Jan/Feb 2004  •   Fiction


by Alex Keegan

They are driving from Wales to Cumbria, to the Lakes—M4, M50, M5, M6. Tom has things on his mind and will not talk. He stares at the road, the rain, at the flicking windscreen wipers. The children bicker and fight in the back of the car. It's a long trip, and after a while his wife says let's stop and let the kids play for half an hour. She knows a place about half-way. She'd like to buy some boxes, and the store has a play area.

When they get there, he clips another car in the car-park. By the time he has exchanged insurance details, his family has gone. He finds them, the children playing on a plastic slide. His wife says they have 25 minutes. She buys the boxes, they have a quick coffee, go and get the kids. Before they leave, his toddling daughter jams her hand in a sliding door, and they use a bag of frozen peas as a cold compress, sign some papers. They drive north in the rain. His wife talks to his son. His daughter sleeps.

They are visiting friends of his wife. Their house is oak-beamed, yards from a lake. The woman used to be a journalist. The man is a psychologist. They have two boys, four and three, a couple of months older than his own children, the older one studious and sensitive, the younger one rough. When they arrive, his wife goes in and Tom ferries cases and boxes in from the car while it rains. When he comes in and takes off his coat, he is offered a beer but says he'd prefer a cup of tea first. The women are drinking wine and laughing. The children are running round in the play-room.

When the psychologist comes home, he growls at the kids and then laughs, shakes Tom's hand and kisses the two women. The men drop into the lounge with beers and the kitchen door closes. Then the psychologist decides he needs a quick bath and leaves Tom alone. Tom gets up and goes to the kitchen door. He knocks before entering.

His mood is reasonable, and he says girl-talk, huh? His wife says, you're not kidding. A horror story. You're having the nick as soon as possible, she says. Then the journalist says, I got pregnant even with the coil, and it got pushed right up inside. They weren't sure about the baby, and we changed our minds 15 times about what to do. Tom says nothing. We decided to have it terminated, she says. He pours red wine. And we've regretted it ever since. We must have changed our minds, 15, 16, 17 times. Then Tom's wife says, You Mister! and the women go into the lounge.

When they are eating dinner, they talk about vasectomies again. Then the journalist jokes about Tom's wife, a fellow-teenager on a camping holiday, out screwing someone at four o'clock in the morning and setting off alarms. Tom's children are disturbed upstairs, and he goes to cuddle them down. He wakes when his wife comes in and gets up from one double bed and into the other. His wife rolls over and goes to sleep.

In the morning he wants to stay in bed, but he is told he is needed. The kids want to climb a mountain, and they can't without him. He gets up, dresses. On the mountain his daughter won't let him pick her up, so he goes to the front and follows his son. It's steep and slippery. The others stop half-way to eat biscuits, but he carries on with his boy. It's cold, windy, the view spectacular, but near the top his boy says he wants to stop now and go down to where his sister is. Tom says, but there's the top, don't you want to go to the top? His son says he wants to be with the others and have a biscuit.

When they get back to the group, Tom walks past and pretends to look at the view. Going back down is treacherous, and he offers to carry his daughter, but she says she wants her mummy. He walks ahead, holding his son's hand. They slip a few times. The journalist and her two boys go on down to the car. Tom's wife and daughter are very slow, eventually stuck. He shouts up the hill, will she let him carry her now? His wife shouts back yes, so he sets his son down, goes back, picks up his daughter, and puts her on his shoulders. Near the bottom, she starts mumbling, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, and with 100 yards to go, she says she wants to walk now.

They reach the road, and water off the mountain is trickling down a drain. It sounds like his wife pissing in the night. He waits by the drain for his wife and son to catch up, and by the time they arrive, his teeth are grinding together. His trousers are muddy.

They get in the car, drive somewhere. The kids swing on a rope. They go back to the house by the lake, and he sits in the lounge while the two women fix lunch. He gets tea, two ham rolls.

They are going swimming. He takes them in the car, but when they get there, he leaves the engine running. His wife says, aren't you coming? He says no, what time do you want picking up?

He drives north, to Carlisle, then to a small village. His first wife lived there. It's been 25 years. The wool mill is now offices, and the road behind the pub is full of potholes. Their little cottage is still there, and he wonders if her mother or father could still be alive. He turns in the mill courtyard and then stops, staring at the house, the door. The upstairs curtains are drawn. When he can stay no longer, he drives down the pitted lane and stops at a small shop to buy a lottery ticket. A woman looks at him twice. She is about his age. He wonders if money would make him feel any better. When the woman looks at him again, he buys his ticket and leaves.

He drives back to the swimming pool, way too fast, playing the Beatles on the car stereo. He arrives ten minutes late, but nothing is said. They stop off to buy more wine. In the evening his wife laughs too loud, and when they go to bed she puts her head on his shoulder for a few seconds, pecks his cheek, then rolls over.

He tries one last time, in the morning. He massages her shoulders. She groans but then gets up and goes to the children. He stays in bed. He knows he will never see his son climb a mountain. His wife comes in and says they are going to Carlisle.

He says I've already been.