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I wake with a jolt. In a fog of panic, I struggle to comprehend where I am, what time it is, whether anything is real.
Like a diver emerging from deep water, I gasp a lungful of air. My fingertips are gripping hold of my bare knees, pressing right down to the bone. A rush of sensation – sight, sound, smell, touch.
All of this happens in less than a second but feels like I’ve lost a lifetime.
“Sorry about that, Jen.”
The phrase echoes around and around inside my head until the words gradually make sense. The voice belongs to Terry. Terry, my boyfriend. Terry, who is the driving the car, in which I am a passenger, heading home from the seaside, where we’ve spent the day. It’s late, pitch black outside, there’s a song I never heard before playing on the radio. I’m wearing denim shorts and a t-shirt, but my shoes are off and I can feel sand between my toes. I loosen the grip on my poor knees and gradually relax back into the world I know and understand.
“Blind corner,” repeats Terry, “just then – had to hit the brakes a bit sharpish. Woke you up – sorry, Jen.”
“You were driving too fast.”
“How do you know I was driving too fast? You were asleep.”
“You always drive too fast,” I tell him, looking at the blur of trees and bushes, and then at the speedometer. Reluctantly he takes his foot off the pedal and we slow to a slightly more moderate speed.
“It’s fine, don’t worry. There’s nothing else on the road.”
“So, how come you had to brake so hard?”
“The bend was a bit tighter than I realised, that’s all. No sweat.” He laughs, in an annoying way, reaches across and puts his hand on my leg. “Go back to sleep.”
“No.” The thought fills me with dread.
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.”
There was something – just before I woke – that’s left me with a sort of hollow feeling. Wherever I was in that dream I don’t want to go back there in a hurry.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Ten, fifteen minutes or so. Not long after we left Walton.”
I glance outside again – the unlit country road providing no clue to where we are.
Where we’d been was the seaside; Walton. Walton-On-the-Naze. Spent the whole day there. We’d walked on the beach, paddled in the cold, grey sea, eaten ice cream and candyfloss, and fish and chips. We’d ridden dodgems on the pier, played a dozen games of air hockey, pumped a hundred coins into slot machines. We’d walked the sea wall all the way to Frinton and back. And ran and laughed and kissed and quarrelled and laughed some more. It was the fullest day I think I’ve ever had. No wonder I’d fallen asleep so quickly, and so deeply.
“Where are we?”
“Somewhere between Walton and home,” he shrugs.
“Yes, but where? It doesn’t look familiar. I don’t… Can you slow down, please?” The speedometer has crept over sixty again.
“It’s fine. I took a different route. Less traffic.”
“Do you actually know where we are, though?”
“More or less.”
He knows I hate it when he does this. I get anxious not knowing where I am. We got lost in Epping Forest once – I nearly had a breakdown. I mean, I love the countryside – who doesn’t? – but with the proviso that I know how to get out of it, quickly, and back home to streetlights and houses and people.
The anxiety stirs a distant flash of memory; something from my past? Or, maybe, something from the dream I just had. It’s difficult, sometimes, to know the difference.
Terry starts singing along to a song on the radio, probably trying to make me feel like there’s nothing to worry about, that he’s got everything under control. He does that a lot and it never works.
I open the glove compartment and fish out the road atlas, lay it out on my lap and try to find the right page. But it’s too dark to make anything out.
“Can I put the light on?”
“Not while I’m driving.”
“I just want to know where we are.”
He tuts and slows the car. “Hold on.”
There’s a lay-by, of sorts, just up ahead, a small recess in the road, overhung with low-hanging branches. The tree’s twisted fingers tap and scratch against my window as we pull in and stop.
“Thank you,” I say, warmly, appreciating his consideration.
“S’okay.” He reaches up, switches on the courtesy light, then lets his arm drop around my shoulder. His other hand comes across and flips to the correct page in the road atlas. “Here’s Walton,” he points out, “and we must be somewhere around here…” His finger tracks a route that runs across the page, off the bottom of the map and onto the top of my leg, just south of Colchester.
I can feel the heat of his fingertips dancing lightly on my bare skin. So that’s his game.
I take a breath and tell him, flatly, “Forget it.”
“Come on, Jen,” he insists, “there’s no one around.”
“Exactly. We’re in the middle of bloody nowhere!”
He leans in closer. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
“Is that what you call it?”
He laughs, taking this as a green light to move his fingers a few inches further up my leg. I take his hand, lift it gently away, and place it back on the steering wheel.
“I just want to get home,” I tell him.
His turn to take a breath. “Jen, we’ve had a lovely day, right? Perfect day. Just be a nice way to top it off, y’know – icing on the cake.”
“So take me home. And maybe, when we get there, if my mum and dad are upstairs in bed, then we could…”
Terry lets out a cavernous sigh of disappointment. His left arm withdraws from my shoulders.
“If. Maybe,” he grumbles. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I say nothing.
The radio plays a song of unrequited love.
“Right. Fine. Sod it,” he says, and flings open his door.
“What? What are you doing?”
“I need a piss.” And, with that, he disappears out into the darkness.
“Terry!” I can hear the alarm in my voice, rising, “Don’t…”
The driver’s door swings shut, sealing me in.
My immediate instinct is to get out and follow him, shout at him, grab a hold of him – anything but be left alone. I reach for the door handle, then stop. I don’t want to be out there, in the pitch black.
I mustn’t panic. He’ll be back in a minute.
It’s light in here, the radio is on, the engine is ticking over – it’s all fine, it’s all good, nothing to worry about. Take a deep breath and don’t be silly. That’s what I have to tell myself, “Don’t be silly”.
That’s what Terry would say. It’s what my mum would say.
Like she did, all those years ago, when she and Dad left me in their car while they went into that country pub, leaving me alone with a bottle of Coke and a packet of crisps and a colouring book. “Don’t be silly, Jenny, we won’t be long – you’ll be fine.”
Only I wasn’t, was I, Mum? Because there was a man, sitting in a green van, on the other side of the car park, beneath the shadow of the trees, watching. Watching me – this frightened little girl with her Coke and her crisps and her stupid colouring book. Oh, I know you never believed me, Mum, but he was there, leering at me. And when he climbed out of his van and crossed the gravel towards me I locked all the doors.
And when he pressed his face against the window I screamed and pushed down hard on the hooter. But by the time you and Dad came rushing out of the pub, he and the van were gone. And I was just an hysterical child, with an “over-active imagination”.
Yeah, don’t be silly. Take a breath.
“Not over-active, just highly developed,” my English teacher, Miss Lynch, said – referring to my imagination. “And that’s not a bad thing.” Oh, but it was, in my case. The things I could conjure up so vividly in my mind, as a child, terrified me. Kept me awake at nights. Turned me into a nervous wreck. Miss Lynch encouraged me to put it all into writing, turn them into stories. Which I did. And then she was terrified, too.
So, I buried it, my imagination, deep beneath layers of mundanity and dull routine. Forsaking English for maths, I would sit up in bed, late into the night, driving myself to dreamless sleep with mind-numbing equations. Then, after leaving school, taking a job with a firm of chartered accountants, where all that is required of me is accuracy and a capacity for mechanical repetition. And finding a boyfriend whose own imagination stretches no further than Walton-on-the-Naze, what kind of car he longs for, and where, when and how we can have sex.
Where is Terry? How long does it take to have a piss in the bushes? He’s a man, for God’s sake, all he has to do is stand up against a tree and whip it out. I mean, there’s no one around, so…
The car is suddenly flooded with a blinding light – another car approaching from the opposite direction with full beam blazing. I squint, shield my eyes, waiting for it to pass. But it doesn’t. The car has slowed to a halt in the road, right in front of us, its headlights illuminating the inside of our car with an intense, searching glow.
A pang of irrational guilt – is it the police? Have we done something wrong? Terry, for God’s sake, where are you?
Then the lights dip, and the car moves forward, pulling slowly alongside us.
I can’t see who’s inside, I can’t see anything – just the opaque wall of the driver’s window. But they can see me. I feel helpless, an insect in a specimen jar. Exposed.
The courtesy light! That’s why I can’t see out. I reach up quickly and switch it off, and the moment I do I see the occupant of the other car. Only it’s not a car, it’s a van. A green van.
I don’t scream. My voice has been taken. I leap forward and press the lock-button down on Terry’s door, then throw myself backwards, as far as I can, onto my side of the car, knees up under my chin, arms wrapped tight around my legs. I clamp my eyelids shut – I don’t want to see what I know is out there.
The car engine is still idling, trembling. The radio is still playing. I find myself, stupidly, mouthing the words to the song. Don’t let it end, don’t let the stupid song end.
They’re trying the door, tapping on the window. I blindly reach for the radio and turn the volume up loud. I’m safe, in here, safe as long the song keeps…
“Jen! Jenny – open the door!”
Terry! I open my eyes. Oh, thank God. I unlock the door and there he is, real and solid and furrow-browed.
“What did you lock the door for? What’s…?” he reaches in and turns the radio down, “Christ, Jen, what’s going on?”
All I can manage is, “Van.” And to point where it had been.
I look beyond his shoulder – it’s gone.
“There was a van, Terry – just now. You must have seen it.”
He looks up and down the road, then climbs into his seat and pulls the door shut.
“I didn’t see a van,” he says and looks at me with concerned scepticism, just like Mum and Dad did, all those years ago.
An unexpected fury rises up and bursts out of me. “There was a bloody van, okay? Right there. You think I’m lying? You think I imagined it? It pulled up alongside us, while you were… Where the bloody hell were you, anyway!?”
He seems taken aback by my ferocity. We’ve argued and bickered, like all couples do, but he’s never seen me like this. To be fair, I’ve never seen me like this. For twelve years the anger and shame of not being believed by my parents has laid dormant.
But Terry, to his credit, doesn’t contradict or belittle me.
“I just went for a piss behind a bush. Sorry, Jen, I didn’t see the van. Did… Did something happen?”
I shake my head. “Can we just…?”
He puts the car into gear, lets off the brake, and says the only words I want to hear, “Yeah, let’s get home.”
I sit back, put my feet down on the floor and, for the second time on this journey, try to regain my equilibrium. But I’m struggling; the face I saw, in the van, just now, it can’t have been the same face I saw, leering at me, all those years ago, in that pub car park. It can’t have been.
No, of course, it wasn’t – it was my imagination, rising up from the past, seizing the opportunity to strike fear and doubt in me. But I won’t let it – I’ll recite times tables in my head, I’ll count the cat’s eyes in the road till we get back home. And when we do get back home, we’ll…
I reach across and put my hand on Terry’s knee.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“S’okay,” he shrugs. I move my hand a little higher up his leg – my turn now to do the little finger-dance.
“I could stay at yours tonight?” I try my best to make it sound like an offer, and not a desperate plea.
He gives me a quick sideways glance. “Really?”
I hate Terry’s flat – it’s small and grubby, and his single bed affords the world’s most uncomfortable sleeping experience, but I’ll take that tonight over being alone. I’ll let his imagination take rein, if it means my own can be purged.
I give him what I hope is an alluring look (but probably appears slightly manic) and say, “Well, like you said, it would be a nice way to end the day. Icing on the…”
“Wanker!” he shouts – not quite the response I was expecting.
“Car – right up my arse!”
I look back over my shoulder – all I can see are headlights, close up behind us.
“Came out of nowhere!”
I go cold, my heart stops, then races – it’s the van, I know it.
We’re slowing down to let it overtake, but it stays right there, almost touching our bumper.
“For Chrissakes, just go past if you’re in that much of a hurry!” Terry growls.
“Just drive, Terry, please, just get us home.”
But he’s not listening. He winds his window down and, as the night air roars in, he roars out, “What’s your problem, mate?”
His temper is rising, male pride at stake, but there’s uncertainty too, a growing anxiety, as he says; “Look, if the bastard wants to play games, I’ll…”
“Just drive!” I scream the command, and like a racehorse responding to the whip, he presses his foot down hard on the accelerator.
As we thrust forward all sense of time, place and motion suddenly seems to vanish – just for a moment nothing exists outside of this bubble. Just for a moment we’re flying.
And then, just as suddenly, reality reaches up and grabs us, slams us back down to earth, spins us around and upside down – tyres screaming, Terry shouting, a crescendo of crushed metal and shattered glass. Then…total darkness.
Minutes, hours, a thousand years later, my senses return. Smell first – damp grass and petrol. Then taste – bitter and metallic. I can feel the cold, solid ground pressing against the side of my face. But that’s all I feel. No pain, no fear, just me here, somewhere, in the dark.
Then I hear a voice. A male voice, low and even, that seems both close and far away at the same time.
“It’s all right, love, hold on there. We got you.”
I might ask; “Hold on where?” and “Who’s got me?” if I could speak. But it seems I can’t.
“We need to get you away from here,” the man’s voice tells me – no reason given, but he sounds quite sure about it.
A wave of hot air ripples over me, bringing with it a quickening state of awareness. There is a dull, hard, jagged ache in my head, and my fingertips are pressing down into the earth – something has happened, and it wasn’t good. I really shouldn’t be here, like this. I try to move my arms, my legs, but they won’t respond.
“Relax, keep still – we’ll get you out of here,” the deep voice assures me. With all the will I still possess I force my eyelids open and, very gradually, a semblance of vision returns. As if through cloudy water, I see the shape of the man, crouched over me, colourless and featureless, backlit by a flickering glow.
“Take my hand,” he says, and I see his hand reaching out to me. All I’ve got to do is grab a hold of it and I’ll be safe. Safe from the fire.
Then, from a different direction, somewhere behind me, I hear another voice – slow and thin and rasping; “Jen…Jenny.” And a hand clamps tight around my ankle.
The deep voice, more urgent now, “Come on, quickly! Take my hand!”
I look towards it and see other shapes now, in silhouette behind him – trees, stark and towering, their branches like arms outstretched towards me, beckoning.
But the hand clutching my ankle won’t let go, and its owner’s voice grows louder, “Jenny! Stay with me!”
I know this voice – I know it! Terry? It’s Terry. I try to form his name on my lips, but nothing comes. Then the deeper voice speaks again – louder now, demanding, and swathed in malice, “Come – with – me!”
I look again, and a burst of orange lights up his face. It’s him, the man in the car park, the man in the green van, the man who has always been there, waiting, lurking. And now he has my hand and he is tugging at me, pulling me away – away from the light.
Hold on, Terry, don’t let go, please don’t let me go!
But the man is too strong and Terry’s grip on my ankle is failing. I feel myself slipping…
I wake with a jolt. In a fog of panic, I struggle to comprehend where I am, what time it is, whether anything is real…
Read more about author Simon Mawdsley here.
Copyright Simon Mawdsley 2020
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