A tortured pile of metal, graphic skid marks and the broken bits of brick wall scattered along the roadside, all of it captured in sharp focus detail. The Evening Press had a cracking headline to go with it too: “Carnage On Our Roads.” They included an inset picture of Richard with his school tie askew smiling cockily. “Tragedy of Young Driver.” And the callous bastards could sit back and listen to the ringing of cash tills as their circulation grew.
In the following days people were very kind. They couldn’t do enough for me. “Was I alright?” “Did I need anything?” They wanted to share my pain. Concern was writ large and care and compassion were the key words. Bloody ghouls.
And the whispers, oh God, the whispers, “That’s her, that’s Vicky, the one whose boyfriend was killed in a car crash.” Sympathy and scandal in one indulgent scoop. “Do you know, she hasn’t been seen to weep one little tear. Not even at the funeral.”
Yes, how awful. But how they envied me. How they would have loved to try on the mourning black and affect the grief-strained face.
The funeral? Yes, I remember the funeral alright. All the talk was of tragedy and the loss of so much promise. Richard’s mum was there, what a cow, loaded with the grief of losing her only son, the football captain with the gleaming school reports. She didn’t speak to me.
At school, the Head, no less, called me into her office. Photographs of three smiling kids stood behind her as she ladled out more care and compassion. She oozed concern, “Victoria, we must try and carry on…my office is always open, if you need to, do come and talk.” A kind offer from the old vulture. After four years in school it was the first time I’d been in her office, the first time she’d called me by name, I preferred Vicky by the way, and the first chance she’d had to pick at the scraps and clean the bones of tragedy.
I wanted to be left alone and soon I had my way. Snarl and scowl and they’ll soon get the message, they’ll soon sniff out another source of gossip and get their snouts in the trough. And I could carry on attending lessons, compiling notes and completing homework. I could let the days blur into one meaningless treadmill.
“Right, stop!” The bell had gone, everyone was collecting stuff from their lockers and it was time to go home. Now I had that dummy Pete Howarth standing in front of me.
“because I want to talk to you, that’s what for?” With his chin jutting out, he was a man on a mission. “Why haven’t you returned any of my texts?”
There was no point in messing about, “Because I only text friends,” I told him.
“You won’t do much texting then.” Wow. Sharp as a knife and twice as cutting. He had hold of my elbow now and he was half guiding, half dragging me towards a chair. “I wanna show you something.” He took a folder out of his bag and produced a fistful of photographs. “Here, look at these.”
I took them from him and began to sift through the pile. Nearly every one featured Richard: Richard putting up a tent, Richard showing off, clowning about and pulling faces. And then, on the very bottom of the pile there’s one of Richard and me together. He’s in his football kit, he’s muddy and sweaty and he’s holding the City Schools’ Football Cup. His other arm is draped around me and I’m trying to avoid the worst of the mud and sweat, trying and failing to raise a smile of triumph, but it’s me and Richard together and it’s perfect.
“Take it, it’s yours.” Pete was talking to me but I couldn’t focus. Everything was dissolving into a moist blur. And in the middle of that Year area, where everyone was fussing about with bags and books, I couldn’t stop myself; I let out a tortured howl of pain and the dam burst. The tears flowed, the snot ran down my nose and no doubt everyone was staring but I didn’t care, I didn’t care at all, the black weight had to shift.
* * * * *
“How do I look?”
Pete gazed at me critically from across the table. I almost felt self-conscious as his observation swept over me and he considered his reply.
“A right mess.”
Somehow he’d got me out of that ruin they call a school and he’d sat me down in Luigi’s, the favoured haunt of those who think a cup of frothed up milk with a sprinkling of chocolate is the height of sophistication. And we’d drunk the stuff and talked and talked and talked. I told him that Richard and I had argued that last time we’d met. He’d wanted me to go to the coast with him and his mates on that bloody Sunday. And I told him I couldn’t; I had a lot of homework to do. Not everyone was
Like Richard, not everyone could sail through school and get good marks without seeming to try. I remember shouting at him as he stormed out of the door, “Some of us have to work.” And then I never saw him again.
I looked at Pete and braced myself for the sympathy but he only said, “Richard was a good mate, but he still owes me five quid.”
Pete was the first person who didn’t bathe Richard in a golden glow of sainthood. Richard was one of us, that’s all, a good footballer, a good mate and a dishy boyfriend. None of that changed because of the mangled wreck of a red saloon. Nor did it make him Mother Theresa. He’s just left a big hole that’s all, a gaping hole I still expected to see him fill every day: at school, in town and on the football pitch. And Pete too, must have felt that yawning chasm, the gap that opened up with depressing regularity each morning. Now he sat before me sipping luke warm cappuccino, waiting patiently between my bouts of wailing incoherence and looking at what must have been a mish-mash of mascara. He wanted to help bridge that gap and maybe the tears, the unsightly weeping mess, had been the first step.
Pete was talking about carrying on, “We can’t forget Richard, but we have to carry on.”
“And you,” I said, “Are you sniffing round his girlfriend? Is that how you plan to carry on?”
I could still plunge the knife in deep, but I didn’t twist it, and that, I suppose, was progress.