Polly Stevens had been a police woman for ten years; nine of them working in and around Bristol. She had seen a lot in those ten years. Riots and drunken Friday night punch ups; football thugs and joy riding teens; frantic fathers done for speeding while their wives (or girlfriends, or daughters) give birth in the back seat; stray horses munching on council-owned rose bushes... She couldn't say it had been a dull decade, and yet none of what she'd seen had prepared her for this.
As she climbed out of the police car, she took in the scene. Ahead, on the main carriageway into Wales of the M4 was a young girl, just aimlessly drifting between the lanes.
It had been a lorry driver who'd called it in; shaken from having almost hit her. He'd stopped just over the other side and even now his statement was being taken by officers from Chepstow. Other officers, from Avonmouth, had gone to the tollbooths both to close the carriageway off and to see if any of the operators there had seen just how the girl had got onto the bridge.
That left Polly and her colleague - a young probationer - with the unenviable task of trying to corral the girl and get her to the safety of dry land.
"How should we do this?" the probationer asked.
Polly considered the question for a moment and took in a few more details of the girl's appearance. Waif-thin, she appeared to be dressed only in a long white shirt. "Poor kid must be frozen." To the probationer, she said, "Get the first aid blankets and follow behind me. Don't want to scare her."
And so saying, Polly started a slow and steady walk out onto the bridge, towards the girl.
She's five when she first realises that her parents don't love her. She's made her daddy a card in school, all glitter and sparkles and bright colours. He doesn't even look at it as he slides it into the wastepaper basket beside his desk.
She tells mother about it, but all mother does is sips her drink and smiles sloppily. "Nevermind," she slurs. "Maybe later."
But all there is later is bathtime and bedtime and not being tucked into a cold sheeted bed.
Polly almost expected the girl to bolt as soon as she got within ten yards, but it was almost as if the girl was completely unaware. This close, Polly could see that underneath the shirt the girl did at least have a skirt on - although calling it a skirt was perhaps a little euphemistic - but her feet were bare of shoes and socks. It reinforced the idea that had been gently building in the back of Polly's mind: something very wrong had been done to this girl.
On the other side of the bridge, traffic coming into England was stacking up as the drivers rubbernecked this odd drama. Polly wished her colleagues from Chepstow had had the forethought to close the bridge on that side, too.
But they hadn't.
So in front of an audience of leering sales reps, curious housewives and gawking truckers, she edged ever closer.
She's nine when she breaks the vase.
She didn't mean to, of course. She was only playing pretend, but daddy doesn't listen. He shouts. Didn't she realise that vase was valuable? Didn't she realise it was one of a kind? Why was she at home anyway? She should have been at school.
She points out that it's half term, but that just makes him all the more angry.
Three days later, she's abandoned on the steps of a mansion, placed in the care of an iron-haired woman. It's a school, she's told. A boarding school, where she'll stay all the time, until the end of the summer term.
It's only later, when she goes to bed with ten other girls - most of whom stare at her as if she's some strange animal - that it hits her: she's left home. And though she is only nine, she thinks that perhaps that's a good thing.
Two days later still and one of the other girls plucks up the courage to ask, "Aren't you homesick?"
All she can say is, "Why should I be?"
Polly was within five yards of the girl now. Close enough to see the scars on her hands and legs. Not for the first time, Polly wondered just what had happened to the girl and, perhaps more to the point, why no one from the girl's family had put a stop to it.
Judging she was now as close as she was likely to get, Polly called, "Hi there."
The girl started like a terrified rabbit and for a second, Polly thought the girl was going to bolt. But she didn't. Instead, she slowly turned back to face Polly.
"My name's Polly."
No response from the girl.
"Can you tell me your name?"
She's fifteen when she finally decides she's had enough of school.
Some of the teachers are all right, but most of them don't care. They just crawl through the days, droning out lessons that they've given thousands of times before. Everyone's tired and bored of it all and no one's learning anything - but the school authorities don't care as long as they get the nice fat cheques for each term's fees.
Then there are the other girls, who flit and flutter around the school. Talking about this pop star or that actor or some footballer. Inanities that have no interest for her. She stands alone. An island of darkness amongst the gaudy moths.
And yet none of them notice when she leaves.
The girl just stood there, staring at Polly, vague incomprehension etched in her expression.
Polly wasn't sure if it was because she didn't understand the question or simply didn't know how to answer. Either was a terrible prospect. If it was the former they could waste hours trying to find the right language and there was something about her that suggested to Polly that they didn't have those hours to waste. If it was the latter, though...
"Well, do you mind if I give you a name, just while we're talking?" Polly continued.
"How about Ariel?"
At that, the girl's lips twitched into something that might have almost been a smile.
Polly smiled in return. "You know the story? About the mermaid princess who fell in love with a mortal man and bargained her voice away to be with him?"
Slowly, stiffly, the girl nodded.
"Ariel it is, then."
She's seventeen when she runs away for a second time. And this time, she makes it stick.
She runs far away from anyone who knows her. Moving west from the bright lights of her home; moving south from the greyness of her school. No place in mind, just anywhere but here.
She finally settles on Bristol. It's big enough that she can be anonymous. Big enough that no one looks at you. Big enough that there's plenty of spaces she can be without anyone asking questions.
Her first night in her new home is spent tucked into a tiny nook in the shadow of a gothic church. It's cold and it rains and she doesn't sleep, but she has her freedom.
That's what matters, right?
Polly took a hesitant step closer, only to see the girl dance two steps further away.
"All right, I'll stay here," Polly called and was rewarded by seeing the girl - Ariel - relax skittish shoulders. "We can talk. How about that?"
Ariel still said nothing, but there was that embryonic smile again.
"So what should we talk about?" Polly risked taking her eyes off Ariel for a moment to glance up at the sky, which was rapidly darkening with the promise of rain. "We could be horribly British and talk about the weather, I suppose."
Ariel said nothing.
"Or how about I tell you a little something about me?" Polly continued. "Would you like that?"
That earned another jerky nod.
"All right then. So I'm Polly - Polly-the-police-woman, my little niece calls me."
She's eighteen when she meets Jock.
He's much older. Smoother. Slicked back. She's been living rough for a year and he's only the second person to ever actually notice her. (The first was a kindly woman who ran a laundrette who used to offer her a cup of tea. She never accepted the tea, but the offer was nice.)
Jock isn't nice.
It doesn't take her long to work that out - perhaps a day and a night in his company is all it takes - and yet she doesn't leave. Because while he isn't nice, he does give her a roof to sleep beneath and there's food for her to eat.
He doesn't even ask much in return.
Not yet, at least.
"And that's why I became a police officer," Polly finished. Her voice was beginning to sound husky and she was starting to run out of things to say, but she could see it was beginning to work.
Ariel seemed to be relaxing. The air of a trapped wild animal had left, and when Polly essayed a step forwards, she didn't retreat this time.
"You must be cold," Polly continued. "My friend Mick's got a blanket. Would you like it?"
Ariel looked nonplussed by the offer.
Turning, so that she could see the probationer, who'd been standing some five yards further back, waiting patiently with the first aid blanket, Polly said, "Give me the blanket, Mick."
He handed it over without any comment.
Polly turned back to Ariel and held the grey woollen blanket out to her. "Here," she said. "Wrap it round your shoulders. You'll feel better."
She's nineteen when she sells her body for the first time.
She'd always promised herself that this was the one thing she would never do, but Jock talks her into it. It'll be easy, he says. Time you earned your keep around here.
She briefly thinks about leaving, but leaving means going back to sleeping in doorways or, worse, crawling back to the people she left.
So she goes through with it.
He's an overweight banker, all pink and sloppy with drink. She can smell it on his breath and she thinks she might be sick as he starts to touch her, but she isn't.
And when it's over, he hands over the money and she realises that she's now a working girl.
Mother would be horrified.
Polly had begun to wonder if her arm was going to drop off from holding out the blanket while Ariel stared dumbly at it, when Ariel finally reached out a hand.
In a movement that was almost too fast to follow, she reached out and snatched the blanket back. Never allowing herself to be within Polly's reach.
Not for the first time, Polly wondered just what Ariel had been through to have reached this sort of state. Still, at least she had the blanket now. "Sorry it's not a bit nicer, but at least it's warm," she offered.
Ariel said nothing, but she did, at least, unfurl the blanket and wrap it around her thin shoulders.
"Better?" Polly asked.
Stiffly, Ariel nodded.
Polly smiled in return. It was another small step.
She's twenty when Jock drugs her for the first time.
She'd always been one of his reluctant girls, never working more than she absolutely had to and she supposes he got tired of her misbehaving.
Of that night she remembers little. Just jagged flashes of lurid colour and horrifying images and the scars and bruises she finds the next morning. She doesn't want to know what happened to her and she knows it's going to happen again.
She thinks about running again.
But who would want her now?
The first splots of rain were a rude shock. Polly thought about just simply making a grab for Ariel and dragging her to the dryness of the waiting police car, but something made her stay that impulse.
She had a feeling that Ariel had been dragged around enough.
"Looks like it's going to be a normal afternoon around here," she joked instead. "If it isn't raining it's about to rain."
Ariel said nothing, just pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders.
"But there's something cleansing about the rain, I think," Polly continued. "Everything gets washed clean of the dirt and looks new again."
Ariel's eyes darted towards the bridge railings, looking out towards Avonmouth and the Bristol Channel. For just a moment, Polly thought she'd bolt again. But she didn't. and when she looked back, there was a new calmness in her expression.
"Maybe that's what this is," Polly mused. "A chance to start over."
She's twenty-one when she meets Ben.
He's not like Jock. Ben means what he says when he offers to take her away from this place. Ben is nice. And kind. And she's oh-so tempted to go with him. But she doesn't deserve him.
She's too far down. Too far gone. Too far damaged to ever be rescued.
But it's nice that someone tries.
Polly held out her hand. "Chance to start over," she repeated. "What do you say, Ariel? Want to start over?"
Jock drugs her and drags her into a van. Time to dispose of the trash, he says.
And part of her wants to lie down and take it. Like she's taken every abuse he's meted out. Because this is what she deserves. This is the ending she should have. To be thrown away like yesterday's news. To be thrown away like a nine-year-old sent to boarding school because she broke a vase.
But that's not what fate has in store. At some point in the journey, she wakes. The van isn't moving and she can't hear Jock's voice. So she sneaks out, disoriented and confused about what she's doing. She wants to die, yet she's making moves to live.
And then she's weaving through the traffic, not quite sure how she got there. Not quite sure where she's going.
A bridge is not a high place, she thinks, without knowing why she thinks it.
The water looks inviting down below the deck, and yet she doesn't drift to the side.
And then there's the voice. For a moment she thinks it's Jock and he's found her. And then she realises that it's not Jock. The voice says, "My name's Polly."
"How about it?" Polly repeated, offering her hand. "A fresh start."
Almost as if some higher power was listening, a rainbow formed above them. The colours bright and cheerful against the slate-grey sky. It made Polly smile.
"What do you say, Ariel?"
Slowly, stiffly, Ariel reached out. Cold, clammy fingers wrapped themselves around Polly's hand.
"Come on," said Polly. "Let's get out of this rain - we might be clean now, but it's getting colder."
Ariel smiled again. "Made again," she whispered.
She's twenty-five when she returns to the bridge.
It's been a long road, getting here. There's been doctors and psychiatrists and journalists and all kinds of curious people. There's been talking and healing and learning to be a person again. And through it all, Polly's been there.
The first real friend she's ever had.
Polly's there when, six months after her rebirth, her family show up. There's daddy with his money; mother with her drink. They're not pleased she's shown up - they were happier with her dead. But when they start in on her - telling her how ashamed they are of her - Polly cuts them off.
She doesn't know how Polly gets rid of them. She doesn't care, so long as they're gone.
Polly never suggests she give them another chance.
Instead, Polly helps her start a college course in biology and introduces her to a friend called Mark who runs a vets who just happens to be looking for an assistant. It's the best job she could have. While humans still confuse her, animals are something she understands and she loves helping to heal them. Heal them just as she's slowly healing herself.
It's only much later that she realises Polly talked Mark into making the job up.
So now she's back at the bridge where it all began again. The dirty white H-shaped towers with the road deck suspended between them. There's a new bridge now, a few miles further south, that carries the main motorway; this one's been relegated to a secondary route. For all that, it's still busy and she wonders how on earth she managed to avoid being run over that day.
"Looks different in the sunshine," Polly comments.
She doesn't say anything. Even now she still doesn't say much, but Polly understands.
"Glad you came?"
She thinks about that for a moment. Is she? The answer is obvious. "Yes, I am."
She wants to say thank you, too, but how do you say thank you for everything that Polly's done for her? There aren't words enough to express that depth of gratitude.
Somehow, though, she thinks that Polly already knows.
With one last look at the bridge she turns away and lets Polly lead her back to the car. The past is finished now. It's time for the present and to start building a future.