Roads and the Meaning of Roads


On an orphaned stretch of open trunk road, between the urban freeway system and the M6, they stopped at a garage to recharge. The night was warm. The trees in the hedge by the layby raised nets of blurred, dusty dark branches against a neon-tinted grey sky. Spence went into the shop to pay. He could be seen brightly lit behind plate glass, prowling the stacks, peering into the chill cabinet, and moving slowly along the racked magazines, surreptitiously peeking at half-naked ladies. Anna decided that she wanted to drive. She got out of the car and stood on the blackened concrete, feeling the weight of the dull heat and the light-polluted clouds. As Spence returned a girl in a pink jacket and torn jeans arrived on a petrol-engined motorcycle, her boyfriend riding pillion in a complete suit of black leathers. They drew up beside a German van and began to refuel with the reckless, expensive old stuff. A nostalgic reek flooded the air, invoking hot road-movie nights in happier times. Spence and Anna had been travelers together for so long.

"He must be sweaty in there," remarked Spence tentatively.

"I want to drive."

"Are you okay to drive?"

"Of course I am."

"Sorry. Didn't mean anything."

He held out his keys, with a wary smile. "Is it peace?"

She could see through the droop of his shoulders to the hostility he denied.
"Sure," she said miserably. "Peace, why not." Ignored his offering, she used her own keys, and slid into the driver's seat.

"Shit," muttered Spence. "Christ-" He slammed the passenger door and hunched beside her, fists balled against his forehead.

"Daddy said the s-word," Jake murmured, pleased. "Did you get me anything?"

"Not this time babes," said Anna. "But we're going to stop at a Services."

"In the middle of the night?" The child's sleepy voice woke up, fired with enthusiasm. Jake loved midnight pit-stops.

"In the middle of the night," she agreed.

"And have ice cream?"

"We'll have whatever we like."

Anna had lost her job. She had lost plenty of jobs without feeling much pain. Short-term contracts end and are not renewed: there is no stigma. It's the business. But this was different. It was her own fault, it was because she had started to work on "Transferred Y" again. Spence had been making money at last. Anna had thought she was free to stretch her wings, to do something a prudent breadwinner couldn't contemplate. She'd known there would be some flak when she published her results, maybe a weird science paragraph or two in the papers. She'd been totally unprepared for the catastrophe that had descended upon her. There was no one to understand. Not her parents, who had taken out an option against bad news. Not her sister (you must be joking). Not Spence; least of all Spence. He said he could not see what her problem was. If she never worked again, which was her overwrought prediction, they weren't going to starve. Why was she so upset? We're talking Anna Senoz here, not Marie Curie. She'd been one of the worker bees, footslogger in a lab coat. Now she was one of the unemployed.

Why not? In case you hadn't noticed, it happens to a lot of people. For fuck's sake, it isn't the end of the world. What makes you so special?

The fact that it was my life.

The fact that you love me.

Anna had said the first of these things. Not the second, because if you have to say that, it is already useless; since then they had not been friends.
. . . .

The Motorway. They bowled across the wide confusing pan of the interchange: no lanes, headlights coming from all directions, the monstrous freight rigs blazing, bearing down on you like playground bullies, like street gangs, the only thing to do is not be in the way. Anna set her teeth and kept her line, up to one of the automatic gates. They were through, into hyperspace, into the video screen. Suddenly it was fully dark, all solid outlines had disappeared. The road world was made of lights, a rushing void between the unreeling double strands of scarlet and silver, amber and viridian, brake lights in front, headlights streaming towards her in the northbound lanes. Could be anywhere. It should be anywhere, a nameless country outside time and space, but somehow the road was not anonymous. She could sense that tired, familiar sky still overhead: skinny ragged hank of an island, hardly wider than the traffic lanes that braided it up and down.

Oh, but she truly loved this effortless glide through hyperspace. She loved the disembodied concentration that floated up in her: overtake, recover your lane, gear change up, gear change down. Never wanted an automatic or an autopilot, what a sissy idea, get a machine to eat your dinner and fuck for you next. This was a state of grace, hurtling at 140 kilometers an hour (habitual law breaker, like practically every British driver); and then every so often you'd do something wrong, a lapse of concentration or slight misjudgment, a jolt: speed up, dodge, drop back, whew, safe again. Lovely, lovely.
Until, inevitably, they hit a slow patch.

For years now they'd been making this trip, up to Manchester for Anna's mother's birthday. Always ended up doing it on a holiday weekend. Always ended up caught in traffic. When they visited Spence's mother in Illinois, Loulou would insist they didn't have to leave the night before their flight home: cue panic on the freeway, stacked like doughnuts in a box; and Spence's mother's rapture about the gashog-heaven dawn run to O'Hare descanting into an aggrieved wail: it's never like this! For the Goddess's sake, it is barely five am! Anna glanced at the routemaster prompt, faintly hoping for an alternative. But if there was any escape, it wouldn't know. It was dying, they ought to replace it but they wouldn't because they were planning to give up private vehicle ownership. Thus, clinging to the destructive habit, we resort to stupid tricks, essentially punishing the car itself: like an unhappy woman who punishes her own body, poor innocent animal, by failing to groom, by dressing drably; by feeding or starving it into physical distress.

Stop that. Don't think bad thoughts.

She kept her distance; three cars instantly elbowed into her sensible gap. She accepted fate: settled into the nose to tail routine, along with the people on either side, and in front and behind for however many miles. It was as if they were all sitting, each of them staring reservedly straight ahead, on the banks of seats in some giant aircraft, doing odd calisthenics to stave off muscle atrophy on a long, long flight through the dark.

Oh, those economy-class long haul flights, in the days when Anna and Spence used to travel the world: chasing short-term science jobs for Anna, in exotic locations. Those airports, the battered transfer lounges where the aircon gave up long ago, the ragged carpets soaked in an icy sweat of condensation, the tumbledown vinyl furniture. The rumor that passes as if through a herd of animals, so that first one or two and then a few people hover by the desk: then there's a surge, an unstoppable rush of bodies that everybody has to join, but which is completely pointless.

Someone in uniform peeps around the glass doors and hurriedly retreats, clutching a mobile phone. The people in uniforms are terrified of the crowd. Therefore they put off as long as possible the awful moment when they'll have to admit that they don't have enough seats. Actually the plane was full when it left Lagos/Abu Dhabi/Karachi/Singapore, because though all of you here have tickets and you confirmed and reconfirmed your onward bookings, the passengers at the point of origin have the advantage: and there are always more passengers. Always.

We make small alliances, we look for people who look like ourselves; or failing that for people with whom we share a language. Then there's an announcement: our flight will be leaving from a different gate. We all leap up and run, abandoning any semblance of solidarity. Maybe some of us will fall by the wayside, or accidentally rush through a door to the outside, and have to start again with Immigration and Passport Control Hell. Maybe some of us will be trampled to death. Maybe that's what everybody's hoping for: that the numbers will be winnowed down, until we, the survivors, are secure. But at every window of the plane that sits out there in the night on the hot, wet, tarmac (these scenes always happen in the dark) there gleams a pair of listless, patient eyes. It's worse than we thought. It's not that there is not enough room for the whole crowd. There is no room at all. There is no drinking water, and the toilets don't work any more.

Oh no, it won't do.

. . . .

There's no excuse, not even the thin illusion that you are doing good. . . Stay at home. Don't worry. The experience you seek will soon come to find you.

Soon come.
Soon come.

Anna had been frightened, when she was a little girl, when she found out that her grandfather Senoz (who was dead) had been born a Jew. He'd eloped with a Catholic girl, something his family took so hard the couple had decided to leave Spain and start again in England. It was supposed to be a romantic story. In Anna's childish mind the word Jew triggered an image of a great crowd of people shuffling along, dressed in black and white and shades of grey, towards a destination that obviously terrified them, but they couldn't turn back. Where are they taking us, mummy? I don't know. Sssh.

Here we are again, shuffling along, heads down, packed like frightened sheep.. The road folds in on itself. Sssh, don't ask where it leads.

The bad thoughts kept coming back, taking any shape they could find. She glanced at her husband. He seemed to be asleep, or if not asleep he was avoiding her as best he could, inside a moving car. Spence wake up, talk to me, I'm drowning.

She was no stranger to the harsh realities of her profession. Getting fired was nothing really. The problem was Transferred Y, this outrage about Transferred Y: as if Anna had invented the phenomenon, and was being whipped and driven from the herd as a scapegoat. She wasn't to blame, she'd done nothing wrong so why did she feel so broken, so desperate? She needed to understand. If she understood her own feelings, maybe she could deal with them. Her menfolk slept. Reluctantly, ruefully, her thoughts turned to the person who used to have the all answers: Anna in the long ago. Staring ahead of her, the silence of memory brimming behind her closed lips, she began to tell herself a story.

For a long time, I used to share a bedroom with my sister. . .

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