Just Build: an in-car Tales from the School Run special

The car contained all three boys along with the noise of their bickering, glued to them like some sort of vocal shadow. They all wore big winter coats and the car felt smaller than ever. The windscreen was steamed and the dad was tempted to simply turn up the radio, drive away and take the risks. He didn't. Glancing again at the dial, he saw that heater was still on its hottest setting, the fans still on five, still could not be turned up any further and that they were still pointed at the windscreen. He wiped at the glass again with a cloth and watched as the mist reappeared, a ghostly presence determined to haunt.

                'We're gonna be late,' said middle as he juggled with his crutches. His broken ankle was the reason  for using the car and this was the first time the dad had been with all three of the boys on the school run since eldest was still at primary school. He told himself he didn't miss it. Middle tried to settle his crutches and knocked the handbrake. Again.

                'We're not going to be late,' the dad. 'And keep your crutches on the door-side.'

                The hollow stainless steel clattered into the gear stick.

                'You look awful,' eldest pointed out from the back seat. He was talking about the dad's scruffy joggers and broken shoes that he usually only wore in the house or the garden.

                The dad shrugged.

                'No one's gonna see him in the car,' said middle.

                'That's right,' the dad added. 'No worries about the school catwalk for me.'

                Thinking of nothing else to come back with, eldest said about middle, 'He's been in the front every time recently.'

                'He's got a pot on his foot,' the dad pointed out.

                'We're supposed to take turns,' eldest grumbled. He forced his knee into the back of middle's chair to make his point.

                'Ow!' middle overreacted.

                'We're supposed to help him out,' youngest pointed out.

                'You're supposed to be normal!' eldest informed youngest in his most dreary teenage tone.

                'Dad!' youngest yelled.

                The dad turned up the radio. Donald Trump's State of the Union address had been the night before in America and Radio 4's Today Programme was commenting on it. Middle sat up straighter; he was obsessed with Trump. The previous Halloween had seen him take to the streets in shirt, tie and Trump mask. He had given more than one door-opener a genuine fright.

                'What's he talking about now?' middle asked.

                'Listen, and you'll find out,' the dad said.

                All three boys fell silent for Trump. The dad felt a mix of relief and resentment. A racist misogynist could quiet his boys but the dad rarely could.

                Windscreen cleared, the dad shifted the car into gear, moved the crutches again, and pulled away into the traffic, waving at drivers kind enough to let him out and allowing the calm noise of Radio 4 to carry them forward. He almost relaxed.

                But it couldn't last.

                'He's talking about the wall!' middle shouted.

                'The wall! The wall!' eldest and youngest chanted loudly in their American accents. 'Build the wall! The wall! The wall!'

                Middle slipped into his, admittedly accurate, Trumpian patois. 'We're gonna build that wall! It's gonna be great. Beautiful. It's gonna be the best wall. And we're gonna pay for it with cookies! The girl scouts of America will go out and sell the greatest cookies, the greatest, the best cookies to the greatest, most beautiful cookie-eaters in all of America - which is all of the world - and they'll raise the money, all the money, the best money, the dollars, to build the tallest, bestest, beautifulest wall in all of America - which is all of the world!'

                Eldest and youngest laughed. The dad grumpily smirked, while trying to listen to what they were saying on the radio. Apparently Trump could just declare a state of emergency and get the money that way.

                'So, if he did that,' eldest said, 'he could just build it without anyone telling him he could or couldn't.'

                'Sounds like it,' the dad said.

                'I want to  be a president,' youngest announced. 'Then I could declare an emergency to get V-Bucks.' V-Bucks were the currency of the game Fortnite. They had become another point of conflict in the perpetual parenting panic of watching your own children fall behind others and wondering if you could and/or should do anything about it. The dad rarely felt any guilt knowing that all his boys lived in V-Bucks poverty, but seeing the children of others have more did spark a little of the competitive fire (perhaps even Trumpian arrogance?) he often claimed to have left behind.

                Youngest continued, 'Then I could just build new skins like he's going to build that wall.'

                'The wall! The wall! We're gonna build that wall!' middle and eldest shouted in their American accents, making the dad jump. His control of the wheel never faltered; he was too used to constant jump-scares from the boys' outbursts to allow them affect his driving. Probably.

                 A red light forced a stop and the boys settled.

                'We're gonna be late,' middle said again.

                'We're not gonna be late,' the dad said again.

                'We might be, actually,' eldest said.

                'But we won't be,' said the dad.

                Eldest  was staring out of the window at a bus queue of children all with different uniforms to his and middle's. 'Why do they go so far to another school?' he asked.

                'They think they're getting a better education,' the dad said. 'Or at least their parents do.' He and the mum had sent eldest to that school at the beginning of his Year 7. They'd thought they were doing the right thing. Eldest had hated it and they had forced him to stay until past the Easter. Finally, reasoning that 12 year-olds rarely asked to change school so consistently, they let him move. He'd been happier, or perhaps just much less miserable, ever since. The remaining parent-guilt would fade eventually. Probably.

                'I want to go to that school,' youngest said.

                'No you don't,' eldest said, not taking his eyes from the bus queue.

                'Yes, I do,' youngest said.

                'It's rubbish.' Eldest countered.

                'How do you know?' youngest demanded.

                'Because it's like your face!'

                'Dad!' youngest yelled.

                `'Just be quiet, both of you,' the dad snapped.

                'He knows because that's the school he went to in Year 7,' said middle.

                'All my friends are going there after Year 6,' said youngest. 'Can I go to that school?' he asked the dad.

                'It'll be easier for all of you to go to the same school,' the dad replied.

                'But - ' youngest began.

                'We don't have to decide yet,' the dad said, cutting youngest off.

                The light turned green and they set off again. On the radio, the newsreader's voice cracked in the middle of a headline and she coughed to allow herself to continue.

                'Wait,' said middle.

                'What?' the dad asked.

                'I always thought she was a robot,' said middle.

                'What?' the dad asked incredulous.

                'I always thought she was a robot.'

                Eldest laughed and youngest joined in. The dad smirked as well. Middle frowned and then laughed along.

                'You think they just build robots to read the news?' the dad asked.

                'Yeah,' the middle replied.

                They drove through the school gates, eldest and youngest still laughing at middle. The dad tapped the clock. They had three minutes to spare. 'Told you we wouldn't be late,' he said.

                He drove the car into a disabled parking space, justifying it to himself by glancing down at middle's potted foot and announcing, 'We'll only be a minute.'

                Middle struggled out, crutches clattering against every possible surface, and the dad dragged himself out, suddenly conscious of the scruffy trousers he was wearing; he'd forgotten that he couldn't turn off the child-locks on the rear doors and now he had to let eldest out in front of a horde of much bigger boys and girls than those on his usual school run . He smiled through it, said good bye to eldest - whose mortifying embarrassment forced him to completely ignore the dad - and then moved around to release youngest so that he could switch to the front seat.

                'Have a good day,' he said to middle, as he stumped away as fast as his crutches could carry, ignoring the dad just as much eldest had. The dad watched for a few moments and saw that eldest and middle did not walk together and rued the walls that were built between siblings.

                'Do you want a lift to your school?' he asked youngest as he climbed back into the car.

                'No thanks,' he said. 'I'll go back and get my scooter.'

                The dad nodded and started the engine. He drove the car past the crowds of bigger boys and girls. He tried to get a look at middle or eldest, but other than a fleeting glimpse of a boy with silver crutches, he couldn't see them. 'It's a shame we can't just build bridges,' he said.

                'What?' youngest asked.

                'Nothing,' the dad replied.

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