It’s Saturday morning and Mum’s not working today. As we all sit eating our breakfast on our knees dad suddenly gets to his feet and makes a momentous announcement. ‘I’m not going to the pub today,’ he says.
There is silence for a few moments and Sofia and me stop eating and look up from our Frosties at the same time. Then Sofia turns to me and a worried frown appears on her face, almost as if she’s expecting bad news.
But there is no bad news. Dad smiles – the second smile in less than a day – and even gives mum a little wink. ‘I’m not going to the pub because we’re all going to the seaside for the day!’ he says cheerily. “We’re all going to get in the car and we’re going to Brighton. Anyone for fish and chips?”
I’m not lying when I say I can’t remember the last time that dad took us all out for the day. He’s usually too busy or down the pub with his idiots. I just feel happy inside and can’t stop myself from grinning. Sofia grins, too. But then when no-one else is watching she gives me a very strange look, kind of like the look your teacher gives you when you thinks you’re up to no good.
It’s lovely and hot and sunny as we leave the house and cram ourselves into the car. It’s an old Nissan Micra that’s way past its sell-by date and keeps breaking down. Dad usually swears at it when he’s driving but today he’s unbelievably jolly. Mum sits in the front as dad heads up the motorway and begins to sing. “Come on!’ he shouts. “Join in! Let’s hear some singing from the back!’
The engine groans as the countryside rushes by but there is a warm glow inside the car. Everyone is happy. Everyone is smiling. Everybody except Sofia, that is, who reaches over and whispers something in my ear.
‘I can’t hear you, you stupid girl!” I spit. What with dad’s singing and the wind whistling by it’s difficult to hear anything. But I don’t need to hear what she is saying to understand. She’s talking about the money again. Doesn’t she ever stop going on about it? But even though she knows I’ve given dad some she doesn’t know how much. I didn’t tell her everything yesterday. I pull a face at her and she pokes her tongue out at me so I pinch one of her thighs really hard and she yells out.
“Are you two all right at the back?’ smiles mum.
Everyone’s smiling because of the money. I’m learning that money can buy smiles.
We reach Brighton and dad eventually finds somewhere to park. It’s the first time I’ve ever been here and even though it’s started to rain a tiny bit I find myself running towards the pier, where hundreds of people mill about buying ice-creams and doughnuts and bags of chips. Sofia races alongside me. “Don’t go too far,” yells mum, who is walking slowly behind us with dad. He has his arm around her, another thing that he doesn’t do very often. We spend a couple of hours in the arcade. Dad changes lots of money into 2p pieces and we feed them into the machines, trying to win the little prizes that are sitting on top of the piles of money. My fingers are soon tasting of metal. Then we get taken to have fish and chips. I get a the biggest piece and a really, really horrible gherkin which I wash down with diet Coke. Sofia has chicken nuggets and orange juice.
‘Wouldn’t it be nice it it was always like this?’ says dad, taking a gulp from a frothy pint of black Guinness. “I mean… It’s so great for us all to spend time together…”
“It’s lovely daddy,” says Sofia.
“It’s fantastic,” say I, although deep down I can’t help thinking to myself that the reason that we don’t all spend time together is dad. He’s always so shouty, or down the pub, or sleeping in the bedroom or calling everyone idiots that he sort of forgets all about us most of the time. I can see that Sofia’s thinking that, too. But neither of us say anything. We’re too happy and we don’t want to spoil the mood. Because days like this don’t come around very often.
We take a walk through the town centre. Dad buys us both some sweets and a comic book. He buys mum some jewellery and even though it’s not very expensive you can see that mum’s beginning to look a little concerned. She’s wondering where he got all this money from. As we walk dad draws us to him so that we’re all sort of huddling together. “Let’s hope this is all a new beginning,’ he says, although I wasn’t aware that anything had ever ended. ‘From now on life his going to be good,” he smiles a deep smile and although his face his beginning to wrinkle up he’s still handsome. His hair might be greying but he has it combed back like Elvis and at least he isn’t going bald like Smitty’s dad. He stops talking and kisses mum. Then he kneels down and kisses Sofia and she closed her eyes and grins. Then I wince as he reaches over and kisses me on the lips and smothers me in his arms; his breath smells of beer.
As the day begins to draw to a close we head for Brighton’s pebble beach. The sun is sinking behind an abandoned pier as dad spots a seagull that is in pain. It has fishing wire wrapped tightly around one of its feet, which has turned black. Dad approaches it slowly and it spots him but is too ill to fly away. With the help of another man who has seen what is happening, dad catches the bird and tries to pull away the fishing wire. As he does so it pecks at his fingers ferociously, making them bleed but that doesn’t stop my father. After a long time dad finally manages to pull away the wire and the bird screeches in agony. Then he puts it down on the floor and it sort of hobbles a little, looking very sorry for itself. It still cannot fly.
Dad turns to the man who helped him and offers him the hand that isn’t bleeding. The man is younger than dad and taller. He is smoking a cigarette. He reluctantly takes dad’s hand and shakes it before moving away quickly without saying a word. As he leaves he turns to look at Sofia and then he turns to look at me. Our eyes sort of meet for a few moments and I find myself looking down at me feet awkwardly. Then it occurs to me: there’s something about the man that is familiar. I’ve seen him somewhere before. I turn around to look at him but he has disappeared into the crowd.
On the way home from Brighton something bad happens.
Dad’s too tired to sing in the car but we’re all in a good mood as he drives down the motorway – probably a little too quickly. Sofia’s almost asleep, pinned into her seat by the seat belt. I’m thinking about school and wondering what Smitty’s doing when there is suddenly a very loud bang. It sound like a clap of thunder inside the car.
Dad shouts the F-word and turns to mum: ‘Did you see what idiot just did Janie?” he cries, suddenly angry.
Like Sofia, mum was also drowsing. She says nothing at first but looks to the rear of the car to check if me and Sofia are all right.
“He bloody banged right into me!” yells dad, shocked as well as angry.
The everything happens all at once: Dad carries on shouting, attempting to simultaneously keep his eye on the road and watch whatever is happening behind the car. Sofia wakes with a jolt and I grab hold of her hand and look into her eyes, trying to calm her.
Then there is another bang. If it’s possible this one is even louder than the other one and causes dad to temporarily lose control of the car. He swerves into another lane and several car horns can be heard tooting. Dad says the F-word a second and third time and then the car that bumped into us suddenly pulls up right alongside us. Inside, I think, are three men. From my position in the car I can’t see the driver and whoever is in the passenger seat but I can see the person in the back seat of the car because for a few moments that seem to last a lifetime we are almost nose to nose.
As we look at each other my mind takes in other detail. I notice that the car is red and looks very clean. I also notice that the car seems to be moving closer to ours, forcing dad to swerve away. As the brakes scream I find myself looking directly into the eyes of the person in the back seat of the other car. He’s probably in his twenties but looks older than he is because he has a long black beard. As our eyes lock the other man slowly smiles and then shakes his head as if to say ‘no’.
I’m suddenly terrified and I yell out ‘Mum!’
Mum looks over to me and says: “Are you ok love?’ As she says this there is a roaring of engines and the other car speeds away into the distance.
‘Get his number!’ orders dad. But before anyone can do anything the car has gone.