1st May 1994
A wiry, dark-haired man with eyes that could burn out your own sat hidden inside his car. For a second, the whole world turned silent. Only this man didn’t care if you loved or hated him. He was here for something else totally.
I took a quick swig of cola and leant in closer towards the black and white TV, given to me because no one else wanted it. Now at the bottom of my bed, it crackled with the buzz of 35,000 hungry fans, all of us waiting.
A race track flashed up, a silent grey river winding through banks of tyres. A quick camera change before the peace was broken by a pack of growling cars, just inches off the ground. Every car was packed with 800 horsepower. Each one tuned by a team of 50 engineers.
Another camera change and there I was driving a car as if in a computer game, the road flying ahead. Only I wasn’t myself. I was Damon Hill, Schumacher and… and… my heart stuttered. Here was the man I’d wanted to be since the time I realised Dad couldn’t do everything – the dedicated, passionate, fiery Brazilian Ayrton Senna da Silva. I sighed. Such yearning was enough to make your heart ache.
“Great to have you with us, Ayrton,” I blurted out loud into my cola bottle, a handy microphone. “Tell us your thoughts about today’s Grand Prix in San Marino.”
“Aha, deez Imola track…” answered my own home-made Senna, still a bit too Italian villain for my liking. “Deez track eeez causing trouble for us drivers today. We ’ave had a bad start, a kerrash, right on the starting grid. We ’ave been tailing the safety car, but now, now…” I flicked my hair the way Latinos do. “It eez time to race.”
Clearing my throat, I signed off in posh BBC tones. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Ayrton Senna, three times world champion, here to win his 42nd Grand Prix. Or will upstart Schumacher take the trophy?”
The official race commentary was revving up alongside me – we’re on lap six and the San Marino Grand Prix is go again ¬– when suddenly, with timing so bad, even for her, Mum’s voice floated up from downstairs.
“Leewiis. Leeeeewiiiiiis, can you come down here a moment?”
I turned up the volume digging heels into duvet, as drivers and commentator all surged forward at breathless speed. A thrill rippled up my spine. Even my TV’s dodgy stereo couldn’t muffle the triumphant screech of Williams, Benetton and Ferrari as they hammered it out.
“Lewis, I’m calling you.” Somewhere, a far distant part inside my brain registered that Mum had moved to the bottom step of the stairs. Her voice was drawing closer now, irritable, scratchy. “Come on, this is important. Get down here.”
Cars swarmed around the bend, a muscly frenzy of horsepower. I pulled the duvet up over my knees, taking cola, crisps and chocolate with me. Never mind the grainy images on TV. I might as well have been in Imola in person, driving alongside life-long ally Ayrton Senna.
“Lewis Murphy. Don’t pretend you can’t hear me. I know you can.”
Like thunder before the storm, her footsteps rumbled closer. Mum flung the door open with a bang: “Lewis, bloody hell!”
“What are you doing?” I cried. “Get out of here.”
I waved my cola bottle at her blindly. Senna’s throttle was flat down, his car flying out in front. The scream of motors burning up 200 miles of tarmac per hour. Sparks flying. Schumacher right on his tail. Mum now on mine.
“Lewwwiiiisss.” She said my name like a whip hisses through the air. “Your Father and I need to talk to you now. Right now.”
Mum never said Father. Ever. She might as well have hit me. I glanced up just as Senna was turning into lap seven and noticed her eyes looked all strange. Puffy with spiky black marks where her make-up had run. Her long hair was un-brushed, shaggy, like a lion’s mane. I was about to say something rude when Mum’s eyes flickered across to the TV screen and opened wide.
“Oh my God, someone’s crashed,” she cried, clasping hands to her mouth.
“What?” I whipped round, just in time to see bits of wheel fly through the air, and a battered car skid to a sickening halt.
As my TV hollered out the name, Senna, I fell forward on the bed, catapulting food across the floor. Dark grey smoke billowed out as pieces of car rained down across the track.
“I hate this whole racing thing, far too dangerous,” mumbled Mum.
Stunned into silence, I followed the slow motion replay on my knees, nose to the screen. 190 miles per hour. Senna just hit the Tamburello wall doing 190. His car’s whole front right was gone, its back wheel smashed. Senna sat slumped in the cockpit, his helmet hanging limply. Flags flapped like crow’s wings from the sidelines, calling drivers back to the pits, as cars swerved to miss the debris strewn across the track. Blood rushed to my face. A surge of panic rose inside me. Senna still hadn’t moved.
“Lewis, I’m sorry.” Mum was talking more gently now. I’d forgotten she was even there. “It’s horrible when they crash. But we need you downstairs. There’s something we’ve got to talk about. It can’t wait.”
Racing team, medics, engineers all huddled around the smoking remains of Senna’s car. An ambulance had screeched on to the scene, siren whirring, lights flashing. My head felt heavy, drugged. My cheeks were hot. Mum and I must have stared like zombies at the screen for some time when something in my heart hardened. I turned on her, eyes watering.
“Why are you still here?” I said, strangling the plastic cola bottle in my hand.
Back on screen, Senna was being taken out of the car and laid on the track. All you could see were his racing boots, toes turned outwards, small and floppy like a child’s. There was bustling, frenzied activity as more and more medical people fell on the car, like ants on fallen fruit.
“Lewis, it’s bad timing, I know, but you’ve got to come with me now. We’ll check out Senna after. He’ll be okay. They crash all the time.”
Senna was being lifted on to a stretcher. Lying strapped on his back, only his arms were visible, trailing down.
“No, forget it. I’m staying here,” I growled. “Nothing you’ve got to say is more important than this.”
Mum made an odd laugh, as if choking. When I looked up at her again, she was shaking her head grimly.
“Lewis, when I say this is urgent, you’d better believe it. You’ve got a minute to get yourself downstairs, otherwise you won’t be watching another Grand Prix race for a month.”
Before I could yell back I don’t care, with a flash of twirling skirt, she had turned and gone. I punched at the empty air after her and swore. What was she carrying on about? Ayrton Senna had just hit a concrete wall at 190 miles an hour. Just thinking it made me feel sick in the pit of my stomach. Please God, please God, the one I’ve never prayed to until now, don’t let me lose my hero in less than a second. Not like this. But by then, I couldn’t quite concentrate. Mum’s threat was hanging in the air, growing stronger in her absence. Would she put in a TV racing ban? Could she? This was it. I pulled a face. She’d finally revealed her true self. She was a full on witch.
With these words burning on my tongue, I turned to go downstairs, leaving the TV set on behind me. Looking back, I caught sight of the Williams’ team, their eyes glazed with shock. As my feet finally slid down the stairs, I plotted my revenge. All the cruel things I was going to say to punish Mum. Pushing open the kitchen door, I readied myself to let rip. Only something stopped me in my tracks. It was as if Mum and Dad had been turned into wax. They were far too still to be their real life versions. Mum was propped up against the kitchen sink, staring out of the window with her back to the room. Her long hair had been pulled tight into a scruffy ball. The summer sun caught her stray blond hairs, setting them alight. If she was on fire, Dad sat in the shade, all purple and grey, hunched at the kitchen table, head held in his hands. As my trainers squeaked on the floor, Mum turned to face me, lips thin and pale. The blue vein on her forehead was throbbing, her own emergency vehicle’s siren.
“Finally.” Her tone broke the silence like a hammer does glass.
I swallowed a hard lump in my throat.
“Is Senna all right?” said Dad, still not looking up. “Denise said he crashed. What happened?”
“Unbelievable,” said Mum, leaning forward to clutch the back of a kitchen chair. Her knuckles were white. You could practically see bone. “Malcolm, this isn’t the time. For once, can you give me some help? I can’t do every single thing on my own here.”
Mum needed help? The world started to tilt. As Dad raised his head, fingers pulling at his grey beard, I shuffled my feet and braced to find my own crash position. When Dad finally caught my eye, he was wearing such a tired expression on his face like one of those old scruffy gorillas in the zoo you feel sorry for.
Dread was fast filling me up. I tried closing my ears but Dad was already speaking, his voice full of regret. A lone bugle at dusk.
“Your Mum and I are separating. We’re getting a divorce.” He took a deep raspy breath and shook his head. “Lewis, I’m sorry.”
A what? A what? It was then that I must have left both body and feelings behind. Floating somewhere on the kitchen ceiling, I looked down on a gangly fourteen year old boy with floppy dark hair, staring blindly at his Dad.
Distantly, I heard this boy speak in a trembling tone. “Yeah, Senna’s just crashed real bad in the Grand Prix. 190 miles per hour straight into the Tamburello Curve. Dad, I’ve got a bad feeling on this one…”
How do you know you’ve been sleeping until you wake up?