He appeared as if by magic. One day there was nobody under the bridge and the next, there he was. He sat perched upon the grey concrete ledge that formed the foundation of the green footbridge, that stretched perilously to other side of the motorway. At first it was the back seat passengers that took heed of a persistent presence in the mornings, as their parents grudgingly swerved around the corner onto the motorway, pulling them away from their sleepy little village. And later in the evenings, the tired drivers returning from work, had begun to regard the apparition that rested on the shelf under the footbridge, like an ornamental figurine, save the endless stream of blue grey smoke billowing from him and eerily reflecting in the headlights of their SUVs.
It only took a few weeks before the story of the man under the bridge, ran up the winding road towards the village on the legs it had gathered. Everyone was talking about the man and the mystery surrounding the suburban addition.
‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’
‘I mean, it’s ok now with the milder evenings but as soon as the winter comes it’ll be a different story altogether,’ the mothers observed, as they chatted amongst themselves, over steaming cups of skinny lattes following the school drop off.
‘Maybe we should do a whip around…?’
‘Or a cake sale…’ The suggestions left hanging in the condensation that filled the air.
It didn’t take long for the dandelions to drop little titbits of information, whispered in the wind, here and there throughout the village. The man had a name.
‘Mario, I think. From Slovakia.’
‘Or maybe Poland. Yes he’s Polish. Hasn’t a word of English…’
His arrival was accompanied by an air of uncertainty amongst the villagers. It was easy to live inside a bubble and look out, but suddenly there was a haunting presence peering inwards, as if holding a snow globe, shaking it and judging their little lives.
The road that led from the motorway to the haven like village, was a twisty wonderland of overhanging trees that over time had grown towards each other, and meshed together to form a magical tunnel of greenery. This gave way to a picturesque village, which was home to traditional houses and shops, which had over the years proved their worth, by the many movie sets that descended upon them and filmed for days to get the coveted twenty second shot. It was perfection. But now it was perfection with ‘the man’, who obliviously questioned their idyllic existence. It was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore him, without feeling a twinge of guilt.
It was Mick Smith, the local minibus driver that first ventured down the winding road towards Mario, following a conversation with his wife. Mick, whose bus allowed him the secret privilege of an altitudinous view into people’s lives, couldn’t dismiss the constant and almost lifeless existence under the bridge. He utilised his bird-eyes view from his well-maintained bus, to studiously monitor the dwellers progress, before benevolently concluding that what the newest resident required was some underwear and warm clothes.
Jocks, socks, a lovely warm jacket and a thermal hat were duly bought, and with no motive for praise, gingerly delivered. Mick hadn’t been sure what to expect when he approached the man, brandishing the bag of clothing. It was in fact more than he would have bought himself in any given year, and so he subconsciously expected a little more than the grunt of acceptance that Mario delivered as he reached his arm over the bars of his self-appointed cell and seized the parcel, before gruffly stalking away. He stopped midway between the railings and his perch, turned towards Mick and pressed his thumb and forefinger together, before bringing them to his mouth and making a puffing gesture.
‘Cigarettes…coffee…?’ Mick questioned as he attempted to guess the gesture. Mario simply shrugged, made a ‘pffff’ noise and returned to his roost.
‘The ungrateful little so and so…’ Mick thought to himself, more than a little disappointed by the outcome of his efforts. It did give him a surge of pride however, as he witnessed Mario in the coming weeks walking the short distance to the village, dressed head to toe in the donated finery.
‘Ah he looks real smart…’ he told his wife.
Mick, who would often comment to himself, and indeed anyone that would listen that he was ‘a victim of his own generosity’ did enjoy driving past Mario on his early morning run, and seeing the polar thermal hat perched on top of Mario’s head; akin to Papa Smurf dutifully watching over his colony. But he’d done his part. Mick would allow someone else to step up now. It didn’t take long for the other residents to fulfil what they felt would benefit the squatter and gradually ‘The Man under the bridge’ became ‘The Man under the bridge with a sleeping bag’, then a tent, a deckchair and finally as one backseat passenger excitedly exclaimed one day, ‘Mario has a laptop!’
Many embraced Mario into their routine. Colm McGrath would order and deliver an extra carton of egg fried rice to Mario, on his return from the Chinese takeaway every Saturday night. Susan O’Shea had taken to baking an extra loaf of banana bread every Sunday night and would tentatively deliver it after the school run. She would leave it by the side of the railings and bolt back to the car, the engine still running for good measure. You could never be too sure.
There were of course a few animated villagers that claimed he was quite the talker and he had revealed his name, country of origin and desire for more tobacco to them during one of their ‘regular’ visitations.
‘Ah he’s a lovely fella, a real gent…yes from Poland. Not exactly sure how he wound up under the bridge…I didn’t want to pry…’ Of course these were the very ones who had not made the journey to the camp, nor made any effort towards making his stay with them more comfortable, but not wanting to appear uncharitable or behind the game, had…well…improvised.
By December, Mick Smith, commented to his wife that Mario seemed to be, ‘better off than most around here.’ The camp now extended from the concrete shelf, all the way down on to the grass verge, right to the edge of the green railings. ‘I’d say he gets more of a decent meal than I do!’ he grumbled to his very patient wife, who was by now well accustomed to her husband’s many similarities to Victor Meldrew.
Colm McGrath was also growing concerned, especially with the amount of rubbish that was now accumulating around the campsite and said as much to Mick during their weekly pint at the pub.
‘Sure there’ll be an army of them there before long…it’s a bit of an eyesore really and you won’t bloody believe what I saw there today…’ he laughed to his friend.
‘Sure they’ve all lost the plot…’
True to Colm’s word as Mick rounded the corner early next morning, just inside the camp stood a fully decorated Christmas tree, complete with tinsel, baubles and battery operated lights. Mick chuckled to himself, but looked up just in time to see Mario, sitting stock still, outside the tent, with the polar thermal hat balancing atop his head, smoke billowing from his mouth, just as he had been on the first day he’d arrived five months ago.
Christmas Day crept in and by the end of it, the villagers had individually delivered sixteen hot plates of turkey and ham with all the trimmings, wrapped in shiny silver tinfoil to the man under the bridge.
Terry Dwyer had always been a man of few needs. He had led a simple uncomplicated life. He’d worked hard all his life in the confectionary factory, just a stone’s throw from his two bed terraced house in Dunlee, that he had eventually inherited from his parents. An only child, he had nursed them until they had closed their eyes for good, just four months apart. It was shortly afterwards that he met Maggie, although she too had worked at the factory all her life. They were forty-two years old by the time he finally plucked up the courage to ask her for a drink after work.
‘The odd pair,’ the younger workers would snigger. Maggie too had no family to speak of, aside from one sister who had spent her whole life wanting for more and was only too happy to distance herself from Maggie upon their parents passing. A private love affair between the odd pair ensued and after six months they headed off to Rome for a week and had married, with only themselves to celebrate. They had wonderful years together, just the two of them, and had happily kept themselves to themselves.
They had been blessed with a pure love, with no motives. They wanted nothing from the other except what they had to offer and he loved her with every molecule of his soul. After they married Terry’s memories split into before and after. As if everything that came before Maggie, was just a practice run for their definition of a perfect existence. But perfection never lasts and too soon around the next corner his precious Maggie was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in Terry’s arms one week shy of their eight wedding anniversary.
Terry had left his job to care for her. He had been careful with money and now had a nice little nest egg to tide him over. The day after the burial, Terry had taken the bus to the outskirts of Wicklow and having spent the day wandering the village had stopped for a rest under the footbridge. He just wanted to be still. To think. To breathe. To feel. To let the pain wash over him and… He had stayed.
On 26th December, Terry packed up the camp that had grown with the generosity of the village. He hadn’t wanted to deceive them, he just wanted to disappear for a while, to lose himself where no one knew him. He didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to hide within himself. Terry realised that it was difficult to totally disappear. He had stumbled upon a place that allowed him to grieve in his own way.
They hadn’t known…but they had kept him alive.
Terry had not been missed from his own life, which was no longer his own. He would have had more peace if had stayed where he was, he mused to himself, as he disappeared once more into the misty December morning. But it had taken an entire village to help him reappear in order to disappear once more.
But it was time now…time to live again, to wrap up loose ends and start afresh, with his memories of Maggie and his gratitude to them tucked inside his new jacket. Perhaps he’d go back to Rome…
‘You won’t believe it,’ Mick told Colm that afternoon, after he decided to bring Mario a belated Christmas present of the much sought after tobacco.
‘Up and left in the night…’
The news filtered quickly through the village, carried on the icy snowflakes that had started to land within the snow globe. They all pondered where Mario had gone, after he had tidied up the camp and folded the donated clothes and sleeping bags. Life resumed, as it always does and they wondered but never searched…
‘Perhaps he was a reporter…?’
‘Maybe he was deported back to Poland…?’
‘Nah…’ Mick said one night.
‘…I’d say he just wanted a bit of peace.’
Mick still puzzled every so often though, as he rounded the bend in the bus with the elevated view…
‘I wonder what ever happened to that jacket I bought him…’