"The Light"

Written By

Catherine Murphy

With a long sigh, Marion Williams lowered her shopping bags onto the back seat of the
car, noting where the twins’ sweets were for when she got home, and careful to keep
Anna’s vase on top. She took off her coat and folded it, resting it over the shopping.
 

Anna would be on the plane by now. Marion shivered as the bitter evening chill crept
through her thin cardigan and light wool trousers. She opened the driver’s door and sat down, peering through the windscreen into the darkness as if she might see the plane, with her best friend’s face in the window - as if Anna would be searching through the skies for her in return.

She blinked, wiping her misty eyes on the back of her hand. She was old. Anna was
right. She’d grown old before her age, dried up like a pot-bound gazania that had seen
too many summers. Old people don’t move to Chicago.

Marion put her key in the ignition. The car stumbled but as long as it coughed and
spluttered, it usually started. She rubbed her hand over the wheel and tried again. It
didn’t like the cold and wet. Anna said that any sensible creature would turn against the rough British weather, whether it was a mouse in a hedge, a rusty Volkswagen or a
middle-aged old woman.

Marion tried again. The car gave a halfhearted shudder and growled into life. She patted the dash and drove on to the exit, but before she could put in the coins and press the button to raise the barrier, the engine died.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh dear.”

She tried the key again but this time there wasn’t even a rumble.
Again and again, she turned the key, and with each try the engine’s silence screamed a little louder. The car was going nowhere.

Behind her, someone beeped.

“I’ve broken down, you idiot,” Marion muttered, the windows firmly closed.

She pressed the hazard button and the lights ticked on and off, blinking in the dark. The driver in the car behind her gave another beep and some furious gesticulation that

Marion tried not to see in her mirror, and then reversed back and chose another barrier, still waving one hand in the air between gear changes.

His car worked perfectly, she noted.

Marion sat completely still. The rain smudged the streetlights, casting their beam in soft chips around the car park. It wasn’t that bad a place to sit, she thought. It wasn’t
Chicago, of course, but it was okay.

Another car came up to the barriers and moved around her, leaving at a normal pace.

 

Marion listened to the blink of the hazard lights, the constant on-off tick that matched
her heart. She watched the people coming and going around her, as if she’d turned into a play on the radio half way through.

She shivered. She tried to pull her coat from the shopping but Anna’s vase turned with
it, threatening to fall. Catching the edge, she pushed the coat back around the delicate
china, tucking the gift safely under the thick wool.

A light from the barrier post flashed red. Marion leaned closer to the window but the
speaker crackled and the voice was lost in the night.

She wound down the window.

“Hello?” said the voice. The red light flickered on and off beside the speaker. “Hello,
Madam?”

 

Marion frowned at the light.

“Madam? In the red Volkswagen? Are you stuck?”

The voice was a young man.
“Madam?”

“My car won’t start,” she said.

“Do you need me to call out the AA?” said the voice.

Marion looked around her at the quiet space, each car in its marked box, each life
slotted away on pause.“No,” she said.

With the window open, the cold crept inside the car. She rummaged behind the seats
and pulled out Paul’s old quilted shirt from under the passenger seat. The shirt was
thick with dog hair from the last time they’d used it, taking their old boy to the vet.
Marion pulled it around her shoulders, breathing in the smell of musty old Labrador.

“Um, madam?” said the voice.

The speaker cut out but the red light stayed on. Marion watched it, wondering what it
would say next.

 

Another car came and went. It was late. The boys would be snapping at their father for
something or other and he’d be whining back at them to do their homework. They’d be
hungry; three baby birds yelling at her from their nest, demanding she push foods into
their open beaks.

 

The house would be too warm, the dirty mugs and plates gathering by the sink. The
washing she’d put on that morning would be waiting in the machine, and there was a
form she’d meant to fill out for one of the boys, although she couldn’t remember what it was about.

Somehow, stuck there at the barrier, she didn’t care. Without taking her eyes from the
red light, Marion dipped her hand into the door pocket and felt for the slick mobile phone that Paul had given her. She slid her finger around the edge and found her favorite button, the off/on at the top. Holding her finger to the button, she squeezed the life out of the phone.

Even with the window open, she was quite warm enough with the padded shirt around
her shoulders. The dog had never minded what she’d looked like, and neither did she.

Another car went past, a woman with a child in the back. Marion watched them leave
the car park. Beside her, the red light still pierced the dark.

Marion tipped her head to one side, watching the rain fall down the windscreen. She sat back in the seat. The back support pushed at her spine, reminding her to breathe.

“Um, madam?” said the voice in the speaker. “Is everything OK there?”

“What’s your name?” said Marion.

“My name?”

“Yes,” said Marion. “Who am I talking to?”

“Justin, madam.”

“Hi Justin,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Marion.”

“I’m, um... not supposed to chat,” said Justin. “Would you like me to arrange for help?”

“No,” said Marion. “No, I don’t think so.”

“But you can’t sit there, mada – um... Marion. People need to get in and out.”

“They’re managing perfectly well,” said Marion.

Another car came around from the back of the car park, taking the second lane. The
driver paid the money and the barrier lifted, releasing him to go home. At the far end of
the car park, a family hurried through the rain toward the main street, each one talking,
none of them looking at the others.

Marion wondered if Chicago was as difficult as Exeter, if people still rushed from one
place to the next, seeing nothing but their never ending mental lists, like a sheer voile
curtain held up against their lives.

“Justin?”

“Yes, madam?”

“Do you think you’re important?”

The speaker was quiet for so long she wondered if he’d left and gone away. When he
spoke, his words crackled.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, eventually.

“I want you to tell me the truth,” she said. “Do you think you’re important?”

She could hear the falter in the speaker as he tried out a word on his tongue.

“Yes?” he said.

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“Well, my grandmother tells me that I am her everything,” said Justin.
“I am important to her.”

Marion nodded, slowly. She pulled the padded shirt a little closer over her chest. The
rain had something solid to it, the forecast snow finally thickening the drops too late to
stop Anna from leaving, too late to keep Marion from saying goodbye. The twins would
be delighted. If she was there, they’d demand hot chocolate and a sled, and time to
build a snowman, and -

She wasn’t there.

She wasn’t anywhere, really. Like Anna. Anna was up in the sky between the worlds,
and somehow, without trying, Marion had also found herself in limbo, suspended in the
mid space between places.

She smiled, the cold pinching at her cheeks.

Another plane sped overhead and she wondered what it would be like to be alone up
there, like Anna. All those hours with nothing and no one.

“Um, Marion?” said Justin. “I’ve had a message from my manager. He says you have to
move.”

“Would he like to push the car?” Marion said sweetly.

 

“I don’t think so. He’s in Newton Abbot, today.”

“Ah. Well.”

“I have to tell him what you’re going to do,” said Justin.

“Then we have a problem.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, now.”

The speaker crackled again and Marion wondered what would happen if she didn’t
move, if she just closed the window and stayed there - whether a giant machine would
lift up the car, with her inside, and deposit her back into normal life - whether the
unnamed manager would get angry, from Newton Abbot - whether they’d phone up
Paul, or demand he come down there with the twins, insisting his wife get out of the way of everyone else. Insisting she went home.

“Madam?” said Justin.

“Marion,” she reminded him.

“Um, yeah. Um… Marion, do you want me to pay the car parking money?
Would that help?”

Marion smiled, and shook her head.

“No thank you,” she said.

She rubbed a finger over her lips. They were chapped and dry from the cold, but she’d
forgotten to bring her lipstick. Anna had kissed her before she left, and touched her
finger to Marion’s lips.

“Justin,” she said, turning to the red light again. “Does your grandmother wear lipstick?”

“Um, yeah. I guess,” he said. “On Sundays, anyway.”

Marion nodded. “And does she look better for it? Does it brighten her face?”

“Her hands are a bit shaky,” he said. “But yes. She looks... like her.”

Marion nodded again, considering the old woman.

“Marion?” said Justin. “Are you OK?”

 

She looked back up at the sky, at the disappearing dots of light, one of which might or
might not be Anna’s plane, and she looked down at the slushy snow that had started to settle on the elbow of her sleeve, blown in through the open window, covering the layer of dog hair that she never wanted to wash away.

She could still feel the weight of their soppy old boy as he’d lain in her arms that day.
He’d nestled in to the old quilted shirt as his tail beat, weaker and weaker.
She ran her fingers over the front of the shirt.

“If you want, I can come down there,” said Justin. “I’m only in the office across the car
park. If you look behind you, you can see me.
Look now, I’m waving, see?”

But Marion didn’t look. Instead, she closed her eyes, and she put her hand on the key,
again. She turned it, once. The car lurched, the sparks meeting whatever part they were meant to meet, the magic whizzing through the wires and knobs and tubes as the engine kicked into life.

She slid the pound coin into the slot by the red light. The barrier rose up into the air.

“Marion?” said Justin.

She looked out at the road ahead. Maybe when the festive season was done, when the tree was down and the boys were back at school, maybe she’d go to the rescue center and see if there was another little dog needing a home.

“Marion?” said Justin, again.

After all, not all the dogs could be puppies. Some of them would be a little older, a little
wider – maybe they’d have lost a couple of teeth, or their hair was graying, or they’d
been told they couldn’t have another puppy, whatever their husbands wanted.

She nodded to herself and slid the car into gear. She’d always liked the quilted shirt,
after all. There was no point in throwing it away, just because one of her dearest friends was no longer with her.

Marion put her finger on the window button and watched as the pane of glass slid into
place. The shirt would dry. She could even put it through the wash before she went to
the rescue center.

The red light blinked and faded, and she drove under the barrier.

Catherine (@scribblingink1) lives on the very westerly edge of co. Clare. She has had short stories and poems published in the UK, Ireland and USA recently including Midnight Spinner in Salomé’, Oct 17, and Unclean, in The Stinging Fly, winter 2017. Catherine has psoriatic arthritis, fybromyalgia, and a love of really good biscuits. She feels the latter is the most important. She is currently writing a novel about shipwrecks and lies.