There’d been another crash, a three-car pile-up on a secondary road with a disembodied truck cab bringing up the rear. It had lost its load somewhere in the spill, flipping like a rattlesnake’s tail before velocity overcame engineering and the trailer jack-knifed upwards in an elegant arc, the cab ploughing five feet inside the back of a family saloon. The middle-aged husband and wife in that car were killed instantly, but the truck driver had survived – he sat slumped against the window, unconscious and bleeding. The three cars in front formed an S, a torn steel signature scrawled across the tarmac, and steam piped out of one of their engines, a meek little whistle that didn’t seem nearly enough to mark what had happened.
A child had died in the middle car, a girl of nine or ten. Her parents had let her stand between their seats in the shape of the cross and the impact from behind had shunted her small body into the dash. That sort of thing always upset Mr. Oddie the most. A childless Englishman who had moved to Ireland with his second wife, he always felt the unnecessary loss of someone so young especially keenly. He stood in a gravel lay-by back from the wreckage, twisting a handkerchief and crying furiously. Tom the Busman placed a comforting arm on his shoulder – an almost hesitant embrace, as one couldn’t tell exactly how Mr. Oddie might react. This time he nodded at Tom, bleary-eyed and grateful, and resumed his twisting.
The driver of the front car, a boyish-looking professional in his early thirties, stumbled through the door and tripped onto the road, his legs weak and flailing like he had seasickness. He looked confused and vaguely ecstatic, and I recognised that expression – the disbelief of survival, the almost manic sensation of relief. He was still alive and deliriously happy but didn’t quite know it yet. Sheila from Dublin was whispering behind me in the glaringly obvious under-voice of the perpetual gossip.
“That’s the guy, him there. Young guy with the mobile phone. He’s the one started it all.”
She was talking almost to herself, a whistling breeze exhaled from her lips, but Red Ruairí replied to her anyway, point to counterpoint in his soothing, compulsive monotone.
“Ah now, Sheila. Come on, now. We don’t know that for sure.”
“We know it for sure. We always know. Look at him. That’s the guy.”
It was a hot, hazy day, the road shimmering as it ebbed away towards a far horizon, though none of us felt any heat at all. Dust swirls rose from the earth like woken genies and a woman in the middle car coughed as the particles caught in her throat. She was in shock. It had registered with her that the child was dead, her body crumpled against the dash like a discarded doll, but that was on a purely sensual level; the consciousness had yet to comprehend. Her husband lifted the child into his arms, gently although there was no doubt that she was dead. It seemed like a final act of respect, to hold that small frame tenderly against his chest, some sort of atonement for that simple slip in judgment and its horrific outcome.
I drifted along by the cars’ sides, the three of them locked in stillness like links in a chain, to where Sonny and Patsy stood, arms around each others’ waists, tutting in kind regret at the finality of it all. Patsy was in tears. She was a sentimental, sweet woman; she felt bad about these things and showed that. Sonny shook his head as I approached, saying, “Awful, isn’t it? The fellow in the front car was on a call when he lost control. Wasn’t paying enough attention, I suppose.”
Patsy sighed. “Did you see the little girl? Just…lying there like that. So young, and never more.”
“So he went into a spin,” Sonny continued, “got in a panic, came to a halt right…” He pointed to a deep looping groove scored across the road. “…there. And whammo–the others didn’t have time to think, let alone stop. Stupid, stupid.”
Sonny was less forgiving than most of people using phones while driving, with good reason: a young student had been answering a call from his girlfriend while taking a dangerous bend, and hit Sonny as he swerved off course. The boy was laughing at something, Sonny remembered, a joke his girl had told him, a pet name she had used, and took his gaze from the road for that critical split-second. Sonny was back two feet from the tarmac but it hadn’t been enough to surmount the laws of dynamics and fate, the inevitability of heedlessness and its bloody consequence.
Red Ruairí walked over to where the truck cab sat embedded in the back of the saloon, one wheel lifted off the ground. Its shiny blue trim and chunky, almost childlike shape made it seem less threatening in some way, like a plastic toy. But of course it was nothing like that: it had fantastic mass and power, several tons of sleek heavy metal, and now it was stopped. I strolled over to Ruairí and belatedly noticed that the truck’s horn was sounding. Its deep tuba moan cut through the near silence with only the breeze for accompaniment. A primitive, mournful composition.
Ruairí smiled, to himself or to me, saying, “I was one of those, too. Did you know that? I’m not sure I ever told you. Dozed off at the wheel on a long night drive. The cab was always so comfortable, see; it was easy to fall asleep in. Exact same make and model. Small world, isn’t it?”
“You were bound to come across one sooner or later.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Funny, though. I’m surprised I remember details like that, actually.”
The truck’s horn was grating on my nerves so I moved back to where the group had clustered about fifteen meters from the vehicles. They seemed reluctant to approach for some reason, which wasn’t really like them. Patsy had curled into Sonny’s embrace, and he brushed her hair back from her forehead with the practised care of long years together. They were a good couple, I thought, and complemented each other well, their personalities interlocking like the secret mechanisms of a music box. Patsy’s car had been hit side-on by a much smaller hatchback, driven by a short-sighted pensioner. She laughed about it sometimes, how her sturdy saloon had crumpled before the feeble onslaught of this old man in his unimposing little car. He had barely been scratched in the crash but died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital for a routine check, which was even more amusing, depending on how you looked at it.
The young man who had driven the first car was still the only person to surface. He looked more composed now, like he had gotten his bearings, realized his good fortune and thanked whatever deity was looking out for him that day. He laughed abruptly–more from hysteria than simple joy–then started walking towards the other cars. Tom the Busman looked away from him. It was his age that was the problem –thirty-two, maybe thirty-three?–about the same age as Tom had been. I don’t think he’d ever quite come to terms with his relative youth at the time, vast tracts of life spread out, unused, before him. He felt that it was his fault; that he was destined to waste those long decades.
There can be a bittersweet irony about all of this: Tom the Busman slipping under the wheels of a city-centre double-decker on his day off. (I was the same: a busy street-side kerb, an impatient crowd gathering, a push, a momentum behind me, then I slipped too.) Mr. Oddie, a relentlessly careful driver, missed his turn on a roundabout after getting distracted by the radio and drove straight in front of an articulated lorry. Sheila’s beloved dog slithered from his leash and dashed into the path of oncoming traffic. The animal somehow made it through that roaring iron stampede alive and Sheila was struck hard by a delivery van. She held no resentment for the dog.
Emergency service sirens sounded in the distance, quiet but getting louder, that weird swinging Doppler effect, and we knew it was almost time to leave. The husband from the middle car had laid the child’s body out on the backseat and implored her to wake up, desperately trying to convince himself that there was still time–the ambulance was coming and there was hope, they still had time. His wife stood outside the car, staring into space toward a slow, insistent realization. She finally knew the little girl was gone. The young man walked up, frightened and embarrassed, and held his phone out towards them, an offering, a penance, a small hopeless something, the best he could do. The child’s father flashed an angry glance, shouting, “You stay back! Don’t come near her.” The young man turned towards the mother, arm still stretched out stiffly, and she took the phone from him, saying dreamily, “Thank you. I don’t know… Thank you.”
Red Ruairí trotted towards where the group now stood together. He was breathless and animated. “There’s been another one–a drunk driver. Smashed into a telegraph pole. We should go.” We were turning to leave when Patsy gasped, pointing her finger in the direction of the middle car. The little girl had stood up and was walking towards us–wondrous, curious, unafraid. Patsy sprinted to meet her and bent down, holding the child by her shoulders.
She said gently, “What’s your name, sweetheart?” The girl gazed at all of us ranked behind Patsy, standing silent and a little self-conscious, and said, “Charlotte. My name’s Charlotte. I’m ten years old and that’s my mom and dad over there. Am I…?”
Patsy put a finger to the child’s lips and said, “Shh. Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. We’re all the same here. You’ve come to join our little group, I think. Take my hand.”
Charlotte clasped Patsy’s hand and began moving with her, away from the wreckage and her grieving parents and her own dead body now being lifted gingerly by ambulance crew into the back of the ambulance. I could have sworn I saw her smile at that incongruous sight–perhaps she recognised some private irony. She waved once, a barely perceptible gesture of thanks and forgiveness, then moved to the front of the line with Patsy. Sonny strode forward and, smiling, took her other hand. They looked nice together. Mr. Oddie started crying again, jerky and metred, though his tears seemed less angry now, borne more of empathy and welcome. Welcome, Charlotte.
I stopped and turned around again, looking back at what we were leaving. I was always the most nostalgic of us; I found it hard to move on from people and events, even ones I had only known for an instant. Red Ruairí stopped too, easing down the bank until he was close enough to place a hand on my shoulder. His voice was affectionate and understanding.
“Come on. Time to go, kiddo.”
“I know. I’m ready. It’s just… You know what I’m like. I get sort of attached to these things.”
“Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anyway, look on the bright side–you’ve got someone your own age to talk to now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re right, Ruairí. I have, haven’t I? What age did she say she was?”
“Ten. She was ten.”
“Three years younger than me. Well, that’s okay. They do say girls grow up quicker than boys, don’t they?”
Photo Source: Drive