James Roderick Burns
‘So, you’re still bombing round on the bike, delivering blood?’
‘Yep – for a good cause, you know.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Fancy a swap?’
His brother laughed as Feltham put on the blinker, eased down through the gears and pulled up behind another wagon in the layby. Nigel had sold his chain of greasy-spoons for a small fortune and now spent his time weaving through traffic with blood supplies, halfway up a mountain or doing absolutely nowt, the jammy sod.
There were already two in the sleepover. The bloke at the end was already lights-out, but the one in front was awake, or at least had left his TV on. Blue light jumped around the wing mirror. As Feltham’s systems shut down, he heard a tinny laugh-track.
When he’d first told his daughter about the need to pull over, she didn’t understand.
‘You’re sleeping? In a row. Like a sleepover?’
Feltham smiled. They weren’t bunked up in a single cab, but it was a sleepover all the same. He unwound his stiff limbs and climbed into the bunk, stuck the picture of his wife and daughter to the ceiling. Hands behind his head, he went through the usual list of checks. He wasn’t even halfway through when he dropped off.
A small noise, something scratching, woke him up in the black cabin. Twigs from an overhanging tree, most likely. But when he’d pulled in there hadn’t been any trees; the trucks were twenty feet from the nearest scrub. He remembered a gap in the middle, the vague shape of a building somewhere behind, but nothing overhanging the parking bays.
Now he was fully alert. He got down into the driving seat and listened in the dark. On the dash, 3:00 blinked on and off in pale orange light, then 3:01. The noise came again and he leaned towards it. Scratching? Then – he strained every part of himself – something a bit like breathing. Long screes, then short, a low hiss. Feltham breathed through his teeth, the freshly-barbered bristles on the back of his neck crackling like a wire brush dragged across paintwork. The gloom was complete, the other drivers away in fairyland. The land round about lay cold and silent. He was on his own.
He waited a moment then slipped out of the driver’s side.
They weren’t far past the Scottish border, and the carriageway was narrow – only two lanes in both directions – but he couldn’t see much of anything at all: the arc of the layby, darker than the trees, outlines of the hedges on the other side of the road, a faint reddish tinge to the sky. He found the torch function on his phone and flicked it up and down the side of the truck. Everything looked fine, canvas tight as he’d cranked it, none of the tyres going soft. He walked to the far end. Again the scratching, this time as far round the other side of the lorry as he’d progressed down this. Mindful of the other drivers, he voiced a challenge.
‘Hello? Who’s there?’
Suddenly a wind seemed to get up behind him, rattling the canvas and stirring dust. Not too far away something hissed.
Feltham swallowed and made the turn to the passenger side, flashing his torch. There was no one there. Small eddies of wind rose and died. He heard the creaking of branches, then silence. He shone the phone at his feet. An old chocolate wrapper was caught in a split of tarmac; beside it, a heel-mark. He walked around them to the kerb, then into the gap between the trees. The trucks slept on untroubled.
The silence here was deep and troubling in its fullness. He swung the light around the broken arch of trees. For some reason, shoes and snarls of clothing – a one-armed baby doll – were suspended in the branches. He shook his head and followed the dirt path further into the bushes. He was right: there was a building back here, ruined he thought, not much more than a croggled line of bricks against the rusty sky. He was a few steps from a low wall when something darted behind him and a bush, grown unruly, rustled madly at his back.
‘Hello – ?’ He didn’t like the waver in his voice. ‘Hello – can I help? Do you need someone to help you?’
Behind the latticework of leaves, which parted slightly to reveal a streak of red in the torch beam, a small, sly voice replied.
‘Oh, yes,’ it said.
Feltham yelled and spun around, crashing into the branches in panic. His foot slid on a stone or chunk of brick, furred with slippery moss, and he fell backwards onto his head, straight down into blackness.
‘You all right, mate? Hey – feller.’
His eyes opened like slits. He moaned and stirred. A thick hand, heavy as a leg of lamb, reached down and pulled him to his feet, then went around his shoulders. A few moments later he was sitting in the door of the nearest cab, sipping milky tea.
‘Thanks very much,’ Feltham said. ‘Thank you – really.’
At last the driver let him go, extracting a promise to get some sleep and see a doctor about that lumpy head, the gash on his neck. Back in the cab he called his wife, assured her he was okay and asked if she’d get Nigel to call him in the morning. He sat dazed for a few minutes longer, then closed his eyes.
The brassy ringtone woke him up.
‘Hey, geezer,’ Nigel said. ‘Heard you fell on your head.’
‘Yeah, very funny. I’m fine – thanks for asking.’ He paused. ‘Nige, could you do me a favour?’ Through the windscreen the early morning sun poked at his eyes like a sharpened stick, and he pulled down the visor, rummaged through the glove box for an old pair of sunglasses. ‘Ask your boss if he’s taking on drivers for the night shift … ’
James Roderick Burns’ work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Flash Fiction Magazine and La Piccioletta Barca, as well as a short-fiction chapbook and three poetry collections. His story ‘Trapper’ (Funicular Magazine) was nominated for Pushcart 2020. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.