The siren passes, and the blitz of blue and yellow flashes past a moment later. Then all is quiet.
From the spacious front seat of the National Express coach I have panoramic views across Leeds’ city limits and the M621. The coach smoothly accelerates under a sign for London and Wakefield and we join the M1. Cars glide along its tarred surface, evenly spaced and delicate, as though they are swans on a lake rather than weapons on a motorway.
The mood couldn’t be further from that of Leeds Corn Exchange Interchange. There I am woken from my after-work snooze by a National Express staff member and an SIA security officer shouting rudely and aggressively at a calm and polite customer who merely wants to understand why his ticket is not changeable.
The shouting triggers my anxiety.
Eventually I walk over and calmly ask the staff to stop shouting, only to be yelled at myself. I walk away and try to return to my snooze.
With the altercation eventually over, thanks largely to a third and far more skilled communicator (also a member of staff), I venture back over and calmly and politely ask the two unprofessional staff to write down their names and details of where to send a complaint. The National Express staff member turns around so his badge is not visible. The SIA member covers his with his hand. When I say that I am entitled to this information (all SIA staff must visibly wear their badges), he shouts in my face that I am ‘entitled to nothing’. Eventually I get their names, sit down, and write a complaint.
This does nothing to ease my anxiety, and as I board the coach and take my front seat the driver stands and asks everyone to wear their seat belts. I dutifully click mine into place, as do the couple diagonally behind me. The lady directly behind me does nothing.
Had the other staff not been yelling at customers at the station I may have thought nothing of this. Yet by this time my anxiety level is high. I ask her to put on her seatbelt. Even though the seats are high I fear the impact of her large, slumped body flying forwards at unchecked speed.
The flashbacks are the most vivid they have ever been. It is 2011, or perhaps 2010. I forget which. The Oxford to Gatwick Express bus gains speed on the dark and empty M40. It is 4 or 5 am on a spring Sunday. I relax into my front seat above the driver, seat belt in place, preparing to watch the sun rise over the Chilterns. I prefer the front because I do not get motion sick there.
A car undertakes at speed in the left inside lane. It loses control, hits the central reservation, and turns upside down.
As it lands the coach driver slams the brake pedal as if – no, because – his life depends on it. The life of everyone on the coach is in his hands.
The seatbelt punches me in the stomach. Without it, I would be in the dying man’s car.
Two thick-set men escape, screaming and running in circles on the empty motorway. The police arrive. In spite of them, traffic attempts to drive round the desolate survivors and wreckage.
As the Ambulance crew remove the car driver’s body, I give a statement to police. A man from the back of the coach comes and asks me to speed up – the victim is already dead, he says, but he could still make his flight.
I’m back 2018. The 311 leaves the motorway at Tinsley.
I swapped seats before I started writing because the lady initially behind me did not use her seatbelt, even though I asked her to do so a few minutes after the driver’s plea. So I moved to the opposite seat in front of a couple both wearing theirs.
As Hyde Park flats come into view and the coach approaches Sheffield Interchange, I let go of the anxiety and the calm returns.
Perhaps writing is therapy.