Harmless Mistake

A man drove his car on the motorway. It was a cold January morning and he wore an anorak over his thinning woollen jumper and cotton shirt. A knitted brown hat perched high on the crown of his head; his large, fleshy ears protruding underneath amidst haphazard clumps of white hair. His wrinkled hands lay gently on the steering wheel, rarely moving from the ten to two position. A faded rucksack lay on the passenger seat next to him. He stared straight ahead and hummed to himself, as if he were still making the transition from the dreamland he had awoken from only half an hour earlier.

Here and there, traces of snow clung to the grassy embankment on the side of the carriageway. The road was wet with dirty meltwater that formed larger puddles in places. As he drove along, the windscreen became gradually more opaque until he realised he would have to wash it. The man fumbled with the various levers around his hands, turning on the front and back wipers and flashing his headlights before finally locating the washer button. Window clean, he settled back to staring at the long grey road ahead.

His brother had asked him to help with some work on the guttering of the house he had just bought. As he drove, the man reflected that he had been right to set off early; it was a two hour drive to Birmingham and he hadn’t wanted to get stuck in rush hour traffic. The roads were almost empty; he would arrive just in time for breakfast. Probably Violet would cook him up some bacon and eggs, he thought, smiling.

The man admired the pink cirrus cloud formation in the sky all around him. He passed under a concrete flyover, and suddenly a lorry thundered past; horn blaring, headlights flashing. His windscreen was covered once again with a film of filth. Other drivers could be so rude and impatient, he thought. ‘Better late than never,’ had always been his motto, along with ‘never put off til tomorrow what you can do today.’

He glanced at the clock on his dashboard; how long had he been driving? he wondered. It felt as if he had been travelling for hours; he was feeling a little tired. He couldn’t recall seeing any road signs recently; perhaps he hadn’t been paying close enough attention. Which junction did he need? He tried to remember what his brother had said on the phone. He could picture Harry sitting on the seat in the hallway where he would always sit when he was on the telephone. He imagined his young nephew going up and down the tiles on his red tricycle; he never seemed to tire of that game. Violet would be in the kitchen at the back in her floral apron, cooking up something wonderful.

After a while he noticed that his hands were cold. He had left his gloves at home, or had he? He glanced over at the rucksack but decided it would be too difficult to try to open it whilst driving. He twiddled with some knobs and put on the heater. Within a short time, the windscreen began steaming up. He leaned across to retrieve a cloth from the glove box. It wasn’t there. Didn’t he always keep a cloth in there? Confused, he drifted momentarily into the next lane and another lorry came blaring past, setting his heart thumping. He turned off the heater and slowed down until the windscreen cleared.

As he approached another motorway bridge, he caught sight of a figure on top of it, behaving rather strangely. He felt panicked; was this one of those moments he had always feared? Was the person about to jump from the bridge into his path? It was too late to take any evasive action. Puzzled, he stared at the figure as he passed under the bridge; they were waving their arms about wildly. That poor madman, he thought as he breathed a sigh of relief, glad to put some distance between them.

He had only just managed to regain his composure when there was something else to deal with up ahead. He leaned forward, screwed up his eyes and tried to work out what it was. It was the remains of a burst tyre he realised. That could cause a nasty accident, he thought. If I’d been going any faster I would never have had time to see that. He drove around it, swerving back into lane and continued on his way, oblivious to the little red light on the dashboard.

*

How stupid to run out of petrol. He sat in the car, seat belt fastened, and wondered what he should do next. Harry would be wondering where he had got to. He didn’t have long to think about it. The police pulled over in front of him, hurrying him out of the car and on to the grass verge, shouting at him something about going the wrong way. How did they know where he was going and whether he was going the wrong way or not? It was just a harmless mistake to run out of fuel. Could happen to anyone.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/13705347@N02/19571907859″>Slingshot</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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17 thoughts on “Harmless Mistake

  1. I really liked this story. The tension built up wonderfully; I had such a sense of foreboding reading it, I actually wanted to skip to the end because I had to know what was going to happen. I think what they meant by “anti climactic” was that we didn’t ever get the big dramatic crash that everything leading up to it suggested would happen. But I really like the way your story ended; the way he wondered how they knew he was going the wrong way, and what was so wrong about running out of petrol? I loved the fact that even then, he didn’t realise what he had done. Perhaps in order to satisfy the crash lovers, there could have been one last detail which lets the reader in on something which the character isn’t aware of, for example “in his wing mirror he could see a blue ambulance light flashing – how lucky he’d just missed whatever it was that had happened” or something like that. But personally I prefer your ending – I hate driving and have a phobia of doing something unbelievably stupid without realising it, so I could really relate to it, and it was a relief for me that the anticipated high speed accident never happened.

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  2. Thanks Sian, I’m glad you liked my ending! I could never have killed him off in the end! I was imagining he maybe had dementia and that the nephew had probably long since grown up. I’m not sure how clearly that comes across. You do hear about these sorts of things happening with elderly drivers sadly, but I’m sure it wouldn’t happen to you! Will keep trying to write something that is acceptable to the critics anyway..

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    1. Well I did wonder about the young nephew on his tricycle, didn’t fully pick up on that though. I like that angle. Hopefully I’m not yet quite at that stage, but I don’t suppose your character thought he was either! Carry on writing your own way; I like your subtlety and delicate observations on life.

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  3. The main piece of advice I’d give you is not to worry about critics or about rejection from any site or publication. Write what you want and make the story what you want it to be. It’s fine (and sensible) to take advice or to consider feedback you are given of course, but as Clint Eastwood once said in a famous Dirty Harry movie “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one.” πŸ™‚

    (suddenly realises his own opinion and comments are now worthless hehe)

    I wasn’t sure how this was going to end and I’m glad it wasn’t the giant car-crash ending that some would be looking for. Some of the build up had me feeling that he was imagining the whole thing or was a ghost reliving a prior journey so I suppose there was an element of anti-climax when the reveal was as “normal” an explanation as it was. However, that isn’t a criticism – just an example of where different readers will look for different things and will have their own thoughts on “If I was writing this what would I do…”

    Nice to read another piece from you – keep at it!

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    1. Im in the same boat. I got the impression it was leading towards something like that and learning that it wasn’t perhaps felt a little flat. But I also agree that you should always write what comes naturally, so perhaps just work on developing that, perhaps through more references to who the character is and his background. Then it might come across a little less mysterious and not lead readers down the wrong path. Hope that’s helpful..

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      1. Thanks for commenting Alex, although I’m not sure it isn’t a bad thing for readers to be led down a wrong path to some extent at least, as long as the destination is satisfying having got there! Sorry it was a bit flat for you.

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        1. Yes you’re right. There is no wrong path, I suppose I meant not setting them up for something else unintentionally. As you say, nothing wrong with surprising you’re readers rather than going for the obvious. Your ending was certainly a surprising one!

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  4. Well I did wonder about the young nephew on his tricycle, didn’t fully pick up on that though. I like that angle. Hopefully I’m not yet quite at that stage, but I don’t suppose your character thought he was either! Carry on writing your own way; I like your subtlety and delicate observations on life.

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  5. Thanks Nik, that’s helpful. I don’t think I’m good at writing bizarre/surreal/supernatural such as in your suggestions as to where the story might have gone. I tend to go for the ordinary, which maybe to some is a bit less interesting but it’s what comes most naturally to me! Perhaps as I become more experienced as a writer I may feel able to experiment a bit more with the extraordinary. Something to give some thought to.

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    1. I think you are doing the right thing – focus on what you know and what works for you as a writer. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better that’s for sure! look forward to reading what comes next

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  6. I really enjoyed this one too Rebecca. A bit like Nik, I felt like there was almost a ghostly feel to it, but it kind of threw me off the scent of what was really going on – so for me, the ending worked quite well, because it was sort of unexpected. X

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