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Authors: Emily Winslow

The Start of Everything (6 page)

BOOK: The Start of Everything
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MORRIS KEENE

T
he car door opens only a few inches. I suck in a breath and slide out, holding my arm across my stomach. My scar is only a small lumpy line, but I coddle and protect my abdomen as if I have a baby in there. I force myself to stand up straight; my natural posture bends in the middle now, like a page that’s been folded too hard in the past.

I push the door shut. Even my dead right hand can do that. My fingers don’t bend anymore, but it’s a fine paddle. I can slam, slap, and wave. Amazing how infrequently I need to do any of those things.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I tell Chloe. I have to make that clear.

“I get that, Keene. Not your fault. Now, can you clarify what ‘it’ is?”

The tow truck pulls my car away. There’s only a smashed headlamp and bumper damage; I could have driven it home safely, but that would have been unlawful. I did everything right. I called for a tow and called the police, right? Chloe’s the police.

“It’s not funny,” Chloe says. She’s right. I stop laughing. “How did it happen?”

“It wasn’t my hand,” I clarify, truthfully. “It was an idiot over the centre line. A lorry pulled out of that lay-by”—I point—“so the car coming towards me swerved into my lane. I ended up going off the road and hitting a post. It’s his fault, no question. No question. I have his plate number, and we exchanged insurance information.” I hated giving him mine. But I’d already grandstanded my name and rank; I couldn’t fake out of it.

“Then it’s all right,” she says. We get into her car. “Straight home, or a pub? You look like you need a drink.”

I haven’t even called Gwen. I’ll catch hell if I choose
pub
.

“Is everything all right at home?” Chloe asks me. “Is there a reason I’m the one picking you up?”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you to—”

“Keene.” She puts her hand on my arm. “I’ve got your back.” Then she waits.

“I didn’t want Gwen to see me like this.”

“Like what? You did everything right. You said.”

“On the side of the road. Waiting for a tow truck that I couldn’t even sign my name for.”

If the insurance company thinks my hand was partial cause, they could question my right to drive at all. I manage fine with an automatic. I’ll get adaptations installed if they want. But they might not believe me. “What happens if I can’t drive?”
When did my voice get that squeak in it?

She doesn’t get it. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning. It can’t take more than a couple of days to get your car fixed.”

No, no, no
. I’m not worried about this week. I’m worried about every week that comes after. What happens if I’m not allowed to drive? What if I
shouldn’t
be allowed?

“So, home?” she says. Right, of course. She wants to get on with this. She wants to get home herself. I nod.

I reach back to pull the seatbelt forward and across me. I can’t pass it off to my right hand, though, and it slips out of my grasp just short of connection. It slithers back over my chest into its origin. I pull again;
Chloe reaches across me to grab it. Just like that: She extends her arm across my body and grabs for the metal tongue. We tussle and then she gives up, turns away. I’m panting. Once again the strap snaps back into its slot over my shoulder.

“Sorry,” she says, not facing me.

I must have deployed The Look. I’ve never seen it myself, but there have been a few times since I got out of hospital that I’ve made Gwen cry without saying a word. I think it’s a look of horror and disbelief—at least that’s what I’m feeling. I’m not a child in a five-point restraint. Hell, even children in five-point restraints can buckle themselves. When Dora was maybe four, she—

“That was insulting of me. I really am sorry,” Chloe says.

“You meant only to help. I know.” I pull the strap and glide it right into place, no problem. I just needed to get used to the different car. This strap’s at a different angle from the one in Gwen’s passenger seat. Obviously, it’s the opposite side from the one in my driver’s seat. “I need to do some things for myself.”

I pep-talk myself while she belts herself and sets the indicator flashing. This isn’t as bad as it feels. People have minor accidents every day. People with two good hands have them. They’re on the road again the next day, or even just drive away. This is nothing thousands of people haven’t already gone through just fine.

We join the cars heading for Cambourne. It’s a comforting procession. There’s been traffic on this route from the Romans onward. We just slip into the queue.

I mean “I hate this” as a kind of apology. But Chloe takes it the wrong way.

“You’re welcome,” she says. It’s morning. She’s come to get me. She’s doing me a favour.

“No, that’s not—” I say.
Never mind
. If she doesn’t get it already, I can’t drag her there. She can’t be happy with the situation, either, having to cart me around. She can’t be happy that we have to follow up on the Crimestoppers calls together. She’s waiting on my seatbelt. “Getting there,” I say. When the
click
finally comes, I fall back against the seat, stupidly exhausted, stupidly victorious.

More rambling interviews go nowhere. At the end of the day, traffic thickens into the home commute hours, and we’ve gained nothing from our day’s work.

“How do you want to do this?” she says, about whether to drop me home or elsewhere.

“My brother said I could borrow his car for a few days. It’s an automatic.”

She looks sceptical. Insurance should have given me a hire car, but the hire company wants me to take a test to prove I can safely drive without adaptations. My car will be ready before their bureaucracy runs its course.

“I’ll be fine,” I say, infusing those three words with the absolute requirement that she not give me shit about this. I’ve been driving for over twenty years. The accident hadn’t been my fault.

“I know you can drive, Keene. I just didn’t think Richard had a car.”

Of course. Why would he when he lived in college as a Life Fellow? But now he’s commuting in from a village, living under a thatched roof with his new wife. He’s had to learn. He figured an automatic would be easier than training to shift gears at age forty-two. It’s about time he lived out of college, where bedders change his sheets, and meals are served at the Fellows’ high table. Maybe besides driving, he’d learn how to make up his own bed and to boil an egg.

“He lives in Pampisford now,” I tell her. “He figured an automatic would be easier for teaching an old dog new tricks. You can drop me at Magdalene.” The University’s oldest colleges are named after their royal founders or after Bible figures, like Mary Magdalene. God himself gets five of them: Jesus College, Christ’s College, Emmanuel, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, all clustered within the city centre. “Richard’s parked it there for me. Alice will pick him up.” That’s his wife.

“Suits me.” She shrugs.

She drops me in front of Magdalene’s porters’ lodge. I cross the street to the college’s parking structure. Richard’s car is supposed to be in the open area behind. I don’t see it.

So I keep looking. See, this is Richard. He doesn’t let anyone down. Did he leave it inside? That wouldn’t make any sense. I don’t have a
card to open the gate. Even so, I lean against the grille and squint. I don’t see it in there.

Where the hell is it?
I start to sweat despite the chill.
Maybe he parked it on the street?

But there isn’t any parking on Magdalene Street, or Northampton Street. I jog down Queen’s Road, just in case. But there’s no flash of yellow in the nose-to-tail chain of vehicles lining its whole length. Yes, crayon yellow. He’d bought the car used; he didn’t have a choice about the garish colour.

I just keep going, past the most ornate colleges: Trinity and Clare and King’s. Grand trees lining the avenue dip their heavy branches towards my shoulders. This is far beyond any semblance of “behind Magdalene,” but I don’t know what else to do.

He would have phoned me if there had been some inability to find a space where he’d expected. He would have phoned. Chloe could have dropped me home.
Now what?
I lean forward and splay my left hand over my stomach scar.

Don’t make me do this. Don’t make me beg
. I call his number. I count the rings, then it trips into voicemail. I hesitate, then: “Richard, it’s Morris. I thought we had arranged … Clearly, you’ve made other plans, I … Sorry.”

I’ll have to call Gwen. Maybe she’s already in the car? What time does Dora get out from school on Tuesdays? There might be a practice. Getting all the way here, then back again in the commuter traffic, will take more than an hour. I could get a bus.…

I hit redial. Richard’s voicemail again.

“I should never have trusted you, should I. You …” I ring off before it gets worse. There’s a lot I want to say, but there’s no point. My physio says that I need to evaluate whether a given action is going to be
helpful
, not just whether it’s
justified
. We talk during the exercises, and sometimes she says, “Does that help?” It’s hard to know if she means the exercise or whatever I’ve just been going on about.

No, blaming Richard isn’t helpful. But this isn’t like when we were teenagers and driving meant getting away from home for an evening. This is my work. This is my first case since I’ve returned to the job. If I can’t handle this, they’ll give it to someone who can.

“Without Richard’s car, what will you do?” Gwen asks me for the hundredth time, opening and closing drawers on both sides of me. She’s going away as a “parent helper” on Dora’s choir trip, and thinks I can’t manage on my own.

“What are you looking for?” I’m rubbing an electric shaver around on my face because my left hand can’t manage a blade.

“Floss. I always forget to use it at home, but if I don’t bring it I’ll get something stuck in my teeth. What will you do when you’re not working?”

“Walk, call a friend, call a cab.” A taxi would only be prohibitively expensive for commuting or work. I don’t give her my real answer: Stay home. Then she’ll worry about
that
. My physio says I have to be careful not to isolate myself.

“Call Richard again. I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.”

I agree that I’ll call. I don’t agree that it was a misunderstanding.

Dora hollers from downstairs, something about shoes and sheet music and being “horrifically late.” They drop me off.

Chloe lives with her fiancé, Dan, in a repurposed Victorian almshouse. It’s picturesque, even twee, just a lounge and a kitchen and a bedroom upstairs. There are waiting lists for these now-chic little dollhouses. Dan invites me in for coffee.

His vast drafting table takes up one whole end of the lounge; he’s an architect, working part of the time from home. The dining table is a fraction of the size, crammed against the opposite wall, built for two only. Chloe takes up precisely half the space of it, clearly experienced at sharing it.

I follow Dan to the kettle. He makes up the cafetiere.

“Here’s yours, Coco,” Dan says, bringing Chloe a mug.

Chloe shrinks back and raises a hand. “All yours. I’m not having any.” Dan gives it to me. “You feeling all right?” he asks her.

“I just don’t want coffee,” she snaps. Then she concedes, “I don’t feel great.”

I want to say,
You need a break?
But I can’t. Because if she doesn’t come, how do I get around?

“It’s not a problem,” she says. I can see from here that her toast has nothing on it; there’s no butter shine or Marmite smudge.

Dan’s chopping carrots. There’s a slow cooker on the counter, so I’m guessing he’s working on dinner. He turns to me to say, “She’s tough.” He gestures with the knife. I flinch. My left hand catches the counter. Everything fades, just drains of colour and stretches out.…

Then snaps back into focus. Dan’s back to
chop-chop-chopping
. It’s like he didn’t notice.

Chloe did. I wave her off. See, waving has its uses. My right hand’s still good for something.

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