Here’s a story that I had published in Gutter Magazine earlier this year. It’s about a couple at the end of a long drive home for Christmas. In many ways, it’s basically the nativity story with a car crash and a police helicopter as the angel Gabriel.
What were you going to do with those 15 minutes?
Soon enough your headlights reflect off something bright like the eyes of a deer driven by the snow to forage by the roadside or the shattered windows of a smashed-up car. The road twists and turns and has tossed many teenage drivers from its back. Their names appear amongst the wedding photos and court reports in the local paper that your mother posts you every week. Shiver despite the warmth of your car and the glow of your speed dial and fuel gauge. Although you haven’t driven on it for years, you know how this road rolls. It is not the road that you’re frightened of.
For a moment the trees slip away revealing the loch. A loan boat ferrying timber from the forests of Argyll moves steadily south. You wonder if the men on board are warm, if they are listening to Christmas tunes, if they have places they’d rather be.
“It’s so beautiful,” she says, “so natural.”
You concentrate on the cats’ eyes and don’t comment on the regimented lines of Corsican pine on the hillside or the nuclear submarines moving freely in the fished-to-extinction-sea. As the beams of your headlights sweep across an inlet they illuminate dense cages in which monster salmon thrash and splash as if they’re going places other than the seafood restaurants of Southern England.
You consider telling her about an article in the local paper about salmon that had escaped from one of these fish farms. Even after a lifetime in captivity some migratory instinct had made them search for a place to spawn, but having no home they had grown confused, exhausted, lost, and beached themselves in shallow streams and backwaters.
“How do you feel?” She asks
“Euphoric,” you say.
She holds onto the door as you negotiate a couple of bends, the car drifting a little: the first suggestion of ice.
“Euphoric,” you reply, letting the word flail and crack like a frayed rope whip.
She hugs herself like a person exposed to the all surrounding cold, who realises that their own body is the only source of warmth.
The road lurches down the peninsula, and a village’s Christmas tree, decorated only above the reach of delinquent teens, flashes against the dark. The pub that first served you drink is here and you slow as much to gawk at the shivering souls sucking on their cigarettes as to observe the reduced speed limit. You feel reassured that the same ravaged faces have not left their posts. Haloed by smoke, illuminated by street lights, robed in never-in-fashion clothes, they peer into the darkness as if fearing that the Vikings, who their ancestors guarded this coastline against, might materialise on the loch’s shore.
Like never ageing sentinels carved in rock you think, before recognising a woman who looks like a half melted wax work of a girl you once fancied in school. The others: withered, balding and bloated were at your school as well. You try to remember if there was something that might have damned them to a life spent hanging around this village whose utility vans and cenotaph bear all of their names.
In the rear view mirror you notice a car, probably captained by some boy-racer, rapidly gaining ground on you. Even though it is stupid, even though you are half an hour from the end of a nine hour journey, you accelerate round the bend and remember doing this during the last months of school before leaving this place for university, for jobs, for her, for good.
Thirty minutes until the homecoming, the parents smaller and more hesitant than you remembered them. There will be that smell: pine wood and fish soup. And it’ll seem so potent and familiar at first but by the second day you won’t notice it at all. On the walls there will be decorations brought out of an ancient cardboard box: circuit broken fairy lights, tinsel that has lost its sparkle, hopelessly tangled and tatty but never thrown out.
“We need to get our story right.”
“Our,” she cracks the window open as if releasing a bad smell, “story.” The temperature in the car drops and you reach to turn up the heating, but before you’ve twisted the dial she has closed the window. “Well, if you’re sure, if we’re sure that we’re doing the right thing.”
The inside of the car is illuminated and you look in the mirror as the full beam of the following car is flashed, on and off.
“Idiot,” you mutter, but again increase the pressure on the accelerator remembering the disdain you felt, aged 17, when stuck behind some day-tripper, who cautiously negotiated these roads, when all you wanted was to veer round corners, feeling your heart thump, tasting the contents of your stomach, knowing you were alive.
“Not you, him.”
“I just can’t go on like this any longer.”
Concentrate on the road, on the lane markers, on ensuring that the kid in the chasing vehicle is not shouting insults about the car in front that is so much more powerful than his but is being driven by someone who shouldn’t even be on the road at this time at night.
“I thought we’d decided.”
“Well we had, but it’s not a certainty until anyone else knows.”
The car behind is now tail-gating you. Its headlights are on full-beam and despite the fact that you are swinging the car round corners you can’t shake him. On a blind bend he overtakes you, and even though you knew it was coming, the ferocity of his accelerating engine, the rock-salt being thrown from the road by his tyres, still shocks you.
“What’s he thinking? It’s twenty miles to the end of the road. There’s no ferry anymore. The pubs won’t be closed for a couple of hours. I mean how much time is he going to save anyway?”
“Fifteen minutes? If that. And what can you do with fifteen minutes?”
She sighs as a way of saying that if she needs to answer this question, then you really are a lost cause.
The road has switched from the east of the peninsula to the west and in the moonlight you catch the outline of Jura.
“Skye,” she says.
She kneads her head and you know that she will be going over the labels of the whisky bottles that you keep prominently displayed in your Bethnal Green flat.
“Jura,” she says triumphantly.
“And the closer one is Gigha and soon, if the moon stays out, we’ll see Islay.” The home straight you had always thought when returning from university in Glasgow.
“Have you any water?”
Water, you think, it is everywhere: cascading from the hills; darkly rippling in sea-lochs that claw at the boggy land; and spread out before you in an ocean that stretches all the way to Canada. Argyll has more coastline than France, you think about saying, but, knowing that you’ve told her this a dozen times, instead pass her a plastic bottle half-full of car warmed water that has travelled the nine hours from London. She glugs it down, this liquid that has been through seven human bodies and which clogs up shower-heads, makes her hair dry and fluffy and scales the inside of your kettle with eczema like flakes.
“Listen. We’re going to be there soon. If we’re telling them, we need to be certain.”
You know that after arriving you will ask your parents for some water and they will present it in a pint glass that has your name inscribed on the side. This is the same pint glass that they gave to you on your 18th birthday to mark the start of adulthood, your first steps out into the wide world. You will wonder why you never took that pint glass with you. The water will be icy cold and because you haven’t drank anything since passing Manchester you will gulp it down and let out a satisfied sigh. Relieved, your mother will start with news from the town: births, deaths, marriages, all involving people you can barely recall. Slowly but surely the conversation will trail back down the road: questions about whether you noticed the new school in Lochgilphead or that three shops in Inveraray had changed owners or how you found the motorway extension in Glasgow.
To break the silence you will hand back the pint glass and say, ‘Now that’s real water. You don’t get water like that down South.’
Yes, there may be no jobs for you, but the water tastes nice. Go, gorge yourself on it.
“There’s something I have to say, something I’ve been meaning to say but, are you even listening?”
You stamp on the brake and clutch pedals; tyres shriek like an eagle whose nest is being raided and you grip onto the steering wheel as your body snaps into the strap’s tight grip. On the road at a weird angle is the car that overtook you. Unclip the seatbelt and open your door, exhaling a ghostly apparition that drifts away from your headlights. The engine of the other vehicle is still ticking and an aria plays softly from inside. On the bonnet you see the back end of a deer that has smashed through the windscreen. There are no passengers in the car. Taking out your mobile you use the torch function to look at the driver’s mashed face, skull caved in from the impact of hitting a 200 kilo red deer.
You only look for a second before calling the emergency services. Although convinced that the driver is dead, you tell the operator that you can’t be sure; you want the police and air ambulance to arrive quickly, to take this mess off your hands. Return to your own car and get back in. She is rubbing her belly and squeezing her eyes shut.
“Are you alright?”
“I was trying to tell you something.”
“He hit a deer, the other driver. If he hadn’t been driving so fast, it could have been us. What was he doing driving like that?”
“Was he playing operatic music?”
“Was he playing operatic music?”
You want to open her eyes, to tell her to stop massaging her belly as if she is the one who is hurt. “Why would you think that?”
“I heard a woman singing when you opened your door and for a moment I wasn’t sure where the song was coming from. I couldn’t hear it when you got back in. I wanted to be sure.”
You turn on the emergency lights, get out of the car and go stand on the grassy verge. The flashing lights give a festive appearance to proceedings, but turning around you feel the all-encompassing darkness of the sky and the land and the ocean envelope you. Here there is a volume of silence and a dazzling blackness that terrifies an urbanite like you. The thought flits through your mind that darkness is the reality of things, that even great London with its millions of lights is no greater to the universe than a deer’s eyes caught in a car’s headlights.
“Get out of the car,” you shout, but she has rested her forehead on the dashboard.
You think about going to the car and pulling her out, but instead walk towards the dead man. The radio in his car is talking about road works on the M25 and the Christmas number 1. Tomorrow is going to be fine. Cold but fine, the weather forecaster tells a man who will never feel the sun on his face again. You play the light from your mobile across the mess of antler and skull, blood and bone.
A mobile rings from within the car. You open the driver’s door and lift the phone from the man’s jacket pocket. He is still warm, and there is something sticky on your knuckles.
“Jim, love, is that you, is that you?” A Northern English voice, shrill with worry. “I’ve called you a hundred times.”
“This isn’t Jim.”
“But it’s Jim’s number.”
“Yes, but this isn’t Jim”
“Who is this? What’s going on?”
You pause, breathe in. Your lungs have never felt so full of air.
“There’s been a traffic accident. Jim is dead. I’m sorry. Are you his wife?”
A sound like bathwater disappearing down a plug.
“Where are you? Where is he?”
“We’re on the A83.”
“The road that goes down the Kintyre Peninsula.”
“The Kintyre Peninsula?”
“But Jim phoned me from work this afternoon. He was going to do some Christmas shopping and come home. He lives and works in Liverpool. He’s never been to Scotland in his life. He doesn’t know anyone in Scotland. This must be some kind of mistake.”
“We’re definitely in Scotland.”
“But Jim, are you sure it’s him?”
“Well, I’ve never met him before.”
“Tell me what he looks like.”
“Does he drive a blue polo, registration plate G130 TRK? Does he wear a black leather jacket?”
“Yes, but his face.”
Watch a police car speed along the road. Soon this will all be over.
“How did it happen?”
“He overtook us a few miles back; he was driving like a maniac.”
“To get home?”
“No. In the opposite direction. The road ends in 20 miles. I don’t know what would make a man drive like that.”
“He said he was coming home. He said he was coming home.”
The woman starts wailing. As the police car comes to a halt you slip the phone back into the driver’s pocket. It starts ringing almost immediately, but you’re not going to answer it again.
Two policemen get out. You can hear their feet crunch the rock salt into the roads surface. Both of them were in your school and you wonder what it was about them that made it so obvious they would become policemen.
“Wow,” one of them says looking at the wreck.
“Just the one.”
“I don’t think so.”
One of the policemen approaches you. He takes out a notepad, and actually licks the tip of his pencil.
Mumbling the story, you wonder why you feel like you’re lying. The policeman nods every so often, but doesn’t write anything down.
“And your wife, is she injured?”
“No, I mean yes, I mean, I don’t know.”
The policeman peers at you. “Sir, you should get her out of the car.”
You remember the policeman’s surname is Littlejohn, that he was a good swimmer despite being the wrong shape. You want to ask if he still competes, but instead walk back to your car. Now that the police are here with their cooking gas blue lights and torches and radios and calm uniformed efficiency you feel empty. Only minutes ago you were delivering words heavy as bombs. Now you are precariously light. Open the door. She looks up like she has never seen you before, her eyelids pink and puffy.
A dull throbbing churns the night air. You both look out as a white light bigger than all the other stars makes itself significant.
“An angel,” she says and smiles shyly. “I was trying to tell you something.”
“I know. I know.”
The light looms large in the night sky.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m ok. We’re ok.”
You smile, unsure if she was including you.
The light hovers celestially bright and a down blast as if from beating wings whips the hair around your head. The policemen are looking up and Littlejohn is saying words into a radio. Climb into the car and close the door. You are there with her smell and your smell mingling in the vehicle. For a moment a blinding brilliance searches the inside of the car. She reaches out, takes your hand and places it on the curve of her belly. Your hand cradles her warmth. This is home now. Welcome.