It wasn't an ideal situation. Martin hadn't really thought it through. He'd received the phone call early that morning, leaving him just enough time to pack a bag, contact the office and drive to Chelmsford to pick up Joel. One thing he hated to admit in front of Alex was that he didn't have a clue what he was doing.
"Why aren't you at the office?" That was the first thing she'd asked. She always presumed that he would fall apart without her. Every time she saw him and he wasn't a broken wreck, she seemed disappointed – or insulted, even – as though he should be.
"I got a call this morning. My dad…" And Martin had explained the situation, as best he could. He wanted to see his father one last time. He wanted Joel to see his grandfather.
"When are you bringing him back?" Alex asked, holding Joel's book bag in one hand. He was nine years old, for Christ's sake. He didn't need her to still do everything for him. When he came to Martin's, he could put himself to bed, or do his homework, without being told.
"Sunday," Martin said, though that was a wild guess. He didn't know how much his crappy Ford Fiesta could take.
The car had been second-hand. It was a pain in the arse having a car in London and it certainly wasn't cheap, but since Paul and Alex had bought that house in Chelmsford, it made it easier for him to see Joel. Right now, it felt like a godsend.
"Come on," Martin said, begging the car not to fail him.
"Where are we going?" Joel asked. He was anxious because he wasn't in school. Any other kid would be grateful, Martin thought. That was what Paul and Alex had done to him.
"Hang on," Martin said. He had a call coming through:
"Ruby, hi, you're on speaker. My son's in the car-"
"Why aren't you in the fucking office?"
"He's nine," Martin added. "Joel, don't repeat that."
"I am not doing this project on my sodding own."
"I'm sorry, Ruby, but you're going to have to manage without me for today. A family situation came up."
He hung up before she could utter any more profanities.
"Sorry, Joel, what was that?"
"You're always on your phone."
"I had to take that; it was work."
"I said, where are we going?" Joel repeated slowly.
Martin let out a long sigh. "We're going to Scotland."
They stopped outside Peterborough so that Martin could fill up and Joel could go to the loo. He could find it himself, couldn't he? Martin just wanted to get back on the road. He bought a Snickers and some sweets for Joel, and left a voicemail with his brother:
"Hi, Grant. It's me. I'm on my way; I left Chelmsford a couple of hours ago. I have Joel with me. We'll stay in Newcastle tonight and I should be with you in Aberdeen by tomorrow afternoon if we're lucky. Look after Mum for me. Ok. Take care. Bye."
Martin hung up and ate his Snickers. Grant always managed to make him feel like a failure, but Martin refused to give him the satisfaction. He just had to make it up to Aberdeen in time.
They were in Newcastle by four. Martin was knackered from driving, but he still had to go through the whole fuss of finding a hotel.
"We've only got a double room for tonight," the blonde Geordie receptionist said. She was quite attractive. "Will that do for yous?"
"Aye, fine," Martin said. He just wanted to put his feet up.
"Ok, perfect. Where are yous travelling from today?"
"London," Martin said.
Joel was bored and flicking through all the leaflets.
"You don't sound like you're from London."
"No, my family are from Scotland. Aberdeen actually. That's where we're heading."
"Ooh, that's quite a long way from London." She looked impressed. "And will yous be wanting breakfast in the morning?"
"No, I think we'll just pick up something en route."
"Perfect. You're in room 326, if you take the lift up to the third floor, then turn right. Here are your key-cards." The receptionist smiled. "I wish yous both a pleasant stay."
The first thing Martin had to do was phone Alex. Then they watched TV for a while, before going out for a bite to eat. He found a pub around the corner, which was more like a bar once you got inside. Joel was starving and there were plenty of tables.
"I'm having a fish finger sandwich and chips," Joel announced, slapping down his menu.
"Ok," Martin said. When he was ready, he went up to the bar and ordered a fish finger sandwich, an 'ultimate burger' with onion rings, a pint, and a Coke. He came back with their drinks. Joel was playing a game with the beer mat, flipping it off the edge of the table and trying to catch it.
"Dad, you try."
"Ok." Martin had a go. He failed the first time, then he tried again and it worked. He gave the beer mat back to Joel and took a sip of his pint.
It had been a while since they'd done anything like this, just the two of them.
"What's Scotland like?" Joel asked.
"Well," Martin said. "It's like here, only with more hills and shite weather."
"What are we doing tomorrow?"
"More driving, I'm afraid. We're heading up to Aberdeen, which is still a long way. But we might be able to stop for a wee comfort break in Edinburgh, if we're lucky."
"Can we go to Edinburgh Castle?" Joel asked, his bright eyes beaming. "I read about it in my leaflet."
"I don't think we'll have time, pal. I'm sorry."
"You're so boring," Joel accused. "You're always at work, or on your phone, or on your laptop."
Joel refused to speak to him, or stop playing with the beer mat all through dinner. Martin was in trouble for the rest of the evening.
Martin didn't feel like driving. He had a headache and he hadn't slept well. He'd struggled to switch off last night, checking his emails on his phone, after Joel had gone to bed, so he'd crept down to the hotel bar for a Scotch and thought about his dad. He texted an old friend, just for someone to talk to. When she didn't reply, he went to bed.
Joel woke up early and switched on the TV. Martin checked his phone, then got up and had a shower. They'd set off without breakfast, which had been his first mistake.
"How much further?" Joel whined.
"It's still a long way, pal, I'm sorry. We're only about halfway."
"Mum was right. I'm not going to be back for school on Monday, am I? We're never going to get there."
They stopped for a break almost as soon as they'd started. Martin did not want to call Alex again. He left another message with Grant: "Hi, Grant. It's me. I'm afraid it's taking us longer to get there than anticipated… Hopefully, we'll be with you by this evening..."
They ate bacon sandwiches in the car, at a petrol station outside Newcastle. Martin walked Joel around to the loo and they found a dead bird on the way back. It took him by surprise, when Joel reached for his hand.
They listened to pop music on the radio, all the way through Northumberland. Joel chatted about school and his friends. He seemed so much more relaxed than when he was at home. "Say hello to Bonnie Scotland," Martin said, pointing to the sign as they crossed the border. Joel peered through the window, gazing at the wild, rugged moors.
"Please can we see the castle?" Joel begged, as the dramatic Gothic skyline of Edinburgh loomed into view.
Martin didn't think there would be any harm in stopping for a while and letting Joel have a quick look at it from the outside. He found a place to park (parking in Edinburgh cost a fortune) and they got out. It was significantly colder than London.
"It's freezing!" Joel said, hopping up and down.
"I said you needed to wear a sweater. Didn't your mum pack you anything warmer?" Martin opened the boot and rummaged around in Joel's bag until he found something suitable. Typical Alex: she'd packed for a two-month polar expedition. And typical Joel: he didn't want to wear the nice jumper his mum had packed, because it wasn't 'cool' enough.
Martin made him change in the car. Then he swore through his teeth, as he paid about seven quid for up to two hours of parking.
"I like Edinburgh," Joel decided. They stretched their legs for a while and had a wander up and down Prince's Street and around the gardens. Then they turned back down Bridge Street, towards the Royal Mile. Joel looked out across the bridge and said he wanted to walk up to that big hill.
"That's Arthur's Seat," Martin said.
"Why is it called a seat, if it's a hill?"
"Presumably because it looks a bit like a seat," he guessed. "Come on, you'll get a better view of the castle from over here."
Joel was excited to be out of the car. Five hours of driving yesterday had sent him loopy and he kept skipping ahead, so Martin had to jog to keep up, afraid of losing him in the crowds.
Martin used to love Edinburgh, back when he'd been a student; now it had become a tourist trap. Everywhere you went, people were trying to sell you overpriced fudge or shortbread.
"Can we go in the castle, Dad? Please."
"Not today. I'm afraid we don't have time. We've got to get to Aberdeen this afternoon to see Grandad. Maybe on the way home."
Martin checked his phone. He had a text from Harriet: Don't think you can pass through here without saying hello xx.
Martin hadn't seen Harriet since her wedding. He'd gone up on his own that time; Alex had been ill and Joel was still a baby. She'd had a boyfriend when they first met. Then Martin had moved to London and started seeing Alex – the timing had never been right.
"Who's Harriet?" Joel asked, when they stopped off at a Sainsbury's Local to buy some flowers.
"An old friend from university."
"Why haven't I met her?"
"She and your mum had a fall-out, a long time ago."
Harriet looked older, but otherwise unchanged. Martin had always had a thing for blondes. There were a few creases around her mouth, laughter lines. That green sweater really suited her.
"Harriet," he said, handing her the flowers. "Good to see you."
"Roses, my favourite! And this must be Joel?"
"Hello," Joel said shyly. Martin put a hand on his shoulder.
"Come in, you can meet Hayden." Harriet smiled.
She showed them through to the kitchen, so she could give the roses some water. A wee lad, younger than Joel, sat at the table, playing on an iPad. "Hayden," she said. The boy sprang up and put the game away. "This is Mummy's old friend, Martin. And this is Joel." The boys started getting to know each other. Harriet cut the stems off the flowers.
"He looks like you," she said.
"I've always been told he looks more like Alex."
"No, he has your colouring and your mouth. Sorry, Joel," she said. "I know adults can be boring. Hayden, why don't you show Joel your room?"
"You look great," Martin said, as Harriet invited him into the living room. The room was painted crimson, with one cream wall at the back and those impressive Victorian sash windows. There was a pile of toys in one corner and several photographs of Hayden on the mantelpiece. They took a seat on the leather sofa.
"I don't feel great. It hasn't been easy."
"Divorce never is."
"What about you? I'm sorry to hear about your dad."
"He's been ill for a long time. It's my fault for not going to visit him sooner. I just…" Martin sighed. "I didn't want to admit it to myself, you know? My dad and I have never exactly been close."
"Have you spoken to your brother?"
"I've left a couple of messages, but he's not getting back to me. He'll probably say it was my fault for not being there, leaving it all to him…You know how he is…"
"Do you think he'll inherit…? I'm sorry, I shouldn't be talking about..."
"That's what I'm wondering," Martin confessed. "There's the house. Obviously, Mum will still live there, until she gets too old. But the house in Skye – we've never really talked about it. Mum's never hinted which one of us will get it."
"Do you think Grant wants it?"
"Well, of course."
She put a hand on his leg. "I know it's been a while…I remember that time you called, when you were going through all that crap with Alex…"
They were interrupted by the sound of footsteps stampeding downstairs. "Mummy, Mummy!" She took her hand away, just as the boys burst in. "Can we show Joel the castle? Please?"
What choice did Martin have? He was outnumbered: three against one. He worked out that he could still show Joel the castle, grab them something to eat, and be up in Aberdeen by tonight – late this evening, at a push. He wasn't feeling great, but Joel could sleep in the car.
It was refreshing to have a bit of a walk outdoors; bliss compared to all those hours he spent stuck on the tube, breathing in someone else's armpit, or trapped behind the wheel, getting out of London. Martin worked out that he spent more time at work and travelling, than he did in his flat. Perhaps it wasn't really worth it; perhaps he should move out to Chelmsford to be closer to Joel.
Martin enjoyed seeing Joel skipping on ahead with Hayden, having fun. It gave him a chance to catch up with Harriet. She asked about his project. He asked about her divorce. She admitted how hard it had been at first; being a single mum, spending evenings on her own after Hayden had gone to bed; how Kyle didn't make an effort nearly as much as he should.
Had it been that hard for Alex? Do I do enough for Joel? Has this had an impact on him?
Joel seemed happy enough. Martin watched him messing about with Hayden on the big canon outside. Eventually, he grew bored and rushed over. Martin gave him a leg up so that he could see over the parapet. They were lucky it was a such a clear day. Edinburgh was rolled out in front of them like a carpet.
"That's where I used to live, when I was a student." Martin pointed. He was glad he'd brought Joel here.
Dad would want this, he told himself. He wouldn't want us to miss this because of him.
Harriet convinced Martin to stay for dinner. She said she got used to eating earlier, because of Hayden. It would be nice for her to have some adult company, she insisted. Martin knew what it was like to eat most of your meals alone.
Harriet was a good cook: always had been. Simple food, like pasta and salad, but she did it well. He'd always found Alex's cooking a bit fussy; she tried to do too many things at once. Martin allowed himself one glass of wine but found that his glass had been magically refilled. He wouldn't be able to drive straight away.
"Stay," Harriet begged, while he helped her clean up. She'd had a few too many glasses of wine. The boys were in the living room, watching Netflix.
"I can't. I've got to get up to Aberdeen tonight…"
"It's too late. It's not fair on Joel, making him drive all that way. He's tired, I could see his wee eyelids drooping..."
"You're right," Martin sighed. He finished the glass of wine that he'd left on the side. "I'll have to call Grant..." He left another voicemail: "Hi, Grant. It's me. I don't know if you got my earlier messages? Listen, I won't make it up to Aberdeen tonight…"
Harriet set them up with a good breakfast and plenty of coffee. "Joel's going up to Aberdeen today," she told Hayden.
Martin was pleased that Joel had made a new friend, even if Hayden was a bit younger. Perhaps that's what divorce has done to him: it's made him adaptable. Joel was used to being introduced to all these new people, then having them snatched away.
"Is that where cows come from, Dad?"
"Aye, Aberdeen Angus, well done. That's where my burger came from the other day. A nice fat juicy cow."
Joel laughed. Martin was in a good mood.
"Text me when you get there," Harriet said, as he dumped their bags in the boot. "Say bye-bye to Joel, Hayden."
"Bye-bye, Joel!" Hayden waved.
Joel waved back from the car window.
"Bye," Harriet said, giving Martin a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Text me when you get to Aberdeen."
He thanked Harriet once again and they set off.
"Is she your girlfriend?" Joel asked.
"Nosy. We're old friends. Listen, could you do a very important job for me? Can you call Uncle Grant and tell him we're leaving Edinburgh?" He handed Joel his iPhone.
Joel was pleased to be given some responsibility. "Hi, Uncle Jamie…No, he's driving. We're just leaving Edinburgh."
"Well done," Martin said. "Tell him we'll be there at lunchtime. If we're lucky…"
"Dad says we might be there by lunchtime…Yeah, we went to the castle…Dad's friend Harriet, she looks like Mum…Ok…Bye, Uncle Jamie." He gave the phone back to Martin. "That was Uncle Jamie."
"Uncle Grant was looking after Grandad."
The traffic was a nightmare getting out of Edinburgh. He'd forgotten how busy Edinburgh could get. "Shite," Martin hissed, beating his hands against the wheel in frustration. He should have just driven straight up yesterday, like he'd planned.
He knew what Grant would say: You weren't here. No wonder Dad isn't leaving you the house. Do I really have to do everything?
Grant had always been like that. He was jealous of Martin for moving to London. Jealous of Martin for having a family. Jealous of Martin for…what exactly? He'd never really understood. Now, Grant had his farmhouse and his fancy new restaurant…
"It's ok," Joel said.
Martin looked at him. That wee face, brown hair and eyebrows, a pair of wide brown eyes, his mouth. Harriet was right: Joel did look more like him.
"We'll get there, Dad. Don't panic."
Martin leaned over and rubbed his shoulder. "Thanks, pal."
Martin drove as fast as he dared with Joel in the car. He knew that his dad was dying. They stopped once, so Joel could go for a wee and he gave Alex a quick call: "I don't know if we'll make it," he confessed. "He could go at any moment. I want to see him. I want Joel to see him."
He told her they'd stayed in a hotel last night. He could deal with the rest later. For now, he had to focus on getting straight to the hospital, being there.
As the city gave way to coastline, Martin wondered how easy it would really be to get away from it all. He could take Joel away somewhere; not just for the weekend, but for a proper trip. They could keep driving and never stop until the land met the ocean, then take a ferry out to a couple of the islands, go cycling, watch the salmon.
Joel would love it. He was silent for almost the entire journey, gazing out of the window. The brooding ocean, the wee cottages, the funny place names…it was all so new to him. It felt good, taking him out of London: somewhere honest, somewhere real.
Martin remembered those summers he'd spent in Skye, when he'd been Joel's age. Now, he would never get those days back.
They arrived at the hospital around two. Joel complained that he was starving, so they had paused briefly for a McDonald's drive-thru on the way into Aberdeen. It was as grey and miserable as Martin remembered.
A good-looking bloke with sleek dark hair and designer glasses, sat in the waiting room, reading a paperback. Joel ran to him. "Wow, you're getting big! You're nearly as tall as me!"
"You look well," Martin complimented.
"Hi, Martin. Good to see you – finally."
"I'm sorry, I got here as quickly as I could."
"Grant's in there with your dad," Jamie said, letting Joel go. "I'm sorry. It's a really shit time."
"Yeah," Martin said. "Thanks."
Jamie offered to watch Joel, while Martin went upstairs to see his dad. He gave his name to the receptionist – Martin Munro – and a nurse appeared to lead him down a corridor and up a flight of stairs. She showed him through to a small room, then Martin nodded his thanks and she left.
His mum and his brother were already there. Grant stood at the end of the bed, checking his watch. His mum was perched in a chair beside the bed, holding his dad's hand. His dad was resting, his eyes closed.
"About time," Grant said.
"Martin!" His mum rushed up to kiss him. "It's so good to see you." She wrapped her arms around him and he held her; she seemed much lighter than he remembered.
"I'm sorry it took me so long," Martin said. "The traffic…"
Grant raised an eyebrow. His age was starting to show, Martin thought.
"What matters is that you're here," Mum said. "You are both here."
"I brought Joel, he's downstairs."
His mum smiled and touched his cheek. "I'll go and say hello." She went downstairs.
"Did you get my messages?" Martin asked.
"Aye, I got them."
"I, er, hear the restaurant's going well."
"Let's not do this now," Grant said. "Look. Why don't you come over later? Mum still has to eat and Jamie says he'll cook. We can talk things through then."
"Talk what through?" Martin said, but Grant was already leaving.
"I'll give you some privacy," he said, closing the door.
There was a chair, but Martin did not want to sit. He felt restless all of a sudden, from the long drive, from the tension, knowing this would be the last time that he would see his father. He looked at the man in the bed. He remembered the summers they had spent together at the house in Skye. He listened to the sounds of his father breathing, dying.
"I'm leaving you the house," his dad croaked.
"What?" Martin wanted to take his dad's hand.
"I said, I'm leaving you the house. In Skye."
"What about Grant?"
"Pshht," Dad said. "Grant has his farmhouse and his restaurant. You have a son." He wasn't leaving Grant the house because he was gay, was that it? "You still live in that sodding flat."
His dad was right: why did everyone think that Martin had his life all figured out? Just because he had a cushy London job and it paid alright, did not mean he could afford a cushy London lifestyle. He was divorced. He only saw his kid at weekends. He wanted so much more.
"Keep it, sell it…" His father's eyes were as young as they had always been, the same colour as Martin's. "You have a family. And I hope that family will continue to grow. And that you won't spend the rest of your life regretting the things you haven't done."
When Martin got back downstairs, Joel was showing them all the cool trick with the beer that he'd taught his dad. He flicked the beer mat up in the air and caught it.