I’m trapped on the edge of town, a place where my days and nights are bound by predictable rhythms. I stand behind the bar as the hours pass, looking for meaning in the growing damp on the ceiling, the sodden fabric of the runners, the scratched and chipped surface of the wood. Feeling truths in the closeness of my tights, the aching of my feet. I stay until close and walk home on my own through the dark country night.
The road between town and village is like a border between two nonentities, a place of nothingness. There are no streetlights, and although there are signs stating the speed limit nobody pays any attention to them. It’s a sinewy, thin road, tethering the green mundanity of the village to the grey mundanity of the town. Most of the regulars will drive home after a few pints and some will drive home after more than that. In the darkness, I listen for the low growls of an engine and wait for the buttery suffusion of headlights.
Walking back after closing, I leave my headphones tangled in my pocket. Animals rustle in the hedges that line the narrow pavement. Every time I jump and, immediately after my heart has settled, hate myself for being so twitchy. Hate the world for justifying why I behave this way.
In the bright of the afternoons, when I’m walking to work, the speeding cars carry only vague glints of threat. The pavement runs on one side of the road and whenever I walk to the pub I’m forced to walk into the traffic, facing down the glass mirrors of the windscreens and the winking metal of the bumpers. When I walk back, the near-side traffic comes from behind, like it’s following me home. The HGVs conjure whirlwinds of fine dust, stirring it into the hot air. As they pass, I close my eyes and mouth and press myself right up against the hedge, as if that would make a difference.
This afternoon the road was busy, the sun high. Cars were strung out at intervals, their presence encroaching on the universe of my thoughts. The passing roars, locals conducting their smalltown business and tourists just passing through, drowned out the music in my ears.
At the bend, not far from the pub, something caught me, something different. It was tucked against the curb – an animal, of sorts. At first glance it seemed to be taking shelter beside the raised pavement, like a windbreak. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, until I got closer; with each step it resembled less an animal and more a knotted rag, something dirty and tangled and inorganic. It had been a fox, once, before a car hit it. Hollowed it out. I looked away and tried not to think about it too much, and when I passed the twisted dishcloth of fur, I quickened my pace.
On a clear night, walking back through the village, you can see more stars than anyone would ever need. I swear they throb sometimes, the way a wound throbs when blood passes through it. When I catch them pulsing it’s like they contain more energy than they can possibly keep bounded, and this knowledge only fuels my escapist impulses. I asked Mum the other day if she would go, if – in a hypothetical future – they were looking for human colonists to send to Mars.
‘Would I get to come back?’ was her first question.
‘No. It’s a one-way thing.’
‘I’d stay then,’ she said. She sprayed a blast of cleaning fluid on a cloth, the smell rising like vomit in my throat. ‘I’d want to be here with you.’
‘But I’d be gone. I’d be on the ship.’
‘Oh,’ she said. Then, ‘Can you pick up some more washing-up liquid if you’re going out?’
One of the drinkers was an old woman known to be something of a ghoul, a connoisseur of misery. She trafficked principally in bleak gossip concerning people known to the regulars: both inhabitants of the village and those who lived in the town, as I did. She was forever trading stories of rural destitution, this woman: tales of girls who had gone missing years before and turned up in lakes or ditches or worse. She told of fullmoon nights when antlers tore through windscreens like fingers through tissue paper. Of the men who made hunting grounds of the fields which besieged us on all sides.
She stood now at the window, white wine warming through the glass against her palms, and watched the cars tearing down the road outside. She tutted and shook her head.
‘One day – one day soon – someone is going to get killed on that road.’
I looked up from the tray of glasses I was supposed to be washing. My phone glowed white on the shelf beneath the bar, where the punters couldn’t see it. Not that there were many punters in.
‘You reckon?’ I asked.
‘I’d put money on it. People round here drive like idiots.’
It was quiet. The barrels had been changed. There was no football on so the TV was still and black. Only a couple of tables in the restaurant were occupied – the last, lingering dregs of what had been a busy dinner service. My trousers were stale with dishwater and my hands smelled like things I had been glad to see disappear down the plughole. I kept thinking about the fox by the roadside but there was nothing for me to say.
Walking back that night, under the watch of the stars, I felt a rising sense of dread and the kind of sickly excitement you get before a date. I could still picture the fox as it had been earlier, curled up against the pavement like a discarded hand puppet. A car came from behind and lit the road and the pavement before me, lit the silhouette of the hedge which had looked so much like something else but was, of course, just the splintered end of a branch.
I considered looking away but I wasn’t strong enough to resist the morbid lure of the roadside. I thought I was at the place where the fox had been, just past the green husk of the bus shelter, but now I couldn’t see it. There were no flattened legs, no burst stomach. Another car came to illuminate the scene and I saw for certain that it wasn’t there. It had gone. And yet I knew I was in the right spot because of the hints of ginger fur sticky against the road, the slight discolouration evident even in the fleeting headlights.
There was a rustling from the bush and I quickened my pace. My house key was growing warm between my fingers. It was a clear night and I wanted to stop and properly take in the stars, like torchlit punctures in the black canvas of the sky, but I needed to be getting home.
George Harrison is a writer based in Norwich. He is the co-author of Inside Allenwood, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in an American prison. He is currently working as an editor and ghostwriter while seeking a publisher for his debut novel. His fiction has appeared in The Lit and on the longlist of the Reflex Press flash fiction competition. He tweets at @George_Haz.