Lifesaving for Beginners
1 June 2011; Dublin
He knows he is driving too fast. Not over the speed limit. Never over the speed limit. But too fast for the way he feels. The tiredness. It’s in his bones. It has seeped into his blood. It’s in his fingers that are wrapped round the steering wheel of the truck. It’s in the weight of his head on his neck. He feels himself sagging. He straightens and slaps his face. He blinks, over and over, training his eyes on the road ahead.
He’ll be home soon.
He turns on the radio and takes a long drink from the can of Red Bull on the dashboard. The sun has warmed it but he finishes it anyway. ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’. He turns up the volume and thinks about Brigitta.
The truck roars down the motorway.
Later, he will deny that he fell asleep at the wheel. But afterwards, in the stillness of night, when he sits up in bed and wonders why he is shaking, he will concede that it’s possible – just possible – that he closed his eyes. Briefly. Just for a moment. A second. Perhaps two. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
He can’t remember how long he’d been driving when it happened. Too long. He should have pulled over. Climbed into the back of the cab for a rest. Splashed cold water on his face in a worn-out toilet cubicle at the back of a petrol station. He should have done a lot of things, he admits to himself when he sits up in bed in the middle of the night and wonders why he is shaking.
Instead, he drives on. The conditions are near perfect. The road is dry, the sun, a perfect circle of light against the innocent blue of the sky. It looks like a picture Ania draws for him with her crayons. She folds the pictures inside his lunchbox. ‘So you won’t miss us when you’re far away, Papa.’ A yellow sun. A blue sky. Four matchstick people.His face relaxes into a smile. He thinks perhaps this is when it happened. This is when he might have closed his eyes. Briefly. Just for a moment. A second. Perhaps two.
When he sees it, the deer is already in the middle of the road.
Some things are cemented in his memory. He remembers the beauty of the thing, the sun glancing against its dappled side as it runs its last run. The fear in the liquid brown eyes. Human almost, the fear. He’s never seen a deer on the road before. He’s seen the signs. The warning signs. But this is the first time he’s seen one on the road. He knows he shouldn’t try to avoid it. Shouldn’t swerve. He wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t been so tired. He wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t taken on the extra shift. The Christmas-fund shift. He started it last January. Julija needs a new bike. And then Ania will want one. She always wants what her big sister has.
He grabs the steering wheel and swerves, glancing in the mirror only afterwards to check the lane is clear.
The lane is not clear.
The thud as the front of the truck hits the animal. Hits it anyway. The sound of his brakes, screeching, the crash of the gears as he wrestles them down. He remembers the car. A bright yellow car. There’s a suitcase on the back seat. Held together with a leather belt.
The truck gaining on the car.
The sound when he hits it.
His body shoots forward but is wrenched back by the seatbelt. Later, there will be a line of bruises from his shoulder to his hip. The airbag explodes in his face and he will have to admit to the judge that he doesn’t know what happened next.
The witness will know. He will describe how the car, the bright yellow car, is tossed in the air like a bag of feathers, rolling and turning until it lands in the shallow ditch the workmen have been excavating.
The technical expert will know. He will talk about the truck. How it jackknives as it swerves, hitting two cars, causing one to roll and turn and end up in a ditch and embedding the other against the crash barrier, like a nut caught in the steely grip of pliers. The technical expert will present these facts with the calm monotone of a man who never wakes in the darkest part of the night and wonders why he is shaking.
The judge will say it’s a miracle. That more people weren’t killed. That woman in the Mazda, for example. The thirty-nine-year-old woman. A hairline fracture on one rib after being cut out of the car embedded against the crash barrier. That she will live to tell another tale is nothing short of a miracle. That’s what the judge will say.
And Brigitta. His beautiful Brigitta. She will be in the courtroom. Somewhere behind
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