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03/11/2011

Agatha & Max

Toby Litt

‘Where’s owls?’ asked Max.

‘I suppose they’re in the trees,’ said Agatha. ‘They live in the trees.’

‘Why we can’t see them?’

‘It’s still a bit early in the evening for them to come out. They’re probably still in the trees.’

‘Are they in those trees?’

Agatha looked off to the left of the motorway, to where a wide rising field was bordered by a copse of horse chestnuts.

‘Yes, there’s probably an owl in those trees,’ she said.

‘Where?’ asked Max.

‘Well, we’ve gone past it now,’ Agatha explained. ‘So we can’t see it any more.’

‘But where is it?’

‘Sweetie, it’s behind us.’

‘Will the owl chase us?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Agatha. ‘Maxie, aren’t you tired? It’s past beddybyebye time.’

Max was quiet for a few moments, then, ‘Do owls live in just big trees or little ones, too?’

Agatha inhaled and asked herself to be patient. On the radio the DJ was talking about Ibiza.

‘Well, most owls are quite big and so they need big trees to live in, otherwise they wouldn’t fit.’

‘Are owls in those trees?’

‘Those ones, no – I don’t think so.’

‘Spooky,’ said Max.

The trees were indeed a little creepy, in full summer foliage, shadows on the near sides of their trunks.

‘What animals live there?’

‘Max, we already talked about this. Foxes – ’

‘And badgers.’

‘Yes, well done. Badgers. And smaller creatures, probably, like rabbits and field-mice and voles.’

‘What a vole is?’

‘It’s like a mouse but slower and darker and, I think, fatter.’

‘Mummy,’ said Max, ‘is Granny dead?’

‘Yes,’ Agatha replied, ‘Granny is dead.’

‘And is Granny buried in the sand?’

‘In the earth, yes,’ said Agatha, as direct as she had promised herself she would be.

‘Does Granny still got her skin on?’

‘Yes, she does.’

‘Is sand on the beach?’

‘Yes, beaches are made of sand. Most of them. The one we’re going to on holiday this summer has lovely yellow sand and blue water and – ’

‘Did they dig the earth with a digger for Granny?’

‘I don’t know, Maxie. It was a while ago.’

‘Did they dig the earth with a digger or a spade?’

Northbound, they went past the Hemel Hempstead turn-off – four lanes in both directions, smooth new tarmac. Agatha was doing eighty-five, but slowed down when she realised this.

‘I think they used a spade.’

It was a country churchyard. Agatha couldn’t picture a digger there, even a very small one. But she also found it hard to imagine a man digging out all that earth. It would take too long. They probably had used a digger.

‘Maybe it was a digger,’ she said.

‘I have a spade,’ said Max.

‘You do. You have a blue spade and a red spade and you have your new superspecial gardening spade from Hope and Felix.’

‘I can dig to Granny,’ said Max.

‘We don’t have your spade with us,’ Agatha said. ‘We left it at home.’

‘I want to dig,’ said Max.

‘Do you remember Granny?’ Agatha asked.

‘I can dig to her wooden box and open it.’

‘No, that’s not a good idea. Do you remember Granny?’

‘Granny gave me a strawberry cake.’

‘Yes, that’s right.’ Father’s Day last year. The picnic on the beach. Her mother had visited a patisserie shop on the way through London. Agatha knew what Max would say next, and he did.

‘It was stinky.’

‘You didn’t like it much, did you?’

‘It tasted of worms,’ said Max. ‘Slimy worms.’

‘I don’t think you liked the cold custard.’

‘Granny was trying to poison me.’

Agatha said, ‘Where did that sentence come from?’ She angled the rear-view mirror for a look at his eyelids. Max obviously wasn’t going to sleep for another quarter of an hour, maybe longer. ‘Is it in one of your pirate books?’ Agatha thought it probably was, but she couldn’t remember which. Poisoning wasn’t in Star Wars.

‘Poison is black and small,’ said Max, definitively.

‘Granny wasn’t trying to poison you. That was vanilla. She was trying to give you a lovely treat.’

Agatha remembered that, in the aftermath of the tarte aux fraises meltdown, Max had to be carried to the pier and bought a large candyfloss.

‘Granny is stinky,’ said Max.

‘Granny is not stinky,’ said Agatha, then thought of her, buried, decomposing. ‘Granny was not stinky.’ She would much have preferred her mother be cremated, but the grave plot was all paid off, and the will said what it said. They would have to buy some flowers, somewhere, tomorrow morning. Perhaps the Post Office did chrysanthemums. She knew the service station five miles off had them, sometimes. Agatha hoped Penny had the wine open already, dinner cooked. Penny was a great cook, especially of meat.

‘Granny has painted hands,’ Max said.

‘Yes,’ said Agatha. ‘That’s right.’ Max had always referred to her mother’s nail-polish as painted hands.

‘Why Mummy doesn’t have painted hands?’

‘I don’t have time for things like that, Maxie. I’m too busy with you. And they’d just get chipped. You’d smash them to pieces with your light saber.’

Agatha realised her mistake.

Immediately: ‘Where my light saber is?’

‘It’s in the boot.’

‘Can I have my light saber?’

Agatha explained, again, as she had at the long-ago beginning of the journey, that Max couldn’t have his light saber because he might hit her in the eye while she was driving; at eighty miles an hour, she saw, and slowed down. ‘And that would be really dangerous.’

‘But can I have it, please?’ Max asked.

‘No,’ said Agatha. ‘You can’t.’

‘Why can’t I have it?’

For a while, Agatha didn’t respond to this question. Then, patiently, she gave the same answer again.

‘I won’t hit you, Mummy,’ Max said. ‘I promise.’

‘Look, the light saber is in the boot. I can’t get out and give it to you, we’re driving.’

‘It’s boring – ’ said Max. ‘This motorway is boring.’

‘Well, why don’t you just think about going to sleep, then?’ She tried to stop her voice from sounding pleading, failed.

‘I’m not tired,’ said Max.

‘Why in hell not?’ muttered Agatha. ‘Maxie, why don’t you look out the window and – ’

‘What breaking it is?’

‘What?’

‘What breaking it?’

Agatha paused for a moment, then heard the lyrics of the song on the radio. Not breaking it but breaking up – breaking up, repeated over and over again, as the chorus.

‘Breaking up,’ said Agatha. ‘Do you really want to know? It’s when a boyfriend and a girlfriend decide not to be boyfriend and girlfriend any more.’

Max seemed to think about this.

‘Do you like the song?’ asked Agatha. She realised how close she’d come to being angry at him.

‘Why do mummies and daddies have mummies and daddies?’

‘Because,’ said Agatha, ‘that’s how we get here. We’re born because mummies have babies, and babies grow up to become more mummies.’

‘And daddies,’ said Max.

‘Mummies and daddies, yes,’ said Agatha.

‘Daddies are more powerful,’ said Max.

‘That’s not true,’ said Agatha.

‘Sperm,’ said Max.

They had answered him very directly whenever he asked where he came from. They had described the sperm meeting the egg – and had eventually managed to find a couple of suitable clips on youTube: one, a digital animation of the sperm’s journey, and another showing cell division in a fertilized egg.

‘Yes,’ said Agatha, ‘the daddy has the sperm and the mummy has the egg.’

‘What breaking it is?’

‘Breaking up,’ said Agatha. ‘It’s breaking up. I told you. Up.’

‘Up, up, up,’ chanted Max. ‘Up, up, up your nose. Up, up, up your bottom.’

‘Stop it, please,’ said Agatha.

‘Up your bottom and up your nose and up your wee-hole!’

‘Max, no,’ she shouted.

‘Snot up your wee-hole and bogey up your – ’

‘Max, shut up! I’m trying to drive. Just be quiet, please. I really can’t concentrate like this.’

Agatha checked the rear-view mirror, saw the middle lane was clear, indicated and moved across, decelerating. Then she repeated the manouevre, crossing into the slow lane and reducing her speed to sixty-five miles an hour.

‘I’m sorry, Max,’ she said. ‘But Mummy can’t drive with you shouting like that. Mummy has a horrible headache. Now, why don’t –’

‘I kiss your head,’ said Max. This was what he did when Mummy had one of her horrible headaches. Sometimes Agatha felt so 1950s. She remembered her mother, once, and only one, referring to The Curse. She remembered asking her mother what it meant, and her mother saying she would understand all in good time. Agatha did understand, much later, but not until she’d spent several years believing that her mother had somehow angered a witch. Perhaps she had. It would explain a lot.

‘Thank you, darling,’ said Agatha. ‘Thank you.’

Max said, ‘I kiss your bottom! I kiss your fanny!’

‘Maxie.’

‘I kiss my bottom!’

‘Please, Maxie. Mummy is very tired. I’m just trying to get us there in one piece.’

‘I kiss my snot bottom!’

‘Max, if you don’t stop this, I won’t let you have your light saber when we get to Penny’s.’

Immediately: ‘I want my light saber.’ Max was already crying. ‘I want my light saber.’

‘Stop crying, Maxie. I said, if you are a good boy, and not noisy, you can have your light saber. But if you shout at Mummy, you can’t.’

Max let out an ululation that meant I want, I want.

Agatha hoped the crying would finally exhaust him, and he would sob himself to sleep. She hadn’t deliberately made him cry – not as such. But she’d known that making the light saber threat would get to him. Denial of light saber privileges had been Max’s main punishment for the past month. They hadn’t used it that often, maybe once a week.

‘I hate Mummy,’ was the first thing Max said when his noise became more words than wail.

‘Maxie,’ said Agatha. ‘I’m sorry. Calm down. You know you don’t mean that.’

‘I hate you,’ said Max.

‘If you say that, you’ll make Mummy sad.’

‘I want my light saber.’

‘Max, it’s in the boot.’

‘I hate you.’

‘You’ll make Mummy sad. Maxie wouldn’t like it if Mummy said I hate you to him, would you? What if Mummy said to you I hate you?’

Max went wild. He yanked at his straps. He kicked his legs against the passenger seat.

‘Max, calm down. Calm down. Mummy loves you. I love you. But you make Mummy sad if you say bad things.’

Agatha hated how she was talking. She changed tone.

‘Max, look, this would all be a lot easier if you just went to sleep.’

He was still raging, trying to climb out of the car seat.

‘Don’t pull your straps off. Don’t pull them off!’

She reached back to grab one of them, and the car swerved onto the hard shoulder; Agatha tried to straighten it up, using only her right hand. But this took them too far across – half into the middle lane. Lights from behind got bright, quickly. She could hear brakes. Now, she had both hands on the wheel. They were fully into the middle lane. A moment of brighter lights. There was a very slight touch on the back of the car – bumper kissing bumper. In the rear-view mirror she saw the aghast faces of a man and a woman. She pressed her foot down on the accelerator, but the car seemed to take a huge amount of time to respond. The car behind was too close, much too close, and it stayed that way for what seemed like a whole minute. We could all be dead. Then they were back to a normal distance, and were pressing their horn and flashing their headlights.

Max was safe in his seat. His mood was completely different. He knew something appalling had happened.

‘Are you alright?’ said Agatha.

‘Fine, Mummy,’ said Max, a good boy.

‘Stay in your seat.’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

She checked her mirror, indicated, moved across into the slow lane – slowed down, slowly.

The car which had almost hit them overtook. In the passenger seat, the woman – who had long dark hair – was shouting at Agatha, pointing at her. Agatha kept her eyes on the car in front, but in her peripheral vision she saw the woman’s angry movements. The car – an old Saab – pulled ahead as Agatha continued to slow down. In the back window of the car, she saw a sign, ‘Careful, Small Person Aboard.’ Without thinking, Agatha accelerated. The Saab was going about seventy five. Agatha gained on it, but the car in the lane in front of her was going too slowly. And Agatha had to find out. She waited until the Saab had got ahead again, then pulled across behind it. She couldn’t see anything in the back seat. Outside, it was dusk. The red of the brake-lights silhouetted the head-rests and the heads of the man and woman. Agatha drove at a safe distance from them until she had passed the too-slow car in the slow lane. Then she indicated left and sped up once more. The next thing ahead was an articulated lorry, without a trailer, but it was already under the next bridge. Agatha had the accelerator to the floor. In ten seconds, she was alongside the Saab. The long-haired woman was staring at her – less angry, more puzzled. Agatha kept turning her head to the right, trying to see into the back of the car. But it was too dark, the windows started too high. The woman looked beyond Agatha  as the Saab sped up. She turned to speak to the man – she’d obviously spotted Max. Then she turned back towards Agatha and, looking over her shoulder, twizzled her finger round her ear. You’re mad, she mouthed. Agatha tried one last time to make out the form of a child in one of the Saab’s back seats.

‘Well,’ she said to Max, who was asleep.

 

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