Jen Yong looked left and right at the thready reams of traffic and balled her hands into fists inside her jumper. “Do I have to do this?”
“Come on man, a promise is a promise. Don’t pull out on me like this,” Jay said.
She blew out a breath, and then sighed, shrugging into the massiveness of her outer clothes. Whatever.
They jogged across the bridge. Not because they were in any particular hurry, but because it was 3AM and it was cold, breaths almost-but-not-quite fogging in the damp air. Tarmac-hugging traffic occasionally made its way across, and the roll of its wheels sent tremors across the entire bridge structure. It looked like proper pavement under their feet, nice solid and grained, but wear and tear at the places they joined betrayed the wooden paneling underneath. Like onionskin, peeling the surface away to uncover the reality underneath. The world under us is much less solid than we’d like to believe, she thought.
Jay crouched over the fissure where the bridge split in half, and looked downwards, right down the sandwich of wood and metal beams, to where the Thames rushed below. “This is it,” he said, and pulled the small pouch out of his jacket pocket. Penny. Penknife.
She looked over her shoulder at the guardpost, where she imagined strange men in uniforms were closely monitoring their every move from hidden CCTV cameras that were undoubtedly hidden all over the bridge. “Don’t you worry,” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t want to get deported from this country,” she said. “It’d be a bit hard to finish my degree, if I get deported.”
“Don’t worry, seriously,” he said, holding the penny up to the lights overhead, as if inspecting it. “I’ve done this loads of times.”
“You don’t need to worry about being deported,” she muttered.
“Shh.” Jay, still poised in his fox-like crouch, closed his eyes and chanted under his breath, the words inaudible and only decipherable as little clouds in the air, like Morse Code, unintelligible smoke signals. Jen Yong watched. She did not remember all the words to the ritual, and halfway through she was already lost.
He opened his eyes, and Jen Yong wanted to look away but somehow couldn’t bring herself to. She felt something in her gut wince as he pressed the tip of the penknife into the brown pad of his thumb, instantly filling the depression that formed with blood. He briskly smeared the first drop onto the penny, businesslike, and then dropped it into the crack between the worn timbers. She watched it fall away, shrink, and vanish, presumably swallowed by the rushing currents far below.
Jay got up and dusted his hands lightly on his trousers. “There we go,” he said. “We’re done.”
“Hang on.” She dug into her bag for her wallet and fished out a small plaster, transparent and water-resistant.
“What’s this for?” he asked, curiously looking at it.
He waved it away. “It’s nothing.”
“Yeah.” He gestured. “Come on, let’s go before someone comes along and starts asking questions.”
As they strolled back down the bridge, towards Elephant And Castle, she said, “I still don’t get why you wanted me to come along.”
“Well, it’s tradition. Requests used to involve animal sacrifice, rats and things like that, so it used to be a two person job. ”
“But it isn’t anymore.”
“The other thing is, if you’re alone, you pretty much look like a loony stopping in the middle of nowhere. If you’ve got company, at least it looks like you know what you’re doing.”
“So I was just a prop, huh?” She shook her head, shoving her hands into the warmth of her jacket pockets.
“Sure,” Jay said, but he was laughing. He took her arm. “Let’s get out of this miserable weather. I’ll make you a cup of cocoa when we get home.”
I wrote this on the plane home, still trying to get London out of my system.