Bad Friends extract

AFTER : DECEMBER

I am running for my life, I know that now.

The moon slips behind the clouds. Perhaps the darkness is a

boon, but the shadows that fall beside me seem to mock me as

I flee, as I fly down the drive from the house. Desperately my

hand closes round the bunch of metal; my little finger catches

on a jagged edge, I feel my flesh tear slightly, but I ignore the

pain. I slide dangerously in the mud but I will not fall, will not

allow it; I right myself, though my leaden legs suck me into the

stony ground; they scream with every step that I should stop but

I can’t, I daren’t. I push myself on, stumbling on and on, because

they are nearer now . . . closing on me for sure . . .

I am off the gravel drive now and tracking across the great

wild lawn towards the wooden bridge; towards the pub where

there is life. I have no time to look around; worse, I can’t bear

to see how long I’ve got.

Running for my life. I cannot get my breath; I fight for it until

it sobs up through my chest like a dead man’s rattle. I was fast

once, really fast as a child, running for joy and for gold – but I

am out of practice now, I haven’t run properly for years and my

bad foot hampers me. Terror drives me, terror that drips down

and smothers me.

If I can just reach the pub, slam myself inside, I might be safe.

Saved. But God, why was I mad enough to think I was safe to

come here alone?

It is too late. The car is stopping, skidding behind me, and

it’s like I am fastened to the house by its beam. I swing round.

I have to face my hunter; I cannot stand unseeing, so exposed.

The car door opens smoothly as an oily disc of moonshine slides

out from behind fingers of cloud. Everything is illuminated so

perfectly and I start towards the car in relief – until that smile

meets me, and I actually gasp. I reel in shock like I’ve been

punched, gut-punched where it most hurts.

‘You?’ I say numbly. ‘It can’t be you.’

A small and measured step towards me. ‘But it is, Maggie.’

And that smile, it is a flat smile. A traitor’s smile. ‘Weren’t you

expecting me?’

BEFORE : JUNE

I breathe hard onto the coach window and watch the fug slowly

spread before me. Tracing the small cloud with my finger, I write

my name across the middle like a schoolgirl. My name slants; a

single tear tracks downwards from the M. I make a fist and vigorously

rub myself out again. My hand is damp now; I wipe it dry.

Cocooned in this muggy warmth, safe for the moment from the

damp, dark night, I’m struggling to stay awake. Far off in the drizzle

a tiny house twinkles with beguiling light, nestled into the old

church beside it like a trusting child. I gaze wistfully after the enticing

image, but we are truly hurtling down the motorway now, a sleek

capsule slicing the M4’s black, and the house has vanished already.

I hold my breath as the teenage boy beside me bobs his head

shyly, uncurls his awkward new height from beside me, scuttling

with an odd spider’s gait to talk to his mates up-front. Now he’s

gone there is some space here for my sadness, some room to

acknowledge the pain of what I’ve just left behind. I feel utterly

raw; like I’ve been flayed alive. I bite my lip against the grief.

The truth is we’ve gone too far this time, I can’t see a return.

We said it all; we let the floodgates down and we got truly

drenched.

An abandoned can of Strongbow rolls under my feet. I let the

can rattle until it annoys me, hitting my heel over and over. I

retrieve it, stick it firmly into the net on the seat-back in front,

fighting the urge to lick my wet fingers, drying them instead on

the knobbly cloth on the seat beside me. I wish I’d had the foresight

to find something to kill the ache before embarking. I wish

I had some wine, my iPod, a cookery book – any means, in fact,

of forgetting. I wish I wasn’t travelling alone. I wish I’d known

I would be.

My eyelids droop inexorably until my head bangs against the

thick, cool glass.

‘Ouch.’ I jerk up, feeling foolish, forcing myself upright again.

I don’t want to sleep here, don’t want to surrender to the inevitable

nightmares surrounded by these strangers. So I watch the little

woman across the aisle, a mousey hobbit who mouths each word

of Northanger Abbey aloud, scanning each page fervently, her

pale lips oddly stiff despite their constant movement. I wish that

I’d never read the book myself so that I could have that pleasure

again for the first time. The couple in front lean into each other,

the tops of their heads touching, their hair almost entwined as

he whispers something he wants only her to hear. Right now, I

think tragically, it’s unlikely I’ll ever feel any first pleasure again;

that anyone will ever want to whisper anything to me again. I

almost smile at my self-indulgence. Almost – but not quite.

Eventually I succumb to sleep, rocked by the lullaby of voices

that murmur through the dim coach. I don’t notice the darkhaired

girl as she passes by to use the poky loo, though later the

girl swears blind that she saw me in my seat – she liked my hair,

the girl says (God knows, it’s hard to miss). Says she knew I was

a kindred spirit. But I do notice the tall man who drops his bag

as he stumbles past, jolting me uncomfortably back into wakefulness.

I am startled again as I glance up, befuddled. My heart

stops; I think it’s Alex. My heart flames with pain; my belly

corkscrews.

I won’t catch the man’s eye, although I can sense he wants to

speak. I can’t bear to look at him. He might see what I’m trying

so hard to hide, so I turn away again. I find my fists are clenched,

nails dug deep into my palms. I twist my hair into a nervous

rope, tucking it behind one shoulder. Even in my shadowy reflection

I can see the red of it, the flame I can’t escape and –

I see something else, something beyond the window, out there

in the dark. I hold my breath in shock.

What I see is fear. Pure and undistilled, the face I gaze into is

mad with it, big eyes rolling back into the brain until they are

all white; a nightmare vision that is in fact quite real. The nostrils

flare in panic, the huge teeth bared in a grin of frothing terror,

the mane flying in the wind. For one small second snatched in

old time, the time that will soon become the time before – the

safe time – I find I’m not scared. I want to stretch my hand

through the window and smooth the trembling flank; soothe

this rearing beast. But then my own terror crashes in around me

and I feel very tiny. The horse’s great flailing hooves will surely

pierce the coach’s metal side. Frantic, I press back into my seat,

trying to flatten myself against the blow.

The chance to find my voice, to shout a futile warning, has

already passed. The lullaby is building to a shriek. The passengers

are screaming, have begun to scream as one, because the

coach is tilting, tilting on its axis until it cannot right itself again,

until finally it topples. It skids across the road in hideous scraping

chaos, on its side now – and still the coach keeps moving. I am

level with the road now; blue sparks fly up from the concrete

before me as if a welder were torching the ground. Then I roll,

slam hard into a body so all the wind goes out of me.

I cannot see. My hands flail at the blackness. Panting with

terror, I am thrown against some metallic edge. A flash of

agonising pain fills my left shoulder as I crack it on what must

be the ceiling. A child cries piteously. Someone’s foot grinds into

my gut, a fist pummels my mouth in fear. I claw at my face as

something oddly intimate drapes itself across me, a mouthful of

hair that chokes and sickens me. I struggle to breathe, to let some

air in. Any air. I panic that I am blind.We are still moving.Why

the hell haven’t we stopped moving?

A huge whump: the central reservation crumples as the coach

crashes through, on its back now. It’s slowing, and someone near

me is screaming, they won’t stop screaming, on and on –

A terrible metallic crunch ends the voice. The coach is jerked

by force into the fast lane. My head whips forward, then snaps

back again. There’s a crunch as the first van hits us head on, and

folds: then the next vehicle, then the next. A hot flash up my left

leg. Finally there is silence – almost silence. Just a single horn

blaring into the complete darkness, then, soon after, another: a

petulant electronic chorus. Closer to me, a whimpering that

spreads like wildfire. We have finally stopped moving and now

there is nothing. Just darkness. Just the sob of my own breath

as I clasp myself and wonder: Is this death?

One thought on “Bad Friends extract

  1. A fluid gripping pacey style author who I have recently discovered reading Never tell. Very impressive extract from Bad friends.

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