David O’Neill is a writer and musician from Dublin. He won First Runner-Up in the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition 2017. He has been published in journals such as The Incubator Journal, The Lonely Crowd, Spontaneity Magazine, The Bohemyth, Elbow Room and the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology.
Mirror, signal, manoeuvre
By David O’Neill
Sometimes a thought passes through before you can stop it. No matter how raw or critical or full of navy dark middle-of-the-night shame it is, it was there in your mind and then it wasn’t there anymore but still, it left a stain.
Would himself not do it? Sitting there with a newspaper and a face like rope and I remember then and my chest sizzles with hot air. It hasn’t even been fifty days yet so I suppose I’m allowed to forget every now and again. During that time a heat wave squatted unwelcome and left people with water rations and no way to cure their yellowing gardens and then a little while later when the busses filled up with kids in uniforms heading to the local college, all the leaves went and lost their slick green skin, owing too much to the summer.
Remembering that you now only have one parent is like being told that your running career is over because of some passive injury you ignored or that the thing you saved up for was sold from under you because you just took too long to get your money together I’m afraid. It is a sunburn of misremembered words and slights and half crossed out lists of wishes and whys and why nots that grow like hair; slowly and hidden until you catch yourself, seven weeks after the crash and six since you went back to work, and wonder at how long it has grown in your absence.
She is seventy-three and left behind and looks every line of it. After I hang up, I picture her in the warm, paisley lobby of the surgery, thanking the receptionist in her thin quietness for the use of the phone. She will have stepped away from the desk now, holding her purse in both hands with lipstick the colour of a sunset and she will politely decline the offers of a chair or tea or something to read while she waits for me.
I tug the belt over my shoulder and slide the car seat back. My legs would cramp on long drives, thin slashes of pain mushrooming and spilling through my muscles. There would have been three of us, soft like liquid across the back seat, which didn’t help. The others would complain or laugh or sleep while I contorted, straightening my legs to matches. It came on so quickly that it didn’t matter that Mam had dropped her bookmark and needed help reaching under the seat to find it or that Peter has seen thirteen yellow cars and I might well have missed the three or four red ones that could have made it a draw. The window has been rolled down and those insignificant things flutter against the glass before being swept out, spinning and dancing on some regional road between two dust-dead villages.
Mirror, signal, manoeuvre. The yellow light pings against the bushes as I wait to turn onto the main road. I feel brittle like glass but the beams of headlights slow my heart rate. I watch them until they melt fuzzy and yellow and I remember my driving instructor and how he tried to calm me too. He was local and a couple of college terms full. He had a leather jacket before anyone else had one and even though he would sometimes sit too long with us in the pub trying to find out if we were going on somewhere later, I liked him. He seemed friendly and always carried a book in his bag so when he offered to call over some Saturday morning to show me the ropes, I took him up on the offer.
Once the van passes, you’re clear, he said. The white-brightness of afternoon made the mirrors dazzle so I jerked out clumsily, hoping I was safe. The road began to swim then and everything blended together into a thick smudge of greens and reds and voices and twinkling whites and yellows and a radio that chattered like a sewing machine so much that I had to click it silent. He watched my hands and feet, giving me tips. It made me feel safer but in a wrapped in a blanket way as opposed to a I’m not going to kill us both here one. I couldn’t hear his words through the rush so I rolled down the window without taking my eyes from the road.
At traffic lights he spoke about college and what plans I had. It felt as though every word in my body was too busy trying to relay urgent messages to other limbs, checking in with them more regularly than was needed, but I forced some anodyne reply and pressed the pedal too sharply when the light went green.
It’s just movement, he said. You are the one telling it where you want to go. Trust yourself. Every week, I would repeat those words. I would lean against the sun warmed gate and speak to myself until he arrived. Trust works both ways though and I wanted more than faith. I started to keep my hand on the gearstick, hoping the frame my body made would calcify and transmit some sort of power or calm and sometimes it did. Other times, Kevin would have to drive the car back to the house because my legs had given up and turned soft. He would ask me about college or jobs or bands until my knees slowed enough to walk and before I got out, we would set a time for the following week. I would promise to practice, though we both knew I wouldn’t, and I wonder if he knew that I would have answered any other question right then too if he had asked.
I was thirty when I passed my test on the fourth go and, even now, the muscles in my arms stay wire tight from the memory of it and I regret not calling him to let him know.
I grip the wheel, pull myself forward and make the turn.
The mist is laying about now, refusing to leave. It has been waist high since breakfast and fog lamps cut through in discs and show up the fizz as it bounces up from the roads. The doctor’s surgery isn’t too far away thankfully, three or four miles, I think. Hands at 10 and 2 and feed the wheel when turning.
At home, we sat upstairs. When we arrived back we had eaten without saying much, a comfortable quiet in which she hadn’t told me what the doctor had said and I hadn’t pushed her on it. I was on the floor now while Mam sat on the edge of a bed. She was wearing a red suit jacket that stretched out at the shoulders and made her head look small. Labelled wicker suitcases lay around the floor like bear traps, open mouthed and greedy with photos.
Lancashire, 1957; Donegal, 1960; Wexford, spring 59; Glasgow, 61. Photos were stacked inside them like cards; grainy and light-blushed and when Mam talked me through them, saying and hearing names she hadn’t spoken in decades and pointing out the tides and dunes of beaches she hadn’t sat on in even longer, her cheeks rounded and shone, which made her words slip through a smile.
When we were younger, the air in the car was always close and angry and by the third hour of driving, the floor would be a map of crisp wrappers and books, crackling if you stepped on them. We would usually be visiting family but we could have been buying a dog or changing a tyre or eating sandwiches from a wicker basket. It didn’t seem to matter though. Dad would stay the same; watching the road, only speaking to draw our attention to a deer or some starling, swooping like a melody past the car. He left her to corral us and fetch tissues and drinks from her bag.
They seemed to occupy two separate spaces, ignoring each other with children being a slipstream that they might cross over in sometimes. We were always too hurried to stop for meals, eating sandwiches that she pulled from a deep straw bag instead. She would feed him first and even though he took it from her with barely a glance, her face would be decided, and full, with no need for more than what she had then. We were students and we followed our lines; a walk in the forest with him, a visit to the toilet with her. It felt as though were being carved up like wood. Later, with torches under our bedsheets, we had wondered if they cared much about each other at all and we talked it through like adults, slow and marble serious. It was an even enough split too until our sister, the eldest, reminded us about the sandwiches.
Sitting on the bed, small like a wren, she showed me photos of people that I didn’t know. With wet, misty eyes she snapped the elastic and handed me a stack of them. Their pre-parent selves were smiling over overflowing ashtrays and melting ice-cream, they were dancing loose enough to fall over and they were laughing a lot more than I ever remembered. They looked good together too, maybe not movie star good or sketchpad good, but good enough to feel nostalgic every so often. They smiled in most of them, his arm hung strong around her, sun-squinting with combed hair and a cigarette in his bunched fist. The photographs made their love look like a summer of hot car bonnets and rolled up sleeves. In the last stack of pictures, she looked quiet and happy and very pregnant. They were taken before everything; before children and sciatica and before redundancy and starlings, before long mornings queuing for work that was drawn from lots and before a driver that spent a little more than a second looking at a screen which was enough to lurch over the kerb and shatter an old man’s bones while he walked a small dog.
She had been drawn to his looks and the way he danced and she endured those early silences, a foggy torture she once called them, for the same reasons.