Dr Rachel Gilmartin had woken up that morning feeling uneasy in a way she had never experienced before. She had always prided herself on being self-aware and conscious of every little itch in her body and mind, so this feeling was not welcome. Of course she knew it was a big day, a day that meant the beginning of a new chapter in her life, but that did not justify the strong feeling of discomfort she could sense.
This was one more adventure that she would take on with the strength on character she had always prided herself on. As she repeated her mantras in her head, she started to smile, and slowly retake possession of all her senses. The unease was gone.
She quickly sprung back into her old self and started on her morning routine. She went into the kitchen, turned on BBC Radio 4, put her coffee on and started making breakfast – one slice of sourdough toast with crushed avocado and a poached egg. She poured herself a glass of grapefruit juice, and chuckled a little at the silliness of the world.
The news depressed her a little too, of course, but she couldn't help but deride most of what she was hearing. Having a sense of humour was something else she prided herself on. She was very good at listening to jokes. She had a great laugh – loud and full-bodied but not annoying, a very hard balance to aspire to, she had always thought.
Today was her first day as Associate Fellow at Aberystwyth University – working in the English Department. There was no need to be anxious about the new job, Prof. Richard Connor had said – there were going to be a couple of other newly appointed members of staff that autumn and of course she would fit right in, no doubt about that. She also knew she'd be fine. The oddest part of it all was that she was back in her hometown for the first time since leaving at the age of eighteen. As she walked down Infirmary Road, she no longer felt like herself at all; she wasn't present at all – her senses were heightened and failing her at the same time. The thought back to a time, years earlier, when she had walked this road.
"Rachel! Wait for me!" It was Hannah, who was always late for school and who had somehow miraculously woken up in time and really wanted to walk through the gates with someone else for a change. So Rachel stopped. She gave her friend a look that was affectionate and patronising all at once – a look that Hannah knew well. Hannah, excited by the prospect of the journey ahead accelerated into some first class skipping and grabbed her friend's hand with great force. Did she need to be so agitated?
Rachel disliked most of her peers' displays of emotions of any kind.
Stoicism and hard work. Those were the two things that would get her far. It had been her family’s motto for generations.
Through stoicism and hard work she would finish school, get good grades, go to university and get an excellent job. Everybody would see how great she was, and they would helplessly fall in love with her a little. No-one would expect it either, because she had always been so quiet and really it seemed like she was not up to much or didn't really seem to have any ambition at all.
We were all quite worried about her to be honest.
That's what the town's elderly ladies would say. All the women on Infirmary Road who had nothing to do but chit chat about teenage girls! What a waste of a life. Rachel would be quite alright, she was sure, and she delighted in thinking about her future, only for a couple of minutes a day, maybe during a boring lesson or on her solitary walks to school. But no longer than that, because she was no day dreamer – just ambitious and with the occasional need for inspiration.
Dr Rachel Gilmartin had arrived at the juncture she had walked past thousands of times during her school days. How funny that her school and the university should be so close. But then again, everything was close in Aberystwyth.
As she turned the corner, she noticed something on the floor. It was some small bird. She wasn't sure if it was alive but she had a strong feeling it might be so she decided to pick it up. As she reached out to it, it was clear the little creature was dying. She couldn't quite understand how or why this moved her, but it did. And all of a sudden a strong feeling or paralysis came over her. She felt unable to walk forward and she did not want to either.
Elliott Hughes was driving to his old school to speak at an assembly. He was enjoying a teenage sense of recklessness; he had just been to see his lawyers and he was buzzing. The youthful energy was tinted with a middle-aged crisis. He had never driven this fast in broad daylight. But that day he did not care about what was right. He swung his silver Honda Civic round the corner of North Street, exulting in the thrill of a speeding car.
The thump sounded too banal. It certainly didn't sound like what Rachel had ever imagined it. And she had imagined such an occasion. Feeling prepared for all eventualities in life no matter how absurd or tragic was something she had always prided herself on.