She gently presses her right foot down on the break pedal. Her left, trembling slightly under the strain of poised repetition, remains firmly clamped on the clutch pedal. A gentle sigh slithers out of her nostrils as her mouth remains closed, unamused. Another yard gained, she thinks to herself sardonically. Another yard gained in this never-ending funeral march of shuddering cars. The morning commute.
She glances from left to right, from landscape to neighbouring car. One paints a picture of encroaching winter; the trees skeletal and bereft of leaves, the farmland and distant hills glistening with the decoration of gradually thawing dew. The other works almost as a reflection; another female sits stony faced in her car, bored, unamused, head and neck wrapped warm with hat and scarf, remnants of an earlier defensive strategy against the early morning chill. A fellow victim, she thinks, a fellow traveller on this perpetual tarmac-laden nightmare. A temporary kindred spirit, even. Until she flicks that indicator light on and tries to jump in front of me, she thinks as she riles herself slightly with the hypothetical scenario. Her ‘kindred spirit’ can sod off if it comes to that.
Too warm now, she decides. She spins the temperature knob anti-clockwise, allowing it to settle halfway around the gauge. Perched finely between blue and red. She flicks her windscreen wiper up a notch, letting it clear the last of the fading condensation from the glass, before flicking it off again. Another sigh trickles from her nostril as she sees the clock on her dashboard pass the hallowed 09:00 start time for her work. Another late start.
‘I’ll be lucky to make it in for 10 at this rate!?’ she spits as she raises her fist in pent up frustration, allowing the anger to dissipate only at the last second, sparing her steering wheel from an underserved assault.
She angrily rips the hat from her head, freeing her scalp from the multiplying strands of heat which had been nipping at her in tandem with her growing frustration. The brake lights of the car in front dissolve suddenly into the dull, sweet colour of progress. Her hopes rise. Movement. Forward. Onwards! Before the bright red lights flash back on again, blinding her slightly and momentarily, the car jolting to a stop without the taking of any precious yards or even inches in the ongoing tussle. Aaaaargh! She allows the screams to rattle about her mind aimlessly, the whitening knuckles on both her clenched hands the only indicators as to the anger filtering through her.
‘Fuck it!’ she snarls, reaching over to the handbag sat on the passenger’s seat and rummaging harshly for her iPod. She untangles the cable wrapped carelessly around the device and connects it to the USB port. Music! Songs! Anything, she thinks, I’ll listen to any damn thing so long as it takes my mind away from this eternal ordeal! Not that though…or that…she skips through a myriad of songs as the tracks shuffle and flicker briefly on her car’s dashboard display. That’ll do, she decides, I’ve not heard that in ages, as a pop song from her youth blasts through her speakers. She turns the volume knob up slightly, the thundering bass pulsing through her bones, engulfing her snug 1 litre car. She fails to notice the scowling look from her once-potential ‘kindred spirit’ in the car to her right as the juddering sounds of early 90s pop music sneaks out of the red metallic shell, through the crispy morning air and to the earlobes of said ex-kindred spirit. She belts out the lyrics, word for word, note for almost note – her voice still slightly crippled by the phlegmy croak of the early hour. God, she exalts to herself, it’s been years since I’ve properly heard this. When was this released? I must have been, what, Primary 7? No, First Year of High School? Second maybe? Ah what a time, she smiles, as the summery tones course through her veins, filling her with a hundred thoughts, dreams and feelings not felt since those younger days. Things were so much easier then, her smile fades slightly. Choices, decisions, the little things, the big things, just…well…everything. The brake lights in front fade again, catching her attention but not her hopes. Only for the car to begin moving. Slowly, gradually, but moving all the same. Flustered by this almost unexpected turn of events she scrambles for the gearstick and pushes it from neutral into first, the rev of the engine screaming hideously as her feet slip between the pedals. As she slowly edges forward the sound of her youth fades to a close.
‘Well that was worth the wait…’ the sarcasm melts from her voice, filling the car with her scorn, ‘…was maybe a good four of five seconds of travelling time there…’ she glances down at the time on her phone exaggeratingly for her own benefit, ‘yep, a good four or five seconds I would say…at this rate I should make it into work at about…’
The words, the skit, drop from her mouth as she hears the first clangs of the next song creep out of the speakers. Her expression drops, the colour drained from it almost instantly. Our song, she trembles. Our wedding song. For a moment she is entranced, locked in paralysis by the lush strings, controlled by the measured beat. A car horn, erupting briefly and malevolently from amidst the gathered vehicles, breaks the spell, wresting her mind from the song’s meaning. She turns the volume down slightly, some part of her unwilling, even afraid, to allow the bass to throb against her bones as the previous, more carefree, tune had done. A tear trickles down her cheek. A rogue unexpected tear, almost unshackled by feeling or decision, an automatic reaction sent scurrying down her face as if it had been under the spell of a hypnotist and prompted only by the song’s opening notes.
That’s when I knew. The thought infects her mind. Dark. Dull. Poisoning. That’s when I knew I didn’t love him anymore.
The song had once brought so much joy, so many memories. It was their first dance; it was their wedding song after all. In the years following, whenever it would unexpectedly nudge itself onto a radio’s playlist or onto her iPod’s shuffle, it was as if the song’s notes would tug at the corners of her mouth. A smile would break out, spreading across her face on cue. She remembered his face, his smile. She remembered her smile, her happiness. The feeling that everything had clicked. Finally. And eternally. She’d remember the whispered ‘I love you’, his hands around her body. She’d remember the faces, the smiles, the smells, the clutter on the tables. The deserted dance floor. Apart from them. The two of them. Just the two of them. Her. And him. Together. Always.
But slowly, gradually, frustratingly, the memories started to blur each time she heard the song. The happiness of the day, of that dance, started to become infiltrated somehow. It seemed, somehow, artificial. Buried beneath the rubble of years of daily strain. Of arguments. Any joy brought on by the first chords of the song were quickly wiped away by the damp cloth of unpaid bills. Any happiness brought on by the first soothing vocal swiftly brushed aside by the bristly stab of failure to compromise. Before long the only things to linger were grudges rather than memories. A moment so happy, so joyful, such as that dance, with that song, now nothing more than a moment of nostalgia. To be tucked away alongside a favourite toy, children’s TV programme or the taste of a now-defunct fizzy drink or teeth-rotting sweet. Nostalgia. No longer a moment that infuses every other, now just a postcard from a previous time. A previous feeling.
And then one day, maybe six months previous to then, maybe longer, she’d heard the song again. And that time even the tint of nostalgia had dimmed. They were different people. Different actors in a strangers’ play. When the lush strings cascaded around her mind, and the memories of the dance flickered by one by one, she saw only another her, another him. Two beings not even loosely connected to the man or woman currently existing in their bodies. Connected not by love but simply by image. Conjoined not with passion but by the choices they made. And it was then she knew. It was then she knew that she no longer loved him.
She crunches the handbrake up and palms the gearstick into neutral as the traffic settles back into its frozen image of congestion. The last bars of her wedding song softly fade into the darkness of the sound system. Her hand shoots up to the dashboard and hovers over the Back button. Something in her telling her to play the song again. To try to regain that feeling? To claw back the memory, to reclaim it? To confirm her blank feeling of loveless nothingness? Her finger trembles slightly as she holds her finger only a millimetre or so from the button. Unable to press it yet equally unable to withdraw. In her mind the dance replays over and over, the music slowing and faltering until a warped, tuneless dirge sprawls through each image. She see’s the face of her husband. Of the man she married. Of the man she kissed goodbye to this morning. Of the man she’ll kiss hello to again tonight. Of the man she no longer loves. Of the man she is certain no longer loves her. She see’s it and let’s her finger drop meekly away from the dashboard, allowing the next song to freely step into the car and fill the dreaded, demanding silence threatening to engulf her.
As the next song harmlessly tip-toes into her consciousness she keeps her eyes trained on the brake lights ahead, willing the journey to progress, to alter, to end. She turns the volume down another slight, half-turn or so. The beat now whispering hoarsely for attention or recognition as it slips out of earshot. She looks left again. The hills, the bare trees, the beautiful desolation. And looks right. The reflection. Her mirror image; frustrated, bitter, defeated. She turns back suddenly, afraid to look, afraid to accept. With a rapid movement she rips the cable from her USB port, silencing the music, banishing the images from her mind. She throws the iPod into her handbag, prodding it down to ensure its landing in the out-of-sight out-of-mind chasm of darkness.
Silence, she decides. For the rest of this ride, no matter how long it takes or how mad it drives me, silence.
The brake lights fade as the car in front edges forward slightly. She releases the handbrake as she prepares to claim another yard or so on this unending, unrelenting, unforgiving journey.