An extract from Chapter 3 of The Truants, published in August 2019 by Bloomsbury.
It wasn’t until I was outside Halls in my running clothes that I realised quite what a U-turn the weather had taken from the day before. It was unseasonably warm. The kind of cock-teasing mid-September day when summer promises to make a late comeback.
Still jangling from Lorna’s email, I walked fast through the paved part of campus until I got to the grassy slope to the parkland and then broke into a jog, heading down towards the lake that had been made so much of in the college prospectus.
I remember what I was listening to that day, of course: an old Nina Simone album that I’d copied from my father’s vinyl collection at home. Not an obvious running choice, but it felt right for my mood. Her wide, rich voice against the scratchy background silence spurred me on with its languid power.
I passed a group of students sitting on a hill, whose eyes followed me with interest as I ran by; two girls bending conspiratorially over the screen of a phone; a couple walking past with linked hands, who made me feel that I had missed a whole term rather than a week. But the music buoyed me up to float a few inches above any angst or self-consciousness, like the false courage of your first vodka shot on an empty stomach.
I ran on for perhaps another ten minutes, with the heat spreading slowly through my limbs, beyond the lake and into the sparse woodland, before I saw it.
It was parked just off the track, the unmistakable shape of its rear end sticking out slightly between two trees. A black hearse, wheels spattered with mud, like you would normally see gliding into a churchyard, a glimpse of tightly bunched white roses and a coffin showing through its giant back windows.
You don’t often spot hearses out of context. Even having one pull up beside you at traffic lights is enough to give you an existential lurch, a gleaming black reminder that we are, after all, only passing through. But out here on this mossy track that clearly wasn’t meant for cars it looked surreal, almost contrived, like a photograph in a contemporary art gallery.
Timing is everything. The moment I rounded a bend and spotted the hearse my favourite Nina track began to play.
You probably know it. It’s based on some hundred-year-old gospel song about a guy who has been damned and is careering around on Judgment Day trying to escape the Devil. It begins with some simple chords on the piano and a compulsive rattata-rattata-ratttata from the hi-hat on the drums. Then the vocals come in.
That’s when it starts to build, quietly at first but with an urgency that I defy anyone to listen to and remain sitting still. I had slowed to a walk, feeling a strange sense of foreboding that pushed back against my chest like a fist while at the same time urged on by the galloping refrain.
I’m not in the habit of peering into the backs of cars, let alone hearses. I don’t know what I expected to see. If this had been a nightmare – and these days I’m no stranger to nightmares – it would have been a coffin, lid open to reveal the corpse of someone I knew. But it wasn’t a nightmare, although as I walked closer my legs felt gluey beneath me and the apprehensive feeling had me by the throat.
It was the clapping that did it. At a certain point in the song – it’s a stroke of genius, really – the music falls away completely and we are left with the eerie sound of a pair of hands clapping, a rhythm that is slow and deliberate at first and then becomes compelling as more and more hands join in and it gets faster and faster.
It was right then, in the grip of the music, that I looked into the hearse. I think that’s the only way to explain it. Why else would I have been so gripped by what I saw? Two naked bodies entangled on a blanket, rocking together in a private act, in a rhythm as old as time. I’d seen bits of porno movies, of course. You don’t grow up with two elder siblings, one of them a boy, without being subjected to the odd, grainy clip on a phone. A blonde with pneumatic boobs, bent over a washing machine; people with extraordinary bodies joined at unfeasible angles. But what I was watching was of an entirely different order. Not gymnastic, not even spectacular, but somehow, in its private intensity, far more dramatic.
I should have turned away. If I hadn’t been listening to that song, I think I might have – but the urgency of the clapping coupled with the shock of what I was seeing rooted me to the spot and I didn’t move. I stood there staring, even as the clapping built up frenziedly in my ears.
I could barely see her – I only knew it was a her because of a pale hand that was pinioned against the window frame in his large, much darker one. At first all I saw of him was the tousled hair hanging over his face, a long, brown muscular back, his arse taut as he drove into her.
The music made it beautiful, riveting – and that’s when he looked up.
I was close enough to see every detail. The sheen of perspiration on his upper lip, the sweep of his thick eyebrows, the colour of his eyes which leaped out in contrast to his otherwise dark colouring. But it was the strangeness of his gaze that did it: glazed, unseeing, locked inward in the intensity of the moment.
And just at that moment – exactly at that moment – the song ended. The spell broke.
Hot shame flooded my body. In horror I stepped back suddenly onto a dry branch. The crack was like a gunshot. For a moment – or did I imagine it? – his eyes seemed to focus, widening slightly in surprise. But I didn’t stay long enough to be sure. Wheeling round, I started running back through the trees, heart pounding in the back of my throat, stumbling slightly on the uneven ground.
Not for the first time, running from something I knew I shouldn’t have seen.