The car breathes forward, not speaking. We stare out of our respective windows like zombies; two forwards, two sideways. We dream of shared sofas and nestling in duvets, feet safe and snug in warm, fluffy socks. We dream of cups of tea that someone else will make. When we get home, the television will talk for us.
I do not move, but my breath hangs between my mouth and the window, proof I have survived the night. My throat is a filled-in well. I can see the reflection of my eye in the distorted glass, eyelashes as long as reeds. My eyes are snowman-dead, pupils wider than they have any right to be.
I watch the rolling tape of the motorway continue on and on below our wheels, out of sight and away into the distance, but never ending. The M25 is a perfect circle. An eternity ring of traffic jams and cold shoulders… if you never dared get off, you would just keep driving forever, trapped.
Earlier, dancing, we had been heavenly bodies. Now we were scooped-out. Only a misguided conviction that we were invincible was keeping us on this road.
Thank god I’m not driving.
Then I see it; the new dawn. The pallid sky turns acid-orange, as if something monstrous has torn through and licked it light. A ball of gas a million miles away burns my eyes, yet looks as insignificant as an onion. It spreads out to paint its backdrop Christmas-card gold, red and yellow. The rays pierce the bleached daubs of clouds on either side. I blink to adjust my eyes from the tattoo of the sun, branding its logo on my pupils. In my own car I have sunglasses, but not here.
Then I see something else: how could I have missed them at first? There are maybe a hundred small shapes in the sky, like black puzzle pieces. They look stencilled on top of the sunrise by a steady, meticulous hand. I feel my own fragile retinas sizzle as I focus on the precise cake-cutter outlines. Blinding sunrays curl protectively around them, blurring their edges, framing the shapes as black, dancing dots, regardless of whether I close or open my eyes.
What is that?
I snap away my gaze to look at my watch, as a barometer of normalness. It jitters in front of me, three faces instead of one, and I remember that my focus is something I’ve paid out to destroy for the past twelve hours. Determined, I stare through the kaleidoscope that was once my perfect vision and concentrate. The digits 6.24 twitch on my wrist, visible for one second, then elusive again.
I look back up. It is mid-August and we are ants in a matchbox, on the brink of entering the open jaw of my place of birth. I realise that what I am seeing is no illusion. I haven’t finally snapped. This is festival time. People actually get up at this time of the morning, to see the hot air balloons go up on the first day of August. For three days a year these bizarre creations litter the sky and now I feel my teeth bare in an unsteady smile. It is astounding.
‘Look,’ I whisper to my friend, but my voice barely takes flight. And she is asleep, or wishing she was. The music that is on in the front of the car is at such a volume that it appears to be coming from behind a thick, glass sheet.
I look up again. This moment seems more mine than anyone else’s anyway. Even stripped of their visible colours and patterns due to the glare of the sun, I can make out the balloons’ unique shapes. Action Man, Bertie Bassett, a beer can, a roll of film… I know them by heart. We take them for granted as we nip up the park each year, to have a drink and a burger, to run into people we don’t want to see. Some years I didn’t even bother to go. Yet now, in the breaking, naked morning, the balloons seem so different; ethereal.
I look in my lap for my bottle of water. My mouth is a cracked wall.
I close my eyes, but I can feel my mind clicking easily towards paranoia, voices chattering in my head, thoughts clattering into one another.
I look up again, at the scarred sky. The sight of these objects in space seems to squeeze slowly on my already put-upon heart. I feel my breath against the window cold on my lips. My friend in the front has opened his window just an inch, but it’s just enough to be unpleasant, to feel a grip on me, the outdoors, the outside.
The sight that had seemed magical now overhangs like a storm. There is something freezingly foreboding about these foreign bodies in the sky. The abstract figures puncture the landscape like tiny teeth-marks. I feel my hand go to my chest as I catch a glimpse of a future; a future in which the sky will be full of spacecraft, little darting holes, and the world will no longer belong to humans alone.
We turn off. I clutch the water bottle in my cold/warm hand. We're nearly home.
I wrote this at university for a class called 'Image and Imagination'.