THREE PERSPECTIVES ON A TRIAL
'Why don't we go for a drive?'
Father's phrase stood out from the surrounding conversation, as if outlined with flashing neon lights. It wasn't that Father never spoke, just that most of what he normally said was either deadly dull, or unintelligible because its context was never explained.
The boy wondered if it was like this for dogs, the conversation of humans consisting of long stretches of meaningless mumbling, interrupted by the occasional profoundly interesting phrase, such as "Good Boy!", or maybe "Walkies!". No wonder they got so excited.
The family went through its usual ritual of preparing to leave the house: windows and doors checked, appliances unplugged, lights switched off, wrapping up warm. The car stood proudly on the short driveway, a strange washed-out pink colour, friendly curves beckoning, radiator seeming to almost smile with anticipation.
The boy sat in the front passenger seat with Mother while Father went through the rituals of getting under way. The car started after three attempts, coughing and spluttering into life. The whole car settled into a thrumming vibration. The boy could feel it through his feet, and in the seat, and it took visible form in the jitter of formless reflections in the windscreen.
The car backed out of the drive and glided up the road. In less than a minute they had gone further than the boy had ever walked in his life. Beyond all the places he was familiar with on foot, and out into the exciting strangeness of the world. The boy tried hard to remember the route, he wanted to walk to some of these wonderful places so briefly glimpsed as the car rushed past them. But as always, he got distracted and lost track after just half-a-dozen turns.
From time to time, they slowed. Whenever this happened, the boy was presented with a kind of tableaux, framed by the confusion of rushing images that he experienced at normal driving speed. Each scene lodged in his memory like a picture seen in a gallery. Many of them felt familiar, seen on countless drives in the past.
They stopped outside a large grey building with a complicated roof formed from several small extensions. The boy imagined being up on that roof, exploring the nooks and crannies. Maybe there were wild animals! Father disappeared into a bright glassed-section of the building, Mother said it was the Off-license, but the boy was none the wiser for this explanation. But he knew it involved father returning with bottles and a packet of peanuts, so it always felt like a good place to him.
As time passed, there were less buildings and more open space until suddenly they came upon a big roundabout with an incredible concrete bridge arching over it. They left the roundabout and climbed up a ramp onto the bridge. It was fantastic, a road in the sky! The boy could suddenly see for miles across the city. Buildings like shoe boxes, people like ants, cars like the toys he played races with in his bedroom.
The car rushed along a track, just like the slot cars his friend had got for Christmas, making a regular bump, bump, bump noise as the car crossed the joins between road sections. The boy imagined having the controller in his hand and squeezing it to make the car go faster, the tone of the engine getting higher and higher, until it leapt up and flew into the sky.
Finally they left the motorway. There were no buildings now, just a hundred shades of green and brown. Grass, bushes, trees, hedges, farm gates with muddy slashes visible behind them stretching across vast fields.
They came to a place where the road dropped abruptly into a valley. They were in bright sunshine, but black clouds stood above the valley at eye-level, at the bottom a solid curtain of rain, cut across the road ahead like a buzz-saw with a rainbow hovering in the sky somewhere in front of it,
They swept down the hill like the big-dipper ride. The boy felt the rush of excitement course through his whole body. “Wheeeeeeeeeeeh!” he shouted. The rainbow seemed to taunt him, moving always to stay always just out of reach, before disappearing altogether as they entered the darkness of the belt of rain. But then, just as suddenly as they had entered it, the rain was left behind and they were back into warm evening sunshine again. They turned off the road into a flat area of bare earth and coasted to a halt.
There was a canal nearby, and a bridge. As the doors were opened, the boy burst out of the car and rushed over to the bridge ahead of his parents. He couldn't to see over the parapet without jumping up and down, so he started looking for a way of climbing up. He heard Mother shouting, so knowing he didn't have long, redoubled his efforts, and with an explosive bound he was up!
John was tense, he must have had a bad time at work again. It wasn't hard to get him to talk about work, but when he did, it just never made any sense to her. In his accounts everyone seemed filled with hatred for him, making it their life's work to belittle him, spread rumours about him and try to show him up in front of the boss. Just last week he had taken a vicious pleasure in describing how one of his enemies had made a mistake with a machine that crushed his hand. The man would be off for weeks while the bruises went down.
So it was a real relief when John suggested a trip to the canal, even though she knew this would involve stopping by the pub. The normal routine would have been to just drive straight back home for an evening's solitary drinking, so she took this variation as a good sign.
The car took several attempts to start. She tensed up again, anticipating the negative effect on John's mood, but then it roared into life and she breathed a sigh of relief.
They took the back-street route again, he never explained why, but as she found the main road stressful so didn't feel like bringing the subject up. Of course this also meant she couldn't ask him why he kept slowing down in the middle of residential streets. Maybe he liked to look at houses, at least she could understand that.
After the off-license they munched their peanuts in silence as the car sped along the motorway. There was brief rain-storm and she worried they would have to give up and go home, but it was over almost as soon as it began.
Finally they coasted into a parking area by the canal. The sun was still comfortably above the horizon and the warm summer breeze tickled the foliage along the banks making it mysterious and desirable. It certainly had the desired effect on John Junior, he burst out of the car as she opened the door and sprinted for the nearby bridge.
She saw him trying to climb the parapet and an icy shock coursed through her. “Johnny! Stop! Wait!” she cried, breaking into a run to try to catch him before he could fall in.
The summer afternoon mocked him with its refusal to acknowledge his grief. He sat on the patio finishing the last of the whisky. Outside he was icily calm, but inside he felt the turmoil of his emotions chasing each other in circles.
It should have been his triumph, but he had never suspected that the boss was in it with the rest of them. In the end all of his carefully prepared evidence had been rejected and it had been reduced to his word against theirs. Now he knew he had never stood a chance, they didn't even give him notice, grim-faced security men escorted him straight to the gate.
He would not give any of them the pleasure of seeing his weakness. If this was the end, then let it be done properly. But the whisky was gone, he needed it to think straight.
“It's a lovely day, why don't we go for a drive, Johnny can catch sticklebacks at the canal.” It was as simple as that, she would have one last chance to redeem herself. If she failed, then fate would take its course.
With everyone on board, he performed the rite of The Starting of The Car. Choke pulled out, clutch disengaged, electric starter allowed to turn the engine just a few revolutions at a time for fear of draining the battery. The dynamo took forever to recharge it, and he hated to have to use the crank. It took several tries to get just the right combination of choke and accelerator before it coughed into reluctant life.
He drove through the back-streets. He didn't need the map that sat ignored in the rear foot-well. The shame and betrayal of every place he had ringed was burned deeply into his mind. He slowed right down as they passed each one, judging her reaction. As usual she showed no guilt, even though he had added the last two just this week.
What kind of monster must she be? He had shown her the site of every last one of her infidelities, yet she wouldn't even acknowledge them! He had discovered each of these places through painstaking research, listening to the bastards at work trade boasts of their conquests, piecing together the snippets of information they let slip in unguarded moments. Even then they never mentioned her by name, but to him the truth was clear and obvious.
Why had she betrayed him? He was ten times the man any of them were, he doubted if a single one of them even knew how to satisfy a woman. It was a sure sign of their inferiority that they laughed at him behind his back yet weren't man enough to confront him. But for all they had still managed to bring him down, hyenas mobbing a lone noble lion.
She must be warped inside to hate him so. Then an awful realisation struck him. How long had this been going on? Why had she been so willing to name the boy after him? He gritted his teeth and looked fixedly ahead, trying not to give away his despair. At last the welcoming silhouette of the pub came into sight and he pulled onto the forecourt. As he walked into the harshly-lit off-license, he shuddered with relief, then composed himself to make the transaction.
The rest of the drive went by in a haze of numbness. The shot he'd taken as he left the pub was wearing off as he pulled up to the canal. Luckily they were so intent on the water that he was able to take another from his freshly-filled flask as they piled out of the car.
The welcome calm and numbness descended upon him once more even as he was in the act of swallowing. He watched the boy sprint to the bridge, and his mother run after to save him from going over the parapet. Opening the rear door he saw the crowbar waiting patiently upon the folded map in the foot-well. He reached down and picked it up.