The Reading by Katy Ewing
She takes the big square-edged metal handle in her hand, shoulder braced hard against the door’s first refusal and reluctant give, and pushes with all her weight, walking into it. She steps through and out into the night, the whipping storm wind surprisingly warm, and lets go of the door, dodging out of its return path. It swings shut snugly and the dark folds round her. Immediately tugged and buffeted, she adjusts her woolly hat to make sure it doesn’t get snatched off by this strange petulant October wind.
The world resolves into an eerie, lamp-lit scene; somehow a little bit CCTV. She laughs to herself and pulls her coat on more securely, puts her hands in the pockets and strides out onto the road towards the distant car park where she can just see a few silhouetted figures approaching their cars in the brightness of several high white curving street-lamps. The familiar tall parkland trees in rolling lawn landscape are transformed by night, looming like dark waving autumn gods, towering in inky blackness. Someone else walks a good bit ahead of her at a slightly slower pace than herself, unrecognisable, and still hurried, hunched.
It had been a good night. The poet had stayed seated, which along with his accent and quiet speaking voice and her slight lack of hearing, had meant that little bits had gone astray, had had to be let go so that the rest could be let in, could keep flowing. But he’d been excellent, had called up vivid images from another world, a different time, a foreign home. She’d felt it; known something of him from the magic of his words, his voice.
She was tired now, but glad she’d had the half hour sleep before dinner and made herself come out. And it was quite nice to have come alone, even if she’d felt a bit more awkward during the audience mingling part, it meant she could enjoy the afterglow of the experience in a different way now as she journeyed home. She could let it sink in and charm her without being first summed up by anyone else.
As she walks through the night towards the car, the wind whips fallen crumpled leaves in futile little dances above the shining black tarmac. She shivers, pulls her coat around herself a bit more, hunching inside it.
She can see her car up ahead now, street-lit and flecked with drizzle and dead leaves.
Aw man, I hope it starts. Positive thought, that’ll do it.
As she gets closer she thumbs the key fob button and hears the central locking clunk. Nice to get to your car when you’re alone at night in a car park, but always a little bit scary until you’re in and definitely alone and have locked the doors. She does all this with the same hurry that she used to feel as a little girl when she had to make it down the first flight of stairs before the toilet flush finished. Phew.
Now to turn the key, hope for success. But try not to hope too hard in case that somehow curses the attempt, scares away her luck. The Nissan had got to the existential state of previous cars much more quickly than most, much sooner than expected. It had been a lavish treat at the time, one that they couldn’t really afford. Had got them into debt. But the thought of having a car that would just start reliably, would properly engage and run when you turned the key, and wouldn’t leave you stranded or entirely disrupt your life, your plans, had been just too tempting.
And now here she was, alone in a dark car park in uncanny weather with no idea whether she’d be home in forty minutes or waiting hours here for an unknown AA man to save her. Or making it as far as some junction on a lonely bit of road where there was no mobile phone signal and then being stranded. She shuddered. Damn it, that included an awful large section of her journey home.
Okay, positive thought.
And it starts! Yes! Okay, that’s half the battle. Now she just has to not let the revs fall too low. Could be a problem though at this time of night – boy-racers would be cruising the small-town night road circuit, gagging for a bit of competition, a chase. High revving at junctions had begun to make her pretty conspicuous these days, especially at night.
Sure enough, when she reaches the first set of traffic lights, some kind of sporty small car (she doesn’t dare to look in case it seems like she’s making eye contact as a challenge) draws up beside her, loud music thumping, raring to go. The only thing to do is act as if she doesn’t see them, keep the car from stalling and calculate the right level and rate of pressure to put on the accelerator when the lights turn green. Keep your eyes on the lights. Don’t stall.
At amber she revs higher, gently lets the clutch up, accelerator down, feels for that elusive biting point, feels the car’s huge weight begin to roll. And as the light turns green, success. The boys and their thumping sounds pull away and go the other way from her and she keeps going, concentrating hard, aching to be home and safe.
So she makes it through all the town junctions, keeps the engine running, with work.
Now here’s the last little roundabout at the very edge of town, difficult because it’s so small, a tight turn. Again she makes it, engine revving far too high, but better that than the thunk of stalling, the loss of power steering and the glide to stop in darkness. She shivers, flicks the lights to full beam and carries on out of town into the black. Turns the music up to surround her.
A mile on, under the railway bridge, she starts to slow for the next roundabout. Damn the roundabouts. A figure steps out from the dark ahead, thumb out, and she dips her lights so as not to blind him. As she passes their eyes meet for an instant. He wears a dark coat, hood up in the storm. Is it just her fear that makes his face look pale and scarred, his eyes black?
And as she slows she hopes he won’t think it’s for him. She glances in the mirror, and, shit, he does, he’s started running. And just then, the engine cuts out and the car rolls to a stop. She tries the ignition again and again, but it won’t work and she checks the mirror to see the stranger right behind, lit by the red brake lights, his smile unreadable.