The alarm blisters my brain with its howling. I’ve only been awake for two seconds and my bad mood is already giving me indigestion. It’s four am and I have to be at work for nine. I’ve been late twice this week and my boss has given me an ultimatum: be on time or be fired. So I put together my survival kit, grab my backpack and call my car.
When I get downstairs my car, Delilah, is waiting by the front door of my flats. She sees me and opens the door. I sling my back pack in and clamber after, while she tries to shut the door on my ankle,
“Not today baby,” I say cheerfully.
“Hi there Luca,” she replies sweetly, “would you like me to turn the heating on?”
I say sure, but the heating in my car is more of a gesture than a temperature change, so I pull on a fleece so huge that it makes me feel like a bear. I tell Delilah to get me to work and make myself cosy on the seat. I’ve decided not to let the commute get me down today, I’ve got a good book, a pocketful of change and a determined sense of optimism. We’re going to get there early, I just know it.
We take the first few streets at a good pace, Delilah keeps a respectful distance from the cars in front and I like that about her. I’ve known a few guys tamper with their car’s programming so that they tailgate and honk, but I’ve never wanted that, it’s too stressful. Delilah will drive best she can, and I’ve got my book. We’re onto the main road, and still moving at full pelt, I don’t want to get excited, but I get that surge, Maybe today’s the day, when they’ve fixed the roads and sorted the traffic. Then we turn another corner and come to a stop.
“I’ve detected some traffic ahead, Luca. Would you like me to try an alternative route?”
I appreciate that she’s trying, but we’ve been travelling this route together for two years and there is no alternative. I’ve come to accept it, and I think she should too.
“No thanks, Delilah,” I say and do some reading of my book.
We’re still in the first twenty minutes and our timing is ok. We moved a few feet, we stop and wait, move a few more feet and stop. It’s the kind of driving Delilah excels at and it allows me to read and have a quick doze. Then we’re into urban junction territory and the mood of the road shifts. I climb into the front seat and ask Delilah to give me control of the car. There are some tricky traffic lights up ahead and it’s not enough to simply wait until they’re green. I’ve seen people die at these lights; not just car accidents, but suicides, heart attacks, a few of old age. If you want to get through the lights, you have to use some cunning, a little brute force and plenty of illegality, those are not Delilah’s strengths.
The lights change to green and all the cars around me start to jostle for the one lane that’s still open. I’m in that lane, but it means nothing. There’s an HGV to my left who’s decided I’m in his way, so he very slowly drives at me, I try to front it out, but then I hear the squeak and grind of metal on metal. I panic, I have to get away from him before he crushes my headlight to dust, but if I move too fast I hit the car to my right. I swing the wheel and then with excruciating slowness, I drive at the car in the lane to the right of me. Car horns create their cacophony. Desperate drivers grab their dash-deities and pray, little figurines of whatever religion is in right now. I make it to a clear space where I won’t get squished as the lights change to red. I’ve got nowhere, but Delilah is ok. I have a quick check in my rear view camera to see if anyone was less lucky, a few people have got out of their cars, so I suspect there’s been a small collision, but nothing serious.
It takes a twelve more similar attempts before I make it through the lights and into the Consumer District, more inch-an-hour territory. I ask Delilah to take over. It’s now five-thirty and I’m hungry, cranky and in need a little something to pick me up.
I spot Baby Joe. Joe is seven and he serves some of the freshest coffee in the district. He’s always got a joke for me, maybe a few cookies to sell. Except today he is isn’t waiting between the lanes as the cars inch past, he’s standing on the pavement. I get out of Delilah, the cars are nose-to-tail and I can’t see a surge of movement happening anytime soon, and go over to Joe.
“What gives Joe? Why aren’t you in the road?” Joe huffs sadly,
“Some kid got knocked down yesterday, now my mum don’t want me off the pavement,” he looks heart-sick, shakes his head and says, “I’ll never work my way out now.” I use up most of my change buying a coffee, six cookies and a toy truck, I figure he needs the money. I don’t point out the truth that he would never have worked his way out anyway. Social mobility is no longer a thing, unless you start out rich, play at being poor for a gap year, then stride back to the high life.
Delilah hasn’t moved, so I take wander between the cars to check out a few other street-sellers. There are Disney brain pets (“Take Goofy with you everywhere!”) and some very banned driving drugs (“All the sensations of sun-bathing while you drive to work”). I see Daisy with new merchandise just as Delilah starts to move. I give Daisy a wave, while I climb back in the car and lever the car window down, the computer fused years ago, Daisy waddles her way over to me and begins to work her product. You don’t turn a profit in the district, unless you’re young and cute or a talented seller, and Daisy is definitely in the latter category.
“Honey, honey, you see what I got for you?” she croons in a Korean accent that I believe to be fake. She’s pure South London, I can see it in the grime on her face, but she’s got a brand to maintain; we all have. “I got you flip flops make you feel like you’re floating, I got you Chameleon glasses and dashboard deities in every colour. What you want, my honey? What you want?”
I’m just about to ask about the glasses, when I spot a parting up ahead. I give Daisy a quick wave as I clamber into the front seat and quickly manoeuvre Delilah to the space. That’s gained me ten minutes at least.
We’ve reached the car city and they’re having a party, but they always are. Parties are the way the inhabitants of the car city convince themselves they aren’t just vagrants in yet another shanty town. The car city was a created a few years ago. It wasn’t planned, it simply happened. Some temporary traffic lights went up and the ensuing week-long tailbacks led to a few people giving up on their journeys. Commuters decided they didn’t really want to go to work anyway, and they already had all they needed with them, so they set up home. Over the next few weeks more of the travel sick joined. They’re a little cultish for my tastes, a little shiny-eyed with zeal. They think they’ve found the answer to traffic: give up and live in it, but it all seems defeatist to me. As I drive through, a pretty woman with red hair passes a flower to me through the window. I give her my brightest smile and she winks.
I’m closing in on Clapham, it’s eight o’clock, my timing is good. Delilah is doing the driving, so I’m having a work out on my exercise bike. I’m lying on my back and peddling my legs in the air when my boss comes on the screen.
“Morning Luca,” she says. I can hear the irritation in her voice and I know she’s wondering why I’m wasting time cycling when I should be driving. I disentangle my legs, but the bike is attached to the ceiling and it isn’t a quick process. Once I’m the right way up, I start the apologies as a matter of course, but she doesn’t listen, just carries right on. “Just checking that you’re going to be on time today. There’ve been a few late mornings recently, haven’t there?” I start to recap the disasters of the week: the lorry on its side across the M25, the mass suicide on the south circular, but she still isn’t listening,
“Just get here on time,” she says with an exaggerated sigh and the screen clicks off. She’s not a bad person, but she has no clue about traffic. She hasn’t left her home in years. She’s only a virtual presence at work, that last message she sent from her bed. She was wearing a jacket, but I could see the pillows behind her. She has no clue about the commute. No middle management and up has a clue because they don’t need to, that’s why the roads were allowed to get so bad.
Anyway, I’m making great time; an hour and I should be there. I’ve passed the car city and I’m onto the A3 heading out of town. This is the easiest part of the journey, we’re clipping along at about 20 miles an hour and it feels almost like flying. I hang my head out the window like a dog, and make a whoop of joy. I may even get to work early. I start thinking about that luxury, how I’ll have a little chat with Belinda on reception, how I’ll suck on a mocha cube, I may even make a proper cup of coffee. Delilah has inched up to thirty miles an hour and I haven’t felt this happy in years.
Then I hear the noise and the world turns to dust. I look around wildly, the sound is so huge it’s like the whole world has caved in. The dust has cleared enough that I should be able to see cars up ahead, but I can’t, there’s nothing. I shout at Delilah to stop and she does, but the cars behind me aren’t so on the ball and crash straight into the back of me. As we sail towards the hole, I curl up into a ball on the back seat. I feel the car stop and I’m still alive. I move very slowly and peer out between the seats. Everything is beige, we are sitting in a dust cloud. We are about half a metre from the edge of the hole, it is the width of the entire road and looks about twenty metres deep. I get out of Delilah, although my legs are wobbly I’m not hurt. I can hear groans and cries for help. I automatically grab my medical kit, I’ve got pretty good at torniquets over the last few years. But first I need to try and save my job. I put a call through to my boss and start pleading,
“What? That’s the second time this week!” she shouts. I angle the camera to try and show her the road, but she isn’t interested, it wouldn’t be the first time someone has faked footage to excuse their lateness. I try to beg my way out of trouble, but she’s having none of it, “Just get here!” she shouts. I drop the medical kit, look at the crater and try to formulate a plan.
Someone has got out of his car with a blow torch and is cutting a path through the barriers on the central reservation. On the other side of the road, the cars are nose to tail and I don’t see how he thinks he can go against the traffic, but it’s either that or go back. Somebody else has taken a chance with driving through the woods to get around the hole, but it’s clear he won’t get far without a chainsaw. I wonder about just walking, it would take about an hour from here, but my job will be long gone by then.
Through the haze of dust, I can see a few survivors slowly clambering out of the hole, pulling themselves along with bloody fingers. I think my working life may have come to a natural end. I’ll do what I can here and then head for the car city. I pick my medical kit back up and go to play doctor.