Geoffrey sat inside the ambulance wrapped in a blanket, blandly watching the scene before him.
Two other ambulances, two fire trucks and an assortment of tow trucks and police and rescue vehicles had amassed in the thick of the rain. Someone had set up shelters; beyond them the rain teemed earthwards and hampered the efforts of rescuers in their tasks. Figures clad in bright yellow garb trundled through puddles, the reflective flashing on their suits dancing in the lights and silver rain that spat on their hats and jackets and looped to the sodden dirt. Flood lights had been set up. They cast a stark brilliance upon the morass of soaked gravel, flattened vegetation and mangled wreckage.
A mechanical beeping bit at his hearing. A crane was backing into position, presumably to lift the rig from the havoc on wrong side of the guard rail. Men waved and wandered in circles directing its movement.
A paramedic appeared.
Geoffrey nodded. “Yeah.” The paramedic disappeared again.
Geoffrey looked at the bandage on his right hand. Grazes from the stones by the side of the road. Ditto his knees, although the fabric of his trousers had prevented worse injuries there. The paramedic had been outstanding. Geoffrey didn’t think he had needed a bandage, but the paramedic had insisted. She’d cleaned the wound, which had stung a little, and wrapped it in both the gauze of the bandage and an air of assurance and comfort. He was grateful. She had put the blanket about his shoulders, and invited him to lie down, but he had preferred to stay up right and watch. The tea she gave him helped with the shock. He had shivered for a bit, and felt like he might vomit. She had smiled and said that was normal. Geoffrey felt enormously comforted.
Then she had excused herself to attend to the others involved in the accident.
They were in a much worse situation than a grazed knee and hand. One was dead, he knew that. He had no idea about the state of the truck driver. He could see a group of white and yellow clad workers huddled about the far end of the rig. He hoped they could help the man inside.
He hadn’t seen the driver of course. He’d hit the ground hard and pulled his knees inwards and when he rolled he’d seen in the slow motion of adrenalin, his car lifted by the howling rig like a pig on the horns of a rhino. They both, beast and prey, twisted as the rig thundered into the galvanised safety railing where it jack-knifed, threw its prey into the night and rolled on to its side with a blood thirsty momentum that dragged it into the black vegetation. Gravel had spat into his face, and wet dirt, and his ears had been deafened by the crash and the horror of what he had narrowly escaped.
He had lain on the ground as the rain washed down up on him. It filled muddy puddles beside his head and glued his clothes to his body. The rain was the only sound, a constant burr of wet upon wet earth, and blackness was its only accompaniment. There was no sound from the rig, nor did the trees or shrubs echo the rhythms of the rain. Behind him, the police car still flashed its pointless lights.
He was rising to his feet when a car approached and slowed, and stopped near the fallen wreckage. An umbrella had appeared from a cracked door and then a man emerged beneath it. He hadn’t noticed Geoffrey at first, but had waked over to the site of the wreck. He had stared over the edge for a while then turned and dialled his phone.
Geoffrey rose unsteadily to his feet, and raised a hand to get the man’s attention. The man dropped his phone and jumped back.
Geoffrey had thought, I suppose I look like a ghost. The man picked up his phone and said,
“Were you involved in this?” Then the phone must have answered, as his attention was directed at it. He had evidently dialled emergency and began describing what he had found. Geoffrey heard ‘bad accident, ‘police car’, ‘truck’ and then watched as the man described where they were in vague terms. Then he hung up and walked over to Geoffrey.
“Jesus, man, get under here.” He held the umbrella over Geoffrey’s head and for the first time in what seemed like ages the rain diminished due to the umbrella. He was face to face with the stranger, both huddled under the umbrella. Water poured off its rim and washed on to Geoffrey’s back.
“You look a bit green,” the man said. “Come sit in the car.” They walked through the puddles to the car where the man held a door open for him. He sat and the man all but closed the door. He stayed outside though, under the umbrella as the rain lashed the roof of the vehicle and sent leant globs of wet flying to the mud.
“Did you see what happened?” he said.
“Are you okay?”
Geoffrey nodded again. His hand was sore. He inspected it, and saw some grazing. He held it up for the man to see.
“Bit of a graze. Anything else?”
Geoffrey shook his head.
“All good, thanks.”
“Ambo and police’ll be here in a mo. I’m going to check out the police car there to see if the officer from that patrol car is about.”
“He’s not,” said Geoffrey.
The man paused.
“The truck took him.”
The man looked at him.
“I was outside the car,” said Geoffrey. He didn’t want to explain why. “The truck came up and took my car and the policeman with it over the edge.”
The man pulled back and walked over to the edge. Geoffrey closed the door. The rain obscured his view, and he sat and his mind filled with the memory of the crash and roar and sudden taking of the policeman and car.
Through the rain he saw the filtered image of the man walk towards the police car. After a while he walked over to the broken railing. Geoffrey watched him through the torrents of water that flushed down the windscreen.
He began to shiver. He was shrouded in wetness. His clothes clung to him and his breathing increased in fervour. He shook. His breath grew shorter. He didn’t know if he should remove his clothes or not. He contemplated asking if the man had a coat or something; he really wanted a change of clothes. He was reaching for the door handle when the door opened by itself.
A woman dressed in paramedic gear leaned in. He hadn’t noticed the arrival of the ambulance, or seen the lights. She said,
“Is this the fellow?”
The man was behind her, in the shadow of the umbrella.
“You okay?” she had said.
“Cold,” said Geoffrey.
“I get that. Not a night to be out. Anything hurt?”
Geoffrey held up his hands.
“Got a bit of a graze there, mate.” She smiled at him. “Got any pains inside?”
Geoffrey shook his head.
“You weren’t involved in the accident?”
“You weren’t hit?”
“Just fell over, yeah?”
“Can you stand?”
Geoffrey nodded again.
“Let’s get you out and into the ambulance.”
Where she had warmed him with blankets and old clothes, given him tea, inspected his hands and knees, taken measurements, fixed instruments on his fingers and arm, and eventually declared him fit to sit or lie and await the investigation of the rig and carnage in the dark.
By that time the cranes had arrived, police cars, shelters were up and the rain was addressed like the accident it was, along with the broken truck, the shattered vegetation and the lights that fettered the night.
Dark thoughts stewed in his mind. What haunted him was the vision of the patrol officer he’d caught just before it happened. He could see a person at the moment of their death; he thought he was coming to terms with that, and now this. The moment itself, the instant of its happening, was the moment of impact. The body flying forward, the limbs askew and the head contorted. This was not a demise in a bed, or on a floor, or sitting blanket covered in a chair. This was airborne, a moment captured like a still from video, in unforgiving bluntness. The medical report would no doubt say ‘killed on impact’; death, in fact, occurred an instant later as the body flew to a hollow in the dark.
Geoffrey shut his eyes. He focussed on the clamour of the rain on the roadside, the shouts of emergency workers at the truck, the rumble of the generators keeping the lights alive.
Had he caused this? He had seen the officer’s imminent death, but had he caused it? Had he not been speeding the patrol officer would not have pulled him over, would still be alive. But no, he wouldn’t. His fate was death at the impact of a truck. That’s how this goddam curse worked. Whether it was Geoffrey or someone else at the scene, the man’s fate was sealed. Just like Andrea. Geoffrey could have been miles away, tucked up in bed and this patrol officer would still be stilled in his floating moment of violent demise. Dammit, the officer himself might have been tucked up in bed, out of the storm, warm in the company of a partner’s embrace, and still he would have been hit by the rig, out on the highway, out in the night and the wet and the stark lights of the force that took him.
Geoffrey could see that now. He was a part in the events, but not a cause. A cog, an incident. Intimately involved, accidentally a participant. Had Geoffrey seen the truck driver he would have known when he died too, as he presumed he had. But he’d never met the truck driver, so never foresaw his death. He’d only met the policeman, and saw, with horrifying immediacy, his suspended moment of expiry.
Why had he been burdened with this curse? A mere fortnight ago he was an unprepossessing, fastidious bachelor accountant whose passion, of all things, was to find the reality behind numbered accounts, and whose desire, like most, was to find a mate whose company he might enjoy his live long days. He worked hard, he was successful and competent in what he did, he had a bright future, and he was of marriageable age. Having established himself, the next step was to find a partner, start the family, live the dream.
And he had met someone. It was new, and young and vital, but he had good feelings about her. Thinking of her he realised he had been cut off in the accident. She had no idea what had happened, of if he was still alive. She would be upset. He had to contact her, but his phone was in his car that lay smashed in the dark abyss of the wreckage. He didn’t even know her phone number. He was good with phone numbers, but this was so young he had only just stored her number in contacts and had not yet memorised it.
Could he retrieve his phone when they pulled the car out? Or would that be crass? Would it even be working? He looked over to the yellow light where the cranes were operating. They were working on the truck. Men stood around in fluorescent outfits, directing, calling in words Geoffrey could not hear. He would ask the paramedic if he could look for his phone.
Thinking of Lucy burdened him with a new sorrow, a new isolation. His life had become a panoply of morbidity. Death had, like the rain he now sat under, teemed down upon him and stolen his capacity to enjoy the here and now. And stolen too his chance at love. Lucy would never love him now. No one would. He was a weirdo, obsessed and surrounded by death, a blight upon any hope or happiness.
He struggled to think of any benefit that his visions might have.
They kept him calm when his father was very ill all those years ago. He could give reassurance to people in hospital, the young kid in ICU for example. He could foretell longevity for his friends, such as Dave, well into his nineties, or Rajiv, the optimistic uber driver.
He knew too, he would survive the accident: he had a long life ahead of him. Although, when he thought about it, that was less informative that he’d like. Yes, he knew when he would die, but not in what state, not how he had lived before that point in time. He might have been badly injured in the accident and spent his life in paralysis or in a coma, dying only when he did, sixty years hence. The thought made him shudder. But then he thought back to the image in the mirror. He was surrounded by family, a wife and children. Someone – Lucy – had seen fit to marry him, and bear him children. So he wasn’t blighted after all. He was loved. He had raised a family, he had seen them live and grow and had been rewarded with a long life, the constant love of a wife, children and grandchildren.
His heart lifted at this thought. Despite the teeming rain and the awful events of the moment, there was some light at the end of his tunnel. He felt sickened by the knowledge that the patrol officer had died; no doubt the man had family and friends who would be grief stricken, likewise the truck driver. But at least Geoffrey had a silver lining. He had that much, a thread, a clue about something bigger. An intimation of something. Of what he could not tell. A solemn waking to brevity perhaps, the lifting and letting go of attention. The temptation to meaning. What might be revealed, he only had to live to find out.
A bedraggled police officer clambered into the ambulance.
“Mind if I join you?”
Geoffrey moved aside to let him in.
“Not a night to be out,” said the officer as he bent over in the ambulance interior. He sat on the bed behind Geoffrey and took off his hat. Water pooled on the floor.
“That’s what the paramedic said,” said Geoffrey.
“We’re all bloody saying it,” said the officer. “Wayne, by the way. Constable Wayne Drysdale.” He held out a hand. Geoffrey shook it.
“How’re you holding up?”
Geoffrey said, “What news on the truck driver?”
The policeman shook his head. “Didn’t make it.”
“Ah.” Geoffrey grimaced.
“Yeah, waddya say.” The policeman rubbed a run of water from his brow. “They’re just pulling him out now.”
A metallic groan emanated from the dark as the crane lifted the truck cabin free of the vegetation. Geoffrey peered over and watched a team of yellow and silver men haul a flat board into the dark behind it. A short while later it reappeared with a bulk covered in a cloth. Geoffrey watched as he had watched the ambulance drivers take Slabs away. The doors closed, the team paddled through the grainy slop and clambered awkwardly into the cabin. Lights flashing, but no siren, the ambulance merged with the dark storm.
“I take it you saw what happened,” said the officer beside Geoffrey.
Geoffrey nodded. “Yep.”
“If you don’t mind me saying, we’ll need a statement when you’re ready.”
“Where were you headed?” said the officer.
“Down the coast,” said Geoffrey.
“I gathered,” said the officer, and Geoffrey realised what how unhelpful his reply had been.
“Sorry, not thinking clearly,” said Geoffrey. “To visit a friend, south of Bateman’s Bay.”
“Not a night for it,” said the officer.
Geoffrey didn’t reply.
“Is that your car the truck hit?”
Geoffrey nodded. “Yeah.”
“We can give you a lift into town,’ said the officer. “Afraid it’ll be a while though. There’s a fair bit to clean up here.”
Geoffrey looked out at the rain. The figures outside didn’t seem to be doing much more than staring into the bushy black.
“Can I ask,” said the officer, “were you stopped on the roadside?”
Geoffrey looked at him. He’d be late twenties, he thought, maybe a tad older. He said,
“You got kids yet?”
The police officer looked at him oddly. “Third on the way,” he said. “Why?”
“Trying to find the good in the world,” said Geoffrey. He smiled.
The officer half returned the smile. “Okay.”
Geoffrey stared at the rain pouring off the roof of the ambulance. The teeming rain was like silver bullets in the lights of the workforce. The ground was a gravelly quagmire.
“That fellow in the white, who just helped carry out the body,” said Geoffrey, “how old is he?”
“The tall bloke, Macca?”
“I don’t know his name,” said Geoffrey.
“You ask some odd questions,” said the police officer.
“Its okay, you’ve had a bit of a shock. Macca’s a stalwart of the community. Been doing rescue work now for nigh on forty years. I reckon he’d be pushing sixty. Fit as a horse but.”
Geoffrey smiled. That at least explained his shorter life span than the others. “Great bunch of people, coming out on a night like this.”
The policeman said, “The best. What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant,” said Geoffrey.
“Whatever gets you there.”
Geoffrey took a deep breath and blurted out,
“I was stopped by the side of the road, I was wanting to phone my girlfriend, and the patrol car stopped to inquire if I was alright. He wanted to help me. I saw the rig coming around the corner, the lights and horn and had a premonition we were going to be hit so I dived out the passenger side. I just got out when the rig hit, and took my car and the officer with it, and over it went.”
He stopped, breathing heavily, looking at the police officer.
He regretted the lie straight away, not because it was a lie, but because he had been lying so much lately, to Lucy, to his colleagues, to his friends. It was not what he wanted to be. He didn’t want to be the cracks in the truth of things, he wanted to be the true thing itself. But he lied, partly to avoid any accusation that he might have caused the accident by being pulled over for some infraction, and partly to create a good memory for the dead officer. He felt sick in the stomach.
“Is that so?” said the policeman.
“Fuck,” said the officer. “We all knew Mick was a good man.”
Geoffrey smiled wanly. He hated himself.
“Did you phone your girl?” said the policeman.
“We were mid call when the crash happened,” said Geoffrey. She doesn’t know if I’m dead or what.”
“Can you ring her?”
“Phone’s in my car.”
“Sorry about that,” said the officer. “We don’t plan on moving the car out til the rain stops. We just want to retrieve Mick’s body and get the hell back home.”
Geoffrey peered out into the black rain. He hadn’t expected anything more.
The policeman said, “I don’t think we need keep you here, but we will probably need to contact you later on. Do you have a card to something?”
Geoffrey pulled out his wallet and gave the officer a business card. It was damp but still legible. The officer photographed it and returned it. “I’ll check your licence too, eh.”
Geoffrey handed him his drivers licence which the officer also photographed. “Thanks,” he said. “Sorry you had to be mixed up in all this.” Then he leapt out of the ambulance and scurried through the rain over to the team of rescuers. A moment later the paramedic who had treated him came over.
“We thought we could get you out of here,” she said. “You have any place to go?”
“No,” said Geoffrey, “I was heading down the coast. I’ve got no gear either. All my clothes are in the car.”
“I’ll call the Astra,” she said. “It’s a motel that helps us out. They’ll get you a room and change of clothes. They mightn’t be your style but they’ll do for a night.”
As they drove into the wet night Geoffrey said,
“It’s very brave of you to come out on a night like this.”
The paramedic didn’t take her eyes off the road.
“It’s our job,” she said.
“Yeah, but it was an awful scene,” said Geoffrey. He felt inadequate in his comments.
“Comes with the territory,” said the paramedic. “Besides, I’ve seen worse.”
“Well, thank you for driving me to a motel.”
“My pleasure,” she said. “It gets me out of there too.” She flashed him a quick smile and flicked the windscreen wipers to full. They punched at the rain which pummelled the glass.
At the motel, Geoffrey sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at the bare brick walls of the room, the surf print above the old TV, the Laminex bench and minibar. Two drinking glasses were wrapped in stiffened paper on the bench, next to a kettle whose cord was neatly wound into a donut. He wore a pair grey track suit pants that stopped at his shin, and a brown t-shirt. He’d been given a hoodie too, but didn’t need to put it on.
He’d hung his own clothes on the pull-out string above the bath. The motel owner– a wiry bloke in shorts and checked shirt – had given him an old newspaper to scrunch up and insert into his shoes to help them dry off overnight. Outside the rain still lashed the earth and all who inhabited it.
He breathed in deeply, pulled back the starched white sheets and the mustard chenille bedspread and crawled in. He flinched when the graze on his knee rubbed on the sheet, and turned on his side to avoid the contact. The pillow was a bit low, but his body welcomed the opportunity to relax. He reached over and flicked off the bedside light.
In the dark he listened to the rain on the roof, and was glad it was dry in his room. He thought of the people still working out at the crash site. He hoped they had been able to retrieve the patrol man’s corpse and get home. He pictured the site marked off with coloured police tape, the carcass of the rig lying by the side of the road, his car implanted out of sight in the bushes. He didn’t know when the rain would stop.
There were only two things he could do now: find out how to contact Lucy and get down to where Dave was hiding out, if indeed he was there. He hoped he was. He didn’t want to have suffered all this and not find his friend in his shack.