The grey Toyota stands parked at the foot of the housing block where it was delivered yesterday following a re-spray and driver allocation. Inside the building a naked man with a swollen jaw stares out from his kitchen window across the city skyline. Some features are invisible but beyond the rooftops of factories and warehouses the peaks of the metropolis break through the reddened morning fog. An engineer by vocation the man frets over the likely reliability of the ‘new’ vehicle. He wonders whether any safety checks were undertaken at the recycling plant and hopes for relatively light run to the airport; all the while sensing a gridlock would buy him time to come to grips with the idiosyncratic control system entailed by merged vehicle parts.
Elsewhere in the city dew sizzles gently on the heated exterior of a royal blue Mercedes-Benz tow-truck fresh from night-time exertions and now providing shelter to several cats. The truck’s master, a vehicle retriever, remains fully clothed but lies in a deep reverie; his mind stimulated by the previous evening’s deployment to a six-car pile up, followed by visceral late-night broadcasts. Dust enters unimpeded through an open window, disturbing the array of hub caps mounted on the walls. These concrete landscapes are scarred by exhaust emission stacks.
Nearby at the firework factory a discarded Daihatsu awaits retrieval. A payroll clerk arrives to work late, coughing up matter in between yawns. Car-less, to walk in the city means to battle alienation, noise pollution, dead-end pavements and swirling airborne refuse. Once a former boss who took pity on his employees’ car-lessness began offering the clerk lifts. Fully aware he expected something in return she complied for a while, feeling the need to retain that job at any cost (besides, the travel arrangement eased her teacher boyfriend’s anxiety).
Like most couples lacking the finances to be assigned to a vehicle they tried to commute together but realised lone pedestrians are better equipped to avoid reckless driving. This morning the clerk inhaled fumes aplenty but mercifully avoided contact with storm-water drains, electrical wires and vehicles. The ordeal is over until this evening’s return journey.
In the central business district wind chutes funnel pedestrians into subterranean retail malls and eateries underneath deserted cement squares that slope towards the city’s recreation zone at the harbour front. On the water’s edge open-air street vendors and entertainers stretch around to restricted wharves that service the container terminals and quarries on the far shoreline.
Throughout the city cars make their way to retrieval depots, broadcast facilities, manufacturing plants and corporate headquarters. At the entrance to an underpass a yellow Volvo hovers in neutral at the roadside waiting for passengers to scramble aboard. The bus ebbs from side to side like a docked ferry, such is the frequency with which it is nudged by passing cars. In the airless cabin the driver wearing a long, dark overcoat feels a deep sympathy with his customers most of whom can barely afford the escalating fare but are nevertheless car-less and too frightened to commute without the protection of a metal frame. A thick-set sidekick ensures each passenger pays up in full, by cash or in kind.
Yesterday she was knocked down by a black Mitsubishi four-wheel drive, fell and sprained her wrist. Now the homeless woman finds sanctuary near a motor inn amongst the decaying rubble of a demolished apartment and discarded items from nearby crash victims. Strips of clothing, as well travel cases, stationery and documents; this meagre set of possessions shall be consumed by those who spend the night here beneath the skyscrapers. Nervous, fidgety and with bandaged hands the woman keeps her eyes peeled for any ‘blues’ or sadistic corporate high-flyers brazen enough to make a lunge. Blue-sprayed delivery and retrieval vehicles present the biggest hazard to pedestrians; the excesses and endorphins of the night shift promoting sadism amongst sleep-deprived drivers. But even these opportunistic swerve-drivers generally avoid the city’s vacant lots and construction sites, such is the high risk of scratch and puncture.
Last night the engineer retired to bed hastily after frantically pulling the plug on a television broadcast of motor transport. Fearing for his safety and job security he has inevitably bought re-assignment to a state car. Several weeks ago, when at the wheel of a previous grey, he was ushered by an adjacent bus into a concrete barrier, making a narrow escape. Perhaps a tyre had blown but the yellow beast left the state Nissan with no room to manoeuvre. The engineer had collided with maniacal swerve-drivers many times but you saw those coming if you had your wits about you. This was different; all unforeseen flashes of neon, the piercing cries of scraping steel.
Upon impact the Nissan’s windscreen shattered then collapsed into the front seats, shards slicing through the engineer’s cheeks and disfiguring his lower jaw. He recalls that all the other vehicles kept moving. The collision occurred in view of two accident cameras and the battered vehicle was swiftly requisitioned.
Pausing to refuel, the bus driver asks himself whether the beleaguered transport fleet that earns him a living offers salvation to the car-less or represents just another layer of exploitation. Either way he needs a job and sitting behind the wheel of a rusty anachronism is about the best an ex-train guard can hope for, outside of waste-disposal or flesh-collection. It also provides him with shelter when walking home appears too dangerous. Even in the no-man’s land between tower blocks pedestrians are fair game. The dust storms of the past month have made being exposed in the open especially perilous. Tonight the bus will resume combat with the evening traffic on distributors flowing east to the corporate high rises, west to the public housing and north across the water to the elite compound.
On the outer limits of the city all industry has been halted. The homeless (most forced, some by political design) survive by scavenging for parts and siphoning Shell on the black market. Road rage thrives unfettered in these dwindling population centres and is sometimes filmed by state television. There’s a rumour going around that ‘greys’ are crash-tested out here.
Later the city’s workers will leave office blocks behind and ejaculate their vehicles towards ramps, flyovers and tunnels leading to bridges, ring-roads and motorways in a bid to escape the mass car parks as hastily as possible. The reinforced, private cars of north-bound executives and officials shall be at the vanguard streaking clear like a peloton, but most face frustrating delays and shall seek distraction in the colossal 3-D screens mounted at the roadside.
There shall be collisions and casualties. In the aftermath of such violence pink flesh-removal lorries shall be held back until to the roads become less congested, but surveillance operators are sure to despatch rescue and retrieval units and firefighters immediately. It’s expected that the city authorities will soon fully deliver on its blueprint for motorways laid on top of the former rail system. It’s probable that only blue vehicles shall be permitted to travel on these roads. The congestion must not be broken, nor shall citizens be encouraged to drive passively.
From the motorway a mangled black Hyundai is carefully being raised onto a semi-trailer, its entrails methodically collected off the road by a young man wearing a jumpsuit. A middle-aged executive whose son claims to kill pedestrians for fun was returning to the office following a breakfast meeting. He feels uneasy even as he is comforted by amiable, blue-uniformed retrievers and firefighters. This has little to do with the fact he’s just caused a fatal accident and the temporary closure of two roads, nor that the retrievers are wielding vehicle components like medieval weapons; rather the morbid thought occurs that if he’d not been able to limp away from his wreck then – as opposed to enthusiastically swapping war stories – the group would have shoved him into the gutter. In the worst case he’d have had a large pink tag clipped to his person.
The retriever’s dreams overlap fluidly but one in particular replays the unabashed glee of a pair of trainee rescue workers. They have managed to extricate both the steering wheel and gearbox from the otherwise twisted and bloodied remnants of a black Honda that just transported a group of besuited executives to their final destination. Perhaps the trainees are in fact firefighters; the retriever will not recall.
The injured executive has managed to arrange for a doctor’s car to attend and he shall soon enjoy a period of convalescence. Prior to his eldest daughter’s hit-and-run he’d been somewhat of an activist. In his early twenties he lived as part of a community accommodated in one of the city’s metrostations. Now middle-aged he runs a leather seat-supply business, greasing his palms with a small percentage of the authorities’ car industry profits. No matter, he has been able to buy private cars for himself and his wife and finance their daughter’s health expenses. In due course both vehicles’ bodywork will be booked in for titanium reinforcement and his daughter shall have another replacement limb.
Somewhere tonight there will be fireworks, a symbol of the city’s prosperity that feeds its citizens’ hunger for regular events. These faux air raids on the metropolis further satiate society’s collective need to let off violent steam and excite sufficiently so as to hasten nocturnal semi-consciousness. The city itself, forever mutilated just that little more, never sleeps. By the time the sun rises the aircraft engines will have deposited a fresh layer of filth, a dust storm will have set in and the displays will be forgotten.
The retriever loves his work, takes pride in it. Never does he want a repeat of that afternoon when, distracted by the hideous deaths of pre-pubescents, he somehow allowed his devices let slip a broken grey Mazda. Instead of being safely secured the vehicle plummeted off the side of a suspension bridge, while the retriever received a suspension of his own. How he wished those schoolgirls hadn’t skipped safe-sex class in favour of going up on the bridge to throw stones into the scrapyard; or that the black Saab that caused the collision had at least been written off too.
After his accident the engineer spent the best part of two hours sitting by the roadside; cold, shaken and with blood pouring from his face. Unnerved by visions of passing flesh-removalists he punched numbers into his mobile phone and staggered along the gutters to a traffic island awaiting rescue. Most of the physical damage he sustained was cosmetic and the facial scars might heal, though for now the engineer chews and brushes with some difficulty. The Nissan should almost be ready for its next driver.
Having awoken the retriever now soaks his large hands in a sink of steaming hot water. Slowly the skin becomes translucent, highlighting numerous cuts, blisters and callouses on his fingers. In minute or so he’ll grab the keys to his Mercedes-Benz and stride out into the dust, but first he casts his mind back to the thrills of yesterday afternoon’s motor transport. The city is his smorgasbord and today, adrenalin intact, he’s thirsty for fumes, hungry for crashing metal.
The sonic rhythms of acceleration, accompanied by the melodies of sirens and sounding horns, grow louder by the minute. The engineer walks into his bathroom and spits out lumps of brownish saliva. He knows he must depart now if he’s going to get to the airport in time for his shift. After bidding farewell to his family he’ll go downstairs, introduce himself to the grey outside and plunge into this morning’s vehicle procession.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 201o.
Disco / Feb 2010.