THOMAS USHER HAS A TERRIBLE GIFT. Following a car crash in which his wife and daughter are killed, he can see the recently departed, and it's not usually a pretty sight. When he is called to investigate the violent death of the daughter of a prominent local gangster, Usher's world is torn apart once more. For the barriers between this world and the next are not as immutable as once he believed.
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December 28, 2010
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Excerpt from Pretty Little Dead Things: A Thomas Usher Novel by Gary McMahon
A KNOT, TIGHTENING
"Nothing at all exists which is not subject to the conditioning of death"
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I have never visited their graves...
I have never visited their graves; the grief I carry always inside me would be too much to bear, so I choose to remember them in my own way, in my own time. Not a day goes by when they are not in my thoughts. They haunt my every movement, but still I have not seen them: they have not come to me in the way that others have, asking that I bear witness to the memory of their passing or simply requesting that I usher them towards the next part of their journey...but some day, somehow, I hope that they will find their way back to my side.
Fifteen Years Ago
The Mersey is a broad black ribbon, the shimmering lights of Birkenhead promising a world of untold stories on the opposite bank - dark stories, probably told by old men in their cups and women whose skin has been bruised by careless husbands too many times to count. I stare through the passenger window, lost in thoughts of nothing in particular - just thinking, as I tend to do, about life in general: my dull job, paying the bills, the things I think I might be missing out on because I married so young and the things I gained by doing so.
The broad shape of a ferry trawls slowly across the darkened waters, seeming to heave upwards on waves that are not quite visible, as if a giant submerged hand is struggling to lift it above the busy surface of the river. Darkness then presses down on the vessel, giving the illusion that it is now sinking gradually beneath the waves. The motion is so lazy and incremental that it looks like a cartoon animation. I wonder why a ferry is crossing so late at night, and what haulage it might be carrying.
The car swerves to avoid an animal that has run into the road - a dog or a cat or perhaps even a roaming river rat - and Rebecca turns to smile at me, the delicate yellowish hue of the streetlamps at the side of the road catching her face and holding it for a moment in a wash of amber. In that instant I know that I have missed out on nothing in life, because all that I will ever need is inside the car with me. Past mistakes and misdemeanours no longer matter; what is important is how I feel right now, sitting in the dark with my wife and daughter.
"Sorry," she says. "Did I disturb you?"
I shake my head, smiling. "No. It's okay. I was just wool-gathering." I have never known exactly what that phrase means, but have always enjoyed the way it sounds. Like a snatch of crude poetry lodged in the back of my mind, or part of the verse from a folk song I might have heard as a child.
Allyson sleeps soundly in the back seat; the sudden deviation of the vehicle's path has not broken her slumber. Her breathing is even and her hands are clasped tightly in her lap. I turn around in the passenger seat and watch her, my heart breaking just a little, as it always does whenever I take a moment to realise how much my infant daughter means to me. Her small white face is the face of the world; her loosely closed eyes are windows through which I might glimpse the truth of my own existence.
"We should be home before midnight. Traffic's light." Rebecca's face is stern; she watches the road intently, on edge because of what has just happened with the animal running out in front of her. She is a skilled driver - better than me - and she resents the thought of anyone thinking otherwise. Her angry pride is one of the things I love about her.
One of the many things I love about her. There are about a million other reasons to go along with it, but that one will do for now.
The strong German beer I have consumed earlier that evening sloshes around inside the pit of my belly, making me feel bloated and uncomfortable. I need to urinate, but I do not want to ask Rebecca to stop the car and interrupt our journey home. I should have gone to the lavatory back at John and Emma's place, before we left. When I think about it, I realise that we should have stayed the night with our friends: the offer was there but I'd wanted to get home to make an early start in the morning. I am booked in to referee a football match for Ally's school team at 9 AM and hate the thought of breaking a promise even as small as this one. The scars of adulthood are sometimes caused by such tiny blades.
There was also the fact that things had grown tense as the evening wound down; John's usual gently mocking demeanour had caved in and given way to something darker and slightly more vicious as he had gone well beyond his usual lager quota. He and Emma are on the verge of splitting up; she has even asked him for a divorce. I suspect that a third party is involved somewhere along the line, but am not quite sure on whose side the weight of infidelity falls. As usual in these situations, there is no one person to blame. Something has come between them, blocking the way they used to feel about each other, and it looks like whatever it is will not budge as much as an inch.
"How much did you drink earlier?" Rebecca speaks without taking her eyes off the road.
I wonder, briefly, if she has ever been tempted to sleep with someone else. God knows, I have been attracted to other women during our marriage, but have only once acted upon it. I consider myself a good man, a loyal husband, and would rather damage my own body than harm my family. That one time was a terrible mistake I know I will never stop regretting and will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for - a shame I will always carry with me, like a leaden weight around my neck.
"Just a couple." It is not exactly a lie, and even years later I will still ask myself why, in that near-perfect moment of potential connection, I failed to tell the complete truth. If I'd admitted that I was slightly drunk, that the relatively small amount of beer I had consumed was stronger than I'd expected, then things might have turned out differently. My life might have been better. Then again, this might all be wishful thinking; some events, I have learned, are just meant to happen. Some things are meant to be taken from us, no matter how hard we try to gold on to them.
Ifs, buts and maybes: the eternal stumbling blocks to happiness.
"I'm tired." Her eyelids are drooping and her mouth twists into a yawn. "Really tired." She is blinking rapidly, which is always a sure sign that she needs a rest.
"Pull over. I'll take it from here." A sense of d?j? vu hits me then, a strange feeling that I have lived through all of this before - perhaps many times - and the last time it had turned out badly, maybe even fatal. I feel a great desire to take back what I have just said, but the sight of Rebecca's suddenly dough-white face and her eyes that are now open too-wide to try and combat sleep cause me to hold my tongue instead.
The moment passes. I actually feel it leave, like a physical presence passing over us within the confines of the car and moving on elsewhere, towards other unwitting travellers. Is fate a sentient entity? Did it touch me that night, making itself known to me? I suppose I will never know.
"It's okay. I can make it."
"No. You should rest. It's my fault we left, so it's only fair that I should drive. The beer's out of my system now. I feel wide awake. Honest."
"You sure? I don't like the idea of not knowing how much you drank. Remember, we have a daughter asleep in the back."
Lights blur past the window, but no sounds penetrate the car. I feel like we are in another world, or perhaps hurtling through a cosmic void. I have not really lied about my state of intoxication: the beer has left my system, yet I feel...odd. Detached. It is not a feeling of drunkenness, but a sense of the world spinning on its axis, of things moving too fast for anyone to stop and think. Particularly me.
"Here," I say. "Pull over here." I point at the bright service station lights, and before she has the chance to change her mind Rebecca is pulling into the entrance and stopping the car on the clean concrete forecourt, next to one of the stubby petrol pumps.
"We need fuel, anyway," she says, undoing her seatbelt.
Lights flicker outside; darkness seems to fall in layers, coating the footpaths and the verges and the squat service station buildings.
Ally sleeps on in the back of the car, her state of near-exhaustion after that evening's excitement and the hypnotic lull of the motorway conspiring to keep her under. Cold light bathes her face, making her look older than she actually is. Instead of a seven-old girl, for a brief moment I feel that I am looking at a little old lady snoring on the back seat, her small, claw-like hands making fists in her lap. The bones of her knuckles shine white for a moment as she grasps something in her dreams. I wonder briefly where my daughter has gone, and who has replaced her with this wizened little doppelganger...
The car door opens and Rebecca steps outside into the chill night air, which rushes suddenly into the car, filling it up. My ears pop from the change in pressure, as if we are travelling at high altitude instead of sitting parked at a petrol pump on a lonely motorway refuge.
"This should wake me up, actually. I can drive the rest of the way." She slams the door and walks to the back of the car, twisting off the petrol cap and slotting the nozzle of the petrol pump into the tank. She leans on the side of the car, her attention focused somewhere else, and I watch her without her knowing. I love to catch her unawares like this, when her guard is down and she looks lovelier than ever. Rebecca's beauty is purely an unconscious one: she never realises how attractive she is, and is always amazed whenever a man chooses to compliment her appearance.
She smiles, still staring into space, and I wonder exactly what crosses her mind at that particular moment. Is it something to do with me, or Ally? Or is it the memory of a joke we shared earlier in the day? Perhaps it is nothing more than the mental equivalent of breaking wind.
Just another mystery: one that I will never solve. Some secrets are best left unmolested.
Before long Rebecca replaces the nozzle in its clamp at the side of the pump and walks across the forecourt to the single-story building, fishing her purse out of her jeans back pocket. There are no other cars on the lot; no other customers stop by while we are there. The place is almost silent, and the emptiness seems eerie in a way I cannot pin down.
I get out of the car, walk around the front, past the bonnet, and climb into the driver seat. I watch through the windscreen as Rebecca pays for the petrol, enjoying her sleek profile, and smiling as she walks back towards the car, doing a silly little dance for my entertainment. Then I glance over my shoulder at Ally.
"Come on," says Rebecca, grinning as she opens the driver door and leans in, her perfume and her breath filling the space. "Get the hell out of there and let me take the wheel."
"Don't be daft, I say, grasping the steering wheel. "You take a break. I'll do the rest of the journey. Honestly, I'm completely clear-headed."
Rebecca tenses, as if she is about to say something more, then simply shrugs, slams the door, and strolls around to the passenger side. She climbs in and hands me the keys. As I take them from her, I feel her cold hand against mine, her thin fingers resting in my palm, and for some reason I cannot quite understand but which seems somehow inevitable, the sensation makes me faintly and absurdly nauseous. I can feel the bones beneath her skin.
It is only much later that I will identify that passing emotion as fear.
I head for the motorway slip road, the night sky almost as clear as day but clusters of dark clouds closing in to obscure the sublime view. Rebecca fiddles with the stereo as we descend the downward slope of the road to join the motorway, and the sound of easy-listening music fills the car. "Whoo!" says Rebecca, pressing back into her seat. "Groovy!"
Laughing, I stifle a sudden yawn. Perhaps I should have let her continue driving after all. I shake my head and work the muscles of my jaw, trying to overcome the sensation of falling.
When Billy Joel begins to sing about an Innocent Man, Rebecca closes her eyes and starts to sway her head to the music. Joel is one of her favourites; she has all his albums at home, and never sickens of playing them. I will burn them all a year to the day after that night; even now, the sound of the singer's voice as he hits a high note is enough to make me weep with loss.
I fight to remain focused on the road ahead, but the unusual lack of traffic and my overactive brain make it difficult to focus. I think now that if there had been more cars on the road it might have been easier to keep my act together: I would have been forced to concentrate.
The music lulls me; my eyes begin to feel heavy and the road ahead blurs and blends to form an endless swirling ocean of grey. The lights far ahead and on either side of the car turn to watery streaks of illumination, and what few other vehicles there are present on the road recede, swallowed up by distance and the burgeoning weight of something soft and heavy that is pulling me down, down, down...
We enter a narrow aisle formed by traffic cones, where the two lanes are forced into a single passage because of some mysterious unseen roadworks. The cones flash past. My vision flares.
In that moment I fail completely to see the other car speeding towards us along the left-hand lane, its extinguished headlights and radiator grille looming like the eyes and jaws of some giant mythical beast, like a dragon. Perhaps if I'd seen it earlier I could have turned the wheel to avoid the collision, but the dull red Ford Sierra just ploughs on, its dusty (how on earth can I pick out such a minor detail while so much else remains out of reach?) front bumper and number plate growing larger and more terrifying in the windscreen.
Terror bears down on me, coming towards me faster than I could ever have expected.
When at last I truly notice that something is wrong about the way the car is racing towards us on the wrong side of the road, the moment has long passed for action and I simply brace myself for impact, throwing one arm out instinctively to protect my wife.
Rebecca has her eyes closed, lost in the simple pleasure of a good song; Billy Joel's bruised voice is fading to make way for the next tune; Ally - thank God - still sleeps in silence in the back, so she is completely unaware of what happens next.
But I am aware of it. All of it: every hellish second.