Who's Who 17: Exit

Hi vis in daylight, seems about right.

He stood on his side of the cones, safely away from the roar of the commuting game trail. A cigarette tucked between his cold lips as he watched the traffic bluster past, heading towards the roundabout. Some people were only a junction or some winding country roads away from their employer. Others had motorways to face or trains to converge with. A few went past on their push bikes. Bags over their shoulders. Shoe laces tied loose and a little close to the gears for his liking.

A novel way to commit suicide.

A few of them looked his way. Saw what they wanted to see. The lazy worker, taking a break, standing right beside the roadworks that’d been holding them up for months now. The closest thing this modern world offered to blasphemy for a lot of people was unannounced or overrunning roadworks. Or possibly a lack of signal. It depended on who you were praying to at the time. A lot of prayers seemed to be aimed at finding at cash machines as far as he could tell these days.

Most didn’t see him at all, as he dragged the last of the nicotine down to his lungs and spat the spent dog end down to his dirty boots. He grounded it slowly, keeping his hands tucked into his pockets on this bright, chilly morning. Even he felt the cold come winter.

He smiled and nodded to a lady in a neon orange hatchback. She mouthed something that clearly wasn’t meant to be friendly.

Maybe not so ladylike, he thought.

Which was fine. His position came without the need for judgement. He simply arrived early sometimes and needed to blend in. Predecessors hadn’t tried so hard. They’d come robed in darkness or clothed in bones. They’d thought it was rather clever to appear grim and ominous, whilst carrying the tools of their trade disguised as simple, native implement. That wasn’t him at all. The closest he had to offer was the hard hat perched on top of what appeared to be a bald, rough scalp.

His eyes didn’t leave the bright bodywork of that little car as it approached the building tailback and zagged to cut around a bumbling motor home.

Everyone was in such a hurry these days. He heard that a lot when he was here, but it wasn’t entirely true. Everyone had always been in such a hurry in this world. It’d been that way since they’d left the trees and started walking on two legs. Since they’d left their ancestors behind and spread like wildfire, stubbornly refusing to submit to ice ages or evolving diseases.

They’d killed any life that felt like a threat. Even when it looked like them. Even when it might have been related to them. They learnt to run. Learnt to ride. They’d carved wheels from trees. Harnessed horses to carts. Harnessed combustion and steam. They’d laid tracks, built larger roads, runways. Now they took flight for brief, precarious hops across their little globe, whilst corporations were building rockets.

All of it had been done in such a hurry. All of it had been done to beat the ticking of the clocks they’d made in the first place. Time. Such an arbitrary deity.

A lorry turned off the roundabout. Hugging the line. The driver half distracted by a motorbike trying to undertake him. In the end, it was all a matter of space. Darting orange bodywork. A lumbering avalanche of commercial transport. The fleeting glimpse of two wheels and a helmet swerving the thin margin between road and overgrown verge. They couldn’t all fit there at the same time.

The sound was horrendous. Metal and speed. Brakes and bones. He started walking towards it, following the queue of cars. The looks of horror on the faces of the drivers was frozen in place as he passed. They didn’t hear his pass as they sat, hands on the wheel, eyes locked on the one thing they all feared.

A woman started to weep. A young man fumbled for his phone but called his parents instead of the emergency services. Muscle memory obeying his sudden twist of mortality.

The orange car was little more than a sculpted impact. The lorry was skewed and bruised, but the driver would survive. Physically, at least. The people further forward could see the motorcyclist. They tried not to look too closely. Engine and rider were mangled between a wheel and the road. Their helmet cast off and hanging from a hedge. Blood pooling on exhaust streaked leaves and the weeds.

He nipped across the stationary road, hands still in his pockets. Heard car horns coming from the roundabout, unaware of what had just happened. As he went to collect the woman and show her the way, he caught sight of the lorry driver. Hands still on the wheel. Body hunched forward. He saw him. He saw past the hard hat and the hi vis. Horror filled his eyes.

It was health and safety gone mad.