Thunder Road

Picture credit: Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez

This is the first thing he remembers: sitting in his father’s old sedan, cat-napping as the sun teased through the trees. The wide open road in front of them; his father in the driver’s seat, checking mirrors, changing gears. He can’t really remember where, or why, they’re driving. Somehow the driving feels like enough in itself – not a means to an end, but The End.

And on the radio was The Boss, the only Boss his father had ever loved. He was singing about a girl called Mary, and the slamming of a screen door, and his father sang it too, with conviction, like the words meant something and he meant them. The sun was falling asleep between the branches.

You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright…

Years later – his father long dead – he drives the car off the road. The Boss is on the radio again, and he is singing as everything goes black.


He wakes up. He is in a single bed in a small, sparse room, into which light leaks through a pair of net curtains. Downstairs is the sound of motion, of women bustling, busily, through kitchens and living rooms. The bitter smell of strong coffee, and eggs being cooked on the stove.

He can’t see through the window, lying where he is in soaking-wet sheets, but he can hear cars driving past the house; straight-backed postmen on their rounds; naughty paper boys pedalling furiously, flinging their wares to the lawns; short kids chattering and giggling as they mount school buses. It all feels foreign and familiar. He isn’t sure where he is, but things ring bells.

He looks down at himself: where once there was some flab and sagging, he is now lean and muscular once more, his whole body tanned, and taut as a coiled spring. How did that happen? He won’t complain; it’s good to look good – young, vital – again. His hands go to his head and find a nest of long, dark curls. He’d thought it was all gone, almost; it was.

And now it’s back.

Everything some day comes back.

It’s not right, but so few things are anymore, he thinks, that I’m not gonna probe it. I won’t question “why” in case that kills it.

It is summertime, and it is hot, and he feels, in the deepest parts of his body, that he is nineteen again, by some miracle, and this is not Bridgend, it’s some other place, and he’s been here before, even if not in person. The day has been baked like an apple pie; it sits, steaming on the windowsill, ready for him to take a bite.

He walks down the stairs in a white vest and a pair of boxers, and his knees don’t crack at all. Down the hall, in the tiny kitchen, two women are talking with American accents. The older one is round, corn-fed, her grey hair tied into a bun; she is wearing a large, loose-fitting yellow dress, dotted – like a meadow – with flowers. There is a frilly white apron tied around her waist, and she is slaving over the stove.

The younger woman is sitting at the white laminate kitchen table, and is clearly, facially, the daughter. Her hair is crow-black, and hangs plaited down her back. Her dress is light blue, and equally loose, because there is a baby bump swelling under it. She is focused on peeling potatoes with a knife, until she glances up and sees him, and beams.

“Joey!” she exclaims. Is this his name? Whether or not it once was, it seems like maybe it is now. He knows her name, too, for some reason, like it’s been sitting in his throat waiting to come out: “Mary,” he says, smiling back.

The older woman – Ma, he thinks – turns and huffs.

“Late risin’ again,” she half-scolds, wagging a finger, but she leaves the stove long enough to give him a kiss, then heads straight back to it.

“Come sit, Joe,” Mary says, pulling a chair out for him, wincing as she moves. He pads over, kisses her head, and sits down. Before he can think, or blink, there is a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs before him on the table, and a big steaming mug of black coffee by his hand.

“Thanks, Ma,” he says, and she waves her hand, back turned to him, brushing the thanks away. The bacon is pink but still crispy; the coffee slips down, and he can feel his body come alive with it.

“How ya doin’, Mare?” he asks; he realises that he is speaking with an American accent too.

“Ah, you know how it is,” Mary says, still potato-peeling. “This little guy was kicking all night, but I can’t complain.” She cradles the bump and smiles down at it, beatifically. Dressed in blue, she could be a new shade of Madonna.

A dog is dancing at his feet, a little terrier; in its teeth it’s carrying The Freehold Gazette. He is starting to understand.

There is an absence in the room, the shadow of some presence he can’t quite put his finger on. “Where’s Pop?” he says, suddenly. A few images flash through his brain – an old sedan, a tree-lined road – but he doesn’t remember why.

Mary meets his eye with a confused look. “He’s at work,” she says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Maybe it is.

The man is not here, but he’s still everywhere. He half-expects to hear his car on the drive; the clack and clink of his shoes and belt; the feeling of a big hand on his shoulder.

“You best get goin’ too, now,” Ma calls over her shoulder, nodding at the clock on the wall. He agrees. It’s later than he thought.

It’s still early, but it’s still later than he thought.

In his wardrobe hangs a blue denim boiler suit, with the words Jungleland Mechanics embroidered in white thread on its breast. He slips it on with a pair of brown work boots and slips out of the house, calling goodbye as he goes. The July sun is high and bright, like a golden baseball knocked from the batting cages into the stratosphere

(what’s more than a home run?)

He passes the town hall and the elementary school and the convenience stores and thinks some corny joke about not being in Kansas anymore,

but I’m closer to Kansas than I’ve ever been.

A pink Cadillac full of tanned girls drives past and they call to him, hey, Joe, and he grins, raises a hand, and they giggle. Another barefoot girl sits on the hood of a Dodge, sipping a warm beer.

He turns the corner and finds himself in Jungleland: a faded sign over the garage announces it, and grease monkeys hop around, sliding under cars, wielding their wrenches.

“Yer late,” a grizzled old guy says. On his boiler suit is stitched George

(George of Jungleland, he laughs to himself).

“Sorry “bout that, Boss,” he says, by instinct, rolling up his sleeves.

“Yeah, well,” says George, but he can tell he’s kindly

(everyone I’ve met here has a heart of gold, he thinks. Where are they all getting them from?)

“Take a look at that one for me, Joe,” George grunts. “She’s pretty bust-up. Don’t know if there’s anything we can do for her.”

They walk over to a wreck of a car, a husk with is nose collapsed in, like it ran into a tree or some other immovable object. There is still some steam breathing out from the bonnet.

“Damn,” he says, low and long. “Helluva mess. What happened?”

George has his hands on his hips. “Some guy, ‘parently. Couldn’t take it no more. Drove her off the road.”

“Crazy,” he says. “Poor guy.” He is sweating, he realises, but puts it down to the heat. The car is sweating too. “She’s a goner, ain’t she? Can’t see what we can do.”

He has no real experience with cars, not really – a few Sundays with his old man, holding tools while the sedan got tinkered with – but he suddenly feels a whole load of knowledge swelling in his brain, of nuts and bolts and exhausts. When he was younger, he’d wanted to be half-car: to tear down the highway so fast he’d either catch fire or catch flight, and it wasn’t that important which. He feels part-car now, ever since he woke up here.

Long may it last, he thinks.

God, may it last forever.

They move from the busted-up motor; he grabs a wrench and gets to work.

It is lunchtime before he knows it, and he’s starving. He forgot to pick up the wrapped sandwich and apple Ma had packed for him and left on the side.

“I’m gonna head out for an hour,” he shouts to George, who rolls his eyes but says nothing.

As he strolls down the sidewalk–

it’s clearly a sidewalk, not a pavement

he frisks in his pocket and finds a few dollars, a couple of quarters and dimes. A hand slaps down on his shoulder.

“Where ya headed, Joe?” his friend says: also nineteen, dark-haired, but skinnier, ganglier. The kind of guy whose smile takes up more than half of his face.

Stevie, it occurs to him.

“I don’t know man, Steve,” he says, but even as he says it they’re crossing the street to a diner with the word Rosalita’s in red neon outside. They enter together, taking two high stools at the counter.

A lady says, “Your server’ll be right over, fellas,” and Stevie says, “Thanks, Rosie. I’m starving. I could eat a whole horse, hooves and all.”

Rosie laughs, loudly.

“Say, Joe,” Stevie says, turning to him. “How’s Mary holdin’ up?”

His mind flits to her sitting in the kitchen, bathed in blue.

“She’s doing good,” he says. “Was peeling potatoes when I left.”

Stevie’s grin swallows his face. “Good woman.”

The diner is not especially busy: a harried mother sits in the corner, with two sugared-up kids picking at stacks of pancakes, swinging their legs under the seats; two old guys shoot the shit in a booth, swigging from white mugs of coffee; a little way down from him and Stevie, propped up at the counter, is a veteran with only one arm.

All these people, he thinks, in their own little worlds.

I guess I am, too.

“Sarah Beth!” Stevie shouts over the counter. “Can we move it along? Please? For the sake of the horses?”

“I’m coming!” a female voice calls back; it makes Stevie laugh.

“Joey’s here,” Stevie adds, with a wink to him.

And then Sarah-Beth appears, as if knowing this really has lit a fire under her.

The first thing he notices is the laden tray in her hands, and then the fact that she is beautiful: the kind of beauty that doesn’t impose itself, but which still stops you in its tracks. Her hair is red and curly as a burning bush; her eyes are two green pools to wade in; every cliché he can think of, rummaging through his mental store of them, both do and don’t apply. He knows she knows he’s looking at her.


She softens under his gaze.

We are in love, he thinks, and it is both as simple and as complicated as that.

Tray empty, she comes back round to the corner and says, “What can I get for you boys?” She flips over a new page in her notepad, pulls a stubby pencil from behind her ear.

I love her, he thinks;

how can anyone think of anything else, knowing that, feeling that?

“I’ll get the cheeseburger and fries, please, Sarah-Beth,” Stevie says, “and a Coke.”

She nods, scribbling, and then looks up at him. “And you, Joe?” she says, her voice all Velvet.

Oh Jeez…

“The same, please, Sarah-Beth,” he finds himself saying. Suddenly, looking at her, he’s hungry enough to eat all that, the whole menu—he could eat the whole diner they’re sitting in, and only spit out a few stools.

“Comin’ up,” she says, grinning, then vanishing. Stevie nudges him, and cackles.

She’s back before too long, with the plates, and he’s glad of it: the distance between them weighs down on him too much to bear. I’m like a kid, he thinks, before reminding himself,

you are a kid, still; here, you’re still a kid.

Nineteen, and all ablaze.

Really feel it, while you still can.

When they’re finished, Sarah-Beth clears the plates and says, “We still good for tonight, Joe?” Expectation makes her voice lift, slightly, subtly.

“What’s tonight?” he asks, and even Stevie rolls his eyes.

She looks at him, and he hears a freight train’s wheels clacking on the tracks through his brain. “The concert?” she says, uncertainly, but it rings a bell.

The concert!


“Of course,” he says, and her face clears like a sunny day. “I’ll pick you up at seven,” he says, and she nods, once, sealing it.

Oh, Sarah-Beth.

As soon as he and Stevie step out of the diner, though, he feels strange. It’s like he’s walked through a mirror into some uncanny landscape, where all the cars and birds go backwards. The sky faints onto his shoulders; he is suddenly an Atlas, bearing it up.

Something is off, like a switch has flipped in his head, like some worm has crawled in that he can’t pull out.

“You okay, Joe?” Stevie asks, staring at him.

An old sedan drives past, slowly; a man is driving it, and in the passenger seat, a young boy dozes. Familiar tunes are playing through the rolled-down window.

His skin suddenly feels far too tight on his body.

“Joe, you don’t look so good,” Stevie says. “You oughta head home. I’ll tell George for ya.”

He doesn’t even have the energy to argue – just nods, once, sealing it.

What’s happening to me?

A funeral without mourners.

Stevie checks he’s alright to walk home, and he promises that he is.

“See ya later, bud,” Stevie says, punching his arm gently and peeling away.

He’s completely on his own. The thought makes him feel agoraphobic and claustrophobic, both: it is too wide and too cramped, all at the same time. He considers rushing back into Rosalita’s to see Sarah-Beth, to hold her, but stops himself.

At seven;

I’ll see her at seven;

just gotta wait “till seven.

The diner door swings open, and he turns, but it’s just the one-armed veteran. They lock eyes.

He smells napalm.

Get home,

a voice tells him (maybe it’s the veteran?), but he doesn’t know how to. His car is busted in in Jungleland. He starts walking down the street, one foot in front of the other. A guy in blue denim overalls ambles, head down, hands in pockets, like he’s carrying the whole world on his back

(wait, he thinks – is that me? Who is me?)

He notices things he didn’t notice on the way in: how many of these cars are burned-out, just skeleton frames of Chevrolets, how the girls in the pink Cadillac are really middle-aged or older, how many of the stores have closed down and gone to rot, robbed of their ghosts and patrons.

A star-spangled banner flutters from the pole above the courthouse, but then, when the wind drops, it just hangs flaccid like strange fruit.

He can hear dogs on Main Street, and, in the distance, a group of eighth-grade boys playing catch in the field: squealing like hogs and laughing like tiny men. More than anything he wants to join them.

Why can’t I join them?

he thinks, but the American accent he’s been speaking in all day now sounds so phoney and false.

Back in Bridgend, he remembers, there is a small flat and a small job and an occasional cat and gravestones to tend to, and he is hollow, hollowed-out by how hollow it all feels.

It’s a losing game, he thinks;

it was all rigged, right from the beginning.

He gets back to the house and realises he doesn’t have a key, but the door is unlocked.

Someone is crying in the kitchen. He finds it’s Mary – all blue now, still cradling her bump.

When she looks up at him, she starts crying harder.

“Oh, Joey,” she says. “Why’s it all so difficult.”

He sits down and holds her, and soon neither of them are crying: just staring at the corner of the room, while the dog lies by their feet.

After a while, Mary looks up at him and says, “Joey, you have to wake up.”

“Shhh,” he says, pulling her in again. Stroking her hair. “Shhh, now.”

They sit and breathe, like two bare objects.

Again, Mary says, “It’s time to go, Joey.”

“I can’t,” he says. “I’m going to a concert tonight. With Sarah-Beth.”


Her hair and eyes and hands and mouth and shape and laugh.

The pencil behind her ear.

“Okay,” Mary concedes. “After, then.”

And he says, “Mmm,” an affirmative noise he wants to be able to backtrack on.

Don’t make me go back, he thinks.

Don’t make me.

Where will I be going?

When it’s six o’clock he untangles himself and heads upstairs to change. He stands in the shower and shaves and spritzes cologne on his neck and wrists, and then pulls on a clean pair of blue denim jeans and a crisp white T-shirt. He stares at this person in the mirror and thinks,

looking good, Joe.

It is nice to think this. He laces up his sneakers, tightening the knots, and then heads back down to say goodbye to Mary, who is still sitting in the kitchen, staring forward.

“I’ll be seeing you, Mare,” he says, squeezing her hand in his hand, and she says, “You too, Joe.”

Then he leaves to meet Sarah-Beth.

He knows, instinctively, where her house is, and she is standing on the porch, waiting for him. She is wearing a white cotton dress, and she is a vision. He doesn’t know how to begin to tell her,

hey that’s me, and I want you only.

When she sees him, she lights up so brightly that the sky – now burnt-out in twilight – feels nowhere near as heavy as it did. It feels, suddenly, how it felt when he woke up that morning: like everything was song, and he just had to follow the notes.

A dream of life comes to him again, like a catfish, dancing on the end of a line.

He puts aside, for a second, Mary and the veteran and the eighth-graders in the field, and the old man and the boy and the sedan, he thinks

what does any of that matter?

Of course it does matter – sometimes it feels like the only thing that matters – but it also all comes to very little when compared with Sarah-Beth.

To Stevie, and his goofy smile.

To George, rolling his eyes.

To Mary and the baby; to Ma.

To Pa, too.

Always to Pa.

“Hey, Joey,” Sarah-Beth says, and his heart grows, then splits, and his whole chest is filled with her image and her voice.

It may be a losing game, he thinks, but jeez, man, I’ll play.

Give me the chance and I’ll play.

“Ready to go?” he asks, and she nods, once, sealing it. Linking her arm with his.

Only when they get to the stadium does he realise whose concert this is. It is packed with kids his and Sarah-Beth’s age, but also with some older people, too. It is dark, and everyone is dancing.

He hears the music play: it is a song about Mary, and the slamming of a screen door, and he finds himself singing all the words like his father did, like he means them and they mean something, because he does, and they do.

Behind his eyes he sees a sun flickering between the branches.

It’s a small world, he thinks,

but it’s also so unbelievably, unbearably big, and I will be so sorry to leave it.

“Everything okay?” says Sarah-Beth, clutching his arm, and he says “Yes” because, ultimately, everything is, even when it’s not.

“Wanna dance?” he says, and she smiles, and they twirl together.

Whatever comes after doesn’t matter.

Everything comes back in the end.

And it’s all so good, really.

The Boss takes to the stage, and everyone screams, sparking up the night.

And Sarah-Beth twirls and twirls, her red hair flying, and he twirls with her, and for a moment

–one short, precious moment–

they are both, well and truly,


About the Author

Brennig Davies is a writer from the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. He won the inaugural BBC Young Writers Award in 2015 and the Crown at the Urdd National Eisteddfod 2019, and was shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Award 2021 and runner-up for the Drama Medal at the Urdd National Eisteddfod 2023. He was one of the 2023 Hay Festival’s Writers at Work, and his poems and stories have been published in Poetry Wales, The Cardiff Review, and The Oxford Review of Books, as well as anthologies including No Place Like Home (Macmillan, 2022) and Friend (Swift Press, 2023). He was the creative editor of Deffro (Urdd Gobaith Cymru, 2021).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *