The sound of the crash ripped apart the hubbub of the pub.
Geoffrey and others at the bar paused momentarily to realise what it signified, put down their glasses and ran out to see two battered vehicles at the first corner past the pub steaming in the white aura of the streetlights. The two tangled metal carapaces lay swathed in shattered glass, and in one, a hand was raised awkwardly above a flaccid white airbag, as if in protest. The only sound was the hissing radiator in one of the wrecks, a Mercedes. Slabs’ Mazda was a mangled silence.
When the first group of people reached the cars there were gasps of horror. Someone shouted to get an ambulance. Someone ran back into the pub and repeated the call. Others questioned what they should do. Someone asked if there was a doctor around.
Geoffrey saw Dave step forward into the yellow light where the cars were joined, and peer into them. He lent into the Mercedes for a short while, and when he pulled his head out he spoke to a woman next to him who had a mobile phone. When he looked into Slabs’ vehicle he withdrew quickly and swore. He looked about the wreckage site and the growing crowd of onlookers with a grimace and locked eyes with Geoffrey. They stared at each other mutely. Geoffrey’s face tightened, and an ache pinched his forehead; he dropped his gaze to the kerb, where a stringy weed was forcing life out of a crack in the concrete.
Someone stepped across his line of sight. He looked up at the people milling about the wreckage. Their dark shadows merged and split in the vapid streetlights. Some couples hugged each other, others stood apart and simply looked at the scene. Others talked on mobile phones, their faces lit with sadness and shock.
Then, suddenly, the police and ambulance were there. Geoffrey hadn’t registered any sirens. Their emergency lights splattered the street in a mash of lurid colour, lighting and darkening onlookers in a disconcerting strobe. He saw the ambulance doors open and a stretcher was pulled out with a clack. Two paramedics pushed it to the side of the merc. Someone had erected a light for the emergency workers to complete their task. A second ambulance arrived, along with two tow trucks. The mass of vehicles crowded the narrow streets. A barrier of blue uniforms obscured the moment of rescue. The onlookers – Geoffrey amongst them – craned their necks to glimpse the stretcher wheeled to the first ambulance. The paramedic obscured any vision of a body on it, but a hand held a bottle above the heads of the bystanders as it moved through the centre huddle. It reached the ambulance, the doors shut and the vehicle moved off, threading its way carefully through the shadows and parked cars. Its siren left a glowing trail as it disappeared.
Geoffrey returned his attention to cluster of paramedics and police who stood in the harsh glare of the work light. He heard another clack as another stretcher was pulled from the second ambulance. A hush fell upon the crowd. The stretcher was moved into the centre of activity. The wretched sounds of the rending of metal fractured the quiet as an angle grinder ripped through the fabric of Slabs’ vehicle, like the cry of a keening heart. It was followed by the metallic wrenching of the riven car door as it was forced open in some macabre re-enactment of the original violence. The silence then darkened, as the mute and distant movements of the paramedics suggested Slabs’ body was being removed. Geoffrey thought of priests at a Eucharist, whose arcane gestures heralded the body of Christ in a vain ritual beneath the far lights of a Cathedral.
A woman in front of Geoffrey buried her head in her boyfriend’s shoulder as the ambulance drove off, unencumbered by any siren. She looked at Geoffrey with a painful smile. As Geoffrey returned her gaze he watched her face fall away, and be replaced by an aging old lady ensconced in a hospital bed. The blue and white of the hospital walls fenced his vision, and he saw her covered in powder blue blankets and starched sheets, her hair a flimsy mass of grey, her youthful cheeks sunken and lined. An old man stood by her, crying.
Geoffrey stood, mouth agape, and extended his arm to touch the young woman. She stepped back. Her boyfriend turned and said,
“You right there, buddy?”
Geoffrey looked at him. He was no longer the man in jacket and jeans. He was a ninety-five year old in flannel pyjamas, lying at the base of a set of stairs in a lonely night. Not much blood had spilled on to the stained wooden floor but his body lay awkward and still.
“Hey, buddy,” the man was saying. “How about you stop staring.”
Geoffrey stammered an apology and moved away, his mind reeling with what he had just seen. He staggered about the diminishing group of onlookers in the street, staring at fences, trees and feet, anything but people, his breath rising heavily in his chest. Many people had retreated to the pub, but some remained, with arms folded or talking in subdued groups as the tow truck drivers wrestled the wrecks on to the backs of the trucks. As the grind of a davit mauled into the background, Geoffrey stopped near a man in his thirties, dressed neatly in navy slacks and floral shirt, a glistening shock of black hair swept back from his forehead.
Geoffrey closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he reopened them the man was not young, but was in his seventies, curled up in a bed, his hair silver, and his face bloodless and plastic. Geoffrey swung away and reached for a nearby fence post. He bent over and clamped his eyes shut. He clung on to a fence post his knuckles white around the scraped paint. He shook and he took deep, laboured breaths. A knot of terror tightened in his stomach and he felt as if he might vomit.
When he was calmer he rose and tentatively turned to regard the street again. The Mercedes lay on the tray of one of the trucks, its front smashed in a defiant maw of metal. A few stragglers remained to witness the lifting of the second. It was grossly disfigured, a crude mockery of steel that barely echoed the form of a car. On the road lay a bumper bar and a shattered headlight, and glittering shards of glass.
Geoffrey steeled himself as a black sinkhole of dread tore at his stomach. He stepped over to watch the tow truck drivers lift Slabs’ vehicle on to the second truck. One of them was bent over positioning chains to the underside of the mangled wreck. The other stood alongside the truck, holding the chunky red controls in his hands. When the first signalled, he pressed a button and the motor growled stubbornly, gradually hauling the chains towards the angled crane arm. They rattled on the ground and the carcass squealed as it was lifted, swinging slightly as it moved up to the level of the tray.
The operator looked up at Geoffrey briefly and nodded. No longer an operator, he was a dead man in a nursing home, his denim overalls replaced by a backless cotton cover, a muddle of grey facial hair on sallow sunken jowls.
Geoffrey spun around and floundered back to the fence. Tears sprang from his face and he howled in fear and disgust. His stomach churned violently and he stood panting and shivering in horror. The shrubs behind the fence were black and offered meagre solace from his ordeal. A voice said,
“Are you alright, mate?” He turned and saw a man in his seventies sprawled in the middle of the street. He turned back to the fence and dry-retched again, his stomach screaming and his mind a cloud.
“Mate –” He felt a hand on his back. When he looked, an elderly woman lay in a hospital bed, her tiny features masked in the secrecy of her last breath.
“I’m fine,” he spluttered and picked himself up and escaped up the street in a blaze of panic. He raced up the incline and turned the first corner where he could be alone. He stopped at a house whose dim doorway fronted the street. He slunk down on to the concrete step, and placed his head into this hands. Apart from a single shaft of light from a streetlamp that stretched across his knees, he was in total darkness. His mind swirled. What was happening to him? What were these visions? Hallucinations? A shock reaction to the car accident? Was he going mad?
He rubbed his eyes and asked himself, does this happen? Do people see other people but dead just after a serious event? He knew you might see the deceased. He recalled when Grandpa Bebop died, his mum kept saying she’d seen him, at the grocery store, or the bus stop, wherever. Grief plays tricks that way, and they diminish over time.
But this was different. They were sightings of Bebop as alive, Geoffrey had seen alive people who were dead. He’d never heard of that before. Why would he do that? Was it a momentary reaction? And why everyone he looked at? They were all suddenly on their death bed. It was as if he jumped from now into their futures. He had he no control over the images. Was this his fate now, not to see the living but only the dead?
Thick tears of agony and despair leaked on to his cheeks. He shut his eyes from the street scene and sought to control his breathing. His mind raced with a compulsive and demented logic.
There was Slabs, crushed in the mangled wreck of his car. He knew now that his unease about Sabs was a premonition about his death. But that hadn’t been clear then: it was only a feeling. A strong enough feeling to try to delay Slabs’ departure, but it wasn’t accompanied by any vision, other than the sketches of – here Geoffrey stopped in a moment of awe and repulsion – the deflated airbag, steam from the radiator, the street lights. Were these visions just moments of greater clarity? Had this incident somehow birthed an inchoate and unique capacity, to envision the last moments of any person he looked at? Was he really seeing them at their moment of death? Was this even possible?
Fear burned within him. If that was the case, then it would infect every future social interaction he would ever have. Every time he met someone, he would see, not their bright eyes or lively smile of welcome, but their pallid cadavers, lifeless, death ridden, in whatever time and place that hosted their final breath. Slabs in his car wreck, a stranger on the floor, a myriad corpses in doleful wards and beds.
He would become an outcast. He would no longer be Dash, football playing corporate auditor, with a prosperous and settled circle of friends. Instead he would be a seer, of things that no person should see. He would be an augur of death, unable to see life in the living, unable to unsee the end of lives lived. No-one would understand this. It was a burden only for him to bear. It was loneliness incarnate, and isolation so complete and captivating that it drowned his senses and any sense of hope in a fathomless black, as if he had been sucked into the depths of the bleak seas.
He held his head in his hands, unable to move, incapable of thought or decision. He wanted this all to go away, to get up and join his mates, all of them, yes, including Slabs, at the pub and laugh and drink and impress Lucy and live his life like a normal person.
But he wasn’t going to. Slabs was dead, in a shocking and violent instant, he had to understand that. And now he saw dead people. That he could not understand. It would be better if he was going insane. There might be some cure. There was no hope of that if he was a seer. Why him, why the dead, why had he been encumbered with this power? Why not someone who knew about these things, an old person, someone wiser, more experienced, more acquainted with the sacrament of death? Why an auditor for goodness’ sake? He looked at company accounts, not the causes of mortality. He was innocent. Innocent.
He felt a person squeeze on to the concrete step next to him.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said.
He opened his eyes with dread, determined not to meet her gaze. Two small dugongs were caught by the column of light that crossed them, nestled in the coral folds of her top. He grimaced, appalled at his mind’s progeny, thankful for their diversion, terrified of seeing her as he had seen the others at the car crash, his heart and body crying out for solace and touch. He turned his head away and clamped his eyes shut.
“Not you,” he said.
He felt her arm reach around his shoulders. His shoulders sank with her touch, and with a sharp intake of breath he stifled a cry. Her other arm entwined itself around his chest and her head bowed to the back of his neck in a tender embrace. He fought to hold himself rigid against the gentle onslaught of her presence. When he relaxed his spine her arms tightened slightly about him, drawing him close, and a flood of tears broke from him. He let his head fall into the folds of her hair and wept as she held him, unspeaking, soothing, definite and alive.
As his body shook with his tears, he held her close to him in a blind search for relief from what had transpired that evening: his premonition about Slabs, and its awful realisation, the awakening of his terrible faculty and the moribund parade of faces that had infiltrated his mind. He pulled her to him with both arms, taking care to ensure his face remained buried in her hair. She responded with equal pressure, and they clung like limpets on the doorstep. They kissed. She was sweet and her mouth was hot and supple. Her body pressed against his and her arms squeezed him tight. He leaned his body into her, yearning for escape and simple pleasures. When their kiss had finished he sprang up and stood a distance away from her.
“No,” he said, and he turned his eyes away, looking at anything but her – the shadowed row of terraces across the road, the wrought iron fence work, the cars parked among the dangling fig trees that guarded the street.
“Not now,” he said. “I can’t.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
He slapped the roof of a parked car next to him. His hand smarted.
“I was part of it,” he said. He turned to explain, but scrunched his eyes shut to avoid what he feared seeing. He thought briefly how stupid he must look, expatiating about a great tragedy with his eyes slammed tight. “I caused Slabs’ accident, do you see that? If I hadn’t tried to convince him not to go, he’d have left earlier and not been hit by the other car. None of this,” and he waved his hand in a wide circle, “would have happened. None of it.”
“You can’t change what happened,” said Lucy, still seated at the door.
“Or change what will,” said Geoffrey. Still with his eyes shut he said, “What if the same thing happens now, by talking to you here I delay you long enough to meet up with a car that will run you down?” He twisted round and stood with his back to her, one hand spread across his face.
She rose and stepped to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“What if by delaying me here I leave later, and miss the car that would otherwise have run me down?” she said. She placed her arms around his chest and leant against him with her head between his shoulder blades. He felt her cheeks move when she said, “You can’t blame yourself when you can’t see the future.”
He cried out and hugged her fervently.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t deal with this. I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.”
He released his grip and stepped into the dark street. He did not look back, but strode into the night past the thick trunks of trees that obscured the street lights, past the rows of houses with their blinds drawn, past the shapes of cars that occasionally glistened with a moment’s captured moonlight. He did not hold a departing vision of her, and as much as he wanted one – as much as he wanted to stay with her or have her come with him – he ran, from their moment of affection, from the sprinkle of broken glass on the road and the subdued lighting in the pub, far into the night, to leave her safe from his visions, safe from his grief, untouched by the night’s ordeal.
Where he would go, he did not know.