The weather was dreadful. The relentless rain hammering down on the windscreen like it was desperately trying to find shelter was enough to reduce my visibility to about a meter in front of my car. The lightening illuminated the rain like the pyrotechnic waterfalls you would see at your favourite rock show. Ensuring my safe passage home, I stayed in between the rhythmic white rulers of the traffic lines whilst observing the brake lights of the car in front of me. Although I was anxious, I gingerly made it to our luxury home. The house is situated in a gated community on the outskirts of Cheltenham. The 1830’s building holds 5 bedrooms, two large reception areas and an equally large kitchen dining room. You would never believe that a regional manager of a stationary company and a primary school teacher would be able to afford such a house. Fortunately, I say reluctantly due to the basis on how I came about acquiring such a place, I inherited a small fortune along with the house from an uncle who used to live there. He was an entrepreneur who invented the clip-on frames you would find above urinals in places like service stations. Not the most exciting job, I would joke with him, saying ‘it took the piss how he made his millions.’ But regardless of what his job was, he completely changed my life for the better.
I waited in my car, listening to the sound of rain clattering on the roof, waiting for the inviting sound of the weather easing off, allowing me enough time to run to the house without looking like a wet dog. The intensity of the storm subsided and I seized the opportunity to make a dash for the front door. Expecting my wife Julia to be home, I reached for the handle, one smooth motion and I would have been home and dry. My confidence was thwarted however, as I crash into the door. I dived into my pockets, frantically trying to find my house keys like I was being chased by some serial killer in a hockey mask. If my wife was watching me, I would not have been awarded any man points. Eventually I got in, the lights were on but the house was deafly quiet.
“Julia?” I called out, loud enough for the sound to travel throughout the house. I stayed still waiting to hear the welcoming footsteps that I know were Julia’s, but nothing. I placed my briefcase on the newly laid laminate flooring whilst reaching into my pocket to retrieve my phone. I convinced myself that she was ok but I wouldn’t have been a good husband if I didn’t make sure that she was safe. I looked at my smartphone and immediately saw a notification from Julia. ‘Hi darling, just on my way to the shops to grab some food for tea tonight. I won’t be long’ I placed the phone on the side and decided to take a shower so I was nice and refreshed for when Julia returned. The sensation of the warm droplets of water hitting the back of my exposed shoulders erased the stress from work and detached me from reality.
I’m not sure how long I was in the shower for but I was abruptly bought back to real life by an object moving past the doorway in our bedroom. I assumed that Julia had returned so I turned the shower off and reached for the handle but I’m startled by the flickering of the bathroom light and the sudden drop in temperature. What was warm droplets of water had quick become ice cold. Feeling considerably vulnerable, I cautiously grabbed a towel and proceeded to the bedroom to throw on some clothes before I headed downstairs. The temperature continued to decrease, like someone had opened all the windows and doors in the house. As I made my way down the stairs, my right hand was holding onto the banister keeping me steady whilst my left hand was clenched ready to strike if an intruder was to appear. I knew, however, that if this was to happen, I would be useless in a fight. You see my body is not designed for confrontation. Yes I am a generous 6ft 2inches, but I am what health professionals would call a Ectomorph. Tall and skinny with difficulty of building muscle. Because of this I have spent all my life avoiding situations that could lead to a fight. So, this was not an ideal situation for me.
I heard scurrying coming from the kitchen. As I slowly made my way I planned my course of action to subdue the intruder. I would reach the dining area first before the kitchen so grabbing a knife from the block before anyone discovered me would be out of the question. I thought about what was on the dining table. Other than a pile of brochures and leaflets that get put through our letter box, there were two large stainless steel single candle holders that weighed a tonne that could do some damage if they were to make contact with a person’s head. I stealthy peered into the kitchen and was shocked at what I saw.
Julia was stood in the middle of the kitchen. She was drenched from head to toe, water running down her face like someone was holding a hose above her head. Her body was tense as if she was waiting for something bad to happen. She looked terrified. I dashed over to her, grabbing a hand towel to dry her face. “My God, Julia, what happened to you, you look like you have seen a ghost” I ask concerned for her well-being. As I reached for her, she jumped back.
“No don’t touch me!” she shrieked, backing away like I was some nut job.
“Julia it’s me, Ethan, don’t you recognise me?”
Julia stood stationary, her eyes staring into infinity. It reminded me of a holiday we took to Butlins when an entertainer, a hypnotist, put Julia into a trance and made her flirt with a mop. Although it is a funny memory, it did nothing to ease the worry I had for someone I cared about who was clearly going through some sort of mental torture but wouldn’t let me anywhere near her to provide comfort and support.
She stood still for what felt like hours. The house was deadly quite apart from my heartbeat exposing the fear inside me but also kept me locked in the moment. I was alerted to the fact that the house continued to decrease in temperature. Goose bumps appeared all over my body and my breath clouding my vision as I exhaled. What was she thinking? What could I say to take the fear away, to let her know that whatever had happened, that I would be there for her. I came up with two words.
Something happened! Julia’s head twitched like an android you would see on a sci-fi programme experiencing a glitch. Whatever it was, it bought her back to me, although I’m not sure what was worse. She panicked, pacing around the room with her hands in her head, muttering words I couldn’t understand.
“Julia, talk to me” her head turned sharply in my direction.
“Ethan. I can’t stay, something terrible happened, and because of that, I have to leave.”
“What happened?” I asked, concerned for her safety, “Surely you don’t have to leave.”
“I think I killed a man. It all happened so quickly. I was driving to the shops and I realised I hadn’t told you where I would be when you got home. My car’s Bluetooth wouldn’t connect to my phone so I decided to text you. A decision I’ll regret for as long as I exist.” She was distraught. As she spoke to me, she couldn’t look me in the eye. “I thought I had only taken my eyes off the road for a second. But when I looked up he was right there.”
“Who?” I asked.
“A cyclist, clear as day. I mean, I know it was dark and pouring with rain, but he was in a high visibility cycling vest and his bike had those flashing rear lights.”
“Oh God” I wanted to say more but I was afraid to ask what happened next.
“I tried to turn to avoid him but my car slid on the wet surface. The back of the car hit him, sending him soaring through the air. He disappeared from my view. I didn’t see where he landed.”
“Oh Julia” My heart was broken for her. It was only a matter of time before the police came knocking at the door, she would be taken away from me, our lives together would be over.
“The car wouldn’t stop spinning. I couldn’t see where I was going, I felt like I was on a fairground ride. The car stopped once I crashed into some sort of ditch. The windscreen was smashed and I lost consciousness. The next thing I knew I was here.” Finally, she made eye contact with me.
“You must have concussion. Come here, let me take a look at you” I instructed as I began to approach her.
“I said don’t touch me!” She leaped back away from me once more.
I held my hands up in submission to try and calm the situation. “OK” I said, “what would you like me to do?”
“Nothing, just listen” She commanded. “I don’t have much time”
“What do you mean?”
“I killed a man Ethan, I cause a horrific accident that has affected two lives and for that I am sorry…. But I have to go; and I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to you.” The faint glistening of tears appeared in her eyes making me fearful. At first, I thought she was just being overdramatic. But out of the two of us, I was always considered the spontaneous one. She was the sensible one who would make mental calculation to make even the smallest of decision. I actually proposed to her on her 18th birthday. We had been going out for four years and I felt the time was right to take the relationship to the next level, but she quite rightly said no. She had only been an adult for a few hours and she wanted us to wait until we were settled, living together and still madly in love. Of course, she was right, but for me, I was already in love with her. I’ve known her since I was 13. When we met, I had just broken up with a girl who broke my heart. Of course, at that age you think the world is going to end. I didn’t really know Julia then but she was the first person to come up to me, to sit with me whilst I sobbed and rambled on. Little did I know that I would fall in love with her and plan to spend the rest of my life with her.
“I wanted to see you to say thank you” she said. “You have made me the happiest woman in the world and I couldn’t have imagined my life without you.”
“Then don’t go. Whatever you have done, we can fix it. You don’t have to leave me.” I pleaded with her.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a choice.” She gave me a smile that in the past, could reassure me that everything would be ok, that nothing would ever hurt me as long as I had her by my side.
“Yes, you do” I replied, “Even if you did kill this man, it isn’t murder, it’s manslaughter. That’s 10 years in prison, 5 with good behaviour. It doesn’t mean your life has ended. We can still be together.”
“You don’t understand, my life has ended, and I’m not going to prison. Look I don’t have much time, rather than argue about this, let’s just talk.” I realised that I was not going to make her see sense. But rather than feeling frustrated that she wouldn’t see reason, I was heartbroken at the thought that she was willing to throw away the last 12 years without a second thought.
“I want you to promise me you won’t let this change who you are.” She implored. “You need to continue to live your life, to do things that makes you happy, to be with someone who makes you happy, to start a family like we had always planned. If you are half as good at being a father than you are at being a husband, then your child will be the luckiest boy or girl in the world.”
“But I already have someone who makes me happy, who I have planned our future with, but who is willing to throw it all away rather than fight for it.”
“I know, and I would have loved to have fulfilled that dream with you, but you will find someone who can give you everything you have ever wanted. I know it doesn’t seem like it now but it is true.” There’s that smile again. Did she think by saying those things, I’m just going to accept what she has to say and move on? Did she think I was that easy to manipulate? Being direct with her proved futile. She was determined to go so I had to change my approach.
“OK then, well in that case, I’m going with you. I won’t let you go through this alone.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a say in this.” She replied.
“Like Hell I don’t! I have enough money in the safe to get us both out of the country. We can go anywhere if we leave now before the police realise what is going on.” It sounded extreme, but right then, in that moment, I was willing to do anything to be with Julia. We had experienced everything together, why should this be any different?
But Julia continued to be stubborn. “No Ethan! They will not allow this!”
“Wait a minute! Who’s they?” This changed everything. It was bad enough that she was going through this alone, but to think that she was leaving with whom I can only assume were strangers filled me with unimaginable fear.
“I can’t say, but they are calling to me so I cannot stay long.”
That’s enough, I thought. It’s time for me to put my foot down. “Right that’s it, I’m coming with you. You do not get to dictate what happens in this relationship. Now I am going to run upstairs and grab a few things for the journey. Stay here and keep away from the windows.”
She gives me that smile again. “OK, but hurry” I turn to leave. “Ethan” she calls to me, “I love you.” I turned and smile at her, “I love you too.” I proceeded up the stairs.
I grabbed the tatty, black leather bag which I regularly used when I went on business trips. I packed the basic, clothes, toiletries, contact lenses, my unattractive pair of glasses. I ran to our safe, entering the four-digit pass code, the safe popped open. Inside are our passports packed full of stamps from our many trips abroad. Next to and behind them are stacks of £20 notes adding up to £2000. I shoved them in my bag, zipped it up and made my way downstairs without a moment to pause, to realise that my life of comfort and security are about to be wrenched away from me like one of those table cloths at a restaurant that a fancy waiter would forcibly remove, leaving the crockery and cutlery in its original position.
As I make my way down the stairs, my attention is drawn to the front door. Blue and red lights flashing one after the other floods the frosted glass. They got here quick! I’ll get Julia. If we go through the back and go over the wall at the far end of the garden, we can lose them in the dense woodland that’s only 100 meters away. I sprint to the kitchen using the door-frames to halt me in my tracks. My love, my better half, the woman who helped mould me into the man I am today has vanished, removing herself from my life like a parent taking a toy away from a child. Did she ever love me? If she did, she would want to be with me whatever happened. Perhaps she felt she was better off without me, maybe I would slow her down.
No! I thought, snap out of it! That’s your immediate reaction to a shocking situation. She did love you. She had committed half of her life to you, announced her love to you in front of our entire friends and family when she married you. Perhaps she didn’t want to put me through a life of living on the run, struggling day to day to survive. That can put a lot of strain on a relationship. Maybe she wanted me to remember only the good times, and there were many good times.
Well if I couldn’t go with her, I could at least give her a fighting chance to get clear of the house. I decided to act dumb to the police, invite them in and ask them to give me the full story. I’ll lead them on a wild goose chase to slow them down.
I walked over to the sink with a glass to moisten my dry throat. As the glass filled I realised my socks were still dry. I just walked through the kitchen, where my sodden wife was stood, dripping continuously onto the tiled flooring. Surely, she didn’t clean up before she left? I also noticed the temperature rising, erasing the goose bumps that had entrenched themselves onto my arms.
I hear a knock on the door, I nonchalantly take a sip from the glass, placing it carefully on the drainer before casually making my way to the door. I opened the door just wide enough for the officers to see my face. “Can I help you officers?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“Are you Ethan Shaw?” I confirmed my name. “Do you mind if we come in?”
“Of course.” I opened the door wider to allow them access. As they entered I noticed my bag at the bottom of the stairs. I quickly pick it up and hastily put it in the under stairs cupboard, drawing attention from one of the police officers. “Was just about to go to the gym.” I escort them to the living room. They sit on one of our two-seater sofas and I sit on the other opposite them. “So, what can I do for you?”
One of the officers who I assumed was the senior of the two looks away like he is trying to find the right words to say. “Earlier this evening, there was an accident on the A417. A cyclist was riding home and was struck by a Black BMW one series. The car had a woman driving and she lost control of the vehicle. As it was sliding, it struck the cyclist who died as he hit the ground. The car drifted into a ditch on the side of the road.” I already knew all this, but if it meant that Julia had more time to get away, I would hear it over and over again. “The woman was thrown from the vehicle. We believe she was knocked unconscious before this happened. She landed face down in a large pool of water and suffocated shortly after.”
This is new, I thought. Julia didn’t mention there was another person in the car. Who could it have been? “I regret to inform you that the car is registered in your name. We also found photographic identification that matched the woman we found at the scene. I very sorry Mr Shaw, but your wife Julia has died…”
I didn’t understand what I was told. They seemed sure of what they told me. They clearly investigated before coming to see me. The officers gave me as much time as I needed to process all the information. I couldn’t tell them that moments earlier, I was in the kitchen with Julia. If there was even a slight chance that they were wrong, by telling them my secret would start a manhunt to track her down. But what if they were right? What if I had imagined her? I’ve read that a person’s sub-conscious is more powerful that we realise. Was it my mind preparing me for this horrible news? I wasn’t sure, why would I have imagined her if I didn’t know an accident had taken place.
What followed was a blur for me. I remember being taken to identify Julia’s body. The cold and depressing room where they store the bodies is uninviting and provides nothing but dread as I slowly made my way to the morbid stainless-steel examination table, sporting a pure white sheet that covered the entire length of the table. Under the sheet was the most important person in my life. Wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, as long as she was with me, or just a phone call away, I felt I could take on the world. But now she was gone.
After that I spent a lot of time on my own. People would come visit. They would ask how I was, how sorry they were for me, how Julia was such a special person who thought the world of me. All of them meant well, but I wasn’t interested in what they had to say. But I smiled politely and made small talk whilst hoping they would go home. I didn’t want to be with people. I wanted to be alone, in the quiet, where I could hear a pin drop. I wanted to be able to hear any signs that Julia had returned. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Each day gave me time to think about our time together, about all the good times we had travelling the world, the love and happiness we gave each other. I had fallen into a hopeless pit that I was worried I would never be able to climb out of.
My mind would wander from time to time. One time I thought about Star Trek. There was something Spock said that stuck with me. ‘When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ I had never believed in ghosts before the event. I must have gone through that night a thousand times, trying to find some logical reason as to why I saw Julia but I came up with nothing. I had always claimed to be agnostic when it came to religion and this carried on to other subjects including spirits. I felt like I had enough evidence now to believe in life after death. I believed that our love was strong enough, that if I were in her position, the only thing I would want to do is be with her to say goodbye. Maybe, before she moved on to the next plain of existence, she came to me to say what she had always felt about me and what she wanted for me after she passed. In time I learnt to accept that she was gone. Although acceptance didn’t mean that the pain had gone, and I was aware that I would never return to a carefree, untroubled life. I understood that it was something that happened that was out of my control.
The confirmation of ghosts and the existence of life after death, allowed me to start the healing process. If Julia was watching me, I would want her to see that I was living my life, not just for me, but in memory of her. My appetite returned, I started having conversations with friends and family not just to be polite or to put on an act, but because I enjoyed the company and was interested in what they had to say. I was laughing at sitcoms again, and not just chuckles because I identified when something was a joke, these were fits of laughter that originated from the inner depths of my body and erupted uncontrollably out of my mouth. I wasn’t dating. I knew that was something Julia wanted, but I wasn’t at that place yet. I wasn’t ready to press reset and start all over with someone new.
I was finally able to sleep again. For months, every night, I was having nightmares about that night. I would have a front row seat of the accident, unable to move I was reduced to being only a spectator, powerless to do anything. As time went on, and through mindfulness meditation I was able to understand and accept that there was nothing I could do. I then recognised the comfort of the memory foam mattress welcoming me back into its warm embrace.
As I laid on my side I thanked Julia, for even in her final moments she had thought of me. As I closed my eyes I heard a familiar voice that had been missing for too long. Two words that took any pain that was buried deep in my soul away, to replace it with hope and belief in a better tomorrow.