Travelling light: Dave Rudden’s Leaving Cert short story

Question: Write a short story that centres around two characters and a car journey

 Author Dave Rudden. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Author Dave Rudden. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

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Your father fills the passenger seat of his ‘62 Plymouth like moving day, the blocky boxes of his shoulder threatening to spill out over the seat back, his hands messy-huge on the dashboard. You don’t remember ever seeing him sit in the passenger seat before. He never needed to slide on the faded leather the colour of butterscotch - he could reach everything from ‘captain’s chair.’

(his name for it)

You, in comparison, are dwarfed by the scale of things. The gearstick is a femur under your palm, your fingers barely closing around the cool metal of the steering wheel. There is a treasure trove of buttons and dials and levers, not the slick console of a new car - more space race than space age. You would have given your right arm to play with them as a child. You have no desire to touch them now.

‘Are we moving?’

There is a new and querulous edge to your father’s voice. You both notice it, and when next he speaks it is ironed out, once again the rich burr it has always been, deep and solid and bearish.

‘I said, are we moving or not? Places to be, you know.’

You lift your hand in mock-salute, and at the barest touch the car growls to life. You’d always thought that strange. From the outside, it looks like the kind of vehicle you’d need to turn a crank for, all coughs and splutters, but instead it wakes easy as a kitten, eager to explore.

You drive.

Through streets of houses with shuttered windows, under streetlights muzzled by fog. There is the occasional firefly of a traffic light, and if other cars share the road, they are drowned out by the Plymouth’s dusty purr.

‘You’re quiet.’

You don’t turn to look at him.

‘Would it help if I apologised?’

‘No! Why would you -‘

‘Because you might want me to. And I would. If it would help.’

And he would. He never argued, never complained. He’d governed your childhood like mist, accepting every flail and failure before sweeping in again.

Outside, the houses are traded for empty desert, or water. Something vast and open, brimming with the curdling fog. If I strain, can I see…

No. Nothing. Just you and the headlights and the road.

‘You’ve nothing to apologise for,’ you mutter. ‘You know you don’t.’

The sporadic streetlights sweep light over him in stripes of gold and black. They change him, divide him, paint him young and strong then old and wrinkled, catching in pockets of skin. Only his eyes remain constant.

‘If you apologise,’ you murmur, and the words are less for him than they are for you, words you’ve told yourself over and over again. For a moment, the wheel under your hands is thinner, colder, clammy where you’ve gripped it too hard. ‘Then it’s your fault.’

There are shapes in the fog now. Huge shapes, skinned by silver mist. They could be houses, you think, or trees, though no forest or town you’ve ever seen contained things so crushingly large. The road is unchanging, the Plymouth’s growl muted, and it is easy to believe that it is not you moving at all but the world itself, and the towering shapes on either side.

You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to feel each second turned over by the wheels. The headlights catch something from the road and bleach your vision hospital-white, and for just a second the car wobbles on the road before your father’s hand grips yours.

‘Easy,’ he says, just as he did when teaching you to drive all those years ago. ‘Easy.’

‘I could just stop,’ you whisper. ‘I could just -‘

‘You’re not driving,’ your father whispers, as the shapes in the fog are revealed, nauseating in their immensity, huge hooded heads turned to stare blankly at the gnat of a car at their feet. ‘And neither am I. You’re company. Something to make this journey easier. So I’m not alone.’

‘I don’t want to have to go back by myself,’ you choke, and you hate the self-pity in your tone. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about what you’re losing, or about being left behind.

‘It is,’ your father says. ‘This is a journey for you too.’

Ahead, the road is ending.

‘I’m afraid,’ you whisper. ‘The road has fallen away on both sides. There is nothing but mist and darkness on either side, populated by stately, terrible things. Not just for your father, but for yourself. This waits for you too.

‘It’s okay,’ your father says, and he is little more than a silhouette now, a thing of travelling light. It is a rail under your fingers. His voice is soft. ‘You came with me this far. When it’s your turn, I’ll wait for you.’

* Dave Rudden is a novelist and former English teacher. His latest novel, ‘Knights of the Borrowed Dark’, is published by Penguin Books.

Twitter: @d_ruddenwrites

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