PETER GUEST

 

I keep going over the conversation in my head again and again, and every time I picture Joe’s face it hurts more. I’ve come close to screwing up like this before but I know I’ve really done it this time. I’ve made a huge mistake.

     What happened at home this morning had been brewing for weeks, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it. Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped and I don’t have any control. I’m trying to do my best for everyone but no-one can see it, and at the same time everyone blames me whenever anything goes wrong. I’m starting to think that whichever way I turn and whatever I do I’ll end up pissing someone off and paying one hell of a price.

     I can’t stop looking at the clock. It’s almost eight. Jenny will have Joe ready for school now. He kept telling me it didn’t matter but I could see that it did. He kept telling me it was all right and that there’d be another time but there’s no escaping the fact that I’ve let my son down again. The trouble is, how can I justify sitting in a school hall watching my child’s class assembly when I should be at the office, closing a deal that’s taken months of effort to bring to the table? I know that in financial terms there’s no competition and the office has to take precedence, but I also know that on just about every other level I should be putting work at the very bottom of the pile. It’s hard to do that. The pressure the directors are putting me under is unbearable, but that pales into insignificance in comparison to this gnawing, nagging emptiness I’m feeling in the pit of my stomach now. I’m starting to think that I might have just paid a price that can’t be measured in pounds and pence. I might have lost everything.

     It wouldn’t be so bad if this had been the first time. It wouldn’t even be that bad if it was only the second or third time either. Truth is, because of work I seemed to have missed just about every notable landmark event in Joe’s short life so far. I missed his first day at playgroup because of an off-site meeting and I missed his first morning at nursery because I was in Hong Kong on a business trip. I missed his first day at school. I missed his first nativity play and his first proper birthday party with his friends. And why did I miss all of those things? I did it all for Jenny and Joe. I just want the best I can for them, and if that means I have to work long hours and be dedicated to my job then so be it, that’s what I’m prepared to do.

     Jenny doesn’t see things that way.

     She really laid into me last night when I took the call and told her I was going to be at the office early. She started hurling all kinds of threats and accusations in my direction, telling me that we were getting close to the point where I was going to have to make a choice between my career and my family. She’s said things like that before, but last night it felt different. I could tell that she wasn’t making idle threats. She meant every word. I tried again to tell her that I was only doing it for her and Joe but she wasn’t listening. She asked me if I could imagine a time when I didn’t work for the company and I said that I could. It might still be a long way off, but I know I’ll leave someday. Then she asked me if I could imagine being without her and Joe. I said that I couldn’t and that I didn’t even want to think about it. She said that was the choice I had to make. If they were more important to me than work, why did I keep choosing work over them?

     Bloody hell, I know she’s right and I know I should be stronger, but the company’s got me by the balls.

#

     Traffic’s bad this morning. God, that’d be ironic, wouldn’t it, the traffic making me late for the meeting after all the grief this has caused. It’s been bumper to bumper since I left home. It’s not unusual. This is the main route into town and I know that a lot of commuters will turn off for the motorway soon, leaving the last mile or so to the office relatively clear.

     I’ve finally reached the last major set of traffic lights. I might be sitting here for the next ten minutes or so, but once I’m through, I should be at the office in no time. I’ll get this meeting done and I’ll see if I can’t get away a little earlier tonight. I’ll find a way of making it up to Joe and Jen. If we get the deal closed this morning we all stand to get a decent payout next month. I’ll take them out for dinner tonight and put it on the credit card. I’ll take them for a pizza or a burger, Joe will love that. Maybe we could go to the cinema if he’s not too tired after school. I can’t keep him out too late. Perhaps I’ll take them at the weekend. Maybe I’ll just get them both something from town at lunchtime. But I don’t want it to seem like I’m just trying to pay for-

     Bloody hell, what was that? As I pulled away from the lights just then I’m sure I saw a car going out of control on its way down the bypass. There’s no way I can turn back. There are plenty of other people about and there’s probably nothing I could do anyway. The police watch all these roads on CCTV and they’ll be on the scene before anyone-

     -Jesus Christ! I’ve just seen a crash at the top of the slip road I’m heading down to get into the Heapford tunnel. It happened so fast I didn’t really see what happened. There was a blue-grey estate and it veered off and smacked into the side of another car. They both went spinning across the carriageway. Thank God I missed it. I hope everyone involved is okay and I don’t want to sound completely uncaring, but I can’t afford to be delayed today. A minute or so later and I would have been stuck in the tailback and chaos that rush-hour crashes always leave in their wake.

     The light becomes electric and the sounds change as I drive further into the tunnel. The signal on the radio disappears and the noise of the city is muffled and snuffed out by the sounds of car engines echoing off the close walls on either side. The road ahead bends away to the left and I can see the bright red glow of brake lights up ahead. Drivers are always braking sharply at the end of this tunnel. They just don’t anticipate the filter system. Everyone drives too fast down here without thinking and... and there are a stack of cars backing up now. Christ, I hope it is just the filter and nothing more serious. I’m going to be cutting it fine. To be stuck this close to the office would just be unbelievable.

     The noises around me are starting to change again. Now I can hear brakes squealing and engines straining. The radio is still quiet. Hang on, the traffic is stopping. There must have been another accident. Christ, three in one morning, and all in the space of less than a mile, what are the chances of that happening? Shit, what the hell is going on here? Jesus, it’s a bloody pileup. A load of cars have smashed into each other at the mouth of the tunnel. They’re wedged together and... and I’ve got to stop before I hit them. I slam on my brakes but I’m going too fast to stop in time. The car behind me isn’t slowing down, and neither is the one to my right. The guy on my right hasn’t even got his hands on the wheel. He looks like he’s choking... I’m going to hit something or something’s going to hit me. I try to keep hold of the steering wheel but I’m just-

#

     Several minutes later Peter Guest woke up, and the world around him was completely silent. Dazed and disorientated, he gently pushed himself up in his seat and gagged as warm, semi-coagulated blood trickled down the back of this throat from his broken nose. The first thing he thought was that he was going to be late for his vital meeting, and he struggled to get out of his seat, unbuckling his belt and disentangling himself from the now deflated airbag. He had to get out of here and get to the office. He had to let them know what had happened. They’d understand if they knew he’d been in an accident.

     Peter slowly attempted to focus on his dull surroundings. The end of the tunnel around the bend up ahead allowed a certain degree of grey morning light to seep across the scene. The yellow-orange strip lights in the ceiling above him provided a little more illumination, enough to see that his car was wedged between the tunnel wall on his left and the wreck of a black taxi cab to his right. He tried to open his door but could move it no more than a couple of inches. He lethargically lifted his aching body up out of his seat, clambered over the dash, and crawled out through what was left of the shattered windscreen. He rolled over onto his back on the car’s crumpled bonnet and just lay there. The effort required to move just that short distance had been immense and he had to psych himself up before moving again. He waited a moment or two longer to let a sudden debilitating wave of nausea subside, then stood upright on his car and leant against the grubby tunnel wall for support.

     For as far as Peter could see both ahead and behind, the tunnel was filled with a huge mass of crashed traffic. Most vehicles seemed simply to have collided with those in front and around them, their drivers making no attempt to take evasive action. Some had been forced up into the air by violent impacts. A few cars behind where Peter was standing a once pristine bright red, two-seater sports car lay on its roof, straddled widthways across the remains of two other vehicles, its driver and her passenger crushed.

     Apart from him, he realised that nothing and no-one was moving.

     Peter cautiously began to edge forwards. The road was obscured by wreckage and he had no option but to clamber over the mass of cars, trucks and vans, using them like giant stepping stones to get out of the tunnel. He was in pain but he had to do it. He needed daylight and fresh air. He needed help.

     After dragging himself over the boot, the roof and then the bonnet of another car, Peter was faced with a short jump onto the boot of another. Pausing to compose himself and bracing himself for impact, he jumped onto the second vehicle and lost his footing, slipping down onto a small triangular patch of clear road. He fell clumsily against another car door, causing the body of a woman to slump over to one side. Her head smashed against the window with a heavy, sickening thump. Christ, he realised he hadn’t thought about the other drivers. Struggling with his own situation, he’d only been concerned with his safety and trying to get out of the tunnel as quickly as possible. But now that he stopped to think about the others, they were suddenly all he could see. He scrambled through the devastation to try and help the nearest person but it was no use, the poor bastard was already dead. The woman in the van beside him was the same, as was the next one he found, and the next, and the next. He kept looking, refusing to accept the illogical truth that he was the only one left alive.

     Everywhere Peter looked now he saw bodies. Bloodied, battered faces smashed against windows. Limp, shattered corpses hanging awkwardly out of half-open doors. And the longer he stared, the more he saw. In the low gloom he saw splintered, broken bones, dripping pools of crimson-black blood, torn skin, gouged eyes, twisted limbs and smashed faces. Shock numbed his pain and he ran through gaps and scrambled over wreckage like an adrenaline-charged athlete until he was finally out in the open air again.

     But the carnage and devastation had not been limited to the inside of the tunnel. All around him now it continued, endless and inexplicable.

     Guest dragged himself along silent streets and finally reached his office where, amongst the corpses of the colleagues and business associates with whom he should have been meeting and negotiating, he now sat and tried to make sense of the incomprehensible nightmare which his world had suddenly become.

#

     It was almost two o’clock before I made it back home. I walked most of the way, and took a bike the rest. The roads were impassable. When I got there the house was empty, just as I knew it would be.

     I ran the half-mile to Joe’s school. Once or twice I nearly stopped and turned back, almost too afraid to keep going. By then I’d already seen hundreds of bodies, possibly even thousands, but they were faceless and nameless without exception. But as I neared the school I began to see people I recognised. I walked amongst the bodies of people I had known: Joe’s teachers, the parents of his classmates, Jen’s friends... I knew that somewhere in the school building I would inevitably find my family.

     Joe was in his classroom. I found him underneath his desk, curled up in a ball like he was trying to hide. Jen was in the assembly hall, lying next to an upturned chair, buried under the bodies of other dead parents. I carried my wife and my son into another room where the three of us sat together for a while longer.

     If I’d listened to Jen I would have been there when it happened. I might not have been able to do anything to help either of them, but if I’d listened to her I would have been there when they needed me most. My wife and child died frightened and alone.

     I don’t know what to do now. I don’t even know if there’s any point trying to do anything.

     I lost everything today.