Sunday came with a shroud of mist snagged on the treetops and chimneys. It made me think of Dad draping the angel fur over our Christmas tree. Traffic crawled, nose-to-tail, chugging purple-grey fumes into the damp air. I sat behind a dented 4X4 for a stop-start hour, barely getting out of third. A fairy in ice skates clung to the back window. A sticker on the bumper read: ‘If you see me rocking, don’t come a knocking.’ It was a little after midday when I finally turned off the M6, glad to leave the snaking trail of cars and trucks and rear window novelties behind in the grey gloom.
They’d put traffic lights on the slip road. Signs pointed to the Central Shopping District and Historic Old Town. I was told to ‘Take a Rest, Tiredness Kills.’ An Audi dealership and a restaurant called Smoking Joe’s had sprung up, but little else seemed to have changed.
Brown tourist signs were springing up in an attempt to draw people off the M6. Kingdom of Mercia was vying for trade with Empire of the Waterways. How did you make a theme park for canals when there were thousands of miles of the real thing out there? Nestling between these giant signs was a tired 1970s notice pocked with air rifle pellets. It told visitors we were twinned with Pont Gris.
I drove past Chicken Cottage, Carpet World, Dreams and Planet Office. A pink mini-airship was tethered to the exhaust centre promising MOTs for £35. Shanghai Sam’s All You Can Eat buffet stood flashing its deals in neon where my tree house had once been. I’d built the tree house from packing crates, shredded tyres and discarded pallets. The M6’s cast-offs made for a great den. Once, they’d closed the M6 for resurfacing and we played football in the fast lane using cones for goalposts till guys in hard hats chased us away.
I turned off for St Chad’s, ticking off the memories: tumbling into the brook in Leonard’s Wood, scoring with a hopeful, lofted cross from the left wing against Wilton High, kissing Vicky Scott, scuffing my heels and waiting for my A-levels to be posted as I drove past the towering greenhouse that was Trinity High. Finally, I turned into The Meadows, certain I could already smell the scent of tacky, white gloss that seemed to follow Mum like an aura. I hadn’t snapped on the handbrake, when I saw her waiting at the front door, arms folded.
She offered a cheek. Her perfume gave way to a waft of Pledge from the bookcase. Her skin was cold as porcelain. I stepped over Hissing Sid – Mum’s knitted snake draught excluder – and draped my coat on the banister. Pine disinfectant from the downstairs toilet nipped at my nostrils.
‘Tea, OK?’ Mum said.
She had the idea all bright young things drank ‘frothy coffee’ these days.
‘Tea’s fine. I see you’re not painting.’
Mum pulled a face. It’d been an in-joke between Dad and me. Mum spent more time with a brush in her hand than Michelangelo.
‘Only I’m not sure what he’s like with skirting boards,’ Dad would say, winking. ‘The Pope would need your Mum for that.’
She’d punch Dad’s arm.
‘I wonder if he considered the merits of Super Fresco in the Sistine Chapel.’
I climbed the stairs past Dad’s watercolours of snowy sunsets on Cannock Chase. He took to painting when he could no longer get about. One crisp winter day we’d gathered spiky branches from the forest floor and he’d used them as the silhouettes of his hawthorns and silver birches.
‘I can go places up here,’ he’d said, tapping his head, forcing a smile.