Short Fiction by Matt Hutchinson
The car had to go. Mary understood, of course she did, but that didn’t mean she had to be happy about it.
Caroline was insistent. ‘You never drive it, Mum. Only to the garage and back once a year for its MOT. It’s a waste of money.’
Mary shifted the receiver to her other ear. ‘It’s my money to waste. We’ve had that car thirty-six years; it’s in perfect condition.’
‘All the more reason to use it. Now we’re out in the sticks we could do with something I can drive when Trevor’s at work.’
Rubbish. Caroline could afford a car if she wanted one; Trevor earned enough. As for ‘out in the sticks’, wasn’t the whole point of Surrey how easy it was to commute from; a leafier version of Finchley with more golf courses? Mary understood though, Caroline didn’t just want a car, she wanted this car, this conifer green Triumph Dolomite her father Bill had bought in 1980 and polished every Sunday without fail. Caroline had learned to drive in this car and, Mary suspected, learned a few other things in it too. Built to last, these, Bill had said. It had outlasted him.
‘How will I get around?’ Mary said.
‘The same way you do now – with your freedom pass.’
It was settled, Mary’s car was going to Surrey.
‘We’ll come and get it,’ Caroline said. ‘Trevor will bring us and I’ll drive it back, or Alice can.’ Alice had just passed her test and Mary had half a mind to give her the car for her eighteenth birthday, but that would cause an almighty stink.
‘No you won’t,’ she said. ‘I’ll bring it to you. If I’m giving it up for good I want one last hurrah.’
She could imagine the conversation once the receiver went down.
God, she’s driving to us – has she even got a license any more?
She’ll be a bloody liability on the roads.
Who says ‘one last hurrah’ anyway?
Mary checked her road atlas. The quickest route seemed to be round the M25 but motorways bothered her. There hadn’t been any when she’d started driving and, anyway, they seemed the antithesis of what a nice drive should be about – all speed and no decent views. No, she’d go through London.
She packed her overnight bag, her flask, two sandwiches and a travel rug, the tartan one she draped over her knees when she did a jigsaw. Mary enjoyed jigsaws far more now Bill wasn’t around, hovering at her elbow, pointing out the pieces she was looking for.
Finally she put Bill’s worn A-Z on the passenger seat. She wouldn’t get lost of course; she’d lived in London for eighty-eight years.
But goodness, the speed people drove at! Mary walked down these streets every day and saw the cars whiz by but, from behind the wheel, everything seemed twice as fast. She’d been waiting to turn right onto the A1 for about five minutes – during which time three other cars had impatiently pulled past her and sped away – when Bill appeared in the passenger seat in the beige zip-up jacket and flat cap he always wore on car journeys.
‘Driving in London isn’t as big a deal as everyone thinks, you know,’ he said.
‘Maybe not for you, dear, you’re dead.’
‘If you know where you’re going you have plenty of time to sort yourself out. You can get anywhere in London simply by following the signs.’
Eventually, a nice man in a Royal Mail van stopped to wave her out and she was on her way. She remembered the tape and reached into her handbag. Alice was always making compilations: playlists, CDs and, in Mary’s case (as that’s all the stereo in the Triumph could play), a cassette. Hi Gran – just a few driving songs for your road trip the note had said.
The Beatles’ Drive My Car spilled out of the speakers as the A1 took her past Highgate station and down towards Archway. Over to the right on Highgate Hill was the Whittington, where Caroline had been born. Mary had wanted another child soon after but Bill said no. At 44 he hadn’t coped with the chaos one baby brought to the house and wasn’t prepared to go through it all again. Stray bits of food under the sofa, broken sleep, missing jigsaw pieces; one was enough.
Mary realised she was being beeped at.
‘Pick a bloody lane, love,’ the van driver shouted, waving his fat arm out of the window. Mary picked a bloody lane.
She knew her driving wasn’t what it had been. She’d learned during the war, when the test was suspended, but hadn’t had to drive much since. Bill did the driving. It had been…well, longer than she cared to remember. She had a license but wasn’t entirely sure it was valid. Still, if anyone stopped her she’d play the confused old lady; feign senility and smile a lot.
‘Concentrate, Mary, concentrate,’ Bill said. Mary turned the music up to show him who was in charge. Driving in My Car by that silly band Caroline had liked in the ’80s – what was their name again? All their songs sounded like cartoons. As the traffic curved round the big junction at Archway she wasn’t sure she was in the right lane. She accelerated and hoped luck would fling her out at the right exit. Thankfully it did and she continued down Holloway Road with the feeling this wasn’t half as big a deal as Caroline had made out. On down Upper Street. What she hadn’t accounted for was the fact that Goswell Road was one way – a No Entry sign blocked her path. Nothing she could do about that though so she popped a travel sweet in and headed down City Road.
‘Follow the signs,’ Bill said. It reminded her of that bit at the end of Star Wars, where Alec Guinness (or was it Ben Kingsley?) tells Luke Skywalker to use the force. Caroline had been obsessed with Leia, the beautiful princess who was also a rebel leader and freedom fighter – Mary must have watched the video a dozen times with her, biting her tongue, wanting to tell her that beautiful princesses didn’t generally get to be freedom fighters too.
‘Oh do bugger off,’ she said. ‘I’m following my nose.’
She realised she was heading towards London Bridge. She’d hoped to cross the river at Waterloo Bridge; her bridge, The Ladies’ Bridge. The contractors who rebuilt it during the war had struggled to find enough men to do the work so had recruited women. Mary was one of them and she’d had a fine time, cladding the piers in Portland stone and repairing bomb damage. Then the men came back. Mary had desperately wanted to go on working, and suspected Bill would have jumped at the chance to stay safely at home, but times were times and some things just couldn’t be said. Bill had gone to work in accounts for a shipping firm and Mary slid quietly back up the slipway into her dry dock.
As luck would have it on the other side of London Bridge Mary found herself on the A3, the road she’d planned to pick up somewhere south of the river. To Mary, born and brought up in Finchley, everywhere over the Thames was ‘somewhere south of the river’, apart from the South Bank and the Royal Festival Hall, which she claimed as honorary North London. This road would take her all the way to Guildford. Trevor, of course, had called her ridiculous for going such a long way round. ‘Long way through, dear,’ Mary had corrected, ‘long way through.’
A man with a voice like screeching tyres was singing about a highway to hell.
‘What’s this bloody racket?’ Bill shouted.
‘I think they call it heavy metal,’ Mary shouted back. As she passed through Stockwell, she saw signs for Brixton. People were funny about Brixton, especially people from north London. Rough was the word they used. She’d read a piece on it in The Guardian – one of her little pleasures since Bill died, along with jigsaws, was ordering The Guardian instead of The Telegraph – and had been surprised to learn that Brixton used to be in Surrey. Not only that, it had been rather well-to-do and had some of London’s first electric street lights. The article also said Wodehouse’s character Jeeves was born in Brixton. Mary decided she’d visit it sometime soon; it couldn’t be all that bad if the Victoria line went there.
On towards Clapham. You were supposed to like Clapham, but Mary didn’t really see the appeal. They’d come to the common when Caroline was little. She couldn’t think why but remembered being distinctly unimpressed. Or had Bill been unimpressed and that had smothered the day, and Mary’s memory of it, in disappointment?
‘Bloody Clapham,’ he said, right on cue. She added Clapham to her list of places to visit south of the river.
Between Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common that song from Live Aid came on. Mary had watched it all on television, with Bill wandering in and out, muttering things about charity beginning at home and how he hadn’t fought in a war so men could dress like Nik Kershaw. That’s exactly what you fought a war for isn’t it? she’d said. Just because you fought for freedom doesn’t mean you get to choose what people do with it. She’d cried quietly along with the rest of the world at the short film – one child too weak to stand, another crouched like a wizened bird, so many old faces on young bodies – and had secretly pledged £25 while Bill was out in the garage sorting used screws into jam jars. Caroline had actually gone to the concert at Wembley. Back then she’d thought a baggy t-shirt with a big slogan on it was enough to change the world and, for a few glorious hours, the world had agreed. Mary wasn’t so sure it was that simple though. All that hunger, all that pain. There might be a few new roundabouts and bypasses now but the A-Z of the human heart hadn’t changed all that much since 1985.
Somewhere past Ripley, Mary remembered her packed lunch. She had a feeling the countryside was a little nicer after Guildford so she carried on, looped round the city with its odd cathedral and found herself on the A31 heading for the Hog’s Back. It wasn’t that far to Caroline’s, another thirty minutes at most, but she found a lay-by and stopped.
‘What have you got in those?’ Bill said as she unwrapped her sandwiches.
‘Oh, hello,’ Mary said. ‘I thought I’d lost you after Clapham.’ Bill looked a bit less solid than he had a few miles back, maybe a little fainter around the middle. Mary could see the grooves of the seat back through his chest.
‘Nice bit of corned beef and piccalilli?’ he asked hopefully.
‘Goat’s cheese, parma ham and fig chutney,’ Mary said. ‘You wouldn’t like it.’
‘No I bloody wouldn’t,’ Bill snorted. ‘Since when have you eaten such fancy stuff?’
Since when do you think! Mary thought, but turned away and looked purposefully out of the window instead. There was a lorry in the lay-by – a pair of feet stuck out from underneath it. Mary opened the door and put the sandwich on her seat.
‘Where are you going?’ Bill said.
‘To see if that man needs help.’
Bill laughed a weak chuckle. ‘What possible help could you be to a man fixing a lorry?’
‘Oh do shut up,’ Mary said, slamming the door. She leaned back in through the open window. ‘Don’t you go touching my sandwich either.’
She walked over to the lorry.
‘Hello,’ she said to the feet. The feet became legs, the legs became a body and the body slid out to reveal a whole man.
‘Hello,’ said the man. ‘Can I help you?’
‘I thought maybe I could help you,’ Mary said.
‘Know much about these?’ the man nodded at the lorry.
‘Heavens no,’ she said. ‘I’m Mary, by the way.’
‘Lance,’ the lorry driver wiped a hand on his trousers and offered it to her. ‘To be honest I’m pretty much done. Went over something a couple of miles back and I’m just checking for damage. Got a long way to go and I don’t need any unexpected surprises.’
‘Cover a lot of ground do you?’ Mary said.
‘Yeah, all over the place. Up and down the UK and over to the continent sometimes, wherever it takes me really.’
‘Don’t you get lonely?’
‘Lonely? Nah. Got the radio and my books – I like the peace to be honest. It’s liberating.’
‘I imagine it would be,’ Mary said. ‘Would you like a sandwich? I have two.’
Lance said he would and soon they were sitting on Mary’s travel rug tucking in. Bill had turned away in a sulk when she’d fetched it from the car but she ignored him.
Lance lifted the top off his sandwich and peered at the contents. ‘This is good.’
‘Thanks,’ Mary said. ‘My husband would never have approved of this sort of thing.’
‘What, you having a sandwich with a lorry driver?’
Mary laughed. ‘No. Well, he wouldn’t have liked that much either. I meant the food. He wouldn’t have known what to do with a fig.’
‘Ah, that’s what it is,’ Lance said. ‘Wouldn’t, you said. Dead is he, your husband?’
Mary nodded. ‘Year before last.’
‘I’m sorry. What was his name?’
‘Bill.’ Mary finished her tea and shook the flask lid out on the grass. She poured one for Lance.
‘How long were you married?’ he asked.
‘Sixty-six years. We had to wait till he got back from the war – he was nineteen when he went.’
‘My sister’s got a nineteen year old.’ Lance shook his head, ‘Can’t imagine him coping with war – he’s just a kid.’
‘I’m not sure anyone copes with it really,’ Mary said. ‘Bill certainly didn’t. When he came back there was something sort of…missing. Some piece he left behind.’ She glanced over to the car. ‘He never talked about it of course. His world just started getting smaller. He used to harp on and on about the freedom he’d fought for but he was never all that free. I think he mostly confused freedom with things just staying the same.’
Lance drained the cup and handed it back. Mary screwed it on to the top of the flask.
‘Well,’ she said, standing up and brushing the crumbs from her lap, ‘I’d better be off.’
‘Me too,’ said Lance. ‘Got some miles to do this afternoon. Thanks for the sandwich, you’ve saved me having to stop again. You almost home?’
‘Oh I’m not going home,’ Mary said. ‘I’m going to see my daughter.’
‘That’s nice,’ Lance said.
‘I suppose it is.’
Lance smiled. ‘Drive safely.’
Mary got back into the car and sat for a minute. She could picture the scene when she arrived in Surrey. A kiss on both cheeks from Trevor – surely one cheek was enough? Even worse he always paused slightly between the first and second kisses as though he wasn’t quite sure he was doing it right. Then a G&T. Mary always suspected Trevor had the glasses lined up in the kitchen with gin and a slice of lemon ready in each. She’d have put money on it in fact. Just once she ought to ask for something else to see how he reacted. A mojito maybe. She’d only ever had one, three months ago in a rash moment when she’d got the time wrong and ended up an hour early for the theatre. The sugar in it had been gritty and stuck in her dentures, but it had tasted fabulous, like a holiday she’d never known she wanted.
Alice would have a stack of records lined up, ready to play over the course of the evening.
Nothing to loud, I hope, Carolyn would say, as though Mary needed protecting somehow. What harm could a bit of rock ‘n’ roll do you when you’d lived through the Blitz?
Which route did you take in the end? She could already see Trevor wincing at the sheer unnecessariness of it all. Why you couldn’t just go round the M25 like any normal person…
Asparagus wrapped in parma ham with hollandaise sauce to start. There would be too much cutlery and a specially selected wine for each course, chosen by Trevor. Then fillet steak with mushroom and brandy cream sauce. Trevor generally cooked twice a year, always the same thing. My signature dish, he called it. Mary, in her more charitable moments, supposed it was a signature, in the same way a cross on a piece of paper is.
There’d be the promise of a visit from Caroline. I really should come up to London soon. We could visit a gallery. They never did. As a girl Caroline had spent her days with a pencil in her hand or a paintbox open on the kitchen table. Mary was forever wiping paint from her fingers, her hair, her clothes; the mess frequently drove Bill out to the garage. After a fine art degree from Slade and a gallery manager’s job in Hackney, Caroline had met Trevor and had Alice. Her career remained parked in a lay-by somewhere between London and Surrey, waiting for a jump start that would never come. She’d become another piece in Trevor’s jigsaw of a successful businessman. He’d done the edges – half timbered house in Surrey, wife and child, Jaguar – and had started filling in the middle with golf, bridge nights and an interest in French wine. Mary suspected the final few pieces would always elude him though, and that it kept Trevor awake at night.
Dessert would be accompanied by an expensive pudding wine so sweet it made your tongue tingle.
The tap on the window made her jump, but was only Lance.
‘You okay?’ he said through the glass.
Mary nodded. ‘Yes, fine. Thank you.’
She turned to the passenger seat; Bill was almost gone, just a faint haze of him hung in the air. She could feel him straining to tell her something but ignored him and focussed on the road signs on the other side of the carriageway. She indicated and pulled out into the traffic.
‘You’re going the wrong way.’ Bill was shouting to be heard but his voice was distant, a slight breeze of a thing.
‘I don’t think so, dear,’ Mary said, shifting into third and turning the volume up. When she passed the next road sign – London 35 – she felt a shiver pass through her. ‘This appears to be right,’ she said. ‘I’m following my nose.’
Bill said nothing.