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The Secrets of Pain

Phil Rickman

FEBRUARY

They came for me in darkness

They were black-eyed, grey and thin

Lol Robinson, ‘ Mephisto’s Blues ’

1

White Hell

The house was right next to the road, wherever the road was.

And out in front there was a woman.

Not exactly dressed for the weather, thin cardigan all lumpy with snow. Stumbling about in Bronwen’s lights and the blinding white hell, waving her arms. And they were going to run her down, cut her in half.

‘Gomer!’ Danny roared. ‘ No! ’

The snow was coming down like rubble now, had been this past four hours, and if Danny couldn’t see through it there was no chance that Gomer could. When Bronwen lurched and the snow sprayed up, Danny was thinking, Oh Christ, it’ll be all blotched red.

Then they’d stopped. Apart from Bronwen’s grumpy chuntering, there was silence. The front door of the house was wide open, yellow light splattered over the snow like warm custard on ice cream. Some of it reaching Gomer, sitting at the wheel in his old donkey jacket, with his cap and his sawn-off mittens and his muffler and the snowlight in his glasses.

‘What we done?’ Danny heard his own voice, all hollow. ‘What we done, Gomer?’

Oh God. Leaning on his side door, breaking through the crispy layer of snow. New tractor, out for the first time with the snowplough. This superhero routine of Gomer’s, coming out in the dark to clear – for free – the roads that Hereford Council wouldn’t go near… well, you learned to live with that, but how long before he was a danger to other folks and hisself?

You ask Danny, it was starting to look like the time had come.

A slapping on the door panel, Gomer’s side.

‘ Who’s that in there? ’

Danny went, ‘Woooh.’

Sagging in blind relief. It was her. Gomer, meanwhile, totally relaxed, was letting his window down, the ciggy glowing in his face.

‘We help at all?’

‘… dies of frostbite, what do he care? Long as he ’s bloody warm!’ The woman, entirely alive, glaring up at the cab, hair all white and wild. ‘Not you. Him in there, look.’

Glancing behind her just as the front door of the farmhouse got punched shut from inside and the warm light vanished.

‘En’t that typical? He won’t do nothin’, ’cept toss another bloody block on the fire. Serve the buggers right. Let ’em get theirselves out. Then back to his beer.’ She was standing back, snow over the tops of her wellies, squinting, then she went, ‘ Gomer? ’

‘Ah,’ Gomer said. ‘Sarah, is it?’

‘Gomer Parry Plant Hire! Thought you was long retired, boy!’

Danny was too cold to smile. Gomer had an angry puff on his roll-up. Long as the ole boy had his ciggies, the cold never seemed to bother him. Least, not as much as the idea of folks thinking he was too advanced in years to be driving heavy plant through a blizzard. His voice was distinctly gruffer as he drew out the last half-inch of ciggy.

‘Problem, is it, girl?’

‘Some fool in a car, it is,’ this Sarah said. ‘Come whizzin’ clean off the road on the bend back there. Slides across, crashes through the gate and straight down the bloody hill!’

‘You sure?’

‘Sure? I was at the bedroom window, Gomer, couldn’t hardly miss him. Straight through! Headlights all over the snow, then they’ve gone, look. Well, there en’t no way out of there. Ends in forestry.’

‘So, let’s get this right, girl,’ Gomer said. ‘There’s a car or some’ing gone down over this yere hill, and he’s vanished?’

‘Likely buried already, and we en’t got no gear to haul him out. Can you get through in that thing. Gomer?’

It was like the whole cab was bulging with Gomer’s outrage.

‘ This thing? ’

Danny sighed.

‘Gomer, mabbe we should call the-’

‘En’t nowhere…’ Gomer tossing the last millimetre of ciggy into the snow ‘… on God’s earth this girl can’t get through.’

Danny, defeated, looked up at the falling sky. Snow and ice had come hard and bitter after Christmas, right after the floods. Over a month of running out of oil, on account of the tankers couldn’t get through, and starving rats raiding your vehicle from underneath, dining on your electrics. A brief respite early in February and then, just when you thought you’d seen the end of winter, the bastard was back with both fists bunched, and Gomer Parry had got hisself a big new JCB tractor called Bronwen and something to prove.

Danny climbed down and found the car hadn’t gone crunching through the gate after all.

‘Some fool left him open.’

He climbed back in, slammed the door. No warmer in here. Bronwen had a cracking heater, only Gomer wouldn’t use it in case he nodded off at the wheel and some bastard magistrate had his HGV licence off him.

‘Shouldn’t be no gate there at all,’ Gomer said. ‘No fence, neither. Common land, it is. Bridleway. Only Dickie, see, he reckons if he d’keep fencin’ it off, one day folks is gonner forget it don’t belong to him.’

He lowered the plough: tracks in the headlights, but Danny saw they were filling up fast. Gomer set about clearing the field entrance in case they came back with something on tow.

Danny said. ‘Dickie who?’

‘On the pop half the time. Dickie Protheroe. Her’s gotter hold it all together, ennit?’

‘Ah, so that’s Dickie Protheroe’s new wife, is it? Never seed her before.’

‘Course you en’t. On account of Dickie’s in the pub and her’s back yere holdin’ it all together.’

‘Aye,’ Danny said. ‘Fair play to her.’

Pulling snow out of his beard, thinking whoever was down there could be badly hurt, or worse. Could’ve hit a tree or a power pole.

‘Land Rover, them tracks,’ Gomer said. ‘Long wheelbase. Only one set o’ tracks so he en’t out.’ He sniffed. ‘Right, then. We go for it?’

Ten minutes from midnight when they went in, and the windscreen was near-opaque. Like being inside a washing machine when somebody’d overdone it with the powder. Hoping to God this wouldn’t end in no pink snow,

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