I entered this into a 2,000-word story competition last year, but as I never heard anything I guess it didn't win. I'm putting it on here in the hope that people will enjoy it and maybe leave comments of a consructively critical nature. Go on, you know you want to...
LOST IN SPLOTT
“How hard is it raining?”
It was a rhetorical question. And the rain lashed against the car windscreen hard enough to drown out my words anyway. I was starting to suspect we were lost. In Splott. An area of town as attractive as it sounded. Grey pebble-dashed houses crowded on to the unevenly paved streets, beneath a monotonous low cloud sky. The rainwater on the windscreen turned the streets into a blurry off-kilter world.
My companion muttered a curse. “We’ve come the wrong way,” she said.
I said nothing. She had been the one with the directions.
“I can’t believe we’re lost in Splott,” she said.
The opening titles of a childhood science-fiction TV drifted into my thoughts. I couldn’t resist. “Lost in Splott,” I said, in a ponderous, solemn tone, drawing out the o in ‘lost’ and then again in ‘Splott’.
She gave me a blank look. “Sorry,” I said. I squinted through the rain-smeared windscreen again, searching for a street sign, or some other indication of where we were. Parked cars lurked by the kerbside. A general store, the window dimly lit from a striplight interior, beckoned with a distinctly unwelcoming open door. Shredded unreadable newspaper headlines fluttered in the wire-framed holders either side of the door. Yesterday’s news was gone, torn away by the rending rain-soaked wind.
Hunched over the steering wheel, I suddenly felt cold, as if the greyness itself was somehow seeping into my soul. I turned on the heater, racking the plastic dial around as far as it could go. The fan blew hot, stale air into my face. I turned the dial back down to a more delicate level.
Then we heard it, both at the same time, a collection of rhythmic whining notes; badly replicated music, allegedly designed to entice.
“It can’t be,” said my companion. I looked in the rear view mirror. There were parked cars on either side of the road behind us, but the middle was clear. There was nothing ahead of us either, except washed clean tarmac glistening strangely in the unreal light.
“It sounds like an ice cream van.” I laughed. The sheer hopeless optimism of the entrepreneur to venture out on a day like this was amusing.
“If we take a left and go down the next street, we can get back on track,” said my passenger, ignoring my grin. She was now scrutinising an A to Z, following yellow streets across the grimy page with her finger. “I think,” she added uncertainly.
I engaged the clutch and put the car into gear, moving slowly off. We indicated at the end of the street, for the benefit of no one but ourselves, and turned. The houses here were set back from the road slightly, with tiny paved areas in front big enough for two wheelie bins each. A drenched sofa sat bedraggled in front of one house, its cushions bulging, pregnant with rainwater.
I indicated again, meaninglessly, and turned into the next street, which seemed a carbon copy of the one we had been sitting in a minute ago. The pebbledash was greyer and the rain-edged roofs seemed lower and amorphous. I drove cautiously down the street, mindful of the rain’s distorting effect on my vision and that at any moment a near-drowned dog or cat might dash across my wheels.
We reached the end of the road without incident and looked left, then right. The road was clear.
“Which way now?” I asked.
My companion turned the A to Z around and began reading it upside down. “Hang on,” she said.
I waited. A snatch of metallic music, a peculiarly tuneless melody, seemed to whisper past us. “There’s that ice cream van again,” I said.
“Where?” She looked up from the map.
“I can’t see it,” I said. “But you can hear it. Listen.”
We listened. All we could hear was the low throb of the engine and the hard spatter of the rain on the car roof. I noticed steam rising from the hot bonnet of the car.
“I can’t hear anything,” she said.
“It’s stopped,” I muttered.
“Go left.” She pointed up the road. I turned left.
“When I first moved to Cardiff I didn’t really believe there was a place called Splott,” I said. It was a lame attempt at conversation with my passenger. She didn’t respond. Maybe she thought I talked too much?
It was true, though, that I didn’t believe in a place called Splott. “Splott?” I’d asked, in a voice too embarrassingly high-pitched to be manly. Then I saw it for myself, on road signs, and in the A to Z. My interest piqued, I’d asked where a name like that came from.
Most people shrugged.
It was just Splott. Always had been. Although some ridiculous people who were trying to gentrify it tried to call it Splow, although maybe that was a joke. ‘Hello, I’m from Splow’ had a rhyming resonance to it, if you could say it without laughing.
Left turned out to be a dead end – not signposted, of course.
“Oh, for… what’s wrong with your map?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the map.” Even I was unconvinced by my protest. The A to Z was old. But Splott was far older still. Not much should have changed, surely?
“Turn around,” she said, irritated, staring back up the street we’d just driven down. The street stretched behind us, greyly. It offered no clues as to where it led. Probably just another crossover of streets or a T-junction.
I didn’t have much of an option but to turn round. I did a multi-point turn between two parked Transit vans, trying desperately not to nudge either of them. I have a, not unfounded, fear of aggressive white-van-men and didn’t want anyone to shout at me. But I need not have worried. There was no one watching. Throughout our whole time traversing the dirty narrow streets we had seen about three people, all of them hurried and faceless, bent low against the rain, disappearing into doorways before we could accost them for directions.
We turned right, left, right again, then left again and found ourselves in the same road we started in, but further down, outside a chip shop that said ‘Open for Pukka Pies’ on the door, but was firmly shut and dark. We stopped and looked at the map together, wordlessly puzzling over how this network of interconnected streets could conspire to get us so thoroughly lost.
As we sat there, we heard the music again. This time louder and more distinct, a clanging bark set in a near-rendition of a Sixties pop song.
“Where the hell is that ice cream van?” asked my passenger, craning her neck to look backwards up the road. I noticed that her large hoop ear-rings were too yellow to be gold, and that her make up stopped abruptly in a line along her neck.
Her natural skin, beyond the frontier of the foundation was pale. It struck me that I knew little about her; just her name – Cerys – and that she had said she knew where our work colleague’s party was being held. We had worked together less than a fortnight and I had offered her a lift to this general invitation shindig because I had a rough address, but I couldn’t find the street in the index of the A – Z, so Cerys would be my guide. But she was as lost as I was.
“I don’t know,” I said. I felt light-headed, as if the drawn-out surrealism of this episode would never end. The music modulated in volume. It rose, then died, then rose again. It seemed to enter the car from the right, then from the left, enhancing the dreamtime quality of the moment.
I felt a slight shudder of panic. Not knowing where I was going I started driving. Cerys seemed startled. “Turn left,” she said. I missed the turn, as I was travelling too fast to squeal round the corner at the last second. The car threw up a curtain of water as we hit a concealed pothole. I slowed down. The music had gone.
“Sorry,” I said, and took the next left turn.
We travelled down the street and stopped at the next junction where the streets crossed. “Straight on,” said Cerys, pointing.
I hadn’t noticed before, but she had a stunning profile. The curved line of her forehead reversed its curve delicately into a petite nose that turned upwards ever so slightly at the tip. ‘Ski jump nose’ we used to call it, when I was in the bookings department, lining up models for the various photo-shoots. But beautiful. Her lips were small and smothered in too much lipstick that shone with an ethereal undeadness of applied gloss. A painted mouth of thin lips and false voluptuousness. As fake as my dyed hair and tinted contact lenses.
“We are so lost,” I said as I drove through the beating rain. The windscreen wipers squeaked and the side windows were fogged up. How much more rain could possibly fall today I thought, as Cerys began to cry, her mascara smudging faintly in the corners of her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, it’s okay. It’s not your fault,” I replied. I was unnerved. By the rain, by the crazy-happy phantom music, by the endless streets, by the emotional girl next to me.
“I thought I knew where it was,” she said, and sniffed a beautifully disgusting delicate snort of nose liquid that captivatingly repelled me in its intimacy.
I turned into another right-hand turn without really looking. “Seriously, I-” Cerys screamed as I slammed on my brakes. We were both thrown forward as the car shuddered to a halt, skidding over the water and the greasy road. I recovered and stared up into the blazing headlights of an ice cream van. A shadowy – and to my mind sinister – figure sat high up behind the steering wheel, immediately below the illuminated signboard proclaiming ‘Ices’.
I put the car in reverse and moved back slowly. The ice cream van rolled forward, engine snarling as it revved, edging into the space my car vacated like a predatory creature facing down its target. Then, as my car rolled back far enough, the van eased past, released into an accelerating roar down the street, accompanied by a slowly fading jangle designed to entice customers.
I looked at Cerys. “You know,” I said, trying to sound kind, hoping that would make the smudgy tears stop. “I’m fed up with this. Let’s give it up as a bad job.”
She nodded mutely, wiping the ski jump tip of her nose with a much-used paper tissue that she had extricated from her floppy brown handbag. “If you think so,” she said.
We turned the opposite way to the ice cream van and within a minute reached a T-junction with a larger main road. “Left,” she said weakly. I turned and soon we were on a road I knew.
“Where do you live?” I asked. “I’ll drop you home.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Fairwater.”
The other side of the city. Bit of a drive “So, what did you do before the agency…?” I asked.
Turned out we had more in common than I would have thought. By the time we reached her home, the whole drama was just funny. We both did the ‘Lost in Splott’ voice, making the other laugh. Later, it became our thing, our story when people asked how we got together.
We had some good times, Cerys and me, in the two years we were together. But then life moved on, as it tends to, and I moved on to work in Bristol, and she cheated on me while I was working late with a long commute, and then told me it was over when I came home one hard rain night.
And I never went back to Splott, even with directions.