Her feet jut out from under the duvet into the cold and dark.
She was sprawled on her front, her mind still a hundred miles deep below the ground. Above the surface it rang and rang. From the black, eyes a gritty-darkness, mind in some jet-lag of the sleep interrupted, her consciousness tries to claw its way towards the dim light of late-night, early morning.
Slivers of light cast out from between the blinds. And the ringing kept on. She wipes away the eye-crust, and rips her feet out of the cold, to only hit cold floor.
She blind-stumbles and trips her way towards the noise, patting down heaps of clothes, her fingers become mitts, her phone, once found, an unyielding bar of wet soap.
Her voice cracked as she answered the phone, “Mum—“
She slumped on top of the pile of clothes on the wooden chair, hunching over, her head heavy in her hands.
She found herself nodding, in the cold and dark, still in a heavy fog, her bare legs shivering. She slipped out of the chair, still nodding and uhuh-ing, her mind and body beginning to thaw. There was a crisp silence behind the blinds, a pale white light. Still agreeing, she peeked between the slats and saw a thick layer of snow.
She wound the blinds up, phone clamped to her ear. The reflection of the street lamps and the full moon in the snow sharpened her blurry edges.
“Dad’s in hospital,” she said matter-of-fact, staring out onto the empty snowscape, still nodding.
The car door clunked shut. She rubbed her hands together and buried her neck in her scarf, trying to fiddle with the heat at the same time. The suburban street was buried under snow and emptied of souls. She felt like blasting the radio, but instead slipped her phone onto the dash and readied herself.
She turned over the engine just as her mother’s voice came over the line.
“Are you on your way?”
She steered her small car over the crisp snow, meeting the silent road with a bump.
“Seems like it.”
She was passing through her neighbourhood in slow motion, stuck in some excruciating treacle, when usually she’d zip by, strapping her seat belt on as she went, flipping the radio on without a care.
Confident others would move out of her way. Certain, she was moving forward.
She imagined her mother alone and confused under fluorescent lights while efficient yet anonymous health workers zipped past her, pressing her with questions she couldn’t find the words to answer, plying her with tea she didn’t dare drink. A shrunken figure suddenly immobilised by the hurried and the purposeful, when her certainty had been forever shaken.
The piercing, “Darling, are you bringing along husband number three?”, broke the spell. Perhaps she was mistaken, maybe her mother was directing these health workers instead, and they were purposefully, hurrying away from her.
“There’s no husband number three, husband number two was enough.”
She slowed to the traffic light’s red, on an empty junction, when a thought occurred to her, “Were you, are you planning a husband number two?”
“That’s a bit morbid darling, but no sounds like a lot of work for not a lot of ROI. Return on your investment.”
There was a lengthy pause.
“Not that I don’t love your father, Eddie darling, you know I just don’t need another one.”
“Yes he,” she stumbles over her words, and scratches at her face, “is unique.” She winds the window down to let a little ice-cold air onto her face.
She seems to have zoned out of the conversation, her mother is zipping ahead, from what’s around her to memories and back again in the blink of an eye.
“…they just keep handing me Styrofoam cups of sludgy coffee and telling me he’s doing better. I had to leave the room, all those beeps and suction noises and he’s so small in there. Small and grey. They’ve got every support group notice sign on this wall. Should we call someone? He was only just telling me how he – he – he….”
There’s the scratching sound of Styrofoam being torn to pieces.
She catches a glimpse of a man at the side of the road swaddled in a what looks like a green duvet coat, hood up, holding a cardboard sign that reads ‘Anywhere.’ His gloved hands shaking slightly in the cold, he holds the sign up above his head as her headlights pass by, a look of elation in his eyes, waving his hands about as if he’d met a fellow traveller on a barren road to nowhere.
Which he had.
They were kindred spirits, he could tell.
She drove by at an embarrassingly low speed, slow enough to see his elation turn to bitter regret in her rear-view mirror. While her mother droned on in the background, tearing apart endless coffee cups as she did.
“Mum, I’m just going to be a second.”
She painfully reversed back toward him, slow and steady, focusing on the road and tuning out her mum’s recitation of every available support group in the area. Once she’d reached the man on his cold snowbank, she flung open the door and left the indicator dinging, the engine still running as she made a diplomat’s approach.
“Darling there’s overeaters’ anonymous, addicts of all kinds on here. I won’t go into too much detail, but sex, there’s a sex group here, very surreal. There’s grief support too. Can you imagine sitting there in a circle talking about how sad you are, about death while some other woman compares the loss of her 105 year old mother, which she knew about from the very beginning, got the chance to stroke her hand and lie beside her as she ‘slipped away’ to the death of your husband of 40 years who collapsed in front of you, and then they pulled off all those wires from him and you never could say a word to him. He didn’t slip away. He disappeared down some horrible black hole.”
The indicator keeps a rhythmic ding.
“Darling? Are you there?”
“The nurses are back with more coffee, telling me I’m getting agitated. Keep saying I should rest like I’m some ancient – of course, I’m getting agitated! Are you far?”
Silence, then a bundle of noise as the man and his duvet coat, and big hiking backpack awkwardly squeeze into the back of the small car. Eddie calls across as they struggle against his luggage.
“Mum? Sorry I picked up a man on the side of the road.”
The man in the back, fighting with his backpack, “Dylan, Mrs Peters”, an Irish lilt to his reply.
“You’ve picked up an Irishman off the side of the road?”
“Best place to find us, Mrs Peters,” Dylan dumps the bag, and slides into the passenger seat, still bundled up in his duvet coat.
“Eleanor, please. Well, nice to meet you Dylan. Although in my day we’d be wary of men we picked up on the road, and I’m afraid to say, we’d be doubly worried about Irishmen.”
“Happily, it’s not your day mum, it’s long past your day, and Dylan was standing in the freezing cold.”
“I was looking to get out to anywhere, even if that’s via a hospital for bad coffee and a little light racism.”
“Racism is downright awful, black children are just cherubs, I’m very against discrimination.”
Eddie attempted to get a little heat from the car as she and Dylan strapped themselves in. She made a sympathetic face and mouthed ‘Sorry’, he shrugged and smiled at her.
“Me too, Mrs Peters, me too.”
“They keep handing me cups and cups of the stuff, telling me to call someone, while I’m talking to you!”
Eddie’s face tightens into a grimace, she drives on and disappears into the flow of the road while she lets Dylan steer the conversation.
“Maybe you’re husband number three? She found number two in her friend’s bed.”
“That wasn’t how we met, that was how we ended. Dylan’s hitchhiking. Have you looked out the window? It’s freezing, outside.”
They crunched slowly across the snow, their breath fogging up the windscreen, so she has to wind down the window again.
Dylan bunches up his duvet coat, hood still up, scrunching his neck so he becomes a curiously hunched figure. He sticks his gloved hands deep in his pockets. Eddie tries to jimmy the heating just a little, it finally blows first shockingly cold air and then a slow pleasant heat. Dylan keeps his hands deep in his pockets, but Eddie winds the window shut again.
“Are Liberty, Egbert and Jiu-Jitsu coming too?”
Eddie rolls her eyes, and taps the mobile to mute herself, to Dylan. “She thinks she’s funny.”
He gives her a short smile. It’s been eight minutes or so since he was on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign, to ‘Anywhere’, his fingers nearly frozen off. He’d left the house before even the promise of the crack of dawn, not thinking of the cold, only thinking he couldn’t stay on this narrow cul-de-sac, behind a motorway near a drive-through Costa Coffee, a petrol station and miles of farmland, anymore.
He had no idea what was going on, except it was different.
“It’s barely 4am, mum. Justice, Lola and Eli won’t be up.”
“You mean you left them alone?”
Dylan pulls his dirt covered trainers up onto the dash, Eddie’s eyes narrow, as he shifts knocking the phone to the floor. He makes a crazed scramble for it as Eddie starts to yell towards the ground. He pulls his gloves from his hands with his teeth, then wrangles the phone from underneath his chair.
In an attempt to reach her mother Eddie alternates between screeching and yelling.
“OF COURSE NOT. They’re with friends. We’ll pick them up on the way. DON’T YOU WANT TO REST, mum? We’re going to be HOURS yet.”
Dylan successfully yanks the phone out and holds it aloft, only to return a crest-fallen Eleanor.
“I thought we’d keep each other company while I wait, and you drive. But you picked up company, I see. They’re bringing me some breakfast anyway.”
She clicks off, leaving Dylan and Eddie silent, while an enormous gritting truck screeches alongside them, flinging grit which spatters against the windscreen, as Eddie flicks on the wipers.
“She’ll call back in half an hour and it’ll be forgotten. Which gives me a little time to find my kids.”