Short fiction

Issue #8

The Dying Road

 ‘… Wake up!’

    Someone was shaking me; I was falling.

    ‘…Wake up, you must wake, we need to leave now! Please, please, please God, wake up!’
    I lurched into consciousness to shooting pains on my back, darkness, the smell of smoke and burning, aching head, stars. Lucie - bleeding, crying, desperate Lucie - was shouting, from further away, but all I could hear was white noise. My fluttering heart began to pound when I realised: there’s been an accident. With shaking hands, I pushed my stiff body upright and tried to push open the wreck of a car door beside me. I heard the musical clink of broken glass falling to the ground, the exhausted creak and pained groan of the metal door trying to open. Lucie heaved herself out of the front, sobbing, and pulled at the handle, but it was jammed.
    ‘Quick, hurry, they’re waking!’ she cried.
    It was stuck. I clambered over the back seat of the destroyed Vauxhall, over the stirring bodies of the two men as they emerged into consciousness, and pulled myself through the shattered back windscreen. I tumbled out, landing hard on the cold black concrete.
    The impact emptied my head. Lucie was crying as she crouched over me, asking if I was all right, checking my body for injury, putting my shoes back on, relentlessly, endlessly saying she was sorry, she was so, so sorry.
‘Shut up,’ I managed to choke, and dragged myself to my feet. ‘Let’s go.’
And we ran.
    We ran through the darkness at the side of the road. We picked pieces of glass from our skin as we went, pain blazing up our legs and across our heads, wincing from the stinging pinch in our chests when they began to tighten in the cold air - but still, we ran. A car passed and we threw ourselves into the bushes, pressing our hands over our mouths, forgetting that engines are louder than breathing, forgetting that we very easily could have just died and it all would have been over, forgetting anything and everything except that we had to keep running, keep on running.
    It was just when the first light of dawn began to awaken and we could see the white lines in the road, that we realised they were behind us. The panic pushed us through the pain until we couldn’t feel anything anymore; we were flying over the ground, floating off the road and into the long grass and away.
Trees were emerging from the blue darkness before us in our mad sprint, promising to hide us and keep us safe from the crash, the shouting, and the men as they abandoned the road and hunted us. The night was transforming into day around us and here we were, running and running in the midst of the change, somewhere in between the dangerous and confusing night and the innocently fresh day, somewhere between safety and danger, between panic, rational thought, and the pursuit of this elusive, naïve, and hazy dream. I knew I was gasping and choking up the pain in my chest but I couldn’t feel it. I felt as if I was floating through the past few weeks and months, and couldn’t tell where I was anymore. I didn’t know if I was running or flying; I couldn’t tell if it was day or night; I wasn’t sure if it was today, or all those days and months ago when this had all begun, on that lonely Saturday afternoon getting ready to move out of my home, and back in with my father. I had been packing my life into boxes, alone, when a little book had fallen out and tumbled to the ground.
I had picked it up, and sat cross legged on the worn patterned carpet in the middle of the lounge. Almost immediately, I’d realised I was sitting in a wine stain from a forgotten party that we had never gotten around to getting removed. I smiled at the memory of that fleeting evening; the shared jokes, the whispered secrets, the reckless kisses and the relentless noise beat on through the years to the empty room around me.
    I had opened the book and realised like a punch to the gut that it was a holiday diary of my mother from nearly twenty years ago. I had touched the thick lined pages and the black ink delicately, carefully, as though they were pieces of my mother herself. Perhaps they were; these were her idle thoughts and observations, small emotions and doings that had all been contained in words and ink, safely bound by paper and protected from the years in blue leather and black ribbon. I considered whether it was right or wrong to read it, then dismissed it as I realised she would never know, so looked instead inside.
I remembered that holiday. I had listened to Madonna in the car on the way down, hearing Don’t Tell Me over and over again as we sat enjoying our sandwiches beneath pine trees on our way to the holiday house. Mother couldn’t get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, so had left it to Dad as he travelled in Europe a lot for work, and was unfazed.
    I flicked to the back and found the longest entry on the last day. On that day, we had planned to pack up all of our belongings in the morning, enjoy the last day and leave for the night ferry at six o’clock sharp. But family holidays being what they are, we awoke late. Instead of packing we headed straight out to make the most of our last day, finding a little hidden beach on the way to our usual. We decided to try something new, so stayed there.
    It was such a wonderful feeling this morning, Mother had written, in this journal. I remember the breeze from the open window in the car snapping at her white floral dress, beneath her sunhat and brown sunglasses. Later on the ferry, she sat out on the windy deck with the pen in her hand, savouring the last of the holiday as we sailed the melancholy charm that is the journey home. Leaving sensible things behind for the day. Dad wasn’t impressed and grumbled as usual, but we had a lovely day while he sulked to himself in the sun. We arrived and set up camp. I was reading Pride and Prejudice -a cliché of a holiday book I know, but call me a cliché, it’s still lovely. The boys barely even let me put on sun cream before they rushed off and jumped into the sea, splashing the salt water into each other’s eyes, pushing each other’s heads under water and throwing rocks at each other like they do. They really are charming creatures, are little boys. ‘It will all end in tears!’ I had warned them, but I was wrong. Even they didn’t want to fight that day. The little one stayed with me, digging holes and practicing her writing in the sand, asking me all sorts of questions like she does. Occasionally she would dabble her feet in the shallows, but always ran away when a wave hit, and never would go deeper than her knees.
    Then the boys found that rock out to sea, and then, oh, the fun they had! Time and time again they would clamber up and just leap off it, never tiring, never getting bored even once. They would bomb, jump, dive, sometimes being pirates, sometimes Peter Pan, sometimes aeroplanes or soldiers, and sometimes just young brothers enjoying a warm day together at the end of a perfect summer. Their little sister sat watching them beside me for a very long time, saying nothing. She looked so worried, bless her little heart, thinking away and fiddling with her shell collection. In the end I could stand it no longer, so pulled off her hat and shoes, dunked her in the ocean and sent her out to join them. Her big brothers came back and swam with her, picked her up to the top of the rock when she couldn’t manage the climb on her own, and carried on jumping and screaming and shouting. She just stood there.
    I shall never forget that picture in my mind as long as I live, her stubborn arms folded against the surging water and the flashing sun, her worried little face frowning at the clear blue drop beneath her feet. In the end, she had sat on the rock, climbed back down, and slipped into the shallower water. Jamie swam her back to shore, where she shed a few frustrated tears and sat in the ankle deep sea, watching their careless fun enviously, almost hungrily.
    ‘Alright, chick?’ I had asked, and sat beside her, to no response. Instead, she splashed water and ran her hand through the sand, retreating into herself and blocking me out, hiding her vulnerability like she does when she’s ashamed. So I made myself content to sit beside her, feeling her try to make sense out of what was happening and thinking of all the words to say to comfort her for when she piped up later. She’s very quiet now, sat at the back by herself, watching the window. They all are; it has been a wonderful ten days, and we have left France behind us just before it lost the magic, just after it became real. But she hasn’t piped up yet, and something is telling me that she won’t this time; she is growing older, and heaven only knows what battles lie ahead for us over these next few years.
    I had shut the book with a snap after that and stuffed it back in the box, surprised at my fast heartbeat and surge of rage. I stood up, observing my flat for the last time. Ignorantly assuming that hiding the book from sight would cut it from my mind, I packed the last few items into the box on top of it. I lingered in the living room of my flat for the last few moments that I could call it so, then headed out without a word. I didn’t dare look back.

The next few months had been a bitter, soul destroying and tiring battle, hunting for jobs, money, a routine and some kind of pride and self worth. I managed a hollow victory after a few weeks of rejections and unemployment, working for a fairly friendly grocery shopkeeper called Cathy. Cathy fancied herself some sort of born-again ethical hippie warrior, despite her addiction for celebrity gossip magazines, dishonesty to her customers, organic labels on standard fruits and vegetables, and overpriced stale produce. She was still a hippie though, she said; she knew was quinoa was, was vegan apart from when she was drunk - which, incidentally, was most nights - voted for the Green Party and wore green knitted jumpers with purple headscarves.
    It was in those long and dreary days stacking oranges in boxes, taking deliveries in the early mornings and making small talk with yuppie students and yummy mummies, that an idea began to bud from those idle thoughts Mother had jotted down in that leather notebook. It had been sown in my mind securely that afternoon, first lying dormant, then emerging. It was flowering, blossoming, beginning to grow bigger and bigger, getting in the way, tugging at me all day and filling my mind as it grew vaster and better and stronger.
As if! I would tell myself. These are just empty daydreams, wistful irrational nothings as a result of boredom and a few bad choices. They’ll pass, with a bit of time.
    But it would carry on, persistently playing with me, refusing to leave me alone. As the days and weeks passed, I received more and more news from friends getting engaged, friends getting promotions, friends in the same boat as me, only their half had the good view. Meanwhile, I dejectedly stickered oranges and lemons with lies, began to know the ingredients and sell by dates of the various packets and jars by heart, and came to be on first name terms with the regulars in a dull routine, all day long, all on my own. Behind this, meanwhile, the idle thought became the active thought, the active thought became the idea, the idea became the plan, the plan became the obsession, and the obsession began to devour. I couldn’t shake it. A few short years ago my head had been toying with pretentious theories and lofty novels, turning over elaborate concepts and sophisticated rhetoric, analysing complex relationships and treasured friendships in century old libraries - but with those days gone, my head instead was being consumed by a single dangerous and futile compulsion.
If only I had jumped off the rock that day, I thought, every day. If only it hadn’t defeated me. If only I hadn’t secured for myself a safe and hesitant identity back then: that was surely, surely the root of the tasteless flavour my life had become. What if I could go back? It could change everything; it could alter the direction my life had gone down then and was heading down now into a brighter place full of seized days and no regrets; it could transform the grey and wistful existence my life was right now into something vibrant, colourful, more alive. Had I forced myself to let go and just jump, I wouldn’t have accepted that it’s okay to fall short; I wouldn’t have set my life to a pattern of hesitating and missing out, always knowing that it’s better to never have a go in case you stub your toe, that it’s better to be the one to reject or leave before being abandoned and left alone, that it’s better to not try at all than to try your best and then fail. If only I had just done it, never hesitated, just jumped, then right now the words ‘what if’ wouldn’t haunt my every step, the words ‘if only’ cloud my every decision.
    What if I could still jump off it now? I began to think. What if I found that rock in France now, and jumped off it without hesitating even for a split second, would that change anything? Would it change everything?
    And the obsession transformed. I had to do it, if only to quieten the voice in my head. I had to jump off the rock, I had to undo the curious disappointment in me that Mother had written about. I had to rewrite my own past if I had any chance of writing myself a decent future.
    And so one day in the early spring of the following year, I walked out of the grocery shop for the last time, kissed my confused father goodbye, climbed on a southbound train and caught the early morning ferry out of the grey Newhaven harbour on a mission to find my missing rock. I didn’t dare look back for the white cliffs, not even once.

At first, my French adventure had been everything you could wish for in a few foolish weeks away. It had my mediocre French just about getting me through the days and brief encounters with impassioned young Frenchmen doing more than getting me through the nights; it had cheap European youth hostels I was just young enough to enjoy filled with late night drinking sessions in bars with other rootless travellers; it had cobbled side streets with quaint little patisseries in bright sunlight; it had the Eiffel tower, the Louvre, and exquisite French restaurants boasting the finest of dining followed by the best of cheeses and wines with the strongest of coffees. When I branched out of the bigger cities to the countryside and obscure little coastal towns, it had eerie campsites, fruit and vegetable picking on genuine organic farms and orchards with real life hippies, bike rides through sea spray, shaded picnic lunches and strange bed and breakfast cottage conversations over mealtimes.
    And then there was Lucie. I met her on the 8:00am train to La Rochelle; a small, sleepy French hairdresser gone AWOL from her own life with red shorts, a camping rucksack about as big as her, and an unquenchable thirst for trouble. She had responded in French to my pathetic attempts before realising I was English, in which she was fluent. We enjoyed a conversation about how nobody in England really bothers to learn other languages, and she agreed with my opinion that we should start learning another language as soon as we go to school in the infants.
    ‘That’s what we do here,’ she had explained, and I’d felt a tug of envy toward her.
    ‘Where are you going?’ I had asked, and very quickly wished I hadn’t. She told me all about her ex-boyfriend, Antoine. She had eventually broken off her engagement to Antoine, whom she had been with for six years, because their relationship had turned sour and he had become appallingly abusive. He hadn’t accepted the break up, and had been following her and harassing her ever since.
    ‘It is no use, no where I go am I safe. I put family and friends in danger as Antoine plays with fire and knives at times. He frightened my mother very much,’ she had said. I asked her why she hadn’t gone to the police. ‘It is no use either, for they do not care. He works for the government in security, he is, er - an informer, I think you say? for the police, so sells cocaine and knows dangerous men, but has high authority within the police. He sees everything, so I take all my cash with me now. If I am always moving and telling no-one, and not going to banks, he cannot know where I am.’
    We ended up talking about previous relationships and plans and all sorts for the whole three hours of the train journey. Forgetting to feel stupid, I told her all about my quest to find my missing rock. She was fascinated by the idea, adoring it. By the time we arrived in La Rochelle we knew we were good friends, so agreed that ‘wherever we end up running to on these our trips, we promise to end up running together.’ We bought some cheap wine that day and got drunk on the beach, quickly slipping me into the next phase of my trip. It was saturated with wine, tequila and four percent beer in bars and clubs and youth hostels, other travellers and yet more impassioned young Frenchmen. We skinny-dipped at midnight, hitch-hiked in the dark, sunbathed in the weak spring sun, went grape picking to try and make our own wine, and took morning-after-the-night-before walks through rich pine forests to clear out the cobwebs and shift the dust of the previous night’s shenanigans. ‘Where are you going?’ people would ask us, and always we would give the same reply: ‘to find our missing rock.’
    Occasionally I would reveal to Lucie how desperate my secret obsession was becoming. I hinted at how the rock had haunted my dreams almost every fragile and restless night’s sleep; how in some it had grown bigger and more overwhelming, then slipped away, lost; how in others it was swallowed by the ocean, in others it floated away each time I got close to it. Sometimes, I saw Mother stood atop of it. On some occasions she would face the wrong way in the salty winds, oblivious to my desperate screams and cries; on others, she would dive from it in the summer sun, laughing, full of youth and freedom, while I would say nothing and watch. Other nights she would be waiting for me, searching the rocks, the sand and the water with sometimes patient but anxious eyes, sometimes peaceful and comforting. Some nights I would jump off it, when mother was watching, laughing and proud. Sometimes I would jump off it alone. But each time I dreamed that I jumped, I never, ever hesitated, not once, not even for a split second. I never told Lucie just how much I needed to find this rock. The menacing threat of what would happen if I failed was quite alarming, and I didn’t dare face it.

But eventually, I began to disconnect myself from running on empty around French towns drunk beyond reason, and began to sadly look at what our lives had come to be. I began to see clearly that all we were doing was chasing elusive phantoms and shadow hunting, living an arbitrary life on borrowed time that couldn’t possibly last much longer. We were searching for water in the ocean in random places on the French coast, pursuing something that probably didn’t even exist any more. While the anxious delusion beat on, louder and louder, my excitement began to fade as my enthusiasm and hope shrank as rapidly as my hard earned positive bank balance. My final crisis of faith crashed into me like a wave one night when I lost a fifty Euro note, and reality hit me like a punch in the face. We were hitch-hiking on from a town, and the wine was wearing off. I knew then that it was over, that it was time to leave France and go. I had fallen to my knees and wished and begged for more time, but when it never came, I had finally accepted it; the time-bomb had stopped ticking, and nothing had happened. I had sat at the side of the road, mulling over the days wasted on the rock. It no longer ticked, but I knew still that it was there, and there it would remain.
    But, again, it was time to cut my losses, admit defeat, stop running from my life and my choices, go home and make some better ones chasing better dreams. I voiced it to Lucie, and crossed over the road to hitch-hike the other way. She had followed, trying and trying to change my mind, singing, dancing, laughing, doing anything and saying everything. I said nothing, but thumbed down a beat up old Vauxhall and smiled at the young Frenchman at the wheel, who offered to take us to the next town.
    ‘Please don’t give up, we can keep on going! Do not get in that car, we do not know who he is!’ Lucie, ever the untrusting dreamer, begged. She had never wanted or liked to hitch-hike.
    ‘No,’ I said firmly. ‘It’s time to go home, it’s over.’
    I opened the car door.
    ‘You’re not getting into that car alone, girl,’ she warned.
    ‘Then I guess we’re getting in together.’
    And without looking back, we clambered in that beat up old Vauxhall.

I wish I didn’t believe in Fate. I wish, I wish, I wish I didn’t, I wish harder than I wished the Smurfs were real when I was little. Because at times she can be a cruel, cold blooded and twisted bitch, waiting at every turn to pull out the carpet from beneath your feet, spitefully laugh in your face and rub salty acid in the wounds you achieved on the fall.
    As soon as the car had pulled off, the doors had locked, and Lucie had started to scream.
    ‘Antoine! It is Antoine!’ she cried, but it was too late. He pulled a knife as his friend clambered to the back and held me down, shoving Lucie as she kicked and screamed over and into Antoine’s free arm and he shoved her roughly into the front seat. He held the knife to her face and cut her, so she remained still. They kept telling me again and again to shut up, but I couldn’t; the other man gagged me; she shouted while she bled; I wept.
    His arms were locked around me to keep me from struggling. Antoine was driving recklessly fast, one hand holding the bloodstained knife and the steering wheel and the power, the other exploring his lost love while she fought, shouting in French until one hard stroke to the face silenced her. Tears and blood coursed down her face as she fixed her eyes forward, saying my name again and again. My eyes were drawn to Antoine’s rough dark ones, his chillingly calm expression, his shaved head, dark stubble and slim but muscular build. He wore a thick black coat and said nothing. His friend smoked a cigarette beside me, and when it was down to the bottom, stubbed it out with a burning sizzle on the back of Lucie’s neck. She didn’t react, and barely moved. All I could hear was white noise.
    We had been struggling and driving about twenty minutes when she caught my eye in the mirror, willing me to understand what she was trying to say. I didn’t. She began to speak very softly in French to Antoine. He didn’t respond or look up, but seemed to relax a little, listening to her voice and being more gentle with his hand. Eventually, she began to stroke it, then his arm, his neck, his face, reaching up to give him a small kiss. He tensed, but soon fell back. I could barely breathe. Then suddenly, she did it.
    ‘Hold on!’ she had shouted, grabbing the wheel and wrenching the car off the road; I just missed time to snap on my seat belt so clung to the seat in front as the car flew straight into a tree, crashing into a smoking wreckage. I had fallen into blackness, until Lucie woke me, and we escaped.

And so, there I was, exhausted, being ruthlessly hunted in the dark after the horrible car crash. We had reached the forest and stopped running, ducking inside and being snatched at and tripped up and scratched at by all the trees as we sobbed our way through the greenery.
    ‘Lucie!’ I choked out, blindly groping and grasping through the darkness, but she was gone. I stumbled to where I had last seen her, when I felt a hand grab my ankle, another grasp around my face when I fell, trapping my noisy breath in my panicking mouth.
    ‘Shhhh…’ I felt someone whisper into my ear - or perhaps it was just the wind.
    There was no noise, save for the gentle rustle of leaves, and distant shout of the men, and the softly rising sun.
    ‘Mum?’ I breathed. ‘Mum?’
    ‘Quiet. Not yet,’ it said.
    My mother’s voice. Clear as anything, exactly how I remembered that instructive, no-nonsense, but slightly musical voice.
    ‘Quiet!’ it said again, earnestly now.
    The snapping and crunching and shouting of the men, right by me. The wind had deceived me; they weren’t far away at all. I didn’t dare breathe. If I hadn’t tripped up by and become tangled in these vines, if the wind hadn’t hidden my words, I would have been found for sure.
    ‘When I say, go left, run down the hill and out towards the cliff.’
    ‘Not yet, sweetheart, when I say.’
    I stood up in a moment of panic believing the men to be gone, but was pulled back down, just hidden from them as they thundered past again.
    ‘Not yet.’
    No noise again.
    ‘Now. Go on, sweetheart, and run.’
    And I ran, again. I wasn’t sure if it was the bad light, exhaustion, panic and dehydration or my imagination taking me off on other adventures, but I swear, I swear I saw her. She picked silvery apples from the trees, and was making a hammock out of material that she waved in the salty breeze from the ocean. She stood smiling on the cliff as I ran past it, patting her silvery dog, searching for a silvery stick.
    And all of a sudden, the earth fell away before my feet to huge tumbling rocks, and I stopped dead. The ocean lay sleepily, twitching and sighing, occasionally yawning, growing bigger and more violent the deeper I looked. I began to see it circling a dark shadow a little way out to sea.
    ‘No…’ I said. ‘No way…’
    There was the rock. Somehow, there, right before me, was the rock. But then, there had always been the rock - somewhere in my subconscious before mum’s diary had drawn it into my awareness, the rock had lurked, waiting for me to realise, taunting me. It had mocked me for giving in to my fear at every wrong turn I had taken since that day, smirking at my exasperation and frustration, at the wistful regret I felt even then, as a child. It knew the clock had always been ticking until the day I would return to set things straight. It shouldered off the mighty waves now, daring me, swelling up through the half light and beckoning.
    I cried out. It echoed, they heard, she came, again we ran. Realising we had nowhere to go, we began to scramble, exhausted and in pain, down a rocky half path down the cliff face and out to a windy ledge half way down - but they saw. They followed us, laughing, hunting us. We were trapped, with nowhere left to run. We had chased my stupid, stupid imagination all across country and coast leaving a burning trail of destruction, and all it had led us to was this.
    We looked at each other, knowing that this was either over, or that this was it. Deciding simultaneously that it was only over when we said it was, we took each other’s hands, and jumped. We laughed as we fell through the air. We knew the men would probably find us and make us pay. We knew we didn’t really have a way out. We knew that we had no money, no way to get money, no way to get home, no passports, no bags, no clothes, no phones and no sun cream. We were falling, but for this moment we were invincible; nothing could touch us, nothing could tarnish this, and there was nothing in our way.
    It all exploded when we hit the water. We struggled and fought in a desperate battle against the current, not looking back, still laughing at the rush of the leap and the release of the water, the calm of the undersea blue. Eventually, we reached the rock, scrambled atop it, joined hands, leapt up and off it - just as we saw the first splinter of sunlight shatter the night into a thousand pieces. The clean yellow droplets of daylight invaded the sky in a frenzy; the fractured night withdrew and retreated, defeated.

We were carried by our victory to the shore; the men were nowhere to be seen, so we stopped in the shallows, looking around the cove expectantly. Our beaming smiles faltered when we saw.

    The day simply continued to emerge, and the night fade, and that was it. The waves still stroked the shoreline, the wind still spilled across the empty beach, and the rock still endured the shifting ocean, almost silent, and quite alone. Nothing had changed. Staggering slightly against the relentless pulse of the ocean as it beat around my knees, I reached up and felt something warm and wet on my temple. Pushing the stiff hair and salty sting from my eyes, I emerged to meet Lucie’s frowning and scrutinizing gaze.
    ‘Why’s it so quiet?’ she asked.
    I never answered her.

Later on that day, two girls started to scream at what they discovered on the beach.

Sophie Swaine