WordFactory Logo

By-Stander

by Alex Reece Abbott

The day was dusking when they returned from a cheap Cracow city-break which hadn’t gone to plan from the start.

After a delayed flight — and several missed connections — for once, they were relieved to be coming home, rather than wishing they’d stayed away longer. To top it all, a tight-faced policewoman was insisting that they had to queue with everyone else because the main road near their house was closed.

Val applied her negotiating skills, and finally Officer Jobsworth saw sense and let them cross the iron bridge.

As they turned into their avenue, they passed an ambulance and several police cars angled across the road.

Tim pulled up outside their house. “Welcome back. Like a scene from a bloody cop show.”

The night vibrated with the muffled duh-duh-duh of a low cruising helicopter, scanning back and forth, piercing the houses and back gardens with its laser searchlight. They speculated about what had happened. Overhead surveillance was a bad sign. In the end, they opted for an interrupted robbery as the probable crime.

Edgy, they unloaded the car, following a routine they’d silently established years before. No fugitives were flushed out of the maze of snickleways that surrounded
their place.

Nothing happened.

While they were unpacking, the curry house called to say their delivery car couldn’t reach them. Tim went to meet the balti man by the bridge, while Val got started on
the laundry.

She made a pot of tea and turned on the news. More recycled, superficial stories of overseas wars, and factions arguing over who should lead the country. Nothing local. Still, her instincts told her something serious had happened just a block away, and she came to believe someone had died that night.

“Car accident,” said Tim, doling out their pilau rice.

It outdid anything they’d dreamt up. Two streets from their house, a boy –tennish – had been on a crossing – or, crossing the road – when a hurtling blue Transit van ran him over.

Part of her thought well… these things happen – and even, was he really using the crossing? She was sorry, but she didn’t know the boy or his family. Not so much as his name at that stage, although she could describe the van that killed him fairly accurately.

The next morning, Tim announced that he’d seen it on the breakfast news.

It turned out that after they’d hit the boy, this gang of five men had stopped to check the damage to the van.

Then the gang took off, leaving the boy dying on the road, no match for a speeding commercial vehicle. Fleeing the scene the police called it, as if it were the act of charming, Victorian villains. It troubled her, the cowardice of running away. This gang clearly lacked any common humanity.

She doubted they were a gang, because the leader would’ve got them to come up with a co-ordinated story, to act together. Any gang worth its salt wouldn’t run like rats, scattering in all directions.

“Won’t be locals.” Tim flicked through his red-top.

Val nodded. “Could be tourists, just visiting.”

“Overstayers, I bet. Gang-masters love those vans.” Tim sniffed.

“Bloody Brexit.”

Frame-by-frame, she kept seeing that boy sailing through the air in a
graceful arc, carried forward by the impact until he hit the ground with
a dull, bone-crunching thud, his body strewn on the tarmac, limp as a
discarded ragdoll.

Of course, she wasn’t seeing that boy, it was fragments of a younger boy’s story, an impulsive boy she’d seen a long time ago, in another country. A boy chasing his football onto the road, not noticing the white station-wagon coming around the corner, the station-wagon she’d already clocked in dreamy, slow motion. The station-wagon that would send him flying.

Strange. She hadn’t thought about him for years.

“Remember that boy with the football, I told you…”

Tim glanced over his tabloid fortress. “No.”

That was the difference. Her, having seen it with her own eyes, while this accident was a bit of bother to Tim – only another local crime story. The whole thing made her uneasy. The boy. The van men. Her reaction. His reaction.

“Thought I saw a blue van on my way to work the other morning.” He banged his mug of tea down on the kitchen table. “Parked illegally. Loads of damage at the front end. Glad I’m not paying for those repairs.”

“You’d better phone the police about it,” said Val.

He sniffed. “I’ll leave it a few days. See what they find.”

“Why not speak up now? It won’t cost you anything – and they need all the information they can get. And, the police might find them quicker if you help them trace the van.”

He sucked his teeth. “I haven’t heard them asking for more information — ”

“ — It’s what they meant.”

“Did they?” Arms folded, he rolled his eyes. “What you took them to mean.

They’ve probably found the men already.”

“Or not,” she said, not liking his logic. At all. “Think of all those police resources. And, the chances of finding those men are better sooner rather than later.”

She didn’t know where that came from; she’d never even seen Crimewatch.

He smiled in his intransigent way, and she knew he wouldn’t contact them.

Not that day.

Not ever.

“It’s your conscience.” Self-righteous, but she couldn’t think what else to say to him.

Details leaked out. The boy’s picture was in the local paper. Same age as her brother’s son, the same in-between look – confident and shy, cheeky and polite, a boy and a young man. White blonde.

“My money’s on Polish,” said Tim, switching on the television.

Val chewed her cheek. “You might as well say something to the police, instead of being another silent by-stander.”

He was strangling the remote control, knuckles white.

“What have you got to lose? One phone call.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I’m not saying you should be one of those have-a-go-heroes and put your life at risk, but you might help them catch those killers. What can I do? I haven’t seen the damn van.”

The police made appeals on the news for witnesses and any information, however small. It was as if they’d never discussed him going forward, thought Val, watching him listen. As if it wasn’t even happening on their patch. After that, it was a slow, almost imperceptible merging – him, his inertia and the
van men – until they became one and the same, welded by their inaction.

She considered raising it again, but knowing him, anything he called pressure would only make him stick even further.

Every day, more information seeped out as reporters found fresh angles, keeping the story alive. The coroner said the boy was carried down the road some way – very vague. Hit and run sounded clean and clinical, like the boy she’d seen gracefully sailing through the air. Not for this boy, no.
In his last seconds, they took him with them, bouncing and bruising, skinning him alive against the tarmac. She wasn’t religious, but she hoped to God that boy was unconscious.

It was the way he’d been mown down. And, it was those men taking flight, knowing full well what they’d done.

“How can anybody run away after hitting someone? Even if they were in shock.”

He shrugged. “Probably illegals. Or, already known to the police. Or, high on something…anyway, you can’t believe everything you hear on the news.”

And she heard the van hitting the boy, entangling him, dragging him along as if he were a piece of debris. Didn’t they notice he was caught under their wheels? Didn’t they care? Then, to stop – right in the middle of the road – and get out, take a look – then leave that boy. Dying. The questions kept coming at her until she wondered about everything… and everyone.

Holidays and freedom. Angels and gods. That’s flight, she thought.

A beautiful thing. Medea and her chariot pulled across the sky by fiery dragons.

And, the silent, soaring flight of eagles…a Persian King was carried all the way to China by eagles. What about Maui, the Maori god who transformed into a hawk, then flew in search of fire? Superman and Peter Pan. And, that myth – although HG Wells said it was based on fact – the great inventor Daedalus, and his boy who’d refused to follow his instructions on how to fly. Icarus RIP.

She clipped the boy’s photo from the newspaper, and wondered if he’d been another disobedient son.

They didn’t discuss anything of any significance again, although Val did ask Tim one last time whether he’d phoned.

“You know, about the police and that van…”

“I’ll wait. See what happens,” he said.

She couldn’t help herself. It was probably the exact opposite of what she should say. “You’re getting more and more like your mother.”

“Well, I definitely won’t phone them now,” he said.

A few weeks later, when she was in town, she bumped into an old friend from teaching.

“That boy’s sister was in my class.” Anne clicked her tongue. “The kids were coming back from the movies when it happened. She held her brother in her arms, right there in the middle of the road, while he died. Twelve years old that girl is.”

“Polish?” said Val.

Anne frowned. “Round Newcastle way, I think. Maybe somebody will come forward and help them catch the bastards.”

Val stared at Anne’s shoulder bag. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you.”

She didn’t bother with the rest of her shopping. Instead, she visited the scene she’d been avoiding since the night it happened. The crime scene.

A group of young girls were huddled around a makeshift shrine by the crossing. The lamp-post was smothered with battered bouquets and smeared, hand-written messages. She could hardly see the concrete.

Someone had taped a wingless, silver foil angel to the post by a long string.

Pumped full of helium, she jerked and twisted in the breeze, as if she was trying to free herself from her mooring and escape into the gunmetal sky.

Val wanted to ask the girls if they’d heard any news of the boy, and to tell them she was sorry about those cowards who’d fled. To know whether any witnesses had come forward. And, if they’d found the men who’d killed the boy. But the crying girls were arm-in-arm, in an exclusive scrum of support.

She tried to make sense of what had happened to the boy, re-arranging the fragments of information until an ugly, unfinished mosaic formed in her mind.

By then, she didn’t see any point in telling Tim. Yes, she wanted to make him stop driving past the scene, to make him see the tatty flowers on the lamp-post, and notice the grounded angel… anything to propel him into telling the police he’d probably seen the van. She knew that nothing would make him change his mind.

The rattle of his key in the front-door made her uneasy. His voice grated; his bristles in the wash-basin in the morning annoyed; he stirred his tea and it chafed. The jokes he couldn’t finish; his selective memory. All the things he didn’t do. His helpless dither when it was his turn to cook dinner, staring into the fridge as though aliens had stocked it with a weird combination of arbitrary ingredients that lacked any culinary potential.

The way he’d wait, hoping someone else would fix it.

She knew how it went, the general trajectory anyway, so there was no big break up; more a slow, glacial drift. One evening, while he was out at his Lions meeting, she packed up and did a flit.

Before she crossed the iron bridge, she visited the scruffy, weather-beaten shrine one last time. She cut the angel’s string with her pen-knife and released her, sending her bobbing and swaying into that dark night.

Then she left the flying boy, and all the dead and broken things behind her. As far as you ever can.