The darkness was full-bodied, pervasive and hovering, absorbing the shadows cast by the fog-enveloped street lamps as the car slipped through the unusually still and jarringly silent city. Occasional muffled splashing from the tires grinding along the asphalt mingled with the mechanical drone of the taxi’s engine, reminding her that the world remained and that she was a part of it. The driver was reticent, apathetically speeding around black corners into blacker streets, the nuances of each turn mapped in his brain, springing forth not as memory but as instinct.
Romilly reached in to her purse, the mellowed leather soft against her hand as she pulled her cell phone from it. A quick push of a button and the phone blinked to life, the lime green display popping out salutations, time and battery level. The latter bar was full, though the reception indicator revealed the car to be moving out of the city limits. Grimly she noted there were no telling beeps, no unheard messages or missed calls. She let the phone fall back to the protective cradle of her bag.
Soon the car was far past the highway, chasing down the storm, the headlamps a pair of fireflies in the chthonic landscape. She had forgotten this weather, the warm emptiness of it, air transmuting to electricity, water spurting in substantial puddles from the sky- condensed and fluid, storing up all the heat that the trip from atmosphere to ground causes, impenetrable valleys of low-lying clouds veiling road and tree and world.
She leaned against the slick beige vinyl covered bench that was the taxi’s backseat. The man-made material squeaked with her repositioning, the high-pitched platicky sound piercing the unsuspecting silence. The driver looked at her in the mirror sneering, his wrinkled ashen face menacing beneath a tweed tam-o-shanter. She smiled in return, a faint self-conscious spreading of lips smeared mauve with makeup and teeth chalky dull and vaguely white. When he returned his gaze to the now unfamiliar path before him she stuck out her tongue. Impatient and immature, she knew, but could not restrict herself from the pleasure of it.
By the metallic musty smell she could tell he had turned on the heater. She wondered if he were actually cold or if he only ignited the inferno for his fares. She half wished she had the courage to demand he turn it off as the heat and odor combined were working to make her nauseous. Staying silent, she instead rested her head against the muggy windowpane and closed her eyes.
A slideshow of images leapt from her memory to the vacant waiting screen of shuttered eyelids. She was surprised to see a vision of herself first, as she had supposed herself to be eight years prior- slight and trim, hair cut to a trendy bob, funky clothes to match and luminous eager gray eyes. She longed for that girl- for her youth and passion and conviction.
The apparition faded just as she reached for it, morphed into a smaller, more fragile imitation of herself, a being like her but with the traits of another as well. The tiny being possessed a delicate charm and golden brown ringlets and its chubby ivory fingers reached out to grasp her. A startled small cry spurted from her lips. Indolently, her eyes still sealed, she wasted a moment’s reflection to hope the driver had missed her fleeting weakness. So long as he had no inkling of her private waking nightmare, she didn’t mind what else he might presume about her.
Forcefully she pushed aside the dream, refocusing on the tangible, trembling reality of the physical girl, her own daughter, nearly seven and tightly cocooned within the gossamer threads of Romilly’s own doubt, confusion and self-criticism. Mild, uncomplaining Sorcha, upon whom the mother had heaped with fervent loving weight, from work-worn cupped hands, hope upon hope upon expectation. She knew from her own experience this wasn’t fair but couldn’t conceive of another way to keep the girl strong. The car hit a bump and Romilly’s lids jerked open responsively.
Not so very long now. Despite the somber dark beyond the window, she knew from the feel, the slackening pace of the vehicle, the bends and dips of the lane that they were drawing nearer her destination. Destiny. She shook her head as if doing so would break her thoughts free from her mind and liberate them to less restrictive paths. “Stop doing that,” the stentorian voice in her head demanded. ‘Stop thinking those things.”
Once again she readjusted her position in the car, coercing her sluggish posture to atone for its laziness with painful, rigid uprightness. Grown stiff and mildly sore she flexed her fingers, savoring the cracks and pops that tingled in the crooks of her joints. She scratched an itch at her sallow brown brow, wondering how the mechanism that controlled her trains of thought could continue on its haphazard way while her physical self was so worn down that even her toes were beginning to fall asleep.
What she wanted most was to be able to study his face, to read the shades and creases around his hazel eyes and laughing lips (did they still laugh so freely?), to read his intentions like soggy herbal tea leaves and at last know her future. There had been a time when her prospects had been in her own hands and she had made the choices she’d believed rational, reasonable and propitious. She had found however, that sensible choices could be dull, could suck the marrow, the sensuality from life. A little spontaneity, this excursion, for instance, was required to remind her what life was… or might have been.
“Bollocks,” she said half aloud.
“What was that?” asked the cabbie, tilting his ear toward her.
Romilly frowned bashfully and assumed her most professional tone. “Turn in at the first right, just round the next hill. It’s sort of hidden. Easy to miss in this weather. Look carefully.”
He grunted in response, his capped head nodding curtly, but he slowed the car and inclined his form closer to the windshield, clearly taking her recommendation as good counsel.
The house, as they approached, had a mien of long vacancy, cold and broken as she sometimes supposed herself to be. No lamps flickered from the windows, no other cars idled in the drive.
“Are you sure?” the cabbie asked reluctantly as she handed him his fare and made to exit the car.
In answer, she stepped out onto the mud and gravel, slamming the door behind. Then, heels precariously grasping for foundation, she tottered to the porch. Car and driver grumbled back out in to the night.
After a prolonged intake of the moist air she forced a deliberate smile to her lips. The pose felt strained and her cheeks ached as a result. As she tried to convince herself it was merely fatigue she experienced a twinge beneath her rib cage as though her heart had briefly choked on something. “Nerves,“ she muttered as she stared in to the vast darkness and waited.