20 August 1998
It was so hot in the car that the seats smelled as though they were melting. Jack was in shorts, and every time he moved his legs they sounded like Sellotape.
The windows were down, but no air moved; only small bugs whirred, with a sound like dry paper. Overhead hung a single frayed cloud, while an invisible jet drew a chalky line across the bright blue sky.
Sweat trickled down the back of Jack’s neck, and he cracked open the door.
‘Don’t!’ said Joy. ‘Mum said stay!’
‘I am staying,’ he said. ‘Just trying to get cool.’
It was a quiet afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic, but every time a car passed, the old Toyota shook a little.
When a lorry passed, it shook a lot.
‘Shut the door!’ said Joy.
Jack shut the door and made a tutting sound. Joy was a drama queen. Nine years old and always bursting into tears or song or laughter. She usually got her own way.
‘How long now?’ she whined.
Jack looked at his watch. He’d got it last birthday when he’d turned eleven.
He’d asked for a PlayStation.
‘Twenty minutes,’ he said.
That was a lie. It was nearly an hour since the car had coughed and jerked and rolled to a crunchy halt on the hard shoulder of the southbound M5 motorway. That made it over half an hour since their mother had left them here to walk to an emergency phone.
Stay in the car. I won’t be long.
Well, she was being long – and Jack got that niggle of irritation he always felt when his mother was not his father. Dad would have known what was wrong with the car. He wouldn’t have sat turning the key over and over until the battery ran flat. He would have had a mobile, and not had to walk up the road to find an emergency phone like a caveman.
Merry grizzled and wriggled against the straps of her car seat, the sun on her face making her restless.
Joy leaned over and put her dummy back in.
‘Shit, it’s hot,’ said Jack.
‘You said shit,’ said Joy. ‘I’m telling.’ But she didn’t say it with her usual conviction. It was too hot for conviction.
For a while, they played ‘I Spy’. S for Sky and R for Road and F for Field, until they exhausted the limited supply of real stuff and started on stupid things like YUF for Your Ugly Face.
‘Shut up!’ said Joy.
Jack was going to say YOU shut up! But then he decided not to, because he was the oldest and he was in charge. Mum had said so …
Jack’s in charge.
… so instead he spied D for Dust and looked up the road and tried to guess how far the phone might be, and how fast his mother had walked there with her slow, pregnant waddle, and how long she had stayed on the phone. He didn’t know any of the answers but he felt instinctively that she had been gone for too long.
She’d pulled over in the shade of a short row of conifers, but their shadows had shortened to nothing.
He squinted into the vicious sun.
If he just looked away, and then back again, he would see her come around the bend. He imagined it. He willed it to happen.
If he just looked away.
And then back again.
She would be there.
She would be there …
She wasn’t there.
‘Where is she?’ said Joy and kicked the back of the seat. ‘She said ten minutes and she’s been ten hours!’
In the front seat, Merry started to cry.
‘Look what you did!’ Jack hung over the seat and fussed over Merry and gave her the bottle, but she only had one suck of water and then pushed the teat out of her mouth so she could go on grizzling.
‘She hates you,’ said Joy with smug satisfaction, and so Jack sat down again and let her have a go, but it turned out that Merry hated everybody, and cried and cried.
Merry was two but still did a lot of crying. Jack didn’t like her much.
‘Maybe she needs a new nappy,’ said Joy warily. ‘There’s one in the bag.’
‘She’ll stop in a minute,’ said Jack. He wasn’t doing a nappy.
Neither was Joy; she didn’t mention the nappy again – just bit her lip and frowned at the bend in the road.
‘Where is she?’ she said again – but this time in a voice that was so small and scared that Jack had to do something or he’d get scared too.
‘Let’s go and meet her,’ he said suddenly.
‘Just walk,’ said Jack. ‘It’s not far. Mum said so.’
‘If it’s not far, why isn’t she back?’
Jack ignored the question and opened the door.
‘Won’t she be angry we didn’t stay like she told us?’
‘No. She’ll be pleased we went to find her.’
Joy’s eyes became big and round. ‘Is she lost?’
Her bottom lip trembled. ‘Are we lost?’
‘No! Nobody’s lost! I’m just hot and bored and want to walk about a bit, that’s all. You can come with me or you can stay here.’
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ said Joy quickly.
‘Then come,’ said Jack.
‘What about Merry?’
‘She can walk.’
‘She won’t, though.’
‘We’ll carry her then.’
‘She’s too heavy.’
‘I’ll carry her.’
‘What about the cars?’ Joy said at the sparkling flashes that whooshed past. There weren’t many, but they were fast. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ she added softly.
That was what their mother had said when they had wanted to go with her to the phone.
It’s too dangerous.
‘Come on,’ said Jack. ‘Everything will be OK. I promise.’
Joy carried the baby bag, and Jack carried the baby.
She refused to walk, of course.
The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.
They walked right up close to the crash barrier. The strip of wavy steel was much bigger than it looked from a speeding car – elbow-high, and nearly down to the cuff of Jack’s blue soccer shorts. The ground on the other side of the barrier was covered with long brittle grass. It fell steeply away into scrub and small trees, and then bottomed out. Beyond that were hedges and beyond the hedges were fields. Grass. A few sheep. Mostly the fields were empty, and the nearest barns were far away – little brick toys with corrugated roofs.
The hard shoulder was wide, but it wasn’t empty. It always looked that way from the car, so Jack was surprised to see that it was actually full of things. Coke cans and workmen’s gloves and bits of plastic pipe and soft toys – a random collection, united by having been squashed flat and covered with the same fine, grey dust.
‘What if a car stops?’ said Joy. ‘Should we get in?’
‘Of course not,’ he snorted. Everyone knew that getting in a stranger’s car was a good way to get murdered.
Joy knew it too, and seemed reassured that her brother wasn’t taking any chances.
Jack turned to look back at their car. It sparkled in the blinding light but already seemed a long way away – as if it were a boat sinking in a deep ocean, and once it was gone they would never be able to reach it again.
Or maybe they were sinking …
Merry was heavy, and all the heavier for being fractious and whiny. Her face was red and screwed up and she wriggled like a lead worm in Jack’s arms.
‘The sun’s in her face,’ he said. ‘Is there a hat in the bag?’
They stopped and Joy put the bag on the ground so she could look in it.
‘No. Only a bib.’ She held it up to him, squinting in the white-hot sun. The bib was yellow with a blue duck on it. Jack draped it over Merry’s head and she calmed down a bit.
They walked on.
‘My feet hurt.’ Joy was wearing silly pink flip-flops with a plastic flower between her first two toes.
‘Not far now,’ said Jack, although he had no idea how far it was to anywhere. It was just something his father said. He glanced over his shoulder; their car had disappeared around the bend.
They were completely alone.
Jack wished Dad were here. He could have carried Merry and Joy and the baby bag.
His arms ached, so he put Merry down and tried to make her walk, but she still wouldn’t, even though she could. She hung back and stiffened up, so he couldn’t drag her along.
He wanted to smack her.
Instead he blew out his cheeks and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, then hoisted her up again and went on.
A lorry horn blared as it roared past, and the bib blew off Merry’s head and fluttered over the crash barrier.
Joy stood on her toes to reach over the barrier for it, but another car went by and the bib leapt off the tops of the stiff yellow grass and floated down the steep slope.
‘Leave it!’ said Jack.
‘But it’s the one with the duck!’
Jack kept walking and, after a moment, Joy caught up with him. She kept looking back at the bright spot of bib.
‘I wish I had an ice cream,’ she said.
Jack ignored her but he wished he had an ice cream too. A lolly would do. His mouth was so dry. He wondered whether it was possible to die of thirst in the middle of the lush Devonshire countryside.
It felt possible.
He hated his mother. He hated her. Why couldn’t they have gone with her? Why did she say she wouldn’t be long when she was long?
When they found her, he wouldn’t speak to her. That would show her! He should just slide down the bank right here, find a gate in a hedge, walk to a farmhouse, get a drink and a phone.
Let him be in charge.
Let her worry when she got back to the car and found them gone …
But he didn’t do any of that.
They reached a scrubby little apple tree and lingered for a moment in its latticed shade. Jack put Merry down with a groan. Immediately she plumped down on the cushion of her nappy among the small, bright fruit that had spilled across the hard shoulder.
‘Don’t put her on the ground,’ said Joy. ‘It’s filthy!’
‘I don’t care. She weighs a ton.’
‘So does this bag.’ Joy dropped it and picked an apple off the tree. It was red, but when she nibbled it, it was hard and sour and she spat it on to the tarmac. Instead she suckled water from Merry’s bottle, then offered it to Jack. They took turns until it was all gone.
‘We should have saved some for Merry,’ said Joy.
‘Too late now,’ said Jack.
Cars passed. Nobody stopped.
‘Let’s go,’ said Jack.
‘I don’t want to,’ said Joy. ‘It’s too hot.’
‘We have to. We’re not going to find Mum by sitting around here.’
Joy squinted up the road. It was long and straight and there was no sign of their mother or anybody else on the hard shoulder – only a shimmering lake, like a desert mirage.
‘I want to go back.’
Jack took the key out of his pocket and held it out. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘here’s the key.’
Joy didn’t take it. She looked around at the bend that now hid the car, then sighed and said, ‘The bag is soooo heavy.’
‘Leave it then. Just bring a nappy so Mum can change her.’
That’s what they did. Joy took out a nappy and Jack jammed the baby bag carefully into the narrow gap where the apple tree almost touched the crash barrier, so that nobody could see it but they could find it again when they all got back to the car.
Then he picked up Merry and they carried on walking.
On the opposite carriageway a blue car slowed down in the fast lane and the driver stared at them. Jack looked away, his heart fluttering with groundless fear, until the car’s engine faded away.
Merry wriggled on his hip and started to bawl again – ‘Mama! Mama!’ – her chubby arms and splayed fingers reaching out towards the car that was already too far behind them to return to.
‘Mama’s not there,’ said Jack. ‘She’s this way. We’re going to find her.’
Merry’s bawling faded slowly until finally she put her arms around his neck and her cheek on his shoulder, and emitted a low, gravelly drone that pulsed to the rhythm of his footsteps.
Joy stopped and said, ‘What’s that?’
Up ahead, three crows pecked and hopped over a bloody lump.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is it something dead?’
‘I don’t know.’
But it was something dead. As they got closer they could hear the flies.
It was a dead fox – squashed flat, but not yet covered in dust – its slick pink guts bulging from a tear in the orange fur. The crows were fighting over its eyes.
Jack couldn’t look. He swallowed the disgust in his throat, while Joy waved her arms at the crows. They flapped away – but only a few feet – then hopped back again.
‘Yaaa!’ she shouted. ‘Yaaaaaaa!’
But the crows laughed and lurched around her like a cruel gang.
She rushed at them.
Jack grabbed her arm and a car split the air with its angry horn as it swerved to miss her.
Joy looked at him – her eyes huge in her white face, her mouth an ‘O’ of shock.
Then they both laughed. High and cackling, like the crows. It wasn’t funny laughter, but they kept on anyway, like playing laughter chicken, long after the mirth had run out and their faces started to ache.
Then Jack pointed over Joy’s shoulder.
‘There’s the phone!’
A hundred yards away was a small orange lollipop.
They hurried away from the dead fox with new urgency. Jack walked so fast that it was almost jogging. Joy took hold of the back of his T-shirt, as if she were scared she might be uncoupled from their little train and left behind. Jack’s arms ached and sweat burned his eyes. Merry’s dangling feet kicked his thighs and Joy’s tugging unbalanced him, but he didn’t slow down. Not until they were thirty or forty yards from the phone. Then he started to look around for his mother – over the barrier and down the grass slope. And even further, into the trees and the hedges and the fields beyond, his desperate eyes sought clues.
Maybe she had fallen, or was waiting on the other side of the barrier. Maybe she was watching them approach now, and waving. Waiting for them to see her. When he saw her, he would wave back. He would speak to her. Of course he would! Everything bad would be forgotten! He was excited by the anticipation of relief.
‘Where is she?’ said Joy.
Jack ignored her.
He hurried on, frowning. Ten yards from the phone, he stopped.
The orange receiver was dangling from the box. It hung down, just touching the tops of the yellow grass, motionless on its twisted wire.
Jack got a very bad feeling.
It was all wrong.
All, all wrong.
Joy moved. She let go of Jack’s shirt and brushed past him. ‘It’s broken,’ she said, and reached for the phone.
‘Don’t touch it!’ he yelled, and she burst into tears.
They walked another quarter-mile through the stifling air.
Still nobody stopped.
Nobody wanted to get involved.
People in cars – families! – with air-con and mobile phones and Coca-Colas drove past them, while Joy sobbed quietly and Jack kept carrying Merry.
Kept walking, although he couldn’t feel his legs.
Or his heart.
It wasn’t until they were halfway up the slip-road that a car finally slowed and then ground to a halt on the gravel ahead of them.
They stopped, trembling and tear-stained, and exhausted by heat and by fear.
There was a long, hot blink of arid time.
Then the car door creaked open, and a policeman stepped out.