Bridge to Hades
By Magdalena Ball
Published: October 16, 2007

Driving to work was like crossing the bridge to Hades. The hammering beat of AC/DC blared from the radio, filling the space around Camille. Her swollen eyes were hidden by dark sunglasses. She used the 40kms from home to the office to morph into a different being – someone cool and impermeable—the pale frozen face reflected in the side mirror. In the boundaries between the upper world of her life, and the lower world of her work, each 10kms was another river. She crossed Acheron, a river of blood staining her bedsheets; the tiny embryo of sorrow she flushed down with the rest of the clots and tissues Mike used to clean up ‘when it was all over,’ he said, as if it would ever be over. Then Cocytus: the river of lamentation. She resisted the urge to beat her chest in time to the dull blam blam of the rock: “on a highway to hell,” instead focusing on the spaces between the small white lines in the middle of the bitumen. She turned up the heat and passed Phlegethon, a fire to burn away the image of a child’s hand she wouldn’t be holding; a cry she wouldn’t be answering. She shook her head to forget the clinical aftermath; the antiseptic smell in the hospital as she was wheeled into the theatre. Lethe. No perspex cot for her, though they were lined up sweetly against the wall. For some other mother. She fingered the lapel on her new suit—a consolation prize for the loser. This was it then. She was a businesswomen. No time for children. That was what most people she associated with thought. She could think it too. It was a choice, not some cruel act of mindless, reasonless fate (Did she drink too much coffee?), but a deliberate decision made for the sake of power and prestige. She wouldn’t cry. What was the point?

She parked and left the car, her laptop bag slung across her shoulder. Maybe, if she closed one eye, she could see the miscarriage as a corporate choice, like the well placed make-up and high heels. It was the clean, neat life of a woman on the rise. Or perhaps it was a descent. She felt the downward draw as she opened the glass doors and walked towards the conference room. The heat in the room hit her face as she entered regally, all eyes lifted in expectation.

“Camille. You’re ten minutes late.”

Her boss looked at her with small bloodshot eyes (pomegranate in his hand? Or just an orange?), stood and shut the door behind her. The conference table was smooth, polished maple, with a pitcher of water and empty glasses in the middle. Three small bowls of mints were placed along its periphery. Camille reached for a glass and filled it with water, drinking it all in a single go and placing the glass down hard on the silver coaster. The pain in her groin was only a mild ping now, like the tapping of a small child’s finger against her hip – an attempt to gain attention (not now, sweetheart, mummy’s working). She shoot her head, smiled broadly and attached the Litepro to her machine, opening the presentation she prepared with shaking fingers the same day she came home from the hospital. It felt almost good (nothing felt good), going through the cold precision of predictions and calculations; the neat clarity of numerics numbing the frailty of her flesh. It was a way to keep Mike at bay too.

“Can’t talk – I’m presenting to the Board tomorrow. Work to do.” She ate dinner standing at her PC, avoiding his watery blue eyes and the shocked sadness of the mandolin he played. He didn’t nag her. It wasn’t his body that had failed.

She looked at the work team before her. They sat in attentive silence; an absence of sound that had a palpable quality in the tense emptiness of the room. Each had a home life (Henry had two children; Lisle had a daughter. Where were their children now?), but it wasn’t here, in this world of the dead. She showed them pretty pictures. Gave them a series of financial goals they could achieve. Neat buzzwords filled the screen on the wall, enticing them with “bells and whistles”; “best practice”; “competencies”; “proactive”; “win-win” (her loss). They nodded in sync. Strophe and Antistrophe; faceless; wanting to be just like her. She smiled back (another ping), closed her laptop, and left the room for the numb safety of her office. Her boss didn’t need to know. She didn’t want to know either as the day dissolved into the painless rhythm of spreadsheets, and cup after cup of bitter black coffee (it didn’t matter now).

It was nearly 11pm when she finally left, the last person in the building. The key in the lock made a neat clank against the soft pattering of rain. An owl hooted in the distance and she shivered, pulling her jacket in tightly and buttoning the front up. As she began to drive the rain increased, causing the inside of her four wheel drive to mist up in the heat of her breath against the cold air. It was a ridiculously big car for one person, over burdened with gadgets and a full belly of petrol, as it drove along city roads and the long strip of freeway. Mike said big cars were safer for children than small ones – so what. Safety was of minor concern now. The freeway was almost empty of other cars except a few other speeding four by fours—Landrovers, Pajeros, Jeeps, all clean and unchallenged by city life, with no sign of having ever been in the bush, or even seen much grass beyond the median strips and eucalyptus trees of suburbia. As she increased her windscreen wiper speed, a sign flashed ahead of her, glittering in her headlights’ refraction of rain: “Don’t Die for a Deadline”. She closed her eyes for a split second and watched the neon words appear in front of her shut lids – an optical trick between her brain and eyes.
It was a warning she might heed, since there was some kind of chaos ahead on the left side verge just beyond the nasty bend she passed every day. A man was frantically waving his arms, jumping up and down.

She nearly sped past him, jamming on her brakes after she saw a small child sitting on the ground, head in hands. Camille pulled off the road, breathing quickly as she shut off the radio and jumped out of the car. A bolt of lightning lit the sky for a second. She put up her collar and moved towards the man, whose voice was howling against the rain. The silver car behind him – maybe a Mazda – was crushed, with windows missing and right door gaping open like the drooping jowls of a St Bernard dog. There was no one else around. His clothing was so saturated that water poured off it.

“Are you okay?” she yelled at the man while grabbing the girl from the ground, hugging her tightly to her. Her clothing soaked through to Camille’s. “I have a blanket in my car.” The girl looked at Camille blankly, and pointed towards her car. Her small mouth was rounded into an “O” but no sound came out. She hugged Camille and started crying. Camille opened her jacket with one hand and wrapped it around the girl, carrying her to her own car. The girl smelled sweet, like grass and honey. She opened the door and put her onto the front passenger seat, kissing her gently on the head.

“You’ll be dry and safe in here.”

She tried to dry the girl’s dripping face and head with a flannel shirt of Mike’s that was on the passenger seat. He’d left it there after trying to warm Camille on the way to the hospital. The girl’s body shook so much that the shirt kept falling off. She kept pointing towards the Mazda. Her father was pulling at Camille. “Come!”

“Okay.” She wanted to stay with the girl. “I’ll be right back. Just sit tight and don’t move.” She turned to the man and let him pull her towards his car.

“I was just helping your daughter. I’ve got a phone. I’ll call an ambulance.”

“My wife…” The man’s voice burbled, falling like the rain around them and Camille looked into the wreck of the Mazda. A young woman was slumped in the driver seat, her head against the wheel.

“Oh god. Hello? Are you alright?” She yelled into the car, but the woman didn’t move. A crying sound came from the wreckage of the back, and Camille ran around to the passenger side. A small boy was flailing between the rear passenger door and the seat. She couldn't see any blood on the boy, but his legs were crossed one over the other at a funny angle. She was able to ease one leg over the other and pulled the boy gently out. “Hi darling. You’re freezing.” She held him close and smelled his babypowder scent as she ran with him towards her car. He was screaming and his leg still looked funny. She need to call the ambulance though, so she eased him next to the girl, who put the shirt that had fallen from her to the floor over the boy, and began whispering to him. Then Camille called 000.

“There’s a baby, a young girl, and a man. The woman isn’t breathing.” By then a number of other cars had stopped. Camille tried to coax the man into her car as well, but he was now yelling at his wife, trying to pull her unresponsive body from the car. Other people starting helping the man, and suddenly the sound of rain was overwhelmed by the cacophony of human voices and sirens. She went back to her car and sat down next to the children, taking off her wet jacket to put over them. She spoke softly, stroking their hands and they moved closer to her until they were taken by police.

“Thanks for your help. We need to get these children to the hospital.”

“I think his leg is hurt.”

“We’ll do an assessment. Thanks for your help. You can go home now.”

“You’ll be okay now,” she lied, shouted to the children as they went off in an ambulance, holding each other and the father, who had to be removed from his wife, still screaming.

Camille watched the rescue squad open the car and remove the woman, her body convulsing on the stretcher. She stood in the rain, feeling the motion of water down her face as the ambulance pulled off, and the final policeman urged her to go home. Then she left, her eyes darting from left to right as she breathed in and out slowly—the deliberate exhalations you use in labour. Home seemed a long way away, the interior of her vehicle absolutely silent after the chaos of the accident. She looked at her mobile phone left open on the saturated seat next to her. Mike would be worried. She should have called him. The children were still wrapped in his shirt and her jacket. Her wet shoulders were bare.

Camille pulled into her garage, shut the door and sat in the car, her hands rolling one on top of the other. A pair of wren that had taken residence flew around and around her vehicle like bats. Mike came out to her, a cup of tea in his hand.

“Camille. You’re so late, I was worried. Why are you sitting in the car.”
She stepped out and collapsed against him. “Camille! You’re freezing. Your hands are bleeding. What’s happened?”

“It isn’t my blood.”

“What?”

“There was an accident on the F3. I stopped to help. I…the mother…”

“Shit. Were you hurt?” He took her cup in one hand and led her towards the front door through the rain. “Come inside. I’ve got a fire going. You need to get dry.”

“I wasn’t hurt. But her children. Her children, Mikie. Her husband…”

She smiled at him. “I’m so sorry.” She choked on something that might have been a pomegranate seed and spat it out. Then she couldn’t stop. She lay in Mike’s arms and cried as if she was that motherless baby she’d helped from the car, and he was crying too until she no longer knew if she was herself or him or a child or mother. The sounds coming out of their mouths went on and on, a single deep throated song; the voice Orpheus, and she was no longer wearing her suit; no longer the corporate queen of darkness.

“We can try again, can’t we?” she said, staring up at him, mascara running down into her lips like the rain that continued to fall outside. Her voice was suddenly the high pitched cadence of a young girl’s.

“Of course we can.” He handed her a small bouquet of daisies. “I bought these for you today, hoping they might cheer you a little. It’s gone midnight now, Cammie. The first day of spring.”

 

 

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader www.compulsivereader.com. Her stories, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in many printed anthologies and journals, and have won several awards. She is the author The Art of Assessment (nonfiction), Quark Soup (poetry), and Sleep Before Evening (a novel) which can be found here: tinyurl.com/3crnk5