The Bridge


By Stuart Prebble

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The woman of his dreams isn’t what she seems.

Michael Beaumont is head over heels with the woman of his dreams. The minute he and Alison saw each other across a crowded bar, there was a powerful, immediate connection. She’s everything he could ever want in a woman: charismatic, beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, and so much more.

But Alison is harboring a dangerous secret, one that threatens to break loose once Michael introduces her to his last remaining relative. Michael’s grandmother Rose, who raised him from childhood, isn’t quite the woman she used to be; her memory is failing her, and she’s prone to fits of wild emotion.

But something about Rose’s outburst upon meeting Alison seems like more than just a simple delusion. And something about the string of murders terrorizing London, with incidents occurring just blocks from Michael, feels like more than just a coincidence.

What is Rose not telling Michael? What is Alison hiding? Every relationship in Michael’s life is a bridge, and he’ll discover that there are some he shouldn’t cross.



It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and sightseers and tourists from all parts of the world crowded onto the South Bank, streaming in both directions across Waterloo Bridge. Some were walking to or from Covent Garden or the theaters; others stopped to admire the spectacular London skyline. At first glance the Madman seemed harmless enough, just a little the worse for wear from alcohol perhaps, or maybe celebrating a victory by his football team. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie, he muttered to himself and danced light-footed as he progressed, lifting his legs high like a week-old pony. Once or twice he paused and bent his knees to speak at eye level to a child, but later no one could identify the accent or decipher the words. Parents kept a watchful eye, but there seemed to be no reason for alarm. Then, with no warning, in a single sweeping movement and before anyone could intervene, the Madman scooped up the first tiny child, a four-year-old boy apparently selected at random, and swept him over the barrier.

There was a momentary snapshot of paralysis. The boy had made no sound. Was it some trick? Had the man switched the real boy for a dummy in some bizarre and ill-judged entertainment? Before anyone could take a breath the Madman had run half a dozen steps farther towards the next child, a three-year-old girl in a pink dress with birthday ribbons in her hair. Once again he gripped the child under the arms and swept her up and over the barrier, her legs suddenly pedaling through nothingness. Even now, shock and disbelief immobilized bystanders. He darted forward again and grabbed another, and yet another. Each child was seemingly as light as a wafer, flicked up to shoulder height and thrust out into emptiness. Four small people, infants and toddlers, lifted up in the space of twelve or fifteen seconds and thrown over the wall before the Madman took to his heels and vanished like a phantom into the holiday crowds.

A mother fell to her knees, cracking bones against pavement, and shuffled towards the wall as if drawn towards it like a magnet. It took more moments for the screams from the bridge to catch the attention of people below on the South Bank, and fuller realization of what had occurred spread through the crowds like waves of poison gas across a battlefield. Scores of people held their heads and covered their ears as if to prevent the news from penetrating. Eyes were turned upwards towards the sound of the cries and then followed the pointing arms into the water below. Desperate and still confused, one father jumped from the bridge and hit the surface with the slap of raw meat against concrete, but even as he submerged, already the bobbing heads which were still visible had traveled a hundred yards in the churning foam. Another brave man jumped into the water from the riverbank and struck out with an urgent stroke in the direction of the fast-moving shapes. Both were overwhelmed within moments by the strength of the swell.

The first police officers arrived on the bridge within two minutes and began trying to calm the hysteria sufficiently to understand what had happened, but it seemed that no two accounts from among the many were sufficiently similar to produce a consensus. He was variously described as eighteen years old at one extreme to about thirty-five at the other. He had brown hair or black hair or auburn hair. He was tall, medium, and short, and had an athletic build or was running to fat. The only clear agreement was about the jeans and the gray hoodie, which made him a match for about two hundred other young men in the vicinity that afternoon. CCTV recordings examined later lost track of him minutes before the incident and lost him again as a pinprick in the crowd within seconds after it.

The prime minister interrupted his holidays to visit the scene and consult on camera with the chief constable. On TV he pronounced himself to be “shocked and horrified by this appalling and inexplicable act” before commiserating with the bereaved families and promising that the culprit would be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Police appeals for drivers who had passed through the area to come forward produced immediate responses. Like a storm or an earthquake, it was the kind of incident which compelled complete strangers to seek solace in sharing the horror. Men swore out loud that they would have reacted more quickly after the mayhem had started. Women sucked on their teeth and silently thanked God it was not them or their families. Parents of small children kept them under more vigilant surveillance or held them just a little bit tighter.

*  *  *

“Good God, that’s only a couple of miles from here,” said Alison. “Didn’t we pass near there ourselves earlier?”

“I guess we must have been a few hundred yards away.” Michael’s immediate instinct was to put whatever distance he could between the incident and themselves. “We drove by Waterloo Station, but that would put us among literally tens of thousands of people.”

The couple was part of a group of families and friends waiting for visiting to start at the Greenacres care home in Battersea. This was not the first time that Michael Beaumont had introduced one of his girlfriends to his grandmother, but it was the first such occasion in the three months since she had moved from the apartment he shared with her and into the home. It was just eight weeks since he had met Alison, and he was still getting to know her, but Michael already knew enough to be sure that he wanted her to meet his grandmother. Not that he needed Rose’s approval, but there was no doubt that she was the only person whose good opinion he cared about. Rose had brought him up as her own child, and he had her to thank for everything he was or had ever achieved. Michael knew that it was all a bit soon, but there was also a part of him—one that he did not want to acknowledge—which was anxious not to delay.

Alison had joined the other visitors gathered around the TV news and was absorbed by the continuing live coverage of the scene at Waterloo Bridge. By now the first photographs of some of the murdered children were available. Small hopeful faces looked out from beneath peaked school caps or smiled from sunlit beaches. Three of the dead children had been identified, while one remained unnamed until all next of kin had been informed.

What seemed to be an unending series of witnesses was queuing to give their accounts, and already the police were expressing concern at the apparent disparity in what had been seen; all they had in common was their expressions of disbelief and horror. Many wept as they described their perspectives, and Michael saw Alison wipe away a tear from the corner of her eye. He went towards her, taking her hand, and she half turned to acknowledge him, attempting a smile.

“Those children,” she said. “Those poor families.”

The clickety-click of heels on the hard floor alerted them to the approach of the nurse who would unlock the doors which kept the residents secure. Michael felt the need to shift attention back to the main purpose of their visit and wanted to reassure Alison one last time. “I always hope for the best, but mentally I prepare for the worst.”

She smiled more freely and squeezed his hand in return. “It’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Her accent was her souvenir from the eight years she had spent working as a tour guide on the other side of the world, and from where she had returned only a few months ago. “I promise not to bite her if she doesn’t bite me.”

The couple tagged along at the back of the group which proceeded through the main corridor, one or more of them peeling off in turn as they passed the open doors of the residents’ private rooms. Michael glanced into them, and in almost every case saw that TV screens were tuned to the terrible news from central London.

“Does she always know who you are?” They had arrived outside of the door of Rose’s room—number 23—and paused for a moment before entering.

“Not always, not recently, and it feels really weird when she doesn’t. It’s like someone you know well has had their own personality transplanted and had it replaced by a complete stranger’s. Honestly, it can be a bit freaky.”

Before they turned to enter her room, Michael could see through the open door that the TV on the wall was also tuned to the news, which was now recapping for what must be the hundredth time the events of earlier in the day. The interviewer was speaking to witnesses who had seen what happened from below, on the South Bank, and only then did he realize that he and Alison had also eaten lunch not far away from the bridge and could so easily have been caught up in the incident. The thought made him shudder, and he inhaled deeply, trying to refocus on the needs of the moment. He mouthed a silent mantra of hope for what was to come, tightened his grip on Alison’s hand, and stepped inside.

His grandma Rose had never been what people would describe as a beauty, but she had about her a poise and elegance which had not deserted her in older age. One of the nurses at Greenacres said when she first arrived that Rose reminded her of Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Michael had not seen the film but was happy that the comparison had pleased his grandmother. Now, though, she was sitting in an upright armchair next to her bed, seeming neither surprised nor pleased and betraying no hint of whether or not she recognized him. He noticed that her once-striking pale blue eyes seemed to be a shade paler, and perhaps her stare was a touch more vacant in the few days since he had last visited. He stood between his grandmother and the TV and then was not sure whether her gaze had moved at all from the direction of the screen.

“Hello, Grandma.” Michael spoke in the most upbeat tone he could summon, and the sound of his voice drew her eyes a few millimeters towards him. Still he could not be sure whether she had registered, but in a few seconds a small light seemed to be dawning and a flicker of recognition dug a deeper crease into the crevices which fanned out at the edges of her lips. Hoping to build on a kick-start of reaction, Michael continued, “I’ve brought someone to see you.” Alison had entered the room after Michael and was partially obscured behind him. She stepped forward and spoke.

“Hello, Mrs. Beaumont.” Her tone was cheerful, and her accent sounded carefree. “I’m very pleased to meet you. I’m Alison.” It was not the sound of her voice which drew Rose’s eyes but her further movement forward with hand outstretched. Rose’s gaze followed her visitor from the open hand, up her arm, and finally to register her face. When she got there, Grandma Rose looked at Alison for a few seconds, seeming to struggle to adjust her focus, and then, rather than looking up and into the outside world, it was as though she was looking in reverse into her own head, into a labyrinth of long-buried memories.

And then she started to scream.


I can’t say with any certainty what could have brought that on.”

Ten minutes later, back in the waiting area, the young doctor from Greenacres was trying her best to offer consolation. Michael and Alison were both shocked by what had happened, and as she sipped from the cup of tea which had been hurriedly provided by one of the nurses, he could see that her hand was trembling. The scream had seemed to be an expression of anguish rather than of fear and was somehow far too big to emanate from so small and fragile a frame.

Rose had screamed until she ran out of breath, only to start over as soon as her lungs recovered. The nurses came running and flocked around her like birds until the wail subsided into a series of sobs that racked her body until it would rattle apart.

“Maybe she was upset earlier by the dreadful news from Waterloo Bridge this afternoon,” said the doctor, whose name badge identified her as Bernice Williams. “Like everyone else she’s been watching the TV, but it’s not always easy to tell with Rose just how much of these things she is taking in. Possibly it was all percolating around her head and just chose that moment to come out. It’s a terrible, awful business.”

Michael and Alison both embraced the explanation willingly and assured Dr. Williams that there was no harm done. It was just that it had taken them by surprise.

“I’ve noticed that bit by bit she has been getting less like herself recently, but that’s the first time I’ve seen her lose it quite like that,” said Michael. He ran the fingers of both hands through his hair and clasped them together behind his head. “Has it happened any other time when I haven’t been around?”

The doctor continued to look at her notes and turned the top pages on the clipboard. “There are a few references to her having been distressed from time to time, though there’s nothing here to indicate what we saw today. But it’s not all that unusual. Alzheimer’s can manifest in different ways.”

When he and his grandmother had first received the diagnosis nearly a year ago, Michael had gone to some trouble to educate himself about what it meant and what it might mean in the future. There were very few certainties, but one of them was that over an unspecified period, the person he knew would become a person he did not know, and likewise she would not know him. It was terribly distressing for all concerned, and the only consolation was that the patient herself might have little or no awareness of her lost faculties and failing capacity. Most of the upset would be felt by those closest to her. The thought had provided some comfort for Michael, which was part of the reason that the incident today was of such particular concern.

“Do you mind if I ask something?” Dr. Williams continued without waiting for the permission she seemed to be seeking. “Is there anything in her past that she would have been upset by, having to do with Australia?”

Michael was puzzled. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask that?”

“No special reason. It’s just that you said her outburst might have been triggered when your friend spoke to her.” Her smile towards Alison was warm and polite. “I notice you seem to have a slight accent. I just wondered if hearing that set off something in her memory. Just an idea.”

The discussion was interrupted by a nurse who came in to assure them that Mrs. Beaumont was calm and resting and asked if they would like to make another attempt to see her. Michael looked to Alison, whose expression indicated that she was willing to give it a go.

“You know what?” he said. “Let’s leave it for today. It’s great that she’s calmed down, and we can always try again another time.” Everyone seemed content with the decision, and Michael thanked the doctor once again.

“Try not to worry,” said Dr. Williams. “Things like this can be very upsetting, but chances are she’ll be right as rain next time you come—and she won’t have the slightest idea that she has met you before.” The doctor shook hands with them both, smiling warmly. “It gives the lie to the old saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

*  *  *

Their route from Battersea towards Michael’s apartment in Kingston took them onto the South Circular, heading against the weight of traffic which was flowing back into London at the end of the day. Michael turned on the radio news, and their conversation on the journey home alternated between what had happened at the care home and the events on Waterloo Bridge.

“I can’t imagine what the people who were on the bridge must be thinking now,” said Alison. The BBC reporter had been interviewing witnesses, several of whom were saying how everything had happened so quickly that no one could have done anything to prevent it. “Isn’t it amazing how you can just be minding your own business, having a nice day out, and then fate puts you in a situation which is going to affect you for the rest of your life?”

Michael thought about what she had said. “It is amazing, but it’s also amazing how people like those witnesses react as though something has happened to them, when in fact it’s happened to the children and their families. It seems to me that everyone is encouraged to consider how they feel about stuff themselves, when what they should be feeling is sympathy for the people who’ve been affected directly.”

“The bystanders have been affected directly,” said Alison. Her reaction seemed to Michael to be more vehement than the situation justified. “Everyone they ever meet from this day onwards will have in the back of their minds the question why they didn’t act more quickly to stop what was happening. And despite what they’re saying right now, they’ll also be asking themselves every day of their lives whether they could have done more to prevent it. What happened today will affect them forever, and all because chance put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She turned towards Michael, apparently anxious that he should take on board what she was saying. “Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“I do. I see that. In fact, as you pointed out, it could so easily have been us who found ourselves in precisely that situation.” He paused. “I don’t think I’ve seen a report of exactly what time all this happened, but we were not far from there this morning. Half an hour either way and we might have been witnesses ourselves.” The couple drove in silence before Michael spoke again. “I wonder if what the doctor said might be true—that Rose had been watching the news reports before we got there and was traumatized. I’ve never seen her like that. It was shocking.” He took his left hand from the wheel and covered hers. “I’m so sorry that you had that to deal with,” he said, “it wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“That she would instantly fall in love with you and would quietly take you to one side and tell you what a great bloke I am and how lucky you are to have found me.”

Alison smiled. “OK, yes, I see now why you were disappointed. You’d hoped for a scene out of All My Children, and what you got instead was more like something out of The Addams Family.

Alison squeezed his hand in return. The traffic was now even heavier and was at a standstill in both directions. Michael pointed out the bright-red faces of some of the people who had been all too keen to enjoy the first proper heat wave of the year. Alongside their Vauxhall, but traveling in the opposite direction, an open-topped bright-blue BMW contained a family of mum and dad in the front and two listless kids strapped into the rear seats. The driver was in his late thirties and clearly had been in the sun for too long. His thinning red hair was streaked across his pate and had done little to protect him, so that the skin covering his skull was pink and freckled. A heavily tattooed forearm decorated with elaborate patterns rested on the door and was so close that Michael could have touched it. Alison caught the other driver’s eye for an instant and saw his expression change from irritation to something like a leer. She looked away quickly before Michael might notice, but just at that moment her boyfriend turned his head and also caught the attention of the stranger.

“They want to catch that lunatic and string him up from the fucking bridge,” said the man. “That’s what I’d do.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Michael, but when both cars had moved on he turned to Alison. “I hate it when that happens. It’s like finding yourself having to agree with racist taxi drivers, because you don’t want to get into an argument, but you hate yourself afterwards for not disagreeing with a skinhead.”

Alison smiled and nodded. It was the kind of remark which had attracted her to Michael in the first place, and as they drove along slowly and in silence, she thought about how she had been drawn to him from their very first meeting just two months earlier in a wine bar in Brighton.

*  *  *

Alison had been on a rare evening out with colleagues from the local travel agency where she had worked since her return from Australia; Michael had come down from London for a stag weekend with a few friends from the TV postproduction house where he was a runner. Her attention had first been drawn in his direction by the irritating noise of their partying, and one of the women from her own group had suggested that they should make a complaint, but Alison and Michael exchanged glances and both felt the same tug on an invisible string.

He found a reason to break away from his friends, leaving them to continue their adventure into oblivion without him. There were similar knowing looks from Alison’s workmates as she peeled off to speak to Michael. The couple remained in the wine bar for a while, and when the noise became too loud to bear, they left together to continue talking and drinking in the saloon of the dismal seafront hotel where he was staying overnight. They did not speak of anything serious or significant on that evening, but seemed to hit it off from the start. She was twenty-six with curly shoulder-length blonde hair, soft brown eyes, and skin which had been dipped in the Australian sunshine. He was twenty, sandy haired, good-looking, and athletic. The attraction was instant and mutual, but any idea of consummation was rapidly put to flight by the boisterous return of the stag party, several of whom stood on the stairs making obscene gestures through the reinforced glass. Alison took this as her cue to say good night and insisted on leaving him at the hotel entrance when she hailed a taxi. Nevertheless she borrowed a ballpoint pen from the sleepy receptionist and scribbled a telephone number on the back of Michael’s hand. What might have been a kiss turned into a brush of cheeks as she turned her head at the last moment, but he went to bed that night thinking about her and awoke early the next day counting the minutes until he could persuade himself that it would be okay to call the number. He lasted until 8:30 and then irritated a couple of sleeping innocents before realizing that her 7s looked very much like 9s. She answered on the second ring, and they agreed to meet at the entrance to the pier.

Alison wore only light makeup, and her hair, which had been so full last night, was tied back in a ponytail. Her skinny jeans showed off the slenderness of her hips. Michael thought she looked even more attractive this morning than he remembered, but at the same time wondered whether her apparent lack of effort meant that she felt little inclination to make herself of interest to him. Still, she had taken the trouble to turn out early on a Sunday morning, so that must count for something.

Alison showed the way towards a fifties-style café close to the esplanade called the Pelican and ordered cappuccino, which came in brown smoked-glass cups with an almond-flavored biscuit going mushy in the saucer. Michael was amused to see Alison using her biscuit to scoop the froth from the sides of the cup before popping it into her mouth.

“Better not let my grandma see you do that,” he said, prompting her to smile and press him for more information. He continued, and was surprised to find himself speaking about aspects of his life which he usually kept private. “My grandma Rose brought me up after my mother left home when I was a baby. She’d had a mental breakdown soon after I was born and was unable to look after me. She walked out of the house one day, and we never saw her again. Rose’s husband, my grandfather, had also recently died of a heart attack, but despite all that she just stepped in and did what anyone else’s mother would have done for them. When I was little I just assumed that she was my mum, but she never wanted me to call her anything but Grandma. So that’s what she has always been to me—Grandma Rose.”

“She sounds like a marvelous woman. Do you still live with her?”

Michael had been doodling with the back of his spoon in the froth on top of his coffee and had unconsciously rearranged the chocolate sprinkles into the shape of an unhappy face. “I did, until a month ago. Unfortunately, last year she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she and I stayed at home together for as long as I could manage, but eventually the doctors told me that it was too dangerous to leave her alone.”

The decision had been hard to take, but followed a series of incidents which gave cause for concern. Once again Alison encouraged him to say more, and Michael recounted how one day he had come home from work a little later than usual to find their apartment empty. He knocked next door, but Elsie, who was about the same age as Rose, had neither seen nor heard anything for several hours and assumed that his grandmother was out. He telephoned the number of the mobile phone he had pleaded with Rose to carry everywhere and heard it ringing on the table next to her bed. He hurried out into the street and across the ancient stone bridge over the Thames, scanning the heads of shoppers as he went. Eventually he was drawn towards a crowd of people surrounding a juggler performing in the main pedestrianized thoroughfare in front of the shopping mall. The man had picked someone out of the crowd to act as his assistant, and Michael was horrified to see his grandmother, dressed in her floral housecoat and slippers, carrying a dozen shiny silver rings over her left arm like a handbag, and a flaming torch in her outstretched hand. She seemed absorbed by the act and unaware of the intermittent gasps from the audience. Unsure of what to do, but anxious not to cause her any danger or embarrassment, Michael waited for a pause in the act before intervening to rescue her. Only when the crowd gave her a spontaneous round of applause did Rose seem to become aware of them, and she beamed a smile of untarnished pleasure. As he escorted her back over the bridge towards their apartment, Michael reflected on how horrified his usually discreet and shy grandma Rose would have been by such an incident had it occurred just a few weeks earlier.

“But that’s enough about me and mine.” Michael had promised to rejoin his friends at Brighton railway station at 11:00 AM


  • "In this brilliantly executed crime novel the chills are guaranteed."—Vick Mickunas, Dayton Daily News
  • Praise for The Insect Farm

    "Chilling and suspenseful, rich and human."—Lee Child
  • "Only rarely do a gripping psychological crime story and a literary writer's insight and masterful style coincide. But The Insect Farm has that distinction. You'll read this book fast, so compelling is the story. . . . A tour de force."—Jeffery Deaver, author of Solitude Creek
  • "A well-choreographed dance, fully engaging [and] reminiscent of Ruth Rendell"—Charlotte Observer
  • "Stuart Prebble is similar to Stephen King as he's able to take a simple story and make it wildly compelling."—Huffington Post

On Sale
Mar 28, 2017
Page Count
288 pages
Mulholland Books

Stuart Prebble

About the Author

Stuart Prebble is the author of The Insect Farm and a producer of documentary and current-affairs programs for television. He was formerly CEO of the UK television network ITV and is currently chairman of the TV production company StoryVault Films. He lives in London.

Learn more about this author