Sunday, 15 September 2019

John’s short story

JOHN lived in a small village nestling in the Chiltern Hills, between Reading and Oxford. He hadn’t always lived there but his family had moved when he was too small to remember because his father had changed his job.

John particularly enjoyed the large playing field that sprawled through the middle of the village which you could walk across to take a short cut between home and the school.

There was a good adventure playground in one corner and he would crawl through the tunnels and jump over the obstacles shouting, “Look at me, Mum!”.

He was now in the big class at the Church of England primary school that was shyly tucked away behind the church and village hall.

One of the best things about the village was all the places you could walk. They had a dog, Snowy, who was usually anything but white in appearance, and John and Snowy would often be seen emerging dirty and scratched from some thicket where Snowy had spotted a rabbit, squirrel or mouse.

John had no brothers or sisters, but he was friendly and knew an older boy in the village who would show him the latest computer games.

It was a crisp winter’s morning in the February half-term. John and his friend Peter had taken Snowy down round the woods at the back of Oakdown Farm.

We shall draw a discreet veil over whether they actually used the footpath, but they eventually emerged at Gorse End, the trees white with frost, and took the lane back to the old Two Gymshoes pub and the centre of the village.

The gritters had not yet been through and the road was treacherous and black with ice.

Stacey was late. She had recently started her own business, but had not yet learnt to give herself lead time between appointments.

Things had been going very well and trade was beginning to build up.

The last client had taken far too long and it meant that she now needed to be in Henley in 10 minutes. It would be tight but she might just make it.

The tractor on the road at Church Hill had raised her tension level a little and then the lorry coming ponderously the other way at the bend just outside the village had delayed her further.

She resolved not to panic but subconsciously her foot lowered a fraction on the accelerator.

She looked at herself in the driver’s mirror for a second, the precise second her front wheel went into a sunken drain cover and jolted her Volvo on to the ice.

Peter saw the car out of the corner of his eye but only had a moment to lunge in desperation into the hedge.

His fingers grabbed for John’s jacket but they slipped off the smooth nylon fabric. John did not have a chance. The four-wheel drive lifted and broke him like a paper bag on its way to ending up embedded in the wall by Court Lodge.

John lived for another 23 minutes. His mother was there when he died by the roadside, but his father, who worked in Staines, was still on his way.

The whole village came to John’s funeral, where the vicar spoke about shattered lives and lost opportunities and begged God’s forgiveness for the violence that is built into the way humans do things.

They buried John and Snowy together in the churchyard not 100 yards from where they were killed.

John’s father and mother never recovered from the loss of their only child. They could not have any more children and five years later they were divorced. Looking back, the reasons could be attributed to the death of their young son.

Peter remains to this day racked with guilt that he was not able to save his friend and is withdrawn and isolated. He does not walk in the woods anymore.

Stacey never made her appointment. She was charged by the police for dangerous driving but acquitted on a technicality.

Publicly, she blames the council for inadequate road maintenance and inappropriate traffic-calming. Privately, she knows she was doing almost 40 miles per hour when she hit the ice.

Colleagues say that she has lost her edge and some mutter knowingly among themselves of depression.

The characters in this story are wholly fictitious. Whether the events remain fiction depends upon you.

Please, wherever and whenever you drive, allow enough time to drive with care. If you run over someone at 30mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will survive. If you are traveling at 40mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will not.

And it will not just be one life that you take. Road accidents don’t just affect the individual. They can destroy families too. Could you live with that?

• This short story was first published in 2005.

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