‘Did I defrost the chicken?’ Janice asked Mungo, the small bobbled bear stuck to her dashboard, as she pulled into the stream of going-home traffic.
Tom used to do the remembering for both of them. That was before. Before the stroke which changed everything, destroyed his memory, robbed him of control over his left side. Janice worried sometimes that her conversations with Mungo now outstripped those with Tom. She felt him drifting away from her, like a boat at the end of a long rope.
The brake lights on the car ahead of her glowed red, then the yellow hazard lights blinked. Janice groaned.
She moved the gear lever into neutral. Her body felt heavy, her limbs slow to respond. Ahead of her, merging into the distance towards the clouded horizon, stretched an endless line of stopped cars, their brake lights a ruby runway which led eventually home. Far, far in the distance, so far that it might as well be another country, she saw the flash of tiny blue lights.
‘No, please,’ she implored. She wanted to get home before Tom fell asleep. A former crosswords demon, he now stared at the black and white squares with bemused indifference.
‘No!’ she slapped the steering wheel with her palms, but it made no difference. On days like this, it felt as if her veins ran with pure vinegar. She resented Tom’s disability, then hated herself for resenting him. She resented the cheerful neurologist—apparently all of twelve years old—who had proclaimed that Tom was his youngest patient ever.
She turned off the engine and exhaled loudly, settled back in her seat. The first star was just visible on the horizon, above the caramel band of smog. An airplane, with supreme arrogance, drew a feathery white line across the sky on its way to…where? Somewhere different, was all that mattered, just at that moment. Away from the traffic. Away from Tom’s inexorable deterioration. It was like watching a work of art being vandalised slowly, gradually, a little more each day. She fumbled in the glove box for a mint.
‘Let’s see what’s happening in the world, Mungo,’ she said with little enthusiasm. The radio’s digital display glowed bright green, the colour of phosphorescent algae in the ocean. Thirty-nine people have been killed by a marketplace bomb which exploded…She hit the Seek button. The display raced upwards until it found the next station. …said that the bodies had lain undiscovered for at least a month…Seek. More migrants were turned away at the border with…Seek. The display had reached the highest frequency, a wasteland whose rarefied atmosphere would support no broadcasts. Instead of plummeting back down, however, it remained stuck at 120 MHz.
Silence. Janice’s hand hovered next to the Seek button.
Then came the first sound, a single sustained note, from some unfamiliar instrument, of such strength and purity that her brain did not at first recognise it as music.
Another note followed, of crystal sweetness, from a different instrument—or maybe a voice, she could not tell—in such perfect harmony that it seemed they had fused into one. Janice’s hand dropped to her lap. She leaned towards the radio as if to follow the sound to its source. Suddenly a surge of music filled the inside of the car and forced the air from her lungs.
Thrown back against the car seat, she gasped for breath. With each note she felt the tension in her neck and shoulders melt like ice cream on a barbeque. Tears trickled into the corners of her mouth. The music carried on, its exquisite, searing splendor almost too much to bear.
Slumped against the steering wheel, she could feel it: the beating heart of the earth. It had always been there, but she had never felt it before. Or maybe she had, but only when she was a very small child. Like living next to a power station, one eventually ceases to hear its hum.
‘Now I know,’ she whispered, ‘everything is different.’
She became aware again of her surroundings as the last note of the music faded away. She jabbed at the controls, trying to find the right frequency, a whimper of desperation on her lips. Only soft static hissed from the radio. Then came the realisation: all she needed to do to hear the music was to open her mind. Like turning on a faucet, it was always there.
Suddenly it all made sense, the strange and improbable things that had happened recently. The last full moon had risen like a blood orange in the sky. Mrs Jenkins next door had found a tiny frog in the corner of her eye. Overnight, the town’s scrap yard had been smothered in a brilliant blue carpet of morning glory.
Up ahead, one car after another reignited its engine. A warm veil of serenity fell across her mind. Tom would understand once she explained it to him.
The cars inched forward slowly. Soon they were whizzing down the road at the normal commuter pace. There was just one more hold-up, as each car slowed at the scene of the accident. Like a dinosaur skeleton, the burned-out chassis of the wrecked car looked like a relic of a forgotten age.
‘Nothing will ever be the same,’ she told Mungo. ‘Nothing’. His shiny black eyes concurred.
The windows were dark when she arrived at their modest two-bedroom house. She opened the front door quietly, and the outside light revealed Tom’s familiar form slumped in the armchair in front of the TV. He looked so peaceful. She lowered herself gently into the chair beside him, and was instantly asleep.
Several hours later, the cool blue light of morning fell across her face. Her back hurt and her clothes were smelly and creased. Then, suddenly, it came back to her. She caught her breath and dropped to her knees in front of Tom’s chair.
‘Tom, you’ll never—’
But there was no need to finish the sentence. His dear face, where it had lain all night against the rough tweed of the armchair, was the colour of putty. She sat back on her heels.
He already knew.
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida, where there were hurricanes most years. She first came to the UK in 1987 looking for adventure, and found it. After spells of living in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband and three furry children. Vanessa leads the local community choir, and music and writing are big parts of her life.
Her debut novel Under a Dark Summer Sky came out earlier this year.
Find out more about Vanessa on her Website www.vanessalafaye.wordpress.com