THE DRIVE HOME
by Tim Cooke
I sit here now, aged thirty and a father of one, thinking back over time to the person I was then. My hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, the people I loved. I remember, with good reason, a journey home from visiting my sister in London. She was living with her husband in Golders Green, and my brother and I had spent the day playing FIFA in a kitchen I now recall, perhaps incorrectly, to have been tired and covered in dirt. We left the capital via the M4 and whilst driving between Swindon and Bristol darkness descended. It came in an instant, like a flash, as if a bulb had burst.
I always felt extraordinary warmth and comfort in the busy, familial space of the car; there was tranquillity to the intermittent clusters of passing lights – vehicles, lamps, occasional sirens; red, white, orange and gold. But I had long feared, since an indescribably terrifying nightmare years before, something lurking behind the guardrail and hedgerows, deep in the gloom. A presence without shape or matter but equipped with incredible speed and agility. On this winter evening, it seemed to be tracking us, racing alongside the car and reaching, like a spectre, for the door handle.
The bridge over to Wales was lit up like a beacon. The waters of the River Severn raged in a way I had not previously seen. Peering into the blue murk, forcing my eyes to adjust to the estuary like a fixed-focal-length lens, I watched grey waves rise and fall as if leviathans lunging at low-flying gulls. Furious winds whipped silver spray into wrathful swirls, like dust devils in the desert. The wind beat hard at the body of the car. It was at this moment that, I think, I first appreciated the volatility and indifference, the aggression, of the natural world. I longed to touch it. I wound down the window and let cold air and rain gush in. My parents began to shout and my brother’s face turned ugly, grotesque: ‘What the hell are you doing?’
I felt something enter, something sinister. My sense of security, my very sense of the world, was compromised; things were changing and my chronic fear of sleep rose to the surface.
We drove further into the night, passing two cities and evading the valleys, before emerging from the darkness onto a bright dual carriageway. We ran over two or three roundabouts – I can’t claim to recall with total accuracy the lay of the roads at that time – and hit a strange intersection, where roads from the town met those from the coast. Warehouses, car parks and a pub spilled from an adjacent industrial estate – my dad owned an electrical wholesale firm there.
We slipped onto another A-road, passed a new McDonald’s and a KFC and slid into a strip of suburbia separating the town from the surrounding countryside. We drove along the road on which my second eldest brother and his wife had recently bought their first house, past the huge secondary school I had attended for the previous term and across the T-junction onto the street that had been my home since birth. We rolled down the slope, past two of our closest friends’ houses and the turning to the cul-de-sac where my grandparents once lived, and arrived finally at ours, plunging into the driveway and activating the security lights. We were not alone.
That night, we ate beans on toast and probably watched Last of the Summer Wine. My brother and I played table tennis and PlayStation, our bare feet pressed deep into thick carpet, and the clock ticked on, gathering speed. I observed with dread as the final hour neared. I went to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, and the sight of the open door gaping into the back corridor sent a ripple through my body – an after-effect of another petrifying nightmare. The blind had not been pulled over the large window above the sink; I peered at my reflection, half swallowed by the pitch black behind, and listened as the wind howled across the wide expanse of playing fields that stretched from our rear garden fence right up to the river running beneath Bluebells Wood.
I had never slept with ease, not for as long as I could remember. I had a complicated relationship with the dark and, more profoundly, with silence. From a young age, I’d experienced recurring nightmares of waking up in the fields in the dead of night. I could see blue flashing lights in the living room, but no matter how hard I ran, the distance would only expand and I’d sink back towards the river winding away to the castle and the coast, squirming with eels and trout. Sometimes I would see a figure – nebulous, inhuman – creeping from room to room as my parents sat in front of the TV. I’d try to shout but nothing would come. I’d watch paralysed with horror as death drew near, totally silent.
When I couldn’t sleep, which was often, I’d listen to Just William and Narnia audiocassettes, fearing the end of each chapter or story, as that would tell me how long I had lain awake for and seemed to confirm that I would do so for hours to come. I would let the tapes click out and then lie in silence, unable to stand any more of time’s cruelty. I’d try to imagine nice things: music, rugby, holidays and barbeques. Nothing worked, ever. Knowing that everyone else in the house was asleep was the worst feeling of all – I have never since felt so alone.
If my parents were still up, I would sit at the top of the stairs and cough. Sometimes they would come with kindness and sympathy, other times exasperation. They could not help me. Nevertheless, I longed for their presence and would beg them to ascend the stairs and kiss me goodnight just once more. When going to bed each evening, having brushed my teeth, I would expect them both to come and reassure me with a simple peck that I would see them the next day. They invariably did so, unless one of them was out for the evening or away, which was hell. Once they had left my room, I would call over and over, ‘Love you, see you in the morning,’ until they were out of earshot, or simply chose not to respond. I was reminded emphatically of how all this felt when years later I read Proust for the first time.
This occasion, however, was different. It wasn’t just about sleep and night-time insecurities – this was about the stability of the waking world, the atomic structure of everything and everyone. Nothing would be the same, I could feel it in my bones.
For some reason, it occurred to me that we should go to a supermarket, where it was light and busy and, perhaps, safe. ‘Shall we go to Tesco?’ There was a large Tesco near the KFC and McDonald’s, just out of town, or there was a smaller one closer in, near the bus station. Alternatively, we could go to the Sainsbury’s by the new outlet store next to the motorway junction on the other side of town. I didn’t care. ‘What is wrong with you?’ my brother replied.
I brushed my teeth in front of the mirror and listened again to the whistling gusts hurtling back and forth over the fields. Rain had begun to spatter the bathroom window, double-glazed and iridescent in the weather and the glow from the streetlights at the front of the house. I sat on the toilet and shivered. I left the bathroom, passed my brother at the top of the stairs – ‘freak’ – and called to my mum and dad: ‘I’m going to bed.’ Ten minutes later, she came into my room. ‘Goodnight.’ She kissed me on the cheek and ran her hand through my hair. ‘See you in the morning.’ As she creaked down the stairs, having switched off the main light and turned on a small lamp by my sister’s old room, I called out to her. It wasn’t a word, but rather a noise – base, primitive and pleading. ‘Sleep well,’ she called back and disappeared into the lounge below. He came in after her and said four clinical prayers; he kissed my forehead and left, too.
Finally, I closed my eyes, faces warped and broken whirling around me, pale breasts oscillating in the dark. Fires began to blaze and the crowns of trees lurched to and fro. The river ran from behind our house up to my bedroom door, seeping underneath – the bones of animals somersaulting in the flow, leaving carcasses on the carpet. This was not a dream. For the first and only time in my life, the attic trapdoor in the ceiling outside my room broke and the ladder dropped down with a thud onto the landing. The whole house shook. Like a small child, I longed to flee into my parents’ arms, but I chose instead to stay put.
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Photo at top: Ryan Hallock