the heft and the edge 14/2/2019
It all began with the tank. That was the first incident, the first out of the ordinary event. A Panzer Tiger, with all the Nazi crosses, swastika flag, big gun, everything you'd expect, careering out of the trees, down the hill, and ploughing into the traffic on the M25. It happened just in front of me. I swear it.
That was definitely the start, though I'm not entirely sure I should begin with it. Okay, every story needs a beginning and it's as dramatic an event as you could wish for, but there’s something missing and I'm not sure what. What was there before that?
Well, I'd had a swine of a day. That could be it. Selling books can be pretty good as a job but some days just stink. Most of the time Stephen Farley’s a nice chap, though he does have a bit of a sarcastic streak. He’s manager of the Dorking branch of Whittaker’s, for his sins, or at least that’s what he tells me. The for his sins bit, I mean. I have to take him through the new titles once every couple of months or so and I try my level best to get him excited about one or two of them. That’s not easy. Recently he’s had this idea of letting his assistant manager sit-in. That would be Phil the Dill - some reference to a previous employment I think – and he’s a real piece of work. Seems to think he’s some sort of genius while the rest of us are all morons. Working together they make quite a team. On the day of the tank I was ambushed. First it was: 'Complete waste of time. Hardback fiction’s dead in the water.” And then: ‘That’s good - why not sign the returns note now, save us the hassle later.’ Phil actually pushed a returns slip across the table and rolled a biro after it. It was one rejection after another. They had a go at just about everything. At one point Phil grabbed a jacket proof from my hand and asked if he could keep it. I was surprised. It was a pretty poor picture of a seagull as I remember - the book something to do with Chekov. “Do you like it,” I asked.
“I love it,” he said. “Worst jacket design of all time - I going to frame it.”
I took a good deep breath.
"So how many copies do you want?" I asked.
By the time I left the shop it was all I could do to be civil. Outside I took the pathetic order I’d managed to squeeze out of them, tore it up and threw it in a bin. I went for a coffee before moving on. Thought it might calm me down. It didn't.
My next call, in Reigate, used to be a favourite shop of mine. Not anymore. They'd been taken over. Drosco had bought out the entire chain. The really excellent manager (who I fancied something rotten) had resigned. Jumped or pushed, she didn’t fit in with the new regime. Some head-office muppet had been put in her place. What a call! It was so mind-bogglingly awful I nearly decided to pack it all in, there and then. She seemed to have this idea that 'sales rep' was another way of saying 'rip-off merchant', whatever the business, whatever the company. Makes you spit.
Perhaps it was me. I wasn't on song. I wasn't friendly or entertaining or witty. I was a bit snobby to tell the truth. Had a bit of a hangover too. Some days you should give up on before you even start - stay in bed, drink sugary tea, read a good book – you know it won’t get any better. But on the day of the tank that wasn’t an option, because of the argument, with Sarah, my wife.
The alarm rang. Actually, scratch that, no bells were involved. It was one of those horrible electronic things that bleep quietly to start with but get louder, more insistent the longer you ignore them. It was on Sarah's side of the bed and she slept right through until I clambered over her to turn it off. I don't know what she thought I was up to but she pushed me away and gave me a filthy look.
"Alarm," I said. "Oh," she said and got out to go to the bathroom. I turned over and picked up the book I’d been reading the night before - Intervention by Julian May. I was still reading when Sarah, dressed and made-up, stalked into the bedroom and started shouting. The gist was that I should get up and go to work, and when I came home perhaps I might clean out the office so she could use it occasionally, and see to that tax demand I’d so far managed to ignore, and stop reading that bloody book! You know the kind of thing. I hate being shouted at so I capitulated with a series of yesses, and was suitably abject that I’d let her down, and eventually she calmed down and everything was fine. Until I remembered I was going to be away that night, and the next. And I'd forgotten to tell her.
It was not a happy moment. She stormed out of the house screaming something about me living in a fantasy world and how it was about time I sorted myself out.
I guess I'm not a very organized person, and I'm hell to live with. I know that because Sarah tells me so every five minutes. To be fair, so has everyone else I've ever lived with. Inconsiderate is probably the word. I'm too caught up in myself to think of others. Not that I'm like this on purpose: I don't do anything on purpose. I tend to drift from event to event and accept whatever comes along.
Sarah's probably right to say I live in a fantasy world. Well almost. Actually my mind inhabits many fantasy worlds: I'm an s.f. and fantasy buff. Never happy unless I'm reading a new Bova or Gemmel, or an old Eddison or Bok. Sarah would kill me if she knew, but I always carry a copy of The Lord of the Rings in my car so that whenever I'm depressed I can read a chapter or two. Cheers me up no end – it’s just brilliant: wish they could make a decent movie out of it instead of that crappy animated thing. I should’ve stopped in a lay-by for a quick fix before setting off for the afternoon – it could all have been so different. Instead I rattled through my call in East Grinstead and was on my way to Maidstone when it happened.
You’re probably suspicious, I know I was, but honestly I saw what I saw. My route had me joining the motorway at junction 6. The traffic was very heavy and, coming off the slip road, I was blocked in by three or four artic’s. That's why I was in a position to see it - I'm not normally in the slow lane. There was a small wood over to the left of the motorway and on the edge of it, about half a mile ahead, something moving caught my eye. I thought at first it was a tractor. But it wasn't. The wood was at the top of a steep incline and rumbling downhill was a tank: a Panzer VI Tiger. I'm quite good on tanks - used to make Airfix models of them.
I was doing say fifty-five and the tank, with the gradient, maybe as much as forty. It occurred to me very quickly that if we carried on at the same speed and the tank in the same direction, we were heading for an almighty collision. I knew who would come out worse.
So I braked and the truck behind swung out into the next lane to avoid hitting me. The driver was blazing: blasted his horn, gave me the finger. I could see his face in the near-side mirror as he swept past – I think I’d given him a scare. To give me one back he pulled in front of me as tight as he could, the trailer tilting and wobbling from changing direction too quick. I guess it was because he was concentrating on just missing my offside wing that he didn't notice the tank.
Everything seemed to fast-forward.
The tank crashed through the fence, clattered onto the hard shoulder, swiveled into the traffic flow. There was sickening thump and chunks of metal and rubber flew into the air.
I was having none of it. I'd already pulled onto the hard shoulder, slowing down all the time, but I still saw what happened next. Couldn't believe it. The momentum of the truck, a thirty-ton juggernaut, was carrying the pair of them down the road, sparks pluming everywhere. Then another heavy artic smashed into the back of the first. The tank was nearly tipped over, but, just when I thought it was a goner, the turret swung round, the canon gouged into the truck's front grill, and... and it fired.
I still can't believe they did it.
There was an massive explosion. Blew them all to Kingdom Come .
The traction-units, the trailers, bounced into the air by the impact, came crushing down, ripped through the crash barriers, slewed across both carriageways. God, you should have seen it. Dozens of cars and trucks on both sides piling into the wreckage. They had no chance. Further back drivers were swerving into the barriers or onto the verge desperate to stay clear. Fuel tanks exploding on all sides, petrol burning, shrapnel whizzing everywhere. How I wasn't hit in the mayhem I don't really know. It was as though there was an invisible wall around me, keeping me safe, keeping me conscious. I just had to sit there and watch it all happen.
A long time later a policeman opened my door and asked if I was okay.
I burst into tears. All I could think about was the school coach, and the girls with their clothes on fire, and the car that hit them as they tried to run. Oh God. It still gives me nightmares; I feel sick when I think about it. The policeman was kind. He brought me a blanket. As he put it around my shoulders I realized I was shaking.
"Did you see it happen?" he was asking. I nodded but didn't really want to talk. I should have given him more credit. He'd been here before. The only reason he could cope was because he'd seen this sort of carnage too many times.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Chris Cowell, 12 Princes Gardens, Swindon." I rapped it out, a reflex, but he didn't want to know all that yet.
"Come on, Chris, let's get you out of here. You need to go to hospital, son. Come on, we'll take care of your car."
"It was the tank," I told him.
"Yes, we know. Fuel tank blew. Don't worry about that now."
I wonder if I was listening. It didn’t register then but next day when I read the newspaper reports I remembered what he'd said. Fuel tank. That's what they all said. Not a single paper mentioned the Tiger. Like nobody had seen it, or if they had they weren’t telling. Someone had taken an aerial picture of the scene and I studied it for hours and hours. It wasn’t particularly clear. Even with a magnifying glass I couldn't see anything that looked at all military - just heaps of mangled metal. But wasn’t that a broken gap in the fence, and weren’t they track-ruts in the field?
When the police came to question me - local plod from Swindon - I think I asked him more than he asked me. It was clear he’d been told nothing about the Panzer.
Frankly, I was becoming a little paranoid.
At first I thought there must be some conspiracy of silence but after a while I dismissed that idea as completely loony. The only alternative I could come up with just then was that it must have been me: that I'd been hallucinating. I really began to doubt myself. Perhaps it was all my fault.
Sarah was good. I didn't tell her about the tank at all, or the possibility that my hallucination might have caused the accident. She wanted to hug me all the time which, to tell the truth, was a little wearing. I don't think I'm very good at hugs. I just wanted to be alone for a while, but that was not allowed. When she wasn't hugging she was getting me to work it through. You know the thing: supposed to be therapeutic - cathartic is it? Oddest thing though, talking to Sarah I found my thoughts time and again turning back to two particular images. Not the kids: that was banished whenever I was awake. No, the first was nothing to do with the accident: five years ago there was a weird scene at Jersey airport. I was sitting in the lounge, watching a plane taxi in, when a big cat ran across the apron in front of it - not a tabby, I mean a big-cat. It was too far away and happened too quickly to be absolutely sure about, and I did think then I might have been seeing things, but when we got on the plane two hours later, the pilot explained that a tiger being shipped to Jersey Zoo had escaped, hence the delay. I read later the poor thing had been shot dead by some trigger-happy farmer.
The second image was more obvious. Sarah asked me what sort of lorry it was - she always calls trucks lorries: she's from Lancashire. Without thinking about it the words just slipped out: "It was an artic," I said, "A Drosco artic." And the picture of it was there even as I spoke, a video replay in slow motion, the bright yellow Drosco logo on the side sliding past me into the conflagration.
The coincidence had me even more convinced I was culpable, but of course that was only the first incident.