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Short Story Competition: Drive

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‘Are you taking the car?’

Mum is looking at me hopefully, the car keys in her outstretched palm. Her eyes are red and irritated, lacking their usual resolute stare. She is tired of me, I know. I am not the daughter she hoped for. I am not the same fearless and decisive redhead she was, ready to charge out into the world at 15. I am not an Andrea; I am nothing like her bold, exotic name. Instead I have turned out plain, mousy, unsure. A worrier.

‘Not now.’ I’m sorry, I want to say. I’m sorry I’m not what you wanted. ‘I’m cycling. I’m only picking up the jumper I left at work last week, anyway. I don’t need the car for that.’

Mum sighs and lets her hand fall to her side, defeated. ‘Larrie,’ she says. ‘You can’t keep doing this.’

'Doing what? I’m not doing anything,’ I say, lacing up my Converse. ‘I don’t need to drive there. I like cycling, anyway. I like the ride.’

She drops the keys onto the table by the front door. They clatter against the glass. This is her way of disagreeing with me.

‘Later,’ I say over my shoulder, and shut the door behind me.

My bike leans against the car, a neat little Fiat Punto. It sits there, taunting me, trying to tempt me with its shiny red paint.

Larrie... it calls me. Larrie…

No, I say back to it, my palms sticky with sweat.

Driving and I do not agree. I nearly caused a major collision when I drifted into the wrong lane at the roundabout by the Sainsbury’s superstore in Slough. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to make a mistake - it was Friday evening rush hour and nobody had any patience for me and my green P plates. Cars tooted aggressively, flashing their headlights, and the van driver on my inside leant out of his window and yelled obscenities at me, his face twisted with rage. I cowered away from my window and swerved the car even further in the wrong direction. My heart hammered so hard against my ribcage that I thought I might stop breathing altogether.

That was only my third solo drive after passing my test. I wasn’t ready to pass – I wanted to put it off for as long as I could. If the examiner knew how dreadful my driving lessons had been, if he could feel how much my hands shook every time I took the wheel, he would have failed me before I even got in the car. But my test was at 11.30 on a weekday morning, and there was hardly anybody else on the roads. I couldn’t help but pass.

I take my bike by the handlebars, catching a child’s reflection in the car's wing mirror as she scoots along the pavement behind the car. She has the same messy blonde plaits as the girl who darted out across the road in front of me a few weeks ago, the last time I drove. I can still hear the screech of my brakes; I can still feel my body lurching forwards until my seatbelt yanked me back, digging into my ribs. What if I hadn’t braked in time?

‘No,’ I say out loud this time. I pull the strap on my helmet tight and mount my bike.

Jackson’s Hardware is less than a ten-minute downhill cycle, and I wasn’t lying when I said I like the ride there. I like being outside; I like the fresh air on my face – it reminds me of playing outside as a kid, when I pleaded and pleaded to stay out later, to stay in my own make-believe world for just a little while longer. And I trust myself on a bike – I’ve got speed if I want it, but none of the responsibility of operating a machine with four wheels that I can’t even see from the driver’s seat. Cars have to look out for me on a bike – I'm out in the open, but I feel safer, I feel protected. I don’t feel like I’m taking a risk.

I dismount and lock my bike at the cycle rack next to the village hall. Greensbury Village Hall has looked the same for as long as I can remember: a dated, mottled brick building that's low and wide rather than tall like the rest of the buildings on the high street. Most of the tiles on its sloping roof are broken or missing altogether, and the mud-coloured paint on the window frames has been flaking off for years, exposing the greenish wood underneath. The building is framed with discoloured bunting from some village celebration years ago that I don’t remember, the flags torn or half hanging from their string.

As I approach the bike shelter, I notice a yellow sheet in a plastic folder pinned up next to the fire exit.

 

NOTICE OF INTENDED DEMOLITION

Demolition of all buildings at these premises: Greensbury Village Hall, 1-5 High Street, Windsor, SL4 7XV

Please be aware that Scalar Homes Ltd has applied to The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Planning Services, Town Hall, St. Ives Road, Maidenhead, SL6 1RF for permission to demolish the premises listed above as per our proposed methods.

Planned building works for this site:-

o   5 x studio flats

Please see attached sheets for full details of planned building works to take place on this site.

Demolition will commence as soon as soon as approval has been received.

A.J. Welch

On behalf of Scalar Homes Ltd, Yewer Road, Langley, SL3 9KZ

 

Something drips on my head. I look up and frown at the cracked gutter, sagging with the weight of moss and old rainwater. Long weeds climb down from it, sprawling across the bricks below, spiderlike. How could something so new, something so clean, take the place of something so old and weathered, something so entrenched in our village that nature has claimed it as home? How could anyone obliterate all that past?

I remember my best friend Danielle, aged five, in her silver puffball party dress, glittery tights and white rubber-soled trainers that squeaked on the village hall’s polished wooden floor. That was the first time I ever saw her, at my first of numerous kids’ parties in that hall. I was loitering by the makeshift food table with a plastic plateful of party food, scanning the disco-lit room for mum, when Danielle bounded up to me and pinched a cheese and pineapple stick straight off my plate. ‘Brazen!’ some of the other, disapproving mothers would say about Danielle over the years. ‘That girl has no shame.’

I thought she was excellent.

‘I’m Danielle,’ she said, and smacked her cherry-red lips together.

I dropped my cocktail sausage.

‘I like your shoes.' Danielle pointed at my light-up Diadora trainers. I was delighted, stunned. ‘Do you want to be my best friend?’

And that was that. We were inseparable through primary school, senior school, through our dance classes three days a week in the village hall. Come November it was freezing in the hall, and the only source of heat was from the two radiators on opposite walls. They were enormous industrial things, the size of a large chest of drawers, with a metal cage over the top of them that rattled and shook like a motorbike engine.  Danielle and I took to warming up before class in front of the radiators - literally - and standing by them whenever we weren’t needed during class, much to our ballet teacher’s despair. ‘Ladies!’ Miss Petra would say, ‘Do you think that Darcey Bussell became the principal of The Royal Ballet by standing around? Because I certainly don’t. Now, practice those pirouettes!’

We never did practice those pirouettes, of course. I knew I wasn’t graceful enough to be a dancer – I was lanky and awkward with not an ounce of performance ability in my big bones. Danielle could get by passably without practicing, unlike me, but her future didn’t involve tutus or ballet shoes. She had already planned it by the age of 13. 

‘I’m going to apply to Yale,’ she said once before jazz class, pulling a pink legwarmer further up her thigh.

‘Yale?’ I said, ‘But that's in America.’

Danielle propped her bare feet up against the radiator. It shuddered and clunked noisily. ‘Exactly!’ she said, grinning with all her pearly white teeth.

‘Isn’t it a bit early to be thinking about that?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t wait!’

I pulled my jumper over my hunched knees and sighed, breathing in the smell of dusty curtains and musty, stagnant air.

Danielle stood up, folded herself in half and touched her toes. ‘I’ll get there,’ she said, her hands flat on the floor. ‘You’ll see.’

Of course, she's received an offer from Yale now. And then there’s me, floundering about without a clue, likely to defer my university place if I even get the grades. Sometimes I think this is why we’ve stayed friends – Danielle is so decisive and determined that sometimes there isn’t enough for her to orchestrate in her own life, so she moves onto mine. It was only because of Danielle’s plotting, I recall, that I ended up with Harry Bishop’s face attached to mine in the village hall kitchen four years ago, the stench of lemon disinfectant from the toilets next door making my eyes water. Robbie Moss in the year above had hired the hall for his 16th birthday, tried to turn it into some sort of grotesque club with lights and a PA system that the thin walls could barely handle. It was only because of Danielle that we were invited. And it was only because of Danielle that I threw up in the bushes behind the hall, and went home with chunks of blue WKD sick in my hair.

Danielle’s been distant recently, spending most of her time at group study sessions with people from this new club she’s joined – all the sixth formers and college students in the local area with an offer from Oxbridge, Harvard or Yale. I did ask her if she wanted to revise with me a few times, but she always seemed to have other plans, so I’ve stopped asking. I guess if she wants to talk then she’ll find me. But I haven’t heard from her since last week, and I can’t really think of much to say any more.

My phone buzzes in my pocket just as it starts spitting – it’s mum wondering where I’ve got to. I check my watch, realise I’ve been standing here for nearly forty minutes, so I unlock my bike and start the cycle home. It’s uphill all the way, never getting any easier; my legs burn and my chest aches. I arrive home damp and sweaty, breathing hard.

‘Did you get your jumper?’ Mum asks me as I shut the front door.

Oh. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I – um – I couldn’t find it.’

‘Really?’ she says. ‘It must be there somewhere.’

I push my damp fringe out of my eyes. ‘I’ll look when I’m next on shift.’

Mum turns her back to me and opens the hallway cupboard.

‘They’re knocking down the village hall,’ I say.

‘About time,’ she says, taking her raincoat and handbag off their hanger. ‘It’s a state. We don't need it any more.’

I say nothing.

‘I need to pick up some ingredients for dinner,’ Mum says, looping her handbag over her arm. ‘Won’t be long.’

The hallway light reflects off the car keys on the side table, making patterns on the ceiling.

‘Mum?' I say. 'I'll drive.'

Mum whirls around to face me. Her purse flies out of her handbag and lands on the other side of the hallway. ‘What?’

‘I’ll drive you,’ I say.

She stares back at me, her eyes wide, her mouth half open. ‘Now? You don’t want a shower? Or, anything?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m fine. Let's go.’

And I pick up the keys. 

_________________________________________________________________________

This is an entry to The National Student's short story competition. The text has been edited for grammar and punctuation only. 

The National Student's short story competition is in association with the Home Entertainment release of Mistress America. Mistress America is available on Digital HD in the UK on 7th December, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 




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