He had to get out. There was nothing else. The windscreen spattered with ooze of chemicals and exhaust, the splintered winter sun pathetically nuzzling between the intersection of concrete slabs of flyover and slip road, M4 over the A4, he shunted and chugged into position, snarling, barking, twisting the wheel, thumping the dash, fuming at the urban phone ins, one after another, the sadness of the air, carrier of detritus and debris and jetsam of carping old Tories and chain smoking dog breeders. He lit up. Open the window and get cold, close it and suffocate.
In lane he notices the motorway, here, where it sags dangerously, as it plunges down across west London, as it droops with ennui, the concrete has crumbled away exposing huge holes: congealed sinews of rust, torn tendons hang.
He had to get out. Now.
And even when the slip road is negotiated, the motorway is clogged up. No immediate views of any promised land. A magical bottle of Lucozade Sport pours its revitalising contents over the suburbs. Little wonder someone sleeps beneath that, mouth wide open.
The old Fiat, reverse gear worn away, its bodywork so pitifully thin the door had less steel than a ring pull and more rust than than the Bismarck, or some sunken Italian battleship, if he could think of one.
The trouble with having no reverse In London there are a thousand little cut throughs and short cuts: get stuck in the middle with an Audi full of snorting cutthroats coming the other way. You get out and try and sign ‘no reverse’ but it looks like death wish defiance and you have to push the thing back to the junction with one hand (the other is on the wheel) and the aorta is not happy. It goes ERFF ERFF ERFF and any second death will surely come, coronary or a baseball bat.
Sunlight criss crossed with columns and pillars and girders and dirt. Come on.
He had given up hope. Well, not quite. In fact, he had given up hope of ever giving up hope. If he gave up hope, well, at least he could give up and push open the door of the job centre or write a letter to someone at the BBC.
This was hopeless.
Everything this side in the shadow, the pale light picking out a 747 lifting from Heathrow, some crinkly old horse chesnuts in a pointless park. Hopeless. He snatched his nails away from his face, they were chewed out. And everytime he caught his eye, or his brow, or his thinning colourless hair in the rearview mirror he winced.
But perhaps there was still time.
Shunting, pushing forward he began the mantra of writers and artists, filmmakers and actors who hadn’t made a name for themselves until they were forty. It was easier at thirty, now it was decidedly bleak, For at least the writers had written something, the filmmakers had made something. All he had done was win a chopper bike in a Ready Brek competition when he was nine.
The moment comes for us all. It can come in childhood, it may come in old age. But at some point the moment will open up a fist hole to the heart. You will be torn apart. Like one of those jumbos glittering vermillion over Heathrow, when a door is taken out, or the cabin roof flips off in a freak accident. Stuff gets sucked out. It begins with Confidence and ends with Viscera, via Nervous Breakdown and probably Paranoia.
Cigarettes. Thinking about the his organs. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea but he was short and fifty miles on, with none he’ll bust.
Bypassing the services, he follows arrows for petrol. Swings the car into a bay for air and water. Are these still free? Groaning, pushes open the door (even that weighs as much as a wall) shuffles towards the metropolis that he still thinks of as a kiosk, a booth or even a hut.
On the way your across this expanse of carpet and glass you can get anything you want: food, drink, magazines, calculators, stationery, a sauna, there’s a dentist behind the crisps and a masseur behind the microwave. Want a perm? We can do it. A heart lung transplant with every five litres of Smell Oil. A donkey? A quick course in Javanese gamelan? Look no further.
The driver bought twenty Marlbrough and headed back to his car.
“Can you give me a lift mate?” she said.
She was small, a bit dishevelled. She had fingerless mittens on and was smoking.
“Where you going?” he asked without stopping.
“Dublin,” she said. “The ferry goes from West Wales.”
“Fishguard to Rosslaire?” he said, just because it came into his head.
“Suppose so,” she said. And she followed him. He hadn’t said yes, but he hadn’t said no. He climbed in the car, reached over to the passenger door.
“Thanks,” she said, throwing her cigarette over the car into a desperate shrub.
“I’m not going to West Wales,” he said. He couldn’t look over at her. He felt her watching him, studying him.
He threw his new packet onto the dashboard, took the old one from next to them, pulled one out, passed it to her. Put another in his own mouth. She took a lighter from her bag, lit hers, lit his. He started the car, pulled off.
“Christ,” she said, and blew out ten lungfuls of blue smoke.
“What?” he said.
“This shit.” He hadn’t realised. The talk show was on again. Freddie from Croydon was asking the resident psychic about his interview on Thursday.
“Make sure you wear something red,” said Nigel. “Even if it’s your underpants. Something red.”
“Christ,” she said again. He got rid of it.
“It is a pile of shite,” he said. “I know, but isn’t everything.?”
“Not the Irish,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Things. Isn’t every-” and here he emphasised “-thing”. He pulled out into the fast lane. The Fiat was a bus and disintegrating but it could move.
Where were they now? Uxbridge? Or Maidenhead? It was one sprawl.
“There aren’t many good road songs about Britain are there?” she said.
He had to think about it. “All the Way from Memphis” came into his head. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
“All the Way from Acton,” he said and cackled. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t know the original. By the Time I Get to Northampton he said to himself.
This was hideous landscape. It wasn’t hideous enough to be handsome, in that Bladerunner way, or nostalgic like twin cooling towers. It was bare, endless tumps and clumps, twisted fences and bland nineties estates. It was moon dull, life negating stuff. He wanted out.
“My sister used to live over there,” she said, waving her arms to the rooftops. Dave used to beat her up all the time.” She was thinking about them. Fighting obviously. “They had a conservatory, :she said. “It cost ten thousand and was about as big as this car.”
She unwound the window and tossed out her cigarette. “You know,” she said, “I think she was depressed.”
Depressed? Depressed? He had to hang on to this for a while. Wasn’t everyone depressed? All the time. Wasn’t she depressed? He wanted to look over at her now. Maybe there was something more to her face. But how she looked in the forecourt of the petropolis was like he thought everyone looked. Expressionless, or if not that then beaten. He never had contact with people who were otherwise.
He tried to think of the last time he had spoken to someone who was not a loser. He knew a few people who were affluent, but they worried and they struggled and thy nagged and they were hassled. If they weren’t complete losers they led grim, pointless lives. What was his name. The bloke who he had met who had opened a chain of restaurants? He drank two bottles a day. At least.
The traffic was thinning out now, and the sun was lost in the west. He felt like a drink. Should he put it to her? He didn’t want to seem like he was trying anything. Maybe just make himself clear.
“I need a drink,” he said. “Is it alright with you if we pull off and find a pub.”
“But you’re driving,” she said with a laugh in her voice.
“Just a pint, and a roll or something.”
“Yeah, ok,” she said.
The Fox was the other side of Reading, full of tired suits. He took his place at the bar and she disappeared into the ladies. He thought for a moment he might not see her again. That seemed reasonable. But no sooner had he sat down with his pint and her pint, no rolls, no crisps,she soon returned. He was able to watch her walking through the tables, he first time he was able to really look.
She had an old coat, a man’s coat, a small man’s coat, leggings, boots. The coat was done up, all three buttons. She had a black wool scarf over a tee shirt. It was black.
Her face was pale, her lips were thin, vey resentful looking he thought. It was a face that should have looked hard, icy, but it couldn’t. Her eyes were too huge and lost, so troubled and wandering. She caught his eye, twitched a smile, bit her lip. She was still wearing the mittens.
“Thanks,” she said, as she sat down.
For a while a comfortable silence lay over them. They watched the suits banter and guffaw, cough into their fists and talk in loud voices.
“So where are you going?” she asked, lighting up.
“West country,” he said, “Warminster,” he sniffed, “my mother’s.”
“Oh, right.” And then she changed the rhythm.
“Have you got much money?” she asked.
Did she mean, he wondered, much money in the bank or in his pocket? If she meant what did he have in the bank why, did she need a loan? Did she want to know if he was rich? No, that couldn’t be. His car was a wreck. He wasn’t rich.
“Thirty quid,” he said. “Why?”
“I need some money,” she said. “I need to get to Dublin.”
“You don’t have tickets? Nothing?”
“Nothing,” she said. “About three pounds and a second class stamp.”
“Are you hungry, can I get you something?”
“No, honestly, I’m not. I need to get to Dublin.”
“I just do.”
He was able to study her face close up now. She had crossed over one of the concentric circles that mark territories of closeness. Outside there were strangers, on the inside, lovers, wives, children. Between, within each succesive circle, there were friends, old friends, acquaintances, colleagues, enemies. She had moved in a circle or two, no longer a stranger.
She was probably older than he had thought. Her face was drawn, fatigued with capillaries broken in little scarlet orchards around her mouth and nose.
He was a loser, she was lost.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not having a particularly good time at the moment. Just lost my job.”
He finished his drink and stood. She had most of hers left. “Listen,” she said, “I need sixty quid.” She was looking up at him, her mouth opening and closing as if she was gulping for air. It made her look sick.
“I can’t give you that,” he said. “I’m going.” He got up and walked out.
He put the radio on again. He didn’t want to give her the opportunity to raise the subject again. He wanted to make a point.
When they rejoined the motorway he needed headlights. The dashboard, the radio, their cigarettes glowed. There were a few other cars, suprisingly few. They were out of the sprawl, into a dark, rural dark corridor.
She began biting her nails. She was out of cigarttes, or maybe making the point that she was low and could she have one of his. She bit and clicked and sucked and snapped. And then he wanted to pull over and ask her to get out. She began to sniff: she was crying.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not happy, that’s all.”
She wasn’t happy? This was getting laughable. Who the hell was happy? Mr. Happy was happy, and that was it. Everyone else completely pissed off. They had to be. It was like crying because you were going to die. He’d cried about that enough but he didn’t announce it as if it was news.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll stop at the services. They’re open all night. I think you better get a lift with someone else. I’ll give you ten quid, you can get something to eat. Maybe you can’t think things through on an empty stomach.”
He reached forward and threw the unopened packet of fags at her.
“And you can have these,” he said.
Membury Services: burgers, a coffee bar, a place for snacks and a restaurant upstairs. Plants and lights and muzak everywhere. It could have been an airport but there was no expectation and none of the waiting.
As they walked across the car park he passed her a ten pound note. She took it and said “thanks” very gently.
“You go upstairs and get yourself a meal,” he said. “Take care,” he opened the doors for her, then quickened his step to the toilets. He wanted something to eat himself but wanted her gone.
When he came out again he was cautious, he waited at the exit, then crossed over the corridor to the shop. There were only a handful of people there. Not her. He wanted a sandwich, a bottle of water.
He was looking at the sandwiches, trying to think whether he could eat any of them when he turned to look at a woman standing at the magazines. It wasn’t her. He looked again. No, it wasn’t her but.
But he did know this woman. He knew this woman, even from behind. But it couldn’t be her. He hadn’t seen her for fifteen years. She had disappeared from his life. No. She had disappeared. He moved alongside, staying a little bit behind her. It was her.
“Katie?” he said. “Katie?” She turned slowly.
“Oh wow!” she grinned. “Martin!”