‘How much longer?’ Benji asks. He’s playing on his Switch in the back-seat; the tinny sound effects an accompaniment to Daisy’s strained breathing.
‘Not long, the sat-nav says ten minutes.’ I flit my eyes between the screen and the road, gently turning the steering wheel.
‘A whole ten?’ He groans, shifting about on the leather.
‘Why don’t you put your game away, look out the window for a bit—you’ll give yourself a headache,’ Daisy suggests from the passenger seat.
‘You don’t want a headache before seeing Granny.’
‘What if I do?’ he challenges.
Daisy ignores him. Today he’s dressed in a white t-shirt with a cartoon monster printed in the centre, and his baggy green shorts. I always think that the monster t-shirt inspires some sort of misbehaviour in him. He puts his Nintendo away in his rucksack, and kicks his legs, which don’t yet reach the floor, against the back seat. Daisy ignores that too. She’s mopping her forehead with a tissue, the windows are all down, funnelling loud air into the car, yet sweat beads still roll down her temple.
‘Bloody hell it looks different.’ I observe the view out the window, as we turn onto the old estate.
‘Language!’ Daisy quips.
I cast her a glance, challenging the severity of the phrase bloody hell. She holds my gaze.
‘They’ve extended the estate, look at all those new-builds!’
‘I guess there’s more demand for homes out here… somewhere more rural.’
‘Well it’s no longer rural if they’re planting these plastic dog-houses on top of it!’
I think back to leaving our house, in London, at 10am this morning. I helped Daisy dress, and got Benji eggs and soldiers. Pigeons cooed on the windows outside, with more space to move than our family had inside the four walls. I had insisted to Daisy it had to be London, or else I’d lose my job. She understood. We danced around one another grabbing bags and rain-coats, just incase, whilst Benji sat on the sofa, eyes glued
to the TV. We loaded the bags into the car, almost forgetting to bring our son, as he sat silently, transfixed by a rerun of Scooby-Doo.
My heart plummets, to a point at the bottom of my stomach. I slow to 10mph, abiding the speed limit as we enter a residential road, and observe the countryside in the gentle valley beyond my mother’s home. The once endless patchwork of green, gold and brown, has been mutilated by a large barrier, erected from the earth, advertising shiny pictures of new homes and modern-living. Photoshopped men and women laugh and
clink glasses in their minimalist kitchens, with big text-boxes naming prices stamped over their faces.
Beyond the wall are cranes, and a multitude of bare brick foundations. Beyond the second wall on the otherside, I can just about make out the golden-needles of wheat. I find comfort in the sight. Beyond me is the yawning vacuity of the past. I have the feeling we are driving, bonnet first, towards the end of time.
‘We’re here!’ Daisy sings, as I pull into the shared, tarmac driveway.
‘Yay, yay, yay, yay!’ Benji claps, jolting the door-handle.
‘Let me get that, it’s child-locked,’ she explains—an explanation she gives patiently, every single time he rattles the door to get out.
I catch a glimpse of my face in the wing mirror as I step out of the car. I have my mother’s deep grey eyes, and recently acquired salt-and-pepper hair, as Daisy calls it—in her attempt to soften my early greyness. There are dark sweat-stains under my armpits. I move around the car and let Benji out, who immediately darts towards the terrace house, yelling, ‘It’s Granny!’
I open the passenger seat door for Daisy. She is grateful as I lift her from the seat, bearing a poorlyconcealed weariness. My mother is stood in the doorway, waiting, as though she had been stood here since I last left. Benji attaches himself to her leg, around her white dress, and she pats his head like a golden retriever. Her hair still possesses that honeyed-blonde. Physically, she is the tall, immortal anthropologist she has always been. I feel ashamed at my greying-affliction.
‘Did you see your friend’s house?’
‘Oscar?’ I ask. We’re sat around the table, suitcases littering the floor. I can see Benji through the window, running around the green garden—a small space my mother fought so hard to make hers.
‘Yes, the boy you used to play with when you were little? It’s gone.’
‘Yes, they ummm, what’s the word—ah, demolished it to build a corner shop. Do you still see the boy?’
‘No, no, Mum. We lost touch after school. He works on construction sights now…a manager or something.’
‘Well, his family upped and left,’ she continues, ‘nothing for them, here.’
‘It’s all different,’ I exhale.
‘Hah,’ she laughs, ‘of course dear, you haven’t been here for years. No one’s stood around waiting for you.’
I observe the one detail that hasn’t changed: my mother’s tiny radio in the corner of the room, talking to itself, playing a comedy-show from Radio 4.
‘Mummy, mummy!’ Benji runs in through the open doors, his long, green shorts flapping like wings.
‘What is it?’
‘Look what I found, look!’ He can hardly contain himself, as Daisy, with great strain, gets off her chair and squats down to his eye-level. He opens his palms and reveals to her a round, pure, white egg.
‘Oh, wo-o-o-w,’ Daisy smiles, patting him on the back.
‘What is it?’ he asks.
Back in London, the only eggs Benji has ever seen are stamped with red expiry dates, from supermarket shelves.
‘It’s a little birdie’s egg,’ she tells him, wobbling on her ankles, ‘a mummy bird laid that egg, and she wants to keep it warm so that it’ll hatch.’
‘Can I have a bird? I’ll keep it warm, in the oven.’
‘No baby, you can’t.’
‘We need to take it and put it back in her nest. I expect it fell out, and mummy bird misses her baby very much.’
My mother and I both observe this exchange, with folded arms. I imagine a reversion back to that mindset, of un-knowing, of curiosity. What I would give to find ten minutes a long period of time, and marvel at the sight of a tiny egg.
‘O-w-w-w, I wanted it,’ Benji howls.
‘You can keep an eye on the nest, and see how the birdies are doing whilst we’re here, at Granny’s,’ Daisy suggests, lifting herself from her position. I go to assist her, raising her willowy arms. She guides Benji out into the garden, to put the egg back. I watch her thick brown hair shudder in the breeze.
‘How’s Delilah doing?’ my mother asks, moving from the table to sit in her armchair, facing out of the French doors. The radio continues to warble on.
‘Daisy,’ I correct her.
‘I think she’s fed up,’ I report.
‘How much longer?’
‘She’s due in three weeks, otherwise we’d have stayed here longer.’ I look out the window, and observe Daisy’s planetary form, wobbling about the garden like a Russian Doll, as she searches for the nest with Benji. Her green gingham dress balloons out at the front, her face pink from the heat. My mother taps her feet on the floor, a slow, confused rhythm, with nothing further to say on the matter.
The afternoon has reached a scolding crescendo, I stand, facing out the window, looking at the vast fields beyond the housing estate. My mother is still in her chair, Benji telling her a long, blunt list of all the things he’s learning at school. She nods, letting the words drift over her, around her. I draw Daisy into me, and she rests her nose in my armpit—a strange choice, I think to myself.
The black, wire form of a crane obscures the skyline, but the countryside is still there. I wonder how many generations of foxes, how many mummy-foxes, and baby cubs lived out in these hills, encased in their secret lives, and how many eggs fall from trees, or are lucky enough to hatch into tiny nestlings. A melted-butter sun pours out onto the landscape, and I think, if I squint hard enough, I can see the woodland I found the tadpoles in, in the dense heatwaves on the horizon.
I hold Daisy, tight and close, resting my hand over the full arc of her belly, our second treasure. She smiles knowingly up at me. I hadn’t been back here for a long time, decades. My mother always came to us, as she was eager to move around, see things and do things. She liked coming to pick Benji up from school, and take him on walks
around the small green spaces of London. When Dad died she got lonely, and visited often. I’ll give you and Daisy some time to yourselves, she’d say, and disappear into the grey of the city with my son, and my car keys. Now, she rarely remembers my name when I call, and asks me whether I’ve done my homework.
‘I’m forty, Mum,’ I have to remind her. We decided she couldn’t travel, so we drove the six hours to Devon to come and see her. It was the summer holidays, I had time away from the bank, and Benji was off school. I wanted him to see the hills I grew up in, though he’d have no understanding of their significance. How could he?
Daisy draws away from me to sit down and mop her forehead once more. I step away from the window, and notice a bottle stuck out of an otherwise empty paper bag.
‘Mum, shall I put this away for you?’ I ask, assuming it’s a forgotten item of shopping.
‘Oh, yes, that’s for you,’ she says absent-mindedly, staring out of the window into some milky abyss only she can see.
‘For me? Thanks Mum.’ I lean down, and open it, drawing back the brown paper. ‘Oh.’
‘What is it?’ Daisy asks.
‘Thanks Mum, really, thank you.’ I nod at her, but she is in some other dimension, observing the paper clouds and crayon sky.
‘Daddy, daddy, daddy—‘
‘—daddy, can I have a look?’
I get four glasses from the cupboard, and lay them down on the table. The long, impenetrable heat of the day renders my family shiny: cast in the glow of their own sweat. Daisy watches me, large blue eyes, and pink cheeks, Benji, sits expectantly on his knees at a chair so that he can see over the table, and my mother, still pointed out the window, listens to the radio. I pour them each a glass, then distribute them. Daisy takes her glass with delicate caution, whilst Benji’s hands are clammy and excitable.
My mother’s fingers tremble, in clasping it: the strawberry juice.
‘Thank you,’ she says, ‘it’s good to have you home.