A short story about grief, fear, and coming to terms with yourself.
The first day of university should be one to remember. Sadly for Rebecca, her son’s first day will — quite possibly — be filled with recollections of her looking terrified at the wheel. It was the fear of the motorway that did it: for Rebecca, it was a beast, a huge runway that, if one didn’t fly instantly, they would crash and burn. Her hands gripped and released the steering wheel as she heard the ill-tempered comments and raging horns battering and bruising the car. Every angry beep, every look in the mirror at the faces, made her feel — while hearing her heart thumping through her ears — more tense and anxious. She then watched the cars behind her go around them with enraged stares.
She suddenly heard Isaac’s voice, ‘Mum?’ He said, ‘if you can’t do this, you don’t have to.’
She squeezed her eyes together and felt the salty tears leap out her eyes and singe her cheeks like a cigarette on skin, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’
She looked over at him and he caressed her shoulder with his hand, ‘don’t worry about it, okay? There’s always another way. I’d rather you be safe than to risk your health.’
She turned back to the road, looked left to the entrance of the motorway, thought about it, and looked right to which would lead her toward the town centre, ‘leave it, Mum,’ Isaac said, ‘the train station will be fine. Besides, my friends will be there, so I won’t be alone.’
She turned right at the roundabout and away from her promise.
She watched his every movement with strong attempts to battle back the emotions. Once a bouncy and imaginative boy, was now a young and handsome man of nineteen heading out on his own. The past years of seeing him grow felt to her like a flick book playing rapidly over and over again in her mind. Suddenly, the passenger seat was empty, the boot of the car was opened and closed and he was at the window with bags in hand and a large smile plastered on his face. The pleasant breeze from the open window matched the look on his young and soft face — her only wish was that she could have driven him up from Nottingham to Sheffield herself and spent a little bit longer with him. She smiled back, and like fighting back large waves, she hid the negatives away from him and watched and listened as his group of friends shouted and waved from afar.
‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing this,’ she said, ‘my boy is all grown up.’
‘Before I go, Mum,’ he said, his voice changing into a serious tone, ‘don’t beat yourself up over this, please. I know you want to be more like Dad, and I know you want to take us around to different places like he did, but if it’s going to make you feel like this, I would rather you play it safe,’ the mood was lifted as he smiled once more, ‘maybe one day, who knows? When I pass my test, we’ll have that road-trip together.’
‘Thanks, I needed that,’ she said, ‘now go on, your friends are calling you, and call me when you get there.’
‘I will,’ he said, ‘I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too.’
They hugged and she kissed his cheek and the tears began to flow once more. She watched him leave until he was nothing more than a dot like a bird that had flown the nest. She could still hear his voice and feel his touch, and as she imagined his childhood, the weakness of his grip back then and the lightness of his voice, she pictured him again, like the flick book, growing stronger and stronger, until he was too strong for her keep. She thought of his dad, Darren, and how proud he would’ve been.
Even though she lived in a small two-bedroom house, it instantly felt like it had grown a million times wider and a million times taller. She closed the door and the emptiness of the house was felt by the echo she heard after the door had closed. She stood there for some time and walked slowly through the hallway — which was once filled with laughing children and jokes from adults — made herself a coffee and immediately filled the hollow air by switching on the television. She held the coffee in her hand, flicked through the channels to the comedy channel to try and colour in the greys and the darks, and waited for the moment she would hear her child’s voice again.
The phone rang and she looked at her phone to see Isaac’s name, ‘hey sweetie.’
‘Hey Mum,’ his voice was loud with multiple sounds of laughter around it, ‘I’ve just arrived and I’m about to head over there now. Before I go, remember what I said?’
‘I know, I know, don’t beat myself up.’
‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘I love you Mum and I’ll speak to you soon.’
‘Love you too.’
The call ended. She had wanted to apologise again but knew it would only dampen the happy mood like a sudden rainstorm disrupting a friends’ outing in a park in the summer. She walked over to the shelf, picked up the picture from years ago of them all with a beautiful backdrop of blue skies, fields, mountains and trees, and felt the scenes come flooding back: the laughter from Isaac as a child as he ran, shouted and played through the fields and the touch of Darren’s grip while they stood by the car and revelled in the joy. She remembered the confidence, the sensations and fulfilment he used to give her and how fast it was suddenly taken away. He had gone. She had to come to terms with that. — but how?
The day moved forward and the night drew in covering the skies with blackness, stars and a cold atmosphere, to which one could feel — and if they would to walk through it, they would see their breath escape their numb lips. Rebecca sat with the lamp on in the living room which stood in the corner of the room with the TV flicking from colour to colour. A playful-sounding knock on the door suddenly sounded and that only meant one thing. She headed for the door.
‘Hey Kelly,’ she said.
Kelly rubbed her hands together and blew warmth into them, ‘Hey babe,’ she said, ‘bloody hell, it sure is cold out there.’
She took off her coat and hung it on the radiator.
‘Go sit down, I’ll make you a cuppa.’
She had known Kelly for years — since childhood actually — and she had helped see her through the cries, the roundabouts and the roller-coasters. Whatever had happened, she had been there. She also had a good eye for lifting her up when she needed it most. Kelly was good for that: she had a smile like soft stretchy play-dough, a strong voice, a contagious loud laugh that tickles your neck and eyes that can see if the truth is being told or hidden — she adored Kelly.
She walked into the living room with a mug of tea, sat it on the coffee table and sat back down, ‘Isaac left for uni today.’
‘Jesus,’ said Kelly, turning to face her, ‘don’t sound too happy for him.’
‘No, no, I didn’t mean it like that,’ she said, ‘it’s just how quick the day went, that’s all. Suddenly he is here, and then, puff… he isn’t.’
Kelly sighed deeply, got up, sat her mug on the table and walked off, ‘any wine?’
‘Why do we need wine?’
‘Come off it babe,’ she said, ‘wine is a gift for talks like these. Trust me, I’ve known you for years.’
She was right, after all. She knew it. Kelly knew it. They both knew it. It was as clear as a stain on a clean white shirt.
Kelly immediately came back with a bottle in one hand and two glasses gripped tightly in the other, ‘there you go,’ she said, sitting next to her, ‘now, tell auntie Kelly what’s the matter.’
The wine was poured and as it poured, the emotions and words waited like a long line of customers in a supermarket, ‘today I felt like the worst mother in the world.’
Kelly’s jaw immediately dropped as if her jaws had turned to bricks, ‘why would you say that?’
Rebecca’s breath rattled in her windpipe, ‘Because I am, I was supposed to have took him to Sheffield myself, but I just… froze.’
Kelly turned off the TV, set her glass down on the table and suddenly, the world was gone and the house was an island away from the neighbours, cars and buildings.
‘You’re not the worst mother in the world, Rebecca,’ she told, putting her hand on her knee, ‘if you wanna know who that is, look at my bloody mum, and we both know what she was like.’
Rebecca remembered her, and immediately pushed it to one side, ‘I know, she was horrible.’
‘Yes she was, and you, are nothing like that bitch.’
‘I know I’m not,’ she took a sip of her wine, ‘but it doesn’t help that I still let him down. When I got home, I thought about Darren and about the trips we used to take every weekend. We used to get up and just go sometimes. It didn’t matter where. Could’ve been Scotland, Wales — anywhere. The longest trip we took was to Spain. I can’t do any of that. The furthest I’ve took him was to Eastwood to see his friends.’
‘Right,’ Kelly suddenly spoke, ‘What’re you doing this weekend?’
‘Nothing much, why?’
Kelly sat up and poked her on the shoulder, ‘We’re going to bitch-slap this fear of yours and get you on that motorway.’
‘Kelly, I can’t do that. What’s the point?’
‘The point is to stop you from feeling like shit all the time. Listen, I was scared shitless once — ’
Rebecca’s face looked baffled,‘you, scared shitless?’
‘Yeah, I was, and you know what I’m like, I knocked its bloody head off and sent it flying,’ she told, ‘look, all I’m saying is babe, is that — and I’m sorry for saying this, and you might hate me after, but fuck it — Darren is never coming back to take you guys on a trip. Isaac has also grown up and is going to be driving around on his own soon,’ she put her hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes, ‘you need to do this for yourself, Rebecca — not Darren, not Isaac,’ she poked her again, ‘you.’
Was she right?
Perhaps she was right.
Of course, she was! And she knew from the constant nagging and the self-beatings she was committing every second and every minute she drove in her car. She missed the trips too. She missed them all. The smiles — the laughs — the good-time memories that sparked flashes of flames in the moments she needed them the most. She needed them now more than ever — it has been far too long. Maybe it was time to battle her way through the hurts and doubts and tread the paths of newly-found interesting lands on her own. Yes! It was time!
Kelly had done it again.
‘So,’ Kelly spoke, ‘what do you say?’
‘Okay…’ she answered, with a deep nervous breath, ‘just don’t be too hard on me, okay?’
‘That’s my Rebecca!’ Kelly pumped the air, ‘I knew you had it in you, and don’t worry, I won’t push you… too hard.’
After the conversation ended and the only things that were left from it were the exciting feelings and nervous thoughts, she waved Kelly out and closed the door — she was alone again. She walked one, two, three and four steps, put her back against the wall, looked up at the ceiling and told herself that she was going to be fine and would get through the challenging moments to come. She took a deep breath. Thought about Darren — then Isaac — smiled a small smile and headed to bed.
Come on Rebecca, you can do this.
It was an early afternoon and the time had come. The look of the day was perfect, in what she hoped, was going to be a pleasant drive: the skies were almost clear with clouds scattered here and there and the trees adding to the fallen leaves on the wet floor. She couldn’t help but feel her nerves twitching and her thoughts racing like a cinema playing the ifs and the buts and the maybes and they all came together like a loud-thumping orchestra playing for the world to hear.
‘All set?’ Asked Kelly, her hand was placed on Rebecca’s lap and was gazing at Rebecca.
Rebecca gazed forward, felt her quivering breaths fighting for control while she tried to focus on the here and the now. She took a deep breath in and a deep breath out, turned the key, and felt the car come to life.
‘You’ll be okay, babe,’ Kelly told, ‘remember I am here, and I will let nothing bad happen.’
‘I know,’ she said
‘Now let’s kick this fears ass!’
She breathed hard once more, ‘I’ll try.’
‘Let’s do this!’
The car started forward and the safe home and driveway became a thing of the past. Like before, she felt her hands gripping and releasing the steering wheel as she tried her utmost best to remember Kelly was with her.
There it was, not so far in front. In a short while, she’ll be at the same spot as she felt the vibration of nerves and thoughts beginning to bubble and bounce — she battled strong and hard and had to remember once again that Kelly was there beside her.
She felt Kelly’s hand touch hers and the words, ‘you can do this.’
She reached the roundabout. She was there. In and out and in and out — she breathed through her nose and out her mouth.
She heard Kelly’s voice again, ‘you good?’
She nodded rapidly, ‘yeah.’
‘Again, I’m here.’
The cars went around the same roundabout and she waited and waited as she heard the seconds tick and the minutes tock in her head. It was a constant struggle of front-crawls in a rough and dark sea — but she remembered — Kelly was there.
‘You can do this,’ Kelly encouraged, ‘just take your time.’
There it is — the space. There it is — now go! She pressed down on the peddle and moved into it, and suddenly — suddenly — she was heading toward the target.
She heard Kelly’s voice, ‘remember, I am here.’
Inch by inch the gap to the entrance to the motorway came closer and closer and a tick of the box on the check-list was about to be made. She could see it. She could feel it.
You can do this.
She knew it.
Remember, I am here.
She remembered, she had to. She remembered, she was there. She remembered — where did she go? She had gone — no! No, she was still there. She was being silly — stupid! She was not alone battling this dreaded barrage herself — Kelly was there! Just a little bit longer now. She felt her heart pounding her ribcage and punching and screaming as if it was attempting an escape. The tires of the car were soon going to cross the entrance — and then…
The car was still moving, her heart was still beating and her eyes were wide and open to the world — and, it resented her. It was a mistake to do this! She couldn’t! She heard the swearing from the open and passing windows and the horns that came along with them — she couldn’t!
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ Rebecca cried, hitting the wheel with her palm, not once, but twice, ‘I’m such a fucking wimp!’ She went silent, and spoke again, ‘I’m sorry, Kelly.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, ‘it’s fine… do you fancy a coffee?’
Rebecca held the coffee mug with her nervously-filled hands, took a gulp, and felt the strong warmth, taste and smell of the coffee wrap itself around her and squeeze her gently. She felt as if the coffee itself was trying to remind her that she was only human, and that, maybe she should try attempt to filter out this monstrous regret. Kelly did the same. She too, was quiet. Both tried to find the words best-suited for the scene that was about to play out. At least the atmosphere of the coffee shop and the window seat they sat at made a great team in creating a pleasant sensation: little laughs here and there and soft voices from elderly folk nearby along with the light and view from the window made it easier for them both.
Kelly made the first move, ‘you’re not weak, you know,’ she began, looking over at Rebecca who was in deep thought, ‘if that’s what you think, that is?’
Rebecca didn’t say a word. It’s not like she didn’t want to speak: it was just that the energy had been zapped out of her. Kelly knew it was her duty now to paint a better picture and place it inside her head.
‘You think I’m strong?’ She continued, ‘maybe I am, but… in reality, deep down, I’m one emotionally screwed up bitch.’
Kelly suddenly felt and saw something that seemed rare to her: a small glint in the eye and a smudge in her vision followed by a touch of a tear making its way out and slowly down.
Rebecca slowly came together and felt a slight bit of fuel make its way into her and noticed Kelly’s expression, and, with a small hint of a frown, ‘no… that’s not true.’
‘It is,’ Kelly said, ‘when I’m with you, and everyone else, I feel I have to put on this brave face all the time…’
She paused and Rebecca felt her emotions shift from feeling sorry for herself to feeling sadness for Kelly. She watched as Kelly paused, after she paused, more tears made her eyes sparkle and her skin compress as she looked out of the window to try and control it.
‘Kelly, I — ’
‘But when I’m alone…I have broken down so many times, but never in public’ she told, ‘I guess seeing you this way for so long has finally gotten to me, you know.’
The pause was long and Rebecca knew she had to give Kelly some time to gather the words she needed. She had never seen this side to Kelly before — not really — maybe a few times, yes. But, it had been numerous years since their late teens and early twenties when their souls were young and their bodies were stuffed with fun and laughter when their eyes had last cried together.
Kelly smiled a little, ‘I saw her the other day.’
The smile had gone, ‘my mum.’
‘Yeah, a couple days ago, in Tesco.’
Kelly tapped her cup with both hands and Rebecca watched the deep sentimental breaths she took and her eyes, as if turning into theatres, replayed the pictures in her mind.
‘And… she walked straight passed me.’
Rebecca shook her head, but somehow, she wasn’t surprised: this is how things have always been between the two of them.
‘How did she look?’
Kelly placed her elbow on the table, looked at the ceiling while resting her chin on her palm and smirked, ‘like the same bat-shit-crazy bitch with whisky and vodka shoved in her basket.’
She then chuckled, shook her head, and looked out of the window.
‘She hasn’t changed, has she.’
‘No… she hasn’t.’
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
She frowned slightly and thought, ‘five years ago, at the same place, in the same aisle.’
‘The same thing.’
Rebecca watched Kelly’s expression and witnessed it change from sad, to a slight hint of a smile and a chuckle, to a face where, as if a hurtful moment in a film was to appear, was placed right in front of her.
‘You know, when I look back, sometimes I feel like I deserved it.’
Rebecca felt the shock and pain of the words entangled with the sights she used to witness as Kelly as a child. She remembered the shouting and the screaming and the crying from Kelly when she used to go over and visit her. She only lived down the road. However, the house still felt so scary and alien to her. She had always wondered how Kelly coped.
‘Don’t you fucking dare, you didn’t deserve any of that Kelly, Kelly, look at me,’ Kelly looked at her and she reassuringly touched her hand and felt the coldness coming from her pale skin, ‘why did you say that?’
Rebecca’s words were soft and the tone of her voice was caring. Kelly looked away again as if the outside was the only way to remember those memories.
‘Remember when my mum’s windows were smashed and her tires were slashed?’
Rebecca, as if knowing where this was going, furrowed her brow slightly, ‘yeah, I remember.’
‘That was me,’ Kelly revealed, ‘I was a bitch to her so many times, but strangely enough, after all the fights and the cruel things that were said and done, she never called the police…’ her breaths moved deeply in and out once more and she paused and sighed, ‘man… I’m pathetic.’
Rebecca, with a sudden urge to smile — a slight hint of one was formed — then the smile spread, then a little chuckle escaped. Kelly looked and frowned, and then, like a tickle on the neck they could both feel, they both erupted like a large television screen showing a live comedy show with thousands of people in the crowd. With tearful eyes, they both looked around at the surrounding looks and made a face as if they were sat in a library.
‘Sorry guys,’ Kelly grasped her stomach as she tried to speak, ‘just a couple of old ladies here releasing some tension.’
An elderly man who was sat with his wife cheekily grinned their way from the next table, ‘you look fine to me.’
His wife kicked him underneath the table and he flinched with an ouch, ‘sorry about him,’ she said.
‘No problem, he’s a looker, and so are you sweetie,’ Kelly told.
Rebecca and Kelly sniggered to one and other and continued on with their conversation.
Rebecca was in hysterics, her breaths and stomach felt they were about to burst, ‘How did I know you were going to say that?’
Like medicine of relief had been injected inside of her, Kelly began to wipe away the fighting, the shouting, the sleepless nights and the cries, ‘perhaps because you have known me for over thirty years.’
Rebecca quickly thought about the days and the nights they had both spent together along with the highs and the lows, ‘Wow, has it been that long?’
‘It has, and you know what Rebecca, you think you’re weak, but really, you’re far from it,’ Kelly spoke, ‘when Darren passed, six years ago?’
Rebecca nodded and the sides of her mouth drooped.
‘You have supported that kid all you can and you have raised him to be the man he is today,’ she told, ‘so what if you can’t take him places, it would’ve been nice, sure, but the kid is going places now, and you have to get that guilt out of your head because you don’t deserve to have that weighing you down.’
The words had filtered through and the sensations, the thoughts, and the resonance of her heart, had lightened like falling feathers and leaves.
‘One of the things that keep popping up inside my head is the song we used to play when we went on those trips,’ Rebecca said, pondering the nostalgic memories which would cause her to smile and Kelly to smile too.
‘Was it that Sit Down song?’ Kelly asked with a snigger.
‘Yes, it was!’
‘It went like this, right? Oh sit dooown, oh sit dooown, oh sit, come on, sing with me Rebecca,’ Rebecca was reluctant at first, but the flow of joy that Kelly gave from the bouncing, moving and laughing was too much to ignore and she joined in and they both sang together like there was nobody else but them, ‘sit dooown next to meeee, sit dooown, sit dooown, sit dooown, sit dooown, doooooown, in sympaaathyyyyyy!’
They finished and they both sighed, looked around carelessly again at the many faces — some smiling, some not — some rolling their eyes looking fed up — took a sip of their coffees, relaxed back on their seats, smiled at one and other, and as if to reassure that everything will be fine and well, they exchanged a wink.
‘I haven’t sung like that in ages,’ Rebecca said.
‘Yup, and we’re still as shit as ever.’
They laughed again.
The car came to a halt as they appeared outside Kelly’s house. They both gazed at the narrow street that was filled with cars on both sides and the rows of old-looking terraced houses that went all the way down to the end and, as if remembering the healing they had both done for each other, they smiled while looking each other’s way. Rebecca knew she couldn’t stay there for long as she was parked in the middle of the road. Kelly released her seatbelt and hugged her.
‘Thanks for that,’ Kelly said.
‘No problem, knowing you’re here makes all the difference.’
Kelly got out of the car and knelt in front of the door.
‘So, what’re you going to do?’ Kelly asked.
‘Oh, well… I really don’t know.’
Kelly smiled, ‘take as long as you need, okay?’
Rebecca nodded and smiled back, ‘I will.’
Rebecca drove away, waved to Kelly, and she heard the words in her head of the song that she and Darren used to play and sing and she began to sing along too. She felt the road beneath the car — the bumps that came with it, and the not-so-smooth that came after — and she looked ahead at the passing houses, the streets, the leaf-covered pavements and the clear autumn skies, and thought, maybe, just maybe, she might be feeling and seeing something different again someday.