The noises around me are changing again. Now I can hear brakes and horns and engines roaring and other sounds. The radio is still quiet. It sounds like there's been another... Hang on, the traffic is stopping. There must have been another accident. Christ, three in one morning, and all in less than a mile. What are the chances of that...? Shit, what the hell is happening...? Jesus, this is a bloody pileup. It looks like a load of cars have smashed and been 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 is doing the same, and the one to my right too. I'm going to hit something or something's going to hit me. I try to keep hold of the steering wheel and take my feet of the pedals so that I don't damage my legs and I'm just trying to...
Seven minutes later Peter Guest woke up. Dazed and disorientated, he gently pushed himself upright and gagged and coughed as warm, semi-coagulated blood trickled sickeningly into his open mouth and down the back of this throat from his broken nose. The fact that he might miss his vital meeting was the first irrational thought that crossed his concussed mind. He immediately struggled to unbuckle his seat belt and disentangle himself from the remains of the now deflated airbag which had prevented his face from smashing into the steering wheel with any more force. He had to get out of here and get to the office. He had to let them know what had happened. They'd understand if they knew he'd been in an accident.
Guest slowly and painfully attempted to focus on his dull surroundings. The end of the tunnel around the bend allowed a degree of grey morning light to trickle and seep across the scene a hundred meters or so ahead. Nearer to him the yellow-orange strip lights suspended along the arched ceiling of the tunnel provided a little more illumination. His car was wedged tight between the tunnel wall on his left and a crashed black taxi cab to his right. He tried to open his door but could move it no more than a couple of inches. Needing to get out of his car and out of the tunnel he lifted his aching body up out of his seat, clambered over the dashboard and scrambled through the shattered remains of his windscreen before rolling over onto his back on the car's crumpled bonnet. The effort required to move just that short distance was immense. He lay still for a moment or two longer (just enough time to let a sudden debilitating wave of nausea subside) and then stood upright on his car, leaning breathlessly against the grubby tunnel wall for support.
For as far as Guest could see both ahead and behind him the tunnel was filled with a huge mass of tangled, crashed traffic. Most vehicles seemed simply to have collided with those in front and around them and had come to a sudden, shunted stop whilst others had been forced up into the air by violent impacts. A few cars behind where Guest was standing a once pristine bright red, two-seater sports car lay on its roof, straddled widthways across the remains of two other vehicles.
Apart from him, nothing was moving.
Guest cautiously began to edge forwards. The road was obscured by wreckage and he had no option but to clamber over the mass of cars, trucks and vans if he wanted any chance of getting out of the tunnel. He had to do it. He was in pain. He needed daylight and fresh air. He needed help.
After dragging himself over the boot, the roof and then the bonnet of another car, Guest was faced with a short jump onto the boot of another. Pausing to compose himself and bracing himself for impact, he jumped onto the second vehicle and lost his footing, slipping down onto a small triangular patch of road that had somehow remained clear in the midst of the carnage. He fell clumsily against another car door. Inside the car the sudden lurching movement caused by Guest's impact made the body of a passenger slump over to one side, its head smashing against the window with a heavy, sickening thump. Christ, he hadn't thought about the other drivers. Struggling with his own disorientation, pain and confusion he had only been concerned with his own safety and well-being and with trying to get himself out of the tunnel as quickly as possible. Now that he stopped to think about the others, however, they were suddenly all that he could see. He scrambled through the devastation to get to the nearest body but it was no use, the poor bastard was already dead. As was the next one he found, and the next, and the next. He was the only one left alive.
Everywhere Guest looked he saw bodies. Vast, countless numbers of them. Bloodied, battered faces smashed against windows and limp, shattered bodies hanging awkwardly out of half-open doors. And the longer he stared into the shadows, the more he saw. In the low gloom he saw splintered, broken bones, dripping pools of crimson-black blood, torn skin, gouged eyes, twisted limbs and smashed faces. Suddenly finding enough terrified energy to be able to rise above his own pain, he began to run, jump and dive like an adrenaline-charged athlete until he had cleared the tunnel and was finally out in the open air again.
But the carnage and devastation had not been limited to the inside of the tunnel. All around him now it continued, unabated and unstoppable. Endless, inexplicable and seemingly without reason or direction.
Guest dragged himself along silent streets to the office where, sitting amongst the lifeless bodies of the colleagues and business associates with whom he should now have been meeting and negotiating, he sat and tried to make sense of the incomprehensible nightmare which had reduced his world to ruin.
It was almost two o'clock before I made it back home. The house was empty. I knew in my heart it would be.
I ran the half-mile or so between home and Joe's school. Once or twice I nearly stopped and turned back. By that time I'd already seen hundreds of bodies, possibly even thousands, but they were faceless and nameless. As I neared the school I began to see corpses that I recognised. I walked among the bodies of people I had known - Joe's teachers and the parents of his classmates, Jen's friends. I knew that somewhere in the school building I would find the bodies of my family.
Joe was in his classroom. I found him underneath his desk, curled up tightly in a ball. Jen was in the assembly hall, lying next to an upturned chair, half-covered by the body of another dead child's dead parent.
I carried them both to a little room and 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 either of them, but if I had listened I would have been there. Because of me 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 to do anything.
I lost everything today.
Jackie Soames opened one eye and then closed it again. It was late. She should have been up hours ago. George should have woken her up hours ago. Bloody man, sometimes he was absolutely useless. She didn't ask much of him but she relied on him to help. She ran the business and looked after the punters, he kept the home running and kept her happy. It was an unusual arrangement but it worked, and it had worked well for more than twenty years now.
Jackie opened one eye again.
It was quarter-to-eleven. Christ, how could she have slept in for so long? She should be opening the pub soon. She'd never missed opening time before - not even on the day her father had died - and she knew she'd take some stick from the regulars if she was late unlocking the doors today. She couldn't afford to waste time like this. In the pub trade you live and breathe the job. You're never off duty - there's always something to do and it all has to be done. She worked from the crack of dawn until the very end of each day (that was the curse and the joy of living with the job) and she couldn't believe that George had let her sleep in for so long. Where was he? She remembered him getting up when the alarm went off just after seven o'clock, but she couldn't remember him coming back after that. Strange, she thought, he usually brought her up a coffee before half-past eight and left it on the beside table for her. There was no cup there today...
Last night had been hard going. Monday nights were usually difficult. Jackie always had to do something special to try and get a decent sized crowd in on a Monday. She'd tried quiz nights and theme nights and cheap drinks promotions but the punters never seemed to want to know. Last night they'd had a band on, and a bloody awful band it had been too. Nice enough lads, but they were all noise and no talent. She'd come across plenty of similar acts trying to make a name for themselves over the years. 'Give 'em enough volume,' they seemed to think, 'and the crowd won't know we can't play.'
They should have been here to pick up their stuff a couple of hours ago but she hadn't heard them. The bedroom was right over the bar. Anything happening down there would surely have woken her up. Christ, she must have been in a deep sleep. Maybe she was coming down with something? She couldn't afford to get ill. She couldn't risk leaving George in charge...
The music had not gone down well with the regulars at the Lion and Lamb last night. A good old traditional British spit and sawdust pub with good old traditional spit and sawdust locals, halfway through their act the noise from the less than impressed crowd of drinkers had threatened to drown out the music from the band. The drummer had given up straight away. The others lasted for another song and a half before admitting defeat and putting down their instruments. Trying to make the most of a disappointing situation, and trying to recoup the cost of the night without leaving the boys in the band out of pocket, Jackie had locked the doors after closing time and kept everyone drinking through the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Christ she was paying for it now.
Finally managing to prise open both eyes, she picked herself up out of bed, stumbled to the bathroom and threw up. That was better. Once the acidic taste and the vomit and booze-induced disorientation had passed she began to feel herself again. As a regular (daily) drinker of admirable capacity and many years standing, Jackie had become hardened to the effects of alcohol. It was a well rehearsed routine that she followed now. She got drunk, she fell asleep, she woke up, she threw up, she felt better. And the next night she did it again. It was all part of the job. The first cigarette of the day helped settle her stomach.
Where the hell was George?
'George?' she called out. 'George, are you downstairs? Do you know what time it is?'
When he didn't respond she quickly got dressed (no-one ever saw her in her nightwear except her husband) and went out onto the landing. Nothing. She couldn't hear or see anything. Cursing her husband under her breath she stormed back to the bedroom. He must have gone out, she decided. That bloody man had gone out and left her fast asleep. And I bet those boys from last night haven't been able to get back in and get their stuff, she thought. With just over half an hour to go before opening time Jackie was close to losing her temper on a massive scale. Takings were down as it was. The last thing she needed was George making things worse for her by not pulling his weight. He was probably down the betting office, she grumbled to herself. That was where he seemed to spend most of his spare time. She earned the money and he flittered it away on horses and dogs. She'd have sacked him by now if she hadn't been married to him.
The bedroom was still dark and she kept it that way as she got herself ready. Regardless of what had happened to George, she still had a business to run. When it came to the crunch it was down to her and her alone to keep the pub running. It was her name on the licence, not George's. It was her name on the lease and on the contract with the brewery and the buck stopped with her. She wasn't complaining. That was how she liked it.
In the semi-darkness Jackie began to assemble her public image. No-one saw her without make-up but George. She was never seen in public looking anything less than perfect. Once dressed she sat in front of the mirror where she brushed her hair and painted on her smile. Copious squirts of her favourite fragrance to hide the smell of drink and cigarettes and she was ready to face the rest of the world. The landing was as dark as the bedroom. Beyond that the living room was as dark as the landing and the first floor function room was as dark as everywhere else. Jackie popped her head around each of the doors before going down. Strange, she thought, it was Tuesday. Paula Hipkiss hired the function room on Tuesday mornings to run her weekly keep-fit class. What had happened to them? There was no way she would have slept through that. If the thumping music hadn't woken her up, then the elephantine crashing of anything between ten and twenty-five sweaty, overweight, middle-aged housewives surely would have.
'George,' she yelled again, her smoker's voice hoarse and angry. She coughed as she stumbled down the stairs. Bloody hell, it was as dark down there as the rest of the building. The cleaners, aerobics instructors, crowds of chubby women, talentless musicians, her useless husband - someone should have been here to turn the lights on and get the place ready for the punters. And she was right, the band hadn't been able to get in to get their gear. She could see it piled up at the far end of the room.
'George!' she screamed at a volume that, had he heard her, he would never had dared ignore. 'Where are you for Christ's sake?'
Jackie opened the curtains and stumbled around the bar. She found her husband of twenty-three years dead on the stairs which led down to the cellar. Poor bugger, he looked like he'd lost his footing and fallen headfirst down the steps, smashing his face into the concrete cellar floor. Shaking with sudden shock and emotion she slowly made her way down to him, one precarious step at a time, stepping over his sprawled out limbs. When she got to the bottom she sat down on the step next to him and began to cry.
Oh, George, Jackie thought, and there I was thinking you'd let me down. Sobbing, and filled with guilt, sorrow and a genuine deep, raw sadness, she tenderly stroked her husband's mop of white hair and gently shook his shoulder.
'Come on, love,' she whispered hopefully, 'wake up.'
She knew it was too late. She knew that George was dead.
Several long, quiet, grief-filled minutes later Jackie managed to drag herself back up from the cellar. It was almost opening time now but that didn't seem to matter anymore. She poured herself a large gin, knocked it back, poured herself another and then picked up the phone to call for the doctor. The pub was still dark and empty and she looked around the shadow-filled room with sad, desperate eyes. Much as she was the brains of the operation and the one who made all the decisions, Jackie didn't know how she'd cope without George.
The telephone wasn't working.
She finished her drink, hung up and tried again. Same problem. Couldn't get a line.
Not the kind of people to waste their time with gadgets and fads, neither George nor Jackie had ever owned a mobile phone. Jackie decided to try and telephone from the bank next door. If the worst came to the worst, she thought, she'd walk up to the doctor's surgery. It was only a little way down the high street. She'd go out through the back door to avoid any of the regulars who might be waiting around the front to get in.
When Jackie stepped out into the cobbled courtyard behind the pub she immediately noticed how quiet it was outside. She buttoned up her coat, locked the door and then walked out through the gate, down the alleyway and onto the high street.
The devastation was incredible.
A bus was on its side just up the road. In the distance Westwood Garage was on fire. There were crashed cars all over the place and, for as far as she could see in every direction, hundreds of people lay dead on the cold ground around her.
This had happened hours ago.
What had caused it?
How had she slept through it and why hadn't it affected her?
Jackie went back into the Lion and Lamb and poured herself another gin.
'All right, Tuggie,' shouts Meade across the carpark. The sun's bright this morning. I have to cover my eyes with my hand so that I can see him.
'Morning, Keith,' I shout back. 'Good day for it?'
He looks up and around.
'Just about perfect, I'd say,' he answers as he grabs his bag from the back of his car and starts walking towards the office.
He's right. It's a perfect day for flying. It's days like this that make me glad everything worked out the way it did between me and Sarah. If we were still together then I wouldn't be here now. I'd still be stuck living in our cramped terraced house in the middle of the city, spending long hours stuck in traffic and even longer hours stuck at the office. Most of the people I used to work with are probably still there, too scared to leave, stuck in a rut. And while they sit at their desks and follow orders, I'm out here in the fresh air, sitting on my backside and occasionally flying. I'm making it sound like I don't do anything around here. I do - I work damn hard when I have to - but I enjoy it. It doesn't feel like a job.
Shame we had to part on such bad terms though. I had a good few years with Sarah until we split up. Everything happened within the space of six months. She went off with a financial adviser (who advised her that he was worth a lot more than I was) and then, as I was just getting myself back on my feet, the bastards made me redundant. I had nothing to stay in the city for. We sold the house and I took my share and what was left of my redundancy payment and packed my bags and moved to the other side of the country. I learnt to fly a plane (it was something I'd always wanted to do) and then managed to get myself a job here at the Clifton Gliding Centre, towing gliders two thousand feet up into the air and then letting them go so that they can drift back down to the ground. Easy. I have a good life now. Simple, but good.
A line of three virtually identical (in all but colour) cars pull into the gravel carpark. The sound of their wheels crunching along the ground disturbs the quiet of the morning. This must be today's visitors arriving. There are supposed to be eight or nine of them I think, sales reps from a company in town. Noisy buggers. It's only just turned eight and all I can hear is them laughing and shouting. Why can't they talk quietly? It's probably just nerves. It's good sport watching blokes like this. They try and act all cool and relaxed on the ground, but I know they're nervous as hell. As soon as they're strapped into the gliders and they're ready to go up they change. All the bravado and macho bullshit disappears. When there's just the hull of a flimsy little plane and two thousand feet of air between their backsides and the ground they tend to shut up and drop the act. I hate these corporate team building activities. To think I used to have to do all this...
As the group disappears into the office to sign in and be briefed on the rules for the day I start getting the plane ready. I can still hear the voices of the seven men and two women as I walk over to the hanger. I climb into the plane, shut the cockpit and fire up the engine, drowning out their noise once and for all. I taxi out onto the airfield (which literally is a field here - no concrete runways for us) and move into position. Once we're ready I stop the engine, get out of the plane and walk over to where some of the other staff are standing in front of the hanger.
'Do me a favour,' I say to Willy who's one of the regular glider pilots.
'What's that?' he asks.
'Give them a fright, will you? Scare the shit out of these buggers!'
He smiles knowingly. He shares my dislike of overpaid businessmen.
'No problem,' he grins. 'Anyway, Tuggie, five minutes of being dragged up behind you with your flying is enough to scare anyone! I'll be shitting myself, never mind them!'
'Cheeky sod!' I snap as Willy walks away, cackling to himself.
Willy and Jones (one of the ground staff) stand and wait for Ed (Willy's lad) who's towing the gliders out of the hanger and out onto the airfield. The tractor he's driving is a noisy bugger. It fills the air with chugging and clattering and with clouds of thick black fumes which it spits out of its exhaust. I head back to my caravan for a cup of coffee to wake me up properly before the flying starts.
We move quickly. It's not even nine o'clock and I've already towed three gliders up.
This really is a simple job. The glider's attached to the back of the plane by a cable. I take off and drag it up until we've reached around two thousand feet. The glider pilot releases the cable. They go up (for a while, if the conditions are right) and I go back down. They usually stay up for anything between twenty minutes and half an hour. The flights might last a little longer today. The clouds are good and the sun is bright. There should be plenty of thermals to keep them up in the air. Once I've lost them I can just coast back down to the landing strip.
We usually try to have four or five gliders up in the air at the same time. This morning the first three went up without any problems. Ed's just attaching number four to the back of the tug plane. I watch the lads getting the glider ready in my mirrors. Ellis (the pilot) nods to Jones who gives me a hand signal and I start to move slowly forward until the cable is taut. Another hand signal and I stop. Behind me two ground hands hold the wings of the glider, keeping it steady. A final signal from one of them tells me that they're ready to fly.
We're off again. The tug plane bumps along the uneven grass for a couple of hundred yards before I give it a little more gas, pull back the controls and start to climb. The rumbling beneath me is suddenly silenced as the wheels leave the ground. Now the glider's up too and we're on our way. I can see the faces of the two men in the plane behind me. Ellis is talking ten to the dozen but his passenger isn't listening. He's bloody terrified! I think he's got his eyes shut!
Christ, the sun's bright. There's no escaping it when you're up here. It's hot too. It's not like you can pull down a blind or open a window. You just have to put up with it to an extent. You know it's not going to last for that long. A few minutes flying and then... Shit, what was that? Turbulence? Not at this altitude. No, I didn't like that, something's not right. I'm looking at the controls in front of me, but there's nothing wrong with my plane. Everything looks normal. It must be the glider. Something's happening behind me. I can't see what they're doing... Oh, Christ. Jesus Christ, Ellis is losing control. We're not even a thousand feet up yet and he's lost it. I can't see what's happening and I don't know if he's...
Oh, God, the glider's rolling to the side. He has to release. If he doesn't he'll drag me back with him and... and I can't see Ellis. Bloody hell, I can see the passenger's face now. He looks like he's trying to get out. He's banging against the sides of the cockpit. Maybe he's had a panic attack or something. Damn, I can just about see Ellis now. He looks just as scared as the other man.
The glider's tipping again. We have to separate. I don't have any choice, I have to pull the emergency release. If I don't then they'll pull me down with them and we'll all... There, done it. Had to do it. I'm free again and I've got control back. I bank and climb and look down below me as the glider rolls and dips and begins to spin towards the ground.
I can't watch. I don't know what happened in there, but I know that the two men don't have long. It'll be over in a couple of seconds. I just hope Ellis can try and get control and level out before... I need to get back down there and get help. If I... Jesus Christ, what was that? What's happening now? Fucking hell, another glider has just dived right across the front of me. It could only have been a hundred yards ahead. Shit, another couple of seconds later and it would have hit me and I'd be heading down there with Ellis and... and what the hell is happening here?
The planes are dropping out of the sky all around me. The four gliders we put up this morning are all either down or on their way down. Keith Meade - a man who's been flying these things for more years than anyone else I know - has lost control of his glider too. The plane is spiralling down towards the hanger. I don't want to look but I can't help but stare as the flimsy aircraft smashes through the roof, its metal and fibreglass wings and body crumpling and being torn apart on impact.
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