In the early hours of the morning, during an evil-tempered rainstorm, I pushed the motorbike into the ditch. With the hiss of hot metal meeting cold water, it sank, and I set off on foot. At least the rain would wash some of the blood off.
Mud sucked at my shoes and barbed-wire fences punctured my fingers as I trekked over dark fields towards the glimmer of orange on the horizon. At the slip-road, a line of headlights slashed the black sky and ignored my outstretched thumb. A speeding car drenched me with a plume of spray. The wind changed direction and blasted my face with a million needles of rain. I turned my head and wiped the water out of my eyes.
There was a loud rumble and a squeal of air-brakes and a man leaned out of a truck. ‘You need ride?’
‘North?’ was the only word I could force between my numb lips.
‘Newcastle? That north enough?’
The driver was a chubby guy with a shaved head and a gold-incisored grin, wearing a baggy, green hoody with LEGIA WARSZAWA written on it. His cab smelled of citrus air freshener and socks, and foam showed through the worn seat covers. The seat belt was stiff, and he leaned over and buckled me in when he saw my fingers didn’t know how to bend any more. Water streamed from me and puddled on the floor. He rummaged about in the overhead storage and dropped a towel the size of a blanket onto my lap.
‘Dry,’ he said. ‘Tea under seat.’
Tea? The man should have been wearing a white beard and shouting, ‘HO, HO, HO’.
I dragged out a dented flask and poured a cup of hot, murky brown liquid. Cradling it in my numb hands, I sipped. The driver flipped the heater vents in my direction and pulled out into the traffic.
‘Face.’ He waved towards my head, in case I’d forgotten where it was. ‘What you done to face?’
‘Ex-boyfriend hit a fence. The airbag went off. Looks worse than it is.’
He grunted. ‘I got four daughters. Only one got any sense with guys.’
Yan was on his way to Newcastle from some unpronounceable Polish town with a truck-load of craft beers and smoked sausage. ‘I stay for a week, visit my daughter and grandkids.’
I said I just wanted to go north to see what it looked like, which made us both laugh, but one of us had to stop because her mouth hurt. He glanced at me, then back to the road. The slap and swish of the wipers, the warm diesel-tinged air and the hum of the engine lulled me into a doze until he shook my shoulder at a motorway stopover. The sky was lighter, but the rain had followed us.
‘I need few hours sleep,’ he said. ‘You can stay and listen to big Polish snores, or you can go to motel.’
He pointed towards a group of grey, rain-washed buildings. The thought of a hot shower made me drool. ‘Motel.’
‘You need money? My girls are always broke.’
I shook my head, afraid to speak because if I started to cry, I wouldn’t be able to stop.
He tapped the dashboard clock. ‘Be back here at twelve – noon.’
The motel had depressed artificial palms in plastic pots and a grimy mustard-yellow carpet. Behind the reception desk, a scowling man menaced me with his stubby, ginger beard, grimaced a ‘Hello’ and seemed completely indifferent to my appearance, but demanded ID if I paid cash.
I laid the price of the room on the desk and followed it with the universal ID – a large banknote. He pocketed the note.
The room was tiny and smelled of disinfectant. Either they were super clean, or someone had died in there. I eyed the bed and hoped for clean. Prints of local scenes were screwed to the dingy walls, and a giant television screen was bolted to the top of a cupboard. The only sound was the plink, plink, of a tap dripping in the bathroom.
I caught sight of myself in the dressing-table mirror. One eye half-closed, bruises on my cheekbones, and a mouth like a Thunderbird puppet. My reflection snivelled, and I had to talk to it severely till the shakes stopped. No point wailing this wasn't my fault, because some of it was. I rolled myself in the duvet and slept until the buzz of my alarm woke me, and I remembered how much shit I was in.
The shower pounded warmth back into my bruised body and eased the stabbing ache from my ribs, but my damp clothes dragged over my skin when I pulled them on. I grimaced and went in search of food, bare feet squelching in my wet shoes.
“Hi! I’m Mel! How may I help you?” took my order with a sour smile and forced me to buy a doughnut. The coffee tasted like boiled straw, but it was hot. I sipped, chewed, and watched the news on one of those mute television screens they fill these places with. The scene shifted from the newsreader to the studio, where a muscled ex-boxer sprawled on a yellow sofa. Next to him, in a red armchair, was Lyssa-Wye Knott, and my stomach turned over.
Hands clenched in her lap, she stared out of the screen, glacier-blue eyes overflowing with tears. She spoke, and with a chill of shock, I read the scrolling text. “… She was on drugs. I was terrified. She was like a wild animal…”
‘Is this anybody’s seat?’
I dragged my eyes away. In front of me, stood a pregnant woman and a little kid. I moved over.
‘Thanks, love. What horrible weather.’
She looked at my face.‘You okay?’
I forced a smile. ‘Car accident. The airbag went off.’
When I turned back to the telly, the show’s host gazed from the screen, face contorted into a grave expression. “… in intensive care after a four-hour operation. A hospital spokesperson said the wound was serious and could damage his eyesight…”
A fluffy blue rabbit flew over my head and landed on the floor. I picked it up, and it smirked at me through glassy black eyes.
“BunBun,” said the kid, who had my doughnut squashed in his pudgy fist.
On-screen, the drama had moved outside. A woman wearing a red raincoat and matching lipstick stood in front of a pair of tall iron gates and spoke into a microphone. “… early hours of this morning she attacked and robbed celebrity Lyssa-Wye Knott, taking a substantial amount of cash and jewellery from the safe… Now back to the studio…”
In the red armchair, Lyssa-Wye sobbed, and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “... She slashed me with a knife. He tried to make her let go, and she turned on him… His face… Oh, his face…”
Warm coffee poured into my lap, and I jumped to my feet. The kid waved my paper cup at me.
'Naughty Conrad,' said the woman.
Time to go. Before I screamed abuse at a pregnant woman and a child. I picked up my tray and stepped forward, at the exact moment my face stared out from every screen in the place, labelled with my full name and last known address.
I pushed Conrad out of the way and fled to the ladies.
Head bent over my knees, hands over my mouth to muffle the noise, I sat on the toilet and cried. Thoughts skittered round inside my head like cockroaches avoiding the light. The whole country watches that show. What if someone here recognises me? Even with a battered face, up close I’m still me. What do I do? I gnawed my thumbnails until my jaw ached. The police are after me. Can they trace my phone? Is that a real thing?
I turned my phone on and waited till the hysterical binging from a slew of missed calls stopped. All from Owen. The bastard.
I clawed the SIM card out and flushed it, smashed the phone under my heel and buried it in the bin. The tears hadn’t improved the state of my face, but I frizzed my hair around it and went shopping.
Back in my room, I sawed my hair off with scissors barely sharper than chopsticks and massaged dye through what was left, splattering the sink with blobs of Warm Amber that rinsed away in a coloured swirl. I shook a plastic-gloved finger at my reflection – who was really going through it today. ‘Bitch. Evil bitch told the world I’m a drug-taking thief.’
I turned the tap off with a vicious twist. ‘I never do drugs.’
After twenty minutes, Warm Amber turned out to mean Scary Orange, but at least I didn’t look like me.
I trowelled concealer onto my face, wincing as the thick makeup tugged the bruised skin under my eye, then sat on the bed and unzipped my holdall.
Inside were eight neatly banded piles of banknotes and some jewellery boxes. A diamond bracelet sparkled rainbows on the ceiling when I opened its case. A blue velvet bag the size of my hand rattled, but I broke a nail on the knot and gave up.
Underneath everything, wrapped in a towel, was a kitchen knife, blade streaked with dried blood. I wiped it clean and closed my eyes for a moment against the nausea that rose in my throat. With a last glance around the room, I left.
In Ramble'N'Run I bought a heavy-duty mountain coat, a big rucksack and warm clothes from “Hi! I’m Nolan!”, who pointed out a half price offer on socks and went into raptures about the hideously expensive hiking boots I chose. He threw in a pair of insoles for free.
‘Scarf?’ I asked, mumbling because I was scared the make-up would crack.
He handed me a tube of lime-green fleece. ‘Guaranteed to minus six.’
‘Do you have any other colours? This is hurting my eyes.’
‘You need something hi-vis in case of accidents. So much easier to find you when you’re dead in a ditch.’
He gave me a bin-bag to put my old clothes in and I walked out of the shop dressed like a Sherpa, with half an hour to wait before Yan left.
Mel didn’t recognise me and forced me to buy a banana, turmeric and coconut smoothie – a menu choice I will never make again – and another doughnut. A couple of hefty motorway police came in to shelter from the rain. One chatted on her radio, the other stared at me. My leg started the shaky-knee dance under the table, but I forced myself to smile and nod and concentrated on my smoothie. They’d gone when I left.
Yan said nothing about the hair. Just grunted. One of those grunts that rolls its eyes and says, ‘Women.’
Outside Newcastle, we arrived at another service area, hardly visible through a thick, swirling grey mist. Yan looked at me, expression serious. ‘You want to come see my daughter? We got room. And you can tell us about this trouble you're in.’
So he hadn’t bought the airbag story.
His eyes were full of concern, and I felt bad about deceiving him. For a moment, I put myself in a warm house full of grandkids and Polish sausage, and I smiled. But I shook my head. ‘You’re a really kind man, Yan. But I’m going further north.’
He grinned. ‘Iceland maybe?’ Then his face got serious again. ‘Not everybody on the road is friend. Be careful.’
I nodded, but I wasn't sure careful was an option.
The lights of the Border Lodge Motel beckoned through the fog, but I hesitated, my hand on the truck door, too scared to risk the ID game. ‘Can you find me somewhere cheap to stay?’
He didn’t ask questions, just Googled a hiking hostel, half an hour’s walk away. He drove off, and I nearly ran after him.
The road to the hostel was in the far corner of the parking. Fog-shrouded vehicles lurked under fuzzy white lights. A gust of icy wind cleared the view and my stomach lurched. A white van with POLICE written on the side was between me and my road. I huddled deep into my coat, pulled my scarf over my mouth and thanked all the gods for orange hair and mud makeup. The van door opened as I drew level and a policeman got out. He straightened and shrugged into a yellow hi-vis jacket – and even though he couldn’t possibly recognise me; I knew he would.
I changed course to put a truck between us, pressed myself against its back doors and listened.
The van door slammed.
Footsteps came towards my hiding-place.
My heart played drum and bass on my ribs.
The footsteps passed and faded and I leaned my aching forehead on the truck and took a deep breath of cold air.
Turning to go, I noticed an address stencilled on the doors in fat, blue letters.
‘Scotland,’ I thought. ‘Now that’s proper north.’
The cold slowed my fingers, making it hard to hold my picks, but I finally opened the lock and lifted the stiff door handle.
Inside, the truck smelled of oil and damp clothes, with a whiff of something sugar-sweet. Piles of heavy, rough-feeling canvas filled the space, and I tripped over slippery metal bars and coils of cables in the dark until I found a place to hide.
Outside, voices murmured, and the doors swung open.
‘I’m sure I locked this,’ said a man.
There was a muttered response, and a torch played over the inside. I squeezed into a tight ball and held my breath.
‘Seems okay. No harm done.’
The doors clanged shut. I collapsed into my nest and handed myself over to the gods of the roads. The noise of the engine faded from a roar to a purr and I slept until its absence woke me. We’d stopped.
My legs were stiff, and I stumbled towards the doors, which opened as I reached out to grasp the handle. A torch that could have been used to spot enemy aircraft shone in my face. Purple and black circles danced in front of my eyes and I blinked to clear my vision. The torch went off, and lights came on outside.
A ring of interested faces stared up at me, and an old fat-bellied guy with a thick black moustache stepped forward and offered a hand down. My first instinct was to run, but I couldn’t leave my rucksack behind and someone had filled it with bricks while I’d slept.
I pulled the knife out, heaved my pack onto the ground, and followed it out of the doors.
The truck was higher than I’d remembered from the climb in, and as my feet hit the floor, I groaned out loud and bent double, clutching my side.
I waved my knife. ‘I’ve got a knife.’
Fat-Belly laughed and someone else joined in. And I crumbled.
Head down, I wept great tears of fear and pain and couldn't stop. They went quiet, and I subsided into a hiccupping, chest-heaving silence.
I picked up the rucksack and pushed the knife into a side-pocket. A huge figure loomed over me and plucked the rucksack from my hand. I took a step back and tried to run, but he just picked me up. Like I wasn't even there. Like I was lighter than a speck of dust.
He slung me over his shoulder onto a back the size of an aircraft carrier and carried me over a cobbled yard into a big, warm kitchen. He dumped me on a chair at a long table and retreated to a sofa by a roaring log fire.
The people from outside trooped in. A woman came towards me. Long black hair in tight cornrows and a pink sweatshirt with a sequinned unicorn on the front. She peered into my face and tutted. ‘Look at the state of you. I’ll get my bag.’
‘Leave me alone. I have to go.’ I said to her retreating back.
My brain tried to make me leave by screaming instructions to my body, which ignored it completely. Defeated, I slumped and closed my eyes. The woman returned and put a case on the table in front of me. ‘I’m Helen. I’m a doctor.’
She opened the case and pulled out a torch. ‘Look at me.’
‘It was an airbag, an accident.’
The bright light in my eyes made me blink, and the gentle fingers that probed my scalp made me flinch, ‘Big lump,’ said Helen. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Did you lose consciousness?’
… A slap. A fist. Split lip spurted blood. Punch to my face, my stomach. Something smashed into the back of my head. Blood pooled on the table and dripped onto the tiles in fat, red splats. I fell to the floor. A man’s voice screamed. “I’ll kill her. I’ll kill the bitch. My face. Look what she did to my face.”…
‘Not for long,’ I said in a low voice.
Helen helped me out of my coat. ‘Can you lift your arms high for me?’
The ache in my side spiked as she felt round my ribs. I sucked my breath in.
… Tape around my wrists and ankles, blood-stoppingly tight. “I’ll take her apart when I get back. Shut the fuck up. Lock the bitch in here. Take me to hospital. I could go blind. Hospital! Now!”…
‘Ribs bruised, not broken,’ she said, and frowned at the blue-purple marks round my wrists. ‘Do you need the police?’
She gave me two pills. ‘Painkillers – and you stay here tonight.’
I felt the prick of tears. ‘I can’t.’
‘Yes, you can. Decide what to do in the morning.’
Her face softened. ‘And there’s a big bolt on the inside of your bedroom door.’