No-name bridge

Some coastlines in the East, owing to volcanic origins, have small islands separated from the mainland by only a small stretch of water. But the current may be so strong that in rough weather a ferry may have to wait hours before it can attempt to cross. And in some cases, the rocky cliffs make a bridge dangerous, unless it is a massive affair. On one such island there were three villages, with a fierce local pride. They had a primary school, but from about twelve the children had to cross to get to the middle school.

On the island was a couple with the somewhat unusual name of Akudu, who had an only son, and no other relatives. The parents were killed in a storm, and the local council paid for the rest of the boy’s education, and then proposed apprenticing him to a local artisan, as he seemed to be clever with his hands. But the boy ran away to the mainland. The elders were furious at his ingratitude, and voted to expel him from the village, It was even proposed to strike his name from the local register, though this was not in fact done.

A singularly one-pointed determination to prove himself, aided by a certain amount of luck, enabled him to take a considerable part in the fast industrial developments of the time. In fifteen years he was president of a biggish company, with a sizeable private fortune.

For the first time his thoughts turned towards his own country, as they always called it. He remembered how he and the other children had waited sometimes hours in the cold for the ferry, and made discreet inquiries as to whether any bridge had been built. No, the agent reported, the island could not afford the big bridge that would be required. and the central Government would not put up the money for the sake of just three or four villages.

He wrote to the island Council, offering to build a bridge, to Government specifications. The only condition was that it should be officially named AKUDU BRIDGE. He felt entitled to that much satisfaction. The Council, still mainly composed of men who had voted for his expulsion, sent a curt note thanking him for the offer, but saying they did not need a bridge. He felt it as a second expulsion.

However, he had begun to practise meditation under a good teacher, and managed to get over this slap in the face by turning vigorously to other matters.

During the next few years, younger men became a majority in the island Council. Sweeping aside the protests of the seniors, they appointed a delegation to visit Mr. Akudu and ask him whether he would repeat his offer. When his secretary passed the letter, he kept a straight face, but as he admitted afterwards, something in him said with satisfaction: A – a – a – ah.

Next day he mentioned it to his teacher, saying with a grin, ‘I’ll do it of course, but they’ve got to put my name up there. As you know, I’ve been too busy to marry and have kids to carry on my name, and the company’s going to merge so it won’t go on here either. That bridge – Akudu Bridge – will be my legacy. It’s not much to ask. And how those old boys will grind their teeth every time they have to cross it! That’s a real comedy, isn’t it?’

To his surprise, the teacher, instead of smiling, looked serious. ‘You’ve got a chance now,’ he said slowly, ‘to make a big advance in your yoga practice. I am not saying you should do it; only that you could do it. Do you want to try?’

Akudu swallowed, and then nodded.

‘You said you were going to see them tomorrow. Well, sit up tonight, and throw away that name on the bridge. Throw it away completely, no hanging on. And no feeling, ‘what a sacrifice I’m making,’ either. Throw it, all of it, right away, off the bridge, down and down into the sea below.

Do it again and again until you’re clear of it, absolutely clear of it. Then go further. Make up your mind that you’ll leave no memory behind you, nothing at all. They may remember you for a few years or so after you die, but then you’ll be completely forgotten. Forgotten, forgotten, forgotten. It may take you all night to get there.’

Next morning a rather pale Akudu and his teacher received the delegation, in the palatial Visitor’s Room of the Akudu Company. The yogi was not a renunciate, and wore inconspicuous ordinary clothes. The deputation filed in and sat down on the edge of chairs, their heads bowed.

The leader remained standing, gripping his prepared notes and looking as if he was going to jump off a cliff. But before he could speak, the yogi teacher came a little forward and said; ‘Mr. Akudu has asked me to be a go-between at this meeting.

He feels embarrassed that he has never gone back to his birthplace, especially in view of the kindness with which the community gave him an education after the sad death of his parents. He would like therefore to renew the proposal that he should arrange for the building of a bridge. As to the name of the bridge ….

The delegation leader stepped forward: ‘We were going to come to that. We …

The teacher raised his hand half an inch. ‘Please let me finish first. He is proposing that as it is mainly for the sake of the children in the future, whose names of course we cannot know, it should itself be called the No-Name Bridge.’

During this, the bowed heads had gradually come up. They had been expecting to make grovelling apologies, not to receive one. The leader was looking at the President with a strange expression. ‘To tell the truth, Sir, we had ready a little speech for everything that might happen – but we never thought of this…. So I don’t know what to say. Thank you, thank you – I’ll never forget this, never.’ Akudu went up and shook hands with him according to the unhygienic Western custom then becoming fashionable in the country, and with the others. Then

he signed to the secretary to usher them out; he knew they needed to get away.

He did not see the new bridge opened, as he was asked to go abroad to set up a new company. This kept him away for many years, during which he did not come back to his birthplace: there was nothing to come back for. He made some donations to the island’s schools and other facilities, arranging that they should seem to come from another source. He did not find this too difficult; in that single night he had reached the very depths of his heart. When he finally had to retire, he was acknowledged abroad as having been an able and enlightened company president, but after the company merger, his name was little known in his homeland. When he finally returned, he lived quietly, a worn-out old man.

One day the impulse came to have a look at the island, at least from a distance. He had the car stop some distance from where the bridge would be, and took the short-cut footpath he remembered.

As he came up to the bridge and stood looking at the inscription NO-NAME BRIDGE, a small boy was watching him. The boy looked at him staring at the inscription, and said: ‘Granpa, I bet you can’t guess why it hasn’t got a name.’

‘Oh, I’m such a rotten guesser’, replied the old man. ‘You tell me.’

‘All right, I will then. You can’t know because you’re not from our island. (How did you know about the short-cut, though? Well, never mind that. Listen.) It was ever so long ago – perhaps even you were a boy then. One of us islanders built it, see? Not the government at all. He was a boy, like me – well, a bit older than me -and he went all by himself to the capital. Ever so brave he was.

And he worked ever so hard, and he made ever so much money. And they tell us if he could do it, so can we, ‘cos he was one of us. And before the bridge, people had to wait in the cold for the ferry. But he was ever so kind, and he built the bridge for us all. We learn about it at school. But he wouldn’t let them put his name on the bridge. And teacher says that shows he was a great man, ‘cos he wouldn’t let them put his name up. But I can’t see that. I’d have put my name up. People ought to know who built it, ‘cos it was one of us.

Or they’ll just forget, won’t they? (Don’t look like that, Granpa; it’s funny really. Listen.)

I bet I know why he didn’t want his name up there. You see, he had a funny name, and he didn’t want people to laugh. He wanted to hide it, but he couldn’t. ‘Cos we do know: it was Akudu. That’s in the schoolbook too. It’s a funny name isn’t it? Yes and you’re laughing too now. Akudu! He tried to hide it, but it didn’t work.’

The old man was indeed laughing; he suddenly looked like a small boy himself. ‘Yes,’ he muttered, ‘such a business he made of it too, thinking he was hiding it so carefully. And after all that, it didn’t work. Come on, let’s go and have an ice-cream together.’

C 1998 Trevor Leggett

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