Adults (part 1)
Just when it was starting to look like it would be a blissful evening of staying in and doing nothing, the boy’s mother appeared in coat and scarf, car keys jangling at her finger.
‘Well don’t look at me like that,’ she said.
But the boy couldn’t help it.
The last few months had been even worse than usual.
Time and again she had upset the rhythm of his day or robbed him of entire mornings and evenings so that she could disappear to some far-off place and ‘attend to business’ – whatever that meant – leaving him in the meantime to sit in strange, unfamiliar houses that belonged to strange, unfamiliar friends of hers.
Each time she left him with someone, she’d usher him over the threshold, and before he even had the time to say goodbye or ask how long she’d be, the door would be closed.
There was a time when he would have gone happily, unsuspectingly: she had called them little adventures back then. But now he was wise to it and he had strategies in place.
He would cry, he would sulk, he would threaten to run away.
But none of it ever really worked.
One time, when he had refused to budge, she had dragged him – yes, dragged him – from the door to the car.
The fingernail marks didn’t fade for a week.
Wherever she left him – whether it was Mrs Pankurst’s old house, which was more like a museum than somebody's home (Mrs Pankurst didn’t even own a TV and most of the furniture you weren’t even allowed to sit on), or Barney’s pokey little flat where the walls were so thin you could follow everything the neighbours were getting up to like it was a soap opera, or that awful place on the seafront where he sat each time watching children’s TV five years too young for him with a baby whose name he didn’t know – wherever she left him, he would while away the whole time waiting.
Staring out the window and waiting.
Listening out for the hoot of his mother’s car and the knowledge that it was all over and he could finally go home.
When she did finally show up, she was always breathless with excuses and apologies and promises to make it up to him. They would go to Sainsbury’s and she’d buy him his whole bodyweight in Pick N Mix. They would go and see that new film he’d been talking about, the one with the ninja bears, or whatever it was. They would go to Kids Kingdom. Stay there for hours.
But they never did any of those things.
None of her words meant anything in the end.
‘Hey,’ she said now, with that smile that he didn’t trust. ‘It’s a good thing this time. Promise.’
The boy looked at her sceptically.
‘Come on. I’ve got a little treat for you.’
He picked up the TV remote. Started to scroll through the channels.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘So it’s just me who wants to go to The Surly Goat.’
Clever, he thought.
The Surly Goat was his favourite restaurant.
Whenever they went, they would pretend to be food critics. They would put on silly voices (always French) and judge the food. Was the meat cooked properly? Did the flavours complement each other? How had the chef presented the dish (‘We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths,’ the boy had been heard to say)? And even more pernickety things than that. What was the ambience like (his mother had taught him that word)? The font type on the menu? Or the soap dispensers in the toilets? And what about the aura of the chef (the man was bald and you glimpsed him only here and there, usually in far-off doorways)?
And then there was the most important question of all: Did the chef deserve to be awarded the Michelin star?
(They always awarded it in the end. But not without a great palaver. You had to earn these things.)
The boy’s mother wasn’t all bad, then. Not all the time.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘What do you say?’
He looked at her, and tried to hate her.
Dusk was falling when they went out to the car.
She told him to sit in the back because the front passenger seat was already taken. He took a look and in the gloom he made out a big bag with a coat-hanger hook poking out of it. The bag drooped over what looked like the bars of an animal cage.
‘What’s that?’ he said.
‘Oh, nothing. Just business stuff.’
The Surly Goat was about ten minutes away, but ten minutes later they still weren’t there.
‘This traffic’s killer,’ she said.
When they finally saw the sign of the goat with its devil beard and horns, she just kept on driving.
He thought about pointing out her mistake, but they must have been going a slightly different way this time. They were going to turn back on themselves.
The night was darker now, he noticed. The streetlamps did what they could, but everything was starting to fade.
They came to the hem of a nearby town where the houses grew quirkier and the streets more knotted, and then, under a roof of tangled trees, they turned onto a dark, narrow lane.
‘Mum? I think we’re going the wrong way.’
She didn’t reply.
Her back was a dark silhouette. No part of her outline seemed to move, and yet the car kept going, wending this way and that down the narrow lane.
‘Mum? This isn’t the–’
‘Perhaps we’ll go another night, okay?’ The trees made shapes overhead. ‘I know it’s your favourite, and I know I owe you. But …’ She remained perfectly still as she said it. ‘There’s somewhere very important we need to be. Where you need to be.’
He felt his hands clench.
He felt his heart in his chest.
How could …
‘I know what you’re probably thinking right now.’ The way grew even tighter. Brambled hedges encroached on both sides. ‘Mums, you see, we have to be a bit tricksy sometimes. But we do it because we know it’s the right thing to do. You’ll see it was all worth it. I know you’re going to be brilliant this evening.’
He shook his head.
He tried to do something with his hands.
He couldn’t believe it.
‘Where are we going?’ he said.
She didn’t reply.
‘Mum? Where are we–’
‘Look, you know I don’t like it when you talk like this. And your tone is upsetting me now.’
‘Just tell me.’
‘Well there’s not much I can tell you, I’m afraid. Just be yourself. Be yourself and it’ll all be fine.’
He wouldn’t let this slide. He knew when he had been wronged. ‘Where are we going?’
But said nothing.
And that was when he started to sulk. He sulked perhaps like he had never sulked before.
He called her things. Every word he could think of. She deserved it.
He talked about trust and betrayal. Long embittered speeches that he had practised and perfected in his head a thousand times before.
He hatched secret plots to punish her, to get her back: He would give her nothing but silence for a year, he decided. He would eat everything in the house, make himself ill. He would refuse to go to school. She couldn’t make him, could she? And if social services came calling about it, he’d tell them stories about her. Why not?
They passed a private clubhouse, all battered up and asleep.
‘Almost there,’ she said.
The lane wended this way and that. The night grew darker. The trees seemed to think things as his mother drove under them.
She was very clever, the boy thought.
And he hated her for it.
At one point the way grew so narrow and the bends so tight that the boy’s mother started to hoot her horn every now and then to warn potential oncoming cars. There seemed to be a subtle art to it, one the boy could not fathom.
When the bright lights of another car appeared around the corner, and his mother slowed down just a tad more, allowing the car to eke its way past them, the boy marvelled at it.
How did she judge it so perfectly?
How did she seem to know how to do all these things and get them right all the time?
It scared him to think that one day this would have to be him. He would have to be an adult with his own child in tow, dumping it at strange houses whilst he went off to do secret things. He would have to know how to do things and understand the ways of the world.
How would he know how to do it all, though? How would he get all the moves right?
Was there a big book that just told you everything?
Or perhaps there was some spell – some ritual – that turned you from a child into a grown-up.
Just like that.
As they drove on, it felt more and more as though they were moving towards the heart of something, as though the night was yielding some secret to them, some truth, handing it over higgledy-piggledy. He'd always liked that about journeys.
But this journey ended not with some secret or some truth, but with a cottage.
The boy’s mother parked in the gravel drive and opened the car door. ‘Out,’ she said.
For a moment the boy sat still, defiant. He wouldn’t go in. She couldn’t make him.
But the way she went straight round to the passenger seat to collect the bag with the coat hanger poking out of it, the way she didn’t even bother to look to see if he’d followed her order … it told him that she’d long since won this little game of theirs.
She knew she had him now. She knew he would play the role she needed him to play.
She knew that, in spite of all the sulking and the acting out, the instant other people became involved - and this was the crux of it - the instant they went through the door of the cottage, he would behave.
Because if he didn’t behave, if he didn’t act normal, if he hid away in the car and refused to come out, she would start to say things.
She would tell her friend, or whoever it was that lay behind the cottage door, ‘Oh, don’t mind him. He’s just shy.’
Or she would tell them, ‘He’s just in one of his moods. He gets that way sometimes.’
Or, worst of all, ‘He’s being very rude at the moment. Please don’t take any offence. It’s not about you. It’s something he needs to work out for himself.’
And then, when her words didn’t work, she would remind him that, even though she was just his mother, she was still bigger than him, and stronger than him. And so she would drag him.
And then for the rest of the night, her friend would think things: The boy who had to be dragged out of the car by his mother.
Yes, the boy thought. She was very clever.
And he hated her for it.
She held the bag by the coat-hanger hook as he followed her to the cottage door.
She rang the bell and they waited.