Panic, collision, the silence of an empty road
By Anna Johnson, Year 11, St George's British International School
We don’t decide what it is that we remember. From the thousands of finely interconnected events building up and blending together between birth and death, almost all are swallowed into the vagueness of ‘time’, ceasing really to exist as individual moments. They blur; they shift; they are often absorbed or forgotten. But there are some moments which survive, forever entwined in our minds, pristine replicas of the past resting within the haze of memory. We do not choose these moments. We have no say in what our minds select to retain while everything else disappears.
As I lie here, turning over everything in my mind, I can truly think of only one moment in this way. Everything else, before and after, has been altered by my tired mind, or assigned to that great, indistinct mass of ‘past’. No: this event, the very one I tried for so long after to suffocate, has remained inescapable.
Now, when it matters, all I have is this.
The dusk was just setting in, creating an unsure, barely present light which lingered after the sun’s departure and filtered, ever more weakly, over the horizon. The greens of the trees had long faded into grey. Now, as the last of the light drained away, they were transformed into dim silhouettes lining the road, an endless trail of identical figures looming before me as I rounded each curvature of the road. The evidence of the day’s rain surrounded me- the fields to either side were congested with mud, and every so often a drop would fall from the overhead branches and mar the surface of the windscreen with a watery trail. Reflected in the innumerable puddles surrounding the car was the thin grey-white film obscuring the sky.
It was a silent, solitary drive I made, the country road smooth and deserted. I had the window cracked open and the taste of rain on concrete seemed to settle in my lungs as I breathed in the evening.
The darkness gradually sank into the road, imperceptibly to me, whose thoughts drifted lethargically between trivial details of my plans for the next day, and the next, and the next. They stretched ahead of me, a procession of monotony. Perfect, untouched normality certain to remain undisturbed. Until it didn’t.
There she was: a figure, frozen for one perfect instant.
It is her gaze which I recall more vividly than all that rest- her deeply intense, dark eyes which probe me in the same way now. The eyes, standing in the body, standing in the road. Fixed my own, rendering me as immobile as herself.
I saw the child for what must have been less than a second. No headlights, street lights, or moon light were there to illuminate her startled face, or indeed to warn either of us of the other’s presence as the space between us shrank to nothing. Panic, collision, the silence of an empty road.
Tyres skidded still, and we were alone: Me, and the body, and the rest of the silent world. There was a moment of frantic stillness. My fingers were frozen in an unyielding grip, my back rigid, but my mind was reeling, staggering, lurching. I was both gasping for breath and unable to pull the air into my lungs. Everything around me seemed to vibrate, yet nothing moved. I sat enclosed within my protective shell, gazing out at the indistinct shape lying metres in front of me. The figures of the trees now seemed to bend inwards, closer and closer, peering forwards to bear witness to the scene. I felt trapped. The next thing I knew, the door was falling open, and the sharp air colliding with my skin.
What would you do? You’d do the right thing, after stumbling numbly towards her. You’d do the right thing, after staring at the broken form at your feet. You’d do the right thing, numbness overflowing until you no longer existed, until it was you who stared at the wet tarmac, whose last breaths inhaled its scent. Wouldn’t you?
The surroundings became distorted, constricting me slowly as they bent circuitously inwards. I tore my eyes from the child, so small yet growing ever more great within the warped confusion of my mind.
Nothing was going to bring her back, anyway. What was the point of risking the ruination of my own life? My life, in all its stability, its certainty. What was it I wanted to preserve? Peace? I should have known, even then, that peace would never be possible. Then, when guilt was already closing its arms around me like a gentle vice. But I didn’t understand it then, that I was not protecting myself when I backed away, or when I drove home, or when I closed my eyes and tried to submerge the memory in dreams.
I slept and got up and carried on. Where I could, I avoided driving; I casually but consistently avoided listening for long to the news. Lingering for long enough to hear something about an accident, a missing person, was not an option. Perhaps I was more careful, in those subsequent months. But what I wanted, in the end, was the normality which I would later have recognised to have already shattered.
From that second onwards, I had never been alone and never would be. Whether I saw her or not, she was always with me. My mistake, like every other, had a price. I never avoided it, never cheated whatever it is that determines this price, I only unknowingly decided to pay it differently. I would never erase the image of her invariably youthful face, just as it had looked then, so close in my mind that I could have stretched out my arm and touched its cheek.
I really believed, for a long time, that I would outrun her. And I did believe, at some points, that I had. It is true that as the years passed, I would relive the evening less and less. But whenever it did invade my mind, it felt as tangible and as vibrant as if it were happening in the present. I learnt that time alone often fails to create distance. The memory clung to me like nothing else. I was constantly vulnerable- There she would be, as if having never left, whenever circumstance called her forwards. If I ventured towards happiness, if I dared to feel sad. I could not bear admiration; I shrank from accusation. She was an extension of myself, a channel of guilt and grief and despair.
Some moments, whether we wish them to be or not, are unforgettable.
Illustration: Chiara Castrovillari, Year 13 IB Visual Arts, age 17
Published in the January 2018 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
St George's British International School, Via Cassia km 16, La Storta, tel. 063086001, website.
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Wanted in Rome Junior: St George's British International School
Via Cassia km16, La Storta, 00123 Roma RM, Italy