The car burns as I sleep fully reclined in the driver’s seat. The acrid plastic smoke wakes me. The smell of burning dolls.
A crowd clatters out from the cliff top café next to the tourist car park, the cook banging a thick fist on the driver side window. The smoke curls its heavy weather system about my head as he points a frantic finger at the unlock button in the driver side armrest.
I jab the button with the white lock symbol and nothing happens. Nothing happens. Nothing happens.
The driver side window pelts me with artificial hail. Two hands find me, scrunch me up in my jacket and yank me through the hole where the window used to be.
The cook props me against the pay and display machine, sits with me to wait for the emergency services. We watch the fire spread across the car. The heat blows the remaining glass and the fire stretches out from the windows to claw the sky, smoke thick as blood trailing into the air from its fingertips.
A whole cutback-proposal’s-worth of emergency service professionals tell me I am lucky to be alive. Multiple firemen. Two paramedics. Three police officers, one of them a woman who holds my hand like my mother used to.
I relax against the pay and display machine and watch as the firemen hose the car back under control, its blackened frame fizzing and popping like a broken soda stream as the water hits.
The policewoman is first to ask the question. We’re going over how the fire started and both acknowledge that I might have died. She crouches down in front of me, her face filled with the distance of someone waiting to say what they are thinking rather than listening to what is being said.
“Let’s go back to before the fire started,” she says. “What were you doing sleeping in the car?”
I can’t help thinking the answer is in the question.
In the hospital the orderly wheeling me to the ward talks about a car he owned once, the windscreen of which repeatedly and spontaneously shattered. He blamed local youths with their ASBOs and hooded jumpers, until it happened again as he walked across the hospital car park toward the car. He tells me the glass buckled and flexed, as if squeezed by some invisible giant fist, before shattering onto the front seats.
I spend the afternoon waiting for a doctor to discharge me, hooked up to an oxygen mask, breathing air that smells like the inside of blister packaging. The TV bolted to the wall near the ceiling plays property programmes at an inaudible volume. A lesbian couple is being shown round a series of houses for sale, each one more expensive than the last.
A middle-aged woman sleeps in the bed beside me, hooked to a drip that beeps in alarm every so often. Each time a nurse scurries in with a different-sized, different-coloured plastic sack of fluid to string from the stand.
“The doctor will be with you soon,” the nurse says each time she exits past my bed, folding the empty fluid bag like a crisp packet.
The forms start with my being discharged. The doctor says my exposure to the smoke was minimal. There is no need for further observation. My disappointment at hearing this tastes the same as that which hit me when overlooked for a role in the school play as a child.
I walk back to the car park on the cliff and stare at the scorch marks on the tarmac. Cars park either side once more but no driver braves placing their car over the burnt space. I wait and watch two or three cars approach, the drivers considering the gap, rolling down their windows for a closer look at the burn marks before continuing the hundred yards or so down the road to the next short stay car park.
I fish my phone from my pocket and take photos of the empty space.
Police reports and insurance forms describe the fire as fully engaged. The policewoman and the claims adjustor repeat the phrase in their questions. The newspapers prefer words like blaze and conflagration and, in one particularly striking headline, inferno.
I write down my version in the clearest language I can, squeezing events into the box frames and pre-drawn lines of the various forms. I stick to a clear past tense and words that generate the least amount of ambiguity when placed together. The process reminds me of writing a “What I did on my holidays” composition for the start of school term.
The claims adjustor calls round to clear up a few details. She wears a trouser suit and clicks her silver ballpoint in and out three times before writing anything on her forms. I sign my name with her pen, clicking it in and out to steady myself.
At the door, she says, “We’ll be in touch if we have any further questions.”
She returns later that week.
“It seems there is some irregularity in how the fire started,” she says, clicking the pen in and out before ticking something off the list on her lap. “It seems the police and fire forensic teams have been unable to ascertain the cause of the fire.”
I watch the ballpoint of the pen, a tiny smudge of black ink squatting on the silver head, flick in and out three times. She crosses through something on her list.
“Could you tell me what you remember?”
“I was sleeping.”
“Why was that?”
“I was tired.”
“Do you often sleep in cars parked on cliff top car parks?”
“Only my own.”
The cheek of my response tastes of strawberries.
“You will understand that we simply cannot authorise a claim on your policy if there is any question of irregularities in the events surrounding the fire.”
“I will, yes,” I say, enjoying myself.
She shuffles her papers together. “We’ll be in touch,” she says.
I miss out a lot of incidental details when filling in the spaces of the claim forms, some true and some not so. If I list them, which is which should become clear.
Before I fell asleep there was someone else in the car with me. Had the passenger seat not burned along with the rest of the car a faint indentation in the upholstery may well have been visible to the trained eye of the forensic investigators.
I dreamt of fire while I slept. A circle of fire around which a camp had been struck. Trees shielded the clearing from the wind and music played from somewhere above. I sat alone, looking up at the stars, each one a furnace reduced to a pin-prick in the dark fabric of the sky. Then the smell and sound and reality of the burning car yanked me awake.
My older brother gave me the car. He handed me the keys before leaving for his new job. “Take care of it,” he said. “Don’t go driving it off a cliff.”
I had fallen asleep staring at the sea.
I had fallen asleep crying.
I had fallen asleep crying at the sea.
I had fallen asleep fully engaged.
My passenger, the one whose indentation in the passenger seat forensic investigators might have found, told me something before he got out of the car. “Things are never as bad as they seem,” he said. Or was it, “It’s always darkest before the dawn?” Or was it, “Chin up, might never happen?”
Sat propped against the cold metal of the pay and display machine, the car became a signal pyre, warning passing vessels of danger. I felt the threat in my throat, thick and choking like the smoke I inhaled. I warmed my hands on the heat of its warning.
When the claims adjustor returns she brings a policewoman with her. The same one who held my hand on the day of the fire. How’s that for coincidence?
“Witnesses have described a third party in the car with you,” the policewoman says.
“That is reassuring. I was beginning to think I’d imagined him.”
They both stare at me.
“See, she gets snarky and uncooperative when questioned,” the insurance investigator says.
“It is in your best interests to cooperate fully with our inquiries.” The policewoman reaches forward and takes my hand as she says this.
“It’s been such an ordeal,” I say.
The claims adjustor glares at me over a fresh pile of forms, clicking and un-clicking her pen but unable to cross out anything on the list in front of her.
The car saved my life. Or falling asleep did. Or both. What I might have done had I woken in the car to find it not burning is a mystery, an intangible other-worldly alternative of quantum physics. Somewhere I woke or never slept at all, turned the ignition and drove the car into the sea, the bodywork spiralling off like orange peel as it bounced down the cliff side. Or I woke and drove home and had a cup of tea. Or glass of milk. Or just sat and stared at the sea.
Except none of that happened. Or all of it did.
What I didn’t tell the police is this. I drove the car to the cliff car park, though the cliff isn’t so much a cliff as a tall hill leading away from the beach, landscaped to prevent erosion that has eaten away at this coastline dramatically since the seventies. I sat there imagining the sea taking a big bite of the coast, sucking in the car and me with it. I felt the water fill the inside, pressure squeezing me into my seat as I sank to the sea bed.
I closed my eyes and only opened them again when the car door opened. I had left the doors unlocked. Beside me sat a young man with wild eyes. He was staring right at me and smiling.
“Can I have this?” he said and tapped a grimy finger on the dash above the car stereo.
He pulled a large screwdriver from the pocket of his combats and set about wrenching the stereo out of its socket.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. As he worked, he gripped his tongue in his teeth in that way that men do when they concentrate.
“You didn’t,” I said.
“Only you looked a little startled.” He ripped the stereo free with a screech as he said this.
He tugged out the cables that connected the stereo to the car and grinned.
He placed the screwdriver back in his pocket and held the stereo unit with both hands as if checking the weight.
“Thanks for this,” he said, opening the door to get out.
I spoke the words before I thought them.
“Could you stay for a bit?”
He looked at me for a moment.
“Just until I fall asleep?”
He looked at the stereo and then at me.
“Seems a fair enough trade,” he said.
We sat and listened to the sea chewing at the beach below.
The police fail to find a cause for the fire. Though it started somewhere under the dashboard, faulty wiring was ruled out. They ask about the missing car stereo but I tell them it didn’t have one. Arson, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, is also dismissed as a possible cause.
“Act of God,” the claims adjustor says.
“You realise what this means?”
I nod and sign the forms, happy for it all to be over.
I am required to pay for the disposal of the car.
“I think I’ll have it back,” I say.
The police and the claims adjustor have the same nervous look in their eyes when I tell them this.
“What do you intend to do with it?” they both enquire. I don’t say and they give up asking. In the end, I think they’re happy to be rid of me.
I pay a local garage to collect the car.
“Are you sure you want it here?” the tow truck driver says, climbing about on the flat bed, unfastening the thick grey safety straps from the car, readying it to be winched down from the truck. “You’ll get done for abandoning a vehicle.”
I watch the car slide down the ramp, amazed that the wheels, tyres melted into formless black, still turn. The car, once canary yellow, is now patterned in blacks and bronzes and flashes of white, the path the flames took visible in the melting of plastic, the blistering of paint and discolouration of metal.
“I’m not abandoning it,” I say.
I wait for the tow truck to pull away before climbing in behind what remains of the steering wheel. The ravaged stump of the driver’s seat presses uncomfortably into my thighs as my stare passes through the windscreen, over the cliff and into the sea below.
Dan Powell writes fiction of all shapes and sizes and his work has appeared in the pages of Metazen, The View From Here, 100 Stories for Haiti and Litsnack. His story “Half-mown Lawn” took first place in the 2010 Yeovil Literary Prize for short fiction. He blogs at www.danpowellfiction.com.