She knew she was dying, had never imagined it would be like this; alone, cold, wet leaves and damp smelling moss beneath her head. The weak, early sun flickered through the bare branches of the tree, making dappled patterns on her exposed flesh. She could not move; could not raise her hand to wipe away the single tear that trickled slowly down one muddied and bruised cheek.
At least the pain had stopped; the pulsating in her head as she tried to fight off the attack, fingernails scraping his face, him prising open her thighs, biting her breasts as clothing was roughly torn away from her body. She no longer felt the pounding of each thump, or thud of kicks. The purple welts made as his calloused hands squeezed her neck now just throbbed slightly. The cigarette and chewing gum hotness of his breath on her cheek as he thrust and pushed himself into her was now fading, along with the terror which had risen in her throat like bitter bile.
The hypnotic drone of passing cars speeding down the motorway was comforting, soothing, as her breathing slowed, became shallow, rasping. Life quietly, inconspicuously slipped away, unnoticed in the cold November morning.
Martha was late. She had mislaid her car keys. She remembered throwing them onto the kitchen table as she struggled with her shopping the night before, juggling tins of chopped tomatoes and unruly potatoes as they fell out of the thin supermarket carrier bag. She finally found them under a pile of red-topped final demands and take-away menus.
Starting late meant the motorway would be busy, rotund salesmen and stressed mums on the school run jostling for first place on the slip road, like gridlocked Formula One drivers. Martha smiled at this image as she listened to the radio, tapping her fingernails on the steering wheel.
Road works. She sighed, the cars in front slowed down, all three lanes were almost at a standstill. Martha noticed the dead fox on the hard shoulder. Road kill, as her partner called it, was not unusual on this stretch of the M5, as it was surrounded by fields and dense woodland, planners cutting a swathe of tarmac through the countryside.
This fox was almost untouched by the impact that had killed it. She looked at its fur, auburn red, coarse as it bristled in the wind, distinctive milk-tipped tail flat against the hardness of the asphalt. Martha looked at the fox’s beady eyes, still open but unseeing, pink tongue lolling out of its mouth, tiny flecks of blood staining the white-fuzzed muzzle.
The brash air horn of the lorry behind startled her and she jerked the car into gear. She glanced at her watch. She was definitely going to be late!
Jack was a lingerie salesman. He was talented; every month he looked forward to the sales figures displayed on the wall of the poky office. Arrogant and self-assured, he could sell to anyone, particularly women. He loved the female form; he knew what women wanted to hear and he knew exactly how to make them feel and look desirable; the trace of a stocking top, a black bustier, structured to flatter the larger breast, red satin teddies, lace thongs and soft, silky French knickers… he was an expert, a craftsman.
This morning he was on his way to a favourite customer; tall, blonde, willowy Bernice, who smelt of musky jasmine and balmy summer evenings. He remembered her fishnet clad legs around his thighs and smiled.
The motorway was busy. Jack was particularly annoyed when the car started to shudder and gradually lose power. He pulled over to the hard shoulder and sighed as he rang for assistance. There was no way he was going to even look under the bonnet, to get dirty, get oil on his Jasper Conran suit, not with an afternoon of Bernice to look forward to. Dirt ingrained hands would bar him entry to her warm, candlelit bedroom above the shop.
He walked around the car to keep warm and was fascinated by a red shoe lying on the verge. He had always wondered about the shoes abandoned, lost or thrown from moving vehicles. This was different, not the usual faded, worn plimsoll or paint-spattered work boot, but a shoe designed to make a woman’s legs look longer, calves slimmer. The heel was high, toe pointed, the colour so vividly scarlet it looked almost obscene, out of place on the dirty brown grass, surrounded by wet cigarette ends and crisp packets.
Careless to lose such a shoe, he thought, shaking his head, as the yellow pick-up truck manoeuvred in front of his car, hazard lights flashing.
The fox sniffed the cold, wintry air and stretched her lithe, thin body. She shook the night-time dew from her sandy, rough coat and slinked slowly to the top of the embankment, keeping low, her stomach close to the ground. She was ever-watchful, vigilant, keeping to the shadows, as the passing headlights lit up the gloomy motorway beneath her.
She slid down the wet slope; paws pitter-pattering on the hard shoulder. She snuffled amongst the discarded wrappers and boxes; devoured unwanted congealed chicken nuggets, pincer-sharp teeth gnawing through hard breadcrumbs.
The vixen, distracted by food, did not see the small blue car as it careered unsteadily towards her, swerving across the lanes. She did not hear the roar of the engine, the driver struggling to regain control of the vehicle as it skimmed against the crash barriers, metal sparks like fireworks in the darkness.
She yelped as the unyielding metal bumper struck her head. The force knocked the fox across the tarmac, body reverberating with the impact of the collision. She died instantly, legs twitching with the shock, a faint trace of blood and processed poultry seeping from the corner of her mouth.
She walked out of Ritzy’s, music still echoing. In the cold air, with her breath forming misty vapours, she felt quite drunk, far more than she had inside the warm club.
Not enough money for a taxi, but the new, red shoes were worth it. She had seen them in a shop window earlier in the day, an impulse buy, enjoyed taking them out of the tissue-lined box, loved wearing them as she danced, catching glimpses as they reflected in the flashing glass panels at the bottom of the bar.
She pulled her black, boxy jacket around her, dreading the walk home. It was not far, but she was tired. She did not notice the small blue hatchback parked outside the kebab shop, almost walked into the door as the driver swung it open. She peered in, wondering whether to accept the offer of a lift. He was not exactly a stranger; she remembered seeing him around school, a couple of years older than her and she was sure he worked in the factory on the other side of town.
Not too bad looking really, she thought, as he smiled at her, floppy fringe, brown eyes and white, straight, even teeth. She hummed along to the local late night radio station which serenaded shift workers, clubbers and insomniacs with easy listening ballads and middle of the road tunes.
They chatted about the weather and people they hadn’t seen since school days. As he changed gear, she felt his fingers first brush against and then linger on her leg. Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, she felt the atmosphere in the car change; then smiling, but without even looking at her he put his left hand firm between her legs.
Before she realised what was happening she saw the lights of the motorway and he was indicating and accelerating down the slip road. She tried to shout, but her mouth was dry, numb and nothing came out. She could see her reflection in the window, lips forming an almost perfect “o.”
As if in slow motion, she suddenly grabbed the steering wheel, began trying to force him to stop, still she could not cry out, although she felt wet, mascara tears on her cheeks.
He slapped her, and with face burning and hands shaking, she tried to force him to stop. The car hurtled across all three lanes, engine shrieking as they fought their silent battle. As the side of the car hit the central crash barriers, arcs of white light ignited the quiet motorway, and finally, she screamed.
The impact sent them spinning towards the hard shoulder. She lurched forward as they hit a large, solid object, bumper groaning. For one brief second she thought this was her opportunity to escape, but he reversed, wheels spinning and quickly drove off.
She began to hit him, arms flailing, but even with one hand he was stronger, blows resounded in her ears, head ringing with each powerful punch.
He pulled over, breathing heavily, shirt drenched with sweat, face so close, she could smell his odour. In almost one movement, he got out of the car, and walked to the passenger side. She cowered, trying to hide, disappear into the foot well. He dragged her from the car, jerking her head back, pulling out strands of long, fair hair; she fought him, trying to keep precarious high-heeled footing in the mud and leaves. Her whole body was trembling; she tasted sheer horror along with the iron hint of blood; chattering teeth biting through her tongue.
When they neared the top of the embankment, she desperately kicked out; one red shoe spiralled up into the gloom, then silently landed on the littered grass verge below, its crimson vibrancy reflected in the sallow lights of the hastily abandoned car.
Sally Cope asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work