Hennessy New Irish Writing: December 2018’s winning story
The ride home, by Helen de Búrca
The writer Helen de Búrca.
She would willingly have walked home. It was late, granted, but the rain had stopped, and it would have taken them less than a half an hour. But he had insisted on booking an Uber. He almost always did – it had become a running joke with their friends that he called Ubers on the least excuse, simply because he liked playing with the app. As soon as anyone needed to go anywhere, he would become absorbed in following the little car icon as it turned down virtual roads, four, three, two minutes away, only waking again to his surroundings when, abruptly, it was time for hurried goodbyes.
When they exited the building, the white car was parked right in front of them. As they crawled into the back seat, she said, “Willis?” feeling all the discomfort of calling an absolute stranger by his first name and imagining briefly a negative response and the enraged question: what the hell were they doing in his car.
However, the young man – surely he was far too young? – merely gave a laconic nod and the car moved off smoothly, making hardly any more sound than it had when at rest.
She rarely rode in cars any more – apart from these increasingly frequent nocturnal Uber trips, she usually walked or took public transport – and she found this absence of sound unnerving. The dashboard seemed far more complicated than any she had previously seen, covered with dials and images of cars and maps that responded to each turn or change in speed.
Her mind flooded with images of a faceless delinquent walking through the depths of the night
She was watching it in tired fascination as they waited for a green light near the town hall, when she heard the sound of something hard being struck repeatedly with something else hard. Panic jolted through her. She glanced over at her husband, then at the driver, but it was as if neither of them heard it, irregular, continuous and threatening. She did not dare to look back toward its source. Her mind flooded with images of a faceless delinquent walking through the depths of the night toward the waiting cars, striking each one with a hammer in passing, stopping beside her to leer in the window in sadistic amusement, taking aim . . .
“What’s that?” she said quickly.
Neither of the men answered.
Shouts began to accompany the banging. She shrank into her seat, away from the window. She could not tell whether the door was locked or not; she could not tell whether she wanted to know this in order to leap out or to keep whoever was making the noise at bay.
A shape darted past her window. Then, further on, she caught sight of two young girls and a boy. The figure that had run past called out something, seemingly to the three others. She realised that it was another boy and that he was holding a bottle, something in clear heavy glass: vodka, perhaps, or gin. He must have been knocking it off something to make that noise; she wondered why the bottle had not shattered.
The three other young people turned slightly as the fourth caught up with them, and their voices rose in a chorus that sounded like a jeer. The boy with the bottle made as if to throw it into the road, in front of the waiting cars, but at the last moment he did not release it. The small group turned the corner and disappeared from view.
It had lasted only a few seconds; really, nothing had happened. She told herself this and her body disagreed, her heart thumping in her throat, a sick feeling digging itself into her guts, a tremor settling into her hands.
She cleared her throat and, trying for a tone of levity, hoping neither of the men had noticed her fright, she said, “That’s a great way to spend your nights when you’re 15. I suppose they’ll be off smashing traffic lights for the rest of the night.”
As soon as she had said it, her words rebounded in all of their stark stupidity. The driver’s youth was a glaring fact; he seemed hardly older than the boy with the bottle. Her silly little statement appeared artificial and causeless, as if they had never seen the young people, as if she was not in the car but on an empty stage, with the driver as her sole bored spectator, judging her for being so judgmental. She lowered her eyes so that she might not see the sneer spreading across his face in the rear-view mirror.
“Well, I suppose we all did mad things when we were that age . . .” her husband said. She wondered whether he was trying to comfort her, but why should he, unless he had perceived how frightened she had been and, if he had, why had he not comforted her then?
She thought: listen to the pair of fuddy duddies, even if neither of us is much over 40. But 40 was only considered young by people their own age, whereas anyone the age of the driver or the youths in the street must see them as utterly has-been.
She felt compelled to try to repair her earlier statement, but found herself saying, “But we didn’t go out breaking bottles and damaging public property for fun. We didn’t have the money to be . . .”
She stopped. She didn’t know what she was trying to say, really, and felt she was making things worse, that the driver’s sneer must be deepening.
She tried again. “We went to clubs, to concerts, we didn’t just hang around the streets . . . There are still concerts and clubs to go to . . . But I suppose we did hang around outside drinking too. When we were their age. I suppose. But . . . we never . . .”
An impression of those distant Saturday nights came to her: pools of vomit in the streets, broken beer bottles littering the gutters, bits of brown glass still attached to unbroken paper labels, figures shouting and screeching and weaving through the orange light of streetlamps.
“Or maybe . . . we weren’t so different.”
She felt defeated, even though nobody had argued with her. But there had been, she was sure, something different about the excesses of her own youth, even if she found herself incapable of explaining it. A difference of intention, maybe? The difference between a bottle slipping from numb fingers and smashing unnoticed, and a bottle being deliberately, laughingly broken onto a cycle path? Was that difference true, and was it important? Was one any better than the other? Why did she feel the compulsion to prove that one was better, to herself or to the silent driver?
“Aren’t we supposed to evolve?” she asked hopelessly, and she realised that the car was already pulling up in front of their apartment block, and they were thanking the driver and scrambling out, and he was pulling away, and she knew miserably that she would never change his opinion of them now.
As she followed her husband inside, she recalled her compulsion to flee upon hearing the sharp noise, and she wondered whether this alertness to imminent danger was new, or whether it had simply become keener over time. Was it because she had not needed it when she had been younger or had she simply been foolish? Well, of course she had; through how many unfamiliar pre-dawn streets had she wandered in long-past days, blurred and stupefied, defenceless and blissfully ignorant of her defencelessness? But this evening she had been shocked to discover the extent to which conservatism had settled into and solidified within her, like a layer of fat that has crept under the skin, or the insidious spread of grey hair over the scalp.
Had she been utterly taken over?
But what reaction would not have been that of a conservative, older, less amusing person? Should she have laughed the noise off? She would have seemed mad. What other reaction might have been possible? She could hardly have jumped out of the car, grabbed the bottle and begun bashing things with it herself. But why did it seem to her now that only extreme options were possible?
As she wiped off her make-up, she studied the grey hairs that had begun to cluster about her forehead. There were certainly more of them than she had thought. There was something in their stealth – an extra one every time she looked, each strand already long enough to have been there for months, even though she had never seen it before – that made her think of 1950s films about aliens stealing people’s bodies, leaching out their consciousness, taking over towns without any but the powerless hero becoming aware of it.
She had not dyed her hair for years; would she have to start again? How ridiculous that would be, over a decade and a half after reverting to her natural colour – insisting on keeping it, even when hairdressers tried to suggest tints or highlights – an insistence dating back to her late 20s, when all of a sudden the reds and blacks and pinks and platinums and indeterminate streaks of her teens and early 20s had seemed indecorous. Was it symbolic of something, that just as she had finally learned to like her natural hair colour, nature was busily transforming it into something that, whatever choice she made, she would dislike?
She thought again of the driver and of what she had said to her husband as he had unlocked the front door: “It’s strange how saying anything feels artificial when someone else is listening in . . .”
He had not appeared to have heard her, for he had pushed the door open and walked in without turning or responding, and it had suddenly seemed like an inversion of the sexual pull she had felt when with him at the beginning of their relationship: her own awareness of her attractiveness for him, which had felt like being observed at all times with appreciation, like being followed about by a camera fuelled by desire, so that her most meaningless movements, even when alone, but most especially when with him, had become heavy with significance, revelatory of fascinating personality.
She remembered how, in those days, to be newly in love had been to feel his desire-drugged gaze investing her with a meaning far deeper than anything she had ever contained before being loved by him. How long ago it had been, that evening when she had been so aware of him, newly her lover, as he had watched her move about his kitchen preparing a meal for his friends, whom she was about to meet for the first time? Had the friends already been present in the next room, talking and laughing and drinking beer? Had his eyes really been like hands upon her as she had made a salad and drawn trays from the oven, or had she imagined them and made her gestures more languid than usual for nothing, or had she been alone in the kitchen while, in the next room, he had talked to his friends, each of them equally insensible of the proximity of the other’s body?
He came into the bathroom now, and she looked at his reflected face near hers and fiercely attempted to rearrange those so-familiar features into the face of that long-past night she had forgotten until only a moment before. Seemingly unaware of her scrutiny, he took his toothbrush and squeezed some toothpaste on it, and she wondered whether the first traces of those lines had already been on his face at that dinner. She certainly remembered having noticed the silver that had already threaded his hair when they had first met, but had there been less of it?
She leaned back against the door frame and appraised him openly, confirming to herself that she still found his face beautiful, and that each of the lines on it, whether new or old, was also beautiful, for they were marks not only of gravity, but of the smiles he had shared with others, and especially with her, so many smiles, so that those lines made that face hers almost as much as it was his, for nobody had observed his face for as long and with as much attention as she.
He glanced at her questioningly, and the intervening years had changed the meaning of her gaze too: no longer the appraising gaze of a lover stoking the promise of his future pleasure with the promise of her own, nor a maternal gaze either – a transformation she had watched occur in the eyes of some of her friends, which always made her wonder whether their partners were uncomfortable or unhappy, or perhaps proud, to be contemplated in that way, or whether they noticed it at all.
Did she still want his eyes and hers to smoulder when they met? Or was it enough, as it suddenly seemed now, to be abruptly happy that, when she took her own toothbrush and began cleaning her teeth at his side, they both knew perfectly how not to clash elbows in the small space, and how not to spit across each other into the basin?
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her stories have won several prizes and have been published, among others, by the Sunday Business Post, Aesthetica, Occulum, Wasafiri, Number Eleven Magazine, The Ham Free Press and The Stockholm Review of Literature.
How to enter
Hennessy New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty, and appearing in The Irish Times on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. All stories and poems published in Hennessy New Irish Writing will be eligible for the 2018 Hennessy Literary Awards.