I know she’s dead. I know it without feeling for a pulse, but I go through the motions anyway, pressing on her cold wrist and counting silently to ten. When I let go, her arm hangs limp, its blood-sticky fingers grazing my cheek every time the wind rocks the car. She was breathing at first, three or four desperate gurgles a minute, her staved-in chest moving all to shit and her head bobbing with the effort, but she gave in before I was able to get my hand free, before I could try to help her or touch her or let her know she wasn’t on her own. Before I could remember her name. Her seat belt is stopping her from falling onto me, her body contorted around it like a puppet with its strings cut. And I still can’t remember her name.
I can’t actually remember a fucking thing, but I realise after a few seconds of blind panic that I’m going to die here too unless I move.
Moving hurts. It hurts so much I start whimpering, the sound fading in and out along with the scream of the storm and the ballistic rattle of rain on the passenger side. Details come to me in fragments, logical pieces of information disrupted by the pain and the sheer terror of being stuck in the dark with a woman I probably killed. I must have been driving, because my legs are folded beneath the steering wheel, and at some point my left arm has snapped. I can’t see much, but I can feel the grind of broken bones, and there’s an open wound where they’ve poked through the skin. Blinking blood from my eyes, I unfasten my seat belt with the hand that still works. Gravity immediately kicks in, and I slip sideways in the seat, smacking the grounded window hard enough to force a yelp from me. I spend an untold amount of time struggling to stay conscious, blackness creeping over my vision and then relenting to provide another glimpse of the ghost-white arm dangling above me.
A flash of lightning shows that the car is tucked on its side between two tall trees, as if I’d meant to park it there. Branches creak and bow, firing down the occasional pinecone, and the unpredictable bangs on the bodywork fuck up my nerves as I shift onto my knees.
“Phone,” I mumble through thick lips and a couple of chipped teeth. I’m sure I have a mobile, but I don’t know where I usually keep it. My pocket? A bag? Or chucked in the glove compartment, out of reach in front of the dead woman? I pat my jeans and coat, finding nothing but a wallet. A stabbing sensation beneath my breast tells me I have broken ribs, and with no warning whatsoever, I retch and vomit onto my lap.
The car seems to spin, and my chin hits my chest as my head lolls. I cough through a mouthful of bile and blood, grimacing; the taste is foul enough to jerk me awake like smelling salts. There’s a half-empty bottle of water jammed by the handbrake, and I use it to swill my mouth out. With the bitterness and some of the fog cleared, I restart the search for my mobile, managing to drag my legs free until I’m curled in an uncomfortable ball on the driver’s door. I spot my phone wedged in the crack of the seat, still connected to its in-car charging lead, and I tug it loose, my fingers clumsy and slow. A spider’s web of splintered glass covers its screen, but it comes to life when I tap it, displaying a factory-set wallpaper and a signal strength that reads “Emergency Calls Only.” I dial 999, my hand shaking so hard as I put the phone to my ear that I’m scared I’ll lose my hold on it. I hear a faint tone, then nothing.
“Hello?” No one answers, and terror pitches my voice up a notch. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
Again I catch the slightest whisper of sound, but it vanishes at once, buried in a buzz that overwhelms everything. The solution is so simple it almost eludes me. I switch the phone to my other ear, the one that’s not leaking fluid down my cheek, and interrupt a woman asking which service I require.
“Ambulance,” I say and then clear my throat and repeat myself with more conviction. “Ambulance and police.” I peer out the cracked windscreen as if all the answers lie beyond it. “But I don’t know where I am.”
“It’s all right, just stay on the line. Can you tell me what’s happened?”
I nod, calmed by her assurance. “The car crashed. It’s rolled, and I can’t see the road.”
“Are you injured?”
“Are you trapped in the vehicle?”
I have two ways out: the windscreen, or up and over the dead woman.
“No, I’m not trapped,” I say, although the thought of climbing over the body or shoving through the glass drenches me in cold sweat.
She asks me about my breathing and chest pains, and warns me against moving. It’s probably good advice, but I doubt anyone will find me unless I get back to the road.
“Are you on your own?” she asks after a pause to let me pant through a spasm ripping across my ribs.
“No, but she’s dead.” A sob chokes me. I can’t tell whether it’s grief or self-pity, and I wipe snot from my nose while the woman holds an urgent conference with a third party. She’s all business when she comes back on the line.
“The police are attempting to trace your mobile signal, so you need to leave your phone switched on. It’ll take longer than it does on the telly, but they should be able to narrow your location down to a few hundred yards. Is your phone fully charged?”
I check the screen, straining to read the figure by the battery signal. “It’s at forty-one percent.”
“That’s not too bad.” She sounds as if she wants to come out here herself to wrap me in blankets and ply me with hot chocolate. “It might be a while before they get to you, so I’d better not keep you on the line, but I’ll call you every fifteen minutes to see how you are. Is that all right?”
“Yes, thank you,” I lie instinctively, loath to upset her. I don’t want her to go. I don’t want her to leave me with the corpse and the horror film soundtrack outside the car. I’m so scared. I’m struggling to pull enough air into my battered lungs, and she must hear some of my hysterics, because she starts up a soothing recitation of words that I can’t really distinguish but that stop me hyperventilating.
“What’s your name?” she asks, as I steady myself by leaning against the steering wheel.
The question bewilders me. I haven’t got a fucking clue. I trap the phone between my ear and shoulder while I fumble the wallet from my pocket. According to a bus pass marked “GMPTE,” my name is Rebecca Elliott, but nothing about it feels familiar, and I stutter when I read it out to her.
“I’m Margy,” she tells me. “Margy Lloyd. Are you okay for me to hang up now?”
“Yes, that’s okay,” I say, and Margy tells me to sit tight an instant before the line goes dead.
I can’t sit tight. I’m calmer, but it’s getting harder for me to breathe, and the right side of my chest doesn’t seem to be moving properly. I can’t manage the climb one-handed, so I wait for the moon to peek out between the dispersing storm clouds, and then I eye the windscreen, spotting a bulls-eyed section that might give if I put the boot in. And I am wearing boots: sensible hiking-type boots that don’t appear to have seen much action.
Getting into a position where I can set my feet against the glass leaves me lightheaded and limp as a wrung-out dishcloth. I almost miss Margy’s first check-in call, dropping the phone when it starts to ring and then able only to grunt at intervals during her overly cheerful but noncommittal “They’re making good progress” update. I gasp an acknowledgement and—before common sense can intervene—aim a kick at the windscreen as soon as she hangs up. The glass doesn’t break, but a good-sized portion peels forward, encouraging me to inch over the dashboard. There’s nothing to hold on to as I push outside. The crash has torn the car bonnet into jagged pieces, and I slide across them, my clothing protecting me from the worst of the sharp edges, though it does nothing to soften my landing. My knees buckle as my feet hit pine needles and rocks, and I pitch forward, sobbing through the agony while sleet soaks my face and hair, and the smell of damp earth gradually overpowers that of blood.
Margy phones me again as I lie there, her voice animated and far too loud, telling me that the police and an ambulance have been dispatched and that they should be close by in no more than thirty minutes.
“Where am I?” I ask her.
“You’re just off the A5. Not far from Capel Curig.” She speaks slowly, sounding out the syllables.
“Capel Curig,” I repeat, and she must detect my incomprehension because she tries to clarify.
“The Snowdonia National Park, near the Glyders mountains.” She pauses and then pares things down to the absolute basics. “You’re in Wales, love.”
“Right.” The information means nothing to me. My head aches, and I start shivering as she disconnects. The temptation to stay on the ground and hope someone finds me is almost overwhelming. Instead I use a tree for leverage to haul myself upright.
My backside hits the tree, and I bend double, grabbing my bad arm and waiting for the pain to settle to something halfway manageable. It doesn’t even get close, though, so I opt for distraction instead, unwinding the woollen scarf from my neck to fashion into a sling. I shudder as I use my teeth to pull the knot taut, the sensation of biting down on wool a more mundane sort of unpleasant.
Supported by the full width of the scarf, the shattered bones stop shifting, and my queasiness eases a fraction. The blood covering my forearm is tacky enough to stick the fabric in place, and I take advantage of the adhesive effect, hoping I’ll be suitably sedated when it has to be peeled away again. I straighten in increments, breathing through my nose and gripping the tree trunk so fiercely that I drive wedges of bark beneath my fingernails. Still crooked and swaying like a landlubber on high seas, I wait again for the moon and then trace the route the car took down the embankment. I can’t accurately gauge the distance, so I count the trees we bounced off—seven or eight—and wonder how the hell I survived. Debris glints in the silver light: the bumper, impaled and standing proud in the forest floor, dozens of multicoloured shards of glass, and a small holdall that has ripped open and scattered its contents. The trees crowd together, blocking my view of the road, but it must be up there somewhere. The car is a Ford Focus, built for commuting, not wilderness expeditions.
Following the trenches carved through the undergrowth should point me in the right direction. The wide swath of destruction meanders somewhat, but that won’t add much to the overall distance. I nod as I formulate my plan. It sounds straightforward and feasible in my head: walk up the hill and wait on the road until help arrives, but flaws become apparent when I take my first few steps. My legs are wobblier than watered-down jelly, and I can’t seem to pull in enough air through my nose or my mouth. I manage to stagger about fifty yards before I stub my toes on a rock. The sheer insult pushes me over the edge, and I sit on the rock’s mossy surface and cry. I can’t do this. I don’t even know whether I want to, because surviving will mean facing consequences; it will mean people pointing their fingers at me and telling me this was my fault. They won’t believe the gaps in my memory. Why would they? They’re so damn convenient that I doubt them myself.
My breathing calms the longer I sit here. If I tilt my head a certain way, I can hear birds heralding the as-yet invisible dawn with melodic call and response. Things rustle in the leaf litter, making up for lost time now that the wind has dropped and the sleet has given way to occasional flurries of proper snowflakes. I don’t feel cold or frightened anymore, just tired and a bit woozy. I ignore my phone when it rings. The shrill peal sends some small creature scuttling for cover, and I whisper an apology for invading its turf and fucking everything up.
The ringing cuts off and then starts again. I jab a finger on “Accept,” succeeding only in smearing claret across the screen. The noise stops, replaced shortly afterward by a thready voice, and I raise the phone, surprised that I managed to answer it.
Silence. I adjust the phone, but I’ve remembered to use the ear that’s not humming and pulsing along to my heartbeat, and it makes no difference.
“Hello?” I repeat. The name of the every-fifteen-minutes woman escapes me. “Is anyone there?”
I concede defeat, and the phone bounces off my lap and comes to rest against a pinecone that may as well be a mile beyond my reach.
“Fuck it,” I whisper, content to sit and quietly expire, surrounded by birdsong and snowflakes and a sense of peace—a peace that’s obliterated as someone yells, “Rebecca!”
I react more to the disturbance than the name, lifting my hand as a child might in class.
“Here,” I mutter half-heartedly, before remembering that people have gone to a lot of trouble to find me. I try harder. “Here! Over here!”
Standing would demand more strength than I have. I stay put and watch torch beams slash across the forest floor, until sheer bloody-mindedness gets me to my feet. It can’t keep me there, though, and the rock grazes my back as I crumple. The movement turns a light toward me, the thud of approaching boots scattering the last of the nocturnal critters.
“Rebecca? Hey, can you open your eyes for me?” The woman’s voice is gentle but insistent, a pleasant lilt rolling her words up and down. “I’ve got her,” she says in a more authoritative tone. “About two-fifty yards from the reg plate. No sign of the car. Get the paramedics here ASAP.” Her hands cup my face as she finishes her update. She’s wearing leather gloves, and I flinch, shoving back against the rock, unable to see anything in the glare of her torch. “No, no, stay still,” she says. “The paramedics will be here in a few minutes.”
I try to ask her name, but the question gets lost in a wet gargle and a mouthful of blood.
“Jesus,” she hisses. She uses a tissue to clean my chin. I don’t tell her that I’ve already been sick on my knees.
“Thanks,” I say, managing to keep the splatter to a minimum this time.
“My name is Bronwen Pryce,” she says, answering my question more by luck than judgment, folding the tissue to an untainted side and dabbing again. “Detective Sergeant Bronwen Pryce. Are you a ‘Rebecca’ or a ‘Becky’?”
I have no idea. “Rebecca,” I hazard, hoping that family or friends will set me right on that one. Guessing makes me nervous, and I want to be forthright with this complete stranger who’s wiping gore off my face. “The car’s about fifty, maybe sixty yards that way, on its side.”
Pryce’s gaze follows my pointed finger. I can’t see her clearly, just a lot of dark clothing with curls of dark hair slipping out from beneath a dark woolly hat.
“We’ll find it, don’t worry,” she tells me. “Is the woman you were with still in the car?”
I nod, intensifying the dizziness that accompanies even the mildest of movements. Spots dance on my eyeballs, and I clamp my teeth together, determined not to vomit on the detective sergeant.
“Can you tell me her name?” she asks.
I shake my head, recognising my mistake too late to prevent the wave of nausea. I gag, groaning at the wrench in my chest, and slip sideward onto cool, wet leaves. Pryce shouts something incomprehensible, and several voices reply, reinforcements closing in on our position. I’m terrified of fainting, but I feel as if I’m being smothered. A hand curls around mine, its skin warm and soft. Pryce. She’s taken her glove off.
“No. Don’t, please. I need…”
I need to sit up, but they’re laying me flat and strangling me with a hard collar. Hands hold me down and fasten straps across my torso and limbs. Air blasts onto my face, and the babble of voices ceases as padded blocks are set against my ears. A face appears in my periphery, an unfamiliar blond-haired bloke wearing a high-vis jacket. He says something to me, punctuating it with a strained smile before shuffling out of view again.
I can’t see Pryce either, but I hear her say, “English, lads,” and the man reappears, looking sheepish.
“Sorry, love.” He enunciates each word as if I’m daft, not deaf. “We’re going to carry you up to the ambulance now, where we can take a better look at you. How’s the pain?”
“Better,” I tell him. Whatever they’ve given me has dulled things to a tolerable level and taken the sickness with it. The cradle I’m secured in rises and sways on his command, with Pryce lifting one side of the head end. Her brow creases with effort as the embankment becomes steeper, and she breathes through her mouth in little pants. The journey seems to take hours as the team slide and struggle with the awkward weight, and I’m on the verge of insisting they lower me and let me walk when Pryce catches my eye.
“Almost there,” she says, and seconds later, blue and red strobes illuminate her face. She’s sweating despite the cold, and she heaves a relieved sigh when her boots hit the tarmac.
The stretcher teeters on the guard rail while everyone swaps positions, and I glimpse forensic markers highlighting a four-wheeled skid that terminates at a missing section of the crash barrier. The road is narrow and unlit but straight, and my traumatised brain draws one conclusion: too fast, you fucking idiot.
Bright overhead lights and warmer air welcome us into the ambulance. The paramedics begin to cut off my clothes, and I close my eyes gratefully as Pryce covers me with a thick blanket. She speaks to the men in Welsh, taking my clothing from them and folding it into paper evidence bags. They’re all preoccupied with their respective tasks, and no one is telling me anything. I feel the cold metal of a stethoscope on my chest and watch the blond man frown as he moves the disc around and presses with growing insistence. I stare at the fluid draining from a bag above my head and ignore the cuff squeezing my good arm. I’m trembling and nauseous again, and the lurch of the vehicle pulling away sends bile into the back of my mouth. I swallow, my throat working convulsively, and Pryce shouts a warning an instant before the ambulance stops and my cradle is flipped onto its side. A tube is forced between my lips, sucking out a stream of red and yellow. I watch the colours swirl together until my vision blurs. Then I close my eyes and let it all disappear.
There’s no gentle awakening like you see on the telly. No private room with a remote-controlled bed and a kindly nurse to bathe my forehead. Instead I’m pinned by the glare of a surgical spotlight, and someone seems to be shoving a drill bit into my chest. I quickly establish that flight isn’t possible, so I fight, lashing out with my arm and landing a weak punch on a woman’s breast. She steps aside, preventing my second attempt by catching my wrist in a loose grip. Her surgical gloves are slick with fresh blood.
“It’s all right, Rebecca, you’re in the hospital,” she says. Then, over her shoulder, “Bron, could you?” She offers my hand, and Pryce comes across to take it, raising it to clear the field for whatever the doctor is doing.
“Hey,” Pryce says, somehow managing to cut through the ruckus and focus my attention on her. “The doc’s trying to push a hosepipe into your lung, so no sudden moves, okay?”
The doctor sticks her tongue out briefly at Pryce’s creative interpretation of medical procedure. “It’s a chest drain into the pleural cavity to reinflate your lung, Rebecca,” she says. “You’ll feel a lot better after this, I promise.” She bows her head again, and the tugging and pushing restarts. I grip Pryce’s hand, sweating through the discomfort, until I hear the doctor mutter in approval.
“All done,” she announces. “How’re her sats?”
“Ninety-three,” someone calls, and the doctor beams as if she’s just won a long-odds bet.
“Any easier to breathe?” she asks me.
“Much, thank you,” I say, enjoying the novelty of two cooperating lungs.
The doctor snaps off her gloves. “You’re doing great. You’re going to need an operation to fix your arm, but we’ll have you back on your feet in no time.”
“Mmm.” Someone’s given me more morphine, and it’s hit me like a sledgehammer. It reminds me of the time I broke my leg as a child and my dad sang to keep me calm in the anaesthetic room. My eyes fill with tears; I’m overjoyed to have that memory back.
Pryce leans low, curiosity brightening her tired face. “What’s that you’re humming?”
“‘Alice the Camel,’” I tell her, and carry on in a loop until it lulls me back to sleep.
I don’t dream. I wake disorientated, my muscles tensed against the expectation of pain, but I’m muzzy-headed and warm and comfortable. I’ve been moved to a different cubicle, this one dimly lit by banks of monitors and drip stands, and silent except for the whisper of oxygen through the tubing below my nose.
Both visitors’ chairs are empty, but there’s a white mug balanced on the arm of the closest one and a jacket draped around it. Relieved to have privacy, I pull my sheets and gown loose, swearing as multiple IVs hamper my efforts. A kinked line sets off an alarm, and I flick the tube to fix it before anyone comes to investigate. I’m black and blue beneath the gown, my torso a patchwork of cuts and bruises complemented by the mass of orange sticky tape holding a length of tubing in place. A soft splint encases my left arm from just below my elbow to where my fingers poke out as fat as unpopped sausages. I pat a spot on my head that feels weird and draughty, finding wiry stitches and a bald patch the size of my palm. Rendered quiescent by the drugs, I debate the merits of shaving all my hair off when I get discharged, and get a brief, vivid flash of having been there and done that and quite liked the result.
The curtains around my bed part just as I’m trying to get my gown to sit fully under my bum. It’s undignified enough that I’ve been catheterised while unconscious; I don’t need my arse exposing as well. The nurse smiles when he sees I’m awake, and he easily fathoms what I’m up to.
“Do you want me to call a chaperone?” he asks, half turning to leave.
“No,” I say. If he’s my nurse then I’m sure he’s seen it all already. It’s the owner of the coffee cup that I’m worried about. “I can’t…I can’t get it right on my own.”
“Roll to your left.” He puts a hand on my shoulder to help things along, and his voice dulls as he speaks into my damaged ear. “Good. Hold there for a sec.” He rearranges the gown and reties a knot. “You’re all done. My name’s Hanif, by the way.”
I hit the pillows again, clammy and reeling. “What time is it?”
“Nine thirty-seven a.m. You came onto the high-dependency unit about four hours ago. I heard you had a rough night.”
“Yeah.” I blink to clear an unwanted image of the dead woman’s arm swinging like a lazy pendulum. “I think I came off lightly, considering.”
“I know, I heard that too.” Hanif tidies the bedding and hands me a small device. “This is the control for your morphine pump. It’ll allow you to administer a dose every hour and a half. Don’t try to be brave and manage without it. Go by the timer on the pump. You’re due in about forty minutes.”
“I won’t be brave,” I promise him. The relentless ache in my arm is setting my teeth on edge. I shuffle around, trying to alleviate the throbbing, and end up staring at the abandoned chairs. They presumably answer the question I’ve been avoiding, but I steel myself and ask it anyway. “Did anyone manage to contact my family?”
He snatches up the mug as if annoyed that its presence has fed me false hope. “I’m not sure what’s going on with that. There’s a police officer still in the department, so I’ll see if she’ll come in and speak to you.”
He closes the curtains behind him, leaving me with the useless pump and a sense of dread that’s so all-encompassing it skyrockets my pulse and sets off multiple alarms. The doctor from the A&E hurries into the cubicle and rests a hand on my shoulder.
“Rebecca? Easy, you’re okay. Settle down.”
I’m not okay. I’m on my own and in bits in a strange hospital in fucking Wales of all places, and the only reason I have a name is because I read it off a bus pass. I want my mum and dad to hold my hand and fill in the massive blanks in my head, but I don’t know whether they’re even alive or whether I still talk to them. If they were, and if I did, they would have come here, wouldn’t they?
The doctor is watching me closely, and I focus on her as she coaches my breathing. She’s tall, slender, and blond, with a pixie cut that flatters her face. She must be hours late off her shift by now, and her makeup isn’t quite covering the shadows beneath her eyes. Her nose crinkles as she assesses my pupils with a thin light and tells me to track her finger. It’s only when she stoops to listen to my chest that I see Pryce standing by the chairs.
“You remember DS Pryce?” the doctor asks, and seems pleased when I nod. “Good. Do you remember my name?”
“No.” I frown at the croak in my voice. My mouth is as dry as sand.
“Here,” she says, offering me water through a straw. “Shall we start from the top, then?”
I nod again, savouring the water and unwilling to release the straw. The doctor keeps the glass steady and speaks slowly enough that her well-disguised Scouse accent becomes apparent.
“I’m Esther Lewis, one of the trauma specialists at Bangor General. I took care of you in A&E, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you while you’re an inpatient here. Once you’d stabilised last night, you had an operation to fix the break in your arm. You fractured both of the bones in your lower arm, and you have a couple of plates in there now to hold everything together. You’ll get a proper cast on that once the swelling has reduced.” She touches the right side of my chest. “Two of your ribs here are broken, and one of them collapsed your lung. Your right eardrum ruptured, which is why you’re having trouble hearing, and we think this”—her fingers graze my new bald spot—“is the reason your memory isn’t quite up to speed.”
I arc an eyebrow at the understatement and untangle my tongue from the straw. “Will it come back?”
“Dr. Chander, your neurologist, is optimistic. The CT scan showed a subdural haematoma—essentially a gathering of blood—that’s pressing on your brain. It’s small and doesn’t seem to be actively bleeding, so we’re managing it conservatively for now, which is a fancy way of saying we’re leaving it to sort itself out.”
I don’t like the idea of neurosurgery, but I’d prefer my brain to be unsquashed. “What if it starts bleeding again?”
Lewis puts my glass down and jots a note on my chart. “Then Dr. Chander gets a chance to play with his drill, and believe me, nothing makes him happier.”
This surprises a laugh out of me. She squeezes my hand, obviously pleased to have brightened my outlook somewhat.
“It won’t come to that,” she says. “The clot is tiny, and we have you on lots of good drugs. You might never get clarity for those minutes just prior to the car crash—that’s common in traumatic brain injuries—but you should get everything else back, so don’t be worrying.” She looks over to Pryce and back to me. “Do you feel up to answering a few questions?”
It seems like the least I could do. “I’ll try.”
“Atta girl. Don’t tire her out,” she warns Pryce. “She should be pressing this little button in twenty-seven minutes.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Pryce keeps her face straight, but there’s an easy intimacy to their exchange, and even half-cut on morphine I can tell their relationship goes beyond the purely professional.
After switching on a small lamp, Lewis leaves us alone. Pryce waits for the curtain to close and then pulls up the chair with her coat on it. She looks exhausted.
“Have you been here all night?” I ask. It’s the first time I’ve seen her clearly. Like Lewis, she’s a few inches taller than me, with an athletic build, and the hair that seemed so dark by the crash site is actually shot through with auburn lowlights, her haphazard ponytail coming apart at the seams. She’s not wearing makeup, and her Celtic knot earrings seem little more than an afterthought.
“Yes,” she answers without inflection, sinking into the chair.
It takes me a few seconds to think back to my question. I wince. “Sorry.”
She waves away my apology and retrieves a notepad from her bag. “We’re having difficulty tracing your family,” she says by way of an opener. “Or your friends. Well, anyone, really.”
I watch her find a blank page and ready her pen. “Are they not in my phone?” I hadn’t thought to look last night, but it seems an obvious place to find contacts.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” She taps her teeth with her pen. “But your phone was new, brand new in fact. The box and receipt were in the car.”
“Shit,” I say. “The woman I was with, do you know who she is? I mean, who she was?”
“Not as yet, no. She had no ID on her.” Pryce eyeballs me. “I don’t suppose you’ve had any flashes of inspiration where she’s concerned, have you?”
I shake my head, my mouth parched again. Pryce refills my water glass and hands it to me.
“What about the crash?” she asks as I drink. “Can you tell me what happened there?”
“No,” I say, hating the weakness of my voice and repeating my answer with more emphasis. “No, I don’t know who she was or why we crashed. I don’t even know what we were doing in Wales. I don’t think I’m Welsh, am I?”
An almost-smile tweaks the corners of Pryce’s lips. “You’re definitely not Welsh. From your accent, I’d say Manchester, which would fit in with your bus pass.”
“Manchester, eh?” It’s elating to have actual information. A possible hometown, or at least a geographical area.
“We ran your prints and those of the decedent through the PNC,” she continues, “but nothing came up. Using Manchester as a starting point for yourself, I’ve issued requests to the electoral register and the DVLA, the driving licence agency, but Rebecca Elliott is a common enough name that any hits I get will take time to follow up and eliminate.”
I bend my legs to lessen the persistent stabbing of my ribs. “Could you do an appeal? Maybe take some photos?”
She tucks a length of hair behind her ear. She’s not a fidgeter—she has the classic stoicism of a seasoned detective—and the gesture betrays her unease. “Photos might not help us much right now.”
I catch on immediately and run my fingers across my face. “Have you got a mirror?”
She glances at the curtain, as if willing someone to interrupt us. “That’s probably not a good idea.”
“Please?” I can’t get to the bathroom, but I’m not averse to launching an attempt. I’m about to wiggle out a foot to prove I mean business when Pryce sighs and relents, fishing out not a mirror but her mobile. With her fingers on my chin, she turns me into the light and takes a few shots. She deletes a couple and shows me the rest.
They’re not pretty. I stare at the face on the screen, at its distorted jaw and puffy eyes and the sutured laceration that splits its right eyebrow. It doesn’t seem like me. I’ve no connection to this young woman with the blue-black hair and the small silver ring in her nose.
I touch the piercing, making sure it’s really there, and peer beneath my gown to check my belly button. It’s unadorned, but there’s an intricate tattoo of roses and thorns curling around my right biceps. At some point in my life, I appear to have embraced the stereotype of anti-establishment rebel. I rub my forehead with the heel of my hand. There are five minutes left on the pump.
“Did you run the tattoo?” I ask.
“Yes. No luck.” Pryce closes her notebook and secures it with an elastic band. “I think my time’s about up. I’ll be back to see you later.”
She doesn’t specify when. I watch her go, and I count the last thirty seconds on the pump, hitting the button on zero. Nothing happens at first, but then I get the slow-release high that smoothes the edges off everything. I drift and doze, mellow enough not to be worried when I realise that even if I don’t have a record, I’ve obviously been in trouble with the police before, because I knew to ask about the tattoo and I knew what a PNC check was without Pryce having to explain it.
They don’t muck about at Bangor General. I spend the rest of the morning sleeping, self-medicating, and sleeping some more, and finally open my eyes to a cheery note on the cubicle’s whiteboard informing me that it’s sunny with occasional showers outside and that I have an appointment with the physiotherapist at one thirty p.m. I’m tempted to get myself good and stupefied in advance, but I’ve been hiding away in a drug fog for hours and it seems like cheating somehow.
The physio is a punctual and perennially cheerful sort who runs me through a series of breathing exercises to prevent pneumonia and then tells me that there’s nothing wrong with my legs and I really should try getting out of bed. I stare at her, unsure whether she’s taking the piss or merely bonkers.
“I have all this stuff,” I say when she fails to acknowledge my concerns and readies a high-backed armchair.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s all portable. I’ll get Hanif to give us a lift.”
Minutes later, supported by Hanif and with the physio manoeuvring my attachments, I shuffle eight steps to the chair and lower myself into it.
“Excellent, that’s enough for today,” she says. “Keep going with those exercises, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She bustles out, and I sag back, drained by her enthusiasm and the unexpected exertion.
“Cup of tea?” Hanif says, draping a blanket over my knees, his voice and expression deadpan.
“Coffee?” I counter instinctively.
“Not a problem. Milk and sugar?” He notices my indecision. “How about I bring both and let you experiment?”
“That would be great. Thanks.”
I fold my arms across my chest, hugging the blanket close. I don’t really get how this works. My personal life—who I am, where I’m from, what I do for a living, my likes and dislikes—are a blank, but I was able to work a mobile phone, and I knew to call 999 for the emergency services. I can function in the everyday, operate its gadgets, and interact. It’s only when it comes to myself that I feel as if a section of my brain has been scooped out. Perhaps that’s what the blood clot is nudging against, and as the clot recedes it’ll release all the parts it’s trapping. I cross my eyes at my rubbish grasp of neurophysiology. Whatever I do as a career, I’m pretty sure I’m not a brain surgeon.
Trial and error tells me I prefer my coffee white with two sugars. Or maybe I don’t, but this new post-brain-injury me does. I’m dunking a ginger nut when there’s a tap on the cubicle wall and Pryce pokes her head through the curtain.
“Didn’t waste any time getting you on your feet, did they?” She sits next to me. “How are you?”
I suck my ginger nut—chewing won’t be happening for a while yet—and make a “so-so” gesture as she removes her notebook from her bag. She looks refreshed, as if she’s snatched a couple of hours’ sleep and a shower. Her hair is neat, knotted back and clipped in place, and she’s changed into a smart shirt and dress trousers. Her air of official efficiency makes me wary.
“What department do you work in?” I ask. Anyone who’s ever watched reality TV knows that it’s uniformed officers, not detectives, who respond to car crashes.
She crosses her legs, her notebook open and balanced. “Major Crimes. I was on my way home from a conference last night when our techs fixed your location, so I volunteered to help with the search. Given the circumstances, I’m working your case until told otherwise.”
I place my half-eaten biscuit back on the plate. It seems too frivolous to eat during this conversation. “Have you identified her yet?” I ask.
“No.” Pryce glances at her book. I can see neat handwriting and bullet points but can’t read it from here. “Shall I tell you what we’ve been able to establish so far?” The question is rhetorical; she’s already barrelling onward. “Your car was in excellent condition. The report from the vehicle examiner states there was no mechanical fault that might have contributed to the crash. Although the debris is still being gathered for reconstruction, there is no evidence yet to indicate the involvement of another vehicle. There were no animal carcasses in the road or on the verges to suggest you might have swerved to avoid one or been in collision with one. Scene analysis undertaken by the RPSIO—that’s the Road Policing Senior Investigating Officer—estimates you were travelling at speeds between fifty and sixty miles an hour, so inside the statutory limit—”
“But too fast for the conditions,” I murmur. It’s not an admission of guilt, just a rudimentary conclusion based on the stretch of road I saw from the barrier last night: ink-black and slick with rain and snow.
“It would seem so,” she says. “Your bloods were negative for alcohol or drugs. We’ve traced the car to a rental agency in Ardwick, Manchester. You appear to have signed the agreement, and CCTV shows the decedent with you in the agency at four thirty-eight yesterday afternoon.”
The latter detail jerks my head up, but Pryce is already shaking hers.
“The quality of the recording is too poor for us to release it to the public. We can see it’s the two of you, but little else. Number plate recognition cameras place you on the M60 twenty-five minutes later, and then the M56, so we’re assuming you left for Wales directly from Ardwick.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say, which is a very mild way of putting it. “The woman last night on the 999 call, she said we were in Snowdonia. Why the hell would we have been there? Do you think we were going on holiday?” I sit up straighter, buoyed by a sudden recollection. “Oh! Did you find the holdall and the clothes?”
“We found one bag at the scene,” Pryce confirms. She angles her head, evaluating me. “You’re what? An eight? Maybe a ten, at a push? And about five foot five?”
I shrug, taking her word on that.
“The clothes were all fourteen to sixteen. The post mortem measurements imply they belonged to your companion.”
“So I was taking her somewhere, possibly giving her a lift?”
“All the way to Wales,” Pryce says, and I hear the scepticism in her voice. She takes out a small plastic evidence bag and hands it to me. “We found these lodged in the passenger footwell. Do you recognise them?”
“No,” I say, rubbing my finger over the larger key. It’s a typical Chubb door key, and the other is a smaller, flatter one for a Yale lock.
“Any idea what they open?” she asks.
“At a guess, a front door.”
“But that’s just a guess?”
The edge to her voice makes me bristle. If I could provide her with an answer, I would. Then she wouldn’t have to keep watching the monitors for telltale physiological signs of subterfuge. If my heart rate is spiking, it’s because she’s pissing me off.
“Yes, that’s just a guess,” I snap.
She holds up her hands, implying she meant no offence, and then delves into her bag again. I shrink into my chair when I see “North West Wales Coroner’s Office” stamped across a large brown envelope. It wouldn’t take a genius to decipher my body language, and she turns the envelope plain side up, obviously ruing her error.
“I need you to look at these,” she says, her voice low and soft, “but not necessarily today. Not if you’re not ready.”
A monitor sounds a steady warning, bringing Hanif into the cubicle. He mutes the alarm and checks my blood pressure.
“Are you all right?” he asks, too experienced to go by data alone.
“I’m fine,” I say and reiterate it for Pryce’s sake. “I’m fine. I want to do this.”
Hanif examines my morphine pump. “Stop skipping doses. You’ll need the next one to get yourself back into bed.” Then, to Pryce, “Twenty minutes, no longer.”
She nods without equivocating. He has his own air of authority, and she’s a guest on his patch. He leaves the curtains ajar, and she slides a set of photographs out of the envelope before he can change his mind and terminate the interview.
“Ready?” she asks me.
I hold my hand out in lieu of answering, and she passes me the first photograph. The woman at the centre of the colour image looks far more peaceful than she did in the car. Supine on the mortuary’s metal table, she has her eyes closed, and her body is covered by a white sheet. Her face is clean and unmarred, apart from the jagged laceration cleaving her left forehead, and someone has brushed the blood from her hair. She’s a brunette, and I know her hair reaches halfway down her back, although I can’t see that in the shot. Her laugh is loud and infectious, and she loves eighties music and Raspberry Ruffle bars. I used to buy them for her from the corner shop, a handful at a time.
I hear a faint rustle, and Pryce offers me a tissue as a tear drops off my nose and splashes onto the photograph. I blot it dry and wipe my face. There are other images: a cheap costume jewellery ring on the woman’s left index finger, a matching bracelet, and a purple hummingbird tattoo low on the right side of her abdomen. I trace the shape of the tattoo, unease creeping over me. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.
“Were you friends? Or maybe a couple?” Pryce asks quietly. The latter question doesn’t offend me. It’s an obvious one to ask, given my reaction, and if the woman and I were closeted, that might explain the clandestine nature of our trip to Wales. Amongst all the grey areas and supposition, one thing I am certain of is my sexuality. Until now, I’ve been too spaced out to really consider it, but it must be something too deep-rooted to be altered or masked by a whack to the head, because I know that I’m gay. Perhaps that explains the empty chairs at my bedside.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “We were friends, I think. At least.”
The answer seems to satisfy Pryce for the moment. She starts to pack her things, getting ready to leave, though I’ve no doubt I’ll be seeing her again.
I sniff and swallow, and my ear pops, blanking out the noises of the hospital. In their place I hear a burst of cheesy pop music and laughter, a woman—thiswoman?—imploring me to dance with her. The air is rich with the scent of smoked meats, tomatoes, herbs, and red wine. I’m not convinced by the addition of sauerkraut, but she reassures me and offers me a taste from a wooden spoon. She cups her hand beneath the spoon, catching errant drips, and licks her palm, her eyes wide with delight. The sauce tastes amazing. I swallow again, my tongue poking out to touch the spoon, but the pressure in my ear equalizes and the woman disappears.
“What’s a biggos?” I ask Pryce, the question past my lips before it’s engaged with my brain.
Looking as bemused as I feel, she retakes her seat and rests her hands on her bag. “I haven’t the foggiest. Where did that come from?”
“Just popped into my head. Can you google it?”
“How are we spelling it?”
“B-i-g…” I falter. I’ve only ever heard it spoken. “Maybe double g?”
“‘Bigos.’ One g,” Pryce tells me, reading from her phone. “It’s a hunter’s stew. A traditional speciality of—”
“Poland,” I say. “She was Polish.” I think back to her tattoo, rendered in shades of purple. “May I?”
Pryce proffers the phone without question, and I search first for “purple in Polish,” which brings up a word I fail to pronounce. I scowl at it for being so damn literal and try “Polish girls’ names” instead, hitting the first link that promises meaning and etymology. I get as far as “J” on the alphabetical list, and butterflies swirl in my belly as I click on one of the names.
“Jolanta,” I say out loud, the way she used to emphasise each of its syllables, her accent curling around the sounds. “Her name is Jolanta. It means ‘violet’ in Polish. She told me it was her favourite colour.”
It’s not one specific trigger but a slow-growing accumulation that brings my mum back to me: the hospital’s sponge pudding, the skin on its custard thick enough to repel an axe; the impersonal hands of an agency nurse rolling me to check for pressure sores, and her faint look of distaste as she empties my catheter; the monotonous cycle of observations being taken; the feeling of helplessness as a succession of strangers prod and probe my body and congregate at the foot of the bed to discuss my “case” in incomprehensible jargon.
One of the doctors is awkwardly patting my arm when I first start to see my mum. He’s young, with acne still pocking his face, and his beard needs scrubbing out and starting again. He participated for ten minutes in an animated discussion moderated by my neurologist, Dr. Chander, but interacting with an actual patient seems to fall beyond his comfort zone.
“I think I scared him,” I hear my mum say. Her accent is far milder than mine, and her voice is so clear she could be sitting beside me. Instead she’s in her own hospital bed, swaddled beneath a crocheted blanket that my gran made for her. She tracks the doctor’s rapid egress from the ward.
“I wonder if his parents know he’s out so late,” she murmurs.
I stroke her hand. The skin covering her fingers is paper-thin, and her grip is feeble. Her hair has never grown back, and I’ve shaved mine again in solidarity. She insists on wearing a woolly hat, because even in the stifling heat of Ward 3, Bay 4, she’s always cold.
“I want to go home,” she says. “Please don’t let me die in here.”
And I hug her and kiss her and promise her that I won’t.
“Are you finished with this, love?” The twilight shift nurse slides my abandoned supper tray toward her. The doctors have left, and we’re alone in the room. My mum is gone.
I manage to say, “Yes, thank you,” though I’m still punch-drunk with sorrow. My mum’s scent—her face cream and the peppermints she sucked to ease the burning in her throat—overwhelms that of the meal I’ve hardly touched.
“Didn’t fancy the stroganoff, then? Can’t say as I blame you.” The nurse wrinkles her nose at the lumps of grey meat congealing on a bed of wet rice. “You poor dab. How about I make you some toast instead? You really need to eat something.”
She means well, but I don’t need toast. I need my mum, who would read Enid Blyton to me when I was poorly and melt cheese into Heinz tomato soup. She died in her own bed, her brain riddled with metastases and her lungs full of fluid.
“Toast would be lovely,” I say.
I push my hand under the sheets, digging my nails into my palm to stop myself from falling apart. The instant the nurse leaves, I stuff my fist into my mouth, muffling the sobs that tear through me as I mourn my mum for the second time.
Curling onto my side, I pull my knees up and hide my face with my bandaged arm. The pillow beneath my cheek is soaked, and I’m wracked by that weird open-mouthed juddering that children do when they’ve cried themselves out. The supper tray has displaced my box of tissues, so I dry my face on the bedding instead and stare at the monitors until the colours become too bright.
Eventually, a yawn catches me off guard. I smother it and start to read the yellow drug labels stuck to all my IVs, sounding the words out and guessing what the medicines might be for. I’m absolutely knackered, but I don’t want to sleep. I’m terrified of closing my eyes and finding somebody else I’ve already lost.
Deemed healthy enough for a regular ward, I’m transferred from HDU before the sun is up, shunted along deserted corridors and into my new single room on the trauma ward, T6. I’ve swapped the bank of monitors for a window overlooking a car park and a sign that reads Ysbyty GWYNEDD. Mesmerised by the sight of people going about their everyday lives, I watch the car park fill up with staff arriving for the early shift, their heads bowed against the persistent rain and a wind strong enough to turn their brollies inside out. Grey clouds mass as day breaks, and the window lets in a draught that smells of petrol fumes and seaweed.
A few minutes after handover, a student nurse comes to introduce herself. She writes her name on the whiteboard in block capitals—CEINWEN—and tells me not to worry about getting it right, because the southerners always say it wrong anyway.
“You have physio at ten, and you’re getting a cast put on your arm at eleven,” she says, creating a multicoloured schedule punctuated with smiley faces. “And we’re going to pop that catheter out as well.” She decides against adding that to the day’s events. “Shall we do that before breakfast?”
I’d rather she didn’t “pop” anything out of me, but I nod my consent, which prompts her to scurry from the room in search of equipment and, hopefully, supervision.
I only have two tubes remaining—an IV and the chest drain—as I eat my porridge and hobble into the bathroom, where Ceinwen expertly directs the shower hose, avoiding my stitches and sticky tape and various other parts too tender to touch. Taking pity on me, she tosses my arse-revealing gown into the laundry and smuggles in a set of scrubs she’s pinched from the staff stores.
“There,” she says as she combs my damp hair in front of the mirror. “I love this colour. What do you use?” She bites her lip as she hits the question mark, but I smile at her.
“Your guess is as good.” I tease out a strand, examining the hint of deep blue along its length. “It’s probably called something ridiculous.”
“Brazen Blueberry,” she suggests, and starts to giggle.
“Exactly.” I wipe the mirror clear of steam and peer at my reflection. The swelling around my eyes is less pronounced now, and I can see they’re a nondescript hazel. Purple bruises mottle my cheeks and jaw, and my hair has settled loosely around my ears. It’s not long enough to tie back, and I seem to have a fringe, though its style is something of a conundrum.
“How about this?” Ceinwen doesn’t wait for an answer, and within seconds she’s feathered and tousled and swept my fringe across to the right, where it seems to sit naturally. She beams at me. “That looks well tidy. It really suits you.”
“It’s very fetching,” I say, genuinely tickled by my new do. She’s even managed to cover my bald spot, but it’s the sense of normalcy she’s brought in with her that I value the most.
“Oh, before I forget,” she says, collecting my wash things, “the ward sister said Detective Pryce will be in to see you at half one.”
And as easy as that, my cheerful little bubble bursts.
Pryce phones to say she’s running late, allowing me time to adjust to the weight of my new plaster cast and recover from the conniption fit I have when a lifelike sketch of Jolanta appears on the one o’clock news.
“The North Wales Police are appealing for witnesses after a car crash left one woman dead and a second in a serious but stable condition in Bangor General Infirmary. The navy blue Ford Focus veered off the A5 late on Friday evening, leading to a large-scale search and rescue operation after the injured woman managed to alert the emergency services.”
I mute the report, but the room’s last resident has set the subtitles going, and I don’t know how to turn them off. My name is given in full, as well as a brief summary of my amnesia-induced predicament, and Jolanta’s image is used again to close out the piece. A hotline number scrolls along the bottom of the screen, and then they’re back to discussing whatever the Tories have fucked up this week.
I gulp a glass of lukewarm water, part of me hopeful that someone will come forward to claim me, and the rest knocked for six by the artist’s impression of Jolanta. I haven’t been able to provide her surname. I think I mostly followed her lead and called her “Jo.”
I’ve just managed to compose myself when Pryce strides in after a cursory knock, her hair wet and rain-scented.
“Not much of a view, is it?” she says, shaking off her coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. She pauses on her way back to the chairs, her head at a slight angle as she regards me.
“Student nurse,” I say, helping her out. “She got a bit giddy with the comb earlier.”
“Ah.” A faint blush colours Pryce’s cheeks. “She did a good job.”
“Yeah?” I shrug, unwilling to lower my guard. “It’ll do for now.”
Pryce gets herself comfortable, following her usual routine: bag propped by the chair, notebook open on her lap. She taps her teeth with her pen, signalling a return to business.
“We found your cottage,” she says. “It’s about eight miles from where you crashed. That’s what the keys are for.”
“My cottage?” I’m damn sure I don’t own a cottage in Snowdonia. My only connection to Wales is a hazy memory of a daytrip to Rhyl when I was young enough to find the Sun Centre exciting. I came out with a pink and white ice cream and a verruca.
“Sorry, no, you don’t own it,” she says, because apparently, my actual drip feed isn’t enough, and she has to provide her information in another. “It’s a rental. The owner went round yesterday to check everything was all right and realised you’d never arrived. She’d heard about the crash and put two and two together.”
I rub my left temple. I’ve had a nagging headache all day, and Pryce is making it worse. “How long had I rented it for?”
She consults her notes. “A week. You booked it last minute through an agency and collected the keys at their office in Conwy.”
“Why didn’t I have a bag in the car, then?” I ask. None of this makes any fucking sense. Pryce throws up her hands, obviously sharing my exasperation. Logical explanations don’t seem to be forthcoming, so I go for outlandish. “Could someone have stolen it after the accident?”
Folding her arms, she gives an exaggerated sigh, as if she’s willing to let this play out but wants me to understand it’s under duress. “Did you see or hear anyone in the vicinity?”
“No.” I squeeze my eyes shut and attempt to reconstruct a clear narrative of that night. I can’t do it. All I get are snapshots of disconnected visuals that don’t come close to forming a whole. I decide to hedge my bets. “I don’t think so. But I’d been unconscious for a while.”
“Do you think it’s plausible that someone followed your car down the embankment on foot, purely to take your luggage?”
“Plausible? No,” I mumble, feeling like a chastised schoolgirl. “But I suppose it’s not impossible.”
She scoots forward, bridging the gap between chair and bed. “Any idea what you might have been carrying that would be worth all that effort?”
“No.” I curse myself for gifting her this new angle of attack. I really should think these things through before I open my mouth. My head’s pounding, and I can feel tears clogging my throat. “I’m just trying to help,” I whisper.
Pryce nods in a distracted way, busy scribbling a note that she encircles and marks with a bold star. I can guess what she’s just highlighted (drugs? proceeds of a robbery? incriminating documents used for blackmail? cybercrime gadgets?) because I’m running through the list myself to see whether any of it provokes a response. That nothing prompts so much as a twitch does little to console me.
She shuts her book. “I think that’s enough for today. I’m going to speak to Dr. Lewis about taking a formal statement from you. It’ll be taken under caution. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes: ‘I do not have to say anything. But it may harm my defence…’ et cetera, et cetera.” That uneasy sensation swirls around in my stomach again. I wait until she’s fastening her coat before I say, “I saw the news.”
“Ah.” Her hand freezes with half the buttons done, and her expression softens into one of concern. “I forgot to warn you about that. I should have, I really meant to, but it just slipped my mind.” She seems so sincere that I regret sending her on a guilt trip.
“Hey, I know what it’s like to have stuff slip your mind.”
A smile brightens her face, giving me a split-second glimpse of Bronwen Pryce rather than the DS. She rests her hand on my arm. “We’ll get to the bottom of all this, Rebecca. I know it’s a lot to take in, but we’ll sort it out.”
“One way or another,” I say.
Her hand slips away. “Yes. One way or another.”
The car rocks, pitching me left to right, and I feel someone grab a handful of my hair and jerk my head up. The violence shocks a moan from me, and the hand lets go as if scalded.
“They’re still alive,” a man says. The buzz of my bad ear warps his voice, but he sounds frantic, a quaver rattling his speech. He pushes my face away, his gloved fingers exerting enough force to bruise. The smell of his sweat fills the car, and I hear a metallic jangle every time he moves.
“Stop fuckin’ bellyaching,” a second man says from behind me. “Look at the state of ’em. Problem solved. Come on.”
I’m held in place until he’s inched well beyond my eyeline. The car boot slams shut, locking out the worst of the storm, and I turn toward the woman’s sodden breaths. She’s unconscious and bleeding. I open my mouth to speak to her, but I don’t know what to call her.
“Jo? Jo?Aw, Jesus fuck!”
I wake in a twist of sheets and IV tubing, a pillow clutched in front of me like a shield. Blood is trickling along my wrist where I’ve yanked the line loose, and the dream is receding too quickly for me to catch its details. Panting hard, I stretch out and get a grip on the whiteboard’s marker pen. I don’t have any paper, so I bring my left arm across my chest and use its new plaster cast as a notepad: Two men. My accent. Leather glove? Metal.
I snarl in frustration, unable to lock anything else down and unsure whether what I’ve written even took place. The timing of the nightmare, hot on the heels of my theorising about the presence of a third party, is too much of a coincidence. This is what happens when my subconscious is allowed to run riot. I can imagine Pryce’s face if I suddenly reveal two mystery men who might have caused the crash but managed to leave no evidence of their involvement. She would pin me with that look of hers, the one she reserves for moments when I’ve yet again denied all knowledge of a fact she deems incontrovertible. Her right eyebrow arches, and her teeth pull on her top lip a little—not enough to be obvious, more like the tell of a poker player aware of the game’s foregone conclusion.
Regardless of her scepticism, I’m still unnerved by the dream, and the sound of approaching footsteps makes me push down in the bed, acutely aware of how vulnerable I am now that an appeal has been made and Jolanta’s image has gone out on national television. “The female survivor,” the news called me, and then blabbed my current location and condition to all and sundry.
The nurse who enters has already been in to check my observations a couple of times. She tucks the pillow behind my head and straightens my sheets.
“Nightmare?” she asks, wrapping a dressing around my leaking vein.
“Yeah,” I whisper. I keep my cast pressed close to my body as she resites the IV.
“Can I get you anything, love? Coffee? I can do you some warm milk if you’re having trouble sleeping.”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.”
She drapes the emergency cord over my pillow. “Buzz if you change your mind.”
“I will, I promise.”
I wait a full minute and then inch my legs out of the covers, letting my bare feet dangle until I’m accustomed to sitting unaided. I slide to the floor before I lose my nerve, gripping the bed rail and my IV pole for balance. Carrying the drain low and loose like a bag of shopping, I limp to the bathroom. No one comes to investigate when I switch the light on, so I turn the left side of my face to the mirror, inspecting the arch of my cheekbone. Set within a broad area of blue-green bruising are two deeper circles of purple. I press my fingertips against them and feel the corresponding sting where the man dug in with his own.
“Shit,” I whisper.
Mindful of how often my obs are taken, I turn out the light and hobble back to bed. The nurse has left my door ajar, and I lie wide-awake and jittery, listening to an elderly woman call for help every thirty seconds. I peek at the underside of my cast, murmuring the words there in an effort to make sense of them, but there’s no light bulb revelation, no eureka moment where everything falls into place and I find out exactly why I’m in Wales or why two men would leave me and my friend for dead in a smashed-up car.