It wasn’t so much a loud bang as a dull thud but Jess found the impact equally sudden and shocking. She clutched the steering wheel in sheer panic as the car began to spin out of control and lurch to the right into the fast lane of the three lane motorway. Instinctively she slammed on the brakes but that only seemed to feed greater momentum into the careening vehicle and in a split second she remembered that braking was liable to send her into a spin. She removed her foot from the pedal and held onto the wheel for grim life. It took all her strength to prevent the vehicle from crashing into the central reservation barrier but it began to slow rapidly thanks to the shattered tyre. The car came to a halt straddling the fast lane of one of Britain’s busiest motorways. We’re dead!
Jess waited for the force of the advancing vehicles crashing into her. It seemed to have taken an age but in reality happened in a matter of seconds. She checked her mirror to see how long she had before the first vehicle smashed into her car and could not believe her eyes. She was alone on the motorway in a dark oasis of calm. The lights of the nearest cars were quite a distance behind and Jess rapidly flicked on her hazard lights, pushed the car into gear again and shot across the dark and yawning lanes, onto the hard shoulder. A split second later, three rows of speeding vehicles barrelled past her at mind-numbing speeds.
A strange, high-pitched wailing noise sounded from behind her and Jess spun around in her seat. Six year old Ben, restrained by his seat belt, had his arms outstretched towards her. His wide-open eyes looked enormous in his little face and the sound, like a long, unbroken chord emanated from his throat.
“It’s alright, baby. Oh, sweetheart, it’s alright. We’re safe.”
His eyes retained that wide-open, glassy appearance as if he hadn’t heard her, but the wailing stopped as he took in breath. “Are we dead now, mummy?”
A sob broke in her throat. “No darling. We’re alright, I promise you. We’re safe.” And she thought to herself: though God only knows how or why.
Ben unbuckled his belt, scrambled into the front passenger seat and threw himself into his mother’s arms. For a long time they simply sat there, holding onto each other as the cars whizzed past to their right – long, relentless streams of them. How? Jess marvelled. How did that happen?
Minutes past – many minutes – Jess lost count of how many of them. She sat in her car, hugging her son and waiting for her heart to stop pounding in her chest – something she believed was never going to happen again. Finally, however, she detached herself from her son and reached into her handbag for her mobile phone.
She groaned when she saw the flickering one bar and quickly ran down her index for the roadside rescue number. Almost as soon as she located it, the phone gave three plaintive beeps and shut down. “Damn,” she cursed softly, under her breath, but Ben, now attuned to her reactions, began to whimper again.
“Are we going to die?” he whispered.
“Of course not, silly,” she reassured him, wishing she could sound more convincing. How they had escaped death in the first place was a mystery she could not begin to comprehend. “It’s the stupid battery that’s died. I’m just going to have to go and find one of those phones to call for help.”
He began to cry in earnest. “You can’t leave me. Please don’t go anywhere.”
Jess put her arms around her little boy and drew him closer to her, making soothing sounds and kissing his flaxen hair. It was a delaying tactic, she knew, because she doubted her legs would allow her to step out of the car, much less walk along the hard shoulder in the dark searching for the nearest emergency phone.
Eventually, as Ben began to calm, she held him gently at arm’s length and looked him in the eye. “We can’t stay here all night, it’s too dangerous. I need to get help. I won’t be gone for more than five or ten minutes. You go back into your seat, snuggle up under your blanket and play one of your games. By the time you’ve made it to level two, I’ll be back.”
“But if it’s dangerous here, it’s dangerous for you to go out there. Let me come with you. I’ll be good, I promise.” Ben reasoned.
Jess hesitated. As she weighed up her options, she saw a blue flashing light growing stronger and stronger behind her. “Thank God!” she breathed.
A moment later a police officer stepped out of his vehicle and approached hers. He surveyed her shredded right rear tyre for a moment before leaning down to her window. “Looks like you’ve had a lucky escape,” he told her, casting a quick eye all around the car’s interior.
Jess released a tearful sigh. “You can say that again. Can you help me, please? My battery is dead and I need to call the breakdown service.” Jess scrabbled in the glove compartment for her membership card which she then handed to the young officer.
“Christmas weekend – you’ll be lucky to see them inside two hours,” he observed, peering into her car again. “But I’ll let them know you’re a lone female with a young child. You might get lucky.”
Jess closed her eyes and breathed the word lucky? as the officer returned to his car to make the call.