Cathy Vella’s New Short Story – Stuck in Traffic

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“…Karen Taylor lost the case for euthanasia,“ the man on the radio said.  Sarah flicked the radio over to CD and sighed.

“If I ever become really ill and I can’t look after myself, promise me that you will put me out of my misery.”

“Sure thing,” Neil said, overly upbeat, hoping it would lighten her mood.

“We’ll have some agreement beforehand; we’ll set it up like suicide, so we’ll have to do it whilst I still have some motor function. You give me some painkillers, splay a few on the side and wait for me to die, then call for the ambulance.”

‘Oooo-kay.” The rain was getting heavier and he flicked the wipers on.

“You’ll have to stay with me though, make sure I’m dead.”

“I’ll finish you off with a club if you like, just to make doubly sure.”

“Very funny.” Sarah turned and looked at him, he smiled.  Neil picked up a bottle of coke and gestured for her to take the top off; she did, he gulped it down then handed it back to her.

“Look, you aren’t dying, you have a headache, and you aren’t bipolar either.” Sarah was convinced her menstrual mood swings were something more sinister; and according to a diagnosis website, bipolar fit the bill. She had been worse this time round and she worried that it was affecting the kids. She turned and checked on them. Both were fast asleep, heads flopped to the side, mouths agape. Ben had dribbled.

“Slow down a bit, we have plenty of time,” she said.

They sat in silence, deep in their own thoughts.  Sarah was thinking of the time her mum had her running around the car naked after she had been for a swim in the sea. “The faster you run the quicker you’ll dry, “ she had said.

Neil was thinking about their recent holiday. He pictured the kids covered in mushy watermelon and sand, and he wondered what the fruit seller was doing right now. Was she slicing through watermelon as he raced down the motorway in the pouring rain? Selling fruit on the beach sounded like the perfect job. He took Sarah’s advice and moved into the middle lane.  The rain was bouncing down hard and the spray behind the car in front made it difficult to see.

The comfortable silence was too long for Sarah’s liking and as soon as her thoughts strayed to what Neil might be thinking she had the urge to break it.

“I love this song.” Sarah turned up the music. “When I die I think I will have this played at my funeral.”

“You’re having every other song you hear played at your funeral.”

“Well, it will be a grand affair.”

The news flicked on, it was annoying how it did that, and they couldn’t figure out how to stop it.  Despite the rain easing, the traffic was slowing down. Red brake lights glimmered through the drizzle. The newscaster was interviewing a financial adviser who had grim predictions for the year ahead. Sarah turned it off and flicked the music on again.

“There’s never any good news. There should be a channel dedicated to just good news, no matter how trivial.  Neil ummed in reply, his concentration focused on the road.

Sarah looked ahead, “It looks like everyone’s stopped.”

Neil eased off the gas and onto the brake. Sarah took the opportunity to look in all the cars around her, ticking off the travellers: a woman returning from work, a family heading home, workmen going to a job.  She wondered if any of them noticed her, or if anyone else was as interested in all the other people on the road.  Everyone seemed focused on the traffic ahead.  It struck her as bizarre that all these people were heading in the same direction, all in their little tiny metal boxes, having their own conversations, doing their everyday things, and that this might be the only moment in their lives that their paths would cross.

She watched a pretty girl singing to herself in a car, a cloud of smoke around her. The girl wound her window down and tossed a cigarette butt out.  Sarah imagined a whole life for this girl, a family, past, present and future lovers. A job that meant she had to travel. She was carefree and would abandon things at the drop of a hat. She certainly didn’t ponder the sensible things in life like Sarah did.  Sarah wished she were younger.  Only recently had she had this hankering for youth, and it usually reared its head when she looked at younger women. She didn’t want all the hassles that went with being young, just the youthful flesh. She had noticed fine lines around her eyes this morning.

The cars on the inside lane moved slowly past and Sarah came face-to-face with a young child. To look away would seem rude, she thought; some friendly gesture seemed appropriate. She smiled and waved. She hoped that sometime in that child’s future that simple gesture might be remembered.

“There’s been an accident,” Neil turned the music down as if it would help the situation. The traffic slowly merged into one lane.

“Jeez, look at that mess.” The car’s bonnet was totally smashed upwards and was facing the oncoming traffic at the central barrier. A police car was parked in front with its lights flashing.  The policeman was crouched down at the driver’s door, which was open.  He was talking to the woman who had been driving, she had her head leant back against the headrest. The man at the side of her sat motionless with his head on his chest.

The scene played itself out like a silent movie as their car inched slowly past the accident. Sarah stared at the woman, willing her to look up. She felt that if they looked at each other, somehow, this would set her part from all the others that looked on.

“Why do things like this fascinate us?”

“We look because we know we shouldn’t”

“It makes us feel better…”

“…because it isn’t us.” Sarah brushed a stray eyelash from Neil’s cheek, and let her hand fall on his lap.

Her phone began to buzz in her pocket and she fished it out. “It’s your Amy, how long are we going to be?”

“Tell her we’ll be ten minutes, it’s clearing now.”

For the rest of the journey a heavy silence hung around them, only broken by the occasional slumbering murmur from the back seat.  Neil remembered how he would sleep, snuggled under a blanket with Amy in the back seat of his mum’s car on long journeys, the days before seat belts and car seats. Sarah was wondering what Neil was thinking and how the rest of the day would pan out for him.

As they pulled through the ornate gates they just caught the procession of black cars.  Amy stood waiting, a gaunt, dark figure; she started to wave then considered it inappropriate. They pulled up, both gathering their thoughts.  Sarah leaned in and kissed Neil on his cheek.

“I’ll wake the children up, you go on ahead.”

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