After I’d finished work I came out into the night, worn down by the machine hum, the second-hand air being pushed around by the industrial fans, down between the machinery, which rolled and rattled and shook along the walls, the thin metal of them flickering and buzzing all through the darkness. The smell of oil and ink and rubber from the belts had seeped in, right up into the back of my throat. It was my third day back, my body still adjusting, still recovering from the accident. The strain of effort weighed me down like soaked clothes.
I checked my phone, nearly dropped the thing taking it out of my pocket, juggled it with both hands. The screen beamed bright in the darkness. No messages, no missed calls. And as the screen faded, I turned my attention to my left hand. I held my hand out flat. My fingers kept moving, kept fidgeting, no matter how hard I tried to hold them still. I touched each of my fingers to my thumb, one by one. The scar traced the outside of my hand and down my wrist, a smooth pink line, dots along the edges, where the stitches had been.
The grey threads of my veins stood out under the bright streetlight.
The roads and footpaths outside the factory were empty, abandoned in the sleeping hours.
On the other side of the perimeter fence you could see.
The dark outlines of houses, the shine of the windows catching the stars’ glance. The rows of orange streetlights arched over, watching the vacant concrete. Smears of brightness blurred through the fog that lingered on the distance.
Specks of rain skimmed through the light up by the bulbs.
The sounds of my footsteps crackled across the bitumen as I walked out the main gate, towards my car. There were parking limits around the factory, but there were all-day spots further out, in the side streets.
And because no one was around, because no one was there, I wandered down the middle of the road, tapping along the scarred blacktop, the puffed white lines. I balanced on the painted divider, my arms out wide, leaning side to side, and then I got to the end of the line and I stopped.
I stood as still as I could and I listened.
To the night.
Sometimes you could miss it, sometimes you couldn’t pick it out because the wind was too strong or there was nothing around. But sometimes you just had to wait, tune in.
I listened closer and there it was. A car drifting through the sleeping suburbs, whispering along the empty streets. Another hushed by after that, the sound rising and fading, like waves rolling across the ocean. I listened as another car washed by, and I closed my eyes and imagined it, imagined the sea stretching out before me, the coastline off into the distance. The white water sliding up the sand.
Sometimes you’ll get a hint of engine noise when you tune in – a boat skimming across the surface. Sometimes the car sounds are so faint that you can barely see the waves crashing way off.
The push of the night breeze cooling past, the car sounds flowing by. The blue water stretching out in my mind.
You can only do it at night, when there’s not so much traffic. That’s the only time you can hear it like this.
And across the way, way up on the top floor of an apartment building, someone had left their window open, a single white curtain flailing out, whipping and collapsing across the moonlit clouds.
I drove home along the shining streets, past the bright lights of the twenty-four-hour supermarket beaming across the empty car park, the darkened shopfronts watching out along the strip. The mannequins at the fashion stores waved from the shadows as I passed.
Because it’s the first hours when I drive home, sometimes the traffic lights don’t work because you miss the sensor on the road and there are no other cars around to trip it. So you pull up at the lights and you’re just waiting. The red beaming down, changing the colour of your skin. The only way to make them work is to back up and drive forward again, let it know that you’re there. Your white lights reversing along the main street.
Sometimes you catch green lights all the way. Trails of them strung along the path like Christmas.
A taxi flashed by, hissing along the bitumen, then gone.
I could feel myself fading as I came into the city, the mumbled voices from the radio whispering into my dreams, and I wound the window down and leaned my face out into the night, the cold air rattling into my eyes, my skull. I squinted up to watch the city buildings as I passed beneath, their sharp edges scraping along the clouds.
I stomped onto the brakes just in time for a red light, jolting forward, the seatbelt grabbing at my chest.
A police car slid by. The officer in the passenger seat glared out as he passed.
I drove by the park with the black-banded trees, past the museum that was the colour of a sandcastle under the spotlights, and I turned in by the petrol station that stays open all night, bright white beneath the canopy watching over the petrol pumps, and when I came round the corner the trees were weeping.
Leaves drifted down in slow motion, streams of them, wandering through the amber reaches. It was like snowfall, their delicate shapes twirling in descent.
I slowed down as I came through, held my hand out the window. The tiny tails of them scratched across my palm as they went.
The branches above were bare. Crisp wooden capillaries rising towards the moonlight. I watched their twisted shapes turn as I came through, my angle changing.
I watched them, and I thought of veins, thought of arteries. I thought of haemorrhage, like the doctor had said, and I lifted my hand from the wheel and looked at the scar in the shifting light.
I thought about.
The bright white of hospital, the touch of the sheets over my feet.
The warmth spreading through me.
And the lines blurred and spread.
And the car drifted across the lanes.
I woke up. The rippled underside of the steering wheel squeezed hard into my fingers and the numbers across the dashboard beaming back and I sat up, blinked back into consciousness. And I was home. The headlights poking into the concrete driveway.
And there was a woman there.
She was sitting out in front of the car, the woman, her full body in the reach of the low beams, brightest on her chest, her neck, then fading up. She was wearing a blue dress that shone in the light, and a black jacket that had slipped off one shoulder. Her head was leaning to the side, eyes closed, long hair falling away.
She wasn’t moving.
I thought, I must have hit her.
I was sure I’d hit her, and I rushed to open the door and get out but the seatbelt tightened, held me back, and I unclipped it and pulled it away and shoved the door open, stepped into the chill of the early morning.