My doctor has suggested that I set out what happened in writing, as I still find it difficult to speak about it. He thinks that it may help me. I shall do my best.
Like most Englishmen my first thought is to recall the weather. It had been kind that day, as it had been for most of that season. In common with most of the inhabitants of our village, that was of more than conversational interest to me. We inhabit one of England's prettiest coastal resorts, a magnet for the elderly who care more for pleasant scenery than gaudy attractions. But there are other things for our visitors to spend their money on, such as good food and gifts to take home for their loved ones. Almost everyone is our village earns their living by helping them do so.
I am the manager of the only Bank in the village. So far our branch has survived the inevitable march of online banking thanks to a lack of local competition and our unique location. Most of our clients are intelligent people who neither know how to use a computer nor care to find out. We also supply cash to all of the local shopkeepers and operate the village's only free "hole in the wall"; a service that alone ensures our popularity.
I recall that it all began at around four pm. At the time I was clearing my desk and preparing to lock the safe; it had been a quiet day and there seemed little point in remaining open for too much longer. I was on the point of suggesting as much to my assistant when suddenly the door burst open and a man rushed in.
"For God's sake, help me!" he screamed.
For a moment I stared at him, too surprised to reply. He was a middle-aged man, perhaps in his early fifties, dressed in jeans, a jacket and a white t-shirt. His forehead was smeared in blood, his knees and elbows were badly grazed and he was swaying precariously. At last I gathered myself and rushed around the desk to his aid.
"Please sit down, sir," I said, pulling the nearest chair towards him. "You appear to be hurt. Would you like me to call a doctor?"
"Yes… please." He sat down heavily and made an effort to gather himself. He was sweating and gulped in great gasps of air. He looked at me imploringly.
"There has been a car crash," he said in a trembling voice. "Ellie and I are… fine. But the lady in the other car…" His shoulders heaved in a convulsive sob.
I turned to my assistant, who was watching the scene with a horrified expression on his face. "Martin, I think an ambulance is required. Please dial 999 and do what is necessary. Quickly now." He made his way into my office, out of my sight.
I turned back to our visitor. "Where is your vehicle? Has your wife stayed with the other driver?"
He nodded. "She was still breathing when I left them. Our car is just half a mile away, down Blueberry Lane. We tried to call an ambulance but our mobile phone wouldn't work." He looked at me helplessly.
I sighed wearily. Like many coastal areas, reliable mobile communications remained a distant dream for our village.
"Never mind," I said comfortingly. "Martin is making the call now. An ambulance will soon be here." I turned back towards the office door, just as Martin emerged from it. His face was troubled.
"Mr Giles, sir, the phone isn't working."
I cursed inwardly. "Of course. I had forgotten." Earlier that week Martin had received a call from the telephone company, informing us that all telephone lines into and out of the village would be down that afternoon to allow essential repairs to be made. This complicated the situation. The nearest doctor's surgery was in the next village, at least ten miles away. On the twisting coast road, it would take a good twenty minutes to get there and as long again to get back. From the look on our visitor's face, we did not have that much time to spare.
"Martin, I want you to take my car and drive to the doctor's surgery. Go as quickly as you can please. Meanwhile I will accompany Mr...?"
"… Smith back to his vehicle. It has been a long time since I put my first aid training into practice, but I will do what I can."
I tossed the keys of my car to Martin, whose face eloquently expressed his delight in being given such a responsibility and his fear that he may not be able to meet it. Mr Smith looked at me gratefully and rose unsteadily to his feet. Together we hurried from the building into the late afternoon sunshine.
Our village lies at the foot of a small hill that surrounds it on all sides. The Bank is located half-way up the hill, some distance from the plethora of gift shops and caf�s that surround the beach, and Blueberry Lane runs away towards a small hamlet some five miles or so beyond. It is rarely used these days; indeed, I recall feeling a little surprised that two cars had actually been on it at the same time, let alone crashed into each other.
Mr Smith appeared to have recovered his strength and forged ahead of me as we ran up the hill. He was extraordinarily fit for a man of his age, although (I admitted ruefully to myself) it had been many years since I had been in any serious training. I gritted my teeth and thought of my old sergeant major, screaming insults at me in another life.
Blueberry Lane was silent as we ran steadily on. Both of us were sweating profusely, watching our step on the pitted surface beneath our feet. After what seemed like a lifetime, we rounded a corner and a little piece of hell lay before us.
It is curious what the human mind retains and what it discards. Whilst almost every other aspect of that day is indelibly imprinted on my mind, I do not recall which model of cars they were or anything else of note about them. I do know that one of them was a vivid red colour, while the other was that metallic grey that is so fashionable these days. They were on the far side of the road to us, entwined in a dreadful embrace of twisted metal.
The two cars had clearly smashed head on and it was difficult to determine where one ended and the other began. Shards of glass were everywhere, crunching and cracking beneath our feet. At first I could not see any sign of the victims; but my companion made his way through the wreckage and round to the driver's door of the red car. A voice called out as he did so.
"Jonathan, is that you?"
I followed hurriedly, to find Mr Smith holding the hand of a rather younger woman who was kneeling on the ground. She had long blonde hair and appeared almost unhurt, although I noticed that - like her husband - she had suffered cuts to her arms and legs. Both of them were looking anxiously down at the driver of the red car, who had not been so lucky.
My first thought was that she must be dead. Her face was ravaged and she was bleeding profusely from her nose. I could not see much else except her right arm, which appeared almost undamaged. Her eyes were closed. I knelt down beside her, licked the back of my hand and held it before her lips. The faintest flutter of a breath was my reward.
"She's alive," I said. "We must do what we can for her while we wait for the ambulance. Mrs Smith, are you hurt?"
To my surprise, Mrs Smith blushed and looked away. "I'm fine," she said quietly.
"Ellie is not my wife, Mr Giles," said Mr Smith, after a moment's pause. "She is my… companion."
"Oh. I see." It seemed such an old fashioned word for something rather more in keeping with the modern world. I felt suddenly old and foolish, out of my place and time.
"Do you think we should move her?" said Mr Smith, turning my attention back to the matter in hand. I shook my head.
"Too dangerous. She may have injuries to her neck or spine." I stood up and surveyed the wreckage. "There appears to be no sign of fire, so there is little immediate risk of an explosion. Nonetheless, it would be well to free her if we can,"
I examined the door of the car. It had been crushed from the front and it appeared unlikely that it would open easily. Grasping the handle, I pulled as hard as I could. The door creaked ominously and a small gap appeared. I looked up at Mr Smith.
"I think it might be possible to open it, if we pull it together. Are you up to it?"
Mr Smith nodded and gestured to his companion. "Stand aside please, Ellie."
He took her place next to me and I pulled again. As soon as the small gap appeared, Mr Smith thrust his hands into it and heaved furiously. I was astounded by his physical strength; the door gave way almost instantly with a loud crack. Both of us gazed in horror at what it revealed.
She was clearly a young woman, but little else could be discerned immediately. There was an overwhelming impression of blood; blood on her chest, in her hair, on her legs. There was a particularly bad cut on her lower torso, which flowed freely onto the floor. I touched her skin; it felt cold. That blood had to be stopped quickly, or she was finished.
I turned back to Mr Smith. "Do you have a first aid kit in your car?" He shook his head.
"In that case, we must take alternative measures." I thought for a moment, but Mr Smith was ahead of me. He quickly took off his jacket and t-shirt.
"Here, take these."
I nodded gratefully. First I wrapped the t-shirt around and around the wound, taking care to cover as much of it as possible, and then tied it as tightly as I could. Instantly a red stain appeared upon it, but it no longer ran freely. I picked up the jacket and placed it over her, as snugly as I could. It was far from ideal, but better than nothing.
"That's fantastic," said Mr Smith gratefully. "Thank goodness we found you."
I said nothing. I knew that what I had done gave her a chance of survival, but every second that passed took her closer to the point of no return. I remembered my old training; talk to the victim, comfort them, keep them with you.
"Hold on. The ambulance will he here soon," I said softly, bending down beside her.
My mind suddenly leapt back to the last time I had used those words. It had been a woman then too, one much more dear to me and just as badly hurt. My training had been of little use that day. I fingered the ring I still wore on my finger, and my eyes filled with tears.
"Not this time," I whispered. I reached out and stroked her forehead. She was still so cold. "Please. Just hold on."
To my astonishment her eyes opened. She seemed to look at me and then behind me, her eyes widening suddenly. Instantly she tried to speak, her voice wracked by coughs. Blood ran freely from her lips. I tried to stop her with soft words, but she would not be denied. Her hoarse whisper chilled my blood.
"For God's sake… run…"
"I think she's delirious," I said after a moment, turning back to Mr Smith; but then something hard hit me on the back of the head. Everything span around.
"Mr… Smith?" I tried to stand, but another blow quickly followed the first, and I knew nothing more.
My next memory is of pain. My eyes were closed, but bright lights danced before them. Strange words floated around me.
"… looks like a hit and run…"
"… she's gone, I'm afraid…"
"… don't worry, you're safe now…"
Slowly I became aware that my hands were covered in something sticky. With a great effort I opened my eyes. My hands lay on my stomach; with a sudden lurch, I saw that I was bleeding profusely. Numerous cuts covered my body.
"He's awake." A shadow fell over me and a young man was there. "We have to get him out of here, quickly."
I tried to speak but no words came out. Frantically my eyes whirled around the scene, trying desperately to focus. What I saw horrified me.
I was inside the red car. Next to me, the young woman sat unmoving, her eyes closed. Her skin was utterly pale and I knew, somehow, that she was dead. The light outside was failing; many hours must have passed since I lost consciousness. There was no sign of Mr Smith or Ellie.
Hands pulled at me gently and I was lowered onto what must have been a stretcher. Flashing lights continued to dance around me. I saw a police car and then an ambulance, into which I was carried.
I felt that I had to speak, to tell them what had happened, but everything was spinning and I could not focus my mind. I tried to sit up but found that I could not move; the pain was excruciating. I saw eyes above me, looking at me anxiously. Soft hands held me down; a woman, perhaps.
Another young man stuck a needle into me, talking to me cheerfully. I felt a strange swirling sensation; then nothing.
I will not bore you with tales of the weeks in hospital that followed. Most of my physical injuries were superficial and healed quickly. But the trauma had left a deep imprint on my mind and for many weeks I could not speak. Only now, thanks to the help and patience of my doctor, am I able to face the terrible events of that day and look forwards.
When my identity was finally discovered, the police descended upon the Bank to find the doors locked. By the time a master set of keys had been obtained from head office, and the empty safe discovered, "Mr Smith" and his companions had long gone. Martin was in on it, of course; I never saw my car again and can only assume that they used it to make their getaway.
The police assure me that they are making every effort to apprehend the gang. They have reconstructed the "accident" and concluded that "Mr Smith" and "Ellie" must have thrown themselves clear just prior to the collision. That explains the cuts to their arms and legs that I observed. They were clearly very brave and equally ruthless. All I can say in their defence is that they let me do what I could to save the young woman, however little use I was in the end.
I have not yet been able to resume my post at the Bank and I fear now that I never shall. They have been very good to me and there is the possibility of early retirement. A younger man has taken up residence in our branch and is doing very well, I hear.
She was married just a few weeks before the accident. In the boot of the car they found a cot and some tins of brightly coloured paint. Perhaps she was already pregnant; I do not know.
They all assure me there was nothing more I could have done.