The bus zoomed past just as he emerged onto the sidewalk.
He raised his hand automatically, in an attempt to persuade the driver to stop. Then he launched into a long series of curses as he watched the rear lights fade away up the hill toward the university.
Shit! he thought. Why do they have to be dead on time tonight of all nights? Typical. Fucking typical.
But when he checked the time he realized that in fact he was five minutes late—so he had nobody to blame but himself.
Himself and Katrina. Mustn’t forget her. Thinking of her made him feel better. He gritted his teeth and heaved up his backpack, opened up his hood and adjusted it, then set off walking.
It would take him forty-five or fifty minutes, but he would be home by shortly after midnight no matter what. No big deal. His mother would be sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for him—he could take that for granted, of course. Sitting there with that reproachful look she had perfected over the years, saying nothing but implying everything. But it was no big deal. Anybody could miss the last bus—it could happen to the best families.
When he came to the Keymer churchyard, he hesitated—wondering whether or not to take the shortcut through it. He decided to skirt around it: it didn’t look all that inviting in there among all the graves and the chapels, especially in view of the frosty mist creeping through the streets and alleys from the black canals. Intent on tucking the town into bed in its funeral shroud, it seemed. Once and for all.
He shuddered and started walking more quickly. I could have stayed, he thought out of the blue. Could have phoned Mom and stayed with Katrina. She’d have kicked up a fuss of course, but what could she have done about it? The last bus had already gone. A taxi would have been too expensive, and it was neither the time nor the weather for a young boy to be wandering around on his own.
Nor for his mom to be urging him to do so.
But these were mere thoughts. He pressed on notwithstanding. Through the municipal forest—along the sparsely lit path for cyclists and pedestrians, half-running if truth be told, and emerging onto the main road sooner than expected. He took a deep breath, and slowed down. Not far to go now, he thought. Just the long, boring walk along the main road—nothing to look forward to, to be honest. There wasn’t a lot of room for pedestrians and cyclists. Just a narrow strip between the ditch and the road along which to walk the tightrope, and the cars traveled at high speed. There was no speed limit, and no street lighting to speak of.
Twenty minutes’ walk along a dark road in November. He’d walked only a few hundred yards before a cold wind blew up and dispersed the mist, and it started pouring down.
Oh, shit! he thought. I could have been in bed with Katrina now. Naked, with Katrina pressed up against me, her warm body and caressing hands, her legs and her breasts that he had very nearly managed to touch . . . This rain must surely be a sign.
But he kept on walking. Kept on walking through the rain and the wind and the darkness, thinking about the girl who would be his first.
Would have been.
He had parked slightly askew, was forced to back out, and just when he thought he had managed it to perfection he bumped into a dark-colored Opel, hitting it with his right rear bumper.
Oh, dammit! he thought. Why didn’t I take a taxi? He opened the door carefully and peered back. Realized that it was only a glancing blow and nothing to worry about. A mere scratch. He closed the door. Besides, he told himself, the windows were all fogged up and he could hardly see out of them.
He didn’t bother to work out just how relevant that was, but instead drove rapidly out of the square and down to Zwille with no difficulty. There wasn’t much traffic about; he reckoned he would be home in a quarter of an hour, twenty minutes at most, and
while he sat waiting for the traffic lights in Alexanderlaan to turn green he started wondering if in fact there was any of that eucalyptus bath gel left. He was slow to react when the lights changed, and stalled. Restarted in a hurry and raced the engine—this fucking dampness was causing havoc. . . . Then he cut the corner as he turned and hit the traffic island.
Only with the front wheel, of course. Not much damage caused. . . . None at all, to be precise. Keep a straight face and press on, he told himself—but it dawned on him that he was rather more drunk than he’d thought.
Damn and blast! he thought. I’d better make sure I don’t drive off the road. It wouldn’t be a good idea to . . .
He rolled down the side window a couple of inches and turned the air-conditioning up to maximum to get rid of the mist. Then drove commendably slowly for quite a while as he wormed his way through Bossingen and Deijkstraat, where there had not been a sighting of a traffic cop for the last thirty-five years; and when he emerged onto the main road it became obvious that the danger of icy roads was nonexistent. It had started to pour down: he switched on the windshield wipers, and cursed for the fiftieth time that autumn for having forgotten to change the blades.
Tomorrow, he thought. I’ll drive to the service station first thing tomorrow morning. It’s madness, sitting here driving without being able to see anything properly.
Looking back, he could never work out if it was what he saw or what he heard that came first. But in any case, what persisted most clearly in his memory was the soft thud and the slight jerk of the steering wheel. And in his dreams. The fact that what flashed past in a fraction of a second on the extreme right of his visual field was linked with the bump and the minimal vibration he felt in his hands was not something that registered on his consciousness.
Not until he slammed on the brakes.
Not until afterward—after the five or six seconds that must have passed before he drew to a halt and started running back along the soaking wet road.
As he ran, he thought about his mother. About an occasion when he was ill—it must have been just after he’d started school—and she’d sat there pressing her cool hand onto his forehead while he threw up over and over and over again: yellowish-green bile into a red plastic bucket. It was so horribly painful, but that hand had been so cool and comforting—and he wondered why on earth he should think about that just now. It was a memory of something that had happened more than thirty years ago, and he couldn’t recall ever having remembered it before. His mother had been dead for more than ten years, so it was a mystery why she should crop up just now, and how he . . .
He saw him when he had almost run past, and he knew he was dead even before he’d come to a halt.
A boy in a dark duffel coat. Lying in the ditch. Contorted at impossible angles, with his back pressed up against a concrete culvert and his face staring straight at him. As if he were trying to make some kind of contact. As if he wanted to tell him something. The boy’s face was partly concealed by the hood, but the right-hand side—the part that seemed to have been smashed against the concrete—was exposed like . . . like an anatomical obscenity.
He stood there, trying hard not to throw up. The same reflexes, the same old reflexes he’d felt thirty years ago, definitely. Two cars passed by, one in each direction, but nobody seemed to have noticed anything amiss. He had started shaking, took two deep breaths, and jumped down into the ditch. Closed his eyes, then opened them again after a few seconds. Bent down and tried to feel a pulse, on the boy’s wrist and on his bloodstained neck.
No sign of a heartbeat. Oh hell, he thought, feeling panic creeping up on him. Fucking hell—I must . . . I must . . . I must . . .
He couldn’t work out what he must do. Cautiously, he slid his arms under the boy’s body, bent his knees and lifted him up. He felt a stabbing pain at the bottom of his back: the boy was rather heavier than he’d expected. Perhaps the saturated clothes were adding to the problem. Insofar as he’d expected anything at all. Why should he have? The backpack caused a bit of a problem. The backpack and the boy’s head. Both of them insisted on leaning backward in a way that was quite unacceptable. He noted that the blood from the side of the boy’s mouth was dripping straight down into his hood, and that he couldn’t be more than fifteen or sixteen years old. A boy aged fifteen or sixteen . . . About the same as Greubner’s son. You could tell by the sort of half-finished features of his face, despite the injuries. Quite a handsome boy, it seemed: no doubt he would develop into an attractive man.
He stood down there in the ditch with the boy’s body in his arms for quite some time, while thoughts whirled around in his head. It was only a yard or so up to the road, but it was steep and the rain had made it slippery and treacherous: he doubted whether he would be able to get a sufficient foothold. No cars passed by while he stood there, but he heard a moped approaching. Or possibly a low-powered motorbike, he thought. When it passed by he could hear that it was in fact a scooter, and he was momentarily blinded by its headlight. Presumably—or so he thought later on with hindsight—presumably it was that very second of blinding light that started him functioning again.
Functioning, and thinking rational thoughts.
He lay the body down again next to the culvert. Wondered if he should wipe the blood from his hands onto the wet grass but decided not to. Scrambled up onto the road, and hurried back to his car.
He noted that he must have automatically switched off the engine but left the headlights on. Noted that the rain was pouring down like some sort of elemental force. Noted that he felt cold.
He slid down behind the wheel and closed the door. Fastened his seat belt and drove off. He could see rather better now through the windows, as if the rain had cleaned the inside of the glass as well.
Nothing has happened, he thought. Nothing at all.
He felt the first signs of a headache coming on, but then he remembered his mother’s cool hand again—and suddenly he was convinced that there was a drop left of that eucalyptus bubble bath gel after all.