Well before the Baha’i temple in Mona Vale road the traffic started to crawl. That first ambulance, some five minutes ago now, had hardly even turned their heads. An ambulance was no big deal. Then, as they approached the traffic lights at Forest Way, there was a second. Lights twinkling in the hot sun, the ambulance arose in the mirror from the wobbling tarmac. There was no siren, just the sound of the engine under full throttle, grim and determined inside its metal casing. It eased across the red light then set off, siren moaning now, into the shade of the divided road.
‘Must be something up ahead,’ said one of the adults in the front. In the back were their daughter Sam and her friend Louisa.
‘An accident?’ They said, sitting forwards. ‘Is it an accident?’
Already it was as though something was raking at the adult hearts. Two families had set out for a picnic at the beach, sharing the load between cars. They had shared the children too, boys travelling together in one car, girls in the other.
‘I wish he wouldn’t drive like that,’ Monica said as their friend, Paul, roared down the road from their house.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Rex, her husband. ‘I’ve driven with him loads of times, he’s fine.’
After the traffic lights they were passed by a fire truck, then a police car. The girls were excited. They kneeled up on the seat and watched out behind them for any more flashing lights.
‘Must be serious,’ Monica muttered. By stating the fact so baldly she was half hoping to stare it down.
‘What was that?’ said Sam in the back. ‘What was that Mum?’
‘I said it must be serious.’
She was already wishing she had never opened her mouth. Now they would be forced to go along with the girls’ gradations of excitement.
‘Serious,’ they said. ‘Must be seerious!’
They liked the sound of the word and took turns saying it to each other, stretching the first syllable like a schoolyard catch phrase.
‘Must be reeeally seerious!’
The line of traffic slowed, then speeded up, then slowed again. A strange, bulbous looking van marked ‘PARAMEDIC’ buzzed past. The girls were leaning forwards now, looking through the gap in the front seat, eager to be first to catch sight of something. Monica and Rex leaned away from them. They did not want to feel the girls’ breath on their necks. They did not want to catch sight of anything.
A second fire truck roared past.
‘It could be a bush fire,’ said Monica. They scanned the sky ahead of them for smoke. There was none. Both knew this was a false hope. Ambulances and fire trucks together could only mean one thing.
Rex thought of his sons in a burning car. Would they have time to open the doors and run? Would they even think about it? Adam might, and he was a good runner. But James was only five. He had to be told to do everything, and he always had trouble with his seat belt. Adam would help him if he could, he knew that, but what if there wasn’t time? What if Adam was sufficiently disoriented to think only of himself, and did not remember James until later. He might suffer guilt for the rest of his life. He was nine, he was old enough. What if the O’Connors kept their child locks on? A dozen other scenarios raced through his mind. He felt that if he anticipated every one he could stop it from happening.
The traffic was slowing for the last time. There was nothing now on the other side. Another police car went by, with a free run in the empty lane. It was not yet past the curve in the road when it braked. At first it was hard to be sure it had done so. The glow of the brake lights could have been caused by the sun. But then they went on and off a couple of times and it had to be the effect of the driver’s foot on the pedal. Still within sight, the police car pulled in to the opposite verge and stopped. Its lights flashed from one side to the other on the stationery car like the remorseless movement of a shuttle on a loom. The line of traffic edged forwards a little further, then stopped.
The girls bumped across the seat. There was a partial view from the driver’s side. His eyes sought out objects and checked them off; various flashing lights, mostly yellow not red, not showing up too well at this time of day. A large tow truck, a small crane, a man with a raised, mittened hand. Two firemen stood ready, hoses uncoiled across the ground. No children, no civilians.
The paramedic van shouldered its way through and drove back up the empty lane. No siren, no light. Was that good or bad? He looked at his wife. She was staring at the windscreen. She could see nothing from her side. He put out a hand and touched her, just to let her know. Their touch had to be brief. They did not want to draw the attention of the girls. One had parents in the other car, both had brothers. So far nothing had occurred to them. It was just another accident, the sort of thing that added spasmodic interest to car journeys. As soon as it did, you could be sure they would say all the things Rex and Monica were thinking.
‘It looks …’ one of them began.
‘Be quiet!’ Monica snapped, then tried to soften. ‘Darling, we can see what’s happening, we just have to wait, ok?’
The girls looked at her and nodded, still not really comprehending, but wise enough to know this was not a time to argue. Presently they started whispering again.
People were starting to leave their cars and wander down for a closer look. They stood out in the road to get a good angle and signalled back to their friends. A Chinese man grinned broadly. Rex and Monica remained in their seats, hardly daring to move. Someone had stopped beside the car in front of them and was explaining what was going on. Monica’s window was partly open. They could hear murmuring but no words. Rex’s muscles twitched. If he opened his own door he would only have to walk a few paces for a clear view. It would resolve everything. In sixty seconds he could be coming back with good news; but then there was the alternative.
There was only one type of good news, but the other might come in any form and he had not yet prepared himself for all the possibilities. And there was the thought of his wife watching him. If there was good news it was important for some reason that she should know as soon as he did. How would he avert that brief moment of
unshared knowledge when she knew he knew more than she did? It was best to stay here, stick with the uncertainty. In time it would all be clear anyway.
In the back the girls now hardly moved. They did not dare to ask permission to get out of the car. It was growing hot inside. A flick of a switch and he could have the air conditioning going, but he did not want to do that either. He wanted to be breathing the same air they were breathing outside. What he really wanted was a way to assert his own discomfort; anything, however slight, to prepare for what might be waiting. On both sides of the road the parched bush reared up, in its pale indifference.
Rex could see movement down there now. The crane was being manoeuvred into place. There was a car. He could see a corner of it, sticking out at a strange angle. What colour was it? Grey of some sort, possibly green, it was hard to tell in the light. He suddenly realized he did not know the exact colour of the O’Connors’ car. As far as he could remember it was a sort of dark green, but from where he was sitting it could have been this exact colour. Why couldn’t it have been red? Or yellow? Or white? What brand was their car? Honda? Hyundai? It hardly mattered. There was nothing sufficiently recognisable about the piece he could see. Only that it could have been the same colour. And what if it wasn’t? What if it had been red? That still wouldn’t have made it safe. It took two cars to crash, at least.
Rex thought of his boys, unreachable. He thought of the sadness of going home without them, of the empty room, of Sam as an only child. What would they do, have another one quickly, or would they not have the heart? He wondered if it was too late to make it up with God.
Let it be anybody but my boys. Let it be my friends Marion and Paul. Let it be their boys. Let it be anybody else’s boys, but not mine. A selfish prayer, but right for the occasion. Rex thought he might be sick. Something had peeled away his heart’s outer skin. He could not even bring himself now to move his hands.
The grey car was being hoisted onto the back of a tow truck. Its front came into view every time it swung. He saw a wheel hanging at forty-five degrees, a shattered windscreen, a sheared off headlight. Its grey looked duller than he thought the O’Connors’ had been. Theirs was newer, or perhaps they kept it polished. But it was hard to tell in this light. As the car swung from sun to shade it went through a range of hues. Hanging from the rear-view mirror was a fluffy animal, a black and white cow, he thought. It seemed to be the only point of stillness.
Then it swung round altogether and landed on the back of the truck with a clunk. There was a raised, gloved hand and a calm shout from one of the men. Rex had glimpsed the car’s rear, with its box-like lines that had gone out of date ten years before. The O’Connors’ was a hatchback, he remembered now. He had lifted its back door to stow picnic things less than half an hour ago. He remembered the surprising amount of space inside. At last he had something to tell Monica. He moved a hand discreetly and touched her on the thigh.
‘It’s not theirs,’ he murmured. Her senses were sharp and raw. She did not have to ask him to repeat it as she normally would have done when he spoke in such a low voice. Tension started to slip from her, like a loosened knot.
The damaged car was secured and the truck drove it up the hill, right in front of them. They were able to see the full extent of the damage, which was not much more than Rex had already glimpsed. Inside the windscreen the fluffy toy was now shaking violently.
Five minutes later they were driving downhill again with the sea laid out in front of them. Rex could still feel the sickness draining out of his chest, this last bit leaving slowly, like sludge around a plughole. The girls were giggling over something but neither he nor Monica had spoken yet. They were still thinking about the adjacent polarities of loss and relief and were rather stunned at the sudden release, the speed of the change between the two. Even now they could scarcely believe they were breathing again.
‘I feel sick,’ Rex said out of the corner of his mouth. Which was weak as it went and hardly began to express the wonder that he had been able to move normally at all, to turn the key and drive the car, to find the gears with that left hand of his and to remember the road rules, but these were more complicated thoughts than he had the ability to convey at this moment, perhaps ever.
‘Why?’ She said. ‘Something you ate?’ She spoke as though that was the worst thing that could happen to him, a dicky tummy after a rushed breakfast. She spoke as though this was as deep as their confidences ever managed to go, when all he had wanted to do was confirm that shared ground.
‘Why do you fucking think?’ Rex said, or thought, he hardly knew which.
At this point the author’s wife sat up in bed and packed down the loose sheets of paper on her knee.
‘So,’ she said. ‘I’m Mrs Insensitive, am I?’
‘It’s a story,’ the author said. ‘Why does it have to be us?’
‘It only happened last week. You couldn’t wait to write it down.’
‘Yes,’ said the author. ‘A lot of it I did write down straight, but it’s not us, it’s never us. To get the story I extrapolated a particular feeling. I explored something I didn’t necessarily feel, through the prism of fiction. It’s what I do.’
‘Which feeling was that?’
‘The husband feels his wife is denying him even the potential for what she has just gone through. She wants to cosy up to her own thoughts by herself. He thinks she’s making him out to be unfeeling, when he’s not.’
‘But what about her? Perhaps the whole thing is still too close behind her to start sharing it. She’s just spent fifteen minutes contemplating the possibility of losing her sons. The shock is still there.’
‘It’s still there for him too. All he wants is simple acknowledgement, not to be brushed off.’
‘But perhaps what he doesn’t understand is that she has a different way of dealing with it. She knows he’s suffered, she’s well aware of it. But she’s still trying to get a handle on her own reaction. She thinks her fear wasn’t rational, you see.’
‘It’s perfectly rational.’
‘But she’s not so sure, and why should it matter anyway? She’s not so accustomed to putting things into a rational and not rational basket. She’s afraid of opening them up for his scrutiny where he might argue them away, because that’s what he can do. So for the time being she just wants to deny and examine them later. That’s all she’s doing.’
The author said nothing more. His wife placed the pages on the bedside table and turned out the light. They lay on their backs, eyes growing used to the dark. In five minutes there was light enough for each of them to see that the other was still awake. She moved on her pillow.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘What kind of a stupid name is Rex?’