by Terry Thomas
A Ford Fiesta accelerated onto the motorway at the Manukau on-ramp. It crossed the two inside lanes and slotted into the space between Fegan's twenty-eight wheeler and a furniture removal van he had been following for the past quarter hour. Didn't signal; didn't look—just had to be in the fast lane and went for it.
Fegan yelled the word, but the hiss of his brakes and the shout of his air horns stripped it of all its energy. He felt the trailer snake on the damp road. He had never had a serious accident; he had never rolled a truck in thirty years driving, but he knew what it would be like. Like a scene from a blockbuster movie: a flood of Coca-Cola, chaos and carnage. It wouldn't get him home any quicker, that's for sure.
The sky was a shade lighter over the Auckland harbour now, but at street level it was still dark and, in the orange half-light on the six-lane highway, he had not been able to get a look at the driver of the Ford. Some dick-head on a cell phone, or some sheila putting on her eyebrows? Not that it mattered a crumb; an idiot is an idiot however they dress. He leaned on the horn again. He was close enough up their arse now, if they looked in their rearview mirror all they'd see would be his headlights and the biggest fucking chrome plated radiator in the world.
A minute later, he wondered why he was doing this—acting the prat. He wasn't that kind of a driver. He touched the brakes again and allowed a gap to open between the little car and himself.
At Papatoetoe, he looked in the nearside mirror and there, alongside him, was a traffic cop on a motorcycle. The cop flashed his lights and gestured towards the service lane. He must have come out of a crack in the ground. He would lose half an hour while they went through the rigmarole and his log was gone to crap since last night. He looked at his watch—five forty-five. If he didn't get through the city in the next hour he would be snarled up in the morning jam. And now the bastard had his siren on.
They were close to Tip Top corner before he pulled the rig into the service lane and stopped. The cop had stayed behind him all the way and now, in the mirror, he watched him climb off the bike and take off his helmet. Through the open window he could hear the police band radio. He closed the window and looked at his watch again. Almost six o'clock.
The cop walked all around the truck as if he had more time than he knew what to do with. He shone a torch on the mileage hub and wrote down the figures. He pulled on all the curtain-side straps. In those silly trousers they wear, he looked like a boy dressed up. But how can a cop look like a boy? When he climbed up into the passenger seat, he nodded at Fegan and Fegan said, "Can we make this quick? I have to get through to Milford before the traffic closes everything down."
The cop said, "More haste, less speed."
Fegan sighed. That was all he needed, a fucking philosopher. Maybe they'd have a discussion on the meaning of life. "It hasn't been a good day so far," he said. "Please don't make it any worse."
"We all have them," the cop said.
"Bad days," he said. "I'll need your log."
Fegan handed him the logbook. "Don't say I was speeding, because I wasn't."
"Did I say you were speeding?"
He had blond hair, cut short, and the wispy beginnings of a moustache. There were spots on his chin. He didn't look adult enough to have a driver's license, let alone check someone else's. "How old are you?" Fegan asked.
"I'll ask the questions," the cop said.
Fegan folded his arms and stared through the windscreen. He took in a long breath through his nose. He wanted the kid to know he was angry, but the kid just carried on writing and flipping papers up and over and back again as if he wasn't sure exactly what to do. This could be his first day on the job. Maybe this was the first rig he had pulled over in his entire life.
"When you came by me at Papatoetoe, you were way too close to the vehicle in front of you."
"You mean the prick in the Fiesta? He came on at Manukau and put himself there."
"You were still too close when I caught up with you. Still sounding your horn. That constitutes dangerous driving."
"I wasn't that close to him."
The cop turned towards him and held out his two hands, palms a foot apart. "Less than thirty centimeters," he said.
"Me wife's gone and left me," Fegan said. "I had a call from her last night. She leaves for Brisbane today with a joker she met at the Country Music Club. I need to talk to her. She doesn't answer the phone. I need to get home."
The cop stared at him a moment, then looked back down at the logbook. "According to this, you've done twelve hundred kilometers since yesterday morning."
He was on to it like a weasel. But things had been normal yesterday morning. Mona had dropped him at the depot. She hadn't said a word about leaving then.
"I haven't written it up yet."
"You left Auckland yesterday morning at eight o'clock to take a load to Wellington. Right?"
"And here you are back again . . . twenty-one hours later. You've been down and back. You've done over twelve hundred kilometers. So when did you take your legally-required nine-hour break."
The little prick should have been a lawyer. "If you want to know I didn't go all the way down."
At seven o'clock last evening, he had spotted Cameron's artic parked up in a lay-by outside of Foxton—the big yellow banana on its rear end. He pulled in behind him; it was a long time since they'd had a yarn. He took his thermos up into Cameron's cab and, before he could even sit down, his cell phone had played its tune. "I'm leaving you, Jack." That's what she'd said. It was like a punch on the nose.
He didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything.
"Did you hear me, Jack? Don't make out it's a surprise. We haven't said six nice words to each other in six months."
"That's great news for a man who breaks his back every day in a long haul truck, just to pay the bills."
"It's not something I want to do, Jack. It's something I have to do."
"So who's the lucky bloke?"
"Don't be silly, Jack. You know I'd never play around." There'd been a pause then while she blew her nose. Then she said, "I'm going to Brisbane. Charlie Rigg offered me a job over there. You remember Charlie, from the Country Music Club?"
"I don't know. He owns a motel."
"Trying out the beds, most likely."
"There's nothing between us. Never has been. But he says things to me that make me feel good. Who knows . . .?"
He interrupted her. "Well you'd better go then hadn't you?"
"I just wanted to say goodbye," she said. "That's all I wanted to do. At mid-day tomorrow I'll be gone. When you get back from Wellington, I won't be here."
"Good riddance," he'd said and, a moment later, regretted it. Only she had hung up by then and he couldn't tell her he hadn't meant to say it at all. When he called her back the phone was engaged and his guts had rolled over.
"Sounds like trouble in the nest," Cameron said, as if trouble in the nest was an everyday event. But Cameron was on his third wife. He hadn't been married to any one of them for thirty years, so what the fuck did Cameron know?
"She's going to Brisbane tomorrow with a country music singer."
"Bloody women," Cameron said.
"I need to go back."
"That's a lot of driving, man."
"If I turn around now I can get into Auckland by six in the morning. I can get over the bridge and through to Millford by seven. I can get home before she leaves for the airport."
Cameron fished around in his shirt pocket and brought out a small clear plastic packet with three white pills in it. "You can have these," he said.
"What are they?" He had never taken anything to keep him awake except coffee, but he knew there were drivers who did.
"Never mind what they are," Cameron said, and he laughed. "They'll keep your eyes open. But don't take them all at once or your eyes can pop right out. Do one now, then bomb another when you get to Taupo or whenever you feel yourself coming down."
But this baby-faced cop didn't want to hear reasons. Did they ever? Fegan thought how he might have gone on into Wellington and then flown back to Auckland, but it was too late now to think about that and there might not have been a flight anyway. The little bastard was hard at it, writing up a charge sheet now. He took out his thermos and poured coffee into the cup. He took the last of the pills from the plastic bag and swallowed it. The coffee was cold. He was nearly there, for Christ's sake.
"What's that you're taking?"
"Blood pressure." He could sense the cop didn't believe him.
"You'd better call in and get someone else to drive this thing off the motorway. You're not driving it anywhere."
"Get out," Fegan said. "Get out of my cab."
"Don't be stupid."
"Get out or I'll take you with me."
The cop climbed down and looked back up at him from the road. "You're mad," he said. " How far do you think you'll get?"
"Fuck off," Fegan said, and leaned across the cab to shut the passenger door. He worked the gearshift and released the brakes. The truck rolled forward. He would make a run for it through the city. But the cop was back at his bike, already on the radio, and he knew a swarm of them would be around him before he got to Ellerslie. They would box him in; force him to stop. Then what?
He looked in his mirror and saw a gap in the traffic behind him going back along the motorway half a mile. There were headlights coming, but they were a distance away yet. It was still early. The flow into the city wasn't near as heavy as it would be in half an hour.
When he leaned forward to switch on the emergency lights, he could feel his own pulse, his heart pumping blood to his fingers, but they were not his hands that spun the steering wheel hard to the right, as if he were about to make a U-turn, and it seemed to him then as if a strange foot, not his, eased on and off the gas as the truck moved slowly across all three of the northbound traffic lanes until the front bumper nudged the centre barrier.
In his mirror he saw the back end of the trailer was still blocking the service lane. The truck was made for it, a perfect fit. It took a moment to realize just what he had done. He felt elated and frightened at the same time and it was a surprise when he heard himself laugh.
He looked out the side window at the headlights bearing down on him, and leaned his full weight on the horn. What kind of a driver would they say he was now? At least he was committed to whatever might happen, and he had never felt more alive. He remembered a day when he and Mona were on honeymoon in England, thirty-two years ago, before they came to New Zealand, when he had taken her on the roller coaster at the Southend Kursal. He remembered how he felt when they strapped themselves in, how she had grabbed his hand when the car began the climb the long first incline, how she said, "We can't get off now, can we Jack?"
But he had made a mess of things this past few months. Since Jenna had gone and got married—the last of the kids to leave—they had been alone for the first time in thirty years and Mona had wanted something from him he could never quite put his finger on. He hadn't given her much of a life lately, that's for sure. The smallest thing seemed to piss him off, and he had shouted at her a time or two, slammed out and gone to the pub. Though he had never thought it would end like this.
He shut down the engine and watched them come: the shape of each vehicle materializing beyond the dazzle of its lights, the red glow from their brakes where it reflected off the road behind them. There were twenty or more spread out along the straight all the way back to Papatoetoe and another group on the bend in the distance. He stared at them, willing them to see him.
The first stopped directly under his window. A young man with his head shaved leaned forward in the car to look up at him through his windscreen. Fegan saw his lips move. He looked down at the man and spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. The man shook his head. Fegan gave him a grin. In less than a minute there were a dozen cars backed up across the three lanes—it surprised him how quickly they multiplied. One skidded into the service lane and nudged the traffic cop's bike, which fell over on its side. The cop had gone back on foot towards Papatoetoe, waving his torch.
And the southbound traffic had already slowed to a crawl. When they came around the Tip Top corner people could see a truck with all its lights flashing had blocked the northbound lanes. They could hear the horn—like a ship's siren—and they slowed down to get a better look, rubbernecking as they passed by him.
To the north, all three lanes into the city had emptied out. It seemed weird and unnatural. He had never seen it empty since they had opened the motorway, and he had been through Tip Top corner a thousand times. To the south the lanes had begun to fill faster, there could be close to a hundred vehicles backed up now. He wondered how many it might end up at. He locked both doors on the cab.
He felt as if he was on a stage. Inside their vehicles, people sat like an audience in a theatre before a performance; a few sounded their horns or flashed their lights but they stayed where they were as if expecting a curtain to rise and the show to begin. It was lighter now. He thought he might climb on top of the truck, maybe do a tap-dance to entertain them. He laughed at the thought and hammered his feet on the floor of the cab.
Ten minutes passed before three police cars came flashing and wailing along the service lane from the north and a small army of cops disembarked into the empty road where they stood in a group and stared at the truck. One came around to the driver's side and shouted something up at him that Fegan could not make out. When the man climbed up and tried to open the door, for a second they eyeballed each other through the glass. Fegan winked at him. The man backed down and went to join the others, shaking his head and they all gathered around the young cop in the silly trousers, who looked even younger now, and out of place. He was the shortest, but he was at the centre of things with his chest stuck out, hanging on to the logbook as if it were a trophy.
When he left Foxton last night, Fegan had turned off the CB radio. He had not wanted to listen to the gabbling and he had no reason to use it himself. Now, when he switched it on, the voice of Dennis Amies, the transport manager at the bottling plant, spewed out from it. He sounded as if he had been woken up and dragged down a flight of stairs. "Get the fuck out of there, Jack. I'll have your guts for this. Why are you in Auckland? What are you doing blocking the fucking motorway? You're supposed to be in Wellington?"
Fegan said, "Over and out," and shut the CB off again. At least he wouldn't have to listen to that prick anymore. He tried to call home but the phone was still engaged. He remembered how Mona always used to take it off the hook when they were in bed together and she didn't want them to be disturbed. He wondered if Charlie Rigg was with her. He looked at his watch; it was already half past six. What time would she get up today? If she were flying out at midday she would need to leave Milford around nine. And she would come through here, southbound, on her way to the airport. He tried the number a second time. Still engaged.
The traffic was nose to tail now as far back as he could see. The man with no hair had struck up a conversation with a girl in the car beside him— they both had cigarettes going and seemed to be getting along. On the southbound lanes, where the traffic had slowed to a crawl, two cops were waving their arms in an attempt to get it moving again. On the far side, in the service lane, a van had stopped and they had set up a TV camera on its roof. A helicopter came over and hovered for a time above the cab. Fegan hammered his feet on the floor again. He put the radio on 1ZB and listened to them talk about a truck blocking the Southern Motorway. The newsreader said traffic was backed up as far as Takanini and people should find an alternative route to the city.
When a face appeared at the passenger side window—popped up like a target at a fair ground—it caught him by surprise and he jerked back and away from it. An older man, a traffic cop with braid on his hat, had climbed up onto the running board where he held onto the mirror bracket with one hand while he motioned with the other he wanted the window down. The expression on his face reflected agitation and unhappiness.
Fegan shifted into the passenger seat and lowered the window an inch. "What's the problem here?" the man said. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Me wife's leaving me."
"That's it, is it?"
"That's about the meat of it."
"What say you come down from there and we'll take you to see your wife right away?"
But there was something beyond agitation in the man's eyes, something you couldn't trust, and Fegan could see exactly how much this man hated him for spoiling his day. They would put him in a cell before they took him anywhere and then Mona would be gone. He shook his head. "I'll stay here and wait for her to come by. She'll have to come through here to get to the airport." He gestured towards the traffic on the southbound lanes.
"You're causing chaos." The man's voice rose to a screech. "You're stopping thousands of people getting to work."
"I didn't start it," Fegan said. He pointed over the man's shoulder. "That little prick over there, he's the cause of this." He wound the window up and slid back into the driver's seat. The face disappeared. He figured what they'd do was bring in the big tow truck and try to pull him out. But they would have to take off the trailer and they'd have to pump in air to release the brakes. They would need to somehow bypass the controls in the cab. He thought about Mona again. He rang the number but it was still off.
Around seven his cell phone sang and he answered it quickly, thinking it might be her. But it was a girl from Morning Report on TV1. He wondered how she had got his number. He looked across the southbound lanes and the cameraman gave him a wave.
He told the interviewer what had happened since Mona called him at Foxton, but he didn't mention the pills he had taken. He told her how they'd been married thirty years and had three grown children and a grandson on the way.
"We've had a report you've got a gun," the girl said.
"They say you waved a handgun in the face of the Chief Traffic Officer."
"Are you sure you haven't got a gun?"
"Wouldn't I know if I had a gun?"
"I don't know," the interviewer said. "You wouldn't be the first to say you haven't, when you have."
"Well, I don't." Fegan said. He clicked the phone off. The world was a madhouse.
Minutes later, he noticed the cops going to each of the vehicles jammed up to the south of him. He saw people climb out of their cars and walk back down the service lane towards Papatoetoe. Some began to run. The young man with the shaved head looked up at him and grinned before he helped the girl alongside him out of her car and they strolled away together. Over on the southbound lanes the traffic had cleared. There was nothing at all coming towards him around the bend at Tip Top Corner, the road was empty now except for two police cars.
Then he saw a man cross between a truck and a car about six back into the jam. The man was bent over but he was running. He had on a black woolen beanie pulled down low on his forehead and a dark blue uniform. Fegan saw him lean on the boot of a car and aim a rifle right at him.
"Fucking Jesus." He shifted from the window and rolled onto his knees in the seat well. The phone played its tune again.
"Jack, is that you? What's going on? What are you doing? I just got out of bed and you're on TV. That is you, isn't it? That is your truck?" Mona sounded hysterical.
"I was on my way home and this pumped up little prick of a traffic cop stopped me."
"I thought you were in Wellington."
"Well I'm not. I wanted to talk to you before you left. I don't want you to go Mona."
"Oh my God, Jack. They're saying you threatened a policeman with a gun."
"I don't have a gun, Mona. Where the fuck would I get a gun. I wouldn't know which end to hold."
"But it's what they saying, Jack. It's on the TV."
"Not everything you see on TV is true, Mona. I want you to tear up the ticket. I don't want you to go anywhere with Charlie Rigg. I want us to go on a trip together, back to England. You remember that ride we had on the roller coaster at Southend? I bet you don't, but I want us to do that again. I want us to go back to where we began. Do you hear me, Mona?"
There were noises he could not decipher: shouts, and what sounded like people running, like boots on tarmac.
"I do remember Southend," Mona said. "Jack. I already changed my mind about going to Brisbane."
But he had no time to give an answer. Something heavy hit the passenger side door, hit it so hard the window shattered and showered him with pellets of glass. He saw a blue arm come through the hole and fingers lift the lock. When the door opened he felt cold air rush in. He brought his knees up, tried to make himself smaller. He rolled down further into the seat well and hugged the pedals.
He looked up into the barrel of a gun, a pair of eyes above it. Then a voice, going, "Throw out the weapon, you wanker. Do it. Now!" Then his voice, going, "I don't have a weapon." And Mona, still on the telephone, going, "Jack . . . Jack . . . Jack . . ."
Copyright©2004 Terry Thomas