‘Honey, listen. I’m sorry okay? You know what traffic’s like on the bridge. I haven’t moved for like an hour. There must be some accident or something…’ Patrick winds down the window to get a better look but sees nothing but a sea of red tail lights.
It starts to snow, small white flakes drift onto the warm windscreen and expire, before running and collecting in drops at the edges of his wipers.
A couple in a golden Avensis to his right are squabbling and taking turns to bang out their frustrations against the dash; the burly blokes in the transit behind swap positions, the driver and chief nose-picker is now in the passenger seat rummaging for something in his trousers; the elderly lady in her classic Mercedes to his left continues to rest her tired, made-up face in her hands against the glass, while tapping her jewelled fingers against her steering wheel.
‘I don’t know what time I’ll be back…Whatever time the traffic decides to clear I guess…’
An old man with a grey scraggly beard and wrapped in a stained duffle coat sprawls across his bonnet gesticulating with a dirty sponge. Patrick shakes his head and waves him on. A sad-looking flower seller startles him with a knock on his window; the young girl says nothing, just frowns from behind her long, brown hair and points at a bunch of red roses in her hand; he considers buying some for Sarah but she’d only get suspicious, ‘You never buy me flowers, what’s going on?’ she’d say. He shakes his head and keeps mouthing ‘No’ until the little sad, flower girl takes her roses elsewhere.
‘…Yes, yes, I know it’s Billy’s parent’s evening but what can I do? The traffic is going nowhere. There’s only so much I can do isn’t there? No I’m not… How can I be doing this on purpose?…’
He looks up as a honking cacophony from behind alerts him to the gap that’s just opened up. Patrick puts the Mondeo into first gear, releases the hand brake and shuffles a metre along the bridge until an approaching wave of red brake lights bring proceedings to a halt again.
‘I didn’t choose to work late… You know it’s always busy this time of year… Listen… We’re not going over that again, not now Sarah…’
The passenger door opens. Suddenly he’s caught between the disapproving voice of his wife in his right ear and an interloper in the passenger seat.
‘Hey sweetlips,’ she says, ‘Don’t mind if I join you do ya? It’s a bit cold out there.’
He looks across and sees a young woman, her hair is dyed purple on one side, cut short on the other, she wears a white cotton blouse with the frilly collar underneath a black leather jacket; she’s stretching out her paisley stockinged legs, which present themselves from a short, plum and grey tartan skirt, stomps her big biker boots all over the car mat while her fingers fiddles with the air vents through knitted, fingerless gloves.
‘What. Are. You. Doing?’ he mouths and gesticulates that she should open the door and get out, that she’s got the wrong car, but she’s already pulled down the vanity mirror and reshapes her windswept hair.
‘Uh? No-one, that was just the radio honey. Listen, I’ll call you later, I should save the battery. Love you,’ says Patrick.
‘Excuse me,’ he says. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Get out! You can’t just barge into people’s cars!’
‘Hey, man. I’m Cindy. Want some?’ she holds out a green packet of spearmint gum with her black painted nails, sticks her pierced tongue out and throws in a piece.
‘No!’ says Patrick. ‘Can you please get out? You got the wrong car!’
She’s adjusting the seat, pulling and pushing it back, adjusting the backrest and wriggling herself into the seat. ‘Alright chill out granddad. I’m just getting some rest, warming up. I’m not gonna hurt ya am I?’ says Cindy, she sweeps her purple hair and nudges his elbow from the central armrest. ‘Traffic’s a bitch ain’t it? Would be faster to walk.’
‘Well why don’t you?’ says Patrick.
‘Walk? Why don’t you walk?’
‘Nah! Too cold,’ says Cindy chewing and flitting the gum between each side of her mouth with her pierced tongue.
‘Who you talking to?’ says Cindy turning around and checking out the car.
‘None of your business,’ says Patrick.
‘I said “None of your business”. Can you please get out?’
Sarah calls again, he’s embarrassed by the Final Countdown ringtone and declines the call.
‘You should get yourself a hands-free anyway,’ says Cindy. ‘Did you know it’s against the law to use a phone while driving?’
Another concerto of horns push the traffic forward another metre before stopping again.
‘Did you know it’s against the law to break and enter somebody else’s car!’
‘I didn’t break anything,’ says Cindy, ‘yet… I’m joking! Relax granddad.’ she says and puts her boots up on the dashboard.
‘Get your feet down! Right that’s it! Can you get out. Now! Please!’
‘Alright. Don’t have a breakdown. It’s just a car, man. Anyway, it’s snowing. Not gonna cast a girl out in this weather are ya? Got anything to eat?’ She opens the glove box, it overspills with stuffed receipts and empty cigarette packets, she rummages around, unearths some old dusting cloths, underneath which she finally extracts a couple of chocolate bars.
‘Aha!’ she says. She takes the Snickers, sniffs it, decides to take the Mars instead and hands Patrick the Snickers.
He takes it and relaxes a little. He’s probably going to be trapped on this bridge for a while, he thinks, and she seems strangely attractive and harmless enough, if lacking in manners; he’s happy to spend a few unasked for moments in her presence to alleviate the lonely commute, knowing that he wouldn’t have to see her again.
‘What?’ he says unwrapping the Snickers, he’s unsure how long it’s been sitting in the glove box, looks like it’s melted and reformed so many times it now resembles some veiny phallus and stuffs it in the Mondeo’s overspilling side pocket.
‘That look on your face, I see it all the time here,’ she says chewing on her reformed Mars bar.
‘Oh yeah? And what kind of look is that?’ says Patrick.
‘Oh, I don’t know how you call it. But you know what I mean?’ say Cindy. She finishes her chocolate, scrunches her wrapper and launches it over her shoulder. ‘It’s like, how you say? Sad… frustration? But it’s okay. You’re not the only one. It happens a lot around here. On the bridge. What’d you do anyway?’
‘I work in finance,’ says Patrick, reaching round with consternation, trying to locate the discarded wrapper.
‘What does that mean?’ says Cindy.
‘I’m a payroll manager,’ say Patrick.
‘I still don’t understand. You enjoy it?’ says Cindy.
‘So why’d you do it?’
‘Because it’s what I do.’
‘Why don’t you do something else?’
‘I dunno. There’s always something else,’ says Cindy, she flicks down the vanity mirror and reapplies her lipstick.
‘What about you. If you’re so smart. What do you do?’ says Patrick drumming the steering wheel.
‘Oh yeah? Where?’
‘Nowhere,’ says Cindy folding up the mirror.
‘What do you mean nowhere?’ says Patrick.
‘Nowhere. Well… Apart from here.’ She waves her hand, ‘I travel the bridge. I travel it every day. It’s amazing the people you meet here in the traffic, the things you learn in the passenger seat. You should try it sometime. It’s liberating.’
The Final Countdown announces Sarah’s frustration again.
‘You’d better get that. Wouldn’t want to get you in trouble now,’ winks Cindy.
‘Hello? Yes, I’m still on the bridge Sarah… Yes, I know what time it is… No, I don’t know what’s happening…’ says Patrick.
‘Thanks for the chocolate,’ says Cindy. She leans in and kisses him on the cheek with her deep purple lips, ‘See you around lover.’ Cindy gets out and wanders off.
‘What? No-one… That was no-one, just the radio again… No, I can’t… Yes… I guess you will have to go to parents evening by yourself again… I’m sorry honey…’
Patrick watches Cindy slinking and encircling the cars, stooping and peering into their blackened windows, trying doors at random before finally helping herself into the passenger seat of a Golf a few cars ahead as another horn symphony hurries the queues along another metre in his lonely journey.