The pockets of Gran’s bathrobe were empty. She found an old tissue, that was all, nothing useful. No matches. There wouldn’t be anything in Lottie’s school backpack apart from her homework and her sports kit and maybe an empty lunchbox, so no point in even looking.
Lottie’s giggles were gone now, the fun was over, the outing spoilt. The ambulance, their transport, was parked crookedly behind them, the doors open, the driver’s seat empty. Gran didn’t know where the ambulance-driver had gone. She remembered arriving in the vehicle but the details eluded her. She knew she had sat in the front, with Lottie beside her, giggling and asking where they were going. Gran remembered telling her it was a surprise. But there must have been a driver, surely? So where was he?
This wasn’t how Gran imagined it would be but now she was puzzled. Why had she thought this would work? Outings need to be planned, not carried out on the spur of the moment. It was colder now, and soon night would crowd in around them. Lottie was hunched on a tree stump, kicking her feet, cold, miserable. They needed a fire. Rubbing the sticks together hadn’t helped, had not produced the required spark. Everything was damp from the rain earlier.
“What are we going to do, Gran? Are we going to live in the forest now?” Lottie asked her. Gran knew her granddaughter was trying not to cry. Then as half-expected, Lottie said, “I think we should to go home now, Gran. It’s cold. Mum will be worried. Can we please go home?”
Gran shuddered. Home meant different things to different people. To Lottie, home was a big, bright kitchen, a cat on the window-sill, a plate of chips with a blob of ketchup.
To Gran, home was a dark, cold place where bombs fell from the blacked-out sky. Where all around you was ruin and destruction. Or more recently, home was a converted old manor house, down on its luck and smelling of boiled cabbage and urine, and the place was filled to the brim with old, crazy people like Gran herself, and harried nurses who had no time to spare.
She felt a surge of resistance rush through her. She was not going back. She renewed her attempts to kindle a fire, girl-guide style, in the little pile of damp twigs and leaves. Nothing happened. After another half-dozen attempts she gave up. She had lost the knack, along with so many other things.
In spite of her original determination, there was no fire, no food, no fun. She slumped down next to Lottie and the nine year-old leaned against her and they sat together for a while.
Gran was wondering about the driver of the ambulance parked behind them, but Lottie spoke and her voice chased the other thoughts away.
“Gran, what does it mean when you say resistance is futile?”
Gran looked at Lottie. “Where did you hear that?”
“Dad says it sometimes. He got it off the telly. What’s it mean?”
“It means there’s no point in trying to fight,” Gran whispered, and a tear crept down her cheek. She looked down at her slippers. Why was she wearing her bathrobe and bedroom slippers? And where was the ambulance driver? She had a mental image of herself at the wheel. But surely not? She hadn’t driven for years, and she had never been a paramedic or driven an ambulance, she had been a teacher. That’s right, mathematics, that had been her subject. She had even written articles and books on teaching maths in junior schools. But another mental picture showed her coming out of the day-room and seeing it parked there, they had been summoned for Mrs Watson who had died in the night. Yes, Gran remembered, she had seen the ambulance and wondered what it would be like to drive a big vehicle like that. She had thought of the places she could go, the things she could do. Yes, now she remembered. She looked around her and saw it was growing dark, and she trembled. She was aware of Lottie, warm, valiant, sweet as ever.
“I never fight,” Lottie said, “you get kept in at playtime for fighting. And then you can’t go on the climbing frame.”
“I know, Darling, I know.” Gran placed a kiss on Lottie’s hair. Then, “shall we get back in the ambulance?”
Lottie nodded. “Yes, Gran.” Brightly, she added, “we could do this again next week. If they let you borrow the ambulance again. It was fun going along fast with the siren on.”
Gran nodded, but she still didn’t move. Lottie grabbed her backpack.
“I did you a picture at school today.” She hauled it out, slightly bent at the corners. Gran took it and carefully smoothed out the creases and looked at the bright yellows and blues.
“It’s lovely, Lottie. Thank you, Sweetheart, thank you.”
“You can put it on your wall. It’s you and me at the seaside.”
“It’s lovely, Sweetheart. Thank you.” Gran said again and she carefully folded it as she got up. She and Lottie gathered up their things. They got into the ambulance and Gran started the engine. “Let’s go then, buckle up!”
By the time they got back, Gran knew the police would be waiting, and her daughter, Lottie’s mother would be there, frantic with worry. Gran had a feeling this might have happened before but she wasn’t sure, perhaps she was remembering what was about to happen. But in any case, she was too tired to resist any more. There was nowhere to go. And it was getting darker and colder.
“Gran, did you have electric when you were a little girl?”
“No, love. When I was a little girl, your age, we were very poor, and we lived out in the country. Then there was a war. A lot of houses got destroyed. And people. People died.”
“So how did you see to watch telly then?”
Gran hid a smile. “We had candles.”