There was no one to hear him say it. He shifted gears and eased his van around the corner indicated by the yellow sign. Diversion, it pointed.
The new road was an unmarked track. On its own, the van took up most of the lane. Dave bounced in his seat as he drove over the uneven ground, the surface roughened by tree roots and worn by decades of hard weather and poor maintenance. The route writhed and twisted through the darkness. The only light was coming from the headlights, which were working hard to cut through the thin mist settling in streaks just above ground level.
Dave found himself having to concentrate harder, gearing up and down as the bends demanded. It was hard to get up any speed on a road like this. Hopefully this side road would loop back to the main one soon. He needed to make his delivery on time if he was going to avoid a penalty.
The twenty-four-hour clock was minutes away from resetting back to 00.00. Dave eyed it intermittently, awaiting the change with a clench in his gut. Road, speedometer, clock. Road, speedometer, clock. He’d taken this night shift to avoid thinking about it. But he couldn’t – not even here. The display flashed its rectangular zeroes, all straight edges, no curves. It was time.
“Happy Birthday, Mum.” His greeting was gruff, joyless. This year, there would be no phone call, no card. No flowers picked up and hurried round before dinner. Just a three-word utterance and a look over at the passenger side. She was with him, of course. These days she went everywhere with him, in that little walnut box he kept in the glove compartment.
He wondered what she’d think of being kept there, with the boiled sweets sweating in their wrappers and the used fast food packaging, translucent with grease. She’d hate it, obviously. But he couldn’t bring himself to leave her at home on his mantelpiece without any company. At least here, she had him. And he had her, watching over him. “Slow down,” he would hear her say, her voice ringing in the back of his head. “Dave! I said, slow down!” Funny how she could keep him in check even now. Bloody woman.
The van gave a jolt as the road shifted to a sudden downward incline. It felt as though the road was dropping away beneath him, the vehicle struggling to keep pace with the direction it was travelling in. Blimey, he’d be glad when this diversion was over.
He squinted through the fog at the road ahead. He thought he saw a bird in the road. Passing it, it was a wing mirror. No signs of life. Tyre marks stretched across the lane in a black smear. A car lay upturned, bonnet crumpled, windscreen smashed. Police Aware, declared a faded tape attached to the rear window. Further up, at the side of the road, the top of a cross crept above the white mist cloaking the verges. “Probably someone driving too fast,” the head-voice said. Then there was another, listing slightly in the ditch. And another, standing higher above the fog this time. Dave’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. A feeling of unease crawled in his stomach. He started to blink every time he passed one. Another mile down. Blink. How many more to go? Blink.
Then it came. The crash, the clunk, the impact to the side of the van. The vehicle shoved off course with a thunderous bang, louder, surely, than if one of the trees above had come down. The brakes screeching, the seatbelt straining, the head jerking back and forward. The hands outstretched, the knuckles clenched and white, the mouth dry, the eyes wide.
What was that?
In the rearview mirror, he saw it. It was a body.
“Oh God, Oh God.” It was an involuntary repetition. Dave stumbled towards the lifeless heap. Head, trunk, limbs. It was definitely a person. Even through the low-hanging mist, he could see their parted lips, their eyes staring in blank accusation. You killed me.
He willed them to move, to groan, anything. But the body just lay there, still. The only sound came from Dave. His breath was quick and shallow, hardly in his mouth before it was out again, forming a mist in the cold. Each step he took crunched on the road. Please be OK. Please.
Now he could see that the person was a woman. She had a round, youthful face. It was pale, as white as the wisps of fog around her. There could be no life in such bloodless cheeks. Her loose clothing fell about her like a kind of shroud.
He was at her side. He reached towards her with a trembling hand. He needed to take her pulse. Her skin was cold, hard.
“Fuck!” he yelled. “Fuck!” He started laughing.
She wasn’t dead. She wasn’t real. She was the Virgin Mary, fallen from a roadside shrine.
Relief came in a flood of colour, the brown of her painted hair, the blue of the draping folds carved into the solid stone. He was still shaking but his breath was coming more easily. In, out. In, out. The trees overhead rushed back and forward in a gentle sway. Ssshhhh, they said. It’s OK. Nobody died.
He still felt guilty. She’d looked so real. Tears of dew ran down the statue’s cheeks where the fog had condensed on her face. Even now, she was crying.
“Oh, God. Sorry.”
He knelt to inspect the damage. There was a crack running from the statue’s neck, through her breast and belly, all the way to the bottom of her tunic. He didn’t know if he could get her back to the verge in one piece. He put his arms underneath the statue’s torso. It was too dangerous to lift her. He would roll her. She was heavy, awkward. It wasn’t like moving an actual body. But then rigor mortis hadn’t yet set in when he’d found her that day. His mother had been light, pliant even.
He looked around for a plinth or something the statue belonged to but couldn’t see one.
“I’m just going to leave you here,” he said. She was back in the edge, lying in the wet grass, a dumped corpse of a statue.
What more could he do? He needed to get back on the road. He needed to see if his van was OK. He hurried to his door, hanging open where he’d left it earlier. He didn’t look back. He didn’t want to see those eyes peering through the mist, judging him for leaving, for having a job to do, a life to get back to.
The van had sustained the impact rather well. There was a dent, but he could still drive it and make the delivery. He got in. Mirrors, fine. Lights, working. Dash, clear. The glove box was open. Its contents had fallen out, sweets on the floor, fast food cartons on the seat.
He scrabbled on the mat, feeling for smooth wood and sharp corners. Where was she? He checked under the seats, in the door. She wasn’t there. Under his delivery papers? His bag?
There it was, one corner caught in the pocket of his coat. He shook the box free and rubbed his thumb over the top. There were no scratches. He reached across to put it back in its place.
“Take me with you,” said the head-voice. “Carry me with you. But, Dave, for God’s sake, don’t put me back in the glove compartment.”
He cleared the passenger seat and placed the box down. He threw his coat on top of it.
“There you go, Mum.”
The engine coughed back to life. Time to get off this bloody road.