Goodmans Hotel (Chapter 5, page 1 of 11)

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Expensive cars ought to come with a warning: possession of this engineering showpiece may make you feel like a millionaire, but imagine how dreadful you will feel if you crash it. At the end of summer on the Friday morning of a stressful week, about four months after the Mercedes had come into my possession, breakfast cereal and orange juice failed to help prepare me for the drive to work. Instead a twinge of queasiness in my innards, not severe enough to call a stomach ache, made me wonder if the previous evening's take-away meal had been as wholesome as it looked.

Had half a dozen staff not been booked for a demonstration of some newly set up IT system facilities at ten o'clock I would have gone in late, or even for the first time in years taken a day off sick. The rain that morning was relentless, and before leaving the garage I put the top up over the Mercedes. The streets around my flat in Chiswick had a faint odour of decay, probably caused by the sticky mess that washes off lime trees in late summer. After a mile and a half the line of traffic in front of me slowed to a crawl, then halted, red stop lights shining brilliantly in the gloomy grey of the road ahead. We inched forward, stopping and starting in a fug of exhaust fumes.

A brief surge took us forward perhaps forty yards, and in a disastrous muddle of normal reflex actions instead of releasing the accelerator and putting my foot on the brake I did the opposite, shooting the car forwards and hitting the two-door Peugeot in front of me. At low speed the crash did not cause injury, but there was the inevitable crunch of plastic as the lights shattered. Putting the lights that were still working into hazard mode I got out to inspect the damage. The impact had crumpled a patch of metal around the Mercedes' front bumper and badly dented the rear of the Peugeot.

Mercifully the other driver was calm. I shook my head, ignoring an impatient horn sounding a hundred yards back. 'I can't explain it, I don't know how I came to do it. I'm really sorry. I can't believe it.'

He looked at me with restrained disgust. 'The insurance on those things must cost a fortune. Glad it's not going to be me losing my no claims bonus over this. Probably a company car though. Is it?'

That was none of his business. 'All my fault, no question. Are you all right?'

The rain discouraged us from talking more than was absolutely necessary. We exchanged details and he drove off, chancing that he would be safe with one rear light working. The Mercedes was not so battered that it could not be driven, but rather than take the scarred vehicle into the office car park where the ugly effects of the impact would be seen and everyone would gossip, I skulked into a side road, parked and walked to the nearest Underground station. I was in danger of being late for the demonstration and had to make getting to work my priority; calling a breakdown service would have to wait.

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