'Lyrical, haunting and compelling, Saunders creates a mystical otherworld where the living hunt the dead and the dead mourn the living. A wonderfully original voice.' - Jon Bassoff, author of The Incurables.
I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five
But I am still alive.
- Jimmy Webb/Highwayman
When Rain Falls in the Forest
The Old Man and Woman
Coming up for midnight. In '93, England, before twenty-four hour licensing for pubs and bars, there were plenty of people making their way across the city. The pubs kicked out some time past eleven in the evening. Clubs, anytime between two and four in the morning.
On the main drag through and into Cambridge, maybe two hundred people were there to see Damien Peterson walk out in front of the taxi a minute before midnight true. Damien was a second year student at one of the universities in Cambridge. He was bright, kept fit between hockey and sex with whoever would have him. Well-fed, toned, around five feet and eleven inches in height.
The taxi that hit him was a Mercedes. It was big, clunky, silver. It carried two co-workers. The driver was sober, Damien wasn't. There was nothing the driver could do to avoid the man in the road. Nothing Damien could do to get out of the way, and the Mercedes was a damn sight heavier than any student that ever lived.
It wasn't an even match.
The Mercedes wasn't going fast, because it was in the city and a university city, at that. At midnight on a Friday there were always plenty of drunk kids around, whether they walked or rode on bikes. It was a hazard city taxi drivers knew well enough, but knowledge of the possibility doesn't necessarily negate those possibilities. The heavy, slow car hit Damien, bumper to the part of the shin that sits just below the kneecap. It happened to catch both legs, because Damien, in his surprise, managed to turn to face the car. Side on, he might have stood a chance. 23mph and both legs bent the wrong way. His arms hit the bonnet, leaving a fair dent, a second later, his face, knocking out a tooth without ever marking any other part of his face. The taxi, at this point, was braking. There was nothing wrong with the brakes on the car, but no car can stop dead from 20 or 30 miles-an-hour.
By the time it stopped, twenty more yards down the road, Damien's head had hit both the road and the underside of the big car. Thump on the bonnet, then thump on the road (duller) and a sound somewhere between the two on the way back up.
Two hundred or so people didn't all see the accident, but they were aware. A couple of screamers, the screech of the tyres on the road. Plenty turned to look. A few people stood under a restaurant's canopy and saw, pretty much, the whole thing. No one moved. Even the taxi driver sat for a few seconds, not hurt, but stunned. He already knew he'd killed the boy, whether at fault or not. Killed him, without a doubt, rather than stunned or broken.
This refrain would stay with him for the rest of his life.
But he didn't die, not entirely - not instantly, anyway. A fibre, a frayed filament, still tethered his soul to his wrecked body.
On the south side of the street an elderly gentleman and his elderly wife held hands. An oddity in the drunken cities that belonged to younger people after ten in the evening. People saw the elderly man, his wife still by his side, move to the dying boy. The man took a few seconds getting down, like older people do. Sore back, knees, hips - a body that doesn't work like a twenty-year old hockey player's used to. The back of the boy's head was split. His eyes rolled and there was a shard of tooth left at the front. The old man put his mouth over Damien's. People watching saw him try to give the kiss of life to the student. Pumped up and down on the labouring chest, mouth-to-mouth again, pump. The old man's hands were covered with liver spots. His nails were yellow, but people didn't see that in the orange light of a city night.
His wife stood beside him, her hand at her throat. A well-turned out couple, people would say. He wore a three-piece suit, she, a dress under a coat. A heavy coat, because it was cold. A dark, woven material, with a broach on her lapel. Her hair was curled. His, bald, perhaps, under a smart hat.
The old man closed the boy's eyelids with his old, stained fingers. He stood, then shook his head to his wife, peered into the taxi, shook his head again.
He looks so sad, thought a young woman watching from beneath the canopy, smoking cigarette forgotten between her fingers. She felt bad for not being the one there first. But there's always someone there first. No sense in interfering.
The old man and his wife stepped back to the pavement. No one moved to talk to them. It wasn't that they didn't care. They cared. But there was something about the couple, some kind of connection between the two that couldn't be touched. Like a younger couple, kissing on the street. People look away, smile. Let them touch, hold each other, they might think. Like people know it doesn't last forever.
At that thought, the woman with the forgotten cigarette moved toward the dead student in the road. The taxi driver stepped from his taxi. He spoke into his radio, which was on a long, curled wire attached to a box set in his dashboard.
No one looked at the elderly, dapper couple after that first instant and it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Already ignored and largely forgotten, the man opened his mouth, and showed his wife the bright light that nestled there. The man closed his lips so he would not drop the soul he held inside. They smiled at each other. Not, perhaps, happy smiles, or sad smiles. Just old lovers sharing something only they would ever understand. A moment people would never see, either - a moment later they stepped backward into the land between midnight and were gone.
The two co-workers in the taxi were Karl Goodman and Bethany Moon. Karl and Bethany worked in a branch of an overseas bank in the centre of Cambridge. Karl was married to a beautiful woman named Silvia, and had been for four years. His anniversary would be in three weeks, when he'd buy Silvia a diamond pendant. He'd feel guilty all day, because he thought about Bethany Moon while dining with his wife that evening.
Later in the year, Karl and Bethany would sleep together for the first time, and early in '94, Karl would divorce Silvia. '97 Bethany Moon became Bethany Goodman, and in '99 Madeline Rose Goodman came into the world.
Worth it, thought Karl, holding his daughter for the first time beside his wife's hospital bed. Worth the long road.
He thought back to the night he'd decided he needed Bethany, and not Silvia. Thought of the night they'd been in a taxi that had hit the poor boy.
'Funny how things turn out,' he told his daughter, quietly, while Bethany slept a sleep well-earned.
His daughter's eyes were squeezed shut. She too, had earned a rest. Fed, content and quiet, even only a couple of hours old, she was a cool baby. She'd be a cool kid. A good kid. And he loved her right there, without reservation.
Karl Goodman kissed his daughter on her tiny forehead, a little above and between her eyes.
'Worth it,' he said.
Madeline Rose was fourteen years old when she died as he struggled across a river to her.
The river pulled him away, and he fought harder. Looking up, calling out, he saw them. An old couple, stepping down the steep earth to Madeline's side. The woman gave his daughter the kiss of life while her husband held her arm so she wouldn't slip, but it was too late for Madeline.
When Karl finally pulled himself from the water, the old woman and her husband were gone.
He held his daughter there while the clutching mud of the riverbank tugged at them, trying to pull them down. He dragged her from the mud to the grass above and laid her down.
We're wet and cold. I'll warm up. She won't.
He remembered thinking that.
On that day on the muddied bank of a river where his daughter Madeline Rose breathed her last breath Karl Goodman remembered, too, a dapper elderly gentleman and his wife, and how that old man had shaken his head as he stood back from a dead student there in the road. He remember, after all those years, how the old man had seemed to shake his head not at the taxi driver, but at Karl himself.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Karl Goodman stood at a window on the nineteenth floor of Minara IMC. Deutsche Bank employees behind him, a great big drop to the ground in front. The glass was thick.
He looked up from the ground at the sky. Blue, a couple of clouds. Monotonous. Dull.
'Shit,' he whispered. No one heard him. Few people listen to the men and women who stand on the precipice. It's not that the wind steals their words. It's because they stand out too proud against the horizon. It hurts to look at them, to hear them, to see them so bleak against the sun.
Karl wanted to jump.
Bethany, he thought. Bethany'd break.
It wasn't that he didn't care. He loved Bethany with everything that he had left. But even so, he didn't think it'd be enough.
If she was here? Would I smile, try to make a joke, keep it light? Would I bawl like a child, snot on my thousand-pound suit?
The view wasn't that great. A city, from above. He'd seen it before.
I like trees. I like the sea. I like walking in the country, where there is air that changes.
Bethany, at home. Him, halfway across the world. His daughter a year in the grave. Him, thinking about tunnelling down into the self-same dirt and see if he couldn't find her. Curl up next to her. It'd be cool.
So hot in Malaysia. Boring hot.
Everything's boring, Karl, he thought. You're suicidal.
It's not that bad.
Some small voice inside him told him it was, but he'd turned away from the bright window by then, and begun walking through the office.
'Mr. Goodman...' said a young woman. Once, he'd have stopped just for the sight of her. She was talking, but he kept walking. He smiled, but he didn't feel it. Smile, maybe she'd leave him alone.
She followed, a few steps, but something she'd registered in his smile stopped her. Her step faltered, his grew stronger.
He couldn't wait for the elevator. He stepped into the stairwell and for a moment, he could breathe easier. Even though it was nineteen floors down, he took the stairs. As he got more winded, it seemed his breath felt lighter.