Who’s the woman sleeping in the passenger seat next to me, under my raincoat? Whose car is this? Two hours ago, it was a day like any other; or so I thought. I was driving to work, and the car in front of me failed to move when the lights changed. I sounded the horn, but the white Fiat Uno did not budge. When the lights turned green again, it was still there. I parked on the side of the road and climbed out of my car. There was a strong scent of jasmine in the air. After a few paces, I could see a woman with red hair, wearing a denim jacket, was slouched over the wheel. I knocked on the car window a few times, but she did not stir. For a moment, I feared she was dead. I opened the car door and tapped the woman on the shoulder. She lifted up her head and turned towards me. Her eyes were red. I could see she’d been crying. She looked terrified.
She spoke to me in short, gasping sentences. She couldn’t remember who she was, and she didn’t know to where she was driving. It was difficult to make out all the words. The drivers behind us were honking their horn. Some were shouting insults and making rude gestures. I told her that she couldn’t stay in the middle of the road, and since she didn’t look up to it, I volunteered to park her car on the curb. While I was behind the wheel, she studied me as if trying to place me in her memory. I told her she did not know me; I explained I had been in the car behind her, and I had noticed she needed help.
Once I had parked her car, I switched off the engine and turned to face her. I offered to drive her to the police or to a hospital. She shook her head from side to side like a frightened child while her eyes had grown large with fear. I noticed she had begun to shiver, so I went to fetch my raincoat - the forecast for the afternoon was rain. As I walked back to my car, I called work to warn I’d be late. I looked at the sky for signs of rain. There was a large cloud shaped like a giant fish, but it was far away. When I got back inside her car, she was still shivering. She took the raincoat and muttered a faint thank-you.
She is stirring now, but she doesn’t wake up. I think she is dreaming. I can see her hair spilling over the top of my raincoat; flames of hair lick at the lapels. I look around the car. It is the cleanest car I have ever seen! It is not new, but someone has cleaned it so well that it could be. I had not noticed this earlier. However, now that I am searching for some clue as to this woman’s identity, it strikes me as particularly odd. Why would someone go to all that trouble?
I climb out of the car as quietly as possible, to make a phone call for work. While making the call, I am distracted by the field on the side of the road. I am staring at an army of sunflowers; a sinister sect who worships a ball of fire, but will bow to the night. Their colour and smell seem to drive the wasps wild. Every now and again, I turn to look inside the car, to check how sleeping beauty is doing. My raincoat moves to the rhythm of her breathing. What happened to this woman? Why can’t she remember it?
While I am on the phone, I see a funeral hearse drive past. I notice a peasant and his dog, on the other side of the road. He is carrying a basket of tomatoes and basil on his head. He also spots the hearse and moves his free hand to his flies. He squeezes his scrotum, until the hearse drives past; a gesture to keep Death at bay. The farmer’s dog barks at the hearse until it is out of view. Maybe that is where the red haired woman was going. Maybe she was going to someone’s funeral, the funeral of someone she loved.
An old priest, in a black gown, is looking at his watch, pacing in front of the church. A couple of elderly women frown at his purple socks. Six sturdy men are standing by a trolley bearing a coffin; they search the clergyman’s gaunt bespectacled face for a sign to proceed. The handles of the coffin sparkle in the sun. The organ is playing inside the church. One of the men, a bald and burly man, cries as he shines the coffin with his jacket sleeve. To the side of the six men, there is a young boy with red hair. He is standing next to his grandparents. He is crying and looking at the ground. He spots a ladybird on the back of the priest’s gown and stops weeping. He goes over to the clergyman, and without him noticing it, he picks up the ladybird and places it on the coffin for good luck; red on black. The men follow the boy with their eyes and smile. The boy’s grandfather bends down and ruffles the boy’s hair. He whispers something to the child and kisses him on the top of his head. A white car drives up, and the priest peers over his glasses in its direction. The car drives by and his chin drops in disappointment. He bites his bottom lip and begins pacing again, slightly hunched forward, his hands behind his back. The church is packed. It smells like a wine cellar, in which someone has been stocking mothballs. A woman stops breastfeeding her baby in a dark corner of the church. The child begins to cry. Its shrieks set off those of the other infants. The organ music gets louder. A white Fiat Uno makes its way up the drive, attracting the priest’s gaze. The car parks next to the church and a woman gets out. She has red hair and wears a denim jacket. Hang on! Who goes to a funeral in a denim jacket? No, that doesn’t work.
Back in her car, I begin searching for anything that could tell me who she is. I move slowly. I do not want her to wake up in a panic. It strikes me that she does not have a handbag. Maybe someone stole it. I look through the glove compartment, being careful not to wake her. It is empty and spotless. I check the rest of the car and clamber out to open the boot, which is also impeccably clean. As I close the boot to her car, careful not to wake her, an ambulance drives by at great speed, lights flashing. I step back against the car just in time. As he whizzes by, I see that the ambulance driver is talking on his mobile and driving with one hand. What if she were going to a hospital? Maybe she received a call from the Emergency Room.
The Emergency Room
A nurse is standing outside the ambulance entrance, smoking nervously. She hates this part of her job; phoning people to inform them a relative has had an accident. A young ambulance driver with a nose piercing is discussing the motorbike wreck he and his team had just seen with a security guard. She overhears him say that the boy must have been riding at high speed. The ambulance team had found him a long way away from the bike, in a field of sunflowers. However, they had found him quickly because the sunflowers next to him had turned their back to the sun and had bent towards the boy. The ambulance driver claims that if it were not for the sunflowers, they would still be looking for him. He says that when they saw he had copper hair, one of his team recognised him, and called out his name, to try to wake him.
The nurse waves goodbye to the ambulance driver and the security guard. She stubs out her cigarette and walks back inside. She rubs the palm of her hands over her face as if washing off her reluctance. As she crosses the waiting room, she spots a mosquito on her arm. They breed in a nearby canal and around this time of day, they begin to test her patience. She swats it and swears under her breath. She goes back into her office and picks up the phone. “I’m sorry Ms. …….. there has been an accident”. The red haired woman at the other end of the line puts down the phone. She rushes out of the house, and … she forgets her bag. No, it would have been a reflex. She would have taken her handbag and mobile phone. She would not have left the house without them. I am back to square one.
I slip back inside the car and look across at her. She is facing away from me. Her head is under my raincoat, but I can see her right hand, resting on her left shoulder. Her nails are polished and perfect. Her hands are probably crucial to her job. Maybe many people see them on a daily basis. Or maybe not, maybe she just cares about her hands. A fly lands on the exact spot where a wedding ring has recently been removed. What does that mean? Is she a divorcee? Is she an adulterer on her way to her lover? Or simply someone who forgot to put her ring back on? I wave the fly away, and it buzzes out the window. I look at my hands. I turn them over. I try to put myself in her shoes. One minute I’m driving to work, and the next, I am inside a stranger’s body. What could I tell by looking at this stranger’s hands? They could be the hands of a priest or those of a killer.
A police car speeds past us so fast and so close, the air movement rocks the car from side to side. A few metres away, it slows down, brakes screeching and does a U-turn. It’s coming back towards us. Oh Shit! Is this it? Did the Police notice the car’s number plate? Maybe they’re searching for her and now they’ve found her. I am the accomplice of a woman who doesn’t know what crime she’s committed. What kind of criminal nightmare would that be? I see myself accused of helping a murderer who, through remorse, or for whatever reason, forgot her crime, her identity, and everything else. I am sure some young, ambitious local magistrate could make a name for himself by chucking both of us in jail and throwing away the key. I can see the headlines: Bonnie and Clyde Italian style; that would keep the local papers busy for the summer. We would be the talk of the beaches! But the police car drives past us, picking up speed and turning on the siren a few hundred metres away. I start to breathe again. I can smell fear all over me. I crawl out of the car for a breath of fresh air. A snake zigzags past me, just inches from my feet. It is jade green and about six feet long. I know it is not poisonous, but it stirs some primitive terror inside me.
I walk round to the other side of the car, and I look through the car window. Who is this woman? What happened to her? Why had she been so scared of going to the police or the hospital? Why doesn’t she have a handbag or a mobile phone? Why doesn’t her car have any documents inside it? Why is her car so meticulously clean? Why has she recently removed her wedding ring? Why was she so tired? Was she involved in a crime? Was she the criminal? Was she the victim? Was she a witness? These questions are branches that seem to grow with unnatural swiftness, like those shown in those speeded up nature documentaries. If she was the criminal, what was the crime? Maybe she killed someone. Maybe it was an accident.
She is getting ready to leave home. There is a smell of coffee and cigarettes in the air. She is combing her red hair in the bathroom mirror, when her husband barges in. He smells of cheap liquor and hasn’t shaved in days. He starts laying into her. Since he’s been laid off, he’s gotten worse. She tries to avoid him and leaves the flat in a hurry. As she reaches the stairs, he grabs hold of her right arm, but she swings round, pulling him off balance. He tries to hold on to her handbag, but it slips off her shoulder as he falls down the stairs… and tack! He breaks his neck. She is in shock. She rushes out the block of flats and gets into her car. But wait! What about the keys? Where would she have gotten the keys from? If she had left the keys in her handbag, she would have had to go back for it, and she would have it with her. No, ; it’s too dramatic; I have seen too many thrillers.
The sound of crickets is almost deafening now. I wonder why I didn’t notice it before. It’s so loud, it’s almost artificial. I try to think, but it’s difficult with this din. I get back into the car and wind up the car window. It’s hot, but I need to think. What have I missed?
What if she weren’t a criminal? What if she were the victim? Maybe someone mugged her. At least that would explain the missing handbag. Or maybe she was a witness. Maybe she saw something that she shouldn’t have. Something that was so horrible, that she removed it from her memory, along with her identity. But why must there be a crime at all? How likely is it that a crime is involved? These are just the warped constructs of my overactive imagination. I felt like having a cigarette, even though I’d given up years ago. I was glad I didn’t have any.
My mind went back to this morning, back to the dream I was remembering while on my way to work. A dream I never quite pieced together. I had the impression that, through this dream, I had been trying to say something to myself; something I could not say when I was awake, something important.
I’m walking from room to room. I think I recognise the house, but I can’t remember to whom it belongs. It’s dark, but, for some reason, I don’t dare switch on the lights. I’m treading softly on the balls of my feet. I reach what I think is a bedroom, even though the door prevents me from seeing any bed. The door is ajar, and, on my left, I can see a wide wall cupboard covered in mirrors; a whole wall of mirrors. My throat is dry, and it feels as if someone has turned up the central heating. I can spot dust on the wall-to-wall carpeting, which I think is Navy.
I notice there must be a full moon outside. Soft, pale light is pouring in from a window directly opposite me. I can hear the owner has come back home, and I know I shouldn’t be there. I step inside the room. A mirror-door opens, and someone grabs my forearm, pulling me inside. I don't have time to resist. In the darkness of the cupboard, someone puts a finger to my lips as if instructing me to be quiet. I run my fingers over the stranger´s face. As I do so, it dawns on me that the face I´m touching is mine! I wake up sweating, and my heart is racing.
Back in the car, I see, a large dense cloud is moving slowly above, like a huge spaceship. For a few seconds, everything falls in its shadow. The crickets, the birds, and all the other animals fall silent, like in a solar eclipse. A few moments later, the cloud has flown past, and the crickets and the birds are off again. They sound even louder than before. I turn to look at my passenger. She is awake now, and she is stretching her elbows above her head. She turns towards me. I hesitate, wondering if I have to remind her of why I’m there. She tells me everything is fine, and she knows where she is going. We climb out of the car and she thanks me, handing me my raincoat, before sitting behind the wheel of her car. I close the car door behind her. She switches on the engine, winds down the car window, and I ask her if she’s sure she is OK. She turns towards me, and with a finger, she gestures to come closer. I bend down half expecting her to whisper some dark secret that will change my life, when she plants a kiss on my cheek and says “You are a good person.”. She pauses a second, flashes a sad smile at me, and drives off to the rest of her life.