Certified Drivers – a short story
Traffic congestion cured
They had warned him about the traffic two weeks before at the office.
“Go by train, Hugo – rush hour’s worse than anything you see around here.” The radio was fuzzy and he leaned over and tried to reach it. Before he could finish, the brake lights in front blinked and went out. The car in front slid forward, perhaps thirty feet, and its lights glared again, daring him to get any nearer. Hugo struggled with the hand brake and moved up into the gap.
Ahead of him the road began to curve to the left. Hugo was sitting in the slow lane and in front of him he could see a lay-by. Why, he wondered, would anyone park there? Had they broken down or had they given up hope of reaching a destination? He calculated that it would take ten minutes to reach the white van and the white minibus parked just beyond it. Then he noticed the police uniform get out of the van and walk round to the minibus; perhaps there had been an accident.
He reached out again for the handbrake and Terry Wogan spoke to him, warm, relaxed, reassuring, off the planet slightly. Next to him a huge articulated lorry blared at something and coughed its fumes at him. The fumes rose up between Hugo and the car in front and the Irishman’s punch-line was lost. For a moment he thought there was some movement ahead but he was mistaken. He tried to relax and followed the line of shops, houses and filth, past the lay-by to the house on his left, not thirty feet away.
He looked at the house, conscious that he was peering from the world of his car through the passenger window at a building which he could easily describe – the decorated stone over the porch, the cream lintels over the windows and the remains of a path, once decorated with bright tiles which led up to the front door. He could not see the roof, which was sliced, off the top of the house but he doubted whether it was any different from the slabs of grey slates lon the houses further ahead. He could see the bricks and the mortar of the walls that looked back at him as they must have looked back at millions of vehicles over the years that the house had stood there watching. Yes, he was clearly looking at a house, but there was more to it than that. He wondered what the house made of it all – he had seen his grandparents’ curled photographs of similar houses with proper front gardens and a milkman’s horse pulled up outside. Would the house see his car and not him and would it have to look through the same grimy filter that he could see covering everything out there, including the house.
The some invisible grey filter covered the wreck of a car parked in what had once been a garden. He smiled to himself; the car had obviously been there for years yet seemed at ease with itself, unlike its younger brethren stuck out on the road, lined up and stressful as if straining on leashes, like hounds eager to follow their prey.
And then the car had gone and he was moving again. He changed up into second gear and watched the vans in the lay-by getting nearer. A policeman stepped out into the road and waved to him. What on earth did he want him for? Hugo pulled over and the car that had been following him accelerated ahead then braked as the line of cars eased itself into position again and stopped solid. The line settled, waiting with its muscles taught, eager still to move ahead, to seek again its quarry.
“Would you mind getting out of the car, please sir?” Hugo got out.
“What’s the matter?” The officer was about his age, late thirties, and led him round to another officer at the back. Two figures in white coats sat behind a table, opposite the door. They looked up as if they had been waiting for him. One of them had looked up accusingly at a watch, twisting an arm suddenly to turn the dial out from under the starched white sleeve. They were quite young, younger than him; the woman was slightly built and had dark hair; the man had a neatly trimmed beard and cropped hair. He stroked his beard self-consciously, as if hoping to impress Hugo with a certain gravitas, then waved him to the chair. Hugo looked over his shoulder, a little uncomfortable; the police officer was standing next to the door, looking back at him.
“Mr. Watson?” It was not really a question – the woman had a slip of paper in front of her on the table, trapped under her left hand. Hugo nodded automatically and the pen in the woman’s right hand came to life and made a mark on the paper.
Perhaps it was the way the pen moved automatically once he had confirmed his name that caused Hugo to stand again.
“Now, just what is this all about?” He turned to the policeman.
“Nothing to worry about sir, just the Department for Transport – you know – Driving Surveillance Unit.”
“Driving Surveillance Unit?”
“The doctor will explain.”
“Doctors?” He turned back to the table and looked at the two white-clad figures. “Medial figures?”
The woman spoke.
“I’m Dr. Williams, a physician and Dr. Williams here is a psychiatrist.” She watched the puzzlement on Hugo’s face, then continued; surely, everyone knew about these new units around London.
“You have been observed driving along this bit of road every morning this week, alone.”
“Not against the law is it?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“So, why am I in here?”
“You’ve received the information and reminders from the DVLA, surely.” By the end of the utterance, the words formed a question and then an accusation and Hugo sensed that he was without some simple piece of information, the sort that concerns itself with the earnings of football stars, or the title of a chart hit two decades before. “Every licence holder received one.”
“Did they? No one came to check that mine had arrived.” This was obviously some sort of questionnaire; he wished that they had sent it by post.
The woman picked up something in his voice, something northern or provincial.
“You realise that your continuing to use this road like this could count against you?” Her voice rose at the end of the sentence and he knew that, this time, she was asking a question and preparing him for something. He recalled something else he remembered but said nothing.
“You do realise that this could cost you your licence.” This time it was a reprimand; how could he have been so careless?
“You must be joking.”
“No, Mr. Watson.” The other doctor, Dr. Brewer, the psychiatrist, was speaking now. “People said for years that anyone who drove in these conditions must be mad.” The doctor nodded towards the door before continuing. “The DVLA has established that for three miles along this bit of road rush hour traffic moves at less than walking pace. To travel ten miles in any direction at this time of day a bicycle would be the quickest option.”
There was something about this man that Hugo recognised – the voice of a missionary, unvarying and indifferent to its audience. The doctor’s eyes flickered with a touch of something extra, some sort of enthusiasm Hugo thought.
“Do you have any particular reason for driving along here every day?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you choose to use a car, alone, every day during the rush hour?”
“To get to work.”
“But why by car and why alone?”
“How else? What if it rains? What if I have papers to carry?”
Hugo pulled himself up to his feet. “Look here, I don’t have to sit here and answer your questions.” Behind him the police officer stirred in the doorway and from outside there came the restrained sound of the traffic that blocked the main road, infuriatingly, stubbornly and for a moment he wanted to go outside and reassure himself that there were other drivers out there still.
“But you do, Mr Watson.” The woman reached into a brief case and drew out a large form. She unfolded it on the table in between herself and her colleague who said nothing but just watched Hugo as if he were the subject of some scientific observation. For a moment Hugo was sufficiently interested to sit again, to see whether all this was going where he thought it might.
“Do you know what this is, Mr. Watson?” Hugo shook his head, not so much because he did not know what the form was, but because he was slowly trying to detach himself from this whole business. The woman hardly troubled herself with his response before starting again. “It’s a preliminary form – under the Mental Health Act. You realise that anyone found not to be of sound mind is not permitted to drive.”