Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone
The man stood in the middle of the road just outside Wickford at the peak of rush-hour, one hand held up palm outward, the other pointing to his right. Oncoming traffic slowed, turned left into the side road indicated by his right hand, and began a mystery tour of the Essex countryside. Those motorists who stopped and wound down their windows to enquire about the diversion were told: ‘Possible incident ahead. Please follow the signs.’ None of them argued. Fifteen minutes after he began the charade – just enough time for drivers caught in the expanding gridlock three miles down the narrow lane, which met a dead end at a farm gate, to realise they’d been had – the man walked back to the lay-by where he’d left his car and drove away.
On a pavement in Basildon two days later, the same man placed himself outside a bank door with a clipboard and an orange-and-white hooped traffic cone. Pedestrians either crossed the road or stepped into the kerb to avoid whatever hazard the man might be watching over. When the bank’s customers asked why they could not enter the premises, they were advised that work was in progress. At no point did he tell anyone that they couldn’t enter the building, or that they shouldn’t walk on that section of the pavement. And indeed, people were working inside the building. After half an hour the man took his cone and strolled off.
A week after Basildon, again armed with a clipboard, the man entered an expensive Southend restaurant asking the owner if the establishment had experienced any recent problems with rats, mice, cockroaches or frogs. The proprietor shamefacedly confessed to both mice and cockroaches, and admitted to a local problem with rats; though he was almost exultant in reporting that he’d never once seen a frog on the premises. The enquirer wrote on his clipboard and solemnly advised the owner there might be further investigation. The restaurateur was not told the man’s identity, which organisation he represented, or why he was asking questions about vermin. Nor did he ask.
Fluorescent yellow polyester, black plastic piping, two five-centimetre silvery reflective bands, weighing next to nothing – and it only cost a fiver from eBay. It was, he believed, the ultimate symbol of authority. The epiphany came one day while he was on the bus to his job at the factory, unable to concentrate on the crossword because of screeching kids, jarring ringtones, and people who seemed convinced that the only way to talk on mobile phones was to shout very loudly. He had folded his copy of the Daily Mirror and resignedly turned his gaze to the street outside the bus. There, in the other lane, was a burly man in a high-visibility waistcoat holding up traffic for no apparent reason – the man’s colleagues were certainly doing nothing that might warrant making road-users pause on their journeys; indeed, no work at all was being done as far as the naked eye could detect. But every driver unquestioningly obeyed the workman. The yellow waistcoat was like a mechanical exoskeleton, bestowing power and strength upon its wearer. Sometimes it seemed as if the waistcoat could have done the job without anyone inside it.
Of course, once something’s seen, it seems always to be occurring. Day after day, again and again, he saw the same scene enacted – unmoving or diverted traffic, pedestrians flowing around imperious figures obstructing pavements and walkways, in shops and parks, building sites, everywhere. And always the one common denominator: the high-visibility jacket. The jacket – sometimes only a waistcoat or tabard – was usually augmented with blue or black waterproof trousers and jacket, safety boots, sometimes a hard hat. Black was the obvious choice for accessories, suggestive of the fire brigade or police, adding to the potency. When he idly logged onto eBay one evening he was surprised by how cheap they were. He ordered the item almost without thinking.
If anyone had asked him why he did it, he would have been unable to frame a response that made sense. Yes, he was bored and lonely. Yes, he felt small and insignificant and purposeless. But they were common expressions of the malaise of the modern world, the inevitable consequences of not being wealthy, film-star handsome, powerful or important. In that respect, he was an Everyman, an ordinary Joe. But he had acquired, purely by accident, one of the few things that make the movers and shakers, rulers and taste-makers of this world shudder when the lower orders get hold of it. He had an idea. More cogently, it was an idea that he could use to seriously piss off people with more money, influence and power than he would ever know. Yet he could never have explained it like that. He was an average working-class man with a low income and unremarkable education, and he didn’t think that way. Like all disadvantaged people, however, he had an instinctive awareness that the symbols of authority were as important and influential as the authority itself. And his idea would also give him an excuse to make greater use of his car, rarely driven because the bus was cheaper than petrol and money was tight. The poor might not have much money but they will happily fritter away every last penny on useless rubbish and empty entertainment once they’ve convinced themselves that they’ll have a bit of fun doing so. In that respect they’re not unlike the rich.
The adventure continued for several weeks. Then, one rainy night at a road junction on the boundary of Southchurch and Thorpe Bay, the more well-heeled parts of Southend-on-Sea, the man’s escapades came to a head.
It was the height of the evening rush, a Friday night. The locals were hastening home in what seemed a never-ending stream of ‘Chelsea tractors’, big, expensive four-wheel-drive motors that had no real function in the area, unless it was to get up people’s noses. The traffic was heavy, the weather atrocious, and tempers were unravelling fast. The man strolled casually from the side road where he’d parked his battered old Escort and made for the traffic lights. He wore the fluorescent yellow waistcoat, his waterproofs and boots, and carried the clipboard like a war banner, carefully protected from the teeming rain by a clear polythene bag. He took position on the central reservation only seconds before the accident.
When it happened, the event seemed to play out in slow motion. A large white van heading east along Southchurch Boulevard, probably on its way to Shoebury bearing a hungry driver tired and frustrated after a day of continual shuttling from one place to another in exchange for a pittance, turned onto the roundabout toward Bournes Green Chase, too fast and too soon, colliding with a Toyota people carrier crossing from Thorpe Hall Avenue to Royal Artillery Row. The man watched helplessly as the two vehicles met wing to wing, the passenger side of the Toyota caving in under the impact, the van’s bonnet torn loose and flung back and up into its windscreen in a shower of shattered glass, shards of plastic and buckled metal. Traffic swerved to avoid the stricken vehicles, narrowly averting a number of secondary collisions. Someone screamed, perhaps one of the Toyota’s passengers; then a shocked silence fell over the scene and drowned out all other noise. For a long moment nothing seemed to move.
Then, like a paused video resuming, motorists and their passengers leaped from vehicles and through the rain ran to help the injured. The van driver fumbled his way from his passenger door, wearing a mask of blood and disbelief. The woman who’d been driving the Toyota was in the road, frantically tugging at her car’s rear doors, hauling out frightened, weeping children. There was more blood, more tears; the sharp reek of petrol. One person, an adult woman, was slumped in the Toyota. Two men struggled to open the front passenger door while a young woman bravely clambered in on the driver’s side to give first aid to the ominously still person trapped within.
The man in the central reservation stood stunned and disbelieving as the junction was transformed before his eyes. Knots of onlookers formed on the pavements and on the kerbs, some drifting into the roads, drawn to the spectacle from their journeys home. Traffic on three sides of the roundabout ground to a halt. The two broken vehicles became the focus of attention, people milling around them to advise, comfort or assist – or to simply stand there doing nothing but feeling better in themselves for doing so.
From the west, he heard the roar of an engine and the loud rush of large wheels bearing a heavy load over wet tarmac – the unmistakeable sound of an articulated lorry at full throttle. He turned and somehow, impossibly from that distance, he could see that the driver was talking on a mobile phone at the same time as checking gauges on his dashboard. It was as if the man’s eyes had become telescopes – or perhaps it was some strange combination of intuition and recognition of human folly that allowed him to create a picture in his mind. And he knew the vehicle was not going to slow down or halt. There would be carnage.
He didn’t hesitate. Indeed, he didn’t even know what he was doing until he found himself standing in the middle of the road facing the oncoming lorry, his right arm outstretched, the hand palm outward in the universal gesture that meant only one thing: stop. He didn’t remember moving from the central reservation or raising his hand. Dimly, he was aware that he was trying to prevent a major accident but was sure it wasn’t of his own volition. He was sure it wasn’t going to work, that he would be the lorry’s first victim; but he was unable to coax his body to get out of the way. He closed his eyes.
The lorry driver was distracted from his conversation by a flicker of authoritative yellow up ahead. Instinctively, he dropped the phone and seized the steering wheel with both hands while slamming on the brakes. The long vehicle fishtailed and swerved on the rainy surface. More by luck than judgement, it didn’t jack-knife. It slowed then came to rest. The man standing in the road heard the weary hiss of hydraulics and felt the radiator grille gently make contact with his hand. At last, he dared to look. When he saw how close he had come to death, his knees almost buckled.
‘I saw what you did there,’ the woman said admiringly. ‘It was very brave of you. You could have been killed.’
A quarter of an hour had elapsed since he’d stopped the lorry. Rain continued to pour down. Ambulances, police and a fire engine were on the scene. The trapped passenger had been freed and was being treated by paramedics prior to being taken to hospital. A uniformed constable was directing traffic, now flowing freely around the damaged vehicles and the emergency services at work. Some spectators remained, including this woman who thought she had seen everything.
He patted the yellow waistcoat, now rolled up into a misshapen cylinder and tucked under his left arm. ‘I didn’t do a thing,’ he said.