The town is abandoned inside an hour. Sixteen thousand people, gone. I sit on the pavement and watch a family cram as much as they can into their car.
Dad looks worried.
‘We absolutely have to leave in five minutes.’
The son runs out clutching a games console, wires trailing underneath. He places it carefully in a space he has created behind the driver’s seat and then watches as his little sister drops a box of puzzles on top of it. Some pieces spill out of the car onto the drive. She bends down to pick them up.
‘We haven’t got time for this Lauren, get in the car,’ says Dad.
‘But, I need the pieces otherwise-’
‘Forget it. Get in the car.’
She squeezes in. The 4×4 is rammed. The suitcases and boxes of food and drink have long been buried by countless toys, DVD players, a computer, a TV.
Dad sees me sitting on the curb opposite, but pretends he doesn’t and makes a conscious effort not to look this way again. Lauren belts herself in and looks over to me for the first time. I taught her how to swim in the sea, back when I was acceptable, before my own personal cataclysm.
‘Daddy…’ she says, her voice tailing upwards.
‘Not now, Lauren.’
Dad closes her passenger door, trapping her question inside. I can see she asks it anyway and it is as if she whispers it into my ear.
‘Hold on sweetie,’ says Dad as climbs into his seat. ‘Let’s get on the road.’
I smile at Lauren and wave. She raises her hand to the glass as the car reverses out of the drive. The truth, the disgusting truth, has settled like a fine dust in the car and is now also locked in, no matter what Dad says.
I walk through the deserted town to the boardwalk. Boardwalk Security would never allow me here. I sullied the area; tourists didn’t want to see me shuffling around.
I play Hook’Em Fish and win. I reach across and take a giant Finding Nemo soft toy. The arcade machines continue to sing. At the Big Wheel, I reach into Frank’s cabin and flick the switch. The wheel jolts into action and I climb in, placing Nemo next to me as the horizon drops. The Pacific rises and falls, rises and falls.
The wind picks up. It feels close. I think of Dad pushing trains up and down the Northern Line. I think of Mum, desperately loyal, sticking with him, forsaking her own adventure. I think of Emma and hope she is happy. She’s probably watching this on TV, thinking about her lucky escape in more ways than one. I hop off the wheel and walk to the end of the boardwalk.
I sit down, close my eyes and wait. I become conscious of my breathing, wish I’d appreciated these small miracles earlier. Too late now.
Then, from behind a bench, breathing of a different kind. Whimpering.
This story has been rolling around in my head for a while now. There is a lot more to come from it, both in terms of his backstory and what happens next. Unusually for me, this one has a cinematic feel in my head. I’m going to work on it some more. I think the whole boardwalk scene (and walking through the abandoned town) is worthy of a couple of chapters on its own.