Thank Christ for that. Someone’s stopping.
I lower my outstretched arm and move back from the road as the vehicle pulls over and draws to a halt. A sharp hiss punctures the frosty predawn air as air brakes are applied. The headlamps glare like searchlights, twin unearthly eyes scouring the flat fenland landscape around the A142 for signs of prey. I shake my head at the thought. My imagination’s getting the better of me. There’s nothing sinister about this vehicle or its purpose. Yet.
The vehicle is a Volvo FL6, a seven and a half ton truck. There are dents in the bodywork of the cab and too many patches of rust for it to remain in service for much longer. In the light of the full moon I can just make out the company’s name on faded letters on the worn curtain side: Matheson’s Building & Plumbing Supplies – East Anglia’s Biggest & Best.
A cold chill runs down my spine as I realise that this is exactly the same company I used to work for. Talk about fate!
The canvas of the curtain side is bulging in the middle. It looks like the pallets haven’t been loaded properly, carelessly stacked so that they’ll fall against the inner side of the curtain if the driver oversteers or swerves. It has happened to me in the past.
Looks to be quite a heavy load in there. That’ll add considerably to the truck’s momentum. Perfect.
I can’t take my eyes off the bulging curtain. Not only has this brought on a strong sense of déjà vu, it has reinforced my opinion that this truck has indeed been brought to me by fate. Very soon, history will repeat itself. And this time, it won’t be me who suffers.
The passenger door opens, the driver grunting with the effort of leaning over the passenger seats to reach the latch of the nearside door. The interior light comes on and illuminates the cab’s interior. I see that the driver is not a young or indeed a fit man. He’s in his late forties, overweight, a huge belly spilling over the seatbelt and reformed into strange new shapes by the restraining webbing, like Play- Dough with a life of its own. A thick mass of greasy grey hair tumbles around his fleshy, pallid face. A smouldering cigarette dangles in the corner of his mouth, spilling ash down his black bodywarmer and oil-stained grey overalls. I see there’s no wedding ring on his thick, grimy fingers. A single man, married to the road and the unsocial hours the driving business stipulates not just because of the earning potential, but quite probably because that’s all there is in his life.
“Well, d’you want a fuckin’ lift or what?” he spits out in gruff, wheezing tones. More ash escapes the dying cigarette. Not a very friendly welcome in the middle of nowhere at half past four in the morning. But it’s been a long and lonely trek from Whitemoor prison, I’m absolutely freezing, and I remind myself that this is fate. Besides, I’ve had worse welcomes. Especially when I was inside.
I climb aboard and pull the door shut, relishing the warm air blowing from the dash.
“Nice of you to stop,” I smile through chattering teeth. “Not many drivers would stop for hitchhikers at this time of night.”
The driver shrugs. “Radio’s packed in. Could do with some chat. It’s been a fuckin’ long night.” He releases the parking brake and pushes the gearstick to first. I frown as he moves off without checking his sidemirror. He’s obviously confident that there’ll be no traffic on the road at this hour, but there’s no excuse for unsafe driving. It’s tempting fate…
He looks at me quizzically. “You look familiar. Have I seen you somewhere before?”
“I don’t think so.” I stiffen at his question. I don’t want to explain why I’m out here at such an unearthly hour. Not just yet.
I look at the radio that hisses static as it fails to lock on to any station. Another piece of good fortune. He wouldn’t have heard any of the local radio news reports about the escape from HMP Whitemoor.
“So, why you out ‘ere at this time o’ night?” The tuck veers into the middle of the road, straddling both lanes as he fishes out a fresh cigarette from a crumpled Mayfair packet on the dash and lights it with the butt of his current one. I shake my head in silent disapproval. Not checking mirrors is bad enough, but taking your hands off the wheel, even for a second, is bad driving. Totally inexcusable. I realise that the hands I was rubbing warmth into have clenched into fists. I force myself to calm down.
“Hello? You awake?” He’s waving the freshly lit cigarette at me, the butt of the previous one crushed on the floor underfoot. “What happened, your car knackered?”
“Clutch went on the hire car. I don’t choose to walk this part of the world at half past four in the morning.” I gesture at the black landscape through the windscreen. “I’ve been visiting friends in March. Do you know, I’ve lived here all of my life, and yet I never fully realised what a boring, flat waste of time this part of the world is until I walked it for three hours?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty dull,” he laughs. “And flat. Flatter than Kate Moss’s tits. Bad luck about the car. Where you headed?”
“Cambridge. That’s where I hired the car from, so I’m just going to drop the keys in the letterbox and let them worry about it.” The lie slips smoothly from my lips. “And then, I’m going to meet up with a few old work colleagues.” That at least is no lie.
“Well, I’m headed for Waterbeach. You’ll have to get out before I reach the depot, though. Me guvnor don’t like me carrying passengers. Not covered by the firm’s insurance, see. He won’t be around at this time o’night but the other drivers might grass me up. They always give new staff a hard time…”
I nod stiffly. Yes, they certainly do.
“…and I’ve only been on the job a coupla months. Can’t afford to lose this one.”
“I understand.” I try to feign disappointment. This vehicle is definitely taking me to the school. The driver will have no choice in the matter. “When I was a driver my company told me it was a dismissable offence to carry passengers who weren’t company employees.”
He looks at me with interest. “You don’t look like a driver. Don’t talk like one, that’s for sure. Had you figured as a university lad.”
I laugh as I look down at my torn combat trousers and black reefer jacket. Not the most elegant of clothing, but I had to take what I could find. Better than prison denims, anyway. I’m still grateful for that student whose Mini had broken down outside Chatteris. Shame his car hadn’t been as useful as his clothes. Still, he won’t be needing either now. At least the black material of the coat hides most of the bloodstains.
“What did you do?”
I feel my body tense at the question, then I realise he’s asking about my work history, not…
“I drove seven and a half tonners, like you. Some long distance, but mostly multidrop, local stuff. Don’t do it any more, though.”
He takes a drag of his cigarette, nodding. “Shit work, innit? ‘specially around Cambridge. No fucker there has any patience while you back your truck up. And as for the bloody cyclists…”
I can’t help but notice that the truck is speeding now, traveling faster than it should be on such icy roads. Signs for Witchford pass by in an eighty mile per hour blur. I look back at the driver with contempt.
“What made you pack it in, then? Find something better?”
“Not quite. I was… forced out. Had a nasty accident.”
“Yeah? What’d you do? Run over someone – oh, shit.”
He’s looking in the nearside mirror. He’s spotted the bulge in the curtain side.
“I don’t fuckin’ believe this,” he growls. “Those tossers in Wisbech never secure the load properly.”
I check the mirror. The bulge in the curtain now has a clearly defined shape. A sharp edged cube threatening to rip through the canvas.
The driver only flicks on the hazard warning lights after he’s pulled over. Another black mark. As the air brakes hiss into action he releases his seatbelt and looks at me. “You’d better give us a hand. That looks like a double stacked pallet o’ bathroom tiles has tilted. It’ll take bleedin’ ages to stack ‘em back up again.” He pulls out the knob under the radio that releases the tail lift lock and drops out of the cab.
I remain seated, watching quietly as he walks through the cold glare of headlights to check the state of the curtain side. This is it. Fate has not only provided me with a vehicle, it has now given me the perfect opportunity to take command of it.
Now I open the door, swing my legs around, and look at the driver. He’s muttering under his breath, more curses directed against the warehouse loaders at the Wisbech call. A tear has appeared at the top of the bulge and a pack of glazed bathroom tiles is peeking through. Just above the sound of the wind I can hear a low groaning sound. Any moment now the whole pallet will tear through and crash onto the roadside. He continues to mutter obscenities, the Mayfair in his mouth jerking violently with each swear word as if it too finds the language offensive. He hadn’t considered the fact that his sloppy driving might have added to the danger. Besides, isn’t it a driver’s duty to check his load is secure before driving away? No, it’s more than that. It’s a legal requirement. From my own bitter experience, I know that all too well.
I lean back into the cab and look at the tachometer. The clock tells me it’s almost five in the morning, and a red warning light is glowing underneath the dial. I pull the unit forward and take out the disc. The driver’s name, according to this, is Mike Buckland, and a quick inspection of the graph tells me that he has been driving for twelve hours non stop, ignoring the legal stipulations for breaks between driving periods as well as the maximum hours permitted. He’ll probably just toss the disc away when he gets back, or switch it with an unused one if stopped by the police, feign surprise that the tacho unit is ‘broken’. Just to earn a few more hours.
I remember now that when I worked for them, Matheson’s paid by the hour and encouraged this illegal practice, to try and keep on top of the workload and reduce the need to hire expensive agency drivers.
And still they’re doing it! My reluctance to leave the warm cocoon of the cab disappears as rage courses through my body, bringing its own heat. I jump down onto the road, my prison issue boots crunching on the hoar frost of the grassy roadside.
“Stay here,” I tell him. “I’ll lower the tail lift and get in the back. Those tiles will definitely have to be restacked.”
He nods in agreement, obviously relieved that he doesn’t have to take part in this. Too physical for him. He’s wheezing from the mere effort of getting out of the cab and walking a few yards.
“By the way, do you realise that you’ve run out of hours?”
He stares blankly at me. “You what?”
“I’ve just checked your tacho. You’ve well exceeded nine and a half hours, my friend. And you haven’t been taking your rest breaks, have you?”
Anger clouds his face. “What the fuck’s it gotta do with you, pal? What you fuckin’ around with me tacho for, anyway? I ain’t been stopped by the Old Bill yet.” He waves a dismissive hand. “Just go and sort them bleedin’ tiles out.”
Oh, I’ll sort those tiles out. Don’t worry about that. I walk to the rear, lower the tail lift and push up the rusting shutter.
The interior of the wagon is a mess. The interior light illuminates a jumble of copper piping and bathroom fittings that are scattered over the floor, no attempt made to secure them. I clamber over cracked cisterns and sink pedestals to the centre, where the tiles are.
Just as I thought. Two full pallets, each weighing over half a ton, have been stacked on top of each other without been strapped down. No surprise that the top pallet has slid away. The packs of tiles on the lower pallet have burst through the shrinkwrapping, threatening to part company with each other.
This is all too familiar. That sense of déjà vu again. This guy should never have driven away with his load in this fashion. The loaders are at fault, granted, but the final responsibility lies with the driver.
“What are you doin’ in there?” I hear Mike Buckland’s voice through the hole in the curtain. “I can’t hear any tiles moving. Get a bloody move on!”
Cheeky bastard! He wants to hear tiles moving, does he? Right.
I pick up a three metre length of copper tubing and inspect the end. Eighteen millimetre thickness surrounds a fifty millimetre bore. The end is ragged, with sharp edges – it hasn’t been cut or rounded properly. Bad for the customer it was intended for, but good for my purposes. I aim it at the canvas at a point just beneath the pack of tiles that is half out of the curtain side and begin thrusting.
After a few jabs I hear a full, satisfying ripping sound. The top pallet shifts, tilting at an even more hazardous angle and adding more pressure to the weakened canvas. A few more sharp prods and I lean back, grinning as the curtain tears completely and the whole pallet slides away.
A loud scream of terror pierces the cold night air, followed by a shriek of tearing shrinkwrap and a crashing, shattering of tiles that hide the sound of bones and flesh being crushed.
I work quietly in the back for about ten minutes. I’m oblivious to the driver’s screams of pain as I secure any loose items which might roll out of the hole in the curtain side. I find some securing straps at the back and make the lower pallet of tiles safe, and tie back the loose flaps of the canvas curtain as best I can.
Only then do I jump out and inspect the damage I’ve inflicted on Mike Buckland.
To my disappointment, I see he had backed away before the tiles fell on him, so the pallet has just landed on his lower body. His legs lie hidden by a mound of cracked white tiles and splintered blue wood while his upper body remains untouched. Well, that can be fixed.
I crouch down and smile at him. He looks up at me, eyes bulging in agony and fear. His mouth opens and closes rapidly, drawing in short rapid breaths, goldfish style. His Mayfair has fallen to one side, the red tip melting a hole in the frosted grass beneath.
“I told you you’ve run out of hours,” I whisper softly. “In more ways than one.”
He moans softly as he becomes aware of the blood seeping through the tiles, staining the blue wood of the smashed pallet. Some of the nails have come free and buried themselves in his chest. I see the tiles have pictures of small leaping dolphins with big happy smiles. The driver sobs quietly.
“It’s more than coincidence that you were going to Waterbeach because that’s where I’m heading as well. To the same destination as you, the Matheson’s depot. This is fate, smiling down at me. Telling me that what I am about to do is the right thing. Payback, justice, call it what you will.
“You asked me why I was sacked, if I had run anyone over. Not quite. The accident which finished me and sent me to prison was not my fault at all – except in the eyes of the law. I always prided myself on being a good driver. Safe, conscientious, never speeding, always taking road conditions into account and reducing speed accordingly, that kind of thing. Not the type of personality normally associated with the multidrop driving business, but there you go. At least I was safe.
“So, if I was such a safe driver, how did I end up killing that little girl outside Fen Ditton Primary School? I didn’t run her over or knock her down. So what could possibly have happened to make the jury convict me on charges of manslaughter and causing death by dangerous driving?”
His eyes flicker. I see that even through his agony he is remembering the incident that filled the tabloids and the broadsheets no more than six months ago. My face must be more familiar to him now.
“Unsecured load. A cargo of patio tiles, headed for the B & Q in Cambridge. Delivered from Matheson’s of Waterbeach. You weren’t working for them at the time, so you wouldn’t remember me working there. But you know my name now, don’t you? You recognise my face, yes?”
He nods once. His fear briefly overtakes his pain.
“It was my second week. I’d come in to start the day run and the first line manager told me to take Phil Turner’s route that day, as he wasn’t feeling too good. I liked Phil. One of the few drivers there I got on with, who didn’t take the piss. So when I asked him if the load was secure and he said yes, he’d checked it himself, I trusted him. I filled out my tacho and drove off. Without checking the load.
“I only knew he was lying when I was passing the school on Horningsea Road and that little girl ran out in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and missed her by inches. But that was how she died.
“Let me explain. The road was wet from the previous night’s heavy rain and my truck skidded as the girl reached the – apparent – safety of the kerb. My tail end swung out to the right, and that was enough to upset the cargo of tiles. Not only were the pallets double stacked and unsecured, but the straps on the curtain side hadn’t been closed properly, and the curtain’s winding bar hadn’t been locked. The pallets shifted, pushed through the loosened curtain and crashed onto the kerb – where the girl was standing, waving to her mother on the other side as if to say “it’s okay, mum, I’m safe.”
“So there you have it. Because I’d failed to comply with the legal requirement to check my load I was held responsible for that girl’s death. It didn’t matter that the loaders didn’t secure the tiles or make the vehicle secure. If I’d checked the load I would have seen it was unsafe and would have refused to go on the road with it. So for a while I blamed no one but myself. I was devastated, consumed with remorse and guilt. Until I was sent to HMP Whitemoor, where the inmates and the warders put me through a hell that is especially reserved for childkillers, intentional or not. And when I read in one of the papers that Matheson’s had got away with nothing more than a heavy fine I realised the full extent of the injustice I was suffering. I learned to hate very quickly.”
I’m about to tell him more but the pain has returned and is starting to overwhelm him. He’s screaming loudly. Perhaps in pain, perhaps fear. Perhaps both. Well, there’s no need to bore him with the details of my escape and the reasons why I’m heading for Waterbeach and the Matheson’s depot. I think he’s guessed anyway.
But before I renew old acquaintances I need a warm up. I pat Mike Buckland’s cheek gently and stand up.
It feels good to get behind the wheel of a truck again after six months inside. I pull out Buckland’s tacho disc, tear it up and fill in a fresh one from the box behind the driver’s seat. Might as well do this properly. I carefully fill in my full name, the registration number of the truck and the mileage reading. For departure point I write ‘HMP Whitemoor’ and for destination I write ‘Waterbeach’. Silly, really. I can’t imagine the flimsy paper disc surviving the flames, but just because it’s my last journey there’s no excuse to be unprofessional. I insert the disc into the tachometer and close the unit, turning the locking key. A quick check in the driver’s side mirror. Still no traffic. Good. It’s safe to move off.
I put the truck into reverse gear and release the parking brake. The familiar beep-beep-beep of the reversing warning siren fills the pre-dawn air as I gently manouevre the truck backwards for about ten metres. The headlights illuminate the shattered pallet of tiles and the crippled driver in a cold silver glare. The blood is much, much brighter, and flowing more freely now, drowning those leaping dolphins and wiping the smiles off their faces. I see the driver’s head moving, shaking violently back and forth, screams tearing from his gaping mouth as he realises my intent. I spin the wheel to the left and mount the roadside, the nearside wheels dangerously close to the drainage ditch. Fortunately, there’s enough clearance between the ditch and the pallet of tiles for the truck to pass through. The only obstacle is the driver.
I take my foot off the clutch pedal and move forward slowly. I don’t want to rush this. I wind down the window and look downwards at my oncoming target, and I try to put myself in his shoes. To wonder how it must feel to see a metal monster inching forward with agonising slowness and murderous intent. Each second must feel like an eternity of horrific anticipation, waiting for the inevitable.
The offside wheel now makes contact. There’s a slight bump as the truck tilts up to the left by a couple of degrees, and I need to press harder on the accelerator to get the wheel over the obstacle. Now I hear a satisfying wet cracking sound as the driver’s ribcage and its contents are crushed to a pulp. Flatter than Kate Moss’s tits, I remember him saying, and snigger to myself.
I reverse a few yards, stop, and turn the wheel to the left a bit more, noting with satisfaction the trail of black blood the tyre has painted on the grass. Now I’m almost in the drainage ditch but it’s a risk worth taking. The truck roars forward, faster this time, and the driver’s head cracks and shatters like a rotting coconut hit by a sledgehammer.
Time to move on. I rejoin the road – ensuring the lane is clear of oncoming traffic, of course – and I can see the Little Chef roundabout is not far away. Turn right there, and after a mini roundabout I’ll be on the A10. In less than twenty minutes I’ll be in Waterbeach, and the Matheson’s depot.
I check my watch. It’s five AM exactly. The day staff start in half an hour, so there should be about fifteen people in the yard. Plenty of old acquaintances to renew. Perhaps Phil Turner will be there today. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see me again. Then it’ll be time to catch up on some long-needed sleep.
Yes, I think I’ll crash out for a bit.