‘We’re lost, aren’t we? Why don’t you just admit it?’
Sepp sighed. ‘OK, I admit it, we’re lost.’
‘Here’s me about to give birth any day now and here we are together, alone, in an ice-cream van, in the middle of winter, somewhere in Norfolk or possibly Suffolk, and night’s coming on. Typical man, too proud to stop and ask directions…’
‘Well, who would you have me ask? I mean, there’s the sheep in the field over there. I do believe we might have passed a donkey or two half an hour back. Would you like me to reverse all the way back up this lane, because it sure enough isn’t wide enough for a three-point turn.’
Sepp glanced across at Marie, twisting uncomfortably in the high passenger seat of a vehicle never designed for pregnant ladies. She was close to tears, he realised.
He reached across and took her hand.
‘Sorry, sweetheart. I forgot about the hormones. Of course you’re worried, and I admit I’m worried too. I’m desperate to get you and… junior there… to a safe place. I’m sorry I got us lost. You know me – East End boy – find my way around the East End, no problem, but East Anglia’s a whole different ball game.’ He was trying to inject some humour into the situation. Trying to reassure her that he was still capable of looking after her. Except he wasn’t sure himself.
‘We’ll be OK,’ he said. ‘Whatever happens – and even if we are lost – you’ve got me. And the baby’s got us.’
They had been forced to leave the city in a hurry, four hours ago. Beppo had lent him the ice cream van. ‘I’m only thinking of myself, Giuseppe. If you’re going to come into the business with me once all this flooding business is over, we’re gonna need the van. Selling ice creams from a bicycle – not so good.’ This was the first Sepp had heard of joining Beppo in his business ventures. Ice cream was only one string to Beppo’s bow – there was the hot-dog stand, the baked potato franchise, the… he sometimes found it difficult to keep track of it all. Beppo was a business wizard, a real East End boy, on his way up. Sepp understood that Beppo was making him a very generous offer, in a roundabout sort of way. He gave his cousin a hug. Once the present danger was over, it might be a life-saver. A week ago he had been laid off from his job as a joiner on a building site. ‘I don’t want to let you go, Sepp,’ the boss had said, ‘but the housing market’s going seriously downhill at the moment. Just can’t afford to keep you on.’
He had not told Marie about this. She had enough to cope with at the moment, without getting all steamed up about how they were going to cope financially. Now he wouldn’t need to tell her. Beppo had saved the day.
But right at the moment he had to focus on finding them somewhere to stay the night. They were obviously not going to make it up to Beth and Zak in Yorkshire before nightfall, and the baby might come any time now. If only the Thames Barrier hadn’t decided to fail right now. Why couldn’t it have waited for a few days, till after the baby? The barrier was supposed to protect Londoners against flood tides and now… Now the weather people were announcing a tidal wave on it’s way towards the capital. The barrier, they said, whilst it might delay serious flooding for a while, was not going to be adequate this time. It was an unprecedented high tide. Those in lower-lying districts should evacuate to higher ground. If possible Londoners should evacuate the city altogether. At this point the News programme cut to a map, panning slowly over it. Sepp looked, but he didn’t need to. Their ground floor Council flat was just a few short streets away from the river. You couldn’t get more low-lying.
‘The young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable should go to stay with relatives in other parts of the country,’ the news-reader said. ‘Government advice: set out now. Evacuate now if you have the option to do so.’
Within minutes a text arrived from Zak:
Sepp come to us bring Marie. Beth so worried. Throw few things together get moving. Spare room ready. Come now.
The van was far from ideal. It had been sitting on Beppo’s driveway since the autumn and the battery had gone flat. Beppo had jump-started it and, hopefully, it had recharged itself by now. Hopefully. It wasn’t too reliable at the best of times. Something wrong with the electrics. Sepp just hoped the van wouldn’t start treating them (and any bystanders) to impromptu performances of its ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’ jingle, as it tended to do when its ‘electrics’ were on the blink.