I was zero when I met Charlotte. Charlotte was four.
Now she’s 35 and I’ll admit we’ve grown apart, but I know we’re still the Hula Girls, nobody forgets their childhood toy.
She hasn't been able to decide where in the house to put me for a while. Living room seemed a little on display, bedroom not appropriate, and my hula skirt would stink of burnt food in the kitchen. So it made sense in the end to move me to the car. At least I see more of her now.
For recent weeks that freckled forehead of hers has been getting deeper, though I’m not sure she’s noticed. The writing’s been on the wall so to speak. But only to me.
So I wasn’t surprised to set off at half eleven tonight. The only surprise was that Anthony hadn’t come with us, but then tonight is not about him.
We turned from asphalt to concrete, always a nice move. You forget how annoying asphalt can be till you return to something smooth and weightless. The city slipping behind darker and wider roads, my dress catching in the bounce, swaying in time to the streetlights. Charlotte didn’t notice the patches of light or yellow shadows dancing to their own tune but I did, swinging my dress like a pendulum, smiling happily at my Charlotte.
A beep. She began flicking through controls at the wheel.
“Mobile device, not found. Pairing.”
She tapped more heavily.
“Mobile device, not found.”
“Connected to - Charlotte’s phone.”
Dialling came through the speakers and she let her window down just an inch, drinking at the air before zipping it back shut. I think she wanted to remember the world was still there.
She waited, tapping between each ring before the call clicked open.
“Daniel. Hi-” she began.
“Is it me you're looking for? Because you’ve reached Dan’s voicemail.”
I didn’t need to see her expression for that one. She could never get a hold of Dan. Not in the same room, not on the phone, not anywhere. Not anymore.
And so we joined green fields set to black. Nothing outlined but the pylons and wires skipping like rope on a muddied sky. Street lights soon left for dark carriageways and the surface went back to that pebble scratched mix I hate so much. Rumble ta ta ta with every breath.
A dashboard glow of pale blues and red, and greens from buttons not yet pressed were the only lights inside our car.
She dithered. About to call, about not to, and I pictured the diving boards from Saturdays where she’d dither on the top, waiting for the eyes of me and her Mum before the jump.
“Lucy,” she said. “It’s Charlotte.”
“Charlotte,” Lucy repeated. “I didn’t expect you.”
“Hi,” she said awkwardly. “You OK?”
A headlight made it hard to catch Charlotte’s face, driving a scorched line past us.
“You knew I’d ring, surely?”
“We’ve been a little busy,” said Lucy. “And it’s a long time.”
“I know,” said Charlotte.
“8 years,” said Lucy.
“It’s never 8.”
“I’d be surprised if it was any less.”
Charlotte tensed and adjusted her grip on the wheel. I felt our speed start to increase.
“It was the World Cup summer,” Lucy continued. “We were supposed to go back to Hawaii. So it'll be 8 this year.”
It wasn’t a pleasant silence that followed. No Swiss lodge, just dentist room restless.
“How is everyone?”
“As you’d expect.”
We could hear an echo as Lucy spoke.
“Have you heard from him?”
“20 minutes ago.”
“Then I’ll try him again.”
“You’re not coming - are you?”
“He’ll answer when you call, I just don’t get it.”
She indicated briefly past a truck. We swerved out and back again.
“I’ll keep trying.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to speak Charlotte.”
“Well I do.”
“Then let me ring him first, yeah? Where exactly are you anyway?”
“You're not driving?”
“What does it matter?”
Come on, don’t let her go, bring it back; I willed like a crowd from the dashboard.
“You still have your Hula?”
I jumped, taken aback to hear my name.
“Hula,” Charlotte repeated.
“From that holiday? Probably in the attic. Why?”
“Never mind. Just don’t ring him. Let me do it.”
“Give me 10, please. I can prep him.”
“No. Look there's a junction coming up - I’m gonna go, don’t ring,” and she let the window drop to screaming air.
“Charlotte?” But the call went dead.
She scrolled through the dials to press Daniel again.
“Come on you idiot,” she muttered for my benefit.
It rang, the sound rolling with the road.
“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? Because you’ve reached Dan’s voicemail.”
She hit red with a thump.
“Du de da daa dahh. It’s midnight, time for your Look West traffic report. The-”
This time she hit all the buttons until the interruption stopped.
You can do it, I willed from the dash, and she rang again. The usual ring. The usual message. The beep of voicemail and this time she stayed with bated breath as the curtain rose.
“-after the tone. BEEP.”
“Daniel. Hi. I’m in the car, I’m on my way. I’ve been trying to get in touch but - well you aren't answering.”
She tapped lightly her palm against the wheel, “Just let her know will you?”
Stone mastic asphalt again. What a dream. It slipped beneath our wheels in the silence.
“I called,” said Charlotte.
“Me too,” said Lucy.
“He’s ignoring you too?”
“No. He’s with her.”
We waited, nothing else but the road.
“Listen,” Lucy continued, “why don’t you stop for coffee?”
“I don’t like coffee. I thought you knew that.” She followed the red glow of a passing car.
“Only for a minute, to talk properly. For me?”
“I’m used to driving late. I can talk now.”
“I’d rather you stopped.”
“What does it matter?”
“Does it have to be a fight?”
She scuffed her hair with a spare hand. It was good to have Lucy’s voice in the car. Neither of us wanted it to leave.
“It said there was a garage a while back - must be near.”
“OK,” said Lucy. “Sounds good.”
We pulled into the stale night past paper thin trees hiding shop fronts without light.
She came to third, to second, and we surveyed the carpark in a slow loop, stopping beneath the umbrella glow of the station forecourt and mooring against an island marked 7.
A hinge, a thud, the sound of oil drinking. I love that sound; the slug. She left me with it gurgling, satisfied, waiting for the familiar return of her keys rattling as she walked back with a can of coke.
She was half inside as the phone rang.
It might be him I gulped, my eyes widening.
“Lucy.” And she stepped outside with the can fizzing inside the door pocket. With no speaker I was left only with one half of the story.
“That’s nice,” she said muffled through the window. “But how?”
An old sports wagon pulled to another island; long and low with a cage built inside for an Alsatian. The dog panted with wet lips as a woman climbed out and glared at Charlotte pacing on the phone. The woman made a dramatic phone shape from her fist and crossed her neck with a flat palm pointing to the no phone call sign by the pump.
Charlotte realised and turned back to me, staying with Lucy.
“OK,” was all I could make out. “Thanks Luce.”
For what? I waited eagerly as she bounced back in. Well? She sighed and fiddled with the console till the phone reconnected and ringing spread out across the island once more.
“Hi,” she answered followed by a gruff nothing.
“Phones work that far east then?”
“I don’t live in the far east Daniel.”
“I wouldn't know.”
“Well I'm pretty far west right now.”
“On behalf of the county, we’re honoured.”
“Please what?” he demanded in a voice that was much deeper than I remembered.
“Just be kind.”
“It’s 10 years Charlotte.”
“8. Can you put her on?”
“It’s not a good idea.”
“I just spoke with Lucy.”
“I know. What difference does it make?”
“She’s my Mum too.”
“Then you mightn’t show it.”
The cabin lights dimmed. We’d been sat too long, half hung in light and night.
“I’m here now.”
“Exactly. And where the hell is that?”
“Just put her on.”
“You’ll only upset her. Confuse her more.”
“Then at least let her know -” but Daniel interrupted.
“I rang to say don’t come. I know you spoke to Luce. But it doesn’t matter. Just turn around Charlie.”
She stuttered. It wasn’t the reproach. It was hearing him say Charlie.
“You don’t have the right to do this,” Daniel replied.
“And you do?”
“I’ve earned it.”
“Look. I don’t expect you to like me. I don’t like me. And I’ll go home if that’s what you really want, but just tell her, tell her I came this far, please-”
“You’re too late.”
“But Lucy said-”
“Every day I've been here, you know that?” The coke can still hissed in the door pocket. I listened to it spit as Daniel searched for the words. “You’ve just no idea.”
“Tell her. Tell her I’m coming. Tell her I’m still her-”
The console glowed with a message I couldn't see and the phone cut silent with a cursory beep. It was over.
“Still her Hula Girl,” she whispered to nobody but me. If only I could hug her. I’d give her the biggest hug.
The car rumbled to a start and the road flew back into view. Dark. West.
“Du de da daa dahh. It’s one o’clock and time for your Look West traffic report.”
Charlotte punched the console.
“-for another percussion setting this evening-”
This time she hit with a thud and the radio stopped. She turned directly to my nervous expression.
“You know you could go by yourself.”
I felt her broad eyes deepen. She saw the glint in mine.
“You’ve never done anything wrong. Have you? Not you or your sister. Not like me and mine.”
We flew under a road sign swiping like the swords you hear in pirate films. I could only guess what it might say.
“You could hitch. You know you’d be fine, strong girl like you.”
I wanted to shake my head but I was doing all I could.
“And you still look so young.”
She examined me, and then herself in the mirror as a kick of road markings rattled her attention back to the drive. The phone rang.
“It’s me,” said Lucy.
“So that was your master plan?”
“No. I’m sorry if he shouted. He seemed to like the idea at first. Now he just wants to wait it out.”
“Well he seemed pretty certain.”
“I appreciate you coming, I do.”
“But you’re siding with him?”
“It might not feel like it, but he’s doing what he thinks best.”
“It’s not his decision. For the amount of years older he’s done nothing with them.”
“And suppose that counts for me, too?” asked Lucy.
“Like it or not he’s protecting you. She might not remember, that's the truth. That’s what he wanted to say. She barely recognises us, let alone-”
“I’m her daughter.”
“And so am I. She’s too much at peace for any of this.”
“For me you mean?”
“In a word,” Lucy considered, “yes.”
The car kept on. Another sign flitted past. Charlotte glanced and clicked left with the indicator.
“I’m coming to a junction.” We swerved aggressively. “I can’t stand talking through junctions.”
And the call fell flat to a button.
At the junction we used the middle of 3 lanes. The sky yellowed from our dark cocoon to new orange jungles, our short senses in city life briefly before returning to country night. We accelerated, tailed off and back again, wanting to arrive and yet never stop on a journey straight and endless.
A stout roadside hotel passed us.
“We could rest,” she spoke to me. “Or go back.”
We should carry on. I glared at her.
“She doesn’t want to see us.”
Of course she does.
“Might not even remember.”
We can only try.
“Or she’ll remember the worst. Like Daniel seems to think.”
She’s your mum.
I waited. She indicated to change lanes as another sign passed overhead. We found crushed rock pressed against slag and gravel mix under black and sharper bends through traffic lights and corners. Our flying days were over. It was roundabouts and single carriageways now.
A lorry overtook. She overtook a lorry. The same one. Back and forth.
Soon junctions were familiar. Shops and road signs from back seat games as a child. Aunty lived there, reminds me of a friend, party that tasted like squash, blood on her knee, a new bike; lives begun and lost. It’s another Charlotte to the one I remember on these roads. It’s another me too.
She breaks so that I almost fall and she throws us into first gear around a skid sending us back in the opposite direction. But we can’t be going back. And we aren't.
She turns again and I can see it; one final garage and a boarded restaurant locked in early morning slumber. She slows us to a stop beside it. Engine off.
What is this? What time even?
She’s giving up. But Char-
Or she’s tired. She yawns.
But we’re so close.
I want to speak. Tell her they were wrong, tell her we can still make it.
But I can’t. It’s her decision. And I just can’t.
She makes a pillow from her jacket and sleeps for an hour. I think it takes us from 4am to 5am and the sky begins to lighten slowly in milk as she snuggles into those whimpers.
Barely a car drives by.
Silence but for the trees branch to branch.
It must have been 6am.
The door slams and there she is with tea in a polystyrene cup balancing a bread cake and an apple on top.
So I fell asleep too. It's morning and we’re still here.
“No croissants can you believe?” she said to me, climbing inside. She let the tea cool with a bite of her breakfast, winding the window down and waiting. I suppose she knows it will ring again somehow. And it seems a lifetime listening to the forest wake before the ring finally joins the trees and they sing together, briefly, before she answers.
“I’m glad you’re up. Did you turn back?” he asked.
“Sort of. I’m just waiting.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to upset her last night. It wasn’t about you and me. I just didn't want to bring it all back. It could’ve gone either way-”
“I know,” she replied.
“I just wish - I don’t know. We all lost you.”
“I-,” but she stopped. “Can I see her?”
He waited. “Was it your idea? About Hula?”
“Lucy’s. That’s what I was trying to say. She rang to tell me. Told me to stop in case I got upset.”
“She said it was yours.”
“Only to make you like me I bet,” and she half laughed. “It was all her though.”
“Well she did it anyway, got her Hula Girl from the attic.”
“And did you show Mum? To help remind her?”
“Yeah,” said Daniel. “She held it too. I didn’t say you were coming but - yeah, she held her.”
Charlotte turned to me carefully and I smiled.
“I can picture that,” she said.
“Those dolls were as inseparable as you and Luce.”
“I don’t suppose Mum said anything, with Hula?”
“She can’t really speak. But she smiled, and for the first time in-” he stumbled over his words, “-it was recognition in her eyes. Without doubt.”
“That holiday?” She asked, and Daniel nodded through the empty sound.
“I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve seen her like that. Her eyes lit up.”
“Then it won’t be a shock to see me, Lucy was right. If she remembers Hawaii-”
I pictured my sister with Charlotte’s Mum, with her own hula skirt and beaming grin cuddled lovingly beside her.
“She died last night Charlie. Just gone 4. I don’t know what to say.”
I watched as Charlotte closed her eyes. We listened to the forest. Every branch. The birds.
“I’m too late,” she shook her head. “Even if I carried on. I was already too late.”
“You tried. Despite me you tried. I’m sorry.”
“No. I should’ve left sooner. I should’ve done everything sooner.”
“But Hula was there,” said Daniel. “And Mum had all three of us - one last time.”
I could see her picturing the roads between here and there. Those many turns still left to make, but fewer now than had gone before.
“Where are you Charlie?”