‘And now at twenty-nine minutes past eight, a summary of the headlines with Zeb Soanes. You’re listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.’
Harry snapped the car radio off. He’d already heard the morning headlines twice. More protestations of doom for the National Health Service. Someone moaning about exiting the European Union and the state it would leave the country in. More child sexual abuse uncovered. Somewhere in America another mass shooting. They could have been reading out headlines from two years ago and no-one would have noticed. President Trump hadn’t even said anything ignorant or unintentionally funny to lighten up the oppressive nature of the grey autumn day.
Eight-thirty. That meant he’d been sitting in his car for over an hour, and he’d travelled about ten miles. Who at the council had decided to close two lanes on the main route into the city on a Monday morning? The car in front edged forward another metre before its brake lights lit up again. Harry didn’t even bother closing the gap. It had to be this morning of course, when he actually had a reason to get to work early.
The drone of the car engine and the faint whine of the heating fan became unbearable. Harry hit the radio on again. It had been years since he’d listened to Radio One. He hit the preset tuner. Incessant bass, auto-tuned vocals and something akin to a cat screaming while being tortured by a blowtorch blasted out the speakers.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Harry exclaimed, holding down the volume button until he was sure his eardrums were safe. Perhaps it was time to admit either he’d outgrown youth culture. He contemplated Radio Two, but he knew he couldn’t stand the breakfast presenter. Back to Radio Four then.
A car somewhere behind blasted its horn. Harry looked up and saw that the car in front had crawled forward another ten yards. Impatient idiot, he thought, like the extra few inches would make them get anywhere any quicker. He took his foot off the brake pedal and rolled forward.
‘Thank you, Zeb,’ the presenter said as the news headlines finished. ‘We’re going to talk more about that top story now.’
Zeb. What sort of a name was Zeb? Harry glanced down at his smartphone. A quick search wouldn’t cause any harm – there were no police about. He grabbed the ‘phone and typed ‘Zeb Soanes’ into the search bar. The answer popped up instantly: ‘Zebedee ‘Zeb’ Soanes’. For God’s sake, who the hell names their child ‘Zebedee?’ Harry glanced up to make sure the traffic hadn’t moved. ‘How many people called Zebedee?’ he typed. The second suggestion looked promising – a newspaper article from a couple of years ago. He tapped the link and quickly scrolled through. Only one person called ‘Zebedee’ in the whole country – and that was him announcing the news on the radio. A unique name, and yet he chose to be known as ‘Zeb’ instead. That tells you what he thinks of the name his parents gave him then, Harry thought.
While he mused on this, he suddenly sensed the car rolling forward. He quickly slammed his foot down on the brake pedal, having not realised he had lifted his foot off it in the first place. The car halted about an inch from the rear bumper of the car in front. Harry let out his breath. He put the smartphone back in its holder on the dashboard and had a look round to see if anyone had seen his near miss. No sign of any reaction. The female driver of the car adjacent was too busy applying make-up. Harry tutted. Typical. Not bad looking though. She flicked her long dark hair round and finished applying lip gloss. She turned and caught Harry staring at her. Trapped, Harry half-nodded, half-smiled and turned away, hoping he came across as a sympathetic fellow driver and not a perverted middle-aged gawker.
The car in front progressed a couple of car lengths at a deathly crawl. Harry began rolling forward to close the gap just as the car diagonally ahead indicated and swept into the small space in front of him.
‘Sonovabitch,’ Harry battered his car horn and gestured with a waving hand. The driver now positioned in front of him waved in reply. Harry couldn’t tell if it was an apology or an insult.
‘What difference does that make? Just stay in your own lane,’ he shouted, and gave another blast of his horn. It was always the expensive saloon car drivers that behaved like that, as if they owned the roads. Another gesture, this time definitely not a friendly or apologetic one, from the driver in front. Harry became aware that they were sitting in stationary traffic and he’d just picked a fight with a stranger. He was sure they were staring at him through their rear view mirror. They could be some violent maniac, or a gang member, or just a frustrated person who was looking for the final straw to snap when Harry came along tooting his stupid horn.
Unnerved, Harry turned away. The attractive female driver next to him was looking over. What a fool he must have seemed to her: sat on his own; enraged; shouting when no one could hear him. He pretended not to notice her. Fortunately the outside lane began crawling forward at that moment and she disappeared ahead.
The driver in front started indicating to pull out into the lane they had just exited now that it was moving.
‘Serves you right,’ he motioned to him, relieved that they had moved on without incident. Control your temper, he cautioned himself. Only in the car did he act like this.
The smartphone began to vibrate. Harry looked at the screen. Sandra wondering where he was. He would normally have been behind his desk by now. They probably thought he was deliberately avoiding them this morning. Well, you shouldn’t answer your ‘phone while driving, even if you’re stuck in traffic. He let it ring out. He was starting to feel a little peckish now. Should’ve had breakfast before he left the house, but then he wasn’t to know he’d still be in the car an hour later. He opened his bag on the passenger seat and took out a snack bar. It was supposed to go with his mid-morning coffee, but he could always get another from the canteen. He unwrapped it and began eating.
Harry’s lane of traffic began to move. The two lanes were being merged into one, and once merged everyone was able to roll along at a steady crawl. Harry swore as he watched two cars speed along the outside lane until it was blocked off, then duck in front of unsuspecting drivers. Why did they think they had the right to skip the queue like that? Couldn’t they just wait like everyone else?
The business news came on the radio. Harry pushed the volume up a little, holding the steering wheel in one hand and the snack bar in his mouth. He doubted whether he would hear his company mentioned – not on a national radio show. If he listened to a local radio station it would be. He wondered if the coverage would be sympathetic. If they knew the entire story from his point of view then he was sure it would be, but only he knew the full story. He didn’t have a choice. He had to let people go or the whole company would go under, it was as simple as that.
‘The dispute over the collapsed BHS pension fund continues, with no resolution in sight for those who are set to lose their savings,’ intoned the fatalistic business presenter.
He wasn’t in that sort of mess at least. He didn’t pay below the living wage. He didn’t use zero hour contracts. He didn’t exploit cheap immigrant labour. He’d managed to keep everyone employed through the global financial crash.
The ‘phone screen lit up – Sandra calling again. Well, he was moving along steadily now. He would get there in ten minutes if there was no further delay. He let it ring out again. Behind him he heard the sound of police sirens and in his rear view mirror he saw the flashing blue lights approaching as cars veered onto the kerb to let them through. Harry did the same. Probably just fed up being stuck in this traffic, he thought. Once the police car had passed everyone took a moment to sort themselves out before they began moving along slowly again.
They crawled past row after row of traffic cones. Of course there was no sign of any actual work being done to the road, no reason why both lanes couldn’t have been open. They wonder why sometimes people snap.
Harry contemplated his day ahead. A string of unpleasant meetings. Those that were to be let go had already been informed of their impending redundancy by letter. He probably should have been brave enough to tell them face-to-face, but he was happy to accept the official advice that it was better to deliver the news first with a formal letter and give people a chance to digest it before any direct confrontation. Most were near retirement age and would get a decent payoff. A couple of the younger ones he didn’t really know, they hadn’t worked for him that long. They would be the easier ones to deal with – the older ones had worked for him for over twenty years. He wouldn’t be invited to their birthdays anymore, or out with their families at the weekend, or to the pub after work on a Friday.
Sandra ringing again. He was only a couple of streets away now. As he turned the corner the traffic came to a dead stop again.
‘For God’s sake,’ he muttered. If he parked he could walk the rest of the way. He mounted the pavement and cut into a side street. There was a space that he could squeeze his car into. It might be just on the yellow lines, but he would be amazed if any parking attendants would be bothering to check down this street.
‘We’re getting some breaking news coming into us just now…’ said the radio presenter just before Harry turned the radio off, grabbed his bag and stepped out of the car.
Rounding the corner he saw that the road outside his office was closed off. There was a line of several police cars and ambulances, all sitting with their lights flashing. His first thought was that this explained why the traffic was backed up.
He kept walking. The police weren’t just outside his office – they seemed to be surrounding his office. A feeling of panic grew. A police officer stepped in front of him.
‘You can’t go any further, sir.’
‘I work there. That’s my office.’
‘No one’s going in there.’
‘I’m the owner. That’s my company. What’s going on?’
The police officer looked at him. ‘There’s been an incident. Please wait here until we have the situation under control.’
‘An incident. What sort of incident?’ The officer left him standing there.
Was this why Sandra had been calling him? He took out his ‘phone and returned her unanswered calls. She picked up straightaway.
‘Sandra, what’s going on?’
‘I can’t speak. He’s right outside. He’s got a knife.’ Sandra whispered. Harry could hear the hushed strain in her voice.
‘What? Who’s got a knife?’
‘He wanted to get you, Harry.’
‘Me? What have I done?’
‘You sacked him.’ There was a crash, the sound of a door being battered open.
‘Sandra?’ Harry urged. He heard a scream before the call went dead.
A loud bang rang out from inside the building. Bystanders threw themselves to the ground. Harry stood staring up at his office window. There was a moment of complete stillness.
A police radio crackled into life. ‘Suspect is down. Repeat. Suspect is down. Multiple stab wound victims, get the paramedics in now.’
A car horn blasted in the distance as the traffic continued to crawl along on the grey autumn morning.
Written as the final assignment for a Writing Course recently completed.
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