As it happened, he survived.
He didn’t think he would. As the men carried him up the cliff, every iota of his body screaming in pain, he truly thought he was a gonner.
He could hear the grunts as the men heaved over the stones, sometimes slipping on loose gravel, and the heavy sound of booted feet as they struggled uphill with their burden. The sun beat down on him and flies gathered around the blood. They spoke to each other regularly, called instructions – this way – hold on – that way – searing pain and sweat till they reached the top. He was aware of the blue ambulance light flashing and somebody talking on the radio. He tried to look around to see if she was there, but he couldn’t move.
He kept her face in his mind’s eye as he drifted in and out of consciousness. It helped. It helped a great deal. It gave him a purpose. If nothing else, he wanted to live just to see her again. It became a burning ambition.
He was in hospital four months and had another year of general recovery. The agony of getting his legs moving, the pain in his back, the endless pool exercises … it would have been so much easier to give up, but the thought of her kept him going.
Mostly he thought about what she had said. What she had said as he lay dying. He never thought about her skin, soft like velvet, and her grey-green eyes and the dark, secret place between her legs. Through the slow months of recovery he thought of her often. As nursing staff came and went, speaking quietly, tweaking the drips, cleaning him up and changing his dressings, he thought of her. He ran them over and over in his mind, her words whispered quietly in the dark. He could remember them clearly. He could not remember the crash itself, but he could recall, as if it was five minutes ago, the smell of her skin very close by … and every single word …
He’d get to her. He’d find her. He’d teach her a lesson, a lesson like the one he had learned. He knew where to look. Shoot her down. Bang bang. Yes, that’s what he’d do. Fucking bitch.
A year earlier.
The dark summer night unfolded around them as the car, a white Toyota, wound its way through the hills. The road was not much more than a track, with broken asphalt in places, and a lot of loose stones. To one side of them the hill fell away steeply in to the valley, thick with rocks and sparse shrubbery. To the other side the hill climbed, and that same rocky outcrop reached up jaggedly, silent and foreboding in the night. Occasionally rocks and stones had slipped down from the escarpment on to the road.
The yellowed headlights shone out in to the blackness, though there was an almost full moon that lit up the horizon and the landscape all around. A couple of clouds, like strays, glided idly over the face of the moon and disappeared back in to the blackness. The air was warm. Carolyn knew that if they stopped they would hear the crickets. Thousands of them, chanting in to the air, sometimes enough to drive you mad. And the sound of little creatures under the rocks and bushes, scurrying away from the loud noise of the vehicle. There was nothing and nobody else for miles.
She glanced over at Elton behind the wheel. He had chosen this road because he knew he was drunk, even if he wouldn’t admit it, and because he knew there’d be no police. His face was grim and he squinted though the windscreen in to the dark, allowing the car to leap aggressively over potholes and rocks. Every now and then a clanging sound as a stone hit the bodywork. It was a hired car, so he didn’t care. She dreaded a puncture.
“Don’t forget the deposit,” she ventured quietly.
“Deposit ? What d’you mean?”
“The deposit we had to pay when we took the car,” she replied.
“What about it ?”
“Well … Elton … if we damage the car … ?”
“We’re not going to damage the car!” he said crossly. Then “just shut up.”
She fell silent. He had been drinking all evening. It was more than life was worth to cross him when he had been drinking.
“Let me drive,” she said. This was her third attempt. He didn’t even answer.
This holiday was a mistake. It was the hundredth time she had told herself that. It was some last-ditch attempt to save their relationship. Although they hadn’t talked about it, she knew that they both knew it was over. They didn’t argue, not in any loud and angry sense, but there was a constant stiffness between them and everything she said seemed to irritate him.
He wouldn’t let her drive. He was never able to admit to being drunk.
“Get out if you don’t like it!” he growled.
When he was sober he was charming, and she recognised that this was why they had survived so long. Five years. They weren’t married, but it was nonetheless hard to give up on twelve years together. Thank god they had no children! He’d be a lousy dad. Or would he ? She glanced over at his dark profile, jaw set in his determination that he wasn’t drunk, fists clenched over the steering wheel. He may have made a good dad. Maybe it would have changed him.
But, with that clarity of thought one has in moments of acceptance, she knew that some other woman would have to see if he was a good dad. It would not be her. She had quietly ,while he was in the shower, phoned the airline and changed her ticket for the following day. She realised it was perhaps a tad sneaky, but there was no point in trying to talk to him again, and it was foolish to risk him becoming angry and perhaps even violent. He could be violent when pushed too far.
He didn’t want to be with her any more, but he didn’t want to be dumped either. She understood that, just as she understood he was too weak a character to walk out himself … which was why it just dragged on.
It was up to her to go.
Initially she had thought that she’d tell him over breakfast in the morning. Perhaps they’d make love one last time. He was always at his best, both sexually and socially, in the morning. She just wanted out, even though there were still seven days of the holiday to go. Where was the point in hanging around ?
This evening had been a fiasco difficult to get out of. They’d been invited to the function by friends of friends, and it would have been not only rude, but thoughtless to not go. She had cast about in her mind, working out how to get out of it, but it was too awkward for all concerned, not least Lily, the hostess. Still, our last evening out together even if Elton doesn’t know it , she’d thought. As Elton steadily got pissed, she was glad she’d made her decision. She determined that, as soon as he was asleep back in the motel, she would quietly pack and leave. She’d leave him a note.
You were too drunk to talk to last night so it has to be a note. Goodbye. I don’t ever want to see you again.
This alternated with:
Oh my love – this is the end. There is no reason to stay … goodbye, my love, goodbye …
Anger and tears fluctuated in her mind. Either way, it was over. That much was clear,.
The car lurched suddenly, making her gasp and grip on to the side. There was no point in asking him to slow down, but nonetheless she said:
“Oh fuck off,” he replied.
Precisely, she thought, I will.
She wondered if she should insist he stop and let her out. The road was so isolated and it was at least three miles to the junction where they met the main road leading to their motel. She could see the lights of what was possibly a farmhouse in the distance, but that was a long way off. The thought of walking alone in the darkness frightened her more than sitting in the car.
“You frightened?” he grinned suddenly. “You think I’m not a good driver ? Eh?”
“Elton,” she tried to reason, “please … yes, you’re frightening me!”
He laughed then and lurched the car to one side, then the other, zig-zagging across the road. She bit her lip. She’d have to get out. This was dangerous.
“Now you’re being childish!” she pleaded. “For pity’s sake!”
Suddenly he pulled in, sending stones scudding up behind the car. She could smell burning rubber.
“Get out then!” he jeered.
Carolyn opened the car door and got out hurriedly, clutching her bag.
“Just let me drive, Elton,” she said, leaning in, “then all will be well. We’ll get back to the hotel, you can have a nice shower … all will be well …”
“Just let me drive!” he mimicked, and he drove off, veering to the far edge and back again, barely in control of the vehicle.
She knew he’d pull in further along the road so that she could get back in. Even in his drunken state he wouldn’t have just left her there. She looked around for somewhere to hide so that he would be unable to pick her up again, because this was it. This was truly the total end. They’d been this way before, drunk and nasty followed by contrite sadness. But no more. No more.
To her surprise he drove some distance before he stopped. He revved twice, angrily, and waited for her to catch up. Yet she knew she’d not get back in to the car. It was too dangerous.
“I don’t know you!” she called in to the night, “You are nothing to me! You are not in my life, not any more! I do not get in to cars with strangers!”
She knew he couldn’t hear her and, as she walked, she looked around, not quite sure what she was looking for, but knowing that she would hide from him if he got out, and walk on past him if – as was likely – he has fallen asleep at the wheel by the time she got there.
That had happened before too.
Shaking, Carolyn sat down on a boulder. Tears spilled out and ran down her cheeks. Not tears of self-pity, but tears of fright, of desperation and of resignation. She couldn’t walk back they way they had come – it was at least five miles and on an unlit road. She didn’t want to catch up with him, yet couldn’t stay where she was.
Around her the noises of the summer night made her jumpy, but she sat for some time, waiting for a miracle, a solution, to present itself. Her sobs subsided and she stared at the red lights at the rear of the car. He was tapping on the break pedal. She could hear the engine idling. Then he drove on a bit and stopped again. Playing.
The sudden sound of the car horn made her jump. It seemed to split the air. Then, to her amazement, the car backed up a little, and Elton tried to do a three-point turn on the narrow track. He hooted again. Failing to turn, he got out and shouted something in her direction, got back in the car and drove off. He was bad-tempered and unpleasant before, but now he was really angry.
When something life-changing happens, it is usually impossible to pinpoint the exact moment. The mind has a way of blocking some parts and of misjudging other parts.
It was sudden. One moment the car was skidding along the gravel and the next moment it was tumbling, over and over in to the ravine some hundred feet below. The noise was massive as the vehicle hurtled down the slope, hitting rocks and banging against the hard earth.
“Elton! Oh my God! Oh my God!!”
Carolyn stood still for some moments, watching in disbelief. The car came to a halt. Noises of stones falling, metal crunching. Then the silence itself seemed loud, as the vehicle stopped rolling. All was still. Silent.
Gingerly, slipping regularly, Carolyn scrabbled down the escarpment.
“Elton!” she called.
She took out her mobile and, although there was no signal, it lit the path for her to an extent. Wearing just light pumps on her feet and cut-off slacks, her legs were soon scratched. Stones rolled away from under her feet and in the silence of the night around her she could hear her own breathing and the thousands of crickets.
Afterwards she tried to work out how long it took her to reach the car. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, yet at the time it seemed to take an eternity. She stopped as she got close and peered in to the darkness.
“Elton?” she whispered, “Elton? Are you all right?”
… and even as she said it she realised it was a foolish thing to say. Of course he was not all right.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she was able to pick out shapes as she flashed the light of her mobile over the wreckage. At first she thought he was trapped in the car and the possibility of it bursting in to flames struck her. She couldn’t smell petrol. The vehicle was upside down. Then she saw him. Sprawled half in and half out of the car, he lay twisted, his mouth open, one eye staring at the sky and the other covered in blood.
“Oh my god,” she said still in a whisper, “oh my god … Elton, you idiot!”
She approached slowly, as if still afraid he would be nasty. He was dead. As the realisation of this hit her she started to shake violently and she sat down in the dirt, gasping for her breath.
“You idiot!” she said more loudly, “you complete bloody idiot.”
She checked her mobile again. Still no signal. She had to get back up the cliff. She had to go.
“You bastard … you’d have killed me too …”
Her voice shook uncontrollably.
“I would never have wished you dead, you bastard, I’d never have wished you dead. But I have to tell you that I will not miss you. I had already decided to leave. I changed my flight this morning. You didn’t know that, did you? I was leaving you tonight. I am still leaving you tonight.”
The one eye continued to stare up at the sky. She could smell blood and saw a darkening area over his chest, seeping through the torn white shirt.
“You could have killed me too!” she repeated. “You don’t give a thought to other people. What about your mother ? How will she take this news? You bloody stupid bastard.”
She burst in to tears then. Shock, grief, relief, horror … it all flooded through her. She cried loudly and spoke to him, sobbing out her words … selfish … stupid …. why ? … why not let me drive …? She cried for a long time.
Eventually she calmed down. She was aware that her main feeling should be of grief, yet it wasn’t. She thought she should say a prayer, or light a candle, or cover him with a sheet, but none of that was possible. Except the prayer.
“Our father who art in Heaven,” she began. She didn’t know the rest.
Action! she told herself. He was dead. She could do nothing for him and there wasn’t even any point in trying to run for help. Somebody would find him as soon as it was light. There was nothing of hers in the car and she had her own room key. Go, she told herself, just go, catch that flight, forget about him.
“You know,” she said aloud, “we could have made it but for your drinking. You are such an idiot when you drink. You can’t hold it. You behave like a fool. Yes, you are an embarrassment when you are drunk. You make me cringe. I don’t know why I have stayed so long, I really don’t. You’re not even good in bed. You’re useless with money. You’re useless, always have been … don’t know what I saw in you …”
She held her face up to the black sky and breathed deeply.
“My last memory of you, Elton, will be of you as you are now. Bloodied. Dead. Sorry. I know that sounds so harsh, but you have been a pig, a monster. And why ? Why ?! When you are sober you can be so nice. Why wreck it for the sake of a drink ?”
She looked up the hill, fairly well lit under the moonlight.
“I’m frightened of the dark,” she continued, “but you have never cared about that. Yet I don’t feel frightened now. I am strong. I will climb back up to the road and I will walk. I will find a way back to the hotel, pack my things and go.”
For a moment she pictured their rented flat.
“I’ll take my stuff from the flat. I don’t want anything of yours. It can rot or go to a charity shop. I really don’t care.”
She stood then, suddenly very calm, exhausted but strong.
“I’m off now. Goodbye Elton. Goodbye. I shall start again. I shall have a bright new start. I will go and live in Hawkmead. That’ll suit me, a little village by the sea. I will find a house in the village centre, or a flat, with a village shop nearby. I’ll get rid of my car and buy a bike. That’s what I’ll do. A simple little job, a simple life, a nice boyfriend who doesn’t get drunk, perhaps kids one day. Yes, Hawkmead. A pretty place just right for me.”
It took Carolyn a good half hour to scrabble back up the hill. She fell once and slid part of the way down again. Stones rolled down underfoot. She grabbed on to grassy humps and small branches to haul herself up and, when she finally reached the road, she lay slumped for a while in the dust, catching her breath.
It was three in the morning when she finally reached her hotel, having hitched a ride in a lorry part of the way. There was nobody about as she scuttled across the entrance hall to the lift. It was one of those cheap hotels with hundreds of young people staying, a good-value place. She found that tears kept springing to her eyes, and a lump in her throat made her want to sob her heart out. But she didn’t. She showered quickly, put on clean clothes, packed her case … and left.
But there’s no telling how things will work out, is there ? Twelve hours later she was packing her things up in the flat, a move to Hawkmead on her mind.
Elton no longer needed a stick, though he walked with a limp. He didn’t mind the scars on his face, let alone on his chest. The pain was well under control. He had lost one eye in the accident, but he had got used to it and always wore a patch which he rather liked.
Hawkmead was over three hours’ ride by train, followed by either a bus or a taxi. What in god’s name she wanted to live there for was beyond him, but that’s where he’d find her, so that was fine.