Near-Death Experience by Martin Pond

He watches the girl as she runs across the park.

She must be about eight or nine, he thinks – any older and she would not be towing the helium balloon along behind her in quite such a carefree manner. She’s still at that age when she is not self-conscious about being a child, or the trappings of childhood. In a year or two she would cringe if her school friends saw her running around in the park with a party balloon, but for now she is still a child.

Her hair is a black scrawl that suggests she doesn’t like having it brushed – that would change in a couple of years too. Her coat is a candy-pink confection with a fur-trimmed hood that bobs lightly as she runs. Her leggings are a little on the short side – she has nearly outgrown them. There are red LEDs on her trainers that flash with each footfall.

It doesn’t take long for him to locate the girl’s mother. She is walking some way behind, talking animatedly into the mobile phone that is clamped to her ear. Her other hand is thrust deep into the pocket of her heavy wool overcoat. Her hair is the same colour as her daughter’s, he notes, but unlike the girl’s it is immaculately groomed. The mother is walking slowly – sauntering, even – and is falling further behind the girl with every pace. Some maternal instinct surfaces enough to recognise this, and he watches as she pulls the mobile’s mouthpiece away enough to call after her daughter. He can’t hear what she says, but can guess. “Don’t go too far, darling,” perhaps. Or, “Wait when you get to the gate.” He doubts that the girl can hear her either.

He checks the clock – it’s almost time.

The mother’s phone conversation must have become more serious, he thinks, because she has stopped walking altogether now, her head dipped in thought. Then she begins to turn slowly on the spot, as if this will help her focus on the phone call in some way. He wonders if she will regret this later. Meanwhile, the little girl runs on, in loops and spirals, each stride she takes causing the balloon to lurch after her in a series of halting leaps; each stride she takes bringing her closer to the gate where she is supposed to wait, and closer to the road beyond it.

He pauses long enough to consider the chain of events that has brought the girl to this point, and to wonder – not for the first time – whether they might be random or somehow pre-ordained. Is there such a thing as fate, he thinks? Is the girl destined to slip on the muddy grass near the park gate, causing her to put out her hands as she falls forwards? Is it karma that she should let go of her balloon so near to a busy road? And is it some higher being’s divine will that causes all this to happen to the girl at an age when she stills care enough to chase after a stupid, silver balloon with Disney’s Little Mermaid on one side?

Or is it just bad luck?

He watches as the girl jumps up, unhurt, and, after giving her muddy hands a surprised look that is almost comic, looks up to see where her balloon is. It has been caught by the lightest of breezes and is drifting lazily away. Inevitably, it starts to gain height, but only slowly – its vaguely crumpled look suggests that the balloon has already lost a little helium. After a second’s consideration, the girl seems to decide that she can catch the balloon if she runs fast enough, jumps high enough. And so she sets off, her eyes fixed on the length of ribbon that dangles temptingly just out of her reach.

He looks back across the park, seeking out the mother. She is still deep in conversation; the previously pocketed hand is now out and making expressive gestures, despite the fact that the person on the other end of the mobile cannot see them. She is wearing black gloves with a fur trim around the cuff. Her long black boots say that she is a serious businesswoman, a hard-arsed, tough-nosed businesswoman that you just don’t mess with. He imagines the clip-clop that these boots would make, savours the thought, as he watches her pivot one foot on a pin-heel. He watches as she throws her head back in apparent exasperation.

But back to the main action. The girl is running, arms out-stretched, eyes aloft, straight towards the gate. Her mother’s warning, even if she had heard it, is forgotten now. In a freeze-frame moment, he can see that she is smiling – laughing, probably – and that she looks optimistic; even as the balloon continues to rise, she somehow thinks that she can get it, if she can only run fast enough, jump high enough.

The car is a small, blue Ford. The registration plate suggests that it is a good deal older than the girl, and the flowers of rust that are blooming around its wheel-arches confirm this. The driver is young though, surely only in his late teens. He is wearing a baseball hat that proclaims his support of Manchester United, and sunglasses, even though it is not sunny. His window is wound down, presumably for the sole purpose of broadcasting the unfeasibly loud hip-hop he is listening to as he drives. He is speeding too, the tiny Ford’s engine revving enthusiastically. That and the hip-hop might have drowned out any shouts of warning, but there are none.

He watches the girl as she runs into the road.

There is a single precious moment of calm, between her sudden appearance in the road and the car’s impact. In that moment, the girl realises what she has done, perhaps hears the engine. In that instant, she turns her face sharply away from the balloon and just has time to look directly at the car. Adrenalin, speed and the vitality of her youth give her time to fling open her eyes impossibly wide, to open her mouth in a perfect O. But there is no time for her to scream.

The Ford hits her before the driver has even had time to brake. In slow-motion, the bonnet (barely crumpling) seems to sweep her off her feet, and then she is spinning, a pink and black cartwheel, up and over. Her head thumps into the windscreen, creating a perfect splintered bullseye in the glass where, later, strands of the girl’s bloodied hair will be found. As she tumbles over the roof of the car, she flattens its aerial. He watches it spring back up again as the Ford, fishtailing slightly as it screeches to a halt, deposits her in an unnatural heap.

At first glance, she doesn’t look hurt, her coat perhaps disguising the extent of her injuries. There is something unnatural about the angle of her right arm, the way it is bending like that, like someone has moved the elbow, and looking closely, he can see blood creeping around the girl’s hairline. Her mouth still forms an O but her eyes are half closed and without focus. She has lost one of her trainers – he sees it lying in the gutter further up the road, its red LEDs still flashing, and wonders what it must be like to be hit so hard it knocks you out of your shoes.

It is the screech of brakes that attracts the mother. He watches as she turns to locate the noise and then, finally taking the mobile away from her ear, she is running as fast as she can in those boots, shouting something that might be the girl’s name but is hard to make out because it is becoming a scream.

The driver of the Ford is ashen-faced, staring blankly at the steering wheel, trying to comprehend what has just happened. Something – perhaps the mother’s scream – gets him going again and, after a moment in which he perhaps contemplates driving away, the Manchester United fan instead removes one shaking hand from the steering wheel and turns the ignition key back, silencing the engine.

He watches the girl as she dies in her mother’s arms.

Then he presses stop and ejects the tape. The hand-written label on its spine reads ‘RTC – CHILD’. He puts the tape carefully back into its slipcase, then files it neatly away on the shelf above his desk, where it sits in a long line of matching hand-written labels, between ‘LEVEL CROSSING CRASH’ and ‘AIR SHOW DISASTER’. When his hands have stopped shaking, he fishes the last Marlboro Light from the packet by the television, and sits back in his chair to smoke.

Artwork by Russel Montford.

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