This extract is from a novel-length project I’m working on entitled ‘THE GREATER GOOD’. A teacher and his wife argue, and a wine bottle drops over the ledge of a bridge. They hear a smash and a grunt. When we meet them here, they are investigating what, or who, the bottle may have hit.
They shuffled down the slope hand in hand, Eugene leading, Susanna behind, both side footing through the uneven soil. About halfway down she tripped over some bracken and Eugene managed to catch her, leaning his back against the brambles of a bush. He waited for her to steady. Then she nodded, said ‘OK’.
Moments later, they appeared at a curb. Each had succumbed to the scraping foliage. Eugene’s jeans were peppered with moss and dirt, his All-Stars smeared with mud; Susanna had rides in her tights and leaves flecked through her hair.
It was a cul-de-sac Eugene didn’t recognise. He guessed they were somewhere near Crouch Hill, but couldn’t say where. A narrow road led upwards, overlooked by trees and the rear of a mansion house. Litter and detritus matter were scattered around the concrete paving, all in various stages of decomposition.
He scanned around. The light was poor, and he had to squint before his eyes accustomed. ‘Can’t see anyone,’ he said. His heart seemed to have swollen into something sharp, scraping his insides.
‘Gene,’ Susanna said from behind. ‘Maybe there’s no one here.’
She gripped his palm. He only realised how hard when he tried moving and felt her pull back with a strength that shocked him. ‘Sue?’ he said.
‘We made a mistake, Gene. It’s so dark…’
‘No. I hit someone. I saw it!’
‘Why did you have to make us walk home,’ she said.
He ignored that and tugged away, harder than he intended. Their hands tore apart and she clasped hers as if recoiling from fire. Eugene glanced at it, then her. ‘Come on,’ he said.
They found him beneath the trunk of an elm amidst a pool of shattered glass. The scent of wine cloyed the air. His face was concealed in the soil, but the grey hair and loose neck told of an elderly man. His right leg was curled under his left and his torso was twisted, making an arm flop over his hip and the fingers dangle uselessly.
Eugene hoped the viscous black sludge that coated the earth by his head was perhaps a deception of shadows or moonlight reflecting off the broken bottle. He hoped the man might gurgle and lift a hand to be hoisted up. But the longer Eugene stared at the body’s unnatural stillness, the more he knew what this was. There was an absence here that would not be filled. Silence seemed to magnify that certainty.
‘Is he…’ Susanna whispered.
‘I think so,’ Eugene said.
He probably should touch the man. Roll him over, check for a pulse, do chest compressions. Do something! But all he saw was the black blood glistening like crude oil. ‘I’m going to be sick,’ Eugene said.
He vomited three, then four wretches of sour booze and bile. When nothing more came, he looked up. Susanna was holding a hanky. She looked pale, almost chalk-like against the opaque darkness. He took the hanky, wiped his mouth, spat something lumpy out, and gulped air.
‘What do we do now, Gene?’
He was cold. Shaking. He tried to think. But he couldn’t think. All he saw was the blood.
‘We need to…’ he said, then swallowed, grimacing at the taste, ‘We need to call an ambulance.’
But neither of them went for their phones. Eugene looked at Susanna and she stared back.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she said. ‘It’s as much his fault as it is yours.’
She gestured towards the body. But Eugene didn’t want to look there.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘it’s terrible. But you’re drunk. If the police come, the ambulances, if this gets out…well, you can kiss your promotion goodbye.’
He felt himself start to tremble, his knees going weak. His thoughts seemed to condense, too close together for him to gain any perspective. ‘I can’t believe you’re talking about my stupid promotion!’
‘Think about it, Gene. They might say you were careless. Dig up that old drunk driving charge from years back. Make it look like you caused this.’
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Jesus Christ.’
Then she started to cry. Small, silent tears that left inky streaks down her cheeks.
Eugene clenched his fists, grinding his teeth until his jaw cracked. He shook his head against the pain.
She was right. Damn it, she was right. He was drunk; perhaps careless too. In the right hands, this could be spun into something malignant. The tape played out in his head. Police. Press. The looks of derision from kids and parents, the jokes and giggles behind his back. The loss of everything he worked so bloody hard for.
He grasped his hair, made fists of it, and threw his arms down, taking follicles in each palm. A hollowness was expanding inside him, the space widening with each exhalation. He closed his eyes.
As much as he tried to ignore it, a whispering alternative presented itself. What if there was a way to step away from this mess? As soon as Eugene acknowledged the possibility, there it was.
Like the flick of a light switch, a solution appeared. He opened his eyes and looked directly at Susanna, who hadn’t moved.
‘We’ll leave,’ he said. ‘No one knows we’re here. It was an accident. He’s dead. We can’t change that.’
He listened to these words, hearing them as if they came from someone else. He watched Susanna arch her head back, the movement drawing a slash of shadow across her face. Then she nodded.
Gene,’ she said, putting a hand to his cheek. ‘Gene.’
He felt something primal for her, and a burning need to protect all they had.
‘Can we do this?’ she said.
‘As long as we never tell anyone.’
‘Yes,’ she said, nodding again. ‘It’s the right thing to do.’
He took her hand and pulled them away. They began walking up the slope in the direction of traffic sounds. Just a young couple, out for an evening stroll. Dead leaves crunched under their feet. They never looked back.