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A policeman once stopped me attacking a brick wall with a hammer.

That wall had a lot to answer for. One night in 1965, when I was 11 years old, my sister's boyfriend drove his car into it. He killed himself. He also killed my sister.

People out walking their dogs, people coming home from pubs - they saw it happen. My parents, sitting in their living room maybe a quarter of a mile away, heard the crash. One eyewitness told the local newspaper that the car must have been doing at least 80 when it hit. The report said she was crying. "The brake lights didn't even flicker," she sobbed. "Not once."

I have a scene in my head, even now, a scene I must have rerun a million times, and it's always the same. I'm standing by the wall and the night is black, far too black to be real. My sister's boyfriend's car comes screaming up Melvina Road, shoots across the T-junction near the railway station, and... well, that's it. At least, that's it as far as my sister's boyfriend is concerned.

Unfortunately, it wasn't it for me, nor for the other members of my family. It wasn't even it for my sister - not quite.

She was in the passenger seat that night and, unlike her boyfriend, she didn't die instantly. No, she died about 20 minutes later, in the ambulance, on her way to hospital.

That fact bothered me a lot in the months after her funeral.

I kept asking myself the same questions, over and over. In the 20 minutes she had between impact and eternity, was she conscious? Did she know what was going on? And if she did, what was she thinking, feeling, hoping?

Twenty minutes can be no time at all - not long enough to watch an episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders. Nothing. The blink of an eye.

Or it can be forever.

Which was it for my sister?

Horrible, sleep-robbing questions. There are no good answers to questions like that.

Now, nearly 40 years down the line, I'm still not sure why my sister died. At the time, some of her friends thought they knew. She'd told a couple of them she intended to break with her boyfriend that night. Well, maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't. If it is... perhaps she'd be alive today if she'd only waited until he'd stopped the car before telling him it was over. Who knows?

Makes no difference now, I suppose.

Things at home were bad after The Crash. (I always thought of it like that - The Crash, with a capital "T" and a capital "C".) My mother had what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder and spent her time either fixed in a chair staring at nothing or wandering through the house in her dressing-gown, a pale ghost of her former self.

My father, too, was suffering similar torments. My remaining sister was wrapped up in looking after my dead sister's nine-month-old baby.

So for a time I was left pretty much to myself.

I think that was when the dreams started. Bad dreams. One bad dream in particular.

In my dream I was standing beside the brick wall that had more-or-less destroyed my family, staring up at it. That wasn't surprising. I had to pass the thing every day on my journey to school. I'd cross the road, keeping it on the other side, trying not to look at it, but not-looking was impossible. And when you did look, you could still see bloodstains on the brickwork. They stayed there for months, even after the crash-damaged bricks had been replaced.

Anyway, in my dream that wall came to life.

A friend would arrive, sometimes Colin, sometimes Alan, sometimes a dream-friend I didn't have in real life. We'd stare at the wall together for a while, then start walking. We'd walk and walk, but the wall seemed to go on forever. My friend would be behind me, and suddenly I'd look around and he'd be gone. Nothing there at all - just the wall. And on the brickwork, there'd be fresh bloodstains.

There'd be a brick that looked odd. Something strange about it - and then I'd see it blink. Suddenly the wall was full of eyes, thousands of them, and all of them looking at me.

That's when I'd start running.

Sometimes I had to run for miles before I could manage to wake myself up, and then I'd lie there in the dark, sweating and trembling, too frightened to go back to sleep.

One night, I'd had enough. I got up, got dressed and went downstairs. It was about 2am and everyone else was asleep. My mother had a large clock that stood on the mantelpiece. I can still hear it ticking.

I went to my father's tool chest and took out his biggest, heaviest hammer. Then I took the spare key from its hook and let myself out the front door.

I almost turned back a couple of times - I was just a kid and this was scary - but I made myself go on. I felt like it was something I had to do.

The wall looked black in the moonlight, and bigger than it did by day. I didn't allow myself to think too much. I didn't want to start seeing eyes. I hefted my father's hammer and started swinging.

I'd done a fair bit of damage by the time the policeman arrived and put his hand on my shoulder.

"What do you think you're playing at, son?" he said.

After I'd finished crying, I told him.

He believed me - I suppose he knew all about The Crash - and he didn't make a fuss. Together, we cleared the worst of the mess up and put it in the bin outside the paper shop. Then he walked me home, talking all the way.

"Do you want me to come in with you?" he asked when we got to my house. "Have a word with your mum and dad?"

I thought about the last time a policeman had come to my house.

"No," I said. "They'll be in bed asleep."

"Fair enough, son. I think that's where you should be, too."

I nodded and put my key in the lock.

"Son," he said, as I opened the door.

I turned around.

"It'll get better." He put his hand on my arm. "Trust me, it'll get better."

I nodded once more and went inside.

He was right. It took a while, but it did get better.

The wall's still there. I drove past it a few weeks ago when I was coming home from my mother's funeral - one of those "visiting the old places" drives you tend to take when you're past 40. Strange. It's just a wall.

I don't think I ever saw that policeman again. I wish I'd thanked him properly, but I never got the chance.

He'd be an old man now, of course. Retired. Still, I guess it's just possible he's reading this.

If you are, officer, I'd like you to know you helped me out. So thanks. Thanks a lot.

Published in The Lincolnshire Echo, June 2003

 
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