A short story by Johnny Rich
I am driving at night down a country road, I don’t know where, woods to the right of me, just blackness to the left. The wipers fling themselves back and forth but before each stroke the windscreen is blinded with rain.
The car’s my armour. The weather rages on outside, but the heating keeps me warm and dry and ‘Night & Day’ plays on the radio. The tarmac falls away beneath the wheels and even the frenetic sweep of the wipers becomes hypnotic.
The radio keeps dropping out and I reach down to get a better signal but I lose it completely, so I tune back the other way and catch a snatch of clarity before it’s smothered again in hiss and crackle. I look down to try again. Then there’s a noise, not from the radio, a single thud that I feel in my hand, the hand on the wheel. And next a dull rumble as something tumbles over the roof of the car.
I have hit something. An animal. My heart leaps in my chest and pounds away faster than the wiper blades. I hit the brakes.
I lean back on the head-rest and gulp breaths. I don’t look round. I doubt I want to see and I tell myself that in the darkness and what with the rain and with my stopping distance it’ll be too far back anyhow. I just breathe and wonder what it was. A pheasant, perhaps? No, too heavy. A deer, then, or a badger. I’ve never hit anything before and so don’t know what it should feel like. And I don’t know what to do.
I look in the mirror. I can see a silhouette by the verge about a hundred yards away. It’s not moving. I should go back, I know I should, and see if it’s dead – maybe find a vet or maybe finish it off. Maybe I should just reverse straight over it and then make off, put it out of its pain and don’t give myself the guilt of knowing what nature of animal it was or whether I could have done anything. Maybe I should just keep going.
Something like fur has caught under the wiper on the passenger side. It smears a red arc across the screen which instantly dissolves into raindrops only to be replaced again by the next swipe. I put the car into reverse.
I stop a few yards short of the small dark thing in the road. I try to make it out through the rain for a moment before reaching into the back seat.
I get out and as I open the umbrella it’s almost snatched from my hand by the wind and the cold air snaps at me like a mastiff. I step into a puddle and in an instant the damp seeps through my shoes. I squelch towards the animal – uneasy, tentative steps, my heart going like the night-train. I want it to be dead. Then I can just drive off, blame it on the road, the night, the conditions, the thing itself, and take no responsibility. I don’t want it to be half-alive and leap at me in self-defence.
The rear lights cast red reflections across the road and dimly illuminate the thing as I approach, but my body casts a shadow over it. In the gloom, it looks like a person just sitting there, head hanging down. But it’s too small to be human, surely. Besides, this is night in the middle of nowhere in a storm. It’s just how it’s lying.
Slowly, it raises its head and looks at me with eyes absent and black which say nothing, but even so, they somehow plead. Above the left eye, half the scalp is missing. There’s a substance, pink and pale, like shiny bubble-gum and now I notice a detail which stings me into horror – the ragged white edge of what must be broken bone all around the wound and bits of it, flecked in the tangles of thin matted hair. It is his brain, I realise. I can see his brain.
The old man stares straight ahead, but I think he registers my presence. His jaw opens and closes, like a shutter in the wind. He just sits there, his legs somehow under him, as if he’d just sat down for a rest and was panting slowly for breath.
I stand apart, outside myself. My one thought is to rewind five minutes, undo this, not look down at the radio. But it all happens in a moment and can never be undone. His brain is there. He’ll never be free of this. Nothing will. Ever.
I want to say something. What comes out is “You okay?” The eyes fix on me.
“I’ll get help,” I say and I try to think what I should do, but all I can think of is the rain splashing into his head. I want to deal with that first, just that. I have a towel in my tennis kit in the car-boot.
The lock is tricky. What the hell was he doing in the road anyway? For chrissakes, the stupid bastard! I have to live with this now, what I’ve done to him, when it’s all his own fault for being here. Jesus, didn’t he think about that?
I get the boot open and don’t pick up the bag. Instead my hand goes to the car jack and closes around it. In the same movement I swing it round and take the three steps back towards him, towards the man, still watching me, expressionless, still panting and at the last moment he looks up as I raise the jack and bring it down and the jerk in my arm wakes me suddenly and, for an instant, I’m lost, disoriented, before I stare into the darkness of our bedroom at night.
I lie still, assuring myself that this is real – the sound of my breath, my racing heart, the soft patter of rain on the window. The human silhouettes are clothes hanging on the back of the door. The nightmare seems more like memory, something that happened, but which I forgot. I want to cry with the guilt of what I did or dreamt I did. I want to wake Leila just to hear something normal, to bring myself back.
But I don’t. She sleeps curled up next to me, her black hair across the pillow like branches against the moon. I put out my hand to stroke her head, but pull back before I touch. It feels awkward to touch her there, in the place where the man’s scalp was missing. For a moment I feel my hand would sink through soft hair into a pink mass of brain beneath.
If she were turned the other way, I’d nestle into her shape and put my arms around her for the comforting warmth of her body against mine. Instead, I lie on my back and watch the reflections of raindrops projected on the ceiling by a streetlamp.
A memory comes to me, a real one I think, that must have been part of this. I was walking home from school. I was ten or eleven, I suppose. There were two boys, slightly older, standing under a tree ahead, picking up stones and conkers and throwing them at something on the ground in front of them. As I came closer, I slowed down out of fear and curiosity and, by the time they realised, I was almost upon them. I was nervous they might start throwing things at me, but instead they whispered, shrugged and ran off.
I looked down where they had been standing. A pigeon sat panting, its beak opening and closing, half its skull chipped off. The bubble-gum mass of its brain exposed. I remember the detail about the bone. But now I remember it, I am not sure if I remember it from the memory or from the dream. I remember also the dilemma: knowing I should stamp it to death, but feeling it watch me as I came nearer, its eyes seeming to plead, but for what I didn’t know.
I knelt to touch it. It was warm. Its heart beating so fast. It made me angry at the boys but then I realised that maybe it wasn’t them that did it. They were just trying to kill it for its own sake, attempting to do exactly what, even as I thought of it, I knew I wouldn’t have the guts to do myself. I left the pigeon and walked home, kicking leaves.
Now the memory seems frail, unreliable against the nightmare still fresh in my mind’s eye.
“Leila,” I whisper. She doesn’t move. “Leila,” I say again and wait. She murmurs in her sleep and turns her back. I snuggle in behind her and feel guilty about things I should have done, things I shouldn’t have done and things I never did.
My clothes cling to me, cold and soaked. My chest heaving from the exertion, I let the jack fall. I did it because he was going to die anyway, I tell myself. Nothing could help him and it wasn’t my fault, so I wanted to make it go away. I couldn’t rewind, so I did it. And now it’s done.
But I didn’t have to do that. It was in that moment that I took on the blame I didn’t need to feel otherwise. And I didn’t just hit him once. I smashed and smashed. What was I trying to do? What was I trying to obliterate? Did I think his life would be too terrible to continue with half his head missing? Why on earth did I think that decision was mine to make?
I was thinking no one can ever know. I must bury this so deep that even I don’t believe it of myself. If only a single moment could be withdrawn – a quick glance down, reaching for a car-jack rather than a towel.
I’m freezing. But I can’t leave this. I can’t just drive away now. I don’t know what the police will be able to know. Maybe they’d accept that it was just an accident. But if I admit I was involved, there’ll still be blame. But if I keep quiet and they find out, they’ll blame me all the more – even if they believe it was just a hit and run.
But for all I know their forensics could figure it all out. I don’t know, microscopic strands of textiles, hairs, DNA, whatever it is they find. I have to make it so it didn’t happen, no suspicion, no investigation. If the body’s not here, the rain will wash away the blood. Nothing left but little bits of flesh flattened by passing cars. Nothing more than a roadkill in the night by the side of the woods.
I take him by the legs. I don’t want to go near that burst and bloodied skull. I feel his thin frail ankles under his soaked trousers and I drag him into the trees. I don’t want to go far. I don’t want to be lost. But I don’t want him ever to be found. I want to eradicate this from my head. If I can’t undo the moment, I want to make it like a bad dream.
I need to go deeper into the trees. Who knows how different this will all seem by day? When the daylight dawns, what looks like a dark hollow to me now may be a clearing in the trees, a picnic spot. I must be careful. But then, things that seem undeniable in the night, can be consigned to nightmares by morning.
I catch my ankle on another root and bite into my frustrated lip. I think of my wife and feel anger. I’m trying to get home, just trying to get home to be with her. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here drenched in the night. I just want for this to be over, to be home in bed with her. “Leila,” I say, “Leila”. And I open my eyes in the darkness. I don’t know the room for a moment. This is not our bed, not our house. I am alone.
And then I remember. Leila’s gone now. She’s been gone for so long, why do I still wake in the night expecting to find her here beside me? My face is wet. I cry in my sleep when I have nightmares. I wake up and feel guilty for everything that went wrong and wish I could have done little things differently along the way.
I remember the murder. The old man. That dream from years back. I had not dreamt about that since and yet tonight I came back to it at that moment by the road, by the woods, as if it were all true, a memory I’d buried so deep in the hope of never finding it again. Yet I stumbled on it and it still has the power to shake me awake, cold with guilt and wanting my wife beside me again.
Now I’m awake, I feel dislocated, isolated in the darkness, but a darkness deeper than the mere absence of light. I can see shapes – the washstand, that rickety gas-fire, the second-hand furniture – I can see them clearly, but they seem distant and vague. People too – they talk at me, touch me even, but it seems unsolid, little more than dreams.
A hot tear breaks from my eye and rolls down my temple into my hair. I will not sleep now. I’ll lie here and stare into the dark until the strained light of morning gives me permission to get up.
These dreams that come back stir old memories, things I hadn’t thought about since the day they happened – as if those antique emotions are what the nightmares are really all about. I remember when I stayed at my aunt’s that time. My cousins were there, two and three years older than me. I stole money from an envelope which it turned out was for some church appeal. My aunt lined up the three of us and asked who did it, but I knew she suspected one of her sons. They each thought it was the other too, but all three of us protested our ignorance. In the end she had to pay it herself and stopped it out of their pocket money. I swallowed down the guilt of it, knowing the shame of being discovered would be worse. Even now, when my aunt’s long dead, I’m sure my cousins still blame each other.
I am in the old house, with the ceramic tiles on the hallway floor and the gilt-framed mirror Leila brought from her parents’ home. Her coat still hangs from the hook. But this is in those weeks after we lived here together. I can tell because as I move through the rooms, they echo with the still air and dust of my life alone.
In the conservatory, Leila’s plants are starting to die, the stems drooping and the tips of their leaves browning. I can see myself, sitting at the bamboo table with the newspaper spread out and a mug of coffee, doing the crossword.
The doorbell rings and I watch as I get up and go to answer it and, even now, even as I know this is only a dream, I remember this. I know who it will be because in this dream I believe I really lived this. I know they have come for me at last, the body found and I know how I’ll react when they tell me, when they ask me questions. I’ll be shocked. I’ll protest my innocence, but even as I do, the suspicion will creep back, the memory of something that I was sure was just a dream.
I’ll say it was just a pigeon, not an old man on a road, not my wife, but now I try to remember, I find I’ve forgotten where she’s gone. I’ll leave others to take the blame just because I’ll hope they can’t pin it on me. I’ll lie and lie and believe every word I say because, even as my life becomes a nightmare, I don’t believe in dreams.
I wake up again. I only sleep in snatches in here and all my nights are beset by bad memories or dreams and I wake up crying. It is day now, or in my dream it is, and the room is familiar. From my top bunk, I can watch the flies patrol the light fitting and as the day grows, I can watch the light from the window projected across the opposite wall, the shadows of the bars stretching as the bright parallelogram distorts and reaches towards the locked door.
Copyright © Johnny Rich 2002 All rights reserved
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