The flat was too empty to bear alone.
Henry pulled on the set of leathers which cost more than the bike, avoiding his eyes in the mirror, afraid he might give it up and spend the day curled on his single bed, turning pages on a book without reading a single word. He went outside; the afternoon sloughing away into a civil twilight. He slipped on the helmet, listening to the change in pressure, how it made the sound of his blood turn thick and listless. A comfort experienced outside as a deadness within.
A beautiful time to get away from everything. Including himself. He had his wallet, phone, house keys, a paperback book and a nub of pencil. No one would miss him for a few hours, and the double-edged sword of it grazed a small paper cut on the inside of his soul.
He had counselling suggested to him, no end of offers to listen to him but he did not trust it. Pain was a drug best filtered through other experiences, and he had seen the dilated pupils, the open mouths of people getting high on his supply. He bore it through the days as he always had. Alone.
Getting out on the bike helped.
He moved out, along the quay and onto the Acle straight, took the bike up to open the engine up. The world sped past him, an optical illusion, and in the pocket of air, he allowed himself to feel something of the pain he carried. A blind man trying to describe an animal he did not understand existed.
He headed towards Norwich, but resisted the pull to find somewhere in the city to park up and distract himself. He needed space and rode hard to find it, guided only by whim and distraction.
A country road took him away from the grids of motorway, fringed by high hedgerows and clumps of trees. He slowed the bike down, shifting into a lower gear to enjoy the moment. It was not peace, but a postcard from it.
He could smell smoke, brought on the wind to him, and underneath it, something metallic and sweet. It revealed itself as he took the next corner. It blocked the setting sun ahead.
A Ford Ka, it’s windshield opaque with a filigree of cracks, the driver side door buckled in and the passenger door open.
She had long, curly hair, rose-gold and dark with blood at the crown and dripping onto her forehead. Her eyes glazed with shock and pain, the neck of her blouse torn open, revealing pale, freckled skin and the globes of her breasts. Henry looked away until she turned her head and showed him the livid mark on her cheek.
The perfect dimensions of a handprint.
Henry slipped off his helmet and parked the bike. He fought the urge to dash forward, wary of the disconnected expression the woman wore.
‘Stay still. You’ve been in an accident.’ he said.
She laughed and tottered on her feet, but regained herself as she pointed to the car.
‘What happened?’ she said.
He tried to think of something but words failed him. Actions never had, so he came and reached his hand out to her.
‘I don’t know, but it looks like a head injury.’
She touched the top of her head and winced, staring at the blood on her fingertips and trying not to sob.
‘He hit me.’ she said.
Henry revolted like he had touched a loose wire. The situation demanded action over thought, so he focused on what he could prove.
He retrieved his phone from his leathers and looked at the single exclamation point, a joke made about his need to reach out and call anyone. Henry put it away but kept his face neutral.
‘Do you want me to check on him?’ he said.
She stared at him. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes and her lips trembled with the force of her emotions. He nodded and walked over to the car, tasting the spilled gasoline with each breath he took. It made his head swim with its potency. He walked with care to the driver’s side.
The man looked too large to have fit behind the wheel. The folds at the back of his neck hung like distended lips and his forehead protruded over his small eyes as he slumped against the wheel.
‘What the fuck?’ the man said.
Henry caught the tang of alcohol, sour and heavy from it being filtered through his pores.
‘I can’t get a signal on my phone.’ Henry said.
He turned, eyes burning with a petulant anger.
‘Where is she?’ he said.
Henry knew the tone of voice. Possession without responsibility, a sudden anger which came from him, bold and harsh. Henry did not flinch, preferring to cajole his manners into remaining present. It was none of his business, he told himself. He would help but his involvement had boundaries.
‘Look mate, she’s concussed. We need to get help.’ Henry said.
The man’s eyes narrowed like Henry had tried to explain something complex to him. He struggled in his seat and a prickling chill ran Henry’s arms, like slipping into cold water.
‘Rose? Come here, love.’ the man said.
His voice softened. Henry watched the man’s expression, found only need and possession within it, not love. Henry stepped backwards.
‘Look, she’s all right. We need to get you both seen to.’ Henry said.
The last few years had demanded a passivity, a softness of him which was difficult to overcome. Henry had to unlearn a great deal and was proud of his progress. The lessons were deep into him and he slipped his hand into his pocket, finding the pencil and testing the point with the ball of his thumb.
He glanced at Rose. Henry made a wager with the universe, if she came to him, he would call an ambulance and be on his way, leave them to it.
She grimaced and wept, shoulders rising as she sobbed with her entire body, knees bending as she sagged down onto the road, shaking her head and saying ‘no’ over and over.
Henry had the pencil between his fingers as he slipped his hand free.
‘I won’t assume you started it.’ Henry said.
The man’s eyebrows went up, the cold tone of Henry’s voice cutting through his concussion as he fought free of the tangled mass of metal around him.
‘But my dad was like you.’ Henry said.
It was a joke in a movie but Henry brought the pencil around in a straight arc, punching the tip into the man’s head. Blood splashed from his nose onto his lips and chin as his pupils altered size, the left waxing whilst the right waned. The pterion bone, located just behind the temple broke beneath the force of the blow and left an inch of yellow and black pencil, the eraser a gynecological pink where it emerged from his head. He bucked and thrashed in his seat before gasping once and slumping over the wheel.
Henry had dreams like this. Memories.
He plucked the pencil free. It made a sucking pop, loud in the evening air, making his stomach turn with a polite revulsion. He slipped the pencil back into the pocket of his leathers and remembered to breathe.
Checking his phone revealed a single bar of signal. Henry put it back in his pocket and went into the state which followed such work. Everything was there, he needed to give the natural forces of the universe a nudge. He reached into the man’s pockets, found a cheap disposable lighter and a packet of cigarettes, lit one and enjoyed the dizziness as the smoke moved through his bloodstream, mingled with the blood and gasoline. He dropped the cigarette onto the floor of the car and walked over to the woman.
She stood up in his arms, sobbing with an awful, violent relief as she stared at him. Henry knew what his lessons required here. He held her face between his hands, knowing there was only a single twist between him and anonymity.
‘Thank you.’ she said.
Her voice was a damp, broken whisper and it reached to the soft, new parts of the soul he was growing. He slipped his hands onto her shoulders.
‘I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.’ he said.
She sniffled and cried, leaned against him and rested a wet cheek against his leathers. She spoke one word, an incantation which made him glad of his decision.
The wind rose and he held onto her, looking past her at the sunset, so beautiful and yet stained in ways he knew he would never see past.