The Satellite Town
We went there by accident. Or misadventurecall it what you like. Between towns we broke down and there it was, Mittel-suburbia or nowhere, the satellite of a small town.
When the mechanic said it might be a tricky one, it might take some time, you raised your eyes and said, Lets take a walk.
You squinted into the sun and blew lazy smoke rings. I knew you were thinking about the wedding we were missing.
Your sister will understand, I said, knowing she wouldnt.
The thing is I cant get a signal in this fucking place. Its just hopeless.
Sheila, your sister, had always been the favourite in your family. Barrister, sporty, well-groomed, well-connected—the sickening sort. And nice, too nice to hate which made things worse. You followed, she led. But I knew the boy who lived outside her family, who was hopeless at the practical stuff like keeping his car chipper, who knew about strange stuff like constellations and the Latin names of flowers, and could doodle uncanny caricatures of anyone he met.
Sheila will be in Sheila-world right now, I said. Times ten.
And then Venice, Dubrovnik and Istanbul, you said. Sheilas honeymoon had been the sticking point for you. Just another thing we couldnt afford. Half the wedding party would be flying out. I could picture you re-wiring the car out of spite just to avoid the sting of waving them off after the bouquet was thrown.
We might as well look around as were stuck here, you said.
We walked around for a while, expecting to see something interesting. Something to exclaim at for its antiquity, something rum or queer or any of those words used long ago to describe whats grown out of fashion. But no, every vague expectation was quenched dry and listless by the satellite town.
After a while we noticed that there was a circling theme to the centre and its environsthe bypasses, and the bypasses that bypassed them.
The homes looked out-of-date in an indefinable near-contemporary way, too close in time to seem classic or retro-cool. The town seemed fated to be the sort of place a person stopped at sometimes on their way to somewhere else.
Jesus, Mark, you said, over and over, as we criss-crossed the same paths looking for our way to the defunct Fiat. They must be walking up the aisle, they must be sitting down to eat the rissoles, they must be cutting the cake, they must be dancing.
Your list went on, a catalogue of envy and despair.
Not many folk mooching about, I said, digging for interest. By then wed settled in a scrubby-looking park to drink our car-stale bottles of spring water.
I watched two small children sitting on the kerb across from us. They were scrunching up a catch of wind-desiccated sycamore leaves. This was the furthest end of the main street. Wed walked it twice already, peering inside shops with paper plastered over the glass.
I suppose, you said, distracted, but feigning interest out of politeness.
I knew you were looking through everything you sawperhaps even meyour mind elsewhere. Another part of you was steering through the ring roads and roundabouts, navigation set towards a respectable life.
For a while we loitered round the main street like vagrant astronauts, dropped in on some minor moon. The sky darkened over. Stars dusted the airless space above.
What time is it? you said.
Dunno, I said.
Stay long enough and theyll lock us in a wicker cage and burn us, you said.
The town seemed a notch quieter as we headed back to the garage. When we arrived, you planted your flag in the desolationa flung cigarette butt in a burnt-out skip.
I now pronounce this town a principality of the known world, you intoned, slightly crazed by boredom.
The mechanic shook his head—the car wouldn’t be fixed before tomorrow morning at the earliest.
He said, My sister-in-law rents a room over The Kings Arms.
We slumped across a bench like teenagers for a while, then, grown twitchy with a sense of weightlessness, went out walking again. You were too proud to talk about it but I guessed you were adjusting your inner landscape to disappointment.
The cars had grown frantic like wildebeests scenting a pride of ravenous lionesses. We skirted past the edge of them, hoping to pass unnoticed.
I took your hand and led you along the up-slope path of the bridge crossing the motorway.
Then, leaning over the railings, we passed a can of lager back and forth, poised above the theatre of the bypass, and watched the cars go round and round.
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