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I jerk awake.
The car’s shaking, wheels drifting on the edge of the road. Panicked, I swerve back onto the straight. My eyes sting, cock aches. There’s a gap in my wallet, six crisp fifties.
Jane’ll want to know where I’ve been.
Where have I been?
Out with the lads.
All around the car, a blotted glow, headlamps promising protection. Something’s out there in the dark. As the sun rises behind the trees, I breathe. At junction thirty, I roll down the windows. A sharp and sobering breeze.
If Jane starts an argument, neither of us will win. Each brittle fight leaves us a little more depleted, a little more chipped away, fewer soft corners, more jagged edges. How did we get here? It wasn’t always this way.
Then, flying past, I see it—a car in a ditch—metallic green and glassy, a wink in the overgrowth. A dump-job probably, a joyride abandoned by kids from Stanford Haven estate. I consider going back. But it’s 6 am. I’ve had no sleep. Beneath the rumbling engine, tarmac gleams in the morning light. My phone vibrates on the passenger seat.
Eight missed calls. All Jane. Every second I’m away feeds her jealousy. Her paranoia is chronic.
Without realising, I’m on the phone. It’s ringing.
Max from work. My cover story, just in case.
Again, Jeremy? he’ll say.
Again, Max. I owe you one.
This is the last time, Jeremy. (What he always says.)
I’m half surprised when it’s not Max who answers.
“Police. How may I direct your call?”
Weary eyes on the road, I drop the handset in my lap, grip the wheel. “Hi, yes, I want to report an abandoned car.”
“OK, and whereabouts is the vehicle, sir?”
“Beside the A1, in a ditch off the northbound slip road at junction thirty.”
“And the registration number, sir?”
“I don’t have it.”
“Could I ask you to check, sir?”
“I didn’t stop,” I confess to this stranger. “I’m driving home. I didn’t get back last night and the wife is on my—”
“Sir, you’re aware it’s an offence to use your phone whilst driving?”
“I’m not driving,” I lie.
My foot hits the accelerator, untruths urging me forward. A motorbike overtakes on the passenger side.
“Sir, is that a motor vehicle I hear?”
“Yes,” I say, adjusting my crotch, grit in my eye. “You want their registration, too? The driver’s papers, perhaps?”
“Sir, it’s an offence to use your phone whilst driving.”
“I’m just phoning in the abandoned car, OK?”
A pause on the line. Call centre murmurations. Telephones buzzing. Indeterminate, genderless voices. Overhead, clouds shimmer like feathers in the brightening sky.
“Sir,” says the voice, finally. “I need to take your details.”
I hang up.
It’s not yet 7 am but Jane’s already on the doorstep, clutching the pug. Her skin gleams, pores plugged with makeup so thick you could stick a thumbtack in it. Eyebrows pencilled-in. Trout lips puckered. She resembles a poorly-restored oil painting.
She doesn’t need that stuff but whenever I tell her so she just sneers and slaps on more.
War paint. That’s what it is.
The bulging-eyed dog whimpers in her arms. His fuchsia tongue, trembling on little brown lips, matches the pink of her tracksuit. I’d have preferred a big dog. A Doberman. But I had no choice. I got home one day and she’d bought a pug from some puppy farm. An inbred, yapping thing that shivers when it shits.
“Where’ve you been?”
The question I’ve been dreading.
“Out with the lads,” I reply.
I’m drunk on fatigue, the thrill of nearly crashing the car. The shame of having gotten away with it, again. Jane’s face glows beetroot. If only I could hate her, it’d be easier to forgive myself for what I’ve done.
“I’m taking the dog out,” she sneers through rock-tight teeth.
But she doesn’t move. I can tell she wants to guilt me into caring. But we’re in battle mode now. Our love’s too stubborn and stiff. Each second we stay weakens us.
And we know it.
Thursday afternoon in the staffroom. Chipped, insipid-green walls. An espresso machine on a too-rickety table. Rigid chairs that say, Sit… but not for long. Most days, I take fifteen minutes for coffee, an orange perhaps. No doughnuts—they make me sleepy at my desk.
Nearby, three lads from accounting play cards and laugh like horns, the radio tuned to the local station. My ears prick up at the news.
…found smashed into a tree. Local police received a call reporting the car’s whereabouts on Sunday morning but admit the vehicle was not recovered until Wednesday. Tragically, the driver, a male in his twenties, was found dead at the scene. A female passenger, found alive but barely conscious, was rushed to hospital where police say she’s in a serious but stable condition. The force is launching an urgent inquiry into its call handling procedures to ensure a similar tragedy does not occur—
I flip the radio off.
My skin feels thick like over-baked bread.
Dates rush around my head.
I called on Sunday.
They were found on Wednesday.
That’s three whole days.
I called it in. The rest is on the police, right?
I can’t think about it.
It could be any car. Surely it’s not the same one?
“I fold,” says Max, staring. I don’t remember standing but I have. I must look mad, stork-eyed, finger on the radio switch. Max jabs me in the ribs. “What’s up, Jeremy, trouble at home again?”
The lads guffaw like schoolboys.
I try to smile but all I can think is:
Three whole days?
It’s Saturday. The corner shop smells damp.
“Packet of Marlboro Lights,” I tell the man.
“Right you are,” he says.
Where’s my lotto ticket? Jane’ll want to know.
Buy your own, I think.
I catch myself, search my pockets for change. I’ll buy her a ticket. Yes. A peace offering. Except I’ve only got enough for a lotto ticket or a newspaper, not both.
“A copy of the Gazette, too, please,” I say.
Peace will have to wait.
The little bell tinkles as I leave. Climbing into the car, I throw the paper on the passenger seat and drive. I try to concentrate on the road but the paper tugs my attention. I could read it later but I could also read it now. No harm ever came from reading a newspaper, did it?
No harm at all.
Pulling over, I flip frantically through the pages as if undressing a forbidden lover. And there they are. The couple from the crash.
Two confrontational mugshots stare out at me. He has a shaved head, a scar on his face. Her scowl-fixed features are pill-popper pale, hair pulled back too tight. She’s pretty, in the way young people always are, even when they’re not. Perhaps they’re in a relationship. Were. One of those funny open ones. The kind where she kisses other men. Men like him, perhaps. But also, maybe, men like me.
The paper says they might’ve been drinking. I try to feel something. They were asking for it, drinking and driving like that.
Back home, in the shed, I dig out a ruler, a board, a knife. The blade, hush, hush, slides through the paper as I slit her photo from the page. A gaping hole hangs above the article, slicing the man’s face where the knife went too far. But I don’t feel bad. He’s dead anyway.
I throw the rest of the paper away.
The photo frame’s made from moulded plaster, sprayed gold to look fancy.
It still looks cheap.
Jane’s ripped out our wedding photo, replaced it with one of her and the dog. A cruel joke. To hurt me. But it won’t work. It won’t damn well work.
She doesn’t throw our wedding picture away. Our battles tread fine lines and that’d be a step too far. Instead, she pins it to the kitchen board with voodooish glee. I wince, a thumbtack piercing my shoulder, grazing my neck. A silver bullet. A warning shot.
“When you gonna tidy the goddamn shed?” she says.
“Get off my back,” I snap.
“Where’s the toolbox?” she asks, changing tack. “I want a hammer and nail. You need to hang this picture of me and Mr Sniggles.”
I mean to say, Hang it yourself, but it comes out wrong.
“Hang yourself,” I say.
I freeze. But before I can say another word, Jane laughs, voice like knives. She leaves the room as abruptly as she entered, cackle rising cruel as claws, brackish against the plasterboard walls. It echoes like an omen in the depths of the house.
Cobwebs dangle in the shed. Half-light films through grimy windows, settling on the saddles of long-forgotten bikes. Untouched hiking boots haloed in mud. On the shelf, a dusty bottle of champagne meant for an anniversary long past. Desiccated memories. I grab a beer from the fridge, place it on the sill.
I want to leave but my hand hovers over the toolbox. Inside, the girl’s photo calls from among wrenches and rusty screws. Looking this often isn’t healthy but I open the lid anyway, carefully lifting her out by the edges.
According to the paper, her name’s Shantelle. She’s been in intensive care for a week. Questions plague me but not the ones you’d think. What does her laugh sound like? How does she do her hair? What perfume does she wear? Is she happy? What about when her car smashed into that tree and she lay beside her rotting lover? Was she happy then?
She speaks in a voice only I can hear.
Thanks for stopping, arsehole.
OK, I didn’t stop. But I called it in, didn’t I? She shouldn’t talk to me like that. It’s not my fault, what happened. They’d been drinking.
I lift out a second photo from yesterday’s paper. An accordion-crumpled car hood glittered with glass. Razor-sharp ribbons of metal. The driver’s side of the wreckage wrapped around a tree. It’s hard to see but his seat is stained with something dark and once-wet.
“You get lost out there?” Jane asks when I return indoors. Her eyes flick to the shelf where my phone sits on charge. “You haven’t hung my picture of Mr Sniggles. What were you doing out there?”
“Getting a beer,” I snap. A pause. Remorse. “Listen, Jane…”
Her eyes lock mine, terrifying, unreadable. Is that hope I see, or hatred? I can’t tell any more. When did we become such strangers?
“I…” But whatever I want to say sticks in my throat like glass. “Don’t go poking around in my damn shed.”
Jane rolls her eyes in disgust. “You’re a pathetic excuse for a man, Jeremy,” she replies.
Junction twenty-eight. Barely morning.
Junction twenty-nine. No cars in sight.
Junction thirty. Stop.
Stepping into low sun, I expect distant roaring roads, birds fretting in the dawn. But it’s silent. Not even a breeze.
It’s easy to find the tracks. Tread marks rip the verge, etching the earth, valleys of gravel and grit. The grass is so high it conceals the ditch and I almost twist an ankle climbing in. It’s not long before a shattered brake light crunches underfoot.
One foot forward: where the exhaust pipe would have been.
Another step: where the back seat lay.
A few more feet: a tree. An old oak. The only one. What poor luck to hit the only oak.
A final step. This is it. This is where he died.
The oak’s intact, besides some bluish paint blotting the bark. Cubes of glass lie around the trunk like scattered pearls. I stoop to pick one up, rolling it between my fingers, willing it to cut me. But it won’t.
This is where she lay, forgotten.
Where flies gathered in their thousands to feast.
This is what I drove past.
It’s Friday. Almost two weeks since the crash.
In the staffroom, the lads aren’t playing cards but staring at the local news. A reporter speaking in solemn tones. About policing cuts. About accountability.
After nine days in hospital, the girl’s dead.
Kidney failure. Uncommon for twenty-four-year-olds, the reporter’s saying. Unless they’re crushed inside a Renault Clio for three days, that is.
The TV pans in on a photograph. Different from the one in the shed. Now she’s dead, an anonymous intern somewhere has mined her social media for a more sympathetic shot. One that tells a different story.
Her hair, pulled tight in the original mugshot, is loose now. A wisp falls across one eye. Another strand catches lightly-parted lips, bathed in willowy light from a window out of shot. You can see she knows the photographer, too. It doesn’t take a genius to guess who it is. Sultry, that’s what you’d call it.
Now she’s dead, she was saving for college.
Now she’s dead, she was a mother of two.
Now she’s dead, the eyes in the photograph shine with life, while her real ones lay mist-chilled on a metal slab a few miles from where I stand.
The thought thrills me.
Work drinks. I’m too drunk to drive but it’s not far. When I arrive home, it’s late, morgue-quiet, the pug’s oblivious snores the only thing daring to disturb the darkness.
Upstairs, Jane’s asleep. I climb into bed, trying not to wake her. She’s gentler this way, easier to love, her soft form rising and falling like a child in need of protection. When she stirs, I stay stock-still.
“Jeremy?” she murmurs.
“Sorry I woke you.”
She rolls over, then, hot hands unexpectedly on my chest. My heart leaps, my body craving hers in a way it hasn’t in months. In a way that makes me want to go back to the way things were. In a way that believes we still can.
“Do you want to—”
“Yes,” I tell her. “I want to.”
Our bodies find each other in the gloom, making love as if we were about to drown, life rings of flesh and sweat and blindness.
“I want to make it work,” I tell her, after.
“Me too,” she says, fingers trailing my chest. I’d forgotten this version of her. Tender, sweet. Without war paint. Without rage. “We’ll try,” she says. “To be better. OK?”
I nod. A gesture she senses but cannot see.
We fall asleep, touching.
I’d forgotten how it felt.
Stanford Haven estate. High rises hover, tombstones in the gloom. Shadows fall at awful angles, concealing the faint ebb of cigarettes, hot breath in obscure corners. The car windows are wound up, not to hold the heat in but to keep the darkness out.
I creep the car around a corner, peering up at tower block windows. Some blaze, lurid with LEDs leftover from Christmas. Others are blank and bright as newly dead eyes. I struggle to picture the estate by day; to imagine a young mother tossing cigarette butts onto concrete slabs, laughing with other mothers as children squeal and play in woodchip and cat shit.
This is empty space now. There’s no way to hear her voice, to know what her future held. But I can say goodbye. That, at least, I can do.
Parking up, I cut the engine, step out of the car. Breath cloudy against the cold. Before me, a pebble-dashed tower, graffitied glass. How could she live in a shithole like this? How could anyone?
Jane’ll want to know where I’ve been.
Visiting a friend.
Hooded youths approach the building. I hover nearby. Buzzing themselves in with boyish boldness, I jam my foot in the door. Once they disappear, I follow them in. The entrance hall’s high with the stench of piss and my footsteps carry strangely in the stairwell, echoing as if I’m not alone. On each landing, a dim light casts confusing shadows through grotty rails.
Fourth floor. Steep stairs.
Fifth floor. Lukewarm lasagne.
Sixth floor. Catch my breath.
Seventh floor. Jacket off.
Eighth floor. Here. I’m ready. This is her.
A concrete corridor. Opaque plastic, black with flies, conceals a flickering strip. I set my sights on the door I need and knock. I want her to answer, but she won’t. Want to meet her, but I can’t. All I can do is see inside. She owes me that, at least.
The door opens ajar. Warm smells waft out. A puffy pair of bloodshot eyes.
“Who are you?”
“A friend of Shantelle’s,” I reply.
The door swings wide. A woman, my age, or older. Peppery hair pulled back tight, cigarette dangling from hard, lined lips.
“I don’t know you,” the woman eyes me suspiciously. “Which floor you on?”
“Third,” I lie.
“Figures,” she says, a code I cannot crack. “You’d better come in.”
Inside it’s bright and poky, surfaces crowded with crap. Lego blocks, sympathy cards, unopened bills. A tube of burgundy lipstick on the side.
Every wall’s a different colour. Fire-truck red. Sunset yellow. Midnight blue. Even the scent is busy. Oranges and cigarettes. Plug-in air freshener. The septic stink of lilies. The girl is everywhere. I’m drugged. I can smell her and taste her and see her in the air. I can hear her breathing behind a nearby door.
“I’ve just got the kids down,” the mother says, voice nicotine rich. “Come have a brew.”
I stand in the doorway of a cramped kitchen. A tiny table scribbled with crayon, unwashed pans in the sink. Stuck to the fridge, photos of Shantelle, two small children by her side. I breathe it all in. My final farewell.
The woman turns to me with empty eyes.
“Two sugars,” she says, “or three?”
Rummaging for tools in the shed, Jane finds the photograph. I arrive home from work and she’s holding it in her hand, a dusty, half-drunk bottle of anniversary champagne in the other.
“I knew you couldn’t keep it in your pants!” she spits. “Who is she, Jeremy?”
“I told you not to go in the shed,” I say.
“Who is she?” Jane demands again.
I don’t reply.
Jane swigs from the bottle, throws it at my head. It smashes on the wall, leaving a catastrophic stain. She’s always been a terrible shot.
“Well?” she demands. “What you got to say for yourself, you bastard? I knew you wouldn’t change!”
We’re beyond words now, beyond forgiveness or retribution. I simply stare at her burgundy lips wondering if she noticed that the lipstick in her handbag wasn’t hers. A peace offering, shunned.
“Where were you the other week when you didn’t get back ‘til Sunday morning?”
What can I say? My silence feeds her fears.
Jane’s face turns square with rage. “You’ve been fucking her, haven’t you?” she spits, pressing the photo in my face, too drunk to notice it’s cut from a newspaper. “This ugly slut, you’ve been fucking her!”
“She’s not a slut!” I yell, rising to confront her.
“I KNEW IT!” she screams.
Jane grabs my wrists, wrests me into the night. The forgotten dog yaps, pawing the pane as we pass.
“Get in the car!” she shouts, pushing me into the driver’s seat. I don’t resist. She throws open the passenger door, staggers in, slams it shut, leans over, flips the ignition. Juddering to life, the car slides into the night, serpent slick on the icy road.
“Drive,” Jane demands.
So I do.
Puddles of lamplight fly by, eyes on the road. Soon, all we have are headlights, portable packets of light. When Jane speaks again, she’s quieter, rage dulled by booze and the lullaby cadence of the car.
In silence, I speed us onto the motorway.
Shame flies by in the darkness. Desiccated memories.
Junction twenty-seven. Our wedding picture stuck to the pinboard.
Junction twenty-eight. The newspaper cutting in the shed.
Junction twenty-nine. The girl. Shantelle. Me.
“Jeremy,” Jane slurs. “Jeremy, please…”
Jack Petrubi is a European writer. He has lived in Athens, Sydney, and Reykjavik, and is now based in Germany. Before becoming a writer, he worked variously as a barista, a welder, and a meteorologist. He likes the colour blue and his favourite deepsea creature is the viperfish. In 2021, his short story ‘Hearts and Minds’ won the Cambridge Short Story Prize.