February 2015 and Max Haynes had been in Northern Ireland for just under two months: long enough to know its limitations. Those presented themselves within two days, such as the cultural quarter of Belfast that consisted of a single street. He was there as visiting professor of film until July. But now he was in his car and driving to a place in the middle of nowhere.
There was to be a local film festival in some godforsaken spot and he had been roped in to attending a planning meeting. Yeah for sure, he could appreciate the importance of an outreach dimension to the work of the faculty. He had in fact already programmed a short Unknown Pleasures series for the university cinema based on Slavic mythology. And as far as he was concerned, it had been quite a success. Yet the prospect of this local film festival filled him with little enthusiasm. Indeed, it presented significant ideological and aesthetic issues because—as a festival of so-called Christian cinema—it was mono-cultural and reductive. But nonetheless Max had agreed to go. And he had also said that he would give a lift to another attendee, a woman called Gloria, who would be waiting outside the Spar in one of the unfortunate little places he had to pass through.
It was, however, very pleasant going along in the car, through red and yellow trees. In London or the other cities where he’d lived, Max had rarely driven at all. But on arrival for the new, temporary job, they’d offered car leasing. He’d laughed at first and gone to the showroom reluctantly, but when he went for the test-drive in the sleek and stately machine, that was it. He joked about it to Janika when he sent her a photo of it. So not me! he said. But still, he had gone for the impressive car.
Max arrived at the designated place at the agreed time. It was not a particularly attractive spot. Although it felt rural, the huge chimney of a nearby power station loomed through the trees. In this main street he wondered if people were waiting for some kind of drugs drop, such were the numbers loitering. Three teenage guys were taking turns to jump on the silver inflatable from the inside of a wine box. Behind them was a sign advertising hot food. A burrito wore a sombrero and had a moustache. That was fairly typical of the place. He would hesitate to brand everyone in the country rednecks because many weren’t. Max had met several people at the university that he would certainly keep in touch with after he left at the end of the year. And there was the guy and his partner who did film scores. But undoubtedly there was also a lot of rednecks.
At the bus stop in front of the shop a crowd of girls waited. Two women stood talking together as a dog on a lead gyred round. One of the boys kicked the burrito sign. On the other side of the street there was a funeral director’s with an outsize drum clock above the window, its slow hand performing its sweep. Max cringed at its clumsiness. And then, turning back, he saw a heavy-set, middle-aged woman in jeans, white trainers and a pale pink anorak. She had patchy short blonde hair and looked entirely unperturbed as she stood against the front of the shop.
Max wondered how this woman might feel about being in a car, an enclosed space, with a man she didn’t know. It might make her feel less uneasy if he banged on a bit about Janika. That would establish that he wasn’t a threat, and that Janika was a person who, if not there in physical manifestation, was constantly there in thought.
Max rolled down the window.
Gloria! he said, not loud enough. Gloria! he shouted again. It sounded ridiculous, like some kind of dreadful Van Morrison tribute act. Gloria!
The woman looked over, unconcerned, and then walked towards the car.
Hi, he said, once she had got in beside him, I’m Max, and even though I have no idea how to get to this place I’ve got the satnav to help us.
It’s a straight road, Gloria said. To get there.
That’s good to know, Max said. But he kept the satnav on.
So, Max said, here we are on our way to this planning meeting. You’re very interested in film?
Gloria considered this, and then said, Well I watch a few things on the telly. Now and again.
Well, film’s actually what I’m involved in, Max said.
You make films? Gloria asked.
No I teach film at the university.
Oh, she said.
I’m a film academic.
Oh. Film academic. Teaching the people about films.
How to make films?
No. How to watch them.
Lesson one. How to turn on the TV, she said, looking out the window of the car.
I’ve just moved to Belfast, Max began. But actually, my partner is still in London. Well, she’s from Finland, originally, but she’s in London.
OK, Gloria said.
Yeah, said Max. She’s called Janika. The distance makes no difference really. Not that we’re really so very far away from each other, not really. Belfast and London. We’re, you know, very, in love.
Gloria rearranged the hood of her anorak where it had got caught in the seat-belt.
Yeah, said Max.
OK, said Gloria.
So what’s your involvement then with this festival? Max asked.
Mr Anderson said for me to go, she replied. Mr Anderson’s the boss of my place. He’s the boss of all the homes. They’re going to be bringing all the old people from the homes to see the films.
That’s gonna be some job, she added.
And what type of films do you expect that the old people will like?
Old ones? Gloria said. She looked round the car. You picking anyone else up?
No, just you Gloria.
The cars flashed by in the other lane. There was a buzz in the car from a fly. It crawled along the dashboard and then flew off to land again on the dashboard.
Where is the home where you work then? Max asked.
On the way out of Carrick, she said.
Max smiled. Well that’s dependent really on which way you came into Carrick, isn’t it?
Gloria paused. If you don’t know whether you’re coming in or out of Carrick, there’s not a lot of hope for you, she said.
The smell of her was in the car, despite its newness and the air-conditioning. He couldn’t place it. An astringent lemon, like a shower gel, but also something else like dogs. He could imagine her walking a couple of muscled terriers early in the morning. He looked across and saw the nails cut short, the weathered hands.
And do you not drive Gloria? he asked.
I do, she said. But Billy takes the car.
That’s your partner?
Husband. Billy takes the car.
Billy has the prerogative to take the car?
He needs it to get to work, she said.
And when do you go out in the car?
When he doesn’t need to get to work.
When Max had been young they had a woman who came to tidy up, not a cleaner. There was a certain insouciance to tidying up; it suggested sorting books into piles, folding some newspapers, and she did that too, but it probably didn’t give a sense of mopping dirt, which was what she also did. One week she didn’t arrive and then the next, when she did, she was apologetic, the side of her face pale yellow and green. His mother had given her an address of and a purse full of money. But the woman left the purse on the little table beside the door. Two weeks later she didn’t turn up again and they had had to let her go because they needed someone reliable. Max thought he wouldn’t enquire any further about Gloria’s husband Billy.
A lorry overtook them, sending pieces of stone up to hit the windscreen. Max turned on the radio. Two men were talking about emerging financial markets in the far east.
How do you feel, Max said, batting at the fly, about this being a specifically Christian film festival?
Gloria shrugged. Old people wouldn’t want smut, she said.
It’s either smut or Christian, do you think? Max asked.
There was talk of them showing the film about the runners, Gloria said. Chariots of Fire. The fella doesn’t want to run on a Sunday. And so he doesn’t.
Most places are open now on a Sunday, she went on. Wonder what he’d think of that. Not much.
Max wondered if someone else would be able to give Gloria a lift home.
Me and my friend, she said. My friend worked in a video shop on the Shore Road and I would keep her company. Derelict now but it’s one of the fake shops, got the hoardings up to take the bad look off it. They’ve made it look like it’s a shoe shop.
Haven’t noticed any places like that.
There was the throb of a motorbike as it sped past them.
They’re everywhere, well.
The satnav was showing that Max needed to make a left turn. He slowed down in anticipation, put on the indicator.
No, said Gloria. That’s not the way.
That’s where I’m being told to go.
Not the way. But, she said, it’s up to you.
They turned up a narrower road in between high hedges. There was a gradient before it plateaued out.
It was only small, Gloria said, but a lot of people came into that video shop. A lot of men. Have you anything else out the back? some of them would ask. I’m sure you know what I mean. But we were only teenagers. We didn’t want to go looking around out the back for dirt. Not for those men anyway. The place we’re heading to, it used to be somewhere you could get ice-creams. And then before that it was a dancehall.
Max didn’t reply.
We might be late, you know, going this way, Gloria said.
Is that what you always wanted to do, Gloria—work in an old people’s home?
Gloria gave a slow sigh. Then she turned to look out of the window, as she wound the drawstring of her hood around her finger.
It’s just a job, she eventually said, as she slipped out her finger and let the string unspool. Just a job, like you watching the films at the university.
Well, said Max, what I would say is that—
And then, up in front, in the middle of the road, was something shiny and twisted. Max pulled on the brakes. It was a motorbike, mangled, the wheel buckled. There was a stink of petrol and burnt rubber. It had hit a tree, and the wood exposed by the impact was naked white. Gloria and Max were out of the car. Gloria pointed further down the road to a crumple on the grass verge. And then they were there looking down at a young man. The helmet was cracked open. His legs were in black jeans and he wore trainers. Gloria knelt down beside him.
Still alive, she said to Max.
To the young man she said, I’ve got you. She had taken off his black glove and was holding his hand.
Phone 999, she told Max.
He went to go back to the car to get his phone. No—use mine, Gloria said.
I’ve got you, Gloria said to the boy.
Emergency services asked Max the name of the road but he didn’t know and had to ask Gloria. She took the phone from him.
On the front of Gloria’s pink anorak, there was a streak of blood. Max felt vomit rise in his throat. This was a bizarre place, with its hawthorn thorns and the broken body of the young man on the ground, his own car grotesque and sinister in the late winter sunlight. And then Gloria let go of the hand so that it sat pale on the edge of the leather jacket. She wiped the back of her hand across her face and looked down at her knees. The police and ambulance came within ten minutes which to Max seemed vast, an eternity. Gloria gave a short statement to a policewoman.
When they got into the car they didn’t speak.
Finally, Gloria spoke. Might as well give that Christian cinema a miss then, she said.
Max put the key in the ignition and the engine turned over, but the car didn’t move. He switched it off again.
I’m sorry, he said. Sorry.
Gloria reached across and put her hand on his arm. She let it rest there until he put the car into gear. They didn’t utter a single word on the journey back to the shop with the Mexican sign outside.
Thanks for the lift, Gloria said as she got out, the blood on the pink anorak now rust.
In 2016 Max was living back in London, his visiting professorship over. Janika’s parents had lent them the money for a deposit on a small but sleek house. They would sometimes reminisce about the relative trials of their ‘long distance’ relationship for the year, and occasionally, if they had friends round, Janika might say, tell them about that festival thing. And he would be articulate about the absurdity of the Christian film festival, and why the journey was aborted, without really mentioning Gloria at all. He didn’t say that, at least a couple of nights a week, as he lay in the room beside Janika, the bed warm with the scent of her perfume, he thought of the roll of an engine, a stained pink anorak, her hand on his arm.