Rose Malone is a member of the Naas Creative Writers’ Group and was part of the editorial team which produced an anthology of the group’s writing – Cuisle Chill Dara: The Heartbeat of Kildare – in 2019. She has published short stories and poetry in New Square: The Journal of the Sancho Panza Literary Society. She was a prizewinner in the Junefest Short Story Competition in 2020 and her story, The Safe House, was published in the Kildare Annual edition of the Leinster Leader.
On the N17
By Rose Malone
The radio is shouting at me. ‘Red wind alert, gusts up to 120 km per hour along the western seaboard.’ Red in my head, pressing my grey jelly brain. Brain/brawn. Red battering my bones, jelly trying to break free. Blackness just out of sight, leaning on my head. Steering wheel bucks, tries to throw me off. Pull in when I can. I’m in a poem. Yeats sleeping over there in Drumcliffe churchyard, here a pub, safe haven. The car park is nearly empty. Not many mad people out, just a jeep with a horsebox. Grey horse sticks his head out, hammers hooves on metal. White foam on his lips, white eyes rolling. My face smiles, I reach out my hand. He throws up his head. Screams a neigh.
Suit yourself. I’m going in for coffee.
A man stands at the bar while his pint fills. Prosperous, filling up space. His green waxed jacket and brown leather long boots shout out his place in the world. I stand beside him and our eyes meet in the mirror.
‘Have you come far? How are the roads?’ I need to know.
His gaze slip jigs over my body, x-rays my good tweed coat. Down, up, down, hop 1,2,3. Too old, too plain, too self-sufficient. He talks to his pint.
‘Mayo. The roads are fine.’
I go to the Ladies, re-group. A lot of static in my hair today. Electric sparks fly. Scrub my hands. I always carry a nailbrush. What about my shoes? Maybe I’m getting a bit OCD.
Back to the bar, order coffee. I sip slowly and stare into my empty cup until the barman starts to clean glasses, meaningfully. My car is alone in the huge car park.
‘Horseman, pass by’, I salute the sleeping poet in the churchyard.
The red wind arrives, buffets the car from side to side. My arms and shoulders ache from keeping it steady on the winding road. The red from my brain drifts across my eyes. Something drifts across a field. A piece of corrugated iron, the roof of a shed. Drifts like a fallen leaf. Christ! This is the road that testosterone said was fine! The radio gives a burst of static, then voices break through. Newsflash: a ship is struggling in the Irish Sea.
A wisp of memory smokes in my mind. A very early memory of a day when the wind attacks our house, baby brother’s red mouth devours the silence, a lineful of nappies collapses in despair and the big, brown radio hysterical about a ship. Tears on red faces.
The car radio throws up more noise. Music. Static. A voice: ‘It’s a disgrace, Joe, so it is.’ Swerve around a fallen branch. The bones of my head are splitting apart. Must keep going. Trees are galloping, tossing their heads, bucking and rearing. Radio jumps stations by itself. Local news, death notices, elderly woman in Donegal …, alert, alert, alert. Static. Another weather forecast. Litany of sea areas. Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight. Pray for us, pray for us, pray for us. I can’t take my eyes from the road to check the state of things on the dashboard dials. It’s a while since I got petrol, maybe yesterday before all those steep hills and corkscrew bends. Chance a glance – Jesus, worse than I thought. Close to empty but no red light yet. Look out for a garage. Petrol sign swings and creaks in the wind. No lights on the forecourt. Two men wrestle the steel shutter down over the shop door. One of them waves his hands at me, linesman signals a wide.
‘We’ve no power! The pumps are not working!’ he shouts over the noise of the wind. My palms are sweating, my hands slick on the steering wheel. Another few hair-raising miles and a garage sign shines red into the darkling air. Sanctuary lamp. Relief pulls the air out of my lungs and my spine slumps. I can almost hear those little bones collapsing like a Jenga tower. A lad runs crabwise, bent double towards my car. The wind and rain make a haystack of his hair. He comes to the passenger side. He can’t stand on my side and I can’t open the window. I motion to him to fill up and slide across to pay him. I delve into the depths of my bag for money. Everything is intact. He waves me on and the lights go out behind me. The day is closing in. Blackness gathers in the ditches and spreads itself across the fields.
Now I’m on the good road, the N17. Radio comes back in a loud burst. ‘… Garda confidential …’, then a shout of static, then silence. The noise of the wind batters me again. I start to sing to keep it out, starting with the obvious Saw Doctors song – I wish I was on the N17 [I wish I was finished with the N17] – and continuing with an eclectic mix of Bird on a Wire, Eleanor Rigby, He was Despised from Handel’s Messiah, and back to the Saw Doctors [I used to love her, I used to love her once].
The road is improving. The wind is easing. White lines. A hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes shine out of the dimness. I round a bend and a black mass rears up in front of me. My reptilian brain shouts ‘Bear!’ before the cerebral cortex chips in with ‘Don’t be fuckin’ stupid. You’re in Mayo.’ A huge weight of ivy has brought down a bough of an ash tree, blocking half the road. I put my lights on full beam and edge cautiously round it. Flash my lights at a white van coming in the other direction, to warn him. He gives me the finger. The weather brings out the worst in people. I see a sign for Knock Airport. From here on in, the signs will get more familiar, the road surface better. There’s still plenty of debris on the road, but I’m beginning to feel the worst is over. I turn the radio on again. The music that signals the end of the news. It’s four o’clock. It’s nearly completely dark. I speed up a bit, feel the magnetic pull of home. The engine doesn’t respond as quickly as I think it should. It seems weary. It stutters, then picks up again. I catch my breath. Maybe that petrol was dirty. The car moves in juddering leaps and I pull quickly onto the hard shoulder. I can’t afford to risk becoming another hazard on that road. I instinctively turn the engine off and on again. Except it doesn’t happen. It refuses, like a horse overfaced by a fence. Wait a few minutes. A few steadying breaths. Try again. Nothing. Breathe. Click. Useless noise. It refuses again. Sometimes when the petrol is dirty you can leave it for a few minutes and then it miraculously stars again. How long to leave it? I sit in a ticking silence as the engine cools. I look around, catch a quick flash of light from a house beside the road as someone lifts a curtain. Maybe I should ask for help. Maybe not, the house is dark and looks neglected. I take my mobile phone out of my bag and press the switch. Nothing. When did I charge it? The days run into each other. Jesus, how could I be so stupid? One last try of the engine. Come on, come on. It dies again.
Nothing for it but to ask for help. I can’t see any other house nearby. I tidy my hair and walk up a narrow path between dripping bushes. A sagging cable connects to the gable. At least they have a landline. There’s no light showing now. There’s no knocker on the door, so I rap on the glass panel with my fingers. No sound. No light. I rap a bit louder and hear a faint shuffling. My heart thuds in my chest. A heavy door curtain of some furry material is briefly pushed aside. I see a man’s hand, not young. The curtain drops and the door opens a crack. A sliver of face is revealed in the opening. Pale, middle-aged, unshaven. The chain is on. One grey eye carries out a quick survey and the door closes again but I hear the rattle of the chain being released. A man of indeterminate age, but probably about ten years older than I am, stands blocking the space. His greying hair straggles over the greasy collar of a pinstripe suit jacket, worn with sagging jeans and incongruous, fashionable trainers. His wrinkled face has an unhealthy, indoor appearance. A waft of warm air hits me in the face, carrying a smell of turf fire, dust, unwashed humanity and, possibly, drains.
My voice feels rusty from lack of use. Apart from singing, I haven’t used it since I bought petrol.
‘My car’s broken down and my mobile’s not working’, I manage to stammer out. ‘C-c-could I please use your phone to call the AA?’
He looks past me to see my crippled car and then opens the door a fraction more to indicate that I should come in. He closes the door and I take moment to adjust to the choking claustrophobia of my surroundings. The hallway is narrow and lit by the dim, yellowish light of a 40-watt bulb. A heavy, velvet door curtain falls into place behind me with a faint, sighing sound. A row of hooks carries coats and miscellaneous garments, further absorbing and dimming the weak light. The floor slopes downwards towards some darker inner regions and a slight, scurrying sound indicates the arrival of another person. A small woman, apparently older than the man and dressed all in black, comes up a step from the rear area. The strange couple stands and silently scrutinises me. American pastoral. All they need are the pitchforks. I hold out my hand.
‘My name’s Sarah’, I say in a weak, reedy voice. It’s the first time today that I’ve spoken to someone who knows my name. Neither person responds, but the man indicates an old-fashioned, black phone on a cluttered hall table. The woman stands looking at me until a signal from the man sends her back down the step into darkness. I gingerly pick up the phone receiver, holding it with the tips of my fingers. I wish I had gloves. Its coiled flex is thick with dust and spiderwebs. The dial is encrusted with grime. I dial the freephone number, feeling slightly sick at the touch of the greasy dust. The man stands at my shoulder, so close that I can feel his breath. I think I can hear the woman’s voice in the distance. Is there someone else here?
I get transferred from one automatic answering device to another, interspersed with bursts of phone music, until I am answered by someone in the local garage. The woman is chatty and sympathetic.
‘God, you’re a brave woman to be out on the road today. And it’s not over yet. This is only a lull in the storm. Can you fill me in on the problem with the car?’
I do my best, with my limited technical knowledge and she says it’ll take at least an hour to get somebody out to me. She asks for directions to where I am and I hear the phone going down.
I turn towards the man and I’m about to say that I’ll wait in the car for the repairman to come, when he ushers me towards the front room, off the hallway and offers me a cup of tea. My fingers are still dirty from touching the phone and I want to protest, but he blocks the space so I don’t have any choice. I accept the offer of tea and he gestures towards an armchair, beside the turf fire in the front room. The light is a bit brighter in here and the room feels less sinister than the claustrophobic hallway. The armchair is marked with a greasy line at head height. I perch on the edge, careful not to lean back. The man sits opposite me in what is clearly his accustomed chair. He doesn’t speak. I look around at my surroundings. An old radio in a brown wooden case, uncannily like the one I remembered from my childhood, sits on a high shelf. A picture of the Sacred Heart, with a glowing cruciform lamp in front of it, takes pride of place over the fireplace. The man stands up, turns a knob on the front of the radio cabinet and the sound of an old 78 rpm record suddenly fills the room. I recognise the tenor voice of John McCormack, singing I Hear You Calling Me. Where am I? When am I? My fanciful, overactive brain wonders if I could have stepped through a portal between worlds. The man leans forward and speaks confidentially.
‘I work in air traffic control’, he says.
This seems unlikely and vaguely disturbing.
‘Do you work in Knock Airport?’ I ask.
He shakes his head and gives out an alarming, disconnected laugh. He leans forward again.
‘Heathrow’, he whispers and his laugh is now high-pitched.
I try to arrange my face into a suitable expression.
Footsteps approach and the woman comes into the room, carrying two cups of tea on a tin tray. The voice of the radio announcer says ‘And that was a wonderful song from our archives.’ I relax fractionally, try to grasp a belief in my own sanity. The cup that the woman hands me is greyish and the saucer carries a clear, white thumbprint in the surrounding grime. I sip, trying to avoid touching the rim with my lips. The tea has been milked and heavily sugared. I never take sugar. The tea tastes of turf ashes, making me nauseous. My headache is back, pounding its way out of my skull. I reach for my bag to try and find some paracetamol. My fingers grope inside the bag, curl of their own volition around a wooden handle. A strange, birdlike shrilling fills the room. I stand, knocking over the cup of tea. I can’t find solid ground. The strange room whirls around me. The woman is talking into some device in her hand. The man moves to block the doorway. A huge hammering fills the house. Flashing lights spiral, vivid blueness patterns the walls. The red in my head has to burst out. I grasp the handle like a lifeline and strike out again and again to try and be safe. There is a slaughterhouse smell and a taste of iron in my mouth. The house is full of voices, noise, feet, pushing, violence. I’m pinioned against a wall, my hands pulled behind my back. Something cold and metallic circles both my wrists and I’m dragged back out into the storm. A large, warm hand cradles the back of my head and I’m pushed from behind so I fall onto the seat of a car. I shut my eyes to avoid the dazzle of the blue light that flashes. Off and on. A huge noise fills my head. Fills the space. I put my hands over my ears. I try to open my eyes. The countryside is streaming past. Where am I going? Why the hurry? I start to worry about my crippled car. The repair man will come and there’ll be nobody there.
I look out. It’s dark now but the storm seems to have abated. The light and the noise stop suddenly. The storm in my head is clearing a bit, too. The two people in the front of the car are talking, a low river of words.
‘Jesus, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt.’
‘She looks so respectable. And harmless.’
‘That poor oul’ woman in Donegal was harmless and she left her lying in a pool of blood.’
‘And Mossie and Noreen. I never woulda thought Noreen could be so on the ball.’
‘Sure they listen to the radio all day. They hear every alert. She was on the mobile to us as soon as her nibs here knocked on the door. Lookin’ for help, mar yah. Why would anyone drive around attacking defencelss old people? She didn’t even rob anything.’
‘Poor oul’ Mossie. She didn’t do any serious damage. He’ll be lookin’ for his UFOs in a few days.’
I try to process the words. The man in the front seat – Garda – turns around to look at me, like I was some sort of specimen. He turns back to his colleague.
‘She’s awake. We’ll get her to the station as quick as we can and get home to hell out of this weather.’
They turn on the siren again and the blue light flashes. Off and on.