Responsible Citizenship in Ultramodern Democracies
“I just don’t know whether I can make time for-”
My sentence was interrupted as the car gave a jolt and my stomach dropped out before it righted itself. I pumped the brakes and came to a complete stop after running over the pothole and in the stationary car I looked across to you and I knew from the look in your eyes that you had felt it too. You tried to hastily put on some normalcy after a second, to pretend it was nothing unusual, but I saw the way your little white fingers trembled as your refastened the brooch on your dress. You felt the difference. It wasn’t a jagged ka-thunk of the normal worn away casualties of little country roads. This was smooth and jarring at the same time like a stranger’s fingers brushing down your spine.
“I better check the car” I suggested with a dry mouth. You only nodded in agreement, knowing the car would be fine and that it was ourselves we should be concerned with. Something felt knocked loose and scratched between my pounding heart and the roll cage of my ribs as I exited the car.
For a while I didn’t look at it too directly, unfocusing my eyes and giving the whole scene the soft unreality of those low-budget films you loved to watch with resolute wives and handsome husbands and pastel prairies. I focused on its edges at first but even its outline gave me a sense of the impossible. The opening in the earth was so level and uniform and for a moment I imagined a big red-cheeked giant taking an ice cream scoop to the asphalt. My eyes crawled from the lip of the pothole toward its centre where I could discern no end, the hole falling off endlessly into a black vanishing point. I thought I heard a sourceless squelching sound. It reminded me of when you used to mash bananas in a cup for the baby. I tried to walk back to the car but I couldn’t help turning it into a little jog.
I opened the car door and for a moment I could see the strained fear in your eyes and so I began to hum:
“If it’s jagged and irregular, you’re just fine, if it’s perfect and smooth please drop us a line…”
You smiled then, disappearing for a moment into a memory that couldn’t be too far away from my own. The teacher wheeling the television into the classroom, all the faces lighting up at the thought of missing the spelling test, and the local Garda explaining to you the importance of reporting these smooth fissures in the road, pleading with you to remind your parent of guardian of these vital issues. Did your Garda look as quietly frightened as mine? What did the driving instructor look like when they handed you the spirit level and told you to never drive without it? Did your mother write the emergency contact number of the Department of Parainfrastructure on your skin before you took that long drive down the coast? With the same green biro as mine?
I dialled the number and tried to convince myself that the rolling in my stomach was giddy excitement and not something else. I tried to project myself into the local in a fortnight, when this would just be a funny story to raise a few eyebrows and illicit a few laughs. The fantasy was broken by a voice that picked up before I could even hear a single ring.
“You are advised to wait in your vehicle. If you must observe the technician do so only through a reflective surface”.
I tried to detail my exact location, pragmatism blurting in the face of sheer panic, but I looked down at my phone to see I had been hung up on. I turned to fill the silence between us.
“Do you remember the cartoons they used to show us? Did they show them to ye? With the little turtle that would go in his shell and jump down into the pot-”
A flash of lights in the rear view. They bloomed closer and closer behind us. Although the vehicle was far away I cracked the window and gestured with a hand for them to pass as if by making one, small and quotidian interaction with another human I could keep myself sane. But the van didn’t intend to pass. It was concerned with what was behind us. The man stepped out in workman’s clothes and a coveralls unusual in that they were immaculate. He retrieved a large burlap sack from the back of the van and thrust gloved fingers inside. The window made a loud whine as I rolled it down further but he didn’t look up. I fumbled with the mirror and angled it down in time to see him pulling dark-red goo from the bag and packing it into the pothole. He smoothed the meat-slurry with his hands intently until he was satisfied. Rigidly and without words he re-entered his van, made an illegal turn, and left us alone on the country road.
After a few moments I got out of the car, hands sweaty with curiosity. I caught a flicker of your hand gesturing for me to stop but you gave up once I’d taken a few paces. The hole was gone and I only caught a brief glimpse of the pink flesh at its centre before that too was closed over with pristine tarmac with a wet, sucking sound. I got back into the car and I drove. I filled the gap between us with a turn of the dial on the radio. At the top of the junction a local election poster swung on a broken cable tie from a telephone pole. ‘Vote Number 1’ above a portly middle-aged man I dimly recognised and below his cheap suit, in the county colours: ‘KEEP THEM FED’.
David O’Donoghue is an Irish author, journalist and activist currently resident in Limerick City. His fiction has been published in The Singularity, Sci-Phi Journal, The Runt, Flight Writing and Tales From The Forest. He won the 2015 Kerry’s Eye creative writing competition and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hot Press Creative Writing Award and the 2016 Penguin Ireland Short Story Award. His short story “Beautiful Along the Break” made the Top 6 Shortlist in the 2016 Aeon Literary Award.