I moved to France in the winter of 2002. To start with I didn’t have much money and was living in a small caravan.

That first winter was cold.

I wrote this story in my head one morning whilst walking into the village to buy a stick of bread.

I started with the phrase… “Death sat on his bike and waited for me at the crossroads.”

By the time I had walked to the village and back I had the start of the story. A few days later it was finished.

It was the first story that I wrote in France and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for it.

Death at the Crossroads

Death sat on his bike and waited for me at the crossroads.

I pulled up next to him, close but not too close, and killed the engine. I would miss the bike. She and I had done lots of good miles together; but then, there were lots of things that I would miss.

I looked over at him. In the cold evening light he was a shadow in the moonlight that glinted gently off the chrome of the six exhaust pipes that led back from the monstrous engine that he sat astride.

I took off my helmet and put it on the road. I would not be needing it any more, not where I was going.

Death lit a cigarette and nodded towards me.

“Ready then” he asked, “All done?”

I nodded back. I was all done and as ready as I would ever be.

From the pale glow of his cigarette I could see his features. His skeletal face and his dark, unbelievably deep eyes came as no surprise to me.

You see, this wasn’t our first meeting; Death and I had met before.

The holiday was supposed to be a second chance for Christine and me. An attempt to start again, to wipe the slate clean, to forget the past. We had been growing apart for some time. It had been my fault.

When I left Shawcross Solutions to start up on my own, I hadn’t realised how much time all the paperwork and finances take when you are running your own business. No wonder old man Shawcross always looked tired. Besides, when you work as a freelance IT consultant, your customers expect you to be available for them, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

It had become a running joke between Christine and me that, on the rare occasions that I left the office before seven o’clock, the phone would invariably ring the minute I got home. After a while though, the joke had stopped being funny.

Still, taking on a partner had been a good idea, one of Christine’s, of course.

I had known John for years, IT is a surprisingly small world, and he had picked things up quickly. The customers loved him and I felt safe leaving the business in his hands for a week while Christine and I took the time to get to know each other again.

The caravan belonged to Grant and Sue.

They had been more than happy to let us use it for a week; the look that had passed between them when I went around to ask if I could borow it told me that they had been worried about Christine and me in a way that I hadn’t been.

And now, stood all alone in a field in the soft Cornish countryside, the caravan gave us a base, albeit temporary one, from which to rebuild our relationship.

And it was working. Over the last week Christine and I had grown closer. The old barriers were coming down as I learned to relax. We spent our time exploring; both the countryside and ourselves.

For the first time in months, when I made love with Christine, it was making love, not just having sex. I think Christine noticed the difference – I’m sure she did. For, on the third day, when I switched off my mobile, my lifeline to the office and work, for the first time I can ever remember, Christine saw me do it and she smiled.

And the smile in her eyes said “Come here big boy, come and explore some more.”

Oh, we were happy that week. That week was the last time for happiness, at least for me.

It happened on the Sunday, our last day. I had gone to get some water from the farm up the road and Christine was cooking breakfast.

Even before I had got back to the caravan, I somehow knew that something was wrong. I dropped the water can and started running; too slow, all too slow in the slippery field. By the time that I got back, the caravan was well and truly ablaze.

I tried to open the door but it was stuck. I could feel my hand blistering up on the red-hot handle. There was a loud crack, the window broke and, through it, I could see Christine alight, burning. Her face seemed to melt in the smoky flames. I grabbed at the door again, oblivious to the pain and yelled “Christine, Christine, Oh Jesus, God, please – no.”

Suddenly I realised that I was not alone. There was a man beside me. I hadn’t heard him approach. I screamed at him, “For God’s sake, help me. Christine is in there.”

Over the crackle of the flames and Christine’s screams, I heard his voice.

“God can’t help you now – he has no jurisdiction here.”

It was a cold voice, otherworldly. It chilled me to the bone.

“Please, please help me, I’ll do anything,” I screamed.

And I heard the dark voice boom questioningly, “Anything?”

I turned to look at him; Oh God, what can I have been thinking?

I looked into his dark and deep, unbelievably deep, eyes and then, all at once, I realised.

“Yes,” I heard myself croak, “I’ll do anything, just help me get Christine out.”

All of a sudden, I found myself in a cold, dark room. There were windows on all four walls and through each of the windows was the same view: A caravan on fire, a girl burning, a face melting, a face that I knew.

In the middle of the room, sat on a chair, was the man I had met in the field. In the darkness his face seemed to glow gray and pallid, his eyes shining black as they stared at me. He had been talking and now he paused.

You understand the deal?”

Your woman’s life returned and, in exchange, I take your life. But first you have to do a job for me; you have to take the life of another. One whom I am not allowed to touch.”

I took a deep breath and nodded.

“OK, but why,” I asked “can’t you take this other life as well?”

“I told you,” the man yelled, and pain shot up and down my spine, “I am not allowed to take the life of the other” he rasped.

“Besides,” he said, more gently now, with what might have been a smile on his face, “You will do it for me and then it will be you that bears the sin.”

“Now tell me, will you do it, your life and the life of the other in return for your woman’s life?”

I nodded again.

“No!” he screamed, and again I hurt, “Say it, say you will.”

“I will.” I said, “I’ll do it.”

I knew that something was wrong even before I got back to the caravan. I dropped the water can and started running. Too slow, all too slow in the slippery field. Reaching the caravan, I wrenched open the door.

“What’s wrong?” Christine asked.

I grabbed her just as she lit the stove.

There was a bang and we were flung to the floor. I pulled her out of the caravan and away. I covered her with my body, I could feel the flames lick at my back. I could feel the warmth try but fail to take the chill off the cold place that I now had, deep inside me.

When it was over, and only when it was over, and the fire had burnt itself out, I finally let Christine get up. I could hardly see her through my tears.

All I wanted to do was to hold her.

To hold her close, one last time.

I left Christine three days later. I engineered an argument, I told her some lies. I stormed out. I wanted her to be hurt by me, to hate me, to think of me as an enemy. I thought that it would be easier for her that way.

I’ll never forget the tears on her face as I left, her confused and frightened face. Perhaps that will be my penance, to always see her tears and the pain in her eyes – to see them for all eternity, and to know that they were my fault.

I killed the other this morning. Somehow I had known the address and had found the way. I made it as painless as possible. He had been sleeping. I put a pillow over his head and pressed down until he stopped breathing. It didn’t take long.

I hadn’t been expecting a baby, that had shocked me. But a deal was a deal and I really had no choice.

Once it was done, I got on my bike and headed for the crossroads. This time I had no address but I knew that I would find my way.

And, all the time, as I rode through the night, I wondered who the other had been. Or, more importantly, who he would have grown up to be.

Perhaps a scientist or diplomat. Maybe he had been destined to discover a cure for cancer or, through his skills and efforts, avert a terrible war.

Or perhaps he was someone else. Someone the religious books spoke of, someone Christians and Jews alike are expecting to return.

Oh God, I hope not. But I guess now that we’ll never know.

Death sat on his bike and waited for me at the crossroads.

“Ready then. All done?” He had asked me and I had nodded.

Yes, I was all done and I was ready, ready to go.

Death finished his cigarette and flicked the butt. He thumbed the starter and the engine roared into life. The exhaust emitted a wail. A wail that sounded like the dead screaming, all the tortured souls of the dead. And part of me, deep inside, also started to scream.

He slowly pulled away. In the distance, lightning flickered in the sky and Death rode towards it. I took a deep breath and started my bike. And then I followed Death into the night.