‘How do you say your name, sir?’ asked Brian.
‘AHH-farrrrrrHH-MOO? OK, sir, I’ll do my best with that.’
‘And what about you, my dear?’ He looked at her encouragingly.
‘Jill,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Jill!’ he said, with a satisfied smile to the rest of the group. He seemed to be saying: Why can’t everyone else have a nice straightforward name like that?
She’d never been on a speed awareness course before. Brian, the facilitator, was chirpy and reasonable in a slightly forced way, a sort of sensible dad figure with a bee in his bonnet about safety. Keen to avoid his restless quest for eye contact, she lifted her pullover collar over her mouth and pretend to write something down in the notebook supplied.
‘Right!’ said Brian. ‘How many people are here because they were made to be?’
This provoked a lot of rueful muttering. ‘Really? Well, no one made you speed. And of course you do have an option. You could pay your fine and take your points.’
He did these courses a lot, you could tell, and he had an answer for everything. Patiently, he picked through everyone’s objections and dismissed them one by one.
‘How many of you think you weren’t speeding because your phone said you were under the limit?
‘How many of you never saw the sign?
‘How many of you think you weren’t speeding and the camera was faulty?
‘How many of you were speeding because of the car behind them?’
Most people’s excuses, when you got down to it, said Brian, could be summarised as, I was in a rush. ‘And what can we do to avoid being in a rush next time?’ he went on remorselessly. ‘Plan ahead. Check the route. Give yourself more time.’
‘I’ve got one you won’t have heard before!’ said a man in a purple tracksuit looking very pleased with himself.
Brian sized him up. ‘Did you by any chance… need the loo, sir?’
The man in the tracksuit looked deflated. ‘A poo,’ he said quietly.
Brian had lots of slides about accidents and fatalities. The group had to guess which kinds of roads saw the most deaths. Rural roads scored higher death-wise, she discovered, because it was harder for people to describe their location accurately so the emergency services could find them.
‘That’s why the newer cars have these safety e-beacon things,’ the man in the mustard-yellow cashmere sweater next to her stage-whispered. ‘I’ve got one in my Jag.’
It would have been dawn, when he set out. Driving home with the other lads after working all Friday night at the conference. Wanted to get back early so they could go out drinking Saturday night, still have some of their weekend left.
Brian knew that those who weren’t angry about being on the course were already bored. But maybe, just maybe, they could learn a thing or two, he said. He was going to put a pound down on the table, he said, and anyone who could honestly say that they hadn’t learnt a single thing by the end of the day was welcome to it.
She noticed that, although he referred to the coin several times during the four-hour training, he never actually put one down on the table. And no one ever challenged him about the coin either; they all understood that this was just part of Brian’s patter. And besides, if they asked him a question about it, they’d just be sat there for longer.
Insisting on answers to questions that didn’t really need answering was a big part of Brian’s approach. As he himself said: ‘This is all going to take much longer if people don’t respond!’ The day could be long and dull if everyone sat there moany and resentful, he said. Or you could decide to equip yourselves with the knowledge to make sure you never have to come back on one of these courses again. ‘Now. Guess who that depends on?
There was a moany, resentful silence. She looked around at a sea of folded arms.
‘Come on…’ urged Brian.
‘Us?’ she said at last.
‘That’s right, Jill!’ beamed Brian proudly. ‘It all depends on you.’
‘We’re the only country in the world that runs these courses,’ said Brian. ‘So you could count yourself lucky that you’re getting this extra chance.’ Then he came out with what was clearly his favourite bit of every session.
‘Now… When do people most often fit a burglar alarm?’
‘Come on,’ said Brian. ‘When do we most often fit a burglar alarm?’
‘Just after you’ve been burgled?’ said the man in the cashmere sweater at last.
‘Welcome to speed awareness!’ said Brian triumphantly.
Brian was full of anecdotes. They were all about people who been injured, or who had lost someone in a crash. Inevitably, he said, you get some people coming on these courses themselves who’ve been affected. ‘So if anyone feels triggered by any of this, do come and have a word with us at the break.’
Triggered. There it was again. A word she didn’t really understand, a word she tended to associate with young people and the internet.
She’d got the call as she was leaving for work that morning. Unreal, the news, almost exciting. She’d had to phone her office to let them know, had to listen to Moira, her so-called boss, stuttering and stammering her condolences, trying to think of something appropriate to say. And all the while, in the back of her mind, a loop of film running endlessly. The diesel thrum of a van. Her nephew and the other lads, hunched in for the night drive. Darkness and headlights and the monotony of the road ahead.
‘Now… is everyone here part of a community?’
‘Come on, it’s not that hard a question!’
Oh Jesus. Yes, Brian. We are all part of a community. She wondered if the attendees could organise a rota between themselves, taking it in turns to grunt a response to these leaden queries that should have been rhetorical.
Your community is where you belong, said Brian. And when we see someone tearing through our local roads, going too fast, we shake our heads and tut. Don’t we?
Yes, Brian, we do.
‘So why don’t we show the same respect… when we go through other people’s communities?’
This is my punishment, she thought. Four hours of aggressive common sense.
The train up to the town nearest the ‘incident’. She remembered buying a coffee and a random doughnut, even attempting a crossword. Random people in the carriage, going about their business, talking about nothing, somehow not sensing her or hers: was it not written all over her face? The failure – theirs, and hers – to understand that this day was not like other days.
The cab to the hospital, for the identification.
‘Have you ever been stuck in a jam caused by a crash?’ asked Brian. ‘A friend of mine, his aunt got her leg jammed in a bumper and was dragged 300 yards down a road.’ Then he mentioned his wife. ‘She’s an A&E nurse. She retired last year. She said: “My cup of misery is full. I want to leave before it spills over.”’
Jill felt a panic rising. Too much caffeine, too many slides about fatalities, too many anecdotes. ‘Did you know,’ asked Brian rhetorically, ‘Road accidents are the biggest killer of the young since the last world war?’
And then it was time for him to hand over to… Iain.
Iain, it turned out, was a card. He went into detail about road signs and how you could work out the speed limit of any road you were on, even if there were no signs about. But his approach was more original than Brian’s.
Iain was a sort of truth-telling buffoon, a man who was ready to confess his sins to make you think about yours. He also did funny noises. ‘If I’m honest, I could have been dead or killed someone maybe four or five times over in my life,’ he said. ‘If a car had come round a bend at the wrong moment, or maybe someone had stepped in the road. Crashbangbang!! Neenah neenah! NOBODY WANTS TO DIE!!!’
Her nephew was asleep in the back when it happened, they said. Had the lads tossed a coin to see who got to drive that time? Or who didn’t? Did the driver take something to keep him going? Not enough, clearly. The dark interior, the steady hum of the engine, steady progress on a dawn motorway. The radio on ambient low. The casual sleeping body in the back, unbuckled for comfort.
With his weird impressions and quirky sound effects, Iain reminded her of one of those old comics from the 1950s who made a whole act out of impersonating musical instruments and farm machinery. ‘There you go, over the brow of the hill, brmm brmm,’ he said, pointing with his clicker to a slide showing a hidden bend. ‘The sign on the road says STOP, which means something happened here. Remember: the more paint, the more PAIN!!’ He said this was a deep guttural Scots flourish. There were titters; he had people’s attention at least.
‘But that first guy, he had no warnings to go on,’ continued Ian. ‘He went too fast up that hill, up up up he goes, sailing right over the brow, like this, brrrrrrrrrrm, brmmmmmmm, neeeeeeeeeowwwwwwwwwww, wheeeeeeeeeeeee over the top he goes! But now he’s up there, he’s an angel looking down at us, saying: slow down, SLOW DOWN!!!’ Iain gave the motorist in his story a cod horror voice, a bit like a camp Victor Price, and made the light of his clicker wiggle up and down over the slide, to indicate the motorist flying off the hill and up into heaven. Delightedly scandalised, people were turning to each other and exchanging looks that said: ‘Can you believe this guy?’
The van had bounced over and over. The lorry driver said so at the inquest, shaking as he remembered. First on the scene, poor man. Tried to apologise for not doing more to save him.
Even now, it was hard to imagine that massive metal bulk taking flight.
‘When you park in the driveway, better to reverse in,’ said Iain, pulling up another slide, showing a car parked nose in. ‘Look at this one… In the morning, he backs out. Kids in the back of the car. Kids get hit first hahaha!’ Manic laughter. There were more giggles from the attendees now; people were sensing that Iain wasn’t just a man with the odd one-liner, he was actually putting in a whole performance. But Iain, a true eccentric, seemed oblivious to his audience.
Someone is killed or injured in a traffic accident every 1.5 seconds, she wrote down. Her mind threw up a wild montage of impacts and smashes. Dented bumpers, screeching brakes, smashed-in doors. Families huddled shaking on the hard shoulder. Grim officials in fluorescent yellow. Crash test dummies. Motorway pile-ups. The broken-egg collision of head on tarmac.
‘Of course, these are all just statistics,’ said Brian, taking another turn. ‘Now I don’t know about you, but I struggle to get my head around all the numbers sometimes. But here’s one that gets me: A child is killed in a road accident in this country every week.’ Brian paused and looked out the window, out to the Holiday Inn car park and the ring road beyond it. ‘Now I’ve got a five-year-old grandson. He’s an absolute terror, drives his parents mad. But I love him to bits. And I think: Do I want my little monster to be killed?’
‘Well, do you think I do?’
‘No I do not.’
She’d met the others at the hospital. Her sister, broken; her brother-in-law, a ghost. They’d all sat round the bed together and brokenly sung a hymn; none of them really believed any more, but it gave them something to do. Her nephew, her darling boy, had grown a sort of goatee since she’d last seen him, which disconcerted her, kept making her wonder if it wasn’t really him. People kept saying he looked peaceful, and she kept agreeing. They all did. They were all grateful for something to say.
The words of Brian and Iain started to blend and clash in her head. ‘They’ve taken a minute out of my precious life – how dare they??!! I’m in a rage — let’s KILL them! But now I’m in the ditch and they’re counting the fillings of my teeth. Bwahahaha. Had to get the BIG tin opener out. RAH-RUH-RUH-rrrrrrrhhh!!!. Now let’s shine a light on those teeth…’
A few days later, they’d been driven out to the spot where it happened. She remembered the two police officers who drove them there – a man and a woman, professional, discreet, efficient. A nondescript patch of motorway, she’d never find it again. But there in the ditch that day, embedded in the mud, in among the shards of plastic and glass and metallic paintwork, she had dug out a house key.
Brian: ‘Now for this activity, let’s think about the consequences of an accident on different groups involved – for the victim, the driver, the family, bystanders, emergency people.’
He leant forward to issue another warning. ‘Now as I said before, we do get people on these courses who’ve been involved in an accident, either directly as a victim, or because someone they love has been hurt or even killed. So if any of this is triggering for you, please come and see one of us at the break.’
Oh Brian. Oh Iain, she thought. Are you triggering me? It doesn’t work like that, at least not for me. You don’t realise it’s a thing you can talk about, you don’t have any sense of feelings mapped to discrete events like that. It’s more a tint that colours the world you see and feel and remember, so much a part of you that it doesn’t ever occur to you that there is something here that can be separated out from the flow of everything else, identified and labelled as an event, an issue, a trauma – something to ask help about or seek sympathy for or to draw on as an explanation of later problems. Something to present with, to excavate, even to wield. She only knew a sudden rush of feelings and memories not entertained for years, or apprehended only as stabs of unasked-for recollection, to be nudged away again for re-examination at a time like never.
She only knew that her life was split in two for ever more: there was before-it-happened, which she knew nothing about now; and there was afterwards.
When they got back to the house that night, she had tried his key in the door. It unlocked instantly.
Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel with Unbound, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two of his stories have recently received Pushcart nominations.
He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool.