Brendan hovers at the door of the lock-up, glancing back to the garden gate, which Anna has left swinging open. He hears the sound of a thump and immediate swearing.
’Course, comes a voice out of the darkness, Never better! Now hand me that bloody torch before I brain myself.
Brendan takes two steps in, and finds the torch on the bonnet. There’s the roll of wheels on concrete as Anna slides out from under the car. She raises her hand, grabs the torch, and slides back in. Brendan stares at the floor where Anna briefly was. He is full of admiration until he sees her toolbox, which is full of tubes of glitter and sticks of Pritt.
Didn’t know you were good with engines, he says, picking a paintbrush out of the box.
I’m not, she says, I’m trying . . . to find . . . this . . . leak.
There’s something familiar about the board she’s using, but it’s too dim to see.
Brendan bends his head under the chassis, but all he can make out in the wavering torchlight is Anna’s hair, spilling over the concrete like oil itself.
Quite a big leak, I’d imagine, he says, straightening up to better view the sticky patch under his feet, Not something you can fix with a bit of Blu-Tack.
Anna slides back out again. She’s been using an old skateboard as a truckle. She stands up, flails a length of crepe bandage at the car.
No. Well, it was worth a try.
You were going to bandage it? asks Brendan.
I saw it in a film, says Anna.
And this is the crisis? he says, You know I’m hopeless with things that go.
Brendan shines the torch directly on Anna, then clicks it off. She has spatters of oil on her face and in her hair.
I’ve got to get to Yarmouth, says Anna, thumping the bonnet, But not in this old crock.
The sun outside is bright and warm, despite the early hour. Anna opens the lid of the wheelie bin and throws the bandage in, leaving a clear pattern of her hand on the lid.
Stand still, says Brendan, licking a finger, Just a tiny speck here.
He rubs at the tip of her nose.
Clean as a whistle, he says, starting to laugh. Anna looks down at her filthy clothes, and spreads her hands at him.
Think I’ll just have to take the train.
Good plan. But get a wash before you go, says Brendan, Your mother will have a fit if she sees you in that state. And you don’t want to go making things worse.
Brendan swings the gate behind him, lifting it up on the hinges so the catch slots into the housing. They stand and inspect Anna’s garden. The path is littered with weeds and broken pegs. At the far end, caught on the brambles, a plastic carrier bag dances in the wind.
I’m going to have to bring her back this time, she says, She’s not fit to be left. Don’t suppose you could do me a favour, Brendan?
Now what could it be, I wonder? he says, following her gaze.
Anna goes to tuck her arm in his, stopping when she sees the oil on her hands.
My mother loves her garden, the birds especially, says Anna, Could you just tidy it up a bit? Maybe get a bird-table? Some pots? Make it look lived-in.
As opposed to died-in, he says, And how long have I got to effect this transformation?
Anna kicks at a clump of grass growing through the paving.
I’m hoping to bring her back in a day or two, she says, not daring to meet his eye.
I see. So I’m supposed to spend my weekend in the garden centre with a load of humbug-sucking geriatrics, while you go to the seaside. Can’t see what’s in it for me, he says.
Anna gives him a nudge.
They have geriatrics at the seaside too, Brendan, And you get to feed my squirrels.
His eyes flicker with distaste.
How tempting. I suppose your mother loves them, as well?
You’re joking, cries Anna, She uses a pump-action water pistol in her own garden if she gets even a sniff of one. Her aim is brilliant. She calls it “dispatch.”
Brendan considers for a moment. He stands in the centre of the path, squinting up at the trees and pale morning sky.
I like the sound of your mother, he says, But what if she won’t budge?
Forgetting the state of her hands, Anna rubs her fingers against her brow, pressing them into her eyes and dragging them down her face.
I’m taking no prisoners, she says, She’ll come back if I have to drag her by the hair.
Her face when she looks at him is fierce.
What’s so funny? she says, seeing Brendan’s grin, C’mon, share the joke.
Minnehaha wash off warpaint, he says, And then I’ll walk you to the station.
* * *
Lewis puts his hand between the doors and forces them, just as the driver is about to pull off. He gives Lewis a look, but thinks better of saying anything, and presses the release button to let him on.
Do you want that stowed? he asks, pointing at Lewis’s kitbag.
You’re alright, says Lewis, snatching his ticket and moving along the rows of seats. There are more people than Lewis expects at this time of the morning, and he takes them in immediately: a pair of elderly women at the very front, sitting on opposite sides and exchanging weather talk across the aisle; a teenage boy fussily putting an ear-piece into his ear and looking out of the window, down at his iPod—looking anywhere but at Lewis. Directly behind the boy are two Chinese girls, both wearing brown uniforms and serious expressions. Mid-way along, two workmen in overalls have their eyes closed and their mouths open. At the back of the coach, where Lewis is headed, he sees something which makes his heart miss a beat: a bent figure in a red lumberjack shirt. The man straightens up, unfolds his newspaper, and Lewis breathes again. It’s not Manny.
He puts his head against the window. The cold glass is welcome after the brisk walk to the bus station. Once they move onto the ring-road, Lewis takes off his jacket and throws it on the back ledge. He catches a glimpse of the stadium before the coach dips under the new fly-over. His return home to Cardiff has lasted only a week. He doesn’t want to go through it, but he knows he can’t not. As soon as he closes his eyes, he sees again the sun, shining like a searchlight through the trees, and the finger pointing at him, and the water lapping at his feet. He hears the cry of the wood pigeons; Don’t go, don’t leave me. Don’t go, don’t leave me.
He should have gone back to Manny’s and told him about it. Manny would have helped him through. He hears Manny’s voice, calm and low: You need to put this to bed, son. The dead can’t hurt you, only the living can hurt you. There’s no such thing as ghosts. Now, let’s go through it again.
He could have stayed at the site and waited for Carl to turn up. But Carl wasn’t going to turn up, was he? Not now he’d got himself a set of wheels. Thinking about the van, about the whole business of his return to Cardiff—that idiotic idea he had, of making his peace with his mother—Lewis is glad to be done with it. It wasn’t as if it were his van, anyway. Not as if his mother had wanted to see him. Going back was just another mistake.
It was an error, Lewis says, precisely and out loud, as if saying it will make it true. The man in the lumberjack shirt twists his head round and looks at him.
The early morning sky has lost its fresh pink light; chasing the bus to London is a bank of dirty grey cloud blowing from the west. Lewis isn’t noticing the weather: he’s focusing only on the pattern of graffiti scored into the head-rest of the seat in front of him. He’s putting his hand on the letters; he’s thinking of nothing.