I snatched my phone from my pocket, glaring furiously at my car. A thick plume of steam, or smoke, I'm not quite sure which, climbed from beneath the partially open bonnet. I'd tried to take a look, to see where it was coming from, but the metal frame of the car was too hot and so I'd stepped away, cursing. I fumbled with my mobile, awkwardly hammering the keys until I found his number, hitting the green telephone symbol to dial.
I knew exactly what I was going to say. Well, maybe not the precise words, but certainly the essence, the tone, the emotion I wanted to convey. I was angry. He'd promised me again and again. I told him it would happen, but I was just a silly woman. I knew nothing. But I'd been right and as soon as he picked up the phone I'd make sure...
“Hi, this is Dave and Maggie Rowland,” my husband's tinny voice blasted into my ear. I opened my mouth, ready to yell at him, the words curling over my tongue before I realised I was about to reprimand the answer phone. “I'm sorry but we're not able to take your call at the moment, but if you leave a message we'll get back to you as soon as possible.”
I felt my jaw tense as I waited for the beep, my pulse quickening, blood boiling. When finally the high-pitched tone came I let rip, the words exploding from my mouth. “For fuck sake, Dave, pick up the damn phone,” I barked, my tone clipped, sharp. “I know you're there. You promised me you'd take my damn car to the garage a week ago. I told you there was something wrong with it, and now...”
* * *
“...it's broken down.”
I winced. She'd been complaining about her car for weeks, telling me that it wouldn't start, that it cut out on her at traffic lights, insisting that there was something wrong with it. I couldn't disagree with her. The car was fifteen years old and by rights it should have been sitting in a scrap yard somewhere, but she needed a car and we couldn't afford a new one. Hell, we couldn't even afford to take it to a garage, not that she could appreciate that.
It wasn't her fault really. Perhaps if I'd explained to her just how bad our financial situation was, told her how we would be lucky if we could make our mortgage payment at the end of the month, she would have been a little more understanding, but I'd tried to keep it from her. Not forever. She was my wife, my partner, my everything, and I fully intended to tell her, to explain to her, but I wanted to take a little time, work out exactly how bad things were, perhaps try and find a solution before I worried her with the news.
“I'm on Hillend Road,” she continued, her anger turning to exasperation. “You're going to have to come and get me. I've got no money for a taxi and I can't exactly walk home from here. Are you there, Dave?”
I considered not picking up the phone, perhaps telling her later that I'd popped out or that I'd been in the bathroom when she'd called, but I didn't want to upset her further. Besides, I knew Maggie. I'd known her since we were kids. She was angry, but that anger merely concealed her fear. She was alone on a country road, at night, miles from home, and I knew exactly what was going through her head. As irrational as it might have seemed, she had visions of some stranger pulling up, offering her help only to rape and murder her, dump her body in a ditch. She could see herself trapped on the side of the road overnight, and though it was late Spring and the evenings were mild she could imagine herself freezing to death.
That was my Maggie. She was strong, and brave, but she could always envisage the worst possible outcome in any given situation, and try as she might her fear always got the better of her sooner or later.
Sighing, I picked up the phone.
“Maggie?” I said, trying to sound calm and concerned, though I think my tone might have been a little sharper than I'd intended.
“So you are there?” she snapped. “I told you this would happen. I told you. Why couldn't you have just listened to me when I said the car needed to go into the garage? Why couldn't you have just...”
“You can yell at me all you like later,” I said, once again trying to sound soothing. “Right now just tell me where you are and I'll come get you.”
“I'm on Hillend Road,” she replied curtly.
“That's a long road,” I replied, struggling and failing to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Care to narrow it down a little?”
“I'm about a mile past the bridge,” she said through gritted teeth. “Just past that sharp bend. You know the one?”
I nodded, though I knew she couldn't see me. “OK,” I told her. “I'll be there in about...”
* * *
“...ten minutes,” he said.
I could hear the annoyance in his voice. I knew what he was thinking. He thought it was my fault. It was always my fault. Whenever something went wrong with the car it was never a problem with the vehicle, but with me. I was a terrible driver, in his eyes. It was ridiculous. I'd been driving for over a decade, just as long as him, and in that time I'd had only one car accident, a minor bump, and that hadn't even been my fault. Some old git had run into the back of me when I stopped at a pedestrian crossing. I'd owned exactly one car in my lifetime. One car that I'd nurtured and cared for exactly as I was supposed to. As for him...
Well, there was the Ford. He'd driven that for less than a year before he wrote it off. It wasn't his fault. He'd hit a patch of ice, skidded and ended up in a ditch. We'd been married for just two months at the time, and so I'd been more concerned about him than the car. Then there was the Volkswagen. I'd told him not to buy it, that we could find him a better vehicle, but he'd insisted, told me that Volkswagens were good, reliable cars, that they could last a lifetime. And perhaps he was right, in general, but at the time we'd bought it the car had been eight years old with over one hundred and forty thousand miles on the clock.
To his credit he'd kept it going for longer than I'd expected. Nearly two whole years. For what we paid for it we'd got our money's worth, but I was sure another vehicle would have been better value for money. The Astra had been the newest of all our cars, but the shortest lived. Again, it hadn't been his fault. He'd left it parked on the street overnight, and sometime around two in the morning we'd heard an almighty crash outside. Some drunk had smashed into it at nearly seventy miles an hour, written the car off and killed himself in the process. We'd had it for just five weeks.
Four cars. Four cars he'd owned in ten years. Four cars to my one. Two accidents to my one. Yet I was the one who knew nothing about cars. I was the bad driver. Why? For no other reason than the fact that I had nothing dangling between my legs.
“Just get a move on,” I said, allowing my tone to soften. I didn't want to argue with him. I just wanted to get home, take a long, hot bath and go to bed.
“On my way now,” he replied, hanging up the phone.
I made my way around to the back of the car, popping open the boot and gazing mournfully at the bags of shopping stacked therein. The car just had to break down on the week when it was my turn to go to the supermarket. I knew the majority of it would be fine. The milk would be warm, the ice cream soft, and the vegetables could be refrozen, but the meat...
I did the maths in my head. After the supermarket I'd stopped to fill the car up. Ten minutes. I'd left the retail park only to get stuck in a traffic jam. Fifteen minutes. I'd taken the longer route home, via the country roads. Another twenty minutes before I'd broken down. I'd been waiting on the side of the road for...what? Five minutes. If it took him ten minutes to get to me as he claimed, ten more to get home, and five minutes to get the shopping transferred to his car here and then unpacked at home...an hour and a quarter.
I was pretty sure the meat would be ok, but still, it would have been out of the freezer for longer than I might have liked. I sighed. As long as he didn't prat about, as long as he got in the car right away, we could get the shopping home and...
* * *
...call a garage to pick up the car. Of course, I'd have to bring her home, listen to her yell at me for a good ten or fifteen minutes, then find someone who was willing to come out, to tow the car, at least get it off the road overnight. I'd have to go back there, wait with her car until the tow truck arrived, sign all the documents, perhaps even pay a fee we couldn't afford in advance, all for a car I was sure we'd never use again.
“There goes the mortgage payment,” I muttered as I closed and locked the front door.
As I climbed into my own car, I found myself thinking that perhaps it might have been better if I'd taken the offer of voluntary redundancy like so many of my colleagues. At least then I would have had a lump sum to help with some of the bills, and perhaps a little assistance from the government, but instead I'd decided to keep my job, opting for a temporary pay cut instead. After all, I figured it was better to be in work than out. It wasn't like there were plenty of other jobs out there for me.
I'd talked about it with my brother. He'd told me that at thirty-two I was still young enough to be attractive to other employers, that I was a fool for even considering staying with a company that was clearly going under, but I hadn't listened. I'd started looking for another job almost immediately, but I'd told myself that I was better off looking from a position of employment, that other employers would respect that more than hearing I'd accepted voluntary redundancy, that I was unemployed. Trouble is, there were no jobs.
At least, not in marketing. Businesses were looking to cut down on expenses and marketing was a luxury many couldn't afford. After more than ten years I wasn't looking for a career change. I loved my work, the challenge it offered, the constant variety. I'd convinced myself that it was only a matter of time before the market recovered, that my employers would be able to restore my salary before our financial situation became too desperate, but a year on any improvement had been marginal.
Shaking my head I started the car and reversed out of the driveway. I'd hoped to have been able to find a solution, find a way of cutting expenses, before I had to tell Maggie, but I knew it could wait no longer. The time had come. I'd collect her, bring her home, call the garage, go deal with the car, and then, when I was back home again, I'd sit her down and tell her what was happening, talk her through it, make her understand. She'd be annoyed with me for not telling her sooner, but once she got over that we would work together to try and find a solution.
I smiled as I drove towards the end of our road. It felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I'd wanted to hide our financial situation from her, spare her the worry, but now that the option had been taken away from me I felt like...
* * *
...there was someone watching me.
I knew it was stupid, irrational, but I couldn't help it. Glancing over my shoulder I hurried to the car, unlocking the driver's side door and clambering inside. I locked it behind me.
“Where the hell are you, Dave?”
I glanced at the clock on the dashboard, then at my phone just to make sure the time was right.
Exactly ten minutes since I'd called him. I knew he was right about the time it would take to get to me, and as annoyed as I was at him I was sure he would have gone straight to his car, left to collect me right away. That meant he could have been no more than a minute or two away, yet I had this feeling. It was hard to put into words. It was like some ominous cloud was hanging over me, as though something terrible was about to happen.
It was my imagination. I was sure of that, and yet...
* * *
...as I turned onto Hillend Road I felt my stomach tighten. For some irrational reason I felt as though Maggie was in danger, as though I had to get to her, and fast. I eased my foot onto the accelerator, my heart quickening as I raced along the narrow country road. All I could think was that I had to get to her, and when I saw her car on the side of the road...
* * *
...I felt a surge of relief. In spite of the anger I'd felt towards him earlier, I found myself smiling. I pushed open the car door and practically threw myself out into the road, slamming it shut behind me just as...
* * *
...a van rounded the corner behind her. I shouted, screamed, but it was too late. The headlights illuminated her form, enveloping her body with a brilliant white glow. I heard a squeal of brakes, but I knew already that it was too late. I tried to look away, but I couldn't. My eyes were fixed on her, unblinking, unmoving, wide and horrified.
There was a sickening thump as it hit her, and then she was sailing through the air towards me, her arms outstretched as though she was reaching for me, silently asking me to catch her, but I couldn't. I could do nothing but watch as...
* * *
…the van missed me by a hair. I felt it. I think it brushed my arm as it raced by, brakes squealing, jerking from side to side. I screamed. At first my scream was born of shock, surprise, but then I saw where it was heading, and I knew that there was no way Dave was going to avoid hitting it. I felt tears forming in my eyes and in the space of a heartbeat I prayed not that the van would somehow miss him, for I knew that was impossible, but that he would be unharmed, that the many safety features built into his car, the seatbelt, the airbags, they'd spare him from any serious injury.
I felt my heart lurch as the two vehicles connected, a deafening crunch flooding the night air. I could do nothing but watch as the front of my husband's car crumpled, as it span, flipped, jerked off the road. Any hope I had that he might walk away from the accident faded as I watched his car collide with a tree, the thick trunk meeting the driver's side door, metal folding around it.
I dropped to my knees, closed my eyes, told myself it was all a dream, but...
* * *
...it wasn't. I knew she was dead. Her body was twisted, contorted, crushed. A dark fluid poured from beneath her battered corpse and though I tried to tell myself that it was just rain water I knew that it was blood. I didn't need to see her lifeless eyes or feel for a pulse. I knew she was dead. I could feel it. I don't know how, but I could feel it.
I turned away, at first simply because I couldn't bear to look at her, but then I was searching the road behind me for the van. I don't know what I intended to do, but I wanted to look into the driver's eyes and let him see what he had taken from me, but the van was...
* * *
...gone. How it had driven away after such an accident I didn't know, but it simply wasn't there. The road was empty, black, deserted as it had been when I'd first broken down. I turned back to my car, but it too was gone. I stared at the empty space where it had been, my head slowly shaking, my eyes wide. I didn't understand. I didn't know what...
* * *
...was happening, but when I turned back towards Maggie's body she wasn't lying in the road anymore. She was stood there, her mouth open, her eyes wide, staring at me. I felt my lips twitch, a relieved smile briefly arching my mouth, but it faded. There was something wrong. I'd seen the van hit her, seen her body in the road, seen her lying there dead. And then I felt it. A moment of pure...
* * *
...clarity. For a few brief seconds I could remember it all. I knew what had happened.
The van hadn't missed me. I didn't feel it hit me, but I knew it had. It had hit me and then it had hit...
* * *
...my car. I'd barely been conscious as the car flipped, but I'd seen it, felt it, and then nothing. There had been a secondary impact. Something had struck the side of the car and then I'd been sucked into blackness. I didn't want to believe it, but it was true. I knew it. I was...
* * *
...dead, and so was Dave. I stared at him, a tear sliding down my cheek as...
* * *
…she raised her arm, her hand reaching for me. I took a step towards her, but I knew I'd never reach her. I could feel it. I could remember it. It was always the same. Night after night for...
* * *
…months, maybe years, reliving the same events over and over again, realising it was an illusion, an echo of what once had happened, in those last few seconds before the darkness came, before we faded into nothingness, only...
* * *
…to endure it again another night.
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