I’ve never been sure what to make of stories of the supernatural, fictional or allegedly otherwise. Often revenge is involved, perhaps against some unknown ancestor of the victim. Sometimes there are higher aims at work; at other times, very base ones. Whatever the motive, such tales should develop obliquely – so obliquely that one is not sure until afterwards, maybe long afterwards, what if anything has been going on. The event might change the narrator in some unlikely way. At the very least it should challenge any certainties he might have about his fragile yet self-confident humanity.
I won’t pretend that this story passes any of these tests. It happened several years ago one Sunday evening at the end of one of those dank autumn days that never really seems to get going. I was driving from Kingston to West Berkshire, a journey I’d done countless times before. My familiarity with the route, the warmth of the car, the surprising emptiness of the road and the fog – which one minute vanished into a few stray wisps and at others descended like something palpable – combined to dislocate my thoughts from the reality of my surroundings.
I had a song in my head, one I’d recently written. I’ve been writing songs since I was about 16. The results are rarely special. The majority I quickly forget. Some are all right. Quality isn’t the issue, though. The thrill is getting a blend of words, rhythm and music which at best can, at the moment it’s caught, send a shiver down my spine. The moment won’t last – what moment does? – and is intensely private but, like any rush, it’s worth it while it lasts. It’s like giving birth to something unexpected. Some songs may survive though most will flutter off and get pulled apart by the first gust of wind. That doesn’t matter. The moment is all.
On this occasion I had something I thought was better than average. The title had come from a chance remark my friend Mark had made at the end of a rather boozy lunch a few weeks before and the tune and lyrics had quickly developed.
The central idea was what gave it meaning for me. About 20 years before I’d had a magical day when, on several occasions, I should have come to harm or got rebuffed, yet everything had worked out to an extent I neither expected nor probably deserved. I had developed the fanciful notion that I’d been given a blessing, a free 24-hour immunity from life’s slings and arrows and that I had used it well.
The day came to loom over-large in my memory, creating a slight sense of dissatisfaction with much that had followed. The blessing had turned, if not to a curse then to an accelerated vision of the disappointments that most days offer. Perhaps writing a song about it was not the best way to shake such thoughts. Mind you, I’m far from sure if the ‘I’ in the song is me or not. My reflections of the day are now inseparable from the sentiments I wove around it. It’s as if, for a few hours, I simultaneously inhabited two parallel universes, one of which was partly my own invention.
I was running through the song in my head. I tried to grapple with a troublesome chord change that, with no piano or guitar in the car, was impossible to solve. Instead I thought of the lyrics, now all but complete. There was a problem with the scansion. I ran through the section several times. Then the solution came to me. It was simply a matter of stretching the second line. As well as freeing space for a phrase that needed including to balance the mood, it allowed the rhyme to hang suspended until it was released, to greater effect, two bars later than expected. It also, I now saw, echoed a similar pattern in the chorus.
With that, the whole musical and lyrical structure locked in place like the last turn of a Rubik cube. This was the only way it could be. It worked. I was filled with a sense of calm and satisfaction, perhaps self-satisfaction. The chord problem, I now saw, was a harmonic detail that would resolve itself, something that had seemed difficult but only as a displacement activity for more fundamental things had been unfixed.
At this point I was driving on a straight three-mile stretch between Bagshot and Bracknell on the A322 that links the M3 and the M4. The road was surprisingly empty. A solitary lorry rumbled past in the opposite direction. As it passed I flicked my headlights back to full beam and was for a moment dazzled by the thick white mist that suddenly sprang up around me. At that point I saw the hitch-hiker.
Hitching used to be very common. In my 20s I used to hitch all over Britain and France. On a Saturday morning the slip roads of the main motorways out of London and Paris would have perhaps a dozen people, each bearing their sign – ‘Dunstable’; “Lyon’; ‘Scotland.’. I once saw one that simply said ‘Anywhere!’
Now you hardly see hitchers at all apart from people who’ve obviously broken down or else car-delivery men ostentatiously holding their dealer’s plates to show they’re respectable professionals rather than crusty psychopaths. It had been a long time since I’d stopped for a hitcher, or even had one to stop for. I probably wouldn’t have stopped for this one except that the road behind me was empty, the night foul and my newly enriched spirit benevolent. I flashed my lights and pulled onto the verge.
The door opened in a leisurely way and a muffled figure with a small but heavy-looking backpack got in. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him. Clean-shaven, handsome in a regular and perhaps almost bland way and utterly self possessed. Hitchers normally start gabbling thanks as they’re yanking open the door. This one settled in his seat and fixed the belt before even turning towards me.
“I thought you might not stop”
“I nearly didn’t.” The road behind was empty but still I didn’t pull out. “Two minutes earlier and I’d not even have noticed you. I had something on my mind.”
“All worked out now, fortunately.”
I grinned. “Yeah, apart from a few details.”
He nodded and almost beamed at me.
I gestured towards the backpack. “You can put that in the back if you want.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Okay.” I checked the mirror. The road was still empty. For some reason I was reluctant to move. I revved the engine a few times. Finally I pulled out. The road ahead was straight and empty. As before, the fog would suddenly lift slightly then re-descend in almost sulphurous clouds. We drove on in a silence that was on almost companionable. I seemed to have had part of my volition, the part that makes me talk too much, stripped away.
We reached the roundabout by the Coral Reef and I swung the car round the curve, effortlessly finding the shortest way across the empty junction. With physical activity some of my will started to return. My passenger shifted slightly in his seat.
“Where are you heading for?” I asked. It seemed odd this hadn’t come up before.
“Lambourn way,” he said carefully.
“Me too. I live about four miles from Lambourn. I’ll take you home.”
He made a gesture of his hand as if this were of no importance.
Soon we hit another roundabout: Bracknell has a lot of them. Just as I pulled off to the left and slowed down fractionally on the curve that led past the Siemens offices, he spoke again.
“You’ve just caught up with yourself.”
“You wasted time picking me up. You’ve just made it up.”
On one level this was just a form of words but there was something precise about the remark. The combination made it hard to decide how best to react to it. “Possibly. I wasn’t noticing.”
“There was a Sherlock Holmes story,” I said lightly, “I forget which. Holmes and Watson were on a train and Holmes calculated their exact speed from counting the distance between the telegraph posts. Of course, being Holmes, he knew how far apart the telegraph posts were on the LNER. Was it something like that?”
The passenger laughed. It was musical, almost seductive: all things I’d more associate with a woman. I was finding his personality, even from these short exchanges, overwhelmingly attractive. I sneaked a few glances but his face was hidden in shadow.
“No, it wasn’t that clever,” he said. “It’s just a figure of speech, I suppose.” His self-effacement was surprising.
I felt a powerful urge to keep the conversation going.
“What led you to be hitching a lift back there?”
“It seemed like a place where you…where someone might stop. Plenty of time to see me.”
I doubted that. His clothes were of an indeterminate colour impossible to define in the gloom of the car but they couldn’t be called particularly visible.
“Had your car broken down?”
“No, no. I just suddenly had to be somewhere.”
“You were lucky I stopped, then.”
“You were…” he checked himself. “You were very kind to do that.”
The exchange had been inconclusive. All his answers had been evasive – no, that wasn’t right. They had been restrained, sometimes not very effectively. The small indiscretions didn’t seem to imply reluctance. Diffidence, perhaps? Overall, the impression was of someone who was trying, none too successfully and under pain of displeasure from the head of the family, to conceal from a small child the details of an elaborate birthday surprise.
If not fully at the time but certainly afterwards, I was aware of how much I was trying to propitiate this stranger. I was then more aware of feeling a dreamy contentment. I felt swaddled. The route and the process of driving were comfortingly familiar. The passenger had overlaid some other emotion which complemented this. I was going home, with a song in my head and a good deed in my heart. That, doubtless, was the explanation.
Suddenly I was struck by a doubt: was this person a woman? There was something about the line of the jaw and the delicacy of cheekbones and nose that was feminine. Something els, about the way he or she was sitting, made me think of a man. The voice, I now, realised, gave me no clue either way. There was something familiar about him, or her, but I sensed this might have been because I was searching for something that could help me towards an identification.
Did it matter? Probably not. The conversation was unlikely to enter sexually charged waters. But had I said anything so far that might have given offence? I shrugged to myself. People who appear androgynous often do so deliberately and so must be used to, even welcome, the odd confusion. Still, I like to know what sex I’m dealing with. I sensed, without being able to define how, that I talked differently to men and to women. Once again I felt on the back foot.
We were leaving Bracknell behind us and turning onto the M4.
My passenger stirred and half turned to face me. I was overtaking a lorry and so couldn’t return the glance. “So, what was it that was on your mind just before you picked me up?” The last three words, so laden with double meaning, made me more certain I was dealing with a female. Then there was a movement of the shoulder and I once again was unsure. I decided this really didn’t matter. My passenger’s sex was a harmonic detail.
I related the story about the song and my charmed evening in 1986. “How very interesting,” was the completely sincere reply. “How do the lyrics go?”
It is rare for anyone to be asked to recite some of their own lyrics. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.
“’I could have danced all night, there was an angel watching over me – silhouetted in the wine-light I could glimpse her, occasionally’. That’s the first verse. Enough to be going on with.”
“Yes, that catches the moment.”
I found this an astonishing remark.
“How do you mean? You weren’t there.” I realised this sounded rude so I turned it into a laugh.
The response was quick: not quite apologetic, but more as if she – as I had now decided – had been caught out and was having to back-track. “You described the evening. Then you recited the lyric. I’d say that catches the essence of it.”
“Good. It was an important day.”
“No, that’s wrong. It wasn’t important. It was…” I suddenly couldn’t summarise my thoughts at all. “It was different. I wasn’t really there. And yet I was.”
“And a woman was involved.”
“Oh, yes.” I smiled to myself. Then I noticed the inflection. This had been a statement, not a question. My prose description had been general. Had the lyrics been that revealing?”
I expounded my theory about the beneficent presence I felt had watched over me that day. “I suppose,” I said, and must as I said it have sounded atrociously precious, “that writing songs and looking for material makes some events seem more important or tragic or whatever than they really are. Emotions get exaggerated. We get a sense that…well, when something worthwhile comes of it that we’ve been inspired. Protected, perhaps. By some higher force.” I realised I was in danger of talking drivel. “Well, it can seem that way, sometimes,” I added almost apologetically.
“Not at all. I think you were right first time. I’ve heard,” – and here her voice took on a dreamy, almost ironical, tone that continued for the rest of our conversation and left me unsure if she was referring to her own experiences, to someone else’s or to something hypothetical – “I’ve heard many stories about guardian angels: would that be the right way of expressing it?”
She nodded. “Yes, about people who find their life saved or altered by some intervention for which there’s no obvious explanation.”
“Or no purpose,” I interrupted, deciding to throw myself into the philosophical tone the conversation had adopted, one that jived precisely with my state of mind. “For what purpose might someone be saved? And why? And, most of all, by whom?”
There was a long silence. “I don’t know,” she said at last, in a voice that it appeared almost to be tinged with despair.
There followed an extraordinary moment.
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 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.”
“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.
Gravity and Rust