The Lifecycle of a Caterpillar

He’s been gone for an hour. The crisps are done and I need a pee. Hayley is breathing against the window and writing ‘JOBY’ in the condensation. I tell her she needs an extra ‘b’. She rubs the whole thing out and starts again, sighing loudly so her breath makes more condensation. Her fingertips will be cold. Mine are cold and my toes are too. We wanted to go swimming but Dad said no and Hayley’s in the huff. So we’re in the car while he’s in there.

He promised us sweets if we waited nicely. We’re not to tell mum. We won’t tell mum. I’m in the huff too, but only on the inside. My sister is the angry one. She gets in trouble at school. I just get on with it.

My dad didn’t hit her yesterday but he thumped a few walls and got right in her face because he said she took Mum’s money out of her purse. ‘You’re a wee liar,’ he said and when I went to say she didn’t steal the money he roared at me. ‘You’re a wee lying thief too.’

As we watch a man walk down the lane and get into his parked car, Hayley says, ‘As soon as I’m old enough I’ll be gone. I’ll be out of this.’ She writes a swear word in her condensation and I tell her Dad will get her into trouble if he sees it.

‘You didn’t take the money, did you?’ I say to her.

‘Of course I didn’t take the effing money.’

The man gets out of his car and he slams his door hard. He puts his hands in his pockets and I think he’s going to walk into one of the shops next to the bookies but he comes towards our car, the side where I’m sitting, and he knocks on the window. I can’t open it but I wipe away the condensation and the man looks in at us, points and says, ‘You’re blocking me in. You’ll need to move your car,’ and Hayley says, ‘My dad’s coming back soon,’ and the man says, ‘He’ll need to,’ and he walks away.

My dad hasn’t realised that he’s parked across a wee lane at the side of the bookies and he’s blocking the way. I turn around on the back seat, kneel up, and try to get a look into the betting shop to see if my dad is finished yet. I can’t see because there’s too much condensation.

Yesterday I had to answer the phone. I’ve had to answer it all week. When they ask for my dad I have to say he isn’t home, even when he is. We’re not to answer the door in case it’s the bank, he says, or the bad men. I tell my friends not to bother knocking for me. I wish my dad would take us swimming.

The window on my sister’s side is thumped and I can see from her face it’s upset her. She’s angry and frightened at the same time.

It’s the man again. ‘You’ll need to move your car!’

‘He’s coming. He won’t be long,’ my sister says and she sits closer to me on the back seat. I always think I should be the brave one because I’m the oldest but it doesn’t seem to work like that in our family. My mum’s not often brave and she’s older than me.

The man thumps the window again and he is as angry as the man Dad fought with at the caravan last summer. We waited by the steps down to the beach but we could hear their loud voices and it was embarrassing. My mum was shaking her head. And then Dad was pulling us by the arms, saying, ‘We’re going home,’ and the man was shouting, ‘You want to stay a full week, pay a full week!’

Things like that happen a lot.

The angry man gets into his car, leaving his door open, and I think he might just sit there and wait for my dad, like we are, but he pushes on his horn and then he pulls his door shut, turns on the ignition and drives along the wee lane, almost up to my door. He’s pressing on his horn with the heel of his hand and he’s staring at us. My hands are over my ears. I have a talk on the lifecycle of a caterpillar I have to give at school tomorrow. I want to go home and practise it. I put my hand on the door handle and my sister says, ‘You idiot, he’ll kill you.’ I think she means my Dad. He tells us never to leave the car.

Now the man is out of his car and his hands are on our car’s bonnet. He pushes against it and I feel our car shake a little. Our car is locked. I’m glad I didn’t get out. He can’t get in. My sister is shouting, ‘He won’t be long,’ and I say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He really won’t be long.’

He goes away and my sister says, ‘Good. Eff off. Leave us alone.’ I love her boldness.

‘He won’t be much longer,’ I say, and I think about my talk and don’t suppose it will matter if I don’t practise it. I’m always quiet at school.

‘We won’t have to come with him to the bookies when we’re at high school,’ my sister says. ‘He won’t be able to force us. He doesn’t want us with him anyway.’

I can’t imagine being at high school and I can’t imagine a time when we don’t have to come with him in the car.

‘I wonder what Mum’s doing?’ I say. There’s no point complaining to her. This is just what our dad’s like. He might take her to the casino tonight if he comes back to the car happy and she likes that.

I sit side by side with my sister and I watch the white sky through the front windscreen and wonder how long it will take for the condensation to cover all the windows and block out all the sky.

Last year my mum bundled us into this car when we were wearing our jammies but my dad made her take us back into the house and we went upstairs to our bedrooms. There were some crashes and bangs and a few punched walls that night.

‘I’m hungry,’ I say.

‘Me too,’ my sister says. We split open our crisp bags and put our fingers to the inside corners for any crumbs we missed.

This isn’t so bad. It is what it is.

There’s a scuffling from outside and I feel a jolt as if an elephant has bumped against our car. I hear men’s voices, not angry like my dad’s, but busy and practical the way men are when they’re doing something. The whole car jolts again and my sister and I are thrown forwards. I get my hands out in front of me but she’s writing on the window so her shoulder hits the seat in front and the side of her face too and she yowls and I’m screaming out ‘What?’ because we don’t know what is happening except that the car is moving. We wipe our palms against the windows and I see three men, four men, and they’re lifting the car with us in it and bumping it along the pavement. The car’s bouncing and jerking and rocking and the men are counting one-two-three and grunting and heaving.

My sister and I are one long scream.

The man gets in his car and drives through the new space. The men disappear.

We sit in the car, crying. The back of our car is sticking out into the road, and we’re holding onto the seats in front of us looking around for our dad. When he comes he says he can’t hear what we’re saying because of our carry on. He tells us to be quiet but we can’t be quiet, because it has scared us what those men did, it has scared us what happened to us when he was in there putting on his bets.

Nothing stops you crying quite like my dad’s voice.

He says he doesn’t want to hear another word of it. He says we’re going home now and we are to pack it in and give him peace. And do not think about telling your mother, he says. If I hear you’ve told your mother . . .

He leaves the end of the sentence for us to finish, but I know we won’t tell our mum. We’re not that stupid. And what would be the point, anyway?

I look at my sister whose face is red from crying but also from where she’s hurt it when the men bumped the car. She’s breathing on the window again. I can’t work out what she’s writing because I think she’s writing backwards. It might be TIHS and it might be PLEH.

She sees me watching her and she rubs out the words and I think that’s for the best.