Tuesday, 9 October 2012

BACK TO THE FEN (part two)

by Alex Mitchell

Funny how Dame Nature only seems to get it right about one time out of twenty. Most of us look like an experiment gone wrong. All we lads yearned hopelessly after the lovely Helen Atkins, the only daughter of Big Jack Atkins and way out of our class in looks, brains, social background, the lot; and ignored, at least until the end of the evening, the pairs of other girls dancing disconsolately around their handbags, there for the taking. The lovely Helen, for her part, had eyes only for my best mate, Andy Southwell. It’s strange how all the beautiful, talented people like Helen and Andy pick each other out of the crowd, as if by long distance radar, and how invisible the rest of us, we ordinary mortals, seem to be to them, as if we just didn’t exist. Funny how each up-and-coming generation thinks they’re the first to discover this particular game, that they’ve invented their own set of rules, when the game and the rules have always been much the same.

Andy liked his beer and the snooker table down at the Seven Stars even more than he liked spending time with Helen. For a time, Helen pretended to like the pub too, so that she and Andy could be together more of the time. After a while she got tired of being the only girl there, and would go and sit in the van by herself and wait for Andy to come out to her, which usually took until after closing time.

The Friday night in question, the four of us – Andy, me, Helen and her friend Susan, were at the dance in March. Susan and I had been sort of pushed in each other’s direction by Helen, and were still making up our minds about each other. She was nice enough, I suppose, but she was never going to be “the one”. Looking back, I wonder if I knocked about with Andy mainly so as to be near Helen. I liked neither the darts-and-snooker milieu of the Seven Stars, nor the fizzy keg beer of the period, but I thought it must be me who was out of step. Whatever the case, none of it did me any good at all. It wasn’t until much later that I finally gave up pretending to be one of the good ol’ boys.

Andy and I were up at the bar as usual, while Helen and Susan were in the dance hall itself. The worst thing about these dances was that, sooner or later, the lads from March would pick a fight with the lads from Guyhirn or wherever, usually on the pretext that somebody had tried it on with their girlfriend or sister or whatever. Lads were always trying to get off with Helen, and would then fall out on Andy or me in a fit of jealous resentment. I noticed two or three groups from previous encounters. The atmosphere was tense, threatening. It was time to exit the premises.

Andy has had a fair bit to drink, but he knows the road across the fen and home to Christchurch like the back of his hand, could do it blindfold. We’re cruising along, no problems, when a white Ford Escort pulls alongside and a lager can smashes against Andy’s side window. The Escort is crammed full of goons from the dance-hall, shouting and screaming foul abuse, mainly directed at Helen. They want us to chase them, want a race. Sober Andy wouldn’t have risen to the challenge, but drunk Andy does.

The back roads across the Fens are dead-straight, but narrow and undulating, being laid down right on top of the river-banks, where the alluvial silt provides a firmer base than would the peat-soil of the adjacent fields, most of which have shrunk and subsided down to a level well below that of the roadway, or even of the rivers themselves. It is easy to go off the road and plunge down into the river on the one side, or into the deep, steep-sided ditches draining the adjacent fields on the other side. Sections of the tarmac have subsided, or are crumbling at the edges, through lack of maintenance. I never understood why they wasted so much time at school warning us about unsafe sex and drugs when far and away the commonest cause of early death amongst our schoolmates was through motor accidents, cars going off the road and ending upside-down in a freezing-cold river or ditch.

As I say, the Fen roads are dead-straight for miles on end, until they take a sudden, often completely unpredictable, right-angled turn around the perimeter of some long-dead person’s land. Flying along at eighty-plus, the Escort in front of us suddenly clamps on the brakes to get around one such bend, losing the back end in the process. Andy doesn’t stand a chance, of course. Our van hits the spinning tail of the Escort and is tipped leftwards over on to its roof, then back on to four wheels again. I hear the girls screaming, as if in the far distance, but I’m unable to scream with them.

It takes me a while to come to, something warm trickling down my face. My right leg is at an unlikely angle and there are white shards of bone sticking out through my trouser-leg, below the knee, although I can’t feel anything yet. Andy is up against the steering-wheel, blood coming out of his mouth. Helen is between us, her head under the dashboard, not moving. Susan is lying on her front out on the bonnet; she must have gone straight through the windscreen, which is completely shattered. I can’t see her face, which is probably just as well.

A police car arrives, followed by an ambulance. I can only hear their voices, can’t see anything now.“Smells like a brewery in here – suppose they’re all pissed as usual. Cover that one’s face, for God’s sake, I can’t look at her like that. It’s worse when it’s a girl.”