The Night Following (3 page)

Perhaps I did wince as the pink branches bobbed above, almost in my face, or I may have blinked as a splinter of sunlight sliced at my eyes. And I’m not sure if I truly remember this or have constructed it after the event—after learning what the event must have been—but I can describe a jolt and a bang and the car bucking like an animal, and a black bulk thrown up and looming at me and blotting out the sky, and two or three ghastly, weighted thumps and then noises of scraping and rasping all around me. The windshield crackled and crumped inward. The bulk disappeared and the sun burned back through the crazed glass in fragmented darts of light that pricked my eyes like a fistful of thrown needles. I have no idea how I stopped the car.

This I do remember. In silence I walked—I did not run—toward the shape on the road. It was sprawled a shockingly long way back. It wasn’t black. She was dressed in a russet checked jacket and navy trousers. She lay on her front, irretrievably broken. I went close enough to see that her head was the wrong shape, and I saw the crimson purée growing under it. It no longer fitted correctly on her neck. One side was flattened so it seemed to be lying in a hollowed-out bowl in the tarmac. I went close enough to see the off-center rictus of a dislodged dental plate forcing a mad smile out of one side of her torn mouth. I saw on her face a look of slight surprise, a single backward glance arrested indelibly in an eye that was drowsy and glistening with the filmy, departing gaze of a drunkard, or a very tired baby. I did not hear if the spinning rear wheel of the bicycle on the side of the road was making the usual cheerful ticking noise. All seemed quiet until I became aware of a soft, lamenting whine coming from my own lips. Beyond us, the wind flicked some sheets of paper across several spilled books on the road. A ring binder lay splayed, its cover showing a cartoon of a quill pen and the words
Woman Wise
——
Monkwell Women Writers Group.
A shopping bag caught and torn in the fractured spars of the bicycle bore a facsimile of Shakespeare’s signature and the words
As You Like It
. Daffodils and clumps of grass at the base of the orchard wall shivered in little flurries of wind and I saw an empty blue hat on the side of the road begin to stir and roll among the waves of frayed yellow and green. Just then the silenced birds in the pink trees started up again.

The wind got up, too. A sudden gust blew the loose papers on the road upward into the light and shadow and for a few moments I stood transfixed by their swirling, indecent exuberance, the loveliness of bright white paper as the sun caught each flapping page. Then, perhaps to stop myself from screaming, I chased after them through the scattering wind, grabbing them in midair or where they dropped momentarily to the ground. I don’t know what I thought I was saving, or for whom. All I saw was that every sheet bore the heading THE COLD AND THE BEAUTY AND THE DARK, and all I knew was that I could not bear that a single paper should be swept into the dirt and blood. I would not let a single word be smirched. By the time I’d picked the pages all up and bundled them in my arms, I was weeping.

I think my whimpering stopped in the second or two before my mouth dried. I didn’t faint or fall but all at once I wanted to be down on the ground. I was clutching the papers against my body and they were suddenly unbearably heavy. I was going to have to sink down next to her and stay there forever, or I was going to have to move. I ran back to the car, opened the door, and threw the papers into the back. With my hand reaching for my purse—I was about to get my telephone, surely I was?—I turned and looked up, hearing a raucous hacking sound above me. A crow swooped out of the trees, skimmed over the wall, and alighted in a tatter of wings on the small of the woman’s back. Two more landed on the road nearby. The first one, watched by the others, lifted its wings and tidied them over itself like a pair of oily folded hands. It hopped up the length of her body until it stood on her hair. Prayerfully, it dipped its head and began to peck. In the sunlight its feathers gleamed rainbow black. I drove away.

 

27 Cardigan Avenue
kitchen
lunchtime
Dear Ruth
For obvious reasons it’s no good me asking where the pressure cooker is. I wish I knew. I’ve never understood the new microwave. I could cope with the last one, this one really gets my goat. Far and away too fancy.
kitchen later
Window cleaner’s just been here. Cheeky bugger. Acted like he hadn’t heard the news. Actually whistling. Well, I wasn’t about to enlighten him. I’m sure he knows and he’s taking advantage. How much is he supposed to get? He told me £15. I paid up, just this time I told him, I won’t be ripped off like that again.
I’ll have something to say if he tries that again. The situations some people are capable of taking advantage of. Unbelievable.
A.
PS The police haven’t been back. Unless you count Victim Support Officer. So nothing to report there

 

As I drove, I knew the sun would still be shining through the windy trees, painting the road in moving daubs of shadow. Daffodils and a lost hat would still waft together on the grass. Horror that should have quite overwhelmed me was somehow at bay, though I sensed that it was massing, growing in a place in my mind where it would wait and visit later when its full force had gathered. For the moment I was calm enough to know my calm for what it was: merciful, sedating shock, the kindly muffling of the brain that slows the world down following the rush of a disaster. And so what first horrified me was not what had happened, of itself, but that it was already receding, as a dream evaporates within seconds after waking. The event, though catastrophic, was already turning vague while new events, banal but new—a hat rolling in daffodils, clouds buffing and dulling the ground—claimed my attention irresistibly.

I thought about the wind flipping the strewn pages on the road and teasing the woman’s hair. I thought about her wrecked body and my incidental, obliterating swipe that had punched the life out of it, and I realized that our being caught up in this together would never, ever be explained. How could two strangers be bound to each other forever as we now were by an event so haphazard, yet so crucial and so intimate? A husband was unfaithful. A shopping bag was punctured by the edge of a carton. A wife made too stark a discovery, on a day already angular and confusing with blades of shadow slicing through trees. But these were not reasons, merely circumstances: routine car maintenance, routine adultery, broken eggs, spilled fruit, a day of wind and sun. No divine or other congruence, no preordained astral spinning, could possibly be in motion either to prevent or determine that this conjunction of trivia would cause anyone to drive under a flickering arch of pink blossom toward a single, injurious, cataclysmic encounter with a stranger on a bicycle. Why should it?

People vanish as if they never had been more than apparitions and all the life in them little more than a movement that caught the eye. A woman invisible among the watery shadows on a lane in spring, my uncle walking away from me into a snowy night long ago. My grandmother in the early morning, pegging out washing and playing hide-and-seek behind the sheets: all vanished. Not a word comes back and not a breath remains, though the rippling of laundry on a clothesline can still make me wonder if she lingers there, teasing me with that old game, not knowing it was years ago and I’ve outgrown it, for the dead have no idea how long they’ve been gone.

But the sheets hang still after all, and so it was, of course, just a fancy to imagine she was there. And if we don’t believe in ghosts, how can we trust their opposites, real people with their loud voices and certainties, their intentions for the day, ideas about their future and their happiness, to possess the same reluctance to relinquish this life, to be any more fleetingly present than they? And so the world proves itself as shadowy, as unreliable as anything glimpsed and dismissed as a trick of the light, and people pass over the surface of it the way they tiptoe out across the edges of a memory, or a dream.

And in the instant the dreamer wakes, already the separation is beginning from even the worst and strangest of nightmares, and the infinitesimal moment has passed when the dream’s fragments might have all come together into something complete, albeit terrible. Revelation eludes us; even as our eyes are opening, the knife falls from the hand and voices expire on the shore of sleep. We are awake after all and alive in the solid world, and it seems so understandable and constant, and the time remaining to us so unwearyingly long. There are trees and fields all the way to the horizon and a pebble-sized heart beats in every flying bird. Yet we take only a moment to perish. We vanish under the surface the way a drop of water flicks from the tail of a fish, sparkles, and falls back into a river. Once you know that, you know that the will of a body to remain unbroken is itself piteously breakable.

Perhaps the woman on the road measured the last minute of her life in a calculation of how long it would take her to pedal to the top of the rise. Perhaps there was no more than a minute between the thought that soon she would stop to rest and the moment she became carrion. Perhaps this is what an accident is.

 

27 Cardigan Avenue
Dear Ruth
Sorry for silence, been busy.
Re: pressure cooker, I don’t think it’s here at all. Obviously it’s not in stuff laid out for the
Belle Aurore Atlantis,
I wouldn’t expect you to take a pressure cooker on a cruise.
I checked through all the stuff already packed in the spare room anyway, though. Not there.
But it’s not in any of the boxes packed for next six months in Australia either—mistake, surely, as we could do with it there I’d have thought.
Been right through the attic and garage and everywhere else I can think of, no joy. Uncovered other stuff that might be handy however, it’s amazing what you collect.
Also came across pages of this—your writing group stuff I suppose, some novel is it?
If I could ask your permission to read it I would. I don’t see it makes a difference now. Also I’m not getting out to the library so it’ll pass the time.
Arthur

 

 

 

THE COLD
AND THE BEAUTY
AND THE DARK 1932

 

 

Chapter 1:
Beats Working In’t Mill,
or So They Say

 

 

   At six a.m. on the 18th of January 1932, the blast of a dozen factory sirens over the roofs of Aldbury in Lancashire signaled the end of the night shift. A few moments later a crowd of chattering women and girls poured out from the Brightaglow Electric Apparatus factory into the raw winter morning. Among them was Evelyn Leigh. Slightly built, her girlish dimples and rosy complexion were offset by abundant dark curls that belied her twenty-nine years. She moved as if she were afraid of being jostled and her shoulders stooped with tiredness. But these days her dimples came and went more often, in private half-smiles. As the two hundred night workers clattered through the gates, their scarved and shawled heads bowed under the icy rain, Evelyn drew herself away from the tide and paused, looking up at the sky and letting her eyes adjust to the daylight.

It’s like a dirty leaky ceiling up there, she thought to herself, trying to focus. It did seem to be raining gray, as if an upstairs pipe had burst and the clouds were wads of wet newspaper stuffed into the dripping cracks. She screwed up her eyes but still she couldn’t make out anything clearly. The dirty rain just went on dripping down all around her, mucking everything it landed on. The walls of the factory were a wet dark blur, and beyond the gates nothing could be seen except for the mass of people moving through the street. Evelyn turned up the collar of her coat and walked slowly on toward the tram stop, blinking through the rain. She was tired and already her headscarf was soaked through.

Her eyes were stinging as they always did following the nine-hour shift in the Testing Division as a bulb checker, making sure that all sets of fancy lightbulbs were in working order before they were packed. It wasn’t onerous work but in the eighteen months she had been there Evelyn had found it increasingly exhausting. Still, there was no choice, you worked where there was work, and at least it was quieter than the weaving sheds in the mills, and you didn’t choke on the cotton dust.

The work wasn’t heavy. First she had to assemble a box from the pile of flat cardboard sheets at her feet, folding and fitting the tabs in a matter of seconds. Then she would take a set of lights from the never-ending supply, regularly topped up by the lads from Assembly, in a carton on the floor at her side. She would hold the bare end of the brown snake of flex and touch it against the socket on the bench, and as long as the whole string of bulbs flared in a blaze of colored light, she would wind it around her crooked arm as she had been taught and pack it neatly in the box. The duds went into an other carton for adjustments and retesting.

Every half hour, another lad from Dispatch would come along wheeling a deep basket on castors, and take the stack of packed boxes from the other side of her bench. A note would be made on her work sheet of the number of packed boxes she achieved and the supervisor’s beady eye would peruse those sheets at the end of each shift, so it was just as well she had mastered the folding and packing quickly so that she could do it without really looking. Dazzled by each flash, she could see nothing for several moments afterward, except a starry afterimage.

Not until the end of her shift would Evelyn look up from her work and notice the shimmering, glassy air of the Testing shed and the strange, hard, salty smell of electricity. The space above her head seemed laden with tiny shocks that sparked against the white glazed bricks lining the walls and glanced back like arrows. Like a headache waiting to happen, Evelyn thought. Then she would rub her eyes and long for the fresh air. Every one of the hundreds of bulb flashes would smolder on in her vision for hours afterward, erasing detail as if they had made ragged red and gray holes like cigarette burns across the surface of her eyes.

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