By Dan Soule
Hunched forward, Judy gripped the wheel, fighting sleep. The driver’s heated seat had been broken ever since she’d got the car. Sweat sheened on her forehead and dripped down her lower back. The heat was stifling and soporific, smothering her consciousness. She pinched her cheek hard, wincing and leaving red finger marks on her sweaty flesh. It needed to hurt. Better that than crash. Although, maybe crashing wouldn’t be so bad. Let her foot press hard on the accelerator. The old maroon Jaguar’s v12 could still purr into life when it wanted. Unbuckle the seat belt. Hit eighty miles per hour and then a tree. Maybe, but if she could get through today it would be over. She’d be free.
This time it would work. The buyer sounded eager on the phone, wanting to know about the engine and service history. That had convinced her he was genuine. This one would buy it for sure. But what kind of person wants to buy a car like this? Someone, who’s getting a cheap deal, she hoped. That’s if the car lets you sell it. Judy’s grip tightened on the wheel.
This time it wouldn’t go wrong. The car wouldn’t inexplicably stall. The bonnet will open when a buyer wants to look under the hood. It wouldn’t spring an oil leak only to clear up once the would-be buyer had driven off, leaving Judy alone in a supermarket carpark to make a quick escape in case someone recognized her. And she wouldn’t have to flee when a timewaster wanted to take selfies with her, while the car lurked in the background. This one sounded too old to know what a selfie was.
The only saving grace of the car, as far as Judy was concerned, was that it never seemed to need fuel. The car had a full tank when she inherited it. Inherited: interesting choice of words, she told herself. Does picking the car up from the police pound after it had been released from their investigation count as inheriting? She’d driven it all over the Midlands in the last four weeks trying to get rid of it. Not once had she needed to pull over and fill up. Of course, only now she was in the back-arse-of-nowhere, going to meet a stranger at his God-knows-where-farm, the tank was running low, seriously low. It might not even get them there.
The old Jaguar had been cruising along the A69, farmland rolling away from the edge of the road. Signs for Carlisle had drifted by them occasionally on the roadside, counting down. Perhaps Judy would get to rest there after this was all over. The buyer said he’d drop her at the services there. Mum would come and pick her up, if she hadn’t already used her trazodone prescription as a gin mixer. Carlisle stopped coming closer, when Judy and the Jag turned off at Halwhistle, creeping down Plenmeller Road, and then onto quieter country lanes. The kind of lanes her dad would take her down when she was little. He’d pop her in the back of the Jag, and they’d take long drives as if her father was looking for something. They never seemed to find it, whatever it was. Her father would feed tapes of Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers into the cassette player on those endless summer trips. Occasionally, they’d slow down near a house or an old barn or stop on a nowhere road under a horse chestnut tree. Judy would pick up the conkers, marvelling at the lustre of their oily brown skins. Her father would smoke cigarettes, always stubbing the butt out in the car’s ashtray, never flicking them on the ground. When the sun began to set, they’d head home, no more ambling. He’d turn on the seat warmers and Judy would fall asleep in a cradle of warm leather and cigarette smoke.
Now, the leaves were falling from the trees. Autumn chilled the air, steaming up the windscreen at the corners, the huff of the fan no longer strong enough to keep it clear. Staring through the fogging glass, Judy felt a great distance from those summertime memories of childhood. The car had kept the smell of cigarette smoke, as if the essence of her father impregnated it, as if the car was as much him as he was it. It was impossible to separate the two in her mind, like the faded photograph of him leaning on the bonnet when he first bought the car before Judy was born. He had longer hair then, a young man grinning with his arms folded like he was in a Saturday episode of The Sweeney. Her mother had burnt that picture along with all the others, and then locked the doors, closed the curtains and set up an indefinite tab with their doctor for a cocktail of SSRIs and benzodiazepines.
But hadn’t he played with Judy? Didn’t he turned those conkers into killing machines, threading them with string after performing an alchemy of vinegar and baking? Those horse chestnuts would transmute into stones, and Judy would destroy the other kid’s conkers in showers of white flesh. And hadn’t she bounced on his knee, and he’d given her money for the cinema when she was a teenager, and brought her Cosmopolitan and Vogue at the start of the month? Hadn’t he? Those memories and a thousand others were real, weren’t they?
Are those questions or pleas? Judy wiped her brow and pinched her cheek again, trying to shake off sleep along with those thoughts – both felt as though they were sloshing into each other. The pinching was losing its effect.
Where am I?
Houses and farms had disappeared from the road side, replaced by hedgerows growing thorny with autumn breezes biting into the decaying flesh of summer leaves. Trees, wrapped in their winter coats of ivy, bowed penitently over the narrow road, fracturing the failing light into blades of red and copper. Hunting for their buyer, Judy and the car twisted and turned with the asphalt, rough and bumpy with age. Some thirty minutes ago, after the last village, the satnav had lost its signal. The blue dot of their position had long since drifted from the glowing screen, which now showed only a bland green representation of fields.
It must be around here, Judy hoped through heavy-lidded eyes. The heated leather seat cuddled her tired body. Judy’s head bobbed in the twilight of consciousness. She fought it as a child might fight becoming their father, fearing the inevitable.
The binging fuel gauge woke Judy, that and an awareness of footfalls on gravel, crunching slowly closer. Coming up sharply from her slumped position, Judy’s hands lurched for the steering wheel. Her eyes darted to get her bearings. Expecting a tree or country gate to be hurtling towards her, her heart pounded, and her body tensed for impact. But she was stationary. The car had come to a halt, out of fuel and was parked at an angle, partially turned into the wide entrance to a down-at-heel-farm. As if suffering from a disease, whitewash flaked in desiccated scabs from the farm buildings.
Wiping drool from her mouth, Judy looked around. The stifling warmth from the car’s heated seats had gone, replaced by the chill of twilight. She shivered, gripping the wheel again as hard as she could, trying to anchor to something real and substantial, not memories, not dreams or nightmares.
A knock at the driver’s window caused Judy to jump and audibly squeak. In those first few moments of wakefulness, the face looked maniacal and leering, an almost comically fake mask. It pulled away and a pair of hands, dirty from hard work, came up in a plaintiff gesture. Flushing red, Judy forced a smile. Her squeak now felt childish, as she fumbled for the button to rolled down the car window.
“Judy, is it?”
She had to fight the feeling of shock again. “Yes, yes, it is. But…”
“I was about to come looking for you when you parked up. Thought you’d got lost. Expected you over an hour ago. Bloody satnavs never work around here.”
“That’s right. Who else would I be, love. But call me Terry, everybody does.”
Judy got out and he offered her a dirty hand, rough from manual labour, although he shook delicately with only the fingers as if shaking hands with royalty. Judy tried to take in her surroundings. Lucky. They must have got here right when Judy dozed off. This must be the same road, and the sun was probably that low too, she told herself. Either way it was peaceful and secluded. Fields upon fields, laced together with hedges and knots of trees, not another farm or house for miles around.
“She’s a beauty,” Terry said finally, wiping his hands on a dirty rag. “And your daddy drove it all the time, did he?”
“Yes, I’ve all the service records, receipts…”
Terry had already got in the driver’s seat, not waiting to be invited.
“Yes,” he said rubbing his hands up and down the walnut steering wheel. He looked under the sun-guards and opened the glove compartment and ran his hand over the wooden dash and plastic mouldings. Breathing deeply, Terry closed his eyes, a smile of contentment growing through dirty stubble. “Do you smoke?” his eyes opened, the smile vanishing.
“No, I don’t. That was my dad. I tried to get ri…”
“…Oh, brilliant.” The smile returned bigger, but not brighter. It showed Terry’s yellowing teeth, the front two streaked brown with tobacco. “What was his brand?”
Judy hesitated. “B and H.” Her dad was never without the gold packets.
Terry cupped his chin, the thumb of the other hand gently circling the wood on the wheel. “Not my brand.”
“What do you smoke?” It felt like a stupid question. Judy didn’t give a crap what he smoked. She hadn’t thought she’d need to bone up on it to sell this albatross.
“What do you smoke?” The question felt doubly stupid a second time.
Terry looked confused and annoyed. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I’m sorry,” Judy took a half step backwards, “you asked what my dad smoked, so…”
“Oh, I see.” Terry looked the girl up and down. “It doesn’t matter. I thought he might smoke the same as me, was all.”
“Oh,” Oh, fucking oh, that is all you can say, Judy. For Christ’s sake why does he want to know about your dad’s tobacco preferences? Judy looked down the country lane. It dissolved into shadows, and those shadows were stalking closer and closer, eating away the last of the day’s light.
Terry pulled himself out of the car with the grunt of a man with only one foot in middle age and wiped his hands again on the dirty rag. He rubbed his chin taking in the car.
Here comes the haggle.
“I’ll take it. Four-grand wasn’t it?”
“Yes, thanks,” Judy sighed in relief. It was over. Finally, it was all over.
“Pull her into the yard. I’ll get you a cheque.”
Judy’s heart fell. “Cash only… I said on the phone.”
“Of course, you did, love. I forgot. No problem. Follow me.” He was already through the gate.
“Sorry, Mr Tull, but I ran out of fuel completely.”
Terry stopped on his heels, his shoulders rising. He turned and walked briskly up to Judy. She thought he was going to bump into her and knock her off her feet. Judy was preparing to step back when he stopped inches from her toes. A big yellow smile oozed across his face when he grabbed her upper arm, saying “And I’m so glad you made all the effort to get it to me.” His grip was soft. “I’ll sort it. You get in the car.” He was guiding Judy to the open driver’s door. “Put it in neutral and let off the brake. I’ll push it up to the barn; you steer.” Terry released her arm. Judy began to get in, but as her foot left the ground and her hands reached for the car, she felt a push between the shoulders. The door and the ground swept by her hands and feet. She fell hard, face first onto the metal door frame of the Jag. The warm blood spread quickly, dripping between her eyes onto the maroon paint work, barely noticeable. Groping for the floor, Judy propped herself up, saying of all things, “Sorry.”
A hand ensnared her ponytail, jarring back her head. Only briefly Judy saw the face of Terry, not angry nor happy nor ecstatic nor any other emotion, but impassive. She had a fleeting feeling of seeing him for the first time, the mask having fallen away. He tilted his head and rubbed his chin calculating, before slamming down her skull onto the door frame.
A spike of pain impaled itself through Judy from between her eyes to the back of her skull. Even with her eyes shut, the solid world around her undulated in nauseating waves, unfixing her from the solidity of her surroundings. She remembered talking to a man… Terry? She felt, rather than remembered, something uncanny. She was? … selling the car. God, my head! And? … Something warm ran down the side of her face, pooling in her eye socket, thick and slippery like oil. And then Judy could taste the coppery tang of blood in her mouth. Her limbs wouldn’t move as she wanted. There was a delay to the signals her brain was trying to send. And this attempted movement provoked something else.
A slap stung across her cheek, from a rough hand whipping her head to the side. A slap wet with blood. Judy moaned not so much in pain but as an incoherent retort, that might have been “stop” or “don’t do that” or, just as likely, “sorry,” but came out merely as a mumbled groan.
Judy’s legs were pinned beneath a weight, and she tried hard to open her eyes, turning her head back towards what the most animal part of her brain instinctively told her was up. Groping for context, for anything, Judy raised her hands, and they were batted to the side and pinned along with her legs.
A tugging at her jeans. The button releasing. A pulling. Oh God, here it was. How could she have been so stupid, coming here all alone? She was surprised at the coherence of this thought, coherence she would soon wish she didn’t have.
The coldness of metal touched her belly, causing her skin to gooseflesh.
Light finally cracked between her eyelids, a failing light of late dusk, made Stygian with blood and tears, so that all she could make out was a blurred shadow breathing steadily above her. Other sensations informed Judy of her new world. She was lying on a soft bed of worn leather. The smell of cigarettes perfumed the air; the seat was warm and comforting. This world didn’t seem so new. She could have been a child again, dozing off in the back of her father’s car after a long drive in the country. Sleep, that sounded like a good idea, Judy told herself. Finally, you’ll get to sleep, and it will be over. Judy’s head whirled between poles. The pain in her head; the comfort of old memories; soft leather and the smell of tobacco; blood in her eyes, steel on her belly; a weight on her legs. None of it made sense. Think. But the thinking was accompanied by sounds churning discordantly, and memories that dissolved into sour granules, spilled and scattered across the hinterland of consciousness. She groped in those churning fragments for something to hold onto, anything that would be solid and make sense. And out of it drove her father’s old Jag, maroon and solid. Dad sat on the bonnet, arms folded, smiling, until a flame licked the corner of the photograph, flaring orange and white. The face of the man she had loved and everything she thought she knew burnt to ash, scattering to nothing.
Remembering, she opened her eyes wide, gasping for air, her legs and arms still restrained.
Mr Tull straddled her thighs, both of her wrists gripped in one strong hand that felt as though it could crush her wrists if it wanted. He looked down on her with that blank face, a knife in his free hand, which he traced across the lower part of her belly below her navel. He had the look of a man seriously considering something. If he could have, he may have put his hand to his chin, but even without it he had made his decision. His grip firmed on the blade’s handle. The point pressed into the side of Judy’s belly, as though he was going to slide the blade into the hilt and then run it from one side of her pelvis to the other and scoop out whatever he found there. Her belly yielded to the pressure, forming a delicate gully beneath the point. She wanted to struggle, but she could feel any resistance would push her abdomen up impaling herself against the point of the knife. The blade’s pressure continued down, pushing further and further, slowly and surely. Her skin began to peel aside against the sharpened edges of the old rusty slaughterman’s knife.
Mr Tull savoured the first trickle of blood his blade drew, holding on, not wanting to rush his penetration, not wanting to deflower his maiden too quickly. She was so special. Slow and gentle would be his way, at first at least. Where it would end he didn’t yet know, an exquisite frenzy perhaps. She was his first, and he’d be her first and last. The one and only. Deeper, he thought, deeper, but his hand stopped. He tried to push down on the knife but couldn’t. His wrist was trapped. How? How had the seat belt got tied around his wrist? He freed Judy’s hands so that he could try to untangle his own. As he fumbled with the binding it grew tighter. He grunted with pain when it bit hard, burning his skin with the friction.
Blinking away the blood didn’t help so Judy wiped her eyes and wished she hadn’t. Mr Tull, struggling with his wrist, dropped the knife, which bounced under the front passenger seat. Rearing up in the shape of a striking snake over his shoulder loomed another seat belt. It seized him around the neck, coiling serpentine and constricting the farmers cries. Now he pulled at his neck, his face turning puce. The two belts pulled taught, stretching Tull’s arm in one direction, his neck in the other, raising his body up to the roof of the car with a zipping noise. He hung there for a moment, as if crucified, struggling and kicking in protest to his fate and this punishment. A flailing foot caught Judy on the temple and consciousness began to leave her once more.
Before her eyes closed and the warmth of the back seat could cuddle her to sleep, Judy saw a blurred image of Mr Tull disappearing in to the front of the car, dragged or propelled head long into the passenger seat. Her eyes heavy and falling, there was a crunch and a harrowing scream. A fountain of blood, hot and thick, sprayed the roof of the car, the dash-board, the leather interior, Judy, everything. There was the noise of a struggling animal caught fatally in a trap. Or was that the muffled sound of nightmares coming from the dark places behind the eyes and under wakefulness? Judy couldn’t tell, she was asleep, dreaming of conkers and driving with her father in his pride and joy, the car he could never seem to be without. They were dreams of happy lies that might transmute into other things as sleep deepened.
Judy’s dad kissed her forehead. She smelt the cigarettes off his breath and the tickle of the moustache he had when she was a little girl. Blurred in a halo of morning light, his face was in silhouette. Blinking, the world came into focus and the apparition faded back into Judy’s mind. Despite her aches and pains, she felt well rested for the first time in too long. Her head pounded a little, but it was tolerable. Looking down puzzled, Judy traced a finger over the thin wound on her belly. The taught flesh of her stomach had peeled away a few millimetres, but a thin white line of fat was visible.
Stretching, breathing in the leather and smoke, Judy sat up. Suddenly, her dreams felt incongruous. They had been a confusing mix of images that did not belong together. The more Judy tried to bring them into her mind, the more they faded, like the image of her father or the memory of his good name. Stepping out of the car, the morning was fresh. The air had the feeling of being washed clean after a thunderstorm. A pressure lifted. A balance restored.
Her father’s Jag… her Jag, sat parked in the entrance to a scabby looking farm. Memories, with the feel of impossible dreams, played vague and frightening in Judy’s mind. She urgently opened the back door of the car again and looked inside, first at where she had slept and then the rest of the interior. There was no blood. Looking in the front, between the seats, there was nothing. It was as spotless and valeted as she had made it for selling. The cut on her belly throbbed mnemonically. Judy looked under the driver’s seat, then the passenger’s, and there she found it: an old knife, with a sharpened, rusty blade. Her heart quickened, knuckles turning white, gripping the knife’s handle.
A breeze rustled leaves from their bows, and the songbirds of autumn sang their dawn chorus. Behind the car, the farm looked necrotic and quiet. The knife glinted dully in the dawn, drawing Judy’s attention. She expected her hands to be covered in blood. They were not. She was not. Her eyes searched the car, it’s back seat, the place where Mr Tull had stood talking to her, the front seat where he had… Quickly Judy wiped the knife on her t-shirt, careful to avoid any of the blood staining her clothing. She found a dock leaf to hold the blade so that she could clean the handle. Then wrapping the leaf around the handle, Judy threw the blade into the long grass sprouting from a ditch at the base of a hedge.
The car door slammed behind Judy. A shaking hand found the key still in the ignition and she wanted to cry. The Jag was out of fuel she remembered. She would be going nowhere. Maybe she could get some fuel from the farm? Maybe she could walk? Maybe she was going mad? Everything felt like risks. Judy turned the key merely to confirm her predicament.
The lights on the dash flashed on: oil, engine, battery. The needle of the fuel gauge, lying on empty rose from its resting pin, past the first notch, on to a quarter full, half full, three-quarters full and all the way to the top. It’s an old car it must be faulty, she thought turning the key fully, knowing her doubts would be substantiated. The v12 engine purred to life. Her seat warmed. Putting the car in reverse, Judy pulled out slowly onto the country road. She checked her mirror and the road ahead. All was clear, nothing was in her way. Pressing the accelerator pedal, the Jag gave a satisfied roar and Judy drove her inheritance off into the English countryside.
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