A Drive Through the Park

digital art of sunset in forest

Whenever a knife was in Aidan’s hand, I feared what would happen next. At the breakfast table, he was using a flat blade to plaster a dollop of chocolate spread on a pancake. As he rolled up his snack, I was sure it would collapse, or he’d drop the knife on the flooreither way, there would be a mess. 

Close to him, Rhiannon sat with her knees against the table’s edge, swiping through pictures of girls on skateboards. In front of her was a cup of black coffee, hardly drunk, and a Swedish cracker, yet to be nibbled. 

Folding in the sides of the pancake, Aidan threw out a question casually, as though he was asking me to pass the powdered sugar:

“Do you love Daddy?” 

I pretended not to hear.

As he took a bite, the spread dripped onto his hands, and made a mustache above his lips.

“There’s dirt on your face,” I said.

With his mouth full, he tried again:

“Do you love Daddy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because you never kiss.”

Putting her phone down on the table, Rhiannon leaned over to her brother.

“Is that something you really wanna see?” she asked, pinching his shoulder, and making him squeal.

Colin and I didn’t kiss or hug. We didn’t have sex nor did we spend much time together. Our jobs were demanding and, when money arrived, it seemed to vanish, forcing us to work harder, and for longer hours. During the day, we were on the road or in the office, or we taxied Aidan and Rhiannon around town. In the evening, I was out, or Colin was out, or one of us was with the kids at swimming, football, dance, or karate. At night, we fell into bed, exhausted, but never at the same moment. We existed as a couple, but independent of each other, with no arguments, no discussions, no friction, no anything. 

“Your Mama and Daddy love each other very much,” I told the kids. But neither of them were listening, as they were spooning out chocolate from the jar, and flicking it across the table.

  I yelled for them to stop. 

  This had zero impact.

***

I hated Tuesdays. It was usually hell at the office. All the sales team had to come in early, turn on our laptops, and wait for a flood of requests to visit properties. But this morning, my phone was still, and my inbox empty. Throughout the room was a similar state of confusion, and muted concern. For two hours, not one message flashed up. On my screen was a spreadsheet that I’d completed the previous week. To look busy, I erased figures from the columns, and re-wrote them in the same cells. The rest of the team skulked behind their computers, opening blank documents, and typing random words and figures, while sneakily checking Instagram. Our boss came out of her office and stood straight, while holding up an arm to get our attention.

“I have an announcement,” she said.

We shuffled to our feet, slowly, and with no enthusiasm. 

“Numbers of viewings are falling, and there’s nothing booked for the rest of the week,” she added. “Right now, no one wants to see anything. This means you can all go home.” 

With the spare hours, I dropped into the Whole Foods store, and browsed the vegetable aisle, scouting for ingredients for a healthy meal that I hoped my kids would  eat. As I was packing up some carrots, my phone buzzed. I let this go to voicemail, but it started again, so I dug into my shoulder-bag to see who was calling. It was Colin. This was strange, as we didn’t speak over the phone, only swapped messages on what we needed to buy, who was picking up the children, or who to contact at the bank. These were no more than short phrases, or single words and a question mark. 

The time code began. 

  I waited.
“Yes?” I said.

Silence on the other end. The store was playing music. It was Katy Perry. At least I thought soit was one of those songs where a young woman tells me what I’m feeling, and what I should do about it.

“I’m in the Memorial Hospital,” he said.

“What happened now?”

  It must have been stairs. He was bad on his feet, especially since he gave up his diet. Or maybe a minor car crash? This would be worrying, as we’d just bought a Subaru Outback, that was killing us with installments. Colin chose this SUV because he said he wanted to spend more time “exploring the wonders of nature” and needed “an all-weather automobile.” But I didn’t know who he was going to take “exploring.” Rhiannon was learning to code, and Aidan was only interested in drawing animals, cutting them out and sticking them to a blanket fort in his bedroom. Neither of them wanted to go camping, and I would never stay anywhere without a hot shower or a full-length mirror. In the six months since he’d bought his new car, he’d gone off-road once⁠—ten meters between a country lane and the river where he went fishing.

“You can’t see me,” he said.

  These words were hard to make out. 

They competed for my attention with Katy Perry.

  If it was Katy Perry.

***

“You must put your phones away.”

“We know,” said Aidan.

“Because this is an important moment,” added Rhiannon. “We get it.”

Both kids sighed and looked out of the window at the miles of lawns, driveways, and family homes. As we left the suburbs towards the center, the streets were calm. Once we reached the city park, the traffic thickened, and slowed to ten miles an hour, then five. Every car ahead was stalling. 

Cherry and crab-apple trees were in bloom. Between them stood the bare spines and branches of slender and taller trees that I couldn’t identify. Dangling from the rearview mirror was a blue paper-mask, which I strapped around my face. The congestion eased as we approached the park gates. Dressed in waterproof ponchos, masks and clear visors were two guards or police officers. They were taking down numbers.

The day before, I sat at the breakfast table, with my phone at hand, and a notepad and ball-point pen. Every five minutes, I called the mortician, but with no luck. Earlier that week, he emailed me with the sign-off “at your service,” and nothing more than “Greg.” I expected him at least to have the title of Mister, as I felt there should be something official about a funeral organizer. Online, I’d paid Greg for the full package, but his last message did warn me that “communication would not be at a premium level for the duration of this challenging period.” 

Finally, someone answered.

  “Is this Greg?”

“Yes, and I am deeply sorry for the delay,” he spoke fast. “I will outline the current situation and the forthcoming procedure, but I must warn you that this may not be easy for you to hear.”

I had to stay focused.

“Our team has escorted Mr. Bruckner from a refrigerator truck parked at the back of the hospital, and he is resting in our care for the time being. Unfortunately, owing to the high volume of incidents, a plot in your preferred location is not yet available. Therefore, we will have to host the deceased in temporary accommodation, until such a spot becomes free.”

“What does that mean?”

“For a limited period, the casket will remain a few feet underground on a playing field, in St. John’s Park.”

During a summer two years ago, Colin would set the alarm every morning at seven am and wake up our son. Before Rhiannon and I had bothered to get out of bed, the boys would make fresh orange juice and muesli with banana, put on their tracksuits, and drive to this park. On the paths where joggers puffed and sweated, Aidan tried to learn how to ride a bike, while his dad shouted from the sidelines. In the evenings, Colin would give me reports on our son’s progress, such as how many meters he’d covered, and when they planned to remove the stabilizers. By August, the days turned humid, and Aidan didn’t want to get up early. His Dad changed his schedule, and the trips stopped. Behind the toaster in the kitchen sat the juicer, its bowl and blades encrusted with dried pith, while the bike stayed in the garage, wedged between an old rug and a broken printer. September arrived, school restarted, and Colin never took our son back to the park, nor did he ever mention it again.

When Greg told me where this “temporary accommodation” was going to be, I placed a hand over the phone, opened my mouth, and prepared to shout upstairs at Colin: Hey! You’ll never guess where they’re gonna bury you!

The words didn’t come.

“Hello.” Silence. “Hello?” Greg repeated. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry.”

“The internment will begin tomorrow at around 1500 hours. It is permitted, if you wish, to drive past your loved one between the times of 1330 and 1430.”

“Can I get out of the car?”

“I regret this is not possible, due to the extraordinary situation.”

“Will there be others like us?”

“There may be. You must also write down this serial number and show it at the gates. Do you have a pen?”

“Yes.” 

“This is 4:11:54:CB:1. Again: 4:11:54:CB:1.” 

“Got it.”

“Good.”

“What does this stand for?”

“The first two numbers are the month and date of his passing,” said Greg. “The third is the age of the deceased. The letters are his initials.”

“And what is the last number?” I asked. “The one?”

“This is needed if there is another person with the same initials and age who has died on the same day.” 

***

While Colin was staying in the isolation ward, we couldn’t visit him, or the hospital, or even deliver anything to his room. However, we could contact him by phone, but only in the evenings.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi there,” he replied.

Normally his voice was a little throaty, which he put down to “a teenage diet of Marlboro and Jack Daniel’s,” when he used to play guitar and sing in an Americana band. Clearly, he was exaggerating his rebellious streak, as I’d never seen him tempted by a cigarette, or even a joint. Now his voice was weak and slow, and the echo longer and deeper. I couldn’t tell if this was because of the virus, the treatment, or from tiredness.

“What are you up to?” he asked.

Silence.

If I told him we were sitting on the sofa, with the TV and computer turned off, waiting for the precious minutes when we could talk to him, this would stress him out, and make him feel guilty.

But if I said Aidan was reinforcing his blanket fort with cushions from Daddy’s armchair, Rhiannon was designing her own K-pop website, and I was clearing out my inbox, he might have thought we couldn’t care less. 

“It’s difficult for all of us,” I said.

“Yes.”

“How are you?”

“The staff here are very supportive.”

“What do the doctors say?”

“We’ll have to see.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Not really.”

Silence.

“Do you want to speak to the children?”

***

In my chest a tightness intensified before stretching through my whole body, leaving me with a throbbing headache. My throat was dry, and I pressed my palm against my brow, which was hotter than usual. But how much was usual? When had I ever felt my brow before? Can a person feel their own brow? If their brow is hot, isn’t their hand also hot? Isn’t detecting heat a relative issue? If a hot thing feels a hot thing, does it still feel hot? 

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at my face, and checking every feature, wrinkle, and loose strand of hair. My lips seemed a little blue. I touched them and felt cracks.

“Mama! Mama!”

Rhiannon was pounding on the door.

“Mama, are you alive?”

“Yes, I’m⁠—”

She cut me off. Annoyed.

“Ok. Fine.”

***

That evening the tension fell away, so I thought it would be a chance to break into our wine cellar. This was no more than a corner of the garage taken up by two cases of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon we’d bought from a vineyard five years ago. I wasn’t sure why we hadn’t drunk any of them yet. Maybe we were saving the bottles for a party, a birthday, or any kind of celebration.

Colin had positioned his leather recliner opposite a huge LCD screen and a framed white label record, which was his band’s only pressing. Bulky and low-slung, the chair had thick arms, a vast backrest, and a deep seat that adapted to my body-shape. Sinking into its folds, a glass to hand, I punched his name on the keypad. Earlier he’d messaged me, saying he wasn’t able to talk, so we set this time for a text conversation. I thumbed out a standard opening:

  • How are you?
  • The same

I didn’t respond. Three dots appeared on-screen, showing he was writing something:

  • How are you?

What was I supposed to say? That I was hoping for good news, the kids were being brave, or that my parents wished him their best? 

Enough of this crap. 

I downed a slug of Merlot, and typed:

  • Bad
  • Sick?
  • Maybe
  • I bet I’m sicker
  • Probably
  • I mean, you’re not even in the hospital
  • I looked in the mirror, and thought my lips might be blue

A pause.

  • I can’t breathe without a machine

Because my husband was in isolation, the whole family had access to a ‘fast-track’ test. In the new Subaru, I drove us to the local stadium, where an open-air lab had taken over the parking lot. After talking to a guy in a booth, we found a free space and waited. A minute later, our SUV was surrounded by five figures dressed in white overalls and face shields. A stocky, deep-voiced lady took our names, and I explained Colin’s situation. 

“How are you feeling?” a masked man asked Aidan.

“Bored.”

“How are you feeling?” another asked Rhiannon.

“Worried about Dad, I guess.”

A third came to me.

“How are you feeling?”

“I had a bit of a sore throat, I felt I was a little hot, you know, looking at… my lips… to see if…” 

I sounded so pathetic.

A pair of gloved hands came through the window, and one clung to my chin, while the other thrust a swab into my nose, ramming the cartilage. This was fast and rough. The kids were next. Aidan screeched, and Rhiannon let out a loud “Ew” followed by a “Shiiiit” that I ignored. We would receive the results by email and message as soon as possible, but there was a backlog, and the lab couldn’t promise anything.

In the morning, we made pancakes. It was one of the few things I could cook without having to check the recipe every five seconds. Together, we whisked milk, flour, oil, and eggs, heated up a pan and started frying. After a stack piled up, Aidan found he could use the mixture to draw two eyes and a mouth on the pan, before he poured on the rest. As he was fooling around, a few drops fell on the worktop, and on the floor, which made him giggle. Rhiannon, irritated by the mess, shouted at him. To get back at her, he stuck his finger in the mixture and smeared this on her hair. 

Furious, she cupped a handful of flour, and chucked it in his face. This blew up into a cloud and scattered everywhere.

Behind us, next to the sink, my phone buzzed. 

Without hesitation, I turned, and wiped the dust off the screen.

That evening, I helped myself to more Merlot and eased into Colin’s chair. At first, I didn’t know how to tell him about the tests. After knocking back half a glass, I thought: this was no time to be polite.

  • We’re good
  • You’re clear?
  • Yes
  • All three?
  • Yes

Pause. 

I continued:

  •  If I was you, I’d hate everything right now, even us

A wave of three dots appeared and vanished.

I waited a few seconds.

The dots returned.

  • We have to think about what to do, if it comes to what it might come to
  • You know Harry?
  • Your crazy friend who collects Manga dolls?
  • Yes
  • What happened to him?
  • Last week, he organized a livestream funeral for his sister, who was pushing sixty. She was a punk way back when. The guests spoke from their own homes, saying how kind she was, how much they loved her, and how important she was to them. Between the readings of poetry and verses from the Bible, they played The Ramones, Johnny Thunders, The Sex Pistols. The format sort of worked. It was a decent goodbye
  • Can I say one thing?
  • Yes?
  • You’re gonna have to fucking cry

I laughed.

Dots were still flashing.

  • Not just you, everyone 
  • Ok, ok 
  • Tell the kids it’s non-negotiable

***

After we turned into the park, I clicked the touchscreen to open Colin’s library of albums, but couldn’t maneuver the car and press the icons at the same time. I bumped to a halt. As I swiped through the playlist to look for his favorite track, I heard the blaring of a high-pitched horn. In the rearview mirror were a pair of raging eyes in a Honda Civic. 

Sticking my head outside, I shouted.

“Asshole! Can’t you see what I’m doing here?”

“Hey, lady!” a woman’s voice replied. “You’re not the only one.”

“Calm down, Mama,” said Rhiannon.

“Yeah, be cool,” said Aidan.

I found the song, and was preparing to let it play, but paused, sensing my own anger and impatience. The mood wasn’t right. I revved up the engine.

On the field at the edge of the road lay caskets in a row, with a shallow hole between each one. The boxes varied in materials I’d seen in Greg’s catalog: mahogany, birch, wicker, and pine. There were no flowers or wreaths.

“That’s him,” I said.

Written in black on a plastic a-frame was his name, next to an oak wood casket. Alongside stood a fresh pile of earth. 

The Honda Civic was almost rear-ending my bumper.

Crammed at the window, the kids were staring at their dad. I stopped the car, not caring if the woman behind hooted or yelled. Glancing back, I saw she was on her own, mid-forties, gripping the steering wheel, a mask over her mouth, gazing at the dashboard.

“I don’t wanna remember him like this,” said Rhiannon.

***

The evenings were the same—I was cradled in the big chair, and halfway through a bottle from our cellar, with the screen steaming in my hands. But I didn’t fear punching my thumb against his name and waiting for a response. Instead, I found myself looking forward to this moment.

I started:

  • Have you decided what you want to do?
  • Yeah
  • What?
  • Almost nothing. No candles. No Jesus. No tributes. Put me in the ground and listen to one song
  • Which one?
  • “Harvest Moon” 
  • Neil Young? My Dad got you into him, didn’t he? We’re gonna play my Dad’s choice at your funeral. That’s lame
  • Yep
  • I don’t know what the kids will think
  • When it’s on, ask them if they like the song. If they say no, tell them I wrote it
  • You want to traumatize them from the grave?
  • If it’s necessary

***

I turned the Subaru out of the park and followed the main boulevard past the mall. Across its entrance stretched lines of red and white tape.

“We’re going for a drive, ok?” I shouted to the back.

“Where?” asked Rhiannon.

My foot slammed on the gas. The hand on the speedometer spun up.

“Mama!”

The expressway was flat, long, and straight. Vacant fields lay on either side of us.

“Mamaa!”

The ride was smooth, and the vehicle was happy taking on the extra pace. 

“Mamaaaaa!” It was Aidan. “What are you doing?”

“Hey,” I said, checking the kids in the mirror. “If the cops stop us, we’re grieving, and I’m very sad.”

Aidan nodded, while Rhiannon stayed hunched over her phone.

“Since you put Dad’s photo online,” she said, “people have been leaving comments.”

“Let’s hear what they say.”

“I’ll translate the emojis too. Here goes:

He was a lovely man

So sorry for your loss.

Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Condolences. Heart.

He was very nice. Heart.

Colin was a cool guy. Can’t believe it. Condolences. 

Love u.

Hope you and family ok. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss.

On the car’s touchscreen, I pressed on the album, and scrolled down to his song. An acoustic riff played, partnered by bass and drums. Notes chimed from a steel guitar, and Neil Young’s tenor eased into its high range.

***

As I crouched against the armrest, dizzy from the Cabernet, I typed in the space below his name:

  • I know you don’t want to make a big thing out of this
  • I don’t
  • But I’ll have to tell people
  • Do it with a single message
  • I’ll need to post a picture
  • Ok
  • Which one can I use?

I wanted to sit here every evening.

  • It should be of us, I guess, from the wedding

In this chair, reading his words.

  • I have lots of those. Cutting the cake? At the altar? With the guests behind us?

Asking him questions, teasing him, and talking about anything.  

  • No. The one where I’m looking at you, and you’re laughing at something off-screen

I never wanted this to stop.

  • Yes, I know it

Please, keep this channel open.

Please.

***

The expressway was clear. A few clouds idled in the sky. I’d wound down the windows as far as they could go, and the country breeze dried the damp from our faces. Swerving towards the highway, the handling performed well at high speed. 

As the harmonica solo played, I missed the sign telling us our next destination, and saw no more than a three-lane strip heading through the plains, and a few trucks to overtake. The last chorus kicked in, and I sang along in my head, while Rhiannon continued reading from the screen:

There were so many happy memories.”

He was such a decent guy.”

So talented. Miss him already.”

Condolences. Heart. Heart. Heart.”

Thinking of you.”

Sending lots of love.”

Heart.” 

Rhiannon looked up from her phone.

“I mean,” she said, “it’s just a heart.”

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