As she pressed the starter button, it began to rain. Lightly at first so that the wipers came on intermittently as she manoeuvred the car off the driveway. She was glad of the rain; it felt appropriate.
She passed the lit windows of her neighbour’s house, cheerful through the watery dusk. She hadn’t said goodbye and felt a moment’s guilt. Perhaps she would write, later, when she was settled. Sara would understand. Though perhaps not about the children.
The dual carriageway was quiet, the red taillights few and distant, and she turned the radio on. A plummy, perfectly modulated voice read the news reverentially as if it were a sacred text. Which it was, in a way. The Taliban’s triumphant recapture of Afghanistan. The capitulation of the West, who had promised protection. She reeled at the futility of the deaths, both soldiers and civilians. Above all, she pitied the women confined to their homes, forced to explain to their daughters that school - learning, a life, a future - was no longer an option.
She re-tuned and angrily stamped on the accelerator. The car lurched forward towards a slowing lorry, and she swerved into the fast lane, indicating too late. The car driver behind blared his horn, and she raised a finger in fury, though she knew he would not be able to see it. She swerved back in front of the receding lorry and slowed down, watching as the other car passed, also slowing. The roof light was on (deliberately?), illuminating a middle-aged man with greying dark hair and beard, who glared at her angrily, making a gesture of his own.
She swore as he sped off. Why did men always make her feel inferior?
The radio played a wailing ballad of lost love. Mouth twisting, she changed the channel again, her fingers trembling slightly on the rocker button. A classical station, piano music. To soothe the savage breast. Smiling grimly, she gripped the steering wheel and peered through the windscreen into the darkness.
The rain was getting heavier, so she nudged the stick with her finger. The flick-flack became steady and rhythmic, and she felt the tension in her body. Settling back into the seat, she inhaled and exhaled deeply, deliberately. Her chest rose and fell to the beating wipers, and the tension began to recede from her shoulders.
Relaxing her foot on the accelerator a little, she felt the car slow. The road ahead was straight and clear, and for a moment, no lights approached nor receded. A Beethoven sonata she recognised began, its plangent notes sparking her synapses, penetrating the disconnection that shielded her. Her stomach clenched, and she felt the shadows rise as the bass notes sounded and fell. As the final notes faded to silence she felt her eyes prick.
She quickly thumped the radio button, cutting off the music, and proceeded to the sound of the rain and the whoosh of the wipers, which she boosted to maniacal speed as the downpour became heavier. She put her foot down hard, and the car skidded slightly, then carried on smoothly, water swishing under the tyres. Her anger rose with the tempo of the wipers.
‘It’s not my fault… It’s not my fault… It’s not my fault...’ She spoke aloud to the alternating, thudding beat, her voice rising, shouting her conscience into submission. But she failed to convince herself, subsiding into a whimpering ‘No, no, no, no.’
She slapped a hand on the wheel, again and again, the cold, solid leather unresisting. The car bunny-hopped a little as her foot jerked on the accelerator. She wondered if she should, perhaps, just wrench the wheel violently to the side, leave it to chance to decide her fate. Death or hospitalisation would be preferable: numbing opiates or eternal rest. Tempted, she gripped the wheel tighter.
The lights of a service station glittered ahead, sparkling in the runnels of rain, and she slowed the car. She was hungry, thirsty, and tired. She needed light and noise and other people. The wipers squeaked as she turned off the road, and she flicked the lever to slow them. She felt the panic subside as the car engine, the wipers, the rain quieted. She turned smoothly into a parking space and switched off the engine. All was still.
Breathing deeply, she sat awhile, then freed the seatbelt and opened the door. The rain assaulted her as she stumbled out, then she reached back in for her purse. Locking the car and hurrying towards the bright sanctuary, she was amazed at how ordinary this felt. As if she was still living her everyday life.
The automatic doors swished open, and a blast of warm air-conditioning hit her. She pushed her damp hair back and strode to the café counter. She ordered a coffee and pastry from a young man, interrupting his deftly texting thumbs. He looked up with a fond smile, apparently still thinking of his paramour. He blinked at her, then smartly turned and placed a cup, set the machine going.
She paid and sat in a chair by the window, from where she could see a flickering television screen. The café was quiet, almost deserted. The muted television showed pictures of Afghans clamouring at airport fences, attempting to flee the oppressive regime that snapped at their heels. Predominantly men, she noted, though on the whole, they had less to fear than the women.
Where were they, the women? Cowering in their homes hoping to be overlooked, or facing the fighters, terrified but determined not to cringe? Or gathered in solidarity, hatching wild and futile plans of escape? Perhaps they thought their men would return for them. Or maybe they knew that the men would struggle to build a new life and gradually give up on them.
She tried to picture their position. What would she do? Certainly not trust a man to rescue her. In her experience, when the going got tough, they were more likely to find another life, another wife. Though she acknowledged, this was not true of all. Was she just unlucky, or was there something wrong with her?
The television camera zoned onto the face of a woman, white in the glaring lights of the airport. Struggling against the crushing bodies, she held a baby up to the fence, thrusting it towards a young American soldier. She was screaming, mouth stretched wide, evidently pleading, desperate. The soldier hesitated, then reached out, grasping the bundle. The woman saw the child safe into his arms, then was swallowed by the jostling crowd. All happened in an instant.
It was the bearded man from the car she’d cut up. She tensed, ready for confrontation.
‘I just wanted to say sorry. Bad day at the office, you know. Anyway, I’m not normally so aggressive. I hope I didn’t upset you.’
She shrugged. ‘No problem. We all get them.’
‘Thanks.’ He smiled and nodded, walked on towards the door.
She nursed her cooling coffee. Her rage had subsided, leaving behind a heavy weariness. The television was still flickering, though the horrific scenes of Kabul airport were gone. Draining her cup, she left the café and walked back to her car. Clambering in, she sat for a moment, watching the rain running down the windscreen. Then she shivered and started the engine, setting the aircon high. Exiting the services, she drove to the next crossing and turned the car around. (1240)