It should have been me. I should have been the one who was tossed in the air by the impact of a car that didn’t stop. ‘Like a ragdoll,’ the papers said. I had seen it. She wasn’t like a ragdoll. A ragdoll is soft, malleable even. This impact was not soft. There were no cushions. No graceful flight through the air. No softness. There was a scream of ‘look out!’ followed by the crunch of metal on flesh, on muscle, on bone, the squeal of tyres on tarmac, the screams of onlookers – disjointed words, tumbling together. The thump of my heart. A crying baby. At least the baby was crying. At least the baby was okay.
The roar of the engine, screaming in too low a gear as the car sped off. Footsteps, thundering, running into the road. Cars screeching to a halt as they came across the scene. But it was the silence – amid all the noise – that was the loudest. Not a scream. Not a cry. Not a last gasp of breath. Just silence and stillness, and I swore she was looking at me. Accusing me. Blaming me.
I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I stood there as people around me swarmed to help her, not realising or accepting that she was beyond help. To lift the baby. To comfort him. To call an ambulance. To look in the direction in which the car sped off. Was it black? Not navy? Not dark grey? It was dirty. Tinted windows. Southern reg, maybe. It was hard to tell – muddied as it was so that the letters and numbers were obscured.
No one got a picture of the car – but one man was filming the woman bleeding onto the street. He’d try and sell it to the newspapers later, or post it on Facebook. Because people would ‘like’ it. A child, perhaps eight years old, was screaming. Her cries piercing through all else. Her mother bundled her into her arms, hiding her eyes from the scene. But it was too late. What has been seen cannot be unseen. People around me did what needed to be done. But I just stood there – staring at her while she stared at me.
Because it should have been me. I should be the one lying on the road, clouds of scarlet spreading around me on the tarmac. * I stood there for a few minutes – maybe less. It’s hard to tell. Everything went so slowly and so quickly and in my mind it all jumps around until I’m not sure what happened when and first and to whom. I moved when someone covered her – put a brown duffle coat over her head. I remember thinking it looked awful. It looked wrong. The coat looked like it had seen better days. She deserved better.
But it broke our stare and an older lady with artificially blonde brassy hair gently took my arm and led me away from the footpath. ‘Are you okay, dear?’ she asked. ‘You saw it, didn’t you?’ ‘I was just behind her,’ I muttered, still trying to see my way through the crowds. Sure that if I did, the coat would be lifted in a flourish of magic trickery and the lady would be gone. Someone would appear and shout it was an elaborate trick and the lovely woman – who just minutes before had been singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ to the cooing baby boy in the pram as we travelled down in the lift together – would appear and bow. But the brown coat stayed there and soon I could hear the distant wail of sirens. There’s no need to rush, I thought, she’s going nowhere. ‘I’ll get you a sweet tea,’ the brassy blonde said, leading me to the benches close to where the horror was still unfolding. It seemed absurd though. To sit drinking tea, while that woman lay dead only metres away.
‘I’m fine. I don’t need tea,’ I told her. ‘For the shock,’ the blonde said and I stared back blankly at her. This was more than shock though. This was guilt. This was a sense that the universe had messed up on some ginormous, stupid scale and that the Grim Reaper was going to get his P45 after this one. Mistaken identity was unforgivable. I looked around me. Fear piercing through the shock. There were so many people.
So many faces. And the driver? Had I even seen him? Got a glimpse? Could it have been him? Or had he got someone else to do the dirty work, and he was standing somewhere, watching? It would be more like him to stand and observe, enjoy the destruction he had caused. Except he’d got it wrong. She’d walked out in front of me. I’d let her. I’d messed with his plan. I’d smiled at her and told her to ‘go ahead’ as the lift doors opened. She’d smiled back not knowing what she was walking towards. A paper cup of tea was wafted in front of me – weak, beige. A voice I didn’t recognise told me there were four sugars in it.
Brassy Blonde sat down beside me and nodded, gesturing that I should take a sip. I didn’t want to. I knew if I did, I would taste. I would feel the warmth of it slide down my throat. I would smell the tea leaves. I would be reminded I was still here. ‘Let me take your bags from you,’ Brassy Blonde said. I realised I was gripping my handbag tightly, and in my other hand was the paper bag I had just been given in Boots when I’d picked up my prescription. Anxiety meds. I could use some now.
My hands were clamped tight. I looked her in the eyes for the first time. ‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘My hands won’t work.’ ‘It’s the shock. Let me, pet,’ she said softly as she reached across and gently prised my hands open, sitting my bags on the bench beside me. She lifted the cup towards me, placed it in my right hand and helped me guide the cup to my mouth. The taste was disgustingly sweet, sickening even. I sipped what I could but the panic was rising inside me. The ambulance was there.
Police too. I heard a woman crying. Lots of hushed voices. People pointing in the direction in which the car had sped off. As if their pointing would make it reappear. Beeps of car horns who didn’t realise something so catastrophic had held them up on their way to their meetings and appointments and coffees with friends. Faces, blurring. Familiar yet not. They couldn’t have been. The tightness started in my chest – that feeling that the air was being pushed from my lungs – and it radiated through my body until my stomach clenched and my head began to spin just a little.
He could be watching me crumble and enjoying it. The noise became unbearable. Parents covering the eyes of children. Shop workers standing outside their automatic doors, hands over their mouths. I swear I could hear the shaking of their heads – the soft brush of hair on collars as they struggled to accept what they were seeing. Breathing – loud, deep. Was it my own? Shadows moving around me. Haunting me. I felt sick. ‘I have to go,’ I muttered – my voice tiny, distorted, far away – as much to myself as to Brassy Blonde, and I put down the teacup and lifted my bags.
‘You have to stay, pet,’ she said, a little too firmly. I took against her then. No, I wanted to scream. I don’t have to do anything except breathe – and right now, right here, that was becoming increasingly difficult. I glared at her instead, unable to find the words – any words. ‘You’re a witness, aren’t you? The police will want to talk to you?’ That made the panic rise in me more. Would they find out that it should have been me? Would I get the blame? Would I become a headline in a story – ‘lucky escape for local woman’ – and if so, what else would they find out about me? I couldn’t take that risk. I consoled myself that I probably couldn’t tell them anything new anyway. No, I didn’t want to talk to the police. I couldn’t talk to the police.
The police had had quite enough of me once before. Chapter Two A hit and run, they said. That was the official line. A joyrider, most likely. Joyrider is such a strange name for it, really. There was no joy here. The words of the police did little to comfort me. After I ran from Brassy Blonde, I checked the locks three times before bed, kept the curtains pulled on the windows of my flat and for those first 48 hours I didn’t go out or answer my phone. The only person I spoke to was my boss to tell him I was sick and wouldn’t be in. I didn’t even wait for him to answer.
I just ended the call, crawled back into bed and took more of my anti-anxiety medication. I tried to rationalise my thoughts and fears in the way my counsellor had told me. A few years had passed since Ben had made his threat; five to be exact. Life had moved on. He had moved on. Moved to England, if my brother Simon was to be believed. Simon, who I secretly suspected believed Ben about everything that went wrong with us. Simon, who most definitely, did not believe that his former friend was waiting in the wings to destroy my life for a second time in his twisted form of revenge. ‘You’re letting him win every day,’ my counsellor had told me. ‘You’re giving him power he doesn’t deserve.
’ But she didn’t know him. Not the way I did. I spent those two days in a ball in my bed, sleeping or at least trying to sleep, and compulsively checking Facebook to find out as much as I could about the woman who had died when it should have been me. There was no fairness to it. She had everything going for her while I, well, if I evaporated from this earth at this moment no one would really notice. Except perhaps for Andrew who would be waiting to give me a final written warning. I had to go to the funeral. I was drawn to it. I had to see the pain and let it wash over me – to salve my guilt perhaps or to torture myself further? See if she really was as loved as it seemed. I needed to remind myself just how spectacularly the gods had messed this one up.
Perhaps I was a bit obsessed. It was hard not to be. The story of her death was everywhere and I had seen her life extinguished right in front of my eyes. Her eyes had stayed open – and they were there every time I closed mine. Her funeral was held at St. Mary’s Church in Creggan – a chapel that overlooked most of the city of Derry, down its steep hills towards the River Foyle before the city rises back up again in the Waterside. It’s a church scored in the history of Derry, where the funeral Mass of the Bloody Sunday dead had taken place. Thirteen coffins lined up side by side. On the day of Rose Grahame’s funeral, just one coffin lay at the top of the aisle. The sight stopped my breath as I sneaked in the side entrance, took a seat away from her friends and family.
Hidden from view. All the attention focused on the life she’d led, full of happiness and devotion to her family and success in her career. I thought of how the mourners – the genuine ones dressed in bright colours (as Rose would have wanted) – had followed the coffin to the front of the church, gripping each other, holding each other up. I wondered what they would say if they knew what I knew. I allowed the echoes of the sobs that occasionally punctuated the quiet of the service to seep into my very bones. I recognised her husband, Cian; as he walked bowed and broken to the altar, I willed myself not to sob. Grief was etched in every line on his face. He looked so different from the pictures I had seen of him on Facebook. His eyes were almost as dead as Rose’s had been. He took every step as if it required Herculean effort.
It probably did. His love for her seemed to be a love on that kind of scale. His grief would be too. He stood, cleared his throat, said her name and then stopped, head bowed, shoulders shaking. I felt my heart constrict. I willed someone – anyone – to go and stand with him. To hold his hand. To offer comfort. No one moved. It was as if everyone in the church was holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen next.
Enjoying the show. He took a breath, straightened himself, and spoke. ‘Rose was more than a headline. More than a tragic victim. She was my everything. My all. But even that isn’t enough. As a writer, you would think the words would come easily to me. I work with words every day – mould them and shape them to say what I need to say. But this time, my words have failed me.
There are no words in existence to adequately describe how I’m feeling as I stand here in front of you, looking at a wooden box that holds the most precious gift life ever gave me. When a person dies young, we so often say they had so much more to give. This was true of Rose. She gave every day. We had so many dreams and plans.’ He faltered, looking down at the lectern, then to Rose’s coffin and back to the congregation. ‘We were trying for a baby. A brother or sister for Jack. We said that would make our happiness complete – and now, knowing it will never be, I wonder how life can be so cruel.’ He paused again, as if trying to find his words, but instead of speaking, he simply shook his head and walked, slowly, painfully, to his seat where he sat down and buried his head in his hands, the sound of his anguished sobs bouncing off the stone walls of the church.
There was no rhyme or reason to it. No fairness in it. I tried to tell myself that Rose had just been spectacularly unlucky. I tried to comfort myself that on that day luck had, for once, in a kind of twisted turn of fate, been on my side. I needed to believe that – believe in chance and bad luck and not something more sinister. I had to believe the ghosts of my past weren’t still chasing me. I tried to tell myself life was trying to give me another chance – one that had been robbed from me five years before. It was fucked up. George Bailey got Clarence the angel to guide him to his second chance. I got Rose Grahame and her violent death.
I got the sobs of the mutli-coloured mourners. And I got the guilt I had craved. It might have helped if I’d have found out Rose Grahame was a horrible person – although the way she sang to her baby and smiled her thank you to me as I let her go ahead of me out of the lift and into the cold street had already told me she was a decent sort. I wondered, selfishly, if this had been my funeral, would I have garnered such a crowd? I doubted it. My parents would be there, I supposed. My brothers and their partners. My two nieces probably wouldn’t. They were young. They wouldn’t understand. A few cousins, a few work colleagues there because they had to be.
Some nosy neighbours. Aunts and uncles. Friends – maybe, although many of them had fallen by the wayside. Maud may travel over for it from the US, but it would depend on her bank balance and the cost of the flights. They would be suitably sad but they’d have full lives to go back to – busy lives, the kind of life Rose Grahame seemed to have had. The kind of life that allows you to pick up the pieces after a tragedy and move on, even if at times it feels as if you are walking through mud. The kind of lives with fulfilling jobs and hectic social calendars and children and hobbies. Not like my hermit-like existence. Five years is a long time to live alone. Of course, being at the funeral made me feel worse.
I suppose I should have expected that. But I hadn’t expected to feel jealous of her. Jealous that her death had had such an impact. I crept from the pew, pushed past the crowds at the back of the church, past the gaggle of photographers from the local media waiting to catch an image of a family in breakdown, and walked as quickly as I could from the church grounds to my car, where I lit a cigarette, took my phone from my bag and logged into Facebook. Social media had become my obsession since the day of the accident. Once I had got home, and I had crawled under my duvet and tried to sleep to block out the thoughts of what I had just seen – what I had just done – I found myself unable to let it go. I didn’t sleep that day. I got up, I made coffee and I switched on my laptop. Sure enough the local news websites were reporting the accident. They were reporting a fatality – believed to be a woman in her thirties who was with her baby at the time.
A hit and run. A dark-coloured car. The police were appealing for witnesses. The family were yet to be informed. The woman was ‘named locally’ as Rosie Grahame. No, it was Rose Grahame. Not Rosie. She was thirty-four. She was a receptionist at a busy dental practice. Scott’s in Shipquay Street.
The child in the pram was her son – Jack, twenty months old. She was married. Believed to be the wife of local author, Cian Grahame, winner of the prestigious 2015 Simpson Literary Award for his third novel, From Darkness Comes Light. The news updated. Facebook went into overdrive. People giving details. Offering condolences. Sharing rumours. Suggesting a fund be set up to pay for the funeral and support baby Jack, despite the fact that, by all accounts, Cian Grahame was successful and clearly not in any great need of financial support. Pictures were shared.
Rose Grahame – smiling, blonde, hair in one of those messy buns that actually take an age to get right. Sunglasses on her head. Kissing the pudgy cheek of an angelic-faced baby. A smiling husband beside her – tall, dark and handsome (of course). A bit stubbly but in a sexy way – not in a layabout-who-can’t-be-bothered-to-shave way. He was grinning at his wife and their son. It was all just an awful, awful tragedy. Someone tagged Rose Grahame into their comment saying, ‘Rose, I will miss you hun. Always smiling. Sleep well.
’ As if Rose Grahame was going to read it just because it was on Facebook. Does heaven have Wi-Fi? Of course I clicked through to her profile. I wanted to know more about her – more than the snippets the news told me, more than the smile she gave me as I held the door to let her through, more than the gaunt stare she gave me as she lay dead on the ground, the colour literally draining from her. I expected her profile to be a bit of a closed book. So many are – privacy settings set to Fort Knox levels. But Rose clearly didn’t care about her privacy settings. Perhaps because her life was so gloriously happy that she wanted the whole world to know. I found myself studying her timeline for hours – scanning through her photo albums. She never seemed to be without a smile. Or without friends to keep her company.
There she was, arms thrown around Cian on their wedding day. A simple flowing gown. A crown of roses. A beautiful outdoor affair. The whole thing looked as if it could be part of a brochure for hipster weddings. There she was, showing off her expanding baby bump – her two hands touching in front of her tummy to make the shape of a heart. Or standing with a paint roller in one hand, the requisite dab of paint on her nose, as she painted the walls of the soon-to-be nursery. There were nights out with friends, where she glowed and sparkled and all her friends glowed and sparkled too. Pictures of her smiling proudly with her husband as he held aloft his latest book. And then, of course, the baby came along.
Pictures of her, perhaps a little tired-looking but happy all the same, cradling a tiny newborn, announcing his birth and letting the world know he was ‘the most perfect creature’ she had ever set her eyes on. Pictures of her bathing him, feeding him, playing with him, pushing him in his buggy, helping him mush his birthday cake with his chubby fists. Endless happy pictures. Endless posting of positive quotes about happiness and love and gratitude for her amazing husband and her beautiful son. The outpouring was unreal – I hit refresh time and time again, the page jumping with new comments. From friends. From family. From colleagues, old school friends, cousins, acquaintances, second cousins three times removed. And then, that night, at just after eleven – when I was considering switching off and trying to sleep once again, fuelled by sleeping tablets – a post popped up from Cian himself. My darling Rose, I can’t believe I will never hold you again.
That you will never walk through this door again. You were and always will be the love of my life. My everything. My muse. Thank you for the happy years and for your final act of bravery in saving our Jack. I am broken, my darling, but I will do my best to carry on, for you and for Jack. I stared at it. Reread it until my eyes started to hurt, the letters began to blur. This declaration of love – saying what needed to be said so simply – made me wonder again how the gods had cocked it up so spectacularly. Poor Cian, I thought.
Poor Jack. Poor all those friends and family members and colleagues and second cousins twenty times removed. They were all plunged into the worst grief imaginable. I felt like a voyeur and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. So that was why, then, even outside the church, fag in my hand, smoke filling up my Mini, I clicked onto Facebook and loaded Rose’s page again. The messages continued. Posts directly on her timeline, or posts she had been tagged in. ‘Can’t believe we are laying this beautiful woman to rest today.’ ‘I will be wearing the brightest thing I can find to remember the brightest star in the sky.’ ‘Rose,’ Cian wrote.
‘Help me get through this, honey. I don’t know how.’ I looked to the chapel doors, to the pockets of people standing around. Heads bowed. Conversations whispered. A few sucking on cigarettes. I wondered how any of us got through anything? All the tragedies life throws at us. All the bumps in the road. Although, perhaps that was a bad choice of words. A black sense of humour, maybe.
I’d needed it these past few years. Although sometimes I wondered if I used it too much. If it made me appear cold to others. Cian had changed his profile picture, I noticed. It was now a black and white image – Rose, head thrown back, mid laugh. Eyes bright. Laughter lines only adding to her beauty. She looked happy, vital, alive. I glanced at the clock on my dashboard. Wondered if I should wait until the funeral cortège left the chapel to make their way on that final short journey to the City Cemetery as a mark of respect.
I could probably even follow them. Keep a distance. Watch them lay her to rest. Perhaps that would give me some sort of closure I took a long drag of my cigarette and looked back at my phone. Scrolled through Facebook one last time. A new notification caught my eye and I clicked on it. It was then that his face, his name, jumped out at me. Everything blurred. I was aware I wasn’t breathing, had dropped my cigarette. I think it was only the thought of it setting the car on fire around me that jolted me to action.
I reached down, grabbed it, opened my car door and threw the cigarette into the street; at the same time sucking in deep lungfuls of air. I could feel a cold sweat prickle on the back of my neck. It had been five years since I had last seen him. And now? When my heart is sick with the notion that he could finally be making good on the promise he made to get back at me, he appears back in my life. A friend request from Ben Cullen. In a panic I looked around me – as the mourners started to file out of the chapel. I wondered was he among them. Had he been watching me all this time? I turned the key in the ignition and sped off, drove to work mindlessly where I sat in the car park and tried to stop myself from shaking. The urge to go home was strong. To go and hide under my duvet.
I typed a quick email to my friend Maud. All I had to say was ‘Ben Cullen has sent me a friend request’. Maud would understand the rest. Andrew – my line manager in the grim call centre I spent my days in – wouldn’t understand though. He wouldn’t get my panic or why I felt the need to run home to the safety of my dark flat with its triple locks and pulled curtains. As it was, he thought I was at a dentist appointment. He had made it clear the leave would be unpaid and it had already been an hour and a half since I’d left the office. I was surprised he hadn’t called to check on me yet. If I were to call him to try and verbalise the fear that was literally eating me from the inside out, he not only wouldn’t understand, he would erupt. I was skating on perilously thin ice with him as it was.
My two days’ absence after Rose’s death had been the icing on the cake. But my head hurt. I saw a couple of police officers in uniform as I drove and momentarily wondered whether to tell them Ben Cullen had sent me a friend request and I thought there might be a chance he was caught up in all this. Saying it in my head made me realise how implausible that would sound to an outsider; but not to me, I knew what he was capable of. I had to get away from here. I wanted to go home but I needed my job. Maybe I would be safer at work anyway? Desolate as it was, we had good security measures. I made sure all the doors on my car were locked and I drove on, the friend request sitting unanswered on my phone.