Death by PowerPoint

I love cars. I love the feel of the centrifugal force pushing against the steel surface as I whip around a corner, then burn up a dual carriageway; the clutch being pumped up and down like a resuscitator, the steering wheel light as a twirling ballerina’s skirt in my hands, the accelerator drip-feeding diesel into my burning engine, and the general thrum and hum and soft roar as, almost like guiding a large metal beast, I urge my machine over whatever stretch of tarmac there is to tear over.

I do not love being snapped by a speed camera.

Especially for going at 35mph in a 30 mile zone. Come on. I am a busy man! If you want me to give up four hours of my Friday night for a bout of Death By Powerpoint, at least let it be for a serious crime. I mean, 35 mph? There were old ladies overtaking me. Where are they tonight?

I restlessly fiddled with my trouser pockets (Armani trousers mind – I don’t go for that cheap tat); cricked my neck; wished the old codger in front of me would hurry up so I could go in, sit down, and resume my life again as quickly as possible afterwards. He stiffly started to wander past the desk. Why don’t they just cancel his licence altogether, and take his wrinkled, grey, miserable arse off the roads, and out of my way, forever? He had to be at least eighty. He’d probably cause a collision simply by keeling over at the steering wheel, mid-drive. These bureaucrats truly have no idea what dangerous driving is. He’s it. Not me.

Eventually he shuffled off, and I stepped forward. Young policewoman behind the desk; not at all bad. Might talk to her properly later.

“Name?” she said. Oh no, I take it back. Bit of a grating voice. Don’t go for a grating voice in a woman, not at all.

“Steve. Steven Scher.”

“Could you show me your licence please, Mr Scher?”

Just for a second, her eyes seemed to flare with intense interest. A shimmering grey fire, around large black pupils.

Oh no, love, you’re all right. I can do better. Much better.

I blinked, and her interest was gone. She wasn’t even looking at me, as she checked my licence number against her list.

“If you’d like to go on through, Mr Scher. The Speed Awareness Course starts in five minutes.”

And she looked right through me to the next shuffling captive in the queue. I gave the queue a glance.

Seriously, where did the police find these people? I’ve seen more alert and dynamic specimens of humanity sleeping rough in shop doorways.

My fellow speeding criminals and I were being directed to a plain grey room as bland and featureless as a room can be. The whitescreen was its most prominent feature; and a half-conscious policeman, clearly sinking into turgidity at the mere thought of the lecture he was about to waste my evening delivering, was in a slumped, seated heap at one of its bottom corners.

There was, however, free coffee.

I made my way over to the urn, necked the first cup – never mind the heat, I have an asbestos throat! – necked a second cup, and carried a third, thin plastic cup to a flimsy metallic chair over on the left hand side, near the door. They were not big cups, and I still could not guarantee that I was not going to fall asleep during the evening’s entertainment.

The policewoman came in, closed the door behind her, and sat down beside it. Obviously awaiting a rush of excited fans.

The fluorescent strip lighting above flickered and caught, and I inwardly prayed for a power failure and an early closure.

But they came back on: steady, and cold, and glacial.

The policeman stood up.

“You are all here for speeding offences” he said, in a flat monotone. Maybe he was thinking how he’d rather be at the grand final of the World Wrestling Federation.

“In this country, road accidents kill ten people every day…. on average.”

How many people are you going to knock off this evening with that expressionless delivery?

“And one hundred and twenty suffer serious injuries.”

My third coffee cup was already empty, but the urn was on the other side of the room. Every flimsy, metallic chair was now filled. It would involve pushing my way through the tightly-packed rows.

I prepared to stand up.

“Road accidents make up nearly half of children’s deaths….. due to accidental causes…..”

The policeman looked me directly in the face.

I crumpled up my coffee cup with a crackle, dropped it on the floor, and fell back into my chair. All right, mate. You win.

“And your chances of being killed in a road accident” said the policeman softly, still looking at me, “are currently one in two hundred.”

Chance would be a fine thing.

The policeman broke his gaze to look down at a laptop, and start tapping. A blue, icon-strewn image of the desktop screen spread out on the large whitescreen. All that was missing was the organist and the popcorn.

Wilting with boredom, I let a blur of graphics, numbers and photographs wash over me: “….30mph….60mph….70mph….It is safer not to try to reach maximum speed…….” I really, really didn’t care. I had never been in an accident; never caused an injury; and sure, I may have frightened a few people, hurtling up behind them and honking at them to get moving, but that was their problem for not being as skilled a driver as me.

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident” said the policeman, looking at me again, “are currently one in one hundred.”

You’ve said that already. You’re repeating yourself.

I sullenly cast my gaze up to the screen – and got a flash of a skeleton driving a car.

I blinked.

I was wrong.

The colour film was of a nice, motherly woman driving a car, with her seatbelt correctly positioned, and both hands on the wheel. (Instead of applying makeup in the rearview mirror, as I’ve seen women in traffic do.)

I blinked.

Her skeleton was now visible through her skin, like a partially-developed X-ray, and the image had gone into luminous black-and-white.

The car’s metal skeleton, a framework of angular steel, was visible through its skin, also in the manner of a partially-developed X-ray.

A skeleton driving a skeleton.

I blinked.

Both skeletons were now crumpled up, and mangled.

I blinked.

It was a normal, sunny film, in colour, of a kind-looking woman driving a car.

Were the police trying to deliberately mess with me?

“So….. what’s with the bones?” I casually asked the man next to me. He didn’t answer me, so I turned to look at him.

It was the eighty-year-old from the queue.

He noticed me looking at him, looked back, and made a loud phlegmy noise in his throat, as if he was trying to clear it.

There was a sudden silence in the room.

The old man finished trying to hawk up the phlegm.

The screen stayed frozen on a picture of a boy riding on a horse past a man driving a car.

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident” said the policeman, looking at me, “are currently one in eighty.”

I am getting very tired of that statistic. You can be struck by lightning if you step outside the house often enough. Life’s dangerous! Live it!

The policeman went back to his Powerpoint.

A skeleton riding a skeleton reared up frantically at a skeleton driving a skeleton.

No – it was a boy on a horse trotting peacefully past a man driving a car.

The horse skeleton overbalanced and fell backward, crushing the boy skeleton beneath it, while the car skeleton and driver flashed out of sight.

For one shocked moment, I couldn’t breathe.

The boy on the horse turned around and waved at the man in the car, as the man slowly and carefully drove away.

I looked around at the rest of the audience of speedsters. Was this getting under the skin of any of them?

They were not the slightest bit perturbed. They only seemed weary. And a bit sad.

Maybe they were repeat offenders, and had seen this presentation before.

Shock tactics, you see. Only works the first time.

Still, quite a creepy mind-trick for the police to be pulling……

I looked about for a clock to see when this would be over. There was no wall clock. I don’t wear a watch. I had had to hand in my mobile phone at the front desk, “for security reasons.”

I must have been here for quite some time by now. It couldn’t be going on much longer.

I carefully scanned every image that followed on that cool, white screen.

There were no more skeletons.

“That finishes the presentation” said the policeman, voice even flatter and more monotonous than before.

Relief surged through me in a warm, liquid wash.

“We will now break up into groups of four for discussion on what we have just seen.”

Relief gave way to mild anger. A little anger, you know, not a lot; just enough to rev me into action.

Putting those skeletons into the presentation was quite a low trick! What if I’d had a heart condition? Could have killed me, doing that. I could still feel my heart hurling itself against my ribs, trying to escape. Maybe I should call a solicitor when it was business hours again…..

I had not moved my chair, but there were now three people grouped around me. The eighty-year-old man. A young woman, only just in her late teens. And the policewoman who had been guarding the door.

“Would you like to start, Mr Scher?” grated the policewoman.

All three dour faces looked at me at once.

Why would a young girl, with piercings and purple hair dye, be looking dour? She should have been spending her Friday night out clubbing, and telling lads what wastes of spaces they were. Not trapped here next to a gurgling geriatric, perched in a metallic chair on a dull grey carpet.

Bit dated, her look, as well. That haircut was quite popular ten years ago, but I haven’t really seen it much recently.

The same with her clothes.

I must have stared at her a bit too long, but she looked back at me steadily, without altering any part of her expression. I was of no particular interest to her.

“Mr Scher?” prompted the policewoman.

“I thought that was outrageous” I said with half-forgotten fire, reluctantly pulling my attention away from the purple-haired girl to my captor.

“Out….rage….ous…..?”

The policewoman seemed to have to take a new breath between each syllable.

The atmosphere between our four differing bodies had instantly become very cold.

Car-bonnet-on-a-frosty-night cold.

The murmur and chatter of the other huddled little groups in the room abruptly stopped.

Every long, mournful face was now focused on me.

What a real group of airsucking losers they were.

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident” said the policeman quietly, still over by the whitescreen, “are currently one in fifty.”

My ire flared up again.

“I GET it. You want me to be a good, safe little driver, who never breaks the rules. But flash images of skeletons? Really? Isn’t that a bit over the top? Don’t the police have guidelines on what they show to the public? Or something?”

The policeman slightly raised an eyebrow.

I think it was the first facial expression I’d seen him do.

“Flash images…..of skeletons?” he said.

“Yes! The black-and-white ones you inserted in the film! First the woman in the car, getting crumpled up, then the boy on the horse falling over, and that man in a car….”

A roomful of blank faces were looking back at me.

“Oh GOD, was I the only one quick enough to see them? Are you all just too STUPID?”

The eighty-year-old man made another phlegm-hawking noise.

He loosened the woollen scarf around his neck.

He opened his coat.

“Like this?” he gasped out.

I could see his skeleton through his skin.

Like a partially-developed X-ray.

Not a standard skeleton, though. A broken, shattered one. Ribs puncturing lungs, blood pumping out from a speared heart, and a multiply-splintered backbone.

All the blood in my own body evacuated itself from my face, head and torso, and into the tips of my fingers and toes.

I couldn’t move.

The old man closed his coat.

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident” said the policeman, “are currently one in twenty.”

I threw myself over the nearest cluster of flimsy chairs, and tried to run towards the door.

An entire room of insulted ghosts tried to throw themselves on top of me.

For ghosts, they had surprising substance. I was pushing off soft, silky flesh; worn, faded clothing; rough, matted hair. I don’t know what I was touching, what I was shoving away, if it broke off, if it stayed attached. My limbs were everywhere. I thrashed and windmilled and kicked at this rolling avalanche of corpses. They tried to dive over my head, smother me beneath their broken bodies, and I struggled to stay upright, to breathe, to stagger towards that door, bend down that iron doorhandle, and fling that door open.

The ghosts paused, as a group, at the doorway.

Good.

I didn’t care why.

I was at the front desk. Should I get my belongings? The confiscated mobile phone and driver’s licence? No. No stopping. I ran down the corridor.

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident…… are currently one in ten…..” followed after me.

I was out of the building….. I was in the car park….. I was at my car….. My beloved car……

Had I really left the car with lights on? Blazing orange against its night-dark background?

And with unlocked doors?

The smashed windows and graffiti of neighbouring buildings indicated just how obedient and law-abiding the local residents are. It had been immensely, incredibly, irredeemably pondlife-level intelligent of me – I admit that –

But the car was here.

Still here.

With wheels.

Fast wheels, that can burn up tarmac at one hundred and twenty miles an hour.

You want to see me speed?

This is going to be speeding.

I nearly broke the car door off as I pulled it open. Slammed it hard beside me once I was curled up inside, putting a safe layer of frosty metal between myself and all that the outside darkness could offer. The lights were on, the heater was on, and some low-level orchestral music was coming out of the radio.

I realised I was clenching the steering wheel so hard, that my hands were aching.

I took a quick look around windows and mirrors.

No one was there.

No one was outside.

My hands relaxed on the steering wheel.

In my warm, safe, lovely car, I could feel the evening starting to fade away from me. Probably had overdone it with the cheap, nasty free coffee.  Could have been anything in that urn. The thing to do was to go home; have a deep, soaking hot shower; slug back half a bottle of vodka; and go to bed. Waste of a Friday night, but what can you do? At least I was safe.

I reached around, to feel that my electronic key fob was in its familiar place of my right back pocket on my right gym-hardened buttock.

It wasn’t there.

It was back at the front desk. With the other confiscated items.

I couldn’t start the car without it.

But…..

The lights, heating and radio were on. Though the car had been left for hours.

Meaning…..

The key fob was very close to the driver’s seat……

How……?

A darkly-uniformed shape slithered, snake-like, up over the car’s bonnet, and pressed its cold face against the windscreen.

It was the policeman.

Kneeling on the bonnet; arms splayed out.

“Mr Scher” he said hollowly, and his droning voice bored through the glass….

“Mr Scher…… You are trying to drive away without a licence…..”

With one hand, he pressed my driver’s licence against the windscreen. My smirking little photograph pleaded for help between his spongy fingers.

My hands were locked on the steering wheel again.

“I’m not driving” I defiantly called back. “I’m stationary.”

“Mr Scher…..” the policeman calmly answered. “You are about to start driving….”

And in his other hand, he held up the electronic car key fob.

The engine bellowed into life, though I had not pressed the starter button.

How……?

My view in the left mirror, right mirror and rear mirror was suddenly filled with the ghosts.

They were picking up the car, on three sides.

I think.

The car felt lighter, anyway.

And it was beginning to move.

It was starting to slowly slide backwards.

I rammed the footbrake; the clutch; yanked up the handbrake.

All felt loose and useless, with all traction gone.

I banged my shoulder against the driver’s door.

Locked.

The policewoman’s face suddenly splattered itself against the driver’s window.

“Please do not open the door while the car is in motion, Mr Scher” came her grating voice over the car’s growling.

Having angled the car out of its parking bay, the ghosts started moving the car forwards, at a slow and correct 10mph.

I was demented! I scrambled all over the interior of the car, banging against windows and doors, throwing myself into the boot to try and lever open the rear door. Locked in, sealed in, within a mobile metal coffin.

All the lights of the car went out.

All the interior lights.

And the headlights.

The car went around a corner, and picked up speed. It was on a main road.

The one point of illumination that was still on was the speedometer on the dashboard. It was showing 30mph. We were in a residential zone.

And the radio was still playing classical music. “Flight of the Bumblebee”, I think.

It was night. It was late. The roads were empty. The ghosts were deftly guiding the vehicle on its mystery route with confidence.

The speedometer climbed up to 40mph. Dual carriageway.

Now the airflow was beginning to buffet against the car, and the burn of the tyres warmly glowed beneath me as I slumped in the car’s boot.

50mph. Motorway.

I looked up at the rear windscreen. Right in the middle of that throng of pushing ghosts was the huffing, gurgling face of the eighty-year-old man.

70mph. National speed limit.

Colour drained out of the world, and everything turned to skeletons. The car’s metal skeleton encased me. I could see the bones of my hands as I held them up in front of me. Ragged, broken, distended skeletons surrounded me on all sides, with leg bones running in rapid circular propulsion. And in the middle of a now almost-invisible rear windscreen was the grinning skull, rather smashed around the jaw, of that eighty-year-old man who just would not properly die.

I made an obscene gesture at him with my straight and strong skeleton arms. I mean, a really large one. Damn him. Damn them all!

“Your chances of being killed in a road accident…..are currently one in ONE!” called the bonnet-riding policeman.

Looming up in front of us was another straight and strong skeleton, driving the metal skeleton of a very large semi-trailer……..

……..The truck driver survived the collision. Higher up, you see. Was just a bit dazed afterwards…..

And now I’m in the queue.

Behind me is the hawking, eighty-year-old man.

In front of me is a rather glamorous-looking woman, making a big fuss about giving over her licence and mobile phone to the policewoman at the front desk. She flounces over to the room and sits sulkily in the back row, as far as possible from where the policeman is sitting by his Powerpoint screen.

She is oblivious to us.

Doesn’t realise that she’s the only living creature in the room.

The policeman stands.

“You are all here for speeding offences…….”

Rhonwen McCormack

 

Rhonwen McCormack is a short story writer, playwright and theatre director based in Manchester, United Kingdom. She has vehophobia – fear of driving – and found writing this story about every impatient, pushy, alpha driver who has ever honked at her from behind to be very enjoyable. She is also currently developing a new play about vehophobia called “Fear Of Driving.”

 

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