The traffic tailed back as far as he could see, a panorama of red tail lights. In the rear-view mirror, headlights jostled for attention. He drummed his hands on the steering wheel, desperate to be home. Every second that ticked by was time with his girls that he could never get back.
He’d left the conference a day early, pushing aside the best networking session of the year to spend some time with his family. Hoping the smiles of his wife and young daughter could eradicate the taste of lost commissions and contracts. He thought of the limp handshakes and doubtful glances of his colleagues as he made his excuses and left them to their gala dinner. The smirk of some of his younger colleagues when they saw him pick up his coat, not even waiting until he had left the room to start moving in on his established clients.
He pressed the home key on his mobile phone and smiled at the picture of Rose and Maddie that flashed up. Rose pouting and Maddie grinning toothily. His mood lightened, and he knew he had made the right decision. Despite the traffic, despite the lost commission, nothing mattered more than home.
He picked up his phone and cycled through his audiobooks and podcasts. They were all about money or productivity or self-improvement. None of that mattered to him. Not now. Not on a Friday night, miles from home. He looked at the list dispassionately, when had he become so corporate? So intense? He used to love football but could barely even name all the teams in the top flight any more. He longed for some music, something to take the edge off the drive, to motivate him to get back home. Something to set up his mood and his weekend with his girls.
He turned on the radio and began flicking through the channels, manually navigating the dial. The numbers rose towards the top of the FM scale. BBC Radio jumped in and was bypassed. National music stations pleaded for his listenership. He ignored them. Static buzzed and hummed through the speakers, crackling and hissing its own beat. The digital display hit 107.10, the top end of the dial and the radio fell silent. Turning the speakers up did nothing. He frowned. He was sure there was something up at this end of the dial, an old rock station he used to listen to.
Up ahead the traffic began to move and clear. The truck in front pulled away and began to speed up. Brian floored his Golf, pushed back into his seat. As he reached 50 miles per hour, the radio burst into life, the opening to “Girl From Mars” by Ash. As the introduction finished and main riff kicked in, Brian shifted down a gear enjoying the Golf dragging him along as he pulled into the middle and then outside lane in a hurry. Without thinking about how he knew them, Brian belted out the lyrics, spitting them out as he accelerated. Taken along in the buzz of a song he hadn’t heard for years.
It took him to his first high school field trip. Alone at the front of the bus. Friendless at a new school. Lemon and lime Hubba Bubba. Looking out of the window at the Welsh coast. Lynx deodorant in the dormitory and the laughter of new friends on the way home. The taste of his first kiss on the back seat of the bus.
As the guitar solo kicked in Brian took his hands off the wheel and played air guitar, letting the car veer until he lost his nerve. His heart pounded in his chest as he sang the final chorus. The last few notes of the song rang out before fading into silence.
“Just what you wanted to start a Friday night.” The DJ’s voice was heavy and laboured. A whisper rather than the bravado of commercial radio. “Here’s to long drives home. A working week complete. A job well done. Welcome back to one zero seven point one. We know just what you need.”
Brian didn’t have time to think about the delivery as the radio began to empty “Build Me Up Buttercup” into the car. Despite the cheesy intro and dated production, Brian felt the smile return to his face as the lyrics started. Without thinking, his voice joined The Foundations, hitting every note perfectly in his mind. The song was ridiculous but it held value for him.
It took him back home. A few years previously when Maddie was a toddler. The Johnson’s baby shampoo in her hair mixed with the smell of cooking bacon as he swung her round the kitchen. Dipping and spinning in time with the song. Childish giggles. Rose smiling and taking pictures.
As the music drained away, Brian’s heart thudded in his chest. He ached to be home. He ached in general. He shook his legs, trying to get the blood flowing. He’d been driving too long but didn’t want to stop. Not yet.
“That’s what happens on one zero seven point one folks,” the DJ said. “We play the hits you want to hear whether you know it or not. Keep listening tonight folks. We have a number of studio guests including Steve from Biddulph who should be with us shortly.”
Brian wrinkled his nose. The studio guests on local radio were usually pathetic. Farmers or a psychic or the head teacher of the local high school. Noise clattered in the studio, the squeal of furniture being moved on a hard floor and a dull thud somewhere away from the microphone. Leaning forward in his seat, Brian turned the volume up. A low-level groaning escaped the speakers, startling him.
“Moving on,” said the DJ. “Try this little number out for size. The National with “The Geese of Beverly Road”. Enjoy.”
String music swung around the car, relaxing Brian’s racing heart before the driving drums came through to bring the song into its opening verse. Even before the lyrics kicked in, he was transported. Rose in her white dress, flowing all around their feet as they twirled on the dancefloor. Friends and family lined the sides, taking pictures and smiling. Cameras flashing and wine glasses twinkling. Whispered lyrics in Rose’s ear. Her breath on his neck.
As the song faded out, another immediately kicked in. Jangling guitars, picking out a delicate intro before dulcet Geordie tones took up the lyrics that had meant so much to him. Maximo Park took him back to university. Meeting Rose at a barbecue while the stereo blared out indie rock approved by the NME. Later that night they lay together on the grass as the night grew cold, staring up at the sky as it darkened. The night smelled of smoke. Talking about songs that meant something to them. Making imaginary playlists. Picking the music they wanted at their funerals, weddings and graduation. Excited at the prospect of sharing those moments.
As the song ended, Brian’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, he scrabbled around for the buttons for the windows. Feeling instant relief as cold air poured into his face. One solid body of air buffeting him at speed. Sweat cooled on his neck, making him shudder. He coughed back the taste of vomit. A sign said three miles to the nearest services. His bladder weighed a ton. He didn’t know why the song choice had made him reel so much, whether it was the way it made him ache to be with his wife or how pertinent the choice itself had been.
Thudding and clattering escaped from the radio followed by a few muffled curses. “Welcome back to one zero seven point one. I hope your Friday night is going as well as ours is. Our studio guest has arrived. Later than we thought. Say hello Steve.”
“Hello.” croaked the voice. The sounds of swallowing. “Thanks for having me.” A Midlands accent thick around his words. Heavy breathing distorted in a microphone too close to his face.
“I love our sessions with our studio guests. We really don’t have as many as we’d like but we do enjoy them while they are here.” There was something about the DJ’s tone. A smugness, a confidence that Brian didn’t like. A growing strength in his voice that made Brian hunger for the timid start the station had made.
“What songs did you enjoy with us then Steve? Tell our listeners.”
“Erm. Guns ‘N Roses. Some ‘80s rock I guess. Some Metallica too. All the songs from the pub that me and my mates liked. The first dance from my wedding.” Steve’s breath escaped him in ragged bursts. He was there but he wasn’t. A disembodied voice. Brian turned the radio up, not taking his eyes from the road. His own breathing had quickened. His stomach tightened, although empty it felt heavy. A dull weight.
“Well you certainly got what you wanted from us. I guess now you’re here, one way or another, it’s time to get what we want from you.”
Brian winced as static filled the car, whining and high. It mingled with the sound of buzzing and moaning. The moaning became something worse, something inhuman, a scream that pierced Brian’s soul, making hairs rise all over his body. Tears began to stream down his face as the screaming faded out a cut into the static at the start of Nirvana’s “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”. Somewhere beneath the jagged intro riff, Brian heard laughter. A cold, cruel sound that made him feel alone.
He snapped the radio off mid-verse. Silence filled the car as he moved into the inside lane. Preparing to pull into the services, Brian composed himself. He wiped the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. Nothing about what he had heard made any sense. The screaming was unnatural. Who was monitoring that station? Who was even running it? Let alone doing something hideous to an innocent person. Who would choose to listen to it?
Bile racked the back of his throat as he pulled into the service station car park. Around him people moved slowly in and out of parked cars. The world carried on around him, nobody noticing a grown man sobbing as he clutched the steering wheel, his tears falling into darkness as he cried alone.
Everything in the service station was grey. Daubed in dirty light. The air was thick with the smell of fried food and old coffee. Brian felt like he was in a concentration camp being herded from one room to the next. He made his way to the bathroom. The tiled floor turned yellow and green and brown under the urinals by years of dripping liquid. The surfaces were damp and clammy. Brian rubbed his eyes as he pissed, breathing in the scent of urinal cakes. His legs and arms ached as if he had been at the gym. The last hour blurred in his memory. He tried to remember how long he had been driving. Home seemed further away than it had when he set off; the roads meandered in his mind.
Two men entered the bathroom as he moved to wash his hands. He watched them in the mirror. Both obese and doughy. The kind of people who looked like they lived on the road. Victims of bad diet and too much driving. Straggled facial hair and dirty clothes. They took no notice of him talking loudly as if everything they had to say would be important to everyone, not just themselves.
“The way he screamed. G-g-g-g-guns and r-r-r-roses.” The taller, uglier of the two said breaking into a bark of a laugh. He was immediately joined by the smaller man. Their laughed mingled with the dull thud of piss on metal.
“I wonder who the next guest will be? The music has been a bit too mixed for me tonight. Not really enjoyed it. Some of it has been proper weepy shit. The National? Who are they?”
The taller man nodded his agreement. As Brian finished washing his hands, he turned and caught the eye of the two men as they walked to the exit together. They smelled of smoke and sweat. Brian stopped and let the two men walk through ahead of him. The smaller man turned and eyeballed him, a silent thank you or fuck you. Brian looked away, aware of how fragile he was stood on his own. His arms ached. It hurt to breathe, his chest felt tight around his lungs, squeezing his organs. He rubbed his eyes, amazed at how tired he was.
He walked in a daze to the nearby café where he ordered a large cup of coffee, hoping that it would be something other than brown piss. Blowing the steam from it, he took a small sip as he waited to pay. It wasn’t as bad as he had expected but still nowhere near what he was used to drinking in the office. A radio hummed behind the cashier. Bland pop music blaring behind her head.
Brian handed over a crumpled five pound note and received fewer coins back than he would have liked. He looked down at the coins in his hand and opened his mouth to say something to the cashier. She looked at him, her plump red face scrunched up around small dark eyes. Her greasy hair reflected the sterile light.
“I think that, erm–”
Static screeched from the radio, obliterating the inane singing of whichever boyband had been playing at the time. Brian flinched as the noise rattled round the inside of his skull. Hot coffee burning his fingers. He looked up, squinting through the pain of a headache. The cashier stared at him blankly. Other customers milled around the self-serve drinks dispensers, not paying much attention to him.
“Is there a problem?” The cashier’s voice became more belligerent.
She stared at him, not flinching as the radio behind her erupted into static again. This time as it hit a crescendo, the noise turned from an electronic squeal into something more human. The sound contorted until the pitches and waves aligned until the static gave way to a piercing wail of pain. The scream was filled with abandon. The sound of someone who cared for nothing other than making their pain stop. Brian joined his voice to that streaming through the radio, an agonizing harmony as the sound invaded him.
“Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn if off!” His voice lost all restraint, rising in pitch and volume with every syllable.
From her small stool behind the till, the cashier looked at him. Her dark eyes blank. Her expression hadn’t changed but other customers were looking round and laughing at him. Their voices echoing off the tiled floor of the canteen.
“It’s not that bad is it? It’s only One Direction after all.” Unable to comprehend how she couldn’t hear what he did, Brian could only stare. His fingers still gripping the coffee cup despite growing redder as they burnt. “You are disturbing the other customers. I’d advise if you don’t like what you hear, you go and get in your car where you can listen to anything your little heart desires.”
She stopped talking and looked him in the eye. The skin around her lips tightened, drawing them back from two rows of irregular, grey teeth. “I think you know what station.”
Trying not to run, Brian backed away from her. Pop music shrouded the room. He didn’t dare take his eyes off her. Customers crowded round the till as he watched, paying for coffees and laughing about the man who had a breakdown because he didn’t want to listen to a boy band. He stepped out into the cold darkness of the car park, the gentle breeze cooling the sweat on his back and raising his hackles even more.
He slammed the car door shut and fumbled for his keys. What was left of his coffee slopped around in his cup as he plonked it down in the cup holder. When he turned the key in the ignition, the headlights came to life immediately and the radio burst into his consciousness.
“Some people think they can get what they want from this radio station and then just switch us off when it comes to the crunch,” the DJ spouted. His voice agitated, Brian imagined him to be slobbering as he ranted. “But they don’t know that it doesn’t quite work like that. We play the hits you want to hear. End of story. And that kind of service does not come free. Does it Steve?”
Silence rebounded round the car as Brian flicked the radio off. The engine hummed within its comfort zone as he accelerated onto the slip lane and out into the thin motorway traffic. The radio clicked itself back on as he hit eighty miles per hour. Laughter filled his Brian’s ears. It reverberated round the car, the voice distorted and nasty. Laughing at Brian, certainly not with him. Never with him.
“As if it’s that easy? Anyway – here’s another hit from the not too distant past.”
The opening beat of Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” burst from the speakers. Brian tried to flick the radio off but couldn’t, he punched and prodded buttons trying to change the station but nothing happened. He twizzled the volume dial uselessly.
He was twelve again. At his first high school disco. The girl he had arranged to go on a date with, Helen, was dancing with Mark, the captain of the football team. The feel of embarrassed sweat on his face and neck. Laughter in his ears. Mark’s friends waiting for him in the car park. Bruises on his face.
That song faded straight into “Three Lions” by the Lightning Seeds. The anthem of the English football team from the mid-90’s. Memories of his father. Hugging after England beat Spain on penalties. The bitter taste of defeat in the semi-finals a few days later. Singing the chorus with his Dad as they kicked a ball in the garden. The smell of fresh-cut grass.
“Wonderwall” was next. Oasis filling the car. As fresh as it had been the first time he heard it. His mind was full of the smell of the school bus, straining to hear the song on a friend’s Walkman. The smell of cigarettes on the back seat and the shouts of the driver as he caught the scent.
The music abruptly stopped at the end of the song. Brian clung exhaustedly to the wheel as the memories flooded through him. He tried again to turn off the radio, groping the buttons but nothing changed. The DJ chattered away at him, Brian imagined him strutting round his studio, enjoying ranting about whatever it was that eating away at him. All Brian knew was that he had to get home, he had to get out of this car before he collapsed at the wheel. He shouted over the top of the radio unable to adjust the volume but doing whatever he could to block the DJ from his mind, to keep the words from penetrating his consciousness.
“Kill yourself.” The radio said. “Kill yourself. Kill yourself.”
“Fuck you!” Brian screamed back.
“Drive under that articulated lorry. Kill yourself.”
Brian swerved round the lorry, desperate to get to the off ramp of the motorway. He braked sharply, ducking in behind the lorry and undertaking it. He crossed the roundabout onto the main road that lead into his village.
“Drive through the wall. Smash into the pub. Kill yourself. You won’t get many more chances.”
The Fox and Hounds pub passed by in a blur. The sign swung in the wind. Brian ignored the radio as best he could, feeling his hands jerk involuntarily at its words.
“I’m telling you. Kill yourself. Do it. You won’t regret it. It’ll be better than the alternative.”
Brian passed the small row of shops near his house. The Post Office light was still on. The staff had long gone home. Kids loitered outside the chip shop, clouds of cigarette smoke escaping their tight circle and drifting up into the darkened sky. A lonely scruffy dog was tied outside the convenience store, staring at the door as it waited for its owner.
“Last chance,” the DJ said, “smash into that stone wall. Hurt yourself. Die. Kill yourself. You owe me!”
Brian screamed again as he passed the stone wall outside his next-door neighbor’s house. He swung the car in a lazy, wide arc onto the driveway and ploughed straight into the back of Rose’s small black Fiat. Brian’s world spun around him, his grip on the present fading as he slumped on the steering wheel. The horn blared. The Fiat’s alarm squealed for attention. Its hazard lights thrummed, drenching the driveway in flashes of orange. The radio blared the opening chords to a song he knew all too well.
Rose ran out onto the driveway. Her dressing gown flapping wildly around her slight figure, clad in pyjamas. Her bare feet gathering dirt. She ran round to the driver’s side. Brian had undone his seatbelt and slumped out onto the driveway. His eyes stared up blankly.
Music blared loudly from the radio. Jarring her terror for a moment. Familiar chords. The intro to ‘The “59 Sound” by The Gaslight Anthem. Smoke from a barbecue filled her senses. The first night they had met at university. Discussing playlists for weddings and funerals, lying on their back in the soft damp grass. This song. She hated this song. The song Brian wanted at his funeral.
The song changed, melded into something different. A strange voice over the top of the music. A screaming voice. Her husband’s voice on the radio. She shook his body. Crying. Screaming. Her voice joining his in panic and terror and pain as the DJ stopped the song to announce the next audience member and studio guest. Brian from Middlewich.
She screamed until the radio turned itself off.
Dan Howarth is a writer from the North of England. Like all Northerners he enjoys rain, pies and the tears of Southerners. His previous Trigger Warning story “Compliance” can be accessed on our site. Check out his work at www.danhowarthwriter.com
October 17, 2018 at 10:26 pm
Emotional rollercoaster. I heard each song as it was mentioned in the story. Great read! Great job, Dan!