“It’ll make a great car!”
We looked at the box, a large cardboard egg box that arrived in the garden by some mysterious means. Our hands held, he to my right. Two figures locked in a time warp of our own. I marvelled at the imagination of a five year olds mind. “Just cut the sides for windows and a bit for my feet.” His excitement had an infectious nature and, for a moment, I too, could see the prospects of the box. Wheels were not required to transport his spirit far from the realm of the garden with its neatly manicured lawn and trim borders. How easily it is for a child to go to far-flung corners where no man has trodden. A spark, an object, some piece of debris and they are instantly thousands of miles away.
As we stood there, I wished I had the same capability, but needed it to be for real and not the fantasy of imagination. I wanted to be elsewhere. A new place, anywhere, but somewhere without the problems that faced me now. The treatment had cleaned us out. So many days, nights and weeks at the Hospital. Tests and more tests. Treatments and more treatments. It seemed that each cost more than the last and each specialist doubled in charges. The house had gone, as had the business and our car. Susan had sold her jewellery and the only other thing that had any value, a painting by some Scottish artist. The picture had been almost sepia in colour and lurking in the uniform brownness were Angus cattle on a hillside. We hated it, but had kept it because it belonged to her Grandmother and had been handed down via her Mother.
My stamps went quite early, back in the days of James still being just sickly, right at the start of trying to find the cause of his seemingly constant illnesses. Although neither one of us had counted the total to date, a rough estimate had to be around seventy thousand. There was nothing left now. Susan had gone back to work to try and support us. She hated it, working alongside young girls with nothing on their minds but sex, makeup and going out at the weekend clubbing. Technology had moved on in the six years since she had left to start a family. Computers had taken over completely in the office. Instead of a typewriter sitting on the desk, it was now a smart screen and keyboard. The telephone came over a headset and coffee came from a machine in the middle of the floor in a vending area.
Moving houses had seemed exciting, a new beginning. We had to rent in the private sector because I earned too much to get help from the Council. Since the company folded, that no longer held true, but it seems, we still didn’t qualify, not enough points they said. God knows what scores enough points, although it had been said that if I had been a one legged alien with lesbian tendencies, I would have got a place, just like that. Even in the midst of the seriousness of our situation, I smiled at the thought of mincing into the Housing office with a Halloween mask on. The humour would have been completely lost on the automatons that habituate the other side of the desk.
It was uncertain how long we could continue renting a flat with two bedrooms and a bathroom big enough to touch all four walls if you lie down and spread eagled. Susan and my diets had gone to crap. Fast food and hurried meals were telling on our waists and skin. I suppose the anxiety had a lot to do with the constant eruptions on our faces, but it was quite positive that too many McDonalds eaten on the run helped to push spots of volcanic proportions out.
James flipped the lid of the box, peered over the edge and then entered head first, using his hands to break what could have been a serious fall. Surprisingly, the box held together. Although none of the doctors could tell us why, bruises on James became a serious problem and would stay for weeks, sometimes breaking into sores and weeping watery blood. His muffled voice urged me to get to work and create him this super fast machine. I had to lift him out in case I accidentally cut him with the penknife that was to be the tools of a production line. I even remembered to cut a small back screen. Two roughly square holes in the sides served as passenger and driver windows, while a larger oblong cut formed the windscreen. I lifted the driver back into his top of the range, latest all gadget, extreme machine. Brrrrrrrrrmmmmmmm emanated from the sides and flashes of his hands, sawing at the steering wheel. James was in the fast lane and the foot was firmly planted to the floor. “Right!” He screamed. “Lets see what this suckers got!” Again I marvelled at the imagination and at the same time, felt a little guilty for the exposure to television that taught him the street language of American movies. “Screeeeeeech, neeeeoooown!”
Too bad he would never get to drive a real car. The thought came unbidden and brought yet another hic and a burning behind the eyes. A second thought followed that it was probably just as well he wouldn’t get to drive if this style was any example. How can anyone think like that? I wondered for a millionth time. One second, so sad and in the next split, coming up with a funny. Sad and guilty, simultaneously. Was I getting used to it? Or was I uncaring? No, that was never the case; perhaps my brain was trying to relieve some of the strain.
It was clear he would be driving and terrorising the pedestrians and other road users in his minds eye for some time. I turned and headed back to the kitchen. I could watch him from the window while I got dinner ready. For the first time in weeks, we were going to sit down around the table and share a mealtime together. I had even eked out a few extra pounds and bought a couple of scented candles to grace the table centre, while food was going to be real lamb chops with a rosemary and honey glaze. Susan would appreciate that; it had been the rational for spending a little extra.
James tired from driving from one end of the world to another and wailed when he realised I had gone back to the kitchen even though I had told him just about the same time as he was flying over an open bridge or a canyon, so I guessed it hadn’t registered. Susan came home at last. Her feet were killing her she said. How is James and what’s for dinner? I held her and caressed her hair. I had always loved the way she did it. Held back plaited in the French style. Her natural highlights seemed to be accentuated in that manner, although some grey was just starting to appear. I felt guilty for that too. Jesus, but she was only thirty-two and going grey already. I felt guilty for feeling guilty. Wasn’t that a form of self-pity after all? In all the trials we were experiencing, not once had Sushi (a nick name), ever employed self-pity. Hadn’t she been the strong one? Only crying at night when she thought I was asleep. I was not allowed to comfort her in these times, it was a private grief, but I wanted to hold her, cling to her and share the burden of emotion. I knew though, as she did, I would just unload my sorrow and guilt, heaping it on her. I only had to think back to the moment the doctor told us in a small cubicle sized private office, that James would not see his next birthday. I remember doing the mathematics and screaming in anguish, “That’s only six months away!” I remember how I howled, I remember how I broke down and I remember my wicked thoughts when I looked at Sushi who had sat there in rigid shock, with no outward emotion for either her son’s impending death sentence or the evident grief of her husband. I remember thinking that it was supposed to be her who fell apart and me who should be the one to remain staid and comforting. I remember the feelings of role reversal and the realisation of inadequacy.
Susan pried James from a light sleep in his special cot and brought him into the kitchen. His appetite had all but vanished some time ago. Pills and drugs filled the spaces I suppose. Trips to McD’S had no interest these days. Occasionally though, it was possible to tempt him into eating enough to subsist. The smell of the honey glazing seemed to awaken an old longing and two bottoms sat down in anticipation quick smart.
“You should have seen my car Mummy, it goes really fast and beat the crap outta anything on the road.” James’s face lit up with his remembered experience and he completely missed the fact that a naughty word had escaped him. “James, we don’t use words like that in this house.” Susan mildly admonished him while looking at me as if to ask if I was teaching him these little snippets of street vernacular. “I don’t know where he gets it either”. I answered the implied accusation. “Probably from the telly.” My defence seemed weak and I doubted if it would stand up to cross-examination knowing that I used them all and worse at frequent intervals. The candles burned and gave of themselves, a faint aroma that struggled to overcome the rosemary and honey. We ate in silence and watched as James demolished a real meal for once.
After finishing the food James regaled Susan with his daring exploits of driving, car chases and daring do. I guess it was then that I had the idea, but didn’t bring it up at that time. Why shouldn’t he have a real drive? Sit him on my lap and let him steer? I know it’s against the law I rationalised, but isn’t a five-year old boy who wouldn’t see six against the law? Surely nature has laws too, why were they being broken? Why not do something for once that would give him so much pleasure? Sushi and I made love that night. We had neglected that side of being married and it was only a good evening with James that released us from the natural block of guilt. At least that’s how I felt, I don’t know what Susan thought, but she initiated the act and we loved in freedom. Sated, we slept, something else we had been neglecting for a while.
The next day, James was not so good. He had slept quite well, but he seemed not to really to wake up all day. I remembered my idea and made a few phone calls while he slept in front of the Telly Tubbies. I needed a car, it didn’t have to be even a good one, in fact, and it would be better if it weren’t. Sympathetic friends sympathised, but one by one, found they had commitments that prevented the loaning of a car. Sympathy has its uses, but only when someone has died. I was alive, not the centre of a thriving enterprise perhaps, but alive. So was my son.
In desperation, I called my sister. She had a car I remembered, I also remembered it was a battered old Escort. Perfect. She dished out sympathy at first and them agreed to allow me to borrow her car and I could pick it up tomorrow, Saturday, brilliant. She would even bring it over ‘cos I’m spending the weekend with Dave. I didn’t ask who Dave was; Lucy changed boyfriends like I change socks. It and she arrived early Saturday morning. Sushi and James were sleeping in. They often did that on weekends when James was home. He would creep into our bed and replace my body next to hers. They didn’t know anything about the car and I wanted to surprise them.
James eventually got up. It was obvious it was not going to be a good day. He was sick and cried in pain. I always flapped uselessly when he got these bouts. It would pass, but each time took more out of him and it is hard for a parent to watch the life of a son being flushed down the bowl. Susan dealt with James while I made some coffee. They eventually came into the kitchen. Grey. Grey faced and grey spirited. They looked as if all life force had been supplanted with mundane and nothingness. Another piece of me died and, once again, I turned to the sink and cried soundlessly. “I thought we might go out for a drive.” I was trying to sound cheerful. “Thought we might just go and explore a bit of the countryside, just drive until we get to wherever the car wants to stop.” “A car would be useful.” Susan answered flatly. “What like that shining monster out side sitting on the drive?” I nodded outside the window. “Is that what you mean?” James found the energy to look out. Getting up from a kitchen chair as it scrapped across the lino tiles. “Oh Wow Mum! Look!” The sight of the rusting heap had the desired effect. “Let’s go, please Mum, please?” “You’ll need to get dressed.” She answered and looked at me questioningly. “Just put a coat on.” His shorts and tee shirt that he had slept in were okay. I wanted to get in the car before the mood passed, before the thrill died. Susan offered no objection. We left and got into the car, banging the doors shut because they stuck on the rust. Coffee was left un-drunk and I don’t even remember if the front door was pulled shut. We drove for miles. Escaping the confines of the town and finding the hills of Kent. A straight road gave me the opportunity to give James his real present. “Would you like to drive?” I looked straight at James and watched the realisation of what I was asking dawn on him and transform his face to pure light. I sat him on my lap and allowed him to steer with only a few corrections at first. The road eventually brought us to a wooded section with a steep side. Sushi and I knew this place well, we had often made out in a lay bye at the top before we married. James copped well with the bends in the twisting lane as it climbed up to the summit some hundred feet above the valley floor. “Isn’t it dangerous to let him steer?” I looked at Sushi, my beautiful Sushi and one of those rare moments of perfect accord and knowing passed between us. She nodded silently and James drove on.
The Coroner seemed to take forever as he related each graphic detail. Susan’s seat belt stalk was rotted. Her throat was cut as she passed through the screen. It would have been a fatal injury in itself, but her headlong dive brought her into contact with a tree trunk causing catastrophic injuries to her head. She died instantly.
My chest crushed James. Trapping him between the wheel and my advancing body, causing internal injuries. He had no chance of survival. I wanted to scream that his chances of survival had already been dealt the coup-de-grace in an office in the Hospital. I said nothing.
The driver had been fortunate that the child was on his lap. (Where did he get fortunate?). He went on. Although his teeth had been left in the child’s head and he had suffered three broken ribs, he had escaped fatal injuries by the cushioning effect of the child’s body.
This time I did scream and let him know I was mortally wounded some time ago. I died several months earlier, long before the crash.
– The End –