THE ROUNDABOUT MAN, by Clare Morrall
I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End. I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever. I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them.
I call my caravan Dunromin, in the solid tradition of all those semi-detached streets that form the vertebrae of the country, because that’s exactly what I’ve done. Stopped roaming. I’ve anchored myself in the middle of one of the few patches of land where no one goes, among well-established birches, ashes, sycamores, surrounded myself with nettles and claimed sanctuary. I have considered putting up a flag – not exactly the first man to arrive, just the first man to show any interest in staying – but I can’t decide on an appropriate symbol. I’m not an explorer, more a squatter. Keeping a low profile until I can claim permanent residence.
‘Hello?’ A young woman’s voice. ‘Mr Quinn?’
Feet crashing through the waist-high stiffened grass. It’s one of those jewel-like mornings when the sun has just crawled up to the horizon and revealed a thick frost. The air is still and freshly washed, every sound sharp with innocence. A layer of crystalline whiteness encases every blade of grass, and the bare branches of the hawthorn rise stark and spiky into the watery distance of the sky.
How does she know my name? Is it someone from Primrose Valley service station? I don’t recognise her voice.
I’m not afraid of strangers. If they want to rob me, they’re going to be disappointed. No drugs, no alcohol, no money. And if they shorten my life, it’s all right by me. The prospect of living to ninety doesn’t excite me – I have no desire to experience stopped-up ears, eyes dimming into darkness. It would drive me inwards, and I’m not sure I want to go there any more. Even the dribbling blankness of the Alzheimer’s that corroded my mother’s mind would be preferable. Better to die prematurely. Under the wheels of a car, crushed by a fallen tree, at the hands of strangers. Not fading, fading until you’re a shadow who has to depend on others, with nothing left but thoughts and memories you’d prefer to forget.
I’m about to put a match to the pile of wood I’ve just arranged into an artful wigwam under the metal grille when she calls again: ‘Mr Quinn?’
A sharp, unwelcome memory: voices calling, always female; a summons; an expectation of obedience.
‘Quinn!’ One of my sisters, Zuleika, shouting across the beach through the rapidly cooling air of early evening.
I ignored her and maintained my concentration on the rock pool. A crab was scuttling across the sandy bottom, pushing past the fronds of seaweed that shivered like green ghosts in the almost motionless water. I trailed my net through the water, producing little circular ripples. Tiny fish darted out from their hiding places, just below the surface of the water, so fast that I couldn’t move in time to catch them.
‘Quinn, where are you?’
My two other sisters, Fleur and Hetty, their voices shrill and harsh outside this silent world of secret life.
I watched the crab. He thought he was safe. He didn’t know about my bucket, nearly filled with crabs of all shapes and sizes. They were crawling over one another, their pincers waving, sending out messages of confusion to each other as they explored their new red plastic home. I edged the net along the side of the rocks, very gently, very slowly, holding my breath—
‘‘Quinn! Do hurry up.’
My mother’s voice, strong and authoritative, carrying easily across the nearly empty beach.
Breathing out, I raised the net from the water and let the crab escape. Strands of seaweed, tiny pebbles, diamond drops of seawater were trapped in the holes. I whipped it through the air to shake off the water and emptied the bucket back into the pool. ‘Off you go,’ I whispered to the crabs. ‘Be more careful next time.’
Then I was racing across the beach, the net and bucket swinging at my side. I could see my mother standing in the distance, watching me, her hand shading her eyes against the setting sun, her straw hat tilted on the back of her head and her skirt clinging to her sea-damp legs.
I ran and ran and ran, the air rushing past my face, my feet singing as they slapped down on the wet sand.
‘Mr Quinn!’ After five years on my roundabout, I’m still enjoying the silence and I resent the ease with which I’ve been dragged backwards. I’ve become accustomed to the calm, uncomplicated present where nobody ever calls me.
‘Mr Quinn! Are you there?’
I’m not surprised she can’t find me. The roundabout is so big that traffic-lights have been installed to control the drivers as they come on and off the motorway. The trees were here long before the roads – once part of an extended wood – and the unknown bureaucrat who made the wise decision to preserve as many as possible should be officially congratulated.
She emerges from the trees, a slight, skinny girl with dark hair tucked into a woolly hat. Two red dots stain her pale cheeks. She can’t possibly be more than fourteen years old. She sees me and starts.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know I was so close.’ She’s not wearing gloves and her hands dither with the cold as she pushes her bag back on her shoulder. A few twigs have got caught in the fur collar of her cream coat. ‘I’m sorry. I got a bit lost.’
‘‘I hope that’s not real,’ I say. She looks confused. ‘The collar. I hope nothing died to keep your neck warm.’ She quickly realises what I’m talking about. ‘Oh, no. I’m with you on that one. Anti-vivisection, anti-fur, anti-cruelty to animals. Trust me, I’m safe. This is just fake.’ Her voice, which wavered at first, grows more confident and she grins.
‘But if you didn’t believe in slavery,’ I say, ‘would you ask your husband to dress as a slave?’
She’s not following me. ‘I don’t have a husband—’
‘What I mean is, if you don’t believe in killing animals for fur, why wear something that pretends to be fur? Aren’t you perpetuating the idea that fur is the only suitable material?’ I’m not sure how much of this I actually believe, but I’m enjoying the line of argument.
She considers this. ‘Actually, that’s a good point – I must write it down.’ She slips the bag off her shoulder and takes out a notebook and pen. ‘I’m Lorna Steadman, by the way. And you must be Mr Quinn.’
‘I’m afraid not,’ I say.
She stares at me. ‘Oh, no – have I got the wrong roundabout? They told me Mr Quinn lived on this roundabout.’
I consider the prospect of someone living on every roundabout. Across the country, hundreds and thousands of Quinn Smiths, sheltering in caravans, tents, sheds, all of us rising with the sun, planting our feet on council soil, rejecting the material world and living off fresh air. Perhaps the roundabouts are numbered, marked on official maps, as valid an address as anywhere else.
‘It’s Mr Smith,’ I say. ‘Quinn is my first name.’
She claps a hand to her mouth. ‘I’m so sorry. What a stupid mistake. It must be my fault. I can’t remember what my editor called you. Maybe I wasn’t listening properly . . .’
‘You can call me Quinn anyway,’ I say. I’ve never had a visitor here before. I’m not sure I want one. On the other hand, she seems amiable. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Well, yes, please. I set off rather early and didn’t have any breakfast. What time is it now?’
I listen to the sounds around me. ‘About eight o’clock,’ I say.
I want her to ask how I can be so precise, so I can explain that I listen to nature, measure how far the sun has risen, recognise the call of the lark, the curlew, the wood pigeon, and assess the amount of moisture on the bark of the sycamores. But she doesn’t ask. And, anyway, it wouldn’t be true. ‘You can tell from the traffic,’ I say. ‘It’s the rush-hour. Where did you cross?’
‘By the lights. The ones just past the motorway slip road.’
‘Did you come under the bridge?’
‘No, like I said, it was by the slip road.’
‘Northbound, then. On or off?’
She doesn’t seem to know.
‘Look at the signs next time,’ I say, as if she is going to be calling regularly. ‘On is best. There’s a pathway on that side of the roundabout.’
I bend down and light my fire. The tiny dry twigs catch immediately and the flames reach out to caress the larger branches. Once they’re alight, the fire nudges towards the logs that I’ve placed in a grid at the bottom. I take the top off my water butt and fill the kettle. All this time, Lorna Steadman watches me.
‘Doesn’t it give away your position, lighting a fire?’
‘I’m not Guy Fawkes,’ I say. ‘It’s just a small campfire. Who’s going to be interested in a tiny plume of smoke in the distance? Nobody would be able to tell where it came from.’ I fetch my only chair from inside Dunromin and place it near the fire. ‘Here,’ I say. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’
She studies the chair, which has seen plenty of action, long before my five-year ownership. I found it in a skip not long after I first arrived here. It’s battered and scarred, with one leg shorter than the others, a multicoloured work of art, decorated with splashes of paint. ‘Is it safe?’ she asks.
‘Of course it is. You just have to get the right balance. Once the legs have sunk into the grass, there’s no problem.’
‘It’s OK,’ she says. ‘I don’t mind standing. But you can sit down if you like.’
I place the kettle on the grille and fetch the teapot, whistling softly. I like whistling. It’s a comforting sound that transports me to an imaginary childhood where my father taught me how to whistle while we gathered up the leaves in the autumn and took them in a wheelbarrow to a compost heap at the top of the garden.
But my father was an English lecturer. Whistling wasn’t quite his thing, or raking up leaves. And my mother certainly didn’t whistle. Successful career women, upstanding members of the community, mothers of a million children, didn’t whistle, not then or now.
‘What’s the tune?’
My whistle stops, mid-phrase. ‘I have no idea,’ I say. A tune is a tune. It doesn’t need words or a title. ‘Maybe I made it up.’ Maybe I didn’t, maybe I heard it somewhere and it imprinted itself into my brain without asking permission. An invasion by stealth.
‘You don’t hear whistling much nowadays,’ she says. ‘Funny that.’
‘Nobody has time any more,’ I say. ‘It’s a dying art.’
The kettle boils. I remove it from the fire and pour the water into the teapot. I discovered it – Royal Doulton – on the A38, abandoned at the side of the road. As if someone had stopped for a picnic and left the teapot by mistake, or someone else had chucked it out of a car window, shouting, ‘I hate this teapot, let’s buy another.’ Or it was the by-product of an argument: ‘You just treat me like a skivvy! Take that!’ Hurling the teapot at his head and missing so that it flew through the window and landed on the side of the A38, damaged but not destroyed. Down but not out.
‘You’re good, aren’t you?’ says Lorna.
‘Clean as the driven,’ I say. ‘I’m even better once I’ve sat by the fire for a bit longer and thawed out.’
‘I mean, you know how to look after yourself,’ she says. ‘Doesn’t it bother you, living here all alone?’
I pretend to think for a couple of seconds, but there’s no real need. I know the answer. ‘No,’ I say.
To be truthful, on the days when I wake to the sound of heavy rain drumming on the roof and I can hear the drip, drip, drip of water leaking into my strategically placed plastic bowls, old milk cartons and chipped china cups, my bones creak with resistance and I remember that I’m sixty – far too old for extended camping holidays. Or when the frost clutches everything around me, including my nose and eyebrows, in a ghostly crispy glow, I allow myself to consider the merits of carpets and central heating.
But there are compensations. The spiders’ webs. Delicate frames of skilfully woven silk, hanging in the air, adorning the world, invisible under normal circumstances. It’s sobering to think that the spiders are always there, hidden from our eyes, weaving away, running successful businesses. They construct their traps, watch for passing flies, prepare for breakfast, dinner and tea, while we carelessly walk on by. We rupture some of their nets as we blunder along without knowledge, yet we only touch the surface of their engineering prowess. And here, on a frosty morning, all is revealed, the extent of their work, their never-ending industry. When the sun breaks through the wisps of fog, shafts of sunlight blast down on these exquisite constructions and turn the frost to tiny drops of water that shimmer in the early-morning air until they evaporate and the spiders’ warehouses become secret again.
‘Where do you go to the loo?’
I watch her looking around, trying to decide if I go nearby, in which case there’s a risk of her stepping in it or leaning against the wrong trees. ‘Sometimes I dig a hole in the bushes on the far side of the roundabout, but I usually go over there.’
I point towards the sycamores behind me.
‘In the trees?’
‘No, Primrose Valley service station. You take the road off the roundabout that doesn’t lead to the motorway and turn right at the mini roundabout.’
‘Do they let you in?’ she says.
‘How can they stop me? It’s a public facility.’ Facility. Such an American word. How have I allowed myself to be seduced by such jargon? ‘I’m the public, you’re the public, everyone’s the public.’
‘Don’t you want to know why I’m here?’
Not really. When people have reasons, they have missions and ideas and things on their minds. I’m not interested in people’s minds. I left them behind years ago. Why should I care? They always do whatever they want to do anyway, and involve me without my permission. I would prefer to be the observer, the one who just happens to be there when their brains start whirring. ‘I thought you’d let me know when you were ready,’ I say.
‘I’m a reporter,’ she says.
A recent appointment, I suspect. ‘How old are you?’
I say. A flush of irritation passes across her face. I’m not the first person to say that to her. She should be pleased. I thought all women wanted to look younger. Don’t tell me the one exception to the entire female human race is standing here in front of me.
‘Twenty-one, actually,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a degree in Media Studies. This is my first job.’
‘Local or national?’
She blinks. She doesn’t want to answer that one. Local, then.
‘Do you take milk in your tea?’
‘Well – yes. Do you have any?’
‘I’m a civilised man, Miss Steadman.’ I step back into the caravan and pick up a half-full carton of milk and two mugs. Minnie Mouse on one, Betty Boop on the other. Big fat feet versus giddy heels. They’re cast-offs from the gift shop at the motorway service station, chipped by the careless hands of drivers on their way to the West Country.
‘Do you have a fridge?’
I smile. ‘No electricity, I’m afraid. Nobody needs a fridge in this weather.’
‘So what do you do in the summer?’
I shrug. ‘I manage. I can have tea without milk, drink water, go over to the service station and have a cup of tea there.’
‘But I thought – I heard – you don’t use money.’
I’m amused by her embarrassment. She’s ashamed to have been listening to stories about me and assumes I don’t know that I am a subject of conversation in the area. ‘You’d be amazed how many people don’t finish their cups of tea.’
‘You mean – you drink people’s leftovers?’
‘Why not? It’ll only be thrown away.’
‘But what about germs? You could catch all sorts of things.’
‘‘Ha! You’ve spotted the flaw in my strategy. You’d better keep your distance. Swine flu is rampaging through my veins as we speak. It was bird flu last week and it’ll probably be glandular fever next.’
She frowns, clearly uncertain what to believe. ‘So where did the milk come from?’
‘A lucky find. Left behind by someone who’d finished the tea in their flask and didn’t want to risk an open milk carton in the car. I found it yesterday. It was sitting on the grass by a bin.’
As she watches me put milk into the mugs, pour the tea, and hand her a mug – Betty Boop, of course – a look of distaste drifts across her face.
I lay a waterproof groundsheet in front of the fire and cover it with a blanket. ‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘I’m immune to the ailments of the world. Nothing has poisoned me yet.’
She lowers herself to a sitting position, and bends her knees up in front of her. She examines her tea, as if it’s too hot, or she suspects it’s full of unknown germs. I let my gaze wander through the trees and away from her. If she’d prefer to tip it away when I’m not looking, that’s fine by me. I don’t wish to embarrass her.
‘Are you normally up and around at this time?’ I ask.
‘Of course not. I just thought it would be the best time to find you and there would be less cars on the roads.’
‘Fewer cars,’ I say. ‘Not less.’
She stares at me. ‘Oh,’ she says.
‘I have a literary background,’ I say. ‘Grammar is important to me.’
‘My paper wants me to write an article about you, Mr Smith,’ she says. ‘We’ve heard that you used to be a pilot.’
‘Quinn,’ I say. ‘I like to be called Quinn.’
She nods and waits. I wait too. ‘So, what do you think?’ she says.
‘About my name?’
‘No, about an article. People like to read about unusual people and you might get some donations. Can I write the article?’
I consider the prospect. What do I have to gain? Nothing. What does she gain? A reputation for well-written articles maybe, providing she’s literate, a pat on the back from her editor, a chance to move on to a national paper? She’s a pretty girl, pleasant; she hasn’t come here with preconceptions or a desire to change me. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I’d prefer it if you didn’t.’
‘But I need to prove I can do something good. You’d make a brilliant story.’
‘I’m not a story,’ I say. ‘I’m a real person.’
‘I know that. I never thought otherwise.’ She considers for a while, then jumps up. ‘Can I look inside your caravan?’
She’s going to write her story anyway – it’s obvious. Better to be pleasant, co-operate without giving anything away. ‘If you want.’ She won’t find anything in there. Just my unmade bed, which can be turned into a sofa during the day, some library books, that kind of thing. I haven’t kept records. I am the man who lives on a roundabout. There’s nothing else to say. It’s only a local paper. Nobody from round here knows my true identity. I hardly know it myself any more.
When our mother died, we discovered that she’d kept every document that had ever passed through her hands. Letters to and from friends we hadn’t known existed; photographs of her parents, her childhood; sketches of us as children; draft copies of stories and novels; receipts that dated back from before the war. They filled every drawer, overflowed into boxes and on to the floor, covered every surface. This was the first time we had found the courage to enter her private world – it had been the subject of a prohibition order when we were younger – and even after she had moved to a nursing-home, none of us had wanted to venture into it. The sheer quantity of material and the lack of order were dismaying.
‘We should hire a skip,’ said Hetty. She was the least vocal of the triplets, the least present. ‘Get rid of the lot.’
‘We can’t do that,’ I said. ‘It’s her history – and ours. We have to preserve it.’
‘What’s the point?’
‘Someone will pay a fortune for all of this. It’ll have to be catalogued.’
Zuleika snorted. ‘Typical Quinn. Everything organised down to the last detail.’
I ignored her. I knew that I would have to do most of the work, because I was still living at The Cedars, but it would be irresponsible to destroy everything. I had a vague idea that I should write the definitive biography, since I was the one who had known her best.
‘Oh, look,’ said Zuleika, picking up a black-and-white photograph from a pile on the cluttered mantelpiece. ‘She was so pretty.’
‘She was always attractive,’ said Fleur. ‘Even in old age.’
It was a picture of our mother when she was in her late teens or early twenties, perhaps, with a young man on either side of her. She was immediately recognisable: those wide eyes that always seemed to be gazing at something just over your shoulder; the strong angle of her jaw. She was wearing a Fair Isle jumper with a round, intricately designed yoke, and her windswept curly hair was pinned to one side with a clip. What had happened to all those curls? As far back as I could remember, she’d had straight hair, tidied at the base of her neck. She stood between the two young men, linking arms with both of them while they leaned in towards her. They were dressed in white flannel trousers and sleeveless jumpers over shirts with rolled-up sleeves, as if they’d been playing cricket or tennis. They were all smiling with a casual, carefree joy.
‘It looks as if she had the two of them on the go at the same time,’ said Zuleika.
‘They’re a bit young for boyfriends,’ said Fleur.
‘Who do you think they were?’ I asked.
‘They could have been anyone.’
But I didn’t think they were just anyone. I thought there was an easy familiarity between them, as if they had known each other for years. I put the photo on top of the desk, wanting to look at it again when I was on my own, when I had more time.
Lorna goes inside my caravan and I quietly sip my tea. It trickles down into my stomach, warm and soothing, an easy concession to the comforts of civilisation.
She comes out grinning, with a small framed picture in her hand. ‘I knew I’d heard that name before.’
I grow still, holding the mug of tea in my hand, watching her. I had forgotten the picture. I’ve grown accustomed to not seeing it, walking past as if it didn’t exist.
‘You can’t just take a name from a book and pretend it’s yours. Why didn’t you tell me your real name? You can trust me, you know.’
I smile gently and settle back into myself. ‘If I told you, you’d probably print it and everyone will know I’m an escaped convict.’
She laughs, not believing me. ‘I had a picture like this in my bedroom when I was little,’ she says. ‘Not exactly the same, but another print from The Triplets and Quinn. I’ve still got all the books.’
Actually, it isn’t a print. It’s the original, salvaged when everyone else was too busy being hysterical. But I’m not going to tell her. ‘Every child in the country has one,’ I say. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I want to dilute its significance.
‘Is it important to you?’ she asks.
I shrug. ‘No. I found it in a bin and liked it. Make sure you hang it back up again before you go.’
In the painting, the three girls, the triplets, are lined up in their usual way, all the same but not the same. Zuleika, Fleur and Hetty, with different hairstyles so that we could distinguish between them. Hetty has her hair in pigtails hanging down behind her shoulders; Zuleika has two bunches, set high on her head, tied with ribbons; Fleur’s hair is loose and cut into a fluffy bob. Their dresses, tied tightly at the back of the waist with a wide sash, billow out above their knees. Blue, pink, yellow. Their toes point inwards with an artful innocence. Their expressions are identical – angelic, sweet – as they lean forward to confront the little boy before them. He’s standing with his hands on his hips, his shoelaces undone and trailing on the ground, his hair wild. There’s a caption underneath: ‘No,’ says Quinn. ‘I’m not going to steal the cakes for you.’ It’s delicately drawn, washed with watercolour, a nostalgic image of childhood. There’s a signature in the bottom right corner: Larissa Smith.