By Louise Wilford
It’s happened again.
I should’ve been at school but I’d still got a black eye and a limp and mam says I don’t need to go back till I look normal again. She was at work and I was hobbling down Ochre Dyke to me nan’s, cos it gets so boring at home on my own. It was one of those sharp autumn days, and my hoppity footsteps seemed to echo, particularly when the path went through the subway. There was no one about on the estate. All I could hear were a few birds and the little kids at St Mary’s out on their afternoon break.
Then it went silent — no birds, no kids — and suddenly I heard it, just like before — an ear-splitting bang, like a car backfiring or a door slamming, but as if it was right behind me, close to my ear.
I jumped and spun round, hurting my bad ankle, but there was nothing there — just the long asphalt path stretching back towards our house, scabby green verges rising up on either side, and a row of council houses on the left. I stared round, trembling, feeling self-conscious, but there was nothing, just the grey mouth of the concrete tunnel behind me, Ochre Dyke Walk sprouting a couple of extra paths up to the road just before it continued on under the bridge. I suddenly remembered how, when I was little, we used to walk along the outside of the safety rail on the bridge parapet, clinging to the metal railings. My friend Tracy slipped off once but luckily she just fell a few feet onto the grassy embankment near the old conker tree. I don’t know why this came into my head.
And then I felt it, a sharp prod in the front of my shoulder, as if someone was pushing me. But there was no one there.
That’s when I lost my nerve, stumbled backwards, turned and ran, ignoring the pain in my foot, till I reached nan’s house. She asked why I was so sweaty, but I just said I’d been running to test my leg. They already think I’m crackers: after I tripped in the yard and hurt my foot and bashed my forehead on the paving slabs, mam got it in her head that I had some mental illness! She even asked the doctor in A&E: ‘Do you think she might be schizophrenic?’! The doctor started laughing as if she thought mam was making a joke, but she stopped double-quick when she saw mam’s expression. I was squirming on the plastic chair, dead embarrassed.
‘What makes you think that, Mrs Salt?’ asked the doc.
‘Well, she’s allus doin’ daft things, droppin’ stuff, walkin’ into things, fallin’ over. I’m sure they think I’m hurtin’ her, up at that school.’
‘She’s just a teenager, Mrs Salt. Puberty makes people clumsy. She’ll grow out of it’.
But I didn’t tell her why I was running through the garden in the first place, did I? That I’d heard this loud bang, right behind me, and I’d been scared stiff. And when I ran through the yard, I felt like someone had pushed me from behind, a hand between my shoulder blades, knocking me down, so that I lurched forward and skidded across the uneven paving slabs mam calls the patio. My head bounced off the floor. I had a lump the size of an egg and a jagged cut above my eye, and a day or so later the skin round my eye went deep purple and puffed up. But it was my ankle that really hurt. I was lucky I didn’t break it, mam said. ‘What were you doin’, Marie, you daft bugger, running about in the garden in the dark?’ But I couldn’t tell her, could I? She already thought I was mad.
So, at nan’s, I just sat in front of her TV, eating digestives and sipping tea, pretending to watch some programme about rich people buying houses, while she wittered on about nothing. But all the time I was thinking that mam was right, and I was going mad. It wasn’t normal, was it, hearing loud bangs for no reason? Feeling like someone was pushing me? It was all inside my head, in my imagination.
But when I went to the toilet, I pulled down my shirt collar and looked in the mirror over the sink. There were three red marks, like finger marks, on my collarbone. That wasn’t my imagination. I pressed my back up against the wall and stood very still, not really knowing what to do.
Mum texted at six o’clock to say she was home and putting the tea on. It was dark by then, and I didn’t want to walk home on my own, but I couldn’t tell nan that, so I put my jacket on and set off. There was a gang of lads hanging round under the bridge — Darren Smith, a bully from year 9, with his mates — so I decided to walk up the path and cross the road above the bridge to avoid them.
But now it all seemed different, in the twilight. Though it hadn’t rained all day, the gutter looked as if it was full of oily water, and there were drifts of rotting orange leaves everywhere. And I could see the conker tree, a dark tangled shape across the road at the top of the embankment, close to where Tracy fell that time. Its branches were moving, scrabbling in the air like huge spider legs, as if it was reaching towards me.
I suddenly realised that everything had gone quiet again. I couldn’t hear the lads cackling and shouting under the bridge anymore; there was no traffic noise, no birdsong, no wind — though the branches of the conker tree continued to wave about.
And then I heard it — a painfully loud bang, like a house collapsing or a gas explosion. I lurched backwards, covering my ears, and I felt something push me, sharply, from the side — a rough hand punching my left arm, making me teeter sideways, slipping on the slimy dead leaves. My bad ankle gave way and I fell heavily onto my knee, then further, landing on my side. Pain shot through my hip and thigh, and my hand instinctively went out to steady myself, my fingers closing round one of the cold metal uprights of the safety railing at the edge of the road. I realised I was whimpering to myself.
Then I felt breath against my ear, and a whisper of a voice saying ‘Do it, Marie! Do it!.’ My head twisted round but there was no one there — the street was empty. The voice was still there, though, a hissing whisper in my ear as if the speaker was leaning in close. I shuddered, scrabbling to get up, using the safety rail to help me, feeling a tight twinge of pain down my leg. And then there was another loud bang – like a train smash, like a plane crashing to earth – and it was all mixed up with my own screams. I backed up against the bridge’s parapet. And then the voice came again, clear as lightning despite the sound of collapse all round me: ‘Do it, Marie! It’s the only way to stop the noise!’
And then I found myself reaching out, feeling for the edge of the railing. It was getting darker by the second. The peeling paint felt like scabs beneath my fingertips, the pitted metal cold and filthy. My feet felt for the concrete edge of the bridge, overhanging Ochre Dyke Walk below, my trainer toes slotting between the vertical bars of the railing in the way I remembered from all those years ago. But my feet were bigger now and more clumsy, and I was taller, less agile, particularly with my bad ankle and the pain from my recent fall still squealing down my leg.
It was very dark now and an angry, chilly wind started to blow against my face, making me scrunch up my eyes and bend my head so I could hardly see. The voice kept whispering, right into my ear: ‘Do it, Marie. It’s the only way!’ I thought I could feel warm breath against my cheek. And I started to move, sideways, painfully slowly, step by step, clinging with my arms and hands to the rail, while the wind whipped my jacket and my hair backwards, and slimy dead leaves swirled all round me.
That’s how I fell. It was Darren Smith of all people who called the ambulance. I remember the blue lights flashing, but no sound. There’s been no sound ever since. On top of all my other injuries, they say I’ve gone deaf.
But I can still hear that tiny, hissing voice whispering in my ear: ‘Do it, Marie! Do it!’
I hear it all the time now.
Louise Wilford lives and works in Yorkshire, UK, and has been writing poetry and prose since childhood. Her work has been widely published, most recently in Allium, Epistemic Literary, 805, Heartland Review, Last Leaves, New Verse News, Ocotilo Review, Pine Cone Review, Punk Noir, River and South, Silver Blade, The Avenue, POTB, Balloons Lit, Parakeet, The Fieldstone Review, and Black Hare Press. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition, and was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel. You can read her blog here: https://louviewsnewscues.blogspot.com/