Roar Britannia!

britannia-bridge01“I never feel the rain on my head. I never feel the sun on my back. But why am I always covered in bird shit?”

Llanfair, Stone Lion, Britannia Bridge, Anglesey

A BADGER paused at the side of the road. The rush of wind from the passing objects terrified him. Out of desperation and fear he launched himself onto the strange, hard surface, running as fast as his claws could carry him. He froze as a massive thing roared towards him, a pair of huge eyes glowing white, and he whined as the great thing thundered above his shuddering body. A second later it was gone, and he started running again. He heard a siren, a screech, but he kept on running. Suddenly the objects were hurtling at him from another direction. He kept his head down and ran. As he neared the bushes another huge machine bore down on him and he pushed himself along, stumbled, pushed himself again as a shrill sound filled his ears and just feet from the grass he scrambled with all the energy he could muster and suddenly he felt soil beneath his feet…he’d made it! Breathless yet unable to stop, he tumbled down a small grassy embankment and landed on a smooth steel railing. He lay there, panting, giggling with relief, and was about to get to his feet when he was run over by a train.

The grey squirrels followed the train, hurdling the concrete sleepers but keeping their tails flat to the ground. They stopped just inside the shadow created by the road above and watched as the train trundled away along Britannia Bridge’s single track towards Anglesey. Once it had gone, a squirrel leapt onto a rock while another ordered, “Fall in!” and the grey horde formed itself into neat rows.

“Marines, there is a serious menace in our society today,” the squirrel on the rock told his following. “I am of course referring to the Red menace, which now plagues this land. Unless we learn about this Red curse and take action against its open threats and subversive activity, we shall lose our woodlands, our nuts, and the chance to do those daft obstacle courses on TV.

“The Red menace pretends to be small in number but in reality they proliferate, and in humans they have a powerful ally. We must act swiftly.” The squirrel pointed to the bridge. “Tonight we launch phase one of Operation Kick Red Squirrel’s Ass – we take the bridge, and the island will fall!”

The soldier squirrels approved with a loud cry of “Hooah!”

“Fall out!” another squirrel ordered. “Wachowski, you take point. Flanking formation, five-metre spread, no sound. Let’s move!”

From his rock vantage, the lead squirrel watched as the cohort split into two and Wachowski carried on in front along the centre of the railway tracks. They ventured silently onto the bridge, a single-file either side of the rails, road traffic thundering above them. The lead squirrel spoke into his radio.

“Any contacts, Wachowski?”

“Negative,” the squirrel on point’s voice came back. “Just a walk in the pa…” and then there was a burst of static, followed by silence.

“Say again, Wachowski?”

The lead squirrel waited, and then watched as Wachowski, flattened into a saucer-shape, rolled past his rock and into a bush.

“Lions!” someone screamed from the bridge.

The scream’s echo had barely ended when a huge lion made of stone leapt from a plinth, squashing several squirrels. It swung a giant paw through the air and sent more squirrels flying into the undergrowth. “Run for the trees!” the remaining animals shrieked, turning and scampering back down the railway tracks. But they were too late. A second stone lion jumped out from behind a concrete pillar and scooped several up in its jaws. It spat them out over the edge of the bridge and watched them tumble into the Straits.

“Typical bloody Americans,” the lion said. “They come over here, think they own the place.”

“It’s an ambush!” the lead squirrel shouted. “Fall back!”

The remaining soldiers were already running. A third lion was pounding along the tracks towards them as the other two continued to kick and stamp the ground, forcing the squirrels to dart in all directions. They quickly dispersed into the undergrowth. The lions did not chase them but simply roared and stamped their huge stone paws into the railway ballast. The rout was over in seconds.

The lion that attacked first, Porthaethwy, turned to the other lions. There were now four of them, out of breath and restless.

“We must remain vigilant,” Porthaethwy announced. “Nelson believes they may use a ground assault as cover for an amphibious attack.”

“Let’s ask him,” one of the other lions suggested. He trotted over to a low wall and called out across the water. “Hey! Nelson! Anything to report?”

On the Anglesey side of the Straits a statue of the famous seafaring admiral stood proud on a stone pillar. At the sound of the lion’s voice it turned and looked up at the bridge. “Coast is clear, Llanfair. But I’ll have a quick swim and let you know if those furry little blighters try any funny business.”

As Nelson clambered down from his column, Llanfair turned at the sound of scampering feet behind him and saw a red squirrel running from the island.

“Another attack?” the squirrel asked. There were more red squirrels creeping along the railway tracks behind him, but they wouldn’t come very close.

“’Fraid so, Red,” Llanfair told him. “They’re easy to repel so long as we catch them at it.”

“We appreciate what you’re doing for us,” Red said, holding out a paw. “We’re so afraid but you make us feel safe in our trees. Thank you, Llanfair.”

Llanfair looked at the paw and shook his head. “Better not. I’ll squash you.”

“Of course, but thank you. See ya!” Red turned and scampered into the darkness where the other squirrels waited, shouting, “Right everyone, show’s over. Let’s party and procreate!”

Llanfair shook his head again as Porthaethwy came alongside him. “You see, Porth, they get to have fun. What do we get?”

“Don’t start this ‘woe-is-us’ stuff again,” Porthaethwy said. “It’s bad enough listening to Faenol and his train-spotting reports.”

“Hey, anyone for a snack?” Treborth asked. “We’ve got squirrel, squirrel, squirrel… oh, hello? Half a badger, anyone?”

“You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Llanfair said, thumping his chest with his paw. “We are an exercise in animal torture.”

“Bad idea mentioning food,” Porthaethwy told Treborth.

“I mean, look at us,” Llanfair continued, as Faenol joined them. “Four lions, cast in stone. Four male lions. No totty for us, thank you very much. And excuse me…” He grabbed a flattened squirrel from Treborth and held it up. “You call this food? No. This isn’t food. This is scraps.”

“Save it, Llanfair.”

But he continued. “Look out there, over the water. See those lights?  Two pubs, one called The Antelope, the other called The Gazelle. In North Wales. Right? Wrong! They’re just teasing us.”

There was a long silence, eventually broken by the sound of a lorry thundering overhead.

“I’m having the badger,” Treborth said finally.

“It could be worse, Llanfair,” Faenol mused, looking wistfully at a Lion Bar wrapper caught in the wire fence. “At least we’re not in a zoo being gawped at all day.”

Llanfair muttered, “That might be preferable,” and then padded off down the railway line, his head down.

“He’s not cut-out to be a stone lion,” Faenol said when he was sure Llanfair was out of ear-shot. “I’ve always said it. He needs a hobby. Something to do.”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess.” Porthaethwy looked up, mocking deep thought. “I know. Train-spotting!”

“No need to make fun of me, Porth.”

“Sad little hobby!”

“Sad? I’m 80 tonnes of limestone, set in concrete, inches from a railway line. I assure you, train-spotting is an astute choice of recreational activity.”

“And what have you spotted recently?” Porthaethwy persisted, and plucked a small notepad from behind Faenol’s left ear.

“Give me that back!” Faenol protested, but Porthaethwy skipped out of the way of his lunges, laughing. He flicked the notepad open to the latest page, where a small pencil rested amidst some scribblings.

“Hmmm, let’s see,” Porthaethwy considered, and began reading. “4.22pm, Virgin Pendolino Class 390. 6.30pm, Virgin Pendolino Class 390. 8.14pm, guess what? A Virgin Pendolino Class 390.”

“Admittedly, Mr Branson has diminished the surprise element somewhat with his identical fleet of power units.”

“I guess if there is one thing in this world more sad than a train-spotter, it’s a train-spotter who spots the same train.” He handed the notepad back to Faenol.

“An Arriva Trains Class 142 Pacer unit went past earlier!” Faenol protested, but Porth wasn’t listening. Instead he had gone over to where Llanfair was slumped against a concrete column, one ear pricked.

“Guess the vehicle?” Porth suggested, and Llanfair nodded. Treborth, who was tucking into the remains of a squirrel, decided to join them.

“I’ll do the mirror,” he said. From the foot of the low wall he pulled a car wing mirror that had been crudely attached to a long pole with a twisted wire coat hanger. He leaned over the wall and held the mirror up, so he could watch the passing traffic. Then the three of them waited quietly. There was a rumble as a vehicle approached, then a series of four thuds in quick succession as the types passed over a metal drainage channel. The lions listened intently.

“Saloon,” Llanfair said, eyes closed, face strained in concentration. “Diesel, obviously. It’s a Ford Mondeo.”

“One-nil to Mr Llanfair,” Treborth announced.

“Colour?” Porth challenged Llanfair, who frowned in thought again.

“Colorado Red,” he decided, then added, “17-inch alloys, Napoli leather in ebony trim. One occupant, average weight, Hallelujah on the stereo, Leonard Cohen’s original studio version from 1984. A full ten years before Jeff Buckley recorded the better-known cover…but I prefer the original.”

Treborth smiled. “Damn, he’s good!”

“I should be, I’ve been doing this every night for the best part of 60 years.”

They listened again. It went quiet with a lull in the traffic. Far away a solitary bird was singing. There was the hum of a small powered boat on the water. Then, much closer, they heard someone sobbing. Llanfair’s eyes snapped open and Treborth quickly withdrew the mirror. Porth looked from one to the other, eyes widening, as the sobbing became louder.

“We’ve got a jumper!”

Treborth dropped his mirror and nearby Faenol threw his notepad to the ground. They charged off to the middle of the bridge where they kept the net. Porth grabbed the mirror and very carefully turned it so he could look outwards and upwards to the vehicle deck of the bridge. He saw a man standing on the wall, leaning against the metal bar and looking out across the water. Treborth and Faenol returned with the net, and Llanfair stepped aside so Porth could direct. They unfurled the net and stretched it taut. Porth, watching the mirror intently, positioned Treborth and Faenol so the net covered where the man might jump. When he was happy, Porth gave a claw’s-up signal.

“Male caucasian, mid 30s, overweight, muttering something,” Porth reported to the others quietly. “Looks like he’s going to strip.”

The four lions watched as a red football shirt, marked with “Ronaldo” and a number seven, floated serenely from above to the water far below.

“Why did you leave us, Ronaldo?” the man cried. “Why? Why?”

“Crap, let him jump,” Llanfair said.

“No!” Porth snapped. “It’s against our code.”

“Your code,” Llanfair reminded him.

“We all agreed to it, Llanfair, you included.”

“Gimme the mirror, then,” Llanfair said. “I’m not being an angel for this loser.”

Porth glared at him but then passed him the mirror. “You better say if he jumps. I’m warning you.”

Llanfair nodded. The man continued to sob and mutter under his breath, although no more items of clothing came floating down. “He’s standing on the rail, he looks drunk,” Llanfair said, watching the image in the mirror. “He’ll fall before he jumps. Get ready!”

Faenol and Treborth squeezed closer to the wall, ready to reach out with the net. Porth discreetly cleared his throat, looked at Llanfair once more, then nodded. He began speaking in a high-pitched voice.

“Hello,” he called softly. “Hello! You there, on the bridge.”

The sobbing faltered, giving way to several loud sniffles.

“Yes, you, you poor thing!” Porth continued in his shrill voice.

“Who…who are you?” the man stuttered.

“I am the Angel Britannia, the guardian of people on the bridge. I am here to save you.”

“I don’t want saving! There’s nothing to live for!”

“Of course there is, you poor, poor child. Tell me your name.”

There was a pause. “Nigel.”

“Nigel!” Llanfair snorted. “No wonder he’s suicidal.”

“Nigel, the Angel Britannia wants you to go home,” Porth said, ignoring Llanfair. “I don’t want you to die, Nigel. It’s not the end of the world that Ronaldo left Manchester United, and is currently the leading scorer in La Liga with 28 goals in 18 games, making Real Madrid the runaway league leaders, while United are floundering at the foot of the Premiership with some commentators even talking about relegation.”

“HE’S JUMPING!” Llanfair screamed.

Faenol and Treborth reached out with the net stretched tight, just as the great bulk of the man fell and landed in it. They took the strain, then watched as Nigel bounced straight out again and fell like a stone into the Straits below.

For a moment none of the lions moved, instead staring into the net where the man had very briefly been.

“Some angel you are!” Llanfair said to Porth. He threw the mirror away in disgust and stomped off into the shadows.

“What the hell was that?” Porth demanded. He ran to the wall and looked down.

Treborth looked horrified. “He bounced the wrong way!”

Faenol put an arm round Treborth to console him. “Don’t be hard on him, Porth. We over-estimated the man’s weight and thus held the net too tightly. Instead of catching him, we trampolined him. We need to assess weight more accurately and practice catching to better manage trajectory and perfect our technique.”

“Then let’s do it,” Porth said firmly. He looked down at the ground and kicked at the ballast. “This is a bad night for the Britannia Bridge lions.”

“No time for bungee-jumping now,” Llanfair said, reappearing from the shadows and out of breath. “Gang of kids approaching from the mainland!”

They dropped everything and ran back to their plinths, where they resumed their lifeless poses. Faenol and Treborth were able to watch as, from along the railway line, five young males stumbled towards them. Each one held a bottle of beer and they were swearing loudly at each other.

“She ain’t worth it, yeah?” one said. “Just a Maes-G slag, like the rest of ‘em.”

“You’d still give her one, though,” another argued. “Maes-G or not, she’s fit.”

“Betcha I can hit that lion from here,” a tall lad said. He pulled down his hood and took a final swig from his bottle.

“Closest to the nose wins.”

They stopped, and two more pulled down their hoods. “On the nose!” one said, and hurled his bottle. It smashed into Treborth’s left shoulder and the splinters flew off his back and scattered into the railway ballast.

“I can hit the other one.” Another bottle flew and crashed onto Faenol’s head, exploding in a shower of green-glinting glass. “Close, but no cigar.”

“Pussies, the lot of you.” Two more bottles rained down on Faenol and another cannoned off Treborth’s face and slapped its way through the undergrowth.

“I’m bored.”

They stood under the road bridge between Faenol and Treborth, idly picking up ballast and throwing it. One began kicking at a railway sleeper left by the wall.

“People buy them,” the tall one said.

“What?”

“Railway sleepers. I seen ‘em on eBay.”

“Losers.”

Another lad stepped forward and there was a glint in his eye. “I wonder what’d happen if you put it across the tracks.”

“Nothing.”

“Or you’d cause a train crash and kill people.”

“Rubbish!”

“Serious. You can derail a train easy by putting stuff on the tracks.”

The lad that made the suggestion pushed the one standing by the sleeper out of the way, stooped, and picked up one end of the wooden block. “Someone gonna give me a hand, then?”

“No way. That’s not funny.”

The tall lad went to the other end, and the two of them carried the sleeper and laid it over the tracks.

“Not funny.” The protester was shaking his head.

“Pussy!” The tall one wandered over to a high wire fence where a buckled supermarket trolley stood upside down. “If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it proper.”

Four of the five began collecting objects and piling them onto the railway tracks, while the fifth slowly wandered away with his head down. Above them, Faenol flicked a quick, worried look at Treborth. He began to move but Treborth shook his head – no, they were lions made of stone. They had to remain still. The kids spent ten minutes building a pile of rubbish that consisted of more sleepers, supermarket trolleys and a rotting sofa, all tangled up in fencing wire, before one glanced at his watch and drew in a startled breath.

“It’s ten to nine. When’s the next train?”

“Crap, about now I think.”

“Let’s go!”

They ran off back down the railway line, laughing to each other.

When they were out of sight and earshot, Faenol and Treborth both leapt from their plinths and eyed the mess stacked on the railway line.

“There’s no time!” Treborth cried, then winced with pain as he blinked broken glass from his eyes.

“Get started, I’ll get the other two!”

Treborth, his vision still a little blurred, began pulling at the pile of rubbish, but it was tangled with the wire and difficult to separate. As Faenol returned with Llanfair and Porth, they all stopped and heard the sound of the approaching train.

“Virgin Pendolino Class 390, 6.14pm Euston to Holyhead service!” Faenol exclaimed.

“We’ve got to warn them,” Treborth said. “We’ll never shift this in time.”

“We can’t break our cover to humans,” Faenol said, his eyes moving frantically over the rubbish pile. “Suicides are confused and don’t talk. Anyone else – we simply cannot be seen.”

Porth stepped forward. “There will be no more tragedy tonight,” he said, and began pulling at the sofa. Llanfair joined him, and soon all four lions were heaving the sofa from the pile and throwing it to one side. Faenol glanced up as he saw the lights from the train begin to poke around the curved track, lighting the embankment. Llanfair frantically began pulling at the wire while the other three strained to drag the shopping trolley off the tracks. One of its wheels broke off, being trapped under a steel rail. The train lights became brighter and the tracks began to vibrate. Porth flicked rocks off the line while Faenol helped Llanfair with the wire. Then Llanfair tugged on Porth’s shoulder.

“We have to go, NOW!”

“No more tragedy!” Porth shouted to Faenol and Treborth as he and Llanfair ran back to their plinths on the Anglesey side.

Faenol nodded, but as he and Treborth started to lift the railway sleeper, the lights on the train came round the corner, shining straight at them…

In the train’s second carriage, a mother slept while her daughter gazed out of the window. She watched as the trees and undergrowth gave way to a moonlit view of the Menai Straits, a concrete pillar, and then something that made her sit bolt upright. She tugged urgently on her mother’s sleeve, waking her.

“Mummy, mummy! A big stone lion just winked at me!”

“Let’s get to Ireland before we all start believing in the fairies, hmmm?” her mother suggested kindly. The girl sank back into her seat, arms folded in disgust, and she looked out of the window again as the train carried on across the bridge unhindered.

In the morning a Network Rail van was parked on the track that led to the mainland end of the bridge. The van’s windows were wound down and the radio was playing loudly, tuned to the local station. Both Faenol and Treborth were able to listen to the news bulletin.

“A man is recovering in hospital after almost drowning in the Menai Straits. The 35-year-old is believed to have jumped off Britannia Bridge in a suicide attempt yesterday evening, remarkably surviving the fall.”

“Nelson, you’re a star,” Treborth said quietly.

“And police are looking for vandals who during the night climbed to the top of Nelson’s column on Anglesey, and dressed the famous admiral in a Manchester United football shirt. The shirt, bearing the name of United’s former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, is apparently wet through, adding to the mystery.”

Faenol shared a naughty look with Treborth, and it took all the resolve a stone lion can muster to stop them both from smiling.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

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