Vanessa was generally satisfied with her life. She was happy in her marriage to Brian. They’d built their own home exactly as they wanted it. Her Mum had been a harbinger of doom when they bought a plot of land in the middle of nowhere, but with Brian being a builder things had gone remarkably smoothly. And Vanessa could look back with pride on the bits she’d done, like most of the painting, and building the rockery.
Vanessa loved living near the canal. Often when she came home from a stressful day at work she’d go for a run to wind down. She’d count the bridges as she ran, stopping at number 70 and turning back towards home. She worked in the Probation Service, dealing face-to-face with people who could often be extremely aggressive and confrontational. It was a tough job, but she was a tough girl and liked a challenge. She did sometimes wonder whether she could carry on in this field until retirement, but as that was nearly thirty-five years away she knew she didn’t have to make any firm plans just yet. Maybe she and Brian would have children at some stage, but then again maybe not. They liked the freedom of being childless.
It was a wet, windy December afternoon and Brian had finished work early. As he stood in the porch in the last of the daylight chopping wood for the fire he saw the headlights of Vanessa’s car coming round the bend before the bridge over the canal that led to their driveway. It had to be Nessa; no postal or other deliveries would come this late in the day and they weren’t expecting anyone else. But as he gathered the firewood in his arms he heard a strange noise – a creaking combined with a low rumble and a splash. The creaking and rumble he couldn’t understand, but maybe the splash had been a cow from the neighbouring farm falling into the canal. Sometimes they lost their footing on the edge. He ran to the bridge to investigate. Perhaps Nessa had stopped to help; she should have been home by now.
However a very different sight met Brian’s horrified gaze. Through the driving rain he could see the bridge had collapsed. That must have been the creaking and rumbling he’d heard.
‘Nessa! Nessa!’ he called, hoping she’d stopped short of the bridge. But if that had been the case her headlights would have lit up the scene before him. As it was, he could only just make out the ragged edge of stones and the heap of rubble blocking the canal.
Although he didn’t want to delay, he dashed back to his car for a powerful torch. As he swept the bright beam out into the darkness he saw Nessa’s car upside down about twenty metres along the canal. The water was only around two feet deep so at least the car was unlikely to drift further downstream, but two feet of water was enough for someone to drown in.
Panic clutched at his chest as he plunged into the water and waded across to the car. It had come to rest at an angle with the driver’s side doors submerged. He clambered up onto the car and wrenched at the front passenger door. It opened with difficulty and he shone the torch inside to see Nessa slumped over the steering wheel, her dark hair swirling in the muddy water.
‘I’m here, Nessa!’ he called. ‘I’ll have you out in a bit.’
He lowered himself carefully into the car. There was a risk that his weight could tip it, but maybe that would be a good thing. However the car remained stuck in the mud. With his feet anchored he reached forward and lifted Nessa’s head.
‘Wake up, love!’ he shouted, tapping her cheek. But she remained unconscious. It took at least five minutes of fumbling to release her seat belt before he remembered he had his mobile phone in his jeans pocket. His heart sank, thinking it must surely have got wet. Ant it had; it was dead. He only hoped Nessa wasn’t dead too.
Then he noticed her handbag hanging from the rear vision mirror. He opened it and found her mobile phone. The bag must have taken a dunking but her phone was still working. With cold, shaking fingers he dialled 999.
Brian whiled away the wait talking to his wife, urging her to come round, but she lay limp in his arms. Finally a bright searchlight beam split the night. Help was at hand! He glanced at his watch: that had to be the longest half hour of his life.
Within minutes the fire crew had winched Nessa to safety.
‘She’s alive,’ pronounced a paramedic. ‘But we’d better get her to hospital quick smart.’
As the ambulance shrieked its way along the network of country lanes to the main road, the paramedic wrapped Nessa in a foil blanket.
‘She’s very cold, but at least you managed to keep her head above water. Freakish thing to happen, but some of these bridges are pretty old. I suppose all the rain we’ve had lately helped loosen the stones.’[
The wait at the hospital rivalled Brian’s wait for help to arrive. Eventually a doctor emerged from the treatment room.
‘There’s good news and bad. The good news is she’s now conscious and doesn’t appear to have suffered any brain trauma. The bad news is she can’t move her legs. Your wife has sustained a spinal injury. But given time, she may learn to walk again.’
It took the Waterways Board nearly a year to repair the bridge. Fortunately Brian and Nessa were able to use an alternative route to and from their home. Nessa had numerous medical appointments during those months, including physiotherapy and counselling for the trauma she had experienced. Fortunately she had no recollection of the accident. The last thing she could remember was turning off the main road.
Despite every effort on her part, and the best the National Health Service had to offer, Nessa still had not regained the use of her legs. She spent several anguished months fretting about her job.
‘Why don’t you give in your notice, love,’ pleaded Brian. ‘I’m earning good money. We’ll manage.’
Nessa was surprised at the relief she felt having written her letter of resignation. She’d thought it would feel like giving in, but it didn’t. In a strange way it felt liberating. But what was she going to do with the rest of her life?
A pushy solicitor had contacted the couple within weeks of the accident, trying to convince them to make a claim against the Waterways Board for negligence in their maintenance of the bridge. Nessa and Brian discussed it at length but in the end decided to let it go. They didn’t approve of compensation culture, even in their present situation. Not only had the Waterways Board repaired the bridge as soon as possible, but they tarmacked the road all the way up to their house to make access easier for Nessa in her wheelchair.
Naturally Nessa was apprehensive going across the new bridge for the first time. Brian walked beside her.
‘It’s not as nice as the old bridge,’ she said.
He shrugged. ‘Better than no bridge at all. It would have cost much more to build a stone one, and would have taken much longer. So the iron and wooden one will have to do.’
‘Hold my hand please, love.’
‘You’ll be fine, Nessa.’
And she was, so they continued along the towpath, Brian pushing Nessa in her wheelchair.
They reach bridge number 70 about half an hour later.
‘I used to run here in half that time,’ she said sadly.
‘Never mind, love. At least you’re back on the move now.’
She sighed. ‘I suppose I should be grateful.’
A few days later while Brian was at work Nessa plucked up the courage for another trip across the bridge and along the canal path. It was a cold day but the sun was shining and she felt like a bit of fresh air. She took a deep breath and thought pleasant thoughts while crossing the bridge. At least the new one was flat; a hump-backed bridge like the old one would have been hard work in her wheelchair. As it was, she was developing Popeye muscles in her biceps wheeling herself about on the flat.
The sun came out from behind a cloud and Nessa paused to admire her surroundings. A massive heron launched itself like a dart from its hiding place in an oak tree and landed gracefully in a flurry of grey feathers on the water. It took off again as soon as it sensed her presence. Inspired, Nessa rummaged in her handbag for pen and paper. She did a rough sketch on the back of a receipt, pleased that she’d captured the elegant lines of the bird in a few simple strokes.
That evening when Brian returned home Nessa was busy at the kitchen table.
‘I can’t remember the last time you got your paints out, Nessa,’ he said, admiring her work.
She looked up with a grin. ‘Theheron on the canal inspired me. I think I’ll go out early tomorrow morning with my paints, see if I can capture the mist over the water.’
‘I’ll get the dinner on, love,’ said Brian. ‘You carry on and finish your painting.’
It was as though a dark cloud had lifted, and it filled his heart with joy to see the old twinkle back in his wife’s eyes.
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015