I told this story to my best friend Kelly, that crack-of-dawn morning in her flat, when really there were other things I should have been saying – I just couldn’t work out what any of them were. It wasn’t my fault, I was tired, I’d been up all night. At the hospital, sitting with Kelly while she watched her boyfriend Stuart die at last. Not to mention my own husband had been doing my head in all day, like he’d been doing nonstop for weeks. So then after Stuart’d finally, selfishly died, I’d driven Kelly home from the hospital, we’d just got into her empty flat, and suddenly she was all like: Christ, his parents! Oh my God, his mum and dad! She’d forgot all about them. She had to break it to them, that their only son had died and she’d not even called to tell them he was on the way out. Not like it was some earth-shattering surprise, they knew about the tumour eating Stuart’s brains, course they did, but it’d been the last chance to say goodbye and Kelly’d taken it all for herself. That sad all-nighter at the hospital, watching him die. Even I’d been there for most of it, but we’d forgotten Stuart’s parents altogether. Kelly’d held his hand as he’d died, but he’d had two hands so his mum and dad could’ve clutched at the other. How could she ring them this morning now after forgetting them all last night? She just kept going: Fuck, fuck, fuck. And started crying again.
Too late now, I told her. Leave it a while. They’ll still be in bed. Let them dream. And she was like: Rachel, I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do now? And I said: Dunno, want to know what I’d do? And she was like: God, no. And told me I didn’t have to stay. But I said: Course I’m staying. State she was in, I was worried she’d slit her wrists or something.
Anyway, it was all getting a bit much, so I nipped to the bathroom and did a couple of lines, just to keep me going, you needed to, the state of Kelly and that night, you needed something. It takes it out of you, watching everything coming out of someone else as they die, painfully like Stuart’d gone. So I needed something. When I came back Kelly was sat slumped on the sofa, head in hands, like going into a coma herself, and I was nervous, I guess, I told her a stupid story about my husband Aaron and his mate he met. Did I tell you? He’s a right idiot, Aaron is. There’s times I think, well, me, I’m bad enough, but I married him? Last week, you know what he did? Tuesday morning at the job centre he bumped into this old friend of his, not seen him for years. So they went to the pub, went on a bender, all-day-all-night job. And he drags himself home early next morning as I’m getting ready for work and he peels back the shower curtain and he’s like: Guess who I saw? And I’m like: Who? And he says: Only old Eddie off the old estate. And I say: Oh yeah? The Eddie who OD’d two years ago? Whose funeral you made such a twat of yourself at? That Eddie? And Aaron slaps his forehead and says: Shit, that’s right. Must’ve mistook someone else.
And I told this Kelly and she didn’t even smile. And I was like: I mean, how can two blokes spend all day all night drinking together and not realise they don’t know each other from sin? That they’re not long-lost old mates? How the fuck can that happen?
And then Aaron, what’s he like, he says to me: I did wonder how come he was practically a midget now, he hadn’t been when I knew him before – but didn’t like to ask, you know? And Eddie’d been like this six-foot-six body-builder rugby-player brick-shithouse type, like thirty stone at least till he got on the skag and it peeled it all off of him from the inside, and Aaron’d mistook this little, like, four-foot dwarf for him. What’s he like? He’d only thought Eddie must’ve been using something cut with God-only-knows-what…
And then as I’m saying all this suddenly Kelly was up out of her slump and shouting at me, like: What the fuck are you on about? And I’m like: Just, you know, trying to cheer you up. And Kelly’s all: Cheer me up? You fucking idiot, what world are you in? Stuart’s died. She was like: My boyfriend, Stuart, who I’ve loved and been with since I was thirteen, he’s dead, the love of my life, from a brain tumour bigger than your whole head, Kelly told me, never mind your tiny fucked-up mind, is what she said, and you’re trying to cheer me up?!
And I said: Yeah, is it working? But she just went all quiet again, and muttered something like: You’re my best friend and I love you. Like reminding herself. And I went: Oh I love you, too! And: Hang on, hang on, it’ll be okay, I’ll think of something better. The dwarf story’s stupid. Need something else. Cheer you up, make you feel better, see it’s not all gloom and shit. And then I remembered, a funny story to make her feel better, and I clapped my hands and went: Oh! I know! I totally forgot! This is it, a good one, this’ll make you laugh.
Kelly didn’t say anything.
And I said: I killed a child last night.
That day’d been a bad day at work. In the morning I’d found my husband had been at my personal stash again, while I was asleep, he’d found its hiding place, tried to pinch just a bit as if I’d not notice, but he’d been greedy, taken too much, and then gone out with the dog for a walk so he wouldn’t be there for me to kill him when I woke up. Not left me enough for the day, don’t know how I survived work, plus it was pretty dodgy stuff, and I’d had to work knackeringly late, some big deadlines coming up all at once, so I wasn’t at my best, my lucid and chipper best, by the time I finished at the office that evening. And then Kelly’d rung me (me, of all people!) with her voice in such a snotty mess of tears that I nearly told her to hang up and put it in a text. But I worked out what she was saying after a minute, that Stuart after all his lingering was finally on the way out. So of course I had to say I’d be straight round to be with her. I was her best friend. All she’d got. Plus, Stuart dying? This I had to see.
Kelly is normally dead down on me with disapproving of Aaron and the drugs, she told me that on my wedding day, a frowning little lecture I was so glad to get from my best bridesmaid – but what with everything she wasn’t feeling up to doing much disapproving that morning after the long night in the hospital, so I felt less bad talking about it all to her. So anyway there I am, like I told her, barrelling along down these dark back streets, speedy as can be, straight from the office to the hospital. And then my phone rang, didn’t it have to, and it was my husband, Aaron. He’d kept ringing me at work all day, till I really shouted him down – heads bobbing up from other cubicles to see what I was yelling about, till I glared them down too. Then he’d been texting me, doing this thing he does where he texts me a long sentence one word at a time so my phone keeps on beeping and it takes for ever. He thought I was hiding another stash from him at work and not sharing, after he’d ripped our flat apart searching, doing stuff like trying to suck the stains out of the sofa. He was getting in a bad way, even I had to admit that. Now he tried ringing my mobile again and this time, not thinking, I answered it, and so I’m driving along and listening to him squeaking in my ear but not letting him into my head properly, when all of a sudden there’s a movement, a flash of something in the road, there’s this thump and a noise like crunching and the nearside wheels bounce over something, something that’s, like, soft and hard at the same time, and the car swerves and I drop my phone. My husband’s voice goes little and far away, but still floats up from the floor. Well it’s a straight road, totally empty, I don’t need to stop. I duck quickly down, grope for the mobile under my feet, grab it. Come back up, I’ve bumped half onto the pavement and there’s a bus shelter rushing at me but I swing the wheel and that’s okay. It makes me laugh, my heart’s going and I’m laughing.
In the phone my husband’s saying my name over and over, and I’m like: Calm down, A. Relax, Aaron. All’s it was is I only nearly killed myself, that’s all. And I’m like: God, my heart. I couldn’t help laughing. It’s like a rush. Your body’s own natural drugs, what do you call them? You want to get high, you should try it, Aaron, I told him. Jump out a window, Aaron. Go on. Dare double-dare you.
But he was like: Rachel, this is a ground-floor flat… His mind’s always dead slow, no matter what he’s on, not like mine, but then all at once he was like: That’s it, I’m coming the hospital. That was when I put my foot down, like even harder on the accelerator, if that were possible. And I told him: No you’re fucking not, Aaron. Listen to me: I’ll kill you. You’ll be in the next fucking bed to Stuart only they’ll not even be able to make you comfortable which is all they say they can do for him. It’s Kelly’s night, yeah? It’s her boyfriend dying not yours, so you’ve to leave it and just fucking stay away, all right? And he starts to say something back but I’m not having it and I just hang up on him, fuck him, I keep driving, driving, roaring through the night.
Then what happens next happens really slowly. Five minutes, ten – can’t have been that long really, but it felt like ages (no sense of time or timing, me). So for a bit I’m still driving along like the world’s okay, but then it’s like my brain finally gets what I saw when there was that bump and lurch. And I stop the car. Skid it to a halt right there in middle of that dark dead road. Because my stomach twists in on itself and my heart thumps cold in my head. Because it was a kid, out this late God knows why, a little girl like six years old or whatever, who’d run into the road and been both bounced and crunched at the same time into my car’s nose and then sort of dropped and been dragged, I guess, down and under the wheels, out of sight and straight out of my mind. The next morning there was a crack in one headlight, a little child-sized dent in the metal. That I’ll never get fixed, that I’ll see every day for the rest of my life. Or until I get a new car. But even then I’ll still always see that little child’s shape in the metal.
And of course while I was telling Kelly all this, that morning after Stuart’s dying, this is the point at which she finally took her face out of her hands, looked up from the floor. Though course I’d never expected her undivided what with the morning she’d had and everything, what with her fiancé Stuart left behind and going cold in a metal drawer. But she was looking at me now. Her face all streaked with ruined makeup and tears drying. So I told her what I did was, after I stopped shaking, I sat there in the car, turning myself ghostly calm and wishing I had something to fill my head with but I’d nothing ’cause my husband had thieved it all. And then I didn’t just drive on like nothing’d happened, like I was tempted to, no, I hauled on the wheel and did a three-, seven-, thirteen-point turn and went back, course I did. And after a while I found the body.
I stopped at a distance and got out of the car. A little dark shape lay half in the gutter, a wetness around it. Her pale dead face standing out in the night, distorted, her skull half crushed. Her own mummy wouldn’t know her, I thought – but yes she would, she’d know her anywhere. The dead child’s legs were crumpled up in the road and her body bent over the kerb, spine twisted into an angle scary to look at. A thin arm stretched out onto the pavement as if reaching for help from someone who wasn’t there. She was perfectly still, only her dark clothes rustling a bit in the breeze. No little last death twitches. The only sound was my heels as I stepped closer.
Fuck, I thought. And I admit it was a totally selfish thought. It was only days later when I woke up in bed at four in the morning that I thought: Shit, she was just a little girl. How’d she get so lost? And then I cried, honestly I did at last, those days later. Just not at the time.
There was no one else around, the night all empty. I mean somebody must have been out looking for her, surely, so late at night, some purposeful daddy or panicked mummy or whatever, but they weren’t there yet. And I already knew, no thought needed, that I was just going to drive off and leave her. No one’d ever know. It wasn’t like I could make her better. Way too late. But I went for a closer look. Never seen a dead body before. Never mind a little kid, never mind someone I’d killed myself. Like, dazed curiosity. Morbid fascination. Just a quick peek at what I’d done.
As I got closer I realised I still had my phone in my hand, its screen blank now Aaron’d given up at last, and I lifted it automatically to take a picture. I told Kelly I’d show her, when I was telling her all this, if she wanted, reaching to get my phone from my bag, but she shook her head and dropped her eyes. Though then her head slowly lifted again, as I went on talking. And I told her I’d kept my mobile up as I as I walked closer, and watched the body through its screen instead of with my real eyes. I reckoned I’d get just one photo, a close-up of the girl’s dead face, which I’d take home and print out and stick on the fridge at home, just to remind me or something – it’s not like I was going to put it on Facebook or anything. But then as I stepped closer and closer the one last thing happened: halfway between one pace and the next the little girl’s dead body just vanished. Was gone. All the bits of the image on the phone and in my eyes stayed the same but suddenly they made up something else. A black bin bag someone’d dumped in the road, burst in the side, crap leaking out: food wrappers, cans, old clothes, newspaper, just rubbish. The wet not blood, just a puddle of rainwater shinily black in the night. As if there’d have been that much blood in a real girl, anyway. A twisted-up plastic bag made a thrown-out arm; the pale crushed moon of the girl’s face turned into a deflated football, not what I’d seen at all.
Wait, what? said Kelly – actually listening to me, even though her boyfriend had finally died of his brain tumour only that morning, I kept forgetting, just hours ago, not cold yet, not totally cold yet.
It wasn’t a dead kid, is the point. Optical illusion, or I’m going mental, whatever. But so I’m almost sure I didn’t kill anyone at all, it was only rubbish all along that went flying. I was photoing garbage. Isn’t that funny? A girl of junk. And I’d thought I was a murderer. A murderess. Manslaughter or child-slaughter at least. And so there I was, stood there staring at trash like an idiot. My arm dropped. I glanced around to see there was no one watching me being mad – course not, that time of night. The world empty. I poked around a bit more but couldn’t find any other dead kids lying about, just the one that’d gone now. There was no one. I looked back at my car, left in the centre of the road – all lit up inside, its open-door warning noise beeping. I hurried back to it, my heels clattering, got in and drove off, slowly at first and then quicker. I went to the hospital. I laughed a bit on the way. I was laughing but Stuart was still dying. That’s where I went, to the hospital, to be with my best friend Kelly as she watched her fiancé die. I was going to’ve been a bridesmaid at the wedding, just as Kelly’d been one at mine. I’d been dead looking forwards to it, could just see myself in the ugly-sexy bridesmaid’s dress looking lovely and even sober and Aaron not invited.
And so that was it, that was the end of my hit-and-run story, as I told it Kelly, when I shouldn’t have really. That was it. There’s not a moral, or even, like, a point. I didn’t have anything more, and so we went back to the love of Kelly’s life being dead, and that fact filling Kelly’s flat, taking all the air out of it, that morning afterwards.
We sat there in silence, the clock on the wall ticking out the seconds that Kelly’d been alone. Any moment now, I knew, she was going to say to me: Rachel, it’s fine, you don’t have to hang about like this, you can go, just leave me alone, it’s all right. And I didn’t want her to, I’d have failed as a friend if she could just send me away. So I had to do something, say something. The story about me killing children had worked while it lasted, better than the story about Aaron’s idiocies, but now it was done. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Or, I mean, I could think of loads of things to say, they kept bubbling up to the surface of my head and I had to keep remembering to, like, bite my tongue ’cause none of them were things I could tell Kelly. Like for instance how after I’d killed the girl and sped off from the crime scene I’d got to the hospital, walked into the dying-people’s ward, seen Stuart there, unconscious, all scarily pale and thin where he’d been tubby before the tumour got into his head, tubby and pink-facedly freckly, and now he’d gone totally chemotherapy-bald, though he had been thinning a bit on top even before. Kelly was sat there silently holding his hand, in the dim light like something from an old painting. And what I couldn’t tell Kelly is, I took one look at the scene and thought: Fuck this. Didn’t care any more that I was her best friend, I thought: Fuck it, I can’t do this. I’m not. And so I walked straight out of there, never spoke to Kelly ever again. Or I would’ve done, except that I took a backwards step to escape and walked into something big instead, and its voice whispered boo in my ear. It was Aaron, my husband, lurking in the shadows. He’d been waiting for me.
I shoved him out of there, before Kelly saw us. She hated Aaron, wouldn’t want him anywhere near her pain.
What took you so long? Aaron wanted to know. You were in the car when I called you, so how comes I got here first? Then he said: Look like you’re a ghost, you do. He meant seen a ghost, ’cause I guess I was still a bit freaked out about having killed a child and everything.
But you hadn’t done really, said Kelly, in her flat the next morning, when I was telling her all this too – because the things I couldn’t tell her? Well it turned out I was telling her them.
Whatever, I said. Anyway: Just done a bad thing, I told Aaron. About to do another. Told you I’d murder you if you come here, didn’t I say?
You always know the best way to make me die, babe, said Aaron. And he opened his hand and showed me what he’d brought. I found your secret stash, didn’t I? he said. And I said: I don’t have a secret stash, that must be one of yours that you’d forgot about, like you keep doing. You’re the one hiding stuff, I said. Whatever, said Aaron. But I was already dragging him by the hand across the corridor and into the disabled people’s toilet, and we locked ourselves in, and I wanted one thing while he wanted another (or was it the other way round?) but we both got both. Aaron just talked a load of bollocks, like always once you get him started (only you don’t have to get him started, he does it himself), while I chop-chopped us a few lines on top of the toilet cistern, and after we’d snorted them I didn’t want to really but Aaron fucked me there in the disabled toilet, my bum perched on the little sink and my legs wrapped around him, his face in my breasts and my hands all over his body’s muscles (don’t know where he gets them from, but they’re not gone yet), the back of my head hitting the toilet’s mirror and I told Aaron careful but he wasn’t.
I bet the nurses out there could hear us and I didn’t care about that but I hoped Kelly didn’t hear, it’d have distracted her from Stuart dying. But even if she didn’t hear it didn’t matter because the next morning I was telling her all about it, I don’t know why, and she was saying like dead sarcastically: Well I’m glad someone had a good time last night.
And I was like: No, but don’t be like that, I’m just being honest, and it’s not like it’s anything bad. It’s like, people dying – that child I knocked down, Stuart’s brain going bad (one or both of those things had happened) – it makes you want to do stuff gratuitous, doesn’t it? You know?
But then of course Kelly could go: Do I know? Me? I don’t go get all drugged-up and joyride about at night killing little children, or thinking I’ve done, or whatever you did—
You haven’t even got a car, I said. And anyway, I wasn’t drugged-up, if that’s what you want to call it, not when I was driving but only when I got to the hospital and there was Aaron waiting for me. And anyway, if I’d not done something then I wouldn’t even have gone in to be with you and Stuart, I’d not have been brave enough. I’d have legged it like when my first thought was fuck this.
But I’d been stronger than before, once I was flush with drugs and a fuck. Aaron’d slunk off, twitching and sniffing and all childishly pleased with himself like he so easily gets, off into the night he’d vanished, and I’d tidied myself up, fresh lipstick for a deathbed vigil, smoothed my skirt and fixed my hair, and then I’d at last gone and joined Kelly in that slow-death room, to help her watch Stuart finally piss off from the world once and for all – though I didn’t mean that in a nasty way, I told Kelly. I’d been there for her, hadn’t I? Though it took ages – it was like as if Stuart didn’t realise he’d be better off dead, like anyone knows you are. He’d been given his own little cell to die in, just off the main ward, and I sat patiently in there with Kelly (my best friend, I had to keep reminding myself) and her dying boyfriend, like I guess you’re meant to. People aren’t supposed to want to die on their own (like that girl had). But it was boring, really, watching Stuart go. I guess it held Kelly’s interest (she loved him, after all, weird though that was) but my mind kept wandering off on one. I thought about work, a bit, how I’d have to phone the office to say I’d not be in, and what files I’d have to point them at so they could just about do without me for the day. You couldn’t really think about Stuart too much, what with him lying right there. Till suddenly in the solemn eerie night-time mournful darkness I started laughing and laughing and just couldn’t stop.
It wasn’t really funny. It was just a thought I’d had: that I’ve fucked a corpse. Because the other thing that I couldn’t ever tell Kelly – but that I was telling Kelly – was about how I’d slept with Stuart once. It wasn’t long after they’d got engaged. And I couldn’t – but did – tell her that it was this that’d made me laugh, breaking the hospital’s dying room’s creepy silence, the sudden realisation that’d come to me: I’d had sex with a dead man. I was a necrophile. I couldn’t help laughing. Even though yes he wasn’t actually dead yet, but he would be soon, and by the morning, once he was properly dead, it’d be true that I’d had sex with a dead man. Not that he was dead at the time, okay – though come to think of it he might as well have been. I really shouldn’t have been telling Kelly this, I do know now. It’d been at a conference, what a cliché, that I’d got sent to by mistake. My firm might’ve been buying from Stuart’s, he’d done a presentation, it’d been awful – he’d seen me sat in the front row, his girlfriend’s best friend, chewing the inside of my mouth to stop myself laughing aloud at the cack-handedness of his interpersonal skills. I think my legs distracted him. Afterwards, I got high and he got drunk and up in my hotel bedroom we had like all of thirty seconds of a fuck before he dribbled his cum down my thigh, then passed out on top of me, his face in my breasts. I shoved him off and he thudded to the floor, snoring. Who’d have thought he had enough brain to feed a tumour? Kelly’s too good for him, she’s better off without him, better off now that he’s dead, I thought – and I told her this too. And as he’d laid there passed out on the floor, snottily snoring, I’d wished him gone – and maybe that was the exact moment it broke out in his brain, the tumour, just popped into his head like a bad idea, his very own cerebrum-chomping brain cancer. Maybe I’d given it him, just like I’d killed that child.
I really couldn’t be telling Kelly all this – but I was doing. And she was looking at me, like, dead weirdly. I’d never seen her look at me like that before, though she’d given me lots of different looks over the years. And she was like: What are you on about? I mean, how can you be telling me all this? What help do you think it could be, to me or you or anyone? It’s a good job I can’t feel anything right now, she said, or I don’t know what I’d be feeling…
Things like that she said. Though I wasn’t listening. I’ve never listened, not really. Ever to anyone in my life, I guess. I just kept on talking, I didn’t know about what any more. I couldn’t tell you. And Kelly was staring at me like I was some kind of freak, all baffled at how strange it was that she even knew me, let alone that I was her best friend – but I wasn’t bothered any more. Even as I talked I’d got my phone out again without realising it, to stare at the picture I’d not realised I’d actually taken, the photo of the little girl lying there dead and broken in the street. Just a little kid, all alone. How do we get so lost? And I was asking Kelly this but she didn’t have an answer, had no words for me, and I just kept staring at the picture of the dead girl, because I couldn’t work out who exactly but her face reminded me of someone or other.