THE CAR CONTAINING THE four sleeping children left the earth. From the top of the wooded bluff where the rain-slick road had curved so treacherously, down to the swollen river at the base of the cliff was easily sixty feet. There was no moon that night only low, leaden cloud clogging the sky. The car, as if suspended, hung in the air. For a fraction - of a fraction - of a moment. Very soon the children would begin to fall. Toward the tops of the trees. Toward the headlong water rushing between the boulders. Into the future.
The only person who was awake was the driver, the children’s father, John Chamberlain. His long, narrow face was visible in the dashboard light. He was staring forward at the headlights as they probed east over the seemingly endless forest toward the mountains, fat, diamond drops of rain slanting through the beams. His expression was, more than anything, even more than fearful, disbelieving. Both hands still grasped the wheel as if he remained in control.
Perhaps he believed there might, even then, be a manoeuvre he could perform, a secret lever known only to a few he could fumble for, yank; something, anything! he could do that might save his family. Behind him, one of the children groaned and shifted in their sleep.
“Julia.” John’s voice was a dry whisper.
The children’s mother was in the passenger seat, her chin tucked, bird-like into her shoulder, head resting on a cardigan pressed against the door. Earlier, she had unbuckled her safety belt - it had been uncomfortable - and it coiled loosely across her shoulder and down into the shallow pool of her lap. She was dreaming about horses. Three, brindled mares were wheeling in formation in a dry, barren field. White dust rose around them, swirling higher and higher. Faster and faster the horses ran as if trying to escape the dust they themselves were throwing into the air. In Julia’s dream the horses’ hooves were impossibly loud.
John wished there was time to apologise to his wife. He wanted to say sorry for many things: the long hours he’d been keeping at work; that petty argument about the wallpaper; the woman in Tottenham who Julia knew nothing about. Mostly he was sorry for bringing the children to this country. This God forsaken backwater. Julia hadn’t wanted to leave London. He had pressured her (that was the right word to use, pressured - he could admit it now). He had insisted that this job was a stepping stone. A place to land lightly before moving on. He had promised her a future with postings to the New York office, perhaps Paris. They would hire a nanny once they were settled into the new house in Wellington. A picturesque little city. “It’s only two years at the bottom of the world,” he’d said. “Think of it as an adventure.” In the end Julia had come around to his way of thinking. She was a good wife. A fine mother.
Hours earlier, the family had stopped at a small village to eat a dinner of steak and chips. Julia talked about getting a room for the night. Perhaps they could walk up the valley the next morning with the other tourists to see the face of the glacier? Excited by the idea, the children looked up from their meals.
“It’s just a wall of dirty ice,” he told them, pushing aside the plate with his thumb, his food half eaten. “There’ll be nothing to see. Besides, I’m sure this rain isn’t going to stop, not before morning. We should push on.”
John had been told this part of the country was a natural wonder, a remnant of prehistory, but all they’d experienced in the three days they’d been travelling was relentless rain and grey coastline, mountains hidden behind cloud and undercooked chips. If they’d bought a ticket, he would have asked for his money back. It had been dark when they left the restaurant. As they made the bowing dash to the car the neon ‘vacancy’ sign outside a motel was smudged to the point of illegibility by the heavy rain. He’d never seen rain like it. Drops as big as marbles. Monsoon rain.
He had driven them down the coast, heading toward the only pass through the Alps this far south. Even on full the wipers fought to clear the water from the windscreen. The three eldest children had cocooned themselves in the back seat with pillows, sleeping bags and a woollen blanket. Lulled by the vibration of the engine and the timpani of rain on the roof they’d quickly fallen asleep. The baby, Emma, had taken longer to settle. She was lying at his wife’s feet in a portable bed, a sort of fashionable, hippy papoose that zipped up to the baby’s chin. It had been given to them by Julia’s sister, Suzanne, as a going away present. At the time John had believed the bed to be a waste of precious space, however it had proved surprisingly useful. Emma’s grizzling had dissolved into soft snuffling and then silence.
The map claimed they were following a highway, but to John it seemed more like a side-road. There were no more towns, no streetlights, not so much as a lit farmhouse window in the distance. The road eventually led them away from the coast. For miles at a time trees, grew right up to the edge of the seal, sometimes with branches draped with moss, all of it flashing into existence in the headlights before vanishing behind. Everything was drowning beneath the incessant rain. No headlights loomed bright in the rear mirror. No other cars passed him going north.
John hadn’t seen the water on the road until the last moment. It was flowing in a broad fan at the end of a straight along which he had unwisely accelerated. His foot jabbed at the brake and he felt the car begin to slide as he fought the drift. Wrestling the steering wheel achieved nothing; the car had its head and would not be persuaded. Still travelling fast, they left the road. The tyres bit into the narrow strip of mud and shingle at the same time as the bonnet thrust into the soft folds of the forest. By rights, they should have hit a tree and halted in a jolting mangle on the side of the road where they would have been found in a matter of hours. Instead, the car slipped between the trunks like a blade. The only noises were the engine, the rain, and the long scrape of twigs on metal. On they ploughed, down a steep slope, crushing ferns and snapping saplings to where the cliff above the river had been hidden from the road. Avoiding the last significant impediment - it was a granite rock as big as a washing machine - by only a few inches, the car pushed eagerly on. Sprung.
Found the air. Where it hung.