Everything is Changing
Kathleen Stafford, Timbuktu exhibit
When we found the car it was parked against a tree, a horse chestnut. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand and walked around it. Amazingly there was not a scratch anywhere.
“It looks different,” she said. It did, she was right, but I didn’t think it was helpful of her to point it out at just that moment.
“Well, yes,” I said. “It does.” I tilted my head, and tried to work out what had changed. The nearside front wheel was eight feet off the ground and nestled against the trunk. It looked like it was lounging. Like we’d caught it chatting casually with a neighbour. We looked up and down the street. It was the only car parked thus.
“Did you…” she trailed off as I raised an eyebrow. “Then how?” she said, her hands palm up by her sides. She looked thin when she did that, thin and young. A stocky old lady walked – waddled – towards us towing a languorous bulldog.
“Morning dears,” she said as she passed.
“Morning!” said my girlfriend automatically, hugging herself against the cold. I scowled at how desperate she was to make a good first impression with everyone around here. We watched their stop-start progress until dog and lady turned the corner.
“She didn’t even notice,” I said. My girlfriend nodded, then shook her head. I rummaged in the bag around my shoulder – a prized Rough Trade record bag I’d had since my first undergraduate year, when I was oh so certain of myself – and pulled out a dishevelled pack of cigarettes.
“What are you doing with those?” she said. I ignored her. I walked around to the passenger side and squatted on the grass, slotting a rumpled smoke between my lips. I lit up and drew deeply. It made me want to puke.
“You started smoking?” she said. “I didn’t know you’d started smoking.” I wanted to say ‘your point is?’ and ‘there’s a lot of things you don’t know,’ or something equally enigmatic but I kept quiet and carried on smoking, or at least pretending; embarrassingly, I couldn’t get the knack of inhaling. The truth was, I’d found the pack of cigarettes on a wall outside the city museum a couple of days ago and had felt an existential urge to try. I was getting that a lot recently. Perhaps I was getting old. There was a slim plastic lighter inside, I’d tipped the butane from chamber to chamber for hours at my desk.
I looked at the car. It looked away, upwards, staring, as though the headlamps eyes were looking for something in the canopy. I following its gaze. There was nothing unusual up there that I could see. A couple of blackbirds, a squirrel, but no smaller cars braced shivering among the higher boughs.
“Can you get it down?” said my girlfriend.
“I’m thinking,” I said.
We stood or squatted where we were. I held the cigarette awkwardly between finger and thumb, then between two fingers. Neither felt comfortable. I held it like a pencil. That felt weird too. The smoke coiled into my eyes, making them sting. I held it to the side like an incense offering. My girlfriend looked at her boots, at me, at the car.
I’d parked it the night before where I always did in the space outside our tiny new flat. Parallel parking through gritted teeth, swearing softly to myself as I messed it up again and again. A queue of traffic formed itself behind me in the narrow road. My coat, my clothes, had seemed suddenly too tight. Our evening, as usual, was uneventful. This morning, when we left together for work the car was gone. It never occurred to me that it might have been stolen. We set off to look for it. My girlfriend had slipped her hand into mine. I didn’t admit it, but I liked it. A lot. It felt right, like we were right. We’d found the car two roads away, parked against a horse chestnut tree in front of the new plastic looking dental surgery. Everything was new and plastic looking around here.
I frowned at the car.
“The tyres are different,” I said. It was true. All four of the ordinary road tyres had been replaced with ridiculous balloon tyres, small versions of the ones they put on monster trucks. “I don’t understand,” I said. My girlfriend began to nibble her fingernails. I ducked underneath the body and glanced, oddly embarrassed, at the spare slung beneath the rear wheels. “Even the spare,” I said. “That’s been changed, too.” We stood facing each other for a long time in silence.
“Everything is changing,” she said. She looked like she was going to cry.
“I’m going to be late for work,” I said, perhaps a little quickly.
My girlfriend did something with her long thin arms and went to the back of the car. The rear window was near the ground. She clicked it open and ducked inside. I watched her boots disappear over the seats.
“Careful,” I whispered. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Soon I saw her above me slipping effortlessly into the front seat. She leaned out of the window.
“Watch out,” she said. “Backing up!” She eased the parking brake off and rolled the car gently down the tree until it sat like a normal car on the side of the road. Normal in every sense except for those big balloon tyres. “Hop in,” she said. “I’ll drive.”
In the passenger seat I found a letter scrawled on pale pink water-buckled stock card, with a blue Biro pushed through the bloated corner.
Hi there, Russ, Daisy! said the letter. Found these in a bin at the Goodyear factory. I thought you could use them. See ya!
I folded the crinkly note and tucked it into my record bag. I had no idea who it was from, or how they knew us. “Ride seems a little bouncier,” I said.
Simon Kartar writes short, flash and novel-length fiction about the spaces between us. An anthropology graduate, Samba drummer (he plays Timba), and accidental endurance athlete, he also runs, cycles and kayaks through these spaces. He lives in southern England with his fabulous, energising family.