Something had happened. Something unexpected. He could tell by the maverick puff of gray smoke that hung above the M40 motorway; by the kaleidoscope jam of cars glinting under an otherwise blue sky; by the way the drivers craned their necks out of windows to see what was up ahead.
Jack kicked his soccer boots together in the backseat, feeling carsick.
“Where are we?”
“Nearly there. Oh, will you get out the bloody way! What is wrong with these . . . ?”
He glanced up to see his mother glaring in the rearview mirror. Behind them in the slow lane, a truck jutted up to the back of their car, its engine growling.
Kate nodded crossly. “He’s right up my back,” she complained, clicking on her indicator and looking for an empty space in the adjacent lane.
Jack rubbed his face, which was still sticky and red from running around the soccer field. The May afternoon hot air that blew in the window was mucky with exhaust as three thick rows of traffic tried in vain to force their way toward Oxford.
“I can’t even see his lights now. . . .”
A sharp spasm gripped Jack’s stomach. It made the nausea worse. He returned to his computer game. “Mum. Chill out. They probably have sensors or something to tell them when they’re going to hit something.”
“Do they?” She waved to a tiny hatchback in the middle lane that was flashing her to move in. “What, even the older ones?”
“Hmm?” he replied, pressing a button.
“Jack? Even old trucks, like that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, they don’t want to hit you, Mum. They don’t want to go to jail.”
Without looking up, he knew she was shaking her head.
“Yeah, well, it’s the one who’s not thinking that you’ve got to worry about, Jack. Last year, this British couple got killed by a French truck doing the same thing—he was texting someone in a traffic jam and ran right over them. He didn’t even know he’d done it, they were so squashed.”
“You told me,” Jack said. He flicked the little man back and forward, trying to get to the next level, trying to take his mind off his stomach.
“Oh, God—I’m going to be late,” his mother murmured, glancing at the car clock.
She hesitated. “Just an appointment at six.”
“What, the doctor’s?”
“No. Work related.”
He glanced at her. Her voice did that thing again, like when she told him the reason she took the train to London last week. It went flat and calm, as if she were forcing it to stay still. There were no ups and downs. And her eyes slid a tiny bit off to the right, as if she were looking at him, but not.
A flicker of white caught Jack’s attention in the side mirror. He saw the offending truck indicate to move in behind their car again.
He watched his mother, waiting for her to see it.
“Mum . . .”
He saw her glance behind them angrily.
“Oh, Jesus—not again . . . What the . . . ?”
Jack banged his boots together, watching dried mud sprinkle onto the newspaper she’d put down in the back.
When his voice came out, it was so quiet he could barely hear it himself over all the straining car engines.
“I could have come back in the minibus. You could have picked me up at school like everyone else.”
He saw her shoulders tense up.
“I wanted to see you play—it was the tournament final!” she said, the shrillness entering her voice again. “What, am I an embarrassing mum?”
“I didn’t say that,” he protested.
“Maybe next time I’ll come wearing my underwear on my head.”
She made a silly face at him in the mirror. He smiled, even though he knew that the silly face wasn’t hers. It was stolen property. He’d seen her studying Gabe’s mum when she did it. Gabe’s mum did it a lot, and it made them laugh. When Jack’s mum tried, it was as if the corners of her lips were pulled up by clothespins. Then two minutes later, her face went back to the usual frown that suggested she was concentrating hard on something private.
“It was nice to see Gabe today,” she said. “Why don’t you ask him round soon?”
Jack carried on playing his game. After what she’d done to their house this week, he’d never be able to ask anyone around again.
“Maybe,” he muttered.
“Oh . . . there’s the problem . . . Can you see?”
He leaned over and looked out the passenger side of the car and saw a flashing blue light around the bend to the left.
“Police,” he murmured, straining his head forward. “And . . . a fire engine.”
She looked so worried. He sighed quietly and put down his game.
“Oh, Mum . . . I’ve got something really good to tell you.”
“Next term, Mr. Dixon wants me to play reserve for this team he runs after school.”
“Does he?” She glanced at him. “That’s brilliant, Jack. . . .”
“But I’ll have to train on Wednesdays after school, as well, so perhaps I can go to . . .”
She wasn’t listening. In the mirror, he saw her eyes dart wildly back and forward between the blue light, and the truck now crossing lanes to sit behind them again.
“What?” She sounded bewildered.
“Why don’t you move into the fast lane? Trucks aren’t allowed in there.”
And she’d be farther away from the burnt-out car that was currently coming into view around the bend on the hard shoulder.
His mother stared at him for a second as if in a daze. Finally, she focused again. Then the clothespin smile returned.
“Good idea, Captain,” she said brightly. “But we’re fine here. Don’t worry about it, Jack.”
He saw her force a smile, causing her eyes to crinkle at the sides, just like Gabe’s mum’s did. Except Gabe’s mum’s eyes were warm and blue, offset by laughter lines and friendly freckles, whereas Jack’s mum’s eyes were still, like amber-colored glass. They sat in skin as white and smooth as Nana’s china, except for two dark shadows beneath them.
He knew his mum’s extra-crinkly smile was supposed to reassure him that there was nothing to worry about. He was only ten-and-three-quarters old, after all. She was the grown-up. She was in charge, and everything was fine.
Jack rubbed his stomach and watched the truck with a careful eye in the side mirror.
• • •
Oh, God. She was so late. She couldn’t miss this appointment. Now the motorway traffic had concertinaed into the city and jammed that up, too.
Kate turned off the packed ring road, and sped through the backstreets of East Oxford, taking routes the tourists wouldn’t know. Bouncing over speed bumps, she dodged around shoals of cyclists and badly parked rental vans evacuating ramshackle student houses for the summer. Where there was only room for one vehicle down streets so narrow cars parked on the pavement, she forced her way through, waving with a smile at oncoming queues of drivers, ignoring their mouthed insults.
“They’re here!” Jack shouted as she made the last turn into the welcoming width of Hubert Street.
Damn. He was right.
Richard’s black four-by-four was parked in its usual gentlemanly way outside her house, leaving the graveled driveway free for her. A box of pink tissues on the dashboard announced Helen’s presence. Of course they were here. They would have been here at the dot of five. Desperate to get their hands on him.
“So they are,” she said, turning into the drive and braking abruptly in front of the side gate. She pulled on the hand brake harder than she meant to. “Right—run. I’m late.”
They spilled out of the car, hands full of plastic bags of Jack’s school clothes, the empty wrappers of postsoccer snacks, and his homework folder for the weekend.
“Hi!” Jack called out, waving. Helen was mouthing “hello” from between Kate’s sitting-room curtains, her smile strangely girlish for a woman in her sixties.
Kate pursed her lips. Why hadn’t they waited in their car? That house key was for when they were looking after Jack, not for letting themselves in when she was late. Mentally, she tried to visualize what the house had looked like when she left this morning. What state was the toilet in? Had she tidied away her bras off the radiators?
Then, with the recoil of a trigger, she remembered what was upstairs.
Her cheeks burned. She looked down at the ground, slammed the car door, and locked it. She was supposed to tell them before they saw it. She needed to explain.
She marched after Jack and up to the front porch.
“Hello! Have you grown again, young man?” Helen called, flinging open the door.
“Not since last week, I don’t think, Helen,” Kate exclaimed from behind them. Why did she say these things? They all knew he was small. Pretending he wasn’t was doing Jack no favors.
“Gosh, you’re going to be tall like your dad.” Helen laughed, ignoring her. She placed her arm around Jack, and led him through the hall to the kitchen.
“Everything OK, Kate?” she called back. “Traffic?”
“Yup. Sorry.” Kate gritted her teeth as she closed the door behind her.
“Let me take those.”
She turned to see Richard striding toward her, his hands outstretched, oblivious to her chagrin that he had just let himself into his daughter-in-law’s house. His imposing frame filled the hallway. “How did you get on? Traffic?”
“Yes, sorry,” she said, giving him Jack’s homework. She could smell Richard’s usual fragrance of pipe smoke.
Kate looked up into Richard’s serious and questioning brown eyes, waiting for them to check that Jack was out of earshot. But they didn’t. Instead he turned on his heels and followed after Helen and Jack into the kitchen, grinning through his gray-flecked beard at the sight of his grandson.
“So did you beat their socks off, sir?” he boomed at Jack, who was stuffing a muffin in his mouth.
Kate glanced up the stairs.
It was still there.
Richard hadn’t seen it.
She checked her watch. Five twenty. The woman wanted to see her at six sharp in North Oxford. The traffic was so bad, she was going to have to cycle. Kate quickly worked out a few figures. Thirty-four . . . Eighty-one—or was it eighty-two? Damn it, she needed that new computer. The chances were high, anyway.
She shook her head. It would have to be OK.
She followed Richard through to the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and bent down to find her helmet.
“Helen, do you mind if I rush off?”
“Of course, dear,” Helen chirped, filling up a jug at the sink. “Sound interesting?”
“Um—just a woman who might have some renovation work,” Kate said, avoiding Helen’s eye.
“Oh, well, good luck, dear.”
Kate turned to see Jack, his mouth still too full of muffin to answer his grandfather’s question about the match score this afternoon. He was grinning and sticking up two fingers like Winston Churchill.
“Peace, man?” asked Richard. “It’s the nineteen-sixties, is it? No! Two-all, then? No? What? A bunny rabbit jumped onto the field?” Richard chortled, his arms wrapped around his rugby player’s chest, as his grandson shook his head at his jokes. “What? Two-nil then?”
Jack nodded, laughing, dropping crumbs out of his mouth.
“Aw—well done!” Helen clapped, cheeks as pink as cupcakes.
“Good lad!” Richard exclaimed. “Was he good, Mum?”
Kate grabbed her helmet from the back of the cupboard and went to stand up. “He was. He made a good save, didn’t you?”
As she spun around, the sight of Helen and Jack together took her by surprise.
A pit of disappointment settled in her stomach.
Jack was a clone of her. You couldn’t deny it.
Kate buckled up her helmet, watching them. However desperately she willed his hair to darken and thicken like Hugo’s, or for his green eyes to turn brown, it was Helen and Saskia who Jack took after. As he sat beside his grandmother, the similarities were painfully obvious. The same pale hair that was slightly too fine for the long skater-boy cut he desperately wanted; delicate features that would remain immune to the nasal bumps and widening jaws that would wipe out his friends’ childhood beauty; the flawless skin that tanned so easily and would remain unmarked by Kate’s dark moles or Richard and Hugo’s unruly eyebrows.
He was nearly eleven and nothing was going to change now. Jack would be a physically uncomplicated adult, like his grandmother and aunt, with none of the familiar landmarks of his father.
Kate stood up straight and made herself stop thinking. She walked to the fridge and opened it.
“Oh, by the way, Helen, I’ve made this for tonight,” she said, pulling out a casserole dish and lifting the lid. “It’s just vegetables and lentils. And some potatoes . . .”
She stared at the stew. It was an inch or two shallower in the dish than she’d left it this morning.
“Jack, did you eat some of this this morning?” Kate asked, looking around alarmed. He shook his head.
The kitchen window locks and the back door were all intact. She turned to check the window at the side return—and came face-to-face with Helen, who had come up behind her.
Helen took the casserole gently from her, replacing it in the fridge.
“Now, don’t worry about us, Kate. We stopped at Marks on the way over. I got some salmon and new potatoes, and a bit of salad.”
Kate saw the salmon sitting in her fridge on the shelf above the casserole, and felt the waves of Helen’s firm resolve radiate toward her. “Oh. But I made it for tonight. Really. There’s probably enough for the three of you if you have it with some bread. I’m just confused at how so much of it has disappeared. It’s as if—”
“Oh, it’ll have just sunk down in the dish when it was cooling,” Helen interrupted firmly, shooting a reassuring smile to Jack. “No, Kate. You keep it for tomorrow.”
Kate stared into the fridge. Was Helen right? She tried to see a faint line of dried casserole that would prove its original height.
There was nothing there.
“OK,” she heard herself say lamely. She shut the fridge. They could eat their bloody salmon. Jack didn’t even like it. He only ate it to be polite.
“Now, you’re probably starving, darling, aren’t you?” Helen said to Jack, taking Kate’s apron off a peg to put on. There was a fragment of canned tomato on it, left over from making the stew this morning, Kate noted, that was about to press against Helen’s white summer cardigan.
She started to speak, and then didn’t.
“OK, then . . .” Kate hesitated, checking the clock. “By the way . . .” They both looked at her. Jack looked down at the table.
“I’ve . . . have you been up . . . ?” She pointed at the ceiling.
They shook their heads. “No, dear,” Helen replied. “Why?”
Jack slowly chewed his muffin.
“Well, I haven’t got time to explain, but anyway, don’t worry about it. It’s just . . .”
They waited expectantly. She realized Jack’s jaws had stopped moving.
“I needed to do it. And it’s done now. So—see you later.”
And with that, she marched out the door of her house—her house—cross that she had to explain it all.
Kate Parker has weathered unimaginable horrors—her parents died in a traffic accident on her wedding night, and her husband, Hugo, was murdered in a tragic break-in gone wrong. All she has left is her young son, Jack, and determined to make a better future for him, she attempts to pull her life back together. But are she and her son safe?