By Craig Smith
According to the traffic cops, this tailback is seven miles long and growing longer by the minute. It trailed passed the Coventry turn-off, the Daventry junction, and the latest, the M6 confluence. There are rumours of a shunt three miles back, where drivers didn’t spot the traffic slowing to a standstill. There are cars running out of gas in the middle lane, conking out a mile short of the service station. Blokes running up the bank to pee. Women cross their legs and pray. Siblings in the backseat squabble to pass the time. Sales reps stand on the sill of their open car door, craning their neck to understand why they’re missing their appointments. There are family get-togethers being missed. Bedtimes being missed. Last orders in jeopardy. There will be people who arrive at a hospital too late to say goodbye to their loved ones. There will be people who miss funerals. Who miss births. All human activity put on hold because two cars came together an hour ago.
Cars on the northbound carriageway are gawking as they drive by, causing the cars behind them to back up. They want to see what caused the hold-up that lost them fifty minutes of their lives. Some stare like rabbits. Others mouth swear words across the central divide. Some open their window to shout accusations across the barrier. Their faces are red, they have slavver on their chin, they offer copious hand gestures. They’ll be caught in traffic at the next junction, regardless, because the cars joining the southbound carriageway are blocking the exits to the roundabout, which means the northbound slipway is blocked. I’m on the hard shoulder, watching it happen. The traffic cops. The angry, disorientated drivers. The fire engines. The ambulances. A police helicopter flew over, surveying the damage, or it might have a radio show letting their listeners know what’s going on. No one legislated for this hold-up. We trust the road to run freely, then something goes wrong, and we get situations like these. Fifteen cars in a crumpled mess across three lanes of the motorway. A thousand cars tailing back, seemingly into infinity. All of a sudden, society stops functioning. The cogs of our lives grind to a halt, and our day is ruined because someone up ahead can’t drive.
I’ve known about these tailbacks. Case in point, four hours of stock-still traffic outside Warrington because the spokes of a trailer buckled, which jack-knifed a Ford Anglia because the driver braked too hard. When we arrived, crawling by in the outside lane, the Ford was facing the on-coming traffic and the trailer was upside down, still attached to the towbar. I don’t know what happened to the family in the car. Hospitalised, probably. Dead, maybe. You never get to see.
Case in point, I was with friends in a tailback when their two-year-old, toilet training toddler went nuts after being cooped up for so long. We tried to catch his wee in a proffered nappy, but it went everywhere, from the front seat to the back. They thought they were prepared, but the delay was so long they were soon on emergency rations. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, you need to plan for these contingencies,’ or ‘It’s silly to presume a road will always be open.’ But we rely on the roads being clear. We can’t cope when they’re not.
Cars are so reliable these days. This is what my dad says. Cars rarely break down. They’re
engineered so that you can trust them to do whatever you want them to do, however hard you push them. Now and again something breaks, like a rocker cover gasket will blow, or a tyre will burst. Sometimes an engine might seize up – I owned a car where the acid in the battery went flat. You can’t legislate for things like that. But most times, it’s driver error.
It was a late one, last night, a belly-laugh funny, antic-filled caper. I’d lifted a bottle of vodka from my dad’s shop, and we drank it in the loft room at Teach’s, watching Sci-Fi movies. We had a little smoke, too, and we’d been in the pub, early doors. Teach is funny when he’s plastered. I had to say to him, ‘Listen, I want to watch this movie.’ But he’d heard this joke about a French bloke and a bloke from Barnsley, and he acted it out fifteen times. Each time, it got funnier. It was something to do with a sword fight. Something about chivalry. I’m not a joke teller. I can’t remember the details. I’m not feeling particularly funny right now, but I roared last night. Absolutely roared. And between us we got through the entire bottle of vodka.
I woke early, but not as early as planned. I’m dating a girl in Surrey and I promised to be there for lunch to visit her mum. It’s a four-hour drive on a good run but I was aiming to do it in three. I was still drunk, if I’m honest. I borrowed my dad’s Volvo, and he got me in bad mood because he needed to use it to run goods from his warehouse to his shop. I said, ‘Use the van.’ But he doesn’t like the van; it’s cumbersome compared to the estate. So I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I entered the motorway. I hit the morning rush hour around Nottingham. I was delayed passing Leicester Forest. By the time the traffic slowed around the M6, I was fuming.
My head was throbbing. I hadn’t eaten. I needed a wazz. So when the traffic picked up
passed Daventry, I decided on a piss-stop at Watford Gap to grab some barbeque Hula Hoops and a coffee to lift my caffeine levels. I was in the outside lane, in fifth. The traffic was still stop-start. As I cut across to the middle lane, going for a gap that would barely fit me, the Mondeo ahead of me braked at the wrong time. I slammed all on but still hit him, moving sideways across the lane until we spun. When I fill my report, I’ll say I was travelling at 70mph, but I was going 85, minimum.
The cops say it might be three hours before the wreckage is cleared. The car that rolled is a mess. I’d hate to have been inside when it flipped. I’ve no idea how the driver survived. The woman behind me wasn’t so lucky. She was spun round to face the incoming cars and took the transit full in the face. One vehicle after another joined the carnage, like kids in a playground, piling on. The trucks were the worst.
I climbed out of the car as the sounds of the collisions grew fainter. I flipped my safety belt and walked to the verge to disassociate myself from my car. I should have gone to the other drivers to check they were OK, but there was nothing I could do to help. I don’t know first aid. I’m no doctor. Maybe I should have apologised. I don’t know. What use would it be?
The coppers were here within minutes. They must have been patrolling the area, or parked somewhere I didn’t see them. They called in the fire brigade, the ambulance, half a dozen other police. There was a vehicle on fire that the fire crew put out; the woman has burned hands but otherwise she’s just in shock. There was a bloke cut out of a Peugeot and ferried off to Northampton by the paramedics.
I’m watching the police photographer. She strolls among the debris, peeking into the cabs at the people inside, taking shots of the remains. She spent a while photographing my car, crouching to capture the tyre marks as they trail back beyond the wreckage. I heard her tell her colleagues that my car looks driveable. The bonnet is a bit crumpled but it got away lightly.
The cop said I’ll be breathalysed in a short while. They’ll test me for smoke at the station. It’s stored up like a guilty secret, waiting to reveal itself.
I call my dad. He’s on his way. He says he’ll fix it. I could hear him explain what happened to the customers in the shop. I hear him tell my mum. She falls silent. She never falls silent. I look back one way, and there’s a graveyard of destroyed vehicles scattered across the road, with a thousand cars tailing back behind them. In the other direction, the carriageway is clear. I’ve been clutching my car keys the whole while, and I’m looking at that empty carriageway, wondering. I’m thinking of the joy of driving on that motorway with no one ahead of me, with no one in my way. Ever onward, to wherever I want to go. Wouldn’t that be glorious. Wouldn’t that be perfect.
About the author:
Craig Smith is a poet and novelist from Huddersfield in the UK. His writing has appeared on Writers Rebel, Atrium, iambapoet and the Mechanics' Institute Review, as well as in The North, The Blizzard, and The Interpreters’ House, among others. Craig has three books to his name: poetry collections, L.O.V.E. Love (Smith/Doorstop) and A Quick Word With A Rock And Roll Late Starter, (Rue Bella); and a novel, Super-8 (Boyd Johnson). He is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University.