MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
My son’s first word wasn’t Daddy or Mummy. His first word was Audi. Which was strange because I’d never owned an Audi, and on my salary probably never would. But William had played with toy cars before he could walk and recognized the badges long before he could actually read the names. At the age of four (and a bit), he was already something of an expert, playing his car game as we inched along in the sluggish North London traffic, spotting badges and calling them out from his car seat in the back.
“Audi … Renault … Bimmer.”
We were almost home. The traffic lights up ahead began to change, and I pulled up third in line as they turned red. In the mirror, I could see him clutching his first School Superstar certificate in both hands, as if it might blow away in the wind. A CD of kids’ songs was playing low on my car stereo. I am the music man, I come from down your way …
William continued calling out cars. “Ford…’nother one Ford … Mummy car.”
I smiled. My wife—William’s mum—drove a VW Golf. Every time he spotted one, he’d call it out. Not a Volkswagen. A Mummy car.
“It’s a Mummy car. Look, Daddy.”
My phone buzzed in the hands-free cradle: a Facebook notification.
“What was that, Wills?”
“Over there, look.”
Across the divided highway, on the other side of the junction, a line of cars in the far lane filtered left onto an exit ramp. Rush hour traffic streaming through the junction, everyone on their way home. The low sun was in my eyes, but I caught a glimpse of a VW Golf. It did look like her car. Powder blue, five-door, same SpongeBob SquarePants sunshade suckered to the rear passenger window.
“Good spot, matey. It does look like Mummy’s car.”
I buzzed my window down and felt the cool city air on my face. A gap in the traffic opened up behind the Golf as it accelerated away down the exit ramp. It was a 59 registration license plate. My wife’s car had a 59 plate. I squinted, trying to make out the letters.
The number plate was hers—it wasn’t like her car; it was her car. There was the familiar buzz, the little glow in my chest I still got whenever she was nearby. The VW indicated left off the exit ramp and turned into a Premier Inn. It headed into the dark entrance of an underground parking lot and disappeared from sight.
She’ll be meeting a client, a work thing. Should probably leave her to it. She had been working late a lot recently.
“Can we see Mummy?” William said, excitement in his voice. “Can we can we can we?”
“She’ll be busy, Wills. Doing work things.”
“I can show her my certificate.” William couldn’t quite pronounce the word, and it came out as cerstiff-a-kit.
Honking from the car behind me as the traffic lights turned green.
“Please, Daddy?” He was jigging up and down on his booster seat. “We could do a surprise on her!”
I smiled again. It was almost Friday, after all. “Yes, we could, couldn’t we?”
I put the car in gear. Made a spur-of-the-moment decision that would change my life.
“Let’s go and surprise Mummy.”
I was in the wrong lane to turn right and had to get across two lanes of traffic. By the time someone had let me in—cue more furious hooting—the lights had gone red again.
“Where’s Mummy whizzing off to?” William said.
“We’ll catch her, don’t worry.”
My cell phone, in its hands-free cradle, blinked blue with the Facebook notification. I pressed the screen, and it brought up my picture of William in the school playground, clutching his first Superstar award from the reception class teacher. The post had four likes and a new comment from William’s godmother, Lisa: Awww he looks so cute! ? What a good boy! Give him a kiss from me xx.
I hit Like below her comment.
The traffic light went green, and I turned the wheel to follow the route my wife’s car had taken, down the exit ramp and left into the forecourt of the Premier Inn. Down the ramp into the underground parking lot, low concrete roof and deep shadows where the fluorescent lights didn’t reach, driving slowly along the lines of parked cars.
And there it was: her VW Golf, parked next to the elevator. Mel was nowhere to be seen. A sign on a concrete pillar read:
Parking lot for use by patrons of Premier Inn only.
There were no spaces next to her car, so I carried on around the circle and found a space in the row behind, backing in opposite an oversized white SUV that was clearly too big for the space it occupied.
“Can we go and see Mummy now?” William said. He was still clutching his “I’m a Superstar!” certificate in both hands like he was getting ready to present it to the Queen.
“Come on, then. Let’s go upstairs and find her. There’s an elevator.”
His eyes lit up. “Can I press the button?”
The hotel lobby had dark shiny floors and anonymous décor, a single waistcoated teenager on reception. William’s hot little hand gripped mine tightly as we stood looking for Mel. There was a rumpled man with a suit bag and briefcase, wearily checking out, a woman and a teenage girl behind him. An elderly Japanese couple sat in the reception area, poring over a map. But no sign of my wife.
“Where’s Mummy gone?” William said in a loud stage whisper. “Come on. Let’s find her.”
Reception was L-shaped, with elevators and the restaurant signposted around the corner. We followed the signs, away from reception. The restaurant was mostly empty. Recessed off to the left were the elevators and a raised seating area with large black armchairs facing each other across a handful of low tables.
Mel was there. She had her back to us, but I would have recognized her anywhere, the slender curve of her neck, honey-blond hair.
Hey, there. Surprise! Wait.
She was with someone. A man, talking in animated fashion. Something made me stop. I knew the guy she was talking to.
Ben Delaney, married to one of Mel’s closest friends. And he wasn’t just animated—he was downright angry, his face dark with frustration. He interrupted her, pointing his finger, his voice a barely controlled growl. Mel leaned forward and put a hand on his arm. He sat back, shaking his head.
Something was wrong with this situation.
Instinctively, I moved in front of William to block his view. My first thought was to go over and check Mel was OK, but not with our son in tow. Mel was gesturing with her hands now, Ben staring at her, frowning, shaking his head.
This is not something William should see.
“Come on, Wills,” I said. “Mummy’s busy. Let’s go back downstairs.”
“Has she gone?”
“Let’s wait for her in the car, matey. We’ll be close by.”
“Then I can show her my certificate?”
We got the elevator back down to the parking lot level and returned to my car. Mel’s number was at the top of the favorites list on my cell phone. It went straight to voice mail.
“Hi, you’ve reached Mel’s cell phone. Please do leave a message, and I promise I’ll get back to you as soon as poss.” Beep.
I hung up, redialed. Voice mail again. This time I left a message.
“Hi, love, it’s me. Give me a call when you get this? Just wanted to make sure you’re OK … that everything’s OK. Call me.”
I sat five minutes more, starting to feel slightly foolish. I was supposed to be at home by now, running my son’s bath. Drinking a nice glass of red. Thinking about making a start on tonight’s marking. But instead I was here, in an underground parking lot just off the North Circular, trying to work out what the hell was going on upstairs. I wanted to check on her but didn’t want to leave William. My suit shirt felt grimy and claustrophobic, a bead of sweat tracing a path down my rib cage.
So what’s the plan, Stan? What if Mel isn’t OK? What’s up with Ben? How long are you going to sit here with one bar of cell phone reception, waiting and wondering?
There wasn’t a plan. I wasn’t going to do anything, just sit there and wait. Surprise my wife.
I didn’t have a plan. It just happened.
Copyright © 2017 by T. M. Logan