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
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
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
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?