Subscriber OnlyBooks

Upright Carriage by Paul Currion

Read this moving story awarded second prize by Ottessa Moshfegh in The Moth Short Story Prize

Duncan is underneath a car. A man has put his hand on Duncan’s shoulder. ‘Don’t move,’ says the man, ‘You’ll be fine.’ Duncan tries to explain that he is fine, but no words will come out.

Duncan is underneath a car. A man has put his hand on Duncan’s shoulder.

‘Don’t move,’ says the man, ‘You’ll be fine.’

Duncan tries to explain that he is fine, but no words will come out.

‘My name’s Peter,’ says the man, ‘What’s your name?’


Duncan tries again, and this time his name comes out in a rush of air.

‘That’s great, Duncan,’ says the man.. ‘Everything is going to be fine.’

Fine is a word that Duncan associates with the weather. Peter lays his hand against Duncan’s head, uncomfortably intimate.

Now a woman is talking. ‘I’ve called 999. Should be here soon.’

Peter says, ‘Hear that, Duncan? The ambulance is on its way.’

Another man now. ‘Coming up from Coulsdon? There’s works.’

Peter looks away for a moment. Don’t look away, thinks Duncan. What if I disappear? Peter looks back again, concerned.

‘Can you feel any pain, Duncan?’

This makes Duncan laugh wetly. There is pain somewhere, but Duncan isn’t certain where. Not here!

‘Duncan? Can you open your eyes, Duncan?’

Duncan opens his eyes and Peter is still there. A third man! Duncan feels embarrassed to be the centre of attention.

‘I’ve got a jack, I can bring the car up off him, what you think?’

Duncan looks at Peter and says, ‘Won’t that be dangerous?’

Peter looks surprised, simply because Duncan has started speaking suddenly.

‘I mean,’ Duncan coughs something up, ‘it might fall on somebody.’

Peter smiles at him, but Duncan didn’t mean to be funny. He rarely does.

Somebody is crying in the background. Somebody is not fine. Somebody familiar. She can’t speak properly. ‘I didn’t see him,’ she weeps, wet as Duncan’s breath. The wife. His wife.

Joan, who was sitting in the car when it started to roll. Duncan tries to sit up, but Peter pushes him back down, not roughly, gently.

‘Stay there, Duncan. We won’t lift the car if you don’t want us to.’

Duncan doesn’t want the car lifted. Well, he does want the car lifted. But.

‘I didn’t see him, oh! I didn’t see him! I didn’t see him,’ calls his wife.

He doesn’t want the car lifted, he wants to make sure she’s fine. Just in case. He tries to ask Peter if she is fine. ‘She should be fine,’ he wheezes. Something is running down his cheek but he can’t move his arms to touch it.

He tilts his head to one side and looks down the hill at the traffic. He tilts his head to the other side and looks up the hill at the bus. That explains it, all these people. They were on the bus. Now they are here.

One of them is taking pictures with her phone. Duncan will never understand.

‘Duncan,’ says Peter, ‘we’re going to try to lift the car. Tell me if it hurts.’

It hurts somewhere, but it’s still not clear where. ‘Yes,’ replies Duncan.

She’s taking pictures. Maybe he’ll – what do they say on the news? – go viral. He hears metal bite metal. He can taste metal in his mouth. Do they go together? He hears a crank like the sound of the steel being cut to shape at the factory. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? That was another life in another town.

Ah! There’s the pain. He doesn’t scream, but he groans. Peter holds his head.

‘I’m fine,’ Duncan says, trying to smile, ‘Is she fine? Is she fine?’

Either Peter doesn’t hear him or he ignores him, but probably he doesn’t hear him. The car lifts, a little like magic. Pain comes in as heat goes away. He groans again. Peter leans down, cheek pressing against Duncan’s neck, hair rubbing Duncan’s chin.

‘Well,’ says the woman. ‘Where’s that bloody ambulance?’ asks another.

‘It doesn’t look bad,’ says Peter, ‘His clothes are torn but there’s no blood.’

Good value M&S slacks. Good quality jacket from the catalogue. Now that the car is clear, Duncan tries to lift his arms, but they won’t move.

‘Don’t try to move,’ Peter orders him. ‘Wait until the ambulance arrives.’

Any day now. How will he explain this, when they ask him what happened?

‘Well,’ Duncan will tell them, ‘it’s like this. The wife was in the car …’

She’ll be fine. They’ll be fine. In his head Duncan practices explaining everything to Peter.

He’ll say, ‘She was in the car, and I was putting my bag in the boot.’ The bag filled with sports clothes. The gym membership. This was a real workout! ‘I closed the boot, and she shouted at me not to slam it shut.’

And then? The car started to roll backwards, like a tank in the movies. Slow. ‘It was moving so slow, I thought I could stop it. I leaned against it and pushed.’ He needed to put in some more work at the gym before that plan would work. ‘But it kept rolling backwards. I couldn’t let it roll into the road, could I?’ No, he couldn’t, but on the other hand, yes, he could.

It kept rolling, rolling, rolling. ‘So I tried to get out of the way, but I couldn’t get out of the way in time.’ What he meant was: he stumbled backwards, one, two, three, into the road. ‘And before I knew it, there I was. Where you found me. Underneath the car.’ With the fourth step backwards, he lost his balance and sat down heavily.

‘Luckily the bus was passing, I suppose. Traffic was slow. There were people.’ There are people all around him, and the wife weeping in the background.

‘Duncan? Open your eyes, Duncan.’ Peter’s grip tightens on his shoulder.

Duncan opens his eyes. He’d sat down heavily, and then he was underneath the car. ‘This wasn’t what I was expecting,’ he tells Peter, ‘Not at all.’ Although the pressure has been lifted from his body, he’s still trapped, just like everybody.

‘You’ll be fine, Duncan,’ Peter tells him. ‘The ambulance is here.’

Footsteps near his ears. Bodies blocking the sun. The hiss of trousers creasing. Duncan starts to believe that feeling trapped is the wrong way to approach this situation.

‘Can you hear me, sir?’ asks a deep voice, but not a calming voice.

‘His name’s Duncan,’ says Peter, raising his voice as if he needs to be heard. The traffic is moving again. Duncan hopes nobody is late for an appointment.

‘Are you in any pain, Duncan?’ asks the deep voice, still not calm.

‘I’ve got a headache,’ replies Duncan. This answer should satisfy everybody.

‘Very good,’ says the deep voice. ‘Here’s a couple of aspirin. Do you have water?’

Duncan nods as vigorously as he can manage.

Peter expects something more. The rustle of trousers like cloth being lifted from the loom, and then:

‘Is that it?’ calls Peter. He can’t let Duncan’s head go, but he’s almost pulling away.

‘For a headache? Paracetamol if it doesn’t get any better in a few hours.’

Peter starts arguing with the paramedic, but Duncan wishes that he wouldn’t. Those medics are over-worked as is. Let them help somebody who really needs it. He’s grateful that the medic didn’t make a scene. Making a scene only makes things worse, that’s what his mother used to tell him.

‘You can’t just leave him there!’ says Peter.

‘He says he’s got a headache,’ replies the unseen paramedic.

‘He’s underneath a car!’

‘I can see that,’ says the paramedic, ‘but he doesn’t seem to be injured.’ ‘If he’s not injured, why isn’t he moving?’

The paramedic pauses, and then says quietly, ‘You’d have to ask him that.’

Duncan is rehearsing what reason he’s going to give his trainer at the gym, for his lateness. ‘I was dropping the wife off in town, and you wouldn’t believe what happened.’ A big parade? An alien abduction? A sporting event? A special offer? None of those sound convincing. Then again, neither does being underneath a car.

The advantage those other excuses have is that they’re significantly less embarrassing. The disadvantage they have is that they’re all false, and prone to unwanted exposure. Prone, much like the position Duncan finds himself in. He laughs inside his mouth.

‘What’s that, Duncan?’ asks Peter.

I don’t really have a headache, he wants to tell Peter, but that would only upset him. He sticks to the agreed story: he’s underneath a car in the middle of the street.

‘Is my wife—’ Duncan starts but cannot finish the question, but he’s fairly sure the ending is obvious.

‘She’s fine,’ says Peter. ‘She’s here now.’ He lets go of Duncan’s head gently.

The wife is still weeping.

‘It’s all right, Joan,’ Duncan says. ‘Everything’s all right.’ She can’t speak for weeping, but he knows what will set her up again. ‘Can you get me a cup of tea?’ he asks, and closes his eyes, and counts.

He hasn’t reached three before she’s up and away in a breeze of eau de toilette. The scent’s name escapes him, even though he buys it for her birthday every year. He keeps trying to remember but he can’t, so he opens his eyes again. Peter is standing.

‘Don’t worry, Peter,’ he says. ‘Everything will be fine.’ He’s getting good at this. Now that the traffic is moving, people are starting to drift away. Show’s over, folks! The bus is starting but Peter isn’t on it. ‘You should get that bus, Peter.’

‘I’m not leaving,’ says Peter, but he doesn’t sound as certain as he used to.

‘You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. I’ll be fine. Joan will take care of me.’

‘You’re underneath a car, Duncan!’ That statement is as true as it has ever been.

‘Joan will bring me a cup of tea. And some biscuits, she always has biscuits.’ Here she comes, Joan, with a cup of tea – no, a whole pot – and a plate of biscuits. Joan offers Peter the first pouring, as if it was some kind of blessing to be bestowed.

It’s actually quite a nice day, Duncan thinks, apart from being underneath a car. It’s not such a bad car, just in an unfortunate position. This is how he prefers to think. Joan puts a cup of tea next to his ear. Still crying, but she’s always been a trooper. Peter isn’t drinking his tea. Joan places a biscuit on the saucer. Duncan can’t reach it.

‘Well, look,’ says Peter, ‘we should at least get you out from underneath the car.’

‘No trouble,’ says Duncan, ‘I’m comfortable enough. Well, as can be expected.’ Maybe he doesn’t have to go to the gym today. It’s not as if the gym’s been helping.

Joan is finally composed. ‘You should drink your tea before it gets cold.’

‘It is a bit nippy out here,’ agrees Duncan, although he’s quite warm where he is.

Finally, Peter sips his tea. It gives him time to think, but he doesn’t arrive at any solutions. This can’t be how any of them expected the day would go, reflects Duncan. Joan has brought a cushion from the sofa to place behind Duncan’s head.

‘Thanks, love,’ murmurs Duncan. ‘Could I trouble you for that biscuit?’

Joan looks bewildered but catches up quickly. She gives him a bite of the biscuit.

‘I feel awful,’ she tells him. ‘There I was shouting at you for being a fool, and …’

‘Water under the bridge,’ he assures her. ‘You didn’t know. How could you?’

‘But I had no business, shouting at you like that. And then you just disappeared.’

‘You must have had a fright,’ he says through a mouthful of biscuit.

‘Chances are we wouldn’t be in this position if I’d just kept my mouth shut.’

Duncan struggles to swallow as Joan carefully wipes stray crumbs from his mouth. ‘I’m not made of glass.’ She dabs a bit harder. ‘Oh, but I felt that!’

‘Oh, go on,’ she says, and smiles for the first time since he went underneath the car.

‘I’ll need a straw to get anywhere near that tea,’ and there’s her smile again.

Peter has composed himself enough to re-enter their conversation, awkwardly. ‘Is there anything I can do?’

Duncan feels sorry for him, this lost Samaritan. ‘You can finish your cup of tea,’ says Duncan, ‘and then be on about your day.’

‘I’ll pour you another,’ says Joan. ‘It’ll be cold by now, and you’ve been so kind.’

That he has. Duncan feels he owes Peter something, even though Peter did very little.

‘Thank you,’ says Peter as Joan hands him a cup. ‘Ah, no thanks,’ to the biscuit. ‘We can’t just leave you there!’ His voice is almost cracking at the end.

‘We’ll be fine,’ says Joan.

‘Fine,’ agrees Duncan. ‘Everybody else has gone.’

It’s true. Everybody else has gone. The road is quiet except for passing cars. The neighbours might be watching, but they’ll probably trot out like nervous cats once Peter goes. Now he has the cushion and the cuppa, Duncan’s getting comfortable. Peter’s the only thing making him uncomfortable, insisting something must be wrong.

Duncan starts to rehearse in his head again: everything is going to be fine. There’s no point in making a fuss, is there? It’s not as if it’s going to help matters. He doesn’t want to be rude to Peter, but Peter can’t seem to take a hint. Maybe if Joan keeps offering biscuits, Peter will decide to leave of his own accord?

Everything is fine, that’s what he’ll tell people. No point in making a fuss. When you find yourself in this sort of situation, he’ll say, you learn to accept it. When you find yourself in this sort of situation ‒ under a car! That should get a laugh. When you are actually in this sort of situation, he’ll say, you have to make the best of it.

‘Don’t let us keep you,’ Joan says to Peter. ‘Look, there’s another bus coming.’

Quite rightly, this bus doesn’t even slow down as it passes Duncan underneath the car.

‘I think I’ll have those aspirin now,’ Duncan tells Joan, who pops one in his mouth. He’s forgotten the difficulty he had with the biscuit, and struggles to swallow again. Staring up at the sky, it can seem like a beautiful day, even from underneath a car.

If past experience is any guide, eventually people will stop talking about the car. Things aren’t so bad, he’ll tell them, and they’ll believe him, even if they don’t fancy it themselves. Joan has brought Peter a chair to sit on, but Peter doesn’t want to sit down.

Ottessa Moshfegh on this year's Moth Short Story Prize winning entriesOpens in new window ]

‘We all have to be underneath a car some day,’ he muses out loud.

‘No we don’t!’ replies Peter, making one last push to persuade Duncan he’s wrong.

Duncan isn’t wrong. ‘When you get to my age, you’ll see things differently.’

Peter has no answer to that. ‘Look, I’ll – I’ll come back later,’ he says.

‘That’ll be nice,’ says Joan, ‘but let us know what time that will be.’

‘You wouldn’t want to come all this way only to find that we’re not in!’ says Duncan.

‘It’s not as if you’re going anywhere,’ Peter mutters, handing his cup back to Joan.

‘I’ve got to get to lunch,’ says Joan, looking at her watch. ‘I’m already late.’

‘I won’t be able to give you a lift today, love,’ says Duncan forlornly.

‘That’s all right, I can get the bus. Shall we get the bus together, Peter?’

Peter sighs, ‘I suppose so.’

Joan bustles back around the car for her coat. ‘Anything you need before we go, dear?’ she asks as she takes Peter’s arm firmly.

‘I’ll be fine,’ repeats Duncan, and this time he means it. Things are never that bad.

‘Bye, then,’ she says.

‘Goodbye, Duncan,’ says Peter, ‘take care.’

‘If I’d taken care, I wouldn’t be underneath this car!’ quips Duncan.

‘Here’s the bus,’ Joan says brightly, ‘I’ll be back in time for the soaps.’

Then they’re out of sight. Duncan is alone with his thoughts, and his cup of tea. Cars pass regularly, swerving considerately to the other side of the road to avoid him. Nobody is underneath those cars, but if they were, he’d try to reassure them. What could anybody do about it, really?

These things happen all the time. This is what people don’t understand: you can’t stop progress. You really can’t. Thank God it’s a nice day. Duncan watches the sun move slowly across the sky. He gets himself comfortable, as comfortable as he can get under the circumstances, and waits for supper.

Paul Currion works as a consultant to humanitarian organisations. His short fiction has been published by The White Review, Ambit, 3am Magazine and Litro, his non-fiction by Granta, Aeon, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. He has also presented sound installations – at TransEuropa Belgrade, Berlin Soundout! and the Vienna Biennale.