Gravity and Rust – Part 2

To read the first part of this story, click here.

 

What happened next struck me not as a memory but as a piece of real life. It was as if the event was unfolding behind me and I was seeing it all through another pair of eyes in the back of my head of which I was not normally aware.

It was about 11.30 on that night in May 1985. I was leaving the pub in Vauxhall with the woman my passenger had inferred. I stepped out into the road but for some reason turned my gaze back towards the open doorway. Standing there was a young woman I’d never seen before. She gave me a smile of intoxicating wistfulness and warmth. Then she was gone. For a moment I froze, then turned back to the road. A number 77 bus, going far too fast, swung round the corner, missing me by inches. The whole incident had taken no more than two or three seconds. I should have been flattened.

Somehow I had forgotten all this until now.

Just as the strange vision faded we passed the junction at Theale after where the motorway lights stop until you get Swindon 30 miles further west. We were plunged into darkness.

The car’s headlights sliced into the fog ahead. Shaken, I turned the radio on. It was a song I know and love well, Morrissey at his mawkish best. ‘…and if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, to die by your side would be…’

I turned the radio off.

The unexpected revelations, the co-incidence of the music and the darkened road changed the mood of the conversation and of the journey. I felt that we were hurtling towards something and that every second was precious. Perhaps responding to this, my passenger shook herself out of her reverie.

“Why do some people have to be saved? I don’t know.” Her observation seemed personal. It was as if she’d been carefully considering the matter since our last exchange: a period of time which, I suspected, had seemed to last for me longer than it had for her.

“Saved from a worse fate, perhaps,” I suggested.

“In each life, there’s only one fate.”

Again I had the feeling that I’d trapped her into saying more than she ought. A wave of scent sweep over me as she turned, something that called to mind other women in other places: then, as long-forgotten scents will do, it vanished leaving nothing but a vague feeling of longing and regret.

“So,” she said with the air of someone changing the subject, “suppose there were these guardian angels. How do you think they’d behave?” She hadn’t changed the subject at all. In a way I was rather relieved. Even so, what the hell was going on here?

I made a few anodyne suggestions. The question had caught me unawares. “They’d have rules,” I added. She twisted round in the seat. Encouraged by this reaction, I continued. “There’s be certain things they couldn’t do. Certai…interventions they couldn’t make. It’s like those time-travel films – Back to the Future and stuff – where you have to leave the past as you found it.”

“And certain things they couldn’t explain.”

We had entered those strange waters, known to me mainly through flirtation, where every remark is charged with a secondary meaning that probably appears normal to an outside observer passing by on less highly-charged business of their own. Yet this conversation was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. We were discussing something vital. One part of me was in the car, driving blindly into the silver fog; another was back in 1985 seeing the whole situation from a quite different point of view. I was torn in two and yet feeling a sense of utter completeness; confronted with soul-stripping self-revelations and yet protected by heady, almost erotic, magic. Through this strange composite I was that purest of things, a person with an unshakable sense of the importance of the immediate. Every second counted. This was just like, and yet quite unlike, a mutual seduction. Part of me was viscerally engaged, both in the moment and the memory I was re-living: the other part was observing from another world in which every outcome bar one had been annihilated by predetermination. Though my highly-charged confusion I sensed that my passenger, without actually being able to do so explicitly, was striving to guide me back to some point of singularity.

We passed junction 13, Newbury. Mine was the next. The home leg. Perhaps seven minutes to go. The fog had cleared. The road was empty.

“I read somewhere,” she continued, re-adopting her earlier dreamily ironical tone, “that such angels can do nothing directly, only indirectly.”

On one level, this made no sense. Read somewhere? What kind of authority, in this world, would such a statement have? The other part of my mind swung across to lock into her last remark. “But perhaps they can cheat the system?”

Her laugh was like pure water running from a mountain pool. It washed through my mind in a way that was both reassuringly familiar and also not of this world at all. The duality of my perceptions was now total. Everything inside the car existed automatically and necessarily on two different, parallel and almost simultaneous levels. I was struck then by the strangest of feelings: the idea that these two parts of this strange harmony were slipping out of tempo, one being dragged behind the other. The effect was not unpleasant: the rhythms still meshed, but in unexpected ways. Between them, as might exist in the gap between two worlds, strange harmonics rose and died, never to be heard or sensed again.

“Indeed they can,” she was saying. “Take this journey. Hypothetical example. Even though you stopped to pick me up, I can’t do anything to make you drive slower or faster. Not directly,” she added as an afterthought.

“Assuming you are my guardian angel,” I suggested.

“Always assuming that. I can’t do it…let’s say.”

“Why not? You could say you needed a pee or something.”

“Even then, you’d make the speed up. You did before.”

There was another highly charged pause.

“But you see,” she went on, “you car’s a tiny bit more inefficient now.”

“Why?”

“You kept the engine running while you picked me up. It’s a bit older, tireder, rustier.” The phrases tugged at my sails, one erect in the strange winds, the other furled against the coming storm. “But you drove as if that weren’t the case. Because…in one sense, that didn’t happen to you. And in another, it did.”

I began to have some vague glimmering of what was going on but was unable to speak.

“But it’s me that’s more important, perhaps.”

“What?” I managed to ask.

“Just my being here. I have to exist, don’t I?”

Yes, I thought, you do. No spirit, shade or phantom could engage my attention or change my life as much as a fully corporeal female informed by the same physical rules as was I. Anything else would just scare or confuse me. Perhaps God was right and his son had to be made flesh to get our full attention. ‘I always hoped I could rely on the father son and holy ghost,’ I heard myself saying, ‘but now, no matter how I try, my faith has run dry – just when I need it most…’

Where had that come from?

“But me alone isn’t enough. And there’s only so much I can carry.”

I glanced down at her bag. What the hell was in that?

“So, together, gravity and rust might work.”

For a split second I lost control of the car. I should explain that ‘Gravity and Rust is what gets us all in the end’ was the remark my friend Mark had made the summer before in Upper Lambourn; that ‘in the end it’s gravity and rust that slows us down’ was the coda of the song I’d just finished writing; and ‘Gravity and Rust’ was its title. Again, it was only half of my mind that was surprised. The other half nodded to itself.

My passenger kicked the backpack and gave me a bewitching smile that nearly lifted me out of my seat. I had seen it before, many years ago.

A few seconds later we passed over the bridge at Easton. Two miles to go. We cleared the last hill.

Just then everything went haywire.

On the opposite lane there was a flash of light. Something huge was unexpectedly moving towards us, swerving and crashing through the central reservation. I could see, in slow motion as accidents always are viewed, the front right tyre of the fuel lorry spinning madly, rubber peeling off like black sparks from a demonic Catherine wheel. I could see the driver in his cab, could see the Tottenham Hotspur banner pinned on the panel behind him. I could see the driver grapple with the wheel

I could see a red car, the same make and colour as my own, emerge out of the strange illumination that had thrown part of the scene into sharp relief and part into the darkest shadow and vanish under the oncoming wheels of the lorry.

This collision happened in my mind. The two parts of my brain fused back together. Now I was witnessing something indivisible. The lorry, by now on its side and trailing sparks like a comet, passed some twenty feet in front of us. The trailer whipped behind it, sliding away. My car shuddered in its slipstream then came to a swerving, skidding, uncontrolled halt a hundred yards down the motorway. It spun round to face the opposite direction.

I could see, now in a more normal slow motion, the lorry, sparking more than ever, shudder as it reared against the barrier on the hard shoulder. I could see the driver jump out and tumble into the empty carriageway. I could see the toppling of, first the cab with its broken spine and then the trailer, rearing up against the black sky and hanging for a moment. Time seemed to hang in suspension.

In the end,” I heard several voices singing, “it’s gravity and rust that slows us down…

Time crashed back over me. The trailer slammed down into the verge. There was a second or two of monumental silence then a brilliant explosion.

I got out and staggered towards the blaze. Other cars had stopped. I could see the lorry driver being helped to his feet. I felt divorced from the scene. I was a witness, certainly: but a witness to what? I wasn’t sure. I had been in two worlds at the same time.

I looked back at the part of the motorway where I had seen the red car crushed by the lorry. There was nothing there. My headlights were in any case blinding me. I walked beyond my car and looked again. Still nothing. My senses were all to hell in any case. I turned back to the carnage.

The eastern sky was aflame. Other cars were backing up, their headlights blurred in the fog which had started to close in again. I turned round. The people driving east were slowing. But on my westbound lane there was nothing. I was the last to have passed beyond the accident. Except for that other red car…I shook my head as if to dispel a dream.

I heard my tune, with an unexpected harmony, running back through my head. Yes, that would work. ‘in the end…’

I walked back to my car and pulled open the door. “Sorry, I…”

The car was empty. A faint smell of a perfume swept past me and was gone. The backpack was still there. I poked at it and found the zip wasn’t fastened.

It was full of stones. I picked it up. It weighed perhaps 20 pounds. Enough to make a difference. The backpack; and her; and a little bit of help from the slightly older engine. If you’re dealing in split seconds and can make no direct intervention you need all the help you can get.

I didn’t understand how or why all this had happened. I didn’t understand anything. But here I was, standing on the empty motorway, surrounded by fire, fog and darkness – alone again but still alive.

Brian Quinn

To listen to Gravity and Rust (the song), click here
To read other stories, rants and musings, click here

Gravity and Rust – Part 2

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