I don’t flinch. There’s a twitch of my head at the noise, then the old reflexes tell me the explosion was at a safe distance. I’m the only adult on the street standing upright.
Little Robert is looking up at me. I pick him up and we scan the sky above the rooftops. “There.” The cloud is rising, a darker grey than the others and with flecks in it that glint in the weak sun.
“Was that a bomb?” Sally asks.
“Yeah.” There’s not a lot else it could be.
“F’ck.” says Robert. He’s learning all the wrong English words. Sally goes red.
“That’s…..” I do some triangulation on landmarks. “Right on Market Street.”
There are sirens. People are moving, to and from the explosion. Time was, I’d have been heading for the bomb site. But I have more important people with me today.
As we walk away the paranoia starts. Over there is a row of recycling bins. How deadly could a bomb dumped in a bottle bank be? All that flying glass. There’s a lone car parked outside the Central library. Have I seen it there before?
We are down a side street- no parked cars, no suspicious packages- when my phone starts ringing. I put Robert down. “Hold Tante Sally’s hand.” He’s picking up on my fear, I have to calm down. I know who’s calling without even looking at the phone’s screen. “We’re alright.”
“Thank goodness. Where are you? I can send a car for you.”
“No, that’s…..” actually a really good idea. This isn’t a time for bravado. “We’re just off Portland Street. We can wait at the junction with Oxford Street.”
“Very good.” There’s the crinkly sound of a hand over the mouthpiece, as instructions are passed on. I swap the hand I’m holding the phone in and reach out to Robert. With a nod to Sally we set off for our rendezvous.
“Did you see anything?”
“No, we were quite a few streets away. I reckon it was on Market Street. Large enough to be a car bomb I’d say.” The Americans, logical first choice for any violence, don’t like sending suicide bombers. They prefer booby traps- one repurposed anti-tank mine buried beneath one town’s main square nearly finished the work started by the raiding party that planted it.
Marianne would ask me more questions, but she knows that I’m not in war zone mode and won’t have the answers.
“I have to make some more calls. Thank you for looking after Robert.”
The car arrives at the junction a few minutes after we do. It makes a sweeping U-turn and pulls up next to us. It’s one of those gorgeous multi-fuel hybrids styled after the Citroen DS of old. Up to now I’ve only seen pictures so, despite everything, I just stare for a moment before opening the door.
“I could never send a car for you.” Sally bitches as she settles into the plush seats.
“I’m sure you would if you could.” There’s a rear facing child seat behind the driver. I buckle Robert in and fuss over the straps until I’m sure he’s secure. “C’est bien Papa. Merci.” he eventallty says when it gets too much. I’m still not used to being someone’s Papa.
As we silently roll back to the French consulate Robert regales us with details of how the driver sometimes lets him sit in the front and all the other cars have the steering wheel in the wrong place. The consulate is in Salford Quays, occupying a former hotel. Marianne is waiting as we pull up at the door.
She’s calmer than I managed earlier, but that doesn’t keep her from checking her son for damages. He tells her all about the big bang and exploring empty streets. He’s dropping the occasional English word into his speech, which is gratifying until he punctuates a sentence with “fuck”. Marianne looks at me, trying for a severe expression but failing. “I see you are teaching our son good Anglo Saxon.”
“That was me I’m afraid.” offers Sally, “Sorry.”
“He is a Navy brat. He should know how to curse. And he hears far worse from his grandfather.”
That trips a few connections in my hand. “Oh. My parents are visiting next week. They should meet him. I haven’t told them about him yet.”
“Absolutely. He should know his family. May I meet them as well?”
“I look at Sally for the answer to that. It will all be happening at her house after all. She shrugs, “The more the merrier I guess.”
“Thank you. If you leave now the driver can take you home before he ends his shift. Say goodbye to Papa and Tante Sally Robert.”
He hugs my legs, “Au’voir Papa.”
I pick him up and kiss the top of his head, “Au revoir, petit Robert.”
The proper goodbye performance is saved for Tante Sally. My son is such a tart and I love him even more for it. He reaches up, demanding to be picked up, and they have a long goodbye chat in Franglais.
Marianne turns slightly away from Sally and Robert to talk quietly to me. “This is the first bomb in Manchester in a long time. I have been hearing rumours.”
“About the true identities of some of the Brits returning from the continent?”
“Indeed.” She’s impressed. “Of course, they couldn’t cause long term damage by themselves, but they could create a lot of suffering.”
“I’ll be on the lookout Though I’m sure some folks will be suspicious of me as an incomer.”
Sally puts Robert down and he bounces off through the doors. She gets that broody look again. Marianne turns to her and opens her arms for an embrace. Sally’s taken aback and doesn’t know how to react for a moment. Then she accepts the hug and a kiss on each cheek. Neither says anything. They’re both navigating their strange relationship and can’t think of any phrase that couldn’t be taken the wrong way.
Sally and I sink into the seats in the car and wave to Marianne as we drive away. Then Sally takes one of my hands in both of hers and smiles at me as we hum along empty roads.