By Emma Wylde
Donald Fraser loved working for the Dundee and Newtyle Railway Company. He wore his burgundy uniform with pride, and each night polished his brass badge so that the words “Ticket Inspector” shone out clearly.
He had been just a lad when Sir Bouch (or just plain Thomas Bouch back then, Donald supposed) had begun building the bridge across the Tay. He would rush back from school each day, thunder up the stairs to his attic bedroom in the little Dundee terrace and eagerly peer out of his window, desperate to see what progress had been made on this miraculous structure. His mammy cuffed him round the head if she caught him using that word, “Only God makes miracles, Donny,” she’d say, but in his heart he knew it was true, that this bridge was a miracle made by Mr Bouch.
The bridge had opened on the first day of June last year, Donald’s eighteenth birthday, and no gift he’d been given that day could beat the excitement of traveling across the Tay for the first time, his new work shoes squeaking as he took tickets from the ladies and gentlemen in their finery, punching neat circles into each one and carefully handing it back.
In the intervening eighteen months Donald’s excitement had barely dimmed. Even on this tempestuous evening, with the most violent wind he had ever known pounding and battering the sides of the train, he felt the familiar surge of anticipation as the driver slowed the train to pick up the bridge baton. Having completed his checks for passengers who had boarded at Wormit Station, he could relax until they arrived at Dundee, across the Tay.
Proprietorially he strolled down the narrow aisle between the bench seats in the standard carriages, smiling and nodding at the season ticket holders, his regulars. The men here wore smart suits which had been protected from the worst of this unprecedented storm by thick great coats, all of them tired and careworn at the end of their working day.
He stepped respectfully into the first class carriage, carefully closing the door behind him so that it caught with a gentle clunk; never a slam, here. He always stood in this carriage as the train crossed the bridge; sometimes the vibrations in the track as the train gathered speed caused a passenger’s drink to spill on to the thick white table cloth, or a gentleman’s umbrella to fall to the red-carpeted floor, and Donald liked to be available to help. In truth, though, he liked this carriage because on occasion a well-bred young woman would suffer an attack of the vapours at the unexpected noise and juddering, and he enjoyed the opportunity to offer comfort, and perhaps a clean white handkerchief. Earlier, he had taken a ticket from a very attractive young lady traveling with her father, and Donald had been quite distracted ever since, picturing her gratitude should he be able to offer some assistance.
He suffered a flush of guilt at the thought of Sally, the seamstress with the sweetly pretty face whom he was courting. But what Sally didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and besides, he persuaded himself, he was only doing his job.
Donald leant against the luggage rack and furtively adjusted his belt to reduce the pressure against a stomach swollen from the excesses of Christmas. The storm clouds darkened the night to the point where inside the warmly-lit carriage the windows became mirrors, and he used the pane opposite to discreetly drink his fill of the girl who had caught his attention. He noted the slenderness of her neck, the fragility of her wrists as they entered her muff, made of a fur Donald thought might be fox. As he gazed at the reflection of her high cheekbones he thought he glimpsed a flash outside which was not the regular pulse that came from the lights on the bridge. It was gone before he could be sure he’d seen it.
Used as he was to the shuddering of the bridge, it felt more forceful tonight, more insistent. He dismissed the thought as idle fancy – surely it was just the wind, the storm arousing his imagination. That this bridge was an undefeatable masterpiece of engineering was something Donald knew as surely as he knew his own name. So when the screams began, he couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Instinctively he tried to move towards his passengers, but the floor had vanished from beneath his feet.
Outside, the lights on the bridge were moving in impossible arcs. There was a screeching of metal against metal, louder than anything he had ever heard, diminishing the storm to background noise. Donald could see nothing but blackness outside, nothing to make sense of this nightmare. Just as the sound became intolerable, a silence descended, and everything was still, frozen – tables suspended improbably in mid-air, faces paralyzed in white rictuses of horror. Donald noticed that the pretty young lady’s skirts had risen to show her calves, clad in fine silk stockings, and he felt awkwardly embarrassed for her.
All thought was driven from him as sound and motion rushed back in. Glass shattered and wood shrieked as gravity abruptly reclaimed the carriage. The floor slammed mercilessly into his legs and they crumpled and splintered under him. He had just time to wonder why they weren’t hurting – the strange angles they now made certainly looked painful – before a hard traveling case shot from the rack behind him, connecting violently with his skull, and for Donald, there was no more.