“Don’t dare use the word ‘kidnapping’,” I say. I decided to ring Lana. Big mistake.
She babbles something. I respond, “I’m his dad. I am allowed to take him away for the weekend.” She babbles some more. “It’s not illegal. It’s merely impolite,” I say. The pitch of her voice goes up and so does the tempo. When she takes a breath I say, “He’s with me for the whole weekend. What difference does it make where we are? It’s our weekend together.” She rattles my ear until I interrupt, “No, there will be loads for him to do.”
Cindy approaches from the service station and stands close, listening. Then she silently mouths to me, this trip is an opportunity for me to bond with Kanu.
“This trip is an opportunity for me to bond with Kanu,” I say. The silence lingers, I pull the phone away from my ear to check if it’s still connected.
“Just be more organised next time,” Lana finally says. I don’t promise anything. She doesn’t know what to do with this conversation now that I’ve defused it.
“We’ve got to get back on the road,” I say.
“OK. Keep me updated.” Lana hangs up. I slide the phone back into my pocket.
“Thanks,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” Cindy says.
“No.” I take her chin in my hand. She looks up at me, “Thank you. You keep saving me.” I lean down and kiss her. Cold, tight tips and warm damp breath.
She pulls away after a couple of seconds and looks away from me, grinning, “Sometimes you’re just…”
“Come on, Kanu’s waiting.”
I turn towards the car and Kanu, who is sitting in the passenger seat, lowers his gaze when we make eye contact. It’s only 20 yards to the car but I reach down and link my hand into Cindy’s. She sighs and smirks, so I swing our hands and skip to the car. She laughs and tries to pull away but I hold tight.
When we get to the car, I walk her around to the back seat and open the door for her. She is swollen with embarrassment and punches me in the arm as she gets in.
I bounce into the front seat. Kanu is hunched over, ears plugged with white, wireless sticks, iPhone in his hands. I push him. He takes one stick out of his ear. “Did you get the coffees?” I ask.
He pulls back the sliding lid on the middle compartment in the car. The plastic tops of three cups look up at me, a mix of earthy and sweet smells drift up. I clap him on the shoulder then we split the drinks. Cindy takes the white chocolate mocha with whipped cream that she would never drink if she was working. It seems to fill the cabin with a vaporised, sugary, oil slick.
“What did you get?” I ask Kanu.
“Isn’t that just… water?”
“No. Decaf actually has more…
“I’m kidding around, Kanu. What’s on the playlist for the next leg of the journey?”
He takes out the other white stick from his ear, “You want me to pick the music?”
“Yeah, why not? More hyperpop?” I force a smile.
“What about Metallica or, erm, Pearl Jam?”
“Is that not how you say the band names?”
“No, that’s right. How do you know about Metallica and Pearl Jam?”
He shrugs, “About six months ago mum did a big clear out of the attic. You still had loads of CDs and stuff. I had a look through some of the bands.”
“You listened to the CDs?”
“Ha. No. I just looked them up on Apple Music. We took the CDs to a dump or a charity shop. I can’t remember.”
I try not to cringe at the thought of my sophisticatedly curated music collection rotting on a charity-shop shelf next to some old lady’s wool overcoat. “Did you listen to any of the other stuff? The garage or the house, or even the Motown?”
“Meh, I preferred the rock stuff. It has more energy.”
“Yeah, I guess it does.”
“Which one then?” he asks.
“Mix it up,” I say.
We set off, the three of us moshing lightly in our seats.
The journey is smooth. We have another quick stop at the last service station before the motorways end. We change the music again. This time Cindy picks a dreamy, ambient dance music playlist. Soon the motorway dissolves into major A-roads, then into snaking country roads.
A song comes on that makes Cindy laugh coyly. I tease the reason out of her. She tells us about working in Tenerife about 10 years ago. It was supposed to be single season at a hotel. It turned into a two year stay in the Canary Islands. Kanu asks her how on earth it happened. It seems impossible to him that someone could spontaneously go to another country, without a plan, and just find a job and work it out. A world before tests, quarantine and vaccination passports to travel. In fact a world when you didn’t need a vaccine passport to get a fucking job.
This stretch of road wraps around a mountain. A tall forest spills down the hill and into the valley. To the west the cool, spring sun bleeds over the horizon and leaves hot blotches of red and pink powdered dye in the clouds.
“Look at that view,” I say. “This is why you have to get out of the city.”
“It’s melting into…”
I slam on the brakes hard. I feel the frame of the car juddering under us. The tyres gripping, slipping and regripping. The road pulls high-pitch screams out of the rubber.
The car stops centimetres before a stag. It’s brown, felt antlers towering over the car bonnet. I can hear the ticking of the hazard lights that have come on automatically. I can feel my heart punching the inside of my chest into a hot bruise. I can taste the acid my gullet has spat into my mouth.
The stag is looking into the cabin, at me, shaking its head almost imperceptibly. It snorts out clouds of hot, wild breath, then jerks its neck in a wild spasm, clattering its antlers against the car. Eventually, it struts off the road and dissolves into the forest.
“Is everyone OK?” I ask, finally.