24 Oct “The Sound of Sirens”
"The Sound of Sirens"
Written by Gareth Shore
The only thing worse than motorway driving, is night-time motorway driving. The drizzle doesn’t help, glittering the glare of headlights and streetlights across the windscreen before the wipers smear it away, then it glitters again, then it’s smeared away again. On and on, the thump-thump, thump-thump a bass beat to the other noises, the ones that are always louder when you’re the driver of a car full of sleeping people: grunts and the odd snort from Karen next to me up front, open mouth breathing from her offspring in the back. Beth is sitting upright at least, unlike Melissa who hangs forward, nearly out of her seatbelt, a string of drool joining her mouth to her ‘The Lonely Nymph’ book. Typical. I look away and shiver. You wouldn’t think that at eight years old, she was actually two years older than her sister. Definitely something wrong with that one. Karen went ballistic when I told her I thought so.
Still, I suppose I should be thankful for a break from their bloody bleating – and Karen’s needy whine. Don’t get involved in that mess, mate. Gary’s words, offered with a frown over the top of his pint, come back to haunt me again, a warning siren I couldn’t hear at the time. Older woman with two kids? Ink barely dry on the divorce papers? The hell you thinking?
Vulnerable and desperate for sex, that’s what I was thinking. And Karen was at first, ten months ago, in the hire-a-babysitter-and-go-out-on-the-town days. That was then. Turns out Gary was right. Not that I’d ever tell him that. Bastard. Heard second hand he’s off with some of the Sunday lads to Turkey soon. None of them asked me. Bastards. Is this how it starts, the gradual exclusion from the social circle? Seen it happen before, to others when they get to a certain age. Well, it’s not going to happen to me. I hate most of them anyway. Mouthy, jumped-up pricks who think thirty is retirement age. I’ve still got irons in the fire. That new girl at work, for a start.
I give Karen a sideways look. The lines and creases in her face look deep in the dashboard lights. Christ. Is that what having kids does to you?
The inside of the car darkens as something blocks out the streetlights. We’re about to go under a bridge. I glance up and think I see a car parked up there, black against the streetlight-stained sky. I catch a flash of headlights. I wonder what-
The beeping from the dashboard jolts me back and for a few wide-eyed seconds I can’t remember what I’m doing. I’ve drifted over the line between lanes and jerk the wheel back, overcompensating. Karen sways in her seat a bit but doesn’t wake up. Someone horns me as we come out from under the bridge. I suppose I was in the wrong, but stick two fingers up anyway as the guy overtakes, out of principle.
Christ, this seatbelt’s tight. My heart’s bouncing out of my chest and I wipe a sheen of sweat from my forehead, blaming the excitement of my lane drifting even though I know it’s really chemical related. The sneaky hit I took in the service station toilets. Karen suspects I’m still taking the stuff – I keep telling her I only use it on the occasional night out, not that I fucking get out much anymore – but she never actually says anything. Doesn’t have to. Gives me those ‘I know you’re lying’ looks instead. Jesus, I bet this is what it’s like being married.
Flicking on the air con – wincing at the noise of the blast and quickly turning it down – I wipe my head again and look at myself in the rearview mirror, frowning at the dark bruises under my eyes. Drugs? Weariness? The weekend’s ‘holiday’ trapped in a caravan with Karen and her bitching kids? Like it was my fault it rained. Karen refusing to have some proper fun because the walls were too thin. What a fucking waste. And now I look like Old Father Time. Yeah, fuck you, Gary. And fuck Turkey.
In the rearview mirror, the bridge slides away as the motorway bends, a car definitely on it, lights on, its outline boxy and generic. Probably some East European mobile skip. Who the hell parks on a bridge in the middle of the night, anyway? What are they doing, watching bloody traffic?
I lunge into the middle lane without checking my mirrors, not bothering to indicate. It’s quiet out here in the middle of nowhere anyway, just stragglers like us heading home from arse-end places. Fiddle with the air con. No effect. Why is it so bloody hot?
Another bridge coming up. For some reason – wired boredom, maybe, or desperate for a distraction from the cloying, sour milk smell of sleep breath coming from behind – I give the bridge a proper look, even though it’s dark and I’m doing nearly eighty. It’s one of those stone ones, surely too old to be safely spanning a six-lane motorway, arching from what looks like one field to another. And I am barely surprised when I spot a car parked on it, headlights beaming but otherwise just a silhouette. It looks the same as the one on the other bridge – all boxy sharp angles – but I couldn’t swear to it as I flash underneath.
If Karen was awake, I’d point it out to her and she would no doubt give me her patented senility smile before dribbling with some random newsflash about whose birthday was coming up or, worse still, drone through one of her ‘Tales from the Workplace.’ I flick the temperature dial down another notch, telling myself the cold won’t wake Karen or the kids up, and shift in my seat, trying to unstick my shirt from my back. Is this cheap, piece of shit aircon even working?
To try and distract myself, I think about all the times I’ve been on a motorway and spotted a lone car or a person on a bridge in the middle of absolute nowhere. Everyone sees them, but do they ever wonder what those weirdos are doing up there? My theories include saddo car spotters, serial suicide contemplators (but not actual do-ers – too chickenshit), members of some nutjob bridge cult or throwback numpties who refuse to drive on anything bigger than a B road.
It doesn’t work – I’m too aware of the stickiness of my skin and a dull pain behind my left eye that thumps in time with the wipers. My passengers breathe on, adding their sleep-heat to the stifling air and I flail a hand over one of the slatted blowers, convinced nothing’s coming out. I come this close to yelling something, just to wake them all up, just to vent some frustration, only to be stopped by the thought that listening to the girls’ bickering and Karen’s monologues would be worse.
Furious that I can’t even play music, I switch the sat nav on, just to have something else to look at besides the occasional set of strobing cats’ eyes. It lights up and I divide my attention between the road and the screen, reading place names that I have never heard of and will never think about again once they have scrolled away, taking lanes and ribboning streams and unpopulated blocks of green with them. I try to ignore a trickle of sweat down my neck.
Lights up ahead, floating above the road. Another bridge? Can’t tell exactly yet, but I have a little bet with myself, that if it is, and there’s a car on it, then I am allowed a little pick me up when I get home to mum and dad’s, after I’ve gladly dropped Karen and her little money leeches off.
I glance at the sat nav, knowing already that whatever the outcome of the bet, I’m treating myself to some white-powdered bliss when I get in. The bridge doesn’t appear on the screen. Grey blocks slide down the side of the solid line of motorway like a broken Tetris game, but there is definitely no bridge showing. I wonder if the sat nav’s as shot as the aircon.
I peer ahead between the swing of the wipers, see what must be headlights on a – Is it? Yes, it is. First prize in the class A raffle goes to the man in the sweaty shirt! – distinctly bridge-shaped block of solid dark across the motorway. I check the sat nav again and it is definitely not there, yet here it comes, a looming arch, blacker than the sky behind it. A torch beam flashes across the windscreen, dazzling me, – What the hell? – from a figure leaning over the edge. I swear it points and waves before I am under, through, and past.
Blinking stars, I press the brakes – hard enough to lean Kate forward and lock my seatbelt – and swerve onto the hard shoulder and grind to a stop. Get my breath. What are you doing? You’re wasting more time after a whole crap weekend? Only half an hour from home? My hand stops halfway to the gear stick. The thought of driving away without going to check the bridge seems wrong. Maybe it’s just nosiness, a distraction from the numbing mind-fuck of the drive, a chance to escape this heat and bloody get some fresh air.
When I turn the engine off, the drizzle tinkles on the roof in the quiet for a few seconds before fading. I check the windscreen and see the rain has stopped and notice how empty the motorway is, how there is a big silence out there. The bridge is just a band of featureless black in my mirrors, no light to be seen from this angle.
Then it hits me that I’m parked on the hard shoulder in the middle of the night, to…do what? Get a fucking grip. I actually touch the gear stick this time when it comes, a pull, like a small undertow tugging at my thoughts. What if there’s a woman stranded up there? A gorgeous one, all grateful and breathless when I come to her rescue? Very grateful.
Not for the first time in my life, my groin overrides my brain and I put the hazard lights on, check my side mirror and get out into air that is not the cool relief I was hoping for. The interior light comes on, bright to my eyes but thankfully no-one inside stirs. Clicking the door shut, I peer back at the bridge and think I can see a figure, still waving. Not in a ‘Help me’ kind of way, more like ‘Come here, look at this’. I squint in the on-off-on-off of the hazards, unable to make out any details, unable to tell if it’s a man or a woman yet.
I stumble out of the car’s orange glow and into the black of the hard shoulder, kicking stones and gravel I can’t see. No streetlights on this section, which lets more stars come through the sky than I’ve seen for a long time. Although I’m wary of the tarmac lanes stretching out close by, the motorway seems empty for now.
I catch a gleam of long white hair up on the bridge and can’t help the grin that appears on my face. I yank my shirt straight and realise the air is cooler now, the sweat drying on my forehead. Thank Christ for that.
There aren’t any steps up to the end of the bridge, just a grassy slope, so I take my time, not wanting to slip on my arse in front of this potential damsel in distress.
I stop at the top for a breather and try to take in the view, except there isn’t one. The motorway and the surrounding fields are lost in the darkness. Completely gone. Where the hell are all the lights? The car is there as I look down – a long way down, it seems from up here – its orange flashing glow not reaching beyond the hard shoulder.
It’s cold up here, a wind chilling what’s left of the sweat on my exposed arms and face. The woman is waiting for me halfway across, no more than a waving light and a flash of silver hair floating in the dark. No sign of headlights. Or a car, come to think of it.
I squint a bit, searching for the boxy outline I saw from the road, but the bridge is so dark I can barely see beyond a few feet. In fact, it feels completely bloody isolated up here. I know we’re in the countryside somewhere, but still, there should be some sign of civilization, like a house or a streetlight, surely.
I check my car again, suddenly convinced it’ll be gone, leaving me stranded in the blackness. It’s still there, of course it is, an island of glowing orange on the hard shoulder, and as I spot the silhouettes of Karen and the girls inside, a memory of last night comes back to me. The four of us, locked in that caravan, in the light of the television, sitting through some godawful cartoon the girls had insisted on putting on. Some drivel about a mermaid who lured sailors onto her rock until – in a completely fucking unpredictable twist, oh yes – she fell in love and, well, I can’t remember the rest because I had to do a line in the bathroom to get through the rest of the evening.
There are no rocks and no-one singing up here – in fact, the only sound is the wind, cold around my face – but the connection stays with me and suddenly I don’t want to go out on that bridge, I’d rather be back in that hot car, breathing secondhand air.
Turn around, then. What’s the problem? Male pride, that is the problem. I can’t just get off, run away. Anyway, I might as well get a look at her now I’m here. Who knows, she might be a stunner, a glamour model, a hot housewife – might have been waiting hours for help.
The word appears, just like that in my head, without my ears getting involved.
‘Are you okay, love?’ I call, more to cover my fright than anything. My voice wavers and I can barely hear myself over the wind, but the light stirs, bobs forward like she’s taken a step towards me.
I am glad I called you.
The voice is there again, invading my skull without travelling through the air between us, mesmerising in a way I can’t describe, a way that distracts me from the actual words. The lantern bobs again and an outline comes with it. She is a head taller than me, long silvery hair falling down her sides and highlighting the curves of her hips, stirring more in me in one glance than seeing Karen in all her sagging, cellulite glory.
‘Do you need help?’ Even as I speak – I’m answering a voice in my head. Why doesn’t this feel more wrong? – I know deep in my bones, in my quivering gut, especially in my balls, that something else, something beyond what I am seeing and experiencing, is going on here. Like a magician covering an object with a silk cloth: I can see the rough shape of it, but I don’t know what it is until it’s pulled away.
You are full of love.
I don’t feel any shame about the erection pushing at my trousers as she brings the light another step closer. Jesus, she’s naked. I can’t see anything, not really, just the impression of hips and thighs and breasts skinned in nothing but night and shadow. I snap my gaze up to her face, where eyes shine out of oval darkness. It’s hard to tell where she starts and the night ends, but I can see enough to make my erection ache like I’m a bloody teenager again, touching a girl for the first time.
I literally pinch myself, dig my nails into the back of my hand, and it’s like someone’s thrown a cup of cold water in my face. I turn to hide my ridiculous lump, some part of my poor man-brain screaming at me to get off this fucking bridge, now!
Absolutely brimming with love.
My legs stop and turn me back to face her. She is closer and her eyes are huge and bright in the dark like lanterns and a breeze wafts over my face and it is not the wind it is her breath and it smells like spices and freshly-turned earth.
All of that love you keep to yourself, that you refuse to give to others. I will take it and my sisters will have their share.
Other lights glow into life on the bridge, moving into a circle with me at the centre. I know there is still a warning voice yelling at me inside my skull, but it is faint, like it is locked behind a thick door deep underground and besides, her eyes are beautiful and so shining I can see myself in them and it’s fascinating.
‘Why me?’ a voice asks, and says again, ‘Why me?’ before I realise it’s my voice and that I’ve just said it, like when I’m drunk and I tell Karen how dull she is and I can’t remember saying it later, so I tell her she must have made it up just to start an argument.
Her light moves out of the circle and glides over to the wall at the side of the bridge.
Finally, you are the right one. And we accept your offering.
Offering? I don’t know if it is a thought or I have spoken out loud again. I follow her to the parapet and look to where an orange glow shines on tyre tracks smeared across the tarmac, snaking onto the hard shoulder, leading towards…
The reveal: my car, burning in the middle of the blazing light in the mass of dark down there, and heat, waves of heat carried on smoke. I want to turn from the brightness, but it holds me there, feeling that heat, remembering that heat and I see the black shapes within the flames, three of them, flames flickering around them like orange lights, like flashing hazard lights.
My nails scratch across stone as I am pulled away, just as the world is filled with the sound of sirens.