An Accident By Chris Barker

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This was the bed in which Emma had slept. This was the story book that Emma had loved. And this was the chair beside the bed where Sally had sat and read the book aloud. The bed remained. The chair endured. But Emma was not in her bed and Sally was not reading her a story.

All the King’s horses, and all the Kings men, couldn’t put Emma together again.

Sally leant across the bed and picked up Tigger, Emma’s favourite soft toy. She held him lightly beneath her nostrils and the perfume of love lost saturated her being. She climbed onto the bed, pressed Tigger into her chest and rested her head on Emma’s pillow before curling into a foetal position. Her husband, Isaac, tip-toed into the room and sat beside the bed.

‘Won’t you come down and eat something?’ he said.

She shook her head.

‘Please,’ he said.

‘I’m not hungry,’ she whispered.

Today she had said goodbye to Emma. There was nothing more outrageous than the coffin of her child. So tiny, so delicate, so awful.

She had sat on the hard oak-stained bench amidst a row of brand new black hats that bobbed up and down while she was drowning. The funeral had offered her no wisdom about death and the meaning of life. There was nothing wonderful about a red brick crematorium with plain glass windows and pine seating. She didn’t feel awe. She didn’t feel anything. She was not really there. The world was out of reach, as if seen through a Perspex bubble.

The Bach violin concerto in A minor drifted into the void. Isaac stood at the front of the crematorium and uttered words that drifted past Sally’s cloaked mind. She could not remember what he said. It didn’t matter. No blunt expressions of language could bring Emma back to life.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There was a big full stop at the end of that sentence.

When the coffin poked its nose out from a hole in the wall and crawled along a conveyor belt as slowly as an office clock on a Friday afternoon, Sally was imprisoned in silence. She watched the coffin lid spring open and Emma jumped out. ‘Surprise! Surprise!’ she shouted. It was all a big joke. Sally heard herself sobbing and she felt Isaac grab her arm as her legs buckled.

‘If only,’ she whispered to Isaac.

‘It wasn’t your fault,’ he said.

‘If only I hadn’t been five minutes late. If I’d got there on time she wouldn’t have been on the crossing.’

‘The school shouldn’t have let her out,’ he said.

‘I’ll never forgive myself,’ she said.

The driver who hit Emma had offered an apology through his lawyers. But it was too late for that. They must pack him off to prison for ever and a day. She wondered if it was true that inside the jail three enormous guys with tattoos and friends in high places ran the show and that he would have to do what he was told and smuggle drugs under his shirt, or else one grim day in the toilets he would get bashed and never be the same again.

Christ! She would never be the same again.

Ten days later, on Christmas Day, they awoke to a neighbourhood cloaked in white. A high-pressure zone to the north and low pressure off the coast had directed a biting northerly wind right across the area delivering snowfalls that piled high and trapped them indoors.

Isaac had hung tiny white snowdrop lights from wires that he had stretched across the living room. In the corner he had placed a cheery Christmas tree, which he had dressed in red tinsel and silver balls that sparkled in the morning light. He laid out the cutlery and placed a cotton wool snowman in the centre of the lovingly restored oak table that had belonged to Sally’s family for generations. Over the years the varnish had faded from the slab and the surface had been stained by the coffee cups and the hot plates of careless diners. Bringing it back to life during Sally’s pregnancy had brought them great joy.

Sally had no interest in snow, or decorations, or festivities of any kind. She wandered vacantly around the house wrapped in an old blanket. No chestnuts from a roaring fire could warm her heart. No presents were worth a candle. She would not smile until justice had been done. But what did justice look like?

Six months later, Sally and Isaac sat together on a shiny wooden bench at the front of the courtroom waiting for the accused – the guilty-as-hell – to receive his punishment. He must suffer as she was suffering. She watched the driver sit with a straight back. He was pretending to be ever so calm and respectable. The spilt whisky had been washed out of his suit and his trousers were clean and the creases ironed sharp. A charade designed to cover up his guilt.

Isaac squeezed her hand.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ he whispered.

‘How can it be?’ she said.

‘He’ll pay for what he has done.’

‘And so will I.’

The prosecution’s lawyer stood up tall, adjusted his stately wig, and announced in his deep, stern voice of justice: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the crime that we are considering today can only be described as heinous. The accused was drunk when he killed a child and drove away. Please, take a moment to look carefully at the defendant and you will see a man without remorse or conscience. I put it to you that he must go to jail and he must stay there for a very long time. Justice demands it.’

Sally’s heart stood to attention and applauded with all its might.

Yes, yes, when all was said and done, he was to blame.

The defendant’s lawyer was in her mid-forties. Her short dark brown hair had been cut smart and classy to accompany her pale grey trouser suit and her big smile. She told the court the story of a traumatised man who had loyally served his country overseas, only to be brought tragically to his knees by a brief and uncharacteristic moment of madness. Then a female shrink, a Professor of Psychiatry at the Universities of Cambridge and Columbia, explained to the court how he suffered from PTSD and that this was the cause of his drinking. The jury must surely find it in their hearts to offer this patriot a chance to put his life back in order.

Sally was scared: what if he walked away a free man?

She could never be free again.

She would never forget.

She listened attentively as the sombre voice of justice delivered its truth.

‘David John McBride, the court hereby finds you guilty as charged.’

The judge ordered the accused to stand. A tall man wearing a dark suit and glasses, David John McBride, thirty-two years old, appeared, as no doubt he intended, to be a hard-working middle-class family man. He had lost the look of defiance that Sally had seen on his face during the trial and now appeared anxious and fragile.

‘You, the accused, David John McBride, have been found guilty of a very serious crime,’ said the judge. ‘Your disregard for the law and the wellbeing of others has led to the death of a child. Furthermore, you sought to escape the consequences of your crime. You have caused immeasurable suffering to the parents of the deceased through your actions; actions that cannot be reversed or ever fully atoned for. You will have to live with what you have done for the rest of your days and the community is entitled to expect that you serve a custodial sentence.’

Sally’s spirit soared. He was going to jail.

The Judge continued.

‘I am aware, however, that you did present yourself to the police, albeit after some delay, and that you have expressed your sincere remorse. I accept that you did not intend to cause death and that you have, until this moment, an unblemished record. I have heard testimony regarding your good character and I am aware that your family will suffer if, as a consequence of your serving a jail sentence, you were to lose your employment, and I am reluctant to impose punishment on children for the crimes of their father. While I think the community expectations of a custodial sentence are reasonable, I do not think that, in this case, the public interest is best served by immediate imprisonment. I hereby sentence you to two years’ imprisonment suspended for 12 months’ and subject to good behaviour and completion of one hundred hours’ of community service.’

Sally’s disbelief spiralled around itself until it formed a black hole at the centre of her being. She buried her head in her hands and cried.

McBride smiled and shook hands with his lawyers. Sally and Isaac sat in silence for an eternity until the room emptied and they were approached by a court official.

‘I’m afraid you need to leave now,’ he said.

Sally sat at the kitchen table and looked through all the photographs of Emma that she had taken in the seven short years of her daughter’s life. Emma playing the piano. Emma dressed in her ballet dress. Emma laughing and making a funny face. Enduring love was depthless sorrow. But Sally was all cried out now. She needed to do something.

She put on her coat and walked across the road to the park. She was glad to escape the shrinking walls of her house. As she approached the duck pond, she saw Emma skipping across the grass, her dark hair dancing in the sunlight, her yellow dress flowing behind her. Sally followed her down a long and winding path through the woods to a bridge by a river, past flowers that grew incredibly high. When Emma turned her head and smiled at her with kaleidoscope eyes, Sally ran towards her daughter with open arms. Emma was alive! But when she reached the water’s edge, Emma was gone. As swiftly as her dream had arisen, it was over.

On her return home, she sat at the kitchen table and watched a tiny ant scurry along its edge. Then it circumvented an abandoned coffee cup and disappeared down an antique leg. She stared out of the window at the pink sunset that shone across the garden at the back of their house. What to do? She opened her laptop and typed David John McBride into the search engine.

All she knew was that he had been in the army and lived in the same town. After she had gathered up her courage and read the accounts of the trial she was none the wiser. But then she found a local newspaper report, a tribute to his service in Afghanistan.

It was a hot and dusty day when McBride and his unit went out on patrol. Out of the blue, an improvised explosive device cracked open the surface of the earth and scattered body parts across the desert track. When he heard the screams, McBride pulled two of his mates to safety and radioed in for support. He lived through that day with his flesh intact and a medal pinned to his chest, but according to his wife’s testimony his mind had been disrupted, re-wired and diverted; images inserted and distorted. She said that he dreamt of flame and smoke, of burning bodies and severed limbs. He heard the never-to-be forgotten sounds of explosions and screams. He smelled the never-to-be forgotten scent of petrol-cooked flesh, stains on his memory, recollections laid one on top of the other like geological sediment. He could never forget.

Sally read that Captain David McBride of Spring Street, Blacktown, had been decorated for his courage under fire.

The next day, Sally slipped out of bed before sunrise, energised by the diamond hardness of her purpose. She made breakfast out of habit and sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea warming her palms. After ten minutes, she abandoned her cereal, picked up her car keys from the sideboard, and left the house. She did not have far to drive to Spring Street where she sat in the car and waited to catch a glimpse of McBride. She scanned each house in the street in case it was his.

After a couple of hours waiting, she grew tired and uncomfortable in the car’s bucket seat. Wagner on the radio was doing her head in and she wasn’t even sure what she would do if she did see McBride. She gave up on her mission and drove home to find Isaac still asleep in their bed.

The following day, she was up before dawn and returned to her vigil with renewed purpose. She would confront McBride and tell him the ugly truth about how he had destroyed her life. He must face what he had done. This time, she parked on the other side of the road to avoid drawing attention to herself. She waited and she waited and she watched as other men left their houses to go to work and children set off to school, some holding their mother’s hand, others walking in small groups of friends. She noticed one girl who was about nine or ten years old walking alone. Sally’s pulse raced. Oh no, never walk to school on your own, little girl. Go back and get your mother. You never know who might be lurking around the corner.

But look! There was McBride leaving the house opposite and strolling along the footpath. She looked again to be sure, but yes, that was him all right. She watched him climb into his car. As he pulled away from the curb, she followed. When he turned left at the end of the street she did likewise, and then continued onto the main road into town. At the roundabout, a large yellow truck pulled in front of her and obscured her view. Which turn had he taken? Damn, she had lost him. She went straight on and continued along the road for a five minutes. There was no sign of him. Bloody hell! She was a hopeless detective.

She had no idea when he might return home, and she didn’t fancy sitting in her car all day. Perhaps she could go home for breakfast and a cuppa. But what if he hadn’t gone to work, but merely taken a ride to the shops? Could she risk it? She compromised and walked to a nearby café.

Before the catastrophe, she had loved The Red House, a groovy old café whose cherry walls were adorned with photographs of local musicians and you sat in funky booths while they played cool tunes. Today, it was just another colourless snack bar. She ordered poached eggs on toast and a cup of coffee and then sat by a table near the window from where she could survey the street, just in case. She scrutinised the cars that drove past and the occasional pedestrian who wandered across her gaze. She gazed at all those ordinary people living ordinary lives. Here was an old man bent double by the universe. There was young mum pushing her child up the street in a buggy. Sally slapped her hand over her mouth as she tasted vomit in her throat.

When the waitress brought her breakfast, Sally couldn’t face it. Had McBride eaten breakfast before he left for work? How could he? He must be devoid of conscience. Like the man she had seen on television who had locked up his daughter in a dungeon deep below their house. For ten years he had raped her over and over again. The police had found the body of his strangled wife buried under a tree in the backyard.

Sally had watched the killer arrive at the courthouse in a black prison wagon with slits for windows. As he was escorted up the steps by a posse of armed guards, she was shocked to see that he looked like an ordinary middle-aged man with a balding head and a beer belly. He didn’t have horns and a forked tail. And he wasn’t sporting a swastika tattoo. She figured that she might sit next to him on a bus, or walk behind him on the pavement, and never know how wicked he was. And if wickedness looked normal, then perhaps it didn’t take a special kind of person to do unspeakable things. The face of evil could belong to your friend, or your neighbour. Evil was ordinary. Just like her. Just like him?

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright; did he who made the Lamb make thee?

She paid the cheerful young woman at the till who was innocently carrying on with her life, unaware that she was surrounded by darkness, and returned to Spring Street. Once more she waited and waited and waited. After an hour her back ached and she had to step out of the car. It was a risk, but one she had to take.

She walked towards McBride’s house to see what signs of malevolence were manifested there. Her torso shivered as she approached his lair and glanced through the window. She was shocked to see an attractive auburn-haired woman playing with a little girl who was throwing a soft toy, Tigger, at her mum and laughing. They were an average family doing everyday things. The things that mothers and children do. The things that were no longer given to her.

Could it be that McBride was just an ordinary human being with a job and a house and a family?

She remembered times when she had done things she didn’t mean. Like the day she had missed her father’s birthday lunch because she got drunk the night before and slept in. And the day she was late to pick up Emma from school. She thought: maybe we all do stuff because of our genes, or our upbringing, or our parents, or our neighbourhood. Maybe there are reasons why people do bad things and we can explain everything; and if we can explain everything, perhaps we can forgive them.

She returned to her vehicle and her ruminations. All of a sudden, she saw McBride’s car turn the corner into the street. She hadn’t expected him to return yet. It was still only midday. But here he was, as clear as daylight, parking his car. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Her mind snapped. She turned the ignition in her car. The engine awoke and she pulled away from the kerb. He stepped out of his car, locked the door and walked along the path towards his house jangling his keys in his hand. As he moved closer to her, she accelerated towards him. She felt the thud as his body was crushed and broken against a garden wall.  For a moment she smiled, and then she cried.

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Chris Barker

Born in England, Chris Barker has been an educator in schools and universities in the UK and Australia (where he lives). He has published seven books including ‘Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice’ and ‘The Hearts of Men.’ He writes fiction between stints in the garden, where he grows vegetables and looks after chickens. He has had short stories accepted by East of the Web (UK); The Adelaide Magazine (US) and Drunk Monkeys (US). He is, of course, working on a novel.

Published short stories

The Blackberry Bushes- East of the Web

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/BlacBush1182.shtml

Summer of Love- East of the Web

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/SummLove1217.shtml

All the Difference-The Adelaide Literary Magazine

http://adelaidemagazine.org/2021/04/15/all-the-difference-by-chris-barker/

Accepted but not yet published

‘It Must Be My Lotion’ Drunk Monkeys’

https://www.drunkmonkeys.us/

Academic Publications

Cultural Studies

https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/author/chris-barker

Men and emotion

https://www.amazon.com.au/Hearts-Men-Tales-Happiness-Despair/dp/0868409499

Global television

https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Global+Television%3A+An+Introduction-p-9780631201502

https://www.amazon.com.au/Television-Globalization-Cultural-Identities-Barker/dp/0335199542

* Social Media Handles & links

Twitter: Chris Barker @chrisjonbarker

https://twitter.com/chrisjonbarker

Blog:

https://creasedattheedges.com/

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/chris.barker.35175

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