Not even the screeching of the ambulance as it cut its way through the traffic was enough to bring me back to my senses. What was the point in rushing now, I wondered. I’m no doctor but even I could tell that guy was dead. I flopped down on the pavement, my back against the shop window. Breathe, I told myself. Just breathe. Sticking my head between my legs, I hoped the world would stop spinning. It didn’t.
‘Keep out of it,’ my mother had always warned. ‘Whatever’s going on, don’t go poking your nose in where it isn’t wanted. You’re not one of them. You’re not English and don’t you go forgetting that. They sure as hell won‘t.’ Wise advice. I only wish I’d taken it now.
But it’s impossible to turn a blind eye when fate literally throws somebody in front of you. Well, maybe that’s blaming fate unfairly. The driver of the white transit van that had slammed into him had to shoulder the majority of the blame. I looked up. The driver was standing on the other side of the road now, giving his version of events to a policewoman, pointing and waving wildly as he did so. The caved-in windscreen and dented bodywork bore silent witness to what had just happened.
It was only then that I felt the pain. My hand was scrunched up in a ball and cramp was beginning to set in. I eased it open and that’s when I saw it - the key the man had given me as he lay dying in the road. Gripping it so tightly had left its impression in my skin, its razor-sharp edges drawing blood from my fleshy palm.
Just minutes ago my world had been such a different place. I had left the library where I worked at 1.15 for lunch, like every day. I took my usual route - down Samson Road, past the Open Market, heading towards the river. After a morning shut up with books I had wanted to hear the rushing of the water again.
But today the only thing that was rushing was the traffic. It was heavy and, as always, the lights seemed to be favouring the lines of cars rather than the pedestrians. I was forced to stop at the set of lights just before the bridge. That was when I heard the shouting behind me. I half-turned towards the commotion, just in time to see a flash of blue beside me. A hand shoved me to the side as the body it belonged to bolted past me. Past me and into the traffic.
Normally I’m a pretty squeamish type but when the crash happened some stronger part inside took over. I was the first person there and someone needed to do something. I’m not sure what made me go to him but I can tell you when I got to the front of the vehicle it was a confusing scene that met me. It was hard to tell where the van ended and the body began. The pool of blood inching outwards seemed to have fused the two into one horrifying half-man, half-machine mess.
As I knelt down I realised the little first aid knowledge I had seemed to have deserted me.
‘Are you OK, mate?’ I knew the question was inadequate as soon as it was out.
He opened his mouth but I couldn’t make out anything, as blood bubbled up from his mouth and dribbled down his chin.
‘Hang on mate. It’s going to be OK. We’ll get you out of here in a couple of minutes’.
But even I could see he wasn’t going to last that long. His eyes, which had just a few seconds earlier been darting around in a frenzy were now fixed. Staring straight into my own. His free hand grabbed at my jacked and pulling me closer, pushed the key into my hand.
‘Take it’ he spat the words out against my cheek. ‘Abbie…give it to Abbie. Not…the others.’
‘Abbie? Who’s Abbie?’ I turned my head to look down at him but knew instantly he was gone. His eyes were still fixed but I realised I was supporting his head all on my own now. As I gently lay it back down on the road the eyes blindly followed whatever was in front of them. I could sense people around me now, crowding closer but I didn’t meet any of their eyes. I couldn’t. I backed away, needing to sit down and think.
On the pavement again, I had to make up my mind what to do next. A sensible person would have given a statement to the police and then left all this behind. As awful as it sounded, it would become just another story with time, I hoped. But at the back of my mind there was an image that just wouldn’t let go. Those eyes - those searching, frightened eyes. Didn’t I owe it to him to find this Abbie, whoever she was and give her the key? Wasn’t that the right thing to do?
But even if I wanted to, how was I going to find her?