The Accusation – Victoria Jenkins

‘Tell us what happened.’ I sat up against the flat hospital pillow and tried not to focus on the throbbing inside my head. This was the worst kind of headache – one that stayed after sleep – and I feared that something far more sinister had been done to me than they were letting on, some damage the doctors had yet to realise the full severity of. I couldn’t allow myself to be injured. I was needed too much. Two pairs of eyes watched me expectantly, waiting for me to fill in the missing details of the previous evening’s events. I wanted more than anything to give them what they asked, but I just couldn’t. ‘Where’s…’ I began, but the question was strangled on my tongue, lost to a single tear that slipped from my left eye and slid onto my cold cheek. ‘She’s fine,’ the female reassured me. When I closed my eyes, I saw the tree the car had collided with; I heard the screech of brakes and the crunch of metal as the bonnet crumpled against the trunk of the oak, folding in on itself like an accordion. A rush of darkness flooded me, greens and browns muted by the night, and I remembered the last thought that crept from my mind as my eyes fell shut and consciousness escaped me: that just a split second could change everything, and that nothing was ever going to be the same again. ‘Tell us what happened,’ the man said again. But I couldn’t. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, making eye contact now. ‘I don’t remember.

’ ONE It was just past 10.30 when I slipped my jacket from the back of my chair and swallowed the remaining contents of my wine glass, a too-sweet mouthful that quickly added to the dizzying effects of those it followed. I’d only had a couple of glasses since getting to the restaurant a few hours earlier, but it had been so long since I’d last drunk alcohol that it felt as though I’d finished the bottle alone. Amy shook her blonde head, a mock frown stamped on her youthful face, a face that even at thirty-nine (though not until quarter to midnight, as she kept reminding us; even in utero she had timed her arrivals ready to party) could allow her to pass as someone still in her twenties. ‘Quitting already? Such a lightweight.’ I smiled. ‘I’ve made a promise,’ I reminded them, having already told them about Lily’s job interview the following day. She had failed her driving test – it was all over as soon as they hit the interchange on the way in to Cardiff, she told me; a motorbike overtaking her to the right and two lanes that filtered into one throwing her confidence – and so my role as Mum’s taxi service continued, while I reminded myself almost daily that it wouldn’t last much longer and that I might, possibly, miss my position once the post was made redundant. Besides, I wanted to know where Lily was. While she was with me, there was no chance of her meeting up with a certain someone else.

‘Circuits tomorrow?’ I rolled my eyes at Laura’s reminder, regretting the day, months earlier, when I’d agreed to sign up to the classes with her. Laura had always been more athletic than I was and had been back to her pre-baby weight while I was still sitting on the sofa eating biscuits. I had agreed to go to circuits as I’d needed something to motivate me, but even that one weekly session already felt like a burden, something I pursued through a sense of duty to Laura more than anything else. That and the fact that I didn’t want to look like a quitter. ‘Can’t wait,’ I said, smiling at her cynical raised eyebrow. I sidled around the far end of the table to give Amy a hug. ‘Happy birthday. Enjoy the weekend.’ ‘Oh,’ she said with a wink, ‘I most definitely will.’ Amy’s twenty-eight-year-old boyfriend of all of three months had booked them into a spa hotel somewhere in Somerset as a birthday surprise, a no-expense-spared, champagne-on-arrival overnight break that was basically an elaborately decorated dirty weekend.

Amy’s existence was as far removed from Laura’s and mine as it could be. Like me, Laura was married with two children. She worked for a local estate agent and her weekends were mostly booked up with soft-play parties, toddler gym classes and whatever sport her eight-year-old son had decided he was into that week. Amy was enjoying the kind of lifestyle neither Laura nor I had ever really had, even in our twenties, staying out late during the week and dating men she had no intention of pursuing any kind of relationship with. Her job as a freelance fashion journalist meant she travelled extensively and was rarely home for periods of more than a few weeks, and I didn’t mind admitting that I sometimes lived a separate life through her stories, wondering what might have been had things been different. Though it all seemed exciting and glamorous, I doubted I’d have had the energy to keep up. ‘Text me when you get in,’ Laura told me, ever the concerned mother. ‘Will do.’ I left the restaurant and zipped my jacket to my chin as I headed down the main road that led to the town centre, wishing I’d opted for a pair of tights instead of going out with bare legs. It was mid October but already felt much later, the air gripped by a winter that was promising continual rain and grey skies for the next few weeks.

Smokers stood beneath the wooden shelter erected to the side of one of the town centre’s pubs, smoke circling the air in acrid plumes. I passed drawn-down shop shutters and dimly lit windows, only the pubs and the takeaways still open. This place had become my home, or maybe I had grown into it, though I had often wondered why someone like Amy chose to stay here. When I’d asked her why she’d never made a permanent move away, her answer was a simple one: that it was purely a base and would always be home to her. I had envied her the attachment she felt. My path snaked left, taking me past the castle that dominated the centre of the town, a feat of medieval architecture mostly taken for granted by those of us who lived within a two-mile radius of it. When I’d first arrived here, over a decade ago – having spent some years in Cardiff before making the move north – I’d made a point of finding out what I could about the history of the place, but as with everything else, the novelty soon wore off and the building and its grounds became as everyday as the shops that stood opposite it. I still sometimes found myself enthralled by the sounds of these streets: the busy traffic and the dull thud of distant music; the familiar rise and lull of noise. For a moment, I was distracted by thoughts of my previous life. I felt my surroundings melt into nothing around me, replaced by a dark void that left me isolated.

I was standing at the front door of the old flat, my back pressed to the wall, the roar of blood in my ears pouring over me like a tsunami. The silence of the place was suffocating, reminding me that I was alone; I could still smell the damp that clung in places to the wallpaper. The memory was as vivid as if I had been there just the day before. I crossed the main road and headed towards the park, leaving my thoughts with the geese that stood silently at the edge of the castle’s moat. I could have stayed on the lit main roads, but the difference was a good ten minutes, and my legs were pimpled with goose bumps. I couldn’t wait to take off the shoes I had chosen to wear. They would never have been my usual choice, and I knew that had I been meeting up with just Laura, I would have opted for something far more comfortable. There was something about Amy, some effect she had that I’m sure she didn’t consciously intend, that made me feel the need to make more of an effort, to make more of myself. Perhaps it was a good thing. Perhaps not.

Either way, the feeling of having her friendship warmed me, and I wrapped myself in it as I entered the darkened park. I was just within the boundary of the main gate when I heard the woman’s voice. ‘Help me!’ It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The street lights were behind me, their glow illuminating yellow puddles in the lane I’d just left. To the left of me was the children’s play area, the swings and slides of various sizes partitioned off from the rest of the park. To the right stretched the football fields, lined with tall hedgerows that cut off the housing estate behind them. Towards the end of the fields, just in front of the block of public toilets, I could make out two figures, their bodies morphing into one confused mass as they grappled with one another. ‘Help me!’ Without thinking, I ran towards them. If it hadn’t been for the alcohol that warmed my chest, I might not have been so brave, but I acted without thinking, knowing that responding to the woman’s pleas was the right thing to do. As I ran, I stumbled in my heels and twisted my ankle, cursing beneath my breath as I steadied myself.

When I looked up, a man was running away, disappearing between the trees. He was carrying a bag in his left hand. The woman was on the ground, her voice having fallen silent. I grappled for my mobile phone in my bag, hobbling quickly towards her. ‘Are you okay?’ I called, realising the stupidity of the question. It was only when I neared her, when I crouched to the ground beside her, that I saw the blood. It stained the top she was wearing: a high-necked white blouse with intricate lace detail, worn beneath a long dark cardigan. ‘Help me,’ she said again, but her voice was smaller, almost strangled. Her accent wasn’t Welsh; it was southern and lilting, as though it might have faded over time. When she turned her head away from me, I saw the stab wound in her neck, a two-inch incision that was draining her blood into the hard ground on which she’d fallen.

‘Oh shit.’ I unlocked my phone in my shaking hand and began to dial 999. ‘Ambulance,’ I spluttered. ‘Stay with me,’ I urged her, not knowing what else to say; sounding like every television soap I had ever watched. ‘Yes,’ I said, when a female voice spoke at the other end of the line. ‘Um, I’m in Lewis Evans Park in Caerphilly, the one just off Castle Street. I’m with a woman who’s been stabbed.’ ‘Is she breathing?’ the operator asked me. ‘Yes, she’s breathing, she’s conscious, she’s just spoken to me.’ ‘Okay.

Where has she been stabbed?’ ‘In the neck.’ ‘Don’t try to move her, all right?’ the woman instructed me. ‘I want you to stay with her and keep talking to her until the ambulance arrives. They’re on their way now. What’s your name?’ ‘Jenna.’ ‘Okay, Jenna. Do you know the woman’s name?’ ‘No, I…’ I was still crouched on the ground, my body looming over hers in a way that I realised was probably intimidating. I sat down on the concrete beside her, not caring whether her blood ended up on me, and with my free hand found hers, gently rubbing her cold knuckles with my thumb. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked her. ‘Charlotte.

’ ‘Her name’s Charlotte.’ ‘Okay,’ the operator said again, her reassuring tone doing little to calm my increasing panic. I realised I had no idea where the man I’d seen running away might have gone. For all I knew, he could still be in the park somewhere, watching us, waiting to make a return. ‘Do you have something you could use to apply pressure to the wound?’ Stupidly, I looked around me, as though a bandage or a towel might magically appear on the ground beside us. ‘My jacket. I could use my jacket. What do I do?’ I propped the phone between my right shoulder and my ear as I slipped my left arm from the jacket, the chill of the night air biting at my bare skin. I should have had more of an idea of what to do, but panic overruled common sense, and all memories I had of any previous training were lost. ‘I want you to put the jacket over the wound and apply pressure, okay? Hold it in place until the ambulance arrives.

’ ‘How long are they going to be?’ I asked, shivering with shock as I straightened one of my jacket sleeves, folded it in half and then pressed it against the wound in Charlotte’s neck. She winced in pain at the contact and I apologised hurriedly, praying that the paramedics would get there soon. I had done plenty of first-aid courses in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality of being faced with a stabbing victim. I wondered why I had chosen to take the shortcut home; why it was me who’d been the one to find this woman. We all live so innocently, shielded in the bubbles we create for ourselves, watching the news with a sigh or a tut at the state of the world, comfortable with our cups of tea and plates of biscuits while we witness the unfolding of other people’s tragedies. None of us really believes that any of these terrible things we see on our screens could happen to us. If we did, no one would ever leave the house. ‘They’re on their way,’ the operator repeated, which I knew could mean two or twenty minutes. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ I asked Charlotte, in an effort to keep her talking as instructed. ‘You have a pretty accent.

’ ‘Thank you,’ she said, her words still small and strangled. I wanted to ask her what happened, what she was doing here on her own, why she had taken such a risk at this time of night, and then I realised the naivety of my question. I had done the same: walked alone through a quiet, darkened park, inviting any trouble that happened to be lurking, all the while oblivious to the fact that I might be doing so. And then reality kicked me in the stomach, making the carbonara and tiramisu churn in my guts. If I had left the restaurant just minutes earlier – if Charlotte hadn’t happened to be here too – I might have been the one lying on the ground with a stab wound in my neck. ‘Do you live around here?’ As soon as the question left my lips, I realised how ridiculous I sounded. I was trying to stop the woman’s blood seeping from her neck – blood I could feel damp against my fingertips, warm and sticky – yet at the same time I was trying to spark a casual conversation as though we were two people who had happened to meet by chance, one of whom found it difficult to cope with awkward silences. ‘Not far,’ she managed, though her breath was short and raspy. ‘Her eyes are beginning to close.’ I spoke into the phone, too loudly, panic escaping me in a hurried burst of sound.

‘Keep applying pressure to that wound, Jenna. Talk about anything – it doesn’t matter what it is, just try to keep her awake.’ ‘I live over there,’ I said abruptly, pointing as though Charlotte might pay attention to the gesture. ‘It’s all right, this town, isn’t it? I mean, there are worse places to live, I suppose. I run a coffee shop. The irony is, I don’t even like coffee. I don’t generally tell people that – wouldn’t really do much to help business, would it?’ I could hear myself rambling, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. The sound of my voice was drowning out the other noises that filled my head, the ones of fear and sickness and panic that would prevent me from helping her if I allowed them to overwhelm me. Charlotte shook her head slightly, the effort it took to do so draining her of the last of her energy. Her face fell to one side, and I repositioned myself, clambering across her while trying to keep pressure on the wound.

‘Try not to move. Just stay with me, okay? Don’t close your eyes. Charlotte?’ I put my phone on the ground and clicked the fingers of my free hand in front of her face. ‘Charlotte! Shit!’ I grabbed the phone. ‘I’m losing her! For God’s sake, please, where are they?’ As the operator began to answer me, trying to calm me with her measured tones, I heard the ambulance in the distance, its siren steadying my heart rate. ‘They’re coming,’ I told her. ‘I think they’re coming.’ Within less than half a minute, the far end of the park was lit with headlights, and I was frantically waving my phone in the air, its torch turned on, desperate to be spotted in the darkness. ‘Over here! Quickly!’ The engine was cut, and I waited for the sound of boots on concrete, still pressing the jacket to Charlotte’s neck, still praying she’d stay with me until the arrival of someone who knew what they were doing. I felt a hand on my shoulder, heavy yet reassuring.

‘Okay, let’s take a look at her. What’s your name, love?’ When she didn’t answer, the paramedic looked at me. ‘Charlotte,’ I told him. ‘Her name’s Charlotte.’ ‘All right, Charlotte love, I want you to try to stay awake, okay? Stay with us.’ He gestured to his female colleague, who reached for the large box she had carried with her from the ambulance. I stood and stepped back, almost losing my balance. I had been crouching so long, my legs felt numb, and now the blood rushed back to them. Charlotte’s eyes had fallen shut. ‘Is she going to be okay?’ I asked, my words barely audible, the voice that escaped me not sounding like mine.

‘Wait with us until the police arrive,’ the female paramedic said, not looking up at me. ‘They’ll want to speak to you.’ I nodded, the most I seemed able to manage. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the sight of them hovering over her, looming and retreating as they produced more and more equipment, and the feeling of uselessness that not long ago had consumed me was replaced by the sensation of being absent, as though I was not really there and this wasn’t really happening. I was standing apart from my body, watching myself watching. There was a surge in noise as further sirens approached. The paramedics were talking, to Charlotte and to each other, their words increasingly rapid. There was engine noise, there were lights and a sudden rush of people, and while my eyes were still focused on what few glimpses of Charlotte I was able to snatch, a hand on my arm ushered me away, moving me towards the pool of light around the police car. ‘Are you okay?’ the officer asked me. I realised I had barely acknowledged him; I couldn’t have said what he looked like or how old he might have been.

I nodded and felt something being put around me, then remembered that my jacket was still with Charlotte, soaked in the blood that had seeped from her wound. ‘You called the ambulance?’ the officer asked me. I nodded, apparently unable to form words, exhausted by the ordeal and by the notknowing what would happen to the woman now. What if she died? If I had got there two minutes earlier, could I have stopped what had happened? If I had acted more quickly – put pressure on the wound before being instructed to do so by the 999 operator – would she have had a better chance of surviving her injuries? What if something I had done had made her condition worse without my realising? ‘Are you okay?’ he asked again. He said something more, to someone else, but I didn’t hear his words. He caught me as I fell forward, and the next thing I knew, I was sobbing into his jacket, the weight of the trauma trying to drag me to earth.


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