|A POCKET OF AIR
by Annette Freeman Denny gave the cast of the play one round of perfunctory applause, a quick slap together of his palms, then he was heading for the door. He pushed out of the theatre as if he had an emergency to attend. When he hit the night air he pulled his phone from his pocket immediately. No messages, no updates.
He shoved the phone back in his jacket and headed for the carpark, on legs long enough to leap down the shallow steps two at a time. It loosened him up after a couple of hours sitting in the theatre. Kids wearing sparkly clothes were coming out of the concert hall, blonde mothers fussing. Elderly opera-goers shuffled arm-in-arm. Damn, he thought, there’s at least three shows finishing at once tonight.
He hurried through the bars and restaurants along the concourse, where the din of drunk people vied with the bad amplification of a crummy band. He hunched his shoulders and shoved his hands into his pockets, pushed through the crowd, cursed the waiters who tried to cross his path. “Piss off,” one of them said, as Denny knocked against a tray of beers. The bouncers at the corner raised their chins over folded arms and looked towards them. Denny ducked and hunched and hurried past, into the maw of the carpark.He gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath to calm his irritation. First he’d had to sit through a mediocre play, the third this week; now gridlock in the carpark. He grabbed a plastic bottle from the passenger seat and took a swig of water. It was hot down here. Denny was in his beloved retro car, a powder-blue Datsun 120Y, stuck on the third level, inner spiral, blue/yellow, of the Sydney Opera House carpark. He’d give the play 2.5 stars at best. Theatre-reviewing wasn’t an easy life, despite what some people thought, his wife for example. Hundreds of patrons of culture were trying to leave the carpark simultaneously now. The sparkly kids, fussy mothers and elderly opera lovers were spreading through the underground, beeping open Toyotas and Nissans and ancient Mercedes up and down the ramps. Denny was a veteran of these SOH carpark gridlocks. He turned off his engine and sat back in his seat.
The lugubrious SUVs that hulked around him grumbled on, belching exhaust, until they too figured out they’d be here for a while and shut off their engines. Huh, at last, thought Denny.
He flicked through his phone but there was no signal. The cars were spiralled deep underground in what had been, in its day, cutting-edge carpark design. It wound down six levels to a cross-over tunnel linking the red/green levels with the blue/yellow levels. The whole thing was constructed like a demonic underground double-helix, a spiral within a spiral. Traffic coming in spiralled down, and traffic going out spiralled up, with a couple of cross-tunnels linking them. Tonight Denny had parked on the fourth level, red/green, and to get to the exit he’d had to drive down and around and through the lowest cross-tunnel and now he was back up as far as level three, blue/yellow, and he was stuck. He felt like a constipated turd in a concrete intestine. That could be a metaphor for his life at the moment.
This was going to be at least a twenty-minute wait, maybe longer. Miranda was expecting him home by eleven. Normally she didn’t care when he got in. She was used to his job and the way it sucked up so many of his evenings. But tonight she’d specifically asked him when he’d be back. One of their kids, the youngest, was in some kind of shit at school. Denny wasn’t clear on the details. Miranda said she needed to talk about it. He’d told her he’d be back by eleven, give or take ten minutes for the carpark. Now, waiting in the Datsun, he wrote a text to her on his phone and pressed send, but it wasn’t going anywhere.
There was movement ahead. Engines started. Cars rumbled and belched like a row of racehorses at a starting gate. They all inched forward, gained about one car length, then stopped again. Denny switched off his engine right away; he recognised a false alarm. Cars around him grumbled on hopefully for a few more minutes. He looked for the control on his retro dash to make sure that the air was turned to interior circulation. It was cancer-inducing territory out there in the carpark.
Denny and Miranda had three kids, which he’d always thought was one too many. Not that he didn’t love all his kids. If anything, he loved them too much. Every time one of them was sick, or bawled because their best friend moved away, his heart couldn’t cope with it. He left that stuff to Miranda. He did the morning school run, she took on the bedtime routine. She had to be at the office early; it was like that in law firms. The two of them didn’t overlap much during the week.
Denny fretted. It’d been at least ten minutes, maybe fifteen, since he’d been able to check his phone. This was such a waste of time. He could be updating his Twitter feed. And he wanted to check the retweets on the review he’d posted yesterday. You had to be on top of social media in his job.
There was no radio reception down here either and his veteran car didn’t have a working music system. There was a slot for cassette tapes. Denny was too young to even remember cassette tapes. He was stuck with only his thoughts for company. He did love the Datsun. It was his baby, his hobby, the thing that kept him sane. It took up a lot of his weekends, working on it, going to rallies, getting together with his enthusiast mates. Miranda drove a nice little Toyota Corolla that he’d picked up for her second-hand. It was a couple of years old but well-looked-after. It only just fitted the three kids across the back seat, but Miranda managed.
Denny drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and pressed his lips together. He gazed out at the low concrete roof above the line of cars. It was claustrophobic down here, if you thought about it. Some of these SUVs, these urban trucks, barely fitted under the structural beams. The carpark must be over twenty years old by now, maybe more, bored into the ground years after the Opera House was completed.
Denny imagined a bunch of engineers sitting around drinking beers and coming up with the bright idea of building it like a double-helix. He imagined light bulbs going off over their heads, them getting all excited about how many more cars they could fit into the space. He’d read something explaining how it was such a great design because the last cars in would be the first cars out, in some kind of Biblical carpark parable. In reality, the first cars in took the spaces closest to the exit, leaving the deepest, unpopular places for the later comers. People weren’t that stupid, not even SUV drivers.
Miranda wanted to get an SUV. When she’d brought it up, he’d said maybe, when they could afford it. The kids were out-growing the Corolla, he could see that. He promised to do some research, check prices for pre-owned. She’d said that he didn’t get what she meant. That she was going to buy an SUV, a Toyota Rav 4, new. Her salary would cover it; there was a deal through her firm. He recalled his shock at that pronouncement. If he was no longer the automotive expert in the marriage, what exactly was his role? He should have said that to Miranda at the time but he didn’t think of it. He thumped the steering wheel again and remembered the bile that had risen in his throat. He shifted his butt in the Datsun car seat.
The traffic took another of feeble shuffle forward, hopeful revving followed again by resigned switching off of engines. Another metaphor for Denny’s life. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them the concrete roof was still looming over the windshield. This carpark was designed to have a fifty-year life span. Or was it thirty? He’d read about it somewhere. Concrete didn’t last forever. Wasn’t there concrete cancer? All kinds of shoddy work went on these days. Those crumbling apartment towers you saw in the news, shocking stuff. Thirty years wasn’t long for concrete.
Denny tried to work out which year the carpark had opened. He thought backwards over his life, the plays he’d reviewed, when his kids were born, when he’d still been acting, when he and Miranda were students and went to the theatre on dates. Bloody hell, he thought, this car park is close to twenty-five years old. How far underground was he?
He imagined then that the concrete roof, only a couple of metres above his car, might collapse on him, and on all the others stuck here. The whole double-helix spiral might settle down upon them like layers of pasta added to a lasagna. If the thing collapsed, if it was too old, or if the tunnelling for one of those new motorways made the rock unstable, then all the layers of the double-helix would settle down on top of each other and they’d all be bolognese sauce.
It could happen, Denny thought, peering through the windscreen of the Datsun. The glass needed a wash; there were dead insects stuck to it. It could happen. Structures you assumed were safe sometimes weren’t. Things that had stood there all your life could easily be torn down and something new and unfamiliar replace them. That kind of thing happened all the time in Sydney. And these days, the city was sitting on a network of tunnels, sandstone bored through with hollow tubes. It had to be unstable.
If this concrete lasagna came down, what would he do? He probably wouldn’t survive such a cataclysm but he thought he should have a plan, give himself the best chance. He could throw himself sideways across the front seats, get down as low as possible. The Datsun had bucket seats, with the gear stick between them. He pulled his jacket from the back where he’d thrown it and spread over the gear stick. It would give him some padding if he was trapped in that position, lying across the car, under tonnes of concrete. The Datsun was pretty strong, and much lower to the ground than the SUVs around him. Maybe the fall of the concrete would be arrested a bit by the higher cars and he’d be left uncrushed, with a pocket of air. Unlike the SUV occupants, though of course he wished them luck if the worst happened. A pocket of air, yes, that was it. Didn’t people survive earthquakes in crumpled buildings if they had a pocket of air? They could tap out messages and call feebly to rescuers. He looked at the plastic water bottle he’d tossed on the passenger seat and was sorry he’d drunk half of it. He’d conserve it now. The cars remained at a standstill, engines switched off. He’d been there half an hour.
When Denny finished drama school there were great roles around for newcomers. They paid peanuts but he worked with some big-name directors. He was tall, and lean back then too. He’d often score the ‘lanky, iconic Australian man’ roles. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had been his peak. The theatre gave him a buzz, he loved it, though like everyone he hoped for television, for the money. He remembered emerging from stage doors late at night, the black roads shiny with rain, his face shiny with make-up remover, and Miranda waiting for him. She’d looked childlike, bundled in her winter coat. She was still at law school then.
Of course if the carpark collapsed, they’d all be buried deep in this cavern or hole or whatever they were in. He thought about where the entrance to the carpark was and figured out they must be under the Botanic Gardens, in a monstrous pit, with the fig trees and lawns somewhere above. There’d be an enormous sink-hole in the Gardens if this whole structure gave way.
He wondered if his marriage might give way, disappear into a sink-hole. He couldn’t remember the last time he and Miranda had done something together, the two of them. She hadn’t been to the theatre in years, though she used to come to all his opening nights when he still had acting gigs. And what was up with the little guy, their youngest? Denny should have listened properly when Miranda had started to tell him. It was something about getting into fights at school. That little guy? He was way too young for fights at school. Wasn’t he only seven? Or eight? Instead of listening to her (and now he thought about it, she’d sounded really worried), he’d grabbed his jacket and car keys and said he’d be back at eleven, give or take ten minutes. Now, in the Datsun, he looked at his watch. It was eleven-thirty. The jam had lasted forty-five minutes already and it would be a half-hour drive home when he did finally get out.
Would the kids want to be actors? When they were small he’d done some terrific characterisations, reading stories to them. Where The Wild Things Are was great material. He could still recite that whole thing. He tried repeating it now to kill time in this infernal carpark. He made it to about halfway through, then lost the thread. “…called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.” He got that far. His two girls, the older kids, had loved that stuff. But was it irresponsible to encourage his kids to be actors? It didn’t pay. Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for Miranda’s job, they’d be poor. He wasn’t worried about his two girls, they’d rule the world. If they did go into theatre they’d probably be stars. But what about the little guy? Maybe he should keep an eye on him. What did the kid like doing, anyway? What presents did he ask for at birthdays and Christmas? Denny left all that stuff to Miranda.
If he really wanted out of here, he had options. He could get out of the car and go upstairs to the fresh air and call Miranda. He could gulp in some clean breaths, take a look around at the Quay and the Opera House and the city and assure himself that the world was still standing solidly where it should be. But to do that he’d have to pull out of the line of cars and park; he’d have to give up his place in the queue. If he pulled out of line, if he parked and came back five or ten minutes later, they wouldn’t let him back into the queue. He knew that. Even now, there was a poor bastard blocked into a parking space just up ahead. Earlier, Denny had seen his red tail-lights glow as he tried to reverse into the line, but no-one let him in. That’s the way it went down here. Eventually the guy had given up, switched off, and now he was just sitting there. No, Denny didn’t want to leave his place in the queue.
A shudder of movement ahead animated the cars. Everyone started their engines and this time they made some progress. Denny advanced maybe half a turn of the spiral. At one of the cross-tunnels he let one car into the line, but only one. That was the etiquette down here in this carpark, when it was full like this. If you were stuck in a cross-tunnel you had to wait your turn. Denny beeped his horn at a Jag that tried to cut in. One at a time, that was the unwritten rule. He was now on the second level, blue/yellow. The exit wasn’t far away. The Datsun hummed.
Then the cars stopped again. With the exit so close, no-one switched off their engines this time. The cars waited, growling like big cats defending their turf. Denny checked his phone but there was still no signal. He thought about the carpark collapsing, about surviving in a pocket of air. He might have a better chance if it happened here, on the second level, closer to the exit. Rescuers might be able to reach him.
He imagined himself lying sideways in the Datsun, maybe with his legs trapped, taking only a mouthful of his water at a time, trying to get his phone to work. Maybe the phone would pick up a random signal and ring, only to go dead before he could answer it. Or maybe he would answer it and hear Miranda crying and saying I love you! before it went dead. Surely she’d say that? If she thought it might be the last thing he’d ever hear?
The line of cars was still going nowhere. Denny had been without his phone for over an hour now. He sensed, like someone drowning, that his whole life was passing before his eyes. A shudder went through his shoulders; his legs were stiff. He had to move. He opened the door of the Datsun and stepped out. Pale-faced drivers in the other cars watched him. He stretched to his full height, threw his arms wide, tossed his long hair. What kind of husband did he want to be? What kind of father? I want to be the most wild thing of all! he yelled, throwing his head back and giving it all he’d got. The other drivers stared, stayed in their cars, checked the door locks. About the Author:Annette Freeman lives in Sydney, Australia. Her short stories have appeared in a number of Australian and international journals including BrainDrip, South Broadway Ghost Society, The Writing Disorder and Typehouse Magazine. She has a Master of Creative Writing and the support of a terrific writing group.