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Red Route

Approximate Read Length: 15 minutes

The dull thumping of rubber against asphalt. Repetitively rhythmic as my trainers hit the slick surface of the pot-holed pavement. Ball of the foot on impact. Quadriceps, calf, hamstring all stretched out and pushing down; starting to bend at the knee, other leg brushing past at the moment of uplift – and then that airborne fragment of a second which creates the forward momentum. The graceful, gazelle-like, measured motion of the morning jogger; fluent and flowing, calm and composed. My body in perfect balance. My regular stride lengths that have been perfected for maximum velocity. So there’s no need to think about it; just counting inside my head – one, two, three, four, five – whilst other thoughts are allowed to drain away in my daily mental uncluttering. Job, mortgage, wife, kids all floating off in the dew-filled air; Tommy and Clare and their messy divorce, the envelope from the DVLA with its teacherly telling-off and its ticket for small-scale speeding.

I see Jake and Jacob on their way to school, walking along with their uniform untidy and their satchel bags clunking against their sides. No doubt they will both be out for their own run later. Track work today, I think. Interval sessions, hill runs, endurance on other evenings across the week. They go out with the top adults from the club now. Pushing for personal bests to beat their fleet-footed thirty four minutes at 10k which is already pretty rapid by anyone’s count – and both of them just seventeen. I raise a hand in greeting as I pass, and think about how much they remind me of me at that age. Tall and gangly. Acne assembled in choleric clusters on their cheeks. Lumbering lollop to the way they walk. And a cocky confidence when talking to the grown-ups which perhaps sees them answering back at school; sneaking outside for a surreptitious cigarette behind the bike sheds. Although, I shouldn’t think they’re quite as fickle about following the rules as I was. Since they possess a self-discipline subtly at odds to my own teenage temperament which was always grating and grinding against the grain.

Back at home, just ahead of target, there is a workaday warm-down of a gentle jog around the block; static stretches in the garden. And then I’m inside and recording my time and distance in the diary. Quick glance at the digital clock in the kitchen as I glug down a glass of ice cold H₂O. Steady strides up the staircase and along the landing into the bedroom to give my muscles one last chance to stretch before my contrast shower – hot, cold, hot, cold, hot again – playing through the run in my mind as the water splashes over me. Trying to eke out another couple of seconds here and there. And wishing I could be as fast as Jake and Jacob, but knowing that I never will be, because I’m almost twice their age – slowing rather than speeding up. And now, of course, I’ve jolted unalterably to a faltering halt. With no more scribbled records in the diary ahead of me. And no more contrast showers that aren’t down to the capricious nature of the slipshod plumbing in this place.

Amongst the gallery of framed photographs on the wall of our living room, there is one of Emily pulling a screwball face whilst I pretend to race her round in her wheelchair, down the corridors of the Hillington hospital after her appendix surgery. Stitched back up again and still out of it after the anaesthesia, she flinches from the pinch of swelled up pain as a strain of laughter lingers on her lips. But still, she gets up at reception and manages to walk to the car. The chair is just a giggle and a bit of fun, after all. Back at work following a couple of weeks off sick, the kids in her tutor group ask her what it’s like to be put under, and whether she’ll show the class her scar if they promise not to misbehave.

There’s another picture all bundled up with that one – another image of a wheelchair implanted now undyingly inside of me. With those mobility scooter wheels, and the electric hum as they rotate at their restless snail’s pace. The clunky black framework of the contraption in its stark metallic right angles. Padded seat, arm supports, neck brace, headrest. It has a belt to stop the body drooping forwards and stirrups down below to keep the legs securely pinned in place – so, the whole shebang, then. Battery pack pitched on the back, a control panel for the carer staring straight ahead as she strolls along behind in her sky blue uniform; upside-down watch precisely pinned in front.

 

The morning of that last run, it’s 8.34 when I’m locking the front door before a few more short stretches to stop my legs becoming sore. And then it’s into the driver’s seat of my black BMW. Sleek sheen of it in the sunshine as I shift into second and steer out onto the street. Accelerating up to 38, I take the road that goes past the school in a deviant detour for a distinctive day. And speeding by, I think how Emily, inside, will be getting ready to face the testing testosterone of the terrible 10D, and how Jake and Jacob will probably be joshing and joking out on the Fairley field with their gaggle of mates – assembly to look forward to, perhaps, or tutor time, or however they start things off these days? Guessing that I should probably know stuff like that since I’m married to one of the teachers, but sometimes details from what Emily tells me escape into the ether, unprocessed. Although, what she told me about the head teacher’s speech on the following morning went in, of course. Those words worming their way through the hard casing of my skull. The image that ingrains itself of those instantaneous tears free-flowing; glistening, glowing off the students’ cheeks. But not knowing yet what is to come, I, in the BMW, just roar on past.

 

Parked up in the multi-storey in town, I ignore the lift and take the stairs down in an intrepid two-steps-at-a-time descent. A slight tightness in my legs. The rubbing of a rough patch on my heel. I almost clatter into a ponderous pensioner who is making his weary way in the other direction. And he throws me a look as if to say, you youngsters these days! Always busy bolting back and forth – frenetic, frantic; relentless rush of your pace of life! I wish now that I hadn’t missed the warning in that look, but as it is, I’m already a couple of flights below him and out the side door onto the street whilst he’s still shaking his head and mutter-mumbling under his breath.

 

Outside, there is the sickening squall of a caterwauling ambulance sprinting past. Its flashing lights in the whole sweeping spectrum of blues – from cobalt to midnight, sapphire to sky, gyrating and wavy; indigo, navy, Persian all slinking by in the blink of an unsuspecting eye. Unaware of the potent portent of its passage past on that particular morning, the unremembered retinal image of the vehicle’s outline disappears as I turn and march away. The truth that I don’t yet know – that I’ll see it again a few hours down the line. The tumultuous turmoil of that later scene. The way it spins in lurching loops of seasickness as the battered body lies flat on the tarmac – limp limbs and broken breathing, smell of sweat and opaque absence of his eyes. The paramedic leans over him. A stretcher is brought out. And the last thing I see is the soaring eagle of the running club logo mocking me from his chest.

Backwards again – work is a mountain of mundane grumbling about reports and rosters, phone messages and emails. Wading through the junk of them. Replying to the easy ones first and then, out in the kitchen, groaning at the grubby granulated coffee that has been bought instead of the instant Americano that I much prefer. There is banter with the boss and a little light-hearted chaffing of Chadwick at the story of his Chislehurst misadventures. And at 10.42, I get down to the serious stuff of sales calls out to suppliers and other assorted services. Our product of adaptive aids for the elderly and disabled doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves. But I’ve got the chatter and the patter to convince whoever I’m speaking to that it will definitely be worth their while to up their order on grips and ramps and rails and hoists; stair lifts, adjustable armchairs, folding commodes, bath stools – you get the picture. I count commission as I chunter on. I clock watch down to lunch and the longed-for release of the end of the day.

 

Homewards, I’m running late so I put my foot on it. We’re eating out with one of Emily’s work friends, Jess (who’s a bit of a scatterbrain) and her partner, Greg (who despite being a rugby-playing posh boy is not the bad company you might expect). The restaurant is the fusion one on the corner of Canon Street, and I’m already hankering for some Pad Thai noodles with pilau rice and poppadoms as I join the jostling bustle of traffic hustling to get onto the Watling Way roundabout. Flashing a dirty look at an Audi that tries to cut me up. Muscling myself into the middle lane in order to outmanoeuvre a yummy mummy in her Range Rover. And on the country road between the villages, a tractor is trundling along at about thirteen miles an hour, so I tailgate right up behind his trailer full of baled-up hay to show my impatience. Deliberately, he ignores me motioning for him to make way as he meanders onward, the minutes trickling past. And by the time I’ve got the road to myself, I’m already inside the laughably long stretch of a thirty zone that unfurls about a mile and a half before you hit the first of the outlying houses. Health and safety ratcheted up to its uppermost extremes. But still, I’ve got that rule-breaker streak embedded in my brain that likes to ignore pestering posters that proclaim Red Route; Speed Kills!

 

The in-betweens as I call them. Diktats and decrees that declare everything you can and can’t do from what waste you can place in your green recycling wheelie bin to how many Heineken pints you can have before Her Majesty’s government concludes that you’re too badly bladdered to get behind the wheel of a car. The rigour of the nanny state that wants to regulate the dose of sugar in your morning cornflakes and their dismal directives that deny us the slight delight of lighting up a cigarette anywhere within a hundred yards of a helpless child. They are the small rules that never hurt anyone if you fail to fully observe them from time to time. Like the brief borrowing of a disabled slot in the carpark when there’s eighteen of them empty and nowhere else free, or the No Entry signpost that I nonchalantly neglect to notice as I dart down the driveway behind the Harmsbury’s Farm to make sure my running route clocks in at a precise six miles. And no one loses out, for example, by my non-declaration to the taxman of the piddling side-line salary I get from the running club. So, yes, on that laughably long stretch of a thirty zone, you can quite rightly rev the speedo up to 45, maybe even 48 mph without the chance of harm to anyone or anything except perhaps a squirrel scurrying across your path.

 

Meanwhile, somewhere within the depths of my work bag, which I’ve carelessly chucked into the passenger footwell, the chirpy tune of my iPhone ringtone resonates in its annoying arpeggios. Six iterations before it clicks off into silence. And then, persistently, it goes again – seemingly louder, and equally irritating. It’s probably just Emily wanting to tell me that the dinner plans have been changed or wondering why I’m not already back at the house; panicking about the fact that Tommy has an upset tummy, or perhaps that Riley has a rash on her backside, or something as similarly soporific in its tedium. But just in case, I glance up at the road ahead to check that it is empty, and then lean over to the side whilst fumbling downwards. Rummaging through the satchel for the feel of the leather phone case in its rounded rectangular shape that seems to blend into the collection of contents chaotically contained within the interior of the space. And it takes me a few more moments than I would have guessed to find it and release the clasp and punch my thumb against the circular green of the accept call icon. Eyes off the road for four or five seconds at most.

 

Which is no time at all. About 22 metres at my regular running pace. Perhaps, a couple of jumping jacks or a quick-fire quad stretch in my post-run routine. And just about long enough to stomp up the stairs or put away a pint of protein shake. To hot foot it to the car when there’s a sudden rush of rain raging down, to chuck out a greeting to everyone in the office when I arrive in the morning, or to remember my computer password on those days when my mind’s gone completely blank. It is a diver twisting and twirling down from the 10 metre board and coming up for air. The striker’s run up, ball’s flight through the air of a spot kick penalty. The ball toss and backswing, impact and follow-through of a tennis player’s serve. Blink and you miss it. Inconsequential, ephemeral, immaterial iota of a fraction of a fragment of a lifetime.

 

But still.

 

That’s all it takes.

 

Instinct kicking in and hitting the brakes as logic seems to decelerate faster than my BMW which keeps sweeping forwards despite the fact that my foot is stamped down so far it’s practically through the floor of the car. The screech of the tires. The sound of my heart thumping in my chest. The startled deer expression on the face of my victim as his neck swivels to the left and sees his own destruction descending straight down the street towards him. And then the point of collision in its cataclysmic corroboration of the calculation of the typical stopping distance of a speeding vehicle. 51 metres. The length of two short-course swimming pools. With one terrified teenager tossed upwards at the end of it, as the bumper barrels into his bending legs. Bones breaking, his body flung forwards over the bonnet. All bent out of shape. Contorted, distorted, transported into a crumpled Catherine wheel of flaying limbs that thuds against the windscreen in a squall of nightmare red.

 

At a standstill, I emerge within a fume-filled vacuum of silence. There is static in my ears. And my vision suffers division between the real world and the repudiating repugnance of what has just taken place. I search in the side mirrors for evidence that I imagined it. I will the streak of that snaking skid mark to melt away or for the dent in the Beamer’s bodywork to dissipate into non-being once my brain has started processing things properly again. But stepping out from the car, time refuses to reset itself to the precise point of (what?) one minute previously when I might have chosen not to flout the thirty miles per hour limit or ignore the danger of diverting my attention from the road by taking the unnecessary risk of searching for my mobile phone. And somewhere, Emily’s voice is still trying to reach me. Saying my name – ‘Greg!’ Shouting it, perhaps. With a poignant panic tunnelling through her tone. ‘What’s happening?’ she asks. ‘Are you all right?’

 

I hang up without answering. A nothingness swells inside my stomach as the dawning realisation of reality slowly engulfs me in a blister of disbelief. And without reaching for them, the answers to her questions sift to the surface. What’s happening? – pandemonium. Are you all right? – no. And the question that she doesn’t ask – who is it? Lying there. The body. The motionless jogger. Because I realise that I know the answer to that one too. At just seventeen years old. And with no more joshing and joking out on the Fairley field ahead of him. It is Jake Jenkins, erstwhile fastest youngster at our running club. Lifeless and cold on the black tar ground.

 

‘He just ran out in front of me,’ I hear myself saying. ‘It… it…,’ I start but that particular quartet of wilting words won’t allow themselves to be released into the big bad world just yet. And instead, I bluster on in a string of garbled nonsense. Nothing staying straight inside the fixated, conflagrated, cavernous crater of space that my mind has become. Whilst on the other side of the line, the operator is serene and unflustered. Unflappable as she announces that an ambulance is en route. Asking me if I can ascertain if the boy is still breathing or whether he reacts to the sound of my voice. She tells me to take a deep breath. And my earlier sentence repeats on me. Regurgitated and disgorged in the odious acid reflux of a bilious belch, it trickles out in a dribble of verbal diarrhoea. The ugly spatter of it. Invisible as it escapes, gutless and untrue. A repugnant rejection of responsibility – ‘It was an accident.’ I experience my shame from somewhere a hundred feet above.

 

Everything after that is a whirling blur. The five and a half minutes that protract into a petulant purgatory before the paramedics eventually put in an appearance. The following stretch of blankness where I am asked to loiter on the side-lines whilst they busy themselves in doing their job. And then more flashing lights with the arrival of the police. A politely persistent PC who makes me answer approximately eighty three questions about the incident. The self-possession of her expression as she states that I’ll need to accompany them. ‘Down to the station.’ I nod my head compliantly; world imploding inwards as she escorts me to the backseat of the waiting Volvo. My memory of the journey is utterly annihilated within the fraught onslaught of assorted escape routes that present themselves and fizzle out forlornly within my head. There are more questions in an inconsequential interview room; little and lightless and lacking in windows. Charges in the chuntering chant of a punctilious pedant. And then the cell whose walls edge in on me until I feel I have to scream.

 

I’m better now at not waking in the night in a hot sweat with everything coming back to me. The nightmares have receded to two or three times in each interrupted sleep cycle. And my new surroundings have become bearable. Familiar fragrance of the lavatory in the early mornings. Acclimatisation to the abominable amenities for our shame-faced showering. Unsavoury sustenance at breakfast, lunch and dinner served up as slop on trays. And other prisoners provoking each other in bespoke masterstrokes of unwarranted indignation. Starting a brawl for no other purpose than to alter up the anatomy of our average day. Within the confines of Her Majesty’s Prison, somewhere south-west of self-loathing.

My solicitor tells me I could appeal and get my sentence pruned back to a paltry pair of fast-flowing years if I wanted to. But five of them already seems like too insignificant a penalty for what I have done. The reckless, feckless folly of it. Which deserves greater retribution than a few hundred weeks locked up in such an institution where my worst worries are the awkwardness of my daily ablutions and the occasional incident of electrocution from the plug socket on my wall.

 

And all the while, Jake Jenkins, my irreproachable victim, is in a prison of his own. Iron bars built out of limitations that lash like ligatures around his wrists. Restrictions on his possibility of quotidian mobility; agility abated; stability staunched so that he is left with just futility, fragility, disability. A life locked down within the confines of that chair. 24 hour care from the gaggle of women in their sky blue uniform with their upside-down watches precisely pinned in front. A granny flat, perhaps, alongside his parents’ house with the money from the insurance pay-out put towards adaptive aids from the company I used to work for; commission counted up by one of my former colleagues as they coax the family into approaching practicalities for a future stripped away. No chance he’ll run 10k again in that fleet-footed thirty four minutes. No chance he’ll pass his A Levels and join his mates in meandering off to University or the world of work or youthful unemployment. And little chance that he’ll even retrieve the faculty of speech – forever silenced in an inaudible scream.

 

Absolution is impossible, then. I can’t counteract the monstrous magnitude of my mistake. And so self-punishment becomes the only outlet to achieve a sense of balance. In a sort of justice for Jake, I deny myself any privileges that I am capable of earning through my gormless good behaviour. So, no talking except when answering the questions of the prison guards. No movement except the enforced exercise of walking round the yard. No push-ups in my cell. No playing games on the communal Xbox in order to extrapolate myself from my entirely irrelevant existence. But such resolutions are easy to make and much harder to maintain, of course. And by a year into my sentence, I decide that I deserve a desultory day off from my self-restricted regime. At Emily’s visits, I smile and speak; and soon, I’m sharing jokes with my cellmate who, at any rate, doesn’t deserve to suffer my stifling silence. And it’s a slippery slope from there to the resumption of something akin to that regular routine that I observed before the barbarity of that devastating day. But whilst I can casually wind the clock back to where I’ll be left with nothing but my nightmares niggling into the neural pathways of my brain, Jake is petrified in a perpetual position of permanent partition – the past deformed behind him, the future nothing but an inconsequential, ephemeral, immaterial iota of a fraction of a fragment of the life he should have had stretching out in front.