I leave work at 5.30pm and drive through the murky industrial side streets lined with derelict Victorian factories. I’d usually be smoking by now but I’m trying to cut down with a view to eventually stopping. In the last fortnight, I’ve halved my daily intake but my craving means that I’m obsessing about how many I’ve got left in my packet and how best to ration them so that they punctuate my day with the least amount of unpleasantness. On my journey home, I allow myself one – the Parkway Cigarette -– and each day I try to delay as long as possible before I smoke it to try and wean myself off gradually. I have the cigarette out and it’s in my mouth but unlit by the time I emerge from a side street and turn left onto the city’s ring road.
At the first set of traffic lights I notice that someone’s carved ‘CITY OF RACIST JERKS’ with a stone onto the concrete of the bridge opposite the Tesco Express. As graffiti, it seems a little half-hearted – there’s no swearing and it’s easy to rub off. It’s as if something has annoyed the writer enough for them to protest but they’re too nice and well-behaved to commit to anything that’s overly offensive or permanent. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sneak back in the dead of night to remove the words themselves.
I follow the ring-road towards the main route out of town. Billboards and commercial signs are everywhere on this section of the journey. At no point am I out of sight of some form of advertisement.
The second set of lights controls the traffic flow at a large crossroads. There are two lanes heading towards the Parkway and I’m in the first one. From the left, the road from Attercliffe cuts across at right angles and a red car has gone through on amber and got stuck at the end of a queue on the other side. When our lights turn green, the red car is still sideways on to the oncoming traffic, completely blocking off the second lane of the ring road. The driver has no option but to sit there until his queue moves.
I can imagine the look on the faces of the people he’s delaying, can imagine how awkward and stupid he must feel. I look at him as I get close; he’s a friendly looking Asian man with a huge moustache who’s smiling broadly as though he’s about to laugh. As I pass he gives the person in the car he’s blocking a little wave. I like his attitude, it cheers me up immensely – but I’m not in the lane he’s blocking.
At the third set of lights I’m about six cars from the front. A woman in smart business clothes waits at the side of the road, wondering if she’s got time to totter across four lanes in her high heels before the lights change. Someone in the near lane waves her on and she breaks into a sturry – a sort of half-jog that gives the impression of hurrying without any actual increase in speed. Of course, as soon as she left the pavement the lights do change and by the time she’s reached the third lane, the movement of the front cars has filtered back to where she is. Her handbag’s on her left shoulder and she’s holding onto the strap with her right arm which has forced the pocket of her jacket open. Something falls out into the road, it looks like an iPhone. She’s holding up the fourth lane now and, panicking, she gives the phone two sharp kicks sending it skidding across the tarmac. Only when she’s safely on the other pavement does she stoop to pick it up. With everyone watching, she puts the phone back into her pocket without checking the damage and walks away as if nothing embarrassing has happened.
More lights at the end of the slip-road to the Parkway – I always get stopped by these. My willpower crumbles and I light my cigarette. Fuck it.
The road here is elevated and by looking down the slope of the embankment I can see right into the ground floor of the office next to me. It’s brand new, there are no blinds or curtains yet. I’ve watched it’s construction over the last year – seen it climb floor by floor; speculated about whether or not it’s a helipad jutting awkwardly from the roof; seen the heavy machinery and men in luminous tabards steadily dwindle away; watched as desks, computers and finally people moved in.
Their working hours are different to mine and the people in the office have usually gone home by the time I get to the junction. There’s always one woman left behind though, isolated on the open plan floor. Does she work different hours to the rest of them? Maybe she has to drop her kids off at school in the morning or she’s in charge of an account based in a country with a different time zone. Or maybe she’s struggling in her job and needs to stay late to catch up with work. Then again, maybe she’s a workaholic and lives for the job. Maybe she’s just avoiding going home. Why?
The Parkway is a fast road, a dual carriageway with a national speed limit. There’s plenty of traffic but it’s generally moving at quite a pace – apart from Tuesdays; it always gets clogged up on Tuesdays and I have to take an alternative route.
I’m barrelling along in the outside lane to avoid the cars joining from a busy sliproad halfway along. Up ahead I can see that there’s a man standing in the central reservation. God knows how he’s got there, there’s no sign of a car with flashing hazards and to cross in the rush-hour would be suicidal.
There’s something at his feet, a brownish clump, a smear of red – some animal that’s been hit by a car and killed. I pass him as he bends to pick it up. From my rear view mirror I see that he’s stretched a red collar from the mass of fur and is looking at the tag.
I make it home in time for The Simpsons. The journey is nine miles long. I drive it every day.