Walking Distance

Originally published in Upsideclone
Friday the 31st of August 2001

Crumple zones, pop-up bonnets, exterior airbags - an increasing amount of a car's value was being dedicated to minimising pedestrian injury, to benefitting an individual who had contributed nothing towards the purchase of the vehicle. There had been a short-lived pedestrian tax - part discouragement, part funding - but it had proven too hard to calculate fairly, too easy to cheat. So all A-roads were vehicle-only by the end of the year, unless you had a pedestrian licence. B-roads and smaller followed soon after, polite roadsigns appearing at their outlets. Cities expanded and contracted, claiming tinier and tinier arteries with each pulse. Cars became heavier and cheaper, cushioned only on the inside. Pedestrianism a dangerous sport, each licence a waiver.

I was sitting on a low stone wall at the side of the B2192, tracing patterns in the dust, awaiting the police. A helicopter had seen me, genetically-improved maize swirling as it cut low across the fields, and it knew that nobody had applied to walk south-to-north along the B2192 that evening.

Cars zipped either way along the road, trailing the whims of their drivers. The 24-hour shops for all-important milk or cigarettes. The busier pub in the next village. Friends half a mile away. A ten-screen cinema at twenty. Bubbles of clean light and conditioned air roaring quietly through the summer evening, drivers - and passengers, if there happened to be any - carefully protected from one another, protected from the sunset and the coastal air, protected from time and from contemplation.

Stinging blue light flashed over the hedgerows as a police car slewed onto the dusty roadside path. The window whirring down, its driver leaned out to ask for my pedestrian licence. I fished it from a pocket. It was an inexpensive forgery, picked up from a flak-jacketed rambler at some activist's meeting. Suspicious, the sharply-dressed constable snapped it from my fingers, ducking back into his car to check barcodes against the computer.

I took a deep breath, stretching my arms and fingers in the breeze. The late-evening traffic continued to hiss past, and, face glowing green in the light of his dashboard terminal, the police officer can't have heard my footsteps in the dust, the crackle of twigs as I vaulted a hedge, the rustle of genetically-improved maize as I waded towards the setting sun.