(December 2015, 3080 words)
Jeremy Stopes, driving fast in his metallic-maroon VW Polo, came up behind a black Transit van.
“The hell did he come from?” he said – to himself, there was no one else in the car. He’d been following a truck, a forty tonner, wondering if its speed-limiter was on the blink or perhaps the trucker knew how to cheat it. It was over its legal limit for sure when the Transit appeared, slowing down so that vehicles in the outer lanes passed him, passed the Transit and slotted in between it and the truck.
Stopes was wondering what these drivers would do with the few seconds they saved when the Transit’s hazard lights came on and in the same moment brake lights showed in all four lanes, then more hazard lights. The van slowed and stopped dead, still in his lane. He stamped the footbrake, hearing his tyres shriek, bracing for the inevitable impact, shouted “This is it!”
Bodywork crumples; the engine smashes through the bulkhead into the saloon; plastic skulls burst when the flailing dummies fragment against the windscreen; the steering column drills into the driver’s chest . . .
But there was no collision and when he dared look he saw his VW had stopped, a shred of time before it rear-ended the van, a hair's breadth from smashing into it. “How - ?” he said, shaking with relief, his heartbeat audible. “No way I could stop. The van must have moved on a few metres. Must have! Unless there really are guardian angels.” A sticker on the Transit’s rear door advised “Back off! You were too close''
“Very funny! Wonder where he got that one from?”
He checked his rear-view mirrors. No one had run into him – another surprise - but drivers on both sides of his VW had been less lucky. They were getting out of their cars, checking damage, making exasperated gestures, thumbing their phones.
Up ahead, a dozen vehicle lengths away, smoke billowed, lit red and orange. The “woomff” of an explosion, then another, shook the car. The Transit rocked and righted itself, and he muttered “That's us here till the end of time.” But as he dug out his phone to call the lab the black van moved on, jinking from lane to lane, finding an escape route through the tangle of cars, gaining the inside lane and onto a service station slip-road. Seizing the chance he dropped the phone back into his pocket and followed the Transit, acknowledging with a raise of his hand the drivers who had let the Transit through. Busy with their calls, they did not notice him.
The slip-road sloped up, curving across the motorway to the services complex on the far side and from the overpass he saw the inside lane traffic on the motorway below taking to the hard shoulder to creep past vehicles impacted into each other and scattered across the outer lanes; a flatbed on its side; a car on fire with its front end wedged and flattened under the rear axles of the forty tonner which was slewed across three lanes. The truck had run into and over some wreckage he could not see, the tractor unit lifted off the tarmac by the impact. For most drivers the incident was a nuisance, disrupting their day, but for some, the reckless or the unlucky, it could be a funeral pyre. He shuddered. “Don’t think. Just don’t. It wasn’t you and it wasn’t your fault.”
Cars had stopped on the slip-road, blocking a lane, the drivers standing at the concrete balustrade to gawp at the disaster below. Drivers on the other side of the motorway were slowing, hoping for a glimpse of carnage, risking more shunts. He heard sirens seeking a way through the tail-backed traffic to those in need of help, to those beyond help.
He kept going, into the service station car park. He spotted an empty space and drew into it, surprised to find himself behind the Transit again. Its rear windows were tinted, black as the bodywork.
The van driver got down from the cab, reached inside to take something from the passenger seat – a bowler hat, Stopes saw with surprise - locked the vehicle and made for the service station cafeteria. A professional man, wearing a suit, black like his van. As he walked away he put on the bowler hat and, black suited, black hatted, a stockbroker perhaps, or a Circuit Court judge, headed with straight backed dignity seemingly unaffected by the accident towards a lobster thermidor, or chips with lashings of ketchup, who knows? Stopes pushed these incongruous thoughts aside. He got out of his Polo, intrigued. Stockbrokers and judges drive Porsches or silver BMWs or gigantic FWDs, not black Transits. Transits are usually white and grubby and their drivers wear paint-spattered overalls and caps or hard-hats, not bowlers. As he passed the van he noticed bold yellow lettering on the driver’s side. It startled him. He walked round the van to check the other side. The lettering was repeated. He read, dumbfounded.
“Trabb's Environment Friendly Coffin and Casket Services"
'After the first death, you'll need no other'
"How's that for tasteless?" he said. He recognised the line - a misquote from Dylan Thomas. It jogged a memory he couldn't place and as he rounded the back of the van he saw a sticker in the rear window telling him there was a ‘Baby on Board.’ But the eye can be deceived and reads what it expects to read. When he looked again he saw the notice actually said ‘Body on Board.’ Tasteless and then some, he thought. He was tall enough to peer into the tinted window, shading his eyes with one hand but he couldn’t see into the load space.
But as he looked, the memory clicked in . .
He'd studied the poem at school. Old Ma Perigo, Head of English, is pointing out how in Thomas's rolling cadences it's easy to miss the rhyme scheme. It's a co-ed school. He dates a girl in the class called Shirley Bradshaw. No. That's not quite how it was. Shirley Bradshaw dates him.
"Now Shirley," Perigo says. "How many ways can you construe the last line . . .”
Shirley's answer takes three or four minutes. She works through the line's various possible meanings. Shirley is smart alright.
His mother doesn't like Shirley.
His mother says “You're always off somewhere, the pair of you when you should be studying. She's distracting you, my lad. You'll never get anywhere if you let a girl get her hooks in you.”
Then, as if the Transit's window was a TV screen suddenly switched off, the memories are gone and when he steps round the van he sees that the driver has turned, and is watching him, as though waiting for him to catch up, his silhouette black against the early morning sun, keeping quite still until he sets off, when the driver turns back towards the services.
“Weird!” Black vehicle. Black suit. Black bowler. Coffins. Body. It all hung together, sort of. “Perfectly - if he’s stopped for a black coffee . . .”
He followed the driver into the cafeteria, collected a tray from the rack and came up behind him in the queue. The driver did not remove his hat as he considered the chalk-board menu. He asked the assistant for the mushroom and broccoli quiche and, half to himself, half to the assistant and turning slightly to Stopes, said “I cannot eat dead flesh. I will admit egg, if free-range, but only narrowly.”
Stopes considered escaping. He could pretend to be a foreigner, or deaf. But he was intrigued so he ordered the same quiche with apple juice. Why risk offending this peculiar driver who would not eat dead flesh but seemed to have some sort of business connection with it, or with the disposing of it. They left the pay-point with their trays and collected cutlery and when the driver said, “Perhaps we might share a table? You are quite safe with me,” he assented and the driver added “Trabb. Joshua Trabb.” Stopes introduced himself and they found seats facing each other. He took out his phone, placed it on the table.
“What did you mean, I’m safe?” he asked.
“Were you not right behind me? In a red VW?” Trabb’s voice was deep with a grating undertone.
“I was. But how do you know that was me?”
“Did I not slow you down? If I had not slowed . . .” Trabb left the remark hanging. He removed his hat. It had left a discernible imprint across his forehead. He placed it with care on the vacant half of the table. “No one will sit here now,” he said. “Hats discourage intruders. Another technique is to place a cynical – I beg your pardon. I mean a clinical thermometer in one’s mouth and, if anyone asks if the other seats are taken, mumble something unintelligible. More effective than ‘Sorry, my friend will be back directly. She has just gone to the toilet.’ When they see the thermometer intruders positively scuttle away. You’d be surprised.” Stopes wondered why he was not surprised. Trabb was busy now, cutting his quiche into small triangular pieces, impaling each triangle on the tines of his fork and examining it, turning the fork this way and that – to see if any dead flesh had contaminated it perhaps - before using his knife to deposit it back on his plate.
Another memory came to him - of his mother telling him not to play with his food – bolognese sauce with penne.
Nine, was he? Ten? Sitting in the cramped dining room; the check tablecloth his mother insisted on; her narrow, watchful face. He liked to collect each mouthful by manoeuvering the outer tines of his fork into two of the pasta tubes. They must then be transferred to his mouth without dropping any. His father saying “Leave the lad alone, Jen. He won’t mess about like that when he’s eighteen and taking girls for an Italian.”
Eighteen! His mother vetting his girl friends and finding then unsatisfactory in unspecified ways. “Who is this Shirley, then? That’s an old fashioned sort of name, Jeremy. I don’t think much of her. Where did you find her? All airs and graces, that one. She’s only after your money.”
Protesting that she was in his sixth form and sixth formers had no money didn’t deflect her.
Shirley! Cropped hair, small, always smiling. Shirley who came to school on a bike; cleat shoes, twenty one gears, disc brakes, purple helmet, the works. Shirley aiming a smack at his backside as they stowed helmets in their lockers and calling out “Miss! Miss! Jeremy Stopes is assaulting me!” For a moment the cafeteria no longer existed. He was at Shirley’s front door, pressing the bell, Shirley opening the door, smiling but saying nothing, pointing to the closed kitchen door to tell him her mother was home, then seizing him, burying her tongue in his mouth.
“Airs and graces, Ma? But some kisser! Phew!”
Trabb was talking again. “Phew, did you say, Mr. Stopes? For a moment I thought you had left us.” Trabb was well-spoken, his diction clear and unhurried - like their sixth form physics teacher Ozzy Hampton . . . In the instant he was back in school again –
The tannoy for Period One sounds and Ozzy hurls the door open and surveys his 9 a.m rabble.
“Don’t sit on the radiators, boys and girls. You’ll end up with piles.”
“Piles of what, sir?”
Ozzy smiles and goes to the whiteboard and writes in red marker “Archimedes Principle" and turns to the class and says “Now my darlings, suppose you had only my portly carcass and a big barrel of water?" He throws out his arms barrel-wide. "How would you test Archie’s Pr?” and waits for the inevitable “I don’t think Archie’s got a Pr, sir” and Shirley pipes up “He has so. Well, sort of,” and the “How do you know!”s and the “Saucy!”s subside and the lesson gets under way.
Ozzy was a great teacher. He took physics seriously but never took himself seriously at all. Shirley went on to win the Physics prize. On Prize Day she high-fived Ozzy as she left the dais. She won a scholarship to Cambridge. She went up in the September. She contracted leukemia during the first term. By the Christmas she was dead.
“Mr. Stopes? Is anything wrong?”
Before she died she said he was to have her bike.
“Sorry. For a minute there I was miles away. You were saying?”
Trabb was still driving table trespassers away. “Best of all – I have never tried this myself, though I know someone who swears he has – is to hide behind a newspaper and when newcomers approach, lower the newspaper and eye them squarely and say ‘How dreadful! I read here that the Titanic has sunk - again!’ That panics them.”
And they rush for the lifeboats, he thought . . .
and Shirley, leaving the cinema into a freezing night, says, "That's the second time I've seen that ship sink and it's still as sad. After all their narrow escapes Rose survives while Jack drowns. There weren't enough guardian angels that night, Jeremy."
"Or lifeboats," he says, and they walk to the bus stop in silence and when she links his arm and gets closer to him, he knows she is crying because he’s Jeremy only when she’s upset, other times he’s “Oaf.” He squeezes her linked arm with his.
He must change the subject. “I noticed the trade signage on your van. It's . . well . . "
“Novel?” said Trabb. “Novel is the word I think you’re looking for.”
“Unusual, Mr.Trabb. And if I may say so . . “
“Revolutionary? A break with tradition? A sign of the times? The financially hard-pressed and the Greens looking to save their pennies or the planet depending on their particular mindset.”
He thought, “How is it everything he says kick-starts a memory?”
Like - Shirley was green.
She was cremated in a wicker coffin. He wasn't the only sixth form boy who cried. Grief, or the missing of her, or just being too young for this, was an abyss it seemed there was no climbing out of, where Thomas's line ran mantra-like in his head. "After the first death there is no other."
Was it the coincidence of the misquoted line on Trabb's van that had woken these memories?
Was it some truth in the line's ambiguities that explained why he had not grieved for his mother, who just hadn't got it when Shirley died.
"So many flowers Jeremy. And pretty well the whole school in the chapel. And now I hear the governors want to dedicate a lab to her!"
"The Shirley Bradshaw Sports Physiology Memorial Laboratory, Ma. She was ace. There'll be exercise bikes, oxygen uptake monitors, heart rate monitors, the works."
Her hand on his chest. "Oooerrr, Oaf! Your heart's going like a steam-hammer. What have we been up to?"
Maybe Ozzy got it, knew what to say, what not to say, hand on his shoulder - "My dear boy. My poor, dear boy.” That was when he broke down,
“Bad enough she’s dead, sir. But did they have to burn her, her folks? Did they have to?”
Now, as if coffins were not to be further discussed over lunch, Trabb began to eat, spearing the triangles of quiche, chewing quickly then spearing the next triangle. Stopes started on his own quiche. Nothing about Joshua Trabb, he thought, would surprise him now, so he was not surprised when Trabb, finishing his quiche in short order said “What do you do, Mr. Stopes? You’re not – heaven forbid – another mortician?”
So right! Trabb really was in the dead body business. Just that he had a strange way of promoting himself.
“No, Mr. Trabb. No, no. I work at the vehicle crash-testing laboratory. Near Nuneaton. We smash cars into concrete blocks or into each other - head-ons, rear-enders, side impacts . . ."
"Don't stop there, Mr.Stopes. This is very interesting."
"Sorry . . I just remembered something. I . . I . ."
In the University long vacations the lab took on students for work experience. One such, a droll Ghanaian lad with astonishingly white teeth, made a cardboard notice that he stuck on one of the concrete blocks. It read -
"Back Off! You were too close" and calling out "I done told you, Man!" whenever a test vehicle wrote itself off.
He thought, "That what the sticker on the back of Trabb's van said! This is weird."
"You were saying?" Trabb prompted, his smile humourless.
"I analyse the slow-motion footage that shows how cars crumple and disintegrate and how the passengers inside get flung about. Never neglect your seat-belt, Mr. Trabb.”
His partner Jill who became his wife, who bore the twins, Nancy and Bethany, used her belt with reluctance saying she didn't fancy being trapped in a burning car because she couldn't release her seat-belt.
"How many car fires have you seen compared with head-ons? C'mon, Jill. The other driver won't mind you going out through your windscreen but he won't like you coming in through his."
She "hmmm'd" his point, but buckled up, saying "Safer than a bike, I guess," and he remembered Shirley.
Mention of bikes always did that, even now, years down the line.
Trabb was speaking again. "Ah, yes! The road traffic accident. A vehicle appears out of nowhere. A lorry travelling too fast. Perhaps its speed-limiter is not functioning correctly or the driver knows how to circumvent it so it can travel over its legal limit A situation where you have no say in your own fate. When it turns out there are no guardian angels after all. Time seems to slow down. One's life flashes before one's eyes. Or so it's said. Though perhaps in your case . ." Trabb looked thoughtful, regarding him impassively.
"What?" he said. He knows what I’m thinking. He knows my memories. He knows my life! Who is he? What the f . . ?
"You say you film your passengers in slow motion in their doomed and disintegrating cars? Perhaps their lives unroll in slow motion rather than flash before their eyes as when one's parachute fails to open? Frame by frame, so to speak. Memory by memory. Would you agree, Mr. Stopes?"
He stared, his mouth moving but finding no words, at last managing –
"Mr. Trabb . . they're not real, the passengers. They're dummies . . " thinking "It's been one memory after another since . . ."
"Anyone who travels too fast in a steel and glass box could be considered a dummy, Mr. Stopes . . "
He blanked as he stared at Trabb, and saw himself back on the motorway.
The truck he is following, a forty tonner, is surely over its speed limit. Maybe its speed limiter isn't working or the trucker knows how to get round it to save a few minutes. His VW is just under its seventy miles and hour limit when brake lights come on in all four lanes and the truck in front slows and bucks and stops dead as if the tractor unit had hit something in front. He yells something he doesn't hear. He stamps on the footbrake, glances in his wing mirror. Where's the Transit? A black Transit should pass him and get between him and the truck and slow them down. Where's Trabb and where's his bloody Transit . . .
"What's the matter, Mr. Stopes? You have the look of a man who's lost something."
Trabb, he sees, wears the expression of a man very pleased with himself, his gaze unblinking, his smile sardonic.
He must get away. He didn't find Trabb odd any longer. He was suddenly frightened of him.
"Talking of dummies - I must call the lab. Tell them why I'm late."
"And your family. Don't forget your family. If the pile-up is reported on the television news they will want to know that you are still all in one piece."
How does he know I have a family?
"Exactly. I think I left my phone in the car. Better be going." A porky, but it got him away from Trabb. Trabb, who had started odd, had graduated through weird to unnerving and then some.
He left the cafeteria, fumbling for his phone. It wasn't in the usual pocket. He felt in all his pockets, even the inside breast pocket where he never put his phone. He was still searching, frown deepening, when he remembered putting it on the table.
"Oh Jees! Bet Trabb put his bloody hat over it. Need to go back - "
He had reached the car park, found the bay where he had left his car.
"Where the . . ?"
The black Transit was no longer there. Neither was his VW.
A paramedic is talking with a traffic police sergeant. Blue lights come and go, come and go, lighting their hi-vis jackets. The car under the truck's rear axle is covered in foam. The foam turns blue, white, blue, white . . .
The paramedic says "Nothing we can do for the guy in the burnt out VW under the truck. Didn't have a chance. Looks like the airbag saved him from the impact. But then he couldn't get his belt undone or he was knocked out, whatever. He's a mess, alright. Fried, poor sod." He indicates the road surface. "See the tyre burn? Must've slid thirty feet."
The sergeant says "We checked his reg. with PNC. It's a fleet car. You'll love this."
"I'm sure I bloody won't."
"The registered keeper is the Vehicle Crash Testing centre at Nuneaton. Ironic or what?"
"I’m still not laughing. O.K. Better we haul the car out before we cut him out. Accident Investigation will want the car. Coroner'll want him."
Following a road traffic collision, clearing the road to keep traffic flowing is the police priority after checking injuries, breathalysing anyone suspicious, taking statements, noting who called the emergency services etc . .
"Who did call, anyway?" the paramedic asks.
"Some guy on the overbridge to the services. Says he witnessed it all. Trapp or Trabb or something. Seems he's left the scene, though. We traced the phone he called from. On contract to someone called Stopes. Shouldn’t be hard to find him."
A tow-truck backs up to the VW and the crew get down, looking for anchor points for their chains, their hooks.
The police sergeant and the paramedic move away to talk to the truck driver who leans, shaking, against the central reservation barrier. Their conversation is drowned by the tow-truck revving and the grim sound of the black and mangled VW being hauled out. The driver, a shriek still contorting his face, slumps like a broken doll. He wears his melted airbag like a shroud. “This is it!” he could be saying. “This is it!”
* * *
The poem referred to is "Refusal to Mourn": Dylan Thomas
PNC - Police National Computer.