How am I not dead?


Ten years ago, I drove a rented car to the East of England, to a land where there was no "there" there. Flat land, plain in every sense, the only marks on the landscape the stands of trees, constructed by the Forestry Commission rather than grown. Somewhere, hidden in the numb geography was a CentreParcs, that hermetically sealed reimagining of a holiday camp, where you could get away from it all and be sure you were sealed off from everything as well.

We never saw the CentreParcs.

We parked the rental car in a field, off of fireroad 10, leading away from the road. We pitched our tent, lonely in that empty field, then, perhaps intimidated by the silence and the space, drove away again, looking for a rural pub. A beacon of bucolic country cheer. A fountain of hoppy happiness. A place where you could be sure of warm welcomes and unfortunately warm beer.

We never found that.

The pub we went to was a small warehouse facility for alcoholics. When we entered, the entire clientele swiveled and stared at us, assessing whether we were prey or predators, out of towners on a jolly, city types, snooty, above it all with our airs and graces, our complete sets of chromosomes, our ability to use electricity and indoor toilets.

The man I was traveling with has a metal plate in his head, a medal bestowed for a surfeit of suicidal courage in his teens. I have not seen him for two years. Perhaps he has more metal plates now. I had never seen him fearful of anything, before or since that rabble of yokels eyed us up and down as we walked into their pub. I was worried they would eat us.

There was no other food in that pub, after all, except for pork scratchings and breaded mushrooms. We inhaled our beer (cold, tasteless lager) and left, returning to the field. Nobody barred our way. No combine harvester blocked the exit from the pub car park. They left us alone.

Alone in the field, we drank until we could not stand, and then we sat. The field was made of something so cold that a sober man could not stand to sit on it. We drank until we could not speak, and then another man arrived in a small van. He shared whiskey with us, then went to sleep, in his van, safe above the cursed soil.

We were going to take part in a bicycle race the next day. Defying our drunkenness, we extracted our bikes from the car and set off at midnight to practice the course. This was a failure. Blind drunkenness doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter that you can’t see in the dark. The only way either of us could balance was to push the other over, then lean on him. We soon gave up, and returned to the tent.

It was the first time I had ever hired a car. The keys were a novelty. We had run out of booze, only having brought 24 cans of beer and a hip flask with us. It was too early to sleep. We crawled to the car, and I drove it at two miles an hour across the field, then yielded the wheel to my friend.

This was a mistake. He has a metal plate in his head because he once drove a car off a cliff. On purpose. All of a sudden, we were racing at 70 miles per hour along a dirt track, the car bouncing and rocking over each bump, the feeble headlights no use.

I relied on my experience of rally car driving.

My experience of rally car driving is an hour watching rallying on BBC2 one empty evening. I shouted random numbers, "crest", directions, things I assumed had meaning.

Shortly, the car became airborne, if only for a moment, and then lurched to a painful, skidding halt, nose buried in the undergrowth. We looked at each other in the light from the dashboard, shamefaced, and drove the car slowly back again. There was now an ominous clunking sound from underneath. It was a rental. We had to hope it would last.

We returned to the tent, and never spoke of this again.

Now, when I cannot sleep and I lie alone in the dark, I still wonder – how am I not dead?


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