The seatbelt fastens with a click. She watches Paul turn the key in the ignition and the engine explodes into life, cold air that will soon be warm spilling out around them. He switches the headlights on, and she waves at Hilary and Liam who are standing in their doorway, holds a smile on her face while Paul backs the car out of the driveway, and then they are on the dark country road, facing nothing but the night.
‘Are we going to talk?’ he asks.
‘Just drive, Paul, please.’
‘Grace, I’m not sure what you think you saw, but you need to believe –’
‘I said drive.’
She holds her hands out over the air vent, rubs them together. The news headlines are being broadcast on the radio, the reporter talking about the snow, how more is forecasted, enough to shut down all the major roads, and she thinks about the first time she met Paul, over a decade ago. She had never seen snow like it, went to the golf course with her friends. They brought tea trays and black sacks to use as makeshift sleds. She saw Paul then, speeding down the eighteenth fairway on a sled made from a wooden pallet, the people around her on the green cheering him on. She watched him lose control and crash into a bunker hidden beneath the snow. Silence, fear coursing through her for this stranger, until he stood up and whooped and shouted. She loved him instantly, so long ago now.
Just kids, learning to become adults. Just kids trying to grow faster than they needed to.
The road is narrow, with tall bushes on either side growing towards one another like fingers beginning to lace. Brown patches on the edge of the snow where the road meets the earth, wet and slushy from the thaw of the evening, and she looks at Paul as he holds the steering wheel with one hand, the other placed on the gearstick. He leans back in his seat, comfortable with these roads. Grace has never liked them, always thinks that a car will take a corner with too much speed and collide with them head on. She thinks about the ads on TV, the statistics of those killed driving home, and a shiver runs up through her body like an electric shock.
‘Slow down, you’re going too fast,’ she says.
‘I’m under the speed limit,’ he replies.
‘The ice, Paul, what about black ice?’
‘We’ll be grand,’ he says, but she can feel the car slowing, knows that he has taken his foot off the accelerator.
‘I didn’t even want to go tonight,’ he says.
‘We’re not talking about it.’
‘We have to,’ he says and places his hand on her leg.
‘Don’t,’ she says, smacking his hand with hers, the sting of it reverberating up her arm.
The car swerves slightly, Paul working to regain control. Grace is breathing heavily, trying to recapture the last few seconds in her mind.
‘Sorry,’ he says.
‘Nothing happened,’ he says.
‘I love you Grace,’ he says loudly and she can smell the wine on his breath, wonders if he has had too much to drink, if he should be driving at all.
‘I saw what I saw,’ she says, her eyes following the broken white lines on the road in front of them.
‘It’s not what you think.’
The car rumbles around her, and she finds the movement comforting. Life is full of these, she thinks, it’s just a series of small disappointments strung together. She closes her eyes and pictures the evening just gone, tries to analyse every detail: Hilary had told her not to go to any effort, that it was just a catch-up between friends, but when she opened the door looking immaculate in an almost effortless way, Grace felt like she was a step behind. She should have done her hair at least, the quick updo with a bobbin feeling like a crown of shame. Then the champagne flutes appeared, a toast to friendship; Ceviche to start – a recipe Hilary said she’d picked up along her travels in South America last summer – and by the time the cheeseboard was set out on the table Grace felt queasy, excusing herself with a smile and when she came back they were talking about love.
‘My dad used to tell me not to let it get in the way of a good thing. You can always learn to love, over time,’ said Liam.
‘I hope you didn’t listen to him,’ laughed Hilary, running her index finger along the rim of her wine glass, making it sing out to them. ‘Your parents are divorced.’
‘When you know, you know,’ said Paul, winking at Grace.
‘I guess we’re the lucky ones, I mean you hear so many stories don’t you? Secrets and lies, some people just can’t seem to stop themselves,’ replied Hilary, drinking the last of the wine in her glass, then holding it out for Liam to fill it back up again.
Grace had looked at Paul, then, a quick, sharp look.
The college years. The break from each other during their J-1 summers. The realisation that this was it, that they’d found what it is you’re meant to find on the first attempt.
She opens her eyes now, in the car, and asks the question. ‘What did you tell her?’
‘What did you tell Hilary? Why was she talking about secrets?’
‘I don’t know. Why would I have told her anything? She’s your friend, not mine.’
‘I just can’t figure out why she’d bring it up like that,’ she says.
‘Don’t do this to yourself.’
‘I didn’t do anything, Paul, you did.’
‘You said you’d forgiven me.’
‘I thought I had.’
Snow begins to fall on the windscreen, large light flecks sticking to the glass. The wipers move to clear the view. Grace swallows hard, holds back from saying more, the tension between her and Paul growing. It has only been six months since she saw him with her, the girl from the pharmacy. She’d taken the afternoon off work, left Dublin City and followed the curve of the road out to Howth. She had a sudden urge to feel the wind coming off the Irish Sea, wanted to hear the sounds of salty waves crash against the shore so instead of going straight to the house, parked outside the dinghy club on Strand Road.
At the start of the cliff walk she saw a sign from the Good Samaritans urging people to call them if they needed help. She wondered how many had gone before her, how many cars were parked up and abandoned, lonely souls making their way along the cliff walk, their bodies heavy with the weight of their own thoughts. She kept herself on the inside of the path, close to the land, afraid of the drop down to the sea. That was when she saw them, Paul and the girl. He was standing with his back to Grace, and the girl was sitting on an old stonewall. They were kissing, quickly, passionately. Grace didn’t even recognise him at first, wasn’t looking to recognise him, and stopped when she realised it was Paul, turned quickly and ran back towards the main road, almost tripped on a rock sticking out of the ground. She confronted him later that night, listened to his pleas for forgiveness, watched the tears rolling down his face.
‘How much longer do we have?’ she asks, as the music from the radio turns to static.
‘We’ll be back in Dublin in about half an hour.’
‘That’s not what I’m asking.’
Grace listens to the white noise, tries to focus on nothing else, but her mind returns to what she saw after dinner. Liam had stepped outside for a smoke, and she went to the bathroom – again – leaving Paul alone with Hilary. When she returned, they were on the couch together, his hand on Hilary’s leg, her leaning in to speak to him, whispering something that Grace could not hear. They embraced, Hilary pressing her face into Paul’s chest, his arms around her. He looked up and saw Grace standing there. Then the sound of glass breaking, wine pooling around Grace’s feet, and Hilary sat up and said ‘You’re so clumsy.’
‘We were just talking,’ he says.
‘Nothing happened, he says, and turns on the full-beams now that the snow is falling heavily, the road in front of them white like icing sugar. Grace can’t breathe, her mouth is dry.
‘Stop the car,’ she says.
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘Stop the fucking car!’
He pulls over onto the hilly verge and presses on the hazard lights. Grace gets out and begins to walk. She zips up her jacket and feels the snow give way beneath her weight, is soothed by the crunch of it. It is colder than she thought it would be. She can hear the car crawling along behind her, the glare of the headlights guiding her through the snow. She doesn’t turn around, walks until she can’t feel anything, the snow falling on her face.
The mortgage. The joint bank account. The unopened pregnancy test in her makeup bag.
‘Grace,’ she hears. ‘Get in the car.’ He is level with her now, leaning across the passenger seat to call out to her from the open window.
She stops walking and gets into the car, the door closing behind her, blocking out the world.
‘You’re soaked through,’ says Paul.
‘Drive,’ she says, ‘Just drive me home.’
– / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / — / –
Author: Brendan McLoughlin