This short story was shortlisted for the 2016 Berlin Writing Prize, and thus included on the Reader Berlin online Showcase here. The theme for the competition was “A Summer Night”.
The city was outside the car window when I woke up, all lit up with traffic lights and street lights and kebab shops. The sky was purplish stripes. I’d fallen asleep on the long drive back from the seaside. There weren’t as many traffic jams as usual, so it must have been pretty late. The insides of my crocs were gritty and my eyes felt sanded, too.
‘Daddy should get home soon after we do,’ Mum said.
‘Can we stay up to see him?’ Eliza asked. She was sitting in the back seat next to me, even though she’s ten. Mum’s straw bag got to sit in the front.
‘No. Straight into pyjamas as soon as we get in. Teeth, toilet, bed. I’ll send him up to kiss you.’
‘No story?’ I asked.
Mum laughed. ‘No. No story. It’s late.’
‘You know what’s actually not fair? All the other seven year-olds in Britain have been asleep for an hour and a half already, Nathan, and you’ve just had a lovely day at the seaside. It’s not fair on them. That’s what’s not fair.’
We drove past a parked car with all its windows closed and thick smoke inside it. The driver looked up at me from under his baseball cap, so I looked away quickly.
I was hungry but Mum said that the fish and chips had been tea and what I really needed was sleep.
‘You’re getting tired and hungry mixed up,’ she said, which always annoys me.
I started to recognise places, though they looked weird all deserted and orange-lit. The second-best pizza takeaway, our park, the sign to the swimming pool. There were teenagers in the park: swinging, shouting, lying all over the roundabout.
‘Remember me to one who lives there…’ Eliza sang.
‘Not now, Eliza. Ok?’ Mum said.
We drove down our road. I sat up a bit. We drove past our house and round the corner, and up another street, past a group of men in footie shirts smoking outside a pub. We turned into the next street.
Mum swore. Not a very bad swear. Then, ‘There’s nowhere to park. We’ll have to walk—’ She looked in the car mirror at me and Eliza all flopped all over the back seat. ‘Oh hell. I’d end up carrying you both, wouldn’t I?’ We drove back into our road. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I’ll drop you two off here. Wait in the front garden. Be sensible. Stick together. I’ll find a parking place and walk back.’ She stopped the car outside our house. ‘Take whatever clutter you want otherwise it’ll be staying in the car overnight. I’m not carrying it.’
The house was on Eliza’s side so she got to open the door. I grabbed my Stormtrooper water bottle and shuffled over her bit of seat. Car headlights shone in on us from behind, getting bigger coming down the hill.
Mum swore again. Eliza sighed my name out and reached back in for my hoody.
‘I’m going to have to go,’ Mum said, then, ‘Alright, alright,’ when the car behind beeped its horn. ‘See you in a bit.’
It’s not a big garden, but it’s got a good high hedge round it. There’s a wide, flat stone tortoise in one corner where nobody can see it from the road. I sat on it, shivering, while Eliza closed the gate behind us. It’s made of railings so you can see right in from the street to the front door. She rolled her eyes and handed me the hoody. My hand got stuck in the sleeve because I was still holding the water bottle.
She went up the white steps and knocked the dolphin doorknocker twice. ‘Just in case Dad’s in.’ She waited for a little bit. When she turned round, she saw that I was trying to pull the water bottle out of my cuff.
‘You’ll have to take it all off again,’ she said.
‘I can do it this way.’
She sat down next to me on the tortoise.
I stroked the tortoise’s head. ‘Good tortoise.’
‘It’s a turtle.’ After a little while she started singing, ‘so mothers tell your children to not do what I have done and live your lives in sin and misery in the House—’
‘What sort of sin?’
‘Living in sin means when people live together but they aren’t married.’
‘Are Mum and Dad married?’
‘I think so. There’s photos. Sit still.’
‘I can’t. My water bottle’s stuck.’
‘Take the hoody off!’
‘No. I’m cold.’
‘My mother was a tailor, she sewed my good blue jeans, but my father was a gambling man, down in New Orleans.’
A woman shouted in the street out beyond the hedge. Eliza stopped singing. We sat quiet and still while the scratchy, tappy shoes of drunk women went past. One of them swore. A bad swear. Another laughed screechy like a witch. Eliza took my hand. Car lights and engine noise went past slow. Men’s voices called out ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’. The women swore at them, but they giggled and cackled when the car had driven off. I wondered whether that was what the song meant about living in sin and misery.
‘How long is Mum going to be?’ I asked.
I took my hoody off. The Stormtrooper water bottle fell out onto the floor. It rolled towards the gate. I shivered. Eliza leaned down, stretched her whole body, picked it up.
She tapped her knee with it while I was pulling my hoody back on. ‘Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, ’tween the salt waters and the sea strands, then she’ll be a true love of mine. Dad might have come in the back way. If he found a parking place over there,’ Eliza pointed with my bottle. ‘He wouldn’t know we’re here.’
None of the lights were on inside the house and we would have heard the bleeps when he turned the alarm off, but I didn’t say that. She knocked the dolphin knocker again. It was very loud, ringing out, off down the street both ways. The outside light over the door shone straight onto her, standing there on the white top step in full view of the street.
Something metal was being hit or kicked or knocked somewhere. Not our street but not far away.
Tyres squealed. Music thudded. It was quiet on the tortoise. Hard and cold on my bottom, though. I could feel the raised shapes of the shell’s pattern on my bare thighs. Hexagons or pentagons or a different one of those maths shapes. I looked up at the sky, tipping my head right back until the spiky hedge pulled at my hair. It was fully and completely dark night now – no blue or purple or grey streaks left. The bottoms of the few, skinny clouds were lit up orange by the street lights. My feet jiggled up and down. My tummy was getting hot at the bottom.
‘I need the loo.’
Eliza crossed her legs. ‘I wish you hadn’t said that.’
‘Parking the car. It’s been the ruin of many a poor young girl, and Lord I know…’
‘I can’t hold on.’
‘You’ll have to do it in the hedge.’
‘Oh for goodness’ sake, you’re only seven!’ But she turned around until her legs were either side of the tortoise’s tail.
It was too urgent so it started before my shorts were down far enough. It was all over my hand and my shorts, spraying onto my legs. Hot like the sand had been hot. My bum was freezing numb and my front was hot wet. I shook my hands but it didn’t help.
‘Is your water bottle empty?’ Eliza asked behind me in the dark.
‘Dunno.’ I pulled up my shorts. I shivered. The wet was already cool. I lifted up the water bottle and shook it. ‘You can turn round now.’ There was a bit of orange squash left in it, swishing around. I handed it to Eliza.
‘Is it empty?’
‘Well empty it then, I need something to go in.’
A blast of Macklemore out of a car driving past.
‘It’s my Stormtrooper bottle from Grandpa!’
‘Saying stand and deliver for you are the bold deceiver.’ She grabbed at the bottle. ‘Serious, Nathe! Or I’ll wet myself. It’ll wash.’
‘Go in the hedge!’
‘It’s not the same for girls. We can’t aim it!’
I wiped the back of my hand on the back of my hoody, hoping she wouldn’t notice. ‘Do you think it’s because of the sand?’ I asked. ‘Because it was an accident.’
‘Mum. She was cross with me earlier for all the sand that got into the car with me.’
‘She’s just finding a parking space and then she’s going to walk back.’
‘She’s been ages. What if she’s not coming back? What if it’s because of the sand in the car?’
‘Don’t be silly. She’s coming. Soon.’ Eliza walked over to the steps again, knocked on the front door again. I heard a siren. There are sirens all the time and I don’t usually take any notice. But I started thinking that maybe that siren was an ambulance with Mum in it. Eliza snatched at the Stormtrooper bottle on her way back. I held onto it but I finished off the orange then gave it to her. My pants were clammy and it was not a nice feeling.
She unscrewed the top part, with her lips all bitten together and white, her knees squeezed together. I walked away, over to the gate, and opened it just a little bit so that I could look down the street and up the street. I heard a pattering wet sound. The neck of the bottle was pretty narrow. It would be bound to drip down the face of the trooper, all over his cool gun. I wasn’t ever going to be able to drink out of my favourite bottle again.
Shadows and shapes were moving around at one end of the road, but I didn’t want to look right at them because I didn’t want them looking right at me. I didn’t think any of them were Mum. I closed the gate and hid back behind the safe green shadows.
‘I’m done,’ Eliza said. ‘You can sit down.’
‘How long has Mum been?’ I asked. My bottle was standing upright on the window sill. I didn’t want to touch it. I slunk straight back to the tortoise.
‘Not that long. It just feels longer.’ Eliza watched her own fingers sliding her friendship band round and round her wrist. ‘Because it’s dark.’
There was a high-pitched screech a couple of streets away. Or it might have been a scream. Or it might have been a laugh.
‘As long as an episode of Spongebob?’ I asked. It felt a lot longer.
‘Maybe a bit longer. But not as long as Adventure Time.’
An engine farted. It might have been a motorbike. Another siren. Maybe that was a fire engine. Maybe Mum was on fire. She’d need an ambulance as well if she was. A dog barked.
‘They’re the same length.’
‘I’m not arguing with you. Tell her to find me an acre of land. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.’
Another dog, further away and lower pitched, barked back.
‘I am hungry.’
‘You’re getting tired and hungry mixed up.’ Eliza went to the gate, muttering, ‘Or cold and hungry, or worried and hungry.’
The little yappy terrier next-door-but-one joined in the barking. Eliza knocked on our door again. My pants were stiff now. They scratched at me when I fidgeted. I had pins and needles in my bum. I could smell myself and I thought I could smell Eliza, too, and the smell of her on my bottle.
‘I spy with my little eye,’ she said, ‘something beginning with W.’
‘It’s too dark to spy anything.’ I leaned my head on her shoulder. I closed my eyes.
There were more footsteps out on the street, getting slowly closer. Heavy breathing. I grabbed Eliza’s arm; we stared at each other, silent. I concentrated on the glittery white square reflected in her eyeball. Footsteps, right the other side of the hedge. Loud, heavy, slow. A step and a drag, a step and a drag. Panting, in and out. A gleaming hand clasping the first railing of the gate. I closed my eyes. I heard the gate open. Eliza’s arm went round my back. Step, drag, step, drag.
Noisy breathing. A swear. ‘There you are.’ Mum’s voice.
I jumped up.
‘Sorry it took so long, I’ve twisted my knee somehow. You must be freezing.’
‘I’m hungry,’ I said.
‘Is Dad not back yet?’
I ran over and hugged her. She wasn’t on fire. ‘I’m sorry about the sand in the car,’ I said. ‘It was an accident.’
She kissed the top of my head. ‘Let’s get inside.’
I tried to help her. I thought she could lean on me but I was too short really. Mum was breathing hard and it was taking ages to get to the front steps. I looked over at Eliza so she’d help. She was standing completely still with her hands over her mouth and tears down her cheeks.
‘I wasn’t cold,’ I lied, ‘because Eliza got my hoody. She’s been looking after me.’
‘You weren’t worried about me?’ Mum asked. I couldn’t tell which answer she wanted, so I didn’t say anything.
‘It hasn’t been that long,’ Eliza said. ‘We knew you were just parking the car.’
When Mum got the front door unlocked, Eliza pushed past her and ran upstairs before she’d even pressed the buttons to turn the alarm off. The beeps sped up. ‘Thanks for a lovely day at the seaside, Mum,’ Mum muttered to herself. The beeps stopped. ‘Sorry about your knee.’
I thought about my water bottle, all by itself on the window sill out there. I thought about the wet on the picture wrinkling up the Trooper’s mask. I shut the front door.
Mum sat down on the armchair in the hall. It was a heavy sitting down like when a tower gets blown up at the bottom and the top part collapses down. Light was coming in orange through the windows and green from the microwave clock in the kitchen. Long shadows fell down Mum’s face. ‘Do you want something to eat, then?’ she asked me. I turned on the hall and stairs lights. She looked like Mum again.
My shorts were hurting me. I could see the darker patches on their pale blue now that the lights were on. ‘Pyjamas on as soon as we get in, you said. Toilet, teeth, bed.’ I headed up towards the soft, warm Iron Man pyjamas I’d left on my bedroom floor that morning.