We need to make the ferry before sundown, the boy and I, so I drive faster than I should. I take silly risks and the motor ends up on its side in the ditch.
The boy’s fine though. I check him over, shielded from traffic. A little bruised, but fine. I tell him to stay there, and I’ll sort everything out. Up on the road, I wait for someone to come by. It’s quiet and I stand for a long time. The sky’s going all red, stressing me out.
‘What’s going on?’ says the boy.
‘Don’t worry,’ I shout back. ‘Just stay down.’
A car comes towards me over the hill. It’s white. I never liked white motors. They get dirty too easy. I show it my thumb and it just whizzes past. ‘Bastard,’ I hiss. Typical white motor.
Another five minutes and it’s getting chilly. We’ve got an hour before the ferry goes. ‘C’mon,’ I whisper to myself and the word jangles around my mouth from the coldness.
Someone drives towards me over the hill, only this time it’s red. I’m not taking any chances, so I step out into the road and wave my arms. The red motor whines to a halt and I press my palms together and shake them at the driver to say thanks as she rolls down her window.
‘What’s happened?’ she asks. Older, the woman, but still nice enough looking.
I go over and crouch down beside her window. You do that, to gain folk’s trust. Get down to their level. ‘I’ve had a car crash,’ I tell her. ‘Can you give me a lift?’
‘My god,’ she says, leaning over to see my car, in the ditch. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Aye, I think so.’
She eyes me, all concerned looking, and I realise my mistake.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m fine like. Just a bit shaken up. Physically fine.’
‘I’m sure you’re shaken up. Where do you need to go to?’
‘I need to get to Ullapool.’
‘All that way? But surely you could get someone at…’
I interrupt her. ‘I’ve got a mate there. He’s good. He’ll get me sorted.’
‘Well,’ she goes. ‘It’s a bit out my way.’
I don’t say anything. Just give her one of my special looks until she breaks and nods. ‘Get in.’
I jog round the motor and whistle to the boy on the way. He comes scrabbling up from the ditch and gets in the back as I lower myself into the passenger seat.
‘Who’s that?’ she says, turning to look at the boy.
‘Does this seat not go back?’ I ask, fiddling beneath it with my legs all folded up against the dashboard. I’m tall like.
‘No,’ she says. ‘It’s broken. Sorry, again, but who’s that?’
‘That’s my son.’
She can’t say anything about that so she just starts up the motor and away we go. I keep fiddling with all the handles and that beneath the seat because the dashboard’s killing my knees and I pull on something and it breaks off in my hand. I hide it and leave the seat as it is.
‘So what happened then?’ she asks. ‘With your car?’
‘Some idiot,’ I tell her. ‘He came round the bend too quick and was on our side.’
‘God,’ she says. ‘They should make them retest every year or something. It’s especially bad out here. People think just because there’s no police they can behave how they like.’ If she was cleverer she’d have noticed the bend wasn’t sharp enough for what I said to be accurate.
‘Very true,’ I say. ‘Very astute.’
‘Are you alright pal?’ she asks the boy through the rear view mirror.
‘He’s fine,’ I tell her. ‘I checked him over.’
‘I’m fine,’ confirms the boy. He’s a good lad. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.
‘I gave him the old once over,’ I laugh.
‘I’m sure you did, it’s just that you can’t often tell. With car accidents.’
‘What d’you mean like?’
‘You can’t always see the injuries. Whiplash and things like that.’
I nod and twist in my seat to face the boy. ‘Have you got whiplash?’ I ask him.
I give him a thumbs up and twist back. ‘See? He doesn’t even know what whiplash is. If he had whiplash I’m sure we’d know all about it.’
She doesn’t seem convinced but doesn’t go on about it because it’s up to a person how they look after their bairn. Everyone knows that.
We drive for a while in silence, all three of us. The motor’s warm enough, which is a blessing. It’s a rickety old thing but as long as the heater’s working I’m happy for now. I keep glancing over at the woman. She’s not as old as I first thought. Just tired I suppose. In other circumstances, like for example if I didn’t have the boy with me, I bet she’d have been all over me. She looks like she might be a nurse, or something like that. Some sort of loser like that.
‘So,’ she says, eventually. ‘Are you local?’
‘Sort of,’ I say. ‘You?’
‘Starting to feel it. I’ve been up here about ten years. I’m from down south originally.’
‘Is that right? You’ve got one of those… inbetweeny accents.’
‘Well I didn’t use to. What do you mean by sort of?’
‘I mean, well, I am local I suppose.’ I don’t want to tell her about how I’ve been staying in the motor for the past few weeks. It would be a proper mood-killer.
‘Does your mum know about your wee adventure?’ she asks the boy in the mirror. ‘She’ll be worried.’
‘Mum’ll be worried?’ the boy asks, rising in his seat.
‘It’s alright pal,’ I tell him, and then to the woman, ‘Best not to mention his mum. They’ve not been getting on. That’s how come he’s back with me.’
‘Why’s she going to be worried?’ he asks.
‘Pack it in,’ I tell him, a wee bit of sharpness in my voice, by accident.
‘That’s alright,’ she tells me, raising her gaze into the mirror. ‘I just meant she might be worried about the car falling over.’
I turn and see him watch her reflection. He’s getting big, I think, and I wonder to myself how old he is now. The woman throws me a quick glance that she thinks I don’t notice, but I do. It says: this bloke seems a wee bit shifty.
Time to kick in the charm. The last thing I need is her mouthing off about us to the next person she meets. ‘I bet I can guess what job you do,’ I say to her.
She laughs. ‘Is that so?’
She smiles and tells me to go on then and so I pretend like I’m considering her and working her out and thinking. ‘It’s to do with health,’ I say.
‘I’d say you were a doctor but you don’t seem poncey enough.’
She loves that. Does a great big chuckle and tells me to go on again.
‘Well, what else is there to say? You must be a nurse.’
‘Very good. Very good indeed. Totally wrong though. Good try.’
I kind of sort of get worked up about that, even though I don’t mean to. Her saying ‘good try’ like that. Like she’s looking down at me. ‘What are you then?’ I snap.
‘I just work in an office,’ she tells me. ‘No healthcare involved.’
‘Aye alright then,’ I say. ‘No need to rub it in.’
We drive on in silence and all the time she’s giving me more of these shifty wee looks. Does she think I’m daft and don’t notice or something? I keep my cool though. No danger am I going to spoil things after coming so far.
The road starts to take us downwards, out of the hills, and the town opens up before us like something in a shell. We’ve still got some light left. I check the clock on the dashboard and it says we’ve got twenty minutes til the last ferry goes and I’m slapping my knees with excitement. That’s when he starts.
A high raspy whining from the back seat. I turn back to him and his pus is all blotchy and sore looking from crying.
‘Hoi pal,’ I say, all nice. ‘What’s up? Are you tired? Is that it?’ I reach back and grip him by the knee-bone.
He shakes his head, struggling to get the words out.
The woman’s worried. ‘Is he hurt?’ she asks me.
‘Nah,’ I say. ‘He’s not hurt. Are you pal? I think it’s just the overall stress of the whole situation.’
‘He seems like he’s in pain. Are you in pain?’ she asks him.
He’s doing these great deep breaths but he’s still able to shake his head.
‘There we are,’ I say. ‘No pain. Just stressed out, I think. We’ll get him a cup of cola and a lion bar and he’ll be right as rain.’
I give him a quick sharp squeeze on the knee to make him say yes or whatever, but he just keeps on sobbing.
‘He’s not alright,’ the woman says, and she pulls the car over and up onto the side of the road. I can actually see the ferry sitting out in the bay from where we are. I can taste the pint I’m going to have in the ferry bar. Jesus.
She gets out and opens up his door. ‘Here,’ she says, taking his wee hand and rubbing it. ‘What’s up? Where’s sore? Can you show me?’
He doesn’t show her anything. He just twists about, trying to get his seatbelt off.
‘It’s like he’s delirious,’ the woman says.
‘I want my mum,’ whimpers the boy.
‘Of course you do pal,’ I say, in my calmest voice, still holding onto his knee. ‘We all want our mums, sometimes. All of us. I bet even this nice lady wants her mum sometimes.’
‘I don’t get on with my mother,’ she snaps.
‘No, but that’s not the point. The point’s that…’
‘Never mind that,’ she interrupts. ‘How’s your neck?’ she asks the boy. ‘Are you getting any pain in your neck?’
‘You sure you’re not a nurse?’
She ignores me. ‘Is it your neck?’
The boy shakes his head.
‘Are you supposed to be with your mum? Is that it?’
He does this great big shuddering nod and that’s when I lose my temper. I march round the motor and pull him out by the shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I ask her. ‘He’s not a criminal. There’s no need to grill him like that.’ I dust him down. ‘You’re fine, aren’t you pal?’ He goes to answer but I talk over him. ‘I hope you’re pleased with yourself,’ I tell the woman. ‘Look at the state of him.’
‘I’m sorry, but something’s fishy here. Why’s he crying and asking for his mother?’
‘Listen. Cheers for the lift and that but you can’t just stick your nose into other people’s business like that. It’s not polite.’
That really riles her up. ‘Don’t you tell me what’s polite. I heard you break the handle on my chair.’
‘Aw, hang this,’ I say and I jog away from her down the road and I grab the boy by the collar to make him jog too. The woman shouts something that I don’t listen to.
We make it in time for the ferry, but only just. I leave the boy up on the top deck to sniffle and I go downstairs for my pint. The girl on the bar tells me I can’t take it outside but I just nip round the other end of the bar, where she can’t see.
It’s really too cold to be up there on the top deck, especially with my pint, but I don’t want to take the boy downstairs in case people see too much. Instead, we stand on the deck together and watch the black water throw up foamy fireworks of surf and all of a sudden I start to feel very proud of the pair of us.