Authors: James Runcie
On habit quite as much as the wild ways
Of passion. Gently does it, as the rain
In time wears through the very hardest stone.
Book IV, De Rerum Natura
Jack Henderson was trying to live as calmly as possible. He seldom left home, drew little attention to himself, and took few risks in what he considered to be a hazardous world. His was a life of disciplined withdrawal; without pain or disturbance.
It was two in the morning on the night of the General Election. Jack was driving home from Edinburgh. He could see the last of the city lights recede against a spray of summer rain. Traffic moved away from junctions and roundabouts with entitled confidence. This was how driving should be, he thought, with fewer vehicles and everyone knowing where they were going.
He noticed a figure ahead and in the distance. It was a man standing as if his car had broken down. Perhaps he was waiting to hitch a lift.
Jack quickened the speed of the windscreen wipers; brushing away the rain. He noticed that the figure was younger than he had first thought, a student perhaps, staring into the windows of each passing car.
Jack kept his speed steady.
The figure stepped out into the road. He stretched his arms out and his legs apart, making an X, palms facing the windscreen, the hands with a slight tremor that Jack only remembered later. His face had a questioning look that asked: Why are you doing this to me?
Jack noticed that the sleeves on the man's shirt were too short and that his hair was longer than he had first thought. The figure did not seem to be part of the world.
Now the face was up against the windscreen, the flesh ruddy and sudden in the darkness.
Jack felt the weight of the collision.
The face contracted and fell away.
Initially Jack hoped that he had made a mistake. Perhaps he had been dreaming. Perhaps the moment of impact had been a bump in the road, a speed restriction, a dog or a fox.
But other cars were coming towards him in the opposite direction and they were already slowing. Hazard lights flashed behind him.
Jack could see a shape on the ground in the rear-view mirror, a shadow in the darkness, clothing in the middle of the road.
He pulled over and turned off the ignition.
He knew, even then, that this was a last moment of normality before everything would have to change. If he could just arrest this moment, stop time, then everything might yet be all right.
But it was not all right.
He opened the door. There was a surge of noise, braking, people shouting.
Jack could see the silhouette of another man jumping out and slowing cars down.
Now there were lights all around him, people gesticulating, running, stopping and staring.
Jack walked over to the body in the road. Already there was too much blood. The head was pulped on the right side. The legs were splayed away. Nobody lies twisted like that, Jack thought; nobody bleeds like that and survives.
He looked at the head and at the blood; even in the darkness it gleamed a dark crimson: clotted.
He tried to work out the man's age. He could see that he was too old to be a student, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. He wondered how soon his parents would know and if he had a girlfriend.
Jack knew that he would never forget this. It would be a hinge in his life, like the birth of his daughters or the time the woman who became his wife said that yes, she loved him, she would always love him and she would marry him; or the time when that same woman said that although she still loved him the fact was she couldn't live
with him any more, she just couldn't. He had never understood what she had wanted out of life. He had never nurtured her.
Even then Jack had thought it a strange word to use.
He knew he should concentrate on nothing but the body in the road; a young man who could almost have been a son, a boy, lying in a ripped corduroy jacket, blood draining through his T-shirt: a moment out of the night, the light rain falling, the wood beyond.
Before this Jack had been an ordinary man driving home. He had withdrawn from the world to avoid just such disasters, and yet here it was in front of him, lying in the road: abrupt catastrophe.
He tried to think when he had first seen the figure in the distance. If only he had decided to accelerate before the boy stepped out.
What was he doing walking so far out of town? You never saw people walking around near the A1, you just didn't. You only saw them in the daytime, families who had gone for walks or picnics or men and women whose cars had broken down; never at night.
And why had the boy chosen Jack's car? Why not the previous Mitsubishi or the next Nissan Micra? Why this moment of conjunction when there was no one else on the road?
Jack tried to think of the length of time everything had taken before this moment: how he had been watching the election results come in with his daughter; how they had shared supper together and he had left far later than he intended before realising that he had to find an all-night petrol station. Even the fact that he had allowed a car out at a crossing, or that he had let someone clean his windscreen for a pound at a red light must have made a difference. Any later and the boy might have thrown himself under another car. Any earlier and he might not have been there at all.
There had been little traffic when he had started out on his journey but now there was nothing but cars, vans and lorries. Jack could see a police vehicle approaching.
A man stopped his car alongside, putting on the hazard lights. He had thrown a packet of biscuits on to the back seat. He must have been trying to open them when the accident happened.
Another man in a brown linen suit and open-toed sandals was standing in front of the dying boy, for he was dying, Jack knew that, waving traffic away. The man was hopping from one foot to the other. Perhaps he was trying not to get the blood on his socks.
Someone else had stopped: a fat man with a comb-over getting out of a car and sweating, leaving a black Labrador in the back seat and his wife too scared to get out. She was holding a little boy in a yellow fireman's hat.
âHe fair threw himself at you,' the man was saying. âThere was nothing you could do â¦ I saw it happen â¦ I'll say so â¦ you'll need a witness.'
He took his shirt off to staunch the blood.
A woman got out of a yellow Nova and put a mohair rug over the boy in the road.
âPoor wee lamb,' she said.
Jack looked at the rug because he didn't want to look at the boy's face. What kind of tartan was it? he thought. It was one of the less familiar clans.
What could he do to undo it all, this moment?
âI'm a nurse,' the woman was saying. âWe have to stop the bleeding.' She started stroking the boy's head, pressing at the blood with her husband's shirt, watching the life die away. âHave you called an ambulance?'
Jack felt for his mobile phone but couldn't remember the number. It was different on a mobile phone, wasn't it? He could see other people doing it for him. The boy began to cough in the road.
Jack couldn't look at the face or the rug any more. He began to concentrate on the boy's shoes. They were polished brown brogues. They seemed almost too clean for the rest of his clothes.
People were always speeding on this road, the woman was saying, there've been complaints, local campaigns; drivers speed up as they leave the city, hope you weren't speeding.
Her husband was stopping all the other cars, gesturing to the ambulance to come through.
Jack heard the paramedics talking about a
triage category one.
A policeman started asking him questions. Was Jack the driver of the car and would he like to step aside? He had spots on his neck and silver numbers on the shoulder of his uniform that made Jack
think of Sudoku. Perhaps all the policeman's numbers added up to forty-five.
He appeared to be talking about a digital breathalyser. Now the metal grates were between Jack's teeth and he was asked to blow through a plastic tube into the small hand-held device. The policeman was telling Jack that it used an electrochemical fuel cell as a sensor. If the reading was under the legal limit of 0.05, the driver was normally free to leave, although obviously this wouldn't apply under these circumstances.
As Jack waited for the result he could see a policewoman taking statements from the witnesses, writing by hand in the light of the cars. It was taking her for ever. He thought how much better it would be if the policewoman knew shorthand. He could almost hear his mother's voice:
Don't they teach them anything these days?
He did not know how he could avoid telling her what had happened. His mother would try to console him, he knew, but there would also be a silent judgement, a feeling of disappointment; the sense that Jack could probably have avoided the whole thing if only he had been more aware.
He wanted to speak, to explain himself, apologise even now to the boy who was being lifted into the ambulance; but the policeman said, âBetter no say anything at this stage, sir.'
Jack was driven away from the scene, back past the hospital and into Edinburgh.
There were fewer people in the streets of the city. A girl in a white T-shirt was taking off her shoes to run barefoot and catch up with her friends; a homeless man in a sheepskin coat was holding out a beaten paper cup from McDonald's.
A sheepskin coat? Jack thought. In the summer?
At the police station the chairs in the fluorescent room reminded Jack of school. He was offered a mug of tea. He never normally took sugar but now he asked for three spoons. He could do with a blanket too and then he remembered the rug covering the boy. Would the woman have taken it back, or would she have abandoned it? Perhaps it would be evidence?
The clock read twenty-seven minutes past three. For a brief moment Jack felt he was in an airport. There was the same consistent light.
He worried how much he would have to explain. Perhaps he would spend the night in the cells, await trial, and never leave?
The policewoman who prepared to take his statement had short blonde hair and pale-blue eyes. They were the colour of speedwell, Jack decided. She had a soft voice with a hint of Fife in it. When had she decided to be a policewoman? He looked at her fingers for rings. Not married. Or did she take her jewellery off when she was on duty?
Yes, he was called Jack Henderson and it was his car. No, he hadn't been drinking. Yes, he'd already been breathalysed. They should have known that. Why did they keep asking? Were they trying to catch him out? The boy had stepped out right in front of him. There was nothing he could have done. Surely they knew that?
Jack had always been scared of accidents and chance collisions, of bicycles and drunks, people holding kebabs and takeaways and cans of Tennent's Extra, staggering, being sick, a drunken Scotland shouting through the Saturday-night traffic.
And he had always been anxious about driving. He preferred trains and buses but what could he do, living in the countryside where there were only three or four buses a day, and not earning enough for perpetual taxis?