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Running Late

Jack jumped into his car and roared out of the driveway, accelerating hard enough to make the rear wheels spit wet gravel. A mile on he slowed a little for the first bend. The dashboard clock said 7.56. Nine minutes. Nine minutes to get to the station, park the car, elbow his way through all the other tight-faced commuters and board the 8.05 to Birmingham.

'No way,' he muttered, punching the horn and blaring past a rattling milk float. His all-time record for the trip from home to station was fifteen minutes, and that had been with every set of lights switching to green as if on cue, and with a bone-dry road unrolling beneath his tyres. Not like this morning.

Even so, he came close. As he slewed into the station car park he could see his train still standing at Platform 2. Running late! Yes! The possibility that he might yet make it set his heart hammering and that twitchy little muscle below his left eye began to tick. No time to look in the mirror. Anyway, the ticks and twitches he'd been getting lately always felt more obvious than they really were. He yanked his key out of the ignition, checked he had his wallet, grabbed his briefcase and dived out of the car.

Drizzle bleared his glasses as he locked the doors and set the alarm, and then he was running, his shoes pounding the wet tarmac, his feet competing to trip him as he swerved to avoid a woman pushing a pram. He by-passed the queues and cleared the ticket office - just in time to see the last carriage of the 8.05 disappearing into Packington Tunnel.

* * *

Mary checked her watch for the third time. With her car out of action she’d planned to take the bus, but if the girls didn’t get a move on they were going to miss the bloody thing. She bustled into the hallway and yelled up the stairs.

‘Kate! Susie! Will you please hurry up?’

Susie appeared on the landing, agitated, her twin plaits swinging.

‘It’s not me, Mum,’ she said. ‘It’s Kate. She doesn’t want to go.’

Mary sighed. She could have done without this. She glanced at her watch again and began climbing the stairs.

* * *

Back on the road, Jack drove like a kid of seventeen, scanning for speed-traps and the yellow shock of reflective jackets. His run for the train had re-awoken last night's headache, which was busy burrowing down into the centre of his skull. He knew from past experience that once there it would be with him all day, contentedly sharpening its claws on his brain-stem. He headed for the M6, telling himself that being late didn't really matter - but knowing that today of all days, it really did.

Last night's row with Mary throbbed through his head, disjointed and out of sequence like some twisted loop of tape.

'It's affecting the girls, Jack. You do know that, don't you?'

Yes, he did know that. But he also knew that the four of them lived in the kind of house his parents used to dream about. Hers too, come to that - although hell would freeze over before they’d admit it. He knew that Mary liked Italian furniture; that Susie and Kate loved their ponies; that their school fees alone would have swallowed his dad's entire pay-packet; that he needed to put in eighteen-hour days to keep it all together. He knew that if he didn't make the meeting this morning he was going to have big problems - the kind of problems that might give Mary something real to nag him about for a change. He knew all that. Why didn't she?

'OK, Mary. So what do you want me to do? I've already explained why I can't get to see Kate’s performance. She understands.'

'It's not just the school play, for Christ's sake! She's thirteen years old, Jack. She needs her dad to be around every now and then, and you never are! You're never here for any of us!'

It was old, familiar ground. He hadn't had the energy for a fight, and anyway his mind had been on the last-minute work he'd still needed to do in preparation for the meeting. He'd let Mary score a few more points off him then escaped into his study with his briefcase and a bottle of scotch, leaving her to bang pots about in the kitchen.

* * *

It took her fifteen minutes to talk Kate around. They missed the bus. Rather than wait half-an-hour for the next one, Mary called a taxi on her mobile. Just before it arrived, grey clouds rolled in and it began to rain.

* * *

The drizzle was getting worse. Jack turned onto the M6 slip road and put his foot down, joining the motorway well ahead of a trio of lorries clogging the slow lane.

It had been nearly 2.00 am by the time he'd got to bed. Mary had been asleep, or pretending to be, her back beneath the duvet an impregnable curve of flesh and spine. He'd lain beside her and stared into darkness for a while, his head pulsing with booze, doubts, and a bone-deep exhaustion. His life had somehow become a twisted, knotted mess, and he didn't know how to untangle it. He hardly knew his kids. The woman he'd married fifteen years ago, the only woman he’d ever really loved, had become cold and remote. Maybe men were from Mars, women from Venus, but there were times when he suspected Mary was from Pluto.

He’d tried to remember when they’d last made love. More than a week ago, less than a month. His fault, he knew, like most things these days. But the job, the crazy hours, the trying to be a father and the failing to be a husband - it sucked the life out of him. He felt empty, used up, squeezed out like an old tube of toothpaste dumped in a bathroom bin.

At some point he'd drifted into a kind of sleep, and then it was morning and the alarm hadn't gone off. Except it had, but he'd groped for the button and pressed it, thinking he'd have time for ten minutes more.

Big mistake.


Today of all days.

His car sliced through the drizzle at well over 100 mph, leaving the fast lane only when the moron in front refused to move over. Whenever that happened he found a gap in the middle and passed on the inside. Incredibly, there had been few real hold-ups so far. There were bound to be more problems as he got nearer the city, and finding a spot to park wasn't going to be easy, but the clients weren't due until 10.30. He was still in with a chance.

He flipped open his mobile one-handed and called Stephen.

'Jesus, Jack, are you serious? Well what time will you be in? I take it the presentation's ready?'

'Of course it's ready! I was working on it half the bloody night! Look... I'll do my best, but if I don't make it you'll just have to stall them for a while. Yes... yes, I know. Tell Zoe to send out for a sandwich or something, will you? I didn't get any breakfast.'

* * *

The taxi dropped the three of them at the gates and Susie skipped on ahead. She seemed almost keen. Kate dawdled, hung back, slipped her hand into Mary’s. ‘I’m really sorry, Mum,’ she said. ‘I know I’m being a pain. It’s just that I find coming here really hard.’

Mary kissed her head. ‘I know you do, love,’ she said. ‘But today’s a bit special. I think he’d want us here today, don’t you? All three of us.’

Kate nodded.

Hand-in-hand they followed Susie through the gates.

* * *

He hit the fog just before Junction Eight, patchy at first, then solid: visibility down to about fifty yards. 'Oh shit!' he said, appalled to find his eyes filling with tears. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’ He punched the wheel, three quick thumps, and shuffled forward in his seat. He peered into the grey void.

The motorway hazards were screaming 30, but only the old ladies and the flat-caps were listening. Everyone else pushed on at a steady 70, trusting to luck and the tail-lights ahead of them. He dropped his own speed to match, added the wipers to the lights, and made frequent checks on the dashboard clock.

His headache was getting worse. There was a corkscrew in his guts. When his left eye began ticking again, he was suddenly furious. He thumped the wheel hard enough to make the car flinch. How many more years did he have to put himself through this? It was idiotic. Everyone he knew was the same - racing just to keep up, just to stay on the treadmill. Everyone racing to cover the bills, to pay the mortgage, busy sacrificing the present for some imagined future.

'You're never here for any of us!'

Mary was right, of course. He could lie, tell himself that he broke his back because he wanted the best for his family, but that wasn't really it. He did it because of a weakness inside of him, because he had something to prove. He did it to be better than his dad, better than his brother, better than himself. And who was he trying to kid? He wasn't giving Mary and the kids the best. He was destroying them, destroying everything good they’d ever had.

Why don’t you just stop, Jack? Why don’t you step off the treadmill? That’s all you have to do, you know. Stop running late. Find a better way.

The idea hit him like a sledgehammer. Could it really be that simple? Was it possible? He turned it over inside his head. He thought it might be. Yes, he thought perhaps it might be.

For the first time that day he found himself on the edge of a smile. His headache lifted a little, his hands relaxed their white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Yes. He'd talk to Mary tonight, really talk to her, like they used to. Between them, maybe they'd be able to find a few alternatives. Maybe they could begin to untangle some of the knots.

When the crash came, there was nothing he could do. Absolutely nothing. Suddenly the car in front stopped being a couple of indistinct fog-lights fifty yards ahead and came rushing towards him, a metal dragon with eyes of blood and a scream that promised to snap his spine. He slammed the brake pedal into the well, but the dragon kept on coming, and as it got closer he saw that it wasn't alone. The fog seethed with blazing, rapacious eyes.

His last few seconds side-stepped the common flow of time. Everything happened in slow motion, yet it was over almost before it had begun.

Death up ahead, rushing towards him: lorry to the left - go right! Twisting the wheel, standing on the brake, tyres screaming like four stuck pigs, huge fists smashing upwards into the car's underbelly as he crossed the central reservation, white lights ahead instead of red, a great, racing wall of white light and metal and noise filling his windscreen and his ears. He shouted Mary's name, and then the dragons were upon him.

* * *

The sun had come out.

Susie stooped to pluck the dead flowers from the little metal pot and replaced them with fresh ones she'd picked from the garden that morning. Mary and Kate stood watching her, each with a hand resting on the headstone. A year, thought Mary. A whole year.

Kate stroked the cool marble. ‘Do you think Dad would have liked it here, Mum?’

‘Of course he would,’ said Susie, not looking up, still arranging her flowers. ‘He would have, wouldn’t he, Mum? It’s a nice place to be. It’s peaceful.’

Mary nodded, listening.

Birds sang.

You had to concentrate to hear the traffic, the occasional blast of a horn, the sound of people running late.

(2,030 words)

Published in Peninsular January 2001. Took £100 2nd Prize in Competition.