Authors: Lisa Ballantyne
Grateful thanks to Creative Scotland
and Scottish Book Trust, for the gift and inspiration
of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship
OLLOWAY WRAPPED HER SCARF
face before she walked out into the school parking lot. It was not long after four o'clock, but a winter pall had shifted over London. It was dusk already, wary streetlamps casting premature light onto the icy pavements. Snowflakes had begun to swirl and Margaret blinked as one landed on her eyelashes. The first snow of the year always brought a silence, dampening down all sound. She felt gratefully alone, walking out into the new darkness, hers the only footprints on the path. She had been too hot inside and the cold air was welcome.
Her car was on the far side of the parking lot and she wasn't wearing proper shoes for the weather, although she had on her long brown eiderdown coat. She had heard on the radio that it was to be the worst winter in the past fifty years.
It was only a few weeks until her thirty-sixth birthday, which always fell during the school holidays, but she had so much to do before the end of term. She was carrying a large handbag, heavy with documents to read for a meeting tomorrow. She was one of two deputy head teachers at Byron Academy, and the only woman on the senior management team, although one
of the four assistant heads below Margaret was female. The day had left her tense and electrified. Her mind was fresh popcorn in hot oil, noisy with all the things she still had to do.
She walked faster than she might have done in such wintry conditions, because she was angry.
on't do this,”
she had just pleaded with the head teacher, Malcolm Harris.
“It's a serious breach,” Malcolm had said, leaning right back in his chair and putting two hands beside his head, as if surrendering, and showing a clear circle of sweat at each armpit. “I know how you feel about him. I know he's one of your âprojects' butâ”
“It's not that . . . it's just that permanent exclusion could ruin him. Stephen's come so far.”
“I think you'll find he's known as Trap.”
“And I don't think of him as a project,” Margaret had continued, ignoring Malcolm's remark. She was well aware of Stephen Hardy's gang affiliationsâknew him better than most of the teachers. She had joined the school fresh out of college, as an English teacher, but had soon moved into the Learning Support Unit. The unit often worked with children with behavioral problems who had to be removed from mainstream classes, and she had been shocked by the number of children who couldn't even read or write. She had taught Stephen since his first year, when she discovered that, at the age of thirteen, he still couldn't write his own address. She had tutored him for two years until he was back in normal classes and had been so proud of him when he got his GCSEs.
“He was carrying a knife in school. It's a simple case as far as I can see. He's nearly seventeen years old andâ”
“It feels like you're condemning him. This is coming at the worst timeâhe's started his A Levels and he's making such good progress. This'll shatter his confidence.”
“We can't have knives in school.”
the knife. It was discovered by accident at the gym. You know he carries it for protection, nothing more.”
“No, I don't know that. And that's beside the point. This isn't as dramatic as you're making out. Kids drop out of sixth form all the time . . .”
“But he's not dropping out. You're forcing him out, after all he's overcome. Seven GCSEs with good grades and his teachers say his A-Level work has been great. This is just a blip.”
Malcolm laughed lightly. “A blip, hardly what I would call it.”
Margaret swallowed her anger, took a deep breath, and answered very quietly. “This decision will have a huge, huge impact on his life. Right now he has a chance and you are about to take it away. There are other options. I want you to take a step back and think very carefully.”
“One of us does need to step back . . .”
“I've said my piece. All I'm asking is that you sleep on it.” Malcolm's hands fell into his lap. He clasped them and then raised his thumbs at the same time as he raised his eyebrows. Margaret took it as assent.
“Thank you,” she managed, before she slipped on her coat.
“Drive carefully. There's a freeze on.”
Margaret smiled at him, lips tight shut. Malcolm was young for a head teacher: early forties, a keen mountain climber. He was only seven years older than Margaret and they were friends of sorts. They didn't often have differences and he had backed her rise to the school leadership.
“You too,” she had said.
The conversation tossed and turned in Margaret's mind as she walked to the car. She thought about Stephen with his violent older brother and collection of primary school swimming trophies. She thought about Malcolm and his insinuation that her viewpoint was personal, emotional.
The snow had become a blizzard and flakes swarmed. She was thirsty and tired and could feel her hair getting wet. She saw the car, took the key from her pocket, and pressed the button to open the doors.
As the headlights flashed on the new snow, she slipped. She was carrying too many things and was unable to stop herself. She fell, hard.
Picking herself up, Margaret realized that she had skinned her knees. Her handbag was disemboweled and the papers for tomorrow's meeting were dampening in the snow.
“Jesus Christ,” she whispered, as her knuckles grazed the tarmac chasing her iPhone.
In the car, she glanced at her face in the rearview mirror and ran her fingernails through her dark cropped hair. She had worn her hair short since her early twenties. It accentuated her big eyes and the teardrop shape of her face. The snow had wet her lashes, and ruined the eyeliner that ran along her upper lid in a perfect cat's eye. She ran her thumb beneath each brow. The lights from the school illuminated her face in the mirror, making her seem paler, childishly young, and lost.
She turned the key in the ignition, but the engine merely whined at her.
“You have got to be kidding,” she said, under her breath. “Come on. You can do it.”
She waited ten seconds before turning the key again, blow
ing onto her stinging knuckles and wondering if she might actually self-combust if she couldn't even get out of the bloody parking lot.
Often, she took the Tube to work, but there was disruption today and she hadn't wanted to risk being late.
She turned the key again. The engine whined, coughed, but then started.
“Thank you,” Margaret whispered, pumping the accelerator, turning on the lights and the radio.
She put on her seat belt, turned on the heater, exhaled, then glanced at Ben's text on her iPhone before she turned onto the road.
We need milk but only if u get a chance xx
The wipers were on full, the snow gathering at the corners of the windshield.
She turned right onto Willis Street and then after the Green Man Interchange she took the first exit, signposted C
. It was just over a half-hour drive from the school to Loughton in good conditions, but because of the snow and the heavy traffic today, Margaret expected it would take her forty minutes or more to get home.
Under her opaque tights, her skinned knees were stinging. The sensation reminded her of being a child. She banged the back of her head gently off the headrest, as if to shake the worries from her mind.
Ben would be making dinner, but as soon as she had eaten it, it would be time to take Paula to her acting class in the local community center, where Margaret would sit drinking weak machine coffee, preparing for her meeting tomorrow. If they made it home early she would be in time to stop the fight that Ben and Eliot, their seven-year-old, always seemed to have around bedtime, when her son was reluctant to relinquish his iPad.
She was a young parent, or young by today's standards: twenty-five when she married Ben, and twenty-six when Paula was born, with Eliot coming only two years later. Ben was a freelance writer and worked from home, and Margaret sometimes felt jealous that he saw more of the children than she did. Often it was Ben who welcomed them home from school, and most days during the week Ben cooked dinner and helped them with their homework.
Heading home, she always felt anxious to see them all again. At home, on the mantelpiece, there was a black-and-white photograph of Margaret reading to her children when they were both small. It was her favorite family photograph. Ben had taken it, snapping them unawares. Eliot was tucked under one arm and Paula under the other, and their three rapt faces were pressed close together, the book blurry in the foreground. Not tonight because she had to go out, but most nights Margaret still tried to read to them.
She indicated and then pulled out onto the M11, just in front of a truck. Both lanes were busy and she kept to the inside. There was a jeep in front of her and a lot of the splashback landed on Margaret's windshield. The traffic was traveling at sixty miles an hour, and the road was damp with dirty slush.
Margaret slowed down further as visibility was so poor. Caught in her headlights, the blizzard swirled in concentric circles. When she looked to the left of the windshield, the flakes darted toward her; when she looked to the right they reformed to focus in on her again. The snow building up on the corners of the windshield was blinkering her. She could see the red of taillights in front, but not much else except the illuminated, swirling flakes.
Margaret was not aware of what hit her, but she felt a hard
jolt from behind and the airbag exploded. She put her foot on the brake, but her car collided with the jeep in front. The noise of metal crushing took her breath away. The bonnet of her car rose up before her and everything went dark. She braced herself for great pain, holding her breath and clenching her fists.
No pain came. When she opened her eyes, there was the sound of car alarms and muffled screams and, underneath it all, the trickle and rush of water. She ran her hands over her face and body and could find no wound, although there was a dull ache in her chest from the airbag. She tried the driver's door, but it wouldn't open, even when she shouldered it. She reached for her handbag, but it had spilled onto the floor. Her car was contorted and dark and she couldn't see where her phone had fallen. She leaned over and tried to open the passenger door, but the impact had damaged that too.
There was a glow from behind the bonnet as if something in the engine had caught fire.
The snow continued to fall, filling the space between the bonnet and the windshield, so that it felt as if she was being buried. The lights that remained grew fainter. Margaret rubbed on the side window to clear it of condensation and pressed her face against the glass. She could see shapes moving in the darkness, oscillating in the oily puddles reflected by car lights. The shapes were people, she decided. There was also a wavering yellow, which almost looked like flames.
“It's all right,” she said to herself out loud. Help would come. All she had to do was wait. She slid over in the seat and searched with open palm on the floor for her phone. She found almost everything else: her lip gloss, a packet of tampons, ticket stubs for an Arcade Fire concert, and two hairbrushes.
While she was bent over, head to the floor, she became
aware of the smell of gasoline: a noxious whiff. It reminded her of hanging out of the car window at gas stations as a child. She strained to peer out of the small clear corner of her side window.
The grass embankment that ran along the crash barrier had been replaced by a strip of fire.
Margaret's breath suddenly became shallow. It rasped, drying, in her throat.
If she was right, and her fuel tank had been ruptured by the collision and the engine was on fire, then there was a chance that the car would explode.
She wanted to speak to Ben but was now glad that she couldn't find her phone. She wouldn't be able to conceal her fear.
Just the thought of him brought tears to her eyes. She remembered the smell between his shoulder blades in the middle of the night and the quizzical look in his eyes when she said something he disagreed with; the hunched way he sat over the keyboard in the study when he was working on an article. Then she thought of Paula, impatient to go to drama class, her dinner finished and thinking that Mum was late
. She thought of Eliot, lost in a game on his iPad, unaware of the danger she was in, or that his mother might be taken from him.
She looked around for objects that might smash the glass and found a weighted plastic ice scraper down the inside of the driver's door. She used all her strength and succeeded in making a crack in the window.
All she could smell was gasoline and her own sweatâher own fear. The car alarms had ceased but had been replaced by the flatline of car horns. She realized that many more cars must have crashed. The flatlining horns would be drivers slumped
against their steering wheels. Through the small triangle of cleared window she could see the shape of the fire moving.
“No,” she screamed, pounding her fists and her head and her shoulders at the window. “NO.” She knew the insulating snow meant that no one would hear her. She twisted around and stamped at the glass, pounding with the soles of her flimsy shoes. It hurt but the window held fast.
She didn't want it to end here. So much was unfinished. There was so much she still needed to know, understand,
Suddenly there was a man by her door, whom she assumed was a fireman. She could see only his dark body. He was pulling on the door handle, putting his weight behind it.
“Thank you,” she mouthed through the glass, hot tears washing her cheeks. “Thank you.”