HARRY STAYT

 

Given the choice, if they didn’t need to get up and go to work, school or whatever each day, most people would probably prefer to spend their mornings in bed. Harry Stayt is not like most people. Harry is up, washed, dressed and ready to run by eight o’clock at the very latest, usually much earlier. Harry does not enjoy being cooped up inside. He is an outbound activities instructor, qualified to teach (amongst other things) rock climbing, abseiling, caving, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and hill walking. The summer holiday season has just ended and he has no lessons booked for the best part of the next three weeks. For the first time since early summer he now has some time to himself. Harry being Harry, he intends to spend much of this time doing most of the things he’s usually paid to teach.

     Harry loves to run. He rents a small cottage in a village which is nestled on the banks of a large, man-made lake. A single, continuous road of some eight miles in length encircles the reservoir, and this is his daily running route.

#

     Harry sat on the front step of the cottage and tied his laces. He looked out over the stunning view which greeted him. There could be no better way to start each day, he decided. The world was silent save for bird song, the rippling of the water on the surface of the lake and the occasional distant rumble of farm machinery and traffic. And if this was his favourite time of day, he thought, then early autumn was his favourite time of year; a brief, quiet interlude between the busy summer holidays and winter snow and ice. This morning was picture perfect. The sky above him was a cool, clear, uninterrupted blue and the lush greenery surrounding the scene was showing the first signs of beginning to turn. The endless shades of green which had been present all summer were about to disappear and be replaced by yellows, oranges and brittle browns. And the air... Christ, even the air tasted good this morning. Cool but not too cold, dry but not parched and with a very gentle breeze which blew at him from across the surface of the water.

     All around Harry, the population of the small village were beginning their morning rituals and daily routines. As he locked the door of the cottage and zipped the key into his pocket, he looked around at the few houses and shops nearby and smiled inwardly. What was it about human nature that made people so desperate to trap themselves into strict routines like this? He didn’t understand it. He’d moved as far away as he could from the city to escape the relentless boredom and monotonous familiarity of the rat-race but even here, out in the middle of nowhere, people still seemed to crave these ritual-like patterns of life. All around him the same people were doing the same things at the same time of day as they always did. Mrs Rogers was opening the village store as she did every morning, putting the same goods out on display in exactly the same place as always. Her husband was taking the daily delivery of bread, milk and papers. The small school gates were being opened and children were beginning to arrive. It was happening everywhere he looked. In some ways he was no better, he had to admit. He often ran the same route at the same time of day and he always performed a well-rehearsed stretching and loosening exercise routine before going out. Although he wanted to believe otherwise, maybe he was as regimented as the rest of them.

     Warm-up complete, Harry checked the door was locked, then started his stopwatch and then began to run. He moved slowly at first, knowing that the first few footsteps were crucial. He’d had more than his fair share of avoidable injuries over the last couple of years and he knew now that it suited his body to start slowly and gradually build up to something resembling a decent pace. In any event, this was a simple training run and he didn’t intend overdoing it.

     He jogged out through the village, acknowledging a couple of bemused folk as he passed them, then ran across the dam and then began his usual clockwise circuit of the lake. He’d run this route many times before and had adapted it over time. He knew it was more sensible to run clockwise because the majority of the children who attended the school lived on farms and in other villages to the east. The timing of his run today had been carefully considered so that he wouldn’t reach the busiest stretch of road until the school traffic had been and gone. He expected the rest of the route to be quiet. Although very busy at the height of summer, with the ending of the holiday season the lake and the village had become noticeably quieter. Harry didn’t expect to see more than a handful of people while he was out and that was how he liked it.

#

     Three miles in and the village had long been lost in the distance behind him. A heavy canopy of trees bowed over the road, giving Harry shade from the strangely cool but still brilliant and relentless sunlight. The cover muffled and changed the sounds around him, blocking out the very distant rumble of village noise and traffic, making every birdsong and animal noise seem random and directionless, and seeming to amplify the constant thud, thud, thud of his feet pounding the ground. Even his breathing seemed inordinately loud.

     The peace and tranquillity was disturbed momentarily. A car engine (which could have been anything between half a mile and a a couple of miles away) was abruptly and unexpectedly silenced. Harry then thought he heard the crackle and spit of splitting wood. It could have been anything, he quickly decided, but it was probably nothing. One of the local farmers working their land on the steep banks of the lake perhaps? He ran on regardless.

     The lake was roughly quadrilateral in shape. He had already run along its longest side and had just followed a sharp bend in the road around to the right. He was now running along the shortest stretch. The dense forest of trees to his left, the grey tarmac ahead and the glare of the sun bouncing off the water’s calm surface to his right were all that he could see. His foot scuffed against something unexpectedly and he looked down and saw that, for some reason, the ground here was covered with debris. Slowing down but not stopping, he tripped and kicked his way through the tangled branches of a sapling that had been felled and dragged across the road. Hit by a car perhaps? A few metres further and he saw long, dark, arc-shaped scars which stretched ominously across the tarmac, and debris where something had churned up the mud and gravel at the side of the road. To Harry’s right now was a steep bank which dropped down towards the water. The tyre marks ended there suddenly. He knew what had happened before he’d seen the car.

     Slowing down to walking pace, he cautiously neared the edge of the bank and peered over. Some five metres or so ahead and below him, wedged tightly between two sturdy trees as if it had been caught, was the wreck of a small red car. Panting with the effort of his run but still in full control, Harry carefully clambered down the bank, knowing that he had to help. He hadn’t seen anyone else in the last half hour and chances were it would probably be at least as long again before anyone else passed by. It was down to him alone to try and help whoever it was who had crashed. As he made his rapid descent it occurred to him that there didn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the accident had happened. There were no other vehicles around. Had it been a mechanical failure? Swerving to avoid an animal wandering across the road? Had something happened to the driver? A heart attack perhaps? Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter now.

     The driver’s door had been wedged shut by the awkward angle at which the car had come to rest. The windscreen was shattered (it had been pierced by a sharp, thick and low-growing branch) and he carefully pushed the remaining glass out of the way and peered inside. The driver was dead. The same branch which had smashed through the window had impaled the chest of the stocky, grey-haired man. Jolted out of his seat by the sudden and violent crash, the man’s face had smashed into the steering wheel. Blood, bone and shattered teeth dribbled down his chin. The appalling injuries suffered by the driver were so extreme that for a few seconds Harry didn’t even notice there was a passenger in the car. A woman of similar age to the driver, she was dead too. Harry looked into her lifeless face and tried to work out why. She was still anchored into her seat by her safety belt, and had no obvious wounds other than traces of blood around her mouth. Perhaps her injuries were internal? His stomach was strong and, having obtained numerous first aid qualifications as part of his outdoor activities training, he instinctively leant across and checked for a pulse. Nothing.

Harry’s options were limited. Did he stop with the bodies and wait for another motorist to pass (which would likely be some time) or should he try and get back to the village as quickly as he could to alert the authorities? Although harder, the second option was clearly the most sensible. The people in the car were beyond help and there was nothing to be gained from stopping here with them. Harry quickly scrambled back up to the road, brushed himself down, then began running again, continuing his clockwise circuit of the lake.

     What started as a gentle training run had suddenly become a painful struggle. As well as having to contend with the shock of what he had just discovered, Harry also now needed to get his body working again. He may only have stopped running for a couple of minutes, but that had been more than long enough for his muscles to begin to tighten. He forced himself to try and maintain a steady pace. He was tired and he knew that he didn’t have enough energy to run faster – with more than three miles left to cover he knew that if he tried he’d probably end up walking most of the way back. At the same time, however, the nervous, adrenaline-fuelled chemical reactions now racing through his body made him want to sprint.

     Finally another sound disturbed the overwhelming silence. He could hear a plane in the distance. He rounded a gentle corner at the bottom of the lake and began to run the relatively straight two and a half mile stretch of road that would lead him back into the village. The sunlight flickered through the trees, blinding him intermittently with its brilliance and causing him to screw his eyes shut involuntarily. The run was getting harder. He was beginning to feel cold and the ends of his fingers and toes had begun to tingle. Had the temperature suddenly dropped or was it shock? He’d run this route many times before and he knew he was more than capable of completing the distance, but now he was beginning to doubt himself. And the plane’s engines seemed to be getting louder and louder.

     At the side of the road a twisting mountain stream tumbled down the hillside, disappearing under the road and trickling into the lake. That was Harry’s two mile mark. If he pushed hard he knew that he could be home in around fifteen minutes now, but it would take just about every last scrap of energy he had to do it. His legs were hurting. Christ, that plane sounded low...

     When the noise from the plane became deafening and was so loud that he could feel it through the ground beneath his feet like an earthquake, Harry stopped running again. It didn’t sound like one of the military jets that often flew down the valley or even one of the smaller civilian aircraft that frequently passed over. The aircraft was moving in the same direction as he was, coming from behind him and flying along the length of the lake towards the village. He could see it above the trees now, and he saw that it was lower than any plane he’d seen around here before. The slope of the bank down to the lake was relatively gentle here. Breathing hard, he jogged down to the water’s edge to get a better view.

     The plane passed alongside him, dropping fast. It could have been no more than fifty metres from the surface of the lake and it was falling rapidly. As Harry watched, its nose and starboard wing seemed to droop down as if it was simply too tired to remain in the air. The inevitable seemed to take an eternity to happen. The rapid descent continued until the tip of the plane’s wing clipped the water. The plane somersaulted forwards, flipping over and over in mid-air and breaking into several huge pieces which landed in the lake with a series of massive splashes, sending vast plumes of water shooting high into the air.

     Harry didn’t connect the two crashes he’d seen until he found a third. Kenneth Hitchcock, the local postman, was dead in the middle of the road next to his motor-scooter. Letters were blowing away casually like leaves on the breeze. Harry scooped several of them up before realising there was probably no point.

     By the time he arrived back at the village, he knew that something terrible had happened.

     By the time he arrived back at the village the wreck of the plane had disappeared beneath the surface of the lake, leaving the water appearing deceptively calm.

     By the time he arrived back at the village everyone else was dead.