Friday, 16 November 2012

National Short Story Week: "Traffic"

It's National Short Story week and some members of Authors Electric thought it would be fun to share a short story to celebrate.  This is my contribution - set in Italy where a jazz musician has taken his girlfriend to a borrowed cottage for a holiday that doesn't go exactly to plan.   For more information and stories please take a look at the Indie E-book Review site where Cally Phillips has more entertainment lined up! And Cally has more stories FREE on her own blogsite too.
By the time you read this I, too, will be on trains and planes - hopefully having a better experience than Breda and Noel!

‘It’s a good job we couldn’t cancel the other flights,’ Breda said, looking at the stationary cars in front of them.


TRAFFIC
                  
Breda knew that something was wrong as she turned her head on the pillow and peered up into the darkness, puzzlingly awake.  Should she be awake?  She could feel the solid bulk of Noel next to her, his deep even breathing.  The warm depth of the mattress pulled her down again, but the darkness, and the silence of the room she couldn’t see, continued to hover above her with disturbing persistence.

She put out her hand and pressed the small button to illuminate the clock face.  It was five thirty three.  Five thirty three!  Diving out of the bed into the damp cold air she flung on the light crying out to Noel, ‘We’ve slept in.  Come on .....’   He groaned as she tugged the duvet off him.

Breda’s brain refused to be orderly.  She had one sock on, while she struggled to get the gas alight under the kettle, but gave up when she discovered Noel had already turned the cylinder off.   She tried to brush her hair while wrestling the sheet off the bed, tossing nightclothes and washbag into the suitcase, the contents of the fridge into a bin liner.  Noel was being maddeningly methodical; checking cupboards, reading the meters.
‘It would have to be bloody raining,’ he said as he went out to get the car and park it in front of the door.
A black downpour sluiced the front steps.
This was not how Breda had imagined Italy.   It had rained almost every day they’d spent in this borrowed house.  The view of the domed cathedral from the kitchen window, the spectacular walled hill-top towns visible from the bedroom had all looked enticing and mysterious in the sunny emulsion of other people’s photographs.  Seen through a curtain of rain their charm had diminished.
‘Why the fuck did you have to bring so much stuff?’  Noel asked as he tried to zip up the suitcase.
‘It’s a good job I did, or we’d have frozen to death.’
‘It isn’t that cold.’  Noel’s body had an efficient thermostat.  He did rugby training in winter; swam in unheated swimming pools; his feet were always warm.

Breda could feel the cool terracotta of these Tuscan floors even through the soles of her trainers.  Mediterranean heat was what her body had craved.  It had drawn her south, away from a grey, damp English autumn that sapped her spirits and left her enervated and miserable.   Just her luck that a freak storm had blown across from the Sahara bringing red dust, torrential rain and now an icy wind as it drew air down from Eastern Europe.  There had been snow in Spain and Greece - even a few flakes in Rome.  The romantic idyll Breda had imagined - candlelit dinners in little restaurants - lunch on sunny terraces overlooking the sea, wandering hand in hand around old medieval hill forts - had metamorphosed into tortuous drives up hair pin roads in thrashing rain, dodging manic Italian drivers, shivering in narrow streets as they searched for yet another church to shelter in, or steamy Tabacchi with rude assistants who served lukewarm cafĂ© latte and stale foccaccia.  And back at the house there had been the interminable practicing - up and down, up and down, complicated crescendos and diminuendos on the sax.   There were no holidays for a musician.

‘Have you got the map?’  Noel asked, revving up the engine to get warm air on the windscreen, where it clouded like breath on a mirror.
‘Which way are we going?’
It was still dark.  The road glistened in the headlights, rolling towards them like a video game.
‘I thought, as we’re late, I’d try the low road up to Mondiale and get onto the autostrada there.  It’s a bit tricky round Chieso.  Do you think you can work it out?’
It seemed pretty straightforward in the beam from the torch, but Breda was used to his rude remarks about her map reading skills.  ‘You just concentrate on keeping out of the ditch and not hitting anything and I’ll concentrate on getting us there,’ she said.
‘Don’t bloody backseat drive.  I’ve got enough to deal with. I don’t need you nagging me.’
‘It wasn’t me that scrunched the wing mirror on a wall!’
For a moment Breda thought Noel was going to explode, then she said.  ‘Sorry.  I’m cross and grumpy because we slept in.  I need breakfast.’
‘We can’t stop for anything or we’ll miss the plane.’  Noel’s face was set above the wheel, staring ahead into the darkness, concentrating utterly on the road ahead, which had a tendency to leap unpredictably either to left or right.  Strange ghostly shapes were trying to appear in the darkness as a foggy dawn began to liberate the landscape.   Cypresses, like exclamation marks, punctuated vague horizons.

Breda felt obscurely depressed.  Had a sense of loss - not of something she’d had, but of something she hadn’t managed to find.  She was leaving Italy without whatever it was she’d come for.
Daylight was wet and the colour of concrete.  Traffic already whizzed on the autostrada.  It tried Noel’s nerves.  He was a physical person, machinery was anathema.
‘God look at that!’  He shouted as yet another BMW appeared on their bumper out of nowhere flashing its lights to bully them into the inside lane between two lethally unstable lorries with Czech number plates.
Breda wished he’d let her drive, but Noel was an even more nervous passenger.   ‘Can you remember if we locked the door?’  she asked suddenly.
‘No idea.  You had the key.’
‘It’s in my bag.  But I can’t remember putting it in the lock.’
‘Well, it’s too fucking late to worry about that now.’
What did she see in him?  Breda asked herself as she studied his firm, square knuckled hands on the steering wheel, the frowning profile.   It was a question she couldn’t answer and she felt guilty that she’d even allowed herself to think it.  His abrasive edge, his curious mix of arrogance and nervousness seemed necessary to her.
There was a lighted sign on a gantry Breda couldn’t read clearly.
‘What did it say?’  Noel asked.
‘Something about Valdamo.  I think it was ‘Inciso’.’
‘What’s that?’
Breda hastily paged through the little Italian dictionary.  ‘Inciso.  Digression or diversion.’
‘Shit!’
But there were no diversion signs at the Valdamo junction.  ‘Whatever it was it’s probably disappeared by now.’   Noel said.  ‘And we’ve almost made up the late start.’
But, even as he said the words, tail lights illuminated like a long red snake in double rows as far as the eye could see.  Something flashed a long way in front.  Everything stopped.
Noel banged his hands on the wheel.  ‘This is fucking marvellous!  Are you sure you read that sign right?’
Breda sighed.  ‘I’ve no idea.  It was only there for a moment - my Italian isn’t that good.’
‘I have to be back in London by three.  If we miss that bloody flight ......’ Noel thumped his head back against the neck rest and closed his eyes.
Breda heard the words he didn’t say.  It was - of course - her fault that the alarm hadn’t gone off (had she set it properly?), her fault she hadn’t been able to read the blurred sign that had flashed past.    She knew how important this was for him.   Noel’s agent had rung him on the second day of their holiday.   Someone had dropped out and he’d been offered a gig - five nights at Ronnie Scott’s.   Not front line, but backing a famous American over from the states for a tour.  It was, Noel said, his Big Chance.  So of course he had to go back a couple of days earlier than they’d planned and - equally of course - he’d assumed that she would cut her holiday short and go with him.   Why hadn’t she protested?  She’d even booked the flights on the computer at the little Tabacchi on the corner of their street. Thirty euros each.   Noel had been furious that their original flights couldn’t be transferred and that they weren’t able to get their money back on the bookings, but the cheapness of the new tickets had mollified him a little.
‘It’s a good job we couldn’t cancel the other flights,’ Breda said, looking at the stationary cars in front of them.  The tail lights went out one by one as they switched off their engines.
Noel made an angry sound and flung himself out of the car.

Breda’s stomach rumbled. She could smell coffee.   A man in the car next to theirs was pouring something out of a thermos flask into a cup.   The espresso and brioche she’d been looking forward to having in Pisa airport suddenly seemed very attractive. The man saw her looking at him;  he smiled and lowered his window and said something in Italian.
‘Sorry,’ Breda said, embarrassed.  ‘We’re English.’
‘Ah,’ he said.  ‘I was just saying that fate seems to be against us this morning.’
‘Do you know what’s happened?’
‘Un incidente.  An accident, I think.  It happens quite often on this part of the autostrada.  We are used to it.’  He shrugged and inclined his tanned, closely shaven head as if nodding to fate.  ‘We all blame Berlusconi - he is not to blame of course, but it makes us feel better.’
Noel was prowling up and down between the cars with his mobile clutched to his cheek.  Who was he talking to?
‘Would you like coffee?’ the Italian asked.  He handed her the lid of the flask.  The liquid was jet black with little creamy bubbles at the edge. 
‘I’m taking your breakfast,’ Breda said, hesitating.
He made a dismissive gesture.  ‘Non importa.  I have plenty.’
‘You speak very good English.’
‘I am a journalist on La Nazione in Firenze.’
‘How strange - I work for an evening newspaper in London.’  Breda thought briefly about the small hot office she was returning to, the grubby gossip about politicians and celebrities she was expected to cover,   as well as the real calamities of people’s lives she dealt with so lightly.  It was all so unappealing she knew she wouldn’t care, ever, if she didn’t arrive.  She took a long gulp of the coffee.  It was thick and bitter.
‘I hate my work,’ she said.
The Italian smiled.  He had good teeth.  ‘Then why do you not do something else?’

She’d thought about it often.  But what else could she do?  She was trained for the job and  well paid for it.  What else would pay the substantial rent?  Noel’s earnings from gigs were too sporadic to be relied on.    Breda often thought of the old musician’s joke trotted out in the bar after a gig to embarrass some newly single bloke: ‘What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?’  There would be cynical laughter while everyone waited for the punchline which they all knew by heart.  So what was a musician without a girlfriend?  - ‘Homeless!’   It hurt because it was true.   When she and Noel had moved in together a year ago, it was Breda’s name that had been on the tenancy agreement.

When they'd first met, at farewell drinks for a mutual friend who was going to Canada, Breda had also been about to leave.   She’d saved up enough money to go backpacking round the world with a girlfriend from university.  They’d hoped to stay away for about a year, unless something else happened.  But that something else had happened before she’d even managed to get on the plane.   Noel had persuaded her to spend the money on furniture for the flat instead.

Breda got out of the car.  She was surprised to find the air warm.  There was an orange glow in the mist over to her left.  Steam was rising from the ground, hanging in the air around her.  Cars and trees shifted in and out of focus as it drifted through them.
‘I think we are going to see the sun today,’ the Italian said.  He too had got out of his car.
‘I’ve been here five days and I haven’t seen it once.’  But just as Breda spoke the mist shifted again and an intense yellow disc throbbed briefly and then disappeared.
‘We have maltempo in Italy too - you British do not have a monopoly on weather.  But it is never bad for too long.’
There was a shout behind them - Noel was walking back.  ‘We’re moving,’  he called.
The Italian pulled out his wallet and handed her a square of white card.  ‘Next time you are in Italy, call me at the newspaper,’ he said.  ‘You might like to see how we do things here.’  His name was Giordano Saporetti.
‘Thanks,’ Breda smiled politely.  The prospect of being here again seemed very remote and she was surprised how sad she felt - sad, angry and cheated.
The queue began to move, one lane at a time.  She waved to Giordano as his car slid past.
‘We might just make it,’ Noel said, grasping the wheel.  ‘And there’s a BA flight at eleven if we don’t.   It’ll probably cost a fucking fortune, but we can claim on the insurance.’  He glanced at her, frowning.  ‘You did take out the insurance?’
‘I can’t remember whether I ticked the box or not,’ Breda said.  Why was it always down to her to remember these things?
‘Are you sure you’re not getting Alzheimers?’  Noel’s voice had a hard aggressive edge to it.
‘Why don’t you book your own bloody flights - set your own alarm clocks - then you’d only have yourself to blame!’  As the words tumbled carelessly out of her mouth, she was aware of Noel, taut as a spring, his face already contracting as it did when she offended him.  Criticism was the one thing he couldn’t take.  It was the stress of playing,  he said when she tried to discuss it with him.  You couldn’t make mistakes.  When he was at home he didn’t want to be put under pressure.
The traffic slowed again.  Stopped.  Noel shouted out a string of expletives.
Breda listened wearily.  Through the car window she could see that the mist was almost gone - a few remnants glittered in the trees like cobwebs woven by giant spiders.  When she wound down the glass and put her head out, she looked up at a pale, cloudless sky where a dim, but unmistakable sun was burning through the fog.  ‘It’s going to be a beautiful day,’ she said regretfully.  Noel was on his mobile again, scrolling down the screen, texting someone.

At the airport, as soon as they’d dumped the car keys, he went straight to the BA desk.  ‘We’ve got seats,’ the girl said, ‘but they’ll cost you two eighty each plus taxes.’  Noel sighed in exasperation.  ‘It’s a rip-off, but I don’t suppose there’s any alternative,’ he said.  ‘I have to be in rehearsal by three.’
‘But I don’t,’ Breda said.   He turned to look at her.   ‘You go.  Take the luggage.  I’ll spend the day in Pisa and use our original flights on Saturday.’
Noel’s face didn’t seem to know whether to be relieved at not having to shell out another three hundred pounds, or surprised that she wasn’t coming with him.  ‘Will you be all right?’  he asked as she waved him through the security gate.
‘I’ll be fine.  It would be a shame to waste a day like this.’
There was no goodbye  kiss.   He seemed preoccupied, hurried, as he put his saxophone and jacket in the tray and prepared to go through the scanner.  He didn’t look back.
Then she was standing on the grass outside the airport, with only a shoulder bag, the sunlight full on her face.  She felt warm and weightless.  The sign said, ‘Pisa Centro’.  Breda smiled, and began to walk in the direction of the arrow.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
© Kathleen Jones 2009

If you'd like to read more of my short stories, 'Three and Other Stories' is available on Amazon.co.uk(and .com) and on Kobo.com for around a pound.


"In the title story, Three, a young artist gets a job as assistant to the renowned sculptor Val Mae, living with him and his ageing wife at their villa in Tuscany. Sexual and artistic tensions soon begin to affect their triangular relationship.
Living with the Dead is the story of a young girl who grows up in a funeral parlour in the American mid-west. Her life seems to be going nowhere until she falls in love with a totally unsuitable boy.
Glass is narrated by a lonely single mother who goes to evening class in order to meet a member of the opposite sex, and is invited out by a friendly middle-aged man."

2 comments:

  1. A very satisfying story, Kathleen. Thank you for sharing it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree satisfying! I loved the building stress followed by the relaxing end.

    ReplyDelete