by Laurence Edmondson
When I was three years old I killed a woman called Jean Lewis. I caused her death. I ran across the road without looking and she swerved her pale blue car and crashed into a wall and died the next day. I never saw her face. My mother did; she went to the hospital to see her before she died. I didn’t know that until much later. All I remember is that we were walking to playschool together and I ran away from her. I had no reason to run, I just ran; blindly charging, ignoring her shouts, thinking nothing. And then the car, the noise.
Of course, I was so very young, and it was a lapse of comprehension and obedience that almost any child could match without the consequence of a life of guilt – but innocence and misfortune do not eradicate responsibility. I did do it, and it did cause what it caused, and regardless of my age at the time, this fact can and should never be omitted from the landscape of my life. To me this is clear. Finding the right level of guilt, if there is such a thing, this is the struggle.
At first I was sheltered entirely from it. Over the proceeding years, apart from a few gentle talks after the flash-horror screech and smash that occasionally made its way into my infant dreams, that day was not discussed in my presence. All I knew was that there had been a very brave lady whose car had lost control and nearly hit me. I shouldn’t have been on the road, no, but the crash was the bad car’s fault, not mine. The lady had gone to hospital, and was being looked after.
The nightmares stopped, we moved to another part of the country, and life made way for the ordinary comforts and routines of rural middle-class childhood.
It wasn’t until the age of fourteen that the silence was broken, when, towards the end of a family holiday in France, in the heat of a vicious fight with my older brother Tom that had started over a board game, I spitefully let slip that he and his friends had been smoking after school, and, incensed by the betrayal, Tom screamed, ‘At least I’ve never killed anyone!’
Tom immediately and passionately took it back, but my distressed questioning could not be subdued, and so it was, sitting at a kitchen table on a wet afternoon in Normandy, that I finally learned about the death of Jean Lewis. ‘But it wasn’t your fault,’ my mother maintained through her sobs. ‘You were so little. It was an accident. Just a stupid random accident, and it’s not fair!‘
Worse than the shadow of shame and confusion that the revelation cast over the rest of my teenage years, making of me a sullen, unsociable young man with a secret, was the toll that the whole thing had taken on my mother. Amid the protection that my family gave me (Tom never lost his temper with me like that again, Dad became a type of self-enforced resident jester, attempting to push humour and positivity around the house as a sad, daily imperative), I became more attuned to my mother’s mental health. As the years went by the distress aged her significantly. A particularly bad day for me would reflect itself twofold on her face as she quietly watched me, her soul in the clutches of her endless pity and love for her son. My first term away at university, while providing me a fresh start on the social side of life, was also cluttered with sleepless nights, as I thought of my mother and the way that my infant mistake and her love for me were still ravaging her happiness. As the end of term approached, I resolved to reopen the subject with her, hoping I could persuade her that I was now an adult who could accept his own past, and that she had suffered enough on my behalf.
It took some time back home to find the right moment, then, three days before Christmas, with Dad and Tom occupied, I invited Mum out for a walk, and managed to say what I had been mentally practising for the past few weeks. She listened to me with a look of sad recognition, and when she spoke she was at first measured, as though she had also been preparing for the conversation. She told me that she blamed herself for what happened, and described her memory of the incident.
She said that we had been on the way to playschool as I remembered, when she had stopped for a moment to look in a shop window. She had seen a briefcase on display and was looking at it as a possible gift for my father. By the time she had noticed, I was fast approaching the main road.
‘I can never forgive myself for that,’ she said, her voice beginning to quiver. ‘If I’d just kept hold of you, or if I’d just not stared at that…damn briefcase for so long–’
‘But you told me to stay put when you looked in the window, didn’t you?’ I said. We had stopped walking now; we were standing on a path next to the reservoir.
‘And you shouted after me to stop.’
‘I did, but–’
‘Then Mum,’ I said, my voice also shaking, ‘you’ve got to acknowledge, at least, that the greater share of the guilt is mine.’
She shook her head vigorously. ‘No!’ she cried. ‘Don’t be so silly.’
‘You’re being silly!’ I said angrily. ‘You’re being silly. If you could be to blame, then why not blame the shop owners for their window display? Why not blame Dad for needing a briefcase? You could go all the way back to the big bang! It was me. My actions directly caused that woman’s death, and that’s the only truth of it.’
With tears in her eyes, she kept shaking her head. ‘You can’t say that,’ she said. ‘That’s stupid. You can’t think like that.’
Enraged, I shouted, ‘You’re killing yourself. And that’s killing me!’ and I turned and left her there. I left her sobbing by the reservoir.
When she got back to the house we embraced and cried together, and she pleaded with me never to try that argument again. I did try, five years later, and again three years after that; but always with the same outcome, the two of us trapped in the same despairing deadlock that hardens as the years go by.
I have one memory of Mum and myself from times before the death of Jean Lewis. One memory that is not tainted, where the guilt and our conflict over it has no hold.
It is a sunny afternoon in a small village. There is a neat little cottage and garden belonging to an older lady with whom we are friendly, perhaps a friend of my grandmother’s. There is a little Jack Russell who frolics on the trim lawn as we arrive. Inside, the living room is cosy and tidy, and the carpet is thick and soft. My mother is young and pretty and happy, and she sits on the sofa and chats with the older lady, with me sitting at her feet on the thick carpet, looking at the Jack Russell, hoping to touch it. On a small table in the middle of the room is a plate holding a neat stack of circular sandwiches made with white Milk Roll bread. We share the sandwiches, and I am allowed to give half of one to the Jack Russell, who swallows it and wags its tail as the older lady and my mother watch and laugh gently.
The memory comes to me best in half-sleep. When I chase it, when I think it through now, it seems somehow untrue, like an attempted gift to myself. But when it comes to me, it is warm and bright; I’m there on the soft carpet, with the little table, the Milk Roll, the Jack Russell wagging its tail. My mother, young, pretty, happy. No mistakes. No death.
Laurence Edmondson grew up in Lancashire and has been living in Berlin since 2007. He has had stories placed in prize positions in competitions such as the Bare Fiction Prize and the NAWG Short Story Competition, and his story ‘Cycles and Batches’ was published in print in the Rubery Book Award anthology 2014.