A short story by The Old Grey Owl
“It’s ten to eight and time for Thought for the Day. The speaker from our Cambridge studio is…”
“A smug, patronising bastard,” continued Ollie automatically, his left hand flicking out to jab the mute button on the radio.
Some days, he added his own ending to the familiar link in his head. Other days, when he travelled to work with a tightening knot in his stomach, he voiced it. Saying it aloud, with a mannered delivery, added to the pleasure and invariably came accompanied by a wry smile of appreciation for his own wit. In the last couple of months, that had become a daily event.
He talked out loud regularly in the car on his journeys to and from work. He often thought that it was a good thing that the dashcam was a device only configured to look out at the other traffic, not in at the driver, but in his darker moods he thought that it was only a matter of time.
Playback of footage taken inside his car would reveal some uncomfortable truths. A man who would randomly shout at other drivers, pressed into action by a range of motoring misdemeanours: not indicating, driving too fast, driving too slow, straddling lanes. The M25 was a rich source of examples of this kind of incompetence, bad manners and stupidity.
The rest of his repertoire was not provoked by any activity outside of the car, but by the entertainment he had selected inside. Mealy-mouthed, vacuous Government Ministers, desperately straining to fill their allotted time by describing what was already known so that they could not be pressed to give a direct answer to the original question, drove him to fury. He would bang the dashboard and shout at the top of his voice, hurling foul-mouthed abuse at the blatant lies and distortions the disembodied voices were peddling. Favourite songs from the treasure trove of Spotify and Bluetooth inspired lusty singalongs, swaying and headshaking in time to the beat. Occasionally, in town streets, he would find himself intoning a Test Match Special type commentary, or shrieking a Match of the Day style soundbite as he described the antics of the people on the streets.
Outside the car, walking through a shopping centre, or pottering aimlessly at home, solitariness was always accompanied by silence. It was invariably a comfortable silence, a silence that fitted him snugly like a familiar pair of old trainers. So why the change whenever he got in his car and pulled away from the kerb?
The solid clunk of the driver door closing, the rolling pull of the seatbelt and the ensuing metallic click as the buckle engaged, all signified a retreat into a private, protected, invisible world. Despite the wrap around plate glass windows, it was if he were invisible once strapped in, in the same way that those who populated television screens were detached from the viewer in their front room. They were there, but not there at the same time. He imagined it was the same feeling of anonymity, of invisibility, that internet trollers wallowed in. In the shadows, they were emboldened to spew vitriol and bile, confident that no-one would ever know who they were.
“Oh look, there’s another one,” he thought as he had to brake to accommodate the Nissan Micra that was serenely hogging the middle lane at fifty miles an hour. Too scared to mix it with the articulated lorries in the slow lane, relentlessly nose to tail from Prague to the Midlands, and resolutely refusing to contemplate the outside lane, where people actually broke the speed limit, the Micras of this world provoked the purest form of his fury.
“Moron!” he muttered at the windscreen, as he swerved around him, like a stream in flood surging around a rock in the middle of a river bed. He glanced back in the rear mirror as he pulled away from the Micra, just to check. Yes, there it was, another “Leave means Leave“ sticker, slightly obscuring the driver, squat, low down in his seat, flat cap seeming to float in the air above his head. He bellowed curses at Micraman, who just for that moment became the target for all of his frustrations with stupid Brexiteers and their little Englander small -mindedness. A little unfair, he knew. For all he could tell, Micraman might have principled, reasoned objections to the Europe that went beyond the outright xenophobic. And he would never voice this level of anger in the staffroom, where some people went quiet the second it came up as a topic of conversation. The only safe ground was to blame “the bloody politicians”, which everyone seemed to agree with. Everyone except him, that is. Blame the Government, certainly. But MPs? No, they were doing their jobs properly. If he saw one more bloody Vox pop on the news giving air time to someone saying, “They’re all the bloody same, that shower. I’m never going to vote again”, well, he didn’t know what he would do.
Still, the guy in the Micra couldn’t hear him, so he reasoned a foul -mouthed bellow at the rear-view mirror wouldn’t harm anyone and provided a healthy release for him. And God knows, he needed some kind of release at the moment. Particularly today. Another bloody lesson observation, another evening spent tweaking a lesson plan and polishing his PowerPoint, another troubled night’s sleep, worrying about whether he would get into school early enough to do the photocopying he really should have done on Friday. And to add yet more pressure, he’d been asked to bring in his identity documents because his DBS clearance had run out. That had been another forty -five minutes wasted the night before, ransacking filing cabinets in his study, trying to remember where he usually kept his passport, birth certificate and proof of address. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
He glanced up ahead. Shit. The signals that straddled the M25 blared their amber numbers. Just as he clocked the row of 50s, the car crested the brow of the hill and there laid out below him, in that familiar descent towards the Dartford crossing, was the beginnings of the banked -up lines of traffic, the red stop lights spreading back towards him like an incoming tide. He slowed, checked his rear-view mirror and indicated to move into the left-hand lane, ready to leave the motorway and join the A2. There was a grim satisfaction to be had from deftly slipping in between two gargantuan lorries, into a space barely big enough for that Micra he’d seen moments before. He smirked to himself. Micraman would need a space the size of three cricket pitches before he dared to change lanes. The smirk died on his lips almost as soon as it had formed, as the line of traffic he’d just joined slowed to walking pace and then stopped all together. The knot in his stomach tightened.
“Come on, come on,” he shouted at the windscreen, slapping the steering wheel and then gripping it white knuckled. He looked across at the car to his left and just caught a glimpse of the driver, a young blonde woman looking at him horrified, mouth agape. Their eyes met and she looked away, embarrassed. She began talking into her phone and her eyes flicked across at him a couple of times. His mouth set into a straight line. Now he was an object of fear and ridicule. How much worse could things get. The last time this had happened on the way to work, he had ended up sitting in traffic in this very spot for about two hours
He couldn’t be late. He couldn’t walk into his lesson without that photocopying. Maybe he could just explain and apologise and reschedule. “Sorry, dreadful traffic on the M25 this morning” Even just trying it out for size he knew what the response would be. Excuses were letting the kids down. They’ve only got one shot at their time at Secondary school. If you had any kind of moral purpose, you’d get up an hour earlier and make sure you got in on time. It’s not as if it’s a surprise, the traffic on the M25 being bad. His heart pounded against his chest and that familiar tightening behind his eyes began as his head started to throb.
Deep down, he knew that it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. He knew he was going to fail the observation. It was his third in a row after all, and according to their Performance Management protocols, it was three strikes and you’re out. Each one had come up with different reasons why his lesson was unsatisfactory. The first time he’d been baffled and then confused and then angry. It had never happened to him before. He’d always been a Good or Outstanding. He was so used to being good at his job, being the member of Senior Management who could hack it in the corridors and the classroom, the expert, the person that others sought out for advice or help. And now, suddenly, when he wasn’t that person anymore, he was adrift. He didn’t know who he was.
Back in the day, on the rare occasions when something went wrong, he would have talked it through with Helen. Her calm, rational reassurance would have made everything alright again, but now, since the divorce, he didn’t really talk to anyone, well, not about big stuff anyway. And so, he was left with the growing understanding that he was yesterday’s man, whose views on how to run schools and deal with “challenging” kids, were deemed old fashioned and unfit for purpose. He had, almost overnight, turned from being part of the solution, to being part of the problem.
And so, he knew that he could have spent all night perfecting his lesson plan, could have photocopied the entire contents of the schemes of work filing cabinet, could have slept overnight in his classroom to ensure he was there in time on Monday, and they would still have found a reason to fail him. And from there it was a matter of weeks to competency procedures, union representation and a hush-hush deal being offered to him to resign for a pittance.
This analysis was already there in the murky depths of his consciousness, fully formed, but it was only now, in the strange stillness of a choked and stationary M25, that it revealed itself to him and that he accepted it with a calm, zen like feeling of inevitability and release. The knot in his stomach eased slightly and the pounding behind his eyes relented. He would do his lesson, whenever he got into school and they could say what they liked. Just an ordinary lesson, one of those that over the years had generated hundreds and thousands of excellent exam results, one that he could churn out without spending hours of agonised preparation on. And then, what would be, would be.
The sun peeked through a sudden gap in the bank of clouds above, bathing the lines of cars in a warm, golden glow and he felt himself caressed by a gentle wave of relief. At exactly the same time the traffic began to move. It was not just one of those five-yard crawls that resulted in another forty minutes of stasis, it was proper, genuine movement. All around him, in cars, lorries and vans of all descriptions, drivers broke into smiles, tentative and hesitant at first but then as the traffic accelerated, broad and strong. Some even laughed out loud.
As Ollie pulled on to the A2, he couldn’t remember a time when he had felt happier. The birth of his children, perhaps? Meeting his wife? The surge of the traffic, blue sky above and bright sunshine all around kindled an almost alchemical reaction. Base metal had turned to gold, somehow, and his spirit soared. The silence in the car suddenly seemed at odds with this feeling of euphoria and his finger automatically jabbed out at the volume button.
He knew even before the first word reached his ears. Something in the tone, an uncomfortable agglomeration of vibrating air patterns, a dog whistle like scream, whatever it was, it announced itself to the world. Thought For The Fucking Day.
“…. and so, although Jesus exhorted us all to turn the other cheek, there are times when we must make a stand, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. We too, must be prepared to throw the money lenders out of the Temple and be prepared to face the consequences of our actions, no matter how daunting those consequences might be.”
His initial instinct to scream at the radio, so strongly embedded, suddenly faded as he listened to the words. He never listened to the words. He didn’t have to. Whatever it was, it would end up with some God or other telling all of the sinners to be nice. Comfort for the simple -minded, he always thought. But this morning of all mornings, the words caught somehow. The moneylenders in the Temple. He frowned and hit the mute button again before the pantomime of political debate started up again.
Looking up, he realised that he’d taken his eye off the ball and his exit was fast approaching. For some reason, maybe the volume of traffic that had build up on the M25, maybe the return to school of the Private school kids in their massive pretend off-road vehicles, the lane of traffic to his left was full. Full and fast. He indicated to move left and waited for a gap, or for someone to slow a little and let him in. His eyes flicked rapidly to rear view mirror, then side mirror and back again. Nothing.
“Come on, come on, come on. Let me in you bastards,” he muttered.
He looked ahead, checking the road ahead. It was then he noticed. Right in front of him, also signalling left and trying to squeeze into the exit lane, was Micraman.
“How the hell have you got there?” he wondered aloud.
Maybe it was a different Micra, he thought. But no, there was the “Leave means leave“ sticker, and there, bobbing up and down around it, was the flat cap. Unless Micras were always sold to aging Brexiteers, it was definitely him. And he was in some distress, if the behaviour of the car was anything to go by. It veered and wobbled alarmingly in the lane in front of him, and the flat cap was frantically moving left to right like a set of demented windscreen wipers. Framing the picture in his own windscreen was the traffic signal above, indicating the road options on the A2 after his exit. Canterbury. Car ferries. Ramsgate. Dover. The Channel Tunnel.
The road was running out for him to make his manoeuvre. He was going to have to go for it in the next couple of seconds, or he wouldn’t make it. The nose to tail lorries closed ranks, like roman centurions forming a shield wall. Suddenly, up in front of him, a tiny gap appeared and he prepared himself, clenching and unclenching his knuckles around the steering wheel. Just as he was about to dart into the gap, the Micra swerved at the last moment, and by a miracle, managed to insert himself in the chink they had left. Micraman had either had his eyes closed or had nerves of steel. The lorry at the back of the gap blared his horn, the driver’s hand jabbing down at it in fury, and there was an accompanying screech of brakes.
Ollie had watched the whole thing unfold in terrible slow motion. He instinctively flinched as the Micra jagged across the lanes, waiting for the impact that would surely follow, but apart from the horrible, accusing vibrato horn screaming, there was nothing but the smooth flow of traffic. The last thing he saw of the Micra, as it disappeared off to his left, was the sign in the rear window, “Leave means Leave”, being swallowed up by the chasing pack of lorries.
His own car sailed on down the A2, the signs for Dover, Ramsgate and The Channel Tunnel now a comforting reminder of where he was headed. He looked down at the passenger seat. The burgundy cover of his passport peeped out from underneath a folder of his documents, its gold lettering catching the sun pouring through the windscreen. “European Union. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
“Yes,” he thought, the beginnings of a smile playing across his lips, “Leave really does mean leave.”