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Chapter 1

From the gently curved arch of concrete and railings spanning the six lanes of fast-moving metal, a shape, which was clearly a head above a white shirt, rose then fell.

From the dashboard, as it conveys us hurtling along the fast lane, the world appears as if through a gauze, a filter of dislocated reality; we career along fixed ley lines through condensed space and strangely compressed time, until we arrive as if by some inexplicable magic at a destination, having simply stared ahead, monitoring a great, glass screen filled with light and images of others journeying alongside. Nothing normally disturbs this trance-like existence of two or three hours, nothing impinges from the sides – at least we hope it won’t, as any kind of untoward event would almost certainly spell the end for us.

Which is why the shock was palpable, a physical jolt, when Keith Hartman witnessed the event that changed his life. The sight of a portly, grey-haired man falling headlong from a footbridge onto the opposite carriageway, and disappearing into the flood of oncoming, bank-holiday traffic had the air of unreality about it. When he saw him plummet bodily through an airy emptiness towards the silent splash of impact, it was as if he were watching it all unfold at the tail-end of a disturbing dream.

Something real and unreal – an image projected onto the retina, a flood of information and activity, to which a response must be made.

‘Shit! Shit! Did you see that?’

‘See what?’

‘My god, he actually fucking fell. He actually fell right off the bridge!’

‘Who did?’ Keith’s girlfriend turned around in the passenger seat and, sure enough, she could see for herself the sudden bunching of red brake-lights, the manic flickering of hazard-lights; he saw that she sensed a thrilling flutter of panic at the now audible, dull thudding of collisions. A thick, acrid plume of black smoke was now rising into the gathering distance as their own car pushed on regardless.

‘Didn’t you see it? He fell straight off that footbridge back there. Oh my god, oh how bloody awful. An old guy falling off a bridge!’

‘You’re right,’ she replied, shocked now. ‘Something must have happened. The traffic’s going mad.’

Keith glanced sideways at his girlfriend sitting there beside him.

Something must have happened.

How bloody typical of Karen, this non-committal response which, at its heart, indicated her lack of belief. Of course it had happened, did she think he was making it all up? Was he fabricating his life into something more exciting?

Never really happy to accept what he told her, always just one step behind, and stubbornly reluctant to catch up and walk in step with him… Why could she not just believe him in the first place? Why did she have to have this constant filter of doubt whenever things happened?

This was part of all the stuff that was getting in the way nowadays. And it was bound to get worse. That’s how divorces must take root, he mused, almost cheerfully, as the tarmac sped on under the wheels of their jointly-financed Renault Mégane.

Which is why Keith decided it was best not to mention to her the other thing he had seen as the man had been falling off the bridge. It just wasn’t worth the trouble; for the moment he was still shaken, and within him a silent knot of horror kept him from saying any more.

Behind them, a sudden and shocking death was creating havoc on the M4.

Ahead lay a great many more things to contend with.

Closest were the sliproads and junctions that led eventually to his parents’ house, that rarely visited relic of his long-abandoned youth. Then would come the stilted and shifting conversations which betrayed the ever-widening gap between their ages, their aims, their aspirations.

But beyond this, spreading outwards from the safe cocoon of this normal and frustrating life that Keith shared with somebody he felt he was on the point of losing, there lurked a swarm of events waiting to unfold around the broken corpse lying on a bloodied patch of tarmac far behind him.

© Copyright Paul David Holland 2017