Today is the day. Today is the day when I’m finally going to do it. Today is the day I go visit my best friend. After so many years of having her visit me.
It all began ten years ago. Sarah and I had been walking home from a club, we’d been celebrating her eighteenth birthday. We were walking home in the wee small hours when no self-respecting girl should be out. But we were together, so it would be fine. Right?
We weren’t sensible, we felt the invincibility of youth. We didn’t keep to the main roads like we should have done. If I had been alone, I would have gone further up Johnson’s Way, crossed over the very visible crossing, and come down the other side of the road. But Sarah was in a hurry. She wanted to get home. “Come on Jess, let’s go down the underpass. We’ll be able to catch the earlier bus. Next one’s another 30 minutes.”
We’d gone down the underpass, and were making our way through the urine smelling, litter infested tunnel. Did we hear the steps behind us? If we did, we ignored them, too busy talking, too busy being us. Then someone was suddenly right behind us, had Sarah by the throat. I turned, and the man, or woman – I never really saw – lashed out with a fist, sending me into the wall. That was the last I remembered of that night.
I came to in hospital, and when they’d tell me anything, it was to say that I’d had a broken collar bone, broken leg, fractured skull; I’d been in a coma for more than two months. I wanted to ask about Sarah but fell back to sleep. When I came round again, there was no need to ask, there she was, sat by my bed. She looked pale, dressed in a short black skirt and sparkly top. I noticed she had a bruise on her neck.
“Jess, I’m so glad to see you again. I’ve been so worried about you.”
“Sarah. How are you? What’s that bruise?”
“Oh nothing. Doesn’t even hurt much these days. It’ll go eventually.”
She got me a glass of water, helped me to sip, and then I fell back on the bed, exhausted. “I’ll pop in to see you again sometime soon,” I thought I heard her say as I fell back to sleep.
The next few weeks, as I gained my strength, she’d come to visit many times, though always alone. She didn’t come at the same time as family and friends, she didn’t come when the nurses were there. And she didn’t come the time her parents came, which they did only once. Thank God. They looked at me accusingly, wanted to know what I could remember of that night. Thought I was keeping something from them. But I wasn’t. Were they feeling guilty? It was their daughter, after all, that had persuaded me to go through the underpass in the first place. Yet I was the one with broken bones and concussion.
But I was the one who listened to her, a voice inside said. I should have insisted we keep to the main road, even if it meant missing the bus.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sarah when she next visited. “I’ll put them straight. It was my fault that we went down the underpass, my fault we were attacked. And I’ll make it up to you. I’ll be right by your side until you’re properly better.”
“What about you? You’ve still got that bruise.”
“It’s getting better”, she insisted. “Just got to give it time. Doesn’t hurt, honest.”
But bruises are supposed to change colour, right? This was still an angry red, hadn’t even got to purple. And it had been months. I asked about the attacker. Had they caught him?
“Hah, yes. Scratched his bloody hand, didn’t I. Got a DNA match from under my fingernails, someone known to the police. His trial is in a few months, though they’ll probably want you to testify.”
“But I can’t tell them anything”, I said. “I was unconscious for most of it.”
And that’s what I told the police when it was thought I was strong enough to see them. Nothing I could tell them, so they had to leave with a vague description of the attacker. A couple of inches taller than Sarah, medium build. Caucasian, I thought, from my memory of that fist before it slammed into me. Quiet shoes. “I think Sarah might have scratched him though”, I said. I hadn’t seen it, but that’s what Sarah had told me, so I added “but I can’t be sure.” They took their notes, faces not giving anything away, then told me I would be needed at the trial.
As it turned out, I was still in hospital when the trial took place in November. Dr Atkins, bless him, refused to let me attend. I was still in a very fragile place, both physically and mentally. Sarah came to see me with the news straight from the courtroom. The man who attacked us was found guilty, was sent down. I didn’t ask what the conviction was. I didn’t ask how long he’d be in for.
“Sorry I couldn’t be there Sarah”, I said, crying as she told me this. “You’re so brave. I should have been there with you.”
“Don’t worry about it Jess. As you said, you couldn’t have added much to the story. You were unconscious. Plus the defence lawyer was a right prick, would probably have said your memory was unreliable. He tried to diss the DNA evidence as it was, for God’s sake.”
“But you’ve still got that bruise. That doesn’t look like it’s healing Sarah.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. Call it my war wound.” And she laughed, though I couldn’t see anything to laugh about, so I changed the subject.
“Sarah, now don’t get me wrong, but is that outfit the right sort of thing to wear to court?” As usual, Sarah was wearing a black mini skirt and sparkly top. She looked down at it as if she was noticing it for the first time, but I knew that wasn’t my Sarah. She’d be very aware of what she was wearing.
“Oh this?” I obviously couldn’t go to court in this, but I didn’t want to come see you in my smart stuff, right? That’s not who I am. Took a change of clothes with me, didn’t I? Mum took them home.” Why did I think she was lying? “Now, change the subject, all that stuff’s finished. Will you be home in time for Christmas?”
As it turned out I didn’t get home for Christmas; I didn’t feel like celebrating anyway. I still got headaches from time to time, and although my physio was going okay, some wounds are deeper than that. I eventually got sent home at the beginning of March. Dad, a good man, but not blessed with sensitivity, drove the most direct route from the hospital which took us through the city straight past where it had happened. I could see the place where we had gone down the underpass from the rear seat. I was not in a good place when we got home. I said I felt tired and went to my room, which was exactly as I’d left it ten months before. After that, I found it easiest if I stayed there. I’d go to the bathroom, but only out of necessity.
A few friends visited, but as I continued to keep to my room, they fell away. Except for Sarah; Sarah continued to visit all the time. I’d never hear her knock at the door, but there’d she be. She even came while mum and dad were out. Probably mum gave her a spare key – she knew what a special friend Sarah was. And she never had a coat with her. She still wore a short black skirt and sparkly top, even though it was mid-winter. But she only lived next door. It wasn’t like she needed to travel far. And I no longer questioned the bruise which got no worse but didn’t heal.
We’d talk about all sorts. She’d tell me what friends were doing; Jimmy and Tessa were engaged, Joe had gone backpacking in Australia, Gina had fallen out with Curt. We watched TV. We watched reality shows, comedies, but not the news. That was too depressing. And not thrillers. That was too close to home. And I kept away from social media.
All this time I didn’t know what Sarah was doing with her life. What did she do in the daytime? Was she studying, had she got a job? Was there a man in her life? When I had tried to ask, she’d dismissed the questions and said our time together was about me, and she’d let me know if there was anything of significance to report. I just assumed that whatever was going on was nothing out of the ordinary, so stopped asking.
It was a twilight life, but it was the only life I could manage. I thought I would never escape the upstairs of our house.
Gradually, as the weeks lengthened into months, the months into years, Sarah encouraged me to try and go further. One day, when mum and dad were out, she wouldn’t come into my room. She sat at the top of the stairs with her feet on the step below and would not speak to me until I’d sat on the top step with her. And that’s how it started. If mum and dad were out, she’d encourage me to go a little further each time, and sometimes I managed it. It was ten months before I managed it all the way downstairs, and then I ran stumbling back to my room when I heard something, but it was only the postman. We laughed about that.
“It’s been too many years since you laughed”, she said afterwards, with sadness in her eyes.
Gradually I expanded my universe to include downstairs. Mum and dad were pleased to see any improvement, but at a loss to know how to help further. “She’ll do it in her own time”, I heard dad telling mum, meaning he was at a loss of how to help. I could only manage downstairs in the daytime, so after tea, I’d go back to my room and sit with Sarah to watch something on TV, or to talk. And all the time she encouraged me to go further.
Over the following years I have managed a little of that. I first opened a window in my room, just to get the feel of fresh air. And little by little I went further until I could sit in the back garden, as long as it was close to the house, and I could even answer the door to the postman.
Then Sarah said she would not come round unless I went and called on her for a change. It was her birthday, 28 years old, though you wouldn’t think it to look at her. For my special friend, I would make the effort. I would walk out my front door, down the path, through the front gate then a short walk to Sarah’s front gate and up to the front door. Mum knew what I was doing; she’d be there right behind me if I needed help.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. I breathed in the sweet air from the late spring morning. I stepped outside and stood there, waiting for something to happen. When it didn’t, I looked to my left, at Sarah’s house. Not far, I told myself, not far. I estimated about thirty steps. Just think, if it’s only thirty steps, fifty at most and it will certainly all be over.
One, two, three…
Paused for a breath. Come on girl, you can do it.
Four, five, six…
I’d never been this far from the house in ten years. I wanted to look back, but Sarah had told me I must focus on where I was going, not where I had been.
Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…
And here was the front gate. I paused before putting my hand on the handle, paused again before lifting the latch. The gate squeaked open, just like it had always done, an annoying yet comfortingly familiar sound.
I looked up and down the road. It was empty, so no-one to run into me, nothing to panic about.
Another step and I was outside the gate. Going quicker now, I didn’t like being on the street, but I had to get to Sarah’s gate. How many steps? I lost count, but there’s no gate where Sarah lives, so I quickly got off the street and then I knew I was less than a dozen steps from the front door. I knew mum was behind me, but I focussed on the front door ahead of me, wondering why Sarah wasn’t there with it open for me. But no, she’d said I had to go and knock on that door to claim back my freedom.
So I went to the door. And I knocked.
It wasn’t Sarah who answered the door. It was Sarah’s dad. He looked at me, and a knowing look passed between him and mum. “You’d better come in.”
I went inside. “Where’s Sarah?”
And they sat me down. And they told me.
Did I know all along that Sarah had died in the attack? Perhaps. There had been plenty of clues, the never changing bruise, the same clothes, the fact that she didn’t age a day. But I would not or could not believe it. I kept to my own private world, where Sarah still existed. It wasn’t until I was ready to admit that she’d died that I allowed her to persuade me to go out of the house.
Today is the day when I will really go out, when I will go to the crematorium to lay flowers on my friends grave and say goodbye to the friend who got me this far. Wish me luck.
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