On the Verge

Michael pulled up outside his childhood home and had just reached the other side of the car before his mother had closed her gate and turned towards him. He pecked her on the proffered cheek and opened the rear door, waited as she fastened her seat belt, closed the door gently and returned to his seat. Perfect start.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘A351 about 3 miles this side of Swanage, dear.’

His mother had never learned to drive but a lifetime telling her husband where to go and what to do had given her the patter of a rally car navigator.

He looked at her in his review mirror as they travelled along Scarwood Road, a road that never seemed to change no matter how many people moved out and in. Always the same type of people with the same stuff, same cars, same lives.

‘Eyes on the road, dear.’

She had been looking out of her side window, he’d seen the powder above her lip, the profiled hairs catching the light like old snow on a glacier; and yet she had known he was looking at her.

‘Yes, Mum.’

This had been how every Sunday had been for the last two years, since she had been alone.  Michael had adopted the routine as his way of dealing with missing his father. 8.00 am he’d pick up his mother who would be waiting and she would tell him where to drive. This week not too far; about a 30 minute round trip along roads he had explored on his bike, with his mates as a boy, and roads he driven with dad as he was taught to drive. Familiar, and as he pulled onto the A351, he wondered at how far from his roots he had not come.  He also thought, that he’d got way with the it this time, but no.

‘Are you seeing anyone, Michael? Time is slipping away and if you are to have a family, you at least should be looking for a nice, young woman.’

‘No, Mum, I’m not dating at the moment.’

‘You do like girls don’t you, Michael? I know the world is very odd today but you are alright aren’t you? None of those queer lifestyle choices, I hope?’

Michael ignored the question. Old ground. ‘We’re nearly there, Mum.’

Now as he approached the place she had asked him to find, he wanted to ask like he always wanted to ask, ‘what do you do, mum?’ and ‘why these places?’ But he remembered her response to the first and only time he had asked these questions.

‘Michael, if my simple requests are too much to ask, in future, I’ll call a taxi. A taxi driver would not ask so many questions.’

So instead all he said was, ‘About here, Mum? There’s a layby just ahead on the left.’

‘No, it’s the other side of the road I need, Michael. See the oak standing by itself in the field, quite near the verge?’

Michael saw the oak; an old one, stag headed and solitary with a massive trunk about 6 feet across.

‘Bit tricky, Mum the road bends sharply just before it on that side. I’ll get as close as I can but the verge doesn’t look hard enough to park on’.

‘Just get me as close as you can, dear. I’ve brought my sensible shoes so I’ll be ok walking a few yards on the grass.’

The thought of his mother in anything other than sensible shoes made him smile.

As if in answer to his unspoken thought, his mother went on, ‘It’s not like I go anywhere anymore to own a fancy pair of shoes. Not even when your father was still alive.’

And there is was, like every Sunday, the reference to Dad. The disappointment with his dad.

It took a while for Michael to find a safe place to u turn and drive past the tree after the bend.  A little way past the tree there was a farmer’s track with a gate and enough room to park.

‘Are you sure this is OK, mum? It’s got to be 150 yards to the tree? Can I come with you?’

‘No. You know that Michael – I have to do this alone. I won’t be long.’

And before Michael could get up to help, his mother had slammed the car door and begun to walk back along the verge to the tree. He watched her, exasperated but also impressed that woman in her early seventies could stride so confidently along an uneven verge whilst being buffeted by the backdraft from the string of lorries that seemed to have been waiting for her.

Through the rear mirror he saw her walk a few paces into the field where the oak brooded. Then she just stopped and stood staring at the tree, just like at all the other roadside locations he had taken her in all weathers on Sundays. She stood as still as the objects she stared at.

‘Reach out and touch it… now’, Michael whispered aloud.

And as he said the words his mother reached out a hand and stroked the bark of the tree and then in a move new to Michael, she reached up and followed the irregular line of the two lowest branches with her right hand, as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

What would the people driving by be thinking about this strange old lady dressed like she walked out of the 50s, in that tweed suit and wearing that oversized moon broach, waving her arms about at the side of the road? He cringed and sank a little deeper into his chair. Adjusting the mirror, Michael could tell she was doing the chant thing. Always the chant thing: nodding her head a she stroked the tree.  He was too far away to read her lips but he was closer last week and he had seen some of the words she mouthed: ‘Bring them here’, seemed to be the phrase repeated most.

Of course stroking trees was a little odd but lots of people like hugging them. But it was the other things she stroked, the telegraph poles, the church walls and the post boxes that was truly odd. Early onset Alzheimer’s? But in all other ways she was sharp as knife.

‘Well, that didn’t take me long now did it?’

‘No, Mum. You were very quick.’ Michael winced, he hadn’t controlled his tone.

‘You don’t approve of our little drives, do you Michael?’

‘It’s not for me to approve or disapprove, Mum.’

‘Em. And yet you do. If you’d prefer it, I can take a taxi in future?’

‘No, Mum. I love our drives; It’s just that don’t understand what you do. It seems a little bizarre, that’s all.’ He knew that he’d crossed one of her lines the moment he’d said it. No response but the car seemed to get colder.

He tried to break the tension. ‘Did you mention on the phone that you need to buy some sausages on the way back?’

Silence and then, ‘Yes, my butchers let me down again. Seems I can’t trust anyone anymore. But I can do very well without them.’

The rest of the journey home took place in silence and it would be over two weeks before she phoned him again.

Michael woke up gripping the duvet, soaked from the sweat of his night terrors; same terror most nights. His dad’s cadaverous mass lying still with only the susurration of his shallow breathing to hint at life. Then his eyes open, empty sockets but staring nevertheless accusingly at Michael. And then the words, always the same, always spat with an energy that belied the skeletal frame, ‘You left me like this. You left me with her.’

‘Just a dream.’

Michael swung his feet out of bed and repeated his mantra, ‘Just a dream.’

His father had always had a final plan. That if he got seriously ill, he meant terminally ill, he would, before it was too late, ‘do something about it’. He’d loved hill walking and had told Michael in a light tone that he’d found the perfect place. He’d made Michael promise that he’d drive him up to Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland where he’d walk away alone until he could walk no-more. And there die. He’d even left a large sum in his will for the Scottish Mountain Rescue who would be called to search for him and retrieve the body.

That was the plan and he had only told his son, his only child; told him gripping his arm, with a warning: ‘Don’t tell your mother’.

In the end when it was clear his father’s illness was not going into remission like it did the first time, his father had told him it was time. He’d even packed a picnic for the drive like he had when Michael was a child. Michael had refused to drive his father to Scotland.

Later that night, when they’d returned from the police station, his mother had told him that his father, devastated by Michael’s betrayal had taken the car and it was during his own attempt to drive to Scotland that he had crashed and had died watching the paramedics try to revive the little girl his car had pinned to a tree.

By the next Sunday she had still not called and his mother’s silence was beginning to feel like a punishment. His sleep was wracked by even more intense dreams and the sounds of sirens infected his nightmares; the ones outside – so many – merging in his nightmares with the wails that accompanied his father to hospital so many times in the months before he died. The next morning the local news had reported another road death only half a mile from Michael’s house. A local shopkeeper, apparently.

All the next week his mother hadn’t picked up when he called, nor had she replied to his messages. He would have walked the five minutes to his mother’s house but was unsure of his welcome and so it was with obvious relief in his voice that Michael answered when his mother rang him the next Saturday. He hadn’t decided how he felt on finally hearing her clipped instructions before his own voice confirmed that he would pick up his mother the next day ‘at 8am sharp’ to take her to another location.

The morning was cold and the rain heavy sky seemed to press the car into the wet road as he drove again along the damp, grey and featureless of Scarwood Road.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘Just head for the centre of town, please.’

Well, she was being frosty but he’d known her frostier.  Perhaps she’s forgiven him.

Michael noticed the butchers was closed with a large wreath on the door and realised that the dead shopkeeper from the news was known to them. He started to tell his mum but as he glanced in the rear view, he saw her looking at the shop door as they passed and her wide smile drained all the words from his mouth; he hadn’t realised that she hadn’t liked him. Paul was his name and he had been their family’s go to butcher for as long as Michael could remember.

‘Here will do, Michael.’

‘It’s a taxi rank, Mum. There are lots of people there.’ Michael could only imagine how her strange actions and chant would go down here. ‘I’ll have to drop you and go round. Is that all right?’

‘If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.’

She got out and Michael pulled away before even one of the taxicab drivers had formulated a territorial expletive. From experience Michael knew how long he had and he decided to pick up a local paper while he waited. Pulling into the OneStop carpark at the end of the high street, he saw that the news boards were full of the butcher’s funeral which was taking place on Thursday of the next week. He sat back in the car and read about the community’s grief and enough of the detail to realise how little he had known about this pillar of the community. Paul Hoskins had been raising money for the local children’s hospice. His long distance running and had raised over £20,000 at the time of his death.

Michael wanted to tell his mother about him – perhaps so that she might appreciate him more and perhaps so that she might rub out that smile from Michael’s memory and replace it with some sign respectful grief. However, when he had finally negotiated the morning traffic back to the taxi rank, the scene that greeted him wiped all conversation from his mind.

His mother was standing bolt upright surrounded by taxi drivers and passersby, like Miss Marple amongst all the suspects she had ever accused of murder. Everyone seemed to be shouting at her. Before he realised what he was doing, Michael was out of the car, his arm around her, guiding his mother to safety. As they drove away, narrowly missing one of the taxi drivers who had run at the car as it left, Michael asked, ‘What happened mum? Are you alright? What did you do?’

‘It’s telling that you think it was my fault.’

‘Mum, everyone was shouting at you! What happened?’

‘A misunderstanding. That’s all. Take me home, Michael.’

And that was that. She would not say another word or even acknowledge his questions all the way back.

The sirens were back in his head that night. His father’s accusing eyes held him like a vice and in ripping himself away from their glare he found himself thrown half out of bed, fevered and with no prospect of further sleep. It was 3 0’clock in the morning. Michael drove the empty streets of the town and turned into the high street, passing the taxi rank. Too late for punters, he saw that there were flowers around the base of the post which held the sign for taxi rank and wondered what could have happened there. Still distracted and scared that inaction would invite in his father’s baleful presence, he drove on. Soon he found himself back on the A351 heading towards Swanage where he had taken his mother three weeks ago. As he came round the bend his full beams reflected on something glittery where he knew the old oak stood back from the road.

Pulling over in the same place, Michael retraced his mother’s steps by torchlight and stood before the tree. A jagged scar had torn away a swath of bark half way up the trunk and ripped two of the lower branches like dolls limbs from their sockets. The verge had been chewed up and there were pieces of glass and plastic strewn around the base of the tree. Someone had tied a bright red and glittery ribbon around the tree and a cheap clip frame had been slipped under it.

The face of a young man – a little younger than Michael smiled out at him. Had mum known that someone had died here when she came to chant and touch? Had this been her silent farewell? Perhaps she knew him? But what of all the other strange roadside vigils he had taken her to?

When she had been here, Michael didn’t remember the damage to the tree. But he had been over a hundred yards away. He was however certain that there had been no ribbon. He noticed another frame tucked into the wide ribbon; this one small, wooden with a glass pane. Stepping closer he shone his torch at the beautiful hand-written script, ‘My beloved, Cameron, we had so little time together but you filled my days with joy. I will always love you.  John xxx’.

Above this simple declaration of love were the dates: Cameron Stainforth May 12th 1993 – September 14th 2020.

Michael froze. Was this all just a coincidence? That he and his mother had visited a tree before a fatal accident at exactly the same tree? He could barely breathe. He and his mother had visited the tree two days before Cameron had died.

How could she have known that an accident would happen here? Unless this Cameron had the accident earlier, say Saturday, and didn’t die until later? Then his mum found out about it and came to wish him well where he was injured. But the tree had looked whole on that Sunday. The tree’s damage was severe so wouldn’t he have seen it? And who was Cameron? His mum didn’t know anyone of her own age far less a man in his twenties. And Cameron was obviously gay and if Michael was honest, he knew that his mum was ‘conservative’ about such things.

Too many questions rang around Michaels’ head as he drove home, so many that sleep would have been impossible so he drove on towards town.

Michael arrived back at the taxi rank. It was still early but there were already three taxis waiting for the commuters who would soon emerge from the underpass that led from the town’s station.  The third in line he recognised as the woman who he had almost hit as she tried to get at his mother as they’d driven away.  

Michael pulled up on the other side of the road and walked to the taxi. Her window was open. ‘Excuse me.’

‘Start that end, mate’, she said without looking up from her phone.

‘I don’t need a taxi I just need to ask you something.’

She looked up and recognition spread across her face like rash. ‘You were with that old bitch from yesterday!’

Michael winced but carried on, ‘Yeah, my mother. What did she do?’

‘What she did was unforgiveable. Evil old witch, with John only just gone.’

‘Tell me, what did she do? She wouldn’t tell me anything.’

‘She told us that John had taken her on a job last Sunday and that he’d been rude. Well he’d already told me and a couple of the other drivers what really happened. John was never rude, even when he should be. She got him to take her out to a really dodgy stretch of road where the camber is treacherous and then told him off for not waiting on a blind corner. John wouldn’t wait thee but he was concerned about her walking about on that road by herself so he parked safe and walked back. She was chanting at milestone – on her knees stroking the bloody thing! Is your mother ok? I mean ok in her head?’ She didn’t wait for a reply.  ‘John told us she screamed at him, awful language, when she saw him watching her and despite this John still waited for her and drove her home – proper gent he was.’

‘Was? And why were you all screaming at her?’

‘John died on Saturday. She laughed when we told her. Laughed out loud and I think she already knew because she didn’t look surprised, just happy. We’d only just heard he’d been taken off life support and she laughed.’

Michael hardly dared to ask but he had to know, ‘When was John’s accident?’

‘Thursday night. They think he hit something on the road and then lost control and ended up in that ditch. He was such a safe, skilful driver. Just goes to show…’

‘Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.’ Michael should have been driving his mother that Sunday not John. Was it his fault, the taxi driver had died?

Michael drove back the long way, through the mist that hung in tattered curtains across the minor road that meandered south of the town, through the remnants of the ancient woods that had grown there since the ice age. The giant trees reached across the road and under the arch of their entwined fingers, he felt he was driving into a tunnel from which little light escaped. He imagined the trees festooned in ribbons with decaying cuddly toys scattered in holocaust legions, piled between the roots under cellophane shrouds. A sharp bend showed palely 100 yards ahead as the headlights picked out the white of a bracket fungus feeding off a dying silver birch and next to it an oak tree, ancient and unmoveable. So easy to just to not turn the wheel. Just to keep going straight. To do nothing.

When Michael got back home he was still shaky. He sat facing the wall on which the photograph of his father hung and where the shadows cast out by the rising sun passed over it like veils lifting. It all made sense now. He tried to remember how many trips there had been. How many deaths – predicted or arranged? How did she know them and how did she get them there? How did she choose them?  Who else had died on the road, died alone in the shadow of a wall or tree?

His father.

He thought back to that night after they had identified his body. The police had been cold to his mother. He remembered the little girl’s parents’ grief stricken voices in the next room. When he and his mother had finally got home he had told her of his father’s suicide plan. And in the voice she had used with him ever since, she tonelessly and oh so quietly told him that his father’s and the little girl’s death were Michael’s fault. And so she had made him her like a penance, teaching him the error of what? Keeping his father’s plan a secret from his mother?

Michael jumped when the phone rang. He knew who it would be.


‘Michael, I need you to drive me to…’

‘Who is it this time, Mum?’

An extended pause. More than enough space for mutual recognition.

‘‘Where’ not ‘who’, Michael. And it’s not far. And I think we’ll go today.’

‘It’s not Sunday.’

‘This one doesn’t have to be.’

‘It’s nearly 8 O’clock. I’ll come over now.’ He hung up.

Two for Joy

The wind swept over the rise and cannoned down the shallow slopes of the valley, stalking the road’s sinuous waist. Strut sat on the fence-post opposite his mate watching the rise of the hill and as he turned his head from the wind’s fury, his back feathers ruffled and he hunched against the cold. He watched and waited, listening, head tilted; guarding. Preen dipped and tore at the rat’s fresh carcass, pulling at the worm-like still warm entrails.

The first Preen knew of the car’s approach was Strut’s harsh warning screech as he leapt from his perch towards her. She looked up and gave one more tug at a stubborn morsel and as he repeated his warning she swept up into the air and they landed and  turned together to watch the rise. Expectant. The wind’s dull boom had chastened at the car’s approach and now they could hear the hard drone of the provider and Preen shook her head in frustration. Not this one; not this time. More than he, Preen could recognise the distinct sound of her particular love. Her angel.

She considered her mate. So protective, so confident and yet so vulnerable. How will he respond to her news?

She had lost interest in him by the time the car had come into sight, appearing phantom like through the early mist; a blood red avenger threatening to obliterate their breakfast, grind it into the black, granite hard surface of the road.

Strut was back at the kill first; he hadn’t eaten yet. Preen took her place on the post, vigilant as Strut searched the verge for what was left of the meal. Again she gazed longingly at the rise. It must be time. Soon it must be time.

Saphy walked through the dappled morning sunlight as it shone through the leaded Victorian glazing of her entrance porch. The light pierced the sheer fabric of her Monsoon skirt and then spilled spent onto the red, black and white tiled floor. As she closed the door behind her she reflected on the last few months: what a change in her life! One life ends and another begins and only she remained. Improved. The cul-de-sac echoed to the sharp click of the deadlock and the rooks nesting in the limes shuffled crabbily as she walked to the car whose shrill greeting ‘peep peep’ stirred more memories.

This had been his car, well, the one he had wanted. She smiled as she adjusted the seat belt under the growing joy of her womb and around the pleasing swell of her breasts. She recalled his face when she had explained that with the baby coming they couldn’t afford such a toy. He just had to be content to drive past its gleaming metalwork in the showroom each day to work. It’s sapphire pearlescence, ‘cosmic blue’ according to the handbook, reminded her of another blue: the blue of a Greek sky two years ago when the brown of his skin had merged with the ivory of her own and the promise of his ‘Mr Rightness’ had made her giddy. Now he was gone. Good riddance! And it was with a visceral glee that she had bought the car. His car.

Saphy adjusted the mirror so that she could look at her face. She removed her CK glasses and smiled at her reflection. Those eyes! Probably her best feature. The whole iris was visible, almost turquoise so that strangers assumed that she wore fashion lenses; perfect eye lashes, her beautician made sure her eye-brows were flawlessly arched. She was, after all, named for her eyes – her father had prayed that his newborn’s eyes would not dim to grey or taint to green. His prayers answered, Sapphire Newland grew up learning how to use her best features – the power of a sideways glance, a coy glimpse, the wide-eyed mock innocence – all weapons in the arsenal of one born with such beautiful eyes. After the baby was born and her gym membership had repaid itself, there would be other men in her life – under her terms of course.

Preen watched the rise impatiently and then, too tense to just sit and watch, joined her mate. Surprised, Strut stepped to the side and allowed her pride of place. The red car had in one go taken and delivered: the rat had gone but a leveret had taken its place and now lay astride the white line –  a final embrace as if it was desperate to hang on to something, anything. Desperate not to die. They fed together in silence. Dipping and rising in time and Preen noticed the echo of their courtship display and was filled with optimism. Soon her nest would be ready, just a few more bill-fulls of fur – this young hare might be all she needed – and of course, a few more bright, blue precious jewels to proclaim their union.

Paul would surprise Saphy with weekends away at country hotels and with beautifully wrapped gifts of antique jewellery, not for display amongst her flock of competitive friends but adequate for those country escapes. Saphy would find them beneath her pillow in warm little boxes and velvet bags – tokens of what she took to be his sincere love.  Paul had had his good points; so Saphy’s sister had also thought. Bitch had always wanted what Saphy had.

Her phone vibrated on the cream calfskin seat beside her: she was a little was late.

Saphy readjusted the mirror, hid her eyes behind her glasses tinting in the growing light of dawn, started the car and left the cul-de-sac behind. This evening when she returned the kitchen would have been done: granite surfaces, red tiled floor and duck egg blue splash tiles. The baby’s room was nearly finished too. What a room! She knew it was right the moment her mother had hated it. She had poured all her training and experience as an interior designer into the nursery and it had evolved into a tropical seascape of flying fish, surfacing mermaids and pelican mobiles. Her mother saw it as frivolous, her cold, dark eyes scanning the walls just as she scanned the way Saphy dressed, her make-up and her choice of men. Her mother had even dismissed her unborn grandson as inconvenient ‘just like his father and mother’ when Saphy had told her the expected birth date – it had clashed with a friend’s party. Just once Saphy would have liked a little warmth, a little comfort from her mother. She determined to be everything to her son that her own mother hadn’t been to her. And it started with this beautiful room.  A nest to welcome her child to the warmth outside the womb and to a world full of wonder and joy. And if he never knew his father, so much the better.

She left the dormitory village and began the long, serpentine ascent to the top of the ridge. She let the car have its way, in sport mode, hugging the camber, taking the racing line through the empty curves. Life was good; she glowed with maternal power.

Preen and Strut heard their angel at the same time and recognised her sound instantly. Preen looked at him and knew the game had begun. So Preen stayed despite her yearning to rise up and be first to see the provider. She feigned interest in the meal – at least the tender, young gut was pleasantly warm. Strut must never find out of course that his game of chicken was rigged to boost that frail male ego. And then the car appeared over the brow of the hill like another sunrise. One more second and she’ll jump to the safety of the verge and perhaps even give a frightened little squeak for effect, allowing him to face the threat for a second longer and to win his victory. To prove his worth.

As Saphy drove over the rise she had already started to look for the birds. ‘Her birds’ as she called them. Always two never one or three. Soon she’ll be two again and be just as independent and perfectly adapted as these wonderful birds. And there they were. Feeding. Soon with perfect timing they would step aside, hopping nonchalantly to let her pass. And when she had passed she would see them in the mirror just as coolly step back to the road kill – oblivious of her passing. Closer, any time now they would jump away onto the verge. They were in the middle of the road so they could just step to the other side. But still they stayed. They seemed intent on each other; one a little further away than the other. Closer still, Saphy clutched the wheel harder, ‘Move you silly birds!’

Strut looked anxious and Preen knew she should have gone by now. What was she doing? The car, fast, beautiful and deadly was nearly upon them. Her mate screeched harsh and loud: warning her, pleading with her to move. She didn’t react. Couldn’t. Strut leapt just in time, the force of the car’s approach spinning him in the air until he fell to the verge still screeching his fear, his despair. Preen was transfixed by the glittering blue and chrome and could not move. She felt the heat of her angel’s breath and vaguely noted that she would die.

Saphy saw the nearest bird fly to side, the male probably, but the other stayed and seemed to stare straight at her; not at the car but at her. Its black eyes seemed to transfix her; to see through her carefully groomed exterior and to truly see her.  Her knuckles white, death bleached at the wheel, she screamed, ‘Move!’

Preen wondered if her mate would harvest her. She hoped so. It appealled to the romantic in her. The blast from her angel’s breath hit her and she unfurled to embrace her beautiful death. Then too late she remembered that it was not just her death. A scream ripped through the morning.

She found herself near the verge, plucked from the road by the car’s passing as it veered around her. Strut was at her side. She felt like road kill but responded to the gentle touch of his bill. He looked angry and yet there was something else there too. Relief? Respect? Preen would later have time to consider these happy thoughts but now the morning’s pattern was being shattered by the rending of metal and an explosion of glass as the car sacrificed itself to the road’s uncompromising hardness. 

Saphy’s despairing tug on the wheel was enough to send the car into a side-ways spin and then, still travelling fast, it hit the mile stone and turned over and over again.

The morning seemed to pause. All sound hushed, all movement ceased and even the trees froze and stared down the wind that stepped aside to give the tableau vivant a moment’s respect.

She hung suspended from her seatbelt conscious enough to feel a cold, spreading numbness in her legs. A slow, steady tick of cooling metal was the only sound but then Saphy became aware of a less regular scratch like sound to her right but was unable to turn her head.

Preen approached the wreckage of the car in shocked awe. What was once so beautiful, predatory, glorious was now bleeding its dark oily life’s blood onto the road. Shards of bright glass kicked and skidded from under her feet as she hopped tentatively closer. Strange alien smells and sounds made her wary but her eyes were transfixed by the face  – inverted but its eyes still radiated perfection.

They seemed to be glad to see her.

Saphy struggled to reach the seat belt catch. The tightness in her chest was suffocating and her eyes were wet with tears. The strange scratching came closer and from amongst the twisted confusion there was her bird. Alive. Tears of joy merged with those of pain and fell amongst the mirrored glass, crystals that reflected the flames that had begun to leap around the shattered engine compartment. She studied the bird as she skipped ever closer towards her. Almost green rather than black – a deep rippling green which reflected the flames.

Preen was aware of the flames and of Strut’s growing impatience, his harsh bark-like calls intense, insistent. But Preen was as a moth drawn to a flame and she stepped towards Saphy’s tear streaked face.

There was a deadness in Saphy’s arms – they seemed weighed down, pulled over her head, touching but not resting on the car’s headlining. It seemed like too much effort just to reach down to her waist for the seatbelt release. But her bird was fine and so close she could see the individual feathers at the base of her bill and the little tuft of what looked like rabbit fur still lodged to one side of the beak. Her last meal. The perfect predator. She seemed to be staring directly at Saphy. It was almost as if the bird cared and was coming to check on her.

‘It’s all right. I’ll be all right. If I could just reach.’ She tried to move her arms again.

The movement startled the bird and it jumped back a little.

‘No. It’s all right. Don’t go. Please don’t leave me.’

Her breath was coming in gasps and her eyes swam with tears of pain and useless rage. The life inside her stirred against the seat-belt’s pressure and sudden panic for her unborn child made her strong again. She reached down to the left of her seat and her hand found the smooth, cold button. She willed with all her maternal might that she could pull herself free from the wreckage. She could hear sirens.  They might save her son, if only she could reach.

She fell onto her right side screaming at the pain in her back and knew she couldn’t move again. The bird jumped back but only a few steps.

Preen stared at Saphy’s beautiful eyes which seemed to grow in both size and intensity as she stared back and felt love swell inside her. She would complete her nest. As always, out of death and sacrifice, life would spring. She stepped closer despite the danger from the flames and the wailing sirens as a stream of cars came over the rise. Preen noticed that the rain swept slopes above the road were stained azure by flashing lights and the trees were casting sudden, brief shadows in cold, cold blue. Good omens for her, for her mate and for her brood. She stepped closer.

The bird and woman were surrounded by the flames that were reflected in the shattered glass and pools of oil and radiator fluid. Eye to eye they regarded each-other.

‘Hello bird’, croaked Saphy and almost smiled. They said magpies were black and white and yet she could see iridescent greens and even blues in her bird’s plumage. She was beautiful. The only real black was in her eye; a dark scrying glass of coldness. The bird stepped closer still. For the first time since the crash, Saphy felt fear.

Preen struck. Stabbing with practised precision with her perfectly adapted bill.

Preen and her mate flew off across the fields to their nest deep inside the copse. Triumphant sirens called in the valley and the morning’s light was suffused with blue. Clutched tightly in her talons her trophies glistened in the dawn’s new light. She regarded her mate flying respectfully to her side and slightly behind. A handsome bird and he’ll take care of her. Now home to finish the nest and then to another harvesting for after all, soon there will be new mouths to feed.

Burnt Out

That morning’s stubborn frost – the first of the year – groaned under his feet as he slogged his way up to the bonfire. A mist hung over the field. It seemed that the day hadn’t really started and yet it was already on the wane. His sense of distance was playing up; surely it was taking far too long? Too long to get to the huge pile of planks, branches and discarded furniture – a year’s worth of a village’s accumulated waste. Still, he told himself, it will be worth the effort, so he leaned into the slope pulling on the cord to drag his sled up its last hill. And there it was, looming out of the wet, grey membrane like a lost pyramid. ‘Shit! Someone’s been busy’ he thought. He wondered how the hell he was going to get the old sled to the top of what must be a fifteen foot pile of unstable debris.

What had his Dad called this – his ‘voluntary community service’? He’d explained what he wanted to do: to make a bonfire for the village fireworks night. He knew his dad was surprised, surprised by his feckless son’s enthusiasm and hard work.

Truth be told, Mike had never done the washing up, never offered to wash the car and keeping his room tidy was a joke. As for cleaning up after himself, putting the toilet seat down or washing out the bath after him – never. But this was different. This wasn’t something his parents had told him to do so that made it Ok, even if they would have approved, in their own way. Funny how his parents could have been what they were and yet still have a love for village life.

He looked up at the potential inferno and he grinned. A happily abandoned fly tipping mentality had infected the village, seems they all had something to burn, something to forget. He was part of the village now. In the last two days he’d been recognised and  congratulated by those nameless faces you sort of know but don’t in a small village. They knew about his efforts and rewarded him with the respect due to a young but worth-while member of the village. Diluted respect but respect nonetheless.

  ‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a pile you’ve got there!’

‘Yes, but I’ve got some cream!’ And they’d laughed at his lame joke. Looked at him, seen him as if for the first time.

He remembered his parents’ house parties when it seemed the entire village descended on their semi-detached cottage and then descended again deeper, mysteriously into their cellar. And as he let each guest in the front door, he remembered the scorn on their faces. Probably the same faces that now looked him in the eye as he passed them in the village,  who smiled, winked and tilted their heads almost conspiratorially as they went by. Pity he thought: that’s all it would have taken but now it was too late. Far too late. If only he could have trusted any of these erstwhile friends so he could tell them the truth about what was hidden behind his family’s perfect front.

Millie had been the last straw. The husky/border cross had been the companion of his youth and though her dotage had ended their exploration of the local countryside, their relationship had been the one honest constant in his life. One Saturday in early autumn, after a sleepless night, he’d stumbled down to breakfast where his mum had told him that Millie had been taken ill in the night and had had to be put down at the vets. Later that day he’d cycled to the vets to see her and to say goodbye. He had returned with nothing but the confirmation that his only friend had not been cut down with canine leukaemia, in fact she had not even been admitted at the vets. His parents had clearly been angry at being caught in their lie. As he watched his mum’s practiced regret flit briefly across her face, he remembered what he had thought was a dream the previous night. The familiar chants, that often invaded his dreams, were this time a bass counterpoint to a drawn out, whining that had curled up from the bowels of the house.  This dream had ended in a visceral and euphoric shout at which the whining abruptly stopped.

No dream, then. Mike’s world turned.

He tipped the load, the memory of that sudden realisation giving him the strength to throw the frame from a shattered bed high onto the pyre and heft the sled so it stood balanced on its only whole runner against the staved-in side of an old wardrobe. The wardrobe’s veneer was peeling and its cheap plywood was exposed for all the world to see. He thought of the secrets that Victorian relic might have stored and of the generations who’d polished the wardrobe’s flanks. What had they hidden in its naphthalene smelling insides? The terrible rows, the false accusations, pints of spat obscenities and of course, the hours of cold indifference.  All that history. All those sins. All to be burned away like old rags.

He imagined himself sitting atop the pile looking out over the village. He’d miss the places where he’d taken his first girlfriend, guiltily hiding from the meagre street lights at the centre of the village but reluctant to leave the safety of their glimmer, wary of the dark recesses of the lanes and bridleways. He remembered how he’d respected her shy pleas for restraint and walked her safely home. In the failing light he would still be able to make out the rough track, a scar amongst the trees, where he’d come off his bike, got back up, bloodied, his tear streaked face determined to make the jump this time. From the pyre’s top he would see the recycling bins in the pub car-park where he’d stood up to the bullies who tormented the vicar’s autistic daughter as she returned from church on Sundays.

 If only it had all happened that way – the way he liked to remember it; the way he’d like to be remembered.

An old door, a little way inside the pile, caught his eye: knots weeping through the broken layers of lead paint, the Suffolk latch still attached, vainly reaching for the catch: old habits, it still leant almost straight barring access to the pyre’s heart . And in its hard flat surface, he saw the closed door to his parent’s room, the barred door to the cellar where he was never allowed and all the other doors  slamming in his house. He saw too his friends’ front doors deaf to his knocking and the world’s opportunities shutting in his face. When he tried to tell his mum of his fears or led his dad to the topics he needed help with – nothing. They didn’t, wouldn’t get it. A parent’s scorn was a terrible thing: their disappointment in him dripped from their stares like tears and it burnt him like acid. Surely, that’s child abuse?

And in those cold boards he saw again the locked door to the medicine cabinet opening to the edge of his knife.

At least his parents were together.  He stared deep inside the pyre’s heart, no not a pyre, nor even a pyramid, more like the praying hands of an old god – finger tips touching, the space between – an inverted heart.  And tonight’s bonfire, toasted with local ale and cider and a hog-roast would be a fitting farewell to the village.

Others were winding their way up the hill now.  It seemed everyone was on their way, snaking up through the dusk. Trestle tables appeared, local cider from Dove Farm frothing from demijohns, a fire crackled into paraffin life under a spit. Later, meat would roast. Someone with a head-torch flitted ghostlike behind the screen from behind which the fireworks would later scream.

Laughter now, sparklers ignited, neighbours joked, the cider doing its job, the smell of gently roasting pork – someone forced a glass in his hand;  a hug from someone unfamiliar smelling of cold tweed and then he held a roll – the heat from the roasted pork seeping through  dough, crust and paper, warming his hand. An alien feeling crept over him and threatened to overcome him. It was a sense of absolute belonging, of acceptance, of worth.

Someone swapped his glass for a burning torch – a medieval thing that fitted his grasp, and he was pushed forward through the crowd which opened to receive him like royalty. And now the people chanted down from ten. On cue he thrust the flame into the great pile and whoosh! A gasp from the crowd and then even applause. It seemed he was a natural fire maker. He was helped back from the heat as the fire took and the fireworks reached whining to heaven and fell spent into hell. The warmth of the flames melted the people into a unified whole, a village.

‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a fire you’ve made. Well done, well done!’  The playful thump on the shoulder from whoever – the butcher, Mike thought – and he lost half his onion from his roll. He struggled to remember the man’s name.

‘Sorry, son! Any’ows, it’s a pity your parents aren’t here to see this, eh?’

Jacob! That was his name. He remembered the man’s large, ruddy face serving diced steak across the counter in the butchers. He’d also seen him at the late night parties; always in the middle of a group.

Mike turned to look him in the eye, the way he’d practiced. ‘Yeah, they would have liked this a lot. Still, they couldn’t do anything about it.’

Jacob regarded him with cold blue eyes. ‘No, I suppose they couldn’t.’ And there was a smile under the opaque ice of those eyes. ‘They also would ‘ave appreciated the sacrifice. They never lost faith in you, son.’ He walked away then and joined the rest of the village as it turned almost mechanically to face Mike. Forming a giant ellipse, the village smiled at him and Mike was the eye’s dark centre.

And he wished his parents could see him now. They would be proud of what he’d become. He stared at the pyre’s heart where his mum lay wrapped in his dad’s arms, locked together in a last, warm embrace, wearing the robes they had worn in life but never in front of him; the same robes he saw surrounding him now. 

That morning, before the sun had risen, he’d hauled them up the slope on the sled his Dad had made him for the snowy slopes of his boyhood. And now, after the sun had set, he missed them.