Stuart sat, silently and sullenly, in the back of the car, gazing out at the nothing that wasn't moving all around him. He was bored, he was tired, and he was hungry. Not a good combination at any age, but at six it was just the right mixture to cause fidgets and generally annoying behaviour that was beginning to escalate into something more.
He tried again; “Are we nearly there yet?” He knew they weren’t. But it didn’t stop him from asking. In fact, it was the reason for the question. If he was irritated and uncomfortable, they all would be.
Stuart’s father gripped the steering wheel tighter. He gritted his teeth. He knew his son well and he knew that the questioning was intended to get at him. Stuart’s mother patted her husband’s knee, squeezed it, said nothing. Her head was pounding and her stomach was growling. They should have been at her mother’s over an hour ago, but now they were stuck in traffic inside a tunnel because of an accident up ahead. She supposed she should feel something for the person who was causing the trouble – anger, frustration, pity, something – but instead she just felt tired. She rested her head against the window and breathed deeply, trying to stem the nausea that was reaching up from her stomach into the back of her throat.
“Daddy?” needled Stuart; “Dad? Are we nearly there yet?” He kicked the back of his mother’s seat, scuffing the leather with his dirty trainers.
“No, Stuart, we are not nearly there yet,” said his dad. “We’re still where we were the last time you asked, and the time before, and the time before that. You can see we haven’t moved. Or are you stupid?”
That did it. Stuart was always top of his class, always the one the teachers praised above all others, and he knew he was intelligent. And he hated being called stupid. “No!” he yelled, his voice screeching in its vehemence.
His mother winced at the sound, and rubbed her temples. His father smiled, feeling he was getting somewhere. “Well then, you know there’s no need to ask that question over and over. Once the traffic starts flowing again, we’ll be about twenty minutes away. Until then, I have no idea.” And with that he was able to nudge the car forward a tiny bit, perhaps two feet. Before Stuart could comment, his dad said, “And this is clearly not the traffic flowing, Stuart, so don’t ask.”
Stuart shut his mouth, still kicking his mother, but without much enthusiasm. After a moment’s thought, he opened it again; “But Dad,” he said in his best whiny voice, “Can’t we just turn around, back the way we came? There’s nothing on the other side of the road. I think it’s stupid just to sit here.” The extra emphasis on the word his father had used to get at him won the point. He smiled smugly and crossed his arms, waiting for the explosion her knew would come.
Before his father could say anything, Stuart’s mother twisted as best she could in the confinement of her seat and tried to diffuse the situation. “Stuart, why are you being silly? Daddy doesn’t want to have an argument with you, so why not just be friends? We’re all stuck here together, so let’s try to get on, shall we?”
Stuart frowned. “Friends is boring.”
His father slapped the steering wheel with meaning and growled angrily. “You see? You see what he’s like? Oh, he’ll be all charming at your mum’s, all perfect and darling, but you must see what he’s like! He clearly hates me.” He stopped talking to his wife and focused on his son, locking eyes with him in the rear-view mirror. “Do you hate me, Stuart? Do you really hate me?”
The boy, shocked by the sudden question and the fear he could hear in the back of his father’s voice, was silent. No words would come although he desperately wanted them to.
Stuart’s mother, her head pounding harder with every beat of her tired heart, unclipped her seatbelt. She removed her bag from where the strap had tangled in her legs and set it to one side. She opened the car door. Without a word, she got out, crossed the barrier in the middle of the road, and began to walk away.
Neither Stuart nor his father tried to stop her. They were either too shocked or surprised or otherwise confused by the whole thing. When his mother was finally out of sight, going who knew where and returning who knew when, Stuart found his voice. “I love you, Daddy,” he said.
©Lisamarie Lamb 2011