Accidents Happen A Novel


It was one of those days when you didn’t know what was going on. Just that something unexpected had happened. You could tell by the maverick puff of dark grey smoke that hung above the M40 motorway, the kaleidoscope jam of cars glinting under an otherwise blue sky, by the way that the adults craned their necks out of windows to see what was up ahead.

Jack kicked his football boots together in the back seat, feeling carsick.

‘Where are we?’

‘Nearly there. Oh, will you get out of the bloody way! What is wrong with these . . .?’

He glanced up to see his mother glaring in the rear-view mirror. Behind them in the slow lane, a lorry jutted up the back of their car, its engine growling.


Kate shook her head crossly. ‘He’s right up my back,’ she spat, clicking on her indicator and looking for an empty space in the adjacent lane.

Jack rubbed his face, which was still rubbery and red from running around the football field. The warm May afternoon air that blew in through the window was mucky with exhaust fumes as three thick rows of traffic tried in vain to force their way slowly towards Oxford.

‘I can’t even see his lights now . . .’

A spasm gripped Jack’s stomach. It made the nausea worse. He turned his eyes back to his computer game. ‘Mum, chill out. They probably have sensors or something to tell them when they’re going to hit something.’

‘Do they?’ She waved to a tiny hatchback in the middle lane that was flashing her to move in. ‘What, even the older ones?’

‘Hmm?’ he replied, pressing a button.

‘Jack? Even old lorries, like that?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I mean, they don’t want to hit you, Mum. They don’t want to go to jail.’

Without looking up, he knew she was shaking her head again.

‘Yeah, well, it’s the one who’s not thinking that you’ve got to worry about, Jack. Last year, a British couple got killed by a French lorry doing the same thing – he was texting someone in a traffic jam and ran right over them. He didn’t even know he’d done it, they were so squashed.’

‘You told me,’ Jack muttered. He flicked the little man back and forwards, trying to get to the next level, trying to take his mind off his stomach.

‘Oh God – I’m going to be late,’ his mother said, looking at the car clock.

‘What for?’

She hesitated. ‘Just this thing at six.’

‘What, the doctor’s?’

‘No. A work thing.’

He glanced at her in the mirror. Her voice did that thing again, like when she told him the reason she went to London last week on the train. It went flat and calm, as if she were forcing it to stay still. There were no ups and downs in it. And her eyes slid a tiny bit off to the side, as if she were looking at him but not.

A flicker of white caught Jack’s attention in the side mirror. The offending lorry was indicating to move in behind their car again.

He watched his mother, waiting for her to see it. His stomach cramped even worse.

Perhaps it was the cramp that pushed the words out of his mouth.

‘Mum . . .’


He saw her note the lorry’s flashing indicator in the mirror, and her mouth dropped open angrily.

‘Oh Jesus – not again . . . What the . . .?’

Jack banged his football boots together again. Dried mud sprinkled onto the newspaper she’d put down in the back.



When his voice came out it was so quiet, he could barely hear it himself over all the straining car engines.

‘I could have come back in the minibus. You could have picked me up at school like everyone else.’

He saw her shoulders jar.

‘It’s fine. I wanted to see you play; it’s the tournament final!’ she said, the shrillness entering her voice again. ‘What, am I an embarrassing mum?’

‘I didn’t say that,’ he said into his computer game.

‘Maybe next time I’ll come wearing my pants on my head.’

She made a silly face at him in the mirror. He smiled, even though he knew that the silly face wasn’t hers. It was stolen property. He’d seen her studying Gabe’s mum when she did it. Gabe’s mum did it a lot, and it made them laugh. When Jack’s mum did it, it was as if the corners of her lips were pulled up by clothes pegs. Then, two minutes later, they’d slip out of the clothes pegs, back to their normal position, where