When Ricky pulled his 4x4 out on to the motorway he slipped into the fast lane and pressed down hard on the gas pedal. Then he sucked on his cigarette and settled in his seat. Before long he was sweeping the heavy motor down the wet grey roads, zipping past empty, open fields of farmland and greenbelt. “Such a waste,” he said to his daughter Kay, who was sitting beside him, fiddling with her phone.
“There was eight of us sharing a two-bed growing up…just off the Great Cambridge Road. You barely had enough space to stretch ya legs.…but look at all this land, just begging to be used.”
Kay nodded, staring down into her phone, still silent.
“What use is this to anyone?” he continued, wagging his fingers at the windscreen and the blur of green. “I wouldn’t mind a plot of land out here, but the problem is their all nature reserves and National trusts. What a waste!”
He gave the car more gas.
“I’m telling you, we care too much for tradition in this country, and you wonder why things have gone to the dogs.”
He eyed Kay. But she still said nothing, distant and lost in her iPhone. Rain clouds smudged the sky. The old engine grumbled in the hood and the smell of burning steel and soot swallowed the strawberry scent of the air freshener dangling from the mirror.
“Driving my own daughter all over England and she can’t even look me in the eye,” he said, moaning like the engine, “what a life! What a way to spend your Saturday!”
He tightened his hand around the wheel, and his knuckles ridged in his fists like rocks. Then he looked up into the rear-view mirror. The other cars were fading in the dirty smoke of his exhaust and his son Sam was cradled in a booster seat behind Kay, sucking his fingers.
“Bet you have none of this drama in your life do ya Sam?” he said, re-taking the cigarette in his fingers. “If I could give you one bit of advice, it’d be ‘don’t have kids’…not if you want a weekend anyway.”
Kay shifted in her seat, frowning. “He does have an issue actually,” she said finally, but still watching her phone. “It’s called second hand smoke.”
“Ah there she is! Finally!” Ricky said, staring out into the road and the crowd of cars, “My wonderful daughter. I’ve missed you, how are ya?”
“It’s a disgusting habit,” she said, “and Sam is not even three yet…God, do you ever think about anyone other than yourself?”
Ricky took a deep, slow drag. Smoke spilled from his lips and rolled out over the wheel and dashboard. “Takes the edge right off,” he said with sarcasm. Then he tossed it out onto the road.
“You see that Sam? I can’t smoke in my own car, I can’t listen to music in my own car, soon her and your mother will be telling me that I can’t breathe in here either!”
The drive continued in silence. The engine still growled, cigarette smoke still tainted the air. Farmland dipped and rolled in the distance and the carriageway was lined with streetlamps and lawn-green maple trees. Kay fiddled with her phone and Sam curled his lips over his fingers. Ricky, with his hands clenched on the wheel, his eyes fixed ahead, seemed to grow uneasy with every moment that passed. He stomped down hard on the gas, ignoring speed cameras and other drivers and the sign posts that warned of stray deer and small animals. He was a bully on the road.
After a while the jeep began to shudder. The inflamed engine was wailing like a lawn mower in long grass. Kay glanced at Ricky nervously and Ricky continued on the gas, eating up motorway and petrol.
“Maybe you want to slow down,” she said, sounding concerned and pushing her phone into her pocket.
“This was built for the off road,” he snapped, “I think it can manage a little motorway.”
“The motorway is a 70 Dad,” she said, “what’s the sense in doing a hundred?”
Then Kay sat up in her seat and began to take deep, panicked breaths, hoping to dampen her anxieties, no longer aware of the green, nor the road, nor her phone.
“Stop being so dramatic will ya” Ricky said, “it makes me nervous, I’m tryna focus here.”
The jeep picked up speed, shuddering and grunting down the motorway. The road opened and the other drivers fled the fast lane like cod escaping sharks. Ricky laughed loudly as they went, feeling invincible. He watched the dash tick over 90, then 100, and finally 110, the engine groaning, his seat starting to vibrate, and still he would not slow.
“Dad…I’m getting scared now,” Kay said amid shallow gasps, “please slow down.”
The strawberry scent and cigarette smoke were gone now, replaced by a corrosive cocktail of burning steel and fuel.
“Please slow down,” she screamed, struggling to strain her voice above the engine. “It’s not even funny anymore.”
He saw that she was serious, noticed the panic stained on her face, and, as he went to check his rear view, also remembered Sam in the backseat, sucking his fingers, seemingly unconcerned. He frowned and took his foot from the gas pedal. The engine eased to a soft purr and the wheels whistled on the wet roads. The dash flicked down to 60 mph. The smoke cleared and the screaming had stopped. There was peace in the jeep and on the motorway, but not in the mind of Ricky Tignell.