It was January, it was raining, and it was late at night. Clay sat in the motorway service café, wishing he didn’t have to be there. He didn’t want to be there, and his wife most emphatically didn’t want him to be there, she had made that very clear. But what the hell else could he do? Times were hard, money was tight, you had to take what was on offer, and yes sometimes that did involve having to work unsociable hours, for crying out loud. He thought Jayne was being very unreasonable, and she in turn thought he was being very unreasonable. In fact, as far as he could see, everybody in the whole damn world was being bloody unreasonable.
He understood why Jayne was fed up. She worked as an official child-minder, which involved her having to start early in the mornings. She wasn’t being unreasonable to want him there in the evenings, to help her with their own children. And yet at the same time she WAS being unreasonable damnit! Did she think he wanted to be out driving late at night in torrential rain? He had always hated night-time driving, and in bad weather it was far worse.
Clay looked up from his half-drunk Caffe Latte. A woman in a bottle-green uniform was vigorously wiping down a nearby table with a wet cloth. She was grinning as she worked, and Clay marvelled that she could get so much enjoyment out of her work. But then again, I don’t know her, Clay thought. Perhaps her home-life is so wretched that even a dead-end job like this offers her some much-needed escape. Perhaps she’s got a miserable old sod of a husband who drinks, or an invalid elderly mother who complains all the time. My own home-life is going that way, thought Clay, gloomily. The kids only speak to me when they want something, and Jayne has a face like a slapped arse whenever I walk into the room.
The woman swabbing the table noticed him watching her.
“I like things nice and clean”, she said, perkily, before moving onto another table.
Perhaps she’s got OCD, thought Clay.
His own job was as a driver for a private courier firm. When the recession had hit they had been fed a constant drip-feed of threats of “laying off”. The company had weathered the storm pretty well so far, but all the drivers were too shit-scared by now to turn down any job, no matter how unreasonable the hours, or how bizarre the job seemed to be, and just lately they had been getting very bizarre indeed. Take this one for instance. To deliver a box of “scientific instruments” to a place out in Chotley Woods. Clay vaguely knew that area, he had driven through it once before. His destination was some large, very techy-looking place in the middle of the woods. He remembered joking to a colleague as they drove past it that it looked like something out of ‘The X-Files’.
“Have you finished with this?”
The cheery woman was standing by him, holding a black bin-liner in one hand, and pointing at the remains of his Café Latte with the other.
“Oh … er … yes”, said Clay, momentarily distracted at being jolted out of his reverie.
“Best to keep on top of things”, she said, stuffing the debris into the bag.
(Definitely OCD, thought Clay).
“Take care love”, said the woman, as he got up to leave “It’s a horrible night”.
“Thanks”, said Clay (perhaps she’s just kind?).
The woman wasn’t wrong. The rain was lashing down harder than ever. But a weird change came over Clay as he got back into the van. He suddenly found he was no longer resenting being out here, doing this stupid job, when instead he could be warm and dry at home. Home. Anthony Burgess had been right to call it a gloomy word. Home. Yeah right. Sat on the sofa with Jayne, constantly glancing sideways at him with her sour face. Sometimes he wanted to … no don’t go there, he rebuked himself. It was peculiar in the extreme, because suddenly he actually felt free.
Clay had never regarded himself as one of life’s natural drivers. He didn’t relish being behind a wheel, he didn’t get turned on by car magazines. His job was just a job, that was all. In fact he usually looked forward to those (very) rare days off when he didn’t have to drive anywhere at all. Driving in the south of England was no damn fun anyway. Roads were too busy, clogged up with wankers. So the whole freedom of the open road romantic stuff had passed him by. Occasionally he had got a fleeting thrill of it when driving around on summer afternoons, but it was usually dispelled pretty damn quickly when he came up against a bloody school-run (jerks in 4x4s), or some dithery old pensioner wearing a hat. He certainly didn’t expect to get it on a filthy night like this. Perhaps old cheery-chops in the service station has infected me with her positive attitude, he thought … or perhaps my home-life really has got that bad.
He switched off the Sat-Nav. He didn’t want that bland, mechanical voice intruding on his rare glimpse of Something Else, a freer life than the one had had always known. He didn’t want someone, much less a bloody miniature robot, intruding on his new mood with Practical Advice.
He remembered the pub at the t-junction. Tonight it was brightly lit. A gaggle of young women in business suits were shrieking with laughter as they ran across the car-park huddled together under umbrellas. “Did women just enjoy their jobs more than men?” Clay thought “Perhaps we should have been the ones who stayed at home throughout the centuries, and let them go out and grab the bacon”.
Clay remembered, (without any help from the Sat-Nav), that he had to take the left turning here. This B-road was a long one. He recalled how it wound through the woods for miles and miles. Once off the main road the feeling of freedom, which had settled on Clay when he left the service station, intensified dramatically. He felt high as a kite, drunk as a lord. It he’d ever had decent sex in his life, he thought, this must be how some people felt after they’d had a really good shag. He suddenly got a glimpse of the dangerous, fatal euphoria you might get driving off a cliff, like the women in ‘Thelma And Louise’, or Phil Daniels on his Mods scooter at the end of ‘Quadrophenia’. One last euphoric, fatal orgasm.
The darkness and the narrowness of the B-road eventually helped to “sober” him up a little. He had to concentrate hard, even though there didn’t seem to be any other traffic around. Plus he had to keep a look out for the turning to the instruments place, where he had to deliver his parcel. Although what the fuck they wanted with it at this time of night … you’re on old jerk, Clay smiled to himself, don’t you know by now that we’re living in a 24/7 culture? I just hope there’s someone with a brain to sign for it. I get sick of having to deal with bone-headed security guards, who treat everyone as if they’re potential terrorists.
Jeezus, was this road as long as this before? He remembered seeing a naff horror film once about a family of jerks who just kept driving round the same road for all eternity. It was starting to feel like that. Perhaps I’m going to have to bite the bullet and put the Sat-Nav back on. But even now Clay was reluctant to have that emotionless voice intruding on his freedom.
The windscreen wipers were starting to have an hypnotic effect. The motion of them, the soft dragging sound the blades made against the glass. Pull yourself together man, he thought, no nodding off at the wheel. He rounded a tight bend and the road flattened out again. Then he actually saw something ahead of him. There was a figure walking along the side of the road, facing away from him. It was wearing some kind of long, shapeless coat and had its head pulled right down against the driving rain. Clay approached the figure with some apprehension. This was mainly because he would have to pull right out to get past it, and the road was so narrow that he dreaded the possibility of someone else coming the other way.
The figure took no notice of his approach, no glance over its shoulder, no moving slightly out of the way. It kept plodding relentlessly on. Reluctantly Clay swung out to get past it. To do so he had to slow down. The figure suddenly sprang like a cat and latched onto the handle and the wing-mirror on the passenger side of the van. Appalled, Clay found himself staring straight into his assailant’s face.
He had slammed his foot down hard on the accelerator after that, and almost sobbing with the horror of what he had seen, driven like a maniac along that cursed road. By now he no longer cared about delivering that damn parcel, or looking out for that elusive turning. He just wanted to keep driving and driving until he (literally) came to the end of the road.
Suddenly a police barrier loomed up at him out of the darkness. To his utter dismay he found that the road had been blocked off by a barrier of sand bags. There was no one around. They had simply put the blockade in place and gone again.
“Noooo!” Clay actually cried out loud, and slammed his hands against the steering-wheel in despair “No! No! No!”
I can’t do it, he thought. I just can’t. I can’t turn around and drive back past that creature again. That … Thing. I could get out and try and move the barrier. But there’s no point. I expect they’ve put it there because there’s a landslide further down the road, because of all this bloody rain. I can’t sit here, he muttered breathlessly, that Thing will eventually catch up with me if I stay here. I can’t believe I really harmed it when it fell off the door. There’s no way I could be that lucky, not me. I never am.
As if trying for one last attempt at civilisation, he dug his mobile phone out from the glove compartment. I’ll phone Jayne or the office. I won’t tell them about the Thing, I’ll just say I’m lost. That I’m stuck out here in the rain … he wasn’t surprised when he found that the battery on his phone had been completely drained. In some way it was the final message from the Cosmos that he needed. He wasn’t mean to go any further. This was it.
He pulled his official works jacket closer to him, for comfort more than anything practical, and opened the driver’s door. He stepped out into the teeming rain. If it was at all possible it seemed to be raining harder than ever. He stood under the onslaught of it and looked back along the road he had just driven along. The Thing hadn’t appeared yet, but it was only a matter of time before it did, he knew that.
There was a howling noise all around him, like a strong wind which had suddenly sprung up out of nowhere, as if someone had opened an invisible door onto a vacuum of nothingness. Leaving the van sitting there with its door open and the headlights switched on, Clay climbed awkwardly across the barrier, and walked at a purposeful, but leisurely, pace on down the road. He was never going back.
(This is based on a true story).