She had wanted to listen to that new Phoebe Bridgers album on the drive home from school. Just shy of 41 minutes, she knew she would be home before the penultimate track, but was prepared to sit in the car until its finish, if the album proved worth it.
She waited until she had driven out of the area entirely, before connecting Bluetooth and pressing the play button on her phone. The car stereo came slowly to life. She allowed it all to fade into obscurity, rounding the corner onto Fairfield: the gates of the school, the bus stop, the manicured hedgerow, and the smattering of parked Audi parents in gilets and floaty dresses, waiting for their kids.
NME had promised a sonic palette – something close to ethereal – and she would give the album her full attention.
But it was not to be. Looming in the distance, four yellow roadworks signs, and a subsequent diversion, had already interrupted some of the finer dissonances in Track 4, and the experience had, all at once, been marred. She pressed the power button on the car stereo and stared through the windscreen, listening only to the beginnings of flat patter on the glass, and waiting for the lights to go green. She would have to take Hedley, and avoid the A road altogether.
John caught the 73 bus back from school every day, except on a Thursday, when Mr Bradshaw did football training at four o’clock, after which, all the lads of St Bernard who stayed behind would find their way home on foot, roving the town streets like stray cats.
The uniformed huddles of boys saw the bus approach: the same nameless driver as they’d always known, pulling in with a precise one-half turn of the great wheel, and flexing his fat red fingers out as he hauled the bus into the stop. His arms, marked with pin up girls, blued by age, and stretched wide by nightly fish suppers and Fray Bentos pies, pressed against the plastic divider, as he put his tab back into his mouth, multitasking by taking coins and pressing the button for the machine to dispense its long ticket tongue through the feed gap.
His four gold sovereign rings had long since lost hope of escape from between joint and knuckle, wedged on tight. John flinched, imagining the pressure, each time he looked, but today he took little care to examine. It was Monday, and the worst part of his week – Geography with Mr Cairns – was once again a whole seven days away. He made his way to his usual space, in one of two aisle seats downstairs, securing the window with his bag for Liam Doyle, who was always late being let out of the labs in Block A. John knew that, once he showed, Liam would have a story or titbit for him, about Mr Murphy.
Liam was almost a year older than John, despite being in the same school year, but had been put into the bottom set for sciences, with Arthur Murphy. John had once seen Murphy tackle a first year, in a since discontinued student-teacher touch rugby match – a friendly – and, despite never having had a class with him, Liam’s stories had bolstered John’s picture of the man: that first year had gone down like a sandcastle in a tsunami, and Mr Murphy had pulled the boy up by his collar, legs like limp spaghetti plucked from a pot, brushing him down and laughing in front of the other boys, not so much in concern but in warning.
The other night I dreamt you came into my house and wouldn’t leave. At first, I didn’t mind – we were just sitting together in my kitchen – but as I neared the dregs of my second cup of tea, I started to wonder when you planned to go. When I woke, I considered the parallel universe where we now somehow coexist: your keys in my fruit bowl; your hands on my bath taps; your feet on my couch. And in the haze of my morning I wasn’t sure what it had meant or whether it had even been a dream at all, and half expected to see you pass by, step-less and slight, like a ghost on the landing.
Finally! A good one. Can’t remember who asked. Who knows how these things come up, just go with it fast. Which creature would you least like to be killed by? If you had to. If you just had to. Doesn’t matter why. We dipped into silence, underwater in thought, each seeking an answer in the fashion we’d wrought. The lot of us sat in a circle of green bottles and spent ends, barely friends in a debauched fairy’s ring – and, for a second, not saying a thing. Godzilla doesn’t count. Then one spoke out. A grizzly bear. Why? You could just run. From a bear? You’re fucking joking, son. A few others offered and we talked through the zoo. But I didn’t have to think – I already knew. How, being frozen in the deep, I’d die thinking of you, as it swam, torpedoed steel, and took what it wanted. It’s eyes gloss and haunted. I wondered if you’d feel it burst you apart. Turn your organs to mulch. Teeth through the heart. After a while, we spilled beer, and turned to something new, but I sat for a while, and thought of the blue, of the dark and of death, and of it, and of you.
Later on, as I’m walking back to the station, I remembered when she used to do her lists. They started years back, before she started ditching mass, before she started pinching things – even before Nan. She would spend hours somewhere secret, because I never saw her do it, writing list after list of all the families we knew – our neighbours’ families, our teachers’ families, our friends, their mothers and fathers, families off the telly, their names, their ages, aunties, uncles, cousins – all the many ways in which they belonged to one another. All the families we had ever known, all but our own, hidden away in drawers and under mattresses for years. In that quiet house, I always found them, and when she didn’t think I was in, or if she didn’t think I could hear her, she would cry, and no one ever came.
By the time we’d realised that there weren’t any glasses in the caravan, we were already pretty cut. As explained in the rental email, we found the keys under the garden statue of the stone frog, and had spent the first, hurried half hour dragging the bags in from the car and lining our stomachs, before we started on the wine. This decision had been one of convenience, rather than particular taste, as it had been easier to locate the green bottles, clanking in the boot, than the vodka, which had been pilfered from Fran’s older brother, stuffed in a pillowcase, and hidden in the depths of her suitcase.
We hadn’t noticed the absence of glasses, because the protocol with wine was to drink straight from the bottle. We’d seen that photo of Rod Stewart and David Bowie doing the same thing and never looked back, but the spirits would need something for mixing. We weren’t pissed enough to take it neat. Not yet. We were after a vessel.
After a bit of a scout around our very limited surroundings, and a brief but considerate glance at the ashtray, the cracked sugar bowl, and the dusty ceramic vase by the sink, we were ready to concede, when our eyes settled on the empty Pot Noodles.
She’d insisted her father meet her outside in the car park, because he’d make a big deal of it, and she didn’t want the others to see. She knew, before it happened, how it would go.
He’d be stood up. He’d have arrived too early. He’d be waiting, in the same make of tan suede loafers he’d worn every weekend since she could remember, arms outstretched, pinning a wobbling smile to his face. He’d sob into her hair. He’d take big, heaving breaths of relief and there would be surging emotion that he himself probably wouldn’t understand. His cheeks would be wet and, because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t have shaved, so his beard would scrape against her face. She dreaded the performance of it, and felt ashamed to dread such love.
As it turned out, because she was still a hair’s breadth off eighteen, they wouldn’t release her without the presence of a nominated guardian, so he met her in the reception. He needed to sign for her, like a package – a fragile one he’d strap into the front seat of the Volvo, and hold fast as he turned sharp corners.
The sun shone, though the day was far from warm. As she’d sat, waiting for him, the first few flakes of snow had fallen. It had seemed strange to see it happen, in the sunlight, and they had come down so slowly that, at first, she hadn’t been sure it was snow at all, so fragile was the offering that it looked to her more like debris. Ash. Like the aftermath of some great fire.
Sorry I’m late. The fucking dog’s been driving me mental. She’s in heat.
He’d been scowling into the cold air, as she’d watched him round the corner past the chemist, and the lines on his forehead had not yet settled back into his face. She thought he looked tired and irritable, and the possibility of being punished by one of his foul moods had spurred in her a desire to keep the walk brief, or to avoid it altogether. Disappointment hit her in the stomach, and she began thinking of an out. Fake a phone call. Feign a limp. But it wasn’t long before he was smirking at her, dancing on the spot to keep warm, and she found herself smirking back. Once again, the open morning seemed to roll out before them, like a bolt of gold fabric.
There was something queer about his mouth, too. Not to say that I didn’t like it, but then I always liked a few flaws in a fella. I think I got it from my old mum – she was always after a bastard so I grew up around them, and look what that lead to. Attracted to what I was repelled by. I don’t think that makes sense, does it, but it makes the job easier. I once tricked a fella from Lincoln with warts on his hands. He called it a condition; I called us a cab. Is this being recorded?
Didn’t one of you say I could have a Coke? No, no one brought me one. Hang on, let me get my lighter out. Now, where was I? Yeah, so there was that thing about his mouth, the way he had this habit, yeah, of snaking his tongue out – like this – when he wasn’t talking, not thinking like. Couldn’t stop looking. And he was older. White male and fifty, did you say? 5 foot 8? Sounds about right. Quite a bit older, then, if I’m honest. Didn’t mind. Daddy issues they call that, don’t they? I bet you lot do. Well, answer me this then. How can I have daddy issues if I ain’t got a daddy? I don’t blame you for thinking it. See it all the time, not just with people in my line of work, I bet. Shit goes on at home, and next thing you know you’re picking up some lass for trying to shackle a midlife crisis with a bad dye job and a Jag – trainers too young for them, and all that. You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. They say that too, don’t they? Do you like mine? Heel’s coming off this one a bit. Is that Coke still coming?
Welcome to the city of soft-focus. Blink once and miss nothing. The brick-and-slate vista forms a dingy skirting board below the rising fog. Can you taste it yet? Wait for it, it’s coming – and once the acrid twang of fag ash and river sludge begins to probe the meaty paunches of your mouth, you’ll know you’re here. I watch it smudge past me, from outside the taxi window. I wait for the sign, as if I need reminding. As if this place needs announcing. I can be nowhere else.
The taxi man is chewing a biro. He is an old hand, but he’s not actually as old as all that. Perhaps he’s fifty – fifty-five tops. Some of his back teeth are missing, and his fox-like grin pulls far towards his ears. He begins his patter. He asks me if I’m here for the holidays, his head cocked up towards the mirror. I meet him. I start to explain that I don’t live here anymore: that I’m here to see my brother. Asks me if I’m at yooni, if I like what I’m studying, and if I miss home. I say aye so many times it starts to sound like eye, and I wonder if I’m having a stroke. I ask him if he lives local. Oh yes, he nods. All me life.
Hey listen, here’s one for you: what do women and hurricanes have in common? They both start off a breeze, but then they destroy everything you have! Always liked that one, but can never remember where I heard it… Jim, maybe, or Andrew in Marine Forecasting? Or perhaps just a stranger on the bus, which is equally plausible because – and I’ve always liked this – weather has a place in everyone’s daily lives, not just ours down at the Met Office. You hear it come up in all sorts of conversation. In fact, just the other week, an architect friend of mine met the Queen at the opening of some war memorial, and you’ll never guess what she said to him. One’s hair is being drizzled on. That tickled me pink.
Of course, in my line of work we’re not so focused on your everyday downpour. In Paleotempestology – that’s the hurricane business – you’ve all sorts of meteorological implications to consider, not least of all the official naming of storms. I bet you never thought about how they do that, did you? Well, someone’s got to. I often think back on my career and wonder what prompted me to classify them as I did. How I managed to choose names to summarise each cyclonic thrill. Of course, I realise now that the inspiration was clear all along.
My first was Lisa. Gale force two, if memory serves. Winds of about nine kilometres per hour, fingernails bitten down, and sparkly polish on the nibs, short wavelets with no breaks. Some airborne spray. To be honest, tame, and pretty unremarkable, but there’s a first for everything, isn’t there. It was middle school, after all. Followed swiftly by Monica. Gale force three – a definite let down, with very few scattered whitecaps. Freckled, too. Some experts in the field had said she’d go anywhere, do anything, but no more than a slight draught and flutter down by the football fields and it was over.