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Dead Man's Handle by John Stapley

Thomas Paris, north London dad, sits in a Ford Fiesta atop Butcher’s Hill, calculating vectors. A Ford Fiesta has one tonne of mass. A vector is a quantity with magnitude and direction. A hill is a landform extending above surrounding terrain. These facts are about to have direct relevance.

Thomas Paris, north London dad, wonders whether an unpowered descent would be enough. Whether he could just line the Fiesta up, release the handbrake, and hop out. Like bowling.

No. An uncontrolled vehicle? What if a child chose that moment to cross the street? Thomas would be, among other things, a hypocrite. No, he needs to be there. Dead man’s handle.

His phone buzzes from the passenger seat. It’s Fi.

Where are you?

He tries to ignore it. There’s a yellow car parked at the hill’s base, but he’s worried that won’t count. Surely he needs something moving.

Mark says you finished squash an hour ago

Mark. What a bootlicker. No matter. There’ll be time to explain, later.


Please tell me you’re not deliberately trying to cause a car accident at the bottom of Butcher’s Hill so the council has to put in a pelican crossing

Thomas looks at the phone until its screen switches off.

‘They’re “puffin crossings” now,’ he says, to the phone that can’t hear him.

He gets out of the Fiesta, onto the steep tarmac of Butcher’s Hill. He paces. Feels the ground’s heat through his squash trainers. 

When had Fi realised? That morning? Or had she known all along—twigged it the moment he’d thought it, on the drive home from the council consultation? Where they’d snapped at the new electee, who’d said the council couldn’t justify installing a crossing at Butcher’s Hill, because there hadn’t been enough accidents there.

‘Okay, fine,’ Fi had said. ‘We’ll wait until after someone kills my daughters, shall we?’

‘Mrs Paris,’ the new electee had said, ‘Calm, please; you’re making me feel unsafe.’ 

Thomas had then said, ‘Oh fuck off,’ making everyone feel even more unsafe.

It had happened on Bonnie’s first schoolday, a Tuesday. They’d made Tricia promise to hold her hand. Fi had managed not to cry until the girls were out of sight, and Thomas had rubbed a circle on her back until they’d both had to go to work.

Fi had come home early, so she’d found out first. She hadn’t texted, hadn’t wanted Thomas to worry. She’d only told him that evening about the tears, the terror. The elderly onlooker, unsure whether to hector the girls for crossing without looking, or the SUV driver for almost killing them.

‘And you know what he said?’ Fi had repeated, gesticulating with her glass of Tesco rosé. ‘That they were “too small”. Like it’s their fault?!’

They’d agreed it was ridiculous. Everybody knew Butcher’s Hill was a deathtrap. Somebody should really do something about this.

‘Someone should really do something about this,’ Thomas says, to the unseasonably hot October air, then he gets back in the Fiesta. 

Screenlight flashes from the passenger seat.

I can put something on

Please don’t do anything rash

Thomas’s fingers close around the handbrake. 

At the bottom of Butcher’s Hill, a black SUV, another fucking SUV, is approaching. Slow. Driver probably on their phone. This, Thomas thinks, is as good as it’ll get.

One more buzz. Fi’s left a voice note. 

Thomas taps to play it; then, abruptly, he releases the handbrake. Fi’s voice fills the Fiesta as it starts to roll.

‘Hey—sorry if I’ve accused you of doing something you’re not doing. I’m gonna seem insane if you’re at Tesco’s or something. I just—got a feeling.’

The phone slides into the footwell.

‘I’m being paranoid. Surely. I know how sensible you are.’

Speed gathers quickly.

‘Look—I know we don’t talk about some things. We joke they’re “too depressing”. But I think we’re both feeling… like, it’s all destabilising, spinning out of control, this place we brought two lives into, and we can’t even keep our corner of it safe. I think about Bonnie coughing into her handkerchief. How Tricia cries when she’s cold. How their eyes looked after that fucking prick almost killed them. I just… it sends me out of my mind that there’s so little I can do to change how their lives will go.’ 

‘Well, what if I could?’ Thomas mutters, to the phone that can’t hear him. ‘If I could fix just one thing? Why wouldn’t I?’

The road is a blur. The hill is a mouth. The SUV is honking; the vector is perfect; they are going to meet in the middle. 

As he bears down, Thomas sees the SUV’s windows are tinted, obscuring the driver. He has always found that deeply obnoxious, but now, it jolts him.

It could be anyone in there.

Fi’s voice is everywhere as he jams the brake. He’s thrown against the belt; there’s a squeal, a sharp rubbery stink, then a hard crack that hurts.


‘You alright mate?’

Thomas lifts his head. Bloody taste. Through the cracked windscreen, a corrupted yellow. He’s bashed into the parked car. 

He looks round. Sees a bald man, and behind him, the black SUV, untouched. Good brakes, clearly.

‘I’m okay.’ Thomas winds down his window. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘S’alright.’ The bald man shrugs. ‘Hill’s a bloody deathtrap, innit. They should sort it out.’

‘I’ve been saying that.’

He realises why the silence feels unnatural.


‘What’s wrong?’ the man asks.

‘Nothing. I—missed the end of my wife’s voice note.’ 

‘Oh, don’t tell me.’ The bald man rolls his eyes. ‘They love those. My missus wangs on and on. Annoying, innit?’

‘Not really,’ Thomas says. ‘I love her.’

He feels a bit sick.

‘Do you think this’ll count as an accident?’ he asks. ‘On the record?’

‘Well, yeah.’ The man’s forehead wrinkles. ‘Have to be out your mind to do that on purpose, wouldn’t you?’

Thomas laughs. Blood trickles from his nose.

‘I suppose you would,’ he says.

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