Kevin McDevitt, The Passenger

Kevin McDevitt is a writer who lives in Galway and is from up North somewhere. His short plays have been performed in various venues around Galway and were featured at the Galway Theatre Festival 2016.

– Fine morning
says the driver, peering out into a blank wall of rain or snow. The sun not up. Everything muddied and grey and frozen. Fine morning. He says it every time. Before we set off. I can barely rasp a reply. Bundling myself in at the passenger side.

Before I know it he is back seated beside me. The driver. Wrapped in a rough cloak of dust and sweat. He places his hands firmly on the steering wheel, lets out one long, deflating breath. Then he fixes his tie in the mirror and carefully, wipes his bloody fists in the dark hem of his overcoat. And in a moment the car is moving again, back into the weaving traffic. In the rearview mirror, the crumpled shape of a man laid out or struggling to rise. Always a man laid out, or struggling to rise. 

I have been a passenger all my life. You understand. From my earliest memories, riding in the basket at the front of my grandmother’s bike. The bone-rattling hill down past the pigsties on the way to church. To the whir and clatter of ticket machines and turnstiles. The cold trickle of loose change through gloomy city dawns.

When I was a child I was always being passed back and forth between one relative’s house or another’s. (I was passenger even to my mother. As soon as we had finished our journey together she deposited me on the side of the road and left) And into adulthood the same pattern. Back and forth across the city. From one job to the next. Lost in the dense, unreadable mapscape of the transport grid.

Shuffled endlessly up and down train carriages, and the aisles of buses, bracing against the shunt and sway of the ever-changing skyline. And always waiting. Waiting on platforms and street corners, in every weather, under broken umbrellas and folded newspapers, always waiting and waiting.

The driver is out of the car again. Screaming bloody murder. Advancing with short, rapid strides to pound on the roof of the vehicle in front. I pretend that I cannot see, that my view is obscured by the foggy windshield, or by the plumes of steam and smoke that stand in the space between. But I can see it all. I can see the faint pattern of the driver’s breath against the sky, and the strands of spit arcing downwards from his open mouth. The butter curl of sweat on his forehead… 

But how did we ever come to our arrangement? The driver and I. We are not friends. Nor even acquaintances. And we are not even really colleagues if it comes to that. The company that we work for is vast. A city unto itself. It contains multitudes and our departments, which are both in their way as big as townships, are not related at all and are nowhere near to one another.

It’s true, I admit, that we come from the same part of the country. A wild, mountainous region far to the north. And even that we look somewhat alike. But so do all the people from that place. I am certain that we had never encountered each other until we had both be living in the city for some years. Even if our villages had stood only a few miles apart it would have been impossible. Given the impoverished condition of our mountain roads and the frequency of avalanches. And if we were to return there now after all these years we would be strangers. Peered at from over sheepfold walls, the doors all bolted against us. If we talk about it at all, it is only to mention some fresh catastrophe that has struck there. An earthquake or an epidemic in the local livestock. And even then the information is vague and insufficient. We let it be.

It was the company that decided it. That we should be matched. Or rather some algorithm. Burrowing its blind way deep into the company’s vast personnel files.

The decision final. And faulty or not, who was there to appeal to? Adrift in the unwindowed depths of the accountancy department. What could I do? My confused questions absorbed, without comment, by the blank, oval face of the mail carrier, moving away into the dizzying expanse of desks. And somewhere the driver, in another part of the compound, musing over an identical memo. Running his fingers over the light blue paper. A color reserved exclusively for memos from higher management. Perhaps already excepting, with terrible equanimity, the finality of our situation.

I tell myself that I will be ready for it this time. But when the blows began to fall I still flinch. Under the restraining arm of the seat belt, as the driver’s arms dip and rise, jumping and dancing like an electroshock patient strapped to a gurney. I Look left and right at the windows of the other stopped cars. Unable to see the people inside. Wondering if they are dancing too. All of us together across the laned highway like a grotesque chorus line. But all I can see are  shadows

– Fine morning
says the driver. But there is no broken skin on his knuckles. Or little pearls of white foam at the corners of his mouth. His eyes are bright and unfilled with blood. In fact he is altogether better turned out than I am. The very image of professionalism. Driving carefully and without haste. It is only when we get out onto the highway that the trouble begins.

And in truth. In truth it is the glancing blows that hurt me the most. More than the jaw shattering left hooks, or the kicks that land square into an unprotected belly. Sometimes I find myself wincing more sharply at the imperfect contacts. The scuffed kicks, and the haymakers that end with only in fresh air. Better it be quick and clean I say. Better not to resist.

And so I have found myself praying for well-placed punches and for soft flesh to absorb them. And sometimes when the driver squares up to an opponent I am there too. Sitting up straight in my seat with my hands raised. Ducking my head and aiming little jabs at the windshield. There is satisfaction there. Sometimes. And sometimes perhaps there is a something more.

At night I dream of the highway. 

Still half dreaming sometimes when the driver arrives.

In the grey light of a winter dawn, the great sweep of that orbital arm. The highway, lifting me high above the sleeping smokestacks and shuttered factories. The city suddenly far away. Almost lost on the horizon. As if we had detached and were drifting now through the empty and featureless regions beyond its limits.

As the driver pilots his big, gleaming machine. Pushing it smoothly up and down the narrow streets and crooked laneways. Sending it humming over the cobblestones I am walking on the hard shoulder. One frozen hand holding together the tattered edges of my overcoat. Pushing my light body against the wind and uproar of heavy freight passing ceaselessly in the other direction. Leaving the old city behind. The road unfurling widening out. My eyes stung red. My lungs stiff with dust. The driver just beginning to twitch as the rush hour traffic closes in around us Pushed backwards into the weeds, over the railing and down the embankment on the other side. His knuckles white on the wheel. Muttering under his breath. Until I am tumbling end over end.  Down through rubble and hard brush. Pounding his fist on the wheel. Screaming at the other cars. Down and down into darkness. 

Then suddenly lifted again. By a new velocity, travelling east. Faster and faster. Almost flying. While far below a crumpled shape is laid out or struggling to rise. As we plunge towards the sunrise. 

I roll my head to side. And find the white sky hanging upside down in the window. Above the smokeline crows are flying back and forth like rags on the wind and far off in the distance I can hear the sound of ragged breaths evening out and I am never able to figure out if they are my own or if they belong to the driver.

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