(Peter Rolls retired from the Civil Service in 1990 and joined a creative writing class in Camberley. Since then he has been writing on a more-or-less weekly basis: stories, poems and the occasional amdram play. He is now with the West Street Writers in Farnham and busy, busy …)
A metallic river curves into the distance, blister-hot and crazed by August sun. Log-jammed juggernauts, coaches, vans, cars, lorries, vans, cars, cars … All with somewhere to go, something to do … All wanting to do it now! Too late … This is Gridlock 10. This is Friday. This is the future. How far to Utopia?
Air hangs thick with fume-drifts of diesel, rubber, tar and dust. There is a sulphuric edge-fire to the eyes; a slick of sweat on the skin. Lungs are a liability.
Brrm, brrmm … the grumble-mutter of horse-power, hungry for a meal of open road. Urr, urr … the asthma-whine of ventilators hyper-ventilating.
Commuters, truckers, white-van men: smart-shirts, T-shirts, no-shirts … Don’t look, don’t catch their eye. Above all, don’t smile.
There is the beep of mobile phones – excuses, explanations, exasperations: ‘No idea … No … Maybe half-six …’ Maybe not.
Radios dispense pre-packed music and stale slabs of news. ‘It’s hot – 27 degrees … Gridlock on the M25 … More on the hour …’ More is less; more is madness.
Beyond the pebbled ditch is a brimstone field of bronchial weed and embittered, hypertensive flowers. High above, vapour tracks are cut – sharp and white and free – on a sky of angel blue. No angels down here. The Devil’s Messenger sits on a stunted birch: a yellow-eyed crow, looking for souls to snatch.
This is the world’s biggest orbital – or the longest car park, depending on your point of view. A blessed relief for the city centre – or a metal-clad concrete snake, voracious mouth consuming its own unending, excremental tail. Lock upon lock upon lock.
Somewhere are the cameras. Somewhere else are the experts, figuring the average vehicular speed to several decimal places. Nought point nought nought. Recurring, recurring … ‘Must be a software glitch,’ the experts say. Life is a glitch, glitch, glitch.
Finger-tap, cheek-puff, eye-roll – yawn … For the enlightened few, there is mantra-comfort Aum … aumm … aummm … Re-incarnation would be good. How far to Nirvana?
On the embankment, Nature laughs at man’s folly. Crickets chafe their knees in mirthful paroxysm. Snails gurgle as they toil to their week-end place in the hedge.
Thinking loosely of snails – as you do, in a creative, time-killing way – recall that Virginia Woolf had a labouring snail in her Kew Gardens. One of those stream of consciousness things. Of course, those were more leisured times. Now we have Gridlock 12: more scream than stream; more constipated than conscious.
Relax. Think green … Think cool … Think grass … Peaceful stuff, grass – never in a hurry. But it’s quicker than most things round here. Maybe a millimetre’s growth in a good 10-hour day. Say 0.1mm per hour. Definitely quicker.
Car-belch, van-honk, phone-beep, urrr …
Oh, joy! Movement, momentary easement … Three yards, maybe four. Then red lights flash in angry touch-me-not … Handbrake up … Mobile on … ‘Sorry, still no … No, no … See you at seven – maybe …’ Maybe, maybe … recurring.
This is Friday. This is Gridlock 10. How far to Gridlock 9? Don’t ask. More crows are waiting … Keep hold of your soul.
Brrm, brrm – tap, tap – aumm, aumm – aarrgh!
How far to Catatonia?