“Did you know young Sue who died on the steps over there?” She asked.
The question hung in the air like a cartoon speech bubble. I perched at the end of the bench beside the boy with lines shaved along his temple who slouched between me and the wizened lady.
“I told you before.” His breath drifted, crisp in the dawn half light.
“Darlin’ wee thing, all ringlets and pockets full of posies, a real Shirley Temple.”
She picked up a bag and rustled around in it, her silver tresses wispy around her face. She looked back up with bared dentures.
“Just like my great granddaughter she was. Here, I still have a picture.” She pushed a yellowed photo towards me. The boy looked up from his phone.
“Take it.” He grunted.
From the acne scars on the back of his neck I put him about fourteen.
“Right over there and they took her away in the ambulance for all the difference it made.” She said.
The moment was broken by the screech of rubber on tarmac. A family filled Fiat shimmied like a downhill skier as it careered to the bend at the scenic viewing point. Right there, the road looked like it taken flight into the yonder, like a scarf caught on a breeze, escaping the clutches of the granite cliff. A hill walker stared past us toward the road before returning his attention to the morning view of the valley. He stood at the top of a set of stone steps tumbling down lush green terraces to create a giant’s staircase from the steep rock face to the green patchwork beneath. He lingered at a shrivelled shrine of flowers fastened to a pole atop the steps. A plastic spray throbbed colour like an infection among the dead blooms. The Fiat driver righted his vehicle, but thought better of pulling in for a photo op. A brown eyed mop topped boy waved out the rear window at me as they disappeared around the hairpin bend.
The three of us sat on the bench in the beauty spot car park, the scent of seared rubber wafting around us.
“Close one.” The boy said.
She shuffled around him shoving the photo into my chest. I eased past her, moving to the wall, a low stone construct reaching waist height. To my left, a tourist from a parked car clambered up onto it. He scanned the panorama with a tablet he held with outstretched arms, like a priest with the host. At a gap in the wall, loose rock and shards of concrete littered the ground. A serrated scar of crimson paint tainted the edge of a large boulder. As I neared the gap I could sense the acid of bile rising from my innards. A cold feverish sweat crept along my forehead and then the clouds began to carousel. The old lady grabbed my hand, her fingers bony, cold but comforting. The boy took hold of my elbow as I felt my knees buckle.
The scent of peppermint shot through my nostrils and into my brain. I blinked my eyes open to see her waving a white tube under my nose. “Works every time.” She chuckled.
The car park was now full and tourists milled around snapping pictures. A portly woman in clothes a size too small for her frame hoisted herself onto the wall using a wooden post as support. Her weight caused the sign, a stick figure tumbling down a mountain superimposed over the word “Danger”, to wobble. Her husband, a skinny man, his face hidden under a wide brimmed hat which made him look like a lollipop, waited for the perfect pose.
“That’s her right there” The old lady had thrust the photo into my hand, a sepia image of a tot in a floral dress bouncing a ball against a wall. My head throbbed.
“Johnny, you see he can talk, I told you so.”
“They all talk eventually Kay, she’s not really that like Sue.”
Evening brought bird song and an empty car park. Fewer cars wended the bends on the road, their lights picking them out in the gloom.
“So what do we call you then?” The boy leaned in so close I could smell his sweat.
“I’m Johnny and you know that’s Kay since she’s told you a million times already.”
“He’s a quiet one isn’t he?” Kay muttered, without raising her eyes from her line of knitting.
“Little Sue, cute as a button, you didn’t know her then?”
The boy shook his head.
“She must have died, her face was all blue she couldn’t breathe, awful it was, the first flower I planted in my garden was just for her you know, I couldn’t look when they were taking her away.”
“You never can Kay.”
She stood up and stroked his hair.
“When’s your turn boy?”
He turned to me.
I felt drawn again to the wall and forced myself away from the bench. I walked slowly, fighting a rising tide of nausea with each step I took. I peeked over. I could barely make out the edge of the tree line below. As my eyes adjusted the underside of my brand new red Mini looked pristine.
I had been driving with the windows down and the breeze in my hair smelt like summer. The radio blared one of those songs that always made me think of holidays. Suzanne had one of her feet on the dashboard causing the hem of her dress to drift halfway up a bronzed thigh. She was singing along, getting the words wrong on purpose, as always. She grinned because she knew that got my goat but I don’t think anything could have spoiled that very moment. My phone beeped with a text. Shit, I thought I had turned it off. A glance was enough. Looking back, I saw the shape on the road. A silhouette, perhaps a child, curled up like a bundle of rags on the blacktop. My legs went numb as we careered towards it. Lucky for me, Suzanne saw her too and jerked the steering wheel in my hands. We spun around it. I felt the driver’s door tackle me like an All Black and heard the scuff of leather as my shoes jammed under the pedals.
A clanking noise woke me. Kay was slumped against me, a soft snore passing from her open lips. Johnny was watching a machine they had set up beside the gap in the wall. I eased Kay’s head onto her bag. In sleep, she had an angel’s smile which revealed the features of the young girl buried behind the wrinkles. Workmen had set up a hut beside the source of the noise. Steel pulleys groaned as a necklace of heavy gauge chain filed link by link through them. A foreman in a white hard hat directed operations in the morning drizzle.
“Salvage.” Johnny said.
“The council pay these guys to take the wrecks away.”
As he spoke, the rear end of my Mini inched over the wall, a giant metal hook looped to the chain around the back axle. It lurched upwards until gravity made it crash in slow, controlled, motion to the ground. The doors popped open and I winced as the designer bag she cherished tumbled and her belongings spilled out. I scrambled on the ground to shovel her things back into it. When my fingers touched the sticky crimson drops spattered on the fake crocodile skin I stopped. I raised my head until I came face to face with her. She was glowing, perfect teeth, sunglasses in her hair, rays glinting off the mountain behind her.
It was a perfect pose. I had taken the photo with an old Instamatic she found in a charity shop on our first trip together. It hung limply from the broken visor that still clung to the car frame. The man in the white helmet bent down and scooped her things back into the bag. He beckoned another worker.
“Make sure this gets to the hospital, right away eh.”
The worker went to a car. I tried to follow him but something stopped me from getting in, so I challenged the man in the white helmet.
“Where is she? Is she ok?”
He walked past me.
“C’mon get a move on, time is money!” He bellowed.
I got in front of him again, so close I knew he had bad coffee and cigarettes for breakfast.
“I need to know what’s happening, what you’re doing with my car and what hospital she’s in.”
He stared right into my eyes.
“Ten minutes we’re done, get her loaded up!” He waved his arm to the driver of a breakdown truck which had pulled up without my noticing.
That was when he walked right through me.
I stumbled back to the bench.
“Don’t you get it yet?”
I put my head in my hands. I pulled at my hair. I needed to feel pain, to feel something, anything, so I kept dragging away until a small clump came free.
“That’s not going to help, this is what it is and the sooner you get used to it the better it will be for you.”
Kay had just woken up.
“Oh dear, have they started already?”
“Yup, must be on a bonus or something.” Johnny said as the breakdown truck and the crane trundled from the car park. In their wake, they had left a diamond shaped metal sign saying “Keep Clear Men at Work”. They had wrapped ribbons of red and white plastic tape around it which stretched from one end of the gap in the wall, through the sign to the other.
“How many times have they fixed that wall?” Kay asked.
“Three this year, two the year before, don’t know how many before that.”
“Remember this one?” He passed his phone to her. She fumbled with the specs she kept dangling on a string around her neck and when she had them at the perfect angle on the end of her nose she peered at it.
“Oh my word, they were fun weren’t they, here have a look.” She passed the phone to me. In a photo she sat on the lap of one of three large men who occupied the very bench we sat on.
“When was this?” I asked.
“Last year, three lads from a local rugby team on a late night out, won some trophy or other. See it’s there.” She pointed. True enough, from one of the burly hands a battered silver cup dangled.
“Scroll on.” Johnny demanded.
“Not yet, wait a while son.” Kay had a pleading tone to her voice.
“He doesn’t have time Kay, you know as well as I do, once they fix that wall that’s it, so look at it man, you need to know.”
I passed my finger over the screen to see the wreck of a van jammed into the wall of the car park. In the foreground a burly forearm lay on the concrete, its jagged stump leaked a viscous black. One of the doors of the van was open and the owner of the arm hung out of it like a disused puppet. His face was immaculate. I flicked back to the previous picture. The rugby player’s smiling face beamed out as Kay sat on his lap.
“He doesn’t have to be the only one that goes, you know that boy, you’ve served your time” Kay’s voice now had steel to it.
“I want to give her another while.” He said.
“It’s been years.”
As I flicked back through his gallery an unending series of horrors unfurled. I saw crash after crash in a vista of mangled metal and torn up bodies interspersed with photos of people sitting on the bench.
“What the fuck is this?” I said.
Kay burst into sobs of tears, her body shook as she fumbled for a handkerchief in her sleeve.
Johnny jumped up and dragged me away from the bench. I was twice his size but the stones on the ground stung when he flung me to it.
“Mind your language in front of Kay, will you, she’s an old lady and the last thing she needs is some idiot upsetting her.”
He towered over me with clenched fists.
“I’m sorry, I just need to know what’s happening.” I stood up.
“You won’t need to wait much longer, once they fix that wall you’ll be gone, forgotten like all the others. So why can’t you shut up and play nice?”
“I remember swerving because of the child on the road. Then I wake up and I’m with you two. What do you expect me to think? The only person I care about in the world is in a hospital somewhere and I can’t get to her. You are the only people I can communicate with and I can’t leave this damned car park.”
He pulled me further away from the bench.
“Look, you know nearly as much as I do. This spot, this bend in the road is beautiful but it’s deadly. Every so often someone going too fast has a looky loo at the view, hits the bend hard and then the wall harder. A long time I woke up on that bench and Kay took care of me. So now we wait and sometimes we get company for a while. Like you, then you’re gone, poof and we’re left here waiting. So show her some respect”
“What are you waiting for?”
He walked away from me kicking stones in front of him.
A car pulled up in the car park. A man strode to the sign post and fastened a bunch of fresh flowers among the others. He stood, head bowed as the breeze rippled around him bringing the laden scents of the harvest from below.
“How long have you been here?” I called after Johnny.
I sat back on the bench with Kay as he brooded in a corner of the car park.
“He’s a good boy you know. He should have moved on a long time ago. Young Sue was his sister, inseparable they were, used to come up here on their bikes all the time until the day it happened”
“He fell, under the wheels of an old tractor their daddy was driving. Last I saw of Sue, she was blue in the face when they took her away.”
“What about you?”
“This is my place son, there’s nowhere else for me, besides I like having company by times, at my age you know, keeps me young and sprightly.”
With that she rose and hummed a little tune to herself. She waltzed across the car park to the orchestra in her mind and linked arms with the mourning man. The wind picked up, blowing petals from the dead flower heads like a flurry of pastel snowflakes around them. She leaned up and placed a little peck on his cheek. When he sat back into the car he was smiling.
The next morning the workmen arrived at first light. The dawn chorus was strangled by the sound of a cement mixer churning. The ribbons around the gap were gone and the sign was shoved to the side. A pallet of stone was placed to the left and two stonemasons were sipping tea from a flask in the morning mist.
“I hate this part.” Kay turned to me and gave me a little hug. She took her bag and retreated to the back of the car park where she tended a little patch of wild flowers among the weeds as if it was a Chelsea garden.
I watched the workers lay the first row of rocks. They were meticulously proper craftsmen. Each rock seemed to fit as though cut for the function.
“She’s right, this is the hardest part.” Johnny was standing beside me when I noticed the tingling sensation along my left leg. I leant down to rub it but withdrew my hand in horror. It had begun to fade, I could still support myself but there as a transparency to my being. As they began the second layer of stone the feeling started to spread.
“Pity they were so quick I never got to know you.” Johnny said before walking away from me.
I was powerless, I felt as rooted as an ancient tree and my body began to disappear. That was when the taxi pulled up beside me. The stonemasons stepped back from their work.
“Can I just have a few minutes on my own, please.”
I heard the lilt of a familiar voice I thought I would never hear again. The masons mumbled apologises and retreated to their shed. The back door of the taxi had opened and Suzanne stood there with two bunches of flowers in her arms. They were propped on top of her now pronounced bump.
She came to me.
I reached my arms for her embrace, she paused and went to the signpost. She bent down and fixed, first one, and then the second bunch of flowers to the pole. I stood beside her, by now I knew she could not see me.
“My poor love, I always hated this road.” She said looking down into the valley. I touched her pregnant stomach and felt a tremor within. Her hands passed over mine as she cupped herself.
I turned and Johnny was standing there with Kay at his side.
Kay walked to her and held her face in her hands.
“After all these years my sweet child, you are made of strong stuff, I thought you were gone on that day. I was so sure. Look at you now.”
As if feeling a warm breeze on her face from the mountains Suzanne smiled at the setting sun.
“She came back, and look boy, you’re going to be an uncle.” Kay squeezed Johnny’s hand.
“I thought you’d forgotten about me.”
Suzanne plucked a bloom from each bouquet and threw them into the valley together.
“I will never ever forget you, either of you”
Johnny was now beginning to fade. Kay kissed Suzanne on the cheek as she was helped back into the taxi.
As the sun disappeared for the evening Kay sat on the bench alone. She took a ball of wool and knitting needles from her bag.
“Getting a bit chilly these evenings, think I’ll knit myself a nice warm scarf.” She said to nobody.
She was on the fifth line when the click clack of needles was interrupted rudely by the squeal of brakes, the scream of tyre thread on blacktop and the crunch of metal on stone. Kay shifted to the end of the bench, patted the space beside her and resumed her knitting.
“Perhaps I’ll knit two.”