WE’RE all having trouble remembering how we got there by the time our collective, family autopilot disengages and weary legs dump us, baggage in tow, at the car-rental counter in Birmingham airport.
It’s our special weekend away for a wedding and we’re bleary-eyed, principally because someone’s bedside alarm, possibly mine, went off at the ungodly hour of something called ‘4am’.
The car-hire rep goes through possible extras, him asking each question, my wife looking at me, me shrugging and her answering ‘no’. Then, we all stagger across the car park in the early morning Arctic that is suddenly June, with what I think is the kind of contract that means if we return without a full tank of petrol and with so much as a scratch, we may need to re-mortgage.
“Right, stock check, everyone,” I announce. “Five people? Five bags? Excellent.” This is met with withering looks all round. “Right, let’s go,” I say, noticing that they already have, and I’m last.
We drive for the next hour in a big shiny toy, that is, after ten minutes arguing about how to start the thing (by pressing a button labelled ‘start’ as it happens — it’s keyless, who knew?)
It’s nothing like our car at home. This one works without worrisome grinding noises or a smell of burning.
We skitter through roundabouts so numerous that the satnav must be wrestled into silence as it starts sounding stuck, until finally we arrive at rather dystopian Milton Keynes.
“Where are all the people?” pipes up the youngest.
We drive up and down long, straight roads towered over by square, block buildings. “They’ll all be out shortly,” I add, “singing the ‘Everything is Awesome’ song.”
It’s all quite different from what we’re used to, which is anything but five of us crammed into a futuristic Noddy car trapped on a one-way system around Toytown, so we find comfort in familiar rituals, such as panicking hysterically about every wrong turn and arguing, five at once, about whose fault it is. As family road trips go, it’s not exactly ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, but it’s a close, dysfunctional runner-up.
“I feel sick,” says the youngest. “I think I’m having a nosebleed,” says the older middle one. “We’re here,” I say, stopping with a shudder and pressing the ‘off button’. Spin cycle done. I wonder if we have to wait a minute before the doors open.
Instead, we spill out, a little dazed, and wobble to the hotel.
It’s a while before our rooms are ready, so we lounge together but apart on sofas. “There’s Wi-Fi,” says younger middle teen. ‘Is there Wi-Fi?’ is the new ‘Are we there yet?’ Thankfully, ‘we are’, and ‘there is’.
I scroll through local attractions. “The Computer Museum’s near here,” I say to no one. “Is there a Burger King?” muffles the youngest tiredly into her elbows, hands propping up her head.
When we get our rooms, they’re next door to one another and identical, each with one double and one single bed. “One of you will have to share the double,” I announce.
“What about the spare one in your room?” says the older middle teen.
I look at my wife and raise an eyebrow. “That one’s not in use,” I tell him, hoping he’ll get the hint. He doesn’t, just trundles off muttering.
In the end, we’re landed with the youngest. “They kicked me out,” she moans, arriving at our door. “That’s okay,” says my wife. “You can share with me. Daddy can have the spare.”
“Not likely,” I splutter, marking out my side with shoes.
The wedding is romantic and delightful, with the bride and her bride both looking as radiant and happy as two women can. There’s a feast by a lake, then a music video we’d all helped secretly make to the tune of Beyoncé’s Put a Ring On It. Everyone dances until midnight, except our two boys, who try not to watch.
Our whirlwind weekend winds down next day, arguments evaporating as we become quite accustomed to our big shiny car with all its buttons instead of keys or levers; also how lovely it is to come back to bright, clean rooms before deciding which one to mess up with pizza. Luxury.
We return late to Dublin in more rain. Picking up our old car, I notice how much it handles like a steamroller. Near home, there’s the familiar smell of burning.
At the house, the dogs are waiting; their sitters long departed. It all smells like pet hair and old casserole.
We abandon suitcases, each of us off to our own corner, and after a poltergeist shower, where my wife shrieks and gasps depending on the wildly fluctuating temperature, she joins me in the kitchen.
“That was a really nice weekend,” she shivers. “But it’s SO nice to be home.”
“In a strange sort of way,” I tell her. “It’s like we were never even gone...”