In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Diana McCaulay’s ‘Bridge Over the Yallahs River’ is the winning entry from the Caribbean.
When since thunderstorm mean disaster? thought Roy. He waited to count the seconds between lightning and thunder, assessing how far away the storm was. Rain pounded on the zinc roof. Flash, flash; then a rolling boom which travelled from sky to earth and shook his bed. Six seconds. Not that close.
He couldn’t hear his daughter’s breathing, so he bent over her, feeling her breath feathering his cheek. A storm could cause her to have an asthma attack and the roads were probably already impassable.
Deena began to wheeze. ‘Sit up, punkin,’ Roy said, pulling her into his arms. ‘Where you inhaler?’ Deena reached under her pillow, her eyes unfocused. She shook the inhaler and it rattled. She breathed out and then sucked at it.
Roy stroked her hair. ‘Jus breathe. Storm soon pass.’ Flash, crash. Eight seconds. Then they heard a mechanical, tearing, screeching sound over the rain. ‘Must be di bridge,’ whispered Roy, more to himself than to Deena. Disaster had a shape and a date, he thought. He could just see Deena’s chest rise, hitch and fall in the dark. How long would the stuff in the inhaler last? Their house was higher than some, but how would he know if the river had burst its banks and they had to climb onto the roof?
The rain eased just after dawn. He left Deena sleeping and went outside into a drizzle. The Yallahs River was still a raging, roiling scar across the land. He had built his house on a slight slope and used concrete foundations to raise the floor – it had never flooded. Not yet. He jumped onto a crumbling wall nearby, part of an old aqueduct, the elders said, and stood, looking east over the community of Back To towards the river. In the glow of dawn, he saw the bridge was really gone.
Every resident of Back To knew the story of the concrete bridge, first built in slavery time. It had been cracked by an earthquake at the turn of the twentieth century. Later that same year, a huge guango tree had been washed down by the rains and trapped by the bridge itself, backing up the silt-laden flood waters which then spread across the land. Public Works blew up the bridge because it was easier than taking out the tree. A new bridge was built, erected in less than a month by shirtless Black men supervised by sunburned white men wearing hard hats and orange vests. A ‘Bailey’ bridge it was called, the elders said, a wondrous contraption of steel triangles and wooden planks, much higher over the river than the old one. The Bailey Bridge was supposed to be temporary, but the people of Back To thought it would be there forever, so modern and clean it was. And it did last for nearly seventy years, but slowly the riverbanks began to erode, caused by sand miners and loggers in the mountains and recurrent floods, and soon there was a trench across the road near to the posts that supported the bridge. ‘Soon be bridge to no damn place,’ the people of Back To muttered.
Now the bridge was gone. No one would be able to cross the churning river for days until its waters subsided. There was a fording nearby, usable most of the year, because the Yallahs River had been diverted to the city of Kingston until only a trickle was left.
Roy jumped down from the wall to see to his daughter’s tea. The Back To All-Age School was on the other side of the river, so there would be no school today.
Two days later, the politicians and Works agency people from Kingston and the bosses from the limestone quarry above Back To came to see the river without a bridge. They shook their heads and shouted into their phones. Roy and Jonesy watched them from a safe distance. Maybe there would be work. But the water level fell day after day, and soon even one of the small Mazdas could use the fording. People began to cross on foot. Work at the quarry stopped, and the politicians and government people did not return.
‘Fuckers,’ said Jonesy. ‘Dem don’t give one shit ’bout di likes of wi.’
Four months after Public Works blew up the Bailey Bridge and it washed into the sea, where it remained, a resting place for seabirds, Roy heard the bridge was going to be rebuilt so that the quarry could open.
He went looking for Jonesy.
‘Look like dem hirin for di new bridge,’ Roy said, from the door of the RenkanFacety Bar.
Jonesy looked over his shoulder. ‘So mi hear. But is foreigner going build it. Chiney or Mexican.’ He turned back to his Red Stripe.
‘Going give it a try, still. No steady work since last time dem fix it.’
‘If is Chiney-people, mi hear sey dem work you hard and pay you small.’
Roy laughed. ‘Jonesy. What work you ever do dat not hard and pay small? Is work. Argument done.’
Jonesy grunted. ‘Dem wait too late. Foolishness to start build before di hurricane season.’
‘You comin or not?’
‘Can’t hurt,’ Jonesy said, draining his beer.
They had been friends since childhood, both born in Back To, a community of chaka-chaka zinc roof and plywood houses, solid concrete homes in government schemes, cook shops, rum bars, the All-Age school, a Methodist Church, an Anglican Church, and the Church of the Living Ascension, set on a narrow plain between the mountains and the sea. The riverbed meandered over the plain, straightened and reinforced by gabion baskets in places, between crumbling banks in others, more sandy pathway than river most of the time.
Jonesy had recently returned after two years with his grandmother in Country, something to do with a fuss with a fisherman. Roy had never asked his friend about it. Their boyhood pact was to kick a football around the dusty playfield built by the quarry company, to look for rare river pools higher up which might still contain fish, to pick and sell red-coat plums and naseberries and stringy mangoes, but never to fass in each other’s business. The pact had held.
‘Where dem hirin?’ Jonesy asked as they walked. He smelled of beer and weed. It was not yet ten o’clock. He staggered a little and Roy steadied him.
‘Community centre. You go change you shirt? Put on a hat?’ Have a bath, he wanted to say, but didn’t.
‘Just . . . you know. Dress better. Mebbe we get di job, if wi clean up.’
‘For a job diggin trench and carryin steel and cement?’ Jonesy was scornful. ‘Better dem see dis.’ He flexed his biceps and struck a pose.
‘You too fool-fool. Mi a go change. Meet you at Miss Queenie?’
‘No, mi will come wid you. Mebbe you len me a shirt.’
‘Nah fit you. You big now, man. Look like country yam did agree wid you.’
Jonesey smiled. ‘Deena at home?’
‘She okay?’ Jonesey was close to Roy’s daughter.
Roy didn’t respond. Deena’s asthma had been much better since the quarry had closed but he still had an unfilled prescription in his pocket and a scrap of paper with the word nebulizer scrawled on it from their last visit to the clinic in Harbour View. He had to get this job.
When the quarry was operating, Back To was covered in dust for most of the year. Dust coated every leaf, stone wall, roof, blade of grass, stand of wild cane, school desk, kitchen table, every human head which had been outside too long. Its sources were many – the quarry, a more distant mine, the bare playing field, unpaved roads, the river itself, a stream of trucks kicking up and transporting dust as they drove in and out. The elders of Back To spoke of a time before the mining and the quarrying when the river was a source of fresh water and abundant fish, and no one had heard of asthma, but Roy knew the dust came from progress. His nose ran constantly, his sinuses throbbed, and his eyes scratched, but dust was money. Dust caused Deena’s asthma and dust bought help for her too.
Men were already gathering in the yard of the community centre and the parking lot was full of SUVs from Kingston. Two policemen stood at the gate. There was an empty space between the growing crowd and the shut front door, a no man’s land of sorts. ‘Wi need a contact inside,’ whispered Roy. That was how it worked. They needed someone who would get them to the top of the list, who would speak for them. ‘Wait ’ere,’ Jonesy said. He always knew how to work the system.
Roy watched him swagger over to a browning with light eyes and tall hair, leaning against one of the SUVs, looking at her cell phone. The waiting men of Back To murmured and kissed their teeth and shuffled their feet. Bully, Back To’s official troublemaker, picked up a stone, and threw it from hand to hand. The door to the community centre remained closed.
Roy heard a low whistle. Jonesy beckoned from the SUV.
‘You memba Lisarelle from school?’ he said. ‘She di new project liaison officer. She going put wi name at di top a di list.’
Roy did not remember Lisarelle, who looked way too stush to ever have gone to school at the Back To All-Age. He felt the hot gaze of the waiting men on his back and knew it would take very little for Bully to throw the stone. ‘Round the back,’ Lisarelle said to Jonesy. ‘Hurry up. You going get me inna trouble.’
They walked around the dilapidated building and saw the back door was open. It was dark inside and the room smelled of rat shit and human piss. Three men sat at a table facing the door; two were Chinese and one was a brown man. Chinese contractors, then. Not Mexicans.
‘Mawnin,’ Jonesy said to the brown man.
‘Names?’ the man snapped. ‘Lisarelle sent you?’ Jamaican, Roy deduced but not local. Probably uptown Kingston. Maybe army or police.
They both nodded. Jonesy gave their names, and the Jamaican wrote them in a large red book.
‘Which part you from?’ the brown man said.
‘Right yah so,’ Jonesy said. ‘Back To.’
‘You have construction experience?’ the man asked.
‘Yeah man. I mean, yes, sah. Whole heap.’ Jonesy rattled off an entirely fabricated work history, followed by a more truthful account of the various people in Back To he would be able to introduce them to.
The Jamaican raised his eyebrows. ‘When last you get work?’
Roy decided to speak up in case Jonesy told further lies which would be too easy to check. ‘Last time dem fix di bridge, sah. When dem kinda patch-patch it up after di hurricane.’
‘So you don’t work for close to two years?’
‘Not steady. Likkle bit a dis and dat – help clear one field, clean drain, dat kinda ting. But no construction work dis side for a long time.’
The Jamaican wrote in his book. He asked for their addresses and phone numbers. Roy watched the Chinese men, but they did not meet his eyes. They were sweating. They did not fidget or move in their chairs – he thought they would sit there forever, if they had to, even if the community centre collapsed around them. He couldn’t tell which one was the boss and that unnerved him. Would they bring a Chinese work crew, or would there simply be Chinese bosses? How would the Jamaicans and Chinese people communicate? Even if they spoke English, they wouldn’t speak Jamaican, for sure. He heard the voices of the waiting men outside growing louder.
‘Right. Monday morning onsite. Seven A.M.,’ said the Jamaican man. ‘If you late even one time, one time, you out. No weapon. Not even a ratchet knife. No drugs, including weed. No fighting. You see me?’
‘Yes, sah,’ Roy said. ‘Thank you. You nah be sorry, sah.’
Neither man asked about the pay.
The hiring lasted a single day and the men of Back To gathered in the RenkanFacety bar that night to discuss who had been given jobs. The usual negotiations with the Member of Parliament had not occurred and the security workers were all from Kingston. ‘Wi need di work!’ snarled an older man known as Ranger. He was reputed to have had trade union experience back in the day. ‘What dem bring Chiney people here fah?’
‘You see any ooman over dey?’ said his sidekick, Fenton. ‘Who going clean and cook?’
‘Different time now,’ said Maas Mac, one of Back To’s elders, but his voice faltered. Roy stayed quiet. The men he had known all his life would find out he had been given one of the scarce jobs soon enough.
Bully went over to Ranger and leaned on the bar. ‘Mi is di Community Liaison Officer for di bridge work,’ he boasted. Mi can put in a good word for you, if you nah cause any commotion.’ He gestured to the barman to refill Ranger’s drink and turned to face the room. ‘Chiney people good boss, man. Evrybaddy going eat a food from dis, you see me?’ Jonesy stood beside Bully, Ranger and Fenton and they drank together.
That weekend, a dozen Chinese men moved into Back To. They found a flat piece of land deposited by one of the floods and erected a chain link fence around it. Jonesy and Roy had never seen a fence built so quickly. The men swung their pickaxes and shovels together. They did not sing, they did not talk, they did not laugh. They were dressed in baggy pants and long-sleeved shirts, orange high-visibility vests and hard hats, and they carried reusable bottles. They did not look tall or strong, but they did not rest. One man did not work – he carried no shovel or pickaxe, but he also gave no orders. He stood, chain-smoking, at one corner of the flat land, and he watched.
‘You t’ink him is di boss?’ Roy said.
Jonesy shrugged. ‘Look so. Mi no care who is boss, still.’
Three hours later, the fence was finished, and the workers brought out flags with strange symbols on them and tied them to the corners. At lunchtime, they lined up along one end of the fenced area, lit cigarettes and drank from their bottles. A van came up and handed out boxes of food. They squatted close to the fence, took small sticks out of their pockets and used them to eat the food.
‘Them coulda give Miss Lorraine di lunch contract,’ Roy said.
‘Mebbe Chiney people don’t like flour dumplin,’ Jonesey said.
By the end of the weekend, there was a work camp in Back To. Flimsy buildings had been erected overnight, long and thin and white, low roofed with few windows, doors at each end. A large open shed had been constructed and it was full of tools and equipment, with a small enclosed office to one side. There was a line of bright blue portable toilets. Power and water had been connected. The gate into the fenced area was padlocked. The Chinese men disappeared into the low buildings at dusk.
‘Me hear sey dem come from prison inna China,’ Roy told Jonesy.
‘Bare chat,’ Jonesy answered.
That Sunday night, he couldn’t sleep. He had never been nervous about a job before – it had always been a simple transaction. Manual labour in the sun, pay at the end of the week. Life easier for a while, then back to hustling. This time seemed different.
He heard the catch of Deena’s breathing from the cot at the foot of his bed. He wished his sister in New York would send for his daughter. He could look after himself, no matter what, job or no job, but Deena was slowly becoming the colour of Back To’s dust, and that was a different kind of burden. That could crush a man. But he hardly heard from his sister anymore and never from Deena’s mother.
Why were the Chinese men in Jamaica; in Back To? Were there no jobs in their own country? Roy knew almost nothing about China, but he remembered a picture of a long wall snaking along a mountain ridge in one of his textbooks, described as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. He had thought it unremarkable, like the stone walls of Manchester he had seen on the one and only time he had ever left his parish. He had looked for Jamaica’s wonders in the textbook, but there weren’t any.
Roy got up when Maas Mac’s rooster began to crow. He made himself a cup of mint tea with two spoons of condensed milk and went outside where it was cooler. There was no hint of light in the sky.
Almost every man he knew wanted steady work – why had the government chosen Chinese workers? What would it be like, working for and alongside strangers, foreigners? Were more on their way – less than twenty people could not build a bridge? Would the Jamaican workers get the food they had seen handed out?
The first in a convoy of flatbed trucks went by and he tasted dust. They lined up outside the gate to the worksite. He sat on a rock, drinking the cooling tea, steadying his mind. Then he went inside to get his daughter ready for school. He could perhaps bring home half his lunch for Deena, so he added a plastic bag to his backpack to prevent the spill of gravy. Work is just work, he reminded himself.
Five Jamaicans had been hired, not including Bully, one to open and shut the gate, one in charge of sweeping the site, and three, including himself and Jonesy, were part of the work crews. Their first job was to unload the flatbed trucks. Two of the Chinese men walked the riverbanks with instruments and chose the site for the buttresses. They consulted with no one except each other.
‘What in the boxes?’ Roy asked Jonesy at the end of the first day.
Jonesey shrugged. ‘Mi just unload, like dem sey.’
Roy’s work crew was led by a boy who looked barely eighteen called Kang. He was nicknamed Kangaroo by the Jamaicans, on and off the site, which was immediately shortened to Roo, and he did have a slight hop in his gait. He knew some English, but he rarely talked to anyone in any language and Roy began to wonder if men building bridges needed to speak with each other after all. As he worked in an unaccustomed silence, he thought about how he and Jonesy never talked about Deena’s illness, or how he came to be raising her alone, or of Jonesy’s fight with the fisher, rumoured to be Jonesy’s half-brother, or how a Red Stripe was good for filling an empty belly.
Once the flatbed trucks were unloaded, the Jamaicans were separated from each other and put into crews with the foreigners. Three bosses met every morning in the small office and planned the day’s work. They came out and signaled to their teams, and the buttresses to support the new bridge, downstream of the old supports, began to rise. The Jamaicans were given phones that translated English into Chinese symbols and they spoke to the phones and held them up to the bosses, who nodded but often ignored the suggestions of the Jamaicans. The Chinese did the same to communicate with Bully, who did not labour.
The bosses assembled the equipment the trucks contained, and Roy learned a new word: cantilever. It was a kind of formwork made of steel. The concrete mixers poured cement into the cantilever and the span of the bridge began to emerge, growing out from one riverbank like something alive, reaching. The work crews waited for the concrete to set before a new span was started, and then they switched to the other side of the river. Roy saw then how seventeen people, eighteen if you counted Bully, could build a bridge without words.
That summer, the hurricanes tracked north and south of the island and the pastors took the credit. He had never had such a long stretch of work, never eaten so well, and the nebulizer to help Deena’s asthma sat in the corner of their room, plugged into the socket installed by Jonesy via an illegal connection to a utility pole. As the year wound down, the luminous December light softened the edges of Back To and the half-finished bridge seemed otherworldly, as if it had its own source of light. At Christmastime, he hung tinsel over the door to his house, and bought Deena a new phone. The families of the men who worked on the bridge rented the community centre for Christmas dinner. ‘Wi not invitin anybody else? Roy asked Jonesey.
‘Anybody like who?’
Roy didn’t answer but he knew Jonesey had understood. The Chinese were their co-workers, but not their friends. Maybe dem don’t celebrate Christmas, he thought.
The new year began and the men still gathered in the RenkanFacety Bar in the evening. Opposition to the bridge had died away, because even though the bridge was not finished, the quarry had been open for months, their trucks using the fording. Cookshops and bars were thriving, and all manner of small jobs had sprung up for the people of Back To. The women mended torn clothes, grew vegetables in old tyres and raised chickens for the food that was cooked every day at the camp. Maas Len kept pigs and goats for weekend feeds, and even the sound-system men began to blast their music again. A few women grew bellies and Roy and Jonesy speculated what the babies would look like, straight or curly hair, white or brown skin, and if they would ever see their fathers after the bridge was completed. Kang was one of those who was seen each evening walking beside Serena, who had been head girl of the Back To All-Age School. Her belly was round and high, and her eyes were prideful.
Roy began to look ahead to the day when the bridge would be finished.
‘What going happen?’ he asked Jonesey, who was now considered to be well connected with the bridge project high-ups.
‘Dem going pull evryting down,’ he said. ‘Lisarelle say dey just move on to a different place.’
‘Evryting better since di bridge start build,’ said Roy. ‘Bridge better dan quarry.’
‘But is di quarry why di bridge build,’ objected Jonesy. ‘You tink any pretty new bridge would build for Back To? Quarry need bridge and bridge need quarry.’
‘Why wi can’t mek a work crew like dis, move around Jamaica? Send money home to Back To?’
Jonesy shrugged. ‘Poli-tricks. Dem call wi unskilled. Mi no know.’
‘You put aside any savings? Throw partner?’
‘Mi? No, sah. Mi have neider chick nor chile, mi drink, mi eat, mi smoke, mi fix up mi place, get new phone. Can’t do nutt’n about what is to come.’
As the March dry time was ending, the completion of the bridge dominated Roy’s thoughts. When he watched Deena sitting on the front step of their house with her friends, playing with their new tablets, given out by the Chinese at a function the politicians came to, they were shaded by the shadow of the bridge. When he closed his eyes for sleep, he saw dust falling from the sky until the bridge was covered.
There was talk of layoffs, and a big launch fete, with ministers of government from Kingston. Although there were traffic cones preventing entrance to the bridge, a few taximen threw them into the river and drove up onto the bridge just to show they could. They got out of their cars and raised their arms in triumph.
One evening after work, Roy walked alone to the river. The subtle camber of the bridge gave him a soaring feeling and he felt small beside it. And proud. Men had built this, men with strong backs and powerful legs, men with new words, sparsely used, like camber and truss and cantilever. Men with skills, wielding tools, machines. And what they had built was a marvel.
It was cool under the bridge. The river flowed over sand and rocks, and wild cane waved in the evening light. He sat on the base of one of the columns and eased off his work boots, remembering the day he had been able to buy them from the back of a pick-up truck at the site. He slid his feet into cold, shallow water and listened to the clacking sound of small stones pulled towards the sea and the swish of the wind through the cane. He remembered the night the bridge was torn away, when he feared he might drown with his daughter.
He heard footsteps and looked up. It was Kang, walking down the path. Roy raised his hand in greeting, expecting him to walk right past, because surely, he was there for work. But the Chinese man walked right up to him and stopped. Their eyes met. Kang did not have his hard hat on, and Roy had not seen him bare-headed before. His hair was long and shiny, loose on his shoulders. His eyes were ackee seed black; his skin smooth and pinkish-brown after months in in the sun.
‘I want your help,’ Kang said, and his voice was scratchy and low and hard to understand.
‘Talk,’ Roy answered, although he wanted to point out the workday was over.
‘Your life,’ Kang said. ‘It is better because of the bridge. We see it.’
Roy nodded, wondering where this was going. He had worked alongside Kang for a year, had seen him meet Serena when she was part of the lunch team, had watched her share out extra portions for Kang and touch his shoulder. Did he have family back in China; a wife, ageing parents, children? Did he live in a city or out in the country? Did he have an education? Had he been somebody?
‘It is better for everybody,’ said Kang.
‘Don’t you want to go back to China?’ said Roy, in English.
‘China? No. Stay here. Here is better. And we know how. You and your friends help me blow up this bridge. Then we have to build it again.’
Roy thought he must have misheard. ‘Blow up di raas bridge? But you lick you raasclaat head! Sum’n fall on you, Roo?’
Anger flashed in Kang’s eyes and Roy saw he had registered the nickname, understood and resented it. ‘You.’ He pointed at Roy’s chest. ‘Think. If we blow up the bridge, they have to build it again. Everybody have work. Things good for another year. Maybe longer.’
‘You serious? What you know about dynamite?’
‘A lot. Built dams in China. Quarry have plenty explosives. Got it already. Bridge have four buttresses, that’s all. Easy.’
‘Is a crazy idea, Kang. If we even do it, we will get ketch for sure. We die in jail.’
‘You. Think.’ Kang said again. ‘Talk to your friends. But soon.’ He lifted his gaze to the underside of the bridge he had laboured to build. Roy realized he had never seen him smile.
Kang’s idea never left Roy’s mind as plans for the upcoming launch were revealed. The people of Back To were excited, looking forward to visitors, the food, even the droning speeches of the politicians. Small cleanups were started. Curbs and tree trunks were painted white. All Roy could think about was the bridge returning to dust. If they blew up the columns, wouldn’t the span of the bridge just fall into the river and dam the water behind it? Did Kang really know what he was doing? Could he trust Jonesy with such a crazy scheme? Could he trust anybody?
Halfway through July, Roy was laid off. The brown Jamaican, Captain Foster, was back behind the desk in the community centre and he gave Roy his final wages. ‘Any new work startin, boss?’ Roy asked.
‘Not here,’ Captain Foster said. ‘NEXT!’
Roy phoned Jonesy and asked him to meet him at the wall overlooking Back To. The credit on his phone was nearly done. He stared at the bridge in the distance while he waited and remembered how the elders called it the bridge to nowhere. The year of construction, only some of which he had seen, spiraled in his mind – the quarrying of the limestone to make cement, the trucks to move the material, the steel formwork transported from across the sea, the big concrete mixers turning and turning, the bridge emerging. So what if it was not eternal, so what if it was returned to the dust from which it had come? Who could say that was wrong? The bridge could be built and rebuilt and destroyed over and over, and the people of Back To would benefit until the dusty white hills were themselves levelled. By then Deena would be a big woman, she would have outgrown her asthma, and perhaps they would have moved away.
Roy saw Jonesy was coming up the road towards him. He staggered a little and Roy knew he had been drinking. Then he saw him lift his hand in greeting and a smaller figure walked up beside him. Kang. Then other men began to join them, five, then ten, then almost twenty men, Chinese and Jamaican, carrying boxes. The men from the work crews were in street clothes, their construction gear discarded.
Roy stood and raised his arms in celebration, like the taximen had done from the bridge itself. All they had to do was make sure no one was too close to the bridge over the Yallahs River when it was brought down so it could emerge all over again.
Photograph © Scrubhiker