“Back On the Road” by Melanie Fazi

French writer Melanie Fazi has had a couple of stories in Black Static and I believe I’ve seen something by her in one of the Year’s Best anthologies, but other than that I’m unfamiliar with her work.

This story appeared in #6 and it opens by striking a note of despondency – ‘There’s a lump in my throat and I feel like crying.’ The first person narrator – Anouk – was on a coach bound from Paris to Strasbourg, but she’s been left behind at a motorway service station in the middle of the night.

Immediately we realise that something is wrong beyond the obvious abandonment. Anouk’s memories are unclear. She keeps coming back to a ‘metallic taste’ in her mouth, which she drinks Coke to clear, but to no good. Some of the people at the service station seem strange and there’s a reference to ‘zombies queuing in front of the machines’, though it’s too early in the story to know if this is meant literally or simply as a metaphor for sleep weary travellers.

A punk girl – Leonore, but she prefers Leo – approaches Anouk and offers to set her up with a bed for the night, so that she can catch the next coach for Strasbourg in the morning, but first there is something she has to do. Given the choice between staying at the service station where some of the other people are starting to seriously freak her out or accompanying Leo, Anouk opts for the latter.

Leo leads her out onto the motorway and along the hard shoulder, with Anouk keenly aware of the vehicles that hurtle by. Finally they come up on the site of a crash and meet three people walking away from the wreckage, although their broken bodies hint that they are anything but survivors. Leo uses the music from her Walkman to beguile these somnambulistic spirits and guide them back to the service station, and it’s when she does this that Anouk finally regains her memories and begins to accept what has happened to her.

Other writers have spoken of ‘highways of the dead’, but for Fazi it’s the service stations that stand out, offering a place where dead and living mingle, neither truly aware of the other because they are so preoccupied with their own concerns, a limbo where the dead can come to terms with what has happened to them and ready themselves to move on.

It’s an intriguing conceit, and Fazi brings it to life in a story where every detail is meticulously observed and captured, the mood slowly changing as what we only suspect at first is brought out into the foreground. Anouk is the reader’s representative, her feelings a mirror of our own, as the unease grows and then gives way to a quiet acceptance of this newly revealed order. Like us she has to reach her own understanding in a story that is show, not tell, for reader and protagonist alike.

Leonore (an echo of Poe’s ‘lost Lenore’ perhaps) is someone who has stayed behind on this plain for the specific purpose of helping others to move on, a Charon for the modern age where the river Styx has been replaced by a super highway. And I love the fact that the music she uses to aid her in her task is Kate Bush’s The Jig of Life. Certainly that’s a tune I’d step out to, whether dead or alive. And I love also that she appears to have a cat familiar.

There’s nothing particularly original here, or horrific either once the initial mood has been struck and we’ve made our peace with the imagery of dead and broken bodies, but it is a compelling story beautifully told.

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