CHAPTER ONE - OWING SOME PEOPLE
He was broken, blurred, but still he kept running because that was the only thing he could do. He barely knew the town or where he would be able to find safety, his movement was restricted by the searing pain of his injuries, but he just had to keep going, had to get away, to secure himself somewhere so that he might at last get some respite.
So that he might survive.
Before he dared stop to take another agonising breath, he lost his footing and stumbled down a steep, uneven hillside, lights circling and blazing around him as he stared helplessly into the dawn. It was dizzying, sickening, his body tearing with each excruciating lurch and twist. Spiralling downwards in a paralysed cascade through the dewy grass, he was suddenly overcome with an odd sensation, that if this was to be an ending it was also, in some way, marking the beginning of something new. What that would be, however, he didn’t yet have any way of knowing.
A few seconds later came a deathly, thunderous blast as a blinding flash of light charged the skyline clear across town. Almost immediately residents ran from their homes, some wanting to help while those more afraid simply wanted to know what had happened, to see what had so violently disturbed their quiet, summer night. Soon the approaching wail of sirens from ambulances and police vehicles grew louder, exacerbating the confusion and cacophony, while an emergency helicopter whirred overhead in an attempt to garner a different perspective. All attention was focused towards the dock, and more specifically the train tracks that ran along its edge.
‘There’s been an accident,’ one local shouted ahead to another, exhaling heavily as he ran back up the hill, heading home to pick up blankets and water, hopeful they would be of some use. ‘A train, a train has crashed.’
‘I don’t know. It’s terrible, terrible…,’ the first man said, resting just before the brow of the slope, running the back of his hand across his receding hair, his bulging stomach moving quickly with each gasp of air.
Beyond him lay a harrowing spectacle. The engine and first carriage of the train were tilted onto their side, sprawled across the tracks, while several yards behind its second carriage had shifted in the opposite direction, metal twisted and gaping, a loud, fast fire licking and bubbling outwards, rumbling and hissing around it. The flames stained the scene with a sickly orange glow and smoke rose thickly, blocking the first hints of sunlight edging over a low, narrow strip of aurora clouds. It was as though some malevolent beast had reached down, picked up the train and ripped it into two, before tossing it back to earth.
Twenty feet from the edge of the track, at the point where the heat of the blaze was starting to become intolerable, one of the first paramedics to arrive noticed something at the bottom of the hill, a crumpled outline illuminated by the pulsating flickers of light.
‘Hey, over there,’ he called to a colleague, and together the pair strode towards, and then crouched beside, the shape in the grass.
It was a person, sprawled into an almost impossible position.
‘Can you hear me?’ one of the paramedics asked.
‘Can you speak?’ his colleague tried, leaning closer.
The man hunched his shoulders slightly and started to cough, before slowly rolling onto his back.
‘Take it easy,’ the first advised him. ‘Just stay still while we check you over.’
‘I’m…I’m okay,’ the man whispered shakily, more in disbelief than with any real certainty. Once in his new position it became clear to the medics that he was in need of their help. His face was cut and eye sockets bruised, his left arm twisted back and away from him, his breathing forced and wheezing. His skin appeared to have been burnt, or at least blackened by the ash of the fire. One of the paramedics left to search for supplies, calling out for a stretcher, while the other stayed with the man, applying what initial alleviating treatment he could. The man, a young man probably in his late twenties, was barely conscious, drifting in and out of the mayhem going on around him, clearly in a lot of pain. When another pair of paramedics arrived with a stretcher, they carefully lifted him onto it, discussing the likelihood of dislocated limbs and splintered bones as they fastened a thick, red brace around his neck.
‘His knuckles look as though he’s been in some kind of fight,’ one of them speculated.
‘His face too,’ agreed another, ‘like he’s been beaten up. Maybe he hit something when he was thrown from the train.’
As he was placed inside one of the ambulances waiting at the railway station entrance no one could be sure exactly what had happened to him that would have caused such an odd combination of injuries; nor could they predict whether he would make it through to tomorrow.
The hospital doctors worked on him for over two hours. Thoracic surgeons responded to the results of x-rays by stabilising the fractures in his ribs, screwing a small, titanium plate across them so the bones would be realigned. He was also found to have dislocated his left shoulder and so a secondary orthopaedic team manipulated his arm back into its joint, performing another x-ray after the reduction to be sure of its positioning. When his cuts and wounds were cleaned it became obvious that he had suffered no burns from the accident, although there were signs of pressure having been applied to his throat and wrists, making them too wonder exactly what had happened to him, how he could have been hurt in such an unusual way.
After he had been in the high dependency unit for two days he was then moved onto the general wards of the hospital, where he was monitored closely, evaluated and stabilised, painkillers administered and his arm immobilised. They also considered the possibility that he was suffering from amnesia, since he was unable to tell them his name or where he was from, let alone supply any details of what had happened to him on the night of the crash. There seemed to be no remnants of memory of his life at all, and there was nothing to identify him, no wallet, credit cards, driving license or any other clue as to who he was. All that was found nearby, and what had been assumed belonged to him, was a rucksack containing only a book and a change of clothes. Meanwhile there had been no further survivors found amongst the wreckage of the train and, difficult as it was to ascertain a definitive count of just how many people would have been travelling at such an early hour, educated estimates led search teams and investigators to conclude there were likely to have been between six and ten people on board. Thus far five burned and twisted bodies had been reclaimed from the carnage, and so they decided to continue for at least another two days.
As those days passed and the search was eventually called off, with no more reports of bodies being found, the hospital staff started to enjoy the man’s laid-back charm, his philosophical outlook and obvious concern for the families of those on the train who hadn’t been so fortunate as him. Wanting a more personable way to refer to their patient than ‘John Doe’, they first started calling him ‘Lucky’ and then, when one of the middle-aged porters struck up something of a friendship with him, and recalling the film from the 1950’s, this turned to ‘Lucky Jim’ before finally settling at ‘Jimmy.’ After he had been there for a week, which included bouts of physiotherapy, epidurals, the instruction in breathing and relaxation techniques as well as scans and cognitive tests to establish a diagnosis of his likely amnesia, the decision was made that Jimmy was able to take care of himself as long as he was placed under some kind of temporary supervision. The community of Scotchbrook had rallied around on his behalf, the shock of the accident and the grief of the town’s loss making them want to take good care of their own miraculous survivor, and he had been inundated with donations and offers of help. Theirs was a close community which had taken him to their hearts, and for that he was more grateful than he could express. A pair of local businesses had arranged for him to take up residence at the small, but comfortable, Restwell Hotel for as long as he needed to, and an eminently kind and cheerful GP, who was just settling into an early semi-retirement, assured him that he would visit him there every day.
Once Frank had been escorted inside the hotel and shown to his room, and had assured the manager that yes, he was okay and yes, he would like to rest, he took a lengthy shower and then lay on the bed, breathing slowly and lightly as he had been advised. After a short time he then carefully, painfully reached for the shiny, black, old-fashioned phone on the cabinet beside him and dialled the only number he could remember, the only one he had ever been able to commit to memory.
‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice, answering quickly as though she had been waiting for her phone to ring. He could hear the worry in her tone but still he immediately felt better, the familiar comfort of her voice as soothing and restorative as any of the medication he’d been prescribed.
‘Hello, hello mum,’ he said.
‘Frankie? Frankie, is that you?’
‘Yes, mum, it’s me.’
She began to sob quietly, the relief so obvious it almost dripped from the earpiece.
‘Frankie, where have you been? What’s happened?’ she asked, trying to compose herself. ‘We’ve been so worried, we haven’t heard from you in so long.’
He calculated just how long he had been away. The hospital staff had told him he’d been there for seven days, so it must only have been a couple of weeks since they had last spoken. It did feel like forever to him, too, but then he had a different perspective, had been through so much more than he could currently share. He did think it strange that she would be so concerned and upset; mother’s intuition, he considered, telling her more than he was prepared to offer.
‘I know, mum, I’m sorry. I just got caught up in something down here.’
As he lay in hospital he had decided what he would tell her and, just as importantly, what he wouldn’t. There was no need to worry her too much, and he didn’t want to explain everything that had happened, why he was there, the injuries he had suffered. Even if he had wanted to, he knew that he couldn’t, not yet. Besides, there might yet be more of the story to tell.
‘There’s been an accident but don’t worry,’ he explained. ‘I’m not hurt, just more like… it’s more like I’ve been acting as a witness.’ He closed his eyes, hating the deception now that he was having to put it into words, now he was hearing it out loud. While it was all just in his head it had been nothing more than a little white lie, purely for her benefit. Now it left a bitter, unpleasant taste. It had been several years since he had last needed to be less than honest with her, and that was only for some minor, immature reason that he had long forgotten, and they both enjoyed the openness of their relationship. He wouldn’t have been comfortable telling her anything, as she had told him he could, but still he didn’t like not telling her everything.
’You sure you’re okay? Where are you? Where’s ‘down here’? We thought you were just going to see a friend for a couple of days.’
‘I know, I’m sorry. I just had to go a bit further afield. Something came up and I had some business to sort out but honestly, everything’s fine. I’m in a nice, little hotel, and being well looked after.’
‘What was the accident? Are you sure you’re not hurt?’
‘No mum, I’m fine, I really am.’ He moved on the bed slightly, feeling the sharp pain grip his shoulder. ‘I just happened to be in the right place, so to speak, to see a train crash and so I’ve been giving them some help, that’s all.’
His mother paused for a few moments, absorbing the information. She didn’t want to press him, she knew he would explain all of this in more detail when he was ready. Instead she asked, ‘So when will you be coming home?’
‘I’m not exactly sure yet,’ he told her, glancing around at the quiet, simple charm of the room. ‘I may be here for a few more days, still helping out with the accident enquiry, you know. I’ll be in touch soon though. I just wanted to call so you knew that I was okay. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, but I will let you know what’s happening in a day or two.’
‘Make sure you do,’ his mother told him, sounding a little bit happier, a little more like her old self. ‘And let me know if there’s anything that you need.’
‘I will, but I’d better go.’ He was tiring, his head was throbbing, and he wanted to bring an end to the conversation so that he wouldn’t have to deceive her any longer. At least, not right now.
‘Okay, well, I love you, Frankie.’
‘I love you too, mum.’
He placed the phone in its cradle and reclined back into the bed, thinking about how much he missed being home and exactly what it was that he was going to do now. He thought about the night of the crash, about what he had done, how he had been so badly beaten before slipping down the hill towards the tracks, just as the train burst into flames. He considered how lucky he had actually been, although not in the way that everyone thought. He had been given this alibi, this way for him to finish what he had started, although he had no idea how he should go about it, how he would be able to work the situation to his advantage. He also felt bad - really bad - for those who had lost their lives in the accident and for those who had been left behind to grieve, to wonder what would make a modern train come off the rails in such a cruel and explosive way. No obvious reason had yet been found by those investigating the incident, no cause could be offered as an empty consolation to those in distress. Perhaps sometimes accidents are just that, just something that happens regardless of the pain they inflict, and perhaps those involved and affected have no other option but to try to make the best of what’s left, in whichever way they can.
He rubbed his brow, closing his eyes at the pain, trying to decide again what would be the best course for him to follow. He knew that he basically had two choices; he could either return home, back to the peace and quiet of Avondale, one hundred miles away, putting all of this behind him as quickly as he could, or he could stay and fulfil the reason he was here in the first place. Both options were weighted with caveats, both scenarios would be difficult to navigate and neither came with any guarantee of a positive ending.
Almost three weeks prior to his arrival in Scotchbrook he had been told that Nestor’s, the local building company where he had worked since he was a teenager, was having to let go of some of its employees, and he was one of those now facing redundancy. He knew there was little chance of finding something else within the trade, the local economy having withered and shrunk away into austerity, and he also knew that he was without the necessary savings to be able to prevent his eviction from the small apartment he had rented for the previous two years if he didn’t find something quickly. There might be a month or two’s worth of severance pay but after that he would be in trouble. He had friends, he had what he hoped could be called a life, but there was no one special waiting for him, no one who would be missing him other than his mother and sister, and it wasn’t as though he were a regular at their homes anymore, invited over for dinner every Sunday or included in the planning of trips to the seaside or out for picnics. Their lives had drifted in separate directions, as usually happens when the children have grown and begun forging lives of their own. His sister married and had young kids to care for, Frank went to work and then filled his spare time with music and books, tuning into online baseball games when he should have been sleeping, occasionally going out to see live bands or meeting friends for drinks. If it came to it he knew he could return to his old room in his mother’s basement, but that was really something he hoped to avoid, a retrograde step away from what little positivity he had in his life, from the small accomplishments he had so far assembled.
The other option was to continue with this new role, to play the part of Jimmy, the amnesiac train crash survivor to whom everyone had been so kind, had felt so sorry for and wanted to help in any way that they could. He could continue deceiving all of these people, acting as this anonymous, unrecognisable stray just so he could do what he had come to do in the first place, but was that the person he wanted to be? A manipulative, stone-hearted liar, only out for all he could get, even if what he was out for wasn’t only for himself? Yes, he had the time to strengthen the idea, make some plans, cement the better parts of his real life into Jimmy’s, mould him into something, give him a past. It could come back in flashes, small fragments at a time, and he knew that no one would be pushing him to remember, that they would all be more interested in making sure he was okay than rushing him back to health. It probably wouldn’t be such a difficult thing to pull off, lying to strangers even if they did deserve so much more from him than that. It would be possible, it was doable. The more he considered it the less-diabolical it all started to sound, although his conscience still gnawed at him, the dilemma of whether he would be able to live with himself should he be so Machiavellian, so devious, so sly. Would that be anything like actually living at all? Would it all be worth it, chasing this puzzle piece that could be the answer to everything or, alternatively, might open up a whole new world of problems? He knew that he wasn’t out of danger either, that those who had already caught and beaten him half to death would probably still be looking for him now. That had been the reason for his initial duplicity, why he had avoided telling anyone at the hospital anything about himself, why he had quietly accepted the role of Jimmy in the first place and then consequently fallen further into this mire. His intention had only been to keep himself safe so that he could complete the job, the mission he had agreed to complete, despite it being against his better judgement from the outset.
He had made the journey to Scotchbrook because he had been asked to carry out a ‘favour’ for one of the other employees at Nestor’s, someone he considered a good friend, someone he wanted to help. As he lay on the bed, his body becoming stiff and painful, feeling weary and confused, he thought back to the conversation the two of them had shared.
‘I know things are gonna get tough or you,’ his friend Dave had said to him during a lunch break, just a few days after hearing news of the cutbacks. ‘Same as with me, I’m not gonna have an easy time of it either.’
‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ Frank answered, taking a bite from his sandwich and looking around the garden of the house they were renovating, trying not to think about it too much. They were sitting together as they usually did, apart from the other workmen, finding shade from the strong July sun beneath a large, striped canopy stretched taught along the top of the kitchen window. Dave fell quiet for a time and then, as if summoning courage, he sat upright, took a deep breath and began talking.
‘I want to make you an offer, Frankie. I need your help. Now, it’s something that might be a little… shady, maybe, but not…’ Dave stopped for a moment, waiting for Frank to look over to him as he held up his paint-spotted hands, as if attesting to his honesty in front of judge and jury. ’Shady but not illegal, I can promise you that. Not in the strictest sense, anyway. It’s like, if someone’s done something wrong, would it be such a terrible thing to right that wrong even if it wasn’t exactly the right thing to do? But it would be right in some ways…’
Frank squinted at him.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ he asked, already left astray by his friend’s words. Dave became quiet again, thinking about how to say what he wanted to say without it being quite so impossible to comprehend, while at the same time avoiding his friend thinking any less of him, as he already did of himself. He was ashamed but saw no other option than to ask for help.
‘Just hear me out Frankie, just listen for a minute.’ Frank bit into his sandwich again, wishing he’d remembered to buy a fresh loaf, hoping Dave would start making more sense. ‘Now, a little while ago I found myself with a bit of an issue, a bit of a problem with something personal, something I really don’t want the missus to know about…’
‘I’m not sure that I want to be hearing this, Davey,’ Frank said, shifting awkwardly on one of the upturned plastic crates they both used as lunchtime chairs. If he was having some kind of mid-life crisis, if he’d managed to get himself involved with another woman then Frank could do without knowing anything about it. He and Dave had been friends for a long time, but he was also friendly with his wife Karen, an extremely nice, if unremarkable, woman who had been kind enough to invite him to their home for occasional evening meals and lazy weekend barbecues. If it was anything like that, Frank in no way wanted to be a party to it. Hardly a heart-throb, with his thinning hair and sagging cheeks, he momentarily wondered what kind of woman Dave would have been likely to attract anyway. No, surely that can’t be it, Frank thought, looking across at his friend again.
‘No, no, it’s fine, it’s nothing, like, that kind of personal,’ Dave assured him, as though he had imagined what Frank might be thinking. ‘It’s just that I’ve ended up owing some people a little bit of money, and if I don’t pay them back, I think they’re gonna, you know, send the boys round.’ He tried a smile, but Frank immediately knew it was forced from an overwrought place that held no sense of happiness. He knew Dave well enough to know when he was frightened.