It was 8.40am on a normal Tuesday morning.
Grampus pulled up at the end of the school road and parked in the last free space. Outside, in front of the school, the air was thick with noise: horns being honked, mums and dads shouting, children laughing and a crossing assistant repeatedly blowing a whistle.
Some parents had stopped on double yellow lines but Grampus would never do that, even if they were running late. Jack waited for the child lock to click before opening his door and then jumped down onto the pavement.
‘Have a great day!’
Grampus gave his grandson a big cheesy grin and a double thumbs up.
‘Bye,’ Jack said and did his best to force out a smile.
He had hardly taken more than a couple of steps along the pavement before he heard the noise of a car door being violently slammed shut. He hesitated then kept walking. He tried to ignore his fears. His feet dragged him towards the school gates. But it was like walking through wet cement. When someone shrieked with laughter his heart sank. He stopped. How bad would it be?
Turning around it immediately became clear that his dad had escaped.
His dad, who was a beanpole of a man, stood in the middle of a sea of kids with his arms sticking out, looking like a gormless scarecrow. Jack sighed. Not again. He knew that his dad hated crowds and there was every chance he might freak out.
Cringing Jack watched as his dad twitched and grimaced, jerked and smiled. Some kids nervously edged away, others, who thought it was a joke, stopped to enjoy the early morning show. No doubt some idiot would take pictures on their phone and it would be all around school during registration.
Grampus was out of the car in a flash and already breaking up the crowd.
‘Move along. Nothing to see here.’
This is seriously embarrassing, Jack thought and felt ashamed of himself. So ashamed it made him feel sick. After all, this was his fault.
‘You get going, Jack. You’ll be late,’ Grampus called.
‘Yeah. Okay. See you later.’
‘See you later, birthday boy.’
Head down he plodded off and, because he wasn’t looking, a kid banged into him so hard it almost knocked him off his feet.
‘Out of the way, Crazy Horse!’
That name. It made him wince every time he heard it.
‘Sorry,’ Jack apologised.
He shrank back into a nearby laurel bush and took a deep breath to steady himself. Kids streamed by and thoughts raced inside his head. They were always the same thoughts and it always came back to the accident.
He closed his eyes.
He was back on that street, with all the lights out, standing by his dad’s mangled bike. What if he’d been there on time? Then things would have been fine. But Jack had been late and so it was his fault. And if it was his fault he had to make up for his mistake. He had to fix things. He had to save the Dadster.
His mum hated it when Jack called his dad, the Dadster. But Brendan Campion had loved it so Jack wasn’t letting go.
‘Save the Dadster,’ he muttered under his breath. A group of girls saw him hiding behind the laurel leaves and giggled. He knew what they were thinking. There he goes again, Crazy Jack Campion.
‘What are you doing, Jack? You’ll be late,’ asked a smiling dark haired girl.
‘Er … it’s my birthday?’ he blurted out. He could have kicked himself. He was stupid with girls. What did hiding in a bush have to do with his birthday?
The girls hurried on and, ignoring the branches scratching at his shoulders, he shrank further back from the pathway.
Happy birthday. Can’t wait to see your presents, he said sarcastically inside his head. He wanted to curl up, on the ground, in the dead leaves, and stay under that bush for the rest of the day.
But that wouldn’t solve his problems. Three months ago, straight after the accident, the doctors said that maybe, if they knew exactly what happened, they could bring back the old Dadster.
Well, maybe today, when he turned thirteen, he would get the key to unlock the past and fix the present.
Somehow he doubted it but he wasn’t going to find any answers hiding in a badly pruned plant.
He joined the stragglers hurrying towards the main doors of Redemere Village College. The bell would sound for registration in two minutes.
Close by a car horn started to honk.
The car, a large Bentley, was blocking the entrance to the school playground. Kids who didn’t want to be late were yelling at the driver. A teacher supervising the playground rushed over and banged on the bonnet.
Well, Jack thought, at least someone hasn’t forgotten my birthday.
It was almost certainly his American grandfather. It had happened last year and it looked like it was happening again.
The car stopped next to him and the driver’s window began to descend slowly.
‘Poppy?’ Jack asked nervously. He leant forward and peered through to the back seat.
But it wasn’t his granddad. Instead, leaning at a strange angle, he saw a shadowy face that looked like a woman: a woman who didn’t appear to be wearing very many clothes.
Someone banged into his back and he swung around to see Gidean Saint-George and his smirking cronies.
‘Oooh! Crazy Horse has got a girlfriend. Who’s Poppy! Is she blind Crampy?’
Gidean stretched his neck to try and catch a glimpse inside the back of the car.
‘Poppy is not a girl! He’s my granddad. The Italian Americans call their granddads Poppy! My Nana …’ Jack tried to explain.
‘Boring, Crampon!’ Gidean mocked and muttered something that made his crew of friends fall about with exaggerated laughter. Jack turned back to the car.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked the driver.
‘Birthday message from your granddad,’ the driver grinned. He nodded to the back seat.
Jack hurried around the car.
‘That’s it! Run away, Crampy the Yankee’,’ Gidean shouted.
‘How many times can I repeat that I have dual citizenship because my mum is American! I’m as English as you are. I was born in the same hospital in Cambridge as you, you moron,’ Jack shouted as he grabbed a door handle and jumped in the car.
‘What the ..’
It wasn’t a woman sitting on the back seat of the Bentley; it was an antique, life-sized, oil painting of a naked woman.
The driver turned around and smiled.
‘Your granddad says happy birthday and sends his apologies. He couldn’t make it today. The painting isn’t your present. Your present will be late this year.’
‘What or who is it?’ Jack said, pointing at the pink, fleshy figure sprawling across the large canvas.
The driver pointed to a label on the frame of the painting.
‘The Goddess Demeter, Queen of the Earth, weeping. I’m on my way to drop her off.’
In despair Jack rolled his eyes skywards.
In the distance he heard the bell ringing. He was going to be late.