By Jake Kale
I doubt I’ll ever really know what happened that night—I can’t trust my memory, for reasons which will become obvious. For a long time I had no memory to trust or distrust, and I suppose I should have been grateful for that. But I’m a curious guy, and that curiosity soon overrode my common sense. It’s taken me ten years to get this far, ten years of my mind taunting me with isolated flashes dealt at its own irregular pace, daring me to explore further. Ten years of fitting those flashes into a timeline, a coherent chain of events. This is the result.
At the time I’d been out of school for just over a year and had begun working for an employment agency called Progress Workforce, and if you’ve ever worked for such an agency you’ll know work tends to be sporadic. Progress was especially shoddy (in fact they’ve since closed down) and I’d had no work throughout the summer. Then in September several jobs opened up at the Denhams factory and Progress got the gig. I was offered an evening shift, two till nine, and while I preferred day shifts funds were getting desperately low so I accepted.
The Denhams factory was located on the Gatehouse Industrial Estate in western Cranford, and was typical of the buildings on that estate—a huge brick box built around a flimsy-looking skeleton of scaffolding. The Progress workers manned a line of tables in front of the delivery bays, row after row of tightly packed clothing behind us. As with all factory jobs the work was mind numbingly boring, and in the case of my merry little band involved taking delivery of cardboard boxes from the bays and hanging the contents on a ceiling-mounted railing, then pushing them round to the either the right or left aisle where other workers would transport them to their assigned place on one of the three floors. We found ways to entertain ourselves, usually by firing the elastic clasps that we had to remove from the clothes at each other, or by wolf-whistling at the redheaded college student who always wore a long dress and always seemed to end up on the second floor, so that we got an eyeful through the grating.
I’d been working at Denhams for a little over three months when that night began, a personal best during my time with Progress. My recall of the start of that shift consists of little more than fuzzy impressions. My friends from the factory told me that I had complained of a headache early on, and I vaguely remember I’d been feeling sick as well. The only clear memory I have, which strangely enough was the first one to come back to me, is of standing in front a sink in the toilets, staring into the mirror. It confused me for a long time, because I had the strongest sensation that my reflection was talking to me.
Apparently I managed to endure the pain for a whole two hours before I decided enough was enough and asked if I could leave early. My supervisor was a decent bloke and had been happy with my work so he OK’d this, but when I telephoned Progress from one of the kiosks in reception (this was back before everyone had a mobile phone) I was informed the minibus would not be coming out until the regular pick-up time. Which was another six hours away. So I called for a taxi instead and because I needed some fresh air I waited for it on a bench outside.
The air outside certainly was fresh, I remember that clearly. In fact it was bitter—I was “freezing my Frankincense off” as a colleague of mine used to say. I remember it was getting dark, too. The factory’s entrance looked out onto Gateway Road, the main road through the industrial estate. A wooded path bordered the other side of the road, and in the setting sun the outline of the trees had seemed to glow. To my left were the delivery bays, while the booking in area and, I believe, a small car park were located around the right side of the building. The only sign of human habitation had been the pale blue flickering of a portable TV coming from the security hut. I sat for I don’t know how long waiting for the taxi, feeling cold and miserable, but the only traffic I saw was the odd lorry thundering past or through the main entrance. My recall becomes confused here, as I have another memory of myself sitting on the short wall in front of the chain link fence next to the entrance, staring back at a row of empty delivery bays, only now the sky was dark. I don’t know if I came back to the factory later that night or if this memory is from a different night. I do know that my taxi didn’t turn up.
I eventually got sick of waiting, but I couldn’t call back to check on the taxi as I’d used the last of my spare change to book it in the first place. It would’ve saved me a lot of heartache—ten years worth—if I’d just asked the girl at the desk if I could use the phone there, but for some reason I think there was bad blood between us, so I didn’t. In a testament to masculine obstinacy, I decided instead to follow the road out of the estate and get some change from one of the shops along Mill Street, then look for a phone box there. What the hell made me think that was a good idea I don’t know. But that’s what I did.
I remember Gateway Road being longer than it seemed by minibus, and what I thought would be a five-minute walk ended up taking maybe ten. The sky darkened, and being an industrial estate I saw no other pedestrians. The road snaked ahead of me, shadowy trees on one side and the black edifices of other factories on the other, the smattering of orange night lights that covered them providing little in the way of illumination. The trees made me nervous, and I also worried that passing lorry drivers might not see me because I was wearing dark clothes. The fact that I’d worked at several of those other factories during my employment with Progress made me feel a little better, though. I knew safety was nearby if I needed it.
I finally reached the turn-off from Mill Street, a short shopping district that ran parallel to the industrial estate. I remember it was just as empty as Gateway Road had been, but at the time I didn’t care. I was just grateful to be back on a street with houses and shops, signs of actual habitation. Since there was no traffic about I jogged across the road and started looking for a somewhere to get some change. Most of the shops were closed, except for an off-license and few takeaways. I wasn’t in the mood for anything alcoholic and I certainly wasn’t up to a curry, so I ignored those and carried on up the street, passing a phone box which I noted for later, and finally spotting a lone newsagent, Merton’s I believe it was called. I went in and I think I bought a bottle of water and some mints because the miserable sod wouldn’t change a tenner, and I definitely remember the look on the old git’s face when I insisted on small change.
After I got my change I went straight to the phone box. I’d already decided by then not to bother booking another taxi but to call my friend Russell instead and ask him if he could come and pick me up. Unusually for phone boxes in this part of Cranford this one had been pretty clean with all its windows intact, though when I entered I remember I couldn’t close the door completely as there seemed to be something wrong with the hinges. I remember putting the money in the slot and dialling Russell’s number but getting no answer. I let the phone ring for a while and turned to look outside the booth, and that’s when I caught sight of my reflection in the glass.
I think of that moment every time I look in a mirror or out of a window, and I know I always will. I’ve tried to convince myself that I must have imagined it, that I couldn’t really have seen what I think I saw. Because what I think I saw was the ghostly image of my own face staring back at me, it’s mouth forming words I couldn’t hear, even though I knew my mouth was closed. I was too shocked to react, so we mirror-images simply stared at one-another until a liquid glint drew my eyes to my double’s chest, which I saw was slick with dark fluid, and looking up again I spotted its source—blood was gushing from a ragged slash across it’s, no, my throat.
Here my memory falters again, and honestly I’m glad. I have no desire to pursue it, because as things stand I can at least hold on to the possibility that my mind is simply playing tricks on me, that I just imagined my bloodied reflection in the phone box window, and the earlier vision in the toilets. That my timeline is off and I’ve somehow got that moment confused with later events.
In any case, my next clear memory comes some time later. I hadn’t been able to reach Russell, so I’d apparently decided I was going to walk home. Again I have no idea what made me decide to do that, particularly if I really did see that reflection in the phone box. I think I was just desperate to get home. The route was pretty straightforward, up Mill Street, down Wealden Road and into south Loughborough Road. Straightforward, but not exactly short—four miles in total, most of that via a busy route into the town through sprawling fields. To get there I needed to cross back over to the other side of Mill Street, but I believe I didn’t do so immediately, probably due to the trees that still lined that end of the road. After a short while those trees gave way to terraced houses and I think I must have crossed over there, and again I’m not sure if this is my imagination screwing up my recall, but I have a strong mental image of the lights being out in the houses I passed.
Further on the road inclined steeply then levelled out, and my next clear recollection comes from there. I know I was nervous and walking quickly, and I was also bursting for a piss so I must have drunk the water. I passed tall hedgerows, then a low guard rail, a sheer grassy slope on the other side. The slope cast a deep shadow over the new housing development at its base—if it wasn’t for the dim light coming from behind closed curtains you’d never have known it was there. To my mind those dark, squat houses looked ominous, like the colony of some alien species. I remember a security light suddenly flashing on outside one of them, and I paused to look. I saw no sign of movement below, no indication of what caused the light to trigger. Feeling highly conspicuous at the top of that hill, I started walking again.
Thankfully more hedges obscured the view from that point, and I started to see signs of life again. A couple of cars went by, and I saw someone walking by the houses on the other side of the street. I think he must have come from or across Wealden Road, and I remember my relief at seeing another human being lasted only until he got closer to me. The man—the figure’s build made me certain it was a man—was wearing a dark-coloured jacket and scruffy, dirty-looking jeans and trainers. The jacket had a fleece-lined hood which he’d pulled up, and his head was low so I couldn’t see his face. I remember looking straight ahead but watching him from the corner of my eyes, feeling thoroughly intimidated. As he got closer still I’m sure I saw the hood twitch almost imperceptibly in my direction, and he slowed. But he didn’t stop, and to my immense relief he soon passed me. I walked a little further, then turned and waited until I saw him disappear down the incline. I waited a few more seconds, then I carried on.
Eventually I reached the point where Mill Street and Wealden Road crossed over each-other. I remember the old three-story houses that lined the roads in all directions, except of course the one going east, which was bordered with yet more trees. And which unfortunately was the route I needed to take. I know I stood at the intersection for a while, debating my options. I don’t know if I was just coming to my senses or not, but after the encounter with the hooded figure I remember the thought of walking home through that road had become a lot less appealing. I’d had good reason to feel apprehensive here anyway, since this area was a well-known accident black spot—a man had been killed in a crash only a couple of years before. Predictably, local legend had it he still haunted the scene. That night I could well have believed it. As I stood there I saw a flash in the corner of my eye, and I turned to see a car approaching from the opposite direction. The driver was moving at a ridiculously high-speed, and instinctively I backed up, my stomach tightening as I worried the lunatic would lose control and veer off the road into me, and then he was gone. I watched him drive away, breathing heavily, and as the yellow glow of his tail lights faded I realized just how dark it was there, and looked up to see the street lamp next to me flicker on.
That was enough for me—I don’t know if I thought that was some kind of sign or omen or what, but I decided I definitely would not be walking home. Instead I was going to give Russell one more try, and if he didn’t answer I was going to go back to the factory and wait for the minibus, no matter how long it took. I started walking back the way I came, keeping a wary eye out for the man in the hooded jacket as I hurried past the grassy hill and down the sloping street, crossing over to the shops at the bottom and going back to the phone box. I saw no sign of the man in the hood, and I avoided looking at the windows as I entered the phone box, though whether that was a conscious decision on my part I couldn’t tell you. I rang Russell’s number and this time he was in. After some persuasion he grudgingly agreed to come and pick me up.
I told Russell to look for me outside Merton’s the newsagent at the bottom of the road, then I hung up and went to lean against the wall next to the shop door to wait for him. Russell took his sweet time getting there, and I was getting more anxious by the minute. I remember my head was absolutely pounding, my hands were numb, and my stomach was doing somersaults. I can’t truthfully say why I was so on edge but I was, and I think I had been since the start of my shift. Maybe half an hour passed with no sign of Russell’s old Vauxhall Corsa when the lights in the newsagent suddenly went out. I remember thinking it was a little early for him to close up for the night, then I heard the dingle of a bell as a shop door opened, and looked further down the road to see the man in the hooded jacket leaving the off-license I’d passed earlier. He sauntered up the road towards me, his pace deliberate, his hands in his bulging jacket pockets and his hood now held up, the shadowy, faceless interior aimed right at me, and I tensed as he drew closer—
And nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard Russell calling my name.
He’d stopped at the curb just a few feet away, and I wasted no time getting into the car. Russell pulled away and I relaxed, still a little jittery but relieved that I was finally going home. Russell had to drive a little further down Mill Street before he could turn around, and as he drove back up past the shops I noticed the man with the hood had vanished again. I remember Russell was moaning about having to come out to fetch me, complaining that he’d just got in and was dog-tired, and we traded insults as the car limped uphill. We reached Wealden Road, and Russell took a break from the verbal abuse to check the road for oncoming traffic. I was leaning back in the passenger seat with my eyes closed, and opened them in time to see the backlight of the car radio go off. Then Russell pulled out, far too quickly for my liking, so I looked up through the windscreen to make double sure the road was clear only to catch sight of my ghostly, emotionless alter-ego glaring back at me . . .
That’s the last memory I have of that night—I woke up in a hospital bed the next day. I learned from my parents that we’d been hit by an oncoming car doing 60mph. I’d suffered a severe concussion, cracked ribs, several fractures to the vertebrae in my back—injuries that have never fully healed—and lacerations to my upper body that were so severe I was lucky not to bleed to death. Russell was not so lucky—he was killed instantly. The other driver escaped with a few cuts and bruises. My recovery has been arduous to say the least. I have chronic back pain which has left me unable to work, and as a result of the concussion I suffer from migraines so intense I feel nauseous. I have trouble sleeping, I have real difficulty focussing (which made writing this a challenge), and my memory is terrible. I’ve been told my personality has changed too, and not for the better. I’ve tried various tablets to ease the pain and the depression, as well as a few less conventional substances, but none have helped. I get so miserable sometimes the only thing that stops me ending it all is the thought of what that would do to my Mum and Dad.
The truly strange thing is, apart from the back pain, all of these symptoms have appeared recently, since I started putting together the events of that night. I was so much better, so much happier when I didn’t remember anything. I was optimistic, I was determined, and even my physical symptoms felt less intense. Everything went to hell when I started pursuing those fractured memories, when I started trying to figure out what happened that cold December night, and it’s slowly gotten worse since. I wish so badly that I’d left them alone! That’s why I’ve chosen not to delve any deeper into that vision in the phone box, because I’m terrified of what I might do if I were to find out that it was real. If I were to know for sure that I really did see that apparition of myself from just a few hours in the future, and that it was not my mind confusing an unrelated incident with my last moments of consciousness in that crumpled car, my friend a bloody mess beside me, my own blood gushing from the wound in my throat as the edges of my vision darkened, leaving me aware only of the shards of broken glass lying on the dashboard with my own face reflected in them, my accusatory doppelgänger multiplied and calling back to me.
Reflection by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.