We park the car on the meadow by the old McDonalds and Barry takes the children inside to show them how it functioned.
-See, this was the fat fryer.
-See, these were the menus. You can still read this bit here, Charlie-
lifting the boy up to shoulder height to the one remaining patch of colour on the wall. A rat scrambles away across the floor and the children shriek in delight.
Grandpa has pulled out his length of string, blackened with overuse, and is checking the fuel level at the side of the vehicle. He shakes his head, as he does every time we stop, and says,
-We’ll be pushing it before long.
I leave him outside with the dogs and go to use the bathroom. I still don’t like to use the bushes. The children tease me for it, and Barry, half-good-humoured, will join in, or, occasionally, win an argument with a glib comment about fussy piddlers. That makes Charlie and Scott giggle.
-Ronald McDonald, Scott keeps shouting, from behind the door. Ronald McDonald. He remembers, just. He keeps trying to explain television to his younger brother.
Why the hell did we build such an ugly thing to outlast human lives? I think. I almost reach down to rinse my hands in the sink, out of habit. How many more years will this be standing?
-Ronald McDonald, Charlie yells, picking up on it. Ronald McDonald.
When we come back outside, there’s a strange man standing in the parking lot and the dogs are quiet, at attention. They sit patiently, letting him run his hand over their necks.
Grandpa gives me an apologetic look.
-Dogs didn’t go for him, he says. I trust their judgement.
-Alan Wrick, the man says. His hair is neatly trimmed, and his red face is sweat-stained from running. We saw your car from the hillside.
-I’m Barry, says Barry. He’s wary of using last names. This is my wife, Tessa, my children, Charlie and Scott-
-I was telling him, Grandpa says. Christ, boy, do you think I’m an idiot?
Alan strokes Timber, as if thinking something over.
-Me and my girlfriend have a little girl ourselves, he says. We could maybe...?
-Of course, says Barry. Bring them down and let’s see what you’ve got.
The children are happy to play with the new arrival, a shy, podgy girl in a pink dress, in the parking lot. I put the dogs in the back of the car. They know to shout out if anyone comes.
I go back into the McDonalds. Barry, Alan, and Alan’s girlfriend are chatting. Barry’s broken out the bread we bartered from a family forty miles uproad. The new couple have supplied a half-sausage of dried meat. Salami, possibly.
-The A43 is fine, Alan says. There’s a lovely old chap passing through there-
-Jim Nulton, says Alan’s girlfriend.
-Thanks, darling. Jim Nulton. A little stiff but tell him you’ve seen us and he might be able to find you some petrol. He has a motorbike- Yamaha, I think? Anyway, decent man.
-And further south? I ask, slipping into one of the seats. Alan glances at me.
-Stay clear of the bridge over Junction 11, he says. We’ve heard there’s a couple of men up there who try and charge you for crossing it. They shot at Jim. So spread the word. Don’t go there, don’t barter with them.
-Bastards can starve, Barry mutters.
Alan’s girlfriend gives me a confidential smile.
-Are you trying to get to anywhere in particular? she asks.
Richmond, Barry says. We go every year- there’s a family we barter with there.
-Barter...? says Alan. He’s licking his lips.
Barry glances at me in half-apology.
-Gas canisters, he says. For stoves.
Alan’s girlfriend seems to be appealing to me. She says, as if in surprise, in my direction,
-Oh! Well, we could certainly do with a few more hot meals.
-We don’t have much, Alan says, leaning over the plastic table, but we have a few things we’d be willing to barter.
And he begins to list his worthless inventory of items. Batteries. A CD player, which Alan spends so long talking up that it must surely be broken or useless to them. A school textbook for his daughter.
-I dropped out, Alan’s girlfriend laughs, again towards me, as if I’m as young as she is and much of the same mind. Everyone did. No point when disaster’s just around the corner. But now things are picking up again- well, they need to know these things.
Barry and I both know what our answer will be. It’s only a question of who will say it. To my surprise, he says, almost immediately,
-I’m sorry, but I don’t think we need any of yours.
Alan looks down at the table. His girlfriend maintains her cheerful smile, as if she has not understood the response.
Then all four of us get to our feet, without speaking.
I go to find Grandpa. He’s standing by the other end of the building, the petrol station, squeezing the pumps methodically.
-Grandpa, I call. It’s time to go.
He puts one pump back in its slot, removes another one with trembling hands, and presses the trigger. Stale air spurts.
-Diesel anyway, he says, replacing it, but it would have been better than nothing, wouldn’t it?
-Charlie says he’s going to marry the Wricks’ little girl, I tell him, folding my arms.
-He says they’ll wait until they’re sixteen. He wants his children to be able to hunt deer.
-Well, might happen. Never know who you’ll bump into, years from now.
-I doubt they’ll be glad to see us.
-We couldn’t afford to be charitable. Not that much.
Grandpa gazes out over the empty lanes of the motorway.
-H.G. Wells, he says. I always hope they’ll have a copy and nobody ever does.
I wait for him to move. He remains quite still.
-I was always so glad, he says, to read about how something terrible was going to happen, that everything was going to come crashing down any day now. It didn’t matter what kind. The sillier the better. Always fun to read how the world was going to end because that wasn’t so bad, was it? If everything goes. Do you remember, at Christmas, we watched that disaster film with Scott and he was so thrilled? And he had that little model aircraft.
The chunder of the car starting up. Barry must be getting bored.
-Grandpa, I repeat. He kicks at the tarmac.
-Whenever I open my eyes, he says, I think it’s going to happen. When it came- when the disaster did come- I thought, this must surely be it. So saturated by it all that it came as a relief. Perhaps if it had all been wiped out, Charlie could have made a fresh start. If there weren’t any more...ruined fast food restaurants and motorways for him to think about.
-There’s too much here, still, of the old world.
-H.G. Wells, Grandpa says, I will always remember, that bit, that wonderful bit, where the mother and son watch the world explode. And the mother asks, ‘Is there hope?’, and the son says, ‘Not for us.’
Violent shrieking. My sons are calling for us to hurry up. Get in the car before Dad leaves you behind.
-Come on, Grandpa.
He remains quite still.