Two or three miles south of Sheffield, they pulled off the M1 motorway and into the badly lit car park of a grubby little HumChef roadside restaurant. Squat buildings huddled in the darkness, separated by narrow patches of overgrown wasteland. The road was narrow; the aged asphalt surface was cracked and blistered. The woman glanced at the clock on the dashboard; it was two-thirty a.m. The child was asleep in the back, snoring softly. The woman reached across and clasped the man’s hand on the steering wheel. Darkness pressed against the windows and the sides of the car. Metal creaked. The engine cooled.
“Here?” she said, softly. “Should we risk it?”
The man nodded. “We need to eat. Something to drink. We can’t just keep driving.” His gaze was locked dead ahead, focused at a point a few yards from the windscreen. There wasn’t much to see, but he was staring intensely: a high white-rendered concrete wall, a row of grey plastic bins, a pile of black rubbish bags with their tops knotted.
“I’ll wake the child,” she said, opening the car door. The interior light came on, flickered. The inrush of cold air from outside was like an unexpected kiss. It lifted her; she felt unfettered from the small, claustrophobic world inside the car. She could barely hear the traffic from the motorway; just the occasional hypnotic swish of hot rubber on smooth tarmac.
She walked around to the back of the car and opened the rear door. The child was lying across the back seat, her long, thin legs stretched out on the upholstery. Light from the small, jittery overhead bulb pooled around her face and gathered in her long blonde hair.
“Time to get up,” she said, reaching inside to give the child’s arm a shake. “We’re here.”
The child stirred. Sat up, blinking. She rubbed at her cheeks, scratched her head. “I’m hungry,” she said.
“I know. You’re always hungry.” The woman smiled and stepped back, moving in a crouch away from the car to let the child climb out. She caught sight of her own face in the wing mirror. There were dark bags around her eyes but the bruises on her cheek had faded to look like smudges of dirt. Her long sleeves hid the scratches on her arms.
It’s okay, she thought. You’re fine, now.
The car park wasn’t busy. Only a handful of vehicles sat in white-lined spaces. It was too late for the dinner traffic and too early for the breakfast crowd.
The man got out of the car, waited, and then locked the doors. He walked ahead of them, towards the island of light that was the restaurant, and paused, holding open the double doors until they caught up.
“Just be cool,” said the woman. “Be cool.”
The man nodded, smiling.
If he’s still able to smile, she thought, things can’t be too bad.
They walked inside and sat down at a table in the window. It always had to be in the window; the man claimed that he hated feeling hemmed in, and that being able to look outside helped to calm him.
“Is it waitress service?” He picked up a salt cellar and shook it. Tiny grains of salt made a small conical pile on the red plastic tablecloth, an unstable construction that might collapse at any given moment.
“I don’t know,” said the woman, afraid for some reason that the little hill of salt might crumble and provoke an outburst from the man. “I’ll go and see.” She stood quickly and eagerly, and walked over to the checkout. A bored young girl, barely out of her teens, was flicking through a magazine and chewing a wad of gum.
“Excuse me,” said the woman. “Is it self-service?”
“Yeah,” said the young girl, without even looking up. Her dark red fingernails flashed as she quickly turned the pages of the magazine.
The woman returned to the table. She didn’t sit back down. She knew the man hated the kind of impatient, fuck-you attitude demonstrated by the girl. It was a trigger. “It’s get-your-own. The food’s over there.” She used her thumb to point without looking back towards the checkout.
The man nodded. “Okay. That’s fine.”
“I’ll get the stuff. What do you need?” She was aware that her question could be taken in one of an infinite number of ways.
The man glanced up. His lips were pressed tightly together; they were thin and pale. “I’ll have a sandwich,” he said. His lips regained their natural colour as he moved them. “Tuna or ham. Something like that, you know what I like . . . And a coffee. Black. No sugar.”
The woman nodded. “What about you?”
The child was staring out of the window. “Can I have a donut?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “And some milk?”
The woman waited a few seconds, to make sure they were done, and then walked towards the food displays. She grabbed a tray from the pile—squares of thin brown plastic made to look like wood—and walked along the refrigerated display cases. She took a tuna and sweet corn sandwich on white bread for the man, a fresh cream donut for the girl, and a cheese salad for herself. She poured two cups of coffee into cardboard cups at the machine and took a carton of milk from a chiller box next to the checkout.
For a moment she felt like crying, so she stood there and waited for it to pass. There was a heavy weight in her chest, pressing against her ribs. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then, once the sensation had passed, she opened her eyes again.
She paid the cashier without speaking. It was better that way; she didn’t want to communicate with someone so hideously empty. She knew exactly what the man would have done, and was thankful that she’d been the one to get the food.
She returned to the table with the tray of provisions. The man tore the wrapper off his sandwich and wolfed it down. The child nibbled at her donut, slowly licking the cream from her fingers. The woman picked at her salad. It tasted flat, like fake food from a cheap window display.
There were not many other customers in the restaurant, just a few scattered diners. Most of them were alone, but two silent couples sat diagonally opposite each other across the room. The geometry of their positioning bothered the woman but she didn’t know why. Her life these days was filled with such random and inexplicable fears.
“We have to go soon,” she said, glancing at the man.
He was staring at the child.
“I said we’ll have to go soon.”
Please notice me, she thought. Tell me I’m more than just your babysitter.
He looked over in her direction. His eyes were wide and wet, as if he were fighting tears. “I know,” he said, and smiled sadly. “We can go soon enough. Give me a minute.” His lean, handsome face promised more than he could ever give.
The lighting in the place was giving her a headache. It was too bright; harsh and unrealistic. She imagined it was similar to the lighting in hospital morgues, where corpses were dissected beneath cold white bulbs.
Panic welled up inside her. She looked again at the man. He was no longer looking at the child, or out of the window; he was watching the other people in the room. One of his hands was a fist on the table. The other had balled up the wrapper from his sandwich. There were crumbs on his jacket cuff, but he’d failed to notice them.
“Nearly finished?” she said to the child, a sense of urgency causing her to speak too loudly.
The child had cream smeared on her upper lip. She licked it off. “Almost,” she said, distracted.
Behind her, someone got up and walked across the quiet room. The footsteps were heavy; they belonged to a man. She turned around and glanced at him. He was young—perhaps in his late twenties—and wearing fashionable clothes with designer labels. He carried an iPad in one hand. The light on the machine was flashing.
These were exactly the kind of things that tended to set the man off: people in designer clothing, flashy techno toys, a look of arrogance, a smile of dismissal, an educated accent . . . the list was endless. There were new triggers to add to the list every day.
She looked over at the man. His eyes were dry. They were hungry. It was happening again and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
“Don’t,” she said, reaching across the table to grab hold of his fist. “Not here. Not this time. Not in front of the child. Let’s leave.”
When he turned towards her, his face was flushed; his cheeks were mottled. His lips were damp with spit. He was grinding his teeth. “When?”
She squeezed his hand. “Not long now. Just hang on for a little while longer, until she’s finished eating.” She could see the threat of violence in his eyes, as if a moment was suspended there, frozen forever. “Just be good.”
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Monsters,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. “They’re fucking everywhere. I see them wherever we go.”
“I know, baby.” She looked again at the young man who had passed by. He was vanishing into a door marked “toilets.”
The man’s shoulders were hitching. He was ready to blow. “Gotta stop them all . . . stop all the damn monsters.”
She had to make a quick decision, to prevent the situation from becoming worse. She remembered the time when he’d assaulted two bystanders and wrecked a petrol station forecourt trying to get at a middle-aged businesswoman in the passenger seat of a Ford Mondeo. All the attention it had drawn; their blurred CCTV photographs in the paper; their mad rush to change vehicles so that the police couldn’t track them down.
They’d been on the move ever since, driving at night, sleeping all day in cheap hotel rooms, eating their meals at overly lit, lonely little all-night places like this one. Crossing the country in a succession of different vehicles, each one picked up cheap at cash-only used car depots. But England was a small country; soon they would run out of road. Then what would they do, simply turn around and run the other way?
She still didn’t understand how they’d never been caught.
We’re riding our luck; surely it must run out soon.
Surely . . .
“Okay,” she said, softly but firmly. “Do it now. Do it quickly. He’s in the bathroom. Nobody will see.”
The man looked up, smiled, and got to his feet.
She flinched when he moved and hated herself for it. Each time this happened another piece of herself broke away. Sometimes she thought the only reason she stayed with the man was because if she left, the rest of her would flake off like scabs of rust and there’d be nothing left. This relationship, this twisted dynamic, was the only thing keeping her alive.
The man walked quickly and soundlessly across the restaurant—it never failed to chill her; the way in which such a large man could move with that kind of quiet grace. She tried to pretend she didn’t see him quickly grab a knife from the cutlery tray on his way to the bathroom.
Nobody noticed him as he followed the other man through the doorway. The door swung silently on its hinges.
“Come on,” she said to the child. “Eat up now. We have to go.” The thought hit her that she could stand up now and run, get away. Leave him behind. But where would she go, and who would she run to? She had nothing; there was nobody else . . . just the man and the child. Without them both she would somehow feel less complete, less of a real human being. She’d been doing this so long that it had become what defined her. She belonged here, with these people, in these places.
It didn’t take long. It never did.
The man reappeared less than thirty seconds later. The door hadn’t even stopped swinging. His eyes were shining, his jacket was undone, and as he approached the table she saw that his knuckles were bright red and raw. They’d be bruised in the morning. She would have to find somewhere on the road to get some ice, to stop the swelling.
He stood at the side of the table with a faraway look in his eyes, swaying ever so slightly on his heels. There were a few spots of blood on his jacket sleeve. He didn’t seem able to focus, not yet. It always took a minute or two for him to snap back into the moment.
She wondered where he’d left the knife. Or had he slipped it into his pocket to carry with him? They were blunt, those knives; it would be difficult to cause any real damage. That’s what she told herself. That’s what she hoped.
“Back to the car. Now.” She grabbed the child’s arm and pulled her gently to her feet. The remains of the donut fell onto the floor. They moved towards the door, the three of them together—a family. The man was once again in front. He pushed open the glass doors and held them while the woman and the child went through, out into the night.
She raised her eyebrows as she brushed past him. He nodded, confirming that the red mist had cleared. He looked like he was about to say something—I love you?—but then he closed his mouth and looked away, ashamed.
Even now, after all this time, he felt shame. That was part of the reason she still loved him, and why she thought that he could be saved.
The air outside was cold; the temperature had dropped dramatically during the short time they’d been inside.
“I didn’t even finish my donut,” said the child, pouting.
They hurried across the car park and waited until the man unlocked the car. The woman’s breath was a fine white cloud. She bundled the child onto the back seat and strapped her in. They might have to drive at speed; she didn’t want to risk the child being injured if they had an accident, like last time. A few weeks ago, after a visit to an all-night supermarket, he’d run the car off the road and into a drainage ditch. She’d told the doctors in A&E that the child had fallen off her bike. She didn’t think they’d believed her, but they helped the child anyway, patching her up and sending them both away with orders to return for a check-up in a week’s time.
By the time she climbed into the passenger seat, the man was already at the wheel, gunning the engine.
“Will it ever end?” he said, staring through the windscreen. “I don’t think I can keep doing this. There’s too many of them. I have to stop putting you through this—both of you.”
She placed a hand on his thigh. The muscles there were rock-hard. She rubbed the dry palm of her hand against the rough leg of his jeans. “I know,” she said. “We have to keep on hoping that the next one will be the last.”
He closed his hand over hers, but it didn’t feel the same. It was like a ghost hand, or a chill breeze touching her fingers for a second before moving away.
They pulled out of the small car park and followed the exit road, joining the motorway about a half a mile further along from the point where they’d left it.
The child was already asleep as they crossed over into the fast lane to overtake a large truck. The woman turned her head and looked into the truck’s cab. There was a light on in there; it seemed to fill the entire space, a pulsing entity. The truck driver’s face was soft and kind. He had a short, neat beard and small blue eyes. He was singing along to a song on the radio. She stared at his mouth, trying to lip read the lyrics—she wished she knew the name of the tune. It seemed important somehow; the answer to a riddle that might change everything.
When the truck driver realized that he was being watched, she turned her face away from his gaze. She felt him staring at her through two layers of glass as they pulled ahead of the truck and drifted back into the slow lane. He flashed his lights but the man either didn’t notice or chose to ignore the gesture.
Her hand was still resting on the man’s wide thigh. He was too hot for comfort. She took her hand away and pushed it between her knees. She was cold. She was always cold. She wondered if it was warm inside the cab of that truck.
They drove on into the sodium-spattered darkness with no destination in mind. Traffic was light. The stars were silver pinpricks in the black night sky. Wherever they went the man encountered monsters, and he tried his best to wipe them out. It was what he did, what he was compelled to do. He knew of no other way to put out the fire that raged in his veins, the flame that burned him up inside.
One question had always haunted her: what if it’s true?
What if they really were monsters?
She looked down at her lap, at her hand gripped between her knees.
I am not my husband’s keeper. I’ll never be able to change him.
The thought rattled around inside her head, becoming less than an echo of a truth she’d always avoided.
The woman realized that eventually she’d have to stop him rather than going along with his moods and trying to curb his violent outbursts—even if these poorly stage-managed incidents were all that stopped him from losing his mind completely and hurting her and the child, she knew that she was wrong to allow it.
One day she would have to put an end to this. She would have to, because if she failed to do so then she must surely be as insane as him.
When that day came, she hoped that she could shield the child from further harm. She loved the man but she thought she loved the child more. And on nights like this one, when the man’s blood was boiling, she was certain of the task ahead of her.
She glanced over at the man.
He was looking directly into her face, as if he was able to read her thoughts. He wasn’t smiling. His hands gripped the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles had turned white.
“What were you looking at back there?” His voice was steady and even.
A gun, she thought. I’ll need a gun.
“Nothing,” she said. “I was just staring into space.” She braced herself for a slap but it didn’t come.
“That man in the truck . . . I think he was one of them. I think he was a monster.” His voice was a whisper.
She didn’t say a word.
Where can I get a gun?
On the back seat, the child stirred, ready to wake. She yawned loudly.
Lights flared in the rear window; the truck she’d seen earlier was approaching at speed. When it overtook them and shifted back over into their lane just ahead of them, a strange smile crossed the man’s face. He put his foot down to keep up with the truck, as if he were chasing it. His features had hardened, a likeness carved in stone.
She wondered if this would ever end, or if it would be her life forever.
The road stretched ahead of them, as if in reply to her question. They were racing towards another bright dawn and following a trail of monsters.
Maybe tomorrow, she thought, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. Maybe tomorrow I’ll stop him.
Up ahead, the brake lights on the truck turned red.
Beside her, the man pulled the knife he’d taken from the tray in the restaurant out of his pocket.
She closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing.
Spread the word!