The Writing Quarter July 2018 Winner

Posted 7 months ago under Uncategorised,

A Half Tank Full

by Josef Smith

Josef Smith is a current undergraduate studying English Literature at the University of Reading. Previously unpublished, he writes mostly post-apocalyptic fiction and poetry, though enjoys experimenting with other areas. He splits his time between Reading and his home town of Cardiff and, when not writing, can most often be found procrastinating from work with video games, playing guitar,  or spending time with his wonderful girlfriend.

He knew that there was only so long you could live out of a car. Of course, you could technically stay in a car indefinitely, carrying out the basic functions you need to survive, but living was another matter altogether. A life of fast food, pissing into empty bottles and contorting your body into the space across the backseats was no life at all. His eating habits were beginning to wreak havoc on his insides, the smell in the car was getting worse and he couldn’t roll down the windows and lose valuable heat in the November cold. He found himself wondering at what point it would all become too much to bear. The very idea of “too much” made him chuckle, before that chuckle turned into a brief coughing fit. He’d endured “too much” too many times already.

At least the heat was still coming from the dashboard. It fogged up the windows, condensation dripping slowly in single tear drops until it hit the hard plastic of the interior and vanished somewhere down into the door. While the heat intensified the smell in the car, mixing up a soup of human odours into an atmosphere that was barely breathable, he knew he needed that heat to survive. Every single second that heater was on was precious. A thick coat, gloves and a beanie were already laid out in the passenger seat ready for the worst, and every day he kept his eye on the fuel gauge like it was his own personal doomsday clock. He dug deep into his pocket and scraped out the last of his money, a measly £5 that consisted mostly of silver coins, and knew even that would be gone soon.

When he had first moved into the car, life had simply been simplified for him. Parked directly outside his place of work, all he had to worry about was keeping the money coming in so he could keep on eating, drinking and driving down to the local leisure centre for showers. There was no one to impress, to keep happy, no other responsibilities besides getting by. It was still autumn and not even the cold could hurt him. Now and then there was enough for him to take a trip to the pub, sit at the stool and drown his sorrows, praying for the barman to ask him his troubles like they did on TV, but he lived in the real world and the young barman paid no attention to him. Every trip to the pub left him staring into the foam at the bottom of his empty pint glass, hoping to read it like tea leaves and find some hope in his future. All he ever found was the desire for another pint and another night on the backseat in the pub car park.

It wasn’t as though he had nowhere else to go, but he needed to stay in that car. Plenty of people had offered him other options, a sofa here, a spare bedroom there, even an empty room in an old friend’s house, but moving out was failing. Staying in the car meant he was still in limbo, his own personal purgatory, paying for his sins in fast food and frostbite while he waited for St Peter to let him back in to heaven. If he left the car and went on with his life, that would be his damnation. Moving on meant giving up.

After a few weeks, maybe a month, he built up the nerve to go back to the old house. The cold shower at the leisure centre cleansed his sins and washed them down the drain, the warm beer from under the passenger seat calmed his racing mind and the button-down shirt she had always loved made him feel like he was simply coming home from work. The thing he most regretted later was parking outside the house and rolling the windows down to air the car out. It was valuable money that he had let evaporate and drift away.

The stone pathway was daunting to him. He stopped dead under the wooden lattice archway, crooked and crawling with ivy, and tried to adjust it back into its proper shape. The wood that propped it up wasn’t built for longevity and had rotted away, with one side of the arch snapping as soon as he laid his hands on it. He tried to piece it back together, slotting the jagged pieces of wood together like a splintered jigsaw puzzle, and was satisfied to see the archway stand upright again, even if he knew that it would not last for long. After a long, deep breath, he turned away from the arch and strode down the path with the greatest façade of confidence he could muster.

She didn’t answer the door. He instinctively reached for his keys but they were no use either. He already knew that the locks had been changed. He tried the back door but it was the same story. All the curtains had been drawn shut, all the windows locked, but her car was still in the driveway. He sat on the bed of small stones in the front garden, tossing one of them between his hands, wondering whether to throw it against the window, but decided against it. It would never help his cause. There was no way she would come to the window to see who threw the stone when it was so obvious that it would be him. He still mulled the thought over in his head though. Even if she came to the window just to give him the finger. He just wanted to see her face.

That had been what infuriated him the most. He was left with no note, no angry voicemail, no chance for him to understand, just a set of keys that wouldn’t fit the lock and an overwhelming loneliness.  How could she do that to him, with no explanation, no reason, without even speaking to him? He sat in his car for days after, seething with this raging river of anger that couldn’t find an outlet. It had taken a few weeks but that anger had dried up inside of him by the time he had come back. His heart had shrivelled like a plant on the prairie, with no rainy season in sight. Some stubborn hope did take root inside him, but it was a desperate hope, the kind that encourages a reckless, faint optimism. The kind that kept him from moving on, and lead to him staying in his car.

He had fallen asleep on that bed of stones, finding it only marginally more uncomfortable than the backseat of his car, and when he awoke her car was gone. The past few weeks had gotten the better of his sleeping pattern, leaving him perpetually tired, apparently tired enough to not hear her car drive away less than three feet away from him. This was a sign to him. He told himself that she wasn’t ready, and neither was he. After one more knock at the door went unanswered, his last hope to be let back into his life unheard, he resolved to leave. He grabbed some tape from the glovebox and tried to mend the wooden archway, then clambered back into the driver’s seat.

It took him three days to get the car back to a comfortable heat again after that, and even then, it was only because he had kept himself confined to the car for that long. While he knew that he wasn’t ready to make amends, he also found that he wasn’t ready to go back to living and working out of his car. The living part had become hard enough for him already. He had left his work phone on the pavement before he drove away from his old home and took up residence in an industrial estate nearby. It was there that he had survived for another couple of months after that, only leaving for the occasional showers that decreased in regularity, and to buy himself enough fast food and water to sustain himself. Most of his time was spent asleep, or idly listening to the radio, or staring out of the window and daydreaming about his old life of mundanity that now seemed infinitely more interesting to him.

Then the heater stopped. He checked the fuel and it was still well above empty. Nothing seemed to be broken underneath the bonnet. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong. As far as he could tell, the heater had simply given up on him. He fiddled for an hour with the engine, before giving up on the heater in return and collapsing back into the driver’s seat. He lay there for an hour or so and sobbed a little, finding it impossible to cry. His tear ducts were already dried up, and all he could manage to do was sniffle and heave, swallowing loudly through the lump in his throat. He looked up to the sky, closed his eyes and clasped his hands together, knowing he couldn’t give up. Then he tried one more time to start the heater. Fog began to creep up the windows again and he felt the warm air bring his fingers back to life as they sat on the steering wheel. It brought the rest of him back to life too, as he felt something change inside of him. He put his foot on the accelerator.

The car screeched to a halt outside the old house and he swung the door open, stepping out onto the pavement and towards the house. He didn’t notice that the archway had been taken down as he walked across the stones, each step sinking in as he marched towards the door. He knocked in a pattern, the same way he had knocked on her windows when they were kids. There was no movement at first, but this time he was sure. He took a deep breath and knocked again. A figure approached the door. A chain was unhooked and a bolt slid across slowly. The door opened inwards a few inches and a female face, with piercing blue eyes and shoulder length blonde hair, peered through the gap.

He didn’t recognise it. He stood there for a moment or two, with a blank expression and a blank mind. It felt as though that door opening, the disappointment, had wiped his slate clean. He turned around and walked back to his car as the new owner of the house called after him, but her words rang empty in his ears. He climbed in the car, turned the heating back on and began to drive towards the bridge, fingers clasped like a vice on the steering wheel. The decisions were his to make now, no more clinging on and letting her have that hold over him. He didn’t know where he was going yet, or what he was going to do, or who he was going to be, but he would decide, whenever he got there. He would drive as far as his half tank full of petrol could take him.

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