Lou heard his wife come in the front door and glanced at the bedside clock. It was almost half-past-two in the morning. Could have been worse, he supposed. She’d warned him it would be a long session. He couldn’t be the one to talk, he’d only just got over the headache from old Barrington’s retirement party. He waited in a pleasant state of semi-consciousness for the sound of her feet on the stairs, water running in the bathroom, the rustle of undressing, the shock of cold air as she pulled back the duvet to climb in beside him.
But as the drowsy minutes slipped by there was no further sound from downstairs. Maybe she was making herself a cup of coffee to clear her head. Those hen parties could be pretty wild affairs, he had been told. He opened his eyes and glanced at the clock again. Forty minutes had passed. He became fully awake. Forty minutes? It doesn’t take forty minutes to make a cup of coffee.
He sat up and listened hard, but all he could hear was the breeze in the tree outside the bedroom window. He switched on the bedside lamp, got out of bed and put his dressing gown over his shoulders as he passed the door.
“Sylvie? Are you all right down there?” She was sitting in the lounge with the light off. He switched it on as he approached. “Sylvie? I heard you come in. What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
She turned around and he saw that her face was deathly pale and tears had caused her mascara to run in two faint blue lines down her cheeks. Her chin was trembling. He knelt beside her chair and took her in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and burst into fresh tears.
“Have you been... attacked?” he whispered hoarsely. He felt her head move in a gesture of denial. “What then? Please tell me. I don’t mind what it is. I promise I won’t be... upset. Please tell me.”
“I think I’ve killed somebody, Lou,” she whispered almost inaudibly.
With Sylvie looking on, almost afraid to breathe, Lou inspected every inch of the car’s nearside front with the beam of his powerful flashlight. “There’s no damage, Sylvie. No blood, or clothing...nothing.”
“I didn’t think there would be,” she said in a voice that came out as a breathy undertone, “he... or she... seemed to go straight under the wheels. I felt it... like going over a bump. Oh God...” the tears started up again. “We’ve got to phone the police, Lou. It’s the only sensible thing to do. I’m not going to get away with it...”
“Please, Sylvie. Don’t rush into anything. If you phone the police they’re going to crucify you.”
“Maybe I deserve to be crucified.”
He switched off the flashlight. “Please don’t talk like that. It’ll be light soon. I’ll drive along that way and see if there’s anything there. I still think the whole thing sounds crazy. What would a child be doing on a country road at two o’clock in the morning?”
“I saw the child, Lou. The child was there. I don’t know why but the child was there.”
He put his arm around her waist. “You saw something, sweetheart. It could have been a stray dog or a fox. Maybe even a young deer, or a farm animal. Young children don’t wander around on little country roads at two o’clock in the morning.” He led her back indoors and sat down with her on the sofa.
“Look, I think I know what it was. Have you ever woken up when it’s almost dark and thought there was somebody in the room and then realized it was just a coat hanging on the back of a door? It happens to everybody, all the time. You were driving along, a bit distracted, trying to get the CD player to work. You admit you weren’t really concentrating on the road. You’d had a bit more to drink than you’re used to. Then you catch some kind of movement out of the corner of your eye and your wheels go over something. You get a fright and your mind tells you it was a child. You imagine the worst possible scenario. It’s exactly like the coat on the door.”
“No, Lou, it wasn’t like that. This was a child, a toddler, and it stumbled out from the hedge. It took a step. I saw the shape: it wasn’t any kind of animal. Let’s go back. Right now. I want to go there. Please.”
“Sweetheart, if the police are there taking statements and we drive up to them it’s going to be the tiniest bit incriminating, isn’t it?”
“So you believe me. You believe that it was a child.”
“I didn’t say that. I think it’s wildly unlikely. Where were its parents? What was it doing there? But there’s nothing to gain by getting involved if there’s no need to. Just think for a moment, Sylvie, please. Your career is just taking off. You’re up for promotion. I’m doing well too. We’ve got a bit of spare money for the first time ever. We can think about starting a family soon. Can you imagine what affect a thing like this could have, on both our lives? Even if it was just drink-driving. You work for a law firm, Sylvie, you can’t be up on criminal charges. Think about it”
“Do you think I could live with this for the rest of my life and just keep quiet about it? I can’t do that, Lou. If I killed that child I’m going to give myself up. Even if it means prison. I want to go back there - right now. If you won’t come with me I’ll go on my own...”
He drew her towards him in a gentle hug. “Okay, have it your way. Let’s go. Let’s put your mind at rest.”
“You’re completely sure it was somewhere along here?”
“Of course I am. I’m not likely to forget.”
Lou pulled over to the hedge and stopped before he replied. “Well, we’ve been up and down half a dozen times, Sylvie. There’s nothing here. Just like I expected. Do you feel better now?”
She paused before she replied. “Lou, do you think I’m going mad?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You got a fright. You made a mistake. You probably hit some wild animal and it crawled away and died somewhere else. Whatever it was there’s nothing either of us can do about it now. I think we should go home and get some sleep.”
“You know the worst thing about it? I never thought I would react that way if something like this happened. I used to think hit-and-run drivers were monsters. We defend them sometimes at work, and I’ve always despised them. I thought a decent person would face up to it no matter what they’d done. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even look back in the mirror. I went into a sort of trance and I just drove and drove until I was back home. I behaved like the worst kind of person imaginable. How can you bear to have anything to do with me...?”
He reached out and took both her hands. “You were in shock, Sylvie. You probably still are. You’ve got to stop blaming yourself. Even if you had hit a child, it wouldn’t have been your fault. It would have been an accident. But it didn’t happen so there’s nothing to blame yourself for. Let it go. It’s all right, sweetheart.”
“It would have been my fault, Lou. I had been drinking and I shouldn’t have been driving. I couldn’t have been more in the wrong, and I don’t know how you can forgive me.”
He held her shoulder and kissed her gently on the lips. “But I do, so stop worrying about it. I know you. I know you’re a good person, and I’m proud to have you for my wife. You don’t have to be Superwoman. It’s not in the job description.”
She held him tightly and he could feel her body shuddering. “I don’t deserve you; Lou,” she said tearfully, “and you certainly don’t deserve me.”
Lou insisted that Sylvie take the next few days off work and did the same himself. They spent a lot of time together, doing the kind of mundane tasks that they hadn’t shared since before they were married: going shopping, weeding the garden, taking down the curtains and washing them, visiting Sylvie’s parents in Oxfordshire, going to see a play by the local Amateur Dramatic Society. They drew closer together and Lou became publicly affectionate in a way that he hadn’t been since the first few months of their relationship. Although they never mentioned Sylvie’s “accident” they anxiously watched every evening TV newscast and bought both the local papers as soon as they were available in the shops. There was no report of a hit-and-run driver, or of a missing child.
On the third evening, as an unspoken celebration of having come through unscathed, they went for a romantic dinner in the same restaurant where Lou had proposed to Sylvie almost a decade before. When they had eaten and were lingering over the remains of the wine, Lou hesitantly returned to the topic of having a child of their own. “You still want children, don’t you?” he prompted gently.
“I... think so... when we’re both ready.”
“What happened... I mean what you imagined... didn’t change how you felt, did it?”
“No... well, I don’t know. It’s hard to think straight at the moment... No, of course not, why should it?” She paused. "Lou, I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that you won't tell anybody about that night or mention it again for as long as you live. It's something I have to deal with myself, nobody else can help and I don't want them to try. Not even you. Is that a promise?"
Lou nodded. They looked into one another’s eyes and a new understanding was reached.
The doorbell rang and Lou opened it with rolled-up sleeves and flour on his trousers. The young woman who greeted him giggled when she saw him. “Goodness me, aren’t we domesticated! Are you baking Sylvie a cake?”
“Oddly enough. I am. Well, I’m baking us a cake. Come in Laura, make yourself at home. Will I get her down for you?”
“In a minute.” Laura suddenly looked serious and lowered her voice. “She’s not in bed again, surely?”
“She’s resting. I’ll let her tell you why herself.”
“You know, Lou, she isn’t herself these days. Haven’t you noticed it? I think it’s since Francie’s wedding - the one she didn’t go to. She’s so quiet and hard to talk to lately. Aren’t you worried about it?”
Lou smiled weakly. “I thought you women had some kind of intuition. Don’t you know what it is? That’s why I’m baking a cake. We’re celebrating.”
Laura’s face lit up. “You don’t mean...?”
“The doctor confirmed it this morning.” Laura looked almost shocked. “It’s hormonal, Laura. That’s what the doctor said. You should know about these things. When a woman’s pregnant her hormone balance changes. It can change her personality. Temporarily of course.”
“Gosh. You amaze me, you two. Congratulations, Lou!”
Although the words were right Lou couldn’t help feeling that Laura was holding back a lot of misgivings. “She’s going to be fine,” he said quietly, “really she is.”
On his way home from work Lou slowed the car to a walking pace as he came to the straight piece of road with the hedges on either side. As he had done many times before he drew to a halt at the spot where they had parked on that terrible night and tried to imagine the scene she had described: the darkness, the child stumbling into the road, the lurch of the car going over the body, the tiny bones snapping. He had thought about it so often it had taken on the reality of a remembered nightmare for him too, the moment when malevolent demons had intervened to curse both their lives forever. Even the prospect of motherhood seemed to have little power to break the spell. The joy had gone out of Sylvie’s life, even Laura could see it, it was silly trying to deny it any longer. Lou made up his mind to ask Dr. Nelson about psychiatric help for Sylvie.
“I’m very pleased you brought up the subject yourself,” Dr. Nelson affirmed as he perched awkwardly on the arm of Lou’s sofa, “I was going to talk about it today anyway. You see,” he glanced at the stairs as though wondering if Sylvie could hear, “your wife’s depression is becoming quite severe, and it seems to have taken a new turn. Staying in bed and eating too much was one thing, it’s not uncommon in the early stages of pregnancy. But she’s gone to the other extreme now. She’s hardly eating at all, and showing quite marked symptoms of stress, and I’m beginning to get a bit concerned for the health of her baby. I think specialist help is called for here.” He hesitated. “I don’t suppose... I don’t suppose you’ve got any clue yourself as to what the root of this trouble might be?”
Lou’s features paled and he thought for a moment, then with a pounding heart he said that he knew nothing. She had to deal with it in her own way, she had said, and a promise is a promise. He couldn’t betray her trust. He knew that she would never have betrayed his.
“Well, with your permission, I’m going to recommend that she be admitted to the psychiatric ward at St. Clements. It’s a very fine facility and they have great expertise in treating this kind of thing. You see when someone is expecting a baby tranquillisers and drug treatments are much less straightforward. We have to proceed with great caution.”
Lou nodded, his whole being numb, barely able to believe that his happy party-going little Sylvie could be reduced to this.
On the day that she was admitted Lou drove her to the hospital and sat with her for a time, but Sylvie didn’t want to talk and before long they were sitting side by side in silence, Sylvie staring impassively into space. He squeezed her hand, told her that he loved her, and left.
On the way home, as the sun disappeared from view behind him, he parked up at the spot where the demons lived and felt their mocking malevolence. “You aren’t going to win,” he told them very quietly, “you may think that you are, but you aren’t.”
Lou was finishing off a work project on his laptop when the doorbell sounded. He had taken to working from home a lot, finding excuses not to drive past that spot, not to face the people at the office and have to pretend to be cheerful. As soon as he opened the door and saw Laura’s face he knew that something was seriously wrong.
“Lou - I’ve just been to visit Sylvie. The hospital was going to phone you but I said I’d come and tell you instead.” He waited in silence, knowing what she was about to say. “I’m afraid Sylvie has lost the baby, Lou. I’m... well, I just can’t say how sorry I am.” He stood, staring blankly into her eyes. “Come in my car. You’re in no condition to drive.”
Laura sped innocently past the straight piece of road and for once Lou felt nothing. He realised that at that moment he was probably beyond feeling anything. He remained silent until they had parked and walked to the door of the sideward and Laura had motioned him in, closing the door discreetly behind him.
Sylvie looked weak and drawn but she was sitting up in bed and she gave her husband a faint welcoming smile. It was the last thing that he had been expecting.
“Sylvie,” he began, taking her hand, “I’m so sorry... so very very sorry...”
“I’m sorry too Lou,” she replied in a hoarse, barely audible whisper, “but it’s all over now. We can start our lives again.”
He wasn’t sure that he understood so he didn’t say anything. She looked into his eyes as though expecting that he would understand.
“The debt has been paid, Lou. The debt has been paid.”
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