Allan Drew (Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand)
Martin sat behind the steering wheel of his station wagon at the intersection of St. Luke’s and New North Roads. He’d just missed the phase. For half a second he had thought about pushing through the orange light, but had decided against it. He’d overshot the white lines and felt conspicuous with the nose of his car a metre or two ahead of those on either side of him. He looked at the gear column but resisted the urge to reverse.
It was afternoon, autumn. Martin was heading west along New North Road. Heading home. The sun was ahead, setting at an angle between Mount Albert and Western Springs; the mountain rose above the pale green lawns and the grapefruit trees and the weatherboard bungalows behind their thick stone fences. Martin squinted and tried to adjust the sun visor, but the mechanism was broken and it kept flopping back to a position that was neither up nor down.
One Direction was playing on the radio. As the traffic crossed the intersection Martin tapped his finger on the armrest as he wrote an essay in his head about why the song was rubbish. He’d written that mental essay a few times before. He had paragraphs on metaphor, rhyme, and the circular nature of the song’s premise. The cars pulsed along St Luke’s Road.
Martin pulled the lever on the left side of the steering column; there was a hum from a small motor, but no water hit the windscreen. The wipers made three raspy arcs across the light coating of dust on the glass then lay still, half an inch above their neutral position.
The rhythm of the traffic slowed, then stopped. Three cars were caught, trapped, in a queue across the intersection¬. One of the marooned drivers looked across, solemnly observing the people he was about to inconvenience, casual in his cocoon of thin yellow steel. He was piloting a Toyota FunCargo. Its wheels were the size of dinner plates and about as narrow. Martin looked at the driver, raised his eyebrows and lifted a hand, palm to the sky. The driver looked away. A few seconds later the congestion eased and the FunCargo cleared the intersection. Martin looked at the traffic lights, still glowing red. It was always a long phase. He kept tapping the armrest.
A group of people appeared on Martin’s right, pedestrians, and started to cross in front of him. One woman and three guys. Early twenties, maybe mid-twenties. The one in the front wore loose black trousers and a red shirt with a high-viz vest over the top. He reminded Martin of the guys he would see at his father’s jobs when he was a kid. A workman, maybe a bricklayer, a concrete cutter. His boots were brown and flecked with grey mud, splatter from wet concrete, and came up past his ankles. Behind him were two others in jeans and hooded sweatshirts, one with his hood pulled up. Martin looked hard—his impulse was to distrust a man in a hoodie, and he tried to resist it—but he couldn’t make out his features, couldn’t determine whether the man’s face would undo the impression made by his choice to obscure it. The other man had his hood down, bunched up behind his head and resting on his shoulders, and he had short hair that could have been self-cut. The woman, a girl really, lagged at the beginning of the crossing while she looked in her satchel for something. She gave up the hunt, closed her bag, and ran to catch up to the men. She ran in the way someone does who hardly ever runs, hands up at shoulder height for balance, uneven stride, self-conscious. She wore fluffy boots and a dark dress and stockings, and her long dyed-red hair blew across her face in the wind.
When the man in the high-viz vest reached Martin’s car, he stopped. Having misjudged the phasing of the lights and overshot the paint, his car intruded into the ethereal but distinct pedestrian corridor created by two parallel white lines. The man did an elaborate side-step, lifting his leg high like a dog urinating, then continued on. The man following—the one with the raised hood—did a simple swerve. The last man walked across the front of Martin’s car and stopped, turned to face Martin, and thumped his closed fist on the bonnet.
Martin lurched, feeling the strike like a slap across his face. The man held his gaze. On his face was confidence, arrogance maybe, the righteousness of the pedestrian who’s been wronged. It was a property dispute. The man placed both hands on the car’s bonnet, making an ownership claim based on its breach of the pedestrian realm. The car lowered slightly under the weight of his lean. Martin turned down the radio, the pop song somehow intolerable during such violation. A rising surge of adrenaline moved up his body and a cold sheen of sweat rose to the surface of the skin of his back. The man raised and held out both arms, as if imitating Jesus on the cross, or a telephone pole. The narrow white flesh of his stomach was visible, striped with black hair, when his sweatshirt rose with his arms. Martin’s pulse thudded in his throat, and he swallowed hard. From his eyelids came the stinging of reflexive tears, and he squinted them away. Just then, the woman with the red hair reached the man, and there was an easing of the tension inside the car—she would move the man along. But instead, she joined him. Her face had held a mixture of expressions, the raised eyebrows of a question, the wide mouth and bared teeth of youthful mischief, of who-are-you-anyway, of untouchability. The man turned, leaving his arms raised for a couple of seconds, before flapping them like an albatross and walking away to join his friends. The woman looked at Martin for a second longer, then followed him.
At the stem of Martin’s brain something grew, something black, an oil slick of reaction, a thick surge of violent ink. He tilted his head back, as if gravity could suppress it, and he breathed.
His right hand moved to his car door and his index finger hooked under the chrome handle. He pulled to the point just before the latch released. He held it there. With his left hand he pulled the handbrake hard and it creaked and locked at its highest notch. He shifted into park. Martin looked to the drivers on either side of him for support. The woman in the car on his right was looking into her lap, doing something on her phone. Martin looked to his left. The man in that car was watching the four, the mini-mob, with interest it appeared, both hands on the steering wheel. His mouth was in a strange shape which Martin at first thought represented empathy but then realised was the arrangement lips took when whistling. Martin’s finger was still curled under the door handle, and he pulled past the point of resistance. The latched popped and the door hung free on its hinges, but he didn’t push it open. With his index finger he pressed and held the hooked button that controlled the passenger window, lowered it, and, driven by some instinct, leaned in his seat so that he could look at the group out the window and through the open air, unobstructed by the dusty glass. They formed an arrow shape, with the man in the vest at the front and the other three fanning out behind him. They walked slowly, but were already putting distance between themselves and the intersection—although not so much that they could not be chased down, if he were to move now. He would have to abandon the car, at least for a while, but he could lock it and return, after—after what? He’d block the intersection for a while, but these things happen. Martin’s finger remained on the window control, a fingernail caught under the crisp piece of corrugated plastic, held there by the serrations of his thick yellow nail.
Martin sensed the world pitch suddenly forward, felt the dizziness of vertigo. He snapped his head back to the front and clasped at the steering wheel tight, his knuckles swelled white and purple with the strain, and, as part of the same reflex, he put the weight of his whole body on the brake pedal, almost standing on it, almost raising himself off his seat. The lights had phased: the woman in the car on his right had a green arrow, and was pulling away. Martin closed both eyes for a second, and breathed. He released his pressure on the brake pedal. He pushed his car door open a few inches, pulled it back sharply and it closed heavily on its latch. The cars on his right poured through the intersection beside him, and he relaxed back into his seat. He tried to keep his focus ahead of him, but gave in, and looked to his left, trying to pick them out among the scattering of people in the lowering twilight. The man with the bunched hoodie was just visible, his hand in the back pocket of the jeans of the woman with the red hair. A few cars had their headlights on, and the high-viz vest of the man at the front would occasionally reflect a flash of white.
Martin looked up at Mount Albert, half expecting to see some change in its attitude, a darkening of its hue, or to see it bearing down on the scene. But all was as before. After all, how long had passed? Forty-five seconds? One minute? He wound up his window. He released the handbrake, straightened up in his seat, applied gentle steady pressure to the pedal brake, and shifted into drive.
Tentatively, Martin turned the radio back up. It was the DJ was speaking, asking people to phone in their worst cake-baking disasters. He turned it down again. The right-turning cars beside Martin had been depleted, and he sat there watching the green arrow which burned tantalisingly while conducting no traffic. There was an uncomfortable period of stillness in the intersection, and Martin saw cars twitch as drivers snuck forward a few inches, releasing then reapplying their brakes as the quiet of the intersection broadened. Martin sensed in others what he felt himself: a part of his brain, some cluster of neurons responsible for selfish logic, urged him to ignore the red light and explode through the intersection like a cloudburst, his fist raised out the window. He looked across to the driver on his left who now had white earphones in his ears and was poking at his dashboard, his head and lips moving ever so slightly.
A bird, a large gull of some sort, white and grey, swooped down into the intersection to retrieve a discarded item of food, something from a KFC box, a bread roll or perhaps— repulsively—a piece of chicken. It picked it up, moved to take flight, then dropped it, and it had to backtrack. In his mirror, Martin saw a car approaching, wide like a road-going ship, its indicator flashing like a beacon—warning of danger. It was going to make a right-hand turn. Martin checked the lights. The arrow turned orange. The car kept coming. The gull was still on the road, wrestling with the food, and right in the path of the approaching machine. Martin applied the hand-brake and shifted into park, and reached again for the door handle, but, to do what? He had a feeling of expansion, the anticipation of injury before it hits, like that interval between kicking the bed leg and feeling the crack of pain. He imagined the splitting of hollow wing-bones, the crunch of an avian skull under the tyres of the car, the feathers sticky with blood. In that instant, the bird became the man with the bunched hood, the bonnet-puncher, the arm-raiser, the intruder. Martin’s scalp pricked and tightened. He saw an image, a false scene. At the moment the man had stood there, arms raised in indignation and righteousness, Martin had accelerated hard, taken the man by surprise, and had struck his knees with the bumper of his car and driven through them. The man’s head had got caught under the left front tyre. He’d died instantly, his head crushed like a watermelon. Martin saw his body, lying flat on the asphalt, attached by the neck to an oozing smear of blood, flattened and splintered bone, smeared grey matter.
Martin refocused on the road in front of him and squinted through the images. He blinked tightly, deliberately, regularly. He looked to his left, up the road, an unnecessary but irrepressible reflex: the man with the bunched hood was no longer visible.
The car from the mirror had passed through the intersection, its tail-lights glowing the same red as the arrow on the traffic lights. The gull had disappeared from view, and he waited for something without being sure what. A screech? Would he hear it? Would the gull have time to utter it? Was he waiting for the spurt of blood, arching across the intersection like water from a fire-hose? Martin’s eyes scanned the intersection. The gull was several metres off the ground, its wings working hard, and the bird steadily rose, the coveted morsel clutched in its beak. The lights phased again. Martin had a green light.
He released the hand brake and shifted his foot to the accelerator. His car revved at a high pitch. There was a short toot-toot from the car behind him. Martin looked down, shifted into drive, and pulled away.
He carried on for a few hundred metres, slowly. The cars behind him overtook. He checked his rear vision mirror, saw a near-empty road behind him, and pulled over. He turned the radio up, found the music an insult, and turned it off. Hands on the steering wheel, he closed his eyes. Half a minute went by. His mind pulsed, it hunkered down, closed its shutters, made its own noise. His thoughts scattered, flew into the atmosphere, then were drawn back into an orbiting collage, a medley, a composite, a circling patchwork of memories. He remembered falling as a boy, from trees, off a flying fox, down a small flight of stairs breaking his wrist, the sharpness of the sudden pain, then the extended ache. He remembered his sister coming off her bike and holding the handle bars right the way to the ground, standing up and putting her hand to the graze on her forehead, shiny pale blood. He thought of his grandmother, who died in her bed on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, and her funeral when her coffin sank and went through the curtain. And he thought of when he was six, and he’d fallen against the edge of a sheet of metal in the garage, and how the skin had neatly peeled away from itself with almost no pain at all until the blood had surged, and he remembered picking at the stitches, seeing little pin-pricks of blood that made crimson dots on a tissue. And he remembered seeing his father cut a lamb’s throat, skin it, saw the blood on his boots, and he remembered eating the lamb off the spit, the crackling fierce heat of the fire baking his face and the winter night chilling his neck and ankles.
Martin was jolted by a screech from a car horn. He looked up. He had stopped in a rush-hour clearway. Martin made an automatic apologetic hand gesture, half a wave, half a salute. As he did so, the car that had sounded its horn pulled up parallel with him. It was a white Nissan Cube. The driver pulled his sunglasses down onto the tip of his nose, so that Martin could see his eyes, and very carefully and very steadily gave him the finger. The man held his position, middle finger raised firmly from his fist, as if it were a billboard and he was giving Martin ample time to read it. He pushed his sunglasses back up his nose and drove off, the Cube rattling under hard acceleration. Martin went to start his Mazda, and as he turned the key the car screeched. He shifted into drive, checked his mirrors, and looked over his shoulder.
Allan Drew is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.