Accident no.22

2009

Above the arctic circle the countryside is flat and empty and I haven’t seen anybody for two days. I have a small car, a Finnish CD from a petrol station and endless miles of roads banked with copper trees and the occasional strolling reindeer.

A bar like you saw in the Dukes of Hazzard. I’ve looked at it for three days trying to get the courage to open the door. It’s dark and there is somebody playing the slot-machine. The barmaid pours me a beer in Finnish and I sit at one of the booths trying to read my magazine. Eventually a man with a huge beard comes over and plays with something in the wall above my head… A light comes on and I realise he saw me trying to read and has come to help. The man sits down and starts to talk. The language is as alien as birdsong. I say I don’t understand, but I realise pretty soon that this is irrelevant. We talk for a while and then another slightly smaller beard arrives. A man with a friendly laughing smile and mouth full of broken teeth sits down. We find a piece of paper from the barmaid and explain things with drawings and signs. I say things and they laugh, they say things and I laugh. We drink beer. As long as I don’t look down, this feels fine, normal – a drunken conversation in a bar with two people so intoxicated I wouldn’t follow them in English. The small beard has been asking something and I realise he needs a light – “No, I don’t smoke,” I say. The first waves his cigarette and the second manages to grasp it. Time after time he moves the small glowing light towards his face but can’t quite find the end of his fag. I get up and say I have to leave.

Driving back along the pencil straight roads. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a crashing of trees and undergrowth. My leg automatically pounds the brake pedal. The flimsy, airport-Nissan-Micra slides and a huge shape slices across my bonnet. The car squeals to a stop.

As you get nearer to the poles you are travelling increasingly slower. In London you are spinning through space at 656mph – here the speed of the spinning globe is much, much less. The moose is gone. Everything is still – just the forest, an endless road to the Russian border and the low streaming clouds. My leg is locked rigid against the brake pedal – trembling like a whippet. In the silence of a stalled car, in an endless forest, near the still centre of the planet, I’m left with the frozen afterimage of a pair of terrified eyes, panicking beneath a head full of aerial-antlers.