William Pardoe is not a big man, not a rash man, not the sort of man you could imagine rushing into a dangerous situation without very carefully weighing up the odds. His wife, Marion, considers him to be a wimp, a weakling, a disappointment. She tells him so, regularly.
William, not surprisingly, has a different view. He knows he is cautious, and considers that to be a positive thing. He knows he is not particularly assertive, and though he believes this to be no bad thing, he sometimes wishes that he could prevail more often, particularly where Marion is concerned.
He surprises himself one evening on the way home from work when he sees what looks like an argument going on in the underground car park where he regularly leaves his car. His attention has been drawn by a loud bang some distance away. William had been about to open the door of his car, but he raises his head and looks in the direction from which the sound has come. There are many cars parked in a row, but over the tops of them he can see the head of a woman, and beside it the head and shoulders of a man, his back turned towards William. The man has raised his fist and is clearly threatening the woman.
‘Hey,’ William calls loudly. His response is automatic.
The man with his fist raised turns to look at William, clearly surprised.
The woman screams, ‘Help!’
William watches in horror as the fist smashes into the face of the woman, who simply screams inarticulately and disappears from William’s sight. William does not hesitate. He drops his shoulder bag and runs around the back of his car. ‘Stop that!’ he shouts as he runs the twenty metres or so to the scene of the argument, and skids to a stop.
William is forty-five years old, a little pudgy and certainly no athlete; that short run is the most exercise he has taken in quite a while, and he is already panting as he stands looking at the scene between the parked cars.
The woman is on the ground, sobbing, holding her face and looking down at the oily concrete. The man is standing aggressively, his fists bunched and ready before him, his feet planted solidly and his body half-turned towards William. ‘Fuck off,’ he snarls.
Out of breath William may well be, but adrenaline is pumping through his body in an alarming way. He feels electrified, maybe even ready to fight if it becomes necessary. William realises with some small part of his brain that this is exciting. ‘Leave her alone,’ he says, and there is an edge to his voice, as though he means what he says and will take action to enforce it.
‘Mind your own fucking business,’ the man says, and reaches down to take the arm of the woman, pulling her upwards. She is clearly unable to stand by herself, perhaps semi-conscious after the blow to her face. The man lowers her to the ground once more, and steps over her towards William.
Apart from his aggression, there is nothing about the man which suggests that he would defeat William if it came to a fight. However, William has never fought a man before; not since school, anyway, and of course he was a boy then. William reaches into his pocket and brings out a mobile phone, which he quickly opens and presses three zeros. He keeps an eye on the man as he does this, aware that he is committing himself to action. ‘Police, fire or ambulance?’ asks a woman’s voice.
‘Police,’ William says.
The man steps forward again and throws a punch, more at the telephone than at William. His fist hits William’s hand hard, and William almost drops the phone. With his left hand he pushes the man away from him, turning at the same time as though to protect himself. The man reaches around him and pulls William towards him by the neck, at the same time smashing a fist into William’s side, a blow which surprises and hurts William. Without thinking, William strikes backwards with his left elbow, and feels it smash into his attacker’s ribs, and at the same time stamps behind him, his heel smashing into something soft; perhaps, William thinks, it is his
He is right. The man is off-balance now, and William shrugs him off, stepping away from him and bringing the telephone back to his ear. Someone is saying something, but William cannot make it out. Blood is pounding in his ears and he is disoriented. He shakes his head as though to clear it. He hears a step behind him and turns quickly to see the man charging towards him. He steps backwards again until stopped by a car. The man has his head down with the clear intent of using his weight as a battering ram. At the last moment William steps to one side, and the man charges head-first into the side of the car. There is the most terrific noise, the car vibrating like a drum. The man falls to his knees and slumps sideways to the ground.
William looks at the man for a moment, expecting him to rise groggily after a few seconds, but the man doesn’t move. Warily, William approaches him, watching carefully for signs of another attack. From somewhere behind him the woman starts to wail. William closes his phone and replaces it in his pocket. He is tempted now to return to his car and drive off immediately. He has stopped this man from doing more damage to the woman... what more could be expected of him?
But he finds he can’t do that. Surprisingly weary, he turns away from the man and returns to the woman. She is on one knee between the cars, holding her head.
‘Are you all right?’ he asks.
The woman is wearing a black dress with some sort of scarf tied around her neck. She has a great deal of ginger hair, long and thick and a little unruly. Her nose is bleeding, the blood running unrestrained over her lips and chin, and dripping from there to soak the top of her dress. She is holding her hand tightly to one eye. She rises unsteadily, leaning against the car, and looks at William with the other eye.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘No, no I’m not okay. What have you done to John?’
William looks around to see the man has not moved.
‘Is that John?’ he asks her.
She doesn’t answer, but moves unsteadily. She crouches beside the man, reaches with her free hand to gently shake his shoulder. He does not respond. ‘John,’ she says loudly. ‘John.’
This does not look good to William. He, too, squats beside the man, takes his shoulder and pushes him over onto his back. John’s
eyes are open, but there is no evidence of consciousness. The most terrible thoughts occur to William, and he takes John’s wrist and feels for a pulse. Though he has seen this done on television, he can find no pulse at all. John’s wrist is warm and a little sweaty, and William tries again. He sits back and drops the wrist. It falls to the concrete.
Shit, thinks William. He bends forward and puts his ear close to John’s face, hoping to hear him breathing. No sign of that, either.
‘Call an ambulance,’ he tells the woman, then puts his right hand beneath John’s neck, tilting his head backwards, pinching the nose with his other hand. He places his lips over John’s mouth and breathes hard, blowing air into John’s lungs. William has never done this before either, but he sees John’s rib-cage expand and figures he must be doing it correctly. He lifts his head and takes another deep breath. John’s chest falls again. William blows a second time, with the same result. So far so good, William tells himself. He continues his attempt at resuscitation.
As he blows into John’s lungs he watches the woman from the corner of his eye. She is doing nothing, just watching. She looks stunned. Blood is no longer dripping from her chin, but she is still holding her eye. Why isn’t she ringing for an ambulance? William wonders.
After five minutes or so, William stops breathing into John. John has not responded in any way. Again, William tries to find a pulse, but with the same result as before. He sits back on his knees and looks at the woman. ‘Have you called an ambulance?’ he asks her.
She shakes her head slowly as though waking from a dream.
‘My husband,’ she says, as though this would explain everything.
‘What do you mean?’
She looks at him as though for the first time. ‘If he finds out, he’ll kill me.’
‘So this isn’t your husband? John isn’t your husband?’
She shakes her head slowly, as though she’s not sure.
‘Is he dead?’
William looks down. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I think so.’
‘You killed him.’
William shakes his head in turn. ‘No. He did it himself. I just moved out of the way.’
‘You killed him,’ she repeats, and starts to whimper. She is still
holding her eye, her head turned down. Her shoulders are shaking. Her hair, thick and lustrous, falls forward over her hand. ‘Oh God, what am I going to do?’
John stands and takes his mobile from his pocket. He opens it and presses the zero twice, but the woman puts her hand over it and prevents him from pressing the final zero.
‘Don’t,’ she says. ‘Not yet.’
‘I have to,’ William tells her. ‘We’ve got to get the police and an ambulance.’
William hesitates. He knows he should report this incident, this death; but William is a polite man, unused to enforcing his will. ‘So, what?’ he asks. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘I don’t know.’ She is still holding her eye, but she shakes her hair out of the way and looks at him from her good eye. She looks a mess.
‘Why was he hitting you?’
She drops her head again, shaking it from side to side. ‘He’s a violent man.’
Not any more, William tells himself, but he says nothing, waiting for more information.
‘What’s your name?’
She hesitates, looking up at him again. After a moment she releases a sigh. ‘Amanda,’ she says. ‘Amanda Rodgers.’
‘And his?’ He nods towards the body on the ground.
‘Were you having an affair?’
She shakes her head again. ‘No.’
‘He wanted me to. I said no.’
‘What were you doing here with him?’
‘I don’t know.’
This is a waste of time, William thinks. He hesitates, but finally opens his mobile again.
‘Right,’ he tells her, ‘I’m going to phone the police and an ambulance right now.’
Her shoulders slump, and she turns away. She takes a step or two. William watches her, disconcerted. ‘Where are you going?’ he asks. ‘You can’t leave now.’
She ignores him.
‘Amanda,’ he calls. ‘You’ve got to stay here.’
‘My husband will kill me.’ The words are flat, without emphasis. She has stopped walking, though.
William moves to her side. ‘This is stupid,’ he says. ‘If you leave now the police will find you and assume the worst. Leaving the scene of a fatal accident, or something like that.’
‘Look, you’ve got to tell the police what happened. They’ll protect you from your husband, too, if you need it.’
She shakes her head.
William touches her arm. ‘We don’t really have any options,’ he tells her gently, lowering his voice.
She turns and looks at him. Her gaze is steady, but there is no hope in her face. She doesn’t move for a long moment, then leans towards him and puts her face to his shoulder. Instinctively his arm goes around her. He holds her tightly, and realises that she is shivering. They stand silently.
From somewhere far away in the car park comes the squeal of tyres on polished concrete, and the sound of a distant vehicle. There are three levels in this car park, and, William knows, sound carries very well in the cavernous place. However, they might be interrupted at any moment. He must get on and call the police.
The woman says something, but the words are muffled, spoken into his shoulder.
She turns her face away from him. ‘Please,’ she says. ‘Please.’
There is something in the way she pleads that makes William’s heart take a small leap, a sensation that he remembers from when he was younger. ‘What?’ he asks.
She sighs again, as though resigned to the fact that no-one will help her. ‘No-one knows I’m here. Except you.’
And no-one knows I’m here, either, he tells himself. If he were to do as she is asking, to let her walk away, what difference would it make? The guy would still be dead. Nothing would change. Except... well, except they would both be spared a great deal of trouble. He thinks about it, looks at the body on the ground. ‘Did you come with him?’ he asks.
She shakes her head. ‘No, I walked here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He called me. Told me I had to meet him here or he’d tell my husband we’ve been having an affair.’
‘Anyone see you coming?’
‘I don’t think so. It was raining. No-one was looking.’
He thinks of Marion, of what she might say. Suddenly, he doesn’t care what she might think, what she might say. He looks at Amanda, sees a woman in need of help. An attractive woman, he realises, apart from the damage to her eye. He can hardly believe it, but he realises that he might, after all, do what she is asking him to do. ‘Okay,’ he says slowly, trying to think it through. He looks around them. If they leave immediately, will there be anything to link this accident with them? He doesn’t think so. ‘Okay,’ he says again. ‘Right. Let’s go.’
She looks closely at him, trying to see if he is serious. Her eye, the one that was hit, is closed and blue, swollen. The other is bright and clear. ‘Right,’ she repeats, unsure of what he means.
Holding her arm, William steers her towards his car, anxious to be gone now that the decision has been made. He bends to pick up his bag from where he dropped it, fiddles with his keys until he finds the right one and unlocks the doors with the remote. He opens the back door and puts his bag on the seat, closes it and opens the front door. As he does so he hears a second squealing of tyres, and half turns to watch in relief as a car climbs from the level below and disappears up the ramp. He doesn’t want any witnesses to their absconding.
Amanda is already sitting in the passenger seat as he swings himself in and pulls the door closed. He glances at her quickly, sees that she has already belted herself in and does the same himself. He starts the engine and backs out immediately, changes gear and drives between the rows of parked cars. His tyres protest loudly as he swings around the end of the row and onto the exit ramp. He brakes at the top of the ramp and sees it is still raining, and that no-one is around. He drives out of the car park and onto the roadway. There is little traffic. Rain is pouring down, his wipers sweeping back and forth at maximum speed but unable to deal adequately with the weather. He leans forward to get a better view.
He stops at the red light at the corner, watches anxiously as cars and trucks splash through the crossing in front of him. He wants to be far away, and as quickly as possible. The light seems to take forever to change. Both he and the woman are silent. The green burns, and he moves forward, turning to the right, the major road. He drives for five minutes, slowly relaxing.
‘What’s your name?’
He glances quickly at her. ‘William,’ he says.
‘Thank you, William.’ She seems to relax, settling back further into the seat. She touches her eye as though testing it to see how badly it is hurt.
‘There’s a mirror behind the visor,’ he tells her.
Amanda reaches up and pulls the visor down, adjusting it until she can see her face. ‘Oh,’ she says.
‘It feels numb.’
‘It’ll hurt later, I think.’
She returns the visor to its position, puts her hands together in her lap and looks straight ahead through the windscreen. William sees that she is very still. He drives on.
‘We’d better stop,’ she says.
‘We’d better stop somewhere. We have to talk.’
He looks at her from the corner of his eye. ‘Yes, I suppose we should.’ The rain is slowing. He looks for somewhere to park. They are in the main street in the shopping centre, perhaps not the wisest place to stop if they mean to remain anonymous. He drives on, turns at the next junction and again at the next, but realises that it is all too close to home. What they need, he thinks, is somewhere far away. ‘Where do you live?’ he asks.
She tells him. It is far away, but he heads in the opposite direction. He drives for half an hour, then finds another underground car park, parking as far away from the entrance as possible. The chances of them being recognised here must be incredibly slim.
He switches off the engine and they sit silently, staring at nothing. The engine ticks unpredictably as it cools.
‘So,’ he says eventually. ‘What now?’
‘We go home and get on with our lives?’ It is clearly a question.
‘How are you going to explain your eye?’
She shrugs. ‘It’s happened before.’ He looks at her, the question his this time. ‘It’s always been my husband before.’ She smiles sadly at him.
‘You mean, he hits you too?’
She nods. ‘And kicks, and swears, and threatens.’
‘And John was violent too?’
‘I don’t know. Only that he did this to me.’
‘He wasn’t violent before?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t really know him.’
‘I don’t understand.’
She shakes her head sadly. ‘Neither do I.’
‘Tell me,’ William says; he’s not really sure he wants to know, but somehow he can’t resist asking her.
‘Terry... that’s my husband, well, he drinks. And when he drinks a lot he hits me. For some reason he thinks I’m cheating on him, and I’m not. Then John comes along, and I hardly know him but he starts badgering me, stalking, really. And when I tell him I’m not interested he starts threatening me, so I’m done for either way.’ She falls silent.
‘Perhaps I should just... disappear,’ she adds.
William thinks of his life with Marion, who had loved him once but now despises him, and wonders if Amanda’s life has been any worse than his own. He wonders if perhaps violence is easier to take than the slow corrosion, the poison, of growing hatred. For a second he visualises Marion crumpled on the concrete where John had been. He shakes his head to dispel the vision, repulsed.
He clears his throat. She looks at him expectantly. ‘We need to decide what we’re going to do,’ he reminds her. ‘Right now.’
She nods. ‘I guess I have two options. I either go home and pretend nothing has happened...’
‘Except the accident to your eye.’
‘Yes. Or I can escape and start again by myself.’
‘Can you do that?’
‘I don’t know. How could I? I’ve got nothing.’
William is thinking of himself. Could he escape? Start again? He has never dared think of this before. He looks at the woman beside him. She would be a very striking, attractive woman, but for the eye. He wonders for a moment what life would be like with her.
She is looking at him, too. ‘There are refuges, aren’t there? For women?’
William has heard of them. How would you find one? ‘I think so,’ he says.
She is suddenly animated. ‘The telephone book. They must be in there.’
‘I suppose so,’ he says.
‘Will you help me?’
‘A post office. Can we find a post office and look in the telephone book?’
William is alarmed at how quickly her manner has changed. He realises with a start that though they have witnessed the death of a man just a short while ago, neither of them has reacted in any sort of normal way. No shock, no recoil, no horror at the way the man died... in fact, no reaction at all except to think, each of them, of themselves. And now, quite suddenly, this woman seems to be accepting that she will leave her husband and make a new life for herself.
‘What about your family?’
Amanda snorts. ‘Fat chance of that. Terry isn’t interested in children.’
William thinks of his own children, both girls, their opinions of him poisoned by Marion, their husbands both very much like him. It is only now that he realises this. He is seized by a sudden sadness, but Amanda has opened the car door and is preparing to get out.
‘Hang on,’ he says, reaching across and taking her arm. ‘You can’t just leave like that.’
‘Aren’t you coming?’ she asks, uncertainty in her voice.
‘Not just like that, no.’
Amanda settles back into the seat. ‘What, then?’
‘Look, we have to think this through.’
‘No, it’s easy,’ she insists. ‘I find a refuge; you go on home. Forget today ever happened.’
‘Jesus. A man died.’
‘Yes,’ she says firmly. ‘And I finally get to escape.’
She stares at the concrete wall ahead of them, then slowly turns to look at him again. ‘Okay,’ she begins slowly. ‘I see what you mean. John dies. Horrible. But we carry on living. I get to start again, if I take this chance. If I don’t, Terry bashes me again.’
He is silent. He too looks at the concrete wall.
They have been stupid, he realises. They have to call the police, right away, and tell them everything that has happened. Then she can go to a refuge.
‘I have to call the police,’ he tells her.
She slumps as though the wind has been knocked out of her. ‘Why?’ she asks quietly.
‘Because... well, because they’ll find out. They always do.’
‘How could they?’
‘I don’t know. CCTV? Tyre marks? Look, I park there every day, almost in the same spot. People have seen me.’
‘But not me. I’ve never been there before.’
‘But they’ll know. How did John call you?’
‘On my mo...’ She pauses, realising. ‘There’ll be a record, won’t there?’
‘Mmm. And I guess there’ll be other things, things we don’t know about. We’ve seen it on TV, haven’t we?’
She breathes out heavily, a sigh, but with a world of meaning. A resignation. ‘I suppose so.’ Her head drops forward, and she starts to cry.
William watches her, and feels like crying himself. For a few moments he had had a dream, but it was never going to work. Like a mirage, it is crumbling to nothing. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and gives it to her. She blows her nose noisily, wipes her good eye, holds the handkerchief to her injured eye.
‘Do you think the police will help me find a refuge?’
He nods. Of course they will. Once they have investigated the accident, he supposes. He wonders if there are refuges for men.
He takes his mobile from his pocket. Flips it open.