Michael pulled up outside his childhood home and had just reached the other side of the car before his mother had closed her gate and turned towards him. He pecked her on the proffered cheek and opened the rear door, waited as she fastened her seat belt, closed the door gently and returned to his seat. Perfect start.
‘Where to today, Mum?’
‘A351 about 3 miles this side of Swanage, dear.’
His mother had never learned to drive but a lifetime telling her husband where to go and what to do had given her the patter of a rally car navigator.
He looked at her in his review mirror as they travelled along Scarwood Road, a road that never seemed to change no matter how many people moved out and in. Always the same type of people with the same stuff, same cars, same lives.
‘Eyes on the road, dear.’
She had been looking out of her side window, he’d seen the powder above her lip, the profiled hairs catching the light like old snow on a glacier; and yet she had known he was looking at her.
This had been how every Sunday had been for the last two years, since she had been alone. Michael had adopted the routine as his way of dealing with missing his father. 8.00 am he’d pick up his mother who would be waiting and she would tell him where to drive. This week not too far; about a 30 minute round trip along roads he had explored on his bike, with his mates as a boy, and roads he driven with dad as he was taught to drive. Familiar, and as he pulled onto the A351, he wondered at how far from his roots he had not come. He also thought, that he’d got way with the it this time, but no.
‘Are you seeing anyone, Michael? Time is slipping away and if you are to have a family, you at least should be looking for a nice, young woman.’
‘No, Mum, I’m not dating at the moment.’
‘You do like girls don’t you, Michael? I know the world is very odd today but you are alright aren’t you? None of those queer lifestyle choices, I hope?’
Michael ignored the question. Old ground. ‘We’re nearly there, Mum.’
Now as he approached the place she had asked him to find, he wanted to ask like he always wanted to ask, ‘what do you do, mum?’ and ‘why these places?’ But he remembered her response to the first and only time he had asked these questions.
‘Michael, if my simple requests are too much to ask, in future, I’ll call a taxi. A taxi driver would not ask so many questions.’
So instead all he said was, ‘About here, Mum? There’s a layby just ahead on the left.’
‘No, it’s the other side of the road I need, Michael. See the oak standing by itself in the field, quite near the verge?’
Michael saw the oak; an old one, stag headed and solitary with a massive trunk about 6 feet across.
‘Bit tricky, Mum the road bends sharply just before it on that side. I’ll get as close as I can but the verge doesn’t look hard enough to park on’.
‘Just get me as close as you can, dear. I’ve brought my sensible shoes so I’ll be ok walking a few yards on the grass.’
The thought of his mother in anything other than sensible shoes made him smile.
As if in answer to his unspoken thought, his mother went on, ‘It’s not like I go anywhere anymore to own a fancy pair of shoes. Not even when your father was still alive.’
And there is was, like every Sunday, the reference to Dad. The disappointment with his dad.
It took a while for Michael to find a safe place to u turn and drive past the tree after the bend. A little way past the tree there was a farmer’s track with a gate and enough room to park.
‘Are you sure this is OK, mum? It’s got to be 150 yards to the tree? Can I come with you?’
‘No. You know that Michael – I have to do this alone. I won’t be long.’
And before Michael could get up to help, his mother had slammed the car door and begun to walk back along the verge to the tree. He watched her, exasperated but also impressed that woman in her early seventies could stride so confidently along an uneven verge whilst being buffeted by the backdraft from the string of lorries that seemed to have been waiting for her.
Through the rear mirror he saw her walk a few paces into the field where the oak brooded. Then she just stopped and stood staring at the tree, just like at all the other roadside locations he had taken her in all weathers on Sundays. She stood as still as the objects she stared at.
‘Reach out and touch it… now’, Michael whispered aloud.
And as he said the words his mother reached out a hand and stroked the bark of the tree and then in a move new to Michael, she reached up and followed the irregular line of the two lowest branches with her right hand, as if conducting an invisible orchestra.
What would the people driving by be thinking about this strange old lady dressed like she walked out of the 50s, in that tweed suit and wearing that oversized moon broach, waving her arms about at the side of the road? He cringed and sank a little deeper into his chair. Adjusting the mirror, Michael could tell she was doing the chant thing. Always the chant thing: nodding her head a she stroked the tree. He was too far away to read her lips but he was closer last week and he had seen some of the words she mouthed: ‘Bring them here’, seemed to be the phrase repeated most.
Of course stroking trees was a little odd but lots of people like hugging them. But it was the other things she stroked, the telegraph poles, the church walls and the post boxes that was truly odd. Early onset Alzheimer’s? But in all other ways she was sharp as knife.
‘Well, that didn’t take me long now did it?’
‘No, Mum. You were very quick.’ Michael winced, he hadn’t controlled his tone.
‘You don’t approve of our little drives, do you Michael?’
‘It’s not for me to approve or disapprove, Mum.’
‘Em. And yet you do. If you’d prefer it, I can take a taxi in future?’
‘No, Mum. I love our drives; It’s just that don’t understand what you do. It seems a little bizarre, that’s all.’ He knew that he’d crossed one of her lines the moment he’d said it. No response but the car seemed to get colder.
He tried to break the tension. ‘Did you mention on the phone that you need to buy some sausages on the way back?’
Silence and then, ‘Yes, my butchers let me down again. Seems I can’t trust anyone anymore. But I can do very well without them.’
The rest of the journey home took place in silence and it would be over two weeks before she phoned him again.
Michael woke up gripping the duvet, soaked from the sweat of his night terrors; same terror most nights. His dad’s cadaverous mass lying still with only the susurration of his shallow breathing to hint at life. Then his eyes open, empty sockets but staring nevertheless accusingly at Michael. And then the words, always the same, always spat with an energy that belied the skeletal frame, ‘You left me like this. You left me with her.’
‘Just a dream.’
Michael swung his feet out of bed and repeated his mantra, ‘Just a dream.’
His father had always had a final plan. That if he got seriously ill, he meant terminally ill, he would, before it was too late, ‘do something about it’. He’d loved hill walking and had told Michael in a light tone that he’d found the perfect place. He’d made Michael promise that he’d drive him up to Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland where he’d walk away alone until he could walk no-more. And there die. He’d even left a large sum in his will for the Scottish Mountain Rescue who would be called to search for him and retrieve the body.
That was the plan and he had only told his son, his only child; told him gripping his arm, with a warning: ‘Don’t tell your mother’.
In the end when it was clear his father’s illness was not going into remission like it did the first time, his father had told him it was time. He’d even packed a picnic for the drive like he had when Michael was a child. Michael had refused to drive his father to Scotland.
Later that night, when they’d returned from the police station, his mother had told him that his father, devastated by Michael’s betrayal had taken the car and it was during his own attempt to drive to Scotland that he had crashed and had died watching the paramedics try to revive the little girl his car had pinned to a tree.
By the next Sunday she had still not called and his mother’s silence was beginning to feel like a punishment. His sleep was wracked by even more intense dreams and the sounds of sirens infected his nightmares; the ones outside – so many – merging in his nightmares with the wails that accompanied his father to hospital so many times in the months before he died. The next morning the local news had reported another road death only half a mile from Michael’s house. A local shopkeeper, apparently.
All the next week his mother hadn’t picked up when he called, nor had she replied to his messages. He would have walked the five minutes to his mother’s house but was unsure of his welcome and so it was with obvious relief in his voice that Michael answered when his mother rang him the next Saturday. He hadn’t decided how he felt on finally hearing her clipped instructions before his own voice confirmed that he would pick up his mother the next day ‘at 8am sharp’ to take her to another location.
The morning was cold and the rain heavy sky seemed to press the car into the wet road as he drove again along the damp, grey and featureless of Scarwood Road.
‘Where to today, Mum?’
‘Just head for the centre of town, please.’
Well, she was being frosty but he’d known her frostier. Perhaps she’s forgiven him.
Michael noticed the butchers was closed with a large wreath on the door and realised that the dead shopkeeper from the news was known to them. He started to tell his mum but as he glanced in the rear view, he saw her looking at the shop door as they passed and her wide smile drained all the words from his mouth; he hadn’t realised that she hadn’t liked him. Paul was his name and he had been their family’s go to butcher for as long as Michael could remember.
‘Here will do, Michael.’
‘It’s a taxi rank, Mum. There are lots of people there.’ Michael could only imagine how her strange actions and chant would go down here. ‘I’ll have to drop you and go round. Is that all right?’
‘If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.’
She got out and Michael pulled away before even one of the taxicab drivers had formulated a territorial expletive. From experience Michael knew how long he had and he decided to pick up a local paper while he waited. Pulling into the OneStop carpark at the end of the high street, he saw that the news boards were full of the butcher’s funeral which was taking place on Thursday of the next week. He sat back in the car and read about the community’s grief and enough of the detail to realise how little he had known about this pillar of the community. Paul Hoskins had been raising money for the local children’s hospice. His long distance running and had raised over £20,000 at the time of his death.
Michael wanted to tell his mother about him – perhaps so that she might appreciate him more and perhaps so that she might rub out that smile from Michael’s memory and replace it with some sign respectful grief. However, when he had finally negotiated the morning traffic back to the taxi rank, the scene that greeted him wiped all conversation from his mind.
His mother was standing bolt upright surrounded by taxi drivers and passersby, like Miss Marple amongst all the suspects she had ever accused of murder. Everyone seemed to be shouting at her. Before he realised what he was doing, Michael was out of the car, his arm around her, guiding his mother to safety. As they drove away, narrowly missing one of the taxi drivers who had run at the car as it left, Michael asked, ‘What happened mum? Are you alright? What did you do?’
‘It’s telling that you think it was my fault.’
‘Mum, everyone was shouting at you! What happened?’
‘A misunderstanding. That’s all. Take me home, Michael.’
And that was that. She would not say another word or even acknowledge his questions all the way back.
The sirens were back in his head that night. His father’s accusing eyes held him like a vice and in ripping himself away from their glare he found himself thrown half out of bed, fevered and with no prospect of further sleep. It was 3 0’clock in the morning. Michael drove the empty streets of the town and turned into the high street, passing the taxi rank. Too late for punters, he saw that there were flowers around the base of the post which held the sign for taxi rank and wondered what could have happened there. Still distracted and scared that inaction would invite in his father’s baleful presence, he drove on. Soon he found himself back on the A351 heading towards Swanage where he had taken his mother three weeks ago. As he came round the bend his full beams reflected on something glittery where he knew the old oak stood back from the road.
Pulling over in the same place, Michael retraced his mother’s steps by torchlight and stood before the tree. A jagged scar had torn away a swath of bark half way up the trunk and ripped two of the lower branches like dolls limbs from their sockets. The verge had been chewed up and there were pieces of glass and plastic strewn around the base of the tree. Someone had tied a bright red and glittery ribbon around the tree and a cheap clip frame had been slipped under it.
The face of a young man – a little younger than Michael smiled out at him. Had mum known that someone had died here when she came to chant and touch? Had this been her silent farewell? Perhaps she knew him? But what of all the other strange roadside vigils he had taken her to?
When she had been here, Michael didn’t remember the damage to the tree. But he had been over a hundred yards away. He was however certain that there had been no ribbon. He noticed another frame tucked into the wide ribbon; this one small, wooden with a glass pane. Stepping closer he shone his torch at the beautiful hand-written script, ‘My beloved, Cameron, we had so little time together but you filled my days with joy. I will always love you. John xxx’.
Above this simple declaration of love were the dates: Cameron Stainforth May 12th 1993 – September 14th 2020.
Michael froze. Was this all just a coincidence? That he and his mother had visited a tree before a fatal accident at exactly the same tree? He could barely breathe. He and his mother had visited the tree two days before Cameron had died.
How could she have known that an accident would happen here? Unless this Cameron had the accident earlier, say Saturday, and didn’t die until later? Then his mum found out about it and came to wish him well where he was injured. But the tree had looked whole on that Sunday. The tree’s damage was severe so wouldn’t he have seen it? And who was Cameron? His mum didn’t know anyone of her own age far less a man in his twenties. And Cameron was obviously gay and if Michael was honest, he knew that his mum was ‘conservative’ about such things.
Too many questions rang around Michaels’ head as he drove home, so many that sleep would have been impossible so he drove on towards town.
Michael arrived back at the taxi rank. It was still early but there were already three taxis waiting for the commuters who would soon emerge from the underpass that led from the town’s station. The third in line he recognised as the woman who he had almost hit as she tried to get at his mother as they’d driven away.
Michael pulled up on the other side of the road and walked to the taxi. Her window was open. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Start that end, mate’, she said without looking up from her phone.
‘I don’t need a taxi I just need to ask you something.’
She looked up and recognition spread across her face like rash. ‘You were with that old bitch from yesterday!’
Michael winced but carried on, ‘Yeah, my mother. What did she do?’
‘What she did was unforgiveable. Evil old witch, with John only just gone.’
‘Tell me, what did she do? She wouldn’t tell me anything.’
‘She told us that John had taken her on a job last Sunday and that he’d been rude. Well he’d already told me and a couple of the other drivers what really happened. John was never rude, even when he should be. She got him to take her out to a really dodgy stretch of road where the camber is treacherous and then told him off for not waiting on a blind corner. John wouldn’t wait thee but he was concerned about her walking about on that road by herself so he parked safe and walked back. She was chanting at milestone – on her knees stroking the bloody thing! Is your mother ok? I mean ok in her head?’ She didn’t wait for a reply. ‘John told us she screamed at him, awful language, when she saw him watching her and despite this John still waited for her and drove her home – proper gent he was.’
‘Was? And why were you all screaming at her?’
‘John died on Saturday. She laughed when we told her. Laughed out loud and I think she already knew because she didn’t look surprised, just happy. We’d only just heard he’d been taken off life support and she laughed.’
Michael hardly dared to ask but he had to know, ‘When was John’s accident?’
‘Thursday night. They think he hit something on the road and then lost control and ended up in that ditch. He was such a safe, skilful driver. Just goes to show…’
‘Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.’ Michael should have been driving his mother that Sunday not John. Was it his fault, the taxi driver had died?
Michael drove back the long way, through the mist that hung in tattered curtains across the minor road that meandered south of the town, through the remnants of the ancient woods that had grown there since the ice age. The giant trees reached across the road and under the arch of their entwined fingers, he felt he was driving into a tunnel from which little light escaped. He imagined the trees festooned in ribbons with decaying cuddly toys scattered in holocaust legions, piled between the roots under cellophane shrouds. A sharp bend showed palely 100 yards ahead as the headlights picked out the white of a bracket fungus feeding off a dying silver birch and next to it an oak tree, ancient and unmoveable. So easy to just to not turn the wheel. Just to keep going straight. To do nothing.
When Michael got back home he was still shaky. He sat facing the wall on which the photograph of his father hung and where the shadows cast out by the rising sun passed over it like veils lifting. It all made sense now. He tried to remember how many trips there had been. How many deaths – predicted or arranged? How did she know them and how did she get them there? How did she choose them? Who else had died on the road, died alone in the shadow of a wall or tree?
He thought back to that night after they had identified his body. The police had been cold to his mother. He remembered the little girl’s parents’ grief stricken voices in the next room. When he and his mother had finally got home he had told her of his father’s suicide plan. And in the voice she had used with him ever since, she tonelessly and oh so quietly told him that his father’s and the little girl’s death were Michael’s fault. And so she had made him her like a penance, teaching him the error of what? Keeping his father’s plan a secret from his mother?
Michael jumped when the phone rang. He knew who it would be.
‘Michael, I need you to drive me to…’
‘Who is it this time, Mum?’
An extended pause. More than enough space for mutual recognition.
‘‘Where’ not ‘who’, Michael. And it’s not far. And I think we’ll go today.’
‘It’s not Sunday.’
‘This one doesn’t have to be.’
‘It’s nearly 8 O’clock. I’ll come over now.’ He hung up.