Twenty-one

Zoey comes to the door, her hair a mess. She’s wearing the same clothes as last time I saw her.

‘Coming to the seaside?’ I jangle the car keys at her.

She peers past me to Dad’s car. ‘Did you come here on your own?’

‘Yeah.’

‘But you can’t drive!’

‘I can now. It’s number five on my list.’

She frowns. ‘Have you actually had any lessons?’

‘Sort of. Can I come in?’

She opens the door wider. ‘Wipe your feet, or take your shoes off.’

Her parents’ house is always incredibly tidy, like something from a catalogue. They’re out at work so much I guess they never get a chance to make it messy. I follow Zoey into the lounge and sit on the sofa. She sits opposite me on the edge of the armchair and folds her arms at me.

‘So your dad lent you the car, did he? Even though you’re not insured and it’s completely illegal?’

‘He doesn’t exactly know I’ve got it, but I’m really good at driving! You’ll see. I’d pass my test if I was old enough.’

She shakes her head at me as if she just can’t believe how stupid I am. She should be proud of me. I got away without Dad even noticing. I remembered to check the mirrors before turning on the ignition, then clutch down, into first, clutch up, accelerator down. I managed three times round the block and only stalled twice, which was my best ever. I navigated the roundabout and even got into third gear along the main road to Zoey’s house. And now she’s sitting there glaring at me, like it’s all some terrible mistake.

‘You know,’ I say as I stand and zip my coat back up, ‘I thought if I made it as far as here without crashing, the only difficult thing left would be the dual carriageway. It didn’t cross my mind that you’d be a pain in the arse.’

She shuffles her feet on the floor, as if rubbing something out. ‘Sorry. It’s just I’m kind of busy.’

‘Doing what?’

She shrugs. ‘You can’t assume everyone’s free just because you are.’

I feel something growing inside me as I look at her, and I realize in one absolutely clear moment that I don’t like her at all.

‘You know what?’ I say. ‘Forget it. I’ll do the list by myself.’

She stands up, swings her stupid hair about and tries to look offended. It’s a trick that works with guys, but it makes no difference to the way I feel about her.

‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t come!’

But she’s bored of me, it’s obvious. She wishes I’d hurry up and die so she can get on with her life.

‘No, no, you stay here,’ I tell her. ‘Everything always turns out crap with you around anyway!’

She follows me out into the hallway. ‘No, it doesn’t!’

I turn on the mat. ‘I meant for me. Haven’t you ever noticed how any shit that’s falling always lands on my head, never yours?’

She frowns. ‘When? When does that happen?’

‘All the time. I sometimes wonder if you’re only friends with me so you can keep being the lucky one.’

‘Christ!’ she says. ‘Can you stop going on about yourself for even a minute?’

‘Shut up!’ I tell her. And it feels so good that I say it again.

‘No,’ she says. ‘You shut up,’ but her voice is barely a whisper, which is weird. She takes one small step away, stops as if she’s about to say something else, thinks better of it and runs up the stairs.

I don’t follow her. I wait in the hall for a bit, feeling the thickness of the carpet under my feet. I listen to the clock. I count sixty ticks, then I go into the lounge and turn on the TV. I watch amateur gardening for seven minutes. I learn that in a sunny south-facing plot you can grow apricots, even in England. I wonder if Adam knows this. But then I get bored with aphids and red spider mites and the drone of the silly man’s voice, so I turn it off and text Zoey: SORRY.

I look out of the window to see if the car’s still there. It is. The sky’s murky, the clouds really low down and the colour of sulphur. I’ve never driven in rain, which is a bit worrying. I wish it was still October. It was warm then, as if the world had forgotten autumn was supposed to happen next. I remember looking at the leaves fall past the hospital window.

Zoey texts back. ME 2.

She comes downstairs and into the lounge. She’s wearing a turquoise mini-dress and loads of bangles. They snake up her arm and jingle as she walks over and gives me a hug. She smells nice. I lean against her shoulder and she kisses the top of my head.

Zoey laughs as I start the car and immediately stall. I try again, and as we kangaroo down the road, I tell her how Dad took me out driving five times and I just couldn’t get it right. The feet were so hard – the slight tipping of toes from the clutch, the equal but opposite push on the accelerator.

‘That’s it!’ he kept yelling. ‘Feel the biting point?’

But I couldn’t feel anything, not even when I took off my shoes.

We got tired, both of us. Each session was shorter than the one before, until we stopped going out at all, and neither of us even mentioned it.

‘I doubt he’ll notice the car’s missing till lunchtime,’ I tell her. ‘And even then, what’s he going to do? Like you said, I’m immune to the rules.’

‘You’re a complete hero,’ she says. ‘You’re fantastic!’

And we laugh like old times. I’d forgotten how much I like laughing with Zoey. She isn’t critical of my driving like Dad was. She isn’t scared as I scrape into third gear, or when I forget to indicate to turn left at the end of her road. I’m a much better driver with her watching.

‘You’re not bad. Your old man taught you something at last.’

‘I love it,’ I tell her. ‘Think how much fun it would be to drive across Europe. You could take a gap year from college and come with me.’

‘I don’t want to,’ she says, and she picks up the map and goes quiet.

‘We don’t need a map.’

‘Why not?’

‘Think of it as a road movie.’

‘Bollocks,’ she says, and she stabs a finger at the window.

There’s a gang of boys on bikes blocking the road ahead. They’ve got their hoods up, cigarettes shielded. The sky’s a really strange colour and there’s hardly anyone else about. I slow right down.

‘What shall I do?’

‘Reverse,’ Zoey says. ‘They’re not going to move.’

I wind down the window. ‘Oi!’ I yell. ‘Move your arses!’

They turn languid, shift lazily to the edge of the road and grin as I blow kisses at them.

Zoey looks stunned. ‘What’s got into you?’

‘Nothing – I just haven’t learned reversing yet.’

We get caught in traffic on the main road. I watch snatches of other people’s lives through the window. A baby cries in its car seat, a man drums his fingers on the steering wheel. A woman picks her nose. A child waves.

‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ I say.

‘What?’

‘I’m me and you’re you, and all of them out there are them. And we’re all so different and equally unimportant.’

‘Speak for yourself.’

‘It’s true. Don’t you ever think that when you look in a mirror? Don’t you ever imagine your own skull?’

‘No, actually, I don’t.’

‘I don’t know my seven and eight times tables and I hate beetroot and celery. You don’t like your acne or your legs, but in the great scheme of things, none of it matters.’

‘Shut up, Tessa! Stop going on about crap.’

So I do, but in my head I know that I have minty breath from toothpaste, and hers is sour from smoke. I have a diagnosis. She has two parents who live together. I got out of my bed this morning and there was sweat on the sheets. I’m driving now. It’s my face in the car mirror, my smile, my bones they’ll burn or bury. It’ll be my death. Not Zoey’s. Mine. And for once, it doesn’t feel so bad.

We don’t speak. She just stares out of the window and I drive. Out of town, onto the dual carriageway. The sky gets darker and darker. It’s great.

But eventually Zoey starts complaining again.

‘This is the worst drive I’ve ever been on,’ she says. ‘I feel sick. Why aren’t we arriving anywhere?’

‘Because I’m ignoring the road signs.’

She looks at me, amazed. ‘Why would you do that? I want to be somewhere.’

I push my foot hard down on the accelerator. ‘OK.’

Zoey yelps, braces her arms against the dashboard. ‘Slow down! You’ve only just learned to bloody drive!’

Thirty. Thirty-five. So much power in my hands.

‘Slow down. That was thunder!’

Rain spots the windscreen. The shine of it on the glass makes everything blur and reflect. It looks like electricity, and not water at all.

I count silently in my head until lightning breaks across the sky.

‘One kilometre away,’ I tell her.

‘Pull over!’

‘What for?’

Rain hits the roof of the car hard now and I don’t know where the wipers are. I fumble with the light switches, the horn, the ignition. I forget the car’s in fourth gear and immediately stall.

‘Not here!’ Zoey yells. ‘We’re on a dual carriageway! Do you want to die?’

I put the car back in neutral. I don’t feel scared at all. Water runs down the windscreen in waves, and the cars behind us beep and flash as they pass, but I very calmly check my mirrors, turn on the ignition, then into first gear and away. I even find the wipers as I slip through second gear and into third.

Zoey’s face is alive with panic. ‘You’re mad. Let me drive!’

‘You’re not insured.’

‘Neither are you!’

The storm’s louder now, with no space between thunder and lightning. Other cars have put their lights on, even though it’s daytime. I can’t seem to find ours though.

‘Please!’ Zoey shouts. ‘Please pull over!’

‘A car’s a safe place to be. Cars have rubber tyres.’

‘Slow down!’ she yells. ‘We’re going to have an accident. Have you never heard of stopping distances?’

No. Instead, I’ve discovered a fifth gear I didn’t even know existed. We’re really speeding along now and the sky is alight with proper forked lightning. I’ve never seen it close up before. When Dad took us to Spain, there was an electric storm over the sea, which we watched from the balcony of the hotel. But it didn’t feel real, more like something arranged for the tourists. This one’s right above us and is completely fantastic.

Zoey doesn’t think so though. She’s cowering in her seat. ‘Cars are made of metal!’ she shrieks. ‘We could get hit any second! Pull over!’ I feel sorry for her, but she’s wrong about the lightning.

She stabs at the window with a frantic finger. ‘There’s a garage, look. Pull in there, or I’m going to throw myself out the door.’

I fancy some chocolate anyway, so I pull in. We’re going a bit fast, but I manage to find the brake. We slide dramatically across the forecourt and come to a stop surrounded by petrol pumps and fluorescent lights. Zoey closes her eyes. Funny how I’d rather be out on the road with mine wide open.

‘I don’t know what your game is,’ she hisses, ‘but you nearly killed both of us.’

She opens her door, gets out, slams it shut and marches off to the shop. For a moment I think of leaving without her, but before I can think about it properly, she stomps back again and opens my door. She smells different, cold and fresh. She yanks a wet tail of hair from her mouth.

‘I haven’t got any money. I need cigarettes.’

I pass her my bag. I feel very happy suddenly. ‘Can you get me some chocolate while you’re there?’

‘After I’ve had a cigarette,’ she says, ‘I’m going to the toilet. When I get back, you’re going to let me drive.’

She slams the door shut and walks back across the forecourt. It’s still raining heavily and she cowers under it, winces at the sky as thunder rumbles again. I’ve never seen her afraid before and I feel a sudden rush of love for her. She can’t handle it like I can. She’s not used to it. The whole world could roar and it wouldn’t freak me out. I want an avalanche at the next junction. I want black rain to fall and a plague of locusts to buzz out of the glove compartment. Poor Zoey. I can see her now in the garage, innocently buying sweets and fags. I’ll let her drive, but only because I choose to. She can’t control me any more. I’m beyond her.

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