3.10 am in the morning. An ungodly hour, and believe me I wouldn’t be here unless I had to. But there’s an early plane to catch to get to Munich for a business meeting and that means a two hour drive to the airport.
The car heater stretches itself into life and I begin to feel its warmth whispering about me as I come off the slip road and onto the dual carriageway. As expected there is no other traffic about and I gradually power up to a steady seventy-five miles per hour before tripping the cruise control, my headlights pushing the waves of dark night to the side. The road slips beneath me quickly and quietly and only the occasional glare of oncoming lights from the opposite carriageway breaks the isolation. The radio has little to offer. Too much self-interested chattering for my liking, so I switch to my iPod and let Handel soften the blow of an irregular start to what will be a long, long day.
Twenty minutes later and the horizon holds the phosphorous glow of a street lamp constellation coming closer, heralding the approach of a service station. Soon the lights envelop me like a super star’s dressing mirror and I pull over and buy coffee, to go. As I walk into the coffee shop a blonde lady of about my age is leaving. She is struggling to open the door while holding a cardboard cup in one hand and a mobile phone in the other which is clenched to her ear. She smiles, but half-heartedly, her mind obviously on the conversation she is having, which sounds tense, clipped, and precise.
‘I told you I had to leave early.’
‘Please, don’t start now.’
‘For God’s sake, can’t we talk about this later?’
In the service area a waxen-faced girl with black lipstick serves me, her object seeming to be to take as much money from me as possible while exchanging a minimum of conversation. In a little over five minutes I am back in the car. I have Handel, the occasional sip of super-heated milk and caffeine and about eighty miles to go.
Minutes later and my screen is filled with a cacophony of red and blue lights that have me slowing to sixty, forty and an eventual stop before a temporary blue metal sign in the road that says, Police STOP. Accident Ahead. Checking my rear-view mirror there is nothing behind me, but I press the hazard warning lights anyway, although their muted flashing is doubtless lost in the greater light show that I am now a part of. I check my watch to see I have time in hand, as long as the wait is not too long. At least I am in pole position, ready to get going again as soon as possible.
I can see a policeman beyond the sign, picked out in reflective yellow. He is talking on his radio and acknowledges me with a small lift of his arm before turning away. His face is in shadow from the peak of his cap, but he looks young, and very cold.
I don’t see the lights come up behind me but suddenly I am aware that another car has pulled up to my left. It’s a silver Mercedes, small and sporty. I can see the driver is the blonde I saw leaving the coffee shop. I must have overtaken her without realising, or maybe she lingered in the car park before leaving. She doesn’t look at me but I can see her lips moving, the phone still held to her ear and her dashboard lights casting a luxuriant yet ephemeral glow onto her face. I glance again at the policeman. Has he noticed her? Will he tell her off about the phone?
When I look again I see her wipe a hand across her face. I realise she is crying. Then she looks to her right, directly into my eyes, but there is no recognition, no animation. They are just eyes, but they are black, chilled and like grit in virgin snow. My polite smile dies before it is born and I look away.
A tap on my driver’s window makes me jump. It’s the policeman, smiling tightly, waving me through. As I engage the gears and crawl on I see she is still crying, still looking at me, watching me leave her behind.
Past the sign I come to the source of the blue and red lights. There are two ambulances, a fire engine and two police cars. Emergency workers are huddled around a twisted frieze of kinetically induced statuary. I look but I don’t gawp. In seconds I am past and back up to speed. There is nothing behind me, darkness in front of me and still seventy miles to go. I push the cruise control to eighty and concentrate on getting to the airport.
A little over an hour and a half later I have my boarding pass and stand in a small queue for security. My mind relaxes. I am on time. Only then do I think again about the twisted, ugly wreckage and realise what I saw as a chilled vibration slips up my spine. A silver Mercedes, small and sporty, and the fading lustre of blonde hair framed in the shattered driver’s window.