by Jenny Gray
I met your mother in a broom cupboard in 1987. It was one of Denise’s and John’s parties. You probably won’t remember them, they got divorced a few years after you were born. They used to have great parties though, Denise had inherited this decrepit Victorian townhouse from her parents. Judging from the state of everyone at her parties, she’d inherited quite the booze cabinet as well.
Anyway, we were playing sardines; I’d hidden away with a bottle of warm chardonnay in the cupboard under the stairs. An obvious place, you might think, but it went deceptively far back and I’d squeezed into a dark corner right behind all the cleaning instruments and unwanted junk.
The door opened and a sliver of light caught the mop bucket and the toes of my shoes. I saw your mother, backlit by the hall light. She was wearing silver taffeta. I didn’t remember seeing her at the party. I thought it was odd that, back then I noticed every girl at every party. She came in and closed the door; I still remember the rustle of her dress against the cupboard’s debris as she made her way towards my dark corner.
The road is slick with winter rain. In a couple of hours it will start to ice over and the commuters will suffer, crawling into Glasgow, their car heaters on full blast, their headlights igniting the darkness of the morning rush hour. Now though, the roads are empty. Midnight on Boxing Day, folk should be in their beds sleeping off the torture of two days of overeating, recharging for Hogmanay when they’ll have to do it all again, tenfold. They should be in their beds, but I am staring at the upturned Mazda convertible, bruised with the scrape of tarmac and compacted by the fist of the central reservation. It straddles two lanes of the motorway, gently steaming out its last breath into the night.
No one ever thinks of the highway engineer. They call an ambulance, they call the police. They call their friends, family and they cry down the phone for a stranger in a car they don’t know. I am never first on the scene, but sometimes I am second or third. Tonight is a night like that. Police here first, then me. My house is only half a mile from here. I was washing up after dinner. You were in your room playing games on your new PlayStation, fresh out the wrapper from Christmas. The phone rang and I left the last of the dishes soaking in the sink. I got here in four minutes, without speeding.
The officer who responded to the call is trembling. He is well back from the car, his face half-shadowed by the fall of the road’s lights. He is young, perhaps barely in uniform. Maybe he is three or four years older than you. There should have been someone more senior at the scene but it’s Christmas and this poor sod got the duty of Boxing Day when his senior officers are probably already asleep, curled up around their wives in their middle-class suburbs.
I go to him. I need to know what happened. It’s too mild for black ice and there are no other cars to deem it a collision. Is it the driver’s fault, or is it mine? I put a hand on his shoulder and catch his eye. This is new for him, his eyes are watering, but he’d put it down to the cold.
‘Couple headed home to Cambuslang called it in. Found it like this.’
He knows I need the facts. ‘The driver?’
‘I had a look inside the car. I had to check if he was breathing. But you’ll see…’
‘Is it bad?’ I know already.
‘He’s not all there.’
In the broom cupboard, I cleared my throat. It wasn’t awkward in the darkness, the wine had served its purpose and the empty bottle clinked on the stone floor as I shifted my feet. I felt her stiffen, just inches away.
‘Guess I found you!’ she whispered and brushed her hand against my leg. It was black as hell in the cupboard and I wished she’d left the door open a crack.
‘I’m Mary.’ She fumbled for my hand and shook it, giggling at the formality.
‘I’m Thomas,’ I whispered back. ‘I study engineering at the university, John’s in my class. Are you friends with Denise?’
She had opened a bottle of something and I could hear her drinking it then screwing on the lid. The hip flask was pressed into my hand, the pewter warm from her grasp and I took a sip. Whisky, not the cheap blend stuff either but a single malt. All the same, I’ve never liked it, I can’t admit it, except to you of course, that I’m a Scotsman who doesn’t like a dram.
‘Yeah we are at college together, or we were before Denise dropped out. She’s meant for bigger things apparently.’
In the darkness I could sense her rolling her eyes. Your mother always had the deadpan thing down. I suppose it was that dryness that first made me like her. It certainly wasn’t the offer of the malt. We went quiet as we heard footsteps coming down the stairs above us, holding our breath until they passed by the door of the cupboard and continued on down the hall.
I realised I was still holding the hip flask so I put it back into her hands. This time our fingers stayed touching.
‘What kind of engineer are you Thomas?’
It was a question I got all the time, one people asked me at parties like this on countless occasions. It was a question I was tired of, but she’d asked it in a way that made me sure she was interested. She had moved closer, now our arms touched as we leaned against the wall of the cupboard.
‘Roads. I want to build Glasgow’s roads.’
I closed my eyes and saw what I would do. I was twenty-two and breathed ambition. The path of my creation spread out before me, ribbons of highway paved in my vision. In an instant, bridges erected, tunnels dug. This would be my life in sweat and cement. In that moment there was no self-doubt, no question of what I was or who I would become.
Your mother, Mary, reached up and kissed me. I could taste the tang of the whisky on her lips. The concrete dream fell away and the kiss in the broom cupboard was all there was, perhaps all there ever would be. Then someone came in and turned on the light and Mary drew away. Blinking in the brightness I looked down at her face for the first time.
I go to the passenger door first. It’s a delay tactic – I know there’s only one fatality. Still, I haven’t got used to death. Each body witnessed brings its own cold shudder. People don’t look peaceful in death, not when they’ve been in a road traffic accident. They wear expressions of shock or surprise, every death mask is a grimace.
The car is too badly dented for me to see inside properly. I see blood though, caked on white leather upholstery, marking the shattered glass of the windscreen like experimental art. So much blood. So I walk around the rear of the vehicle. I don’t want to see in.
I stop before I get to the driver’s door. Some sense of predation, primal and eerie seeps through me. It is as if I am being watched.
Then, turning towards the empty tarmac behind me, I see it, only a few yards away, at the side of the road. There, just touching the frosted grass of the verge, is the severed head of the driver. It has landed upright, as though his shoulders are buried beneath the surface of the road. The eyes open, bulge like a fish’s, the mouth is snapped shut, jaw clenched and I am glad not to see any shattered teeth. It is preserved well, as if plucked from a jar of formaldehyde, the skin pink and taut from the cold.
I avoid the rest of the corpse and head back to the shivering policeman. I can hear sirens in the distance. He looks cheered by this.
‘They took their sweet time tonight,’ I say.
He half-smiles in retort. ‘Not much to be done, is there? I think it was the central reservation, what a thing.’
I want to ask him if it’s his first accident. I want to tell him sometimes it’s not this bad, sometimes people survive. But instead I say, ‘Who drives with the top down in December?’
‘There is a half-drunk bottle of Talisker in the foot well.’ He utters the words I need.
It’s not the road. I shouldn’t feel it, but I do. Relief.
I close the door quietly when I get home. You are still in your room. I don’t knock, I just go straight into the bathroom and brush my teeth. In the mirror I catch myself unaware as we all do from time-to-time. I have aged badly. The bald patch has become a bald expanse and the bags under my eyes are pendulous. I rinse and spit.
I avoid the bathroom window. From there I can see the bridge. My bridge.
You were at school when I got the call. They had to take you out of class. Geography, your favourite.
Going out into the hall, I turn off the bathroom light.
‘That’s enough PlayStation for one day,’ I say towards the direction of your closed door and I move into the darkness of my own room.
I got the call and I went straight there but still I was too late. Her car had gone over, sank into the water and they hadn’t even bothered to get her out.
‘We’ll pull it up in one piece,’ they said.
My bridge was closed, the angry traffic beeped and growled as it was redirected. I waited for the tow truck. My lungs stung with the coldness of the air. Standing on the edge, I looked down at the black water and all I could think of was an empty bottle of chardonnay rolling on the floor of a broom cupboard in ‘87. I knew then, no matter what anyone told me, that this one would always be my fault.
Jenny Gray lived in Aberdeenshire, before studying English with Creative Writing at the University of Chester. After graduating, she moved to Vancouver where she wrote her first novel, this was shortlisted for the 2013 Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition. Since returning to Scotland, Jenny has gained an MSc in Creative Writing and works as a copywriter in Edinburgh. Jenny’s short fiction and poetry has appeared in Albatross, Pandora’s Box, Neon, Flash, And Other Stories, Glasgow Women Poets and The Ogilvie.