Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: John Malone
Sometimes, without realizing it, you slip into a cocoon of comfort and security from which it is difficult to emerge. Yet until you do you can never quite transform into a fully fledged human being.
Mr Ames does not know it but he is at any moment about to be torn out of that cocoon, an event for which he will not be in the least grateful but then again few of us are.
It happened or rather is about to happen when he pulls over onto a rest stop somewhere between two large country towns.
There. That should do it, he decides, wiping the weariness from his eyes.
The sun has just gone down so when he drives west he will no longer be driving into its rays.
So, without more ado, he switches the radio onto his favourite channel — a talkback show about homeschooling was on, a topic that interests him —and reverses. THUMP!
The whole car shakes. What the *&^&^ did I hit, he wonders? Mr Ames swivels his head expecting to see some large solid object through the rear vision window — another car, a van perhaps — but his is the only vehicle at the rest stop. What then?
He starts to shake. He can’t help it. It’s not just that he hit something; it’s the knowledge or rather the lack of knowledge of what that object was. He has to get out of the car. He does not want to but knows he has to. He has to know what he has hit.
He is still shuddering. He goes around to the rear. The bumper bar has a dent in it and some red-based smudges that could be rust or blood. He looks around. There is nothing but nearby bush. What did I hit, he wonders? Mr Ames knows he is losing it. Though it is not cold he can’t stop shivering.
He climbs back into the car, settles himself down then starts up the ignition. The radio comes on. This time it is playing music, soothing classical music, an adagio from some concerto or another. He puts the car into reverse.
Suddenly he hears a dreadful sound from under the car, as though something is clambering around between the wheels, something solid chafing and thumping against metal. He starts shaking again. Should he reverse anyway and risk damaging the car or whatever is underneath it or get out and have a look? Once again Mr Ames gets out. He knows the result is not going to be good.
As he does so a chorus of crows mocks him from the tall gums. When he moves around to the rear of the car they start heckling him. Or that is what it feels like. Something desperate is scrambling around underneath the car. trying to disentangle itself. It is so loud he can hear it over the top of the heckling of the crows.
Once again he is shaking. As he bends down to take a look, something dark and rangy lopes off into the bush. It is, of course, trailing blood. The crows fall silent. Mr Ames is frozen to the spot, too terrified even to shake. The darkness closes around him.
A fat yellow moon shines through the bedroom window of the cheap hotel. It has been one hell of a day or rather evening but now it is over.
Mr Ames has never had trouble sleeping but tonight there’s an itch of unease that won’t leave him alone. What did he hit out there? A large cat? A farmer’s dog? A kangaroo? Some lost child wandering in the bush? Whatever it was did it die out there? Or is it still suffering, perhaps mangled and bleeding in the bush?
Through the thin partitions of the wall a girl or someone [he imagines it to be a girl] is playing ‘Fur Elise’ on a recorder. She plays it with a calm precision. He finds himself settling, the thing in the bush receding to the very edges of consciousness.
He drifts off. He dreams he is still on the road, travelling at night, wide awake, not ever having made that rest stop, just driving and driving, as the sun sinks then rises again and sinks again, and he, Mr Ames just driving and driving, never getting tired, until one sun drenched afternoon, a few days later, he is back in his hometown pulling up in his driveway to be greeted by his wife although she had left him some years previously.
It is a good dream and Mr Ames is in no hurry to leave it but there’s this rustling under his bed. Should he look? Should he get out of bed, switch on the light and approach it, whatever it is, with some weapon, a bread knife perhaps drawn from the kitchen, in his hands? The whole thing is absurd, Mr Ames can see that but what can he do? It is like Schrodinger’s cat: if he looks there will be nothing there; if he doesn’t, there will. So what is the point? Yet there is one thing he maybe could do: go back to the bush where he pulled over in the rest-stop and hunt down whatever he had hit. But what was the point. It may not even be there. And if it were what could he do?
Mr Ames sits on the side of the bed. He knows there is nothing under it just as he knows he will never know what he hit out there in the rest-stop.
People go to bed with all sorts of worries on their minds. Mr Ames knows this is his. In the catalogue of uncertainties it does not loom large but it is enough to unite him with the great mass of humanity for whom sleep of a troubled kind is a fact of life.