presumably rushing to transport goods already transferred between the worlds away from the area before the closure. The heavy transport turned off towards the warehouses at the New Bridge, allowing Kevin to navigate the last mile or so with relative ease.

He pulled the Volvo into the damp field that did duty as a car park. Unusually it was filled to capacity with private cars of all shapes and sizes, new and creakingly ancient, and there were quite a few taxis and minibuses from local companies too. All these vehicles seemed to be disgorging individuals or family groups, everyone weighed down with packs and belongings.

The exodus had evidently begun almost immediately after the Ferryman's pronouncement and, even now, the crossing was extremely busy. The cries of the carters and the pedestrians were superficially as shrill and as argumentative as always, but somehow it now seemed subdued, as if a great sadness hung in the air over the bridges.

A few of the larger groups had managed to negotiate with the carters that still plied their trade on the Old Bridge to hire a wagon and horses for a trip over the causeway with their worldly wealth. Kevin saw one wagon transporting what must have been three generations of the same family: grandmother sat upright on the front bench wedged between the driver and the father, while the wife and at least three children tried to make themselves as comfortable as possible wedged between suitcases and bundles in the back.

The departures did not go unobserved. Apart from the ever-present Guardians, a row of people stood at the end of the causeway, individuals and small groups, waving and crying with handkerchiefs at their faces. It occurred to Kevin that they would not be the only couple who would very soon be forced to separate from their loved one.


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