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Peter Guest

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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES