Rachel Clarke – Passengers, past and present

“Is he still asleep?” I twisted around against the unrelenting seatbelt to see, my eyes lingering long enough to witness one rise and one fall of his dinosaur-clad chest, then several quick flutters of his blonde eyelashes on creamy cheeks.

“Yes, but stirring.”

“It’s just around this corner.”

We turned a slow lazy circle around a bend, and the sea was laid out like a carpet beneath us, rich blue with stitches picked out in white. As soon as the engine died, a squawk of alarm issued from the back, quickly followed by the whimpering confusion of a newly awoken one year old, outraged to find himself not ensconced in human arms but a plastic car seat already too small for his tall frame.

“You get Jack, I’ll get the picnic.”

I took a last grateful gulp of cool air conditioning and pushed open the door to greet the wall of heat.

We sat under the shade of the cliffs eating baguette, the salted butter only the French seem to know the secret to, and Emmental cheese. Jack walked unsteadily around the towel on the sand, his lack of confidence in his little chubby legs confirmed every time they tipped him too far to the left or right and he fell to the sand with a soft thump.

As the sun set, we trailed back up the cliff, sandy towels and strappy shoes shoved under arms or hooked on fingers, Jack on his dad’s shoulders, arms wrapped around his forehead, occasionally bending down to affectionately bite the top of his head.

The blast of cold air on hot skin as we pulled out onto the open roads of Southern France acted the same way a smell sometimes does, tugging on a memory so real it feels like a couple of seconds of time travel. I sat back in my seat and thought of mum.

There had been a heatwave in England. The country stripped its top off, bought up every paddling pool on Amazon, and took up barbequing. In London, the population squeezed itself into every park and green space available, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a soup of heat and sweat and evaporated Pimms.

In North London, I picked up mum from her smart Victorian terrace and drove her to the hospital. We made the same journey every morning, and each day was a tiny bit worse.

In the mornings, she was determined. Something about the light, maybe, or the sense each day gives of possibility, but before noon, we could still talk about the future, albeit tentatively. Sometimes it was plans that we would do together, trips we might take. Sometimes it was plans just for me, the children I might have, and I knew she was picturing a time where she wasn’t there to give me the advice in person anymore.

In the afternoons, though, she was tired. We drove home mostly in silence, the air con pouring out of the grates and pooling on our laps. There was an air of endings in the afternoons. Another day over, another day of treatment done. The drives back were hard, but I still savoured every moment together – talking, reminiscing, or just sitting side by side in the car watching the familiar streets slide by.

As we cruised into the Champagne region of France, my feet still bare and gritty with sand, Jack babbling softly to himself in the back, I had the sense of an ending again. We’d have to sell the car that had played host to those drives, those conversations. It felt like the walls, the seats, even the windows were imbued with them, the plans and the love and the quiet moments of kindness. I reached for my husband’s hand. I hoped whoever sat in this seat had someone’s hand to hold too. 

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