Wanting to look and not wanting to

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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE tell me it's irrational to feel weird about being in a car when it's pulling away sharply from the lights, to nag people about their speed, their braking, their use of the mirror. But you should have seen me a couple of years ago. You should have seen me then.

A few minutes before my fear of being smashed up in a car crash began, I was on the top deck of a bus, going through Peckham, bored, at the stage of boredom where you cease to notice anything. So I sat in my seat, my mind blank, even when the bus had stopped for maybe 10 minutes. Most of the passengers had drifted down the stairs. When I looked out of the window, what I saw seemed incredible - the whole street was full of buses. All the cars had turned back.

I walked down the stairs of the bus, and talked to the driver, already irritable, bored with shrugging and shaking his head and saying he had no idea what the delay was. I walked up the street, vaguely wondering about being mugged, about getting home, about bus routes, taxis, dogshit - pavement thoughts. I was not at all in a hurry. Then I saw that the sky was being lit up with periodic blue flashes, and that didn't worry me much either. I just thought: further boredom, more delay. Things not working; me being late, spending more money. I was walking past a wall with a shrub on the other side. I remember the shrub.

The next bits are more difficult, because some details have disappeared, or at least become muzzy; I screened them out, to help me get on with my life. I can go for whole months without thinking of any of it. Sometimes I even have conversations about car crashes and none of this surfaces in my mind. It's only the next day, or the next week, that I think: oh, I should have talked about it, these people would have been interested. Just in the sheer violence, if nothing else.

A man nearly ran into me. He suddenly appeared, and fell against the wall, holding the top of the wall with his hands. He was sick in the shrub; he put his head over the wall and retched, lifted his head, and dropped it again, quickly, retching again. Then he looked up. He was a policeman, crying, hatless, his mouth and chin covered with bile and saliva.

He wiped his mouth with his hand and said: 'Jesus. I've . . . I've never, I've, I've never . . .'

He shook his head. 'I've never seen anything like that.'

We looked at each other, and I nodded and walked on, light-headed with excitement that I'd seen a policeman be sick, shocked, wondering what I should do - look at it? Look at it a bit? My ability to be rational was already being eaten away. The road went round a bend; every step intensified the blue flashing lights. I knew there must be bodies. Would broken legs make a policeman run away to be sick? I thought: I've seen dead bodies before, anyway. Once, when I was 12, I arrived at an open-air swimming pool, and everybody was standing around the edge, looking at one man, who was floating, dead, face down in the middle. An ambulance came; uniformed personnel dragged him out of the pool, getting their trousers wet, and lay him on his back and hit him in the chest and blew down his throat, but they couldn't revive him. He didn't really look dead; my friends and I were, if anything, mildly disappointed. What would we say? That he looked . . . normal? I hadn't found the incident traumatic at all.

I was at a junction, an open space surrounded by buildings. There was a small crowd of people, a thin ring; inside the ring - I could see the roofs - were two ambulances. Of course, I didn't want to look. I despised the idea, was utterly sickened by it. But the trouble was that I did want to look. I wanted to look more than I didn't want to look. And later on, I justified it by thinking: the more

information you have, the more you know about the world, the better. Surely this is true. Surely you don't want to avoid knowledge, when you have the chance to learn something.

I walked towards the backs of the people looking at what had happened, towards these ghouls, and then I pushed past a few of them, trying to do it quite briskly and efficiently, and then I looked, got a good eyeful, for perhaps a minute, and then I walked back in exactly the same direction I had come from, which was the opposite direction I wanted to go in. I walked around the streets for a while, in no particular direction, in theory searching for a minicab company. But here? In these backstreets? I was functioning oddly. Later, I got home and went to sleep.

The next morning I felt terrible, ill, and unable to understand why, but I remembered I was going to visit my parents. When my father picked me up at the station, he said: 'What's happened? You look terrible.'

I didn't know. I had sat on my bed, got up, looked in the fridge, not eaten anything, sat at a table for a while, and then it was time to catch my train in the evening. What had happened? I had no idea.

'Something's happened, hasn't it?'

'What?' And then I remembered, with a sort of relief, what it was. I told him about it.

'Jesus.'

But this should come as no surprise. Screaming around the place in big lumps of metal; what do you expect? A large truck had veered off the road and hit a wall at an angle; it had then fallen on its side, crushing a car. Another car, coming round the corner, had smashed into this wall of metal. There were two stretchers, with bodies on them. And then there were body parts on the ground.

Some of it I can't remember at all. In my mind's eye, I go back, trying to fill in some of the gaps - and come away with nothing. The bodies were covered with blankets. There was something funny about the shape of them. I try to remember, but it's not all there.

And now, when I get in a car, my 'irrational' fear has almost gone. I'm fine. I just do up my seatbelt and get on with it. It's only when people drive really fast that I start to shout and scream.

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