by Tom Slemen

Early one sunny morning in the late summer of 1967, a 20-year-old mechanic from Halewood named Stephen Scott mounted his Vespa 180 Super Sport scooter and rode down a meandering ribbon of road through mist-ghosted expanses of fields chequered with the gold of wheat and the silver of rye. On the Widnes horizon, factory chimneys dumped their incalculable volumes of chemical clouds into the immense blue heavens, and high above the billowing milky dense cumulus, a tranquil morning moon hung in the all-encompassing sky.
Feeling like a truly free spirit on this fresh morning, Stephen thoughts turned as usual to Laura, who was probably still sleeping in her bed over in Runcorn. Upon this Saturday morning, the Halewood life he led five days a week dwindled into the ever-increasing distance behind him, out of sight and out of mind now. As he crossed the Silver Jubilee Bridge into Runcorn, the Vespa startled a murmuration of starlings in the steel arches, and they chattered and shrieked as they flew in manic inter-crossing semicircles back to their roosts.
Just after 9 am he reached Laura’s home and waited at the kerb by her gate, alternating glances between the grass-green door and her bedroom window. He wouldn’t knock because her parents didn’t approve of him. The door opened and Laura’s 10-year-old sister Julie came onto the doorstep in her nightdress with a piece of toast in her hand. Then Laura appeared behind her and gently slapped the back of the child’s head. Julie stepped aside and her 17-year-old big sister came to the gate and glanced at Stephen coolly and dispassionately as she put on her pink crash helmet. ‘Get in,’ she dismissed her curious young sister, then opened the gate and stepped into the quiet street. She said nothing as she sat on the pillion seat, but her embrace said it all as she hugged his waist. The single cylinder 2-stroke engine took the young couple off into the flowering Saturday morning. Almost an hour later they stopped off at the Marigold Café near Frodsham and she had a Pepsi through a paper barber-pole straw and he enjoyed a coffee and a cigarette. The place looked like a 1940s tea room; not at all like the Bohemian El Cabala coffee bar on Liverpool’s Bold Street, which was frequented by poets, dreamers, misfits, musicians and other young people. Stephen and Laura talked in the window seat, and at one point she wanted to hold his hand on the table but he wouldn’t have it, so she started to sulk. He avoided looking at her and lit a cigarette. His face remained turned away from her morose mascara-rimmed eyes for some time as he studied the street-life through the window. On the pavement outside, an old woman stood beneath the striped canopy of the café, and she was staring directly at Stephen with an unnerving expression of subdued glee. Her face was withered, wrinkled and pale, and her large eyes were black and penetrating. She wore a viridian green headscarf, tied at the saggy underside of her reptilian neck. The beldam suddenly winked at him, then turned around and became fixated on someone else. On the second floor of a house across the street, a middle-aged man was foolishly standing on the outside ledge of his window with a chamois leather in his hand, and Stephen followed the gaze of the old woman and suddenly noticed this irresponsible man cleaning his window panes.
That man slipped, and within a second he had fallen on the railings below.
Stephen automatically got up and left the café. He hurried across the road and before he got to the tragic scene, he saw other people running to the same spot. The man was impaled on the railings, and was coughing up vivid red oxygenated blood from his lungs. A man who called the accident victim by a first name held his hand and then turned and urged some of the bystanders to phone an ambulance. Meanwhile, blood blossomed in the accident victim’s white shirt, and Stephen felt sick when he suddenly noticed the points of two railings protruding a few inches near to the contours of the man’s shoulder blades, which were visible because of the blood-soaked shirt.
‘Hang on Harry,’ the friend of the impaled man said, trying to reassure the groaning accident victim, and one of the onlookers suddenly snapped out of his spell of morbid fascination and ran to the nearest telephone call box.
Then the old wizened woman in black came on the scene, and she said something outrageously insensitive. ‘Oh, he’s done for,’ she intoned in a voice that bordered on a wail, ‘he won’t survive that, he’s bleeding to death.’
The impaled man’s friend was incensed, and he was so riled by the disgracefully inconsiderate comments of the old woman, he was actually lost for words for a few moments before he let out a string of expletives and profanities he hadn’t used for years, but she took no notice.
The impaled man started to shake, and with a horrified expression he looked into the face of his friend, who now had tears in his eyes. The skewered man coughed up a great quantity of blood which splashed his friend’s face and clothes, and then he died with blood dripping in a steady stream from his open mouth.
The old woman vanished into the crowd.
When Stephen returned to the Marigold Café, he told Laura about the terrible accident, and she said she no longer wanted to go shopping in Chester, which had been the vague plan of the couple for that Saturday afternoon. Laura couldn’t say why she didn’t want to go to Chester, but Stephen knew. It was all because he wouldn’t hold her hand at the table. Last time she had a sulk on because he wouldn’t say he loved her when she called him at the garage where he worked in Halewood. He did love her, but found it so hard to show his feelings in public. Laura said she was going home, and that she preferred to take the bus because she had a headache, and didn’t fancy riding pillion passenger on the Vespa. Stephen insisted on taking her home to Runcorn, but Laura was adamant she would catch the bus home from Frodsham, and she went off in a huff without even kissing him.
Stephen rode off as a fire engine and ambulance were arriving too late in the street too late to save the impaled man. Aimlessly, the young Halewood man drove, down highways and country lanes, but found it impossible to escape the haunting face of Laura in his mind’s eye. She was the one he wanted to marry, even though his father had told him to take his time and not to rush into marriage. In spite of the way Laura’s parents regarded him as beneath their daughter for some reason, he knew without a doubt he would one day marry her and start a family.
As Stephen was travelling down a narrow road with high hedges on either side in the wilds of Hatchmere, a stolen car came around the bend at over fifty miles per hour and hit his Vespa. It was so dreamlike and unreal when it came around that curve. He spun and left the ground with twirling fragments of the scooter following him through the air.
Then blackness.
He awakened, and felt nothing. He was lying on his back, gazing up at the sky, which now looked a slightly darker shade of periwinkle blue, and he could see the branch of a tree hanging above him. How long had he lain there for? It was hard to say. The birds were singing and he occasionally heard the faint drone of a bee pass by. He tried to open his mouth to shout for help, but his mouth failed to respond. He tried to blink, but even that was impossible to achieve. He tried to inhale, but could barely draw any air into his mouth. Stephen wondered if he had broken his neck in the crash. That would explain his paralysis. A green bottle fly landed on his cheek, and crawled to the rim of his eye. What torture that was, as the green bottle drunk the lacrimal fluid from the rim of his eyeball. Stephen was powerless to shoo the filthy fly away, and could see it, out-of-focus, rubbing its legs together as it groomed itself. It crawled over to his mouth – which was open. He knew this because he felt the green bottle crawl over his bottom lip and onto his dry tongue. He concentrated his meagre willpower to inhale air, and the fly, sensing the slight influx of air, flew off.
All sense of time was gone, and minutes seemed elongated into hours in his personal limbo. A plane crossed the blue sky as a speck, and Stephen hoped, rather naively, that the people on that aircraft had spotted him and the remains of the Vespa down below. He thought of Laura, and felt so sad. Then he thought of God. If you are there, please help me, he thought, over and over. He had never attended church since he was at school, but now he promised the Creator that he would if he would only send someone to find him.
A century of subjective, personal time passed by, and a hundred mentally voiced cries for help. The sky darkened by degrees, and an ominous chill invaded the only part of Stephen’s body he had sensations in; his face.
Then came a sound, faint at first. A voice! Someone had come to the rescue, it was only a matter of time.
It was a vagrant. A man with a curly white beard, with a blotchy face and deep-set eyes came into view and looked down at Stephen. ‘You alive or dead lad?’ he said.
Stephen mustered all of his will-power, every last ounce of his volition to move a hand or twitch a finger, but the impulses never reached a muscle.
‘Let’s see now,’ the tramp knelt by the young man – and after gazing into his apparently lifeless eyes and waving his hand in front of them – he rummaged about in Stephen’s jacket. The mechanic was so furious, so disappointed. His helper had taken his wallet. He could see Laura’s photograph in the wallet, and that grimy tramp took that photograph out after removing the paper money and the coins. He kissed that photograph. He took off his coat and wiped the sweat for his brow, and bent down out of sight. Stephen wondered if he was robbing his shoes.
This was surely Hell, trapped in a body which seemed dead to the world. Although he hated the repulsive parasite standing over him, he missed his company sorely as soon as the tramp wandered away. Night eventually descended, and all Stephen could see were a few stars peppering the black sky and the silhouette of the overhanging tree branch. The sound of a car came down the lane, and Stephen prayed for it to stop, but it passed by, and he was left in a ditch, hidden by the tall grass.
Later that night, it was impossible to say when, something dark came down out of the starry sky. It looked like a fluttering black sheet, but there was a white smudge in the middle of it. It was going to land on Stephen, and he mentally braced himself.
It was the face of that strange old woman he had seen outside the café. The one who had terrified the man on the railings into a swift death. Her face grinned at the paralysed mechanic from the black flapping cloth. Her face crawled about like a thousand worms, and her eyes grew large as she came nearer. ‘I am your Nemesis,’ she said, in a raspy, unearthly voice.
‘No!’ Stephen screamed out at last, and she vanished. He could speak at last.
But it all proved to be a cruel dream; he’d merely drifted off and experienced a nightmare. The stars were still above him, only they had moved a few degrees towards the west. Stephen eventually became resigned to his fate. He would die here all alone, far from his family, and far away from his beloved Laura. How he wished he could hold her hands now as she had wanted him to in the café. He felt as if God had been nothing but a false hope, a mere fairy tale character he had turned to in this serious predicament. He drifted off again, and dreamt of Laura. He then experienced a very strange dream. A radiant man in a white gown came down and lifted Stephen from the ditch and placed him near to the roadside. The figure was softly spoken and had reassured him that help would come soon.
He awakened – and immediately noticed that the tree branch above was missing. It hadn’t been a dream at all; he had been moved. The sky was blue, and a skylark was flying overhead. Stephen’s face felt slightly numb. Time dragged by, and this time he felt a slight sensation in his stomach. He felt hungry.
A butterfly landed on his face, and he wanted it to stay there. It was the only company he had. It fluttered away – because something had startled it. Voices could be heard nearby. Come on! Find me please! Stephen shouted in his mind.
And they did find him. Two policemen appeared by him, and one knelt by his side and looked into his eyes. ‘Looks like a goner,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Wonder where he got that old coat from?’ the other policeman, out of sight, said, looking at the old trench coat draped over Stephen. The tramp had put it there of course, perhaps out of sympathy for the young man, or perhaps because it was full of holes and too heavy to wear on a hot day. That coat had prevented Stephen from dying of hypothermia.
‘His eyelid just moved, look.’ One of the policemen said, drawing his colleague’s attention to a slight twitch in the eye.
‘You’re right, go and call for an ambulance,’ said the other constable.
‘You’ll be alright lad, we’ll take you to the hospital now,’ said the policeman who remained at Stephen’s side.
Stephen was taken to Chester Royal Infirmary, where, due to the work of dedicated hospital surgeons and nurses, he made a gradual recovery. It transpired that the man who had stolen the car that had smashed into Stephen had been caught later that day and he’d told the police about the collision on the bend in the road. The police had found the wreckage of the Vespa scooter, but had trouble finding Stephen in that ditch. Stephen told the doctor and one of the policemen who had found him that he had been near a tree, and how all he had been able to see was a piece of the sky and an overhanging branch. The policeman said they had found him nowhere near a tree. Who then, had moved him? Had the dream about being moved by the kind glowing figure in the white garment been an actual memory of some intervention by an angel? Was the dream of the old woman in black been nothing more than a nightmare, or had she been real? She had definitely been a real person at the scene of horrific accident facing the café. Stephen asked the doctor what “Nemesis” meant, because evil-looking woman had said, ‘I am your Nemesis.’
The doctor said he didn’t know, and suggested that the angel and the Nemesis woman had been merely dreams and hallucinations caused from Stephen’s injuries, and he advised the man to rest. Laura, however, was curious about the meaning of “Nemesis” and she went to her local library and did some research. She shuddered when she discovered that it was the ancient name of a fabled remorseless goddess of death and vengeance.
When Stephen was fully recovered, he took Laura to the Marigold Café in Cheshire and lovingly held her hands at the table, for everyone to see, and produced an engagement ring, and got down on his knees. All of the mellowed old customers smiled at the heart-warming sight, and when Laura said “Yes, I will” they came over and congratulated the couple.

©Tom Slemen 2006