Every day millions of us get up and go to work. Sometimes we stay there longer than we should, desperate to keep the boss happy and keep earning. Sometimes this dedication to our careers takes on more importance than it should and we lose perspective. Peter Guest has lost perspective, and he’s about to lose everything else too.
I keep going over the conversation in my head again and again, and every time I see Joe’s face it hurts me more. I’ve come close to screwing things up 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. It’s always me that pays the 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 a 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 bottom of the pile. But it’s hard. The directors are putting me under unbearable pressure, but that pales into insignificance in comparison to this gnawing, nagging emptiness I’m feeling in the pit of my stomach right now. I think I might have just paid a price that I can’t measure in pounds and pence.
It wouldn’t be so bad if this was 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 for them, and if that means I have to work long hours and be dedicated to my job, then so be it.
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 need to be at the office early. She started hurling all kinds of threats around, telling me 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 it felt different last night. I could tell that she meant every word. I tried to explain I’m only doing this 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 told her I could. It might be a long way off, but I know I won’t be there forever. Then she asked if I could imagine being without her and Joe. I said I couldn’t and that I didn’t even want to think about it. She said that was the choice I was going to have to make. She said if my family was 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 really bad this morning. God, that’d be ironic, missing the meeting because of traffic delays after all this grief this grief. It’s been bumper to bumper since I left home. It’s not unusual: this is the main route into town. A lot of commuters will turn off for the motorway soon, leaving the last mile or so to the office relatively clear.
I’m finally at the last major intersection. I might be sitting at these lights for the next ten minutes but, once I’m through, I’ll 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 pocket a decent pay-out 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’ll love that. Maybe we could go to the cinema if he’s not too tired? Perhaps I’ll wait until 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 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 two cars plough into each other at the top of the slip road I’m heading down to get into the Heapford tunnel. It happened so fast I didn’t 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 deeper into the tunnel. The signal on the radio disappears and the sounds of the city get muffled, snuffed out by the noise of car engines echoing off the close walls. The road ahead bends away to the left and I can see the bright red glow of brake lights up ahead. Drivers are always having to brake hard at the end of this tunnel. They 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 cutting it fine as it is. To be stuck this close to the office would be unbelievable.
The noises around me are starting to change again. Brakes squealing. Engines straining. Hang on, the traffic’s stopping, grinding to a halt. There must have been another accident up ahead. Christ, three in one morning, and all in the space of less than a mile . . . what are the chances of that?
Shit, what the hell is going on here? 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. What the hell’s wrong with him . . . ? I’m going to hit something or something’s going to hit me. I try to keep hold of the steering wheel and find a path through the chaos but I’m just—
Less than a minute later, Peter Guest woke up. The world around him was completely silent. Disorientated, he gently pushed himself upright in his seat and gagged as 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. Surely they’d understand if they knew he’d been in an accident . . .
Peter slowly focused on his dull surroundings. The end of the tunnel up ahead allowed a certain degree of grey morning light to seep across the scene. The yellow-orange strip lights in the ceiling above 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 an inch or two. He lifted up his aching body, clambered over the dash, and crawled out through what was left of the shattered windscreen. He rolled over onto his back on his car’s crumpled bonnet and just lay there, looking up. 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 an unprecedented tangle of crashed traffic. Some vehicles 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 two other vehicles, its driver and her passenger crushed.
Apart from him, he realised that nothing and no one else was moving.
Peter began to edge forwards. The road was obscured by wreckage and he had no option but to clamber over wreck after wreck, using them like stepping stones to get him out of the tunnel. He was in pain but he had to keep moving. 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 for impact, he jumped onto the second vehicle and lost his footing, slipping down onto a small triangular patch of clear road. He fell awkwardly against another car door, causing the body of a woman to slump over to one side. Her head thumped the window with a heavy, sickening noise. 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 he’d stopped to think about the others, they were suddenly all he could see. He scrambled 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 broken bones, pools of dripping, crimson-black blood, ruptured skin, gouged eyes, twisted limbs and smashed faces. Shock numbed his pain and he began to move again, adrenalin driving him forward until he was finally out in the open air again.
But the carnage and devastation wasn’t limited to inside the tunnel. All around him now it continued, endless and inexplicable.
Peter walked along silent streets, finally reaching his office almost an hour later. There, amongst the corpses of the colleagues and business associates with whom he should have been meeting and negotiating, he sat and tried to make sense of the nightmare his world had suddenly become.
It was late afternoon 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’d expected it to 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. 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’d find them.
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 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. I lost everything today.