The Bridge

IT was a hot summer afternoon, so when I reached the bridge, under which there ran a clear and limpid little stream. I called a halt. Running water is a rarity in the arid plains of North China. At the approach to the bridge stood a small stall under an awning of blue cloth, with two benches; and melons and drinks of various colors were displayed. The seller of drinks was a small, scraggy old fellow, dressed only in a pair of greasy blue breeches, with a wisp of a pigtail and with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Snowden. He called to me to come and sit under his awning, but as swarms of flies were heartily enjoying his melons I chose the coping of the bridge instead. A group of boys were splashing about in the water below, their naked bodies glistening like burnished copper in the sun. On the bank two women were doing the household washing, clubbing it against a stone, to the accompaniment of continual chatter.

A mournful creaking and squeaking announced the approach of two wheelbarrows. The first stuck in a hole at the foot of the bridge, and the combined efforts of both men were required to lift each barrow separately out of the hole on to the stone roadway. They then retired to the stall to refresh themselves with melons.

A peasant, his hoe over one shoulder and blue jacket hanging loosely from the other, leisurely approached the stall, smoking a long Chinese pipe. A lively conversation was taking place there about the price and prospects of cabbages, the fall in the exchange rate of coppers, and other similarly thrilling subjects.

Suddenly one of the wheelbarrow men said, jerking his thumb in my direction: ‘What’s he doing here?’

’Who knows?’ said the seller of melons in a bored tone, as much as to say, ‘Why do you ask such a silly question about a foreigner?’

The peasant, however, was seized bv an uncontrollable curiosity. He strolled across to where I was sitting and, when about two yards off, bawled at me at the top of his voice, ‘Where are you going to?’

In reply, I looked up and down the road, up into the sky, and over the side of the bridge, but remained silent. This little piece of sarcasm was quite lost on him, for he merely repeated his question in a still louder voice, staring straight at me the whole time. At last, finding that nothing would penetrate my stupidity, he desisted and strolled back to the group, when wheelbarrow man No. 1 said in a superior tone of voice: ’Of course, he doesn’t understand our language!’

A covered cart, with a coffin protruding from it, came along. It, too, stuck in the hole at the same place. After much shouting and swearing and lashing of the mule, and by manning the wheel himself, the driver managed at last to get the cart on to the bridge. W hen it had passed, wheelbarrow man No. 2 asked the peasant, ‘Who’s that?’

‘Oh, that’s old man Li’s cart, of Li Family village. He sent into town to get a coffin for his daughter-in-law. She jumped into the well the day before yesterday,’ replied the peasant quite casually.

This somewhat startling news was received by the others without comment. They turned to the more interesting subject of the peanut and melon crops.

A large country cart drawn by two mules approached. It stuck, of course, at the foot of the bridge. And all the efforts of the carter failed to get the animals to drag it on to the bridge. After about five minutes’ trying, the carter gave it up and, going across to the stall, bought himself a pink drink.

It was getting late. I got up to continue my walk. As I passed the stall, I said to the company generally: ‘Why don’t you fill in that hole?’

‘What hole?’ said the peasant, taking his pipe out of his mouth for a moment and staring at me in surprise.

I pointed to the hole and, turning to the carter, said: ‘Why don’t you fill it in? It would save you all this trouble.’

‘Why should I?’ he replied. ‘It’s not my business.’

‘No,’said wheelbarrow man No. 1, ‘why should we? It’s not our business.’

And old Mr. Snowden echoed complainingly in a shrill and quavering voice: ‘Why should they fill it in? It’s not their bridge. It’s not their business.’

I looked at the perspiring carter, the cool drinks and the shady awning, and back again to the hole. Anyhow, Mr. Snowden had no interest in filling up that hole — that was clear.

And as I walked on I heard one of them say: ‘Fill up that hole! That’s a good joke!’ And another reply: ‘That’s a proper foreign-devil idea!’