T. M. Logan
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 cerstiffa-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."CHAPTER 2
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 a 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.CHAPTER 3
I opened up the Angry Birds app on my iPad and passed it back to William, flicked on the radio for my own distraction. Five Live was running a piece about dating websites, featuring a series of quick interviews with women describing what they were looking for in their perfect mate. Expectations seemed to be pretty high. Their ideal man had to be at least six feet tall, in possession of a good sense of humor, a nice smile, and a six-pack. He had to be strong but not macho. Sensitive but good at DIY. Confident but not full of himself. Make decent money at work but still be around to do his share at home.
Blimey. It was exhausting just keeping track of it all.
Mel's cell phone went straight to voice mail again. I buzzed the window down and rested my elbow on the sill, absently turning the black leather bracelet on my right wrist as the radio presenter chattered on. Mel had given me the bracelet as an anniversary present: leather for three years. Now a big one was approaching — ten years — and there were already a few ideas on my list for that one. Ten was supposed to be tin, but someone had said you could substitute diamond jewelry for tin. That was good. My plan had always been to give her a bigger diamond than I could afford as an early-career teacher when we first got —
"What's up, big man?"
"Can I get a hamster?"
"Uh, don't know, William. We'll see."
We'll see. Parents' code for I won't mention it again, wait for you to forget.
"Jacob P. has a hamster."
"He's called Mr. Chocolate."
"That's a good name."
I smiled at my son in the rearview mirror as he played on the iPad. My son, the image of his mother. He was going to be a heartbreaker when he was older, that was for sure. His mother's face, her coloring, her big brown eyes.
And then there she was across the parking lot, walking quickly to her car: my pretty wife, dressed for tennis in her pink Adidas hoodie, blond ponytail tied up high.
She had her head down, a frown on her face.
Looks like she's about to cry.
I was suddenly glad we'd made this detour.
"William, I'm just going to talk to someone for a minute, OK? You stay here like a good boy, and I'll be right back."
He looked up at me with those big brown eyes. "Is it Mummy?"
"You stay here just for a minute, and don't get out, OK? Then after a minute, you can see Mummy."
"What if bad men come?"
"Bad men aren't going to come, big man. You'll be able to see me, and I'll be able to see you." I held up a finger. "One minute."
He nodded slowly but didn't look convinced.
Cell phone still in my hand, I got out and locked the car with the remote. The underground air was flat and sour in my nostrils.
Mel's VW was reversing out fast. Two lines of parked cars between me and her.
I waved. "Mel!"
The VW pulled off sharply, Mel pulling her seat belt across her chest with one hand as she accelerated hard toward the exit ramp. She hadn't seen me. Threading my way between the parked cars, I almost tripped on a low concrete divider between the rows, stumbled, shouted again, my voice flat against the low concrete ceiling.
Her car disappeared up the exit ramp, and then she was gone, out into the Thursday night traffic.CHAPTER 4
There was a soft chime from the elevator at the far end of the parking lot. The doors slid open, and Ben emerged, briefcase in hand, cigarette between his lips. He lit up and lifted his head to exhale, seeming to spot me out of the corner of his eye as he took his cell phone out of a jeans pocket.
He had seen me, I was sure of it.
He carried on walking as if he hadn't.
"Ben!" I said, waving.
He slowed, stared at me for a second, raised a hand half-heartedly as I walked over to him. He stood by his car, a pearl-white Porsche Cayenne with the number plate W1NNR, dressed in that casual-but-not-casual way you get when you spend a lot of money — designer jeans and tailored jacket. He looked at me like I was the last person he wanted to see, taking another drag on his cigarette.
There was a moment of silence, the smoke coiling lazily between us.
"Joe," he said finally, putting his briefcase down. "What are you ...? How's it going, big fella?"
"All good. Really good. How about you?"
"Yeah, sound. Business is booming, you know. You still setting the teaching world on fire?"
I had never been good at Awkward Guy Conversations. And Ben had never looked on me as an equal — more a bit of runner-up just another public- sector softie who wouldn't last five minutes in the dog-eat-dog world he inhabited.
"Something like that," I said, forcing a grin. "You just had a meeting up in the hotel?"
He opened his mouth to reply, closed it again. Tried to look past me.
"Yeah." He took another drag of his cigarette, blowing smoke from the side of his mouth. "A meeting."
"A work thing?" "Potential client. A lead I've been warming up for a while."
"You didn't see Mel?"
"My Mel. She was just here."
He almost flinched at the mention of her name, but caught himself. Instead, he just shook his head, dark eyes shifting toward his car.
"No, mate. Not seen her."
It was weird seeing him like this — evasive, reluctant, almost shifty — compared to his usual alpha-male demeanor. At the one and only poker game I had played at his house, he had regaled the table with a story about a former employee of his company who had quit to set up on his own, in competition with him. Ben had felt betrayed — so he had made it his personal mission to trash the guy's reputation in the industry, warning potential customers off, until the former employee's new company went bankrupt and he lost his house in the process. Ben had related the story with a trace of pride in a rival destroyed, an air of screw with the bull and you get the horns. It was the kind of guy he was. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of him.
"You sure you didn't see her?" I said. "I thought you were talking to her upstairs. It looked like serious stuff."
"Nope." He flicked his cigarette away. "Look, Joe, I've really got to go."
My tie suddenly felt too tight in my collar. He made to move past me, and I instinctively put a hand on his arm.
"Don't want to make a big deal out of it, Ben, I was just worried about —"
He whirled on me and grabbed two handfuls of my shirt, slamming me against the side of his SUV. He was surprisingly strong for his size, and his anger caught me off guard.
"Just leave it!" he shouted, northern inflection rising to the surface. Cigarette breath close in my face. "Just leave it alone, you big daft bastard! You have no idea! Bloody classic underachiever, that's all you are, all you've ever been."
He had anger, but I had size. At six foot two, I was six inches taller than he was. And at least forty pounds heavier.
"Leave what alone?" I said. "What are you talking about?'
"You're so fucking dense that you haven't seen it, have you?"
He shook his head in disbelief.
"None so blind as those that refuse to see, eh, Joe?"
With that, he pulled me forward so he could slam me back against the big Porsche again, and pain surged at the base of my skull. My hands bunched into fists, but some long-lost playground code said I couldn't hit someone smaller, shorter, lighter than I was. There was no way it could be a fair fight. Instead, I grabbed his hands and prized them away from my shirt, giving him a little shove to put some space between us.
He stumbled backward, tripped over his briefcase, and fell.
Hemmed in between two parked cars, he couldn't get his arms out to break his fall. There was a heavy wet smack as his head hit the concrete.
I stood over him for a moment.
He lay on his back, eyes closed, mouth open. One leg crossed under the other.
He didn't move.
Get up. I need to know what you meant. And why you're so pissed off. "Ben?"
I prodded his shoe with the toe of my mine. Maybe he was faking.
"Ben, are you all right?" The world's stupidest question.
Always asked when we already know the answer.
Was he even breathing? I crouched down to look at him more closely.
Just move, Ben. Do something. Anything.
"Ben, can you hear me? Wake up, mate."
The first stab of panic in my stomach. There was a trickle of blood coming out of his ear.
Oh, God. Oh no.