23 April 2017

1

07.05

Southampton glowed blood red. It was a fresh autumn morning, the frost still crisp on the ground, but a warm light was stealing over the city as the sun crept above the horizon. It was a stunningly beautiful sight and Sonia Smalling smiled to herself as she drove along the quiet country road. It was days like this that made you glad to be alive.

Sonia had worked in Southampton for nearly ten years, but had never chosen to live there, preferring the calm, unhurried rhythms of village life. She lived near Ashurst, on the edges of the New Forest, and loved nothing more than taking the dogs for a walk at first light. Her husband, Thomas, often accompanied her and occasionally the boys too, when they could be coaxed out of their beds. With the sun low in the sky, it would have been a glorious day to bound along the narrow, wooded paths with her two red setters, but Sonia had had to forgo that pleasure this morning. She had a new set of kids starting today and wanted to be in the office early to ensure that everything went off smoothly.

It wasn’t a difficult commute, despite the inevitable traffic on the A336, and when Sonia was flying along the country roads like this, she was perfectly happy. She had her favourite radio station playing, the heating was cranked up to the max and she was enjoying the roar of her new Audi. Uncharacteristically for her, she hadn’t gone for the basic model, raiding her savings to buy the sporty version instead. ‘Live a little’ was her argument to her rather bemused husband.

The road was clear, so she put her foot down. Despite the frost, her tyres gripped the road and the car sped along. She looked down at the clock – 7.05 a.m. – and realized that she would be at work even earlier than usual today. That should keep her boss off her back.

She flicked her eyes back up and immediately froze. A woman was standing in the road, dead ahead of her, shouting and waving her arms. Instinctively Sonia slammed on the brakes. But already she knew that it was too late – she would hit the woman and it would be her fault for driving too fast. In those few, precious seconds, she saw the whole thing – the horrible impact, her shattered body – but to her enormous surprise the car suddenly lurched to a halt, a few inches from the terrified woman.

Love Me Not

Please, help me . . . You’ve got to help me

Sonia sat stock still, her heart thumping, her head throbbing. But already the woman had rounded the car and was hammering on the window.

‘Please, help me . . . You’ve got to help me.’

Sonia turned to her, trying to fathom what was happening. The woman was dressed in jeans and a torn biker jacket. Through the open visor of her helmet, Sonia could see a small trickle of blood running down her temple.

‘My boyfriend, he’s come off his bike. He’s not moving . . .’ Sonia stole a look down the road and got her second shock of the morning. Ahead of them was a crumpled motorbike and next to it a figure, lying motionless in the middle of the road.

The woman was crying, shaking and desperate, so gesturing to her to move away from the car, Sonia unclipped her seatbelt and climbed out. Sonia was still pretty shaken herself, but as she’d been trained in first aid, it was her duty to help. Flicking a look behind her to check that the road was clear, she hurried over to the man, praying to herself that his injuries weren’t severe. She had seen many things in her lifetime, but she had never had anyone die on her.

‘Can you hear me?’

Kneeling down on the cold tarmac, Sonia gently rolled him on to his back. His visor was cracked, his eyes closed, and already Sonia feared the worst.

‘Is he ok? Is he going to be ok?’

Sonia ignored the twittering girlfriend, raising his head off the ground. He still felt warm, which was something, but he remained unresponsive, his head heavy in her hand. ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ she continued to the injured man. ‘But I need you to talk to me.’

Still no response. Sonia tried to ease his visor up, but it wouldn’t budge.

‘Can you hear what I’m saying?’

Still nothing, so she tried again, louder. ‘Can you hear what I’m saying to y—’ His eyes shot open, locking on to hers. ‘Loud and clear, sweetheart.’

Then he drove his fist into her face.

2

07.08

The underground car park was dark and gloomy. Before long it would be full of young professionals racing to their cars, but at this hour it was lifeless and unwelcoming, lit only by the flickering strip lights. Helen cut a lonely figure as she walked across the oil-smeared concrete, the fluorescent lights dancing over her biking leathers.

She made her way quickly over to her new bike, which stood proud in bay 26. Helen was not prone to extravagance, but had decided to treat herself following her recent troubles. She had received a hefty sum in compensation, following her wrongful arrest and imprisonment and had decided to make use of it. She’d given the majority of the money to a local children’s charity, but had blown the rest on a single purchase – a new Kawasaki Ninja.

She was glad of its company this morning. Prison had not broken her, but it had left a deep mark. She struggled to sleep, finding the silence in her top-floor flat suffocating, and when she did manage to nod off, she was plagued by terrible nightmares. In these dreams, she was back in her cell, scared and desperate. Sometimes the ghosts of Holloway paraded before her – the murdered inmates castigating Helen for failing to save them. At other times, it was her sister, Marianne, who came to her, appealing to Helen to join her in death. Hideously, Marianne appeared not as Helen liked to remember her, but as she was at the very end – the bullet hole in her forehead glistening wet.

Helen would wake disoriented and sweating, her fear lingering long after these awful visions had disappeared. She had always loved her little flat, but nine months on from her release, it often felt small, even oppressive. Helen knew it was all in her head, that her cosy home had alwaysbeen her sanctuary, but there was no denying the shallowness of her breath or the furious beating of her heart as she awoke with a start from these fevered dreams. Helen hadn’t had a full-on panic attack yet, but she sensed one was coming, so whenever she felt her anxiety levels rise, she fled. Down to the basement and on to her bike. Only when she was astride it did her dark feelings start to recede. She was no longer a prisoner, but sometimes she just needed to get out. Which is why she looked forward to the dawn, when the day was new and waiting to be seized. Flicking off the stand, she waited for the gate to rise, then, pulling back the throttle, roared out and away into the light.

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