Time has battered the sky, bruised it bramble. That's what Dad would say on winter nights like this. I start my car, drive south through Yarm, and take the country roads west to Darlington, my hometown. Rows of houses soon give way to hedges. Boxy estates break up into open fields. It's longer this way from work, but there's less traffic, so seems faster, even in this shit-heap. Samantha is waiting for me there because it's our fourth anniversary and we've booked a table for dinner, but by the time I turn up—Christ, it may be nothing at all.
My eyes have a film and feel sort of fat, so I hunch over the wheel and squint. I watch the headlighted cones of road for dead things, twisted tattered things that were once pheasants, foxes, rabbits or hares. Dad always told me to squash dead things, squash them flat. Back when I was a bairn and he was still around, he'd take me out in the car, show me how to drive, and he'd say, 'Yeh must think of fella drivers, Tom. Those things on road're already dead. If people as much as glimpse somethin and think it's worth savin, they'll swerve over, intuh other lane, and then—'clapping his mitts beside my ears—'BAM!' I'd jump and he'd nod, smiling. 'So squash em,' he'd repeat. 'Nowt tuh addle yeh fella driver.' Our mam never thought it was right. Inhumane, she'd say. Well, I don't know about inhumane, but I swerve all the same. I can't bring myself to do it, to hear and feel the rumble of wheels over the body. It knocks me white. My nerves go all skewwhiff.
I turn the heating up. It blasts steam onto the inside of the windscreen, and I clear it with my hand, but it only smears like grease. For a second I see my ghost in the glass, see Dad's nose, Mam's eyes. It sends a shiver through the space between my arse and balls, and my gut drops. But steak-shaped patches of steam soon reappear and shroud my ghost.
Damp on the ground is starting to freeze tonight and slick the roads. I can feel these tyres lose grip beneath me; can feel them slide like it's my own feet sliding. Besides, they're dead old, the tyres, basically bald. You could skid a mile on roads bone-dry. Sam lost her rag at me the other week for not getting them changed, called me a git, called me stingy. Comes to the point with her where I just zone out, let her bang on. Because the thing is, as long as I've known her, she's never seemed completely happy. She's always on about something or other. In primary school, it was getting custard for pudding. Secondary school, it was detention for chatting back in class. Sixth form: psychology tests or getting fat from the pill—or me. And when she'd started her cleaning job at Salutation Infants, our old primary school, it was the pay or the pervy teachers who'd once taught us—or me. But now, I reckon it's just me.
It's been better. There was a time—way before we knew this was for the long haul—when I'd look at her and my gut would squirm like a nest of mice. But that's youth for you. Now my gut—well, I guess it's my heart really—doesn't move in that way. Only now and then with nerves, with numbing worry, with frustration. Same old, same old.
The thing that hooked me in sixth form was the note she left on my locker door:
A BOILED EGG IN THE MORNING IS HARD TO BEAT THERE'S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM
Underneath, she'd written her number. And there was a blue scribble below the number shaped like tumbleweed, and I'm pretty sure it was hiding a kiss. So I texted her that night and she snuck me in her house, in her bed. She told her corny jokes, watched me laugh. And since then, I've never really looked twice at another lass. Never felt the need. Mates and other lads goad and ask me what I think about this or that lass but it's only talk. To tell the truth, Sam's stood by through all my shit, my bent for being cagey and kind of feckless; she's been mine all along. So why lose a good, familiar thing with messing about? But for all that, Sam seems to have run out of jokes, and sometimes I wonder if I just can't hack being alone.
I think to text Sam, let her know I'm running late, but I remember I've left my phone in the office on charge. It's too late to head back now: Mr Naisby will have locked up, gone home. And besides, if I get a move on, I can catch her at the restaurant. Only trouble is, one of the lads could have swiped the phone to muck about with. As I was coming back from the loo before leaving, they were all herded around Cooper's desk, ripping each other, making plans, belly-laughing. I asked them if they were up to much and Cooper said, 'Nowt really. Just off down Arms.' Old Rosie's cheap there, he said, and the new bewer behind the bar's got mint tits and apparently she thinks rookie estate agents like us are pretty fit. I could come along for a bit, he said—if I wanted. But there'd be hell on if I was late, never mind if I was pissed, so, 'I'll give it a miss,' I said to the lads. And, 'All right,' they said. 'That's fine.'
Smart move. I know what's in store tonight. She'll drink and bang on, plan our future, get whiney, maybe cry. She'll bring up the baby issue. She wants to adopt, to give up. She'll try to turn me around. Just get tested, she'll say. It's not me. Well, it's one of us, Tom, it must be. We've tried and tried. But I'm not giving up, I'll say. I'll put my foot down if I have to. I don't want to raise what isn't my own. That's that. End of.
I mean, I want to tell her everything. How I already got the test last month, how it's me, absolutely me, even if deep down I somehow disbelieve it, but—well…
Passing the turn-off to Hornby, I think how these roads just never stop dead, only curve into other roads with longer hedges and further fields, stretching out and out as if forever. Winter sees a thick fog swamp these fields around Dalton and Appleton Whiske. Scraps of grass that had been tall feathers of rapeseed, all gold and swaying in summertime, get bogged with what looks like silver smoke from afar. It collects around trees' branches, too, and the trees have new leafage that's sort of meshed with ghosts, a bit like an old lady's hairdo. Each tree, I imagine, is my nana's candyfloss head, turned and facing away.
Devilish eyes peep through the snaking hedges ahead. A car nears, passes, yellowing a slice of mist in the field. I scan the roads again, wondering what was actually inhumane about squashing dead things. In a way, Dad had a point: they're not human, just roadkill, dead stuff. But I wish I could've asked our mam what she'd meant while she still had her voice. Or asked my dad before he cleared off. They both feel distant tonight, but in different ways. Mam's dead, rest her soul. And Dad—well, who knows. Not long after Mam passed, he fucked off without a word, left our nana to take care of me. One day he put me on the bus to school, and then—simple as that—he wasn't there to pick me up. Nana said she saw it coming, said he's been a coward much longer than he'd been a husband. Something like that.
Now and then I think about why he left. But that sort of thing's impossible to fully figure. Unless I look for him, of course, but that probably wouldn't do anyone much good. I reckon he just got scared, nervous, and that outweighed any kind of guilt. Seems simple, really, almost forgivable.
The window's down and my arm, prickled by the cold, dangles out. I light a fag and wheeze away, spurting tangled fists of fume. My nerves die down. I roll my head from shoulder to shoulder, eyes shut. A shaving rash fizzes under the skin around my throat. I use a trimmer, always have, but Sam made me shave last night with her razor. 'Make an effort,' she'd said. 'Mam told me tuh always make an effort and look pretty. Got me wearing a bit of slap before I needed a bloody bra.' I asked her what her dad thought of that and she just said quietly, 'Nothing.' So I took to my face with her razor, and the whole time I was thinking, who says looking like a ten-year-old looks good, looks manly? It's daft. Not what other lasses find fit, I'm sure.
I gear down for a steepish hill and watch a spray of light from over the brow as it angles at me in full-beam glare. Wincing, I flash my lights, but the glare keeps on. 'Prick,' I say, flashing again, 'haway.' But after the glare practically blinds me, the car shoots past. I follow it with my head, call out the window, 'Prick!' and feel like a doyle for doing so. I snap my head forward, gear up, but by the time something has reeled in my pelvis like a buoy in water as the car crests the hill, it's too late: I've already felt the heavy thwack, and the sound echoes through my head.
Slowing the car, sighing, 'Shite…shite,' I pull in to a narrow lay-by. All noise suddenly seems to fade until there's just the engine's mumble. In the mirrors, there's only the dark road winding away. And through the face of my reflection in the passenger-side window, I see the spindle fingers of the hedge, brittle-looking with a film of frost.
The radio clock tells me I should be at the restaurant by now—but it's another ten-minute drive to town. Once I kill the engine, I get out the car to smoke and check damages. Lighting up, I reach for my phone, then remember, and cringe to think that one of the lads from work is getting calls and texts from Sam. I imagine that monkey-hanger, Dixon, thumbing through my texts and photos, showing the rest, laughing; or sending pictures of his cock to people, maybe Mr Naisby, the boss. No matter what I'd say, Naisby'd never trust me with those gated five-beds on Denevale. He'd give them to Cooper, his favourite, his stepson.
I think about driving off, getting to Sam, but I know I should look for it, whatever it is—the victim. It's not a pheasant, fox, rabbit, or hare—Christ, not even a badger could've made a noise that dense. Skulking around the front of the car, I notice a deepish dent above the front wheel on the left wing, as high as the buckled bonnet's rim. That's a good five-hundred quid, I think. A holiday to Tenerife, three season tickets for Darlo, or Sam's Christmas present. Gone.
With my breath smoking forward, I tiptoe along the grassy track by the road. Ahead, I hear frantic snuffling. A fitful body jolts, rustles. I can see it, but dimly, just the dark shape and size of a silhouette. At the sight, I hesitate, still as a gravestone. A white moth comes out of the night, flitters by, flickering light and dark, before disappearing in the hedge. I toss the burnt-out fag to the hard ground and squash it with the heel of my shoe.
The snuffling comes in bursts now, louder, with a raspy sort of grunt. I see gusts of breath from the hedge, and start to think I can smell the breath, imagine it tart and sickly, like cider. But I can only smell the earth, the winter night. Inching forward, a wind-rush groans around my ears and neck. Then the hazy moonlight reveals it, all snarled up in the hedge. A deer.
I frown to see how battered it is. There's what looks like a gash above the haunch, around its pelvis. The hipbone's probably smashed, and maybe an artery's shred. Hot black blood steams and gushes, glistening moonlight.
'Poor lad,' I say. It's done for.
But no, I think, not lad. It's too small, its frame's too dainty, legs too spindly. What look like its legs could be the twigs of the hedge for all I can tell. So a lass, then, a doe. Still a bairn with those soft white spots on its side: Nana once told me they fade with winter. Fled from Raby Castle, I reckon. Must've outgrown her mam's guidance, but gone way too far, too rashly. Must've been scared, and so cold.
I step back, off the grass, but a car nears. Headlights blaze and blink and swing. Light tears night. The car swipes past, noise rolls. I shiver—always do when something moves behind me—and turn to watch its red brake lights veer into darkness. Not fog—just darkness. The dew on the road must be a little too warm for fog to form; it gets thinner the closer it gets to the roads, until—puft—like that—all clear. But farther out east, where the fields become knolls, all cold and hard, and those knolls rise somehow into Roseberry Topping, the tallest thing I think I've ever seen—well, I imagine the fog out there is real dense and as vast as an ocean.
Looking down at the doe, I think back to when Nana would take me up the deer park around Raby Castle. They open the grounds in spring and summer for people to wander about. I remember one time walking along the wooden fences. It was May, I think, or June, just before my tenth birthday. The sun quickly scaled the clouds, got hot, and the sky changed from having this buttery-looking glow to a sort of milky sheen. The air was fuzzy with dandelion seeds. Head-bowed deer chewed at the uncut grass around an old tree in the distance. Nana wore a black scarf. She'd clutch it with one hand and snuggle her chin into it. Her other hand, gloved in black leather, had hold of mine. When she squeezed my hand I felt her bony knuckles creak and crack, and her fingers felt like twigs around my squishy veins. She stared across the field to the surrounding forest.
She said, 'Yeh mam loved it ere, an all. Every summer when she were a kid, she'd come up ere with me. Her last day out—we all came ere, didn't we? Even yeh dad came. She had fun that day. Remember, Thomas?' She horseshoed her mouth, pinched her papery eyelids against a breeze.
I didn't answer. But I remembered Mam's last day out. Let me think…Nana and Dad were walking through the flower gardens, wheezing fags, creating clouds, just ahead of our mam and me. I was pushing Mam's wheelchair over the gravelly paths. I always pushed—though I couldn't see over the back of the seat on my tiptoes—until I got tired. Then Dad would push and I'd sit on Mam's lap, all curled up like a cat.
So clearly I remember that day. But little details stick out. Like bees thrumming around these enormous yew hedges, solid as concrete walls. And tulip trees with plump yellow flowers, branches holding hands. Crowds of lavender gossiping, and sooty heather looking on. How my palms stung from where the wheelchair handles had rubbed. The soil and gunpowder smell of old baccy smoke, and then the warm coconut smell of sun cream slathered on our mam's head, which was bald as a pearl, and the scrunch… scrunch… of the wheels rolling over gravel, and Mam saying in a small voice, 'Don't knacker yehself pushin, Tom. Dad can always do it.'
The rest of her days were bedbound and sleepy.
Now I think about stamping the doe's neck—to put it out of its misery. And I wonder how to tell its misery and life apart, wonder if it'll be better off dead, sooner.
I check my—well, my dad's watch. Not left for me, just something he left behind. I'm half an hour late, but I don't believe it. So maybe the watch has finally conked out for good.
I pocket my hands, and look down the road to where it curves into darkness. I try to look past the darkness to the fields and hills beyond, to wherever my dad might be, the millions of possible places; and look even farther, to where cloudy cotton-grass grows in moorland bogs and where my mam is scattered, where she's the dusty heather-scented fog that climbs the Cleveland Hills.
Only once before have I seen a deer this close. It was one of those times Nana took me to Raby Castle, less than a year after Mam died. As Nana chattered with a groundskeeper, who'd been a mate of my runaway granddad, I wandered across the field. I heard Nana's machinegun laugh behind me. Looking back, I saw the bloke light Nana's fag, laughing too, all chuffed with himself.
I waded through grass that came up to my knees and noticed a pocket of flattened grass nearby. A little deer, a fawn, was nestling there. At first it kind of frightened me: it was odd-looking and scrawny, sort of like an alien, I remember thinking. I looked around for the other deer, its family, but the field was empty.
So I crouched and scooped the fawn in my arms. I'm not sure why, but I cradled it like a baby. It was heavier than I would've guessed and trembled the way guinea pigs tremble when you hold them. But I didn't mind how big it was, or how heavy it was, or how awkward it was to hold—and I kind of liked the way it trembled. So I called over to Nana, I said, 'Nana, look! Look what I've found!'
But I knew I'd done something wrong because that groundskeeper booled toward me, shouting, flailing his big, long arms.
I cuddled the fawn like a teddy.
The groundskeeper screamed, 'Oi! Drop it! Drop it now!'
So I dropped the fawn, and it slumpled at my feet.
The groundskeeper shoved me away from it, his hands large and heavy on both my shoulders. He sort of whispered in my face, but I knew he wanted to scream. He said, 'Y'know what appens when yeh touch a fawn like that? Do yeh?' He towered over me, fuming. His breath was warm and strong and reeked. He said, 'Well, your smell stays on it. And that smell scares off the mother deer. She mightn't come back tuh it now. And if not, the thing'll die. Yeh'll have killed it. Because it hasn't been abandoned, y'know. D'yeh get it? Do yeh?'
I snivelled. Stupid kid. I should've bat the cunt instead.
But Nana came over, saying, 'Canny on now. He din't know any better, did he?' And he began to mouth off, but soon shut up. Nana told him where to go. Then he shook his head and stormed off through grass that barely tickled the top of his boots. Nana patted my shoulders, shushed me. I tried to look in her eyes but mine were soaked and sore.
Loads of summers passed before I went up to Raby Castle again.
A couple of years into our marriage, the year Nana died, I asked Sam if she wanted to go and see the deer sometime. But she'd just sneered and said with that snotty whinge I hate, 'A deer park? You'll never get close enough to see em. You'll just scare em off. What's the point?'
Now I look in the doe's eyes. They're dark, and sort of marbled with moonlight. She can see me; she knows I'm here, over her. In her final throes, she writhes her head and gasps, baring her tiny wet teeth. I stoop to smell her breath. It's rank, salty, but a bit like buttermilk. I pat her coarse fur, and my fingers feel the warmth of her body, her compact muscles. In better light, I think, her eyes would look conker brown. I itch my neck, stand up straight, bite my fingernail, biting off too much, until there's pain. I groan. I vice-grip my jaw. Then I stamp my foot on the doe's thin neck—then again, and again.
I stop when my thigh gets tired. I pant and my breath smokes, but the doe's not properly dead. Her body's not twitching anymore, or at least I can't tell if it's twitching, but I can hear her still trying to breathe. She sort of gargles and hiccups; reminds me of Mam's breathing when she slept. Toward the end, the cancer spread down her throat and it pretty much choked her. Any last words she'd wanted to speak were hedged in her mind, unable to get out.
My skin is cold and heavy. For the first time I feel night in my clothes. My throat sort of thickens and I choke. But crying's not my thing. I hold it in, between clenched teeth.
Fog has spread across the road now, hedge-to-hedge. I can't see my car in the lay-by ahead. It's all around me, I know, but it sort of seems like I'm in a pouch of clear air because I can make out the hedge and the doe below. But that's daft: someone by the car would think the same, not being able to see me. When you're in fog, you're in fog: seeing your hand in front of your face doesn't always mean you're in the clear.
I hear my dad's voice from someplace years and miles away: These things're already dead, boy. Just roadkill, dead stuff. Not a living thing. Can't make em more dead, can yeh? So don't matter.
I stand and watch the doe's life glug out in gunge. If only I could understand her terror, I think, all those wordless feelings clattering about her head…But I just don't know—how her mind must be mad. Never seen anything so alone in the world.
When I close my eyes now, it's harder to prise the lids apart. Braying my mind is the fact that I've not had a mam pretty near twice as long as I had one. Something in me's lost weight, I think, sort of sealed up and gone smooth. I feel hard. Hard shoulders, hard arms. But Mam doesn't feel so distant as I think about this enveloping fog, because I imagine how it's formed in some tiny way by her, how she's blown down from the Cleveland hills, how she's never really gone anywhere, she's here, now, and it's just seemed like she's gone from where I am. Like the past, I guess—sort of preserved in traces, remnants, memory. So with stinging fog filling my lungs as I walk back up the road to my car, leaving warm tracks of black blood in my wake, with wind scraping through the fangs of hedge, and with the past suddenly seeming to bloom and blend with now, I think maybe how we don't simply move through time, slapped about by it, separately, with things waiting ahead and things falling behind, but time's what we're made of, and every moment's like a wound in time that scars, and—Christ, who knows?—maybe we just are time somehow, it is us, and we're a part of it, and it's a part of us, inseparably, always, forever. And nothing dies.
In my car, twenty-six minutes late, I watch Sam leave the restaurant across the road. Her body is hunched against the cold, the gusts of icy rain. Her brow looks stiff and heavy with hate. She wouldn't have ordered anything, just sat there, waited. Not even wine. She's got lip, Sam, and won't hesitate to put me right, but she likes me to order for her when we go out. I hear the echoing clip clatter of her heels across the pavement. Orange heels I've never seen before. I watch the chalky skin of her tensed up legs, imagine goosebumps on the cobbley ridge of her shin, raw with shaving, tight with cold. One hand grasps her handbag to her chest. The other is clenched into a white fist and pinned to her side. This fist looks like a tiny skull. She's wearing some kind of tight-fitting trench coat. It's orange, too: she's a shard of orange through the mist. And I imagine all the things she had planned to talk about.
She gets in a taxi that drifts past me down the road. Ghosts of mist dissolve her, every last bit. And it dissolves me, too. We'll never see each other clearly; that's just the way it is; that's just me and her. But we'll talk tonight. I'll bring up the baby issue. I'll listen. And we'll go from there.
I touch the stubble above my lip, smell dirt and fur. A tiny pain screws in my gut. But it's hunger, I think, not nerves. I know I'll never fully muzzle guilt, but now when I shut my eyes to sleep, I imagine my nerves will sort of lift and dissolve in wisps through darkness that's always somewhere clear and calm.
My fingers squeeze the ignition key, turn it, and I listen for the engine to kick.
Nathaniel Ogle was born in 1991 and grew up in Darlington, Co. Durham. He is an undergraduate at the University of Manchester in his final year. He will be studying for an MA in Creative Writing at UoM come September. One of his poems has appeared in Aviary Magazine Presents, but this is the first piece of short fiction he has published.