Authors: Rebecca Whitney
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
For Rob, Bea and Billy. Always.
And for Terry Whitney, a gentleman and a gentle man.
Alison Marling, we miss you.
The journey is key, the arrival always a disappointment.
It’s half an hour home from my lover Will’s place on the coast to the house in the Sussex countryside I share with my husband David. The way back is simple, and I map in my head the
journey in front of me: along the clifftops and through endless bland towns until I reach Brighton, with its clutter of cheap hotels on my right, and to my left the sea. At the junction of the
pier, I’ll funnel through the city then head for the hills. But as I drive down from Will’s prefab bungalow, rain thudding the bonnet, instinctively I branch away from the main drag,
choosing instead the back route: the near-empty roads that see-saw through the countryside and allow me to drive fast and carefree. After one drink-driving ban I know where to avoid, and the
country route means fewer police. Not that it’s their habit to stop a woman driver in a top-of-the-range, brand-new Mercedes on a Saturday morning, but the taste of alcohol still furs my
mouth and I want to have some fun. I want to take nine of the ten chances available to me.
The road leads me north, past endless mini-roundabouts and the homogeny of industry that rings every sizeable town. Here the buildings have given up all civic pretence to beauty and efficiency:
half-dead shrubs in forecourts fidget in the wind, gates hang heavy with chains, and grey-washed walls wear the tags of bored and artless teenagers. Then, after a final roundabout, the town spits
me out into the open relief of green. I head towards the Downs where the route glues to the base of the hills and the land curves up sharp into a heaving sky.
Summer is ending, at last, and all those extended, overheated weeks are finally blowing their top. Windscreen wipers whine at full speed clearing a radar shape on the glass, and outside the
morning sun is obscured and the world is compressed to a small frame of black. The wheels of my car hit a puddle and fan a satisfying hiss of water into the air, but the noise is quiet and separate
from inside my vehicle; even the motor is soft, its volume cushioned by immaculate engineering. Here in my mechanical kingdom I am insulated, normal life is suspended, and it’s only the speed
and the distance. Nothing can touch me. Not even David.
I detour down a small wooded lane wide enough for one car, speeding up and slowing down with the smallest amount of leeway, knowing exactly how far to hug the widths and bends familiar to me
from years of driving these roads. I swerve past an old horse-box parked up on the verge: blankets at the windows, smoke rising from a tacked-on chimney. Rust-coloured panels patchwork the new-age
There’s no pavement and the tarmac’s scraggy edge borders straight on to the soft earth of the woods that lie beyond. If I nudge the steering a fraction too far, the tyres judder on
gravel and mud for a few metres until I right them with a playful swerve on to the opposite side. Trees heavy with a late-summer harvest arch over the lane, and their branches entwine overhead to
form leafy tunnels. Spatters of roadkill and weeks of fallen fruit mix with rain on the road’s surface, so that at times it seems as if the car is skating. I turn the wheel and change gears
instinctively, my thoughts of David – and the ten CAPITALIZED text messages he sent this morning – contained and measured by my driving, as if I’ve capped off my brain and left
the worst thoughts behind, to be collected again on arrival. I jumble together an excuse: a surprise call from an old school friend yesterday, too much to drink so a hotel was best – the
alibi will have to do, I’m too hung-over to be creative – and I pray my recent good behaviour will be enough to convince David that staying away last night was a one-off, a small error
in our otherwise ordered marriage.
My explanation logged, and I’m free to indulge my favourite driving fantasy, which takes me further along the road to a place I’ve never been – somewhere, anywhere –
until my car runs out of petrol and fate decides the end point like a pin in a map. The scent of last night is still on my skin and I wonder if, when I’ve found my new home, I would call
Will, or whether it would be best to start afresh. Perhaps today is the day to find out, and I press the accelerator, the country road barely holding the width of my car, and imagine the place
where I’ll make a new life for myself. Where I’ll be effortlessly healed.
Ahead of me is an oak. The enormous trunk would span the girth of two horses, and the branches weave into the sky. A near-perfect U in the road rounds the tree. I change down a gear and steer
sharp, wheels gripping the wet road as the engine rises an octave, and each tree and shrub is a streak of green past my window.
Then, a white band of skin. Wide eyes. A crack. The body flips forward –
against the windscreen. Glass shatters. I stamp the brakes, too late, and whatever I’ve hit
flies over the car in a floppy cartwheel, crumpling on the road behind. I skid to a halt, engine still running, my breath panting in and out, sharp and shallow, seconds or minutes. I check my
rear-view mirror. On the road behind is a smudge of red from the tail lights; twenty metres from that, a pile. Thick dark liquid spreads on the tarmac. Nothing moves apart from the rain which
pounds the ground.
‘It’s just an animal,’ I whisper, then say it loud to make it real. ‘It’s just an animal.’
Easing the car into gear, I manoeuvre a five-point turn and edge closer until I’m a metre away.
Clothes not fur. Fingers not hooves.
Swaddled in a heavy coat, his face always covered by a scarf and hat, I recognize him: a local homeless man who trudges the roads near my house.
I teeter from the car, step forward, then crouch a few inches away. Rain soaks me and runs down my face, gathering at my eyebrows and chin. The scarf round the man’s face has come loose
and it exposes a woolly beard. A long ugly nose.
I shut my eyes for a few seconds.
Who was the last person to be this close to him?
Panic pinballs in my chest. When I open my eyes I tug at the scarf to cover him up and return him to the being he was a few minutes ago, but the fabric is caught under his head. His neck is
slack like a broken doll. From my pocket I take out my mobile. It slips like a fish from my shaking hands on to the wet tarmac. I grab it and press random buttons to bring it back to life, then
wave it above my head – but there’s no signal.
The man’s smell is sharp and strong with a feral bite – earth mixed with old piss – and it flips my memory to a time when I saw him at the village shop close to my house, where
the same aroma had filled the room. In the shop he had with him his trademark briefcase: his unique and infamous logo of eccentricity. The bag made you look twice when you saw him walking with a
gentle limp. It was the kind of case in which a gentleman would take his papers to the office, someone who had important work to do.
Here at the roadside, I check around him. The briefcase is nowhere to be seen.
My legs ache from crouching and I gather my skirt round my thighs, the material wet and clinging. The rain slows but drops have collected in the trees and fall with heavy raps on to the bonnet
of my car. I lean closer to the man and lay my palm on his back. No breath. In the distance there’s a rumble, a tractor maybe emerging from a barn and on to the road? I sit back on my
haunches and my legs wobble, reminding me of the bottle of whisky I shared with Will less than six hours ago.
Breathe. I breathe.
I wait. For what? Nothing changes.
The man is dead.
I have taken something away. I cannot put it back.
‘If you can’t lie, Rachel,’ my mother used to preach, ‘then it’s best to say nothing at all.’
My pulse slows a fraction and I take a longer breath. A calm of sorts, a lifting away.
I stand and walk round to the man’s head. My hands shake as I ease them under his warm armpits; his limbs are loose, and I lever him up to test the weight. His head lolls on to his chest
as if he’s asleep. He’s surprisingly light; malnourished and skinny under the layers of clothing, like a wet dog without the cushion of its fur. I test a drag. It works. I can do
Walking backwards, I move him away from the road and into the undergrowth, twisting my head in nervous jerks to see the way. The woods are thick and dark. Trees creak. My shoes sink into the wet
earth and brambles scratch my stockings. The further I go, the more difficult it becomes to drag him, and I stumble backwards over a log and sprawl on the ground with my skirt torn. Red liquid
streaks down my arm but I don’t register pain, so it must be his blood, and I carry on to where, even after the long summer, the ground is boggy and the road disappears from view. Here there
is no one, only the daily wars of ants and spiders. I spread him out on the earth and wrap his face with the scarf, as he would have been before the accident, then cover his body with fallen
branches and lumps of damp leaves, careful that nothing pokes into his skin. His large blue overcoat is soaked with rain and the laces of his trainers are undone.
The air is still and dense. Watching. I stand for a moment trying to remember something from the Bible, perhaps the Lord’s Prayer which we droned through daily in the icy school chapel,
‘Our Father, forgive us our daily bread.’ It’s been a long time. Again a distant rumble, thunder or perhaps a car. I turn and retrace my way along the groove of undergrowth
splayed by the body, and a heel breaks off my shoe. As I pluck the inches of plastic from the wet earth, I can’t imagine how anything so thin can support me.
Back at the road, the rain has washed most of the blood from the tarmac; only a tiny river of pink has pooled at the edge before dropping off into the earth. In the direction I was headed before
the crash, the funnel of trees opens into a circle of light. Back the other way it’s silent and dark. The only vehicle I passed earlier was the horsebox, but that was about a mile back, and
the smoking chimney meant it was probably moored in for the day. No one else has come. No one has seen. Further up the road though there’s something on the ground I hadn’t noticed
before and I run to it, my actions jumpy and fractured, like a reel of film that’s been spliced and sped up. I’m more desperate than before; I thought I was done, I thought I’d
made it and the risk was over. As I come close to the object I see it’s the man’s briefcase, open but empty. I grab the case without a moment’s thought and heave it up with arms
stretched long, flinging it away from my body into the woods. The case spins like an injured bird, and falls deep in the undergrowth with a leafy crash. Back towards the car now, and as I run my
feet kick at something which skitters and sparkles: it’s a watch on a broken leather strap, the glass face shattered. He must have kept it in the briefcase instead of on his wrist as the tear
on the strap is old and frayed. I hold the watch to my ear. There’s no tick. The time reads 10.52 – the time of impact? – but with a couple of winds and a gentle bang against my
palm, the second hand starts moving again. I break into a run now, gripping the watch inside my pocket as the second hand pulses against my palm, and only when I’m back inside the safety of
my car can I settle enough to try and work out what to do next.
I sit on the front seat for as long as I dare – probably only seconds, but it feels like hours – before shutting the door and starting the engine. All around me, the branches of the
trees tumble in the echo chamber left behind by the storm.
It’s a fifteen-minute journey home from the accident site, but I’m certain it takes longer, though I don’t check the time. A few cars pass but the roads
remain quiet after the storm. Finally I drive through metal gates and on to our driveway, the rough wet tongue of gravel rolling towards an enormous white cube. The house has never felt less like
My car scoops round the semicircle of our driveway, and I park with the boot pointing towards the house, the damage on the bonnet hidden. The rain has stopped but dark clouds still cover the
sun. On all three floors of the house, the lights are on. Bright rectangular windows study my approach. I imagine David inside, inspecting the rooms for my presence or absence – though
I’m not sure which he prefers – his polished shoes pressing into the thick bedroom carpet, and the wool leaning back up as he passes, his imprint vanishing.