She’s all sharp angles and dark and heavy brooding, anyone can see that. As soon as she opens the door she thumps herself down on the seat, turns to the window and scowls out at the landscape as if she holds it responsible. For something. Anyone can see. She’s a mood breaker, an ice sharp blade to slice into something good and turn it rotten. Even the air that clings to her is ragged and shredded. Weary air, like it too can’t bear that sort of closeness.
Before, when the air was light and quick—feet up on the dash, wiggle your red-nailed toes.
Look through your feet at the road; grey spilling out in front like freedom, like everything is possible and nothing unreachable. Laugh out loud at Edie’s mad wise ways, her I-Spy with multiple words and random things only she sees.
‘I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with LRROAF.’
‘What the fuck!’
‘You can’t play like that!’
‘Why not? Come on, guess.’
‘Hey, see, you nearly got it. Long Red Rope On A Fence. Right, next one…STLLADM’
Lose yourself in the vast blue of the sky. Remember another time: in the car, little sister looking out at the night—‘When’s that big blue coming down again?’ And the silent wonder when you realise, she means the sky, and the trying hard to get inside the mind that thinks like that. If it never disappeared, that thinking, what a vast and splendid egg the world would be.
Cracks open for you this morning bright and blue and wispy clouds as you all load up Sarah’s car and pile in. You don’t look back. No tutorials, no lectures, last assignments in. Nose of the car pointed north. First stop, the swish beach house your uncle has entrusted you with for one precious night. A chance to show off a little luxury to the others. This is your contribution. Sarah’s is her car. Edie’s?…Well, her company.
You feel yourself sinking back into the seat. Close your eyes and imagine sinking into the spa at the beach house tonight. Open your eyes again and watch the road eating up the distance between here and home. You’re going to remember this for the rest of your life. Just this: the road, your two feet, and heart singing. Then Sarah eases off the accelerator, says, ‘Oh look should we stop? We should, shouldn’t we?’ And stops, before anyone can answer.
When you spin around and look, you can see. And then she’s in the car, whumpfing down heavily on the seat even though she’s only bones and black clothes and elbows and skinny knees, and something in your head says, nuh, shouldn’t have stopped. You look at Sarah with eyes that you hope bore into the side of her head, but she says, ‘What’s your name?’ all chatty like she’s showing a new kid around primary school. ‘I’m Sarah, this is Jess, and that’s Edie in the back.’
‘Hi,’ a sort of grunt, turns to the window again.
‘What’s your name?’ Edie’s not sharing her seat with someone who doesn’t give their name.
A little pause, then, ‘Carson.’ And you can read Edie’s mind, oh, like the writer, Carson McCullers, then she looks straight at Edie and says, ‘Spelt, K.A.H.S.N,’ like she’s read your mind reading Edie’s.
‘Oh. Okay. Lucky you spelt it for me.’
‘Look, a bird on a sheep’s back.’ ‘Look, a murder of crows on the fence.’ Edie is the finder of rare and wonderful things out the window. ‘Oh, what… I swear I see something that looks like a dead man.’ Points, leans forward, Sarah brakes. ‘Oh, wait. I think it’s a log.’ You’re laughing with Sarah and thinking you could go on like this forever, talking nonsense and looking at random stuff, following the seeds spilling from Edie’s mind. ‘Hey, did you know that they have a word for the sound of ice crystals falling to the ground, in Siberia, or one of those cold countries anyway?’ But Edie can’t remember the name, just that they have a name for it, and you wonder what that sound could be, what the word could be, while time and the landscape flashes by and the car purrs along, to the north where it’s clear and light and blue.
Silence stretches, long and tight. A rabbit bobs up, white tail bouncing, you don’t point it out to Edie, and she doesn’t point it out to you. Even though she’s still looking out the window, watching the same sort of landscape slide by. When you turn you see the girl’s pale face, black hair, feel her heavy black presence, and you think of the name with an exclamation mark after it – Kahsn! She sits blackly, hunched over something in her lap. A phone, most likely, and if she has a loud phone conversation with someone at any moment, you think you’ll be really pissed off, and you might just let her know. You’re feeling all her edges and blades now, all her icepick sharpness reaching out from the back seat, coldly pressing.
‘Whereabouts are you going?’ Sarah, trying for conversation again.
‘How far north?’ Edie’s tired of the silence too.
‘As far as possible. Look,’ and the word is so sharp you have to spin around and watch her speak, ‘I’m not big on conversation. Thanks for the lift and all, but if you’re expecting chummy chats, well, that’s just not gunna happen,’ and Her Darkness turns away again.
Like a crow, you think, and want to call, ‘Aark! Aark!’ and flap your arms in her direction.
You see Edie shake her head, look away. You want to let Sarah know she’s responsible. If she’d just waited for an answer, you would’ve said no, Edie would’ve said, no, don’t stop. Anyone could see, she was going to break the mood. Anyone but Sarah. And now, you wonder, how the hell will you get rid of her before the beach house, because there’s no way she’s coming with you there. She’s sucked the light and air out of the car, and you turn down the window to breathe in the outside air, and you see a town coming up. ‘I need the toilet,’ you say, even though you don’t, but you need a break.
Edie gets out with you at the service station, and you both unload: ‘How’re we going to get rid of her?’ ‘Bloody Sarah! If only she wouldn’t be so damned nice all the time.’ ‘Yeah, sometimes you just have to be a bit mean.’ ‘She’s not coming to the beach house with us.’ ‘Feels like we’re visitors in our own car, well, Sarah’s car anyway.’
And when you get back to the car, she’s still there, and Sarah is staring out the window at you, but you both look the other way. Out on the road again and it feels like you never got out, never had that break away from the strangled air in the car. But when Sarah says, ‘Well, here’s our turn off,’ brakes and pulls to the side of the road, you swing around to look at her. ‘Sorry, hope you get another lift,’ she says to the black crow in the back seat, who opens the door and swings it closed without a word. You see crossroads, and a sign to a winery and historic manor. And there’s a still moment, in the wake of the door-slam, where you all sit looking at each other, then Sarah turns back to the wheel, pulls around the corner and continues down the road.
‘Thank God for that,’ you say. ‘Where are we going though?’
‘Nowhere. We’ll just drive down here and wait till she gets a lift.’
‘That could take all day. We’ve gotta get to Uncle Bob’s beach house tonight. I’ve been so hanging out for the spa, and we have to pick his cat up, remember.’
‘I know, I know.’
‘Couldn’t we just…you know, go back and just drive straight past her. Really fast, so she mightn’t see it’s us.’ Edie, always the one with the novel plan.
‘We can’t,’ Sarah says.
You think, of course we could, and you say it. ‘Well, we could. It’s not like we owe her anything. We have our plans too.’
‘She didn’t help herself, did she, all that brooding blackness sitting there next to me.’ Edie makes a shuddering sound. ‘I reckon she left the ghost of herself here. I can feel it still. Man, was she heavy. Bad move picking her up.’
‘Well, it’s not like she did anything nasty. She’s probably got huge problems.’ Sarah, always the advocate for kindness to strangers.
‘Yeah, but she was trying to offload them onto us. By…osmosis, or something.’ Edie flaps her hands around like the crow that’s just left us.
‘Come on, we’ll go a little bit further.’ Sarah leans over the wheel. ‘There might be another road back to the main road.’
‘You’d better be right.’ But you can feel something slipping away, something askew, like the day just closing up around a possibility.
Around the corner, and there’s the dead end ahead. The one you always knew was going to be there. Could almost see it in your mind it was so stark and present.
‘Bugger!’ Sarah, the master of the understatement.
‘We go back.’
‘She might’ve got a lift. By now.’ Sarah, hopeful, as she tries a three-point point turn in tight conditions.
As soon as you feel the back wheels drop, you know. But Sarah keeps trying, keeps skidding, digging a crevice and churning up mud, digging in deeper. And you all sit and stare at each other for a very long time.
‘We could walk to the winery. They’d have a tractor.’
‘Closed,’ you say. ‘So the sign said.’ And all around you hear the clacking beaks and flapping wings of something wild and crazy and you just want to scream. You get out, try putting grass and twigs in front of the wheels, but they spin and rip through, spitting mud and leaf bits into your faces as you push, but the car doesn’t move. ‘Stop!’
You know it should be funny, the mud and grass stuck to your face and clothes. But you don’t laugh, no one laughs.
‘I told you to just go back. But you never listen.’ Edie, with her arms folded across her chest.
And now you’re cold, you know the sun is going down soon, and you’ll all be hungry.
‘We’ll have to leave it,’ Sarah says.
‘What, stay here the night?’ Edie is aghast. ‘But the beach house. How can we pick up the dog?’
‘Cat!’ You’re so annoyed you spit the word out.
‘How far back to the servo?’
‘Wouldn’t have bloody well happened if…’ Edie doesn’t finish.
You can see the shadows creeping in long and grey, and the things not seen clearly in the half-light look unearthly. You sit in the car, wrap yourself in whatever you can find. You don’t speak. No one speaks. Not even when Edie says, ‘I’m hungry.’
You don’t try to sleep, you want to feel as miserable as you can. What about the cat? The neighbour will just have to hold onto it. Now your uncle won’t trust you again. One simple thing—drive the bloody car to the beach house, and she couldn’t even do that. All of Sarah’s crimes, both large and small jump into your mind, and you don’t care that you’re being unreasonable. She’s ruined the holiday before the first day is over. And she’s probably even asleep, while you and Edie are crammed in the back together. Edie turns around and thumps her knees onto the seat and sighs, loudly.
‘I know you can’t sleep, stop it!’ you hiss, and you know you shouldn’t take it out on her but you can’t help it. The day, the night is so frayed and ragged and everything is flowing backwards. Morning seems an eternity away.
Before sunrise, you get out of the car, cold and stiff-limbed. And by dawn you’re all standing looking about in the fuzzy half-light. When Edie says, ‘I’m so goddamn hungry,’ you don’t speak, even though you’re starving too.
Then you all see the lights. A tractor coming down the road.
You see the woman in her furry beanie and green coat and she waves from the tractor seat. ‘Saw you from up on the rise.’ She points over beyond the silhouetted trees, tall majestic shapes in the quickening light. ‘Was walking the dog.’ She jumps off the tractor, assesses the situation, and without any wasted words she springs into action. Ties on the rope, spreads an old piece of carpet in front of the tyres, waves Sarah in behind the wheel, and within a minute the car’s out.
‘Had to camp here the night eh?’
‘I should’ve taken that walk last night instead of this morning. But you’re on your way now. What were you doing down this way, the winery?’
‘Oh, well yes, it was shut though, so we tried to turn around.’ Sarah waves her arm in the direction of the mud.
‘Righto then.’ The woman climbs back on the tractor, and without speaking you all open the doors and get in the car. You look at each other, but it’s like you’ve all forgotten how to get back to somewhere. Like you’re strangers, and silence is easier than filling the spaces.
At the crossroads there’s no black-clad figure. You know the others are looking too, but no-one comments.
You find your voice after a while. ‘Beach house is prob’ly not worth it now. Better at least pick up the cat.’
No one answers at first. Then Edie says, ‘We can just go there anyway, have a swim or something?’ The words fall like stones around you and sit there unanswered.
Twenty minutes down the road, a corner is turned, and there she is in front. Back turned, hand out, walking.
‘Drive on!’ you say, and your teeth are clenched. You hunch down into the seat when the car accelerates, roaring past. Your eyes are dead ahead. Then you glance in the side mirror. The dark figure is strolling along, arms swinging. One hand reaches up to flick her hair back as she stares long and hard at the back of the car. Before you glance away again you see one side of the girl’s mouth twist into a smile. Back to the road in front, the air in the car thick and heavy from the night’s fug of silent churning.
© Keren Heenan
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Keren’s interview]