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.
I took a swig of cola and shuffled closer to the old TV at the bottom of my bed. 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, inches off the ground.
Another screen change and there I was driving a car as if in a computer game, road flying ahead. Only I wasn’t myself. I was Damon Hill, Schumacher and… and… my heart stuttered. Here was the Brazilian speed-demon, Ayrton Senna da Silva, out in front.
“Great to have you with us, Ayrton,” I blurted into my cola bottle, a handy microphone. “Tell us about today’s Grand Prix in San Marino.”
“Ah, deez Imola track…” answered my own home-made Senna, still too Italian Mafia for my liking. “Deez track eez causing trouble for us drivers today. We ’ave had a bad start, a kerrash, on the starting grid. We ’ave been tailing the safety car, but now …”
I flicked my hair. “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 Mum’s voice floated up from downstairs.
“Lewis, can you come down here a minute?”
I turned up the volume as drivers and commentator 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 part of my brain registered that Mum had moved to the bottom of the stairs. Her voice was drawing closer. “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.
“Lewis Murphy. Don’t pretend you can’t hear me.”
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 her away with my cola bottle. Senna’s throttle was flat down, his car flying out front. The scream of motors burning 200 miles of tarmac per hour. Schumacher right on his tail. Mum now on mine.
“Lewwwiiiisss.” She said my name like a whip hisses through air. “Your Father and I need to talk to you. Right now.”
Mum never said Father. Ever. She might as well have hit me. I glanced up as Senna was turning into lap seven and noticed her eyes looked 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.
“What?” I whipped round, just in time to see bits of wheel fly through the air, and a battered car skid to a halt.
As my TV called out the name, Senna, I fell forward. Dark grey smoke billowed out as pieces of car rained down across the track.
“I hate this racing thing, far too dangerous,” cried Mum.
Stunned into silence, I followed the slow motion replay on my knees. 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 to the pits as cars swerved to miss the debris strewn across the track. Blood rushed to my face. 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 huddled around the smoking remains of Senna’s car. An ambulance arrived, siren whirring. My head felt heavy, drugged. Mum and I must have stared like zombies at the screen for ages when something in my heart hardened.
“Why are you still here?” I asked, strangling the cola bottle.
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. The medical team practically hid the car, like ants on fallen fruit.
“Lewis, you’ve got to come down. 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.
“Forget it,” I growled. “Nothing is more important than this.”
Mum made an odd laugh, as if choking. When I looked at her she was shaking her head.
“Lewis, you’re fourteen years old. Act like it. You’ve got a minute to get yourself downstairs, otherwise you won’t watch another Grand Prix race for a month.”
Before I could yell I don’t care, she had gone. Only her threat was left behind, growing stronger in her absence. Would she put in a racing ban? Could she? Swearing, I left the Williams’ team behind me and started downstairs. Pushing open the kitchen door, I was ready to let rip. Only something stopped me.
Mum stood like a statue by the kitchen sink, staring out of the window with her back to the room. Her long hair had been pulled 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, purple and grey, hunched at the kitchen table, head in hands.
As my trainers squeaked on the floor, Mum turned to face me.
“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?”
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. He was wearing such a tired expression like one of those old scruffy gorillas in the zoo you feel sorry for.
“Your Mum and I are separating. We’re getting a divorce.” He took a deep 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 heard myself speak:
“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?