Well ok, two men, potentially crushed to death in a campervan. Fate unconfirmed.
And besides, it’s more like a caravan really, if we’re being pernickety.
Which we are.
So two men potentially crushed to death in a caravan.
But perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up.
A Volvo crawls along a lane—a nondescript lane, just wide enough for a car; fallen rocks jutting from the floor scrape the undercarriage, thick roots at the bank’s edge nursing the air where stones once sat. So not entirely nondescript, but not important enough to be given a name on a map—known to locals as The Turn After The Water Treatment Plant or station d’ épuration. But since Elaine was the only of the four in the car to pass French GCSE (two of the four are just starting school and the fourth dropped out at sixteen), her mistranslation under their trusting gaze meant they would forever refer to the lane as Eruption Avenue. Whenever they reach the turning, Chris will call out We gonna rock down to Eruption Avenue, and Billy and Juliette will answer in chorus And then we’ll take it higher.
But no one is singing now.
A year of high rainfall has washed away a large amount of soil and grass from Eruption Avenue and exposed the boulders that usually remain half-buried beneath them. The chassis groans as Chris mounts the bank, doing his best to avoid the most aggressive-looking obstacles, igniting a shriek of scraping thorns as he nears one side, the reek of clutch as he tries to correct himself and lands back in the centre.
This trip—the one that has resulted in the family travelling down this particular lane—is by now a pilgrimage made every school holiday to their small house in the north of France. There isn’t anything decisively unique about this version of the trip either—Elaine has once again brought too many books to read, Chris has once again brought too few; Billy was once again audibly disappointed by the lack of viewing platforms inside the Channel Tunnel, and Juliette was once again frustrated by the tendency for her brother’s legs to find their way over to her side of the car. The trip will come to take on a significance of course, once Chris had killed those two men, but for now, as the kids quietly watch the slow progress of the car down the lane and their mother sips coffee from a thermos in the front seat, there are few thoughts other than getting there, getting unpacked and the promise of a steaming baguette ripped into chunks by hand, thick President butter pressed into its folds in quantities that can only be measured in fractions of a block.
Yet the children’s silence is unprecedented.
Perhaps it is the palpable tension of the current assault course their father is attempting, or the resulting absence of the song that has always been sung at this junction. But it is most likely their mother turning to them a few miles back and screaming: Can you two just drop it, ok? and Chris saying: Take it easy Elaine, they’re just kids, and Elaine telling him, Don’t tell me how to parent my own children, and Chris saying, Oh here we go, and Elaine saying, What’s that supposed to mean? and Chris saying, Well drive your own fucking self next time, and Elaine replying, Don’t swear in front of the kids, and turning to the kids and saying, Sorry kids, your father shouldn’t have said that, and both Billy and Juliette feeling woefully ill-equipped to understand how exactly they had managed to negotiate their way onto the receiving end of an apology, when only a moment before they were the ones in trouble for fighting in the back.
Divorce is already a word they whisper to each other in the darkness of their room at night like an ancient spell, and whenever their own bad behaviour sparks another argument between their parents, it makes the success of their mother and father’s union seem increasingly unlikely. One in every two. Everybody knows the statistics. When Elaine and Chris do eventually get divorced several years from now, they will insist that the children had nothing to do with it. This particular holiday however, for reasons previously stated (i.e. caravan, i.e. two dead men) will come up frequently in Elaine’s post-divorce therapy sessions.
They pull up to the gate and Billy enthusiastically launches himself out of the door to open it.
Billy optimistically launches himself into the side of the door that was secured with a child lock, and Juliette laughs, and Billy looks like he might cry (sticking out his bottom lip like a barometer for how a-good-cry might go down), and he kicks out at Juliette who catches his foot expectantly, and her brother wriggles and thrashes in her grip.
For God’s sake, says Elaine, let your brother go. And she unlocks the child-lock and says: The door’s open now Billy, you can go. And Billy, free from his sister, opens the door somewhat cautiously this time and runs to the big wooden gate which he jumps on, swinging out into the road before sprinting back to mount the other. His sister rolls her eyes to the sky, and the car spits mildewed gravel back at Billy as he closes the gates and sets the big bolts in place so the wind won’t take them and the cows won’t get in and eat their apple trees if they were ever to escape again.
It wasn’t immediately evident that there was anything amiss at the house, but then again it had been such a long time since the family had been there last that even the most dramatic of changes would have probably gone unnoticed in the excitement of standing after six hours on the road. As it happened, the smashed window of the caravan was a subtle change in a spot that—as the burglars knew full-well when one of them put their elbow through it—was not visible from the road.
Chris pulled the handbrake and popped the trunk, loading himself up with more than he could feasibly carry whilst Elaine dug around in her handbag for the house keys and set about getting them all inside. Billy charged up the gravel, diving into the open boot to snatch his sleeping bag and book, pushing past his mother to wait on the front step.
There was a smell when they entered. Not quite damp wood, nor wet dog; waft of well-thumbed library book? Open fireplace after rain? In their absence, the air congealed, termites burrowed through ancient beams and mice chewed their way into inanimate objects.
The house was never truly unoccupied.
As Elaine hoovered up the dead flies in the upstairs bedroom with little success (more like: As Elaine redirected a carpet of dead flies from one side of the room to the other, cursing the poor build quality of French vacuum cleaners), the hoover gave a roar like a car revving with the bonnet open. Popping the plastic casing, she found herself staring into the eyes of two terrified mice, quivering in a nest of chewed hoover bag.
Chris brought in the rest of the things from the car while Juliette took her dolls and her suitcase upstairs. She retrieved the sheets from the airtight boxes they kept under the stairs and made her bed because she was now old enough to do so. Billy was not, but that was of no concern to Juliette, despite his begging. Although old enough to make a bed, Juliette was not old enough to understand why her brother’s incompetence was her problem. Billy stood forlornly pleading as she pinched the corners of the duvet, giving them a well-rehearsed shake before he lost interest and clambered onto his bare mattress to read a book.
I’m going to move the caravan, Chris shouted up the stairs, feeling useful for the first time since their fight in the car; blissfully unaware of both the smashed window outside and his wife’s current predicament upstairs, as mouse and human froze and considered their next move. Elaine didn’t scream (as she was prone to), because she knew that if she screamed, the children would run in and Juliette would scream too, and Chris would make a scene of blowing out his cheeks and loudly declaring they’d have to kill the mice, which would upset the children and force their parents to perform another great act of contortion: simultaneously promoting a love of cute things, whilst in the same breath insisting that these particular cute things needed to have their skulls caved in with a brick to stop them from eating their hoover bags.
Could you come up here please, Chris? came the response from the top of the stairs—calm, focused, the type of answer that might have predicated assistance with a heavy suitcase or the opening of a stubborn jar. And so Chris put down the car keys, mentally prepping himself for some menial task, and took the stairs two at a time to see what was bothering his wife.
The mice were visibly shaking by this point, as befits the trauma of your holiday home being peeled apart by an enormous, travel-weary English woman. Chris entered the room, saw the mice, carried out a momentary calculation before he let his default stance win (The Big Moth/Spider Approach; that is—don’t think about it, grab it in your hands, ignore the wiggling and get rid of the problem as quickly as you can. It was a philosophy that had very much endeared Elaine in their early days when all of his idiosyncrasies had seemed attractive quirks in the heady fog of love. But that was a long time ago now).
Chris stepped forward, scooped up the mice in two cupped hands, (husband and wife, he immediately thought as he looked into their tiny, black eyes, shaking his head to banish this troubling anthropomorphisation), he ignored Elaine’s pleading to Just release them up the road a bit, as he headed down the stairs, pushing his toes into his unlaced walking boots and stomping out into the wet grass. He made his way across the gravel, unlocking the gate that Billy had so carefully bolted shut, and rounded the corner until the house was hidden by a copse of trees.
He carefully set the mice down on a section of low wall.
In a moment of absentmindedness, the mice couple sat unguarded as Chris searched for a rock to finish the job. But rather than take off in the direction of the house and the newly-replaced hoover bag, his captives remained motionless. It was an image that would return to him only after he had brought down the large piece of slate and turned them into an unidentifiable spattering of red and purple. He reflected on this chance at freedom as he wiped the blood from his hands on the wet grass and checked his person to ensure there was no evidence of his crime. The children would be inconsolable if they knew, and although Elaine was fully aware of the grim realities of what had just taken place, she preferred to accept the version of the story he would tell her: that the mice ran away, miniature suitcases in hand, glancing back momentarily to raise a tiny paw in gratitude before turning and disappearing amongst the dandelions they would now call home (although he might leave out the bit about the miniature suitcase).
As he headed back to the house, Chris passed the caravan again. He knelt down, rubbed his hand on the tow, stood up and kicked it with his boot before walking over to his car and doing the same. He calculated the angle in his head. He did not look up at the smashed window where the robbers had entered and instead mounted the steps to the house where he found Elaine at the foot of the stairs, clearing up the last of the flies before she could make a start on the downstairs.
I’m going to move the caravan, he said again.
Can we not now, Chris? Please. We’ve been driving all day. The kids are tired. Let’s eat something first, we can move it tomorrow.
And because Chris really only wanted to move the caravan to avoid cleaning and unpacking, he accepted his new purpose with relish.
He drove into town down the steep, winding hill, and parked opposite their local Boulangerie. The cashier regarded him with disgust as he ordered a baguette in broken French, belligerently replying to him in broken English. Clearly at an impasse, they settled on sign language, Chris tapping the sneeze guard, and the woman motioning to the scanner to draw his attention to the price. He left clutching two warm baguettes under his arm, an already-translucent brown paper bag of eclairs in one hand, and a victorious Au Revoir tossed over his shoulder. He bought a trio of sweating cheeses from the shop next door and a jar of strawberry jam for Billy, who had recently decided he could subsist on a diet of sugar and things without sauce.
So the family ate, and no one mentioned the mice or the caravan, and no one was aware of the broken window or the two burglars that had forced their way inside and were asleep at that very moment, only metres away from where the family sat.
But perhaps burglar is a misnomer. Because to suggest they were burglars would be to imply they had broken in with the sole purpose of stealing things, which may beg the question: why the caravan and not the house beside it? The caravan, for the two burglars (No. Men at this point. Or potential burglars. Although do previous burglaries make you a burglar? When is a burglar not a burglar?) the caravan, for these two men, provided an opportunity to start small, being only fledgeling burglars (although burglary was more of a means to an end. So perhaps drug addicts? But must we reduce everyone to the least societally-acceptable of their hobbies?).
Fine then: Two men who enjoyed increasingly long periods of time under the influence of crack or heroin and required progressively large amounts of stuff-that-wasn’t-theirs to fulfil this particular penchant, stood in front of a caravan
But time is of the essence.
So these two drug-addicted burglars decided they’d start with the caravan, have a look around and see if the noise they made would spark any kind of reaction from the surrounding houses. And as they smashed the window and levered themselves inside, they’d decided that this wasn’t such a bad little spot for a bit of drug-taking, since all of that adrenaline from the deliberation, smashing and climbing had really put them in the mood. Everything inside looked well-used and valueless, but the cupboards were stocked with condiments, and most importantly, the caravan was relatively warm, which compared to the old barn they had found themselves in the night before, was the most attractive quality of all. So the two drug-addicted burglars had lain down and done their thing and slept away the day and then the night and some of the following day when the owners had happened to return after a three-month absence to visit their holiday home in the French countryside. Such was the way of things sometimes. With a more philosophical lens, they might have regarded this as merely the last in a string of consistent missteps that had befallen them since birth, but at this point, their capacity for philosophical thought was somewhat impaired.
After a long lunch, the family convened in the living room where Juliette set the fire, her brother at her heels. As they began to squabble over who would get to do the paper-scrunching, Juliette looked to her father to mediate, and Chris pretended to lose himself in the eight-hundred-page tome on the plight of World War One horses which he was already regretting bringing.
He decided that today might as well be the day to deal with the caravan.
He stood up and went to give it a final looking over.
It was still in reasonably good nick—they’d bought it second-hand on eBay while doing up the house—an upgrade from the tents that for years had housed them as the crumbling walls of the old barn were demolished and painstakingly rebuilt in the traditional French style. The family had piled into the caravan’s tiny interior, ample enough unless they were facing a predictably unpredictable French Autumn, where torrential rain would transform the space into something akin to a holding cell between prison transfers.
But despite the tensions, the caravan held happy memories of pre-internet times, when cards were played by candlelight, and parents had gotten drunk on a bottle of cheap red as the children slept, sneaking off into the derelict barn for a little bit of privacy and a lot of something else. With the walls to the house now sealed, the caravan had sat untouched for almost two years. Mould-spotted window seals, wheels swallowed by grass, it harked back to an age when the house was still a Project.
And so Elaine insisted it had to go.
But Chris was suddenly unsure about whether he was ready for the house to be anything other than a Project. Because the age of the Finished House was not the same age as the Drunk On Red Wine Whilst The Children Slept House. The Finished House was a full stop, a calcification of what he and Elaine had become since, and would now forever be. Chris failed to register this epiphany on a conscious level, his body instead noting it as a slight tightness in his throat and stomach which he mistook for hunger. Post-divorce, this psychoanalysis might have helped him to unravel where things had started to go wrong with his marriage, but unfortunately for him (for many of the same reasons that Elaine had decided to divorce him in the first place), Chris never ended up fulfilling his appointment to see a therapist.
It was while he was considering another slice of baguette that Chris noticed the smashed window.
He froze, running a highlights reel of possible scenarios through his head and once again settling on The Big Moth/Spider approach. Arming himself with a nearby rake, he crept up to the broken window, grimacing as the glass crunched underfoot, rising on tiptoes to see the kind of mess he was dealing with. And there, huddled on the double bed, were the bodies of two strangers.
He recoiled instinctively, stepping back, clutching the rake tighter. What the hell was he supposed to do? Were they dead? Maybe they wouldn’t be his problem. He breathed deeply, trying to steady his breath, attempting to calm his pounding heart that was making it hard to think of anything other than running. He stepped forward again, slower this time, rake still gripped in one hand. He focused on the chest of the man nearest and waited for what seemed like a full minute before the t-shirt he was watching lifted, and Chris let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding. But warm relief quickly became fear. Because two dead men in his caravan was a problem, but two not-dead men in his caravan was potentially an even larger problem. He pressed himself against the window for a final time and saw the heroin needles scattered on the bed, the spoon (presumably BYO) and the bicycle tubing wrapped around one of the men’s arms.
Now, this left Chris with two choices—alert his wife, call the police, risk the sirens waking these two who might decide they didn’t want to go down quietly and take his family hostage. Did they have knives in there? If they had spoons, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine they might have knives. And besides, could he really rely on his language skills to communicate the gravity of this situation over the phone? He thought again of his encounter at the Boulangerie and concluded it was unlikely. His wife was a worrier, she always had been, and as much as this had once slotted neatly into place alongside his Get Things Done attitude, it had recently become a point of contention. The nights they had spent in the caravan were pockmarked with Elaine’s sudden inhales and panicked whispers of Did you hear that? and although it was undoubtedly a roaming cow or a hunting owl, Chris would reluctantly rise out of bed, find something warm to wrap around himself, unlock the door, which would wake the children and Juliette would sit up from the sofa bed with swollen eyelids and say Daddy? and he would have to reassure her, that yes, even though this was the third time that night he had been forced to reassure her of the exact same thing, they should continue to feel secure in this small box with its sheet metal walls. No, he decided, Elaine did not have to know about the two sleeping men in their caravan. Just like the mice, he knew that she would prefer to remain in the dark.
This was a Chris thing.
He locked the caravan door from the outside, backed up his car until he felt a slight nudge and then, as quietly and nonchalantly as he could, he coupled the caravan and the vehicle together. At every sound, he held his breath, facing the door, brandishing the garden implement at arm’s length, but it seemed the two men were as comatose as they appeared. It was only once he was safely inside the car that he let the rake go. He opened the gate and pulled out of the lane as quietly as he could manage, navigating the boulders, surely ripping holes in the bottom of the caravan which wailed as branches scraped along its sides.
No one stirred.
Once they hit the motorway he relaxed somewhat, the road levelling out, the thrum of the tarmac beneath him, but he continued to glance in the wing-mirrors, still expecting a head to appear out of a door or window, for either of them to wake and look out with confusion at the speeding countryside, unsure of where the heroin ended and real life began.
But nothing happened.
No heads appeared, no one stepped out of the moving vehicle. Chris took the turn off for the Dépotoir, following the signs for large items, steering past a city of fridges and reversing the caravan to sit alongside two ancient motorhomes—one with a busted wheel that listed to the side as if it had fallen asleep in the wait.
Although he had been under strict instructions to take the condiments out of the caravan before leaving (Elaine had been sure there was still a full bottle of ketchup that was in-date), Chris decided instead he would stop at the supermarket on the way home and pick something up.
For a moment he saw those two mice before him, their small eyes looking up, pleading perhaps—that moment of realisation that there could be another way, that things didn’t have to be like this—but then he found himself in his car again, and the songs on the radio had stopped him thinking about much else other than a job well done. It wasn’t long before he was navigating the alien aisles of a French supermarket, trying to find Heinz ketchup amongst powder-red plastic alternatives that Juliette refused to eat because they tasted funny.
After he’d paid (he hadn’t found the ketchup, instead buying five packets of all-butter biscuits that might throw his wife off the scent), there was a moment when his mind returned briefly to the caravan and its occupants. As he waited at the junction, he was caught by a sudden tug to turn back, to at least warn the workers of what he had found, to call the police anonymously, to explain what was going on.
There was a moment.
The rock hovered, the mice shook.
But Chris did not turn back, and even if he had, he would have found an empty parking lot where three caravans had stood only half an hour before.
It was this lag between his thoughts and his actions that would eventually cause him and Elaine to get a divorce. Granted, in the instance of the divorce, it was a lag between him thinking about sleeping with a co-worker and actually entering her, but it seemed Chris was wired to solve problems via the fastest route possible.
He would calmly explain to Elaine what he had done a week later in a service station while they waited for takeaway coffee. He was feeling something that could have been guilt, but also quite feasibly could have been hunger.
The body is such a confusing thing.
He whispered the story and Elaine raised her voice, and the children witnessed another argument unfold. Oblivious of the mice, of the caravan, of the actual dynamic that existed between their parents behind closed doors, the children would subconsciously blame themselves for the imminent divorce for the majority of their adult lives. Although Chris and Elaine insisted it had nothing to do with them, if they were honest with themselves, the children’s bickering had never helped.
Oliver Bussell is a graphic designer and copywriter making the transition to writing full-time.
He’s had work published by Didcot Press, Hammond House Publishing and Reflex Fiction. He was shortlisted for the Grindstone 2019 Short Story Prize as well as the Hammond House Literary Prize.
He is currently working on his debut novel.
Feature image by Michael Luenen from Pixabay
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